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American Sniper (2014)
Propaganda at its most pandering
While not a fan of Clint Eastwood's directing, it is undeniable that he reaches his full potential with American Sniper, a film based on the autobiographical novel by the late sniper, Chris Kyle, who boasts the most recorded kills of any sniper in U.S. history. That is if Eastwood's goal was to become America's answer to Leni Riefenstahl. As even her most dubious critics will admit, Riefenstahl captured some amazing images that are still remarked on to this day, but it was all done in the service of making Nazi Germany idealized. Similarly, Eastwood captures some fine technical achievements, but wants to fall back on a seriously laughable claim that his film is "not political".
I have actually read Kyle's book and for a film that is "not political" it works overtime to provide Kyle with introspection, personality, insights and philosophies that are no where to be found in his novel. Eastwood has the Kyle of the film raised with a nonsense philosophy of the world being comprised of sheep, wolves and shepherds (ostensibly Kyle) all imbued by his stern Christian Texas dad. This black and white mantra apparently allows him to rise to greatness as a sniper mowing down Iraqis. Kyle is depicted as being single-minded, yet regretful of having to pull the trigger. The Kyle of the novel was anything but regretful. There is no such philosophy provided by his father in the novel. Kyle, in his own words, was absolutely thrilled to be at war and gunning people down. There was no introspection or regret involved. He comes off badly as a clichéd white Texas, Christian gun fanatic, who was beside himself to find an outlet that allowed him to take out real people "legally". He informs us that had he not had a family that society expected him to return to, he would have been happy continuing on as a sniper. A long way from the outlook of the WW2 soldiers, who did their patriotic duty, but who looked forward only to returning home to their loved ones and peace at last.
Kyle also claims to have killed two men in Texas and murdered at least 30 U.S. citizens in the wake of Hurricane Katrina from atop a post on the Superdome. If true, then he is a violent psychotic who used a conflict to disguise and promote his true inner self. If false, he is a habitual liar whose word on anything should be considered dubious. The latter is certainly backed up by a court case with Jesse Ventura where a jury rules against Kyle and he was forced to pay up.
Even worse, Eastwood uses his film to blur history and try to gloss over the Bush administration's lawlessness in the Iraq debacle. Through clever images, he tries to link Iraq with 9/11, which is a long discredited lie. He never mentions the discredited reason for attacking Iraq, the weapons of mass destruction idiocy, because that would clash with the black and white viewpoint of the film and its main character. Instead of getting any kind of nuanced picture of Iraqis invaded and attacked in their own country for trumped up reasons, they are all depicted as crazed savages. All of Kyle's kills are, of course, justified despite split second reaction. The word "hero" is blindly bandied about so much until it ultimately has no meaning whatsoever. The only performance of note is Bradley Cooper's central one, which is solid if not spectacular. Although truthfully, many of the scenes of Cooper being "heroic" rather distressingly resemble the sequences in Inglorious Basterds where Daniel Bruehl's German "hero" sniper sits in a bell tower repeatedly gunning down Allied troops, while the German audience viewing his escapades deliriously applaud over every death.
The film also relies on American viewers being ignorant of the details of the Iraq conflict. Eastwood provides Kyle with an adversary of Bondian villainy - a sniper on the other side - with whom he gets to play a cat and mouse throughout the film. Incredibly, while this larger-than-life villain gets barely a mention in Kyle's book, he is elevated to gargantuan proportions in the film so that we can root for Kyle. The film also has this villain switch back and forth between Suni and Shia for convenience, which is something that would never happen. We are also shown another villain who drills holes in the heads of young boys, which would no doubt raise the outrage in anyone. Except such a sequence never happens in Kyle's book, and the screenwriters unwittingly give the background information on this character and give him a denomination that would have made him an ally to U.S. forces. But why should we care for piddly details when Eastwood and his writers don't.
So in conclusion, we get a huge piece of propaganda that glosses over the origins of the Iraq War, turns its people into violent savages, gives George W. Bush and those responsible a pass and we are supposed to overlook its goal and content because its technical aspects are well done. At its center is Kyle, who repeatedly boasted that he loved killing and was glad to do it. A man who made a number of discredited claims. Most telling, Kyle claimed that the majority of the proceeds of his book would go to veterans charities. However, apparently less than 3% of the millions raked in have gone to said charities while the late Kyle and family kept the bulk. Certainly it is their choice, but propping up a con of massive charity at the expense of other fighting men, reveals a certain lack of honor and character. Is this really the hero we want representing America to the world? If yes, then we have fallen farther than expected. Audie Murphy must be rolling in his grave.
Into the Woods (2014)
Barely improved film of a mediocre stage musical
Stephen Sondheim fans are to the theater what Martin Scorsese fans are to the screen. If Sondheim left a steaming pile on the stage, his rabid fan base would invent new words to describe its brilliance and defy anyone to disagree. Into the Woods debuted on Broadway in 1987 to much fanfare, but ended up losing the Tony for Best Musical to The Phantom of the Opera, which caused numerous Sondheim fan's heads to explode since they regard pretty much everyone, but especially Andrew Lloyd Webber, as an inferior songwriter. For better or worse, POTO has played ever since that day, while Into the Woods had a successful initial run and then a failed revival.
On paper, Into the Woods sounds great. Take some of the most famous fairy tale characters and throw them together and then in Act II have all hell break lose for some definitely fractured fairy tales. The problem is that Act I, which is supposed to adhere fairly closely to the fairy tales is surprisingly uneven and charmless, and Act II has moments that are too childish for adults and moments too adult for children, leaving the impression of a tonally uneven musical that should be sparkling but is amazingly drab.
Any changes director Rob Marshall could make to the source material would probably be improvements (and the few he does make actually are), but he makes the mistake of largely being too faithful to the source which results in a drab, tonally uneven film similar to the stage show. Some of the comic flourishes which are retained were never very funny to begin with (i.e., is it really that funny to see Jack repeatedly being beaten by his mother for stupidity?).
The cast all sing very well, but the performances are predictably across the charts. I am uncertain that re-casting Jack and Little Red Riding Hood from young adults to actual children was all that wise, but David Huddlestone and Lilla Crawford do their best - although Crawford is admittedly so obnoxious that you actually root for the Wolf to eat her. Emily Blunt and James Corden are the focal point of the story as the Baker and His Wife, who are forced to venture into the woods to find items to reverse a curse of barrenness placed on them by The Witch. Both have nice voices, but their characters are not particularly likable which puts restraint on how much we want them to succeed. Tracy Ullmann is thoroughly detestable as Jack's mother. Anna Kendrick is in lovely voice, but her Cinderella is often so bland, whiny and wishy-washy that you wonder what the Prince sees in her. At the other end of the spectrum, Johnny Depp makes a memorable cameo as a zoot-suited Wolf whose sexual overtones in his one song to Crawford come slithering through. Billy Magnussen and Chris Pine both elevate previously forgettable roles to new heights. While Meryl Streep turns in the kind of scene-stealing performance one can always count on as The Witch. Unfortunately, it is a distinctly supporting role, but the film does switch into high gear whenever she is on screen.
As for the music, there are some good tunes and a lot of crummy ones. Streep gets the best numbers with "Stay With Me," "Children Will Listen," and really slams home her finale of "The Last Midnight." "No One is Alone" is also a touching number. By contrast, the title song, which introduces the characters, is near unendurable. Songs like "A Very Nice Prince" and "Your Fault" are at best forgettable. "Agony" only succeeds in the film because Pine and Magnussen throw themselves into it with such hammy delivery that it becomes a joy to behold disguising the fact that the song itself is nothing great. Similarly, "It Takes Two" is an underwhelming song, but unfortunately Blunt and Corden do not get to indulge in the overacting that may have put it over better. "I Know Things Now" is a complete time-waster because it is disturbingly unmelodic and Little Red Riding Hood is a character with whom no one wants to tarry. And both "Giants in the Sky" and "On the Steps of the Palace" are the kind of pointless, dreadful, boring piffle that would be massacred if anyone but Sondheim's name were attached. The former is a completely unpleasant wasted number for Jack and the latter is the faux-character exploration number for Cinderella that helps make her seem a royal pill. Yet one must admit that even the best number in the film will not inspire anyone to hum it on the way out or raise the pulse to toe-tapping levels.
Although the film has mercifully changed the fate of Rapunzel and Her Prince which is a major improvement (someone needed a happy ending after all), the screenplay itself still retains the nasty streak with deaths, infidelities, eye-gougings and mutilations enough to make parents of the very young think twice. Yet one thing I have never understood is why the show/movie is so ugly to look at? Shouldn't at least the first part be filled with eye-catching splendor? Why do both the show and the film make everything look so mundane, bleak and boring right from the start? By the end of both, I found myself rather happy to leave their fairy tale land and its inhabitants and not return, which I am pretty certain was not the goal. So while I can appreciate some of the cast, a couple of the songs and the clever idea behind the basic premise, I really find the final product - on both stage and screen - sorely lacking.
Frustratingly pointless film experiment
While critics and film intellectuals are busy inventing new words to describe Boyhood, let us try a little experiment. Try to describe what the film is about without using the term "12 years". It is pretty much impossible - and therein lies the key to the overpraise and hype. There is no denying that director Richard Linklater and his cast/crew should be recognized for their efforts in shooting over a course of 12 years, but 12 years should also not be the defining factor on whether the end product is a success. I am sure Ed Wood was dedicated to bringing Plan 9 from Outer Space to the screen, but his ambition and dedication hardly make that a good film. So stripped of the "12 years" allure, the end result here is really little more than a failed film school experiment following around a not particularly interesting boy in his formative years.
Part of the frustration I have with Boyhood is that it does not really appear to be about anything. It seems to be trying to concoct its own genre - call it the fake documentary - where it ostensibly just follows a kid around and lets him act "normal" over a 12 year span and expects us to be gobsmacked by its "authenticity". But Boyhood is not a documentary, it is purportedly scripted. And as a scripted film, it is a failure. A good film needs a narrative, a story arc and some compelling characters to inhabit it. Boyhood has none of these. What it does have is a series of mundane anecdotes/scenes that it strings together. The majority of the scenes in question have no build-up, limited to no drama, and usually fail to connect with anything that came before or comes after. They are stand-alone moments, and none of them are of particular insight into either life in general or the central character. The film runs for a self-indulgent three hours and you start to feel every punishing moment of it early on.
A huge problem is that I have no idea why Linklater feels that young Mason, the focal character of this dreck, is someone who is worthy of a film being centered on him. There is nothing special, sympathetic or noble about Mason, he is not surrounded by fascinating events or interesting people, and he often comes off as a stand-in as we wait for the real lead to show up. Ellar Coltrane is distinctly underwhelming, especially in his older moments. I am uncertain whether the problem lies in his acting or the direction, but someone with amazing talent was really required to make something of the dull cipher of Mason and Coltrane is not it. And the purported wonder of seeing young Coltrane age naturally on screen as rabidly feted by critics becomes rather laughable when we realize that we watched the Harry Potter kids age naturally on screen in those series of films and no critics I know seemed to feel that was cause for an Oscar nomination.
Worse, even in the most mundane of lives, there are moments of tension, drama or surprise, even if we are only peripherally involved. Astoundingly, Linklater apparently cannot conspire any of those scenes for Mason's life, so we are left with a Cliff Notes view of a life, where the Cliff Notes has omitted anything of interest. The film seems to have no view on life, unless it is the embarrassing nonsense spewed by Mason's girlfriend about "the moment seizing you," which is a riff on the Seize the Day mantra.
The supporting cast has it slightly better, but not much. Lorelei Linklater may as well be a prop for all of the use she has here as Mason's non-entity sister. Patricia Arquette is given one dramatic character trait: she - wait for it - is a bad judge of men! This sets us up for not one, but two bad after school special style blurbs with the two abusive drunks she marries. Then near the end she has a big emotional moment peppered with dreadful dialog that probably cinched her Oscar, but in reality is unbelievable and comes off as 100% schmaltz. Ethan Hawke fares best as Mason's dad, but even his character is not entirely credible - perhaps because the moments that would make us understand him are missing from the film. He is a likable guy who is presented as an unapologetic liberal, pro-Obama, anti-Iraq War (in Texas!). We later see him married to a right-wing conservative Christian woman who is the anti-thesis of everything he believes and we get no indication of why or how this happened, or that this character was even open to such a relationship. This, of course, gives us the obnoxious moment at Mason's 16th birthday where his stepmom's conservative Christian parents think the appropriate gifts for him are a Bible and a gun. Could these people be any more one-dimensional?
In between these moments of tedium, we get endless sequences of kids walking around aimlessly, kids walking to school, someone bouncing a ball, kids staring at the sky, kids staring in the distance, kids going to a movie, kids playing yet more video games. Truthfully, it took me three tries on On Demand to get through this whole film because these moments of pure boredom allowed me to ponder such important aspects as: Why is Arquette's voice so irritatingly high-pitched? How gaunt does Hawke look in this film? Why is Coltrane so dead-eyed and charmless? Is that a dust bunny in the corner that the vacuum did not pick up? And the most important question of all: Why is anyone under the impression that a film with no story, no drama, no tension, no interesting focal character, no good dialog, and no bloody point forgiven all its sins and shortcomings simply because it took someone 12 years to craft it?
God Is Not Dead! (2013)
Running neck and neck with Kirk Cameron's Saving Christmas as the nadir in this genre
A young Christian college student takes on his atheist professor in an effort to prove the existence of God in this woebegone misfire that competes with Kirk Cameron's Saving Christmas in being at the nadir of a genre already chock full of low points. It is unthinkable that this film would turn even the most wishy-washy skeptic to Christianity, but it could most certainly turn those grappling with their faith against it.
First, one would think that if you were making a film where you were demonizing specific demographics of society, primarily atheists, you would know what exactly it was you were demonizing. An atheist is someone who does not believe in a god - by definition an atheist cannot "hate" God because he/she simply does not believe such a being exists. Yet this film posits that atheists are really all angry believers who just have an ax to grind with God because they have emotional boo-boos. The thought that they legitimately do not believe in God (like Christians do not believe in Zeus or Odin) is an alien concept and sets the film up on a level of unparalleled biased ignorance from which it cannot claim any credibility.
The story itself is based on a widely disseminated internet meme which was subsequently discredited (except in Christian circles) and further betrays an ignorance of how colleges work. No professor valuing their job or their tenure would start off a class requesting that their students sign a paper stating "God is Dead" unless they wanted a whole lot of blowback. And the fact that no one in this class really carps except for the ridiculous hero so that we can get some kind of David and Goliath story is laughable in its own right. Even more preposterous is that the professor then allows said student to basically take over the class for the semester building up to a "debate" that really is no debate. No professor would give this kind of luxury to a first-year student and no fellow student(s) would stand for such foolishness dominating the bulk of their classroom studies. Obviously the film was conceived by people and marketed to people who have little idea how an actual place of higher learning works.
More obnoxious is that all of the "bad" characters are liberal stereotypes that are often the targets of conservative Christian ire (i.e., the professor, the journalist, the attorney). As ignorant as the depiction of atheists is, it is very nearly superseded by the film's depiction of Americanized Muslims - another faction of which the writers apparently know little. We are presented with a Muslim girl who secretly longs to convert to Christianity and who is disowned by her family when they learn of her blasphemy.
The acting is uniformly awful and the "name" leads are no exception. Kevin Sorbo, sporting a devilish goatee, hams it up manically as the professor. Sorbo, who spent years as barely serviceable beefcake eye candy on the TV series Hercules, can now be found in his later years giving shrill bigoted appearances on conservative news shows demonstrating that former beefcake is better seen and not heard. Co-lead Dean Cain is largely remembered as being the only Superman to ever be upstaged by Lois Lane in Lois and Clark - here he plays an angry lawyer and his acting has gotten worse while advancing years have made him appear disconcertingly bloated. The supporting cast is instantly forgettable.
There never really is any question that the "hero" will best the "villain" in one of the lamest debates in film history. The boy presents the flimsiest of arguments/supports for his cause, all of which flummox the educated man so badly that he fumbles the whole thing. Given that there are so many debates between prominent atheists and Christians available on Youtube - comparing those to this is almost surreal with how badly it is handled in this film. Then again, it would have to be badly handled because the real-life debates usually either end in a draw or with the atheists having the edge - depending on how good the debaters are.
Among the film's low points (and there are many), one must include: 1) any time members of Duck Dynasty show up to give the hero a pep talk, because nothing says inspirational quite like a group of homophobic, misogynistic bigots. 2) The fact that not one Christian offers shelter to the homeless Muslim girl - just useless pep talks. 3) Apparently it is not enough for the professor to have lost his girlfriend, the debate and had an epiphany - he must also be smashed to death by a truck to complete his comeuppance, which brings us to 4) after which, all of the Christians immediately gather at a feel-good concluding Christian rock concert, completely unconcerned about the pulverized guy they knew and rock out - including the penniless Muslim convert (who paid her way in how?) and an Asian boy, so blown away by our hero's arguments that he is compelled to enlighten his parents that "God is not dead".
This dreck is a prime example of something that should be shown only in church basements to the most devoted or easily deceived believers who need a fantasy pick-me-up to affirm their faith. How it managed to slime its way into multiplexes is a real mystery, but it certainly belies the fallacy of Christian persecution that something like this can get made and get a release, while some truly marvelous and intelligent films get lost.
Milk Money (1994)
Who exactly is the audience for this mess?
Young Frank Wheeler (Michael Patrick Carter) and his two friends have the brilliant idea to pool their milk money and head to the closest city to flag down a woman to show them her boobs. This brilliant notion allows them to cross paths with V, a prostitute played by Melanie Griffith, who ends up following them back to their small town on the run from her pimp. There Frank's mild-mannered single dad Ed Harris falls for V, not realizing her background.
I am really hard-pressed to figure out who the audience for this film is. It is entirely too smutty for a family film and no where near smutty enough for the adults that may find this theme appealing. Director (and former actor) Richard Benjamin continues to be a director of limited merit. It is absurd that in this day and age kids like Frank and his friends could not see bare boobs by sneaking into a movie theater or looking in art books or Playboy, but would resort to traveling to the Big City and being slapped by offended women who they approach in their naive and guileless way with their sordid offer. And am I the only one tired of the Big City being depicted as a morass of immorality while the Small Town gets idealized into some romantic bubble of innocence? How innocent can it be with kids like Frank running loose (not to mention the one kid's dad who knows V from past experience)? Harris is adequate as Frank's clueless dad, but how disheartening that in a few years time Melanie Griffith went from her Oscar-nominated peak in Working Girl to this dismal development. Griffith looks tired and blowsy as V. She is also reduced to playing one nonsense scene (which truly makes no sense at all) wherein she shows up at Frank's school in a tight outfit so he can give an anatomy demonstration in class. The scene comes out of no where narratively, is not funny at all, and since the film has no nudity it serves no titillation purposes. One is just incredibly embarrassed for all involved.
Naturally, all of this ends with a madcap, badly done car chase with the kids frantically driving V to safety from associated villains, because what cheesy film does not have a car chase for no good reason. Similarly, to say the "happy" ending is beyond a stretch would be pointless.
Van Helsing (2004)
Sounds promising on paper; far less so in execution
Director Stephen Sommers was fresh off the success of The Mummy films, when he apparently had the inspiration to start a new franchise centering on the legendary Van Helsing character. Fanboys everywhere began imagining what older actor would take the part. The announcement then came that hunky Hugh Jackman would play the role of a younger Van Helsing, who would not just hunt vampires but a variety of monsters from the Universal stable. Enthusiasm was through the roof...then the film came out and the end result was like air being let out of a balloon.
Jackman does indeed play Van Helsing, who is an assassin on behalf of the Vatican crossing the globe offing monsters. The film opens with him taking down Mr. Hyde and running afoul of the law. Then he is dispatched to Transylvania to deal with Dracula and his brides that are trying to procreate. This all has something to with Frankenstein's Monster and a werewolf, but if you can figure out how then you are doing better than I am.
The film boasts a strong cast who are often not given anything of worth to do, an array of special effects, and a frenetic pace that will hopefully distract from the fact that the story is an overstuffed mess. The film would have been far more better to have focused on one or two monsters instead of the bunch we have here. We get Dracula and his three brides, Frankenstein, the Wolf Man, Mr. Hyde and a villainous Igor (badly played by Kevin O'Connor). Frankenstein is never adequately worked into the plot and the Wolf Man seems an afterthought. Along with these characters, the film also must make room for Kate Beckinsale's sexy tough-as-nails gypsy co-hort and David Wenham as a dorky friar aiding our hero. It is just too much.
It also does not help that the film comes across like a wall of noise. There is never much sense or fun or charm to anything we see. The non-stop visual effects are a real mixed bag. The effects involving Dracula and his brides are fine, but Mr Hyde looks like a cross between Gumby and The Hulk and the werewolf effects are embarrassing. Why is it that 30 years ago we were getting state-of-the-art werewolf effects in The Howling and An American Werewolf in London, but these latest CGI werewolf effects look like crap? Also, the plot never makes it clear why the Vatican forces Van Helsing to work on the wrong side of the law when writs from them would instantaneously give him the cache to do whatever need be done.
Of the cast, Will Kemp as the werewolf and Shuler Hensley as Frankenstein may as well not be in it for all of the focus they get. Roxburgh does little but snarl as Dracula. Wenham has some amusing moments and Beckinsale has never been sexier.
I am a huge Hugh Jackman fan. I have had the privilege to see him in films, on stage and in person, and the man oozes personality and charisma from every pore. In Van Helsing, he is completely underwhelming. He has been handed a role that could have been filled by a stunt man without noticing a difference. Van Helsing as written has no character traits, no humor, no charisma, no history and no presence. He stands unsmiling, with a variety of weapons, and grunts or recites lines in a one-note grizzled tough guy voice. The actor that humanized Wolverine and became a star with X-Men is apparently on vacation here. He does get to do a lot of running, jumping, climbing, falling and swinging. He dons a loincloth in one scene, but alas no nudity to compensate for the absence of anything else.
Much could be forgiven if the film was dumb fun (like The Mummy), but it is not. It is loud, annoying, incoherent, squanders a great leading man and promising supporting cast, contains dreadful werewolf effects and ultimately is little more than a big waste of time.
Cabin Fever (2002)
Repulsive, offensive and brainless - which makes it sound leagues more interesting than it is
While I certainly was no stranger to horror and slasher films in my youth and have soft spots for Halloween and even the first few Friday the 13th films, I neither understand nor find entertaining the torture porn genre that has infiltrated mainstream horror in the last couple of decades. Case in point being Eli Roth's Cabin Fever, which actually managed to get a mainstream release, a couple of critics and industry insiders who apparently felt there was something worthwhile here to compliment, and enough press coverage to arouse the interest of genre enthusiasts. The end result is pure torture for the viewer.
Roth, who claims to be a horror genre fan (as well as believing he is a competent director), sets his story in the woods and provides five 20-somethings to blunder their way into his nightmare. Instead of a mad slasher, we get instead flesh-eating viruses. This might seem novel if there was any effort to develop anything in this screenplay, but I digress. In brief, our five nitwits encounter a gaggle of locals, who all appear to be suffering from some form of in-bred stupidity and played by people who were apparently rejects from casting for Deliverance. At one point, a wandering hermit obviously in the throes of a deadly illness, comes to them for help and our intrepid group naturally do what any would do to a sick person seeking help, they attack him and set him on fire. The burning carcass drags its way to the drinking well and falls in, thus contaminating the water supply to their cabin and starting an uninventive countdown of which one will be the first to contract the illness. It is not really spoiling anything in Roth's nasty film to say that it will naturally be the only person who experiences an iota of remorse for the death of the hermit.
Pretty much nothing makes sense in Roth's asinine film, but it matters little to the director whose only goal seems to be to set the stage so that increasingly grotesque gross-out effects can take over. Filmmakers like Roth need to understand that there is a huge difference between being scared and being repelled - and if you cannot tell what that is than you are in the wrong line of work. Roth's idea of brilliant dialog revolves around how many times the F-word can be said in quick succession. "Character development" here seems to be confused with how stupid and unlikable the characters can be made to be. All five of the central characters are revealed fairly quickly to be dumb, thoughtless, selfish, hateful, nasty predators without any moral compass. The peripheral characters are not any better and feature such lunatic moments as a wacko who tries to bite people, while shouting "PANCAKES" and doing faux karate moves...seriously! Was it really impossible to come up with anyone who could evince even a moment's sympathy? Perhaps making everyone ethically repugnant is supposed to make the viewer "enjoy" watching the flesh blister and rot from bodies. I suppose there are those who enjoy such sights for their own merits. The ending is predictably downbeat and preposterous, but by that time if you are still watching, you probably will just be relieved that it is over.
Of the cast, I only recognized one guy that used to be on the lousy Boy Meets World, but no one makes an impression in any good way here. Roth's direction, like the story, is nightmarishly incompetent. He has no idea of pacing or how to generate suspense - he just starts hurling blood, mucous, grime and body parts at the lens and hopes something will terrify the viewer. He has also revealed himself to be a one-trick pony - by consistently recycling the theme of young people who travel out of their comfort zone into a foreign setting and pay the price. His next films were the odious Hostel and Hostel 2 (with the victims being gruesomely tortured to death in Eastern Europe) and coming soon will be The Green Inferno, his feverish tribute to the Italian cannibal genre featuring young people crashing in the South American jungle and being eaten. Oh what ingenuity! One trembles to think what repulsive imagery Roth has concocted for that cakewalk.
Death Becomes Her (1992)
There is a rule in film that special effects and comedy do not successfully mix and it is usually true. Yet every once in a while, a film will buck that trend and prove the exception to the rule. Ghostbusters is one example. This film is another.
Meryl Streep stars as aging acting diva Madeline Ashton, whose quest for eternal youth and beauty is equaled only by her hatred of and rivalry with frumpy childhood acquaintance Goldie Hawn. When Streep once again steals Hawn's fiancée, this time a plastic surgeon played by Bruce Willis, Hawn has a psychotic break and is institutionalized, setting the stage years later for a battle royale that ultimately defies natural law and features plots, murder, mayhem and the undead.
At the time this film was released, I would have been hard-pressed to recall any old-style broad slapstick comedies in the last decade or so, much less one anchored by two leading ladies at the peak of their form. Additionally, it is wonderful to see a wild, over-the-top comedy that does not feature characters sputtering profanities every two seconds or showcase a joke regarding someone humping a pie or other bizarre sex act. Everything in the film is played broadly and the comedy comes at us both verbally and visually. The approach, pitch-perfectly directed by Oscar-winning Robert Zemeckis, works brilliantly and captures the frenetic pace of a great Warner Brothers cartoon.
The look of the film is inspired with a tone that almost seems like a cross between Sunset Boulevard and a Gothic horror film. The cinematography is lush and the visual effects complement rather than upstage the wild comic antics. I especially like the surreal visuals of the comedic sequence where Hawn outlines her plot to Willis of how they will murder Streep and make it look like an accident. I also enjoy the eerie and funny sequence where Willis goes in search of Streep in a morgue and passes three floating nuns en route.
Streep and Hawn are simply terrific here, playing archetypal characters with the right broad strokes needed to keep us glued to what happens next while realizing that these two people deserve each other and what comes their way. It is such a delight to see Streep cut loose and have a field day, although Hawn matches her nicely. Streep's choking reaction to seeing the newly svelte Hawn at a book launch is priceless and her facial expressions while eavesdropping to find out what is going on are superb. I also like her interactions with Isabella Rossellini, as a purveyor of an exotic and very expensive youth restorer. The screenplay is filled with memorable comic jibes that allow all of the performers moments to shine and Zemeckis provides some great slapstick set pieces for the actors to show off their physical chops. Willis, whose performances far too often are split between lifeless or smug, is particularly droll and inspired here making a hilarious transformation from a confident surgeon to a drunk balding, paunchy milquetoast mortician constantly overwhelmed by the events around him.
The final sight gag of the film often takes people by surprise, but I find it a perfect natural progression of the limitless mayhem unleashed by the lead characters. You can keep the repellent and appalling comedy of the Hangover films, I would much rather spend time with Streep and Hawn, and I have found that whenever I stumble across this film on cable, it is often just a funny as when I first saw it on its release.
The Invisible Chronicles (2009)
Potential for low brow fun ruined by Decoteau's odd timidity
Love his films or hate them, even detractors must grant that director David Decoteau certainly has a unique niche that he fills and is prolific in doing it. Cranking out low budget horror/sci-fi epics with a gay twist, Decoteau has pretty much fashioned himself into the Roger Corman of the genre. And given that Decoteau has exploited pretty much all of the popular targets, it was only a matter of time before The Invisible Man received his attention.
Which brings us to The Invisible Chronicles, which focuses on shy closet case Griffin, who is the target of bullying and a brutal assault by the standard group of unrepentant jocks. When he discovers the secret of invisibility, he naturally uses it to get revenge on those who have tormented him.
Decoteau takes a liberal dose of The Invisible Man and combines it with a shot of Carrie. There are not really any surprises here, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. A director could approach the invisibility theme in one of several ways: 1) dead serious, 2) comically, 3) as a low brow guilty pleasure, or 4) some combination of the above. Anyone familiar with Decoteau will know that his aim will be towards low brow guilty pleasure in a bit of serious vein. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that approach. There can never be enough gay-centric guilty pleasures and it would certainly be a pleasant change of pace to see the old nutshell of the invisible man invading women's privacy turned on its ear with a bit of a gender switch. Unfortunately, Decoteau's film fails on all counts. Decoteau seems to want to give us a low brow prurient guilty pleasure, but he pulls all of his punches, which is a problem with the majority of his films.
On the plus side is that despite the silly subject matter of much of his work, Decoteau is not an untalented director. His films actually look quite good and this one is no exception. The technical aspects are definitely a cut above the usual low budget experience and he populates his cast with almost deliriously gorgeous guys, a number of whom can actually act. Trevor Duke as Griffin is actually pretty solid as well as being easy on the eyes.
What is unfortunate is that despite setting his anchor firmly in gay exploitation territory, Decoteau does not have the courage of his convictions and the viewing experience is often more frustrating than fulfilling. The motto seems to be lots of titillation with no delivery. No one expects anything hardcore from these films, but Decoteau's almost pathological desire to feature no male nudity in his films from the last 15 years or so no matter how appropriate it would be is often laughable and self-defeating. When Griffin's invisibility starts, Decoteau has the money-saving notion that the viewer can see Griffin, but the victims on screen cannot. This is a novel approach that actually works fairly well in that the actors do a convincing job of pretending Griffin is not actually there. Alas, it also showcases Decoteau's foolish timidity. Because Griffin's clothes are not invisible, Griffin must go around nude. This opens up various promising sequences with the naked Griffin stalking and spying on guys in various states of undress he joins at least two of them in the shower at two different points. Yet Decoteau films every scene like his Grandmother is in the audience. Griffin is always filmed only from the waist up. At one point, Griffin is stalking a guy in a swimming pool and it is obvious that the "invisible" man is wearing black swim trunks (were there no flesh colored available that day?). The voyeuristic shower sequences are also filmed only from the waist up. Decoteau does not need to incorporate full frontal nudity, but his stance that he is making an R-rated film of this type and is almost psychotically fearful of including even PG or PG-13 style nudity is more than a little south of ludicrous. Truthfully, contrasting the safe timid entries that cater to Decoteau's personal fetish of seeing handsome dudes in their boxer briefs (but heaven forbid any nudity) that he has been cranking out for the last 15 years with some of his earlier work like the bold Leather Jacket Love Story or even some of the terrific exploitation romps like Naked Instinct or Petticoat Planet, that he was directing under his nom de plume Ellen Cabot, is more than a tad disheartening. Is there no way for him to reach a middle ground? Would it really be so horrible for him to titillate and deliver?
Progressively stupid, not even good for laughs
This is a one of those queasy low-budget downbeat horror films that proliferated in double features in the 1970s.
Wacko herpetologist Strother Martin recruits college jock Dirk Benedict as a lab assistant in his work with snakes (ergo the title). It does not take long for the viewer to figure out that Martin is a loon with an insidious agenda, although it seems to take everyone on screen forever and a day to reach the same conclusion. When not holding court over rodeo-style shows where he antagonizes a King Cobra to the amazement of a sparse handful of gawkers, Martin spends inordinate amounts of time in his lab - ostensibly doing work on creating antidotes for snake-bite victims. He is assisted for the most part by his young nubile daughter Heather Menzies, adorned with large unattractive spectacles to try to convince us that she is not a beautiful woman and is incredibly brainy. The eyewear fails on both counts. However, with one assistant already, and not exactly swimming in work or loot, the addition of another lab assistant, especially a courteous young buck without a brain cell on display does not make a whole lot of sense unless Martin has something sinister in mind. Naturally, it does not take long for Benedict and Menzies to start making goo-goo eyes at each other, much to Martin's consternation. Martin insists on injecting Benedict with a variety of serums, which he insists are standard for herpetology lab assistants.
In fairness, the direction is fairly competent and there are some moments of suspense, which will probably be magnified for anyone with a fear of snakes. What kills the film is that the storyline is so absurd and too much relies on characters acting stupidly even more so than in the average horror flick.
For instance early in the film, Benedict sheds a top layer of skin like a snake shedding its skin. Any rational human being would begin to suspect that there was something suspicious in those injections that Martin has been pushing and would seek a second opinion, but the dutifully docile Benedict simply takes Martin's word that it is "normal" and goes on as if nothing strange just happened. And has anyone run into a college jock that behaves the way that Benedict does in this film? He is completely without attitude, painfully polite and helpful, takes everything his elders say at face value and, even when obviously sickening and in pain in the latter portion of the film, still allows himself to be led around by Martin. He may as well have VICTIM tattooed on his forehead. Never once does our lunkhead guess that he is dealing with a backwater Dr. Moreau hoping to transform humans into reptiles. And are we seriously supposed to believe that Menzies lives and works in this same compound with her crazy dad, has a romantic relationship going with Benedict, and suspects nothing? To drag out the proceedings, outside interference enters in the form of kindly coach Richard B. Shull who becomes suspicious when Martin starts limiting access to Benedict and strapping bully Reb Brown has designs on Menzies. When Brown tries to sneak into Menzies bedroom and accidentally kills her harmless pet snake, you know his days are numbered.
Character actor Martin takes the whole thing very seriously, which is not very helpful. Benedict and Menzies are solid, but stuck playing characters so idiotic that it is hard to be sympathetic.
The film seems to be flirting with exploitation status, but never really has the bona fides to make it. For instance, the murders are committed in a largely bloodless fashion, so gorehounds will not be sated. The film throws in an odd and completely pointless skinnydipping scene for Benedict and Menzies, but then films it Austin Powers-style with laughable painted on foliage to protect the modesty of the leads. However, later the filmmakers go the opposite route providing nudity from hunky Brown in the shower when Martin stages an attack on him, which makes the timidity of the earlier scene seem particularly puzzling.
The film has no humor, so it fails to be a campy guilty pleasure. As it unwinds, it also becomes progressively dumber, with a jaw-dropping conclusion that almost seems written by someone on acid. Truly nothing ends well for anyone: the authorities descend on Martin's lair too late to prevent anything. The final ludicrous moments feature a snake being ravaged by an escaped mongoose, while the camera freeze frames on Menzies' angst-ridden shrieking countenance. As the image fades to black, it is hard not to initially wonder did someone really get paid for writing this?