SAVE YOURSELF from “Horns”

2 08 2015

HornsLast summer, a friend of mine posted a cringe-worthy Huffington Post article on my wall that was titled “8 Movies From The Last 15 Years That Are Super Overrated.”  How on earth this piece managed to secure publication on a website of that caliber is beyond me since it included such memorable phrases as, “The problem with 2011’s ‘The Descendants‘ is that it sucked.”  Beyond being a terribly constructed and redundant sentence, it is also clearly NOT film criticism.

I try to avoid poor writing and potshots in my own reviews (although sometimes the devil on my shoulder manages to win).  But wow, I sure am tempted to pull out some low blow for Alexandre Aja’s “Horns,” one of the most wretched movies I have watched in quite some time.  So rather than drop to the level of that piece, I just decided to revive an old column … “Save Yourself!”

I can understand why Daniel Radcliffe and his management team might have thought this film seemed like a good idea on paper.  What better way to shed the squeaky clean image of The Boy Who Lived than to play someone who literally sprouts horns and basically functions as a Satanic figure?  “Horns” is basically his equivalent of Miley Cyrus twerking on Robin Thicke at the VMAs, though turns in “Kill Your Darlings” and “What If” accomplish the goal far better by just letting Radcliffe play convincing, real people.

Aja essentially lets Radcliffe off the leash in the role of Ig Parrish, letting him play the entire movie at the energy level the actor rapped “Alphabet Aerobics” on “The Tonight Show.”  After being falsely accused of raping and murdering his girlfriend, Ig’s horns serve as a supernatural blessing (or curse) to divine the real killer because – get this – the protuberances force people to spill all the skeletons from their closets.  Every moment feels so incredibly over the top and overblown, be it for comedy or for violence.  Actually, come to think of it, the violence even becomes perversely (and appallingly) comic in its heightened proportions.

“Horns” is not like a film in the vein of Sam Raimi’s “Drag Me to Hell,” where the ambiguity and ambivalence leave an exhilarating void for the viewer to supply their own reaction.  It’s just an indecisive tonal scramble, not sure whether it wants to be an all-out festival of gory horror or a black comedy.  Aja does neither effectively, and the film becomes a brutal slog to endure.  It’s not even overdone to the point of “so bad it’s good.”  This is just pain bad.  D1star





SAVE YOURSELF from “Red State”

17 01 2013

Red State

Two years ago, one of the hottest properties at Sundance was Kevin Smith’s “Red State.”  The narrative unfolded as usual: high-profile premiere, studios deliberate buying it, bidding war commences.  Afterwards, however, Smith sold the movie to himself … for $20 causing a big hubbub and quite a few eye-rolls and head-shakes.

It was an attempt to make a statement on how backwards the studios’ distribution systems really are and how hard it is for filmmakers to tell the story they want.  But honestly, could there have been a worse movie for anyone to make that claim with?  If the studios keep all movies like “Red State” from getting made or distributed, you might not be too upset about that after actually watching the film itself.

It’s an absolutely dreadful movie that has no class or restraint.  Smith critiques the Westboro Baptist Church, the notorious anti-gay protestors led by Fred Phelps, as a bunch of backwards ignoramuses – as if the rest of the world didn’t already know that.  Perhaps a parody or a spoof would have been the more appropriate vehicle.  Though I’ve never seen “Clerks” or any of Smith’s other films, I’ve heard he’s quite the humorist.

This is the kind of unintentional humor that usually plagues bad movies such as these.  I’m sure some of it might have been planned, in which case Smith proved himself to be a poor imitator of Quentin Tarantino’s darkly comedic talents.  I think he probably wishes “Red State” was something like “Inglourious Basterds” with gratuitous violence aplenty dealt out to the hated villains.

And I suppose it’s a fairly vile turn from Michael Parks as the Fred Phelps surrogate, but it’s not like I got any satisfaction out of seeing all the massive bloodshed done to him and his lunatic disciples.  Mainly, I just wanted to see the conclusion of the horror story at the core of “Red State,” featuring Michael Angarano and his two buds following a sex ad but leading them to the Five Points Trinity Church. But by the time ATF shows up, all narrative and story are thrown out the window to let the bullets fly.  Oh, and there’s also some criticism of the corrupt government at the end that just feels totally out of place given the rest of the film.

When the dust settles, all that’s left are a lot of corpses and a lingering disappointment in the air.  Nothing to cheer about there.  And for the record, I don’t think I’d buy this movie for 20¢.





SAVE YOURSELF from “The Road”

27 11 2012

The RoadI’m in a semi-minority when I say that John Hillcoat’s film “The Road” is a dreadful movie.  However, I know I’m in a vast minority when I say that Cormac McCarthy’s novel “The Road,” the book Hillcoat’s film is based on, is just as bad – if not worse.  Yes, I’m taking issue with the novel that won the Pulitzer Prize and Entertainment Weekly‘s distinction of the best book of the past 25 years.

To all the haters who are sure to be drawn out of hiding by this pan, I assure you that I’m not some uneducated Philistine who is quibbling with McCarthy’s unconventional prosaic style.  Sure, it makes it a difficult read, but I actually quite enjoy it.  The experience is tough but refreshing, particularly in McCarthy’s “No Country for Old Men.”

But “The Road” is just tedious and boring.  Yes, I know that’s the point!  But beyond a certain point, I get it.  I understand how the man, played with vigor in the film by Viggo Mortensen, and the boy, portrayed by then newcomer Kodi Smit-McPhee in a rather impressive debut, feel on the road.  I don’t need to spend hours of my time reading them do the same things and having minor variations of the same conversation, day after day.  It makes for a great short story or short film, but stretched to novel and feature film lengths, monotony ensues.

Perhaps Hillcoat was fated to displease me with “The Road” since many of my issues with the text and story seem to be rather systemic, foundational quibbles.  Yet the upstart Australian director had made a capable, taut thriller in “The Proposition” before he tackled McCarthy’s work.  (“Lawless” had its issues as well, but I still admired the work on display.)

Joe Penhall’s script tries to add some sensationalism to make the story more tolerable (and commercially viable, I can imagine), but the attempts fail miserably.  Making The Man’s wife a larger character in the narrative adds nothing to the story, even when she’s played by the talented Charlize Theron.  Adding further dimensions of terror to their foes on the road don’t make the movie any more thrilling.  Instead, we are left with a film that ambles slowly and uninterestingly towards bleak nothingness and can’t succeed at the one thing that should have been a no-brainer for it: a deep character study of the Man and his Son.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hbLgszfXTAY





SAVE YOURSELF from “The Company Men”

24 03 2012

It must be tough to make a movie about unemployment after “Up in the Air.”  After Jason Reitman’s film so ingeniously brought employees who had actually been downsized in front of the camera to tell their stories, it felt to me like there was no other way to ever achieve the same candid honesty.  I can imagine writer/director John Wells, who had to premiere his film “The Company Men” at Sundance only a month after Reitman’s hit theaters, probably muttered a few expletives under his breath when he realized he had to compete with it.

Yes, it does portray in pretty clear detail the effects of the 2008 financial collapse on the hard-working employee, but did it really pick the right protagonist?  Granted I really don’t care for Ben Affleck unless he’s behind the camera, yet his Bobby Walker is suffering a crisis of luxury, not one of necessity.  Is that the story of the recession?  Tears shed over selling the Porsche and spousal fights over the country club membership.  You would think that having to move back in with his parents temporarily was equivalent to moving below the poverty line.

When it’s not indulging us with the sob stories of siblings sharing beds (when the children who were really affected by the recession were sleeping on the floor), it’s giving us another indictment of post-too big to fail corporate America a la “Margin Call” and “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.”  We get it, Hollywood, you think the corporate world is full of sleazes like Jim Salinger (Craig T. Nelson) who will actually say he works for the shareholders and not for the good of his employees.  The man can’t even muster up any sympathy when one of his longest-tenured staffers commits the most clichéd act of desperation in film!

Depression is a sentiment a movie needs to earn to be justified, and “The Company Men” ultimately just wallows in self-pity rather than putting its stark depiction of a catastrophic time in American history to good use.  When a protagonist seriously considers underemployment as a long-term alternative, then I start to question a film’s social compass.  Yes, psychological satisfaction is important from your vocation … but does it balance with the intrinsic disappointment from not realizing your own sense of worth and potential?  Such a decline in our guiding philosophy might be one of the sadder aspects of the recession.





SAVE YOURSELF from “Tron”

5 12 2010

Disney has invested quite a bit of money into promoting “Tron: Legacy” – $150 million, to be exact.  I’ve been watching as they’ve hyped this movie for the past three years with a fair bit of skepticism.  I’ve wondered why they need such a massive push for a big-budget visual effects spectacle for quite some time, so over the fall, I decided to look for answer in “Tron,” its 28-year-old predecessor.

I found one pretty good reason to promote “Tron: Legacy” so excessively: the original “Tron” is TERRIBLE!  And not even terrible in the sense that you can step back and laugh at it; it’s just terrible!

Sure, the visual effects are obscenely outdated, and that’s reason for a few giggles.  It’s also dated by kids playing games at an arcade.  I mean, who does THAT anymore?  I guess you could say that watching “Tron” certainly gives you an appreciation for the flawless integration of FX into movies, and it sure makes you want to bow at the feet of “Avatar” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.”

With its extensive use of computer graphics for visual spectacle, “Tron” is considered by many to be a pioneering film in technological development and a window into the future.  Well, I can tell you know from a 2010 perspective that the future came and left “Tron” in the dust a very long time ago.  Plenty of movies have done similar things, and watching “Tron” is like sending a telegram when you could just send a text message: that’s to say extremely antiquated and a futile waste of time.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s something very cool and novel about seeing how things were done in the past and seeing our progress.  But it’s brutal when that movie doesn’t have any value other than its depreciation to offer.  “Tron” has a completely incoherent plot that baffled moviegoers back in 1982 because it dealt so much with the unfamiliar computers.  The filmmakers claimed that it was misunderstood back when the movie came out largely to cover the movie’s lackluster box office receipts.  (To be fair, there was also a little science-fiction movie called “E.T.” dominating the market at the same time.)

Yet even now, in a generation of overexposure to computers, the movie still doesn’t make sense!  All I could discern from that plot was that Jeff Bridges’ Kevin Flynn invented the TRON program, his intellectual property was stolen, and he beams himself inside the program to prove his creation.  From then on, it’s a total mess of seemingly unconnected events inside the computer that have little going for them other than the retro ’80s appeal.

The movie has managed to become a cult hit over the years, and I’m a little flabbergasted that people actually love this movie.  I don’t see anything other than effects that are funny for a few minutes, and then when the novelty wears off, we are left with nothing but a snooze of a movie with a strange plot.

So I’m honestly shocked that Disney would throw so much behind “Tron: Legacy” when the original is so pathetic.  I think they know it and are starting to fret that people like me would see the 1982 movie; according to a report in The Los Angeles Times, the DVD of the original is pretty hard to find since Disney is hardly releasing any new copies to meet the demand.  Most studios release some new edition of a predecessor when a sequel comes out, and a special edition of “Tron” is nowhere to be seen.

“Tron: Legacy” is being built as the cinematic equivalent of Wall Street’s “too big to fail” companies.  The commonly held theory is that if enough money is poured into a production, moviegoers will recognize the investment and go see it on blind faith.  While the fanboy hype is high on this release, reality may be setting in that this might not have been such a smart move (which I could have told you the second I finished the original).  According to The Hollywood Reporter, tracking indicates an opening weekend of a low $35 million, which would mean the movie would probably only net about $150-$175 million in the United States.

Given that the film will cost the studio $320 million by December 17, these numbers would be catastrophic for Disney.  Just as when the “too big to fail” firms sunk led to change on Wall Street, /Film reports that if “Tron: Legacy” were to bomb, the impact on Hollywood could be enormous.  My prediction is that if the sequel is anything like the 1982 “Tron,” the road to failure has already been paved.





SAVE YOURSELF from “Lost in Translation”

5 09 2010

Plenty of people will tell you to run to “Lost in Translation;” I, however, am not telling you to walk. I’m telling you to run in the other direction and SAVE YOURSELF!

Now, by all means, if you want to spend an hour and a half of your valuable time watching an excruciatingly subtle movie that shows not the slightest bit of emotion, this could be your movie. Some people take pleasure in seeing movies like this because they, in some form or fashion, feel like they have power because the filmmaker has let them fill in the emotional blanks. I like movies that show people living their lives, no matter how dismal or boring that may be. Sofia Coppola gives us in this movie a portrait of two people who might as well be dead because they show such few signs of life.

It’s a 90-minute movie that feels like 90 hours in moviewatching hell – or, as Coppola sees it, Japan. We get to see plenty of a much younger Scarlett Johansson (here in her breakout role), but if you want to go ScarJo watching, there are plenty of magazines and websites for that. In “Lost in Translation,” Coppola gives us these ten minute asides of Johansson visiting various tourist locations looking perplexed and bored to tears. I’ll give her that she really communicates the later of the two emotions to the audience, as our impatient American mind yells, “GET ON WITH IT! SEE THE DARNED SIGHTS AND GET THE PLOT MOVING!”

The movie drags on following two bored souls in Japan, the photographer’s wife left to stew in her own juices played by Johansson and a burnt-out alcoholic actor played admirably by Bill Murray.  I won’t pretend like Murray deserved a Razzie for his work here because it wasn’t awful.  But in terms of the kind of performances the Oscars have rewarded and nominated in the past decade, this just falls short of expectations.  In essence, it’s Murray playing the same character we’ve laughed at for two decades, only now we are supposed to pity him because this funny guy has suddenly turned vapid.

The two strike up friendship unexpectedly and begin to converse on occasion.  Talking makes up only about a third of the movie, however.  Coppola left me wondering how on earth I’m expected to buy their relationship, but more importantly, why I should care an iota.  I’ve been more invested in the characters that populate corny romantic comedies than this, something that should not be able to describe any Best Picture nominee.  The counteracting of my argument is that Coppola is using the European technique of letting the dialogue provide the mood and the emotions to tell the story.  I have no problem with this, but “Lost in Translation” is so frigidly distant that I felt there was never an opportunity to make any sort of connection to it.

By the time the movie wrapped up, I could have cared less about how to interpret the open-ended conclusion. It’s as painfully reserved and wistfully distant as the shy kid in middle school.  All politeness aside, that’s NOT the person I want to spend my valuable time with.  The Coppola last name is the stuff of legends, and it’s a shame that Sofia can just tote it around because she was born with it, not because she truly earned it.





SAVE YOURSELF from “Ali”

8 08 2010

And you thought I had forgotten about this series.

I’m back again with another movie in the “Save Yourself!” series, which is designed to steer you clear of movies that will serve no purpose other than to waste your time.  I see plenty of movies, and better me than you, right?  I don’t want you to make the same mistakes I do.

This pick might shock you a little bit because it certainly shocks me.  Will Smith is the man who can do no wrong; he basically walks on water at the box office.  And director Michael Mann almost always delivers – I’ll forgive “Public Enemies” because “The Insider” and “Collateral” were both great.  And when you throw in a cast that includes Jon Voight, Jamie Foxx, and Jeffrey Wright, that’s another good sign.  Heck, they even got LeVar Burton, who is known to my generation as the guy from “Reading Rainbow,” to play MLK!

Don’t let the signs fool you.  “Ali” is a bore from beginning to end.  Rather than float like a butterfly, the movie drags like a bag of bricks.  And instead of stinging like a bee, the movie lands with so little impact that you could mistake it for having no ambitions at all.

But surely you have your doubts.  How can it be boring when it has Will Smith?  And in an Oscar-nominated performance, no less!  It’s simple: there’s too much Will Smith in the movie and not enough Muhammad Ali.  It’s as if he found the pride of the famous boxer buried deep inside of him and then decided to play only that emotion.

And don’t even get me started on Jon Voight, whose Academy Award nomination for this role is an absolute travesty.  He appears in the movie for literally no more than five minutes, and when he does, there’s no emotion.  There is nothing that moves you, no moment where you step back and say, “Wow, this is a great performance.”  From what I can tell, it’s a very good impersonation of Howard Cossell.  But if he can get that close to Oscar gold for just that, so can any decent celebrity impersonator on the streets of Vegas.

Honestly, I wonder if Michael Mann actually directed this.  He’s made longer movies than this, yet he has always managed to keep them moving at a brisk clip.  “Ali” is like a exercise in hubris, with ridiculously long drawn-out sequences in which very little happens.  In these ten minute stretches, we see more of a nightclub singer than we do of Muhammad Ali, which is who we watched this movie to see.  Mann, with the help of a good editor, could have cut at least 45 minutes from this bloated biopic, although I’m not sure if I would even want to see the movie then.  I can watch Will Smith be himself in plenty of other entertaining movies; I don’t need to see him pretend to be someone he’s not, all the while still being himself.