Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Tusk: Kevin Smith's Misguided Stab at Horror-Comedy


Director: Kevin Smith
Writer: Kevin Smith
Stars: Justin Long, Michael Parks, Haley Joel Osment, Genesis Rodriguez

In this first installment of the “Yesteryear” posts, we’ll be tackling Tusk, the newest film from Kevin Smith that came out last year. When I heard about this movie, I was really excited—I normally love Kevin Smith’s films, and the whole premise sounded pretty funny. You’ll notice that I said I normally love these flicks. That’s because Tusk left me utterly confused as to what genre Smith was shooting for here.

 Tusk tells the story of a foul-mouthed podcaster named Wallace Bryton (Long). He and his friend, Teddy (Osment), run a podcast show called the “Not-See Party,” where Wallace watches a weird news video and explains what’s happening to Teddy, who doesn’t even see the video (hence the “Not-See” part of the podcast’s title). Wallace travels to a small town in Canada to interview a viral video sensation, but when his potential podcast story falls through, he needs to find another piece of weird news. In the bathroom of a Canadian bar, he finds a cryptic, handwritten letter pinned to a bulletin board; following the instructions on the letter, he arrives at the mansion home of an eccentric, wheelchair-bound man named Howard Howe (Parks). Howe’s stories seem too good to be true, which Wallace soon finds out. When the mysterious Howe takes Wallace as a prisoner, Wallace’s girlfriend, Ally (Rodriguez), and Teddy desperately search for him.

The genre of this movie was the most confusing thing for me. Smith’s heyday was in the 1990s, and most of his movies—if not all—were comedies. One of my favorites was Dogma, a hilarious poke at religion featuring Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, but he’s probably most known for his black and white Clerks. Smith’s comedies are absolute gold with endlessly-quotable dialogue and quirky, memorable characters. I didn’t get the same vibe with this movie, though, because Smith tried to make a horror-comedy…emphasis on the tried part. There’s a fine line between horror and comedy, and it takes a delicate balance between both genres to make it work. I recently watched a movie called Zombeavers—radioactive zombie-beavers attack a group of college students. Also, see Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, where two hillbillies go to the lake and accidentally run into some college students who are convinced the two yokels are Deliverance-style murderers. I thought both of these movies were great, simply because they didn’t take themselves too seriously—they knew that they were couching a horror movie in terms of a comedy, or vice versa, and they were okay with it.

I feel like Tusk went too deeply into each of these genres instead of blending the two together. There were plenty of parts that I thought were purely horror instead of trying to make a horror scene funny. Part of the issue there lies with Parks’ performance. In many of his scenes, he actually comes off as a genuine psychopath, which was actually pretty scary, and Howe’s dialogue toward Wallace is frightening. The cinematography of Parks’ character during some of these scenes reinforces that menacing portrayal. For a horror-comedy, things got a little too real during the scenes showing Wallace's abduction and captivity at the hands of Howe.

Another seemingly miscast role was Justin Long. There are certain roles where I think Long is a decent comedy actor—he was great in Dodgeball as a geeky teenager, and his similar role in Accepted as a smart-mouthed college kid was enjoyable. Smith has used Long in a cameo role previously in Zack and Miri Make a Porno, portraying a gay porn star, and I found that incredibly funny. A lot of these roles were pretty over the top in the comedy stuff, and comedy is right in his wheelhouse. Tusk, however, represents a role way out in left field. The seriousness of some of the horror scenes don’t fit Long’s acting style at all—as he tries to spin a comedic character, he’s painfully unfunny. For having just met Howe, a mysterious old man who Wallace plans to interview, Wallace speaks with a disgustingly-unamusing candor, almost like Long (or Smith as the writer) was trying too hard to inject some laughs into the mix.

The pendulous way Smith swings from horror back into comedy feels really jarring, and again, it’s hard to tell if he was trying to make a horror film, a comedic romp, or a horror-comedy. Instead of blending the two genres together, we get a comedic sequence followed by a horror scene, then back and forth and back and forth. After one scene that’s actually pretty disturbing where Howe drugs Wallace and experiments on him, the audience is snapped back to Teddy and Ally’s search for Wallace—a search that’s supposed to be hysterical, but ends up being the same trying-too-hard string of jokes. The whole movie hinges on Canada jokes and Canadian stereotypes, and as I watched, I felt secondhand embarrassment for any Canadian viewers. These drawn out sequences absolutely rag on our lovely neighbors to the north, and it was, again, painfully unfunny.

This is, in all honesty, the first Kevin Smith movie that I’m not happy that I watched. There was a laugh or two that I got, but most of the humor in this movie just grated on me and didn’t even make me smile. This movie was based on a “smodcast” from Smith, and a friend of mine said she really enjoyed Tusk since she’d been listening to the movie take shape through these smodcasts. Part of me wonders if it wouldn’t have been better if Tusk had just remained an idea that floated around the smodcast studio and nothing more.

Now that that painful review is over, you may have noticed a small addition to the top-right corner of this blog. I've registered Ticket Stubs and Popcorn Tubs with Bloglovin', which makes it easier for you to follow your favorite blogs and search for new blogs that pique your interests. Give it a shot!

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Ant-Man: Another Marvel Movie with a Boring Baddie.


Director: Peyton Reed
Stars: Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas, Corey Stoll, Evangeline Lilly

I’ll throw this out there: I’m a Marvel drone. If it says that Marvel produced the movie, if there’s a cameo from Stan Lee anywhere in the film that makes me laugh, and if there’s an extra scene during the credits, I’m all in. I won’t lie to you, though, my dear reader—I didn’t read the comic books. I never read the comic books. I never had access to them growing up, and it’s only since this latest explosion of superhero movies that Marvel has really piqued my interest. That being said, I felt like 
Ant-Man was a little different than the other Marvel movies. I certainly don’t mean to say that this is an entirely bad addition to Marvel’s ever-expanding cinematic universe—it just felt different.

Ant-Man is a superhero origin story that begins with the release of a prisoner, Scott Lang (Rudd). Lang struggles to find work on the outside, since he's considered a felon—a cat burglar, to be more exact. When the struggle to find a job becomes too much, Lang falls back into old habits and expertly burgles the house of Dr. Hank Pym (Douglas), a scientist who allegedly worked on shrinking technology that reduces the space between atoms. Upon breaking into Pym’s vault, he discovers a red suit, and, being the curious type—fitting for a cat burglar, I suppose—Lang puts on the suit and becomes the Ant-Man. Pym’s former assistant, Darren Cross (Stoll), and Pym’s Daughter, Hope (Lilly), are working on that same shrinking technology, however. Cross develops a suit—named the Yellowjacket—that has the same atom-shrinking abilities, though he sees his weaponized suit as one that will end all wars and make him rich in the process. Lang, Hank, and Hope team up to take down the Yellowjacket to stop the shrinking technology from falling into the hands of the military.

With Ant-Man coming out after the massive release of Avengers: Age of Ultron, it seems like this movie isn’t getting nearly as much hype despite a good amount of advertising. A big part of that is most likely that people like me—people who haven’t read the Marvel comic books—aren’t really sure who Ant-Man is. Iron Man is a huge Marvel character who’s had several movies already, and the same goes for Thor, Hulk, and Captain America. Even before their movies came out, though, I could tell you who each of those characters was, but Ant-Man? I’d never even heard of him before. I think that’s how a solid chunk of movie-goers are going to react to this movie.

Being released after Age of Ultron isn’t going to do Ant-Man any favors, either. With the massive blockbuster success of the second installment of The Avengers, it’s almost like getting sloppy seconds with Ant-Man. Age of Ultron was talked about extensively, and there was a decent-sized advertising campaign, which probably led to its $191 million opening weekend. According to the Internet Movie Database, Ant-Man pulled in just $57 million in its opening weekend. Again, I’m sure there were plenty of avid Marvel fans who have all the comic books lining up at the doors for Ant-Man, but for the average fair-weather Marvel fan like me, I wasn’t really sure what I was getting into.

Like I said when I started, Ant-Man isn’t entirely a bad movie—it’s just different. With Peyton Reed in the director’s seat, I remember a little bit of backlash from the fanbase. Age of Ultron’s director, Joss Whedon, is known for quick-witted dialogue between his characters (just look at his cult television series Firefly) That sharp-tongued humor seems like a good fit for the Marvel cinematic universe if we take anything from the Iron Man movies as well as Guardians of the Galaxy. With Ant-Man, it seems like they were stretching that humor pretty thin. There were funny parts throughout the movie, but none of them seemed as raucously funny as Age of Ultron was. The biggest stretch for humor was the inclusion of Lang’s bumbling crime-buddies who help him set up the heist of Pym’s house. They were a little too slapstick for my taste, and I was a little disappointed that that same level of quick-witted humor wasn’t in this movie. I think the biggest laugh I got was from Stan Lee’s cameo.

My one big complaint was 
Ant-Man’s villain, Darren Cross/Yellowjacket. I get it: 99% of superhero movies dwell on the “good vs. evil” idea, and Ant-Man isn’t an outlier. Yellowjacket is just a foil to Ant-Man in this regard, and neither Yellowjacket nor Cross really get that much character development throughout the whole movie. Hank explains early on that a biological organism must be protected by a special suit when going through the shrinking process, lest the suit’s fuel start fiddling with the chemistry of the organism’s brain. From Cross’s first scene, we already know that he’s the bad guy, since he’s trying to use this astounding technology (A) as a weapon and (B) to make himself stinking rich. I was really miffed as to why the director didn’t flesh out this brain chemistry thing—Hank brings up this idea to Cross just before Cross dons the Yellowjacket outfit, but it seemed too little, too late at that point. Even if there was one quick sequence of Cross using the shrinking technology that tried to show the audience how it altered his mental state, it would have felt less like a loose end while also giving this character more (much needed) depth. I thought Graeme McMillan summed up the issues with Marvel’s villains pretty well in this article.

Will I be rushing out to pick up a copy of Ant-Man when it comes out on blu-ray? Probably not, but it might be nice to have a Marvel movie collection one day. Was it still an enjoyable movie? Sure, if you’re in the mood for a generic villain who you won’t remember once the credits roll.

Now for some house-keeping. I’d like to write here more than I do now, but I don’t have the means to go to the movies on a weekly basis at roughly $15 a pop. Therefore, I’m going to write posts about random movies I find and title it “Movies from Yesteryear.” There are plenty of movies on Netflix and Amazon Prime that I simply haven’t gotten to yet, and when they originally came out in theaters, I thought, “Wow, that’d be cool to write about.” Then they went out of theaters, and I completely forgot about them…until now! Hopefully, by writing about all movies and not just new releases, it’ll give me a little more fodder. Have any other ideas? Let me know!

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Jurassic World: a Wannabe Horror Flick with a Mediocre Monster

Jurassic World

Director: Colin Trevorrow
Stars: Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Ty Sympkins, Nick Robinson

Like I said in my earlier review of Godzilla (2014), I’m not really one for creature features, but the Jurassic Park franchise will always have a special place in my heart. To get into the spirit of this movie review, I turned on the John Williams station on iHeart Radio.

In Jurassic World, we follow Zach (Robinson) and Gray (Sympkins), brothers who visit the rebuilt, reinvented, and revamped dinosaur theme park. Claire (Howard) oversees the park and all its guests—including her nephews, Zach and Gray—and makes sure the park is financially successful. The park’s success depends on new attractions, and Claire calls on Owen (Pratt) to consult on Jurassic World’s newest member: Indominus Rex, a scarier, cooler dinosaur (kind of).
If you know anything about the older movies in this franchise, you know that Jurassic Park was the brainchild of billionaire John Hammond, and, as we remember, Hammond “spared no expense!” The same is true for this new park—hamster balls that carry guests through the dinosaurs’ pen, trackers embedded in all the dinosaurs to track their movements, and even a genetically-engineered killing machine dinosaur! Oh, wait…probably should have left out that last one.

I love this movie franchise, but at some points in this movie, things got a little ridiculous. I was immediately reminded of a stand-up comedy special from Eddie Izzard who explained Napoleon and Hitler’s plans for invading Russia (viewer discretion advised—language):

"I've got a better idea, got a better idea...OH, it's the same idea, it's the same idea."

After Hammond’s original Jurassic Park was decimated by dinosaurs, one would probably think, “You know, we probably shouldn’t do this again. That was pretty bad.” After the events of both Jurassic Park: The Lost World and Jurassic Park III, wouldn’t somebody have thought, “You know, this was a really stupid idea, what with playing God and all. What a terrible idea.” Now, we seemingly have Hammond’s replacement, Simon Masrani, running the show and providing the funding, and he even says, “The key to a happy life is to accept you are never in control.” Apparently, a happy life would be to accept that you’re never in control—and in doing so, you’d not get eaten by a genetically-engineered killing machine dinosaur.

I must say, however, that the killing machine dinosaur was a bit underwhelming. In Jurassic Park (1993), I remember how terrifying the Tyrannosaurus Rex was, and Indominus Rex didn’t give me that feeling. Steven Spielberg built the suspense surrounding the T-rex using a lot of sounds—I’m sure we all remember the thundering steps in the background as the camera zoomed in on the water rippling in the cup, and who could forget that piercing roar? The Indominus Rex honestly wasn’t all that memorable, and I thought it looked like a Tyrannosaurus Rex with some spines on its back and a longer body. Whereas Jurassic Park’s main monster will forever be burned into my childhood memories, the Indominus Rex of Jurassic World was pretty forgettable.

My partner told me about her viewing experience of Jurassic World, and she noted that the Indominus Rex had some weird special abilities that make it the perfectly-engineered killing machine that “sparing no expense” can buy. I totally agree with her there—the abilities of this baddie dinosaur feel almost tacked on. The geneticist who engineered the Indominus was told to make a “cooler” dinosaur to make Jurassic World a relevant theme park again—guys, you have dinosaurs. (How is this NOT relevant? Jurassic World even featured a dinosaur petting zoo and triceratops rides! Guys, come on!) In any case, these abilities aren’t really explained until later in the movie—the Indominus Rex is a hybrid of multiple animals, and it apparently inherited all of the strengths of those animals, such as camouflaging. The Indominus needed to be overpowered so that it was scary, but because it’s explained so late in film, it’s almost like the writers were saying, “Oh yeah, we forgot to explain why the monster can camouflage…Because we spliced it with a cuttlefish? Yeah, that’s good enough.” Had they explained early on that we spliced this monster together with Animals X, Y, and Z, then discovered that it could do these things, that would have fixed things, I think.

Before the movie had even come out, a buddy asked how I reconciled the Indominus Rex being both female and monstrous, saying that I should watch the Jurassic World trailer and then interpret from that. I can’t formulate an interpretation of a character’s gender when a two-hour movie is boiled down into a two-minute trailer, and at the time, this was the only answer I gave.

Now that I’ve seen the movie, the Indominus Rex had a more masculine construction.. It was a big deal in Jurassic Park that all the dinosaurs were female, because “Life, uh, finds a way”—when humans meddle, problems arise, such as the destruction of the whole theme park. I suppose same theme of gender follows to Jurassic World—the geneticist specifically notes that the Indominus was not bred, but engineered. It seems like this film’s context sets up the idea that genetic engineering and science are masculine activities, and in the real world, that still seems to be the gendered stereotype (though it is just a stereotype). Ergo, the manufacturing of the Indominus Rex in the Jurassic World lab sets the character up as masculine. This masculine construction is pushed further when Hoskins, a corporate big-shot and military visionary (or so he thinks himself) suggests that the Indominus Rex could be used as an asset in warfare: the dinosaur can camouflage itself to hide even from the most advanced detection systems, making it the ultimate stealth operative (except for, you know, being a 50’ long dinosaur). Because the military is so often couched in masculine terms, it seems that the gender construction of the Indominus Rex is masculine.

If we’re talking about Jurassic World with a gendered lens, there’s definitely some sexism going on here, and that’s been a prevailing review of this film. Several people have equated Claire with the archetypical stiff-shirt, career-good-family-bad female character, and as soon as Owen steps on the scene—a man who acts as a “life-force,” Joss Whedon said—then she changes her act and falls into a traditional gender role. As soon as I read some of these reviews, I began nodding, because a lot of if seems pretty spot-on. Claire doesn’t evoke the same level of bad-ass as Dr. Ellie Satler in Jurassic Park, and that’s pretty clear throughout the whole movie. She has a moment or two of breaking traditional gender roles, but that’s about it. I was pretty disappointed in that—going back to my post about Godzilla, I don’t really see much for strong female characters or feminism, for that matter.

It was a good movie—don’t get me wrong. It had action, the pacing was pretty good, and the visuals were spectacular. I also appreciated the subtle and not-so-subtle nods toward Spielberg, such as the younger actors as main characters and the use of shadows throughout the film. Jurassic World got me right in the nostalgia as soon as John Williams’ iconic theme music came on in the theater, but it also showed some invention to the franchise. The movie definitely sets up a sequel, and you’ll definitely find me at the movies when it happens.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road, a High-Octane Feminist Ride

After an absurdly-long hiatus (in which I finished off my master’s degree in English and found a job teaching college English), another post! Seriously, it’s been a year and two days since my last post in this film blog, though I’ve watched numerous films. I even taught a film class this past semester! Thus, it seems apt that I restart this project of mine.

Mad Max: Fury Road
Director: George Miller
Stars: Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult

What I originally thought was a reboot, Mad Max: Fury Road begins with our hero, Max Rockatansky (Hardy), being taken prisoner. He’s taken in chains to the Citadel, a stronghold that’s built into the side of a group of mesas in the post-apocalyptic world. The Citadel is the property of Immortan Joe, a warlord whose face is always covered by a razor-toothed respirator. In a flurry of action, Max escapes the Citadel with Furiosa (Theron) on the “War Rig”—a souped-up, double-engined semi-truck covered with as many pointy thing as there are hairs in my beard. Max discovers that Furiosa is attempting to smuggle Immortan Joe’s slave-wives—what he calls his “breeders”—away from the Citadel to a safe place called the Green Land. High-octane, stylized violence in a desert wasteland? It’s going to be a bumpy ride. (Don’t forget your seatbelts, kids!)

The first thing I want to address is the film’s focus, which doesn’t necessarily lie with its title character. Rather, the story focuses more so on Furiosa’s quest to get Immortan Joe’s slave-wives to freedom. On a recent forum, I read one person who griped that the movie was called “Mad Max,” not “Mad Max and Furiosa.” Another person complained that the story isn’t even about Max, and that he’s simply thrust into Furiosa’s story. This seems like a misunderstanding of Mad Max’s character, however, since Max is essentially nomadic. If we think back to the original Mad Max: The Road Warrior, Mel Gibson’s character was set up to not belong anywhere. Even the name “the Road Warrior” suggests a level of transitoriness—Max is always on the move, and that can be seen in the opening of Fury Road, as Max stands alone next to his car. That’s basically what his character does—he tags along and helps in other people’s stories, and that kind of character can mean a lot of sequels, since writers can treat the character episodically. As soon as Max finishes helping Furiosa, he can be back on the road and looking for another adventure in which to partake.

The biggest item on the agenda of Fury Road is gender—and it seems like some people are getting hung up on it. Take, for example, this interviewer who asks Tom Hardy if this is supposed to be a “man’s movie”:

On the surface, Fury Road may be just that—a “man’s movie”—but the film implies that this post-apocalyptic wasteland is the result of hypermasculinity. Visually, Immortan Joe is a hypermasculine character: between his hair and his body, he seems far larger than nearly all of his followers, and his muscles are highlighted by his clear, plastic armor plastered with various medals and ribbons from military triumphs. The other two warlords we see in the film are also portrayed as hypermasculine: “the Bullet Farmer” wears a coif made of gun-belts, again bring his military conquests to the forefront; “the People Eater” portrays his hypermasculinity through wealth, as he adorns himself with gold chains and drives a Cadillac-bodied semi-truck. Three of the most socially-powerful characters in the film achieved their position via hypermasculine practices, it seems.

Looking specifically at Immortan Joe, his treatment of those he deems as his inferiors—men, women, and children—shows him as hypermasculine. Joe controls the flow of water throughout the Citadel, and the unwashed masses who live in the dirt below the stronghold are only alive because of his gracious dispensing of the water…by dumping it on them. To Joe, these people are his property, and this is exactly how he treats his wives—especially how he keeps his wives locked up in a vault to use at his disposal. In addition to being locked in vault, their sexuality is also under lock and key, as each of the wives wears a metal chastity belt—a belt with spikes where any mate (besides Joe, of course) would get his member stuck in a very gruesome way. Joe’s feels the need to protect these women, but not because they’re people, no. They’re his property, and Joe’s only reason for keeping them is because they can carry on his perfect, patriarchal, patrilineal family.

There are plenty of strong feminist characters in Fury Road, and that made me really happy. (If you look back at my post about 2014’s Godzilla, it really was a breath of fresh air to have so many strong female characters. Where Immortan Joe see his “breeders” as little more than incubators for his potentially-patrilineal offspring, these women explore a newfound freedom as soon as they’re clear of the Citadel (and as soon as those clunky chastity belts are off). If I understood the movie correctly, it was actually one of the brides who first planned the escape with Furiosa. As the women scream at Joe during one of several visually-stimulating car chase scenes, “We are not property.” I found it interesting that the production team brought on a writer from The Vagina Monologues as a consultant, just to make sure that the female characters were portrayed well; I’ve never heard of another movie doing that, and I thought it was a nice touch. On the topic of strong feminist characters, do I even need to talk about Furiosa, the badass War Rig driver with the mechanical arm?

Overall, this was a hell of a movie. It’s full of action, car chases, and fight scenes, and the pacing of the movie feels good—it doesn’t seem like it drags out or rushes through anything. Visually, this is a stunning movie; I read on IMDb that director George Miller wanted the cinematography to be as colorful as possible to set Fury Road apart from other apocalyptic movies where the colors are all washed out (see The Road, and you’ll understand). The acting is all on-point, and it was engaging all the way through. I would highly recommend this one. Seeing a Valiant Charger mounted on tank treads is all fine and good, but having a movie with this much depth makes for a great experience.