Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Halloween / George Romero Tribute Edition: "Day of the Dead" and "Land of the Dead"

Day of the Dead / Land of the Dead
I've been a fan of zombie movies my entire life, so it definitely bummed me out when George Romero passed away back in July. Whenever a filmmaker I like dies, I always revisit their work. With Romero, I knew I had to watch Day of the Dead again since it's my all-time favorite zombie movie. I bought the blu-ray (which looks great, by the way) even though I already have the DVD (it's that cool one with the Bub cover flap); I love this one enough to own it twice. In the documentary on the blu-ray, a producer mentions that Romero had written a much larger (in scope) film, but budget constraints forced him to scale it back. The larger version ended up becoming Land of the Dead (a movie I also own), so I figured this made for a good double feature for a Romero tribute and for Halloween, especially since Night and Dawn get most of the attention when it comes to Romero.

Romero seemed to work best when forced to go small. Night takes place in a single house. Dawn is in a mall. And Day takes place in a cave/storage facility. These small locations allow for more character building, and it frees up the budget to go all out on the makeup and gore. This is why I love Day. It's up there with The Thing for having some of the most disturbing practical effects of all time. The zombies may look more "Thriller" than Walking Dead, and the blood is candy red, but it's still disgusting...and great. The effects in Land are still good (the zombies look much better) and the feast sequence has its moments (the belly button ring being ripped out comes to mind), but there are bits of CG mixed in there, as well. It's not terrible CG, but it foreshadowed its much heavier use in Diary of the Dead. It's unfortunate that Romero couldn't get the budget to go full practical with the blood and guts.

With Romero, you come for the gore, but stay for the social commentary. Anyone can make a gory movie, but Romero could also make his films socially relevant, funny, disturbing, and philosophical. Something that is lost in many zombie stories today is the treatment of the zombies themselves and what it all means for humanity as a whole. That's not to say a show like The Walking Dead is lacking in the drama department; it isn't. But the focus there is solely on the characters surviving; they never stop to consider the world at large. If they do talk about the world at large, any big thoughts are usually dismissed with an answer along the lines of "Surviving is all that matters now." 

Whereas Day of the Dead has a lengthy scene in the middle of the movie in which John, the seemingly uncaring Jamaican helicopter pilot (greatest character description ever?), questions the whole point of humanity's "progress." There is no action or gore during this scene, yet it's one of my favorite moments in the film. The question, "Why bother figuring out why the zombie apocalypse, or anything at all for that matter, happened?" is asked, and it makes you think beyond the movie itself. John suggests that trying to figure things out might have led God to bring this curse on humanity, so they should give up trying to figure it out and start humanity over from scratch, and just live. It can come across as anti-scientific, but I think it's more about how we can't see the forest for the trees. It also works as a metaphor for enjoying the zombie genre: who cares why it happened, just enjoy the gore and violence. And for whatever reason, all of this being presented with a Jamaican accent makes it even better.

That might seem like way too much thinking for the zombie genre, but Romero's movies in particular were filled with very intentional social commentary concerning race (Night), consumerism (Dawn), militarism and scientific study (Day), and class struggle (Land). That's what makes this genre so great. If it was just gore, it wouldn't be this popular. Whether viewers realize it or not, they're drawn in by those themes.

More than anything, though, these films are entertaining. I love Day because of how heightened so many of the characters are. Joe Pilato, as the psychotic Rhodes, makes the film. He pretty much screams every line, which makes gems like, "I'm running this monkey farm now, Frankenstein, and I want to know what the fuck you're doing with my time!" Also, he yells "Choke on 'em!" as zombies feast on his entrails. It just doesn't get better than that. Steele and Rickles, equally psychotic, are a highlight, as well. It's overacting to be sure, but it's also plausible that people would get this crazy in that scenario.

Land doesn't compare to Day in the crazy character department, but it still has some great moments. Dennis Hopper's goofy ruse of "Watch out! Get down quick!" to murder an associate only to find out seconds later it was unnecessary always cracks me up.

Before I move my focus towards Land, however, I feel obligated to just spout off all the other reasons I love Day so much. So here goes, in no attempt of organization. The music: the very 80s score might come across as laughable for some, but it fit perfectly for me. I can't explain why, but the score made this feel more like the end of the world than more traditional movie music would have. I might just be crazy, but the music worked completely for me. They call the zombies "dumb fucks" multiple times. Rhodes calls a zombie a "pus fuck." There are plenty of goofy zombies (clown, football player, ballerina), which means these people died while wearing these outfits, which is hilarious to me. Miguel saying, "So fucking what?" That one zombie that steps off the platform too early and falls. The shovel kill. The way Rickles laughs. And finally, the location in general. The cave/storage facility is a real place in Pennsylvania, and I cannot think of a better actual filming location for a zombie movie. Okay, now on to Land.

Land of the Dead was something entirely different for Romero. The focus of his series began shifting to the zombies in Day with Bub learning to use a gun by the end. With Land the zombies making their way to the city is as focused on as the human story. The humans began changing more with these two films, too. There have been terrible people in all the movies, but they seem to have taken over in Day and Land. With all the evil humans around, you end up rooting for the zombies not for the gore, but because they seem like better people...even though they eat people.

This is why Land deserves a bit more love than it gets. Romero leaned into his social commentary more in this film than any of the other Deads. By turning the zombies into the heroes of the story, you see humanity in a villainous light. It's a very dark, disturbing message. The film suggests that zombies are the logical next step in evolution. Land was Romero's first zombie movie since Day, and it seems like he returned to the genre because he hated seeing the treatment of zombies. Zombies are mainly used as plot points now, and Romero wanted to make them characters again. He certainly did that in Land

The first time I saw Land in the theater I was too amped to see a new Romero movie to give much thought to the treatment of zombies. Rewatching it recently, it was all I could think about. All of the humans truly seem like secondary characters this time around. There are still good and bad humans, but the majority are terrible. Romero ditched any semblance of subtlety this time around and presented humans as openly worse than zombies. 

The lack of subtlety is not a critique. At this point in the Romero universe, any attempt at human decency would have been long gone. The setup of Land is that the rich get to live in luxury condos while the poor live in slums, and it will always be that way. The poor are given the hope that they can get to the top, but it's a lie. This is certainly a thinly veiled (okay, not veiled at all) criticism of capitalism. But I think it's more about where humans would eventually go in a zombie world. I believe this scenario could definitely play out. Of course, this is all based on the idea that an economy would still exist in the zombie apocalypse, and I find that the most implausible aspect of the film. But if money did still matter, Land is a decent prediction of what could happen.

Before I wrap things up, here are my favorite Land moments. The aforementioned Hopper scene. John Leguizamo wanting to become a zombie (mainly because I would be the same way in that scenario; why not see what it's like to be a zombie?). Using fireworks to distract zombies. The Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright cameos. Tom Savini! More goofy zombies; apparently an entire band died in their uniforms.

George Romero may have been known for making (amazing) zombie films, but these movies were always about humanity. The gore is top notch and makes these movies endlessly rewatchable and enjoyable, but the social commentary he inserted increasingly in each film makes them classics in my collection. It's not like Romero's social critiques are all that original or anything (it's not hard to look at consumers as brainless zombies), it's that he knew these films needed something more than gore. If I'm going to watch two hours of anti-human propaganda, then I at least want to see some amazing practical gore. George Romero was more than capable of providing that, and he will be sorely missed.

Monday, October 9, 2017

"Blade Runner 2049" - More "Blade Runner" Than "Blade Runner"

Blade Runner 2049

(This site is supposed to be about movies I own, but I'm making an exception for this Blade Runner 2049 review since I will own it when it is released on blu ray.)

Returning to beloved films from decades ago usually results in disappointment. But thanks to a recent influx of new films that continue the franchise (Star Wars, Alien) rather than reboot it, the results have been a bit more satisfying. Still, revisiting Blade Runner seemed like a bad idea. There's not much to the original film that begs for a sequel. In fact, one of the most interesting aspects of the film is the unanswered question of whether Deckard (Harrison Ford) was a replicant. It seems like a sequel featuring Ford would be problematic for that question. Also, the first Blade Runner was not an action movie. It was a moody noir set in a dystopian future. Would Hollywood allow a sequel to be made without turning it into an action film?

Thankfully, the filmmakers (director Denis Villeneuve, producer [original director] Ridley Scott, and writers Hampton Fancher [original] and Michael Green) handled things beautifully. They do not answer the question of Deckard. In fact, they add more to the debate for both sides of the argument. And, more importantly, Blade Runner 2049 is nowhere near an action film.

The plot, which I'll be vague about since the studio left it very vague in the promotional materials, is in the same vein as the original, playing out as a simple detective story in a complex, visually stunning setting. While the plot does add plenty of questions to the series and brings up plenty of existential themes concerning humanity and technology, the true appeal of the film is its style.

Director Denis Villeneuve (Arrival, Sicario) was the perfect choice to succeed Scott in the director's chair. He has proven himself a master of tension and mood already, so it was great to see him set loose with a large budget in an already richly designed world. I rewatch the original Blade Runner on a yearly basis because of the world of the film. Blade Runner 2049 takes that bleak future and turns into perhaps the bleakest future in a film that isn't post-apocalyptic; perhaps it could be described as pre-apocalyptic. It's interesting that such an ugly moral world can be so beautiful. Villeneuve and director of photography Roger Deakins take massive landfills, radioactive cities, and bleak farmlands and turn them into cinematic wonders. 

The visuals, which are a perfect blend of CG and practical effects, are amazing on their own, and the nearly oppressive score (which rattled the speakers of my theater regularly) is the finishing touch. A world is only beautiful if you get to spend plenty of time in it, though. This is where critics (and Blade Runner fans) and a typical audience member might differ in opinion. Blade Runner 2049 gives you over two and a half hours in its bleak world, with many sequences consisting solely of Ryan Gosling walking slowly. I see that and can't take my eyes away because I want to examine and enjoy every frame of the film. Others might see that and want to yell, "Do something!" 

Perhaps the best way I can describe how interesting I found this arguably "boring" film is this: I went to see this after working a twelve hour night shift. I went to the earliest show I could, which allowed me to get two hours of sleep beforehand. I've done this with other movies and could barely keep my eyes open no matter the type of movie I was watching. Yet with Blade Runner 2049, I didn't so much as yawn a single time. I was truly worried I would fall asleep when I first planned to watch this lengthy film under those conditions. When I walked out of the theater feeling completely awake, I knew I had seen something special. 

Although the visuals, pacing, and music were the stars of the film for me, that does not mean the performances were lacking. Gosling is perfectly cast in the lead role. Harrison Ford is fine as the aged Deckard (though it seems like he's just being Harrison Ford instead of the actual characters he's returning too). Jared Leto was oddly zen-like in a villainous role, but he was underused. The standouts are the female performers. Robin Wright turns what could have been a one-note boss character into fully realized character. Sylvia Hoeks provides quiet menace as Leto's muscle. And Ana de Armas gives possibly the best performance as Joi, an AI girlfriend. 

With all of this praise I'm giving Blade Runner 2049, you might think it's obvious that I prefer it to the original film, but I'm not sure yet. My impulse is to declare this the better film, but it will take time to truly tell which film has the more lasting effect. The original Blade Runner didn't catch on for years. So maybe my opinion of this film will change over the years, as well. I doubt it, though. Like most films that I love, my immediate thought as I walked out of the theater was, "I can't wait to see this again." I think my yearly viewings of Blade Runner just became a double feature, and Blade Runner 2049 is definitely one of my favorite films of the year.

Random Thoughts (SPOILERS)

Unfortunately, this is probably the last Blade Runner for a while since it's underperforming at the box office, but I'm okay with where it ended. It definitely felt like a few things were set up for future installments, but it didn't end on a cliffhanger or anything. You can imagine where things go from that ending. But I do wonder if they ignored Leto's character at the end in hope of a sequel. Or maybe they introduced that replicant underground group to be expanded upon in the future. Either way, it stands on its own as a great movie.

Gosling was meant to play a Pinocchio-like replicant.

The Joi character reminded me of Her quite a bit. It's still an interesting plotline. At times you're watching a robot interact with a hologram. The fact that these two "lifeless" characters make up a big portion of the films says something about the overall question the film posits: What is humanity?

Man, Los Angeles is bleaker than ever. You can imagine if most people had moved off-world back in 2019 how bad it must be by 2049. 

Glad to see Edward James Olmos return, still making that origami.

So is Deckard a replicant? I think he's human at this point, though I thought he was a replicant after watching the original. It's not the aging that makes me thing he's human; it was the scene with him in the car as it submerged. If he was a replicant, he would have easily gotten out of the handcuffs. Of course, Tyrell could have made him pretty much identical to a human in all aspects if he was capable of making a replicant able to procreate. Perhaps Deckard and Rachel were his replicant Adam and Eve... Okay, maybe Deckard is a replicant after all. 

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

The Mixed Bag of Sci-Fi Nostalgia: Star Wars, Alien, and Blade Runner

(NewsRadio was originally going to be my next post, but I decided to postpone that and write something a bit more relevant since Blade Runner 2049 is coming out this week. NewsRadio is written and will be posted in a week or so.)

Nostalgia seems to be fueling the biggest movies and TV shows recently, and that is not going to change anytime soon thanks to the popularity of Star Wars returning to the original trilogy characters. Star Wars didn't start this trend or anything, but the massive success likely led to the greenlighting of new entries in other older properties. I can't help but think that Alien: Covenant was able to be made because of a promise to be more like the original Alien than the recent, divisive Prometheus. And based on the previews of Blade Runner 2049, it looks like the studio provided a huge budget; it's not a stretch to assume this is because of the Star Wars effect. While I love the resurgence of all these films I loved growing up, the nostalgia factor makes it a mixed bag (though I'm crazy optimistic for Blade Runner 2049). So is nostalgia helping or hurting the integrity of these franchises? Let's start with Star Wars.

The Force Awakens, many claim, gave the fans what they wanted whereas the prequels gave them what they didn't want. Not to get into a prequel vs. original trilogy debate, but one thing that can be said for the prequels is that they are different. For a lot of fans, that means they're terrible (I happen to hold them in the same regard as the original trilogy, but that's not the point). So when The Force Awakens came out, there was this collective sigh of relief: Star Wars was truly back. 

I enjoyed The Force Awakens, but the more I watched it, the more the nostalgia wore off. I still like it, but I also realize that it is an unapologetic rehash of A New Hope. People have pointed this out, but it seems like most give the film a pass. "Yeah, it's basically a remake, but, man, it really felt like Star Wars!" In other words, "Yeah, I've seen this movie before, but, man, it's a really good movie!" 

This is where I disagree with fans of The Force Awakens. Nostalgia is all about feeling, but I didn't think The Force Awakens felt like a Star Wars movie. It had all the right parts and whatnot, but it felt different. Not bad, just different. It's to the point now that I don't even consider that film's success the product of nostalgia; it was successful simply because of recognition. 

This is where the Alien and Blade Runner franchises come into play. Obviously nostalgia and recognition are part of the appeal (hell, Harrison Ford returns in Blade Runner, just like he did in Star Wars [PS - it's my theory that Ford is going through his most iconic characters and killing them off one by one; Deckard is probably going to die in the new Blade Runner, and he could also kill off Indiana Jones in the announced fifth film]), but one major difference with these two properties is that the original director, Ridley Scott, is heavily involved. Meanwhile, George Lucas, to the delight of most fans, has almost nothing to do with the new films. 

Scott's involvement is so important because he's not a fan. Everyone working on the new Star Wars films are fans, so, in essence, all the new stuff is fan fiction. Fan fiction can be good, but it will always feel a step removed. Just like Lucas was willing to do something vastly different (even if a lot of fans hated it), Scott can do whatever he wants with Alien and Blade Runner.

This has happened a bit already. The Alien prequel Prometheus, while certified fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, received a lot of negative blowback online. The film, in my opinion, has been nitpicked excessively possibly because it didn't deliver enough answers and/or the same experience of the first Alien film. The issue here is that Scott didn't set out to do either. Prometheus is not technically an Alien film as Scott has been following a multi-film plan to lead up to the original Alien. That's why there isn't a proper xenomorph in the film, and it's also why there are plenty of unanswered questions.

The more recent Alien: Covenant is different. It's as if Scott listened to the upset fans of Prometheus and tried to do two separate things: continue his multi-film plan and give the audience something very similar to the original Alien. I think the film accomplishes that, but that makes it the lesser of the two new films. I enjoyed the xenomorph sequence at the end of Covenant, but I was much more interested in the continued story from Prometheus. Pleasing fans is important, but when you give into them, it's like giving into a child who wants candy for dinner. Sure, the child will be full, but it's empty nourishment. Here's hoping that the next Alien film leans more towards Prometheus than Covenant. (To be clear, though, I really liked both movies.)

One thing that is undeniable about the Alien prequels is that Scott is still able to create the Alien atmosphere. Rewatching Alien recently, I realized that the atmosphere is why I love that first film more than Aliens. It's slow and brooding and effective. It also took what the original Star Wars presented (a futuristic sci-fi that looks lived rather than shiny and new) and perfected it. I recall Alien being described as truckers in space, and that's exactly what it is. This is best exemplified by the great Yaphet Kotto and Harry Dean Stanton (R.I.P.). How often in a film set on a spaceship do you have characters arguing about wages? All of these elements add up to a nearly perfect film. A film that could not be replicated today because of pacing alone. Look at Covenant; they essentially remade Alien in the last twenty minutes. Audiences don't have time for slow burn tension these days.

Perhaps Blade Runner 2049 will prove me wrong, though. With a running time nearing three hours and a director (Denis Villeneuve) who specializes in mood, this could be the film that gets it right. Blade Runner 2049 could placate fans and retain the atmospheric feeling of the original. 

Blade Runner 2049 may have found the perfect formula for nostalgic filmmaking. Rather than shutting out the original director, allow him to be involved in the process (as Scott is on 2049 as a producer) without giving him total control. Star Wars could benefit from George Lucas's input, as blasphemous as that might seem to certain fans. Don't let him go full prequel with it, but let him in on the process. The guy who started it all just might have a few ideas for where the story can go.

Back to Blade Runner, what made me fall in love with this film over the years was the mood and atmosphere. Judging it on face value, it's a boring film. (SPOILERS throughout the rest of this paragraph.) Deckard is very low energy and is no match against a replicant in a fight, and he only survives at the end because Batty lets him. It's not meant to be much of an action film, though. It's an atmospheric consideration of what life is, especially in a technologically advanced world. It's slow and beautiful. I don't rewatch it at least once a year for the badass action sequences; I watch it because I want to revisit the world of the film.

Of course, simply wanting to revisit the world of a film is what led to some of the problems with nostalgic filmmaking in the first place. I guess the best way to describe it is that The Force Awakens felt like I was looking at a picture of the Star Wars universe, and I hope that Blade Runner 2049 feels more like a return to the world. 

Based on early reviews for 2049, it appears that they got it right with this one. I hope so. Because nostalgia will continue to drive the content of Hollywood as long as it's profitable. Nostalgia doesn't have to be a bad thing. When done right, filmmakers might be able to recreate the magic of the past. I'll find out this weekend when I watch Blade Runner 2049.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Bill Paxton Tribute, Part 2: "Frailty" - "Only demons should fear me. And you're not a demon, are you?"

I planned on writing this earlier, but, as usual, I kept putting it off. I'm glad that I did, though, since this is part of my tribute to Bill Paxton, and it's likely that many people have already forgotten about his death. So this was an excuse for me to keep his work in mind and revisit one of my favorite Paxton films.

Frailty is unique to Paxton's filmography in that it's one of his two feature directing credits (the other is The Greatest Game Ever Played). It's also a very unique film in general. A single dad (Paxton) raises his two boys, Fenton and Adam, in 1970s Texas. Everything is normal until the dad (his character is never named) claims he has been visited by an angel and tasked with destroying demons. The younger son is all in and believes in his dad's new purpose. The older son, Fenton, is skeptical, of course, but becomes horrified when his dad starts kidnapping and killing people (he says the demons will appear to be normal people). 

To this day, I find the plot of this film fascinating. If you just imagine the situation of the film, it's insane. Paxton elevates it because he is so perfect for the role. Who better to play a simple Texan father and a seemingly crazed demon slayer? 

My group of friends was drawn to this film upon its release (we were in high school at the time) because we were fans of Paxton. Like with most things with my group of friends, I cannot explain why this film stuck out to us, or why we still quote it when we see Paxton in something (our go-to line is the one in the title of this article). Paxton just had an indescribable quality that spoke to us. The most impressive thing about Paxton was his ability to ride the line between sincerity and hilarity. I loved his performances for their goofiness, even when he was in a serious movie. Frailty is the ultimate example of this. 

(Minor and major SPOILERS from here on out.) In Frailty, Paxton is full of goofy charm as a single dad. He makes lame dad jokes and is constantly drinking Hamm's beer. (Hamm's is a very cheap beer, and I found it hilarious that it was his beer of choice in the film. It's even funnier when you check out the film's trivia section on IMDb, and it claims that they had to use the same can of Hamm's throughout the shoot because they could only find on period-specific can. And that can was already opened, so every time he drinks one [which is nearly every scene, by the way], the sound of a can opening has to happen offscreen. I like to think this ridiculous attention to detail was all Paxton.) 

Notice the period-specific can of Hamm's in front of Paxton.
But the movie takes a severely dark turn when goofy dad starts murdering people with an axe. This is where Paxton's performance gets risky. Can you take this guy seriously as an axe murderer. Somehow, you can. Paxton was great at comedy, but he was also great at showing determination. You believe that his character believes he is killing demons, which makes him scary. That said, when he first started talking about the demon hunting, you can't help but laugh. He comes across an axe named "Otis," for God's sake! It's easy, and I believe intentional, to laugh when Paxton tells his boys with complete sincerity that "the angel" told him to do this or that. 

When Paxton starts killing people, I still found it a bit funny, but in a dark, twisted way (my sense of humor is all messed up). Something about seeing Paxton yell while swinging an axe makes me giggle. Frailty could have left the movie like this: a dad claims he's hunting demons and we never find out what was really happening. Ambiguity like that is usually celebrated in film. But Frailty goes all in and reveals that Paxton is actually killing demons, and doubting Fenton is wrong. That reveal made me love the film. I like ambiguity in films as much as anyone (it's always interesting to leave things up to the audience's imagination), but it's also nice to see a movie with the guts to say, "This is what's happening; it is not open to interpretation." To be clear, there is a little ambiguity to the film, and I'm sure some people have the theory that the reveal is only in Adam's mind, and he's as crazy as his dad. I think that's stretching it, though. Paxton was a straightforward actor and a straightforward director. Frailty is what it seems to be. 

I haven't even mentioned the other actors (Matthew McConaughey and Powers Booth) or other crazy elements (Fenton digging a giant hole for days) because this article is all about Bill Paxton. But know that Frailty is good film all around. Let's face it, though, it's Paxton's movie. He may be gone, but he left an amazing body of work to revisit anytime you start to miss his goofy charm. R.I.P. Bill Paxton.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Bill Paxton Tribute, Part One: "Club Dread" - "I think you mean 'Pina Coladaburg.'"

I tend not to get very sad when famous people die. I find it hard to get upset about someone I never actually met. That said, Bill Paxton's death really bummed me out. I grew up in the 90s, so I first noticed Paxton as the sniveling used car salesman in True Lies. For some odd reason, my friends and I still quote his character regularly (our favorite lines are, "Would a spy pee himself?" and "I got a little dick. It's pathetic!"). So I appreciated his more popular work in Tombstone and Aliens in later years. I've always found the guy to be hilarious, even when he was being serious. For example, the excellent Frailty was a source of humor among my friends, even though we also appreciated it as a thriller. (I might go ahead and write about that film next since I own it, and it was one of Paxton's only directing credits.) Paxton was always a highlight in whatever he was in.

I revisit Paxton's work often. I watch True Lies and Tombstone at least once a year. In fact, I was watching Tombstone the Saturday he died, though I didn't know he was dead at that point. I wanted to write about Paxton, but I didn't want to focus on one of the roles being mentioned in all the articles about his death.

What that in mind, I decided to revisit one of his more forgotten roles: Coconut Pete from Club Dread. Club Dread was Broken Lizard's followup to Super Troopers. It's essentially an homage/spoof to 80s slasher films. A killer terrorizes the staff of an island resort owned and occupied by musician Coconut Pete (Paxton). Initially, I didn't care for the film, but Paxton's character stood out. Coconut Pete is basically a burnt out Jimmy Buffett. It's hard not to laugh at a long-haired Bill Paxton singing about things like a "seahorse whorehouse."

Club Dread as a whole is actually underrated, but I doubt you'll find anyone (even the members of Broken Lizard) who doesn't think Paxton's scenes are the highlight of the film. My biggest complaint is that he isn't in more of the film.

My favorite moment has to be the campfire scene. First, you get to hear a great song ("Ponytails and Cocktails"). Second, you get some sweet Jimmy Buffett jokes. It turns out that Buffett's "Margaritaville" is a rip-off of Pete's "Pina Coladaburg," which Pete wrote "seven and a half fuckin' years before 'Margaritaville' was even on the map!" Pete storms off, calling Buffett a "son of a son of a bitch" and a "mother motherfucker."

Another highlight is Pete losing his mind explaining how to make his famous paella to the new cooks. The Coconut Pete album covers are pretty great, too. To stop myself from simply listing everything Paxton does in the movie, I'll just say that he makes the movie worth watching or, in my case, revisiting.

Aside from Paxton, I kind of hated Club Dread the first time I saw it. I remember liking Coconut Pete and thinking the life-size Pac-Man maze was cool. The whole slasher spoof aspect was lost on me. I'm not sure if I just didn't get it the first time I watched it or what, but I was not impressed. Watching it now, I appreciate all of the jokes much more. I still consider this a weaker comedy than Super Troopers or Beerfest, but it's a movie I'm glad I own.

Without Paxton, I don't think I could recommend Club Dread. And that isn't just hyperbole now that he's gone. Credit to Broken Lizard for creating the character (who would think of lampooning Jimmy Buffett?), but Paxton runs with it. When given the freedom to go a little nuts, Paxton could make a character that makes an entire film worth watching. That's certainly the case with Club Dread.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Top Eleven for 2016 - Yes, I know it's March, 2017.

This is a ridiculously late Top Eleven list. (Yes, “Top Eleven.” I just could not cut it down to ten.) Every year I wait until I’ve seen everything I wanted to see from the previous year, and it takes so long that I almost skip my Top Eleven entirely (in fact, I have skipped it in the past). But since the Academy Awards wait until the end of February to (sort of) announce their favorite film, I figured it was okay for me to wait until March. There are still a few movies I didn’t get to see, but I sincerely doubt they would have made the list. But for full disclosure, here are the most notable films I missed: The FounderFlorence Foster JenkinsThe AccountantSnowden. Obviously, there are many more films I missed, but these four were either films I thought I might like or films that were mentioned for awards consideration.

Side note about the Oscars: until they fixed their mistake at the end of the night, I only missed one guess (Affleck for Best Actor). Of course, the one time they announce the wrong Best Picture winner, it would be the one I predicted to win. Anyway, I still consider my guess half-right.

First, let’s get into the honorable mentions. I’m including La La Land here, mainly because I actually liked it. I didn’t fall into either the love it or hate it camp with this film, which amazed me. I normally despise musicals, but I found this one enjoyable. That written, when it comes to music-themed stories of people trying to make it, I prefer Sing Street, which was very close to making the main list. It’s on Netflix, check it out. Here are the other films I really liked, in no particular order: Deepwater Horizon, Hell or High Water, Nocturnal Animals, Lion, The Neon Demon, Manchester by the Sea, The Handmaiden, Fences, Christine, Hidden Figures, A Monster Calls. Obviously, I thought this was a great year for movies, and I would recommend any of the movies I’ve listed here. Now, for my favorites.

11. The Nice Guys – A 1970s LA-set detective comedy starring Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe.

I started to type this in the honorable mention section and just couldn’t. That’s when this list became a Top Eleven. This is a very rewatchable movie that makes me laugh each time I watch it. Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe are surprisingly funny together, and writer-director Shane Black confirms himself as the master of the detective comedy. This one flew under the radar earlier this year, so check it out if you’ve never heard of it.

10. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping – A ridiculous spoof of pop stars in general.

This comedy unfortunately bombed last year, but I thought it was the funniest movie of the year. It should have been called “The Lonely Island Movie.” That’s pretty much what it is. If you don’t know The Lonely Island already, you might find the film stupid. But if you’re a fan like me, you’ll love it.

9. Hunt for the Wilderpeople – A foster kid goes on the run with his unwilling foster parent in the New Zealand bush.

I did not expect to love this movie so much, but writer-director Taika Watiti (What We Do in the Shadows) injected it with so much heart, comedy, and New Zealand-ness, it became one of my favorites of the year. This is definitely a lesser known film (it’s kind of a theme for most of this list), so check it out for a funny, surprisingly emotional surprise. Also, Sam Neill is great in it, as is star Julian Dennison.

8. Hacksaw Ridge – The true story of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), a conscientious objector who saved many lives in WWII without carrying a weapon.

This movie it being touted as Mel Gibson’s comeback (he directed), and I’m okay with that. But I loved it because it was such a classically effective war film. The story itself is effective, but Gibson’s decision to present it plainly is refreshing in this age of morally complex heroes. Some take issue with a movie about a proponent of non-violence being so violent, but that’s the world. We can be as non-violent as we want, but that doesn’t mean the world will be. This film’s violence was not gratuitous, it showcased how strong Doss’s conviction was in the face of such awful carnage.

7. Silence – Two Portuguese missionaries travel to 17th century Japan to search for their mentor, who is rumored to have renounced Catholicism.

Just look at that description. Sounds pretty boring, right? But in the hands of Martin Scorsese, it is one of the most thought-provoking films concerning religion ever made. It’s not an easy watch, but it is rewarding, not to mention beautiful. It’s a shame the film was so ignored upon release. If you’re like me, you’ll watch anything Scorsese makes, and you won’t be disappointed. Sure, I prefer his more mainstream efforts, but films like Silence show what a truly diverse artist he is.

6. Deadpool – A mercenary with superpowers tries to save his girlfriend, all while making R-rated jokes and violence.

There’s usually one comic book movie that makes my list this year; how could it not be Deadpool? I’m going through a bit of Marvel fatigue right now (I know, Deadpool is technically Marvel, but it isn’t part of the thirty movie Marvel Cinematic Universe), so this was a breath of fresh air. It stands on its own, and it’s hilarious. By far, Deadpool is the most enjoyable comic book movie I have seen in years.

5. Swiss Army Man – A man stranded on an island comes across a washed up corpse that comes back to life and befriends him.

This is probably the weirdest film of the year, but it’s so goofy that I loved it. It’s actually known on the internet as the “Daniel Radcliffe farting boner corpse movie.” With a nickname like that, what’s not to love? The movie actually has a lot to say about loneliness, but it says it in such an inventive and funny way. If you can get past the utter insanity of the premise, you’ll find a very enjoyable film.

4. Green Room – A punk band accidentally witnesses a murder in the green room of a neo-Nazi bar and tries to escape with their lives.

The premise for this film comes across as a standard survival film, but in the hands of writer-director Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin), it is one of the most effectively disturbing films in recent memory. This made it so high on my list because I, unfortunately, had to watch it on a tablet, and it still bothered me. It’s hard to describe how Saulnier accomplishes this. He creates such a realistic quality in his films that violence that has become commonplace in cinema is returned to its original horrific status. Perhaps that’s what is special about Saulnier: he presents violence in such a way that it affects you, rather than desensitizing you. Is this making sense? No? Go watch the movie. It’s available on Amazon Prime right now.

3. Rogue One – The untold story of how the Rebellion retrieved the plans for the Death Star.

This is one of the few movies I wrote a full review for last year. I felt compelled to write about it because I like it more than The Force Awakens. Plus, I’m a Star Wars fan. So this film hit on all cylinders for me. No need to recommend this one. I’m pretty sure you’ve heard of it.

2. Arrival – Aliens arrive on Earth, and a linguist (Amy Adams) must find a way to communicate with them.

Director Denis Villeneuve (Sicario, Prisoners, Enemy) has quickly become one of my favorite working directors. The sci-fi story was already appealing to me, but Villeneuve elevates it though his masterful use of tone. But it’s every aspect of the film coming together that makes it one of my favorites. The script is sci-fi with heart, which is always difficult; it’s also surprising, which is an increasingly rare feat. The acting all around is great, anchored by Amy Adams, who should have won Best Actress this year. If you skipped out on this movie because of the science fiction element, do yourself a favor and check it out.

1. The Lobster – In an unspecified future/alternate reality, relationships are required; anyone not in a relationship is turned into an animal of their choosing.

Nearly every year, there’s a weird movie I love that I don’t recommend. This year, it’s “The Lobster,” and it’s also my favorite of the year. Writer-director Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth) has a hilarious, deadpan black comedy voice that I find hilarious. Others might find it simply strange. There is plenty of social commentary about the importance we place on relationships, but it’s not preachy. It’s more about pointing out the absurdity of certain aspects of relationships (having things in common, having children to fix struggling relationships, etc.). It could come across as bitter and condescending, but it ends up being equally hilarious and disturbing. What put it over the top for me was Colin Farrell’s perfectly sad performance. Since flaming out in the early 2000s, he’s been giving increasingly impressive performances, and The Lobster is his best yet. This film is not for everyone, but if it’s for you, you’ll love it as much as I did.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017



Paul Verhoeven has had quite an interesting late career. After making (what I consider) classics like Robocop, Total Recall, and Starship Troopers, Verhoeven slowed down and re-emerged with Black Book (a surprisingly impressive WWII film about a female spy). He followed that up with Tricked, a short film (under one hour) that I didn't see. Now he's back with another interesting female-driven film: Elle.

Elle starts off mid-rape. That should be enough to let you know if you're going to stick with it or bail out. Many will probably bail out. It's understandable. Rape is not a simple issue, and this film's treatment of it can be seen as offensive. It's understandable if people come away offended, but this is a truly interesting film about modern women that should not be defined by rape.

Elle is a complex character piece about the titular woman played by Isabelle Huppert. Huppert, by the way, gives one of the most nuanced, amusing performances of the year. The film starts out with her being raped, and it seems like it's going to be a thriller about her finding out who did it, but it's so much more than that. Who raped her is not really that important. Her reaction to the rape is more interesting that who did it. She reacts as if it were a common everyday occurrence, finally telling her ex-husband and a couple friends at dinner a few days after it happens. 

To explain much further would be pointless. There are so many sub-plots that it would disservice the film to list them because it would make it seem melodramatic, which it is not. Elle is endlessly fascinating, and, more importantly, darkly comic. You can't help but laugh during certain moments. 

This is why the rape issue should not be the be-all end-all. People get hung up on that word and can't deal with the film beyond it. But this film is about a woman who has experienced trauma before and refuses to be defined by it. She takes over the trauma, rather than letting it define her. Maybe that makes it offensive, but it's really more empowering than your standard rape/revenge film. Just giving a woman a knife and letting her get revenge does not make her powerful; it makes her the same as her attacker. Having a woman experience rape, among many other things, and then moving on in her own way is much more powerful. 

That said, this isn't some feminist film about the power of women. Verhoeven delights in our expected reactions. Who else would start a film that is nearly a comedy with a rape? He's playing with our perception, which is what makes his latest work among his most interesting. Don't get me wrong, I would love to see a resurgence of his gory, action heyday, but this type of film is equally satisfying. It is easily the most thought-provoking work of Verhoeven's career.

"Arsenal" - You Can Just Save Time and Watch the Youtube Clips of Cage*


*Actually, all you'll find are small clips and trailers. He is the best part of this movie, but his scenes don't come close to the insanity of Deadfall.

I don't actually own Arsenal, thankfully, but when I was able to get a screener link to this odd film that features Nicolas Cage reprising a dead character from Deadfall, I had to check it out. Unfortunately, Cage's character is the only similarity to Deadfall. To be fair, Deadfall is terrible, but Cage makes it worth watching with his unhinged "my brother told to do whatever I want" performance. It appears that he was not given as much freedom for Arsenal.

Arsenal stars Adrian Grenier as an owner of a construction business who will do whatever it takes to help out his troubled brother (Johnathon Schaech). When his brother ends up kidnapped by the wannabe gangster (Cage) he used to work for, Grenier goes on a mission to save him. It's not a terrible plot, but it is pretty bland. It's the kind of plot that could be saved by an eccentric performance or a unique style. As far as style goes, the film is very basic aside from oddly gruesome slow motion violence here and there. No one is watching this for action, though; we want that eccentric Cage performance.

Cage does get to go a bit crazy here, mainly in two violent scenes. You need to have seen Deadfall to appreciate the performance, however. Honestly, fans of Deadfall are probably the only people who will get even a small bit of enjoyment out of this film. I consider myself a fan of Deadfall, but I came away disappointed. (Warning: SPOILERS for Arsenal and Deadfall from here on out.)

When I found out Cage was reprising his role of Eddie from Deadfall, I had high hopes. In Deadfall, he is pushed face first into a deep fryer, and his body is disposed of. I hoped Arsenal would posit that he was actually still alive and was now hiding out in a small town. That's not the case. He's simply the same character. That's it. Deadfall didn't happen. 

This makes very little sense because the film goes out of its way to remind you of Eddie in Deadfall: he speaks straight up gibberish early on; when he kills his brother it's with a slow motion punch that really looks like a karate chop ("Hi-fucking-yah!") until the last second; he mumbles most of his dialogue; he uses eyedrops randomly in what's supposed to be an important scene. Why recreate all of that only to have him play second fiddle in this weak story about brotherhood? This film could have been so funny and unique if they had made it a quasi-sequel to Deadfall

Then there's the oddest Deadfall connection: the writer-director of that film, Christopher Coppola, plays Eddie's brother (Coppola is Cage's real life brother, too). Eddie kills his brother early on in a fit of rage. This leads me to my only theory for the Deadfall connection. Cage agreed to do this film, but would only do it if he could reprise his role as Eddie and kill his brother onscreen. This is his onscreen payback for his brother's crappy film. I don't think Cage is actually ashamed of Deadfall, but he is aware of his insane performances (he claims The Wicker Man was intentionally funny). He and his brother probably thought it would be a funny in-joke to have Eddie kill Coppola. That's probably not the case, but thinking of why Eddie is in this film brought me my only enjoyment from watching it. 

Oh, and John Cusack is in this film. I have no idea why.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

"Deadfall" - You Can Just Save Time and Watch the Youtube Clips of Cage


Originally, I was going to write about National Treasure for this post, but something better came up. I was sent a screener link to Nicolas Cage's newest film, Arsenal. At first, it didn't seem to be worth my time, and I figured I'd wait until Netflix to check it out. But then I came across some astounding information: Nicolas Cage was reprising his crazed character from Deadfall for the film. This led to two things. One: I had to buy Deadfall, re-watch it, and write about it. Two: I had to watch Arsenal and post a review when the embargo is lifted in a few days. So right off the bat, I own this Cage "classic" just so I could write about it.

This isn't the first Cage film I bought just for his insane performance. I bought The Wicker Man years ago, and I proudly own Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, among others. Nicolas Cage is one of my favorite actors, especially when a director lets him do whatever he wants. Deadfall is written and directed by Cage's brother, Christopher Coppola, so you know he gave Cage complete freedom. 

Aside from Cage's hilarious performance (which is the only reason to watch this insipid wannabe noir con movie, Deadfall stands out for being a movie completely made by doing favors for the Coppola family. The cast includes James Coburn, Talia Shire, Charlie Sheen, and Peter Fonda. There is simply no reason why these actors would take part in this film aside from helping out a family member and/or friend. It's probable that the star, Michael Biehn, took the job sincerely, but his performance reeks of someone going through the motions along with the others...except for Cage. 

This is why Cage is such a fun actor to watch. Most people would come to this nepotism project with the least possible effort, but Cage truly turned up for his brother. He's not one to sit back and coast through a film when he's given the chance to do something unique, and my God, is he unique in this film. 

Cage is such a standout because the story is so boring. I'm not a fan of good con movies, much less crap like this, so Deadfall's plot, about a young con man (Biehn) looking for answers from his con man uncle (Coburn) after accidentally killing his con man father (also Coburn), is extremely difficult to stay interested in. It doesn't help that Biehn is challenging Harrison Ford (from the theatrical cut of Blade Runner) for most disinterested narration of all time. 

So the first few minutes of Deadfall are quite a slog. But then, Cage appears. His wardrobe makes little sense throughout (my favorite is the tuxedo, cummerbund and all). He wears sunglasses to hide his hilariously bloodshot eyes (I couldn't help but be reminded of Slurms McKenzie from Futurama when Cage slowly takes of the shades). His wig is bad, even by Cage standards (but in a great twist, it's shown to be a wig in the film). And his line delivery ranges from stoned mumble to outright nonsensical jabbering. In other words, perfect Cage. 

Had Cage's character, named Eddie, by the way, been the main character, Deadfall would be one of the funniest, craziest bad movies of all time. Unfortunately, and inexplicably, his character (SPOILERS) is killed off little more than halfway through. The Cage-less portion is hard to watch, even with a strange cameo from Charlie Sheen, and the appearance of Angus Scrimm, who is playing what appears to be a crappy James Bond villain (his name is Dr. Lyme and, for reasons never explained, he has a pneumatic lobster claw for a right arm). 

This is why Arsenal interests me. Someone is attempting to fix the mistake of this film, and bring Eddie back from the dead. I can't wait for the explanation for his character still being alive in this new film (and I kind of hope there isn't one). My main hope is that Eddie hasn't calmed down in his old age.

Which version of Cage would you rather watch? Also, the Cage
in the first cover does not appear in the film.
Of course, I plan on keeping this crazy, weird film. I'll even keep the stupid cardboard cover the studio added to make the movie look more normal. Why would you want to play down the craziness of Cage in this film? It's the only part worth watching. Here's hoping Arsenal is even crazier.