Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Worst Movies I Saw in 2014

 So the year is very nearly over (which year? check the title, I guess...), and as with every Year End Recap, I like to start at the bottom and work my way up. The Cap'n tried very hard to avoid movies that looked like they'd be a waste of time this year, but that doesn't mean I missed all of the rotten apples. I just didn't feel like talking about all of them, and only one had the dubious distinction of being a "So You Won't Have To". That said, unless I somehow muster up the interest to finish watching Tusk before the 31st (outcome: very unlikely), it's safe to say I've watched the worst of 2014 that I'm going to see.

 One thing you'll notice is the lack of obvious punching bags around the internet: as a general rule, if I'm not at least a little bit interested, I'm not going to see it. So that means no Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, no Transformers 4, no Adam Sandler or Seth McFarlane movie. I didn't even watch Jingle All the Way 2, although I did trick people into thinking they'd be seeing it*. That said, anything that makes this list is something I truly loathe, or felt like time was wasted watching. Or, maybe in the case of one movie, one that made me feel stupider, kind of like Lockout did. But we'll get to that one. Aside from the very worst movie of 2014 - which closes out this recap - there's no particular order to this, just a general cathartic primal scream of "Bad Movie! No Doughnut!"

 Shall we begin? (SPOILER: yes)

 V/H/S Viral - Remember how V/H/S was too long and only had a few good segments, but the frame story was fairly interesting even though why would you tape a Skype conversation and put it on a tape? And then V/H/S 2 was a marked improvement in every way, because it was shorter and the vignettes were more concise and creepier, even if the frame story was kind of a mess? I guess when the time came to make V/H/S Viral - which might as well be "3" based on the end of the movie - everyone involved from the producers to the writers and directors forgot that.

 The wrap around story makes almost no sense until the very end, and aside from an amusing cookout gone wrong, there's nothing but gore for gore's sake until the mysterious van that causes people go turn violent is shoehorned into the V/H/S mythos (such as it is). If clips from the first two films weren't crammed in as cutaways, you wouldn't even know it was supposed to be part of the same series. The "tapes" are abandoned completely, leaving us with a combination documentary / found footage story of a magician whose cape gives him real powers, a trip into another dimension that, initially, looks like ours but really, REALLY isn't, and twenty minutes with the most obnoxious skaters you're likely to meet, who are eventually killed by zombies or eaten by a demon the zombies are summoning.

 Of the segments, the second one - "Parallel Monsters" - by Nacho Vigalondo (Timecrimes) is the only one worth watching. That said, it's so over the top that you're liable to start laughing at the "reveal" of how the alternate universe is structured. The Day of the Dead / Skater video only gets remotely interesting near the end, when it's clear they can't kill the cult members in Tijuana. Everything else is an absolute waste of time, and I worry that trying to turn the series from a Videodrome-like vibe to a "viral video" ending (think The Signal or Pontypool, but much worse) isn't going to serve V/H/S well.

 Left Behind - Look, I know that the only reason anyone reading this was even considering watching the 2014 remake of Left Behind is for ironic purposes. You heard that Nicolas Cage was in it and then saw the awful trailer and thought "see you later, Sharknado 2!" Well, I have some bad news for you - this is every bit as boring and sanctimonious as the Kirk Cameron Left Behind, and Cage doesn't go anywhere close to MEGA until and hour into the movie. Even then, it's not for very long, because he's just trying to avoid hitting another plane. The worst sin Left Behind commits - worse even than oxymoron-ic internal logic, wafer thin characters, and groan-worthy dialogue - is being boring. Like, really, "geez this thing is still on?," boring. I can't prevent you from watching it ironically with your hipster friends, or convincing yourselves that you enjoyed it somehow, but I'll never watch it again, nor will I subject an audience to it during Bad Movie Night.

 And I made them watch Things.

 Horrible Bosses 2 - Cranpire and I disagree on this, but I found this to be a perfect example of a lazy sequel coasting on the goodwill engendered by fans of Horrible Bosses. The jokes are lazy, the shock value is lazy, most of the three times I laughed came from surprised outbursts of profanity, and even Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis, and Charlie Day seem to be phoning it in halfway through. They dutifully go through the motions, but it's abundantly clear that the new titular characters (a father / son duo played by Christoph Waltz and Chris Pine) are ahead of them every step of the way, and neither Waltz (barely in the movie) or Pine (in way too much of it) can muster the same sense of pure evil that Kevin Spacey does, literally phoning it in from behind a plexiglass wall in prison. You've seen every good joke in the trailer, and when Jamie Foxx's Motherfucker Jones only made me laugh once - it involves driving through a chain link fence - you know you're in trouble.

 What If - I do not understand this movie. Like, do not get it. Who is What If for? Because it feels to me like this is a movie that would appeal to Men's Rights assholes, who believe that "friend zone" is a real thing they are being subjected to. The moral seems to be that if they persevere, she totally wants you and it will work out, but it's cool to have unrealistic expectations and lash out at each other for interpreting deliberately mixed signals. I genuinely am confused about this film, because it makes a concerted effort to be a romantic comedy that portrays both sides (Zoe Kazan and Daniel Radcliffe) trying to "just be friends," but feel ambivalent about it, make overtures to be more than friends (on purpose, because there are scenes set before and after that reinforce we did not see one of them misinterpreting the other) and then get angry at the other one. Rinse, repeat.

 What is the purpose of this film? I'm being serious, because I've seen some outlandish concepts for romantic comedies, but What If goes out of it's way to represent the concept of "friend zone" as just another obstacle to true love. It would be one thing if it was just Radcliffe's Wallace being a creep, or Kazan's Chantry being totally misunderstood, but the narrative makes a concerted effort to show both of them acting behind the scenes in a way that you know they'll end up together (she refuses to introduce him to her friends, he tries to sabotage her engagement) and then spending lots of time with them not speaking to each other for doing just that! It has all the elements of a romantic comedy: the meet-cute, the dramatic plane flight to profess your feelings, the friends who set them up in secret (in this case, Wallace's roommate and Chantry's cousin, Allan, played by Adam Driver who playing Adam Driver's character from Girls). There's even the whimsical indie rock soundtrack, and because Chantry works for an animation company, her drawings come to life and float around to convey her feelings. But it all feels so unseemly because the message is that you should not respect another person's feelings about your friendship because they are into you and you just have to wear them down. I guess as long as you're Daniel Radcliffe and she's Zoe Kazan, the Men's Rights assholes are correct: just ignore the "friend zone" and keep pushing, because she'll totally realize what a great guy you are.

 In all honestly, I'd love to hear the female perspective on this movie. It feels like a movie made by guys to reinforce a particularly deplorable view of relationships that turns out exactly the day it never would. It's the meanest romantic comedy I've seen in a while, and no amount of saccharine at the end can take away the bitter aftertaste.

 The Expendables 3 - Take everything I said in my original review, and then compound it. This movie does not get better with repeated viewings. In fact, I'm kinda on the Conrad Stonebanks side of things now, because Barney Ross was a chump in the movie.

 Life After Beth - I've seen this in nearly every review of Life After Beth, but sometimes the oft repeated phrase is true: this would have been a pretty clever short film. I could see it playing at festivals, maybe winning some awards, and you'd have the added bonus of keeping the cast in place. But as a ninety minute feature? No, Life After Beth stops being funny a long time before the titular character-turned-zombie (Aubrey Plaza) goes full on undead. The premise is fun, and Dane Dehaan does an admirable job playing the straight man in what I think is the first time he isn't playing a totally sullen jerk (depending on how you feel about him in The Place Beyond the Pines).

 Most of the rest of the cast are there to play one-joke roles, like John C. Reilly and Molly Shannon as Beth's parents. It's not clear why Paul Reiser and Cheryl Hines are in the film at all until their dead parents show up (it's not just Beth who comes back, although the movie takes a while to get to that). While it's always nice to see Anna Kendrick, her part is so insignificant and underdeveloped that you wonder if the film even needed a love triangle. Plaza seems to be having fun as the increasingly unhinged Beth, who doesn't know she's dead and can only be calmed with smooth jazz, but largely speaking, Life After Beth has a lot of good small ideas that do not sustain its running time.

 The Sacrament - It's maybe not fair to put this in a "worst of" list, but I don't feel like Ti West's retelling of the Jonestown Massacre holds up under its own "found footage" gimmick. If you can't sustain your own internal logic, I don't care how interesting the cast can be or what suspense you manage to generate.

 They Came Together - For the first time that I can remember, I found myself thinking (and eventually saying out loud) "I think I hate this David Wain movie." Say what you will about how over-exaggerated parts of Wet Hot American Summer or The Ten are, at least there's some bite to the way they approach their subject matter. Wain, who co-wrote They Came Together with Michael Showalter, brings a sledgehammer to romantic comedies, and approaches the tropes with all the subtlety that Gallagher brings to a watermelon. It could be funny, like Wet Hot American Summer, except there's a lingering sense of "see how funny we are to skewer these movies?" And by that, I mean literally, the characters look at the camera after saying something stupid or cliché to undermine the entire façade.

 It reminds me of how a friend described the difference between Joel and Mike on Mystery Science Theater 3000: Joel was a guy who made the best out of a bad situation by poking fun at movies, but you got the sense that Mike really wanted to stick it to these turkeys. That's They Came Together in a nutshell: a movie that aggressively tears apart every overused rom-com gimmick and then stands there and says "look at what I did; I really gave them what for, am I right you guys?" What's weird is that Showalter already did this in the much better The Baxter, a movie about the guy who the girl always leaves for the lead character. It's a smarter movie, the jokes are better developed, and the execution isn't as grating or obvious, which makes They Came Together all the more baffling. The film even lacks most of Wain's signature non-sequitur moments, the ones that really make movies like Wet Hot American Summer memorable. Instead of "I'm going to fondle my sweaters," Christopher Meloni's character shits himself at a costume party and tries to pretend he came dressed in a robe. That's the joke. I guess the fact that her parents are white supremacists or that his grandmother wants to have sex with him are supposed to be funny in a shocking way, but Wain is far to invested in sticking it to romantic comedies to go anywhere with either setup.

 Were it not for Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler trying really, really hard to keep me invested, I think I might have turned They Came Together off after twenty minutes. The rest of the cast, who includes Bill Hader, Ellie Kemper, Michael Ian Black, Cobie Smulders, Ed Helms, Melanie Lynskey, Jack McBrayer, Kenan Thompson, Ken Marino, Adam Scott, Michael Shannon, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Randall Park, John Stamos, and Michael Murphy, land mostly on the side of "annoying," showing up for a scene or two to mug shamelessly and then exit the film. If you had told me this was the Farrelly brothers follow-up to Movie 43, I'm not sure I would have doubted you, but it shocks me that I hated a David Wain movie this much.

 See No Evil 2 - I'm not going to waste much time talking about this movie. I guess that maybe I thought going from a porn director in See No Evil to Jen and Sylvia Soska (American Mary) could have only have been an improvement, but apparently the only memo they got was "use fluorescent lighting in a hospital and make every hallway look the same." I thought the first movie was underdeveloped on every level, but at least it was grimy. This one is sterile, dull, and the gore is perfunctory. Maybe you could say that it's cool to see Katharine Isabelle (Ginger Snaps) and Danielle Harris (Rob Zombie's Halloween 2) in the same movie, but SPOILER they both die. In fact, forget it, SPOILER everybody dies except Jacob Goodnight (Glen "Kane" Jacobs), who the Soska's can't find anything to do with other than kind of give him a "monster" costume, consisting of a mortician's apron and one of those masks NBA players wear when they break their nose. Forgive me if I sit out the inevitable See No Evil 3, because WWE Films loves to make franchises out of movies that don't need them (*coughTheMarinecough12Roundscough*)

 Lucy - If you hadn't guessed, Lucy is this year's Lockout. It may be the stupidest "high concept" sci-fi / action movie I've seen since, well, Lockout. I guess Luc Besson genuinely didn't understand the "10% of our brains" metaphor, because he literally uses brain percentage as the hook for how Scarlett Johannson goes from normal party girl to transcendent god-like being in ninety minutes. It's a mind-bogglingly stupid movie, in just about every way it can be, and in good conscience I couldn't put it anywhere other than on this list.

 That said, if you have some friends coming over with a case of beer, Lucy is a rollicking good time as bad movies go. Make no mistake, you're going to feel less intelligent by the time it's over, and if you happen to know a scientist (in any field, but I suppose a neuroscientist would be the best), there will be a lot of "wait... no, that can't happen" said aloud. In fact, I can almost guarantee you this will be playing at Bad Movie Night in a few months, possibly with Lockout. I'll see if I can't lower the IQ of the room by a few points. Besson goes all in with audacious stupidity with Lucy, and if you can put aside the improbability of, well, everything, it's a breezy ride of dumb fun. Just don't pretend it's anything else.

 Sin City: A Dame to Kill For - I was just going to link this to my "So You Won't Have To" review from earlier this fall and be done with this terrible movie, but when it came out on Blu-Ray, I read a couple of write-ups from reviewers I normally respect giving Robert Rodriguez a pass for this piece of shit. That I cannot abide. Being forgiving of Sin City: A Dame to Kill for because it has more of a narrative through line than Machete Kills is, to me, unacceptable. It's like saying that Resident Evil 5 is okay because it's not as terrible as Resident Evil 4. No, it's not okay - at the end of either one you feel cheated and that you wasted time that could have been put to better use. Interesting tidbit about Resident Evil 5 and Machete Kills: both are glorified trailers for as-yet-unreleased sequels disguised as a feature film.

 Is it true that Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is better than Machete Kills? Eh, maybe. Does it matter? Nope. Unless you're some kind of die hard Sin City fan that can also somehow divorce yourself from how much cheaper, poorly thought out, and lazily constructed the second film is from the first (let alone the ways it mangles the source material despite that fact that the creator co-directed the adaptation), there's nothing worth watching this for. Nothing. If you really need to see Eva Green naked and don't have the internet, pick almost any other film she's been in. Hell, watch the Frank Miller-based 300: Rise of An Empire, which while also not great, is better than A Dame to Kill For in nearly every aspect. Want to see Joseph Gordon Levitt in a crime movie in over his head? Watch Looper or The Lookout. If you watch Looper you'll even see Bruce Willis giving a shit about his role. For everything else, just watch Sin City. As many problems as I have with the first movie, it still does everything better than A Dame to Kill For.

 I'm genuinely convinced that Robert Rodriguez forgot how to make movies, or maybe just does not care anymore. Maybe he was too interested turning From Dusk Till Dawn into a ten hour miniseries I couldn't finish. The only directorial flourishes in A Dame to Kill For are ones that echo the worst parts of his digital era to the present. This is easily the worst movie I saw this year, and I watched Things twice. This year! At least Things rewards you with this at the end of the movie:

 A Dame to Kill For is one of my favorite Sin City stories, which makes it all the more egregious that Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller butchered it so badly. There's nothing to give this movie a pass for, and I totally feel like it deserves the rotten reputation it has. I don't think critics were overly harsh panning this crap - the negativity is right on the money. Avoid it at all costs, and just read A Dame to Kill For again.


 Next time we'll go up the ladder a bit, discussing some movie the Cap'n liked, or kind of liked. I might save the movies I had high hopes about for its own column, since it'll cover many of the major releases that didn't get coverage at the Blogorium this year. Stay tuned: the top of the list is a random assemblage this year...

 * Instead, we watched Grumpy Cat's Worst Christmas Ever, which has the distinction of being either the second best or second worst "talking cat" movie I saw this year, depending on how you feel about A Talking Cat?!?!?

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Blogorium Review: Nightcrawler

 Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is not a human being. He looks like one, or an approximation of one, anyway, but he isn't. The term "sociopath" doesn't do someone like Louis Bloom justice; not only does he not care about anyone or anything not directly connected to his agenda, they barely register as human beings at all to him. At best, they're objects he can manipulate, blackmail, or (in some instances), literally drag around to serve his purposes. We meet Louis Bloom as he assaults (possibly kills) someone who may or may not be a police officer / security guard and steals his watch - a visual metaphor that pops up periodically throughout Nightcrawler, as a reminder of sorts. Louis steals some construction equipment and some raw materials, and sells it to a scrapyard owner (Marco Rodriguez). While he's there, Louis makes his case that he should also be given a job, and doesn't quite register that the owner looks upon him with disdain. Only when he's told "I don't hire thieves," does Louis get the message and leaves.

 This is the protagonist of Dan Gilroy's Nightcrawler, the sort of film that makes one long for the days of decent antiheroes like Travis Bickle. It's certainly an interesting film, one that has a few rookie mistakes and a score that nearly cripples the film, but on the whole there's more to recommend than not. That is, as long as you don't mind spending two hours watching a "rags to riches" story where the scrappy young hero is replaced with a total psycho. It's a riveting performance from Gyllenhaal, and the rest of the cast is quite good as well, but I can't honestly say that I'm in any hurry to watch Nightcrawler again. There's a level of cynicism about humanity in Nightcrawler that makes the end of David Fincher's Gone Girl look like Pollyanna by comparison. And how Gilroy gets Louis from a low level scumbag to a truly frightening success story is by no means pleasant.

 By chance, Louis comes across an accident on the highway, and is subsequently introduced to the world of "nightcrawlers": independent videographers who shoot footage of crime scenes, accidents, or likewise grisly occurrences, and sell them to the highest bidder. Right after Louis pulls over, the van for Mayhem Productions pulls up, and the ever inquisitive Bloom grills Joe Loder (Bill Paxton) about what he does. An entrepreneur without a direction, Louis decides he has an objective, and will stop at nothing to be like Loder. Better than Loder. His people skills aren't great: Louis doesn't so much speak to people as he regurgitates business seminar talking points, applying them to himself as necessary. We don't know much about his life: he has an apartment with a TV and a plant, and beyond that, he's a cipher. It's not who Louis is, but what he's capable of doing that Gilroy is interested in showing us.

 In many ways, Nightcrawler follows the narrative structure of a "rags to riches" story almost exactly, only to horrifying ends. Louis buys a camera and a police scanner, makes mistakes, but eventually finds some usable footage and sells it to the lowest rated news channel in Los Angeles. He initiative impresses the news producer, Nina Romina (Renee Russo), although she has no idea what his real agenda is. He hires an intern, Rick (Riz Ahmed), a mostly homeless kid in desperate need of work, and relentlessly insults his inability to do exactly what Louis wants when he wants it. But they make it work: accident after accident, crime scene after crime scene, Louis builds his reputation. He's not above sneaking into somebody's house or moving evidence around for better shot composition. When he arrives at an accident before the police get there, Louis even moves a body in order to get more compelling footage. Ethics don't even factor into Bloom's world, much to the chagrin of KWLA's Frank Kruse (Kevin Rahm), the station director.

 At this point, we should probably be a little worried about where Nightcrawler is headed, although I will admit that I wasn't sure just how far down the rabbit hole we would be following Louis. He refuses an offer to join Mayhem Video and then goes one step further to insure his competition won't be around much longer. He arrives at a triple homicide before the killers have even left, and then spends time wandering around the house filming the bloody aftermath, and then withholds crucial evidence when detectives Frontieri (Michael Hyatt) and Liberman (Price Carson) track the news report to its source - Bloom's newly coined "Video Production Services," a "legitimate news source" as he demands Nina describe it to her anchors. His manipulation of Nina is arguably even worse, as he both emotionally and professionally blackmails her (the former off-camera but the latter very much in evidence onscreen). He takes umbrage to Rick negotiating a salary before a tense high speed chase, which leads us to the ultimate revelation of just how far Louis is willing to go to be the best nightcrawler in Los Angeles.

Gilroy (The Bourne Legacy, The Fall), who wrote and makes his directorial debut with Nightcrawler, does a fine job of showcasing the actors in this seedy, underexplored portrait of LA. It's largely Gyllenhaal's show, but Russo and Ahmed in particular are very good as the dual sides to how an actual human being would react to someone like Louis Bloom. Other characters come and go without much impact - even Bill Paxton barely registers as "the competition," and while the film is technically sound, it often feels inert. Gilroy seems to come to life during the high speed chase towards the end of the film, but Nightcrawler is often too low key, relying on Gyllenhaal to carry the narrative forward, by hook or by crook. The level of cynicism on display calls for something perhaps a little showier, if I'm being honest. Not too much, but there are portions of the middle that drag and lack momentum. I wouldn't consider it unfair to compare Nightcrawler to another writer-turned-director debut, Robert D. Siegel (The Wrestler)'s Big Fan, which covers a similarly troubled protagonist, and is likewise an interesting watch but not a film I'd hurry to revisit.

 More problematic is the score by James Newton Howard (The Happening), which is often jarringly inappropriate. If the direction is low key to a fault, the score is too traditional: there's often no subtlety to the music, to the point I found it distracting at critical parts of the film. If it was meant to be a deliberate juxtaposition between the character beats and the traditional story structure, it doesn't succeed at all. And, barring that, if this is simply what Howard thought fit best with the footage in front of him, he failed completely. If ever a film called for minimalist scoring, it would be Nightcrawler (I have seen reviews that suggested something closer to Cliff Martinez's score to Drive would be more appropriate, and it's a fair point). If anything, the music hurts the film more than Gilroy stretching his wings as a director.

 And yet, I would recommend Nightcrawler on the strength of its performances, provided you don't mind seeing a movie where the evil are rewarded and the good mostly punished, or otherwise relegated to obscurity. The point of view in the film is strictly from Bloom's perspective, so don't be surprised if your impressions of him match the befuddled reactions during points when he does encounter a genuine human being. Louis isn't one, and he's perhaps the least likable antihero in a long line of them, but if you don't mind taking a ride into the depths of darkness, Nightcrawler is a compelling trip downward. Just make sure you have something light to follow it with after you're done. Maybe a Lars Von Trier / Michael Haneke double feature...

Friday, November 14, 2014

Blogorium Review: John Wick

 I'm well aware that nobody is going to believe me that the Cap'n willingly sat down to watch a new Keanu Reeves joint. After all, I'm one of those Day One Matrix deniers who still doesn't get why everybody is so gaga about the first movie. Technically proficient, fun to watch action movie with pretensions of being high-minded science fiction? Sure, and most certainly to the second part, because if you name-drop Baudrillard in your movie and then he says you missed the point of Simulacra and Simulation... yeah. You know kung-fu. I still laugh when I think about that. Also, it's Dark City a year after Dark City came out. But I'm not here to re-litigate arguments from fifteen years ago. The point is that while I've seen many Keanu Reeves movies (including The Replacements), it's always with a groan or rolled eyes. The Cap'n has always been kind of a jerk when it came to Ted Theodore Logan, especially in his "action" phase.

 But yeah, John Wick. The trailer looked great, and I already enjoyed Man of Tai Chi (directed by and starring Reeves as the bad guy), so what the hell? A good, straight ahead revenge movie usually scratches my itch, and John Wick had a pretty solid premise: a retired hitman (Reeves) loses his wife, his car, and his dog in the span of a few days. The last two happen in one fell swoop, thanks to some Russian mobster (Michael Nyqvist)'s idiot kid (Alfie Allen), who just decides to break in to Wick's house because he wouldn't sell him his 1970 Mustang. Everybody, including his father, is immediately aware that this was a bad, bad idea, because John Wick is something of a legend among hit men.

 There's a stripped down quality to John Wick, directed by longtime Reeves stunt double Chad Stahelski that's refreshing in a way. I don't need every action movie to reinvent the wheel or throw in some crazy gimmick; as much as I find the Fast and Furious sequels entertaining, the ludicrous need to top themselves is funnier than it is exciting. John Wick reminds me a little bit of Payback in tone, but with more aggressive, brutal fights. Stahelski resists the current urge to edit every fight scene to the point of incomprehensibility, and we, the audience, are rewarded with long takes where Reeves mixes in a combination of kung-fu, gun-fu, with a touch of MMA-based grappling thrown in when he doesn't have an option. John Wick is not a man with whom you should mess, and everybody in the film except for Iosef (Allen) seems to understand that.

 After the idiot steals the car, he takes it to a chop shop and is promptly punched in the face by Aurelio (John Leguizamo) for having the audacity to bring John Wick's car to him. He asks him "do you know whose car this is?" and Iosef looks at him like he's insane. When Viggo (Nyqvist) calls later to ask Aurelio why he struck his son, his response to the explanation is "Oh," and he hangs up. Viggo knows his son is dead meat, and with a sense of resignation, he goes through the motion of trying to protect him: he calls Wick (it doesn't go well), he has his assistant, Avi (Dean Winters) put a contract on Wick's head, and he puts the boy in a safe house. But he knows how this is going to end. He even tries to explain it to his clueless son how dead he is, providing as much exposition about Wick's pre-retirement life as we're going to get juxtaposed with Reeves smashing open the floor. That's where the weapons and gold are - he'll need both to find Iosef, and he will find him.

 From there on out, John Wick the movie is a singular quest for revenge, and to facilitate that Stahleski and screenwriter Derek Kolstad (The Package) give us a glimpse into the underground world of assassins, without ever shifting or muddying the narrative. This gives them the opportunity to include a lot of recognizable actors from actions films (and elsewhere) to have a moment or two to shine in the film. Wick goes to The Continental Hotel, a place where hired killers can stay without fear of being attacked, thanks to house rules. It's run by Winston (Ian McShane, Death Race), who's surprised to see John walk back into his downstairs club. Adrianne Palicki (G.I. Joe: Retaliation) plays Jenkins, who's willing to violate the rules of the Continental in order to double the bounty on Wick's head. 

 Willem Dafoe is Marcus, a mentor of Wick's who may or may not take Viggo up on the bounty. The Wire's John Reddick and Clarke Peters play the concierge at the Continental and Harry, an associate of John's who agrees to watch Jenkins. You might also notice Kevin Nash (The Punisher), Keith Jardine (Gamer), Randal Duk Kim (The Matrix Reloaded), Daniel Bernhardt (Bloodsport 2), and Bridget Moynahan (I, Robot) briefly appearing as his dying wife. My favorite cameo is actually the leader of the cleanup crew that Wick calls, played by David Patrick Kelley (Commando). After a botched hit on his house, Wick calls out for a "reservation for twelve," which brings Charlie (Kelley) and two three burly guys in a "cleaning" van who meticulously clean the place up. It follows a scene where a Jimmy (The Newsroom's Thomas Sadoski), a local cop, responds to noise complaints at the Wick residence and finds John, post-neck snapping. Even Jimmy knows not to ask too much, so he nervously says, "you working again?" and then leaves Wick to his business.

 It's Reeves show, however, and he carries the film with a stoic, reserved performance, punctuated only by outbursts of brutal, focused violence. It's not often when you can make a headshot feel that rough, but Stahleski and Reeves work hard to make every blow register, every shot hurt. And Wick doesn't go unscathed - as good as he is, there's a little ring rust, and small mistakes add up over the course of the film. Of course, that leads to one of the best parts of the final fight between Reeves and Nyqvist, involving a knife, an abdominal wound, and a broken arm.

 There's really not much in Reeves' performance that's reminiscent of the wooden line readings I used to dread, and even when he does open up emotionally, it's with a seething rage that's more menacing than comical. Despite being emotionally devastated not once, but twice, Reeves bottles most of that up and give John Wick a steeled determination. His biggest laugh in the film is actually intended to be a joke, but his deadpan reaction to the joke is arguably funnier (it's in the trailer - the laundry scene), but it's supposed to be.

 Nyqvist and Allen are both good, the former more so than the latter, but mostly because Iosef is such a one note character. Despite having to be a Russian for no apparent reason (they're good villains, I guess) the Swedish Nyqvist brings a lot of nuance to a character that could have easily ended up like Rade Serbedzija's in Taken 2. He knows he can't be John Wick, and even in his small moments of hubris, where Viggo thinks he has an edge, there's a lingering doubt. Wick helped build his criminal empire, by doing the "impossible" hit, and he's not a man to try and stop. They have the mandatory final fight - hand to hand, in the rain - but it doesn't feel perfunctory. It's just the only way this can end.

 For me, John Wick feels like the culmination of a new era for Keanu Reeves, one where he's stepped back from doing big, blockbuster Hollywood movies in order to focus on projects he's passionate about. I had originally thought he stepped back after the third Matrix movie, but a glance at IMDB reminded me of Constantine and The Day the Earth Stood Still. One of those I liked and one I really didn't. Take a guess. I guess Street Kings would fall under that umbrella, too, but I think of that more as a first step for David Ayer that made it all the way to Fury this year (more on Fury another time).

 What I'd mostly remembered from Reeves was roles in smaller films that I liked a lot more, like Thumbsucker or A Scanner Darkly. That seemed to me more like the guy who took a supporting role in My Own Private Idaho than the star of Speed or Point Break. He narrated and conducted most of the interviews in Side by Side, and then spent a few years trying to make 47 Ronin happen (still haven't seen that one, but didn't hear great things), and the aforementioned Man of Tai Chi, which is less bombastic and more focused on good action choreography. And good action choreography is getting harder to find these days - just watch an Expendables movie if you doubt that. Maybe culmination is the wrong word - it's more like the "coming out" party for a new era of Reeves, the badass action star, not the one we underestimated because of his predilection for air guitar a long time ago (and, maybe, again).

 I don't always expect or even need action movies to be totally innovative or cutting edge. If you can tell a simple story very well, then that's just as welcome - sometimes even more so. John Wick is a very, very good revenge film, one that doesn't try crazy tricks or editing chicanery. If you're looking for a low-frills, quip-free, meat and potatoes action movie, this is right up your alley. In fact, I find it kind of amusing that most of the negative reviews of John Wick (which there aren't a lot of that I saw) use the fact that it's not somehow "groundbreaking" or "game changing" enough as the reason for it not being good. Oh well, if that's the worst you can say, I think John Wick's going to be okay.

  It gives you a glimpse into a world you wouldn't mind revisiting, with characters that would be interesting to see again. Some of them live, some of them don't, but since John Wick is wholly invented, I wouldn't say no to more films that took place before or after this one. Or, if it's a one-off, like Steven Soderbergh's Haywire, so be it. But I wouldn't say no to more movies with Mallory Kane or John Wick. And if you told me ten years ago that I would welcome more action movies from Steven Soderbergh or with Keanu Reeves, I might have called you crazy. Thankfully, the Cap'n is wrong sometimes. So put aside your inner doubts and see John Wick. It's much better than you're giving it credit for, sight unseen.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Blogorium Review: Interstellar

 Christopher Nolan really does seem to be swinging for the fences with Interstellar, a very ambitious science fiction tale of human exploration beyond the reaches of our own galaxy. To push the baseball metaphor a little further, let's imagine that he's stepping to the plate with bases loaded, hoping to hit a grand slam and end the game in dramatic fashion. Instead of knocking it out of the park, Nolan ends up bouncing the ball off of the top row, resulting in a ground rule double. Two runners still score, and overall he's done a good job for everyone involved, but it's not the statement victory everybody was hoping for. Whether that's a bad thing or not is up to what expectations you bring when you sit down to watch Interstellar.

 This is going to be a review with SPOILERS because that can't be helped. Nolan's mostly cryptic trailers tell you very little about what transpires during Interstellar, and while I enjoyed the film overall, two of my biggest problems with the film happen during the third act, and neither of them are addressed at all in the advertising campaign. I would advise you to go in knowing as little as possible, so be aware that past this point I will be discussing Interstellar in its entirety.

 To quickly cover the basics, Interstellar is the story of Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a test pilot who crashed or had some sort of incident at one point that prevented him from being an astronaut. Luckily for the engineer, he also had a farm he could work on, where he lives with his father-in-law Donald (John Lithgow) and two children, Tom (Timothée Chalamet) and Murphy (MacKenzie Foy).

(For the record, Cooper goes by "Coop" and Murphy by "Murph," because I guess monosyllabic names work better in this family).

 Mom's out of the picture because we're in the near future, where dust storms have wiped out all but the most rudimentary technology and almost all plants are dead. Coop's farm is growing corn, one of the last holdouts from the new dustbowl (Okra goes early into the movie, which from where I'm sitting is no big problem). There's not a lot of discussion in the film about how this happens, and Interstellar is strictly middle-America and space, so don't ask about what densely populated cities are doing. Nolan and his brother Jonathan keep the script focused specifically on the Earth being unsustainable, but since we've abandoned wasting money on space exploration, what can we do?

 Nolan does a pretty good job of setting up the world of the future without showing too much: the beginning of the film is presented like a PBS documentary, with lots of "talking head" shots of old timers telling us what it was like when things changed. At least one of them was way more famous than I'd expected to appear at the beginning of the movie, but it turned out she was a sneaky third version of a character we'd be meeting later. They cover all sorts of things you wouldn't think of but would probably be doing if there was an inch of dust over everything all of the time, like put your dishes out on the table upside down (maybe there are no cabinets in the Midwest?). It gets the job done pretty well.

 It's a sparse world that Coop and company live in - other than lots and lots of corn, you don't really see anybody. There are no animals in the film at all, and the town he lives near seems pretty deserted early in the movie. I can't remember seeing any other students at Tom and Murph's school; only the principal and Murph's teacher, who asks Coop to tell her the Moon landing was a hoax (the Room 237'ers win in the future and textbooks are rewritten to talk us out of believing space exploration existed). The only crowd you ever really see is at a baseball game (see what I did there? hint: first paragraph), where John Lithgow complains that popcorn isn't something you should have at a baseball game. He wants hot dogs. Well guess what, corn farmer, you should be grateful people are buying your product - you know, the only available one. The players are wearing Yankees hats, but I don't know if they're supposed to be that Yankees or just some local guys. It doesn't matter, because the game is interrupted by a huge dust storm. There's not crying in baseball, and also no finishing the game because of dust delays.

 Coop brings down a drone because he's a mischievous sort, but a strange magnetic incident in the house (Murph calls it her "ghost") leads them to a secret NASA facility where his old mentor, Professor Brand (Michael Caine) is working on humanity's last chance: a ship capable of travelling through a wormhole near Saturn. How or why the wormhole got there is mentioned, but not speculated on, but NASA sent twelve astronauts into another galaxy in the hopes of finding a new home for humans. Three signals (Dr.'s Mann, Edmonds, and Miller) have come back indicating likely candidates, so Brand wants Coop to fly the ship into the wormhole and investigate. The crew of the Endurance also includes Romilly (David Gyasi), Doyle (Wes Bentley), Brand's daughter (Anne Hathaway), and TARS (Bill Irwin), a robot on loan from what's left of the military. One of the first things TARS does during takeoff it to make a joke about shooting Coop out of the airlock, just in case you didn't think Nolan was aware that Interstellar is often reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.

 That, it turns out, is not a bad thing, at least for the first half of Interstellar. Once we get into space, Nolan stretches out a little bit for some big time spectacle filmmaking, and if you thought you needed to see Gravity on a big screen, Interstellar demands the largest one you can find. Also, one with comfortable chairs, because with the trailers and ads and everything else, you're looking at a three hour minimum investment. But for a lot of the movie, it's worth it. We've seen the vastness of space before, but Nolan's choice to keep the camera attached to the ship most of the time (like we see it in actual NASA footage*) adds a verisimilitude to the proceedings that helps sell the science fiction elements. McConaughey's folksy twang and a more dialed-back than usual Anne Hathaway also help in that regard. They're scientists, but they aren't science types, if that makes sense. They understand the consequences of their actions and have to weigh the adverse effects of their decisions while soaking in the fact they're in another galaxy.

 If I'm being honest, I would have liked more of the exploring the other planets instead of the part of Interstellar that you don't necessarily get from the trailers: the back and forth between Coop in space and his family on Earth. Instead of focusing on relativity and black holes, we have to keep jumping back home to see that Murph stills hasn't forgiven her father and now she's grown up and is Jessica Chastain (Tom is now Casey Affleck disguised as Ben Affleck in Argo). Murph is working with Professor Brand on how to save everybody on Earth because they haven't heard from the ship in 23-ish years (2 years to Saturn plus another 21 thanks to a disastrous turn of events on the first world they land on). It's here that the Nolan brothers introduce the theme of Interstellar that isn't about exploration: that love may be a tangible concept that transcends dimensions and we just don't understand it yet. Oddly enough, the internet's least favorite person (Anne Hathaway) delivers the best monologue about it, but it leads Interstellar down a path I maybe could have done without. The space exploration was so much more interesting, and the Earth plot isn't.

 Since we've moved to the "gripe" stage, it would be nice, just once, for writers to drop the well worn science fiction trope of "scientist from the previous mission goes insane and nearly ruins the mission." It nearly derailed Sunshine, an otherwise sober, intelligent movie that drastically shifts into a slasher film near the very end, complete with its own Freddy Krueger. The Nolans don't do anything quite so drastic, but it's clear from the moment that Dr. Mann (Matt Damon) wakes up from cryo-sleep that he's not selling Coop, Brand, or Romilly an honest bill of goods about his planet or his agenda. Not only is it predictable what he's eventually going to do, but the "turn" is almost comical as he leads Coop out to the middle of nowhere for a fistfight. Instead of, oh, I don't know, appealing to the team that losing one of the four remaining scientists tasked with keeping the human race alive is detrimental to all of them.

 This works to a certain lack of logic that is, I must admit, typically when you think carefully about Christopher Nolan films, from the Batman series to Inception, or even back to Memento. After an impassioned speech by Brand about why they should fly to Edmonds' planet instead of Mann's (they only have enough fuel to pursue one of the remaining leads), Cooper and Romilly reasonably determine that Mann's reports are better than Edmonds'. If we were to approach the same reasoning to Cooper's decision to go back to Earth on the off chance that he can disprove the "Plan A can never work" argument that conveniently surfaces right after they've revived Mann, there's no way the other three would allow him to go back through the wormhole. Ignoring the convenient timing of Murph's message, we already know that there's no guarantee of when Cooper would be returning to Earth, or even if there's enough time to come up with a plan to save humanity.

 This brings us to the second part of Interstellar that I can't quite give a pass to: after Mann tries to steal the ship and blows up part of it when he tries to open the airlock without docking, Cooper pulls off a near impossible feat of docking while the wheel is spinning (think of a sped-up version of 2001) and decides to send Brand to Edmond's planet using the black hole's gravitation to slingshot her (remember, not enough fuel). This means that Cooper and TARS have to pilot the other two shuttles and sacrifice themselves by being sucked into the black hole, where we've been continually told is a singularity they really would love to know more about. Invariably, Coop is sucked into the singularity and finds himself outside of the ship, floating in a strange, multidimensional space. Upon further investigation, he realizes he's behind the shelf in Murph's bedroom, and that (wait for it) he can slightly effect physical space around her throughout her timeline. Yes, Coop is his daughter's "ghost," and if he can communicate with her, he'll be able to save humanity where Professor Brand failed.

 I wouldn't have so much of a problem with this part of Interstellar were it not for the point when TARS chimes in over the radio and Coop begins explaining what's happening and what he's going to do. Like, out loud, literally explaining to the audience exactly what they're seeing, it's implications, and how he can communicate with grown up Murph (through a watch he left behind, using Morse Code). Nolan takes all of the ambiguity out of the sequence, and flat out tells us (through Coop) that humans evolve to the point where we can see beyond all dimensions and create the wormhole to save ourselves. I'm not spoiling anything because that's what McConaughey says, almost verbatim. At the outset of the "ghost" section, I really thought "he's not going in this direction, is he?" but by the end, when even the cheap seats are being spoon fed the plot, it was almost too much.

 And had Interstellar not regained some of its footing at the very end, when Nolan successfully pulls at the heartstrings (at least for the Grinch-like Cap'n), there's a strong possibility I would have come out hating this movie. The emotional manipulation is transparent at the end, and I'm not going to pretend it isn't, but Nolan finds a way to make Cooper meeting the old version of Murphy (Ellen Burstyn, who I did not recognize at all**) poignant enough that I could overlook the Saturn space station that looked like Elysium, dumb baseball callback, and implausible ending where Coop steals a spaceship to go find Brand. Looking back on it, I'm not sure why I'm okay with that, because when you apply logic to it, that's a really stupid way to end a movie that tries hard not to be dumb, scientifically. But that's how Christopher Nolan films are, I guess: they're fun to watch, offer astounding visual spectacle, and make about as much sense as Bazooka Joe gum in retrospect.

 The acting is solid all around, and if you're one of those people who inexplicably hate Anne Hathaway, this is not going to be on your "Exhibit A" YouTube videos. On the other hand, if you aren't down with the McConaughnissance, you'll find plenty of "all right, all right, all right" in his sometimes mumbled dialogue. I thought he was fine, but something about his drawl is always going to invite the "he's just stoned" reaction, and this won't change that. Jessica Chastain has a lot of screen time in the second half, but Murph is such a cipher of a character that she doesn't have anything to work with. Casey Affleck gets even less, and he registers about as much as Wes Bentley, who has half as much screen time and dies (hey, I said SPOILERS a long time ago). Nolan sneaks in a bunch of well known actors in small roles, well beyond the "oh, I forgot Matt Damon was in this!": David Oyelowo (Rise of the Planet of the Apes) is Murph's principal, William Devane (Payback) is a member of NASA, and for no discernible reason, Topher Grace (Predators) just appears as Murph's friend late in the film. I guess he's the doctor that she mentions can look at Tom's kids (dust clouds, as it turns out, are bad on the lungs), but he's just suddenly there, and you think, "wait, is that Topher Grace?" Yep, it is. He's in Interstellar. Who knew?

 This isn't really a negative review, but I guess it's not quite positive, either. In his filmography, I'm inclined to put Interstellar somewhere in the middle, above Insomnia but not quite near Memento. Visually, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it, but if you have persistent issues with Nolan (as much of the internet and some of the critical community do), this isn't going to win you over. All of his highs and lows are on display, and it depends on how you weigh them whether that's enough to make Interstellar worth three hours of your time. It falls short of 2001, the film it's trying to come closest to, but I give Nolan a lot of credit for trying to make a movie about ideas, even if some of them are hoary or clumsily handled. This is mass audience entertainment that isn't just going to the lowest common denominator (*coughrobotdinosaurscough*), so that counts for something.

 At this point in his career, I imagine most of you know where you fall in the Christopher Nolan spectrum. Through no clear action of his own, he's become a very divisive filmmaker, in part because in a world of increasingly skimpy Hollywood output, he's afforded carte blanche as a filmmaker and every new movie he makes is treated like an event. This seems to magnify both the positives and negatives inherent in his style of filmmaking, and reactions are equal parts "that was great!" and "the emperor has no clothes!" which enter the echo chamber of the internet and are magnified. I don't know that I would have devoted this much time to a review that was this mixed if there wasn't something to Interstellar worth talking about, good or bad. Believe me, there are films I could have reviewed that you'd probably be very surprised to hear I wasn't crazy about (Boyhood, Gone Girl), but that I'm just not sure I have much to add to the discussion. With this film, at least Nolan gave me something to talk about.

 Interstellar isn't the best science fiction film I've seen this year, but 2014 has been a surprisingly fertile year for great science fiction. I'm going to go out on a limb and say you should probably see this over Ouija, but I haven't seen Ouija so I could be totally wrong. No, wait, I couldn't. For all of it's faults, there's no way that Interstellar is not way better than Ouija. Cheap shot at Ouija? Easy target? Probably, but I don't know if Interstellar holds its own against something like Snowpiercer, but it was made with a different size audience in mind***. It may not win the game in a grandiose fashion, but Christopher Nolan delivers another solid, mostly impressive film. For some people, that's not going to be enough, but for most it's better by a long shot than most of what passes for "crowd pleasing" movies.

 * Unless that is also faked - thanks, future textbook editors. You just gave conspiracy theorists years worth of material...
** All the more confusing, because you can totally tell it's Ellen Burstyn in the "documentary" footage at the beginning. You just don't know she's Murph at that point.
*** Or not, but I guess we'll never know since the Weinstein's sat on Snowpiercer after trying to cut it to pieces, and then half-heartedly dropped it in a few theatres.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Shocktober Review: Dead Snow 2

 It only seems fair to end Shocktober with something to look forward to - Tommy Wirkola's gonzo sequel Dead Snow 2. I've seen it subtitled "Red vs. Dead," but the title screen just said Dead Snow 2 (well, technically it was Død Snø 2), but when you get a chance to see it, you really ought to. If you read yesterday's retro review of Dead Snow, you'll know the Cap'n enjoyed the first film, but wasn't blown away by it. Dead Snow 2 is a completely different story, as Wirkola goes for broke in staging an all out war between his Nazi zombies, Russian zombies, a returning hero, a maybe not-so capable Zombie Defense Squad, and an even less capable local police force. It's more violent, more ridiculous, and a whole hell of a lot more fun without ever going off the rails.

 Wirkola picks up the story where Dead Snow left off - Martin (Vegar Hoel), the last survivor is about to drive away after giving zombie Nazi Colonel Herzog (Ørjan Gamst) the last piece of gold that reanimated his battalion, when another piece lands on the floorboard. Who's standing outside the car? Now, it's not totally unprecedented to continue a story directly, Dead Snow 2 gets points for turning the classic ending "twist" into a full-on horror action sequence as Martin tries desperately to drive away, Herzog and troops in pursuit. In the ensuing mayhem, both protagonist and antagonist end up losing their right arms, and when Martin wakes up in a hospital nearby, he's alarmed to discover that doctors have reconnected Herzog's arm to his body. He's also not too pleased to be the prime suspect in the murder of his friends (seen in footage from Dead Snow at the outset of the film).

 That's the least of Martin's problems, as it turns out, because Herzog and his undead minions don't just go back to their graves once the gold is returned. A chance encounter with a truck ignites memories of the mission they failed: to capture and destroy a small town in Norway. If Martin can stop them, he's going to need the held of the Zombie Defense Squad: a trio of American geeks (Martin Starr, Jocelyn DeBoer, and Ingrid Haas) who are anything but well equipped to handle Col. Herzog's newly acquired tank. He also picks up Glenn (Stig Frode Henriksen), employee of the WWII museum Herzog raids, and a zombie sidekick of his own (Kristoffer Joner). The latter comes as a result of Martin's new arm, which gives him a degree of super-strength and the ability to re-animate the dead. It's also something he has limited control over, as we learn during his hospital escape, which includes some impressive gore and a few accidental murders.

 But wait, there's more! Daniel (Starr) uses his research of Herzog's mission in Norway to deduce that there's also a unit of dead Russian soldiers somewhere in the mountains that Martin could raise from the dead to help, while Monica (DeBoer), Blake (Haas), and Glenn try to slow the march of the undead. Meanwhile, the local police force is on the hunt for Martin, so midway through Dead Snow 2 we're following no less than four different storylines that don't converge until nearly the end of the film. It's no small feat to keep so many balls in the air, let alone in a sequel with only two returning characters, but Wirkola somehow manages to keep Dead Snow 2 moving forward without ever feeling overstuffed. That's in addition to the fact that the film alternates between Norwegian, German, and English because of the inclusion of the Americans.

 Much of that is due to Wirkola's demented sense of humor and ability to acclimate to a larger budget. Dead Snow didn't necessarily feel hampered by its scale, but the sequel opens up in so many different ways that it's all the more admirable he manages to retain the anarchic sense of "anything goes" while not totally losing control of the story. The humor is still intact, and Dead Snow 2 is much funnier in its use of gore as a punch line (in this respect, I'd say it's fair to compare its approach as a sequel to Evil Dead 2). I thought that there was no possible way to use Bonnie Tyler's "Total Eclipse of the Heart" for comic effect again, but its placement in Dead Snow 2 is a great payoff of a setup you likely forgot from earlier in the film. To say any more would be to spoil the very end, which might have you laughing and gagging at the same time.

 Dead Snow 2 also stages the climactic battle, between Nazi zombies, Russian zombies, the ZDS, and Martin in a way that makes the chaos easy to follow, which is frankly uncommon these days. I'd like to highlight one moment where Wirkola distinguishes himself not only from frenetically edited horror films, but also from most current action films. Late in the film, when Martin is fighting Herzog, they end up inside of a house. Aside from using kitchen implements in a way that's reminiscent of Kill Bill by way of Evil Dead 2, Herzog also throws Martin through the ceiling. Rather than cut upstairs, or cut away to the battle outside, Wirkola holds on the scene, tilting the camera up slightly to show the ceiling and nearby stairwell, where Martin comes rolling down shortly thereafter. It's both an impressive stunt, but is also funnier as a gag because of his timing in an unbroken take. Wirkola relies on his actors (with well times sound effects) to sell the geography and timing of the stunt rather than dictate the pace with edits. It isn't the only example in Dead Snow 2, but it impressed me precisely because of how rare it is to see a shot like that in modern horror films.

 There are a few minor quibbles I have with Dead Snow 2, mostly from its mid-section: Wirkola's comic timing, with respect to using gore as punctuation, is often spot-on, but there's a lot of the Zombie Defense Squad that falls flat. Martin Starr (Party Down) is largely relegated to expository dialogue, and the decision to make Monica a Star Wars quoting "geek" doesn't really go anywhere. I think it's supposed to be a joke that she picks the wrong lines to reference, but it honestly wasn't very funny. I minded Wirkola's cheap shot zombie kills of children and the handicapped (mostly limited to a montage) less, and the continued abuse of Joner's sidekick zombie goes on for so long that it stops being funny and then becomes funny again towards the end of the film. While I'm not convinced the Americans were necessary, their presence isn't a detriment to Dead Snow 2. There's honestly so much to enjoy about the film that any complaints are minor. I would have been impressed that a movie this busy had worked at all, but not only does it, it's also constantly keeping you off-balance with unexpectedly smart twists. If the hinted Dead Snow 3 ever materializes, I'll check it out. In the meantime, fans of Dead Snow have plenty to look forward to, and there's enough of a recap that first timers can feel comfortable jumping in as well. Of the horror films the Cap'n saw during Shocktober (but didn't review*), this by far comes the highest recommended.

 * At some point, I will try to get you reviews for The ABCs of Death 2, Horns, V/H/S Viral, and See No Evil 2, but only one or two of them were any good.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Shocktober Revisited: Dead Snow

Tommy Wirkola's Dead Snow is a fairly entertaining Norwegian horror film with one very enticing gimmick: Nazi Zombies. That it doesn't quite live up to the expectations one might expect from that premise shouldn't scare genre fans away from the film; there's enough quality gore to overcome a slightly derivative script that, at times, relies heavily on Sam Raimi's early work to get from plot point to plot point. It's funny enough to distract you from a familiar plot and even more familiar story beats, and while the zombies aren't exactly zombies, they're certainly a fun twist in otherwise well trod territory.

Stop me when this sounds familiar: college students (in this case, all med-school) go to a secluded cabin on a mountain to spend the weekend. There's an even mix of girls and guys, with two couples and four singles of recognizable types - the missing girlfriend who everybody assumed would be there, the guy who always talks about movies, the girl that's kind of nerdy herself, and the squeamish guy with the self-reliant girlfriend.

Okay so far? Let's add the "Creepy Older Guy" who warns them about the history of this particular mountain - Nazis occupying Norway that stole the village valuables and were killed by the townspeople... or were they? - and then leaves. Where's the girl who owns the cabin? Is she okay? What's all this gold from 1942 doing in the cabin? People start dying? Could it be undead Nazis? Oh, you know it is! Let the evisceration commence!

I say that the Nazi Zombies aren't exactly zombies, in part because while yes, they are undead, they don't behave like traditional zombies. They behave like undead Nazis, ones that really like fist fights, using knives, and in one instance, gutting a girl to put a grenade inside her torso. The makeup is pretty nice, particularly on General Herzog, who just happens to be missing his lips. All of the Nazi zombies (who do bite people, but don't really seem interested in eating them) are menacing, if easily dispatched with late in the film.

Since I mentioned General Herzog, now's as fair a time as any to talk about how intertextuality-laden Dead Snow is. Not only do the characters discuss other horror films with a similar premise at the outset of their trip, but at least one of the films mentioned comes into play repeatedly during the film. There are two explicit references to Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn - one is part of a "if this were a horror movie" conversation and the other one is a direct visual reference to Ash cutting off his hand, used to set up an "Oh yeah, now what are you going to do?" joke involving a crotch-level Nazi zombie.

Erlend, the character constantly quoting films (including Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and The Terminator) is also wearing a Brain Dead shirt (better known in the States as Dead Alive). Fans of Machete are going to be saying "Dead Snow did it!" when they see a very similar gag involving guts from two years earlier. The references aren't overly distracting, but they do underscore how much of Dead Snow is familiar territory, particularly the end, which lacks the kind of punch I suspect it was supposed to have.

That being said, you're going to have a lot of fun moments, and a few surprises - the nerdy film fan is the only character to have sex with someone - and for horror fans, plenty of gore. I'm not really sure I've seen a film so obsessed with intestines as Dead Snow is, and the fact that the protagonists are medical students does actually come into play in a meaningful - if totally unrealistic - fashion. Also, the crow scene is pretty funny. Dead Snow isn't going to reinvent the zombie wheel, and the Nazi Zombie concept isn't as developed as one would hope, but it's still definitely worth renting or (as the Cap'n did) "Watch(ing) It Now."

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Shocktober Review: Motel Hell

 Motel Hell is an odd duck as horror movies go - originally Tobe Hooper was attached to direct, completing a "cannibal" trilogy of sorts with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Eaten Alive, but when Universal studios took issue with original script (which included bestiality and wasn't comedic), they passed and he left. MGM picked up the film after director Kevin Connor (From Beyond the Grave) crossed the pond from the U.K. to direct the film in five weeks. While the end result doesn't actually resemble Hooper's earlier films, it does feel like some of it directly influenced The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 - more on that in a little bit. Motel Hell is comedic in a manner of speaking, but borders more on camp much of the time, and in many ways feels like a spiritual cousin to Jack Hill's Spider Baby. For slasher crowds, I can only imagine that this was not what they had in mind...

 Farmer Vincent Smith (Rory Calhoun) runs the Motel Hello with his sister, Ida (Nancy Parsons). He's also the face and proprietor of Farmer Vincent's Meats, which are famous in the countryside surrounding the Motel Hello (if only they could use the profits to fix that pesky "O"). Everything seems to be on the up-and-up: Vincent has regular visits from inspector Bob Anderson (E. Hampton Beagle) and his hogs are in good shape. His customers always leave the motel happy... well, most of them, anyway. If you've seen the original poster (not included here), you already know what the phrase "it takes all kinds of critters to make Farmer Vincent's fritters" means, and it's not like I didn't write "cannibal" in the first paragraph. So, uh, SPOILER if you somehow never came across Motel Hell or read the synopsis. Don't worry, it's not a mystery for long. Even how Vincent and Ida find their prey isn't much of a mystery, and catching their guests is the exception, not the rule.

 Before we really know much about Farmer Vincent's meat, we seem him out "hunting" - out in the woods, at night, with a shotgun, he finds a biker, Bo (Everett Creach) riding with his girl, Terry (Nina Axelrod). They have an "accident" that runs them off the road, and as Vincent is loading up the Bo, he takes a shining to Terry and decides to "keep" her in the motel. Bo goes to the "farm": Vincent and Ida's specially hidden area that is, at least for the early part of the film, a mystery (unless you've seen the poster, that is). While there's a lot more of Vincent setting up traps to catch people (most notably a tour van for "Ivan and the Terribles" featuring John Ratzenberger), much of Motel Hell is concerned with Terry living with and learning about the Smith family.

 It would be tempting to call it "Stockholm Syndrome," but since she doesn't have any family or, apparently, a life elsewhere, Terry adjusts pretty quickly to life at the Motel Hello. Ida doesn't necessarily like her - she tries to drown her, in fact - but Terry is quite smitten with the much older Vincent (Calhoun was only 54 when the film was made, but he looks more aged than that). More upset than Ida is Vincent's kid brother, Sherriff Bruce Smith (Paul Linke), who has eyes for Terry from the moment he meets her and is constantly rebuffed in his advances. The family skirts around the "cannibalism" issue at first, but eventually Vincent feels confident enough in Terry that he promises he'll teach her his "secret recipe." He inadvertently also proposes, and on a trip into town talks Reverend Billy (Wolfman Jack) into performing the ceremony, unless something goes horribly awry back at the motel...

 Motel Hell alternates between victims and family life, and unlike your traditional slasher movies, both are equally unusual. The film is more of a black comedy, with very little suspense - it seems like we're meant to find the eccentricities of the improbable Smith clan more amusing than disturbing, despite the fact that they consider humans to be just another food source. Vincent believes in treating them ethically, although the most disturbing part of the film is easily the "farm." Victims are buried up to their necks, and Vincent surgically cuts their vocal chords so all anyone can hear is them gurgling desperately. The way he kills them is admittedly pretty comical: first Vincent and Ida hypnotize them, and then snap their necks by tying nooses to a tractor. He considers it to be more humane to reduce their "suffering." That the hypnotism sequence is presented mostly for laughs does make it slightly upsetting, but also successful in finding gallows humor.

 I mentioned the possibly unintentional influence of Motel Hell on Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, and while it isn't readily apparent early in the film, by the end you can see some uncanny echoes from one film to the next. Farmer Vincent is only a slightly smaller scale version of what the Sawyer family is doing (local "flavor" vs. regional barbeque champions), and it's really hard to argue that a climactic chainsaw fight between a police officer and the villain (wearing a mask) isn't awfully familiar. The tone is more exaggerated in Chainsaw Massacre 2, but it's a similarly comedic approach to what would normally be played for straight horror. Since Hooper left the project when a more serious Motel Hell was abandoned, I have a hard time thinking he didn't see Motel Hell. Perhaps the end result of Connor's version (re?-written by Robert and Steven-Charles Jaffe) gave Hooper some ideas, as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is much more like Motel Hell than The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. This is mostly speculation, but I was strongly reminded of one film while watching the other.

 Motel Hell is a tricky movie to recommend, because it's not going to be everybody's cup of tea. It's a leisurely paced film, a more character oriented film than most of its ilk from the 1980s, but at the same time characters are often barely sketched out. I haven't mentioned Ida or Bruce much because there isn't much to them, and Terry is even less of a character. You get a better sense spending five minutes with a pair of swingers that Vincent and Ida lure in than for most of the main characters, with the exception of Vincent. That's largely due to Rory Calhoun investing an inherent - if bizarre - sense of decency into the role. It's tonally amusing but not often very funny. It can be disturbing but is rarely scary. Like I said at the outset: Motel Hell is an odd duck. I'm tempted to say it's like a toned down John Waters making a Tobe Hooper film, but that doesn't even quite work. I enjoyed it, but you really have to take the film on its own terms and not come in expecting Motel Hell to be like other early 80s horror movies.  With that mindset, there's a good chance you might enjoy it.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Shocktober Revisited: Theory, Audiences, and Horror

 This critical essay originally appeared in 2009.

Greetings, Blogorium readers! Tonight I thought I'd share with you part of a large-ish paper I've been working on.

The paper is on movie-going as a ritual activity, which in and of itself was fun researching, but a healthy section is devoted to Horror films and the role they play in group catharsis, so I'll drop that knowledge on you, followed by a section devoted to the question: "Why do horror fans like $1.50 movie theatres?", in which I think you'll find the Cap'n comes to a reasonable conclusion.

Just a tiny forewarning: this is from a first draft, so if anything reads as dodgy or the sentences are awkward, I'll be adjusting them in ensuing drafts.

Horror Films

“Each of us experiences a film individually, and our different tastes in films demonstrate how unique our individual reactions are. Yet, what are we to make of those films that seem to have tapped in the collective fears of an entire generation?” (Phillips, 3)
Horror films repulse and terrify us, yet they remain financially, if not critically, successful. Noel Carroll poses the question “But – and this is the question of ‘Why horror?’ in its primary form – if horror necessarily has something repulsive about it, how can audiences be attracted to it?” (33) The answer may be that the genre presents us with escapist variations of real life anxieties. The genre of horror taps into our deepest primal fears, and coupled with the venue (total darkness), collectively audiences must overcome individual terrors.
Consider the 1968 film Night of the Living Dead, which tapped into mounting tensions about race relations and the Vietnam War through the lens of a zombie film. Kendall Phillips describes the reaction to Night thusly, “for many contemporary critics, the film was ‘cathartic for us, who forget about the horrors around us that aren’t, alas, movies’” (93). Similarly, films like The Exorcist or The Texas Chain Saw Massacre tapped into apocalyptic concerns of the mid-1970s, though less literally than atomic holocaust films. “Apocalyptic visions… need not express a literal end of the world but may entail a sense of the inevitable decay and demise of broad social structures and order” (Phillips, 111).
Horror manages to, in the words of critic Robin Wood, “respond to interpretation as at once the personal dreams of their makers and the collective dreams of their audiences, the fusion made possible by the shared structures of a common ideology” (30). Its role as a societal release is a more extreme version of cathartic theatre, one designed to explicitly face our fears in dark spaces, with the comfort of being able to safely walk away when we choose to. Linda Williams, in learning to scream, identifies a similar mechanism in horror films designed to help audiences gasp and scream together:
Anyone who has gone to the movies in the last 20 years cannot help but notice how entrenched this rollercoaster sensibility of repeated tension and release, assault and escape has become. While narrative is not abandoned, it often takes second place to a succession of visual and auditory shocks and thrills.” (163)
Despite its role in tapping into our collective experience, the horror film is not highly regarded by critics. Robin Wood describes the phenomenon:
The horror film has consistently been one of the most popular and, at the same time, the most disreputable of Hollywood genres. The popularity itself has a peculiar characteristic that sets it apart from other genres: it is restricted to aficionados and complemented by total rejection, people tending to go to horror films either obsessively or not at all. They are dismissed with contempt by the majority of reviewer-critics, or simply ignored. (30)
Horror is regarded as a “lesser” form of cinema, one that is frequently associated with “low culture” and is beneath contempt for cultural critics. Audiences, however, flock to this ritual of being scared half to death and walking out at the end. The ways that horror films function as a dual ritual of “movie-going” and “date” are also related to cultural norms. In her discussion of horror marketing during the “classic” monster-movie era, Rhona Berenstein notes the ways that male / female reactions during this ritual are performative:
Just as social mandates invited women in the 1930s to cling to men while screening horror movies, thus encouraging them to display conventionally feminine behavior as a means of garnering male attention, so, too, did the male viewer… use female fear, as well as his own traditional display of bravery, to disguise his terror behind a socially prescribed behavior. (137)
In fact, women were frequently the target audience during the “classic” monster movie era, for reasons that solidified gender roles in American society. Berenstein continues, “women were classic horror’s central stunt participants because they were thought to personify the genre’s favored artifact: fear. The upshot was that if women could survive the viewing or a horror film, and moreover, if they could respond bravely, then other patrons, meaning men could do the same” (143).
The horror film provides a number of valuable roles in maintaining the movie-going ritual: in addition to reinforcing cultural norms, it taps into collective fears and faces taboos, even at the chagrin of most critics. At the end of a horror film, no matter how traumatic or cathartic the experience, the collective returns to the daylight, capable of functioning as members of society. As we will see, the horror film provides for a different kind of engagement in the movie-going ritual based on what theatre an individual chooses to visit.

For many critics, the reputation of Horror as a “low culture” genre comes from these second run houses. Conversely, many Horror aficionados will also attend the Sedgefield of Blue Ridge Road theatres because they replicate the “Grindhouse” experience, based on one-screen cinemas in large cities, most of which no longer exist. The Grindhouse theaters were permissive of rowdier behavior, much of which is considered by aficionados as “augmenting” an otherwise marginal film. The most famous example of a Grindhouse film or “Midnight Movie” turned ritual experience is The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Shocktober Revisited: The Sixth Sense and The Blair Witch Project

Portions of these reviews originally appeared in 2011.

 In some ways, it's hard for the Cap'n to believe that The Sixth Sense and The Blair Witch Project have been out there for fifteen years. They don't feel that old, which is not to say they don't feel dated in different ways - both are distinctly products of the turn of the millennium - but it doesn't seem like it's been that long. Maybe the Cap'n is just getting older, which is funny, considering that I saw them when I was in college and technically speaking I'm not that old. Old enough that I can't have Horror Fests into the wee hours of the morning anymore, but y'know, comparatively speaking, not that old. Movies from 1999 just don't feel like it was that long ago, but someone born the year The Sixth Sense came out is getting their learner's permit now.

 Here's a look back at what it was like in those halcyon days of pre-Y2k, when people thought The Phantom Menace might not be terrible and that M. Night Shyamalan had promise. Oh, who am I kidding? At least we weren't tired to death of "found footage," although my friends were very concerned that the "scary bonus footage" on the Blair Witch Project soundtrack was three people bickering in the woods. If we only knew...

(For good measure, I'll throw in the now fourteen year old Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, because nobody's going to be talking about it's fifteenth anniversary next year.)


editor's note: if, for some reason, you actually don't know anything about The Sixth Sense, this is absolutely the wrong review for you. However, if you found this review by Google-ing "Sixth Sense Spoiler," you're going to get it. Consider that your warning.

Long before people hated (or had forgotten about) M. Night Shyamalan, he was the "hot new up-and-comer" with his debut film* The Sixth Sense. If you were somehow drunk for the entirety of the summer of 1999, it's possible that you didn't hear about this suspenseful ghost story with a wicked twist**, and have somehow never seen or heard of the movie where Haley Joel Osment (remember him?) "sees dead people."

 Specifically Bruce Willis (SPOILER), who plays a child psychologist killed in the opening scene by one of his former patients (Donnie Wahlberg). Of course, he doesn't know that until the end of the film, even if eagle-eyed viewers can see that Dr. Malcolm Crowe never physically interacts with anyone during the film and nobody talks to him other than Cole Sear, the kid who sees ghosts. The ghosts, by the way, are spooky and sometimes quite gory (like the accidental gunshot victim kid), but aren't actually dangerous to Cole. Most of them are sad or lonely or need to pass something on. This doesn't stop Shyamalan from milking every ghostly encounter for the maximum creepy factor, but you have to remember that I'm writing this from the perspective of someone who's already seen the film.

 When The Sixth Sense came out, all we really knew about the movie was the "ghost" angle, and that there was a twist. The ghosts are played for scares, and it's quite effective, in the same way that The Haunting (not the one that came out in 1999) or The Others are. It's a clever move not to make the ghosts actually menacing, until you watch the movie again, and then it's just a lot of building tension to mess with the audience in order to pull a switcheroo. The same problem exists with the twist, because a) if you know there's a twist, chances are you're looking for it (I was), and b) the best twists make you want to watch the movie again. If you figure out the twist early (say, when Crowe is "having dinner" with his wife at a restaurant), then there is no rediscovery in watching the film again - you did it the first time. All of the color coding is easy to figure out and The Sixth Sense becomes an elaborate game of "follow the rules" twist filmmaking.

 Maybe I'm being meaner than I ought to be, because I bought the Shyamalan promise - that he was a spiritual successor to Steven Spielberg - through Unbreakable, a movie I also used to really like (and probably still enjoy more than The Sixth Sense) but it all fell apart during Signs. I gave up after he started lifting narrative beats wholesale, and have only seen one of his films sense - The Happening. Most of you know that The Happening is a colossal failure in almost every respect, and is hilarious because of it; I either subjected you to the film or you've heard about it from me. In the interest of fairness, The Sixth Sense is still highly regarded by just about everywhere in the critical community, and people still seem to love the movie. Don't take that old Grumpy Gus Cap'n Howdy to speak for the consensus opinion here.

 After Lady in the Water, The Happening, and The Last Airbender, Shyamalan is pretty much a joke - audiences reported laughter when his name appeared on trailers for Devil - and even his die-hard fans have given up making excuses for the lousy writing, awkward editing, bad performances, and the pompous, thin-skinned auteur / actor himself (Lady in the Water features Shyamalan as a writer who is destined to "change the world," while the least likable character is a film critic). Nobody knows what he's doing next, and I'd go so far as to say they don't care, either.

 The reason I really wanted to bring up The Sixth Sense, which was for 1999 a highlight of an already packed summer of great movies (and The Phantom Menace) was because I have, as usual, a story related to events surrounding the film. The air conditioning was out in the auditorium we saw the film in, so the staff propped a door facing the back of the theatre open, and crickets got in. We knew this because the whole audience could hear them chirping. A colleague of mine (Professor Murder) eventually got up from his seat, crawled under the screen, and we heard "THUMP THUMP THUMP" and the chirping stopped. The packed auditorium gave him an ovation, and he cut the back of his head on a curtain staple. Forgive me if I look back at that night and consider this moment to be the highlight of seeing The Sixth Sense.

* Which was not actually his debut film - he made this and this beforehand, and he wrote Stuart Little. Seriously.
** My own fake poster quote, but here's what the New York Observer's Andrew Sarris wrote at the time: "An effectively understated and moodily engrossing ghost film with a surprisingly satisfying jolt at the end."


At this point, it's almost been so long since The Blair Witch Project came out that people have by and large forgotten all about the film. Considering that we're still feeling the impact of "found footage" movies, including no less than three that I can name released in the U.S. this year (The Troll Hunter, [REC]2, and the upcoming Apollo 18). That's not including [REC], Quarantine, Diary of the Dead, Paranormal Activity 1 and 2, The Last Exorcism, Cloverfield, The Zombie Diaries and The Poughkeepsie Tapes. These are, in one form or another, the offspring of The Blair Witch's Projects success; a low-budget horror film passed along like an urban legend until it was time to explode in the mainstream. It captured the zeitgeist at a time when horror was winding down from self-referential Scream knockoffs, and scared the hell out of a lot of people.

 And then there was that second film. Yeah, I don't blame you for not remembering Book of Shadows.

 Back to the success story - The Blair Witch Project was a movie I'd hear about long before I saw it. In 1999, the internet was agog about this "found footage" of three film students making a documentary in Burkittsville, Maryland about the "Blair Witch" legend. Something went horribly wrong and they were never heard from again. In fact, I bet you remember the tagline:

 In October of 1994 three student filmmakers disappeared in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland, while shooting a documentary...A year later their footage was found.

  Very few people knew who Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez were, and since The Blair Witch Project ended without credits, there was good reason to perpetuate the myth that this WAS "found footage" and not a horror movie designed to make you think it was real. By the time it opened wide in the U.S. (in the summer of 1999), internet savvy geeks already knew it wasn't (online critics love to be the people who have the "scoop" that shows the seams of an illusion), but there were plenty of "John and Jane Moviegoer"'s who didn't know. I was taking some summer classes at N.C. State, and there was a guy in one of the poetry classes that I overheard talking about having a bootlegged copy of the film. A clerk at Schoolkids Music claimed it had already been in "secret" screenings in Raleigh when I purchased the soundtrack (containing footage from the film as part of a CD-ROM feature). I always seemed to be one step behind The Blair Witch Project.

 And then it opened at The Rialto, and the next part is not going to endear the Cap'n to theatre owners. I can only say that it's something I did once and never again, and not something I would do again. Some friends were in town to see The Blair Witch Project with the Cap'n and friends, and the midnight showing was SOLD OUT. But we needed to see that showing of the film, so while standing in front of the vacant box office, we noticed that instead of using special tickets, The Rialto (at the time) had the kind of tickets one could purchase at, say, an Office Max. So we maybe kind of bought a roll of tickets from Office Max, tore five off, and got in line early. And it worked. It was a shitty thing to do, but it's the kind of thing you'll do at twenty to see the movie everyone wants to see. Our ruse wasn't a total success, as before the film started the manager came out to say that he knew some people got in when they weren't supposed to, and we shrunk in our seats a little. The moral of the story is don't do this, kids - you'll feel shitty about it twelve years later.

 The movie? Well, if you were old enough to see it in 1999, then you already know what The Blair Witch Project is like. It's a nice setup, a whole lot of pointless bickering, some carnival tricks to rattle you, and a baffling ending that's really only effective with an audience willing to be scared shitless already. The reason that nobody remembers The Blair Witch Project is that when people know it's a film and are watching it at home with no suspension of disbelief or desire to really let the adrenaline take over, the film is a total bore. There's virtually no rewatchability to The Blair Witch Project, and other films have taken the crude elements and refined them with less believable but more effective narratives and gimmickry. The success of Paranormal Activity is in large part a reflection of how much it borrowed from The Blair Witch Project in publicity and execution (appropriately ten years later, following an excessive cycle of gory horror films often lumped together under the moniker "torture porn").

 By the time that Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 came out, nobody was that interested in the film anymore. The curtain had been lifted, the actors done the publicity rounds, and the directors moved on to make... well, not much for seven years. They didn't even want to make Book of Shadows, and instead acted as executive producers for new director Joe Berlinger, a documentary filmmaker best known for the Paradise Lost films about the West Memphis Three. Book of Shadows was Berlinger's first (and, as far as I can tell, last) narrative feature, which he co-wrote with Dick Beebe (the House on Haunted Hill remake). It attempted to look at the Blair Witch phenomenon, but quickly devolved into a terrible movie about possession, murder, and surveillance footage wrapped up in a pale Rashomon "multiple perspective story" mold.

 It took quite a while for me to muster up any memories about Book of Shadows, which should give you some idea how forgettable the film is. Until I looked it up, I'd completely forgotten that it involved two different "Blair Witch" tours in Burkittsville or that one ended up butchered and everyone else went to a house with excessive closed circuit cameras. I vaguely remembered people being picked off and someone being accused of being the witch, as well as stock stereotypes of Wiccans, Goth Chicks, hippies (?), and mentally unstable characters.

 Looking at the film from a distance, it's kind of funny how many people I recognize for roles they took after Book of Shadows: Jeffrey Donovan is now better known for being the lead on Burn Notice, Kim Director worked with Spike Lee before and after the film, and Erica Leerhsen played virtually the same role in the 2003 Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Only Tristen Skyler and Stephen Barker Turner haven't done anything I noticed since 2000. Oh, and there's that Kurt Loder guy; wasn't he in Get Him to the Greek or something?

 While it should come as no surprise to people that I saw a movie with Cranpire where he fell asleep, I can't honestly fault him for nodding off during a late showing of Book of Shadows. There's nothing in the movie worth staying awake for, and I think he got more out of the nap than I did the movie. The only other fun tidbit is that when the DVD came out, Artisan was desperate for a gimmick, so they tried a variation on the "flipper" disc: on one side, the movie; the other had the soundtrack. The problem was that the disc was often too heavy for CD players and when it wasn't, the film portion scratched easily, meaning you could never sell the damned thing when you got bored of having it around. And yet, I suspect if you go anywhere with used DVDs, you'll find a copy of Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 in the "three for $1" bin. It's still not worth it.