Friday, January 10, 2014

2013 Recap: Closer and Closer to the Top (Part Three)

 Continuing in the seemingly never-ending "Middle" section of the Recap-o-Rama-Rama, you'll be happy to know that Cap'n Howdy is finally getting to some horror movies. I didn't see a lot of the new horror movies this year, although I certainly will check out (in order of interest) You're Next, The Conjuring, Insidious Part 2, and The Lords of Salem at some point in the New Year. What I did see, I mostly enjoyed (Evil Dead aside), and will cover more thoroughly in just a moment. And some other stuff, but who am I kidding? This site is called Cap'n Howdy's Blogorium, and you came for the horror, so let me give it to you!

Found Footage, Zombies, Dolls, and Learning the Alphabet for the Last Time.

 One could suppose that if Warm Bodies was a zombie movie for teenage girls, then World War Z is a zombie movie for people who vaguely know the word "zombie" in popular culture. It's not even really a horror movie - more of an action / disaster hybrid with a redesigned third act that inches towards suspense but still ends up like a tamer 28 Days Later. And I watched the "unrated" version, for the record. I can only imagine how toothless World War Z must have been in theaters. Still, it has a scrappy, amiable charm for a big budgeted blockbuster studio "tent pole" movie.

 Based almost not at all on the book of the same name by Max Brooks, World War Z is the story of Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt), a retired UN investigator living with his family, until the zombie outbreak begins, that is. Then the Deputy Secretary General Thierry Umutoni (Fana Mokoena) brings him back in to travel around the world and see what caused the outbreak, from South Korea to Israel and eventually to a World Health Organization research center in Ireland. Separated from his family, and with continually dwindling support, Gerry finds that the zombie outbreak is capable of overcoming even the most fortified of cities, and unless they can find a cure, humanity is doomed.

 World War Z is essentially a travelogue designed to show off various big action set pieces, which director Marc Forster (Finding Neverland, Quantum of Solace) does fairly well, and which Brad Pitt responds to with a reasonable sense of urgency. The zombies are sometimes people in makeup but are usually great swaths of CGI mayhem, particularly during the siege of Jerusalem. The movie makes an abrupt turn in the section in Ireland, due in large part because the delay in World War Z's release had everything to do with the third act not working, so they scrapped the original ending in Russia and went with a more sparse, claustrophobic ending. It works, although you can see loose threads of plot line in the film as a result - the main example is Matthew Fox's UN soldier who doesn't seem to serve much of a purpose other than to help move Gerry's family around, but who in the original version "takes" his wife and daughter as his own. Now it just seems like an oddly high profile casting choice for a minor role at best. Doctor Who fans already know the prescient casting of Peter Capaldi as the WHO Doctor (that IS how he appears in the credits).

 There's not really much else to say about the movie. I thought it was watchable, if mostly average. The story behind the movie is more interesting than the finished product. The survival bits near the beginning and towards the end are good, but have been done better before. All of the big action sequences are bombastic and if you like explosions and zombies and some degree of violence, the unrated cut is certainly worth your time. It's popcorn fare through and through, which is fine and dandy every now and then, but I can't imagine that I'd be all that enthused for World War Z 2.

 I already have some degree of coverage for V/H/S 2, Curse of Chucky, and The ABCs of Death, but it doesn't seem fair to have a section devoted to horror that only covers a movie that isn't really a horror movie, so let's talk about them some more, shall we? I saw The ABCs of Death at the Nevermore Film Festival, along with The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh and The Casebook of Eddie Brewer, both of which I'm pretty sure are movies from 2012 and don't count, but feel free to click the ABCs link to read about them. Rosalind Leigh is out on video now, and I'm not sure about Eddie Brewer, but I'll keep an eye out. Good independent horror is always worth checking out, especially when there are so many bad ones clogging the shelves. Or queue, or Redbox - whatever it is you modern kids use these days.

 Oh, right, I was talking about The ABCs of Death, which is now getting a sequel that I'm cautiously looking forward to. Not because I'm worried about quality, necessarily, but when I say there are things in the first anthology you can't un-see, I mean it. Not just in the "you literally saw it and can't un-see something you saw, dummy," but in the "great, I'm not going to be able to forget that, hard as I may try." Believe me, if I could go back in time and take a bathroom break during "L is for Libido" I would. Or "Pressure" or whatever "Z" was. Twenty six shorts films means there are some terrible ones mixed in with some genuinely inspired ones, and there are some truly bizarre entries (like "Fart" or the Harakiri one), and a surprising amount of toilet humor, probably more than one movie needed. If you're interested in the concept, the first film allowed people to vote for "T" and you can find many of them on Vimeo or YouTube. For The ABCs 2, the voting is for "M." So far I've seen some pretty interesting entries ("Masticate" might be my favorite) and they're fairly easy to find. If you'd rather wait for the movie to come out to see what wins, they should still be around afterwards.

 It's no secret that I like anthology horror films (that's probably a sentence I've written more times than I'd care to admit), and V/H/S 2 is a better one at what it sets out to do than The ABCs in construction, if not ambition. The more I think about it, the less it really has anything to do with "found footage," especially VHS tapes, as someone would have to go through extraordinary effort to edit most of the digital footage they "found" and then transfer it to a VCR in order to fit into the wraparound narrative's gimmick. I've heard that the WFUN Halloween Special does a better job of actually using the "VHS" conceit, but since I have not been able to watch it, I don't want to comment definitively. That said, I still think V/H/S 2 is an improvement in every way over the first film and will be keeping an eye out for successive entries into whatever you want to call this anthology format. Also, I need to get that special edition that has V/H/S 2 on VHS, just because.

 And Curse of Chucky. I've already gushed over it twice, because as mentioned with Furious Six last time, by the time you make it to six movies in a series, it's usually something terrible like Freddy's Dead, Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers, or Hellraiser: Hellseeker. Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives is the exception to that rule, and now it has some company with Curse of Chucky. (Sorry, I don't think I ever saw Children of the Corn 666 or, uh Puppet Master 6 if there is one. All of the Saw movies sucked, so it's not like VI was any better or worse, but I guess the whole "health insurance" thing was pretty dumb.) I think it would have had a pretty good shot in theaters, and I wish I had seen it with an audience, but DTV it was and the crowd at Horror Fest ate it up, so I can't complain too much. Let's just hope there isn't another eight year gap between Child's Play sequels.

Novel-less Adaptations

 Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine)'s The Place Beyond the Pines feels like his Great American Novel adaptation, but without a book to be based on. It's a sprawling, multi-generational story of small town America, of politics and crime and the sins of the father(s). At nearly two-and-a-half hours, it still feels shortened, as though there were threads of the story that were left out, chapters unvisited. While not altogether successful, the ambition to make such a dense story is nevertheless most impressive.

 The Place Beyond the Pines is broken up roughly into three sections: the first involves Luke (Ryan Gosling) a circus motorbike stuntman who decides to visit Romina (Eva Mendes) while in Schenectady. They hooked up the last time he was in town, and he figures maybe they can again, but when he arrives at her home unannounced, he discovers that he's the father of her infant son, Jason. Luke, despite being something of a drifter and generally shady character, immediately quits his job and decides to stay in town to help raise Jason, even though Romina is with Kofi (Mahershala Ali) and makes it clear that Luke isn't needed.

 The drifter ends up staying in the trailer of mechanic Robin (Ben Mendelsohn), who mentions he used to rob banks when Luke asks for work. The adrenaline junkie in Luke takes to robbing banks, and he uses the money to help Jason, despite Romina and Kofi's protests. When Luke turns violent, Robin abandons him and destroys his bike, giving the stuntman less to work with when he insists on robbing two banks in one day. While escaping on a faulty motorbike, Luke is pursued by Officer Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), with violent repercussions for both men.

 Without spoiling too much (because you really should see The Place Beyond the Pines), the focus of the film shifts from Gosling to Cooper as he navigates the Schenectady Police Department, corruption, and his own ambitions. We're introduced to his wife Jennifer (Rose Byrne), his own infant son, A.J.,  his father, Jude Al Cross (Harris Yulin), fellow officers Scotty (Gabe Fazio) and Deluca (Ray Liotta), and District Attorney Bill Killcullen (Bruce Greenwood), and the ways that they intersect with his crisis of conscience following the encounter with Luke and his new reputation as "Hero Cop."

 The film then jumps ahead fifteen years and picks up with Cross running for New York Attorney General, when Jennifer drops off the teenage A.J. (Emory Cohen) with his father. Avery transfers A.J. to a Schenectady high school for his final year, and the drug enthusiast teen quickly seeks out the first kid who acts like him, the quiet Jason (Dane DeHaan). Neither know their histories are intertwined, but A.J.'s negative and bullying presence soon brings Jason more trouble than he wanted while at the same time introducing him to a father he never knew. Romina and Kofi are helpless bystanders as Jason realizes a whole piece of his history, of who he is, has been withheld from him, and the path to discovery takes some dark turns.

 The Place Beyond the Pines' success for you is going to hinge on how you feel about the somewhat abrupt transition between protagonists midway through the film. The Bradley Cooper section of the film is compelling, but not as immediately gripping as the early stretch with Gosling, and the Avery Cross "chapters" of the movie take a slow, but deliberate, change of pace in developing the characters. Things pick up again when we meet A.J. and Jason as teens and see that much of The Place Beyond the Pines has been building to their stories, but the middle stretch might be too jarring for some. I personally felt that the beginning and the end are more than enough to make up for it, and that the middle leaves something to be desired (Avery Cross simply isn't as interesting a character as a young cop), but in laying the groundwork for Jason's story, it's a necessary detour. It still feels like there are a number of unresolved issues from the middle section of the film that seem like setups which are never paid off. Maybe they were never meant to be addressed again, but it does feel like reading a book and seeing the movie that needs to drop some critical moments for the sake of time or narrative flow. The end result is epic, but simultaneously intimate, and a welcome change of pace from conventional storytelling.

 There's no easy way to say this, but To the Wonder didn't really do anything for me. The Cap'n isn't alone in this, and apparently 2013 was the year of declaring that "The Emperor Has No Clothes" about Terrence Malick. Maybe it is possible to have too much of a good thing; up until 2005, when he released The New World, Malick made three films in three decades (Badlands, Days of Heaven, and The Thin Red Line), which gave audiences plenty of time to anticipate his next film, to pore over the last one, and the mystique of the reclusive director grew. But since The New World, Malick has been on a tear (comparably speaking) releasing The Tree of Life in 2011, To the Wonder in 2013, and Knight of Cups later this year. That's four movies in nine years (with another one underway), and perhaps Malick hit a saturation point none of us knew was coming, or could come.

 Critics were split on To the Wonder, and audiences mostly seemed to reject it as "pretentious" (which is not a new pejorative for a Malick film) and "empty." His films have, at least since Days of Heaven, valued the experiential over narrative structure. He tends to introduce themes that ask "Big" questions, like "what should humans follow, the path of nature or grace?" and as Malick gets older, the characters in his films become less important than the cosmic issues. You have to take it or leave it, because I don't think we're ever going to get something like Badlands again - the characters in a Malick film are merely cyphers for him to work out philosophical issues. To the Wonder isn't really any different, in that regard. I think the problem was that, for once, I didn't really connect to the issues he was grappling with.

 That is, at least, one of the problems I had with To the Wonder, and it's a fundamental one that kept me from letting the film wash over me (as they usually do). I can understand grappling with doubts about love and faith, but they don't personally engage me in any way, so the visuals were all I had to hang on to. Coupled with this is the fact that I'm not sure Malick knew what he wanted to say with To the Wonder, other than to put the issue out there and repeat it over and over again. Father Quintana (Javier Bardem) only seems to exist in order to provide (subtitled) narration about God's absence from his life, and to ask how to find spiritual enlightenment again. His role in the story is perfunctory, as the emotional travails of Neil (Ben Affleck), Marina (Olga Kurylenko), and - very briefly - Jane (Rachel McAdams) eat up most of the film.

The plot is bare bones, even compared to The Tree of Life. I can boil down into three sentences: Neil and Marina meet in Paris, and she agrees to move back to Oklahoma with him, where he works. She has doubts and returns to Paris with her daughter, and in their absence Neil reconnects with Jane, a childhood friend. When Marina returns, they marry but struggle and seek assistance from Father Quintana, but is it already too late?

 By the way, I only know their names because of the credits, because if someone says them in the film, I missed it for every character. Affleck mentioned in an interview that Malick films with a script and dialogue for the actors, and then tends to remove most of it during editing, and increasingly relies on narration to bridge the imagery (Sean Penn indicated something similar while disparaging his diminished presence in The Tree of Life). Neil says almost nothing at all in the film - he's really there more for Marina and Jane to project onto, and Affleck has, undeservedly I think, been shouldered with much of the blame for its failure in execution. In truth, it's not really his fault - the film, in its finished form, is a meditation on the inability of Marina to connect to Neil juxtaposed with Quintana's spiritual crisis. Marina is, for all intents and purposes, the main character - it's her we hear speaking in narration (subtitled, this time from French), and when she leaves the story for a while, McAdams steps in as a surrogate lover, but it's not long. Affleck is understated, largely because it isn't his story. It's not his crisis to deal with - of the cyphers in the film, Neil is the one we're left with to project all of our doubts on.

  I can't decide if the reason that the visual fallback doesn't work is because this is the first time Malick isn't working at all in period. It's such an odd thing to get hung up on, but To the Wonder is the only film he's made that's set entirely in the present, and once Neil and Marina leave Paris, it settles into a very flat, somewhat drab Midwestern location. The open sky is always nice to look at, but there was only so much of Kurylenko twirling in the "magic hour" light that can sustain a movie, and the sterility of their home in America didn't help. I realize that's the point - comparing it to the Old World of Europe, but for the first time it didn't feel like that was enough. Being visually boring isn't something I ever thought I'd equate with Terrence Malick, but I did check the running time of the movie midway into the film which is the first time I've ever done that with one of his movies.

 So To the Wonder is the punching bag that naysayers have been waiting for, and I don't want to add any more fuel to the fire, but it didn't really do much for me. It's disappointing, but these things happen, unfortunately.

 In the absence of the critical acclaim for Terrence Malick, critics suddenly found themselves scrambling to name the director's heir apparent, and it seems they've settled on David Lowery's Ain't Them Bodies Saints. I can certainly see the appeal, as Lowery (who edited Shane Carruth's Upstream Color, a film you'll be hearing about before this recap is over) crafted a tale of Texas in the 1970s that's bound to remind viewers of Badlands. It opens with a title card that states "This Was Texas," and drops us right into the lives of Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck) and Ruth Guthrie (Rooney Mara).

 We don't know much about them, other than Ruth helps Bob and his partner Freddy (Kentucker Audley) rob someone and make a getaway with police in hot pursuit. During the shootout at an abandoned Muldoon family farmhouse, Ruth shoots Office Patrick Wheeler (Ben Foster) in the shoulder after Freddy is killed. Because Ruth is pregnant, Bob takes the blame for the shot and is sent to prison for 25 years. Four years later, Ruth is raising her daughter, Sylvie (Kennadie and Jacklynn Smith) with the help of Patrick and Skerritt (Keith Carradine), a man with ties to Bob and Freddy. That is, until Bob escapes, and everyone anticipates he'll make good on his promise to come back for Ruth...

 Ain't Them Bodies Saints is more narrative driven than anything Malick's ever done, but otherwise I can see the comparisons to Badlands. It's a lush, atmospheric film, one that slowly reveals information, leaving plenty of open-ended plot lines throughout the early stretches. Bob's letters to Ruth are read in narration (as well as Ruth's one response), and much of the latter half of Ain't Them Bodies Saints is conveyed visually rather than with dialogue. The title itself is something of a mantra, not meant to symbolize anything in particular, but to put you in the frame of mind to experience the film. Affleck, Mara, Foster, and particularly Carradine turn in great performances, as does Nate Parker as Sweetie, Bob's friend on the outside that helps him when he returns to Meridian to find Ruth.

 It's a fine film, and I look forward to seeing more from Lowery, although I'd hesitate to call him the next Terrence Malick. For one, I don't see that such a title is necessary for an emerging director, and may in fact be more burdensome than laudatory. Ain't Them Bodies Saints has everything it needs to stand up on its own without crowning the director as the successor to another director's legacy. Taken on its own terms, there's more than enough for you to enjoy Ain't Them Bodies Saints.

Apatow in the Hand is Worth Two in the Bush (Or, a Tale of Two Apatows)

 It feels like there are three camps in the "Apatow Productions" industry: there's the Judd Apatow camp, which sort of ties things together but are mostly relationship based movies that go over two hours and have lots and lots of improv. Then there's the Adam McKay / Will Ferrel Gary Sanchez Productions / Funny or Die group, that focuses by an large on outlandish roles for Ferrell and company (Talladega Nights, Step Brothers). And then there's the Seth Rogen / Evan Goldberg camp, that brings us weird genre hybrids like Pineapple Express, Observe and Report, and Superbad. Sometimes they overlap and you'll see actors from one film in another of the camps (actually, more often than not, you will) but they seem to remain distinct entities unto themselves.

 As Apatow did not have a movie out this year, having released This is 40 in 2012, the Apatow Production brand fell into the capable hands of the Rogen and McKay camps to release two of the funnier movies I saw this year: This is the End and Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (respectively). Until Anchorman 2, I don't think I'd laughed harder at anything all year than This is the End (although there's one other movie I'll get to next week that's pretty close). They're very different types of movies, and I won't pretend that blatant vulgarity is a large part of their appeal, but laugh I did, and repeatedly.

 It never really occurred to me, but there was a very good chance that This is the End could have been a disaster. For lowbrow comedy, it's strangely high concept: a group of well known comedy actors play versions of themselves in the middle of the apocalypse. Actually, save for a few people in the background of the party and at the convenience store, everybody in This is the End is playing themselves, or an exaggerated version of their on-screen "persona"'s. Having seen actual interviews with Danny McBride, it's pretty clear he's not just Kenny Powers, but the "Danny McBride" in This is the End is absolutely a variation on that. Seth Rogen is the amiable stoner, Jonah Hill is the eager to please guy, Craig Robinson is the unflappable man about town, and James Franco is the weirdo. Well, okay, the last one might not be an exaggeration at all, but the screenplay by Rogen and Goldberg takes most of its shots at the "lesser" films on Franco's resume.

 I haven't really seen enough of Jay Baruchel outside of supporting roles in other Judd Apatow productions to know how close his "Hollywood Outsider"personality is to real life, but beneath all of the dick jokes and nonstop profanity is the simple story of two friends who grew apart. It's really the only thing that holds together the otherwise episodic nature of This is the End. Beyond the story of Seth Rogen (Rogen) and Jay Baruchel (Baruchel) trying to figure out where their friendship in compared to the Hollywood lifestyle, the movie is mostly a series of set ups that put Hill, Rogen, Baruchel, Franco, McBride, and Robinson in bizarre situations.

 And don't get me wrong, it's all VERY funny while you're watching it, and afterwards to boot, but don't go in expecting some kind of sustained story. It's more like "okay, it's the apocalypse - what do they have to eat? what drugs will they do? what happens when they run out of water? hey, Emma Watson survived and wants to stay with the guys - who's going to screw that up?" Even the ending feels like, "well, how are we going to end this movie?" and the answer is with the Backstreet Boys, paying off something we didn't even realize was a set up from earlier in the movie.

 In the meantime, there's a lot of improvisation, lots of poking fun at themselves (particularly Franco, who in the movie saves memorabilia from all of his films, leading them to have the prop gun from Flyboys as their only weapon). The party at Franco's house (where the movie takes place) is loaded with cameos, many from Apatow veterans who meet horrible ends. Michael Cera makes the best impression playing the coked out asshole from hell that we all know he is, but my favorite might be Paul Rudd accidentally crushing a woman's skull with his foot when the apocalypse starts. And yes, that's exactly how that happens.

 For those of you looking for consistent and raucous laughter, This is the End is a guaranteed winner. It plays like gangbusters with a crowd, too.

 After the first trailer, I must admit that I was worried Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues was going to suck. The long in development sequel (that almost didn't happen) just didn't look very funny from the ads, and to be honest some of what I saw made me groan. "Oh no, not Ron Burgundy being accidentally racist at the dinner table..." Fortunately, I had nothing to worry about. Like the first film (which I saw on a whim, also assuming it would only be intermittently funny), it's even better than you could have expected.

 With that much time to work on it, Adam McKay and Will Ferrell found plenty of time to hone the screenplay to perfection, and with a cast that clicks so well together, the improv doesn't stick out at all amidst the actual story (there is, apparently, an alternate cut of the film that replaces every single joke with a different one being released on Blu-Ray). The callbacks to the first film are limited, but well placed, and the new cast members fit in like a glove.

 Since Anchorman 2 is still playing at the time I'm writing this and I highly recommend you go see it, I won't say too much about the plot. It involves the News Team joining GNN, the first 24 Hour News Network (run by a psychotic Australian millionaire), but Ron (Ferrell), Champ (David Koechner), Brian Fantana (Paul Rudd) and Brick (Steve Carrell) aren't there to headline - no, that's for Jack Lime (James Marsden), the big time anchor. The Channel Five boys have the graveyard slot, and they decide to fill it with the news audiences want, not what they need, to the dismay of producer Freddie Shapp (Dylan Baker) and manager Linda Baker (Meagan Good). But it works!

 Make no mistake - Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues may be rated PG-13, but it's so close to an R that I would have sworn it was one. In fact, I had to look, because I thought it was an R. The "shit"'s fly almost as frequently as the non sequitur(s) do, and the film is loaded with sight gags you might not catch on the first viewing (and yes, I've seen it twice already). The use of a Simon and Garfunkel song near the end of the movie had me laughing so hard that I almost missed the subtitles from Baxter. Oh, and Kristen Wiig is a great addition as the love interest and only person dumber than Brick Tamland. The less I say about the "rumble" in this film, the better, because not knowing who's going to show up makes it even better, but I will say keep a close eye on the ghost of Stonewall Jackson...

 I'm not sure this is going to be as immediately quotable as the first film, but honestly I don't care. It's funny, and that's what is more important in a comedy. Not only did McKay and Ferrell not drop the ball, they carried it across the length of the field for a touchdown. Or do I mean "Whammy!"? Oh, and the bats... Oh, the bats. I'm trying hard not to spoil this movie for you, but when I think of it, there's so much that comes to mind.

 At any rate, both This is the End and Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues have tremendous replay value, and I'm looking forward to watching both yet again in the coming year(s).

 We're very nearly done with the middle, and as you can see my enthusiasm is growing as things progress. If you think these are getting ecstatic, just wait until you see the "Best Of."

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