A Surprising Treat  

Monday, October 26, 2009

We started doing Movies Schmovies five years ago, so we've been around the block a few times when it comes to bad movies. Over that time, we've assembled a pretty consistent assortment of truisms. Among them: local video rental places are endless fonts of awful movies, large budgets and commercial success can produce low-quality shit just as readily as teenagers with camcorders, and vignette movies are always good for a laugh.

I've lost count of all the vignette movies we've rented, watched, and suffered through over the last few years. Off the top of my head, there's Tales from the Hood, Snoop Dogg's Hood of Horror, Nite Tales, Creepshow 1-3, Twilight Zone: The Movie, Campfire Tales, Campfire Stories, Ghost Stories1, Quicksilver Highway, and I'm sure there are several more. The vast majority of them have been really, really stupid--though there are some notable moments of stupidity--such as Buster Poindexter's Ranger Bill in Campfire Stories (the source of the blog's title quote), or Flavor Flav apparently being unaware that this genre existed prior to Nite Tales (or that he, as the film's host, should have some kind of personality).

So when a horror anthology actually turns out to be good...well, we don't know how to feel about that, really. With the possible exception of Twilight Zone, that hasn't really happened before (and even that's stretching a bit). It'd be like a Michael Bay movie without explosions, a Tim Burton flick that didn't extol the weird and decry normalcy, a video game movie worth watching, collard greens that don't taste good, or a tree that's not made out of wood!

This is the dilemma we found ourselves in when watching Trick 'r Treat. Direct-to-DVD horror vignette movies are always cause for celebration around the Movies Schmovies compound, so we were pretty excited about it long before we'd actually heard anything. And then we started hearing things, things like "it's really good." This, naturally, intrigued us--such a thing surely wasn't possible. And let's face it, people said Paranormal Activity was going to be good too.

So we decided that this past weekend's soiree would begin with Paranormal Activity and end with a rental of Trick 'r Treat. This plan hit a snag when I actually tried to rent the movie, and found that there was a waiting list. Another nearby video store was similarly devoid of the film, so I resorted to the purchasing option. Here, too, I was met with defeat: every DVD store I visited on this side of the Mississippi had sold out. We finally managed to pick up the last copy at a Wal-Mart in Iowa on the night of the festivities, shortly before our ill-fated visit to one couple's sprawling San Diego estate.

So perhaps it was just the lingering stupor of shaky-cam garbage, but we actually really enjoyed Trick 'r Treat. The stories were clever and fun, never taking themselves too seriously. We've seen attempts to intertwine vignettes in films like this before, and such attempts rarely work. Here, the storylines weave in and out of one another, jumping back and forth in time, and doing so with a natural fluidity. The real benefit of this method was that it allowed for multiple twists in each story, and tied up different plot and character threads in unexpected ways.

The cast is largely drawn from recent superhero movies, boasting one X-Man, one X-Man villain, and Spider-Man's professor. The presence of real actors--as opposed to rappers--already set this film above the bar set by its contemporaries. Some of the characters are certainly more developed than others, and I'm not sure Dylan Baker's character quite worked in all the ways they used him, but overall the stories were pretty good. Overall, the whole movie is a celebration of Halloween, at times creepy and at times goofy and reveling in both.

I could go into more detail, but you'd be better off finding out for yourselves. Netflix or Blockbuster or whatever, you might as well give Trick 'r Treat a try. You could do a lot worse.

1. I hesitate to include this one, since it barely met the qualifications of "movie." It was more like a tape of community theater monologues.

Antichrist beats me at my own game  

Every now and then, a movie comes along that I can't bring myself to pay to see. There are some movies you just shouldn't have to tell another human being that you would like to watch. But after hearing from multiple sources what otherworldly shit Lars Von Treir's Antichrist is, I knew I had to see it. Online. Alone. In the privacy of my own home. For free.

By now you've probably figured out Tom and my M.O. We intentionally seek out things we expect to find stupid, and then, when proven correct, we make fun of those things on the internet. So was my intention for Antichrist, but the more I watched, the more I came to believe this movie was making fun of me for believing I live in a rational world where self-disemboweling foxes don't speak English, or where roving bands of faceless women don't patrol the woods. This movie had decided that it was going to beat me at my own game, in a concerted effort to kill every part of me. The part that never saw Willem Dafoe's balls before dies first, approximately one minute in.

After seeing Willem Dafoe boning his mother, a small child throws himself out of a second story window, as any sane child would react under similar circumstances. I respond with a joke about Eric Clapton, but this movie came for a fight. After 50 minutes of Dafoe's ridiculously boring attempts to psychoanalyze his grieving wife, the movie comes back strong with the afore mentioned fox, in a scene so stupid I lack the words to even make fun of it:

The movie senses I am dazed, and moves in with a vengeance. Dafoe's wife smashes his testicles with a piece of lumber, and then masturbates him until he ejaculates blood. While he is unconscious from the pain, she drills a hole through his ankle and screws a grindstone through it. By this point, I'm starting to have fond memories of Vampires vs. Zombies.

For some reason, they launch into another round of psychotherapy. At this point, my pride has overruled my rational mind and multiple other body systems which are ordering me to stop. I am determined to finish this movie.

The movie decides it's time for more genital mutilation. This time, the woman turns on herself. Rusty scissors. Vag. Stupid squirt sound effect. Ok, movie, you win.

Antichrist has beaten me at my own game, because there is nothing I can say to make this movie more ridiculous than it actually is. The only joke is on me, because I watched it.

Schmovies Review: Paranormal Activity (or, Poultrygeist)  

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Truly frightening horror movies scare people by creating a familiar situation that the audience can relate to, putting characters in positions of vulnerability, building suspense and delivering.
There is a short list of movies people people have, from time to time, considered the most frightening:
-- Halloween: Great movie, not particularly frightening, but easily one of the most innovative horror flicks. The original Halloween was particularly good at establishing familiar surroundings and playing on common real-life fears.
-- Texas Chainsaw Massacre: Basically a more raw, visceral version of Halloween. It had the added element of being set in Texas, which is terrifying in and of itself. By pioneering the low-budget horror film, TCM is in many ways the grandfather of Blair Witch Project and, ultimately, Paranormal Activity.
-- The Blair Witch Project: This movie did many things right: it put viewers directly into a situation they could relate to, built a ton of suspense, and like Halloween, played on common fears (though not as common). But it never delivered. You don't see the witch, you don't see anything, and that's the problem. Anything from feet running past the camera to a full on witch sighting in the final frames would have made this movie great--or at least moderately satisfying. As is, it's just stupid. Ultimately, Blair Witch Project is remembered more for the hype that surrounded it and the disappointment that inevitably followed it than anything actually in the movie.
-- The Exorcist: Do you believe that the devil can and would possess the body of a 13-year-old girl? If so, then you might think that The Exorcist is deeply disturbing. If not, all you're left with is an image of the devil as a potty-mouthed 13-year-old girl whose most pronounced power is to beat a priest at the dozens.

Over the last few weeks, we've been hearing reports of a movie so scary that it has moviegoers rushing from the theater with a combination or shit, piss and vomit flowing from their various orifices. So, colostomy bags in hand, we set out to find Paranormal Activity.

First, a note on the marketing of Paranormal Activity. Regardless of the quality of the film, the marketing is a clear success. The TV campaign shows little to no footage from the movie itself, instead relying on night-vision shots of a shocked audience, and the promise that it's so frightening that it might not even be at a theater near you, unless you go to their website and "demand" it. It's all a throwback to the William Castle-era horror movies which made outlandish claims that "doctors trained in the treatment of fear will be present in the lobby during all showings." The fact that this movie went from being independently released in 2007, to topping the box office in 2009 is a success.

So after all the hype and stories of people unable to watch the end, "Paranormal Activity" had built some lofty expectations. What we got was evidence of how -- without the suspenseful music and jump cuts -- ghost stories are pretty mundane. But we'll come back to that.

We meet Micah and Katie, the young couple who make up half of the cast (and 90% of the screen time). Actually, perhaps that's unfair: Katie's cleavage spends enough time on screen that it might as well get billed on the marquee. Micah has decided that it would be fun to bring a camera into the bedroom; sounds good so far. Oh, he wants to film the ghost his girlfriend thinks has been haunting her since she was eight? Okay, we're here anyway, we may as well keep watching. The preceding paragraph accounts for the first 40 minutes of the movie.

Micah, we soon find out, is a deeply unsympathetic douchebag. Not that either character is particularly relatable, living opulently in a palatial San Diego mansion without any visible means of income. Micah claims to be a day-trader, who spent half of what he made in one day on a high quality movie camera to film the supposed paranormal events happening in the vast upstairs. He sincerely believes that filming his girlfriend's encounters will be fun, and openly taunts the demon, in hopes of capturing some cool video. He does all this despite Katie's growing fright, and the escalating intensity of the encounters. In fact, he regularly takes steps to get Katie to draw out the ghosts--which she refuses--and to ensure that the events will continue happening with greater theatricality. It's reasonably assumed that he plans to sell his footage, which may explain his repeated attempts to get Katie to have sex with him on film. One way or another, he would cash in--either on the public's fascination with lame ghost hunting videos, or on the increasingly expansive definition of "celebrity" in the term "celebrity sex tape." Katie is apparently on to his schemes, and so never sleeps in fewer than two shirts and an underwire.

Katie looks a bit like the love child of Zooey Deschanel and Rachel Dratch, and claims to be an English major. Despite a supposed literary background, the only book we ever see her reading is a "For Dummies" book with a blurred-out cover, which she treats like a textbook. Micah claims to be a day trader, though he never actually day trades anything, or appears to have any kind of job or friends outside of the house. This is probably an accurate depiction of life for a day trader. Katie has one friend, who comes over to lend a credulous ear and make bead jewelry with her (the main source of income of most English majors). A psychic who dresses like Carl Sagan rounds out the cast.

The demon joins, seemingly gladly, in an arms race of douchebaggery with Micah, escalating from stomping around the couple's stately four-bedroom Xanadu-esque pleasure dome, loudly thumping up the far too many stairs, slamming and knocking on their bedroom door, flipping lights on and off, and turning on their TV, all in the middle of the night, whenever the 3:00 a.m. freight train passes through their backyard.

As circumstances dictate, Micah is either an enthusiastic ghost hunter, or an avowed skeptic. He taunts Katie for her attempts to call in a demonologist and generally makes fun of the psychic, while he himself runs around the house experimenting with Electronic Voice Phenomena and spends his days dissecting the previous night's ghost videos like an even dopier John Madden.

"See Katie, the demon is going to send his cornerback on a zone blitz from the hallway. He's been beating our left tackle all night and when that happens you're going that leaves you vulnerable on the blind side. Boom! We need to shift our strong-side set if we're going to give you enough time in the pocket to not get possessed. The demon is going after the girl, because the only way he's going to get possession of the girls' soul is by going after the girl. What? Maybe I should sleep by the door? Yeah, I don't think that's going to help."

The movie bravely tries to eschew typical horror movie character archetypes. Our heroine, rather than being tough-as-nails and pure as the driven snow, is emotionally abused and utterly powerless. Our hero, rather than being a dashing crusader who rushes in to save his girl from mortal peril, instead always takes two steps toward rushing in to save her, then stops, returns for the camera, and meanders toward our intrepid heroine. And our psychic, who in any other film would be an endless font of information about the spirit world and how to combat its inhabitants, is more like a marriage counselor who exists primarily as a reason for the couple to relate their backstory. His only useful contribution to the story is the explanation that the haunting is due not to a ghost, but to a demon. Demons being outside his "expertise," he refers them to a Demonologist, then leaves. Later on, when it turns out his recommended Demonologist is out of the country (something he was apparently aware of), and since there are apparently no other Demonologists or Psychics or Exorcists within driving distance of San Diego, he returns. It's a short-lived return, wherein he gets really scared and runs away.

The demon and the douchebag's war of attrition continues throughout the film. The demon indecisively moves the door a few inches, so the douchebag conducts an EVP interview where he asks the Bridgekeeper's questions from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The douchebag gets a Ouija Board to communicate with the demon, so the demon spells out "Diane" then starts a fire that it looks like the planchette is hitting 88 miles per hour. The douchebag spreads baby powder on the floor so that the demon's chicken-like footprints show up, so the demon punches a portrait of the douchebag that's hanging on the wall. At that point, we decided to side with the demon.

During all this, the demon is continuing his assault on Katie, which includes such terrible torment as "making her stand staring at the bed for an hour, then making her go outside and sleep on a swing" and "pulling the sheet off her foot." If this had gone on much longer, we'd expect him to resort to drawing on her face in permanent marker and putting her hand in a dish of warm water. Perhaps she's just being haunted by the ghost of her douchebag boyfriend.

Ultimately, the demon has had enough (which shows a lot of patience, we'd had more than enough by the time the movie was half an hour over). He drags Katie out of bed and down the hall, where he bites her in the side, demonstrating (among other things) that he needs some serious dental work. Things ramp quickly up to the conclusion--and by quickly, I mean mind-numbingly slowly. Micah finally wants to leave the house and tries to convince Katie, but she strangely thinks everything is going to be fine, and (in an auto-tuned voice) says "I think I'd rather stay here, shaw-ty-ee." T-Pain would be proud.

The film ends with another bout of Katie's Ambien-induced sleep-standing-and-staring. She walks down the hall and screams, and Micah comes to her rescue. After some distant screaming and shouting, there's silence, until Micah's body is thrown against the camera by a blood-stained Katie, who crouches down to sniff at him, then looks at the camera and smiles with teeth taken from Jennifer's Body.

There are a couple of unimportant subplots we ignored, like the fire which consumed Katie's old house and the girl named Diane that this demon apparently haunted in the '60s, but if the movie didn't care enough to tie those up, then neither do we.

Did you think "Groundhog Day" was scary? If so, then maybe you'd find Paranormal Activity's habit of showing a ghost scene, then replaying the scene on Micah's computer the next morning absolutely terrifying. The rest of us realize why the trailer didn't show any scenes from the movie. The only two scenes the filmmakers could have shown would have shot their load before anyone bought a ticket, and why demand the cow when you get the milk for free. The filmmakers seemingly couldn't decide whether they wanted a shaky-cam "real footage" film like The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield, or a polished horror movie. Consequently, there are obvious cuts that somehow fail to interrupt the flow of scripted dialogue, and quite a bit of editing that makes one wonder who--since our principal characters are dead and missing respectively at the end--bothered to try to pare it down to a moderately dramatic narrative. Despite some kind of professional editing, a good 50% of the movie is spent on shots of two people sleeping with very little happening. The other 50% is spent on shots of two people arguing with very little happening.

By the end, "something happening" would have been a godsend. There aren't many movies that would benefit from someone in a big, fake, rubbery demon costume walking through a doorway and saying "hey, um...boo," but this is one of them. A horned devil, a creepy clown, a long-haired Japanese girl--basically any Tim Curry character would have been effective. When the footsteps were ascending the (far too many) stairs at the end, there were people in the audience who were quivering; they could have literally revealed anything and people would have screamed. Instead, they forgot the principal rule established by Blair Witch: the unseen is only scary if eventually it becomes the seen. Being a visual medium, movies require a visual payoff. Lacking that, you're left with a weak stage play, or a 1940s radio drama.

Don't get us wrong, we're glad to see a movie that values suspense over shock, but if the work of Rob Zombie and Eli Roth is waterboarding, this movie is solitary confinement. Sure, it's a different kind of torture, but it's still torture, and while it may qualify us to be Republican Presidential candidates, it's not enjoyable.

The Cold War spawned horror movies about invasions of outsiders and the threats of military science. Suburban anxiety in the '70s and '80s spawned horror movies about the dangers at home--psychos calling from inside the house, escaped mental patients on Halloween, Satanic cults everywhere. The '90s and early 2000s brought us J-horror and torture porn, an extreme dichotomy between bizarre and possibly symbolic, and bloody but mindless. Paranormal Activity is the inevitable result of a culture that supports innumerable shows like "Ghost Hunters," "Paranormal State," "A Haunting," and so forth, making mountains of ratings out of the molehills of mundane "paranormal" encounters. PA tries to skirt a line between "realistic"--inasmuch as any of these series about plumbers exploring hypnagogic hallucinations with EMF meters is realistic--and theatrical, but never commits to either one.

See, what this really shows is that, if these "real-life" hauntings were real, and if they could be documented, they'd be boring as all hell. The reason people watch shows like "A Haunting" is not (just) because of the "true" stories of ghostly encounters, but because of all the mood-setting music, dramatizations, jump-cuts and creative editing, and other elements designed to dress up otherwise boring night-vision and people telling stories. Remember, most of these events are the sort of things that reasonable people sleep through. That doesn't make for good drama or excitement.

All told, Paranormal Activity is very much the spiritual successor to The Blair Witch Project, and consequently it's a lot like the paranormal events it's meant to explore: talked about by many, scary to those inclined to believe, but in the light of day and reason, completely without scare or substance.

In two weeks, The Fourth Kind will hit theaters, apparently exchanging aliens for ghosts. It seems like it'll be four times as scary as Paranormal Activity...what's four times zero again?

Join us next time when we review the award-winning shaky-cam exploration of oft-unexplored pleasure centers, Perineal Activity. Damned if it taint the best film we've seen all year.

Deep Thought  

Saturday, October 10, 2009

"C.H.U.D." proves that Guiliani really did make a difference.

Unsolicited Advice  

Friday, October 09, 2009

Dear Screenwriters: How many different adaptations of "A Christmas Carol" do we need? I mean, really, another one? I hope these are really easy to write.

Dear Jim Carrey: Typecasting sucks.

Dear Producers of the Nightmare on Elm Street remake: The world is not ready for a Freddy Krueger who looks like the Cat in the Hat.

Dear Kevin Williamson: This had better be good.

Dear Whoever Made This: More, please.

Dear Darthleather: You are a racist. Nice handle, by the way.

See Saw  

Thursday, October 08, 2009

The "Saw" series is approaching its sixth installment. There's a large part of me that wonders why the series continues limping along, dripping copious amounts of blood as it shuffles onward, apparently unaware that it died several films ago. The last one I watched was the third one, and that was at least one too many.

But as often (and justifiably) maligned as the films are, I don't think we should just throw the gory baby out with the bathwater. The series really started to lose me sometime during the first sequel, but I still think that "Saw"--sans roman numerals of any sort--is a good movie.

There's a lot going on in "Saw." You've got the police investigation into a killer who borrows a lot from "Seven," you've got the increasingly panicked banter of Cary Elwes and...that other guy as they try to figure out what's going on, you've got the stalking of Cary's family, and you've got Danny Glover stalking Cary's stalker. The core of the movie is the kind of clever dilemma that gets proposed in a philosophy textbook, with a twist ending that I thought was actually quite well done.

For that matter, I like Jigsaw's motivation. In a very bizarre way, it's kind of like "It's a Wonderful Life," where he's changing people's perceptions and making them appreciate what they have by putting them through incredibly terrible experiences. He's forcing a motivational speaker's background on his targets--new perspective through trauma and adversity.

It's also worth noting, I think, that the first "Saw" is relatively light on gore. Sure, there's the disgusting settings that permeate the film, but as far as blood, guts, and violence go, the sequels really ramp that up--much to their detriment. There were a couple of scenes in the second one that really made me squirm, chiefly the pit of needles, but I didn't think the first one had anything along those lines.

What I'm trying to say in this rambling post working from old memories is that I think the "Saw" franchise deserves a lot of the abuse it gets. It largely kicked off the "gore over substance" trend that's killing modern horror movies *cough*RobZombie*cough*, and its sequels have spiraled into self-absorption and obsolescence. But let's not judge a movie by its sequels; "Saw" stands on its own as a pretty decent horror flick.

And if they'd stuck with that, instead of getting bogged down in Jigsaw as a character and his henchmen and whatnot, it might have made for a good series.

Schmovies Review: G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra  

Saturday, August 08, 2009

It has been a very long time since we've seen a movie as ridiculously, hilariously, epically awful as G.I Joe: The Rise of Cobra. We scarcely know where to begin in describing it. We'd warn you about spoilers, but the movie kind of spoils itself.

Let's start with the wide view: G.I. Joe is essentially Team America played entirely straight. This makes it either the most brilliant, Kaufmanesque parody of over-the-top patriotic military porn sci-fi action films ever, or the flaming piece of crap-gilded crap that it actually is.

A little less generally, the dialogue sounds like it's trying to parody the Cheat Commandos. Again, this is either metafictional brilliance or complete ineptitude. The fact that Marlon Wayans co-stars suggests the latter. Every significant line of dialogue is either some terribly hackneyed action movie cliché, a line that was written to be used in the trailer, or both. The Baroness in particular speaks almost exclusively in movie trailer lines, while Duke is essentially reading from the "angst-ridden soldier with an unwavering sense of duty" archetype handbook.

By the way, Marlon Wayans? We shouldn't be too hard on him. He was actually one of the best actors in the film.

Let that sink in for a moment: Marlon Wayans, of White Chicks, Little Man, and Norbit, is one of the best--if not the best--actors in the movie.

We'll give you a minute to stop screaming. As with any other aspect of this movie, we could go on for pages about the bad acting, but there's one obvious place to start: Tommy Solomon Joseph Gordon-Levitt's turn as Cobra Commander. Cobra Commander should be a very difficult character to screw up. He's a cartoon supervillain who wears a mask that completely covers his face, thereby eliminating any need to emote facially. Apparently, the guy who has twice failed to get into Alex Mack's pants Gordon-Levitt thought that spending the entire movie in a mask that covered the lower half of his face was a serious hindrance to his acting abilities, so he compensated by constantly moving around and gesturing like a spastic C-3P0. Seriously, it's as though he thought he was being directed by Harold Zoid.

By the way, for being Cobra Commander, he doesn't do much commanding. In fact, he spends the vast majority of the movie allowing viewers to think he's just an updated Dr. Mindbender. If you remember Dr. Mindbender at all, you might recall that he looked something like this:

Bald, giant moustache, monocle, shirtless, cape, purple pants. And yet, between the silly latex-and-oxygen mask costume and Gordon-Levitt's hamminess, they managed to make this doctor even more ridiculous.

Running through the rest of the major actors: Channing Tatum did a good job of playing a soldier who'd experienced one too many concussions, and occasionally mistook the scenery for bubblegum; Sienna Miller certainly was present, two parts of her more than the rest; Christopher Eccleston was fairly competent; Arnold Vosloo's Zartan had the most fake, meandering accent in the movie (he's from South Africa, so maybe it's his natural accent, in which case his natural South African accent sounds like a really fake accent from some other place); and Dennis Quaid can no pretend to be superior to Randy at Quaid family gatherings.

The broad swaths of the story were actually quite promising, very much in line with some of the ridiculous schemes perpetrated by Cobra over the years. The insanely complicated plan involves Destro orchestrating a robbery of weapons he created and sold to the government, so that he can use them to destroy national monuments and attack major world capitals, all as a cover for the installation of Zartan as the President of the United States (presumably, this plot also included a forged birth certificate and a forty-year-old announcement in a Hawaiian newspaper, but those scenes were likely left for the Director's Cut). Really, that could have been cool, but as always the Devil is in the details. So, incidentally, are the shitty parts of the movie.

Let's start with Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow, whose appearances feel like they were wandering in and out from a kung-fu flick filming next door. Since the rest of the movie was already a mishmash of every conceivable overused action movie trope, the filmmakers decided that they had to mine every conceivable overused kung-fu movie trope to pad out this overexposed, unnecessary subplot. Snake Eyes is another one of those characters who should be impossible to mess up: he's a badass ninja commando who doesn't talk. Naturally, the costume designers decided that the most important thing for a character who doesn't talk to have was a mouth molded into his rubber mask. This is in addition to his Joel Schumacher-esque muscular rubber outfit, which is all the rage with ninjas these days. After that, they thought it prudent to show us how Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow grew up together in Japan, because as the Star Wars prequelshave demonstrated, nothing enhances a badass character's coolness and intimidation factors quite like intimate glimpses into their awkward childhood years. Following this, the filmmakers apparently got confused about what '80s series they were reviving, and just used the old Splinter/Shredder origin instead.

Then there's the giant cliché web linking Duke, the Baroness, and Cobra Commander. See, Duke and the Baroness were engaged (before she met the Baron de Cobray. Yes, "de Cobray," a name which sounds like an obvious front for Cobra, but this is never remarked upon, and he's a witless patsy. I'd call this a red herring, but that's giving them way too much credit), and her little brother, Rex Lewis, was in Duke's unit in war-torn Waristan. He promised to take care of little Rex (a science officer, apparently those are real), which eventually amounted to sending him into a building alone during a bombing run. Naturally, Rex got blowed to smithereens, leaving Duke and pre-Baroness's relationship in shambles, and making Duke ride around on a motorcycle like he's Lorenzo Lamas.

Naturally, it turns out that Rex survived (though terribly scarred) and became the Doctor, who actually was (or later became) Cobra Commander. We don't know about you, but we're pretty sure that this origin ranks below "former used car salesman" and "disfigured snake-man from an ancient secret society in the Himalayas" origins for Cobra Commander. There aren't many names less threatening than "Lewis."

All this means that Baroness gets to make a Heel Face Turn by the end, breaking her Cobra conditioning to save Duke and yadda yadda. If you didn't see it coming by the cut-and-paste nature of the plot, then her frequent flashbacks to sweet moments with her brain-damaged fiancé were there to hammer the foreshadowing home.

As long as we're on the subject of the Baroness, it seems prudent to mention that while the movie gave just about every other character some goofy accent (or in Cobra Commander's case, three different goofy voices), they decided to take the Baroness's away. Perhaps it's because it didn't fit with her inane new backstory, or perhaps it's because they felt that they were already taxing Sienna Miller's talents (both of them) by having her traipse around the Arctic with her catsuit unzipped.

Speaking of the Arctic, it's worth mentioning that the film claims to take place "In the not too distant future" (though it's unclear if it's Next Sunday, A.D.), but the Arctic ice sheet is still ten stories thick. Take that, Al Gore!

Which brings us to the science and technology content of the movie. Now, it's a sci-fi action flick based on a cartoon, we're not expecting Apollo 13. That being said, it's fair to say that the filmmakers have learned everything they know about science from other action movies. Scarlett starts things off by telling Ripcord that she doesn't find him attractive because that would be emotional, and science can't study or quantify emotions. Straw Vulcan is absolutely right; scientists are totally unemotional, and there's no way that science can study things like emotions. Not more than ten minutes after this particular idiocy, the Joes encounter a dead Neo-Viper, from whom they need to extract some information. Thankfully, as our stoic redhead notes, the brain lives for a couple of minutes after death, so they can shove some giant spikes into the brain and find out where Cobra's headquarters is. What's that, you say? Brain death is one of the ways that we determine whether or not someone is actually dead? Well, I can't imagine that being an important thing to know.

Also, we're pretty confused as to what particle accelerators have to do with weaponizing nanobots. We're also pretty sure that the writers were pretty confused about what particle accelerators do, only having some vague notion that they spin something around. And they even got that part wrong.

The technology has some similar issues. Part of the problem is with the special effects, which often look like they come from some late-90s Saturday-morning cartoon. Consequently, the undersea dogfights, Duke and Ripcord running around in their Halo suits, and various other points of painfully obvious CGI lead the viewer to wonder why they didn't just animate the movie in the first place. But even if we excuse the animation that someone apparently did on a ColecoVision, there are some things that just don't quite make sense.

We can start with those Halo-style bionic suits, which really served no purpose except to allow Duke and Ripcord to jump around like Spider-Man and run really fast even when stopped. There were times when the suits seemed to weigh quite a bit, and there were more times when they seemed to be completely massless. Strangely enough, this largely corresponded to when the suits were real, and when they were computer animation.

For some reason, though he goes to ridiculous extremes to keep his involvement in the terror plot a secret (though slack-jawed Duke managed to implicate him with minimal mental effort--the maximum amount he could provide), Destro slaps his company's logo onto every piece of equipment in the film--including, of course, the various doomsday devices and weapons that he's sold to the villains. Now, if Bill Gates were trying to take over the world, do you think he would slap the Microsoft logo onto everything?

Okay, bad example. Point being, Destro's kind of dumb, but it's probably genetic. Turns out that he's descended from a long line of weapons dealers who got caught. We can only assume that his 17th century ancestor had engraved "M.A.R.S." into all the gunpowder barrels and crossbow bolts he was selling. As punishment, he was forced to dress as Kilroy; modern Destro got the updated punishment of looking like Max Headroom.

One other technology moment that really sticks out is during one of the underwater chase/dogfight scenes. While Duke and Baroness are escaping in their stolen Cobra vessel, her cannon runs out of...lasers. They're passing through a trench (but don't compare this battle to the Death Star or anything!), so Duke launches something out behind the craft. The mine, or whatever, separates out into several pieces, which attach to the walls of the chasm, connected by deadly laser beams like a hallway in a robbery flick. While this is effective in shredding their pursuer, one has to wonder what kind of utility such a device would have in the open ocean, where this ship would presumably be doing most of its fighting. I guess Cobra plans for everything, except inevitable betrayal.

We've touched on aspects of the direction tangentially, but it's worth mentioning that even for a cotton candy action movie, the explosions sometimes seem really random. The flashbacks were even more random, popping up every time it seemed like there might be a coherent story thread going on. Thankfully, they put those little X-Files style setting captions in the bottom of the screen when they transitioned scenes, so the viewer knew when and where each event was happening. Apparently the caption writer suffered from the same attention deficit disorder as the rest of the crew, because the captions typically lagged far behind the scene transition.

There was an obligatory training montage, set to a song that sampled "Get it On (Bang a Gong)," which really only heightened the comparison between this and "Team America." Baroness's "promise my brother will never die" line dovetails nicely with that, and one expects Dennis Quaid's "I'm-a break all the rules" speech to end with a description of how he tested Duke's loyalty through fellatio.

The movie ends triumphantly, with Destro and Cobra Commander locked in giant soup cans in Magneto's cell. Marlon Wayans' movie-long attempt at finding out if Scarlett is a natural redhead kind of peters out without resolution, but he and Duke get offered full positions on the G.I. Joe team. The team boards a plane toward their next mission, and Dennis Quaid wishes them all good luck. Then, he gets on the plane with them. I guess Joe regulations require goodbyes to be said on the ground.

We could go on and on--why would the White House farm out their security bunker to an international arms dealer, then use it after he's been exposed as part of an international terrorist plot? How did Dr. Mindbender get access to cutting-edge nanotechnology in the middle of backwards Waristan?--but we'd be here all night. To sum everything up, G.I. Joe is a terrible movie. It took some real effort to out-awful a movie about Sgt. Slaughter leading the fight against sci-fi snake people from the Himalayas, but this movie manages to suck considerably more than the original G.I. Joe film. That being said, it's not terrible the way Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 was terrible. The movie was hilarious; it was a real treat to watch for people who like watching awful movies. So if you're looking to get your Joel Hodgson or Mike Nelson on, The Rise of Cobra is a nice diversion. If you'd rather save your money for good movies, then we hear better things about G-Force.

Join us next time when we review that critically-acclaimed pornographic classic, The Bi-Curious Case of Benjamin's Butthole.

Some short thoughts on Wolverine  

Monday, May 25, 2009

Cross-posted from The Fortress of Soliloquy.

I saw X-Men Origins: Wolverine last night. It was at least as terrible as everyone's been saying, which is a shame, because I like Hugh Jackman and Liev Schreiber, and I thought the first two X-Men movies were quite good. But, where X-Men III suffered from too much story (among other things), this one suffered from far, far too little...among other things. Spoilers from here on out.

  • First, there's the matter of Wolverine's name. Now, my fianceé and I both concluded that he must have taken the name "Logan" from the man he thought was his father, and that his actual father must have been screaming "Mister Logan" or something along those lines at the beginning. This wasn't clear, largely because it wasn't easy to hear what Fathertooth was saying, and could have used some clarifying.
  • What muddies things is that Wolvie apparently started going by "Logan" after he left Stryker's team and started living with Kayla...but then Wraith and Stryker call him "Logan" when he's with them later. This could have been easily remedied, but the way it played out, it became one of the film's many glaring continuity errors.
  • Among the most glaring, as my fianceé noted, was Logan's disappearing clothes. He's wearing his leather jacket in the helicopter (a jacket that's at least very similar to the one he wears in the other films), but not when he gets to the island. At some point, in between cuts, he loses his shirt and ends up in nothing more than a wifebeater. Was it so hot on Three Mile Island that Logan just had to strip down between shots? Take this with the number of times where people suddenly appear where they shouldn't be (when did Gambit get onto the roof after being knocked out? How did Wolverine suddenly reappear in the lab after Kayla's scream, with no apparent doors or windows in that end of the room?) and the number of places where we completely lose track of how much time things take (so they left Logan strapped to the machine, waiting, while they went and pressed him some new dog tags?), and what you should end up with is a jobless continuity editor.
  • Gosh, there sure were an awful lot of characters in this movie. Too bad so few of them had well-defined powers (so Deadpool can...swing things fast?) or any real character development. Stryker's team could have been half its size or smaller, and the movie would have been much better for it.
  • Unfortunately, this movie seems to have taken to heart that timeless characterization shortcut, telling instead of showing. We don't need to see Gambit do a daring escape from Three Mile Island, we just need Will.i.am to tell us how badass he is, and that's totally enough.
  • Proof that Wolverine is better than any other superhero: where other heroes have one character-defining tragedy, Wolverine has four--although the fourth one is really just the second one again. I don't think I've ever seen one character do the Big No this many times in a single film before.
  • You know, I don't really mind Gambit as a character all that much, and I'm glad that this wasn't a film full of Claremontistic stereotype accents, but would it have killed Taylor Kitsch to make a choice about the Cajun drawl? Either use it or don't, but don't let your accent meander all over the south.
  • So, how 'bout those crappy special effects? I can't remember the last time I saw effects this bad in a theatrical film. I'm not sure whose decision it was to apparently go 99% CGI on the claws (at least the metal ones), but they looked realistic maybe once or twice. The other films at least occasionally used prop claws instead of animated ones; were there really none left around after the last three movies? That wasn't the only bad CGI, either--the sky during the cooling tower fight looked like a Windows desktop background, and at one point there was a lens flare that screamed to me "this movie made with Photoshop '98." Xavier at the end looked even more mannequin-esque than in X-Men III, and I have to imagine it'd work better just to use some damn makeup. Everything CGI was noticeably CGI, which kind of defeats the whole purpose of having CGI effects in the first place. We've been doing better computer animation with more seamless integration into live action for over ten years; what is this movie's excuse?
  • Speaking of things that were done better ten years ago, I don't think I've ever seen a less convincing fat suit than the one they used for the Blob. It worked pretty well for one of the close-up face shots toward the end, but otherwise it was rigid in all the wrong ways, never seemed to have any real weight to it, and it certainly didn't react to punches and combat the way anything even resembling real fat would. They tried to use CGI to make it look more realistic, but it only hurt things to see Blob's man-boobs bouncing out of sync with the rest of his body--CGI by the iJiggle app. "Weird Al" had a better fat suit in 1988. This was just lazy.
  • The dialogue was awful. Often laughably awful. "Back to back!" Ugh.
  • So, uh, does Sabretooth suddenly have electrical powers? Seems like lights flickered on and off quite a bit when he was around, for no apparent reason.
  • Why didn't Wolverine notice that there for all the blood on Kayla, there were no wounds? I guess he's not the best there is at forensics.
  • Why was Deadpool's mouth fused shut? Shortly before that, they showed him with lips sewn shut, but then suddenly there's scar tissue all over the bottom of his face. I could come up with a No-Prize explanation, but I really shouldn't have to.
  • One thing the film did that really bothered me was the Boba Fett retcon (the Fettcon?). See, Boba Fett was awesome in "Empire" because he looked really cool and didn't say much and managed to capture Han Solo. He was only marginally more important than the random aliens that populated Mos Eisley and Jabba's palace, but altogether they helped flesh out the universe. Briefly-appearing characters like Boba Fett made the universe feel like it was full of individuals, and that the protagonists weren't the actual focal point of the cosmos. After all, if someone we've never heard of can just swoop in and take out one of the main cast, then maybe they're all that vulnerable; maybe they aren't protected by contractual immortality. But then the Prequels came along, and suddenly Boba Fett isn't just some random badass, he's the son of the prototype badass on whom all the other badasses were based. They went back and changed Fett from just some guy who comes out of nowhere to take out Han Solo into a focal point of the universe, a major part of the cosmic backstory. Doing so might seem like a good idea--fans love Boba Fett, so surely they'll love that he has a more important role, right?--but instead it serves to make the universe seem less vast and well-populated, and it makes the heroes seem far less vulnerable, which kills the suspense. When the same handful of characters keep popping up over and over in the significant events that shape the universe, it starts seeming less like a universe and more like a high school reunion. When the villain taking out the heroes isn't just some faceless guy, but is the faceless guy who was destined from birth to be an amazing yadda yadda, then the heroes don't really have much to fear from the faceless guys after all.

    Point being, in the first X-Men movie, Wolverine was just some guy with his own life and his own problems who got swept up into the grand Mutant war and Xavier's team and all that. Eventually he grew into the role, but he did so as our POV character (alongside Rogue). X-Men Origins: Wolverine makes Logan into a key player from the start, who even frees Cyclops, thus paving the way for the X-Men to be created. It's a silly move, made sillier by the fact that apparently no one who escaped from Three Mile Island thanks to Wolverine ever ran into him again at Xavier's.
  • Speaking of silliness, exactly why would bones appear shiny on an X-Ray?
  • And as long as I've only recently mentioned Star Wars, young Logan screaming with his little bone claws out is about as intimidating as Anakin Skywalker shouting "yippee!" in "Phantom Menace." Showing badasses as kids is generally a bad idea.
  • Couldn't they have slashed up Sabretooth's face a bit, to at least provide some explanation for why he would look so different in the first movie?
  • Why would Adamantium bullets necessarily pierce Adamantium? If I shoot lead bullets at a lead wall, they don't just magically phase through. Sure, it's possible that the sheer force behind the bullets, combined with the fact that they're as hard as Wolverine's skeletal coating, might be enough to break through his head, but then wouldn't he have two big bullet shaped gaps in his skull coating? Besides that, I didn't see his healing brain expel the bullets, nor did I see any exit wounds...so did his brain just grow around the Adamantium bullets? Does he have four gaps in his Adamantium-coated skull?

There's a lot to dislike about "X-Men Origins: Wolverine," and I'm hard-pressed to think of anything there was to like about it. It, um, had Quicksilver in it for a second or two, that was good, right?

Music Fail  

Friday, March 27, 2009

It's no secret to anyone who's known me long enough that I spent the '90s without any discernable taste in music. I've accumulated a lot of shitty albums that generally gather dust in my box of shame. But since we've revived this blog, I thought it'd be fun to do a series of "music Schmusic" posts reexamining those terrible albums in a humorous and snarky fashion: you know, what the internet was made for. To start, I picked a nice low-hanging fruit, the debut album of the Spice Girls, "Spice."

Imagine my shock at discovering that, comparatively, it's not that bad. Don't get me wrong; it's not good, but after years of Britney Spears and Fergie and The Pussycat Dolls, this sounds like fucking Beethoven. There's harmonizing, and singing without pitch modulation and lyrics with subtext--anymore I feel lucky when I hear lyrics with text on Top 40 radio. By any sane metric, it's vapid pop trash to be sure, but it shows some measure of craftsmanship that's greater than what you'd hear on the pop station today. What does it say about our society that even the standards of prepackaged, manufactured soulless pop music have fallen?

All I know is that I'll take "Wannabe" over "Wind it Up" any day.

Fuck you, Rob Zombie  

Monday, March 16, 2009

Rob Zombie's "Halloween" was fucking lousy. Not really awful, just lousy; It was kind of like getting a C+ in your favorite subject. You certainly could have done a lot worse, but you know you wasted an opportunity. Add into the equation the fact that you didn't need to take the class at all -- you elected to -- and there you are. Rob Zombie took a true horror classic -- one that in no way needed to be remade -- and turned it into something resoundingly mediocre.

"But wait," one might say. "Rob Zombie's fucking edgy; horror movies today are made for fucking pussies, so he needed to take you candy asses to school. He made 'Halloween' EXTREME."

Here's the problem with that: A pseudo-Freudian analysis of young Michael Myers is not fucking edgy. Spending 40 goddamn minutes exploring li'l Mike's mommy issues is not scary, it's not extreme, it's fucking stupid. The reason why is quite simple: If you're pure evil, you don't need a fucking reason.

Compare the backstories of the two Michaels: What little we know of the 1977 Michael is shown in the film's first five minutes. He is raised in a well-kept, subruban home, has two normal parents and then one night he slices up his sister just 'cause. 2007's Michael, on the other hand, grows up in Boo fucking Radley's hovel, is neglected by his stripper mother and abused by his alcholic stepfather and starts killing people because ... they're mean to him. You tell me which is more extreme.

But none of my complaints about the remake (and there are many more) were large enough to write them up. This was: Rob Zombie is making a sequel, and he's cast a new actor to play young Michael Myers.

The sequel was obvious. It's a horror movie and it didn't lose money, so it was bound to happen. But another actor playing young Michael Myers? Don't get me wrong, I had no love for that pudgy little chode you case to play him in the last movie, it's just that a new young Michael Myers suggests another flashback-laden examination of Michael's "disturbed" childhood. The announcement that Zombie's wife Sherri Moon Zombie will return as Michael's mother confirms this. EXTREME!

Honest to fucking Christ, Rob, what more is there to tell? Are we going to see the chilling story of how 5-year-old Michael pulled the wings off a fly because he lost at dodgeball? Seriously, continually tinkering with the backstory of an estabalished backstory of a character is not some great, cerebrial storytelling; it's fanfic.

But the best part is the new title: Halloween: The Devil Walks Among Us.

Ho. Lee. Shit.

Just further reminder of what I've always thought: if Milton had put a fifteen chapters at the beginning of Paradise Lost where he delved into Lucifer's bed wetting problems, it would have been way scarrier.

Fuck you, Rob Zombie.

Technology is Scary  

Saturday, February 28, 2009

With any new technology of sufficient utility, there comes a sort of window of time, where the technology is popular enough to be almost ubiquitous, but new enough to be largely mysterious. During this window of time, there are typically three types of movie released related to that technology:

  • The Sci-Fi flick that takes the technology to a natural--albeit futuristic and entirely unrealistic--conclusions and sets some action around it.
  • The Suspense Thriller that uses the new technology in unrealistic ways to accomplish a fairly straightforward (but fresh and exciting because it's got new technology) suspense plot.
  • The Horror movie that suggests that the new technology is magical, incomprehensible, and evil.

Take the Internet, for example. In the first category, we have flicks like "The Matrix" and "Hackers;" in the second, "The Net;" and in the third, we have "Fear Dot Com" and its ilk. For video games, we have "The Last Starfighter," "Cloak & Dagger," and "Brainscan" (I think--haven't seen the last one). You get the idea. This phenomenon has led to some of our greatest artistic accomplishments, such as "976-EVIL," "Stay Tuned," and "One Missed Call." Recently we had "Eagle Eye" telling us of the dangers of surveillance technology, "Pulse" warning us of ghosts coming through the Wi-Fi, and the YouTube killer of "Untraceable" (who is still rated lower than Evolution of Dance).

Note that this isn't limited to movies, really. "Twilight Zone" had its share of ghostly telephones, bizarre TVs, and magical radios. Ray Bradbury has said that "Fahrenheit 451" is about how much he hates TV. "Cell" has cell phones killing people with stupid magic powers (I feel justified judging a book I haven't read since Stephen King felt justified writing about technology he's never used). Even Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein," as I recall, starts with some descriptions of electrical experiments on dead animals. There's nothing one medium likes more than to decry another medium as evil, which is why we have so many books about how TV rots your brain and so many TV shows about the terrors of video games. Of course, TV Tropes has us covered.

Incidentally, I'd really like to know how far back this trope goes. I know Socrates thought writing would rot the brain, but did he tell stories about how it could steal your identity and make you the target of a trans-Grecian conspiracy? The first things Gutenberg printed on his press were a Bible and some porn, but mightn't the third thing have been a script about how ghosts can come through the movable type?

But there is a limit. Eventually, the time window closes. A tech-horror movie about TV just wouldn't work today. They're omnipresent and nonthreatening. Similarly, it would be ludicrous to make a tech-thriller about the telegraph, since it's woefully obsolete. Once the technology stops being either ubiquitous or new-and-mysterious, movies which hinge on those factors end up looking like the silly products of runaway Ludditism that they are.

So, with all this in mind, how the hell did we end up with "The Ring"? It's undoubtedly a tech-flick of the third type, with ghosts on videotape following the basic tropes of the genre. And yet, it was released in 2002, well into the age of DVDs, when videotapes were letting the door hit them in the copy-protection tab on the way out of our lives. How did that manage to get released, let alone get popular?

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