Just say no to ‘Independence’

It could have at least been fun, this whole Independence Day reunion tour. Parts were there – the new enormous spaceship, the queen leading the hive, etc.

But instead, flop, fizzle … other f words come to mind. Here’s the main two reasons not to see this room-temperature turd:

  1. Beating the aliens is too easy. While I’d never argue ID4 was any sort of cinematic classic, it does a nice job of building the tension, putting our heroes backs up against the wall and making it hard to see that there’s any way out for the humans fighting the massive alien invasion. Here, the build is awkward and uneven, there’s little to no character development and the resolution both seems easy and somewhat ridiculous. Resurgence isn’t even a shadow of ID4‘s former self.
  2. The goddamn school bus. At one point, Julius (Judd Hirsch) gets entangled with a family of newly minted orphans. Because riding in a late-model station wagon with a group of four kids younger than 16 isn’t cute enough, they then jump on a school bus with a bunch of kids whose driver has abandoned them on the side of the road. Then, because that wasn’t cute enough, they just happen to end up in the middle of the desert where David (Jeff Goldblum) is about to help take down the aliens once and for all. And because that isn’t cute enough, then David drives the school bus as he and his plucky band are chased by the enormous hive mother alien. The only things lacking to make this the schmaltziest film you’ve ever seen are Ewoks and a Randy Newman soundtrack.
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Palahniuk takes on some beautiful ‘Monsters’

All the world’s a stage and all the men and women are merely players. – William Shakespeare

What is the cost of beauty? If you go all in on your looks, what lengths will you go to seeking attention for your long eyelashes, lean legs, toned abs? And when you lose those looks, what is left of the person when the pretty is stripped away?

Chuck Palahniuk’s Invisible Monsters takes a deep, twisted dive into those murky waters. This is the tale of Brandy Alexander, a pre-op transexual who was thought to be dead by her multi-monikered sister, the narrator of the tale. Sister narrator was always a beauty and grew to be an up-and-coming model in the fashion world, until she is shot in the face by her lover Manus … or her best friend Evie … or maybe neither. She awakes in the hospital to meet Brandy, a big, brash, beautiful product of multiple plastic surgeries financed by three brothers who made a fortune in dolls. And from there, it’s a non-stop race to defy beauty and seek truth, no matter how ugly said truth may be, until the walls close in and everything burns to the ground.

In true Palahniuk fashion, Invisible Monsters isn’t nearly  as simple as this previous, vague paragraph suggests. The author lays out the case for pure, simple beauty as a wonderful thing that is then marred, manipulated and repackaged for sale as just another consumer product. “Shotgunning anybody in this room would be the moral equivalent of killing a car, a vacuum cleaner, a Barbie doll. Erasing a computer disc. Burning a book. Probably that goes for killing anyone in the world. We’re all such products.”

Narcissism is an industry, just like technology or manufacturing. The lengths – both physical and financial – to which our model narrator and Brandy will go to either to enhance their looks or re-create themselves is startling. Waxes, dyes, make up, dresses, shoes, diets, drugs, nips, tucks, implants. Money, money and more money, to fight that nasty aging and freeze their perfect countenance in time for as long as possible, projecting the flawless mask to the camera, the photographer, the entire world, and hide that invisible monster that no one wants to know exists.

The grotesque nature of the proceedings, the absurdity of this pursuit of eternal and false perfection is the perfect world for a mind like Palahniuk’s to explore. I’d encourage you to jump into the journey and take the ride.

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If you’re planning a Norwegian vacation, beware the trolls

I think the whole found footage think gets unfairly knocked. It’s simply a story-telling device, something that isn’t inherently good or bad. When it’s well used – The Blair Witch Project – you end up with a solid film. When the story is weaker – Cloverfield – you get a final product that isn’t as interesting or compelling.

Enter Troll Hunter, a 2010 Norwegian film. Brief text at the beginning explains that everything shown in the film, as far as the people who found the footage know, is true. We first meet our plucky-if-naive college students, Kalle, Johanna and Thomas. They start out on a lark, looking for a poacher who has been killing bears in the area. After some poking around and a little luck, they come across Hans, a surly, secretive man who lives a nomadic life, sleeps all day and leaves at night, residing in a abnormally smelly camper with an inordinate amount of exterior lighting.

Following some Scooby Doo-like sneaking and shadowing, Hans fesses up: He is a troll hunter, Norway’s only troll hunter. Trolls are allowed to live in isolated parts of the country, but lately, the trolls have been wandering out of their safe habitats and into inhabited areas, leaving a path of destruction and death in their wake. It’s up to Hans to figure out what’s causing this problem, as well as killing any troll who reaches civilization.

At first, the kids think they’ve run into a madman who will make an awesome subject for their documentary. That is, until they are chased by their first troll. Then shit gets real in a hurry.

Troll Hunter‘s strengths are two-fold:

  1. The film plays less like a found-footage horror movie and more like a documentary. The kids get an inside look at troll hunting, the varieties within the species, how they do and don’t act like fairly tales would suggest, the bureaucratic red tape that is involved with each troll death. As the film unfolds, two other interesting stories begin to unfold: The length to which the Norwegian government will go to conceal the existence of trolls, and the toll this life takes on Hans, our titular troll hunter.
  2. Our main man Hans. Played by Otto Jesperson, Hans agrees to show the movie-making trio the troll world because, after years alone hunting them, Hans is tired of the coverup and the secrecy. A former soldier, he has killed these creatures for years, and it clearly haunts him. He has respect for the beasts, and he has had to do horrible things, some to protect humans, some to protect Norway’s business interests, and he wants no more to do with it. Hans is the real star of the show, and Jesperson’s portrayal – and the strong writing and direction of Andre Ovredal – gives Troll Hunter a strong anchor that keeps the film solidly moored in reality as things get more and more fantastic.

If your kids are OK with reading subtitles (I’m not sure whether there’s an English dubbed version), this is a film with some scares that isn’t too scary. And if you’re thinking about a trip to Norway and are a good Christian, you may want to reconsider it. The only thing trolls love more than the fresh, warm blood of a follower of Jesus is a good tire to chew on.

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Raise a glass to ‘The Final Girls’

The quick Final Girls review: Pleasantville meets Scream.

The Pleasantville angle: Max (Taissa Farmiga, American Horror Story) is the daughter of actress Amanda (Malin Akerman, Watchmen), who is known mainly for her one role in the cheesy horror film, Camp Bloodbath. Years after her mom dies in a car crash she survived, Max and friends attend an anniversary showing of the slasher flick. Mid-movie, the theater catches fire. Max and pals cut through the screen, hoping to escape backstage, but instead ending up in the film itself. It’s a fun conceit, and since the kids know what happens throughout the film, they are forced to go with the flow and hopefully ride it out until they can return to the real world.

The Scream angle: The kids not only know Camp Bloodbath, but understand the horror tropes themselves. For example, they, too, must avoid the traps that attract the machete-wielding killer: Nudity, sex, drinking, drugs, general stupidity. For some, it ends up being harder than it sounds. The gang uses some cliches to their advantage, such as the flashback, while doing their best to battle through others, such as the slow-mo shown above. Eventually, Max is the last kid standing, the titular final girl who must do battle with mad killer Billy Murphy, a duel to the death.

Director Todd Strauss-Schulson balances the humor and blood deftly, and the casting – including Adam Devine (Workaholics, Pitch Perfect), Alexander Ludwig (Hunger Games), Alia Shawkat (Arrested Development), etc. – is spot-on. If you’re a fan of comedic horror or the horror genre in general, The Final Girls is worth a watch.

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‘Cooties’ is child’s play

My kids had a ball with Cooties.

Cooties is the story of Clint (Elijah Wood), an aspiring novelist doing a summer school substitute teaching gig at the school he went to as a kid. Unfortunately for Clint, some toxic chicken nuggets from the local processing plant have been consumed by one of his students, who is about to go full-on 28 Days Later on her classmates, who, after they turn, start to look at school’s faculty and staff as a potential food source.

A solid cast – including Rainn Wilson (The Office), Jack McBrayer (30 Rock), Jorge Garcia (Lost), Nasim Pedrad (Scream Queens), etc. – makes up for what the script lacks. Ian Brennan and Lee Whannell co-script (and appear in) Cooties, and their writing experience – Brennan with Glee and Scream Queens, Whannell with the Saw and Insidious flicks – would seem to be a good mash-up for this sort of film. And at points, they are. Whannell’s Doug, a science teacher who lacks basic social graces and may be hearing voices, is a hoot. When Clint and Wade (Wilson) argue over the best way to proceed, Wade yells, “Oh, you’ll sneak around, huh? Sneak around like a little Hobbit. No way! I’m taking the fight to them like a fuckin’ orc!” The overall horror arc is also well done, as the outside world reacts to the pandemic while our heroes deal with it face to face. There are some good reasons my junior high-age offspring liked Cooties.

Unfortunately, for me, the grownup in the room, it fell a little flat. The dialogue has its moments, but generally feels forced, saved some by the talent of the actors saying the lines. And certain things don’t make sense. For example, during a number of escapes, Clint braves potential gnawing by running back to grab the first chapter of his novel as the hordes of junior high zombies close in on he and his new pals. But nothing comes from that, no grand resolution, not much in the way of tension, nothing. It’s noted prominently a few times, then evaporates. The ending also seems anti-climactic and a bit abrupt, leaving an opening for a sequel that I can’t imagine will actually happen.

The talent was available, and there was no lack of financial support holding Cooties back. A sharper script would have likely resulted in a movie beloved by many – think Gremlins – instead of a film forgotten by few.

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Rogers vs. Stark better than ‘Batman V Superman’

Why is Captain America: Civil War better than Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice? Here’s three reasons:

  1. Civil War looks real. The big fight scene in Batman V Superman, where Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman go mano a mano with the Zod monster, looks like a video game. Not a good video game, either. I even laughed at one point, where Wonder Woman almost looked like she was glued onto the top of a scene, like a pre-schooler’s arts-and-crafts project. The beauty of the big fight scene in Civil War, where Team Cap and Team Stark go at it, is just how good it looks. Even when Ant-Man goes gigantic, the CGI is so well-rendered that it never takes you out of the moment. It’s not as if some of the Marvel movies haven’t had a similar problem to BvS – yes, Thor, I’m looking at you – but Civil War doesn’t fall prey to that lack of suspension of disbelief.
  2. It’s all about the story. What was Superman’s storyline in Batman V Superman? The exact same damn story line from the first Superman movie: Should Superman use his power or not? Zod’s crew threatens Ma Kent in first movie to get at Superman; Lex Luthor threatens Ma Kent to get at Superman in the second movie. Pa Kent gives Clark advice in the first movie; his dead ass gets dragged out of the grave to give Clark the same advice in the second movie. You would think in a movie two-and-half hours plus long you could cut the redundant stuff. Batfleck wasn’t a Daredevil-size mess, but I wasn’t all that impressed what they did with the character beyond the big showdown battle with Superman. What was the point of Holly Hunter’s/Senator Finch’s story? I’m not sure, other than it made the movie longer. Plus, Gal Godot was not well used. Wonder Woman is played primarily as a flirt/foil for Batman, then wastes our time showing us the other DC heroes that aren’t in the movie in a scene that could have been cut to half the time it ran and tacked on as a prologue in the credits … ya know, kind of like Marvel? Civil War advances not only the stories of both Captain America and Iron Man as well as introducing Black Panther, it also gets at the main themes of the Marvel universe: Should the unending power of our heroes be checked by some sort of civilian/military/non-hero leadership? What is the cost of our heroes using those powers? What is the responsibility of heroes to those without powers? No redundancy here, just good writing and development.
  3. The new characters. You know what I figured out from watching the brief introduction of Aquaman, the Flash and Cyborg? That I have no interest in seeing individual movies for any of them, probably not even when they join up and become the Justice League. It does look like Wonder Woman is going to be done right, so I’ll probably check that out. But there are valid reasons Aquaman is universally mocked – he won’t be all that interesting if the villain chooses to show up in, say, Arizona or the Sahara – and getting Khal Drogo to play him isn’t going to change my mind. If I cared about The Flash, I’d be watching the CW series, which I’m not. And my only knowledge of Cyborg comes from Teen Titans Go! with my son. Between that show and this brief introduction, my world is not being rocked. But look at Spider-Man and Black Panther in Civil War. I’ve never read anything involving Black Panther prior to seeing Civil War, but I’m stoked for that stand-alone. I thought Chadwick Boseman was good, and the little bit of back story provided makes me think I need to see the Panther as a main character. After four atrocious films and one average flick, it’s nice to see Spider-Man actually look like the goofy kid with super powers that we know from the comics. I thought the hype on Spidey was a bit over done leading up to the latest Captain America flick, but it turns out the hype was for real. Maybe it will actually be enough to wash the taste of Toby McGuire’s Peter Parker from my palate. A miracle, indeed.
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RiverRoots 2016 lineup delivers

RiverRoots 2016 is the fourth straight year I’ve attended the festival, and I expect to be back next year. The music lineup is always solid, and there’s nothing like listening to bluegrass, country, soul, folk and more while drinking Indiana craft beer on the beautiful banks of the Ohio River.

Saturday’s lineup was solid. Asleep at the Wheel and Donna the Buffalo rocked like the vets that they are, and acts such as Parker Millsap, Jake Book, Blair Crimmins and the Hookers and Bridge 19 all put on good shows. Billy Strings stole the show, bringing heavy metal-like intensity and speed to their rootsy set.

But for me, it was a quartet of acts on Friday that brought down the house. Battling wet weather and playing to smaller crowds, these four elevated their games and made a fan out of me.

Darlingside – This quartet out of Boston was moved from the main stage to the second stage because of the rain. It turned out fortune was smiling upon them, because the River Stage gave the set an intimacy that wouldn’t have happened on the main stage. The above performance doesn’t quite do them justice, but it’s a pretty good example of what they have to offer. Think if Simon and Garfunkel fronted the Punch Brothers covering Avett Brothers songs.

Sarah Jarosz – In four years, I’ve never seen the River Stage so crowded. It wasn’t just standing room only; there really wasn’t even room left to stand. Her voice is as amazing live as it is on wax.

Lindi Ortega – Ortega’s old-school country sound, her band’s tight groove and her effortless stage presence are a unique combination. I’d like to see her at a smaller, indoor venue, because I think a crowded room might provide more energy for the band to feed off of, elevating the intensity a bit.

Brothers Comatose – I didn’t know they made bluegrass music in San Francisco, at least not after Jerry Garcia died. These fellas blazed out of the gate and never looked back, effortlessly mixing traditional music with moments like their Cake cover. I will see these West Coasters again, hopefully soon.

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‘Catastrophe’: It’s all about the laughs

My wife and I had a ball watching the first two seasons of the Amazon comedy, Catastrophe. I don’t think I could have put my finger on just what makes it so much more satisfying than your average network sitcom, although I enjoyed it much more than, say, Big Bang Theory or Modern Family. But after a few episodes, I think my wife figured it out.

They laugh at each other.

American boy Rob (Rob Delaney) and Irish girl Sharon (Sharon Horgan) have a torrid affair while Rob is in London on business. The affair results in pregnancy, and Rob and Sharon decide not only to have the child, but to get married. Blend in a number of wacky characters with ties to our newlyweds – Rob’s druggie pal Dave, Sharon’s helicopter mom frenemy Fran, Carrie Fisher (yes, Princess Leia) as Rob’s eBay-addicted mother – and hilarity ensues.

Really, this isn’t any different than any meet-cute scenario for any rom-com. What makes it work is the chemistry of Delaney and Horgan, who are also the show’s creators and writers. They will frequently hurl insults and curse words at each other, and as the scene develops, you’re never sure if they’re going to end up enraged or humored by the whole situation.

And Rob and Sharon do laugh. At each other. It’s not the typical deliver-the-funny-line, keep-a-straight-face sort of banter. It’s the laugh of two people who are intimate, sometimes laughing at things only they think are funny. It’s genuine, sometimes painfully so.

I can’t imagine this is for everyone (there’s a ton of cussing, some nudity). But Catastrophe is greater than the genre it represents if you’re willing to go along for the ride.

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‘Zombeavers’ is what it is, but could have been more

zombeavers_still

When the zombeavers arrive, everyone is damned.

When you sit down to watch a movie about zombie beavers, you’re not exactly expecting Citizen Kane or The Imitation Game.

However, is it too much to ask for decent dialogue and something resembling pacing? Zombeavers clocks in at only 77 minutes, yet the first half hour drags mercilessly, a combination of stock horror characters delivering flat, uninspired dialogue and the occasional beaver pun. The potential for a nice mix of humor and menace – think the Chucky films or Gremlins – is there, but is never captured.

Thankfully, once the zombeaver attack starts, the movie is twice as fun. The beavers are the best part of the film. The stuffed puppets are one-part creepy, one-part hysterical. Occasionally, co-writer/director Jordan Rubin manages to capture the menace of these little beasts, and he also finds the humor when the furry pests come to the forefront.

If only it weren’t for the damn humans. No wonder those zombeavers were so pissed off. They knew the bi-peds were killing their moment to shine.

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What lessons will Hollywood learn from ‘Deadpool’?

ANYONE REMEMBER two really unremarkable Hulk movies in the last 15 years or so?

Ang Lee had an interesting idea to do the Hulk as more of a character study back in 2003, but for some reason decided to intersperse that with actual comic book devices, turning the film into an insufferably serious mess that was periodically interrupted by out-of-place comic book structure. Then Ed Norton got in on the act, wresting control from director Louis Leterrier to turn the latest Hulk film into an example of superhero films at their worst: A few great moments, but generally long, bloated and, again, too self-serious.

So what did Hollywood learn from these two Hulk movies? That you can’t sell a Hulk movie.

Bullshit.

THE PROOF? DEADPOOL. For years, Ryan Reynolds and others fought to get a Deadpool standlone that stayed true to the brash, foul, quippy character that Deadpool is. To do that, an R rating was required. To which Hollywood, in all its wisdom, said, “No, no, no. Won’t ever work. Has to be PG or PG-13 for the kiddies.”

And what happened? Reynolds and his backers stuck to their guns, managed to find financing and kicked Hollywood critical and box office ass.

Deadpool didn’t make money because it appealed to key demographics. Deadpool didn’t make money because it had a big star in it. Deadpool didn’t get good ratings because it had something for everyone. Why did it work?

Deadpool made money because the filmmakers didn’t water down Deadpool, which Hollywood wanted, but no comic fan or moviegoer did. Period.

What was Hollywood’s response to this? To talk about adding 20-plus minutes to Batman Vs. Superman, minutes that would change the rating from PG-13 to R.

Sigh.

Hollywood, adding 20 minutes to give a movie a harder rating doesn’t make the movie better. It generally just makes a movie longer. And in the case of Batman Vs. Superman, it makes a pretty mediocre already-too-long movie longer, which really doesn’t help.

Unfortunately, we can now expect a bunch of R-rated superhero films in the future. Because this is how Hollywood thinks. Excuse me, “thinks.” It worked once, now let’s do the same thing over and over again. Which is why we already have five Spider-Man movies, three unfortunate attempts at The Punisher and three Fantastic Four flicks that we’d rather forget about.

LESSON NUMBER TWO HOLLYWOOD should have learned was one about advertising. The public service announcement above is perfect for the character. Deadpool is preoccupied by sex and bodily functions in general, and while you get the tongue-in-cheek character yacking goofily about boobies, you also get a serious message about breast cancer. There’s another one for testicular cancer, as well, done in a similar vein.

Let me be clear: I don’t want to see Jason Bourne giving me advice on diabetes care, or Kylo Ren discussing the finer points of detecting radon in our homes. This works for the character, much like the unique emojis created for Deadpool leading up to the film or Ryan Reynolds “interview” with Mario Lopez where Deadpool attacks Lopez mid-interview. The marketers took the character and ran with it, in interesting, inventive, hilarious ways. They understood the character Deadpool and played to his strengths, rather than just slap trailers up all over TV and the Internet with maybe the requisite “win a trip to the premiere” contest or endorsements.

For those who were already fans of Deadpool, it kept them salivating in anticipation for the film. For those who couldn’t tell Deadpool from a swimming pool, those folks had any number of opportunities to familiarize themselves with the merc with a mouth and decide for themselves whether the film was worthy of they’re hard-earned dollars.

Bravo, Deadpool folks. Now it’s Hollywood’s turn to learn from this film. Unfortunately, the odds are not ever in our favor that this will happen.

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