Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Movie Review: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice


Have you ever heard so much universally bad stuff about a movie that you started to think: '*PFFFTTT!* It can't possibly be that bad. Can it?'

Between Man of Steel's tone-deaf franchise launch and the venomous word of mouth surrounding Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, I decided pass on seeing the latter in theaters. Or on video, for that matter. But when it recently landed on Netflix like a bag of wet cement I thought to myself: 'Seriously, this flick has three iconic superheroes in it. How bad could it be?'

Now, movies can have a lasting impact on the viewer for several reasons. Some are wild n' crazy roller-coaster rides that serve up a truly visceral experience. Others unfold slowly and deliberately, like a satisfying visual novel. Some movies make you so invested in what you're watching that you never want them to end.

But occasionally you encounter a movie that's so thoroughly and completely devoid of any redeeming features that it baffles you. The sheer awfulness of what you witnessed stays lodged in your brain like a splinter and you're left trying to fathom how in god's name they managed to cock things up so spectaculalrly.


And that's where I'm at right now with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. I'm trying to figure out who's most to blame for this burning trash heap. A lot of people have pointed the finger exclusively  at director Zack Snyder but honestly, unless the dude gave explicit marching orders to screenwriters Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer, then those two chuckle-heads are just as complicit.

Like many of Snyder's past films, including Dawn of the Dead300 and WatchmenBatman v Superman looks good at the very least. Granted it would have looked even better if it wasn't cloaked in the same muted, boring, grimdark color filter that seems to taint every modern blockbuster nowadays. The incessant Blade Runner-levels of rain, fog and smoke certainly don't help matters any.

So, there you go, I said a good thing. It looks fine. Oh, and Jeremy Irons' Alfred is salty good fun. But everything else, and I mean everything else, is a complete and utter waste of time and effort.

Awrite, let's get on with the autopsy.

So the whole conceit of the film is that we're eventually gonna see Bats and Supes go mano-a-mano with each other. Now, based on seventy-odd years of comic book lore, we already know that these two are the superhero equivalent of oil and water. In spite of this, they still generally get along with each other and it would probably take a lot to put them at loggerheads.

And this represents the film's two biggest failures. First off, I didn't believe for a second that Batman and / or Superman were even in this movie and secondly: I wasn't convinced that these two impostors had any legitimate reason to be pissed off at one another.

The movie starts with a flashback to the protracted, obnoxious, hyperactive orgy of mayhem that was the finale of Man of Steel. Bruce Wayne (played by an alternately sullen or unhinged Ben Affleck) realizes that one of his office buildings is smack dab in the middle of the destructive tilt between Superman and General Zod. But instead of calling someone in the building and telling them to evacuate or, better yet, hiring employees capable of autonomous thought or a sense of self-preservation, we gets this hilariously over-the-top sequence whereby Bruce drives his SUV directly into the heart of ground zero.

He arrives just as the building collapses. Throwing caution to the wind, OUR HERO rushes into the smoke cloud, frees an employee who's legs are pinned under a steel girder and then pauses to hug an orphaned girl who clearly picked the worst possible time to participate in "Take Your Moppet To Work Day". As the camera closes in, we see Bruce seething in helpless rage as the two super-titans continue to clash overhead.

Notwithstanding the rank idiocy of the execution, there's actually some potential here. In fact, here's the story I would have explored:

Given the widespread carnage that Superman blissfully presided over at the end of Man of Steel, it makes perfect sense that the entire population of Earth is scared shitless of Superman and other Kryptonians. This immediately renders all of Batman v Superman's conspiracy crap entirely superfluous.

This also serves as the perfect impetus for Batman to emerge from the shadows of Gotham and start formulating a plan to contain Superman and his ilk. Inter-cut between Batman's efforts, we see Supes trying to make amends by re-building the damage, working overtime to rescue people, and getting cats down from trees. Y'know the kinda stuff we actually expect to see Superman do.

Being the observant dude that he is, Batman picks up on Superman's contrition tour and this colors his opinion of the guy. So when they finally meet, Batman believes that our boi is sincere and they step away from the brink of confrontation. But little do they know, a rat bastard by the name of Lex Luthor is cooking up ways to derail this budding bromance. He uses Red Kryptonite to turn Supes to the Dark Side, which, in turn, activates Batman's contingency plan and they end up tangling.

But since Batman is a sharp cookie, he realizes that something is seriously wrong. He exposes  Luthor's scheme, reverses the effect, and they rush off to confront the baddie together. Lex is ready for them, tho, and takes them on wearing a Kryponite-fueled Power Suit. In the end, teamwork saves the day and the villain is defeated. Close curtains.

I think this idea (working title: World's Finest, natch) would have made gobs of money and, most importantly, viewers wouldn't have felt compelled to slit their wrists and climb into a warm bathtub.

But nope, that's not what we got. Here's what we got instead:
  • A boring, pointless subplot about a bullet which is nothing more than a thinly-veiled Lois Lane make-work project. Look, if there's any sleuthing to be done here, it needs to be done by The Worlds Greatest Detective. *PSSSTTT*...I'm talking about Batman, kids. 
  • Speaking of the Dark Knight, we get a Batman here who's a dim, psychotic, Crossfit-obsessed goon that murders people at will and isn't much better than the scumbags he's annihilating. Particularly moronic is his habit of branding people, which is supposed to convey a "death sentence" in prison. Dafuq? Wouldn't your fellow criminals sympathize with you for being branded by an unhinged nutjob? Don't worry, just throw it over there on the pile of other shit that doesn't makes sense. 
  • More wasted screen time in the form of a Russian weapons trafficker.
  • A very confused Lex Luthor. Notwithstanding a few throw-away lines of over-wrought dialogue about God and his daddy issues, I guess Luthor was scared of aliens just like everyone else. But, wait, that doesn't make any sense because he ends up hand-crafting the greatest  rogue alien threat on the planet. At first Lex offers to help the government prep their Kryptonian defense but when they realize that he's crazier than a shit-house rat they cut all of their ties to him. Didn't anyone find it odd that the film's primary villain has the exact same motivation as Batman? Luthor is most certainly a bad guy since he blows up a bunch of innocent people and molests poor Ma Kent, so why didn't they just give him a distinctly different and self-serving motivation? In my scenario, Lex would be an ethically-bankrupt / Martin Shkreli / corporatist scumbag who's never heard the word "no" during his entire cushy life, so he starts to panic when two incorruptible super-powered vigilantes start sniffing around. *BAM!* Instant motivation! But, hey, what do I know? I'm just simple man who has a soft spot for frivolous crap like logic, plotting, character motivation and common sense. 
  • In order to fast-track the DCEU and "keep up with Marvelses", Wonder Woman was  unceremoniously shoe-horned into this shlock-pile. Is there anything sadder than making "creative" decisions based on playing catch-up to your competitor? Oh, wait, how 'bout waiting seventy plus years to give one the most iconic super heroes ever a live-action movie role only to make her third banana to a couple of already-prolific assholes? Oh wait, it was also done to set up a Justice League movie that hasn't been earned and trick fans into buying more movie tickets. Disgusting.  
  • Speaking of completely cynical corporate decisions, I love how Lex Luthor was meta enough to compose three l'il teaser trailers for Wonder Woman, the Flash and Cyborg for us. He even had the presence of mind to design some tres-marketable thumb-nailed logos for all of them. Convenient.    
  • There's no story here, just a series of stitched-together clips of random shit. Witness Bruce's nightmare where he envisions Superman's dystopian future state. I'm still trying to pinpoint the worst thing about this sequence. Is it our first look at the Batsuit, which looks completely ridiculous in broad daylight? Maybe it's the screenwriter's decision to show Superman callously murdering people with his heat vision and Batman gunning down enemies without a second thought? Or what about those inexplicable winged creatures flying around like locusts? Yeah, I'm gonna go with the latter because, unless you're heavily steeped in comic book lore, you'd likely have no clue that these things are supposed to be minions of the DCEU's future Big Bad: Darkseid. When you throw in Bruce's non-sequitur "Flash"-back, you realize that none of this was done to improve the quality of the movie you're currently watching, its designed to set up sequels that the audience no longer wants because you haven't bothered to make a good movie yet. Hey: Zack Snyder, Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer: live in the now.  
  • Oh, man, do not get me started on the laughably inept character of Wallace Keefe played by Scoot McNairy (!). Wallace is the employee that Bruce Wayne rescues at the beginning of the film. Look, it makes sense that Wallace has a grudge against Superman, but I can't fathom why he'd refuse Bruce's compensation checks and then suicide bomb himself. Does he agree to do this just because Luthor paid for his bail and bought him a shiny new wheelchair? How did Lex sweeten that particular pot? Did he convince this dumb, sad fuck that the wheelchair was transferable to the afterlife? 
  • Granny's Peach Tea. 'Nuff said.
  • I assume Zack Snyder is the main reason for my next gripe but Terrio and Goyer are likely accessories to the crime. I hate how this piece of junk shamelessly cribs from The Dark Knight Returns. At the end of that classic graphic novel, Superman and Batman have a knock-down, drag out, Pier 6 donnybrook. It's the stuff of comic book legend. The key difference between The Dark Knight Returns and Batman v Superman is that the former earns this confrontation thanks to meticulous plotting and character development while the latter just uses the former as a storyboard reference. The most odious implication: if anyone tries to lens a live-action adaptation of Miller's seminal work in the future it'll probably be viewed as derivative by morons who saw Batman v Superman and somehow liked it. Fuck, that pisses me off.
  • Snyder and company somehow manage to double down on the sickening vein of Objectivist bullshit that tainted Man of Steel. Ma Kent, played by Diane Lane, spins a few of Ayn Rand's greatest hits for both her son and the oblivious audience. After the general population turns on Superman, for good reason mind you, Clark goes to see his moms and gets the following piece of sterling advice: "Be their hero, Clark. Be their angel, be their monument, be anything they need you to be... or be none of it. You don't owe this world a thing. You never did." What a giant crock of horse-shit. The whole point of Superman is that, in spite of his boundless power, he's completely selfless and wants to do good by others. He could easily enact Batman's future-nightmare scenario, but he doesn't. Trying to turn an intrinsically-good character like Superman into a selfish prick is the heights of cynicism. Please, Zack, go make The Fountainhead already and get this sophomoronic crap out of your system. At least that garbage comes pre-ruined.  
  • As if that wasn't bad enough, Clark goes to visit his Dad's grave site and a haggard-looking Kevin Costner suddenly materializes like a Force Ghost and tells him the following "inspirational" tale: "I remember one season the water came bad. I couldn't've been twelve. Dad had out the shovels and we went at it all night. We worked 'til I think I fainted, but we managed to stop the water. We saved the farm. Your grandma baked me a cake, said I was a hero. Later that day we found out we blocked the water alright...we sent it upstream. A whole Lange farm washed away. While I ate my hero cake, their horses were drowning. I used to hear them wailing in my sleep." Now, need I remind you that this pretentious drivel is in a movie featuring a flying indestructible man in a cape, a guy dressed up like a bat and an Amazon? Hey, kids, are ya havin' fun yet? Remember this message: don't even try to be good 'cuz it's only gonna blow up in your face! Jesus Christ, the makers of this film should be sued for criminal de-hope-ification and misappropriation of heroic icons.
  • "SAVE...MARFA...!!!" Y'know, if this scene had been presented with a deft hand, it could have been an effective and dramatic TSN Turning Point. Unfortunately, between Henry Cavill's hammy delivery, Ben Affleck's scenery chewing, Batman's goofy suit of armor, the glowing green spear thingie and Snyder's pretentious direction, the whole thing comes off as unintentionally hilarious.
  • Even I have to admit that the Martha Kent rescue sequence is legitimately well-staged and features the best Batman-related hand-to-hand combat I've ever seen on screen. Pity its ruined when Batverine snaps and starts blowing up, stabbing and shooting people with gleeful abandon. 
  • Similarly, there's a pointless action set piece earlier in the film when Batman attempts to steal Kryptonite from Lex Luthor. Granted, on-screen Batmobile chases of yore have always featured a certain level of, shall we say, collateral damage but this time we see Batman machine-gunning enemy vehicles and flinging cars all over the place with a grappling hook. I.E. he's straight-up murdering motherfuckers. Its the equivalent of Snyder and company shouting at the audience: "See, kids?!? This ain't yer daddy's Batman! Our Batman is a total EDGELORD. He's SAVAGE as FUX!" The really funny thing is that Batman doesn't get the Kryptonite and all of that death and mayhem is completely pointless. In the end, the Dork Knight sneaks into Lexcorp and steals it off-screen. Man, that would have been a much more tense, character-appropriate and inexpensive thing to do! 
  • The whole comedy of errors with the spear smacks of the screenwriters trying to appease Amy Adams' agent. 
  • Lex Luthor molests the body of General Zod and turns him into an Uruk-Hai....er, Doomsday.  Great, yet another story thread that's completely frittered away. Here DINO (Doomsday In Name Only) amounts to a giant CGI orc that Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman have to team up to defeat. Honestly, it's as if Snyder, Terrio and Goyer saw X-Men: The Last Stand and thought "Yes! This is the perfect way to alienate fans, confuse casual movie-goers and piss away a bunch of perfectly good story points all at the same time!" 
Now, those might be the movie's most obvious sins, but Batman v Superman isn't even good from a nuts n' bolts perspective. In fact, he film's most crippling liability is that the atrocious writing and the ham-fisted dialogue results in some pretty dismal performances.


Although I staunchly maintain that all three of our principal heroic leads are well-cast, they aren't given anything remotely interesting to do. Henry Cavill's Superman gets a particularly short shift. He floats through the entire film with a permanently-furrowed brow and a sour expression nailed to his face. Whenever he's on screen as Superman he's either put upon or surly or both. Also, since there's no perceivable difference between Clark Kent and Superman in either appearance or behavior, it's ridiculous to think that not a single investigative journalist at the Daily Planet has put two and two together yet.

In theory, Ben Affleck should be a great Batman / Bruce Wayne. Unfortunately all he's asked to do here is act like a sad bag of spoiled milk. He oscillates constantly between mopey and apoplectic. Gal Gadot is the physical embodiment of Wonder Woman but she's mainly on hand to help the two menfolk beat up a giant cartoon monster. The script also manages the impossible task of making Amy Adams a liability. Every time she's on-screen the script makes us feel as if we're all in purgatory. 

But Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor is definitely the film's cardinal sin of casting. And even though I kinda dig the idea of Luthor being a Mark Zuckerberg / Silicon Valley nerd, Eisenberg's take is too manic and too silly to work. I wish he'd been more reserved and socially inept as opposed to unhinged. As it stands, Eisenberg is about as threatening to me as, well, me...ranting about this stupid movie. I also can't help but picture someone with the gravitas of Bryan Cranston in the role. 

So, yeah, beyond some decent casting and cool visuals pilfered from a vastly superior piece of legitimate art, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is a vast wasteland. The dialogue is heavy-handed and self-important, the story feels as if it was improvised on set, it's completely devoid of any joy and the entire cast looks like they're on Xanax. Even worse: the titular tilt that takes forever to come around ends up throwing in the kitchen sink and becoming inadvertently funny. 
  
P.S. normally at this point in the review I'd say something diplomatic and / conciliator such as: "Yeah, well, even though the movie didn't work for me, I'm glad it worked for you." Not this time, folks. In fact, I'm just gonna come right out and say this: if you think that Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is a good movie then I'm afraid you're part of the problem.

The way I look at it, you can't be a fan of the source material because the characters are so far removed from their comic book counterparts as to be unrecognizable. It's the equivalent of yodeling and banging the butt end of a mike stand on a snare drum and and calling it your cover of "Master of Puppets". And you can't claim that it's good as a regular ol' film because the plot, dialogue performances and editing are all universally terrible.

In fact, the only reason why someone might like Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is because it's full of spectacle. But since the movie is so dour, depressing and poorly edited it scarcely qualifies on a purely superficial level.     

I hate to break it to you, but if you like this movie, you really need to take a long, hard look at yourself. Your aesthetic is broken and you need to fix it.


           Tilt: down


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Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Seventeen Things That Annoy Me About "The Force Awakens"

When Star Wars first hit theaters in May of 1977, it was the first of its kind. As such, audiences just kinda rolled with it. The opening crawl and the capture of the Tantive IV was more than enough to get movie-goers on board. We knew that an evil Empire had taken over this galaxy far, far away and a plucky band of Rebels, led by Leia, stood to oppose them. Simple.

The Force Awakens didn't enjoy that same privilege. Indeed, the 2015 sequel came pre-burdened with over thirty years worth of missing chronology, a gap that writers Lawrence Kasdan, J. J. Abrams and Michael Arndt largely chose to ignore. Instead, they decided to sew a bunch of ambitious but superficial new story threads which The Last Jedi found virtually impossible to explore in any original or satisfying way.

Now, in reading this list, you might conclude that I completely hate this movie, but I don't. In fact,  compared to the prequels, I think this movie is a reasonably well crafted piece of entertainment. It's just that, whenever I'm watching it, stuff niggles at me like a splinter in my brain.

So, here then are "Seventeen Things That Annoy Me About The Force Awakens".

(17) Rey the Resplendent

 
So, right from the get-go, Rey, our main protagonist...
  • Understands both droid and Wookiee. 
  • Flies the Millennium Falcon like a pro despite the fact that she's never been at the helm. 
  • Instinctively knows what a Jedi Mind Trick and a Force Pull is...and knows how to perform them with scarcely any effort. 
  • Handily beats a seasoned Force user in a lightsaber duel.
Because if this, I find it virtually impossible to connect to Rey. Luke is my all-time favorite Star Wars character and its not because he's male, its because he's flawed. Indeed, for half the saga's run time he's moody, reckless and impatient but he learns from his mistakes, grows up a little bit and eventually becomes a Jedi.

As for Rey, she's already fully formed right from the outset. Where's the struggle, the change, the growth...her freakin' character arc fer Chrissakes?!?

It's one thing to have a boring, flawless protagonist, but the writers don't even bother to acknowledge this. Sure, we get a few token scenes where she finds some parts, goes home, cleans 'em up, sells 'em, makes bread and has a nosh while wearing a rebel pilot helmet, but none of this qualifies as character development.

Look, if you're gonna front-load her with all of these inherent abilities, at least give us some insight. Perhaps some peril befalls her in the belly of the downed star destroyer, and only through an uncanny combination of skill and luck she barely manages to survive. Then, during the flight from Jakku, she pulls another instinctive, but otherwise impossible, stunt which prompts a dumbfounded Finn to just stare at her and say "That was impossible! We should be dead...how did you do that?" Then she could briefly explain that she's always had this ability to do things without the benefit of training, as if these memories and talents have been bred into her.

After all, isn't this what the writers were alluding to? Unfortunately Rey's set up was so glossed over that The Last Jedi just saw fit to ignore it. Doing things my way would have at least quantified this intriguing mystery and obliged Rian Johnson to pursue it. Other than learning a few lessons about heroes and history, Rey feels just as two-dimensional at the end of Episode VIII as she did at the beginning.

(16) Poe the Perfect


It makes sense that this new trilogy introduces a fresh-faced, hot-shot pilot, but does he have to be the aerial equivalent of Legolas in Return of the King?

He has no problem piloting a T.I.E. Fighter, he miraculously survives certain death (see below) and during the defense of Maz's castle he shoots down about dozen enemy ships and countless ground troops in quick succession as if they're standing still.

Which leads me to my biggest issue with The Force Awakens: there's hardly any peril. Unlike the original trilogy, the heroes are all hyper-competent and the bad guys are a bunch of incompetent fuck-ups.

(15) "WHAT IS GOING ON  HERE?!?"


 
What exactly is The Resistance? And who are the First Order? When we last left the Rebels, they'd struck a decisive blow against the Empire. We felt content that the story was told and good guys had won the day. So, what the hell happened in the galaxy over the past thirty / forty years?!?

Maybe the remnants of the Imperial fleet retreated to some distant corner of the galaxy, re-branded themselves and eventually came back with a vengeance. And maybe the New Republic, weary of conflict, just let them do their thing, underscoring the dangers of capitulation. Maybe the Resistance sprung up because Leia recognized the impending threat and could see where things were headed.

Unfortunately, everything I just typed above is an assumption. I've never read any supplemental Star Wars books and I flat out refuse to. Frankly, if I gotta read an effin' novel just to give this movie some badly-needed context, then things are clearly flawed.

All we needed were a few quick lines of dialogue to flash-paint in a few details and we would have been fine. Instead the producers leave us fumbling in the dark and assume that we'll give a shit about what transpires, despite the fact that there's scarcely any frame of reference.

(14)  Finn the Fickle


Like all of the other grunts, Finn was hypothetically brainwashed since birth to be completely loyal to the First Order. So why is he the only one to freeze up, go rogue and start slaughtering his fellow soldiers? What makes him so special? Sure forcing someone to go from sanitation to mass murder is pretty extreme, but this is never explored.

Instead a very interesting story thread is left twisting in the wind. And since modern blockbusters don't believe in dialogue and character development anymore, we'll likely never know Finn's story.

(13) First Order Stormtrooper Helmets Are Apparently Strictly Ornamental 


As if stormtrooper armor wasn't useless enough, Finn tells Rey that their helmets don't filter out toxins, just dust. Um...why? One of the selling features of original stormtrooper armor is that it's vacuum sealed and the wearer can exist in open space for a brief time.

Nit-picky? Sure. Idiotic?  Definitely. Worse still, this dumb-ass reference only seems to exist to legitimize Rey's "gas-trap" scheme, which doesn't even materialize anyway.

(12) "I LIKE this thing!"


You mean to tell me that after forty fucking years, Han has never, ever used Chewie's bowcaster? Mondo bullshit like this makes me suspect that Abrams was shining us on every time he professed to be a massive Star Wars fan during every interview.

(11) Starkiller Base



Okay, so, an enslaved galaxy producing a moon-sized battle station in the original trilogy is far-fetched enough but how did the First Order get the manpower and resources to convert an entire planet into a super weapon? If my suspicions RE: the First Order existing on the fringe of the galaxy for decades are accurate, then this concept becomes even more ludicrous.

I think it would have been better if the New Republic built the thing as a defensive weapon against the surging First Order, with Leia protesting its construction. Then maybe the bad guys could bomb in and steal it. The fact that it gets blowed up, Death Star-style is also pretty boring.

It would have been a lot more interesting if the Resistance only managed to disable it. That way the producers wouldn't have to wrack their brains coming up with yet another improbable mega-weapon for Episode IX.

(10) Hux's Rant

 
Look, I know the Empire, and now the First Order, are just a bunch of thinly-veiled Space Nazis but isn't Hux's apoplectic speech a tad on the nose, not to mention comically over-the-top? Seriously, who's he trying to convince here? If Mussolini was in the audience he'd be like "Dude, take it down a notch!"

(9) Science Fantasy...To The XXX-TRM



Star Wars was never been known for hard science, but its getting ridiculous now. In an effort to let the heat blow over, Han takes Rey to Maz Kanata's backwater planet because its supposed to be out of the way. Well, if that's the case, how the hell can they see the core planets of the Republic getting blown up by Starkiller Base? And, um, wouldn't the entire solar system be boned if the base drained the closest sun of all of its energy?

(8) "TRAITOR!!!"...To Good Storytelling

  
The stormtrooper who throws away a perfectly good blaster to engage Finn in melee combat is a fucking idiot. And why doesn't he at least flinch when Finn produces a rare, notoriously-deadly weapon like a lightsaber? Shouldn't this clown be taken aback ever so slightly?

And instead of using a random nobody like FN-2199, why didn't the screenwriters use this as an opportunity to explore Phasma and Finn's mutual animosity? Instead, we get a pointless sequence featuring two unrelated characters who whale on each other just for the sake of an obligatory duel.

(7) Pop-Up Poe

 "What took you guys so long?"

Despite being written off as dead, Poe Dameron miraculously materializes back at the Resistance base with zero explanation. Honestly, if blatantly-lazy storytelling like this doesn't bother you, then you might be part of the problem.

(6) Maybe It's Him, Maybe Its Mandalore

 "HuuuNNN!!! Rrrowoooaaarrr...!!!"
Translation: "Don't hate me because I'm beautiful!"

Why does Chewbacca look so goddamn well-coifed? I know that wookiees are long-lived and all but its been forty years and he looks better than he did in Jedi. What kind of galactic Benjamin Button shit is this? Will he look like Lumpy in the next trilogy?

This could have been a good opportunity to make him look a tad scruffier, perhaps sporting a distinguished grey streak. Instead he looks like a wookiee version Sofia Vergara.

(5) The "Dialogue"

Finn: Not anymore. The name's Finn and I'm in charge. I'm in charge now, Phasma. I'm in charge.
Han Solo: [to Finn] Bring it down. Bring it down.

Han Solo: I'm trying to be helpful.
Leia: When did that ever help? And don't say the Death Star.

I don't know what's worse, the blatant fan service or the contemporary humor which sticks out like a sore thumb. 

(4) The REAL Traitor

"HALT! Or I'll ask you to halt again!"

Despite Phasma's bad-ass appearance, she ends up folding quicker than Barry Allen on laundry day.

Why would a fanatical military leader, who's likely conditioned to resist torture and intimidation, voluntarily lower the Starkiller Base shield, risking its destruction and the lives of countless allies? It just smacks of script convenience.

Since the First Order models itself after the Empire, Phasma must know that they don't suffer failure, let alone outright capitulation, very lightly. At the very least, The Last Jedi shows us that Phasma suffered some pretty major repercussions for her surrender.

Oh, wait, she doesn't. Like at all.

(3) Convenience Earthquake

 
I really would have preferred just about any other way to break up the Rey / Kylo fight. What is this, The Search for Spock?

(2) "What, That Walking Carpet? *Ugh*, He's Soooo 1983."

 
Why does a sad Chewbacca (Sadbacca?) just drift past an oblivious Leia at the end of the movie? Shouldn't they console each other first before Leia goes to Rey?

You had one job, Abrams! Well, admittedly you had a lot of jobs, but putting Leia and Rey's grief before Leia and Chewbacca's was inexplicable. 

(1) Not Particularly E-luke-sive.

 
If Luke was so hell-bent on never, ever being found then why did he leave a map to his location floating around out there in the galaxy? And why did he deliberately plant a part of it in R2's memory banks? I know Mark Hamill is famous for playing the Joker, but is he also auditioning for The Riddler?

And just because a computer is in "low power mode" it certainly doesn't mean that you can't see the files it has on it. Even if Luke buried the map deep in R2's memory banks or password protected that shit, surely one talented Resistance slicer could dig it up?

Fun fact: if you were to tear Branson, Missouri out of a map of the United States and then give it to someone, they'd still be able to travel to Branson, Missouri.

Finally, how does R2 know precisely when to "come to" at the end of the movie?

Honestly, so much in this flick completely baffles me.

***

Because The Force Awaken was so derivative of A New Hope, I think it's solely responsible for this current Last Jedi fan schism. People lost their shit over the new film because it didn't spend its run time aping Empire and hand-picking the most popular fan theories.

And, honestly, I don't blame writer/director Rian Johnson one bit. When he sat down to write Episode VIII, he knew that he'd end up with a boring, predictable, workmanlike story that added nothing new if all he did was fill in the blanks. This all adds up to an important lesson. You can add as many fancy eaves, towers and parapets as you want to your house, but if the foundation is rotten, it's still gonna collapse.

I don't envy the writers of  Episode IX since, in my opinion, they still need to address the questions lingering from the first film while giving people a satisfying and reasonably-original conclusion. And if the third film fails, this whole new saga is gonna founder under the weight of unrealistic expectations while sullying the classic trilogy that came before it.

Oh, for the record: I have a very simple solution to all of this. Just invent a time machine, go back to 1997 and convince George Lucas to let three talented directors helm the Heir to the Empire trilogy.

Done. 

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Movie Review: "Star Wars - The Last Jedi"


*** WARNING: SPOILERS TO FOLLOW ***

So, here we are. Another year, another Star Wars movie.

Hey, Disney! Since I know you read every one of my reviews, I'm gonna let you in on a little secret:

People can get sick of Star Wars.

Don't believe me? Well, I've seen it happen before. After 1983's Return of the Jedi, people were positively done with it. And that included me, the most passionate, crazed fan that George Lucas ever could have hoped to indoctrinate. But even at the tender age of thirteen, I knew that the brightest flames can burn out the quickest. And honestly, at that stage in my life, I was okay to put Star Wars behind me and move on to other things. 
 
So, Disney, I really think you need to cool it after Episode IX. Because, I assure you, there can be too much of a good thing, especially when good things are getting increasingly scarce.

Fun experiment: if someone tells me that they loathed The Last Jedi, I always ask them what they thought of Rogue One. If they say "Oh, bro, I totally LOVED that movie!" then I just smile politely and change the conversation 'cuz I recognize a bridge too far when I see it. 

Before we continue, please permit me a brief autobiographical note. I've been a diehard Star Wars fan since May of 1977. After the saga went to fallow for over fifteen years, the prequels had tremendous potential to tap into nostalgia and add to the myth. Unfortunately, the resulting "films" were clearly made by someone who couldn't reconcile his role as THE SOLE CREATOR with the obvious limits of his creative talent.

The Force Awakens brought me back into the fold somewhat. Even though that movie was blatantly derivative and many of the things that happened on screen ranged from inexplicable to downright stupid, I still liked the characters. Sure, we didn't get nearly as much time establishing Daisy Ridley's Rey as we did with Luke in A New Hope, but it was more than I expected. After all, we live in a day and age where solid character development and good dialogue is unfairly written off as "the most boringest parts" of a movie.

And then there's Rogue One. Whooo, boy, what can I say about that crushing bore? The first third is a meandering, intergalactic travelog, the second third is a tangled mess of failed character development and senseless plot points and the final third is a bloated action sequence. The latter, BTW, might be thrilling at first but it starts to feel increasingly vapid and boring when you realize that nothing that came before it made a lick of sense.

So, when I sat down to watch The Last Jedi, I was feeling pretty guarded. And even though it's the best Disney-stamped Star Wars entry to date, I still can't shake that sinking feeling that nothing is planned out and the creative team is hurtling off in a bunch of random directions.

Not like there isn't any historic precedence for this. Nowadays, story arcs for books, television shows and even movies are meticulously pre-plotted out. However, if you know anything about the making of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi you'll know that virtually nothing that ended up on-screen was planned out back in 1976. And, honestly, if the sterile, predictable safety net that passes for a plot in The Force Awakens gets irreversibly shredded, I won't shed a single tear.

For the first time since The Empire Strikes Back, I had no effin' clue what was going to happen in a Star Wars movie and that's just about the highest praise I can give to it. Conversely, a lot of people, particularly rabid fans, seem pissed off by what happens, and even more telling, what doesn't happen in this movie. Good. When movies cater solely to expectations and don't challenge people, that's when they cease to be interesting and become the cinematic equivalent of fast food. 

First off, the opening battle sequence is fantastic. Oscar Isaac's hot-shot pilot Poe Dameron is trying to take on the whole First Order fleet by himself. Of all the characters in this movie, it's his arc I like the best. Yes, that's right, a legitimate, bonafide, died-in-the-wool character arc. It's the sort of basic storytelling ingredient that's completely absent in the inexplicably-lauded Rogue One.


After going against the direct orders of General Leia Organa (elegantly realized by the late, great Carrie Fisher), Poe literally gets smacked down with a demotion. Eventually he starts to realize that  rash, emotional, gut decisions often results in more ruin than right. Needless to say, this is a particularly relevant sentiment as we move into 2018.

Poe eventually learns this lesson, even if the script has to do some pretty kooky contortions to get him there. His main foil, Laura Dern's Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo, is great and all, but her entire role should have been split between Leia and fan-favorite Admiral Ackbar. I think it would have been a lot more impactful if writer / director Rian Johnson used already-established characters instead of dragging new ones into the mix.

Given Leia's recent admonishment and their oil-meets-water chemistry, I suppose it makes sense that  Holdo keeps her secret plans from Poe. Unfortunately, this drives him completely nuts with curiosity. Regardless, I love the fracture this creates in the Resistance leadership. It's a new dynamic which we haven't seen before and, like I said, if it ain't new, it ain't worth bothering. 

Going back to Carrie Fisher for a moment: she's wonderful. It's a cruel twist of fate that took her from us so early, especially when you consider how hypothetically pivotal she was to the resolutions we'll hopefully get in Episode IX. Here she's elegant, sardonic, commanding and funny. I just wish the Force was a real thing and we could get Carrie back again. We all miss her terribly and the world is a darker place without her in it.

This leads me to Adam Driver's Kylo Ren. I've said this before but it bears repeating: if Disney is gonna force-feed (pun not intended) us a bunch of arguably-superfluous Star Wars movies, I'm really glad that he's a part of it. For far too long, the villains in Star Wars have been overtly fetishized. Back in the day, we recognized the stormtroopers, Darth Vader and Boba Fett as undeniably cool, but we also saw them as major assholes. Nowadays, the Dark Side is increasingly represented as a legitimate choice.

And that's what makes Kylo Ren such a wonderful character. I see him as a living, breathing parody of neck-bearded fanboys who orgasmed in their Underoos when Darth Vader made his needless and painfully "punny" appearance in Rogue One. He shows us that the Dark Side isn't particularly rewarding or welcoming, it's more like a half-way house for sad, bitter, dorky outcasts who won't be happy until everyone else is equally miserable. Adam Driver does a great job oscillating back and forth between menacing, petulant and vulnerable.

Then there's Daisy Ridley, who continues to be inhumanly charming and charismatic as Rey. Unlike Poe, Rey doesn't really get a character arc and seems just as lost and confused at the end of the film as she was in the beginning. Sure, she learns that blind hero worship is bad and slavishly-adhering to the failed tenants of the past are a symptom of madness, but I'm not sure this qualifies as legitimate character growth.

Which is a real pity. At one point, Rey and Kylo share the callback to Empire where Vader invites a beaten Luke to join him, defeat Palpatine and rule the galaxy as father and son. Even though things do play out differently, I really wish Rian Johnson had doubled down on this departure. I think it would have been great if Rey actually joined Kylo and convinced him to stay his hand against the Resistance. The next movie would then be all about Rey trying to steer him back to the light and  hand over the reigns of power.

Some folks are also loosing their shit over Rey's domestic origins but I completely understand why Rian Johnson went this route. What else were you expecting? People with entirely too much time on their hands have spent the past two years speculating about her parentage ad nauseum, so wouldn't it have been boring to go down one of these obvious avenues? I'm delighted that Johnson willfully upset this OCD apple cart, democratizing the Force in the process. Hopefully J.J. Abrams wont retcon this in the cinematic equivalent of dueling banjos.


Sadly, John Boyega's Finn continues to be a non-entity to me. Once again, we get absolutely no explanation as to why his First Order programming didn't take, why he switched allegiances on a dime and then proceeded to massacre his equally-deluded squad-mates without hesitation. I wish he'd been allowed to go A.W.O.L. after Rey instead of being saddled with a wacky misadventure. We might have gotten some legit character development and maybe his story would have dove-tailed with the main plot a bit better.

The Canto Bright scene is fine enough. In fact, I really appreciate the social commentary that writer Rian Johnson makes about war profiteering. Using Empire as a template, one might see the First Order's pursuit of the Resistance fleet as Vader's hunt for the Millennium Falcon. That would make Rey and Luke's storyline comparable to Luke's training on Dagobah. Unfortunately, that leaves "Finn and Rose go to Space Las Vegas" feeling decidedly superfluous. 

One thing I do like about their mission is that, once again, things don't work out the way they (and we) expected. Such is life. Yes, their mission is kind of a bust but Finn and Rose manage to put a sizable space fly in the punch bowl of some interstellar one-percenters while giving the next generation some hope and heroism. I just wish this could have been done in a more economic fashion. 

Perhaps the most unfortunate example of Finn's storyline getting short-shift is his truncated confrontation with Phasma. Honestly I have no clue why Gwendoline Christie took this role since all Phasma ever does is show up and get her shiny metal ass kicked. During their brief tete-a-tete, not only do we get zero insight into the origin of their mutual hatred, the goofy spectacle unfolding all around completely flushes any tension down the space-loo.

As for the dynamic between Finn and Rose, it's pleasant enough, but if it was done just to set up a love triangle and make some superfluous points about arms dealers, there were certainly easier and more relevant ways to accomplish this. Like Admiral Holdo, the things that Rose is tasked to do could have been given to a preexisting character. This would have kept the focus on our established heroes and not inflated the film's run time. 

But, alas, I can only talk about the film that was made, not the speculative one. At the very least we're treated to a twitchy, hypnotic and unpredictable Benicio del Toro as DJ. Notwithstanding his Roger Rabbit-esque speech pattern, del Toro gets some choice lines which call into question the very nature of Star Wars. In much the same way that Randall in Clerks ponders the fate of innocent contractors on the second Death Star, del Toro makes us wonder where all of this war materiel is coming from and how fuzzy the line is between "good guys" and "bad guys".

Awrite, let's talk about Monsieur Skywalker. First off, I love his reaction to the lightsaber. Folks have to understand that we haven't seen Luke in thirty years, so naturally he isn't the same resolved, idealistic person we see at the end of ROTJ. He's come to the logical conclusion that the Jedi are nothing but an abject failure, so he's sequestered himself away to atone for his past deeds, reflect on his hubris and make sure that he never makes the same mistakes again. 

That's all well and good, but I can't quite reconcile his stubborn refusal to leave the island and help. He's just been told that his best buddy is dead and his sister is on the verge of capture or annihilation. Upon hearing that, I don't think even bitter, jaded, crusty ol' Luke would continue to milk sea cows and go spear fishing. My main reason for believing this is that he left a map to his location lying around.

Otherwise I really like what they did with him. Mark Hamill is at the height of his thespic powers and he's riveting whenever he's on screen. Despite my own doubts, Hamill's conviction sold me on Luke's resolve, regret and trepidation. The way he factors into the film's climax is surprising, satisfying and, most importantly, it doesn't undermine everything that came before it. In the end, Luke learns that buying into your own hype can be dangerous but legend are instrumental in sparking a revolution.

So, I guess all that's left now is address the nitpick-y crap that people are losing their collective marbles over. So let's knock these off as quickly as possible:
  • How do the Resistance bombs drop on the dreadnought? Ummm...because there's gravity in the bomber and the momentum carries them through space? Don't buy that? Then stick around and I'll trot out at least a half dozen more reasons as to why you really need to get a life.
  • The humor. Actually I kinda liked the humor for the most part. Poe is this trilogy's Han Solo so why wouldn't he act like a disrespectful twat to Hux? Rey inadvertently wrecking the caretaker's wheelbarrow also really cracked me up.
  • Yoda. Some folks are wondering why Yoda is acting like his goofy, pre-reveal self in Empire. Well, what's wrong with that? Clearly that's a part of his persona, so why not use it to make a point with Luke? Honestly people, pick and choose your damn battles. 
  • "Space Flight" Leia. Look, I love the fact that my girl finally gets a chance to manifest the Force, I just would have chosen to do it a bit differently. Perhaps when the First Order hit the bridge, she could have used her powers to "act on instinct" and prevent explosive decompression. The way it happens in the film it's clearly designed to generate some cheap tension and put her out of commission for a bit.
  • Porgs. They're cute and not nearly as annoying as Ewoks. I'm amused by their sense of entitlement and get a kick outta that one little feller stamping on the discarded lightsaber. Two flightless wings up for these imminently-marketable but still harmless l'il fuckers. Bonus points: Chewie's Galactic Test Kitchen proves that they plump up nicely when you cook 'em! 
Last but not least, the people who are livid over The Last Jedi really need to do some soul searching. First off, they need to re-watch the prequels, which, in my opinion, barely qualify as a series of moving images. Moreover, they need to ask themselves what they expect to see in these new Star Wars films...and then promptly chuck it all into the trash compactor.

Did they really want to see Snoke as Palpatine 2.0? Did they really want Rey to be related to Han or Luke or Obi-Wan or Lando? Did they really want to see Kylo and Luke fight to the death? C'mon, people, we've seen that all done so well before that we keep loitering around like lost dogs sniffing around for table scraps. 

One last point before I drop the saber hilt and peace out. I was there in 1980 when The Empire Strikes Back broke my fragile eggshell mind. Ten year old me came out of that first screening legitimately pissed off. How dare they take my fictional friends, who's G-rated adventures I'd been continuing via action figures over the past three years, and drag them through a black hole of misery? 

Well, it taught me a valuable lesson that I'll paraphrase from The Rolling Stones: "you don't always get what you want but you might just get what you need." And like it or not, this post-modern Star Wars film is precisely what we need. Otherwise, the entire saga is in danger of become an irrelevant and repetitive passion play.


Tilt: up.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Movie Review: "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" (1974) by David Pretty


AUGUST 18'TH, 1973

Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns) heads out on a road trip to find her abandoned childhood home in what I can only describe as Defilement County, Texas. Along for the ride is her wheel-chair bound brother Franklin (Paul A. Partain) as well as her friends Kirk (William Vail), Pam (Teri McMinn) and Jerry (Allen Danziger).


After a harrowing encounter with a crazed Hitchhiker (Edwin Neal), their van runs out of gas, prompting Kirk to investigate a nearby farmhouse for help. This inadvertently stirs up the Sawyer clan, a crazed group of homicidal rednecks who's chief guard dog / pet ogre, Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen), decides to pick off the interlopers one at a time.

What follows is a spooky little cinematic romp that pairs nicely with such family-friendly fare as Hocus Pocus, The Addams Family or Caspar for a pleasant Halloween movie night. 

WHY THE LAST STATEMENT IS A DIRTY, DIRTY LIE

This movie wastes no time establishing a mood of total, abject horror. After John Larroquette's oddly incongruous voice over narration, director Tobe Hooper segues into a pitch dark screen where the only sounds we hear is a shovel moving earth and heavy breathing. Periodically the scene is illuminated by the flashbulbs of a still camera, giving us macabre half-glimpses of a recently unearthed corpses. This suggests that the sick bastard exhuming these bodies is also taking pictures of them, which, in my book, rates about a "12" on the ol' Creep-O-Meter.

Stifling darkness gives way to daylight but Hooper grants no reprieve. Instead he gives us a flinch-inducing close up of the grave-digger grim handiwork: two skeletal cadavers artfully poised atop a grave marker. The orange color filter and drippy condition of the bodies gives the viewer the impression that the bodies are melting away in the punishing heat of the mid-day Texas sun. Ewww...


The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a perfect example of a movie that actually triumphs thanks to its low-rent feel. Witness the scene where Sally and company find and explore their old homestead. Kirk notices a huge pile of cellar spiders getting phreaky in the corner of an abandoned room, so Tobe Hooper and his cinematographer Daniel Pearl zoom in on the vile image with child-like glee. You can almost hear them giggling "Hey, get a load of this! Gross, huh? Here...lemme get closer!"

Moments later, Franklin discovers this weird bone fetish altar thingie in the house and sees a matching totem hanging overhead. This serves as an ominous visual precursor for what's to come. After Pam and Kirk's plans to go swimming fall through, they notice a windmill and the top of a roof in the distance. The unmistakable sound of a gas generator gives them hope that they may not be stranded for much longer.

But as they get closer to the property, that feeling of foreboding continues to grow. You start to wonder what sort of person would tie a bunch of rusty old junk onto the tree limbs, and, better yet, why? The inordinate number of abandoned cars lying around seems rather odd. What's even stranger is they're all covered up with camo netting.

When they reach the house, we get another omen when Kirk finds a molar and uses it scare the shit  out of Pam. Oblivious to the horrors that lie within, Kirk ventures into the house to ask for help. As he inches he way down the hallway toward the crimson-hued back room, we notice that the walls are covered in animal skulls and taxidermy projects. By the time Leatherface makes his iconic first appearance and "greets" the interloper, a part of us isn't completely surprised.

The triumphantly-ghastly production design by Robert A. Burns really gets showcased when Pam goes into the house to look for Kirk. She stumbles into the ironically-named "living" room and the camera takes a bone-chilling inventory of the human detritus scattered around. We see piles of feathers, scattered bones, a live chicken crammed into a tiny cage, chairs re-enforced with tibias, hanging skulls with a horns driven through the mouth and similarly-charming bric-à-brac.

 
On more than one occasion, the production's gritty, bargain-basement-style sensibilities makes you feel as if you're a witness to something you shouldn't be seeing. A snuff movie, of sorts. Just check out the scene where Jerry manages to delve deeper into the house than any of his predecessors. He makes his way into the revealed back room, hears thumping noises coming from the deep freezer and then opens it up to find Pam lying there like a frozen fish fillet. What happens next will challenge the integrity of even the most hardened horror hound's bladder control.

The film's mercilessly creepy mise en scène results in one of the most shocking scenes in the film. With everyone else missing, Sally pushes her wheelchair bound brother Franklin through the pitch-dark woods to try and get to the mansion. All of a sudden, Leatherface and his roaring chainsaw pop up from out of nowhere and instantly Franklin is put on frappe. This is just another example of how the film's "faults", in this case sub-par lighting, actually contributes to the shock factor. 

THE SOUND OF HORROR

Also piling onto our wits is the movie's dissonant, schizophrenic score, which is rife with cymbal crashes and echoey drums. This sets the tone right from the opening credits. It's the perfect soundtrack to such gruesome visuals and running news reports about chronic grave desecration.

More memorable musical stings can be heard as the characters explore the abandoned house, when Pam stumbles into the living room and during Jerry's approach to the Sawyer homestead. The dinner scene at the end of the film is made even more bone-rattling due to the industrial-style soundtrack. Hell, even the "music" that plays over the end credits sounds like rusty farm equipment being thrown down a bloody metal sluice.

A METHOD (ACTING) TO THEIR MADNESS

Sure, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is totally on-point with its visual and auditory horrors, but the film's population of Grade-A weirdos is what really makes the movie pure nightmare fuel. Not the least of which is Edwin Neal's Hitchhiker. With his prominent birthmark, antiquated camera, sassy varmint purse and a head of hair that looks like it was combed with a greasy pork chop, its no wonder Franklin takes one look at him and remarks "I think we just picked up Dracula."


I think Edwin Neal is the number one reason why no-one ever picks up hitchhikers anymore. Prior to this, most horror movies used monsters, werewolves, ghosts and zombies to try and frighten people, but The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was a completely different animal. It's easy to discount supernatural threats as pure fantasy, but viewers can't help but ponder the cold, hard fact that there are people in the world that make the Hitchhiker look like Ryan Reynolds.

Indeed, Edwin Neal's Hitchhiker is particularly effective because you get the impression that the character's weird and abhorrent behavior makes perfect sense in his own fevered brain. Never before had  movie-goers seen such a harrowing, convincing and sustained depiction of good, old-fashion human mental illness on screen.

In any other movie, the Hitchhiker would be more than enough to terrify the average popcorn-muncher, but he's quickly overshadowed by one of the most genuinely-scary movie villains in film history. His introduction to the screen is burned into my brain for all eternity. As Kirk is creeping through the Sawyer mansion, we actually hear him before we see him "thanks" to a series of muted pig squeals and grunting noises.

Kirk trips and stumbles headlong into a room at the far end of the hall. Suddenly the doorway is dominated by a hulking brute clad in a filthy short-sleeve dress shirt, a blood-splattered butcher's apron and a sharp little hipster tie. Oh, and in case you missed it, he's also wearing a mask made entirely of human flesh.

 
After Leatherface brains Kirk with his mallet like a prized heifer at the slaughterhouse he proceeds to deliver a few more shots just to quell his death-throes. He then picks up Kirk's lifeless body, hurls it off-screen and then slams the metal door shut behind him, exhibiting super-human strength and pure, mindless rage. Between his porcine vocalizations, horrifying appearance and overwhelming might, actor Gunnar Hansen is the physical embodiment of a nightmare.

The other kills in the movie are equally traumatizing. After hanging out in the "living" room, Pam realizes that she's made a horrible mistake and heads towards the exit. Just as she enters the hallway, the metal door whips open revealing Leatherface who lets out a guttural bull-moose call and then gives chase after her. What happens next isn't so much gory as it is inconceivably awful.

What makes Leatherface infinitely more interesting than Micheal Myers and Jason Vorhees is that he's inherently human. After Jerry gets pasted, Leatherface actually starts freaking out. Still emitting a chorus of hoots and grunts, he runs over to the window in a panic, frantically looking around to see if anyone else is outside. He then collapses into a nearby chair, holds his head and starts rocking back and forth.

Clearly he's trying to figure out where all of these meddling kids are coming from and whether or not they'll stop coming. He's genuinely scared. He knows that if one of these strangers gets away and calls the authorities, the jig'll be up for him and rest of his unconventional fam jam. 

And, for the record, only one actor had been and forever will be Leatherface and his name is Gunnar Hansen. In my humble opinion, every other depiction of the character, from Bill Johnson's hyperactive, eye-rolling, two-stepping goofball in the direct sequel to Andrew Bryniarski's neck-less goon in the remake, has missed the mark by miles. Only Hansen succeeded in making the character real for me and, subsequently, absolutely terrifying.

As for the rest of the characters in the movie, most of them are just walking flank steaks except for Sally, played to frantic perfection by Marilyn Burns. Based solely on her performance here, Marilyn belongs with such hallowed company as Faye Wray and Jamie Lee Curtis as one of the greatest Scream Queens in cinema history. I'm sure the harsh shooting conditions inspired a lot of method acting on her part. Her palpable misery and mental deterioration is so realistic that it's almost impossible to watch.


During the film she's gets relentlessly chased by Leatherface, caught up in brambles, stumbles upon dead bodies, gets defiled by one of them, suffers untold head trauma, gets her back sliced up and voluntarily leaps through more panes of glass then friggin' Batman. But perhaps her most horrifying encounter comes at the hands of The Cook.

After eluding Leatherface, Sally manages to run back to the gas station we saw earlier in the film. For a second, the audience breaths a sigh of relief, particularly when the station's elderly attendant shows up. Almost immediately, however, things don't sit quite right. Sally begs him to call the police but instead he tells her to stay put while he goes to get his truck.

We're baffled as to why he voluntarily goes outside after Sally tells him that a chainsaw-wielding lunatic is lurking just outside the door. He's gone for what feels like an eternity, partly because Tobe Hooper chooses this moment to serve up a lingering shot of the gas station's BBQ cooker. The blood-red light and the sight of abstract-looking meats sizzling away inside the oven is accompanied by disconcerting news reports on the radio about grave robbing. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to put two and two together here.

 
Eventually the gas station manager reappears and when you see that he's holding a bag and some rope your heart just wilts. What we witness next makes Jim Siedow's Cook one of the most reviled and repellent characters in cinema history. As if beating Sally senseless isn't heinous enough, he alternates between comforting her with reassuring words and then roughly jabbing at her with his broken-off broom handle. Between the perverse script and Siedow's creepy portrayal, it's one of the most convincing depictions of mental illness I've ever seen in a movie.

YOU DON'T JUST WATCH THIS MOVIE, YOU SURVIVE IT

Just a quick side note here: many people who have seen The Texas Chainsaw Massacre will claim  that it's one of the goriest films ever made. These same people will also swear that Janet Leigh got "totally" stabbed in Psycho's famous shower scene. But nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, most of the violence in Chainsaw is implied. If you get queasy while watching it, it probably has a lot more to do with the unflinching, realistic depiction of gonzo human behavior then it does with graphic violence.

Unlike any other film, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is flat-out grueling to watch. Just seconds after thinking "Well, it can't get any worse!", it invariably does. Old faces show up, Sally is dragged into the most harrowing and dysfunctional family meal in cinema history, the last remaining member of the Sawyer clan re-appears with a penchant for blood and her final attempt to save herself seems doomed from the start. 

The less said about these final scenes the better. Just suffice to say that you'll be tempted to question the sanity of both Tobe Hooper and his writing partner Kim Henkel. Without reprieve, the viewer is clobbered with a series of twitchy, microscopic closeups, perfectly conveying Sally's wide-eyed terror. Watching this for the first time, you'll begin to feel your own wits unraveling along with our heroine.

As it turns out, the movie's tag line ("Who will survive and what will be left of them?") is just as effective as Alien's "In space, no-one can hear you scream". At the end we're left staring into Sally's blood-covered face frozen in a rictus grin of hysteria, her involuntary screams slowly degenerating into peals of maniacal laughter. Physically she may be safe, but it's clear that her sanity, like ours, is in tatters. The very last shot is of Leatherface, spinning around like a whirling dervish of impotent rage. The implication is chilling: we've physically survived the experience but the Insane Clan Posse is still out there. 


The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has but one raison d'être and that's to scare the ever-lovin' fertilizer out of you. This isn't a horror movie with training training wheels like the Paranormal Activity films. While watching this flick you'll constantly be wondering 'What sort of damaged brain comes up with sick shit like this?'

But that's the most chilling twist of all. Chainsaw was inspired, in large part, by the real-life crimes of necrophile / cannibal Ed Gein. The brutal fictions depicted in the film are nothing compared to the real-life cruelty being inflicted by people on other people every single day. Like many films of that era, including Last House on the Left, I Spit on Your Grave, Cannibal Holocaust and Night of the Living Dead, this movie is Hooper's attempt to reconcile the constant parade of real-life horrors in the news. It's art imitating life, people, not the other way around.

It's not often I say this but watching The Texas Chain Saw Massacre changes you. Above and beyond feeling as if you've been smoked in the back of the head with a vulpine hammer, you're forced to confront the truism that truth is infinitely stranger then fiction. You're forced to wrestle with the troubling concept that dark things happen in our world that make the ghoulish goings-on depicted in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre look like Frankenweenie.

For being the archetypal definition of a true horror movie in every sense of the word, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre earns a perfect score.


Thursday, December 22, 2016

Movie Review: "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story" by David Pretty


CAUTION: SPOILERS AFOOT!


The movie starts soooooo bad. But then it gets soooo good, soooo quick.


If you can't already tell, I'm a tad conflicted when it comes to Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. The first half, with its endless parade of new words, anemic character snippets and boring exposition is so shockingly ham-fisted that it nearly sinks the entire picture. But then suddenly everything jumps into hyperspace and the flick becomes incredibly thrilling. I can't recall the last time I watched a movie that was so... schizophrenic.

Ever since I saw Rogue One I've been trying to pin down precisely why it starts off so poorly. I think screenwriters Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy along with director Gareth Edwards should have given us more time with Felicity Jones's Jyn Erso, the way we had time establishing Luke in Star Wars

Yeah, sorry, fuck that Episode IV / New Hope shite, btw.



The only characterization we get for Jyn is that her dad was taken away, her mom was killed and she ended up in a hole until a family friend pulled her out. Then we smash cut to twenty years into the future and see her in jail. We don't see why she got arrested or what she's been doing to warrant an arrest. We just get a fully-formed, bitter, nihilistic "rebel" who understandably wants revenge on the Empire. Otherwise we know precious little else about her.

Diego Luna's Cassian Andor doesn't fare much better. We first see him meeting with a skittish informant during the first half's endless cavalcade of clunky, workmanlike planetary stops. After getting the information he needs, he casually blasts the dude in the back to shut him up. The idea of a morally-ambiguous Rebel Alliance is super interesting to me, which is why I was super disappointed when this wasn't explored at all. In fact, the only insight we get into Cassian's background is some vague talk later on about how he's been doing this "since he was six". Well, c'mon...pull up a space chair, pour yourself a blue milk, sit down and tell us all about it! What, no time for that? Okay, then, on to the next planet! 

Instead of investing time in our two leads we get these bland little vignettes meant to set up the supporting characters. Riz Ahmed as Imperial pilot defector Bodhi Rook really gets screwed here. Armed with a decent script he really could have been the flinty, grudgingly-accepted part of an inevitable triumvirate between Jyn and Cassian. But, no, instead he's flash-sketched with some throw-away lines of dialogue just like everyone else. We're meant to believe that he was inspired by Jyn's dad, Galen Erso (stoically played by Mads Mikkelsen) but we don't see why. It kills me to to say this, but Rogue One has a downright deplorable "show, don't tell" track record.



Oh, and don't tell me that this was in Catalyst or some other shit. I shouldn't need to read a fucking tie-in novel to give a shit about the characters. 

Even when a guerrilla-style action set piece finally meandered into the first half of the film, I just kinda sat there feeling disengaged. Watching wave after wave of extras dressed like storm troopers falling down on cue, I actually started to feel kinda sorry for the boys in white. Which is something that I never felt a twinge of while watching the original trilogy. I hated the storm troopers for killing Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru and for blasting at my on-screen friends at every opportunity. Here the stormtroopers just seem like just poor, sad jobbers out on patrol. To see them slaughtered in endless waves by interchangeable characters is oddly wince-inducing. 

I think the first half of the film really could have benefited from excising some of the superfluous characters. First off, I would have chucked Forest Whitaker's Saw Gerrera under the walker, since he's only there to pull Jyn out of the bunker, torture Bodhi with an incongruous Hentai tentacle porn monster and then expire in a scene that's less noble and more script convenience. I get the impression he's mainly there to provide some connective tissue to the Rebels cartoon.



Despite of the fact that both characters are likely there just to appeal to the emerging Chinese theater-going market, I wouldn't want to jettison Jiang Wen as Baze Malbus and particularly Donnie Yen as Chirrut Îmwe. Mainly because both of these guys make me feel like I'm watching West End Game's Star Wars: the Role Playing Game - The Movie. Unfortunately, they're given so little screen time that they end up being about as deep as the two-line character template descriptions in that venerable, ol' RPG. And frankly, that sucks, since I love the idea of a guy who's Force sensitive but doesn't have any direct connection to light sabers and Jedi lore.

All of this makes me wonder why I didn't connect with these character very much, and I think I know why. In addition to my aforementioned case for Luke in Star Wars, we don't even meet Han Solo until about a third of the way into that same film. So why is Han so memorable and why do I have to keep looking up the names of the characters Rogue One over and over again? Well, the devil is in the details, kiddies.

As soon as Harrison Ford shows up on screen we can tell that he's a boundless font of charisma. The script isn't afraid to take a knee for a moment and let the characters talk about more than just the next action item on their galactic things-to-do list. By the time the Falcon reaches 'splody Alderaan, Ford has taken the on-point dialogue and presented it such a way as to illustrate Han as a cynical, cocksure, blowhard who exudes calm cool and undeniable skill. 



The same goes for Leia. Beyond talking sass to Tarkin and Vader throughout the entire film, we feel as if we've known her for years after she's sprung from that Death Star detention block. Carrie Fisher's spunky performance, on screen verve and flinty dialogue speaks volumes about the kind of person she is: I.E. she's highly-capable, no-nonsense and physically incapable of taking shit from anyone. Except for maybe Jyn, no-one in Rogue One gets the same consideration.

And I honestly feel bad for young people who mistake on screen bad-assery and a few casual lines of dialogue as character development. I related to Luke in Star Wars not because he was male, but because he wanted to get away from boring ol' Tatooine. He craved adventure and excitement and he also had some interesting flaws to deal with. I liked Rey in The Force Awakens for many of the same reasons, but ultimately she was so fucking perfect at everything that she didn't come across to me as a real, three-dimensional character.

Poor characterization and muddled first act aside, Rogue One miraculously "switches on" midway through and becomes the Star Wars movie of my dreams. Ben Mendelsohn effectively stamps around as Inspector Orson Krennic, having encounters with established villains that makes perfect sense within the movie's timeline. Regardless of what you may hear to the contrary, I think these scenes are highly effective and used sparingly.



The infiltration of Scarif base and the subsequent ground and space battle are undeniably thrilling. The special effects are absolutely exquisite in the sense that everything, especially the Star Destroyers, actually look like plastic models. The irony isn't lost on me but I should stress that the tactile environments, physical props and on-set droids and creature really give the film that classic "lived in" Star Wars look.

Now, some people are bitching that these cameos and call backs are gratuitous fan service but I tend to pronounce "fan service" as "continuity". Look, if I was making a film set in this classic rebellion era, a herd of wild Banthas couldn't prevent me from include some of my favorite classic characters. The only issue is that some of them show up as distractingly-obvious CGI models and spout quippy one-liners that comes across as slightly out of character. 

I also wish that they'd been more creative on the design side of things. With this being the earliest film in the rebellion era, it was the perfect opportunity to showcase some technological evolution. In other words, it would have been great to see prototype AT-ST's and AT-AT's instead of seeing this same exact things that pop up later on in the trilogy. 



And trust me, there's no shortage of awesome shit in the Lucasfilm archives; just a quick glance through my old Empire Strikes Back art book proves that! Instead, the visual impact of these vehicles will be diminished somewhat when they pop up later on in the saga. But, hey, I guess the masses might be puzzled by something familiar but not identical, so I guess we should just spoon feed them exactly what they want, amirite?

Admittedly, the last act of the film is a jaw-dropping tour de force, no pun intended. Jyn and Cassian go through pure hell to recover those data tapes, including having to deal with a mini-game that looks like an homage to George Lucas's THX-1138. All of this is juxtaposed against a backdrop of brutal, unflinching combat that might result in hordes of regretful parents wishing that they'd just stayed home on Christmas Day. This is no more apparent than in the agonizing fate of Alan Tudyk's appropriately-emo droid K-2SO who's denouement will leave no eye in the house thoroughly moistened.

And that's one genuine positive I can say about the film. All bets are off. None of these characters appear in future continuity so everyone is expendable and the stakes are pretty darned high. More the pity, then, that the script didn't give us more time with these people. It would have made the final act feel less like a hollow spectacle and more like an impactful Greek tragedy. 




Tilt: down.