189-193: Bruges, Cliffhanger, Trouble, Chernobyl, Instead

in-bruges

189: In Bruges

In Bruges looked like just another action movie to me. Even the involvement of one of my favorite actors, Brendan Gleeson, wasn’t enough to get me to watch it. But during the years following its initial release more and more people came out of the woodwork to confess their mistake in dismissing In Bruges in the manner I did. I decided to give in and give In Bruges a chance and what do you know… it is brilliant. So incredibly not what I was expecting. Central to the story are two British criminals who are sent to Bruges in Belgium to lay low for a while after a tragic accident. There they have to wait for their boss to call with instructions. What seems to be a regular crime story with two thugs spending time in one of the most dreamy cities in Europe turns into an existential fight for survival and redemption. There are a lot of great performances in In Bruges. Colin Farrell is brilliant as the petty criminal who acts more like a bored child than a professional hitman and Brendan Gleeson is masterful as ever as the hardened criminal who is trying to keep everything together somehow. Their chemistry starts to build throughout the movie to culminate in a sequence that is truly harrowing. Martin McDonagh wrote and directed a movie that will stay with you for a long time. I loved it. See it.

cliffhanger

190: Cliffhanger

It was a Saturday night, I was tired, so I went and stood in front of my DVD cabinet to find a movie that wouldn’t challenge me one bit. The result was Cliffhanger, a Sylvester Stallone vehicle directed by Renny Harlin (Die Hard 2) I had not seen in fifteen years or so. And with good reason, because this movie turned out to be even more dumb than I remembered. The screenplay is so incredibly full of holes and implausibilities that it took all the fun of the action out of it for me. I think the whole reason why I (and many with me) look back fondly on Cliffhanger is the opening sequence, which is as horrendously suspenseful as ever. If you have anything resembling vertigo I urge you to skip the opening sequence and pick up what happened there from the rest of the movie (that shouldn’t be too hard). When the screenplay turns out to be so incredibly dumb, is there still something to be enjoyed in Cliffhanger? Sure, the action is decent throughout the movie, the acting is deliciously over the top and the scenery is beautiful (actually shot in Italy, not Colorado). Cliffhanger is a clear example of just about every action movie made in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s: big brutish heroes taking on mindless groups of evil doers with lots of explosions and extravagant stunts. It’s just that sometimes one movie hits it out of the park and the other takes a walk. And yes I am talking about Die Hard being the slugger, not Cliffhanger.

trouble-with-the-curve

191: Trouble with the Curve

Trouble with the Curve is a sports movie of the most common denominator. And I so wanted this to be another Moneyball, a smart look at the business of baseball and what goes on behind the scenes of my favorite sport. But what I got was a melodramatic mess about an old baseball scout (Clint Eastwood) who doesn’t want to accept he is losing his grip on his job and his estranged daughter (Amy Adams) who wants to be close to her dad if only he wasn’t such an insufferable asshole. Trouble with the Curve is in fact the polar opposite of Moneyball. It goes out of its way to tell us that the new baseball (as seen in Moneyball and now used around the league) is much worse than the old school way of finding talent. Therefore everybody who has anything to do with computers and spreadsheets is presented as oafish and all the old guard is portrayed as lovable and eccentric. In addition to this incessant polarization the screenplay takes a turn for the worse when a telegraphed red herring from the first act is used to finish the movie in the cheapest way possible. During that first act of Trouble with the Curve I thought I was dealing with a movie that understood baseball, but it turned out it didn’t know anything about it at all. I guess I’ll have to grab my copy of Moneyball and erase Trouble with the Curve from my baseball loving brain.

chernobyl-diaries

192: Chernobyl Diaries

As far as useless found footage movies go Chernobyl Diaries is right up there with the worst of them. We are witness to a group of young people traveling around Europe and ending up in the Ukraine to participate in a tour of the area surrounding Chernobyl, the site of the most horrendous accident involving nuclear materials. Their focus is Pripyat, a village where everybody had to drop what they were doing to escape the evil that was spouting from the reactor. Now, supposedly, the radiation levels are low enough to go wandering around the village (which they aren’t by the way in real life). Of course their visit isn’t without peril, because when they want to leave the village they discover they are not alone, something has been left behind. Chernobyl Diaries comes from the brain of Oren Peli, who also fathered the Paranormal Activity series. As with so many other found footage crap movies, Chernobyl Diaries doesn’t think it’s necessary to actually convincingly tell us a story that could be called found footage. The camera angles are all circumstantial and in no way believable like the pioneers (e.g. The Blair Witch Project) were. Let’s hope Chernobyl Diaries doesn’t spawn a load of sequels as Paranormal Activity did and still does. That would be truly disastrous.

you-instead

193: You Instead (Tonight You’re Mine)

Having been to quite a few music festivals in my younger days (wow, I sound old) I can get behind the vibe of You Instead (or Tonight You’re Mine, I’m not sure which is the right title), David Mackenzie’s latest feature. He actually filmed the movie at a music festival and that lends it a tremendous amount of goodwill. Goodwill that is much needed, since the screenplay is nearly devoid of anything interesting. It is a love story about two musicians, one British and one American, who are handcuffed to each other by some mysterious festival patron. They will have to spend the rest of the weekend, their gigs and day-to-day activities chained to each other. Of course something beautiful blooms between the two of them and everything will be all right in the end. You see, nothing special. The charm of You Instead comes from the images and situations Mackenzie chooses. The drunk, muddy, stoned get-together around a campfire, the sweaty tents filled with thumping music and those quiet mornings when you try to think of a reason why you drank so much the night before (believe me, I’ve been there). This was actually the only reason why I continued watching You Instead… nostalgia. At least You Instead has a lot more life to it than Mackenzie’s last feature Perfect Sense, which I found excruciatingly boring and completely forgettable.

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178-180: Safety Not Guaranteed, Innkeepers, Fear and Loathing

178: Safety Not Guaranteed

safety-not-guaranteed

Quirky indie movies are a dime a dozen, most of them self-important exercises in low-budget moping. But sometimes an indie surfaces that manages to find the strength to raise itself above the crowd and find something interesting to say. One of these is Safety Not Guaranteed, a great science fiction fantasy drama about people searching for meaning. Once again Mark Duplass manages to give us an engaging performance (earlier this year also in Your Sister’s Sister). He plays Kenneth, a man who thinks he has built a time machine. Young journalist Darius finds a classified by Kenneth asking for a companion on his experiments. Darius (Aubrey Plaza) convinces her editor to investigate further. Under the ‘supervision’ of Jeff (New Girl’s Jake Johnson), Darius and researcher Arnau (Karan Soni) go to find the mysterious man who must be out of his mind. Once arrived things start to take a turn for the absurd as everybody starts to take the opportunity to work out their own problems. The heart of the story is the relationship between Kenneth and Darius. Plaza and Duplass really hit it off and sparks fly every second they spent together. It is an endearing look at the lives of two people searching for more. On the side there are the adventures of Jeff and Arnau, both of which are funny, but ultimately not very important to the central storyline. The whole, however, is a beautiful mix of science fiction, drama and comedy. I totally recommend watching Safety Not Guaranteed, even if you don’t like independent cinema.

179: The Innkeepers

the-innkeepers

Deconstructionist horror movies are nothing new. Earlier this year I reviewed the excellent The Cabin in the Woods and last year I loved Tucker and Dale vs. Evil. Now I can add The Innkeepers to that list, while this last addition to the genre does the deconstruction a little more subtle.  Everything in The Innkeepers revolves around the Yankee Pedlar Inn, which is about to close for good. Two custodians (Claire and Luke) are charged with taking care of the inn during its final weekend. Legend has it that the inn is haunted, or so Luke tells Claire. He is supposedly interested in the inn’s sordid history and has even devoted a website to it. During the weekend, however, strange things start to happen and old guests turn up to stay for one more night. Claire and Luke go looking for signs of the haunting, but in the end may be getting more than they bargained for. Director Ti West ramps up the tension from the beginning and doesn’t let up until the end when things start to really get out of hand. Along the way he inserts a surprising amount of humor into his screenplay which alleviates some of the more standard tropes of the haunted house genre. There is a tongue-in-cheek quality to The Innkeepers that isn’t overtly visible. I was often glued to the edge of my seat. Not because the movie was so scary or something like that, but because West paints a great picture that will stick with you. I recommend searching out The Innkeepers.

180: Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas

fear-and-loathing-in-las-vegas

Terry Gilliam adapting a Hunter S. Thompson novel is a match made in heaven. Gilliam’s movies always feel like fever dream with all its wild imagery and brilliant production design. Thompson’s famous novel about a weekend in Vegas at the end of the carefree hippy era filled with drugs, alcohol and other such debauchery fits perfectly with Gilliam’s visual exuberance. From the very first moment we know we are in for quite a ride. We see Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro speeding down a deserted highway on their way to Vegas. They are clearly operating under the influence of several types of drug a normal person wouldn’t think of taking, let alone combining. Once in Vegas the shenanigans don’t stop. Soon the drug use starts to take its toll and the situation turns more grim by the minute. This change is reinforced when we are witness to Del Toro intimidating the waitress (Ellen Barkin) at a diner on the wrong side of Vegas. It is an incredibly uncomfortable scene in an already uncomfortable movie. While the movie is more concerned with the drug use than the political underpinnings of Thompson’s novel I admire Gilliam’s courage to take on a project like this. I love Fear and Loathing for what it is: a crazy ride hopefully none of us will ever have to endure.

171-173: ParaNorman, Cosmopolis, Skyfall

171: ParaNorman

With ParaNorman, animation company Laika has made themselves a force to be reckoned with. After the flawed, but charming Corpse Bride and the downright awesome Coraline they have shown that they can tackle grown-up while simultaneously entertaining young and old alike. ParaNorman fits perfectly within that description. This story about a young boy who can see the dead wandering around is a touching story about being different and embracing that ways that make us unique and interesting. It goes to places where you never thought it could go. It plays with your expectations and several times gives the audience something to think about. All the while we are treated to beautiful animation, perfect pacing and hilarious comedy. The pacing comes to the for when we are treated to quiet character moments followed by raucous action fun and never do the transitions feel jarring. The comedy is everywhere. From tiny moments between Norman and the ghosts to the zombie invasion in the village that suddenly takes a turn for the unexpected. I loved ParaNorman from start to finish. In fact, I felt this would be a special movie when I watched the first trailer. Highly recommended and a certain contender for my top ten for 2012.

172: Cosmopolis

David Cronenberg is more and more removing himself from the type of movies we have come to know him for. No more body horror for him, but something that resembles psychological horror. Earlier this year I watched A Dangerous Method, which was not a movie I could get behind (for whatever reason). Now it is Cosmopolis, a movie that I want to like so bad, but am having a hard time doing so. Cosmopolis, based on a novel by Don DeLillo, is about a young man who wants nothing more than a haircut. The problem is that his regular barber shop is on the other side of Manhattan and the streets are about to be overrun by protesters who want nothing more than to lynch our hero. This is because he is a very wealthy and successful investment banker and that makes him a prime target for them. On top of all that he sees his empire crumble in front of his eyes during the day. It is a strange journey on which he almost never leaves his limo and meets several people he has conversations with.

I stress this last bit, because most of Cosmopolis consists of conversations of the highest sort. Like A Dangerous Method, you really have to keep your attention with the film or else you will lose chunks of relevant (and sometimes not so relevant) dialogue. I like these kinds of movies where dialogue plays a big part, but it usually takes me a couple of viewings to grasp the whole picture. Can I recommend Cosmopolis? That’s a difficult question. It all depends on your willingness to have your ears do more of the work than your eyes. For the most past I like the direction Cronenberg has been going in the last few years (A History of Violence and Eastern Promises are brilliant movies), but I also wish he would once in a while go back to the more outlandish subjects he tackled in movies like The Fly and eXistenZ. Who doesn’t love some freakish body horror every so often?

173: Skyfall

James Bond has never been a slam dunk for me. I can appreciate the action sequences and the strange situations Bond finds himself in on a regular basis. But there always is a nagging resistance in the back of my mind that prevents me from loving these movies the way a lot of other people do. This new incarnation has been up and down for me. I liked Casino Royale, but that was more due to the bold turn the series took. I was stunned that I was incredibly bored by Quantum of Solace. Now we have the third Daniel Craig James Bond movie, titled Skyfall, and it falls somewhere in between these two earlier installments. I liked Skyfall, I truly did, but I constantly got the feeling that we have seen it all before. How many times have we seen a list of secret agents get into the wrong hands? How many times have we seen people hacking into computers to get their way? How many times have we seen the bad guy be captured (willing or not) to hedge some nefarious scheme? It has all been done before. Maybe this is because Bond has been around for fifty years by now and the stories run a little thin after all that time. As a spy thriller there is a lot to like about Skyfall. It is fast paced, funny at times, and full of drama that doesn’t actually involve Bond. As an entry in the Bond continuum I must this is one of the better entries, but as a movie in the free world among other movies I don’t count this as a great movie.

160: Resident Evil: Retribution

I can’t really remember what happened in the last installment in the Resident Evil series, or any of them, for that matter. I have seen them all, but that’s what happens when a movie is totally forgettable. Director Paul W.S. Anderson spends a few minutes at the start of this movie to explain to us what happened before. Do we need this? No, not really, because Retribution doesn’t concern itself with telling a compelling story, so why bother with a backstory. This is another one of those movies that is out there, but for whom was it made. Are there droves of fans out there clamoring for more Resident Evil? I imagine this is not the case.

I actually used to think Anderson was sort of an anti-genius because he made movies that were technically proficient and entertaining in a guilty pleasure kind of way. Event Horizon is still one of my favorite horror movies, however ludicrous it may be. In recent years he has more and more gone the Uwe Boll way. His movies have become less and less compelling and ultimately entirely forgettable. Resident Evil: Retribution is a good example of this. He doesn’t concern himself with telling a story that could be even remotely interesting. Fans of protracted slow-motion action sequences will find some satisfaction, but that is just about the only group of people who can find something to enjoy here.

What did struck me as interesting was how Retribution doesn’t even pretend to hide its videogame heritage. The videogame series has become more and more a simple shooter and Retribution follows suit. More so than ever this installment is divided in a level structure with everything we have come to expect from shooter games like Call of Duty. From Tokyo to New York to some generic suburban area. We jump from area to area, get new weapons, new enemies. The only thing missing is the first-person view. Everybody knows how much fun it is to sit next to somebody who is playing a videogame… well, that’s what watching Retribution feels like. Utterly uninvolving and boring.

> IMDb

147: Humanoids from the Deep

Roger Corman has been a great mentor to a lot of filmmakers that are heroes today, like Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard and James Cameron. But unlike these cinematic heroes, Corman produced some of the worst and exploitative movies ever. He unabashedly exploited women and violence to further his gain from his movies and the 1980 horror movie Humanoids from the Deep (A.K.A. Monster) is no exception.

Once again a small fishing village is terrorized by something that lives between the surface of the water. The monsters are out for blood, but there is a catch: they just kill the men and leave the women to be mated with. This is actually not a bad idea, because even monsters need to ensure their survival, right? It also gave producer Corman the opportunity to include come revealing footage of frightened naked women running on the beach being hunted by men in suits. Well, if that’s your thing, then Humanoids from the Deep is totally up your ally. If you want something more than that… steer clear.

According to behind the scenes lore the original cut delivered by director Barbara Peeters was a much more serious movie with less sex and violence, but she was fired and another director was brought in to spice things up to create more buzz for the movie and draw in a larger audience. I am a bit curious about the movie Peeters delivered, but deep down I know full well that the original version is not going to be any better than the released result. In fact, the campy violence and gore make the movie a little more bearable, because this is by no stretch of the imagination a good movie.

While the first half of the movie is fairly entertaining it all comes crashing down when the monsters are revealed. Rob Bottin designed the creature suit and he tried his best to create something creepy. It didn’t work at all. This is the classic man-in-a-suit problem we know mostly from ’50s movies. There is no menace at all present in the suit that looks like a cheap knockoff of the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Bottin would go on to become one of the foremost make-up wizards, so we can forgive him Humanoids from the Deep. Corman, on the other hand, can never be excused for this terrible movie.

> IMDb

139: Bait

SHARKS! Don’t you just love it when someone screams that ominous word? I like a good shark movie from time to time. They are often not very good, but that doesn’t really matter when you get to see people be eaten by prehistoric eating machines. Well, have I got news for you: sometimes even a shark movie can get it all wrong. Take Bait for example, an Australian monster flick that desperately tries to reinvent the shark movie.

Apparently the moratorium on using tsunamis for commercial gain has been lifted, because Bait boasts one that is so unabashedly exploitative that a collective groan can be heard from Japan. After the tsunami hit, of which I had no prior knowledge prior and found to be totally cheap, a couple of people are trapped in an underground supermarket and the adjoining parking garage. And what do you know, at each of these locations there happens to be a great white shark trapped in there with them, ready to pounce.

What follows is a movie that isn’t a whole lot different from a 2010 movie called Skyline. That movie promised a whole lot, but didn’t deliver at all on its promises. Bait does a lot of the same, but at least gives us a shark or two at times. Terrible digitally bred sharks, but sharks nonetheless. That’s more than one could say for Skyline, that didn’t show its aliens at all for long times. This would all not have been an enormous problem if the characters were people you would want to survive. Director Kimble Rendall spends a good amount of his movie trying to flesh out his characters to achieve exactly that goal, but these people are beyond saving. They exist only to spew incredibly moronic lines, inhabit scenes that are ludicrous at best and give way to interactions that have come directly from a Screenwriting 101 template.

Then there are the implausible details of the movie. We have all seen the devastation the tsunami in Japan caused and how dark that water was from all the dirt and mud and debris it took with it. Then how come the water in Bait is just about as clear as a glass of water or why didn’t the supermarket and the garage fill all the way to the ceiling with water when both are clearly below street level. It is so frustrating to see screenwriters and film makers be so careless about details like this just for the sake of making a slightly less shitty movie. Luckily Jaws has just been released on Blu-ray, so I can remove the nasty after images from watching Bait from my eyes.

> IMDb

127: The Cabin in the Woods

Not so long ago a little movie called Tucker & Dale vs Evil surprised friend and foe with its ingenious take on a tired and worn-out genre: the teenage slasher horror flick. Director Eli Craig took this type of movie and turn the conceit around. He created a wholly original experience nobody expected. Anybody who loved this little movie should sit up now and pay attention, because there is another movie out there that takes the same genre and also turns it upside down, but this time on a much grander scale. That movie is The Cabin in the Woods and it is awesome.

I would like to warn anybody who has not seen The Cabin in the Woods up front. In order to be able to talk about this movie some spoilery liberties must be taken. If you have not seen it yet, I suggest you stop reading and go watch it… NOW! Go, don’t let me keep you.

With that out of the way I can continue.

Everything in The Cabin in the Woods revolves around that dreaded eponymous cabin in the woods. For years kids have been lured to these types of cabins in order to be killed by whatever evil is unleashed on them. We have seen it hundreds of times, most famously in movies like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Evil Dead and Cabin Fever. But why does this happen? Why do kids keep going to these places when they very well know it is unsafe? Why do they stay even though something mysterious is going on outside or in the cellar? It turns out there is much more behind these tales about promiscuous teenagers then we could have ever imagined.

Like so many others I had heard about The Cabin in the Woods before I watched the movie. I knew there was a twist to the story that was very original, but I was very surprised to see that first-time director Drew Goddard, who wrote episodes of Lost and wrote Cloverfield, had the guts to actually open the movie with the twist (that is now no longer a twist of course) that I was expecting to be revealed later in the movie. A ballsy move that puts the viewer squarely in the middle of the movie. By choosing this structure we are constantly involved with all the sides of the story and because we are so evenly introduced to all parties. The payoff, which would have been too much to handle in a single reveal, is therefor much more interesting.

Even though at first I thought the trailer of The Cabin in the Woods gave away way too much, I realized that wasn’t the case at all. Much of the material in the trailer is actually used in the first part of the movie. That makes what happens later in the movie and the reasoning behind all of what happens  even more surprising. And, no, don’t worry, I am not going to divulge the secret of The Cabin in the Woods here. It is just too cool and surprising to reveal casually in a review.

Goddard wrote The Cabin in the Woods together with none other than Joss Whedon, a man who seemingly can’t do wrong at this moment in his career. Whedon also produced. While I did not finish watching Lost (I gave up at the beginning of season two) I still felt a strong kinship between The Cabin and the Woods and that show, as well as Cloverfield. A group of innocent people are thrust into an adventure that is totally out of their hands and beyond anything they could have imagined. They are being played by some malevolent force that they could have no hope of beating. But they rise up and make every effort to vanquish their foe, whether they succeed or not.

If you want a nice evening of revisionist horror movies, I recommend you get Tucker & Dale vs Evil and The Cabin in the Woods. Both are great movies that will make you laugh and will surprise you countless times. The only downside is the fact that in the coming years a lot of knock-offs will start to flood the market and that is not something I am looking forward to.

> IMDb