Archive for October, 2014

V/H/S: Viral (dir. Various)

Posted: October 30, 2014 in Uncategorized

Anthology films are tough.  You’re essentially taking a bunch of short films and perhaps loosely tying them together to make a single filmic experience.  Sometimes the same writer and/or director does all the segments, but more often they are done by disparate artists, resulting in a product that can be uneven in tone, quality, message, or subject matter.   Most anthology films tend to be in the horror genre (“Four Rooms” being a non-horror example that stands out in my mind), and even the best films of this genre (arguably “Creepshow” 1 & 2) don’t work from beginning to end.  The fun of these films is the surprise.  You often don’t know what the stories will be, or what order they will come in.  Plus, if you don’t like one segment, you don’t necessarily know the entire movie sucks.  Just sit back and wait for the next one.

The “V/H/S” franchise is the latest attempt to revitalize this stagnant genre (“The ABCs of Death” was largely garbage, and “Trick ‘r’ Treat” suffered from being left on the shelf too long), and so far the results have been at times interesting and innovative, but mostly disappointing.  Sure, the idea of making all of the segments Found Footage (a horror subgenre that seems to be in its death throes now but was all the rage 2-3 years ago) and finding new ways to film old tropes (like Zombies or Alien Abductions) was invigorating, but we’ve never gotten anything from these films that has really blown me out of the way.  If I had to pick my favorite segment from any anthology film ever, I’d choose “The Raft” segment from “Creepshow 2”, based on a short story by Stephen King.  Any time I watch one of these films, I’m hoping to be blown away like that.

So now, after two mediocre “V/H/S” films, we have our third film, “V/H/S/: Viral”.  Right off the bat we know we’re in trouble, because our frame story, the recurring one that ties all the other stories together, doesn’t make a lick of sense.  The previous two films were about people finding collections of VHS tapes, and the content of those tapes were the segments of the film.  Great! In this film we get a guy who wants to film an ice cream truck leading the cops on a high-speed chase, while a weird viral video pops up on random people’s phones making them go crazy (shades of King’s novel “Cell” and the non-anthology but one-story-by-three-directors film “The Signal” here).  How this ties in the other segments I don’t know, nor is this frame story ever tied up in a way which explains anything.  It only serves to be an attempt at commenting on people wanting to be famous online by making Youtube videos, and our over-recorded culture.  It fails at social commentary.  There is one scene that is a sort-of comment on Bangbus and Revenge Porn that works in and of itself, but it’s kind of separate from the main action and is way too short. The frame story alone gets a D.

Our first non-frame segment isn’t really horror.  Entitled “Dante the Great”, it’s about a redneck wannabe magician who comes into possession of a magician’s cloak that will allow to perform real magic (mostly being able to fly, make others fly, or I guess create tiny wormholes to take things from long distances out of the cloak), as long as you allow the cloak to kill other people.  This sounds like it could horror, but the segment (which is more fake documentary than found footage, exactly) plays more like a superhero movie ala “Chronicle” meets “Now You See me”.  It’s kind of fun, but I was hoping a magic segment in a horror anthology would feel more like “Lord of Illusions”. C+

The second segment is the best one of the film. “Parallel Monsters” is brought to us by director Nacho Vigalondo, who made “Timecrimes”, and his segment feels similar.  Instead of time travel, this one is about alternate universes (think “Sliders”).  A man builds a doorway to a different universe, and on the other side is that universe’s version of himself, who has also built a doorway.  The other man’s house appears to be an exact mirror version of the first man’s, and they both agree to explore the other man’s universe for 15 minutes before returning back.  The other man’s universe seems to take place in some weird Satanic version of our own, and things get weird once the first man runs into the other universe’s version of his wife.  Without spoiling anything, I will say the segment almost falls apart at the end, when we’re introduced to “Tromeo and Juliet”-esque monster genitalia.  Still, this was fun, well-made, bizarre short that I wouldn’t have minded being longer. B+

Lastly, we get “Bonestorm” (named after the fake video game from “The Simpsons”?).  This is a rather boring and too-shaky-cam-shot segment about skater teens going to Tijuana to skate for a video they’re making, and are beset upon by cultish skeleton people.  It’s boring, the characters are annoying, and the gore is hampered by the horrible camera work. D

Apparently, there was a fourth segment that may have screened at one or two film festivals, called “Gorgeous Vortex”, that was cut from the final film for reasons yet unknown.  It was apparently about a cult and people who hunt down serial killers, or something.  The details aren’t really fully out there, but it got decent notices and possibly had a sci-fi bent. The cutting this segment means that “Viral”, in total, only runs a scant 81 minutes.

Perhaps I wouldn’t be so harsh on this film if I hadn’t just watched the long shelved “The Poughkeepsie Tapes”, an uneven but interesting found footage film that has been shelved for 7 years, likely due to MGM’s financial troubles (much like the awesome “Cabin in the Woods” was).  That film, half fake-documentary and half found-footage, knows how to do found footage well, even if the actors in the documentary portion are pretty awful and couldn’t pull off the cadences of normal speech.  In three “V/H/S” films, we’ve gotten maybe four good segments, tops, out of three frame stories and twelve proper segments.  We’ll probably keep getting films in this series.  Let’s hope they get better.

Overall Grade:  C-

Advertisements

I have a hard time remembering the last great straight-ahead action movie.  Recently, superheroes, sci-fi, and winking satire (“The Expendables”) have taken over when we look to films that feature gunplay, martial arts, and explosions.  The age of Rambo and “Die Hard” in the 80s has in my lifetime transformed into the age of “The Matrix” and “The Avengers” presently.  That’s not to say I dislike those films, or want less films of that type (aside from car chases, explosions, and digital people fighting digital people, I have yet to grow tired of sci-fi or superhero action), just that I miss the days where you had straight-ahead action films where you had a little comedy, a lot of drama, and a mix of gun violence (which I despise in real life but love in films, much like serial killers) and close-quarters hand-to-hand combat.

I perhaps didn’t know how much I missed this until I saw “John Wick”, an action film that feels like a breath of fresh air.  Sure, “Taken” has its supporters (I found the film’s pacing to be way too fast, resulting in a mediocre effort), as does “The Transporter” series (unseen by me).  The last “Rambo” film was pretty good, but that might fit more into the War Film genre, of which post-9/11 Hollywood has given us plenty of and rather bores me when it only exists to pump up Nationalism and undeserved American pride in its military.  For me, it’s possible I’d have to go as far back as Luc Besson’s action-drama “The Professional”  (1994; also known under the title “Leon”) to find a pure action film I unabashedly loved.

“John Wick” is an action film that plays into our current sensibilities by creating a world and a mythology, at least a little bit, while at the same time having the retro feel of a simple action movie about a Tough Guy out for revenge.  The visual style of the film calls to mind the Punisher Max series of comic books, pulling off visuals that “Punisher: War Zone” had been going for but failed at delivering. In fact, the world of the film, in which there is a underground secret society of assassins who use gold coins as currency and congregate at a safe ground hotel, in addition to using a special service for dead body disposal, feels like something out of either Punisher Max or a Mark Millar comic.  It’s only a few degrees removed from the real world, but it’s enough to make the film have an intriguing setting that one hopes may be explored in potential sequels.

That quasi-comic book sensibility aside, we have a story that is really old school in its simplicity. John Wick (Keanu Reeves, in a role designed to play to his strengths) is a former assassin who once worked with the Russian mob before retiring to start a life with the woman he loved. After 4 years out of the game, his wife dies of a terminal illness. While grieving, he receives a delivery.  It’s cute puppy. The puppy was a gift arranged by his late wife prior to her passing. She wanted him to have a companion to help him with his grief, hoping it would help him and give him a reason to keep going on.  A very sweet gesture, and a touching moment for a movie such as this.

Later, Wick is driving around in his vintage Mustang with his new puppy when he stops at a gas station.  Filling up next to him are some Russian mobsters, including Iosef (Alfie Allen), the brat son of the head Russian mobster, Viggo (Michael Nyqvist).  Iosef likes the car and wants to buy it, but Wick tells him it’s not for sale. Iosef calls John a “bitch” in Russian, and Wick replies in Russian and drives off.  Later that night, Iosef and two cronies break into Wick’s home, kill his dog, and steal his car.  The dog, being the last present from Wick’s wife, naturally hits Wick hard.  Not only was the dog cute and something to help Wick through the grief, but the dog dying is almost like losing his wife twice.  This is a very fresh take on the revenge tale.  We’ve seen action heroes avenge the death of the woman they love, but this adds an extra layer to that.  It’s not much deeper, and it’s so simple I’m surprised no one ever thought of it before (the closest thing to this is the Jack Ketchum novel “Red”, in which three punk teens kill an old man’s dog, and he decided to take revenge after they refuse to apologize).  Aside from the audiences’ reaction to a cute dog being killed, the idea of the last, loving gift from the deceased love of your life being torn from you a mere two days after that love has died, well, people have gone insane from less.

So, naturally, Wick comes out of retirement and wants to kick some Russian ass (I so miss Russians being the bad guys in movies). As Viggo mobilizes to protect his son, hiring assassins played by Willem Dafoe and Adrianne Palacki to take out Wick, Wick engages in a one-man war on the Russian mob, which consists of swift shoot-outs, and non-fancy close-quarters combat with guns, knives, fists, and feet. No fancy “I know Kung Fu” shit here.  This is balls-to-the-wall action, shot and edited effectively, using well-placed CGI augmenting make-up effects, and a great score by Tyler Bates and others (and a Marilyn Manson song here or there) to amp up the action.

The film is directed by David Leitch and Chad Stahelski. Both have largely had careers as stuntmen and fight choreographers (the former was the stunt double for Keanu on many previous films of his) and this is their first film as directors.  They are surprising good, at the film keeps a good, frenetic pace once the action begins, and the film is really pretty to look at (the color scheme is often quite remarkable). Little things, like how English subtitles appear on screen when Russian dialogue is spoken add little touches of interesting visual playfulness that make this whole endeavor all the more enjoyable.  The action scenes move fast, but you are always aware of the spacial relations of where everyone is, and you never lose track of who is fighting or shooting whom.  So often these action films cut so fast from so many angles that just wind up confused and bored and end up waiting patiently for the scene to end so you can figure out where everyone ended up and who is alive and dead.  Here, we are never confused, and the film never moves faster than the audience’s ability of comprehension.  This may not seem like a hard thing to do, but if it weren’t so many action films wouldn’t screw this up.

“John Wick” may not reinvent the wheel.  It doesn’t do much of anything new.  However, what it does do, it does REALLY WELL.  I had a blast watching it, and I actually WANT a sequel, rather than feel resigned that there will inevitably be one.  This is the best straight-ahead action film in years. A-

“America: Imagine The World Without Her” (hereafter simply referred to as “America” for simplicity’s sake) is a myopic and naïve filmic essay espousing the greatness of the United States in much the same way a third grader’s essay would likely do so.  It is built upon poorly-staged reenactments, anecdotal evidence and argument from authority.  No hard data is cited and most sides of an argument are presented as showing a single person for and a single person against the issue, often times leading to a false equivalency between two opinions w/r/t history.   To call the film propaganda is to give it too much credit.  Unlike Dinesh D’Souza’s previous film, “2016: Obama’s America”, this film fails to even give us some juicy, absurd conspiracy theories to ridicule.  The film’s about as entertaining, even ironically, as watching a cowboy waiving a flag and shouting “’MERICA!!!” for an hour and 45 minutes.

Yes, this film is brought to us by convicted felon Dinesh D’Souza, who has to keep making films to try to influence public opinion since he’s now lost his right to vote by pleading guilty.  Does that sound like a cheap shot to you?  Perhaps it would be, if the film didn’t provide us with a (staged) shot of D’Souza in handcuffs as he pretty much blames Obama and the National Security apparatus for him being there.  Never mind that he had people donate money to a candidate he supported and then reimbursed them to get around campaign finance laws.  Oh no.  he was singled-out, you see, because he made a film that tried to stop Obama from being reelected. The film didn’t work (much as “Fahrenheit 9/11” failed to oust George W. Bush), and I think Obama has more important things to worry about than going after D’Souza for revenge…especially since D’Souza was guilty and admitted guilt in court.  I mean, Obama’s not Chris Christie, who will shut down a bridge for petty revenge. But if nothing else, D’Souza’s films reveal the man’s ridiculously huge ego, and I have no doubt he truly believes that Obama lies awake at night  seething with rage about D’Souza and plotting ways to get back at him for making his previous film. Delusions of Grandeur, thy name is Dinesh.

In addition to Obama, this new film takes aim at Howard Zinn, Saul Alinsky (who many Conservatives despise even as they make use of his rules in their own campaigns and political careers), Hillary Clinton, and Matt Damon.  Not since “Team America: World Police” has Matt Damon been taken to task on film for no real reason.  Trey Parker and Matt Stone, who are largely Libertarians and have a beef with Left-Wing Hollywood, at least spread the criticism around to any famous person who talked about politics publicly during the Bush years (and yet don’t see the irony of taking famous people to task for expressing political opinions while they, themselves, are famous people expressing their political opinions regularly).  Dinesh decides to just pick on Matt Damon because in 1997’s “Good Will Hunting” he name checked Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States” in one line of dialogue.  Damon has gone on to talk about politics since 1997, and has made a few political movies such as the 2012 anti-fracking Gus Van Sant film “Promised Land”, but Dinesh really only cares about the Zinn shout-out.  Later, Dinesh interviews a man in an attempt to refute Zinn’s book simply by claiming Zinn isn’t a historian.  No evidence is given to back up this assertion, and no specific passages or false claims from his book are presented to be refuted.  The film merely stops at the ad hominem attack.  D’Souza likes ad hominem because it is easy and requires no research.  For instance, rather than cite examples of why this film is bad, I could merely try to discredit D’Souza by telling you that despite his credentials as a Conservative Christian, he was cheating on his wife and, while still married, brought his mistress to public functions, introducing the mistress as his fiancé.  I could then claim that this film is bad because D’Souza is a cheating, hypocritical scumbag.

That’s the thing, though.  Whether D’Souza is a bad human being or not doesn’t automatically mean that his film is bad or that its assertions are incorrect.  If I was playing by D’Souza’s handbook, however, all I would do is show a clip of D’Souza saying something he believes, deliver a snarky yet pompous voice-over that basically boils down to me saying “oh really?”, and then play a longer clip of another person, who I introduce as an expert of some sort (Argument from Authority), telling me D’Souza is wrong but not citing any evidence to the contrary. There, I’ve just taken you to the Dinesh D’Souza School of Documentary Filmmaking.  Oh, and if you want to be like D’Souza, you have to insert many superfluous shots of yourself while you interview someone, with your brow furrowed and your lips slightly pursed, because that will make you look interested and pensive.  Oh, and you have to shoot your interview subject with part of their face cut off and off-center from the frame, so your film looks cutting edge and important (or sloppy, whatever).

When he’s not resorting to Argument from Authority or ad hominem, D’Souza’s basic argument is that of a kid who wants to stay up past his bedtime and, when their parent refuses, responds with “but so and so at my school gets to stay up.”  In response to the criticism of America stealing land from the Native Americans, the film argues that this is okay because different tribes conquered different tribes to acquire land, so it’s okay because Chief so and so did it.  Apparently D’Souza’s mother never scolded him by saying that just because everyone at school jumps off a bridge, it doesn’t mean it’s right for you to also do it.  The other argument here is, of course, that might makes right.  If you kill the people on top of the land, you somehow deserve the land.  This is D’Souza’s main argument when it comes to the criticism of America taking land from Mexico.  We fought a war, we won that land fair and square, suck it, Mexico!  This is followed by D’Souza bravely attacking the idea that Mexico is a better place to live than the United States, an assertion made by no one, anywhere, ever.  No one fearlessly takes down a straw man like D’Souza.  It also showcases one of the film’s weird blind spots:  it has a weird black-and-white thinking in which people can only be divided into America-Lovers and America-Haters.  The truth, apparent to anyone who is not either a child or D’Souza, is that people can love America without thinking it’s perfect and either whitewashing and ignoring its flaws and wrongdoing, and people can hate America but still believe it’s better than a many other countries on Earth, and would prefer to attempt change it and make it better from the inside rather than jump ship and give up on it.  That’s right; we can add another logical fallacy to D’Souza’s bag of tricks: False Dilemma.

Let’s not even spend too much time on D’Souza’s handling of slavery.  He shows us one woman who overcame slavery to become a self-made millionaire, points out that there were many Black slave owners as well as White ones (I guess his point is…I don’t know, exactly, as that doesn’t exonerate America from its slaveholding past, but is perhaps to assuage White Guilt?  Dinesh is Indian-American, which makes it odd if he’s concerned with modern Whites feeling undo guilt over slavery), points out that other nations in the world had slavery too (so that gives America a pass?), and then champions the Civil War as showing America is awesome because it was willing to fight a war to end slavery.  Okay, except many nations were able to end slavery without wars.  He also gives the Founding Fathers a pass on allowing slavery while proclaiming liberty because PRACTICALLY they couldn’t hold a new nation together if they outlawed it.  Never mind that pragmatic concerns don’t absolve someone of being morally reprehensible, but it also reveals that D’Souza seems to believe that the Founding Fathers actually had a desire to free the slaves (some likely did, it was a rather large group of people, but then some like Jefferson had a lot, raped a few of them, and made no effort to free their own) and believed they would be free eventually.  D’Souza makes no effort to whitewash the Founding Fathers only giving rights to white, land-owning men, though.  The movie can only be so long.

D’Souza tries to make Vietnam sound like a good idea, and claims that Iraq wasn’t an imperialist war because America didn’t take the oil for itself.  No, but it took it away from a country that had it nationalized and delivered it into the hands of private corporations.  D’Souza also ignores a long history of the United States sticking its nose into the private affairs of other countries and CIA-backed missions that resulted in democratically elected leaders being ousted in favor of totalitarian thugs that were west-friendly.  D’Souza spends the least amount of time defending the claim of America as an imperialist country perhaps because he knows he has no leg to stand on here.  He also has recreated scenes of a solider in Vietnam being tortured, but makes no mention of the United States torturing its prisoners in the early 2000s.  Does that mean another country has the right to invade us as we did Vietnam?  He also ignores the atrocities the South Vietnamese government also committed but, hey, we don’t have time for details like that.

Lastly, D’Souza makes an effort to defend Capitalism by showing that many countries are embracing it, especially in the third-world.  Sure, when you can get labor at 1 cent an hour you can make a lot of profit.  D’Souza is more concerned with looking at the “entrepreneurs” at the top, though, and not the sweat shop workers.  He also ignores inherited wealth, and money that is not made on entrepreneurial labor, or the fact that most of the really rich under capitalism make money off of capital (stocks, bonds, dividends, real estate, etc) and not by “working hard” or any of that American Dream stuff that Dinesh still believes in.  I also question his math in a scene where he claims a burger shop will make a mere 16 cent profit per burger (which can add up to a lot if you sell a lot of burgers, though) and that a person can’t make a cheaper burger by going to the supermarket (which ignores the discount a burger place would make in bulk orders, as well as the fact that an individual buying their own lettuce and buns can make more than one burger  with those materials, thus making their homemade burgers individually cheaper even if the grocery bill to buy the materials is more than the price of a single burger).

When all is said and done, “America” is a slapdash collection of logical fallacies, ad hominem attacks, straw man arguments, poor recreations, D’Souza’s naval-gazing, and childish arguments. This film does a disservice to the country is it named after.  D-

“This is Where I Leave You” feels very, how do I put this, constructed.  What do I mean by that?  I mean that the film doesn’t feel like the real lives of real people dealing with real things.  It feels like someone watched every dramedy since the 1980s and decided to write one from the easily assembled parts.  Take a Big Life Event (family reunion, holiday, death, high school reunion, etc), have a large family who normally don’t spend time together assembled under one roof (doesn’t have to be a blood family; “The Big Chill” was a “family” of old friends) and have them work out their individual issues together while trying to balance between sitcom quirkiness and existential drama about the Big Issues underlying the Little Things in life.  I mentioned “The Big Chill”, and “Dan in Real Life” also popped into my mind while watching TIWILY, which at least has a cool title.

In this particular dramedy, we’re introduced to Judd (Jason Bateman).  His wife (Abigail Spencer) has been cheating on him for a year with his boss, a shock jock DJ (Dax Shepard).  He finds out about this by catching them in bed when he comes home early from work, which according to dramedies is the only way husbands ever catch their wives cheating (remember the old NBC show “Ed”? I loved that show, and it’s pilot started off this way.  I hear music rights issues are keeping it from getting a DVD release).  Shortly after this, his father dies, and apparently his last wish was to have his entire family come together for a shiva, which apparently is a Jewish custom in which first-degree relatives mourn someone’s death for seven days.  The family matriarch (Jane Fonda) interprets this as meaning he wanted all of his children to be under the same roof for seven days, thus providing the weirdly artificial set up for the film.

Judd has three siblings:  Wendy (Tina Fey), who is in a loveless marriage with a workaholic, drinks too much but is not an obvious alcoholic, and has a kid who insists on using the training potty outside in broad daylight.  Paul (Corey Stoll), who still lives in his hometown, is married to an ex-girlfriend of Judd’s (Kathryn Hahn).  They are trying to conceive a child and it is no going well.  Lastly, we have Phillip (Adam Driver), the ne’er do well youngest son who screws around, used to sell weed, and is in and out of legal and financial trouble.  He shows up now dating an older woman (Connie Britton) who used to be his therapist.  These storylines range from sitcomish (Paul’s), to hackneyed cartoon (Phillip), to wannabe deep but not really (Wendy’s).  Oh, and that’s not even mentioning the brain damaged neighbor (Timothy Olyphant) who Wendy used to date and still kind-of holds a torch for, or the neighbor’s mother (Debra Monk) .

Judd, while dealing with his wife’s infidelity and impending divorce, also reconnects with a woman he knew as a teen, Penny (the always delightful Rose Byrne), who is this film’s Manic Pixie Dream Girl.  She exists to be a bubbly, fun, and delightfully strange love interest, and that’s about it.

Here’s the main issue with this film: it wants to be an out and out comedy, but it is hampered with the pretentiousness of trying to also be some deep drama about life, or death, or love, or marriage, or mid-life crises, or whatever.  The problem is it is not deep, and the film doesn’t reach any epiphanies about any of these topics other than clichéd notions that have already been explored by pseudo-intellectual twits for centuries now.  It doesn’t help that a sappy score kicks in to bash you over the head with sentiment during the film’s dramatic scenes, when silence would have made the shallow dialogue actually seem more powerful.  Though, admittedly, I do like the use of Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time”.

The comedy in this film works better than the drama, and that’s probably due to the director, Shawn Levy, being primarily a comedy director.  Granted, he’s a pretty shitty comedy director if one looks at the films he’s made: “Just Married”, “Cheaper by the Dozen”, “Night at the Museum”, “The Internship”, etc, but at least he knows the basics about timing to make a good gag land.  The closest thing he’s directed to a drama prior to this was “Real Steel”, the rock ‘em-sock ‘em robots movie.  Yeah, whose bright idea was it to put this material in the hands of a guy who made Frankie Muniz and Ashton Kutcher comedies, as well as the few dark spots on Steve Martin’s usually immaculate filmography?

Perhaps I’m being too hard on Levy, but without having read the novel by Jonathan Tropper upon which this film is based, I can’t say how much of the fault of this film is with the underlying material, and how much the director really fucked up.  Tropper did, however, write the screenplay for the film as well, so unless Tropper messed up adapting his own work, or Levy took Tropper’s finished screenplay and really messed it up, chances are the original work suffered from many of the same flaws the film does.

Shallow characters and poorly executed drama aside, the film is watchable and often entertaining. Even if you are never unaware of the gears working behind the scenes, of the artificiality of the screenplay chugging along plot-point-to-plot-point, you will find yourself laughing at a number of moments, and the film is ultimately harmless in how safe it plays its themes and messages.  Individual scenes work here and there, and you tend to at the very least like the shallow characters.  I just wish the set-up was more original, the characters felt more real, the message of the film was deeper and the drama was more powerful.  Okay, maybe that’s a lot, but the film’s good moments are enough to make you not feel too much animosity towards the whole endeavor. C+

Addicted (dir. Billie Woodruff)

Posted: October 16, 2014 in Uncategorized

I’m obviously not the intended audience for “Addicted”, a supposedly erotic film based (very loosely, I’ve read) on a novel by Zane, who started out self-publishing erotic fiction aimed at a female African-American audience and was later picked up by a real publisher to fill the gap in novels aimed at an urban audience.  Zane is now apparently being sought after by the state of Maryland for back taxes, so I guess she’s making a decent living off of being a writer now.  There is nothing in the film “Addicted” to indicate the woman’s appeal.  The film starts off as a typical soft-core story aimed at a female audience, in this specific case a black female audience, before attempting to be at different times a horror movie, a morality play, and a relationship drama.

It succeeds at nothing, except perhaps fetishizing an affluent lifestyle.  The film has an adequate number of the requisite sex scenes required in a film of this nature, but the film’s real eroticism comes from the main character’s wealth on display.  Mercedes, Range Rovers, Jimmy Choo shoes, and opulent homes with marble kitchens are just some of the touches used to show that our main character, Zoe (an overacting Sharon Leal) is rich out the ass.  Much like how the old television show “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” was watched by the poor to vicariously imagine life as a rich person, this film is more concerned with having the audience wish they lived in the main character’s house than fuck who she fucks.  “Addicted” may be a poor film in many respects, but the sets and props are legitimately pretty awesome, if perhaps a tad cold.  Judging by the recent trailer for the “Fifty Shades of Gray” film, which looks like someone tried to remake “American Psycho” as a romance, cold is in these days in our erotic films.  I never thought I’d long for the humid 80s kitsch of a “Nine and a Half Weeks” over the stainless steel and antiseptic whiteness of today’s theatrical soft-core fantasies.

Zoe is married to a wealthy and handsome architect named Jason (Boris Kodjoe), and has only ever slept with him.  They have two kids and live in a ridiculously pretty house with Zoe’s mother (Maria Howell, who looks about as old as Zoe and is only aged up with a bad wig and some crow’s feet eye make-up, making it weird that the film has to literally put knitting needles into her hands to make us think she is old enough to be the protagonist’s mother), but her Jason fails to make Zoe cum, even when they have sex two times in one night.  The film clearly finds men’s asses sexy from the side and when they are half-way peeking out of pants, because that accounts for most of the film’s nudity, unless you are counting the V-neck shirts every love/sex interest is required to wear at least once in the film.  I don’t know if side-butt and V-necks are sexy to all black women, but they certainly are to this film.  What isn’t sexy? Naked black breasts, otherwise the film would show us Zoe’s.  Perhaps the black female audience would be turned off by that because some will inevitably drag their men to the movie, and the film would alienate its fanbase if their partners were getting aroused by the onscreen breasts? A theory, as the only fully naked breasts we see in the film are random white women in a swinger’s club.  Don’t worry, I’ll get to that.

So yes, Zoe is unsatisfied and masturbates with a hilariously colored dildo to porn as her husband rests soundly after a night of working hard to provide for his family.  The bastard!  What’s worse is the film portraying the masturbation as both normal (as opposed to the sad, compulsive, and truly addictive depiction of pornography masturbation in the infinitely better film “Don Jon”) but also as secret and wrong.  Later in the film, when Zoe improbably lies flat on her back atop her work desk to masturbate, it is so weird, unlikely, and awkward that the audience in the theater laughed heartily.  The film seems to want to embarrass her for doing something that is common and healthy, but whatever.

Her unsatisfying sex life, despite the great house, nice family, and a husband who loves her (though the film does little to show why he loves her, or why she loves him), leads Zoe into the arms of Quinton (William Levy), a Spanish painter who she initially tries to rope in as a client for the company she runs, which seems to be some sort of manager for artists that helps license their work on consumer products.  Upon their initial meeting Quinton comes on ridiculously strong, and in no time he’s kinda-sort “Blurred Lines”-ing it and performing a quasi-rap-cunnilingus on her.  The film allows Zoe to fall into a pattern of saying no or being reluctant, Quinton cajoling her into sex which she inevitably enjoys, and then repeating this over and over.  The weird rape-y nature of their relationship casts a dirty layer on their whole relationship, which seems to last at least 6 months.

Later, after catching Quinton having sex with a woman who seems to hang around him for no reason, Diamond (Kat Graham), whom Zoe meets early on yet never questions Quinton about until catching them in the act, she goes out to a nightclub and bangs another hot guy (Tyson Beckford) in the bathroom, in a weirdly shot (from too far away) and decidedly unsexy scene.  Later, he takes her to a swingers club, which seems like a weird mix between a BDSM place (with ball-gags and whips and mesh), “Cruising” (oh so much leather), and “Eyes Wide Shut” (feathered Venetian masks?).  The scene is also shot with frames removed to speed up the action, and Zoe imbibes what appears to be ecstasy openly at the club while consuming champagne.  Aside from Zoe and the Beckford character, nearly everyone at the club is white, and the film seems to equate dangerous, deviant sexuality with Caucasian sexuality.

I haven’t even mentioned that the story uses therapy sessions as a frame device.  Zoe has a therapist (Tasha Smith, who cannot act at all.  To say her dialogue delivery is wooden would be an insult to the world’s trees).  The film tells us she’s a therapist, otherwise we wouldn’t know because all she really does is ask Zoe “How does that make you feel?”, presumably because the screenwriters have never been to therapy and think that’s all therapists ask, and tells Zoe repeatedly that she’s a sex addict.  I don’t know.  Having sex with two people outside of your marriage and masturbating doesn’t seem to make you a sex addict.  In “Choke”, a comedy about sex addiction based on a novel by Chuck Palahniuk, there are characters so in need of sexual release that they put peanut butter on their private parts to get dogs to pleasure them, and swallow so much semen they need their stomachs pumped.  Zoe doesn’t seem that bad, all things considered.  She has some risky, extramarital sex, but if that’s the definition of a sex addict, then my guess is so many people fall into those categories that the label would become meaningless.  This is really just another way for the film to be sex-negative and judge Zoe for her actions.  I’m not saying the film needs to endorse adultery, but to tack a supposed mental illness on her for her actions reeks of a level of shame the film doesn’t need to add on top of, say, the fact that her business starts crumbling and her kids begin to hate her for missing their soccer matches.

It’s odd.  In many films like this the female audience member is supposed to identify and live vicariously through the sexual escapades of the protagonist.  This film mainly aims for the audience to live vicariously through the protagonist’s affluent lifestyle, but then to morally judge and feel superior toward the character w/r/t her sex life.  I don’t know if this is something particular to black erotica or if this is a new movement in the genre itself, but it is disconcerting.  The audience is obviously interested in the material for their own prurient interests, to be turned on, so to then be allowed to judge and feel superior to the character engaging in the material causing your arousal seems hypocritical and shitty.

Not to mention *SPOILER FOR THOSE WHO CARE* the film “explains” Zoe’s “addiction” by revealing she was gangraped at the age of 10 by three boys.  Yes!  Of course!  Because no woman would ever have sexual desire if she hadn’t been abused! Wait. What?  Also, the film really goes overboard on trying to punish Zoe.  Quinton turns from quasi-rape-y sex partner to a slasher who attempts to murder Zoe.  The Beckford character at one point tries to mail Zoe’s panties to her husband as punishment for not seeing him.  The film never explains how he knows where she lives, or how she knows where he lives, when all they did was briefly hook up in a bathroom.  Oh, and later Zoe walks into traffic when her husband discovers everything and threatens to leave her.  Jeez.  The woman just wanted to orgasm.  Is that so wrong?  The film also shows that she tries to get her husband to work with her. She asks him to go to couples therapy, but he flat out refuses.  Later, she wants him to fuck her on the living room floor, and he’s downright offended at the suggestion. So really Zoe tries to get her husband to sexually please her, showing that adultery is not the real issue, it is female sexual desire that is to be derided.

Putting that ethically disgusting message aside, and what it may say about both the author and the intended audiences’ view on female sexuality generally and African-American female sexuality in particular, the film is often times a silly mess.  Take a scene where Quinton has mailed Jason a sculpture he has made, after Jason, not knowing the artists is doing his wife, compliments the piece while visiting Quinton’s home on business.  Jason takes the sculpture in his hand and comments something along the lines of “This is heavy.  It must be worth a lot.”  Apparently the film thinks artwork is priced by weight.  We all know the Mona Lisa weighs 1,000 pounds.  Later, when Quinton smashes a glass object (I think a vase) over the Beckford character’s head, and later Jason uses the sculpture to club Quinton over the head with the sculpture, I was reminded of the 2002 erotic film “Unfaithful”, which starred Diane Lane as a woman cheating on her husband with a French used book seller.  In that film, the husband, played by Richard Gere, smashes the Frenchman over the head with a giant snowglobe, killing the man.  The snowglobe was an important memento in the marriage, making that scene doubly powerful.  I imagine the makers of “Addicted” have seen “Unfaithful”, took out the pathos, and doubled the smashing over the head with blunt objects bit because, hey, two is better than one, and who cares if we missed the point in that original film?

Oh, and the film gives us Quinton’s backstory.  His mother stepped on him and his father, leading his dad to commit suicide.  Gee, given how his mother cheated on his dad and caused his family’s destruction, of course he’d have no problem raping a woman into an affair. Wait, what?  The film lets us see a mural he’s painted of the family he wishes he’d had as a child, a move usually made by a film so the audience can sympathize with the cuckolder.  Instead, the film later decides to make him a possible serial killer. O….k?

Look, I’ve seen my share of erotic films aimed at a predominantly female audience; the aforementioned “Nine and a Half Weeks” and “Unfaithful”, “Wild Orchid”, “Two Moon Junction”, etc.  Most have some element of silliness, but the quality goes up and down depending on the very subjective criteria of what turns you as an audience member on combined with the slightly less subjective criteria of what one sees as good production values, acting, and a script.  “Addiction” seesaws up and down from having a repugnant message to being unintentionally funny nonsense.  The production values are a mixed bag.  The acting is not uniformly bad, but merely overacted, like stage actors playing to the back row rather than the more naturalistic acting needed for film.  The set design and lighting is usually up to par, and V-necks aside the costuming is nice (Zoe spends a lot of the movie walking around in really nice coats, but she also inexplicable wears garters to work almost every day). Honestly, the movie is more polished than, say, the recent “Left Behind” remake (though both films feature horrendous child acting), but is only slightly less silly.

I don’t know if the intended audience will like this film, and it may be judgmental to say I know better than they do about what they should like, but an African-American female audience deserves better erotica than this.  They deserve sex positive, non-silly erotica that doesn’t punish a woman for her desires and doesn’t devolve into a slasher movie for 15 minutes.  Oh, and why at the end does the mother mention God forgiving Zoe, and why is there a Jesus portrait in the Sex Addicts Anonymous meeting? I’ve seen some Urban Erotic Fiction books in the bookstore, and I’ve always found it odd that the authors have very long acknowledgements sections at the beginning of the books where they thank God and/or Jesus first and capitalize pronouns referring to them, even when the book that follows features women dripping nacho cheese on a man’s erect penis before fellating it, which we all know Jesus was all about.  I believe in the separation of church and erotica, thank you. D+

Sex Tape (dir. Jake Kasdan)

Posted: October 15, 2014 in Uncategorized

“Sex Tape” takes a pretty sweet concept for a comedy, that of a married couple whose sex life is lagging deciding to spice things up by filming themselves having sex, and does surprisingly little with it.  If you gave that concept to ten wannabe screenwriters and told them to write a film, you’d have ten better scripts than the one for the finished “Sex Tape” film, which was written by Kate Angelo and then re-written by the screenwriting team of Nicholas Stoller and star Jason Segal. Chances are, not all of those films would be comedies either.  Stoller and Segal are responsible for perhaps the funniest comedy of the previous decade, “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” (though “The 40-Year-Old Virgin”, “Superbad”, “Scott Pilgrim” and others certainly rival it), but they haven’t been able to replicate that film’s success.  They both wrote the Muppets reboot, which some didn’t like because it was depressing and wanted to guilt the audiences in to liking the Muppets again.  I enjoyed the reboot, though.  They also wrote “The Five-Year Engagement”, a film unseen by me and most of America.  While Segal has had solo success as an actor, Stoller’s solo work as a director is responsible for this year’s “Neighbors”, a film I found to be an unfunny mess, and the okay but disappointing “Get Him to the Greek”.  Let’s not even talk about his screenwriting work on “Gulliver’s Travels”.

I don’t know anything else about Kate Angelo, but it’s hard to imagine Segal and Stoller did much to improve her original screenplay.  “Sex Tape” opens fairly well, with a montage of a new couple’s horniness and adventurous public sexcapades, and then showing how marriage and two kids can make people tired and slow down their libidos.  Then, however, we’re largely treated to an Apple commercial (seriously, the product placement in this film brings to mind Brad Pitt sipping a Pepsi in “World War Z” for some of the most blatantly obvious and distracting of all time) as not-so-old fogies try to cope with the current face of technology (the cloud, apps, syncing, remote wipes, talking smart phones, video editing software, YouPorn, etc) and get their groove back.  The film tries to play this off as a generational thing, with younger characters using technology effortlessly (our  main characters’ son uses tech effortlessly to edit a video for school, another young boy uses technical know-how to blackmail the protagonists), but if The Fappening has taught us anything, it’s that age is not the deciding factor in how tech savvy people are, and anyone is in jeopardy of having private photos and video get out there…unless they try using an actual camera not hooked up to a wi-fi connection.  Gee, no one ever thinks of that.  If anything, “Sex Tape” makes for lousy product placement because it spreads mistrust of technology.  Siri on the iPhone mishears a request from Jay (Segal) at one point.  An app syncs the titular sex tape to a number of different ipads because Jay doesn’t know how to work it.  It even makes a small plot point out of editing software (either iMovie or Final Cut) saving files with a default title of “Video1” or “Movie1”.  Aside from an improbably scene where an iPad survives being thrown out of a window and Jay actually comments on its “durable construction”, this movie makes for a poor commercial, no matter how many glowing Apple logos appear in it.

The film is hard to completely dislike, and that’s largely because of Cameron Diaz, who plays Annie,  Jay’s wife and a blogger who is looking to join with a company that makes baby products (I think).  Diaz makes up for her horrendous performance in “The Counselor” by being genuinely charismatic, bubbly, funny, and downright likable throughout the film.  Even when the film gives her lackluster material, she really goes for it and tries to elevate the material.  Not to mention, at the age of 42, she’s sexier in this film than she’s been on screen in a long time.  She may have failed at femme fatale in “The Counselor”, but she pulls off just-a-tad-too-sexy-housewife quite well, and comedy has always been her strong suit rather than drama.

Special notice also goes out to Rob Lowe, who plays the head of the company Annie wants to partner with.  He’s been playing pretty quirky characters lately (“Californication” anyone?), but his cocaine and Disney-loving heavy metal dweeb in this film is the best thing about it, and the scene where he and Annie bond over a line of cocaine is the film’s highlight, even if it is intercut with a painfully unfunny sequence with Jay battling a dog.  Jack Black also makes a cameo as the head of YouPorn, and the movie’s deliverer of its Big Message.  Black needs a new agent or something.  I shudder to think of him playing R.L. Stine in the upcoming “Goosebumps” film.  He really needs to get back in a place where he’s doing more “School of Rock”, “High Fidelity”, and even “Tenacious D” stuff.  Lately….I dunno.

“Sex Tape” was directed by Jake Kasdan, who has made MUCH better films before.  His directorial debut, “Zero Effect”, is a hidden gem.  “Orange County”, written by the invaluable Mike White, is one of those better Jack Black movies and a sadly forgotten comedy that was quite good but didn’t remain in the cultural memory.  He last teamed with Segal and Diaz to director “Bad Teacher”, which was better than “Sex Tape” but not the “Bad Santa” of school movies that it wanted to be.  I can’t blame him for taking this project as it teamed him up with actors he’s succeeded with before, and the idea behind this film is solid on paper, but the nitty gritty of actually writing jokes and making this thing funny, well, it needed more work.

Also, I have to say that the editing of this film is horrendously choppy in places where it’s obvious they did multiple takes with different lines and tried to edit together the best of each take into one scene.  Judd Apatow and films by his extended film family sometimes have the same issue, but usually laughs make up for it.  Here, there are simply not enough laughs to be had, no matter how much we’re enjoying watching Cameron Diaz smile or Rob Cordray do his thing.  Sadly, Ellie Kemper is wasted in this film as Cordray’s wife.

Look, the film is 90 pain-free minutes of film with watchable leads and at least one genuinely funny scene.  It’s a shame, though, because the concept could have produced a much better film. C.

The new filmic adaptation of “Left Behind” is actually less enjoyable than the first one from 2000.  The 2000 version was cheesy, inane, horrendously acted, amateurishly made, and overall a laugh riot from start to finish because of how poorly put together the whole endeavor was.  That makes it a wonderful ironic comedy.  With stories that deal with epic events like the End of the World, the small Evangelical Christian Film Industry’s reach often exceeds its grasp.  Sure, they have enough money to stage films about marriage problems (“Fireproof”), football (“Facing the Giants”), or evil college professors (“God’s Not Dead”), but even those films never look more polished than a Hallmark or Lifetime TV movie.  I refuse to believe there isn’t a single devout Christian that can’t direct a decent-looking movie, but the evidence thus far is pointing me in that direction.  You can’t blame budgets. There are plenty of independent films that cost almost nothing (Aronofsky’s “Pi” comes to mind) that look wonderful.  Perhaps talent is too elitist for this group?

The new “Left Behind” has a much bigger budget than the previous version (a reported $16 million), has more star power (instead of devout has-beens like Kirk Cameron, we get people like Nicolas Cage, whose IRS woes have lead to this, and Nicky Whelan, whose only previous work I’ve seen is her role in “Hall Pass” which is only memorable due to her topless scene), and is very clearly aiming not at the already-believers, as the original was, but at the non-believers.  This was a severe mistake, to believe that both non-believers have not heard the fairy tale of the Rapture, and that a poor excuse for a disaster movie could scare people into being Christian.  The result is a film that doesn’t have the courage of its convictions and tries to dial down the preachiness, up the “action” and “suspense” (yes, quotes are needed), and try to pretend they are slipping some innocuous Christianity into what is really just an action movie.  Nice try. Well, actually, not a nice try.  The filmmakers failed miserably, and created a film that, while still often unintentionally funny, lacks the goofy awfulness of its predecessor and is thus not as enjoyable while simultaneously being better made from a nuts-and-bolts standpoint.

The trips to Israel and badly accented Romanian Antichrist shooting up the UN are not to be found in the new “Left Behind”.  Instead, we’re treated to an opening 15 minutes that largely consists of people talking to each other in an airport in various combinations.  For a while, I thought the entire movie would take place in the airport, but later the film diverges into two main plot threads: one of them on a plane that looks much smaller than a real passenger jet from a major airline (and much smaller than the poor model and CGI versions of the exterior of the jet we see in establishing shots), and another following a young blonde girl (Cassie Thomson) running around town as post-Rapture looting and rioting takes place, though the film doesn’t provide enough extras to sell this and it’s unclear why some people disappearing would cause immediate looting.  Shots of mothers crying over their disappearing children and dogs sitting by their masters’ clothes I get, but people on motorcycles slowing down to rip backpacks out of girls’ hands?  Yeah, I don’t think immediate looting would happen everywhere, especially committed by older middle-class white women in a suburban mall where not all of the security guards were Raptured.

The young blonde girl is Chloe Steele (between her and Anastasia Steele from “Fifty Shades of Gray”, we need to put a moratorium on bad writers giving their protagonists the last name “Steele”), daughter of pilot and Nicolas Cage-portrayed Rayford Steele.  She’s a non-believer who in the film makes some good points against religion when a crazy woman starts asking questions in an airport, and later when the Rapture pretty much proves God’s existence in the film she makes good points about God being a huge asshole for doing this.  Weird that this Christian film can’t provide any good counterpoints to why God is not a huge evil dick for leaving people whose only sin may be not believing in him to suffer.  It’s possible that Christians secretly want non-believers to suffer and have no empathy for them, instead egotistically satisfied that they will of course be saved from it since they’re better, what with their faith and all.  Perhaps that’s being too cynical about Evangelicals.  Regardless, it seems rather purposeful and cynical that young Chloe Steele wears a loose-fitting shirt with a low collar, and then proceeds to have her lean forward or crawl across sugar glass so we can see her cleavage.  Okay, you may think this is unintentional and I’m just a pervert for noticing this.  But we also have the Nicky Whelan character, a saucy blonde flight attendant on the cusp of having an affair with Chloe’s father who spends the entire film with the top three buttons of her uniform undone.  In addition, we have a blonde heroin addict character on the plane (Georgina Rawlings) with some obviously giant breasts.  For a religious movie, it sure is odd that they filled their cast with stacked blondes.

In the airport, Chloe chats up a famous investigative reporter, Buck Williams (Chad Michael Murray, whose acting is wooden yet still better than anyone else’s in the film), and after a mere 5-10 minutes of on screen conversation seem to really care about each other.  It seems abrupt and comical how overly familiar they act with each other when they’ve only really engaged in small talk while Buck waits for his flight.  The screenwriters seem to be oblivious as to how real people talk in real situations, and instead provide us with exposition dumps and unusually straight forward probing questions between characters.  One wonders if they’ve ever engaged in real conversations before.

Then Nicholas Cage enters the film, and loses his self-respect.  Okay, that’s probably too mean.  He lost his self-respect with the “Wicker Man” remake.  Sadly, we don’t get over-the-top “Wicker Man”, “Ghost Rider” or “Bad Lieutenant” Cage in this film.  Surely I would have thought a film about the Rapture would allow Cage to let loose and really explode on screen.  Alas, it’s clear from the get-go that Cage is embarrassed to be a part of this mess, and took the job because all he really has to do in the film is sit in a fake airplane cockpit and talk to people next to him or on a PA system.  This was a really easy paycheck for Cage.  The last time I remember seeing him spend most of a film on an airplane was in the delightfully absurd “Con Air”.  Here, the only con is the one the filmmakers are pulling on the audience.

Why do I call it a con?  Because even though the filmmakers are clearly and explicitly aiming this film at non-believers, the only people who would want to see this film for reasons other than to laugh at it are the Christians who liked the book series this film is based on, and what they get is an (I’m told) unfaithful adaptation that uses Christianity as window-dressing (a Jesus Fish necklace here, a wrist watch with “John 3:16” engraved on it there) in what is really just a really bad disaster movie on a plane which is really only a smidge better than the ones the SyFy channel plays regularly.  To say this film has the special effects quality of “Sharknado 2” is both unfair and untrue.  To say that this film’s production values are up to the level of other films released on 1,500 theater screens would be a lie.  This is a TV movie-quality production all the way, and one wonders where the $16 million of this film’s budget went, because it’s certainly not on screen.

So yes, we spend a lot of time on a plane set, with a first class section that looks nothing like a real first class section, and a coach section that looks way too small for the plane we are supposed to be on.  In first class we’re treated to a colorful assort of supporting characters, including a Muslim guy (Alec Rayme) who the film thankfully treats more respectfully than “God’s Not Dead” treated its Muslim characters.  Still, it speaks volumes that Christians deem it necessary to show that no matter how nice or religious you may be, God will still punish and torture you for not believing in him correctly.  We also get a conspiracy theorist (Han Soto) who postulates that the Rapture might have been due to alien abductions or a wormhole in space/time, both theories that the film pretends aren’t just or even less crazy that an omnipotent superbeing zapping people to Heaven without their clothes.  Oh, and let us not forget the little person (Martin Klebba) who is a complete asshole, and is later pushed down an emergency slide as punishment.  I guess the filmmakers saw “Project X” where Klebba played the character of Angry Little Person (seriously, that’s what he’s credited as) and just HAD to have that same character in their Jesus movie?

Also, while I understand both the novel and the original “Left Behind” film where made before 9/11, I expect a film made in 2014, and which takes place in the present, to have some knowledge of post-9/11 airline regulations. A passenger, for instance, cannot walk into the cockpit before flight and hand concert tickets to the captain.  The captain cannot leave the cockpit willy-nilly, nor can flight staff and passengers come in the cockpit, with the captain merely buzzing them in at his discretion.

Don’t worry; this film is stupid in any number of ways.  Why would communications with air traffic controllers be out during the Rapture?  I assume not all of them are Christian, and their radios aren’t susceptible to cars with Raptured drivers careening into telephone poles.  Why wouldn’t satellite phones work?  The Rapture wouldn’t kick satellites out of orbit.  Why does the plane only have two flight attendants?  Why does Chloe think flashing the headlights on a truck will help illuminate a makeshift runway for an airplane 30,000 feet up in the air and miles away? (That one had me trying to contain hilarious laughter so as to not disturb other patrons in the theater…all 3 of them).  Why would a motorcycle driven by a Raptured person tip over gently and undamaged, so that it may be picked up and immediately driven by Chloe, who the film gives us no reason to believe has ever been on a motorcycle before?  Why does Chloe have to clear lightweight plastic road barriers in order for a plane to land safely if she can push them safely with a pickup truck?  Why does every parked vehicle in this film have keys in the ignition? (You can’t say the drivers were Raptured, because then the vehicles would be running and/or suffering from a dead battery).  I could ask many logical questions about this film but the answer would likely be the same: the screenwriters are morons.

So are the director and editor.  There’s a shot early in the film where we see Nicholas Cage’s cuff and hand as he removes his wedding right.  We then cut to a hand opening a tube of lipstick.  It eventually pans up to show the flight attendant putting it on, but this is so poorly edited that for a good 5 seconds we expect Nicholas Cage to apply lipstick to himself, a scene which I would have loved to see in this film.  Also, common techniques, such as having an off-screen character speak before cutting to them so that dialogue overlaps and the editing feels less ping-pongy, are not used in this film.  Characters are often shot from angles that are too close, too far, or poorly composed.  The entire movie feels like it was lit the same way.  The lobby of a mall at noon with sunlight pouring in has the same lighting as the cabin of the airplane at night.  It was as if the DP used the same amount of light in every interior scene and said to himself “You can see everyone, my job is done”.  Let’s not even discuss how at 8:17PM, according to a digital clock in the film, New York is having bright sunlight, but approximately 2-3 hours away on a flight from NY to London it is pitch black night time.  The filmmakers don’t seem to know how time zones work.  At least when Eli Roth had time zone issues in “Hostel Part II”, it was to satirically point out how ignorant, ethnocentric Americans don’t concern themselves with the rest of the world.  Here, I doubt the filmmakers noticed their flub.  They probably also didn’t think it was sexist that Buck asks Chloe to read off the “little numbers” on her phone’s compass app because, hey, women-folk don’t know what coordinates are.

I haven’t even mentioned the weird incestuous undertones between Ray and Chloe, or Chloe and her brother (Major Dodson, who may be the worst child actor I have ever seen, and that’s saying something).  Or Lea Thompson, who went from making “Back to the Future” and “Some Kind of Wonderful” to this garbage?  What happened?  Or why this film features the slowest crash landing I’ve seen on film.  Or how every religious person Raptured had at least one article on them that demonstrated their Christianity.  Or why this film, which isn’t a horror film, has 3 jump scares in it for no reason.

The 2000 “Left Behind” may be worse on most levels, but at least it had the courage to be what it was, Christian Apocalypse Porn.   This “Left Behind” is poor rip-off of the “Airport” movies from the 1970s (you know, the ones “Airplane” spoofed and ultimately became more popular than the films it made fun of) with a sprinkling of religion to try to fool non-believers into thinking they’re seeing an action film (with pointless explosions and all) so that they can convert before it’s too late.  Last year a mediocre film called “Prisoners” came out.  It was released by a major studio, starred serious actors (Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal) and was well-made.  It was also Christian propaganda.  The film opens with the Protestant version of the Lord’s Prayer and the film is a murder mystery where the killer is an atheist who murders children in order to cause people to lose faith in God.  Because no one knew the film was Christian propaganda (the filmmakers, to the best of my knowledge, have never expressed any religious sentiments publicly and almost none of the reviews or coverage of the film pointed out how religious the movie was), it slipped under the radar, got decent reviews, made decent money, and probably infected some audience members with its morally repugnant message.  The makers of “Left Behind” should have taken that film as an example and not adapted a property known to non-believers and attempted to use that as a conversion tool.  They also may want to try selling screenplays to real studios and not make these movies themselves, as they are not technically capable and non-believers know before a frame has been shot what it is.

So this remake is better made and less preachy than the original, but as a result less fun to watch ironically, and thus kind of worse for being better. D

Gone Girl (dir. David Fincher)

Posted: October 7, 2014 in Uncategorized

There is no proper way to review “Gone Girl” without going into spoiler territory.  If you have not read the novel by Gillian Flynn and want to be surprised by the film’s revelations, you may leave this review now knowing that I loved the film and highly recommend it, then come back later if you are so inclined. Okay?

*SPOILERS*

Now then.  Let’s get the easy stuff out of the way.  David Fincher is my favorite living American director.  He is well-respected by film buffs everywhere, even those who may not like his particular aesthetic and pet themes.  There was some bitching going on when he was attached to an adaptation of “Gone Girl”, following his adaptation of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” that he was sort of “slumming” in adapting common-man bestsellers.  Think about when Martin Scorsese adapted “Shutter Island”, a B-movie made by an A-director.  Sure, he directed the hell out of that film, but the subject matter was far below the man’s talents and it seemed like a waste of time for the man who is capable of films like “Taxi Driver” and “Goodfellas”.  “Gone Girl” does not fit into that category for Fincher in the way that, say, his own B-movie effort, “Panic Room”, does.   While I loved “Panic Room”, and admittedly love every Fincher film save for “Alien 3” which he cannot entirely be blamed for, it was Fincher’s most shallow film, a home invasion thriller done very well but saying little.  Those who would criticize his adaptations of “Dragon” and “Gone Girl” strike me as pompous brats who can’t enjoy a good yarn and see that good fiction isn’t limited to more Literary novels.

Truth be told, a lot is going on in “Gone Girl”.  Yes, on the surface it is a rather pedestrian satire of how the media treats crime stories, passes blame, shifts opinion on a dime, and creates its own narrative separate from any evidence that has yet to be uncovered.  We see that in recent stories like the Ferguson shooting all of the time.  “Gone Girl” may do this effectively, but taking down Nancy Grace falls into fish-in-barrel territory.  Also, the film works splendidly as a murder mystery, and then a twisty thriller.  This may not seem like much, granted, but when so many bad mysteries are made, from the ghostwritten novels bearing James Patterson’s name to Lifetime TV movies and “crime porn” specials on WEtv, a good rip-roaring mystery is a well needed breathe of fresh blood into the cultural zeitgeist.  Switching narratives, plot contrivances, outlandish acts of revenge…”Gone Girl” fits all of the staples of a murder mystery and turns the flaws into plusses with a trippy structure and characters that are both bugnuts crazy and yet FELL more believable than they actually are.

However, that’s not really what anyone wants to talk about when they talk about “Gone Girl”.  The thing of preeminent importance with regard to this story, in novel or filmic form, is gender politics.  When I first read the novel, I felt like it was the most misogynist thing I had ever seen committed to print.  The character of Amy (Rosamund Pike), who does missing but is revealed to have staged the whole thing to get back at her cheating husband, and who has a history of faking rape to get back at other men for merely attempting to get more space, embodies everything that the misogynist men who frequent the “Men’s Right” subreddit are afraid women are: controlling, manipulative, easily offended, brutally spiteful, vindictive, using sex and a societal double-standard to their advantage, etc.  Amy is in many ways a cartoon illustrating the deepest fears of men who hate women (“Men Who Hate Women” being the original title of the novel “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, natch).  Some have defended Amy, saying that the character is fiercely intelligent, which she certainly is.  Still, the film and novel go out of their way to show that despite her intelligence, she is nothing more than a silly girl, such as when she jumps up cheering girlishly upon getting a hole-in-one in mini golf, which leads to two rednecks knowing she has cash and subsequently robbing and leaving her penniless.   She blames her husband for falling out of love with her because she was masking to be who she read him as wanting her to be, but he was never aware of the masking and, as such, can she really blame him for not upholding some unspoken contract? Granted, Nick (Ben Affleck, perfectly cast here) is an asshole who cheats on his wife, who gamely allows them to move to HIS hometown in the Midwest when they’re both laid off from their NYC magazine jobs and Nick’s mother gets sick.  He’s not a good guy, though the film firmly plants us on his side regardless of that, which may speak to the film’s true leanings.

I’ve read numerous analyses of the novel, and now the film, which argue the film is truly feminist. Vox.com tried to use the mise-en-scene and center frame positioning of characters to explain the film shifting allegiances, from Nick to Amy.  I’m not quite sure that is the case.  Regardless of who commands our attention in a frame, we still see Amy as an evil, bitter woman.  She is a murderous who blames her husband for her behavior in conforming to his wishes, but she seemingly never voiced her true wishes to him, which the film counts among them performing less blowjobs and being able to eat more junk food without doing matching exercises to keep off the weight.  Not communicating something and them blaming someone for not instinctively knowing the things you are not communicating is…well, what men stereotype women as doing all of the time.  Amy is the most evil women ever conceived of to many men.  There’s no way around that.

So the question is, does the film LIKE Amy for being this way, or HATE Amy?  I think it’s hard to argue the film likes her. Grudgingly respects her, probably.  One can’t deny that the second act of the film, kicking off with a montage of Amy enacting her plan, injects adrenalin into the heart of the film and perks one right up if they have been relaxed into watching a by-the-numbers crime procedural.  Perhaps Amy is too bright of a beacon to examine the film’s gender politics, because she blinds everything else around her.  So let’s look to the other characters.  Among our other female characters we have Nick’s sister (Carrie Coon), who is co-dependant and also controlling of her brother, albeit in a way he seemingly minds less.  We have a female cop (Kim Dickens) who reaches the wrong conclusions, but logical wrong conclusions nonetheless.  A later scene in the film where she questions Amy about her story perhaps shows a women-hating-women dynamic, but the film doesn’t stay on it long enough to give us any insight into why some women hate some other women. A good scene, but not enough to draw much gender issues on.  We also get Nick’s mistress (Emily Ratajkowski) who is dumb as bricks, clingy, and disloyal…not too mention phony, as shown in a later press conference scene where she dresses like a Mormon schoolgirl despite having, as Amy puts it, “cum-on-me tits”.  Oh, and also the pregnant, nosey, idiotic neighbor lady (Casey Wilson).  Except for perhaps the police officer, there are no likeable female characters in this film.  I haven’t even mentioned the groupie women (Kathleen Rose Perkins) who wants a selfies with Nick, Amy’s mother (Lisa Banes), or the redneck woman (Lola Kirke) who plans to steal Amy’s money.

In contrast, how are the men portrayed? Well, Nick’s lawyer (Tyler Perry, who is surprisingly good in his role) is portrayed as competent, and less sleazy than he is in the novel.  The film deletes the character of his wife from the book, one of the very few ways in which Flynn’s screenplay deviates from her novel.  Aside from Nick, we get a cop (Patrick Fugit) who jumps to an obvious conclusion about Nick, a former flame of Amy’s (Neil Patrick Harris, playing a character unlike anything I’ve seen him in) who is obsessive, controlling in a way he thinks is innocuous but is really creepy.  His character, named Desi, is the film’s version of the type of GUY who frequents that Men’s Rights subreddit.  Think a rich guy who thinks he cares about women but is really an asshole and in a different life would have been that kid who shot up that sorority a few months ago.  The film punishes him in its most gruesome scene, shot like David Fincher trying his hand at a full-on horror movie, with copious amounts of blood, quick cuts to black, and a great musical cue by Reznor and Ross (who have now scored three of Fincher’s films with wonderful results).   Plus, we get another old flame of Amy’s who is branded a sex offender and had his life ruined after she falsely accuses him of rape and he pleads out.  His sin? Trying to distance himself from her, though he originally was only with her because he found her hot, so shallow.

Okay, so many men in this film are assholes too.  The difference seems to be that their punishments do not fit their crimes, and their crimes are run of the mill for men, whereas Amy’s reactions to them are bugnuts wild.  The other negative women more or less operate in a realistic but stereotypical fashion, but at best we can say that the film has elements of misogyny and misandry, perhaps stressing the former a bit more because the film has more room for sympathy towards the men than the women, and Amy’s insanity draws the audience to focus on her in a tractor beam-like fashion.  The result is that the message of the film with regards to gender issues is, at best, muddy and unfocused.

I view this as more of a plus for the film than a minus, though.  The film already has some clear messages.  The media critique is easy to grasp at.  Also, the film clearly has a dark and pessimistic view of marriage, which is possibly the reason Fincher was attracted to the material.  There have been other movies dealing with the theme of whether anyone can truly know another person, and the limits that places on the capability of human beings to truly be intimate.  After all, our entire knowledge of another person and what they think and feel can only be discerned from their actions and the words they speak to us.  We will never truly and objectively know what goes on in another person’s head, and the other person doesn’t have to be homicidal and manipulative for that concept to be scary as hell when one pauses to reflect on that.  Nick tells us at the beginning of the film how he wishes he could crack open Amy’s brain and see what’s inside, and that’s not just telling us he’d like to bash her brains in.  What this film takes to the extreme, the inability to truly know someone, is something real couples deal with all the time.  We all make cosmetic changes or do things we wouldn’t normally do for the people we love, or at least are with.  This film shows us an over the top extreme.  I hesitate to call the film a satire, because if the film’s over-the-top portrayal of Amy and marriage is satirical, this is an even darker satire than Fincher’s “Fight Club”, and that puts us into very nihilistic territory.

Fincher, if nothing else, loves his darkness, his nihilism, and letting the audience leave the theater disquieted.  From the Weather Underground-esque bombings of “Fight Club” to the killer winning in “Se7en” to the not truly knowing the killer in “Zodiac”, to Zuckerberg continually refreshing the page in “The Social Network”, Fincher does not want us leaving his films happy, except of course for the happiness of having seen a master filmmaker at the top of his game.  Well, “Gone Girl” isn’t the TOP of Fincher’s game, of which the aforementioned four films make up, but it’s another strong effort from a continually brilliant filmmaker.

The super-to-disappear opening credits, the Amy’s diary too quickly edited and too precious shots and edits, the elevator music gone LSD score, and many other stylistic devices beef up the film, adding to the story Flynn has created.  Seeing the characters come to life undercuts the tension of what is real and who to believe (it’s easier to peg the diary as fake in the film than in the novel), but what it does add is a different level of commentary, about how we can spin completely true events into fairy tales with emphasis and omission.  Like in “Zodiac”, Fincher loves playing with the limits of objective knowledge and how far evidence can take us.  The line between usefulness and uselessness of clues and investigation (the cops would have never caught the killer in “Se7en” if they hadn’t illegally gotten a hold of library records in pre-Patriot Act America, or if he hadn’t shown up top the police station and given himself up, as the killer himself points out.  “Gone Girl” continues the Fincher motif of well-meaning but ineffective cops, and the limits of law enforcement to prevent the world’s evil (“Dragon Tattoo” was concerned with other forms of institutional protection, and “Fight Club” and “The Game” only briefly deal with this).

One day, when Film Studies programs have classes on the films of Fincher, we’ll be able to properly analyze the role of “Gone Girl” in his filmography, how Amy fits in but also detracts from Fincher’s love of off-kilter and obsessive main characters (Zuckerberg, Narrator from “Fight Club”, Lisbeth Salander, Robert Graysmith).  Until then, “Gone Girl” feels like not like Fincher slumming or doing an easy B movie like “Panic Room”, but rather his stab at talking his usual bag of tricks and common themes and applying it to a topic he hasn’t really gone after yet, which is marriage.  What we do and do not or can’t know is something he has dealt with in regards to serial killers, business, and Marxist domestic terrorism, but not to something as simple as human romantic relationships.  Like the internet business in “The Social Network” or the 70s killings in “Zodiac”, marriage is the new vehicle to explore Fincher’s old concerns.  Having not seen his “House of Cards” series I don’t know how he translated to covering government, but the pattern seems to be taking his predilection for exploring the line between the knowable and the unknowable, and showcases the difficulties of knowing where the line is to different aspects of life, both common (business) and uncommon (Fight Clubs).

“Gone Girl” works on a surface level, works on a pedestrian entertainment level, and is murky but fascinating on the deeper levels, which giving you plenty of delicious Fincher-quality eye candy to look at and a haunting, spare score to heightened the experience.  It is extremely faithful to the source material for fans of the novel, but Fincher still adds his touches to make the film an experience worth sitting through if you otherwise felt the novel was all you needed to experience of this story.  It’s one of 2014’s best films so far. A.