Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Why Better Call Saul Season 2 Is some of the best TV this year (SPOILERS!)

Better Call Saul just finished its second season the other day, and I think this is one of the best shows I've seen in a long while. It's a prequel to Breaking Bad, for one thing, and I never thought I'd like a prequel this much. But here we are. I think the secret to this is pretty simple, a sort of Occam's Razor thing: Vince Gilligan and his team just know how to write characters and stories you want to see.


!!!SPOILERS FOR BETTER CALL SAUL SEASON 2!!!

In a lot of prequels, the problem is that the stories aren't compelling – they're just paying lip service to the original thing they were based off of, but explaining really dumb, obvious things that never needed explanations, ruining the mystery and intrigue. Better Call Saul is a prequel in the sense that it's showing how Saul Goodman from Breaking Bad became the hilarious, sleazy, corrupt lawyer he is. But he's a character we want to see more of. I read once, somewhere I can't recall, that the secret to creating a long-lasting character – think Batman, Spider-Man, Sherlock Holmes, that sort of thing – is to make them so malleable that they can fit into multiple situations and you want to hear more stories about them. That's what Gilligan and co. have done with Saul Goodman.

This season has just been excellently done. The first season was good too, though it felt kind of like a first season – underdeveloped a tad and not quite firing on all cylinders yet, so to speak. It introduced Saul as his birth name, Jimmy McGill, and his brother Chuck, who has a sort of mental illness that makes him sick when he's around electricity or any kind of technology. It also introduced Kim Wexler, Jimmy's sometimes fuck-buddy and eventual girlfriend, and the law firm Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill, who Jimmy was trying to work for. At the end of that season, the big twist was that Chuck had actually been sabotaging Jimmy's career, believing his younger brother to be an incompetent con man who was unfit to practice at a real law firm.

The second season took that and just started running with it. Despite the fact that the show wants us to hate Chuck for his lies and betrayal, Chuck wasn't wrong about Jimmy – Jimmy is a con man, through and through. He constantly cuts corners and bends the rules to get what he wants, in this season even crossing over to straight up felony offenses like forging legal documents. He's a likable character and we want to be on his side. But art imitates life – as in real life, con men like Jimmy are only successful when you like them enough to buy into their act.

That's what Gilligan and co. did so successfully with Breaking Bad. They made characters who do horrible things to each other and those around them, but you want to keep watching. Gilligan understands human motivation and human nature. This second season of BCS exemplifies that. Jimmy, for all his (kinda flimsy) attempts to do right and walk the straight-and-narrow, is a criminal at heart. Kim helps him get a job at Davis & Main, a huge prestigious firm. He basically immediately begins to sabotage himself. Unwittingly or not: he doesn't really want to be there.

What I really just love about this season is that it never – never – just takes the easy, shitty path that most shows would take. Despite his reckless and ridiculous behavior at Davis & Main, Kim still likes Jimmy and they work things out like a real couple would. They have their problems – it's not some kind of blind adoration – but they work things out because they like each other. Jimmy gets Kim in trouble with her own firm when he goes behind his bosses' backs and makes a corny commercial without their consent. She's angry at him. But they make up from that, too. A lesser show would have had them exchanging dramatic soap-opera-y shouting matches and swearing they'd never be together again, taking half a season to resolve things in a predictable way, kiss-and-make-up. BCS has them resolve things quickly and quietly because they know you don't just throw out a good thing like that. Real people don't – relationships take work. So these characters don't let their relationship go to waste. It makes for refreshingly candid, unpretentious TV that comes off as rewarding in the way it isn't content with giving the viewers bottom of the barrel entertainment. It doesn't treat the viewers like jackasses or simpletons.


Again, and perhaps more tellingly: the second half of the season focuses on Kim and Jimmy breaking off into their own firm. Kim wants to take this big client from her old job with her, but Chuck and her boss, Howard, take it back by persuading them in a rather underhanded manner. Jimmy, seeing red, breaks into Chuck's house while he's in the throes of a panic attack and doctors his documents, humiliating him in court and losing him the client. In a stupider, less gratifying show, this would have taken many more episodes to play out – a bunch of stalling and game-playing before we see Chuck fuck up in court, and then at least another half a season before Chuck figures out what Jimmy did.

BCS didn't do that. Chuck figured it out the very next episode, and confronted Jimmy about it in the same episode. It's instant gratification, yes, but it's good storytelling. It doesn't keep the promise dangling above the viewer like a mouse toy for a frustrated cat. Breaking Bad was masterful at drawing out its plot and making callbacks to earlier seasons and plot threads at unexpected times. BCS, by contrast, is both simpler and more complex – it gets to the point of a plot thread right away without delay, but everything going on is rife with subtext and hidden character motivations and all kinds of shade and light. It's fascinating, complex writing.

In the finale, the first scene is Jimmy and Chuck in the past, sitting with their dying mother in the hospital. Jimmy pesters Chuck to go with him to get some lunch, as they haven't eaten in a while – she'll be fine when they get back, he says. He ends up leaving by himself, after saying he'll bring Chuck something. Their mother wakes up when Chuck is sitting there by himself, and she calls for Jimmy briefly, who isn't there. Then she dies. When Jimmy comes back and learns that she died, Chuck lies and tells Jimmy she didn't say anything before she died.

That is fucking great. There's so much going on in that sequence – Chuck was, on the one hand, being merciful by not guilting Jimmy and admitting that she said his name before she died, which would have surely made him feel bad for not being there. But on the other hand, Chuck also resents Jimmy because their mother called his name before she died, and as we know from the numerous other stories and tales told this season, Jimmy was a fuck-up all his life while Chuck tried his hardest to succeed in the name of the law. But Jimmy was the favorite. And it killed Chuck; that did. There's so much unspoken in that short three-minute scene that opens the finale.

And again, later on in the finale, we see Jimmy go to Chuck, who has turned his house into a certifiably crazy-looking mess of tin-foil walls to supposedly keep out any electric vibrations, or, well, some shit like that. Chuck breaks down in front of Jimmy, saying he's lost his mind and has to retire from the law because of the mistake he made on the case from earlier in the season. All this finally gets Jimmy to confess – with Jimmy exiting the room by saying it's his word against Chuck's. Chuck then uncovers the hidden tape recorder he'd been using to catch Jimmy confessing on tape.

Again, so much going on. Jimmy's hubris and recklessness are immediately laid bare – the whole “it's my word against yours” thing; wow. Wow. That's nuts that he thought he could just say that, basically flaunting his crime in Chuck's face. He had good intentions, yes – but the fact that he deceived his brother at all and committed a felony speaks volumes as to his character. He's surely put his feet as well as Kim's in the fire now, as the case he confessed to fucking with is the one Kim is currently trying to build her solo law practice off of. If you thought it was impossible for a show to make you care this much about what would in real life be boring legal stuff – well, BCS pulls it the fuck off.

And Chuck, well – part of Chuck's whole rant about his brain being fried and senile was rooted in his own fears. Chuck has done some terrible things in this show, and shown his own egomaniacal levels of conceit, but he's still a human being, and Gilligan and co. don't forget that. When he breaks down and cries that he's losing his mind, it's an act to swindle Jimmy like Jimmy swindled him. But I interpreted that scene as being partially rooted in Chuck's real fear, that he might just be going crazy. That's what I like about this show – no character is just doing one thing. There are always these hidden motivations that make them compelling to keep watching.

Mike's storyline, too – we see him in this season as a less professional version of who he'd be in Breaking Bad. Though he had the 'half measures' story back in Breaking Bad season 3, and we saw the story of why he's in Arizona last season, this year his story is again about him mixing up with criminals he doesn't fully understand and kind of underestimates, too. His parts here are short and often without many words. There's a very cool, pulp neo-Western feel to them. And I like how they're taking it slow with his character – it shows that a person isn't changed completely or defined utterly by one event only. A person is the sum of many different experiences. You can see that in Jimmy's transformation into Saul, too. The layering of these characters is what makes the drama rich and rewarding to watch, much more than just a mere series of suspenseful events happening in sequence.


It's great drama. The way these characters are written, and the way these scenarios play out, make for a cracking, heartfelt drama with depth and shading to match a classical work of art or a painting of some kind. There's no talking-down to the audience and no silly TV-show cliché. What BCS is, is a real work of art and a masterfully unfolding story. The events in this season built on one another like a well-played game of Jenga. Next season, sparks will fly. I'll be there to witness that – will you?

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Monday, April 11, 2016

Snowpiercer (2013)

Snowpiercer is a movie about a dystopian future, which means it's full of buckets and buckets of important social commentary and symbolism! We should really listen to this movie, because it's Important with a capital I!

Director: Joon Ho Bong
Starring: Chris Evans, Kang-ho Song, Ed Harris

The movie begins with a bunch of poor, dirty looking people in rags living in the back of a giant train circling the wasted frozen carcass of the world forever. Boy, this gritty Thomas the Tank Engine reboot really isn't pulling any punches.

"My life is an endless train of misery..."

Our main character is Curtis, played by Captain America himself, Chris Evans, modeling for the 2013 Hobo Winter Catalog. He lives in the poor part of the train, apparently planning some kind of revolution, or something like that. In his spare time, he likes to try to negotiate with small children for food and he fails even at that. So this is truly a man I can get behind as the leader of a revolution.

"I'll give you five peanut shells and two mosquito wings for it!"

It turns out the police in this brutal train world are stealing the poor peoples' children from them for an unknown reason. One guy SURPRISINGLY has an issue with that, and tries to assault the main lady by throwing a shoe at her. They capture him and force him to stick his arm out the window into the freezing sub-zero weather, and then break his arm off. The crazy lady puts a shoe on the guy's head and delivers a terrible, annoying speech about how the poor exist to be stepped on and should be kept in their places. Wow, what a thinking man's movie this is. It's like the Hunger Games if it were told by a really angry teenager.


This whole time, they basically only haven't made a move because it's convenient for the script. Curtis, in all his wisdom, just keeps saying it's "not time" yet to make a move. Well, I guess their children getting kidnapped was enough incentive for them to finally make a fucking move, because they finally do. Glad you guys are so proactive! They figure out that apparently none of the guards who have been coming in have had bullets for some time now. They deduce that by saying that they've never seen them fire those guns. Well, good enough for me!

Next, they find this pair of badass Asian people who for some reason have been locked away in drawers for some time now. Naturally, given how they've been basically in hibernation for a while, the Asians prove formidable foes for Curtis and the others in the pointless fight scene that comes next. I sure am looking forward to the movie about the characters who have trouble beating up people who have been comatose in boxes for months. They also force Curtis to pay them in hallucinogenic drugs for their services, which, to be fair, is a pretty fucking good deal. That's the only way I'd hang out with this raggedy crowd.


I'm not sure why the bad guys they fight up next are dressed as ninjas. What on earth do you need ninja costumes for just to stand around guarding people on a train? What are you trying to blend in with by wearing those?

ISIS Junior Squad, at your service!

There's one part where they go into a classroom being taught by a woman who acts like a cartoon character. She has them reciting creepy cult-like chants about how the poor are all dogs and praising the holy hell out of the mysterious man who made the train. This whole sequence is about as entertaining as a pro-life protester outside an abortion clinic waving a bloody fetus picture in your face.

The dead soulless eyes, the vacant smile...yup, she does look like a pro-lifer.

Then we get a speech by Curtis detailing how awful it was living in the poor part of the train at first. He spins this whole dramatic story about how they had to start eating the weak, and how babies tasted the best. I think this speech really nails down what I hate about the movie, so bear with me here, I'm going to break character.

This whole scene is just so emotionally manipulative and trite. It's so over the top. They ate babies! They were killing mothers to steal their babies and eat them! Fuck off. My point is, every time a critic bashes an action movie, they get shit on for only wanting serious art house films or really depressing films, or whatever the strawman is. “Can't you just have FUN?” the detractors inquire. But movies like this, actual action movies, too often have these very serious overtones and overly grim, gratuitous parts. Lots of movies have some serious plot threads, that's how they keep you engaged – it isn't just something that French art house movies about postpartum depression made on shoestring budgets do or again, whatever the strawman is.

Snowpiercer's serious elements really want you to take away the pain and sorrow and unfairness of the way the poor people were treated. But it's so bad here. It's done in such a piss poor manner, with no subtlety or shade or nuance. They just shove it in your face. That would be fine if all this wanted to be was a loud, brutal action movie – but this very clearly wants to be a super grim social commentary and it wants you to take it seriously. You kinda need more complex writing if you want to do that. It's not really an optional thing.

This movie's only manner of getting you invested is to throw stories about dead babies at you. So, yeah, if I'm in the mood for horrifically depressing stories about bad things happening, I think I will take the pretentious indie arthouse flick next time. At least if my only other choice is Snowpiercer.

But I digress. They then immediately find the place where the Big Bad is, like right after that, because the script was getting long and they couldn't think of any more dead baby stories to tell. We find out that the man behind the curtain in this is actually Ed Harris with some 5 o'clock shadow going on, so they probably just dragged him out of his house while he was still groggy drinking his morning coffee, and just threw him on the set.


He just goes on and on for like fifteen fucking minutes about how it's necessary to keep everyone in their place on the train and everyone has to stay in their place. He says they have staged revolutions before and Curtis's was just one more to keep people in their place, because chaos needs to exist for people to be normal! Well, after even a moment of thought, that makes no sense. Ask the people in Brussels how well that chaos is helping them live normally. I guess I get what they were trying to say, but it comes off a bit weird to say the least...

He then gives Curtis the choice to choose whether or not to keep the train running. I don't know why he does this, maybe just because he's bored for shits and giggles. He says it's Curtis's destiny now, and he can either stop the train or keep it going by feeding it children from the poor section – yes, THAT'S why they were taking the kids in the beginning of the movie. I guess the movie wasn't quite out of dead baby stories yet. You know, those are the only way to have a deep story! Dead kids!

Then the movie ends in a true fitting fashion for such a thought provoking picture: Curtis beats the shit out of Ed Harris with his bare hands like a caveman. Yes. That really drives the point home: Ed Harris is bad. I think we've learned a lesson here.

Would've been better with the Captain America shield in the shot. You really missed that opportunity, you dumb movie, you.

The visuals are pretty good as the train comes off its tracks. So there is that. They crash land in some snowy mountainside, and I'm guessing most of the people who survived are just mad Curtis couldn't wait until they passed by the sunny tropics to crash the train.

I know the feeling.

Honestly, this movie sucks. It's just not a good story. While I liked the action and some of the visuals were nice, the writing was just terrible. Everything was suffocatingly grim and over the top, and the message conveyed was delivered in a clunky, cloying and overly obvious manner that left very little to the imagination. I can see this film was trying to do something a little different and I can appreciate that, but it just doesn't have the depth of writing or script needed to be really smart. Instead, it just comes off as grandiloquent, self-serving, huffing and puffing crap stuck up its own ass with how smart it thinks it is.

I just think this is telling about what the action movie genre's big problems are. You get movies like this and John Wick touted as these really great, serious new action movies, and it's a blurry line, because neither one is really that bad – they both have their moments. But the writing for both is just so shallow. There are very few relatable characters, very little of anything compelling or intriguing about the way these themes pushed forward. Both movies are as deep as kids' wading pools in a shitty hotel, littered with used condoms and beer cans. But people accepted them just because they were better than Michael Bay Transformers crap and something alternative to Marvel. Even though they aren't really that great.

I'm NOT saying these movies have to divert from the action to show us long artsy sequences of the characters' relationships or something. By all means, give us some great, high energy action scenes! More really good ones would be a plus! But if you're making these fucking dark, brooding, serious films, that frankly do carry themselves with the pretense of a social message or trying to be a “thinking man's movie,” then I think I'm in the right to expect some kind of quality writing or storytelling. Or are writing and storytelling arbitrary tools of the upper echelon bourgeoise, only for pretentious dickwads who hate fun? I dunno. Maybe they are, then.

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Tuesday, April 5, 2016

That Walking Dead Finale, Man

The season 6 finale of The Walking Dead, AMC's most popular show about undead shambling husks clinging to dear life and also about zombies, will no doubt have people talking. This season was supposed to introduce Negan, the next big bad character of the series who was infamous in the comics for reasons I don't need to spoil because you can find people talking about it on the shallowest surfaces of Google. It did that, but it also just created a whole new set of problems. Bad problems. Problems I'm going to talk about in here with SPOILERS attached!

...

Okay. Are they all gone yet? Did the people who don't want spoilers leave the website yet? They did? Sweet.


Basically what happens is, Negan shows up after this frankly pretty good finale full of tension and suspense, and the audience is shitting their pants with fear. The atmosphere and anticipation of what's about to happen was really through the roof, and Jeffrey Dean Morgan did a pretty good job overall. This character has been hyped for a while and everyone wanted to see what he would do. So he shows up, talks for a bit, makes everyone fucking sweat, and he raises a bat and kills... someone. We don't see who. It's a total cliffhanger. For the finale of this whole thing, a cliffhanger, and now we have to wait like five months to see that they no doubt killed off a character who won't affect the story in any major way for more than two episodes.

It especially sucks because I liked a lot of this season up until now better than anything this show has done in years. A ton of the episodes this time around were awesomely action packed, suspenseful and cool. I really was hyped for this finale, as I figured they could finally keep the momentum going. But instead the finale makes me see the show as that really cool friend that you liked, who came to your birthday parties early and bought you an extra drink at happy hour when you were down, but then you find out that he posted a status on Facebook asking why can't HE use the "N word" if rappers can do it, while you were asleep. It's a buzzkill.

It's just such cheap hack work writing. What the hell am I supposed to say? It reeks of social media pandering and bullshit hash tags and planned, calculated and focus-tested art. They've basically been given a license to keep pulling this shit over and over again – more cliffhangers dangling the prospect of death in front of you, more tricks and gimmicks to get their social media team something to do. It's bullshit. The idea of AMC putting up stupid polls asking who we think got killed and the hash tags and the fake suspense is nauseating, because you know they've probably already started by the time this blog post is up. It's anti-storytelling. Drama sucked out with a liposuction and replaced with corporate marketing. It couldn't be more transparent about that if we were talking about Casper the Friendly Ghost.

The Walking Dead just feels desperate with how often it does these ridiculous cliffhangers and drawn out “suspense” parts with disappointing returns. We should've seen the writing on the wall way back in early season 5 when they kept splitting up the narrative between Beth's hospital story and the rest of the gang – it was evident back then. They did it twice this season with Glenn's dumpster hiding extravaganza and then with Daryl getting shot in the previous episode – a complete non-story now, since he barely showed up in the finale. It's like we've all been enabling a drug addict, just going okay, he's not too bad, he was lucid at dinner last night so let's just not say a word. But then he steals Mom's jewelry she inherited from her dead aunt to pawn off for another ounce, and we look like fools all the more for it. And I know it's ridiculously hyperbolic to compare a TV show ending I didn't care for to a drug addict, but come on, it's the Internet and that is what we do here.

This really is the final nail in the coffin of network TV. It's done. That battle's over and Netflix's “put everything up at once” model has clearly emerged the winner if shows as big as TWD are resorting to desperate pandering garbage like this. It just shows how little integrity the show has left. They needed a way to compete with Netflix's juggernaut shows that come out all at once and are usually pretty fucking amazing. Since they have to wait another six months for another season while Netflix just pops out shows like the Octomom, well, we get cliffhangers and gimmicks to keep the audience abuzz on social media. A good story would have done the same, but when has that ever been in style? Someone is having a very good day at AMC's media marketing relations department, seeing the stats go up and up. I guess I'm not helping in that regard.

If it seems rather dramatic that I'm ranting about this, well, it's because I like the show when it isn't pulling dumb shit like this. When it doesn't fall back on the goofy cliffhangers and the ludicrous drawn-out parts, the show has a lot of good stuff going for it – strong acting, good characters, some good drama here and there and some good action. It's well worth watching, or it has been in the past anyway. But it sucks that the people running it are more interested in gimmickry and fake-outs than in real storytelling. The Walking Dead will remain successful, I have no doubt about that, but I think the illusion is over and we're kind of beyond the pale now – people will see the difference between this and really great TV.

I think overall, it's telling that the most cynical part about the nihilistic zombie apocalypse show is not the malaise of the main characters, but instead the marketing team's chokehold over the narrative, strangling the life out of it with these trash tricks and tomfoolery. That's depressing.

Friday, March 25, 2016

10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)

This is a sort of related movie to Cloverfield, a movie that was so good, they talked about a sequel for years and now, nine years later, we're only getting the first tangentially-related thing to it. Nine years! That must mean this is just that much better for all that time, right? Oh yeah, and there are spoilers in this, by the way. I wouldn't be able to live with myself if I accidentally spoiled the movie for you. No, literally. I'd have to impale myself on a sword, Seppuku-style, if I spoiled this one for you.

Director: Dan Trachtenberg
Starring: John Goodman, Mary Elizabeth Winstead

The movie starts with Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Michelle, a young white woman who is in a fight with her boyfriend when she's run off the road by a car. The voice of the boyfriend, by the way, is provided by Bradley Cooper of all people. I'm sure this will be a role he will look back on with misty eyes in his old age and go, yes, that was my best work ever.

She wakes up chained to a radiator in a dirty basement, which is obviously immediately distressing, and also same as the beginning of the Oscar-nominated drama from 2015, “Room.” That is a comparison I am sure the rest of the movie will no doubt keep making, and from here on out, I will only like this movie if and when it reminds me of the Oscar-nominated 2015 drama "Room." Anything else is lesser and I will throw it in the proverbial incinerator.

She spends a few minutes trying to get her cell phone from across the room and does so by breaking the IV tube she's hooked up to and using the pole to grab it. She does get the phone, and it's also incredibly lucky she didn't really need that IV tube thing for medical reasons or whatever. Seriously, she's pretty much fine afterward. Her leg is also in a cast and she's told to get used to walking on crutches, but we see she walks pretty good even with the supposed injured leg... not sure why THAT was in the story at all...

But I digress. Like in every horror film ever made, there's no cell signal when she grabs the phone. Of course there isn't. You're in a dark basement hole that looks like a pedophile's wet dream. What do you expect? Did you think he'd just have really good, full-bar cell service in that fucking nightmare dungeon?

"Goddamn Sprint!"

John Goodman comes in after that, playing a character called Howard, who is the guy who trapped her there. He says he saved her and she should be grateful to him because of that. No mention of how he chained her to a pipe for no damn reason, huh? That's never really addressed. We see later he has a perfectly nice upstairs area with a couch that could have convinced her she WASN'T some kind of kidnapped sex slave in a rape dungeon and made the whole thing go smoother. But I guess he just likes making things purposefully difficult!

To make things even more unclear, creepy and rape-y, she tries to escape and then Howard grabs her by the throat and sticks her with a syringe full of something that makes her pass out. He doesn't offered any real explanation for any of this, which is totally normal and not a hackneyed screenwriting device to make the movie go on longer. Why doesn't he just tell her what's wrong and prove it? Sure, she might be skeptical, but that would still be better than her thinking you're about to make her a sex slave or something. He eventually caves into the boredom of actually explaining things like a functioning human being, and tells her the world has ended. Ya know. The rational explanation.

The movie does get better after that. I'll admit. There's this other guy in the bunker with them, Emmett, who acts as a pretty good decent tolerable eh-we'll-go-with-it comic relief, and some nice scenes where you don't quite know where the film's going yet – some decent paranoia and world-building that work because you've seen so little of it. The uncertainty over Howard's motives and whether he's crazy or the world really has ended make this a pretty decent suspense sequence. And you get some good tension out of these scenes. So I will throw everyone else a bone and admit these parts of the movie were pretty cool. And I liked the scene where they hear someone outside and it turns out to be a woman with her face melting. That was pretty wholesome family fun.

There's also at least an attempt at character development with Howard talking about his daughter and how he lost her – John Goodman really sells that scene and it works; good scene. The rest of the character development doesn't fare that well, though. Like you get Emmett moaning about how he wanted to go to college but was too scared he'd be perceived as dumb, so he didn't go. It's really quite hammy, lame dialogue and just slows the movie down. And he should've saved it for his therapist, if his therapist is still alive in this nuclear future. If she isn't, well, she'll probably wish she was after listening to this idiotic sob story from a man-child like this guy. I know that sounds harsh, but hey, it's a fictional character. Who cares?

Michelle's isn't much better – she talks about how one time, she saw a kid being abused in public and did nothing. Truly she is the victim here and the real one we should feel sorry for!

If this all seems too routine and standard for you, don't worry: there is one scene where they turn on some silly pop music and have a montage of them playing board games. I must have missed the cut where this transformed into a commercial from the early 90s for a game like Monopoly or Clue!

Buy Candyland at your local K-Mart today!

Then they have a scene where they talk about missing pieces of a puzzle they're trying to build, so now you know the conflict is really heating up in there! I'm on the edge of my seat!


Things go topsy turvy again when the writers hit a dead end in the script, and so we get Michelle going up to another part of the bunker and finding out that there's HELP scrawled in the glass with blood on it, plus an earring that the other guy recognizes as that of a girl who went missing a few years ago. So it's pretty much set in stone – Howard may have built a fallout shelter that could survive the end of society, but he's still a perverted killer who kidnaps young girls. I'm really surprised at that given that his method of accommodating car crash victims is to chain them up in his basement and not explain anything about why they're there. Oh, wait, no I'm not.

After this, Howard turns into a completely different character – he's suddenly totally unsympathetic, and there turns out to be no doubt that he is in fact a monster. They try to plan to escape, but he finds out and kills the one guy. The movie turns into a slasher movie then as Michelle tries to escape and he starts chasing her like Jason Voorhees. She dumps acid on him and escapes through an air vent, but – uh oh! - he chases her and starts stabbing through the air vent like, again, a slasher movie.

Somehow, he keeps surviving, even after she dumped acid on his face. She does eventually kill him by blowing up the entire bunker, which is like killing a fly by shooting up your room with an AK-47. You know what they say about kidnapping and killing high school girls – it gives you invincibility powers. Man, my friends and I really were off the ball when we played superheroes as kids. This movie has it right.


So, yeah, she escapes to find out that the air is not poisonous like Howard had been telling them. Instead, a giant alien monster flying overhead sees her and starts to chase her. This results in a completely perfunctory supernatural alien chase scene tacked onto the end of their kidnapping underground end of the world movie, which fits in like a square peg in a round hole. I get that it's a Cloverfield movie, so it involves aliens, but the way this is done just feels half-assed.

And, it's full of just flat out weak-ass moments like when she sets off a car alarm by accident, so, whoopsy-daisy on that one! Or the other time when she finally kills the thing by lighting a bottle of alcohol on fire and throwing it at the monster. All of these things are ultimately just tired, cliche crap and don't provide any heart pounding excitement in what should be the movie's "big scene." I really think this sequence should've been extended and introduced way earlier in the movie. Maybe we could've gotten some good scenes if the thing had met (and maybe killed) Howard.

That means there's a definite hierarchy of power here: the bloated fat country bumpkin with a paranoid conspiracy end-of-world bunker was WAAAAY harder to defeat than the UFO monster that's ten times Michelle's size. But she beat them both! So it's a feminist statement, which means I am officially allowed to like the movie now.

This movie isn't terrible or anything, but it's half-assed, and there are too many lame things in it for me to say I enjoyed it that much. It was pleasant at times and had a few moments of good suspense. John Goodman and Mary Elizabeth Winstead were both good in their roles, though Winstead was kind of wasted – she was a sort of generic character and could've been any young, fit looking actress and the movie would be no different. But she was OK.

Honestly, though, the tired and played out arc of the mystery surrounding Goodman's Howard character just made this so lame to me at times. He was about as mysterious as a fucking report card spelling everything out very clearly. And that was a great metaphor, as great as the pyramids of Egypt. I mean, sure, there were some moments in the first act where it SEEMED like the film was going some other way, but then in the end, it played out exactly like I thought it would; he was evil and that was it. Totally boring.

The sci-fi twist at the end could have been good, I guess, but it just feels like it was rushed and after-the-fact. Why should I care about anything that happens during that sequence? I already sat through the movie's main conflict. If killing an aging John Goodman is harder than killing the badass alien thing you put in at the end of your movie, then you're doing it wrong and you need to go back to the drawing board.

Overall, not the worst ever, and I do appreciate the attempt to create a new world and mythology of these characters rather than just remake something old. But Cloverfield just isn't selling me yet that it deserves to be a franchise with multiple movies.

Images copyright of their original owners; we don't own any of them.

Monday, February 15, 2016

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of 2015

The hallowed time that the prophecies foretold has come again, for us to delve into our critical brains, and analyze what the best and worst entertainment of the last year were. That's important to do because life can't go on without me doing this. Because I don't want time to freeze for all eternity and leave everyone's soul with the missing and nagging feeling that you don't know what Cinema Freaks thinks are the best and worst, I guess I have to bite the bullet and write this list, of the Good, the Bad and the Ugly in terms of 2015's movies. Let's start off with the good.

Best of 2015, or, The Good



This was probably the surprise of the year for me. I expected a pretty safe and generic cash-in, but I got a highly passionate, well made love letter to the fans of the original. The new characters are excellently acted and written, the action heart-pounding exciting and the story is told with sweep and emotional crests to spare. It's a heartfelt action movie with craftsmanship and style behind it. I'm actually excited to be a Star Wars fan again.



An artful and creatively directed film about a woman who goes blind and starts to suspect that her husband isn't being faithful to her. It's funny and stylish, and tells a pretty emotional story in a unique way. Like a mirror showing you a dark part of yourself, Blind will make you laugh while also getting you to question some of what you're seeing and your perception in general. It's intelligent, enjoyable filmmaking. Recommended.



A mockumentary about a bunch of vampires being roommates. It plays with horror tropes and conventions, and the characters all being different vampire cliches from different time periods just ramps up the hilarity. They're also well acted and written, and you get to like them as characters while still laughing at the jokes. This is so silly, but there's a lot of legitimately hilarious things going on. Tons of fun.



Genuinely great science fiction. This story about an inventor who's built a sentient android raises some great questions about where the line is between man and machine and what makes us human. Add in some feminist sprinklings about how we view and treat women in society, and great acting and directing, and Ex Machina is a first rate movie. Go see it if you haven't.



A Young Adult movie, but it's John Green, which makes it great by default. This is a story with great characters - especially them being in high school is cool, as so few movies write good high school aged characters. The story is about how we tend to idolize those we're in love with. That's an important lesson. The fact that the movie tells that story with both energetic comedy and sobering drama, with memorable characters, dialogue and scenes aplenty, makes it well worth seeing multiple times over.



A drama about one of the little-seen facets of crime/kidnapping stories: what happens to the victim afterwards. This is hard to watch from the onset, with Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay playing a woman and her son who have been locked in a room by a sick pervert for seven years - the entirety of her son's life, in fact. The fact that they escape isn't much of a spoiler, because where less intelligent films would focus on the sensationalistic things like a trial or the cops investigating the case, this movie goes for something different by telling us what happens to Larson and Tremblay's characters afterward, showing us the emotional repercussions and healing process. It's beautifully honest, naked emotion bared on screen. An incredibly powerful film.



Crime movie of the year. This follows a woman in the DEA assigned to a drug case to work with a couple shady FBI agents south of the border. Slowly she learns she has very little control of the situation and she's in over her head. It's exciting, visceral, take-no-prisoners stuff. The commentary on how women are treated in workplace jobs is understated but very brilliant as the film gets murkier and murkier and things keep ramping up in intensity. Emily Blunt is fabulous, and director Denis Villenueve is a gem with this being his third or fourth dead-on hit of a movie in a row (he also did Prisoners and Enemy within the last few years).



Alejandro González Iñárritu returns from Birdman with this slow-burn, searing atmospheric Western survival story. DiCaprio and Tom Hardy are fantastic. And despite the bleak and desolate nature of it, this is far from one of those gimmick films that relies on silences and empty pauses to give the illusion of depth (see: Melancholia, The American, Only God Forgives). A lot happens in this movie and it's actually a very human, emotional story of man's desires and fallability, as well as a great revenge tale. The scenery is used as a set-piece to help tell the story in a way that's so simple it's almost obvious - but the craftsmanship and artistry make it ingenious.



My favorite horror movie of the year, and of the last few years. It's scary but also meaningful and kind of poignant, and maybe a bit funny in its own wry way, too. The scenes of that monster creeping up from far away, barely noticeable at first, and the way it plays with your expectations so you don't always know when it's coming are great. But what was even better was the message about young love and adulthood and leaving the past behind. Growing up is scary, confusing and doesn't make sense. You're thrown into a world you don't know and you make the best of it. That's It Follows.

4. Spotlight


An outstanding film that just tells a great story. This is about the discovery of the Catholic Church molestation scandal by a team of journalists, and it's a near flawless film with great characters, writing and pacing. I was never bored with this. It's rare to find a movie that's completely no nonsense and just keeps its eye on the ball, without any kind of gimmickry or pontification or trying to force some moral message. This movie knew what story it wanted to tell and it told that story, with gusto and drama. Gripping, intelligent, mature filmmaking. We need more movies like this.

3. Beasts of No Nation


Beasts of No Nation is a stunning war epic about African child soldiers. Every shot is gorgeous and every moment of the film is harrowing and heartbreaking. Idris Elba is great, and the child star, Abraham Attah, delivers a show-stealing performance. It's a long film but every second is worth seeing. This is a stand out film from any angle, and I think it will be remembered as a classic in the future.

2. Inside Out


Probably the best animated film I've ever seen. By now, you probably know the story is about emotions inside a young girl's head personified. The way this movie tells dual stories, both the emotions in their quest to help the girl be happy again, AND the girl's life herself, is staggeringly good for a kid's movie - in fact, it's so good that it's just great by any standard. The movie has a lot to say about growing up too, just like It Follows and Paper Towns - I guess that was a theme of 2015. The way it talks about emotions and memories is insanely complex but also told in a way that anyone can get into it on some level. And in today's nostalgia culture where we love remembering the past, Inside Out is even more important - the fact that it's about a kid leaving the past behind is especially poignant and I shouldn't have to explain why.

1. Mad Max: Fury Road


With all the meaningful and insightful films on my list, my number one pick is still the gnarly, badass, explosion-filled action movie with cars racing through the desert. I loved Fury Road because it was extremely entertaining and well made, and didn't pander to the audience or dumb down its story with cliche. It was just a great action movie, and the level of fine-tuning. craftsmanship and detail made it a legit work of art. But I also loved this because it's a symbol of the blockbuster, that long-dead-horse flogged for years, being reborn like a phoenix from the ashes. This is the best summer movie in I don't even know how long; since The Dark Knight at least, and it's probably better than even that movie. Finally we have a great, balls-out, fucking metallic screaming ball of fury of an action movie that isn't bogged down by the sad-sack cliche and dumb writing and dumbing down that other Hollywood garbage has. This movie is a fuck-you to all that. It's a middle finger in the face of Hollywood's lifeless corpse. It's an ironclad vice-grip hand around the throat of everything we hate about Hollywood.

Is that all extremely dramatic as a way to explain my point? Yes. But that's how the movie makes me feel, and why Fury Road is the best of the year.

Now that that's done with, let's move onto the bad! Oh yeah, I can feel the hairs on my arm tingling like the fur of a cat in heat before a lightning storm!

Worst/Disappointments of 2015, or, The Bad

Avengers: Age of Ultron


Not a bad movie per se, more just a disappointment. This is a very bloated and oft-tired-feeling film that lacks severely in the pacing department. The acting, production values and action are all well done, but it's so corporately controlled and overstuffed that it loses any humanity or character development that director Joss Whedon could have brought to it. There are a few good scenes and some pretty cool fights and all that, but after two and a half hours, do we need to see any more cities blow up?

The Hateful Eight


The Hateful Eight is three hours long, except it really only has like an hour and a half of actual good material. The rest is artificially stretched out with long silences, long pauses and lots of repeated, awkwardly extended dialogue exchanges between characters - basically Tarantino's style exaggerated to nauseating levels. The humor is just bad. While the story maybe had potential, any of that is snuffed out quick by the overlong runtime. Tarantino is like your awkward 55-year-old uncle trying to be cool by digging out his old Harley Davidson and bomber jacket with the Motorhead and AC/DC patches, but instead it's just like go home, you're embarrassing yourself.

Ant-Man


The characters in Ant-Man don't act like real people, and there's nothing in the film that diverts from cliche you've seen a thousand times over. I hated Paul Rudd, I hated the awful comedy from him and his three friends (who are all ridiculous racial/cultural stereotypes with zero character) and I hated Evangeline Lily's super generic stoic/tough chick character, like having an actual personality or showing any emotion was too much to ask, but how can it be sexist when she knows how to fight, right? This is just a waste of time. It feels like the thought behind this was 'it's Ant Man, we don't have to try that hard.'

Taken 3


A woeful experience full of some of the worst writing of the year. The entire plot could be solved if Liam Neeson would just sit down with the cops and go, hey, I didn't kill a guy like you think I did. But then they wouldn't have a movie. And a world without this gutter-trash bullshit movie was just too much to bear for some Hollywood exec in need of a paycheck somewhere.

Exeter


This is a step below even the most generic horror movies out there with terrible everything about it. Just such fraud, such absolute shit. I hated this movie, and you should too. Everything wrong with horror here.

Insidious: Chapter 3


Jump scare after jump scare after jump scare, zero thought or atmosphere put into the very rote story, nothing redeemable or even close. I will say those Islamic societies that outlaw movies have at least one positive if the oppressed citizens don't have to watch any Insidious or James Wan movies.

The Visit


Director M. Night Shyamalan, at times during The Visit, seems to be deliberately making his own story worse, as the problems in the narrative are easy fixes and it comes off like he left them there on purpose. It's either shockingly amateurish or annoyingly in-your-face bad on purpose, and neither option is attractive. Every second of this movie is just unwatchable. It was a given as soon as I started watching this that I'd put it as the worst of 2015, and in fact it's a contender for worst of the entire decade.

Phew. Well that was fun. Let's just go onto the last part now, where I talk about the other movies I liked this year.

The Other Pretty Good Movies of 2015 Not on the Best List, or, The Ugly

Krampus

A really good, fun horror film about a Pagan Christmas creature called the Krampus. It grooves and bounces along pretty well, and actually does manage to be funny and scary in the same film. It didn't go quite for the throat like it maybe should have, but I was never bored.

The Walk

A classic Zemeckis film in his usual uplifting, family-friendly style. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is fantastic and the visuals are great. The story about overcoming odds and achieving whatever bat shit, weird-ass dream you want is a lot of fun. What more do you need?

The End of the Tour

Parts of this were good enough to be on the regular Best Of list, but like a lot of true-story movies, I just didn't think this semi-biopic of author David Foster Wallace went as far as it should have. It ended right when I was really getting invested. But even so, Jason Segel and Jesse Eisenberg are great and their chemistry is great. This is a very entertaining movie.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2

Epic, sweeping and dark, the final Hunger Games installment delivers one of its best chapters as the last one. This was extremely detailed and well articulated, and the story had a real raw, dark power to it. I wanted to give other movies the spotlight more than this big name, but it's definitely worth seeing so far as blockbusters go.

Black Mass

Kick ass crime movie in the classic Scorsese mold. I thought this was pretty awesome, gritty fun, with a fast pace and lots of badass scenes. Johnny Depp is inimitable and this is his best role in ages.

Goodnight Mommy

Nothing makes me happier than to have so many good horror movies on one year's Best Of list. This is a killer movie that just has no nonsense about it. Its creeping unease in the first act turns into outright screaming terror, followed by an ending that is perfect for what the film was going for. It's the kind of all-business genre film, taken seriously and done with care, that the genre needs.

Bone Tomahawk

And another good horror movie. This was super old-school Western desert horror with a cannibal legion hiding in a cave and a bunch of ten-gallon-hat-clad dudes with 5 o'clock shadow hunting them. That's so badass I barely need to say anything else. Not perfect but the dedication to old school horror is admirable, and it's done with a modern touch that accentuates the cool parts. Really awesome flick.

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Monday, February 1, 2016

Stephen King's IT (1990) - Part 2

Welcome back to the review of Stephen King's IT, the 1990 TV movie adaptation that made every fan of the original King novel want to throw their TV into an active volcano. I covered the first part of this a few days ago, and now I'm back for the second part. Make sure to read the first part first!

Director: Tommy Lee Wallace
Starring: John Ritter, Tim Curry, Richard Thomas

Co-written with Tony.

It does have to be said that the child actors in this movie are pretty damn good, especially considering it was a 1990s TV movie made from a horror novel. That doesn't usually lend itself to good child actors, but we did get some very decent scenes with those kids in the first part of this whole thing, especially when they had to interact with Tim Curry. Curry is also fantastic and looks like he was having a lot of fun. Or at least like he was on some good drugs before shooting this, which is how I would have gotten through it all, too.

Why am I going so easy on the movie now? Well, because this is the last of anything good I'll have to say about this piece of shit. After the first part, the director probably said, yeah, I've done enough of anything resembling quality from 20 yards away by a half blind guy. It's easy for me to believe that's what happens – that movie directors consciously decide to make bad movies. That sure does make reviewing easier than actually considering peoples' motivations and what they were trying to do with a piece of art!

So, basically, all the main “heroes” gather under one roof in their old hot spot Derry, Maine. Bill meets up with Mike Hanlon, and the two embark on what I can only describe as a rejected Full House opening credits scene when they find Bill's old bike. For some reason, Mike has kept that bike all these years – for 30 fucking years he kept a 12-year-old boy's bike.

Nothing weird about that!

But you have to admit. These scenes of them fixing Bill's bike and riding around on it set to puke-worthy pop rock garbage – they're pretty unbearable to watch. I feel like this is the kind of scene that a guy writes at the very end of his rope, after his bosses have shoved him down to the bottom of the barrel in terms of projects to work on. I can't imagine how many people you'd have had to piss off.

I'm trying to think of a nice way to say 'I want to stab this scene with a pair of rusty scissors and then bury it in the Mojave desert' but...nah, that works.

Meanwhile, Richie here hangs out at a library, fretting all the time about how he should just run for the hills and go home. This character in the book was quite well rounded and could be strong when he needed to be. So I guess that's why he's a total pussy bitch coward in this movie who can't go a scene without whining about everything.

Stop whining, your ancestors had WAY more blood on their faces than this and they were fine!

He's accosted for a looooong stretch of time by Tim Curry, who makes a bunch of balloons explode blood all over him and then Curry sits on a banister and screams nonsense for a while. It's extremely entertaining, at least until Richie starts screaming over HIM in a more annoying voice at the library attendant. It's less a scary scene and more of one that makes me feel bad for the poor girl playing the librarian. I hope someone gave her a shot of Jack Daniels after that idiot screamed in her face all day.

Just another day at the library...

Then they all meet up at a dinky looking Chinese restaurant and they all have the happiest reunion a shitty ass script like this one can produce. I love when one of them, Eddie I think, sees Mike and goes “is that you, Mike?” Yeah, Mike, at this reunion of all our childhood friends that I knew everyone who would be there, is that you, my one black friend? How many other black friends did I used to have, anyway? I just can't keep track.

The ensuing dinner table conversation that happens after this is frankly psychedelic in how bizarrely awful it is. First you get a long one-shot camera take where the camera just spins around them in circles as they talk. It's absolutely baffling as to how anyone thought that was a good idea. What, did you lose a bet? Did you make a dare that you could definitely work your patented “drunk on a merry go round” camerawork style into a movie somehow, and us, the viewers of Stephen King's IT, lost out big time on that?


Then if you can get past THAT and listen to what they're saying in this scene, it's even more batshit crazy. First they're all friendly and happy, just chatting about old times. Okay, fine. Then everyone starts panicking and shouting for no reason about how they're going to die, with seemingly no transition. Then, a beat later, they're all just hanging around drunk, talking about old times again. What the hell is wrong with you people? I can see why no one else wants to hang around these idiots – no one can keep up with their conversations. It's like a roller coaster when you're high.

Oh, but they do get some fortune cookies with bugs and a human eye in them! Man, I love Chinese restaurants.

I do love different cultures!

Oh, and Bev also kisses like, half of the group on the mouths, just as a friendly introduction. But don't worry, they all really hang out with her for her personality and brains. Yeah. That's it...

Most of the rest of this is a seemingly endless slog, much of it taken up by the characters all competing for the dubious honor of most annoying in the entire film. Who do YOU think is more annoying? Richie, who constantly has a look on his face like he wants to take a shit, and who is always blathering on about how scared he is?


Or Eddie, whose voice gets higher and higher pitched as the film goes on, as if he is trying to turn into a human dog whistle?


There is a scene where the bully Henry Bowers breaks out from the mental asylum he was in all these years. He's helped out by IT, which takes the form of the security guard's worst fear...a bull dog in a clown outfit eating him alive. Hey now, don't make fun of him. That's an extremely common fear to have.

Seven of my friends are deathly afraid of this.

Then he goes and stabs Mike in the library. In the book this was a pretty suspenseful scene, but in the movie it's over in a few seconds and barely has any weight to it. I dunno, maybe the director was just running out of time and money by this point, but I've had more impactful moments in my life at the bank depositing a check.

So Mike's out, which leaves the others like retarded babes in the woods, all of them completely unsure of what to do. This leaves us much more time to develop the remaining characters, like Ben and Bev, who have an extremely contrived and cliche romance scene together. Their dialogue is so bad that even people who eat up airport romance novels would roll their eyes. This is just the worst kind of dated cheesy garbage. It's as painful a scene as any I've ever sat through on this blog. Just so fucking lame and trite.

Lifetime movies are like David Lynch compared to this.

After approximately seven more hours of bitching and whining about how they want to go home – and no, I'm definitely not exaggerating there about that length of time! – they finally decide to go back in the sewers and face IT once and for all! As they get to the place they need to go, Eddie stops them all to confess that he's been a virgin his whole life because he never loved anyone but them!


Awesome. So...he's three-fourths gay, then? Since, you know, three of the others he's in love with here are guys. Not that there's anything wrong with that, though.

But seriously, why the hell is he talking about this now? My guess is, probably because his therapist refused to see him anymore because he was that annoying. I guess IT agreed with me, because it kills him in the very next scene!

Actually, the acting is better than I gave it credit for, because no one would be able to easily pretend to be scared of that.

Oh yeah, and it's also a giant awful-looking spider thing now, which is apparently its final form in the movie. After a three hour movie, I too enjoy seeing that the big payoff is something I can kill in my kitchen by stepping on it. So this is satisfying to me.

Something really pisses everyone off, either Eddie dying or the fact that the spider looks so shitty. Either way, it was enough for them to now go gallivanting into the sewer, tip it over like a dumb old cow, and beat it to death with their bare hands, ripping its heart out. You know, they do say to handle things in the most mature way possible, so I'm cool with this.

Cool, they're like kids bored in a small town and wanting to go tip cows. Awesome.

Then we find out that Bill's wife, who had been kidnapped by IT, is now catatonic with fear. Then there's a scene where he puts her on a bike with him and rides her down a crowded street with no regard for traffic. It could have gotten them both killed and could have injured God knows how many other people, but somehow in the magically idiotic world of IT, this just wakes her up.

I know a lot of people talk about how scary this movie was when they were kids. I've had multiple friends tell me how scared they are of clowns because they watched this at age 7 or some other ridiculous age. But honestly, just try and watch this shit now, when you're older. It really is just so toothless, idiotic and silly, on every single front. While the kids are good actors and Tim Curry is a lot of fun as the clown, mostly everything else is just total shit. It's really, really not scary at all, with all the scares coming off as funny when they're not just sad.

The drama is so bad it makes me want to turn the movie off. The characters, who in the book were so great, have all been turned into awful, shitty whiners and cowards. Like they didn't just not capture the spirits of the novel's characters - they actively ruined them all. The story from the book isn't done justice here, mostly because it was so large and expansive in the book that condensing it down for a movie is very hard to do.

Maybe a remake would do it more justice. Maybe if made by someone who was genuinely interested in changing up the story to adapt it better to screen, rather than just trying to stick so faithfully to the book, IT would be a better film. Maybe this is just a sad relic from a time gone by, and we can ignore it now and focus on the great source material.

But frankly, it's more fun to just straight up bash a movie and not put any thought into a review. Fuck Stephen King's IT!

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