Monthly Archives: February 2012

The Secret World of Arrietty (2012)

This adaptation of Mary Norton’s classic book, The Borrowers, is colorful, imaginative, and the antithesis of what has become the modern-day family film. It’s less antic with its pacing, it has a more somber mood, and the ending is essentially anticlimactic. While commendable on one hand, The Secret World of Arrietty is also a minor work under the tutelage of the brilliant Hayao Miyazaki. Like other Miyazaki works, the film immerses you into an imaginative world where all the details fit. The story itself within that world is a bit low-key. Arrietty is a 13-year-old tiny person, a Borrower, living with her mother and father inside a human being’s home (they refer to people phonetically as “beans”). Her friendship with one of those “beans,” a boy named Shawn, is pleasant and gradual, as she feels she cannot trust the enormous human. I kept waiting for something larger and more significant to happen, but it didn’t. The story feels too slight to justify being the introduction, and likely final, chapter of these characters. The world of Arrietty is beautiful to watch but after a while you’re just watching pretty pictures.

Nate’s Grade: B

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Friends with Benefits (2011)

Sometimes chemistry can make up for a lot, and the dynamic, natural, and playfully flirty chemistry between stars Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis makes up for a lot of their movies shortcomings (if you know what I mean). Friends with Benefits is another tale about a guy and a girl, both friends, who embark on a challenge to have casual sex and not form emotional/romantic attachments. No matter how many romantic comedy clichés it points out for ridicule, it doesn’t excuse the fact that the movie becomes one big, mushy, clichéd rom-com itself, albeit with saltier language (if you know what I mean). The randy humor will occasionally feel like it’s trying too hard, afraid to let an obvious joke lie dormant for too long. That’s where the sheer star power and amiable chemistry of the leads comes in handy. Kunis and Timberlake are both rather easy on the eyes, but they have a sharp sense of comic timing and a natural interplay. Hooray, a movie about friends where they feel like actual friends. Under the direction of Will Gluck (Easy A), the film has a jaunty pace except for an extended layover in Los Angeles that seems to sap the comic mojo and chart the film’s obvious rom-com reconciliatory ending. Friends with Benefits is sexy, funny, and an easy way to waste a couple hours (if you know what I mean).

Nate’s Grade: B-

The Woman in Black (2012)

It’s got a decent ending but it’s a long, lumbering walk to get there. This handsomely mounted Hammer throwback involves Harry Potter himself, Daniel Radcliffe, slowly walking through a spooky old Victorian haunted house. And he slowly peeks around a door. And he slowly holds a candle. And I slowly go to sleep. There’s a 40-minute sequence where I swear only two things are spoken. Radcliffe plays a widowed father who has to investigate a haunted house to make ends meet. The movie has a few genuinely creepy moments, mostly owing to set design, but it gets hooked on jump scares and doesn’t know how to quit. The jump scares, accompanied by what sounds like an eagle screeching as music, happen at near two-minute intervals, like some sort of alarm the movie can’t turn off. Alas, The Woman in Black is a pretty staid ghost story where once again a restless spirit is terrorizing others and somebody takes it upon themselves to help that spirit find closure. The plot is so transparently predictable that it becomes fairly frustrating when the movie takes so long to get to its pre-designated stops. The pessimistic ending is weirdly given the most positive spin imaginable. For fans of this horror sub-genre, there may be enough going on to entertain. I just keep learning that ghosts are never grateful and satisfied even when you help them. Ghosts are jerks.

Nate’s Grade: C

Chronicle (2012)

I’ve learned a valuable lesson when it comes to genre movies – do not trust the marketing department of 20th Century Fox. Every promotional clip, trailer, TV spot, even the notion that people were flying around in cities as an attempt at viral marketing, it all coalesced into making me turn up my nose at Chronicle. It just looked like a bad movie. Then the critical reception was rather glowing and I took a chance, pleasantly surprised by the skill and execution of the flick. What made this thought-process notable was that it was almost an exact repeat of what I went through with Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Every piece of promotion stoked my disinterest into outright loathing, and then after the positive press I saw the movie, begrudgingly, and was floored. I guess when it comes to future 20th Century Fox genre releases, I’ll try and figure out my reaction and then turn that upside down. If a movie looks like utter crap, then under this new value system it must be good. I’m sure my new cinematic equation will prove me wrong as soon as the latest Eddie Murphy family vehicle terrorizes theaters (“This fall, Eddie Murphy is… The Governor. And his political opponent? His wife! Also played by Eddie Murphy”). In short, the marketing department at 20th Century Fox sucks but Chronicle does not.

Chronicle is the chronicle (heh) of three high-school friends who contract telekinetic powers. Andrew (Dane DeHaan) is a social outcast, determined to videotape his life as a means of escape from his ailing mother, his violent, alcoholic father (Michael Kelly), and the torment of school bullies. His cousin, Matt (Alex Russell), is trying to read up on philosophy to impress Casey (Ashley Hinshaw), a blogger/amateur documentary filmmaker. He’s more than some dumb jock. Steve (Michael B. Jordan) is the popular athlete planning to run for political office one day. The three guys discover what looks to be an alien craft underground. After coming into physical contact, the guys discover they suddenly have the ability to control objects with their minds. They test out their new powers in small ways at first, stopping speeding balls, assembling Legos. Matt insists they establish some system of rules to ensure they use their new powers for good. Andrew chafes at the idea of holding back, especially since he is by far the most powerful member of the group and eager to settle a few scores.

Just as the found footage motif is starting to get old along comes a movie that makes creative and clever use of the narrative structure. Documenting one’s life, including the endless trivialities, has become normal habit for a younger generation accustomed to Twitter-style instantaneous information dissemination. Given that Andrew is abused and harassed, it makes sense for his character to use his camera as a means of security physical and emotional: the promise of being recorded should at least keep some of the bullying and physical abuse at bay, and it also provides a barrier for him and the real world, letting him stand outside himself. As John Malkovich said in Shadow of the Vampire, “If it isn’t in the frame, then it doesn’t exist.” This is one of the few found footage films where I didn’t feel constrained by the limitations of its concept. I suppose it helps when your main characters have super powers and can fly into the sky for a game of pigskin. The climactic battle is plenty thrilling but also subtly ingenuitous, as we cut back from various camera footage to piece together our super smackdown; we jump from security cameras, police dashboard cams, helicopter cameras, to even personal video cameras of people doing what people do… document the strange and unusual (I’m just curious who assembled the footage, though I have my theories).

The key to Chronicle’s success is that it’s a well-written, character-based piece that just so happens to morph into a superhero cautionary tale. Andrew has a pretty hard life and it’s easy to see why this insecure, neurotic, and angry young man takes his new-found gifts as a cosmic opportunity for retribution. In a way, Chronicle is like an all-male version of Carrie for the digital age; incidentally, Andrew was set to perform in a school talent show and I was cringing, saying to myself, “Oh no, here comes the Carrie moment.” He’s a tragic figure and you feel for the kid, which gives him a little more leeway when he starts to veer to the dark side. Until the very end, you can follow Andrew’s motivation for every action, so when he dresses up in his father’s firefighter outfit to shake down the neighborhood bullies, you can justify it to yourself, saying, “Well, he’s desperate and needs to pay for him mother’s super expensive medication. Oh, and those guys had it coming. Jerk.” The power of empathy is a mighty one, and writer Max Landis (son of director John Landis) takes a measured amount of time to connect everything back to the character. The best compliment I can give Landis is that nothing feels out of place. The characters behave in a relatively believable manner, the action intensifies at a natural incline, and the characters manage to have some brainy, existential debates about power and responsibility in between typical teenage pranks/antics (it’s only natural that teen boys would somehow use telekinesis to improve their sex life). Sure these characters aren’t terribly deep and the multitude of Andrew’s misery heaped upon misery almost seems ridiculous. In another universe, perhaps Andrew uses his powers to lash out at his tormentors at school, though that approach would questionably glamorize school shootings. However, by the time the big action hits, we’re emotionally invested in the characters and have watched Andrew’s long fuse finally blow.

The special effects are even more impressive given the low budget and the found footage gimmick. The camera makes some nifty telekinetic moves, floating around and giving the film a bigger space to play within. The flying effects are pretty convincing, especially when one of our guys ends up tumbling back to Earth in one tense sequence. Whether it’s floating Pringles or cars crushed inside out, the effects are smooth and well integrated, and any noticeable lack of polish just fits in with the fuzzy nature of our video recording as lone record of the events. There’s a notable solution for sub-par special effects in movies: blame the nature of the movie (Uwe Boll, that suggestion is free of charge).

But the best special effect is young actor DeHaan (HBO’s first-rate show, In Treatment). Looking eerily like a young Leonardo DiCaprio, the guy manages to channel pent-up rage, frustration, and helplessness in a way that doesn’t feel histrionic or twerpy. His character is the point of view for our tale given that it is Andrew’s camera after all; we’re mostly locked into his perspective. Good thing that the character is interesting enough and so well played by DeHaan that I didn’t feel stuck with a loser. He reacts like most teenagers would react when bullied and harassed, trying to be aloof and ambivalent but only able to hide the pain and resentment for so long. When Andrew does start to give in to the allure of his powers, DeHaan seems practically seduced by his sense of superiority. There’s a dangerous look in his eyes that turns on that cues the audience for trouble to come. Russell is an amiable actor even if his character is bland and somewhat inconsistent as a foil to Andrew. Jordan (TV’s Friday Night Lights) is a charming guy who finds the right balance of exuberance and sarcasm with his character. Together, the threesome of guys has a winning chemistry and character dynamic. When they’re getting along and the good times are rolling, you feel part of the gang.

Being a super hero has become a dominant male fantasy as of late in the movies, so it’s invigorating to see a movie that puts a fresh spin on what seems ad infinitum. Chronicle is something of a small wonder, bringing new life to the found footage concept, making smart use of its narrative confines rather than chained by its limitations. The story is just as involving from a character standpoint as much as its sci-fi genre elements and superhero wish fulfillment. Landis and debut director Josh Trank are talents that I have no doubt Hollywood will snatch up. They’ve given the super hero genre a necessary human element, too often lost in the splashes of action and merchandising. Along with its engaging character-work, Chronicle also happens to be a clever action movie with some soaring thrills. Ignore the shoddy marketing and take a chance on Chronicle.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Fast Five (2011)

The fifth movie in the gearhead Fast and the Furious series unapologetically eschews logic and physics to deliver an energetic, over-the-top, stupidly entertaining action movie. This thing’s got swagger to spare. Credit Justin Lin, director of the last three films in the series, who has a tremendous knack for orchestrating mass chaos into eye-catching sequences. The plot is practically inconsequential but involves Vin Diesel and his team planning an Ocean’s 11 style heist against an evil Rio de Janeiro crime lord. Diesel, that black hole of charisma, sticks to what he’s good at: grunts and glares. It was a smart move to introduce The Rock as a dogged DEA agent. His added brashness and command of cool gives the series a boost in star power. The final act of this film is an exceptional chase sequence where Diesel’s crew drags a large bank vault through the streets of Rio, destroying just about every car in sight. The stunt work is phenomenal and the special effects feel seamless, never ripping the viewer out of this hyperactive, preposterous reality. Sure, it can get bogged down in its teenage horndog worship of hot cars and hot gals (Rio is in no short supply of physically ample women), but Fast Five delivers in spades when it comes to junky popcorn thrills. I can’t believe I’d ever write these words, but I’m actually looking forward to more Fast and the Furious hijinks. Just as long as Lin and The Rock return.

Nate’s Grade: B+

A Dangerous Method (2011)

At first glance, the movie seems like an odd fit for director David Cronenberg, that is until you realize that, as Freud himself might approve, the entire movie is bubbling with sexual repression and kink. The movie showcases the friendship between the two titans of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), and the strange patient (Keira Knightley) who brought them together and tore them apart. This is a very intimate chamber drama, confined to lots of men in suits talking in great detail about psychology and philosophy and desire (there are three separate scenes of dream decoding and lots of letter correspondence voice over). Knightley is superb as a hysterical patient torn apart by her socially inappropriate desires. It may be a tic-heavy performance but my God can the woman act. She’s like a feral beast at points. The majority of the film follows Jung’s affair with Knightley and his friction with the single-minded Freud, who incidentally is never without a cigar clenched between his teeth. Jung wants to expand their field of study to include paranormal activities; Freud wanted to stay within the realms of science to give their movement credibility. Cronenberg’s period drama can be a bit too sedate at times given its aberrant sexuality. You don’t really empathize with either Freud or Jung, and thus the drama is a robust and intellectually stimulating exercise but only an exercise. For people who do not share an interest in psychoanalysis, they’re in for a long slog. A Dangerous Method is a rather short film, only 99 minutes, and would have benefited from being a bit more dangerous with its subdued subject matter.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Safe House (2012)

Safe House is an an action movie that has some nice above-average action sequences strung together by a very sub-average plot. Tobin (Denzel Washington) is a rogue CIA agent being hunted down by shadowy forces. Or is he? A young agent (Ryan Reynolds) was responsible for the safe house in Cape Town that was breached and now takes it upon himself to bring Tobin in for the agency. Or does he? If you’ve seen any spy thriller in the last few years then you’ll recognize the glut of clichés and be able to ably predict the traitorous higher-ups using the economy of characters. Here’s a clue to the villains of the picture: don’t keep all your villainous deeds together on one computer file (and don’t label it “All Our Evil Deeds,” try instead, “Vacation Photos.”). Washington and Reynolds are appealing actors even in ho-hum parts. Washington never seems as devilish or as clever as his character is billed to be. While the plot is bland, director Daniel Espinosa (Easy Money) knows how to shoot some thrilling action sequences. The style is a bit of a Bourne rehash, what with the jangly camera angles, but the movie has a surprising level of verisimilitude; when two guys fight it really feels like a couple guys beating the crap out of each other. The chase sequences are well staged and find smart ways to make use of its South Africa location, like a chase through the levels of a soccer arena or a race atop the rooftops of shanty homes. It’s when the movie stops to catch its breath and the plot reemerges that Safe House becomes a snoozer.

Nate’s Grade: C+

In the Name of the King 2: Two Worlds (2011)

In the Name of the King 2: Two Worlds has a tenuous at best connection to the original 2008 In the Name of the King, noted as the most star-studded Uwe Boll film and the last Boll film to get a theatrical release. I think that highest-profile belly flop, and the revision of the German tax code loopholes, is what banished Boll to the little league of direct-to-DVD movies. I suppose the movie does involve things happening in the name of a king, but that’s being overly generous. There’s barely a mention of Jason Statham’s (The Transporter) character from the first flick, a commoner who arose to become king and who was slain by an enemy that is pathetic and embarrassing. The only meaningful connection lies in the title and the prospect of Boll trying to draft attention to his sequel off the momentum of his pitiful predecessor.

Granger (Dolph Lungren) is a former Special Forces soldier who has retired and runs a karate studio for kids now. Then one day he stumbles upon a mysterious woman being chased by ninjas (Vancouver’s ninja crime rate has skyrocketed since 2008). A portal to another world is opened and Granger gets sucked back to a feudal kingdom. The King (Lochlyn Munro) has awaited for a special visitor who would restore balance to the kingdom, drive away the Dark Lords. The prophecy says that Granger is their man. He’s a little skeptical and even turns down the services of a concubine, though still accepts a little cuddling. Manhatten (Natassia Malthe) is the king’s medic of sorts and accompanies Granger on his journey to defeat the evil sorceress and save the Kingdom of Whatever.

After having viewed 19 different Boll movies, all to certain degrees of willingness, I can safely say that this is the most boring of the bunch, and hopefully those words will still have meaning. The plot never really evolves further than its premise, another rehash of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, or to genre fans, a rip-off of Army of Darkness, or to idiots, a rip-off of Black Knight. Granger goes back in time, bumps around some rather stock characters, gets told about prophecies and destiny, and then there’s a fight and a dragon and a jump back to Earth and we’re done. In between is very little to care about. This is the first movie I’ve seen that feels completely constructed as one long saggy middle. Just about every scene takes place in the forests of Vancouver (I mean… whatever the hell the other world is called). It gets repetitious very quickly, never seizing on the fish-out-of-water comedic possibilities or just giving in completely to the genre elements of a medieval sword and sorcery flick. It’s all just irritating blather; a “chosen one” here, a “dark one” there, something something “prophecy.” When people badmouth fantasy, they think of this kind of stuff. I kid you not at one point Malthe’s character says, “You are the villain of this tale” to the said villain. Thanks for clarification, but the third act betrayal was telegraphed well over an hour ago.

The writer, Michael Nachoff, has written exactly one other movie, Bloodrayne 3, and served previously as an office coordinator, post-production assistant, and in material serving. That last one sounds like a made-up job or some kind of finessing that a prostitute would put to make her resume sound more professional. Whatever the case, Nachoff has shown that after two movies he cannot be counted on to deliver anything resembling a competent plot. This is the laziest more yawn-inducing hero’s journey I’ve ever witnessed. The movie literally put me to sleep. There are all sorts of dropped setups and subplots, including the notion that Granger must complete three trials, though we only ever get one. That’s bad sooth-saying, but then again the seer gets murdered so I can’t imagine she was first in her class at prescience. Nachoff keeps using the phrase “time travel,” and so do I, but I think what they really mean is dimensional travel. I’m fairly certain that Granger is not just from the future but an altogether different world. Yet at one point a character says, “Your fear will carry you to the pits of hell.” Ah, I see that Christian missionaries must have visited this alternate dimension. Oh well, the character also seem to keep erroneously saying “biological weapon” when clearly the bad guy assembled it out of various powders and chemicals. They even refer to his skill as alchemy, which of course is all about biology, right?

The action is mirthless and hastily thrown together, often becoming incomprehensible because the villains, the Dark Lords, wear dark cloaks and our heroes too wear dark clothes. Good luck deciphering who’s who on the battlefield. Maybe you’ll be like me and just become crippled by apathy. Granger isn’t a very compelling hero either. Under Nachoff’s compliant attention, he is strictly stock: 1) he is retired, 2) he helps kids, 3) he has a past that haunts him, 4) he drinks to cope, 5) he is entirely boring. If you’re going to go fish-out-of-water, at least have your guy be funny. Granger’s quips just seem too surreal even given the nature of the movie. After killing a baddie and sampling his stew: “Underdone.” On entering the Black Forest: “Given the name, bigger is probably better,” and brings a larger broad sword. Oh boy. Nobody’s gonna miss you, are they?

The production seems to be taking a cue from Lungren (The Expendables), who is unfazed from beginning to end despite some strange goings-ons. The man just sleepwalks through the whole film, cracking wise in the same somnambulant tone. It’s like Lungren swallowed an entire bottle of Quaaludes. Lungren isn’t exactly the most charismatic or expressive actor on the planet given that he’s made a living being tall and beating up smaller men, but I would have hoped for some life in the guy. He’s so straight-laced that it’s absurd. It drains any potential interest from the character, sapping our time-traveling hero of empathy. Who cares if he can’t be bothered to care? Malthe (Bloodrayne: The Third Reich) is just as uninspiring as his sidekick. She’s just so impassive, probably because she doesn’t get to wear a corset in this Boll movie to highlight her assets. Letting her speak medieval vernacular and syntax was a mistake. Usually actors can at least adequately hide their displeasure about their participation in a lousy movie. Either these actors aren’t even good at that or they just don’t care, take your pick.

And now it’s time for my regular reoccurring segment in a Boll film review – who got ripped off this time? Allow me room to pontificate. The concept of a fantasy world mixed with some adult themes, like strong bloody violence, nudity, sex, profanity, and darker themes, would lead me to believe that Boll was inspired by HBO’s hit fantasy reinvention series, Game of Thrones. Then again Boll shot this movie in December 2010, a full four months before Thrones’ aired its excellent pilot episode. Then again who’s to say that Thrones didn’t influence Boll during the editing stage or at least make him itchy for some reshoots to tart up this tedious movie. At least that would give the viewer something worthwhile to look at besides an oft-used castle exterior that LARP-ers would howl at.

In the Name of the King 2: Two Worlds just reeks of lethargy and indifference. Devoid of interesting characters, an engaging story, even tasty genre elements, this low-budget fantasy flick would falter in comparison to the cheesiest Sci-Fi Channel original movie. I cannot overstate how boring this movie is. I’m struggling even to effectively communicate how monotonous this movie is; I’m tempted to just write “boring” a thousand times but you, dear reader, deserve better. And so I rack my brain to come up with more specific and sarcastic criticism of what is execrably an awful movie. Boll’s no stranger to awful movies, but In the Name of the King 2 is the first time where I felt like even he didn’t give a damn about his final product in any shape. And it shows.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Blubberella (2011)

The action/horror spoof Blubberella is Uwe Boll’s second attempt at (intentional) comedy. He did re-release a “funny” version of his 2003 disaster, House of the Dead. That seems like the same opportunistic rebranding and dubious retconning that Tommy Wiseau pulled when he tried to claim that his magnus opus of suck, The Room, was always intended as a “quirky black comedy.” Sure, Tommy. Boll’s first attempt at comedy, 2007’s Postal, almost worked despite itself; the taboo-smashing genre of wacky comedy seems like a better fit for Boll’s cinematic tendencies. Blubberella is proof that Boll should stick to schlock and leave comedy to the professionals.

Blubberella (Lindsay Hollister) is a dhamphir, half-vampire/half-human, but really she’s just looking for a good man and a good meal. It’s 1944 Germany, and Blubby has joined forces with a resistance group lead by Nathaniel Gregor (Brendan Fletcher). Together, the group, along with the sassy gay soldier Vadge (William Belli), must battle a mad scientist (Clint Howard), a vampire Nazi general (Michael Pare), and the prospect of an immortal Adolf Hitler (Uwe Boll himself!).

Leaden puns, obvious jokes, clueless pacing and comedic construction, tiresome one-liners, incessant yet flaccid sex jokes, a desperation to be shocking, Blubberella is a bizarre and staggering failure even by Boll standards. Rarely does the movie actually land a funny line (you want to know the best line? Here it is: “My friend says I replace sex with food… but then he raped me, so that kinda shot that theory.” Yes, that is the best one). The jokes aren’t textured in the slightest and can’t be bothered with basic constructive issues like setup, context, and payoffs. Instead, the movie is rife with random sexual and scatological references. It’s like the film is the living embodiment of a Tourette’s child. Belli (TV’s Nip/Tuck) is a braying gay stereotype that wears out his abrasive welcome in no time flat. At one point Pare just goes into a garbled Marlon Brando impersonation for no clear reason, and then it’s done. This would-be comedy, in name only, confuses randomness for clever. Here’s an example: a group of characters are crouched waiting for an all clear signal, and Vadge blurt out, “If you’re going through the drive-thru get me a Frosty.” Just because it’s a random line and anachronistic does not cover up the fact that it’s simply not funny in any context. There is no joke there. Everything in the movie just seems like a meaningless throwaway gag, never accumulating or having any connection to situation. Randomness does not excuse sheer ineptness. Given the understated title, I’d expect there to be a plethora of fat jokes that the movie would routinely fall back on for easy punchlines. I actually counted: there are approximately 35 fat-related jokes; at barely 75 minutes, that comes to about one fate joke every 45 seconds. I’m shocked they had that much restraint considering the opening minute of the movie featured Blubby walking into a giant walk-in freezer filled with enough blunt Flintstones-style sight gags.

Even worse, Blubberella relies on pitiful attempts to be “shocking” to rouse the audience into laughter. And so we endure scenes like the resistance fighters relocking a boxcar full of concentration camp victims (“No wonder they took you. That hat does nothing.”), Blubby killing a man by farting on his face, playing RISK with Hitler and then there’s the blackface. In the movie’s most obscene, whiplash-inducing moment, Blubby suddenly morphs into a Caucasian version of Precious being berated by her abusive and spiteful mother. Belli portrays the monstrous mother in drag and blackface. Amazingly, this is not the only character Belli plays in blackface. There’s another regrettable moment during that Hitler RISK sequence where Belli plays Hitler’s black assistant (“One of our new allies from Africa,” Hitler explains), and the guy can’t go a single sentence without referring to people as MF-ers. Whoo boy. Here’s the thing about the attempted Precious parody: just taking a situation and copying and pasting it to a new location doesn’t make it a parody. The blackface moments, in particular the Precious aside, feel completely out of place and tacky at best. Just because something is supposedly shocking or in bad taste does not mean it is funny without due context and setup. Blubberella does not understand this comedy truism, and so we get more of the same wearisome crass crap.

Blubberella was shot simultaneously with Bloodrayne: The Third Reich, utilizing the same sets, costumes, actors (literally everybody does double duty), recycled action footage, and more or less the same script. It’s not like the script for Bloodrayne 3 was that strong to begin with to warrant a copycat. It’s like Boll’s version of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, though with more Nazis. Actually, just that very description is giving the movie far more credit than it could possibly ever hope for. There’s nothing clever about Boll’s alternative spin on his third Bloodrayne vehicle; just replacing Rayne with a 300-pound actress and making her go through the same motions doesn’t mean it’s a comedy. The laziness on display is powerfully lulling. I don’t think anyone on the entire planet was praying for a wackier retread of Bloodrayne 3. The funny thing is I don’t think the change of tone makes that much difference to Clint Howard.

Blubberella plays out like a tired improv game that has gone on for an eternity. The film is stuffed with scenes that just seem to spin on and on, lacking momentum and any discernable direction. Scenes will just wander aimlessly like Boll is just waiting for his actors to somehow produce quality jokes spontaneously. Newsflash: this isn’t a Judd Apatow movie. Hollister and company will just spout random lines and riff off one another, acting like a troupe of lobotomized circus acts that have stumbled into a war zone. The results are pitiful, though occasionally they will hit a somewhat amusing idea that will be aborted in the next breath/stab at improv. It’s merely a numbers game and if they fire 100 jokes maybe 2 find some footing. Such shrug-worthy moments include Blubby holding a soldier’s hand to her stomach and saying, “If there wasn’t a baby in there, would that be okay?” Huh? At one point, Boll’s narration pops up to declare the following scene “boring,” and yet the entire scene from Bloodrayne 3 plays out uninterrupted or unedited. What was the point of that? If you’ve already made an attempt to side with your audience by declaring your scene boring, then why leave it unabridged? Why is keeping this scene vital from a plot standpoint for what is intended to be a silly spoof? Why does plot continuity even matter?

I noted with Bloodrayne: The Third Reich a theory that Boll, a notorious cinematic pick-pocket, was trying his hand at recreating Quentin Tarantino’s Oscar-winning WWII drama, Inglourious Basterds. Well after sitting through this movie, I can confirm without a doubt that Boll has a raging hard-on when it comes to Tarantino homage. The movie is broken up into chapters, including such delightful titles as “Titty Titty Fang Bang,” the score will resort to periods of long whistling, Hitler screams “nein nein nein,” and for older references, one character says, “Wakey wakey, eggs and bakey,” and another, “I’ll kill every last mother fuckin’ last one of you.” Are you going to tell me that is all a coincidence?

The lingering problem with Blubberella, besides its overwhelming incompetence and inexplicable existence, is that it feels more like a gag reel accrued for the cast and crew of Bloodrayne 3. This doesn’t feel at all like a movie or even an attempt at a movie. I’m of a mixed mind when it comes to Hollister. The central Ohio native (represent, girlfriend!) is probably not going to get many starring roles, though she has shined in guest roles on numerous TV shows like My Name is Earl, Big Love, Law and Order: SVU, and Scrubs, so I can’t blame her for jumping at the chance to be the lead star, the headliner (she and Belli are also listed as co-writers). Hollister is actually a pretty nice actress and has strong comedic instincts; however, that doesn’t mean she will rise to the occasion if left to her own devices by Boll’s paucity for scripted jokes. Boll isn’t exactly the most creatively nurturing collaborator. It’s all one big fat mess. You want the most telling moment? It occurs during the dull outtakes peppered throughout the end credits. One of the actresses, little seen in the flick, remarks astutely, “It’s not working. It’s not funny.” In six short words, she has summarized Blubberella better than I could ever hope to.

Nate’s Grade: D

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (2011)

The biggest surprise on the morning of the Academy Award nominations was the inclusion of Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close in the nine nominees for Best Picture. Critics have universally derided the 9/11 drama, becoming the lowest critically rated Best Picture nominee in the last 30 years, according to some awards pundits. The second lowest rated Best Picture nominee in that same span of time? The Reader, also directed by Stephen Daldry. Under new Academy voting rules, a nominee has to garner at least five percent of first place votes on members’ ballots. That means that at least 250 Academy members voted this crass, manipulative, off-putting, wrongheaded, exploitative movie as the best film of the year, thereby voluntarily divulging they must not have seen a single other movie for 2011.

Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn) was nine years old when his father, Thomas Schell (Tom Hanks), was killed on September 11, 2001. He was in one of the World Trade Center buildings and left six frantic phone messages before perishing. In the ensuing months after the disaster, Oskar is lashing out against his mother (Sandra Bullock) who spends all day in bed. Then one day he discovers a mysterious key in his father’s closet inside an envelope labeled “Black.” Oskar’s father used to send his son on a series of adventures around New York, looking for a fabled “sixth borough,” forcing Oskar to confront his numerous fears and insecurities. Oskar looks through the New York phone book and catalogs over 400 separate people with the last name of Black in the five boroughs. He’s convinced that his father has left one last hidden message somewhere in the city.

My main sticking point was that I found Oskar to be an insufferable, bratty, little jerk. I understand he’s hurting and he’s trying to work through his pain. I understand he is gripped by irrational fears and has a hard time relating to others. I understand that Oskar’s father even tested him for Asperger’s, though the results were negative. Some people will try and explain away Oskar’s callous behavior in sweeping generalizations having to do with the ignorance of children or some undiagnosed medical problem. I’ve known people with Asperger’s syndrome and while Oskar fits a few of the superficial tics, being a jerk is not a symptom, sorry. He’s so mean to his grieving mother and indifferent about other people that I wanted to slap him. I found him to be unsympathetic and wholly irritating. I found his unsupervised journeys for cutesy quests throughout New York City to be dubious. His parents just let their ten-year-old socially awkward kid run around New York City by himself at all hours? The movie goes in a bad direction when it partners this talky nuisance up with a silent old man, played by the wonderful Max von Sydow (the movie’s only other Oscar nomination; another stretch I’d say).

Here’s a breakdown of my thought process: Oskar comes home on 9/11 to find the last recorded messages of his father, including an admission of love for his family. Oskar runs out and buys an identical answering machine and sneakily hides the original, denying his mother, a grieving widow, the chance to hear her husband’s voice one last time. Screw that kid. I’m sorry but that’s what went through my mind and to me he never recovered. His actions are inexcusable. Then he gets mad because his mom sleeps all day. She’s grieving you little snot! And then he has the gall to tell her, “I wish it was you instead!” It’s a moment intended to draw gasps, ripping the scab clear off whatever pretensions mother and son have with one another. But it just made me dislike the kid even more. The fact that even by the film’s ending emotional catharsis Oskar still hasn’t shared the answering machine messages with his mother is reprehensible.

The other factor that caused me to despise the main character was how Horn proves to be a dreadful actor. This is the first acting role for the former teen Jeopardy champ. He’s able to spit the rapid-fire, idiosyncratic dialogue burdened with cumbersome detail. However, Horn gives a terribly mannered performance. He has this annoying manner of over enunciating every single word, getting lost in a character affectation, always stagy and artificial. You combine a bad actor with an aggravating character and make them the lead of the story, and I’m already daydreaming possible murder scenarios (I don’t condone child murder mind you — I’d make it look like an accident). As for Oskar’s parents, Hanks is hardly in the movie and Bullock does shockingly well, nailing her most emotional moments. I’d rather see this movie from her point of view, trying to make sense of the insensible to her challenging son who hates her.

Daldry wishes to use the backdrop of 9/11 to talk about important items. It’s too bad that his movie has nothing legitimate to say about healing. I was assuming that over the course of the film Oskar was going to run into a diverse collection of people, all healing, all with their own stories of pain, and then he would learn that the real treasure was the community of strangers he had brought together. Nope! Oskar runs into a gamut of fine actors, including Viola Davis, John Goodman, and Jeffrey Wright, but they all become mere baton-passers to a self-involved kid. They and their stories don’t matter. The lock to our missing key doesn’t matter. There’s a final revelation concerning Oskar’s mother and her activities to benefit her son that seems entirely implausible. Daldry and screenwriter Eric Roth (Forrest Gump, Curious Case of Benjamin Button) have transformed Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel about collective grief into a strangely myopic narrative given the scale of the suffering.

The movie is so transparently manipulative, shamelessly exploiting 9/11 anxieties and trauma to tell its intolerable little quest. In no way is 9/11 meaningfully connected with the overall story of loss. Oskar’s father could just have readily died in a war or had a brain aneurism. What 9/11 is used for, however, is an easy device to stir the audience’s emotions. Daldry will flash back to it at seemingly random moments in the narrative, to goose the audience into feeling gloomy. I’m sure many people will sit through this movie and feel moments of genuine sadness, but that’s because the filmmakers are shamelessly manipulating the raw feelings we have over a national tragedy. It’s hard not to feel a lump in your throat seeing the towers smoking, frantic calls to missing or doomed loved ones, and final recordings bearing the weight of compounded dread. It’s not too soon to talk about the psychic wounds of that terrible day but I strongly resent people who exploit those memories. There are moments that are so misguided and yet given the Hollywood gloss of an awards-bait picture. The very opening image is of Tom Hanks free-falling to his death. Oskar’s little picture book he constructs at the end of his journey includes a final page with the World Trade Center. And there’s a little slip that when pulled creates a picture of a man falling up back into the tower. What? Is that supposed to be a good thing?

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is such a misguided, crass venture that’s also extremely shameless and incredibly cloying. The main character is unlikable, exasperating, and portrayed by a rather amateurish child actor. Daldry’s hackneyed direction will settle on treacle and contrived sentiment whenever possible, but the emotions never feel properly earned. He’s pressing buttons and forcing tears, and several viewers will be unaware of how efficiently they were manipulated into having a moving experience at the theater. I know I can’t be alone is seeing through the manipulation and feeling indignant about the ordeal. I’m not against tackling the difficult subject of 9/11 in movies (I declared United 93 the best film of 2006). Here’s a good question for you filmgoers out there: is there that big of a difference between this movie and 2010’s unpleasant teen drama, Remember Me? Both use the 9/11 attacks to cover narrative and characterization deficiencies, vulgarly exploiting our feelings of the events to engender feeling, and both don’t belong anywhere near an awards stage.

Nate’s Grade: C-

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