Monthly Archives: October 2015
Whatever happened to Eli Roth as a director? In 2003, I watched Cabin Fever and was instantly smitten with the twisted new talent on the horror scene. His sense of humor reminded me of Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson before they went Hollywood from their splatterfest beginnings. He directed two movies after, Hostel and its sequel, and while I found Part Two to be underwhelming in execution, I was quite a fan of the original Hostel. It further cemented that it felt like Roth was going places. Most of those places were as an actor or a producer. Roth has acted in more movies (two Quentin Tarantino flicks) than he’s directed since 2007’s Hostel: Part Two. His name was attached to and then departed other projects, notably an adaptation of Stephen King’s Cell, and then it felt like he just vanished altogether. Roth has re-emerged with two films bearing his name as director, The Green Inferno, which premiered in 2013 at the Toronto Film Festival, and Knock Knock. After having watched both movies in one day I can say neither was worth the wait.
Knock Knock concerns Evan (Keanu Reeves), an architect, a former world-famous DJ (?), and family man. His wife and children have left for the weekend so that dear old dad can finally get some work done. Then one rainy evening a knock knock comes upon his chamber door. Two soaked coeds, Genesis (Lorenza Izzo) and Bel (Ana de Armas), politely ask if they can dry off inside. They’re supposed to meet at a friend’s house and have gotten lost. Evan is hospitable to a fault and indulges with them in conversation. The girls are flirty and very interested in a sexual dalliance with Evan, and finally he gives in. The next night Evan is ready to move on and pretend like nothing happened. However, Genesis and Bel are refusing to leave, and they have a design to punish and humiliate Evan for his martial indiscretion.
The premise is a mixture of Fatal Attraction and a home invasion movie, and there is potential here for a slowly escalating thriller or a comically degenerating farce that surprises with its dips into darkness, like 2013’s Cheap Thrills. Alas, Knock Knock is an unbalanced and unintentionally funny morality play that is so poorly executed, ham-fisted, and awkwardly developed that it’s more horrifying mess than horror. The first act of the film is a bit overwrought with making sure the audience knows exactly what kind of temptation trap Evan is falling under. Every line has an innuenduous ring, every flirtatious line an extended second of awkward eye contact, and every innocuous moment begins to feel like the forgotten detail in one of those absurd Letters to Penthouse fantasies (“You’ll never believe what happened to me…”). You can see the better film that has been crushed to death under the rush to make something tawdry, complete with both girls soaping up their bodies in a joint shower and then jointly pleasuring Evan to eliminate the last of his denials. If you felt the slowly escalating sexual tension, the desire, and yearning, and then weighing the consequences, the movie would have been a far more compelling moral dilemma and character piece. Instead, the girls are over-the-top in their seduction routines and once Evan gives in it all gets even worse. It’s not so much relatable or an interesting ethical conflict as it is the in-between scenes for a soft-core porn biding its time. For what it’s worth, the gratuitous nudity is a bit shrift.
At no point do Genesis or Bel feel like actual human beings; they are unhinged one-dimensional lascivious cartoons with ridiculous and guffaw-inducing motivation. As soon as the morning comes, Genesis and Bel have transformed from seductive and coy young adults to infantilized and highly sexualized bratty teenagers. Our reintroduction involves both ladies filling the kitchen with breakfast supplies and throwing food around, laughing obnoxiously, and practically bouncing off the walls. Their initial adversarial one-upsmanship includes mooning Evan while he’s on a Skype call and drawing penises on his wife’s art. When a concerned neighbor stops by I was hoping for something a little more serious and dangerous, but they can’t even do that, which is what makes their late turn into would-be murderers to be completely unbelievable and forced. It’s so forced that Reeve’s sputtering monologue of incredulity pretty much sums up the point of view of any rational viewer. They play dress up and appear to have some psychosexual daddy issues, possibly resulting from childhood abuse or molestation, but at no point do they come across as a credible menace. Then there’s the concluding justification for their acts of retribution and it’s so lame and uninspired and a cop-out that you wish Roth had committed to the direction the film had been steering toward.
That’s the biggest failing of Knock Knock is that it could have worked as a thriller if Roth and co-writer Nicolas Lopez (Aftershock) had fully developed their scenario. There’s a fine story of events spinning out of control as one man gets in over his head trying to cover up his indiscretion. Evan doesn’t really grapple with his guilt because everything is manifested as an external threat. He becomes a literal hostage to his guests but they don’t ever turn the screws in a manner that belies a plan or even a sharper point. The first act should have been setting up storylines that would further complicate this hostage scenario with people dropping by and more opportunities to be caught. Rather than playing as a slow-boil hostage thriller or a be-careful-what-you-wish-for morality play, Knock Knock more approaches a failed farce. The film even lacks any visual polish or carefully constructed set piece to stand out from the bargain bin of cheap horror thrillers, and Chile does not convincingly double for California either.
Roth has been a filmmaker who found dark and creative ways to mix humor into his horror, but Knock Knock is one where his signature humor doesn’t feel intended. First off, the behavior of Genesis and Bel is wildly over-the-top, screechy, and just insufferable. Izzo and Armas are way too broad and way too unhinged without any sense of mooring from Roth as a director. It’s just not fun to watch. Their batty babydoll shtick isn’t funny or sexy or dangerous. The tone cannot find a balance or commitment. There are lines of dialogue that are howlers and then there are moments that are played without the right sense of pacing or delivery and they can transform something inane into something dreadfully funny. It’s hard to describe in words but Reeves’ strident yet flat delivery of “I’m a happily married man” after being bamboozled by two naked and nubile young women is hilarity in itself. Then there’s the final scene (spoiler alert) that rests upon a struggle to eliminate a damning social media post. The resulting action and Reeves’ resultant scream to the heavens left me doubling over with laughter, more so because this is part of the misguided climax to a misguided movie. Suffice to say the moments that seemed intended to be comedic fall flat and the ones that are not, at least in their primary and secondary purpose, are the ones that produce hearty derisive laughter.
At least Roth’s other 2015 release knows exactly what it wants to be, which is a stomach-churning gore-fest homage to one of cinema’s most notorious movies, Cannibal Holocaust. From an early college lecture about female genital mutilation, you know exactly where Roth is leading this story. Unlike Knock Knock, you get a sense of Roth’s passion for the material here, and while much of that material is the systematic exposure of other people’s guts, it’s at least treated with the right amount of horror and dread. In grand slasher tradition, our poorly developed characters are but bodies to be sacrificed for our sickening amusement, but at least this is where Roth comes alive with creativity. The plot is fairly bare-bones: a group of activists from a liberal arts college travel to the Amazon jungle to protest the local government tearing down acres of forest that rightfully belong to native communities. After having successfully staged their protest, the activists’ plane goes down in the jungle and the cannibalistic natives collect the survivors and do what they do best. While it takes a bit too long without layering in mystery or essential plot, or even ironic counterpoints to fold back upon, once the students meet the hungry villagers, the movie becomes everything it was intended to be, one gory torture sequence after another. There are some memorably gross and uncomfortable moments. Similar to Roth’s Hostel, sometimes the threat of torture is worse than a grisly death. When the practices of female circumcision come roaring back as a plot point, you won’t be able to stop squirming in your seat in appropriate trepidation of what’s next.
The Green Inferno might prioritize its colorful slaughter but at least Roth puts something approaching a survival story in play to fill in the gaps. The first human sacrifice is so methodical that it serves as a grandly grotesque statement to better motivate the other survivors. Izzo (Roth’s wife) appears as the movie’s version of the Final Girl, so we’re anticipating that she’ll be able to escape somehow. The villagers keep our characters locked in cages and slowly we get a greater sense of their routines and eating habits. There’s a clever use of marijuana to purposely drug their captors. While there is an overwhelming sense of doom and futility, partially just by knowing what kind of movie this is, I’ll credit Roth that the movie doesn’t feel repulsively nihilistic. It may feel genuinely repulsive for other reasons, but you still hold onto a small glimmer of hope that at least some of these college students might maybe make it out alive. Maybe.
There’s also the elephant in the room when it comes to the cultural depiction of a bunch of savages feasting upon primarily white Americans. It’s certainly not an enlightened or nuanced analysis of another culture and it brings to mind some rather ignorant and racist imagery of old where the “backwards natives” were seen as dangerous and uncivilized villains more in common with wild animals than human beings. The villagers in the movie are all bathed in a blood-red skin dye as if they were to be recognized as devils and otherworldly demons. I can’t fathom that a village of this size comes across enough wayward humans to keep itself nourished. It’s hard to get a read on what commentary Roth has in mind. Is he playing into xenophobia or is he sending up the ignorance of the college activists who think getting to the front page of Reddit is a major accomplishment? I can’t tell and this indecision on Roth’s part doesn’t help the movie. It’s easy in slasher cinema to root for the charismatic killer to mow down our gullible and dumb teenagers, but it’s also easy to find a survivor to root for against all odds. I can’t tell which side Roth was more interested in highlighting the plight of. The ending doesn’t clarify this either.
By no means am I saying that The Green Inferno is a conventionally enjoyable movie, but if you’re a gore hound looking to slurp up your next bloody feast, then this might hit the spot. It’s an uncomfortable and too often tedious film, and some of the character setbacks just seem mean-spirited or unnecessary, like a character literally defecating in a corner for what feels like a solid minute with Farrelly Brothers sound effects (even the natives point and laugh). This is not a pleasant filmgoing experience, nor is it particularly articulate with its social commentary, but the thing that The Green Inferno accomplishes is in its sense of grisly purpose. It’s not groundbreaking or even particularly artistic but for its select audience of horror aficionados, I feel like there is enough to merit watching. Unlike Knock Knock, which doesn’t know who its audience is, The Green Inferno knows all too well, beholden to their bloodlusts, and thus too limited to attract wider appeal. Then again any film that can be thematically linked to Cannibal Holocaust wasn’t exactly going to be targeting the masses. After a long drought behind the camera, these two releases have shown me that Roth’s interests have become a bit more base, his skills a bit more ramshackle, and his sick sense of humor a bit more misapplied. After Cabin Fever and Hostel, I had high hopes that Roth would follow in his mentor Tarantino’s footsteps and rise above genre trappings as an artist. With news that Roth will produce a Cabin Fever remake for 2016, well I think my hopes for the man have gone up in smoke.
Knock Knock: D
Green Inferno: C
Reminiscent of the Patton Oswalt bit concerning The Phantom Menace, often fans rarely need the “before” when it concerns the characters they love; did anyone really need to know what Peter and Hook were up to before they became mortal enemies? Pan attempts to tell the story before we know it about how Peter Pan became the character we know. It was originally planned for a summer 2015 release and was pushed back until the fall, ostensibly for more time to finish visual effects. the studio, Warner Brothers, pulled a similar move with Jupiter Ascending, and we know how that turned out.
Peter (Levi Miller) is an orphan living in London during World War II. He and a few of his best parentless pals are abducted in the middle of the night by a group of pirates and their flying pirate ship. He’s taken to Neverland to work in the mines belonging to Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman), who has an addiction to fairy dust. During a scuffle, Peter discovers he has the ability to fly, though he can’t exactly master it. There has been a prophecy that The One would be able to fly and they would topple Blackbeard. Peter and another miner, James Hook (Garrett Hedlund), escape, finding their way into the land of the “natives,” which includes Tigerlily (a miscast Rooney Mara). The “Pan” has been prophecized to help lead their people and discover the bridge into the world of the fairies, and Blackbeard won’t stop until he finds the source of his pernicious pixie smack.
Who exactly is Pan intended for or what story needed to be told prior to our introduction to the world of Neverland? The first act sets the stage for the miscalculated tonal mishmash that never truly settles: we jump from a cruel orphanage, with Peter comically plucky, to the horrors of the London bombing during the Blitz, to a bunch of pirates kidnapping the orphans (tacitly with the approval of the evil head nun running the orphanage), and from there we’re whisked away across space to a mine of slave workers digging for pixie dust minerals who serenade their pirate slave lord with the lyrics to Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” for… some reason. Is this a movie intended for younger children and families? Is it intended for teenagers? The tone veers wildly, sometimes within the same scene, going from serious and gritty to colorful and ridiculous. It’s a campy experience that makes me wonder who exactly was supposed to enjoy an attempt to open the Peter Pan mythos, a world that is generally shallow.
At no point does Pan justify its existence beyond a flimsy corporate attempt to take a familiar world and expand upon it for sweet franchise money. When you get down to the world of Neverland, at least as represented on film, what exactly is there? There are pirates, “natives,” mermaids, and fairies, and that’s about it. They all kind of exist in their own individual movie that fails to blend together, making the new groups of characters feel like little more than a new theme park attraction before moving on to the next autonomous ride. The fantasy figures themselves just aren’t that interesting because there just isn’t much to them beyond superficial descriptions. I suppose then that this would allow plenty of opportunity at world building to take these familiar staples and give them greater depth, and that’s Pan’s biggest missed opportunity. Far too often, the movie feels on Fantasy autopilot and what we’re given is the old clichés of the Great Prophecy and the Chosen One meant to bridge worlds, etc. the events in the film do little to explain how Peter became Peter Pan, besides learn to fly. The problem with the prophecy trope is that it robs characters of agency in place of just accepting their capital-D destiny.
You learn nothing new about Peter or Hook as people, and the nods to the greater Pan lore are annoying at best with how unsubtle and clunky they are. The movie doesn’t even lay the groundwork to explain what conflicts will eventually drive Peter and Hook apart. Peter is a bland hero who is defined by the mystery of his absent mother and her own lineage. He’s special because his mom was special and if he just believes hard enough then perhaps he can be even more special. It’s pretty simplistic stuff. The references to the Pan lore always seem to stop the movie dead in its tracks. The relationship between Peter and Hook isn’t explored in any capacity other then they appear to have both escaped together and been running side-by-side. It’s a relationship not out of bonding but out of sheer proximity. The concluding lines are literally Peter saying, “We’re going to be friends forever,” and Hook replying, “What could possibly go wrong?” Oh my goodness is that one hacky groan-worthy wink to the future.
Pan is made serviceably watchable from director Joe Wright and the campy performance of Jackman. Wright is a premier visual stylist in cinema though his artistic instincts can lead him to try and smash as many ill-fitting square pegs as he can into round holes, last evidenced by the 2012 Anna Karenina adaptation that made all the world a literal stage. The visuals are often splendid to behold and Wright has a wonderful feel for color hues. The final act feels climactic and visually alive in ways the movie doesn’t even deserve, and Wright’s vision, weird as it can be at points (Nirvana?) gives the movie an energy that keeps its worth an initial viewing. For a movie filed with fantasy realms, I enjoyed the scenes in the orphanage and with the wicked head nun the best (is she knowingly selling the boys into slavery on a magic pirate ship or is it just extreme negligence on her part?). The other aspect that at least held my attention was Jackman. In a movie filled with bland and the occasionally bizarre performance, Jackman offers an anchor to lean upon. It’s not a good performance by normal circumstances but it provides a sense of life and feels in place. Hedlund (On the Road) is amazing in just how strange his rakish Harrison Ford-esque performance persists. Why didn’t anyone tell him to stop? His speaking voice fascinated me and I spent the entire moving trying to figure what it sounded like and my best description is Heath Ledger’s impression of Al Pacino.
While not being a colossal disaster of artistic self-indulgence, Pan is a disappointing and mostly tedious experience because of its failure to capitalize on expanding upon the Neverland universe and exploring what should be formative experiences to central characters. If this was going to be a crazy artistic romp then it needed to be crazier. If you’re going to have two brief anachronistic songs, then do more or at least draw in more influences from other timelines. If you’re going to be a straight-laced pilot for a budding fantasy franchise, at least give us more flights of fancy and wonder. Make us fall in love with this world or at least some of the characters. Instead Pan uses the audience’s pre-existing association with the characters and the environment in place of doing anything meaningful with a story. Peter becomes Peter Pan, so he doesn’t have to be a character he just has to be the pre-Pan Peter. The same for Hook and Smee and Tigerlily and that’s really the only characters worth mentioning until those Darling children come visit. I thought I was going to ridicule Pan with the glee I had taking apart Jupiter Ascending but I couldn’t muster much effort. It didn’t feel like the Pan filmmakers did either.
Nate’s Grade: C
Based upon Andy Weir’s nuts-and-bolts scientific “what if” tale, The Martian is the movie equivalent of Apollo 13 crossed with Cast Away. Just far less personable volleyballs. But there are potatoes. Space potatoes.
After a powerful storm on Mars forces NASA’s crew to flee, astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is presumed dead and left behind. He wakes up hours later, shrapnel in his gut, and retreats back to the Mars mission base. He has to survive close to two years before he has any hope of being rescued on the hostile world. Before that, he has to establish some kind of communication with NASA, and even before that he has to somehow grow food in the arid Martian soil. Back at home, NASA is debating their limited options to bring back Watney and whether or not they should tell his crewmates that he survived.
In conversations with my friend and critical colleague Ben Bailey, he said that The Martian was the opposite of Gravity, a film he subsequently loathed, because it was smart people making smart decisions. There is an inherent enjoyment watching intelligent people tackle and persevere over daunting challenges, and this sets up The Martian for lots of payoffs and satisfaction. We see both sides of the problem and it provides even more opportunities for challenges and payoffs. Naturally the stuff on Mars is more compelling because of its extreme dangers and isolation, but the Earth scenes are also enjoyable as the NASA determines the soonest they might reach their lost astronaut. Just like the similarly themed Apollo 13, there are challenges to be overcome and the solutions are not without risk themselves. I enjoyed how the screenplay kept throwing out new obstacles; just when you think you can breath for a while the status quo is upset again. The slew of new obstacles doesn’t feel contrived either but rather realistic setbacks. It’s a wonderful storytelling structure that constantly keeps things moving forward and ramps up the urgency. As a result, we don’t ever feel safe right until the climax, and even then you’re still sweating it out because of all the complications and adjustments.
It’s revitalizing to watch a movie that treats science with a sense of reverence. Mark Watney endures in the most hostile of environments through his ingenious use of the resources he has because of his understanding of science and math. Just as MacGyver proved there was something satisfying about watching a guy make a bomb out of a toilet paper tube, some chewing gum, and a bobby pin, it’s entirely enjoyable watching Watney think his way out of problems, and this starts early on. Watney’s first problem after he regains consciousness is to remove an embedded piece of shrapnel in his gut. The scene plays in a methodical fashion without any obtrusive edits, allowing the full task to settle in with the audience. The man has to perform surgery on himself and dig inside himself, and if he doesn’t get this done soon, sepsis might set in (no doctors without borders here). From there, the situation only gets more serious as Watney’s food supply, even when generously rationed, will only last a fraction of the time it would take NASA to send a rescue team. He has to grow food on an alien planet. That itself could be its own movie, a glossy crossover special from the SyFy Channel and the Home and Garden network. This is a survival story that doesn’t rely upon coincidence or some sort of divine intervention but on the understanding and admiration of science and its possibilities. Though America’s favorite astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson says that in this movie universe, all the science decisions are being made by science professionals rather than, you know, politicians who adamantly open ignorant statements with, “I’m not a scientist.”
Another aspect I wasn’t quite expecting but took hold of me is how uplifting The Martian turns out to be. It’s a celebration of human endeavor and particularly cooperation, as the United States reaches out to other nations for assistance. Watching the determined souls risk their lives to retrieve one fallen man is the kind of thing that represents the best in us. Sure, there’s something to be said about the fact that it’s one prized American life that countries are spending billions of not trillions of dollars to rescue and perhaps that money would be better spent helping more lives on Earth. There’s also the curious fact that the world has spent a ton of money rescuing Matt Damon in movies. From Saving Private Ryan, to Interstellar, and now The Martian, we seem to value Damon above all else.
This isn’t exactly a one-man show with half of the running time flashing back to Earth but Damon’s star quality and acting chops makes it so you don’t mind being marooned with this man. Watney’s recorded messages are a slick way to deal with the internal thinking of its protagonist while giving the character more opportunities to charm thanks to a rich sense of gallows-level humor. At no point is Mark Watney flippant about his unique predicament but his sense of humor goes a long way to further engender the audience’s good will. He’s not moping and having existential crises; he’s getting to work, and it’s through the problem solving that we get to know this character, his ingenuity, his personality, his fears, and his distaste for disco music. Damon steers clear from playing the character too large and bearing his soul as the metaphorical representative for all of humanity and its place in the cosmos. He’s just one guy who happens to be lost millions of miles from his home planet, and he’s making the best of it.
Being a Ridley Scott film, naturally the film is downright impeccable from a technical standpoint. The photography is great, communicating the frightening and awe-inspiring scope of the alien topography, especially when compared to maps for scale. The visuals find ways to further help communicate Watney’s dilemma and diminished resources. Scott’s visual sensibilities are so naturally attuned to developing tension. I was holding my breath at times from the suspense of certain sequences even though I long assumed that Watney would make it back home safe and sound. A scene with a desperate need for duct tape was a real nail-biter. There isn’t a bad performance among the star-studded cast of actors who must have been grateful for even a tiny morsel of screen time. I have no idea what Kirsten Wiig really does in this movie as the NASA PR person besides fold her arms in rooms, but hey, she’s there, along with Donald Glover as a socially awkward physicist. Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty) gets to pour over the regret of leaving a friend behind, Jeff Daniels gets to once more practice his skill of being an authoritarian blowhard he honed from The Newsroom, and I even was able to tolerate Kate Mara (Fantastic Four), so that’s something.
The Martian is a natural crowd-pleaser. It’s engineered from the start to engage an audience with its survival thrills, present a series of increasing payoffs with new challenges and solutions, and by the end of our journey we’re treated to a rousing finish that carries a poignancy and sense of inspiration about the best in all of us, what can be accomplished through grit and cooperation and sacrifice. It’s a movie that let’s the science of survival be the ultimate star, with Damon serving as a handsome host to guide us through the marvels of the universe and duct tape. When dealing with the vastness of space and the vulnerability of human life, it’s easy to feel insignificant in comparison, but that’s where the human will to endure and to work together comes in and reconfirms the possibilities of the collective inhabitants of this giant blue orb. The Martian is a sci-fi thriller, a potent human drama, and one of the best times you can have at the movies.
Nate’s Grade: A-
It’s called The Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials, though the trials appear more as “general struggles,” The Scorch appears as but a brief expanse of desert before the mountains, and then there’s the lack of any and all maze running (there is plenty of running, however). This sequel to the YA-inspired hit lives up to my biggest worry: the only thing interesting about this franchise was the maze, and now that’s gone. The mystery of the maze, and its cool factor, gave this story something memorable. Now it’s just generic YA pap. Beyond its boring protagonist, it would be a scorch trial for me to even assign description to these characters. They don’t even get one note to play; they have no notes. That’s because so much of this tedious and bloated sequel is our group of maze survivors running from one outpost to another, seemingly safe and then predictably not. It’s a plot routine that gets redundant quickly, and yet little else seems to occur. They go from stop to stop gaining characters but little else. The momentum feels stalled and there’s no sense of direction to guide the characters. It feels so aimless and dull and far too flimsy to justify even half of the movie’s 132 minutes. I just don’t care about these characters so I rooted for the bad guys. Weirdly enough, the bad guys use tasers and the good guys use bullets. There are some scant highpoints, namely the direction of Wes Ball, who finds ways to make the chase sequences visually stylish and fleetingly exciting, and a self-destruct sequence set to a Patsy Cline tune. There’s enough to get your hopes up before the grim reality of the overwhelming onslaught of YA tropes comes crashing down again. Can we stick these dumb kids back inside a maze already?
Nate’s Grade: C