Monthly Archives: January 2016
The scariest thing about The Boy is how much potential it wastes, foolishly abandoning a horror direction that was eerie, supernatural, and with one leg rooted in a psychological breakdown, and instead cheerfully dives headfirst into an unwanted new direction of cheap campy thrills. I haven’t seen a decent movie unravel with this high-speed velocity and tone-shift since Danny Boyle’s Sunshine, an intelligent sci-fi vision that decided, hey, let’s just make the entire final act a slasher movie in space. The Boy is about an American nanny who travels abroad to care for an elderly couple’s young son Brahms, a son who happens to be a porcelain doll. There are rules to be followed and consequences if they are disobeyed. I liked that our heroine (Lauren Cohan, The Walking Dead) doesn’t try and ignore what she’s seeing for a majority of the movie and instead embraces the unusual circumstances, testing Brahms and discovering more. It kept the film moving in more engaging directions rather than denying the obvious and padding out its run time. I wish that the script opened up more about the domestic violence that haunts our heroine, literally and figuratively, but for a solid hour I was fairly entertained by the supernatural parlor games and lead performance by Cohan. Then the last act occurred, which just swiped away all the good will. I groaned aloud when the shift happened. I won’t go into detail but suffice to say it feels distinctly like two different movies clumsily grafted onto one another at the behest of exec. What once could be excused or forgiven in a supernatural realm cannot when trying to ground the story in reality, and it only unleashes a horde of nagging questions that don’t add up, especially concerning Brahm’s parents and the implications of its ending. The Boy is a cautionary tale about leaving well enough alone, understanding the strengths of your spooky story and tone, and committing to the best idea rather than one that “surprises” while laying waste to your larger story.
Nate’s Grade: C
Michael Bay is the kind of filmmaker that naturally attracts negative attention and derision, so when he fast-tracked a movie about the Benghazi embassy attacks, and in a presidential election year too, there were plenty that cried foul. Bay’s not exactly known as the subtlest filmmaker, and many feared a Benghazi movie under his guidance would only reaffirm the worst. 13 Hours: the Secret Soldiers of Benghazi (a subtitle that never appears in the movie, by the way) is a surprisingly serious and generally apolitical action movie that reaffirms the strengths and weaknesses of Bay as a filmmaker.
On September 11, 2012, an armed mob stormed an American outpost in Benghazi, an attack that left four Americans dead. After Libya had toppled its decades-long autocrat, a power vacuum emerged and militants filled its place. An unclassified CIA annex in Benghazi was established to track the possible sale of munitions from the old regime. The CIA chief, Bob (David Constabile), has been forced to hire a security team of former Army Rangers and Navy Seals to protect his agents. Jack Silva (John Krasinski) is a family man reuniting with his old pal Tyrone “Rone” Woods (James Badge Dale), the head of the hired security team. The other guys (Pablo Schreiber, David Denman, Dominic Fumusa, Max Martini) welcome Jack, explaining the rising tensions in Benghazi and how they’re generally frustrated by the CIA know-it-all attitudes. They’re wary of the State department outpost for Ambassador Chris Stevens (Matt Letscher), wary of the security detail watching him, and wary of the Libyan local forces providing assistance. Flash forward to the night of the attack and Rone and his team are stymied in their early attempts to rescue the ambassador. Afterwards, the focal point of the fight shifts to that very CIA annex and one hellish night of intense combat.
This is Bay’s return to the realm of more “serious filmmaking,” a world he hasn’t considered since 2001’s lackluster Pearl Harbor, and while the standard Bay elements of boom are present and accounted for, the drama doesn’t stack up to the action. First, the good news is that the action in 13 Hours is often thrilling, beautifully staged and photographed by Dion Beebe (Collateral), and unlike Bay’s Transformers films, easy enough to follow along. It’s a chaotic incident where plans and communication are broken down, but Bay is able to keep the geography and the immediate and secondary goals of each action sequence clear. While the storming of the embassy isn’t quite as nerve-racking as Argo, it’s still plenty thrilling and communicates the fog of war and dawning horror of those trapped on the inside. The centerpiece is the attack on the CIA annex, which both sides anticipate and prepare for. It establishes the geography of the field of combat, the different access points, and the most likely ambushes. From there, it’s our outnumbered professionals versus a horde of armed Libyans, a standoff reminiscent in classic Hollywood action cinema. Over the course of those titular 13 hours, our security force faces wave after wave of attacks, each once becoming more sophisticated and bringing heavier firepower. Bay’s camera captures the explosions and gunfire in his usual balletic decadence. Say what you will about the man and his jingoistic tendencies, but he’s an ace visual stylist who bathes a sheen of popcorn entertainment to visceral struggle. When the action is heated, that’s when 13 Hours packs its most powerful punch.
Unfortunately, there are lulls in between the fighting, and it’s during these moments that we realize how poorly written our characters are. With the battle looming ahead, the mitigated character development emphasizes easy clichés we’ve come to expect, like the family man who needs to realize his family should come first, etc. These six guys are little more than stock characters on the screen, differentiated more by appearance and the occasional reading material than any significant personality differences. The dialogue is also rather clunky, falling too often upon tough guy speak to make up the difference. The way I was able to separate them in my head was through the actors’ previous roles (“There’s Pornstash, there’s Roy from The Office, there’s the guy from The Pacific who was the bad guy in Iron Man 3, and boy did Jim from The Office get buff”). Krasinski (Aloha) is the audience’s entry point into this world and given the most attention, so he’s ostensibly our main protagonist. He’s a strong presence to anchor the film despite the character’s shortcomings. I enjoyed watching Krasinski in such a different sort or role and started thinking about he and his wife, Emily Blunt, must have traded workout regiment advice. “Jim from The Office” with a six-pack is a surprising sight.
There’s a strange defining conflict for the first hour of the movie, namely Bay and Hogan narrowing personal clashes down to a slobs vs. snobs mentality of war. Bay has a history of fetishizing machismo and military hardware, so it should be no surprise that his movie lionizes the beefy, strapping military men serving as security. They’re placed against the eggheads of the CIA, who take every moment to remind our burly, bearded security guys that they were educated at Ivy League schools and know so much more about the Middle East. They often sound haughty when they’re scolding the security force for interfering even when it’s clear they’re saving their lives. The perspective aligns with the idea that the military-experienced, no-nonsense men of action are being ignored and looked down upon by the CIA ninnies who look at them as unnecessary babysitters. Naturally, with the hindsight of history, we know the concerns of Rone and his guys will be vindicated and the CIA snobs will be grateful they had these blue-collar American heroes. The entire role of Bob is to condescend and ignore our guys and their warnings. Bob even says early in his introduction that he’s on the brink of retirement and they won’t ruin it for him. Until the attack on September 11, we’re stuck with this reductive class warfare clash.
Another interesting aspect is that the movie makes use of its audience’s relative ignorance when it comes to the specific people involved in the Benghazi firefight. I doubt that many people know the names of the four victims excluding Ambassador Stevens. Because of that uncertainty we don’t know which of our six security characters will live, and the screenplay seems to know this, which is why it takes time to present each of the six with some sort of looming tragic back-story. We have multiple characters sending loving messages to their young children, learning they’re wife is pregnant, and making all sorts of “final” decisions, the kind that set up these characters in most movies for an early demise (if you write your girl during war or talk about your post-retirement plans, you’re guaranteed to die). I was slightly amused that the movie established each character to have a moment where it potentially sets up this tragic outcome.
One of my big questions walking into Bay’s Benghazi movie was exactly whose version of events was the story going to follow. After eight congressional investigations, and a prominent Republican slipping by admitting one of the guiding purposes is to tarnish Hilary Clinton as a presidential candidate, I was worried that the movie was going to be a hacky, manipulative promotion of propaganda. There’s a reason that eight congressional investigations, including one that has lasted longer than Watergate, don’t seem to satisfy those calling for blood: they keep coming to the same inconvenient conclusions, namely that there was no stand down order, no conspiracy, no cover-up. There’s been a flurry of rightwing fury brewed over stoking unfounded rumors of conspiracy with Benghazi; it’s a fundraising industry unto itself for politicians. Therefore, I was initially worried that the movie was going to reinforce a version of events that eight (and counting?) congressional committees have refuted. I was relieved then that Bay’s movie keeps its focus pretty much squared on the heroism of the security team. In a way it reminded me of Black Hawk Down as it strived to recreate a series of harrowing life-and-death events with its focus more on the brotherhood and bravery of the ones in harm’s way rather than the broader political context. There is the infamous “stand down” order; however, it’s played almost incidentally, as Bob is trying to process all the chaos unfolding and the best recourse. As presented, it doesn’t sound like “stand down and let them die,” and more, “wait and let me think for a minute.” The fight to get air support from Italy doesn’t mention the fact that those Italian fighter jets sitting on the runway were not combat ready and were for flight training. There’s only one other passing dialogue exchange that touches the political, when the guys recount that the news is telling them it was a protest, which they scoff at and then let it go. That’s it. I imagine the audience that would be most excited for a Benghazi movie will be deflated. For everyone else, the sidestepping of politics lets the movie stand on its own better.
An article from Vox.com raises the issue of whether any movie about Benghazi can possibly be apolitical. It appears like the topic of Benghazi has been so cravenly politicized that any rendition of the events of that fateful day will reinforce or contradict some narrative, be it the security contractors, the CIA, the politicians on both sides of the aisle. And the absence of what others declare with certainty will only make those same people cry “cover-up.” It’s a shame that this topic is so radioactive that an objective approach celebrating the courage of those involved, mourning the loss of life, and asking for better from those in power seems impossible given the current divisive political environment. Did it have to come to this? Bay’s Benghazi is easily his most restrained movie in his bombastic career, paying reverence to the people who paid the ultimate sacrifice. The action is well staged and often visually striking, but Bay wants this movie to be more than a series of escalating action sequences. You feel he wants this to be his version of a Zero Dark Thirty-style thriller. Except it’s not. You watch the movie and sense there’s a more intelligent, nuanced, and ambiguous movie here that can make cogent points about foreign policy and the state of the Middle East. This is an action movie where the good guys shoot the relatively faceless bad guys. 13 Hours is an acceptable action movie but that’s all it ever asserts to be. Is that enough after all?
Nate’s Grade: B-
Have you ever watched a movie that was so understated you wanted to jump into the onscreen world and push the characters around? That’s exactly how I felt with Carol, an unrequited lesbian romance set against the closeted and intolerant era of 1950s America. Carol (Cate Blanchett) is a rich wife who meets Therese (Rooney Mara), a department store employee who assists with her Christmas shopping. They are both drawn to one another in the strange way that love works, and their possible relationship could jeopardize Carol’s custody of her young child. Because of the time period, so much of this romantic liaison is internalized and thus we get longing looks, small gestures that are meant to speak volumes, and plenty of starting and stopping, leaving the audience to fill in the blanks. I don’t have an issue with unrequited romances but Carol is one that feels like its entire world, painstakingly recreated, has been placed under glass for study. There’s no passion evident throughout the movie and I was left wondering what exactly Therese saw in Carol and vice versa. Neither woman has a particularly strong personality, though that could be a side effect of having to live publicly as a different person. I couldn’t get into them as characters and so felt little interest in seeing them together, which made the constant circling and nervous indecision even more belabored. Blanchett and Mara are quite good and director Todd Haynes (I’m Not There) handles the material with respectful subtlety, I just wish that Carol could have shaken off some of that subtlety and given me a better reason to care about these women. It’s understated to death.
Nate’s Grade: C+
The Forrest is an initially promising horror-thriller that abandons every interesting possibility with every turn, becoming another interchangeably shortsighted and mediocre movie that only manages to scare an audience with how bad it becomes.
Sara (Natalie Dormer) is investigating the disappearance of her twin sister, Jess (also Dormer). Jess was working as a teacher in Tokyo when she visited the Aokigahara forest at the base of Mt. Fuji. This forest is nicknamed the “suicide forest” because of its reputation for being a favored location for Japanese citizens to kill themselves. Sara tracks down her sister to her campsite in the forest, with the help of a guide (Yukiyoshi Ozawa) and Aiden (Taylor Kinney), a journalist interested in writing her story. The guide stresses they must stay on the path at all costs and not trust the sounds they hear. There are plenty of unhappy spirits inside and they’re looking for permanent company.
The problem with dumb characters behaving stupidly is that it obliterates any investment the audience has in them, which is highly important in the horror and thriller genre. If you don’t care about the characters then you don’t care what happens next to them. With The Forest, we have characters that are wildly veering in the logistics of their decision-making that it becomes nigh impossible to care about what befalls them. They break the rules fairly early about staying on the path but the knowledge that everything they see is only a ghostly manifestation should register more. I understand that when you’re in the middle of a fraught experience that perhaps fear can cloud the mind, but perhaps you should start second-guessing things like lost Japanese schoolgirls miraculously finding you in the woods, or the fact that your childhood home is recreated in Japan. It’s scary, sure, but shouldn’t these characters no better? Also, the second-guessing of what is real causes Sara to view Aiden with great suspicion, except when she remarkable forgets. We’ll have a scene where she runs away from him out of paranoid fear, and then the next scene they’re back hiking through the woods together. It starts to feel like no two scenes connect or build off one another and The Forest is just an aimless sprint through random spooky genre grist that keep scaring our dimwitted characters.
There’s so much that is left unexplained, but not in some tantalizing way meant to provoke a greater sense of realism through ambiguity, but because the screenplay just can’t be bothered. The premise of The Forest is great and the setting should be mined for all the unsettling dread that it could manage. The little details of this unique place sink in, like the lines of rope and string that lead off to, presumably, suicide victims hoping to lead others to their fateful resting places. There’s something so brilliantly creepy about this place, and every length of rope that ventures deep into the woods has its own story and its own larger significance, symbolizing a life taken. Why does The Forest so rarely make use of the unique details of its setting? This location could have been any patch of woods with your standard unhappy ghosts to roam. That’s the biggest failure of the movie, wasting the potential of its special location and making it indistinguishable from hundreds of other cheap horror settings.
Let’s talk about some of those scares as well. The Forest abandons the unsettling atmosphere of its setting and the possibility of the fraying psychology of its character (coherent unraveling, I should say) for what amount to a relentless assault of cheap jump scares. The jump scare is the bottom of the barrel, utilizing sudden appearance to startle. It is ultimately empty and any movie that relies on a diet heavy on jump scares is essentially admitting that it could not build a tense environment on its own. It is admitting defeat, and that is what The Forest admits when it relies on a jump scare, I kid you not, like every five minutes. Oh no, something suddenly popped up and Sara jolted out of a dream. Oh no, something suddenly popped up and flew at the camera and Sara jolted out of a dream. Repeat as needed to pad the running time. It’s tiresome and leads to diminishing returns. The only way jump scares work is when they are unexpected. If you start to anticipate them then they lose all of their power and relevance.
As the movie continued running in one direction and then suddenly running in another, I was reminded of 2014’s Occulus. I wasn’t completely taken with that horror movie but it is far better than The Forest. The premise of Occulus involves a brother and sister trying to prove a cursed mirror is responsible for a history of murder. The mirror would play with the minds of its victims by putting them in false settings and scenarios, thus creating illusions to trick them into deadly behavior. The difficult part of Occulus was that you couldn’t trust what you were watching, which either forced the audience to pay more attention or to just give up and wait for the eventual reveals. The Forest is similar in that a good portion of its running time is a series of hallucinogenic tangents. Are there really maggots crawling under Sara’s skin? Is that water in the creek running the wrong way? It becomes frustrating when the characters don’t respond with nearly enough skepticism, especially when they’re fooled again and again. Occulus, while purposely hard to follow, was worth watching and ultimately felt well developed. The Forest feels lost in the woods.
Unless you’re a sucker for the kind of genre, there’s nothing that The Forest does well enough to warrant a theatrical viewing. It’s so frustrating because there are elements and potential there and the movie just continues to not care, falling back on the same-old same-old cheap jump scares and indistinguishable hackneyed genre tropes, losing sight of the inherent awe and fright of its special location. Dormer (HBO’s Game of Thrones) gives a suitably spooked performance but does little to stand out among the scenery. If you’re contemplating watching The Forest, just watch Occulus instead and be grateful.
Nate’s Grade: C-
Sometimes as a critic I seek out the worst of the worst so you don’t have to, America. And you really owe me big time for sitting through all 100 torturous minutes of the regretful-in-every-aspect horror… “comedy,” Human Centipede 3: Final Sequence. I’ll confess that horror is a genre I’ve grown to enjoy and I genuinely liked the first Centipede film, finding its premise near ingenious and that writer/director Tom Six developed his horror grotesquerie in a way that turned it into an accessible survival thriller with some gonzo edges. The sequel was pretty repulsive and the third film, with the hopeful promise of being the “final sequence,” is even worse. This is a horrifying endurance test not unlike Tom Green’s abysmal lone directorial affront, Freddy Got Fingered. It is that bad. Scenes just seem to go on and on and exist for no purpose. It’s like Dieter Laser was just told to do whatever he wanted as long as he yelled as loud as he could and based his performance after the Looney Tunes cast. It’s cheap vulgarity masquerading as edgy provocation; it’s transparently lazy and insufferable. It’s not funny no matter how weird or loud or garish or bloody or dumb it gets. The premise is basically an insane prison warden (Laser) is going to create his own human centipede, the biggest ever, linking over 100 inmates. Ignoring the escalation of all the Centipede sequels, it’s a facile plot device and it doesn’t even happen until the very end. Until that awful reveal, you will have to endure, no a better word is survive, extended “comedy” bits like Laser sticking his tongue out and roaring in orgasm while his secretary (Bree Olsen) is forced to felate him while others are in the room. The movie is trying so hard to be shocking and irreverent that you can see all the pained efforts. It’s tedious and boring. Human Centipede 3 is 100 minutes of pathetic flop sweat that could more or less end with the throwaway punchline, “The Aristocrats!”
Nate’s Grade: F