Category Archives: 2009 Movies

After Last Season (2009)

After Last Season is a little movie that most people wrongly mistook for a joke. Writer/director Mark Region pulled off something rarely witnessed in modern movies: he put together a low budget movie all on his own and got it released nationally. The movie even has a Quicktime trailer on Apple’s website. It was released last summer in only four cities for a limited trial run, which explains why nobody has every heard of Region’s creative opus. It also might have to do with the fact that After Last Season is so appallingly terrible that the distributor reportedly called the theaters to advise burning the film prints rather than returning them. Naturally, given my cinematic tastes for the finest trash and my keen knowledge of the baddest of bads, I instantly had to see this film for myself. The website After Last Season boasts an customer review (nary a good sign of accomplishment) saying that the movie is unlike any you have ever seen. There’s a good reason for that. After Last Season approaches a near Manos level of ineptitude. That should speak volumes.

The plot, as can best be described, involves a university conducting scientific experiments. Sarah (Peggy McClellen) and Matthew (Jason Kulas) are interns conducting their own investigation into a recent string of murders. They have access to a device that allows the connection of minds, and so Sarah and Matthew link brains and get caught in the wavelengths of the campus killer, who now begins to target them. This plot synopsis is actually too kind and might mislead some into thinking the movie has drama or action or suspense. What really happens are characters who you don’t know doing things that aren’t fully explained followed by unexplained location changes where the whole process repeats itself. You haven’t lived until you’ve listened to Sarah’s roommates engage in senseless conversations about going to the North Market.

When I say that this movie is awful, I really mean it with all sincerity. This movie is so awful, so off-the-charts painful to watch that there is not an ounce of derisive fun to be had. After Last Season does not fall into that coveted category of “so bad it’s good,” no, this movie is simply disastrously, regrettably, incomprehensibly bad. I would not recommend it to my friends or enemies. From a plot standpoint, there’s about 15 minutes of stuff stretched out to a short but far too long length of 93 minutes. The opening 10 minutes concern characters explaining how an MRI machine operates. It’s like Region once wrote a paper on an MRI machine and wanted everybody to know the work put into it. The characters just keep rehashing the ins and outs of this machine, and the machine is clearly made of cardboard and in the middle of somebody’s living room (is it unusual for a metallic ceiling fan to be placed directly above a Magnetic Resonating Imaging machine?). Then there’s a 30-minute stretch in the middle that is nothing more than two people sitting across a table and dreaming about geometric shapes. 30 minutes! I doubt that I even have the ability to adequately explain the amount of mind-numbing torture that this sequence was. My friend Eric and I just kept looking at one another with hopeful expressions, silently pleading, “Will our pain and suffering soon be over?” 30 freaking minutes! One third of the entire movie is like watching somebody’s annoying screensaver from 1987. I can’t wait for the sequel where it looks like a bunch of windows are flying.

The rest of the script isn’t filled with intriguing character dynamics or challenging drama. It’s almost completely built from non-related scenes with non-identified characters having frivolous conversations about nothing. Most of the dialogue is driven by linked non-sequitors, which prompted me to repeatedly yell at the screen, “Why the hell was that important?” Characters will drone on in useless babble, never once circling a subject that seems to be related to the plot at hand. The small group of actors (you will be amazed that the end credits lists over 15 characters) feels like people awaiting an execution. True, the pitiful direction leaves them unmoored, fighting to find meaning in anything they say, but these people just suck at acting. The general range of acting goes from impassive monotone to somewhat less impassive monotone. It’s the acting equivalent of rounding up random people at the bus station and hoping for a miracle.

I have seen low budget productions before but this movie looks like it was made for the cost of a lottery ticket. For whatever reason, the current info has the budget at five million but there’s no way in hell that can be true (some producer must have ran off with like the whole sum minus twenty bucks). Reportedly the movie cost $40,000, which I can believe barely, and the special effects cost 4.95 million dollars, which I find baffling. The sets are all overly lit basements disguised by the clever decorative abilities of pegboards and sheets of paper. There are scenes where actual paper is taped to the walls like it was shingles, just like what a child might devise as a means of decoration. There’s even a supposed college class that takes place in this same low-rent location, which means that this particular university is really struggling for endowment funds. This utilitarian approach to locations is what I’d expect from a public access show or a student’s video project. These locations make it seem like every person is one moment away from being gutted by a serial killer just off screen. Did Region have only one abandoned office basement to work with? The visitations by the ghost/mind spirit/whatever are just as bad. We have the embarrassment of watching plastic tubs being pulled across the floor with fishing line. Having a low budget should force Region to be more creative with his use of resources, to work around his limitations. Instead, he just continually shines a bright light illuminating every possible limitation in the movie.

From a technical standpoint, After Last Season is an abysmal entry. It fails not just because of its lack of funds but it fails because Region lacks any filmmaking ability whatsoever. Sure, apparently the man was able to pose actors, have them recite lines, and keep the cameras running, but I expect more from my movies than the same criteria I have for family vacation videos. Region’s directorial style is, ostensibly, to have no discernible visual sensibility at all. Actors will routinely be cut out from the camera frame or the spatial relations will be completely out of whack, allowing for tremendous space above heads or showing the actor’s complete body except the upper half of the face. Characters will be bunched in one tiny section of the screen, or Region will suddenly cut back and forth between two different shots that conflict from a geographic standpoint; they don’t visually match up. There isn’t a single shot anywhere in After Last Season that couldn’t have been credited to a tripod for complete creative inspiration.

Here’s a terrific example of how creatively bankrupt this movie is, and no, I will restrain from making reference to the sheets of paper as decoration. The website for After Last Season actually touts its use of special effects. What special effects, you may very reasonably be asking yourself. Evidently, several scenes had less background coverage, so the special effects gurus took a sample background object and copied it to cover the space (like taking one sheet and making a wall out of them). Okay, fine, except that this special effects wizardry doesn’t always work. The website itself even showcases a scene where Sarah goes in for her job interview and on the right hand side we can see the special effect trick of covering up the empty space. However, the left side is completely untouched, leaving exposed all the set shortcomings and extension cords. Why cover one side but not the other? Too expensive? Here’s the best question of all. Why spend any money whatsoever on lame special effects when you could have simply zoomed in so that the two characters filled the screen? That’s a much more cost-effective option and wouldn’t break the perilous illusion of the movie. It is examples like this that condemn Region as an artist with zero creative ingenuity.

Now it’s at this point where I have to call into question the integrity of After Last Season. Was this entire project created on purpose to be terrible, and if so, does it even make a difference? Is a bad movie more acceptable if it’s intentional or unintentional? From my perspective, you cannot intentionally make a campy movie. The derisive pleasure must come from the fact that the filmmakers thought they were making compelling cinema at some point. If After Last Season is fake (I hesitate to use that word given its connotation) then it’s an even bigger waste of time (Update: I just read online interviews with Region, and the movie is for real). As it stands, the movie is technically inept on every level of filmmaking with a bad script, bad actors, bad pacing, bad direction, bad sets, bad sound coverage, bad “special effects,” and really bad editing. If Region was dreaming of creating a midnight-movie sensation like The Room then he missed the mark. This movie isn’t any fun whatsoever to watch because there’s not enough going on to make laugh at. With The Room, every scene had like eight things wrong with it; that film was a 1000 brushstrokes of bad. With After Last Season, it’s the same forehead-smacking flaws repeated ad nauseam. There’s no derisive joy to be had here, folks.

I’m not shocked that something as unrepentantly bad as After Last Season exists. There is plenty of crap on the Internet and in this modern age of user media, there’s no shortage of poorly executed ideas finding a wider audience. It’s the same with the infamous 1979 blotch on cinema, Caligula. I’m not surprised that something so debased and wildly salacious exists, what shocks me is that a movie with incest, bestiality, necrophilia, hard-core sex scenes, and gallons of blood would star such a celebrated cast of thespians like John Gielgud, Peter O’Toole, Malcolm McDowell, and Helen Mirren (though if you’ve seen Zardoz you know that Mirren wasn’t too picky in those days). What shocks me is not that Caligula exists but the level of involvement and exposure. What truly shocks me is that After Last Season got a theatrical release over the likes of thousands of other movies fighting for a release. Yes, this only played on four screens in four different cities, but how does anybody justify After Last Season even being in the same consideration of cinematic art? I am faint to even refer to this as a movie. It almost seems like a social experiment with disturbing psychological implications. After Last Season isn’t a movie so much as an endurance test of how much pointless garbage a person can consume before they relentlessly cry, “Enough! You have officially destroyed my soul!” I never thought I’d say these words, but After Last Season makes The Room look competent. Your apology letter is in the mail, Tommy Wiseau.

Nate’s Grade: F

The Final Storm (2009)

Famously detested film director Uwe Boll finally tackles a subject that many film fans, and video game aficionados, felt he could possibly be the harbinger for – the apocalypse. Yes, in our apocalypse-drenched times with the bottoms falling out of economic markets and civil unrest, it was only a matter of time before Boll decided to put his unique German stamp on the end of the world. Usually we associate a feeling of dread with the apocalypse, akin to the feeling of dread whenever somebody turns on a Boll movie. Except Boll’s apocalyptic entry, The Final Storm, is a direct-to-DVD oddity that actually works for a while but ultimately fails like other Boll movies. But here’s the funny thing – it’s not Boll’s fault.

Tom (Steve Bacic) and Gillian Grady (Lauren Holly) ditched their big city lives to raise live on a farm out in the country. The TV is filled with apocalyptic flair: riots, fires, strange weather, radiation leaks, power outages, etc. Over the night, a ferocious storm knocks out the family’s power. Their dog runs off into the night and a mysterious stranger collapses on their doorstep. Silas (Luke Perry) says his family used to live on the Grady farm, but he can’t remember much else. Tom is convinced (somehow) that Silas is no good, whereas Tom’s wife is happy to accept a guest that will agree to do housework. When the Grady clan, plus Silas, enters into town they find it deserted. People seemed to have vanished overnight, except for the violent gang roaming the town. Silas, a man of faith, is pretty confidant that God’s Rapture is upon mankind, but Tom goes back into town once more to seek answers about the world and about Silas’ family past.

For a while there, The Final Storm actually presents a pair of intriguing mysteries that keep the mind occupied: 1) Who is Silas, and 2) What has happened to the outside world? The world has pretty much disappeared; neighbors are gone, the police station has half-drunk cups of coffee and half-eaten donuts. Tom keeps trying to find a rational explanation for what is happening, arguing that the empty town was evacuated as a precaution. But a precaution against what exactly? Something major is underway or has already taken place. Ever since the heavy storm, there have been no birds singing or circkets chirping, no real noises of any kind. Silas is pretty confidant that it’s the end of the world and says that all they have to do is “stack up the chairs and turn out the lights.” Boll places us in the family’s camp; we only know as much as the beleaguered family trying to make sense out of the unexplainable. Canadian screenwriter Tim McGregor (Bitten) is telling a worldly event from a small perspective, trying to personalize the apocalypse. There are no big special effects sequences a la 2012 where the earth swallows cities whole. There is only uncertainty and an overall dread that something is coming but must be waited for. It’s an unsettling thought and played out with enough Twilight Zone –level ambiguity to keep the audience guessing and sticking around for answers.

A general complaint is that nobody seems to react about, you know, the End of Days. Animals and people disappeared over night. Certain townspeople are left behind. Why? Why were others taken and others not? How exactly does that one get explained (in the Left Behind movies, they comically tried to explain the Rapture as “radiation”)? The only one who shows any sign of concern is Gillian, probably because she’s slotted into the thriller female role and thus needs to express concern and eventually need saving. Tom is too preoccupied with his paranoia over Silas, and Silas is supposed to be mysterious so he reacts like he always knew the apocalypse was right around the corner. Even Graham (Cole Heppell), the Grady’s son, seems to be more concerned with his missing dog than the end of all existence. If only everybody was this blasé about the End of Days.

But then there’s that other mystery. Silas shows up at the Grady family home the night of the intense thunderstorm. He says he can’t recall how he got there, per se, and his body is covered in Biblical tattoos. Silas also appears to have some sort of insight into what’s happening in the world. He even tells Graham that his dog, which ran away during the storm, is dead. He’s so certain and preoccupied with making a nice grave marker for the dog that I almost started guessing that Silas was the dead dog incarnate. Seriously, the movie really tries hard to present the illusion that Silas has some sort of ephemeral connection to what is happening, some sort of understanding that goes beyond knowledge of Scripture.

And then the last 20 minutes of the movie reveal that Silas is … (spoiler alert) just some dude who killed his dad and escaped from prison. The Grady home is Silas’ old family home. So the guy who Tom kept saying was dangerous, who showed no real signs of being unbalanced or anything other than courtly and helpful, is revealed to be your standard killer on the loose. This is where The Final Storm utterly falls apart. These characters should be reacting with more alarm about the end of the world. Perhaps McGregor was trying to illustrate how extreme situations affect us, and how jealousy and paranoia can take hold as a means of comfort and survival. But I don’t buy that. First off, it rewards Tom for his unchecked paranoia that had no basis in reality. Silas fixes the roof, helps fend off attackers in town, and chops wood, but it all just makes Tom angry. The last 20 minutes is Silas fully embracing his villainy, the stuff that didn’t show any previous signs of existing. Silas is one big red herring and the movie shifts gears so quickly and absurdly to fit in “super able killer terrorizes family clan” mode. Silas gets frisky with Gillian, asking her to bring in hot water for his bath while he’s in the tub (it’s like an Amish Body Heat). Then he goes full crazy and tries to hang Tom in a tree. Eventually, Silas is set on fire and stabbed with a pitchfork. Then the family stares into the sky and watches as stars get blotted out and the universe collapses. Where is the connection to the apocalypse? The two storylines don’t seem to mix when there is no greater connection. It feels like an ordinary “dangerous drifter” story weirdly set against the backdrop of the apocalypse. Why connect these stories if there is no relevancy, McGregor? It seems like an awfully big waste of time.

Luke Perry (TV’s first Beverly Hills 90210) and Lauren Holly (Dumb and Dumber) don’t seem too shocking to star in a Boll movie when you remind yourself that this isn’t 1996 and neither star has exactly been in high demand since their zeniths. That’s the Boll casting way: catch a falling star. Perry is actually pretty good. He has this serene nature to him that regrettably makes him seem knowledgeable, until you realize that his secret he’s hiding is mundane. He has a slight creepiness brought out through his serenity, but then he gives in fully to malice when his character indulges the dark side. Holly’s character is mostly the worried mother figure, the concerned type who widens her eyes and dribbles her lips to denote said worry. There’s little else to her character, though McGregor tries to come up with some weak back-story. Holly goes in and out of a Southern accent but is generally decent at being wary. What is perhaps the most perplexing is that Holly agrees to get naked for a Uwe Boll movie. Anyway, it’s a point of excitement for any NCIS fans out there that can still feel something below the waist.

As for Boll, this is one movie that I can honestly say is not his fault. His direction doesn’t exactly elevate the material but at the same time he doesn’t get in the way of the mysteries. I was genuinely interested in discovering what has happened. I figured a religious explanation was going to be the climax, especially after we witness a blood-red moon. But it’s not Boll’s fault that the movie collapses at the end when it feels the need to endanger the family by cribbing from slasher movie rules. Boll’s direction is fairly invisible, though a few shots seem to go on much longer than necessary. The entire production feels like a TV-movie just with a few more naughty words. I feel like Boll is getting a better command of how to direct actors because Holly, Perry, and Bacic (TV’s Big Love), who actually is the best actor of the bunch, all give decent if underwhelming performances. But it wouldn’t be a Boll movie without some form of imitation. I think McGregor and Boll were trying to create their own version of Cormac McCarthy’s widely revered, The Road. There’s an unidentifiable apocalypse, a father and son, roaming bands of desperate gangs, and the general unease of futility creeping up. Too bad that Boll’s movie

The Final Storm isn’t necessarily a good movie by most standards but by Boll’s standards it rises to the top of the junk heap. The supernatural apocalyptic mystery is clearly the most interesting aspect, far more interesting than Silas becoming your standard movie maniac terrorizing a family. Has he no consideration? It’s the end of the world, man. Leave land squabbles for the day after the apocalypse. This unrelated side story pretty much derails the movie during the last act, jettisoning the apocalypse for lousy thriller fare. Boll’s direction lets the story play out to its potential and we feel the pull of the mystery, the longing for discovery and answers, and then the answers end up being far less than satisfying. The Final Storm is probably a little too slow for its own good, which furthers my hypothesis that McGregor had half a story about a crazy drifter and thought, “Well, I can’t finish this. I’ll throw together some end of the world stuff and call it a day.” Boll seems to be advancing as a director; the last few movies have become more capable. This is the first of his thirteen movies (and counting) that I’ve reviewed that I can say, without a hint of seething irony, that this movie sucks and it’s not Boll’s fault. Of course, you’re still left with a movie that sucks.

Nate’s Grade: C

Rampage (2009)

When I heard that Uwe Boll was writing and directing a movie called Rampage, my thoughts immediately went to the 1980s arcade game of the same name. In the game you played as one of various classic movie monsters, like King Kong or Godzilla, and the mission was to obliterate a city building by building and avoid the military forces trying to take you down (edit: later turned into a 2018 movie starring The Rock). At first I thought there was no way that Boll could raise a budget big enough for a giant monster movie, then I paid closer attention to Boll’s Rampage and discovered it only had one cost-effective monster — man. Boll’s film revolves around a single man massacring a small town. Most surprising of all, Rampage is actually earning Boll a full slate of positive reviews. Critics have mostly taken a shine to this violent shoot-em-up, going so far as to all it Boll’s best film to date. I suppose Boll’s recent upgrade in ability he showcased with Stoic and The Final Storm raised my expectations that the prospect of a “good Uwe Boll movie” is actually a concept not just in the theoretical realms any longer. It could happen. I can honestly say that Rampage is not it.

Bill Williamson (Brendan Fletcher) is just a regular dude living at home with his parents and bouncing from dead-end job to dead-end job. That’s all about to change. Bill seems to have taken a cue from his friend Evan (Shaun Sipos), who has advocated radical measures be taken to make the world a better place. Bill has been building a bundle of arms and body armor for one mission — to kill as many people as possible in a day.

I think the movie’s main weakness is that it’s too insular. We can never free ourselves from Bill Williamson’s head (really, Boll? William Williamson? Are you even trying?). I understand that Boll tries to drop us into the psychosis of a seemingly ordinary 23-year-old burnout that snaps. To that end, Boll effectively fills the background with an mélange of chatter; short news radio bursts are strung together noting the ails of the global ails of the world. It feels like an actual peak into the anxiety-riddled skull of the main character. But this guy just isn’t that interesting. We’re never given any real insight into his thought process because Boll holds back whatever Bill really thinks until the very end, which means for the majority of the movie we’re just watching a nut in body armor. A far majority of the movie is tagging along on Bill’s killing spree, watching person after person gunned down. Is this entertainment and for whom?

Boll assembles a better thesis about what makes people grab guns and lash out than he did in 2003’s school shooter rumpus, Heart of America, which also starred Fletcher as a chief bully. But that doesn’t mean that the pieces fit together any better. Bill’s rationale is that the world is overpopulated and could use a good pruning. So everybody goes. This is a pretty weak justification, especially when you consider that he’s slaughtering the denizens of a SMALL TOWN who has plenty of room for growth. Will purposely goes out of his way to gun down the servers who irritated him the day before, thus he seeks vengeance not ideological purity. Boll at least switches spree motivations late into something a tad more consumerist, but by then it’s too late. We need outside perspectives for this story to become more than a horror highlight reel of death. This movie could have worked from a Falling Down-esque narrative divided between the man on the rampage and the man in hot pursuit. That dynamic would provide for more thrills as well as a natural good guy and bad guy designation. But Boll doesn’t want any such designation. He wants us to be uncomfortable from beginning to end, to empathize with Bill early on and become horrified about what this says about all of us. A radio broadcaster says, without a hint of irony: “I don’t know how this could happen here or anywhere?” You’re uncomfortable but not because of what Bill is doing. You never empathize with the guy because he’s a loser and pretty hotheaded. It’s because the movie is bereft of commentary that makes it uncomfortable because then the violence becomes celebratory.

Rampage is set in a small town for some sort of ham-handed message about the unpredictability of violence, but could something of this magnitude truly go down in today’s technologically saturated world (for extra sledgehammer irony, the town is called Tenderville)? I will even give some leeway that a small town has a limited number of police officers and Bill blows up the police station as his first goal, but then where are all the neighboring cops? When we live in a world where everybody owns a cell phone, and every cell phone owner is an amateur journalist, it’s somewhat preposterous that news of this magnitude would remain so isolated for so long. As soon as a crazy guy walked down the center of town and murdering everybody, you better believe that CNN would have some cell phone video up in a manner of minutes. Surely the barrage of 911 calls would have informed emergency technicians that the police station was bombed and the killer is still on the loose. Where are the neighboring communities’ police officers? Where are the helicopters? In the age of information, nobody seems able to communicate anything. And why do people have trouble locking and barricading their doors? As Bill goes window-shopping for victims all the store doors remain unlocked, allowing him easy access to blow away customers. If Rampage was set in a violence-torn area that had become eerily accustomed to the sound of gunfire then perhaps people’s initial indifference to gunfire could be explained. But remember, this is a small town for maximum intentional dramatic impact. They should be extremely responsive to the sound of continual gunfire. And these people should be packing too.

The scheme of Bill’s coalesces in the last ten minutes of the movie, attempting to offer clarity and advance the material. Beware gentle reader, spoilers will follow, but you’ve already come this far. In the end, Bill has planned his killing spree with the intent of framing his only friend, Evan. Bill has made sure all his mail-order purchases were delivered to Evan’s home, Evan is the one with the long YouTube rants about overpopulation and people standing up to make change, and Evan’s father is a former radical from the 1960s who justified violence in the name of good causes. Of course we only learn that last bit in the film’s closing seconds because why would something like that be relevant to know beforehand, right? Bill meets his buddy in the woods for their scheduled paintball date, tazes the bastard, then stuffs a gun in Evan’s hand and has him pull the trigger to fulfill his role as patsy. The cops will think Evan has killed himself after being pursued into the woods. This is why Bill had to come back and brutally gun down an entire salon of women because he took his mask off and exposed his real face. Bill then disappears with the money.

As you expect, there are more holes to this plot than Swiss cheese. First off, there’s a noticeable height difference between Evan and Bill (Fletcher is only 5’4″ tall). Take into account different boot sizes, massive amounts of security camera footage, the registration for the cars that Bill turned into suicide bombs, the fact that the stolen bank money would now be marked, an autopsy report that would discover the stun gun wound and the awkward position for the self-inflicted gunshot wound, and the eye witnesses that must have seen Bill roaming around his neighborhood head-to-toe in his armor, never mind the fact that a massacre of this size practically guarantees the FBI’s involvement, and you’ve got so many areas for this master plan to unravel. That’s probably why Rampage ends with a post-script informing us Bill took off and has yet to be caught because somehow he’s a criminal genius.

This is Fletcher’s (Freddy vs. Jason, HBO’s The Pacific) movie and he pretty much hides behind his character’s literal and figurative mask. It’s not too hard to glower and walk with purpose, which is what Bill does for most of the movie. He doesn’t come across as overtly threatening, which is probably the point, but nor does Fletcher ever show insight into Bill’s dark recesses. He just seems like an irritable child with guns who wants to settle some scores from a bruised ego. Fletcher has acting ability but his assimilation into the Boll Players should worry anybody who wants to see that ability again (four Boll films and counting). Curiously, Katherine Isabelle, the star of the clever teen-girl-werewolf Canadian horror series Ginger Snaps, has a near cameo appearance as one of the salon workers who gets murdered. Having an actress like her play such a small character with brief screen time seems bizarre. Maybe Fletcher, as the film’s co-producer, called in a favor from his Freddy vs. Jason co-star.

Boll’s direction pretty much gets swallowed whole by the void of his main character. Every decision seems made to suit some kind of allegorical message that never seems to materialize. The camerawork is self-consciously shaky; there’s no reason a simple family conversation over the breakfast table should look like a 9.8 earthquake is going on simultaneously. The film also has the annoying habit of jumping forwards and backwards in time for split-second edits. I couldn’t tell if these flash edits were mere foreshadowing peaks at what was to come, trying to sate a bloodthirsty audience getting antsy, or if they were small fantasies playing out inside Bill’s head, showing his violent tendencies and delicate hold on reality. Well, they were just previews for the main attraction, which makes their use hard to fathom. If Boll wanted an audience to be shocked by what was to come, why give them previews? The film would have worked better without the non-linear quirks. Boll makes sure his camera is never far away from Bill, and during stretches the camera is pinned on Bill’s face as he huffs and puffs and kills people off screen. It’s Boll’s one somewhat interesting moment of artistic restraint. Boll is improving as an action director in certain regards. Rampage has some nice stunt work and some pretty well executed explosions.

Don’t believe the steady stream of good press for Rampage. I never thought I’d have an opportunity to write these words … but Rampage does not live up to the hype. It is not Boll’s first successful movie; I’d argue that his Vietnam movie Tunnel Rats came much closer to being a good and entertaining movie. Rampage is a rather empty vehicle to watch innocents get massacred. It lacks subtext and commentary, so the violence becomes gratuitous and meaningless, which is much more uncomfortable than anything Boll intends with his narrative. Obviously, Boll has modeled his story after recent incidents like the Virginia Tech gunman in 2007. Sadly, there is no shortage of crazed gunman stories in the news to pick from. If Boll attempted to squeeze some subtext into the various proceedings, satirizing the sensationalistic media turning people into fragile, potentially-lethal time bombs, or perhaps even the allure of fame through whatever costs, even the most infamous, then maybe watching countless people get shot would at least offer some meaning. I wasn’t expecting a Funny Games dissection level of violence and voyeurism and the participation of the viewer, but I expected more than watching a dude in a suit of armor kill fleeing civilians for an hour. If that’s your idea of entertainment than perhaps you should go play a video game that rewards such behavior. Don’t worry; it’s only a matter of time before Boll transforms that into a movie next.

Nate’s Grade: C-

This Is It (2009)

More like a DVD behind-the-scenes feature that never materialized, This Is It is a documentary following Michel Jackson’s rehearsal for his comeback concerts that never were to be. The entire film feels more like a memorial service than an actual movie. It feels like a supplement. In between teary interviews where performers express how Jackson inspired others, we do experience some key moments where Jackson reminds us about his brilliance as a performer. The man is relentlessly dedicated to perfecting his vision, and he isn’t afraid to push others. But overall, This Is It is mostly a boring enterprise that ultimately alternates between feeling like a reverent memorial and a crass cash-grab. Unless you’re a Jackson fanatic, there really is no reason to watch this film. It provides no insights into Jackson’s final days, his state of mind, or even the events that lead to his death. I was morbidly searching for any little clues but the movie seems to skip over anything that doesn’t portray the King of Pop as a saint. There will be many documentaries and TV specials in the future that examine the life and impact of Jackson, as well as his bizarre and damages personality, but this isn’t it.

Nate’s Grade: C

The Princess and the Frog (2009)

It’s taken this long to get an African-American leading lady/princess in a Disney animated film, and she gets to spend the majority of the flick as a slimy frog? This return to traditional 2-D animation for Disney is less than a triumph due to a pretty dull storyline. All the familiar elements are there, but the characters just fill voids rather than tell a story. There’s the downtrodden heroine with her dream, the arrogant prince who learns to value others, the comical talking animal sidekicks, and get ready for a slew of songs you will instantly forget despite the added gumbo flavor. Set in 1920s New Orleans, the film has plenty of ravishing visuals to get you through the formulaic plot. It’s a nice return to Disney’s bread and butter before the 3-D animation craze took off, and I pray that there will be plenty more traditional 2-D animation on the horizon from the Mouse House, but this isn’t the best film to reestablish the glory of traditional animation, racial politics aside.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Stoic (2009)

Until recently, it would have been unthinkable to associate Uwe Boll with the idea of social activist. This is the same man who has caused people so much pain and with his movies, ranging from bad to ridiculously bad to “You cannot unsee what you have seen” bad. The German director who has caused so many film and video game fans suffering seemed an unlikely candidate to seriously explore the suffering of others. And yet Boll’s heart grew three sizes and he directed a slate of movies with a social conscience. His movie about the genocide in Darfur is still circling around, awaiting a release date, but let me stop to remind you that Uwe Freaking Boll directed a movie about a topical humanitarian crisis. This is akin to… Eli Roth directing an Edith Wharton adaptation (“From the director of Cabin Fever comes … Ethan Frome!”). It just doesn’t seem like an organic pairing. Boll is used to blood and boobs (both of the mammary kind and of the idiot variety), not social relevancy. You don’t expect an exploitation filmmaker to shine a light on exploitation. While we await his Darfur movie, in the meantime is Stoic, a quick and cheap movie about three prison inmates (Edward Furlong, Sam Levinson, Steffen Mennekes) brutalizing their cellmate, Mitch (Shaun Sipos) when a bet goes wrong. It’s based on a true story from a German juvenile detention center, or so we’re told.

So what kind of movie is Stoic, actually? Well, for starters it’s an uncomfortable one. The movie aims to show the capability of human cruelty and how easy it is to become compliant within a group, to go along with the flow despite some murky moral hazards. The three cellmates end up kick starting a cycle of violence, each trying to top the last so as not to appear weak or to damage ego. Can this cycle of cruelty be stopped? The dehumanization leads to some rather brutal and disgusting acts of violence and degradation including forcing Mitch to eat his own vomit, dumping urine on the guy’s face, raping him, and sodomizing him with a broom handle (“Just curiosity, I guess,” explains one of his attackers). Despite all this, there are actual moments of restraint on Boll’s part, particularly during the rape sequence. The audio drops out, the edits become jump cuts stuttering ahead through time, and I thought perhaps Boll was maturing. Needless to say this thought was torpedoed a tad when Boll later showcased the inmates rubbing the bloody broom handle over Mitch’s unconscious mouth. Stoic is essentially a torture movie; it’s 80 minutes of literal torture with some extra psychological justification tagged along for safe measure.

Where Stoic comes into issue is whether or not it possesses any merits to justify watching 80-some minutes or torture. The movie doesn’t offer much in the way of psychological insights or rich characters. Watching people become increasingly hurtful is not the same as exploring the habits that make such escalating acts of barbarity occur. Boll and the actors pound us with the message that we’re in prison and prison has its own operating system and everybody jockeys for position; Peter (Levinson) repeatedly tells us that he feels sorry but felt he had to participate or else they’d turn on him. It’s all about having somebody weaker to take the fall. I’ll give Boll credit that the amplification of events seems plausible given the circumstances, to the point that the three guys have come to the conclusion that there will be serious consequences for their actions unless they convince Mitch to go along with a fake suicide. The movie maintains believability even as things get more and more out of hand, which is commendable. But what isn’t commendable is that there seems little reason for Stoic to exist. Narratively the movie is simple: three guys pick on another guy. The characters are all slight variations of one another based upon the level to process guilt and deception. During the interviews, we’re given fleeting glimpses at denial and coping mechanisms, mainly lying (“I would’ve remembered something like that.”) to self-rationalization (“I kept saying to myself, ‘As long as it’s not me.’”). There aren’t many insights to be gleaned from the brief interviews, which serve as commentary.

Boll decided to make Stoic his Mike Leigh film, meaning that he had the basic outline of a story and told his actors to run with it while he filmed them. There was no script and all the dialogue was completely improvised. This does allow Stoic to maintain a naturalistic feel, however, it also means that the actors are beholden to tough guy clichés. The dialogue, particularly during the interrogation scenes, keeps falling back to a “you don’t know what’s it’s like, man!” mantra. Here are some examples of bland dialogue that the actors came up with:

“What choice did I have?”

“You’re either with them or against them.”

“What don’t you understand? If I didn’t seem like I was apart of it, they’d kill me.”

“I had no choice. They forced me.”

“I want to lie because I don’t want to be that person.”

“I felt like there was no way out.”

And because you knew it had to happen:

“I’m just as bad as the two of them because I didn’t do anything to stop it.”

You’ll note that most of these dialogue examples belong to the Peter, the chattiest and most remorseful interviewee. Improvisation has its virtues but it can also lead to actors falling back on stuff they’ve seen in countless other genre examples, which means that the banal, cliché dialogue all gets stirred together one more time.

In defense of Stoic, it may prove to be Boll’s finest directorial effort yet. The handheld camera, sharp edits, and close angles copy the Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Ultimatum, United 93) style of visuals, and yet the docu-drama copy works. The visual aesthetic improves the quality of the film and allows Boll many opportunities for interesting compositions and smart stylistic decisions with the economical space of the set. The interviews are shot as one static camera shot to contrast with the shaky, reactionary movement from within the cell. It may not be an original style, but then again Boll seems to adopt (some might say rip-off) a new style with every film. For Stoic, Boll’s direction makes you feel in the middle of these awful incidents, and the pain feels even more real.

But is there any reason to really watch Stoic? The acting is mostly good, and maybe fans of Edward Furlong would like to see what he’s been up to since 1998’s Pecker and American History X. Perhaps the declaration of “Boll’s best directorial effort” will appeal to maybe six or seven curious, and questionably masochistic, film fans. Due to Boll’s German background, I can’t help but wonder if his country’s history influenced him to try a narrative experiment hat explores how easy it is to go along with something awful, how difficult it is to make a moral stand against the grain, and how easily circumstances can find momentum and get out of control. I wonder if Stoic is Boll’s personal act of penance, of trying to understand a nation’s actions (and inaction) and working through a lingering shroud of shame. Then again, I may be reading way more into this movie than was ever intended. It could have just been a lark for a quick buck/deutschmark. Stoic is a mildly interesting little filmic experiment from Boll. Due to its narrative simplicity and limited characterization, it can’t offer much more than another voyeuristic slideshow of human degradation.

Nate’s Grade: C

Precious (2009)

I can’t tell whether or not I liked this movie or if it simply beat me into submission. The heavy-handed tale of extreme suffering comes across like watching somebody get beaten for two hours. WAM! Your father rapes you. WAM! Your mother doesn’t intervene, in fact, she molests you too. WAM! You’re pregnant with your second kid from dear old dad. WAM! You have AIDS. The material is so unrelentingly dark that the constrained happy ending leaves you with feeling wholly naïve. Precious (Oscar-nominee Gabourey Sidibe) goes from having a hellish existence to having a 10% less hellish existence. It’s hard to find any light of hope within. Thank God that the movie is so well-acted all around, from Mo’Nique’s ferocious Oscar-winning turn as Precious’ monstrous mother, to Sidibe’s heart-wrenching portrayal of an abused and ignored soul, to even a makeup-free Mariah Carrey as a no-nonsense social worker (lack of makeup being the universal sign an actress wants to be taken seriously). Director Lee Daniels lays out the melodrama with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. You feel beaten down by the conclusion. I can’t decide if the fantasy sequences Precious flashes to as a coping mechanism are insightful or just embarrassing. I found Precious’ stoicism worth rooting for, but the movie seems to stop short of finding a way to make me care about her as a character rather than a victim. Her role is mostly impassive but she manages to find her character’s dignity, which is what the film asks us to ultimately fight for. By the end, I felt like I was watching an urban equivalent of A Serious Man, only it wasn’t intended for me to laugh at the misery.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Nine (2009)

Filled with beautiful stars, beautiful Italian scenery, and beautiful cinematography, Nine has some significant sure-fire flash, but it’s missing the dazzle (or is it razzle?). The movie based on the 1980s Broadway musical based upon the Fellini movie, 8 1/2, is a pretty hollow enterprise. It’s all about writer’s block, and unless you’re the Coen brothers this is not a very interesting conflict to watch on screen. Daniel Day-Lewis plays Guido, a famous Italian director feeling overwhelmed by the impending start of his ninth movie, a movie he hasn’t written a script for yet. He tries to find inspiration from his wife (Marion Cotillard), his mistress (Penelope Cruz), his muse/lead actress (Nicole Kidman), his dead mother (Sophia Loren), a magazine journalist (Kate Hudson), and just about anybody else. The film is structured much like director Rob Marshall’s Oscar-winning musical Chicago, where the song-and-dance numbers are little mental asides inside the characters’ minds. So most actresses get one big number and then it’s arevaderche. Day-Lewis is good but his character is hard to emphasize with, especially as he bounces from woman to woman, whining about the duress of creativity while anybody minus a Y chromosome (and who isn’t Judi Dench) throw themselves at the guy. Despite the lackluster story and characters, Nine still could have succeeded from its musical numbers. Too bad then that the songs are instantly forgettable. Seriously, if you put a gun to my head mere minutes after I heard these tunes I wouldn’t be able to hum a bar. The dancing is lively, and Cruz and Cotillard prove to be infinitely and tantalizingly flexible, but the songs are truly unimpressive. I never would have guessed that in a movie filled with so many Oscar-winners that Fergie would be the highpoint. She plays a lustful figure of Day-Lewis’ youth, and her number exudes a vivacious sensuality. The playful choreography incorporates sand on the stage, which makes for several great images and dance moves. The song is also by far the catchiest, “Be Italian,” and the only thing worth remembering. The trouble for Nine is that there’s another hour left after this peak. I’m astounded that people thought, at one time, that Nine was going to be a serious awards contender. This has the “parts” of an awards movie but no vision or verve to assemble them.

Nate’s Grade: C

Surrogates (2009)

Surrogates feels either like an early first draft or maybe one half of a discarded final draft; this half-baked, shrift movie is not complete by any means. It’s too streamlined following the most obvious plot beats imaginable and adding nothing new to the sci-fi genre. In the future, people don’t go out, they just sit back and experience the world through the eyes of their surrogate robotic person. This plot device is ripe for social commentary but instead it just becomes the starting point for a snoozy detective story destined to climax in “My God, what have we done?” territory. There is too many interesting avenues the story could have gone but it doggedly sticks to the well-tread main road of sci-fi: technology will turn against us. The movie comes across like one long allegorical jab against people devoted to technology, namely the Internet, and the end might as well carry big flashing letters that spell, “Got outside and play, you nerds!” The action and special effects are listless, and director Jonathon Mostow (Terminator 3) waited so long to make this movie but you never feel his interest in a single frame. I suppose, in the end, there is no surrogate for good writing.

Nate’s Grade: C

The Men Who Stare at Goats (2009)

This movie was a big letdown given the cast, the strange true origins of this fantastic tale, and even with the title. This odd little film feels tonally off. The material feels mishandled, mixing broad humor and with military satire and the dark realities of the war in Iraq. The premise is solid — a Pentagon program training psychic soldiers, men convinced they could run through walls or terminate goats through the power of thought. Why then does the movie feel so misguided and rudderless and, ultimately, boring? Never has such an outlandish concept, based on true events, felt so devoid of edge. The satire picks safe targets and the comedy remains farcically broad. I think the film’s downfall can ultimately be traced to the decision to turn this material into a fictional narrative. I would have preferred an actual documentary detailing the men, women, and goats involved in the real Pentagon program. If truth can be stranger than fiction, why dress it up and then dull it through fiction?

Nate’s Grade: C

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