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The House That Jack Built (2018)

I believe I’m ready to cast Lars von Trier in the same dustbin I’ve consigned Terrence Malick and Michael Heneke. I think I’m done with him and his films. The man has obvious talent but is often his own worst enemy, given to self-destructive impulses and excessive cruelty meant to be daring and challenging but is mostly perfunctory. The House That Jack Built is distasteful by design but also heavy-handed, obvious, and vacuous to a fault.

Jack (Matt Dillon) narrates his life as an American serial killer in the 1970s and 80s. He’s traveling through the afterlife with the help of Verge (Bruno Ganz), a supernatural guide and easy listener. Jack divides his murderous exploits into a series of five key incidents: Lady 1 (Uma Thurman) being picked up looking for car help; Lady 2 (Siobhan Fallen Hogan) as a suspicious neighbor answering the door; Lady 3 (Sofie Grabol) as a mother with kids who is taken hunting and then literally hunted; Simple (Riley Keough), the one who tried to get away; and finally the last scenario where Jack tried to kill multiple men with a single “full metal jacket” bullet. Along the way, Jack talks about the frustrations of his boyhood and adulthood, living with OCD, and the implications of his life’s legacy.

It’s not that a serial killer film, whether it be a psychological examination or gnarly genre thrill ride, can be without artistic merit, but von Trier settles for empty provocations. He’s using the nature of the movie serial killer to essentially terrorize the audience and make them question what entertainment value they ever saw in these kinds of figures and stories, or von Trier’s films at that. I was expecting an unsettling experience given the nature of the subject and the reputation of the filmmaker, but what made the situation all the more oppressive and disquieting is how obvious and heavy-handed everything comes across. The central metaphor could not be any more transparent for any person familiar with von Trier’s back catalogue of punishing feature films. Jack views himself as an artist, specifically an architect, and his art is via terrorizing women for personal satisfaction. In case you needed it further spelled out, Jack is von Trier, a filmmaker who makes movie after movie featuring a central heroine being abused and exploited with no cosmic justice. A von Trier film experience is all about unchecked suffering and systemic abuse from the patriarchy. Sometimes this can be a condemnation that elicits strong emotional responses like a Dancer in the Dark, and other times it feels like von Trier wallowing in flip nihilism, like the conclusion of his two-part Nymphomaniac opus that undid the preceding four hours. Jack kills women for his art; von Trier tortures women for his art. There you go. With that central metaphor established, you’d expect the movie to become an introspective and excoriating probe into von Trier as a notorious filmmaker who often shocks and appalls. Oh how wrong you would be. The House That Jack Built is the same stale slog only with a slight meta twist.

For no better example of how heavy-handed the movie is, simply observe its unnecessary framing device where Verge/Virgil is literally leading Jack in the dark toward the subterranean bowels of Hell and the two are digressing the long walk. My friend and filmmaker Jason Tostevin said he was watching The House That Jack Built with a “scrunched-up face” for its majority until the last thirty minutes when he accepted it as a morose comedy, and then it started playing better for him. That might just make sense, considering von Trier’s overwrought pitch-black sense of humor and overall belief that life is a joke. I did laugh out loud once Jack and Verge are floating in bubbles. It also provides some, not much, context to scenes like Thurman’s, where she keeps needling Jack about what a bad serial killer he would be based on his decisions. It’s almost like von Trier is trying to say that Jack took the psycho killer plunge because a bossy woman kept annoying him and pushed him into it. The early sequence of Jack stumbling into being invited into a woman’s home has a clumsiness that almost invites a degree of wicked comedy, especially after Jack tries to treat the woman who seems incapable of dying. There’s also the absurd conclusion of the “house” Jack actually finally constructs. However, even as a supposed “comedy,” The House That Jack Built is an obnoxious experience that will make you feel worse by the end of its painfully lugubrious 150-minutes.

There was one kernel of an idea that could have worked, the nature of a serial killer with OCD. Those competing impulses would provide a level of new interest. During the second incident, Jack is compelled to go back to the crime scene again and again, risking being caught by a pesky neighbor or police officer, but he can’t help it. He’s obsessed that he didn’t check every last square inch and there’s an unseen blood droplet that will doom him. The concept isn’t new as Ray Bradbury had a short story “The Fruit at the Bottom of the Bowl” about a killer obsessed with eradicating every trace of his fingerprints. It puts the killer in a position of vulnerability that makes every killing more fraught. It’s almost like von Trier can suspect his audience enjoying this aspect of his story and so he must snuff it out. For whatever reason, Jack says he eventually just stopped caring. He just got over his crippling OCD tendencies through the power of criminal apathy. Jack is never in any danger of being caught because, and even Verge interjects on this, the people of this world are preposterously stupid. Nobody believes Jack is a potential murderer, and so this level of ignorance (and white male privilege) enables him to kill with impunity. By removing the possibility of any external threat, Jack becomes that much more boring. The only possible points of interest now become his disturbing murder tableaus. An extended sequence with Keough (Logan Lucky) made me feel queasy, especially when her character’s breasts end up getting severed and slapped onto an ignorant officer’s windshield. That moment felt like von Trier rubbing it in that a good-looking white man can get away with anything.

Even with its five-incident structure, plus celestial-spanning epilogue, the movie is all over the place. von Trier never met a Wikipedia article he didn’t like and want to awkwardly shoehorn into a longer narrative. Get ready for more seemingly unrelated academic asides meant to come across as philosophical pontification on the nature of art, evil, culpability, and whatever else sounded smart at the time. Jack compares his murder sprees to… medieval architecture. He then digresses about pianist Glen Gould, dessert wines and their decomposition process, the screaming WWII German airplane the Stuka, the theory of Ruin Value, the balance of light and shadow from two streetlamps, and you bet there are concentration camp anecdotes. At one point Jack and Verge are debating how one can best enjoy art and von Trier uses clips from his own movies as examples of “challenging art” in case you wondered whether or not he was going to be too hard on himself and his past. These quizzical asides often feel tacked on like academic footnotes, yet the film is stuffed full of them. It lurches from incident to incident and footnote to footnote, mostly because Jack is a rather boring lead character with a boring worldview and past. Then there’s the final epilogue that literally takes place in Hell. If you can make it past that, dear reader, you’ll be treated to a smash cut to the end credits set to, I kid you not, “Hit the Road Jack.” It’s a baffling, tonally discordant decision that only furthers the theory of Jack as a comedy.

I feel like I’ve endured enough von Trier films in my life at this point that I can walk away, content with the decision. It’s getting harder and harder for von Trier to tell a new story and his old tricks have grown tired, placing him into unintentional (or intentional?) self-parody. There isn’t enough introspection or insight or narrative complexities to justify this bloated and bedeviled look at one man’s many misdeeds. The characterization is slack and there are no significant supporting figures, only victims and stooges, and sometimes both at once in von Trier’s mocking reflection of our universe. I felt varying degrees of sympathy for every actor in this movie. They deserve better. Matt Dillon can play to the dark side well but he deserves more than to be a smiling cardboard cutout. Uma Thurman was one of the best actors in Nymphomaniac Part One. Doesn’t she deserve better than to get repeatedly smacked in the face with a broken car jack (get it, a “broken jack,” because the main guy’s name is… oh, you do get it?)? Riley Keough definitely deserves better than to have her breasts fondled for a solid minute onscreen and then used as a coin purse later. And the audience likewise deserves better than to spend 150 minutes watching misguided torment and misogyny disguised as introspection and social commentary. The House That Jack Built is rotten to its very foundations and another excuse in cheap sadism for the cheap seats.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Halloween (2018)

It’s been 40 years since the original Halloween changed the horror industry. That is no overstatement. The low-budget 1978 movie by John Carpenter was a box-office sensation and ushered in a decade-plus of bloody slasher cinema. It’s even been 20 years since Halloween: H20, which was a 20-years-later sequel bringing original scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis back into the mix. It’s now been another full H20 of time since that film, which makes me feel old, personally. Rob Zombie revived the franchise in 2007 with a back-story for methodical killing machine Michael Myers that nobody asked for (surprise: his family life was not great). Now an H40 later, director David Gordon Green and actor/writer Danny McBride have revived the franchise by going back to its roots, namely by ignoring all of the seven sequels and bringing back Curtis yet again. The new Halloween 2018 edition is a strange experience for fans. The first half feels like an elusive parody of the franchise, and then the second half drops comedic pretext and becomes much more serious and straightforward. As my pal Ben Bailey said, I can understand people hating this movie or loving it depending upon the half they focus on. This new Halloween ends on a high note but still could have been so much more.

In the decades since the original murders on Halloween, Laurie Strode (Curtis) is living a hermetic life. She’s never fully recovered from the events of her traumatic youth, and so has been preparing intensely for Michael’s eventual return. She rigorously trained her own daughter, Karen (Judy Greer), for self-defense to be a survivalist, locking her in the basement and training her with an array of firearms. Laurie thought she was drilling her daughter to be strong and a survivor, but the state had other interpretations, and so Karen was removed from her mother’s home and grew up resenting her oppressive, paranoid mom who took away her childhood. Karen has forbidden her own daughter, Allyson (Andi Matichak), from interacting with her crazy grandma, but both find ways. Michael Myers breaks loose from a prison transport and is heading back to Haddonfield with a mission to find and kill Laurie. They’re on a collision course H40 years in the making.

Let’s focus on that peculiar first half first. There were several points that made me shake my head and wonder if they were trying to be subtlety tongue-in-cheek or bad on purpose, and because of the pedigree behind the project, I had to give it the benefit of the doubt, but to what end? Why skewer horror tropes in a subtle way that could be construed as simply being bad instead? Why even do it for this franchise and then mostly drop it by the second half? There were several moments where I had to laugh and I wasn’t fully sure it was intended. This was my dilemma watching Halloween 2018 and I’m sure others will have a similar experience, scratching their heads and wondering why the movie is going the route that it is. Take for instance the horror trope of the bad babysitter. We have another situation where a nubile high school girl is going to invite her boyfriend over for some late-night action, nodding to the 1978 original film. Except the kid being babysat sees through everything and calls out his babysitter. He’s a street-smart kid who speaks with the voice of the knowing participant, like when he tells the boyfriend that he will die if he goes upstairs (spoiler alert: this kid is prophetic). There’s a string of kills that feel perfunctory, like the filmmakers have noticed that too much time has passed and have to satiate audience bloodlust to buy them another ten or so minutes of setup and characters. The kills themselves are lackluster. Even the gratuitous nudity is fleeting, confined to a quick flashback relating to young Michael Myers spying on his big sister (one of these days a slasher movie is going to be replete with wall-to-wall male nudity and no boobs just to mess with its target audience). There’s the trope of the ineffective police officer. After finding out Michael Myers is on the loose, an officer bluntly says, “What are we gonna do? Cancel Halloween?” The answer is, yes, you cancel the trick-or-treat activities for the town where this guy is clearly heading and you adequately warn the populace. You ask for assistance from anyone with a cell phone to broadcast the whereabouts of fugitive Michael Myers. The guy is pretty large and easy to spot, plus he’s not that traditionally fast. A citywide digital manhunt might have made for a more interesting movie premise with some genuine cultural commentary.

Or take for instance the stupid side characters meant to be fodder for the merciless kill count. The movie mysteriously gives these disposable characters little one-minute asides to present a glimpse of another story that we’re just not privy to. There’s the little kid who doesn’t want to go hunting and wants to be accepted by his father as a dancer. Okay, that’s a more interesting conflict than I thought, and then the dad immediately stops at the site of a bus crash with wandering chained inmates and says, “I’m gonna check this out, stay here.” It’s like Green and McBride gave us one page of characters from an indie drama and then had them smash back into idiotic plot devices making the most headache-inducing decisions. Another instance is a pair of cops debating over adult meals and bread. I appreciate the effort to try and flesh out the characters in a way that makes them feel more real, but then they have no larger bearing than being the next in a line of victims. There are other strange reminders that things just aren’t exact with the movie, at least for the first half. It’s this curiously overwrought, off sensation that keeps the audience from fully engaging, being told to possibly laugh with or at the movie.

I also think the film is fundamentally flawed in its approach, namely by elevating Laurie’s granddaughter as a co-lead. Allyson is too removed from the situation to give an interesting perspective, so she becomes any other teenage heroine we’ve seen in scores of slasher cinema likely meant to appeal to a teenage ticket-buying audience. The real conflict and the real story is the relationship between Laurie and her estranged adult daughter. There is so much drama there to unpack and the movie would be far better had the filmmakers eliminated the majority of the extraneous characters and focused on these two women and their decades-long acrimony. Get rid of Allyson’s boyfriend, who gets way too much screen time to simply be jettisoned without resolution (his lone purpose seems to be disposing of her cell phone). Get rid of his friend, a supposed “nice guy” with his own entitlement issues. Get rid of the babysitter friend and her dumb boyfriend. Get rid of the cops. Get rid of the Doctor Loomis prison doctor replacement, nicknamed the “new Loomis.” Get rid of them all, including Allyson. I would have preferred Allyson being murdered in the middle of the second act as a means of raising the stakes and forcing Laurie and Karen together again. This is very much a PTSD film about the long ramifications of trauma and how it affects multiple generations. I would have loved seeing that play out in the interplay between Laurie and the daughter that she pushed away in an attempt to save her life. There is so much palpable drama there that I’m genuinely shocked how little Karen figures in Halloween 2018. It’s such wasted dramatic potential as well as a better focal point for the movie.

It’s the second half, and in particular the third act, that saved the movie for me. The finale is everything fans would want, transforming into a surging siege thriller built around Laurie’s well-armed abode. It’s here where the movie becomes a multi-generational fight to the finish and the Strode women must team up to fight the man responsible for the long lingering trauma that has defined their lives in innumerable ways. It’s a climax that feels elevated by the pull of history, and it’s terrific and terrifically satisfying. Watching Laurie stalk the house in search of Michael Myers, going from room to room and locking them down, is the first actually nervous sequence in the film, benefiting from the investment we have in Laurie as an avenging figure. It’s during this sequence where Curtis (Freaky Friday) and Greer (Jurassic World) remind us what wonderful actors they can be. It made me wish for my more realized version of the two of them and their relationship even more. This is where Green (Stronger) also demonstrates his best sense of geography and escalation. Beforehand there are a few nifty tracking shots, paying homage to the opening of the original, but they’re self-contained, congratulatory moments. It’s the finale that made me realize what this movie should have been from its first frame. Lucky for Halloween 2018 it ends a high note (excluding the cliche post-credit revelation).

The newest Halloween movie has lit up the recent box-office charts and ensures this won’t be the last we see of Michael Myers and potentially old lady Laurie Strode. That’s kind of a shame because Green’s movie serves up a fitting finale for the series that could work as a capper for Laurie as a character and a survivor of trauma. But alas, the ringing of cash registers will be enough to extend the franchise and carry on more blood-letting adventures for the man in the William Shatner mask. Halloween 2018 starts off fairly rocky with a question concerning overall tone and intent. There’s humor that feels grafted on from other parallel reality versions of this story, somehow blurring together into a weird final product. The second half works much better than the first when it stops cracking wise and takes itself seriously enough to realize where the real drama lies, with Laurie facing down her demons and working together with the women of her family for maximum vengeance. Watching three generations of Strode women fighting together is a triumphant conclusion. It’s a shame that it won’t actually exist as a conclusion for that much longer.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Tragedy Girls (2017)

I wanted to enjoy Tragedy Girls. I really did. There’s a good starting point with a story about two self-involved teenagers who turn to murder to raise their social media profiles. I like the lead actresses, Alexandra Shipp and Deadpool’s Brianna Hildebrand, and the film has a quirky sense of style by co-writer/director Tyler MacIntyre. The opening is even great where Hildebrand purposely lures a lover to his sacrificial death in order to trap a familiar slasher film-styled villain. Where it all goes wrong is that Tragedy Girls doesn’t have enough substance or commentary to outweigh its arch nihilism. The message is very flimsy (millennials are shallow, social media is harmful) and the film wants you to revel in the girls’ violent, gory murders but also be repelled by them. It’s a sisterhood of slaying. There are some interesting story ideas that don’t feel better attended. The girls are clumsy at their murders and luck into some absurd Final Destination-worthy kills, but the film doesn’t embrace this concept and makes them untouchable. They kidnap a local serial killer in the opening and demand he train them, but the guy refuses and is shoved to the side for almost the entire movie, stranding another interesting possibility. The high school characters are thinly designed and unworthy of their demises, though that’s also the point. Tragedy Girls doesn’t earn its candy-colored nihilism. It ultimately left a bad taste in my mouth and I found it off-putting and empty. It thumbs its nose with prickly devil-may-care attitude but without anything to really say.

Nate’s Grade: C-

The Snowman (2017)

The Snowman is an awfully dumb movie that mistakenly believes it is smart. It’s convoluted, impenetrable, serious to the point of hilarity, and a general waste of everyone’s times and talents. When the best part of your movie is the scenic views of Norway, and unless it’s a documentary about Norwegian winters, then you have done something very, very wrong. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo this ain’t.

Harry Hole (Michael Fassbender), possibly the most regrettably named protagonist in recent memory, is a brilliant detective on the hunt for a killer in Oslo. Someone is abducting women and chopping them up into snowmen. The killer even sends Harry a taunting note with a crude drawing of a snowman. Together with a new partner, Katrine Bratt (Rebecca Ferguson), they try and hunt the cold-blooded killer with a penchant for snowmen.

the-snowThe plot is so convoluted and hard to follow that it’s a challenge just to work up the energy to keep your eyes open as scene after scene plods along. The Snowman doesn’t so much exist as a functional screen story but more a series of incidental scenes that barely feel connected. It feels like one scene has no impact upon the next, which eventually sabotages any sense of momentum and direction. It feels like it’s going nowhere because none of these moments feel like they’re adding up to anything. There are entire subplots and characters that are, at best, tangential to the story and could have been culled completely with no impact. J.K. Simmons’ wealthy sleaze and storyline about securing the World Cup for Oslo comes to nothing. The self-recording police device seems destined to record something significant. It does, but then the killer just erases the footage. This entire storyline could have been achieved with a smart phone, including the part where a severed finger is required to break the device’s fingerprint lock. Val Kilmer’s flashbacks (he sounds weirdly dubbed and looks sickly) as a murdered detective don’t really come to anything or offer revelations. In fact the revelations that do arise are not gleaned from clues but are merely told to us with incredulous haste. The Snowman poster boasts “I gave you all the clues” but I challenge anyone to tell me what they are. What’s the point of a mystery where nothing matters? It’s a film stuffed with nonessential details and lacking a key point to engage.

I’ll give you another example of how moronic and wasteful this movie is, and it involves none other than Oscar-nominated actress Chloe Sevigny (Boys Don’t Cry). Harry Hole and Katrine visit Sevigny’s character and (mild spoilers but who really cares?) approximately two minutes later she is decapitated. Seems like a pretty big waste of an actor of Sevigny’s caliber on a do-nothing part. The police show back up on the scene and Sevigny is still walking around alive, this time introducing herself as the twin sister we never knew about. Ah, now perhaps the inclusion of Sevigny will be warranted and maybe the killer having confused his victims will be a significant clue that leads the detectives onto the right path. Think again, hopeful audience members. Sevigny is never seen from again, never heard from again, and never even referenced again. Why introduce the concept of an identical twin and do nothing with it? Sevigny had not one but two do-nothing parts in this mess.

Even the ending (again spoilers, but we’ve come this far, so why the hell not?) elicited guffaws. Harry Hole tracks down the killer outside onto an icy lake and screams for this person to confront him. The killer then immediately shoots Harry in the chest, immobilizing him. The killer then slowly stalks Harry and then simply walks into an open hole in the ice and drowns. Was that there the entire time? Did Harry somehow create it? Did he find it and strategically position himself near it? Did the killer not see this hole in the ice at all considering they were walking up on Harry from a distance? It’s such a hilariously anticlimactic ending that it feels like the killer, and so too the movie, is meekly giving up and accepting defeat.

The main character is just as uninteresting as the gruesome killer. Harry Hole is reportedly a brilliant detective and one whose past cases are so revered that they are taught in places of higher learning. Yet, at no point in the movie do you gain the impression of his oft-stated brilliance. He seems pretty bad at his job, plus he constantly loses track of his gun. It’s another example of the movie telling us things without the requisite proof. Harry Hole (referred to as “Mr. Hole” and “the Great Harry Hole” too) is your typical super driven alcoholic detective who pushes his family away because he’s too close to his work. There is the germ of a starting idea of a character that is too selfish to make room for his family, but this isn’t going to be that story. At one point, Harry Hole’s ex-girlfriend (Charlotte Gainsbourg) seems to be having a self-destructive affair with Harry Hole, but this dynamic isn’t explored and only surfaces once. It’s a scene so short that it’s over before Harry Hole can literally get his pants off. We don’t see the brilliant side of the character and we’re also denied the evidence for his destructive side. Fassbender (Assassin’s Creed) is on teeth-gritting, laconic autopilot here and the English-speaking cast tries their own game of playing Norwegian accents while sounding mostly British or Brit-adjacent.

Even the title is one more example of how woefully inept this movie becomes. Surprise: the snowman means absolutely nothing. It’s not some key formative memory from the killer’s childhood or some integral icon attached to a traumatic experience. It’s not even a bizarre sexual fetish. The snowman doesn’t even mean anything to the guy making the snowman in the movie! You’d be forgiven for thinking that the presence of snowmen are entirely coincidental throughout Oslo and the whole of the film. It’s so stupidly misapplied as well, with the movie working extra hard to make the very sight of a snowman as a moment to inspire uncontrollable fright. It goes to hilarious lengths, like a camera panning around an ordinary snowman that then reveals… a second snowman built into its snowy back. OH NO, NOT THE DOUBLE SNOWMAN. There’s a moment when Harry looks down to his car parked on a street and sees… a snowman having been carved into the snow atop the car. OH NO, NOT A SNOWMAN INDENTATION. Just imagine the killer standing on the hood of the car and digging snow out on top to craft his masterpiece of snow-art-terror. I just start laughing. Then there’s the application of the murders. When the killer is severing heads and putting human heads atop snowman bodies, now we’re in business. That’s an image worthy of the genre. However, there’s also a scene where the killer blows someone’s head off and replaces it with a snowman’s head. It’s such an absurd image and it’s going to melt before most people find it, so what was the point exactly? Then there’s the idea of thinking of the killer rolling a severed head into a snowball, which just makes me laugh thinking about somebody stooped over and toiling to make this happen. Ultimately, the snowman is so peripheral and meaningless, my friend Ben Bailey remarked it would be as if you renamed Seven as Toast because the killer also ate toast occasionally (“No, no, trust me, the toast is more important than you think…”).

I thought at worst The Snowman was going to be a high-gloss Hollywood equivalent of a really stupid episode of TV’s really stupid yet inexplicably long-running show, Criminal Minds. This is far, far worse. At least with your casual Criminal Minds episode, it’s garish and lousy and icky in its sordid depiction of grisly violence against women, but you can still understand what is happening on the screen. You can still follow along. The Snowman is impenetrable to decipher, not because it’s complicated but because it’s all misinformation and filler. According to interviews, director Tomas Alfredson (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) was unable to film about 10-15 percent of the script because of hectic schedule demands, so no wonder it’s so difficult to follow. Very little makes sense in this movie and what does has been done better in a thousand other movies. This makes The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo look like Shakespeare. With a dull protagonist who doesn’t seem exceptionally competent at his job, paired with a dull antagonist with no larger game plan or purpose, or even personality, and a mystery with a dearth of clues to actively piece together, the movie turns ponderous, punishing, and psychologically shallow. It’s a dumb, dumb, dumb movie that thinks it’s smart and contemplative with a cold streak of nihilism. This silly thing takes itself so seriously that, if you’re like me, you’ll find yourself cackling at its desperate attempts to make the visage of a snowman into the stuff of nightmares. This feels more like genre parody. The Snowman is an aggressively bad whodunit that fails to make an audience care about any single thing happening. You’re better off staying home and watching the worst of Criminal Minds instead.

Nate’s Grade: D

A Walk Among the Tombstones (2014)

MV5BMTQ3NzY2MTg1M15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwODY2Njk4MTE@._V1_SX640_SY720_Scott Frank has only directed one movie, The Lookout, but as a screenwriter his fingerprints are everywhere in Hollywood. The man’s name is all over projects such as Out of Sight, Minority Report, Get Shorty, The Wolverine, Marley & Me, and those are just the ones that made it across the finish line. As any aspiring screenwriter knows, Hollywood is built upon an ever-amassing burial ground of unproduced screenplays. A Walk Among the Tombstones is only his second directing feature, which tells me it must have had significant personal value for this famous scribe. You can definitely tell Frank has an affinity for hard-boiled film noir of old, though the splashes of in-your-face sadism may be too much for certain audiences. It’s a genre movie all right, but it’s also a grisly one that bothers to take its time setting up character, plot, and resolution.

It’s New York City on the cusp of Y2K, and retired cop Matt Scudder (Liam Neeson) is just trying to enjoy his dinner. He’s pulled into a complex kidnapping scenario at the behest of one of his AA peers. Two men have been targeting the city’s drug traffickers, men with big pockets who cannot go to the police. These psychopaths enjoy abducting the trafficker’s wives, ransoming them for hundreds of thousands, and then slicing and dicing their victims anyway. Matt initially turns down the offer, working around the edges f the law, but the viciousness is too much to ignore. He reawakens his old detective habbits, falling back into a routine, and tracking down those responsible.

hr_A_Walk_Among_the_Tombstones_1Those expecting a regular Liam Neeson afternoon of top-draw face punching may be in for a slight disappointment, because A Walk Among the Tombstones is a gritty detective tale that swims amidst an ocean of moral decay and queasy sexual violence. It’s a detective yarn that unwinds at a casual pace but one that feels like a natural connecting of plot points. Thankfully, this isn’t a movie that treats the identity of the killers as a mystery that needs to be dragged out as long as possible, with the ultimate pained reveal being one of the otherwise harmless characters we’ve previously been introduced. We know who these two psychopaths are after about twenty minutes, so there’s no prolonged guessing game. Rather than linger on who they are we now await the ultimate satisfaction of Matt Scuder finally facing off against our two psychopathic killers, and they are indeed psychopaths. These two are very wicked men, gathering sadistic pleasure from torturing their captive women. The two men are kept as unsettling ciphers; we don’t know much about them except they have an addiction to killing. It’s not about the hundreds of thousands they scam from the drug traffickers; it’s really about the thrill of the hunt. While I wish there was more depth, they were menacing enough. I was itchy with anticipation for them to get some comeuppance. I’ve read reviews indicating that our two remorseless killers are a gay couple; if this is true it’s kept very vague for interpretation. In the age of equality, it could be homophobic to declare, in absolutes, that psychopathic killers couldn’t also be gay or lesbian. That would be… wrong?

With two strong villains, you need a strong hero to bring them down, and Neeson fits the part like a natural. To be fair, the role is somewhat stock from a passing description: the loner former cop with the tragic past, a drinking problem, the gruff style, the over-the-hill age, the man trying to adapt to a new and changing world, sometimes not for the better. It’s a role that feels ripped from the tropes of crime thrillers, a world we’ve also become accustomed to seeing Neeson. The detective role is familiar but, like most within Frank’s film, it’s given more time to breath and a surprising degree of attention. This doesn’t come close to last year’s Prisoners in the realm of character work, but it’s still an above-average entry for a genre too often ignored when it comes to realistic and satisfying characterization. Matt Scudder exists in a New York City that owes a debt to the pulpy noir page-turners of old, but it’s not exactly stylized, and neither is he. The man still uses microfilm and needs the assistance of a street-smart homeless teenager to assist him with this newfangled Internet thing. While it feels somewhat forced, the relationship with Matt Scuder and his young protégée is the strongest in the film, opening up the character’s redemptive arc. It’s always appreciated to watch Neeson get to flex his acting muscles rather than just being given action choreography and trite tough guy bravado.

There’s one other actor I’d like to single out, and I’ll thank my mother for this. Fans of Downton Abbey (like dear old mom) may recall Dan Stevens as the dashing and departed Matt Crawley, but he is almost unrecognizable as the grieving husband/drug trafficker that kicks off our story. For one, the guy lost a decent amount of weight and his gaunt face makes him seem all the more mercurial and intense. The characters plays against type with our expectations for a drug dealer, and you may find yourself, like I did, warming to him and yearning for the man’s vengeance for his wife.

hr_A_Walk_Among_the_Tombstones_4Frank’s direction is awash in the grime and seediness of New York City, with dark shadows washing over his troubled characters, and a sense of style that, while omnipresent in tone, doesn’t distract from the story. The rich cinematography by Mihai Malaimare Jr. (The Master, Tetro) is a great asset. The film noir elements are here in abundance and with due diligence. It rains in just about every scene. Why? All the better for a moody and eerier atmosphere, though the rain does actually factor into a character-based conflict for Matt’s protégée. It’s a moody thriller that is assuredly above average for its genre. Not everything quite works (the third act is too drawn out; a montage of AA 12 steps narration over sequences of violence is more than a little heavy-handed; the explicit Y2K setting doesn’t really have a purpose other than to limit certain technological advances not becoming of the genre) but Frank knows how to draw out the strengths of the genre.

A Walk Among the Tombstones is a gritty genre throwback, but what really jumped out to me was the hook of the premise. Neeson plays a man on the outer edges of the law but a man who still bends toward the justice system he once worked for. What makes this character unique, or at least the promise of, is that he ends up becoming the private detective for the criminal world, and that I find to be fascinating. We think of criminals, especially drug traffickers, are tough men who can handle their own problems with extreme authority. But they are also just people and can get in over their head as well, and when they need someone with private eye skills, who knows how to operate inside the bounds of the law and out of them, that’s where Neeson comes in. He does such a good job that he gets recommended around the New York ring of drug traffickers. He’s like a Michael Clayton-style fix-it guy but for the criminal underworld, and I think this concept it rife with juicy potential. Tombstones is based upon a series of books by Lawrence Block, so there could be further adventures, and I would welcome them, especially if the finished product is as entertaining as this first foray.

Nate’s Grade: B

Seven Psychopaths (2012)

Writer/director Martin McDonagh only has one movie to his name but the man has already accrued legendary status in some circles. The 2008 dark comedy In Bruges didn’t create much of a blip at the box-office, but its blend of absurdist comedy, dark drama, shocking violence, and languid contemplation found a rabid cult following. I have several friends who regard In Bruges as the best film of 2008 (WALL-E still reigns supreme for me but I quite enjoyed In Bruges).McDonuagh’s latest, Seven Psychopaths, reminds me of Barton Fink: both are about struggling writers, both are satires of the film industry, and both have sudden splashes of violence and a serial killer who pushes the protagonist to artistic completion. In other words, Seven Psychopaths is a fun film and a great time at the movies.

Marty (Colin Farrell) is experiencing some killer writer’s block. He’s stuck on his new screenplay titled “Seven Psychopaths.” His buddy Billy (Sam Rockwell) is eager to help out. The guys run afoul of another psychopath, mob boss Charlie (Woody Harrelson), due to Billy’s side business. He kidnaps rich people’s dogs and then his partner, Hans (Christopher Walken), returns them and collects a reward. Billy and Hans have kidnapped the wrong shih tzu, and now Charlie and his muscle is going to make them pay.

The refreshing thing about the bloody, wickedly entertaining Seven Psychopaths is that it constantly surprises you. This is such a rarity with modern movies, particularly Hollywood movies that attract as notable a cast as this one. McDonagh is wonderfully adept at throwing narrative curveballs. There were a few surprises where I literally jumped in my seat. You constantly think you have the movie figured out, and then it goes down a different alley and becomes more interesting. One of the pleasures of having psychopathic lead characters is that they are impulsive and do not have to follow the normal purview of logical decision making. They might just call the bad guys and divulge where they are hiding. They can do anything at any moment, and part of that unpredictability is what makes the movie feel so electric, so creatively alive. I must stress that McDonagh surprises in ways that feel satisfying and yet believable given the world he’s concocted. Part of the fun in the first half is just figuring out who the seven psychopaths will be. It’s not like it’s some laconic chamber piece mystery but the psychopaths are an eclectic mix from the real to the fictional to real characters doubling as inspiration for fictional ones. I think in the end there may only be six psychopaths, unless McDonagh is counting himself amongst the numbers.

McDonagh also has a blast deconstructing the very kind of movie that he’s providing. Marty bemoans writing another rote psychopathic killer movie where the violence is fetishized and the bad guys are mythologized into idols. You think the film is headed in one direction, in the Guy Ritchie-style standoffs and shootouts, and then it takes a less traveled path, one where it criticizes these sorts of movies and ponders existential questions about the nature of self-expression and death. It began as a care-free movie about thugs and writers and transformed into a movie that manages to have something to say about life, philosophy, and the cyclical nature of vengeance. Two of our three main protagonists are pacifists and remain so to their imperilment. At one point, a character narrates how this story as a proper movie would end, and it covers all the nihilistic clichés of vengeance and epic body counts. But then Marty, and McDonagh as well, wants to turn away from the expected, from violence for the sake of violence, from the exploitation of stylized suffering. McDonagh doesn’t forget to entertain while he’s making you think in between those handfuls of popcorn. The female characters in the movie (Abbie Cornish, Olga Kurylenko) are generally wasted, in different senses, but McDonagh uses this as another charge against this type of film (a boy’s night out of carnage). This is an accessible movie that can be enjoyed on a whole other meta level. I loved the various gear changes. For me it took the pulpy action material and elevated it to another level of genius.

McDonagh still maintains his darkly sardonic streak of humor that made In Bruges such a riot. I was laughing throughout Seven Psychopaths; chortles, snorts, giggles, big belly laughs. With its heedless violence, obviously this will not be a film that runs on every person’s wavelength of funny. The very opening involves two mafia hitman debating whether shooting somebody in the eye takes actual precision or just dumb luck. It’s the sort of mundane conversation you’d see in a Quentin Tarantino movie, and also the precursor to something nasty and ironic. McDonagh’s sense of humor is similar to Ritchie or the Coen brothers, but the man establishes his own sense of wicked whimsy. The absurdist dialogue is always a hoot and can generate serious malice, especially when delivered by stern psychopaths. Rockwell (Moon) in particular is outstanding and delivers a virtuoso performance of the unhinged. The man just radiates energy. You’ll feel jacked up just watching him. I keep waiting for this underrated actor to break out with each star-making turn, and his comedic zing is played to perfection in Seven Psychopaths. In contrast, Walken (Hairspray) is rather reserved as he underplays his character, one of the saner men he’s played. It feels like the passing of the torch from the older generation of psychopath to the newer generation.

Being a colorful movie about colorful bad guys, and girls, you’d expect there to be some grade-A oddballs, and McDonagh does not disappoint. Some of the psychopaths in question have little bearing on the story plot-wise. There’s Zachariah played by the impeccable Tom Waits (The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus). He answers an ad that Billy set up for psychopaths to share their stories to Marty. His tale involves cross-country spree killing of serial killers, rabbit petting, and the love of his life, and partner in crime, leaving him. As far as plot, this little aside has little significance to the plot other than setting up a superb joke to end the movie with. But the character is so interesting, multidimensional, and played with equal parts aloofness and sincerity by Waits, that you can’t imagine the movie without him. Several of these psychopaths could have been the stars of their own movie, from the vigilante killing mob thugs to the tale of one father’s long path to vengeance. Even the fictional psychopath, the Vietnamese man (Long Nguyen) seeking vengeance against G.I.’s, could have enough weight to carry a feature film. The amazing part of the movie is that you don’t feel like any of these characters are shortchanged. McDonagh finds ways to emotionally ground his characters, allowing the audience to empathize amidst the bloodshed and loony characters. We care about Hans and his ailing wife; we care about the friendship between Marty and Billy. It’s real for these characters and so it feels real to us, despite the hyper-real flourishes of the movie.

If you’re a fan of In Bruges, or just dark comedies mixed with sudden violence, then you’ll probably find something to enjoy with Seven Psychopaths. You don’t have to be nuts but it helps. McDonagh has crafted another winner with sharp dialogue, a twisty plot full of surprises, incisive commentary on movies and movie expectations, as well as some sincere soul-searching and poignancy. This baby has it all, folks. Above all else, it’s just a blast of fun. the actors all seem to be having the times of their lives, notably Rockwell, and the morbid laughs and off-kilter thrills should cement another McDonaugh film for cult status. Seven Psychopaths is a palyful movie along the lines of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and even Adaptation. It’s bursting with ideas and comments and jokes. when you leave the theater you almost want to get back in line and start the ride all over again.

Nate’s Grade: A-

The Raven (2012)

When “The Raven” was released in 1845, it was a literary sensation. I can’t say that the 2012 movie of the same name will be met with anywhere near the devoted fanfare. Edgar Allan Poe (John Cusack) has become embroiled in a deadly criminal investigation. The famous author is penniless, drunk, and depressed, but what else is new? What is new is that some Poe admirer has been stalking Baltimore and killing people in grisly styles fashioned after Poe’s macabre stories and poems. Detective Fields (Luke Evans) recognizes the connection to Poe and enlists the author to aid in capturing the murderer. Poe’s upper-class love, Emily Hamilton (Alice Eve), is captured by the unknown madman and buried alive. Poe must race against time to stop a killer, rescue the girl, and write a new horror-themed story to be published via the killer’s demands.

The Raven feels like an ill fit from the start. What is the point of featuring an American literary icon when all you’re going to do is plop the man into a pretty rote police procedural/serial killer thriller? The deadly flaw of The Raven isn’t its concept; it’s that the finished product didn’t embrace the particulars of its literary mash-up enough. Is it really a good use of Poe to just have him tag along on a police investigation? I wanted this premise to crackle with a devious slyness, a cleverness of genre and concept that the movie seems incapable of producing. You’re taking America’s singular literary voice of the Gothic and macabre and putting him into a game with a deranged fan. That’s a great start. I’m interested in that movie. But there needs to be some follow-through. This should be a battle of wits, an opportunity for Poe to backslide into the murky chasm of his own creations, bearing some pinning of guilt at having birthed a mad killer with the power of his words and imagination. This should be a psychological descent into hell for a man already famously tortured. Instead, the movie just becomes another rote serial killer movie but somebody typed in the name “Poe.” The various corpses, inspired by Poe’s works, just end up being gory, easily telegraphed deposits for clues. We don’t see these people in peril, terrified by the fiendish ye olde Saw-like death traps. We don’t even understand the process of the killer. The movie just ends up becoming one long, tiresome chase from dead body to next dead body, with Poe literary association haphazardly ladled in to tie stuff together. After a while, it feels like somebody took a thoroughly uninspiring serial killer script and just transported it into mid 19th century America. It’s nice to know that some clichés are timeless.

The movie never feels like it works properly, and the potential of its premise is completely unrealized. The murder mystery isn’t really ever given suitable footing to be a mystery, except in that tried-and-true “who’s going to be the bad guy” reveal. There aren’t really any clues left behind. So when characters suddenly come up with epiphanies on their murder investigation, you wish they would at least show their work. For a movie written by screenwriters with names like Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare, The Raven certainly isn’t smart. The Poe stories feel tacked on in an arbitrary fashion instead of being interwoven into foundational elements of the story. Who cares how the characters die if their deaths have no impact on Poe or anyone else? The “how” of the equation becomes inconsequential. The title poem doesn’t even bear any weight on the story. The love interest/damsel in distress character is so bland and underwritten, that it’s hard to really feel Poe’s gnawing sense of urgency. Sidling the gloomy Gus Poe with a puppy-dog love story seems like a poor misunderstanding of the man and his demons. To top it off, the girl isn’t even his cousin (surely the oddest criticism of mine thrown at a movie)!

The movie doesn’t really ever become a convincing thriller either. The pulpier elements are ignored or downplayed, played with stodgy seriousness for a movie this ridiculous (Saw-style death traps in 1849?). Director James McTeigue (V for Vendetta), who after this and 2009’s Ninja Assassin is starting to look like a one-hit wonder, badly misplays the action elements. The dingy cinematography is unnaturally dark, making it exceedingly difficult to understand certain sequences and giving the audience yet another reason to lose interest. The impressive production design is totally mitigated when there’s not enough light to even see it. I understand given the nature of the story that we’d be dealing with  lot of shadows and darkness, but this is just one poor looking movie. The only way you’d feel excitement from this movie is if in a fit of amnesia you forgot what you were watching and suddenly thought it might be a different, better movie, only to be disappointed ten minutes later when that sinking feeling reemerges and you realize, no, I am still watching The Raven.

I love me some John Cusack (Hot Tub Time Machine), but this guy is just the wrong fit for the movie. His sensibilities never really gel with the character, so Poe’s sense of melancholy comes across as more haughty boredom. He is not the right fit for the material. Eve (She’s Out of my League) has got nothing to do but look pretty and scream occasionally. The worst crime of all is utterly wasting one of my favorite contemporary character actors, the phenomenally great Brendan Gleeson (The Guard). He plays the uptight father of Poe’s love interest, which means he gets to pop onscreen and glare at Poe while looking worried. It’s a criminal waste of this man’s considerable talents.

I think the best part of The Raven is actually it’s mostly unseen killer. It’s not because the guy is particularly clever or interesting or even remotely memorable (when they reveal who it is, make sure to pay attention to the constant reiteration of who he is, because if you’re like me, you plum forgot). The reason this guy is good is because of his impetus. He’s ultimately terrorizing Poe so that he can force the author to create more stories. Call it an extreme case of motivation. I can see our studious killer justifying his bad behavior, claiming to give the world new gifts of literary brilliance that we can all share, stories that will last the test of time. Isn’t that worth a few dead bodies, he’d argue. Ultimately, this rationale becomes more egotistical, about flattering the killer and his devious appetites, which is a shame. I’d prefer if the bad guy were more devoted to the cause of helping to shape the Canon of transcendental literature. I almost wish that the movie were told from this skewed perspective. I could have dealt with an entire catalogue of famous authors being victimized under the auspices of producing great literature. What if this one sick person is responsible for wresting the great works of the 19th century out of the authors’ minds and onto the page? I think we all owe this terrible individual a debt of gratitude.

I’m finding myself disliking The Raven the more thought I put into it, which, admittedly, my brain is actively fighting against. It does not want to spend more time processing this bore of a movie; a fun premise never fully realized, a conflict never truly developed, and characters that are the 19th century equivalent of the stock roles you’d find in any mechanical CSI/Law & Order TV episode. So in the interest of literary fairness, I’ve decided to channel the spirit of Edgar Allan Poe for the final word on The Raven:

And The Raven, never flowing, still is going, still is going,

On the pallid screen I silently stare at in unblinking bore,

And its plot is not that smart, missing heart and clues to start,

And it seems like the writers were tasked with an unfriendly chore,

The movie does not work; it’s dull and empty to its very core,

And so I lastly ask does this movie properly entertain?

Quoth The Raven – “nevermore.”

Nate’s Grade: C

The Lovely Bones (2009)

The Lovely Bones, based upon Alice Sebold’s 2002 best-selling blockbuster, is about some heavy stuff. It’s told entirely from the point of view of a dead teenage girl. She was raped and murdered by a skeevy neighbor, and now she gets to watch her family get torn apart through grief. For most filmmakers, this material would not be considered a “breather,” but then most filmmakers are not Peter Jackson (to my knowledge, only one is). The man known for epic fantasy adventures and lavish special effects applies his skills to bringing Sebold?s beyond-the-grave drama to life. The Lovely Bones has enough skill and craft to its merit, but Jackson’s rep as a filmmaker cannot save this poor adaptation. Who would have thought that the lord behind those Rings pictures could be felled by a teenage girl?

“I was fourteen years old when I was murdered,” Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan) informs the audience. In 1973, young Susie Salmon (like the fish, we will be told many times) is walking home from school one night. Mr. Harvey (Stanley Tucci) approaches her and asks her to be the first kid in the neighborhood to see his underground clubhouse he built. She follows inside and will never make it back out alive. The police discover Susie’s knit hat and massive amounts of blood in the earth but no body. Susie’s family is a wreck. Jack Salmon (Mark Wahlberg) consumes himself with the mission of finding his daughter’s killer, alienating his wife, Abigail (Rachel Weisz). Mr. Harvey watches the stalled police investigation with growing pleasure, knowing he has gotten away with yet another child murder. As the years pass, he sets his sights on Susie’s younger sister, Lindsey (Rose McIver). But Susie is not completely absent during this period of time. She awakens in a magical, CGI-attuned spiritual realm known as the “in-between.” It is here that she spies on her family and her murderer and tries to pass time.

Since most of this story is told after her death, and because Susie died when she was a blossoming teenager, apparently she’s doomed to live the rest of her quasi-afterlife in that awkward visage. Imagine being a 14-year-old for eternity, and the only clothes you have to wear are ugly mustard-colored corduroy pants? That sounds more like hell than heaven. So Susie gets to interact in an afterlife built upon the mind of a teenager, which means that the afterlife involves pretending to be on magazine covers and dancing to disco music (again, heaven or hell?). I know that Jackson was asking for trouble by even attempting to interpret the ethereal, but his candy-colored version of Susie’s afterlife comes across like a bright, shiny doctor’s waiting room (“God will be with you in just a few minutes. Please enjoy our magazine selection in the meantime.”). It’s like you have to find peace before going through them pearly gates. Heaven doesn’t want your negativity so you are forced to chill in a screensaver.

There’s going to be some natural disconnect in trying to showcase a realm beyond human comprehension. I accept that, but why does Susie even bother staying in this “in-between” world? She spies on her family in grief through the years but she has no power to change things; that is, until she does for some inexplicable reason. And what does she do with that inter-dimensional power? She inhabits some girl’s body so she can snag her first kiss that her murder denied her. She passed up heaven and chose not to tell people about her body being disposed of. That doesn’t sound like she really reached any sense of enlightenment. But I digress. Why would Susie stay in this “in-between” when it only makes her sad? She’s fairly powerless and, honestly, does anybody really want to delay entering into heaven? Why does Susie get to pal around with all the other Mr. Harvey murder victims like some celestial support group? None of this can be explained because we’re dealing with a topic that defies rationale explanations. However, this “in-between” spiritual land feels like a visual leftover from the 1998 film, What Dreams May Come. That was another movie where I could never explain why anything happened.

Actually, the entire movie lacks any cause-effect continuity. The Lovely Bones feels bereft of any connective tissue. Characters will make huge decisions or be granted epiphanies because the plot demands it. I have no idea why Jack suddenly figures out that Mr. Harvey responsible for his daughter’s death. He thinks back to a memory and then all of a sudden everything makes sense, but only for his character. For me, none of it made sense. The entire investigation of Mr. Harvey doesn’t really hold up upon reflection. Jack personally looks into every shifty person in town but somehow overlooks the creepy loner across the street that builds meticulous dollhouses for fun? Mr. Harvey also likes to sketch out his murder pits, but just stop and think about Susie’s deathly hobbit hole. The man digs an entire underground lair in a cornfield. Wouldn’t it take hours if not days to refill the whole thing to cover his tracks? For a prolific serial killer, Mr. Harvey seems to be somewhat careless about leaving behind evidence (a safe filled with your victim’s remains?). I guess this is why Susie has to tell us at the onset that people were ignorant to all this unpleasantness in 1973 (I guess that means common sense was acquired in 1974). Why does Abigail all of a sudden desert her family? She can’t take the grief, so she ditches her two other younger children to live the life of a migrant worker. And why does she come back? How can two brown-eyed, brown-haired parents have three blue-eyed, blonde-haired kids? The entire movie lacks vital coherency and context.

From a tonal standpoint, The Lovely Bones never quite settles down and figures out what film it?s going to be. It veers from sentimental melodrama, to thriller, to headache-inducing camp (Sarandon’s boozy grandmother is terrible at housework — hilarious!). Jackson and crew jettison large amounts of Sebold’s text, leaving behind a New Age-y heaven and a fairly lame murder mystery where we already know the guilty party. The drama then pretty much boils down to whether or not Mr. Harvey will get caught.

You can tell that the serial killer segments grabbed Jackson’s interest the most because every sequence with Mr. Harvey feels more predicated and textured, like Jackson is applying more skill to showcase the twisted mind of a sick man. Jackson exerts far more energy into exploring the dark reaches of Mr. Harvey than he does the mourning of the Salmon family. We are denied the complexity of grief and remembrance. As presented, the Salmon family gets to weep and shout but nobody really tackles the issues or moving forward and acceptance of loss. Instead, we watch Mr. Harvey twitch and squirm and plot his next move. Tucci is appropriately scary, aided by an ominous comb-over. The segment when a ghostly Susie stumbles into Mr. Harvey’s bathroom is the best moment of dread. The bright white room is splattered in trails of dirt and streaks of hardened, dark blood, while Mr. Harvey rests in his bath with a washcloth covering his face. It seems like Jackson decided that what fans really wanted from a Lovely Bones movie was more serial killer screen time. If the family drama was going to be this boring, then I say devote the whole movie to the creep.

The acting is another curious detraction. Ronan (Atonement) fits the part but Jackson forces her to speak in this annoying, pseudo-spiritual whisper, like once you?ve attained the knowledge of the afterlife you become very soft-spoken. She shows a decent range of emotions but even she can?t quite figure out her character. Wahlberg seems miscast in his role and pretty limited in his depiction of obsessive grief. Weisz gets to cry her eyes out the most but then her character sits out the second half of the flick. Sarandon is only playing the role she was given, so I’ll be fair in my criticism, but her brassy, alcohol-swilling grandmother is like an unwelcome party crasher. She’s broad and loud and mostly cartoonish. I understand Sarandon was serving as comic relief amidst all the heavy drama, but it doesn’t count as relief when you wince at her presence. Tucci gives the mot layered, nuanced performance. He tries to relive each kill but soon enough the memory fades, and he feels the unstoppable impulse to feed his demons. Tucci is deeply scary, though he kind of talks like the roof of his mouth is stuffed with peanut butter.

Heavenly Creatures showed the world that Jackson could do so much more than campy, splattery gore and crude humor. It beautifully dealt with the scary, bewildering world of fantasy and budding feminine sexuality. Now after four grandiose movies, The Lovely Bones was supposed to be a trip back to that smaller, character-driven territory that Jackson first charted in Heavenly Creatures. Now I wonder if Jackson has the ability to return to smaller scope pictures. He and his screenwriting brain trust, Philipa Boyens and Fran Walsh, have softened the harder elements from the novel, completely eliminating any sexual emphasis. This PG-13 take is heavy on ponderous acid trip visuals and light on coherence, and when you can?t understand why things are happening after a while you stop caring why. After a while, I just stopped caring about Susie Salmon (like the fish).

Nate’s Grade: C

Seed (2008)

Uwe Boll had some things he wanted to say with his low-rent horror flick, Seed. Like much of Boll’s output it’s based upon a video game. However, Boll opens the flick with a warning that footage of animal abuse and disturbing images will be incorporated into the movie. Seed gets the ball rolling with a two-minute montage of animals being cruelly beaten and mutilated before the title ever finds its place on screen. Boll’s opening text says that he decided to use this disturbing snuff footage because he “wanted to make a statement about humanity.” Yeah, sure Boll. Isn’t it a bit trite and easy to castigate the human condition for evil when you just roll out visceral real-life footage of cruelty? By highlighting the real stuff Boll is calling into question the significance of his whole stupid slasher movie. It opens with real-life cruelty and then plays out 90 minutes of fake cruelty, so what’s the point? I don’t think Seed has any interest in the subtext that can elevate horror movies. I think Boll just wanted to make his own torture-heavy horror film and found some animal abuse footage on the cheap (PETA probably gave it to him free of charge). The opening smacks of exploitation and opportunism and has zero thematic connection to the flaccid and empty-headed horror movie that follows. If I sound angry that’s because I don’t need to see animals having their skulls crushed in to get it.

Seed (William Sanderson) is a killer of astounding proficiency (for further details: see below). Matt Bishop (Boll BFF, Michael Paré) is the detective that’s been tracking Seed all these years. You can tell he’s a haunted cop because he has a drinking problem and hears the cries of dead babies. Eventually, Bishop tracks down Seed’s hideout and he arrests the murderous fiend. Seed is sentenced to die by the electric chair. The problem is that the prison doesn’t have a pristine electric chair, and the law says that if a man survives three jolts of juice then he’s free to go (for further details: see below). The warden (Ralf Moeller) decides to take command. He and a group of prison employees bury Seed alive and tell the world he died on the faulty electric chair. Of course Seed comes back and rekindles that old killing feeling.

If Sanctimony was Boll’s attempt to manufacture the clever Saw-esque serial killer, a higher scale of serial killers, then Seed is at the opposite end of the serial killer equation. This is a dull slasher movie and Seed is about as dull as killers can be. His main attributes are that he’s a huge guy with a sack on his head, which is kind of similar to about 1000 different slasher movies. He looks particularly close to Leatherface from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I guess the slasher recipe is add one obscure mask plus one set of overalls plus dirt = killer. The guy has zero personality and is merely a silent killing machine that, in typical slasher fashion, always roams around at a deliberately slow pace. Sanderson (star of SEVEN Boll films) is unrecognizable as Seed and this is mostly because he wears a sack on his head and says maybe one thing for the entire 90-minute running time. I don’t recall Sanderson being as bulky either. Boll’s attempt at a horror movie wallows in exploitation and prolonged torture. As always, he’s late to the party.

Seed is credited as bring solely written by Boll, and the man screws it all up within minutes. When it comes to horror movies there will always need to be a somewhat healthy suspension of disbelief but only up to a point. Every movie no matter the genre or internal logic will have a breaking point. Seed cruises through that breaking point alarmingly early. Through the use of newspaper clippings, Boll introduces us to the backstory of Mr. Seed (he uses newspaper clippings for 90 percent of all exposition, meaning someone at the police department has a big thing for scrapbooking). We are told that from 1973-1979, Seed killed an astounding, and numerologically convenient, 666 people in those six years. Just take a second and think that figure over. One person in a ratty cloth mask and overalls killed 666 people. Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacey weren’t even anywhere near that figure and they are highly prolific serial killers. Boll wanted to make his serial killer scary but he totally overcompensates and destroys any credibility the film could possibly attain. Why 666? There’s no way it’s a coincidence considering the pull of that number in our pop culture. Was that a target quota for Seed? Did he make a chart to know when he was falling behind?

The sheer magnitude of that number obliterates the facade of “reality” Boll wants to create in his movie. These cops have to be the worst investigative unit in history. Seriously, could they not tabulate any clues or patterns or habits of Seed after 665 murders? I think the FBI would have stepped in hundreds of unsolved murders ago. And yet Boll then shows again how staggeringly inept these local cops are. They find out Seed’s home, which is of course a dilapidated shack in the middle of nowhere. This naturally begs the question that Seed would have to venture out long distances to find so many victims, and yet no witnesses of any sort? But Boll ignores this and steamrolls ahead. What showcases the utter stupidity of these boys in blue is that they ride out in the middle of the night, into the middle of the woods, and decide to raid Seed’s house with only six officers. I’m sorry, but if any man killed 666 people with his own hands then you don’t plan on taking him down with a small unit of cops who have already proven to be inept. You bring in tanks.

The premise itself is deeply flawed and begging for mockery. Seed proposes that there is a law on the books that somehow mandates prisoners must be set free if you can’t kill them after three jolts from the electric chair. We’re talking 45 second long jolts of 15,000 volts of electricity frying your brain. Your heart will eventually explode with all that electricity. So how does this law truly work? Surely no one would actually abide by it or fear that the government would punish them for breaking this law? Seed never specifies where it takes place, though the vibe I get is more southern, and they love to kill people in the South, especially Texas. Did the electric company propose this three-strikes-and-you’re-alive policy as an incentive to inmates? Do low-income prisons have a higher turnaround rate? Does this law cover firing squads and hangings as well? A judge and jury have found Seed guilty and sentenced him to be executed. That judicial ruling is not absolved because an inmate could withstand a high degree of voltage. The premise turns an execution into a contest.

Most slasher movies involve a near superhuman antagonist, and Seed follows suit. He can attack and kill four prison guards who try to gang rape him in his cell (what part of 666 kills says, “please expose your penis near me”?). He can step on a prison guard’s forearm and crush it so that it looks like a swaying doll part. He can bust out of a coffin and dig himself out of a grave. Now I did some quick math and a 6 feet by 6 feet by 3 feet grave is 108 total cubic feet. The lightest dirt will weigh is 42 pounds per cubic foot. That means that Seed had 4536 pounds of force weighing down on him in that grave. Yet he was able to free himself and go on his rampage. If Seed is this indestructible force then it’s ridiculous that Pare could kick him a few times and the man went down during the police capture. Which is the worse screenwriting sin? Having Seed wiggle out of 4500 pounds of force or the fact that the prison guards did a lousy job of BURYING ALIVE a man who killed 666 people! Why would you ever bury this maniac alive?! That seems hardly definitive. Common sense begs cutting off the man’s head just to be certain.

When it comes to horror movies, building an atmosphere is essential but there’s a notable difference between building dread and simply killing time. Boll does not know this difference. Seed doesn’t even get placed on the electric chair until 46 minutes in. The first 33 minutes of the movie is pointless because it retells Seed’s capture via a flashback while he sits on death row. Watching Seed finally get captured isn’t really important to the story, and a good half of that misspent time is simply gross and grainy home videos. Seed sends videotapes to the police to taunt them. The tapes are shot in a dungeon-like location and involve living creatures rotting thanks to the miracles of time-lapse photography. Naturally this raises two quibbles: 1) No one had personal video recording devices in the mid 1970s, let alone a maniac living in the middle of nowhere, and 2) watching dogs and babies die of dehydration and then decompose to ash means that these video projects took many weeks to accomplish. That’s a lot of time. Boll spends five plus minutes of screen time just showing these grainy snuff videos with the police recoiling. Perhaps the extent of their investigation was watching these gross videos and making faces. How many videos do the police have from Seed? It seems like Seed’s version of the fruit of the month club.

But getting back to misspent time, Boll thinks just holding onto a shot and not cutting makes it scary or tense. It doesn’t. I don’t need nearly two minutes uninterrupted of watching guards fiddle with Seed’s chains as they try and latch him into the electric chair. I don’t need almost a minute of one shot panning around a boat departing the prison isle. I don’t need nearly two uninterrupted minutes of watching the prison doctor’s bedtime rituals before he eventually gets murdered. I especially don’t need over five uninterrupted minutes of watching Seed hit a woman in the head with a mallet. I’m not being facetious when I tell you that he literally hits her 40 times until her head is purified into a bloody stump of a neck. Seed literally paints the walls with this old woman’s blood (how did this genius not get caught?). The soundtrack soars to laughable heights and the scene just goes on and on, figuratively bludgeoning the audience as well. Boll believes that just holding onto a moment of depravity makes it sinister. It doesn’t when there’s no audience connection whatsoever to the tired material. Boll does craft one nicely tense sequence where Pare and the cops capture Seed. There’s a moment when one officer is tiptoeing through the basement of Seed’s home and the only source of light is the flicker of the police siren. It’s visually appealing and works to create tension as well. But this moment is short-lived. I’ll never know how a burly guy can see through a cloth mask in the dark and sneak around in a dilapidated home filled with crap covered in tetanus.

It may be hard to notice for some, but Uwe Boll is actually improving as a filmmaker, at least from a technical standard. Seed looks like an actual movie. Seed is grisly and nihilistic and futile. The killer is a bore and the story is poorly structured, taking far too long to get Seed in the ground and wrecking havoc. Boll’s screenwriting shortcomings are fully evident as he strings together genre clichés and ridiculous plot points that obliterate credibility. He grasps at making statements about the human capacity for cruelty. Well I didn’t need a Uwe Boll movie to educate me on man’s inhumanity to man, especially one this shoddy and empty. This movie isn’t even entertaining; it’s a chore to sit through. This is the first Boll movie that I sat just waiting for it to be over. There is no reason to watch this thing. During the extended scenes of video watching by the police, one of the cops watches a baby decompose and replies, “Sick bastard.” I think Boll was projecting here. And I didn’t need footage of animals being slaughtered to reach that conclusion either.

Nate’s Grade: D-

Untraceable (2008)

The Internet can be a scary place, no question. There’s plenty of weird crap in wide-open world of the World Wide Web. There are sites devoted to teaching people how to make bombs in the privacy of their own kitchen. If you can name a fetish, chances are there’s a pay sex site already built for it (I tried “clown porn” and was not disappointed, and by that I mean that I found a site for it and WAS deeply creeped out). According to the ongoing Dateline specials, everyone wants to “talk” to adolescent girls while they’re home alone. In short, the Internet can be a scary place. Untraceable, a barrel-scrapping genre movie, taps into our fears of the unknown in cyber space.

Agent Jennifer Marsh (Diane Lane) is a member of the Portland, Oregon office of the FBI. She specializes in tracking down cyber criminals and bringing them to real-world justice. There’s a new Web site called “Kill With Me.com” that invites anonymous users to serve as executioners. The site creator creates death traps that increase in deadliness the more users click onto the site; so a man bleeds out faster the more people that want to catch a glimpse of it. Lucky for the FBI, the cyber killer is doing all this nasty business in Portland. Marsh and her cyber assistant (Colin Hanks) try finding the location of the IP site but, somehow, it skips around the world and cannot be pinpointed. The victims of the site are specifically chosen, and Marsh is struggling to put it all together. Then the cyber killer begins stalking her and lets others join in on the fun.

Untraceable is rather hypocritical in nature. It wants to titillate an audience but then shame them for embracing the titillation; the movie is purveying the same crap that it derides. The premise of a digital age serial killer that transforms murder into an online democratic act sounds nifty. Plenty of insightful questions generated by this premise like the nature of exploitation, media, and the culpability on the account of the insatiable viewing public. It’s too bad, then that Untraceable just uses the premise as a jumping off point to create a half-assed Saw. The movie is mostly concerned with reworking the familiar tropes of the serial killer genre, this time with some extra dashes of torture and Saw-style death traps. But the movie doesn’t fully commit to horror so much of the gore is implied. The extra attention to torture seems timidly tacked on to the framework of a thriller, likely grossing out the older folk that came to the movies thinking they were going to watch Diane Lane assert justice on this new fangled Internets thing. The movie has a vague fear of technology and computers and seems programmed to scare people that don’t know any better, namely the people who think computers are bigger toasters.

The script by relative neophytes is where the movie treads water. The villain is revealed fairly early, like a half hour in, and this revelation does nothing to help build tension. The culprit responsible for the laughably implausible death traps is a gangly eighteen-year-old twerp (Running with Scissors‘ Joseph Cross; yes that kid). I understand that in serial killer movies the villain usually takes on some form of supernatural abilities, like the ability to be everywhere and never be seen, or the ability to draw super strength at opportune times. When Untraceable apathetically reveals its villain the movie seems like it’s already giving up and conceding, “Okay, this is the big bad dude and he weighs about 110 pounds soaking wet. We know he could never outmatch anyone that is over five feet tall.” Marsh’s home life is also given obligatory screen time, including Marsh’s mother keeping watch of the home, but it never matters. In this world, birthday parties just get in the way of FBI manhunts.

The film also requires character to act inexplicably stupid at a moment’s notice in order for the plot to hum along. Marsh is such an expert on cyber crime, and yet she doesn’t bat an eyelash when her young daughter downloads a mysterious computer program sent to her by a “friend”? Never mind that this FBI expert logs onto the “Kill With Me” site on her home computer, allowing the killer to hack into her computer and look through all her personal information and cyber dirty laundry. The worst lapse occurs after our tech-savvy killer has effectively hacked into Marsh’s OnStar computer system in her car. The engine shits down and the car slows to a halt. Marsh leaves her car to use a roadside telephone to tell another cop that the killer has hijacked her car. The cop on the phone advises her to be on alert. Right after she hangs up, the car’s engine and lights become operational once again. Marsh trots over to her car, whose door had been open since she left, and simply hops back inside without checking the vehicle at all. She is swiftly tazed and kidnapped by the killer who was routinely hiding in the back seat. It’s not like a trained FBI agent would be able to miss the inescapable sight of somebody hiding in a tiny backseat with little room to crouch. I can excuse smart people making stupid decisions, but when a movie like Untraceable has experts not following through on situations that require their expertise, then it comes across as contrived. Really, a cop wouldn’t even peek in the backseat?

Lane holds her own, and even that is an accomplishment for something so rote. She’s an actress easing into her forties and finding a new tap of talent. Frankly, she should have won the Best Actress Oscar for 2002 with her fabulous work in Unfaithful. That movie came out five years ago, and yet the Diane Lane in Untraceable looks so much older. I think the filmmakers were trying to make her look more harried by not applying makeup or utilizing soft focus. You can see her wrinkles and her age, and these are all well earned for a great actress, and Untraceable wants to maker her look her age in a time where Hollywood seems to dump out an actress’ business card once she hits 40. I just thought that was interesting, but the most interesting facet of this entire movie is that the actor who plays the head of the FBI team (Peter Lewis) looks remarkably close to 2008 Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee. It’s uncanny. If Huckabee ever plans on contributing to a filmed biopic of his life, then Peter Lewis should be on his shortlist.

Untraceable scrapes the serial killer genre for some form of life. The novel premise gives way to predictably lackluster thrills and gaping plot holes. Lane saunters around with a gun for two hours, mixed in with some extended sequences of torture, including one that involves hundreds of heat lamps. Look, I know I’m no cop, but couldn’t someone simply trace the massive electric bill this guy is generating? It’s just sloppy police work all around. Why? Because the movie requires giant lapses in judgment so that it can continue. The world can be a sick place, but has it always been this way? A better movie would dig deeper; this movie just wants to fry a cat and call it a day.

Nate’s Grade: C

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