Tuesday, December 31, 2013

A Good Day to Rage-Watch

Several months ago I gathered with some friends to watch the Blu Ray release of A Good Day to Die Hard. Although the series has had its ups and down, we were all huge fans, and even though we had all read the bad reviews, we dismissed them. 

“Ha!” we said. “Critics don’t know shit about shit. They especially don’t know shit about action movies.” And with that, and a short prayer at the altar to Bruce Willis set up in the foyer, we poured drinks and started the movie.
Less than 45 minutes later I was the first to tap out. I had given the movie time to develop, but it turns out I had only given it enough rope to hang itself. Even worse, the movie hung itself in 15 minutes tops, I just kept poking its gently swinging corpse looking for signs of life.

Finally I couldn’t take any more and I rage-quit the movie. I didn’t just “not like” the movie, I hated it for desecrating one of the (if not The with a capital T) greatest action franchises of all time. I was like Putin watching Pussy Riot play a gig at a church, and I stormed out wanting to throw everyone into a gulag.
Months passed. My anger never subsided.


Die Hard and Die Hard with a Vengeance are action classics. Die Harder and Live Free or Die Hard are good movies. Not great, but good. But this fifth one is actually so egregiously bad that it makes the first four movies worse by association. Ever since I tasted Die Hard 5, my pallet has been soured on the entire franchise. And that, my friends, is quite the accomplishment.

Last week I attempted to bring some closure to this ugly period in my movie watching life. I decided the only way to move on and put this disgrace behind me was to sit down and finish watching it. Maybe by doing that I could work through my issues.

It had not been the first time I turned off a movie in anger and disgust – but this would be the first time I turned ON a movie in anger and disgust. It was the first time I ever rage-watched something.

And I’ve to tell you, I’m so glad I did! Not because I enjoyed the movie by any means – it’s actually worse than I remembered – but because it was a grand new way to watch a film! 

We’ve all played Mystery Science Theater before. For me, it revolutionized the way I watched movies, and made me seek out bad films to watch, just so I could mock them. But a rage-watch is different – it’s like MST only Mike and the Bots have been replaced by Bill Hicks, Eric Cartman, and Don Logan from Sexy Beast.

Instead of being fueled by humor, the rage-watch is fueled by fury and driven by disdain. There is no need to be clever or make jokes, you just squeeze your arm rest a little too hard, let your eyelid twitch a little bit, and every once in a while stand up and unleash a torrent of shocking and horrifying expletives and epithets at the screen.
It’s the sort of thing home theaters were built for!

About the seventh time alpha-stud John McClain shouts “I’m on vacation!” I was ready to drive to Willis’ house and ask him “Since when did McClain become Dante Hicks from Clerks, whining about ‘I’m not even supposed to be here today.” That not being an option, I simply changed my allegiance and started actively rooting for the Russian mob to kill him… and his whole family, too. There’s a much better vacation, a permanent one!

Every time Willis and his son (a tough guy CIA agent named Jack McClain, played by Jai Courtney trying to rekindle that magic Shia LaBeouf had as Indiana Jones Jr.) have a bitter father-son argument in the middle of a fire fight, I let loose my inner fire and started fantasizing about alternate endings. Perhaps Jack McClain would execute his father and join the Mob? Maybe John McClain from Part One would show up in a flying Deloreon and throw this modern-day imposter into a garbage can filled with started-up chainsaws.

Just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, somehow – like Nature --it found a way. The stupidest thing I’ve seen in any movie since Nuke the Fridge happened, and it sent me into a screaming fit. The good guys and the bad guys are converging on Chernobyl for the final showdown. Pretty radical, right? How can you shoot radiation poisoning? Perhaps I could watch with glee as the McClain family went the way of Spock in Wrath of Kahn (or Kirk in Star Trek Into Darkness, for those of you with a less expansive movie reference database).

The bad guys pull out anti-radiation spray. They spray it around and wa-la! No more radiation.



Oh wait, it’s not Elysium. It’s Die Hard

Just so we’re all clear on the rules: in Die Hard you can use a helicopter as a weapon, you can outrun an explosion, you can shoot a million bullets and never reload. This is fine. But inventing a piece of technology so outlandish it would make the Mission Impossible writing team shake their heads in pity. And that, my friends, is quite the accomplishment.

The only way this movie could have made me any angrier is if Jack McClain was played by Adam Sandler, doing his stupid Waterboy voice the whole time. 

No, wait. That actually would have been an improvement.

When the movie had finished, and I had completed my first rage-watch, my blood pressure was dangerously high. One of my eyeballs had blown out a capillary, and looked all Eye-of-Sauron-ish. My fists had been clenched for so long they refused to unfurl. 

But somehow, through all the madness and misery, I had found a way to laugh again. 

Friday, December 13, 2013

13 Best and Bloodiest Moments from Friday the 13th

Friday the 13th, it’s like Christmas, only with severed heads instead of jingle bells, and nubile screaming co-eds instead of carolers.

In other words, it’s the most wonderful tiiiiiiiiiiime of the yeeeeeaaaaaar.

The Friday the 13th movies were never anything less than despised by film critics. They routinely featured piss-poor acting, terrible dialogue, nonexistent plots, a complete lack of character development, and a staunch, some might even say intransigent, policy of making sure their villain remained incomprehensible.

So why are their 12 of them? As the legend Joe Bob Briggs would say, it’s because of the 3 B’s – blood, breasts, and beasts. The “beast” in this case was Jason Voorhees, the poor retarded boy who drowned in Crystal Lake, only to emerge as a deformed mountain man who stalked the woods and slaughtered anyone he possibly could.

Friday the 13th found a successful formula, and worked it like a boss for 30 years. Not a bad run for something with so little depth.

I poke fun at the Friday movies, but few people have as deep and abiding an affection for them as I do. I must have watched them dozens of times. I’m a bit of a purist – the first four films are the best, then it gets a little iffy before entering blasphemous territory with the last couple. (Seriously, Jason is possessed by a demonic alien body-hopping slug? Jason get infected with nanites and becomes a cyborg? Just get back to killing promiscuous teenagers, please and thank you.)

We all have our favorite moments from the Friday movies. But my list, I’m willing to bet cash money, is better than yours.

(For the sake of clarity, this is NOT a countdown. These are my favorite moments, in no particular order.)

1. Safety in numbers be damned! Jason drops out of a tree in front of some work-retreat paintballers and decapitates three of them with one swing of the machete! What incredible upper body strength you have, Jason! (Part 6)

2. “Give me a milk… chocolate!” Crispin Glover spent a little time in Crystal Lake before going back to the future, and it didn’t end well for him. Not only did he get a corkscrew through the hand and a meat cleaver to the kisser, then he gets nailed to a doorframe. (Part 4)

3.  Freddy vs. Jason was a silly movie. But sitting through that ridiculous story was all worth it when you get to the pay-off. The final throw down between cinema’s two most notorious serial killers was a thing of beauty, an epic concerto of supernatural violence that left me completely satisfied. (Freddy vs. Jason)

4. One of the greatest visuals the series has produced, Jason shows that he is an equal-opportunity butcher when he gives a paraplegic a chop to the face and then rolls him and his wheelchair down some steps that are definitely not approved by the ADA. (Part 2)

5. Have you ever seen what Kevin Bacon looks like with a knife sticking out of his neck? He looks good. But then, he always looks good. (Part 1)

6. Jason has established himself over the years as the innovator of violence (no offense to Tommy Dreamer) and one of his most original ideas was Death by Sleeping Bag. When an unruly teen has the audacity to go to sleep in the woods, Jason zips her up in the bag and smashes it against the tree a bunch of times. (Part 7, then later re-used in Jason X and in the Friday the 13th remake)

7. Little Corey Feldman was such a cute kid. And he was never cuter then when he planted that machete in the side of Jason’s ugly mug. But what sets the scene off is the Tom Savini effects of Jason sliding down the length of the blade, his deformed face twitching. It’s totally disgusting. Fun fact – some years later Feldman used the same technique to murder Corey Haim. (Part 4)

8. In a post-coital glow, it used to be fairly common for men to walk around on their hands. But that all changed after the scene where Jason bisects a hand-walker from crotch to neck with a downward slice. Jason killed the trend just like he killed this idiot. (Part 3)

9. Head squeezin’ and eyeball-poppin’ IN 3D! Take that James Cameron. (Part 3)

10. First, Jason kills someone with a Winnebago (by smashing her face into the metal wall so hard it leaves a faceprint on the outside). Then he kills someone in the Winnebago. Still not content, Jason KILLS THE WINNEBAGO! The shot of him standing atop the wrecked vehicle is like a caveman standing over a fallen Mastodon. In a series not known for memorable cinematography, that one shot may be the high point of the series. (Part 6)

11. Jason does not approve of pre-marital canoodling, this much is apparent. But never has he made his point so forcefully as when he takes a spear a shish-ke-bobs two lovers engaged in the style of the missionary. The guy never saw it coming, so you could say he got off easy. But then again, guys usually do. Hey-yo! (Part 2)

12. You ever seen someone get their face dipped in liquid nitrogen and frozen solid, and then smashed against a sink? It’s actually pretty cool. It’s like an ice cube filled with brains! (Jason X)

13.  And finally, a moment that always makes me chuckle and I don’t know why. When Alice, sole survivor of Part 1, is making some hot tea she finds the severed head of Pamela Voorhees in her fridge. She doesn’t even have time to freak out before Jason jams an ice pick into her temple. And then, for no reason fathomable based on anything that happens in the entire series, he takes the whistling kettle off the stove. (Part 2)

And there you have it. My 13 favorite Friday the 13th moments. Which of your favorites did I omit? Speargun to the groin? Toy horn to the eye? Crowbar to the belly through the outhouse wall? I want to hear your opinion.

(This blog had been brought to you by a grant from the American Council on Desensitization)

Sunday, December 8, 2013

The Iceman and the Irishman : This Blog Inspired by True Events

Movies are not real life. If they were, then who the hell would go see a movie? Nonetheless, movies are fond of proclaiming that they were “based on a true story” or even more vaguely “inspired by true events.” Which is all well and good, after all it’s the job of advertising to tell you anything that might get you to pay money to go see explosions, zombies, robots, or pirates.

It never fails to make me laugh when people complain about movie not being realistic, or changing the details around. To these people I always like to say “No shit, this must be the first time ever a movie isn’t accurate.”
We expect truth from books, but only entertainment from movies.

The Iceman and Kill the Irishman are both hard-boiled dramas about old-school gangsters who happen to be surprisingly sweet and sensitive with their families. They are both based on the lives of real men. Are they accurate? Probably not, but if I wanted truth I would spend more time at the library than on my browser scrolling through movie titles.

But are they entertaining? That’s the valid question to ask.

The Iceman is a killer for hire living with several textured layers of lies. Bungling any one detail could ruin his life, get him sent to jail, or even whacked. Richard Kuklinksi (Michael Shannon) balances his lies almost as well as he makes people disappear.

One on level he is a devoted husband, a loving father, and a generous friend. Although he seems distracted, and often has to go away for work, he has a perfect family life, and he knows it, and he needs to keep making money to support it. He makes money by killing people for the local crime boss. When said crime boss comes under pressure, he orders Kuklinksi to stop working.

This cuts off his income – which he can’t afford – so he becomes a silent partner to Mr. Freezy, a freelance hitman played with pinache by an unrecognizable Chris Evans. This ice cream-truck driving psycho is about as far from Captain America as you can get, and Evans is terrific. He’s a good match for the quiet, sullen Shannon, who excels, as always, as portraying silent rage and bottled up resentment. He’s one of the top character actors in the world right now, and is always commanding when playing this type of creep.

The Iceman is not a perfect film, skimming over some areas of interest and taking way too long in areas of not-so-interest. But the cast carries the film every step of the way; aside from Shannon and Evans, you’ve got Ray Liotta, James Franco, Robert Davi, and surprisingly strong dramatic work from Wynona Rider and David Schwimmer. Not a type-o.

Kill the Irishman begins softly, following the humblr beginnings of Danny Greene, an Irish American bloke with the body of the brute and the mind of a scholar. Against his better judgment he gets involved with the local union. He only has the best of intentions for getting a fair shake for the dock workers, but you know what they say about good intentions; before you know it you’re making deals with Christopher Walken. And if you’ve ever seen a movie before, you know you should never make a deal with Christopher Walken.

Greene is a charismatic, likeable fellow, and his portrayal by Ray Stevenson is the driving force that makes the movie work. The supporting cast is solid. Linda Cardellini is great in a thankless role, Val Kilmer and Vincent D’Onofrio are good, as you would expect, as is Robert Davi (who now must be cast in all organized crime movies, by order of law). But it’s Stevenson’s movie, and he makes the most of it. He has a rare combination of strength and humor, which is why is usually see him in strongarm roles like in Thor, The Other Guys, Punisher:War Zone, and Book of Eli. This is a rare starring role for Stevenson, and I think he single-handedly makes the movie worth a watch.

Overall, Kill the Irishman is a good movie that falls a little short of being great. The material is good (the real Greene endured so many assassination attempts it boggles the mind) and the cast is solid, but somehow the movie never stops feeling like Scorsese-lite. With a more sure-handed script and director, this could have been an all-time great gangster movie. As it stands, its still a good one.

Now, as to the veracity of these movies, it seems to be in short supply. The real-life Kuklinski bears little resemblance to his movie counterpart. And the closing moments of Kill the Irishman show newsreel footage of the real Danny Greene, and it makes you feel like watching a documentary about the guy. (There isn’t one yet. I checked.)

But if you’re anything like me, you can’t handle the truth. You don’t want to handle the truth. Just give me some good gangster movies, and leave the actual factuals to the trolls on website forums. The Iceman and Kill the Irishman are good movies – they won’t straighten your curlies or anything, but they are well worth a watch.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Fringe and the Art of World Building

A good tv show tells a story. A great tv show builds an entire world, and then tells a story within it. The Wire brought Baltimore to bitter, bleak life. Twin Peaks radiated weirdness and suspense from every tree and owl. OZ made you feel trapped in the prison. The Office made you feel trapped in that awful, awful work environment.

When a show builds a world, it makes the viewers feel like there are other stories at play, other characters we haven’t met yet. It makes everything that happens feel bigger and more expansive, because it has a context that reverberates.

No show has ever done this better than Fringe. They got so good at it, that after a while they built a new world every season.

Fringe – for the poor, pitiful souls that don’t know – follows FBI Agent Olivia Dunham as she works for the secretive Fringe Division, investigating cases involving mad science and the supernatural. She recruits Walter Bishop, a deranged genius fresh out of the asylum, and his son Peter Bishop, a con man who goes by the name of Pacey. Together, they solve bizarre cases and save the world one week at a time.

Sound a little like X-Files? It is. But what starts as a sort of X-Files 2.0 rapidly comes into it’s own, and stands after 100 episodes as one of the best, most perfectly crafted shows ever made.

The cast is outstanding, and the stories are great, but where Fringe was ahead of its time was in world-building. (Spoilers to follow – I’ll do my best, but there is no way to discuss the show without revealing some secrets)

Season One introduces us to a world where fringe science has arrived. And although the public doesn’t know about it, the government does. Fringe Division works in the shadows, in conjunction with Massive Dynamic, a global tech corporation so rich and powerful it just HAS to be sinister. Right?

The first season is filled with hints and suspicions, but the season finale breaks open the world and changes the status quo – Yes, Olivia, there is an alternative universe, filled with a planet of our exact (or almost exact) duplicates. Season Two explores this idea to the fullest, and then raises the stakes for Season Three.

Now here’s where it gets brilliant. It’s also the same moment that loses a lot of people. During the season three finale, Peter Bishop gets thrown into an alternate future where one of the two universes has been destroyed. For a mere hour, the show creates a haunting and imaginative version of the Fringe world, and then goes back to the status quo…

For about thirty seconds. Then with whiplash speed it tosses the status quo into a dumpster and walks away whistling.

Season Four, at its outset, is set in a different version of the Fringe world. There are still two parallel universes, and all the characters we love, but it’s different now. Peter Bishop never existed in this world, and that one small change has radically affected every aspect of the Fringe world we have come to know and love. 

Of course Peter tries to find his way back to the original Fringe-verse, but what he discovers along the way changes everything! Or perhaps it changes nothing. Fringe is way deeper on an existential level than anyone would believe.

But wait, they aren’t done yet! After giving viewers some resolution at the end of Season Four, Season Five jumps ahead into a grim and desperate future. The final 13 episode season has the feel of an epic Fringe movie, with a new world to explore, and higher stakes than ever. The drama is at an all-time fever pitch, and so is the action.

Instead of giving fans of the show what they expect, Fringe goes in a new a dark path, building yet another world in which to tell their stories of love and redemption.

Oh, I didn’t mention Fringe has one of the greatest love stories ever filmed for TV? It does, but don’t let it stop you from watching it.

Most shows are heralded for building a compelling original world. Fringe never was, even when it reinvented itself and rebuilt the wheel time and time again. And what makes this a work of genius, and not just a gimmick, is that every new world ties into the old, and leads into the next. It’s a tight, cohesive, staggeringly well-plotted tale that unfolds across worlds and universes.

The complete series of Fringe, all 5 seasons, is available streaming on Netflix. Watch it. And if you don’t have Netflix, sign up for it just to watch Fringe. It’s that good.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Low Budget Horror Roulette -- Absentia and Don't Go in the Woods

I’m a sucker for low budget horror movies. Everyone has their “thing” right? The movie version of comfort food, the visual version of your favorite album, that thing you can watch constantly and never get tired of. For some folks it’s romantic comedies, or cartoons, or Stallone movies, or Mystery Science Theater. For me, it’s indie horror.

90% of low budget horror is awful. I’m the first to admit it. But the thing is, when I find that good one, it makes watching those 9 terrible ones worth it.

This week I played Streaming Roulette and came up with two notable movies; one notable in the good way, the other in the bad way.


In a quiet neighborhood, a dark force lives in an underpass. It’s not a fearsome looking tunnel, just an innocuous, run of the mill walk through. But there is something inside it, something that makes unearthly clicking noises, accompanied by hellish screams.

A few houses down the street, Tricia is under a lot of stress. She is very pregnant, and in the process of having her husband Daniel declared dead in absentia. He has been missing for 7 years, having simply vanished from the face of the earth. And as much stress as she thinks she’s under, her blood pressure would be a lot higher if she could see the ghostly image of her hubby stalking her.

Her sister Callie, a recovering junkie, has come to stay to Tricia to help her out. But she knows something is wrong with the tunnel. As she starts to investigate, the weird occurrences start escalating, and then…

Well, I don’t want to say anything else. This is an indie movie, so it takes its time building tension before any real weirdness jumps off; but the plot turns come unexpectedly, and although the story moves deliberately, there is never a dull moment.

Writer/director Mike Flanagan hits this one out of the park, and he does it the old-school way: very little violence, very few special effects, earning the fear with characterization and atmosphere. Keep your eye on this cat, he’s got the skills to take him to the next level.

The film is well scored, as well. If only those poor folks in the neighborhood could hear the background music, they would KNOW to avoid that damned tunnel.

Speaking of terrifying music…

Don’t Go in the Woods

A group of hipsters take a camping trip deep in the forest, trying to get away from distractions and focus on writing some new songs for the band. With no cell phones, no girlfriends, and no way out, it is the perfect spot to kick out some wimpy jams. And kick they do! Song after song they sing, until they are interrupted by a big group of victims… err… girlfriends, who come to surprise them.

All the while, a masked figure lurks in the shadows, ready to breathe heavily and hack off fake-looking limbs.
OK, so you have all seen a movie like this before. Hell, you might have even seen a movie with this exact title before (Don’t Go in the Woods was one of the greatest Friday the 13th rip-offs of the 80s). What makes Don’t Go in the Woods different is that it’s all about the music, bro.

This isn’t a long movie, less than 90 minutes, and over half the run time is comprised of these hipsters singing and earnestly playing their guitars. And it’s not good. Perhaps in the context of sitting in a coffee house in a black beret, these would be good songs. But in the context of “hey, I want to watch a movie about idiots being chopped into kindling by Paul Bunyan’s insane little cousin” they are damn near insufferable.

And then when you wade through the songs (which feels like an eternity of wading) you are only rewarded with amateurish special effects, Z-grade gore, and off-camera kills. The biggest gross-out moment comes before the opening credits, and remains, sum and total, the best thing the movie has to offer.

The movie was directed by Vincent D’Onofrio, one of my favorite character actors. He’s got this great Christopher Walken/Willem Dafoe quality of being effortlessly creepy, and I love him for it. And so when I say he needs to stay in front of the camera, and never direct anything ever again, I say it out of love.

Love you Vince! But seriously, don’t go streaming Don’t Go in the Woods. 

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

How Much Superheroes is Too Much Superheroes?

Are you tired of superheroes yet? Well tough rocks – the spandex gang are bigger than ever, and have recently targeted the medium of television as their next conquest. Netflix is preparing to unleash no fewer than four new shows based on Marvel Comics characters.

The fine folks at Marvel Studios have been laying siege to the box office for a few years now. Riding the wave of popularity, the show Arrow has become an underground sensation, and will be used to launch no less than two other superhero shows in the next year (Hourman and The Flash… for now). On a more major network, Marvel has crossed over by sending their background characters the Agents of SHIELD to their own ongoing weekly.

The news has come out that Marvel and Netflix are seeking to recreate the magic of the Avengers on the small screen with a bevy of second-tier characters. These are folks who the average non-geek won’t recognize at all, but have unique and interesting enough stories to build a solid series around. 

The plan is to launch 4 (count ‘em FOUR) different shows on Netflix, that will all culminate in one larger cross-over mini-series. On paper, it’s a great concept. The characters they picked all show great promise. And so far, it seems that Netflix is headhunting good creative talent to make each show.

In short, everything looks really good so far… so why is an avowed comics nerd like myself still a little hesitant to jump on board this idea?

Because too much superheroes, that’s why.

Listen, it’s hard enough to make one great show. But to try and execute FOUR great shows at once? All set in the same place (Hell’s Kitchen) at the same time (now-ish, I’d assume) in the same genre? The truth is, even if all four shows are insanely good, it still might be too much.

The market is flooding, so let’s flood the market the most!

It’s a gamble, no doubt, but Marvel has rigged it so the odds are ever in their favor. If any of the four shows are successful, then BAM they have a new cash cow which they can parlay into more seasons of the show, or even their own movie. If any or all of the shows are not successful, then they are just abandoned: it doesn’t cost Marvel a lot of money or credibility, because no one really knew that character to begin with.
So who are the new heroes on the block?

Luke Cage
Also known as Power Man, Mr. Cage has a long history in the comics as a tough guy with a heart of gold. Originally, he was sort of like John Shaft with powers – bullets bounced off his ironhide skin and he could bench press an armored car filled with jive turkeys. Cage is the type of hero we haven’t seen on screen before. Also, he’s black, and a major African-American superhero is something that is long overdue. Unless you count Hancock. Which I do not.

Iron Fist
Back in the day, this super-kung-fu master was teamed up with Luke Cage – as Heroes for Hire, they were the premier salt-and-pepper duo in all of comics. The angle of a hero with the power of Super Fu is unique, and could play well as a balls-out action show. But will they be able to overcome Fist’s real handicap… his lack of a cool character to go with his cool abilities?

Shut up about Ben Affleck’s Daredevil. Yes, the movie was terrible, but that was neither the fault of Affleck or Daredevil himself. The Man Without Fear has always been a dark and gritty version of Spider Man, and in the comics he has proven that he is only as good as his writer. With a powerful story, Daredevil could be the best show of the bunch. But if they rely too much on the (admittedly lame) gimmicks like the blindness or the super-lawyering, it will end up on the junk pile.

Jessica Jones
Who the hell is Jessica Jones? You may be asking. She doesn’t even have a super name! That said, her story will translate to episodic TV the most easily, and give viewers a completely original take on the genre. In a nutshell, Jones is a disgraced and forgotten former costumed hero, who now works as a private investigator taking cases in the world of supers. It was a unique comic, and could be the dark horse of this whole bunch.

Four shows, four heroes, four – to be honest – interesting concepts. And if it all plays out well, it could lead to one hell of an epic mini-series bringing them all together. So my inner fanboy is cautiously optimistic. But on the other hand, even as a fanboy the prospect of keeping up with 4 super shows at once makes me feel burned out before I’ve even watched one episode.

There is, of course, one sure fire way to get me hooked. They need a good villain, an established Marvel comics character who can make each and every show better simply by showing up. He has the background and mainstream recognition to raise the profile of the shows, and the great unpredictable character to make all the storylines electric.

I’m talking, of course, about the Punisher. He of the 3 failed movies, he with the power of super-violence, he who sees himself as a hero while the heroes see him as a villain.

Note to Netflix – get Big Pun in the mix, and I’m on board.

So, what’s your take on all this? Are you psyched about the new batch of Marvel heroes taking over your streaming service, or could you not care less?

Monday, November 25, 2013

Let's Get Weird, with Upstream and John Dies

“What the hell did I just watch?” Said incredulously.

Have you ever muttered that when the final credits roll? Not in the bad way, like with Wolverine Origins or Lords of Salem, but in the good way, because you are stunned into quietude by witnessing something you are still trying to process.

David Lynch set the baseline for these kind of movies; they oft left me dazed and confused, with the distinct feeling there was a larger story at play, and I just hadn’t figured it out quite yet. I could go back and piece through the film again and again, look for clues, and try to understand it all.

Admittedly, these movies aren’t for everyone. But for those of us who dig this kind of challenge, it’s like unwrapping a Christmas present that turns out to be the Lament Configuration filled with hipster Cenobites.

Upstream Color may be the deepest, darkest, most intriguing and perplexing movie this side of Lynch. Writer/director Shane Carruth has wowed audiences with a twisty-turny narrative before, in his debut film Primer, but with his second film he’s operating on a level all his own. He claims that Upstream Color is “un-spoil-able” and he’s right. I could sit here and tell you everything that happens in the movie, and yet the movie would still surprise you.

Impossible, right?

The truly impossible thing would be to explain the film to you without you having seen it. It’s the type of movie that demands – nay, COMMANDS – long discussions about themes, motives, and what the hell actually happened.

A woman is dosed with a drug made from a strange worm with mind expanding qualities. While under the influence, the woman is in a hypnotic state, and a strange man directs her to empty her bank accounts, go into debt, and in all ways ruin her life. Then he leaves, and she has no memory of what happened or why. She meets a man who seems to have gone through the same experience.

They are also both mentally linked to pigs on a remote farm, tended to by a composer who makes music with people’s emotions and memories.

I could go on, but the point is these are details that outside of the context of this beautiful, bizarre, utterly unique film, make no sense. Inside the film, they seem to make sense, but Carruth leaves it to you the viewer to fit the pieces together and look at the big picture. 

If you love puzzle-box movies, Upstream Color is can’t miss. It makes Memento seem as simplistic as the Berenstein Bears.

John Dies at the End is an entirely different kettle of weird fish. Director Don Cosscarelli has created a beast that can’t be fit into any box – it blends elements of horror, science fiction, action, and comedy with a heavy dose of philosophy and a healthy disregard for conventional plot structure. This is a movie the likes of which has never been seen, and likely will never be seen again.

Dave and John are low-rent ghost hunters. They drink beer, hang out, and occasionally do battle with demons made out of meat. After a party one night, John tries a drug called Soy Sauce. The Sauce gets you high, but side effects include hallucinations, heightened senses, time displacement, and possible infestation from an inter-dimensional demonic force.

To say any more would take away from the fun of exploring undiscovered country. The film is utterly unpredictable, with fresh onsets of clear-minded lunacy emerging every few minutes to constantly keep you off kilter. The biggest surprise is that the second time through, John Dies seems a lot more linear and easy to understand. But the first time through, you will hardly be able to keep up with it.

Special recognition goes to the cast, who create such endearing characters they manage to make the story feel engaging no matter how crazy it gets. Clancy Brown, Doug Jones, Paul Giamatti, and Glynn Turman are all wonderful in their supporting roles, but the movie really works because Chase Williamson (Dave) and Rob Mayes (John) make you care about them.

Weird, bloody, violent, esoteric… John Dies at the End is one of a kind, in the best possible way.

Weird isn’t always good, of course. Take Rubber, for example. On paper it sounds delightfully weird – a malevolent car tire with mental powers terrorizes a small town – but out on the road it’s nothing but a flat.

Just being weird isn’t good enough, you see. Anyone can be weird. Just look at basically anything on Youtube for confirmation of this. What makes films by creators like Coscarelli, Carruth, David Cronenberg, and David Lynch so mind-bending is the weirdness acting in concert with a good story, and good story-telling.

Rubber plays more like “say, wouldn’t this be weird and cool?” instead of using the medium to make a unique and original film.

With Upstream Color, you may not “get” it, but you can feel you are watching something deep and profound. With John Dies at the End, you’re just trying to keep up with the barrage of the bizarre, but the characters are alive and the script is sharp. But with Rubber, you’re just watching a bunch of weird shit that doesn’t matter. Big difference.

Huge difference.