This week, the Cinefantastique Black Hole Ultra-Lounge Podcast celebrates the new year by looking back at the old: Dan Persons, Lawrence French, Steve Biodrowski offer their picks for the Ten Best Horror, Fantasy, and Science Fiction Films of 2013. We’d love to tease the titles mentioned, but that would be spoiling the suspense, so you will simply have to listen in and find out for yourself.
Also on the menu: reactions to trailer for THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 and a look at home video releases for Tuesday, January 7 2014.
There is a pretty decent 90-minute movie hiding within THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE, but the filmmakers were not going to let that fast-paced thriller escape from the laborious two-and-half-hour running time required to appease a fanbase that wants every major development, nuance, and tidbit from the source material to at least rate a mention on screen. Patient viewers (including not only readers of the Suzanne Collins novels) will still find an enjoyable viewing experience, but only the most forgiving fans will be able to completely overlook the longueurs – which are even longer here than they were in the previous film.
As before, there is a rather length preamble before we get to the good stuff, which is of course the titular Hunger Games. This time, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) reluctantly embark on a government-mandated promotional-propaganda tour of the twelve districts, selling their tale of survival and feigned romance to the populace, who presumably will be pacified and more accepting of their miserable fate while the elites continue to live high on the hog.
What’s that about feigned romance, you ask? Well, you ask if you have not read the book, because nothing in THE HUNGER GAMES suggested Katniss did not fall in love with Peeta, but in order to make the sequel story work, that previously overlooked narrative thread finally finds its way off the page and onto the screen. It makes for a rather sulky first act, with Katniss’s true love Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) lamenting how genuine Katniss’s feelings for Peeta seem, while Peeta sulks over how artificial they are.
The challenge of acting as if she is acting is a bit of a stretch for Lawrence, whose feigned passion for Peeta registers as no more or less passionate than her allegedly real feelings for Gale. Lawrence is hardly helped by the series of gowns and makeups she is given to wear: one would like to forgive them as intentional attempts to underline the clown-show nature of the victory tour, but at times they look simply like failed attempts to render the actress in an exotic guise, and by the time dress designer CInna (Lenny Kravitz) is ruthlessly beaten, the action seems less like political ploy than aesthetic statement about his work.
Fortunately, President Snow ( Donald Sutherland) puts the sulk-fest at least somewhat to bed when he grows resentful over the popularity of Katniss and Peeta, who success seems to be inspiring hope in a populace that Snow wants permanently quelled. Hoping to nip this development in the bud, Snow and Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) contrive a new version of the Hunger Games, in which twenty-four previous winners will compete, with the goal of eliminating the popular heroes and showing the futility of hoping to rise above one’s station in life.
The “hope” issue contradicts THE HUNGER GAMES, in which Snow specifically stated that hope was the essential reason for having a winner: hope keeps people from succumbing to despair and believing there is nothing left to lose, which in turn can lead to rebellion. Apparently, hope is a Goldilocks kind of thing: you don’t too little or too much, but Snow never clarifies exactly what qualifies as “just right.”
However, none of this matters, as it is just a contrivance to get Katniss and Peeta back on the killing field. Once there, the film generates considerable, if familiar, interest, as alliances are formed and tested, and our heroes ponder the moral dilemma of joining forces with people they may be forced to kill later, in order to survive themselves (a dilemma that, fortunately for mass-market taste, the scenario solves for them). The lethal action on the island where this year’s Hunger Games takes place is captivating – not just viscerally exciting but also emotionally engaging – which is a good thing, because the plot developments are, well…mostly a matter of marking time until the next film.
Snow and Plutarch begin and even more Draconian program of repression against the twelve districts, theoretically in order to suppress that unwanted rising hope. Strangely, the arbitrary nature seems more like to foment an uprising than repress one, and one begins to wonder just how Snow has managed to stay in power.
This question is not directly answered, but a twist ending gives us insight into why the tactics might be been deliberately designed to produce exactly the opposite of their stated result. SPOILERS:
Plutarch turns out to be part of a resistance movement, in league with Katniss’s mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson). This also explains why several competitors on the island seemed willing to sacrifice themselves to save Katniss and Peeta; it’s all part of a plan whose details are to be revealed later.
Unfortunately, this is one of those revelations that raises as many questions as it answers, such as: Why isn’t President Snow smart enough to see that Plutarch’s methods are having the opposite of the desire result? And how did Plutarch and Haymitch know to have their rescue ship poised above the dome on the island at precisely the moment when Katniss, on the spur of the movement, performs an entirely unexpected action that blasts a hole in the dome, allowing the rescue ship to get in? And if Plutarch and Haymitch are so on top of the situation as to be able to pull this off, how is is that (we are told) the President managed to get his hands on Peeta and take him to the capital? We also have to wonder whether we are now supposed to forgive Plutarch for the lethal results of the plans he concocted with Snow – is this a Machiavellian case of the ends justifying the means?
END SPOILERS Worst of all, this half-articulated surprise revelation is supposed to pass for a climax, but it is entirely inadequate. The movie simply stops in mid-sentence, and instead of a real ending, we get a nifty CGI rendition of the mocking bird emblem, in a blaze of firy gold (the closest the film comes to living up to its title). Call it THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK syndrome: who needs a conclusion when you’re watching the middle chapter of a trilogy?
Though it never fully ignites, THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE has its virtues. The sullen leads may lack charisma, but the supporting cast is fine, especially Harrelson; Elizabeth Banks very nearly humanizes the cartoony Effie Trinket, and Donald Sutherland excels so well at villainy that he can rend a simple sip from a glass as a supremely ominous gesture. The satirical depiction of the Capital is amusing if a bit broad (Stanley Tucci’s phony smile as TV celeb announce Caesar Flickerman is still funny but wearing out its welcome). The film takes effective pot shots at the contrived nature of “Reality TV,” which is relentless manipulated behind the scenes to fit narrative requirements. And the propaganda nature of the resulting popular success stories is relentless mocked though the bogus victory tour, in which Katniss and Peeta must seal the deal on their publicly perceived personas by playing out their romance on camera, regardless of Katniss’s actual indifference. (One of the film’s highlights occurs when Peeta, having learned to play the game, announces he would have no regrets about playing another round of the Hunger Games “if it weren’t for the baby” – the phony announcement of Katniss’s non-existent pregnancy predictably delights the decadent crowds.)
THE HUNGER GAMES remains one of the best film adaptations of a young adult novel in recent memory, exceeding expectations for a genre mired in muck like TWLIGHT. Unfortunately, THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE succumbs to twin devils of Sequel Syndrome and Franchise Disorder: it provides more of the same – not bad, but not better – and its main goal is less to be a satisfying work unto itself than a teaser to keep you coming back for more.
[rating=3] On the CFQ Scale of 0-5 Stars: worth watching if you’re interested THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE (Lionsgate, 2013). Directed by Francis Lawrence. Screenplay by Simon Beuafoy, Michael Arndt, based on the novel by Suzanne Collins. Rated PG-13. 146 minutes. Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrleson, Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Stanley Tucci, Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer.
Thor: The Dark World is not the worst superhero movie ever made, but it may be the most convenient. How convenient is it? Well, let us enumerate:
Thor (Chris Hemsworth) wields a magical hammer that is powerful enough to wipe out legions of enemies when necessary but not quite powerful enough to defeat the villainous elf Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) except after a protracted climax. Somewhat convenient for the screenwriter.
The “aether” – the evil force used by the villain – is not powerful enough to protect the villainous elves from an onslaught in the prologue, but it is devilishly hard to defeat in the third act. Rather convenient for the screenwriter.
After capturing the aether in the prologue, the soldiers of Asgard supposedly hide it in a place where it will never be found, but it turns out that to find it, all you have to do is look. In fact, Thor’s mortal girlfriend and all-round great scientist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) is able to find it without even looking for it. Very convenient for the screenwriter.
Unhinged scientist Erik Selvig has some sci-fi gizmos that he claims can stop the negative effects of the alignment of worlds that is the plot’s MacGuffin. Extremely convenient for the screenwriter.
Perhaps sensing that #4 is too convenient, the screenwriter later has Selvig doubt his equipement will work: it was designed to detect gravitational anomalies, not create them, he abruptly opines at a crucial moment. In spite of this, Jane is able to manipulate the effects – zaping elves out of our world and into one of those aligned with Earth – by spinning a dial on a little black electronic box that looks like something you could buy at Radio Shack. This is convenience taken to the ultimate power.
Is THOR: THE DARK WORLD entertaining enough to make you suspend disbelief and overlook this convenience? Well, it ups the ante on the de rigueur superhero plot: the film is about the end of not only this world but the entire universe. Pretty exciting, huh?
Well, no. Not unless you think the sight of a long-haired blonde guy swinging a slightly ridiculous hammer is exciting. Helmsworth is an engaging on-screen presence, but Thor is a bit of a second-rate superhero. He underwent his entire character arc in THOR (from irresponsible lout to noble warrior), which leaves little left for the actor to do with the character this time, except express some mixed feelings about ascending to his father’s throne. (Because swinging a hammer on the battlefield is suitable for a superhero; sitting on a throne is not.)
But wait, there is depth of character in this movie. For instance, Thor’s sneering brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is not only sardonic, smug, and sinister; he is also very annoying. Selvig isn’t just smart; he’s crazy (apparently the aftereffect of his encounter with Loki in THE AVENGERS, but really just to give Stellan Skarsgard something to play). And Jane is not just beautiful but…well, smart – we know this, because she can spin that dial on the Radio Shack device.
And not only is their depth; there is also comic relief, thanks to the quirky supporting characters. The question: What does “comic relief” mean? Is it:
Humor used to diffuse possible laughter at the wrong moment, by giving viewers the “right” moment to laugh.
An attempt to be funny, that isn’t.
If you picked Answer #2, you probably just got through watching THOR: THE DARK WORLD.
The film’s few good moments revolve around the relatively low-key family drama. The plot contrives to get Thor and Loki working side-by-side after (SPOILER) their mother (Rene Russo) is killed, fueling their mutual desire for revenge. (END SPOILER). Lokis’s shtick is getting a bit worn-out by now, but his scenes with Thor actually generate some interest, as Thor admits he wishes he could trust his brother, and Loki responds, “Trust my rage.” The script carefully avoids going too far with the reconciliation, finding just the right note and bringing the narrative thread to a satisfying conclusion.
Which turns out to be a problem, because the film is not over at that point and must continue with that whole universe-in-peril thing, even after our interest in the character interaction has been satisfied. With no drama left to fuel the film, THOR: THE DARK WORLD relies on rote spectacle – which is not quite spectacular enough to sustain the movie all on its own (though the aether effects are pretty cool).
If you manage to sit all the way through the end, you will be treated to two of the worst “yes, there will be a sequel” moments in recent memory. The first is a simple “surprise” twist in which (SPOILERS) Loki turns out not to be dead, having someone replaced Odin (Anthony Hopkins) on the throne (which come to think of it, is extremely convenient, but let that pass).
The second is one of the Marvel Comic Book movies traditional post-credits (or in this case, mid-credits) sequences, in which two of Thor’s friends place the aether in the hands of a character named The Collector (a slightly over-the-top Bencio Del Toro). Now, if I were a Marvel Comics fan, I’m sure I would know who The Collector is, but you know what? I’m not, but it doesn’t matter, because I know exactly everything I need to know about the Collector, and so will you when you see the movie, which is two things:
Thor’s comrades trust The Collector with the aether.
Thor’s comrades should not trust The Collector with the aether.
Loki makes occasional comments about Thor’s lack of intelligence. If Thor okayed this plan, then Loki certainly seems to be right. (END SPOILERS)
Whatever its flaws, I don’t to give the impression that THOR: THE DARK WORLD is an absolute disaster. It’s not egregiously stupid; it’s simply dull. It’s loaded with special effects and action, but it’s all rather lifeless. The end-of-the-universe scenario never builds up any suspense, and Eccleston, though he strikes a menacing figure as Maleki is never given enough to do to create the towering portrait of evil that would dramatically energize Thor’s quest to defeat him. But at least the Thor-Loki narrative thread is worth unwinding. Too bad it’s twisted up with all the overblown blockbuster nonsense. At least it’s mildly intriguing to note that THOR: THE DARK WORLD is a superhero movie in which the superheroics are the least interesting element. The character interaction outshines the effects. If only the filmmakers had realized where the film’s true strength was… Update: By the way, I forgot to mention that THOR: THE DARK WORLD is in 3D. Draw your own conclusions. THOR THE DARK WORLD (Marvel Entertainment and Walt Disney Studios: November 8, 2013). 112 minutes. Rated PG-13. Directed by Alan Taylor. Screenplay by Christopher Yost and Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely, from a story by Don Payne and Robert Rodat, based on the comic book by Stan Lee and Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby. Cast: Christ Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, Christopher Eccleston, Jamie Alexander, Zachary Levi, Ray Stevenon, Idris Elba, Rene Russo, Stellan Skarsgard, Alice Krige.
A guided tour through a haunted house you have visited once too often
I’m a boy, I’m a boy,
But my mother won’t admit it.
I’m a boy, I’m a boy,
But if I say I am, I get it.
– from the song that should have been on the soundtrack, “I’m a Boy” by the Who
Those Paranormal Poltergeists are back; no, wait – I mean those Sinister Spooks are back; no, wait – I mean those Insidious Spectres are back, in the latest horror opus from Blumhouse Productions. Malefic forces once again display a remarkable aptitude for malevolently lurking in shadows, ominously opening doors, eerily activating toys, and judiciously picking just the right moment to jump out and say, “BOO!” However, their supernatural shtick is outwearing its welcome, and this sequel to INSIDIOUS (2010) has little to add to its predecessor, except back story – and story ain’t exactly the strength of these films, is it? Consequently, INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 2 feels like a guided tour through a haunted house you have visited once too often:you see the same old scares, and the guide keeps boring you with background details you don’t really need – or want – to know.
BACK STORY: WHEN MORE IS LESS
INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 2 falls prey to the dilemma that afflicts much of supernatural horror: the mysterious, the uncanny, and the unexplained provide a special frisson all their own, but the unexplained can also be dramatically frustrating; haunted house movies almost inevitably risk exorcising their own ghosts by explaining them away.* This problem is exacerbated in INSIDIOUS CHAPTER 2 because a sequel, by its very nature, is required to give us something we did not get before.
So now we learn that the haunting of the Lambert family did not begin with little Dalton (Ty Simkins) a few years ago; it began with his father Josh (Patrick Wilson in present day, Garrett Ryan in flashback), whose memories were wiped clean to erase the trauma. We also learn the identify of the ghost that Josh brought back with him at the end of INSIDIOUS and learn the murderous back story, involving enforced transvestism and a domineering mother, none of which really matters except to help pad the film out to feature length while avoiding the story that should be told: the story of how Renai Lambert (Rose Byrne) reacts to the dawning realization that her husband is not, in fact, her husband.
In case you forgot [BRIEF SPOILER], unlike the father in “Little Girl Lost” (Richard Matheson’s episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE), Josh never made it back from the limbo world he entered to rescue the soul of his child; Josh’s spirit was left behind, replaced by that of the murderous “Bride in Black,” who turns out to be Parker (Tom Fitzpatrick), who killed only because his mother forced him to. The first act of the possessed Josh was to strangle psychic investigator Elise (Lin Shaye), because having found a foothold in the world of the flesh once again, the first thing a returning spirit wants to do is commit a crime that, in any logical universe, would put him behind bars for the rest of his unnatural life.
With the lamest of lip service, the police investigation of this murder is scuttled in the first reel of INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 2; even though Josh was the only person in the room with Elise when she was murdered, and even though the house was filled with other people who could attest to this, the police feel they need something more, such as a match between Josh’s hands and the imprint on Elise’s throat. Inexplicably, a phone call from the investigating officer later tells us there is no match, even though nothing in the film indicates that the size of Josh’s hand is physically altered by the spirit possessing his body.
All of this is just an excuse to circumvent the ending of the previous film, so that the screenplay (by Leigh Whannell) can get the Lambert family back into a haunted house again. Things predictably start going bump in the night, but rather absurdly, possessed Josh manages to silence everyone’s fears on this score; for some reason, his wife and his mother (Barbar Hershey) are too stupid to see that there is something wrong with a man who can blithely dismiss the supernatural – after all the havoc it wrecked on their family in the previous film.
Fortunately, Elise’s late co-workers, Specs (Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson) make contact with the other side and start to figure out that something is not right. This leads to a long trip down memory lane – long enough to blame Parker’s homicidal habits on Mother (yes, just like Norman Bates) without ever really making Mother out to be anything more than a caricature. When she finally appears in the flesh (metaphorically speaking), Danielle Bisutti plays the character with an over-enthusiastic relish more suitable to camp than horror, as if channeling the ghost of Joan Crawford – or more precisely, Faye Dunaway playing Crawford in MOMMY DEAREST. (As she slaps her son for refusing to act like a little girl, you have expect her to start yelling “Wire coat hangers!”)
By this time, Renai is kinda, sorta getting a clue that her husband is not really her husband anymore. It is symptomatic of the script’s problems that she must explain this in the dialogue to her mother-in-law, because we never really see the moment on screen. We are left to wonder what took her so long, and the more unseemly possibilities (i.e., living on intimate terms with a man who is in reality a total stranger) are ignored completely.
Eventually, a few modestly interesting ideas arise: Parker and his mother, far from being evil conspirators, are at odds, Parker hoping for a chance to live the “normal” life his mother denied him. Some of the haunting in the house is due not to Parker and his mother, but to Josh himself, who is waiting helplessly in limbo, hoping to reconnect with his family. And the spirit of Elise lurks somewhere nearby, no doubt waiting for an appropriate moment to intervene.
The last two elements at least provide a break from the current horror formula, in which only malevolent forces have any supernatural power. Unfortunately, the script never thinks through the implications, so the relative strengths of the dearly – and not so dearly – departed vary according to what would keep the good guys at a disadvantage: for example, Ghost Josh can only tinkle a piano keyboard, but Parker’s ghost mother can levitate objects and knock Renai unconscious. Why is Parker’s mother so much stronger? Because she’s evil, I guess.
That really is about as much thought as Whannell put into the story. We also learn that Josh’s body is decaying because of the dead soul inside it. His mother’s ghostly spirit tells him he can prevent this by killing the Lambert family, although why this should help is never explained. Is she lying? Or did the script just feel the need to motivate Possessed Josh’s final-reel shift from incognito intruder to homicidal maniac?
In any case, lke Jack Torrance in THE SHINING, Josh goes full-blown psycho for the final reel, threatening to murder his entire family (he uses a fire extinguisher rather than an ax to break through the door his wife has locked). In one of the film’s few nice touches, Dalton realizes that the astral projection that caused him so much trouble in the first film can enable him to make contact with his real father and bring him back to this earthly plane.
Meanwhile, in another moderately interesting bit, Elise and the real Josh are in limbo, seeking the answers that will exorcise Parker’s mother. Limbo, it seems is not only beyond space but also beyond time, allowing Josh to ask a crucial question of his boyhood self. Unfortunately, the answer doesn’t really reveal anything that will be crucial in defeating the evil spirit, but who’s keeping track?
At least INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 2 resists the temptation to deliver another last-minute twist that makes nonsense of what came before. However, it succumbs to the urge to dangle a thread intended to set up CHAPTER 3.
AESTHETICS AND ATMOSPHERE
As in INSIDIOUS and THE CONJURING, director James Wan shows an agile hand when it comes to manipulating the elements that go into making an atmospheric horror film. In this case, unfortunately, the familiar nature of the material and the script’s refusal to focus where it should, undermines the shudders, rendering one of Blumhouse Productions’s least effective fright films. As uninspired as the recent PARANORMAL ACTIVITY sequels have been, not to mention SINISTER and DARK SKIES, those films at least delivered some good scares, here and there.
But little of INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 2 matches the shivery sense of menace the infused its predecessor almost from beginning to end; in fact, you have to wait till midpoint for the first decent scare scene, when Specs and Tucker investigate Parker’s old childhood room – and find a child-size version of his spirit haunting the premises. (How this disembodied version of his spirit can be lurking in his old room, while Parker’s actual spirit is currently lodged in Parker’s body, is a question the film never bothers to address, because who cares?)
The cast is nice, but as hard as Patrick Wilson tries, he doesn’t quite have what it takes to suggest a sinister intelligence lurking behind a smiling facade: he’s at his most sinister, when showing up unexpectedly, framed in shadow; when he actually has to act scary, he’s okay at best.
Several of the characters appear in both old and young versions, with greater or lesser success. Older viewers probably know Barbara Hershey too well from her earlier work to buy Jocelin Donahue in flashbacks. Lindsay Seim, on the other hand, is so perfect that you immediately know she is the younger version of Elise, even if you don’t catch the name; the only problem here is a slight awkwardness about the dialogue, as if Seim were lip-synching to words recorded by Lin Shaye.
The emphasis on achieving scares with practical effects is welcome; for example, the afterlife is not some tour-de-force of CGI but essentially void, with faces and bodies appearing out of the darkness. But simply avoiding an over-used technique is not enough; you need to replace it with something else – something better. There was certainly potential here: INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 2 could have been an ominous exploration of ambiguity, if it had focused on the reactions of Josh’s wife and children as his strange, new behavior forced them to ask, “Is this the man we know and love, suffering from post-traumatic stress, or is it a demonic entity in his guise?”
WHAT I LEARNED
Evil ghosts are more powerful than good ghosts.
Baby monitors are scary.
Children’s toys are scary when they move by themselves in a dark room, especially when there is fog inside the room.
Even with a dead body and a houseful of likely suspects ranting about evil spirits, the police will not arrest the man who is obviously guilty.
The guilty party’s wife will be in denial about her husband’s guilt – which is almost understandable – but so will the murder victim’s ghost-hunting associates, who should – maybe, just maybe – consider the possibility of demonic possession.
THE FINAL TALLY
Lacking originality or inspiration, INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 2 is slow and tedious; even the occasional well-executed scare-scene is not enough to bring this tired old ghost back to life. Sad to say, the new INSIDIOUS is hideous.
[rating=1] On the CFQ Review Scale: a strong recommendation that you avoid this one. FOOTNOTE:
J-Horror avoids this problem by eschewing explanations – a sore point when those films get remade for Western audiences.
INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 2. Blumhouse Productions: September 13, 2013. 105 minutes, PG-13. Directed by James Wan. Written by Leigh Whannell. Cast: Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne, Ty Simpkins, Lin Shaye, Barbara Hershey, Steve Coulter, Leigh Whannell, Angus Sampson, Andrew Astor, Hank Harris, Jocelin Donahue, Lindsay Seim, Danielle Bisutti, Tyler Griffin, Garrett Ryan, Tom Fitzpatrick.
No match for Pixar’s best work, but a step in the right direction after some recent disappointments
Mike and Sully are back, but they are not friends till the end – well, at least not until the third act. It’s as if Pixar Animation Studios took a look at MONSTERS INC. and said, “The Mike-Sully relationship is just as good as Buzz and Woody, but it’s as if we skipped straight to TOY STORY 2, without ever getting to see them meet and become pals, so let’s go back and do that.” That’s right: MONSTERS UNIVERSITY takes the well-worn prequel path of leading up to what we already know, instead of showing us something new – or at least that’s how it seems initially. In fact, the new film is very much the Mike Wazowski story: it’s about the little guy who dreams big; who works harder than everyone else because, frankly, he doesn’t have the natural skills; and who must, ultimately, find a different path to success from the one he anticipated, because he’s never going to be the heavyweight champion he imagined. It’s a great message for children and a poignant reminder for adults: everyone has something to offer; the “cool” kids aren’t always cool; and sometimes the underdog has his day – though perhaps not quite in the manner he expected.
PLOT SUMMARY (MINOR SPOILERS)
After a school field trip to Monsters, Inc., the one-eyed Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) decides he wants to be a scarer when he grows up. To that end, he studies and earns admission to Monsters University, where he meets the over-confidant James Sullivan (John Goodman). “Sully,” as he is known to his friends, is a legacy student, coasting on his father’s reputation and his own natural abilities, which he does not bother to hone.Mike, meanwhile, works diligently, but an accident in class gets both of them kicked out of the university’s scare program.
Mike and Sully’s only chance to get back in is by winning the “Scare Games,” but to qualify, they have to join a fraternity, and the only one with vacancies is made up of losers, known as Oozma Kappa. Fortunately, Mike’s know-how and Sully’s skills propel the group to success as a team, but the final game requires each individual monster to prove his scare-skills, and Sully (well aware of Mike’s deficiency) rigs the results, which gets both of them expelled.
Determined to prove himself, Mike goes through a scare-door but finds himself trapped in a sleep-away camp filled with children who are not afraid of him. Sully goes through the door to aid his friend, but he lacks the confidence to be truly scary in a real-world situation. However, working together, they literally blow the door off the place….
COMMENTS (END SPOILERS)
I was never a huge fan of MONSTERS, INC. Though entertaining, it is not rich enough to stand up to multiple viewings as well as other Pixar classics; its main strength lies in the Mike-Sully relationship. Transplanting that element to an earlier time and a different setting engenders some new comic possibilities but not enough to sustain the follow-up as more than a mildly amusing time-waster that follows the typical prequel “surprise” strategy: Mike and Sully don’t like each other initially; the first film’s villain, Randall (Steve Buscemi), seems like a nice guy at first; and so on.
Fortunately, when the story moves beyond playing with our expectations about the familiar characters, the message about teamwork and learning to use one’s own personal resources enlivens MONSTERS UNIVERSITY; the well-executed third especially justifies the film’s existence as something more than a way to cash in on a successful predecessor.
Long before they realize it themselves, the audience sees that Mike and Sully are complimentary talents – the brains and the brawn, if you will . Mike is the self-made man, pulling himself up through determination. Sully is unformed raw material, impulsive, expecting success to come easy but afraid of failing to meet expectations implanted by his famous name. The benefits of collaboration are foreshadowed when their combined, if not premeditated, efforts capture a rival university’s mascot. From there, it may be predictable that they will succeed only when they become a team, but the result is no less satisfying.
The message extends beyond them. Midway through, when the Oozma Kappa (that reads “OK” in abbreviated form, get it?) are dispirited about their chances of winning, there is a brilliant sequence in which Mike sneaks them into Monsters, Inc. and shows them a scare-floor full of workers – none of whom have anything obvious in common. The point: you can’t tell who’s the best just by looks; each scarer uses his or her own personal skills; what seems like weaknesses may be hidden strengths; and everyone needs to develop what he or she can do best, rather than striving to conform an established norm. Sure, it’s basically REVENGE OF THE NERDS redone as a CG Muppet movie, but it works.
VISUALS AND 3D
The screenplay may be a mixed bag, but the visual execution is state-of-the-art, without being ostentatious. The backgrounds and the characters are so detailed that they seem almost palpable; we may be reaching the point where the champions of stop-motion effects can no longer point to the tactile textures of miniature models as a point of superiority over computer-generated animation. Mike and Sully are rendered even better than before, and there are some nifty new characters, too, including Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren), an insectoid monster with demonic wings, who cleverly skirts the edge of the light while addressing students, seldom emerging fully from the shadows.
These qualities are magnified by some of the most beautiful 3D visual ever captured on screen. Unlike too many post-production conversions today (including MONSTERS, INC.), we are not seeing a simple separation of foreground and background elements. The characters and the props have depth. There is a curvature to Sully’s bulk that makes him appear almost real on screen. A nighttime seen beside a lake illuminated by a full moon extends from the edges of the movie screen and into the distance like a landscape viewed through a window.
The expressive capabilities of the animation are also amazing. The one-eyed Mike, in particular, has an amazing range, and it’s not the CGI equivalent of scenery chewing, either: a blink, a downcast look – these are the simple building blocks the animators use to show the mix of determination and self-doubt that make the little green guy come alive.
And the filmmakers know when to use all these elements in the service of a great set-piece. The games provide ample opportunities for visual fun (including a massive librarian-octopus who seems to have crept out of a Lovecraft story), but director Dan Scanlon is clever enough to modulate the mayhem, turning the volume up to 9 but saving the 10 for the end, which offers an unexpected highlight: a scene that takes familiar horror tropes suitable to a FRIDAY THE 13TH knockoff (dark cabin in the woods, rustling shadows, and scratching claws – all building up to the final reveal of the monster) and uses them as deftly as any live action movie. Especially impressive: for once, we in the audience are on the side of the monsters, but that does not diminish the sinister tension of the scene. This is MONSTER UNIVERSITY’s true “money scene,” the one that makes you realize you just got everything you paid for when you purchased your ticket.
Needless to say, MONSTERS UNIVERSITY is very funny. A bit less expected: in the counter-programming sweepstakes with WORLD WAR Z (which opened the same weekend), Pixar’s G-rated film boasts an animated scare sequence that rivals Brad Pitt’s live-action trek through a zombie-infested corridor. More successfully than the PG-13 rival, MONSTER UNIVERSITY’s horror-movie-style climax completes character arcs that tease out previously unseen nuances in the familiar characters, bringing the story to a satisfying conclusion while setting up the events that will follow. The script even avoids the obvious, easy resolution, offering Mike and Sully a less expected route that will lead to MONSTERS, INC.
The virtues of MONSTERS UNIVERSITY are not enough to raise the film to the level of Pixar’s best work: TOY STORY 2, THE INCREDIBLES, CARS. Although it is fun to see Mike and Sully back in action, I’m not sure the sequel is even as good as its predecessor. Nevertheless, after the double disappointment of CAR 2 and BRAVE, this is a small step back in the right direction.
[rating=3] On the CFQ Review Scale of zero to five stars, a moderate recommendation. Note: MONSTERS UNIVERSITY is preceded by THE BLUE UMBRELLA, a cute Pixar short subject, in which common street objects (drain pipes, mail boxes) are given subtly anthropomorphized expressions. The simple story follows the titular umbrella (which looks like the real thing, but with animated features) meeting a pink (presumably female) counterpart. Their owners separate, but a gust of wind brings them back together. It’s vaguely similar to last year’s Oscar-winning short subject, PAPERMAN; though not quite as satisfying artistically, THE BLUE UMBRELLA features very impressive computer graphics to bring its street scene to life. MONSTERS UNIVERSITY (Walt Disney Pictures & Pixar Animation Studios: June 21, 2013). Rated G. Running time: 110 minutes. Directed by Dan Scanlon. Writers: Robert L Baird, Daniel Gerson, Dan Scanlon. Voices: Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Helen Mirren, Peter Sohn, Joel Murray, Sean Hayes, Dave Foley, Charlie Day, Alfred Molina, Tyler Labine, Nathan Fillon, Aubrey Plaza, Bobby Moynihan, Noah Johnston, Julia Sweeney, Bonnie Hunt, John Krasinski, John Ratzenberger.
In a belated edition of the Cinefantastique Video Review podcast, Steve Biodrowski dissects AFTER EARTH, the vanity project starring Will Smith and Jaden Smith, directed by M. Night Shyamalan. The film features one or two brights spots to remind us of Shyamalan’s once formidable talent, but the director over-emphasizes the sentimental aspects of a father-son trying to survive on a hostile planet, without generating any real drama or igniting the action scenes with any excitement.
The familiar zombie routine has never been realized on such an epic scale, but that is the film’s only claim to novelty.
WORLD WAR Z is not merely a movie about zombies; it is a bit of a zombie itself: shot and re-shot, cut to pieces, bloody and battered, it nevertheless refuses to die, staggering to the finish line and beyond with remarkable resiliency, though bearing only a superficial similarity to its former self, its higher brain functions faded. Which is to say that, in spite of extensive rewriting, re-shooting, and re-editing, the finished film does not resemble a Frankenstein-monster stitched together from disparate pieces. It looks like a healthy human being – until you get up close and stare into the empty eyes, devoid of personality, and realize that its movements are the force of habit, not spontaneous actions initiated by intelligent thought. Fortunately, the familiar zombie routine has its appeal, and never before has it been realized on such epic scale. Big-budget horror blockbusters are few and far between; therein lies the film’s only claim to novelty. If worldwide mayhem, wrapped up in a globe-trotting thriller scenario, is enough to animate your interest, WORLD WAR Z is not a bad way to kill a couple hours.
After a moment of domestic calm before the storm, introducing us to Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) and his family, WORLD WAR Z quickly dives into the zombie apocalypse with an outbreak, with effectively convincing chaos spilling onto city streets with alarming speed. Gerry turns out to be a former U.N. investigator, with experience getting in and out of hot spots around the globe; he is pressed back into service in exchange for room and board for his family aboard a battleship, safe from the death and destruction on shore. With the countdown to human extinction ticking, the goal is to trace the viral outbreak to its source in the hope of finding a cure. This proves to be easier said than done, with most of the world in flames, able to offer assistance but no useful answers.
The first weird thing you notice about WORLD WAR Z is that, despite the impressive long shots with virtual armies of the living dead overwhelming helpless victims, the film as a whole never truly captures a sense of impending doom as well as its own trailer. What should be the motivating force behind the narrative is instead soft-pedaled – not eclipsed but definitely subordinated to what really matters: family values. Gerry, you see, is less interested in saving the world than in saving his family – a point emphasized when he refuses the mission, changing his mind only when the military commander informs him that there is no room for non-essential personnel aboard ship (translation: if he doesn’t go, he and his family will be kicked off).
Consequently, Gerry’s quest is less about completing his mission than it is about getting back to the wife and kids. Which might be okay if they were not such a generic, forgettable lot. The cutaways to the wife and kids awaiting Gerry’s return, and the occasional phone call, are meant to lend an emotional foundation to the story; instead, they are mere distractions. You get the feeling that, as far as the filmmakers are concerned, the world can go to hell as long as the family is reunited at the end. It’s not exactly the best way to generate a sense of apocalyptic horror.
Horror of any sort is in relatively short supply, perhaps due to the studio-mandated PG-13 rating, which leaves the film not only bloodless but generally scare-less. Producer-star Pitt reportedly wanted to push the rating to the limit, but there is little evidence of this on screen, although there is a nice decisive moment when his character (bloodlessly) severs a victim’s hand to prevent infection from spreading.
There are plenty of thrills, but for the most part they are presented in the action idiom, with chase, gunshots, and explosions that keep you on the edge of your seat but seldom have you squirming with dread. The exception is an expertly staged, extended set-piece near the end, in which Gerry and a few others must negotiate the corridors of a World Health Organization building, relying on stealth to prevent detection by the roaming zombies. Director Marc Forster (who helmed the excellent STRANGER THAN FICTION and the not so excellent QUANTUM OF SOLACE) does his best work here; the 3D imagery (a post-production conversion that looks great throughout) seems to put you inside the hallways, shoulder to shoulder with the humans, so close you almost feel as if the zombies could reach out and grab you (though, sadly, such a nifty 3D shot as an arm shooting out of the screen is never attempted).
The zombies themselves are a not particularly imaginative variation on the creatures we have been seeing on screen for decades. There is a certain spastic nature to their movements that is unnerving, and some of the makeups are good, though not particularly innovative. As in 28 DAYS LATER (2002), they are victims of a virus, and they run like Olympic sprinters. This made more sense in the previous film, in which the zombies were not really zombies at all but living humans infected with a “rage virus.” Here, we have humans who die within seconds but remain healthy enough to outrun the living, swarm up walls like overactive insects, and overwhelm well-equipped soldiers.
Speaking of the living dead, the characters seldom do. There is some initial scoffing at the use of the word “zombie,” and Gerry later asks someone how Jerusalem managed to prepare for the zombie menace that no one else believed was coming. But no one even tries to come to grips with what must be a tremendous psychological shock, a complete overturning of our fundamental reality – the inviolable demarcation between the living and the dead. Beside a brief snippet on the soundtrack, there is no “end of times” rhetoric, no reference to the religious implications of the resurrection of the dead, no acknowledgement that the threat being faced is not merely a rampaging virus but something totally unprecedented in human history.
Consequently, the metaphorical force of the zombie is diminished. The walking dead have stood for conformity, consumerism, slavery, and many other concepts; here, they are just really fast dangerous people who are very hard to kill. (Yes, a bullet to the brain will do the trick, just as in George A. Romero’s films). Apparently, Pitt’s original intent was to examine sociopolitical ideas (what would this outbreak do to society? which countries would fare best), but that got lost in the effort to create a blockbuster that would launch an action-oriented franchise.
This leads to the inevitable open ending, primed for sequels – though not quite as blatantly open and unsatisfying as the director’s cut is reported to have been. The post-production revisions reunited Gerry with his family and deleted a major battle sequence in Russian, which showed the protagonist morphing from Everyman to Action Hero.* You have to admire the filmmakers for switching to a more small-scale, suspenseful conclusion, although this winds up feeling rather anti-climactic (Pitt’s closing narration tells us it’s not the end, or even the beginning of the end, just the end of this movie, with more expected to follow).
Should there be more? The productions values and the star performance, the lavish locations and epic scale – all show signs of potential, even if that potential was hampered by a studio eager for a family-friendly blockbuster rather than a horrifying vision of the apocalypse. Hopefully, a sequel could explore some ideas left unrealized here. Perhaps we should be grateful that Gerry gets back with his family at the end of WORLD WAR Z – a plot thread left dangling in the first director’s cut – at least that will not be the basis for a sequel. UPDATE: I forgot to mention the film’s one interesting concept: The Tenth Man, which is basically a variation on the Devil’s Advocate. This idea is offered up as the explanation for why Israel was prepared for the zombie onslaught: after decades of dismissing early warning signs, the country adopted the concept of “The Tenth Man”: if ten people hear the same evidence, and nine of them come to the same conclusion, the tenth is obligated to assume the opposite is correct, and explore the possibility rigorously. Fortunately for Israel, the Tenth Man was able to prove the truth of the zombie threat in time to make preparations.
[rating=2] On the CFQ Review scale of zero to five stars, a moderate non-recommendation, though there are redeeming features FOOTNOTE:
In case you have not kept up with WORLD WAR Z’s production saga, you can learn a little bit here. Essentially, the ending of the director’s cut pleased no one, so Damon Lindelof was brought in to revamp the conclusion; he and Drew Goddard wrote 60 new pages that changed not only the ending, but also most of the film’s second half – basically, everything after Gerry leaves Jerusalem, including the in-flight zombie attack.
WORLD WAR Z (Paramount Pictures: July 21, 2013). Rated PG-13. 116 minutes. Directed by Marc Forster. Screen story by Matthew Michael Carnahan and J. Michael Straczynski; screenplay by Matthew Michael Carnahan and Drew Goddard & Damon Lindelof; based on the novel by Max Brooks. Cast: Brad Pitt, Mireille Enos, Daniella Kertesz, James Badge Dale, Ludi Boeken, Matthew Fox, Fana Mokoena, David Morse, Elyes Gabel, Peter Capaldi, Pierfrancesco Favino, Ruth Negga.
If you’re a card-carrying soldier in the self-proclaimed “Hatchet Army,” you already know whether you want to see this movie; in fact, you probably already have seen this move. But if you never enlisted, or if you took an honorable discharge after HATCHET II, you may be sitting on the sidelines and wondering whether to take another tour of duty around the swamp haunted by Victor Crowley (Kane Hodder). Well, as someone who defected because of the disappointing sequel,* I can say it’s time to rejoin the ranks. HATCHET III is almost as much gleefully gory fun as the original – a comedy-horror hybrid that elicits screams of laughter and disgust in equal measure, sometimes simultaneously.
Like HATCHET II (2010), HATCHET III is pitched to the fans who discovered the franchise with the original HATCHET (2006) – a came-out-of-nowhere sleeper hit on the festival circuit that never reached the wider audience it deserved. The problem with HATCHET II is that writer-director Adam Green over-enthusiastically pandered to the gore-hounds who loved the unrated mayhem the first time around; in the process, the delightfully tongue-in-cheek tone of the original degraded into dispiriting camp. HATCHET III ditches the camp and resurrects the clever comedy, adding numerous nods and winks that will only be recognized by those who have seen the previous films.**
Though directed this time by B.J. McConnell (Green is back as writer and producer), HATCHET III picks up seamlessly from its predecessor, with Marybeth (Danielle Harris) punching Victor Crowley’s ticket and marching into the local police station with his scalp. Unfortunately, Crowley is no mere madman but some kind of eternally resurrecting monster, who is soon decimating the crews sent to tag the bodies leftover from the previous films. A local reporter (Caroline Williams), who destroyed her reputation by hyping the legend of Victor Crowley legend, knows a way to end the curse (which has nothing to do with the method in HATCHET II – but who’s keeping track?) Reluctantly, Marybeth agrees to help; her family connection with one of the men responsible for Crowley’s death – and thus his afterlife – makes her the only one who return Crowley to the peace of the grave.
Unlike the previous sequel, HATCHET III avoids getting bogged down in back story, and script doesn’t waste a lot of time getting another crowd of victims into the swamp. Once all the fish are in the barrel, director McDonnell keeps the action popping like a series of burst blood vessels as Crowley dissects his victims in a series of imaginatively gruesome ways.
If that sounds a little too hardcore for viewers with little thirst for movie blood, take note: the copious carnage is too outrageous to be regarded seriously; the aesthetic of violence is almost diametrically opposed to that of the recent V/H/S 2, whose crimson splatter paints a picture far more grim and depressing. Achieved with old-fashioned prosthetics and geysers of red-tinted water, the kills in HATCHET III are scary fun in a popcorn-movie kind of way that seems almost quaint in this era of torture porn and mumblegore.
At times, the script is a little too lackadaisical in its “only a movie” approach. Green’s script cannot decide whether local law enforcement is a police department or a sheriff’s department (there is a difference), and the question of jurisdictional authority is ignored when a SWAT team (led by Derek Mears as Hawes) shows up and takes over.
We’re simply not supposed to care, because we all know the real reason for the SWAT team’s presence is to shoe-horn Mears into the movie. The actor played Jason Voorhees in the recent remake of FRIDAY THE 13TH (200) – a role that Hodder played several times in the 1990s – and you can bet that HATCHET III will serve up a scene in which the two former Jasons go mano-a-mano. Unfortunately, the result turns out to be an even bigger anticlimax than the confrontation between Hodder and former Leatherface R.A. Mihailoff in HATCHER II.
Performances are mostly good, but variable. Galligan turns out to be a capable character actor, and it’s nice to see Williams (of THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2) on screen again, but some of the comic relief supporting players are stiff (every horror film needs its Private Hudson, but not every actor can pull it off like Bill Paxton in ALIENS).
As for the returning cast: Playing his third character in three films, Parry Shen regains some of the humor he lost in Part 2. With no more of the previous films’ flashbacks, Hodder’s dual role (as Victor Crowley and Victor’s grieving father) has been reduced to one; fortunately, no one can project aggressive body language through layers of makeup better than Hodder. As returning heroine Marybeth, Harris is a bit one-note, but the script gives her only one note to play (essentially, “f-ck you!”). At least Green avoids inserting the ostentatiously “dramatic” scenes from HATCHET II, which pushed Harris and Hodder beyond the limits of what they could achieve within the context of a genre film (no amount of emoting can sell emotions in a film that achieves coitus interruptus by means of decapitation).
HATCHET III manages to deliver another rousing finale that at least seems to break with tradition by offering an apparently definitive death for its mon-star. But that’s the nice thing about the film: along with the expected genre elements, there are a few surprises, too – a “dead meat” character who survives, a death that takes place mostly off-screen (leaving the violence if not the outcome in our imagination). The film may not win many new converts to the Hatchet Army, but it should bring back any troops who went AWOL.
[rating=3] On the CFQ Review Scale of zero to five stars, a moderate recommendation
Note: HATCHET III is currently in limited theatrical engagements around the country. The film is simultaneously available via Video on Demand. Click here to rent it now. FOOTNOTES:
*As far as I’m concerned, HATCHET II is a dishonorable discharge – of putrescent decay.
**In case your memory is a little fuzzy, here is a sampler of inside jokes in HATCHER III:
After playing victims in the first two films, Parry Shen appears as yet a third character, who objects to a crime-scene co-worker’s suggestion that he resembles one of the bodies (“All Asians look alike to you!). Meanwhile, we in the audience wonder whether Shen will go zero-for-three in the survival department.
A brief, hysterical cameo by David Joel Moore finally ties up the loose end of what happens to Ben after the abrupt ending of HATCHET.
In a truly great meta-moment, the local sheriff dismisses an account of the events of the first two film for being illogical, incredible, and inconsistent, while a local drunk (played by screenwriter Green, with a look of dismay) listens from an adjoining cell. The sequence is even funnier when you note that the sheriff is played by Zach Galligan, who appeared GREMLINS and GREMLINS 2; in the later, his character’s attempt to explain the events of the former met with similar ridicule from skeptical listeners.
HATCHET III (Dark Sky Films: theatrical and Video on Demand release on June 14, 2013). Written by Adam Green. Directed by B.J. McDonnell. Cast: Danielle Harris, Kane Hodder, Zach Galligan, Caroline Williams, Cody Blue Snider, Derek Mears, Robert Diago DoQui, Parry Shen, Sid Haig.
A quick fix for hardcore horror junkies, but not a sustained high
Despite initial reviews suggesting that V/H/S 2 had perfected the found-footage-anthology format pioneered by V/H/S, the sequel turns out to be mostly more of the same, offering only slight improvement over its predecessor, mostly in the form of a shorter running time, fewer episodes, and reduced sex-ploitation. Once again, expert craftsmanship and remarkable ingenuity yield abundant shocks and sustained, grim intensity – all the more impressive, given the limited resources. Along with the virtues, also come the flaws: the dedication to delivering relentlessly downbeat horror results in monotonous redundancy that prevents the individual episodes from adding up to a satisfying whole. The team of filmmakers behind V/H/S 2 are clearly talented, but judging from the evidence on screen, they expended most of their creativity not on crafting a variety of interlocking tales but on inventing novel justifications for the skaky-cam style of camerawork. A few moments of poignancy and levity – the latter bordering on camp – are welcome, but they are too brief and too far between to qualify as the badly needed variety. Hardcore horror junkies will get their fix, and then some; non-addicts will enjoy a hit or two but not get a sustained high.
TAPE 49 (Wraparound Beginning) – Written & directed by Simon Barrett
Perhaps a bit too predictably, the wraparound segment of V/H/S 2 begins with a sex scene surreptitiously videotaped – a rather unwanted call-back to a recurring motif in V/H/S. Fortunately, this turns out to be a bit of a false alarm: this time we are not seeing the world through the eyes of young punks out to sexually harass victims; we are following a private eye named Larry (Lawrence Michael Levine), who is gathering evidence against a philandering husband. Larry turns out to be not the most ethical man; he immediately calls the husband and offers to give him the tape if he can make a better offer. (Place your bets on whether Larry will live past the closing credits!) Larry and his partner Ayesha (Kelsey Abbott) then go on their next job: A woman has asked him to find her son, who has gone missing. Breaking into the college student’s house, they find a row of television sets and a stack of videocassettes (including one that shows a clip of “Tape 56” from V/H/S). The tapes become the episodes that make up the body of the film.
Although not exactly engrossing, “Tape 46” is more intriguing than its counterpart in V/H/S, offering cryptic, conspiratorial hints about the collection of videotapes. We catch bits of dialogue from a recording made by a missing student, in which he suggests that the old analog recording medium has potential to affect the nervous system, but the tapes need to be watched in the right order to work. The implication is that the tapes have been deliberately created and collated to do harm, and the “victims” (the missing student and perhaps even the dead man in V/H/S) may have willingly exposed themselves to the contamination.
It’s a good set-up – more imaginative than any of the stories to follow. And of course, the reference to analog tape helps explain why we are dealing with VHS technology in this modern digital era. This concept also adds an eerie layer to the reason that Larry and Ayesha are recording everything they do inside the empty house: it’s part of the deal with their client. We in the audience are left to wonder: Have Larry and Ayesha been set up to create yet another “found footage” horror story?
PHASE I CLINICAL TRIALS – Written by Simon Barrett, directed by Adam Wingard
Herman (director Adam Wingard) gets a new experimental mechanical eye, which includes a datachip recording everything he sees (and hears as well – which is a bit of a stretch, since he doesn’t have an ear implant). Unfortunately, as in THE EYE (2002), the new orb opens Adam’s vision to visitors “From Beyond.” A young woman suffering a similar problem, due to a cochlear implant, shows up and tells him she can help him overcome this problem. Guess what? She can’t! The spectral shadows haunting Herman become more invasive, drowning the woman; in desperation, Herman abides by the Biblical injunction: “If thine eye offend thee, pluck it out.” Unfortunately, the effect on stopping the spooks is nil.
The first episode of V/H/S delivers the shudders with style, but there is little new here, beyond the novelty of the implanted eye. Clearly, screenwriter Barrett is working hard to answer the question on everyone’s mind during these “hand-held” movies: Why don’t the characters drop the camera and run? His answer is clever, but it raises new questions: How did the recording get off the data chip and onto a videotape? And, since we were told that the chip would record everything, who did the edited out the parts we don’t see?
A RIDE IN THE PARK – Written by Jamie Nash & Eduardo Sanchez, Directed by Gregg Hale and Eduardo Sanchez
A biker is recording his ride through the park on a Go-Pro camera mounted on his helmet. Stopping to help a woman bleeding from bite wounds, he sees some shuffling people we assume to be zombies, and he winds up bitten by the woman he tried to save. After collapsing unconscious, he resurrects – and begins searching for victims of his own.
That’s right: this episode offers Zombie-Vision – a you-are-there, point-of-view presentation of what it’s like to come back as the living dead. The over-the-top absurdity, coupled with the horror we are witnessing up close and personal, as if we ourselves were committing it, combine to make the stand-out episode of V/H/S 2.
Fortunately, the episode offers more than a clever gimmick; there is also an unexpected touch of pathos. After chewing his way through numerous victims, the bike rider hears his fiance speaking to him over his cell phone – apparently, he “pocket dialed” her while being shot and run over. The sound of her voice seems to bring back some whisper of humanity: the biker crawls to a gun dropped by one of his victims and turns it on himself; the blast knocks the camera loose, giving us a final glimpse of the biker’s blasted head.
SAFE HAVEN – Written by Timo Tjahjanto, Directed by Timo Tjahjanto & Gareth Evans
A documentary crew gets permission to videotape within the compound of an Indonesian religious cult. Though initially reluctant, the cult leader seems eager for the opportunity to explain himself. The interview turns negative when the reporter raises questions of child sexual abuse, but the issue soon becomes moot. Apparently, the time of the interview just happens to coincide with the fulfillment of the cult’s achieving Paradise on Earth, which consists of three elements: mass suicide; resurrection as the living dead; the birth of some kind of demon from a human mother. All Hell literally breaks loose; the camera crew is caught in the cross fire – shot, stabbed, or beaten, except for the lone female member, who unwillingly becomes the vessel for the demonic birth. A surviving crew member – he just happens to be the one who got the lady reporter pregnant – flees in a truck but the demon catches up with him and the vehicle overturns. As the man laughs hysterically, snot running down his nose and into the camera lens, the demon leans over the truck, looks down upon him, and says, “Papa.”
With its chilling depiction of a suicide cult, “Safe Haven” recalls horrible real-life tragedies such as the Jones Town Massacre. The horror of being an outsider who has wandered into a lethal situation is ably captured, and viewers are likely to find themselves cringing at the sight of horrors which seem not too far removed from reality.
There are a couple of slip-ups, however. Despite a bevy of willing cult members, for some reason the lone outside woman becomes the unwilling mother of the demon. Is this why the cult leader changed his mind and allowed the crew to film in his compound, or was it just a happy coincidence that the apocalypse started during filming? During the choas, the cult leader is able to overpower and kill a much younger and healthier crew member. How? Just because the script tells him to.
Having gone to the trouble of establishing that the female reporter is wearing a camera lens disguised as a blouse button (again, explaining why the victims do not drop the camera), the episode shoots most of its footage from other cameras, including one that seems to be mounted on the dashboard for no particular reason. Again, we are given no clue who assembled and edited all this footage. (And when you think about it, once we are seeing scenes edited together from multiple cameras, haven’t we left the “found footage’ genre behind and moved into pseudo-documentary territory?)
The finale is worth a giggle, but one wonders why a demon so indifferent to the death of its mother would be interested in establishing a familial bond with its father.
SLUMBER PARTY ALIEN ABDUCTION – Written John Davies & Jason Eisener, directed by Jason Eisener
While their parents are away for the evening, some friends goof around with a camera, attaching it to their dog and playing practical jokes, which include sneaking in on an elder sister while she is in bed with her boyfriend. During a brief moment underwater, a boy catches a glimpse of something vaguely alien-looking. Later that night, a full-blown alien abduction takes place. The kids run for cover but cannot escape as, one by one, they are mysteriously yanked skyward. The last ones to go are a boy and his dog, but the dog slips back to Earth, the camera on his back recording his lethal fall, until the impact knocks the device loose, giving us a glimpse of the dying canine’s final breath.
It says something about V/H/S 2, as a whole, that the single most heartfelt moment in it is the death of a dog: a poor pup swept up into a situation it could not possibly understand, his expiring gasp is painful to watch. Just about everything else in the movie is piled on for shock value rather than sympathy (except for the ending of “A Ride in the Park,” which is very similar , with the camera dislodging at the moment of death for a last look at the character whose point-of-view we have been seeing). Even more than “Safe Haven,” “Slumber Party Alien Abduction” captures an overwhelming sense of being swept up by events outside of one’s control. The sheer hopelessness of the situation is overwhelming, but it’s not as if we care what happens to any of the humans, whose relationships are only vaguely established before the terror hits. (Are they siblings, friends? Who is playing a joke on whom, and why?) Thank god for the dog, or the episode would have been just empty spectacle.
TAPE 49 (Wraparound Ending)
After watching the final tape, Larry returns his attention to video diary of the missing student, who proclaims that (with his mother’s blessing) he is planning to make his own tape. The video shows the student blowing his face to pieces with a pistol; apparently dead, he nonetheless rises from his chair and moves off screen. Ayesha (who died somewhere in the middle of the movie) comes back to life and chases Larry into a closet, where he hides, not realizing that the dead student is in there with him. The student kills Larry, lifts the camera to show himself in close-up, and gives us a thumbs-up, indicating success.
Like “Safe Haven,” the conclusion portion of the “Tape 49” wraparound ends on a “joke.” It’s not exactly funny, nor is it in keeping with the overall tone of V/H/S 2, but it does provide the creepy suggestion that a new V/H/S tape has been successfully created – one that will go on to infect other victims, much like the tapes in RINGU (1998). The evil spreads, awaiting the next sequel.
(By the way, what’s up with the name of Larry’s assistant, “Ayesha”? Are we supposed to make some connection with the immortal queen in H. Rider Hagard’s novel She?)
THOUGHTS AND CONCLUSIONS
Like its predecessor, V/H/S 2 is a mixed bag – not so much because the episodes are variable in quality as because their redundancy of approach gradually dims their capacity to shock, undermining the film’s overall impact.
The effect is magnified if watch V/H/S and V/H/S 2 as a back-to-back double bill, revealing redundancy not only within the films but between the films. “Safe Haven” depicts another woman giving birth to a monster, as in V/H/S’s “The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger,” whose aliens seem to have crept into the new film’s “Slumber Party Alien Abduction,” which ends by repeating a visual gag from the previous film’s “Amateur Night” – sweeping a character into the sky and then dropping the camera back to Earth.
On the plus side, the overt sexism of the first V/H/S has been toned down – which is to say, the cameras are no longer in the hands of young male punks urging the girlfriends to flash their assets. The downside to this is that the thematic continuity of V/H/S has been lost as well – the sense of women in various guises turning the tables on vulgar men who just may deserve the horrifying retribution they receive.
Whatever its shortcomings, V/H/S 2 delivers on a visceral level, proving that there is continued life in the unholy hybrid of the found-footage style and the anthology format. Hopefully, the producers will continue with the franchise. After two or three more sequels, there should be enough great episodes to assemble a killer “Greatest Hits” compilation.
[rating=3] On the CFQ Review scale of zero to five stars, a moderate recommendation Note: V/H/S 2 is currently available via Video on Demand; click here to watch the film. It opens in limited theatrical engagements on July 11.
V/H/S/ 2 (Magnet Releasing: VOD release on June 7, 2013; theatrical release on July 11). Not rated. 96 minutes. Writers: Simon Barrett, John Davies, Jason Eisener, Gareth Evans, Jamie Nash, Eduardo Sanchez, Timo Tjahjanto. Directors: Simon Barrett, Jason Eisener, Gareth Evans, Gregg Hale, Eduardo Sanchez, Timo Tjahjanto, Adam Wingard. Cast: Kelsey Abbott, Fachry Albar, Oka Antara, Devon Brookshire, Samathan Gracie, L.C. Holt, Hannah Hughes, Kevin Hunt, John Karyus, Epy Kusnandar, Lawrence Michael Levine, Mindy Robinson, Jay Saunders, Jeremie Saunders, Andrew Suleiman, Adam Wingard, John T. Woods.
If you think that being trapped with a bunch of guys telling dick jokes would the equivalent of Hell on Earth – well, according to THIS IS THE END, you are more right than you think – perhaps literally so. The vulgar humor of young guys who have yet to outgrow adolescence is shoved in your face whether you like it or not, but in an excellent example of eating your cake and having it, too, the film happily portrays its characters as hapless vulgarians who deserve the apocalyptic fate that befalls them. In other words, you do not have to like the characters or their sense of humor in order to enjoy THIS IS THE END. We are not laughing with them; we are laughing at them.
James Franco, Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel, Johna Hill, Danny McBride, and Craig Robinson – along with myriad other familiar faces – play themselves, and not in a very flattering light. Baruchel (who apparently feels about Los Angeles much the same as Woody Allen does) makes a trip out to visit his friend, Rogen, who insists on attending a Hollywood party at Franco’s house. An earthquake or some kind of natural disaster hits, or perhaps it is something more, judging from the strange blue lights elevating bodies into the sky. Is is a massive alien abduction, or could it be The Rapture?
Taking refuge in Franco’s house, along with Hill, McBride, and Robinson, barricade the doors, divide up the resources, and attempt to wait out the disaster, but help may not be coming. Although initially skeptical of Baruchel’s suspicions that this is not a mere natural disaster but a literal, Biblical apocalypse, the survivors are eventually forced to that something downright demonic is going on. THIS IS THE END belongs to that small sub-genre of films in which Hollywood celebrities attempt to earn brownie points by pretending to be as venal, crass, and self-absorbed as we suspect them to be -presumably, in the hope of convincing us that, if they really were privileged boors in real life, they would not have the sense of humor to attempt the self-effacing portrayals on screen.
Whether this is a con game or a brilliant comic ruse, the results are outrageously effective. Unburdened of the urge to create rounded, sympathetic personalities, THIS IS THE END instead serves up vicious caricatures, uncluttered with complications or subtlety, that shine off the screen with something resembling a hint of truth about the human condition – or at least a darkly satirical version of it. Nobility and moral quandaries are few and far between: when the sh-t hits the fan, you can bet it will be every man for himself; it’s just a matter of who will be the biggest douche-bag about it.
No one really comes across well. Even Baruchel’s level-headed straight man (he is supposed to be the viewer’s window into this world) is a bit too full of himself, not overtly self-righteous but as will as anybody to sell his comrades out when an opportunity presents itself. Only Emma Watson, who shows up briefly, earns much empathy, putting the smack down on these losers and ripping off their supplies after overhearing (and, to be fair, misunderstanding) a conversation about rape among the guys.
This is one of the film’s funnier sequences and not just because Rogen gets smacked in the face with an ax handle. Baruchel dares to raise the obvious issue of the situation (a single woman among half a dozen men); in an overstated case of denial, the others turn his concern against him, as if he were the one with rape on his mind. (The parallels with our current political discourse, in which people who raise concerns about racism and sexism are shouted down as if they are the real bigots, is obvious.)
Funnier still is the apocalyptic chaos that takes over in the third act. Like a good, low-budget horror film, THIS IS THE END is mostly restricted to the confines of the Franco house, offering us only judicious glimpses of the fiery Armageddon outside. Unlike many of Hollywood’s overstuffed blockbusters, this limited use of special effects renders the shots we do see even more special; by the ending, we get a few truly outstanding set pieces, the last involving what must be at least the second largest penis ever portrayed on screen (unlike most special effects monstrosities, this one is anatomically correct – though not for long!).
The sly joke at the end is that our characters finally learn how to redeem themselves. The problem is, once they know this can be done, they are still on the con, acting in a righteous way in hope of earning a get out of Hell card from the Almighty – a point made with ruthless precision when Franco makes the mistake of flipping someone off while on the point of being elevated to the heavens. His unfortunate demise (being eaten by a former-friend-turned-cannibal) is all the funnier when you recall that, earlier in the film, while brainstorming a bad idea for a sequel to THE PINEAPPLE EXPRESS, Franco had suggested an ending in which he sacrificed himself to save his friends, only to have the villain eat him. Prophetic words, indeed!
In spite of the self-reflexive tone, THIS IS THE END will not suit everyone’s taste. The film may hold the crude antics up for ridicule; nevertheless, it indulges in those antics far too much for us to believe that writer-directors Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg are doing anything more than offering a slight buffer in the hope of making the antics more acceptable.
Fortunately, the buffer does work. Freed from the boundaries of good taste, Rogen and Goldberg present some of the most outrageously over-the-top comedy ever seen on the silver screen. It’s one thing to have a bunch of guys telling dick jokes all day. It’s quite another to see a towering demon emasculated by a heavenly blue shaft of light.
Now there’s something you don’t see every day!
WHAT I LEARNED FROM THIS FILM
Channing Tatum is Danny McBride’s bitch.
A Moderate Recommendation on the CFQ scale of zero to five stars. THIS IS THE END (Columbia Pictures, June 12, 2013) 107 minutes. Rated R. Written and directed by Evan Goldberg & Seth Rogen. Cast: James Franco, Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel, Johna Hill, Danny McBride, Craig Robinson, Emma Watson, Michael Cera, Rihanna, Paul Rudd, Channing Tatum, Aziz Ansari.