Theatrical Musings

Every once in a while - I know it's strange, don't ask me to explain it, but every once in a while, I develop a few thoughts on films with no regard to how they're released on DVD.  What can I say?  I'm an eccentric.

But seriously, you may've noticed I occasionally link to a film review I wrote on the IMDB; and you may've noticed that the IMDB is moving in a direction away from user input.  They removed the message board, they "adjust" the film ratings, and they've removed the first user review off the film's main page, burying them all behind a single link off to the side now.  Plus, sometimes they don't even let you review certain films, which is frustrating.  I assume they're reacting to film studios complaining about all negs they get.  So, anyway, since I have this site anyway, I've been thinking for a while of just collecting some of my non-DVDExotica film reviews over here on my site, too.

Maybe it's not on DVD yet.  Maybe I don't care if the film ever gets a home video release.  These are just your basic, traditional movie reviews.  And since most of these were written for the IMDB, which pushed me into a ten-star ratings system, I guess I'll stick with giving them a 1 out of 10 numerical rating, too.

And for now, I'm just spilling them all onto a single page here.  As I add more, I might fancify things and split each review up into its own searchable post and what-not.  But so far, though it may be a little inelegant, there's only a handful, so one long page-dump feels fine for me.  ūü§†

Seven Stages To Achieve Eternal Bliss By Passing Through the Gateway Chosen By the Holy Storsh - You Already Know This Is Going To Be an Overdose Of Twee

Flags don't get much redder than this title; but to the film's credit, it's a little more amusing, and less annoying, than I was expecting.  It wasn't the struggle to finish many of its concept-heavy, cameo-laden indie comedy peers are.  Perhaps the fact that this film was shelved for a couple years gave them the chance to do some judicious editing.

If you've seen the trailer, you can already guess that Dan Harmon has all the best lines.  Apart from that, it's a lot of familiar stand-up, improv and sitcom folk packed together trying to out *Wacky* each other.  It's the kind of movie where minor characters are dressed as mimes or animal costumes just to give them some kind of arbitrary distinction.  Everyone screams and shouts at each other so much it becomes rote, though the cast brings enough charisma on board to at least carry you through to the end.  Ultimately, if this was just a little more clever, it would all feel a lot more worth your time.  This film's chosen volume over wit.

There's a scene fairly early on, for example, where two reliably funny comedians, Maria Bamford and Brian Posehn, break into an apartment, dressed in silly costumes, and face off angrily against each other.  But they don't have any actual jokes; there's no improvisation or banter.  They don't get to bring any of their celebrated talents to their scene, just recognizable faces.  Apart from that, any two completely anonymous extras could've played these fleeting roles just as well.  And that wasted potential runs its course through the entire picture.

The first half works better than the second half, where everybody just seems obligated to carry out the absurdist plot to its logical conclusion after the story had run out of steam.  I think a lot of the problem lies in the fact that Kate Micucci is our lead and the audience's avatar until about mid-way through when she just goes irrationally insane, making decisions that don't even make sense for her character.  At that point, there's no longer anybody for us to relate to on-screen.  The secondary comic relief characters wind up being the most groundedly human.

Maybe that was an intentional inversion.  I can imagine the screenwriters bragging that, by the end, the protagonists are the antagonists and the comic relief are the emotional anchors - nobody will see that coming!  But unfortunately, that means we spend the the last act dribbling towards the obvious, inevitable conclusion no longer invested in what happens to any of these people.  And even that would probably be fine if we were laughing along the way.

As much as this film struggles to stand out as outlandish and wildly original, it's the same as most comedies that pass through without leaving a lasting impression.  Not enough funny moments spread across its feature-length running time.  This probably would've been a great little, two-part Funny Or Die video, or a fifteen minute Adult Swim one-off.  Then we'd all be sharing it with each other, burning it to DVD and telling each other how genius it is.  But as it is, by Stage Four, this Storsh had run completely out of Bliss.

In the Tall Grass - Not as Dumb as You'd Think!

I went into this expecting something much hokier and dumber. I didn't realize at the time that this was an adaptation of a Stephen King/ Joe Hill novella, and I'm not sure now whether knowing that would've raised or lowered my expectations.

So the premise is appealing simple. A young, traveling brother and sister pull over at a church along the side of a highway and hear a young boy calling for help from a field of, you guessed it, tall grass. They walk in and become lost because the field is somehow supernatural and traps everybody who wanders into it, so they've got to solve the mystery (or not) and escape. We quickly realize time travel involved, spoiling the simplicity and basically turning this into a rehash of that last Blair Witch movie.

I was ready for something super dumb and unwittingly campy along the lines of The Happening or Bird Box, but this is actually smarter and better played than anything along those lines. Which isn't to say that this isn't dumb at all... At one point, our heroes figure out an effective way to thwart and navigate the field, and then just decide to stop doing it for no apparent reason at all. Maybe there was initially supposed to be a scene that showed their technique failing, but it got cut for some reason? I don't know, but it's weird. And some dialogue choices make no sense, like when the characters shout out to each other to follow each other's voices right in the beginning of the film. So the sister shouts out x-rated limericks, even though they're there to help a small boy who's intently listening as well. Who would randomly decide to start shouting sex stuff to a young child in need of rescue? I'm guessing this is something from the novella that stopped making sense after script changes, but they weren't prepared to overhaul the whole script to fix it? Maybe? Who knows?

But these are nitpicks. Just little dumb things in a film that feels like it should be full of big dumb things, but isn't. Unfortunately, whether that helps or hurts is debatable. Because once time travel enters the story (which again, is pretty early on... no spoilers here) and dead characters become alive again, the stakes disappear. So this film no longer has the power to be scary or suspenseful. It's just a convoluted sci-fi sort of plot, like a Twilight Zone that had to be heavily padded and stretched out to reach feature length. So, if this film can't offer thrills or excitement, laughs might be the next best thing. But this film isn't dumb enough for those, leaving In the Tall Grass in an unsatisfying sort of limbo.

Other issues:

As you might guess, this film couldn't really sustain grass being the frightening villain for the full hundred minutes, so they have a random guy go crazy and evil (again not really a spoiler, this happens well within the first half of the film), which turns their intriguing premise into something much more generic and predictable. Other decisions, like including an abandoned bowling alley location presumably because the director was sick of staging all the action in a patch of grass, also just serve to undercut the ominous nature of the field.

This film is trying to communicate a message, obviously, but it's seriously muddled. Everybody stops at a church, there's a magic rock that gives people visions, our two leads can't stop talking about their backstory of the sister being pregnant and planning to give her baby up for adoption. They're all lost in the grass and every decision they make seems judged by this omnipotent field... It's obviously all a big, heavy-handed metaphor. But whatever moral or point they're trying to get across... just doesn't. You have to second-guess the authors to even have an inkling. Would the Kings say the church is salvation, or do they think it's a corruptive influence? Just how feminist are they - are they supporting or condemning a woman's decision to not keep her baby? Knowing them well enough to answer those questions (and I don't feel like I do) would help you better understand the film. But the film itself doesn't give you enough to figure out what it's trying to say, let alone move you in anyway by whatever argument it's making.

It's also worth pointing out that the film seems to have made some major changes from the novella, including the ending. Two sets of authors pulling in different directions probably explains the muddled and mixed messaging.

And if you just stubbornly decide to ignore all subtext and only look at this film's superficial plot, the logic doesn't hold up.  For example, characters like to repeatedly point out "this field doesn't move dead things, so they're easier to find."  But because the field keeps moving YOU, having a steady marker laying somewhere out there wouldn't help you anyway, because your position and proximity to it is always randomized.  Of course, at this point you could say I'm over-thinking the movie.  But this is a movie that BEGS you to think about the mystery and puzzle it out.  You're clearly supposed to be caught up in the dangling questions "what would I do to escape?" and "what does this latest, strange development signify?"  If it doesn't signify anything, or your method would sometimes work and sometimes not because the writers couldn't make their own ideas stick to a consistent logic, then you're left feeling like you've wasted your time caring.

So, I don't know. I enjoyed the watch, but I can't argue that it's an effective movie. Not smart enough to recommend as a truly engaging film anybody would be really impressed with, but not dumb enough to sit back and laugh at. It just kind of sits in the middle, which might make it sound like an absolute must-skip. But actually, I found it strangely compelling. I'll probably even watch it again at some point.

Family - Surprisingly Good, Actually

Here's a movie I really wasn't expecting to like half as much as I did. I walked into it pretty blind... The IMDB and other sites list Kate McKinnon as the lead role, but she's actually only in it for about 90 seconds. They're a great 90 seconds, though. Instead this movie stars another tall, thin blonde lady in her 30s, so for the first twenty or so minutes, I kept thinking to myself, boy Kate McKinnon has really transformed herself in this role. Then Kate popped on screen and I realized it was somebody else.

But let's focus. This movie is very trite: a real boiler plate story about a stock bachelor-for-life character who, through a contrived series of circumstances, is forced to take care of a child. And it's a huge hassle, where the comedy mined from how utterly inept they are at the most common middle class activities. But eventually the challenges prove rewarding and they grow as a person and learn to appreciate the family they've always avoided, yah yah yah. Yup, another by-the-numbers Dutch, Mr. Mom, Big Daddy, Jersey Girl, About a Boy, The Boss, Uncle Buck, etc etc... Pretty tired premise.  But hey, who doesn't love Uncle Buck?

And the cast is just great in this, from the leads (NotKate McKinnon and the kid are both spot-on), to the supporting cast, which is rife with great people like UCB original Matt Walsh, Brian Henry from Atlanta, Allison Tolman, even Thirtysomething's Peter Horton. It's full of great writing and comic moments. Yeah, the movie concludes in a painfully obvious, sappy and cliche way... you might really do yourself and the movie a favor if you turn it off 15 minutes before the ending. But until then, it's surprisingly effective. This is the first time out for writer/ director Laura Steinel, but I'll definitely be sure to check out whatever project I see her name on next.

And don't be put off by the whole Juggalo thing. First of all, it's barely featured in the film compared to how it's hyped up in the marketing. It just feels like a cheap gimmick that was forced on the script at a late stage. I wouldn't be surprised if this film only found funding because of some weird soundtrack/ merchandising deal with The Insane Clown Posse. It's just like, all of a sudden, the last final act of the film is packed with stunt casting cameos none of us wanted to see. But it's so tacked on, it also doesn't really hurt the film - it's like a brief commercial break that was just loosely set up earlier in the picture.

So don't be put off by the goofy ad campaign. I mean, I'm not saying it's an underrated, can't-miss artistic achievement of cinema. But if you're just in the mood to watch a good little comedy, this fits the bill surprisingly well.

Us - Think About It, But Don't

First let me just start off with some basic pros and cons. There are a lot of great ideas here, and the actors all do a superb job of bringing them to life. On the other hand, the movie is too long. Clocking in at just over two hours, the repetitive cat and mouse, to-the-death struggles between people and their doppelgangers started to get down right boring, like "let's just determine who stabs who and get on with it!" Some of the humor was genuinely clever, some was out of place and ineffective (they go from being deeply traumatized to comical bickering over trivialities and back with no emotional authenticity). And the cutesy use of pop songs started to wear thin by about the third one. The "I Got Five On" it chat in the car? Cool. The ironic mass murder set to The Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations" scene? Great. By the time we got to the the life and death struggle to the tune of "Fuck the Police," though, we'd gone to the well too many times. So, overall, a perfectly watchable, decent but unexciting little horror flick.

But okay, now let's get deeper into the weeds and SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS. Unlike his last film, Get Out, I think Jordan Peele spent so much time on meaning and metaphors of the subtext here, he let the superficial plot blow in the wind. It's exciting to contemplate just what he's saying with this movie... is this a statement about classism, or are both "sets" of people really two sides of the same individual? "Us" as in the U.S., how we as a country treat each other, the idea of some kind of self-wrought biblical judgement (i.e. all the Jeremiah 11:11 references) coming to all of us? That's fun to digest and debate.

On the other hand, just thinking about the literal premise is a frustrating experience. Theoretically, the government ran and abandoned a cloning facility underneath a public beach? And the entrance is a boardwalk entrance that anybody, even an aimless small child, can just wander into at any point? There's not even a closed door to discourage this... and indeed, by the fact that it's an open attraction, you'd think bunches of people would walk in every day. But nope, over decades, it only happened that one time.

Meanwhile, the government cloned... every single human being in the country? And gave them all matching clothes of their counterparts, plus identical red jumpsuits and a pair of scissors each? Maybe the scissors were for eating the live rabbits they were left to live on as a bizarre little eco-system. I get the idea of scissors cutting the ties that bind and the rabbits as intriguing visual imagery and even some kind of metaphor... a population growing out of control, and/or a little Alice In Wonderland going down into the secret underworld allusion. Again, great subtext, it just fails on the superficial textual level. I think perhaps Peele should've went with a supernatural premise rather than trying to sell us on a practical, real-world explanation.

Because if we're just talking about some kind of mystical, unknowable force at work, then okay fine, anything goes. But since we're being told it's a contemporary government project, then things should make some kind of sense. How come sometimes the kid walking backwards makes his clone walk backwards, but other times they act completely independently? Who kept the underground facility so spotless after it had been abandoned? The girl said she spent years planning her revolt, and then her plan was just for everybody to run up the escalator and stab everyone with their scissors? Ugh, I could go on and on, but it's clearly all just a sloppy mess the filmmakers never bothered to think through before dumping in the audience's lap.

We're just not supposed to think about it. Like the Mystery Science Theater guys say, "it's just a show, I should really just relax." And fine, except with it's coded messaging and metaphor signalling, this is a movie that's begging us to think about it, making for a really frustrating contradiction. On the one hand, "whoa, this is so deep when you think about it," but on the other, "it's just a fun time, don't overthink this stuff." Get Out got absurdist, too, when you followed its logic all the way to the end; but it still worked on both levels, where Us does not.

Annihilation - CG Stalker?

I can't say Annihilation drew much of my attention until I started seeing comparisons of it on Twitter towards Tarkovsky's Stalker.  Honestly, just seeing Tarkovsky brought up as a point of reference in any modern film review is interesting given where cinema is these days.  And the little debate I saw was basically that Annihilation is just Stalker rehashed, and the response back that isn't any modern iteration of Tarkovsky actually a good thing?  And I thought to myself, kind of, but not if it's just watered down Tarkovsky for dummies.  But bear in mind, this is all taking place before I've even seen the film.  People are saying it's the rare, smart and original modern sci-fi film (though I've been pretty underwhelmed by the last several films that were described that way), that mainstream audiences find too dull or over their heads.  Forum members and the Shockwaves podcast guys seemed to love it; but it's flopping.  Alright, fine, I'm on the hook; I'm watching the movie I was going to happily pass over.

So, did you guys sucker me into another over-hyped fizz bomb, or guide me to something I'm glad to have seen?  Well, somewhere in between.  I definitely wasn't blown away, and I can't really disagree with the descriptions I've read of general audience reactions.  Like, don't let anyone make you feel ashamed of being bored by this.  Stalker is the slower of the two films with basically the same plot, sure.  But it’s also more rewarding, where the characters and the ultimate meaning of what they’re seeking being more resonant, because it asks a question that challenges us all.  Not to say there’s nothing substantive to Annihilation, too - they're onto something good with this idea of how cancer is something not just killing us but it’s kind of life growing inside us.  And we're exploring that relationship people have with their diseases, but rather than doing it in a more literal Cronenberg-like way, it's externalized as an alien planet essentially growing on our own.

But ultimately, I feel like they only do a little bit with that and instead waste time with pointless characters just so we can have some kills.  And even more to the heart of things, most of the ideas feel written backwards from - or just flimsy excuses for - CGI images the filmmakers thought would be cool, like a skull bear action scene.  Outside of some cheap thrills (and I suppose, an excuse to get the lead characters untied), what point does it serve?  Just one more example of how the shimmer works, which we've already been shown over and over again?  It's like someone said, hey, I drew these flowers that grew in the shape of people, isn’t that cool?  What’s a pseudo-scientific explanation we can cook up to justify sticking that in the movie somewhere?

So Stalker is slower, but it feels like you’re getting more artistic return for your time.  Annihilation feels like what should be a great short film padded out with CGI paintings for CGI paintings sake.  Like, for long stretches, the film has nothing to show you except: hey, look at this neat drawing we made as opposed to making the audience reflect inwardly.

I think the flaw that Stalker doesn’t share is that we need to care about Natalie Portman’s relationship with her husband but it just doesn’t play.  And again because, except for Jennifer Jason Leigh (honestly, I think the story would've been better told from her perspective), the other scientists on the mission just feel like slasher movie filler characters.  It's like they traded off substance with special effects pay-off; like the filmmakers said, finally we can give Tarkovsky's film what it was always missing - a bunch of cool monsters!  So, sync that up with some weak performances, a decent soundtrack and CGI that's alright, but not impressive enough for a film that's trying to sell you on its spectacle, and you get my 5 out of 10.

On the other hand, there’s still enough good intentions put into the proceedings to make it worth the watch.  If you're drawn to this kind of movie, I think you'll find it good enough.  It's just that by making a film too similar to one of the most revered sci-fi films of all time, they kind of set themselves up for some blow back.  Like, even if you’re a very good filmmaker and never drop the ball, it would be a fool’s errand to remake 2001, because how could you hope to have an equal effect on audience with another pass on the material decades later?  And sure, they probably figured rightly that your average American movie-goer in 2018 wouldn't be familiar with old Russian fare, so they were only risking a handful of movie nerds like myself even drawing this comparison.  But then, by that logic, they should've known better than to expect box office dollars to come flocking in for a Tarkovsky tribute.

Beyond Skyline - Wasn't the first one a huge bomb?

Well, for some reason, they made a sequel anyway. The first Skyline felt like it was made by a special effects team in between jobs. No experienced writers, directors, or actors. Just the kind of movie you'd get if nothing but special effects guys made the movie. Mindless, soulless action. But a lot of it. Say what you want about Skyline, it was super dumb; but it kept moving at a kinetic pace.

Now, I'm saying the movie felt like it was written and directed by special effects guys with no other experience, but actually it was directed by the guys who made Alien Vs Predator: Requiem (the only feature they directed; otherwise all their credits are fx), which makes sense. A dumb alien invasion story that focuses on a tiny group of locals trying to escape a battle that's much larger than them. Basically, these are all the same movie.

But this time the AvP guys have been replaced, and the screenwriter of the original is now taking the captain's seat as writer/ director. So is he making this to fix things? Did he feel like the AvP guys ruined his brilliant alien invasion script and now he's doing it right? Apparently not, because the first half of this movie is more of a remake than a sequel, repeating all of the same sequences. Another small group of people fall pray to all the same tricks the aliens used on the humans in the first one. It even recycles some of the same footage! And I'm not talking about flashbacks. Shots from the first film are literally being shown to us again as the new characters' experiences.

Where this sequel veers off into "original" territory is in the second half. I won't get into any real spoilers, but the first one left off with characters fighting aliens on their ship, and this one gets to that point about 40 minutes in. I guess filming the whole movie in a crazy alien spaceship would be expensive, though, so they quickly crash back down on Earth and the rest of the film takes place in Vietnam. Maybe Vietnam is the one country where Skyline was successful?

Anyway, how does this film compare against the first? Well, it's less original, that's for sure. Most of this film is rehash. The effects don't really look any better or worse. It's still a lot of ugly CGI, though this one throws in a bunch more Predator-like rubber suits. The soundtrack feels more authentic as opposed to the score of the first film, which sounded like it was ripped off a CD called "Generic Sci-Fi Blockbuster Themes, vol. 1."

And the acting has improved. The lead is noticeably better than the first film's, and when the story moves to Vietnam, we even find a couple cast members from The Raid films. Still, I wouldn't go so far as to say the acting was "good." It rose to the level of "okay."

I think this film might also be dumber than the first, if only because it tries to explain everything about how the alien race and their technology works, which just invites more unintentional silliness. In the original Skyline, they wisely left a lot of that mysterious.  That mystery hid a lot of goofiness.  On the other hand, to their credit, Beyond Skyline is a little more ambitious with a wider scope of locations and first-hand alien experience.

The biggest step backwards, however, is the pacing. The first one was doofy, but it never stopped trying to entertain you with nervous energy and one twist after another. Beyond Skyline gets downright tedious, constantly showing you the same things over and over. It's just not fun. Every plot point hinges on a long series of implausible coincidences, only to take you to the most predictable, cliched outcomes. Everything here is expected and slow, so you're just waiting for the film to catch up with you. Instead of people being menaced by ever-changing alien technology beyond our understanding, this time the aliens just run around punching and kicking people, constantly losing fistfights to secondary characters.

Beyond Skyline is careful to connect to the original film in a lot of direct ways, but I find it hard to imagine that there's many people who'd care considering how poorly received Skyline was. But even if you did like Skyline, I think this sequel will disappoint you. That one at least had a scrappy, amateur charm to it. This follow-up is just a chore that refuses to end.

The Belko Experiment - Disappointing, Even for a Genre Fan

If you've seen the trailer for this film, or even the just the poster, you pretty much know all you need to know about this film. A bunch of office employees are mysteriously locked within their office building and told they have to kill each other or they'll all die. If you've seen one of these movies like Circle, Nine Dead, Panic Button, Are You Scared, The Human Race, Vile, Breathing Room, etc, you've seen them all. And none of them are very good.

The promotion of this film makes it look a little more fun. It's set in a very stuffy, cubicle-based work environment with a few recognizable character actors, including John McGinley and Michael Rooker. Like setting The Hunger Games in Office Space. But any reports that this has a lot of wit or cleverness give this film way too much credit. The humor is sparse and unfunny when it arrives. This film's biggest running gag is pretty much a stoner character who insists everything going on is one big chemical trip. Hope you think that idea's hilarious, because they go back to that well over and over throughout the whole film. But really, this film doesn't so much fail to be funny as neglect to try. The stoner doesn't get much screen time, and one liners are few and far between. This is mostly just a grim and nihilistic catalog of violence.

And hey, that's not necessarily a bad thing. I like grim and nihilistic films, and some of my favorites are super violent. I loved the Lawnmower scene in Dead/ Alive, or the geyser of blood that Johnny Depp became in Nightmare On Elm St. But even if you're just a gore-hound looking for a bunch of cool kills, you're going to be disappointed. Going in, I was expecting to see lots of amusing office-themed kills. You know, like a kid from the mail room is forced to make a stapler lethal or a secretary takes out three mean executives at once with a coffee maker. But nope. For whatever stupid reason, it's established early on that this building has a weapons cache, full of handguns. So almost everybody just shoots at each other. I mean, yeah they get knives from the kitchen and fire axes, and there are a few different kills. But none are particularly cool, new or office-themed.

And there's also a whole ton of characters. This movie aims to deliver a super high body count. That might sound promising too, but this means almost nobody is fleshed out or interesting. As late as the last six or seven minutes, random office people were getting killed before we even learned who they were. Even the leads are thinly, barely developed characters you'll never care about.

The premise, as always, is dumb. We're meant to believe things like all the employees let the company implant chips in the back of their heads and never thought to question why. Characters go from normal to psycho super fast, just because the movie doesn't have time to develop the real emotional responses the characters would go through. And in this particular case, I also don't think the filmmakers cared, which is odd, because asking "what would I do in that situation" and connecting or disagreeing with the differing characters is kind of these movies' biggest draw. But here, people are established immediately as just good or bad guys and then spend the movie behaving exactly as you knew they would.

Then I guess a big point to these movies is the big "why" reveal at the end, right? Well I won't post any spoilers; don't worry. But let's just say it's one of the most rushed, poorly thought out revelations I've seen in this little sub-genre. It makes me think maybe this movie never intended to reveal what was behind it all, but test audience response forced them to tack on a quick meaningless little coda.

But before I end this, what are the positives? Well, 1) a couple of the performances are poor and generic, but actually most of the cast acquitted themselves fairly well. Most of them deserved to be in a better movie with more interesting material. And, 2) the film does at least make good on its fundamental promise. This isn't like a monster movie where the monster doesn't show up to kill anybody until the last five minutes. Most of the running time is devoted to office employees running around the building killing each other. We weren't lied to by the marketing; they gave us what they sold us. And finally, 3) this film has a decent budget. So many films like this feel super cheap and take place in one room because they were clearly working backwards from "we can only afford to make a movie in one location." This one looks like it had money to throw around. Money they might not make back, but hey that's their look out, not ours.

Captivity - A Mess for Serious Cohen Fans Only

I recently decided to burn my way through all the remaining Larry Cohen films I never saw (Cellular was more fun than I was expecting), and finally landed on this one. And holy crap, it's directed by the director of The Killing Fields!? I should've checked this out years ago.

Well, through the whole first hour, I kept saying to myself, there's no way Cohen wrote this. It's such a disaster, with ridiculous character motivations and plot points. But admittedly, some of his touch was there... Cutting to the characters of the cops investigating the case from our lead characters who are stuck in it feels a lot like his last couple films, Cellular and Phone Booth. And when you finally get to the plot twists for the third act - don't worry, I won't spoil them - it finally starts to feel genuinely clever and interesting. And like a Larry Cohen film.

But you've got to be prepared to slog through the first hour. I guess this is meant to be a Saw-inspired film, where the trap-like room Elisha Cuthbert is stuck in is super high-tech and practically omnipotent. Everything is so contrived and utterly unconvincing; and the lead character (how she's written... not really Cuthbert's fault) is utterly unlikable and uninteresting. The whole first two acts are like an hour long slog you have to sit through to get to the end. And no, it won't make sense or pay off if you just skip to the last thirty minutes.

But don't let me oversell the final act. It doesn't suddenly turn into Shakespeare; it's no must-see hidden gem. But that point's when it turns into a genuinely entertaining, engaging little film. You suddenly care about what happens to the characters, which is a surprising shift from what you've been experience so far. It's still pretty silly, but by comparison, it's great.

If that doesn't sound like a ringing endorsement, it's not. I'd advise most people who find their way to this review to skip over this film and never look back. But for the curious, if you're a fan of one or more of the filmmakers involved like me, then there's enough here to not feel like you've wasted your time watching it. And that's more than I can say for a lot of movies.

Cell - For Us, It's a Horror Film. For Our Grandparents, It's a Documentary

Okay, people are going to tell you that this movie is dumb and corny and frustrating. Don't listen to them. Admittedly, they're absolutely right, but don't listen to them anyway.

This movie is the closest we're going to get to a sequel to Maximum Overdrive from Stephen King, and it's actually pretty close. Instead of a bunch of disparate stragglers surviving in a world where humanity is overrun by machines being controlled by an alien force, we get a bunch of disparate stragglers surviving in a world where humanity is overrun by people being controlled by an alien force. So it also dips into Walking Dead knock-off territory, where everyone who uses their phone basically becomes a fast zombie; but on the plus side, this still has a lot of King vibes in it.

Do you ever think about horror movies after seeing them and realize, if you view the film from the evil supernatural side of things, its motives make no sense? Like, "if the demon spirit wanted to possess the little girl before anyone could figure out what was going on and stop it, why did it spend the first 45 minutes terrorizing the babysitter and attracting needless attention to itself?" Well, this movie is like that: if you think about whatever mysterious intelligence is behind what's happening, what it decides to make the people it controls do doesn't really add up. But this movie goes the extra step, where you don't even have to do the thought experiment and shift perspectives to see that this movie regularly makes no sense.

It's like King wrote down his dream and these people filmed it. And that's kinda cool if you're prepared to view this film like Kurosawa's Dreams or Fulci's The Beyond. If broken and contradictory logic is going to bother you, you're going to be kicking a hole in your monitor. And for all the fun King brings to his work, there's also his usual flaws. In this case: hokey characters. DJ Liquid? The "you're cute" lady? The King Of the Internet? But it's also kind of charming in a "King's our lovable grandpa who writes these crazy stories" kinda way, and this film gets past them easily enough with plenty of fast paced action and shocking violence.

Other pros: Sam Jackson and John Cusack give their roles more weight than the script deserves. You actually care if they survive and worry for them in a way most lesser films don't manage. Stacy Keach shows up for a bit of fun, too. The story's also ambitious, playing with big ideas and isn't afraid to get pretty dark and cynical, which is nice to see in a more mainstream horror film with a name cast.

Other cons: Most of the down to Earth effects are fine (zombies, gore), but it tries to depict some very big things that clearly just aren't in its budget. There's a scene right in the very beginning where an airplane explodes, which they really should've left off-camera, because it really looks super fake. And some shots in the film's climax look like a cartoon.

Look, this is a heavy-handed movie for technophobes. Everyone who uses their cellphone turns into a mindless zombie. Characters walk through a brand new movie theater with a giant sign advertising "now with digital Projection," and then immediately into a drive-in movie lot. Keach gives a big dramatic reading to the line, "you can't stop progress, but you're never too old to fight it" before firing a bow and arrow. There's nothing subtle for miles around, and I'm sure we all know someone, probably older, who'll applaud the scene where people throw their smart phones into a fire, thinking finally someone else understands that change and technology are evil.

But for the rest of us, it's a pretty amusing, entertaining time so long as you're willing to not question anything it throws at you. Fast paced, loads of thrills, our protagonists walk around with armfuls of weapons and ammo; and yet the film takes itself seriously enough that it never starts to feel like a bad joke. Silly sure, but earnest. All it needed was a rockin' AC/DC soundtrack.

Oculus - An Interesting Failure

I'll take an interesting failure over another by-the-numbers formulaic flick. Just too bad it wasn't a good movie.

The film has some well crafted atmosphere, a fairly clever script, and it isn't afraid to get pretty dark. I put off seeing this for a long time because I thought it was just another glossy teenage popcorn flick, but it's not that. It even handles the "let's spend the entire running time debating if there are really ghosts or if it's all in the person's mind" better than almost all the others, save for a handful of the very best, like the original Turn Of the Screw or The Shining.

But if you look at The Shining, you also see how painfully short this film falls. The script is mostly pretty intelligent, but gets dumb just enough to spoil things when all of the film's weight is leaning on how clever it is. But the real weak spot is the acting. Think how profoundly memorable Duvall and Nicholson were in The Shining, and then look at these dweeby CW types they cast in the leads of this film. You just can't care about these shallow characters for two hours. The woman who plays the mother is nailing it, but the father falls short and the two twenty-somethings are just awful. I mean, it's more that they're seriously miscast than bad actors, but they still manage to fail to deliver on their own terms, too.

The characters' plan is pretty silly and the film goes to the "tricked you! That last scene didn't happen; it was just a dream" well a couple times too often. Plus it doesn't help that the film tips its hand very early about most of what's going to happen and how, so the audience is spending most of the time just waiting for the story to go through the motions trying to draw out suspense. Honestly, it feels like this was a short film script padded out to be a feature length movie, so you really feel its length.

But I gave this movie five stars, not zero! It's not all bad. In fact, I could see how a movie studio would look through a glut of low budget horror and pick this one out to give a wide release to. It's better than most of the junk horror we get every year. Whether they're real or imagined, the ghosts have a cool look. The out-of-chronology story is effective (though the editing starts to get a little too cute in the final act); you can tell people really put in the effort to make a worthwhile movie here. It's played very straight and earnestly, and even the most jaded horror fan will have to admit it's got a really great kill in it.

I was honestly expecting this film to be worse. Most viewers can definitely skip it, but if you're a serious horror fan, it's worth seeing. The mother's pretty awesome.

The Lazarus Effect - Everything you expect from a horror movie with a rapper in it

If you wanna watch a bunch of lame actors bicker about pseudoscience, boy have I got the movie for you! That's, like, the first 75 minutes. Then, eventually, characters start getting killed off in boring and obvious ways and character motivations stop making sense. The only thing that separates this from shot-on-video junkers of the 80s is that modern digital movies can all achieve a similar, atmospheric gloss. But look past that and there's not much else to see.

Our team of scientists consist of two stoner comic relief dudes, two implausibly hot chicks and Mark Duplass as himself. All five of them spend their time explaining to each other every aspect of what they're doing, but ultimately the logic of the film's premise doesn't even hold up. ...Which would be fine if it was just an excuse to throw all kinds of wild, cool stuff in front of the camera. But it's also a tame PG-13, so this isn't even entertaining in a trashy/ schlocky way.

The film's idea of a dramatic, frightening image is a smokey hallway. Plot twists are set up (Oh no, the chemical company has been spying on us!) and then just dropped because they never mattered in the first place. The revived dog "going Cujo" is constantly threatened throughout the film, and they keep dragging it around from location to location while dramatically zooming in to close ups of its face, but ultimately it never does anything or has any influence on the outcome of the story at all. The first hour of this movie is like Shakma if the killer monkey never broke free of its cage, and the last half hour is a cheap Carrie knock-off without the heart. It doesn't help that the plot twists they withhold from us through most of the film are all disclosed in the trailer, so as an audience we're just left in the position of waiting for the movie to tell us what we already know so we can finally move on.

I won't spoil the ending because I just finished watching this movie under an hour ago and I've already forgotten it. If you hang in there for a while, though, you'll eventually get a Ray Wise cameo. Sure, he's a bit over the top, but at least he knows how to make a character interesting. Too bad he didn't stick around behind the scenes and help the rest of the cast out. I guess they were aiming for more realism... in a movie where people come back from the dead and make furniture levitate. That's The Lazarus Effect!

Harmontown - Another Wild Man Blues?

This is a weird one... I haven't written many IMDb reviews but felt compelled to have a go for this one, which I suppose says something good about this movie (I wouldn't feel compelled by a generic YA sci-fi flick or cliché-driven rom-com).

The short version is that there are brief hints of something really interesting here, but for the most part, it's pretty flat.

The main problem, I think, is that the tour and podcast (the plot is Harmon going on tour cross-country to record episodes of his podcast, Harmontown) aren't what's interesting about Harmon. This guy 1) made the most expensive pilot in TV history which didn't get picked up but has a cult following 2) got fired from The Sarah Silverman Program for saying horrible things to her and 3) created a network sitcom, got fired from it and then re-hired back to it a year later. All of these things are really intriguing and would make pretty fascinating documentary material. Unfortunately, they're only touched on here for about 2-3 minutes each.

Instead this doc is all about his podcast. To the point where this film feels like more of a promotional advertisement for that rather than a straight-forward documentary. And considering Harmon and his production company produced and released this doc, there's probably a high degree of truth to that. The words "creative" and "genius" get thrown around a lot, and they really play up the gushing fans.

In fact, that's the other off-putting thing about this doc. The running theme here is that Harmon created a sitcom about "misfits" and now these "social outcasts" and "nerds" (the film's terms, used repeatedly throughout) are all brought together by Harmon. They just keep returning to this same point. Harmon often says it himself, directly to the camera. The film presents it all like this amazing, touching cultural phenomena where Harmon unites a generation and brings these people hope. They keep cutting to still shots of the fans' faces (who he even calls "Har-minions") as if this is really profound. It's really forced, and some heavy-handed piano cues laid over otherwise utterly unaffecting moments certainly don't help. Plus, if I were one of those fans, I think I'd find the portrayal insulting. Maybe they don't all see themselves as desperate weirdos in need of an idol, but functional adults who just thought his show would be funny?

The one other thing this film tries to force is the idea that the "real hero" of this documentary is the Dungeons and Dragons fan they have on tour with them. He's a 20-something guy who showed up ("out of his mom's basement") to one of their shows. He loved D&D so much, they brought him along on the tour so they could play; and his story is clearly meant to mirror the fans'; he's a social misfit outcast who comes to the show and is given hope and meaning. He's presented as the lovable darling of the film (he's the only person in this doc where we also see his home life, etc), but really you just want to cut away from this kid and get back to the star, Harmon, who's funny (when he's not incoherently drunk), tragic, and has the good stories.

And when they do get back to Harmon, there are interesting moments. Besides the missed opportunities mentioned above, there are scenes where he fights with his girlfriend (who would've made a much better "heart" of the film than that D&D guy), an inside glimpse of editing the podcast to remove the "shame-based" moments, or phone calls with network executives about script rewrites, all of which will make you sit up and pay attention again. More of that! But there's actually very little.

It's like Wild Man Blues. Remember that documentary about Woody Allen made in the 90s - but he would only consent to the documentary if it was exclusively about his music? So they never talk about his films or his fascinating career. They don't dare bring up his controversial relationships with Mia Farrow, her adopted daughter or the abuse charges against him. They just follow him around on his tour, filming him play clarinet with his buddies. The whole movie is this bizarre "elephant in the room" scenario where no one is allowed to discuss any of what everyone really cares about. ...Eventually, years later, a "real" documentary of Woody Allen and his works was released, and now Wild Man Blues is just an obscure little footnote (it's never even been released on DVD in this country), strangled at birth by the subjects' controlling ego.

I think this film is a similar footnote. It's 90 minutes of "subscribe to my podcast; I'm king of the nerds!" and frustrating cutaways from the few real moments. Maybe ten years later, a production company that isn't owned by Harmon will come along and make a second film of the interesting stuff. Or not. I mean, I've seen a couple episodes of Community and his shelved pilot (the novelty of the premise is amusing at first but wears off long before it's over - can't imagine how he thought it could last for a whole series). This guy isn't on the level of Woody Allen. He is a watchable person, and I'd return for a film about his bouncing around LA, hired and fired from various TV shows, and how that effects his personal life. But I can't really recommend Harmontown unless you have the patience to sift through a lot of marketing propaganda for a few tiny morsels. I mean, I don't know - how did you feel about Wild Man Blues?

P.s. - All the big name stars you see on the poster, like Jack Black and Ben Stiller? They're all in this for about 30 seconds apiece. So if you're watching this for them, you're going to be disappointed.

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