Sunday, April 29, 2012

I Liked The Hunger Games. Wanna Fight About It?

According to the rules, there can only be one winner, but that doesn't mean we can't have multiple pieces of film and literature following sadistic reality television programs that pit civilian against civilian in hand-to-hand combat to the death. As The Hunger Games feasts its way through box office records, I'm noticing an irksome fanboy retaliation against a franchise-in-the-making, as if Suzanne Collins were Stephanie Meyers' pedicure buddy. I found Gary Ross's film to be thoroughly enjoyable and when placed in the larger context of its audience, extremely refreshing.

Stop looking at me like that! I saw The Running Man in the theaters when I was FIVE YEARS OLD! I was hyping Series 7: The Contenders before Jeff Probst hosted VH1’s Music Jeopardy. I have watched, read, written about, and invented games for my current ninth favorite film of all time, Battle Royale. In no way does The Hunger Games come close to nipping at its schoolgirl kneesocks.

But for those of you who don't know, I'm something of a cockeyed optimist when it comes to movies. I don't like hating things, and not just because I was raised to not use the word 'hate' at home (we replaced it with loath, which is actually stronger but sounds more elegant). I want to believe in the future of cinema, I want to know that there are original artists out there with brilliance in their path, and heck, even that the occasional unnecessary remake can be handled with cleverness, originality, and understanding. 

Wait, what does that have to do with The Hunger Games again?
Right, genre fanboy snobbery. It’s so negative.
Look folks, The Hunger Games ain’t Battle Royale. It’s a PG-13 rated (but harsh one at that) adaptation of a juggernaut young adult novel primarily aimed at females in the eighth grade. 

And you know what? I think that’s awesome. I think it’s positively spectacular that the most popular teen literature of the day is a dark ride into a terrifying, morbidly fascinating future featuring a powerful female lead. The movie isn’t without its flaws (hey Woody, hope you have enough minutes left on your bill to phone that performance in), but I can think of at least 7 reasons why I rather dug it:
1. Further evidence that one should never eff with Isabelle Fuhrman

Don’t you wonder how Jodelle Ferland feels about that OTHER brunette child actress-turned-teen who specializes in playing sociopaths...and playing them better. I dare anyone to pit the blander than rice cakes Case 39 against the trashtacular Orphan. Come now, that’s like betting on the wimpy curly haired kid over the brute from District 1! Or, I don’t know, Ferland’s supporting vampire in Twilight 3 to Fuhrman’s KNIFE THROWING BADASS Clove in The Hunger Games

And before you say it, yes, I was happy to see the young Ferland get some decent work in Cabin In the Woods. But it’s rare that I could watch a 15-year-old girl HURL KNIVES and believe it. You can be my cat’s laser pointer that I will never piss off Isabelle Fuhrman. 

2. Not the genetically manipulated bees!

True, The Hunger Games has nothing on Battle Royale’s machetes, axes, crossbows, uzis, or pocket knife deaths but you know what it DOES have? Killer bee thingies. That's groovy, right?

3. Slaughter in 17 seconds

Let me explain something to you: I find the idea of hand-to-hand combat-to-the-death incredibly disturbing. Part of it is my own lack of coordinative abilities, and the rest stems from the simple truth that stabbing or choking a person a person two inches from my own face is simply horrifying on the very most primal of levels. That in itself is probably why these kinds of desperation murder stories make me so uncomfortable. As those pedestal pods rise up for the arena’s opening ceremonies, the threat becomes real: these children are going to have to kill each other with whatever tools are at hand, most of which are muscles or knives. Sure, we don’t SEE much in the PG-13 rating, but implied horror is there, particularly when we get quick glances at scrawny 12-year-olds before never seeing them again...

Because Orphan has knifed them to death.

4. It will forever make Project Runway Innovation Challenges way more intense

Sure, Heidi Klum's fashion-obsessed, quip-forcing slaves have been forced to create beautiful clothing out of garbage, candy, and car parts, but even setting aside the recent all-star blacklight challenge, none of the Project Runway contestants have come close to putting live fire on their scrawny model cutlets. Now that Katniss and Peeta blazed that trail (hehe, pun!), how can future contestants with artificial names and distracting jewelry DARE to play it safe?

5. The Future 1% In Fluorescent

I’m not about to fumble through a political interpretation of the universe created by author Suzanne Collins. I’ll leave that to high school English teachers who should be excited to get their students’ hands on a decently written book that they’ll actually WANT to read. 
Collins and Ross’ universe isn’t the most imaginative place created in literature. It’s a 1984 inspired society that bares a reference to The Lottery, Survivor, The Long Walk, and plenty other sources. But hey: it’s well-crafted and relevant, no matter how simple it is. More importantly, it means we get fashion like this:

So quitcher complaining

6. Best. Facial Hair. Ever.

‘Nuff said

7. It’s not Twilight

What, was that a low blow? Please. Any parent who's been wondering why their daughter has taken to wearing a permanent flannel and fartface should consider the odds forever in their favor if said teen is now braiding her hair and taking up archery. As I've explained before and again, Twilight isn't just bad cinema: it's dangerous. In no way do I believe in the burning of books, but if a local brushfire just so happened to wander into Little, Brown and Company’s warehouse, the future of feminism might be grateful.

See, Katniss, as played exactly like Ree Dolly in the magnificent Winter's Bone by Jennifer Lawrence again, is an admirable heroine. She fights. She thinks. She takes care of herself and actually cares about others. Remember my favorite scene in Twilight 2, where Bella and Edward sauntered past a line of tourists about to be unknowingly devoured by Italian vampires? Bella looked mildlly concerned, but Edward's simple "Move on" had her seeing the sunlight while the audience caught a sample of screaming civilians. Yeah, that's someone to look up to.

One of the main reasons The Hunger Games has (forgive the pun) caught fire with a young audience is, I hope, because Katniss Everdeen is the kind of literary narrator young women want to be, like Nancy Drew, Scout Finch, Cathy Dollanger, Elphaba or a founding member of The Babysitter’s Club (with the exception of Mary Anne; grow a pair girl). In Collins' writing, Katniss is even funny and sarcastic, something that doesn't quite translate on film. I forgive that because, you know, girlfriend is fighting for her life from the likes of these people:

Look: The Hunger Games isn't perfect. It's not necessarily ground-breaking. And yes, it's now become as mainstream as Bella Swan moaning about not being understood. But just because something is popular does not mean that it's not good, or entertaining, or simply much smarter and scarier than legions of pessimists want you to believe. 

Now if you'll excuse me, I have this Pavlovian condition that requires I pop in my Running Man Blu Ray anytime the title comes up in conversation. I'll be back.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Step Up to a Tin Man In Baltimore

I’m late!

No, no no, not like that you terribly minded baby pushers. I’m late in an ASSIGNMENT. Sheesh. 
See, loyal readers know that every Month, T.L. Bugg over at The Lightning Bugg’s Lair and I team up for a movie swap. For this lovely rainless April, we decided to honor the city of Baltimore, as we’ll be meeting up for a mini barbeque bonanza reunion this weekend. 
Now I don’t know about you, but when I think Baltimore but am not allowed to think John Waters, I naturally think Step Up 2: the streets. I actually don’t know how anyone thinks anything BUT Step Up 2: the streets, but that’s just because I have good sense. Hence, the Bugg got his groove on (on time, no less) and sent me to a different part of the city. 

Instead of popping and locking, I got cruising and selling with Barry Levinson’s 1987 dramedy, Tin Men. It’s 100% less dancish, but an assignment is an assignment and I’m a nerd who never fails.

Quick Plot: It's 1963 in suburban Baltimore, a colorful landscape prowled by likably slimy aluminum siding salesmen Bill Babowski (Richard Dreyfuss) and Ernest Tilley (Danny DeVito). Babowski and Tilley might be in the same business, but their paths never cross until a fateful weekday where Babowski drives his brand new Cadillac 1/16th of a mile out of the car dealership only to collide into Tilley's half owned classic.

For most drivers, a fender bender is an annoyance that happens every once in a while. For two alpha male types who overprioritize status, it can be a life changer.
Let me start by admitting a secret dream: I've always wanted a nemesis. A Lex to my Superman, a Dorito to my Frito, a Faith to my Buffy. Someone or thing who brings out my innermost competitive obsessive while keeping me in a mysterious sense of moral balance by constantly challenging how far I’ll go to--

Okay, I’ve thought too hard about this. Back to the movie:
Tilley and Babowski are painfully alike in some ways. Both cheat their way through work, running scams on unsuspecting home owners with the fake lure of a spread in Life Magazine. Both spend plenty of time in the company of their coworkers, a rich cast of character actors (John Mahoney! Bruno Kirby! More!) who engage in daily chitchat over menial subjects like breakfast orders and Bonanza. Both dress in bright colored suits but are fairly miserable to most people in their lives.

Oh yeah, and both drive Cadillacs.
In a slightly different scenario, the pair could be friends or at the very least, business buddies who help each other close a sale. Unfortunately, Tilley and Babowski are both far too prickly to ever tame their egos down enough to see it. Instead, they embark upon modern warfare, beginning with some car vandalism and increasing in intensity to Babowski bedding Mrs. Tilley, as played with scarily thin lips by Barbara "Don't Ever Play My Mother" Hershey.

The convenience here for Tilley is that he was already just about done with his marriage anyway. Mired in debt, investigated by the Home Improvement Commission, and owing backtaxes to the IRS, Tilley has enough to worry about without comforting his estranged old lady. Babowski, on the other hand, is the kind of lifelong bachelor whose distance and confidence masks a severe lacking of something in his life. Is an obsessive rivalry or new romance the answer?
Tin Men is lesser known than Barry Levinson’s wider seen Diner (a much beloved classic that mumble mumble I'veneverseen mumble mumble Hey! Look over there at that shiny thing!) but I found it extremely enjoyable. I grew up on the '80s catalog of Danny DeVito (Ruthless People, Romancing the Stone, Twins--the list goes on) and dangit, I just can't not love the guy. Sure, he's fairly restricted into playing a particular type and while Ernest Tilley IS another cuckholded husband with a fair shot of smarm, DeVito finds the inner sadness in his pathetic but masked life without relying on easy sentimentality. For as much as I think Richard Dreyfuss is a real life jerk, it's hard to deny his equal skill at this type of character, particularly at this point in his film career. The pair are perfectly matched and bring out the best in each other. Sprinkling in great supporting actors who know how to deliver mundane but clever dialogue and it's hard to take your eyes off of these people, even if none are particularly special.

Just as important to Tin Men's flow is the look of the film, something crafted with a keen and precise eye from the ground up. Levinson masters the early '60s color palette in every crevice, from the salesmen’s loud suits to the minty finish on expensive Cadillac fenders. It’s beautiful and ugly at the same time.

And yes, that’s a high note.
High Points
Danny DeVito is the kind of actor who can be tricky to match up to romantically onscreen. He's such an odd duck of a man that pairing with a gorgeous 5'8 starlet often feels silly. Hence, it's incredibly refreshing to see how his relationship with Hershey is handled. At first glance, they DO seem mismatched, but as they bicker and joke, you can see a genuine chemistry that shines through. Sure, their relationship is doomed before the film starts, but it's such a strong touch to see a couple who once loved each other and in a different way, will always do so, even if at the present time of the film's plot, their marriage is ending

Low Points
Well, as much as I like the Hershey-DeVito dynamic, there is the slight irritation of using a female as a pawn in a vengeance scheme that rubs me slightly itchily
Lessons Learned
The average height of an aluminum siding salesman in 1963? 4’11
Everybody has to pay their taxes
Always get them to sign before you have a heart attack

Random Thought
Richard Dreyfuss is barely hobbit sized, so it must have been pretty nice to tower over his li’l costar. Make ya feel like a man, Dick? DID IT?

Okay, fine. I’m still angry that he walked through me without saying excuse me. I will hate the man until I get eaten by piranhas.
On paper, Tin Men isn’t necessarily “my kind” of film. I have little love for grimy slick-haired salesmen, status chasing through car ownership, or even early '60s nostalgia. But this is a good movie, one that carefully manages to tell a very American story about imperfect men without being obvious or ever losing its masterful style of humor. The DVD includes a party of a commentary with Levinson, his cast, and crew, including some of the costume designers and others responsible for the film’s impressive style. Check it out. But first, break out your parachute pants and head on over to the Lair for some Step Up 2 action! 

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Just Like Oz, But With More Asians & Less Rape

Due to Gmail’s one weak spot of user unfriendliness, I accidentally deleted my original draft of Riki Oh: The Story of Riki. As all you writers out there know, losing a few paragraphs is more than disheartening. It can kill that spark of inspiration, making you wonder if it’s worth going on when so much passion has already been wasted.

Then I thought about the scene where a character seemingly commits hari-kari, then calls his opponent over so that he can try to strangle the victor with his own now-hanging-out intestines, prompting a cheeky villain on the sidelines to comment “He’s got a lot of guts!” and it dawned on me that NOT sharing this film with you readers would be a crime worthy of being choked to death by someone’s entrails.

Quick Plot: In the future of 2001 (just go with it), prison facilities have become privatized and are now handled by greedy corporations, prompting plenty of corruption and in-house crime. Enter Riki Oh, a young man who sets metal detectors on fire because he’s so badass, he never had five bullets removed from his chest. Riki was a former student of some Jedi-like martial art practice, rendering him invincible and awesome. Ain’t no crooked assistant warden’s glass eye and hook hand gonna beat THAT!

But oh, how glorious it is to see him and his minions try! Remember how awesome Punisher: War Zone was for featuring multiple punch-through-facings? Riki Oh makes that movie look like My Little Pony, and sure, now I’m having a strange craving to see a reimagined My Little Pony with face punchings and Dominic West, but that’s beside the point, the point being Riki Oh is amazing.

We’re talking having a character sew up his wound with his very own dangling skin. We’re talking screaming alone in a rainy prison yard as if The Shawshank Redemption could hear ten years into the future. We’ve got wacky dubbing that lets extras sound like low level New Yawkahs in a ‘40s gangster movie and multiple villains with extreme haircuts. As if that weren’t enough, as if we lowly viewers even DESERVED anything more, there is an outstanding use of a terrible dummy on display at the 2/3rds mark.

I loved this movie. I love everyone involved in making this exist, I love LOVE love everyone and anyone who had any place in seeing that this film got seen by me, from the boys at VCinema for recommending it eons ago to the Netflix employee who sealed the envelope and dropped it in the mail for my beloved postal representative to deliver to my apartment. This is a ridiculous film, one filled from top to bottom with organs being torn out of oversized bodies, men turning into gobbly giants, and heroes poking out villains’ eyes to immediately toss aside for the fastest moving vultures to swoop in and feast upon.

This movie is pure glory.

High Points
The part where it started

Low Points
The part where it ended

Lessons Learned
Human beings can be very breakable

The going rate for commissioning a kill inside prison walls in 2001? 30 pounds of rice

There is nothing that can’t be punched through, be it cement or human stomachs

Here’s a film screaming for a deluxe special edition Blu Ray—nay, here’s a film PUNCHING YOU THROUGH YOUR MOHAWKED FACE for a deluxe special edition Blu Ray. Watching Riki Oh: The Story of Riki was easily one of the most fun-filled viewing experiences I’ve had in some time, and by golly, I would be a terrible person if I didn’t convince you to do the same. Blind buy it, and if that means selling your VHS porn collection (on display in the warden’s office, no less) in order to do so, then that’s the price you pay.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Choice Is Actually Really Easy

Ripping off Saw isn’t necessarily a cinematic crime. But being terrible? Yeah, that is.

Quick Plot: A teenage girl comes home to find her parents tied up and gagged with a masked madmen waving a gun at their heads and threatening to kill both of them (plus the token little brother) unless the crying middle schooler can choose which one to take the fall. Pops volunteers himself, daughter stabs him in bad lighting, and credits roll.

Cut to the new apartment of college student Fiona (Amusement and Satan's Little Helper blond Katheryn Winnick, making a minor career out of appearing in mediocre-to-awful horror films) where the journalism major with a cop dad (Kevin Pollack, clearly owing someone a favor) senses something amiss. Through some fairly contrived investigating/remembering the suicide of her mother/dad's involvement in the case/let's tie the whole film up in one pretty character to watch in a tank top for the whole film, the killer contacts Fiona to play a not at all (except totally all) Saw-like game of stabbing and choices.

Ugh. Choose is the worst kind of mediocre genre film: it's one that thinks it's not a genre film. I imagine the marketing team sold it as a "psychological thriller" that's about the "characters" and the "choices" they make.

No, actually it's a dull horror movie too afraid to embrace itself.

Choose made me think back to an otherwise forgettable direct-to-DVD Seven-ish horror stupidly titled Dot.Kill. Now I never thought anything would ever remind me of that slog of a movie, but Choose's equally dire blue-hued manhunt has done that, so good on it. Dot.Kill: send Choose a muffin basket. Then crawl back into your DVD cave to hibernate until some other blogger stumbles upon you.

Truthfully, I don't know why I'm being so hard on Choose. I think I gave Are You Scared? more slack, and that even MORE blatant Saw ripoff was bad from every angle. I guess what annoys me about Choose is that it feels like it's fighting against every aspect that would make it interesting to an audience like me. There are some early hints of grisly violence, as our blandly disguised killer forces a pianist to pick between having his fingers cut off or ears drilled in, but the film then wanders away to invest all its energy in Fiona's ridiculous Lois Lane-lite investigation. As we slowly learn more about the killer's past, we're not entirely bored, but every step gives us a tease at what a better movie could have done. Creepy boys' reformatory with sadistic administrators and MORE sadistic inmates? Super! Cutting away from that to watch Fiona check out library books? Not super.

Worst of all, Choose ends with one of, if not possibly THE worst executions of exposition I've ever seen. Considering I've survived Diary of the Dead's comatose narrator explaining her theme, this is saying something, but SERIOUSLY, this is what happens:

Fiona is kidnapped (don't worry: Winnick's blond hair and perky tank topped boobs still look fabulous) and tied up by the killer, who now enters the full frame to reveal to us the fact that he wasn't in the movie previously, so all the effort put in place to ensure the audience didn't see his face was a waste of time from a behind-the-scenes standpoint. Sure, fine, whatever, just give us something to make the 80 previous minutes we watched mean something. Reveal a tentacle or flash back to a great backstory, give Fiona the biggest CHOICE of them all by making her decide if she gets to keep her shiny great hair or perky perfect boobs, SOMETHING!

Here's what Choose does: it has the never-before-seen bland antagonist reveal a fairly out-of-nowhere and not at all delivered interestingly story about how (SPOILERS, if you CHOOSE to care) he's actually Fiona's older half-brother because just before she was born, her slutty mom had an affair, got pregnant, CHOSE to have the baby, but Kevin Pollack said he wouldn't raise it so she CHOSE to give him up for adoption and so she instead married Kevin Pollack, had Fiona, then let her older son grow up in misery until she found him and bonded and stuff and eventually was killed when he CHOSE to give her a CHOICE about her life or Fiona's or --

Oh what, am I boring you? Are these two pages of written dialogue revealing the mystery that the ace minded Fiona was supposed to be researching not, you know, good screenwriting? Should we throw in a random little twist ending that you don't care about after the first 90 minutes that you didn't care about seem to be over and resolved?

My point is, this is a bad movie. I know, coming from me, what does that even mean? I'm the same person who planted a "hearty recommendation" tag on my review for Gnaw: Food of the Gods Part 2. My standards are confusing and I am well aware of that fact. I’m worse than the judging panel of Project Runway, who praise a runway outfit’s flow and color to the designer then cattily chat about how awful it looked to each other during deliberation (a SERIOUS bone of contention I’ve been having this season but what are talking about again?)

Sorry, I got distracted. It’s SHOCKING that I can’t stay on track when Choose seems so bent on being passive aggressively bad. This is the kind of film that hates everything, save maybe for the body and Pantene wonderment of its leading lady. There is no joy, fear, wackiness, mystery, thematic statement, or any other worthwhile thing that you sometimes find in movies to be found in Choose.

At least Dot.Kill had Armand Assante complaining about breakfast.

High Points
I guess the early maiming of the sad pianist isn't without interest, with some interesting post-finger-mortem staging and…that’s just about it

Low Points
So for all the movie's lines about how the killer makes people CHOOSE (a drinking game worthy magic word on Chain Letter levels), it would behoove me as one of the (hopefully) few people to see this film to NOT point out the fact that the killer's definition of "choice" is looser than a blond named Tina in an ‘80s slasher. Take the aforementioned pianist, who is told he has to pick between keeping his hearing or ability to play. Except then the killer says "Nah, I'll choose for you: I'm taking your fingers, but you get to pick HOW I do it," and then when the poor dude is understandably still unable to verbalize anything for a few seconds, the deceptively democratic murderer declares "Nah, I'LL choose how that's happening too, snip!" So the point of Choose is that you don't ever actually get to choose. Sort of like the point of Chain Letter was that chains will kill you no matter what. Weird. Now I want to rewatch Chain Letter. I can’t say I ever thought I’d say that…

The Don't Get Your Hopes Up Warning
A notice to my straight male readers: despite taking a bath AND shower, the lovely Ms. Winnick does not show any of her specialties. I'd just hate for you to queue up this film for that reason and be disappointed 

Lessons Learned
Nobody doesn’t love a girl who knows the Dewey Decimal System

21st century graduate university libraries are far more accommodating to loud-talking students who scream than the solaces of quiet study time of days of yore

To be a great journalist-in-the-making, do some research, then wait for the killer to inevitably kill you because then he’ll just TELL YOU EVERYTHING about what he did, why he did it, and how it all relates to YOU

In the spirit of today's movie, I'm giving you a choice: you can CHOOSE to spend 90 minutes watching a dull simplistically convoluted movie with no redeeming value or you could, let's see...cram in three episodes of Arrested Development on Instant Watch? Bake a pie? Clip your nails, shave your legs, moisturize, make a sandwich, eat that sandwich, wash it down with seltzer, urinate the seltzer, wash your hands, brush your cats, and make artistic stick figures on Draw Something. The point is, there are a lot of ways to spend your time. Don't give yours to a movie that clearly didn't use any of it to write a good story.