Tuesday, May 28, 2013

I've Seen the Future, & It Has Very Big Eyes

The scariest moment in Rodrigo Cortez’s Red Lights involves no horror of the traditional sense. There is no leaping cat or spooky apparition, no herd of tarantulas or masked madman.

There is only the cheekbones of Cillian Murphy.

Oh pah you say, those are MARVELOUS cheekbones, resting ever so high upon the side of that slender yet sexy face, matched only by the man's handball sized eyeballs overflowing with an ocean of blue. Sure, smitten readers, Cillian Murphy is indeed an unusually handsome man, but when you put his head in the physical hands of a blind man who is feeling the structure in the way blind people handshake, the worrywart in me can only think, "Oh! Those bones have got to be sharp!"

But onto the movie. The movie with the cheekbones.

Quick Plot: Meet Margaret and Tom, a platonic pair of academics who travel the country to disprove paranormal phenomena. Tom is a physics wizard with aforementioned killer cheekbones, while Margaret is played by Sigourney Weaver as that intelligent and no-nonsense-yet-great-sense-of-humor-holding career woman that only Sigourney Weaver can actually play. As they face losing funding for their research, Tom urges Margaret to go after the big fish that is Simon Silver.

How big a fish is he? Are you talkin' to me? Are you askin' ME how big a fish--

Man, I never thought it would be that hard to impersonate Robert Dinero in blog form. They don't teach you that at antiparanormal investigations university.

Yes folks, that's Travis Bickle in the flesh as a John Edward style psychic who wowed the world then retired after a skeptic had a heart attack during one of his performances. Margaret had an unsettling run-in with the man some years earlier, but Tom is undeterred. On his side is the always lovely Elizabeth Olsen as a student in his antiparanormal university class--

Oh. Maybe I should try to explain.

Like many white collar intellectuals with a high education but lack of worldly skills, Tom and Margaret moonlight as, I think, college professors at the same university where Toby Jones works as a professor trying to find evidence supporting the existence of psychic phenomena. Or something. It's confusing, but I think the point is that in this country, there are indeed high level universities that offer majors in both Psychic Studies and Psychic Studies Are Bullshit. It's nice to know young people still have choices in this economy.

I know I should be getting back to the mystery of Simon Silver, but there's something far more distracting to discuss:

Seriously. They play a couple. It's disturbing for so many reasons.

Remember how Jennifer Garner's first marriage to her RA on Felicity was kind of creepy because in addition to both being pretty, the couple could essentially pass for siblings? 

That's part of the case here, as Cillian Murphy and Elizabeth Olsen are both unusual looking people, making it strange (or fitting?) that they would end up being attracted to one another. We can imagine their hauntingly Skeletor-like baby with a mixture of fear and fascination, but pause to consider how incredibly round their offspring's baby blues would be.

Now try to get to sleep tonight.

The idea of an Olsemurphy superbaby taking over the world is far scarier than anything in Red Lights, especially since this film is less thriller than drama. None of that is clear until about 2/3rds of the way in, as the mixed tone takes its time deciding what type of movie to be. That’s something of a problem.

High Points
As Cortes proved with a coffin-trapped Ryan Reynolds in Buried, he's a director fully capable of generating suspense. Even when the story becomes lackluster, there is some genuine tension watching a few grad students (at the School For And Against the Paranormal) try to solve the mystery of Simon Silver's secret (and yes, maybe I did just write that sentence to annoy those with lisps)

Low Points
Had Red Lights been billed a little clearer as a drama, I think most of my (and I assume, may other viewers’) problems would have been much smaller. The film remains rather confused, but a good deal of that perception might be my own

Lessons Learned
Blind people wear watches too

Bug-eyed beauties are naturally attracted to other bug-eyed beauties. We can only assume that when they reproduce, their progeny will quickly ascend to Super Mother Bug status and leave us brown-eyed bores at the bottom of the food chain

The average man dreams 27 times a night

So long as you don't approach Red Lights expecting a tense horror movie, you might find it enjoyable as a bit of a mystery. The cast is better than the material deserves while also being blander than it should be, but there are some fun moments of tension. Think of it like a sort of poor man's Prestige if The Prestige was already on discount. As a quick Netflix stream, one could do worse. 

Monday, May 20, 2013

Let's Get Ready To Rollerball

Keanu Reeves. Jake Lloyd. All the actors presumably far worse than Hayden Christiansen OR Jake Lloyd that didn't get cast in the prequels. Anyone in Troll 2. A sack of flour. The sack of flour's less good-looking younger brother. Jamie Kennedy. Jamie Kennedy's less good-looking younger brother. 

It's incredibly easy to think of men and inanimate objects that could give better performances than Chris Klein. And yet, the forehead keeps shining on the big screen.

Quick Plot: In Central Asia--no, really, that's as specific as we get--a new 'sports entertainment' trend is sweeping the subcontinent/country. Rollerball is essentially roller derby with a dash of motorcycles, a hint of Quidditch, and a sprinkle of GWAR. Eastern European coal miners LOVE it.

Enter LL Cool J cast against type as (SPOILER ALERT!) a character who does not survive to the end reels. LL convinces his pal Nash, Interpol to leave behind the world of illegally luging down the streets of LA (in the near future, it's apparently a thing) to throw on a helmet, not close the chin strap, and skate around a loud indoor arena while a gang borrowing hand-me-down Mad Max leotards chases him for sport. 

From the elaborate costuming to the encouragement of fan mania, the sport of rollerball is not entirely unlike professional wrestling. There's a reason Paul Heyman costars as an excitable announcer and Shane McMahon makes a brief cameo. This is a game where men (and women) put their lives and bodies on the line with no solid weight of glory. They willfully submit themselves to breaking their bones on television, the reward being a decent salary and temporary-to-loyal fan adoration. At some point in its writing process, Rollerball actually had a fairly neat and fertile parallel to potentially explore. 

Unfortunately, that's pretty much the only interesting aspect of this woefully misguided collection of scenes that sort of resembles a movie. Directed by John McDieHardPredatorTiernan, Rollerball was fairly infamous for its long life in post-production. Test audiences hated it, causing its studio to cut and paste a new version with all the skill of a clumsy southpaw kindergarten student using right-handed safety scissors. The original R-rated version was tamed down to PG-13, ironic when the thesis of your film revolves around our insatiable thirst for violence. Somehow despite two push-back release dates and a whole lot of editing, the producers never thought to cut its biggest issue: that forehead otherwise known as Chris Klein.

In a perfect world, this man would become Tommy Wiseau's muse. In a more perfect world, he would make a deal with a gray-skinned sea witch wherein he sells his speaking voice for a handful of magic beans and ends up trapped in a valley high above our planet where all the women are overweight and don't cook for him.

But back to Rollerball, the  movie about the game in which the stakes are so high, our villain (the one and only Jean Reno, trying in vain to be able to claim one movie on his resume worse than Godzilla) is willing to kill innocent young athletes because, and I quote, he is 'THIS CLOSE TO A NORTH AMERICAN CABLE DEAL!'

Look, 1975's Rollerball was not a good movie. Much like Logan's Run and Westworld, it stands as one of that decade's brilliant sci-fi film premises that ended up a mediocre bucket of popcorn. And yet, when you put it next to this aggressively awful remake, it looks like pure gold surrounded by delicious chocolate and world peace.

There are heavyhanded politics that go as detailed as "It's us against them!" Vague allusions to a downtrodden people that have no weight because, well, we DON'T EVEN KNOW WHAT COUNTRY THIS IS TRAKING PLACE IN. The film sort of wants to say something about the 1% owning its people, but the idea that the apple pie American Chris Klein is the great liberator of poor Eastern European coal miners and Central Asian spectators (seriously, I'm even more confused) is just offensive. Rollerball claims a prized spot on Rotten Tomatoes worst reviewed films of the decade list, and it's deserved. This is a bad movie, one that really should only refer to itself as a "movie" with air quotes.

High Points
Even though the sport is a mess that the best Jeopardy! champion couldn't dream of understanding, the film does have a smidgen of fun when it focuses on the actual act of rollerball, from the bizarre costumes to the annoying (yet fitting) rock soundtrack that would accompany it

Low Points
Aside from EVERYTHING IN THIS TERRIBLE FILM, I'll go with a few specifics:

-Characters constantly referring to being in a specific country (i.e., "I looooove this country" and "I am NOT gonna DIE in this COUNTRY!") despite the film's only actual acknowledgement of what that country is being "Central Asia"

-That the opening credits begin, and are then rather rudely interrupted with another credit telling us where we are (say it with me: Central Asia) and then confusingly returning to the credits. For all I know, "Central Asia" was actually an actor. 

-That Naveen "There IS No Sayid" Andrews is in this movie without his scruffy yet sexy facial hair

Lessons Learned
In Central Asianspeak, My mother's a pediatrician" translates to "Yes, she is a crack whore"

If riding 120 mph on a motorcycle in the middle of the Central Asian wilderness, it’s best to use an indoor voice. Seriously, your partner can hear everything at 120 mph on a motorcycle.

Cutting the chinstrap of a rollerball competitor is akin to first-degree murder, but playing the sport without snapping the chinstrap is akin to being cool

North Americans are really good at firing shotguns one-handed, so long as the stakes are high and the mood is slow-mo

The Winning Line
“Your face isn’t nearly as bad as you think it is,” says Klein in regards to the paper-cut sized scratch on the cheek of supermodel Rebecca Romjin-(then) Stamos. I don’t know about the rest of you ladies, but sign me up for that pillowtalk before I fall asleep

Rollerball is indeed one of the worst studio films of the 2000s. In other words, if you're like me, then yes, you should OF COURSE head to Netflix Instant and give it a stream. It's bafflingly bad, which is entertaining in its own right. But those who seek quality are better off elsewhere, and those who enjoy mediocrity can comfort themselves with the James Caan original. 

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Bag Gift Ideas For Mother's Day: Werewolfism

Where were you when The Great Netflix Purge of 2013 hit? Stuck in an elevator with poor wi-fi? Trapped on a subway counting down to midnight? Locked in your recliner with the vow to clear that queue before the midnight cleansing?

For the un-instant watching, TGNP’13 has become an infamous day in modern history. To make room for its increased original programming (and a little show you might have heard of called Arrested Development), Netflix cleared out a few hundred/thousand titles on May 1st from its streaming service. For some of my film-loving friends, this was a cinematic holocaust. For me, well…it simply gave me the impetus to watch a werewolf horror comedy co-starring Brion James and a lot of bad ‘90s haircuts.

Quick Plot: Emily is a pleasant sixtysomething widow whose son Clay is quickly rising as a go-to field reporter for a local news station. As Clay investigates a vicious rash of murders slowly spreading to his community, Emily rents her spare bedroom to a shifty blind man named Lester, played by the always shifty James. Before she can cash in his security deposit, Lester turns Emily into his werewolf hunting partner.

Early on in the film, Mom showed a lot of promise. There seemed to be a pointed effort to not tread typical werewolf territory, and having Lester and Emily wander through the slums of LA to scout out the best fed homeless entrée was a nice twist. Once Clay learns his mother’s secret, Mom even posits and interesting theme on what it means to be an adult taking care of your parents as they become less and less able. Like so many lycanthropic tales, Mom had plenty of firm ground to explore.

But meh.

Writer/director Patrick Rand worked on quite a few cult gems, including the somewhat similarly toned The Unborn and the, you know, POSITIVELY AMAZING Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. He also edited a Baby Einstein video, which I imagine is an experience akin to being trapped inside a washing machine with a bag of Skittles. That aside, Mom is certainly a well-made film, one that gets good performances out of its fairly unknown cast and displays some passable makeup effects.

But meh.

Here’s the issue with Mom: it’s a horror comedy. Here’s the thing about horror comedies: they should be horror and comedy. Or horrific comedy. Or funny horror. The balance varies, but both conditions must be met in some capacity.

Mom doesn’t really meet either.

There are certainly moments of humor, but minus the hilarity of this era’s mullets, nothing really elicits more than a smile. Emily isn’t sweet or dark enough, and while her struggle to resist murder has stakes, the film doesn’t quite treat them with any real heft. That would be fine if the jokes were effective, but plainly and simply, they just aren’t. 

Pleasant. That’s what Mom is. Occasionally sweet, often bordering on dull (but MAN do those early 90s fashions save it from ever sinking) and overall, just not that special.

High Points
The first woman to be werewolfed, it should be noted, displayed a rather fantastic scream

Low Notes
The fact that the victim who dies before the opening credits having a good scream was the only genuine high note

Lessons Learned
When preparing your human meal, make sure he or she lays off the tobasco sauce

Always keep an open can of grease handy in the kitchen

There are ways to make tequila very unsexy. They tend to involve slobbery prostitutes with poodle hair

Being an unofficial Girl Scout in the 1990s was dangerous work

The Netflix Purge has made Mom rather hard to come by, as there seems to be no DVD release. Really folks, that’s okay. Neither funny nor scary, Mom isn’t the kind of film that deserves ebay scouring. If it ever comes back to Instant Watch and you’re the kind of cool cat that simply adores tame werewolf comedies from the early 1990s, then hey! Watch Mom. But considering it’s the second Sunday in May, I’d say you’re better off spending the time honoring the actual mothers in your life. Hope you made that brunch reservation!

Monday, May 6, 2013

Only In the World of Virtual Reality Can There Be a 13th Floor

To our modern 21st century eyes, there's something rather adorable about the excitement we and our elders had towards the prospect of virtual reality in the mid-1990s. Before the Sims could make us feel like gods or Wii Fitness could fool us into full body workouts (or arm flailing), the idea of video game make believe sparked the imagination of a full generation of mediocre sci-fi filmmakers.

We had The Lawnmower Man. It had a sequel. There were Strange Days and Virtuosity. Heck, even the steamy sexual harassment thrills of Disclosure feature a rather hilariously pixelated Demi Moore causing some mayhem. It was quite the rage, culminating in one of action cinema’s most frustratingly influential trendsetters, The Matrix.

Just before Neo took that pill, however, director Josef Ruznak (who, a decade later, would damn his soul to hell with the abominable It’s Alive remake) tackled Daniel F. Galouye’s 1960s era sci-fi novel, Simulacron-3, adapting it into the much more tongue-friendly title, The Thirteenth Floor.

Quick Plot: An elder gentleman with the steely blue eyes of Armin Mueller-Stahl wanders through a 1930s era LA with a mission to hand off an important letter to a shockingly blond Vincent D’Onofrio. We soon learn that Stahl is actually Hannon Fuller, a techno-genius-mogul of sorts playing around in his next big hit, a virtual reality program that drops users into the past. Fuller’s Bill Gatesian plans are foiled when he’s stabbed to death outside a bar in the present (1990s), leaving his next-in-command Douglas (the poor American man’s Clive Owen, Craig Bierko) to solve the mystery of his murder, decide the future of the program, elude future President Dennis Haysbert’s detective probing, and fall in love with Past It Girl Gretchen Mol.

Also, to rock a kickin' '30s 'stache

Science fiction is a complicated genre when it comes to time. On one hand, the ideas presented in the stories are supposed to be fairly speculative, meaning nothing should feel bound by its era. On the other, does any other genre age more noticeably? Part of it is that the ‘idea of the future’ is fragile, rendering visual imagination obsolete or out of date once that time finally arrives. Sure, Starship Troopers rather accurately anticipated iPads, but it’s hard to believe a Logan’s Run prediction of the next few centuries when everyone’s dressed as if they’re preparing for a typical Saturday night at a roller disco.

The Thirteenth Floor circles that problem, as the concept of virtual reality as defined by ‘90s cinema has all but become a punchline. Looking past that is equally problematic: without giving too much away, this is a story that had been done so much better (both visually and emotionally) in the then-underseen, now slightly-overrated Dark City. There are some deeply thoughtful ideas at play in The Thirteenth Floor, but there’s also a murder mystery to solve and gooey romance to slog through. At about 100 minutes, there’s simply not enough time for anything of genuine depth to transpire.

This is not to say that The Thirteenth Floor is a bad movie. It has Vincent D’Onofrio sporting long greasy blond locks for goodness sakes! It has Armin Mueller-Stahl in jeans! OF COURSE IT’S NOT A BAD MOVIE. 

It’s just kind of mediocre.

High Points
While The Lawnmower Man graphics still elicit a few good chuckles, the film seems to come alive most in its virtual reality experiment, playing with colors and visual style as Douglas experiences a post-Boardwalk Empire, pre-Wizard of Oz world

Low Points
At its core, there are some truly fascinating themes present in this film, ones that could explore identity, humanity, god syndrome, and so much more. But perhaps due to its marketability as a sci-fi thriller, The Thirteenth Floor never really commits to fleshing out its heart

Lessons Learned
Even simulated universes contain a steady supply of L-shaped bedsheets to best cover the female form after a night of lovemaking

When making a bargain martini, a pretzel is a sufficient, if not quite desirable substitute for an olive

The best way to channel a lack of class is to chew gum with one’s mouth open 

You Know You’re In a ‘90s Film When…
The grocery checkout cashier asks you whether you prefer paper or plastic 

One could buy three packs of cigarettes for less than $7.50

A pointed reference is made at America’s Most Wanted

The Thirteenth Floor was streaming on Netflix until the Great May 1st Purge of 2013. It’s unfortunate since that’s probably the best way to watch this film. It doesn’t REALLY merit a rental or purchase, but as a lazy weekend viewing, it’s more than adequate. The film’s ‘90s nostalgia ages in the typically interesting way of that era’s sci-fi, while the actual mystery aspects are strung out well enough to keep you curious until the end. The story has been done better, but hey...pixels!