Polter-Cow (spectralbovine) wrote,
Polter-Cow
spectralbovine

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Something Old, Something New

Although the last batch mixed old and new, the new movies tended to be terrible. Not so this time!

John Dies at the End: John Dies at the End is one of my favorite books, but I was unsure how well it would translate to film because it is just so out there. Don Coscarelli's adaptation manages to juggle the horror-comedy tone more successfully than Bubba Ho-Tep, largely because he doesn't try too hard to make the movie scary. And yet, he doesn't make it a silly comedy either; he plays the weirdness pretty straight, which as it should be. The movie gets a lot of the adventures of John and David right. Though I was unsure from the trailers, I did think the casting of the two leads was pretty good, though I can't say someone else couldn't have done a better job. Rob Mayes as John is particularly good, far more likable than Chase Williamson as David, who—although the movie erases his problematic behavior and language—doesn't come off as very likable. Several scenes, especially early on, are straight out of the book, and it's a joy to see them onscreen. Unfortunately, the movie cuts out a lot to the point that the book is practically gutted. Important subplots—and I'm talking really important, like a major plot twist—are removed. Amy, the sole female character with any agency in the book, is barely even a character at all, plus they changed her hair color. The plot is somewhat more coherent on the surface but more incoherent overall because all of the actual atmosphere and worldbuilding that leads to the climax have been removed. In the end, it's a fun, bizarre movie that could never have lived up to the sheer WTFery of the highly entertaining and imaginative book. B/B+

Shaun of the Dead: In preparation for The World's End, I rewatched the first two installments of the Cornetto Trilogy. I'd seen Shaun at least two or three times, and it remains a wonderful zombie film. Like the best of them, it's completely character-focused: killing zombies is incidental. Shaun's relationships with his girlfriend, his best friend, his girlfriend's mates, his mother, his flatmate, his stepdad...those are what matters. No one is just zombie bait, and we actually care about their fates; it helps that the cast is great. Wow, that was a lot of rhyming. Pegg and Wright pack the movie full of foreshadowing and clever wordplay, much of which I didn't even pick up on until this most recent viewing. It's well constructed and well paced and highly entertaining, and Wright's visual style is a joy. There's a reason it's held up as a zombie classic. A-

Hot Fuzz: Many people prefer Hot Fuzz to Shaun of the Dead, but even after a rewatch, I find Hot Fuzz a bit lacking in comparison. It takes a little longer to really get going, and it seems a little too serious at points. Simon Pegg's character doesn't have as strong a character arc, although it is kind of amusing that Shaun isn't responsible enough and Nicholas Angel is too responsible; Pegg gives a very different performance and reminds me that he's a great actor. Whereas Shaun sticks to the zombie genre, I feel Hot Fuzz tries to do a little too much, mixing a slasher movie with an action movie, and it doesn't feel as focused. That doesn't mean it's not very entertaining, however, especially in the last half hour when it just goes balls-out bonkers. B/B+

Network: In the first ten minutes of this movie, a newscaster announces that he will kill himself on-air in a week. If you think that's fucked up, you've still got 110 minutes to go. Holy fucking shit, this movie is amazing. After Howard Beale has a meltdown on national television, the network decides to exploit his rage for higher ratings, and cutthroat Programming executive Diana Christensen has all sorts of ideas on how to turn him into money. This movie is basically two hours of awful people yelling, and it's absolutely riveting. It's vicious and vulgar and how does this movie even exist. It's horrifyingly prescient about television and culture; everything it says is still relevant and powerful today, especially if you account for the influence of the Internet on public perception. It does peak at the famous "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore" speech and lags a little in the middle, but it picks up again for a hell of an ending. This is one of those classic movies that truly deserves its reputation and needs to be seen. A

The Silence of the Lambs: In preparation for Hannibal, I rewatched the classic I was far too young for when I watched it at, like, 11 or 12. Now I can truly appreciate the performances of Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins and HOLY CREEPING SHIT TED LEVINE AS BUFFALO BILL IS CREEPTASTICALLY HORRIFYING. We all know the story: Clarice Starling talks to Hannibal Lecter to help catch a serial killer. I've found that one of the things I appreciate most in narrative is focus: the movie tells you what the characters are trying to do right at the beginning, and you spend the movie watching them attain that goal. No froofy subplots, no distractions. They are after Buffalo Bill, the end. Hannibal Lecter is almost incidental, and yet he makes the biggest impression because he's one of those polite monsters. He's the smartest person in the room and he wants you to know it, and also he will eat your face. Clarice's backstory is interwoven elegantly, and we understand her character based on what she tells us of her past, what Hannibal intuits about her, and what she actually does. It's weird, honestly, because this movie is deceptively simple, and yet because it's executed so well, it elevates itself above many other similar movies in the genre. A-

The Sting: It's another classic Hill/Redford/Newman joint, and they're up to their old shenanigans again, this time as con men out to fleece a mob boss. Robert Redford is the young pup, and Paul Newman is the legend, showing him the ropes on how to run a long con. And what a long con it is! (No, seriously, the movie is over two hours long.) Title cards announce each part of the con, from The Set-Up to The Sting, and...really, that's about it. It's one of the classic, quintessential grifter movies, and it's interesting to watch because it's set in 1936 so it's very low-tech. Phone calls! Telegraphs! Western Union! Much of what they do wouldn't fly today, but it's easy to see how the basic concepts would carry over into a modern context. While the movie doesn't pop with the whizbang swiftness we expect from heist movies these days—and it's not a heist movie, but the complicated schemes and the huge team involved make it feel more like a heist movie than a simple confidence game—it does keep moving, piling complication upon complication, occasionally adding a dose of unexpected violence. Plot twists abound, and when the con is on, the fix is in, and other catchphrases. Redford and Newman ooze charisma, as they are wont to do, and the whole enterprise is a lot of fun. B+/A-

Warm Bodies: In this new spin on the zombie genre with a dash of Romeo and Juliet, zombies are vaguely sentient for some reason. The main character has coherent thoughts and narrates although, as a zombie, he can only groan and speak the occasional word. None of this makes any sense at all, and it takes a long time to accept how zombies work in this movie because they're hardly zombies. They have pretty great motor skills, and they communicate, and we hardly ever see them eat any brains. Although they do! Because that is how they get memories or something, unlike these other zombies who are just wasted away and monstrous. Like I said, NONE OF THIS MAKES ANY SENSE AT ALL. Still, zombie R falls in love with human Julie, and their romance is kind of sweet and awkward. The movie plods along for a while, perhaps attempting to emulate a zombie shamble with its narrative momentum. The movie improves instantly any time Analeigh Tipton is onscreen, however. Not that Nicholas Hoult and Teresa Palmer aren't good, though. I just think Analeigh Tipton should be in more things. Anyway, zombie romance, it's very sweet, characters are likable, sometimes the movie is funny, none of it makes any sense. That basically sums it up. B/B+

Bonnie and Clyde: I'm 40 years late on this, but I have a crush on Faye Dunaway. As the sexy and dangerous Bonnie Parker, she matches Warren Beatty's Clyde Barrow with style as they rob banks. The movie doesn't waste any time, beginning with their fateful meeting, where she's clearly drawn to him and a life of crime, far more enticing than a life of waitressing. Everything we really need to know about Bonnie we know from her decision to go with him. Their inevitable romance is complicated, as he's "not much of a loverboy" (which Wikipedia informs me was code for impotence, which makes more sense than his being situation-dependent asexual or something), but who needs sex when you have guns. Soon enough, they're on the run from the police, not to mention darlings of the media, who inflate their crimes into a place of myth. They pick up more colleagues and form the infamous Barrow gang because Bonnie and Clyde are charismatic as hell; it's hard not to get caught in their orbit. For some reason the only actor who won an Oscar was Estelle Parsons, who plays the most annoying character in the movie, Clyde's hysterical sister-in-law, who spends half the movie screaming (despite her real-life counterpart's being more helpful and proactive). But we've also got Genes Hackman and Wilder (the latter in his film debut)! The Barrow gang have many misadventures, but it was never going to end well: the final scene is still shocking and brutal after all these years. B+

Thelma & Louise: After having it out from Netflix for a MONTH, I ended up watching this feminist classic on Ridley Scott's birthday! Housewife Thelma and waitress Louise set off on a vacation away from their crappy significant others, and they get into some trouble. And then some more trouble. Hoo boy, these girls just can't keep out of trouble! They end up fugitives in multiple states, but at least they're enjoying themselves. The narrative moves swiftly; there's never a lull since they're on the run. The relationship between Thelma and Louise is central to the movie: it is the movie. They have plenty of conversations that aren't about a man, although they also have conversations that are about men because most of the men in this movie suck. At times it does feel like a cathartic feminist revenge fantasy, which is fun. I loved Thelma especially, as she undergoes the most dramatic transformation, finally free from her terrible marriage; Louise seems to have some darkness in her already. It's a whole movie about women having fun and committing crimes! We have so few of them. Everyone knows the end of the movie, and by God, it earns it. B+/A-

All the President's Men: It's the story of the quintessential political scandal, Watergate, a scandal so scandalous that decades later we -gate things that have nowhere near the impact this story had on the country. This story took down a President, okay. Two guys took down the President. Although the movie doesn't take us that far, it does follow the crucial first seven months of the investigation, in which Woodward and Bernstein make lots of phone calls, pay awkward housecalls, meet with a mysterious informant in a dimly lit parking garage, and attempt to confirm information in the most roundabout ways possible. It's always fascinating to watch these pre-digital age conspiracy thrillers, watching people dig through STACKS OF PAPER of all things. Using rotary phones! Phone booths! Phone BOOKS! Woodward is the neophyte, but he takes the lead in the investigation over the more senior Bernstein, who doesn't play second banana but isn't featured as heavily. It's fun to watch them dig deeper and deeper, following each clue down into a new rabbit hole as the plot becomes more and more labyrinthine. It's a template movie full of elements that have now become clichés, like the aforementioned parking garage meetings, "Follow the money," "This goes all the way to the top!" (not a direct quote), etc. I started to become lost halfway through myself, but Woodstein—so affectionately/derisively named by their editors, not that they ship them or anything—doggedly put everything together to the point where they piss people off, which is when they know they're right. This is a movie that makes phone calls tense and typewriting ominous. B+

Tootsie: Once that Dustin Hoffman interview went viral, I figured it was time to check out this classic drag comedy, in which an unemployed actor goes to drastic lengths to get a part on a soap opera. Michael Dorsey becomes Dorothy Michaels and boom, he's a star! On the one hand, the entire plot revolves around a man taking a part away from a woman, and on the other hand, the entire plot revolves around a man having his eyes opened to the sexism women face every day. As the interview shows, Dustin Hoffman's growth paralleled his character's. Dorothy responds to microaggressions with impassioned monologues about being a woman and standing up for yourself, and those moments are lovely, but it's more than a "message" movie. It's also more than a "Ha ha, it's a man dressed as a woman" movie. While there are plenty of dual-identity shenanigans, it doesn't feel like a hysterical farce that goes for cheap gags. In fact, it's more of a really weird romantic comedy, as Michael—as Dorothy—begins to fall for BABY JESSICA LANGE (while also in It's Complicated with baby Teri Garr [and in It's Really Complicated with some other men who fall for her]). Watching the behind-the-scenes features, I can see that a lot of love and care went into this movie; it's a movie where everyone involved worked together to make the best movie they could. The script is sharp, with very little fat, and scenes end on punchy lines. It's got jokes about theater, acting, and soap operas. Also, Geena Davis's film debut and Bill Murray! B+/A-

The Heat: I experienced some cognitive dissonance watching this movie because it was just like all those buddy cop movies BUT WITH WOMEN. Which was entirely Parks and Recreation writer Katie Dippold's intention, after all. According to IMDb trivia, the last female buddy cop movie was Feds from 1988. Sandra Bullock plays the tightly wound, by-the-book cop, and Melissa McCarthy plays the aggressive, uncouth cop who just doesn't play by the rules. Each woman's introductory scene perfectly illustrates who she is, and we know how this story goes, and it's incredibly entertaining. They team up to take down a drug lord or whatever—the crime plot is, of course, incidental to the real story, which is their relationship—and Sandra Bullock learns to loosen up a bit. She also gets to say wonderful lines like "That is a misrepresentation of my vagina." McCarthy's character is wildly unprofessional and pulls her gun out all the time so much I can't even but this is action-comedy movie world, where you don't get suspended a million times for things like that. I could criticize little things about the script if I felt like it, but the movie is funny enough to make up for it. It's pretty much funny all the way through, with very little falling flat, and it's got a sweet core; I felt an actual emotion at the end. Now that both Bridesmaids and The Heat have been big hits, can Hollywood stop pretending that it's box office poison to give women leading roles? B+/A-

This Is the End: This apocalyptic comedy received surprisingly strong reviews, and several people said it was hilarious. Perhaps, like the characters in this movie, they were high. The movie opens with a parade of cameos, where nearly every other line is an actor saying another actor's other name—Seth Rogen knows his own name, folks—and it's cute and distracting because they're all playing fictional versions of themselves and I'm sure it sounded like a good idea at the time but it's weird okay. Then, as you may have guessed from the title, the world ends, and then, as you may have guessed from the poster and the trailers, the only people left are a bunch of white dudes and one black guy. They proceed to be very dudely about everything, and it is only mildly amusing at best. I could tell the movie thought it was funny. I could tell there were points in the movie where I was supposed to be enjoying myself. But the characters are such awful people that I didn't want to watch them. I did like that the fact that they were awful was relevant to the plot, but the superficial discussion of what makes a good person was kind of insulting by that point. The best parts of the movie are anything dealing with the actual apocalypse because at least those scenes are fun and cool and visually interesting (the movie does have some nice directorial moments, despite the shitty script). Also Emma Watson. B-/B

Mama: A horror movie produced by Guillermo del Toro, co-written by Neil Cross of Luther fame, and starring Jessica Chastain and Jaime Lannister? Sign me up! Expanded from this short film, Mama had me staring at the screen in horror within the first ten minutes. Two girls are found in a cabin after five years, feral. Their uncle and his girlfriend (Jessica Chastain, who looks like she's in a rock band...because she is in a rock band) take them in, but they bring with them...MAMA. Who is a grotesque ghost played by a man with Marfan syndrome. There are some wonderfully creepy scenes where it's unclear you're watching the ghost until you realize you're watching the ghost and all your hair stands on end. And then there are the fucking scary scenes when the ghost is angry and she's moving all spider-like. It's a PG-13 horror movie, so it's not about buckets of blood; it goes for old-school scares and it earns both its jump scares and its creeping horror. Besides the horror elements, though, we connect with Chastain and her attempt to be a mother to these children she didn't ask for, as well as the children's attempt to bond with her after five years being raised by a ghost. As for the ghost itself, I love that the movie is upfront about her and generally plays by its own rules throughout, leading to an ending that feels right. All in all, a very strong horror movie that left me uncomfortable to be alone in my apartment. B+

The Conjuring: It was a good year for horror movies with old-school scares! Unlike Mama, though, The Conjuring is based on a "true story," featuring real-life demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren, who investigate the haunting of the Perrons, a family with FIVE DAUGHTERS because we need lots of children in peril. The strong cast—Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Ron Livingston, Lili Taylor—give us a reason to care about these characters and their fates. Once the scares start, they're practically relentless, and director James Wan mixes them up so you're never quite sure what's coming. A door opening or closing? Lights going out? A face in a mirror? Like a demonic spirit himself, he feeds on the audience's fear, playing with our own anticipation for a scare and then throwing an actual sighting at us when we least expect it. The movie is full of fantastic, terrifying scenes, bolstered by the 1970s aesthetic and the use of now-outdated technology. The climax is somewhat disappointing because it doesn't have as much oomph as the rest of the movie. But, hoo boy, overall, it's creepy as fuck. B+

Pitch Perfect: I kind of thought this movie was basically Step Up but for singing, but I heard enough good things and I like Anna Kendrick so onto my DVR it went. The basic plot is simple: Anna Kendrick joins an all-girl college a cappella group seeking to win a national competition. Of course, the group is a ragtag group of misfits who are laughably bad in the beginning but get it together by the end. Of course, Our Heroine's love interest is a member of the rival a cappella group. Of course, the scene-stealers are a fat Tasmanian and a soft-spoken Korean. Okay, that's a bit different. Writer Kay Cannon, of 30 Rock and New Girl, however, uses this skeleton of familiarity to hang all sorts of hilarious shenanigans, making the movie consistently funny. It achieves a perfect blend of silly and fun, never going too far into absurdity, except maybe with the announcers played by John Michael Higgins and Elizabeth Banks, who seem to exist in a world all their own. And yet as awful as they are, they represent the magical way the movie is able to gently mock a cappella while also celebrating it unironically. The musical numbers are expectedly wonderful, especially the final routine. The movie is not—har har—pitch perfect; the main character's arc is a bit muddled and a lot of time is spent on a tertiary character who barely interacts with the story. But it passes the Bechdel test the way movies should—by focusing on female characters and telling their stories—it's unabashedly fun, it's laugh-out-loud hilarious, everything Rebel Wilson or Hana Mae Lee says is gold, and Anna Kendrick makes great songs even better. B+/A-

Now it's time for the annual Oscar catch-up!
Tags: making the grade, movies, pimpings
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