Movie 43

I’ll just come right out and say it: I think it’s silly to give a comedy movie a Razzie award. I think the Razzies should be aimed towards movies that try to be taken seriously and yet end up being impossible to see as anything but a big joke.

Comedy is also in the eye (or ear) of the beholder. You can figure this out just by seeing what comedy shows are on television and noting the vast degree of difference — even if we just focus ones that actually have developed followings, we’ve got anything from All in the Family, Cheers, The Facts of Life, and The Office to Futurama, Archer, Robot Chicken, Kids in the Hall, and Monty Python’s Flying Circus. And that’s barely scratching the surface. Typically what one person thinks is funny, there’s someone else in the world who thinks it’s stupid. That’s the nature of comedy.

Movie 43 can deservedly take some crap (literally) for catering to the lowest-common denominators: scatalogical and sexual humor. While compilation comedy movies like “The Kentucky Fried Chicken Movie” and “Amazon Women on the Moon” (both of which are worth seeing, btw) manage to vary things up and branch into the silly with only a few nods to sex, Movie 43 can’t seem to move away aside from the topic — well, aside from a clip about a pissy little leprechaun, that is, and another one about how blacks dominate basketball. But it doesn’t mean that none of the clips are amusing, if you can handle the subject matter.

It’s also rather amazing at the degree of talented actors who agreed to play a small role in the movie — we’re talking about Academy-Award winners/nominees here. There’s at least one star in every clip who is high-profile in the acting business, as well as the thin but sometimes amusing storyline that connects everything involves Dennis Quaid, Greg Kinnear, and Seth MacFarlane, among others. (I guess I’m just amused that Dennis Quaid can actually come off looking like a crackhead living in a Dumpster behind Sears somewhere.) I’m not sure what favors g0t called in here, but someone was really saving up for a long time.

Not all of the segments are as funny as others. Some might even be (as expected in a string of comedy sketches) offensive to some. My personal favorite is “Homeschooled,” starring Naomi Watts and Liev Schrieber (ironically, a couple in real life) as parents raising their teenager at home while trying to provide him with an “authentic high school experience” … which ends up being full of enough existential angst, alienation, and social rejection/abuse to give some of us flashbacks of our own miserable teen years. (You have been warned.) But I still laughed at some of the fake ads, the Speed Dating bit (with a pervo Batman trying to help Robin — impeccably cast as Justin Long — score with the ladies), and even the opening clip with Hugh Jackman as the guy who has dangly bits hanging from his throat and Kate Winslet as his unsettled date gets some mileage.

No, it’s not high art, but was it the worst movie of the year enough to win the Razzie? Do we laugh at something because it’s funny, or do we think something is funny because we laughed? Well, as Veronica says, let’s not have another chicken or egg debate…

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Turbo (3D)

The idea of a snail “going fast” (enough to compete in the Indianapolis 500) is a nicely amusing one, but a great high concept is only the first part of a successful movie.

The positives? Turbo 3D looks beautiful. The colors are remarkable. The 3D is vivid. The shots of the yard and garden are breathtaking. The crows really look like crows. Turbo also looks rather cool zipping around, with that blue nitrous oxide trail highlighting his wake, even if the science involved there belongs on Amazing Spiderman 2 this May and not really in high-school bio lab.

The negative? There’s nothing unexpected here, you pretty much can predict every beat of this by-the-numbers story… it even steals from Talladega Nights (which was a more dramatically interesting movie, sadly). Nothing is really “wrong” with the movie, but nothing really stands out either. It’s one of those animated movies that kids who like fast things will enjoy watching to pass the time, which is why Netflix also made a series out of it, but it’s not really something that sticks in your heart and soul. There’s a conscious attempt at multiculturalism (Hispanic), but it all seems to focus on the cosmetics.

Still, the final lesson — that in the end, it doesn’t matter what powers you have, it just matters (win or lose) that you gave something everything you had, the victory is found in one’s will to persevere — is a good lesson to come away with.

3/5

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The Counselor (Extended Edition)

Even commenting on a movie like this means navigating between two factions: The majority of people who hated on it more than it might have deserved, and the minority who are using the hate of the first group to establish themselves as the few Chosen Ones who are able to appreciate the glorious cinematic masterpiece of two masters (director Ridley Scott and writer Cormac McCarthy).

To cut to the chase, the movie at times seemed to be a somewhat pretentious writer’s exercise with a beautiful veneer — the characters dress impeccably, the shots are beautifully framed; even the ornate settings don’t feel cluttered. And if you’re a clumsy-eared gringa like me, born and bred in the rural US, you might even have trouble understanding some of the dialogue in the movie due to the heavy accents in places. All these things put up potential roadblocks to understanding what’s going on, not just plot-wise but (more importantly) thematically.

And I think this is a movie where theme actually is more important than plot. Things happen in the plot and soon enough you’ll “get” what’s going on even if they take awhile to really start rolling; but in the end the plot doesn’t roll very far. What’s more important is what the characters understand of the forces they’ve set in motion and how they’ve positioned themselves to those forces. Some are prey; some are predators; and some (sadly) are just in denial.

While the story definitely meanders about, some of the anecdotes shared are amusing to listen to (like when Reiner describes in a graphically detailed flashback how his girlfriend Malkina had sex with his car — and yes, you read that right… not IN his car, but WITH his car). The actors have fun with their roles and their lines (albeit not quite as much as a Tarantino movie), even when some of those lines need a professional contortionist to utter them.

But I think irony is even more palpable when you realize how Fassbender’s character (the eponymous Counselor — we never learn his real name) is the one character constantly asking others for advice and being denied until almost the very end. And thematically, the reality is that a lawyer’s job is to make cases and change people’s opinions, and so The Counselor is unprepared to deal with the realities of this world that he has chosen to be part of — a world where no arguments matter, no one is interested in listening, and the only choice that matters is the one you originally made to enter that world at all. The other characters (Westray and Malkina especially) are very very aware of this and take responsibility for what happens to them, but despite Westray’s repeated harping on the matter, The Counselor doesn’t really understand until it is too late.

Much of the pushback against this movie, to me, stems from this focus on theme versus plot, Scott’s directing style (he’s not great at lending impetus to weak scripts, he typically plays things too clean for that), and McCarthy’s writing style that works better on the page than ported directly into audial-visual. The very reason the film was anticipated is probably the very reason it failed critically and in the box office. Also, there seemed to be a very strong expectation for plot to dominate more (like in “No Country for Old Men” — things happen, characters are very active), whereas here there is very little direct activity between the characters and most things resolve through dialogue, even when you might expect the plot to kick up a notch. It’s true that the Counselor, as “hero” of this story, seems ineffectual and acted up rather than acting on others… but I also think that that’s the point as well.

Admittedly, I had difficulty with the movie and actually paused it multiple times in the first half to do something else — not really an auspicious beginning, if it can’t hold my attention for more than ten minutes at a time. But once I figured out the plot, and I had enough pieces thematically to grasp where it was going, I could start recognizing those patterns in the latter half of the movie and things became more interesting. And I still walk away with the important lesson that sometimes the choices that matter most are the ones we are tempted to view as the least consequential. New worlds open, old ones vanish, and we are stuck with what remains and cannot change what we have already wrought.

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Evil Dead (2013)

I’m not really a sick person. I’ve raised healthy children who don’t scream horrifically when I walk into the room. I’m kind to kitties and puppies. I give to charity. I really don’t enjoy the suffering of real people, and I help those in need when possible. No one needs to report me to the authorities.

I just needed to stress this before I state how much I found myself laughing at Evil Dead (2013), which ends up being teenage butchery horror at its most overdone, even in the closing credits (which seem to consist of torrential gouts of red paint masquerading as blood, splashing, splattering, seeping, and seething about rotten wood and rusted nails). It’s one moment after another of “Really? Are they REALLY going to — oh, they just did,” intuiting what’s going to happen next while not quite being able to look away.

I will note that I also laughed at Raimi’s definitive version of the story when I first saw it a few months ago, but that was mostly due to the camp factor; not only could I imagine Raimi himself smirking throughout filming and editing, but it’s like the demons — quintessential camera whores to equal any pageant princessery — knew they were on stage and wanted to put on a good show. It’s an approach that mirrored itself in everyone’s favorite Elm Street sadist, Freddy Kruger, but got lost in the recent remake of that series, and the same thing seems to have happened here. No one wants to have fun anymore; the “evil dead” here take themselves a little too seriously to enjoy the carnage. Oh, they might giggle when they say things like, “Your little sister’s being raped in hell tonight, David,” but you can tell, this time out, that their heart’s just not really in it.

One ruling absurdity of the movie resides in its creative application of the most eclectic makeshift collection of destructive implements you can imagine. I think there should also be a No Prize awarded to one teen who manages to suffer multiple physical indignities that might have dropped a Terminator before finally succumbing to injury over insult.

One of the very few improvements over Raimi’s rendition, there’s actually a believable plot device to keep all these teenage Happy Meal souls in place: Little sister Mia is a hardened junkie with one failed intervention under her belt, and Round #2 has just begun. So when she starts freaking out about demons in the woods and how everyone is going to die unless they run like hell, of course no one is inclined to believe her, she’s snookered them all before; they’re dedicated to practicing tough love to a hallucinating junkie. (They just have no clue how “tough” their love is gonna have to get.)

There’s also an attempt to develop a bit of backstory between Mia and her big brother David. It’s not quite enough to really bump up the movie into “drama” on par with a horror movie like “The Descent,” but it does provide slight incentive to accept one of David’s decisions that at first makes little sense. And the writers do try to differentiate the outcome here a bit from its predecessor. (More than that, I dare not say.)

But some elements have dropped right back into trope — like the teen who opens a book sealed in plastic and barbed wire and bound in human skin, with horrific pictures of summoned demons and graffiti scrawled across the arcane pages (“Don’t read! Don’t speak! Don’t listen! PLEASE FOR THE LOVE OF GOD AND ALL THAT IS HOLY STAY AWAY FROM THIS BOOK!”), who even has to WORK to discover the damned litany, which he then needlessly utters out loud when he could have simply read the words silently. Raimi’s version with the tape, where the teens had no idea what was happening until it was far too late, seemed more realistic.

I found myself wishing that the movie had played more into one extreme or another — more camp or more drama — since, stuck in the middle, it’s hard to be completely satisfied with either.

But that’s okay. If there is anything certain in life, after all, it’s death, taxes, and stories of teenagers possessed by demons fighting for their lives somewhere in a cabin in the woods.

2/4 stars

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The Host

The Host is the kind of movie you keep going back to over and over… because it’s impossible to watch more than 5-10 minutes at a time without either being completely bored out of your mind or completely shaking your head over what’s unfolding.

But it’s hard to complain in light of the fact that, despite all the critic outrage, this flop of a movie might really just be the fault of poor marketing and distribution choices. The reality is that this isn’t really box-office material; it should have been either direct to video or a made-for-TV feature. The trailer itself — “Alien doesn’t quite possess girl’s body, the hybrid flees back to the secret human base where no one trusts her” — tells you all you need to know to skip the first 50 minutes, and then the rest proceeds at the level of a teenage girl drama written for split showings on Nickelodeon and SyFy, where the biggest dilemma seems to be choosing which boy she should actually let kiss her.

The premise itself is fascinating. What really happens if an entire race of aliens takes over most of humanity? What would it feel like to have an interloper in control of your body, and what happens when you’re the interloper who realizes you are exploiting the enslavement of other independent beings? As two minds working together in one body, how do you navigate two worlds where both sides fear and hate you, to the point of destroying you? Instead of the complexity of such psychological and sociological navigation, we just get a lot of teenage angst and lust throw into a blender, with the lust itself being extremely subdued; and the headier ideas are mostly approached at the level of novice song lyrics scribbled in the margins of a high-schooler’s notebook.

There were also many, many bad choices here in terms of creating and maintaining dramatic tension, including how the entire opening (the capturing of Melanie and the insertion of the alien Wanderer) was handled so routinely. I’ve read a few pages of the book, so I’m aware that the movie is tracking the text here, but this was a chance to translate the story to a new medium and compensate for any deficiencies. I can’t imagine how that entire capture/possession/escape sequence could have been rendered with less suspense or made less interesting.

Meanwhile, the interplay between the human Melanie and the alien Wanderer/Wanda is handled as voice overdubs and simply doesn’t work in the way intended, especially when Wanda starts doing things Melanie doesn’t like (like kissing the wrong dude — or on occasion the right one) and we listen to her protest wildly (and ineffectively) in the background. There were so many moments that could have been dramatically interesting and instead generated unintended laughs.

There are also numerous “what?” moments, where the logic of the plot changes just-because — such as when Melanie pushes Wanda to return to the Resistance, where she is promptly imprisoned as an “it” (what the humans rather boorishly call the aliens), and then Melanie tells her there’s no way to prove she’s really on their side, so now they’re both going to die. Was the entire escape just an elaborate suicide scheme on Melanie’s part, or was it just lazy plotting? This lack of through-line for character motivation and rationality is one reason The Host just comes off as a big featureless jumble of ideas.

Along with constant emotional outbursts that mean nothing, we also are offered interchangeable characters, whether alien or Resistance, there to utter whatever pretentiously vague social truths should dominate the moment. (Besides, any time you hear the lines, “You need to kiss me. Melanie hates it when you kiss me. I need you to bring her back,” this is probably two sentences more than any normal teenage boy needs an excuse for in order to kiss a girl.)

There are some standouts among the cast. William Hurt as the Resistance leader brings some stability to any scene he’s part of, even if it’s not enough to elevate the material. And it’s too bad we didn’t get to see what Saoirse Ronan could really do in a starring role; she was capable in “The Lovely Bones,” and here she is earnestly compelling as Wanda, an inquisitive and yet private alien who means well and is mortified at how her people have enslaved humanity. Emily Browning gets a very short uncredited cameo at movie’s end. As Head Seeker, Diane Kruger actually starts to explore the darker side of the human/alien symbiosis until her plotline gets conveniently subsumed into another. Francis Fisher (“Titanic”) is rather wasted.

Probably one of the largest shocks of The Host is how Andrew Niccol, typically an interesting and thoughtful director, was so intimately involved (director and cowriter) in such a bomb. It almost bears speculation that he had been taken over by an alien who then struggled writing a screenplay for a race of beings it didn’t yet understand. If someone could get Charlie Kauffman to write that script, that might be a movie for adults worth watching.

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V/H/S 2

I guess when it comes to movies like this, you can either opt for Rex Reed, or you can read a review by someone who actually watched the whole movie before sitting down to write about it.

I’ll be honest: If I had to choose a segment in the V/H/S offerings released up to this point, my fave still remains the first segment of the original movie, about an ill-fated romp on the town (“Amateur Night”) where a genuinely nice and somewhat geeky guy makes the acquaintance of an unexpected variation of the Lady of the Night. (In a kinder, gentler movie, that romance might have ended up on a riff similar to the later “Warm Bodies,” but V/H/S has never really pretended to be about high drama. The underlying loneliness of the two leads, though, as non-commodities in the market of love, coupled with an eerie and resonating performance by Hannah Fierman, briefly elevates the segment above genre.)

V/H/S 2 doesn’t quite have a segment that does the same here, but there are less of them (meaning more time for the stories to develop), and the overall quality of each is better, meaning this sequel comes out on top of the first release overall.

This time out, we get a story of a cyborg eye transplant with horrific side effects; a slightly fresher and more interesting perspective on the over-cooked zombie flick motif; an Asian-cult expose that turns so increasingly outrageous that you honestly won’t know what’s coming next even when you think you do; and mass alien abductions that relegate the visitors from “Close Encounters” and “E.T.” to the land of huggable plush dolls where they belong. (Honestly, I just feel bad for the dog.) Even the loose story thread that holds all four episodes together is stronger than in the first movie… although admittedly still about the equivalent of undercooked stale spaghetti.

With this kind of horror film, it seems harder to sustain a truly serious encounter vs something a little more tongue-in-cheek to match the production quality. The zombie and the cult segments especially play into the format well here, with a bit of madcap flavor that doesn’t clash with the rougher production and looser writing evident in the segments. The first sequence (the eye transplant) effectively leaves the skin crawling and might even jolt you from the sofa but then, like the family dog chasing a car bumper, doesn’t quite know what to do with you once it’s got you… opting finally to enter the time-tested descent into superfluous gore and blood; it leaves me wondering what might have been had there actually been a point to that story. The alien abduction, despite its scares, is pretty stock-and-trade “gotta collect ’em all,” though, and you’ve seen it before if you’ve watched any movies (e.g., Quarrantine) in this genre or even just regular horror thrillers like “28 Weeks Later.”

It’s good to see some compilation movies that actually work, versus being complete duds of the Creepshow 2 variety. I admit my expectations aren’t really high for movies in this genre, which means that afterwards if I don’t feel like watching it was a waste of my time, the phrase, “Wow, that actually wasn’t half-bad!” becomes gushing praise. If only there were a compelling thread holding the segments together, along with a little more work on character to get us firmly invested in the plot, movies like this could linger longer and even demand repeated viewings.

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The ABCs of Death

The ABC’s of Death is like eating a box of chocolates slipped under your front door by a stalker: A few are naturally savory or unexpectedly delightful, the bulk are just there, and then you run across the weird ones that you need to wash down afterwards with something strong… followed by a few that were doctored up so badly (re: Crunchy Frog and Anthrax Ripple) that you vomit the half-chewed glob along with the remnants of your lunch into the trash.

ABC’s definitely covers a gamut of good to bad, realistic to surreal, bloody to weird, a few animated shorts, serious to sad, amusing to superfluously over the top in terms of sheer carnage. This is a movie where the “No animal was harmed…” disclaimer should be modified to “No animal or human was harmed…” as the body count for various forms of mammalian life in general here is rather high. I would even categorize two of the entries as some kind of freaky-disturbing Asian torture p0rn, except I hesitate to embarrass the torture p0rn crowd by the comparison.

One welcome shift is that many of the clips are foreign, and English audiences will need to use the subtitle feature to follow dialogue; that’s actually a testament to diversity and kind of a welcome feature.

A few of the directors will be recognizable to general Western audiences, especially because of their involvement with some fairly recent indie-style projects as well as franchises like V/H/S. I found the Ti West clip (M) horribly disappointing and unimaginative, while the Adam Wingard sequence (rather meta, and involving an innocent-looking fowl) was one of the funnier shorts in the movie.
If I had to pick, probably the most dramatically interesting and high-quality production of the bunch was D (by Marcel Sarmiento), while the one that makes the most coherent (if bloody) social statement was X (by Xavier Gens). I’m not sure if it’s a coincidence that both entries that could be labeled as animation (one conventional, one claymation) deal with the inherent dangers of scatalogical functioning.

ABC’s embodies both the benefits and flaws of acquiring 26 unspecified clips from a variety of filmmakers, stuck in a pre-specified order. While you will see quite a variety of clips of endurable length, the only editorial control lies in the original choice of the directors and what letter they are assigned. There is no way to create an encompassing dramatic arc, control pacing, or prevent repetition in theme or setting. With a two-hour run-time, if you can stomach the prerequisite gore, this is one of those movies that is more watchable in bite-sized pieces (if you dare pop one in your mouth); doing so won’t mess up the flow, and watching the film in a few sittings, when you’re in the mood, might even make it more enjoyable.

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Man of Steel

Jonathan Kent: You’re the answer, son. You’re the answer to “are we alone in the universe”.

Clark Kent at 13: Can’t I just… keep pretending I’m your son?

Jonathan Kent: You ARE my son. And I have to believe that you were sent here for a reason. And even if it takes the rest of your life, you owe it to yourself to find out what that reason is.

Despite negative critical buzz, “Man of Steel” is the kind of movie whose success hinges upon your particular tastes. Yes, it doesn’t help that one of Snyder’s weaknesses as a director is creating nuanced pathos — that problem plagues him here, he has trouble knowing how to shoot a scene in a way that generates complex emotion, there are lines that fall flat — but the story by Goyer and Nolan at least gives him that chance that “Sucker Punch” never had.

It also doesn’t help that the movie breaks from established expectations for a Superman movie; while accusations of the tone being “brooding” honestly are overblown, it’s true that this Clark goes through his growing pains as a boy even while essentially on the same route to becoming the Superman the world knows and loves. It just seems difficult, in the eyes of many, for Cavill’s genuine earnestness to compete with Reeve’s understated sweetness of soul. The latter joined with Kidder’s tenacious but squirrelly Lois seemed to possess more chemistry than Cavill and Adams are able to generate here.

The best parts of the movie focus on Clark’s ever-maturing loyalties. The most important events in Clark’s childhood are revealed in flashbacks; the Clark who begins the movie is a young man still “searching” for himself, drifting through odd jobs across the breadth of North America. While he is aware that he is not human, the only definitive thing he knows about himself is that he often feels compelled to help those who are in need, even if it might expose him. When he finally runs across a simulacrum of his Kryptonian daddy, he can face the task of forging an identity that honors both sides of his heritage. The real dilemma is what happens when Zod and his mob of cray-cray finally comes earthside: Clark is forced to choose between an adopted home where he’s always felt untrusted as an outsider, versus blood relatives who are (in essence) total asshats. What should have been a Kodak moment becomes instead a family-holiday nightmare, but it’s through what follows that Clark finally comes to terms with who he is and what he values.

Yes, there are fight sequences, as one would expect in a movie about the mightiest mortal of them all. If you enjoy watching superheroes destroy large swaths of urban architecture, then this should be a veritable smorgasbord — the fights here make the Neo/Smith battle from Matrix Revolutions look like preschool recess. (The distance of the first knockback needs to be measured in miles, not yards; and whoever wins the Metropolis City construction contracts at movie’s end will be in business for at least the next century.) The only side that doesn’t stand a chance is (of course) us, the humans, even using our most advanced weaponry and battle tactics; and it doesn’t take long for the Kryptonians to recognize humanity as Superman’s only real weakness as well.

One honest disappointment of “Man of Steel” is that the supporting cast — many of them fine actors in their own right — are limited by the script and/or direction so as to be merely adequate rather than super. And the female characters so typically strong in a Superman movie don’t really get a unique voice here at all. (Diane Lane, as Martha Kent, shares a good portion of the female screen time with Adams, but her lines are sadly more paint-by-the-numbers than resonant.)

Only the two father figures of the movie — Jor-El and Jonathan Kent — fair decently; and of the two, Costner’s performance is easily the stronger despite Crowe’s trademark machismo. Jonathan Kent walks a tenuous line between hesitance and prudence, a simple man who places more value in character than achievement, and yet just when you think he’s holding Clark back needlessly, he lifts the boy higher so that he has a chance to fly. Although the Kryptonian father bequeaths his son with the coolest gifts (superpowers, advanced science, alien technology), it’s the human father who somehow creates a safe space around his son so that in the silence he can finally hear his own voice. (This is notably realized in a flashback scene with Martha, where she provides a safe focal point for Clark amid the sensory chaos he is experiencing during puberty while struggling to master his emerging abilities.) What Snyder lacks as a director of dialogue he often finds within a particular visual image, and this movie has a few such shots that are powerful without any words needing to be spoken. In the end, Clark might feel robbed by being stuck between two worlds , but in the process he has received a double-portion of something that some people don’t even have one of: A pair of loving parents.

While Shannon does not bring the same casual audacity and narcissism to the role of Zod brought so deliciously by Terrence Stamp, his zealot leader is almost more admirable, his motivations more accessible. Zod seems almost sane when explaining that everything he has done has been for the good of the people — well, his people. It’s the kind of justification that might even fly as long as you weren’t the one at the business end of the zealot’s brutal ministrations. But it does raise the stakes: The old Clark in “Superman 2” had no doubt that a Zod victory would be a disaster, while in “Man of Steel” stopping Zod means ensuring that the people of Krypton will be forever lost. It’s the general’s right-hand woman, Faora-Ul, who is the real amoral terror among the Kryptonian rebels, viewing mercy and restraint as evolutionary disadvantages that result only in extinction for those foolish enough to practice them.

How you feel about “Man of Steel” by the movie’s end will likely depend in part on how carefully you can track the human story through the movie, versus just the superpowered one. As a parent of both biological and adopted children, I could resonate with both sets of parents — the ones who gave away their son so that he might live, and the ones who invested and sacrificed to raise him regardless of where the boy would finally decide to hang his cape. Would that any of us had parents who loved us enough to provide us with the resources and freedom to, rather than bending us to their will, find our own answers and passions over the course of our own lives.

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The “Locked Room” Gambit

(Otherwise known as “Who am I, and How Did I Get in this Handbasket?”)

These movies belong to a subset of the “puzzle” movie. They typically involve a bunch of people waking up in some kind of enclosed space from which they can’t easily escape, unable to explain how they got there, why they are there, what they need to do, or even who they happen to be.

(This kind of setup also sometimes occurs within the context of a larger movie, such as the Saw entries I’ve included here: The “locked room” puzzle is just part of an even larger puzzle that other characters are trying to solve.)

The fun of course comes into trying to solve the mystery before the characters do. Whether the fun continues as the move progresses depends on how “fair” the writer has made the mystery, so that the viewer might have a chance to unravel it.

Cube

The protagonists each awake in a cube-shaped chamber, with square doors on all six surfaces. The cubes can be of different colors. Some of the rooms contain death traps, all of which seem devised to be as sadistic as possible. As the characters move from room to room and join forces, they must find a way to escape the large trap of the Cube while simultaneously determining which of the smaller cubes are safe to traverse. This movie has spawned a few sequels.

Exam

Eight final candidates for an unidentified job position filter into a windowless room and are handed nothing but a piece of paper and a pencil. They are given instructions on what and what not to do, told they will be asked a simple question, then are left to their own devices. Candidates are removed from the room when the rules are broken; only one candidate (if any) can be offered the job.

Nine Dead

Nine people awake in a basement, chained so that they cannot escape or reach each other. A masked gunman informs them that one of them will die every ten minutes, unless they can figure out exactly how they are each related. This movie thus differs from the others in that it’s not an elimination game, and in fact cooperation is not just encouraged but mandated; there is no way to solve the riddle unless they communicate clearly with each other, and if they don’t solve the riddle of their connection, none will escape alive.

Unknown

Five characters awake in room in a sealed warehouse. Two characters are free; the rest are fettered in some way (rope, handcuffs, etc). Some of them are wounded; all have been drugged so that even their personal memories are temporarily lacking.

This movie differs from the other in that (1) the production quality is decent, rather than shoestring, and (2) it stars a number of established mainstream actors, including Jim Caviezel (“The Passion of the Christ”), Greg Kinnear (“As Good as It Gets”), Joe Pantoliano (“The Matrix”), Barry Pepper (“Saving Private Ryan”), Jeremy Sisto (“Six Feet Under”), and Peter Stormare (“Fargo”). 

Saw II

Eight strangers (one a boy named Daniel) wake up in the basement of a house filled with nerve toxin that will kill everyone if they do not escape within two hours. They are told that each of them possesses part of the solution and then left to their own devices.

While this riddle occupies much of the movie, it is housed within a larger puzzle, where police inspector Matthews is being shown a feed of what is occurring within the house, yet promised that his son Daniel will be safely reunited with him if he resists his urge to save them and instead sits out the game with Jigsaw.

Saw V

In this case, the main puzzle revolves around the plight of five strangers who awaken in a sewer death trap and undergo a series of fatal puzzles, their numbers dwindling along the way.  While they do solve each room in turn, not every solution might be for the best.

Clue

A non-traditional entry in the genre, due to its comedic tone, but it fits the criteria. Six guests (named after the infamous playing pieces of “Clue”) are invited to dinner; a body is found; the butler locks the house the mansion until the killer can be pinpointed; the remainder of the movie is about the characters trying to determine how each is connected to the stiff and, finally, “Who Dun It.”

Three different endings were filmed and shown randomly during the theater release; the home release version includes all three endings in the viewing.

[to be continued if more come to light]

Warm Bodies

Love changes things. It can open one’s eyes, it can remake the world. Maybe it can even raise the dead.

Warm Bodies isn’t “just another zombie movie.” R is one of those zombies who is not like the others. Although he’s not much for words anymore, and although he’s driven to chow down on human flesh with the best of them, inside beats the idealistic heart of a Disney movie protagonist. R can’t dance, and he sure can’t sing, but he’s got the next best thing — a record album collection of popular 70’s and 80’s tunes — and it’s all tucked away in his own little Ariel-esque treasure trove of odds and ends he’s collected in order to remind himself of what it was like to be human, once.

R is trapped in the terrible merry-go-round all zombies face — staggering about, grunting, eating people, falling to pieces — until one fateful day when he and a posse of fellow zombies run into a group of teenagers out on a medicine run. Zombie meets girl, it’s love at first sight, and R’s heart literally skips a beat. Better yet, Julie’s boyfriend just bit the dust, so there’s an opening for a new stiff in her life… or, at least, hope springs eternal for lovelorn teenagers, undead or not.

Warm Bodies (usually humorously, sometimes cleverly) manages to filter a teenage romantic comedy formula through the zombie motif. In fact, the more R changes, the hunkier he becomes… but Nicholas Hoult wasn’t cast just as a pretty face; he believably manages to convey the earnest nuance of a transition from Mr. Zombie Lonely Heart back to something more recognizably human. His love interest, Julie (Teresa Palmer, know for her kick-ass #6 in “I Am Number Four”) is thick-skinned and bull-headed, so it’s believable that she can handle being trapped in zombie territory without freaking out regularly. (There’s only one moment where she surprised me with an unexpectedly subdued response, but the moment passes quickly.)

John Malkovich as Capulet, err, Julie’s father — the survivalist leader with an understandable vendetta against the zombies who ate his wife — plays what screen time he gets pretty much by the numbers, ho-hum. Analeigh Tipton has a nice little role as Nora, Julie’s best friend and co-conspirator, who offers necessary BFF support as the two little lovebirds attempt to bring their two clans together without being offed in the process. It’s all not exactly Shakespeare, but the banter between some of the characters (R and Julie, Julie and Nora) is alternately endearing and amusing. R’s interactions with his “best zombie friend M” (where “best friend” means staring blankly at each other and grunting on occasion) are also drolly funny, and the ever-evolving relationship between them signals how the zombie zeitgeist might be changing for the better.

The movie spends a lot of time developing the relationship between R and Julie, so much that the film feels unbalanced when the endgame is reached and resolves itself more quickly than expected. However, there’s so much good stuff in the first half that it’s not a huge loss, even if it would have been nice to see a little more meat regarding the prejudice inherent between humans and zombies. The visual palette is rich and detailed, with dream and memory sequences in vibrant gold and the color tones moving from cold blues to a more normal range as the story progresses.

Along with a nice parallel where R first protects Julie in his domain, then she later protects him in hers, there are two themes that bring dramatic substance to the movie. One revolves around why zombies eat brains in the first place, creating an even more intense dichotomy of pity versus revulsion for their condition. (It reminds me of discussions I’ve about the nature of vampires being undead who steal life from the living to pretend they are alive, and what moral choice remains to the vampire who wishes to be an agent of good rather than harm.) The other is in the origin of their condition — not just the virus but also a loss of the memory of what it means to be human — and that perhaps a cure relies less in a pill or injection and more in restored connections with those who can help them remember how to find their “way back.” (One might even go so far as to say that Warm Bodies comments on how fragmented human relationship leads to destructive consumerism, although that’s more of an idea for undergrads struggling for a film class term paper topic than something the movie consciously obsesses over.)

Along with the full-length feature, the BluRay contains a few goodies, including deleted scenes and a gag real with a few really funny bits. One of the “must-sees” is “Zombie Acting Tips from Rob Corddry” from Screen Junkies, a mock doc of the actor playing “M” that will leave you laughing and even perhaps a bit disturbed (in the good sense).

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