The Florida Project


Get ready for your close-up, Orlando.

(2017) Drama (A24) Willem Dafoe, Brooklynn Prince, Valeria Cotto, Bria Vinaite, Christopher Rivera, Caleb Landry Jones, Macon Blair, Karren Karagulian, Sandy Kane, Jim R. Coleman, Carl Bradfield, Mela Murder, Josie Olivo, Shalil Kamini Ramcharan, Kit Sullivan, Andrew Romano, Kelly Fitzgerald, Betty Jeune, Aiden Malik, Krystal Gordon, Cecilia Quinan. Directed by Sean Baker

 

It’s no secret that life isn’t easy. Making ends meet, particularly for young single mothers, is a constant struggle. Sometimes that struggle can take place in sight of the happiest places on earth, lending a particular poignancy to things.

6-year-old Moonie (Prince) and her mom Haley (Vinaite) live in the Magic Castle Motel, a budget motel on the 192 corridor near Disney World in a suburb of Orlando. The motel is managed by Bobby (Dafoe) whose rough edges sometimes mask the good heart he has underneath it all. Haley is unemployed, a former stripper who barely is able to make ends meet and the weekly rent for the hotel room is nearly always late. Mooney has a coterie of friends, most notably Jancey (Cotto) from the neighboring Tomorrowland Motel and Scooty (Rivera) whose mom Gloria (Kane) works at the nearby Waffle House, supplying Moonie and Haley with free food and also happens to be Haley’s best friend.

Moonie pretty much has free rein to do whatever she likes, be it throw water balloons at tourists, venture out to the nearby farmland for a “safari,” and hurl profane epithets at sunbathing elderly women. Sometimes, she and Scooty pick up extra cash by carrying the luggage of tourists to their rooms. The reality of her situation is probably lost on Moonie; for all she knows this is how everybody lives. Still, she has an active imagination and if she is a bit on the wild side, it can be forgiven.

That wild behavior can be explained by Haley who is herself amoral, crude and immature. Haley spends her days reselling perfume and expensive resorts (illegally) and when that scheme goes sideways, selling her body while Moonie takes a bath in the adjoining bathroom. She also robs some of her clients from time to time reselling their Magic Bands at discount ticket places.

Haley always seems to be just barely keeping their heads above water but the tide is definitely coming in and it is only a matter of time before disaster strikes. What will happen to Moonie if it does?

Those of my acquaintance who have seen the movie are sharply divided regarding their opinions of it. Nearly everyone agrees – including the critics who seem to be pretty much in unison with their praise for the film – that the first 45 minutes and the last 20 minutes are some of the best moments in filmmaking you’ll see this year. The final scene however is where that divide comes in. Some say that it comes out of left field and completely ruins the movie. Others say that it is tonally perfect and makes a great film into a potential classic.

Count me in the latter camp. That’s pretty much all I’ll say about the ending, other than that it is consistent with the tone of the movie and if you understand that this movie isn’t about Haley as much as it is about Moonie you might be able to make peace with that final scene.. I know that for a few minutes I had many of the same complaints about that ending until I thought about it for a few minutes and then realized that it fits perfectly with the movie’s theme which has a lot to do with deliberately shielding yourself from the harsh realities of life.

The performances here are simply amazing. Prince is a revelation; this is simply put one of the best juvenile performances caught on film ever. Some of the language that comes out of her mouth is salty but it feels natural considering how the adults around her speak and how the circumstances around her warrant it. Be that as it may, Moonie is full of herself, more than a little wild and absolutely fearless – until very near the end when she reveals that under all the bravado she is still a little girl and that comes through during a poignant scene as things start to fall apart. Although I suspect Prince will have her choice of little girl roles if she wants them, she might be better advised to retire now. It’s hard to imagine her ever equaling this performance.

Dafoe is a veteran who has some memorable performances of his own to his credit and this is one of the most sympathetic portrayals of his career. He often plays characters with fairly hard edges; here those edges are still there but we see a lot more of the soft interior than we normally do with Dafoe. He watches the train wreck that is Haley and Moonie with appropriately sad eyes.

The performance that not as many critics are talking about belongs to Vinaite. She is flat-out brilliant. Whenever Haley takes her daughter off motel property, you instinctively wonder what fresh nightmare is about to unfold. It is cinema of the rubberneck variety, the phenomenon of drivers craning their necks to get a better look at an accident as they drive past. One has to remember that Haley is little more than a child herself, the tattoos and drugs and men a testament to the bad choices she’s made over the years. Critically, one doesn’t see or hear referred to any immediate family for Haley; other than Moonie, she’s on her own. It’s no shock then that her values are the values of the street, of survival.

It’s early in the awards season and there are plenty of highly regarded projects that still have yet to make it into the theaters but this has to be strongly in the running for at least a Best Picture nomination and maybe more. This is definitely a must-see if it is playing in an art house near you and if not, make every effort to see it when it comes out on VOD or home video. This is certainly one of the best pictures of the year.

REASONS TO GO: The performances here are wonderful, particularly by Prince, Dafoe and Vinaite. The cinematography is colorful and magical. This is the story of people literally living on the ragged edge.
REASONS TO STAY: The ending is sharply divisive.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, some sexual content, adult themes and drug material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although most of the film was shot on 35mm, the final scene was shot on an iPhone without the knowledge or consent of those in charge of the location where it takes place.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/24/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews. Metacritic: 91//100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Motel Life
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Novitiate

Small Town Murder Songs


Peter Stormare considers a rare non-villain role.

Peter Stormare considers a rare non-villain role.

(2011) Crime Thriller (Monterey Media) Peter Stormare, Jill Hennessy, Amy Rutherford, Martha Plimpton, Eric McIntyre, Vladamir Bondarenko, Aaron Poole, Ari Cohen, Trent McMullen, Erin Brandenburg, Kat Germain, Jessica Clement, Andrew Penner, Alan Penner, John Penner, Herm Dick, Alexandria Benoit, Mark Snowdon, Timm Zemanek, Jackie Burroughs. Directed by Ed Gass-Donnelly

Who we are now is as much a product of who we used to be as it is the events that shape us. Growth is a linear progression although it might not always seem that way to the casual observer. There’s always a point B and there’s always a point A.

Walter (Stormare) is a sheriff’s deputy in a small Ontario town in Mennonite country. He is not well-liked in the community. Not long ago, he had a violent encounter with Steve (McIntyre) who his ex-girlfriend Rita (Hennessy) was now canoodling with. That was years ago though but nobody in town has forgotten or forgiven, although Sam (Plimpton) seems okay with it, in as much as she’s his girlfriend and everything.

It’s a pretty quiet town anyway, until a body is discovered, that of a stripper from the city. Steve becomes the prime suspect and Rita, who it is discovered placed the original emergency call, is hiding something. This is a case that is very, very personal for Walter and nobody trusts him one way or the other. Whatever happens, he’s pretty much screwed.

This Canadian movie might have been a gem – there’s a very Gothic feel to the action and the puzzle of the mystery has some real oomph to it. Walter is an engaging lead which is a big change of pace for Stormare who is best known for playing the bad guys, the heavier the better. Stormare gives Walter a patina of sadness, as if he had lived his life in a perpetual state of disappointment. It’s a fine performance and makes me wonder why he doesn’t get more leading roles like this but of course the answer is he’s so damn good at playing villains.

The cast behind him has some fairly capable performers in it but Plimpton stands out. Many will remember her from 80s movies like The Mosquito Coast and The Goonies but few will remember that she was an exceptional actress for her age and her portrayal of the bubbly, loquacious Sam is a reminder of how charming she can be.

Gass-Donnelly has a good pedigree but he shows a little bit of immaturity with his somewhat distracting overuse of slow motion. It seems that regularly someone is doing the slow walk through the lovely scenery of the bucolic small towns in Ontario where the movie was filmed. It happens often enough to be annoying the further you go through the movie. Also, some of the character motivations seem to defy rationality. We get that Walter has a short fuse but why he snaps into violence with him – particularly as they’ve established him as a good, decent soul – doesn’t really jive with the character.

Faith also plays a big role in the movie. Walter after his issues with Steve and Rita finds Christianity and gets baptized (which happens on-camera). Sam is a pretty religious sort and of course they are in a Mennonite community so their faith is definitely part of the overall background of the film. Those who are uncomfortable with such things should be warned.

This has some very nice Gothic overtones and while some of the movie’s deficiencies are a little too much to overlook, Gass-Donnelly is definitely a talent to keep an eye on as one of a group of strong Canadian directors with an interesting point of view. I look forward to seeing where he goes from here well, actually he went to The Last Exorcist 2 but that’s beside the point.

WHY RENT THIS: Fine Gothic feel. Compelling story. Stormare does some fine work in a rare good-guy turn.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Seems to be missing some pieces. Overuse of slow-mo.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence present, as well as some graphic images, sexuality and nudity, and a fair amount of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the final film for the veteran actress Jackie Burroughs.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The DVD when inserted into your computer will allow you to download one of the songs from the soundtrack.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $31,133 on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD rental only), Amazon (unavailable), Vudu (rent/buy),  iTunes (rent/buy), Flixster (unavailable), Target Ticket (unavailable)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Witness
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Big Hero 6

We’re the Millers


The cast gets their first look at the finished film.

The cast gets their first look at the finished film.

(2013) Comedy (New Line) Jennifer Aniston, Jason Sudeikis, Emma Roberts, Nick Offerman, Kathryn Hahn, Will Poulter, Ed Helms, Molly Quinn, Tomer Sisley, Matthew Willig, Luis Guzman, Thomas Lennon, Mark L. Young, Ken Marino, Laura-Leigh, Crystal Nichol, Dickson Obahor, Brett Gentile, Kelly Lintz, J. Lynn Talley, Deborah Chavez. Directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber

What could be more middle America than a road trip vacation with the whole fam damily in the ol’ RV? Nobody is going to take a second look at one of those, not even George Zimmerman even if the entire family is wearing hoodies and munching on Skittles.

David Clark (Sudeikis) is a low level drug dealer; he has a certain moral compass (he doesn’t ever deal to kids, even 18-year-olds) and is part of the neighborhood fabric, making deliveries like the milk man used to. He lives in an apartment building where his neighbors include the dorky latchkey kid Kenny (Poulter) and the grouchy stripper Rose (Aniston).

When David gets robbed of all his cash, he knows he’s in deep to his supplier, Brad (Helms). However, Brad gives David an assignment; go to Mexico, pick up “a smidge and a half” of weed, and bring it back to Denver and not only will the debt be forgiven but he’ll get the standard courier rate of $100K. David isn’t exactly leaping at the opportunity to be a drug smuggler with potential federal ramifications but he doesn’t have much of a choice.

He’s a bit worried on how exactly to go about it when he hits the idea of the family RV road trip. Nobody at the border will give him a second look, particularly if he clean up and shaves. However, David is single so he’ll have to rent a family. Kenny is all in, and David convinces a street urchin named Casey (Roberts) to be the daughter. That leaves mom.

David approaches Rose but she – having an ingrained distrust of drug dealers to begin with – isn’t having it. However her finances are, shall we say, in crisis so reluctantly she agrees to get on board. And of course, we know this isn’t going to be a trip one is going to show home movies of afterwards.

As with most R-rated comedies these days there’s a fair amount of raunchiness although surprisingly less than you might expect. There’s plenty of drug humor although not so much of the Cheech and Chong variety; this is a stoner film where nobody gets stoned. Then again, it really isn’t about the marijuana.

Aniston plays very much against type; ever the girl next door, she does one scene where she delivers a pretty hot strip tease (down to her undies – sorry pervs) and she’s not so much brassy as she is grumpy, but she is definitely the star attraction here. Sudeikis meshes well with her, maybe as well as any actor since David Schwimmer, and plays against his usual nice guy type as well.

Hahn and Offerman are hysterical as a straight-laced couple also on an RV adventure who aren’t as straight-laced as they might lead you to believe; Offerman’s career in particular is really taking off and I suspect it won’t be long before he’s headlining some big flicks of his own.

There are some really wicked bits here, including a girl-on-girl action scene, one in which Kenny is taught how to properly kiss a girl, and an adverse reaction to a spider bite. A lot of the humor has to do with taboo sex and those whose values are a bit straight-laced might be offended – of course not many of those will be lining up to see a comedy about drug smuggling I would think

I didn’t have particularly high hopes for the film – the comedies this summer have been a pretty dismal lot in general and I suspected that the funniest bits of the movie might well be in the trailer but that doesn’t turn out to be the case (although the trailer hints at them). While the ending is a bit predictable, the cast – particularly the core family cast – get on so well that you feel a genuine affection for the lot of them by the film’s end and do stay for the credit roll outtakes; one of the funniest moments in a movie I’ve seen all summer can be found there.

We’re the Millers is one of those summer movies that the expectations are pretty low for and manages to exceed them. In a summer where most movies haven’t met the expectations set for them, mild or not, it’s a breath of fresh air. Well, maybe Detroit-smelling air. Not really fresh mountain air. You smell what I’m cooking.

REASONS TO GO: Laugh out loud funny. Nice chemistry between Sudeikis and Aniston. Offerman and Hahn nearly steal the show.

REASONS TO STAY: Those who don’t like drug humor might take offense. Pushes the taboo sex angle a bit hard.

FAMILY VALUES:  Oh, where to begin? A ton of foul language, plenty of drug humor, a ton of sexual references and one scene of brief but unforgettable nudity (as in you can’t un-see it once you’ve seen it).

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Poulter stayed up all night listening to TLC’s ”Waterfalls” in order to learn the rap portion properly for shooting the following day.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/27/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 47% positive reviews. Metacritic: 44/100

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Pineapple Express

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Life, Above All

Butter


Butter

Jennifer Garner’s limo isn’t what it used to be.

(2012) Comedy (Radius) Jennifer Garner, Ty Burrell, Rob Corddry, Olivia Wilde, Yara Shahidi, Ashley Greene, Alicia Silverstone, Hugh Jackman, Kristen Schaal, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Phyllis Smith, Dodie Brown, Joe Chrest, Shelli Fox. Directed by Jim Field Smith

We are all of us good at something. Some of us are good writers, others good at sports. Still others are trivia whizzes while others can sing like an angel. However, it is only a select few who excel at butter carving.

Of course the first question is how do you find out that you’re good at that, but apparently Bob Pickler (Burrell) did, and he is so good that he has won the championship of Butter sculpting at the Iowa State Fair 15 years running. He is so good that those who run the competition have asked him to retire so as to let other people win, which seems pretty un-American to me – did David Stern ask Michael Jordan to retire so that other guys could be the best basketball player in the world?

This does not fit into the plans of his wife Laura (Garner) who was looking to use her husband’s fame and…well, not fortune but fame anyway – to catapult him into a political career and now is left scrambling to figure out some other way to do it.

She determines to enter the contest herself. Bob himself is a bit put out over the turn of events. He finds himself at a strip club where he propositions Brooke (Wilde), a somewhat volatile stripper, for sex in his van. This ends abruptly when Laura t-bones his van with her SUV.

This doesn’t sit well with Brooke, especially since Bob ran out on her without paying. Now she wants the $600 he owes her – yes, apparently that’s one thing that’s really expensive in Iowa. She decides to enter the contest to spite Laura, and to further cement her contempt she has sex with Bob and Laura’s daughter Kaitlen (Greene).

Destiny (Shahidi) is an 11-year-old African-American girl who has been shuttled in and out of foster homes most of her life. She is starting out anew with Ethan Emmett (Corddry) and his wife Julie (Silverstone)  They are decent people who become caught up in Destiny’s little hobby – butter carving. She caught the bug when she’d gone to the State Fair the previous year and been taken by Bob’s carving of Michelangelo’s Last Supper (which the Des Moines Register proclaimed as “better than the original” – BWAHAHAHAHAW!) Now she wants to try her hand at it, which her new foster parents enthusiastically encourage.

Destiny and Laura both have real talent. Both want to win for different reasons. Laura, on the one hand, will do anything to win – including seducing an ex-boyfriend (Jackman) into doing her dirty work for her. Still, when Destiny discovers the truth about her birth mother, she is moved into creating a carving that threatens everything Laura is trying to build. Laura will be left with the prospect that she may not be good enough to beat the 11-year-old girl.

There is a very dry, Midwestern sense of humor here, more like the love child of the Coen Brothers and Garrison Keillor. That appeals to me, although not everyone might get it. There were parts I might have laughed out loud more had I been in a theater (we saw this on VOD) but there were a few I did anyway. That’s always a good day for a comedy.

The cast is impressive. Not everyone in it is a household name but all are terrific comic actors. Burrell here continues his impressive work as seen on TV’s “Modern Family.” He’s not exactly the same guy but he is a very flawed but basically good man who makes one gigantic mistake and winds up paying for it. Wilde has done a number of different roles, like sci-fi (Cowboys and Aliens), medical dramas (“House M.D.”) and horror (Turistas). She has done some comedic roles before but none as memorable as this one. I’m beginning to become a big fan of her versatility as an actress.

The biggest surprise is Shahidi. She’s a new talent and if her performance here is any indication she’s got a bright future ahead of her. She is compelling and holds the attention of the audience whenever she’s onscreen. It’s a shame her part was written to be a little too perfect – no 11-year-old is that poised, that sweet and that talented all in one package, at least not so many that any of us would know one. A tantrum or two might have been more realistic.

There are definite political overtones here. While some have compared Laura to Sarah Palin (and she does copy some of the former governor’s mannerisms and speech patterns), I thought of her more as a Hillary Clinton type – a super-ambitious wife cuckolded and frustrated. I could be wrong though.

Like a lot of films that have hitherto played only in limited release, the studio has seen fit to put it on VOD to allow viewers who don’t live near the handful of theaters that will be playing it theatrically to get a chance to see it without having to wait a year for it to come out on home video and cable. Most of you can take the opportunity to see it there or, if you want to spend less money, wait for it to make its home video release. Either way, this is a solid comedy that is smartly written and quirky enough to be different but not so quirky that it becomes just another indie comedy.

REASONS TO GO: Dry Midwestern humor that is laugh out loud funny in places.

REASONS TO STAY: Too many quirky characters in one place. Destiny is a little TOO perfect.

FAMILY VALUES: Well, the language is bad in places; there is some sexuality and a moment in which drug use is depicted.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While the film is set in Iowa, it was mostly filmed in Louisiana for tax purposes.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/15/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 35% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100. The reviews have been weak.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cedar Rapids

JFK ASSASSINATION LOVERS: Laura’s run-off entry into the butter carving contest is a depiction of the open limo at the moment of the killing, complete with the President’s head exploding.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Frankenweenie

Rock of Ages


Rock of Ages

Julianne Hough prepares for her next scene in the Broadway version of “There’s Something About Mary.”

(2012) Musical (New Line) Julianne Hough, Diego Boneta, Tom Cruise, Alec Baldwin, Russell Brand, Paul Giamatti, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Malin Akerman, Bryan Cranston, Mary J. Blige, Will Forte, T.J. Miller, Kevin Nash, Jeff Chase, Celina Beach, Dan Finnerty, Angelo Donato Valderrama. Directed by Adam Shankman

 

Maybe I’m a bit of a music snob – all right, there’s no “maybe” about it – but my idea of fun isn’t watching a cover band butcher the hits of classic rock. However, someone had to convince a Broadway producer and then a Hollywood studio that people would love to see it. Thus began a musical that has been a huge success on the Great White Way but would that success translate to the big screen?

Sherrie Christian (Hough) is a bright-eyed blonde travelling from Tulsa on a bus to make it to the bright lights and big city dreams of L.A. And of course the first thing that happens is she gets her suitcase stolen – the one with all her record albums in it, autographed of course. Sherrie is a rocker chick, a lacquer haired blonde who dreams of Night Ranger, Poison, Whitesnake and Journey. She lives for the hard stuff.

Her mugging is witnessed by Drew Boley (Boneta), a barback with dreams of rock stardom. He is a good-hearted sort and when he hears her story, he arranges with his boss Dennis (Baldwin), owner of the world famous Bourbon Club on the Strip, to give her a job as a cocktail waitress. She comes at a critical juncture for the Bourbon. The club is in financial chaos, owing a sizable tax bill. However, help is on the way – Stacee Jaxx (Cruise), the superstar front man of Arsenal, has brought his band to play their last show ever at the Bourbon before Stacee heads out on his own solo career.

Stacee’s oily manager Paul Gill (Giamatti) tells Stacee that he will be interviewed by a Rolling Stone reporter, one Constance Sack (Akerman), one who might have a bit of an agenda and one who isn’t overly awed by Stacee’s sexual attraction. In the meantime, the new mayor (Cranston) and his shrill wife (Jones) who may have a personal vendetta, are taking aim at the Bourbon and are out to shut it down so that the Strip can be cleaned up for rich developers to make a mint on.

Of course things don’t go as planned, everybody kind of goes their separate ways including Sherrie and Drew who have become a couple, but a misunderstanding tears them apart. Of course, this being a musical, we know that a happy ending is in sight and rock and roll will save the day.

I have a thing about Broadway musicals that take pre-written songs and plug them into a cookie cutter plot. Mamma Mia kinda got away with it because it was all the music of a single band and as such meshed together well. Hear, there are a bunch of different acts (with a lot of Poison songs, but also from such bands as the ones previously named as well as Starship, Twisted Sister and Bon Jovi.

The problem is that the songs are played pretty much without any passion. Rock requires it, and this has all the energy and passion of canned elevator music. It’s just loud guitars instead of soft strings. Most of the cast do their own singing and it’s probably better than we have a right to expect. In fact, the acting is pretty solid to but with two notable – and fatal – exceptions.

Hough is best known for her stint on “Dancing With the Stars” and she also has a surprisingly sweet voice (she’s done a country album to this point). However, her acting is not quite up to the same standards. Her Sherrie is kind of annoying, to be honest but at least that’s better than Boneta, veteran of Mexican telenovelas who is simply bland. His character isn’t particularly well-defined to begin with but Boneta adds nothing to him. His voice is pleasant enough but lacks the power to really deliver on his songs.

This is really a mess. It’s not the fault of Cruise who gives a performance that reminds me of his work in Tropical Thunder but without the clever dialogue. The leads are attractive but don’t really deliver any personality, something this project desperately needed. The plot is forgettable and while the songs are good, there really isn’t anything that distinguishes them in the musical numbers from the dancing to the settings. Hough, who is indeed a talented dancer, is even given a turn as an exotic dancer – and yet she almost never dances here. Talk about a wasted opportunity – in fact this whole movie really can be counted as one.

REASONS TO GO: Ummm…you like bar cover bands?

REASONS TO STAY: Some really wooden performances. Uninspiring musical performances. Just a mess in every sense.

FAMILY VALUES: A whole lot of sexual innuendo including some fairly graphic kisses and making out. Lots of drinking – LOTS of it – and some implied drug use. Then there’s the foul language…not a ton but enough to be noticeable.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The scenes set below the Hollywood sign were actually filmed in Pompano Beach, Florida in a landfill. The real Hollywood sign is fenced out and no public access is permitted.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/26/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 41% positive reviews. Metacritic: 47/100. The reviews are unaccountably mixed.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mamma Mia!

’80s ROCK LOVERS: Several stars of rock in the 80s make appearances in the protesters-rockers confrontation near the end of the scene. Among those singing “We Built This City” are Nuno Bettencourt of Extreme, Kevin Cronin of REO Speedwagon, Debbie Gibson (yes, that one), Sebastian Bach of Skid Row, and Joel Hoekstra of Night Ranger.

FINAL RATING: 2/10

NEXT: Lola Versus

30 Minutes or Less


30 Minutes or Less

Some guys don't look intimidating at all, even when they have ski masks and guns.

(2011) Crime Comedy (Columbia) Jesse Eisenberg, Aziz Ansari, Danny McBride, Nick Swardson, Dilshad Vadsaria, Michael Pena, Bianca Kajlich, Fred Ward, Brett Gelman, Ilyssa Fradin, Paul Tierney, Rebecca Cox, Rick Irwin. Directed by Ruben Fleischer

Ruben Fleischer previously directed the hit horror comedy Zombieland which starred Jesse Eisenberg. Both of them are back for a follow-up, leaving me curious as to just what kind of film we’d be seeing.

Nick (Eisenberg) is a slacker who has been delivering pizzas for awhile. He has little ambition beyond getting stoned and hanging out with his friend Chet (Ansari) who at least has sufficient ambition to rise beyond being a part-time substitute teacher to becoming a full-time one. Neither of them seem to have much drive to move past the surroundings of Grand Rapids, Michigan where they reside. However when they get into a fight and discover their worst secrets – Nick slept with Kate (Vadsaria), Chet’s sister, and Chet was the one responsible for letting Nick’s dad know that his mom slept with a lifeguard, ending their marriage and leading to his dad leaving town for good – the two split up.

Dwayne (McBride) chafes in the shadow of his father, the Major (Ward) who is sitting pretty off of a $10 million lottery win. The Major feels nothing but contempt for his unemployed son, while his son wants his dad to hurry up and expire so he can still inherit what’s left of the lottery fortune, which the Major has been squandering in a hurry. Dwayne and his best friend Travis (Swardson) are chased out of the house by the major and wind up hanging at a local strip bar where a stripper named Juici (Kajlich) implants the idea that Dwayne should kill his dad and inherit now, hinting that she knows someone who can do the deed – for a hundred grand.

But Dwayne and Travis don’t have fifty bucks between them, let alone $100,000 – until Travis suggests robbing a bank, which might not work that well since neither one of them know how. That’s when Dwayne comes up with the brilliant (but demented) idea to get some other schmuck to rob the bank for them. A pizza delivery guy, for example.

Nick is lured to their junkyard with a pizza order; they knock him out and attach a vest to him with an explosive device. When he awakens, the two would-be criminal masterminds tell him he has ten hours to rob the bank and bring $100,000 to them otherwise they’ll detonate the bomb. Nick, panicking, goes to Chet who after initial horror agrees to help his friend on the condition that he never see his sister again.

In the meantime, Juici is plotting with Chango (Pena), the hitman she had referred to – who happens to be her boyfriend – to take the money and run away with her. Double crosses are in the air – everyone is planning to betray everyone else. How will Nick and Chet escape the crossfire, assuming these two slackers can figure out a way to rob the bank?

As good as Zombieland was, 30 Minutes or Less is less consistent. Uneven in its pacing, I get the sense that they couldn’t decide whether to make a caper comedy or a raunchy drug comedy. The movie tends to be better when it goes with the former and less successful when it channels Cheech and Chong.

While all of the main characters have a following and a certain amount of success – Ansari in “Parks and Recreation,” Eisenberg netting an Oscar nomination in The Social Network for example – none of them have been actors I’ve been particularly fond of and to be honest, this movie doesn’t change my mind for any of them other than Swardson, who with his 70s porn star moustache and puppy dog attitude at least displays a certain amount of charm.

None of the rest of the leads are likable enough for me to particularly care much about any of them, a bad thing for a movie. I could forgive that however, if the movie was funny enough to sustain interest but in fact it only does so sporadically. Some of the scenes seem to want to dumb things down until only a one celled creature could possibly find it amusing.

I wish the movie could have been a little more consistent and a little less wishy-washy because it really did have some pretty funny moments. Unfortunately, they were few and far between enough for me to recommend that you find other ways to spend your movie dollars.

REASONS TO GO: Swardson does some nice work and when the movie works, it’s very funny.

REASONS TO STAY: Extremely inconsistent, the pendulum swinging from too raunchy and dumb to smart and funny in a heartbeat.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of crudity, and a little bit of nudity. There is some language most rough and some violence a little tough.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There was an incident eerily similar to the one depicted here when on August 28, 2003, pizza delivery man Bryan Douglas Wells entered a bank with a bomb strapped around his neck in Erie, Pennsylvania with a very similar story. However, it ended badly as the bomb detonated as the police approached, killing Wells instantly.

HOME OR THEATER: Home, more like.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Operation: Endgame

Halloween II (2009)


Halloween II
You can’t keep a good supernatural serial killer down.

 

 

(Dimension) Scout Taylor-Compton, Tyler Mane, Malcolm McDowell, Danielle Harris, Brad Dourif, Howard Hesseman, Sheri Moon Zombie, Chase Vanek, Margot Kidder. Directed by Rob Zombie

 

Sequels can be very problematic. They’re almost never as good as the original, and when you throw in that it’s the sequel to the reboot of one of the classic horror series of all time, things get even more dicey.

 

Halloween II picks up where Zombie’s reboot left off, with Laurie Strode (Taylor-Compton) being pulled out of the house in an ambulance, while serial killer Michael Myers (Mane) is being carted off to the morgue, courtesy of a gunshot to the face by Miss Strode. However, you can’t keep a good serial killer horror film franchise down and Myers turns out to be not quite dead yet, escaping the ambulance that is transporting him to the county morgue when the unlucky ambulance hits a cow. Hey, Haddonfield is farm country don’tcha know.

 

He shows up back at the hospital where Laurie is being treated – a hospital that seems unrealistically understaffed – and hacks a few people to death, particularly a nurse whom he seems intent on pounding into hamburger. He corners her in a guard shack and – voila! – She wakes up from a dream. Actually, the sequence was an homage to the original Halloween II which took place entirely in a hospital. Zombie serves notice that this isn’t gonna be your pappy’s Michael Myers.

 

It’s two years after the events of the first film (although, strangely, the theatrical release portrayed it as being one year, but what’s a year between fiends) and Laurie is now living with Sheriff Brackett (Dourif) and his daughter Annie (Harris) who was the only other survivor of the Michael Myer’s previous Halloween rampage.

 

Halloween is approaching once again and Laurie has been beset by strange dreams. She confesses to her therapist (Kidder) that she’s concerned for her sanity, but she has no idea what kind of shellacking her sanity’s in for. That’s because Dr. Loomis (McDowell), Michael’s therapist from the first film, is on yet another book tour and in his new book he reveals that Laurie is actually Michael Myers’ sister (and Darth Vader is their father…but that didn’t make it into the movie). Since Laurie wasn’t aware of it, she goes bonkers and storms out of the Brackett’s happy home which is bad news for Laurie but good news for Michael, who is coming out for a family reunion, egged on by the Gothic ghost of his mom (Zombie) and the specter of his younger self (Vanek, taking over from Doug Faerch who had a growth spurt and became literally too big for the role).

 

All of this means there’s going to be mayhem in Haddonfield on Halloween, complete with strippers getting their face jammed into a mirror numerous times, a bouncer getting his head squashed in by Michael’s brogans, a couple of rednecks finding out the hard way why it is a very bad idea to mount antlers on the front of their pickup and a whole mess o’ carnage too disturbing to get into here.

 

There’s no doubt that Zombie is a visionary director – The Devil’s Rejects proved that beyond a shadow of a doubt as one of the best horror movies of the last decade. However, he seems oddly hamstrung here, which might have been due to the incredibly tight filming schedule (something which he mentions in the commentary track) or perhaps due to his own reluctance to do a sequel which he changed his mind about at the last moment, leading to said tight schedule. Either way, the movie doesn’t live up to most of his other work and has to rank as a disappointment.

 

That’s not to say it’s totally without redeeming qualities. For example, the violence here is excessive and realistic. When Michael Myers plunges the blade into a body, it is with full force, punctuated with an animal grunt. While that might make some queasy, it truly does work within the context of the movie and brings a new dimension of realism to the proceedings.

 

Where the movie doesn’t work is in the endless psychobabble that Zombie sees fit to insert, trying to get at the core of what drives Michael Myers. Now while I’m all for attempting to get inside the head of a serial killer, it gets a little too artsy fartsy for my way of thinking, with his mom showing up as a kind of Goth chick ghost in flowing white robes, accompanied by a white horse. It derails the oeuvre of the movie and takes audience right out of the mood.

 

He goes out of his way to make Laurie Strode shrill and unlikable. While this may be a realistic way of depicting someone who’s been through the kind of ordeal she has, what it also serves to do is alienate the audience from identifying with the heroine and that’s just bad juju. If the audience thinks the heroine is a whiny bitch, they’re not going to care what happens to her and if they don’t care what happens to her, there’s no reason to see the movie other than to watch Michael Myers carve up the citizens of Haddonfield and environs.

 

I also have to comment on the set design which is often incomprehensibly busy. Laurie’s room looks like the inside of a mental hospital cell, with a huge poster of Charlie Manson and spray painted graffiti reading “In Charlie We Trust.” This in the home of a town sheriff  mind you. Apparently Rob’s sense of realism and mine differ by quite a bit, so we’ll just leave it at that. In any case, you wind up with sensory overload in quite a few of the scenes, focusing in on the minutiae of the set design that you almost lose track of what the filmmaker’s trying to get you to notice. It kind of works at odds with Zombie’s vision.

 

I’m a big fan of Rob Zombie and the Halloween franchise both, so it is with a great deal of regret that I have to give this a poor review. I really, really wanted to like this movie and I just flat-out didn’t. While there is a third movie in the rebooted franchise slated for release next year, Zombie won’t be a part of it which may well turn out to be a good thing for both Zombie and the producers of Halloween – Zombie took an enormous amount of crap from the horror film fandom for this movie, much of it undeserved (for example, Michael is unmasked for much of the movie which many fanboys found to be sacrilegious) but some of it justified. I’m hoping his next project blows me away. This one didn’t do the job.

 

WHY RENT THIS: Some very effective scares, and a lot of insight into the background of Michael Myers. The violence is brutal and realistic.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The set design is a bit of a mess, often so busy that it distracts from what’s going on onscreen. The plot meanders and gets a little too murky with the symbology.

FAMILY VALUES: The violence here is particularly brutal which works for the movie but may be difficult viewing for sensitive souls. There is also a good deal of crude language, female nudity and much sex. For teens there are scenes of teen drinking and implied drug use. All in all this is not for kids or for most teens.  

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tyler Mane becomes only the second actor to play Michael Myers in more than one film (George Wilbur is the other one). 

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are six music videos from the fictitious band Captain Clegg and the Night Creatures. There are also some standup comedy performances from Jeff Daniel Phillips, a blooper reel and audition tapes.

 BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $39.3M on a $15M production budget; the movie made money.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Day Four of the Six Days of Darkness