Saturday, March 13, 2010

Film Review - COP OUT and THE CRAZIES

In Hollywood, where reputation largely lives or dies on the box-office strength of your last endeavour, industry redemption is a highly sensationalized and much-sought after achievement. Currently unspooling in multiplexes are the latest works by two notable directors, bearing wildly dissimilar aesthetic sensibilities, who have, nonetheless, taken curiously parallel courses in attempting to restore their good name. Indeed, both Kevin Smith, the foul-mouthed indie icon, whose Zack and Miri Make a Porno was a surprise underperformer last year, and Breck Eisner, son of former Disney-demigod Michael Eisner and helmer of the 2005’s goofily-enjoyable-but-financially-disastrous Clive Cussler adaptation Sahara, have elected to kick-start their careers by delivering easily-sold, conventional studio genre pictures. While the scrappy Clerks auteur has chosen to tackle the 80s buddy cop formula, with the middling Bruce Willis/Tracy Morgan vehicle Cop Out, Eisner has, more shrewdly, jumped whole-hog into the world of grungy paranoid horror with The Crazies, an energetic remake of George Romero’s largely forgotten 1973 minor cult hit.

Considering Smith’s proven affinity for penning hilariously honest and snarky dialogue, it’s baffling what drew him to the script for Cop Out, written by Robb and Mark Cullen, a patchy, cliché-ridden snoozer about Jimmy Monroe (Willis) and Paul Hodges (Morgan), two NYPD detectives running afoul of a too-vicious-to-be-remotely-comical Mexican gang while on the trail on a stolen baseball card (Don’t ask). Overlong, tonally inconsistent and laugh-deficient, the movie feels stuck somewhere between toothless satire and unimaginative copycatting, with the director reluctant to commit either way and relying solely on his floundering charismatic cast to give the hopeless enterprise some sizzle – a task only Jason Lee, as Monroe’s ex-wife’s beau, and Seann William Scott, playing an obnoxious parkour-master thief (!), manage. I have no idea how long the screenplay sat on the shelf, but there are precious few – if any - pop-culture references less than a decade old (Do kids still giggle over the phrase “All your base are belong to us”?). There’s an interrogation sequence, in which Hodges runs through a gamut of tired film references, where you have to wonder why a notorious comic-book fanboy like Smith wouldn’t at least take the opportunity to poke fun at the infamous Batman/Joker police station stand-off from The Dark Knight. Does the world really need more Scarface, Star Wars and Jaws homages?

However, Cop Out’s greatest fundamental flaw is that we never believe for a second that the two protagonists exist in the same cinematic world, much less like each other. While Willis is rigid-as-a-board straight and visibly bored, Morgan, cartoonishly over-enunciating every single word and wearing a lobotomized smile, seems to be channelling Cuba Gooding Jr.’s Radio persona (Pay close attention to how his co-stars always speak to him in noticeably condescending tones). It’s hard to fathom Hodges even being able to properly dress himself, much less wield arms and enforce the law. Although I suspect that Smith was aiming for Lethal Weapon or Beverly Hills Cop territory, his two stars’ utter lack of chemistry, and the film’s insipid approach to such time-worn material, ensure Cop Out a lowly place alongside misfires like Showtime, Red Heat and Hollywood Homicide.

Somewhat unexpectedly, Breck Eisner more than upstages Smith in the genre-department with The Crazies, a gritty, wicked little nugget of gore-hound gold with a great premise involving a virus turning a small Iowa town’s aw-shucks population into homicidal maniacs. Overcoming budget limitations by stylishly swinging for the figurative fences, the helmer utilizes all of his considerable skill and bags of tricks in staging viscerally effective sequences of macabre suspense, including a disquieting scene of a mother and son hiding in a closet from the diseased man of the house lumbering across the creaky floorboards just outside, a spectacular runaway bone-saw gag and, even better, perhaps the best scary use of a car-wash ever put to celluloid (I kid you not!).

Eisner also casts persuasive, endearing leads in Timothy Olyphant and Radha Mitchell, as the town sheriff and his pregnant doctor wife, and Joe Anderson, as an increasingly-erratic deputy. They are crucial to selling the flick’s more predictable moments and manage to make their characters’ epic quest to escape both the deranged murderers and the aggressive military forces seeking to isolate and exterminate the infected, emotionally compelling and entirely engrossing.

Sure, The Crazies is far from perfect – the logic behind the virus’s symptoms is often really iffy and there’re a few too many instances of characters stupidly wandering off on their own - but it has verve and enough black humour and attitude to make it stand-out amidst the never-ending onslaught of tedious cash-grab horror carbon-copies. The picture understands exactly what it is, what it’s going for and what it needs to do to efficiently push the audience’s buttons – three invaluable pieces of movie-making insight that so obviously escaped Kevin Smith when he signed on to Cop Out.

Cop Out: 1.5 out of 5
The Crazies: 3 out of 5

*Originally printed in SFU's The Peak: March 8th, 2010.


I’m an absolute, unapologetic sucker for films that provide the chance to be transported to original, fully-realized, tangible places, allowing me to virtually inhabit the cinematic world of the characters. Martin Scorsese’s latest, the inconsistent-but-impressive psychological thriller Shutter Island, masterfully does just that, plunging the viewer into the eerily quiet Massachusets-situated Ashecliffe Hospital, a stone fortress-like psychiatric prison housing the most appalling criminally insane deviants mankind ever accidentally birthed. Concealed behind an impenetrable wall of fog, and located atop a craggy, rocky land mass so unsightly that there might as well be trolls peeking out from within its endless jagged crevices, the facility at once utterly repulses us while nonetheless drawing us into its nefarious clutches.

 Such is also the unlucky case for Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio, in perhaps his best performance with the director) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), two U.S. Marshalls, circa 1954, assigned to uncover the truth behind the disappearance of one of the penitentiary’s deranged inhabitants. Naturally, upon warily entering the cast iron gates of Ashecliffe – an ominous episode given, courtesy of the relentlessly throbbing, doom-drenched soundtrack, all the nerve-racking fanfare of King Kong’s unforgettable emergence from the thick, suffocating jungles of Skull Island – and surrendering their weapons, the two lawmen quickly find themselves at odds with the hospital’s exceedingly calm medical director Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley – masking restrained menace behind a soothing, silky voice) and his German colleague Dr. Naehring (An effortlessly intimidating Max von Sydow).

Finding their investigation hopelessly obstructed by Ashecliffe’s tough rules and regulations and its uncooperative staff and patients, Teddy begins to grow unhinged, plagued by visions of his recently murdered wife (Michelle Williams), as well as a traumatic WWII experience liberating a Nazi concentration camp. As the tormented lawman slowly loses his grip on reality, and a violent hurricane batters at the fortified walls outside, the two Marshalls slowly come to realize that sinister forces may be planning to ensure that they remain at the facility. Permanently.

Ostensibly a glorified B-movie in A-movie trappings, Scorsese has nonetheless delivered a hauntingly gorgeous visual feast. Working with his regular cinematographer Robert Richardson - A current Oscar-nominee for his efforts on Inglourious Basterds – and Editor Thelma Schoonmaker, the celebrated auteur conjures up a number of audacious moments that leave you breathless. There’s a lengthy tracking shot, unsympathetically floating down a line of Nazi soldiers being executed, that is a thrilling feat of movie-making virtuosity, along with an alarming trip to the dreaded Ward C that feels like a descent into Hell and a nightmarish sequence involving a sea of rats that manages to out-creep both Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu. Even more startling are the many spellbinding flashback and hallucination sequences which, unlike throngs of similar genre entries, actually operate on a believable plane of fevered dream logic. In particular, the team puts Michelle Williams’ ethereal, porcelain-doll loveliness to magnificent use, creating an enthralling and disquieting aura around her.

Alas, as exquisitely technically crafted as it frequently is, Shutter Island underwhelms in the story department. For the film to truly succeed it needs to completely draw us into Teddy’s psychological spiral and make us share his escalating sense of trepidation, uncertainty and anxiety. Unfortunately, Scorsese and screenwriter Laeta Kalogrodis never quite figure out how to transform Dennis Lehane’s novel into a wholly engrossing venture. Although it starts off incredibly strong, the movie’s latter half is often cluttered and plodding, featuring far too many scenes of powerhouse character actors (including Jackie Earle Haley, Patricia Clarkson, Elias Koteas and Ted Levine) providing Teddy with draggy enigmatic exposition that is more frustrating than tantalizing. At 138 minutes, the film could use some serious trimming, especially in the concluding flashback which, while thematically important and beautifully staged, would have been significantly less harmful to the already-bumpy pace if dealt with in a briefer manner.

There’s also the issue of Shutter Island’s plot twist which is, frankly, both far too predictable and utterly ludicrous. Scorsese makes the wise decision to not smack us over the head with a sudden shocking transition, instead allowing for a subtle shift free of stylistic fireworks, but that doesn’t make it any less silly. It’s the sort of twist that requires one to make a leap of Grand Canyon-sized logical proportions to accept and, if scrutinized even minutely, causes the entire house of cards to collapse.

In the hands of a lesser talent, Shutter Island would probably be a disaster. Yet in Scorsese’s masterful hands, and filtered through a fully engaged cast, it’s an agreeable night at the movies with enough extraordinary imagery and chilling atmosphere to make it still a film undeniably worth seeing. I’m not likely to forget the dreary, fearsome Ashcliffe institution, with its shuffling bands of zombified inmates and interchangeable orderlies, any time soon. I just wish I felt as strongly about the tale unfolding within its cold, pitiless, lonely halls.

3 out of 5

*Originally printed in SFU's The Peak: March 1st.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Video: Post-Viewing Reflections on ALICE IN WONDERLAND

As I begin toying around with alternate methods of providing tiresome movie-related content, experiments such as this may enter (and unceremoniously exit) the fold.

This is a brief video of myself and my good friend Tony (Last name witheld on request) filmed immediately after viewing Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland:

Look back here for a full-length review soon!

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Epi-Cast: Episode 22 - "Oscarploitation!"

If there's one thing sure to raise our ire, put some ants in our pants and motivate us to make with the chatter-box rockin', it's the Oscars. So, I'd like to thank the Academy for their generosity and compassion in providing our silly little podcast with a reason to continue its aimless journey across the interwebs and provide myself and Tom Wytrwal with an amount of celebrity suitable to our well- below-meagre talents. I'd thank my lawyer, Frank Garrigan, but he stole my savings and is currently living in a tree-house in the jungles of Palau. Gosh, this moment is so much bigger than me... Er, us...

Epi-Cast: Episode 22 - "Oscarploitation!"

Running on precious little sleep, and over-caffeinated beyond all rational levels, Cam and Tom take to the airwaves after enduring 3.5 hours of Oscar-fuelled excitement. How did they feel about the winners? The losers? That awful interpretive dance/B-boy segment? They'll tell you loudly and politically-incorrectly as possible. Such is their gift to you.

To download, simply right-click and save on the green episode title above. Then you are free to indulge in one of the interweb's very finest wonders.

P.S. We are also available on iTunes! We kid you not! Simply do a store search for "Epi-Cast" and, ZIMMER-GIACCHINO!, you can subscribe to our feed and receive insta-dl's (Net speak for downloads). Oh, and we are the "Epi-Cast", not the "Epicast". Avoid those pretentious fools like a pack of flesh-consuming carpet monkeys.