(On DVD, June 2013) There’s been a surprising dearth of competent action-moviemaking lately; the rise of Bourne-inspired shakycam directing, coupled with the apparent decline of the Hong Kong film industry have led to more generic action movies without flair or excitement. But here comes relief from an unexpected source: Welsh expat Gareth Evans, working within the Indonesian film industry to produce a bone-crunching martial-arts extravaganza. The best thing about The Raid is its simplicity, as policemen stage a raid against a multistory mob safe-house. When things don’t go as planned, it’s up to a lone cop (Iko Uwais, quite credible as an action hero) to punch, kick and smash his way back out of the building, taking down a crime-lord along the way. (Yes, Dredd also worked along the same lines. In this case, similarity is not a bad thing.) The premise works best as a thread on which to hang the action set-pieces, all of which are directed with a generous helping of long takes allowing the action to shine. Those long takes also reinforce the brutal nature of the fights, the punishment endured by the characters and the sense that the stuntmen are truly earning their money on this film. There are a few extra flourishes of emotional connections here and there, but The Raid largely remains focused on the action scenes, and that works to everyone’s benefit. Lean and mean, The Raid is one of the strongest pure-action films of the past decade, and it brings to mind the heydays of the Hong Kong action film industry –high praise indeed.
(Video on Demand, June 2013) The submarine-movie subgenre is interesting in that there are only so many things you can do, story-wise, aboard a submarine. Sense of isolation; claustrophobia; being stuck with an insane individual; nuclear weapons (sometimes); submarine fights; ocean dangers; the list is finite, and nearly every submarine movie ever made seems to play with the same ideas. Phantom is no exception: while “based on a true story” (albeit the most incredible interpretation of events, with an added dash of magic science to make things even less plausible), it’s resoundingly familiar in the way it re-uses common plot elements. That’s not necessarily a bad thing –execution is everything, and writer/director Todd Robinson does a generally acceptable job at transforming a fairly low budget into a cold-war nuclear thriller. A good chunk of the film’s success can be attributed to a trio of capable veteran actors: Ed Harris as the flawed captain, William Fichtner as his capable lieutenant and David Duchovny as a potentially dangerous outsider. The film has enough credibility to carry audiences across the less-believable moments, and the sense of tension that comes from being confined in such a small space for so long is also good enough to entertain. But while Phantom is generally fine for audiences with an interest in its style or subject matter, “generally fine” isn’t enough to elevate it above its subgenre for a wider audience. It doesn’t help that the film shoots itself in the foot with an ending that tries to fit narrative consolation with cold hard historical fact. While the result will be just entertaining enough to satisfy those who are predisposed toward submarine movies in general, Phantom doesn’t have what it takes to reach a much bigger audience.
(On Cable TV, June 2013) Now that Miley Cyrus has transformed herself from a Disney icon to a blonde badly-coiffed strumpet [September 2013: …who twerks a lot, advocates drugs and has chosen the easy over-sexualisation route to fame], her intermediate star-vehicle So Undercover looks increasingly out-of-place. It stars Cyrus as a tough Private Investigator who’s asked to go undercover at a college sorority in order to protect a potential assassination target and identify a criminal. Or something like that, because by the middle of the third act it’s obvious that plot is about the last thing the screenwriters cared about: So Undercover is really about the usual fish-out-of-water jokes when a less-than-feminine protagonist is plunged in the vapid back-stabbing world of a stereotypical sorority. The script may not be all that good (it peaks at “your balls are amazing.”) but Cyrus actually does quite well in the lead role: it’s not a transcendent performance, but she’s fairly amusing and the long auburn hair is now like a glimpse at an alternate more respectable career path for her. Still, let’s not fool ourselves: the film exist as a big casting stunt (seeing Cyrus share scenes with Kelly Osbourne as her roommate is a bit of stunt-casting nerdvana) and there’s preciously little here to distinguish So Undercover from so many other undistinguished college comedies aimed at high-schoolers.
Thomas Dunne, 2012, 416 pages, C$29.99 hc, ISBN 978-0-312-54634-2
When I end up reading a book at its sequel back-to-back, my review of the sequel is usually appended, capsule-style, to the review of the first volume. Usually, this is enough: most sequels are attempts at recreating the feel of the original book, after all, and a review can simply say whether it was successful at that goal and then take off for holidays.
The case of This Book Is Full of Spiders: Seriously Dude, Don’t Touch It (don’t you love this subtitle?) is different, though. While it’s definitely a sequel to David Wong’s John Dies at the End, it’s also remarkably different in atmosphere, and flawed enough to warrant specific discussion.
A good chunk of the difference between both books can be explained by fairly dull real-world considerations: The original John Dies at the End was developed over a period of years as a web serial, and it displayed a pack-rat’s accumulation of ideas, genre elements, plot twists and creative impulses. It was filled with the kind of narrative hooks and summersaults that come from a loose writing process without a clear ending in mind. This Book is Full of Spider was developed over a much shorter period of time to capitalize on the success of the first book, was not (as far as I know) subject to public feedback as it was written, and was clearly conceived as a coherent whole from the get-go.
As a result, This Book Is Full of Spiders feels quite a bit different from its predecessor. The rhythm is considerably slower, the density of ideas similarly sparser and the plot can indulge in a bit of leisurely scene-setting rather than being an accumulation of one-damn-thing-after-another. As the novel begins, our two protagonists David and John are roughly where they were at the end of John Dies at the End: stuck in [undisclosed], more or less subsisting on their slacker’s lifestyle when they’re not reluctantly pressed in service as paranormal specialists. But as This Book Is Full of Spiders begins, they’re soon confronted with something far deadlier than occasional monsters from nowhere: Brain-parasite spiders turning their unfortunate victims into zombies.
For a while, This Book Is Full of Spiders treads extremely familiar grounds: The zombie-outbreak narrative model, slightly tweaked for laughs (here, it’s the protagonists who arguably let the zombie outbreak spread) but otherwise followed with a reasonable degree of familiarity. Adding to the handicap, This Book Is Full of Spiders side-lines John’s character for a very long time, which becomes a problem once you remember that John is the most interesting character of the series, one who makes things move through sheer lack of sensible instincts. As David is stuck in a prison hastily created to contain the growing zombie contagion, This Book Is Full of Spiders doesn’t evoke the first book’s freewheeling fun as much as yet another dreary “man’s inhumanity to man” nightmare.
That goes on, with minor variations, for almost two-thirds of the book. After the quasi-anarchic inventiveness of John Dies at the End, it’s easy to wonder where the magic went. It’s not that This Book Is Full of Spiders is in any way bad or dull: It is, however, markedly less interesting than its predecessor for most of its duration.
Fortunately, the last third brings it into focus. For the zombie outbreak in [undisclosed] is closely watched by the rest of the nation via the Internet, and most people seem positively delighted by the presence of zombies, including a group of trigger-happy nerds pretending to be tough zombie hunters. At another level entirely, the presence of zombies makes it really easy to justify the complete eradication of [undisclosed], no matter the collateral damage.
And as This Book Is Full of Spiders wraps to a conclusion, the author serves us with an unexpected thought-piece: the development of zombie in pop culture as this irredeemable evil to be destroyed at all costs carries a hideous cost: the ability to brand someone a zombie and justify its extermination. The creation of pure evil brings about the need to complete destruction, argues Wong, and that’s an exceedingly dangerous weapon in itself. From hum-drum zombie fare, This Book Is Full of Spiders develops into something much rarer: a humanist critique of horror fiction.
It helps, of course, that the last quarter of the book is filled with a bit more of the expected David & John craziness: From John finally ramping something, to a heavier use of Soy Sauce, to a penile joke literally writ large, to another narrative game involving a policeman, to the presence of the series’ shadowy antagonists. The end of the book is quite a bit more satisfyingly than its beginning and anyone still dissatisfied by the novel should finally get their time’s worth at the end. That’s the beauty of strong finishes: they forgive almost everything.
Still, there’s little that needs to be forgiven in the novel’s explicit intention to deconstruct the zombie trope and dispatch it with a big humanistic smooch. It’s a fantastic conceit, and one that should be taken up more often at a time where horror fiction seems hell-bent on presenting evil in its purest form. Our attitudes toward the world are shaped by fiction and there’s something insidious in letting narrative constructs take the place of critical or even empathetic thinking. [December 2013: Case in point being public apathy to the slew of revelations following Edward Snowden’s release of confidential NSA documents: Many see this as confirmation of decades’ worth of paranoid thriller fiction, and so not worth getting bothered about. That in itself is an outrage: Are we letting thrillers condition us to accept pervasive and intrusive surveillance programs? What is wrong with us to let our brains being altered that way?]
And that is finally why This Book Is Full of Spiders is worth discussion by itself, and not just as a mere follow-up: It tries something just as ambitious as its prequel, but in a different direction. It’s still a great read, but it’s also trying to get us to think about innate genre prejudices. Don’t expect exactly the same as its predecessor, and it will be a great read.
(Video on Demand, June 2013) Writer/director Martin McDonagh clearly isn’t happy doing the usual or the expected: With this crime comedy, he plays around with structure, experiments with form, and uses a comic crime thriller to reflect on the place of violence in movies. Collin Farrell is low-key but effective as a screenwriter who turns to a friend in order to get some inspiration for his next screenplay. Sam Rockwell is quite a bit flashier as said friend who finds himself creatively inspired, and starts bringing the screenwriter into his own criminal enterprise, where we meet an unusually reflective Christopher Walken. It quickly leads to a clash between true psychopaths, repentant ones and unexpected ones. McDonagh’s dialogue is as good as could be expected from a playwright, and his directorial technique feels a bit more natural than in his previous In Bruges. Seven Psychopaths takes a turn toward meta-fiction in the third act, as it tries to reconcile the impulses of thrill-seeking viewers with the humanistic instincts of a filmmaker trying to avoid gratuitous violence. While the result feels a bit more scattered than it should, it’s an unusually intriguing film, and one that has quite a bit more thematic depths than the usual crime thriller. As a bonus, it’s also quite funny… except when it decides not to be.
(Video on Demand, June 2013) The success of raunchy female-centric Bridesmaids has (sadly?) led to the realization that there was a market out there for crude R-rated comedies featuring uncouth damsels rather than frat-minded bros. This makes it easier for films like Bachelorette to be marketed: suggest that it’s kind-of-like The Hangover and Bridesmaids and, voila, instant interest. Fortunately, Bachelorette is a bit better than this capsule marketing tactic. Yes, it’s about a trio of disrespectable female leads doing bad things while on a wild night in town. But it’s written with quite a bit more wit than most comedies out there, and it dares takes chances with characters that aren’t made to be liked. Kirsten Dunst, Lizzy Caplan and Isla Fisher do great work here, and Rebel Wilson adds another good performance to a short but impressive list. What’s perhaps just as interesting are the subtle background choices made by writer/director Leslye Headland: A significant portion of the film takes place in a working strip club, for instance, and yet no nudity is shown. The male characters are interestingly flawed and don’t overshadow the female leads. This shouldn’t be revolutionary stuff, but in today’s comedy-film scene is almost feels as if it is. Offbeat without being disgusting, Bachelorette is worth a look for those looking for a bit of wit to go along their unglamorous comedies.
(On DVD, June 2013) The beauty with quasi-cult films aimed at specific audience is that once in a while you are the target audience. So it is that John Dies at the End blends science-fiction/horror influences with an irreverent lack of respect for otherworldly terrors, two very sympathetic protagonists and a dynamic blend of quick pacing and terrific direction. Writer/director Don Coscarelli nails the quirky tone of David Wong’s source novel and delivers a near-unclassifiable film that nonetheless plays beautifully to genre audiences. Often crude and unsubtle, John Dies at the End is nonetheless fairly sophisticated in the way it dares audiences to follow along a dense thicket of ideas, plot developments, dramatic turns and throwaway jokes. It’s a film that moves quickly and doesn’t stop for people to catch up. The first half is a dizzying accumulation of strangeness, while the second gets down to the sometimes fastidious task of explaining the plot and tying up loose ends. Chase Williamson and Rob Mayes are good choices for the lead roles, but Paul Giamatti is near-perfect at the skeptical journalist hearing their story. Best of all, perhaps, for fans of the novel is how the film is only a partial adaptation: the second half of the book is nearly missing from the film, an important half of the plot having been skillfully amputated. This gives enough space for an already-madcap accumulation of details in the film, and leaves a pleasant surprise to fans of the film wishing to read the book.
(Video on Demand, June 2013) Newsflash: comedy aimed at middle-class Midwestern Americans espouses and promotes middle-class Midwestern values. In the generally unobjectionable (if rather empty-headed) Did You Hear About The Morgans?, a couple of upper-class newyorkers accidentally see something that lands them in the witness protection program, where they are relocated to an isolated Wyoming town where they discover the values of hard work, law-and-order enforcement and factory outlets. The script practically writes itself around the fish-out-of-water gags and the impending-arrival-of-hired-killer ticking clock, and the result is just about as formulaic as it can be. Fortunately, the film is more or less saved by two pairs of performances: Hugh Grant and Sarah Jessica Parker as the amusingly estranged lead couple that has to re-learn life in the slow lane, as well as Sam Elliott and Mary Steenburgen as the no-nonsense cops that host them. Did You Hear About The Morgans? isn’t particularly sophisticated, but then again consider the broad target audience: the easy jokes all line up in a row, and the ending is as pat as it needs to be. The actors don’t have to stretch their usual screen persona, and everyone is more or less happy by the time the credits roll.
(On Cable TV, June 2013) Clearly, my moviegoer’s brain demands narrative, because when I’m confronted to a mostly plot-and-dialogue free succession of images such as Samsara, I’m left wondering when it’s going to mean something. It’s curious, because I’m often the first to praise impressive cinematography in plot-driven films –why was it such a struggle to get through Samsara’s nearly-constant barrage of exceptional imagery? Director Ron Fricke has travelled the globe in search of beautiful sequences, and what’s featured in Samasa is often awe-inspiring: from wide-screen industry to time-lapse nature, it’s one impressive image after another. The best way to see the film is to let it flow in its entire splendor, and avoid asking questions such as why or even where was this shot? Where I’m not so enthusiastic is in trying to make sense of it all; the film seems purposefully aimless (except when it’s not, such as its depiction of industrial agriculture) and trying to impose meaning is as exhausting as unavoidable. Samsara is quite an experience, more akin to film poetry than filmed prose, but it may perhaps best be seen either with a director’s commentary… or as the showpiece of a still-hypothetical 8K ultra-high-definition home theater setup.
(On Cable TV, June 2013) There’s a basic and inherent self-contradiction in seeing big-budget Hollywood productions espouse the virtues of environmentalism: The vast expenditure of effort and resources required to make, distribute and promote those films is staggering, and given the mere-entertainment result it’s hard to reconcile it with the good that an equivalent amount of money could have been done had it been spent on concrete projects. But then again, entertainment can inspire… and I just spent 90 minutes watching a film while I could have been picking up litter at the nearest riverfront, so who am I to criticize? Taken on its own terms The Lorax is at least entertaining enough, and responsible enough in the message it’s teaching to its audience. While the whimsy of Dr. Seuss’ original book is completely squashed by the de-rigueur aesthetics of modern action-packed animated features, this film adaptation contains a few effective moments, a sympathetic pair of protagonists, a colorful vision of a fantasy world and a few decent action sequences. The animation, coming from Illumination Entertainment, is a top-notch blend of technical savvy, bright colors and effective direction. The musical numbers are generally good, especially when they manage to advance the plot along the way. While The Lorax may strike a few as hypocritical, it’s relatively enjoyable once you get past the most obvious issues.
(On Cable TV, June 2013) Let’s hand it over to writer/director George Miller: He’s never content to deliver something entirely conventional, and so it is that Happy Feet 2 gladly takes up wildly different protagonists that (almost) never meet, adds a live-action sequence in the middle of an all-CGI film, tackles existentialist philosophical issues, heightens the dramatic stakes beyond expectations and brings everything together in a stomping-tapping-clicking climax. Not everything works all the time, but the film manages a few high notes along the way, including a laugh-aloud opening medley, banter between two unusually bright krill and some spectacular Antarctic scenery. While the film can feel aimless (especially compared to the first one), it has the decency to build to a good conclusion. Sure, Happy Feet 2 could have been better… but why complain when it’s cute, charming, toe-tapping fun?
St. Martin’s, 2010 reprint of 2009 original, 480 pages, C$18.50 pb, ISBN 978-0-312-65914-1
Ever since the rise of the Internet, the expression “cult novel” doesn’t mean what it used to. Once upon a time, it conjured images of a battered paperback passed from one set of hands to the other, its hushed-tone reputation growing through the yellowed pages of mimeographed fanzines or late-night college-dorm conversations. Nowadays, it’s almost too easy for things to earn cult status. Quasi-forgotten novel from the sixties discussed by half-a-dozen readers on Goodreads? Cult. Mid-list writer with fifty comments on her latest blog post? Cult figure. Episodic novel published at irregular intervals on an out-of-the-way web site and discovered by a growing number of readers thanks to blog-of-mouth? So-cult-it-hurts.
And that takes us to John Dies at the End, a horror/humor hybrid which was written and self-published on the web by Jason Pargin, a writer best known as “David Wong” for incisive essays such as the famous “Monkeysphere” piece. Having attracted a devoted following, Wong added material to the story for years before wrapping it all up for publication. The result is quite unlike anything you’ve read so far.
The adventures of John and David, two twenty-something slackers who find themselves involved in paranormal affairs despite their best intentions, John Dies at the End blends stoner comedy with existential horror and ends up as a hip mix of cool things. Thanks to Wong’s irreverent narration, the novel recycles, twists and extends familiar tropes in a potent mixture of dread and comedy. For seasoned horror/fantasy readers, John Dies at the End is particularly interesting in that while it’s clearly aware of genre antecedents, it’s clearly not beholden to the genre in its narrative construction. The web-serial origins of the story are clearest in considering its structure: the novel divides itself into two major adventures, interrupted by a shorter interlude episode. Perhaps most significantly, Wong has a decidedly irreverent attitude toward familiar plot conventions: The protagonist’s narration is rich in self-awareness, peaking in a late-book refusal to further investigate a troubling mystery. (A good thing too, since he admits that had he done so at that time, he would have killed himself. By the end of the story, we readers understand what he means.) When I say that John Dies at the End is a delightfully profane novel, I’m not speaking as much about the harsh language of the book as much about its willingness to embrace irreverence in dealing with genre ideas.
On a related note, John Dies at the End is also particularly good at maintaining both the laughs and the chills that a hybrid novel should ideally contain. There are at least two deeply troubling ideas embedded in the very narration of the novel, challenging our ideas about unreliable narrators. Otherwise, Wong doesn’t hesitate to laden on the graphic descriptions when talking about the horrors that confront John and David on a near-constant basis.
It helps that the funny parts are almost laugh-out-loud hilarious. I have a particular affection for a chair fight between the heroes and supernatural demons, in which the hits only stop when the characters run out of chair-related fighting puns.
It all amounts to an engrossing, hilarious, chilling and unique reading experience. John Dies at the End is almost the definition of a break-out first novel: You can see here the culmination of years of development, ideas piled upon each other as if the writer had put everything he’d ever wanted to say between two covers. The pacing has to be frantic to keep up with the inventiveness, and if the structure suffers a bit from the development process, who cares? It’s one more welcome quirk for a book loved for its quirkiness.
And from quirks, we quickly go back to cult. Of course, few things truly stay cult these days, and so it is that John Dies at the End was successfully adapted for the big screen in 2012. The film is quite enjoyable, but the legions of new fans who will come to the book after the movie will be delighted to find out that the film has maybe only half the plot of the novel: Save for the first third and the last tenth, there’s almost an entirely new film’s worth of stuff in the novel, including some of the most disturbing material in the book. (The film, for all of its qualities, is considerably funnier than horrific.) This review may have begun by suggesting that the death of old-style cult status is somehow a bad thing, but let’s be clearer: At a time where everything is cult thanks to immediate electronic communications, nothing is cult. Which is fortunate, given that nobody is a completely mainstream individual. We are all of our one-person cult culture. Given that, doesn’t it make you positively gleeful that something as strange and enjoyable as John Dies at the End can be written, published and enjoyed by exactly its rightful target audience?
(On Cable TV, June 2013) As an unlikely casual fan of the Resident Evil series (I liked the first one, hated the second one, tolerated the third before the fourth hooked me again), I’m better-disposed than most in liking a new installment in the series, and Retribution does deserve a bit of love despite some basic problems. For fans of the series, the best thing about this fifth entry is the way it dares bring back past elements such as Michelle Rodriguez (who, in-between this and Fast Six, seems to be on her “Hey, world, remember me?” tour) and a glimpse at the protagonist’s pre-zombie suburban days. The film winks at its own mythology, and has the most obvious nods at its video-game origins by explicitly setting the story in discrete “levels”. Much of the series’ motifs are also in place, from the way the opening sequence quickly riffs off the ending of the previous film, to the final apocalyptic shot meant to set up the next installment. Milla Jovovich is also up to her usual standards, which is always good news. There’s a lot to smile about here, and that’s even before getting into director Paul W.S. Anderson’s impeccable visual composition. At times, Retribution is so beautifully shot as to approach art-house levels of cinematography: Witness the opening “backward” battle, the stark white-hallway fight, the New York sequence or the presentation of the secret base in which everything takes place. Given this, it’s regrettable that the film isn’t quite as good as it could be: some of the action scenes are meaningless, Rodriguez isn’t used as effectively as she could be, and there’s no escaping a sense of repetition among the chaos and explosions. Still, the visuals make up for many sins, and so I am really looking forward to the sixth installment.
(On Cable TV, June 2013) I have only seen two films directed by John Hyams (Dragon Eyes being the first one), and I’m already developing a bit of a dislike for his work. While I can appreciate his eye for good cinematography and strong action sequences, his obvious inability to deliver a coherent narrative is far more irritating than the amount of eye-candy he can deliver. Crucial narrative moments are missing, intriguing ideas are abandoned as soon as they’re raised, and nothing seems to matter as much as the camera angles that he use. While action movies (and direct-to-DVD action movies in particular) have never been too strong on story, there are basic mandatory requirements than Hyams isn’t even meeting. The plot is a muddle of enhanced-soldier stuff overlaid with rogue agents, military conspiracies, fake memories and who know what else; it’s handled so badly that it’s hard to care about any of it. While Jean-Claude van Damme and Dolph Lundgren are hyped as being “back” in the series and the film, viewers should temper their expectations and expect merely a few unconnected quasi-cameo appearances. Scott Adkins handles protagonist duties, and the best one can say is that he does not embarrass himself. The same can’t be said about Hyams, who seriously needs some adult supervision before he’s allowed to mangle another script again.
(On Cable TV, June 2013) There’s a lot to admire in the first half of The Pentagon Wars and, unfortunately, less and less to like as it goes on. This is a somewhat unusual film that dares tackle military procurement as a comedy (!) and the beginning of the film has to do a lot of exposition (in a relatively painless fashion) to get viewers up-to-speed with the basic premise. Cary Elwes isn’t too bad as the sometimes-bewildered officer who comes to learn the dirty history of the M2 Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle, whereas Kelsey Grammer doesn’t break any typecasting as the fanatically right-wing general who slowly becomes the antagonist of the film. The Pentagon Wars is, at first, fairly clever and generally fact-based; unfortunately, this changes in the second half of the film, as it becomes increasingly slapstick based: the script becomes steadily dumber, to the point where characters start acting like buffoons in a broader and broader (read: stupider) military comedy… much like Down Periscope, also featuring Kelsey Grammer. The film’s visible departure from reality may lead a few viewers to investigate the real story behind the film, leading to further disenchantment with its liberties. As it turns out, not testing the vehicle to destruction is actually a good idea when dealing with multi-million-dollar items: you get more value out of each test vehicle. But the film’s insistence in painting everything in goofier shades of black and white ends up damaging what started out as a relatively more clever comedy. Let’s hand it to HBO, though, for producing a film with a relatively cerebral premise, and following through with a decent budget. The result may be disappointing, but it’s already more ambitious than many other.