The Watch (2012)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Watch</strong> (2012)

(On Cable TV, December 2013) This may be the fifteenth alien-invasion film in the past four years, but it’s certainly one of the most inconsequential. As a peaceful suburban community hosts an imminent alien invasion beachhead, the mysterious death of a Costco™ security guard prompts a few post-adolescent males to gang up into a neighborhood watch in order to catch the killer.  Part Costco™ product placement, part adult male fantasy fulfillment, part more-of-the-usual from Vince Vaugh, Ben Stiller and Jonah Hill, The Watch never hesitates to reach for the lowest-common-denominator joke when it’s within reach, and the result feels as immature as you’d think.  For all of the premise’s potential, and occasional good work from either Stiller or scene-stealing from relative British newcomer Richard Ayoade, The Watch quickly finds its level by allowing Vaughn and Hill to wallow in their usual screen persona (or, more fairly, in Vaughn’s usual man-child character and Hill’s early aggressive-teen shtick.)  It should work for anyone who already likes that stuff; otherwise, it’s just a dreary way to go from one plot point to the next, leading all the way to the Costco™ store showdown.  (The product placement is even more blatant considering that in order to shoot the film they had to convert a closed-down store into a Costco™.)  From a Science-Fictional perspective, The Watch is hollow: it doesn’t have a single new idea to offer, and merely treats the alien invasion as a plot-driver for juvenile comedy.  From a comic perspective, the film has little more to offer, but it does land a chuckle or two.  Alas, it feels compelled to insert a few scenes of a more serious emotional nature in the middle of the dumb jokes, creating more forced atonality.  Perhaps the most intellectual thing The Watch has to offer is a not-so-unwitting study of the modern American suburban male’s uneasiness: Which SUV-driving North-American doesn’t dream of killing dangerous foreigners, punching their daughter’s creepy boyfriend, being invited to secret orgies, increasing their sperm count and earning the macho respect of authority figures?  If you don’t share those obsessions, well, The Watch may feel a bit long.

Killer Joe (2011)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Killer Joe</strong> (2011)

(On Cable TV, December 2013) Matthew McConaughey’s recent career renewal has been a beautiful thing to watch ever since The Lincoln Lawyer and it reaches an apogee of sorts here within this pitch-black Texan crime thriller.  Though sometimes billed as a comedy, Killer Joe is more lurid than funny, as it features a deeply dysfunctional family plotting to kill for purely monetary gains.  Complications more than ensue when an implacable hit-man (McConaughey, deliciously evil) is brought in to execute the plan, and when the money goes missing.  Twisted, sordid, at times asphyxiating, Killer Joe is not pure entertainment as much as it’s watching a train-wreck in motion.  Sometimes in very slow motion, as the theatrical roots of Tracy Letts’ script show up most visibly in a series of lengthy dialogue-heavy scenes.  (You may hear about the fried-chicken scene and you may think you’re ready to see it as just one more thing in your jaded filmgoer’s experience, but you’re not.)  While Killer Joe ends a bit too early to earn a satisfying pay-off, there’s no denying the skill with which veteran director William Friedkin puts together the film, or the talent of the actors having fun with their slummy characters.  Emile Hirsch is particularly credible as a dim-witted wannabe hustler who gets outplayed by everyone, while Gina Gershon gets the least-glamorous role as the fried-chicken-gobbler. (And now I feel dirty for having written this, and I haven’t even mentioned the twisted sex-slavery plot device.)  Unpleasant yet fascinating, crafty and exploitative at once, Killer Joe may best be considered as showing how far McConaughey has gone from his beach-bum rom-com persona… and how good he is at playing dark.

500 Essential Cult Books: The Ultimate Guide, Gina McKinnon

<em class="BookTitle">500 Essential Cult Books: The Ultimate Guide</em>, Gina McKinnon

Sterling, 2010, 384 pages, C$20.00 pb, ISBN 978-1-402-77485-0

If you’ve come here for a detailed, well-argued review of Gina McKinnon’s 500 Essential Cult Books: The Ultimate Guide, then prepare to be disappointed, because I’m going to use the book as an excuse to blather on The State of My Reading Habits circa 2013.

A bit of a recap may be in order: For most of my life, I’ve considered myself at the far end of the reading bell-curve.  I scoffed at those 50-books-a-year blogging challenges: At my peak, I could knock off between 250 and 300 books per year and review a hundred of them thanks to a quiet single life and a lengthy bus commute.  That gradually stopped once I got married, became a father and moved dramatically closer to my place of employment.  As a result, I’m going to close 2013 having read fewer than thirty books –most of those late at night, on a handheld device while sitting in the smallest room of the house.  Things change!

So you can imagine my mixture of delight and bitterness at receiving, as a birthday gift from my sister, 500 Essential Cult Books: The Ultimate Guide.  Oh sure: Rub some salt in those wounds, won’t you?  I’m already complaining that I read a tenth of what I read before, and now here are more reading suggestions?  Well-played, sister.  Enjoy your pre-mothering days.  We’ll talk again in a few years.

My first impulse was to throw the book into one of the dozen boxes where my “to-read” pile has come to roost following The Great Household Move of 2013.  But 500 Essential Cult Books had a few things going for it: An attractive visual design, bite-sized text snippets describing the titular 500 books, and an appeal to my inner bean-counter: How many of those essential cult books had I actually read?  (As it turns out: roughly 111, although I’d like to claim half-credit for roughly 30 more due to having either seen the movie or read abridged versions.)

So I packed the book in my work bag and resolved to read a little bit of it every day at the office while my workstation was booting up, or during those inevitable downtimes where I was stuck between a few minutes to waste and a good book at hand.  It took two months to make it from one cover to another, but I did… and that feels like a victory in itself.

The most obvious comment about 500 Essential Cult Books is that McKinnon’s definition of a cult book is quite expansive, in both the best and not-so-best sense.  If you’re particularly picky, describing The Da Vinci Code as a cult book will strike you as nonsense: How can a massively successful book, mainly read by people who hadn’t picked up a suspense novel in years, even qualify as cult?  But McKinnon’s argument is solid: the novel has inspired an unusual devotion amongst its readership, leading to countless spinoff books, tourism tours and passionate commentary –not to mention the movie adaptation.  (As an aside; a significant proportion of those 500 cult books have been adapted to the big screen –a clear indicator of a readership passionate enough to risk the vagaries of moviemaking) So it goes –if you prefer, call McKinnon’s book “500 books that inspired a lot of people” and drop the “cult” as inconvenient shorthand.

Otherwise, there’s a lot to like about the breadth and variety of the books that McKinnon has selected.  She gets to pick works originally written in other languages than English, has no trouble mixing fiction and non-fiction, seems to enjoy graphic novels as much as I do, and subdivides the book in categories (“Incredible Worlds”, “Thrilling Tales”, “Inner Spirits”) that are more suggestive than restrictive.  Each book gets a plot summary, a critical commentary and further reading suggestions, and if it all feels a bit short, her list of 500 titles is broad enough to reach anyone and everyone.  If nothing else, it’s a far more entertaining set of “read this” recommendations than yet another attempt at canon-making: McKinnon is positively joyous in suggesting the kind of oddball and unusual titles that earn devotion rather than mere respect.  So it is that as I made my way through the book, my nods at “yeah, I read that and it deserves to be on the list” were followed by a number of “Oooh, that sounds interesting and I want to read that”. 

That last, obviously, is a harder sell now than it used to be: long gone are the days where I could just order a dozen books on Amazon and dispose of them in a few weeks, or embark on a year-long massive reading project.  I have bought fewer than half a dozen books for myself in 2013, and given the sheer amount of stuff to be done around the house alongside an active toddler, I’m not foreseeing 2014 as being any less punishing than 2013 in terms of free time left for reading.

But I am exactly where I want to be in my life, and far wiser avid readers have assured me that it’s normal and expected for everything else to pause while raising young children.  To risk an old cliché, I’ve learned quite a bit more this year caring for a little person than I’ve gotten from the books I would have read otherwise, and there’s no way I’d be tempted to trade the experience.  Those 500 books will still be there, just as intact and fascinating, once I get a bit more time; isn’t that the best thing about reading?

The Baytown Outlaws (2012)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Baytown Outlaws</strong> (2012)

(On Cable TV, December 2013) I’m becoming increasingly fond of the small-scale gems that emerge from the muck of Cable TV movie channels, and The Baytown Outlaws pretty much qualifies as such.  It’s not a big, profound or even all that clever film, but it’s executed with a decent amount of energy and skill.  It helps that the tone of the film is the kind of snarky crime/comedy/action hybrid that I can watch all day long.  Here, Billy Bob Thornton and Eva Longoria slum a bit as (respectively) a crime lord and his abused ex-girlfriend who hires three vigilante anti-heroes to rescue her godson from him.  The plot is slight, but the incidents along the way are certainly off-beat, ranging from a killer group of prostitutes, road pirates and native bikers.  The Baytown Outlaws is anarchic, scattered, cartoonish (sometime literally so, to good effect) and morally off-center, but it’s also steadily amusing as what it does.  Writer/director Barry Battles clearly stretches his modest budget beyond what could have been expected from such a production.  Best seen as part of the grind-house exploitation sub-genre, The Baytown Outlaws exceeds expectations, and that alone distinguishes it from most little-known movies that show up on cable TV alongside the most familiar titles.

Monster Brawl (2011)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Monster Brawl</strong> (2011)

(On Cable TV, December 2013) This “film” isn’t any good, but at least it gets points for monster-movie homage, unorthodox narrative structure and cost-effectiveness.  A low-low budget Canadian production, Monster Brawl is less a movie than an attempt to put horror monsters into a 90-minutes wrestling brawl special: Eight monsters battle it out until only one is left, and everything else is context… which is to say filler.  Much of the filmmaker’s cleverness is spent stretching their reported 200,000$ budget to accommodate eight distinctive monsters and moody brawling pit.  (The graphic design work of the film is pretty good, though, as so is Lance Henriksen’s God-voiced video-game narration.)  Color commentators, either taken from the wrestling world or clearly inspired by WWE specials, add very little to the proceedings: While it’s fun to see Dave Foley in just about anything, he doesn’t get much to do but simulate inebriation and spout sports-commentator clichés.  The problem with Monster Brawl is that the fights are dull and everything surrounding them is even duller: The fleeting attempts at a narrative framework are undermined by a conclusion that cuts away without resolving anything or providing satisfactory closure.  The acting isn’t particularly good, although the make-up makes up for it somewhat.  With a decent budget and more imaginative writers, this could have been quite a bit better.  But failing that, and given the above, it goes without saying that if you’re not a fan of wrestling and/or monster-movies, then there’s little of interest in Monster Brawl.  Trust me; I’m one of you and I just checked on your behalf. 

The Host (2013)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Host</strong> (2013)

(On Cable TV, December 2013) I read Stephenie Meyer’s The Host shortly after publication five years ago, but while I recall buying, reading and eventually giving away the book, I recall almost nothing from the novel beyond “romantic twaddle featuring parasite aliens and teenage love triangles”.  As it turns out, this also describes the film pretty well: While The Host features body-riding aliens having taken over Earth in a fit of benevolent eradication, there’s no real science-fiction to be found here: no extrapolation beyond base sentimental melodrama, no extrapolative surprises, no real world-building.  It’s not really surprising to see Meyer stick close to what made Twilight such a runaway young-adult success; it’s what she presumably knows and does best –but the real bitter disappointment here is seeing writer/director Andrew Niccol waste his time and energy by slumming in a framework so far away from his cerebral track record: The Host needs a lot of sloppy romanticism to work, but Niccol seems to have far more sympathy for the gleaming-chrome cleanliness of the aliens than for the messy humans in the story.  That’s fine (I liked the aliens better than the human as well), but when it’s played straight it means an interminable and somewhat silly film.  Saoirse Ronan does as well as she can with the material she has (and it’s a measure of her potential that her reputation as a fine actress will survive this film intact), but The Host is a clear example of how some aspects of a novel don’t survive the literalisation process of the movie medium: Having a protagonist engage in internal dialogue works fine on the page, but just sounds silly on-screen.  Saying that the film is aimed at teenage girls sort of misses the point given how many car crashes are crammed in a story that didn’t even have any on the page.  Some of the details are mildly entertaining (the cars, the ultra-generic “store”, the mirror-powered cavern fields) but there’s little else to lift the film above its basic problems: The dialogue is bland (try reading the IMDB quotes page and try not to fall asleep), most of the young men of the cast can’t be told apart, the story doesn’t go anywhere interesting once it becomes obvious that Meyer’s intent is far too nice (“You’ve been doing it all wrong!” our protagonist says of the alien-removing effort, “You need to do it with love!”).  Give me a year, and I’m pretty sure I will remember nothing more from The Host as a film than I do from the novel.

The Frozen Ground (2013)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Frozen Ground</strong> (2013)

(Video on Demand, December 2013) There isn’t much about The Frozen Ground’s script that’s in any way special.  Based on the sordid story of Alaskan serial killer Robert Hansen, this is a film that does the usual serial-killer thriller in more or less the expected fashion.  Much of the execution is equally bland: Newcomer writer/director Scott Walker is entirely too fond of shaky camera tight close-ups and the result can be a bit annoying.  But location and casting both manage to raise this B-grade thriller to a level that’s worth watching.  Most noteworthy here is Nicolas Cage as the lead investigator: For once, he dispenses with the usual Cage histrionics in order to deliver a far more measured performance, and the result is an interesting throwback to early-era Cage, before he started playing a grander-than-life himself in every role.  (Make no mistake: I love operatic “nouveau shamanic” Cage, but the occasional change of tone is nice.)  It isn’t the only against-type casting coup of the film, as the repellant antagonist is played by John Cusack (far best known for smart good-guy roles) while Vanessa Hudgens, moving farther away from her earliest squeaky-clean roles, plays the vulnerable victim who is the key to breaking the antagonist’s secrets.  The Frozen Ground’s other big asset is location: by setting itself in cold dreary Alaska, the film gains a distinctive visual atmosphere, and seems to crank up the tension of the events a notch further.  The most satisfying scenes come late in the movie, as a subdued Cage and a wily Cusack face off against each other in an interrogation room.  None of those strengths make The Frozen Ground any better than a run-of-the-mill thriller, but they help make the film more memorable than another cursory effort at the serial-killer sub-genre.