Wednesday, May 28, 2014


Monster movies are tricky in that the titular star is often a minor character, behind those that it affects. He is a plot point.  A puzzle to be solved. A villain to be conquered. They are often the center of the film, but they are unable to carry it. That duty in Godzilla falls on the humans.  For as much as I loved the characters in Monsters, I didn’t feel any connection to them here.  Bryan Cranston was great as the crazy-but-not-really-crazy engineer, but he didn't get nearly as much screentime as I hoped he would.  I really like Elizabeth Olsen, but her character bio was nothing more than "concerned wife".  Aaron Taylor-Johnson is supposed to be our proxy, but I felt no connection with him.  He was constantly in danger - he spent the entire film in the path of Godzilla and other nuclear monsters - and yet I never cared whether he lived or died.  If he was a minor character, the lack of connection wouldn't be a big deal.  But it takes a while for Godzilla to show up (and it takes even longer for him to do anything interesting for longer than 5 seconds), leaving Taylor-Johnson's meathead Ford as the driving force behind the film.  It's a terrible combination of an underdeveloped character and an actor with zero charisma. 

I wouldn't care that it took so long for Godzilla to show up if the characters were more interesting or their stories more compelling.  They needed to make me care about the characters and their struggles.  Get me invested in them, then bring up Godzilla and make me hope and pray that everyone makes it out okay.  They didn't do that, so the first half of the movie really seemed to drag.  The only thing I really loved in the first half was Bryan Cranston's running face, and that was a short-lived joy.

"Godzilla will get NOTHING."

We got a little action about an hour in, but it wasn't Godzilla.  We had two creatures designated as MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism) that fed off radiation.  We saw some decent destruction involving these creatures: they were equipped with EMPs, so they would periodically shut down all electrical devices, which led to some great scenes of planes spinning helplessly to the ground and exploding on impact.  We saw one of the MUTOs - which looked like a mix between a Starship Troopers bug and the Cloverfield monster - rampage through Las Vegas.  They were good destruction scenes, but they weren't Godzilla destruction scenes. 

Once the Godzilla action showed up, it felt a bit like a tease.  Godzilla showed up in the city, a MUTO descended on him, a battle was starting...and a door closed in front of the camera, so we didn't see any of it.  We had a few of those false starts before the real action started.  And once that happened, I was all in. 
The fight scenes between Godzilla and the MUTOs felt like a clumsy bar brawl in the middle of a city; staggering into buildings, screaming and breathing fire.  They were glorious, and they left me walking out of the theater being really excited about the movie.

But that excitement fades after a little while, and I'm left thinking about all the problems.  The shallow characters.  The fact that EMPs knocked out all electricity, yet the news cameras still worked.  The fact that the army decided the best place to attack a monster who travels primarily by sea was a suspension bridge.  And so on.  And so forth.


It was impossible to watch this and not think about Pacific Rim.  There was the obvious ("They should just build some giant robots to fight the monsters."), but it's also worth exploring some of the writing.  Pacific Rim knew the strength wasn't in the writing, so they just threw a handful of massive fight scenes at the audience to keep us happy.  Godzilla seemed to think its characters were good enough on their own and didn't feel the need to keep us distracted with fights.

I don't think the characters were better written in Pacific Rim, but I found that I cared about them more than I cared about the characters in Godzilla, and I think that's because the characters in Pacific Rim actually spent quite a bit of time together.  The characters in Godzilla were often in completely different places.  I found it hard to care about the relationship between Ford and Elle because most of their interactions were short conversations over the phone.  It was hard to see much love between them, so I had little love for them.
In the end, the main downfall of the movie was the lack of connection with Ford.  He was the one who was constantly in harm's way, yet I didn't care what happened to him.

Walking out of the theater, I could say that I really enjoyed myself, but its problems are impossible to ignore.  The long lead-up to destruction is a necessary evil, but I can't help but think that it could have been more interesting.  The characters could have been much better, but, in the end, we got to see The King of the Monsters beat up on a couple lesser monsters and unleash a number of his trademark screams. 

It's not a perfect movie, but it's worth seeing for the fight scenes if nothing else. 

Rating: 3.5/5

Before the movie came out, I wrote a Trailer Talk post about it.  You can read that here.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The Sacrament

Description from Netflix:
Using "found footage", this unnverving thriller recounts the tragic story of an exiled Christian cult and the grisly events that transpire after three journalists - one looking for his missing sister - arrive at the commune.

My thoughts:
Lisa and I had a rousing debate over the term "found footage".  In some movies, it's an accurate descriptor.  In others, not so much.  Because of that, I will refer to this movie as being in the "first person" subgenre of horror.  I'll try to remember to do this for all films in this subgenre going forward, but I make no promises.  Old habits die hard.

My thoughts on Ti West are pretty well known at this point.  I hated House of the Devil, The Innkeepers, and his segment in V/H/S.  I haven't seen Cabin Fever 2 in years, but I don't remember liking it.  I haven't seen his earliest work, mainly because I have no desire to see them.
With that being said, I kept an open mind going into this one.  As I said in my review of The Innkeepers, Ti West knows how to make a movie look good, so I figured this would be visually interesting if nothing else.
I also knew that this film was, at the very least, a nod to the events at Jonestown in 1978.  As is the case with any religious cult, those events have long interested and horrified me.  I even went so far as to listen to The Jonestown Death Tape (I do not recommend this).
What I found in The Sacrament was not so much a nod to the events of Jonestown as it was a modern day retelling.  Many events were exactly the same as those that occurred at Jonestown, right down to some very specific details.

It almost lost me in the early-going.  While it had a nice set-up that kicked off the film quickly, it also featured a number of common first person horror problems: camera shaking around, people repeatedly yelling, "Turn the camera off," etc.  I don't have a problem with first person movies: when done properly, they can be terrifying.  The audience doesn't have to find someone to identify with on screen, because they are essentially in the movie.  However, when done poorly, the problems are nearly impossible to ignore.  If these problems are a minor blip over the course of the movie, it's easy enough to gloss over.  But if it's a problem throughout, it drags the entire film down (looking at you, Hud, for repeatedly screaming "Rob!" in Cloverfield).  The annoyances at the beginning threatened to derail the film for me.  Thankfully, none of these lasted very long.

That's not to say no first-person problems reared their heads.  The one that really got me was the excessive dialog (this is the first time this complaint has come up about a Ti West film).  It's a downside of a first-person movie.  To make it feel like real people in a real scenario, characters are forced to react as normal people would.  That means lots of questions about what they're seeing, and talking about what they had just seen.  It's a realistic depiction of what would happen if I were in that situation, but it kind of suffocated the film.  We see some horrifying and confusing things.  Instead of laying back a little and letting the audience process what they have just witnessed, we are bombarded with questions from the characters.  "Did you just see that?  What was that?" then immediately answering those questions.  Every emotion was vocalized.  Every question answered before the audience has had time to fully process everything.
Again, I realize this is to make the events feel more realistic, but it really hurt the film as a whole.  They needed to let the movie breathe a little more.  Let the audience sit with what they have just seen.  This was my major problem with the film.  If you were to read my notes, you would see the phrase “LET IT BREATHE!” repeated ad nauseam.
There was also a pretty big (if nit-picky) problem later on, but it spoils a pretty major plot point, so I won't get into that here.

I also had a problem with our main protagonist (Sam) in the beginning.  As soon as he got to Eden Parish (the Jonestown-esque commune), he immediately started looking down on its inhabitants.  He was nice when trying to interview them, but, behind their backs, he was rolling his eyes.  It didn't get the character off on the right foot.  Thankfully, this didn't last too long.

There were a handful of moments that saw the plot (and paranoia of our characters) driven forward by some pretty large logic leaps.  The major offender was when Sam finally got a chance to sit down for an interview with Father (the Jim Jones of Eden Parish).  The interview is going well, if a bit odd, when Father suddenly asks if Sam loves his wife.  For no reason whatsoever, Sam is immediately rattled.  He's wearing a wedding ring, so it shouldn't be a shock that Father knows about his marital status.  Sam's reaction to that simple question shook me out of the scene a little, which is a shame. 
The interview is one of the best scenes in the movie.  It's the first time we get to see Father, and it’s a terrific introduction.  He isn't overly charismatic, but it's easy to see why he has as many followers as he does.  He's manipulative in a way that doesn't seem manipulative.  He deflects and redirects questions with ease; in doing so he assures himself of only answering questions that fit his agenda.  He's a kindly older gentleman who can lead with a smile and some words about fulfilling the will of God.  Father is played to perfection by Gene Jones.  It would have been easy to have made Father into an arm-waving tent revival preacher, but they wisely went with a more understated vibe.

At some point, we begin to realize the people are brainwashed.  (Personally, I assumed as much before the movie started even started.)  That was, indeed, the case.  As we meet the residents of Eden Parish, we get a better picture of how this happened.  The best way to brainwash is to find people at their lowest, gain their trust, and promise them something better.  That was the case with pretty much everyone who ended up at Eden Parish.  Caroline - a sister of one of the cameramen, and the reason they were able to gain entrance to Eden Parish - suffered with drug abuse for years.  Two brothers who grew up in a violent community.  An elderly widow who had nothing after her husband died.  These were people at their lowest, and Father preyed on that to build his idyllic community.   He convinced them to sell off all their worldly possessions to fund Eden Parish.  He cut his followers off from all communication with the outside world, so he could control the flow of information about the outside world.  Father’s paranoia became their very real fear.  These people saw a lack of communication with the outside world as freedom, when really it just allowed Father to create a prison for them.
To make things even more chilling, I don't believe Father was malicious.  I truly believe he was doing what he thought was right.  That makes him something worse than a con man: that makes him a monster.
It’s worth noting that all of this is in line with what Jim Jones did.  It may have made this film easier to watch if Father was a fictional character.  To know that there was a man and a place almost exactly like this made for a supremely unnerving viewing experience.

There were some creepy scenes scattered throughout the film (I kind of enjoyed the addition of the familiar "girl in the white dress and long hair" horror trope), but none of them were of the jump-scare variety.  They were born of the environment, not manufactured out of thin air.

The film moves along at a pretty good clip, dragging a creeping dread and paranoia around with it.  By the time everything came to a head in the final act, the madness that ensued was well-earned.
If you know anything about Jonestown, you have a pretty good idea of how this ends (even down to some very specific details).  It did not disappoint.  It was horrifying and off-putting.  There were a couple dumb character moments that threatened to overtake the ending, but, thankfully, they didn't. 

After the movie was over, I wasn't overly impressed.  "My favorite Ti West movie, not that it's saying too much," I grumbled to myself. 
But this one really stuck with me.  Certain scenes are impossible to get out of my head.  A couple days away from it, I think I really liked it.  As I mentioned above, Gene Jones was terrific as Father, and, after a rough opening, AJ Bowen turned in a terrific performance as Sam.
It's not a perfect film, but it's definitely worth watching.  Throw your preconceived notions about Ti West and first-person horror out the window and watch this for what it is: a horrifying portrait of darkness disguised as light and hope.  This is the worst of mankind, masquerading as the best.  This isn’t the monster in the closet or the zombie shambling down the street.  This is something that could be in your hometown.  This is Jones.  This is Koresh.  This is Heaven's Gate.  This is Solar Temple.  This is Manson.  This is Gacy.  This is Dahmer.  This is real life, and it’s one of the more unnerving films I have seen in recent memory.

Rating: 4/5

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Wolf Creek 2

Description from Netflix: Backpackers Rutger and Katarina escape the city for an adventurous vacation in the Australian outback…but their dream trip turns into a nightmare when they run into a bloodthirsty serial killer with a penchant for sadistic games.

My thoughts:
I love slasher movies.  It’s a well-known fact about me.  And yet I didn’t love the original Wolf Creek.  It took me a while to figure out what I didn't like about it, but I think I finally nailed it down: it seemed like they were more interested in making the killer interesting than about fleshing out the people he was killing.  It seems lazy; like they’re skipping a step.  The great slashers – the icons – didn’t start as the focal point of the movies.  Michael Myers.  Freddy Krueger.  Jason Voorhees.  Leatherface.  The movies focused on their victims.  They made us care for the victims.  The idolization of the killers came after.  With Wolf Creek, it felt like they had built up this killer to be interesting and magnetizing, and forgot to make the victims people worth caring about.  If I don't care about the people on the other end of the knife (or machete, or chainsaw...), the movie loses some of its heart.  This is not necessarily true of sequels - when most teens are nothing more than cannon fodder - but it's true of the first in a series.  Wolf Creek failed at that most basic premise.

All that being said, I was still interested in the sequel.  I was curious to see where they would take it.  After all, the first movie was nothing if not simplistic: seemingly friendly bushman kidnaps, tortures and kills.  It's a basic slasher set-up, if in a different location than we're used to seeing.  Setting it in the vast expanse of Australia was the most interesting thing about the first movie.  Even when you escape, you don't necessarily have anywhere to run.  It lent an extra air of hopelessness to an already bleak situation.

That was present again here.  Australia makes for a beautiful setting, but also a terrifying one.  Unfortunately, the setting alone does not a good movie make.  Aside from the setting, this movie had very little going for it.

For starters, they decided to make Mick Taylor an even bigger presence in this movie.  It was as if they were actively trying to convince me that Mick Taylor deserved to be the next big slasher icon.  They did this by making him talk more.  Rattling off one-liners.  Saying "funny" things about the terrible deeds he was committing.  Perhaps this worked for some people, but it didn't do anything for me.  Freddy Krueger didn't go into full wise-cracking mode until his fourth movie (if you want to say it was his third, you'll get no argument from me), but he was on an entirely different level from Mick Taylor from the word "go".  They were going for "wacky and endearing," but all they got was "annoyingly over-the-top".
Writer/director Greg McLean has said that "[Mick Taylor was] the most interesting thing about the first movie."  That would explain the direction this one took.

I have already fallen into the same trap as the writers.  Thus far, I have only focused on Mick Taylor.  So let's talk about his victims for a second.
We start with German backpackers Rutger and Katarina (who sort of reminded me of Lizzy Caplan) hiking to Wolf Creek, camping along a trail, and getting attacked by Mick Taylor.  Rutger is killed and hacked up while trying to protect Katarina.  (This raises a question.  Mick has a house with a "workshop", so why does he hack-up Rutger out in the open?  It's dark, and the chances that someone would come across their path is minimal, but there's still a chance that someone could see the atrocities being committed, especially since Mick has the huge floodlights on his truck on.  Not hard to miss when you're surrounded by flat land.)  Katarina is able to escape and makes it to the road, where she is discovered by Paul, a handsome British tourist in a jeep.  Paul tries to drive off with Katarina, but Mick appears and shoots her.  And so, roughly 20 minutes into the movie, who we thought would be our two main characters are dead.  This aspect reminded me of 2009's Friday the 13th.

What followed was a series of scenes featuring Paul trying to get away from Mick.  Most of these were terrible.  An example: we have seen Paul driving his jeep off road a lot.  It has been established that his jeep can handle the Australian terrain.  And yet there is a long scene in which he is chased by Mick in a semi truck (which is definitely NOT an all-terrain vehicle), but for some reason decides to stick to the road.  If I haven't made myself clear, the road is the only place the semi can go.  And yet he stays on the road as Mick tries to kill him with a semi.  So, basically, it turned into The Hitcher for about 15 minutes.  (Maybe that's why they named one of the characters Rutger?)  “Just go off road,” I repeatedly screamed at the TV.  Paul never heard my cries.

During this chase scene, Mick hits/runs over a herd of crossing kangaroos.  As he did his, he was spouting off one-liners like John McClain (if John McClain killed kangaroos instead of terrorists).  This was supposed to be funny.  It most definitely was not. 
Again, this goes back to the lack of connection with Mick.  I don't really have any connection to the character, so why would I like when he runs down kangaroos and makes jokes about it?

There were also a fair number of standard slasher complaints.  "When you knock him out with a hammer, make sure to finish the job."  Things of that nature.  But, if you're a fan of slashers, you've become accustomed to overlooking this faulty logic, so I won’t dwell on them here.

That's not to say the movie was all bad.  The performance by Ryan Corr (as Paul) was tremendous.  There's a long scene of him being terrified, but also trying to humor Mick.  His face fluctuates seamlessly between laughter and pure terror.  It was the best scene in the movie, and Corr carried it.  (Fun fact: Corr had a very small part in Where The Wild Things Are.)
I also really liked Mick's lair.  It was filled with terrible tools to do terrible things.  It was a small, claustrophobic room that offered little chance of escape.  Because, even if you did escape out of the oh-so-tempting door, all you would run into would be a series of winding corridors filled with previous victims, bloodthirsty dogs, and booby-traps.  These corridors weren't on the level of House of 1000 Corpses, Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 or True Detective, but they were still pretty creepy.

This wasn't a very good movie.  There were a few redeeming qualities, but not many.  If you liked the first one, you'll probably like this one.  The key to enjoying this movie hinges on one question: do you like Mick Taylor?  If you do, you'll like it.  If you don't, your views will probably be a lot like mine.

Rating: 1.5/5