Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Movie Review Quickies XIV: Overdue Edition

For MRQIV, I decided to tackle 7 films that I've promised to review here at some point or another. The lessened stakes allow me to at least express some thoughts on these pictures without having each review become a big deal.

At least two of these movies will receive a Double Dip treatment at some point in the future, but I do make good on my claims, whenever I can. And I can't do that unless I just suck it up and actually get these reviews out. So today's offerings are: Better Off Dead, Primer, Hot Fuzz, The Girl Who Played with Fire, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, The Incredibles, and Tucker & Dale vs. Evil.

Better Off Dead

Make no mistake, Better Off Dead is not just some piece of 1980's nostalgia, it's among the best comedies that I have ever seen, and I am grateful for this film's mere existence. When I mentioned Savage Steve Holland's masterwork here this February, I knew it would come up here at least a few more times.

BOD tells the story of Lane Meyer, a high school teen who's having the worst day of his life. It's nearly Christmas, and his girlfriend just dropped him like a bad habit. He pleads with her to stay, yet the bigshot jerk on the ski team has already snatched her up. He's consistently behind in his classes, and his job is both embarrassing and insulting. Also, his treasured car is now a total junker. It's all so unhappy - and so hopeless - that Lane has decided to kill himself... But every time he tries, he screws it up.

What's great about Better Off Dead is that it's one of the funniest black comedies you will ever see. Teen suicide is no laughing matter, but the filmmakers ease the pathos by packing the film with every kind of comedy out there: slapstick, satire, word play... My favorite element of this picture, though, is its sheer absurdity.

Early on, Lane's 12 y/o brother receives a book on how to pick up chicks, and you later see his room full of gorgeous women, in violation of logic, universal morality, and state laws. The paper boy is willing to hunt people down because of an overdue $2 debt. Everyone from teachers to the mail man thinks that it's okay to ask Meyer if they mind them asking his ex out.

Throughout it all, Better Off Dead is an insanely-funny, terribly-charming watch. Young Cusack is very charismatic as the leading sad sack, the crazy locals that make up the ensemble cast are endlessly entertaining, and the story is excellent. I could watch a dozen movies like this. Or I could watch BoD a dozen times (and I probably have).


Shane Carruth made a huge splash with his $8,000 indie scifi film, Primer. It's a super-fine work for which I understood immediately that this filmmaker deserves all the attention he could ever get. Primer starts out as the story of 4 scientists who build a new device in a garage. Shortly after getting the thing to work, though, 2 of these men get incredibly excited... and scared. They buy the other partners out.

What follows from there is a time travel narrative that is unlike anything you've seen before. Time is manipulated so many times that anyone short of a physicist (who's taking diligently notes) would not be able to understand this film's events on the first viewing. While these aspects may make the pic seem unapproachable, it is extremely rewarding for anyone who's willing to think about a movie - and it's a superb piece of indie filmmaking, easily matching the achievements of any prior independent director's debut.

The key to Carruth's "little" masterpiece is its simple-yet-effective cinematography, spare dialogue, and an intense focus on plot, character, and themes. Primer works because it's such an incredibly-different take on a time travel picture. The actions of our protagonists are so twisty that you have to consider them carefully, their use (and abuse) of time travel's possibilities is intellectually-exciting - as well as relatable since it's grounded in basic human feelings.

In every way, Primer challenges audiences, doesn't talk down to them, and is so incredibly well-considered that it deserves a special Hugo or Nebula award. It goes right back to the amazingly idea-driven era of Golden- and Silver-Age Science Fiction novels. It uses fancy technology or "future ideas" not as a backdrop for an adventure story, but to confront the audience with real, human problems and concepts. And that's scifi.

Is it hard to follow? Hell, yes, but that didn't diminish the work for me, and I hope it doesn't diminish it for you, either. I was lucky to catch this on cable one night, and I think I've mentioned this movie more than any other in today's MRQ.

Hot Fuzz

I did a rewatch of this, one of my favorite films, on the 4th Anniversary of Net-flixation, and I promised a review at that time. This, then, is one of the most likely candidates for a future Double Dip.

Hot Fuzz follows the story of a London super-cop, Officer Nicholas Angel. He is so good at his job that he makes the rest of the force look bad. It is this, then, that leads to his sudden change of circumstances: in order to save face, the Police Service's top brass transfers him to a small town far-removed from any city.

Angel's biggest problem, aside from being pushed into a quiet village, is that he's so dedicated to his job that he doesn't have anything else going on - aside from one plant he tends to fastidiously. Shortly before he leaves London, he meets his ex - it's a sweet, non-showy celebrity cameo - and it's clear that his absolute devotion to the profession has left him somewhat... hollow, and distant.

And so Nicholas finds himself completely alone in the quaint and distant Sandford. Everyone seems a little bit weird - the local supermarket tycoon constantly speaks in murderous double-entendres, the pub lets minors drink there, and his new partner almost drunkenly killed Angel on his first night in town. However, Nick's freakishly well-trained eye notices a few accidental deaths in town, and his every instinct screams "murder."

Throughout its 121 minutes, HF really should leave you in hysterics. There's a local drama club whose newest production is... deliciously-painful. Nick Frost's oafish Officer Danny Butterman only sees the police service in relation to various over-the-top American action films. And Angel's struggle to make some sense of the local goings-on is a real treat for moviegoers, whether or not they're familiar with English films or American action pictures.

I always felt that Fuzz is both stronger and funnier than Shaun of the Dead (and, recently, The World's End). I think that the genre conventions that Edgar Wright & co. are playing with are easier to follow, and lend themselves more naturally to pure comedy as well as solid drama. Watching a guy see his stepdad - (SPOILERS) and then mom (END SPOILERS)- become a zombie is pretty gut-wrenching material.

Yet it's such a delight to see a man who can disarm AK-47-wielding criminals as he has to deal with a simple traffic incident, a hotel-keeper who speaks her crossword puzzles answers aloud ("fascist!" she says on Nick's arrival), or a man who's looking for his missing swan. And it's so much fun to watch US-type high-octane action done in a distinctly English style.

The reasons for watching Hot Fuzz are simple: it's ridiculously well-written, with vivid and entertaining characters; the comedy is off-the-charts funny; the action is incredibly-engaging. This is, in essence, one of my favorite films ever, and you should watch it immediately. I've met 2 people who didn't like Fuzz, and scores of others who revere it; this time, the majority opinion is definitely right.

It even uses the music riff from 48 Hours and Tango & Cash!

The Girl Who Played with Fire

This film, and its follow-up, is the reason I added the Sexual Violence Warning to today's post. Some awkwardness aside, I really enjoyed the foreign film called The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Although I was deeply-annoyed to learn that the US was remaking a film that had just been released in cinemas world-wide, I ignored all that and focused on the fact that the series' rising popularity meant that I'd be watching the real Dragon Tattoo's follow-ups more quickly.

Sadly, part 2 was not as engaging as the first film, although it did flesh out the characters we had met before. As with its predecessor, the film is divided between its two leads. Investigative journalist Mikael Blomqvist spends half his time trying to unravel the murder of two people who promised him an expose on a sex trafficking ring, while also searching for the titular girl (who's been avoiding him).

Lisbeth Salander, meanwhile, gets back home after a year spent traveling. She reconnects with some old acquaintances and, though not wanting to contact him yet, hacks into Blomqvist's computer. I guess this is how our sociopathic uber-fraulein shows affection? She finds his notes on the sex traffic material, and is so intrigued that she starts investigating it on her own. The balance of her half of tGWPwF is spent revealing how she was sent to a mental institution (and, thus, placed under legal guardianship) before the events of film #1.

The investigative side is at least decent, yet it can't help but seem inferior to the twisted family intrigue at the heart of Dragon Tattoo - that was a fine mystery, after all. The problem this time is far more general and societal - and it only becomes personal through the semi-preposterous contrivances that tie it to Lisbeth's past. The proceedings here, then, have lost some pretty significant steam by this alone.

However, some new elements do fortify this sequel a bit. Our returning cast members are bolstered by several new additions, many of whom help to flesh out Salander's life and the connections that this damaged woman formed with others. Lisbeth also really comes to the fore here, as she's prominently placed on TV as a murder suspect. And the antagonists are actually present, active, and lurking - a positive difference from tGwtDT's lurking threat-type villain. This entry is more of a pure thriller.

The bad guys add some great action sequences to this picture - the one which I found bigtime-exciting also seemed to be an homage to Friday the 13th XIII: Jason Takes Manhattan! (watch it here) It was such a solid addition that I can forgive the fact that one of them is a freak out of a Bond film - and that was before I remembered that there WAS a Bond henchman with a similar... irregularity. Overall, this movie does a fine job of expanding the world and characters of the original.

Ultimately, the experience was both rewarding and frustrating. This "franchise" was created for TV, and it was great to spend more time with various characters, like a TV program would. Though I got to watch parts 2 & 3 in a shorter time frame than for parts 1 and 2, I had to compress my impressions and thoughts on the sequels, which is why I couldn't review them when I said I would. The shorter gap between their showings at NYC's excellent Landmark Sunshine Cinemas gave me quicker gratification, but less time to digest it all.

And I couldn't help but think that #2 felt strong, yet was still weaker than what came before it.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest

The third and final installment in this foreign series gave me quite the movie-blogger headache. On the one hand, I had already spent 5+ cinematic hours in this world, and I was excited to watch its conclusion. On the other hand, the production values seemed to have dropped for this final entry, and I couldn't understand why that should be the case.

Worse still, this movie is less interesting and engaging than the two prior entries. There's a far greater (and very welcome) sense of political intrigue than in Played with Fire, but that first sequel had better action sequences, and was generally more thrilling.

Several major obstacles arrive to derail the work of our protagonists, and at least one of them felt so ludicrously-contrived that I was actually laughing about it. No really, a movie with a (flashback to) brutal rape, as well as mob-government cooperation leading to murder left me rolling in the aisles.

Perhaps most importantly, I couldn't keep some of my own prejudices from intruding on my opinion of this film. In law, there's this concept that you're only allowed "one bite of the apple." So, if you get insurance money for an incident, you shouldn't also get restitution for the same exact injuries via a lawsuit. You'd be earning a profit, not being made whole.

In the case of tGWKtHN, Salander got payback on her rapist by sodomizing and blackmailing him. She didn't use the justice system, she turned to a vigilante act and got revenge. He should've been behind bars, but I hate abuse, much less sex assault, so I'm fine with her actions.

Yet round 3 has her showing the tape in her criminal trial - it's like the 7th time we have to witness all this nastiness - and, instead of seeing the too-familiar recorded events yet again, we see the horrified looks of her judges. As a rebuke of the justice and mental health systems, it's fine; but as a single person being excused for their wildly-illegal actions, it felt like Lisbeth got to have her cake and eat it, too.

Please keep in mind that the tape was shown as evidence in a trial where Salander is accused of murdering three people - a journalist and his crusader/academic wife, as well as the state-appointed guardian who raped her; the common thread is the guardian's gun, which had her fingerprints on it. I'm pretty sure 2 hours of brutal sex assault establishes motive for one of those deaths.

While the first film based on this literary series was tight and engrossing, I found myself liking #2 less than #1, and liking #3 least of all. It's a shame Stieg Larsson didn't live to see his literary success, it's a bigger shame that his relatives are squabbling with his common-law wife. As a film reviewer, the unfortunate reality that I focus is on that these sequels were not as solid as our initial introduction to this gritty, political, and technologically-savvy world.

The Incredibles

I actually meant to write up Rian Johnson's Looper in this space, but it went so smoothly - just poured right out of me, really - that I finally cracked how to give that film one great long-form review. So I turned instead to another picture I said I would review one day, one that I definitely can't give spoiler-filled coverage on the first go-around: Pixar's amazing animated movie, The Incredibles.

By 2004, Pixar already had a superb reputation for making intelligent, fun motion pictures that were as easy for children to enjoy as for adults. Then, director Brad Bird expanded the studio's renown even further with this flawless and superlatively-exciting work.

The Incredibles begins with documentary interviews. One after another, various costume-wearing folks talk into the camera, these men and women each explaining why they save the world and fight crime. After this old-looking footage, we get a slap to the face: the viewer is immediately thrust into a city jam-packed with all-too human heroes and mustache-twirling, witty villains. It's here that the super-strong Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) zips around, helping police nab crooks, and even getting an old woman's cat out of a tree - by ripping the trunk straight out of the ground.

Between the heroic, up-tempo music and the golden sheen to the images, we are clearly seeing the height of the superhero age. And, then, of course, everything goes wrong. Through more documentary-type images, we're informed that a series of civil lawsuits (HA!) made the government force all these heroic types to stop their activities. These do-gooders all retired into secrecy, beginning new lives.

The Incredibles then becomes a family drama about a father who is suffocated by his struggle to lay low and live down to normal expectations. Along with his similarly-retired wife (Holly Hunter), they're just trying to pay the bills and raise their kids - one is an impetuous and mischievous boy with super-speed; their teen daughter is terribly shy, which is fitting since she can turn invisible. And - not solely through the dull tone in the visuals - the two things that are most clear to us are that they all love each other, and that they're all very unhappy.

With grace, humor, and style, Bird shows us what happens when Mr. Incredible's life gets more complicated and the past comes back to haunt him. It's a story that I can't (well, won't) spoil, but in 115 minutes, you will be astounded by both the film's intelligence and the real, genuine heart it so handily displays. There is no reason for this (non-Ghibli!) animated film to be this good.

Top-to-bottom quality is really the best way to describe tI, from the letter-perfect voice acting to the score, from its sharp dialogue to its admirably-ezpressed themes. This is an exciting, inventive, beautiful-looking picture, and I love Michael Giacchino's score, which is a 1960's throwback full of early Bond-type music, lots of brassy horns and low-key samba-esque tunes. If you have somehow missed the mature movie that will also effortlessly bring out your inner child, please watch this asap.

Tucker & Dale vs. Evil

In 2011, I was so innocent and lucky (well, not innocent, but kinda lucky at least)... Out of the blue, I saw a trailer for an upcoming horror film and I was really, really into it. Although I missed it in theaters, it became available on Netflix to stream very soon thereafter, and I watched it with great anticipation.

My excitement was justifiable. At least a year before The Cabin in the Woods arrived to totally screw with horror tropes (though, notably Cabin was already completed before this), T&DvE was treading similar ground. And Tucker did a fine job of completely inverting all the tropes of old horror films: the titular rednecks are actually very decent folks who are stereotyped by paranoid, horror-savvy college kids. Instead of trying to hurt the people they should be jealous of, the leads are trying to engage with them.

Ultimately, Tucker was a bit of a misfire. As a deconstruction or parody of horror films, the material is rich, but the hillbilly jokes and extreme clumsiness of the teens gets played up too often. Tyler Labine may be a hit-and-miss presence for some people, but Alan Tudyk is a fine actor, so I'm disappointed he didn't have even more to do here. Tucker and Dale are nice, simple guys who are thrilled to own a new vacation home. But that's pretty much all we get from them, and the teens are stock characters, so there's precious little emotional investment for the audience.

While the gruesome deaths are a little too frequent and non-sensical, at least the last 20 minutes or so are a complete surprise and the action ramps up nicely. I like that it completely recontextualizes what's come before, and I really like what it puts all the (surviving) cast members through. Although this shift adds a certain "pop" that the picture terribly needed, I don't know that it was enough to save the overall work. This movie needed to either be funnier or way scarier. This is very much a "your mileage may vary" type of film.

That's it for today, everyone. As always, though, there's more to come throughout the week.


  1. Big fan of The Incredibles,which really changed the game in terms of taking on a more nuanced look at the superhero genre than most of the live action films out during that time. Hot Fuzz is hilariously awesome(actually saw that one on my birthday in theaters!) and totally prefer the original European adaptation of GWTDT to the American one.

    I haven't finished the other two Stieg Larsson books in the series,so I'm holding off on the other movie versions until then. Oh,btw,started watching Arrow,S1 on DVD via Netflix and really enjoying the dark tone of the story line so far.

    1. Yes, The Incredibles was a game-changer in my opinion, too. It's no wonder I've been nervous to review it as I fell in love with the movie about 15 minutes in. I immediately kicked myself for not seeing it in the theater.

      Good for you re: Hot Fuzz. I was on a date when I first saw it, and before the pic was half over, I already decided I had to watch it again in the theater with my brother.

      Yes, I was deeply disappointed that there was a decision that there needed to be a US version of a movie that was only released a year or so earlier (that entire concept was as annoying as rebooting the Spiderman franchise 5 years after the last pic). Although getting those good actors together with a fine, stylish and smart director like Fincher was the best possible way to do it, I simply refused to see it.

      I honestly don't know if I'll ever read the Larsson novels. My backlog of books is getting truly intimidating, and I've lately been thinking of books I need to reread, too.

      Yaaay, Arrow! It's on streaming, too, so you don't have to get the DVDs if you have both of Netflix's services. As I wrote in my September Recommendation entry for it, one of Arrow's nicer aspects is that they tell this very dark narrative while also mixing up the pace with fairly well-played CW-style soap opera elements.

      The tone almost never feels off, which is a fine sign of the strength of the show. Some of the soap stuff can fall flat or start to feel kinda forced, but that's likely to happen after you've watched a bunch of TV shows...

  2. One thing that is really stunning about Primer is the sense of setting, especially considering the $8000 budget. Carruth is limited to filming in the dull Austin suburbs, but he never lets the movie feel like it's restricted by this backdrop. Instead, it is the characters who are boxed in by their drab settings, by the mediocrity and emptiness of suburban tract homes and colorless office parks. One of my favorite movies.

    1. Excellent point, thrace! It's a surprise that it's such a strong element, but it's true that the visuals do add a ton of atmosphere to the movie. I just need to see it a second time (and probably a third), It's a fine choice for a favorite...


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