Archive for August 2010

The Last Exorcism

August 28, 2010

Exorcism movies shouldn’t be rated PG-13, because demons shouldn’t be rated PG-13. They’re supposed to be vile, ghastly, unholy creatures that revel in obscene sacrilege so grotesquely they can test the faith of the most devout. If you can’t show that, you’re wasting our time. There’s a reason no significant demon-possession films were made before The Exorcist, which at the time pushed the still-young R rating as far as it could go and then pushed past that. The Exorcist shocked millions into a new, intensely physicalized awareness of metaphysical evil; it was a game-changer, often imitated, never duplicated, not even close.

That said, The Last Exorcism, which is rated PG-13, gets by for some time on the goodwill earned by its opening sequences. Reverend Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian), a slickster with a wholesome Pat Boone handsomeness, has been preaching the good word since he was ten. He’s a lot older now, and less sure that the word is good. Cotton has stayed in the game because he’s good at it, and he provides the faithful with a kind of spiritual catharsis, even if he no longer believes in a divine source. He’s also a showman, working sleight-of-hand tricks into his sermons, and that has helped him become one of the most sought-after exorcists in the Bible Belt. Exorcisms, too, are for Cotton a kind of true lie, cathartic baloney that works on believers.

Cotton is summoned into the boonies by a father concerned about the behavior of his sixteen-year-old daughter Nell (Ashley Bell) — not to mention the livestock that keeps turning up butchered. Cotton invites a two-person camera crew along to document what he considers his last exorcism; in the wake of someone else’s botched exorcism attempt that killed a kid and made the papers, Cotton wants to prove to the world that the ritual is just smoke and mirrors. By extension, I suppose, he might also want to prove that the whole Christian shebang is smoke and mirrors. Richard Dawkins would approve.

Like a few other horror movies (obviously The Blair Witch Project, also Quarantine and Cloverfield), The Last Exorcism passes itself off as found footage of supernatural catastrophe. This works up to a point. There are a few too many instances in which we ask why there’s a camera around, or why a sane crew would still be in the same zip code as the events. Yet we stay with it, because the narrative is shaping up as a rude rejoinder to Cotton’s cynicism. “If you believe in God, you also have to believe in demons,” he says earlier. Well, if there are demons, does that mean God exists? Or are we on our own with demons who can play with us without fear of divine reprisals?

The spookiness has a slow, steady simmer, and Nell (a standout performance by Bell) certainly seems to be possessed; the movie keeps weakly suggesting normal causes for the events, only to be definitively schooled: no, it’s a demon we’re dealing with here. The omens grow louder and bloodier, and unwelcome non-diegetic musical stings begin to litter the soundtrack. Then it comes, the make-or-break ending that had a theater full of teenagers on a Saturday night commenting on its stupidity. I joined them in spirit. The ending is being defended by some critics because the movie doesn’t seem to be headed in that direction, but that sort of audible viewer rejection is a classic sign of breaking faith with the audience. In one stroke, an interesting mockumentary becomes a B-movie, and a cheesy one at that. It’s as if, at the end of one of his sermons, Cotton had shown his parishioners the cards up his sleeve and said that the Bible is just a comforting fiction after all.

Piranha 3D

August 21, 2010

While chatting with schlock-movie magnate Roger Corman, the great drive-in movie critic Joe Bob Briggs developed the three-B formula for B-movies: blood, breasts and beasts. Piranha 3D packs plenty of all three (it should’ve been called Piranha 3B). The gore comes in waves, the quantity of bouncing boobs (in and out of bikini tops) verges on ridiculous, and the critters — prehistoric piranha stirred up by an earthquake under a lake — attack in ferocious, water-churning swarms. I was amped for this movie — I wanted it to be a trash masterpiece, a three-B flick so gratuitous and grisly it would soar past exploitation and crash-land somewhere in the rocky borderlands of art.

Turns out, though, Piranha 3D probably plays best if met with low expectations. People have been talking about it as if it would redeem not just this dull summer but the newly burgeoning and mostly squandered subgenre of 3D movies. The film was conceived for 3D but wasn’t actually shot in 3D; as a result, much of the movie has that glazed ViewMaster look, a slick layered flatness, and that’s true of the movie’s tone, too. The original Piranha, from 1978, was also exploitation (from, ahem, the Roger Corman factory), but it’s a junk classic, with two genuine wits at the helm — director Joe Dante and writer John Sayles, who turned a Jaws rip-off into a wry send-up of aquatic-monster flicks. The new effort works hard to be over-the-top, but it seems to have no reason for being aside from congratulating itself for its own excess.

Director Alexandre Aja (High Tension, the Hills Have Eyes remake) gives us one gorgeous moment: British model Kelly Brook and porn actress Riley Steele performing a nude underwater dance. The movie stops dead for this; otherwise it’s full steam ahead into a plot that feeds thousands of horny spring-break youngsters into the gnashing choppers of the piranha. This is what we came to see, but the result — which seems intent on challenging Saving Private Ryan for the championship belt in blood-drenched beach scenes — is more ugly than fun. There is, it turns out, a clear demarcation point past which ravaged flesh and floating body parts become a bit boring, and Aja speedboats over the line and keeps on going.

There’s a spooky, dread-ridden shot in the trailer that sold many of us on the movie — a terrified Jessica Szohr, underwater, as scores of piranha advance on her slowly. That shot isn’t in the movie, but a lot else is: a hang-gliding woman eaten from the torso down; a woman whose hair gets caught in a propeller and whose face gets torn off. Lest you think Piranha 3D is misogynist rubbish reveling in exposing female flesh and then jamming it, Larry Flynt-like, into the meat grinder, there’s also the comeuppance of a smarmy character (Jerry O’Connell) clearly based on Joe Francis of Girls Gone Wild infamy. This upstanding fellow loses the organ most valuable to him and his legions of video viewers, and a piranha makes off with it and then barfs it back into our faces in 3D. You don’t see that every day, nor do you get to write that sentence every day. For that, if for nothing else, as a viewer and as a critic, I suppose I should be thankful.

Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World

August 14, 2010

It’s too early to declare Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World my favorite movie of the year, but it may well be the most fun movie I’ll see in 2010. And I’m not even that big a fan of the source material, Bryan Lee O’Malley’s manga-flavored six-volume series of graphic novels. The comics are fine, often charming, a bit glib. The movie, directed by Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz), is something else again, a glorious mutant built out of disreputable pop culture — old-school videogames, indie semi-punk rock, cheesy action flicks, melodramatic anime. It’s everything your parents told you was a waste of time when you were a teenager, and unless you’ve turned into them, you should find it an exhilarating fantasia on a serious theme, or at least one that feels serious when you’re young.

How many of us have had to deal with the spectres of the former partners of a new love interest? Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera), a hapless Canadian slacker, must contend with seven of them. In order to win the hand of new girlfriend Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), Scott must do battle with the “Evil Exes” in a series of elaborately choreographed, videogame-inspired duels. Scott and his friends sit around a lot playing old console games or arcade games, so of course he sees this conflict through an 8-bit prism. The whole movie could be taken as the fever dream of an insecure Nintendo addict who’s afraid he can’t measure up to his beloved’s past Romeos.

The visuals are astounding, but are never the tail wagging the dog; they’re always grounded in Scott’s feelings and his inner journey from an overgrown boy (he’s 22) to a man. Michael Cera is a spot-on casting choice — I kept being amused by the fact that nearly every young woman in the movie has a deeper voice than he does. The danger is that the mass audience will peg Scott Pilgrim as just another Michael Cera movie where he mopes around limply and chinlessly, but he plays different notes here and shows what he can do with a character who actually has a goal. The whole cast is dead-on, actually, the best comics-to-movie match being Alison Pill as the perpetually annoyed Kim Pine, the drummer for Scott’s terrible band Sex Bob-omb. (“Bob-omb” is a reference to the Super Mario series of games. I had to look that up; maybe you didn’t.)

Edgar Wright first made a splash in Britain with the brilliant TV series Spaced, which augmented its vision of mundane slacker life with endless in-jokes about movies. Scott Pilgrim is cut from the same cloth, and given many times the budget of Spaced, Wright has room for playfulness that verges on epic. Sometimes the gags are achieved the old-fashioned way, such as the clever editing in a sequence with Scott and his 17-year-old girlfriend Knives Chau (Ellen Wong) carrying on a conversation in an ever-changing series of locales, or in possibly the funniest shot of shoelace-tying ever filmed. Older critics have grouched about the lighter-than-air pleasures of Scott Pilgrim (I’m 40 and I loved it), as if those critics’ elders hadn’t looked down their noses at the youth culture of the ‘60s and ‘70s that’s held up as canonical today. Scott Pilgrim won’t cross over to the mainstream or change the course of cinema (its true destiny will be as a cult flick on Blu-ray), but it will thoroughly satisfy the modest audience it’s meant to satisfy.

The Other Guys

August 8, 2010

Part of the fun of The Other Guys is that its early scenes show you how bad it could’ve been. We meet two supercops, played with supreme comedic arrogance by Samuel L. Jackson and Dwayne Johnson, and you could almost write their movie in your head. But, true to its title, this film is actually about two other guys, police accountant Will Ferrell and busted-down cop Mark Wahlberg. This isn’t exactly the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead of cop-buddy films, since Jackson and Johnson go out of the picture fairly early on, but we do feel as though a rote action-comedy has taken a sharp left turn and occupied itself with two schlubs on the margins.

The result is a fast-punching farce with a serious devotion to the random. This is the usual modus operandi of director Adam McKay, a frequent Ferrell collaborator (Anchorman, Talladega Nights, Step Brothers). We get, for instance, a running gag involving homeless guys having orgies in Ferrell’s car. Or Eva Mendes, as Ferrell’s wife, singing a little ditty called “Pimps Don’t Cry.” Ferrell has torn his clothes off and bounced off the walls in other movies, but there isn’t a lot of slapstick in The Other Guys; the humor is more verbal, even conceptual. When Wahlberg tries to intimidate Ferrell with an absurd analogy involving a lion and tuna, and Ferrell tops it by refuting it in such detail that he seems to have given it weeks of thought, we know we’re not in the same country as something like Cop Out.

There’s a plot here, but we ignore it at our peril, since it actually bears some relevance to current events; it involves various machinations by slickster magnate Steve Coogan, who owes serious money and hopes to get clear by hijacking people’s pensions. During the end credits, we get stats on exactly how much money was poured into the banking bail-outs. A bit weighty for a movie featuring hobo orgies, we might think, but actually the whole movie proceeds from a working-stiff resentment of the flashy and powerful. The supercops Jackson and Johnson, for instance, wreak $12 million worth of property damage in their attempt to take down some low-level pot dealers. I don’t know how persuasive this point can be when made by a movie that reportedly cost $100 million — a ridiculous budget for a comedy — but the point is made just the same.

Wahlberg makes a decent straight-man foil for Ferrell; his smitten scenes opposite Ferrell’s unexpectedly hot wife are probably his best. Ferrell is on his game, getting a lot of comic mileage out of an almost surrealistically dull character. But The Other Guys endears itself the most by returning Michael Keaton to hilarious prominence. Keaton plays the guys’ precinct captain, who has a side job unrevealed by me, and who seems to have a thing about people standing too close to him. Despite his limited screen time, Keaton creates a real, quirky person here, and he seems hungry as an actor again, this year’s answer to Mickey Rourke or Robert Downey Jr., except that he didn’t blow his career with drugs or bad behavior — the phone just stopped ringing. If The Other Guys does nothing else, let’s hope it makes Keaton’s phone start sounding off again.

Dinner for Schmucks

August 1, 2010

Dinner for Schmucks begins with a title sequence set to “The Fool on the Hill,” one of my favorite Beatles songs. I was about to cry “Sacrilege!” until the charm of the sequence won me over: a variety of mice we assume to be fake (real, we later learn, and dead) dressed up in little outfits, enacting an outdoor idyll. The man who collects these dead mice and turns them into art is Barry Speck (Steve Carell), and the Beatles song prompts us to think of Barry as the fool. But we’re presented with a perhaps greater fool: Tim Conrad (Paul Rudd), who’s angling for a corporate promotion and thinks he can get it by inviting Barry to the boss’s monthly, ironically named “Dinner for Winners.” Each employee brings some laughable goofball to the dinner, and the winner is the one whose guest earns the most derision from the assembled elite.

Based on the somewhat more acidic French farce The Dinner Game, this American remake actually shows us the dinner, unlike the original. Director Jay Roach and writers David Guion and Michael Handelman treat the premise as an occasion for a meeting of eccentrics, of which the hapless Barry is possibly the least schmucky. (Tim understands the event to be “a dinner for idiots”; the film’s title is never used to describe the proceedings, suggesting that the dinner’s true schmucks aren’t the invited ones.) This puts us in the awkward position of laughing along with the gathered snobs at people too socially blinkered to realize they’re being exploited, but it also gives comedians like Zach Galifianakis and Octavia Spencer a chance to uncork their weirdness. The evil Jeff Dunham is on hand, too, but I agreed to forget he was there.

Bizarrely, Dinner for Schmucks put me in mind of two classics of short literature; bear with me a minute. The first is Poe’s “Hop-Frog,” in which a deformed court jester exacts ghastly revenge on the callous king and his council. There’s a direct line from Poe to Paul Bowles’ “A Distant Episode,” wherein a professor of linguistics is kidnapped by a desert tribe, has his tongue cut out, and is forced to dance for their amusement. In both, the elite class are violently humbled and made ridiculous by the underlings they’d condescended to. Dinner for Schmucks doesn’t go so far as to dress hateful corporate prez Bruce Greenwood or financier David Walliams as orangutangs or rip their tongues out (though there is some nasty business involving a finger), but it does arouse in us a similar working-Joe desire to watch the dismantling of this pompously appointed celebration of how much cooler rich people are than schmucks.

I’m not saying Dinner for Schmucks is any sort of Buñuelian spray of venom at the bourgeoisie. Of course not. But there’s a little more going on in it than you might expect from a summer comedy starring Steve Carell and Paul Rudd. (Both of whom are terrific here, Carell in particular working a Carrey-in-Cable Guy variation on his Michael Scott cluelessness.) And the joker in the deck is Kieran Vollard, a brutally pretentious “artist” played with immaculate self-unawareness by Flight of the Conchords’ Jemaine Clement, who seems to be parodying Russell Brand’s usual and by-now-whiskered persona. Vollard is presented as a poseur whose art goes over big with moneyed people terrified to seem unhip, but Clement plays him with a certain grace and generosity, as if he understood that the only difference between Vollard and the schmucks at the dinner is that the richer schmucks give him money. And the more you think about that, the more the film comes into focus.