IN WHICH I BEMOAN THE DEATH OF BLOCKBUSTER VIDEO AND THE LOSS OF THE ONION

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“It’s not necessarily Blockbuster specifically that I’ll miss so much as video stores and video store culture in general.  The fact that there were still a few
Blockbusters standing gave me some hope that this piece of our culture was not
yet dead and buried and may one day be capable of resurgence.” 

By R. David

The world – or perhaps more accurately, the world of pop culture nostalgia – was dealt a double-whammy blow last week when Blockbuster Video announced on November 6th they would (finally) be shuttering the remaining operating locations of the once-dominant mega-rental chain.

If that wasn’t enough to make people in their late 20s/early 30s die a little inside, two days later The Onion, the iconic satire rag, said it would (also finally) cease production of its physical newspaper in the paper’s remaining markets.

Admittedly, both announcements have been a long time coming; and depending where you live, you may have been without either property for several years now (maybe even close to a decade in the case of Blockbuster).  But hearing such definitive news – the finality of these announcements – means having to finally acknowledge and accept what many of us have long known but tried to optimistically ignore: The entertainment world as we once knew it is indeed dead.

It happens to every generation, of course. Out with the old modes of entertainment, in with the new. I guess we shouldn’t be afraid of – or try to discourage – progress. But is further removing our physical means of shopping for and enjoying entertainment necessarily “progress”?  Is an all-computerized, all-online-based model really where we want to end up as a society.

Sure, the dissolve of these once-omnipresent entities will actually have very minimal impact on our lives, as other (and some would argue better and easier) ways of enjoying the product provided by these outlets still exist. And complaining about how we rent movies and read our humorous news stories is practically the definition of a First World Problem. It really doesn’t matter.

Except for those of us it does matter to, of course.

Count me as one.  Why, you ask?  Call it nostalgia, call it resistance to change, or call it being anal and snobbish about how I choose to consume my entertainment; but there are several reasons seeing these staples of my generation fold as physical entities – and in the grander scheme of things, what it says about the future of how we will be limited in our options and selection of entertainment choices – that I feel is cause for alarm.

As much as I dislike watching these staples of my youth fade away because it feels like, well, my youth is fading away – an era is ending – I can accept it as the natural course of things. Things change, eras end, and I am getting older (as we all are). Fair enough, I’ll embrace my mortality. But beyond making me feel old or as if I’m losing a chunk of my youth, watching these two iconic giants surrender – admitting defeat to an increasingly internet-driven culture – and give in to the increasingly accepted notion that online everything is OK is a disheartening glimpse into the future.  Online everything licks my balls.  (He said in a blog post he shared with people via Twitter.)

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I get it.  This all smacks of the old man shaking his fist at random passersby and complaining that things aren’t the way they used to be in the good old days.  Well, to quote Billy Joel, “The good old days weren’t always good.”  Like everyone else, I bitched and moaned about Blockbuster – or any video store – being out of the title I was looking for, having to run across town or to multiple stores to find specific flicks, late fees, long lines, membership cards, etc.  And of course I use online services for their general ease and convince; whether it’s to buy products, stream content, or download an article in seconds.  It used to be that if my local Walgreens was out of the week’s edition of The Onion, I’d have to schlep across town to find another, or I simply missed it altogether that week, because the locations that stocked the paper were so few and far between (depending on which part of town you lived and how mobile you were).  I love having the online option (and all the options online services provide).

But I don’t want online to be the only option.  I don’t want the selection of what I am able to stream to be determined by which movie studios Netflix or Amazon or Hulu were able to strike a deal with, or have to wait two months after a movie’s DVD release for it to become rentable from Netflix or Red Box.  I don’t want streaming glitches, loading errors, cropped aspect ratios, e-mail-based customer service. I don’t want lack of internet access or “Smart” devices to determine whether or not I can watch a movie tonight.  I don’t want to watch the first movie in a series of films only to find none of the sequels are available.  I don’t want to start a film and then come back to complete it or revisit it only to find it is no longer streaming.

Whatever my complaints about Blockbuster back in the day, there was rarely a title I couldn’t find there and I can’t recall an incident where they carried the first entry in film series but were missing random sequels.  And if these issues did come up, another Blockbuster, or any number of smaller video stores in the area, likely would come to the rescue.  My biggest complaint about Netflix is their poor and inconsistent streaming selection.  Sure, you can opt to also pay for their physical DVD plan (they’d love you too!), but as of right now, my queue lists no less than “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2”, “White Lightening”, “Gator”, and “Sorority House Massacre” and its sequel – in other words, 5 of the 10 movies in my entire queue – as “Very Long Wait” or “Availability Date Is Unknown”; both of which are code for “We don’t have them and don’t hold your fucking breath.”  (I’ve had those first 3 titles in my queue for over a year and they still are listed as “Very Long Wait” – I’ll say.)  Now, granted, none of those films are exactly “Avatar” in terms of customer demand or notoriety in the public consciousness.  But, Netflix has every other movie with “Chainsaw Massacre” somehow in its title; you’d think the series’ first sequel would rate at least as high as any of the others in terms of stocking priority.  “White Lightening” and its sequel, “Gator,” are “classic” Burt Reynolds vehicles.  They are repeatedly referenced in the FX series “Archer”, supposedly one of Netflix’s most-streamed TV titles.  I can’t be the only one who caught the references while watching the series on Netflix, became curious about the real thing, and then tried to dial them up on the very service essentially promoting them, only to still be “waiting” on their availably over a year later.  According to Amazon, the movies retail for about six bucks (in other words, less than I pay for one month of my Netflix DVD subscription), so come on, Netflix; get a copy already, you cheap bastards.  The same goes for the “Sorority House Massacre” movies, by the way.  And those I can guarantee you Blockbuster would have had back in the day.  Shit like that is 90% of what I used Blockbuster for when I was about 14 years-old.

The whole notion of a queue and waiting for DVDs to be mailed, while undeniably convenient, is also irksome.  If I get it in my head I want to see a specific movie because I have just heard about it or was recently reminded of it, I want to be able to go get it right now.  I don’t want to go online, put it in my queue and get it in a few days.  This entire process promotes the phenomenon of Netflix envelopes sitting on the coffee table for two months at a time.  I wanted the movie when I put it my queue.  I had the interest in it and the time to watch it then.  Three days later when it finally shows up, maybe not so much.  Granted, my disorganized life or fickle interests are not Netflix’s problem, but neither of us would have a problem if I could have just driven down the street when I decided I was in the mood for said film, got it, watched it, and been done with it.

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And actually, what is simpler than that?  The whole notion that Netflix and its contemporaries are making our lives easier and saving our precious time is something of a misnomer.  Yeah, I don’t have to drive anywhere, but how much time am I going to waste browsing through what’s available to stream after I discover they don’t have the movie I actually wanted to watch, only to throw my hands up and ultimately not watch anything at all (again, see: Netflix’s shitty and limited streaming selection)?

That is the practical side of my argument.  The personal side comes down to the fact that it just ain’t right, I tells ya, to deprive people of the experience of going to a video store, browsing the isles and narrowing down your selection from the five boxes you have in your hand.  I will never forget being barely 13 years-old and riding my bike from my house on the 4400 block of N. Woodburn St. in Shorewood, WI, across the bridge, over the Milwaukee river to the Blockbuster and Pick ‘N Save video stores (“Pick ‘N View”) on E. Capitol Dr.; and spending hours studying the artwork and plot summaries on the VHS boxes I had already looked at a thousand times before, shooting the shit with the video store clerks (probably annoying the hell out of them), silently judging other customers for their selections, killing time waiting for someone to Please, for the love of God, just return one copy of “Harley Davidson and the Marlborough Man” before I have to get home!, digging through the bin of old promo posters they were always trying to get rid of by selling for a few bucks, and waiting with bated breath for “Lethal Weapon 3” to finally be placed on the Previously Viewed sale rack so I could add it to my ever-expanding home video collection for a bargain price (back when a used VHS tape for 15 or 20 bucks could be considered a bargain).  Blockbuster and the surrounding neighborhood video stores have at least 80% of the money I made as kid from chores and my earliest jobs.  The video store experience and dynamic were as responsible for my love of film today as movies themselves.

The irony here – I know – is that the behemoth that was Blockbuster Video quickly forced a lot of smaller video stores out of business, depriving many people of the alternative selection and location that those mom and pop neighborhood outlets often provided (not to mention those jobs).  Blockbuster was essentially the Netflix of their day.  But, with all due respect to the under-severed Foreign, Indie and other niche film fan communities at the time, Blockbuster largely had the goods to compensate for and justify being the only game in town.

And there was a time – a short, but glorious and wonderful time – where a ton of different size, shape and style video stores were all able to coexist.  I would delight in bouncing from one to the other, each providing their own flavor and ambience so distinct that when I think back to those specific stores I can still smell the air in each one of them.  If Blockbuster was out of a certain title or didn’t stock it, no matter, I had five other options.  Sure, some of them were quite the bike ride for a kid barely in his teens – and much further than he should have been riding as far as safety (and his mom) was concerned – but that was part of the fun.  The thrill of the hunt.  The variety of people, locations, selection, and products throughout all these distinct rental store locales.  Blockbuster was polished, shiny, and attractive.  Some of these other places were in the basements of malls that had no business promoting themselves as a mall; and in addition to renting videos, they sold used books and vinyl records, bootleg concert tapes, and of course more than a few places had that, ahem, “special” section I was trying to always steal a peek into.

And it was amazing.  If you never experienced this, it’s hard to properly convey the allure of it all.

Of course convenience will always trump nostalgia, so it’s hardly a surprise something came along that streamlined and simplified the home video experience.  I guess I should just be glad that I lived in a town where so many different video store options were able to survive as long as they did; several of them well into the back half of the aughts.  Certainly now one of the last stores standing after last week’s news, the Shorewood Blockbuster on N. Oakland Ave. is still operational.  But the general reaction to Blockbuster’s closing this month is mostly of the “who cares?” or “I thought they went out of business years ago” variety. I’m sure I’m in the minority of folks who think this is big news.

It’s not so much that it’s news as what this news means.  As you can probably tell, it’s not necessarily Blockbuster specifically that I’ll miss so much as video stores and the video store culture in general.  The fact that there were still a few Blockbusters standing gave me some hope that this piece of our culture was not yet dead and buried and may one day be capable of resurgence.  And it indeed may be.  Everything is cyclical, and what was cool then and not cool now is often cool again tomorrow.  A generation from now, perhaps video stores will be all the rage once more.  I’m hardly the only person who bemoans the Netflix experience, but with the internet being so omnipresent in our society, even in our individual everyday lives, it’s unlikely that people will go against the on-demand grain any time soon.  Hopefully there will come a time when the novelty of getting our entertainment exclusively in this fashion wears off, and a move back to physical mediums of entertainment will once again share equal shelf space, as it were, with streaming services and online retailers.

After all, if I can grow up with 5 different video stores in my town, all finding room to coexist with Blockbuster, surely the video rental business pie is big enough for Netflix and the traditional video store to each get a slice.

In the case of The Onion, things are not quite as dire.  People seem to be just fine with making the move to reading newspapers on computers, tablets and other mobile devices.  If nothing else, going paperless saves trees and lowers publishing costs.  Ever the traditionalist, however, I still subscribe to a daily paper (though, admittedly, even I have come to a point where I can no longer justify the several hundred dollars per year it costs me and will regretfully be dumping it when my subscription expires) and I still look forward every week to seeing the latest edition of The Onion waiting for me at my local Walgreens or Subway.  Why?  It’s simple, really.  In this case nostalgia doesn’t play nearly the role for me as in the demise of Blockbuster.  While The Onion was a constant of my teenage years and has remained a weekly staple ever since, frankly, I have enough clutter in my home, car and office without tripping over 3 month-old issues of The Onion that seem to enjoy multiplying like Gremlins around my person.  I’d be fine to see the paper go all-digital if it weren’t for the fact that everything is going digital.  Just as video rentals, retail and host of other industries are becoming online-only commodities, so too is print.  Again, ostensibly not a terrible thing from a logical perspective; but rather more for the fact that I follow so damn many news and entertainment sites which all report on the same stories and say essentially the same thing, none of them really stand out from the pack.  A newspaper that still prints a physical paper gains (or maintains) a certain weight, stature, validity, and distinction (yay for superlatives!).

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Now, you’re probably thinking, “The Onion?  But that’s just a free, fake, humorous paper.”  Perhaps.  But as important to me as The Onion itself is the inclusion of The A.V. Club that comes bundled with each week’s installment.  The A.V. Club offers smart analysis on a wide spectrum of arts and entertainment and is loaded with movie and music reviews, interesting nostalgia and trivia pieces, as well as previews of and commentary on local entertainment events (and it hosts a print source for Dan Savage’s “Savage Love” column, which justifies the section’s existence all by itself).  The A.V. Club features some of the best writers in the business whose pieces are always gloriously detailed (yet somehow also amazingly succinct) and fervently relevant.  When you are forced to wait for the issue to arrive and have time to anticipate what the writers will tackle each week, and look forward to picking it up and reading it front to back, the trade ensures a certain loyal excitement.

The A.V. Club only dolling out its reviews on their website or to Twitter followers just makes them another dust mite in the blogosphere vacuum (that’s not a knock against the talented writers and staff of the A.V. Club; they deserve to not simply have their voices lost in the shuffle of so many similarly snarky pop culture sites).  Getting everything at once in a nice weekly package the reader can pore over rather than having to keep up with or search for piecemeal updates throughout the day and week is far more appealing.  The same thing goes for The Onion proper.  As pure entertainment, the paper is a fabulous tool to take with you into the john or keep handy for slow patches at work.  Now granted, most people will opt to peruse the internet during these moments as much as any physical time-killing accessory, but there are times and places where it’s just not convenient or allowed to whip out your iPad or Kindle.  And if you do jump on your mobile device, chances are there are far too many app options, Facebook notifications, or sites you’re following on Twitter to readily focus on any single one of them.  I am willing to wager nobody reads any online site as intently and inclusively as they would read a newspaper, magazine or any site’s physical counterpart.  Making The Onion and The A.V. Club nothing more than part of all that background noise cheapens its existence and dulls its impact, practically guaranteeing their audience won’t discover half the content they produce.

We’ve actually reached the point where having a physical, print edition of your paper is what sets you apart.  You’d think The Onion would see that very fact as a positive and move to capitalize on it.  Any organization as savvy, cynical and sarcastic as The Onion/The A.V. Club has to see the great irony in all this (they’ve ran more stories and headlines chastising the internet age than any reader could count); and you’d also think they would be the one organization that would hold out – even if simply for nostalgia’s sake or to appeal to the hipster in its core demographic – and refuse to succumb to the demise of print media.  I’d also argue that it’s loyal fan base wouldn’t be opposed to plunking down a quarter or 50 cents each week if that’s what it took to keep for the powers that be to justify the physical paper’s continued existence.  Maybe not, but if money’s an issue, it’s worth a try, right?.

Well, apparently not.  I get it.  Business is business and if The Onion has indeed reached a point where it simply doesn’t make economic sense to continue its print edition in the lone market of Milwaukee (I guess Milwaukeeans should take some pride in the fact that they outlasted every other market that The Onion used to print in), I can accept that.  But, again, it is simply another ugly reminder that everything is making the move away from the physical and to the digital.

Look, guys; it’s not just Blockbuster and The Onion.  I could bemoan how Best Buy’s CD and DVD aisles and inventory shrink dramatically with each passing year as the push to shop online becomes more and more ubiquitous (their music and film selections are truly pathetically limited at this point – I don’t know who these people are who are content to house their entire music an movie collections on a hard drive, but I hope I never meet any of the sick fuckers).  And when Best Buy announces it will become an exclusively online entity or that it’s shuttering its stores altogether, I’ll likely write another longwinded, pissy diatribe about how our society is going to hell in hand basket (because old man phrases!), and blame Amazon or some other online retailer of the day, while fully acknowledging the irony that I also patronize the competition.

I see the value and convenience in online retailers, video rental services, and print publications.  But I also value the experience in their – unfortunately increasingly scarce – physical counterparts.  There has to be room out there for both.  I simply can’t accept that we are on the brink of a generation that will not know what a video store or newspaper (or perhaps any physical media at all) is.

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Me (right) and @MichalskiNick hard at work at North Shore Video (R.I.P.) In Milwaukee, WI circa 1997. Livin’ the dream…

(Blockbuster Image: Courtesy USA Today, Onion and AV Club Image: Courtesy theonion.com)

HALLOWEEN MOVIE REWIND (2013)

By R. David

Like a lot of you, I spent the week leading up to Halloween (and a few days after) watching a myriad of different horror films.  This time of year is a good excuse/reminder to finally catch up with some fright flicks I either missed initially or have been meaning to revisit for quite some time.  I purposely skipped the films featuring Freddy, Jason and Michael Meyers; and similarly avoided classics like Night of the Living Dead, The Exorcist and The Shining (those have all been well analyzed over the years, but if you’re curious, those later three films aren’t just among my favorite horror movies of all time, but my favorite films in general; as for the aforementioned iconic slashers, those films all greatly vary in quality, but I’ll concede there are few things more entertaining on Halloween – especially if you’re a teenager – than marathon-ing any of those entire series) instead choosing to focus on some newer films and more obscure titles that have either been forgotten or perhaps never even considered by many in the first place.  All star rankings are out of the traditional four stars.

 Curse of Chucky (2013)

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It’s been nine years since we last caught up with serial killer Charles Lee Ray, who transported his soul into Good Guys doll Chucky, way back in 1988’s “Child’s Play”.  He’s spent the last 25 years trying to find the perfect human host to transfer his soul into and finally be free of the creepy little doll’s body.  In this, the sixth installment of iconic franchise, Chucky thinks he has once again found the ideal candidate in little Alice (Summer Howell), who is visiting her wheelchair-bound aunt Nica (Fiona Dourif, daughter of series’ star and voice of Chucky, Brad Dourif; who once again returns as both Ray and Chucky) when Chucky arrives to settle a vendetta with the family (something the film is stingy about revealing until the bitter end).

The last “Child’s Play” outing, 2004’s “Seed of Chucky”, found the series lapsing into farce and parody. 1998’s “Bride of Chucky” started this trend but was a much more satisfying mash-up of horror film conventions and over-the-top, self-referential comedy.  After “Scream” (1996) put a knife through the heart of traditional slasher flick conventions and what audiences would now expect and tolerate from this sort of horror film – and considering the series’ latest installment at that point, “Child’s Play 3” (1991), was about as big an offender as any of all the genre tropes “Scream” so cleverly skewered – this series had no choice but to evolve and reinvent itself if it was going to continue.   “Bride” was hilariously campy and satirical.  And let’s face it, at its core, a movie about a serial killing, wise-cracking doll is already at least half a comedy.  Winking at itself rather than trying to pretend anyone took still took Chucky seriously at that point is the smartest move the producers could have made.  Accepting the ridiculousness of the scenario, after all, doesn’t mean the film can’t still produce great action, scares and gore.  And “Bride” delivered on that potential.  “Seed”, however, doubled down on the camp and excess, rendering the satirical tone not only redundant this time around, but also failing to be clever or funny.  And as a horror movie it was pretty much the pits too.

It seemed the Chucky franchise might finally have run itself into the ground – and to be honest, that might have been just as well.  It’s not as if there’s a whole lot else that needs to be said or done with this character, unless there are actually fans of this series out there who are rooting for some sort of happy ending in which Charles Lee Ray finally fulfills his objective of taking of some poor tyke’s soul and living happily ever after as a notorious serial killer.  But – speaking of the fans – “Seed” would have been a lousy note to go out on for a series that began with such potential (and successfully reinvented itself 10 years later).  Don Mancini, creator of Chucky (he came up with the concept and was co-writer on the first film), has returned to direct “Curse of Chucky”, perhaps as much as a mea culpa for his only other directorial project – “Seed of Chucky” – as a means of continuing the series.

“Curse” isn’t the best of the series, but it’s hardly among the worst.  It falls squarely in the middle, behind the original and “Bride”, jockeying for position with “Child’s Play 2”, a film that was disappointing as a follow-up to such a better-than-expected sleeper hit, but one that has aged fairly well.  At least back then these films were still interested in trying to be legitimately scary; and it has a terrific, stylishly shot climax in the Good Guy factory that is pretty darn memorable.  “Curse” is much better made and directed film than that second chapter (and it remembers to bring back an attempt at actual scares too), but “Curse” also fails to provide a story or characters that feel the least bit original and interesting.  It isn’t until the movie’s final act, when the story finally starts putting the pieces together, that fans of the series will feel like they have a reason to care about any of this.  And even then it’s up for debate whether or not “Curse” is successful in its attempt to explore the Ray/Chucky backstory.  Those who stay through the end credits will be rewarded with a much welcome cameo (especially since many viewers will already have been thinking the story should have addressed this character as soon as the film started relating itself to the past), but the scene is bittersweet (and self-defeating for the film) as it only underscores the narrative direction the film should have taken.  (Sorry for being so vague there, but I’m trying to avoid spoilers.)

Still, “Curse” is not without its assets.  The movie looks great.  The camera work and production values are better than your average direct-to-DVD release, so kudos to Mancini for the strides he’s made as a director.  He also has a good sense of timing and how to stage reveals in interesting ways.  Sometimes though, his ambition gets the best of him.  For instance, the movie spends five minutes on a dinner scene trying to build suspense as to which character will consume a bowl of poisoned chili.  The scene feels like it goes on forever, especially since savvy viewers will immediately guess which expendable character will end up with it.  But the film never goes too long without a stylish action sequence or surprisingly gory moment.  It would just be nice if the movie as a whole didn’t feel so conventional.  It rightly jettisons the camp factor of the previous two films (though the series has always given Chucky plenty of vicious one-liners, a trait that remains intact here), but forgets to bring something else to the proceedings to make them feel fresh.  Fiona Dourif makes an appealing Scream Queen, but she’s surrounded by obnoxious, stereotypical slasher-flick stock characters.  The murders are fairly unimaginative, though, but as mentioned, they are mostly stylishly staged and filmed.  It takes Chucky 45 minutes – in other words, nearly half of the film’s total running time – to finally reveal his true murderous self.  That’s an insultingly long time, though once the movie gets going, it rarely lets up.

And speaking of Chucky, they went the CGI route with him in a few scenes and it’s definitely the wrong move.  His face often looks like one of those pouty, duck-faced selfies you constantly stumble over on Facebook.  He has an oddly Botoxed, almost feminine look to him this time.  I’m not sure what the SFX department was thinking on this one, but thanks to Dourif, who continues to prove he’s an effectively humorous and intimidating voice actor (and he’s no slouch in his scenes as Ray either), the change is not as detrimental as it otherwise might have been without him in the role.  Chucky still packs plenty of punch as a creepy creation.

“Curse of Chucky” falls short of reinvigorating the franchise or taking it any new or interesting directions.  But it does breathe new life into it after the death knell that was “Seed of Chucky”.  If nothing else, fans might find themselves looking forward to the prospect and potential of another installment.  The series was able to surprise us by spinning off into a new direction once before.  Who says it can’t do it again?  2½ Stars.

Maniac (2013)

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This is the remake of William Lustig’s 1980 slasher flick following Frank Zito, a mannequin store owner driven insane by child abuse at the hands of his hooker, drug-addict mother.  He stalks the streets of New York City, killing women and taking their scalps as trophies.  When he unexpectedly meets and connects with a beautiful photographer who actually takes interest in him, he thinks she might be his soul mate and the link to ending his homicidal rampage.  But his mommy issues and severe schizophrenia and paranoia ultimately put her in danger as well.

The original film has garnered a good amount of revisionist acclaim.  Many reviews today compare it to Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” in that it bracingly captures the scuzzy aesthetic of turn-of-the-decade 1970s/80s New York sleaze.  The film feels as grungy and lived-in as the dank city streets, alleyways, and two room apartments that dominate the film.   It’s an interesting, if ugly and unpleasant flick.  You’d expect a movie about a scalping killer to be off-putting, but it’s documentation of such a dismal time and place is just as effectively depressing and nihilistic as Zito’s character and his actions.

This remake is directed by Franck Khalfoun (“P2”) and written and produced by Alexandre Aja who gave us the gloriously twisted and bloody (if rather nonsensical – hey, at least it was ambitious) “High Tension”, as well as remakes of “The Hills Have Eyes” and “Piranha”.  This material – as well as the finished product – is right in their inventively gory and disturbing wheelhouse.  Elijah Wood stars as Frank, but the film is shot almost entirely through a POV construct, meaning we often hear Wood’s voice, but only see the occasional glimpse of him in a mirror (except for the oddly random moments when the film breaks the POV gimmick).  Khalfoun gets all the incidentals of the original right (the story is mostly a faithful Xerox), but thankfully also recognizes that it was that film’s distinct tone, look and feel that set it apart from the onslaught of indistinguishable slasher flicks that followed it.  The action has moved to present day L.A., but Khalfoun has found a relative match for seedy 1980 New York in the late-night L.A. underbelly he presents here; as if he’s almost determined to expose us to the reality that a world we thought no longer exists is still very much alive when the sun goes down on the wrong side of the tracks.

Wood is effectively creepy as the emaciated Zito (the physical opposite of Joe Spinell’s lumbery Frank in the original film).  Anyone familiar with his work on TV’s “Wilfred” knows he can play a man of considerable confusion and psychosis.  The POV aesthetic proves not simply to be a distinguishable gimmick for the film, but rather it actually works quite well in terms of developing Zito as a character by allowing the audience to walk in his shoes.  As expected by anyone familiar with their past collaborations, Khalfoun and Aja come up with some impressively brutal gore.  It comes in unexpected, quick bursts (learning a thing or two from Tom Savini’s memorable work on the original – though, predictably, going even further) rendering it as effective as it is unpleasant.  Unlike “Piranha” the violence is not played for campy laughs, nor is it done in an over-the-top, highly stylized way as in their take on “The Hills Have Eyes”.  The violence here is primitive and down and dirty.

“Maniac” also benefits from some terrific supporting performances from Nora Arnezender and Megan Duffy.  With Wood largely off screen and everyone he sees front and center, Khalfoun is smart enough to know they’ll need compelling supporting players, and he largely found them.

“Maniac” (either of them) is not perfect – it stumbles in the final act and the scenes that offer a peak into Zito’s delusional mind aren’t chilling to the extent the film obviously thinks they are – but it’s a refreshingly old fashioned, straight-up slasher flick (attentive fans of the original will be treated to several homages throughout).  It’s not exactly what you’d call entertaining, but it’s certainly well made and brutally compelling.  3 Stars.

Final Destination 5 (2011)

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Simply offering more of the same – though not nearly as bad as the boring, unimaginative 4th chapter – “Final Destination 5″ undeniably manages some cleverly complex and staged kills; along with quite a few decent misdirects as to how the characters will ultimately meet their demise which result in some laugh out loud surprises.  But there is certain tedium to the proceedings that has been setting in since several films back; and part 5, though trying admirably, can’t reverse this trend of diminishing returns.  Each FD film has at least one memorably elaborate, eye-popping sequence (the highway mash-up in #2, the roller coaster and tanning beds in #3), but part 4 was strictly by the numbers, failing to produce anything memorable as it slogged through the usual motions.  The producers, realizing a milkable cash cow when it fell in their lap as 3D became all the rage, used that gimmick to renew interest in the series despite not offering anything else even approaching justification for another sequel.

FD5 again relies on and exploits 3D.  The 3rd dimension is admittedly an effective tool for splattery-kill movies such as these but, as is the case with any film, once the novelty of the 3D wears off, the film will still ultimately live or die by things like plot, character development, story structure and credible performances.  FD5 is never more than merely adequate in any of these departments and often falls far short in them.

The story is the same old hokum about five or so kids all cheating death by determining the order in which they were originally supposed to die in some freak accident before one of them had a premonition and saved the lot of them, thus pissing death off because, as it turns out, he is a vengeful bitch when you disrupt his plans.  So one by one he comes for each character, and he is welcome to them since these films rarely give the audience anyone to root for or even invest the slightest bit of interest in.  A lot of annoying stock characters all running around spouting ridiculous dialog about the rules and consequences of cheating death simply doesn’t warrant five films, especially when the writers and producers of these films refuse to fix what ain’t broken where box office grosses are concerned and give us anything even slightly new.

For those just in it for the elaborate, over-the-top death sequences, FD5 may rate as acceptable viewing.  But honestly, if that’s the case, save yourself 90-some minutes of your life and just wait for the inevitable homemade YouTube mash-up of just those scenes.  2 Stars.

Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horror (1922)

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With tributes to the era of silent films like “The Artist” and “Hugo” recently gaining favor with Oscar voters, and vampires being all rage both on TV (“True Blood”) and in film (“Twilight”), now is as good a time as any to revisit a bona fide classic of both genres; F.W. Murnau’s 1922 masterpiece, “Nosferatu”.

It is perhaps fitting that the film’s full on-screen title is “Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horror”.  Silent films were, of course, not silent at all.  They relied on music to tell their stories and convey changes in mood and tone.  There was no dialog, and with the exception of a title card featuring a brief quote from one character or another here and there, the music is what told the story.  The film is essentially a symphony with accompanying moving pictures.  And oh how those pictures move.   For all the film’s primitive limitations, Murnau captures some stunning images; some so influential they are still being mimicked today.  And despite the fact that the film either used a lot of footage that looked washed-out even at the time, or certain prints have simply aged that way, there is no denying Murnau knew how to do more than simply prop up a camera.  His work with shadows, close-ups, establishing shots, and widescreen (before such a term – or concept – existed) is a testament to a director far ahead of his time.  The film is visually stunning and a pleasure to watch from a revisionist standpoint, but any other as well.

And then there is Max Shrek as the title character.  Rumors still persist that Shrek so wholly immersed himself in the character that he teetered on becoming an actual vampire, terrorizing the cast and crew (see 2000’s “Shadow of the Vampire”), while other tall tales assert that Shrek was credited the part but it was in reality another, better-known actor who played the part and the make-up was simply so good no one could tell.  As far-fetched as this all may sound, it is always a testament to a truly great performance when it not only becomes the stuff of Hollywood legend, but cultural folklore.  Shrek is magnificent here, creating a character as chilling and eerie as any that has followed in the nearly one hundred years since this film was released.  And he does it all without any dialog, much less a machete, chainsaw or some booming soundtrack.  His make-up is truly haunting.  Not shockingly scary per se (though showing the film to a 3 year-old might not be wise), but grotesque in a reserved and detailed way that renders it all the more realistically effective.

Whatever “Nosferatu” may lack in production values or any steam it may have lost after years to increasingly explicit horror films, the movie is still a marvel of technique.  It is so well crafted, shot, paced and performed that its high caliber of quality has rendered it timeless.  While any film that is nearly a century old is bound to elicit a few chuckles, “Nosferatu” holds up remarkably well.  This film could be remade tomorrow with today’s technology and film stock, but with every scene intact, shot the exact same way (and perhaps a few less stagey performances; but again, in the silent film era, they were essentially filming theatre) and it would not feel the least bit dated.  In fact, it would probably be one of the best horror films in a long, long time.  But, as Gus Van Sant proved with his shockingly wrong-headed, shot-for-shot remake of another horror classic, “Psycho”, it would be pointless for anyone to try such a thing.

Murnau captured lightning in a bottle with “Nosferatu”. It is a true classic of its time, or any other.  4 Stars.

Lucky (2011)

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This obnoxious, “high concept” black comedy tells the story of Ben (Colin Hanks), a wallflowerish momma’s boy and aspiring serial killer (that’s right, he’s working on it) who ends up winning the lottery, which also finally nets him Lucy, the girl he’s had a life-long crush on.  Ben’s a nice guy in a concerned, bumbling sort of way, but he is, after all, a murderer; and Lucy’s bubbly and cute but she’s a selfish gold digger and deserves more than anyone else in the film to end up as one of Ben’s victims, so who exactly does this movie expect the viewer to root for?  The entire tone of “Lucky” is completely off.  It shifts jarringly from farcical comedy to relationship drama, and recycles all of the usual gags, coincidences, and outcomes of every quirky, contrived little film of this sort.  1½ Stars.

The Haunted World of El Superbeasto (2009)

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I suppose if I were 14 years old and up late one night watching TV and “The Haunted World of El Superbeasto” happened to come on, I’d think I just stumbled upon the greatest movie ever made.  After all, what 14 year-old can resist a loud, raunchy, vulgar and nudity-packed (never mind that it’s animated; 14 year-olds will take what they can get) cartoon featuring everything from porn stars to Nazis to dragons and everything in between?  Yes, the kids will get a kick out of “El Superbeasto”, the same sort of thrill they’d experience from stumbling upon a Playboy in the basement. It’s awesome because it’s something you don’t see every day, is beyond your years, and – most of all – your parents would be pissed if they knew you were looking at it.  However; for those of us who are not under the watchful eye of any parental figures, have long since graduated past Playboy and have some knowledge of quality cinema, “El Superbeasto” wears out its welcome pretty quickly.

The film is a Rob Zombie creation, and Mr. Zombie knows a thing or two about cinema himself. Too much I’m afraid; because he seems so anxious to cram an homage to every film and film-making style he has ever seen into this obnoxious spectacle.  Now it’s true; film fans love film references.  Quentin Tarantino would not only be unemployed if not for paying homage to the films that he loves, but he would also not have near the level of acclaim and ardent fan and critical support.  The difference is that Tarantino doesn’t simply ape his heroes and produce a retread or veritable copy of a film they have already made.  He uses his influences as a stylistic blueprint on which to craft his own world and bring his own ideas to life.  He wants to take what’s been done before and do it better.

A filmmaker like Zombie might argue he does the same – after all, if there’s one thing his whacked-out characters and situations are, they’re his own – but he does nothing new or unique.  His films are all set up, tone and atmosphere, unfortunately punctuated with rote, obvious outcomes.  He simply goes through the motions, making a film we’ve already seen.  So what’s the point?  What was the point of remaking “Halloween” only to constantly nod to the original stylistically while crapping all over it by adding a bunch gore and stupid dialog?  What was the point of making a sequel and doing the exact same thing?

Not only will viewers be asking what’s the point of “El Superbeasto”, but they’ll also be asking themselves WTF is going on in it.  I couldn’t give you an in depth plot summary if I tried.  I suspect I couldn’t even if I re-watched it. Or watched it 10 times for that matter (something I won’t be doing).  All I could ascertain from this narrative mess is that El Superbeasto is a luchador (a Mexican wrestler) who apparently is pretty messed up on drugs and booze.  I guess he moonlights as a porn star, and has a thing for strippers (I’d say this plot device is just an excuse to show cartoon boobies, but Zombie actually creates both a hero and a villain who do battle with their tits, so they’d have been shown regardless of the addition of strippers and porn stars to the mix).  His mission is to battle the forces of evil – because that is of course what a drunken, sex-addicted, washed-up Mexican wrestler would probably be doing – and ultimately take out his arch nemesis, Dr. Satan.  Suzi X is another main character, who is basically an animated version of Pam Anderson in “Barb Wire”.  She is voiced by Mrs. Rob Zombie, Sheri Moon Zombie, proving once again that Rob thinks she is much hotter than the rest of us do.  Speaking of the voice casting, some of it is truly inspired: Danny Trejo as Rico, a Mexican guy who looks just like Danny Trejo, and Paul Giamatti as Dr. Satan.

The whole film is clearly a nod to Ralph Bakshi’s animated features like “Fritz the Cat” and “Heavy Metal,” both in the animation style and the overall (attempted) satirical tone, which includes film and song parodies (mostly of things involving sex or violence). Zombie even references his own work with nods to “House of 1,000 Corpses”, “Halloween” and “Werewolf Women of the SS” (his faux trailer from “Grindhouse”; which actually would have been a better choice for him to go spend his time and money to make than this film) because, well, why not, I guess.

Like all of Zombie’s films there are a handful of interesting ideas, some funny moments, and some well-staged sequences, be them an homage to a classic or his own batshit crazy ideas. But also, like most of his other films, he shows his entire hand within the first quarter of the film and simply keeps replaying it. He is not a filmmaker without talent or vision, but if ever there was a guy who should stick to producing shorts, its Zombie.  He simply doesn’t have enough original ideas to sustain a feature film, and he hasn’t yet learned how to fill in the gaps around the clever ideas he does have with a story or sense of humor that will sustain the audience’s interest.  Unlike a lot of hacks, at least he’s trying. But this is just another swing and a miss for Rob Zombie: Writer/Director.  2 Stars

Attack the Block (2011)

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Other than hearing the briefest of plot summaries and seeing some good reviews (90% on the Tomatometer), I knew nothing about “Attack the Block” going in.  In fact, I apparently had forgotten most of the little I did know as I had it in my head the film was about a zombie outbreak and the gang of adolescent British hoodlums who take a stand against them.  Apparently I confused my genres however. Though the film does indeed follow a gang of inner-city tough kids defending their turf, it’s aliens that descend upon their sleepy South London community, not zombies (which was kind of a relief because, as much as I love a good zombie flick, I’m kinda zombied-out at the moment).

My initial reaction to the look and tone of “Attack the Block” was “Cloverfield’s” contained, low-fi approach to an alien invasion (minus its food footage gimmick, though retaining a certain amount of shaky-cam, you-are-there aesthetic) meets “Shaun of the Dead”-style winking meta humor. Bully for me then that I come to find out “Attack the Block” is from the producers of “Shaun” and one of that film’s stars – Nick Frost – has a small role here.

Written and directed by first-timer Joe Cornish, “Attack the Block” is another one of these genre exercises the finds a contemporary filmmaker referencing the films and film-making techniques that inspired him.  So we get a mash-up of sorts; the gritty (and often vacant) urban setting and gang culture recalls Walter Hill’s “The Warriors”, and when meteorites carrying vicious, rabid dog-like alien creatures with glowing teeth start crash-landing all over town, one can’t help but think of cheesy 80s sci-fi/horror flicks like “Critters”.  Silly as that may sound though, those two genres – and films – are perfectly acceptable counterparts if you are going to make a grade-B, self-referencing creature feature. And “Attack the Block” equates itself nicely as such.  The aliens, while not busting the bank in terms of the quality of their special effects, are well conceived and kind of cool to look at (as one character notes, they are such a dark shade of black you can barely see them) and the cast of unknowns does fine with parts that, though they don’t require much, would be plenty easy for non-talents to either over-do or under sell.

There is some indication that the script has loftier intentions regarding race, class, politics and economic issues, but that all feels forced and out of place whenever it is shoehorned into all the creature feature chaos (though any commentary never gets to the point of soapboxing or the film embarrassing itself).  Still, the writing and humor is unexpectedly witty (Cornish is a successful comedian in the U.K.) for a film of this sort, and it is well-paced (at a brisk 88 minutes) and fitfully entertaining.  “Attack the Block” is a solid little gem all around.  3 Stars.

Valhalla Rising (2009)

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Vikings need better PR guys.  Or at least more fans in the movie business.  What is surely one of the most fascinating cultures in history has never received proper treatment on the big screen.  Often played for (failed) laughs (“Erik the Viking” anyone?) or exploited for costume and setting purposes in movies that have no interest in exploring the culture itself (“Pathfinder”, “The 13th Warrior”), Vikings are in desperate need of a big, bloody, epic blockbuster.

“Valhalla Rising”, despite something of an authentic approach, is still just another Viking film that fails to distinguish its characters from those in any other film dealing with an ancient tribal culture.  These guys could just as easily be the Mayans in “Apocalypto” or the Mohicans.  The story and characters here are simply too nondescript and too contained to make any difference what culture we are observing.

Still, while not great as a historical Viking epic, “Valhalla Rising” could have been a wild and crazy ride just the same – and it seems to be headed in that direction initially – but it is ultimately a maddeningly slow, self-indulgent piece of abstract film making.  No doubt there will be those who sing its praises – it’s simply too audacious to not be loved (or at least defended) by some – but man does it feel like a tedious and pointless slog. If you were to cut this film together using only the scenes of dialog and anything amounting to exposition it would only run about 7 minutes; but best as I can figure it “Valhalla Rising” focuses on One Eye (the always terrifically intense Mads Mikelson), a man enslaved for the purposes of bare-knuckle brawling to the death while tethered to a stake in the ground.  He breaks free from – and violently murders – his captors, sparing a young boy and allowing him to tag along as he begins his journey home.  They take up with some Christians who are hell bent on warring with anyone of a different religion.  There’s a long boat ride…  A scene where everybody is tripping balls…  Some of them kill each other…  Tribal Indians show up and kill most of the rest…  There are title cards every 10 or 15 minutes that say things like: “Part V: Hell”…  I don’t know.

“Valhalla Rising” is moody and atmospheric.  The tone is set early on with scenes of languid quiet and calm, jarringly juxtaposed with sickening brutality.  This is a film that within the first 15 minutes has our hero graphically cracking open one guy’s head with a rock and disemboweling another with his bare hands.  At least the movie will weed out anyone who took a wrong turn right off the bat.

Director Nicolas Winding Refn (“Drive”) has a good eye for visuals.  There is a rarely a shot in the film that isn’t staged for maximum visual impact.  The lighting, colors, and camera angles and movements are all gorgeous, and often hauntingly effective.  But the story and pace are so ungodly frustrating it renders the entire film nearly pointless.  I thought “Drive” had issues with odd-for-the-sake-of-odd quirks and “Hey, look at me!” pretentiousness; but going back and watching “Valhalla Rising”, it is both clear and amazing just how much Refn has reigned himself in as a director.  It seems he is beginning to learn what he hadn’t yet on this film: Good-looking images don’t mean much if you can’t nail down the fundamentals of storytelling; or if your 90 minute film feels twice that length.  1½ Stars.

Hatchet II (2010)

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“Hatchet II” (because everyone is familiar with “Hatchet I”, right?) gained some minor notoriety when AMC theaters unexpectedly pulled the slasher sequel after only a few days, despite agreeing to be the only chain to screen an unrated cut of the film, presumably in an effort to court fans of low-budget, indie horror films who are generally ignored by the nation’s large theater chains.  The film’s writer/director, Adam Green, figured his blood-spattered opus was just too hardcore for AMC, while AMC blamed lack of interest (because again, we all remember the box office juggernaut that was “Hatchet I”).  While the truth probably falls somewhere in the middle of both claims, the only reason “Hatchet II” popped up on my radar was because I read the odd story about its unceremoniously dumping by AMC and was curious as to what all the fuss was about.  So it’s reasonable to assume, as is often the case, Adam Green’s film gained more interest and viewers thanks to AMC shying away from it, than it ever would have if it were allowed to naturally decompose over the course of what would have no doubt been a very brief theatrical run anyway.

“Hatchet II” is not necessarily a good film, but I suppose it’s a “good bad film”.  It’s pretty obvious that’s what it’s going for; and that is part of its problem. These horror flicks that wink at the genre, themselves and the audience with over-the-top, uber-grusome kills, stupid characters who do and say the dumbest things possible, and dialog that references other horror films and horror film clichés have become something of a sub-genre over the last decade or two (you can thank “Scream” for this).  Some work better than others.  “Hatchet II” is not bad of its type.

The fact that it straddles the horror-comedy line and plays it’s slasher hijinks for laughs is evident right off the bat, yet it takes a bit for the film to build to its strengths.  Not until its convoluted plotline and backstory is established, and a bunch of standard-issue horror flick caricatures (more wink-wink, nudge-nudge homage) are introduced, does “Hatchet II” find its OMG!  Did you see the way that guy’s head popped off?! gross-out groove.

A bunch of Louisiana swamp-rat rednecks take to the alligator-infested bayou waters to hunt down and kill urban legend Victor Crowley, a deformed serial killer who, after some rascally teens tried to murder him as a boy by burning down his house, has spent the past few decades – as we are told – wandering the swamp in search of his father (who accidentally buried a hatchet in Victor’s forehead while trying to save him from the fire) and killing any of the hunters and fishermen who cross his path.  This is all standard slasher flick backstory mumbo jumbo – particularly derivative of “Friday the 13th” – and the film seems to know this as the script plays the details of the story for laughs (we are told that the day Crowley was born the trees wept and the swamp died).  “Hatchet II” even has the look and vibe of “Friday the 13th” and feels like something drudged up from the early 1980s.

Green gets the homage stuff right – both in story and tone – but while he clearly wants to make a grungy-looking, old school slasher film, he also wants to parody the genre.  His film is not intended as an outright spoof or comedy per se, but where more straightforward slasher flicks aim to actually scare audiences, or disturb them with their violence, “Hatchet II” wants you to laugh at its cartoonish insanity.  As the film progresses, each kill tries to one-up the last, both in terms of bloodiness and ridiculousness (there is a terrific bit where two characters stare at a dilapidated cabin where one of their own is engaged in a battle to the death with Crowley and all they see is what looks like literal buckets of blood being thrown out the windows), which is why it’s hard to buy Green’s claims that AMC deemed the film too “shocking” for audiences.  Sure it features all kinds of bloody violence from disembowelings to decapitations, but it has no more serious, lasting impact than an “Itchy and Scratchy” episode, and is no worse than any other horror film of its ilk.  There is also some very funny absurdist dialog delivered by a cast of characters as cartoony and exaggerated as violence.

Green clearly has nothing but love for the genre and has made a movie for its most devoted fans.  But he seems unsure if he wanted to make a true thriller or something more of the winking “Machete” variety.  For some, the distinction won’t matter much.  As for me, I was bored by all the exposition, but enjoyed a lot of the puns, whacked-out characters and creatively gory kills; so it’s a mixed bag.

“Hatchet II” is never actually scary, perhaps only sporadically funny, but often entertaining. I’m not sure how die hard horror fans will rate it, but it’s one of those nice surprises to stumble across on Cinemax at 2 am when you’re least expecting it.  (I am currently waiting on Netflix to deliver this year’s “Hatchet III”.)  2½ Stars.

Outbreak (1995)

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After laboring through Steven Soderberg’s star-studded, but disingenuously high-minded “Contagion” (2011, 2 Stars) – which purports to be a smarter, more realistic and humanistic take on the killer virus genre than the action-packed mayhem that has become the standard of these films – one appreciates a more typical and commercial, but far more effective and entertaining time-waster like “Outbreak” all the more.

Let’s face it, all of these movies are pretty far-fetched; and while human beings are always affected by disease and our scientists labor every day to find a cure for some of the most devastating ones, rarely does this result in the over-night mass infestation and destruction exhibited in this type of films.  So, if that is your movie’s story, you might as well have some fun with it, and “Outbreak” certainly does.  “Contagion” would rather we think about not just the physical impact of global-killer virus, but the psychological impact it has on families and individuals in their need to survive.  That is a perfectly acceptable idea, and it would have been great if the movie actually dealt with those things instead of simply suggesting them, and then cutting away to shoehorn in all the usual military and scientific mumbo-jumbo that has become the standard of these flicks.  “Contagion” has too much of a split personality to be a wild and crazy ride.  But not “Outbreak.”  No, “Outbreak” goes for broke.  This movie is gonna bring in the military?  Well screw it, then we’re bringin’ in all sorts of military!  There’s gonna be helicopter chases, tanks mowing people down…  There’s gonna be good military guys and bad military guys…  And what’s that, we’re gonna show lab work?  Well, then people’s protective suits are gonna tare and they are gonna panic and some of your favorite characters are gonna get sick and die!  Oh, the virus makes you sick?  No it doesn’t.  Think big!  How ’bout, it boils your organs!  People explode!!! (Sorry, I got carried away there, no one explodes.)

The cast here are all aces:  Dustin Hoffman and Kevin Spacy are particularly great fun to watch banter about, as are Hoffman and Morgan Freeman.  Donald Sutherland seems to be relishing his evil head-honcho role (if he had a mustache, he’d twirl it) and Cuba Gooding Jr. isn’t out-acted by the monkey in the movie so if nothing else; you know this thing was filmed pre-1998.  The virus as presented is effectively scary, stuff blows up, the clock is raced against, America wins… Hoo-rah!

“Outbreak” is simple, silly entertainment, but it’s genuinely exciting, suspenseful and enjoyable – an example of how entertaining this genre can be when done right.  3 Stars.

Trollhunter (2011)

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“TrollHunter” is a found-footage thriller that purports to be all that remains of a video crew documenting the adventures of a real-life troll hunter through the forests of Norway.  The difference between “TrollHunter” and something like “The Blair Witch Project” or the “Paranormal Activity” films is that this film has its tongue planted firmly in cheek.  The filmmakers don’t really expect any viewer to believe “the footage” is real, and so the film functions as sort of a spoof of this style of film-making; which is a fine idea – the genre is played-out, obnoxious and ripe for a drubbing.

Unfortunately, “TrollHunter” plays it a bit too straight.  It’s fine that it is not an outright spoof – that has been done and would almost be too easy – but it’s not all that funny and seems stuck in a weird place between taking itself seriously and winking at the audience.

Still, the film is effective where it counts: the scenes with the trolls.  It’s not that they look particularly real (though they are convincing enough for a low-budget film like this), but the sequences where they attack have an almost Monty Pythonesque exuberance, especially one scene on bridge that must be some sort of ode to “The Billy Goats Gruff”.  These scenes are a lot of fun.  Unfortunately, they are interspersed with long scenes of traveling and exposition that really aren’t that informative or entertaining.

“TrollHunter” is as much of a “road” movie as it is a creature feature, and so it winds up only being about half of a good movie.  Still, you could certainly do worse in this genre than the ambitious and often entertaining “TrollHunter”.  2½ Stars.

Rubber (2010)

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A movie about a serial killing tire.  That’s right, a tire.  The round rubber thing on the wheels of your car; you didn’t misread that.  I’m not sure I’d want to hold a conversation with a movie fan who’s not at least somewhat curious about a film with such a premise.  However, as we’ve been reminded on multiple occasions since the whole “grindhouse” revival; there is a difference between an inspired, off the wall premise, and the filmmakers actually being able to craft a worthwhile and quality film from their initial gimmick.

“Rubber” seems initially like it will be just another wink-fest, rather than an actual film. The opening scene in which a sheriff addresses the audience, essentially telling us we have to accept that certain things in movies make no sense is a pointless bit of meta self-indulgence from a movie that doesn’t need it. We all know what we signed up for with this flick; no need to defend the premise to us.  This scene should have been jettisoned completely in favor of opening with the tire’s introductory scene – a lengthy and clever sequence that perfectly sets the tone for the film to come.  With a just a few rambling movements, director Quentin Dupieux is able to establish the tire as an actual character.  Despite being an inanimate object, the audience can recognize its reactions to the various people, places and things it encounters.  It pops up out of the desert sand one day, takes a few tries to right itself and start rolling along and, after crushing a few things in its path and becoming obviously frustrated with the things it cannot crush simply by rolling over them, realizes it has a taste for murder.  Lucky thing then it has the ability to explode animals and human heads.  It also discovers it has a thing for a hotel maid. And why the hell not? This is already a more wholely-drawn and interesting character than most slasher film serial killers.

Unfortunately, like many films of this type, “Rubber” can’t really sustain the inspired vitality of its early scenes.  As it goes along its one joke wears thin, and the more heads that explode is not necessarily the funnier.  That’s not to say individual scenes don’t take off throughout; there is plenty of deadpan dialog (“It’s not dead. It reincarnated itself as a killer tricycle.”) and the movie remains entertaining even through some dry patches (the people watching from afar seem particularly pointless).  It’s certainly unique.  2½ Stars.

Also check out Out On the Wire’s reviews of You’re Next, The Purge, Cabin In the Woods, Tucker and Dale VS EvilDon’t Be Afraid Of the Dark, Silent House, Red State and Contagion.