Category Archives: Capsules

CAPSULE: ARMY OF DARKNESS (1992)

Recommended

DIRECTED BYSam Raimi

FEATURING:  Bruce Campbell

PLOT:  Following the events of Evil Dead II, Ash finds himself flung backwards in time into a medieval land, where his failure to retrieve the Book of the Dead enables evil forces to muster a massive army of stop-motion animated skeletons.

Army of Darkness

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTEvil Dead II struggled mightily to obtain its weird credentials, and just barely qualified for its weird badge thanks to the “cabin fever” sequence in the middle portion of the film.  In the third entry of the “Evil Dead” trilogy, director Sam Raimi distills what he thinks is the popular essence of Evil Dead II, emerging with a concentrated dose mixing ghoulish comedy with a stiff shot of badass working class hero Ash.  Weirdness was discarded as a waste product, although traces remain.

COMMENTS:  The beginning of Army of Darkness rewrites the tale of how Ash came to be recognized as the “Chosen One” at the end of Evil Dead II, but consistent storytelling (along with respect for the laws of physics) has never been a high priority in this series.   Since the  midpoint of the second film, Raimi’s Evil Dead emphasis for the trilogy has been comedy, and Army of Darkness is tongue-in-cheek from start to finish.  As an action/comedy/fantasy/horror hybrid, Army of Darkness pulls in too many directions to hang together as a story, much less integrate itself with the rest of the series, but the manic energy is a lot of fun, and the film does work on a scene-by-scene basis.  The flick dips into the Three Stooges tribute well even more than Evil Dead II did; in one funny scene, every orifice on Ash’s face is invaded by skeletal fingers from still buried corpses, despite his best defensive maneuvers (our hero never learned from Curly’s mistakes—don’t introduce your tongue as a new target by sticking it out in triumph after successfully blocking the dual finger eye poke).  Gags aside, the comic momentum overwhelming comes from Bruce Campbell’s Ash, who has transformed from a much abused punching-bag for macabre forces into an arrogant, wisecracking hero.  Campbell adopts just the right campy, parodic tone when reprising hit action catchphrases like “Groovy” or fresh favorites like “Just me, baby.”   Ash’s overweening, usually unjustified bravado is the comic binding that keeps the scattershot script from blowing away in the wind.  For fans of weirdness, the best bits are the hallucinatory scenes after Ash takes refuge from a shakycam assault inside a windmill: for unexplained reasons, he ends up by menaced by a gang of tiny Ashes in a “Gulliver’s Travels” parody, then sprouts an Evil Ash from his shoulder.  These scenes take place at approximately the same stage in the movie as the “cabin fever” sequences did in Evil Dead II, and may have been intended as one of the many, many nods to the previous film.  Another high point is the army of stop motion animated skeletons (a tribute to Ray Harryhausen).  Each member of the bony horde is brilliantly individualized and detailed; particularly striking is the martial band, beating drums made from skulls and playing flutes fashioned from arm bones.   Overall, Army of Darkness is a worthy, if commodified and popularized, sequel, and a solid roller coaster for fans of fantastic film who aren’t hung up on logic.

Army of Darkness was the transitional film for Raimi between campy experimental films like Crimewave and Evil Dead II and purely commercial fare such as the Spider-Man series.  The large scale battle and professional action scenes in Army seem almost like audition reels for making a Major Motion Picture.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a goofy, hyperventilated send-up of horror films and medieval warfare, so action-packed it sometimes seems less like a movie than like a cardiovascular workout for its stars.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: LITTLE ASHES (2008)

DIRECTED BY:  Paul Morrison

FEATURING:  Javier Beltrán,

PLOT:  In Madrid in the 1920s, with Dadaism in full flourish and Surrealism in its infancy,

Still from Little Ashes (2008)

soon-to-be-famous poet Federico García Lorca flirts with soon-to-be-famous painter Salvador Dalí while soon-to-be-famous director Luis Buñuel hangs around.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s subject is Surrealism, but its style is conventional historical romance.

COMMENTS:  A supposed collegiate love affair, supposedly unconsummated, between stuffy poet Lorca and flamboyant painter Dalí is the subject of this pleasantly lensed and generally competent costume affair.  Spanish society in the 1920s is socially repressive (although the three idealists have no clue how much worse it will get in a few years with Franco’s arrival), and the budding geniuses yearn to upset the established order.  Beltrán imbues Lorca with a sense of dignity, although his thick accent is frequently a practical impediment for the viewer.  Pattison makes for a distractingly pretty Dalí; his failure to capture the spirit of the eccentric painter is probably more the failing of the simplistic script.  Buñuel is an underdeveloped third wheel and utility player: a homophobe when the story calls for a homophobe, a foil when it needs a foil, a mediator when it requires a mediator.  We hear bits of Lorca’s poetry, get glimpses of Dalí’s canvases, and see the shocking bits from Un Chien Andalou (1929), but we get no real sense of what motivates these men as artists.  Though Beltrán shows suitable young romantic torment when he’s rejected, it’s hard to credit the suggestion that this awkward fling would have made enough of a impact on either man to influence their future art, much less be a driving force.  Dalí postures and lectures about the need to “go further” and “go beyond” in art; not only do we not see concrete examples of what he means, but there’s irony in the fact that the filmmakers don’t heed his advice.  Other than one mental montage where Lorca mixes up impressions of a bullfight he’s watching with jealous fantasies of Salvador and Luis living it up in Paris, and an odd pseudo-ménage à trois that may make some giggle, the film is extremely conventional and predictable in its approach.  These are fascinating men in a fascinating time, so the decision to put the overwhelming focus of the film on a bit of gossip about who did or didn’t sleep with whom, while humble, is a let down.

I can’t help but be amused by the thought of the few tween Twilight fans, showing up to see vampire heartthrob Pattison in action, getting slapped in the face by the eyeball slitting scene from Un Chien Andalou.   It still makes me squirm, and it must seem incredibly weird, random and shocking—particularly in this context—to anyone who doesn’t know it’s coming.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The film is an open-hearted tribute to three great iconoclasts, whose response to its piety and sincerity would, most likely, have been ruthless and obscene mockery.”–A.O. Scott, The New York Times

CAPSULE: CREATURE FROM THE HAUNTED SEA (1961)

Beware

DIRECTED BY: Roger Corman

FEATURING: Robert Towne (as Edward Wain), Antony Carbone, Betsy Jones-Moreland

PLOT:  Opposed by incompetent spy Sparks Moran, a shady American expatriate and his

Still from Creature from the Haunted Sea (1961)

gang of crooks try to cheat General Tostada and his crew out of gold they are smuggling out of post-revolutionary Cuba by pretending a sea monster is on the loose.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTCreature from the Haunted Sea is a strange little comedy indeed, one that feels improvised, even experimental at times.  Unfortunately, although there’s nothing else quite like it, after watching it for a few minutes you will understand why there’s nothing else like it.  It’s not funny, or meaningfully entertaining on any level; the only draw is to be awestruck by how utterly a movie can fail.  The movie has a few lukewarm fans, but basically, this is among the worst of the worst, something you should only watch on a dare.

COMMENTS:  Anyone renting Creature from the Haunted Sea thinking that it’s going to be a terrible monster flick may be surprised to find themselves watching what appears to be a terrible spy movie, until it dawns on them that they’re actually watching a terrible comedy.  Creature features a senseless, slow moving, confusing plot; confusing, because every time the action lags, the script introduces us to another “wacky” character to take up the slack.  We get General Tostada (groan); the henchman who speaks in dubbed-in animal noises (monkey cackles or elephant trumpets, as the mood strikes him); his dream girl, a hefty matron with a similar mode of communication; Roger Corman in sunglasses grinning like an idiot for no reason; an unexplained man in a suit on a desert island who feels the need to step in every tide pool along the beach; Carmelita, the senorita love-interest who arrives from out of nowhere; and Mango, the island girl who takes up with “weird strangers” as a “come-on for tourists” so her mom can sell them “coconut hats.”  Gags include Sparks being forced to eat a transmitter disguised as a sandwich and the slightly amusing theme song (a torch song that throws in the improbable non sequitur “…and the creature from the haunted sea.”) Humor is subjective, so you very well might find the silly absurdity of it reasonably entertaining; you’ll just be in a very small minority if you do.  The highlight, and the main thing most viewers remember, is the utterly ridiculous sea monster with the ping-pong ball eyes, who only appears on screen for a few seconds at a time.  Some feature movies would have worked better as shorts; this one would have worked better as a still.

The abject failure of Creature to amuse is all the more shocking since it came from the pen of Charles B. Griffith, the Corman collaborator responsible for several smartly scripted minor classics: A Bucket of Blood (1959), The Little Shop of Horrors (1960), and Death Race 2000 (1975).  In true Corman cheapie fashion, this script is a recycled comic treatment of an earlier Corman production, Beast from the Haunted Cave, and was written in three days and filmed in five.  It was shot together with two other forgettable movies made in Puerto Rico for tax reasons.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the script is an unfocused mess; it’s poorly paced and structured, suffers badly from its low budget, and often ends up being just weird rather than funny.”–Dave Sindelar, Fantastic Movie Musings & Ramblings

CAPSULE: MOON (2009)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Duncan Jones

FEATURING: Sam Rockwell, Kevin Spacey

PLOT: Sam, two weeks away from finishing a lonely three year contract on a one man lunar mining base, finds to his shock that he’s not alone on the moon—and the identity of his new companion leads him to investigate the true nature of his assignment.

Still from Moon (2009)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  I had high hopes of this turning weird, especially due to the guarded plot synopses that implied there might be some sort of lunatic psychological thriller angle to the film.  Unfortunately, although Moon threatens to veer off reality road and foray into the weird wilderness a few times in the early going, it soon straightens its course and plays as a straightforward work of speculative fiction.  Still, as a very well-made film with some unusual sights and an unusually thoughtful tone, it’s worth the trip to Moon for anyone seeking something off Hollywood’s well-beaten path.

COMMENTSMoon starts out as a mystery: something is “off” about the lunar base, and specifically about Sam’s role in the mission.  But the mystery is answered early on, and from that point out the film plays as a drama, milking Sam’s situation (a situation that is unique in the history of mankind) of every implication it can think of.  From Sam’s loneliness and increasing anger, desperation, and finally resignation, the film generates a genuine pathos.  The shift from mystery to drama is accomplished seamlessly, because Moon‘s the unifying principle isn’t really its plot, but its exploration of ideas about what the future may look like, what ethical challenges and basic lifestyle changes future technologies may bring us.  First time director Jones confesses to being inspired by, and borrowing from, “hard” science fiction films like Outland and Silent Running, but Moon inevitably evokes the granddaddy of them all—2001—more than anything (especially since the base’s intelligent computer, Gerty, is basically HAL updated with emoticons).  Jones doesn’t shy from the inevitable comparison, but embraces it and uses it to the story’s advantage.  Sam Rockwell’s performance, which requires him to be onscreen for nearly every shot, could be a career defining moment, craftwise.  The plot is intricate, requiring the viewer to pay closer attention than they may be accustomed to, but the tale is told well, and despite a few curve balls it’s not as confusing as it might have been.  Special effects are minimal, but the lunar landscapes exhibit all the eerie alien beauty one would hope for.

Despite its overall intelligence, Moon is far from airtight.  Some of the technologies used in the film seem more like plot devices than rational scientific solutions to problems faced by future humans.  Objections arise that could have been fully addressed in a novel or long story, but in a ninety minute movie, the audience will have to do some work on their own to fill in the gaps, or simply agree to suspend disbelief.  But, in an era when science’s role in science fiction is increasingly relegated to the production of rayguns and killer robots, Moon‘s serious speculation about the world of the rapidly approaching future is a breath of fresh oxygen.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…never quite gets out from under the titanic shadow of his obvious inspirations. The movie feels like a full-length homage along the lines of Roman Coppola’s CQ, a dream within a dream rather than a soup-to-nuts vision… Moon chokes in its last reel, skirting the ambiguous terrain of Tarkovsky and Kubrick in favor of a too-pat ending. But [Jones] creates a world worth soaking up for an hour and a half, an engrossing journey in the realm of the selves.”–Sam Adams, Philadelphia City Paper

CAPSULE: MAD MAX BEYOND THUNDERDOME (1985)

DIRECTED BY:  George Miller, George Ogilvie

FEATURING: Mel Gibson, Tina Turner

PLOT:  Loner and reluctant hero Mad Max wanders out of the desert and into a crossroads

Still from Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome

of post-apocalyptic vice known as Bartertown, and later discovers a colony of innocent children in a peaceful oasis who believe him to be a messiah.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  If costuming alone could earn a film a place on the list of the 366 weirdest films of all time, then Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome‘s raggedy punk centurions and Tina Turner’s post-aerobic post-apocalyptic fashions would easily qualify it.  Thunderdome is also the weirdest of the Mad Max series because of its emphasis on new post-civilization rituals: for example, the bizarre legal system of Bartertown, administered by a philosophical hunchback Magistrate of Ceremonies, where tort disputes are resolved by gladiatorial battles and a breach of contract results in a random punishment spun from a wheel of fortune.  But, even though Thunderdome is the oddest of the trilogy, it’s still basically just a creative Western dressed up with sci-fi trappings; it’s weird by summer blockbuster standards, but fails to sneak across the mass appeal genre-piece border.

COMMENTS:  The “Mad Max” series was the most inventive sci-fi/action hybrid of the 1980s, one which sparked a brief but fun post-apocalyptic cycle (which produced a few genuinely weird low-budget Mad Max knockoffs).  Each Mad Max film inhabited the same fascinating universe, a world of scarce resources, shaky alliances, and dying machines held together with spit and twine, but each was very different in tone.  All are recommended.  The original Mad Max was a dark, character-driven revenge drama that gained a cult following.  Mad Max 2, more commonly known as The Road Warrior, was a rollicking action piece that caught lightning in a bottle and inspired Hollywood to pump money into a sequel.  Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome was… well, it was what happens when the series gets a big head and tries to be a summer blockbuster.  The Tina Turner pop song that plays over the opening credits is shamelessly anachronistic and completely inappropriate for a Max movie, but it sets the tone of confused priorities that defines Thunderdome.  The movie flits uncomfortably between the exaggerated, radioactive Casablanca of Bartertown and the brave new Lord of the Flies meets Peter Pan world of the children’s tribe.  It’s also a movie that recycles and steals from other movies.  Popular elements from the Road Warrior are reused here.  The feral child has been transformed into an horde of tribal ragamuffins, Bruce Spence from Warrior reappears as a pilot (the character may be the same one from the previous movie; it’s never explained), and the finale is a shameless remake of Warrior‘s climax with a train substituting for the tanker.  There are also blatant references to Clint Eastwood spaghetti Westerns, and the children’s mangled language (“Time counts and keeps countin’, and we knows now finding the trick of what’s been and lost ain’t no easy ride”) is reminiscent of the made-up nasdat cant of A Clockwork Orange.  Maybe this reusing of old bits and pieces is appropriate in a movie about an emerging society being built on the ruins of another.  The overall effect is a movie that’s jumbled and uncentered, more than a bit loopy, but still lots of fun.  That overall goofiness, combined with the unique ramshackle look of the punk-barbarian world nearly, but not quite, tilts Thunderdome into the weird zone.

Rumors of a fourth Max movie have been circulating for over twenty years now, and continue as strong as ever.  I wouldn’t hold my breath.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a movie that strains at the leash of the possible, a movie of great visionary wonders.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: MAN BITES DOG [C’est arrivé près de chez vous] (1992)

AKA It Happened in Your Neighborhood

DIRECTED BY: Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel, Benoît Poelvoorde

FEATURING: Benoît Poelvoorde, Rémy Belvaux

PLOT:  A documentary crew follows a serial killer around on his daily rounds, becoming more and more complicit in his crimes as he slowly charms them, and eventually finances completion of the film with the money he steals from his victims.

man_bites_dog

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTMan Bites Dog starts with an absurd premise, that a camera crew would follow a serial killer around nonjudgmentally documenting his crimes, and follows that bizarre idea to its illogical conclusion. Once the concept is established, however, the film goes about its business with a stark realism that only rarely strays into absurd territory. The movie’s black humor and ironic celebration of violence don’t set out to give us a weird feeling; they are an intellectual attempt to disturb us, morally.

COMMENTS: Even though Man Bites Dog ultimately misses its satirical target, there is a lot to admire in the craft behind this experimental expedition from three Belgian student filmmakers.  Chief among them is the performance of Benoît Poelvoorde as the killer (also named Benoît). Poelvoorde inhabits the role with a cocky, credible naturalism that suggests he is playing himself, if only he made his living by killing old ladies and postmen for a handful of francs at a time.  As the subject of the documentary, the character of Benoît is fascinating, even when he’s not pumping bullets into a body.  He has the soul of a bad poet; a would be philosopher, he takes time to notice and pontificate on the finer things in life.   He’s capable of pausing in the middle of stalking a victim to notice some amorous doves, and discourse to the camera in hushed but knowledgeable tones about avian mating habits before resuming his hunt.  He’s also casually racist and homophobic, kind to his parents and girlfriend, constantly aware of the camera’s location and visibly anxious to make sure that it is always pointed in his direction.  He’s shamelessly unafraid to be captured on film, either killing or vomiting up a mix of wine and bad mussels, so long as he’s the center of attention.  Without such a strong, guiltily charming characterization centering the film, the extreme violence and cruelty of  Benoît’s rape and killing sprees would be unpardonable.

The film, ostensibly a black comedy, also has some very funny moments: Benoît is ambushed by a rival killer, only to find, after he dispatches him in a shootout, that his latest victim also had a camera crew following him around.  The juxtaposition between Benoît’s amiable public personality, exemplified in a conversation with his grandpa about the time the old man sold a sucker a department store-bought pair of panties claiming they belonged to Brigitte Bardot, and scenes where he discourses in a drolly businesslike manner about the various ballast ratios needed to sink bodies of adults, children and midgets, also provides an undercurrent of fun.  But unfortunately, although there are a few gems, most of the way the gags fail badly to find the correct balance between darkness and comedy, leaning much too far towards the former.  Most people find the child snuffing and gang rape/murder scene particularly, and needlessly, vile, but the Continue reading CAPSULE: MAN BITES DOG [C’est arrivé près de chez vous] (1992)

CAPSULE: THE TOXIC AVENGER PART III: THE LAST TEMPTATION OF TOXIE (1989)

DIRECTED BY: Michael Herz, Lloyd Kaufman

FEATURING: John Altamura, Phoebe Legere, Rick Collins, Ron Fazio

PLOT:  Apocalypse Inc. and their literally diabolic CEO dupe New Jersey superhero Toxie into working for them as a spokesman/executive so he can earn money for an operation to restore his fiancée’s sight.

Still from Toxic Avenger 3: The Last Temptation of Toxie

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  For the same reasons that The Toxic Avenger, Part II won’t make it.  The Last Temptation of Toxie is actually a bit weirder than the previous sequel; unfortunately, it’s also quite a bit worse.

COMMENTS:  There are two huge problems with this third installment in this mediocre series.  The first is that there is way too much plot: Toxie doesn’t kick ass from start to finish.  Instead, having completely rid the town of Tromaville of evil in the first two movies, he’s put himself out of work and has to find odd jobs to make ends meet.  He worries about financing a sight-restoring operation for Claire, hires on with Apocalypse, betrays his core values and becomes a soulless corporate suit… and it takes forever for the mutated avenger to find his moral compass again and get back to tearing off transvestite punk gangsters’ limbs.  This leads to the even more devastating second problem: the reason the movie seems so interminable is that, with no action sequences for most of the way, Temptation is forced to rely on it’s sense of humor to keep the audience from tuning out.  Although Toxic Avenger movies always get off a memorable one-liner or two (there’s a quotable and unexpected shot here at the Chevy Nova), the series isn’t capable of sustaining long stretches of comedy without resorting to gory sight gags.  Desperate to manufacture yuks, the producers resort to a “comic” trick they also used in Class of Nuke ‘Em High 3: they insert cartoon sound effects to accompany mundane actions (there’s a sound effect when Claire scratches her head, Toxie points his finger and we hear a bullet ricochet, etc).  The script also makes multiple self-aware references, e.g. “I’ll mop up Tromaville and make room for The Toxic Avenger 4!,” that suggest the writers were running out of gags fast.  All of this is a shame, because the two “temptation” fantasy sequences in Part III are actually well done, with nice budget art direction and memorable costuming: the dog-faced demon and the dancing girl in lurid blue body paint are suitably cheap demonic denizens of a bargain-basement Hell.  There’s also a nice transformation scene where the devil pops out of an executive, which is effective rather than campy, and a live action video game finale that’s just crazy enough to work.  It’s too bad that these few promising sequences are wrapped up in a uninvolving plot with lame humor substituting for the missing action. Also of note to some (you know who you are!) is the fact that this is the only Toxic Avenger entry without abundant nudity. It seems that, even though Phoebe Legere was signed for the back-to-back sequels, the contract with her breasts expired sometime between Part II and Part III, making this third entry a shockingly hooter-lite affair.

The Toxic Avenger Parts 2 & 3 were filmed back to back in 1989 with the same cast; there was enough extra footage from Part 2 that the studio decided to cobble together a third Avenger film from the leftovers.  Last Temptation is so badly conceived that it suggests that, even though Troma specializes in low budget guerrilla filmmaking, they can’t just go out into left field and wing it.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… this one doesn’t make any sense either. I loved it!–Joe Bob Briggs, Joe Bob Goes to the Drive-In (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THE TOXIC AVENGER, PART II (1989)

DIRECTED BY: Michael Herz, Lloyd Kaufman

FEATURING: John Altamura, Phoebe Legere, Rick Collins, Ron Fazio

PLOT:  Evil corporation Apocalypse, Inc., wanting to turn Tromaville into a toxic waste

Still from The Toxic Avenger, Part II (1989)

dump, lures the mutant superhero Toxie away to Japan to search for his father.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Films churned out by Troma Studios are low-budget affairs heavy on sex, violence and absurd comedy; they are weird compared to typical Hollywood fare, but they’re all similar compared to each other.  With the above-average effort Tromeo and Juliet representing the studio on the List of 366, it’s unlikely that any other Troma films will make it.

COMMENTS:  I am a contrarian.  I believe that The Toxic Avenger, Part II is actually a slightly better film than the original The Toxic Avenger.  The reason is the shift in tone from malicious teen revenge fantasy/comedy to pure comic spoof.   This sequel purges much of the mean-spiritedness from the original–such as the scenes where the audience is expected to identify with the Avenger as he stalks and kills half-naked girls from the upper crust of teen society–while still retaining it’s politically incorrect edge.  The original over-impressed viewers in 1984 due to its novelty and outrageousness, but viewed retrospectively, this sequel is just as bizarre and humorous (which is to say, very bizarre and mildly humorous).  The centerpiece fight scene comes early on, with Toxie dispatching and dismembering a seemingly endless variety of bizarrely costumed goons–a dog boy, a transvestite, a midget, and a number of rejected Village People characters–to the tune of “It Don’t Mean a Thing if it Ain’t Got that Swing.”   The scene is more extended and over-the-top than the restaurant holdup sequence in the original Avenger, and should satisfy fans of absurdist violence.  Once Toxie reaches Tokyo, he meets even more strange characters, including briefcase carrying, mohawk-wearing Japanese businessmen, and fights ninja duels with ridiculous props, including “throwing starfish” and a swordfish-like creature with a functioning chainsaw in place of the horn.  The jokes are aggressively lowbrow, but every now and then the Troma writers throw in something clever to remind you they’re not as stupid as some of the shamelessly lame slapstick gags might suggest–there’s a sly insertion of a David Mamet “quote” that’s laugh-out-loud funny.

The producers shot more footage for this sequel than they could use, so the assembled cast quickly finished off a second sequel, The Toxic Avenger Part III: The Last Temptation of Toxie and released it the same year.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“What happens when you take a movie that’s good stupid fun and take out the good fun?  Usually, you get a sequel…  Other Troma Inc., films, including the original ‘Avenger’ and ‘Class of Nuke ‘Em High,’ worked partly because there was a silly, surreal energy coursing through them. This sequel seems less inspired than calculated.”–Richard Harrington, The Washington Post (Toxic Avenger 2, contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THE LAND OF THE LOST (2009)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Danny McBride

PLOT:  Obnoxious scientist Rick Marshall discovers a way to go “sideways” in time to a world of dinosaurs, ape men, and lizard-like sleestaks in this science fantasy comedy.

landofthelost
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  It’s quite a challenge to adapt a 1970s television show about a family lost in a world of dinosaurs and alien creatures and not make it come off as too weird for mainstream audiences, but Brad Siberling managed this feat.  Other than a narcotic-induced group hallucination involving an exploding crab, the only truly weird thing about this critical flop is that the producers chose to reimagine a crazy cult kids’ show as a standard comedy to accommodate the talents of star Will Ferrell, thereby thumbing their noses at the potentially lucrative nostalgia market.

COMMENTSThe Land of the Lost is a sloppily crafted piece of Hollywood entertainment.  The jokes, frequently involving dinosaur pee and poop, are unimaginative and clearly aimed at middle school boys.  The plot is too episodic, with the stranded travelers wandering from set piece to set piece instead of creating tension and forward momentum in their quest to find the lost “tachyon amplifier” and return to their own world.  The script is awful, with minimal regard for logic or internal consistency: we get a doctoral candidate who is inexplicably able to translate alien ape tongues simply because it’s easier than thinking up a clever way to communicate by pantomime.  Antagonists disappear, without being dispatched, when they’re no longer needed.  It’s lazy screenwriting that screams “Will Ferrell’s signed, we’ve already made a fortune off this thing.  Let’s just grind out five acceptable punchlines for the trailer, knock off early and get this check deposited.”  The supporting characters are bland, but the biggest problem with the movie is with Will Ferrell’s Dr. Marshall.  He’s arrogant, dim, easily annoyed, weak-willed and vindictive, and there’s no reason for the audience to root for him.  Of course, by the middle of the film he undergoes standard-issue “character growth,” consisting of a speech on how he’s decided to mend his ways.  Now, we are now supposed to approve when he gets the girl, even though he’s still the same jerk he always was.  Yet, despite all these faults, Land of the Lost is actually not an irredeemably terrible movie.  It’s tolerable, in that insidious way Hollywood has of taking mediocre ingredients and making them palatable by pumping up the pace, throwing in a little spectacle, and focusing on pretty faces roaming around in pretty places.  The sets are imaginative and interesting, often consisting of stray junk (like an ice cream truck and a filled motel pool) that’s been sucked through a wormhole and plopped into the wilderness.  The action sequences are kinetic, if nonsensical at times.  Ferrell’s character and the script’s disregard for logic are annoying—the movie seems to taunt you with its lack of craftsmanship—but Land of the Lost is never boring, and it will play fine for its intended audience of tween boys.

Going in to the movie, I knew it would be bad; I was hoping it would be a delightfully huge bomb, which can make for a fun time, rather than the forgettable attempt it turned out to be.  By design, summer blockbusters marketed to mass audiences have little weird potential, but I felt obliged to check it out due to sprinkled quotes like the one from Eric Snider (below) and these others: “surprisingly bizarre” (N.V. Cooper, “E” Online), “[a]lways weird” (Todd Maurstad, The Dallas Morning News), “[t]his is one very weird movie” (Joanna Langfield),  “aggressively weird” (Brian Juergens), “incredibly strange experience” (Edward Douglas),  “too damn bizarre to hate” (Luke Thompson).  That sounds like a lot of votes for weird, but to put things in perspective, out of dozens and dozens of reviews, about the same number of critics thought the film was “funny.”

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Oh, what a weird movie this is… a wildly bizarre and frequently hilarious adventure that appears to be whacked-out by design, not out of sloppiness.”–Eric D. Snider, Film.com

CAPSULE: DRAG ME TO HELL (2009)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:  Sam Raimi

FEATURING: , Lorna Raver

PLOT: Seeking a promotion, a cute and kind-hearted loan officer decides to get tough with the wrong customer, denying a mortgage extension to an elderly gypsy woman who curses her with a demon that will torment her for three days before dragging her to hell.

Drag Me to Hell (2009) still

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  Because too much weirdness would have jeopardized Sam’s chance to direct the next Spiderman installment.

COMMENTS:  On the surface, Drag Me to Hell‘s blend of spurting body fluids, horror, and absurd slapstick bring to mind director Sam Raimi’s celebrated The Evil Dead 2Drag Me, however, isn’t nearly as anarchic or over-the-top with its carnage; and more importantly, it lacks the cabin-fever dream feel of Raimi’s weird wonderwork, substituting a standard ticking-clock suspense trope.  Rather than being comically unhinged, Drag Me to Hell instead feels tightly controlled, at times even micromanaged: a PG-13 Evil Dead for the cineplexes.  Not that that’s a bad thing: the movie is exactly what it’s intended to be, a spook-house carnival ride with abundant jump scares and grossout scenes to thrill the teenyboppers, along with plenty of black humor homages offered as a sop to fans of 1980s drive-in horror/comedy classics (such as the eyeball-related callback to Evil Dead 2, and the gleefully excessive catfight between a hottie and grannie using office supplies as weapons).  The diabolic plot is reminiscent of Jaques Tourneur’s 1957 classic Night of the Demon, retooled to focus on action and effects instead of oppressive ambiance.  Simultaneously satisfying the longing for classic Gothic atmosphere, the high spectacle quota demanded of blockbusters, and the nostalgia of longtime Raimi fans for those abandoned hip horror trips, Drag Me to Hell is a well-constructed, well-placed and welcome addition to Hollywood’s summer lineup.

Although it’s an entertaining movie, the enormously positive critical and audience reaction probably relates more to the relative crapiness of Hollywood’s recent efforts in the horror genre than to the inherent quality of this film.  After reviewing a seemingly endless parade of gory slaughterfest “reboots” of Halloween, Dawn of the Dead, Friday the 13th, ad nauseum, critics are eager to encourage an original supernatural script that doesn’t cynically depend on a massive bloody body count for effect. Audiences whose taste in old-fashioned spooky stories have been ignored in recent years are just thrilled to see anything arcane on the big screen.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

Raimi temporarily shrugs off the A-list status the Spider-Man movies earned him and returns to his disrespectable Evil Dead ways. The blood and guts may have been tamped way, way down, but the manic intensity and delirious mayhem of those earlier zombie romps remain intact.”–Rene Rodriguez, Miami Herald