Tuesday, September 24, 2013

You're Next (2011)

Some genres ends up following a lot of the same formula. There might be some variations and the occasional unique approach, but a lot of times, the music is similar no matter what song is playing. Slasher movies can get like that, and romantic comedies are especially bad about it. And then there's the "home invasion" movie. Whether it's a thriller like The Purge or a straightforward horror flick like The Strangers, home invasion movies can end up with a "seen one, seen 'em all" feeling.

I'm apparently not the only one to have noticed that, because the creative minds behind the movie You're Next seem to have taken that into consideration. Directed and written by a duo of up-and-coming filmmakers making names for themselves on the independent horror scene, You're Next is a movie made by people who know that formula by heart and put their own spin on it. It's not without its faults, but You're Next is one of the better home invasion movies in recent years.

As their thirty-fifth anniversary approaches, Paul (Rob Moran) and Aubrey Davison (Barbara Crampton) have assembled their children and their significant others at their remote Missouri cottage to celebrate. But the family reunion is a less than joyous occasion, as the siblings heatedly bicker amongst themselves. But before an argument between brothers Drake (Joe Swanberg) and Crispian (A.J. Bowen) at the dinner table can explode into anything further, things are cut short when a gang of masked thugs storm the house armed with a crossbow and machetes. As the assailants pick off the terrified family one by one, Crispian's girlfriend Erin (Sharni Vinson) puts her lifetime of survivalist training to good work by fortifying the house and arming herself with whatever she can find, determined to turn the predators into the prey.

I went into You're Next unsure of what to expect. The trailers and TV ads made it look like just another home invasion movie, only with a low budget. But when I walked out of the theater, I left surprised by the movie. I honestly didn't think it was particularly great, but I was impressed by how smart it is. The movie's creators have obviously seen a ton of movies like this, and chose to do things in a way that would subvert one's expectations. It's not a self-referential, tongue-in-cheek affair like Scream, but instead a sly twist on the genre's conventions.

The movie was directed by Adam Wingard, who did a fantastic job crafting it. He makes that shaky camerawork I've complained about so many times in the past look good, using it in a way that allows you to not only tell what's happening, but it helps add to the tension. He manages to build an "anything can happen" vibe, an atmosphere that makes you feel like the killers could be anywhere, waiting to strike or plotting their next move. Wingard uses this effectively, giving us some great scares and suspenseful moments. It gets downright tense at times, all due to Wingard's fine direction.

The script, meanwhile, isn't bad either. Written by frequent Wingard collaborator Simon Barrett, the script lends itself to some intelligent moments. Barrett has obviously seen a ton of movies like this, and uses what he's learned from them to create a more vicious game of cat and mouse. The killers are often thinking one step ahead, setting things up that would deter any escape plan someone with a modicum of common sense could come up with. With a lot of horror movies, you might find yourself wondering why the characters don't just charge out the front door and run to freedom. The killers in You're Next have thought of that and planned for it. They've even got plans for when the plans go awry.

Barrett also makes an incredibly smart move by having the movie's "Final Girl" immediately take charge once things go to hell. Not five minutes after the killers make themselves known, she's boarding up windows, setting booby traps, and finding anything that she could potentially use as a weapon to defend herself. Most Final Girls wouldn't think to do that until the movie's nearing the climax, and it's refreshing to see a level-headed character take charge so quickly.

If there's one real drawback to the movie, it's the cast. I had a hard time getting into the movie at first thanks to some really awful, melodramatic acting, but once the herd got thinned out, it helped a lot. The truth is the majority of the cast is forgettable. I understand that most of the actors are just there to be fodder for the killers, but that's no excuse for bad acting. The only person I thought made a positive impact was Sharni Vinson. She's awesome, playing her character like a total badass. Her character is the only competent character in the movie, and Vinson makes the most of it. She's strong, likable, and captivating, and I'm honestly looking forward to seeing more from her in the future.

Lionsgate picked up the distribution rights to You're Next in 2011, not long after its premiere at that year's Toronto International Film Festival. It wound up spending two years collecting dust, sitting on a shelf awaiting a national release that wouldn't come until late last month. I don't know why it took so long for Lionsgate to release the movie, but it does work in the movie's favor in a sense. It gave Wingard and Barrett time to make names for themselves on the indie horror scene with their contributions to the anthology flicks V/H/S, The ABCs of Death, and V/H/S/2, and it's that street cred that drew me to You're Next. But while their work here is exemplary, the movie itself as a whole is just okay at best. It's worth seeing if you're a fan of movies like this, but you're not missing anything if you choose to skip it. (And considering that I don't think it's playing theatrically anymore, you're probably stuck waiting for it to pop up on DVD or on-demand anyway.) But now that You're Next has seen its release, I do wonder what's next for its creators. That's something I'd want to see.

Final Rating: ***

Friday, September 13, 2013

Friday the 13th Part III (1982)

Hollywood has pretty much beaten the concept of 3D movies into the ground over the last few years. It seems like every big studio blockbuster is either filmed in or converted to 3D whether it suits the movie or not. I mean, did Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby need to be released in 3D? Was Titanic begging for a 3D re-release? But if you think this gimmick is something relatively recent, you're quite mistaken. If you take a trip back to the '50s, you'd find a ton of horror and science fiction movies hitting theaters and drive-ins in 3D. Clint Eastwood even made his big-screen debut in a 3D movie, the 1955 "Universal Monster" movie Revenge of the Creature.

The "golden era" of 3D fizzled out as the '50s came to an end. But the gimmick went through a brief revival during the '80s, which included movies like the poorly-received third entries in the Jaws and Amityville Horror franchises. But the one movie from that period that always caught my eye was Friday the 13th Part III. I have never and will never hide my affection for the Friday the 13th movies, and as a fan of the 3D gimmick when it's used effectively, I can totally get behind the idea of my favorite horror movie franchise going into the third dimension. So considering that today is Friday the 13th, let's take a look back at the lone 3D entry into the saga of Jason Voorhees.

Twenty-four hours after the end of Part 2, word of the horrific events that took place is starting to trickle out to the news media. But this is of no concern to Chris (Dana Kimmell) and her friends, who have rented some property overlooking Crystal Lake for a weekend of fun and relaxation. While Chris wants to use the weekend to rekindle her relationship with an old flame named Rick (Paul Kratka), someone else has other plans. Jason Voorhees (Richard Brooker) is still alive and passing through the area, and when Jason's in town, people are going to die.

Hollywood has really been trying to cram the 3D format down our throats lately, seemingly trying to convince us that it can be a storytelling tool instead of just the silly gimmick it really is. It wasn't always like that, as the brief 3D revival during the '80s didn't even attempt to hide that movies were using it as a cheap way to draw people in. Friday the 13th Part III fully embraces it, throwing things out at the audience and reveling in its own cheesiness. And it's all the more fun for it.

Director Steve Miner returns to for his second consecutive Friday the 13th movie, and his work is only slightly improved over what he did with the second one. The biggest difference is how Miner puts the cinematography to use. There are some really fantastic crane shots and other bits of camerawork that really work in the movie's favor. Granted, a lot of it is done with the intent of playing with the 3D first and foremost, but they're still done with a flair that adds some personality to the movie.

Unfortunately, Miner falls into a lot of the same traps that plagued him during the making of Friday the 13th Part 2. There are more than a few moments where it feels like he's just remaking the first movie, right down to a similar jump scare at the very end. The kills are really the only elements of Part III that feel like they have any originality. Miner does manage to build some suspense and elicit some scares, but there's not a lot that really elevates it from "okay" to "good."

Miner does, however, exploit the 3D effects for all they're worth. I don't know how good it looked during the movie's theatrical release so long ago, but judging by what I have seen, the 3D isn't bad at all. While a lot of modern 3D movies use it to add depth to the picture, Friday the 13th Part III came from a day and age where 3D was only used to shove things into the viewer's face. Anything and everything will come flying at you in this movie. There are simple things like yo-yos and popping popcorn, but it escalates from there. Spears, axes, knives, machetes, pitchforks, some poor victim's eyeball, and even Jason himself will come after you in this movie. It makes the movie look kinda corny if you watch it in standard 2D, but in 3D, it's awesome.

But while Miner's direction is serviceable and the 3D effects work well, everything else is just there. Take, for example, the script credited to Martin Kitrosser and Carol Watson. Unless you're going to do some sort of postmodern satire in the vein of Scream or Behind the Mask, the script is probably the least important element of a slasher movie. I totally understand that. But Kitrosser and Watson have written something so dull that I'm surprised nobody tried telling them to punch it up a little. There's only one really likable character, the dialogue is trite, and the attempt to add a little backstory for the movie's "Final Girl" by having her seemingly assaulted by Jason as a kid seems tacked on and frankly, a little goofy. I'm not expecting something amazing out of the script for a slasher movie, but Kitrosser and Watson could have at least come up with something a little better.

And frankly, the movie's cast is pretty bad too. Again, I know I'm not getting any award-worthy performances out of a movie like this, but give me a break here. David Katims and Rachel Howard are particularly awful as a pare of blatant Cheech and Chong wannabes, while Dana Kimmell is just plain boring as the movie's "Final Girl." Maybe it's me, but Kimmell doesn't really elicit any sympathy, to the point that I probably would have rather seen the alternate, deleted ending where Jason chops her head off.

Only two actors out of the ensemble really stood out in my eyes. One was Larry Zerner, who plays his character with a ton of enthusiasm. You can tell that Zerner's having fun just being on the set, and he makes the character worth watching. I really liked Zerner a lot, and it's a bummer his character ended up being a victim.

The other standout actor is the late Richard Brooker as Jason. Brooker's Jason might not be mentioned in the same breath as the ever-popular Kane Hodder, but Brooker is still a force to be reckoned with. He makes Jason a real monster here, one that you know absolutely will not stop until he's butchered everyone in his way. I enjoyed Brooker in the role, and he really should be regarded highly on the list of those who've played Jason.

Unfortunately, I can't really call this movie one of my favorite Friday the 13th movies. It has its moments, but it's mostly just a forgettable entry in that venerable franchise. It's still worth seeing, primarily for the 3D and the origins of Jason's famous hockey mask, but Friday the 13th Part III is one of those movies that you could skip and not feel like you've missed anything. But then even at its worst, how can you go wrong with a Jason movie?

Final Rating: **½

Sunday, September 8, 2013

The World's End (2013)

If you're a fan of British humor or just comedy in general, then you've hopefully heard of the "Three Flavors Cornetto" trilogy. Three unique genre spoofs united by the brief appearance of Cornetto ice cream in each one, the movies introduced Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, and Nick Frost ― who had earlier collaborated on the awesome British sitcom Spaced ― to the world. They got the trilogy rolling lampooning zombies and romantic comedies in 2004 with Shaun of the Dead, before getting back together in 2008 to have a go at action movies with Hot Fuzz. But the trilogy has to come to a close, which is where the appropriately-titled The World's End comes in. The movie takes Wright, Pegg, and Frost into science fiction territory with an alien invasion, and The World's End makes for a fine ending to the Three Flavors Cornetto saga.

Gary King (Pegg) has long viewed June 22, 1990, as the happiest day of his life. It was on that day that he and four friends ventured out onto the "Golden Mile," a twelve-stop pub crawl in their hometown of Newton Haven. They didn't make it to the end of the Golden Mile, but just making the attempt was so much fun that Gary has spent the two intervening decades trying to recapture that thrill.

Now an irresponsible man-child in his forties, Gary wants to make another attempt at finishing the Golden Mile. His old friends ― Andy Knightley (Frost), Steven Prince (Paddy Considine), Oliver Chamberlain (Martin Freeman), and Peter Page (Eddie Marsan) ― initially want nothing to do with him. They've all grown up, started families, and moved on with their lives, while Gary hasn't grown up one bit since 1990. But being the master schemer he is, Gary succeeds in convincing all of them to join him on his quest.

Their return to Newton Haven gets off to a somewhat rocky start, as Gary's off-the-wall antics serve as a continuing reminder why the others stopped hanging out with him in the first place. Another wrench gets thrown into the gears when Oliver's sister Sam (Rosamund Pike) arrives in town visiting some old friends, rekindling Gary and Steven's old rivalry for her affections. But it isn't long until they begin to notice something truly amiss. It starts simple, as the pubs all look alike and the townsfolk all seem oddly subdued. Things escalate when a fight between Gary and a local teenager leads to the discovery that Newton Haven's residents have secretly been replaced with mechanical duplicates from another world. You would think that an alien invasion of this sort would warrant fleeing town and never looking back, but Gary is bound and determined to see the pub crawl through and drag the others kicking and screaming to the Golden Mile's final stop, a fabled pub called The World's End.

If The World's End is indeed the grand finale for Wright, Pegg, and Frost's Cornetto saga, then that trilogy has ended with a high note. I won't lie and call it the best of the three, but The World's End is still a satisfying flick that I genuinely enjoyed. It's a tremendous blend of action, adventure, humor, and heart, a rare gem in a summer that was full of disappointing and mediocre blockbusters.

Like the two previous entries in this so-called trilogy, Edgar Wright sits at the helm of this particular adventure. His movies have all been comedies in some form or fashion, but he's approached each of them with a different, unique flair that makes them all stand out in their own ways. The World's End is no different, and is further proof of just how talented a director Wright can be. He manages to visually capture a sense of wistful nostalgia for the first half of the movie, and as the movie transitions from a simple comedy into an all-out alien invasion, Wright creates some big action sequences out of modest tools.

With a moderately low budget and a small town setting, a less-than-capable director might not have been able to pull off what Wright does here. He excels in making movies feel bigger and grander than their budgets would probably allow, and that's none more evident than in this movie. Things start low-key and it flows quite well, but when things get kicked into high gear during the second half of the movie, Wright brings us some awesome action sequences. You would think that fight scenes involving incredibly drunk businessmen in their forties against robots from another planet would be more silly than anything else, but Wright constructs them in such a way that they're both funny and exciting. One particular sequence sees Simon Pegg's character try to avoid spilling a pint of beer while maneuvering through a brawl, and it's some of the most entertaining action I've seen in a while.

Wright and Simon Pegg's script, meanwhile, is strong despite some flaws. Those flaws are more in the narrative than anything else. I mean, I know the characters are all three sheets to the wind, but who in their right minds would continue on this pub crawl after everything that happens to them? The characters even debate fleeing more than once but keep at it anyway! Granted, I would expect Pegg's character to keep at it regardless, but one would think that the other characters would retain even a little common sense or self-preservation instinct despite their inebriation. But then again, we wouldn't have much of a movie if the cast ran away forty-five minutes into it, would we?

Beyond that, though, Wright and Pegg have written a fine script. Their takes on zombie movies and action flicks were obviously love letters to those genres written by diehard fans, and they've done the same for alien invasion movies with The World's End. They've written what is basically a comedic spin on Invasion of the Body Snatchers with a dash of The Stepford Wives thrown in for good measure, and while I didn't think it was quite as witty in regard to parodying the genre's tropes as Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz were, Wright and Pegg have still successfully written something fun.

The jokes come fast and are all hilarious, but Wright and Pegg have written more than just a comedy. It's basically a movie centered around the old saying "you can't go home again." This is none more evident than in Pegg's character. Nearly two and a half decades have passed since Gary and his friends attempted to run the Golden Mile, and he's spent every waking moment of his adult life wanting to relive that day. He still wears the same clothes, drives the same beat-up car, listens to the same music on the same cassette tape he had that day, all in an effort to find a happiness that was in one fleeting moment so long ago.

His friends have all grown up and moved on, while Gary's unhealthy focus on his glory days have led him to a not-so-glorious present. He's possibly the most fascinating character Wright and Pegg have ever written, due to his vulnerability and complexity. He wants to be the cool, Fonzie-like guy, but beneath the surface is a boy who was ill-equipped to deal with the pressures of adulthood. Wright and Pegg use this to make The World's End deeper than it would initially lead you to believe, and the movie is better for it.

But where the movie shines brightest is its cast. The group of actors assembled here each provide something to the movie, no matter how small or poorly defined their roles may be. In roles so tiny they might as well be labeled cameos, David Bradley and Pierce Brosnan are a ton of fun. Rosamund Pike is sadly underutilized in an underwritten role, but she still does her best with what she has to work with. Martin Freeman provides some funny moments, while Eddie Marsan is likable and sympathetic. Paddy Considine, meanwhile, is understated in his role. He doesn't stand out quite as much as the other four members of the group, but he still makes a fine contribution regardless.

But the stars of the movie are undoubtedly Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. Their usual roles are reversed this time around, with Pegg as the troublemaker and Frost as the straight man. Frost is actually great in his role, playing the part with a bit of seriousness I've never seen out of characters he's played in the past. Pegg, on the other hand, alternates between a wild, madcap demeanor and a deeper sadness that lies just under the surface. I noted earlier that Pegg's character is a man who never really got a handle on the stresses of adulthood. He's trying to cover the depression that's caused with a "party all the time" attitude while drowning his sorrows in gallons of booze, and Pegg's performance brings that to life. It's a fine bit of acting that Pegg should be proud of.

The World's End hasn't exactly set the American box office on fire since its release a few weeks ago. That doesn't stop it from being a great ride, though. The movie is an absolute blast from beginning to end, with cool action sequences, hilarious jokes and gags, and the feeling that it was made by a group of people who truly believed in what they were doing. You can tell that The World's End was a real labor of love for everybody involved. The movie's got a few flaws, sure, but they've made a great flick that's worth your time. And I don't drink, but if I knew I'd get to fight some alien robots, I'd go on pub crawls all the time.

Final Rating: ***½