Aisle of the Damned: 10/31/16- Patrick Stewart Eating from the Trash

Better than the Magnanimous Six

Bryan Lip-crypts and Kent Holle-ween are having you set your podcast dial to spooky as we shamelessly jump on the bandwagon and give our Top 10 favorite horror films of the 21st century. Before that though, we talk about Ash vs Evil Dead, the new Magnificent Seven, Storks and Shin Godzilla. We also discuss the Logan trailer, a couple of major hits losing their directors for the sequels and the possibility of a third Cloverfield coming soon. Oh, and JACK FROST IS COMING TO BLU RAY.

All this and less on Aisle of the Damned!

The Aquabats- 
Stuck in a Movie
John Zacherle- Coolest Little Monster

Kent’s Damned Movie Reviews: Kick Ass 2

Hi-it Girl, Hi-it Girl, jumpin' round like a rabid squirrel...

“Well, that was better than the comic, anyway.”

So said my friend Nate as we left Kick Ass 2. At this point I’m pretty sure Mark Millar’s business card should say, “Comics that make decent movies in the hands of people with better story sense.”

Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate his Superman Adventures run as much as anyone, but looked at against their comic counterparts, his original ideas adapted to film (Wanted and Kick Ass, at least) have been improvements over their source material.

Kick Ass 2 picks up a few years after the original film and, aside from a couple of unsatisfyingly thrown aside threads left over from the first movie, it provides a comparable experience. It could also test my ability to continue to write PG-13 reviews given what exists within its frames.

The first was a pretty clear case of the trappings of exploitation cinema being grafted onto an existing genre template, in this case the superhero film. Slapping the excesses of violence and other “extremes” onto a storyline that was clearly inspired by the highly familiar Spider-Man films resulted in a movie that was a fun counterpoint to the family-friendly violence of the Marvel films. What the name for it is, I don’t know, but since everything has to end in “-sploitation” (nazploitation, nunsploitation, blaxploitation) I think I’ll go with capesploitation. Admittedly I haven’t seen too many other American films outside this series that would fit into the subgenre except for James Gunn’s schizophrenically toned Taxi-driver meditation, Super. I’m sure some other folks could throw further examples at me.

With the original, it was really Hit Girl that made the movie. The purple-clad, uber-violent Mindy Macready has got to be my pick for one of the absolute most iconic, touchtone characters in film from the last ten years. (There’s a reason I have a British poster from the original release featuring her on my wall.) To some it was the sticking point that kept them from enjoying the movie. To me, Chloe Grace Moretz’s performance lifted the film to something special. Her relationship with Nic Cage’s “Big Daddy” (in full Adam West mode) basically stole the film right out from under the eponymous character who was, thankfully, more likable than Tobey Maguire and his glassy-eyed stare.

The sequel is smart enough to give equal time to Kick Ass and Hit Girl, following both of them as Dave (Aaron Johnson) tries to get back into the superhero game while Mindy does her best to leave it behind. Frankly, this film does a better job of explaining someone with a damaged psyche going into retirement than Dark Knight Rises. And make no mistake, while Hit Girl is shown as heroic, it makes no bones about the fact that she is damaged. Her attempts to integrate herself into high school society show that there’s little difference between the halls and the streets. It’s no wonder she wants no part of the “ordinary” experience as she goes from one extreme role model in Big Daddy to the another in the popular girls of her school. Compared to that clique, drug dealers are easy to figure out. I have to think it was purposeful that, while Grace actually looks to be the age of the character she’s playing, many of her classmates are cast to be the 20-somethings that regularly populate shows and movies set in high school and it just provides more contrast for this relationship. Is it going to be as shocking to see a 15-year old girl killing and maiming as it was when she was younger? No. Joss Whedon and all the “girl power” acolytes that have been slinging out the now well-established teen girl-as-badass archetype have taken care of that. But she continues to take the movie on her shoulders and for those that actually liked the character and didn’t simply like the first movie on the basis of shock value, it shouldn’t be an issue.

As it is, there’s still plenty of violence to be had, some dished out by Hit Girl and some of it from new characters.

Most of the new additions to the cast work well. For all his post-production whining, Jim Carrey’s Col. Stars and Stripes does a good job recreating some of the weird energy that Nic Cage brought to the first film, even if he doesn’t manage to be his equal. The new heroes and villains are all ridiculous and fun with varying degrees of success. Chritopher Mintz-Plasse is back as Chris D’Amico, making good on his threat at the end of the first film to come back, declaring himself the world’s first supervillain. The name he chooses is part of what threatens my family-friendly rating. Early on he abandons his Red Mist moniker and declares himself The Mother****er. I’m sure you can fill in the blanks. Surprisingly, John Leguizamo has a fairly major part in the film, grounding it in the early stages. This is somewhat important given the way it can’t seem to decide if it’s supposed to be taking place in the primary-colored comic book world or the “real world” that the characters talk about so much in the film.

And if there’s one problem I did have with Kick Ass 2 it is this. Sometimes it simply can’t decide what it is. It’s a blender full of ultraviolence, capes and teen comedy, but they also seem to be giving a half-assed effort to elevate the material with a message that can’t seem to quite get out; the old “violence begets violence” chestnut. This is at odds with how they present the other message of the film about regular people making a difference, however. As such, it’s confused about what the underlying theme is.

While I loved how the look of the first film seemed a direct response/send-up of Raimi’s Spider-Man (especially the original film) the second, while certainly striving to create a visual dynamic that matches the first, seems less interested in capturing that specific stylistic choice. I suppose that’s really what’s been lost with Matthew Vaughn being only a producer instead of coming back to direct this chapter. Vaughn simply was more interesting visually. One thing I can’t believe I haven’t seen before given how well it works is the use of word balloons as subtitles. On the plus side, the actions scenes, as they are, seem to be slightly improved and in terms of quality and inventiveness there are a couple of them that whooped the heck out of most stuff seen in this summer’s more expensive Wolverine film. I definitely found myself audibly expressing pain at how some of the characters meet their makers.

On this end the film is absolutely entertaining and I recommend that people who enjoyed the first one check it out. For those that found the first film repugnant or offensive, I can’t think of a single reason they would find the second redeeming. For me, it was well worth the trip.

(Three and a half damns given out of five.)

Kent’s Damned Movie Reviews: Evil Dead

I'll swalla ya soul!

It may come as a shock to people, but I feel it necessary to open up with this confession; I’m not a fan of The Evil Dead.

I’ll give you a moment to compose yourselves. See, I think Evil Dead 2 is an unmitigated masterpiece and I’ve seen Army of Darkness a few dozen times thanks to the Oscar-worthy performance of Bruce Campbell. But I have always found the first Evil Dead to have a tone that I couldn’t get into. It was too silly to be scary, but it wasn’t silly enough to be funny. Sure, there’s a lot of the inventive camera work and energy that would put Sam Raimi on the road to becoming the captain of blockbusters he is today, but for the most part I’ve always seen it as a pretty run of the mill, low-budget 80s horror film. And of those films, it has never struck me as the rip-roaring, tree-raping, scream-inducing good time that a lot of cult cinema fans have found it to be. I’ve always found it to be one of the rare instances in which the sequels are unquestionably better than the original film. Understandably so, given it was Raimi’s first film.

Perhaps that’s why, while I was not particularly enthused when it was announced that there would be a remake, my head did not fully rotate 360 degrees from my outrage while steam poured from my ears. Besides, Evil Dead 2 is basically a remake of the first film. The first twenty minutes or so of it, anyway. I just kind of figured it would be another case of a 70s/80s horror film being remade, maybe managing to spit out a sequel, and then slowly migrating into the dollar DVD bin at Wal-Mart while the original continues to be the one that people think of when the name is brought up. (Looking at you, Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, Friday the 13th, My Bloody Valentine, Texas Chainsaw Massacre…)

One thing that does seem to initially cause a seismic shift in that way of thinking is that Raimi, along with his old cohorts Campbell and Rob Tapert, are producers of this particular installment in what apparently is taking a calculated move from “cult favorite that died off when Army of Darkness didn’t make money” to “franchise.” Since Raimi is busy making mediocre movies with James Franco, we are instead being led by first time director Fede Alvarez. Honestly, I’m still trying to decide how good a job he did. There are definitely scares in the movie, mostly of the “jump” variety, but the tension never ratchets up to the levels it could under the hands of a more seasoned director. Also some of the performances are stiff and wooden, especially Shiloh Fernandez as the male lead, David. Doing much better (though with some questionable moments kept in that I can’t quite blame her for) is Jane Levy as his sister Mia, a heroin addict taken to the cabin in the woods by David, his girlfriend, and a couple of old friends: a stubborn nurse and a dick high school teacher. They’re finally getting her sober and making her stick to it. What follows is a film that never quite seems like a straight remake, but is never original enough to not be a remake. Shots and plot devices are stolen directly from the first two films in the original trilogy, which acted as a double edged sword; part of me thought the references were fun, while part of me was taken out of the movie by them. Not to mention, there are a couple of things in the film that point to it being a direct sequel to the original series, which makes little sense under any kind of continuity. (But which Raimi’s subsequent comments on how the story is planned to move forward, and a tiny stinger after the end credits, seems to substantiate.)

In some ways, it’s hard to watch this kind of film in a post-Cabin in the Woods world. That film did such a good job skewering this exact kind of film, while also elevating it, that I almost expected Richard Jenkins to suddenly show up after a jump cut. Perhaps this is another reason that the film seems to purposefully shy away from any self-referential humor, though I think it was in production before Cabin finally was released. It’s odd, but the clumsily obvious metaphor of the demons of drug addiction is one of the things that seems to work well in differentiating it from the original series and, thanks to Levy’s performance, ultimately helps the film, grounding it before the supernatural shenanigans start, thanks to the dick teacher reading from the Naturom Demonto, a generic brand version of the original Book of the Dead, seemingly designed by a metal album cover artist and defaced by a kid in study hall.

One thing that is not in short supply is gore. A lot of the movie just plain hurts to watch. There is a balancing act that is mostly pulled off, in which gore goes from gooey and weird to ultra realistic. Once again, it creates a bit of a tonal issue for me, like the original film does. But when it is just going for squirm-inducing moments, the lack of CGI absolutely helps sell the pain. It is not a film for the easily queasy. There were a couple of moments that had me thinking about covering my eyes and I’m even a bit surprised it managed to get an R-rating.

By the ending, the film does go very over the top. It is obvious the tone is still not intended to be overly comedic, but without daring reveal anything about it, the finale is crazy enough that it is exciting and fun. It was here that things seemed to really gel for me and the film ultimately won me over. I’m not sure exactly what it was that got me over the hump, but things just finally merged into a whole that made me curious to see what is to come from the already announced sequel.

(Three damns out of five)

Kent’s Damned Move Reviews: Oz the Great and Powerful

F5. Finger of God

After all the trailers, it was obvious that Disney was trying to sell Sam Raimi’s Oz: The Great and Powerful as the second coming of Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. Thankfully, that’s not entirely the case.

Firstly, Oz actually lends itself more to this kind of thing. When the hero’s journey was grafted onto Alice, it felt out of place because Lewis Carroll’s novels are dreamlike and episodic. They flit from one fancy to the next, never worrying about plot or theme, but only caring about fun and cleverness. The Oz books, however, are more about the journey and when you slap the fact that the original film version was very much that type of film, it makes much more sense to go back to that well. It’s also a prequel that sort of makes sense; I mean, how did that guy get to be the “Wizard of Oz” when he’s just a dude behind a curtain? Wouldn’t someone have noticed?

Admittedly, I’m not the ideal candidate to review this film because I hate the Judy Garland film. Haaaaaate it. H-A-T-E. Hated it as a kid and never wanted to go back for another go as an adult. However, if only from growing up in Kansas and having popular culture (and a lot of Californians, if no one else) shove it down my poor throat, I’ve kept a lot of it through simple osmosis. What Raimi’s done here, whether the film is successful as a whole or not, is commendable and should be a pleasure for fans as he’s managed to capture a lot of the spirit and aesthetic of that experience while managing to neatly side-step the toes of MGM. (Disney may have the rights to much of Oz, but not to the original film.) The music by Danny Elfman adds to the film, even though it sounds so much like generic Elfman that the main theme that echoes seems only a few notes shy of being the Jack and Sally theme from Nightmare Before Christmas.

After one of the better opening credits sequences I’ve seen in a while, the film settles in to an Academy ratio screen (think your old TV set) in glorious black and white. It’s turn of the century Kansas and Oz (James Franco) is a carnival magician. And for a carnival magician, he’s pretty good. He manages to incorporate people’s expectations into his act in order to make things even more “magical.” But apparently, his audience is made up of morons that aren’t familiar with the concept of stage magic and want him to become a revival preacher that can heal the sick. It’s a little tough to swallow and feels like kind of a misstep, though thematically it makes sense later in the picture. To escape a beating, Oz (aka Osbourne) takes off in his hot air balloon and winds up swallowed by a tornado. It’s this point that I was actually wishing I’d been able to see the film in 3D since the sequence is full of tricks that look like they’d be fun and Raimi is the kind of showman kook to throw them in there because they’re fun.

As he is spit-up by the tornado, he finds himself exactly where you’d expect to find him, the land of Oz. At this point, the film expands to vivid, almost overwhelming, color and takes up the entire screen. Oz finds himself welcomed by Theodora (Mila Kunis), one of three witches that will help determine his fate of the stranger in the even stranger land. Along the way, it follows another motif of the original film in which he gathers companions that have Kansas counter-parts like the flying monkey he adopts voiced by Zach Braff, who also plays his assistant in the carnival.

As much visual wow as Raimi throws at the audience, the film still ultimately falls on the shoulders of Franco and that’s where it falters. Franco has absolutely been good in things. I have an affinity for anyone that was a member of the Freaks and Geeks ensemble and he was actually one of the bright spots in the studio-tinkered Spider-Man III while Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst were a bit lost. But the way Oz is written, it relies on him being able to play a charming asshole. A lovable rogue. A scoundrel, as Princess Leia might put it. And when the film was initially being developed, Robert Downey Jr. was to be in the title roll, a decision that makes complete sense. But Franco just can’t make it work. There’s very little difference between his acting and when he’s acting… like he’s… acting. Anyway, it would take a very nuanced performance and Franco is playing it big and broad practically the entire time. There’s enough ham there to keep him out of a Jewish deli. Of the other performers in the film, Michelle Williams seems to exonerate herself the best, bringing some interesting shades to Glinda while Rachel Weisz is good but one note and Mila Kunis somehow manages to be very good at displaying naive vulnerability, but seems to be stilted, perhaps because of the dialogue.

I’ll give the film a middling review because I saw it as a middling film. If you’re a big Oz fan, I could see enjoying it a lot more than I did. Even if the ending can’t help but feel like a placeholder due to the demands of the story.

(Two and a half damns out of five)

Kent’s Damned Movie Reviews: The Amazing Spider-Man

Doin' whatever a parkour man can.

The biggest issue with The Amazing Spider-Man is the deja vu feeling of “been there, done that.” It’s not a bad movie, but it’s not an improvement over the film that cropped up ten years ago with Tobey Maguire (though it certainly seems to think it’s more important.)

While the Sam Raimi movies ended with a thud in 2007 with the studio-asphyxiated Spider-Man 3, the first two are still mostly highly regarded. Raimi’s high-octane direction and the bright, comic book visuals helped sell the film’s reality (even as the characters just seemed a little off.) While the current film should be measured on its own merits, there are definitely comparisons to be made to the original films, both good and bad, and they’re pretty inescapable given the short amount of time between them.

In the good category, the cast is just stronger. Whilst Andrew Garfield’s Peter Parker retains all the emo-ness of Maguire’s performance over this retread of the origin story (sometimes to a far more annoying extreme as he begins withdrawing from the world in a bipolar division of excessive highs in which he discovers the extent of his new powers and angst-fueled, violent breakdowns), he embodies the modern look of the character to a higher degree and manages to hew closer to the smartass on the page that quips while taking down hoods and ridiculous villains. Martin Sheen is no improvement over the original Uncle Ben (Cliff Roberson), but he is given more to do. Sally Field is still not much like either the original or “Ultimate” Aunt May, but she isn’t the bizarre choice that Rosemary Harris’ Scandinavian hausfrau was. Flash Thompson gets a chance to be a real character and there’s a nice smattering of recurring incidental characters that help make the high school seem more realistic. (Even as Garfield and Emma Stone are pretty obviously far too old to be playing the characters.) Dennis Leary takes over as Captain Stacy from the barely there James Cromwell in the third film and does a great job underplaying his usual Leary-isms. The biggest improvement is Stone, whose Gwen Stacy manages to take a character that has not been around in decades and imbue her with a fresh, modern take that makes her the pinnacle of the pixie girl, even while wearing the same clothes as her 1960’s counterpart. She perfectly embodies the girl beloved by Marvel Zombies for generations and shows why Peter would fall for her (and why we may all be super sad in the future if the films follow the comics.) She blows away Kirsten Dunst’s Mary Jane, whose odd amalgamation of Gwen and Mary Jane Watson simply never gelled. In the villain department, The Lizard looks goofy, but as a bad guy he’s a welcome addition. Like Garfield though, he often seems to be playing two different characters at times in ways that can’t be explained just by his transformation into a big Sleestak.

The most maddening thing about the film is that it often seems to be trying too hard to set up a dense mythology and set-up sequels at the expense of the film that’s unspooling. This is done to a greater degree than Iron Man 2, which was criticized for some of the same things. Subplots about Peter’s parents’ disappearance and death at the hands of some shadowy, vague conspiracy simply do not work and seem to point to larger mistakes to come where Peter will be set up as a “chosen one.” This already puts the character in danger of losing the everyman appeal that makes up a lot of the reason the character enjoys the large fanbase he does. When dealing with a character who is already a scientific genius with super-powers and a highly attractive girlfriend, it’s a tough tightrope to walk and Amazing Spider-Man threatens him falling from it. It’s common for entertainment properties to set themselves up as ready made franchise trilogies these days, with seeds of future films sprinkled throughout chapters. In some cases this certainly works, like the Harry Potter novel and film series. But in the case of Spider-Man, this is something that has never been a part of the story or character (and retcons to his story to do so in the comics have had disastrous results like the infamous “Sins of the Past” storyline.)

The other unfortunate thing about the film is that in seeking to differentiate itself from the Raimi films, it tries to copy the type of design and cinematography that have accompanied Nolan’s existential Batman flicks. Blues and grays are all over and it seems like an oddly large portion of the film takes place at night. And it’s not just the dour visuals that they’ve copied, but a good portion of the film feels like it is a template lifted directly from Batman Begins. The good thing is that they try to insert humor enough that it never feels too heavy for a Spider-film and keeps it from falling into a black hole of Gotham. Unfortunately, because of the color palate partially, it also doesn’t feel like most of the film takes place in New York, but rather some generic city. Still, at least effects technologies have come far enough in ten years that regardless of the city he’s swinging around, it looks very good.

With all this kvetching, it certainly must sound like it’s a bad film, but the truth is, it’s not. In parts, the action is exciting, the humor is funny and the performances are excellent. It probably has the best Stan Lee cameo of any of the Marvel films. There are plenty of reasons to watch it. While there are ridiculous parts to the film (especially a scene involving a huge coincidence and a bunch of cranes), when the film isn’t about selling you on a sequel, it’s usually a lot of fun. It’s easier to write up gripes than compliments, but the characters usually work and that’s the most important thing.

It’s just not, well, amazing.

(Three stars out of five)