Dragon Con Announcement!

I’ve stated this plenty of times via social media, but I will be heading to Dragon Con this weekend! I’m not just an observer, though. I’ll also be doing panels under the Horror Track along with the co-hosts of my various podcasts Doc Rotten, Santos Ellin Jr, Christopher G. Moore and Bill Mulligan! We’ll be doing panels on everything from Phantom of the Paradise to the 20th anniversary of Scream! For a full list of the panels, click here.

Other Works:

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“Don’t Breathe” (2016): You Won’t Be Able To

Don’t Breathe is a wonderfully accurate title. The latest film from Sam Raimi‘s Ghosthouse Productions and Fede Alveraz, the director of the 2013 film Evil Dead that served as a remake of Raimi’s calling card. Here, Alvarez is not adapting a beloved cult film, but going with his own original story to scare us. Of course, there’s a Raimi influence on this. Mainly, the sillier moments and the Detroit setting is close to Raimi’s childhood home. It’s an interesting note that this is the first of Raimi’s extensive filmography to reference the modern economic state of Detroit. It’s a setting that Don’t Breathe uses to quickly tell us the economic state of our characters. Their desperation that’s sort of doomed to destroy what they have, much like the city itself.

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Ghosthouse Pictures

Despite the reasonable motivations of our trio of robbers, sympathy is murky in a tale that also involves them robbing a blind Gulf War vet. Don’t Breathe plays with sides multiple times during its limited run time in a sort of “cat and mouse game” of who to trust. Those shifts are drastic and add to Alvarez’s ability to build tension as he explores the environment with his camera. He often uses one-takes early on to fully establish the lay of the land, whether it be in the initial robbery that shows how sleuth (or in the case of Daniel Zovatto‘s Money, non-sleuthy) this trio is or the literal lay of the environment we’re going to be spending time in. They – meaning both our trio of thieves and Alvarez himself on a filmmaking level – cut corners to allow for certain moments of tension. It’s the sacrifice of making a smaller film by making a few lesser concessions to get to the major moments of horror. We know most of the nooks and crannies of this blind man’s house as things are perfectly set up visually.

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Ghosthouse Pictures

Then again, Alvarez also knows what not to reveal until the appropriate time. Withholding information keeps us guessing as each set pieces of tension comes up. While we’re wondering “how does that work” or “why did they react this wa-” WHAM! Something brutal happens. Maybe it’s a fall. Maybe it’s a gunshot. Hell, maybe a character dies horribly. Don’t Breathe also don’t play games. The world of Don’t Breathe is one where intelligence can win, but it’s no guarantee. Jane Levy, Dylan Minnette and even Stephen Lang each have a certain amount of grounded intelligence to them, given their backgrounds that are fleshed out to varying degrees. Minnette suffers most from this due to a lack of insight into his relationship with his father, giving him less intriguing agency like Levy or Lang.

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Ghosthouse Pictures

Levy once again shows off her abilities as a more competent modern scream queen, but with a slyer edge in terms of her own greed. Her backstory isn’t very creative, but it’s quick and to the point. One of many examples where Don’t Breathe takes advantage of economic storytelling, not wasting our time as it gets enough broad strokes to keep us invested without prattling on and on with a story that becomes unwielding and stupid like other horror films of recent  *cough*LightsOut*cough*. Lang’s character is probably the most intriguing element, given he’s a blind Gulf War vet with a tragic past yet also our antagonist. As more is revealed, Lang keeps the craziness contained with one of his best performances, showing the contemplative anger that keeps him on top of most of these situations while laying out some pain. It’s a complex performance that remind us why he’s such an underrated character actor.

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Ghosthouse Pictures

By the time one is able to exhale at any point during Don’t Breathe, it’s a temporary moment of relief. Just a moment of brief calm before the true storm punches us with a Lang sized blind fist to the face. The bold faced determination to throw a knife directly at the audience and slowly turn it without much consideration for traditional rules beyond the basic concept is a joy to watch. In a summer full of cut and dry characters within a cookie cutter plot, it’s nice to see complex motivations and characters, even for a small thriller like this. I know I’ve said that a lot for the few films that have stood out this summer, but it bares repeating as much as possible. Don’t Breathe is the type of quick summer fun that one has likely been starving for all season and it’s totally worth the investment even with its foibles that keep it from achieving huge potential. There’s just the right amount of cynical edge to keep things unpredictable, but not enough to keep things down for too long. Don’t Breathe is as exhilarating and asphyxiating as one would predict from the title and it’s all the better for it.

Rating: 4 out of 5 Turkey Basters

Sony Pictures Entertainment Don't Breathe Poster

“Train to Busan” (2016): Zombie Filmmaking With Brains

The zombie genre seems pretty played out. We’ve all heard the dismissive uninterested takes on zombie films for the last several years, especially in a world where The Walking Dead is one of our highest rated shows on television. The ebb and flow of zombie culture always wains, waiting for someone to revolutionize it. Waiting for someone to take it by the reins and turn out something interesting. Something that has great thrills, but keeps us wrapped up even if we’re aware of how zombies work. That film is here and it’s called Train to Busan.

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New Entertainment World

A South Korean zombie films directed by South Korean animator/director/writer Yeon Sang-hoTrain to Busan plays heavily on motifs from previous examples of zombie fiction. We’ve seen close quarters and extreme situations from which people have to run from flesh eating monsters. Yet, there’s so much to admire in a grand scale take on the concept that shows confidence in its characters, setting and style without any short sided element. Train to Busan is the next truly masterful example of zombie canon. Probably my favorite since the first two [rec] films. Now, that’s high praise. Really high praise to heap upon any film, much less a zombie film. However, there’s a craft on display with Train to Busan that zombie films rarely get treated as anything more than cheap exercises. Yeon takes this exercise in what could simply be “zombies on a train” and elevates it to a truly epic disaster film with zombies in the center. One gets how destructive these zombies are in every frame as they multiply exponentially.

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New Entertainment World

We get the right glimpse of our characters pre-zombie infestation, allowing the zombie infestation to be a looming presence as we’re introduced to who we’ll be following. Character archetypes that are familiar, but somehow consistently interesting.  There’s a man trying to reach his daughter after working so hard, a young couple expecting a child, two elderly sisters struggling with the hustle and bustle of the modern world and young love between schoolmates. We get a sense of the the gamut of the class system without going too deep into any specific information beyond what’s important to the story. Train to Busan does what George A. Romero did decades ago with the zombie genre: commenting on our modern world through this train full of people of varying class stature facing off against a common threat.

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New Entertainment World

As much as it is a zombie film, Train to Busan is also a study of human behavior, where morals can be dangerous for survival and being a dick can actually work to your advantage. We know who the villains are, but they have emotional sympathies at points. There are characters we’re meant to side with who have extremely dark revelations.It’s brutal to most faults, but never forgets the real human emotions that invest us. The fear of seeing these people get past these zombies. The thrill when they do figure their way out. The disappointment when plans are thwarted by zombies or normal humans. The highs and lows are all over the place, but keep us tethered during some amazing zombie sequences. Yeon’s history with animation carries over to the way these zombies move, visceral with hints of 28 Days Later and Evil Dead. Their numbers swell exponentially, they have rules that can be exploited. There’s a method to Yeon’s madness, but when that madness unleashes it comes without mercy. All of which is contained in some damn impressive action sequences. They utilize both the brains of their characters and their ability to kick ass for as long as possible wonderfully, while also showing us their strengths and weaknesses in both.

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New Entertainment World

Above all, Train to Busan keeps the disaster element firmly inserted into all of this. Humanity is at its most scrappy and unhinged with these characters. Their big emotional moments aren’t subtle, but manage to serve as perfectly executed crescendos to the gore and destruction that comes in the wake of these zombies. It’s an exhilarating fun ride full of consistent emotional highs, disturbing turns and true zombie horror. Even as a horror fan, it’s rare that I get this energized about zombie horror as of recent. It’s rare that I’m kind of scared by this enormity of a situation, but Train to Busan does what The Walking Dead couldn’t achieve in six seasons; consistent stakes and continuously engaging characters. Not only is this one of my favorite horror films of the year, but it’s honestly one of my true favorites of the year. It’s the new zombie standard, in my mind’s eye.

Rating: 5 out of 5 Zombie Bats Smashed

Train-to-Busan-one-sheet

“Kubo and the Two Strings” (2016): I Laika A Lot

Laika, the studio known for helping keep stop motion animation alive over the last several years with gems like Coraline and Paranorman, has a wonderful talent for centering its films around the nature of storytelling. How stories we’re told hold us back into an abyss or inspire us to change our ways for the better. A theme that’s key to the art form of stop motion; using crafts made characters to tell otherworldly stories of far off fictional places and complete tasks impossible to do in live action. Their latest effort Kubo and the Two Strings takes this approach with the right loving embrace, holding on tight to the fantastical while allowing room for the emotional resonance that can be parsed out amongst the spectacle.

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Laika

The titular Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson) even utilizes stop motion in a magical fashion to tell his own stories via origami sculptures that are controlled by his guitar playing. It’s sensational and probably less time consuming that actual animation would be, but it immediately introduces Kubo’s creativity without over explaining the magic. Kubo and the Two Strings takes an interesting spin on magic in this case, utilizing it as a representation for what these characters provide the world. The titular Kubo tells stories. His mother tries to protect him. The Moon King and Sisters villains try to destroy familial bonds in order to gain power. Each personalized use of magic feeds into the characters as they go on their journey, told through this gorgeous stop motion format. The puppetry gives these characters more personality than any other scenery heavy sequences in previous Laika productions.

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Laika

This is particularly the case with Kubo and the Two Strings, which refers to the three main characters. The titular Kubo is left without any familial bonds by the first 15 minutes, which were strong and tragic in how they played out. We get a sense of Kubo’s daily routine which makes the break in it all the more devastating as that reality is thrown upside down the moment Monkey (voiced by Charlize Theron) comes into the picture to keep Kubo safe. Things only continue to get fantastical from there, but the emotional core of this protective monkey and eventually the well meaning doofus warrior Beetle (voiced by Matthew McConaughey) keeps things centered. They’re an unlikely family that forms, one that learns from each other while trying to protect each other. The “Two Strings” part of the title becomes especially poignant by third act, when this approach hits some damn emotional turns that fit the Japanese mythology elements really well.

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Laika

Even the villains of Kubo and the Two Strings have a curious edge. The Moon King (voiced by Ralph Fiennes) has a specific bond to Kubo that’s two fold. While being very familial in theory given their blood relationship of grandfather and son, the former took the latter’s eye to fit his narrative. The narrative that has him suppressing Kubo into being his laky like The Sisters (both voiced by Rooney Mara). The elegant yet terrifying designs at play are phenomenal while evoking Japanese folklore and older martial arts/fantasy films. There’s a grace in their precision but a violent rage when they attack. Best of all, the conflicts culminate in one of the better third acts this summer that doesn’t involve too much inherent violence or a giant beam in the sky or even a death. If anything, the finale of Kubo and the Two Strings is a celebration of life and how influential we can be on others through how their legacy lives on even past the mortal coil.

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Laika

Kubo and the Two Strings is the kind of high fantasy animated film that we need. In a summer full of forgettable retreads like Finding Dory or Secret Life of Pets that relied far too heavily on specific modern animation tropes, Kubo and the Two Strings feels so unique and vibrant. I’m sure this won’t make half the gross of those other films, which is sad considering how much more memorable and engrossing Kubo and the Two Strings is. The colors and quality of the animated performances shine bright. There’s a fun quest story that results in some of the more imaginative set pieces this summer, but also keeps a consistent emotional context that tugs at the heartstrings without ever feeling maudlin. It’s a beautiful film about the art of storytelling, finding a family in those around you and being aware of how everyone fits into your narrative without compromising who they – or you -are.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Origami Warriors

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“Pete’s Dragon” (2016): Taking Lemons and Making a Lemon Tree

The original 1977 Pete’s Dragon is a curiosity. Made a decade after Walt Disney’s passing, it was one of many live action/animated films that tried to recreate the magic of something like Mary Poppins. It has an extremely mixed bag song wise, a terrible lead performer and a cool looking Don Bluth animated dragon that’s only in 30 of the 128 minute runtime. In other words, it’s flawed enough to warrant a modern remake, given the relatable element of ‘A Boy And His ______’ can transcend generation gaps. So, in their quest to keep every property they have thriving, Disney has brought us a new Pete’s Dragon by Ain’t Them Bodies Saints director David Lowery, approaching things from a smaller indie perspective and giving us a much more emotionally sincere, simple story of a young boy coming to society and earning itself on the pedestal of remakes that outdo their originals.

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Walt Disney Pictures

The major core of this is the relationship between the titular characters of Pete and his dragon Elliot. While just sort of… spoken and sung at us in the original Pete’s Dragon, Lowery really focuses on the inherent tragedy of a boy raised out in the woods being found by civilization. The opening doesn’t skimp on firmly establishing this in dark yet appropriate terms. Pete’s parents are killed in a car crash and he would likely die if not for this mysterious dragon’s presence. The stakes are so dire and this dragon is explained just enough as a local legend come true. It’s a compact straightforward narrative that allows more focus on these two being together. Lately, there’s been a renewed interest in attempting to reapply the classic Steven Spielberg style of childhood innocence and supernatural forces. Here, Lowerey’s direction doesn’t feel like typical nostalgia so much as taking that mission statement and applying it to a modern style. Some of the later Spielberg issues rear their head, like The BFG‘s oppressive score that pops up here a bit less commonly. Yet, Lowerey is at his best when taking a simple approach of understanding between Elliot and Pete, allowing the two characters to create a dynamic that’s the backbone of it all.

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Walt Disney Pictures

Everything fits into the conflict of Pete leaving the unconventional dwelling that’s kept him alive and loving conventional home. Oakes Fegley gives the right mixture of childlike curiosity and fractured being that would befit a child raised out of society. His moments of hesitated interest are motivated by a true lack of understanding of the world around him. Pete’s bewildered, but convinced enough by adult characters who are willing to talk with him on his level. Elliot manages to have just as much subtlety despite being a massive CG creature. Much like Pete here and the original animated Elliot, this dragon speaks in small vocalizations made by prolific voice actor John Kassir. They speak far less loudly than the facial features of Elliot, which are perfectly contorted to get everything Elliot’s thinking at any given moment visually. He’s one of the better realized CG creatures in recent memory, displaying every emotion like a big dog with true emotional resonance that gives us an honest connection between boy and beast.

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Walt Disney Pictures

A connection that is far more crucial once Pete’s Dragon moves into the rustic suburbs of the early 80s in the Northeastern United States. Pete’s wandering hopes of getting back to the woods are constantly at odds with forest ranger Bryce Dallas Howard trying to make sense of all of this, which allows for a gradual build to Pete finding comfort in human civilization. It’s an earned inclosure mainly because the chemistry between Fegley & Howard is so strong. She doesn’t talk down to him as a feral child but tries to relate to him on a primal emotional level that works here. He also builds a phenomenal chemistry with Oona Laurence, the young daughter who forms a believable friendship that keeps Pete grounded to a traditional child perspective. Both manage show Pete how fulfilling a normal life can be as well as Elliot when he comes across them in an emotionally crippling scene. The male characters don’t do this as much, with Wes Bentley occasionally being thrown into the mix with less flat wooden behavior than usual, Robert Redford coming in and out of the story for mainly thematic drive reasons and Karl Urban serving as a slightly more fleshed out version of the hunter from Bambi to come after our characters as an antagonist. Still, they all show some sort of compassion and resilience that made me care for them. Pete’s Dragon even managed to do what I thought would be impossible: make me give some semblance of a crap for Wes Bentley when he’s in peril.

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Walt Disney Pictures

The summer 2016 movie season has been filled with unremarkable mediocrity. Films that don’t have faith in characters interacting together so much as they do in throwing everything at the audience they visually can. Jumbling up the editing for the sake of confusing people into tolerating the lack of anything that’s going on. So, it’s honestly refreshing to get a Pete’s Dragon that actually has an economic sense of storytelling, one that’s able to balance building characters with an actual structure. That seems like a case of praising competence, but even observed for its own merits Pete’s Dragon takes the basic concept that the original failed to make interesting and realizes its full potential. Pete’s Dragon has a wonderful simplicity that doesn’t hamper the main relationship and does a solid job of appealing to a larger family audience. Just because it’s simple doesn’t mean it can’t speak to us on a larger level.Pete’s Dragon is the exact type of remake we need more of… but no, let’s redo Ben-Hur again.

Rating: 4 out of 5 Dragon Fur Hairs

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Other Works:

“Sausage Party” (2016): Not the Braadworst

Sausage Party is an exceptional use of title, mainly in terms of expectation. If you walk into an animated film about talking food called “Sausage Party and are offended by the early jokes of Frank the Sausage (voiced by co-writer/producer Seth Rogen) wanting to slip inside Brenda Bun (voiced by Kristen Wiig), you’re not going into this with a proper stance. Then again, if you’re expecting any sort of letting up on “Aw man, it’s an R-rated cartoon! They’re going to say curse words a lot!”, that’s not quite Sausage Party‘s style. While there is a solid amount of intriguing comedic ideas at play in Sausage Party, that recurring factor stays a relative constant. Rogen, Evan Goldberg and the crew at Sony Pictures Animation were clearly looking to take advantage of making an animated film that normally wouldn’t get much of a theatrical release on a fairly big budget. Sausage Party succeeds most when it does this to either satirize religious dogma or older animated film tropes. Not so much when characters simply say “fuck” a lot.

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Sony Pictures Animation

It’s a crutch I feared Sausage Party would lean on far too much. There’s nothing that visually exciting about an animated piece of food saying vulgar language. It’s an easy accomplishment and doesn’t really shock or offend as much as it gets repetitive. This is especially true during the first act, which seems to be treading territory that would have seemed shocking twenty years ago when South Park initially started. While this does remain a recurring joke, it does dwindle as the bigger themes of religion take a center stage. Plus, even the curse word heavy jokes manage to occasionally be funny thanks to the delivery from these very talented actors involved. Michael Cera has a fun turn as a deformed sausage. Nick Kroll utilizes his Guido voice from The Kroll Show to play a literal douche who hated food puns. Hell, Edward Norton delivering an obscenity laid rant as a bagel named Sammy Bagel Jr. in a Woody Allen voice is enough to save a DOA joke that’s just about cursing.

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Sony Pictures Animation

The religious satire of Sausage Party isn’t subtle. It’s about as on the nose as you can get. About as on the nose as Sammy Bagel Jr. and Karem Abdul Lavash (David Krumholtz) arguing about how the former has invaded their aisle. The entire concept of “The Great Beyond” that food is lead to when they leave the store is inherently a screed against any sort of religion and how to relate the idea that such dogma is inherently dividing, even from an atheistic stance. Plus, this religious angle is part of the overall use of stereotypes in Sausage Party, which is to say they’re everywhere. Sausage Party isn’t afraid to pretty much use any number of food related puns to make fun of pretty much every religion, ethnicity and nationality. There’s some amount of purpose to this, mainly in terms of the lack of political correctness that can be found on both food products and older animated films of specifically Disney’s ilk. For example, the Native American themed whiskey Firewater is voiced by Bill Hader in a fashion that wouldn’t make him too out of place in the ‘What Make the Red Man Red’ sequence from Peter Pan. It’s a simple proxy of consumer culture, allowing the film to essentially have its cake and preach against eating it too.

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Sony Pictures Animation

The most clever moments of Sausage Party are when it takes aim at the typical story beats of the average Disney film. An opening song becomes part of the religious themed plot elements and makes fun of any number of Disney celebratory opening songs. It helps that Alan Menken – writer of many a beloved Disney song from the past twenty five years – wrote the song and the entire musical score to give these dark themes a bouncy Disney score as a point of comedic subversion. Given its three dimensional animated style, Sausage Party also takes many a shot at the typical formula of a Pixar, mainly the concept of believing an elaborate societal lie only to come to terms with the meaning of existence that’s been covered up. The ending retaliation to that in particular feels like a solid comedic subversion of the climax for a Toy Story and even has a weird twist on the physics of Ratatouille. Pixar even gets a shout out on a bumper sticker that says “Dixar.” It’s not often we get satirical takes on Pixar’s style in a film, but Sausage Party being one of the few doesn’t make it the end all be all.

Sausage-Party

Sony Pictures Animation

I admire Sausage Party for it’s lack of concern for offense on some level. It’s nothing too out there or audacious, but it’s a small blip of fun to remind us that animation isn’t a genre; it’s an artistic style. The things Sausage Party lampoons aren’t new targets, but they’re targets worth going after. Still, Sausage Party overall isn’t as immortal as its non-perishable characters claim to be in terms of enduring laugh per joke ratio. It’s religious satire, food puns and vulgar activities are fun enough for the 88 minute running time. The animation isn’t really that up to snuff in terms of creative designs or smooth textures. Not a necessity if a film is clever enough to look past this, but the repetition of jokes based merely around language makes that hard to do. If anything, Sausage Party just gives me more hope that other studios will take chances with animation… unless the overtly Mexican bottle of tequila and Salma Hayek‘s Teresa the Taco get a spin off. Then we’re going backwards.

Rating: 3 out of 5 Packages of Sausage

sausage party poster

Other Works:

“Nine Lives” (2016): Family Unfriendly

The Following Contains Spoilers for Nine Lives.

I normally don’t do spoiler reviews here. Spoilers aren’t necessary for a review to get a point across… most of the time. But rules were meant to be broken for films like Nine Lives, a film with the simple fantasy family film premise of a man being magically turned into a cat so he can right his wrongs and become a better man to his family… and takes it to massively dark places. No need for allusion. No need for the consideration of a childhood innocence. This is a movie about alcoholism, human apathy and horrendous CG cats. Watching Nine Lives was one of the more surprising cinematic experiences in 2016. Going in expecting a stupid romp from an early to mid 2000s era ABC Family TV movie and finding Nine Lives, a film where death is a looming specter and a family is broken apart. This may have been given a PG rating by the MPAA for “thematic elements, language and some rude humor”, but it should have been rated an R for “rude drunkenness, disturbing imagery and being cripplingly depressing.”

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EuropaCorp

Nine Lives concerns one Tom Brand (Kevin Spacey), a rich business man who runs Firebrand, a mega conglomerate of some vague sort. He’s an asshole tycoon who concerns himself with his money and appearance in an almost Donald Trump-like fashion. He loves himself, not caring one iota for anything around him. This includes his employee/son David (Robbie Amell) who wants his father to respect him, his wife Lara (Jennifer Garner) who wants him to do better as a family man and Rebecca (Malina Weissman) who seems genuinely neglected since her father is working. And I don’t mean “Disney Dad Who’s Too Good At His Job to Care for His Kids” kind of father. I mean “Crazy Ego Driven Monster Who’s Running His Corporation into The Ground By Being Obsessed with Having the Tallest Building in the World” kind of father. You know the type.

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EuropaCorp

At this point, it seems clear that Kevin Spacey was roped into some kind of contract snafu, one involving a clause that forced him to do this or else lose a large sum of money. Spacey’s lazy both on screen and off, but it especially shows before he becomes a feline. Nine Lives at least seems accommodating for this clearly uncaring Shakespearean level Oscar winning actor. After all, most of his scenes are shot on easily build-able four wall sets and with one or two actors as others are giving reactions during a cut without him. Every delivery of Spacey has the charm of a man waiting to pick up his dry cleaning after coming too early. Spacey is so uninvolved that his care for his family is about as convincing as the green screened backgrounds as he drives over to begrudgingly get his daughter a cat for her birthday. The disdain in his performance mirrors his character, but never makes it believable in universe.

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EuropaCorp

Spacey buys said cat via a mysterious little shop he’s lead to by an extremely poor GPS that easily leads him astray after he throws it down. This shop – Purrkins –  is owned by Felix Perkins as played by Christopher Walken, who is basically reprising his mysterious store clerk role from 2006’s Click by way of a more animated Willy Wonka style humble magician. The two Oscar winning actors are face-to-face, allowing Christopher Walken’s to display his typical alien charm and Spacey to be slightly brighter than his is the rest of the time, probably because he’s thinking of how he can better hone his Walken impression. This leads Spacey to be chosen by a cat – since, as Walken says in a Yakov Schmirnoff level logic puzzle, “the cat chooses you” – whom Spacey brings to an emergency meeting on the roof of his building. This meeting with his up and coming young staffer Ian (Mark Consuelos) leads to a Christopher Nolan-style rainy roof encounter in which lightening strikes the building, causing Spacey and cat to hang on for dear life before Consuelos allows them to fall. Luckily, Spacey manages to swing himself and the cat through a window, before the screen cuts to black.

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EuropaCorp

Obviously, this all seems like a cut and dry first act. Nothing weird or contrived about anything going on here at all. Yet, this is where Nine Lives becomes more than your average “multi-billionaire doesn’t pay enough attention to his family and gets a cat” story taught by the likes of Joseph Campbell. No, this is a story of a man coming to the brink of death through the prism of a cat. The first shot of him as a cat from his POV, looking at his own lifeless body. It’s a shot that reminds us why director Barry Sonnenfeld helped The Coen Brothers create their visual flair when he worked as their cinematographer as far back as Blood Simple. It’s a shot that has our protagonist stare death directly in the face and – by proxy – the audience of small children and the parents they dragged there. It’s the watershed moment for Nine Lives, where things are changed permanently.

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EuropaCorp

Nine Lives then separates into three distinctively misguided story threads. All of them are motivated by the family friendly theme of grief as Spacey’s wife, son and daughter deal with the potential death of the man who seemed like a shadow in their lives. Garner, Amell and Weissman each treat this bewildering subplot with unflappable genuine heart, as the fast approaching potential death of the big man in their lives slowly comes to each of them. Garner puts her plans to leave Spacey on hold because his last act was getting the cat for their daughter. Amell is trying to keep his father’s dream of having the tallest building in the US in a desperate attempt to hopefully gain his respect if he ever wakes up. Weissman comes to the realization that her father’s soul is inside her cat, all while trying to convince everyone of the truth to the point of tears. Despite the work of the actors here, the decision on the part of the filmmakers to treat this ticking clock of “your body will die if you don’t behave” for Spacey brings the tonal consistency of Nine Lives to a crashing halt. This storyline is treated so seriously that Garner is asked to sign a DNR and sits with Weissman to show her brochures that include “What Do To When They Don’t Wake Up.” Children will likely be confused by any of these heavy themes and their parents will spend more time focusing on how to explain this to them than they will paying attention to anything that’s going on.

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EuropaCorp

And how does Kevin Spacey react to his family crumbling apart in front of him? Why, he makes sarcastic Garfield style comments that sound like they were recorded in Spacey’s House of Cards trailer bathroom with as much disdain as possible. DUH! Well, that and manage to sneak inside his liquor cabinet & drink high priced scotch from a bowl because he has priorities. Alcoholism is a weird recurring motif in Nine Lives, right down to Spacey’s ex-wife and Amell’s mother (Cheryl Hines) telling her son to drink as a form of getting through grief. Both are just a few of the many examples that showcase Nine Lives as a film filled with true human apathy. Spacey’s desire to get out of this cat body aren’t motivated as much by the loss and pain his family is going through as much as selfish desires. Namely, his desire to erect his giant tower and attempt to keep Walken from neutering him.

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EuropaCorp

When the change of heart comes to pass for Spacey, there isn’t much earned out of it. By the end of Nine Lives – in which Spacey cat tries to save Amell from an implied suicide that turns out to be a parachute stunt while the cat falls to its death just in time for Spacey to return to his body – nothing really matters. Spacey just takes the lesson that he should be his same asshole self, but with his family present. He doesn’t even learn to love cats, instead ending Nine Lives on a flat lifeless sitcom joke about wanting to get his daughter a dog instead. It’s the perfect bitter dispassionate note for Nine Lives to end on. One where any sort of heart or moral lesson results in a bland joke and CG cat hijinks. CG hijinks animated around a cat who dies yet is somehow resurrected. Nine Lives‘ attempts to provide some form of emotional alleviation over doing things like having a cat die from falling off a giant skyscraper seem like the work of its five separate writers taking a crack at this idea and the studio melding them together into one jumbled mess.

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EuropaCorp

Nine Lives is simply a baffling example of cinema. A film where its lead couldn’t care less on and off screen while his supporting cast tries to put their all into tonally backwards material. A movie with three conflict stories of grief, corporate backstabbing and horrid CG cat hijinks. A film where the idea of a young girl’s absent father dying is followed up with her father in a cat’s body nearly mauling someone to death. A film that only kept me engaged out of a confused curiosity for the train wreck. Nine Lives won’t be in theaters too long, but despite its now reserved placement on my Worst of 2016 list, it’s one I’d oddly recommend once it reaches home video for anyone curious about a jumbled mess of an idea that should have been aborted from the start. Not necessarily with children in the room, mind you. Unless you’re willing to broach topics like the death of a loved one or back deal corporate dealings. Or maybe even an example of anti-work ethic as they stare into Kevin Spacey’s dead eyes.

Rating: 0.5 out of 5 Death Brochures

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“Suicide Squad” (2016): Low Grade Squad Goals

“We’re bad guys,” says many a member of this Suicide Squad multiple times. As if this wasn’t clear from the plot of a bunch of incarcerated B level super villains from the DC universe go on a government lead expedition against a lethal comic book situation in exchange for getting years shaved off their sentences, these aren’t good people. These are murderers, monsters and magical threats of destruction. Suicide Squad is a bold idea for the third film in the DC Extended Universe, though interesting in that their earlier films portray Henry Cavill’s Superman (who is consistently referenced as dead) and Ben Affleck‘s Batman (who has a few minor appearances here) as unsympathetic murderous psychopaths. Then again, maybe a DC film with true villains is the right move. Give us complicated characters to root for. Let’s see if we can grow to root for true villains.

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Warner Bros

Well, “grow” inherently implies forward momentum. Most of the members of Suicide Squad don’t change much. Which on some level is fine, given that this is an introduction. But, there are clear attempts at growth here for some of these people. Namely, Deadshot (Will Smith), a remorseless Gotham trigger for hire… who just wants to see his daughter. It’s a very flimsy and familiar device for anyone with basic knowledge of assassin movies. It’s not present enough for Smith to have true progression, but too obvious to not get grating really fast. Yet, Smith is honestly one of the highlights of Suicide Squad. He has the bravado of his youthful years mixed with a genuine attempt at dramatic pathos. It’s not enough to make up for the problems, but Smith is one of the few constants that keeps things tolerable.

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Warner Bros.

The same goes for Margot Robbie‘s Harley Quinn. Her pure enthusiasm has the power to be infectious when allowed to reveal itself. Robbie’s usual sexual energy is present, though more exploitive from a directorial stand point. Robbie at least tries to show off her assets more for the sake of intimidation than anything else in context. She gets the emotionally layered range of Quinn as a character, even with unfortunate changes to her backstory that are more reductive than those featured in her original form on Batman: The Animated Series. Then again, changing that isn’t the problem. The real problem is the constant use of flashbacks, both for her and all throughout. Harley’s introduction (much like all of the Suicide Squad) feels so labored with a 15 minute exposition dump disguised as a Dirty Dozen homage. We don’t get that much of something key in Harley’s life from her perspective. The point that turned her into a masked villain… and we just kinda rush past it.

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Warner Bros

 

Many of these glimmering moments show off the majority of Jared Leto‘s screen time as The Joker. Despite being Batman’s arch nemesis, his role in Suicide Squad is roughly ten minutes or so. Not a bad idea, considering this is Harley’s story far more than his. Yet, the jumbled appearances feel like paper thin plot devices and first draft material for a true reimagining of The Joker. Leto himself isn’t awful for what he’s doing, but it’s more or less both a 1940s film noir mobster and modern day gangsta simultaneously. He has the flair of a modern drug dealer with the temper of a James Cagney. His vocal inflections are an occasionally garbled mixture of Heath Ledger and Jim Carrey. Worst of all, he just doesn’t have much of any chemistry with Robbie, which is sort of key for a subplot heavily based around their relationship. The few scenes with Leto aren’t enough to sink him as Joker for this entire DCEU, but it ain’t a great first impression either.

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Warner Bros.

As for the rest of the cast in Suicide Squad, there’s not much to say. Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) is buried under make up and doesn’t have much of anything useful to do. Jai Courtney as Captain Boomerang is merely doing a third rate Tom Hardy impression, which for Courtney is a career high given the resume. Katana (Karen Fukuhara) has a whole thing with her sword and dead husband that’s blatantly exposited by Rick Flag. Joel Kinnamen provides his usual monotone blandness to Rick Flag. Enchantress is mainly an excuse to rip off Gozer from Ghostbusters and to put actress Cara Delevingne in revealing clothing. Oh, and Adam Beach‘s Slipknot is… in the movie? Pretty much every character is underplayed, with two exceptions; Jay Hernandez‘s El Diablo and Viola Davis‘ Amanda Waller. Viola Davis is honestly the most consistently intimidating presence of Suicide Squad, though she does become a lame hostage by the finale. Diablo is the only character with any sort of arc and Jay Hernandez has a sincerity that shines through even as the third act gives him a rather flat resolution.

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Warner Bros.

Hell, that entire third act of Suicide Squad gave these characters a weak resolution. It’s indicative of the greatest sin here: the editing. The work done here getting from one scene to the other is inconsistent to say the least. The moments that stand out the most feel like something more common with a trailer than a film. The action sequences, plot exposition and even character moments often conflate between muddled confusion and trailer fodder. This causes severe mood whiplash and awkward transitions all of the place. All of this severely butchers the plot down to “Welp, there’s a whirly beam in the sky again. Guess we gotta stop that!” It’s such a loose narrative that could have ended up being perfect for a concept like Suicide Squad, right? Where we can develop these characters, building them up as a unlikely team and maybe make light of the formulaic elements of the genre from a different perspective?

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Warner Bros.

NOPE. Nothing that interesting or creative here. Even stylistically, director David Ayer is even seems to be taking notes from executive producer Zack Snyder‘s style of direction on the previous two DC films. From the aggressive slow-mo, washed out color scheme and horrendously on the nose soundtrack choices,  Suicide Squad feels comfortable in this existing drab universe and that’s not a good club to be a part of. Nothing too interesting or challenging enough to give the idea of super villains teaming up something to stand out. So much of Suicide Squad falls flat on its ass because of the inconsistent style. Big reveals are showcase to a thud. Most of the jokes suddenly blurt out to no effect. Hell, members of the titular group of villains even randomly spout out sentimental garbage about them being “friends” and “family” by the third act. There’s no family bond built here. There’s maybe a bit of a friendly flirting between Deadshot and Harley Quinn. But it’s so secondary to moving from one set piece to the next. While clearly trying to have a heartfelt Guardians of the Galaxy moment, Suicide Squad shoots itself directly in the foot. None of it is earned.

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Warner Bros.

That’s what’s so frustrating about Suicide Squad. It’s a big risk for Warner to do and has so much potential to make themselves stand out. Instead, it’s just another generic superhero story. Getting all the check marks down a superhero plot, including…

  1. Generic Villains (Enchantress & Bro)
  2. Generic City Scape Setting (Midway City)
  3. A Doomsday Machine (Enchantress’ Giant Beam in the Sky)
  4. Bland Romance (Enchantress’ human self and Rick Flag)
  5. Giant Beings Killing Humans (Enchantress’ Bro)
  6. A Sympathetic motivation (Deadshots’ daughter)
  7. Fake Out Loss of a Love One (Twice)
  8. A Climax Involving Blowing Something Up

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The point is that for all this build up about being different and not in step with usual superhero blockbuster faire from the film’s attitude, Suicide Squad is pretty much just the usual blockbuster with a mean mug slapped on. And a bare bones blockbuster at that. Isn’t it weird how these “Bad Guys” seem interchangeable with the good ones?

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Warner Bros.

Suicide Squad is a crude mess. The only things that can be salvaged is potential for someone else to take hold of later on down the DC road. The few bits of universe building are fun enough, mainly with the aforementioned Batman appearances and a genuine surprise from the universe that one couldn’t see coming. Plus, Robbie, Smith and Davis wouldn’t be unwelcome in another DC movie down the line. Maybe Leto’s Joker could get fleshed out a bit more. But this entire affair feels like such placeholder material. Nothing that happens in Suicide Squad really has much of any consequence to it by the end. Sure, part of a city is leveled and some people apparently have changes of heart, but none of it seems authentic in a universe that barely brought things of consequence into Batman V Superman. Mind you, this isn’t quite at that level. Suicide Squad has enough minor charms that mainly come from the cast to keep it from being a disaster, particularly in one set at a bar that actually shows some sense of comradery amongst these villains. But it isn’t enough to keep the film from being a giant mess. Going into Suicide Squad, I hoped I would be eating crow about the future of DC’s film department. Now I wonder if next year’s Wonder Woman or Justice League can be even slightly coherent or worth much of a damn.

Rating: 2 out of 5 Harley Mallets

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