Friday, January 30, 2015

The Boy Next Door

A sexy thriller that gets released theatrically doesn’t happen all that much these days.  And even when there is one that comes along it tends to either be lacking in one of the namesake areas, like Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution (thrills in that case), or it’s a sex gamer, like the upcoming adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey (for more clarification on sex gamer see here).  But in 2015 we got a bona fide sexy fucking thriller in The Boy Next Door.

The plot is essentially Fatal Attraction with the roles reversed, the guy is the psycho lover and the woman has to fight for her life.  Jennifer Lopez (Money Train, Anaconda) is Claire, a high school English teacher that’s having trouble with her marriage.  John Corbett (Sex and the City, Street Kings) is the cheating husband that wants Claire back.  He comes off like a rich bitch douche even though we see him do nothing but the nicest things for Claire and their son Kevin (Ian Nelson (The Judge)).  I guess the reason why he seems like a total herb is the way he pompously carries himself and just the fact that we know he cheated on his (really hot) wife.

In steps next door neighbor Noah played by Ryan Guzman (Step Up Revolution, Step Up All In) (see what I did there?).  He’s a hunky charismatic dreamboat.  Guzman gives the best performance and can really turn on both the undivided charm and the murderous rage.  I get why Claire, or any woman, would fall for him.  The movie does a good job setting up this character as a likable, if a bit too saccharine at times, person that you could see yourself being friendly with.  He’s part meathead with his boxin’ and car fixin’, but also part geek with his Iliad readin’ and computer hackin’.  He’s designed so that most people can identify with some part of him.

So anyway Claire and Noah fuck.  Claire feels guilty about it the next morning and wants to forget the whole thing.  Noah is in love with her and doesn’t understand why Claire is pulling away.  Naturally stalking, harassment and an eventual showdown ensue.

What I really like about this film is the balance of sex and thrills.  Most of the time Jennifer Lopez doesn’t wear anything very revealing with longer skirts and tops that cover her cleavage.  But every once in a while she has on a nightgown where the slit goes pretty far up her thigh or you’ll get a glimpse of side boob from her loose shirt.  So it’s kind of two extremes where either she’ll dress really conservatively or in something really skimpy.  Noah is handled the same way, he’ll wear some hip as shit buttoned down jean shirt with a wool tie or he’ll have on a wife beater.

As for the thrills this has plenty.  I shouldn’t reveal too much but there are some intense moments, like there’s your typical sneaking around looking for info but there’s also a fairly well done scene with Kevin and his dad careening down a mountain road in a car with no brakes.  The finale is over the top and one of the best moments in the picture.  Nothing about it makes much sense and there’s one moment where it gets pretty damn funny but I’ll let you guys discover that for yourselves.

The not very good but usually somewhat entertaining Rob Cohen directed this.  He’s had such an interesting career dating back to the 70’s where he produced shit like The Wiz and then into the 80’s where he produced The Running Man and The Monster Squad.  As a director he made xXx, Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story (which he also wrote) and, more recently, Alex Cross.  But he will forever be known (at least in my mind) as the motherfucker who started The Fast and the Furious franchise.  This dude paved the way for the excellent Fast Five and, not as good but still immensely fun, Fast & Furious 6.  I may not care for most of the work Cohen has done but I respect the man.

And you know what?  Chalk this up as another fascinating notch on his pretty varied dashboard.  I liked this one.  It’s one silly sonuvabitch of a movie that had me laughing out loud a couple of times but it believes in the material.  Everything is presented seriously and knows what it’s trying to achieve.  Cohen and J. Lo (who produced this) set out to make a sexy thriller that harkened back to the glory days and they succeeded.

In typical Cohen style it’s not subtle.  All of the references, motivations and emotions are in your face.  And usually that type of thing would annoy the shit outta me but I found it enjoyable here.  Not that I was expecting to turn off my brain when I went to go see it but in this case it just worked for me.

They were able to make this thing for four million bucks which is astonishing.  Not only does it look and feel great but who the hell makes a theatrically released film for that kind of money anymore?  Kudos to Cohen and co for making something that’s more effective than a lot of what’s released today on such a petite budget.

Overall I guess this tends to veer off into so-bad-it’s-good territory.  Lopez’s acting is terrible, a bunch of the situations are absurdly humorous and everything plays out exactly how you think it will.  But the tension is kept high, the plot is classic that hasn’t been done to death and visually it’s pretty to look at (in more ways than one (get it? (J. Lo is a piece))).  It’s satisfying.  I left with a smile on my face and a chuckle in my heart.  It was pretty much everything I wanted it to be.

It’s no classic though.  I wouldn’t put it in the pantheon of illustrious sexy thrillers but it’s worth your time.  That boy next door is comin’ for ya, let him in.       

Friday, January 23, 2015

The Lawnmower Man and The Lawnmower Man 2: Jobe's War (or Beyond Cyberspace)

The Man Who Mows Lawns is a strange sci-fi drama about a computer programmer (Pierce Brosnan (Mamma Mia!)) that turns a simpleton (Jeff Fahey (Psycho III)) into a genius.  But his creation gets too smart and develops telekinetic powers.  It’s a bit horror-ish but not enough to be classified as such nor is it your typical thriller.  It kinda does its own thing.

All of the Frankenstein’s monster stuff works well.  Pierce plays a pretty arrogant dude but at the same time he doesn’t want mow man to hurt people or fall into the wrong hands (Dean Norris of Hard to Kill fame…and Breaking Bad).  So you end up on his side even though he shouldn’t be conducting dangerous mind altering experiments.  The guy he picks to transform, Jobe, is a retarded grown man that’s constantly abused by a priest.  They never hint that it’s sexual but it’s an interesting angle to have Jobe be beaten and forced to say penances.  Fahey’s portrayal is kinda hammy and oversimplified but you still feel for him.

I guess I sorta get the connection between intelligence and telekinesis.  It’s because you’re supposed to be using more of your brain, right?  You’ve unlocked its hidden potential?  Whatever, it’s a way to move the plot along.  In fact if that aspect didn’t exist then there wouldn’t be a second half of the movie.

The 90’s computer shit is plentiful with early ugly CGI and impossible leaps.  Like the lawnmower man is able to actually be absorbed into the computer world leaving only a dehydrated carcass behind.  There’s also a test monkey that uses goggles with x-ray vision.  It gets smarter too but goes berserk in a more traditional fashion.  While the lawnmower man sets people ablaze with digital fire and uses his mind controlled mower to murder dudes, the monkey simply steals a gun and shoots some folks.  If the monkey got to the telekinesis phase I wonder what types of deaths it would’ve inflicted on people.  Death by banana peel?  Death by autoeroticism?  Now that’s an idea for a movie if I ever heard one.     

One death in particular makes no sense.  Jobe turns some bad guys into…uh…computer graphics bits?  And then for some reason the ex-human pieces float away.  I really don’t get what they were going for.  It’s not scary or interesting or even confirmation of death.  These two guys become computer-y and then they’re just gone.  It’s almost not weird enough to be truly bizarre.

Director Brett Leonard loves this cyber stuff and I think it shows.  He takes the technology in his films seriously which makes them more absurd but also more enjoyable.  If the movie presents the scenario that a dimwit can become so smart overnight that he develops telekinetic powers with a straight face then I’ll be on board for the most part.

You know what I just realized?  The Lawnmower Man and Leonard’s other semi-well known movie, Virtuosity, have the exact opposite plot.  Jobe wants to transport himself into the computer world and have every human jacked into him.  Russell Crowe from Virtuosity wants to transplant himself into the real world and create chaos.  Virtuosity is the much better picture though.  It’s not incredible or nothin’ but it sure is a lot of fun.  

Anyway, if you’re a big 90’s computer movie person then this is pretty much a must see.  If you’re any other type of movie person there’s not enough here besides the dumb computer shit.

Surprisingly a sequel was made.  Although, the Mow 2 script was obviously something else before someone said “we gotta jump on the Lawnmower Man bandwagon while it’s hot!  People are still raving about it four years later right?”

The story has very little to do with the first but they did bring back Jobe’s eleven year old friend Peter (Austin O’Brien (Last Action Hero)) to share the lead with Patrick Bergin (Patriot Games).  This one has something to do with Jobe trying to take over the world via virtual reality and the internet…again. 

The reason this is so different from the original is that Jobe is the villain from the start and it takes place in “the future”.  And when they say “the future” they mean it.  Everyone’s jacking into VR (virtual reality), there are inverted monorails going everywhere, LA looks like the burnt out Blade Runner version of the city, there are video phones in cars, etc.  I’ll totally buy all this shit, including the minidiscs.  There’s just one tiny problem though.  If Peter was eleven in the first one and fifteen in part 2 then that means the entire world was completely transformed, from computers to guns to everything, in four fucking years.  I mean why?  Why did this have to take place so soon after the first?  I get the connection of the Peter character but that association isn’t integral to the plot.  The real question is: did nobody realize this, or did nobody care?

Production wise the filmmakers did a very good job.  This doesn’t feel like it’s as low budget as I’m sure it really is.  The whole thing is very competently put together and the score is anything you would find in an A picture at the time.  It’s shot well too with varied camera angles and some good framing.  Unfortunately most of the action sequences are awkward, made up of mostly close ups (ahead of its time on that) and they’re all poorly choreographed (if at all).  But hats off to director Farhad Mann (uhh…he did some episodes of Pamela Anderson’s V.I.P., that’s the best I got) and his crew for making this look way more like a big budget film than anyone could’ve expected.

So the sequel was sorta enjoyable.  Not a ton but at least you can watch it without having to digest the first, if you ever wanted to do that.

One last interesting bit is that this movie predicted the iphone.  There’s a scene where the evil CEO of the company that Jobe works for tells the President to “don your eyephones”.  The Pres then puts on his virtual reality sunglasses.  See, The Lawnmower Man 2 totally called it guys.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Ghost in the Machine

A dude known as the Address Book Killer can’t drive to his next victim fast enough and crashes his car.  When the doctors give him an MRI the power is thwarted by a lightning storm.  This naturally causes the killer’s soul to transfer into the computer, no wait all computers, no wait…every electronic device.  This idea works because who doesn’t have some sort of thing that runs electrically?  Chances are if you see this very movie then it’ll be watched on something powered by electricity.  Or someone could be acting it out for you.  That probably wouldn’t be as effective since there wouldn’t be as much electricity involved.

This operates in the classic slasher fashion.  A bunch of people die in a variety of ways with the killer ghost spirit stalking and playing with folks before he finally strikes.  My favorite death is the hand dryer one.  They setup the victim as a total asshole that yells at everyone and even spontaneously fires his entire staff so you don’t feel one iota of guilt when he kicks the bucket right after that.  He works in a crash test lab so you think he’s gonna get hit by one of the test cars but it goes a little differently.  He does ride in a car that smashes against the concrete wall but he survives and instead gets set on fire by the hand dryer in the bathroom.  Excellent misdirection and planning so that we get the car crash plus a bonus of someone being incinerated.  I guess the filmmakers thought this sonuvabitch was such a piece of shit so they essentially killed him twice.

Unlike your typical slasher film the heroes and victims aren’t teens (well ok, one teen dies).  Karen Allen (Scrooged) and Chris Mulkey (First Blood) play a middle aged airline customer service rep and hacker respectively.  One loves computers and the other doesn’t so it makes sense they team up to stop a metaphysical serial killer.  Their chemistry is awkward at best but they don’t fall in love or anything so it ends up working ok.

Besides the horror angle it’s also a total 90’s computer movie and encompasses all of the hilarious and dumb shit that goes with that territory.  Like Chris Mulkey is able to run a gigantic particle accelerator from his laptop.  But there are even some things that go beyond funny computer stuff and defy common knowledge and sense.  For example at one point they cover the electrical outlets with tape and it actually keeps the ghost killer from entering the fucking house.  You’re really insulting the audience with that one.

I know he was young and it was the 90's but it doesn't
change the fact that this kid looks like a fucking doofus
To complete the trifecta there are a good number of 90’s-isms here too.  It’s mainly Karen Allen’s thirteen year old son who sports baggy red pants, a black and white horizontal striped shirt that’s tucked into his exposed underwear, braided friendship bracelets and a backwards hat.  He also says shit like “I call her butt an onion ‘cause it makes you want to cry”.  It would be difficult to find a kid more fucking 90’s than this.  Beyond him though there’s also a car phone, “this stuff pisses off more people than Howard Stern” and that virtual reality video game where you would stand on an enclosed platform and wear a giant headset.  Does anyone else remember that shit?

So this one has some offbeat aspects that freshens up the standard serial murder template and it’s laughably outdated technology-wise.  It sounds like this is a real lost gem but I wouldn’t go that far.  It’s not quite clever or outrageous enough.  It’s tempered with a little too much reserve to put it over the top.  I feel a little weird about recommending it but I guess I would.  You gotta be into 90’s computer movies and/or slasher films and/or The Police album Ghost in the Machine though. 

Thursday, January 8, 2015

The Babadook

A mother (Essie Davis (The Matrix sequels)) reads her six year old son a bedtime story called Mister Babadook, which seems like a weirdo book right from the outset but the title is so cute sounding that I’m sure she thought there would eventually be rainbows and a message about sharing or some shit.  The kid gets rightly freaked out because all the Babadook wants to do is scare the piss out of you.  Then they both start to see pieces of the creature around and hear him move about.  That’s as far as I’m willing to take the plot description.  It’s a difficult movie to describe actually so I’ll leave it right there.

This badass horror movie is one meticulously crafted piece of cinema.  They really put a lot of thought into every aspect of production and it shows.  First time director Jennifer Kent did an excellent job.  Her attention to detail doesn’t come off stiff though.  She gives off a Hitchcockian or John Carpenter-y (a la Halloween) vibe in that you feel like you’re in good hands that know just how to manipulate your feelings and senses.

Visually this is a cold ass picture.  Most of the time is spent in the mother and son’s house.  It’s painted in a dull gray-ish blue-ish color, the floors are hardwood and all of the furniture and linens match the paintjob.  A lot of the time it’s almost like they shot it in black and white but I’ll get into that a little more later.  There’s almost no modern technology in the house either.  A tube TV is pretty much as advanced as they get (although she does mention watching DVD’s so I guess they have a player).  It gets to be a bit claustrophobic stuck in that gloomy house for so long but, of course, that’s what they were going for.

The performances are fucking outstanding.  Essie Davis is incredibly sad, frustrated, angry, maniacal and peaceful all throughout.  She can turn on a dime too being placid one moment and then deranged the next.  She deserves some sort of award, like one of those Oscar doodads or something.  The kid who plays the son does a great job too because he somehow goes from being an unlikeable little shit at first to warming your heart by the end.  He does scared real well too bringing it over the top a bunch of the time.  Or maybe it’s appropriate considering what’s going on.

One of the most refreshing things about this horror movie is the restrained use of effects and the complete absence of jump scares.  I saw an interview with Kent and she said she absolutely did not want to do jump scares because you feel ripped off.  She even mentions that most American horror films (this is an Australian production) don’t give their audience enough credit.  Amen sister.  You’ve gotta be smarter than bullshit jump scares and piling on the excessive gore.  Kent uses imagery (and some auditory cues) to convey a shitload of creepiness.  It’s mostly very simple effects but man do they work.

So to pull all of this together you get a modern day 20’s horror picture.  The lack of technology, the near black and white color palette, the design of the Babadook, the mostly in-camera effects work, the deficiency of blood and etc.  It totally works.  Interestingly this idea started out as a short film called Monster which has an even greater 20’s feel.  Kent kinda hits you over the head with it though in that one so it was a good idea to scale it back for the feature.    

And I find this film to be genuinely creepy.  There are only a couple of others that sorta get to me a little: The Shining, Dracula (1992) and to a lesser extent The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Psycho (and yes I’m aware that I’m putting this movie in such esteemed company).  There’s just something about that Babadook fella that has me second guessing dark hallways and children’s books ‘n shit.

Sure, there are a couple of improvements that could’ve been made.  The voice of the Babadook isn’t scary and feels forced.  It shouldn’t have spoken at all in my opinion.  Also, the jittery movements that it sometimes exhibits doesn’t come off great.  Maybe not have the son be a pseudo kid inventor either.  And there’s that one brief part where it turns into Home Alone.  But these are minor issues of personal preference and are in no way glaring problems with the overall piece.   

Guys, I cannot recommend this enough.  Ever since I saw it a couple of days ago I can’t stop thinking about it.  Afterwards I saw the trailer and was blown away again.  I must’ve watched it like six or seven times.  This is one for the ages.  An instant classic?  I think it just might be.

Spoilers for this last part

Ok, fine you want to know what this thing is really all about?  It’s a metaphor for grief and depression.  The Babadook is like a disease that takes the mother over but also harms the child because any disease affects more than just one person.  Depression in particular is demanding on a relationship.  It’s not like the flu where you have it for a little while and then it goes away.  The mother never really got over the death of her husband and blames her son to an extent because they were on their way to the hospital to have him when they got into an accident.  What we see in the movie is the mother hitting rock bottom barely being able to hold on to her sanity.  But eventually she finds a way to deal with her pain and anger and all is mostly well.  The Babadook still lives at the end of the picture because depression and bereavement is an ongoing battle that never truly ends.  You learn to live with it. 

This is one beautiful film that only gets better the more you examine it.  It’s extremely effective all around.  If you haven’t seen it then you shouldn’t have read these spoilers.  What the fuck is your problem man?  See it already.