What Social Life? – Movies 2014: July


And this is continuing:

  • Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014) – Dir. Michael Bay: Starting my month off properly.
  • From Russia With Love (1963) – Dir. Terence Young
  • Night of the Creeps (1986) – Dir. Fred Dekker
  • Goon (2012) – Dir. Michael Dowse
  • Slap Shot (1977) – Dir. George Roy Hill
  • The Prisoner:”Free for All”; “Dance of the Dead” (1967) – Dir. Patrick McGoohan; Dan Chaffey
  • The Moth Diaries (2011) – Dir. Mary Harron
  • Twin Peaks, Season 2 Eps. 2-3 (1990) – Dir. David Lynch; Lesli Linka Glatter
  • The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) – Dir. John Huston
  • Waltz With Bashir (2008) – Dir. Ari Folman
  • Prince Valiant (1954) – Dir. Henry Hathaway
  • The Jungle (2014) – Dir. Andrew Traucki: Another garbage found footage movie.
  • Blood Widow (2013) – Dir. Jeremiah Buckhalt
  • Tammy (2014) – Dir. Ben Falcone
  • Grown Ups 2 (2013) – Dir. Dennis Dugan
  • Alien (1978) – Dir. Ridley Scott
  • Aliens (1986) – Dir. James Cameron
  • Predator (1987) (again) – Dir. John McTiernan
  • Sleepaway Camp (1983) – Dir. Robert Hiltzik
  • Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) – Dir. Matt Reeves
  • Veronica Mars (2014) – Dir. Rob Thomas
  • Homefront (2013) – Dir. Gary Fleder

Total: 22 (YTD: 104)

One of the things I paid more attention to in July was lighting. Good lighting can make a film immediate and tactile. Lot of films don’t utilize this to its full capability: Tammy and Grown Ups 2 (most comedies, really) are adequate, I guess, but everything looks flat and monotone, like the lights used for the backgrounds don’t match the lights used for the actors; Veronica Mars: The Movie gets this right in night scenes, which have that urban, neon sheen which was a hallmark of Joel Silver’s 80s flicks, which adds a level of danger even to scenes of just talking (i.e. Kristen Bell’s face being lit by streetlamps when she and Jason Dohring are driving across a bridge), but most the film is shot in an oddly blue-tinted daytime which marks a lot of TV dramas. Then there’s movies like Homefront or Blood Widow where it’s the best (technical) part of a crappy film (and Homefront overdoes it, sometimes saturating the screen with lens flare so you can’t see what a character is doing).

As with a lot of production elements, Aliens is king here. That shot of Hicks at the top, lit by dual sources (the emergency light and the lamp) is not only aesthetically pleasing, but the 360-degree coverage of actor and setting lends the scene an urgent realism which pulls the viewer in (“immersion,” as the PR people like to say)(and it’s not just this scene, either, it’s the whole movie, especially notable in the green-screened moment of Ripley and Newt on the platform as the reactor is ready to blow, lightning and fireballs light up both background and foreground. In great films, everything’s considered).

Even better: the red light used in this scene–where the xenomorphs get past the barricades–signifies imminent danger. Panic sets in amongst the cast as the motion tracker shows the aliens getting closer, closer, closer, before finally everyone looks at the ceiling panels in a horrific moment of realization. The lamp enters the frame as Michael Biehn climbs up to find out for sure. For a few, brief seconds, the blue dominates the frame, tension mounting as he (and we) face the unknowable, the inevitable. Biehn turns his head, and the red overtakes the scene again. Cue the aliens, climbing forward from shadows. Then the shooting starts.

Oscar Bait of the Apes

Rupert Wyatt’s sequel/prequel/reboot/remake Rise of the Planet of the Apes soared by focusing on a strong core idea. Caesar–as depicted by Wyatt, actor Any Serkis, and their team of CG animators–grew from frightened and frustrated youth to simian fascist Moses. Divided between two lineages, and ultimately disgusted with both, he forged a third way (in the process tearing up San Francisco). Unfortunately, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes goes out of its way to make this path drab, confused and sluggish. Matt Reeves directs the film as Oscar bait, camera pinned to every grayscale image and scored either to a somber 3-note piano tune or a 1-note drum beat. Serkis is still game, of course, towering upright over subordinates who challenge him, in the process inspiring awe from human survivors (Jason Clarke, Keri Russell) looking to restore a piece of civilization. Yet, the land conflict between humanity’s remnants and the burgeoning apes is instantly subverted, focus yanked away from Caesar and given to scarred, duplicitous underling Koba as he prepares to wage war. Dawn‘s people are shown being fearful, but ultimately really swell and nice if it weren’t for those damn dirty apes following the wrong leader–quite a reverse from Rise‘s use of a franchise mega-arc to pass karmic judgment on mankind’s cruelty. Reeves lingers on this mealy-mouthed interpretation as if he were making some profound statement, rather than sucking life from the image of a machine-gun wielding chimp riding a horse into battle.

Papers, Please

Lucas Pope’s bureaucracy simulator is also a lean character piece. Players learn little about the border inspector they play as, or the fictional dictatorship he serves, but what’s there implies much. Arstotzka is vaguely communist–there’s a labor lottery, a red eagle symbol, and distinctly Eastern Euro imagery–but more importantly it’s xenophobic. The regime rapidly overhauls and expands its immigration and border control policies in the face of crises both real and imagined, piling on the number of documents and rules the Inspector must keep track of every day within a strict time limit. People reduced to numbers being shifted, victims of political dick-wagging (if not outright malice).

In this regard, the Inspector’s no different: his primary goal is his family’s survival, their everyday expenses managed in the results sections between the soul-crushing tedium. Occasionally he’s confronted with a sob story pitting decency against duty, such as when a husband and wife try to immigrate–he has the correct permits, she doesn’t. Admitting her can result in citation for breaking protocol and perhaps docked pay–difficult enough to avoid without actively courting trouble. Even the rebel group seeking to “free” Arstotzka has to bribe and threaten the Inspector into helping them. Everyone’s operating on an assessment of risk/reward, often exposing hypocrisy and arbitrariness in deciding who “deserves” to be in a country and who doesn’t.


If the sole measure of a comedy film is the laughs it can elicit, then Tammy is fine…I guess. Melissa McCarthy’s defiant, can-do attitude is endearing, even in the face of total humiliation–as Tammy, her car is destroyed by a deer, she loses her job, and finds her husband’s been romancing a more conventionally attractive neighbor (all this is the film’s opening act). Frustration leads to a compulsive desire to run away with rude, alcoholic grandma Susan Sarandon. The pair bicker and needle one another, attempt to pick up men, and get into trouble with the law on their way to Niagara Falls. When Sarandon’s drunken antics land her in jail, Tammy opts to rob a fast food franchise for bail money, a Thelma and Louise skit which ate up a disproportionate amount of the film’s advertising compared to its presence.

Instead, director/co-writer Ben Falcone (who wrote the script with McCarthy) lingers on McCarthy debasing herself with tantrums (knocking items off racks and throwing food), when she’s not schooling grandma on the proper way to sing an Allman Brothers song or frowning over guys not seeing past her physique. By the time we get McCarthy and Sarandon fighting teeny boppers over bottles of booze, Niagara Falls seems forgotten. Repeatedly, Falcone and McCarthy slide into SNL/Judd Apatow/Family Guy mode of cameo-based non-sequiturs, references and fuck gags. As fitfully amusing as it is watching McCarthy wear bags over her head and hand, pretending she has a gun and posturing to rap music, it lacks any connection to Tammy’s motivation in the moment. This scattershot approach to comedy extends to conflicts, as well: much of the film is taken with the antagonism between Tammy and her grandmother, boiling over at an Independence Day party–only to fizzle and fix itself through the magic of screenwriter apathy (a favorite trick of the Apatow brand, which raised McCarthy’s popularity with Bridesmaids). Nothing is resolved, it merely stops or changes based on arbitrary whims.

This in itself threatens to encroach into the territory of Werner Herzog and the Coen Brothers, where humor arises from human folly. Best laid plans or well intentions do not yield the desired result, and any attempt to understand this is doomed. Tammy‘s tidy, happy endings avoid such notions in favor of mush. Hard to fathom how anyone could make a road film so immobile.

Blood Widow

If Blood Widow proves anything, it’s how subtext and the occasional flair for technical details only gets one so far. For his directorial debut, Jeremiah Buckhalt relishes in the way light, or the lack thereof, adds to the framing of shots. Night scenes with his titular slasher play off her deep black leather daddy outfit and pale porcelain mask (DP Andrew Barton runs away with the film). The Blood Widow pops forth from the pitch black of a rural night to dismember or gore Millennial hipsters and frat boys. It’s implied she was sexually abused at the now-abandoned boarding school where she lies in wait, her victimization fueling a transformation into a kabuki demon with Jason Voorhees-level teleportation.

Chad Coup and Ian Davis’ script contrast this determination with the clods she hunts: self-absorbed and aimless, they’re out at the nearby country home for a drunken bash and the requisite sex-having. The couple who just bought the property, Hugh and Laurieyes, a House joke–are at odds over this. Hugh’s all too happy to rehash college partying and act impulsively (he brought along a crossbow as a sign of alpha-manliness), while Laurie wants to grow up. His decisions, made without her knowledge or consent, leave her feeling betrayed and angry at the idiotic, easily panicked boys which surround her (the cast’s amateurish acting, including hysterical screaming, almost seems inspired). An old photograph reveals Laurie and the Blood Widow are both blondes, making them practically doubles (a fact not lost on the killer: she takes a torture porn route with Laurie, stripping off her jeans and lashing her with a cat o’ nine tails–punishing herself for ever being a victim).

Unfortunately, Buckhalt, Coup and Davis dither as much as their victims. Sequences which should’ve run in one continuous stream get chopped up: one girl wandering from the party while tripping on acid is scattered between useless bits of dancing, robbing any tension from the imminent kill. At other times, characters run back and forth between the same two rooms, killing momentum. It’s the sort of cluelessness which marks low-budget directors unable to work with what they have–one doesn’t see Adam Wingard or Stevan Mena make these mistakes, let alone John Carpenter. Buckhalt could’ve used his villain’s drive.

Koalas. The Reason Is Koalas


It’s a light week for comics, and nothing is likely to get reviewed. Instead, I’m devoting this space to stray thoughts on what I bought, as well as a few things I (unfortunately) missed out on due to either copies being sold out by the time I hit the shop or the owner not receiving them for one reason or another.

The Maxx: Maxximized #9
Art by Sam Kieth and Ronda Pattison
Writing by Kieth and William Messner-Loebs
Published by IDW

Still not a huge fan of Pattison’s coloring for this reprint. Too shiny and graded. It defeats the psychedelic effect of Kieth’s landscapes and panel transitions. Sarah Horrocks has this excellent essay on coloring in Rob Liefeld X-Force comics, and the way high contrast colors paired next to each other can make images seem more alive. The Maxx needs something like that, something phantasmagorical to lend scenes a sense of hyper-reality, that it’s too vivid to be real.

Caliban #4
Art by Facundo Percio and Hernan Cabrera
Writing by Garth Ennis
Published by Avatar

One of the (many) big setpieces in Transformers 4 was Marky Mark and gang breaking into Lockdown’s ship to rescue Optimus Prime and Marky Mark’s daughter. Inside, the group encounters various caged horrors. Vacuum bots with human eyeballs, long-tongued aliens, scorpion-tailed cyborgs, and more than a few slick, goo-spattered obscenities. I almost suspect Michael Bay watched Prometheus and took it as a challenge (perhaps thinking Ridley Scott wasn’t trying hard enough). I get the same feeling from Caliban, especially in how the series is quickly unfolding to be a sustained freakshow–a “what if the Nostromo crew got stuck aboard the derelict” scenario. Unfortunately, this one’s been all script so far: Ennis can wring all sorts of character beats out of the most terse of blue collar shittalk, but Percio and Cabrera choose mundane designs and a color scheme ranging from brown to grayish-brown. Everything in this comic looks out of focus rather than dark and unknowable.

Satellite Sam #9
Art by Howard Chaykin
Writing by Matt Fraction
Published by Image

Not sure if Satellite Sam is attempting a Twin Peaks here (that is, beginning with a murder mystery but not being really interested in solving it because, hey, look there’s all these other implications to look at). If it is, it’s only been semi-successful in that Chaykin and Fraction are following their own muses: the former indulging his inner pornographer, the latter his gimmicky layouts and playing around with time and the perception of. Building those around characters and situations which merit more than a second’s thought? Tying together a thematic statement or critique about the setting (the golden age of television in 50s New York)? Well…maybe.

Original Sin #5
Art by Mike Deodato and Frank Martin
Writing by Jason Aaron
Published by Marvel

While I’ve been unkind to Marvel’s latest crossover (I’m sure they’re sad about it), I keep admiring how this has stayed within the realm of an actual plot. There’s a consistent cast of characters being followed, ideas are followed up on, and there’s only a couple instances of characters popping up unexplained because you have to pick up the tie-ins. This isn’t enough to keep me buying, of course, that should be the bare minimum of a little thing called “storytelling,” which collectively waved bye-bye to these sorts of comics long ago. No, what keeps me going is a morbid curiosity: to find out whether or not it will crash and burn into yet another unsightly brawl which resolves nothing. Masochism, that’s Marvel’s strategy for keeping readers.

Weird Love #2
Art and Writing by Various
Published by IDW/Yoe

Old romance comics warning young people, especially young women, away from foolish notions like socialism, becoming high-class call girls, independent thinking, aspiring to be more than brood mother for the state, you get the idea. Lots of tawdry titles masking stories of punishment for going outside the norm (i.e. the suit and tie captain of the football team) and hyperbolic warnings that this could happen to YOU. Comics from when America was the unchallenged ruler of the free world. Puts tears in my eyes thinking about it.

What I Missed:

Snowpiercer, vol. 1
Cinder and Ashe
Sherwood, TX #1
Legend of Bold Riley #2
Cosplayers #2
Ditko Kirby Wood

Probably some other stuff.


Goon has an obvious antecedent in the Paul Newman comedy Slap Shot, yet their differences are stark. Both examine the divide between hockey as a sport of pure technical skill and the barbaric violence primarily defined by team enforcers. Slap Shot treats this as an aberration–blue-collar men venting frustration over their own inadequacy, to the delight of a hometown robbed of employment and looking for cheap thrills to occupy their minds. Goon, meanwhile, shows how enforcers have strategic value in a game as intimidation, distraction, even protection. Doug Glatt, the slow-witted yet unfailingly polite man recruited to a minor league team for his ability to fuck shit up good (played by Seann William Scott), definitely signifies the latter. His skating is rocky and many times he doesn’t quite comprehend his coach’s orders, but Doug understands the principle when he’s told to shadow a more proficient player (Marc-Andre Grondin), who has been in a downward spiral since being laid out by a legendary enforcer a few years prior. In a chance encounter with this same enforcer, Ross Rhea (Liev Schreiber with grizzled stubble and oily hair), Doug states, “I’m here to do whatever they need me to do.” Doug’s internalized comprehension is a foil to Slap Shot‘s desperation.

Consider how Michael Dowse positions his enforcers as gunslingers or samurai from classic films: many of the hockey fights begin with low angle, wide shots placing Doug and his latest challenge on opposing ends of the screen. Fights are fast and brutal, blood loss lovingly photographed and closeups occurring only after space has been established. Most involve Doug stepping in when his teammates are being bullied or when some meathead drops gay-bashing slurs (“Hey, my brother’s gay”). If he doesn’t knock out an opponent in a few hits, he’s more than willing to soak up punishment and win via stubbornness, like Rama in The Raid films. Another fight (a cameo from NHL player Georges Laraque) is done as friendly competition; a cordial ask and answer, punches done only as a way of testing ability. It’s all buildup to Doug and Ross, though: an aging veteran who wants to give one last good show, the upstart willing to oblige him. Their game is mostly a tease: Ross squashes Doug’s teammates and tricks him into instigation–a move which leads to the penalty box. Schreiber grins and taunts, playing Ross as a master entertainer. He waits for the third period before glancing to Doug and asking, “You ready, kid?” Cue drums. When their gloves come off, blood and teeth hit the ice.

The effect of Doug’s trials is a quiet, considerate reconstruction of masculinity. Scott, best known for playing swinging dick idiots in American Pie and Role Models, goes against type. He watches and listens to everyone around him, accepts them for who they are. The gay brother, the loudmouthed friend, the humorously sad teammates, the would-be girlfriend who has her own issues, even bitter, cynical Ross get supportive, nonjudgmental treatment. The suggestion is there’s still a place for traditional manhood, after the shock of feminism and gay rights (both of which were hinted at in Slap Shot) has set in. Overbearing machismo, and the resulting misogyny and bigotry, are shown the door. There’s a new enforcer in town.

Enemy Front


In Enemy Front‘s opening cutscene, entrenched American journalist Robert Hawkins speaks valiantly through a radio about relating stories of ordinary people resisting Nazi occupation while the Warsaw Uprising is hammered. Cue flashbacks and players discover Hawkins is no mere observer or recorder of European heroism, but a mover and shaker–the game never confronts this hagiography. Levels play out from Hawkins’ POV, and divide their time between thwarting identikit fascists solo or with companions who are comfortable crouching behind cover while an American does the work. CI Games utilizes the CryEngine to give Hawkins-players the option to stalk, snipe, or run ‘n gun through occupied Europe, including aiding a German saboteur while on the way to Poland (the partner gets captured twice and executed, leaving Hawkins to finish the job right). With a moveset lifted from Far Cry 3‘s Jason Brody at mid-skill and the occasional spacious map, the emphasis (and most of the satisfaction) is on observing enemy patrols from the bushes, before isolating and picking them off. A curious glitch, though (one of many), has the game refusing to load enemies until Hawkins has gotten close enough, ruining the illusion of scouting out targets (glitches are also the only real obstacle to Hawkins, given the often lemmings-esque AI). This does pose one interesting question: if a country is invaded and an American isn’t around to see it, did it happen?

I Survived Extinction, And Didn’t Even Get a Lousy T-Shirt


I’m fairly certain a movie like Transformers: Age of Extinction is beyond any judgment calls of “good” or “bad.” It is, after all, just Michael Bay going back to doing what he enjoys doing (after proving he could make smart, yet still trashy, movies when he directed Pain & Gain): explosions, CGI metal-on-metal violence, and complete disregard for human life. A lot of it doesn’t make sense if you think about it (Kelsey Grammar as a xenophobic CIA agent who works with intergalactic bounty hunter, and robot Predator, Lockdown?), but maybe that’s the point? Pure garbage cinema.

And at nearly 3 hours, there’s a lot of it to savor: the namesake toy characters (now including dinosaur robots), black ops psychopaths colluding with amoral corporate types, sports cars, Dark Knight drum beats, fashion model women in skinny jeans and short shorts, product placement for beer, cavernous alien ships housing a jarred collection of horrors (like something straight out of an H.R. Giger sketchbook), and Marky Mark. Wahlberg plays Cade Yeager, a small-time inventor living out of his farm workshop and having serious control freak issues (refusing to allow his daughter to date, verging on homicidal rage when he discovers her boyfriend, and exploiting his sole employee for cash) when he gets embroiled in the latest Transformers plot. He’s a gentler version of Pain & Gain‘s sociopath Danny Lugo, ruthlessness tempered by fatherhood into a nobler American Dream. Bay throws all this into an unending stream of action scenes which flip between brutalist horizontal stretches (chases along Texas and Illinois freeways with plenty of auto carnage) and dizzying verticality, culminating in a Hong Kong finale juggling no less than four factions, vying for control of the latest world-ending MacGuffin amidst skyscrapers and tower blocks. Machines and people hop around, perform judo flip cover fire, then get sucked up into the sky by an alien magnet. This is a movie unapologetic about being overcrowded and exhausting, likely because Bay isn’t making art to be praised or entertainment to be enjoyed: he’s making an ordeal to be survived.

What Social Life? – Movies 2014: June


More movies I watched in between being out in that supposed real world.

  • From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) – Dir. Robert Rodriguez
  • Invasion of the Astro Monster/Godzilla vs. Monster Zero (1965) – Dir. Ishirō Honda
  • Splintered (2010) – Dir. Simeon Halligan
  • My Bloody Valentine (1981) – Dir. George Mihalka
  • Escape From Tomorrow (2013) – Dir. Randy Moore
  • Edge of Tomorrow (2014) – Dir. Doug Liman
  • American Century episode 2  (2014) – Dir. Abhay Khosla: “Run. Run for your life.”
  • X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) – Dir. Bryan Singer
  • Black Sunday (1960) – Dir. Mario Bava: English dub titled The Mask of Satan
  • World War Z - Unrated version (2013) – Dir. Marc Forster: This was hilarious.
  • King of New York (1990) – Dir. Abel Ferrera
  • Appetite (1998) – Dir. George Milton
  • Fantomas I: In the Shadow of the Guillotine (1913) – Dir. Louis Feuillade
  • Haunt (2013) – Dir. Mac Carter: Another incoherent IFC horror film. The company’s becoming the Sci-Fi channel for film festival assholes.
  • Malevolence (2003)/Bereavement (2011) – Dir. Stevan Mena: These should be a bigger deal than they are.
  • The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) + Shadow Cast – Dir. Jim Sharman: Showing at the Michigan Theatre in Jackson. I had heard for years about how raucous and obscene Rocky Horror crowds are, and this one was, but the most I got out of it was mild entertainment. I don’t know, it’s not my thing and I was in a foul mood that day, but even barring those circumstances I didn’t get anything out of it I wouldn’t have from watching just the movie. Like, “Oh, hey, you’re being irreverent towards a movie whose entire point is being irreverent? That’s…cool. I guess.” And the irreverence–the shouting commentary at the screen and throwing things, etc.–all came across rehearsed. Which makes sense for the shadow cast troupe, but the audience didn’t do anything particularly surprising. Whatever, it was alright.
  • Enemy (2014) – Dir. Denis Villeneuve: Must see.
  • Evil Dead 2 (1987) – Dir. Sam Raimi: Last minute viewing since Netflix was disappearing this.

Total: 19 (YTD: 82)

Kind of disappointed in myself for not writing up reviews of Edge of Tomorrow and X-Men: Days of Future Past. Then again, I don’t think I had any thoughts on these movies which weren’t expressed elsewhere–Tom Cruise’s Scientology video game version of Groundhog Day is as solid a blockbuster as they come, X-Men is pure momentum, based entirely on the now-convoluted mechanics of the film series, way more interesting than it is good (over at Disaster Year 20xx, Chris Ready’s gone and pointed out how the X-Men films have had more personal, artistic touch than Marvel’s in-house studio flicks, if only slightly). One thing which stood out to me about both, and I don’t think it’s been commented on much, is how they react to the modern direction of blockbusters. You know: CGI carnage eating up scores of anonymous soldiers and bystanders, buildings crashing into buildings, 9/11 disaster porn all over the place. Edge of Tomorrow confronts this with Tom Cruise reliving it over and over, learning not just how to be the action hero he is, but also how to be a human being who cares about the grunts he helped send off to die on some remote shore. Days of Future Past explicitly uses the bad storytelling choices from X-Men 3, and the informed backstory of First Class, to drive a plot entirely about undoing the callous mass murder and casual misogyny the franchise had built up. And there’s nothing anonymous in the way mutants are torn apart in the future scenes, either. Singer makes those uncomfortable to watch, even personal. It is nice to see blockbusters being rejigged to once again resemble something human.