Category Archives: Movie Reviews

Best Iraq War Films

Here we are at the end of the Iraq War, at the end of a long and winding and exhausting time period in American international politics. But listen: I’ve never made a political post on my blog before, and I’m not about to start now!

Over the course of the last seven years or so, I’ve read and watched a great deal about our overseas conflicts, attempting to stay informed amidst the avalanche of misinformation. While the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been undeniably horrific, a handful of gifted filmmakers have given us some fantastic documentation and commentary on what exactly occurred in those countries, what led to the wars, what we can expect afterward, and what sort of human toll has been exacted. So here on my blog, I’ve collected the short reflections I wrote for my favorite films (by “favorite,” I mean the most insightful and/ or comprehensive) to come from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The first reflection includes a bolded list that can actually function as a sort of checklist for interested viewers.

No End in Sight (2007)

Quite possibly, the most comprehensive Iraq film produced. No End in Sight offers a detailed analysis of the war, of administrative ineptitude, and of the dangerous arrogance of the United States of America (and the American military). It’s impossible to watch this film and not become enraged for the Iraqi people and for our soldiers on the front lines, so perfectly painted is the picture of over-confident and dishonest politicians.

Remarkable, also, is the range of interviews in No End in Sight. Obviously, there are no sit-downs with Cheney, or Bush, or Rice, but we’ve got Armitage, who was a key player, and we’ve got a number of other administrators and military personnel. This movie feels like a continuation of the books Fiasco and State of Denial, more all-encompassing, with an extended timeline that those books weren’t yet able to include. I would include this movie as the final piece of a sort of Iraq War Seven-Part Film Fest.

Begin with Why We Fight to see the political motivations behind the war, move into Generation Kill (more below) for the soldier’s perspective, watch Shadow Company for the civilian contractor’s perspective, check out Taxi to the Dark Side (or Ghosts of Abu Ghraib or Road to Guantanomo) for torture and abuse, Baghdad High for the Iraqi civilian perspective, Baghdad E.R. to gain insight into military funding deficiencies, The Pat Tillman Story for the perspective of the families of soldiers, and finally No End in Sight as a haunting conclusion.

Certainly, with the war now ending, we’ll have some more comprehensive documentaries, and we’ll gain additional perspective. But the above list served me pretty well (circa 2007-2010).

Ghosts of Abu Ghraib

Disturbing documentary, told from the perspectives of the former guards and inmates at Abu Ghraib. The filmmakers wisely allow the people and the photos to tell the story, and avoid Michael Moore-esque editorializing; as a result, their argument is rich and compelling, rather than preachy.

Taxi to the Dark Side

After watching HBO’s Ghosts of Abu Ghraib, I’m sad to say that there was very little in this documentary that was shocking or new. That’s not, of course, because the images weren’t still disturbing, but simply because Ghosts of Abu Ghraib had shown them already.

Taxi to the Dark Side, though, is a much slicker, better produced documentary, and the range of interviews is astounding. The idea of centering the entire inquiry into torture around a single victim, Dilimar the cab driver, was also a very wise choice, humanizing the victim in the opposite way that the military dehumanizes the torture victims by placing bags over their heads, etc. Definitely worth checking out, although–if you’ve seen Ghosts of Abu Ghraib–this film won’t exactly surprise you or offer any new thesis.

Generation Kill

In the wake of a thousand Iraq War movies, all driven by political agendas or twisted by an overt commentary, Generation Kill is a breath of fresh air. Though it still has a perspective to share on the latest Iraq invasion, and though it still highlights a great deal that is wrong with the military and with war-time bureaucracy, it is one of the few Iraq War films that feels honest. It cares about its characters, and pulses with humanity. It has fun with liberals, and it has fun with ultra-right-wingers, but in no way does it make either appear to be a villain.

This is a long mini-series, of course, but it’s very rewarding, and will leave you both with a newfound sense of respect for the men and women in the military, and an unsettling feeling about what the best of them must endure, and the attitudes they must adopt if they are to succeed in the results-driven armed forces. Great viewing, and never dull.

The Fixer: The Taking of Ajmal Naqshbandi

Another great film to put into any annotated bibliography of Iraq/ Afghanistan war documentaries, The Fixer takes as its subject the kidnap and murder of an Afghan translator, working for journalists, who is essentially ignored by his government in his time of need. It uses this subject to ask deep and lasting questions about corruption in the newly installed Afghanistan government, and to ask questions about the American willingness to also ignore what is happening in our own wars when it is happening to those with brown skin.

Afghanistan has become a sort of Korean War, a forgotten war, but it isn’t close to finished, and its effects will linger for a long time. The Fixer is an effective documentary because it not only profiles this single story, but uses it to make a much broader argument about the current state of affairs.

The Hurt Locker

While I thought “The Hurt Locker” was an amazingly well-constructed film, very tense, very well-acted, very relevant, my first reaction upon leaving the theater (sadly) was that it wasn’t quite as good as Jarhead or Generation Kill. I’m not quite sure why this was my first reaction, because Jeremy Renner gives us a hate-him-even-while-loving-him male character as memorable as any in film history, from Gordon Gekko to Tyler Durden.

But the film’s themes simply seemed to recap all that we saw in Generation Kill (a new type of soldier is emerging, one who feeds on adrenaline and is desensitized to violence) and Jarhead (the inability to function in the regular world after war). Of course, I probably approached The Hurt Locker with the wrong attitude, thinking that it might unseat one of those two films as the “best” Iraq war movie.

It’s a great piece of work…tremendous, in fact, with all the grit and unexpected explosive violence of Black Hawk Dawn, so maybe I should be thinking that it (right now) completes a sort of Essential Iraq Trilogy with those two other films, amidst a forgettable collection of other war films.

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The Hang-Over Part II

Here’s my new rule about comedy sequels: if at least 1/3 of the jokes are references to the original film, then there’s no real reason to see the sequel. This was the case with Meet the Fockers and American Pie 2, two movies that tried to duplicate the original films to such a degree that–when you re-watched the originals–the jokes no longer felt funny or fresh. When you heard Stifler make a “fuckface” joke or say “suck me beautiful,” you now thought, “That’s lame, dude. Move on. Get new material.”

And that’s The Hangover Part II, with its dozens of references to the “wolfpack” and “the three best friends that anyone could ever have,” throwaway jokes from the original that (like the Meet the Parents circle of trust) are now used as centerpiece gags in the sequel.

The Hangover Part II is a well-made film from a technical standpoint, the cinematography and set pieces well above the standards that we expect from a typical crude comedy, and the actors are all still engaging (they haven’t yet become caricatures of themselves, at least) but this time around, there’s no real joy in watching the plot unfold. The filmmakers are so intent in referencing the original that they actually carbon-copy the exact plot structure of the original, from the opening-scene phone call on the morning of the wedding, to the flashback where we meet bride and groom and learn about the bachelor party, to the bachelor party toast, to the jump-cut to Bradley Cooper waking up in a trashed room. There’s still a funny sense of mystery with this situation, but because the plot structure is copied, we know exactly how it will be solved; when the characters wake up in this strange place and notice that one of their own is missing, we know the steps that they will take in order to find him, and we just sort of wait for each inevitable event to play out.

In the original, the comedy was enhanced by the sudden random appearance of Mike Tyson and/or Ken Jeong’s penis, but in the sequel, it feels like an obligation to now include these elements. Not a bad movie. But this sequel sort of felt like your sophomore-year Spring Break in college, when a bunch of friends really wanted to go back to that same beach you went the year before…and now you go to the same bars and the same restaurants and the same parties, and it all just feels a little tired.

I saw The Hang-Over II in a theater that served beer, by the way, and so the crowd was absolutely pumped for the film. When the characters toasted, the audience toasted. Beer at every seat, drunk guys high-fiving. And for the first thirty minutes, the audience was with this movie; the audience was laughing; then the theater got quieter, audience members settled, and we went through a twenty-minute period where everyone seemed to stop laughing. Then everyone seemed to go to the bathroom all at once, but not in that hurried way like in a good action movie, where you run to the bathroom and run back and hope you didn’t miss anything. No: people went to the bathroom, took their time, ordered another beer, came back slowly. After all, they knew what was coming. That’s The Hangover Part II. It’s kind of fun because you’re reliving the first movie…but after a little while, you want it to do something new, to surprise you in the same way that the original surprised you. But instead, it winds up feeling tedious, forced, like the guy in your circle of friends who still goes around quoting the original Hangover long after everyone else has moved on to new comedies.

Midnight Meat Train

Even though Midnight Meat Train sounds like a really terrible porno, I was able to convince my wife that it was acceptable for me to rent because Bradley Cooper is the star. Granted, she still wouldn’t watch it with me, but I just want to go on record by saying this, first and foremost: God bless horror filmmakers who cast recognizable and credible talent in their movies. It makes my life feel less sleazy.

As for the film itself? Midnight Meat Train has a style all its own, and for horror fans, it’s definitely worth watching, but it’s also excessive and gratuitous and violent for violence’s sake. We watch murder after murder, each in slick slow-mo, mallets pounding heads, blood spraying across windows, and we eventually start to wonder why we’re watching so much of it. Sometimes, this film feels more like a highlight reel of murder footage than it does a horror film that uses violent acts to progress a story. Is the movie stylish? Yes. But it seems to be self-indulgently stylish, much the same as the “Final Destination” movies, with their Rube Goldberg death scenes.

As for the story? I’ll be absolutely honest. I thought it was an interesting concept. There’s a murderer aboard the subways in New York, and apparently a conspiracy, too, as he slices and dices in the dead of the night, and the bodies disappear into the bowels of the city’s underground. Why is he killing? Why is no one asking questions? A photographer (Cooper) seeks these answers, and he is drawn into the conspiracy itself.

The problem with the film’s structure, though, is that it keeps the answers from the audience until the final frames of the film…the obvious reason, of course, is that the filmmakers want a big, dramatic reveal…

And yes, the reveal is interesting. But I want to see how the characters deal with the new information at the very end. Instead, this movie gives us a gimmick ending which wastes the entire concept upon which the film was built. It would be like Jaws waiting until the final frame to show that (yes!) it was indeed a shark after us all along, and then the shark eats everyone very quickly, and the movie fades to black.

Worth seeing for horror fans, but unfortunately, Midnight Meat Train is a missed opportunity to reinvigorate the horror genre.

Wizard of Gore

So the name of the movie is Wizard of Gore, and I know what you’re thinking: why would you ever rent a movie called Wizard of Gore and expect it to be any good?

That’s a valid question, I suppose, right up there with, “Why did you buy Redneck Zombies on VHS when you were in college?” But it might require too much personal self-assessment for a casual Monday evening.

Actually, though, the cheesy-sounding title, coupled with top-billing for the always-wacky Crispin Glover, and other spots for Brad Dourif (a horror movie icon, the voice of Chucky) and Kip Pardue (seems like a goober if you’ve only seen Driven, but he was great in Rules of Attraction), led me to believe that The Wizard of Gore might be an undiscovered gem. Maybe this was a Midnight Meat Train type of movie, some horror-loving director’s pet project that never really got the recognition that it deserved.

And for the first thirty minutes or so, the movie has potential. In fact, it has a noir-ish quality to it, with Kip Pardue dressing and behaving like a 1940s journalist despite the fact that the characters are frequenting clubs and parties for sexual deviancy. There was a vacant-sounding voice-over, even. I got my hopes up. I started thinking Dark City.

And then Crispin Glover arrived, acting weird as always, playing the part of “Montag the Magnificent,” an illusionist who lures large crowds of other weirdos (horror freaks, S&M freaks, Nazi freaks, etc.) to abandoned theaters and warehouses, and then appears to perform shows in which he hacks up the most whore-ish of female volunteers from the audience. The crowds–who had previously been skeptical of any magic tricks, and who appeared to have been desensitized to violence–are horrified…until Montag reveals the illusion and the young women reappear, unharmed, and then the crowds go wild as he asks them, “Did you feel something?”

At first, this is a fun stunt. We’re not sure where the movie is taking us, but it’s got so many strange elements in play that we trust it.

Then we get our first murder. One of the women is found dead. And the movie heads in an even stranger direction, but suddenly loses focus, becomes disjointed. The rest of the world around the characters comes into clearer focus, and (disappointingly) it seems as though it’s just a normal world. So we’re not sure what to make of Pardue’s journalist act, nor his old-school telephone or ’40s-era apartment. And then there’s an underlying plot element concerning a hallucinatory drug, and something about people being used to murder other people for unknown reasons, and really, it all just falls apart for the last thirty or forty minutes.

So Wizard of Gore isn’t an instant classic. Too bad. But I suppose I should be glad that it was bad in an interesting way, that it never became bad in a predictable mainstream sort of way.

Cabin Fever 2

So…there’s a special place in my heart for direct-to-video horror sequels. And I can’t really explain why. Maybe it’s because, when I was younger, my parents used to give me a wad of cash and let me wander the old “Video Giant” and pick out horror movies in October as part of their “seven movies for seven dollars for seven days,” and I would find the worst crap imaginable. (I actually rented every single “Puppet Master” movie, and I don’t think ANY of them was ever released in a theater)

Over the past few years, perhaps in an effort to relive my creature-feature childhood years, I’ve rented and DVR’d such direct-to-video greats as “Stir of Echoes 2: The Homecoming,” “Wrong Turn 2,” “The Boogeyman 2,” “The Descent II,” and “The Mangler Part II.” Yes, I know. Most of the originals weren’t even good (the original “Mangler” wasn’t even just bad…it was abominable), and I never really have any delusions that the new installment will be watchable. I just keep renting and renting these low-budget sequels, regardless of quality, regardless of track record. Why do I do this to myself?

“Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever” was my latest poor choice.

And, of course, I should have known better than to expect brilliance, right? This was a mean-spirited film, a movie that misidentified the strengths of the original, and in an effort to continue the story and “give audience more of what they wanted,” simply gave us everything that we did NOT want.

The original “Cabin Fever” works because it understands horror movies, and it slowly builds the dread and the dark atmosphere, occasionally giving gentle nods to the many different horror films that has inspired it. Then, once we’re hooked, once we’re really into it, it goes crazy. Over-the-top. Scary-gory at first, then funny-gory as a way to relieve the tension. Was it a good movie? I don’t know. A lot of people hated it. But I enjoyed it because it was so patient in its development of the horror, and because Eli Roth obviously seemed to care about horror movies, and you could feel the energy and passion of his filmmaking in every scene. It’s no wonder he eventually palled up with Quentin Tarantino.

But “Cabin Fever 2” gets it wrong. Basically, the filmmakers here decided that the only reasons that anyone enjoyed “Cabin Fever” were (a) It had hillbillies, and hillbillies are funny, and (b) It had wince-inducing gore.

So this movie does indeed have hillbillies, and it does indeed have wince-inducing gore. From the very start. And every gory scene seems to want to one-up anything we saw in the original “Cabin Fever.” From strip club scenes to fellatio in a high school bathroom, this movie just piles it on. But it doesn’t seem like the filmmakers are having fun with it; it just seems like they want us to be uncomfortable. And…well…mission accomplished. If the first “Cabin Fever” was a love letter to horror films, then “Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever” is like a comment from a rival fan on a sports message board. The gore isn’t scary, and it isn’t funny. And the experience of the film does make us turn our heads and cover our eyes, but we aren’t experiencing the thrill of a great horror film; we’re just waiting for the entire thing to be over.

Best Worst Movie

“Best Worst Movie” is too good to be true, a documentary about one of the most ridiculous movies ever created…And because I’d never seen “Troll 2” (the best worst movie that this documentary profiles), every excerpt and every reference was made that much more ridiculous. You’ll watch a scene from the film and you’ll think, “I have no idea what the hell they’re talking about.” Then you watch “Troll 2,” and you still don’t understand it. Good stuff.

And what makes this documentary such a riot is that the cast and crew of “Troll 2” is also ridiculous. Some of the actors/actresses can take the joke, and it’s fun to see where they went in their lives and careers. Others (such as the director) continue to take the film seriously, to defend it, to believe that it was misunderstood, etc. It’s great comedy, either way.

Michael Stephenson (who directed “Best Worst Movie”) takes a novel approach with the film, though, that allows it to achieve real emotional resonance. First of all, he’s actually the child star from “Troll 2,” and the film utilizes a personal approach to show us his own story. Why did he get involved with the movie to begin with? What did it do to his career? What effect has it had on his life? Stephenson then puts the focus squarely on George Hardy, the other major star of the film, and we follow Hardy as he soaks up the spotlight when “Troll 2” becomes a strange cult hit. Yes, there’s a lot of funny stuff in this film, but there’s an element of tragedy when we hear about the careers of various actors and actresses, and there’s even an element of hope when we consider what this documentary might do for both Hardy and Stephenson.

After watching “Best Worst Movie,” I actually decided to watch “Troll 2,” since it was on Netflix instant play. And yeah, it was a terrible (but a good-natured terrible, like an Ed Wood movie or a fake wrestling match) motion picture, but pairing these two movies together in a single night (with a bottle of win) was a damn good time. Compare the experience to some of the more bitter and mean-spirited and/or formulaic fare that I’ve seen recently (I’m looking at you, “Book of Eli”), and there’s no question: this was a much better experience.

“Troll 2” might actually be the worst movie of all time, from a storytelling standpoint. Honestly. Nothing makes sense, and the acting will make you laugh uncontrollably, over and over. But I suppose I could compare it to a “good” or “bad” Super Bowl. Technically, we’re supposed to want a Super Bowl where we get to see two really good teams square off and play as flawlessly as possible; technically, we’re supposed to want to see good defense. But sometimes, the best football games are the ones where everything gets out of control, where the defense breaks down and suddenly the score is 45-42 and it’s all audibles and no-huddle offense and absolute craziness. The football game isn’t “technically sound,” but hot damn, it’s entertaining. Way more entertaining than a 10-13 “defensive game.”

The Box (2009)

 

It’s tough to be super-critical of “The Box,” because it’s the sort of movie that really does take chances, and it really wants to be the sort of horror movie whose story offers deep commentary on society and culture.

Most horror movies are satisfied, after all, with a mildly interesting concept (or a killer/slasher who wears a different sort of mask than we’ve seen before), a bunch of gore, maybe a boob shot, and a “shock/surprise” scene or two. Who cares about special effects, unless we’re talking about the creativity of the kills? Who cares about careful and patient plotting, about questions left unanswered because they are meant to inspire thought? Who cares about the cast, even, so long as the teenagers are good-looking?

But “The Box” is so ambitious that it takes a story that could have been told anytime, anywhere, and sets in the 1970s, perhaps in an effort to stay true to the original Richard Matheson story. The art direction, then, feels almost “Mad Men”-esque, with careful attention to color in clothing, wallpaper, furniture, and vehicles. In fact, there’s even a “Zodiac” angle to the film, as a great deal of its tension is heightened by the absence of technology (cell phones, cable TV, internet). “The Box” is even an ambitiously casted horror film, offering us not just Cameron Diaz and James Marsden, but a host of other character actors, from Frank Langella and James Rebhorn to Celia Weston, actors and actresses who bring credibility to the film. You get the impression that the entire crew really really cared about this movie, that they thought it might be something special.

But it’s not. That’s the problem. “The Box” begins with an interesting premise, one that’s revealed in all of the trailers and publicity materials: a mysterious man delivers to a suburban couple a box that, if its button is pressed, will give the couple a million dollars, but will also cost the life of someone they don’t know. Interesting material for a terrifying psychological thriller…and yes, there’s all sorts of potential for sharp commentary, if only the movie could stay focused.

Unfortunately, it quickly descends into a “Plan 9 From Outer Space” plot. Yes, this is much slicker than an Ed Wood film, with a much bigger budget, and high degree of technical achievement, but we go from Couple with a Box and a Choice to: man struck by lightning to give him superpowers, hordes of puppet-people who can be possessed and manipulated, communication with something on Mars, weird off-exit hotel with walls of tin foil, Stargate-style gateways to the “other side,” boxes of water that float above beds, and NASA and military intrigue. It’s so much, and it’s so ridiculous, that we wind up exhausted from all of it, unable to maintain our waning emotional attachment to the married couple at the center of the film.

In the end, I admired the energy behind “The Box,” the dedication and the love that the filmmakers had, but it’s just a hokey B-movie that doesn’t realize it’s a B-movie. It wants to be something much more grand, much deeper. Really, then, it’s a problem of tone: this movie chose to be dark and brooding and thoughtful, when perhaps it could have been successful if it had tapped into the bizarre and maybe had fun with it.

Paranormal Activity II, and the Motivations of Demons

I’ve learned not to expect too much from horror sequels. Last week, after all, I watched Lost Boys: The Thirst, and I don’t need to write a review to tell you how that one turned out. And anyone remember Blair Witch 2, which was much slicker than the original but which took that franchise into a quick tailspin from which it never recovered? That’s what I was expecting with Paranormal Activity 2.

But surprise! I absolutely loved this movie.

For starters, it took what we loved from the original film (the do-it-yourself handheld videotaping, the young couple who cannot escape the “paranormal activity” haunting them) and improved upon it. In this sequel, we’ve got handheld cameras, yes, but the film offers dozens of additional security cameras throughout the house; some are more prominently used than others, but the storytelling is much more fluid because we are able to see so much, to move from room to room without any difficulty. Also, whereas the first film focused on a young couple in a big house, the sequel gives us a complete family (husband, wife, young girl, newborn boy, dog), which automatically makes the entire situation Poltergeist-tense, and we also get a house that feels a thousand times too large for the family. Sometimes horror films succeed because of claustrophobia; in this case, though, the movie succeeds because of emptiness, the feeling that there is just so much space all around you that could be haunted, and there’s no way to get away from it all.

But the other great thing about this film is that it actually builds upon the story of the original, clarifying and sharpening the background, history, and overall conflict. It’s a prequel, sort of, and we actually see the characters from the original appear at various points throughout the film. We even come to understand how/when certain events in this film happen in relation to events in the original (much like Back to the Future II, where Marty McFly actually sees scenes from the first film happening in front of him).

My main gripe with the original film, in fact, was that it had an “easy” ending. The story had built and built, and really, the filmmakers saw no other way to end the thing except to suddenly give us a possession and a death. That movie (I argued) failed in the final frame because it forgot the motivation behind the demon at the center of the haunting. Sounds strange, I know. But the demon has a motivation for haunting the couple. And if the demon wanted to kill either of them, it could have killed them in the first scene. So why wait until an hour and a half of footage had elapsed? And if the demon wanted to possess the girl, why hadn’t it done so years earlier? Why wait? No, the movie actually told us (and The Exorcist used this same motivation for its demon) that the haunting was all about fear and terror, making someone’s life terrible. Why was a young girl possessed in The Exorcist? Because the devil wanted to be a dick. And you know what? That’s an excellent motivation.

So I loved the original, but hated the ending. Here, however, the story actually reveals a different motivation for the demon. And, just as in the movie Poltergeist, we come to know exactly why this family is being haunted. And this ties together brilliantly with the reason for the haunting of the young couple from the original. It would have been easy for this sequel to just give us a completely different couple in, say, North Carolina, and to just start a series of films about random unrelated hauntings…it still could have made a lot of money. But the film builds on the original, and actually makes the original into a better movie. The final scene in Paranormal Activity 2 is every bit as scary as the first, but it left me uneasy long afterwards, rather than leaving me questioning the entire premise.

It’s also important for me to note (because this is what I always do) that this series is shaping up to be the ultimate example of Millennial Literature. It’s a story crafted by the participants (handheld cameras, security cameras, etc.), and it’s all at once slick and well-produced, but still grainy and throwback, as if it’s just a bit disgusted with CGI. What makes it such an interesting example of Millennial Literature, though, is that so many movies and TV shows appeal to the youth generation by growing ever-louder, by jump-cutting epileptically, and the Paranormal Activity films are quiet, slow, still; they use silence and motionless images to capture our attention, rather than shouting at us. Quite the contrast to the average Millennial-targeted blockbuster.

Feast II: Sloppy Seconds

I don’t remember being impressed by the original Feast, but because I have a sick fascination with direct-to-video sequels, I decided to rent Feast II: Sloppy Seconds. This came right on the heels of Cabin Fever 2, which was not only a massive disappointment, but an unrelenting and mean-spirited gross-out/gore-fest without redeeming characters or plot.

So maybe I should have seen it coming: Feast II was also an unrelenting and mean-spirited gross-out/gore-fest without redeeming characters or plot. The opening scene features an angry biker woman shooting a dog. Not even a vicious dog. Just a dog. So the tone of the film from the very start is cruel. Heartless. Violence = fun. And hey, listen, I know it’s all fictional, not a real dog, not real people, etc., but this tone permeates the entire film, and so we wind up never forming an emotional attachment to any of the characters.

No, wait. I take that back. We wind up disliking every single one of the characters. Like Cabin Fever 2, which was only interested in one-upping the gore with each new scene, we see that the filmmakers are more interested in their own personal technical achievements (how to convincingly tear off limbs, that sort of thing) than in telling an interesting story or creating interesting characters. It’s blood on top of puke on top of acid-vomit on top of shit on top of pierced eyeballs on top of torn-off limbs on top of…you get the idea…gore for gore’s sake.

And Feast II, as I mentioned, is unrelenting in its cruelty. There’s no humanity, no character who seems even remotely sympathetic. And that’s a shame, because the John Gulager (director) that I remember from Project Greenlight seemed like he was a quirky but dedicated artist, someone who believed in the films he was creating. And it’s hardly possible to imagine anyone believing in Feast II.

The John Gulager I remember was the very reason that Project Greenlight was an interesting show; he brought humanity to the unlikeable veneer of Hollywood assembly-line film production. Now it’s the assembly-line film production that seems likable by comparison.

Funny Games, and Horror as Social Commentary

Funny Games is a slick and stylish horror film, very moody and atmospheric and tense throughout its entire running time, but it absolutely fails in its director’s mission to create a worthwhile piece of social commentary.

Here’s the basic premise: a rich white family is summering at a lake, and suddenly some teenagers (who claim to be the neighbor’s friends) show up: they’re also white, dressed immaculately in white (complete with white gloves), speak eloquently, and talk frequently of politeness. Their very presence is unnerving, and they continually cause problems, knocking cell phones into sinks, dropping eggs, etc. When told to leave, they become violent, turning on the family, then torturing them and playing violent games for the film’s final hour. Things become increasingly violent, until several members of the family are murdered, and the boys go on to the next neighbor’s house to repeat the process.

Three times in this film, the torturers turn to the audience and speak directly to us, breaking the film’s illusion of reality. The torturer appears to be chastising us for watching, for having empathy for the tortured family. Once, when something goes wrong and the family escapes, the torturer grabs a remote from the couch, rewinds, and the scene plays out in the excruciating opposite manner. The apparent purpose behind these odd narrative interruptions seems to be to toy with the audience, to make a comment about torture films specifically, and violence in cinema, in general. Why do we watch these movies? Why do we delight in violence? Etc.

But here’s the problem: the film is too slick, too violent, and enjoys the terror it creates far too much to actually criticize it. This isn’t A History of Violence, which diminishes each heroic act by forcing us to stare at the horrible results of the violence in the heroism. This isn’t Saving Private Ryan, whose violence we watch in order to understand the horrors of war (even good wars). This is Funny Games, and it loves its torture scenes, loves every second of them, every spot of blood, every piece of grit…then suddenly criticizes its audience for empathizing with the victims, and hoping they get out. Um. What are we supposed to hope for? A movie without tension? We want a film that challenges its characters, and we want those characters to overcome their challenges. That’s drama. If the filmmaker (the filmmaker!) chooses torture as the challenge, that says more about the person creating the film than the person watching it.

I watched Funny Games because I thought it would be an interesting piece of commentary, and would employ interesting narrative strategies. It approached both of these ideas. But it utilized the “Torturer Talking to Audience” strategy only thrice (not nearly exploiting the concept to any real effect), and its commentary was misdirected. This was like watching a porn star criticize a pervert. No, no. Scratch that. This was like watching a porn star criticize the perversion of someone who is critical of porn…

Worst movie I’ve seen in awhile, because it could have actually been something important.