Film Reviews

As the release of the upcoming video game Alien: Isolation creeps slowly closer, I find myself loving everything the developers say about the project: they want to stay true to the original Alien film (in my opinion, still the best) and focus on horror over action, period detail over fancy sci-fi wizardry. A recent dev diary even detailed how they were running the video game footage through mangled VHS tapes to make it more authentic.

I’m pretty sure the results will be right up my alley. Even if something preposterous happens and the game turns out not very good, I applaud the team for their perfect intentions.

Like nearly all the video games ever made based in the Alien universe, a lot has been lost along the way since 1979. Recently, I read a great post on about the difference between the original Die Hard and most current superhero / Hollywood tentpole blockbuster action-fests. Basically, the point boils down to the difference between fairy tales and myths. In myths, your hero is special, ordained with gifts other mere mortals do not have. In fairy tales, the characters are ordinary, and their fates are often grimmer. As I grow increasingly impatient with the onslaught of “the One”-style stories, I’ve come to realize that my sensibilities — and the reason I like the horror genre above all others — is that I find fairy tales far more compelling.

As the writer states: “… Myths are badass. Fairy tales are hard core.”

Which brings me back to my favorite film of all time: Ridley Scott’s original Alien film. Since the rise of the franchise, it’s become as much the myth of Ellen Ripley as it has been a series of encounters with Xenomorphs. And that’s exactly where it went wrong.

In the first film (if you can forget the arc of the sequels) you might notice a curious thing: for all intents and purposes, Tom Skerritt’s Captain Dallas is the protagonist of the movie. Ripley becomes the main character only as the others die off, but it’s in no way obvious that it’s her movie in the beginning. Dallas talks to Mother first. Dallas has the final say in key decisions while he’s around to do so. Ripley, the science officer, has her authority questioned by nearly every single character. She’s not “the One”; she’s just the one who lives.

Even in James Cameron’s excellent, world-and-myhos-expanding sequel, she was not without significant vulnerabilities. She most certainly was not a badass soldier; she did her best to contribute and earn the respect of the crew, where and how she could. It’s this vulnerability that makes her so compelling in the first two films, and it’s this vulnerability that she in rather literal terms loses from the third film on.

It all hinges on that moment in Alien 3 when the alien snarls right next to her face … and backs away. That’s the moment when Ripley ceases to be an average person in a series of horrible situations that require everything she has to survive and becomes a queen. She becomes “the One” — the one human with a vaguely mystical connection to the alien. In a lot of ways, the aliens respond to her as Hannibal Lecter responds to Clarice Starling, in seeming suggestion that she alone “gets it” and “is worthy” … of whatever.

Which is only born out further by her Jesus Christ-style resurrection in … oh yeah: Alien: Resurrection. First the Christ pose as she falls into the fire in Alien 3, next the rise from the darkness in Resurrection. And that’s where the franchise died. It shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise, really, when Prometheus proved a full-on religious revenge story about some overgrown zealots beating humanity in the face for murdering their Space Jesus two thousand years ago. Only thing worse than making Ripley a mythic figure was making everyone on Earth a mythic figure, directly tied to the Engineers and the creation of the alien itself.

Ridley Scott has said that when he made Alien, it was in part a response to the glossiness of a lot of sci-fi he’d been watching at the time. He wanted the crew to feel like “truckers in space.” Bravo. It felt like it. It felt like these were people no one — not even their employer — truly gave two shits about. They weren’t as interesting or as important as the thing they’d found that was killing them off. Their lives were cheap.

No one on the Nostromo was “the One.” No one was even in the running.

And man did that ever make that film work!

Somehow, Prometheus made the alien seem entirely too close to home. All the great atmosphere created by the silence of the Nostromo in the beginning of Alien, the foreign quality to everything they encountered, and the sheer sense of isolation — all of that was forgotten by the closing credits of Prometheus, as the myths squashed the last remnants of the franchise’s fairy tale origins.

So color me heartened by the title of Alien: Isolation. I’m looking forward to agonizing over the vulnerability of the protagonist.

I’m looking forward to returning again to the roots of a story that started with average people, in overwhelmingly terrible situations.

I’m looking forward to another fairy tale.

Writer/Director David Ayer’s latest film, End of Watch, employs found footage to tell the story of two LAPD cops, Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Zavala (Michael Peña), who run afoul of a particularly nasty cartel operating in the South LA. The basic building blocks employed here–honest to goodness good-guy cops struggle to do the right thing and bring down the badguys while their girlfriends and pregnant wives worry about them at home and their superiors give them stern talking-tos in the office–should have resulted in little more than a bundle of cliches. But End of Watch is better than that.

What makes it better for me is first and foremost the investment the filmmakers and actors make in the two lead characters. The concepts behind them might well be pretty common, but the details and natural charisma between these two more than overcomes the limits of the fundamental ideas. I really liked both of them a lot, and the time spent with them in the movie’s quieter, more joyful moments pays dividends when the shit starts to hit the fan.

End of Watch transcends its cliches as much as it transcends its genre. This is not a buddy cop film, no matter how much it looks like one. It is, actually, a horror film, and the found footage aspect functions less like Cops and more like The Blair Witch Project. I have seen a lot of cheesy scenes where cops run into burning buildings to save children, but never have I seen that scene made to look so much like two people fighting their way through such a hellish inferno. The cinematography keeps you very much in the moment, and in doing so allows you to realize just how downright terrifying it could be to be a cop. There’s also some intensely gruesome scenes that went well beyond the limits observed by some recent horror films I’ve seen.

The film also does a nice job of underplaying the horrors hidden around the next corner. It’s very good at making everything appear normal on the outside, before ratcheting up the nightmare in ways that would make Fulci proud.

End of Watch is exciting, scary, and effective, and it’s high on my list of best films I’ve seen this year.

If you haven’t seen one of my favorite films, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover … well. The loss is yours. It is everything I ever want from a film. Beauty. Ugliness. Fantastic horrors. Powerlessness, rebellion, and goddamn satisfaction.

Not for all tastes. (Well, okay … that’s an understatement AND a pun!)

In the meantime, please to enjoy this rousing cinematic score.  I listen to this music, and I get inspired to do better.

(If you’ve seen the film, it’s even more delicious.)

What a trailer! Probably one of the best trailers of all time. It took me a while to notice how they match the pitch of a scream to the alarm blast, which associates the sound so beautifully with a feeling of terror. Genius. A brilliant piece of marketing.

Too bad Prometheus the film is not as scary as its trailer, or any of the other pieces of well-crafted advertising shepherding audiences into the theater. It has moments, to be sure; it’s not a bad film. Visually, it’s breathtaking. There are countless drool-worthy shots to justify the price of admission all on their own.

Likewise, Idris Elba, Charlize Theron, and Michael Fassbender all add to the experience in a positive way. I wish I could say the same for Noomi Rapace, but I found her annoying and boring (certainly no Ellen Ripley), and when I ultimately choose not to rewatch this movie it will be because I didn’t care about her character and there is so much of her character to watch.

Which brings me to the point of this article, which is not really a review (and from here on out, be warned: I am going to give  away plenty of things about the film, so if you haven’t seen the film, you’ve been warned — here there be spoilers!). Prometheus is a flawed film, but it could’ve been improved by one small change:

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I’ve been following this film for a long time (it was originally filmed in 2009, but its release was delayed by MGM’s bankruptcy), protecting myself from spoilers, dreaming of a fresh new genre deconstruction that’s also a great horror film in its own right.

Having now seen the film, I don’t understand the media embargo regarding spoilers. The entire plot of the movie has, actually, been given away by the official trailer. And if it hadn’t been given away in the trailer, the basic conceit is given away in the first five minutes of the actual film. Written by Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard and directed by Goddard, the film looks to be a clone of The Evil Dead, but ends up being more like The Evil Dead mashed together with the Initiative from season four of Whedon’s Buffy, except instead of being run by Lindsay Crouse, this paramilitary group is run by — well, I guess I can’t say. The day-to-day operations are handled by Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins (my favorite characters), with Amy Acker saying some lines over their shoulders.

I wanted a lot from this movie, perhaps too much. When I saw the 92% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, I thought I was in for a treat. Sad to say, I was let down. The Cabin in the Woods is not a bad film; it’s just not a great one, and it’s disrespectful of its own genre. I enjoyed it far less than last year’s Tucker and Dale vs. Evil. Cabin is slicker and savvier, but it’s also lacking any really likable characters, which given Whedon’s presence as co-scriptwriter, surprised me. Kristen Connolly’s Dana is no Sydney Prescott, and Fran Kranz’s stoner Marty is such an obnoxious, selfish twit he nearly ruins the film single-handedly (I also hated this actor a lot in Whedon’s Dollhouse, and my opinion of him has only grown worse).  The film is also not very scary or funny (it made me laugh a couple times and scared me not once). The trouble with the movie’s monsters is that they seem like the off-brand versions of villains we know too well. Instead of Hellraiser‘s Pinhead, we get a vaguely S&M-ish guy holding a puzzle sphere with saw-blades in his face. The film ends up less involving than if someone took the posters of a thousand horror films, cut them up, threw them on the floor, and then pissed on them to make them less recognizable.

Now I’m going to discuss the specific things I didn’t like about the movie. In detail. Get out now if you want to see this for yourself; spoilers after the jump.

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It was one of the best nights of my life.

We’d been to the Alamo Drafthouse Open Screen Night before, and we’d been gonged. The we here was myself, Scott Raulie, Justin Tunkkari, and Jason Rude. The Alamo allowed anyone to bring a movie to screen, and every film would be given at least two minutes, after which time, the audience was free to clap or boo, with the hosts determining whether the response suggested to keep the movie rolling or bang a gong on the stage and move on to the next. At the end of the night, a winner would be chosen based on audience reaction.

We were determined to win the audience award, which came with a cash prize of $100. We were gonged.

The video we presented, which was gonged, was called Heisters. Here it is (I play the guy with the burlap over his head).


Shameful, that gonging. But, you know, it was pretty scripted, what we were doing. And what can I tell you? All those continuity errors and the wedding rings on the guys … that was all intentional. All for laughs. I still think Heisters is pretty funny. But we licked our wounds and regrouped. We decided that next time, we would make something that had a running time under two minutes, so that there would be no way possible for our film to be gonged.

So we went and made Curious George and the Mysterious Box. I have to admit that I was giggling furiously the entire time we were filming it. Scott at one point said, “I’m getting a little sick to my stomach,” which only made me laugh harder. I can’t say for certain, but my euphoria over the project might have resulted in some distance between me and my soon-to-be-ex wife.

But a month later, we returned to the next Open Screen Night with our second film. Watching this play on a movie screen in front of a real audience that had no idea what was going to happen–and hearing them react in real time–was one of the single best things that has ever happened to me.

And what do you know–the second time around, we won.

To my friends I left in Austin–guys, I miss you, and I’ll always love the stuff we put together.

Happy Halloween!


How to Train Your Dragon StubHow to Train Your Dragon is the second non-Shrek Dreamworks Animation film that I’ve enjoyed (the first was Kung Fu Panda). In both cases, I didn’t want to see the film based on the preview and went only due to good word of mouth. Well, let me now join the chorus of other voices and say that How to Train Your Dragon is a fun, easy-to-watch adventure that, while not revolutionary, represents another nice step into non-gimmicky storytelling for Dreamworks Animation that is delightfully free of Smashmouth songs and out-of-place pop-culture references.

The story is predictable but effective: A wimpy Viking boy, with the pejorative name of Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel), flies in the face of his town’s dragon-slaughtering ways, secretly befriending a wounded Night Terror dragon–the most dangerous of all dragons and one not yet seen by human eyes. Hiccup is a bit of an inventor, and when he realizes the dragon needs new tail feathers in order to fly again, he fires up the kiln and builds a rig that soon has him flying his very own pet dragon. The dragon, which he names Toothless, needs Hiccup to fly; Hiccup needs Toothless to help him find a way toward more compassionate Viking/Dragon relations. Hijinks and culture clashes ensue, dragons are flown, and a lot of stuff ends up engulfed in flames.

So the story is pretty much a given from the first general characterizations. There’s a competent nod to the Chicks-Can-Kick-Ass-Too school of feminism in the character of Astrid (America Ferrera), who is the fiercest of the other children warriors and part-love-interest, part-competitor for Hiccup–but it’s all a little too easily unraveled. Astrid still ends up being cast into the role of support structure for the heroic, dragon-riding male. I think this dynamic was done much better recently in Kick-Ass, but I understand that this film is meant to be lighter in spirit. Not every movie has to have some sort of tragedy, but it would be nice if there were just a tiny bit more bite to this dragon fable. There’s a sort of uneven vibe to the danger, especially when the characters are training to fight dragons, that often left me confused: were the children actually risking their lives in practice, or did their teacher always have it under control? It’s perplexing, because I feel like there was both too much danger and not enough danger in the encounters with these fire-breathing creatures.

Where the film shines is in the gorgeous cinematography, which is often surprisingly artistic and witty. There’s a wonderful aerial battle in the final act that observers on the ground see as a lightning storm in the clouds, complete with blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shadows of warring dragons. Water, too, looks the best I’ve ever seen it look in a computer animated film. The flying scenes are effective, although I wanted more of them. Finally, I found myself remarking more than once at what a great, dynamic job the filmmakers did with Hiccup’s hair, which is reshaped in nicely authentic ways by his many flights.

My favorite visual, however, was Toothless, whose design was unique and successfully vacillated between intimidating and adorable. The dragon design in How to Train Your Dragon outdoes the dragon design in other recent attempts, such as Alice in Wonderland, or even Eragon, a film in which the dragons also unfortunately talked. There’s no talking here, which is welcome. Without the crutch of blathering conversation, the filmmakers adopt more purely cinematic storytelling techniques, which always draws me in. This film is not as good as Wall*E, but I like the dialogue-free beginning of that movie, and I like the dialogue-free scenes between Toothless and Hiccup here. Both films drew me into their stories with interesting scenes between two characters from different worlds. It’s a nice way to ground the film in some real heart before flying off into more effects-heavy wizardry.


How to Train Your Dragon, directed by Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois. Written by William Davies, Peter Tolan, Sanders and DeBlois. Based on the book by Cressida Cowell. Running time: 98 minutes. Rated PG (for sequences of intense action, some scary images and brief mild language).

… But hold on, why did I go to see that movie this weekend?

Okay, so here’s a little sidenote that I feel compelled to add, so I hope you’ll spare me another paragraph or so.

Aspiring horror novelist though I may be, I’d like it noted that I went to see a fun kid’s adventure movie instead of the new remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street. I don’t approve of this remake mania, and I will not support it. How hard is it to come up with your own original mythology? I’m doing it. Why can’t these professionals do likewise? I dislike both the Saw and the Final Destination franchises, but at least they created their own gimmicks. So, please, can I get some more horror films that are 1.) not remakes, 2.) not vampire movies, and 3.) not zombie flicks.

Please? Anyone? Is it really that hard to come up with something that wants to eat people that you have to make go back to the freaking Wolfman? Until I’ve seen The Deerman, you aren’t trying hard enough!

The title translates to The Secret in Their Eyes, or so we’re told, because it’s actually a non-specific pronoun in Spanish. It translates just as well to ‘his eyes,’ ‘her eyes,’ or even ‘your eyes,’ if you like, and it’s a clever title, because the secret is passion itself, and the theme of the film is the secret passions of various people. One character at one point tells another that while you can change a lot of things about yourself, you’ll never be able to change your passion. It’s a good line, easily the best in the film, and it rings true.

Unfortunately, that’s more or less as far as my enjoyment of this film goes.

That this overrated Oscar-winner (Best Foreign Language Film, 2010) becomes a meditation on the different passions of a handful of people connected by the rape and murder of a young woman makes it a rather muddled affair. While thematically consistent, the secret love two characters have for each other seems a little beside the point in a film that’s really little more than a handsome police procedural. I found myself impatient with the pieces of the movie that didn’t seem to be very well connected to the main thrust of the plot, and I was impatient a lot. The movie felt long to me, and it’s because of all the tangential scenes used to beef up the movie’s self-important mission.

I also found myself wondering just how many mysteries end with reveals that incorporate copious redundant flashbacks to all the clues you may have missed if you don’t really like paying attention to what you’re watching. El Secreto de Sus Ojos ends with just such a sequence of repeated lines, and worse–some of the lines are repeated multiple times! I said multiple times! More than once! As in, multiple times!

Ay de mi. I do like to pay attention to what I watch, and so I found these scenes unnecessary and insulting.

If a story is properly constructed, I don’t think the audience will need such repetitive flashes. Work your exposition properly, writers, and stop it with the lazy recaps. I’m adding this to my rules for mystery films.

None of which is to mention that I saw the twist (if you can even call it that and respect yourself in the morning) coming a mile away. There is one malevolent detail that I loved about it that I didn’t see coming. I can’t spoil it for those that see this movie, but you’ll be able to guess it when you see it, I think. It’s quite mean, and it made the horror writer in me giggle.

There’s also a charged police interrogation scene in the middle of the film that plays like a dressed-up version of a scene you could see any day of the week on the dozens of primetime cop shows–apart from its graphic finale that would only make it suitable for HBO or Showtime. The writer/director of El Secreto is not someone I was familiar with, so, I confess, I looked him up on IMDb. I was shocked and a little horrified to find he has done extensive work on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Law & Order: Criminal Intent, and House: M.D. These are all shows I hate for their schlocky disingenuous nature (I am a devoted, passionate fan of The Wire, if that tells you anything at all), and while I feel like El Secreto isn’t that bad, it is similar in a lot of ways–it is just a touch classier and a smidge more thoughtful.

Chalk this one up to yet another overrated film from last year.


El Secreto de Sus Ojos, written and directed by Juan Jose Campanella. Based on the novel by Eduardo Sacheri. In Spanish with English subtitles. Running time: 129 minutes. Rated R (for a rape scene, violent images, some graphic nudity and language).

Kick-Ass Stub

This super-antihero film exists in three worlds without belonging to any one of them. It is part superhero film, adhering most closely to a riff on the Spider-Man origin story. It is also a critique of the genre (think The Incredibles, Mystery Men, or The Tick). Finally, it’s a straight-up, full-blooded revenge flick. That it sincerely wants or tries to be all three types of films will confound some, probably because we’ve seen so many superhero films lately that when a movie doesn’t follow convention it can seem off-pitch. Roger Ebert recently took moral exception to the film, but I don’t think it’s any more irresponsible than any of the dozens of candy-coated superhero films that thoughtlessly equate vigilante justice with moral responsibility.

The story focuses on Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson), who is a boring teenager in search of a personality. He orders a costume online and sets off to fight crime. But Dave is not a hero; he’s irresponsible, and his actions at times have terrible consequences. The film is as much a critique of Dave’s hubris and naivete than anything else. By the film’s end, I was just hoping he’d find some way to redeem himself for his idiocy.

None of which is to say I found him intolerable. I thought he was utterly nuts, but he was also often braver than I think I would ever be able to be. My girlfriend said she really wanted to see a nice training montage where he learned to be a better fighter. I agree, but I think it’s a credit to the movie that it stayed away from any easy beefing-up of its unfortunate main character.

Kick-Ass keeps it messy, and that puts it closer in spirit to Watchmen than X-Men. But where the film version of Watchmen ended up feeling rather turgid and not all that fun, Kick-Ass is an absolute blast, owing in no small part to its terrific supporting cast. Nicolas Cage and Chloe Moretz as the father/daughter crime-fighting team of Big Daddy and Hit Girl are the best part of the movie, capturing both the joy of watching talented assassins do their thing and also the creepiness of masked family bloodletting. Maybe it’s Nic Cage’s mustache, or maybe it’s the way father and daughter bond over bullets and knives, but their relationship is both awesome and extremely disturbing.

I guess that’s why I loved this movie so much; it’s aware of its own sick heart. Big Daddy rips off Batman’s costume design but uses guns to freely slaughter rooms of thugs–things Batman would never do. The costume disguises the identity of the crusader as well as the psychosis of the man committing the violent acts. Like Kick-Ass himself, Big Daddy and Hit Girl are characters to root for even while you worry about their mental health. What the film version of Watchmen managed to do with Rorschach, Kick-Ass achieves with all its major crime-fighting characters.

It’s a complicated vibe, but it works. Fiction should never have to behave itself, and Kick-Ass delightfully makes a lot of other superhero films look dreadfully square in comparison. It’s deviant, subversive, inappropriate–and a whole lot of fun.


Kick-Ass, directed by Matthew Vaughn. Written by Jane Goldman and Vaughn, based on the comic book by Mark Millar and John S. Romita Jr. Running time: 117 minutes. Rated R (for strong, brutal violence throughout, pervasive language, sexual content, nudity and drug use — occasionally involving children).