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I am Salty The Beast. I am what you might call a Renaissance man, meaning I find interest in most every medium. I love watching movies, listening to music, writing music, playing video games, making videos, etc.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

MOVIE REVIEW: A Haunted House


One website I used to frequent was a comedy-focused movie review community called Spill.com, and I can still vividly recall the Spill Crew’s review for the first “Paranormal Activity” film. One of the crew members satirically mentioned that if the main characters were replaced with a black couple, the end credits would be scrolling up within seconds because the protagonists would have bolted right the hell outta that creepy building. There was a moment like that in “A Haunted House,” in which Marlon Wayans has the U-Haul truck all packed up the morning after one potentially supernatural occurrence.

Such moments, as well as a Ouija board reading with an illiterate spirit and an injurious take on “Paranormal Activity 3’s” falling furniture gag, are the mild joys in a film that only seldom takes aim at the dartboard of qualified genre mockery. “A Haunted House” finds this Wayan brother returning to the familiar corridors of the horror movie spoof genre, which the Wayan clan pulled off reasonably well in the first “Scary Movie.” And since the novelty of found-footage has yielded some of the more profitable and talked-about horror movies in recent years, it seems only natural that the subgenre would get a spoof movie all its own.

The film’s main target is one of the best examples of found-footage to date, “Paranormal Activity,” though it is occasionally crossed with arguably one of the worst examples, “The Devil Inside.” Marlon Wayans and Essence Atkins settle into a new residence, only to experience a whole lot of unsettling paranormal disturbances. Doors moving, bumpy noises, invisible forces pulling victims across the hardwood floor, et cetera. And all of it is caught on a constantly recording video camera. To help the couple better understand these spooky phenomena include a sketchy security camera installation duo (David Koechner and Dave Sheridan), a priest of dubious religious training (Cedric The Entertainer), and a mousy gay psychic (Nick Swardson).

In a way, I respect spoof movies that relentlessly throw joke after joke at the audience, hoping against hope that some of them will stick better than others. Innovators like Mel Brooks and David Zucker took a very similar approach to spinning exhausted genres into rapid-fire farces. But there is an important difference between “A Haunted House” and something like “Young Frankenstein,” and it has to do with the genres they is ridiculing. Mel Brooks’s gags were often silly, but through his screenplay and direction, he was also able to highlight the vulnerabilities and clichés that were rampant in genre films. Take for instance the bookcase scene in “Young Frankenstein,” which put a comedic spin on the old hallmark of the revolving door that reveals a secret passageway through some kind of triggering mechanism.

Perhaps I am overthinking the film by comparing it by the yardstick of a classic like “Young Frankenstein,” but is it so much to ask for a little bit of comedic evaluation to go along with the absurdity, especially when dealing with a format as deserving of criticism as found-footage? Granted, the comedy here is considerably more advanced than the assault of empty-calorie pop-culture references practiced by Friedberg and Seltzer. But too often, the humor adds up to cruder variations on otherwise carbon-copy scenes from the films being parodied. Remember in “Paranormal Activity” when the Activity slinked into the bedsheets with the slumbering couple? Introduce rough sex as a variable to this scenario, and you now have an understanding “A Haunted House.”

VERDICT: 1.5 out of 4 stars

Friday, January 11, 2013

MOVIE REVIEW: Gangster Squad


“Gangster Squad” is aesthetically striking and uses a troupe of fine actors to the best of their abilities, but by the hour mark, it had blown all of its ammunition. By that point, you begin to accept that the film will not do anything outside of the bare minimum for the genre it necessitates. Like Brian De Palma’s “The Untouchables,” it is centered on the rapid expansion of organized crime in America during the first half of the 20th century.

The time is 1949, the place is Los Angeles. Sean Penn plays Mickey Cohen, the notorious gangster of post-WWII L.A. who, at this time, is still in the process of building his empire and bringing the Jewish mafia to the forefront of the criminal world. He wants to hold a monopoly on the drug trade, and will ruthlessly pulverize anybody who stands in his way. A man tied by his limbs is pulled apart like tissue paper by two cars in the opening scene. To call Penn’s performance as Cohen ‘fierce’ would be an understatement. Mickey Cohen is one of those criminals who will never be satisfied until all rival powers and opposing forces are hanging upside down and bleeding to death.

Strongly determined to bring Cohen’s operations and growing influence to a halt is Chief Parker (Nick Nolte), the timeworn head of the LAPD. Because several officers on the force are now the controlled playthings of criminals like Cohen, Parker goes to one of the only few honest cops left in the department, Sergeant O’Mara (Josh Brolin), and places him in charge of apprehending the crime boss once and for all.

O’Mara proceeds to assemble a team of men with special skills to take down Cohen’s establishment brick by brick, like a game of Jenga. These men include Sergeant Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), detective Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie), army surveillance expert Conway Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi), officer Max Kennard (Robert Patrick), and his eager Hispanic assistant Navidad Ramirez (Michael Peña). Leaving their badges at home on missions, they call themselves the Gangster Squad and use violent vigilante force to get their point across. They take on some of the smaller crime spots before advancing to Cohen himself, and it isn’t so easy at first. Early on, for example, the Gangster Squad’s plan a hit on an Indian casino, but are promptly sabotaged by on-duty police officers.

The production design of “Gangster Squad” is first-rate, at times evoking the authentically old-fashioned atmosphere of a classic crime noir. The settings (including an impressive replica of the Slapsy Maxie nightclub), the lighting, the fashion sense, and the fancy cars help further the impression of a smoky, hardboiled crime saga. But the audience’s immersion is broken by moments of modern filmmaking tricks, like when the camera zooms in on a bullet in slow-motion to demonstrate the force of its impact. Why do something so distracting and anachronistic like that, especially when so much time and effort (I presume) is spent on making everything so painstakingly accurate to the time?

The film’s trailers sparked some controversy a few months back for featuring a scene in which a few characters open fire on an audience inside Grauman’s Chinese Theater. These clips obviously had to be removed in the wake of an agonizingly similar theater shooting in Colorado, but the filmmakers decided to further remove any association with the real-life tragedy. Instead of cutting the entire scene, which was reportedly very important to the final print, new scenes were conceived to circumnavigate the empty spaces. The process required rewriting, reshooting and a greatly delayed release date, and their efforts are relatively effective, at least in terms of narrative clarity. Abrupt production adjustments have a tendency to ruin a film’s fluidity, but the filmmakers have successfully camouflaged the gaps and disparities.

But even if the original scene was still intact, I doubt it could have helped “Gangster Squad” reach a greater sense of cohesion, for it is somewhat of a mess. The characters are not so much characters as they are one-dimensional dramatic archetypes of the standard crime movie. Come to think of it, what is the point of Emma Stone’s character other than to look gorgeous and be a motivating force for Ryan Gosling's Jerry to eliminate Mickey Cohen? The screenplay teases a possible moral conflict within the Gangster Squad, only to never address the subject again. Instances of brutal violence are quickly followed up by moments that border on comedy. I suppose such moments are to be expected from the first semi-dramatic feature by Ruben Fleischer, whose previous films included the superb “Zombieland” and the frenetic action comedy “30 Minutes Or Less” (which I enjoyed, but most other people panned).

The final confrontation between the mob and the cops takes place in L.A.’s Park Plaza hotel, which Cohen has entirely rented out for his own use. The scene is a continuous volley of bullets whizzing across the lobby as they are expelled by numerous fully-automatics. And lots of noise. Here is another one of those films in which the bad guys have disgracefully bad aim and can hardly land a shot, but the good guys never miss. I believe this condition is known on the internet as Stormtrooper Syndrome, and this term can just as easily apply to the makers of “Gangster Squad.” They had a clear target in mind, but they completely missed the mark.

VERDICT:
2 out of 4 stars

Friday, January 4, 2013

MOVIE REVIEW: Texas Chainsaw 3D


“Texas Chainsaw 3D” is a reboot/sorta-sequel to the 1974 slasher classic “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” and considering the franchise was already afflicted by a terrible remake in 2003, this new one is slightly better than you might expect. After all, there are maybe two or three moments of raw suspense that had me on edge, and the violence and gore is considerably more extreme than most mainstream horror audiences are accustomed to seeing (the film’s original cut was branded with an NC-17 rating). In my head, I imagine a group of young punks raised on the comparatively tame “Saw” movies will be in for a bracing (if not, jarring) shock.

But something about this entry rubs me the wrong way, namely where its morals and priorities lie. I know, this sounds like a really stupid criticism for a movie like this, but allow me to explain myself. The original film was an intensely disturbing piece of filmmaking, but was hardly a bloody film. In fact, just like John Carpenter’s “Halloween,” one of the truly unsettling things was how economically it used the colors of blood and guts to paint a haunting picture. In its own twisted way, it brought artistic integrity to a genre that generally had no use for such a concept. Sure, it was for all intents and purposes a Dead Teenager movie, but it was an effective one nonetheless, and a reminder that art can salvage any subject.

In contrast, the only concern that seems to be on the mind of “Texas Chainsaw 3D” is to gross out the audience. Or titillate them. I am actually not too sure. As I watched the film in all of its red-soaked pride, I tried to place myself inside the head of a person who might enjoy the film, and arrived at a series of interesting conclusions.

Would such a person be celebrating the gruesomeness of the violence, or would they be rightfully disgusted? Sure, I recoiled in my seat at some of the violent images, but I don’t ever remember being entertained by such graphic scenes. Would they be rooting for the protagonists, or would they be cheering for the deranged man wearing the severed faces of his dead victims? If it is the former, I suppose I just don’t see it. The characters are mostly one-note, underdeveloped, and spend most of the film screaming, frantically flailing their limbs, and suffering from their own stupid mistakes.

And if it is the latter, I suppose that would explain the film’s bizarre third act turn, in which the filmmakers deliberately try to make the chainsaw-wielding Leatherface a more sympathetic villain by making all the town officials equally deplorable. If I squint my eyes, I can kinda see how a murky moral climate could make the film more interesting, but my mind was already made up: I would rather take the town’s motivated degeneracy over the killer’s senseless depravity any day of the week.

We meet Heather Miller (Alexandra Daddario), a girl who has just inherited her grandmother’s stately manor. This comes as news to her, as she has never even met her biological grandmother and her parents have closely guarded her from learning the secrets of her childhood. But the film explains Heather’s backstory in a prologue following the events of the 1974 film: The one girl who escaped the grisly scene alerts the Texas authorities. Police arrive to calmly and civilly reason with the offenders, but an assembly of uncompromising denizens light up a few Molotov cocktails and conflagrate the family’s slaughterhouse, killing most of them. A mother in this deranged family narrowly escapes with her infantile daughter, but one of the townspeople promptly yanks the child away and knocks out the mother. She was raised by this foster family, and the rest is history.

Along with some friends, Heather takes a trip up to the new place, and it turns out to be a fully-decorated mansion, complete with a gated entrance, a regal interior, fancy dinnerware, and a pool table. It must be a natural instinct for movie characters to dance, drink and party in such an environment. However, as any seasoned horror buff could tell you, the fun won’t last very long. Beneath the cushy quarters is a dark, creepy stairway, leading to a darker, creepier basement where Leatherface has stayed for all these years, waiting patiently to be freed.

Naturally, the killer is released and proceeds to wreak havoc on everyone who crosses his path. Actually no, it’s mostly just the teenagers who entered the mansion. There is a scene where Leatherface is determinedly chasing our heroine through a crowded fairground, and as I recall, there was not a single casualty. I personally think it would have been darkly humorous if the killer took his chainsaw to one of the haunted house operators.

As I said before, there are a few scares. But more often than not, “Texas Chainsaw 3D” mistakes ugliness for frightening, and tries anything and everything to make the audience wince. By now, the slasher formula of systematic kills and exploitation of terror has been done to death, and “Texas Chainsaw 3D” is the kind of generic horror flick that “The Cabin In The Woods” mercilessly criticized last year. Eh, I suppose I would still take it over Platinum Dunes’s mangling of the franchise from 2003.

VERDICT:
2 out of 4 stars

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

TWO AND A HALF BEARDS: Episode 3 - All Redheads Look The Same

Welcome to another marginally exciting edition of Two And A Half Beards, the podcast put together by me (Salty The Beast), Matthew Collins, and Mark Olsson

In this episode, we talk about Matthew’s badass new computer, the top five at the weekend box office, the meaningless subtitles on all the “Resident Evil” films, “Dredd,” more Shia LaBeouf hatred from Matthew, a trio of prominent redheads in the industry, a mishap with movie showings on Mark’s birthday, “The Artist,” Matthew’s utter disdain for polka music, the visual settings on one of Matthew’s computer programs, and the worst comic book/superhero movies we’ve ever seen…oh, and we sell out a lot.


And h-h-HEY YOU! If you want to subscribe to our podcast on iTunes, please follow these simple step-by-step instructions:
1) Select the 'Advanced' option on the iTunes window
2) Click 'Subscribe To Podcast'
3) Enter this URL into the box: itpc://two-and-a-half-beards.podomatic.com/rss2.xml

Monday, September 24, 2012

MOVIE REVIEW: Dredd

“Dredd” is the second big screen adaptation of the popular character in the British comic anthology 2000 AD, and the first one to be presented in the extremely bothersome 3D format, which doesn’t seem to disappear no matter how much I face away and try to ignore it. Neither having read any of the comic strips nor having seen the poorly-reviewed Sylvester Stallone action film from 1995, the extent of my knowledge for the Judge Dredd character stops at the Anthrax song “I Am The Law,” which are essentially the cliff notes describing the callous authoritarian law enforcer of Mega-City.

As I would learn in this new film, Mega-City (whose full name is actually Mega-City One) is the name given to the only inhabitable remnants of America following some kind of radiation-induced Armageddon. A walled-off area extending from Boston to Washington DC, Mega-City is a metropolis shrouded in corruption and crime. The air is slightly murky from uncontrolled pollution, and all buildings and infrastructure are claustrophobically clustered together as though mom’s taking a family photograph. Moral decency is a dead concept.

The only institution dedicated to fighting for order in this contaminated wasteland is the Hall of Justice, which sends out Judges to handle criminals in highly violent fashion. Judge Dredd (Karl Urban) is the one of the best at his job, donning a stylish red and black helmet that makes the character closely resemble RoboCop (Dredd robotically notifying a perp “you have twenty seconds to comply” couldn’t possibly be a coincidence).

Dredd is assigned to a drug bust operation within the walls of Peach Trees, a two-hundred-story fortress complex with all two hundred floors dominated by a drug linchpin known as Madeline “Ma-Ma” Madrigal (Lena Headey). With makeup like Alice Cooper and a facial scar that would impress The Joker, Ma-Ma supervises both the production and distribution of the latest drug infatuation commonly referred to as ‘Slo-Mo.’ The substance earns such a title because it causes its users to perceive the flow of time at one percent of its natural speed; effects which sanction a few Zack Snyder-inspired visual sequences where textures, colors, and movements through space are filmed with stunning splendor. Slo-Mo is accessed through devices that look like inhalers for rave attendees.

Accompanying Judge Dredd in plowing his way through Ma-Ma’s numerous henchmen is Cassandra Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), a Judge-in-training that the man is taking under his wing for the day. Also, Anderson has psychic abilities allowing her to connect mentally with any given person, as long as that person isn’t wearing a helmet (she has trouble with helmets). But her special power is less of an intriguing character attribute that poses great conflict or can be used to solve problems, and is more like a gift that is only handy when the screenplay demands it.

For the first ten minutes or so, I was almost ready to like “Dredd.” After all, it harnessed a sense of nostalgia and admiration for retro action movies better than “The Expendables 2” did, and wasn’t “The Expendables 2” just one big effort to capitalize on the big names that frequently led the cast of such old school action movies? Sticking to the mindset of “shoot first and ask questions never,” Dredd perceives just about every living creature a threat. That means everything is fair game for he and his futuristic weaponry to splatter all over the nearest wall.

However, my readiness soon shriveled up after the film degenerated into a bombastic blood sport. Somewhere around the twentieth consecutive headshot, the violence begins to completely lose the impact it once had. After the next twenty, it becomes nauseating, not because it’s disgusting but because of repetition. Copious amounts of blood and gore in films isn’t often a problem with me; the brilliant horror movie satire “The Cabin In TheWoods” is one of my favorite movies of the year, and the third act is dripping with the red stuff. What gets on my nerves is when the violence is presented so cynically and so monotonously that it means absolutely nothing. It isn’t visceral, it isn’t creative, it isn’t shocking, and it isn’t even very fun when you get down to it.

Although this post-apocalyptic universe is established rather concisely in the opening narration, almost none of it seems necessary in retrospect. Considering the area of Mega-City takes up a sizeable chunk of the eastern United States, you would think the filmmakers might give the audience a view of the big picture, maybe through exploring some of the other subdivisions in this conurbation. Why does the film instead confine itself to the inside of one building after all this exposition? Granted, this is a very tall building we’re talking about, but every floor operates exclusively as an endurance test for our protagonists. Like “Zombies” mode in the “Call Of Duty” games, bad guys keep a-comin’ just as long as the hero stays alive. In fact, Dredd dying (or being severely wounded) would have been a refreshing change of tempo; at least something new would be happening.

Similar to last week’s “Resident Evil: Retribution,” “Dredd” is the kind of movie I’d imagine only gamers might be enticed by. There’s violence, guns, mission objectives, waves of easy-to-kill enemies, and gruff one-liners; how is this different from the average first-person shooter on XBOX? For one, you have no control over the character. It’s one thing to watch someone else play a video game that looks interesting, but another thing entirely to subject yourself to an hour and a half walkthrough for a game you’d rather pass on.

VERDICT:
«½