Tuesday, June 14, 2016

The Devil to Pay

Movies: The Conjuring 2

Three years ago, I went to see James Wan's The Conjuring and it sparked in me a renewed interest in the horror genre of film. Ever since seeing The Ring in theatres when I was in high school (a genuinely terrifying experience), I've had a love/hate relationship with horror movies: I was morbidly curious to watch them, but so afraid of my own fear than I rarely watched any beyond some of the older horror classics like Rosemary's Baby.

The Conjuring got me to face down my fear. The film is a masterpiece of psychological horror and suspense. It's controlled, atmospheric, extremely well-acted, and just...interesting. Whether or not you believe the "facts" behind the case of the Perron family haunting, or whether or not you see ghost hunters Ed and Lorraine Warren as agents of the Catholic Church or masters of hoax, The Conjuring is intellectually stimulating to watch--a rare descriptor for a horror movie.

So I was a little disappointed (though not surprised) that The Conjuring 2 did not live up to the greatness of its predecessor. Don't get me wrong: The Conjuring 2 is scary as hell. Watching the film (especially on the big screen) is like riding a roller coaster for 2 hours--my heart was pounding and I was watching through my fingers. In terms of "scares per minute", The Conjuring 2 bests the original Conjuring.

But the movie itself is not as good. It's not as subtle as the first film, which allowed tension to build for long periods of time, where the sequel just gets right to the point. Additionally, it throws a whole lot of supernatural ghouls and ghosties at the wall to see what sticks, and the whole thing feels over the top, especially considering it's "based on a true story"--the well-documented case of the Enfield poltergeist.

Basically, a family of five (single mom Peggy Hodgson plus two daughters and two sons) were terrorized by a violent entity from 1977-1979. They couldn't just leave their home because they lived in government subsidized housing. This entity appeared to possess Janet Hodgson, the 11 year old daughter of Peggy. The local Church contacted famous ghost hunters and devout Catholics Ed and Lorraine Warren (played by Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson) to simply observe and see if the situation is a demonic possession. The Church didn't want to get caught up in a hoax, so they refused to exorcise the Hodgson's home until they saw concrete proof that it was the real deal.

In the film, Lorraine isn't too hot to become involved after she has a premonition of her husband's death and is convinced that if they keep ghost and demon hunting, he'll be killed. Ed persuades her that they need to help this vulnerable family.

Throughout the film, we encounter ghouls in many forms: a demonic nun haunting Lorraine, a creepy old dead guy who possesses the body of Janet Hodgson, and even a computer animated ghoul known as "the Crooked Man" from a children's song. It's all too much. If the film had stuck to the facts of the case rather than cramming ghosts into every crevice, I think it would have been much scarier and, like the first Conjuring, more interesting. The central mystery of the plot--is Janet (and, indeed, the whole Hodgson family) faking this ghost?--is enough plot to drive the movie. We don't need an entire B plot dedicated to the Warren's marriage and religious beliefs.

I want to spend a minute talking about the very interesting fact that both The Conjuring and The Conjuring 2 are rated R--despite no sex or nudity, no overly gory violence, and very mild language. The films are rated R simply because they're too scary to be PG-13. Isn't that crazy!? In fact, the plots are very family-friendly and religion-friendly, especially the overly sentimental Conjuring 2 in which Ed Warren encourages the kids to think of the ghost as a "bully" and stick up for their possessed sister. If you took out most of the scares, The Conjuring 2 would basically be a PG rated film.

The R rating really says it all about the allure of The Conjuring 2--if you like to be scared out of your wits, it's a thrill ride of a movie. Many of the scares are cheap jump scares, but just as in the original film, there's also a good amount of tension-building and power in NOT showing the ghost right away. But if you're looking for a movie that is of equal film quality to the original Conjuring or other recent films in the arthouse horror genre, such as It Follows, you won't find it here.

Grade: C+

Friday, June 10, 2016


Movies: Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping

This review contains spoilers in the sense that I reveal jokes and plot gags that occur throughout the film. If you want a blank slate, don't read the review. 

As part of the comedy-musical act The Lonely Island, Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer, and Jorma Taccone have been successfully creating music that is both hilarious and actually pretty catchy for over a decade. From "Lazy Sunday" to "Dick in a Box" to "I'm On a Boat", The Lonely Island aren't just three goofballs singing about fucking mermaids and getting high--they're talented musicians who understand the rhythms of various subgenres of pop (for example, "Dick in a Box"' is a tribute to 90's era R&B). They create music that both perfectly captures pop while also lovingly mocking it.

So it's fitting that Samberg, Schaffer, and Taccone would be the ones to write and star in the funniest "Rock-mockumentary" since This Is Spinal Tap. That's not to say Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping is *as good as* This Is Spinal Tap, which is undoubtedly an unrivaled classic in both the comedy genre and mockumentary genre, but it's pretty freakin' funny.

In Popstar, Samberg plays Conner 4 Real, a solo act who was once part of boy band The Style Boyz with buddies Lawrence (Schaffer) and Owen (Taccone). After splitting up, Conner's star exploded, with Owen serving as his DJ and sycophant while estranged Lawrence went off the grid to live on a farm and do (very poor) woodworking projects.

The film opens right before Conner's latest album, ConnQuest, drops. Mocking the real life U2 fiasco where the band foolishly decided to foist its 2014 album Songs of Innocence upon everyone with an iTunes account whether they wanted it or not (they didn't), Conner decides to have his album automatically upload to all Aquaspin (a fake company) appliances the day it drops so that people will open their refrigerator doors and be "graced" with Conner's music. Causing mass blackouts across the United States, the album release is an unmitigated failure (a TV screen shows President Obama calling Conner a "dumbfuck").

Additionally, the album is a critical failure, receiving a negative score on Pitchfork and no stars, but simply the shit emoji, in Rolling Stone

With ticket sales to his concerts plummeting, Conner's manager Harry (Tim Meadows) suggests touring with an opening act--Hunter the Hungry (Chris Redd), a Tyler, the Creator-esque hip hop artist who ends up battling Conner for dominance when it becomes clear that the only reason people are coming to see Conner's shows is to see Hunter perform.

Combine this with an epic wardrobe malfunction (ironically, too little of Conner's private parts are revealed, prompting tabloids and gossip sites to inquire "Conner 4 Real has no dick?"), a marriage proposal to his girlfriend Ashley (Imogen Poots) gone awry, and miscellaneous drunken shenanigans, and Conner is in danger of becoming a complete has-been.

Meanwhile, Owen is desperately scheming to get The Style Boyz back together by encouraging Conner and Lawrence to end their estrangement and apologize to one another for former wrongs. Owen is convinced that getting the Boyz back together is what the public actually wants and will result in money and acclaim for all of them.

Popstar is filled to the brim with celebrity and musician cameos who are interviewed documentary style about their experiences with The Style Boyz and Conner 4 Real. The film is also interspersed with music videos and performances of Conner's music, which is--no surprise--goddamn hilarious. Conner releases a song called "Equal Rights" (clearly riffing on Macklemore's "Same Love") where he expresses his acceptance for gay marriage while repeating over and over that he himself is not gay. Another song, "Finest Girl (The Bin Laden Song)", which actually premiered in digital short format on Saturday Night Live a week before the movie came out, is about a woman who asks Conner to fuck her like the US military "fucked Bin Laden". The song is incredibly catchy (and profane) and was in my brain for a week after I heard it.

Finally, the Style Boyz release a new song, "Incredible Thoughts", which sounds like a send up of Insane Clown Posse's ridiculous song "Miracles". "Incredible Thoughts" contains lyrical gems such as:

What if a garbage man was actually smart?
A common misconception that we're tearing apart
And to a dog, dog food is just food
And to a sock, a mansion's just a big shoe
A milk dud, sitting in the acid rain
A house cat addicted to the cocaine
No teeth, unlimited floss
These are just a few of our incredible thoughts

 Popstar (which was written my Taccone and Schaffer) is full of both dumb humor and smart riffing on the pop music industry. Again, it's not quite at the level of This Is Spinal Tap, but it's a consistently funny and cheerful comedy. Samberg, as always, excels at playing a doofus with a heart of gold. Popstar is an enjoyable summer popcorn flick that will leave you smiling and singing:

She said "Invade my cave with your special unit"
I said "He wasn't in a cave", but there was no stopping
She demanded that I fuck her like we

Fucked Bin Laden
Fuck Bin Laden
Fuck Bin Laden

She wanted to fuck me harder then the US government
Fucked Bin Laden

Grade: B

Monday, June 6, 2016

Jane's Addiction

Movies and Books: Love & Friendship; Eligible

Ah, Jane Austen. Although she never married and had children, her legacy has stayed strong for two centuries. There have been countless adaptations and remediations based on her beloved novels and stories.

I'm not much of a Janeite myself. Here's how my knowledge of Jane's work stacks up:

I read Pride & Prejudice

I listened to part of Emma and part of Sense & Sensibility on audio, but finished neither.

I've seen screen adaptations of Pride & Prejudice (Colin Firth version and Keira Knightley version), Sense & Sensibility (Emma Thompson version), Persuasion (Ciaran Hinds version...and maybe the Sally Hawkins version?), and Northanger Abbey (Felicity Jones version)...plus Clueless, if that counts.

That's about it. So I'm familiar with her works, but not intimately and extensively so. However, this weekend I was immersed in Austen adaptations--I saw Whit Stillman's Love & Friendship, based on Austen's unfinished novella, Lady Susan; and I finished reading Eligible by (one of my favorite authors) Curtis Sittenfeld--a modern retelling of Pride & Prejudice. Both were delightful.

Love & Friendship

Director Whit Stillman may as well be the modern Austen of filmmaking. His movies focus a lot on manners and social class. I confess I've only seen one of his other movies, Damsels in Distress, but I've heard a lot about Metropolitan, which is based on Austen's Mansfield Park.

In any case, Stillman instinctively understands the witty and subtle language of Austen. In Love & Friendship, the tongue is sharper than the sword and a woman's cunning is her main protection against destitution. The story concerns one Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale, lovely and perfectly suited to the role), lately a widow who is seeking a wealthy man to marry her daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark, all peaches and cream). Along the way, Lady Susan manages to break up a marriage by tempting Lord Manwaring to go astray from his vow of fidelity to his wife.

Lady Susan is very different than many of Austen's heroines. Like them, she is highly intelligent and witty. Unlike them, she is shows no remorse in her self-serving, narcissistic ways. I suppose Emma Woodhouse is her closest cousin in the Austenverse--but with a touch more sociopathy. She is described as "the most accomplished flirt in England".

Her best friend is American ex-pat Alicia Johnson, played by a sadly miscast Chloe Sevigny (her acting is too modern for this movie). The two scheme together to find both Lady Susan and her daughter suitably rich husbands. Susan believes she's found a match for her daughter in Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett, who steals the show), a complete idiot with incredible wealth. Frederica is horrified at the prospect of marrying a man described as both a "blockhead" and a "pea brain", although her mother insists that he is a kind man who only wishes to make Frederica's life easy. Meanwhile, Susan herself spends her days flirting with Reginald DeCourcy--her sister-in-law's younger brother, which horrifies the entire DeCourcy family, both because of the fact that Lady Susan is about a decade and a half older than Reginald and because she's, you know, a heartless bitch.

The plot is pretty thin, but the jokes fly fast and furious, especially in regards to Sir Martin's idiocy. Although Stillman adapted the story from Austen's unfinished novella, he likely had to write most of the dialogue. Additionally, some of the plot points seem pretty suggestive for Austen (fornication, adultery, etc), so I assume Stillman had a hand in that.

The costumes are lovely, the acting is mostly good (Beckinsale and Bennett especially) and the film feels like a tasty petit four--delicious and sugary, but not all that filling.

Grade: B



*this review contains spoilers*

I'm a big fan of Curtis Sittenfeld's. I've read her (yes, Curtis is a woman) novels Prep, American Wife, and the less successful and less well known The Man of My Dreams. When I heard she was writing a modern day retelling of Pride & Prejudice where Liz Bennet is a magazine writer in her late 30's, Jane Bennet is a yoga instructor trying to get pregnant using donor sperm, Darcy is an arrogant neurosurgeon, and Bingley is a former contestant of a "Bachelor"-like reality series (titled Eligible), I was like "sign me the fuck up!"

I was not disappointed. Though Eligible is less poignant and serious than Sittenfeld's earlier works (American Wife is her best novel, for my money), it is far more witty. Many of the characters' personalities and motivations remain intact from Austen's classic: Mr. Bennet is wry and dismissive; Mrs. Bennet is politically incorrect to a horrific degree and concerned that none of her daughters is married; Caroline Bingley is an enormous bitch; Lydia and Kitty are shallow (they're obsessed with both Crossfit and texting); and there's even an appearance of Willie Collins--a step-cousin to the Bennet sisters who is a self-centered dork made wealthy from his tech start-up and in want of a wife.

However, Sittenfeld makes some delightful changes from the original text. For example, Kathy De Bourgh is not the imperious meddler she is in Pride & Prejudice; instead, she's a famous feminist (think Gloria Steinem) whom Liz interviews for the magazine she works at. Additionally, the plot twist with Lydia Bennet is significantly different than in the original. It was not at all what I was expecting, and I think it will upset more conservative readers, but I loved it!

Speaking of conservative readers--many will not like various aspects of this book. Liz and Jane have sex lives. Liz, especially, has an active sex life with both the Wickham character (a married man who strings Liz along for years) and Darcy. Yep, Lizzy Bennet fucks Darcy outside of marriage in this version of P&P. You wanted a modern retelling, you got it!

But for people with open minds, Eligible is a delight. It's not the deepest book in the world, but it captures the feeling of Austen's prose perfectly--the witty banter, the (sometimes willful) miscommunications between Liz and Darcy, the realities of how money changes one's life. It, however, is more lackadaisical on issues of social status. While Mrs. Bennet cares just as much as she does in the original about social standing, the Bennet sisters don't care at all. In Eligible, getting married is not the chief concern of any of the sisters--although, certainly, they are affected by romantic love, as we all are.

Eligible is not a Pulitzer Prize winning work of fiction, but it's a delicious treat that is also satisfying.

Grade: B+ 

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Animal Magnetism

Movies: The Lobster

Wow. Director Yorgos Lanthimos presents a singular vision with The Lobster, a pitch-pitch-pitch black satire about the pressure for singles to couple up.

The viewer is dropped into a world in which singles have 45 days to find a suitable partner. If they fail, they are transformed into an animal of their choice. The title comes from protagonist David's preferred animal. Lobsters "live for over one hundred years, are blue-blooded like aristocrats, and they stay fertile all their lives" David explains in regards to his choice. Plus, he "likes the sea very much".

Colin Farrell, with a shaggy haircut, an adorably flabby belly, and a pair of unflattering glasses, plays David, whose wife has left him for another man. He is required to check into a hotel, where all his personal belongings are confiscated. He will have 45 days to find a mate. He can earn extra days during "hunts", where he and the other guests use tranquilizer darts to hunt down "loners"--people who have decided to reject this system and live out in the woods.

I liked that we don't get an explanation for why these rules exist in this alternate version of the world. It just is. There are strange rules and customs in the hotel, such as locking a new guest's right hand behind his or her back with handcuffs for one day in order to remind them how easier things are "with two instead of one". Also, masturbation is forbidden among the singles, yet hotel staff are required to sexually arouse the guests everyday without relief--to encourage them in their desire and efforts to find a mate, presumably. It's very dystopic and bizarre, and I loved it!

David makes friends with a man with a limp (Ben Whishaw) and a man with a lisp (John C. Reilly). These characters don't have names, they are listed in the credits by their "distinguishing characteristic". There is a lot of encouragement for singles to find other singles with similar characteristics to pair up with--which leads Whishaw's character to fake nosebleeds in order to successfully court a young woman who also suffers from nosebleeds.

The first half of the film sets up the strange rules of this world and comments (often unsubtly, but always hilariously) on how singles are denigrated in many societies. The singles in the hotel are monitored and treated like naughty children who don't know what's best for them. Couplehood is the only escape--other than, of course, being transformed into a dog or a camel or a peacock.


The second half of the movie focuses on the lives of the loners living out in the woods. When David runs away from the hotel, the loners find him and explain THEIR rules. Yes, living as a loner doesn't mean getting to do whatever you want. Love, sex, and even friendship are discouraged. If two people flirt with one another (or, God forbid, have sex) they are brutally punished. Everyone is expected to dig their own grave and discouraged from helping one another.

This extends the complex metaphor of The Lobster: just like in our world, singleness comes with its own set of stereotypes, obligations, and expectations. David points out that being a loner is great because "we can listen to music whenever we want. We can masturbate whenever we want. We can go on walks whenever we want" which sounds a lot like what I hear about the stereotypical benefits of being single in our world--freedom to do what we want (or who we want) whenever we want it. But we supposedly pay for this freedom with loneliness.

/End Spoilers

I won't go into details about how the film concludes, but I will say that it's all at once hopeful, horrifying, and darkly funny. In fact the whole film can be described with those adjectives. While some people may be put off by the deadpan acting (The Lobster is like a Wes Anderson funhouse mirror: all the mannerisms and blunt ways of speaking are there, but  with a lot more cynicism and violence), fans of quirky, arty films will definitely enjoy The Lobster. If you liked Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Her, this film will be your bailiwick. One warning though: if you don't like movies where animals are killed, DO NOT see this movie.

The Lobster is a truly unique and unusual film. Although the acting is deadpan, real genuine emotion pours out of the leads, particularly from Colin Farrell's sad eyes. I suspect that if you see this movie, you'll have a lot of feelings about it too. And you might want to hug your singleton friends a little closer.

Grade: A+