Friday, January 15, 2016


(US - 2015)

On the heels of 2014's pleasant but decidedly minor MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT, Woody Allen turns in another inconsequential trifle with IRRATIONAL MAN, where he essentially recycles the Martin Landau half of 1989's infinitely superior CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS and parts of 2005's MATCH POINT. The 80-year-old Allen cranks out so many movies that it's getting harder to keep track of the less significant ones, and while no one's expecting him to blaze new trails at this point in his career, it's not unreasonable to expect something a little more than the lukewarm leftovers served up with IRRATIONAL MAN. You know when a legendary rock band starts getting a little long in the tooth and instead of new albums, they just start releasing collections of unreleased tracks and outtakes that weren't good enough to make it on previous records?  That's where Allen's at now. It looks and sounds like a Woody Allen movie, but he doesn't even seem engaged with the material. It's a serious Allen film, one that involves murder and deception, but he makes no effort to generate any suspense or tension, and for perhaps the first time in his career, the only humor is unintentional in the absurd way he keeps repeatedly playing The Ramsey Lewis Trio's "The 'In' Crowd." It's almost like he used it as a temp track and forgot to put the intended music in the finished film. Regardless of the situation, the only music you'll hear is "The 'In' Crowd," and its inappropriateness becomes amusing until it grows so utterly grating that you'll never want to hear it again.

Woody's protagonist is Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix), a depressed, alcoholic philosophy prof doing a guest lecturer stint over the summer semester at the fictional Braylin College in Rhode Island. Burned out and creatively blocked, Abe ambles through his job in a drunken blur and shows little interest in the advances of married colleague Rita (Parker Posey). He strikes up a friendship with Jill (Emma Stone in her second straight Allen film), an intelligent student whose paper he legitimately admired, and her constant talk of Abe eventually drives a wedge between her and boyfriend Roy (Jamie Blackley), especially when it's obvious she has feelings for the troubled Abe. While at a diner, Abe and Jill eavesdrop on a conversation in the next booth, where a woman is in tears over an unsympathetic judge who she says is deliberately hassling her in court, siding with her husband and likely awarding him custody of their children after their divorce. It's at that moment that Abe feels the spark he needs to get his life back on track: with no motive and no connection to the woman or the judge or any of his cases, he's going to kill the judge, committing the perfect crime and completely getting away with it. There's lots of talk of moral quandaries and references to Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky and Crime and Punishment, but IRRATIONAL MAN never gets going and never seems like it's heading anywhere. Allen's dialogue is trite and repetitive. He used to really have a knack for human interaction and astute observation but he's reached that Stanley Kubrick/Terrence Malick/George Romero point where it's obvious he doesn't get out much anymore, demonstrating no feel or understanding for how universities in 2015 operate or how college students even talk (not even a charming actress like Stone can sell a line like "I enjoyed making love with you"--what young person says "making love"?), and one scene where Abe attends a college party is just embarrassing in its utter disconnect from reality. Phoenix is uncharacteristically dull here and Allen is just going through the motions in a way that recalls 2012's TO ROME WITH LOVE, one of his worst films. Though it's definitely bottom-five Allen, IRRATIONAL MAN isn't quite as bad as that or 2003's ANYTHING ELSE?, but even in those duds, his personality periodically made its presence known. IRRATIONAL MAN has none of that: it's a Woody Allen film that feels like someone else trying to make a Woody Allen film and not getting the job done. It's bland and listless and Allen doesn't imbue it with any of his signature wit or insight. He doesn't let his funny side show and he keeps his misanthropic side under wraps. There's just nothing here and no reason for him to make this film other than he thinks he has to make a new one annually. The last year without a new Woody Allen offering was 1981. Maybe taking a year or two off to regroup and recharge would do him some good. (R, 95 mins)

(US - 2015)

The latest, least, and hopefully last of the trendsetting found-footage franchise is the worst yet, the sixth film (seven if you count 2010's Japan spinoff PARANORMAL ACTIVITY: TOKYO NIGHT) in a series that ran out of gas halfway through the first sequel. In the hands of writer and eventual director Christopher Landon, the son of iconic TV star Michael Landon and a once-promising screenwriter (Larry Clark's ANOTHER DAY IN PARADISE), the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY movies proceeded to create an increasingly convoluted mythology surrounding Katie, the heroine in the first film played by Katie Featherston. With the exception of the TOKYO NIGHT offshoot, which still hasn't been released in the US, Featherston has turned up in all of the sequels at some point, including the allegedly unrelated Latino-aimed spinoff PARANORMAL ACTIVITY: THE MARKED ONES, which may as well have been titled PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 5. While Oren Peli started things off, he left after the first movie and the franchise pretty much became Landon's baby once he was hired to write PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 2, then wrote and produced 3 and 4 (both directed by the CATFISH guys) before directing THE MARKED ONES himself. Landon did nothing but drag this series out past the point of anything resembling relevance (even though everyone's quick to point out that oscillating fan bit from 3 is pretty cool), and even he had the sense to jump ship for the latest, PARANORMAL ACTIVITY: THE GHOST DIMENSION, which is directed by series editor and short-straw-drawing Gregory Plotkin. The series has seen diminishing box office with each successive entry, so as a last-ditch attempt to lure people back and make the franchise a thing again, they did the obvious: made it in 3-D. After a slow start, the almost-nonstop plethora of 3-D effects might've made this work a little bit better in theaters, but Paramount shot themselves in the foot by announcing a drastically-shortened 53-day VOD window (compared to the typical 90), infuriating the major cinema chains, who responded by refusing to show the movie. As a result, GHOST DIMENSION only made it to about 1600 screens compared to 3000-3500 it would've been on under normal circumstances. It still managed to gross $18 million, but the word of mouth was toxic, and this vacated indie-owned theaters pretty quickly.

Unless you have the capability of viewing this in 3-D at home, the standard DVD version is a complete fiasco, a blurry, globby mess as the spirit that's haunted everyone for the last five movies now manifests itself and hovers around the frame as "Tobi," an ectoplasm that looks like a shapeless version of the jungle camouflaging by the title creature in PREDATOR. Video-game designer Ryan (Chris J. Murray), his wife Emily (Brit Shaw), and young daugher Leila (Ivy George) move into the house once owned by Katie and sister Kristi's spirit-conjuring grandma (respected stage actress Hallie Foote). Ryan's comedy-relief hipster brother Mike (Dan Gill) and Emily's friend Skyler (Olivia Taylor Dudley, in her second terrible horror movie of 2015 after THE VATICAN TAPES) come to visit, and they find a box in the basement with an oversized 1980s camcorder and some VHS tapes. The camcorder still works, and when looking through its viewfinder, Ryan sees the gloopy, formless ghost surrounded by cosmic dust and debris, and after watching Katie and Kristi's childhood paranormal encounters on the VHS tapes, he concludes that this camcorder is rigged to record spectral matter (and even more incredibly, was somehow able to record in 16x9 HD in 1988). Of course, "Tobi" makes contact with Leila, and eventually she becomes possessed, which brings in a priest (Michael Krawic), who proclaims "This isn't an exorcism...it's an extermination!" Resorting to 3-D is bad enough, but trying to scrounge a few nibbles at the empty EXORCIST ripoff trough is just pathetic. And all the while, Ryan and Mike never stop filming. Even the easy jump scares come up weak this time around, and since Plotkin and the visual effects team "show" a lot of Tobi so they can maximize the 3-D, what's really here is a dull, found-footage version of POLTERGEIST, which we need about as much as that POLTERGEIST remake that came out earlier in 2015. Abysmal in every way save for one inspired moment when it becomes clear to Ryan that Katie and Kristi on the 1988 VHS tape are watching Mike and him watch them, PARANORMAL ACTIVITY: THE GHOST DIMENSION should be the wheezing death rattle of this moribund franchise. The fact that it took four screenwriters (including two writers of the found-footage EXORCIST knockoff THE TAKING OF DEBORAH LOGAN) to come up with this should be an embarrassment to the entire Writer's Guild. (R, 88 mins)

(US - 2015)

Another Paramount release that fell victim to their ill-advised shortened VOD-window botch and was banished from major cinema chains, SCOUTS GUIDE TO THE ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE was directed and co-written by Christopher Landon, and while it isn't anything spectacular, it's at least an improvement on anything Landon accomplished while running the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY franchise into the ground. There isn't a whole lot left to be done with anything related to zombies at this point, and SCOUTS isn't giving SHAUN OF THE DEAD any competition as the world's best comedic zombie homage. It's about on the level of the intermittently amusing but forgettable ZOMBIELAND, only with grosser and raunchier hard-R gags that usually involve genitalia. Three high-school sophomores--sensitive nice guy Ben (Tye Sheridan), horndog Carter (Logan Miller), and overweight dweeb Augie (Joey Morgan)--are the only three childhood holdovers still actively involved in their Boy Scouts program. Carter insists it's time to grow up since, as he puts it, "all girls turn into sluts junior year." Carter talks Ben into ditching Augie and going to a senior rave instead of their final Scout campout, and when their badly-toupeed, Dolly Parton-obsessed scoutmaster Rogers (an underused David Koechner) is turned into a zombie, they find the entire city infected as they make their way to the rave so Ben can rescue his lifelong crush, Carter's older sister Kendall (Halston Sage), who's dating total douchebag Jeff (Patrick Schwarzenegger--yes, his son). Along the way, they meet tough strip-club waitress Denise (Sarah Dumont), who teaches them how to man up. SCOUTS is harmless enough and it moves fast and has a few funny moments amidst the expectedly juvenile toilet humor. But it almost always goes for easy gags like having the three scouts, armed to the teeth with makeshift weapons they assembled after raiding a hardware store, taking out a rave full of zombies to the tune of Scorpions' "Rock You Like a Hurricane." Where's the joke there, other than teen audiences recognizing a familiar '80s hair metal staple? At least BORDELLO OF BLOOD's use of Sweet's "Ballroom Blitz" as former comedian Dennis Miller took out a bunch of vampires with a holy water-filled Super Soaker was set in something that looked like a ballroom. Instead, SCOUTS is a film that gives you the spectacle of 89-year-old Academy Award-winner Cloris Leachman as a zombified crazy cat lady neighbor, pulling Miller's pants down and trying to take a bite out of his bare ass. Is this really the best Hollywood has to offer Ms. Leachman in her eighth decade in show business? (R, 93 mins)

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