Friday, December 19, 2014

Cynicism Killed Dead by Christmas Joy - A Classic BrentIsAngry Tale

I originally posted this way back at the inception of this blog, circa 2010, looking back to the events of a year prior. It was one of my earliest, as well as most popular, pieces. Today, as we prepare to enter the time known to public school employees as "Winter Break" (aka "WOOHOO! WOOHOO! WOOHOO!")  it seemed like an appropriate time to share. Please feel free to pass this around the internet and turn me into one of those popular holiday storytellers like Jean Shepherd or David Sedaris.

 And now...

In the winter of 2009, I was in my fourth year serving time as a secretary at an elementary school. Ordinarily the job filled me with rage and/or existential angst, as I grappled with traditional office chores such as the payroll and OSHA report, and less traditional chores such as tending to children who crap their pants every single day.

It was the Friday before our two week Christmas break was to begin. I typically viewed this day with a mixture of anticipation (yay, no more work!) and anxiety (I have a lot of stuff to do before I leave for two weeks!)

But on that final Friday in 2009, all of that apprehension was wiped away by honest to God Christmas cheer. The real kind you've seen unconvincingly portrayed in the less awful Lifetime TV movies.

Our school was located in an area commonly known as "Rubber Town", where the air is monitored daily due to its toxicity. Many of our kids came from lower income families. (For instance, our free/reduced lunch count that year was around 99%. Even I, a relative dullard when it comes to numbers, can see that is a very high percentage). It was, by and large, not an ideal living environment, and a lot of our families, perhaps even most of our families, struggled in nearly every sense of the word.

However, that year, as part of the new Parent Choice initiative, in which schools in disparate areas were given new "magnet programs" utilized to attract a diverse group of students and families to areas they may otherwise shun, the school received a new Environmental Energy Studies program. In short, we had "gone green".

There was a $6 million renovation, in which the entire building was put on geothermal energy, along with receiving a new roof, new floors, and a brand new office and library media center. There were gardens, outdoor classrooms, Environmental Labs, the works. It was actually all pretty great.

This magnet program had also lead to partnerships with many of the local chemical companies, who may have been driven by guilt, or greed, or perhaps even genuine kindness. Who can say? I'd like to say it was kindness.

One of these companies in particular had chosen to sponsor us, as a school, for the holidays. They took "wish lists" from teachers for stuff they would like to have for their classrooms.  The official word was that the company "would see what they could do."

And what they did, on that fateful Friday, the last before our Christmas break, was back a trailer up to the rear of the school, filled with every single thing everyone had asked for.

They bought ALL of it.

Every single thing that the teachers asked for. And more.

Art supplies. Furniture. Games. Technology.

The hallways were PACKED WITH STUFF. I wandered around the school marveling as these ordinary folks in Santa hats wheeled in a nearly comical number of dollies and carts. I was filled with a happy disbelief, a silent awe of the generosity that  Christmas should inspire every year, but seldom does.

But it wasn't over yet, not by a longshot. Because not only were they wheeling in carts and flatbeds full of goodies for the teachers, but they had actually enlisted the services of two deities, Santa Claus himself, and the official Louisville Cardinals Cardinal mascot, who went systematically throughout the school, moving room to room, giving out presents to every single kid in the building.

It was the craziest damn thing. I was wandering the halls just soaking it all up, and every few minutes I would hear screams, actual SCREAMS of delight and excitement, completely natural and not coerced, as Santa and the Cardinal entered each classroom, the "helper elves" following close behind with carts full of presents.

I honestly can't describe it as anything other than magical. Have you ever seen actual magic? Nope. But this was magic, the real stuff, tapped straight from the spirit of human kindness. My heart was genuinely touched by the pure joy expressed by little kids who still fervently believed in Santa. Kids who may not have gotten anything for Christmas other than what they were brought that day. Kids who had somehow not managed to be crushed by their living situations, who possessed the resilience to believe in magic and still feel undiluted glee.

And it just grew increasinlyg intense as the day went on, as I talked to the kids throughout the day to see what they thought.

I heard one of the kids say "I will treasure this forever." That's a fairly well-composed thought for a little kid, and the thing is, I believed it, completely. What kind of kid says "I will treasure this forever"? A kid who has been genuinely touched inside, that's who.

Another kid told me that it was his dream to meet the Cardinal bird because his grandfather was supposed to take him to a UofL game, but he died a couple of weeks before he could take him to the game. So he got his picture taken with the Cardinal and his Christmas wish came true.

I can you not believe in Christmas when you hear something like that?

Now, there are probably still some grumps out there who are thinking something along the lines of "Sure, these chemical companies poison the air then buy the kids off with presents." I had a similar feeling as the day began.

BUT, here's the thing: The company itself didn't sponsor the giving. This wasn't a corporate tax write-off or publicity stunt. This was all the work of THE INDIVIDUAL EMPLOYEES. They had 100% employee participation in raising funds, and several employees selected one classroom to sponsor. So, disappointing the cynics, there wasn't even any evil at play. Just pure christmas cheer! Can you believe it? Most of the time you can't get 100% participation for anything. I've run the UNICEF campaign often enough, trust me, I know. But every single person at the company decided to make a kid (and a school's) life much brighter, just because it was a good thing to do.

The kids were crying, the teachers were crying, the people bringing the stuff in were crying. Everyone was crying. I'm crying now just remembering that day.

Christmas joy. I will never forget the sound of it. I wish I could share it with you today, as it echoes in my head the same way it echoed in the halls on that chilly winter day at the school. As an adult, Christmas has been all about my family and friends, spending time with my loved ones.  And that's a legitimate reason to enjoy the season.

But for one day I remembered what Christmas was really about: it's about kids, and magic that only kids can really believe in. And for one special day, I believed again as well.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Celebrating Four Years of Anger! Random Reviews: The Colony, Kill List, You're Next, much more!

Insert here my semi-annual apology/explanation of why I don't post as often as I once did. I am only one man, friends. But Halloween is my favorite movie-viewing season of all, so, stirred by a fondness for terrible horror movies and a need to share my inane thoughts with others, here we go!


The Colony

The Colony should have been a home-run for me, as it combined some of my favorite tropes: post-apocalypse, wintery isolation (ala The Thing), cannibals, and Bill Paxton. And yet, there's something about this movie that I couldn't put my finger on, until I realized that it was a Canadian production. And there you have it. This movie is very...Canadian.

Earth has been consumed by snow thanks to malfunctioning climate control machines. Or maybe in spite of functional climate control machines. I'm not sure. Suffice to say that there are giant weather control machines, and they're not working correctly.

Small bands of survivors are cloistered in subterranean bunkers, where they grow seeds and hope to find a way to reverse the seemingly endless winter. However, their already diminished numbers are threatened by disease, which leads to an Orwellian nightmare scenario for the inhabitants. If you start coughing, chances are you're sick. And if you're sick, you can either elect to be shot, or you can wander out into the wasteland to freeze to death. Of course, this being a movie in need of dramatic thrust, it isn't long before the healthy start making that choice FOR the sick. Blam.

Laurence Fishburne is your stoic commander, trying to do the right thing. Bill Paxton is your trigger-happy survivalist, hellbent on keeping the Colony safe at any cost. And then there's some other guy who is the hero, but I can't really remember his name or the actor, because Canadian Movie.

A distress call comes from a nearby bunker, and Larry, good guy that he is, decides that they must go investigate. After a suspenseful journey across frozen wastes, (this being arguably the best part of the movie, highlighted by some neat images of the giant weather machines, which gives the whole thing a sense of proportion) the away team makes a gruesome discovery.

Cannibals! Yes, cannibals are eating survivors, moving from colony to colony, their eerie, wordless shrieks of hunger lending some eeriness to the proceedings. The introductory scene in which one of the freaks is discover hacking into corpses like sides of beef is particularly chilling.

But at the end of the day, it's just not enough.

The Colony is a solid premise betrayed by obvious budget limitations. Some bad CG gore here, some dumb looking green screen effects there, and an overall generic pass at dialogue leads to a movie that is less than the sum of its admittedly formidable (Winter! Apocalypse! Paxton! Cannibals!) parts. That being said, it's definitely not terrible, and if you think you'd like this sort of thing, you may as well check it out. You can definitely do much, much worse, and you get the feeling that everyone involved was really TRYING, gosh darn it.

Kill List

 One part In Bruges, one part Wicker Man, Kill List is a satisfying mix of hit man and cult genres.

Jay and Gal are former soldiers who were involved in some bad shit in Kiev. Gal is a contract killer, but Jay hasn't been doing much of anything. Urged by his wife (and a need for $$$), Jay joins Gal on a job, only to find that things aren't exactly what they seem. Oh, and also, he is a psychopath who manages to take even the contract killing of slimeballs a bit beyond the pale.

Kill List isn't the most original idea in the world, but it works, due in large part to the easy interplay between the two leads, and the pervasive air of dread. Atmosphere is everything, and pacing and score do a lot to crank up the unease. The actors have good chemistry, and there is a great deal of humor that comes naturally from the characters, which does a good job of grounding the more horrific scenes.

I liked Kill List. Would it kill you to watch it? See what I did there? I'm sorry. I'll shut down the site now.

You're Next

Speaking of movies that somehow miraculously escape the low bar of their respective genres, You're Next is yet another home invasion movie (albeit a home invasion movie with animal masks) that is somehow much, much better than the sum of its parts.

A well to do family reunites at their Missouri vacation home, at the same time a band of psychos in animal masks is murdering their way along the countryside. You're Next mixes the "What do they want and why are they doing this?" home invasion motif of The Strangers, with the masked killer trope of, uh, every horror movie ever made.

But the film is extremely well made, offering surprises, shudders, laughs, and clever kills. Along with his buddy Ti West (who guest stars here), Director Adam Wingard has become one of the big names to watch in horror. You're Next delivers on the promise of V/H/S. I haven't had this much fun watching a dumb horror flick in quite some time. Highly recommended.

Escape From Tomorrow

Escape from Tomorrow recently gained some notoriety due to its central conceit: this tale of a distressed middle aged father going through a midlife crisis/total break in sanity while on a family vacation at Walt Disney World was actually, honest god, shot AT Walt Disney World.

This fact is, naturally, the most interesting thing about the movie, and everyone involved seems to know it. That's why you keep hearing about how they got away with shooting inside the park, and not, like, how good the movie is.

EFT was shot guerilla style on digital cameras within the actual Magic Kingdom and Disney Land. The filmmakers did not have permission to film inside the park (because surely it would have been immediately shot down), and they wear that as a badge of honor. In fact, it's pretty much the only badge that the movie can wear.

Strip away the "Hey, that's Splash Mountain!" aspect of the film, and all you're left with is a fairly amateurish production with dinner-theater acting and a storyline about a middle aged Dad who keeps chasing around some seemingly underage teens which will set the pseudo-pedo alarms of most viewers a-ringin'.

At the end of the day, the fact that Disney's only comment about the film is that they are "aware" of it, and that they have instead let the film die on its own lack of merits, should tell you all you need to know.

That being said, if you're a big WDW nut like me, it's worth at least one viewing just to play the "Hey, I know where they shot that!" game. I'd also wager that if there's a home video release, any Making of or Commentary tracks would be fascinating. But the movie itself? Not so much.

The rest:

Paranormal Activity 3 & 4; Insidious Chapter 2, Machete Kills -

These movies are bad, and not in a fun way, but in a bad way. Do not watch them.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Summer Superhero Kickoff: Captain America: The Winter Soldier and The Amazing Spider-Man 2

The Amazing Spider-Man 2

It took me forever to get around to watching The Amazing Spider-Man. Something about it just left me apathetic. Maybe it was my love for the Raimi flicks, and my resistance to the idea that a reboot was necessary so soon after the end of that series of movies. Maybe I was just super-heroed out. Maybe the preview just didn't grab me. I can’t say. I just couldn’t work up much enthusiasm for it.

When I finally watched it, there were things I liked about it (Emma Stone, Denis Leary, the web-swinging sequences, the return to the mechanical web-shooters and Peter Parker’s origins as a science nerd), but the things I didn’t like (the ugly ass Koopa-lookin’ Lizard, Andrew Garfield’s snotty Spidey) were more distracting. This was not my Spider-Man, and while I liked parts of it, I really didn’t care for the movie over all.

So, I was surprised to find that The Amazing Spider-Man 2, which is taking a critical beating, was a much more enjoyable experience for me. Spidey seemed like less of a dick and was actually funny; there was more delving into Peter’s science acumen; Electro, Green Goblin and Rhino were much more interesting than The Ugly Ass Lizard; the fights were more exciting, the web-swinging was cooler, the relationship between Peter and Gwen more fleshed out. I dunno, I know a lot of people are hating this flick, but I actually liked it.

Now, it’s not perfect.  Before he turns into his superpowered Electro form, Jamie Foxx’s nebbish Max Dillon is played at a Schumacherian level of camp. I also never really understood the disease that is turning Norman and Harry Osborn green.  And I would have liked a lot more Paul Giamatti.

But that being said, I laughed a lot more at this movie than the first one, I “woo!”’d a lot more at this movie than the first one, and I was apparently emotionally invested enough in this flick that when the story reached its climax (a conclusion that is no surprise to anyone even remotely familiar with the history of Spider-Man comics) it actually affected me emotionally. It took the wind out of my sails. I was sad.

And that’s something, right?

So, with the caveat that I didn’t like the first one very much, and no one else seems to like this one, I can say that I liked The Amazing Spider-Man 2.  So there.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

This movie is a month old by now, so no one cares what I have to say, but let the record reflect that as both a popcorn movie fan and a Captain America nerd, I was delighted by this movie. Delighted. It was delightful.
Marvel continues to make interesting choices with their director hires, and the Russo Bros (who bring their experience directing the endearingly meticulous TV show Community to bear in the form of tons of throwaway gags/references and amusing character interplay) knocked this one out of the park on their first swing.

Using the now classic Ed Brubaker run on the Captain America comics as a springboard, The Winter Soldier mixes espionage flicks and 1970’s style political thrillers into their superhero stew to make a very satisfying, well made action film.  You don’t just bring Robert Redford on board for any ol’ shit show. This movie earns the nod of approval that his presence suggests.

In his third outing in the Steve Rogers character, Chris Evans has finally made the role his own, and everyone else brings their A game as well.  This is the smartest and most entertaining movie Marvel has made since the first Iron Man. I was satisfied, and I am rarely satisfied.  I couldn’t have been much happier with it.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Brent does 7 quick genre flick reviews for no discernible reason: Europa Report, VHS 2, Bad Milo, Solomon Kane, MORE!

I’ve complained at length about the explosion of the “found footage” horror genre, and I find that my cries go unheard, because not only does it continue to propagate itself, but it is also creating genres within genres. So now we have outer space found footage movies as a genre. It’s a thing.

Europa Report – 

At first I thought “Oh wow, this is going to be terrible”. But guess what? It really wasn’t. A team of highly qualified outer space scientist types head off to Jupiter’s moon Europa to study the ice and potential for life.  You may be surprised to find out that they encounter complications along the way. The “found footage” in this case comes from the various camera feeds from their orbiter, being shot back to earth.  What could have been cheaply made space monster schlock, turned out to be cleverly made (if still cheap looking) outer space mystery, and a message that is strongly, proudly, “Yay science!” It was refreshing to be surprised. It’s not, like, great or anything, but it was much better than expected. So that’s something, because I usually don’t expect much.

Apollo 18 – 

On the other hand, with Apollo 18, at first I thought, “Oh wow, this is going to be terrible”. And it was. Moon rocks are actually alive, and bloodthirsty, and they look like giant spiders. There, I saved you 87 minutes. I'm the King of Hollywood!

Solomon Kane – 

Kane is probably Robert E. Howard’s most popular character that isn’t named “Conan” or “Kull”. That may be damning him with faint praise, but the character has been popular enough to carve out a path through pulp paperbacks and comics for 80 some odd years.  That’s gotta be worth something.

Solomon Kane is a brooding puritan evil-smasher, a sour-faced dude done up in black with a slouch hat and two guns. He’s like a pilgrim that kicks ass instead of eating turkey.  So it stands to reason that eventually we’d get a movie out of the guy.

Solomon Kane is admirable more for what it wants to be than for what it actually is. It wants to be a classic 1980’s limb-hacker, ala Solomon's more popular cousin Conan the Barbarian. And sure, there are plenty of cleaved limbs and spurting blood, but not enough to be really exciting. I’m not saying that violence has to be gratuitous, but if you’re going for it, GO FOR IT.

Instead, Kane is kinda slow and dull and has some digital gore and, eh, meh.  This movie may scratch your genre itch on a late Friday night, but I doubt anyone really LOVES this movie. I would have liked to LOVE this movie. As it is, it is no better or worse than, say, your typical Beastmaster sequel. Now you know what you're in for.
Dale and Tucker Vs. Evil

So this actually turned out to be funnier than it had any right to be. Alan Tudyk (best known from the much beloved by everyone who isn’t me Firefly) is a talented comedic character actor, and he and co-star Tyler Labine are surprisingly layered in this goofy splatstick flick. While slathering on the gooey corpses, the movie attempts to make a commentary on judging a book by its cover. Not sure if the subtext is necessary, but it’s nice to see them trying. Not a great film by any means, but the titular starts are fun to watch, and the movie is over all much more well made and funnier than I expected. You could do worse with you Netfllix on a Friday night.


This is the movie that kicked off the late-career renaissance of William Friedkin,  (best known as the director of The Exorcist and The French Connection). Like his next film, Killer Joe, Bug was written by Tracy Letts, and definitely retains the stagey vibe of its origins as a play. These are ACTOR-Y movies, with ACTORS ACTING.

But don’t let that deter you. Bug is a horror film, sure, but it's not about killer bugs, really, but instead is primarily an intense study of two characters with crumbling minds. Michael Shannon and Ashley Judd are terrifically paranoid, growing exponentially frantic and terrifying as the film unwinds.  Plus you get to see Ashley’s Judds. I liked it. Pretty good stuff.

V/H/S 2

I’ve written about my affection for anthology horror films at length, and have expressed my admiration for the somewhat amateurish yet ambitious V/H/S. However, there is very little of that first flick’s charm on display here.  This one didn’t make much of an impression on me, I’m sorry to say.

Bad Milo

Bad Milo is a horror comedy starring Ken Marino and Gillian “Gilly” Jacobs, about a guy who finds out that his stomach issues aren’t caused by stress so much as they are caused by a demon monster living in his butt.
The idea of Bad Milo is funnier than the actual movie. I’m a big fan of pretty much everyone involved here, but  there’s only so much I can take of Marino having to fake painful shits before I get bored. The monster itself is pretty cute, and I dig that they're going for a 1980's Ghoulies meets Mac and Me type vibe. But the movie itself sadly exists in a sad middle ground where it’s not good enough to be good, but not bad enough to be entertaining. Still, I'm a fan of most of the folks involved here, and if the worst thing I can say about a butt-demon movie is that it's just not quite funny enough, I guess that's a victory in and of itself. Much love to Marino and Jacobs, and hopefully they get more shots at leading parts in features.

Friday, May 2, 2014

A late review of Shane Curruth's Primer and Upstream Color

I actually watched these movies several months ago, and started writing, but never got around to finishing it. BUT THE WORLD NEEDS TO KNOW WHAT I THINK, so here it is, at last.


Upstream Color fully delivers on the promise that director/writer/star/everything guy Shane Curruth showed with his debut film Primer.

Primer is a brain-twisting hard sci-fi time travel movie shot on a budget of a few thousand bucks, created with friends and shot in garages and storage facilities. It’s the story of two science start up guys who accidentally discover time travel while trying to create a device that can decrease an object’s mass (I think?). However, unlike every other time travel film before it, Primer isn’t a wild adventure featuring lavish special effects. Primer is about the realism of how such a thing would/could work, and the moral quandaries afforded by such possibilities.

The script is laden with impenetrable technobabble, the performances perfunctory and low-key, the time travel device itself just a series of cardboard boxes and wires. I’ve watched Primer three times. I’ve studied flow charts. I still really don’t understand what happens, but that’s ok, because I don’t think I’m really supposed to. The science of time travel would not be glamorous or exciting; it would be inscrutable, layered in concepts that we laypersons would never understand, developed by guys who look and talk like these guys. This is what it would look like, and the way things fall apart is likely how they would go in real life as well, because people are still people, even if they do create something miraculous.

However, as admirable as Primer was, it still suffered from some of the pitfalls of a first time filmmaker making a film with practically no money. It is cheaply made (though Carruth absolutely uses the zero budget to his advantage, painting a no-frills world) and the actors are not professionals. There are bits that seem a bit amateurish, and yet the whole thing is so mesmerizing, like a magic trick, it’s still a pretty great movie. I may watch it again. I still don’t expect I’ll know what the hell is going on.

With his follow up feature, Upstream Color, Carruth has now firmly established his modus operandi: he likes to drop the viewer directly into a story with no handholding, letting them flounder until they pick up what is going on. He’s a smart guy, and he’s not going to wait for you to catch up. I find that admirable, and I like to be challenged. Your mileage may vary.

But with Upstream Color, Carruth now has the money and fully developed skillset to create stunning visuals to accompany his out-there ideas. The opening sequence is a film unto itself, an unsettling depiction of mind control.
What follows from that point is a potent mixture, on one hand a disturbing portrait of two people who find each other as their minds are completely eroding, locked into a cycle of paranoia and insanity. On the other hand, it’s a piece of Cronenbergian body horror, involving parasites, pigs, and orchids.

What happens isn’t as important as the way it happens. The film is visually beautiful, Carruth’s eye now fully developed, the filmmaker equipped with the tools he needs to paint this picture. There are images as disturbing as they are lovely. The performances are suitably manic and magnetic. It’s a strong piece of work from everyone involved.

Like the film I reviewed yesterday, Under the Skin, I can definitely say that Upstream Color and Primer aren’t for everyone, but if you’re the kind of movie lover that enjoys a challenge, you should definitely check both films out.  Having long ago left theaters, both films are currently available on Netflix streaming as of the time of this writing. I very eagerly anticipate whatever Carruth brings us next.