See It/Flee It: Kids ‘n’ Aliens

See It: Attack The Block

Given the glut of over-the-top alien invasion movies that Hollywood has churned out since Independence Day made a mint – productions that take us from our homes, probe our wallets, and subject us to hours of painful, inhuman experiments – it’s downright thrilling to watch an alien flick with characters that you care about, fighting monsters that give you the willies. Such is Attack the Block, a by-the-numbers invasion story from writer/director Joe Cornish that feels like anything but. Set in a depressed London neighborhood dominated by massive, drab apartment complexes (or “blocks”), the story begins when a group of smart-mouthed teens mug a nurse named Sam (Jodie Whittaker) on her walk home. After something from the heavens crashes into a parked car, the group’s leader, Moses (John Boyega), is attacked by a freaky, orangutan-ish alien, which him and his crew proceed to beat to death. This sets off a domino effect of action sequences that rarely lets up, pitting the plucky kids (and Sam) against the seemingly unstoppable invaders, exposing the fine line between delinquents and heroes. Without altering the film’s rapid pace or cutting into its fantastically slangy dialogue, Cornish makes some clear-headed statements about the nature of crime and the environments that breed it – the reason for the aliens’ hostility is explained logically; the hostility of the police, not so much. This makes Attack the Block something more profound than its British-Goonies-with-aliens template. Although that sounds pretty kick-ass on its own.

Flee It: Super 8

As imaginative as Steven Spielberg is, that imagination’s gotten him in trouble over the last 15 years or so. From the aliens that ruined the last half-hour of A.I. to the aliens that made Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull even stupider, the legendary director has shown a disconcerting tendency to overthink. And while J.J. Abrams’ Super 8 was an homage to the director in every way, it feels more like the E.T. that the latter-day Spielberg would make, pairing a nostalgia-laced coming-of-age story with a warmed-over X-Files story arc. (After the fun, shiny stamp Abrams put on Star Trek, this was doubly disappointing.) The story surrounds Joe (Joel Courtney), a middle-school kid in 1979 who is dealing with his mother’s recent death in a factory accident. One of his coping mechanisms is to be the makeup artist on horror movie productions with his buddies. But when they capture a freak train accident on camera, and the feds swoop in, their lives change forever. I was with the movie up to this point (especially the wonderfully destructive train crash sequence), but once all this tension is established, the wheels fall off. Instead of moving the action forward, Abrams leans hard on Joe’s grief. Amidst quick scenes of an escaped creature running rampant, we get extended conversations between Joe and his friend/crush Alice (Elle Fanning). And the mystery that got us invested – what’s on that film? – is drowned in anti-climax; by the time we actually see it, we already know there’s something out there messing shit up. And everything else – the government conspiracy, the science teacher who knew too much, the alien who just wants to build a ship so he can go home already – is unforgivably cliché. Super 8 is meant to make us cry in the same healthy, cleansing way that E.T. did, but where the latter film depicted a child whose sense of wonder is overcome by a sense of loss, Abrams’ entire movie just wallows in the loss. When a smile slipped onto Moses’ face at the end of Attack the Block, I felt that warmth in my belly. When Joe taught a misguided alien how to love at the end of Super 8, a different kind of warmth shot up my esophagus.

See It/Flee It: Wiig Fest

See It: The First Half of Bridesmaids

Ever since its release, a demographic-spanning group of friends and family recommended The Hangover to me with the loftiest hyperbole. “The funniest movie ever,” was a common utterance. Which of course meant that when I finally sat down to watch it, the highest grossing R-rated comedy in history couldn’t possibly live up to my expectations. Although I suspect that I would have hated it just as much without the hype, what with its hero christening his friend “Dr. Faggot” because he won’t stand up to his shrill, domineering wife (’cause there ain’t any other kind, right, brah?). Hence, I was really looking forward to Bridesmaids, Kristen Wiig’s take on the wacky wedding party tale that promised to cleanse my Bradley Cooper-hair gel-encrusted soul. And its first hour more than delivers, playing to all the strengths of its superb cast. Wiig’s lovable wise-ass persona lends itself nicely to her lead role as Annie, the downtrodden best friend of the freshly engaged Lillan, played by Maya Rudolph – in an early coffee shop scene, the actresses riff so comfortably together, you imagine they must be friends off-screen. Supporting players Wendy McClendon-Covey and Melissa McCarthy do their share of scene-stealing as well, and Jon Hamm is spot-on as Wiig’s booty-call bastard Ted. It’s the way this kind of movie is supposed to work – its plot is as formulaic as The Hangover or My Best Friend’s Wedding, it’s just written and performed by funny people, and gives them a broad canvas to do their thing. There are too many jokes that hinge on McCarthy’s size, and Rose Byrne’s snobby rich lady character is so cliche she’s barely a person, but for the most part, this is about as funny as ensemble comedy gets in Hollywood.

Flee It: The Second Half of Bridesmaids

Remember how the first hour of Bridesmaids was a fresh take on tired romantic comedy tropes? Well, Wiig, co-writer Annie Mumolo and director Paul Feig saved all of the derivative, boring gal pal stuff for the balance of the film. After a delightful flight to Vegas set piece that involves Wiig getting drugged and announcing that she sees a colonial lady on the wing, Bridesmaids becomes a slog, as we watch Annie’s life systematically fall apart. She gets booted from her apartment, loses her job, moves in with her mom, and has a supremely selfish nervous breakdown at Lillian’s bridal shower. McClendon-Covey  pretty much vanishes, along with her hilarious, repressed housewife rage. McCarthy is thrown into the role of comic relief, and while she tries valiantly, her schtick suddenly feels out of place. And most importantly, that Wiig and Rudolph chemistry turns into the kind of schmaltzy BFF fluff that this movie was supposed to be satirizing. Oh yeah, and Annie’s romantic interest is Nathan, a funny, hard-working, non-threatening guy who cares about her problems. He’s as much of a cartoon as Ted, but far less fun. By the time we get to the final wedding scene, the free-form party of the first hour seems like a distant memory. So, while it’s much funnier than The Hangover, Bridesmaids still feels like a failed relationship – how could something with such potential end like this?

See It/Flee It: Dumb and Cheesy Wins the Race

See It: Best Worst Movie (2010)

I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve never seen Troll 2, a 1992 low-budget horror movie that’s been labeled “the worst film of all time,” and has garnered a fan base with a Rocky Horror-esque sense of loyalty. It’s the story of a family who enters the town of Nilbog for some reason, where goblins disguised as people try to turn them into plants. Or at least that’s what I’m able to cobble together after watching Best Worst Movie, a documentary about Troll 2‘s journey to the top of the “so bad it’s good” heap. By focusing primarily on George Hardy, the excessively nice Alabama dentist who happened to star in Troll 2, director Michael Paul Stephenson (another T2 cast member) doesn’t just tell the ultimate underdog story in horror movie history – it depicts a man who changes from a humble guy who’s in on the joke to a spotlight-seeker who thinks he can act. Part hilarious, part pitiful, and completely sensitive to the emotional nature of fandom, Best Worst Movie is a must for anyone who has appreciated the odd, addictive beauty of a real camp classic.

Flee It: Chariots of Fire (1981)

Here’s another movie obsessed with the underdog – Hugh Hudson’s gauzy, Academy Award-winning ode to the British runners of the 1924 Olympics. But unlike the charmingly delusional heroes of Best Worst Movie, the two main characters of this meticulous period piece are about as convincing as Troll 2‘s goblin costumes. And it’s not like their true stories didn’t have meat on the bones. Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson) was a religious fanatic who refused to run his Olympic race because it fell on the Sabbath. Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross) used the anti-Semitism of his Cambridge elders and peers as his prime motivation to win gold. But neither situation gets dramatic traction here, because Chariots of Fire is too busy treating sports movie clichés like high art. Liddell’s the wily veteran who has to be talked into running; Abrahams goes through a training montage with his instructor (played by Ian Holm, a real bright spot); the crusty old deans doubt the youngsters every step of the way. In the few scenes where Chariots of Fire does try to shed light on the religious tensions that should’ve been its primary focus, it tosses them off with some less-than-inspired dialogue. When Liddell explains to his devout sister why he must compete, he sounds like it’s really a non-issue – “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast.”

See It/Flee It: Emmy Edition

For some reason, I viewed a significant amount of the 2010 Emmys on Sunday evening. Few of the winners deserved their hardware, of course, but host Jimmy Fallon was the least deserving of the spotlight. His Gen-X Billy Crystal schtick – changing the lyrics of pop songs to make them about the nominees – was only slightly less appalling than a half-assed Silence of the Lambs showtune. And his attempts at off-the-rails zaniness might have succeeded if he wasn’t so cripplingly uncomfortable on camera. Introducing presenter Tom Selleck as “my dad” and running over to hug him, saying “I knew you were real”? Funny on paper. But when Fallon delivered it with his trademark “Look, I’m jokin’ around” mannerisms, it bombed. But enough of that. Here’s an Emmy-nominated show that’s good, and an Emmy-nominated movie that’s bad.

See It: Dexter (Season Four)

Poke holes in this popular Showtime series if you want – its heroic serial killer concept certainly gives you lots of room to do so – but four years in, it’s more absorbing than anything on the tube, and most offerings at the multiplex. After an underwhelming third season, which was anchored on the ho-hum relationship between Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall) and his unlikely apprentice, hotshot D.A. Miguel Prado (the redwood of wooden actors, Jimmy Smits), season four gets back to what made the show irresistible in the first place – Dexter, himself a sociopath, hunting a supremely creepy, heretofore untraceable serial killer, intrigued by what they have in common and determined to destroy him nonetheless. The psycho in question is the Trinity Killer, a man who has killed in cycles of three, in the same meticulous fashion, for decades. And what might sound like James Patterson tripe on paper is brought to life with hair-raising efficiency by John Lithgow, whose Emmy-winning guest turn is a masterfully controlled depiction of insanity. The actor rarely uses more than the posture of his massive frame and his wildly expressive eyes to let you know he’s more monster than middle-aged man – when he does fly off the handle, it’s almost a relief. Lithgow’s performance is also good enough to smooth over the clichéd moments, including some hackneyed jokes about baby-induced sleep deprivation (Dexter and his wife Rita got married and had a kid to close out season three, if you care). After seeing the heart-stopping, bloody finale and thinking back on the season, Trinity’s helpless, horrifying face overshadowed all.

Flee It: Temple Grandin

This HBO original movie was one of the biggest winners on Sunday, proof that American viewers remain suckers for feel-good, “me against the world” true stories, even if they fail at making you feel more than just good. What’s especially frustrating about Temple Grandin is what it could’ve been. All the raw materials of a memorable, out-of-the-box bio-pic are here – the title character is thoroughly enthralling, a resilient, brilliant, autistic woman who revolutionized the slaughterhouse industry with her cattle-sensitive designs. This is prime territory for a bold visual approach, to show audiences what life was like through Grandin’s eyes, resulting in the kind of dramatic tension you don’t see every day. Instead, director Mick Jackson’s movie is such a formulaic heartstring yanker, it makes you wonder if HBO bought the script from Lifetime. A lot of lip service is given to the fact that autism is misunderstood, whether it’s a motivational speech from her mentor/high school science teacher (David Strathairn) or a weepy flashback from her mother (Julia Ormond). And as Grandin, Claire Danes puts her all into the vocal impersonation and various emotional breakdowns (the stuff that wins Emmys, which she ended up doing), but never quite goes beyond cartoonish mimicry. By the end, you understand that Grandin is a remarkable person indeed. You don’t understand much else about autism, but man, do you feel warm and fuzzy.

See It/Flee It: Monsters and Monstrosities

See It: Nightbreed

Some of the most effective fantasy/horror films involve a reshuffling of the heroes and villains deck – an awkward way of saying that the monsters become the good guys. And lately, a prevalent source for stories like these has been Guillermo del Toro, the visionary director of The Devil’s Backbone, in which the ghost of a murdered boy is a misunderstood hero, and Hellboy, where a top-secret government bureau of monsters and freakazoids protects an unassuming public from paranormal danger. Del Toro’s affinity for stories like these, and obsession with elegantly freaky creatures, means he must have watched Nightbreed on a loop back in the day. Clive Barker wrote and directed this 1990 adaptation of his novel Cabal, and the resulting tale of a forgotten society of shapeshifters, undead sages and imaginatively deformed beings – and the police witch hunt bent on destroying it – is an inspired allegory for any kind of uprising of the downtrodden. That might be high-falootin’ talk about a movie that depicts an obese housewife getting murdered in her kitchen, or a guy in makeup that’s a cross between Jar-Jar Binks and Darth Maul hissing “Y’all come back now, y’hear?” But Nightbreed is well made – Barker isn’t a master storyteller like Del Toro, but his creatures are beautifully bizarre, with the exception of the one I just referenced and another that looks like Jay Leno with a condom hat and douche bag goatee. And it’s decently acted – Craig Sheffer’s turn as main character Aaron Boone is strong, effectively toeing the line between humanity and monstrosity, and David Cronenberg is unforgettable as the mad psychologist/serial killer Philip K. Decker. Regardless, Barker must have been doing something right, because by the explosion-heavy climax, when the residents of Midian decide to fight back against their oppressors, the desire to see them triumph comes from a real place.

Flee It: The Bride

The characters of Count Dracula, The Wolfman, Mummy, and the Drs. Frankenstein and Jekyll have been the subjects of so many bad movies. And 1985’s The Bride has gotta rank as one of the lamest. A reimagining of James Whale’s iconic The Bride of Frankenstein, the film stars Sting as the tortured outcast Baron Charles Frankenstein, and Jennifer Beals as Eva, the creation he cobbled together from various corpses to be a mate for his original monster (tenderly portrayed by Clancy Brown). But for a reanimated, coat-of-many-colors abomination, Eva has no visible scars or abnormalities. She just looks like that girl from Flashdance in period garb, with pouffy ’80s hair intact. And this is the least of The Bride’s problems. The Frankenstein character is vicious and tormented; in his perverse love for his creation lie the seeds of his own destruction. But Sting’s attempts at brooding are so wooden, he comes off better suited to a Twilight installment. More importantly, director Franc Roddam’s movie doesn’t add anything to the legend of either monster, save a subplot of monster #1 befriending a circus performer and Eva growling at a house cat because Frankenstein hadn’t taught her they exist – “I thought it was a little lion,” she explains afterwards. (Sting’s lesson plans must be comprehensive, because we’re supposed to believe his pupil had learned about everything on earth, except for cats.) Of course, the twisted Count gets his, the two monsters reunite and run off together. But we’ve already learned these lessons before – you can’t live healthily without accepting death as a reality, don’t judge a book by its cover or it’ll kill you with its superstrength, etc. Beyond establishing the facts that Sting has great bone structure and Beals is awful, all The Bride teaches us is that lovers of classic horror stories will sit through some horrible stuff, just to get the faintest taste of the original.

See It/Flee It: Adaptation Madness

In my latest movie-going ventures, I’ve learned that when adapting a story for the screen, you can have the most state-of-the-art technology and stunning visual sensibilities on your side, and still make a stinker that will bore the most Ritalin-addled child. At the end of the day, a compelling story, simply told, has more flash and dazzle than any CGI effect. Now’s the part where I tell you what to do.

See It: A Single Man

In director Tom Ford’s adaptation of the Christopher Isherwood novel A Single Man, there’s plenty of opportunities for swelling melodrama and soapbox shouting. The movie details a day in the life of George Falconer (played with subtle precision by Colin Firth), a British professor at a Los Angeles university in the early-’60s whose world is shattered when his lover dies. His loneliness consumes him, invades his dreams and fogs his mind while giving a lecture about an Aldous Huxley novel. And because his lost love was another man, Falconer has nobody to turn to for solace – even his best friend Charlotte from across the pond (Julianne Moore at her booziest) passes George’s love off as a flight of fancy, arguing that they should have been together instead. Thankfully, Ford has little time for tear-soaked temper tantrums, depicting Falconer’s emotional breakdown as a subterranean entity that drives its host to the brink, and using the character’s suicide attempts as fodder for black humor. By the end, although a light at the end of the tunnel flickers brightly, it’s not enough to save a man who spent his life loving, and mourning, in the shadows.

Flee It: Alice In Wonderland

By the end of Tim Burton’s latest take on a beloved tale, the main character has learned valuable lessons about the kind of life she wants to lead. If only the movie itself could have had such definitive ideas. On paper, of course, Alice In Wonderland seemed a perfect marriage of director and subject matter – a master of modern fairytales reimagining one of the most fantastical stories in all of children’s literature. But perhaps because the match was so perfect, and such a surefire moneymaker, Burton didn’t bother to take the story apart and rebuild it with the loving, critical eye of a fanboy, like he did in Batman, where we were introduced to characters we knew and loved as if we’d never met them before. Here, it’s assumed that you know who The Mad Hatter is, so there’s no point in explaining why he’s mad, beyond showing that he used to have a gig with the White Queen, and now he doesn’t. Johnny Depp is equally disinterested in adding anything to the character, beyond a lazy giggle and a dance sequence that’s the most embarrassing moment of Burton’s career. (Helena Bonham Carter’s spirited, hilarious take on the Red Queen makes Depp’s stumblings all the more glaring.) And the story itself is a hodge-podge of British fantasy cliches – a child finds a magical world, becomes its most famous resident, joins the battle between good and evil, slays a dragon and goes home forever changed. It’s an insult to the deranged brilliance of Lewis Carroll, and makes the 1951 Disney version seem artfully told by comparison. The biggest change of Burton’s adaptation is the addition of C.S. Lewis’ most famous idea to the plot’s gloppy stew – Alice is now a 19-year-old girl who’s been visiting Wonderland since she was six, although it takes her a while to remember that. As she makes her way through this beautifully visualized place, Alice feels like the characters she meets are somewhat familiar, but she can’t quite place them in her mind. Maybe that’s because behind all the fabulous makeup, spot-on costumes and stunning CGI, there are only echoes of real creativity.