January 31, 2014

Blu-Ray Review: ALL IS LOST

Starring Robert Redford. Directed by J.C. Chandor. (2013, 106 min).

Being a boat owner sucks.

I already knew this because I bought a Wave Runner several years ago. Sure, the things are fun when they're running, but even the smallest problem with my precious toy renders it inoperable until it gets fixed. All it took were a few rocks sucked into the impeller and my boat became a $10,000 lawn ornament for the remainder of the summer. If you think getting your car repaired is expensive, try making your watercraft drivable again. Hell, even little problems will suck your wallet dry.

Watching Robert Redford trying in vain to save his sailboat in All is Lost simply hammered that fact home. In the opening scene, when a stray cargo container tears a hole in his hull, the first thing I thought was, Man, that's gonna cost a pretty penny. As a fellow boat-owner whose own personal watercraft spends far more time on the driveway than the water, I could empathize.

But at least I had buddies to tow me and my busted boat back to shore. Redford is all by himself out in the middle of the Indian Ocean. The only thing worse than wrecking your boat is doing it all alone in the middle of nowhere, something All is Lost conveys extremely well from the very first scene. We immediately feel the enormity of his situation, and events only become increasingly perilous from there. The remainder of the film focuses exclusively on Redford's character's attempts to survive.

"Damn...I am sooooo lost."
I say 'Redford's character' because he is never named. In fact, we learn nothing about him. For all we know, he's a cheating douchebag going through a mid-life crisis by boating to a tropical paradise teaming with naked female natives, but all we're given to work with is an old man trying desperately to stay alive while nature does its damndest to kill him.

A movie like this shouldn't work as well as it does. Every word of dialogue could fit on a 3 x 5 notecard. While dialogue isn't always necessary for character development, there's no metaphoric symbolism either, nor visual images of what he stands to lose. Yet All is Lost makes us care about this guy anyway; we experience his obstacles, tiny victories and hope-crushing failures right along with him.

Much of the credit for that has to go to Redford because his performance is nothing short of revelatory. Sure, we  respect him as a director, but as an actor, he was always best at being Robert Redford. This is the first film I've seen him in where he truly diappeared into the character. Despite no dialogue or characterization, what I saw (and felt) was an old man thrown into a situation in which he'd likely die, and even though I knew nothing about the the guy, I was truly rooting for him to live.

Kudos have to go to J.C. Chandor for his script (32 pages long) and vastly-underappreciated direction. This could have been either a pretentious art film or an overbearing “actor's showcase”, yet he draws a fine line between both. Yeah, it's artistic, but also audience-rousing without dumbing anything down. In addition, this is a great-looking movie, with outstanding cinematography and visual effects, neither of which call attention to themselves other than to serve the story.

All is Lost is one of those movies which defies genre conventions, yet manages to be a thrilling and emotional ride anyway. It also features Redford's best performance of his entire career, making it a shame he didn't even get an Oscar nomination. And despite the story's simplicity, this character's plight is well-worth revisiting. I've since watched it again and caught subtle things I didn't notice the first time.

But it also makes me want to sell my boat.

Audio commentary by Writer/Director, J.C. Chandor, Producers Neal Dodson & Anna Gerb
Featurettes: “Big Film, Small Film” and “Preparing the Storm”
Vignettes: The Story; The Filmmaker - J.C. Chandor; The Actor – Robert Redford; The Sound of All is Lost

(Out of 5)

January 28, 2014

9 Movies Which Became Dated in Unexpected Ways

Like the all of us, movies age, some better than others. Changes in hairstyles, clothing, culture, technology and special effects are just a few things which render beloved films products of their time. It's unavoidable. Sure, the special effects in War of the Worlds are archaic, Blazing Saddles is more shocking today because of its liberal use of the n-word (uttered exclusively by white folks), Warren Beatty's 70's hair is hilarious and the Judgment Day of Terminator 2 has come and gone without my toaster trying to kill me.

But this list isn't about those movies.

Sometimes, as the old saying goes, shit happens. Unexpected things no one could have seen coming can forever-change the way we look at certain movies in an instant (sometimes with a single mugshot, as you'll see). 

For example...

Lance Armstrong plays himself in an amusing cameo towards the end of the movie. His story was once one of the most inspirational in all of sports...a guy who overcame testicular cancer to win a slew of Tour de France titles. Playing-up what we all thought we knew of him, his appearance in Dodgeball provided one of the biggest laughs in the movie. Since then, it's been revealed Armstrong doped his way to all those victories (while simultaneously belittling those who questioned his athletic integrity). He's since been stripped of all his titles and is now a douchebag poster boy.

Clive Cussler's novel was originally published in 1976, and the subsequent film was released in 1980. Both speculated the possibility of the famous ship being salvaged by lifting it from the ocean floor intact. It was assumed at the time Titanic was still in one piece, proven wrong in 1985 when a deep-sea expedition discovered the ship had actually broken in half while going down. Revised accounts of the sinking have also rendered A Night to Remember and Titanic (1953) unexpectedly dated as well.

KING KONG (1976) 
The classic original story got a 70's style upgrade in this ambitious (and idiotic) remake. Instead of journeying to Skull Island to shoot a movie, our heroes are looking for precious oil (a sign of the times back then). However, the biggest change is during the climax, when Kong decides to climb the recently-constructed World Trade Center rather than the rickety old Empire State Building. Eventually, the Twin Towers became the most iconic image of the New York skyline. After they fell down on 9/11, it became difficult to see any previously-made film featuring a shot of the Towers without feeling momentarily sad. Most such scenes were simply used to quickly establish New York as the setting (i.e. Men in Black, The Usual Suspects, Deep Impact, half of Woody Allen's entire filmography). But in this version of King Kong, the World Trade Center is crucial to the plot.

The Twin Towers were also prominently featured (to a lesser extent) in Escape from New York, in which Manhattan Island has become a maximum security prison. While the ruins of New York may have been depicted as an urban hellhole in 1997 (they year the film takes place), at least the towers were still standing.

This 1993 film features Sylvester Stallone as John Spartan, a wrongfully-convicted cop sentenced to be cryogenically frozen for his crimes. He's thawed-out in 2032 when the police of San Angeles have no idea how to contain another escaped criminal, Simon Phoenix, a sociopath Spartan was trying to capture back in the 90s. Late in the movie, Phoenix has taken control of the cryo-prison and is releasing various murderers, rapists and psychos to help him take over. He sees that Jeffrey Dahmer is one of the frozen inmates and spouts, “I love that guy!” At the time of this film's release, Dahmer was a household name as a recently-captured serial killer who had a penchant for raping, murdering and eating his male victims. He's name-dropped in Demolition Man for a cheap laugh, but only a year later, Dahmer was killed in prison by another inmate, obviously making it impossible for him to be revived in 2032.

Aside from Deems Taylor's cornball narration, the only thing which truly dates this classic animated film is the “Rite of Spring” segment, which chronicles the evolution of life all the way through the extinction of the dinosaurs. At the time (1940), there were various theories of how dinosaurs became extinct. Fantasia depicts their demise as something which happened slowly, through drought and starvation. Since then, the commonly-accepted theory is the dinosaurs were wiped out by a sudden cataclysmic event, like a comet or asteroid.

Helen Mirren...hot in ANY century.
When this sequel to Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey was released in 1984, the Soviet Union was still a global threat to democracy everywhere (just ask Ronald Reagan...oh, wait). 2010 didn't envision things changing too much over the next 26 years, so the main tension in the film stemmed from the U.S. and Soviets on the brink of nuclear war. However, the Soviet Union was totally dissolved by 1991.

This is a very minor detail, but renders the movie dated nonetheless. The crew of the Enterprise is trying to save Earth from a malevolent alien entity known as V'Ger. It turns out V'Ger is actually Voyager 6, a space probe launched in the 90s by NASA a few hundred years earlier. The Voyager Program was a real-life NASA endeavor, with two probes launched in 1977, roughly around the time shooting for this film began. For the sake of timeliness & realism, the writers of Star Trek understandably incorporated it into their story. Unfortunately for them, NASA killed the Voyager program shorty afterwards, meaning there wasn't even a Voyager 3, let alone a Voyager 6.

I suppose whether or not Mel Gibson's religious snuff film belongs on this list depends on one's perspective. Upon its initial release, many groups labeled it anti-sematic, while legions of others viewed as the ultimate depiction of the final hours of Jesus' life. Another revisionist argument is the movie was already dated because of the time-honored depiction of Jesus as a white guy. But what truly changes one's perspective of this movie comes from writer-director Gibson's actions afterwards, such as defending his dad's beliefs as a Holocaust denier and Mel's drunken, anti-sematic run-ins with cops. I cannot speak for everyone, but for me (I truly admired the film at first), it's now hard to watch such a skillfully-created movie without wondering if it's simply one man spilling his own hatred onto the screen.

THE NAKED GUN (and its sequels) 
All three films in this franchise were made back when everyone loved O.J. Simpson. It was arguably because of his image as a nice guy that he was cast in the role of Nordberg (originally played by Peter Lupus in the TV series), even though he wasn't exactly what one would consider a gifted actor. Then he was involved in the trial of the 20th Century when accused of stabbing his wife and her lover to death. While he was eventually found not-guilty, it was obvious to everyone with a pulse he got away with murder. O.J.'s pathetic later attempts to cash-in on his new notoriety left a bad taste in everyone's mouth, including those who once championed his innocence. Watching The Naked Gun today, while the movie's still hilarious, seeing Simpson as the loveable buffoon we all thought he once was is a bit disturbing.

January 25, 2014


Starring Maximilian Simonischek, Lauren Lee Smith, Gretta Sachi, Stacy Keach, Hannes Jaenicke. Directed by Philipp Kadelbach. (2011, 191 min).
Anchor Bay Entertainment

I’m pretty certain everything I need to know about the Hindenburg disaster I learned  from a Led Zeppelin album cover.

As astounding as images are of that German airship going down (this might be the first disaster caught on film as it was unfolding), that’s more-or-less where the story ends. Unlike the Titanic, which took hours to sink and has since-provided filmmakers worldwide with plenty of dramatic and speculative fodder, that big German balloon crashed and burned in less than a minute.

So how the hell do you make a movie out of that, much less a miniseries?

I guess you play the conspiracy theory card to pad things out. This was first tried in the 70s when Robert Wise collected a paycheck to direct The Hindenburg, which combined the soap opera melodrama of Airport with long-held theories that the disaster was the result of sabotage. An obvious attempt to cash in on the disaster craze, The Hindenburg isn’t the worst disaster film of the 70s (that medal goes to Beyond the Poseidon Adventure), but it’s easily the most boring. Even it’s climax simply recycles old newsreel footage, which was already as familiar to everyone as the Zapruter film.

This reminds me of my dog when he's excited.
Now here’s Hindenburg: The Last Flight, a German-produced miniseries (which first aired in the U.S. on Encore). Presenting yet-another sabotage scenario, this fictionalized account of the disaster is even longer. But ironically, it’s a bit more interesting, faster moving and just-barely makes its three hour running time worth sitting through. Sure, the usual disaster movie subplots are there, including characters whose presence make no sense and have zero impact on the plot (especially an antagonistic actor whom we're initially led to believe is part of a conspiracy), but it does stay fairly focused on its loony theory, which has an American fuel company (headed by Stacy Keach, the most recognizable cast member) deliberately sabotaging the ship to encourage the government to end a helium embargo on Germany.

The movie feels very padded-out at times, with subplots involving Jewish refugees and a love story which seems shoe-horned in. You could trim an hour from its running time and still get a complete story. A lot of this story is really bad, loaded with plot holes and/or subplots which peter out into nothing. In addition, many of the performances are over-the-top (especially most of the main characters), and some of the atrocious dialogue will have viewers shaking their heads while asking “Where the hell did that shit come from?” And don’t get me started on the wildly out-of-place alt-rock music themes book-ending the movie during the opening and closing credits.

We're NOT gonna deep-fry our turkey next year!
But despite all that, Hindenburg: The Last Flight is fairly watchable. The story is crazily-intricate enough to maintain interest for a few hours (even as we’re rolling our eyes), and production-wise, things look pretty good for a made-for-TV film. Scenes of Hindenburg in-flight look terrific and the climactic disaster is suitably fiery and spectacular (not-to-mention stretched-out much longer than the actual event). The coda feels more drawn-out than it should be, but there’s a good chance most folks will walk away from this disc feeling relatively entertained.

And you never know…the next time you truck out your old copy of Led Zeppelin’s first album, maybe there’s a chance you’ll suspect there’s more to the story than fiery mayhem.

Probably not, though.

(Out of 5)

January 23, 2014

Defending TWILIGHT

Starring Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson, Taylor Lautner, Billy Burke, Peter Facinelli. Directed by Catherine Hardwicke. (2008, 121 min).

Twilight is a great film.


I declare this of my own free will, nearly free of embarrassment. I'll explain myself to those of you who still poke fun at Twilight as though you're the first to notice it's the funniest film since Point Break.

I need to stress that when I say 'great,' I don't mean Citizen Kane-great or Godfather-great. I'm not Armond White, that nasty excuse for a film critic who revels in ruffling feathers by verbally crapping on movies everyone loves while praising Death Race, Transformers 2 and (ironically) Twilight. White is a troll with the sole agenda of pissing people off to call attention to himself. Hence, his reviews are marvelously entertaining because he's the greatest kind of whackjob...a complete moron who thinks he's the smartest guy in the room (I love folks like this).

No, I ain't him, though a few cinema purists might initially think so when I say, not only is Twilight a great film, I can convince almost anyone reading to think so too.

First, a bit of history for those of you who just arrived on Planet Duh...Twilight is based on a young adult novel by Stephanie Meyer, a writer of such dubious talent that (as a writer myself) I find myself torn between thinking “Thank God I don't write like that” and “Why the hell can't I write like that?” 

Twilight sold in the gajillions, so of course Hollywood came a' callin'. The subsequent movie raked in tons of cash from legions of young female mall-rats willing to part with their allowance just to bask in the dangerous affection between Edward and Bella. The movie itself isn't ambitious at all, a cynically-produced checklist of key scenes and plot points for its intended audience...an exclusive club where parents, respected film critics and similarly-aged boys are not welcome. 

But a film like this doesn't need to be ambitious...it ain't aiming for the Scorsese crowd. I've read the book and think it's godawful, but I'm a middle-aged man, decidedly not Meyers' intended audience, so my opinion is meaningless. Director Catherine Hardwicke and screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg were recruited for the film, and are actually extremely talented. Hardwicke's directorial debut was Thirteen, one of the more heart-wrenching and disturbing depictions of teenagers in recent memory, while Rosenberg was the head writer of Dexter, one of the greatest cable series of all time. One might understandably think, with that kind of obvious talent behind the camera, Twilight should have been a much better film. Again, like my 'old-man' assessment of the novel, it depends on your perspective. Can you imagine someone like Kubrick or Spielberg directing this? Of course not, because they would insist of putting their own creative stamp on things...which would have alienated legions of 'Twi-Hards' in the process.

"Lemme get that zit on your back."
Twilight fans simply want to watch their novel translated verbatim. Striking while the iron is hot, Twilight was pretty-much rushed into production to capitalize on a huge literary property. With hindsight, Hardwicke & Rosenberg made the best adaptation possible under the circumstances. While they likely knew the film would not be a gold star on either of their resumes, they knew their audience and keenly-delivered exactly what they wanted. As a fan who worships at the alter of Stephen King, I gotta say the number of shitty movie adaptations of his books far-outweighs the good ones. I know I'm in the minority on this, but I think Kubrick's The Shining was a jaw-dropping bastardization of the novel. I read the book when I was 15 and wanted the movie to be the direct onscreen version of the story which made me keep my bedroom light on at night. What I got instead was a long, boring descent into madness, punctuated by endless scenes of a Steadicam travelling through corridors.

I didn't get what I wanted, nor did  lovers of novels like The Bonfire of the Vanities, The Da Vinci Code or Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (bestsellers adapted by renowned directors). But Twi-Hards were sure-as-hell satisfied, because its filmmakers knew damn good and well nobody under 20 cares about a director's personal interpretation.

I'm not saying all movies should follow their source novels scene-for-scene. What I am saying is, even if you're a horror purist who can't stand the idea of emo teens, sparkly vampires and shirtless werewolves, you gotta admit Twilight does a tremendous job meeting fan expectations (who don't give a shit if vampires & werewolves have historically been considered monsters). They aren't looking for directorial brilliance, Oscar-caliber performances or groundbreaking cinematography. They want what they pictured in their heads when reading the book, rendered by gorgeous folks who don't exist in the real world.

Regardless of your opinion of the movie, you have to admit Twilight totally delivers to its audience, something you can't say with a straight face about the prequels in the Star Wars saga. Whether or not anyone outside that circle gets its appeal is irrelevant. When I say Twilight is a great film, I mean great in the sense of what it does for its fans.

To all you purists pissing and moaning over how Twilight shits all over traditional genre conventions...where the hell were you guys when someone decided zombies were capable of running the 100 meter dash in four seconds? Besides, Twilight isn't so much a vampire movie as it is a revisionist telling of Romeo & Juliet, only our lovers don't end up dead at the end (okay...maybe undead). Besides, I don't recall Stephanie Meyer ever claiming she was rewriting Dracula anyway.

And to all the Facebook trolls jumping on the Twilight-sucks bandwagon to come up with 'clever' ways declaring your contempt for the entire franchise...isn't picking on a current teen phenomenon kinda like shooting fish in a barrel? Is this the extent of your creativity? Hell, anyone can come up with clever put-downs of pop culture phenomena. Like it or not, Twilight will be remembered decades from now, long after all the other young-adult adaptations wannabes have fallen by the wayside (except perhaps, for The Hunger Games, which is just-as-much a checklist as Twilight).

For Twilight haters, here's how you can embrace the film you profess to hate...turn the sound down and add your own dialogue, at which time the film takes on multiple meanings, and you can appreciate its brilliance and absurdity at the same time. Ingesting a few beers beforehand will help.

The beauty of Twilight is the simplicity of its story, the amusing facial expressions of its actors and the assembly-line method in which it is filmed. Watching without sound gives viewers the unique opportunity to make it the film they thought it should have been, most-likely a comedy, depending on their familiarity of young-adult film conventions, vampire lore, sexual innuendo, Mystery Science Theater 3000 or hatred of everything the Twilight-phenomenon represents. But no matter who you are, your love for Twilight will undoubtedly expand if you are willing to participate, bringing your own prejudices, pop-knowledge and preconceived ideas to the table. This is how Twilight achieves its greatness. 

And the whole time I wrote this, I threw up in my mouth only a little..

January 20, 2014

The Original STAR WARS Trilogy in Haiku

A bad idea...
Sticking that damned exhaust port
Out in the open.

Plans for Father's Day?
Then why not join the Dark Side?
Sorry 'bout the hand.

Christ, you're my brother?!?
But we sucked serious face
In the last movie!

January 15, 2014


Your brother is dead?
Then before the planes reach Pearl
I'll screw you instead.

Aliens are here!
They may have the firepower,
But my laptop rocks!

Heston as Moses.
Egypt was full of white folks?
Still, Yul is badass.

One book. Three movies.
That's okay...fanboys will pay,
'Cause they're all suckers.

DIARY OF A MAD BLACK WOMAN (or any other Madea movie)
It's Perry in drag,
Exploiting stereotypes
To rake in the cash.

FRIDAY THE 13TH (any of them)
To hunks and hotties
Who engage in naughtiness...
Meet my machete.

I saved your ass, Rose!
Let me climb on before my
Goddamn balls freeze off!

Tony Montana...
An incestuous, coke-fiend
Who says “fuck” a lot.

January 9, 2014

THE PURGE and the Sixth Stupidity

Starring Ethan Hawke, Lena Headey, Max Burkholder, Adelaide Kane, Edwin Hodge, Rhys Wakefield, Tony Oller, Arija Bareikis. Directed by James DeMonaco. (2013, 85 min).

There's this guy named Howard Gardner, a developmental psychologist best-known for his 'theory of multiple intelligences,' first proposed in his book, Frames of Mind. I won't go into boring detail (as a teacher, I've endured all of it for you), but in a nutshell, his theory suggests there are several methods of gauging one's individual intelligence, since not everyone processes information the same way. There are visual learners, verbal/linguistic learners, kinesthetic learners, rhythmic/harmonic learners, etc. In other words, not all intelligence can be determined through a single test. While I agree with that, educators around the world embraced his theory like an amorous dog on a human leg, allowing them to attach at least one kind of intelligence to every kid in the classroom, no matter how fucking stupid they are.

But as Leonard McCoy once said, “I know engineers, they love to change things.” The same goes for educators' approach to their profession, meaning once the initial luster wore off of Gardner's theory, it was tossed aside in favor of a new flavor. In fact, I haven't heard Gardner's name mentioned at a workshop, class or training for at least ten years. Too bad, actually, because while I think he went a tad overboard with his everyone-board-the-smart-train philosophy, his theory has merit. I've had countless students who totally brainfart on state tests, yet know how to demonstrate their learning through a creative project or hands-on activity.

Still, as an educator, I know it's not professional to say this, but the fact remains some kids are just plain fucking dumb, no matter how many different ways you give them to prove otherwise (and no, I'm not talking about children with true developmental disabilities). And like Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences, there are multiple levels of stupidity, which I will outline here:
  • Environmental Stupidity: If a parent is an ignorant dumbass, chances are good their kids will be ignorant dumbasses, too. On a side note, it has been my experience as an educator that the stupidest parents are often the ones who pump out the most kids. One would think having several badly-wired bastards in a row would be a sign to throw on a condom.
  • Initial Stupidity: With rare exception, all kids are initially stupid simply due to their age, immaturity and lack of real-world experience. This usually passes between the ages of 12 and 50.
  • Image-Driven Stupidity: Those who think it's funny or cool to behave as stupidly as possible because it gets them the attention they crave, like when your cat intentionally knocks something breakable off a table while you're watching. Ironically, many of these kids are actually quite intelligent and most will outgrow it...again between the ages of 12 and 50.
  • Social Stupidity: Kids who are academically brilliant, but so lacking in any other skill (socially or otherwise) that it's 99% certain they'll never attend the prom with a date, never hold down a job because they can't interact with co-workers, and will be the first to die at the hands of the Enviromentally Stupid hoards during an impending apocalypse.
  • Terminal Stupidity: Those who are simply too stupid to live, but continue wasting oxygen that would've been put to better use by someone who could potentially cure cancer or solve the global warming crisis.
There's also a sixth level of stupidity unrelated to academics or real-world scenarios, but just as prevalent. We're talking about Expositional Stupidity. Unike the others, Expositional Stupidity doesn't reveal itself in the classroom. It is related to plot development on the big screen, when a movie's story depends on a character doing something so phenomenally dumb that it puts everyone in jeopardy. This type of stupidity is not regulated to kids, though. Where would movies like Jaws or Die Hard be without such dumbasses as Mayor Vaughn or Deputy Cheif Robinson mucking things up? Would disaster movies be nearly as much fun without an obligatory butthead whose dumb decisions usually end in his death? And it goes without saying that, without Expositional Stupidity, most slasher movies would be 20 minutes long with no death scenes.

Adult characters who demonstrate Expositional Stupidity are always villains, argumentative boobs or cannon fodder, and we generally want to see them get what's coming to them. But kids? That's a different story. In life, we tend to forgive a child's lapse in common sense simply because making dumb decisions is their job. In movies, we are almost as forgiving, and countless movies over the years have relied on the time-honored trope of throwing in an expositionally-stupid child into the mix, who puts himself and others in peril by doing something that would have audiences screaming for his head if he were a grown-up. And it doesn't seem to matter whether or not said-child is an obnoxious asshole (as in The Last Boy Scout).

The expositionally-stupid child character is a somewhat-lazy plot device which accomplishes two things: 1) His or her actions adds a twist to the story, and 2) It creates suspense because most of us don't want to see kids die (even if they deserve it). The Swarm immediately comes to-mind. In this one, a kid tries to avenge the death of his parents by firebombing the bees that killed them, but this just pisses 'em off enough to attack an entire town. Later, the kid is on his death bed, and even though the little bastard is responsible for hundreds of deaths, the scene is accompanied by weepy music and a grieving Michael Caine. In other words, fuck all those who died horribly because this kid was angry. On the other hand, The Swarm is one of the precious few disaster movies that had the balls to kill its expositionally-stupid child character.

But the most blatant example of expositionally-stupid children can be found in The Purge, where the entire plot relies on the utter idiocy of its child characters (though the adults aren't exactly scholars either).

It's probably important to state I really liked The Purge, though a lot of critics and audiences didn't. Despite its plot holes and heavy-handed attempts at social commentary, it's a rousing and fun way to kill 90 minutes. But even if you're one of the naysayers, you gotta admit the concept itself is absolutely brilliant: In the near future, crime is almost non-existent because, once a year, everything (including murder) is legal for 12 hours, allowing people to get all their violent impulses out of their systems. As a struggling writer, I found myself thinking, “Why the hell didn't I think of that?” It reminded me of the perfect simplicity of Shirley Jackson's classic story, “The Lottery.” 

Does the movie itself live up to the promise of its concept? No, not really. Would I have done something different with the initial idea? Yeah, probably, and the first thing I would do is get rid of the expositionally-stupid kids...

"Geez, our kids are idiots. They must get that
from you."
In the film, Ethan Hawke is James Sandin, a well-to-do family man who with a hugely successful career selling home security systems to protect families from attack during this annual night of mayhem. On the night of The Purge, he seals himself and his family inside their house; doors and windows are fortified with steel shutters and cameras monitor the property. Everyone seems to be safe and secure, until his two kids demonstrate the most unbelievable Expositional Stupidity I've ever seen...

Kid one is Zoey, your typical bitchy teenager, so enamored with dry-humping her boyfriend that she routinely lets him creep into her bedroom window so they can grope each other. He lets himself into the house just before The Purge commences (meaning he's trapped there), telling Zoey he plans to reason with her dad regarding their relationship. However, what he really wants to do is blow Dad away on the only night it's legal, resulting in a gunfight which has little baring on the plot, but forces Zoey to run and hide in order to be rescued later. Kid two is Charlie, a bizarre little boy with an emo haircut, technical smarts and a concern over the morality of The Purge, which he demonstrates when he foolishly opens the front door to allow a nameless vagrant into the house. This brings the wrath of a mob of masked marauders intent on slaughtering the man, and threaten to kill Sandin's whole family unless he gives the stranger to them.

(Spoiler Alert!) Yeah...thanks kids. We could've simply waited everything out like I wanted to, but because of your hormones or sudden sense of morality, I'm gonna die trying to save your dumb asses, even though you haven't given me a single reason I should even like you.

I'd like to think there are few kids in reality as utterly stupid as Zoey & Charlie.

On another side note, I'm still not sure why these home-invaders are so hell-bent on killing this random homeless guy, since it is made obviously-apparent there are plenty of similarly-unfortunate folks running around. Holding out for this one seems like a tragic waste of Purge time.

The Purge doesn't live up to its ingenious concept, and wouldn't even exist without the Expositional Stupidity of children, which we should be thankful for. No, we are never worried whether or not said-kids will live or die. And yeah, maybe a few more script-development meetings could have rendered The Purge into something darker, smarter and satirical. But considering the state of dumbed-down, mall-rat horror today, I'll take it.

January 3, 2014


Starring Kevin Bacon, James Purefoy, Natalie Zea, Annie Parisse, Shawn Ashmore, Valorie Curry, Nico Tortorella, Adan Canto, Kyle Catlet. Various directors. (2013, 654 min).
Warner Bros. Home Entertainment

24 was one of the greatest network television shows of all time. Its premise was unique (one story per season, told in real time over two-dozen episodes). The quality of acting, writing and direction were top-notch, proving, to me anyway, that serialized television was capable of being as exciting as a blockbuster action film. 24 was Die Hard for TV and, no matter how ridiculous it got sometimes, was always compelling enough to keep me tuned in every week and suffering through all the commercials.

Those irritating commercial breaks are a big deal, and have often kept me from keeping up with subsequent other shows trying to be the next 24. Few of them are worth the agony of enduring 20 minutes of ads during each one hour episode, but some (like Revolution) are compelling enough to warrant marathon viewings once they are released on video or on demand.

Then there are those shows which had no business stretching their concept beyond a finite number of episodes. Prison Break immediately comes-to-mind; the first season was incredibly compelling, but subsequent seasons ran the premise into the ground. CBS’ Under the Dome commited an even bigger crime by turning a great Stephen King page turner into a padded-out soap opera, pointlessly stretched out to two seasons (as of this writing).

"THAT'S our suspect? Who the hell did I just shoot?"
Then there’s Fox’s The Following, created by Kevin Williamson (a guy with a lot of clout, having written and/or created Dawson’s Creek, The Vampire Diaries and the Scream franchise), who was obviously inspired by 24 for this rare excursion into entertainment featuring grown-ups. If 24 is indeed TV’s Die Hard, then The Following would be TV’s answer to Seven (and all the brutality that suggests). Like 24, this 15 episode season tells a single story. Kevin Bacon plays Ryan Hardy, an alcoholic ex-FBI agent who never fully recovered from the near-fatal apprehension of charismatic serial killer Joe Carroll (James Purefoy). When Carroll escapes, Hardy is reluctantly brought back into the case which nearly killed him.

But things aren’t quite that simple. During the initial investigation, Hardy fell in love with Carroll’s estranged wife, Claire. In the meantime, Carroll himself (failed novelist, Poe aficionado and former college professor) is a brilliant manipulator who has amassed a seemingly endless cult of psychotic admirers (from all walks of life) willing to do anything to appease him. After Carroll is recaptured, these cultists continue to kill in his name and do his bidding. Carroll himself has an agenda which not only involves revenge on Hardy, but reconciling his fractured family and playing out his novel-in-progress in real life.

One would likely assume such a batch of crazy cultists couldn’t repeatedly thwart the FBI as often as they do in The Following, but this ain’t a documentary, and I was mostly able to overlook lapses in logic and go along with it. For the most part, this is a dark, compelling 15 chapter story featuring plot twists both shocking and dubious, and pulls few punches when it comes to lurid details and violence. Adding to the tension is the fact that, like 24, with the exception of Hardy & Carroll, we are never certain who’s gonna live or die from one episode to the next (and trust me, there’s death o’ plenty). All this is brought to a ominous conclusion which leaves the story open to continue, but still provides a satisfying capper if one were content to stop here.

Like many other serial series, The Following plays better on disc than regular network TV. And even though it has been renewed for a second season, I can’t imagine its creators being able milk much more from the premise than they already have. As it stands, the first season works well enough all by itself. I think Williamson and Fox should quit while they’re ahead.

THE THRILL OF HORROR: THE CREATOR BEHIND THE FOLLOWING: A feature on series creator Kevin Williamson
THE CULT OF JOE CARROLL: INSIDE THE FOLLOWERS: Cast members and producers discuss some of the characters
Season Finale Commentary
Deleted Scenes

(OUT OF 5)