Quickie Review: Tucker & Dale vs. Evil (dir. by Eli Craig)

One thing I like about genre films is the fact that, whether they’re good or bad, they mostly accomplish the part about entertaining it’s audience. For the good to great ones they don’t just entertain but raise the genre to new heights. For the bad ones they seem to entertain in unexpected ways. How often have one watched a bad genre film, realize it’s bad and still just roll with it, laughing at it becoming part of it’s appeal. We wouldn’t have gotten years and years of Rifftrax and MST3K without enjoying the badness of awful genre films. Then there are genre films which takes the very well-worn tropes of the genre. The very things we as an audience groan and snicker at and manages to turn it into a love-letter to the very thing they’re making fun of.

The horror-comedy Tucker & Dale vs. Evil takes the backwoods horror which has been a major staple of the slasher subgenre for over a quarter-century and tips it on it’s head to create a horror comedy that never runs out of laughs and still manages to show cringe-inducing death scenes. It stars Alan Tudyk and Tyler Labine in the roles of Tucker and Dale. We have two well-meaning “hillbillies” from the backwoods of West Virginia on their way to Tucker’s recently bought “fixer-upper” of a vacation home who come across a group of obnoxious college kids looking to spend the weekend on the shore of the very lake our two intrepid heroes’ vacation also sits off of. Through some misunderstanding between the very sweet-natured Dale who tries to befriend one of the pretty college girls in the group we see the beginning of events that will see death and mayhem visited upon both groups throughout the film.

We get the mandatory story telling us about how twenty years ago during Memorial Day a group of similar college kids were massacred by a couple of hillbillies on the very shores of the lake with only one survivor to tell the tale. This tale becomes the reason why the college kids start trying to “defend” themselves from Tucker and Dale who they thought kidnapped one of the girls in their group when in fact they had just rescued her from drowning. One by one each college kid dies in horrible fashion in their attempt to take on the oblivious Tucker and Dale who begin to think the group were on a suicide pact and means to take them down as well.

The film really does a great job of playing on the well-worn conventions of slasher films and making each such scenario play out in a way that if someone caught the scene a few seconds after it had already started they would think Tucker and Dale were trying to kill these kids. Each kill have just enough gore to satisfy horror fans so used to slasher films, but also funny enough every cringe was followed up by laughs.

One thing the film also had going for it was the chemistry between Tudyk and Labine as Tucker and Dale. They play off each other quite naturally that it’s not a stretch to believe these two were truly life-long friends who would brave the rush of misguided college kids to save each other. Even the college girl with the heart of gold, Allie (played by Katrina Bowden), adds to the film’s good-natured fun as she tries to explain to her friends that everything which has been going on (all the death and destruction) was all just a misunderstanding. Another thing which helps make the two leads in the film quite sympathetic has to be how obnoxious the kids really were who look down on the so-called “mountain folk” of the region because of their appearance thus their lack of education.

Eli Craig took three years to make Tucker & Dale vs. Evil, but the end result was all worth the wait. The film follows in the great traditions of horror-comedies of the past by never winking cynically at the audience at how smart it is, but letting the basic premise of the story play out as simply as possible. It helps to have a great duo in Alan Tudyk and Tyler Labine in the roles of the Tucker and Dale. This film may not make many critics running to proclaim it as a milestone in the genre but it does succeed in entertaining it’s audience and just ending up being one hilarious 90 minutes of campy horror.

A Quickie With Lisa Marie: The Artist (dir. by Michel Hazanavicius)

I was concerned before I saw Michel Hazanavicius’s critically acclaimed, silent film The Artist.  This is the film that’s currently being touted as an Oscar front runner and has been acclaimed by critics the world over.  Whenever I see this type of acclaim, I usually end up disappointed in the actual film because hype that positive is very difficult to live up to.  (Case in point: The Descendants.)  However, having seen The Artist, I can now say that this is the rare film that actually is almost as good as the critics say it is.

Starting out in a highly stylized Hollywood in the 1920s, The Artist introduces us to silent film star George Valentin (played Jean Dujardin who shows the same charm and style that he used to ironic effect in the director’s previous OSS 117 films).  Valentin is the biggest star in the world and he is cheerfully dismissive of the idea of “talking” film.  However, once the age of the talkies begins, Valentin finds his star on the descent while his protegé, former extra Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), becomes a star in talking films.  Defiantly, Valentin continues to make silent films but is there anybody around still willing to watch them?  Obviously, the storyline of The Artist is a familiar one but the film is more about how Hazanavicius tells this story than the story itself.  The Artist is ultimately a triumph in pure and exuberant style.

At first, I have to admit that I was a little bit dubious about The Artist being a silent film.  It sounded rather ominously like a gimmick and I was worried that The Artist would turn out to be one of those films that I felt obligated to enjoy as opposed to actually enjoying.  Having seen the film, I can say that it is indeed a gimmick but it’s that rare gimmick that actually works extremely and genuinely well.  Director Hazanavicius both pays homage to the conventions of silent cinema while also contrasting them against the harsher reality of loneliness and depression. 

Much like the best of the old silent actors, both Dujardin and Bejo have amazingly expressive faces and they can say as much with their eyes as they could say with dialogue.  Familiar character actors like John Goodman, James Cromwell, and Malcolm McDowell are also perfectly cast and used throughout the film’s narrative.  Ultimately, however, the film is really stolen by Uggie, who plays Dujardin’s little dog and is just about the most talented canine I’ve ever seen on-screen.  Seriously, he was adorable (and I say this as someone who is terrified of dogs both big and small) and he gets a chance to shine in a compelling sequence where he desperately tries to save his master from a fire.  Seriously, Uggie gives such a great performance that I was surprised to discover that he wasn’t actually Andy Serkis under heavy CGI.

Technically, of course, The Artist isn’t really a silent film.  It has a very rich and expressive musical score and there are two scenes in which Hazanavicius allows a few sound effects to be heard.  Only towards the end of the film do we get to hear anybody speak and its truly jarring in the best way possible.  If nothing else, The Artist makes us realize how much we take for granted the blaring soundtracks of most films.  We’re so used to hearing things that we’ve forgotten how to listen.  Luckily, The Artist is here to remind us.

The Most Underappreciated Film Of The Year: Joe Wright’s Hanna

Sometimes, it seems like it’s easier for me to write about the films I dislike as opposed to the films that I truly love.  Case in point: I had little trouble writing up my thoughts on Anonymous and Straw Dogs but it’s taken me 8 months to write a formal review of my favorite film of 2011: Joe Wright’s pulp fairy tale, Hanna.

Taking place in a world much like our own but definitely not the same, Hanna opens in the frozen wilderness of Finland where 16 year-old Hanna (Saoirse Ronan) lives in an isolated cabin with her father, Erik (Eric Bana).  In the film’s electrifying opening montage, we see that Hanna’s life revolves around training for combat, memorizing the encyclopedia, and memorizing several “false” back stories that have been prepared for her by her father.  It also quickly becomes apparent that Erik has never allowed his daughter to be exposed to the real world.  Finally, Erik tells Hanna that she is “now ready” to choose whether or not to open up a box containing an old transmitter that well alert the rest of the world of their existence.  When Hanna finally opens the box, Erik promptly disappears and Hanna is left to fend for herself.

It quickly becomes apparent why Erik has spent years training his daughter because, by opening the box, Hanna has given away her presence to a coolly corrupt and ruthless CIA agent named Marissa (Played by Cate Blanchett and one of the most compelling villains in recent film history).  Marissa has her own reasons for wanting both Erik and Hanna and she quickly sends a team to Erik’s cabin.  Hanna is captured and transported to a memorably sterile CIA safehouse.  In a shocking sudden burst of violence, Hanna escapes from the safehouse and finds herself having to survive in the “real world” while being pursued by Marissa. 

Hanna, Marissa, and Erik eventually meet their fates in a desolate theme park that (in a neat bit of symbolism) is dedicated to the Brothers Grimm.  Along the way, Hanna meets and travels with a likable family of English tourists, allowing her to have her first chance to actually experience a “normal” life and Marissa recruits Issacs, one of the creepiest film henchmen ever.  Seriously. Isaacs is played by Tom Hollander and he was just so exquisitely sleazy that my skin crawled just watching him on-screen. 

In many ways, Hanna may sound like a simple action film but, in the best tradition of the French new wave and the better grindhouse filmmakers, Joe Wright both embraces the conventions of the action film while unexpectedly subverting them and using them to tell a more universal story about the struggle to both establish and maintain identity in an increasingly soulless world.  Much as Godard did before he gave up his artistic soul to political ideology, Joe Wright uses his cinematic talents to create a unique world that, while heavily stylized, also comments on our own existence.  The Chemical Brothers, meanwhile, provide the perfect soundtrack to Wright’s pulp vision.

Hanna may be my favorite film of 2011 but it’s also the most underappreciated of the year, at least as far as Oscar season is concerned.  There’s been so mention of the film’s score and a few critics’ groups have tossed a “young artist” mention or two at Saoirse Ronan but otherwise, the film has pretty much been ignored.  I think part of the problem is that Hanna was released in April and not December.  If the films had been released in December, I think Ronan would, at the very least, be a dark horse for best actress. 

The main complaint that most critics seem to come up with when discussing Hanna is that the film is too much of a genre piece.  Yes, it’s well-made and it’s well-acted and yes, it’s a compelling film with an intelligent script but, in the end, it’s just a genre piece.  A fairly typical response comes from the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw who, after praising all of the film’s virtues, concluded with, “…(I)t ultimately squanders all of them, undone by a lack of subtlety and restraint.” 

To this, I can only respond, “Oh?  Really?”  Seriously.  Amazingly enough, some of the critics who criticized Hanna for a perceived lack of subtlety are the same critics who are now falling over themselves to praise the rehash of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.  I suppose the difference here is that The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo was directed by David Fincher and is the product of the American film establishment whereas Hanna was directed by Joe Wright and was produced by outsiders.

Those who claim that Hanna is too genre are missing the simple fact that Hanna is an insightful film that uses the conventions of the action genre as a metaphor for the sometime painful search for identity that every teenager (and especially every teenage girl) has ever had to go through.  Myself, I never had to flee from government agents or battle assassins when I was 16 but I did have to start discovering how to survive in the real world, away from the security and comfort of home.  As opposed to the pretend feminism of Fincher’s film, Hanna is a film that truly celebrates “girl power” and promotes independence and empowerment.  It’s also, as far as I’m concerned, the best film of 2011.

What Lisa Marie Watched Last Night: Degrassi Episode 0815 “A Touch of Grey”

Well, actually I didn’t watch it last night.  Instead, I spent last night bring in the new year with my boyfriend, my BFF, my sister, and about two dozen people who I kinda knew or, at the very least, they seemed to know me.  Seriously, it reminded me of that old commercial where every where this girl goes, everyone’s all like, “So, what color panties are you wearing tonight?”  In my case, I was wearing black panties and this morning, I’m wearing red, white, and blue panties because dangit, this is 2012 and I’m proud to be an American, yes, I am!  But anyway, what was I talking about? 

Oh yeah, so I didn’t actually watch this last night but I did DVR it last night.  And then I watched it this morning.  Anyway, what I watched was the 15th episode of the 8th season of my favorite Canadian tv show, Degrassi: The Next Generation.  The title of this episode: A Touch of Grey.

Why Was I Watching It?

Well, first off, it was Degrassi.  Secondly, it was one of the Degrassi drug episodes.  So, of course, I was totally going to make sure I got a chance to see it.

What’s It About?

This is the episode where Emma (played by Miriam McDonald) worries that her classmates view her as being boring.  So, she tells everyone to call her “Blaze” and then passes out a bunch of pot brownies.  At first, everyone has a great time eating the brownies and giggling and stumbling about.  But, uh-oh, one girl gets so stoned that she forgets to take her insulin and slips into a diabetic coma.  Will Blaze confess to the Canadian police or will she allow her cute boyfriend to take the fall?

What Worked

Any Degrassi episode dealing with drug abuse is automatically fascinating because Degrassi, on the one hand, took a lot of pride on treating the issues realistically but, at the same time, there’s no way that a teen show could get away with allowing any character to abuse drugs for more than one episode.  As such, drug episodes of Degrassi have this wonderfully schizophrenic feel to them where everything starts out normal until about 18 minutes in, at which point THE WORST POSSIBLE THING THAT WILL EVER HAPPEN happens.  In A Touch of Grey, we find out that handing out pot brownies will not only help induce a coma but will also lead to you breaking up with your cute boyfriend as well.

What Didn’t Work

It was Degrassi.  It all worked.

“Oh my God!  Just like me!” Moments:

When I first went to college, my roommate used to call me “Blaze” too.  In my case, though, it was either because of my hair or my temper.

Lessons Learned:

Uhmmm…hello?  Don’t just go randomly handing out pot brownies like you’re freaking Martha Stewart or someone.  That was the main lesson but as an extra, bonus lesson, I learned that you can apparently pin any crime on a devoted boyfriend.  And thank God for that!