Horror Film Review: Joy Ride (dir by John Dahl)


The 2001 film Joy Ride is an example of a subgenre of horror that I like to call the Don’t Fuck With Truckers genre.  It all started with Duel back in the early 70s and since then, there’s been a large number movies about ordinary people who end up getting on the wrong side of a trucker.

Myself, I would never piss off a trucker.  First off, I have a few cousins who are proud members of the Teamsters and I can tell you, from personal experience, that you don’t want to get on their bad side.  Secondly, those trucks are really, really big and it takes a certain amount of skill to drive them, certainly more skill than it takes me to drive my little convertible.  (Truckers can make turns in those gigantic trucks and somehow do it without crashing into a stop light.  I can barely parallel park.)  Trucks block out the road, making it impossible to see anything beyond them, which makes the prospect of trying to pass them all the more frightening.  Essentially, if you get into a vehicle fight with a trucker, you’re going to die.  There’s just no way your little car is going to be able to beat that giant truck.

Now, I have to admit that I really like Joyride but sometimes, I feel like maybe I shouldn’t.  It basically comes down to two things:

Number one, I have always defended horror movies against the charge that they always feature people making the stupidest possible decisions.  My defense is usually that people in real life are actually far more stupid than they realize and that whenever anyone says, “I would never be stupid enough to wander around a deserted camp ground in the middle of the night!,” they are essentially lying.  Seriously, everyone would do that just so they could later joke about how it was just like being in a horror movie.

That said, the majority of the characters in Joy Ride are really, really dumb.  Basically, two brothers (Steven Zahn and Paul Walker) are driving from California to Colorado so that they can pick up Walker’s best friend (Leelee Sobieski).  Along the way, Zahn and Walker decide to have some fun by getting on the CB radio and telling a trucker who calls himself Rusty Nail (voiced by Ted Levine, who was also the killer in The Silence of the Lambs) that there is a prostitute named Candy Cane waiting for him in a motel room.  The joke, of course, is that Zahn and Walker know that an obnoxious businessman is actually staying in the room.

The next morning, after playing their little joke and then listening to Rusty Nail and the businessman have a huge fight, the brothers are informed that the businessman has been found on the side of the road.  He’s still alive but his jaw was ripped off.  The brothers’ reaction is to get the Hell out of town.

Okay, so far, so good.  The joke was mean but people are mean.  Leaving town instead of helping with the police investigation was selfish but people are selfish.  What drives me crazy is that, once they’re on the road, the brothers get back on the CB radio and inform Rusty Nail that there was no Candy Cane and that they were just playing a joke on him.

IDIOTS!  Seriously, you’ve just been told that the guy ripped off another man’s jaw and now you’re going to piss him off more?

My other problem is that Leelee Sobieski’s character is so underdeveloped.  The film’s nearly halfway over before Zahn and Walker reach Colorado and pick her up.  Just a few scenes later, Sobieski is kidnapped by Rusty Nail.  Characterwise, she pretty much only exists to be kidnapped and held hostage.  It seems like a waste of Sobieski’s talents and the flatness of her character is especially disappointing when you consider how well-developed the characters played by Walker and Zahn are.

And yet, despite all of that, I really like Joy Ride.  It’s just a well-made film, a relentless thrill ride that succeeds largely because director John Dahl never gives the audience any time to relax and think about whether or not the film makes any sense.  As a largely unseen threat, Rusty Nail is both plausible and seemingly supernatural at the same time.  I mean, that truck literally pops up out of nowhere sometimes.  Zahn and Walker are very well-cast as brothers, with Zahn’s natural goofiness nicely paired up with Walker’s natural earnestness.  You like them, even if they are selfish idiots.

Almost despite itself, Joy Ride is a good movie and it features an important message: Don’t fuck with truckers.

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Back to School Part II #39: The Glass House (dir by Daniel Sackheim)


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Originally, I was planning on using the 2001 thriller The Glass House as one of my guilty pleasure reviews.  Because, seriously, this film truly is one of the guiltiest of all guilty pleasures.  I mean, there’s so much that you can criticize about the movie but it’s so much fun that I always feel rather bad for doing so.  However, after giving it some thought, I decided to use The Glass House as one of my Back to School reviews.  Seeing as how I just totally trashed a Leelee Sobieski film called Here On Earth, it only seems fair to now recommend one of her films.

In The Glass House, Leelee plays Ruby Baker, a 16 year-old whose parents are killed in a car accident.  Though their uncle (Chris Noth) wants to adopt them, the will states that Ruby and her nine year-old brother (Trevor Morgan) will instead be looked after by their parents’ best friends, Erin (Diane Lane) and Terry (Stellan Skarsgard).

Now, here’s the thing.  This is going to blow your mind.  Guess where Erin and Terry live?  They live in a big mansion in Malibu and the entire house is made out of … GLASS!  We have a title, right!?  But wait, there’s more!  Guess what Terry and Erin’s last name is?  That’s right — GLASS!  So, the house is not only literally a glass house but it’s also the Glass house as well!  And beyond that, there’s that old saying that people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones and … well, that really doesn’t apply to this film.

Anyway, I’m making such a big deal about the title because it pretty much tells you everything that you need to know about The Glass House.  There is not a single subtle moment to be found in this entire film. And really, this is not a film that requires or rewards subtlety.  We know that Terry Glass is up to no good from the minute we meet him, largely because he’s played by Stellan Skarsgard and when was the last time Stellan Skarsgard played a trustworthy character?  Skarsgard pretty much gives the same performance here that he’s given in almost every thriller that he’s ever appeared in (including David Fincher’s rehash of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo — which I’m still ticked off about, by the way) but it works wonderfully because there’s not a hint of pretension to The Glass House.  It just wants to entertain and it does just that.  There’s little that can match the entertainment value of watching Stellan Skarsgard go totally over the top.

Sure, the film has all sorts of flaws.  Ruby’s intelligence changes from scene to scene, depending on what the film’s story needs her to do.  (For that matter, the same thing can be said about every character in the film.)  But the film’s a lot of fun and Leelee Sobieski gives one of the best and most sympathetic performances of her career.  Ruby may be an inconsistent character but she’s so well-played that you like her anyway.  In a film that often threatens to go just a little bit too crazy, Leelee gives a performance of both believable grief and believable inner strength.  She keeps the film grounded just enough that you’ll continue to watch even when the narrative hits a rough patch.  As well, Bruce Dern is hilariously sleazy as a possibly duplicitous attorney.  The only thing more entertaining than watching Stellan Skarsgard go over the top is watching Bruce Dern do the same thing in the same film.

The Glass House is one of those films that seems to show up on cable constantly.  And, 9 times out of 10, I’ll at least watch at least a little bit of it.  It’s just a fun movie.

Back to School Part II #38: Here On Earth (dir by Mark Piznarski)


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Here on Earth is a wannabe melodrama from 2000.  When I first started watching it on Netflix, I was convinced that I had never seen it before.  Sure, the name sounded familiar but I figured that was just because Here On Earth is such a generic name that it could have been used for any number of different films.  In fact, even as I sit here typing this, there’s a part of me that keeps wanting to call the film either Back On Earth or Heaven On Earth.

But then as I watched the film, I realized to my horror that I had seen Here On Earth before.  I watched it on cable back when I was in high school and, as much as I may not want to admit it, I think I actually cried at the end of it.

I didn’t cry this time, though.  In fact, I laughed.  Here on Earth is such a stereotypically melodramatic romance that it actually feels like a parody.  It didn’t help that the film starred Chris Klein, who goes through almost the entire film with this sort of steely look in his eyes.  No matter what emotion he’s supposed to be showing, Chris Klein’s impassive face remains frozen.  In fact, it’s tempting to wonder if his character was supposed to be a robot sent from the future.  Maybe Here On Earth was originally meant to be a Terminator film.

Here On Earth takes place in one of those little towns in Massachusetts where all of the poor townies resent the rich kids who go to a nearby boarding school.  (Judging from the movies I’ve seen, it appears that every small town in Massachusetts is also home to an exclusive boarding school.  A part of me suspects that this might not actually be the case.  Fortunately, several TSL writers are from Massachusetts so, the next time I get a chance, I’ll just ask Gary, Leon, or Pantsu if any of them grew up near a boarding school.)

Chris Klein plays Kelly Morse.  He’s a student at that boarding school.  He’s rich.  He’s snobby.  But he’s also really, really smart.  In fact, he was originally meant to be the school’s valedictorian until he got in some legal trouble.  See, Kelly was having a street race with a townie named Jasper Arnold (Josh Hartnett).  The street race led to the local gas station blowing up.  I have to admit that I started laughing as soon as that gas station went up in flames because … well, let’s just say that I imagine it’s a lot more difficult to blow up a gas station than this film makes it look.  Judging from this film, the gas station down the street from the office should be blowing up right now.

Anyway, that exploding gas station also causes a local restaurant to burn down.  Both Jasper and Kelly are sentenced to help rebuild Mable’s Table.  (That’s right, the name of the restaurant was Mable’s Table.  It’s a good thing that Mable rhymes with table.  If the place had been started by someone named Gretchen, I guess they’d call it Gretchen’s Kitchen.)  The judge literally says, “They’ll be building a restaurant but building character too!”

Okay, your honor, thanks for spelling that shit out for us!  Yay abuse of the justice system!

Anyway, Jasper has a girlfriend.  Her name is Sam Cavanaugh (Leelee Sobieski) and her father (Bruce Greenwood) is the town sheriff.  And guess what?  HER FAMILY ALSO OWNED MABLE’S TABLE!  This may seem like a lot of coincidences but these things happen when there’s only a dozen or so people living in a town.

Sam’s mother always tells her, “As long as we’re all alive, it’s nothing worse than a bad day.”  Because they’re poor but honest and that’s how poor but honest people talk, don’t you know?  Her father also tells her, every morning: “Good to be your father.”  “Good to be your daughter,” Sam replies.

BECAUSE THEY’RE POOR!

But honest…

In fact, they’re so poor but honest that they help Kelly come out of his snobby shell.  Soon, he’s opening up to Sam.  He’s telling her his secrets.  He’s revealing his inner self and probably asking her, “What is this thing you humans call pleasure?”  (Because he’s a robot from the future!)  Suddenly, they’re in a love…

But guess what?  Sam only has a few months to live…

Or I should say that she only has a few months to live here on Earth.  She’s at peace with the idea because she’s a saint and she has a pretty a good idea that heaven is going to kick serious ass!  Can she make Kelly into a better man before she dies?

Watch and find out!  Or don’t.  This is one of those extremely silly and misjudged melodramas that doesn’t really work.  The adult roles are played by dependable character actors like Bruce Greenwood, Michael Rooker, and Annette O’Toole but Chris Klein and Josh Hartnett go through the entire film looking like they’d rather be anywhere but here on Earth.  Leelee Sobieski gives the film’s best performance, bringing as much credibility as she can to an idealized role.  (She’s beautiful, she’s sassy, she’s saintly, and she’s dying!)  It’s a shame that she has since retired from acting but maybe she didn’t want to spend her entire career making movies like Here on Earth.

Anyway, Here on Earth made me laugh for all the wrong reasons.  Maybe it will do the same for you!

 

Back to School #57: Never Been Kissed (dir by Raja Gosnell)


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The 1999 romantic comedy Never Been Kissed is a definite guilty pleasure of mine, and that’s not just because of the fact that James Franco has a small role in it.  Never Been Kissed is a genuinely sweet movie that might not be extremely realistic but is still enjoyable.

Never Been Kissed requires a certain amount of suspension of disbelief, largely because Josie Gellar, the character who has” never been kissed,” is played Drew Barrymore.  Oh, it’s not that Josie hasn’t ever been kissed.  Instead, it’s that she’s never gotten the type of kiss that every girl dreams of getting.  She’s never been kissed by someone who she was truly in love with.  She’s never had the type of romance that everyone dreams of having (especially when they’re in high school).

However, Josie is about to get a chance to find that kiss.  Josie works for a newspaper and her editor (John C. Reilly) has just assigned her to go undercover at a local high school.  Unfortunately, Josie was traumatized by her experiences the first time that she went to high school.  (She wrote a poem for a boy, he responded by asking her to prom and then throwing eggs at her.)  On her first day as a “student,” Josie finds that she is just as unpopular as the last time but now she’s also absolutely out-of-touch with her classmates.  Fortunately, she’s befriended by Aldys (Leelee Sobieski) and, soon, Josie has finally managed to find a place with the Denominators, a group of intelligent students.

Unfortunately, hanging out with the good kids isn’t producing the type of stories that Josie’s editor wants.  He orders Josie to reject Aldys and to befriend the school’s mean girls.  After her brother, Rob (David Arquette), also enrolls in high school, he helps Josie to become the most popular girl in the school.  Soon, Josie is no longer hanging out with Aldys and has been asked to go to the prom by the loathsome Guy Perkins (Jeremy Jordan).

However, Josie has fallen in love with her English teacher, Sam (Michael Vartan).  Sam likes Josie too but, of course, he thinks that she’s a student.  Will Josie tell the truth and risk losing Sam?  Will she be able to maintain her cover even when she discovers that her new friends are planning to humiliate Aldys?  Will Josie ever truly be kissed?

Well, you can probably guess all the answers.  Nothing really surprising happens in Never Been Kissed but it’s still a likable film.  For the most part, the actors all do a good job with their stock roles and David Arquette, especially, is hilarious as a professional slacker who thrives in high school precisely because he’s never bothered to grow up.  (Of course, by the end of the film, his new high school girlfriend is wanting to know what he’s planning on doing with his life after he graduates….)  At no point is the film in any way realistic but it’s still an enjoyable way to spend 110 minutes of your life.

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Film Review: Branded (dir by Jamie Bradshaw and Aleksandr Duleyran)


Is it too early to declare that Branded is the worst film of 2012? 

Probably.  After all, there’s still 3 more months left in October and who knows what could happen.  I’m still holding out hope that Zero Dark Thirty will be just as bad as I’m expecting it to be and I recently realized that I find the trailer for The Sessions to be kind of annoying.  There’s still a slight chance that I’ll see a film worse than Branded before 2013.

However, I do think that it’s safe to say that Branded is the worst film of 2012 so far.

At the very least, Branded deserves the award for 2012’s most deceptive trailer.

On the basis of the trailer, you would be perfectly justified in expecting Branded to be a rip-off of John Carpenter’s classic They Live.  You would be justified in expecting that the film would be a thriller, involving aliens using advertising to control people’s minds.

What you would not expect is that Branded would turn out to be an overlong, extremely preachy and didactic film about a Russian advertising guru who, after producing an ill-fated reality show, spends 6 years living as a shepherd until he happens to ritualistically sacrifice a red cow and is therefore inspired to lead an advertising war against fast food companies.  You wouldn’t expect the film to be such a confused mess that, while watching it, you actually find yourself standing up to leave the theater because you’ve mistakenly assumed that the film is over (as I did several times).  You also probably wouldn’t expect that the entire film would be narrated by yet another cow, this one floating around in the night sky and sending down lightning bolts to both enlighten and destroy various advertising gurus.

All of that happens and more!  And you know what?  As interesting as it may appear to be in writing, it’s all unbelievably dull when watched on-screen.  The Russian advertising genius is played by Ed Stoppard and his American girlfriend is played by Leelee Sobieski and, as a couple, they have absolutely zero chemistry.  You never believe their relationship and, as such, it’s difficult to understand why Sobieski’s character is so determined to make things work with a guy who appears to be insane.  Sobieski’s father is played by Jeffrey Tambor.  Whereas everyone else in the film underplays to the point that they sometimes appear to be sleepwalking, Tambor overplays every scene, as if he thought he was appearing in an episode of Arrested Development instead of this movie.  In the end, the best performance in the film comes from the talking cow in the sky, even if she seems awfully proud for a character who spends the entire movie spouting banal clichés.

(Seriously, did you know that advertising is a form of manipulation?  Well, you do now!  Thanks, Space Cow!)

For no particular reason, Max Von Sydow is in the film as well.  His role is really just a cameo and the entire time he’s on-screen, he’s got a small smile on his lips as if he’s saying, “Did you really pay money to watch this crap?”

In its defense, there is one — and only one — impressive scene in Branded but you can see that scene in the trailer for free.

There might be a worse film than Branded released this year.

But I doubt it.

Trailer: Branded (Official)


Lisa Marie mentioned a particular film trailer that she sawfor a film coming out soon that reminded her of a classic John Carpenter scifi film. This film was Brandedand from looking at it’s official trailer one does see some major similarities between this Russian/American scifi production with the Carpenter subversive scifi film.

The premise looks and sounds interesting but I must admit that the CG aliens/monsters/overlords look to be very subpar in comparison to most CG-effects work nowadays. Another note of interest is that it stars Leelee Sobieski who was once seen by Hollywood as a rising superstar when she first hit the scene over a decade ago. I don’t think I’ve seen her in anything of note until this trailer came along.

Now I won’t say that this film is a straight rip-off of Carpenter’s They Livebut if it includes an extended scene between two men fighting it out in an alley then I shall declare shenanigans.

Branded is set for a September 7, 2012 release date.