Friday, October 14, 2011

Weekend Roundup: "The Thing," "Footloose," "The Human Centipede II (Full Sequence)"


The Thing (2011)
103 min., rated R.
Grade: B 

Did we really need a prequel to 1982's "The Thing"? Probably not. For a genre that seems to be in need of life support in recent years, "horror" isn't what it used to be. Lacking any creativity in the Hollywood studio system, sequels and remakes flood nationwide multiplexes to lure undiscriminating teenagers who wouldn't know "worthy" from "worthless." Any remake, reboot, pre-make, pre-boot, or whatever, should know that if it's going to name itself after a classic film, then it better be an imaginative retelling rather than just a smudgy copy. To mostly positive surprise, "The Thing," a supposed prequel to John Carpenter's remake of "The Thing from Another World" (itself based on John W. Campbell's 1938 novella Who Goes There?), is quite entertaining that it classifies under the "not-bad, we'll-take-it" category. 

Prior to the discovery of the "thing" by Kurt Russell's R.J. MacReady and his all-male crew, American paleontologist Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is offered to join Dr. Halvorson (Ulrich Thomsen) and his mostly Norwegian research team at an isolated camp in Antarctica. The team has discovered a spacecraft and an alien specimen frozen in the ice for 100,000 years. When they bring the creature embedded in a block of ice to the camp for examination, the "thing" eventually escapes and attacks one of their men. With a look at its cells and a normal human's cells under a microscope, Kate determines that the alien is replicating her colleagues. That means quarantining the group in the middle of a nasty storm, separating the copies from the real people and upping their paranoia. 

All advocates of Carpenter's frightening and creatively yucky version can breathe a sigh of relief that the result of a prequel is neither a watered-down carbon copy nor a summary of most mainstream horror movies today. Opening a horror film with a '90s Universal Pictures logo always starts things off on the right foot. Bearing the same title and set in 1982, but fitting right before the events of Carpenter's, this "Thing" respects its progenitor. (Not to split hairs, but if it's a "prequel," why not "The Thing: The Beginning"?) Aside from one literal "boo!" moment and a few cheap jolts during the climactic chase, director Matthijs van Heijningen (marking his feature debut) relies more on hold-your-breath silence, shadowy atmosphere, good old-fashioned suspense…and gooey gore, of course. This one doesn't dare to replicate the unforgettable "blood testing" scene, but still sneaks in the icky, creepy-crawly grotesquerie of the monster itself, splitting open bodies, shape-shifting, and crawling around the floor like a mangled crab. Rob Britton and Stan Winston's practical latex makeup and animatronic effects are still one of a kind and sorely missed here, but the new-fangled effects are better than most CGI fakery. This being the prequel, one of the attacks replicates the recovered specimen in Carpenter's film. Taking over for Ennio Morricone's original score is Marco Beltrami, who manages to still inject riffs of Morricone's daunting masterwork. 

Screenwriter Eric Heisserer (the 2010 "Nightmare on Elm Street" remake) doesn't really patch up any of the lack of character development from Bill Lancaster's original script, as the characters' parkas are more distinct than their personalities. But what he does do is add a few clever ideas, like Kate's theory that the "thing" rejects its human copy's inorganic materials (i.e. metal teeth fillings). This makes for a rather suspenseful replacement of the blood test, having Kate check everyone's mouth for fillings. The screws really tighten when four of them have porcelain fillings. And with that original element of Cold War paranoia, there still are surprises to whom is the "thing" in a few instances of misdirection. One of the two women in the cast this time, Winstead is tough and smart as Kate, leading the pack of men and capably taking charge (uttering lines like "Burn him!" and "There might be another way!"). As American helicoptor pilot Braxton Carter, Joel Edgerton is the only other member to really stand out, looking like Kurt Russell twenty-nine years ago. 

Only does the climax disappoint a little in its murky production design aboard a UFO that resembles the ship in 1979's "Alien," along with a sloppy conclusion. Though, after the first portion of final credits, the start of the events in the '82 version fall into place as a "to be continued…" placeholder. 2011's "The Thing" doesn't replace nor tarnish the reputation of a visionary classic, but it's a sure thing to find out what happened to those crazy Norwegians. 






Footloose (2011) 
113 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: B +


Whether or not remaking the frothy, entertaining 1984 Kevin Bacon-starrer was part of your hopes and dreams, Hollywood went ahead and did it anyway. At first sight, modernizing the "you kids and your rock n' roll!" story shouldn't make sense in 2011. And it might have just been another "Step Up" or "Stomp the Yard" with all the midriff-baring booty shaking to a hip-hop rhythm. But while the narrative is religiously beat for beat, this "Footloose" surprisingly reverberates with some fun, energized, and sexy moves of its own. 

In the role that made Kevin Bacon a star, newcomer Kenny Wormald plays Ren McCormack, a Bostonian teen who moves to the fictional Bomont, Tennessee, to live with his Aunt Lulu (Kim Dickens), Uncle Wes (Ray McKinnon), and their two young daughters after his mother dies from cancer. Coming into town with a defiant spirit and talent for gymnastics/dancing, Ren catches the eye of Ariel (Julianne Hough), the goody-two-shoes-turned-rebel daughter of overprotective Reverend Moore (Dennis Quaid) and his wife Vi (Andie MacDowell). A few years back, the town suffered a tragedy influenced by music and dancing: five teens were killed in a car accident, one of them being the reverend's son. As a result, said pastimes that were allegedly the cause are prohibited in Bomont. Ren's Yankee sarcasm doesn't go over well with the local cops, and when he fixes up his uncle's Yellow Volkswagen, nor does his loud rock n' roll. The Lord of the Dance immediately befriends hickish football player Willard (Miles Teller), who can't dance; shows up Ariel's hardened beau (Patrick John Flueger) in a game of chicken on school buses; and writes a petition to abolish Bomont's strict laws and start the dance revolution. 

At the helm, director Craig Brewer ("Hustle & Flow" and "Black Snake Moan") is an edgy choice for this dated material. The film may open with the title Kenny Loggins single and some fancy footwork, but begins in earnest: the group of teens leave a party after dancing (and drinking), turn up the radio, and get into the car wreck that tames the town. Opening with and actually showing us the accident allows us to buy into the story more. This time, the banning of dance is (believably) more about protection than being sermonized as a condemnation to Hell. Also, a change from the original is the absence of Ren's mother, which gives Ren more of a sense of purpose when he decides to make a change in Bomont. Brewer, credited for co-writing the script, and original writer Dean Pitchford respect the first "Footloose" with pieces of line-for-line dialogue and cosmetic homages, taking heed of what made that '80s time capsule work so well and then putting a modern, electric spin on it. Racial integration! Country line dancing! No banning of Slaughterhouse Five! The morning mass sermons are still here, as is the "Yearbook" graffiti wall inside a boxcar and Ariel walking in front of a train. The "prom" finale has the exact confetti-filled, "Let's dance!" shot but kicks off with an updated cover of Loggins' "Footloose" by country artist Blake Shelton. What's so refreshing and new about a dance movie in the 21st century like this is not finding all the dancing edited into chop-suey pieces; we actually see full bodies dancing. 

Wormald, a backup dancer for Justin Timberlake, has an instant charisma with James Dean's coolness, attitude, and good looks. His angry dance in the abandoned warehouse is impressive, as he shows off all his own acrobatic moves. A ballroom-dancing pro and vet of TV's "Dancing With the Stars," Hough is made for the screen. She's sexy, sassy, and appealing with her piercing blue eyes and shows off her bread-and-butter in those tight jeans and red cowgirl boots. These two generate heat together and are real stars in the making. Adorably dorky and funny, Teller ("Rabbit Hole") is an engaging scene-stealer in the sidekick role of Willard, who learns to dance in the montage set to "Let's Hear It For the Boy" that originated with the late Chris Penn. Less memorable than Sarah Jessica Parker, Ziah Colon is still a cute sparkler as Ariel's spunky friend Rusty. 

This MTV-produced cover probably won't define the generation like its predecessor, but it's slickly done, tons of fun, and made for our time. It also should make Kenny Wormald and Julianne Hough stars like the original did for Bacon. "Footloose" makes you want to kick off your Sunday shoes all over again. 






The Human Centipede II (Full Sequence) (2011)
88 min., not rated (but equivalent to NC-17).
Grade: F 

Last year, there wasn't a soul not puking about "The Human Centipede (First Sequence)." But like 1974's "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre," which was touted to be the splattiest, bloodiest horror film of all time when in fact it implied most of its violence, the perversely original, "100% medically accurate" film was the same way. Daringly grotesque and sickeningly wrong as it was, "The Human Centipede" was not gratuitous or easily lumped into today's torture-porn subgenre. As for "The Human Centipede II (Full Sequence)," it's every bit gratutious and shock-for-shock's-sake exploitation, now being dubbed "100% medically INaccurate" by writer-director Tom Six. Let the dry heaving and walk-outs begin. 

Dieter Laser's sadistic, deeply creepy Dr. Heiter will go down as one of the most evil movie villains this side of Hannibal Lecter, but this time, we get a tubby, sweaty, coughing, bug-eyed perv named Martin (played with leering, freakish commitment by Laurence R. Harvey). Sexually abused by his imprisoned father and hated by his self-loathing mother, whom he shares a flat with, Martin only finds pleasure in feeding his pet centipede. This disturbed loner spends a full day at his security-guard job watching, studying, and worshipping the movie, "The Human Centipede (First Sequence)." (Yes, Six is getting post-modern and meta on us. It was only a movie!) Watching the fictional horror film on his laptop over and over again in his London parking garage office, and keeping a secret scrapbook of all the stills from the movie, Martin devises a sick fantasy of his own. Pssh, a three-person centipede is just for the movies; he'll make his own out of twelve people! He knocks out any unsuspecting motorist and takes them to his seedy warehouse. That's not all. Martin licks his fingers and touches the screen when watching actress Ashlynn Yennie (played again by, you guessed it, Ashlynn Yennie) as the caboose, with her mouth sewn to the middle girl's anus. He needs Miss Yennie, so he tricks her agent into thinking Quentin Tarantino wants her for a movie audition and makes her the head of his human centipede. Ladies and gentleman, behold the world's longest digestive system! 

Sick, disgusting, unpleasant, vile, artless, mean-spirited, disturbing (insert more synonyms here), "The Human Centipede II (Full Sequence)" is nothing short of a miserable experience. Though sparing us the yucky, colorful bodily fluids in grainy black and white, Six's point seems to be upping the ante and making his audience feel filthy and dejected. If that was his solitary goal, his immaturity as a filmmaker (and stability as a human being?) is a detriment to the film. Basically saying, "you ain't seen nothing yet," Six having Martin beat a pregnant woman over the head with a crowbar is comparably the most tame fantasy of this sicko-exploitative garbage. "Eat shit" is taken to the most literal extremes here, twelve times, and no scalpel, needle, and thread are necessary when Martin has a staple gun to get the job done. It may just be a movie, as one of Martin's savvy prisoners even pleads, but to what reason must a film like this be made and packaged to even the bravest of horror audiences? Is there no line anymore? 

The best horror films have a political subtext of its era, but there's none of that here. The original "Human Centipede" at least tucked xenophobic themes into its deranged nugget of an idea. What, is Martin supposed to be a "real" case of media and movies influencing our actions? Coprophiliacs, listen up, if the original knocked your socks off, this one pulls the least amount of punches as a snuff film, but it left a bad, bad taste in this writer's mouth. Don't go into "The Human Centipede II (Full Sequence)" on a full stomach. In fact, don't go into it at all. And now there's a "Human Centipede III (Final Sequence)" in pre-production. Barf.

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