Saturday, January 5, 2013

Review Double Feature: This is 40 (2012) and Texas Chainsaw 3D (2013)

Two reviews today! First, I went to see Judd Apatow's latest This Is 40 in an early afternoon matinee, then afterwards sneaked into the next showing of Texas Chainsaw 3D to make my day a double feature.

So without further interruption, here's review #1:

This Is 40 (2012)

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Billed as "The Sort-of Sequel to Knocked Up", this film follows Pete and Debbie (Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann), the "beta couple" from that film five years later. They're now pushing 40, their eldest daughter has hit puberty, their marriage is on the rocks, and they're in debt and about to foreclose on their house, thanks to Pete loaning thousands to his financially irresponsible father, one of the employees at Debbie's store stealing money out of the register, and Pete's record company treading water and struggling to stay afloat. Right away, something about this film just didn't "click" with me. Some of the gags were great, and Rudd and Mann are funny and likable actors, but I wasn't quite able to connect with the characters or the story. Strange, I thought. This was a Judd Apatow film. Creating lovable characters is what made him famous. What was going wrong here?

Then, about half an hour in, the answer dawned on me. I was watching a film called This Is 40. I was only 22 years old.

The problem wasn't the film, it was me. I was at least a decade too young to get much out of it. This film wasn't made for Apatow's usual target audience of teenage and twentysomething men, it was made for people in their 30s and 40s who were married, had children, lived in their own homes, and had been working for at least as long as they'd been in primary and secondary school. It's not a tale of finding love, it's about retaining that love. For people like me whose experience with relationships doesn't go far beyond high school crushes and dates to the movies and the diner, or even for people who have been in "serious" relationships but have never been married, much of this film is going to fly over their heads. A lot of the jokes and plot points are about things like Viagra, mortgages, in-laws, menopause, worrying about the kids' grades, and growing old in general. I can see who would enjoy this film, but I can't count myself part of that group.

As a result, I found the film to drag on for too long with a lot of scenes that went nowhere. I was able to take two bathroom breaks without missing much important, with the pool party in particular being padded to a ridiculous degree. This is a problem I've had with a lot of Apatow's films, but which was much more noticeable here given that fewer of the jokes were connecting with me.

That said, this film wasn't a total waste of my time. Far from it, in fact. As mentioned earlier, Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann give very good performances here, carrying the entire film and presenting a realistic portrait of a middle-aged couple. The supporting cast was likewise solid, composed of not only a couple of Apatow regulars (Jason Segel, Melissa McCarthy) in small but memorable roles, but also his daughters Maude and Iris as Pete and Debbie's kids. Even Megan Fox wasn't nearly as annoying as I feared she'd be, though she didn't have much to do in the film beyond looking sexy. The jokes that did connect with me, such as the opening shower scene and the fight in the principal's office, had me rolling in the aisles, reminding me of Apatow's better films.

Score: 3 out of 5

Much of this film fell flat with me, but I'm hardly part of its target audience. I can certainly see who would enjoy this film, and to be honest, a lot of the theater (composed of grown adults) was cracking up throughout. If you're in the same age range as the main characters, then consider checking this out. It's an R-rated Apatow comedy for real grown-ups.


And the second film of the day:

Texas Chainsaw 3D (2013)

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(Note: I saw the 2D version of this film, so I can't cast judgment on the quality of the 3D. I can, however, say that the film had an abundance of scenes of chainsaws and other sharp objects pointing out at the screen.)

Wow. That's all I can say about this film. It amazed me on so many levels... namely, just how badly they managed to bungle both a straightforward slasher film formula and the Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise. It felt like a SyFy original movie with the TCM name and better special effects, possessed with several major plot holes, stupid characters, a twist that only serves to make the film far less scary, and constant reminders as to how much better the original (hell, even the Platinum Dunes remake) was. To explain why, though, I'm gonna have to venture into spoiler territory at a point in this review.

I'll start with the spoiler-free problems. First of all, the timeframe of the film makes absolutely no sense. The main character, Heather, should be close to 40 years old, given that she's an infant in the opening scenes, which occur right after the events of the first film in 1974, and the rest of the film takes place in the present day of 2013. Instead, she's depicted as a young woman, played by 26-year-old Alexandra Daddario. The filmmakers must have realized this error, since any instances of the date of the original film's events deliberately avoid mention of the year; even when it's in writing, like on a gravestone or in a newspaper, the year is conspicuously cropped out of the camera's sight. It doesn't make it any better for those who have seen the original.

Worse, the characters are walking bundles of stupidity. Yes, the acting ranges from decent (Daddario makes a pretty good final girl, doing what she can to salvage her character from the shoddy writing) to awful, but that's par for the course for this genre. This is a problem that can be traced back to the script. Only two of the victims, the hitchhiker and one of the cops, had any excuse for their stupidity -- the hitchhiker was a greedy asshole, and the deputy was following orders. Otherwise, we get all the usual signs of imminent mortality -- people continuing to look for their friends rather than running and calling the cops when they see clear evidence of a bloody fight, people calling out to Leatherface wielding his chainsaw rather than trying to hide before he notices them, trying to ram a car through a heavy iron gate rather than listening to the person saying that they should open it first, etc.

I will grant that the film is gory as all get out. Limbs are hacked off, a man is cut in half at the waist, heads are bashed in, and one victim is even thrown into a meat grinder and graphically pulped and ripped to shreds. These moments were the highlights of the film, and helped to make the whole affair more bearable. However, the film possesses little creativity with the setup to its kills. The only scene that had much tension is when one victim is looking down a dark hallway, hearing the sound of... something clanging against the wall, which of course turns out to be Leatherface's meat hook. Most of the rest of the kills consist of him jumping out of nowhere and bagging his quarry. One particularly cringeworthy scene was when the deputy turns on his phone's FaceTime and the sheriff and mayor back at the office watch the proceedings; it feels like an attempt at imitating a found-footage film, and it's unnecessary and falls flat.

On top of that, the film sets up and then squanders a massive potential setpiece of carnage. We get Leatherface chasing Heather into a crowded carnival, wielding and revving his chainsaw and even threatening a guy with it. We know that he's a psychopath who loves killing and bloodshed, so a scene like this could've been like the initial attack in Piranha 3D, a crazed display of gratuitous, almost cartoonish violence. A funhouse, filled with mirrors, Leatherface seemingly in every direction. (Imagine what could've been done with the 3D in that scene!) A head getting lopped off and then flung into a game booth, knocking down the pins or buckets. And yet, he doesn't kill anyone at the carnival. It was as though the writers thought of something that sounded cool, and didn't know how to follow through on it.

The biggest problem, though, is still to come. Remember what I said up top about spoilers? Well, if you still have any interest in seeing this film, you might want to skip to the bottom.

Okay? Here goes.

The film tries to make Leatherface and his family sympathetic. When Heather finds out that her biological family, the Sawyers, had been burned to death in their home by an angry mob, she turns against the town's mayor, calling him a murderer, and eventually letting Leatherface (her cousin) kill him. The film ends with Heather, aka Edith Rose Sawyer, as Leatherface's new caretaker, much as her grandmother had been.

How many problems does this twist have? Let's count, shall we? One, Heather has no attachment to the Sawyers other than blood relations. She never knew them. Why does she give a damn about them? Two, Leatherface just killed Heather's best friends, and almost killed her until he realized (through a telltale scar) that she was his long-lost cousin. If I were Heather, I wouldn't care one lick how nice that guy is to me afterwards, he still killed my friends. I wouldn't become his caretaker out of some obligation to a family I never had any contact with until less than 24 hours ago. Third, Leatherface isn't Jigsaw. He isn't meant to be sympathetic. He's meant to be a vicious whirlwind of murder and mayhem. Giving him this kind of backstory takes away a lot of the mystique of one of the great villains in horror. Last and certainly not least, we, the audience, know that the Sawyers were evil. If we hadn't gotten that from the original film, we sure as hell got it from the prologue. The angry mob that attacked the Sawyers very clearly had the right idea in killing them, even if killing the survivors they found rather than arresting them was a bit much.

Score: 1 out of 5
As a sequel to one of the greatest horror movies of all time, this film is a travesty. Bloody as all hell, sure, but with unoriginal kills, no suspense, no fresh ideas, and a screenplay that has its head up its ass, this film gives every other horror film of the next 361 days a laughably low bar to clear to avoid being named "worst of 2013". Easily among the worst films bearing the TCM name. Somewhere, Michael Bay is sipping a Budweiser, muttering "miss me yet?" to everyone who paid money to see this film.

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