Review Roundup

This small selection may at first look a little disparate, including as it does two comedies, with release dates separated by a quarter of a century, and a horror movie. The two points of connection are that I watched them all last year, and I didn’t really enjoy any of them.

In today’s roundup:

  • Phantasm (1979)
  • National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983)
  • Step Brothers (2008)


    Phantasm
    (1979)

    2018 #92
    Don Coscarelli | 89 mins | TV | 16:9 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Phantasm

    A cult classic horror that spawned a pile of sequels and numerous novelty-packaged disc releases, Phantasm is about a supernatural undertaker, the Tall Man (Angus Scrimm), who (to quote Wikipedia) “turns the dead of earth into dwarf zombies to be sent to his planet and used as slaves.” Sounds totes plausible, right?

    Well, implausibility is no sin — many great fantasy or horror movies feed off setups that are just as outlandish. No, the problem here comes from the storytelling, because what happens in Phantasm is resolutely illogical. None of it makes any sense. No one behaves plausibly. Is there a mythology? I don’t know, because it all seems random. It appears to operate on some kind of dream logic, wherein stuff… just happens. And then at the end it’s revealed that it was, in fact, all a dream! Eesh. Are either of those things ok? Telling a story with “dream logic”, maybe. But then again, why should that be ok? We can’t control dreams, so we can’t expect them to obey the rules of narrative; but films are consciously made, so surely they should aim for coherence? And as for an “it was all a dream” ending, that’s just about the most despised device in storytelling for a reason. (Of course, there’s an “or was it?!” final twist, because it’s a horror movie and that’s how they always end.)

    It doesn’t help matters that the film simply isn’t well made. No one can act. Characters turn up out of nowhere. Most of it is cheaply shot and uninterestingly edited. There are a couple of good bits of imagery, but the rest of the movie is so nonsensical that that’s all it is — imagery. There’s no meaning attached.

    And yet the Phantasm series has its fans (or, predictably, “Phans”). Perhaps, if we’re being kind, we can say it’s an acquired taste — you either get something from its strangeness or you don’t. Clearly there are people (“Phans”) who see something in it. I wasn’t one of them.

    2 out of 5

    Phantasm featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw For the First Time in 2018.

    National Lampoon’s
    Vacation

    (1983)

    2018 #140
    Harold Ramis | 98 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 15 / R

    National Lampoon's Vacation

    Written by John Hughes and directed by Harold Ramis, Vacation certainly has strong pedigree (I’m not even going to begin to list all the classic comedies attributable to their names). It also spawned three sequels and a remake, so it’s clearly popular. Unfortunately, something about it didn’t click with me.

    It’s about a family going on a summer holiday; specifically, a cross-country road trip from Chicago to California, to visit Disney Walley World. Naturally, the journey doesn’t go to plan, and a series of episodic hijinks ensure. These include such hilarious escapades as meeting some black people (who of course steal their hubcaps); falling asleep at the wheel and careening through a town; hanging out with a cousin who French kisses his own daughter; and accidentally dragging their aunt’s dog along behind the car until it dies. Good times!

    There’s also a song by Lindsey “Fleetwood Mac” Buckingham, called Holiday Road, which is played again and again throughout the film. I started out hating it, but by the end I was listening to it on loop while I updated all my post-viewing lists. It’s sort of gloriously terrible. Sadly, I didn’t have the same Stockholm syndrome reaction to the film itself.

    2 out of 5

    Step Brothers
    (2008)

    2018 #204
    Adam McKay | 98 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Step Brothers

    Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly star as two developmentally-stunted man-children who are forced to live together after the former’s mom (Mary Steenburgen) and the latter’s dad (Richard Jenkins) move in together.

    The movie relies on the notion that watching two 40-year-old men behave like bratty 10-year-olds will be constantly hilarious. Spoiler alert: it isn’t. Unlike the infamous recent collaboration between Ferrell and Reilly, Holmes & Watson, this effort does at least manage some funny bits, though they generally occur when it moves away from the primary conceit for a moment. It also has the most implausible sex scene this side of The Room, which is some kind of achievement, I guess.

    2 out of 5

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  • The Big Short (2015)

    2016 #161
    Adam McKay | 130 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    The Big ShortYou wouldn’t think the 2008 financial crisis would make good fodder for a comedy-drama — it’s both too complicated and too grim — but Anchorman writer-director Adam McKay clearly felt differently. With co-writer Charles Randolph, he adapted the non-fiction bestseller by Michael Lewis (the author of the books that became awards season contenders The Blind Side and Moneyball) and turned it into… well, an awards season contender — but a funny one.

    Specifically, it’s the story of the handful of men who saw the financial crisis coming, and arranged their finances to bet on it, too. It’s not a completely true account but, as it’s presented here, Michael Burry (Christian Bale) is the only one who actually spots it. He takes out insurance policies or something — look, the whole film is full of really complicated financial stuff and this was right at the start, OK? Here’s the Wikipedia plot description of what he does: “his plan is to create a credit-default swap market, allowing him to bet against market-based mortgage-backed securities.” So, he does that, the investment banks gladly accept his money because they think he’s mad, but a handful of others (including Ryan Gosling, Steve Carell, and Brad Pitt) stumble across his research one way or another, believe he’s right, and begin to make similar investments.

    Christian Bale tries to understand the screenplayThe narrative is laden with concepts that are so complicated even people within the industry don’t properly understand all of them (however did the market fail?!), but the movie nonetheless attempts to explain them in an accessible way. It’s half successful: you kind of understand them at the time, about enough to follow along, but the chances of remembering them later are next to naught. One of McKay’s tricks to engage us with these explanations is to wheel in random celebrities to deliver analogies. It’s a fun idea, though it’s success is debatable — I mean, I’ve just about heard of Selena Gomez, and I guess the “famous chef” that turns up must have a TV show in America, or something, maybe? Yeah, the ‘names’ he’s chosen are going to date this movie far more than its 2008 setting ever will.

    Indeed, on the whole I could’ve done without McKay’s jittery directorial style, amped up through ADD editing by Hank Corwin. Both were Oscar nominated and I’ve read other reviews that praise the style, but to me it just felt needlessly hyperactive, like the film is so afraid of being dull that it has to constantly dance around in the hope you won’t notice. I did notice — not that the film was dull, just that it thought it was. I guess that’s what happens when a guy more at home making movies like Anchorman and The Other Guys instead makes one about the world of real-life high finance.

    Not very impressedThough the conceptual explanations may fade almost as soon as you’ve heard them, what does stick with you is how it all ends. Essentially, the financial industry that destroyed peoples’ lives in pursuit of never-ending profit not only got away with it, but they actually started doing the same stuff all over again, just with new acronyms. What’s even more sickening is that people are clearly aware it’s going on — I mean, we’ve been told as much in an Oscar-winning movie — but they’re still doing nothing about it.

    How’s that for a scary thought this Halloween weekend, eh?

    4 out of 5