Friday, 18 December 2015

Movie Review: Cooties (2015)/Outcast (2014)
This is most certainly a team-up that, even in my weirdest pot dreams, I wouldn’t have been able to foresee. On one hand, you have Leigh Whannell, best known for his collaborations with James Wan on the Saw and Insidious series. On the other, you have Ian Brennan, best known for being the brainchild of the thankfully recently-concluded TV migraine Glee. Except for a possible connection involving people screaming in terror, I can’t even think of a comparative duo to explain just how strange this is. The fact that this is yet another zombie film seems like an afterthought by comparison. Well, in the spirit of goodwill and the fact that I really hope Whannell is at least capable of keeping up with his cinematic brother’s success, it’s time to delve into today’s rather strange production that just happens to feature a lot of dead children. Yeah. This is Cooties.

The plot: Substitute teacher/amateur horror writer Clint (Elijah Wood) returns to his old home of Fort Chicken to teach at the local elementary school. As he reconnects with his high school crush Lucy (Allison Pill) and tries not to connect with the fist of her current boyfriend Wade (Rainn Wilson), something strange is happening on the playground: The students becoming ravenously violent. In the midst of the children killing and eating every adult they can find, Clint and the rest of the surviving faculty have to find a way out of the school before they become recess.

The cast is half comprised of actors who can work with the material they’re given, while the other half seriously struggled with it. Pill gets only one real moment where her veneer gets to snap and she can have some fun, otherwise she’s just playing an overly PC teacher and not a particularly entertaining one at that. Nasim Pedrad is the polar opposite, being a strawman conservative that would exist somewhere in a Bizarro version of God’s Not Dead and is performed about as subtly. And speaking of stereotypes, Jack McBrayer is seriously trying to make his flaming caricature work, and admittedly he gets a decent scene of zombie asskickery, but otherwise it’s pretty much one flamboyancy point higher than his performance on 30 Rock, only less funny. On the other side of the fence, Wilson is a little obnoxious with just how genre-savvy he is, but he also manages a decent character arc throughout the film which smooths him out. Wood is a great straight man for this cast, managing to keep his dignity even after a rather unfortunate medical emergency. Yes, it involves poop. But, without a doubt in my mind, the best part of this cast and overall best thing about this movie is Leigh Whannell as Doug. Whannell seems to have followed his previous example in the original Saw and given himself the best lines, which he pulls off with laser precision. He even makes the subpar lines sound funny with the crazed delivery he gives them; him explaining about how he knows about neuroscience is still giving me belly laughs as I write this. Certainly does a better job than Ian Brennan as the Vice Principal, who thankfully dies very early on.

While the idea of zombie children has been done before, there is a very solid foundation for how it is accomplished in this film. Now, children themselves can be scary in that sense of having to deal with extremely young ones for too long can be rather daunting. Zombies used to be scary because of the enduring threat they posed, either in a slow herd or fast-paced on their own. This film, for as goofy as it gets, is legitimately creepy at times. Part of that is from how the zombies themselves are portrayed, which emphasizes the adage “feral children”, and part of that comes from how much is shown. Sure, we get gory and limbs being torn apart (in rather cheaply realized fashion, at times), but the film pulls back when it’s needed and avoids becoming obnoxiously overblown. Take, for example, the scene where one of the kids tackles a woman (who literally only exists to be killed off, the film admits it) into a cabinet. We don’t see what goes on, but we still get the point. This is all assisted by a truly chilling soundtrack provided by Belgian plunderphonics producer Kreng. His use of seemingly innocent rhythms associated with children’s songs and twisting them into dark majesty is simply amazing. This film even managed to make a scare involving Pop Goes The Weasel actually work; after Deliver Us From Evil tried (and failed) twice to do that, I’m genuinely shocked that it was even possible. But, through a combination of a well-done warping of the tune and great staging, it even made the inevitable jump scare feel right.

The comedic writing for this is a mixed bag, which makes sense when you have one genuinely good writer and one that’s not-so-good. The punchlines can get extremely cheesy at times, like an in-joke about Elijah Wood being in the Lords Of The Rings movies, and the stereotyping can get really grating. That said, sometimes its self-aware cheesiness can bend back around and become awesome again. It actually got to the point where, when I noticed an Easter egg in the form of the Cooties poster being used in-film, it would have perfect sense for them to have gone into a cinema and find the film they’re in to be playing. Not to say that that wouldn’t have a cop-out if they ultimately went that route, just that it would have fit the tone of the production. It makes a couple of jabs at the tropes of the genre, but it takes a refreshingly straight approach to it. I say “refreshingly” because, after dealing with a lot of revisionist zombie fiction, self-awareness is starting to get just as tired as the zombies themselves. It gives a decent origin for the virus, how it works, even offering some subtle reasoning for the more intelligent zombies that usually just get ignored in other films. It also provides some piecemeal commentary on how difficult it is for teachers to deal with these little terrors even when they’re ‘normal’, not to mention how little parents seem to pay attention to them, but much like last time, the commentary is pretty much the last reason to watch a film like this. The ending would be the second last, which is rushed to the point of giving the impression that they just ran out of time and/or budget to make a real conclusion.

All in all, for all its faults, this is more entertaining than it has any right being. Its approach to the zombie apocalypse serves up some interesting ideas, the writing delivers both some really good comedy and even some unexpectedly tense moments and Leigh Whannell makes for another runner for best character of the year. This still comes with the stipulation that it requires you not to be completely bored with zombies yet, but the use of child zombies might just win some viewers over. It’s better than Trainwreck, as while both have their points of too-awkward-to-be-funny, this film made for a more gleefully fun watch overall. However, even with how much fun this was and how great Doug is to watch, he still can’t hold a candle to Big Boss from The Human Centipede III: Final Sequence.

After you spend long enough time on film sets, the thought of becoming a director yourself seems like the next logical step. Actors, writers, cinematographers; people originally from these fields have taken up the big chair with varying success. However, especially in recent years, we’ve started seeing a new group join those ranks: Stunt choreographers. And I’m not talking about co-directing films like The Transporter because their role is so crucial to the overall production; I mean going it alone. We’ve had Scott Waugh direct and edit that stupid Need For Speed movie, Chad Stahelski and David Leitch gave us the surprisingly awesome John Wick and Vic Armstrong brought the Left Behind remake upon us. Well, time for a stuntman-cum-director and Nicolas Cage to team up once again as we look at today’s subject. This is Outcast.

The plot: Three years after leading armies during the Crusades, Jacob (Hayden Christensen) has become an opium-addicted drifter in China. When royal heir Mei (Ji Ke Jun Yi) and his sister Lian (Liu Yifei) become fugitives after their father is murdered by their brother Shing (Andy On), they enlist Jacob as a bodyguard to help them escape his armies. With his past haunting him, the words of his mentor Gallain (Nicolas Cage) ringing in his head and only his sword at his back, he must overcome old sins and become the knight he once was.

Christensen hasn’t got a drop of charisma in his anachronistic mohawk. It takes poise to be able to pull off the blunted bar brawling that Jacob is given here, but Christensen is no Jeff Bridges. He also sucks at pulling off what I can only assume is a British accent. On isn’t capable of making the obvious villain he’s given work, which is kind of surprising considering what mode Cage is in for this film. This is the Nicolas Cage that we should have gotten in Left Behind. He really isn’t capable of doing a convincing accent either, but he also isn’t capable of holding anything back as he gives his all in every scene he has… which unfortunately isn’t that often. After a rather out-of-place introductory scene set during the Crusades, he is absent from the film for nearly an hour until he crops up as a poorly concealed plot twist. Granted, he immediately makes the film better with his mere on-screen presence, but by that point, it is well and truly too late to save anything.

The plot is thinner than a meth addict, and whatever meat the story does have is either stupidly implemented or just plain stupid. The entire reason why the plot exists is because the emperor didn’t realize that generals are more than capable of taking over their leaders through how much the army trusts them. Especially when he’s facing a 14-year-old boy! I mean, the obviously evil general is alone in the same room as the emperor, the emperor dies, and his army somehow buys that someone else killed him? You know a film’s plot is bad when I actually summarize it in one of these reviews. From there, it’s running away from Shing and his forces like if Monty Python And The Holy Grail was supposed to be dramatic, until they catch up and Shing gets taken down with insulting ease. They make some attempt to show Jacob’s redemption for the lives he took during the Crusades, except it hits with the impact of a sword being held by an impossibly shaky hand. It also doesn’t help that Jacob gets over his opium addiction in no time at all, showing only mild withdrawal symptoms

Which brings us nicely into the action scenes, and my God is this amateur hour-and-30-minutes. The cinematography is nauseating like a head-on collision between bad found footage and bad straight-to-DVD action. Not since Alex Cross have I seen camera work this horrible that’s meant to excite us with bloodshed. The editing is obnoxious, featuring probably the most cuts I’ve seen outside of a Darren Aronofsky and Yoshihiro Nishimura marathon. Not even for montages or anything, just showing people fight with swords. Sure would be nice if I could make it out, but it’s barely legible. Actually, scratch that, it wouldn’t be nice because the few parts that can be seen without feeling the urge to throw up, the fight choreography is very telegraphed. Even considering Christensen’s talent for extremely dance-like fight scenes like in the Star Wars prequels, this is simply not excusable. What makes this even worse is the fact that it is all directed by someone with definite stunt experience, as Nick Powell has worked on Batman and the friggin’ Bourne Identity. You’d think, after all that, he’d know how to shoot shaky-cam fight scenes. Instead, we get the coordinator who did the stunts for the Twilight Saga. It’s sad when Breaking Dawn Part 2’s completely imagined fight scene was still better than whatever this could conjure up.

All in all, I finally got my wish for a glorious Nic Cage performance. Such a shame that it would come packaged with a film with otherwise hopeless acting, a rail-thin script and horrifically bad action scenes that make Rob Cohen look like John McTiernan by comparison. I can’t even recommend it for so-bad-it’s-good reasons because not only is Cage not in nearly enough of the film to make it worth seeing, but the rest of it is so poorly shot that you’re likely to suffer a colossal migraine before even getting to it. It’s worse than 47 Ronin, as at least the one entertaining character in that movie (the witch) was (relatively) more prevalent. However, because of the presence of Nic Cage, it still fares better than 300: Rise Of An Empire.

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