Friday, 25 December 2015

Movie Review: Escobar: Paradise Lost/Nightmare On Elmo's Street (2015)

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, which around here is going to involve keeping a promise I made about a year ago. Back when I reviewed Mockingjay Part 1, I brought today’s film and how I wanted to check it out based on the strength of Josh Hutcherson’s performance. Well, as I inch closer to the end of my December double feature-fest, I figure now is as good a time as any to give it a try. This is Escobar: Paradise Lost.

The plot: Canadian surfer Nick (Josh Hutcherson) has moved to Colombia to help his brother Dylan (Brady Corbet) run a local surf camp. He soon falls for local girl Maria (Claudia Traisac), whom Nick later finds out is the niece of local drug runner Pablo Escobar (Benicio Del Toro). As their relationship grows more serious, Nick gets dragged further down into the world of crime that is Escobar’s terrain, making him question if the potential benefits are worth the prices he will have to pay.

This film feels like two separate ideas for the same story were sewn together at the middle, and they don’t mesh together in the best of ways nor does the film as a whole commence on the best foot. It basically starts out like your standard romance that just happens to have Pablo Escobar involved in it; Benicio Del Toro’s performance is good but, especially when compared to his work in Sicario earlier this year, it’s nothing too special. Not only that, Hutcherson as Nick doesn’t leave much of an impression either; he’s not bad but, for the first half, he just plays spectator for the events happening around him. His relationship with Maria also feels undercooked, playing out like yet another teen romance without much meat on the bones.

Then we get past the halfway point, and the film suddenly picks up tremendously. As we pick back up where the cold opening left off, with Nick being asked to kill someone, it not only feels like we’ve stepped into a different movie but a substantially better one as well. The bum-rush pace gains some stability, making the very dark events that take place feel a lot more stable. Del Toro’s previously bubbling menace gets pushed over the cliff, resulting in a genuinely unnerving antagonist. Hutcherson gets to tap into some proper emotional distress as his character cracks under the pressure of his circumstances, bringing back shades of what made his performance so strong in both parts of Mockingjay. This is honestly kind of surprising since the starting point of the film’s uphill climb, the confrontation between Nick and the person he has to kill, is a bit wonky. The script bluntly brings up how he has a wife and child in a bid to make Nick reconsider his actions, and show the audience what the dangers of what he has to do for Escobar. This would have been fine if it didn’t feel like it was being brought up solely to raise dramatic tension, rather than for legitimate character reasons.

Anyway, despite that hollowness, the proceeding hour of film is really damn good. Hutcherson’s performance as he frantically tries to get to his family and friends before Escobar’s men do is palpable and very intense. This is heightened by the direction, which combines fluid movements that show how Nick evades the cartel with optimal camera work, particularly the framing in the scene where he has a cover over him as he hides in a car. As we see Nick make his way from landline to landline, contacting people to try and tell them to get out of Dodge quickly, the inevitable outcomes for most of them hits like a brick thanks to the acting that I can’t stop gushing over and Max Richter’s ideal score. This all leads to a climactic encounter that, while diminished a bit by the epilogue, serves as a near-perfect finale for the tragic events that have transpired over the film’s final act.

All in all, while the first half is honestly pretty underwhelming, the second more than makes up for it as the stakes get raised and the acting improves alongside them. Hutcherson brings back that intensity that first grabbed my attention in the Hunger Games films and Del Toro shows more menace that he has built a healthy reputation for, while the writing around them shows just how dire Nick’s situation is and what he has to do to survive. It’s better than Last Cab To Darwin, which also has similar problems involving inconsistency but this film wins out because all that makes it good is saved for the end, making the film as a whole worth sitting through. However, since this really only amounts to a literal half of a good film, it falls short of Tangerine. Sure, that had tonal issues, but what made that film work kept working throughout its running time.

What is it about puppets that fascinates us so much? I mean, the outreach of Jim Henson’s Creature Workshop is staggering, between the Muppets, Sesame Street and their other miscellaneous works. Maybe it’s as an extension of our reaction to ventriloquist dummies and how a decent performer can convince an audience that the object made of felt with a hand shoved up its rear, or maybe it’s because we are willing to accept some aspects of the Uncanny Valley which some of the better puppets can reach; either way, it has served as a source of comedy for a long time now. Of course, being the age that we live in, they have also been used to further the tradition of taking all that is child-friendly and twisting them until the heads of their souls drop off. Whether it’s the transgressive humour of Meet The Feebles, the bitingly relatable musical Avenue Q or the numerous YouTube accounts that have made use of how relatively cheap it can be to make puppets, the more adult audiences have been able to enjoy this phena-mahna (da-doo-da-doodoo) as well. Time for our first dive into the realm of all things fuzzy on this blog, as we take another look at the filmography of Bill Zebub and, at least in my case, hope for something a bit better than last time. This is Nightmare On Elmo’s Street.

The plot: Erin (Erin Brown) has a crush on her roommate Lydia (Lydia Lael), but she is currently dating a puppet. While Erin tries to find a way to get Lydia for herself, Barbara (Bil Zebub), a puppet in human form, is subjected to the prejudices that the puppet minority are subjected to. At least, I think that’s what’s going on.

It’s so good to know that Zebub’s directorial trends are still in full force here(!) We still have painfully slow sex scenes, although here I can only assume that they are non-consensual because regardless of context, the actresses look seriously uncomfortable. Then again, they are having sex with children’s toys, and I’m not expecting everyone to handle the possibility as well as Kimberly Kane when she was in Katy Pervy. However, points given for at least having enough of a plot, or script in general, to not just be about the awkwardly shot sex scenes. Instead, Zebub branches out to film even more scenes as jarringly as possible. Outside of his narrative films, Zebub is probably best known for his heavy metal documentaries, and a lot of the scenes here feel like unused insert shots from metal music videos. When the camera isn’t leering directly at the female cast members in skimpy lingerie, as woman are want to do when they are home alone, it’s randomly showing footage of cats on set just walking around. If this was a YouTube exclusive, at least the cat inserts would make a little bit of sense; here, it just feels out-of-place and meant to pad out this already 2 hour long film. All I can really assume from all this is that Zebub originally wanted to film a Cookie Mongoloid music video, but they weren’t interested and he had to use that footage elsewhere; hence, whatever the hell this is.

Speaking of padding, it is here that I am actively starting to miss Loving A Vegetable in terms of writing. As drawn out as it was, it at least had a reasonable progression to it: Man talks to victim, man rapes victim, repeat three more times, end credits. Here, the film keeps jumping around between what’s happening to Erin and Barbara, without any logical progression between what happens to either of them. Far as I can tell, this film seems to exist solely to bring up semi-reasonable set-ups for “thought-provoking” conversations. Either that, or extremely lame jokes, like having a Cookie Monster stand-in called Kake Monster that eats shit or the painfully forced puns like when puppet Jesus (yes, there’s a puppet Jesus) who gets crucified and says “This is embarrass-king. I’m the embarrass-king of the Jews.” I can’t even process what kind of person it takes to actively write that for whatever reason, whether the person saying it is meant to be stupid or not.

As for the commentary Zebub wants to make, it’s of the “Why are you people so stupid?” brand of religious questioning. This time around though, I will admit that it does bring up a couple of decent points, like how some Christians will protest horror movies being released but be perfectly fine with showing pre-schoolers an effigy of a man being crucified and bled to death. There’s also some statements made about how those who are overly PC, like the needlessly demanding feminists who want everyone to refrain from ‘masculine’ turns of phrase like collectively calling people “dudes”. However, with all this in mind, I’m not entirely sure if I was intended to agree with either Erin or Barbara. Erin talks about certain notions about sexuality, but also aggressively Internet feminist attitudes; Barbara brings up some points about religion, but also how homosexuality is a mental illness. Given the opinions I’ve picked up from Zebub’s other films, and the fact that he is playing Barbara in this film, I’m not sure if whose side the film is on. It’s a Catch-22 regardless: If it agrees with Erin, then it’s casually sexist; if it agrees with Barbara, then it’s casually homophobic. I’d be fine if it was clear that we weren’t meant to agree entirely with any one character, but since this is the film where the acting is so stiff that the puppets are more realistic than the humans, I’m guessing that nuance isn’t exactly in the cards for this kind of production. Zebub isn’t the kind of director to be subtle, after all. Then there’s the what-I-think-are attempts at parallel, with the puppets being the minorities of the film’s world. Honestly, it feels about as tacked on as these last two sentences detailing that these scenes exist.

All in all, this is definitely a shift away from the uncomfortable-in-several-ways production of Loving A Vegetable, as this film is at least trying for some kind of plot. However, through the still-painfully slow scene progression, the shameless female nudity for no real reason and the preaching to the Atheist choir dialogue, this still isn’t much to write home about either. More than anything else, though, it’s just largely incomprehensible and boring; as batshit as Dolla Morte was, that film had the common decency to be engaging in its insanity. This is literally just porn without the actual porn: Same hokey acting, same blatant nudity, same bare-bones of a script, same scenes that go on for way longer than they need to. The key difference here being that the only conceivable person who could get off to is Zack Snyder, and that’s only because of how much this film abuses its slow-mo shots. Unless you have a thing for re-editing films into music videos and could possibly have a use for a glorified showreel for materials, I’d just recommend getting Dolla Morte instead. It’s worse than The Green Inferno as, even with how much I detest that film, it had a lot more effort put into it than this regardless of budget. However, since this is just confusing and not much else, it didn’t annoy me nearly as much as Unfinished Business.

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