xXx: Return of Xander Cage (2017)

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three star

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Grab your cargo shorts and flash art tattoos, folks. Nu metal cinema is back in a big, dumb way. Vin Diesel has briefly stepped away from his long-time role as a Corona-swilling patriarch in the Fast & Furious franchise to resurrect his other embarrassingly dated late 90s action vehicle, xXx. Diesel selflessly returns to his role as Xander Cage, “the rebel the world doesn’t know it needs,” to save the human race with such heroic acts as collecting high-fives while skateboarding downhill, gliding across jungle dirt on snow skis, and bravely bedding entire rooms full of Nameless Babes so that he can turn to the camera and mumble, “The things I do for my country,” like a pilled-out Bugs Bunny. xXx: Return of Xander Cage may not feature a Rammstein concert like its first installment or Family Values Tour ’98 vet Ice Cube like its second, but it is comfortably seated in that same X-treme Attitude nu metal cradle. It’s as if the film acknowledges its status as a far-too-late action sequel by dialing the culture clock all the way back to the early 2000s to accommodate its own wallet chain macho inanity. The results are oddly endearing, even if persistently ugly. Its soundtrack may have been swapped out for dubstep, but Return of Xander Cage still shines as a small scale nu metal miracle, an abrasive rap rock nightmare preserved in the foulest amber.

Does it matter exactly why Xander Cage returned to the international spy game? Actual-talent Toni Collette chews scenery as a menacing G-man/humanoid IKEA monkey who drags Cage back into action by informing him that his former mentor (played by Samuel L. Jackson, naturally) has been murdered via espionage technology that can strategically down orbiting satellites. Cage reluctantly agrees to retrieve this nefarious device, but refuses to do so with the team of untrustworthy supersoldiers Collette’s Evil Bitch government stooge assembles for him. When Cage grills the G.I. Joes about their experiences with X-Treme sports like base-jumping & snowboarding, they retort “We’re soldiers, not slackers.” Wrong response. He nukes the team in what plays like a sincere version of a MacGruber spoof, but decides to forego his past life as a lone wolf, instead borrowing some of his Daddy Dom character’s obsession with “family” in the Fast & Furious franchise to build his own X-treme, rag tag crew of crazed stunt men, EDM DJs, computer geek Millennials, and lesbian snipers. Everything that follows is a loud, dumb blur of shoot-em-up action cinema inanity, with occasional touches like dirt bike/jet ski hybrids and Godsmack-reminiscent nipple tats distinguishing it from any other borderline competent example of its genre. They get the device. They save the day. They put the government in its place and walk away with their collective rebel status intact. There’s even a ludicrous last minute cameo that makes the whole thing feel like a real movie instead of a hazy, bullet-ridden nu metal daydream. It’s all in good fun.

As much as Return of Xander Cage likes to pretend that its team-building exercise is actually important to the plot, the movie is still largely just a loving prayer at the altar of Xander Cage (and, by extension, Vin Diesel himself). It’s right there in the title. No one else truly matters. Entire villages cheer his presence. Little kids look up to him in awe. He delivers every one-liner with a JCVD-style lethargic drawl, as if he’s so pleasantly relaxed in the role that he’s half asleep. When someone hands him a bomb he mumbles, “Oh boy, here we go again,” rising to twirl in a lazy circle while firing a machine gun, yawning, and literally checking his watch. His entire crew is qualified to save the day, but they’re asked to hang back as his cover. Everyone is visibly horny, but only Xander Cage gets to fuck. It’s super cool and totally worth mentioning that this dumb, spiritually-backwards action film has a mostly POC cast (including an over-qualified Donnie Yen among its ranks) and the only scene dominated by white male faces involves an evil boardroom of business pricks threatening to tear the world down. It’s just also funny that the diversity in the crew is mostly for naught, as they’re ultimately no more significant than any one of Xander Cage’s many Tough Guy clip art tattoos.

It may sound like I’m being a little tough on Return of Xander Cage, but it’s a tough customer; it can take the pressure. This is actually a pretty fun version of what it is: mindless shoot-em-up action cinema with a fetish for X-Games style stunts. It’s just impossible not to poke fun at every leering shot of tight leather mini-skirts, every dumb objective like “Get there fast and take this guy down,” and every stupid one-liner like “It’s like finding a needle in a stack of needles.” At this point in modern taste & decency, X-treme action cinema has no comfortable, legitimate home and the xXx franchise addresses that concern by bullheadedly avoiding giving a shit about taste or decency. It’s a nu metal hangover stuck so far out of time that it had to abandon its angst rock roots for an EDM soundtrack that’s also hopelessly outdated, just by a narrower margin. It’s in this overgrown bro cultural faux pas that Return of Xander Cage emerges as cute & oddly quaint in its ironically mild brand of “X-treme” entertainments.

-Brandon Ledet

Mary and Max (2009)

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fivestar

The 2009 stop motion animation indie drama Mary and Max is somewhat of a strange case. It’s ranked among the highest-rated titles of all time on IMDb, but it’s not a particularly well-known film. That disparity is readily recognizable in the film’s box office numbers, which posits it as a financial flop that only managed to earn back $1.7 million of its $8.2 million budget, despite near-universal critical acclaim. Perhaps the divide between its critical & financial accomplishments is a question of tone. The sole feature film credit of stop motion animator Adam Elliot, Mary and Max adopts the visual format & storybook narration of a children’s film, but it’s, at heart, an emotionally merciless drama that touches upon, among other things: mental illness, alcoholism, unwanted pregnancy, atheism, war crimes, repressed homosexuality, obesity, and the endless cycle of poverty. It’s likely that the film didn’t do particularly well at the box office because it’s difficult to market an animated feature about heartbreaking loneliness, depression, despair, and the search for human connection among the disenfranchised. I’m getting choked up right now just mulling over the film’s themes, so easy to see why it might’ve been a difficult sell as a comedy (however black) & a fun night at the movies. All that being said, Mary and Max is a masterful work in the stop motion medium, easily one of the best examples of the format I’ve ever seen. It’s a shame it couldn’t have turned that achievement into financial success, though, or we might’ve had a few more Adam Elliot features in the six years since its release.

Detailing the strictly-epistolary friendship between two total strangers, a young Australian girl & a middle aged man in New York City, Mary and Max relies heavily on storybook-style narration to move its story along between its back & forth letter reading. This narrative structure doesn’t allow much room for complicated plot maneuvering or a fast-paced momentum. Mary and Max, as its title suggests, is more of a two-handed character study than a whirlwind of action & consequence. Mary is a young girl with an alcoholic mother & an emotionally reclusive father. Initially described as looking like mud & poo, Mary is somewhat of an outcast, self-conscious of her appearance, bored, and alone. Max is a lonely, atheist man of Jewish descent who has difficulty navigating the modern world due to his struggles with Asperger’s Syndrome. It seems at first like they might have very little in common besides the drab greys & browns that define their respective worlds & their shared love of a children’s show called The Noblets. As their friendship deepens & is challenged by decades of hard-fought battles with mental illness & life at large, though, a remarkably rewarding swell of emotion begins to elevate the film miles above the basic precociousness & impressive handmade craft stop motion automatically commands as a medium.

For a film loaded with fart jokes & gags involving bird anuses, Mary and Max is a remarkable achievement in emotional provocation. Toni Collette (who I’ve recently been binge-watching in United States of Tara) does an excellent job voicing the adult Mary & Phillip Seymour Hoffman (who, of course, everyone has been inadvertently binge-watching in quality work for the last two decades & mourning in more recent years) is even more of a treasure as the deeply-complicated Max, although neither personality is especially essential to the film’s charm. The real crux to Mary & Max‘s perfection as a small stakes drama/black comedy is in director Adam Elliot’s nuanced characterization of his titular leads & in the finely detailed visual world he made by hand (with help, I’m sure) in a painstakingly meticulous method/dying art. I like to imagine a world where Mary and Max was a wild financial success that allowed Elliot to immediately produce a long string of other feature films, the same way the success of Coraline, released the same year, launched Laika Studios. As is, I’m happy that this pitch black gem was ever produced in the first place. It’s not often that an animated feature about the importance of “real friendship” is this well constructed & this reluctant to play by the rules of its medium/genre. Just writing about the film’s emotional severity is making me tear up in the retrospection, which is a clear sign that Elliot got something significantly right here, even if that something was a difficult commodity to monetize.

Side Note: You can go ahead & include Mary and Max as yet another indication that no place in time has ever loved ABBA quite as much as 1970s Australia. The ABBA poster in Mary’s bedroom feels more significant than a mere callback to Toni Collette’s starring role in Muriel’s Wedding. It’s part of a larger Australia Loves ABBA narrative that I swear is A Thing. It makes more sense every day that ABBA: The Movie was set in Australia. It’s the band’s home away from Sweden.

-Brandon Ledet

Krampus (2015)

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fourhalfstar

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When I first became aware of Michael Dougherty’s Krampus, I was ecstatic because I absolutely love Christmas horror films (Silent Night, Deadly Night, Gremlins, Santa’s Slay, etc.). What’s not to love about a film based on what is essentially the opposite of Santa? A demon that goes around punishing little brats that misbehave sounds like a good time to me. I got even more excited when I found out that Toni Collette, my all-time favorite actress, was playing a lead role in the film. This was a movie made for me, so needless to say, I had pretty high expectations. Thankfully, Krampus did not disappoint.

Other than it being a horror film about a murderous Christmas beast, one of the weirdest things about Krampus is that it made it to the big screen. Most Christmas horror movies go straight to DVD. I can’t even remember the last time a Christmas horror film was in theaters. It may have been the 2006 remake of Black Christmas, but I’m not quite sure. Anyway, it’s always a good sign when a campy movie makes it to theaters. Krampus brought in over $16,000,000 on its opening weekend, which is pretty impressive considering its campy reputation. Bad taste is alive and well!

The film begins with a hilarious but disturbingly truthful Black Friday scene that will give you all the feels. Bing Crosby’s “It’s Beginning to Look A Lot Like Christmas” plays as a mob of greedy customers wreak havoc on a retail store. The audience in the movie theater gave out a few good laughs for this part, but a good bit of the crowd had on their “ain’t it the truth” face. Among the people in the retail store are the film’s main characters: husband/wife duo Tom (Adam Scott) and Sara (Toni Collette) and their 10-year-old son, Max (Emjay Anthony).

Max is old enough to know that Santa is not real, but there’s a part of him that just can’t give up on believing in Santa. It’s as though his belief in Santa represents his want to have a normal, enjoyable holiday with his family. Max’s German grandmother (Krista Stadler) is very supportive of his belief, and she encourages him to write a letter to Santa. He eventually becomes upset and rips up his Santa letter, throwing the pieces out of his bedroom window. By doing this, he unintentionally summons Krampus, but Krampus does not arrive to Max’s home alone. He brings a couple of demonic toys, gingerbread men, and elves with him, and they do most of the dirty work. And by “dirty work,” I mean that they execute most of the murders. The evil elves and possessed toys were actually pretty frightening, but the demonic gingerbread men were totally unnecessary. Actually, I can honestly say that they were the only reason I didn’t give this movie five stars. They were terrible! And not even in the good way.

Something that I noticed in Krampus was the abundance of tongue action. One of the demonic toys, which is an angel doll, uses its tongue while it attacks Sarah. This really gross, super thin tongue comes out of this creepy toy’s mouth, and it’s absolutely terrifying. Also, Krampus has a weird tongue thing going on as well. When he comes face to face with Max, he has a tongue very similar to the angel doll, and he licks the poor kid’s face. While all this was going on, I couldn’t help but think of Beth Grant tonguing that mannequin in September’s Movie of the Month, The Boyfriend School.

Krampus is definitely going into my traditional Christmas watchlist, along with Home Alone, A Christmas Story, and Miracle on 34th Street. It’s got the perfect balance of comedy and horror. There are times where you’ll be crying from laughter, but there will be times that you’ll come close to peeing your pants from fear.

-Britnee Lombas