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Tucker & Dale vs. Evil

Rednecks get a bad rap in horror films. If they’re central to the story, it’s inevitable they will be the killers or, in a more supernatural type of movie, lure unsuspecting teens to the lair of some unthinkable creature. They’re never the heroes. They’re never the normal ones. They exist as archetypes for lazy screenwriters who can’t come up with a more interesting villain, but not in Tucker & Dale vs. Evil, the debut film from writer-director Eli Craig. What begins as your typical killer hillbilly movie evolves into something much greater that turns the rules of the genre on its head. Its single joke premise may grow tired by the end of its short 88 minute runtime, but it’s creative, intelligent and fun and, despite its problems, turns out to be one of the most purely enjoyable movies of the year.

Tucker (Alan Tudyk) and Dale (Tyler Labine) are best friends. They live in West Virginia and don’t have much money, so the fact that they’re able to buy a cabin in the Appalachian Mountains, secluded from the rest of society, is something special. It’s run-down and probably wouldn’t look like much to other people, but to them it’s a vacation home. So they go there to relax and fix the place up while, by pure coincidence, a group of college kids are taking a camping trip close by. While fishing one night, they watch as Allison (Katrina Bowden) accidentally knocks herself unconscious. Without hesitation, Tucker and Dale save her, only for her friends to misinterpret the situation and think she has been kidnapped. As they attempt to “rescue” her, they begin to accidentally kill themselves, causing the remaining kids to conclude that Tucker and Dale are offing them one by one.

Tucker & Dale vs. Evil is, in its own special way, similar to films like Scream and Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon in that it plays with expectations. It takes familiar horror plot elements and clichés and deconstructs them to create something unique. Despite their names in the title, we don’t begin the film with Tucker and Dale. We are instead trapped in that car with the kids who are venturing through hillbilly country. At one point, Tucker and Dale pass by them in their truck and stare at them ominously. Further up the road, they stop at an old shop to pick up some supplies where, naturally, Tucker and Dale have also stopped. Later in this scene is where the movie makes the transition between perspectives. We find that the two friends were only staring because they were surprised to see such highbrow college kids in their neck of the woods. When Dale walks up to talk to Allison, he stumbles over his words and laughs awkwardly, in a way one would expect of horror movie hillbillies, but it’s only because he’s nervous and not good at talking to girls.

The film cleverly uses the typical behavior of what would expect from such characters, but then goes on to explain why they act the way they do. They’re not out to kill—as Dale later confesses, he doesn’t even like to fish because he doesn’t like harming the poor creatures—events just happen to play out in a way that makes them look like psycho murderers. In one hilarious bit, Tucker runs at the kids with a chainsaw, screaming and swinging it wildly. What they don’t know is he just accidentally cut into a beehive and he’s only running to avoid getting stung. Through moments like these, the film finds its fun. Anyone familiar with the tropes of the horror genre will undoubtedly find something to enjoy.

Tucker & Dale vs. Evil sets out to spoof and pay homage to the redneck killers subgenre, recalling films like Friday the 13th, Wrong Turn and the Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake (the latter of which this film’s opening is ripped from) and in that regard, it’s a rousing success, and it works because of its two talented, funny and underappreciated stars. Alan Tudyk is immensely likable and it’s amazing he hasn’t found more fame after starring in the terrific sci-fi show, Firefly, and knocking the role of Simon out of the park in the original Death at a Funeral. Tyler Labine, similarly, is a goofball and plays stupid well. He also starred in a great short lived TV show, Reaper, and should be getting more love than he is. However, it’s that lack of appreciation that allows them to star in movies like this and their pairing up is brilliant. They work so well together and their rapport is so funny, it feels like they’ve been long time best friends in real life.

Although a sequel is probably too much to ask, Tucker & Dale vs. Evil is destined to go down as a cult classic. Those who actually watch it will fall in love with the characters and laugh at the crazy things they do, like sterilize their wounds with a can of beer. The first half is better than the last half where it loses its cleverness and becomes a generic battle of good vs. evil complete with dastardly villain clichés that are just that: clichés. The parody disappears and the ingenuity along with it, but it’s a lot of fun up to that point, more than enough to make it worth watching.

Tucker & Dale vs. Evil receives 3.5/5


Transformers: Dark of the Moon

Aside from the horribly inept, yet inexplicably popular, 1999 action movie, The Boondock Saints, Michael Bay’s first Transformers film is hands down the most overrated “guy” picture out there. If my experiences are any indication, men from all corners of the country hold that film up as an example of how action films should be, and for the life of me I cannot figure out why. It’s loud, overblown, overlong and convoluted, among other things. It may not match the abomination that is Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (which made my worst of the year list back in 2009), but it’s still a decidedly bad movie. It appears the third time’s the charm, however, for director Michael Bay. Transformers: Dark of the Moon is easily the best film yet in the series and although it’s far from amazing, it rectifies many of the previous films’ shortcomings, making it one of the most pleasant, if ultimately unfulfilling, surprises of the year.

The film begins with a history lesson, but it’s a little different than what you learned in school. After being informed by American scientists that something of mysterious origins has crash landed on the moon, President Kennedy gives his famous 1961 speech promising to take a man to the moon and back safely. The catch is that the mission is to investigate the crash site, where Buzz Aldrin and company find an alien spacecraft from the planet Cybertron, the home planet of the Transformers, carrying cargo of unknown capabilities. Meanwhile, in present time, Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) is living in Washington, DC with his new girlfriend, Carly (Victoria’s Secret supermodel, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley), and can’t find a job, despite saving the world twice and receiving a medal from President Obama. He soon finds out that his unemployment is the least of his problems, though, when the Decepticons find the cargo on the moon and threaten to use it to destroy Earth.

Based on that plot synopsis, it would be easy to conclude that the story here is just as inconsequential as they were in the previous two films, but that’s not necessarily the case. It’s still rather ridiculous (as is the whole concept of alien robots from outer space, in fact), but it works here for one reason: Bay takes the time to develop it. For about an hour and a half, Dark of the Moon does a decent job of building its characters and allowing the story to flow naturally through dialogue. The romance between Sam and Carly, mercifully replacing the Megan Fox character from the first two films, is delicately handled and genuine. Huntington-Whiteley is a beautiful young woman with a surprising amount charm and comes off like a natural acting opposite the always amusing LaBeouf. Thanks to this, their chemistry rings true, which makes the later scenes of peril that much more tense because you’ll have invested so much in their relationship together.

There is some good humor too, much of which stems from their relationship and Sam’s jealousy towards Carly’s flirtatious boss, Dylan (Patrick Dempsey), but Transformers: Dark of the Moon is nevertheless a darker film than its predecessors. I hesitate to call it a more mature film, however, because cinematic maturity comes with favoring story over explosions, but after that initial hour and a half, it devolves into another mind-numbing action picture. Like most Michael Bay movies, it begins to resemble something similar to what a 13 year old boy would do if given a camera and $200 million to play with. The story hits a standstill, the characters stop developing and the promising set-up is undermined by flavorless stupidity. It’s like Bay shot the movie in order, eventually got bored with all the talking and decided it was about time to blow stuff up. One of my chief criticisms of the original film was that the final action scene, as impressive as it was, went on for far too long, an exhausting 45 minutes. Well, in Dark of the Moon, the final action scene hits closer to the hour mark. Bay is a master at staging these types of scenes, there’s little doubt about that, but he needs someone to tell him when enough is enough. His refusal to edit them down to a manageable length does nothing but weaken an otherwise impressive finale.

What makes Transformers: Dark of the Moon still work in spite of those stumbles is that the events leading up to the mindless action are better handled. Although it still suffers from some of the same problems that plagued the previous films, many of them are fixed. There are no more offensive, stereotypical Transformers, no wrecking ball testicles, no small robots humping anyone’s legs and the acting is all around better thanks to a terrific supporting cast that includes veteran Frances McDormand, the personable Alan Tudyk and John Malkovich in a delightfully off-kilter role.

Of course, Transformers: Dark of the Moon is just as shallow and empty-headed as its older brothers, but it’s competently handled and more coherent. And given the track record of this franchise, that’s about as good as it’s going to get.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon receives 3/5


Beautiful Boy

One of the beautiful things about cinema is that it forces us to experience events most of us would never have experienced otherwise. It pushes us into uncomfortable situations and, for a short time, allows us to live vicariously through the characters onscreen and view the world as they do, even if their world has been shaken to its core. The intense new drama, Beautiful Boy, is the latest film to give us such an opportunity. It’s not a pleasant movie and it certainly isn’t the way most moviegoers are going to want to spend their time in the theater this summer, but to pass it by would be a mistake. It’s not a perfect film, but it’s timely and relevant and is anchored by two incredibly potent performances from its leads.

For those familiar with tragedies like the Columbine and Virginia Tech shootings, this story is going to sound quite familiar. It follows Bill (Michael Sheen) and Kate (Maria Bello), a married couple in the midst of a separation, as they cope with the fact that their son, Sammy (Kyle Gallner), shot up his university before taking his own life. A media storm ensues as Bill and Kate take refuge with Kate’s brother, Eric (Alan Tudyk), and his wife and child.

I don’t know what it’s like to have something like this happen—few do—but I have to imagine the experience would be something like how it is presented in Beautiful Boy. It may add some plot points for increased dramatic effect (like the aforementioned separation) that may not be indicative of what other parents with stronger relationships have gone through, but it nevertheless feels like Beautiful Boy nails it. As Bill and Kate learn about what happened, they go through all kinds of different feelings: sadness, anger, confusion and, of course, guilt. They begin to place their son’s actions on themselves, wondering what they could have done differently that would have prevented it from happening.

After some time, they do whatever they can to get their minds off it—Kate cleans incessantly and fixes appliances that don’t necessarily need fixing while Bill tries to convince his boss he’s ready to come back to work—but nothing really works. Every time they try to move on, they keep slipping backwards. Though assumedly true to life (moving on from such a tragedy would certainly not be easy), the film still finds itself going in one giant redundant circle because of this. The chain reaction always begins with a willingness to move on before ending on an emotional breakdown after a sequence of similar events in between. However, those emotional breakdowns are powerful and do more than enough to make up for the fact that you’re more or less seeing the same thing happen again and again.

The message in Beautiful Boy comes off as surprisingly unclear, but that could be because the film doesn’t really have one. You could say it argues the importance of love and understanding, or even the all important foundation of family, but if that’s the case, the film is reaching in extreme directions. Most kids will not grow up to do something like this, regardless of how neglectful their parents were. If anything, the film begs parents to listen to their children. In a wonderful early scene, the night before Sammy commits his vile deed, he calls his parents in what seems like one last attempt to reach out to them, but neither senses anything wrong with him, even though there clearly is. Before long, Bill tells his son he’s going to get some sleep and hangs up the phone, only to pick up the newspaper and start reading. He later says, when being questioned by the police, his son sounded “completely normal,” but he really has no idea. He heard him, but he didn’t listen.

Beautiful Boy sounds heavy handed, but it’s not. With two less capable actors onscreen, it could have gone in that direction, but Bello and Sheen are terrific and its because of their raw emotion that the film is able to adequately tackle this difficult subject matter. They and their up-to-the-challenge co-stars show the devastation an event like this causes not just to those directly involved, but also to those around them. While many are quick to point the finger at the parents of a killer, Beautiful Boy shows that the parents are victims too. And that’s a brave stance to take.

Beautiful Boy receives 3.5/5