Knights of Badassdom

I’m going to go ahead and make the presumption that a large portion of the audience isn’t going to have a clue as to what “LARPing” is. You are not the audience for this movie. That’s especially true if, once I describe to you what it is, you think the concept sounds silly, stupid, or s…ridiculous. LARPing stands for “live action roleplaying,” which typically involves people dressing up in full costume and going into a forest to fight either other LARPers or imaginary creatures. It’s like if you were playing Dungeons & Dragons, but instead of rolling dice you’re actually acting out your character’s actions.

This is a real thing, and is apparently not altogether an unpopular activity — at least, among its participants. The film takes place primarily in the middle of one of those LARP sessions. It does not mock the activity. It is a sincere film. It has some funny moments for anyone, but a lot of the jokes will only really work if you have the same affection for LARPing that it does. This is why I opened the way I did. You have to either be in, or have some sort of love for, this particular culture if you’re going to enjoy this film. It’s a very niche property, which is likely one of the reasons it spent years in “post-production.”

Joe (Ryan Kwanten) has recently ended a relationship with his girlfriend (Margarita Levieva), because she claimed that he’s never going anywhere in life. He lives with his best friends, Eric (Steve Zahn) and Hung (Peter Dinklage), in a million-dollar mansion, as one of them comes from money and doesn’t have to work. I can’t remember which one it was.

In order to cheer Joe up, Eric and Hung decide to drug him and take him to one of their LARP sessions. He’s reluctant, but given that he only wakes up after they’re pretty much there, he doesn’t have much choice. The guys have a book one of them bought off eBay, but as it turns out, it’s a real magic book. A spell is cast, and now there’s a real demon wandering around the forest. Have fun.

That’s the setup and basically the entire movie. There is a lot of death — nobody is safe, which I found surprising — and eventually the heroes, who are joined by Summer Glau, have to try to defeat a demon who has been unleashed from Hell. The LARP session has become real. This is a clever premise and essentially acts as justification for the activity as well as presenting it in the best light possible. To my knowledge there hasn’t been a film about LARPing that has been released in theaters — although I’m sure there are fan films out there — and this might actually get some people interested in it. Before the supernatural elements, it seemed very authentic to how these things work.

Knights of Badassdom is not particularly funny, action-packed, dramatic, or anything, really. It’s moderately clever and up to a point feels realistic, but that’s about it. I’m indifferent to LARPing, so I wasn’t going to find it that funny. Most people, I can only assume, are going to be in a similar position. I’ve heard it’s one of those “… until you try it” activities. And most people won’t have tried it.

But even outside of that, there isn’t a lot to hold interest. There’s far more walking around the forest, talking about things that aren’t of much interest, than there are action scenes. What action we do get looks so low-budget that you sometimes wonder if this is just a fan film. The practical effects are far better than the computer-aided ones. The goofy, man-in-a-suit, monster at the end at least has the benefit of being there.

The screenplay gives us a lot of character exposition at the start and then nothing much for the rest. The result is a film that starts slow and then never has its characters grow. The whole point is so that Joe can move on from the girl who dumped him — the demon takes the form of his ex for a long stretch — but that barely even comes up. Knights of Badassdom works as a LARP endorsement but not so much as a feature film. It’s so lacking in everything that a film like this needs. By this logic I proclaim that it’s destined to become a cult classic.

This is a movie that wouldn’t work at all if its leads didn’t buy in wholeheartedly. Thankfully, they do. Ryan Kwanten, Steve Zahn, Peter Dinklage, and Summer Glau all seem to have a genuine love of LARPing — whether they do or not, they give that appearance; that’s why it’s called “acting” — and the whole production would become a joke if they didn’t. That’s as deep as the performances go but it’s important that they seem like they care.

If you are a LARPer, or have been looking into the activity, Knights of Badassdom might just resonate enough with you to be worth a watch. You’ll be able to overlook its predictability, lack of jokes, poor action, terrible special effects, and non-existent characters. If you’re indifferent or opposed to LARPing, the film will be a dull slog. Given that there’s nothing else about the activity, I’m sure it will find its audience. That audience will be very niche and I can’t say I’m among them. It’s has too many problems that I couldn’t ignore.


The Frozen Ground

Based on a true story — and actually feeling real, which is often not the case — The Frozen Ground is a film detailing a trio of interconnecting stories which give us a character on each side of the story. The film is about Robert Hansen (John Cusack), a serial killer who kidnapped, raped, killed, and buried around 20 young women over the course of several years. We follow him for part of this film. We primarily watch a detective, Jack Halcombe (Nicolas Cage), attempt to bring Hansen down. We also spend some time with a victim, Cindy Paulson (Vanessa Hudgens), who managed to escape.

The most surprising thing about this movie — apart from it not being terrible — is that it doesn’t try to be a whodunit or toy at all with who the villain is. It’s clear after the first couple of scenes that Hansen is guilty. The film is more concerned with Jack’s attempt to find enough evidence to put him away for good. This is a police procedural, a genre rarely seen in cinemas. Hansen is smart and has figured out a way to get away with his crime for years and years, so it’s going to take determination and intelligence to figure out how to prove he did it.

It winds up coming down to a race against the clock, as several factors wind up working against detective Jack. The Frozen Ground isn’t the most thrilling film — particularly because it’s too formulaic in many aspects to generate much suspense — but it has low ambitions and does match them. This could have been a terrible slog, but it’s not painful to watch at all. In fact, with a quick pace and some good performances, it might just be worth checking out.

The one thing I will say is that there is no reason for this to be a movie, except that a show like CSI wouldn’t go back in time to the 1980s to tackle a real-world case. This case could easily fit in a 60-minute television show, and apart from profanity and a scene set in a strip club, this material would be perfectly at home on a television screen. What I’m getting at is that it feels too small to be a feature film. It’s not a bad watch but it didn’t feel different from the countless detective shows on TV.

What makes it different and worth seeing, I suppose, are the background moments. Watching, for example, Jack attempt to gain Cindy’s trust, especially after all of the other police officers disregarded her claim after learning that she’s a prostitute — “How can a prostitute be raped, anyway?” — is good cinema. Her vulnerability coupled with his urgency and compassion makes for many good scenes.

You will struggle to overlook the clichés. Jack is close to moving and this is his last case. He has a wife (Radha Mitchell) who thinks he works too hard, and he should drop the case, but then she turns around at a crucial moment. Higher-ups dislike Jack re-opening cases that had been closed for a long time. One woman at the strip club takes in Cindy because “stripper with a heart of gold” is too juicy to pass up, I suppose. The entire story is predictable. You’ll notice these while the film is playing and they reduce its credibility and attempt at suspense.

Surprisingly, though, it all feels as if this is how it could have happened. The small town in which the film is set feels authentic, the scenery is used to great effect, and the actors all turn in strong performances. About the only thing that doesn’t factor in is the time period. The film is set in the early 1980s but I forgot about that a few minutes in. It could easily be taking place in 2013 and not much would have changed. About the only thing keeping it in the ’80s is the fact that it’s based on a true story.

Nicolas Cage. Just saying his name promotes a wonderful response from almost anyone — even those who aren’t big film fans. We forget how grounded and real an actor he can be. He demonstrates that in The Frozen Ground. He is our anchor. John Cusack is creepy as the villain. As the teenage prostitute, Vanessa Hudgens turns in her best performance to-date. Even those with bit parts, like Jodi Lyn O’Keefe, Radha Mitchell and … actually, those are about the only names you’ll recognize. 50 Cent is in the movie but is too ridiculous to take seriously.

The Frozen Ground is a decent police procedural and does a decent, if formulaic, job of bringing this real-life story to cinema screens. It’s not terribly thrilling, but it has a strong sense of itself and where it’s set, and it contains strong performances from most of its cast. Its side stories are more engaging than its main one. It’s a middle-of-the-road movie but it doesn’t feel like it’s a waste of time to see.


Raw Review (August 25, 2014)

Spoilers follow for the August 25th episode of Raw.

Raw opens with Michael Cole standing in the ring, as he’s introducing the first-ever “Hall of Fame Forum.” Hulk Hogan is brought down to the ring, brother. Then Ric Flair. Woo! And finally Shawn Michaels. They’re going to talk about John Cena and Brock Lesnar. HBK insinuates that, perhaps, it’s time for John Cena to retire. Hulk Hogan, brother, suggests that, brother, John Cena can still go, brother. None of them seem to think that Cena will have a chance at Night of Champions. Okay, maybe Hogan, brother. He’s at least rooting for Cena. They bicker for a little while before Cena comes out, completely no-selling his beatdown. He looks fine.

Cena says that after 16 German suplexes, he is a changed man. Because … he wants to fight Lesnar again. Okay? That’s no different from his usual “Hustle, loyalty, respect” thing. He says he will beat Lesnar at Night of Champions. Sure you will, John. Sure you will.

Rusev (with Lana) vs. Jack Swagger

The match is boring — at least in the beginning. Swagger dominates for most of it, and Rusev takes a few hits before escaping from the ring. Rusev hasn’t looked this week during his time on the main roster. I mean, even when he starts a two-move comeback win, he never looked to be scared of his opponent. This happens during the early portion of this match. Right before the mid-match commercial break, he starts to get momentum back. Swagger eventually gets to hit more offense and just continues to make Rusev look weak. We almost see Rusev tap — he certainly teases it — and Rusev’s selling of his ankle pain is just great. Outside of Dean Ambrose, he might be the best seller on the roster.

A couple of near-falls keep this match working well in its second half. Rusev eventually begins to dominate like the monster heel that he is. The match ends after the referee stopped the match as Rusev continued to beat down on Swagger. A lame ending but a pretty solid match after its initial slowness.

Match Rating: ***

Backstage, after the commercial break, we’re shown Jack Swagger nursing his injured ribs. Bo Dallas tells him he let down his country and he should bolieve.

United States Championship Number 1 Contender’s Match: Cesaro vs. Rob Van Dam

Sheamus is on commentary. Kayfabe-wise, Rob Van Dam should win this match. He picked up a clean victory over Cesaro at SummerSlam, and there hasn’t been any reason for Cesaro to have improved since then. It’s not like RVD is selling the beatdown that Randy Orton gave him last week.

But that’s what happens. Cesaro dominates the match, RVD gets a couple of moves in, and then Cesaro rolls out of the way of the Five-Star Frog Splash, gets a semi-cheap shot in, and hits The Neutralizer for the win.

Match Rating: **1/2

Cesaro takes Sheamus’ title after the match, playing mind-games. Hey, remember when Sheamus and The Miz were feuding? Yeah. We’re doing this now.

Natalya vs. Paige

Third time’s the charm, right? Well, kind of. While still not the greatest of matches — it was too slow to be a great one — this was the bets of the three bouts that the two Divas have had, simply because it was given a proper finish and a decent amount of time. Paige winds up winning with the Paige Turner.

Match Rating: **

AJ Lee’s music hits after the match, and Natalya hits her clothesline on Paige afterward. AJ heads into the ring to help up Paige, smiling as she does. She grabs a mic. She claims that she’s incredibly sincere, drops the mic, and then slowly walks toward Paige. AJ hugs Paige “sincerely.” Paige eventually pushes AJ off, gently, and AJ offers a handshake. Paige refuses, and AJ grabs Paige’s hand and kisses it, royally. AJ then skips away. I don’t know where this is going but I like it.

Corporate Kane is out after the commercial break. We’re eulogizing Dean Ambrose, because eulogies are something we should make light of. Kane introduces Seth Rollins, the future of the WWE, he claims. Rollins gets to pretend he’s sad while talking about Rollins. But only kind of sad; he was pretty much the reason that Ambrose is “dead.” Rollins then starts laughing, because he’s not really sad. Rollins continues talking before Roman Reigns comes out. He’s not really making a save here, but he beats up Kane and then goes after Rollins. Good to see they didn’t forget about this. Reigns beats down Rollins with the furniture in the ring before Kane pulls Rollins out of danger.

WWE World Tag Team Championship Match: The Usos (Jimmy and Jey Uso) vs. Goldust and Stardust

Apparently the team of Stardust/Goldust is now called “Gold and Stardust,” which means they’ve either named that their team name or Goldust’s name has been officially changed to “Gold.” Or WWE is just stupid.

A brief albeit entertaining tag team match between two teams who can put on good matches. The teams have good chemistry and while we’ve seen this match before, it’s fun. The Usos wind up being counted out, causing them to lose but still retain the titles.

Match Rating: **1/2

The bigger story comes after the match. Goldust grabs a mic and claims that he wants a rematch right now, since the count out victory is stupid. And then Stardust and Goldust attack The Usos, effectively turning heel. Well, that’s something.

Kane and Rollins are backstage after the commercial break, and Rollins is pretty upset. They need to do something about Roman Reigns. Kane wants to book Rollins vs. Reigns. Rollins says it should be a handicap match. So Kane and Rollins will face Reigns later on. Cool.

We get a taped interview with Lesnar afterward. Remember: Lesnar should not get to speak.

Dolph Ziggler vs. The Miz

The Miz has a mic on the stage, and is not dressed in ring attire. He introduces his stunt double, playing the part of The Miz in this match. It’s Damien Sandow.

Match Rating: N/A

Dolph Ziggler vs. Damien Sandow (with The Miz)

The Miz is on commentary, as he often is nowadays. Sandow reminds us how good he is at playing characters and wrestling by putting on a solid performance. He still loses in quick fashion. It’s a shame that he’s talented and because of his talent he’s relegated to this role. Whatever. A Zig-Zag wins the match for Ziggler.

Match Rating: **

Jerry Lawler is in the ring next, as he’s going to try to end the dispute between the Bella Twins. They’re enemies right now, and he’s going to try to get them to settle their differences. Brie tries to get them to patch things up, but Nikki isn’t having it. She calls Brie selfish. Nikki is so much better on the mic that it’s not even close. She carries this promo. Eventually she starts assaulting Brie, after making Brie “cry” — but not really cry, because it’s Brie and Brie can’t act.

Roman Reigns vs. Kane and Seth Rollins

Reigns dominates most of the match. Like, really dominates. I don’t know if Kane and Rollins even get in a move or two of offense. Reigns gets his few moves and hits a spear on Kane. Rollins hits him with the Money in the Bank briefcase to stop the pinfall but take the DQ loss. Apparently that’s better?

Match Rating: **

They beat down on Reigns after the match, doing the same cinderblock thing from last week. But Reigns is strong and booked stronger, so he fights out and then does some more dominating. He picks up a cinderblock and tries to throw it at Rollins. Rollins ducks and it hits a ring post. Reigns then hits a Superman Punch on Kane. He really is being booked as the only one who might be able to take on Lesnar.

A Bray Wyatt promo is up next. He hypes the main event. He faces Cena in the main event tonight.

Los Matadores (Diego, Fernando, with El Torito) vs. Slater Gator (Heath Slater and Titus O’Neil)

The bathroom break segment. Los Matadores can sometimes be exciting, and Slater Gator is filled with loveable losers, but, really, there’s nothing exciting about this match. It’s dull, completely uninteresting, boring, and as pointless as me finishing this sentence. But I did finish it, because this match exists.

Los Matadores wins with a crucifix pin.

Match Rating: *1/2

Kofi Kingston vs. Bo Dallas

Wait, this is the bathroom break segment. Maybe WWE is being considerate and thinking we need a really long bathroom break. Kofi does some high-flying stuff, Dallas hits a counter and his finisher and wins. Bo-ring.

Match Rating: *1/2

Dallas grabs a mic after the match, talking more about Jack Swagger than anything else. I guess we’re building toward that feud, huh? Swagger comes out and hits Dallas with a powerslam, all while still selling the rib injury.

John Cena vs. Bray Wyatt (with Luke Harper and Erick Rowan)

Hey, you know how people like Rusev, Swagger, or Ambrose understand how to sell injuries after massive beatdowns? Yeah, John Cena doesn’t do that. He looks 100% in this match. Yes, despite suffering the beating of a lifetime.

Cena dominates this match. Complete domination, like what happened at SummerSlam to Cena by Lesnar. Cena hits German suplexes. Cena hits clotheslines. Cena hits punches. Wyatt gets like two moves in. And then Harper and Rowan interfere and make Wyatt lose by DQ. They beat down Cena, and then Big Show and Mark Henry come out to make the save.

Match Rating: *1/2

We come back from commercial break to a 6-man tag team match.

John Cena, Big Show, and Mark Henry vs. Bray Wyatt, Luke Harper, and Erick Rowan

So, in case you weren’t already bored, now you get to see Big Show, Mark Henry, and Erick Rowan. They always make matches better! Oh, wait, that’s the opposite of what I wanted to say. The only good addition is Luke Harper, but against the likes of Henry or Show, he isn’t going to get to do much.

At least it’s better than the burial Cena was holding for Wyatt, but only just. It’s boring, filled with only a couple of good moments, and for the most part exists just so Cena can stand tall after the match. He does just that. He hits an AA on each Wyatt Family member to close out the show.

Match Rating: **

The Good: Rusev vs. Swagger.

The Bad: Los Matadores vs. Slater Gator. Kingston vs. Dallas.

Match of the Night: Rusev vs. Jack Swagger.


The Place Beyond the Pines

A three-act tale about family and legacy, The Place Beyond the Pines is a fascinating, emotionally compelling and ambitious movie. To call it a “must-watch” might be overselling it, but it is one of the better films of the year and manages to justify every second of its 140-minute running time. How many films can say that? It might be a bit too ambitious and sprawling for some, but for most I feel it will be an incredibly rewarding experience.

The film’s plot is separated into three distinct acts. Yes, a lot of movies follow a three-act structure, but it’s rarely as apparent as this one; here, it’s almost as if these are three separate stories. The protagonist is different in each one, they take new directions and are even sometimes set in different years, and they’re linked only thematically and by the appearance of characters earlier on. Each one is a progression from what’s come before, which means that it’s tough to not spoil earlier events when setting up the later acts. But let’s give it a shot anyway.

The first act is about a rebel and a drifter, Luke (Ryan Gosling), who winds up in a town he was in a year earlier. He finds out that he had a child with a woman named Romina (Eva Mendes) and decides to support both her and the child. With what? He has no money. He makes friends with Robin (Ben Mendelsohn) who informs him robbing banks is easy money. You can already feel the themes of family, I suppose. That’s as much you’re getting out of me with this portion of the movie.

Second up is a tale of a police officer (Bradley Cooper) who shot and killed a criminal, while also getting injured himself. He becomes celebrated as a hero, but also winds up discovering corruption in the police force. He then sets out to solve this corruption all while trying to deal with all of the emotions that come from having killed a man who had a family that he believes parallels his own. Finally, we have the story set fifteen years later detailing the rebellion of a couple of teenagers. That’s about all I can say.

Hopefully you haven’t already figured out how a couple of the stories end. I tried to keep it as spoiler-free as possible. The ties aren’t necessarily apparent from the descriptions, or even from the first few moments into each 45-minute act. But once you view the film as a whole, I’m sure it will click. Some small reveals happen during the course of The Place Beyond the Pines, and they do feel like dramatic revelations as opposed to perfunctory and obligated, but you need to see the entire film before its point becomes completely clear.

What makes the film powerful is that it works even if you don’t want to do the work to connect the thematic dots. Each individual portion is emotionally strong and interesting in its own right. You could watch a single portion of The Place Beyond the Pines as a short film and be completely invested in what it has to offer. That it becomes an even better experience as a whole gives it more poignancy and more worth, but you could, in theory, watch each act separately and still glean more than most films have to offer.

I should mention that the first two acts are far stronger than the final one, which is based a little too much on contrivance and duller leads. The two kids just don’t have the same depth that the two adults did in the earlier acts, and there’s a secret between them which you’ll figure out before the film tells you. I mean, it all works thematically and dramatically, but finishing your film with the weakest portion doesn’t lead to a positive lingering thought in the minds of the audience.

Perhaps part of the issue — although certainly not all of it — is that Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper are far more experienced and, flatly, better actors than the less experienced pair who are supposed to carry the third act. The two younger actors are Emory Cohen and Dane DeHaan, and they’re not quite good enough to elevate their unlikable characters to a level that makes them interesting despite their distastefulness. That story rests more on concluding themes and it works better as that than as a character study, which the first two could also boast as a strength.

Apart from Gosling and Cooper, the film has a few significant members of the supporting cast. Eva Mendes might have the most screen time of everyone, and she … is better here than in anything else I’ve seen her do. Someone else could have taken the role to a great height, but Mendes didn’t mess it up and for that I am grateful. Ray Liotta, Rose Byrne, Mahershalalhashbaz Ali, and Bruce Greenwood round out the cast.

Without a doubt in my mind, I think you should watch The Place Beyond the Pines. It’s a sprawling and ambitious film that separates its three acts unlike most productions you’ll see, and while each act mostly works as an individual piece, when they come together they create something great. The film works as a thematic statement and as a character study. It contains good performances from Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper, and has a career-best turn — not that that’s saying much — from Eva Mendes. This is a film worth checking out.


If I Stay

Cliché opening: They say life can change in an instant, and for Mia Hall (Chloë Grace Moretz), life does just that. While off on a road trip on a snowy day, she and her family wind up in a car accident. She awakens seemingly unscathed, but only seemingly. She’s having an out-of-body experience. She’s actually in a coma. Her parents are dead. Her brother is fighting for his life. A nurse whispers to her that she gets to pick whether she survives or dies. It’ll be a fight, but she can live if she wants to.

We view many, many, many flashbacks. We get to experience essentially the last year and a half of Mia’s life. We see how she meets Adam (Jamie Blackley), a punk rocker who instantly falls in love with her, a cello player. We see their relationship blossom, falter, and then flounder — and repeat. We watch her become slightly alienated from her family, filled with … more punk rockers. Apparently there are two types of people in Mia’s world: punk rockers and cello players.

I wasn’t kidding about the “and repeat” thing I mentioned earlier. If I Stay’s worst offense is that it’s repetitive. It’s repetitive. It’s repetitive. The same scenes, the same dialogue, the same problems, the same themes — they’re repeated ad nauseam to the point of nausea; I almost wanted to throw up. Am I making my point clearly enough? Take out the repetition and If I Stay is about a 25-minute movie, maybe, and we’d be praising it as a wonderful short film. Seriously, there’s about 25 minutes of really good filmmaking and storytelling here.

The out-of-body experience makes for an interesting supernatural take on the whole thing. She gets to see happy and sad points from the last year and a half, and also gets to watch those close to her in the present day, as she’s in a coma. You don’t typically get to hear people talk to you while you’re lying comatose, but she does. One of the film’s most powerful moments comes during a scene in which her grandfather (Stacy Keach) opens up about being a father at her bedside. It’s legitimately heartbreaking.

If I Stay wants to be a tearjerker. It’s all supposed to be emotional, but it just isn’t. It fails because of its repetition. You can’t keep doing the same dance and expect it to be as impactful each time. The first time? Sure. The second time? Okay. The seventh? It gets stale. That’s how If I Stay functions. It has a few other moments that work pretty well, like the aforementioned grandfather scene, but for the most part it just doesn’t have the impact that it clearly wants to have.

Was this a problem with the novel, too? If I Stay started out as a novel written by Gayle Forman, and has been released as a film only five years after its publication. I mention this because it matters to some people. They want to know that it’s not an original film, and perhaps want to claim that they were fans of the book before it was adapted, because they’re hipsters. Oh, and the movie totally isn’t as good as the novel, because of reasons. Point is: if the premise intrigues you, maybe read you’ll want to try the book. I can’t recommend watching the movie.

If you want a reason to see If I Stay, it’s … well, there are those 25 minutes that are really solid. If you can somehow mentally forget about the repetitious fat that surrounds them and isolate them as individual moments, perhaps you’ll be entertained and maybe even moved. That’s a little under a third of the film’s running time, though, which is not anywhere near enough to serve as a recommendation.

Even Chloë Grace Moretz is less-than-stellar in the leading role. Or, she sometimes is. As a somewhat awkward teenager who feels like she doesn’t fit in, she’s pretty solid. As a romantic lead who constantly has to fight and then sell how sad she is after the fight, she’s not particularly good. Maybe she got bored of it after having to film the same type of scene over and over again. Or the direction wasn’t great. Or she just isn’t good at that type of scene. It could be.

Repetitive and cliché conclusion: If you can get past all of the repetition — all of the repetition — and focus on the 25 minutes of good filmmaking and storytelling, you might have a chance at enjoying If I Stay. But that’s a lot of fat you have to sit through, and there are definitely better ways to spend your time. Tearjerkers don’t work when they expect you to cry about tiny problems that are made to seem important because they’re repeated ad nauseam. If I Stay attempts to make you cry by doing exactly this, and it doesn’t succeed because of this technique.