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“Cooties” (2015) REVIEW

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Cooties is an entirely safe, digestible horror-comedy film (more specifically, “zom-com”) that average, passive intakers of horror and comedy will probably enjoy. You know that guy at work, the one who always tells you about new movies you just gotta see — yet you never agree with? He will probably really like this movie and highly endorse it. After all, it’s got that guy from The Office! And zombie kids — whoo boy!

More discerning viewers will probably walk away from Cooties feeling nothing at all, no reaction that is positive or negative. It’s not that there is anything necessarily wrong with Cooties, but there’s nothing particularly right with it either. My ultimate issue with the film is that they took an amusing idea and what could’ve been a subversive, funny movie about zombie kids trying to kill adults — and ended up going a fairly predictable route.

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To be fair, it starts out really strong: we’re in a slaughterhouse watching chickens be plucked, sectioned, and run through an industrial grinder, churning out that familiar pink slime, the one that made the headlines a few years ago. But this pink slime is streaked with green: some sort of infectious bacteria which has the potential to turn kids into blood-thirsty monsters.

From there we cut to a bedroom: a sleeping Elijah Wood is rousted by his mom; it’s the first day of school. Only, Elijah isn’t a student — he’s a substitute teacher. A stalled career in Brooklyn as an author sees him back in his home town of Fort Chicken, Illinois (yes, that’s really the name they chose), living at home with mom and teaching elementary school. There, he reconnects with an old classmate — who is now a teacher, too — as well as a handful of other colorful characters on staff.

That toxic chicken meat we saw a few scenes earlier? It’s now in nugget form and being consumed by a little girl at the school. Soon, she turns into a raging zombie, infecting kids left and right, and bedlam briefly ensues. It’s at this point that movie down shifts into auto-pilot: we go from what could’ve been a prime-era Joe Dante or Fred Dekker flick and ease into something more along the lines of something I could see Kevin James or Josh Gad leading.

Zomcoms have an unfortunate history with being unable to find balance. Usually, the straight forward “this is simply a zombie movie but with humor” films are the ones that achieve the most success, both with major audiences as well as cult collectives: Evil Dead, Return of the Living Dead, Braindead, Shaun of the Dead — hell, any goddamn movie with the word “dead” in the title. The ones that fail are the ones that get too clever, too angle-heavy: Fido, Life After Beth, Warm Bodies. Unfortunately, Cooties falls into this latter category and unsuccessfully thinks the simple premise of “zombie schoolkids” can carry an 88 minute movie.

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The funniest characters happen to be the two guys that wrote the movie, Leigh Whannell and Ian Brennan, playing a kooky science teacher and a cocky vice principal, respectively. They feel the most fleshed out and the most unique of the entire cast. And while the always enjoyable Elijah Wood and Alison Pill are well cast as the main leads of the film, everyone else is a one-joke stock character: Rainn Wilson is the macho guy, Nasim Pedrad is the uptight woman, Jack McBrayer is the gay guy. Jorge Garcia is the stoner, and Peter Kwong is the Asian guy. With the exception of Whannell, Wood, Pill, and Wilson, all the other characters barely have a purpose in the movie. They don’t have important dialogue and aren’t necessary to move the plot along or aid in a resolution. They merely exist to perpetuate their one punchline.

In the end, Cooties has a hard time deciding what kind of comedy it wants to go for. I laughed out loud once when, early in the film, Rainn Wilson clotheslines a little girl while running from a horde of zombie kids. But most of the humor is uneven and — worst of all — very safe. Interesting ideas — like today’s kids lack of respect for authority and our culture’s current obsession with knowing where our food comes from — are only briefly touched on and quickly abandoned, and instead more focus is placed upon the Asian janitor who knows kung-fu. Cheap, easy, and safe, if you ask me.

It’s far from terrible. It’s not just anything, really. I don’t know who it’s aimed at, but if you still pay to see Adam Sandler movies in the theater or think Vince Vaughn/Owen Wilson/Jack Black/Ben Stiller are the apex of comedy, then you will probably love this movie. It does have a killer poster, though.

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“The Boy” (2015) REVIEW

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I went into The Boy not really knowing much about it. I saw the title on iTunes and remembered seeing a trailer for it awhile back, and recalled really digging the creepy, ominous atmosphere it had created in two minutes, and it had always been on my radar since then. I think going into it this way really added to the overall sense of dread I felt while watching it. Not knowing where the film is going — trying to figure out what’s going to happen before it does — makes for a much more tense viewing.

The Boy centers mainly around a father and his son running a floundering, decrepit motel smack in the middle of a rural, mountainous landscape. Naturally, the hyper-inquisitive boy is bored of his surroundings and fascinated with the rare guest that might happen to stop for the night. But there’s something else to the boy, something off. Something growing beneath the surface. As the film progresses, you start to think perhaps this is more than just a precocious youth we’re watching. I won’t give away much more, because again, the less you know the better. (One thing I found incredibly, incredibly strange about the production end of this movie: according to the credits, Floyd Mayweather Jr. — yes, the boxer — is a co-executive producer. Weird, right?)

There are two things that really sell the movie. First, the location, including the rundown motel. As I watched, I kept trying to figure out where they could’ve possibly found such a ratty, unkempt motel in the middle of nowhere like that. Georgia? Tennessee? After doing a little research I discovered (to my utter surprise) that the motel was actually built for the movie in the mountains of Medellín, Colombia! For those unaware, this was where Pablo Escobar ran his drug cartel, and was once the most violent city in the world. It’s a surprising little factoid to say the least, but the set design and locations are flawless. The whole area looks and feels like sad, destitute Appalachia.

The other thing that makes this movie work so well is the cast. It’s a small cast, consisting primarily of three characters. When you don’t have a lot of actors to distract and fill up scenery, you better make sure the actors you do cast can carry the film, and the actors here do a stand-out job.

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The defeated father is played by the perpetually sad-faced David Morse, and I can’t think of a better actor for the role. The way he just sighs and slouches from scene to scene really sells the utter hopelessness of their situation. Then there’s the mysterious traveler played by Rainn Wilson. He, too, is a smart casting choice. He’s able to play warm and friendly just as well as straight-faced and untrustworthy. And last but not least, there is Jared Breeze who plays the title role. He is easily the best part of the movie. This is his movie. Kid actors are a tough sell, especially if they play a main part in the movie. They can’t all be Danielle Harris and Tye Sheridan. More often than not, you’re gonna get the Jaden Smith and Chandler Riggs pedigree, or that kid from Jurassic Park who compares Velociraptors to turkeys. They act like they’re acting, but rarely do they convey a believable performance. (This is no dig on child actors; when I was a kid I was barely able to make myself lunch.) If you’re able to snag a believable kid for your movie, consider yourself lucky.

The reason Breeze is so amazing (as ‘Ted’) is that he doesn’t even act like the camera is there. I understand that’s the first rule of acting (unless you’re in a John Landis movie), but he’s so damn natural that watching the film makes you feel like you’re spying on some mountain child. As he wanders along the highway, explores the nooks and crannies of the wilderness, and talks to himself while imagining he’s miles way, you forget you’re watching a kid acting. So keep up the awesome work, Jared.

Lastly, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the score. It’s sparse, plunking, jangling, and jarring — and it’s perfect in the movie. At times it reminded me of the scores from The Shining and There Will Be Blood. In a way, this film is kind of like a hillbilly version of The Shining, only instead of Jack Torrance being the antagonist, it’s little Danny Torrance.

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The Boy is far scarier, more chilling, and more realistic than any other dangerous kid movies that come to mind. And according to director Craig William Macneill, it’s only the first part of a planned trilogy. So it looks like we’ll be able to spend more time with Ted to see where life takes him.

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