Film Threat Review: The Last Circus

2011
Rated R
107 minutes

***

Does anyone still think clowns are funny? I never understood the appeal. A traditional clown is, well, lame. Shakes the Clown is the only one who has ever made me laugh, and that’s more to do with the hilarity of alcoholism than the nature of his vocation. What’s so funny about big shoes (dangerous) or a cramming a lot of people into a small car (diseases)?

Take away their sanity and hand them a weapon, however, and now we’re on to something. From the Joker to Killer Klowns to Pennywise and back to the Joker, the Demented Clown has a proud cinematic tradition. Director, Álex de la Iglesia (“Gordos”), adds to the illustrious list with the unhinged clowns of “The Last Circus.” While his film has its share of narrative issues, Javier and Sergio are decent examples of clowns to be reckoned with.

“The Last Circus” opens in 1937 Madrid, in the midst of the Spanish Civil War, as the rebel militia compulsorily recruits a group of circus performers mid-show. There is no time to change clothes and besides, “a clown with a machete will scare the shit out of [the enemy]”, they wager. The harebrained scheme works and, before long, a Happy Clown is the last one standing, splattered with the blood of the Nationals. It’s an intense, gory, and hilarious scene, shot with plenty of Tarantino-esque slow motion. Barnum and Bailey take note: Hand-to-hand combat is the most entertaining clown context.

Despite the battle’s outcome, the rebels do not win the war, and the Happy Clown is sent to a prison labor camp where he is eventually executed. Before he dies, he tells his son, Javier, that should he follow in his father’s footsteps, he must be a Sad Clown; for his life has been nothing but tragedy. Oh, and while he’s at it, a little paternal avenging would be nice. Thirty-five years later, as the Franco era winds down, the boy has become a sad, humorless fat man who, despite his setbacks, is still determined to join the family business.

He finds work under a sociopath, a Happy Clown named Sergio, and develops an instant attraction to Sergio’s girlfriend, Natalia, an acrobat with some mental issues of her own. Javier is the only one brave enough to stand up to Sergio and, when he tries to rescue Natalia from her abusive relationship, she claims to be grateful. But, to Javier’s frustration, she always ends up back in the arms of her assailant. One can’t resolve such a cuckoo love triangle without a little bloodshed. Thus, the film devolves into an extensive battle of Sad Clown vs. Happy Clown in a contest of who is more fucked up.

Despite all the lovely clown carnage, I’m still not sure whether I liked “The Last Circus.” Obviously, we can’t expect a story like this to be pragmatic, but as the rivalry between Sergio and Javier escalates, some of the things that happen are downright preposterous. It’s hard to imagine the circumstances that would lead an adult human to becoming Franco’s lead hunting dog, but Javier’s boneheaded notions get him there.

Natalia is as troublesome as she is beautiful and it’s not entirely clear why Javier goes to such extremes for her. As they carry on their “affair,” she consistently places them in situations in which Sergio could easily find them out. It’s also unclear whether Natalia is trying to set Javier up or she really is that stupid. She’s either a femme fatale or the true villain of the film. Either way, she’s kind of shitty.

So as far as likeable characters, that leaves Sergio, the Happy Clown who knocks his girlfriend unconscious at a dinner party and then commands everyone to order dessert. His violent streak notwithstanding, he’s the most talented of the three. Plus, since his girlfriend is actually trying to cheat on him every chance she gets, his ire is somewhat justified. But he’s also one mean son of a bitch and he certainly takes his wrath too far.

As Sergio and Javier’s dealings become more grotesque, so do their faces, until they’re basically two Batman villains minus the common enemy. But “The Last Circus” is at its best when its clowns rampage murderously. Fortunately, there’s rampaging aplenty and it culminates in an exciting resolution involving circus powers. The film could be shorter and slightly less pretentious and the characters could be more empathetic, but as far as Demented Clown movies go, “The Last Circus” is a fine specimen.

Originally posted on FilmThreat.com (now defunct).

Film Threat Review: Final Destination 5

2011
Rated R
92 minutes

***

Let’s face it. Since the early Aughts, horror villains have been, by and large, drags. Even Founding Fathers of supernatural serial killing, like Freddy and Michael Myers, experienced a 21st century overhaul; a re-invention which sucked all the light-heartedness out of their respective franchises. Meanwhile, the “Saws” and “Hostels” gave us torture porn, which satisfies the visceral bloodlust but isn’t exactly a laugh riot. It’s about time somebody made the horror franchise fun again. And there are few things more fun than the wacky Rube Goldberg ways of Death’s Design. In 3D!

After the entertaining – but ultimately flat – false series-ender, “The Final Destination”, the careless Reaper returns to clean up yet another of his botched attempts at killing attractive youths. This time, it’s the dynamic corporate team of a paper company (Hey! That would make a good sitcom!), who thwart Death’s Design only to learn that he means to finish the job in a variety of gloriously gruesome and convoluted ways. (I hope this is just Death’s way of keeping things interesting. Otherwise, he might want to consider another line of work.)

Anyone new to the series will quickly get up-to-speed during the opening credits as a long stream of deadly objects hurl toward them. This is also where rookie director, Steven Quale, shows off a little, showcasing the pitch-perfect 3D gore effects that are to come. Horror is the perfect genre for 3D. After a brief introduction to the characters, they get right to the mass destruction. On their way to a corporate retreat, Sam (Nicholas D’Agosto) has a vision of the bridge they’re stopped on, collapsing and killing everyone. This is the world’s most terrible bridge, where one crack in the wrong place coupled with a gust of wind, sends the entire thing crumbling into the water. It’s a very impressive, very awesome disaster scene that rivals the groundbreaking choreography of the freeway pileup in “Final Destination 2”. Sam is able to convince seven of his co-workers to get off the bus and they race to safety as the ground disintegrates beneath them.

The survivors consider themselves lucky until, at the funeral of their fallen colleagues, a sinister, whistling coroner named Bludworth (series regular, Tony Todd), warns them that Death doesn’t like to be cheated and he will come back to set things right. Despite all the ominous whistling, they are nonetheless surprised when, sure enough, Death picks them off in the order in which they were meant to die.

By now, audiences know what to expect: Elaborate death scenes involving faulty wiring, loose screws and spilled water that eventually lead to an unexpected freak accident. The “OWWH!” moment is what we’ve come to see, but screenwriter, Eric Heisserer does us one better. He understands that the reason the first two films worked so much better than 3 and 4 were because of the fleshed out characters. It’s fun to see all the different ways a person can be impaled, but if the people in peril are just archetypes, it’s a slog to get through the remaining scenes. The protagonists here aren’t exactly Rosemary Woodhouses, but they’re whole people with dreams and heartbreaks. We can feel their grief and fear and we genuinely want them to live. Final Destination’s first foray into 3D was one death scene after another. Five lets us get to know our characters a little bit, and then kills them off in 3D.

The fifth installment also introduces a new potential solution for thwarting Death’s Design (They didn’t say “Death’s Design” nearly enough this time around, so I have to make up for it here). This isn’t a personal vendetta for Death. He just needs to keep his books straight. So old Bludworth suggests that if one of these doomed souls takes the life of a person who wasn’t meant to die, they can have their years and everything will be square. It adds an interesting bit of extra tension as some consider testing the theory.

It’s not a perfect film. The first post-bridge collapse death is so outlandish that even the characters remark on its improbability. But, things get much better once Death gets back to his signature work of impalements and defenestrations. If this is indeed the final “Final Destination”, it’s a nice clean end to the series. But the freak accident premise has endless possibilities. They could also delve more into the supernatural aspect it, and give us an explanation as to who would bother to give someone a glimpse into their future if their future was inevitable (and why). They can get as existential as they want or take it back to bloody basics. All I know is I will be in line every time. Even if these movies always make me want to go home and tighten every screw and bolt in my house.

Originally posted on FilmThreat.com (now defunct).