Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Stranger Things 2: The Overall Thrills Are Still In Tact, Despite

When it premiered on Netflix last year, Stranger Things took a lot of people (including yours truly) by surprise. As an affectionate love letter to Eighties pop culture and movies (particularly of the sci-fi, fantasy and horror genres, courtesy Steven Spielberg and Stephen King), series creators Matt and Ross Duffer made a zeitgeist that also stood on its own with compelling stories of small town police chiefs, secretive government agents, a broken family looking for a lost boy, friends who stand up to bullies, and an unusual girl with telekinetic abilities named Eleven.

Since the teaser  for Season Two premiered during the Super Bowl earlier this year, I've eagerly been awaiting to see what would be in store for Chief Hopper, Joyce Byers, Mike Wheeler and company. When it finally premiered last month, I did something that I never do. (And I mean never.) I binge-watched the entire season within 27 hours!

A few questions I had, between both seasons, were as follows: What is that big thing Will begins seeing that's coming into Hawkins? (The 2017 Comic-Con trailer finds Hopper stating, "Whatever's happening is spreading to this place.") Speaking of Hopper, what deal did he make with the agents? And finally, what happened to Eleven?

Millie Bobbie Brown does return as Eleven. And she still loves Eggos.
WRITER'S NOTE: I will try to be as spoiler-free as possible, especially for fans who haven't seen this season yet.

Set one year after the events of Season One, Upside Down-survivor Will Byers begins having premonitions of not only said place, but also of an impending evil force in the sleepy town of Hawkins, Indiana. And, of course, the same cast of characters, plus new ones like Radioshack owner Bob (Sean Astin), high-score arcader Max (Sadie Sink), and some unexpected allies try to figure out what's going on, along with mysteries behind rotting pumpkin patches, government conspiracies, telepathic connections, some gender theories, and why nougat is a popular Halloween candy. (Okay, maybe not so much that last one.)

A few things this season does are completely unexpected. Besides the "One Year Later" notion, Eleven (the amazing Millie Bobby Brown) does return--the trailers make that very clear. This time, she sports Sigourney Weaver-like hair! Plus, she and Will (who was barely in the first season) seem to switch roles, in terms of being around the three main kids/friends, Mike (Finn Wolfhard, whose screen time this season seems like Michael Keaton's in Batman Returns), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin). Speaking of Dustin and Lucas, we do get to see their home lives and family lives as well.

And of course, since this series is set in the Eighties, I went gaga for the countless nostalgia and homages on display. First and foremost, the Ghostbusters costumes that Mike and friends wear for Halloween, complete with specially-made "proton packs," are a stroke of genius, including the dialogue where Mike and Lucas banter and argue about who should be Venkman and who should be Winston. Also, the residue Hopper and others find in the woods could echo that scene in the original movie, in the library and possibly the famous Slimer ghost. Speaking of residue, there are echoes of many creature features as Gremlins, Aliens, The Mist, and even Evil Dead, what with shocking revelations, more creatures, more menace, and more action and effects, including the aforementioned creature Will begins seeing, known as the "Shadow Monster" (or, in "Dungeons & Dragons" terms, the Mind Flayer"). Plus, classic arcade games like "Dragon's Lair" get some screen time, as does Eleven's favorite food, Eggos, Dustin's favorite, Three Musketeers (nougat, anybody?), and JVC tape recorders and adapters. Finally, with Sean Astin's appearance, there should be a reference or two to his famous role in The Goonies. (Why wouldn't there be in the Eighties, after all?)

Who you gonna call? (l-r) Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), Mike (Finn Wolfhard),
Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), and Will (Noah Schnapp)
This season does seem a little conventional in terms of some of the writing and execution. Perhaps it tries to do too much? Perhaps the playlist of popular songs is a bit much? Perhaps there's a little too much emphasis on different love triangles and relationship statuses, not to mention a disappointing bit of sexual tension between some of these characters? Well, it kind of is from the first three episodes. (That KFC reference sure felt like a product plug.) After that, though, things start getting back on track. One thing that sticks out from the first episode, though, is the opening segment, three nights before Halloween, where a group of vigilante punks are on a hit-and-run police chase a la The Dark Knight-meets-Blade Runner-meets-Mad Max, until things take a different turn--and a possible connection to a certain character.

As far as the status of the show's returning characters, what I will say is they do explore different sides of themselves. (One episode, in particular, takes a radical departure from the overall tone of the series--a deliberate choice by the Duffers.) Again, Eleven does return, but not in the way most fans would think. There are some children here, particularly newcomers Billy (Power Rangers' Dacre Montgomery) and step-sister Max (The Glass Castle's Sadie Sink), affected by divorce, and who show more than explain who they take their anger and frustration out on. But there's uncertainty about other characters, such as Bob (considering a story he tells Will about facing his fears) and new Hawkins' Lab head Dr. Owens (who seems to echo a famous role of the actor who plays him, Paul Reiser, from Aliens), what with his surveillance and apparent cover ups of past mistakes.

Many other characters face post-traumatic stress, including Nancy (over her friend, Barb), Mike (over Eleven, whom he still radios via walkie-talkie everyday), and, of course, certainly Will, who never feels the same, not to mention "normal," after being in the Upside Down. But his brother Jonathan reassures that ("Nobody normal ever accomplished anything in this world"), as does his mom, Joyce ("This is not a normal family," she tells Bob). Mr. Clark, the Hawkins science teacher and A.V. supervisor, mentions "The American Crowbar Case" of Phineas Gage, the story of a man who survived a head injury and appeared normal afterwards but not so, mentally.

Something new is coming to Hawkins
Everybody tries to live normal lives, but nothing feels right. As Hopper says, "Nothing's going to go back to the way it was. Not really." At the same time, because these characters are confronted by aforementioned past mistakes, they either seek to leave them, hide them, burn them (like the lab agents do; don't ask), face them, or, in one case, expose them. In any of these cases, it's intriguing to see the many ways these characters communicate without words, whether through T.V.s, radios, drawings, Morse Code (again, don't ask), and RadioShack recorder. Ultimately, these stories of outcasts and adolescence still speak strong, despite being in a sci-fi/horror mesh of a world.

This season does suffer from a case of "sequel-itis" at times (meaning, "more is better"), as well as some less witty (and more profane) dialogue. Eleven's vocabulary, for one, includes a new vulgarity. I do also think the season kind of plays it safe at times and rushes just a tad without some serious conflict, despite the overall atmosphere--darker and more intense, especially with the "Demo-dogs" and the overarching Shadow Monster. (Chapter Seven has some particularly graphic images, including one they really didn't need to show.) But the Duffer Brothers sure know how to pack an emotional and cliffhanging punch, not to mention unexpected twists. Here's to whatever they come up with for Season 3.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

$uccessfu! Films: What "The Hobbit" Films Should and Should Not Have Done

When author J.R.R. Tolkien wrote "The Hobbit" in the 1930s, he had written it as a fantasy adventure for his children. Little did he know that it would not only set the stage for other characters and stories in his created world of "Middle-Earth" (notably "The Lord of the Rings" and the posthumous "The Silmarillion"), but it also established a contemporary mythology that would echo stories, legends, and character types of yesteryear.

When director Peter Jackson began adapting the Lord of the Rings in the late 1990s, he and his cast and crew embarked on what would turn out to be a seven-year journey to bring Tolkien's literary trilogy to the big screen. Little did they know that it would not only set a benchmark in film history (no trilogy had ever been filmed simultaneously, and no fantasy film had ever won the Best Picture Acdemy Award), but it also set the stage for fantasy films of the 21st Century. (Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia, anyone?)

After Rings, Jackson went on to direct and co-produce other projects, including his lifelong-dream remake of King Kong (2005), an adaptation of Alice Sebold's novel The Lovely Bones (2009), Neill Blomkamp's sci-fi apartheid directorial debut District 9 (2009), and Steven Spielberg's motion-capture take on Herge's The Adventures of Tintin (2011). In the mean time, Jackson's visual effects company Weta Digital participated in various other films, including the rebooted Planet of the Apes trilogy (2011-2017), Furious 7 (2015), Krampus (2015), and Pete's Dragon (2016).

Peter Jackson behind the scenes
Then in 2010, after initial helmer Guillermo del Toro (2006's Pan's Labyrinth) stepped down due to reported production delays, Jackson took over directing reigns of the long-awaited big-screen adaptation of The Hobbit. Initially planned to be made into two movies, Jackson brought in many of the same crew from Lord of the Rings, including co-writers and co-producers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, production designer Dan Hannah, cinematographer Andrew Lesnie, conceptual artists Alan Lee and John Howe, composer Howard Shore, and head of Weta Workshop Richard Taylor. Del Toro would remain credited as a project consultant. Returning cast members would included Ian Holm (Bilbo Baggins), Elijah Wood (Frodo Baggins), Hugo Weaving (Elrond), Cate Blanchett (Galadriel), Christopher Lee (Saraman), Ian McKellan (Gandalf), and Andy Serkis (Gollum, who steals the iconic "Riddles in the Dark" sequence), while newcomers Martin Freeman (a younger Bilbo) and Richard Armitage (Thorin) would join in. Serkis would eventually serve as the project's Second Unit Director.

Jackson, Walsh and Boyens' contributions to the screenplay partly came from appendices of The Lord of the Rings, which expand Tolkien's Middle-Earth. The backstory of the dwarves, and their once-glorious kingdom under the mountain, are used as a prologue to the first Hobbit film, titled An Unexpected Journey. It not only showcases their greed and obsession with gold, but also the effects it has on the local people of Dale, as well as other races. Jealousy and destruction soon appear in the form of the dragon Smaug, who decimates the town of Dale and leads to the downfall of the race of dwarves. Their mission in Tolkien's story and in this film: to take back the fallen kingdom. But to do this impossible task, they will need some help--particularly, a burglar to sneak in.

Which leads us to Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit who finds comfort and safety in his home in the ground, and is not motivated by adventures of any kind. At least until the great wizard Gandalf comes knocking on his door, followed by thirteen mighty dwarves, and convinces him to take the journey. (It's curious but sort of understandable that only half of these dwarves, led by Thorin, are given more screen time and development than the rest of the supposedly-caricatured bunch.) At the same time, there's a greater, darker power resurfacing in Middle-earth than just Smaug, beginning with the mysterious Necromancer, as investigated by the eccentric wizard Radagast.

The overall moral in this story is that adventure is not found in the comforts of home, but out there in the world. To be sure, danger is inevitable, but courage and bravery are necessary. Therefore, facing the world and seeing what one is really made of, and yet recognizing where one comes from. "Home is now behind you," Gandalf tells us. "The world is ahead."

My initial reaction to An Unexpected Journey was that it was entertaining, well-made, and had terrific nostalgia and homages to the original film trilogy. It was also impeccably cast, with Martin, Armitage and McCoy as standouts, followed by Evans and Cumberbatch (who perfectly and chillingly voices Smaug) in the second and third films. And Lee turned in what would turn out to be his last screen role, reprising Saruman.

Yet, despite being based on essentially a children's novel, Jackson had no interest in making a film strictly for children. This is one of the many choices and changes that makes the film quite dark and violent. And the other two films in this now-trilogy (2013's The Desolation of Smaug and 2014's The Battle of the Five Armies) prove this point, as well as with many significant liberties and and connections more to Jackson's original film trilogy than to Tolkien's original book. Little did Jackson and company (and moviegoers) know that the overall reception for this trilogy would be lukewarm, to say the least.

When The Desolation of Smaug came out, I began to loose faith in these films. For one thing, Weta Digital certainly went to great lengths to make knock-out visual effects sequences, and there are certainly worthy moments and meaningful themes at times, such as the impressive animation of Smaug and the designs of Laketown and the halls of Erebor. But they're upstaged by the aforementioned (and prolonged) sequences and VFX shots, not to mention an "unexpected" and sudden climax to the chapter. I had hopes that the third film (originally titled "There and Back Again," like the original subtitle of the book) would deliver a more satisfying outing. And yet, when film three did arrive (and with a new title, The Battle of the Five Armies), the result was initially a forgettable experience (in the book, the battle lasts one chapter, whereas in the film, it's nearly 45 minutes), and proved that this "prequel trilogy" was slowly-but-surely declining, and surely divisive. Jackson admitted that the Hobbit trilogy's lukewarm reception was partially due to him coming so late into pre-production with only three months to plan. (Compare that to the reported three years Jackson and company spent preparing the Lord of the Rings trilogy).

That's not to say The Hobbit was a terrific experience, as the "Production Diaries" filmed between 2011 and 2012 in New Zealand showcased. These videos are, without a doubt, the highlight of the making of these films, as well as an amazing transition into a new decade for Tolkien's stories and epic fantasy worlds.

To be fair, Jackson felt he had made the right choice to expand the story into a trilogy in order to, by request to the studios (New Line and MGM), plan out the climactic "battle." I recently viewed all three films (almost) back-to-back and now believe that Five Armies is actually an emotionally-effecting, though at times overbearing, conclusion to Tolkien's classic. What these films could have used was a little old-fashioned restraint.

Here are four things that I would have eliminated or reduced, and which would've resulted in two films instead of three.

1. The villainous orc Azog. They should've eliminated the climax of An Unexpected Journey and saved that for The Battle of the Five Armies for Thorin to have a proper face-off with this vengeful adversary, whereas the gang would've transitioned better from the goblin tunnels to Beorn's house. (Although, Bilbo's bravery is commendable and amazing in the resulted sequence.)

2. Speaking of sequences, the barrel escape from Mirkwood definitely has roller coaster thrills, but the elves (including Legolas) and the orcs intervening and fighting should've been left out. The same goes for the aforementioned goblin tunnel chase, the spiders of Mirkwood (which seem more swarmy compared with the nightmarish Shelob), and the other armies and prolonged fights in the climactic Battle, what with the Tremors-like"earth eaters," bats, an icy lake, and a Legolas/orc battle that defies gravity. And then there's the length of the hall fight with Smaug--although, the focus of this sequence was the dwarves' attempt to kill the beast. (The buildup to this character's presence is effective, but it soon outstays its welcome.)

Gollum (top) and Smaug (bottom) are motion-capture marvels
3. The romance between dwarf Kili and elf Tauriel (a character made for the movies, due to an apparent lack of female characters in Tolkien's novels), as well as a subtle love triangle involving Legolas the elf (who is not in "The Hobbit" book); the same goes for the subtle romance between Gandalf and Lady Galadriel. If they had made Tauriel a companion to the dwarves and not so much a love interest, that would've been stronger and less forced.

4. The emphasis on the subplot about the darkness resurfacing in Middle-Earth, which results in Sauron, causes the same mistake that George Lucas's Star Wars prequel trilogy made: Said subplot tells you what happens in the original trilogy, and you loose the excitement in chronological order. The shifts that An Unexpected Journey makes midway through (and which Desolation does a lot) distract from what should be the primary story--that of Bilbo Baggins and his quest with the Dwarves, as well as the impact the quest has on Middle-Earth. If this latter subplot would've been the sole one (plus the theme of "dragon sickness" and not so much the Ring's growing power over Bilbo), then the films would've been a whole lot better.

As movies on their own, they're entertaining in many ways. But compared with the book, they're completely different. Unlike the original trilogy, which began with miniature sets and grounded visual effects, these films use CGI extensively; they're easily fake in such settings as Dol Guldur and the Elven city in Mirkwood. It even got to the point where Ian McKellan wasn't acting alongside the other actors for much of the time, instead of with the "forced perspective" technique they used for The Fellowship of the Ring. The overall production design is spectacular and very Tolkien-esque, from Rivendale to the goblin tunnels to Laketown to Erebor to the ruins of Dale to the illustrated credits. But the effect (and some of the humor) is far from it--overbearing, dark, menacing, and violent.

At least Tolkien's themes are still intact and remain strong, including a misguided sense of loss, and the cost of greed, war and destruction. And filmgoers can't go wrong with the "Song of the Lonely Mountain," a motif throughout the first film that should've resurfaced in the other films. This is, after all, the emotional arc of the dwarves and their journey. It's fair to say Jackson has (hopefully) learned from the mistakes of these films, and will hopefully carry that into his next project, whether the next Tintin or whichever project that may be. As for Tolkien's original works, they will remain timeless and definitive.

A great, quiet moment between Bilbo and Gandalf

Monday, October 30, 2017

The Tick: Amazon Prime Series Not For General Audiences!

Griffin Newman and Peter Serafinowicz
With Marvel and DC enjoying relative success these days in both movies and television, it's no surprise the age of superheroes (and their respective villains) is dominating popular culture. Just look at online photos of the various attendees of San Diego ComiCon for more than the last two decades. But one aspect of this genre/medium that doesn't get talked about a whole lot is the difference between heroes with superpowers and those who just dress up. It's the latter that makes a character like the Tick so enduring.

Initially created as a comic book series created by Ben Edlund in 1986, the Tick is a satire of superheroes, with a lean, muscular physique contrasted with a dimwitted-yet-determined personality. The character found his way on T.V. in the early-Nineties with the animated show, featuring NBC-"Must-See T.V." announcer Townsend Coleman as the voice of the famed blue bug. Later, in the early-2000s, a short-lived live-action version on Fox starred "Seinfeld"-veteran Patrick Warburton. This time around, British actor Peter Serafinowicz (Shaun of the Dead, Guardians of the Galaxy) takes up the mantel and the aforementioned personality in a more grounded-in-reality setting, whereas the previous adaptations relied on over-the-top humor.

What this new Amazon Prime series does, interestingly, is tell it from the point of view of his eventual sidekick, Arthur (Griffin Newman). A financial advisor, who also moonlights as a private eye, believes that a sinister plan is underway in the city. Furthermore, this city has forgotten its superheroes (of whom Arthur was a fan, and who apparently haven't been around for years). One night, he meets a mysterious figure, a hulking and ridiculous "superhero" who simply calls himself "the Tick," who encourages him to accept what"destiny" (whatever that may be) called him to: a hero and a sidekick. "You've got the brains. I've got the 'everything else'," the big blue bug tells the nervous Arthur. But (according to the pilot episode, at least), is the Tick actually real, or is he just a figment of Arthur's conflicting imagination?

The Tick's animated counterpart
The tone of this series works from the get-go. The pilot, which was first shown on Amazon Prime during a streaming series last year, is one of the best I've seen in a while, and each episode ends on a cliffhanger (perhaps a bit much, along with the respective half-hour running times). Nevertheless, the meta humor and silly narration helps make the show a riot.

The themes of normal, everyday people (not just "superheroes") making a difference in the world and finding their true calling shine through here. It could even be argued that the Tick is something of a voice of reason. "I'm the you you've always wanted to be." He adds, "You're not going crazy. You've gone sane in a crazy world." It's also interesting that there's some mystery to who the Tick is, including his lack of knowledge about where he came from and where he lives, other than he's called to fight. ("Destiny called, Arthur.")

I grew up with the blue bug on Saturday mornings with other lesser-known characters like Bobby Generic and "Eek!" the Cat. As a kid, it was easy for me to look at him as a silly superhero. In retrospect, the character and premise could never be more, shall we say, fitting, especially since so many movies and T.V. shows have taken darker routes (which this version does, at times). Moreover, the Tick represents the kind of character much needed in this difficult day-and-age.

Peter Serafinowicz
But while Serafinowicz's committed take is hilarious and Newman helps genuinely ground the show in reality, most of the circumstances and villains they encounter are anything but. While certainly no Batman v Superman, the serious elements this show gets into are still surprising, and not in a good way.

Sadly, the writers chose to have characters, like the angsty villainous Ms. Lint, shout several harsh profanities (some of them f-words!). There's also brief but graphic images of violence and blood splatter, courtesy a mercenary aptly named Overkill. "Murder," the Tick tells Arthur, "it's just not cool." Indeed, while the Tick's character and actions run contrary to, say, Deadpool's, almost "everything else" in this show could be a distant cousin of the infamous "Merc with a Mouth".

And it's these elements that put this show out of bounds for what could have been a more general audience. I, for one, was really looking forward to it.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

A Christian Examination of Horror

WRITER'S NOTE: This post contains references to violent and disturbing content, and is not appropriate for children.

Those of you who've read my blogs in the last few months are probably aware of my position on horror movies. Up until a few months ago (specifically, the release and surprise success of the intriguing and creepy racial thriller Get Out), I've mostly found the horror genre to be not just very scary, but also very exploitative and morally damaging. And yet, I've strangely been examining it, for better and for worse, and have come to a better understanding and discernment of it.

First and foremost, what is horror? If you google the term itself, the first definition that appears is "an intense feeling of fear, shock, or disgust." It's also described as "an overwhelming and painful feeling caused by something frightfully . . . terrifying, or revolting; [in other words] a shuddering fear." To sum it up, horror is a physiological reaction involving escalated heartbeats, fears (including those of the unknown), nightmares, and even intrusions (i.e., a home invasion).

Let me rephrase that one more time. Anything that scares us, shocks us, disgusts us, terrifies us, or revolts us.

If we go back to literature through the likes of Edgar Allan Poe, Bram Stoker, and Mary Shelley, they tell tales and stories--fictional, that is--involving murders, immortal vampires, and monster creations respectfully. (The latter two, Dracula and Frankenstein, would go on to become classic films in the early 1930s.)And it isn't just these books. Other works, including Greek texts and most certainly the Bible, contain horrific elements of violence, war, decapitations, and crucifixions that are unspeakable, perhaps even more than the stories and writers of today.

Speaking of which, today's writers, like Stephen King, and filmmakers, like John Carpenter, Darren Aronovsky, and the late George Romero and Wes Craven, have evoked these same aforementioned elements (fear, shock, disgust, terror, and revolt), while amplifying them, from Freddy Kruger to Michael Myers to Pennywise and pretty much every zombie, for that matter.

Bela Lugosi in 1931's Dracula
Boris Karloff in 1931's Frankenstein
One way I've been studying horror (and this is the most research I've ever done on this genre, for the record) is by looking at its various subgenres. (Wikipedia has a broad link, which you can view here.) These subgenres include action horror (the same as a regular action movie, but with creatures and splattering, like 1987's Predator and the Blade trilogy), comedy horror (1984's Ghostbusters, 1988's Beetlejuice), horror drama (2014's The Babadook), Gothic horror (1999's Sleepy Hallow, 2015's Crimson Peak), holiday horror (1984's Gremlins, 2015's Krampus), natural horror (1963's The Birds, 1975's Jaws), and sci-fi horror (1979's Alien, the Resident Evil franchise). There's even been at least one horror musical that I know (2007's Sweeney Todd, about a vengeful barber), some animated features (2009's Coraline, 2012's ParaNorman), and a few "family"-oriented flicks (1993's Hocus Pocus, 2015's Goosebumps).

I want to talk about the most common subgenres often associated with horror, specifically SUPERNATURAL, SLASHER, SPLATTER, and PSYCHOLOGICAL, as well as at least five examples of films and/or franchises in each, and finally what they really stand for. Now, I haven't seen all of these movies, mind you. And I don't plan to, for that matter. (Personally, I can't even watch vampire movies without feeling nerve-wracking; the trailer for 2008's Let the Right One In is enough to make me feel this way.) About half of the following excerpts are based on my research alone.

Lastly, while these films and subgenres may be important to talk about and highly discern, the real question is their meaning or lack of it. That is, are they really worth watching? I've somewhat asked myself at times, why do we watch these movies, even though we know they (or, a large majority of them) are graphic and immoral? What do they say about our humanity or lack of it? Or are they just made for their own sake to scare, shock, disgust, terrify, and/or revolt us?

SO, without further ado, here's the breakdown.

From ghosts to spirituality to exorcists, this aspect of this genre leaves more than just a mark.

The Exorcist (1973)
Director William Friedkin's take on William Peter Blatty's bestselling novel about a 12-year-old girl who is possessed by the devil, and whose mother calls upon two priests to rid her daughter's body of the demon. Such a take on this topic has never been so raw, wince-inducing, and controversial since. The Reverend Billy Graham stated, "The Devil is in every frame of this film" (read here). This notion of making the innocence of children look frightening would resurface in 1976's The Omen, about a demonic child. In the mean time, witchcraft, demon-possession, and levitations would find their way in such period films as The Conjuring (2013) and its sequels and spinoffs, as well as the Satanic Temple-endorsed The Witch (2016).

Poltergeist (1982)
Perhaps Steven Spielberg's only other involvement with horror besides Jaws, this special-effects, spook-filled nightmare from Tobe Hooper (1974's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) finds a suburban family that experiences strange and ghoulish phenomena in their quiet home, from clowns in kids' bedrooms to dead corpses in the backyard pool, and a sweet little girl announcing, "They're heeeere." How creepier can you get? Oh, and did I mention that meat-in-the-kitchen scene?

The Sixth Sense (1999)
M. Night Shamalayan's successful thriller about a lonely boy (Haley Joel Osment) who sees ghosts, with Bruce Willis as the child psychiatrist who tries to help him, and who tries to figure out his own personal agenda. A rare suspense-drama, as well as a rare Best Picture nominee in the genre.

The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Many back then would call this one a suspension of disbelief. The birth of the found footage feature along with a successful marketing campaign (both of which were believed to be true back then) began here, as three filmmakers embark into the woods to find a legendary, supernatural, and supposedly unseen figure. But then, things start to take a turn for the worst, in both unexpected and profane ways. This strategy was revived in the latter-Aughts with Matt Reeves' contemporary monster flick Cloverfield (2008) and Oren Peli's home-shot Paranormal Activity (2007).

The Ring (2002)
As Psycho made people afraid of showers and Jaws made people afraid of water, perhaps this American remake of a famous Japanese film (1998's Ringu) makes videotapes look bone-chilling. Naomi Watts plays an investigative reporter who learns about a mysterious tape that kills its viewers seven days after they watch it. Director Gore Verbinski unsettles audiences with disturbing images and a thoroughly cryptic vibe. Oh, and a scary girl that comes out of a television.

This is where things turn to graphic exploitation.

Halloween (1978)
John Carpenter may have followed Alfred Hitchcock's suit with this chilling feature about a deranged mass murderer who returns to his hometown on Halloween night to bring back his reign of terror and bloodshed. The overall effect is silent and sudden, including images of the infamous Michael Myers in (of all things) his William Shatner-esque mask. Jamie Lee Curtis also became the "scream queen" of her generation here, while many criticized this film for creating the "sex-equals-death" notion.

Friday the 13th (1980)
Hockey-masked killer Jason Voorhees from Camp Crystal Lake may be the most nihilistic fictional killer of all. Compare his deadly and evil track record of eleven solo films to Freddy Kruger's eight (they both battled in 2003) and Michael Myers' ten.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Wes Craven gave birth to the infamous dream-killing boogeyman, Freddy Kruger, in this feature, and returned to the character ten years later (after less-successful sequels from other directors) with the ultra-meta Wes Craven's New Nightmare (1994).

Child's Play (1988)
A feature that tarnishes the childhood innocence of playing with dolls (in this case, a "Good Guy" named Chucky), and throws a dark voodoo-serial killer in to terrorize a six-year-old boy. Countless nihilistic (and comedic-oriented?!?) sequels followed, before the original filmmakers returned to the first film's terror elements with two direct-to-video releases. For the record, this character scarred my childhood. Annabelle and the Poltergeist clowns ain't got nothing on this guy.

Scream (1996)
Just as he did with Freddy Kruger in the Eighties, Wes Craven left his mark on the genre with this clever-but-extremely-maddening, whodunit feature from the Nineties (written by Kevin Williamson) about an obsessive horror movie fan (dressed in an Edward Munch Ghostface mask) who goes on a killing spree. Craven and Williamson took meta humor and cliches to an ultimate level and put them in a setting that feels (sadly) palpably real. Spawned three sequels and an MTV series, while the teen horror subgenre would also expand to countless imitators and other features, such as the Williamson-penned I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997), the Final Destination series (2000-2011), and the sex-equals-death thriller It Follows (2015).

A successor to slasher, with said exploitation turned up to 11 and beyond.
Also applicable in this subgenre are *Body Horror (very gross-out, repulsive and disgusting) and **Zombie Horror (the one that may say something about humanity, or just bite into its flesh)

Night of the Living Dead (1968)**
The late George A. Romero is credited for (pretty much) defining the zombie movie, which began here with a horde of undead citizens who hose in on survivors in a farmhouse. Romero returned to this world (and defined it again) with his shopping mall-centered and gory sequel Dawn of the Dead (1978) and its successors. Dawn was remade by Zack Snyder in 2004, while zombies would find later success on T.V. ("The Walking Dead") and in a couple of cleverly-made-but-equally-gory comedies (2004's Shaun of the Dead and 2009's Zombieland).

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1973)
The premise is simple: a group of road travelers pick up a hitchhiker and soon encounter an estate run by a family of merciless cannibals, including the skin-wearing, chainsaw-weilding Leatherface. Perhaps the birth of torture porn, courtesy Tobe Hooper. Enough said.

Evil Dead (1981)
When a group of friends travel to a remote cabin in the woods, they open an ancient book and unleash a horde of evil-possessing spirits. This low-budget splatterfest put director Sam Raimi and B-movie legend Bruce "Groovy" Campbell on the map (while avoiding an official rating from the MPAA then, for distaste purposes). They followed suit with the splatter-comedy-sequel Evil Dead II (1987) and the medieval-themed Army of Darkness (1992). The 2013 remake was advertised as, "The most terrifying film you will ever experience." Writers Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard may have paid tribute to Raimi and company with their aptly-named The Cabin in the Woods (2012).

The Thing (1982)*
John Carpenter's special-effects yuck-fest, about an alien lifeform found in the frozen tundra, is certainly not for the squeamish. And neither is David Cronenberg's chilling mad-scientist thriller The Fly (1986), where Jeff Goldblum tragically (and disgustingly) turns into an insect.

Saw (2004)
James Wan's low-budget mystery, about a twisted psychopath named Jigsaw who places his victims in deadly puzzle games, is cleverly-paced. But its torturous violence made me say, "That's enough," and NO to the endless sequels it's spawned, including the recent Jigsaw (2017), and especially to Eli Roth's Hostel (2005).

Here are stories that try to get into the minds of its subject characters. (Or, is it they who try to get into ours?

Psycho (1960)
Alfred Hitchcock also established the slasher film here, with his infamous take on the equally-infamous novel by Robert Bloch, partly based on serial murderer Ed Gein. Runaway Marion Crane spends the night in a hotel, run by the mysterious Norman Bates and his unseen mother. Of course, everybody knows the famous shower scene, as well as Bernard Herrmann's shrieking strings-only score. The year of this film's release, Hitchcock had theater owners place cardboard signs with strict instructions not to allow any patrons in after the film began, so as not to ruin any of the film's spoilers or twists. This only added to the film's success, after its initial controversy with the Ratings Code then, and its role in making on-screen murders part of "entertainment." (The new documentary 78/52 explores the cultural and cinematic effect of the shower scene.) My, how the system has changed.

The Shining (1980)
All it takes is Jack Nicholson--as the caretaker of an isolated hotel in the winter--to peak through an axed door in Stanley Kubrick's acclaimed and controversial take on Stephen King's novel, and scare the living daylights out of you. Well, that and two dead twin girls at the end of a hallway.

Misery (1990)
An obsessive fan holds her favorite author captive in an isolated Colorado home, after rescuing him from a car accident and learning that he killed off her favorite literary character. Kathy Bates won a Best Actress Oscar for her chilling portrayal of psychotic nurse Annie Wilkes in Rob Reiner's film, which many consider another one of the best adaptations of Stephen King's work, along with Carrie (1976), Delores Claiborne (1995), The Mist (2007), and It (2017)..

The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
In the only horror film to receive the Best Picture Academy Award-win, cannibalistic killer Hannibal Lecter (an unforgettable Anthony Hopkins) assists up-and-coming agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) in tracking down a more sickening and vicious skinning murderer, Buffalo Bill (a never-more-chilling Ted Levine). "Don't let Hannibal Lecter get inside your head."

mother! (2017)
Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem play a couple whose quiet and secluded life is interrupted by strange, uninvited guests in Darren Aronovsky's controversial and appalling film. Perhaps both a modern-day allegory of celebrity obsession and an anti-Christian parable. (Read my review here.)

WRITER'S NOTE: You can also read my full reviews (as follows) for this year's Split (here), Get Out (here), and It (here).

There's a great article online (click here), written by Pastor James Harleman, titled "Horror, Gore, Fear & the Christian," which breaks down what the genre is and, more specifically, whether or not it's a genre to be involved with. It even includes some interesting points from writer-director Scott Derrickson (2005's The Exorcism of Emily Rose, 2012's Sinister).

The problem with a lot of these movies and characters (as iconic as they may be) is there's no sense of redemption or salvation--unless one may count certain characters' survival instincts. Instead, they wallow in pools of violence, anti-socialism, and nihilistic "survival of the fittest" damage. And I, and many others, are all the worst for it--whether from the actual movies or just from clips via WatchMojo.com. To be a little more specific, they run contrary to war films and historical films, which, according to author Brian Godowa, "portray equally graphic brutality, but their contexts are ultimately redemptive," in terms of self-sacrifice, heroism, and hope.

And yet, perhaps I'm strangely all the better for it, now that I have more of an understanding of the genre and its sub-categories. Don't get me wrong, having an understanding is fine. But there has to be a line that shouldn't be crossed in terms of making sure we're not indulging what the world considers "entertainment," including slaughter, sexuality and profanity, not to mention a lack of morality and humanity.

Nevertheless, it's a very provocative area to be in.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

"The Meyerowitz Stories" Could Have Been A Standout Film This Year

I eagerly awaited the release date for writer-director Noah Baumbach's The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) since hearing about the film over a year ago. The main reason I was interested was simple: Adam Sandler in a rare serious role. Understandably, as many poor films as Sandler has been in the last few years, there are still a few he's made where he's shown that he is capable of more than just funny noises and crude expressions. (2002's Punch-Drunk Love and 2004's Spanglish still hold up as brilliant dramatic roles on his resume.) Furthermore, the pairing of him with fellow comedian (and friend) Ben Stiller, the legendary Dustin Hoffman, and the always-stupendous Emma Thompson, sounded like an intriguing pairing.

The film centers on the legacy of a famous art sculptor, Harold Meyerowitz (Hoffman), whose estranged children from previous marriages reunite for a celebration of his life's work and eventually his impending health. The oldest, Danny (Sandler), is a struggling musician currently divorcing his wife, and with an 18-year-old daughter, Eliza (Grace Van Patten), on her way to college. Matthew (Stiller, a Baumbach regular) is a successful businessman whom Harold seemed to direct most of his attention and affections to. And then there's Jean (Elizabeth Marvel), an introvert who represents the sibling or family member most people would easily overlook.

Baumbach seems to specialize in stories of dysfunctional families and imperfect relationships. (His previous credits include 2005's The Squid and the Whale, 2008's Margot at the Wedding, and 2010's Greenberg). And the premise of Meyerowitz seems conventional on the surface, what with all the family members assembling under complicated circumstances. What makes Baumbach's script unique is how grounded in reality it is, and how his actors put 100-percent of themselves in their characters. This is a character-driven piece, after all; an expertly-directed one, at that. And it's easy to see why members at the Cannes Film Festival early this year went crazy for it.

In fact, it's terrific seeing Sandler in serious mode again--a case in point why he should do more similar work in his career. His willingness to not only play Danny straight but to play him with real conflict and neglect--and alongside other acting heavyweights--showcases perhaps his best screen performance to date. Ditto for Stiller, Marvel, Hoffman, Van Patten, and Thompson (as Harold's loopy current wife, Maureen). There are also many poignant scenes that illustrate the pain these characters feel towards their father, as well as the persistence they try to endure through this time. "Maybe I need to believe my dad was a genius," says Danny, "because I don't want his work to feel like crap."

(l-r) Grace Van Patten, Ben Stiller, Adam Sandler, Elizabeth Marvel
But well-acted performances and great direction do not a great movie make. Which is why (as sad as it is for me to say) I can't mark this film as a standout feature this year.

Having been purchased by Netflix, the film was slapped with a TV-MA rating (equivalent to an R-rating or above). I knew there would be profanity issues (which there are) and other dysfunctional-related themes and content issues (which there are plenty of). After all, such stories typically tell of the feelings of disappointment, regret, or lack of success, that parents have on their children. And Harold has had that kind of effect on his children, whether through divorces or different homes or career choices or so forth. Matthew, at one point, confronts him by saying that he feels like a jerk because of his father.

But the biggest slaw that breaks the camel's back here is not so much these characters' feelings of neglect and lack of success. The biggest slaw is, in particularly, their neglect of certain current issues and effects, particularly Eliza's choice of career: pornographic filmmaking. It's bad enough audiences learn about this--twenty minutes into the film, as a matter of fact, which made me lose hope in the film. However, audiences are not treated to one, but two completely unnecessary scenes showing clips from Eliza's films, with dialogue and images too graphic to even describe. "That was really hard-R," comments Jean after viewing one of them. Harold rightfully criticizes it, saying that "people should not allow their kids to do that." To add insult to injury, Danny and Matthew later encourage Eliza in her acting endeavors. I personally found these elements degrading. Also, Harold is eager to watch new premium cable channels later on, one with a film called Sex Tape. Such is the case of irony. With all of the sexual harrassment controversy going on in our culture currently (that is, news of famous people who've been forced or forced others into sexual-related activities), is it really any different when a parent allows (and condones) their child to participate in sexual-related activities by their child's own free will? As Meyerowitz celebrates family unity and attempting to resolve past conflicts, it seems to neglect and condone such current effects.

I'll say it again. Solid acting and direction alone do not a great movie make. Therefore, I cannot place The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) on my "Standout Films of 2017" list. I wish I could.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Any Wonder That "mother!" (a.k.a. The Year's Most Controversial and Appalling Film) Has An Exclamation Point In Its Title?

An A-list cast and first-rate direction--albeit daring and experimental--can make a movie great. They can also be misleading, causing the film to be out of bounds for general audiences, for one thing. Consider Darren Aronovsky's mother!, for example. It has both the aforementioned casting and direction, but ultimately it may also be the most scathing film in years. It's certainly the most scathing thing to come to the cinema this year.

Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem play a married couple whose quiet, secluded life is interrupted by strange visitors. She's a housekeeper, and he's a struggling writer. The visitors claim to be fans of the writer husband, but the housekeeping wife is skeptical and eventually unsettled, not only by their strange behaviors, but also their two sons and eventually their other guests.

And when she becomes pregnant, another cycle comes. We sense that something bad will happen. But when it does, it turns out to be a living hell for audience members, just as it is for Lawrence's character. It's beyond horrifying. In fact, the last thirty minutes of the film are not only stomach-churning. They're beyond horrifying.

Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem
Aronovsky reportedly wrote his initial script in five days, like a "fever dream" and a "howl" to current world events, then put his cast through a rehearsal period of three months before shooting. The film has a haunting atmosphere, and puts an unprecedented, beyond-crazy spin on the home invasion motif. As Charlton Heston's Taylor famously quoted in Planet of the Apes, "It's a madhouse." And a nightmare, at that. Furthermore, the very hope of rebuilding a home from rubble (as the opening segment suggests) and wanting to make a paradise rapidly falls apart when others come in and carelessly tarnish it, and not just invade people's privacy.

The imagery throughout is disturbing in and of itself, from blood-stained floors and light-bulbs, to cellars illustrating boiling pots waiting to explode at any moment. But it's the writer's obsessive fans who act more like ritualistic followers, leading to an angry mob, unspeakable violence, and then disturbing carnage (like hell).

Many people will have a hard time wondering if Aronovsky's use of allegory here is either used as a contemporary parallel or as a harsh criticism towards Christianity and religion. Even director William Friedkin (no stranger to controversy himself with 1973's The Exorcist) was unsure of Aronovsky's intention during a recent interview between both filmmakers at the Producer's Guild of America (click here and here). Lawrence's "mother" is supposed to represent Mother Nature (a caregiver, a housewife), while the "husband" and "wife" (a crazy and creepy Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer) are supposed to be Adam and Eve, and their two sons (real-life brothers Brian Gleeson and Domhnall Gleeson) represent Cain and Abel--with familial and violent consequences. (Did I mention even Kristen Wiig shows up as the writer's publisher?)

Lawrence hits a boiling point
But all these characters' names are written in lower case. Bardem's, on the other hand, is the only character with his name capitalized. Above all, if Bardem's "Him" is supposed to represent God (as Aronovsky has revealed in interviews), then it's the most scathing, careless, and emotionless portrayal (and possible criticism) I've ever seen. He's a character who's so overwhelmed and so into himself, his success, and how much his "followers" love him. Bardem (a phenomenal actor) becomes quietly unpredictable, and, dare I say, menacing, especially when he and Lawrence stare down over the newborn baby.

I cannot strongly state how damaging and how unbelievably appalling this film really is. If IT was a nightmarish carnival, then mother! is an insane asylum. The overall experience is also depressing, feel-bad, and horrible. Is it any wonder there's an exclamation point in the title?

"Baby Driver": Talk About a Killer Soundtrack

Somebody who attended the same screening of Baby Driver as me asked what the film was about. My spoiler-free response to her was, "Let's just say it's an unconventional heist movie." Indeed, the basic premise of Edgar Wright's film is about a getaway driver who soundtracks his life (courtesy an iPod playlist of various songs) as he escorts gangs of various trigger-happy criminals.

Known for his Cornetto trilogy of comedies (2004's Shaun of the Dead, 2007's Hot Fuzz, 2013's The World's End), Wright gets his motor running based off of a music video he directed in 2003 (Mint Royale's "Blue Song"). And the British filmmaker does it with both killer style and unexpected substance.

Baby (The Fault In Our Stars' Ansel Elgort) has chronic tinnitus from an accident he had as a kid, and still hears a hum in the eardrums. This explains why he plugs his iPod earphones in to drown out the vibrations with those on par with the Beach Boys. Then he meets a pretty diner waitress named Deborah (Cinderella's Lily James). However, Baby's boss, Doc (the always-engrossing Kevin Spacey), who's been the only father-like figure to him (other than his deaf guardian Joseph), has one last job for him. But Baby wants out, for good.

Ryan Gosling's cinematic cousin?
That's the film in a nutshell. And if any of these story elements sound familiar, they do sort of make the film fall on the conventional side. What makes Wright's script and film (his first shot in the U.S.) stand out, though, is its musical and rhythmic structure. The visual idiosyncrasies from Wright's aforementioned films are still in tact here, mostly for the purpose of the soundtrack and its numerous synchronizations, ranging from artists like Simon & Garfunkel (the film's title comes from one of their songs) to Young MC to Martha Reeves and the Vandellas to Queen. Being the music geek that I am, to a degree, I found this thoroughly engaging. The car chases, for one, are first-rate--and done for real! The opening sequence, set to The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion's "Bellbottoms," sells the movie from frame one and rivals some of the best openings of any film. (Check out this insightful video for a breakdown of that scene.) This sequence, as well as the one-take shot of Baby walking downtown to Dave and Sam's "Harlem Shuffle," highlight Baby's character and his dilemma. And his conversations with Deborah, who represents the life he wants to get away to, wonderfully touch on numerous songs that are about their respective names. (The same applies to his genuine relationship with Joe.)

The film's cast is stellar, with such A-listers as Spacey, Jamie Foxx (a menacing dog of a role), Jon Hamm and Eiza Gonzalez (as a married couple, and possibly a sharp contrast to Baby and Debora, especially when they lose their cool), Jon Bernthal (a scene-stealer), James, and a breakout star in Elgort, who allows Baby to be sympathetic, unpredictable, and universal. He may even rival Ryan Gosling's unnamed "Driver" from 2011's Drive.

Ansel Elgort
As for the story, it's deeper than you may expect (a strength), and not as silly or as fun as the film's title or trailers would suggest (both a strength and a weakness, especially for discerning viewers). Baby is involved in a life of crime, after all. His tunes may be fun and cool, but some of the things he (and audiences) spectate or partake in aren't that fun at all, whether it's occasional profanity or violence that is hysterical (crazy, not comedic) and, at times, shocking. While not on par with the violence that Logan escalated in, it still doesn't make for easy viewing at times. Hence, the film's R-rating.

We can at least give Baby credit for pushing to get out of that lifestyle and toward a more meaningful one, all the while keeping iPods and mixed tapes still in fashion. How's that for unconventional?