Monday, November 13, 2017

Murder on the Orient Express Review

It was a surprisingly lucrative weekend at the box office this past weekend as both "Daddy's Home 2" and "Murder on the Orient Express" defied poor to mediocre reviews to cash in around $30 million each. I use the word surprising as this is the weekend in between two major blockbusters with "Thor Ragnarok" making a huge splash in the first weekend of November while "Justice League" awaits us this upcoming weekend. Usually the movies sandwiched between don't perform that well. But both "Daddy's Home 2" and "Murder on the Orient Express" were able to provide some counter-programming for audiences that perhaps are a little burnt out on the superhero stuff. Studio expectations and official projections were around $20 million for both movies, thus is why the $30 million is a definite win for both. As far as the poor to mediocre reviews go, based on my review of "Daddy's Home 2," you would probably guess that I think the 16 percent this movie scored is a bit generous. You'll learn with this review that, on the contrary, I think the 58 percent that "Murder on the Orient Express" scored is a tad bit too low. I have my theories as to why not everyone was madly in love with this movie, but I personally found it to be a solidly entertaining film.

If we take a second to closely examine Rotten Tomatoes for a second, I think that 58 percent is not actually as bad of a score as some might think. It's sometimes easy to see a score that's less than 70 percent and immediately declare that critics hated the movie. In reality, I'd say that anything that's between 40 percent and 70 percent on Rotten Tomatoes should be classified as mixed reviews. The percentage you see on Rotten Tomatoes literally means the percent of certified Rotten Tomatoes critics that gave the movie a positive review. Barely positive counts as positive. That means that you could theoretically have 95 percent of critics claiming the movie was just OK and the movie would still get that 95 percent score. You could also theoretically have 50 percent of critics describe the movie as the best movie ever made while the other 50 percent weren't quite as enthralled and the movie would get that 50 percent score. So if you see a movie like "Murder on the Orient Express" in the 50 percent range on Rotten Tomatoes, that doesn't mean skip it because everyone hates the movie. It literally means there is not a consensus, so you should go in and find out for yourself if it was a movie that you were excited for because you just might be part of the positive group.

I don't usually spend so much time talking about the reviews of the film. More often than not I will look at the scores on Rotten Tomatoes, IMDb and other places as more of a curiosity thing and then proceed to give you my review despite all of that. But in this instance I think the fact that this movie lands in the 50 percent range goes to show that, in this instance, personal preference will play a major key in whether you will like this movie or not. "Murder on the Orient Express" is very much an old-fashioned murder mystery with modern-day visual effects. My honest opinion is that I simply think this is a genre that not everyone takes to. There's a lot of movies that pay homage to classic film, but not a ton of them that actually feel like a classic film. I imagine this was a very specific stylistic choice from director Kenneth Branagh. He could've chosen to do a modern adaptation of this story, using something like "Snowpiercer" as inspiration, which was a very intense, high-octane thriller from a few years ago that also took place on a train. And perhaps that's what we would've gotten if a David Fincher type of director got their hands on this material. But I think Branagh simply wanted to make an old-fashioned detective movie and so he went for it.

If you look at the rest of Branagh's filmography, it kinda makes sense that he would go this direction with a classic Agatha Christie novel. While not all of his movies have worked out in the eyes of critics or the general public, he definitely has a type as he started with "Henry V" in 1989 and proceed to direct movies such as "Much Ado About Nothing," "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein," "A Midwinter's Tale" and "Hamlet" in the 90's. A lot of Shakespeare in there with a classic Mary Shelley tale thrown in as well. Even with his most recent film prior to "Murder on the Orient Express," it makes sense that he would take a very safe, classic approach to Disney's live action "Cinderella" from 2015, a movie that a lot of my friends really loved because of how true it stayed to Cinderella's story. You can even look at the original "Thor" from 2011 and see a lot of Branagh's classic elements to it. He likes taking classic material and doing his best to turn them into classic films made in the modern-day. Again, it doesn't work out every time for him. But in this instance I think he nailed the tone of this movie. We obviously have a lot of mystery and suspense with this, but the intensity level is purposely toned down in favor of some classic dialogue-centered detective work.

You may have noticed in this review a lack of my typical plot description that I usually include in the second paragraph of my reviews. I've purposely omitted that as I don't want to talk about the plot of this movie. If you're familiar with Agatha Christie's 1930's novel and/or the 1974 film adaptation, you already know the plot of this movie anyways. If you are like me and you very much enjoy old-fashioned detective movies, but you aren't familiar with this specific story, then I don't want to tell you the plot because you should go in knowing as little as possible. But if you need it, there's been a murder. On the Orient Express. Shocker!!! Kenneth Branagh, who I've already talked about a lot as the director of this film, also doubles as the movie's lead star, detective Hercule Poirot. And he's doing his best to solve this thing. Being very well aware several months ago that this movie was heading our way, I debated in my head as to whether I wanted to familiarize myself with the source material. I ended up making the conscience decision not to, deciding instead to go into this movie blind. I think it's quite possible that this decision played a factor in my personal enjoyment of the film as I had a lot of fun trying to solve this mystery along with Hercule Poirot.

On those lines, I think there's two key elements into my personal enjoyment of any detective movie like this: the journey and the payoff. In terms of the journey of this film, this had me fully invested for the entire run time, much like most Sherlock Holmes stories do. I had a ton of fun putting on my metaphorical detective hat and turning my brain, making my best effort to pay attention to every character and every detail so that I could solve this mystery. What made this so fun was that there were so many characters to sift through and remember, that include, but aren't limited to, Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh God, Leslie Odom Jr, Michelle Pfeiffer and Daisy Ridley. And those are just the names on the poster. There are other characters not listed on that poster and a whole host of side characters that make small cameos that I tried to pay attention to. We aren't clued in on any of their backstories at all going in. The only time we learn about them is when Kenneth Branagh is learning about them through his interviews, conversations and detective work. The movie was very dialogue-heavy, but I wasn't bored. I was doing my best to listen and remember so that I could figure out my own suspects.

Did I solve the mystery? No, I actually didn't. Did I have my premonitions? Not really. I was quite surprised with the results. Is that the reason why I enjoyed this, because they successfully kept me in the dark? No, I don't think so. I don't usually judge my experience with these detective movies based on whether or not I solved the mystery myself. I think a better judge to these movies is how does the story hold up when you go back through it a second time, whether that be in your mind or on a re-watch. No, I haven't watched the movie a second time, but I did spend the weekend thinking about it as I didn't have time on Friday, Saturday or Sunday to write my review after seeing this movie Friday evening. In general, if the enjoyment of a movie is hinged on the twist ending or the surprise, I think that's a bit of a precarious situation as there's a risk that the movie is no longer enjoyable a second time through. Thus the best mystery films are the ones that have a well-thought out story with great characters and great motivations. Even though I'm not yet familiar with the source material here, I can make a good guess as to why it's stood the test of time. I found the conclusion of this movie to be very satisfying and emotional with some great themes in place.

That's all I'm going to say about this movie. I could dive into the themes, but that would spoil the movie. Just know that they made me ponder and think more than your average murder mystery. This is a movie that's not hinged solely on the fun, whodunit that you play while watching. I predict that this will have the rewatchability factor, even though I have not yet watched it a second time. I could also talk a lot about the acting here, but I feel like if I singled out the actors or actresses that did a good job in this movie that it would clue you into who are the major characters, so I'm going to avoid that. I do feel comfortable saying that Kenneth Branagh did a great job as Hercule Poirot since it's his vantage point that we are seeing this movie from. I will also add that there are some fantastic acting performances from various cast members. Once you've seen the movie, you can come talk to me and I will share with you who those were. But for now, I will leave that a mystery. When push comes to shove, "Murder on the Orient Express" is a movie where you have to ask yourself if you enjoy old-fashioned detective movies. If they're not your thing, then you don't need to bother with this movie. But if you eat them up, then definitely go see this one. My grade for the movie is a solid 8/10.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Daddy's Home 2 Review

I didn't review "Daddy's Home" on this blog. Because I didn't see it. Not until yesterday, anyways. You see, "Daddy's Home" looked so stupid and I didn't want to deal with it. Yes, I see bad movies all the time in order to warn people to steer clear, but "Daddy's Home" just had awful timing for me. Not only did it come out around Christmas time, it also came out at almost the exact same time as "Star Wars: The Force Awakens." So not only did I not want to leave family during Christmas in order to see a dumb movie like "Daddy's Home," but every time during that holiday season that I did want to escape to the theaters, why in the heck would I go see "Daddy's Home" when I could simply go see "The Force Awakens" again? Seemed like a no-brainer. Once the holiday season was over, it was too late for me to care. So it never happened. But unfortunately that movie made an insane amount of money for how dumb it looked ($150.4 million domestically and $242.8 million worldwide), so because we live in 2017, that means sequel. Joy. Because who in the fetch wants a "Daddy's Home 2"? Not me. But in order for this franchise to stop haunting me, I bit the bullet and watched BOTH movies over the course of the last 24 hours. And now I'm here to complain.

The premise of "Daddy's Home" was that Will Ferrell is a stepdad with a seemingly perfect wife whose two kids absolutely hate him, despite his best efforts to be the best father figure he can. Right when he thinks he's starting to make some progress, their actual father, played by Mark Wahlberg, arrives and essentially derails all of that progress. While Wahlberg was one of the worst husbands and a really despicable human being, hence the divorce, he's nearly the perfect father as he spoils these kids to no other. And Will Ferrell doesn't quite have the heart or the confidence to simply kick him out, especially considering how cunning Wahlberg is. This leads to a 96 minute brawl between these two that isn't making wife too terribly happy with either one. But in the end the somehow manage to work things out and live happily ever after as co-dads while Wahlberg moves into the castle next door with his new supermodel wife and Will Ferrell stays at home with the kids and his wife. That's the first movie. Turns out in the second movie we learn that it wasn't quite a happily ever after as we continue the fight, this time adding two more dads into the mix, Walberg and Ferrell's dads, played by Mel Gibson and John Lithgow. Lots of dads. Lots of problems. And lots of headaches for me.

When it comes to the first movie, which I won't spend a ton of time on, my biggest question was who is the audience of the movie and what style were they trying to go with it? If they wanted to make a gag-filled, slapstick comedy for families, then fine. I can respect that, so long as it makes the younger kids laugh. On the other hand, if they wanted to go all out and make a raunchy comedy for adults, then fine. I probably would skip it because I hate raunchy comedies, but if the target audience loved it, then it's whatever. But it seemed like they couldn't decide which audience to appease and ended up with a PG-13 comedy that is way too dirty for family audiences, yet way too stupid and juvenile for adults. Thus the movie wanders in limbo or purgatory in my opinion as it's not able to please anyone. Thus I'm shocked at how much money it ended up making. On a similar note, the filmmakers also also couldn't decide what tone to give the movie. If they wanted it to be a serious drama about the struggles that stepdads have in raising their wives' children, it was way too unrealistic and over-the-top. If they wanted it to be an outright, ridiculous comedy filled with nonsensical slapstick humor, then the movie took itself way too seriously.

Unsurprisingly, "Daddy's Home 2" suffered from similar problems. Who is this movie for? Thankfully they toned down all the raunchy humor in this movie, as if they wanted to make a Christmas movie for families. But it still earns its PG-13 rating and thus I don't think this is a movie that kids would enjoy or should be taken to by parents, especially not when several other actual family friendly movies are heading their way into theaters this holiday. On the flip-side, are adults really going to go to this movie and find it funny? All of the humor crammed in is almost literally cut and paste from the first movie. In the first movie, Will Ferrell tries to ride a motorcycle and epicly fails with him crashing in the house with the motorcycle smashing the family van. In this second movie, Will Ferrell goes similarly berserk with a snowblower that leaves him hurt with the snowblower ending up on the family van. In the first movie, Will Ferrell got electrocuted will riding a skateboard. In this movie, Will Ferrell gets electrocuted when he cuts down a cellphone tower that he thinks is a Christmas tree. That's just two examples. Most of the gags are similarly identical, as if the writers cared more about their quick cash grab then trying to make a funny movie.

So yeah. The slapstick humor is the type of humor that I think is only really funny for young kids. Adults aren't going to laugh at it. Especially not when it's all copied and pasted from the first movie. But yet this is not a kids movie, so if they were targeting towards an adult audience, why not go all in and make a comedy that adults will actually laugh at? I personally don't think you need to have a ton of raunchy humor in order to make adults laugh, but if a movie wants to go that direction, then commit. I personally would say that, regardless of rating, adults normally prefer comedy that is clever and well-written. Surprisingly, though, I think a bigger problem with this sequel is the absolute lack of focus with the story. The first movie came out during Christmas, but is not really a Christmas movie. This movie comes out ahead at the beginning of the holiday season and is definitely an attempt at a Christmas movie. On paper, the idea of making a Christmas movie where the whole family gets together in an attempt to have a giant, happy Christmas party is a great idea. There can be a lot of humor with the clashing personalities and the outright insanity that the holiday season can bring, but the execution of that premise in this movie is absolutely atrocious.

Our recent "Thor: Ragnarok" movie proved that it actually is possible to take a whole host of characters and story arcs and weave it together into one beautiful movie, if you have good writing and good directing. What "Daddy's Home 2" proves is that it is very easy to take a ton of characters and a ton of story arcs and deliver a complete train wreck when your writing and directing is completely putrid. No, I didn't like the first movie. But at least it was somewhat focused in terms of story. It was Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg fighting to prove that each were the better dad for their kids. This movie continues that battle of Ferrell vs. Wahlberg, but also adds in Wahlberg's relationship with his dad, Will Ferrell's relationship with his dad, those two grandpa's reactions to everyone, Ferrell's wife and her battle with Wahlberg's wife, the drama between Ferrell's and Wahlberg's shared kids, the drama between Wahlberg and his stepdaughter, the battle between Wahlberg as a stepdad himself fighting John Cena as the perfect dad to his daughter as well as every other webbed relationship with everyone towards everyone else. If that was a confusing paragraph to read, just imagine all of that and more trying to be balanced on screen.

And the story. I mean, what story? Outside the attempts to try and balance all of these relationships, there is no real story. They're all celebrating a week or so together as a giant family during Christmas time. That's the story. We just move on from one gag to another gag to another gag to one random story arc to another random story arc to another random story arc, most of which had no relevance to the story as a whole. They were just all horrible attempts at humor that felt like the writers had no idea where they were going, but instead felt like there were 50 writers all contributing one scene that they thought would be funny. And remember what I said about the first movie not being able to decide if it wanted to be an all-out comedy or a drama. Yeah, same here. This is too unrealistic and insane to have any dramatic weight while also being way too serious for audiences to sit back and enjoy the movie as a crazy popcorn flick. Just multiply this by 100 with how many stories and characters the movie was trying to weave in. If you've ever watched a construction crew implode an old building, causing it to crumble and disintegrate into a pile of rubble and dust, that's what I felt like watching this movie. It was a bad idea that got worse as it went along.

I don't even blame the actors for this one. Will Ferrell got to be Buddy the Elf again, albeit a horrible impression of Buddy the Elf. Yet I think he had fun. John Lithgow definitely looked like he was having fun as Will Ferrell's equally as crazy father. Mark Wahlberg did his best as the movie was crumbling around him. Mel Gibson got to be Mel Gibson for the whole movie, if you know what I mean. The two wives tried to make their shoehorned parts work. And I can't blame any of the kids for this. Who I can blame is the writers and director for taking all of this talent and turning it into a complete disaster by not making any of it work. This movie doesn't who its target audience is. It doesn't know what type of movie it wants to be, whether dramatic or comedy. I don't think anyone had any idea what direction they were trying to take the story or what to do with the characters. Everything just happened and it was a giant mess. This movie clocks in at 100 minutes long, 20 minutes short of two hours. Yet I thought I was in the theater for nearly three hours. Granted this wasn't the most offensive movie I've watched. It's not a movie that made me super angry. It was just a huge disaster that felt like a complete waste of my time. I'm awarding "Daddy's Home 2" a 3/10.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Only the Brave Review

"Only the Brave" was released back on October 20, the weekend where there were five new wide releases, including "Geostorm," "Boo 2! A Madea Halloween," "The Snowman" and "Same Kind of Different as Me" in addition to "Only the Brave." Of those five, I elected to see "Geostorm," not because I thought it would be good, but I was curious as to how bad it was. Obviously the movie I should've seen was "Only the Brave." And I knew that going into the weekend. I don't know why it took me nearly three weeks to see it. But oh well. Life happens and life moves forward. So here I am with a slightly late review, but this is still in theaters right now and it didn't make much at the box office compared to what it deserved, so if you're like me and you didn't see it opening weekend, then there is still a chance for you to head over to the theaters. If you like disaster movies, then this is definitely one to see. And by disaster movies in this instance, I'm meaning real life disaster movies such as "Deepwater Horizon" or "Everest." The type of disaster movies that tell the story of a horrific event by diving into the lives of the people who experienced that event. Not the fictional "Geostorm" crap made solely to show off some fancy special effects, Michael Bay style.

I don't really know how much I want to say about this event in this review. This is a movie about the Granite Mountain Hotshots from Prescott, Arizona and their journey fighting fires a few years back, somewhere in the time frame of 2008 to 2013. I went in knowing exactly what happened to them because I got curious when the movie started being advertised heavily. Knowing the end from the beginning didn't ruin my experience. In fact, I'd say it enhanced it. But in case you have no idea what these men and their families went through, I will be mum about the details this movie is leading up to. I'll just say that this is a movie that dives into the everyday lives of firefighters, specifically a team that is working their hardest to become Hotshots, which, if I have my firefighter terminology from the movie correct, are the group of firefighters fighting at the base of the wildfires who work on controlling the wildfires so that they don't burn major structures or go into the small towns. Sometimes that's easier said than done because nature is an unforgiving beast that is no respecter of persons when its on is mad rampage as we've learned rather well in 2017 with all the hurricanes, earthquakes and wildfires that have devastated our world.

The biggest thing that I really loved about this movie is that it gave me a deep appreciation of the firefighters working tirelessly around the globe. These are the group of people that are too often the unsung heroes of our country. I mean, how often to you thank the firefighters for saving countless lives every year or even think of the firefighters? I know I often take them for granted, and I'm sure I'm not the only person on earth who has done so. But they really are national heroes worthy of a ton of praise. This movie does a great job of reminding you of that. It does so by diving deep into the everyday lives of this specific group, showing all the sacrifices they have to make to protect the country. I'm sure it's really hard for the families of the firefighters during fire season due to how often they are gone. There's a lot of personal struggles on both sides in deciding if this is really worth it. How do the wives of these men feel when they are gone so often? They want their husbands around and it's hard living life with them always on the war path against these fires. And what about the kids who never get to see their dads? It's a tough life and a rough balancing act. But then you see them successfully stopping a fire from doing major damage and see that it's all worth it.

Specifically we dive into the lives of two of the crew members, Josh Brolin as the chief of the group and Miles Teller as a brand new recruit. Brolin's been the guy whose done this for many years and he pulls off this role really well. You see him dressed in uniform, leading his crew of people and it just seems like he's been doing this for years and knows exactly what he's doing. The movie also spends a lot of time with him and his wife, played by Jennifer Connelly. This is where we get the family perspective as Connelly has to deal with her husband being gone all the time, especially once they get the promotion as Hotshots. She honestly does a great job of supporting him, fully realizing all the good that he's doing in the world. But oftentimes her human side comes out and you can feel the pain of her not getting to see her husband as much as she wants as she feels his life is 90 percent devoted to fighting the fires and only 10 percent devoted to her. The two of them have amazing on-screen chemistry with each other, which is what makes this relationship and the struggles work. They'll fight for a bit and you feel the tension, but then they'll make up and apologize to each other, which then gives you all the happy feel goods and you really hope they live happily ever after.

On the flip side, we have Miles Teller who is completely unqualified to join this group. He's a druggie and a complete mess. He's not in proper physical shape and you wonder how and why Josh Brolin lets him on the team. Miles Teller joins because he learns that his girlfriend, or ex-girlfriend, is pregnant and when she has their child, he has an honest desire to change his life around so that he can support them. Thus he practically begs Josh Brolin to let him on the team, because this is the training he did when he had is life at least somewhat in order. Turns out Brolin lets him on because he sees a lot of himself in Miles Teller and knows this job can save his life if he really commits to it. But the others on the team really hate this decision as they feel Miles Teller is going to hold them back and prevent them from making it as Hotshots. Miles Teller does a great job of playing a punk in his movies, thus he pulls off this druggie kid really well, making you side with the others on the team. But he's also genuinely a really good actor and makes you care more and more for him as the story goes on. Out of all the characters in this movie, Miles Teller is the one that has the best character arc. Him and Brolin play off each other really well in order to make that arc work.

There's also a few other story arcs woven into this movie as this has a rather large cast of notable names. Thus I feel that where this movie really succeeds is in becoming a beautiful character piece, focusing on the lives of these firefighters. Some of these movies based on real natural disasters spend a lot of time focusing on the disaster itself. And in many cases that works really well. This movie spends most of its time on the characters as the fire sequences themselves don't take up a whole lot of time despite this movie being 134 minutes long. While that's a big risk in spending so much time on the characters and not much time on the disaster, by successfully pulling that off, it makes the disaster hit even harder when it comes because you fall in love with all of these characters and you want all of them to survive. Thus the praise here has to be in the acting. Despite great reviews all around (91 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, 93 percent on Flixter, 8.1 on IMDb), due to Oscar politics, this movie isn't even on the Oscar radar, which is unfortunate. But I honestly think Josh Brolin, Jennifer Connelly and Miles Teller give Oscar-worthy performances. I don't know who I'd personally put in, but the three of them are certainly worthy candidates.

Overall, if you haven't yet seen this movie, I would make it an effort to find a theater and go fix that. If you're not a theater-going person, then this would make an excellent movie night when it comes out on DVD. It's a long movie that spends most of its time developing these characters, but I think that angle worked out really well as we dive deep into the normal, everyday lives of these firefighters, getting an honest look at what it's like living in this profession. It's hard work with a lot of sacrifices needing to be made, but these are people who make a real difference in our lives and are deserving of more praise than they get. I really appreciate this movie for giving me that perspective and making me personally want to make sure to give more credit and appreciation for all of the firefighters around the country. There's solid directing and writing in this film with some fantastic cinematography and genuinely terrifying fire sequences that do a great job of making fire scary, which it is, but really propelling the movie forward are the phenomenal performances from Josh Brolin, Miles Teller and Jennifer Connelly that make this movie work as they make you really care for them and hope for the best, despite knowing what's coming. I will give "Only the Brave" a 9/10.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Stranger Things 2 Review (SPOILERS)

I never reviewed the first season of "Stranger Things" on this blog. Part of that is that I've not been as big on reviewing all the TV shows I watch. I've decided that reviewing things episode by episode is the way to go instead binge reviewing a whole season at the same time. But reviewing every episode of every TV show I watch is simply too time consuming. So I just enjoy my TV on my own and focus this blog on movies, while occasionally throwing out my thoughts on something major like "The Defenders" or "13 Reasons Why." The other reason why I never reviewed the first season of "Stranger Things" is that I was really late to the party. I actually didn't have a Netflix account when it came out. In fact, this is the show that caused me to cave and sign up for Netflix. Yes, I had a Netflix account quite some time ago, but I cancelled it because I just didn't use it much. But now that we live in a day with so many major Netflix original series and movies, it suddenly became a necessary thing to have. So I figured what the heck. I'll give my $10 a month to Netflix so I can be on top of things when something major comes around. Like "Stranger Things 2." Now that the second season has been binged, it's time to finally deliver you my thoughts on this show.

First off, I think it's important to note that when I finally got around to binging the first season of "Stranger Things," I completely ate it up. The mystery and the suspense hooked me from the very first episode and I found that my agency had been completely taken away, causing me to watch the entire season in one sitting. It was quite the marvelous experience. Do I think it was the absolute best show ever given to mankind, causing me to worship the ground the Duffer Brothers walked on? Definitely not. If you hate me for saying that, well then so be it. Be a grinch towards me if you want, but I think that'll be unfair on your part because I really enjoyed my experience. It was a great trip down memory lane that brought to the modern day everything good about Steven Spielberg and Stephen King, mashed into one show. You have the camaraderie of a group of kids bonding together and being kids, like "The Goonies," while something crazy and mysterious happens, like in "IT." In fact, the latter I think is actually the best comparison to "Stranger Things," although we side more on mysteries and thrills rather than outright horror. If you hate horror, you still might like "Stranger Things" because it's really not as scary as something like "IT." For the most part, anyways.

Speaking of which, if you haven't seen "Stranger Things" or "Stranger Things 2," this is about as far as you should go in this review. If you didn't notice by my spoiler tag in the title, I will be discussing spoilers. I'm not going to cover everything in the season, but I'm going to write as if everyone reading has already watched both seasons. You've been warned. When push comes to shove, I think the best way to describe "Stranger Things" is that it's 80's nostalgia vomit at its greatest. I feel it's created by two brothers and their team of writers, directors and producers that absolutely love the 80's and wanted to bring the best of the 80's back to the modern day, which is actually a very popular trend right now that I mostly enjoy. I was born in the final year of the 80's, which means I'm mainly a 90's kid, but as a 90's kid, I couldn't help myself with all the 80's stuff as well as there's a lot of great movies, music and TV shows from the 80's that are absolutely fantastic. Thus seeing that come back in my adult years makes me smile like a giddy, little school kid. Unlike movies such as "Super 8" and the "Ghostbusters" remake, "Stranger Things" is 80's nostalgia vomit that is done to perfection. Not that those two movies are awful. But they don't quite capture the magic.

Now that I've properly buttered you up as to why I think this is a great show that is definitely worth watching if you're a fan of everything 80's, it's time to bring a little bit of honesty to the table because while I love the show as a whole and I was madly in love with the first season, the second season falls a bit short of the first season. While I love getting myself caught up in nostalgia, I don't let myself get completely caught up in the nostalgia as I refuse to claim something is the greatest thing of all time when it quite frankly isn't. The camaraderie of the kids simply isn't as strong. The suspense and the mystery isn't there. The season doesn't grab you and hook you in like I wanted it to. In fact, after watching the first two episodes on the day it was released, instead of having my agency taken away by being forced to watch the whole season in one sitting, I was totally fine with stopping after two episodes to focus on finishing my Halloween movie reviews and Halloween festivities with friends. I went a whole five days without any "Stranger Things" and never once during that period did I have the burning sensation of needed to know what happens next. It wasn't until I got bored following the ending of Halloween that I went back and finished the season.

Jumping into specifics, let's first talk about this camaraderie of this group of kids. Mike is a completely unlikable prick in season 2. I mean, boo hoo, your girlfriend is gone. I'm so sad. Now why don't you stop taking it out on your friends. And why act like a dictator in this group of friends that has all the say in everything? I especially hated his complete stubbornness in not letting Max into their group when she obviously had a whole lot to offer them and proved her worth time and time again. If I were Dustin and Lucas, I would've said, "Screw you Mike. We're going to hang out with Max until you get your head out of the sand." But I did appreciate their loyalty to the group, although both of them could've stood their ground a bit earlier on. Speaking of Dustin, I thought it was really dumb of him to hide the baby Hell Hound (Demidog) from his friends or to keep it as a pet. I mean, did he forget everything about the Upside Down and the Demigorgon from a year ago? Doesn't he know it's a bad idea in this world of theirs to keep mysterious-looking creatures as pets? And after they go on their hunt to find it when it escapes, why in the world does he think it's a great idea to hide the thing from his friends and take it back to his home?

Of the bunch, Lucas is the one that gets his time to shine this season and I loved the addition of Max as the obligatory red-headed girl in their group (another comparison to "IT"). I just could've used a little more effort on Lucas' part to be more headstrong instead of allowing himself to be pushed around by Mike so much. But I do realize that it added a bit to his character arc, though, as he learned how to stand up for himself or be confident around Max. So I can let that slide. And I do realize that these are Middle School aged kids. Doing dumb things and acting like pricks is very normal. I just think the writing of their characters was a bit underwhelming as they did things that didn't seem to make sense for their characters. But the kid actors certainly were fantastic. Finn Wolfhard, Gaten Matarazzo and Caleb McLaughlin certainly have bright futures ahead of them. Speaking of writing, though, I think it was another mistake to keep El, or Eleven, or Jane, whatever name we're giving Millie Bobby Brown's character, hidden away in a cabin for most of the season. I'll get to that in a second, though. Finishing off my discussion of the main group of kids, the huge standout was Noah Schnapp as Will. The poor kid can't catch a break on this show, yet the acting there was superb.

The other major complaint I have is the suspense. One of the greatest things about the first season is that it hooked me right from the start with the disappearance of Will into the Upside Down. But since we didn't know the lore yet, the suspense was super high in my mind as I was dying to know what the heck was going on. When we revealed everything about the Demigorgon and the Upside Down, that was a satisfying conclusion to all of it, especially the more we saw from El throughout the season. This season we had El locked in a cabin for most of the season, Will is having flashes to the Upside Down that everyone is confident is PTSD and Dustin finds a baby Hell Hound that he decides to keep as a pet. That didn't hook me. It wasn't bad. I just wanted to be hooked and I wasn't. I did think it was a great moment when Will took the advice from Sean Astin to face his fears head on, because that turned out to be very bad advice, causing Will to get possessed by the Smoke Monster. But that all meant that we were going to be facing the Smoke Monster from "LOST" and the Hell Hounds from "Supernatural" in a finale that I hoped was good? Meanwhile we have El and her X-Men powers to help them if Hopper would let her free.

The fact that all I had was hope that this would turn out well frustrated me a bit because the first season just took off running while the second season had a poor set up that decided to be content with waiting four to six episodes before finally DOING something. It's as if they didn't know they were going to get a second season, so this season they had to start over and set up something completely new instead of continuing where they left off. Luckily for me, that hope paid off because the final three episodes were phenomenal. What really hooked me was that X-Men episode... that apparently everyone hates. I mean, after watching the show, I looked at the episode grades on IMDb and saw a 6.4/10 for episode 7 with a ton of bitter, hate-filled reviews? Say what? That floored me. I think that this was the most important episode of the whole season as El finally decides to stand up to Hopper, who obviously wasn't going to do jack squat outside locking her up in the cabin for the rest of eternity. So she gets out to see the world and teams up with a fun group of outcasts who actually respect and appreciate her. Then we have her Indian sister who is there to teach El how to use her powers. I had been waiting two seasons for that moment and I'm glad it happened.

I also really liked the character arc that El went on during this episode. This group was trying to teach El that she belongs with them because the outside world rejected them. And she fit in so well with them. Quite frankly the little heists they went on during that episode were fun to watch as El and her sister combined their powers together to create quite the team. I was kinda hoping for a few more of these people so that we can have a full-out X-Men team to fight all the monsters from the Upside Down. And maybe we're going that direction in the future. Because Shadow Monster certainly didn't get stopped and it's possible that the Hell Hounds could be back. All we did in this season was close the gate to the Upside Down again, which we learned from the last season doesn't really work. But I'm getting ahead of myself. El could've gone with this team of outcasts, but she makes a great decision that her friends back home needed her. She has the psychic premonitions that they are all in trouble, so she has to make the decision to part ways with her sister, the one person she has come to know as family, to go help her friends back home. Because they need her and might all die without her. It was a powerful moment, yet a sad one as the sisters parted ways.

This leads us to our finale. Which, holy cow! This was super intense. The Hell Hounds have banded together and they are out for blood. When I said earlier that this show is not really horror, but is more mystery and tension, this is where I have to go back on that a bit because the attack of the Hell Hounds definitely does make this pure horror on the level of "IT." Those things are scary and their flower heads with their dog bodies make the creature design look freaking awesome. I roll my eyes a bit that the big reveal with this show is that it's just monsters attacking the city from a different realm and nothing more, but these are well-designed monsters that are legitimately terrifying, so it works. And the sequences in the lab with the Hell Hounds were probably the most terrifying sequences in this show thus far. The fact that this show has the guts to brutally kill off one of the main characters in Sean Astin made it even more intense because that means anything can happen. Thus when they're hiding in the house with absolutely no plan as to what to do, with the Hell Hounds closing in on them, I was practically cowering in my chair or my bed -- wherever I was. Even though I complained a lot about the set up of this season, the finale was fantastic.

The final episode itself, though, was not quite as impressive as the previous two episodes before it. I think we get bogged down a bit by the Billy story arc. They moment where Billy goes to Nancy's house and has a moment with Nancy's mother is perhaps the worst moment in the entire show thus far. It was just so stupid and unnecessary. I suppose having Billy around helped make Max's character more interesting, but Billy is definitely the worst part of this season. I could've done without. Thanks mostly to El, we did a good job of wrapping this season up by defeating the Hell Hounds and closing the gate. But part of me actually wanted more of a cliffhanger ending. I know that would've killed me, but that could've made it so season 3 starts off running, because now I fear that we are instead going to spend half of season 3 setting up something new  instead of continuing one story arc that could've made season 3 intense and mysterious right from the get go. But we'll see what they do. The dance was a nice way to end things. That gave me the feel-goods. Although I could've done without both kisses. Middle School romance is dumb to me. Too young. Spending a nice moment dancing would've been sufficient for 13-year-old kids. But whatever.

As far as a grade for the season, after each episode ended, I got out a notepad and gave a grade to that episode. So here's how those episode-by-episode grades turned out:

- Chapter One: "MADMAX" -- 8/10
- Chapter Two: "Trick or Treat, Freak" -- 8/10
- Chapter Three: "The Pollywog" -- 9/10
- Chapter Four: "Will the Wise" -- 8/10
- Chapter Five: "Dig Dug" -- 9/10
- Chapter Six: "The Spy" -- 9/10
- Chapter Seven: "The Lost Sister" -- 10/10
- Chapter Eight: "The Mind Flayer" -- 10/10
- Chapter Nine: "The Gate" -- 9/10

That leaves us with a per-episode average of 8.89/10 for the season as a whole, which I personally think is fair. If you wanted me to drool all over myself by giving each episode a 10/10 and proclaim that this was the greatest season of television ever bestowed on mankind from the heavens above, I'm sorry. That's not how I felt. By my 8.89 average is actually higher than the 8.80/10 average from IMDb, mostly because of that 6.4/10 for the seventh episode. But still. I'm higher than the average IMDb user for the season as a whole. That should mean something. And maybe I was a bit too harsh on the setup for this season in this review, because as you see, I gave every episode either an 8 or a 9. This was good enough and I still give this season a strong recommendation. I don't know what my per episode ranking of season 1 would be, but I imagine it would be higher because I was more invested throughout during season 1 while season 2 it was just for two episodes that I was blown away while being decently entertained for the rest. And I'm slightly nervous for season 3 because we didn't get a proper cliffhanger after this season, thus I fear more time will be spent setting up again. I'm guessing next Halloween is when it will come, so let's hope it's good!

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Movie Preview: November 2017

It's been a rough few months at the box office. Granted, August through October are always the low point at the yearly box office, but this year seemed especially bad over this time frame as August produced the lowest grossing August total since 1997 with $657.8 million (August 2016 scored $1.02 billion for comparison) while October's $555.8 million total is the lowest grossing October since 2007. September was only boosted by the phenomenal performance of "IT." Take away that it September was as equally as pathetic as the other two months. Specifically looking at October, not helping things were the major flops of two high-priced films as "Blade Runner 2049" shockingly has only managed $83 million at this point on a $150 million price tag, despite incredibly positive reviews across the board, while "Geostorm" did even worse, albeit less surprisingly, with only $26 million in the bank so far on a $120 million price tag. Evidence that people just aren't going to the movies as much anymore? No. There were just a lack of movies audiences were interested in over this span. Perhaps due to the fact that studios have been saving the best for the last. So let's dive into this month's releases to see what the first month of the holiday season has to offer.

November 3rd - 5th-

Out of all the Avengers characters that Marvel has introduced in the last 10 years, the major character that people have arguably cared the least about has been Thor. Yet Kevin Feige, Taika Waititi and company are doing their best to change that with Thor: Ragnarok, and it seems to be working as the movie is headed towards an opening weekend around the $115 million range, which is a significant improvement over the $85.7 million that "Thor: The Dark World" opened up to on this same weekend in November 2013. A highly effective marketing campaign is what caught people's attention here with its "Guardians of the Galaxy" feel, mixed in with the popular "Planet Hulk" story arc and the additions of actors such as Cate Blanchett and Jeff Goldblum to the mix of already popular returning characters. Tap on the 93 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes, second only to the 94 percent of  "Iron Man" in the MCU and this was a huge recipe for success. But how well can it hold on? In just two weekends, "Ragnarok" will be competing with DC's "Justice League" with "Star Wars: The Last Jedi" looming not too far after that. Recent history has told us that too many blockbusters at once isn't a good thing for movies' financial totals, so we'll see how "Ragnarok" holds up.

Getting the early jump on the weekend by opening on Wednesday, Nov. 1 was A Bad Moms Christmas. Just last year, STX surprised big time with its release of "Bad Moms," which went onto make $113.3 million after opening to $23.8 million in July 2016. Given that "Bad Moms" was easily STX's biggest movie ever by a whopping $70 million, they immediately ordered up another slice of the pie without waiting one second. This time they made it Christmas themed, which theoretically should give it an even bigger boost. This seems like it would be a great movie to bet on going into the holidays. However, with its first two days of release already in the rear-view mirror, it's looking like it will instead by a movie that falls into the category of comedy sequels that underperform when compared to the original as it got a meager $2.5 million on opening day Wednesday and an estimated $5.5 million on Friday, meaning it's headed towards a $15 million 3-day and a $20 million 5-day opening. While "Bad Moms" proved critic proof with just 58 percent on Rotten Tomatoes despite its success, the 31 percent score of this sequel might not be as lucky. With no additional adult-targeted comedies in over a month, this still has the chance for some decent legs.

Sneaking into just 659 theaters this weekend will be the political drama LBJ, which has Woody Harrelson playing President Lyndon B. Johnson, who of course was thrust into the presidential office following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Initially released at the Toronto International Film Festival last year, "LBJ" was thought to be a major Oscar contender with Harrelson potentially getting love for best actor, but sub-par reviews, currently standing at 51 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, will more than likely squash all hope on that front, meaning this might disappear rather quickly.

On a more positive note when it comes to the Oscar contenders this weekend, Lady Bird will hit four theaters this weekend after getting a standing ovation at this year's Toronto International Film Festival last month. It currently stands at a perfect 100 percent on Rotten Tomatoes with 79 reviews counted. The movie has acclaimed actress Greta Gerwig stepping into the director's chair this time around and has a rather large cast, led by two-time Oscar nominated actress Saoirse Ronan ("Atonement," "Brooklyn") who plays a bit of a free-living adolescent. Critics are claiming the movie delivers fresh insights about the turmoil of adolescence. It seems like a movie gaining momentum heading into the awards race.

Perhaps with a bit less momentum than "Lady Bird," but still worth mentioning real quick will be the release of Last Flag Flying into four theaters as it hopes to gain Oscar love on some level. It stars Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston and Laurence Fishburne as three veterans who re-unite after the death of one of their sons in the Iraq war. This is Richard Linklater trying to get back into the race after his 2014 film "Boyhood" barely missed out on the best picture award.

November 10th - 12th-

There are two wide releases on this schedule that have pegged themselves in between our two major superhero movies this weekend, hoping to provide some counter-programming for those not interested in superhero affairs. The first of these two is the 2017 adaptation of Agatha Christie's popular mystery novel Murder on the Orient Express. Christie's novel was initially released in the U.K. in 1934 and has stood the test of time as the Queen of Crime's most well-loved novels. It was previously adapted to film in 1974 and was also adapted into a poorly received TV movie in 2001. Kenneth Branagh is on board to direct this modern adaptation and it has quite the cast as the list of suspects for this whodunit murder mystery, which includes Kenneth Branagh, Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr, Michelle Pfeiffer and Daisy Ridley. The movie was released on Nov. 3 in the U.K. to mostly positive reviews, swinging right around 70 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, meaning it might not be a movie that blows people's minds, but it could be a fun whodunit outing, especially for Agatha Christie fans.

The second wide release is another comedy sequel based on a surprisingly successful comedy and that is Daddy's Home 2. Again with comedy sequels, which is what "Bad Moms Christmas" is currently suffering from, it's hard to capture that lightning in a bottle from the first film, which is why a lot of comedy sequels fall short of their predecessors. It was back in December 2015 when "Daddy's Home" surprisingly lit up the box office. It was panned by critics and opened up right after "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," which sounds like a recipe for disaster, but it ended up being both critic proof and a successful counter-programming option for family audiences that Christmas as it wound up with $150.4 million, sparked by the successful banter between Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg. In "Daddy's Home 2," we're going double the daddy's with John Lithgow and Mel Gibson joining the part as the daddy's of Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg respectively. They are releasing this earlier in the holiday season this time around, meaning if this does manage to catch on with family audiences, it has the potential to play well throughout the holiday season.

On the Oscar front this weekend, a definite best picture contender will begin its platform release in four theaters and that is Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Not only did this play well throughout its festival run, this won the People's Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival, which is a pretty good indicator for Oscar prominence as the last five winners of the award were "La La Land," "Room," "The Imitation Game," "12 Years a Slave" and "Silver Linings Playbook," all of which went on to be nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars, with "12 Years a Slave" winning Best Picture. "Three Billboards" is a dark comedy directed by Martin McDonaugh where Frances McDormand plays a single divorced mother whose teenager daughter was raped and violently murdered. When the law enforcement made no progress in the investigation, she buys three billboards that rather harshly challenge law enforcement. Dark comedy is extremely hard to pull off, but word on the street is that this movie pulls off the genre excellently, thus becoming a rather poignant and hilarious film.

November 17th  - 19th-

The second powerhouse film of the month comes our way in the third weekend of this month and that is the live-action cinematic arrival of Justice League. This is a movie that's been easily over a decade in the making, potentially a lot longer. With Batman and Superman being two of the most popular comic book characters in existence, I'm sure conversations were at least had about a reunion of the Justice League ever since Richard Donner's "Superman" or Tim Burton's "Batman." Production on a "Justice League" has been started several times, but never amount anything until the idea was re-sparked by the success of Marvel's "The Avengers." And now it's finally here. This iteration of "Justice League" sees a team-up of Batman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Aquaman and Cyborg. The arrival of Superman in this specific movie is still technically up in the air, but it's probably the worst kept secret as we all know that Superman isn't dead. The villain they are teaming up to fight will be none other than that of Steppenwolf. While one would think that the arrival of "Justice League" into theaters would be a guaranteed box office smash, reviews will be key here given DC's spotty record recently, especially given competition from "Thor Ragnarok" two weeks before and "Star Wars: The Last Jedi" three weeks after.

There are two wide releases that will hope to play counter-programming for families while most are busy with "Justice League" and "Thor: Ragnarok." The first of which is Wonder. This is based off the novel of the same name by R.J. Palacio and is about a 10-year-old boy with severe facial deformities who is going to public school for the first time. Palacio was inspired to write the novel after a situation where her son noticed a young girl with facial birth defects while they were eating ice cream. Palacio removed her son from the situation, fearing he would react poorly, but ended up making the situation worse. This inspired her to write the novel in an attempt teach a valuable lesson to society. The novel, published in 2012, has been fairly successful, earning a spot on New York Times Best Seller list for a time. The movie adaptation stars Jacob Tremblay as the young boy with Owen Wilson and Julia Roberts as his parents. While the novel has been successful, it remains to be seen of the movie itself can manage to stand out from the crowd. This didn't receive a festival run and isn't getting much awards buzz. So if it can't stand out, this might be a movie that flies in under the radar and goes unnoticed unless audiences give it the time of day for Thanksgiving.

Hoping to catch the early Christmas buzz and win over the hearts of family and Christian audiences will be the animated film The Star. This is another telling of the Nativity story, which we've seen many times before. What makes "The Star" unique is that it tells the story of the Nativity from the perspective of the animals, which is a perspective we've never really had, although that might be for good reasons as it's a perspective that probably no one asked for. Director Timothy Reckart is the director on this, having previously worked on various shorts as well as being the lead animator for the very adult targeted animated film "Anomalisa." The cast here for "The Star" is rather impressive as it features voices from Steven Yeun, Kristin Chenoweth, Zachary Levi, Gina Rodriguez, Tyler Perry, Christopher Plummer, Keegan-Michael Key, Patricia Heaton, Kris Kirstofferson, Mariah Carey, Oprah Winfrey, Gabriel Iglesias, Tracy Morgan, Kelly Clarkson and more if you believe it. If this manages to capture the hearts of Christian audiences, this could play well over the holidays. But there's also the possibility of it being completely skipped in favor of  Pixar's "Coco" five days later.

November 22nd - 26th-

And speaking of Coco, it will be enjoying the Thanksgiving weekend as the only new wide release in the marketplace over the holiday week, although I'm sure audiences will be storming the theaters to go see the other November holdovers. "Coco" will be Pixar's 19th feature-length film, which started 22 years ago with "Toy Story" back in November 1995. This is also Pixar's second movie of the year following "Cars 3," which wound up as Pixar's second lowest grossing film in their history with just $152 million, ahead of only notorious disaster in "The Good Dinosaur." "Cars 3" arguably didn't need a huge box office total as it will do Pixar well in merchandising, but nevertheless they hope to get back to box office prowess with "Coco," which celebrates the Mexican holiday of Dia de Los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, much like the movie "The Book of Life" did a few years back. Given that Dia de Los Muertos was at the beginning of November, "Coco" was released over in Mexico right before the holiday and was praised by most as a movie that did a great job of honoring and celebrating Mexican culture. If that goodwill carries over to the United States during Thanksgiving, this could be a Pixar film that plays very well over the holiday season.

While "Coco" is the only wide release of the month, there's three movies on the limited release front worth a quick mention. The first is Call Me by Your Name, which has received pretty much unanimous praise from film festival audiences throughout the year as it started in January at Sundance while also screening at Toronto International Film Festival and New York Film Festival. At TIFF, it was the second runner-up for People's Choice Awards, behind "Three Billboards" and "I, Tonya." The movie is a romance story following two men in Italy in the 1980's, featuring praised performances from Timothee Chalamet and Armie Hammer.

The second limited release of the weekend is Darkest Hour. This is a movie starring Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill during his early days as Prime Minister when Hitler closes in on Britain during WWII. This also hit the festival rounds, as it was thought of as a best picture contender going in, but reaction to the film itself has been a bit more muted than expected as people have focused their praise on Oldman's performance as Churchill in a role that could get him an Oscar win, while being a little less ecstatic about the movie itself. Meaning this could be a movie that loses its momentum as the Oscar race heats up, unless of course mainstream audiences react differently.

And finally with the major limited release films we have the release of The Man Who Invented Christmas. While the Oscar buzz isn't necessarily super strong at the moment, this is a movie that's started to gain steam following the release of its trailers as it tells the story of Charles Dickens and his journey in writing his classic novel "A Christmas Carol," which he wrote in a bit of turmoil following the failures of his previous three novels. Dan Stevens will be playing Charles Dickens, meaning Stevens should finish this year off on a really strong note after starting strong with "Beauty and the Beast." Given the popularity of Dickens and "A Christmas Carol," as well as the timely release, if reviews are strong, this could be a movie that plays very well throughout the Christmas holiday even if it isn't an Oscar contender.

Friday, November 3, 2017

Thor: Ragnarok Review

After spending most of last month focusing on my Halloween reviews while ignoring most of the theatrically released films (sorry about that), it's back to the theater and there's no better way to reinvigorate my theater going frenzy than with another trip into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I don't know if you've noticed, but I've been very good at NOT being a Marvel fanboy. The novelty of seeing a superhero on screen has worn off quite some time ago and now I'm extra picky about what I want and what I expect from these superhero movies. And I certainly have zero allegiance either Marvel or DC. The idea that you can only be a fan of one of the studio's movies is hogwash. I'm a fan of the genre as a whole and I will give equal praise to any film, regardless of studio, so long as they give me a good product. And as was evidenced this year with my reviews of "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2" and "Wonder Woman," I'm not afraid to hate on Marvel for sub-par material or praise the heck out of DC for giving us something just as good, if not better, than anything Marvel has done previously. Even Fox with their "X-Men" universe has stepped up to the plate and given us a movie in "Logan" that's better than any superhero movie since "The Dark Knight."

I feel I say something to that effect every time I review a superhero film, but it's always worth repeating, especially as a precursor to this review so that you know that I'm not just blindly praising "Thor: Ragnarok" because it's another Marvel movie and everyone else has praised it. I legitimately think this is a top tier Marvel movie and I'll do my best to explain why without giving any spoilers. While it's not on the level of "Logan" or "Wonder Woman," this is the best of the three MCU films this year, the other two being "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2" and "Spider-Man: Homecoming." In terms of the Phase III films from the MCU, this is on pretty equal grounds with "Doctor Strange" and "Captain America: Civil War" for the top of Phase III. And of course it almost goes without saying that this is the best of the three "Thor" films. I do think the first "Thor" is a very underrated, underappreciated film. It was a hilarious fish-out-of-water story with two great character arcs for Thor and Loki, even though the romance was forced and there wasn't much of a villain to fight. "Thor: The Dark World," though, was a Loki away from being the MCU's first outright bad movie. Coming off that, I wasn't necessarily ecstatic about diving into the Thor universe again.

Then the trailers dropped. What in the heck did they just turn the "Thor" franchise into? This looked like a very colorful combination of "Guardians of the Galaxy" meets "Gladiator" with Thor characters thrown in. And a Hulk. I didn't know if I was excited or nervous at that point. But I was certainly intrigued. Then the reviews came out like three weeks ago and the movie was deemed as the funniest movie since "Guardians of the Galaxy" that was perhaps the most fun people have had in a superhero film in some time, resulting in a Rotten Tomatoes score that currently stands at a 93 percent, which is a notch below "Iron Man" at 94 percent, the highest score that an MCU movie has been given, and just ahead of six other MCU films that have ranged between 89 percent and 92 percent. We'll see where it ends up landing once all the reviews have trickled in, but with over 200 counted at this point, it's guaranteed to remain right there in the top tier of MCU films on Rotten Tomatoes. That definitely had my attention. Thus I went in ready for a really good time at the theaters. And a good time at the theater is exactly what I was treated to. But in addition to laughing a lot and having a fun time, I was also pleasantly surprised at how good of a story I was given. This a lot more than just a really funny movie.

In Norse mythology, Ragnarok essentially refers to the end of the world. And that's exactly what this movie is about. When we got that tease in "Avengers: Age of Ultron" and subsequently learned that the title of this movie would be "Thor: Ragnarok," I was expecting a dark, ominous end of the world story. And I don't know if I was excited for that. Especially since "Thor: The Dark World" tried to be dark, but was too chicken to go all the way and forced a bunch of comedy into it, thus making for a tonally inconsistent movie that quite frankly did nothing to progress Thor's character and was only saved by a phenomenal performance by Tom Hiddleston as Loki. Were we going to get a repeat of that in "Thor: Ragnarok"? Thankfully Marvel seemingly learned from their mistakes and knew that they needed to take this franchise in a different direction in order to make it relevant again. To pull off this stunt, they brought in the perfect director in Taika Waititi, who simply works magic in this movie. Yes, Ragnarok is still the story arc. But it's not super dark and ominous as you might think. Cate Blanchett's Hela is wreaking havoc on Asgard while Thor ends up trapped on the planet Sakaar where he has to try to find a way to escape and go save Asgard.

The plot is a bit more complex than that, but that's all I really want to say. It's a story that I found myself surprisingly invested in. The best part of this is that Taika Waititi did a great job of unleashing Chris Hemsworth. If you've watched Chris Hemsworth in other movies, he's actually a really funny guy with a lot of charm and charisma. He's a lot more than just the sexiest man alive that can pull of a decently dramatic performance when asked to. If you want a sample of his more crazy, goofy self, go watch "The Cabin in the Woods" or the new remake of "Ghostbusters." He's hilarious in both of those. Yet I feel that so far Marvel has been holding him back because they want him as the serious, hammer-wielding Norse God. He was funny in "Thor" because of the fish-out-of-water story. In "Thor: The Dark World" they did nothing with him. And in the two Avengers movies, they turned to the likes of Tony Stark for the comedy element, while occasionally giving Thor a one-liner to deliver. In "Thor: Ragnarok," though, Chris Hemsworth feels much more relaxed and comfortable than he's ever been as Thor. He's hilarious in this movie, yet he's still super boss in action sequences. Perhaps even more so since they take away his hammer and give him his lightning abilities.

I also like the fact that Thor is once again given an arc in this film, which he hasn't been given in any of his appearances in the MCU since "Thor" in 2011. Thus I think people have grown bored with Thor. Captain America and Iron Man are people's favorite Avengers for the most part. While there's a handful of others that people will say, Thor has not usually been in the conversation. But I think that'll change after this movie. While Chris Hemsworth is relaxed and funny in this movie, he's also been given a lot to do. Not only is bounced around the galaxy like a ping-pong ball in the first act of the movie and stuck on Sakaar with Hulk in the second act, but the fact that he's lost his hammer makes him a bit insecure and the fact that Hela seems to be way beyond his league has given him a lack of confidence that he has to learn to overcome. I like conversations that are had in the movie where Thor is told that the hammer was never the source of his power, but essentially has become a crutch for him. He's not the God of Hammers. He's the God of Lightning and he needs to figure out how to unleash his full potential in order to be the King and leader that the Asgardians need him to be. I think all of this makes Thor relevant again in the MCU.

But this is much more than just a movie that makes Thor relevant again. We have a huge cast of characters that could make for an overcrowded movie for many directors, but Taika Waititi has balanced them perfectly and weaved all of their stories together rather beautifully. The whole second act of this film is the MCU's version of Planet Hulk. Yes, I said the second act, not the first act. And yes, I said the entire second act. We spend a lot more time on Sakaar than I was expecting and we give a lot of character progression to Hulk, who does a lot more talking in this movie than I've ever seen him do. But the movie gives him a lot of depth that I enjoyed. When he eventually turns back into Bruce Banner, Mark Ruffalo is given equal treatment in terms of character development. Then we have the continued progression of Tom Hiddleston's Loki, who again is fantastic. We also have the return of Idris Elba's Heimdall, the addition of Cate Blanchett as Hela, Jeff Goldblum as the Grandmaster, Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie, Karl Urban as Skurge, as well as some other characters that I didn't expect to be in this movie. They were all given equal treatment in this movie by Waititi and I loved all of them. I could spend a paragraph on each one if I wanted to.

With so many characters in this movie and so much story to tell, this really shouldn't work. But I think this speaks leaps and bounds about Taika Waititi as a powerhouse director. Marvel's specialty right now is finding these smaller directors and turning them into household names and they've discovered another goldmine with Waititi. If you have no idea who this guy is, I promise you will. After seeing this movie, or perhaps before, I encourage you to go watch "Hunt for the Wilderpeople." It's a smaller, independent film from Waititi that reminded me of a live-action version of "Up." And I mean that in the absolute best way possible. It's so good. If you promise to go watch "Hunt for the Wilderpeople," I promise to go watch "What We Do in the Shadows," because I hear that's another fantastic movie from him. I believe Marvel saw these two films and decided to see what he could do with a big-budget blockbuster film and man did he work miracles. I think he has a very successful career as a director ahead of him thanks to this movie. There is so much going on in terms of story and characters and it's all weaved together so perfectly that now I can comfortable claim that "Thor: Ragnarok" is one of my favorite Marvel films and I'm giving it a very strong 9/10.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Classic Movie Review: Psycho (1960)

Here we are. The grand finale of my 2017 Halloween-themed movie reviews. Hitchcock's greatest masterpiece, "Psycho." At least in my opinion. Hitchcock was a master at suspense and thriller, and with that being my favorite genre of film, I have a deep appreciation for Hitchcock's work. I was introduced to "Psycho" about five or so years ago after many recommendations that it was a movie that I would love. Those people were right. Not only did it blow my mind, but it hasn't really left since. After that experience, I checked out a few other Hitchcock films and was also impressed. So much so that I simply couldn't get enough and I practically binge-watched his whole filmography. One of these days I will give you a list of my top 10 Hitchcock films, but now is not the time for that. Now is the time to finally give my thoughts on "Psycho," which managed to remain my favorite Hitchcock film through all of my Hitchcock binging. Movies like "Vertigo" and "Rear Window" come close, but they don't quite match the depth and the brilliance of "Psycho." I've thought for a while now that I want to write my review of this movie, but I had a hard time determining the proper timing. At some point earlier this year I determined that this Halloween would be the day.

This is both an exciting and a daunting task. I have so many thoughts I want to get out that I've had bottled in, yet how to do so in a way that does this movie justice makes me really intimidated. Nevertheless, I will proceed. This will also be a good practice in getting all my thoughts out in a concise manner. However long this review ends up being, know that it could definitely be a lot longer. Before I dive in, I want to metaphorically get down on my hands and knees and beg everyone who hasn't seen "Psycho" to please close this review, go watch the movie and come back. Upon this movie's initial release, Hitchcock went to great lengths to make sure the secrets of the movie were preserved. Upon obtaining the film rights to Robert Bloch's novel "Psycho," he had his assistant buy as many copies as possible so that it would be difficult to obtain a copy. He also established strict guidelines at theaters that once the movie began, no one would be let and and no one would be let out. Not even the Queen of England. And he begged people who saw the movie to not share the secrets. Obviously you have the ability to choose what to do, but in true Hitchcock fashion, it is my heartfelt desire that no one who hasn't seen this movie reads this review.

In case you have continued onto this paragraph without having seen the movie, allow me to stall for just another paragraph and talk about a minor annoyance I have with a certain letter that will be printed on the back of every copy of this movie. The upper-case R in a little square box. I obviously don't have a problem with watching R-rated movies. My personal philosophy is to look at the content of the film and make my choices based on that because I think the MPAA is a flawed system that too many people lean too heavily on. There's a lot of reasons why, but "Psycho" is a classic example. Upon initial release, it was given the Approved rating by the Hays Code that existed at the time. When film ratings came out, it was given the M rating, which eventually became PG. It wasn't until the 80's when parents were flipping out about adult content in their PG movies that "Psycho" was re-branded as R, 24 years after its initial release. And right before the thing called PG-13 came into existence. I don't know why they didn't do one final change, but content-wise, "Psycho" is absolutely a PG-13 film. I bring this up simply to say that if you've decided to skip "Psycho" because of its rating, I'd beg of you to treat it as a PG-13 film, because that's what it is. 

Now onto the review itself. If I were to sum up all of "Psycho" in just one statement, I would say that it's the tragic reflection of the human condition. The movie tells the story of two individuals whose lives ultimately get flushed down the drain for two very different reasons. Hitchcock had the guts to NOT give audiences the happy ending they were expecting, which was a huge deal back in 1960 when most movies were tied up in a pretty little bow. If you told the story of a girl being terrorized by a monster, the girl always survives, right? Especially when the girl is played by one of the biggest names of the day? Yeah, no. Hitchcock was very much ahead of his time and he had a lot more in mind than simply giving audiences a pretty, little story that went exactly the way they anticipated. Like, what if the main girl DIDN'T survive? And what are the life lessons that could be learned from that? Because I hate to break it to you, but life isn't always rainbows and butterflies, and Hitchcock wasn't about to just go with the flow and deliver the expected. Which is why critics of the day actually gave the movie negative reviews when it first came out. It was different. It pushed boundaries. And they didn't like that. But they eventually came around.

So yeah, these two people whose lives get flushed down the drain in this movie are Marion Crane and Norman Bates. As we watch the tragic tales of their lives unfold before us, there are two things we can do. The first thing we can do is to learn from their experiences and not repeat the same mistakes as they do. The second is to ignore their stories and end up like them. The harsh reality of life that this movie so beautifully tells is that many people will choose the latter. And I think the entire message of this is encapsulated in one conversation that the two of them have right before she goes into her room:

"You know what I think? I think that we're all all in our private traps. Clamped in them. And none of us can ever get out. We scratch and claw, but only at the air. Only at each other. And for all of it, we never budge an inch," Norman says to Marion.

"Sometimes we deliberately step into those traps," Marion responds back.

"I was born in mine. I don't mind it anymore."

"Oh, but you should. You should mind it."

"Oh, I do. But I say I don't."

Given that none of us are perfect human beings, I think there's a lot of truth in Norman's statement there. We're all trapped in our own struggles and it often seems that there is no out. Obviously there is a bigger picture present, but I also think this conversation is reflective of the mindset of each of these individuals. Norman feels trapped. He's always felt trapped. He feels there is no out. In many ways, he's accepted his fate and given up. But deep down, he wishes he could escape from this. I think there's an honest sincerity coming from Norman in this scene where he's able to express his honest opinions of life and his situation to this strange girl who he's decided to trust because she is a very attractive young lady who seems equally as troubled as he is. Thus you feel for Norman. You care about him. You wish that he could overcome these personal traps of his and find happiness. As we find out later, much of his traps come from a legitimate psychological disorder of which he doesn't have much control over. Perhaps he once did when he was much younger, but various choices he's made in his life have sent him far over the edge to the point of no return, which then makes him a rather terrifying antagonist when you realize the harm he is capable of inflicting.

More on Norman a bit later, because much of his tale is detailed in the second half of the movie. The first half of the movie is all about Marion Crane and her struggles. I'd be willing to bet that most people reading this review can relate much more to Marion Crane's story. She seemingly has a lot going for her if she would take the time to look around her. She has the physical beauty that most girls aspire to. She has a good job with co-workers and a boss that have full trust in her. She has a boyfriend who is madly in love with her. But yet she is caught up in the negatives, specifically when it comes to this thing called money. The opening dialogue of the movie is a very important one between her and her boyfriend, Sam Loomis, where they are discussing the idea of getting married, but his personal debts stand as a barrier between them. At least in Marion's mind. We can tell that she is very conflicted about this, and Janet Leigh pulls off a marvelous performance of portraying this. Thus when her boss gives her $40,000 to deposit in a bank, she secretly pockets it and begins the journey from her place in Phoenix, Arizona to Sam's home in Fairvale, California. If she gives him the $40,000, the two of them can be rich and live happily ever after.

The choice to steal the money is a heavy one that weighs on her mind quite a bit, as one might expect. It's a choice that ultimately leads her down a dark path that she doesn't feel comfortable with, making her very on edge when she interacts with a police officer and when she trades her car at the dealership for a new car. Meanwhile, while her personal choices are leading her down a dark path, the element of nature as well as getting caught up in the crossfire of other people's poor decisions also fights against her, which are elements that all of us have to deal with and sadly they are often out of our control. In this instance, when Marion is just 15 minutes away from her destination, the rain becomes too much for her to drive in and she pulls off at the Bates Motel, a decision that would turn out to be fatal. Not that we can blame her for this because she had no idea what she was getting herself into. But nevertheless, she would not walk out of that motel alive. The time at that motel allowed her time for self-reflection about her choices she had made. That and conversations with Norman Bates helped her determine that she was going to right her wrongs and return home. In both a literal and metaphorical sense, she steps into the shower to cleanse herself.

There's a lot that could be said about this famous shower scene. It's certainly the most powerful and shocking moment in this movie and thus honestly one of my personal favorite movie scenes in the history of cinema. Yes, part of that is the shock value. I mean, they spent 50 minutes building this character of Marion Crane and then the movie kills her off. That was unheard of for 1960 and thus is the perfect movie twist that sends one reeling, because now the audience has no idea what direction the movie is going to go. Another part of that is the effort it took to construct this scene. They took two weeks to film this one scene and there is a ton of brilliant splicing. I counted somewhere around 40 different cuts in this short sequence all edited together in a way that makes the scene flow perfectly without having to do any actual stabbing or showing any nudity. Add onto that the sound effects and the iconic score and you have a masterwork of a scene. And of course seeing Norman slowly creep up from the background might be one of the most unsettling images that'll you'll see. If you go weeks without ever taking a shower after watching this movie, I wouldn't blame you. Combine that with the bathtub scene in "A Nightmare on Elm Street" and you just might never clean yourself again.

Even though I could spend 2-3 paragraphs on each of those three elements that I crammed into that one paragraph, there's another element of this scene that I think is what makes the scene so great and that is the emotional weight that it carries. Here's a girl who represents the common human and the mistakes that we make. I honestly feel that I connect with Marion and thus I care deeply for her. And it is so sad that the moment she decides to change her life around is the moment that she gets killed. You can say there's a flicker of hope that she was putting herself in the right direction, but I can't help feeling the sensation of "too little, too late" applying to her and it makes me scared that something similar could happen to me. I mean, I don't consider myself a horrible person, but none of us are perfect and all of us have wrongs that we want to make right. But what if we are like Marion and don't get the chance to? That's a scary thought. Thus seeing Marion slide down the shower wall, reach out and grab the shower curtain, and then flop over dead is the saddest moment ever. Then we cut to the water and blood draining down the shower drain, transitioning into a close up of her and eye and face, and it's honestly almost too much for me to handle.

Whenever I'm watching this movie on my own, this is the moment where I almost have to pause the movie. It is a signal of the ending of the first half of the movie and I need time. I did the same thing last night when I re-watched the movie. I paused the movie at the head shot of Marion Crane and I spent an hour or more in personal reflection. In fact, I almost decided to stop the movie there and pick up the second half in the morning. The next time you watch "Psycho," I'd recommend trying the same. Stop the movie at that moment and let the gravity of the situation simmer into your soul. I only continued because I wanted to get this review out before it got too late on Halloween. But it still took a while to get through. I also honestly think that if the movie ended right there, transitioning from dead Marion to end credits featuring sad music, that it would be en extremely effective 50 minute short film. But nevertheless, we have to continue. After seeing Marion die, I want that hate and anger to simmer in me and to unleash it all on Norman Bates. But I can't. Because it's just as much of a tragedy on the part of Norman because I think he was able to connect with Marion on a level that he probably never connected with anyone before. And he, himself, didn't really kill her.

Thus the second half of the movie begins with Norman crying out to his Mother for the awful tragedy she has committed in Marion, while then being forced to take Marion's dead body, throwing it in the trunk of her car and sending the car to the bottom of the swamp. So what in the heck is going on? I really love a good mystery movie and that's what the second half of this movie is. Now that we know what Norman is capable of, we have Marion's sister Lila Crane teaming with Marion's boyfriend Sam Loomis and Detective Milton Arbogast to uncover the mystery of Norman Bates. Arbogast would've figured it out, but he ends up dead in the movie's lone jump scare, which is quite brilliant if I might add, resulting him being put into the same swampy grave as Marion a few movie minutes before. Now Lila and Sam are super confused because both Marion and Arbogast are missing and they are dead set on talking to Norman's mother, the old lady in the house who they think holds all the answers. Adding to their confusion is that the police chief is convinced that Norman's mother died 10 years prior, which is a huge curveball because we as an audience heard Mother yelling at Norman while Lila and Sam saw her in the window. So again, what's going on?

If you made it this far without seeing the movie, well shame on you. Because the twist of the movie made me gasp so loud when I first watched the movie, which I personally had the pleasure of knowing practically nothing about going in, outside knowing about a famous shower scene and that Norman Bates wasn't a very nice person. But here I thought Norman was simply a troubled young man who gets devastated when his mother kills all of his love interests. Yeah, he was a bit messed up, especially when he spies on Marion undressing through his peephole, but the mother was the killer, right? Well, wrong. Lila finds the downstairs cellar where Mother is hiding, taps her on the shoulder, which spins the chair around to reveal a rotten corpse. Yeah, Norman's mother has been dead for a long time. Thus once Sam comes in and saves Lila from suffering the same fate as Marion, Norman is turned in to the police, who come have a psychologist figure out what's going on with Norman. That psychologist then explains to us as the audience the mysteries of this movie, which stems from Norman suffering from Dissociative Identity Disorder after killing his mother 10 years prior when she fell in love with a man, causing Norman to be jealous that he wasn't her main focus. It's a bit of a unique relationship to say the least.

Is the portrayal of Dissociative Identity Disorder, or D.I.D., done accurately in "Psycho"? I'm not sure. It's definitely a real disorder where a traumatic experience can cause multiple personalities to exist in one's mind. When certain triggers go off, other personalities take over and the original personality has no idea what happened when it comes back. The trigger for Norman is whenever he starts feeling romantic feelings towards anyone. Because Norman got jealous when his mother fell in love with another man, when he killed her and sent his mind spiraling into D.I.D. with the mother personality taking over in his head, he assumes with that personality that she felt the same way. Thus Norman is never allowed to love. So when he starts loving anyways, the mother personality takes over and kills the girl. Again, I don't know how realistic this is for real D.I.D. Can there be situations where a part of your personality is a serial killer? I have no idea. I do know that Robert Bloch loosely based Norman Bates off of the real life psychopath Ed Gein, but I don't think he suffered from D.I.D. He was just a creep who did a lot of disgusting things, even though we wasn't technically a serial killer due to him only being charged for two kills. But eh. Semantics.

Realistic or not, I think having Norman Bates suffer from D.I.D. and kill because of that is a fascinatingly unique way to set up a serial killer. It adds a whole lot of depth and connectivity to his character. He's not a killer who goes around killing for the heck of it. There's motive and there is purpose. Norman Bates is as equally interesting of a character, perhaps even more so, than Marion Crane is. When you can care for your protagonist and your antagonist, completely understanding each person's motive and reasoning, I think that makes for a much better horror movie than having serial killers killing for the sake of killing. Even though I still see "Psycho" as more of a psychological thriller than an all-out horror film, it is considered the very first slasher horror film as all of our 70's/80's slasher horrors, of which I've reviewed a handful of this Halloween season, took inspiration directly from "Psycho." In my opinion, though, most of them were never able to capture the magic of why "Psycho" was so good. Hitchcock left a gold standards of how to make proper horrors and thrillers. That formula was mixed around. Even though the result was often successful, none of them ever had as much depth and power as "Psycho." They went for the simple entertainment instead.

If you made it this far into the review, give yourself a big pat on the back and make sure to reward yourself this week. That was a long read. But I think you all know that was coming with this movie and I'm glad that I finally got around to reviewing "Psycho." I honestly hate declaring a favorite movie because there's so many movies that I haven't seen. Literally hundreds of movies have been made each year for the last hundred years and there's no way I will ever be able to see them all. So how can I declare a favorite? Of the movies I have seen, there's a lot of movies that I love for completely different reasons, so it's often hard to compare that way, too. But nevertheless, I absolutely love psychological thrillers. That specific subgenre of film is my favorite. Thus when it comes to diving deep into the psychology of two very different characters in a very thrilling way, it doesn't get any better than "Psycho." Pondering on both Norman Bates and Marion Crane, watching their stories weave together, is beyond fascinating to me. I honestly don't know if there's been a more impactful film that I've spent this much time thinking of. When it comes to my grade of "Pyscho," do I really need to say this? Was there any question going in? Of course "Psycho" gets a 10/10.