Friday, November 9, 2018

Dr. Seuss' The Grinch Review

A classic Dr. Seuss tale has once again found its way onto the big screen. It goes without saying that Dr. Seuss is one of the best and most iconic children's book authors, if not the best. What makes his work so incredible is that his stories are so memorable and fun for kids, but they also teach very important lessons. As an adult, I've often been a bit awestruck returning to these stories as I've discovered not-so-hidden messages that are super relevant to society and often extremely political. It's obvious that Dr. Seuss desired to leave a real impact on kids' lives rather than simply leaving them with meaningless, fun stories. That's why millions of parents for generations upon generations have gravitated towards his stories and used them to teach and raise their own kids. In regards to "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," the message is pure and simple. Despite the hustle and bustle surrounding the holiday, it's not the toys and presents that make Christmas what it is. That's a very important message to teach kids because when they're super young, they don't know any better. Christmas means toys, presents, Santa and fun. That's why I think this story should be a staple for every family during the holidays so that kids can learn from a young age what Christmas truly means.

That said, the main focus of this review will, of course, be on Illumination's latest adaptation of Dr. Seuss' story. But I do think some background here is important so you know where I'm coming from, thus I feel it's important to talk about the two previous adaptations before diving right into Illumination's movie. Obviously the most pure adaptation of the book, which was released by Dr. Seuss in 1957, is the 1966 T.V. special. This short, 26-minute version is the purest form because it's essentially Boris Karloff reading Dr. Seuss' book with some animation being added. To get it to the full 30-minute T.V. slot, they added a few songs ("Welcome Christmas," "Trim up the Tree" and "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch") as well as some extended animated sequences without dialogue. This version is perhaps the most effective adaptation because it's pretty much the same as reading the book to your kids, but they have some really good visuals to go along with it as well as some fun music, especially "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch" as Thurl Ravenscroft's deep voice makes that a Christmas classic. Plus, the short length means that their attention span isn't going to run out and they can get the full impact of the story without having to spend too much time on it.

In regards to the live-action Jim Carrey adaptation in 2000, this is a movie that I wanted to do a retro review on because I find it to be absolutely phenomenal. Does the story of the Grinch need to be stretched out to 90 minutes to cash in on the popularity of the source material? Perhaps not. The book and the 1966 T.V. do just fine on their own. But if you're going to take a short story and adapt it into a movie, this is how. Not only did director Ron Howard transform this story into a hilarious comedy that very much has the exaggerated, comical, Dr. Seussian flavor to it, with a huge portion of said comedy coming from perhaps my personal favorite Jim Carrey performance, but the movie has a stunning amount of heart and depth to it that I think Dr. Seuss himself would've been proud of. We get to see how the Grinch was bullied and pushed away by his classmates when he was young for looking different than others. We get to see the adorable, innocent Cindy Lou Who make a real effort to reach out to the Grinch as she sees signs of him perhaps being not as awful as advertised. In addition, young Cindy Lou Who is trying to discover the meaning of Christmas herself, giving us the great song "Where Are You, Christmas?"

Adding that depth to the movie enhances the power of the story and we get real drama as the Mayor is trying his hardest to fight young Cindy Lou Who by keeping Whoville Grinchless. And he almost succeeds by purposely triggering some bad memories from the Grinch's childhood to push him away. I like the idea that this specific incident is what leads the Grinch to terrorize Whoville that night by stealing all of their decorations, which he thinks is going to ruin Christmas as he thinks all they care about the commercialism of the holiday. Then when they wake up in the morning, the Mayor confronts Cindy Lou Who and her family, trying to instill a strong feeling of guilt on the poor, little girl. But the power of the movie comes when Cindy's dad comes to her defense and teaches the town that his family is all he needs to have a good Christmas. That's what causes the whole city to then sing "Welcome Christmas" from the original T.V. special, which is what the Grinch hears from the mountain, causing him to realize that he's failed and feel truly guilty about what he's done. It's a hilarious, quotable and powerful film that I remember seeing in theaters and have watched just about every year since. It's on Netflix right now if you want to go give it another try.

Now we get to dive into Illumination's 2018 adaptation, a movie I was never excited about. I hated the idea when it was announced a few years back and I thought all of the trailers looked incredibly stupid. Combine that with the fact that I have a very spotty record when it comes to my enjoyment of Illumination's movies and I had every right to believe that this movie was going to be trash. And I was right. Yes, there's a few good elements scattered throughout the movie. But none of the elements that made the previous two versions so great are here in this movie. Young kids might be mildly entertained by the final result as the big focus is the childish slapstick humor and gags that you saw littered in the trailers. But the movie struggles mightily to figure out how to get to 86 minutes and also lacks the depth that a Grinch movie should have, thus the final result is an ultimately pointless venture done solely because Illumination wanted a quick cash grab given that they knew people would show up to a Grinch movie during Christmas, especially since it's been 18 years since the Jim Carrey version and 52 years since the T.V. special. Smart move on their part financially, but if you're looking for a quality movie to take your family to, I'd say skip this one.

Let's focus a bit on plot here. Yes, everyone knows the story of the Grinch. There's nothing to spoil here. The Grinch hates Christmas. He decides to steal all of their toys and decorations on Christmas Eve, but yet when they wake up, he hears them singing and realizes his plan has failed. His heart grows three sizes and he makes restitution and tries to become part of the community. But how to expand that? As I've explained, the Jim Carrey movie did an excellent job at expanding the story. This Illumination movie does not. There's absolutely no drama in Whoville. In fact, the number of characters from Whoville who even get major dialogue can probably be counted on your two hands. Our main character is Cindy Lou Who and she spends a good chunk of time scheming with her friends as to how to trap Santa Claus because she wants to talk to him about her mother. On the Grinch's side of things, once he decides to steal Christmas, the movie spends a huge chunk of time on his preparation. That's how we get to 86 minutes. Cindy Lou Who scheming to trap Santa Claus and the Grinch preparing to steal Christmas. It was quite frankly boring and drama free. I don't think I laughed even once.

I think the best compliment I can give to the movie is that the animation looked good. The design of Whoville was fantastic and all the inner workings of the city were well planned out. That's pretty much it. A lot of time was spent on the animation. Almost no time was spent on drafting a competent story. I don't even think the voice work was that good. I love Benedict Cumberbatch, but I don't think his voice was a very convincing Grinch. Our narrator was Pharrell Williams. While he wasn't particularly awful, when compared to the likes of Boris Karloff and Anthony Hopkins, he felt extremely weak when giving his narration. The music is also been a fun part of the previous movies. And the only good song was "Welcome Christmas," which they brought in from the T.V. special without changing much. That's it. The rest of the music is done by Tyler the Creator and his version of "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch" is quite frankly terrible. And included at the beginning of the movie instead of when he's scheming to steal Christmas. He also has a few original songs that made me want to gag. I think this choice was made so that Illumination could feel relevant with how popular hip-hop is today, but for me it did not work at all, which shouldn't surprise you.

So yeah, the voice work was off. The humor was such that would entertain a young child, but not an adult. At 86-minutes, the movie felt like a slog because the writers had no idea how to expand the story and thus settled by spending way too much time on two story arcs that were ultimately pointless or could've been done in five minutes. There was no drama in the film. Hardly any life. The Grinch wasn't even very Grinchy, just mostly lonely and bored. Yes, the movie does try to pull at your heartstrings by giving the classic Grinch themes, but the way they ended this movie actually felt more forced and awkward. While I've already complained Tyler the Creator's soundtrack, I was shocked at the end credits to learn that Danny Elfman did the actual score because the score didn't stand out at all. Thus I'm left with saying that the animation was done well and the design of this land was done with care. But given that we're in 2018, that should be a given with any major animation company. The movie isn't particularly offensive, but it's just lifeless and boring. Yes, you can take your kids and they'll probably enjoy it. Or you can save your money for "Ralph Breaks the Internet" instead. Or stay home and watch one of the other two versions. My grade for this Grinch is a 5/10.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Bohemian Rhapsody Review

Queen, one of the most legendary bands to ever exist and certainly one of my personal favorites. If you've spent enough time with me, or if you've browsed my music blog enough, you'll probably know that the 80's and the 70's are my two favorite decades of music. Having been born in 1989, I am technically an 80's child, although it's probably more accurate to call myself a 90's kid, but given that I have several older siblings that lived through the 80's, the 80's music and culture was certainly a heavy influence on my early years. And of course Queen played big into that with songs like "We Will Rock You," "We Are the Champions" and "Another One Bites the Dust." I think I'm contractually obligated to love "Bohemian Rhapsody" as well, but I could write a whole blog post on my experience with that song, so we'll discuss that another day. Yes, I've grown to like the song, but the previously mentioned three songs are the ones I had a stronger connection with growing up. And that's the thing. Queen's discography of legendary music is so vast that everyone has been influenced by them in one way or another. So obviously everyone's going to be excited for a biopic of the band, which is why it destroyed at the box office with a $51.1 million opening domestically.

But what if I told you that I wasn't all that pumped about it? Would you charge my apartment with torches and pitchforks in hand and try to burn me at the stake? If so, then so be it. Because it's true. While it's true that I like the idea of a Queen biopic, especially since frontman Freddie Mercury is one of the most fascinating individuals in music history, I'm a bit weary of movies that went through development hell in order to get to the big screen. Because, yeah, they've been working on this since 2010. Initially it was supposed to star Sacha Baron as Freddie, but he left in 2013 due to creative differences and the project then sputtered out for a few years until Rami Malek jumped on in 2016. Even then, Brian Singer was brought on as the director, but got fired last December for multiple reasons. Dexter Fletcher was hired to finish the project and finally got it done, but I was getting the feeling that the movie might arrive feeling a bit bandaged up with all the different cooks in the kitchen fighting over it. On the Brian Singer note, if you saw the movie and are confused as to why he's still listed as the director in the credits, it's some sort of weird Directors Guild of America thing that helped him retain sole directing rights while Fletcher got an executive producer tag.

Yes, it's true that there's a lot of situations where movies had production issues, but the final product ended up being fantastic. "World War Z" is my favorite example of that. It still doesn't mean that I'm not allowed to be nervous when I hear all of this. That, and when the trailers dropped, I didn't think the trailers were edited together very well. Instead of picking just one Queen song to feature, they tried to cram in as many Queen songs as they could over some randomly thrown together footage of the band doing things. I was a bit confused as to what this movie was going to be or what the specific focus was, which is what I usually expect from a musical biopic, but we'll get to that in a bit. Finally, the critics reviews came in very mixed, which wasn't encouraging to me. On that note, let's take a quick Rotten Tomatoes 101 crash course. Many audience members have slammed the critics for hating this movie, yet the movie ended up with a 60 percent score. A score in the single digits or teens means the critics hated the movie. A 60 percent score means that 60 percent of critics, over half of them, enjoyed the movie. The best label there is to say they were mixed. In fact, I would say that any movie that gets 40 to 70 percent would qualify as mixed reviews.

Maybe it's the movie critic in me, but I would really appreciate it if people could stop saying that critics don't matter or that their opinions are pure trash, especially when a majority of them actually approved of this movie. Granted, it would be nice if Rotten Tomatoes had less of a black and white system that didn't label a movie rotten whenever it got below 60 percent. Allow for some gray area between 40 and 70 percent so that ignorant people don't throw a fit whenever a movie they like isn't certified fresh. But still, if people can learn how to properly interpret Rotten Tomatoes's slightly broken system, that would be nice, too. It's not rocket science. With that rant out of the way, I honestly think the critics have every right to be mixed when it comes to this film. Sure, they always have that right, but I especially think that's the case here because mixed is exactly what I felt. Now if you are one of the many people who praised the movie as one of the best things since sliced bread and you get mad at me for "hating the movie," then I'm going to find you and slap you in the face because that means you ignored these last two paragraphs. I don't hate this movie. There's a lot to praise about it. But there's also a lot of things that frustrated me.

Before we dive into all the movie's historical inaccuracies, allow me to first paint the timeline of what the movie attempted to portray. The movie starts out in the year 1970, right before the band was formed and continues all the way until 1985 when they performed at the Live Aid concert. That's a large chunk of time to cover in just two hours, thus a movie that attempts such a feat needs to have a good team of writers on board who can creatively keep my interest. Unfortunately, though, rather than the movie having a good, solid story arc, this is a movie that didn't really have a specific focus. They tried to tell everything about Queen from beginning to end, which resulted in them rather monotonously jumping forward on a straight timeline, moving from the creation of one big hit to the next. There didn't seem to be an end goal in mind or one theme that the movie wanted to focus on, thus the narrative of the film started to quickly bore me. On top of that, there wasn't a whole lot of drama in the movie. Freddie joining the band was pretty easy. The relationship with his girl happened without him really trying. They gained popularity right away without working too hard and just wrote songs and performed concerts. That was our movie for the first half and I was unimpressed.

Yes, it's true. I love Queen. Because of that, I thoroughly enjoyed the music in this movie. The individual scenes of them creating the songs was entertaining enough. I enjoyed it when they were creating "Bohemian Rhapsody." That was a fun sequence. When they came up with the ideas for "We Will Rock You" or "Another One Bites the Dust," that was fun to see and I certainly enjoyed it when the performed it on stage in front of a loud audience. In fact, I saw this movie in 2D IMAX, so the large screen and great sound did a great job of enhancing the experience. If all you're concerned with is having good music and good performances, then that very well might be enough to please you. You can turn off your brain and enjoy a bunch of Queen concerts strung together and be pleased with the final results. But if you care about story and narrative, then it's possible you might be a bit disappointed because the story here isn't as strong as a could've been and the narrative wanders off in a bit of a freestyle instead of being tight and focused. Yes, this is a common theme when it comes to music-related films for me, whether it be a musical biopic or a straight-up musical. A lot of people only care about the music itself. While that's important to me, I need the story to work.

The whole time I was watching this movie, there's one movie that jumped into my mind as a prime example of a musical biopic done right. That movie is the Beach Boys biopic "Love & Mercy." If you've never heard of that movie, I wouldn't be that surprised. It was a smaller, independent film released in the summer of 2015 that only made $12.6 million total and maxed out at 791 theaters. So it kind of flew in under the radar. But it's this exact style of movie, except the focus isn't on showcasing the entire career of the Beach Boys while making sure to cram in the creation of every major hit they had. The focus was on Brian Wilson and his personal struggles with psychosis that impacted everyone around him. It was a beautifully crafted character study with a brilliant story arc behind it that just so happened to feature some music from the Beach Boys. I feel "Bohemian Rhapsody" was the opposite. The goal seemed to be on the music and the band with Freddie Mercury's journey being more of a footnote. There's also plenty of other movies that came to my mind, but the most obvious one is last month's "A Star is Born." While the specific story is fictional, again the focus is on the story and the characters, not the music.

I want to stress that the structure of the movie is what bothered me when in left the theater. However, there is another element to this movie that must be brought up because it comprises the experience for me once I learned about it. And yeah, this requires spoilers, so you've been warned there. But this movie is a big lie. Yes, I know. When you're making a biopic, there's times where you have to have some creative liberties to make things work. But this movie's portrayal of the events are completely false. Now there's a lot of small things that are inaccurate that don't bother me that much like how he joined the band, how he met the girl, and how in reality they went through several bass guitarists before settling on John Deacon. But the crux of the drama in the second half of the movie involves Queen breaking up, Freddie Mercury learning he has AIDS, and the band reuniting in dramatic fashion right before the Live Aid concert, using that as their reunion. All that is false. The band didn't break up. They took a bit of time off in 1983, but it was mutual and they stayed in contact. They even wrote an album in 1984, went on tour, then performed at Live Aid. Freddie Mercury didn't find out he had AIDS until 1987, two years after Live Aid.

Again, even if the movie was perfectly historically accurate, I would've had troubles with the movie itself. It's not like I left the theater raving about how great it was, then came home, learned of its huge inaccuracies, then decided to write a negative review. Given that I'm not a huge Queen aficionado, I actually assumed that the basic outline of events was correct, especially since the surviving band members helped work on the movie, so I also am not one who was angered right away when the events became twisted. But it's really disappointing when I come home and find out the only times where the movie had a high level of drama were instances where said drama was completely fictionalized in order to make the movie interesting. And that's even more disappointing considering the fact that they didn't need to create a fictional story arc to create a great movie about Queen. The material was already there given how fascinating of a character Freddie Mercury was. Just tell that story. The most confusing part of this is that the band helped put this together, but I guess they were fine with the filmmakers changing their story in order to make a good movie? I suppose a similar thing happened with "Straight Outta Compton," so maybe they should've sat this one out.

All in all, the best word to describe "Bohemian Rhapsody" is frustrating. Here we have one of the greatest bands ever formed with some of the world's most iconic music, led by a fascinatingly complex human being in Freddie Mercury, yet the final result is a poor story structure that decides to focus mostly on uneventfully wandering from song to song with little to no drama behind it. When they do decide to make the movie dramatic in the second act, it turns out they scrambled the whole history of the band while flat-out inventing things that didn't happen in order to give us said drama when they could've simply told the real story of Freddie Mercury as is and the movie would've been excellent. There's been some people that have said that this movie needed to be rated R in order for them to do it right. I disagree. A few added f-bombs and some sex scenes wouldn't have inherently fixed the structure of the film. Regardless of rating, what they should've done is zero in on Freddie Mercury and create a great character piece around him. If that means cutting some of the early timeline and ignoring the creation of certain songs, then so be it. But that's not what was done and thus I left the theater feeling a bit underwhelmed. Sorry. My grade for the movie is a 6/10.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms Review

I figured I better quickly review this movie before I completely forget that I even saw it. I saw both this and "Bohemian Rhapsody" yesterday and while I really want to jump into "Bohemian Rhapsody" because there's a whole lot of talking points there, but "The Nutcracker" is about to completely leave my mind, so I need to discuss it first while I remember. That fact in and of itself is probably a good enough analysis of this movie. Disney has been shoving this movie down our throats with a rather aggressive marketing campaign, yet I was never convinced that this would be a good movie. The initial teaser had an excellent arrangement of "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" as the trailer song, but that was it in terms of things that excited me. The movie itself looked like a bad rip-off of Disney's own live action "Alice in Wonderland" movies, which is a really bad sign because Tim Burton's 2010 movie was a giant waste of time and the 2016 sequel that most people probably already forgot existed somehow managed to be even worse. So out of all of these live action reimaginings that Disney is doing, this seemed like a really perplexing choice. At least most of the others have a large built-in fan base, but is there anyone on Earth that was begging Disney to do "The Nutcracker"?

Perhaps I'm being a bit unfair with that statement. I certainly wasn't excited about a film version of "The Nutcracker," but if I'm being completely honest, all I've ever known is the music from "The Nutcracker." I think it goes without saying that Tchaikovsky's "The Nutcracker Suite" is one of the most iconic pieces of classic music there is, especially when it comes to Christmas music. "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" has especially been a personal favorite of mine, which is why I really liked the arrangement from the teaser. But the ballet and story behind it? Do people even remember that? I didn't. When they started advertising this movie, my ignorant brain immediately wondered what in the heck they are basing this off of, because I didn't know there was enough content behind this to make a full live action film. That's why when I did my November preview, I decided to educate myself about the history of all of this so I don't sound stupid when I go into the movie. That's when I reminded myself that "The Nutcracker" is a ballet. Duh. That's the ballet with all the mice and toy soldiers dancing around. I vaguely remember all of that as a kid, but never once did I think about the story or potential mythology behind those strange happenings. I just enjoyed the music.

Now in true educated fashion, I can tell you what this is all about. As it turns out, "The Nutcracker" was a ballet that was originally choreographed by Marcus Petipa and Lev Ivanov, with Tchaikovsky of course doing the score. The first performance was in Saint Petersberg on December 18, 1892. The ballet itself was based on a short story written by E.T.A. Hoffmann in 1816 called "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. The basic premise of that story is that Marie and her brother Fritz are given gifts on Christmas Eve by their godfather, Drosselmeyer. One of such gifts is a nutcracker that Marie becomes especially fond of. That night she stays up later than all of them and witnesses all the toys come to life and fight a war against a bunch of mice. The toys are led by the nutcracker that Marie has become fond of and are almost defeated until Marie throws her shoe at the mice. Then she faints and wakes up, where she is unable to convince anyone of what she saw. And this is where things get a bit fuzzy for me because, even though I read over the premise multiple times, I was really confused as to what actually happened after that. All I picked up is that there is an elaborate backstory behind all of this that ends with Marie being whisked away and becoming queen of this magical land.

That's especially important because, as it turns out, "The Nutcracker and the Four Realms" is not an exact retelling of that original story. It's a sequel to that. Our main character is a girl named Clara who is the daughter of Marie. I made that connection in the film and the light bulb went off in my head. It made me glad that I had read the premise of the original story before seeing the movie, otherwise I think I would've been extremely lost as to what all was happening and why. In this movie, Marie, Clara's mother, has passed away. Clara, her sister, her brother and her father are all feeling pretty miserable because of that, yet the father insists that they celebrate Christmas Eve anyways because they need to celebrate Christmas. Clara becomes upset because the present that her mother left her is a fancy egg-shaped thing that she can't open because the key is missing. Later that night, Morgan Freeman, who plays the godfather from the original story, is giving everyone their presents, but they need to follow a trail of strings to learn where they are. Clara's string leads her to a mysterious room in the giant mansion where she finds Narnia... I mean, the Four Realms, which is the land that her mother got whisked away to. And from there all the fancy adventures begin.

By adventures, I mean that most of the movie has her chasing down this key. As she gets into Narnia, the key is by a Christmas tree, but before she can grab it, a mouse steals it away from her and she goes on a wild goose chase to find the mouse. She eventually runs into a soldier who helps her chase the mouse, but the mouse gets away. Eventually the soldier learns that she is the daughter of Marie, the former queen of their land and suddenly Clara is treated as the princess and taken to the headquarters. Surprisingly, all of this setup isn't nearly as bad as I thought it would be. The filmmakers managed to create a rather visually spectacular world that is fun and pretty to look at. And I really liked the dynamic between Clara and her family, who were all struggling with the recent loss of their mother/wife. That gave the movie some potential for some strong family-related themes that could work well during the Christmas holiday. And Mackenzie Foy was absolutely adorable as our lead girl. She had a very lovable innocence to her and perfectly competent acting skills, making for a strong lead character. This combined with her playing young Murph in "Interstellar" means that she has a good career in front of her if she keeps to it and stays on the right path.

I think the big issue that I ran into was that the movie had a really hard time keeping my attention once we got into the thick of things. As I've thought about it over the last 24-hours, I've decided that the big issue probably comes with the source material itself. As popular as "The Nutcracker" is, I was fascinated to learn once I did my research on this that the ballet itself was an initial failure, which made everything make sense. Tchaikovsky's "The Nutcracker Suite" was what exploded initially, but the ballet didn't find success until many years later. Even then, I imagine that most fans of the ballet enjoy it because of the music and the dance choreography. Has anyone bragged about how amazing the mythology is behind the music and dance? I don't think so. A war between nutcrackers and mice isn't the most interesting thing. I think it might be telling that, in an effort to make a feature-length film, the filmmakers here chose not to tell the original story, but tried to expand the lore by sending Clara into the land years after her mother became queen rather than simply telling her mother's original story, which was only based on a short story in the first place. It's often hard to turn a short story into a feature length film.

I imagine a situation here where Disney commissioned people to make a movie about "The Nutcracker," but said people really struggled with how to make it work. Again, I give them props for trying. This is not an inherently bad film. There's just not enough to work with. When I described the film's premise, I referenced the fact that it felt an awfully lot like Narnia when she disappeared into the Four Realms. I know that comparison had been given plenty of times before, but going in I was set on my "Alice in Wonderland" comparison. Yet she walked through the tunnel and I couldn't help myself. It was Narnia. Except it was a second-rate version of Narnia that was heavy on visual effects, but extremely lacking when it came to interesting characters and story inside the land. When strange, random things starting happening and eccentric characters showed up, that's when the "Alice in Wonderland" elements came to play. But sadly even "Alice in Wonderland" made it's characters and universe more interesting than what we got in the Four Realms. I think supporting cast members such as Keira Knightley and Helen Mirren were having fun with their roles, but there's just nothing to work with. There's not much more to even say.

Again to the movie's credit, when we hit the actual finale, the themes of family wrap up in a nice little bow, leaving you with a few feel goods, but it doesn't make up for a lack of content. I could dive in and spoil things that happen and no one would probably care, but I don't feel it's worth my time. You'll just have to trust me that the directions that this movie takes are a bit perplexing. The "villains" don't have solid motivation. There's no epic fantasy sequences to keep audiences entertained. The twists that the movie tries to throw your way are extremely underwhelming. The drama never really hits a good peak as everything seems to easy for Clara and the people that end up getting behind her. Pretty much everything that makes a land like Narnia, or Wonderland for some, are completely missing. Thus the movie ends up feeling like more of a second-rate copy of those other lands and movies, meaning that there's no reason to give this a chance. I'd say it might be harmless fun for families with young kids, but in a holiday season that is set to deliver "The Grinch," "Ralph Break the Internet" and "Mary Poppins Returns" among others, this is one where I recommend you stay home and save your money. But you were already planning on that, right? My grade here is a 5/10.

Friday, November 2, 2018

Movie Preview: November 2018

As was expected based on the slate of releases, October 2018 did deliver the record-breaking performance that it was set up to give, earning a total of $818 million at the domestic box office, which bested the previous October record of $758, which was set in 2014. Leading the way was the huge breakout performance of "Venom," which soared past even the most generous predictions, earning $80.3 million opening weekend, a new October opening weekend record that was previous held by "Gravity" in 2013 with $55.8 million. Said opening weekend record was nearly broken again by "Halloween" just two weeks later as the later opened to $76.2 million, carrying the month over the top to break 2014's record. "Venom" and "Halloween" have made $190 million and $137 million respectively through the end of October. Riding along with them is "A Star is Born," whose $153 million total thus far is rising quickly up the list of movies that never hit No. 1 at the weekend box office. All three movies should provide decent holdover totals for November, which also begins the holiday season. That means we should be in for another big month at the box office, although probably not record-breaking since that bar for November is much higher. But nevertheless, let's dive in!

November 2nd - 4th- 

Looking to start November off with a bang will be Bohemian Rhapsody, which looks to easily take away the crown from "Halloween," the winner of the previous two weekends. It's also set to spoil Disney's new release, though we'll get to that in a second. "Bohemian Rhapsody" is the musical biopic for the band Queen, chronicling the years leading up to their appearance at the Live Aid concert in 1985. Given that Queen is one of the most popular rock bands in history, this movie has a naturally huge fan base built in. That combined with the strong buzz surrounding Rami Malek's performance as the legendary Freddie Mercury has had fans excited for this one for some time, especially with the huge marketing push that Fox has put behind this. That could lead to an opening weekend that flirts with the $50 million mark. The obvious comparison here is the $42.9 million opening of last month's "A Star is Born," or perhaps the $34.9 million opening of this summer's "Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again." The big disadvantage here is the less than stellar reviews from critics who have said the movie doesn't dive quite as deep as it could've. Although that didn't hold "Venom" back last month, so positive word of mouth from audiences could negate that.

Disney has been having a fantastic year this year so far, as they've earned $2.7 billion at the domestic box office alone. Although they could be in a bit of trouble with their latest release this weekend, that being The Nutcracker and the Four Realms. Tchaikovsky's "The Nutcracker Suite" is arguably one of the most popular classical music pieces, especially when it comes Christmas time, with "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" being one of the most well-known selections from the suite. "The Nutcracker Suite" was extracted from "The Nutcracker" ballet, which had its initial two-act performance at Saint Petersberg in 1892. The ballet was adapted from E.T.A. Hoffman's 1816 story "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King," which is a story about a young girl witnessing a nutcracker coming to life on the night of Christmas Eve and leading the dolls into battle with the Mouse King and his army. Later the young girl is whisked away into the nutcracker's magical kingdom. Despite this long, storied history, this movie adaptation of "The Nutcracker" is not one that has really grabbed people's attention. The lack of excitement combined with poor reviews, wavering around 30 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, will probably make this Disney's lowest opening of the year at around $20 million.

If Disney's not careful, they could see a bit of competition for that runner up spot from Tyler Perry's Nobody's Fool. At best, "The Nutcracker" could see an opening around the $33.1 million opening of fellow Disney release this year of "A Wrinkle in Time" or their 2016 release "Alice Through the Looking Glass," which debuted to $26.9 million. However, if audiences are as unimpressed as critics, they could be looking at a total closer to the $21.5 million opening of "Pete's Dragon" or the $18.8 million opening of "The BFG." If that's the case, that's where "Nobody's Fool" could play spoiler because Tyler Perry fans have rather consistently come out in support of his films. While the Madea films are his most popular, and this movie is not one of those, Perry's 11 non-Madea films have averaged an opening weekend of $18.6 million, with his latest, that of "Acrimony," opening to $17.2 million earlier this year. And "Nobody's Fool" is opening in 400 more theaters than "Acrimony" (2,468 vs. 2,006). "Nobody's Fool" also has the advantage of starring Tiffany Haddish, who recently helped "Night School" open to $27.3 million. The movie is about a woman who recently is released from prison to discover her sister in a bit of a sketchy online relationship.

November 9th - 11th-

If we're calling Disney's release of "The Nutcracker" the beginning of the Christmas season, then Illumination is planning on building off that to swing the season into full gear with their release of Dr. Seuss' The Grinch, potentially stealing all of Disney's thunder in the process. While Illumination hasn't necessarily built up their reputation to the same level as the likes of Disney or Pixar in terms of quality, their box office totals are not to be argued with as their eight releases have averaged a domestic total of $272.6 million, their last five releases all topping the $250 million mark, with three of those crossing $300 million. Since "The Grinch" seems to have everything set up in its favor, there's no reason to believe that will change here. The story of the Grinch is one of the more popular Christmas stories and it's been 18 years since the live-action Jim Carrey version. Illumination bringing it back to animation gives it a more unique angle than the 2000 movie and the star power of Benedict Cumberbatch as the voice of the Grinch also helps immensely. All things said, this could be looking at an opening weekend around $70 million with long legs ahead given the Christmas holiday. Don't be surprised if this winds up as the biggest domestic release of the holiday season.

While we've had two Christmas releases thus far, heading into the actual holiday in November, that being Thanksgiving, the market looks to be really crowded, especially as Thanksgiving itself approaches. That doesn't bode super well for our next two releases, both of which will be fighting for the adult audiences. The first one will be The Girl in the Spider's Web: A New Dragon Tattoo Story, with the subtitle of said film being added on fairly recently in order to boost brand name recognition. On that note, "The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo" began as a trilogy of novels written by Stieg Larsson, with the first book being released in 2005 and the two sequels in each ensuing year. There have been two film adaptations, a Swedish version in 2009, with both film sequels also being released the same year, and a Hollywood version in 2011 directed by David Fincher, which has not yet had any sequels. While fans of the franchise were probably hoping for a sequel to David Fincher's film, they'll have to settle with this instead, which is based on the fourth book in the series, called the Millenium series, with "The Girl in the Spider's Web" being written by a different author as Larsson died of a heart attack in 2004, before his three books were published.

If "The Girl in the Spider's Web" matched the opening of David Fincher's "The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo," that means it's in line for an opening around $12 million. "Dragon Tattoo" held on very well and wound up with $102 million, something that "Spider's Web" probably won't accomplish. That said, a $12 million opening is probably good enough to place ahead of the other adult-targeted release, J.J. Abrams' Overlord. This movie was initially thought to be a fourth "Cloverfield" movie, but Abrams confirmed in April that it is not, but is its own film. While Abrams is on as producer, this is actually directed by Julius Avery and is a World War II drama where a team of soldiers gets caught behind enemy lines after their plane crashes on their way to destroy a German radio tower. With enough buzz, this could in theory match the $15.2 million opening of "Hacksaw Ridge" in November 2016. However, last month's "Bad Times at the El Royal" comes to mind as that was a well-received, adult-targeted film that simply got lost in the mix and could only manage an opening of $7.1 million. Last month also saw the submarine thriller "Hunter Killer" only open to $6.7 million. So barring a breakout performance, that's about the range that "Overlord" is looking at.

November 16th - 18th-

With Thanksgiving being at its earliest possible date of November 22nd, that thanks to Nov. 1st falling on a Thursday, that means this weekend is the weekend right before the week of Thanksgiving and that's where audiences will be transported back to J.K. Rowling's wizarding world with Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald. This pre-Thanksgiving weekend has always been a productive weekend for the young adult book adaptations as every year from 2008 to 2016, this spot has been occupied by either a "Twilight," a "Harry Potter," a "Hunger Games" or a "Fantastic Beasts" film, all of which got huge openings. While "Fantastic Beasts" was on a break last year, "Justice League" jumped into the spot. This year, though, "Fantastic Beasts" is back, and as the title reveals, Johnny Depp's Grindelwald is wreaking havoc as he was revealed at the end of the 2016 film. To confront Grindelwald, a young Albus Dumbeldore, played by Jude Law, has commissioned this franchise's protagonist Newt Scamander to lead the charge. While this spin-off franchise was never going to match the huge grosses of each "Harry Potter" film, it's safe to expect this sequel to match the total of the first "Fantastic Beasts," which opened to $74 million on its way to $234 million.

Providing a comedic option for the Thanksgiving holiday, and potentially on through the Christmas season, is Instant Family, which is a movie that re-teams Mark Wahlberg with director Sean Anders, who helmed both "Daddy's Home" movies. Like "Daddy's Home," this is a movie involving a non-typical family situation as Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne play a couple who don't really want to have kids and are certainly not the best parents in the world, but happen to adopt three foster children into their family anyways and have to figure out how to make that family work. Given that this is the first comedy since "Night School" at the end of September and won't have any direct competition until "Holmes and Watson" on Christmas,  the door is wide open for it to have a good run and the Mark Wahlberg star power will certainly help. Although without a fellow co-star on the level of Will Ferrell, this probably won't get quite as high as either "Daddy's Home" movies, which starred both Wahlberg and Ferrell, making $38.7 million and $28.7 million respectively on their opening weekends. Rather, we've had a long string of comedies in 2018, like "Tag," "Game Night" and "Life of the Party" all open in the mid- to upper-teens range, so that seems like a safe bet.

There's been plenty of Oscar contenders that have been released already and November will see a handful more. While I encourage you to constantly be on the lookout for the smaller releases that slowly expand, in this post I'm choosing to only cover the ones opening in wide release, just for the sake of simplicity. On this weekend that means talking about Widows. This movie is a big deal because it's Steve McQueen's first directorial effort since he won best picture with "12 Years a Slave," a 2013 release. "Widows" follows four women who team up together to pull off a heist after their husbands were all shot by police in an armed robbery attempt. The four widows are played by Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki and Cynthia Erivo, with a supporting cast that includes Liam Neeson, Robert Duvall, Colin Farrell, Daniel Kaluuya, Jacki Weaver, Carrie Coon, Jon Bernthal and more. After early releases at various film festivals, the movie currently stands at a 96 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, with critics praising it for combining popcorn entertain with a strong message in a heist thriller. This means it could be the type of movie that pleases people across the board, from casual film-goers to Oscar voters, which could give it a good box office run.

November 21st - 25th -

As previously stated, Thanksgiving falls on November 22nd this year, which means there will be three wide releases all opening on Wednesday, November 21st. Hence the extended date range. Leading the pack will be Disney with Ralph Breaks the Internet, sequel to 2012's "Wreck-It Ralph." Believe it or not, this is actually only the second sequel Disney's main branch of animation has made for one of their animated films, with the other being "The Rescuers Down Under" in 1990. Unless you count the 2011 "Winnie the Pooh" or "Fantasia 2000." But what about all of those other sub-par sequels to all the animated classics? Yeah, those are all DisneyToon, not the main branch. That means Disney's in surprisingly new territory here, but a second adventure with Ralph and Vanellope should be a good crowd-pleaser as the two of the head out to the internet, where they run into all sorts of internet-related obstacles, including all the potential cameo appearances from the "Oh My Disney" section of the internet, such as all the Disney princesses. As far as box office comparisons, Disney's most recent Thanksgiving release, that being "Moana," earned $56 million on the three-day weekend and $82 million on the five-day weekend, so that might be a range to look at.

Providing additional power to the Thanksgiving week will the eighth film in the "Rocky" franchise and second to specifically follow Michael B. Jordan's Adonis Creed, that of course being Creed 2. Those with an attachment to the "Rocky" franchise might take especial interest here with the connection to "Rocky IV," as Adonis Creed is determined to face off against Viktor Drago, whose father Ivan Drago killed Adonis' father Apollo Creed in a boxing match at the beginning of "Rocky IV." Dolph Lundgreen will be reprising his role of Ivan Drago in the movie while Florian Munteanu will be playing his son Viktor. Sylvester Stallone will of course also be coming back in his iconic role of Rocky Balboa with Tessa Thompson also returning as Adonis' love interest. Since "Creed," Tessa Thompson has seen her star power rise after wowing audiences as Valkyrie in "Thor: Ragnarok." The most notable person to not return to "Creed 2" is director Ryan Coogler, being replaced by Steven Caple Jr. That could be the main issue that hurts this sequel, but it still should be able to play well, despite the crowded market, as the first "Creed" opening to $29 million over the three-day weekend and $42 million over the five-day weekend during Thanksgiving 2015.

The third Thanksgiving week release is the one that very well might be dead on arrival and that is the umpteenth film iteration of Robin Hood. This version of "Robin Hood" stars Teron Edgerton in the lead role of Robin Hood, with Jamie Foxx, Ben Mendelsohn and Jamie Dornan also coming along for the ride in supporting roles. That's a decent cast there, especially with Edgerton as the lead, but that's about all the movie has going for it at the moment. The biggest issue here is convincing people to be excited for another version of this character. Wikipedia has a whole page devoted to the list of films and TV series featuring Robin Hood and I think I counted 78 entries on that list. Not to mention Wikipedia also claims the character has been around in folklore since the 15th century in various stories, songs, plays and other productions. So I'd probably wouldn't be exaggerating when I say the number of times Robin Hood has shown up is countless. With so many options this Thanksgiving, it's hard seeing too many people choosing "Robin Hood" over all the others. The perfect comparison is last year's "King Arthur: Legend of the Sword," which faced a similar problem of overexposure and tanked with an opening of $15.4 million. Word is "Robin Hood" is tracking behind that movie.

November 30th - December 2nd-

Usually the weekend after Thanksgiving is left completely blank and is dominated by holdovers. This is often a smart move by studios in giving audiences a bit of breathing before loading them up again for Christmas. And that's mostly the case this weekend, thus however things shake up over Thanksgiving will probably end up being how they reflect here, with "Ralph Breaks the Internet" being the best candidate to lead the way both weekends. However, there is one small movie that decided to show up last minute in wide release and that is The Possession of Hannah Grace. This little horror film is about a corpse that is possessed in a hospital morgue and is discovered by a cop working the graveyard shift after recently getting out of rehab. It comes to us via Screen Gems, who have had a decent time recently with "Searching" and "Slender Man" both making around $30 million total domestically, an alright total for low-budget horror films. Given the lack of awareness at the moment for "Hannah Grace," if this opened anywhere near the $11.4 million of "Slender Man," that would probably be a huge win for Screen Gems. Although an opening closer to the $3.6 million of "Unfriended: Dark Web" or $3.7 million of "Unsane" might be a more realistic goal.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Retro Review: Psycho II (1983)

Last year for Halloween I reviewed my favorite Alfred Hitchcock film, and my favorite psychological thriller, the classic 1960 film "Psycho." I sometimes call it my favorite film of all time, but I usually hesitate in doing so because I prefer to compartmentalize things into categories. It's easier to declare my favorite film from a certain year, a certain genre, or a certain filmmaker rather than declaring a favorite film ever, especially since I haven't seen every film ever. Regardless, though, it's safe to say that I think the movie is great, regardless of what label I throw on it. This year to follow up on that, I thought it would be fun to dive into "Psycho II," a sequel that some might not even realize exists. I think the idea of a sequel to "Psycho" is rather preposterous and so did everyone else. Alfred Hitchcock had just died in 1980 and so it seems like the studio was trying to take advantage of that to cash in on the current trend at the time of never-ending horror sequels, most of which are pretty awful. I mean, I highly doubt that Hitchcock had any plans on making a sequel himself, nor do I imagine he would've approved of it. So to start production on it shortly after he died sounds rather blasphemous. And that's why it's so surprising that this actually works.

Before I dive into the movie, though, there is a bit more history here that I would dive into, namely concerning Robert Bloch, the author of the original book. Because, yeah, if you didn't know, Hitchcock's 1960 film was based on Robert Bloch's novel. Now I don't know the full history of Robert Bloch's reactions to everything, but I do find it interesting that he wrote a sequel to his novel, also titled "Pyshco II," which was released a year before the movie came out. The book was released before the script of the movie was written, but the movie script was not based on his book in the slightest. In fact, "Psycho II" the book was a novel written with the intent of directly criticizing splatter films at the time and Universal, the studio behind "Psycho II" the movie, was appalled at his book and tried to convince Bloch to abandon the book. He of course refused and was thus never involved in the making of "Psycho II," nor was he invited to any of the screenings. Although I haven't been able to find his reaction to the movie, I think it's safe to assume that he probably wasn't a big fan. Now I actually haven't read either of Bloch's "Pyshco" books, but one of these days I think it would be fascinating to find them and give them a read. Then I can call myself a real "Psycho" expert.

Onto the film, though, I also think it's worth noting that Anthony Perkins and Vera Miles, who play Norman Bates and Lila Crane in the original movie, originally turned down the opportunity to reprise their roles, but then ultimately agreed after reading the script. And yeah, after watching the movie for the first time myself a few years back, I was also surprised at the final result, which is crazy because this shouldn't have worked. Yes, it is true that the filmmakers did contact Hitchcock's family and got their blessing to make this, but I have a hard time believing that their ultimate motivations weren't solely due to money. I don't think whoever's initial idea this was woke up and came up with a brilliant idea of the natural progression to "Psycho." I think they saw franchises like "Halloween" and "Friday the 13th," both of which had three films released before "Psycho II" in 1983, and tried to come up with a way to take advantage of that trend. Perhaps seeing those other movies, then seeing "Psycho II" the book, gave someone the idea of bringing Norman Bates back to the big screen and turning "Psycho" into a traditional 80's slasher franchise. Whatever the motivation, though, director Richard Franklin claimed they wanted to honor Hitchcock's original film.

And, yes, "Psycho II" feels like the natural progression of the original movie. The reason why it works so well is because of the performances of Anthony Perkins and Vera Miles, as well as how the screenwriter Tom Holland (but not THAT Tom Holland) wrote their characters. The movie takes place 22 years after the events of the original, which ended with Norman getting locked up in a mental institution. This movie begins by him getting released from said institution because his doctor had been working with him over those years and helped him to overcome his DID (Dissociative Identity Disorder), at least to the point where he can act normally. Once he accepted the fact that he killed his mother, he was able to live separately from her without having that second personality in his mind. According to the "Psycho" lore, the reason why the DID started was because he was so traumatized after killing his mother that he created that second personality and later had a hard time telling the difference. So after accepting the fact that he killed her, he was able to become more normal in this film. I don't know how that works in relation to DID in real life, but for the sake of the film, it's a passable story arc in order to bring back Norman Bates to the Bates Motel.

On the flip side of things, Lila Crane, who is now Lila Loomis, is certainly not happy that he's been released. This is also a natural progression for her character. Given that her sister got brutally murdered by Norman Bates in the first movie, the idea of Norman Bates being released into society does not sit well with her. And rightfully so. I think it would be hard for anyone to accept. If someone you love has been murdered, being able to forgive that person is something that is close to impossible to do. To accept them being released into society again is even harder. So this situation sets up a pretty solid conflict between Norman and Lila as the movie progresses, which we'll get into later because the movie foreshadows said conflict, then takes a step back for a while and focuses specifically on Norman Bates as he tries to reintegrate into society. This is where Anthony Perkins really shines because he's always portrayed Norman as such a charismatic individual that you really want to root for. You can see he struggles with his mental issues, but deep down he seems like he has a good heart and wants to be a good person. That's what makes Norman Bates so fascinating. He's not born without a soul. He just has mental struggles that always manage to get the best of him.

I will say, though, that this portion of the movie is where things initially seem like they are about to get super repetitive. Norman Bates seems like a normal man. He has normal conversations with people. But after getting back to his old home, things around the house start to become triggers and you assume that he's going to snap and start killing again. And that's where you become afraid that they are going to turn this into a cliche 80's slasher, which would be extremely disappointing. Because although "Psycho" is the movie that started the slasher sub-genre of horror, the heart and soul of the movie is not a gory slasher, but a psychological, suspenseful thriller. Early on in the movie Norman makes a connection with a girl named Mary. You assume that he ends up killing the old drunk man who keeps taunting him because a figure dressed up like his mother walks out after Norman appears to have lost it and kills the man. Then the girl Mary goes and takes a shower and you assume that Norman spying on her is going to cause the mother figure in his brain to snap and go kill her, because that's what usually happens when Norman starts to care for a girl. The mother part of his personality gets jealous of his infatuation and disposes of the girl.

But then we have a bait and switch. Norman DOESN'T walk in and kill Mary. That's our first sign the the movie might actually be doing something different. And that's the point in this movie where if you haven't seen it and you want the second half of the movie to remain a secret, you might want to leave this review now because I'm going to dive into spoilers. This is my only opportunity to dive into "Psycho II" and there's things I need to talk about in regards to the ending of this movie. Because the reason why this ends up being a fun movie that does justice to the original is that it becomes more of a twisted mystery where you're not sure what's going on. Mystery and suspense is what Hitchcock did best. He went to great lengths to make sure the secrets of his original film didn't get out. I can attest to the fact that seeing the movie for the first time, having no idea what's going to happen, is quite the phenomenal experience. When I first watched the movie, I had no idea what the secret was. I just knew there was a famous shower scene. But that was it. I still remember the shock that I experienced when the movie revealed its secrets. An experience like that is essential to the enjoyment of a "Psycho" sequel, which is why I was pleased with these results.

If you've already seen the movie or you don't care about spoilers, let's proceed and discuss the rest of the film. We're going to get to these secrets in order of reveal because there's several of them. The first big reveal is that Norman is actually fairly normal. The 22 years of the doctor working with him actually helped. Once the drama starts with Mary, Norman starts seeing notes from his mother, starts getting phone calls from her and hears her yelling at him in the house and he thinks he's starting to go crazy again. This is also where Anthony Perkins' great performance really shines because as he thinks he's going crazy, he starts to break down and feel devastated. He really wants to be normal, but he fears that he's not. While he puts on a face for the police and others, he starts to bare his soul to Mary, whom he's started to trust. As it turns out, though, Norman is not the villain in this movie. He's the victim. The villain here is Lila, who is so upset that he's been released that she's come up with a scheme to get him locked up again. Her goal is to make it seem like he's going crazy, both to him and to the police, so they can throw him back in the mental institution, hopefully for good this time. That's a pretty mischievous plot, but also provides a really solid twist.

I do take some issue with this. Mostly I think it works. But Lila in the original film is such a strong female character that I think having her go crazy and come up with an elaborate plot to destroy Norman seems to betray her character a bit. But at the same time, having your sister get killed by a psycho is going to impact you in a negative way and to have that killer get released 22 years later with the justice system seeming to be protecting the criminals instead of the victims might realistically make someone go crazy. So it's plausible. But I'm not 100 percent convinced that her character would've gone to such lengths if this were Hitchcock writing the sequel. On this note of Lila going crazy, the other big twist in the middle of the film is that Mary is not some random girl who happened to stumble on Norman, like Marion Crane in the original film. She's Lila's daughter and has been in on this the whole time. This leads to some great drama between her and her mother, as well as her and Norman as she feels her mother has gone overboard a bit and she feels bad for continuing to help her. So Mary tries to make restitution with Norman without sending him off in an angry rage against her. Much props to Meg Tilly as Mary.

After all this setup, this is where the movie starts to spiral out of control, mostly in a good way, because you have no idea what's going to happen in the end. In cliche 80's slasher movie fashion, a teenage couple sneaks in and gets killed by Norman's mother, but you have no idea who is actually dressed up in that outfit. Is it Mary or Lila? Has the two ladies' plan finally worked out and caused Norman to kill? Is Mary going to be able to stop her mother in time for this to be a happy ending. When I first watched this movie, I had no idea how this movie was going to end, much like I was completely shocked by the reveal of the first movie. Funny enough, when I re-watched this movie earlier today in preparation for this review, I had also forgotten the specifics of who was behind what. I just remembering being surprisingly entertained, but I couldn't remember exactly which events happened in which "Psycho" sequel, because there's a total of four of these movies, plus a 90's remake. And I think I will get to all of them on successive Halloweens. But this means I also had fun re-watching this because the movie had me in suspense yet again. I'm not sure if it's a bad thing that I forgot the ending or a good thing that the movie surprised me twice, but it is what it is.

In revealing all the secrets here, Lila sneaks into Norman's basement and tries to get Mother's clothes to scare Norman once again, but suddenly sees someone else dressed in Mother's clothes, which we again assume is Norman finally gone crazy, and gets killed herself in graphic fashion. I'm not sure I liked this decision of killing Lila. That was sad. But this leads to Mary finding herself in a tough situation as the police start to suspect that she's been behind this whole thing. She somehow ends up alone upstairs, thinks Norman is coming in to kill her, but accidentally kills the doctor. The police barge in, see her with a knife, and shoot her dead. That also made me a bit sad because I wanted her to survive the movie. Norman doesn't get taken in because the police assume they just solved everything. But this is the point where he actually has lost it. Lila was successful with her plan in making him go crazy, but she ended up dead before seeing it come to fruition and Mary is the victim in all of this because she ends up dead and being blamed for everything. Meanwhile, crazy Norman is once again left all alone in the Bates Motel, setting us up for Psycho III, which hit theaters three years later in 1986. For now, I'll plan on getting to that next Halloween.

But wait! We're not done with the twists. After Norman is left all alone in his house, his mother walks in and reveals that she's been behind all the killings this whole time. Norman has killed no one. And by Norman's mother, I mean Norman's real mother. Because apparently Norma Bates was not Norman's real mother. Norma Bates was Norman's aunt. Norma Bates' sister is Norman's mother and she walks in and explains her reasoning behind everything, including why she gave Norman up to her sister when he was just a baby. But since Norman has gone completely crazy, he poisons her and hits her over the head with a shovel, then carries her dead corpse up to the room, talking with it like he did with Norma. And that's how we really. I'm not sure how I really like that ending. I think the filmmakers got a little carried away with all their twists and could've benefited by a more simplistic plot. But overall I do consider this movie a surprising success. Anthony Perkins, Vera Miles and Meg Tilly all give great performances and the filmmakers did a great job of providing a suspenseful movie with a lot of fun twists and turns. It obviously doesn't hold a light to the original film, but in a decade full of awful horror sequels, "Psycho II" is a pleasant surprise. I'm going to give it an 8/10.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Retro Review: The Exorcist (1973)

The scariest film of all time. Or at least that's what it says on the DVD cover. But is it really? Or did it get that reputation because it was a horror film that was way ahead of its time? We'll definitely dive into that in this review, as well as the issue of it being the most evil film of all time. Granted, that claim isn't printed on the cover of the DVD, but it's certainly a stigma that the film has carried with it since its release in 1973, especially among religious crowds, making this a bit of a forbidden film. In contrast to that, my claim will be that this is a faith-promoting film with strong themes related to us being able to overcome the devil, which is certainly a discussion I've been eager to jump into. A claim that can not be disputed is that this is one of the most successful and most influential horror films to ever be made. It made $193 million at the box office in 1973 in a year where the average ticket price was $1.77. It added $39 million with the release of the director's cut in 2000, and added an additional $235,000 with the extended director's cut in 2010, bringing its final domestic tally, unadjusted for ticket price inflation, to $232 million. When we do adjust for ticket price inflation, "The Exorcist" is the 9th highest grossing movie ever with a 2018 equivalent of $1.01 billion domestically.

For a bit more context, that 9th place spot comes two spots ahead of the 2015 release of "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," which made $936 million in 2015, and now adjusts to $988 million with 2018 ticket prices. So think of the cultural phenomenon that was "The Force Awakens" three years ago and that's what it was like for "The Exorcist" in 1973. Surprisingly enough, I can't claim that it's the highest grossing horror film ever adjusted for ticket price inflation because two years later a movie called "Jaws" came out, making $260 million in 1975, which adjusts to $1.17 billion domestically in 2018 ticket prices, good enough for 7th place on that all time list. However, when it comes to R-rated horror, the unadjusted $232 million total of "The Exorcist" was not topped until "IT" made $327 million last year. That's how much of a phenomenon "The Exorcist" was. And anytime we have a demonic possession horror film, you can look right at "The Exorcist" as the pioneer of that specific sub-genre of horror. And that all makes this a bit of an intimidating review. What can I say about this movie that hasn't already been said a thousand times over the last 45 years? Well, what I can give out is my personal opinion, which is something that hasn't been given to the world.

In giving my personal opinion, it has to be noted that I did not grow up with this film. In fact, I didn't watch this for the first time until last October when I bought it at Walmart for $5 with the idea of possibly reviewing it as a part of my Halloween movie review series. After watching it for the first, not having any idea of what to expect going in, I knew I couldn't do my review right away. It had to wait. So I gave myself a year to ponder over it and let it sink in. Then I re-watched it yesterday in preparation for this review. And I almost feel that I'm still not ready to give my review, but I don't know how much another year will really benefit me, so I'm diving in now anyways. My immediate reaction, both last year and this year, was one of surprise in how much I wasn't scared while watching this movie. Given its label as "the scariest film of all time," I took that as a challenge and I feel I won. That's why I said at the beginning of this film that maybe people in 1973 simply weren't ready for this movie? In general, movies prior to 1970 were fairly tame, but the 70's was an era that really tested the limit of what could be included in a film as the horror genre especially was one that became increasingly more intense. "The Exorcist" most certainly was a movie that helped transform the genre.

In thinking about this, I'm trying to put myself into the shoes of someone in 1973. What would've it been like to walk into a theater and see "The Exorcist" for the first time given the context of the films that typically came out around that time period. People's minds weren't conditioned for that high level of intensity that the movie delivers, thus is why there was documented cases of people being hospitalized due to how psychologically traumatic the movie was. Because of that, I can totally see why people came out of that and called the movie horrific, evil and vile. For me, though, I was born in the late 80's when the genre had already been transformed. A graphic, violent horror film became the norm in the 80's, which continued into the 90's, 2000's and 2010's. So when I see a horror film whose prime focus is the shock value, it's not going to impact me in the same way as someone born in the 40's, grew up with films in the 50's and 60's, then was exposed to "The Exorcist" in 1973. I'm not going to walk out saying that this was the most evil, gross and vile movie I've ever seen. Because it's not. A lot of movies that this inspired are a whole lot worse. And if "The Exorcist" first came out in 2018, I don't think anyone would've been hospitalized.

I think that's why it was important for me to give this a year before getting my review out because an immediate reaction would've been unfair to the movie as a whole. The only thing I knew about this when I turned it on was that it was supposed to be the scariest film of all time and it had something to do with a little girl being possessed. When I finished the movie and I wasn't scared, I might've given a somewhat negative review because I didn't get what I expected. However, now that I've given myself time to realize what this movie really is, I can give a better analysis of it. I can press play on the film knowing that I'm not going to be scared, which can then allow me to focus on the story that's being told and the themes that are being presented rather than bracing for impact with scenes that are supposed to terrify. And that's where this movie blossoms into a beautiful masterpiece. I can see a movie that's about a mother who really loves her daughter. I can see the horror and sadness that takes place when her daughter slowly goes downhill with some sort of condition that no one can pin down. I can see the story of a Catholic priest struggling with his own faith, who eventually becomes strong enough to overpower the devil and help a struggling family.

That's why I would strongly disagree with someone who calls this movie evil. Again, I can see why people in the 1970's gave it that label. But in my view, just because you include realistic depictions of the devil, demonic possession, and/or witchcraft, it does not make your movie evil. An evil movie would be one where the devil is endorsed or witchcraft is encouraged. Believe it or not, I have not seen a horror movie that actually does that, especially not these demonic possession movies. In fact, the overall theme in every case is that the evil can be overcome. Even if I'm being too absolute in that claim, at the very least I will stand by my opinion that "The Exorcist" is not an evil movie. It just does a more realistic job of showing how evil the devil can be. Granted, in showcasing that, I fully understand that this is not a movie for everyone. If you have a high sensitivity to blood, gore, or graphic imagery, this is a movie to stay away from because it doesn't hold back. It does a great job of showing how vile and disturbing this demon is. I don't think it glorifies the violence in the way an Eli Roth film would. But the attempt here is to be realistic and it definitely accomplishes that. In fact, the term "realistic" is the best way of describing "The Exorcist" as a whole.

In terms of specifics, I am surprised at how long it takes to set up. At the same time, though, it allows for plenty of character arcs to be woven in together, making this much more of a character piece than I was expecting. For the most part I think this is a great thing. Good characters is what a lot of horror films forget to establish, so I really appreciate this movie for doing a solid job at making me care about the characters before setting up the horror. Specifically I think it was important to set up the relationship with the mother and the daughter. The daughter is played by then 14-year-old actress Linda Blair, a fairly new actress in only her third big screen role. She does a great job of being a sweet, innocent teenage girl and there's a strong bond between her and her mother, who is played by Ellen Burstyn. Their relationship is so good that when the daughter starts acting strangely, it becomes quite jarring. Thus you feel for the mother when she starts to panic, especially since none of the doctors can nail down exactly what's wrong with the daughter. And I kinda liked how they didn't immediately turn straight to demonic possession as the answer, because the realistic setting is that many people nowadays probably don't believe in that.

On that note, when we did go over to the Catholic priests in the movie, I liked how that angle of the movie was more of a slow burn. Instead of being like other demonic possession movies that followed where the Catholic church immediately sends out priests to perform an exorcism, the process here is a lot more methodical. The main priest in the movie, Father Karras, played by Jason Miller, is also a psychiatrist, his first reaction is that of hesitation because he feels that it's more appropriate to put her in the care of good medical professionals since modern medicine and medical diagnoses have made exorcisms a lot less common in the modern day. Plus, he himself is going through a bit of a crisis of faith, especially after the death of his mother. All of this builds to a more resonant climax when the moral becomes to turn to God for help. It doesn't shove religion in your face, but rather makes the final decisions in the movie feel like more of a natural progression of each character's story arc. I also believe that the mother of the possessed teenager is an atheist to begin with, or at least is someone who is not a faithful church-going individual, so her finally making the decision to turn to the Catholic priests for help with her daughter is also a great finish to her story arc.

I did say that the decision to take a long time to set up the plot is a great thing for the most part. The slight negative criticism I have is that it does feel like the movie drags its feet a bit in getting to the point. The movie has a lot more side characters than it probably needs and by the time the mother has gone to the 10,000th doctor to figure out what's wrong with her daughter, you would think she would've got the point that the doctors aren't going to do anything, but the movie makes sure to drive that point home so that no one in the audience will forget that the doctors can't do anything. This unfortunately made it so that my eyes got a bit heavy during both viewings of the movie when it came to the first half of the film. I don't want to call it boring, but the second half of the movie is certainly a lot more interesting than the first half. But the wait certainly does pay off. When Jason Miller as Father Karras and Max von Sydow (who looks just as old in this film as he does in "The Force Awakens") as Father Merrin are both in the home performing the long exorcism on the girl, this is an extremely rewarding sequence. I'd go as far as saying this is the absolute best exorcism sequence that I've ever seen as all the emotions build to this intensely fascinating climax.

As far as a grade for this movie goes, I've been struggling with what to give this ever since I watched this last year for the first time. If I'm being honest, had I rushed in and reviewed this movie last year, I may have only wound up giving this a 7 or an 8, which is one of the main reasons why I knew I needed to give this more time. I thought that if I did give it time and get around to it this year instead, perhaps I'll come to see exactly why this is such a beloved film. And I will say that I have come to appreciate this film more in the last year. In watching it again yesterday, I certainly had a higher appreciation for the film and was able to give a better analysis of its fascinating themes. And I know what I'm SUPPOSED to say. I'm supposed to call this a flawless masterpiece. I'm supposed to say that this is one of the best, if not the best, horror film ever made and the Godfather of all demonic possession horror films. And I wanted to make that claim, but if I'm being honest with myself, I don't think I'm there yet. Could that change in 5-10 years after I've given myself even more time to mull it over in my head and pick up on all the details and character arcs? It's quite possible. But at this very moment in time, I think I can only get "The Exorcist" to a 9/10. Take that for what it's worth.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

First Man Review

It's time to review another Damien Chazelle film! Chazelle is a director whose career I am quite invested in. Not only did he start his career off with two phenomenal films in "Whiplash" and "La La Land," the latter of which is developing into an all-time favorite for me, but I was lucky enough to interview him over the phone two years ago. I stress the word "lucky" in that previous sentence because all I did was convince the Deseret News to hire me for an internship in 2016 and they gave me all sorts of fancy people to interview during those four months. The people who were marketing "La La Land" that year reached out to us and since I am a movie guy, I gladly took that assignment on. I almost scored an interview with Emma Stone in that process, but Chazelle was the one who ended up being available for us, which I was super grateful for. It was one of my favorite interviews. They showed me the movie nearly two months before it was released to the general public and then I got to talk to Chazelle all about his experience with the movie and what it meant to him personally. So of course I was going to follow his career closely. That means I've known for some time that his next project was a Neil Armstrong biopic and thus I was excited to see what he would do with that.

Perhaps that makes me a bit biased going into this movie, but so be it. I was biased with "La La Land," too, since I talked to the guy about the movie. That'll do wonders in shaping your opinion of a film. I don't know how interested the rest of the world was in this. I mean, critics were on a similar page as me as Chazelle is a guy who had both of his first two films get nominated for best picture. "First Man" was released to festival audiences starting with Venice on August 29, then moving on over the next month or so to places like Telluride and TIFF. It got strong scored from said festival audience. But I can see the general population looking at the trailers for this and simply seeing a movie about Neil Armstrong and the first trip to the moon and thus not caring too much about the movie comparatively. A lot of people hated "La La Land" (shame on all of them) and a lot of people probably have never heard about "Whiplash" as the latter's box office totals weren't very strong. So I can understand that many people don't quite have the same emotional investment in Chazelle as me or as critics who closely follow the Oscar films. This has actually resulted in a lot of surprisingly negative reaction towards this film that I did not expect, so we'll get to that.

First and foremost, one specific internet comment that stood out to me was that someone complained about the film because it was "more of a biography of Neil Armstrong." I facepalmed so hard at that. Because, yeah, that's EXACTLY what this movie is. Taking a step back, though, that made me realize that not everyone knew what to expect going in, which would most certainly impact your movie-going experience. I'm not sure what people expected from this film, but it's not a movie like "Interstellar" or "The Martian," two movies focused specifically on space travel. It's also not a movie that was trying to be like "Apollo 13" by focusing specifically on the mission itself. This is a movie whose primary focus is telling the story of Neil Armstrong. It was not meant to be an epic space adventure. It was not meant to be a political thriller. It was meant to showcase the life of Neil Armstrong, the human being behind one of the most monumental achievements in the history of mankind. And in this right, I think it's fascinating. We know all about Apollo 11. But we don't know as much about Neil Armstrong himself and what he went through in his personal life. At least I didn't. I suppose I can't speak for the rest of the world. But I was excited to learn about him.

Given that I went in expecting a personal look at the life of Neil Armstrong instead of some sort of epic space adventure or a political thriller, it shouldn't surprise you that I was most fascinated by the family dynamic and the drama that came with it. We all look at Neil Armstrong as one of the most iconic figures in history, but I didn't realize that he was such a quiet, closed up individual. I think it's easy for one to assume a more outgoing, energetic personality from someone who accomplished something so great, but that's not the case. In a way I think that element of the movie can be rather inspiring for those of us who aren't necessarily the most outgoing people ever. I don't consider myself quiet or shy, per se, but I also wouldn't label myself as an extrovert. It's easy to be self-degrading in that sense in thinking that I can't accomplish as much because I don't have the right personality type. Yet Neil Armstrong is a character who accomplished one of the great feats this world has ever known in being the first man to ever step foot on the moon. But he wasn't this outspoken, extroverted character. As such, he was able to show that you can do whatever you set your mind to, even if you don't think you are capable of doing so, as long as you are focused and driven on your goals.

I also really liked the relationship with Neil Armstrong and his family that was showcased. A lot of these movies that depict space travel don't often think of going into a ton of depth when it comes to family relationships and what that family might think of their parent or spouse going into space. But that's where the emotion of this movie comes in. Space travel is, in reality, a super dangerous prospect. There's been several sad instances in the past where the team of astronauts board the rocket ship, being praised as heroes, only to all get blown up just moments later with some sort of system failure or other unexpected occurrences. I don't want to say too much, but the movie really hones in on that dangerous aspect, creating a lot of tension between Neil Armstrong and his wife. Given his more quiet nature, Neil Armstrong is about to leave without saying much, but is confronted in a scene that is unfortunately shown in the trailer where his wife forces him to confront his children about the prospect that he may not return. The acting in this sequence, and others like it, are spot on from both Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong and Claire Foy as his wife. Yes, this is Ryan Gosling's movie, but personally I was most impressed with Claire Foy. Without her, this movie doesn't work as well.

Now lest you think I am simply going to praise this movie to the high-heavens simply because it is a Damien Chazelle movie, I will admit that there were a lot of moments in the movie where I was trying to like the movie a lot more than I actually was and it took me a bit of reflection to realize this. I was so pumped up with adrenaline, but I slowly became to realize that I wasn't being satisfied as much as I was wanting to. Yes, I stand by previous two paragraphs that I was fascinated by the dive into Neil Armstrong's personal character and his relationship with his wife and kids. But I will admit that I don't think the movie was always completely engaging throughout. And given that I was seeing a late showing after not getting a ton of sleep the night before, there were moments during the film where my brain decided that it was time for bed rather than time to watch the rest of the movie. Not helping the matters were that I purchased a ticket for a luxury IMAX seat and those chairs are super soft and comfortable. In fact, most times when I purchase a seat like that, I mostly regret the decision because I didn't pay to go take a nap in a soft seat. And I may have missed small parts of this movie, thus my overall thoughts might be improved on a re-watch.

However, speaking of IMAX, the sequences that I most certainly did NOT miss were the sequences of lift off. There's actually a few of these sequences with astronauts traveling in space vehicles, but the most impressive of the lot is the actual Apollo 11 mission where Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and the gang are off to the moon. And I don't know how much this will benefit those of you reading this as this may be more of an FYI than a recommendation, but this was a sequence that was greatly enhanced by seeing on an IMAX screen. The sound quality and visual effects of this moment were mind-boggling. It's to the point where I think this may be my all-time favorite IMAX scene in a movie. I felt like I was on that ship with them, taking an epic ride in a rocket ship to the moon. When a movie is able to transport me from being a simple spectator to feeling like I'm physically in the movie with these characters, that's when I get super impressed. But not only that, after this epic ride, I felt like I stepped out of the ship and walked on the moon. That moment of stepping out onto the moon and walking around was surreal. It felt like a dream come true. So if at all possible, buy a ticket for the biggest and loudest screen possible because that's what this was meant for.

I do want to address some of the controversies of the film and this does require diving into spoilers a bit, if that's even possible for a Neil Armstrong biopic. So be warned there. First off, in non-spoiler fashion, there's a lot of complaints about the shakiness of the movie and the frequency of close-up shots. I didn't have a problem with this because most of those came while we were riding around in space. That felt realistic to me. But more importantly, people are claiming this movie is historically inaccurate. I think that's wrong. This was actually based on the Neil Armstrong biography titled "First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong." From what I can tell, a lot of this movie follows that biography quite closely. Chazelle also worked very closely with Armstrong's family to get that family dynamic right. He does take a few creative liberties, which I find small. First, the classic footstep picture on the moon was actually Buzz Aldrin's footstep. The movie makes it Armstrong's. And Neil Armstrong throws his child's bracelet thing into one of the craters of the moon. From what I'm gathering, that didn't actually happen. But his child really did pass away, so that seems like something Armstrong could've done. I thought it was a nice touch that fit with the themes of family.

The biggest controversy that I've heard, though, is that the movie does not depict Armstrong and Aldrin placing the American flag on the moon. There's a lot of people in a violent uproar about this. President Trump even responded in an interview saying that he was extremely disappointed in hearing that they didn't depict this scene. Buzz Aldrin also tweeted back in September a picture of him and other astronauts with the American flag on the moon. Thus the movie is being boycotted by many for not showing this. People are saying that this makes the movie anti-American for being too scared to show the flag, that it disrespects the flag and the astronauts for not showing it, and/or that Chazelle and the filmmakers were too scared of offending non-American viewers by portraying a pro-American scene in a movie. But I don't know. There's a lot of dumb reasons out there that people have boycotted movies and I think this is another instance of people looking for reasons to get offended. Because that's what we do in 2018. While this specific moment is absent from the film, the American flag is shown quite often in the movie and they do talk about beating the Russians. No, it's not the focus because this is not meant as a political thriller. But it's there.

Again, though, I think this all boils down to what you expect from the movie going in. If you want a political thriller about how much better the Americans are than the rest of the world, you might be disappointed. If you were hoping for an epic space adventure for the majority of the movie instead of simply one scene at the end, you might be disappointed. But if you go in realizing that this is a biopic of Neil Armstrong and you focus on that, then I think you're going to appreciate being informed about this man's life beyond what we all already know. I hate to use the b-word to describe this ("boring"), but there are moments that are less engaging than the other scenes that led me to doze off in my super comfortable luxury seat. Yes, this may have caused me to miss small sequences of the movie. Thus in theory, my opinion overall might improve on future viewings. But regardless of all this, I did find the family dynamic fascinating and I do think Ryan Gosling and Claire Foye give Oscar-worthy performances. And the Apollo 11 sequences at the end make the whole movie worth it. Oscars should be given for visual effects, original score and sound design because of this. The movie isn't as good as "Whiplash" and "La La Land." But that's OK. I'll still give "First Man" an 8/10.