Thursday, September 19, 2019

Out of Liberty Review

September has been an interesting month for movies. And by that I mean there's been "IT: Chapter Two" and... well, nothing else. There's been a couple of times in the last week or so where I've had the desire to go see a matinee film or something like that, but I look at what my options are and realize that I've seen everything that I've wanted to see that's currently in theaters near me. So instead of going to see movies and writing reviews, I stayed home and was jealous of all the people who were fancy enough to go to the Toronto International Film Festival, because there's now at least 15-20 films that showed there that I am now dying to see. Now I saw this coming when I did my September preview, but still. I'm excited to get out of this September lull and into the holiday season where there are a lot more options. So while the first weekend of September had only "IT: Chapter Two," the second weekend that just passed us by gave us the option of a stripper movie in "Hustlers" and "The Goldfinch," a movie I was excited for until it got absolutely wasted at TIFF. So instead of seeing one of those two, I turned my attention to the local scene where we have "Out of Liberty," a movie about Joseph Smith in Liberty Jail. Given these choices, I'd like to say I made a good decision.

Earlier in the summer when I reviewed "The Other Side of Heaven 2," I had no idea what the theater count was and thus I wrongly assumed it was only a Utah release. Turns out the movie opened in 205 theaters, which was a much wider release than I was expecting. After 12 weeks in theaters, "The Other Side of Heaven 2" has made $1.7 million, which is pretty good for a one of these smaller, local-ish Christian films. "Out of Liberty," though, only opened in 35 theaters, so this one does seem like it's actually a local film here in Utah only. Maybe a few locations outside. I do know from looking at my showtimes on IMDb that 22 of the 35 locations are here on the Wasatch Front. Where the other 13 locations are, I'm not sure. They're most likely in places like Idaho or Arizona that have a higher population of Latter-day Saints. In late July, Purdie also released "The Fighting Preacher," which started in 28 theaters and expanded into 37 theaters in its second weekend. So if you got that movie at your local theater this summer, I'm willing to bet that you also have "Out of Liberty" right now. If you don't have either, I'm guessing you'll have to wait until it comes to DVD, unless the movie catches on like wildfire. But based on early returns from this past weekend, I don't think that will be the case. 

For better or for worse, "Out of Liberty" is a movie that assumes you know all about Joseph Smith and are curious in seeing a deeper dive of what he experienced in Liberty Jail. Some of these Latter-day Saint films at least make an attempt to appeal to a non-member audience. Whether or not that effort is successful is a different story, but at least there's an attempt. "Out of Liberty" makes no attempt. If you're not an active member of the Church and/or you don't care about Joseph Smith, this is not your movie. That's my disclaimer right now. And that's a bit of an interesting choice given that Garrett Batty is the director here. His previous two films, "The Saratov Approach" and "Freetown" were movies that had at least some sort of appeal to the general public. I think it was Larry King who said that "The Saratov Approach" was a great little independent film. Now I don't think "Out of Liberty" going a different approach is a bad thing by any means. It's just a different approach. And in many cases, having a very specific, niche audience can be a great thing. You don't have to worry about pandering to people outside your target audience. You can simply give them exactly what they want. If they're pleased with the result, then you did your job.

I didn't pay too close attention to the advertising of this movie. I was very well aware that it existed because they gave it a very good local push. Because of that, I knew this was a movie about Joseph Smith in Liberty Jail. I just didn't know what the specific angle was and I was curious to see what Garrett Batty brought to the table. The thing is, I'm very well aware of this story. It almost goes without saying that Joseph's Smith story has been told a lot of times. Just about every time it has been told, Liberty Jail is included in some form because it was a key moment in his history. Doctrine & Covenants sections 121 and 122 are some of the most powerful and most quoted scriptures in the Church's library of scriptures. Whenever they are quoted, often a brief explanation of the Liberty Jail context is also given. So in my mind, if we're going to revisit this in the form of a film, there's got to be a specific purpose as to why we're revisiting it for the upteenth time. That's why I was more curious than outright excited for this experience. And I have to be honest here. The final result has me slightly conflicted. I do think Garrett Batty is a good filmmaker and because of that, there's a lot of things here that work quite well. It just didn't resonate with me as much as it should've.

If you want to go into this movie completely blind as to what it's all about, feel free to exit this review and come back after you watch. If you don't mind a bit of an exploration of this, then proceed. With that out of the way, the specific angle here is, simply put, Liberty Jail. All of it. Nothing more, nothing less. We don't get a recap of who Joseph Smith is. There's also very little information given about the Saints' situation in Missouri. We don't even get to see why Joseph Smith and company got put in Liberty Jail. There's a few words of text that briefly describe the situation, but no visuals. After said text, the movie starts with them two months into their jail sentence, the month being December 1838. The introductory scene is of them formulating a plan to escape because they feel like that's their only way out. That plan fails. Because, you know, they ending up being there for six months. Following that, the movie goes in a very straight-lined narrative, giving highlights of their time in jail in four different sections: January, February, March and April. No, the movie doesn't have a nice and pretty three-act structure, thus this ends up as quite the tricky undertaking. Most of the time that Joseph and company were in Liberty Jail, it was cold, dark and lonely with nothing happening.   

That's why I felt conflicted here. While there was a lot going on during this time period, if the decision is made to have the point of view strictly from Liberty Jail only, what do you do to make that story interesting? Yeah, they did a great job of setting the scene for Liberty Jail. It was cold and chilling. There were definitely some great individual moments. But when I had to stay in jail with them for the whole movie, I started to get claustrophobic a bit. It felt like I got thrown in jail for two hours with them and it began to be uncomfortable. It's just hard to maintain a great flow when you decide to handcuff yourself to just one point of view. And given that I'm well familiar with the story, I think it would've added to the emotion to see what the saints were going through while Joseph was stuck in prison. The events right before Joseph got thrown in Liberty Jail were emotional and heart-wrenching. The continued extermination order while Joseph was in prison was tragic. Pair all these events up and you have an excellent movie. With what we got instead, we feel bad for Joseph because he's cold and miserable. In reality, he was mostly sad about what the saints were going through and the fact that he could do nothing to help them given that he was stuck in this jail all winter.

Yet we don't get to see any of that. Instead, we get loaded with constant exposition the entire movie and that's just not as effective as seeing what's going on. That's why whenever these events have been portrayed in various movies, we do get to witness the full scope of what's happening from every angle. And I don't think this decision was made due to budget constraints. Batty's previous two movies have been fairly successful. I just think he wanted to tell a more constrained, personal story with this, thus giving us a different look at this then what we've had in the past. And I will say that does make this unique in the large library of movies based on Church history, so I give him points there. I just don't know if unique is always the best. I mean, when Liberty Jail is portrayed, it's never the focus point of the entire film and I think there's a good reason for that. It's just a bit exhausting when we zoom in and spend the whole movie there. It gets the point across just fine in 20-30 minutes as a part of something bigger in scope. And if I'm being honest, if I'm ever in the mood to dive into some Church history via film, I don't know how often I'm going to turn to this one when something like "Joseph Smith: Prophet of the Restoration" is available instead.

All that said, this review has been a lot more negative than I initially intended it to be. I just walked out in a bit of a conflicted manner and I've used this review to get to the bottom of what I've been feeling. Since I feel I've gotten that point across just fine, if we put aside the narrative structure of the film, there is a lot of positive moments in this movie. Despite this being about Liberty Jail, Joseph Smith is actually almost a supporting character in the film. There's a lot of focus around the jailer Samuel Tillery, who is played by Jasen Wade, who is definitely the lead in the film. He's the name they have advertised on all of the posters and is the one who comes up first in the end credits. And he has a solid arc in the film. He's trying to be this stern jailer so that the leaders of county and state will be happy with him, but he also fights hard to protect all of his prisoners from the angry mobs that constantly try to come and take justice into their own hands. He's bound and determined to keep all of them safe. There's some good, solid character moments with him. And if you don't remember off hand exactly how Joseph got out of Liberty Jail, I won't give that away, but it makes for an excellent moment that leaves you with all warm and fuzzy inside.

The movie's soundtrack is also quite excellent. When moments of tension happened, I was successfully on the edge of my seat. Even though I know that they all stayed in Liberty Jail until April, their attempted escapes were framed and executed quite well. And all of the acting was solid. Now if we're going back to the nitpicky side of things, I do have to say that the actor who played Joseph Smith looked nothing like him. It made me laugh when the whole group stood up and Joseph Smith was short and chubby. I don't know how tall Brandon Ray Oliver is, but he looked like he was only 5'6" or 5'7" while I think Joseph was closer to 6'2" or something like that. So if we're going to get a random, non-member actor to play Joseph, why not cast someone who looks more like him? That said, he did a great job of portraying Joseph in the most honest and respectful way, so I appreciated that. And we also had a lot of other great supporting cast members, including Garrett Batty bringing back Corbin Allred from "The Saratov Approach" to play Porter Rockwell. Corbin Allred always gets into his roles and it's fun to watch him. And without saying more than I should, if you've been to the temple recently, you'll know exactly who Corbin Allred is when you see him. 

Some other quick final thoughts. Again, if you are unfamiliar with Church history, some of the drama that happens won't have as strong of an effect. The main antagonist in the film is a mob member who is very angry about certain events that happened at the Battle of Crooked River. If that battle rings no bells, you're going to be at a disadvantage. Also, Alexander Doniphan plays a significant role in this. And if that name doesn't ring a bell, then you're also at a disadvantage because the movie assumes you already know him and doesn't bother explaining. If you're watching this at your home, you have the advantage of being able to pause and go over that. But if you're watching it in theaters, the movie has the potential to lose you. That's why I said earlier that if you're not an active member of the Church, this movie is probably not for you. Given that I am in the target audience, I personally wasn't bothered, but again it's worth noting. All in all, this movie does have plenty of great moments. It's not preachy, but it does leave you with enough of a spiritual high that I imagine most people won't even think of all things that I brought up here. I don't think it's a movie you need to rush out to see in theaters, but I do think it's worth a watch at some point. My grade here is a 7/10.

Friday, September 6, 2019

IT: Chapter Two Review

Everyone's favorite killer clown is back in what is easily the horror event of the year. It's actually been a pretty decent month or so for horror as in just the last month I've done reviews for "Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark," "47 Meters Down: Uncaged" and "Ready or Not." Then we had "Midsommar" back in July as well as "Child's Play" and "Annabelle Comes Home" back in June, the latter two of which I still haven't seen. We also had the little Sundance thriller "Don't Let Go" last weekend, but I also didn't get around to seeing that one. But, yeah, "IT: Chapter Two" is the big one as the first "IT" made an astronomically high $123 million opening weekend, which is practically unheard of for a horror film. Horror films are so cheap to make that if you get $40-50 million opening weekend, you're almost guaranteed to have 10 sequels coming in the next 10 years. You can even get away with only making $20-30 million overall in certain instances and still be considered profitable given that most of these films are budgeted at only a few million dollars. So yeah, $123 million in one weekend is insane. It went onto make $327 million domestically and $700 million worldwide. So here we are with "Chapter Two" as fast as they possibly could, which is also set to do quite well.

Sure, it might be unfair to expect "Chapter Two" to perform as high as the first one, but given that the first one was only budgeted at $35 million, it's not necessary for it to do as well, even though it does appear that they doubled the production budget to $60-70 million, which it's certainly guaranteed to make back in its upcoming opening weekend as it's on pace for somewhere between $80-100 million. In the meantime, Warner Bros. is probably trying to figure out a way to bring Pennywise back for a third outing, but I hope they can manage to restrain themselves and just keep it as these two movies because, with both movies combined, this is a solid five hour epic that has a perfect beginning, middle and end. We don't need more. As far as my feelings on this second half going in, I would label myself as being cautiously optimistic. I really enjoyed the first movie and I loved the idea of having the same director and team come for this second movie. I also loved the new cast they had for the adult versions of the losers club, highlighted by Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy and Bill Hader. But if we're being real, the first half of the movie was the part that was easy to get right whereas they had their work cut out for them as the second half is the lesser half of the story.

I don't want to get too deep into my issues with this second half, in terms of the book and the 1990 TV miniseries, because most of that has to do with how this ends. It's not a good ending. Granted, I haven't physically read the 100,000 page book by Stephen King (OK, that's a slight exaggeration in terms of that length), but I've read and heard a lot about it, especially since I have seen the miniseries and when that ending came, I was like, "Wait, what? That's it?" A friend of mine once told me that, while Stephen King does an excellent job setting up his horror, mystery and suspense, he's not very good at his resolutions. I can't claim that as my personal opinion of his work since I haven't actually read most of his stuff, but in terms of the ending of "IT," I'd say that most certainly holds true. The other non-spoilery reason why I'm not as big of a fan of the second half of the story is that having Pennywise terrorize a group of teenage kids is a much more intriguing setup that simply works better for a horror film as compared to Pennywise terrorizing a group of adults. With the 2017 movie version, the fact that they made it take place in 80's was a perfect marriage as it felt like a classic 80's horror. And we all know how popular and fun 80's nostalgia vomit is right now. 

So yeah, the filmmakers here really had their work cut out for them, which is why I think I ended up enjoying and appreciating this film a lot more than I was expecting to. First and foremost, what really held this thing together was the cast. When I heard that they cast Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy and Bill Hader, I knew I was going to get 110 percent out of those three. And I was exactly right. But what I also got was an equal amount of effort from the other three members of the adult losers club, played by Jay Ryan, James Ransone and Isaiah Mustafa. Yes, there were seven kids in the losers club in the first movie. If you don't know the story here, I'll let you figure out in the first 20 minutes what happens to the seventh one as an adult. But for the sake of this review, these six actors are our main group that are focused and I think it's impressive how much I bought the idea that they are grown up versions of the kids. There's a lot of flashbacks in this where they go back to them as kids and it helped me remember their personalities in the first movie, which in turn made it extremely impressive because those same personalities still existed in their adult selves. Despite being very well known actors, especially Chastain, McAvoy and Hader, they were all able to disappear into their roles and become these characters.

On top of there being six great performances in the movie, I also liked the focus of this being a character piece. A lot of horror films out there are focused first and foremost on the scares and the imagery, with story and characters being afterthoughts. Depending on how well said scares are set up, that can work as mindless entertainment, but where the horror genre really shines is when there's more depth. When the horror sequences are secondary in focus to the themes, characters and story. That's one thing that the first "IT" excelled at. You really cared about this group of young outcasts and what they were going through. Having them all bind together to face their fears and thus become stronger was quite touching and inspirational. It was a lot more than just a killer clown chasing kids around. I loved how "Chapter Two" built on that. Sometimes we make promises as kids, but life happens and we forget. In the movie, they literally forgot due to supernatural elements of the town, but I think it was very metaphorical. They had to remember who they were, come together again, and conquer their fears once and for all. For most of them, the struggles they had when they were younger carried over into their adult lives and all of that got forced to the surface when they reunited in Derry.

I found myself really enjoying watching all of them grow and progress as characters. I don't want to specifically single out one or two of them as having superior arcs because I liked all six of them. I also liked how the movie chose not to rush to a finale. There's a lot of story to tell here and they gave themselves plenty of time to tell it. It was a gamble to make the movie nearly three hours long (2 hours 49 minutes), but I think it payed off as nothing felt rushed or compromised. This could've easily been one of those 10-episode Netflix shows with how much material there is to work with, but I liked having this as a movie and I liked how well it has done because it's given them the financial freedom to do this story justice with high budget effects and top notch actors to go along with 2019 technology. It's allowed us to experience the "IT" story that we all deserve. And I think it's highly amusing that people will binge a whole season of "The Haunting of Hill House" in one weekend with zero complaints (that's nearly 10 hours worth of content), yet at the same time will walk out and complain that "IT: Chapter Two" was too long at just three hours. Yes, this movie is a bit of time investment, but if you're just going to watch Netflix all night anyways, you might as well invest that time, right?

Now it would certainly be foolish of me to review an "IT" movie and not talk about the scares. Because there's a lot of them. I don't know if I was cowering in my seat like I was with something like "Hereditary" or "Midsommar." I'm not even sure this was quite as terrifying as the first "IT." But I was really enjoying myself. Bill Skarsgard as Pennywise was again having the time of his life. Every time he showed up on screen, he just completely took over and had my full attention. Tim Curry as Pennywise is rightfully iconic, but Bill Skarsgard absolutely does the character justice and also does a great job of making it his own. These are two very different performances, but are both great in their own right. The advantage that Bill Skarsgard's Pennywise has is that it's not held back by being a TV miniseries. They can get away with being a lot more gruesome and graphic. Speaking of that, I felt that "Chapter Two" was even a lot more graphic than the first one. Given that they didn't know how successful that first movie was going to be, it felt like perhaps they were a bit cautious. But this time around, knowing that people will show up in droves, they did not hold back one bit. They completely unleashed the Pennywise fury.

With that does come a bit of a caution. If you don't have the stomach for graphic horror films, but yet you were considering maybe give "IT" and "IT: Chapter Two" a chance due to how culturally relevant and popular the movies are becoming, you might want to reconsider. Perhaps you can check out the first movie, I own it if you are a good friend of mine who lives close. And if that's too much for you, then steer clear of "Chapter Two" because they turn up intensity quite a bit. If you've only seen the 1990 miniseries, know that these two movies make that one look cheesy, childish and tame. But if you do have the stomach for these types of horror films, buckle up and enjoy the ride. Now "Chapter Two" is not being as widely acclaimed as the first movie, thus I think I might end up being one who is higher on the movie than most. As such, I was going to counter a lot of the common complaints that I didn't have an issue with, but there's an interesting psychological phenomenon with movies that once you hear a complaint about a movie you haven't seen, you often go in with that complaint in mind, thinking that you might also have the same complaint. So I'm not even going to put those negative thoughts about this movie into your brain. Maybe it'll give you more of a clean slate. 

As far as a final grade, I think I've handcuffed myself a bit. I really enjoyed last month's "Scary Stories" and gave it a really high score. And even though I liked "IT: Chapter Two" for very different reasons, I'm not quite sure which one I like more and I'm not ready to make that determination quite yet. So I feel obligated to give it the same score just to make my life easier. But at the same time, I will freely admit that the first "IT" is a more polished, refined, and scarier movie that "Chapter Two" simply because it was easier to get right, thus I was going to give "Chapter Two" a slightly lower grade than that one. But yet my score for "Scary Stories" and "IT" is the same exact score, so I'm in a bit of a bind. That's why I hope you don't put too much weight into the grades I give in my reviews. I like giving them because it's a good summation of how I feel. But yeah, what I say means a lot more than the number I give and this is a good example of why. I suppose this is deserving of the same score as the first simply because they had a bigger uphill battle to climb and they did an excellent job with the task that they were given. And without spoiling the ending, I left the movie with a huge smile on my face thanks to certain things they changed. So, sure. I'll give "IT: Chapter Two" a 9/10. 

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Movie Preview: September 2019

And just like that the summer movie season for 2019 is in the books. It finished with a decently respectable August that was about par for the course. There was not "Suicide Squad" or "Guardians of the Galaxy" to boost it above average, but "Hobbs & Shaw" did a good job leading the way with just over $150 million total through the end of the month. July holdovers "The Lion King" and "Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood" also did solid business while there were plenty of mid-range hits that performed a bit over expectations, like "Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark," "Good Boys" and "Angel Has Fallen," which helped the month avoid disaster and finish around $830 million, which is about average for August. Overall, the box office did quite well over the course of the whole summer movie season, finishing with around $4.3 billion, which is about even with last summer's $4.4 billion and well ahead of 2017's disappointing $3.8 billion. The average over the last decade is right at $4.3 billion. So again, par for the course. But with summer over, it's time to look forward to the fall movie season, which often starts a bit slow in September, but there will be at least one clown wreaking box office havoc.

September 6th - 8th-

Historically speaking, Labor Day weekend is often one of the worst for the box office. That rang true this year as this past weekend became the second worst weekend of 2019, ahead of only Super Bowl weekend. Prior to 2017, the weekend after Labor Day hadn't fared a whole lot better. But then Warner Bros. discovered a secret. Horror movies can do quite well in early September as "IT" sent shock waves through the world, earning an unprecedented $123.4 million in September 2017. That release date proved to not be a fluke as "The Nun" then opened to $53.8 million last September. So if it ain't broke, don't fix it, right? Warner Bros. will be attempting to go three for three in this spot by releasing the highly anticipated IT: Chapter Two. This will be the conclusion to Stephen King's classic story as Pennywise the clown will again be terrorizing the Losers Club, but this time with all of them as adults 27 years later. The adult cast here is rather impressive with Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy, Bill Hader, Jay Ryan, James Ransone, Andy Bean and Isaiah Mustafa taking the reigns from the younger cast, who will also all be reprising their roles via flashbacks, with Bill Skarsgard returning as the infamous clown Pennywise, a mysterious presence who preys on people's greatest fears.

Just how much will "IT: Chapter Two" make in its opening weekend? We'll find out pretty quickly here, but given how well received "IT" was, historical logic says people will turn up in droves to catch the next chapter, especially with said chapter being advertised as the final chapter. Not only did "IT" open with $123.4 million, but it also held fairly well for a horror film, earning $327.5 million overall domestically, which is the highest total ever for an R-rated horror film, not adjusted for ticket price inflation (1973's "The Exorcist" easily wins out when you do adjust as it's one of the top 10 highest grossing movies of all time adjusted for ticket price inflation). Can "IT: Chapter Two" top that opening, while possibly capturing the opening weekend record for an R-rated film, currently held by "Deadpool" with $132.4 million? Given that no one expected "IT" to open as high as it did, that's certainly not out of the realm of possibilities. However, it should be noted that the second half of this story is typically seen as the lesser half, both with the book and the 1990 mini-series. If that trend continues, "IT: Chapter Two" could be in for a slight dip in performance. What also can't be ignored is the movie's 169 minute run time, which could be a bit daunting for casual horror audiences. 

September 13th - 15th-

There are more movies being released in September. The other studios just decided to let "IT: Chapter Two" have that first weekend all to itself. But there are two releases in this second weekend of September. The one getting a significant amount of buzz right now is Hustlers. STX Entertainment was a bit late in beginning their advertising campaign for this movie as they didn't release the first trailer for this until mid-July, but said trailer has caught a lot of attention. The movie stars Jennifer Lopez, Constance Wu, Julia Stiles, Keke Palmer, Lili Reinhart, Lizzo and Cardi B as it follows a crew of former strip club employees who band together to turn the tables on their Wall Street clients. It was inspired by the New York Times article "The Hustlers at Scores," which was written by Jessica Pressler and published in December 2015. In Pressler's article, she describes this original story as a modern-day Robin Hood story where strippers stole from "(mostly) rich, (usually) disgusting, (in their minds) pathetic men and gave to, well, themselves." So this movie could be a good one for the female crowd and thus might be comparable to fellow STX film "Bad Moms," which is currently STX's highest grossing film as it opened to $23.8 million and held well, making $113.2 million overall.

The second wide release of the weekend is one that doesn't have quite as much buzz, but is hoping to build said buzz with it's premier at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 8 and that is The Goldfinch. This movie is a collaborative effort between Warner Bros. and Amazon Studios wherein Warner Bros. will control the theatrical release while Amazon gets the exclusive streaming rights later on. Both studios helped finance the film. The movie is about a boy in New York who gets taken in by a wealthy family after his mother is killed in a bombing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The big draw here is that this is from director John Crowley, whose previous film is the 2015 drama "Brooklyn," which got a best picture nomination at the Oscars as well as as nominations for best lead actress for Saoirse Ronan and best adapted screenplay. Whether or not "The Goldfinch" follows suit will largely depend on how critics and audiences react to the film, which is why its debut at TIFF will be key. The movie does boast a cast that includes Ansel Elgort, Oaks Fegley, Aneurin Barnard, Finn Wolfhard, Sarah Paulson, Luke Wilson, Jeffrey Wright and Nicole Kidman. I'm sure a few of them would love awards season consideration if the movie does play well.

September 20th - 22nd-

The third weekend of September might be the most interesting in terms of the fight for the top box office spot. In 2017, "IT" made $29.8 million in its third weekend after a $60.1 million second weekend. If "Chapter Two" ends up with a sharper fall in its ensuing weekends, there could be a fight to dethrone it with all three new wide releases this weekend being in play. The first of them is Rambo: Last Blood. The marketing push for this movie hasn't necessarily been the most aggressive, neither has the interest level been super high. But nevertheless this is the fifth movie in what was at least at one point a popular franchise. The Rambo franchise initially began in 1982 with "First Blood," which was right in the midst of Sylvester Stallone's Rocky success as 1982 was also when "Rocky III" got released. While the second film, "Rambo: First Blood Part II," did excellent business, the third and fourth movies didn't exactly repeat that success, with the fourth film, simply titled "Rambo," failing to reignite the franchise back in 2008, 20 years after the release of "Rambo III." So is "Rambo: Last Blood," supposedly the final film in the franchise, going to fare any better? "Rambo" opened to $18.2 million in January 2008, which is a mark "Last Blood" should hit if it wants to justify its existence.

Fighting for a fairly similar target audience as "Rambo: Last Blood" will be the Brad Pitt space drama Ad Astra. Traveling to space is something that we've done a lot of recently in Hollywood with the likes of "Gravity" (2013), "Interstellar" (2014), "The Martian" (2015), "Passengers" (2016), "Life" (2017), and "First Man" (2018). So, yeah, we've had at least one of these types of movies every year since 2013. We're even going to go back again in October with "Lucy in the Sky." With "Ad Astra," Brad Pitt is heading to space in order to figure out what happened with his father, who went on some sort of expedition 30 years prior that now jeopardizes the universe. The movie has a reported production budget of around $80 million, which means Disney would love it if it opened to the $45+ million that "Gravity," "Interstellar" and "The Martian" all did, but that might be wishful thinking. Rather, last year's "First Man" opened just over $16 million, which might be more around the range that "Ad Astra" hits. The movie premiered at the Venice Film Festival on August 29 to positive reviews and will also have the benefit of IMAX theaters. But looking at that budget, this might be another one of these Disney-distributed Fox films that falls short of its financial expectations.

The biggest wild card of the weekend will be the release of Downton Abbey, which is a continuation of the popular British TV series that ran for six seasons from 2010 to 2015. This movie is written by show creator and co-writer Julian Fellowes and is directed by Michael Engler, who directed four episodes of the show during the final seasons. So that information, combined with the return of much of the original cast, including Hugh Bonneville, Jim Carter, Michelle Dockery, Elizabeth McGovern, Maggie Smith and Penelope Wilton, has a lot of the fan base of the show excited to return for another experience. The general premise of this film involves King George V and Queen Mary visiting Downton Abbey in 1927. The question here, though, is how much of the fan base will make the trip to the theaters to see this? Given that they originally watched the show in the comfort of their own homes, will many of them chose to wait to see this until they can also watch this in their own homes instead of paying for a ticket to see it? There's not a whole lot of exact historical precedent to compare this to, in terms of completed shows continuing later via movie by the original creative team, but perhaps the 2015 film "Entourage" is one? That opened to $10.3 million in June 2015.

September 27th - 29th-

The final weekend of September only has one wide release and that is DreamWorks Animation's Abominable. The end of September has been a very popular time to release an animated film as there's been one around this time every year since "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs" in 2009. A good percentage of these instances have been Sony Animation claiming the spot as their own with their "Cloudy" and "Hotel Transylvania" franchises, but occasionally another studio will jump in, like DreamWorks this year. "Abominable" continues an odd trend recently of animated yeti movies with "Smallfoot" last September, "Missing Link" this April and now "Abominable" this month. This latest yeti adventure involves a girl finding a magical yeti outside her home and having to go on a journey to return him back to his home. The easiest comparison here to how well this will do is "Smallfoot," given the exact same release date and premise. "Smallfoot" opened to $23 million and made $83 million total. In the two previous years before "Smallfoot," we've also had "The LEGO Ninjago Movie" opening to $20.4 million, making $59.3 million overall, while "Storks" opened to $21.3, making $72.7 million overall. At first look, "Abominable" seems like it will fit right into that range.

If this is the range that "Abominable" hits, that will actually be on the low end of the spectrum for a DreamWorks animated film. If you remove the three Aardman films they helped distribute in the early 2000s ("Chicken Run," "Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit" and "Flushed Away"), the average opening weekend for DreamWorks is $44.3 million, while the average final domestic total is $162.7 million. Given that these movies have now spanned over 20 years, if you take things a bit further and adjust for ticket price inflation for each film, the average opening weekend number goes up to $54.8 million, while the average final domestic total going up to $204.7 million. So if "Abominable" only hits the numbers of "Smallfoot," that will be a major disappointment for the studio. They're probably hoping for numbers similar to what the first two "Hotel Transylvania" movies did, that being $42.5 million and $48.4 million, respectively. And it wouldn't be unheard of for a DreamWorks film to drastically overperform and hit those levels. "Home" in 2015 and "The Boss Baby" in 2017 were only expected to open around $30 million, but yet both opened over $50 million. So it's possible that the DreamWorks brand could push "Abominable" higher than expected.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

The Peanut Butter Falcon Review

We are quickly running out of summer as August comes to a close. With all the major summer blockbusters behind us, it was nice to be able to relax with a smaller, feel-good indie. Going into August, there were two independent films that I especially had my eye on and it made me happy that I was able to get around to both of them. The first one was "The Farewell" with Awkwafina and the second one was this one. "The Peanut Butter Falcon." With absolutely no context, that's a bit of a unique name for a movie, which certainly grabs your attention. Thus when you take a closer look at it after said title grabs your attention, you become immediately intrigued. At least that's what my experience was. This is a movie where Shia LaBeouf plays a character who goes on an adventure with a young man who has Down syndrome. Yeah, that just screams at you that it's going to be a feel-good movie worth seeing. It helps that I have my finger pretty closely on the pulse of the movie industry and thus was aware of this one back in March when it debuted at the South by Southwest film festival to very strong reviews. It took a while for it to get here, but it finally hit wide release this past weekend, expanding into 986 theaters after a few weeks of limited release, so I was excited to check it out. 

Expanding on the premise here, newly introduced actor Zack Gottsagen plays a 22-year-old man with Down syndrome named Zak who lives in a retirement home because he has no family and that's where he ended up. His dream, though, is to become a professional wrestler and attend the wrestling school that is led by his hero, the Salt Water Redneck. Eleanor, played by Dakota Johnson, does her best job at being his caretaker, but ultimately he escapes with the help of his older roommate Carl, played by Bruce Dern. Zak then wanders by himself until he comes upon Tyler, played by Shia LaBeouf, who himself is on the run since he lit a fire to $12,000 worth of fishing equipment after being angry that a local crab shack wouldn't buy all the crabs that he stole. Tyler initially resists Zak and tries to abandon him, but quickly his heart softens and the two of them form an unbreakable bond as the two outlaws of sorts go on a fun adventure to Salt Water Redneck's school while Eleanor independently is trying to hunt down Zak after her boss is understandably upset that he escaped. This is very much a modern retelling of Huckleberry Finn, or at least takes heavy inspiration from that, thus giving this a classic feel to it, but with a very heartwarming spin to it that is certain to win you over.

The thing that makes this work is Zack Gottsagen himself, as well as the relationship he has with Shia LeBeouf and Dakota Johnson. Quite frankly, there's not a lot of roles in Hollywood written for people with disabilities, let alone Down syndrome, so that aspect of this is what immediately makes the movie stand out and it's just magical watching Zack perform, making this movie centered around him that's very much a reflection of him as a person. After watching the movie, it's one of those experiences where I immediately rush to the internet to learn the story of how this came about. In searching through a lot of interviews on YouTube with the cast, I eventually found a featurette with the directors talking about how this came about. They were at a camp for people with disabilities and talked with Zack, who expressed his dream of wanting to become a movie star. They were honest with him and stated that it's probably not going to happen, which caused Zack to get quite emotional. He responded by telling him why don't they do it. That was about eight years, so it was a long process to get the funding and get it made, but the long story short is that they made a proof-of-concept video, which opened the door to them getting it done.

Getting that background to the movie really elevates this as being something special. I give a lot of props to the two directors, Tyler Nilson and Mike Schwartz, for making the effort to get this done. And this is their feature-length directorial debuts, so it's not like it was something that was easy for them. They've directed a few shorts before this and had a few small acting roles, but it's not like they had the power to write a script for Zack and immediately make it happen. I imagine there was a lot of persistence and patience involved, but it paid. And now we have this unique film where an actor with Down syndrome gets to be the lead star. A lot of things that happened in the movie were things that Zack was passionate about in real life, like wrestling, swimming and partying. So the directors really wrote this film around him, which is awesome. In watching more interviews, Shia, Dakota and Zack consistently emphasize that the filmmaking process was a very special one where they became an immediate family. That definitely translates onto the screen as there's this special bond between the three of them in the film, especially with Shia and Zack who are going on this adventure together with Shia essentially letting Zack lead the way, treating him as an equal.

That last part is also what makes this special. There's a lot of movies where two people or more are going on an adventure. As I mentioned earlier, said premise goes all the way back to classic literature. So it's not like the premise itself is super unique. But it carries with it a powerful message as to how to treat people with disabilities. A lot of said people are looked down upon as a lesser species of human beings. Even if we're not explicitly referring to them as "retarded" or other direct insults, how we act when we're around them can mean the same thing. Do we act like they're a lesser human who needs to be watched over and taken care of as if they are a little child? Do we look at them funny and refuse to talk or interact with them? Doing so can be quite damaging and can be equal to or even worse than if we walked up to them and insulted them. This movie teaches a strong message that we should treat someone with Down syndrome as equals, both in the words we use around them as well as the actions. And if we do that, we can come to learn how truly fantastic and amazing they are. I personally haven't had a ton of interaction with Down syndrome people in my life, but when I have truly gotten to know them, those types of relationships are honestly some of the best I've had.

I think this message here can just as equally expand a lot further into being a strong lesson as to how to treat our fellow humans. I think back to the classic line from Marin Luther King Jr.'s speech wherein he says that he dreams of a time where people will be judged, not based on the color of their skin, but the content of their character. I think it's very harmful to look on the outward appearance of someone and immediately make judgments based on that, or attach labels of any sort such as race, culture, sexual orientation, political opinion, religion, or whatever disabilities they may have. Rather we should set that aside and get to know who the person truly is on the inside, even if they aren't doing so themselves. In fact, maybe a better word there is ESPECIALLY if they aren't doing so themselves. Often we are our own worst critic. Because of that, if someone can look past all the negative things we are saying about ourselves and truly love us for who we are, that can give us an added level of confidence to wake up and try to become better. So if we perceive that someone looks or acts differently than we do, or has a different opinion, maybe we shouldn't be so quick to judge and try to genuinely get to know who they are. Perhaps we can make friends that we never thought we would.

I could nitpick elements of this movie if I wanted to. It's a very simple and straightforward plot. Some of the character development happens rather quickly instead of taking time to evolve. And you pretty much know exactly where it's going to go. But I don't really feel like diving too deep into all of that because I think the most powerful element of this is the subtlety of it all with how these messages I spoke of are incorporated. It doesn't bash you over the head with a ton of bricks, but rather it quietly sticks with you. You don't walk out of the theater with your mind having been absolutely blown, but it's a movie that will always remain with you in the back of your head. And oftentimes it's those types of movies that make a bigger impression in the long run. Thus I was rather captivated by the simple adventures these three went on in this movie. I didn't need any huge plot twist or a crazy emotional moment. I was perfectly content with watching them float down the river on a raft and other things like that. And I really liked how much it showed how strongly everyone cared about this project, from the directors on top all the way down to the small, nearly cameo moments from people like Bruce Dern or Jon Bernthal. It's a special movie and I'm going to give it an 8/10.

Overcomer Review

The Kendrick Brothers are back with what is now their sixth feature-length film, this one following "Flywheel," "Facing the Giants," "Fireproof," "Courageous" and "War Room." Not once in this movie's marketing campaign was I actually excited to see this, and thus I almost skipped it. But then I remembered that I have a lot of friends who have enjoyed plenty of their movies and might be interested in what I think of this latest additional to their filmography, so I submitted myself to seeing this one. The Kendrick Brothers' films have a lot of issues that I will dive into, but the biggest underlying issue is that they always paint a black and white picture of reality while steering far clear of any semblance of a complex issue. If life sucks, then turn to God and life will get better. While that's a fine sentiment, the reality is that sometimes life still sucks when you turn to God. What then? I'd love for them to tackle that issue, but they never do and thus I've gotten increasingly annoyed with them. While that's not as damaging as something like "God's Not Dead" treating every non-believer as a child of Hell, the unrealistic sentiment that they keep pushing in their films is still not very helpful. They might be harmless films, but they leave me feeling empty and uninspired.

And that is only introducing the basic message. The quality of the filmmaking is a whole different story. Their early two films, "Flywheel" and "Facing the Giants" are harmless enough on their own, and not terrible films. But they seem to have gotten worse over time. "Fireproof" is one that I barely remember. The only thing that sticks out to me is that the movie seems to think that bashing your computer with a baseball bat is a good way to overcome a pornography addiction. That aside, it's full of overacting and a bunch of nonsense. "Courageous" was as boring as tar with way too many story arcs and a run time that felt an hour too long. And "War Room" was so bad that I was laughing hysterically at several points, while also being a bit disturbed that the movie thinks that all your legal troubles are going to magically disappear if you have faith in God. The main actor should've been in prison at the end of the movie, but they didn't think too hard about that one. And "Overcomer"? Well, it has a few redeeming elements that make it not quite as bad as the previous three, but when it comes to pure filmmaking, this is a pure disaster. The movie has no idea what it really wants to be and comes with the most generic title that I've seen in a Christian movie.

So what is that they are overcoming in this movie? Well, that's a good question. I guess they're overcoming a lack of faith, which means the title "Overcomer" could describe every one of the Kendrick Brothers' movies. But specifically this is a cross country movie. Kind of. Alex Kendrick, who is the director of all of these movies, and the lead star in most of them, plays a basketball coach who has a lot of hope about the upcoming season after suffering a sad loss in the final game of the current season. But then something happens in the city that causes the school to loose a huge percentage of its students. What is said thing? I actually don't know. They jumped over it pretty quickly, but due to some sort of random plot device that makes no sense, a lot of families are moving out of the city. Jump five months into the future, right before the start of the next school year, and Mr. Kendrick is asked to be the cross-country coach, because apparently his halfhearted, generic speeches to his basketball team is enough for the principle to think he's the right man for the job, even though he has no idea how to coach cross-country and never really makes an effort to learn how throughout the movie. But when tryouts come, he has only student tryout, but they go forward anyways.

That's what our movie is like for the first portion of it. There's not even a mention of "faith" or "God" until much later on. We're just a cross-country movie. So I decided to judge it on it being a sports movie. Granted, sports movies can be formulaic and predictable because there's not a whole lot of avenues you can go with them, but this movie doesn't commit to anything here. As a sports fan, if you at least put some sort of effort into following the sports movie formula, I can be entertained. But in this movie, they just run. The lone student of the bunch is a girl named Hannah. There's not really much progression with her and her running abilities. There's just a bunch of disconnected sequences with her running and magically getting better even though Mr. Kendrick doesn't do much coaching. In between Hannah's runs, he's complaining about basketball, being dragged into drama class stuff, talking with his wife, complaining about how rough life is at the moment, then we'll randomly cut back to a scene of Hannah running. So this is a kind of a sports movie. But they really just use the cross-country stuff as a backdrop to everything else. They don't commit to it. If you want a good cross-country drama, go watch "McFarland, USA" with Kevin Costner. It's pretty good.

After only half committing to the cross-country angle of the movie, our first mention of religion comes when Mr. Kendrick's wife tells him he has a visiting assignment with the pastor at the hospital. In the midst of that, he literally accidentally stumbles into a different patient's room. That patient just so happens to be Hannah's dad, who Hannah was told by her grandmother of whom she lives with was dead. Mr. Kendrick actually only goes back because Hannah's dad is also a runner and gives him tips as to how to coach, which he doesn't do a good job of implementing. But eventually he figures out who he is and then the next portion of the movie becomes a drama where Mr. Kendrick and his wife try to figure out how to break the news to Hannah that her dad is still alive, despite the fact that grandma is adamantly against it. They decide to go around her, which seems dumb, but whatever, and the movie then becomes a father/daughter drama that lacks in interesting drama. It wasn't all that interesting and things just sort of happen. Apparently after being a horrible person much of his life, Hannah's dad came to Jesus and transformed his life around while suffering in the hospital and whatnot. Now Hannah has to figure out how to deal with all this since he's never been in her life.

Then the movie finally becomes a religious movie. But in terms of the build up to the religious drama of the movie, it kinda comes out of left field. Hannah is talking to her principle about her being unsure how to react to this revelation that her dad is alive and feels bad for not being there, then the principle says, "Well, even though your father isn't perfect, you have another father who is." Then principle proceeds to give a speech to Hannah about God and Jesus, then commits Hannah to read from Ephesians and take notes as to what those chapters say about who Hannah is. Said principle is allowed to do this because this is a Christian school... one that Hannah is going to for some reason even though apparently she's not even heard of Christianity based on how she reacts to all this? Yeah, I don't know. This didn't make sense to me. And the conversation seemed a bit forced in the first place. But Hannah is a good little girl and studies the Bible, which causes her life to be miraculously changed. And this is where this becomes your typical Kendrick Brothers movie because from this point forward, everything miraculously turns out perfectly for Hannah. She becomes a more inspired runner. She fixes her relationship with her father. She calms down her angry grandmother. And she gives restitution for being a thief earlier in the movie. 

The only reason why this kinda works to some degree is that the actress who plays Hannah is a very likable girl. You naturally cheer for her to do well in cross-country, even though the movie itself doesn't do a very good job at being a sports movie. You hope that things work out with her and her family, even though the movie doesn't do a good job of setting up that drama and only half commits to about two minutes of grandmother being extremely upset that they went behind her back. You are inspired by Hannah's speech of who she is after she reads the Bible, even though it didn't make sense for her to randomly walk into the drama class room and give the speech to the whole class, nor did it feel natural for that religious conversation to happen in the first place. And you cheer for her in her final race for the state championship in cross-country, even though by that time the movie had completely forgotten it was a cross-country movie and thus lazily, and rather hilariously threw in a plot device that made it for the stupidest ending I may have ever seen in a sports movie. I wasn't even angry at that, though. I was highly amused and nearing the point of laughter. It wasn't as unintentionally funny as "War Room," but it got pretty close at points, which isn't a good sign.

In summing all this up, this movie fails at being a cohesive movie. Going in, I decided I was going to judge it based on three aspects: how well the filmmaking elements are, how good of a sports movie it is, and how inspiring are the religious messages. It completely fails in all three categories. Yeah, sure, the Kendrick Brothers have done well enough financially to have enough of a budget for the technical aspects of the film to look just fine, but the writing is all over the place, the film has zero direction, and the young girl who plays Hannah is really the only actress who I think did a good job. In regards to it being a sports movie, it's terrible. There's just a bunch of disconnected sequences of Hannah running while Mr. Kendrick and family complain about how awful cross-country is. Then there's a state championship race at the end that comes long after the movie abandoned the whole sports movie thing for some predictable and boring family drama. And as far as the religious stuff in the movie, it just felt forced. If Hannah giving a speech in the drama class causes you to jump out of your chair and shout, "HALLELUJAH!" then maybe you'll like this. It did get an A+ on Cinemascore, so what do I know. Personally I just need more substance and thus I'm giving "Overcomer" a 5/10.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Ready or Not Review

We're entering late August, which is a bit of a dead zone when it comes to the box office. It's often a crowded field quantity-wise, but not a lot of the movies are making a lot of money as it's one of those times where studios are dumping a whole bunch of smaller films in hopes to make a quick buck or two while they wait for the more lucrative times of the year. Thus it becomes a bit of a challenge in sifting through everything to find what's worth seeing. The last two weekends saw a total of 10 wide releases hit theaters, with three more being added this upcoming weekend. I got through a few of those, while adding a few more to the list of movies I'll eventually check out. Now it's time to play the waiting game for "IT: Chapter Two," which is poised to explode into theaters on September 6. In the meantime, though, I may have hit a late August gem in this hide and seek thriller. This is a movie I've had my eye on for a while now as it's had a rather aggressive marketing campaign. Initially I wasn't completely sure what to expect, but I thought it had potential based on the trailers. Then the reviews came out and I was taken aback because this was sitting at 100 percent for a while. Yep, that got my attention. It's fallen a tad bit since then, but it's still at a certified fresh 89 percent.

I think the most amusing thing to me is that this is a Fox Searchlight picture. Usually when you get a late August horror film, Screen Gems or Blumhouse is the responsible party. Both of those studios are good at finding the right weekend to sneak in a quick horror film that was dirt cheap to make and get a decent profit off of it based off of the almost non-existent production budgets. The quality can be hit and miss for them, but every once in a while you get a fun one, like "Don't Breathe" (Screen Gems) or "Happy Death Day" (Blumhouse). "Don't Breathe" is one that I was especially thinking of when it came to "Ready or Not" as both are movies where our protagonists are trapped in a house, trying to escape, and both movies were released in late August. But no, "Ready or Not" doesn't come from Screen Gems or Blumhouse. It comes from Fox Searchlight, a studio best known for their mastering the awards season as three of their films this decade have won best picture. So they're usually releasing a bunch of high-profile independent films, not late August thrillers. It gets even funnier when you realize Fox Searchlight's parent company is now Disney. So from Disney and Fox Searchlight comes a rather darkly comedic, gruesome, late-August thriller. 

This movie is an absolute blast, though. It's sure to become a cult classic as it's not looking to make a whole lot at the box office. Despite being positioned well in late August, a good spot for breakout horror films, and having Fox Searchlight's widest ever release with 2,855 theaters, it has the unfortunate challenge of following in the footsteps of "Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark" and "47 Meters Down: Uncaged," two horror films this month that already took advantage of the prime positioning. Then we have the elephant in the room that "IT: Chapter Two" comes out in two weeks. So the horror fans have been well served this month, which can lead to lower box office. But I say this has cult classic potential because, not only have critics enjoyed this, but audiences seem to be enjoying it, too, as it has a solid 82 percent on the Rotten Tomatoes audience section to go along with a B+ Cinemascore, both of which are pretty high for a horror film. Oftentimes the horror films that get critically praised see the general audiences spit in their face. So the fact that everyone seems to be enjoying this means the word is eventually going to get out, even if it means people are still discovering it in a year or two instead of rushing out to see it in theaters in the next month or so.

If you've never heard of this movie, but you like yourself a good horror film, I'd almost suggest you simply take a leap of faith by closing this review, not watching any trailers, and going in blind. That would be a really fun experience as there's so many crazy things that happen in setting up this movie's premise. I kinda wish that I had known nothing about it going in, but that rarely happens for me when I go to so many movies and thus see all the new trailers for upcoming movies. This trailer specifically shows quite a bit from the first half of the movie, but Fox Searchlight had their hands tied a bit in that regard because if they hadn't shown as much, they wouldn't have been able to attract anyone to come see an original horror film that's not based on anything or a part of a pre-existing franchise. Because as much as people complain about not having as much original films, when said original films show up people don't go see them because they're not part of something familiar. It drives me crazy. That said, the trailer doesn't spoil anything from the last half of the movie. It's just that I had to wait a bit before I got to something that I hadn't seen in the trailer as the trailer does a great job of a being a thorough summary of the first third of the movie.

If you don't want to just trust me and go see this, then let's proceed with what this movie actually is. It stars discount Margot Robbie as a girl who has just married into a crazy family. I say discount Margot Robbie because that's who the whole internet either thinks she is or thinks she looks like. And I agree. She looks practically identical and is only two years younger. In reality her name is Samara Weaving and she's the niece of actor Hugo Weaving. She hasn't been in a whole lot. She played a small role in "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" and starred in the Netflix film "The Babysitter." But I wouldn't be surprised if suddenly Hollywood now takes a huge interest in her because she is fantastic in this role. In the movie, what should be the best night of her life with this marriage instead turns into her worst nightmare. Her husband's family has a tradition where every time a new person comes into the family, they have to play a game at midnight. The game is selected at random, but if the choice ends up being hide and seek, they feel that they have to kill you before down because they're superstitious due to reasons that they will all die if they don't. And of course Grace, our lead character, selects hide and seek. So the family locks down the house and tries to kill her.

That's the basic premise. The movie is actually fairly simple in plot, but fantastic in execution. What makes it such a blast is this crazy family dynamic. First and foremost, you really care about Grace. She's a very strong female character who has a pure innocence to her. Given that it's her wedding night, she looks drop dead gorgeous as she's all fancied up with her hair, makeup, and beautiful dress. But now she is doomed to die as everyone is trying to kill her and she's the least deserving human being to be designated this fate, thus you are desperately cheering that she someone makes it through a whole night with all of these psychopaths chasing her down. The other element that made this really fun was that all the family members chasing her down had unique personalities that made for an interesting dynamic. And they lived in an old-fashioned home in the middle of the woods with a lot of more ancient weapons that they really didn't know how to use. Given that it had been a while since someone drew hide and seek, they're also out of practice. So it's not your typical home invasion where the villains are trained killers. It's a group of bumbling idiots chasing down a poor, innocent girl who had no idea any of this was going to happen.

Enter chaos. While I do still claim this as a horror film, it's not the type of horror film that is extremely intense and serious the whole time. The movie has a wide variety of tones that I think are excellently mixed together. It's very much a crazy slasher film at times with exaggerated deaths that will have you rolling around in laughter due to the shock value. It's also extremely hilarious in other ways, yet in doing so it doesn't compromise the rest of the film. It reminded me of a Kingsman movie if Kingsman did a horror spin-off. It's that level of crazy, hilarious absurdity. It very much has a lot of dark humor to it, which I thought was well implemented. Yet despite that, the horror elements are still well crafted as there's a lot of tension throughout that had me uneasily cowering in my chair. And the lighting of the whole movie was spot on. Most of the movie takes place between midnight and dawn, so it's naturally dark everywhere, but they're also in an old-fashioned house that's dimly lit to begin with. It's also a big house, providing plenty of places for our girl to hide while at the same time causing there to be plenty opportunities for a family member to come out of nowhere to chase her down. The set design with all this is great, so the result is a perfectly crafted horror film.

On top of all this, I really liked a lot of the character development. It's not a movie that's just going for a bunch of cheap scares, like is the case with some home invasion movies. But in addition to all the crazy absurdity, there's a layer of emotional depth to it. You can understand where everyone is coming from and you buy into the conflict of a lot of the family members who don't want to do this, but are so terrified of this family curse that they feel they have no choice and thus decide that they would rather kill an innocent girl than face whatever might happen if they get to dawn and she's still alive. But they're all on different levels of commitment. Some are wondering if perhaps this whole thing is bogus and others don't care as much and would rather save the girl. I'm specifically talking about the new husband with the last part as he kinda likes his new wife and is not sure he wants to kill her just because the game says so. The husband's brother is in between all of this and has a great arc. But then we have some of them who have submitted to the darkness and are completely honed in on killing the girl in whatever way they can. Hence you go on a very wild ride that is very satisfying, especially because they totally stick the landing with how the film ends.

So yeah, this is a late August movie that comes highly recommended from me. I always enjoy it when a movie comes out of nowhere to become one that I really like. While it's always fun to look forward to and enjoy the latest Marvel or Star Wars movie, sometimes it can be even better to go into a movie that wasn't even on your radar and be completely blown away. It makes each movie going year quite the adventure that is fun to look back on. "Ready or Not" is obviously not going to be for everyone, but if you're in the mood for a crazy, intense, over-the-top horror adventure that also has a surprising amount of depth and character development, I think "Ready or Not" is well worth the price of admission. And if you're one who finds this movie later in life, in a way I'm a bit jealous for you because that means you weren't aware of all the advertising and had a lot more surprises come your way in the first half of the movie. But I'm not going to be too jealous because I do like the experience of finding a hidden gem early on in its movie life while doing my best to help get the word out. And if no one else reads or finds this review, then that's OK, too, because I enjoyed my escape into the world of this movie. It was quite the enjoyable boost of adrenaline. My grade for "Ready or Not" is a 9/10.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

47 Meters Down: Uncaged Review

Our yearly shark movie has arrived! This has been a rather fun tradition for me as I've come to really enjoy my dumb shark movies. In fact, some friends and I have become a bit obsessed with them recently. It's a story that has a bit of a sad beginning, though, as I excitedly showed them "2001: A Space Odyssey" in honor of its 50th anniversary and they hated it. To counteract that, a decision was made to watch "Sharknado" next. But not only did we do that, over the course of an entire summer, we watched ALL of the "Sharknado" movies. I can't remember the exact timeline of all of this, but in the midst of this, Hollywood got on a bit of a shark kick, releasing "The Shallows" in 2016, "47 Meters Down" in 2017 and "The Meg" in 2018. Sure, shark movies have been popular since "Jaws" revolutionized cinema in 1975, but this subgenre of horror has had a bit of a resurgence of late and it's been exciting. This summer I feel extra spoiled because, although it's not a shark movie, we had "Crawl" in July. And that's pretty much the same thing, but with alligators instead of sharks. So if we broaden the conversation and talk about terror in the water, it all fits into one big happy family of horror. After "Crawl" was extremely entertaining, I was ready for my second dose.

But first, before I dive into the movie, I want to talk box office because, you know, numbers are my thing. Out of all the three recent shark movies we've had, you might be wondering why "47 Meters Down" is the one that first got a sequel when "The Shallows" made $55 million domestically and $119 million worldwide while "The Meg" made $145 million domestically and $530 million worldwide, yet "47 Meters" down made only $44.3 million domestically and didn't have a worldwide release. Now I suppose that $44.3 million is fairly close to "The Shallows," and is more impressive when you consider it opened to just $11.2 million compared to the $16.8 million of "The Shallows." But the answer to this is budget. "The Meg" made a crapton of money, but also cost $130 million. "The Shallows" was pretty well off as it cost only $17 million, but "47 Meters Down" cost a mere $5 million, which for Hollywood standards is chump change. With a budget that low, justifying a sequel is a lot easier. That's also why "47 Meters Down: Uncaged" wasn't a failure this past weekend, despite only opening to $8.4 million. Sure, they were probably hoping for a bit more after boosting the budget all the way up $12 million, but they will still end up getting a return on their investment.

The other reason why it was easier to make a "47 Meters Down" sequel is that of the three of them, that's the one that more easily lent itself to a sequel because it wasn't tied down to characters or premise. "The Shallows" was specifically tied down to Blake Lively's character and what she went through while "The Meg" was about Jason Statham fighting a megaladon. A sequel to either would have to include those characters and find a way to at least attempt a logical next step with them. "47 Meters Down" was just about two girls trapped in the ocean while getting surrounded by sharks. Even if we ignore spoilers of how that movie turned out, bringing back the same characters for a sequel isn't necessary because those characters aren't really what made the movie interesting and fun. It was the sharks. So the idea of them getting a bunch of nobodies together for a quick sequel that has zero connection to the first is something they can get away with. And that's exactly what they've done. "Uncaged," as I will now refer to it, has nothing to do with "47 Meters Down." In fact, it also has nothing to do with the specific distance of 47 meters, which is why naming this "48 Meters Down" would've been a bit silly because "47 Meters Down" is pure branding at this point.

The basic premise of this movie is that four teenage girls go off a little adventure to some underwater caves and get chased around by sharks. That's all that really needed to happen here, but I think this movie's biggest issue is that it tried to be more complex. Of the four teenagers, Mia and Sasha are step sisters. Mia's dad and Sasha's mom recently got married and now they're trying to make this new family work. But Sasha for some reason doesn't get along too well with Mia and has no interest in even calling Mia her sister. On top of that, Mia, despite being a beautiful, smart, nice girl, gets bullied at her new school by a group of annoying teenage girls. Why does Sasha not like Mia? Why does Mia get bullied? I actually don't know. They're just empty hollow things that don't make sense. I didn't understand the motivations. I didn't buy all of the drama. In fact, it was all a really annoying distraction when I just wanted to get to the sharks. Sure, it's good to have good characters and emotional arcs. That can make a terror in the water movie more intense, like "Crawl" earlier this summer. But when the screenplay is just so terrible and the fairly inexperienced actors that were brought don't do a good enough job selling it, things become a disaster really quickly.

Thus as we got going in this movie, I was getting the feeling that perhaps I was a little too overly excited for this movie. Perhaps I was also forcing myself to like this movie because I tried to get pumped, but it was all superficial excitement. I didn't know if I really cared about any of the characters. I certainly didn't care about any of the drama. Then when the shark first showed up, I tried to be excited, but I wasn't. The only bit of emotion that came to me was the four girls went to this ancient Mayan underwater ruins and accidentally destroyed the whole thing. It was rather heartbreaking that such a cool historical site was all ruined and I was sad. Maybe at this point it would've been appropriate for our shark to be a vengeful Mayan guardian who decided to hunt and kill all these girls as a punishment for destroying the ruins. Or maybe the spirit of the Mayans themselves should've possessed all the sharks and chased after these girls. That would've been exciting. But no, that's not what happens. Instead, these girls are trapped and their oxygen tanks are running out, so they're trying to figure out how exactly they're going to get out of this since their exit is now blocked off, which isn't helped by the fact that they now know a shark is lurking around, causing panic levels to rise.

It was at this point when I was trying to force myself to be interested in this thing that the movie became comparable to an actual shark attack. You're casually swimming around the ocean, minding your own business, when all of a sudden... BOOM! A shark grabs you and pulls you under. That's how I felt, anyways. Because this movie came out of nowhere to suddenly become extremely intense. There was a jump scare that actually got me. I felt rather embarrassed and thus a bit relieved that I was watching this by myself so that my friends wouldn't laugh at me because I'm usually quite thick-skinned when it comes to jump scares. But this one got me. The shark snapped out of nowhere and had me on edge. From that point on, Johannes Roberts has a lot of fun with this movie. The acting budget may not have been very high and the screenplay probably went through nothing more than a quickly thrown together first draft, but it felt like they put over 90 percent of their $12 million budget all on these sharks and shark sequences. That's certainly where all the directing effort when into. The sharks here that are terrorizing these girls are blind cave sharks and they looked menacing. They're also given plenty of red coats to chow down on beforehand.

This is where if you have the right mindset, this movie will be a blast. If all you care about is watching sharks chase people and you want well-crafted shark scenes, this gives you exactly what you expect. Thus on a shark movie scale where one extreme is "Jaws" and the other extreme is "Sharknado," this movie leans more towards the "Sharknado" end of the spectrum and I feel that it's very self-aware of that. It's not really trying to be a serious movie as they only halfheartedly set up a story and a cast of characters, but things get bonkers really quick and I was rather amused. There were also plenty of moments where I was curled up in my chair as the horror sequences were well crafted. It's way more than a series of jump scares. The first jump scare got me. If the rest of the movie was just an endless string of jump scares, I would've grown rather tired of that, but Johannes Roberts plays around with a lot of different horror elements, mixing and matching to keep things fresh and keep me on edge. It's also apparent based on this and the first movie that he loves his bait and switch. That happens rather effectively in the first movie. This movie he has a lot of fun with that with a ton of bait and switch moments, especially in the final act, which was extremely entertaining.

I wasn't going to mention the cast of this movie because none of them really stand out, but then I learned after the fact that Sylvester Stallone's daughter is in the movie, as is Jamie Foxx's daughter. That's Sistine Stallone and Corinne Foxx. Both of them were in their feature film debuts. That was fun to learn. Do they have a future in film following this movie? Well, I don't know. Maybe. They probably have the pedigrees to get a good jump start on their acting careers, but eventually they need to bring a bit more to the table. Sistine Stallone played one of the annoying friends always making the dumb decisions. If that's what they told her to do, then she did her job effectively. But she wasn't a very good character. Corinne Foxx, on the other hand, plays one of our main two sisters, that of Sasha. And she does a good enough job to make me believe that she could have a good career if she was put in better movies where story and characters meant something. I hope she doesn't get relegated to entertaining B-movies. However, the real star of this is Sophie NĂ©lisse, who plays our main character of Mia. She does a good job in this and it shows that she's the one with the acting background, having starred in "The Book Thief" and "Pawn Sacrifice," two really good indie films. 

Ultimately, though, your enjoyment of this movie will rely on two things. First, did you like the first movie? That has like a 55 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes, so it was split right down the middle in terms of critics reaction and audience reaction was about the same. I really enjoyed the first movie, so I found myself enjoying this one. Second, can you sit back and enjoy a dumb shark movie? Does your shark movie need to be on the level of "Jaws," with great characters, great themes, and great development along with well set-up shark moments? Or can you also enjoy a "Sharknado" style of film where the acting is bad, the story is subpar, nothing makes sense, but the shark sequences are absurdly entertaining and thus enough to make for a fun film? If the latter is the case, then I suggest you give "Uncaged" a chance. I'm not saying you have to run out to see it in theaters, although with quantity superseding quality at the moment with our August and September release schedule, it's certainly not a bad option for a $5 Tuesday or something like that. But when this comes to a streaming platform or you're at a Redbox trying to figure out what to rent, this is a great option. I can't say this is a great movie, or even a good one, but I was entertained, so I'm giving it a 7/10.