Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Classic Movie Review: Psycho (1960)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 30, 2017

Classic Movie Review: Wait Until Dark (1967)

Halloween is just one day away from us at the time of me posting this review, which means my series of Halloween reviews for this year is just about done. I have one more after this one that I have been planning on releasing on Halloween, then it will be on to other things. But since I have had quite a bit of fun writing these classic movie reviews, look for me to continue this in the future, especially for next Halloween since I kept thinking of more and more Halloween movies to review that I simply didn't have time to get around to. But for now we jump back to 1967, a year before the Hays Code was dissolved and replaced by the MPAA's rating system, which started out as G, M, R and X before eventually evolving into our current system of G, PG, PG-13, R and NC-17. "Wait Until Dark" saw director Terence Young jump into this dark, crime thriller shortly after he directed three of the first four James Bond films, "Dr. No," "From Russia with Love" and "Thunderball," and stars the ever so popular actress Audrey Hepburn and legendary actor Alan Arkin fresh off his first ever Oscar nomination for "The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!" in 1966. It was a popular request for me to review and is right in my wheelhouse, so let's dive in!

The premise for "Wait Until Dark" is one that we've seen a lot in Hollywood, that being criminals doing crazy things in order to get their drugs. I'm not saying that's a flaw of the movie and I won't even use the word cliche to describe it, but I'm just pointing it out. We start off with a woman named Lisa taking a doll stuffed full of heroin through the airport, after which she hands the doll off to another gentlemen. At this point of the movie, I wasn't sure what was going on, but I knew something intense was about to take place due to the simple, yet creepy score that playing, thus I was immediately hooked on the film, these characters and what was about to happen. It often takes me a bit of time to get invested in a movie, so when this hooked me from the very first second, I knew I was in for a good ride. Because, yes, it's true that I tragically hadn't seen this one before I watched it earlier today. It was one of those sensations of "Where has this movie been all my life?" Moving forward, we are then introduced to Alan Arkin's villainous character of Mr. Roat, who hires two thugs named Mike Talman and Carlino to help him find this doll that he's sure is hidden somewhere in the house of the blind lady Susy Hendrix, played by Audrey Hepburn.

Yeah, that's it. Pretty simple premise here. But it certainly works. Most of the movie takes place in the home of Susy Hendrix, which makes sense since the movie is based on the play of the same name written by playwright Frederick Knott that premiered on Broadway the year before. The fact that Warner Bros. immediately purchased the movie rights for the play I'm assuming means that this was quite the popular play. I just now learned that Frederick Knott also wrote the play for "Dial M for Murder," which was adapted into Hitchcock's classic film that I really love. So this guy definitely had a knack for doing creepy, successful crime thrillers on stage. At the very least, he managed to write two of them that became pretty dang good movie thrillers. So kudos there. Speaking of Hitchcock, as I was watching "Wait Until Dark," I was definitely getting the Hitchcock vibe. In fact, whenever I watch a thriller from this era of film, I'm always comparing it to the gold standard that Hitchcock set with his thrillers. When it doesn't quite hold up to Hitchcock standards, like "The Night of the Hunter" that I reviewed earlier this month, I have to dock it a bit. That may seem unfair, but movies like "Wait Until Dark" prove to me that this standard CAN be met.

I really loved how this movie set the tone early with the score in the early sequences. I think it successfully informs the audiences that you are about to be in for a serious thrill ride, so buckle up. But after that initial sequence that puts you on edge, I love how this movie takes its time to build the suspense. The job description given by Roat to these two thugs isn't to kill Susy. It's to get the doll. If they successfully get the doll without anyone being harmed, then all is well. No one gets hurt. Everyone ends up happy. Except the doll has drugs in it, so you know this isn't going to end up happy for everyone. When a movie involves someone trying to get their drugs, the characters trying to get said drugs aren't necessarily known for their kind, compromising generosity, if you know what I mean. Alan Arkin pulls off scumbag pretty well in this right from the start. Even when he's starting with the soft and simple Plan A, you know that he has a Plan B, Plan C and Plan D up his sleeve in case things don't go smoothly. Thus we are very uneasy when he starts executing his plan, but the movie doesn't throw you right into the fire from the very beginning. We are instead placed at the edge of the fire before we slowly get pushed further and further into the flames.

While Alan Arkin does a great job of pulling off the villainous antagonist of the film, and it was certainly fun seeing him young as most of the films I've seen him in are when he's much older, the star of this movie is the woman who received the Oscar nomination for her performance. The queen of acting herself. Audrey Hepburn. This was her fifth and final Oscar nomination for her acting (she was awarded the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award following her death in 1993), having previous won for "Roman Holiday" in 1953 while also getting nominated for "Sabrina" in 1954, "The Nun's Story" in 1959 and "Breakfast at Tiffany's" in 1961. I don't know how many of those movies I've seen, so I'm not going to rank her performances, but she gives an absolutely stunning performance here in 1967. She first of all does a great job of playing a blind lady, specifically a blind lady who was more recently blinded and thus feels a bit lost in the world. I think that's much harder than playing someone who has been blind his or her whole life, such as Matt Murdock in "Daredevil" or the crazy old dude in last year's thriller "Don't Breathe." Thus this isn't an invasion movie of a blind person acts as though they can see everything. It's a much more complex performance.

As blind as she is, though, she is certainly far from dumb, gullible or completely incompetent. The suspense in the movie slowly starts building as she starts putting the pieces of the puzzle together about what's happening around her. Her husband has left and a supposed friend of his has come to visit her with a bogus story that leads to him bringing in a fake police officer. These are, of course, our two thugs trying to play her. At first she buys it because they don't seem too suspicious. But then she slowly starts to realize that they aren't quite who they say they are, which leads them, teaming up with Roat, to start stepping up their game to figuring out where the doll is and how they are planning on getting, which we as an audience aren't even sure if Susy even knows about as this game of finding it begins. As all this starts to unfold, I personally go from comfortably sitting in my chair to cowering in it. Then we have this fun thing happening with the lighting of the film. As the movie gets darker in terms of tone, the movie also physically gets darker because it's getting later outside and Susy comes up with a clever plan to break all the light bulbs. Certain sequences in the final act then happen when the screen is literally black.

I don't really want to say anything about the ending of the film, but the fact that the audience watching and our three thugs end up just as blind as Susy does is rather genius. A similar thing happens in the movie "Don't Breathe" as the kids who break in end up in the dark, but we as an audience see everything. Not the case here. My computer screen went blank as I was left to listening to certain sequences and I loved that. And apparently an effect happened in the movie theaters themselves in 1967 where the lights slowly dimmed until being all completely turned out when the lights on the screen went out. Thus we are left to the power of sound design to tell parts of the story. Overall this was a movie-watching experience that I really enjoyed. As both movie's originate from the same playwright, we can call "Wait Until Dark" the cousin of Hitchcock's "Dial M for Murder." If you've seen the latter, I think this is as equally intense and thrilling. If you've only seen this one and love it, go check out Hitchcock's film. I think "Wait Until Dark" is the type of thrilling Halloween-appropriate movie that 60's audiences probably loved while also being a thriller that absolutely holds up and can be enjoyed by today's audiences as well. Thus I'm giving "Wait Until Dark" a 9/10.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Classic Movie Review: A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

I've now covered "Friday the 13th" and "Halloween" in my series of Halloween-themed movie reviews this year. Now it's time to finish this trilogy of classic slasher horror films with my personal favorite of the bunch, "A Nightmare on Elm Street." Which, yes, that does mean I ended up reviewing these three movies from worst to best. That was completely coincidental, but that works. Like "Halloween" and unlike "Friday the 13th," "A Nightmare on Elm Street" is a movie that I did see when I was younger. Specific age doesn't matter, but I think this was actually the first horror film that I watched. And no, it didn't give me nightmares or ruin my life. I thought it was a fascinatingly creepy horror film and I always loved Freddy Krueger. I dressed up as him for Halloween at least once. It's fun putting on his mask with the sweater, hat and the finger knife claws. For reasons I'll get into, I think he works much better as a villain than Michael Myers does and the movie around him is equally as creepy as "Halloween." I don't necessarily recommend watching this when you're young, but if you like horror films and you need one to watch this Halloween, this would also be the perfect choice as Wes Craven crafted quite the horror masterpiece back in 1984.

As far as this movie's plot goes, this is definitely an unashamed 80's slasher horror film. By 1984, we were well into this genre and filmmakers knew exactly what audiences wanted, so Wes Craven completely takes advantage of that. If that's not your genre, then this is not your movie and that's totally fine. At the same time, though, this is much more than just a movie about a killer wandering around killing people. There's a bit of a mystery element to it. Sure, if you're well-versed in the Freddy Krueger lore, there's no surprises here, but all of our characters in this movie are trying to figure out what the heck is happening. At the beginning of the movie we are introduced to Tina, who we think is our main character. She's having these nightmares where she's getting chased by a crazy, burned psychopath. She wakes up and her clothes are ripped, which is really confusing. So the next night she has her three best friends, Nancy, Rod and Glen, over to keep her company so she doesn't have to sleep alone. They slowly begin to figure out that they are all having these same nightmares, but they haven't quite figured out what's happening yet. These are just dreams, right? They're not real. So they just need to figure out how to comfort each other so it all gets better.

But PSYCH! Tina's not the main character of the movie, despite the fact that she's been the focus for the first part of the movie. When night has actually come, she's sleeping upstairs with her boyfriend Rod when the nightmare happens again and this time Freddy's got her. No escaping. No waking up. But instead of seeing Freddy kill her, we immediately cut to reality where she's being cut up, sliced up and thrown around the room by what looks like an invisible killer from Rod's perspective. It's really quite brutal and graphic. But it's an "Oh my heck" sort of moment. Things are about to get real in this movie. Rod is understandably shaken up, but then he bolts when he realizes that he's about to get blamed for this murder because suddenly his dead, bloody girlfriend is on the ground next to him when the door was locked. Eventually he gets caught and thrown in jail. Then the movie focuses on our real protagonist, Nancy. Man is this girl a boss. All she has is her useless, but charming, Johnny Depp boyfriend (it was Depp's first film role) and her parents, who refuse to believe anything she's saying. But she's bound and determined to figure out what in the heck is happening to her and her friends and how to stop this nightmarish killer from continuing his rampage.

What really makes this movie work so well is the iconic performance of Robert Englund as Freddy Krueger. First off, we have his look. With his charred face, his hat, his red and green striped sweater, and the classic claw glove, he is one of the most horrifically awesome looking horror villains ever. Going right along with that perfect look, Robert Englund himself is so creepy. The way he talks is terrifying. When he laughs, it's even worse as that laugh is the laugh of nightmares. I'm sure Robert Englund is a really nice guy, but if I ever met him in real life I just might run away. The man just oozes creepy and evil. If your movie is only as good as the villain, then this franchise's potential is to infinite and beyond. Yet as awesome looking and sounding as Freddy Krueger is, what makes this first movie so scary is how Wes Craven uses him. The lighting and camerawork is perfect. While there's a few jump scares when he shows up, for the most part it's Freddy hiding behind the corners or stalking people in the shadows that wins me over. With the dream sequences mostly being at night, the set is almost always dimly lit when Freddy is around. If it's light outside, we're usually down in the boiler room creeping around or in other dark places with plenty of obstacles.

If you read my review of "Halloween," you'll remember that I was very nit-picky with the character of Michael Myers. I didn't think he had a good enough backstory and I thought there were a lot of plot holes or other things that either didn't make sense or were left unexplained. I have none of those complaints in this movie and I saw these two movies around the same time, so there's no nostalgia factor giving the edge to "A Nightmare on Elm Street." I think the biggest reason that I'm so forgiving of Freddy Krueger is that, when push comes to shove, he's a supernatural villain as opposed to an attempt at a serious, realistic serial killer. So I put on my supernatural horror hat while watching him and I totally buy everything. In fact, I think Nancy's best option would've been to call Sam and Dean Winchester to take care of this guy. Or perhaps Mary and John with this being in the 80's. It totally fits the "Supernatural" lore and I'm 13 seasons into that show and still loving it. Also, despite being super creepy and dark, the movie is also extremely self-aware. Wes Craven totally owns up to his ridiculous premise and has a ton of fun with Freddy. We even get high-tempo 80's video game music when Freddy's chasing someone and it's quite the entertaining blast.

And since I'm such a stickler with this thing called backstory and motive, let's take a look into that. Fair warning, if you haven't seen this movie before, I've been spoiler-free up to this point in this review, but I'm about to dive into those spoilers. You've been warned. When we learn about Michael Myer's backstory, we essentially learn that he was a kid born without a soul and kills people because he has no sense of right or wrong. That wasn't good enough for me. With Freddy Krueger, we don't dive deep into his backstory. We simply learn that he was a serial killer who kidnapped and murdered children. Those people sadly do exist in the world whereas kids born with no soul don't exist. We don't know why Freddy became a serial killer. We just know he is and that's good enough for me. In terms of specific motive in this movie, Freddy was captured and thrown in jail, but when it came to his trial, the justice system goofed up and he was set free. Seeing this as an injustice to the law, the parents on Elm Street got together and came up with a plan. They gassed up his place and burned him alive. Years later, Freddy has come back as a supernatural demon of sorts and he incites his revenge, not by killing the parents, but by killing their teenage kids. That's solid motive.

Freddy's not the only reason why this movie is so great, though. For good reason, in 2017 we are demanding to get more strong female roles in Hollywood. The 80's actually had plenty of them with movies like "Terminator" as an example, but they also had one of the strongest lead females with Nancy in "A Nightmare on Elm Street." This is actually an element of this movie that I didn't pick up on when I was younger, but I was extremely impressed by when I watched it this week. Nancy is awesome. In horror movies, it's really easy to make your lead female a damsel in distress that's being hunted by some sort of evil force who survives pretty much out of pure luck. It takes Nancy a while to figure out what's going on, but when she has Freddy figured out, her goal isn't to simply survive his attacks. She herself is going in all-out attack mode as she's bound and determined to practically single-handedly stop Freddy herself or die trying. Even when Johnny Depp is too lousy to stay awake, thus getting himself transformed into a geyser of blood (that scene makes me break out laughing every time), Nancy doesn't back down and decides go to plan B, which is trusting in her stubborn father to actually help her. And it works! She stops Freddy! Well, kinda...

The very final sequences are a bit ambiguous. That's the one part of the movie that I forgot about and I don't know if I'm a huge fan of, but if we ignore that for a second and focus on Nancy vs. Freddy and how Nancy wins, I think it's a very powerful lesson. It's a very subtle moment and I think I only caught it because I try to be a good Christian boy and search for things like this, but Nancy actually turns to God to help her beat Freddy. The first thing is that part of the creepy song that the little girls in white dresses sing is the line "5... 6... Grab your crucifix." In other words, use the power of Christ to help you overcome evil. In accordance with that, right before Nancy jumps into her final confrontation with Freddy, after doing everything in her power to stop him, she says a prayer. In that prayer she starts by asking the Lord for his help while finishing by asking the Lord to take her soul if she is unsuccessful. The battle of good vs. evil in horror films is a very important one, I think. Specifically I think there is a lot of power when a horror film teaches that good can overcome evil, regardless of how hard it may seem. For an 80's slasher film to subtly throwing in Nancy using the power of God to help her in her fight, I think adds a lot of power to this movie.

No, I don't have any major nit-picks with this film. It's very much a product of the 80's, thus if you don't like these 80's slasher horror films, this is not going to be the movie for you. But if horror is your thing, specifically 80's horror, I honestly don't think it gets much better than "A Nightmare on Elm Street." You could say I'm biased because I watched and loved this film when I was younger, but I was equally as impressed, perhaps even more so, when I watched it this week. We have one of the absolute best horror villains in Freddy Krueger, who is one of the creepiest looking villains who is voiced perfectly by Robert Englund with his maniacal laugh and speech. We have a director in Wes Craven who knows how to use Freddy the right way. Sure, the movie has plenty of violence and gore. But that's not what's used to scare the audience. Craven uses creepy music, perfect lighting, great camerawork and phenomenal timing to go along with a creative supernatural premise that for over 30 years has made people terrified of falling asleep at night. Add onto that a fun, mysterious plot with good characters, led by Nancy, one of the strongest female characters to ever grace the sets of a horror film, and we have a darn near perfect horror film that I'm confidently awarding a 10/10.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Classic Movie Review: Halloween (1978)

 
You can't be a true movie critic until you've reviewed John Carpenter's iconic horror classic "Halloween" during Halloween season, right? If so, then I officially submit my name as a movie critic because it's finally time for me to talk about "Halloween." When I made the decision to write these Halloween movie reviews, this is obviously one of the first ones that jumped into my head. In fact, I was going to make this the first review of the season as it seemed like the most fitting one to kick things off with. That ended up not happening for various reasons, but that's OK. I'm content with releasing this review closer to Halloween. Now that we're less than a week away, if you need to get yourself into the Halloween spirit by watching a movie that will scare the tar out of you, this just might be the perfect choice. Michael Myers has certainly done a great job of scaring me for many years. Because, yes, unlike with my recent review of "Friday the 13th," "Halloween" is a movie that I've had a lot of experience with. Accordingly, I have a lot of thoughts about this movie that I've had bottled up for years that I'm really excited to finally get out as I think there are a lot of discussion points with this movie pertaining to what makes a good horror film as well as a good villain.

As far as the plot goes, this is a very simple movie. It's Halloween in 1978 and Laurie has the obligation of babysitting Tommy. Meanwhile, her and her two friends, Annie and Lynda, are trying to come up with a plan to hang out together on Halloween night despite these babysitting obligations. But it's safe to say that plans are interrupted by one Michael Myers, a 21-year-old serial killer who has just escaped from a mental institution that he's been in since he killed his older sister when he was just six years old. For reasons known only to Michael Myers, and possibly not even the director or screenwriter, he's decided to stalk these girls all day before he attempts to kill them at night. Perhaps he just has a thing against teenage girls or babysitters for some reason and Laurie is the first, or one of the first girls he comes across after his return to his hometown, and he has decided that she is going to die along with her friends. I don't know. That's my best guess. Michael Myers is not one that is given a specific motive. He just does things. His character is written as a purposely mysterious human being who ultimately is the embodiment of pure evil and is referred to frequently during the film as the boogeyman. And the boogeyman is coming to get you!

When I think of the boogeyman, I think of an unknown evil that is lurking in the shadows waiting to jump at me when I least expect it. I don't know who or what the boogeyman is, but I know that he's not a pleasant individual. That fear of the unknown is a very powerful fear that this movie preys on, specifically the fear of an unknown entity that you won't be able to escape or overcome once you have been captured. Once you put a name and a face to the boogeyman, he becomes less scary, thus the less you know about him, the more terrifying he is. Thus when it comes to horror villains, Michael Myers is the one that has gotten under my skin the most. Surprisingly, much of this movie isn't a gratuitous gore fest of murder. It's Michael Myers sitting in the shadows, waiting for the right opportunity to strike. Sure, we get a murder right of the bat in the introduction, but that's done to show us what this evil person is capable of, thus putting us on the edge of our seats in pure fear as he just sits there watching everyone. As a young kid, I legitimately hated walking home at night and that was partially due to the fact that I envisioned Michael Myers hiding behind every corner. Yeah, probably not a movie to watch when you're younger. But oh well.

As I carefully think about what exactly makes this movie so creepy, there are three major things that stand out in my mind. The first is that music. Most of it is that simple three note piano medley that is so creepy. Every time I go to re-watch this movie, I tell myself that I am going to be a brave soul and not get scared. Because I don't get scared easily, especially now that I am a grown man. But then the music starts right during the opening credits and I immediately cower in my chair every time like a little dog. Then throughout the movie when the danger is near, the music starts again and I cower again. We combine that with some very clever camerawork that kicks in when Michael Myers is near. We often go to his first person POV with handheld shaky cam. Putting yourself in the shoes of the killer as he silently approaches our protagonists is a fantastic way of instilling a sense of dread. Finally, we combine that POV with the third thing that makes this creepy. The breathing. Because Michael Myers is wearing a full-headed mask. If you've ever worn one of those, you'll know that it's hard to breathe in, so when we go to the first person POV, we also get to experience Michael Myers' heavy breathing, with the music in the background.

I think there's a good lesson here on how to make an effective horror film. There's not a lot of jump scares in this movie and there isn't a ton of gore, either. I think some horror directors or studios have this false impression that if they cram a bunch of jump scares into their movie, that it will make it a scary movie. False. There's also other directors that think gore fests are scary. Also false. I prefer creepy. When you have a deadly combination of music, camerawork and sound effects, that's a lot more terrifying than throwing a bunch of jump scares at me or bathing the sets in blood and gory images. Even when we're not in the Michael Myers POV, we often see him placed in various locations in the shot that subtly catch our eye and creep us out. The times where he is hidden in the background are extremely effective at making us uneasy as we progress through the plot. Then of course there are times where he suddenly shows up right in front of us, making us want to get up and run away so that we aren't massacred right along with the characters. Regardless of what's going on in the story, John Carpenter does an absolutely perfect job with this movie in providing fear to the audience. If that's the type of film you are going for, then look no further.

It's funny, though. I've seen quite a few YouTube reviews of this movie over the last few years during Halloween and there's several of them that get all confident and happy that they are going to be bold and actually criticize this movie. Then they tell me about how awful the side characters in the movie are. Yeah that's cute. Now hold my BYU-approved caffeinated soda for a second while I dive into some ACTUAL critiques of this movie. Because, while I still hold strong to the idea that this is one of the creepiest movies I've seen due to the aforementioned horror techniques courtesy of John Carpenter, there's a few aspects of this movie that have always nagged at me. But sure. Let's humor the crowd for a second and talk about those side characters. They're really annoying. I'm specifically talking about Annie and Lynda. Annie gets killed off first and I was kind of sad, but not really. Then we have the sequence where Lynda and her boyfriend Bob are alone making love and acting so annoying that when Michael Myers walks in, instead of being scared, I found myself saying, "Get 'em Michael!" Then I pause and laugh because that's not how I'm supposed to be reacting to this film. But so be it. Laurie is a strong lead character, so she makes up for it.

But now seriously. Are you really that surprised that side characters in a late 70's horror film don't give Academy Award winning performances? While it's nice to have good characters all around, having annoying side characters in a horror film is almost to be expected and thus not a real critique of the movie. The biggest question for me has always been the underlying question of "Why?" This is something that I've done quite a bit of debating over on the internet and with various friends. Why is Michael Myers the way he is? What is it that caused six-year-old Michael to grab a knife out of the kitchen drawer, walk up the stairs and stab his sister to death? Why did he then not say a single word during the 15 years that he was in the mental institution? Why did he choose that specific moment to break out of prison? Why was it so easy for him to do so and how in the fetch did he know how to drive a car so perfectly when he's been locked up since he was six? And why did he decide to hunt down these three girls when it seems they have no connection to him? Why is everything so easy for him? Why is he so strong and powerful? And why is he an immortal being incapable of dying, despite the fact that he should've died three times in the movie? 

I get it. I really do. John Carpenter visited a mental institution and saw a young kid with what looked like the darkest eyes and that inspired him to want to make a movie with a kid so evil that he would be an embodiment of pure evil. In John Carpenter's eyes, the definition of pure evil is someone who has no soul and never had a soul. Thus was born Michael Myers. The kid without a soul. He has zero conscience and zero moral compass, so he goes around killing people because he doesn't know any better. For some people that is all they need when it comes to a villain. He's pure evil. No explanation needed. For me, though, that feels a bit empty. Mostly because I have a slightly different definition of pure evil. I don't think there exists a person on earth who was born with no soul. I much prefer the falling from grace philosophy. For someone who seemingly lost their soul, has no moral compass or has no respect for human life, I believe there was a reason behind it. If you dive deep into the lives of serial killers or evil dictators, there was always a breaking point. Reasons that led them to do the awful things that they did. I honestly don't think any of them were simply born without a soul. I think they lost it somewhere along the way, very early on for some of them.

Perhaps I'm looking too far into this and being too philosophical with a simple movie that's just designed to scare people. But when Michael Myers has been inducted by many into the super villain hall of fame as one of the greatest cinematic villains ever created, I look at that designation and shudder a bit. So how about we take a look at some of the other villains and see how he compares. Darth Vader. Why is he so evil? It's not because he has a scary looking outfit and James Earl Jones' epic voice. It's because he was once a powerful Jedi that was supposed to bring balance to the force before he fell from grace and turned to the dark side. Norman Bates. He is honestly a charismatic, troubled human being trying his best, but his dark psychological history with Dissociative Identity Disorder has ruined him. We can also look at Walter White on the small screen, who, throughout "Breaking Bad," experiences a harsh, depressing fall from grace. If we jump away from cinema and look to the Bible, it doesn't get much more pure evil than Lucifer. Yet in Isaiah he is described as someone who was the son of the morning who then fell from grace. In my mind these are much stronger examples of pure evil, thus I don't think Michael Myers himself compares well.

Long story short, I like my villains to have solid motive. A reason behind who they are. Implementing that in a smart way gives them more depth and makes them more terrifying. Note the words "smart." Because Rob Zombie obviously had similar thoughts with Michael Myers, so when he remade "Halloween" in 2007, he gave him a backstory and a motive. While I appreciate the effort, Rob Zombie completely missed the boat with his remake as he turned "Halloween" into an unscary, raunchy, gore fest with zero characters worth caring about and nearly an hour spent on this added backstory. I take a hard pass on that. So what's the real way to fix "Halloween"? I don't know. I'm going to tread lightly on that because you need to find a way to make it equally as scary while adding the necessary depth to make Michael Myers an interesting character. A thought I had was perhaps ditching the whole backstory altogether? As in get rid of scenes when he was a child as well as the prison escape and start the movie with this mysterious serial killer stalking them? That would make it so we formulate this after the Zodiac Killer. He would have a history and a motive. We just know nothing about it. Thus he becomes a true boogeyman.

The other nagging thing that bothers me about this movie is the fact that Michael Myers is immortal. This is definitely a product of the times as the 70's and 80's loved their horror villains to be these unstoppable, immortal super villains incapable of being killed. Thus you can't defeat them or stop them. You just have to hope you are lucky enough to survive. When I was younger that was definitely terrifying. Now that I'm older, that makes him less interesting. I think the more realistic you can make your horror villains, the more uncomfortable it is as it makes you feel this could actually happen. But when he gets shot six times and falls off a second-story balcony, yet walks away seemingly unscathed, I immediately log this away to something that is completely fake and fairly cheesy when the movie is trying to be serious. I'm fine with him escaping to set up the sequel, but not dying when he should've been killed is something I don't like. One of the reasons people gravitate towards horror films, especially in times of tragedy, is to witness the battle of good vs. evil where good overcomes evil. If evil can't be overcome and can only be survived if one is simply lucky, then that removes that element of the film and makes it harder for someone to appreciate. 

In summary, I believe the goal that John Carpenter had when he made this film was to create a slasher horror that would scare people silly for years to come and he absolutely succeeded in a huge way. This is one of the most iconic horror films whose influence is still felt today in modern-day horror. People are still trying to replicate what John Carpenter pulled off and many of them have failed, partially because they seem to forget what makes horror films scary. While this movie is a product of its times as it isn't without its moments of gore, language and sexuality, those elements aren't the focus of the terror. The music, the camerawork, the sound effects, and the thought of someone always watching you is what makes this movie scary and I have all the respect in the world for that. Not just that, I do genuinely love this movie because I think it is one of the scariest horror films out there. If terror is all you want or need this Halloween, then this is a perfect movie for that scenario. I just personally hesitate to call this a masterpiece. There's no depth to it when you analyze the characters and the story, specifically Michael Myers himself. There are better horror villains out there. Thus I won't give this a perfect score, but I still am comfortable with a 9/10.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Geostorm Review

There's five new wide releases opening this weekend and there's no way I'm getting to all of them, especially since I'm also trying to get in as many Halloween movie reviews in as I can. But I needed to get at least one of these new movies in. Perhaps two or three. We'll see what I'm feeling like. "The Snowman" was my most anticipated movie of the weekend and I would've seen that one first had it not been for news of the absolutely disastrous production that apparently destroyed that movie. And I really want to see "Only the Brave." I've never seen a Madea movie or really anything from Tyler Perry, so don't be looking for that one. Yet for some strange reason I ended up settling on "Geostorm." Why? I don't know. I think it's mostly due to curiosity as to how bad this movie could be. Sure, there was a small glimmer of hope that maybe there was entertainment to be had. I rather enjoyed "San Andreas" from the other year, so maybe this movie could be similar? Uh... no. Not so much. If you were like me and you watched the trailers and came away thinking this movie would be an awful piece of trash, you were right. Don't waste your time or money on this one. However, I was surprised that this was bad for different reasons than I was thinking.

You know how this movie was being advertised as an epic disaster movie that seemed like it was made 20 years too late? Yeah, put that on hold. For as much Geostorming as this movie promised, there's not very much Geostorming at all. The movie is a dark, serious, whodunit political thriller for most of the run time with some major storms thrown in as an afterthought, most of which you already saw in all the trailers. Thought you signed up for a self-aware, fun, disaster movie where you could sit back and shove popcorn in your face for two hours? Well, put that popcorn down and take a nap for the first hour of the movie. We get teased for a brief few moments with a frozen Afghanistan city followed by some sort of fiery, volcanic earthquake in Hong Kong. Outside that, we have to wait for the storms and I started to get bored as heck. Most of the movie is I think was trying to make some sort of painfully horrible political statement that you absolutely don't want when you go into a disaster movie and a whole ton of family drama between our two main characters in the movie, who are brothers, that I just didn't care about it. For some reason the writers and directors thought that the world wanted a super serious drama with lots of politics and I found that baffling.

So get this. The movie starts with an opening montage, narrated by the little girl in the movie, in which we learn that the year 2019 there were a whole ton of major natural disasters that destroyed many major cities. Right off the bat I was like, no. Don't do this. Don't make this a huge political drama. But I facepalmed really hard because that's exactly what they did. We all know that 2017 has seen some horrific natural disasters. Is this movie trying to say that these are just going to get worse and we need to do something about it? Most likely. So in this fictional not-to-distant future, they built these major satellites to control all of the natural disasters so that they didn't happen. Jump a few years into the future, somewhere in the early 2020's, and we immediately go back to politics. Because just about every politician in this movie is portrayed as an evil, malicious idiot with no brain in their head. Because they are so corrupt, they take all credit for this space station thing and try to manage it themselves, not listening to a single word that the main architect is saying about what actually needs to be done. Poor Gerard Butler is trying to valiantly fight his cause while his idiot brother is texting him to shut up and roll over dead. Yeah, they decide to fire him after that.

OK, I get it movie. All politicians are evil, crazy idiots who can't be trusted. Can we drop it? No. We're not going to. Instead, after the fiasco where Gerard Butler gets fired, we jump into the future even more, making me completely lose track of what year we're in, and we get a whodunit thriller because apparently someone has inserted some sort of virus into our space station thing that is causing it to malfunction and create these huge storms. If they don't figure out who is doing this and how to stop them, the world is going to experience a Geostorm, a super huge mega storm where natural disasters everywhere combine together and destroy the world. You know, the title of the movie. So three years after this younger brother ruined his older brother's life, they are forced to go back to him to help them stop this thing. In order to save the world, he accepts. So he goes up to outer space while the younger brother handles things down on earth and after much investigation, they have determined that their prime suspect is the President of the United States. Who, get this, is a democrat. Oh, so now we're saying that the democrats specifically are all evil and going to destroy the world? Holy cow. I'm not even a democrat and that infuriates me.

Are we ready for the storms, yet? Because I thought I signed up for a movie where I got to watch the world get destroyed by natural disasters. Not a long, boring, drawn out political thriller where democrats are portrayed as evil human beings. I wanted my storms! Which, in thinking about, seems like insensitive timing anyways. With how much damage various earthquakes, hurricanes and fires have already done to our world, is this really a movie that we needed right now? But whatever. If we ignore that point, we didn't get those storms anyways. Not on the level that I thought I would. Eventually after all this nonsense, the storms started. I'm normally not an advocate of pulling out your phones during a movie, but when these storms started, I just had to know what time it was. My showtime was 1:00. The movie is 1 hour, 49 minutes long. It was 2:25 when the storms started. Granted, we had 15-20 minutes of trailers beforehand, but even with that it means we were at least at the halfway point through the movie before we started to get what we thought we were going to get. But even with the storms starting, we only got like a total of 15 minutes of storms scattered throughout the second half of the movie as we focused more on wrapping up our political thriller.

This baffled me. Granted, the movie wasn't unwatchable like I thought it was going to be, but the fact that they tried to make this a super serious, political thriller/drama was really frustrating. If you go back to the 90's when these types of disaster movies were super popular, half of the reason why people loved them is that they were mostly all self-aware of what type of movie they were. Even if they didn't make sense and were super ridiculous, they were still really fun. Had this movie taken a more lighter, non-serious tone that owned up to what it was, I think it could've been a fun, throwback film, much like "San Andreas" was. Now I do have to give credit where credit is due. All of our cast tried their best to make this work. Thus we can't blame Gerard Butler, Jim Sturgess, Abbie Cornish or Alexandra Maria Lara for what went wrong. They owned up to their roles and did their best. The movie is also well shot with visual effects that are serviceable. This won't get any visual effects nominations at the Oscars, but it's not bad. And the score is your typically decent blockbuster score. But the script and the tone of the movie is just so awful and so off, that anything good that these people tried to do is wiped away.

Again, there's a lot of movies in theaters right now. There's holdovers from the last several weeks that deserve to be seen. Five new options this weekend. Oscar-bait films that are starting to surface. There's a lot for you to see. And that's not even mentioning what appears to be a very fun holiday season in November and December with movies such as "Thor: Ragnorok," "Justice League" and "Star Wars: The Last Jedi" heading our way. There's no reason for you to ever waste your time with "Geostorm." I write movie reviews. That's what I do. And often I'll purposely try to see movies like this so that you can be informed as to what not to see. I consider it taking one for the team so that you don't have to. Had this been a self-aware, lighthearted, fun disaster movie, I may have been able to recommend it as a guilty pleasure like I did "San Andreas," but this movie tries to be so serious and dramatic that it ruins all that potential. No one cares about overdone drama in a disaster movie. It's not fun. And it's certainly not fun watching an in-your-face political thriller about how evil the democratic party is. Due to good acting and serviceable technical aspects to the movie, I'm not going to give this a horrible score, but I'm certainly not going positive. "Geostorm" gets a 5/10. 

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Classic Movie Review: The Night of the Hunter (1955)

This review comes via request of a good friend of mine as a part of my series of Halloween reviews this year. I was going to say that this is a more obscure film for me to review, but that actually might not be true as the Library of Congress in 1992 deemed it "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant." It's also shown up occasionally on all-time great movie lists and has influenced a lot of different directors. So maybe I just missed the boat when it comes to knowing this movie exists, because I hadn't heard about it until a month or so ago when my friend mentioned it. It also means that I'm at an extreme disadvantage in writing a review because I've only had a week now to think about it as opposed to 62 years for some people. But hey, perhaps a fresh perspective is a good thing on occasion, especially when it comes to the case of nostalgia. It's often seen as blasphemous to say anything bad about a movie deemed a classic. But if I just watched it for the first time a week ago, I can simply treat it as a brand new movie and move forward without having to worry about nostalgia or its designation as a classic. In turn that means that if this has been one of your all-time favorite films for years, then you might be in for an interesting ride with this review.

After having heard of this movie for the first time a month ago and watching it for the first time a week ago, I even more recently learned that "The Night of the Hunter" is based on the book of the same name, which in turn is based on the life of one Harry Powers, a serial killer who was hanged in 1932 for the murder of a woman and her three kids. Powers lured women to him via Lonely Hearts ads (the old-fashioned version of dating sites?), claiming he was looking for love, but instead had a goal to kill them for their money. Thankfully he was caught, convicted and put to death before too many people fell victim to him, because apparently he got 10-20 letters per day based on his ads and had written love letters to many of them with the intention of killing them for their money. This gives you a bit of an idea of what you're in for if you decide to put in "The Night of the Hunter," although not really because, while the movie is based on the life of Powers, "loosely based" might be the proper terminology. The fictional version of this story that is told in this movie is a lot more toned down than the real life version as I'm guessing that director Charles Laughton wanted to make a movie that people of his time would actually watch.

This makes for an interesting conversation. A dark, gruesome, bloody thriller is probably not something that audiences would gravitate towards in 1955. Even Hitchcock had to restrain himself in order to get the rating of approved that was necessary for films back then to actually make money. I'll talk about that more on a later date when I review a certain Hitchcock film. But 2017 is much different than 1955 in terms of content that a director is capable of making. I feel many of Hitchcock's films would be much more intense if he had lived in today's world with his same mind. Perhaps Charles Laughton would've elected to go darker and scarier if he also were around today to make this movie? With that in mind, what if we hired a director today who excels at dark, crime thrillers to return to this material and give it a more realistic, darker feel to it? Put that thought on hold for a bit, because I'm going to come back to it. As far now, we have to talk about this movie, which surrounds the fictional character named, not Harry Powers, but Harry Powell. Guess what he does? Yup. He goes around killing women for their money. At least that's his goal in this movie. And he's learned of $10,000 that he's absolutely dead set on owning.

In the movie, Powell is portrayed by actor Robert Mitchum and is a rather happy, jovial fellow. In fact, he's actually a minister and has convinced himself that God is OK with murder because murder happens in the Bible. I mean, there's moments in the Bible where God commands his people to kill others. That means murder is good, right? Well... uhhh... wrong. But crazy people often need justification like that in order to convince themselves that what they're doing is right. So it makes sense. We learn all this at the beginning of the movie when Powell is alone in a car talking out loud to himself, God, the camera, or all of the above. It's the movie's way of delivering the necessary exposition so they can dive right into this story without wasting any time. Shortly after this, Powell gets arrested for burglary, a crime that the real Harry Powers also served time for 10 years before his conviction and hanging. It's in prison where the fictional Harry Powell happens to come across a man talking in his sleep about $10,000 he stole and gave to his kids, demanding secrecy from them. So when Powell gets out of prison, off to that family he goes. To marry the wife and do his absolute best to get the money from the kids. Which turns out to be harder than he initially planned on due to the praiseworthy stubbornness of the young boy.

The interesting thing that I found about this movie is that the setup of the film is not really dark or scary in terms of the tone and feel. It almost starts off as quite the opposite, that being light and happy. Which then catches you off guard when you hear what this guy is actually saying and the dread sets in without the movie even having to pound that dread in with music, lighting or camera work. If this guy hadn't admitted to being a serial killer, perhaps he would've even been a character worth caring about. The thing is, while we as an audience know his secret right off the bat, no one around him knows the secret, which makes you scream inside your head as this happy, lovable preacher starts introducing himself to everyone and eventually marrying this girl. I was genuinely terrified, yet I fully understood why everyone else made the decision to put their complete faith in this man. I mean, a happy, lovable minister is always someone worth trusting, right? I was on the edge of my seat for most of the first third of the movie as this creep moves his way into this family's life. The horrific anticipation of knowing something awful is about to happen is a rather suspenseful feeling, which is perfect for this time of year. We all love being scared at Halloween.

You'll note, though, that I said I was on the edge of my seat for most of the first third of the movie. I don't want to give too much away in case there are others reading this who, like me last week, haven't actually seen this movie. But the movie is essentially a three act story. I don't know what the time proportions are, but there are definitely three distinct parts. The first part of this film is what I have been describing to you. This is the horror of knowing that something awful is going to happen as this man gets closer and closer to achieving his goal. But for me personally, the movie didn't quite hit the levels of fear that I thought it was building to. There's definitely an overhanging sense of dread in the second and third parts of the movie, but I found myself a lot less interested in what was actually happening. I wanted the movie to unleash all of its terror and dread on me, but I felt like the director either made the choice to purposely hold back or didn't quite have the creative liberty at the time to do so. Thus we are left with a movie that, while still satisfying enough in the end, did come off as a bit cartoonish if you will. Certain aspects of the movie wouldn't have transpired the way they did, I didn't think. And they absolutely didn't when you look at the real story of Harry Powers.

With this in mind, I got to thinking what the movie could've been like had it been made in 2017. Actually, that's a lie. While watching this movie with a group of friends, the comment was posed that there's no other movie like this one. I took that as a challenge and, after much thought, it connected with me that Harry Powell reminded me a lot of Jake Gyllenhaal's character in "Nightcrawler" and Rosamund Pike's character in "Gone Girl." Three very different movies, thus the comment might stand of "The Night of the Hunter" itself being a unique film, but the characters themselves and the motivations behind what they do connected in my mind. And it's that connection that got me to thinking that a modern-day version of "The Night of the Hunter" has the potential to be absolutely insane with the right cast and crew. I know this might sound blasphemous. But if Wikipedia is correct (it never lies!), then this is a movie that inspired a lot of modern-day directors who have gone onto make absolutely terrifying thrillers. If "The Night of the Hunter" was their inspiration, then perhaps this has the proper elements to be remade into a modern film where the director has the liberty to do such things that would've gotten Laughton hanged in 1955.

Maybe it's because "Gone Girl" was the first movie I came up with when seeking comparisons to "The Night of the Hunter," but when I was contemplating the proper director for my remake, David Fincher was the name that seemed perfect. In addition to "Gone Girl," he's also made movies like "Se7en" and "Zodiac" that proves he has the thriller genre down pat. I believe that he would do "The Night of the Hunter" complete justice with his version. He could give it the modern grit and tone to please today's audiences while still being faithful to the original film. I also came up with a cast that I would love to see, which includes Jake Gyllenhaal as Harry Powell, Armie Hammer and Michelle Williams as our original couple Ben and Willa Harper, with Jaeden Lieberher and McKenna Grace as the two kids. I feel this is a cast that would deliver absolute power to these roles, especially with Fincher directing them. I don't have my exact script hammered out in my head, but it would be dark and intense. Perhaps we could even go back to the original source material by telling the true story of Harry Powers. Or maybe a combination of the real story and the fictional version. I don't know. Maybe you hate me right now for suggesting this, but I think it could work.

The point of all this is, while I honestly did enjoy myself in "The Night of the Hunter," I think the intensity was turned down quite a bit from what it could've been, perhaps due to restrictions based on what 1955 audiences could handle. While it's very true that I'm not an expert on classic cinema from this age, thus making me not the most qualified person to review this movie, thrillers are my thing. It's my favorite genre. When I compare "The Night of the Hunter" to other thrillers that I've seen, I didn't get quite the thrill out of it that I was expecting or hoping for. The first act was solid, but it got a bit cartoonish at times, wandered around through the second act and perhaps went on a little further than it needed to in the third act in terms of the story (not the run time of the movie). Perhaps it's unfair to compare it to modern-day thrillers like "Gone Girl" or "Nightcrawler." But I think a comparison to Hitchcock's films are absolutely on the table. Movies like "Psycho," "Rear Window," "Vertigo" and "The Birds" are a lot more refined, intense, terrifying and boundary-pushing. Even with that said, "The Night of the Hunter" is still a solid film and might even be perfect if you like your thrillers a bit more toned down. My grade for it is still an 8/10 despite what I've said.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Classic Movie Review: Young Frankenstein (1974)

Not "Frankenstein." Not "Bride of Frankenstein." But "Young Frankenstein." Why? Well, that's a good question. Even though this year's release of "The Mummy" was a dud, Universal's attempt to reboot their monster universe (which "The Mummy" may have killed) gave me the desire to go back and watch some of the actual Universal Monster movies. In fact, I went all out in an Excel file compiling a list of all of them. And there's A LOT of monster movies. Sorting through the wheat and the tares, I also looked up IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes scores for each one to determine which ones were worth watching. Then I was going to dive in. I haven't actually taken the dive yet, outside "The Mummy" franchise, but I have the list ready and that includes 18 "Frankenstein" movies, of which my sources tell me nine of them are worth seeing. On my own accord, there's probably about eight of them I would've checked out before "Young Frankenstein," but when I asked for requests of Halloween movies to review, this is the one that came up. Yeah, it surprised me, too. But after the second strong recommendation, I decided what the heck. Let's watch and review "Young Frankenstein." And hey, it's on Netflix right now. That makes it easy for you to watch it if you haven't already.

If you're like me from two weeks ago and you haven't been exposed to "Young Frankenstein," allow me to give you a quick taste of what you're in for. This is a movie directed by the great Mel Brooks and stars Willy Wonka himself (Gene Wilder) as Frederick Frankenstein, the grandson of the infamous Victor Frankenstein from our original "Frankenstein" story. Frederick Frankenstein hates his heritage so much that he gets angry when someone brings it up and he even prefers to pronounce his last name the German way instead of the traditional English way in order to separate himself from his grandfather. He'd prefer to be famous based on his own merits and not because of the cynical and crazy history of his grandfather. Despite this hatred, he ends up being dragged into his grandfather's work, anyways, when he's informed that he has inherited his family's estate in Transylvania. Curiosity gets the better of him and he checks the estate out and, with the help of the hunchback Igor and the beautiful assistant Inga, he discovers his grandfather's secret lab and can't help himself. The three of them work together to create another monster from the remains of others, which leads to practically everything going horribly wrong in perhaps the most hilarious way possible.

There's a reason why Mary Shelly's "Frankenstein" is so well known. Outside the fact that both the novel and the 1931 movie were highly influential in the sci-fi, monster and horror genres, in both literature and film, the story of Frankenstein and his monster is so profoundly deep and moving. I'd argue that most people will be able to relate to some angle of the story with the themes of the creator vs. the creation and all that entails. There's a lot of religious symbolism packed in there, too, especially when it comes to the monster's viewpoint of being confused and hurt as to why he's been created and what his purpose on earth is. There can also be a lot said about Victor Frankenstein's point of view with the desire for power and influence by creating life and the dangers that can come your way when you get consumed with such greed without realizing the consequences. This is just me barely scratching the surface. There's a lot more to cover with this story and perhaps it would be fun at some point for me to watch and review the original 1931 movie as well as some of the other movies that followed, such as "Bride of Frankenstein," "Son of Frankenstein," "The Ghost of Frankenstein," "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein," "The Curse of Frankenstein" and "The Revenge of Frankenstein."

But now is not the time for that. Now is the time for "Young Frankenstein," the movie that came long after those and does not take itself seriously at all. This is not a movie designed to make you think on all the deep mysteries of life. Even though I don't find the "Frankenstein" movies scary, per se, "Young Frankenstein" isn't even a horror movie. It's a straight-up comedy that's meant as a "Frankenstein" parody movie. Even though I personally prefer my original "Frankenstein" movies, when it comes to a light-hearted comedic telling of a classic story, it doesn't get a whole lot better as alot of this humor is quite on point. Much of this is shouldered by Gene Wilder, who absolutely owns this role as Frederick Frankenstein. I haven't been exposed to Gene Wilder as much as I would like to, but I've always adored him as Willy Wonka in "Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory" from 1971. That exposure alone was enough for me to be sad about his passing last summer. It was fun seeing him in something else as I watched "Young Frankenstein" and I was super impressed as he went all in with this role, embracing both sides of this complex character of Frederick Frankenstein. The other actors in this movie did well, too. But I honestly don't think this movie would've gone anywhere had it not been for the brilliant performance of Gene Wilder.

As far as the comedy itself, I will admit that not all of it worked for me. I think that's the case with comedy in general, which is why it's such a hard genre to pull off. Not everyone is going to laugh at the same jokes, especially in this case if they are less familiar with the source material that this movie is parodying. If you're less familiar with "Frankenstein," I'd suggest you watch that first instead of this, because otherwise the comedy might go right over your head. But even with the knowledge of "Frankenstein," not all of this worked for me. I'd hesitate to use the word "raunchy" to describe this movie, but there is quite a bit of sexual humor scattered throughout that I think would put this movie at a PG-13 in today's standards, thus making it not quite the Halloween movie for the whole family to enjoy. Specifically there's an ongoing gag about the size of the monster's you-know-what that was kinda chuckle-worthy the first time they used it, but completely unfunny every other time, but yet they kept going. I will admit that I did laugh when Gene Wilder exclaimed his amazement at the size of the knockers on the door in which Inga responded with a "thank you." That was a cleverly timed joke, even though it does fit under the same category as the other.

The humor in this movie that I enjoyed most was more of the silly, slapstick humor, like when Frankenstein and Inga were trying to figure out how to work the secret door or when the monster was at the home of the blind man. Those were scenes that made me smile quite a bit and I kinda wish there were more of them. But overall, I couldn't help but be pleased with this movie throughout its run time. I could definitely see how much fun everyone had in the process of making this film, which I think helps it translate well onto the big screen. Comedy is all about chemistry and timing. When everyone involved is on the same page with making it happen, it makes it that much more enjoyable to watch, thus I can definitely see why this movie has made it onto quite a few lists of the greatest comedies ever made. In terms of the parody, I also had quite a bit of respect for how much fun they had with poking fun at the "Frankenstein" franchise while still being respectful towards the franchise as a whole as to not alienate fans of the franchise.  When you can enjoy a movie, then enjoy it being made fun of in a respectful way, that's a sign of a good comedy because there's nothing worse than seeing an attempted comedy where the humor is way off.

I definitely think there is a strong place in this world for Halloween movies like this. Halloween is a fun time of year, but it's understandable that some people are not on board for the scary, horror side of Halloween. As such, it's good to have a wide selection of light-hearted, Halloween humor to enjoy. Even though I prefer the dramatic, serious side of "Frankenstein" more than this, I would still give this my strong recommendation, especially if you are one that prefers the lighter side of Halloween. It's not as deep and powerful as other "Frankenstein" movies. And it does dive more into the sexual humor than it needed to. I think this would've worked best as a movie the whole family can enjoy as opposed to it being targeted more towards the adult audience, but this is still a fun movie to enjoy that is propelled by Gene Wilder owning the role of Frederick Frankenstein, but supporting roles from the likes of Marty Feldman (Igor), Teri Garr (Inga), Madeline Kahn (Elizabeth), Cloris Leachman (Frau Blucher) and Peter Boyle (the monster) certainly have to be given credit as well. It was a good team effort all around, thus we also have to give a lot of credit to Mel Brooks for being the director at the helm of the project. I think a fair grade for "Young Frankenstein" from me is a solid 8/10.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Happy Death Day Review

The "Groundhog Day" formula has been quite the popular formula to follow in Hollywood. That, of course, is being stuck in some sort of time loop until you learn a lesson or figure out how to overcome some sort of obstacle. The most recent example of this formula being "Edge of Tomorrow," which was a sci-fi version of "Groundhog Day" where audiences got to watch Tom Cruise die over and over in a D-Day like scenario until he figured out how to win the war against the alien army. And now we have the movie "Happy Death Day" hoping to feed off that success by bringing us a comedic horror version of "Groundhog Day." After seeing this premise done so many times, you would think that I would be sick of it by now. For some reason, I'm not. It's a fun premise that somehow gets me every time. Thus when I saw the trailers for "Happy Death Day," I had a childish grin on my face, crossing my fingers that this would be another fun variation of this premise while keeping in the back of my mind that there's a possibility that this could end up as a disaster, like many modern-day horror movies. Lucky for me, this is a movie that doesn't take itself seriously at all and thus becomes a rather fun sort-of horror film that's worth your time this Halloween season.

In the movie, Jessica Rothe plays a college sorority girl named Tree Gelbman. She wakes up one day in the dorm room of a guy named Carter Davis, played by Isreal Broussard, having not remembered what happened the previous evening. She puts on her shirt, leaves the room, and heads off to class, making sure to be rude and arrogant to everyone in her path, roommates included. Because, you know, that's how we have to have her in this type of movie. We have to watch her learn to be nice to the world. Except she does kind of have an excuse. Today is her birthday, which is not a very happy day for her due to certain family issues. But after living a somewhat normal day for her, she ends up all by herself in a dark part of town where she comes across an individual dressed in black with a baby-face mask, that's apparently the school mascot. That person kills her and then she wakes up back in the dorm room of Carter Davis. And what do you know. It's the same day again. At the end of each ensuing day, the crazy person with the baby face mask is waiting for her to kill her again. Why trap her in a time loop instead of kill her for good? I don't know. The movie doesn't really answer that question. This is the type of movie where certain things you just have to accept.

Because of that, there's a few ways you can look at this movie. You can take it super seriously and complain at all the logical fallacies present in the movie. Why is she in a time loop? I don't know. Why doesn't she use one of her lives to de-mask the killer to figure out who he/she is? I don't know. When the mystery is revealed, does it make sense when you think back on the rest of the movie? Probably not. Is it kinda silly that it follows the "Groundhog Day" formula to a t, with a "Groundhog Day" reference thrown in there? Yeah. But here's the thing I'd say to you if you did take that route with this movie. The movie itself doesn't take itself seriously at all, so it's a bit unfair for you to do so. This is a very self-aware movie that simply decides to have a ton of fun with a silly premise, thus I think it can be enjoyed if you try to sit back, relax and just have fun. That's exactly what I did and it was a very enjoyable ride. I imagine the writers had a lot of fun writing this screenplay. I imagine the director had fun bringing it to life. And I definitely know that the lead actors had a ton of fun in their roles. Jessica Rothe completely owns this role by going all in on whatever she was told to do, thus she ends up carrying this whole movie on her back and you can't help but like her.

It's also worth noting that this isn't really a horror film. If you're whole purpose of going into this movie was to be scared beyond reason, you're going to walk out really confused and disappointed that you were instead treated to a light-hearted comedy. Sure, there were a few creepy moments when the baby-faced killer shows up and quite a bit of attempted jump scares that I never bit at. But this is not a scary movie and I don't think it was trying to be, so I'm not going to fault it for that. If you thought it looked scary based on the trailers, then get mad at the advertising if you want, which I do admit was a bit deceiving. When I first watched this trailer, I thought for sure this was going to be a dark, creepy, hard R-rated film, thus I was surprised when it was given a PG-13 rating. No, this is not a graphic, bloody film. Every time our girl gets stabbed or killed, the camera either cuts away or jumps to her waking up. The one censored f-bomb in the trailer is the only f-bomb in the movie. And the scene where she is walking around naked in the trailer is not any more graphic than it is in the trailer. You see her bare shoulders from the front and bare back from the rear. So yeah, a lot of trailer bait shots to trick teenagers into thinking this is a risque movie, but it's not.

My biggest gripe that I had while watching the movie is that it seemed like it was going to end a specific way and I don't think I would've been happy with that specific ending. I don't want to dive into specifics with this, but right when I started to grumble and complain at how they decided to wrap this up, they turned the corner slightly and went a bit of a different direction and that direction was enough to please me. Is this a movie that I plan on owning and watching every Halloween for the rest of my life. No. When you compare it to "Groundhog Day" and "Edge of Tomorrow," it doesn't get very close to that. I don't know if I even have a huge desire to watch it a second time, but if I have family or friends that are curious enough to check it out, I'll happily sit down and enjoy the movie with them. It's a fun, enjoyable ride as long as you don't take it too seriously. If you are wanting dark, scary and serious, go watch "IT." If you want fun and enjoyable, then check out "Happy Death Day." If you are poor or have no time to head out to the theaters this Halloween, then don't be too upset that you missed this. Find it on Netflix or rent it at Redbox sometime. That's perfectly acceptable. You're not missing "the movie of 2017." My grade for "Happy Death Day" is an 8/10.