Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Retro Review: Psycho II (1983)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Retro Review: The Exorcist (1973)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

First Man Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Halloween (2018) Review

Last year during the Halloween season I did what every good movie critic is essentially required to do at some point. Review John Carpenter's classic 1978 film "Halloween." This Halloween I followed that up with a review of Rick Rosenthal's not-so-classic 1981 sequel "Halloween II." I have both of those reviews linked there if you want to catch up on that before getting my thoughts on this current movie, which is the 11th movie in the Halloween franchise. If you don't feel like reading both those reviews, the cliff notes version is that I think "Halloween" is one of the most effective horror movies ever made, but I have plenty of nitpicks on the character of Michael Myers, who I don't think is the most interesting character. There's a lot better horror villains out there. "Halloween II" is a decent follow-up, although it takes a LONG time to get interesting, which is unfortunate because the movie itself isn't very long. If you are interested in my reviews of the other movies in the franchise, well, I'm sorry. You're probably out of luck. I've never cared to watch the rest. I've only seen "Halloween 5" because I met the guy who played Michael Myers in that movie (Don Shanks) and the first half of Rob Zombie's 2007 "Halloween," which was so awful that I couldn't finish.

But, hey, that's OK. Because in order to fully understand the timeline in "Halloween (2018)," the only required viewing is the first "Halloween." Because this movie decided to retcon the rest of them. Which I hear was certainly not a bad idea due to how awful most of those sequels apparently are. I recently watched Screen Junkies' Halloween Cram It video where they summarize every movie in the franchise in 25 minutes. And, yeah, there's a lot of strange things that happen. So if we're going to continue these movies, we might as well wipe everything clean, right? A second remake of the original would've been dumb. But a movie that is a direct sequel to the original, but taking place 40 years later while pretending the other movies in the timeline didn't exist, is a pretty smart idea. Yes, I know, "Halloween: H2O" in 1998 also retconned the previous sequels as it was the seventh movie in the franchise, but completely eliminated movies four through six while being a follow-up to the first two ("Halloween III" has nothing to do with Michael Myers). So that means this current movie's idea isn't completely original. But I think it was the right idea and the box office numbers seem to agree with me as it's set for an opening weekend north of $80 million domestically.

The reason I wanted to review "Halloween II" this month, even though it also got retconned, is that I wanted to know which direct follow-up to the original was a better movie. We have two completely separate avenues for a direct sequel. The first idea is to pick up exactly where we left off as "Halloween" and "Halloween II" take place on the same exact night. The second idea is to pretend that, right after Michael Myers escapes at the end of the first movie, he got caught and was thrown back in prison for the next 40 years. On paper I think the idea that "Halloween II" had was a much better idea than "Halloween (2018)." I do take issue with claiming he got caught because that makes the ending of the original movie a bit anticlimactic. It means that we have to accept the idea that after Dr. Loomis shot him six times, followed by him falling off that second-story balcony and mysteriously walking away, that he walked around the corner and got caught by police? That's dumb. And if the movie itself was bad, then that means everyone would've agreed that this plot device would've been borderline offensive to the Halloween fans. But... SURPRISE!!! This movie is actually pretty good. Better than "Halloween II" in my opinion. So we'll just label that as a nitpick and move on.

OK, maybe you aren't THAT surprised that this movie is good. The trailers were extremely effective and the movie was released last month at both the Toronto International Film Festival and Fantastic Fest, getting solid reviews out of both. So I went into this movie really excited. Which is crazy since I was one of the millions of people rolling my eyes at the idea of Hollywood not letting this franchise go. But that's the power of a good marketing campaign combined with a movie that's a worthy successor to a classic. Although even though I do claim that this movie is a good movie, I will admit that it did suffer from some of the exact same things that "Halloween II" suffered from. It took forever to get started. The idea here is that Michael Myers is being transferred, but the bus crashes on Halloween and he escapes. We could've let that event happen in the first 10-15 minutes of the movie. But that didn't happen until we were 30 minutes in. Instead, we spent that first half hour setting up a whole slew of side characters that were ultimately useless to the plot. We have a psychologist, a team of investigative journalists, Laurie Strode's family, her granddaughter's friends from school and a whole bunch of red coats that are only there to get killed by Michael.

On that note, one of the reasons why the original "Halloween" is so effective is the simplicity of it all. Michael Myers escapes and hunts down a trio of friends. That's it. His escape happens pretty quickly and a good portion of the first half of the movie is spent on him creepily stalking this trio of teenagers before eventually making his move later on in the evening. With Laurie Strode being our main character from that trio of teenagers, the kills leading up to the final chase sequences are effective because it was her friends that got killed, thus the tension is slowly building up to an excellent climax. So spending 30 minutes setting up a whole bunch of ultimately useless characters was disappointing to me. We could've focused specifically on Laurie Strode's family, because they were all good characters. The idea of Laurie becoming psychologically messed up following the events of the first movie was a great idea. She's spent 40 years preparing and perhaps over-preparing for Michael's return. The tension that followed with her, her daughter Karen, played by Judy Greer, and her granddaughter Allyson, played by Andi Matichak, was great. Jamie Lee Curtis knocks it out of the park with her performance as do the other two female leads, Judy Greer and Andi Matichak.

But I really didn't care for anyone else. I didn't need a sub-plot involving two investigative journalists. I didn't need a sub-plot with Michael's new psychologist. I didn't need to know so much about Allyson's boyfriend and all the high school drama involved there. It was just too much for me. The movie unnecessarily spread itself too thin just so we could have a whole bunch of gory slasher-flick sequences. Which is the other problem. After we spent the first 30 minutes setting up all this unnecessary story, we spend the next segment of the movie killing everyone off after Michael finally escapes. If you are one of the people who loves slasher flicks, you might be entertained by all of this. Personally, though, I hesitate to call myself a huge fan of the slasher-flick sub-genre of horror because I don't go to horror films excited to watch a whole bunch of gory deaths. I don't find that scary or all that entertaining. When it comes to horror, I care about story and characters. The themes from a horror film that come with a well-written story can often be much deeper than any other genre. And I'll be much more scared of the evil villain if said villain is chasing around characters I care about. If the story is nothing but a random villain killing random people, then I check out.

Interestingly enough, this is also a similar issue that "Halloween II" had. That movie spends most of second act killing a bunch of random people in a hospital that don't even have a connection to Laurie Strode outside the fact that they are in the same building together. I found none of it scary or interesting. But that's what a lot of these slasher flicks end up reverting to. Our villain wandering around killing a bunch of random people. The further along you get in the franchise, the less and less the franchise will focus on story and characters and the more it will focus on an endless stream of gory death sequences that mean nothing. So I found it really disappointing that "Halloween (2018)" decided to go for the cliche slasher flick route in its second act. Granted, when comparing the "Halloween II" and "Halloween (2018)," the random side characters that get set up just to get killed by Michael are much more interesting in "Halloween (2018)," whereas "Halloween II" was filled with awful acting and horrible characters. But still, I was expecting a bit more out of this than a simple slasher flick. On the note of the second acts of both movies, everything regarding the doctors discussing the psychology of Michael were redundant.

Unfortunately for the sake of my review, what DID work quite well in "Halloween (2018)" was the final act of the movie. And how am I supposed to talk about that? With "Halloween II" being released 37 years ago, I felt at ease discussing the fact that the reason the movie worked so well was Michael chasing injured Laurie around in the empty hospital. But with a movie that was released to the general public this weekend, I feel like I can't openly discuss this movie's ending. But I'm going to tip-toe around it anyways because I feel that you all knew that this movie was going to end with a Michael vs. Laurie showdown. I mean, that might be the end of EVERY Halloween movie. But the advertising of this movie was centered specifically around the idea of Laurie wanting Michael to escape so that she could get her revenge and kill him. And even if you've not seen any of the trailers, you'll know in the first act that this is exactly where the movie is going, so is it really spoiling anything if I say that Michael eventually finds Laurie and the two go toe-to-toe together in an epic duel? And is it really all that surprising if I tell you that THAT is why the movie works so well? When the movie stops killing useless side characters that we don't care about and gets to the point, it's pretty great.

In summing this all up, the big word here is focus. "Halloween" was great because it was a simple story that was very focused. Every sequence in the movie had a specific purpose and each scene slowly built towards a dramatic ending. Each death in the movie meant something to the plot and built the tension. The movie wasn't scary because people died by an unstoppable killer. The movie was scary because the deaths meant something. "Halloween II" veers away from that and spends most of the movie killing random people that no one cares about, but gets good when Michael is chasing Laurie around in the empty hospital. I wish "Halloween (2018)" would've put more care into having a focused film like the original, but unfortunately it spends much of the time being unfocused like "Halloween II." But there is enough of Laurie Strode and her family spread throughout the film to keep your interest and when the movie finally stops dragging its feet and focuses in on the family, the movie is excellent. And it's much better than "Halloween II" in this aspect because Laurie and her family aren't damsels in distress. They're armed, prepared and ready for war. Because of that, I'm going to be nice with my final grade because I walked out satisfied. Thus I'll give this an 8/10.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

A Star is Born Review

If you've been following my Facebook posts recently, you'll know that I've been having a very enjoyable experience diving into the legacy that is "A Star is Born." I heard about this remake quite early in the year, if not towards the end of last year, mostly because of it being Bradley Cooper's directorial debut. As far as acting goes, Bradley Cooper is one of the best in the business at the moment and I was very interested in seeing what magic he could conjure up from behind the camera. Admittedly I knew very little about the history of "A Star is Born" outside the fact that it had been made and remade a thousand times. Because of that, I knew that I wouldn't have been able to sit down and write a review of the movie until I had seen every version. And if I was going to commit myself to that, I knew I had to start with the first movie and move forward with my marathon in the order that the world received them, which is the way all movie marathons should go in my opinion. If someone hasn't seen Star Wars, don't start with "The Phantom Menace." Start with "A New Hope." Catch my vibe? If you were wondering why this specific review is late, that's why. I procrastinated the beginning of my "A Star is Born" marathon. But now it's complete and thus we dive in.

I joke around with there being a thousands version of this. In reality there's only four. And for the sake of this review, I'm going to completely ignore one of them and just talk about the three that matter. Because, I'm sorry, the Barbara Streisand version in 1976 is flat out awful. A complete embarrassment to the the two that came before it and this current one that followed. And I don't really care to elaborate on why because there's so much to talk about with the other three, so lets just agree to forget about it and move on. As pertaining to the other three, this was quite the incredible journey for me these past two weeks or so as each of these three movies impacted me emotional in very different, but similar ways. Knowing absolutely nothing of the plot when I pressed play on the 1937 movie, outside it revolves around the relationship between a male celebrity on the downfall and an unknown female about to rise to fame, my heart was taken through quite the wringer with the vast amounts of twists and turns that the movie had in store for me that I simply did not see coming. When the credits rolled, I was an emotional wreck as I was left sitting there pondering the deep themes that were explored in the film. I had to give myself some time after that.

I think the biggest reason why the experience was so emotional for me was the performance of Janet Gaynor as Esther Blodgett. She's able to capture a perfect innocence as this character who wants nothing more than to live out her dream of being a famous Hollywood actress, but yet her current situation to start off the movie has her coming from such a humble background where being a star in Hollywood is super realistic and none of her family believes that she can accomplish this. They try to talk her into something more realistic. Except for her grandma, of course. Grandma convinces her to follow her dreams and gives her a bit of cash to get her started. Thus in this sense, Janet Gaynor represents all of us as normal, common folk. We're able to put ourselves directly in her shoes as she sets out to attempt to live an impossible dream. When she's able to catch her lucky break and become a star, we as an audience remember who she was before her stardom, thus we see her as one of us who has successfully achieved her goal and it's so inspiring. But yet that's just the frosting on the cake. There's so many deep levels to this story, many of which are seen with Frederic March as Norman Maine, who is literally on the exact opposite side of the fence.

With this transition, we're going to jump right into the 1954 version because an alternate title to this movie could very well be "A Star Has Fallen. Norman Maine, in both movies, is a famous actor who has started to lose his touch, mostly due to alcoholism that is destroying his career. This shows the honest side of Hollywood. All we often see as the viewer are all the rainbows and butterflies regarding Hollywood, which is why we all think it would be such an amazing career path. "A Star is Born" does a great job in showcasing the dark side of Hollywood as this new couple struggle to co-exist as Esther now has gained superstardom, but Norman is struggling to maintain his sanity. The reason why I wanted to transition to the 1954 version here is that starring in this iteration is one Judy Garland, a beautiful angel who graced the world with her presence. We all love her as Dorothy in "Wizard of Oz." The more I watch her whole filmography, the more I realize how the immense talent and potential she had. But much like her co-star's character of Norman Maine, Judy Garland's personal life was full of demons that haunted her for entire life, to the point where she died of a drug overdose at the age of 49. Her life's story is a true tragedy, a sad example of what the movie presents.

Those are the duel themes that are discussed in all three proper iterations of this movie, which is why the story is so powerful as the movies try to present of balance of living out dreams while being careful with what your dreams are. You might want to be a famous actor. You might think that your boring, humble life is pathetic and meaningless if you don't become rich and famous. But perhaps in the long run, that normal lifestyle will be more healthy in the long run. Perhaps you can make a bigger difference in this world as a doctor, a teacher, or even a parent than you ever could as a celebrity. As far as nitpicks go, the 1937 movie was limited in scope due to the lack of technology available at the time, leading us to a lot more telling than showing. With the 1954 version, I think the director overcompensated a bit by putting together a three hour version of the movie that showed a bit too much as it could've been condensed. Which is why Warner Bros. panicked and cut 30 minutes out of the movie before releasing it to the public. That 30 minutes was eventually restored in the 1980's, but not before key moments of the film were permanently lost and had to be replaced with still images instead of a movie picture, making things a bit jarring.

All of that finally leads us to the current version of the movie, which is able to figuratively complete the story of "Goldilocks and the Three Bears." While the 1937 version shows too little and the 1954 version shows too much, the 2018 version gets things just right. Thus on a technical scale, this 2018 is the best of the bunch. Be careful how you read that sentence, though. I'm not saying this is a better movie. I'm saying its the most balanced movie with the least amount of technical flaws. Thus I have to give major props to Bradley Cooper, first and foremost as a writer and director. I think he looked at all THREE movies that came before this one, especially the 1976 version that I'm ignoring, and cracked the code as to how to come up with the perfectly balanced version of this movie that best reflects society in 2018 when it comes to celebrity vs. common folk. His specific angle follows in the footsteps of the 1976 in that he's using the music industry, not Hollywood, as is focus to teach the same themes that were taught previously. But that's not all Bradley Cooper does here. In addition to writing and directing, he also stepped into the lead actor role as Jackson Maine (instead of Norman Maine), bringing musical expert Lady Gaga to star alongside him.

I really loved the careful attention to both characters in this movie. The movie doesn't lean to one or the other as our main character. Rather it's about both of them and their journey, rather than the journey of one individual who is helped along the way by someone else. Both actors do a fantastic job of carrying this movie together. First of all, props to Bradley Cooper again for his acting as he gives perhaps the most emotional and deep performance from a male actor that I've seen this year thus far. He's the broken one of the two as he's haunted by his demons of drugs and alcohol that are destroying his career and Bradley Cooper is excellent in his portrayal as the broken rock star. Speaking of which, he also does great in pulling off the appearance and persona of a rock star. He has the groove. He has the look. He has the personality. And, most impressively, he has the voice. Thus we have another major props to give to Bradley Cooper. Not only did he write, direct and act, but he also sang. And singing is not Bradley Cooper's main profession. I don't know how much experience and training he had prior to the movie, but he's able to successfully keep up with Lady Gaga, whose career is singing. Of course she outperforms him. But their duets are impressive.

Lady Gaga, on the other hand, had a completely different task in front of her. She's great at singing and at least equally as good with her live performances in front of a crowd. When we got to that part of the movie, it was easy to believe that she was a musical star because that's kinda what she does in real life. Her task, though, was to act, which is not her normal cup of tea. And not only that, she had to act as a normal, everyday individual who had no training as a professional musician. The only thing her character had going for her at the beginning of the film was her singing and songwriting talent, but she had no idea how to use that. I was actually really grateful that Bradley Cooper's script had special emphasis on her journey to becoming a star rather than immediately getting to that point because it gave Lady Gaga an opportunity to step out of her comfort zone. In an extremely impressive turn of events, she shines big time, showing that she might have a career as an actress if she wants it. In real life, "normal" isn't the word that is typically used to describe Lady Gaga. But normal is what she's able to present in this movie. I think she successfully is able to shred her Lady Gaga persona and become Stefani Germanotta.

As far as how the rest of the movie goes, there's not much I can say that I didn't already say when discussing the themes of the 1937 and 1954 versions. The themes here are the exact same, with the specific emphasis being on the modern musical industry. There's a lot of fascinating things the movie has to say about the latter that do properly reflect 2018, but the overall message is the same as each movie discusses the idea of celebrity status and the darkness that can be found therein that often doesn't come across on the surface level. We see the stars in TV, in the movies, in concert or hear them on the radio. But we often forget to consider their personal lives and that's where the iceberg analogy comes to mind. There's a lot more buried deep beneath the surface that we common folk never see. In that light, you could dock the movie some points for not being unique enough. If you've seen the previous versions of the movie, you know exactly what will happen in this 2018 remake. There will be no surprises. But I personally lean towards them not needing to be super different. It does exactly what it needs to do, and because it's executed so perfectly, it becomes one of those rare remakes that justifies its existence by hitting all the proper notes that it needed to.

In wrapping all of this up, I feel obligated to finish this review by selecting a favorite. That's where this gets hard. I think the 1937 is the most pure version. Since it's also the one I saw first, it's also the one that took me on the most crazy journey. However, I think the 1954 version is where the emotion is the strongest given the external factors with the tragedy that is Judy Garland's life. The 1954 version also gets a double-whammy in that the music is the best. The 1937 version isn't a musical. It was the 1954 version that introduced that. And as good as Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper are in a musical scale, neither of them light a candle to Judy Garland's vocal performances. The songs are also the most well-written in the 1954 version. However, as I said before, the 2018 is the most well-made movie on a technical scale. The emotion in the movie is high, but it doesn't quite hit the highs of the 1954 or 1937 version. And I'm not going to discuss the endings, but I give the slight edge the 1937 ending. And best individual male and female performances goes to Bradley Cooper and Judy Garland respectively. How to reconcile all that to pick a favorite? I don't know. You be the judge. As far as a grade, I'm obligated to give one to this current version and for that I'll go with a 9/10.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Venom Review

It's been quite the interesting journey for Sony with their Spider-Man universe. Along with Fox's "X-Men," Sony was instrumental in reviving the superhero movie genre with Sam Raimi's "Spider-Man" in 2002. And they were successful in keeping their positive momentum going... for approximately one more movie. "Spider-Man 2" in 2004 is nearly universally praised as one of the best superhero movies ever made. But that's as far as the positive buzz goes. "Spider-Man 3" did fine at the box office, but was so mixed in terms of reaction that it ended up being a franchise killer for Sony with that Spider-Man universe as Sony opted for the reboot option instead of "Spider-Man 4." Thus the "Amazing Spider-Man" movies were born. Those two movies are ones that I will still defend to this day, but apparently I'm in the minority there as "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" was also a franchise killer. Sony then gave in and struck a deal with Marvel to let them use Spider-Man in the MCU as long as Marvel helped them make a good movie. And that's how we got "Spider-Man: Homecoming" and the upcoming "Spider-Man: Far Far Away." But since Sony is still stubborn in having their own cinematic universe, we now have the Spider-man-less "Venom" to kick that off. A good idea?

I suppose only time will tell if this experiment works out, but actually it's off to a good start. In my recent October movie preview, I predicted that "Venom" would earn around $50-55 million on its opening weekend. That was based off of the presumption that the range was $50-70 million, which is where most box office experts pegged it at. I thought the horrible critic reviews would hurt it and cause it to hit the low end of things. But nope. The movie ended up being critic-proof by exploding to $80.2 million. That puts it right in line with plenty of other superhero movies that opened in the $80 million range, suggesting a final domestic total of around $180-220 million, depending on how it holds in the coming weeks. With a $100 million budget, as well as overseas totals to add to its domestic total, Sony is going to pull off a win here, meaning a "Venom 2" has probably already been greenlit, which is actually exciting given the mid-credits scene that you NEED to stay for. As I already mentioned, the critics panned this movie, penalizing it with a 29 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes. But audience were much more forgiving, giving it an 89 percent audience score as well as a respectable B+ Cinemascore, leaving me really confused as to what to expect going in.

Because of my confusion, I ended up going in with more of a blank slate than I initially thought I would. In addition to the audiences liking it, several of the critics who hated it compared it to the "Amazing Spider-Man" movies, which didn't help their case in my view because I like those movies. If this movie had the tone and feel of those two movies, I'd be totally down. Much to my personal relief, that's actually kinda the case. The overall feel and look of "Venom" is much darker and more methodical than the Raimi "Spider-Man" movies as well as "Spider-Man: Homecoming." Those have more of a upbeat, lighthearted vibe to them that's very much different than "Venom." I could see some people complaining that Sony has learned nothing from recent events, but I managed to be pleased with the result. In fact, if Sony ever lets Venom crossover with Spider-Man, which I certainly hope will be the case, it almost feels more appropriate if Andrew Garfield's Spider-Man shows up instead of Tom Holland's Spider-Man. The Andrew Garfield/Tom Hardy show-off/team-up feels like it would go together quite well. Both characters even have a similar sense of humor that you don't fully expect going in. It catches you off guard, but makes you laugh.

Alas, though, that'll never be the case and I suppose I can accept Tom Holland's Spider-Man jumping in and facing Tom Hardy's Venom, even though "Spider-Man: Homecoming" and "Venom" have two drastically different feels to them. If Sony ever lets that happen, of course. But until then, let's talk about what we actually have here and that is essentially a character study on Eddie Brock, the alter-ego of Venom. Tom Hardy absolutely nails this character. He does great as the questionable reporter who doesn't quite have a strong sense of moral values, but is far from being a horrible human being. You like him and you care for him even though he's not always acting in ways that you agree with. Which is exactly what an anti-hero is supposed to be like. Then when the floor completely crumbles beneath him, causing his life to collapse, Tom Hardy also does a great job of playing the broken individual who becomes a lot less likable and more of a jerk. But then when he accidentally stumbles on the symbiote, you can definitely tell that he's still a good human being with boundaries when Venom wants to go around killing everyone and eating everything because Eddie Brock won't allow that. He's broken and he's scarred, but he refuses to let Venom turn him into a maniac.

This is where your typical Venom lore departs from the comic book origins. His actual origin is more along the lines of what "Spider-Man 3" attempted to do with the symbiote initially going to Peter Parker before then accepting Eddie Brock as its host. But since we're not doing Spider-Man in this movie, the writers had to be more creative in their approach, so they settled with Eddie Brock sneaking into the lab of Riz Ahmed's Carlton Drake, who is the head scientist secretly harvesting all of the symbiotes that showed up from space. Eddie Brock gets there because one of Drake's people becomes extremely uncomfortable with the situation and convinces Eddie Brock to go with her at night to see what is happened at this lab so that he, as a former reporter, can expose Drake. And that of course leads to the Venom symbiote discovering Eddie Brock and infesting him like a parasite. This is by far the best part of the movie as Eddie tries super hard to figure out what exactly is happened to him. Eventually he starts hearing voices before Venom officially shows up, which sparks a lot of Gollum-like banter as Eddie seems to be arguing with himself as no one else can hear Venom unless Venom chooses to show up or if Eddie allows him to take over.

I will say that, even though I enjoyed watching the progression of Eddie Brock thanks to Tom Hardy's excellent performance, this "Venom" movie takes a long time to, well, "Venom." There is a ton of setup in this movie, both when it comes to Eddie Brock's character as well as Carlton Drake's secret lab, as this movie chooses to slowly and carefully introduce both Eddie Brock as well as all of the symbiotes. Because, yeah, there's a lot of them. And of course each of the symbiotes shown is a potential "Venom" sequel if you're knowledgeable enough to know which symbiote belongs to which "Venom" characters, thus giving us an "Amazing Spider-Man 2" vibe wherein the movie gives plenty of Easter eggs for future movies. And while all this setup is necessary to establish this current "Venom" lore, it means less time with Venom in this initial movie and even less time with the final conflict. I don't know what point in the movie we were at before Venom finally took, being more than just a voice in Tom Hardy's head or teases of the character, but it was a while. I think there could've been a few more revisions of the script that could help us get to the point of the movie a bit faster instead of drawing everything out as if no one on Earth has heard of Venom.

Speaking of script revisions, the overall conflict is pretty weak. I don't want to jump on the bandwagon of saying Riz Ahmed's Carlton Drake is a bad villain or that Riz Ahmed was miscast. I just think the writing in the movie didn't do him any favors. Riz Ahmed himself did an excellent job and could've been a fantastic villain, but we have the classic critique here that he did the best he could with what was given to him, but sadly wasn't given much to work with. Given that we've had so many superhero movies of late, I pay specific attention to the motivation of the villain and I didn't really get much of that from Carlton Drake. All I could pick up was that he became obsessed with making the symbiotes connect with their proper human vessel, because that's necessary for the symbiotes to survive as they can't simply connect with any human or animal. But I don't know why he was doing that or what his ultimate goal was. When he himself became a symbiote host and transformed into Riot, I'm not sure what I thought he was accomplishing. Riot was actually super cool, but the Riot symbiote wasn't given enough screen time for me to be able overcome the fact that Carlton Drake was a poorly written villain that ends up being super forgettable.

In summary, I can conclude simply that "Venom" suffers from what I have coined as origin-story-itis. My two biggest complaints when it comes to origin stories are that many of them spend too much time setting up the hero while not having enough time to dive into the meat of the movie and the movie not having an interesting villain because you can't spend your first movie on the character's biggest arch-rival. And that's exactly what happens here. Tom Hardy is great and I loved the banter back and forth between Eddie Brock and Venom, as well as their progression in becoming a compatible team. But there was too much time spent setting everything up, thus not leaving enough time for an interesting movie around the two of them. And what we did setup was a pretty forgettable villain. The battle between Venom and Riot was pretty cool, but it was super short, almost like it was an afterthought of the film, thrown in there out of necessity rather than being properly setup and given enough time to progress. All that said, there's enough in this movie for you to enjoy as it's not nearly as bad as many of claimed and I do think this new Venom universe provides a lot of promise for the future with the likes of Carnage and hopefully Spider-Man, so I'll give the movie a 7/10.

P.S. - In addition to me recommending you stay for the mid-credits scene that teases the sequel, I'd also highly recommend you stay for the post-credits scene, which is a sneak peak of the upcoming Sony movie "Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse." We get to see a 3-5 minute scene from the beginning of that movie that's legitimately excellent.

P.P.S. - If you've somehow managed to avoid the trailers of this movie, DON'T WATCH THEM. The whole movie is in the trailers, including the final battle, the final scene and the final line. Sony really needs to work on this. As a general rule, I try to avoid saying that a trailer can ruin a movie because I don't think that's fair to the filmmakers who often have no say in how the studio puts together the trailers, but in hindsight these trailers were awful.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Retro Review: Hocus Pocus (1993)

Ever since I made the decision to do my Halloween reviews, the movie "Hocus Pocus" is a movie that I wanted to cover on this blog. I almost did it last year, but ran out of time. Lucky for me, when I asked for requests on Facebook for Halloween movies to review, both this year and last year I had at least one person ask me to review "Hocus Pocus." So, by popular demand, as well as the desire of my own heart, here we are reviewing "Hocus Pocus." However, unlucky for people who actually wanted me to review this, my reasons for reviewing it are most likely the exact opposite. Because as fun as it is to discuss Halloween classics that I love, it's also fun to go on rants about certain "classics" that I don't think deserve that label. So be careful what you wish for, I suppose. If you ask me to review a movie, I'm going to be obligated to give my personal opinion on it, which might be the exact opposite of yours. But that's OK, right? If we all had the same opinion on everything, life would be really boring. Shall we now proceed and talk about the critically panned, box office failure that is "Hocus Pocus" that I personally think should've never been given a second life, but somehow gained the status of a cult classic for reasons that I will never understand?

I could dive into the plot of "Hocus Pocus" if I wanted to. And usually this is where I do that. But you all know what happens. Three children-killing witches get resurrected in 1993 after having been dead for 300 years and wander around town on Halloween night making a fool out of themselves before getting stopped by three young kids because said witches are the most gullible beings to ever walk the face of the Earth. That's your movie in a nutshell. But before we explore why this is in fact a bad movie, let's discuss the history behind this because I find said history a bit fascinating. This is a movie that was released during the summer of 1993. Not Halloween season. The summer. It was released on the same weekend as "Free Willy," making $8.1 million that weekend, which was good enough for fourth place. Also in theaters at that time was "The Firm," "In the Line of Fire," "Jurassic Park," "Sleepless in Seattle" and "Rookie of the Year." For 1993 standards, the movie didn't hold on that well as it was deterred by mostly negative reviews. "Free Willy," which opened with less money at just $7.8 million, went on to make $77 million while "Hocus Pocus" could only manage $39 million, which was only good enough to be the 39th highest grossing movie that year.

For context and comparison, the 39th highest grossing movie of 2017 was "The Post" was $81 million. The highest grossing movie of 1993 was "Jurassic Park" with $357 million, followed by "Mrs. Doubtfire," "The Fugitive," "The Firm" and "Sleepless in Seattle." So no, this wasn't a win for Disney right off the bat. With a $28 million budget, a $39 million total wasn't a huge loss, but I'm sure they were hoping for a lot more right off the bat. As far as the negative reviews go, I don't know what the Rotten Tomatoes score would've been had Rotten Tomatoes existed back then, but the current score as of October 2018 is a mere 30 percent, and that's with old and new reviews combined. But as I'm sure you all know, the story doesn't end there. The movie gained a new life when it was released on VHS the next year. It consistently saw strong sales every single year, which I believe continues till today, and has been rebroadcast on ABC or Disney Channel every year since the mid-90's, with impressive view counts each time. That's what's made this movie such a classic. That's a lesson that, even if a movie fails in its initial theatrical run, the story is not necessarily over. The movie even got its own thing at Magic Kingdom in Disney World as a part of Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party.

For me all of this is a strange case of holiday nostalgia. Normal nostalgia is a very powerful thing sometimes, causes people to forgive or even praise bad movies because they enjoyed it when they were younger. Add in the holiday theme and that's a double whammy. Not only does it have the nostalgic vibes, but there's a holiday to propel it forward, which gives people a reason to consistently watch it or for television stations to consistently broadcast it when otherwise they might not have. This is also how "A Christmas Story" became so popular. Holiday nostalgia despite failing in its initial box office run. Also, sometimes movies with holiday themes are easy for people to forgive. A Halloween movie with enough scares or a Christmas movie with a nice message can help people overlook what can often be poor plot devices, underdeveloped characters and especially bad acting. Throw in some time to the equation, and heaven forbid anyone say anything bad about an older movie. I mean, trash newer movies like "Goosebumps" or "The House with a Clock in its Walls" all you want with all your nitpick complaints. That's easy. But don't you dare say anything bad about the 25-year-old "Hocus Pocus." That's the power of holiday nostalgia.

Perhaps a big reason why I'm not a fan of "Hocus Pocus" is because I don't have the advantage of nostalgia with this one. My parents never showed it to us and after watching the movie, I totally understand why. When did I first watch it? Well, that's a funny question. I have no idea. Maybe I saw it at a friend's house when I was a kid. Maybe I watched it at a Halloween party in High School. Maybe I wasn't exposed to it until college. The memory of my first "Hocus Pocus" viewing is simply not there and I think the reason for this is that every viewing that has happened has left me silently confused. I've never had fun with this movie. I've never been entertained or hardly even amused. But yet I've never been brave enough to say anything because everyone around me is having the time of their lives, so I just silently pretend that I'm enjoying myself along with them as to not ruin or spoil their Halloween celebrations. But now that I've been doing this movie critic thing on this blog since 2012, I've become increasingly more courageous is sharing my opinions of movies without really caring if said opinion upsets people or not. Granted, if a "Hocus Pocus" movie night is declared, I'll still do my best to not ruin people's celebrations, but now you'll know the truth.

So let's dive into specifics shall we? I'm not going to dissect every element of the movie, but I do want to start with the introduction. We're in 1693, during the height of the Salem Witch Trials, an extremely popular theme among Halloween movies. We are immediately introduced to three overly exaggerated witches, Winifred, Sarah and Mary Sanderson, who have the goal to achieve eternal youth. They want to stay young and beautiful forever. In order to do this, they have to suck the soul out of a young child. And poor little Emily happens to wander into their cabin in the woods and gets captured by these witches. They cast a spell on her, absorb her youth, and kill her. Immediately I'm like, wait what? Who made this movie and who is the target audience. Yes, Disney made this movie and they made it for kids as a "fun, family-friendly Halloween movie." And we start this by killing a young girl. But not just that, the three witches place a guilt trip on the girl's brother, blaming him for not saving his sister, and then transform him into an immortal cat so that he can live forever with his guilt. Then the three witches are captured by the townspeople and hanged, a fairly disturbing scene, but not before they cast a chant which gives them the opportunity to be resurrected.

I personally don't inherently have a problem with a somewhat disturbing horror movie set in the 1600's around the time of the Salem Witch Trials. One of my favorite horror movies is "The Witch," which is exactly that. And I also don't have an inherent problem with cheesy kids movies. If the movie is targeted at kids and they love it, then my opinion doesn't really matter and I can accept that, especially when said cheesy kids movie is a 90's movie. That's my wheelhouse. My problem is when you try to combine the two by making a cheesy kids movie that doubles as a disturbing horror film that ends up in an awkward position in that it is neither all that scary nor really appropriate for kids or fun for adults. I mean, the opening sequence is almost all I need to critique this movie. We kill a young girl. We turn a young boy into a cat for 300 years after sending him on a horrible guilt trip. Then we hang three witches. That's not really what I would qualify as "harmless, family-friendly entertaining." It's not harmless, nor is it family-friendly. It's a tonal mismatch coming from an era where Disney was trying to be more edgy with their films, earning them the conspiracy theory that Disney is secret trying to destroy kids with the films that they make.

After we make our way through this disturbing introduction, we have to wade through the often cringe-worthy main portion of the film. This has stereotypical bad 90's film written all over it, starting with a whole cast of characters who are poorly written and under-developed. Our main character is an annoying teenage boy that bounces back and forth between loving life and hating life, depending on what the script needed him to do in that scene. We have said boy's love interest in an attractive teenage girl, who does a great job in the movie, but I have a hard time believing that she would realistically associate with this boy with his sudden and awkward advances. Yet we have a horribly forced teenage love arc that makes no sense, but exists because the movie needed it. And is nothing but awkward and laughable every single step of the way. As side characters, we have parents of this boy who should win the award for worst and most negligent parents. And we have what I would be willing to declare the worst bullies ever portrayed in cinema with two teenage boys who can't act to save their life, yet somehow manage to be in half the movie anyways. And finally, we have our young girl, who out-performs and out-acts EVERY adult in the film.

The fact that I can only come up with one good character and good actor in this whole movie is rather embarrassing, especially since this character is played by the then 11-year-old Thora Birch. Bless her heart, she is so adorable and amazing, but she's dropped into a movie where nothing around her works. Thus despite her efforts, everything around her in this movie is miserable and frustrating. The plot is awful. The character progression isn't there. Most of the acting is atrocious. And the main three witches are pain-induces. Yes, I said it. They're awful. I will give credit to Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker and Kathy Majimy as the Sanderson sisters in the fact that they look like they are having the time of their lives in this role. But all three of them are over-acting to the extreme and while some might find it funny and amusing, I find it extremely annoying. And while we're at it, Sarah Jessica Parker's character has extremely revealing cleavage for the entire movie. Normally I don't bother to point that out. But it's genuinely distracting. And this is a kid's movie, meaning her outfit is totally inappropriate. And speaking of inappropriate, this movie is extremely sexually promiscuous, loaded with dirty jokes not-so-subtly scattered throughout.

Yes, this is what I see every time I watch "Hocus Pocus." A disturbing introduction that I don't think is appropriate for kids. A cringe-worthy second act riddled with awful characters, horrible writing, terrible acting and lots of dirty humor because Disney was trying to be super edgy. I think this movie deserves a PG-13 rating, but somehow got away with PG because it's a family-targeted kids film from Disney. And the ending? Well, spoiler alert, our trio of kids, along with the 300-year-old boy turned into a cat and a zombie thing played by Doug Jones, stop the Sanderson sisters. But they do so mainly because our trio of witches is extremely gullible and keep falling for our main kid's tricks, which include spraying water that he says is deadly or shining the headlights of car into the window and saying it's daylight. As Deadpool would say, that's just bad writing. But are they dead for good? Because the book opens its eyes at the end right after it's revealed that no one bothered to free the two bullies. Sequel? I hope not, even though it's been rumored for a long time. How about we instead do a remake because this idea could work, but the execution is awful. Yet millions give it a pass because of holiday nostalgia. Well I'm not. I think this is a bad movie and I'm giving it a 4/10.