Category Archives: Movies

Sunday Night Movie The Babadook

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, this past weekend presented me with more writing work than I normally engage in during this blissful days away from the day-job. When I finished editing a potential piece for submission to Viable Paradise I rewarded myself with a movie, The Babadook.

Hailing from down-under this 2014 horror film is about a widowed mother and her young son, still scarred by the traumatic death of their husband and father, being tormented by a malicious spirit.

Horror often works via isolation. In lesser quality stories and films that isolation is achieved by the creators via hard barriers to prevent the characters from escaping the threat. The car has broken down in the middle of nowhere, the bridge has washed out, the ghost can fill the doors and windows with red bricks at will, there are no bars on your cell phone, so on and so on. With better-crafted material the isolation is psychological, for example in the novel and film The Exorcist in addition to the fact that the demon is within the child, the fact that no one outside of that home could possibly accept the reality of its events isolates the characters. The Babadook successfully employs the psychological isolation.

In terms of visual style the film reminded me of both David Lynch and the American version of The Ring. The images are not straightforward literal monsters, but more subjective and impressionistic interpretations. Much of the dread, unease, and horror is created by the stylistic and unusual visuals.

The movie did not work 100 percent for me however. I had a difficult time get engaged with the material at the start because the emotionally troubled young son was very difficult to bear. This is by design as we are meant to emotionally connect with the mother who is struggling to manage with a son who has serious emotional issues while having not yet processed her own grief. Once I managed to get past the establishing acts of the story I did find myself more engaged and invested in the outcome.

It is interesting that one valid interpretation of the film is that, like with The Haunting, there is no spirit and that the mother is suffering from a mental breakdown. While Shirley Jackson has made it clear that Hill House is haunted and evil, I have no knowledge about the intent for The Babadook so it is up to you if the evil spirit has a reality or if it’s a tale of madness. While this film had a difficult opening for me, holding me at a distance, in the end I am glad I watched it. Creepy, atmospheric, and ultimately about the power of grief The Babadook is a worthy film in the horror genre.

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Craftsmanship Takes Time

So today Universal, the people who originated the shared cinematic universe, released The Mummy, an attempt to launch a new cinematic universe to drink from the fire hose of money that Marvel discovered.

But the reviews are saying that The Mummy sucks.

And Marvel did not discover that fire hose of money, Marvel laid the pipes, installed the plugs, corrected defects, and the opened the valves.

Oh, and Iron Man did not suck.

In 2008’s Iron Man there are hints of the hopes for a Cinematic Universe, but those hints never upend the storytelling of Tony Stark’s journey to self-discovery. During the play of the film the biggest hint is SHIELD Agent Phil Coulson, a part that looks utterly forgettable on the page but brought to fantastic and sardonic life by Clark Greg. Hell, they don’t even call it SHIELD until the end of the movie, making the long, cumbersome full name a jibe for characters to play off and a hidden bonus for fans of the property. The most famous hint of the wider universe Marvel hoped to bring to life didn’t even happen until after all the credits had finished  when Stark met Fury.

If you never watched another Marvel Cinematic Universe movie in your life, Iron Man would remain a self-contained and fully satisfying film. This is putting the story and the movie first, ahead of corporate plans, but more importantly it is understanding that quality can rarely be rushed.

Warner Brothers, with the suits meddling in the productions, has tried to rush to their big shared universe and to date the movies of that cycle have produced one watchable film, and it just came out last weekend. (The Christopher Nolan Batman movies are lovely but were not designed as part of the DCEU and they do not graft well onto the larger framework because they are best viewed as a stand-alone series.) Mind you, WB/DC has a rich history and mythology to draw from, half the work is done, and still they are botching the project. Universal seems to think you can just slap together any series of movies, force linkages, and that will make people line up at the box office.

The Mummy, classically, is a horror story. (In fact the original film was mainly a rip-off of Universal’s big hit Dracula.) Later, as the Universal’s horror movies stressed the monsters over the horror they began having their creations battle each other, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf-man, and so on, but these films played more and more to children. This incarnation of The Mummy seems to have lost all elements of being a horror story and is instead an action movie. One, if reviews are to be believed, that spends considerable amounts of time delivery poorly written exposition that does not even explain this movie but hopes to establish their ‘Dark Universe.’

Tell this story, tell this story really really well, and lay foundations for future expansions, that’s the thing you needed to do Universal. All you have done this outing is waste money and the audience’s good will.

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Movie Review Wonder Woman

Perhaps more than any other review I have written this needs to the be said up front; Your Mileage May Vary & No Honest Feedback Can be Wrong. These ideas form the basis for my thoughts when I talk about and receive feedback on my writing. The Wonder Woman film has carried a lot of expectations and cultural dynamite, generating strong, passionate responses from people.

My overall all grade for this movie is somewhere between a C+ and a B-. Wonder Woman is solid film. It makes no gross mistakes of plotting, pacing, or character. It has been well cast and everyone fits well into their roles. Some reveals work rather well while others seemed telegraphed.

This is an origin story. We meet Diana as a child, we learn just enough of her background and story to connect with her as a person and to her wider culture before she leaves her island paradise to stop World War I. (Just as with Captain America: The First Avenger the less you think about the actual war the better the film will play for you, though Captain America played closer to history than Wonder Woman.)

Along the way she collects a band of ragtag teammates including her love interest Steve Trevor. Diana enters the war naive about humanity and its ability to be evil, she loses that childlike worldview and gains a deeper and fuller understanding by the story’s end. Over all the arc works well and it would seem the writers and the director have a better understanding of their character and her history than those who made the most recent Batman and Superman movies.

This film is worth seeing in the theaters and it should be fun for most and inspiring to many.

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Sunday Night Movie: Big Trouble in Little China

After spending the afternoon watching The Godfather on the big screen yesterday afternoon I decided that for my Sunday Night Movie feature I wanted something lighter, something more fun.

Big Trouble in Little China is an 80’s martial arts/comedy directed by John Carpenter, written by the director W.D. Richter, and starring Kurt Russell. It concerns Jack Burton (Russell) as he gets involved in supernatural affairs hiding in the heart of San Francisco’s Chinatown. What starts out as kidnapping by a street gang transforms into a battle of good and evil against a two thousand year old wizard.

This movie did poorly when it was released, panned by critic and ignored by fans, but over the years and through the sorcery of home video it has gained a devoted following of fan.

Despite Russell leading credit and having a majority of the lines, his character of jack Burton I think can best be understood as the sidekick to Dennis Dun’s Wang Chi and that this film is really a story told from the point of view of a sidekick who thinks he is the hero.

Big Trouble in Little China has many elements that are never explained and several that are used for convenient comedic effect but it is a fun romp with sharp funny characters.

 

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On Horror and Un-credited Horror Directors

Horror is a mood, and when we speak of horror in the arts we speaks of an artist’s intent to create that mood. With words, and sounds, and images the artists seeks to undermine the viewer/readers comfort, replacing it with a sense of dread, danger, and unreality.

That unreality is not to the same as a sense of something being unreal, but rather the knowledge that reality is not what you thought it was. The idea that the world does not work along the laws and principals that you thought it did is one of the core elements of horror. When you walk onto a stair, expecting the first step but instead it is missing and your foot falls an extra four inches for that moment when you fall you are in a brief state of horror. You knew that the step was there, in darkness you plunged forward fully confident of its existence, but the instant your foot plummets past the step your world is suddenly rendered wrong.

The moment passes quickly and the horror vanishes with the firm feel of the very next step. The explanation destroys the horror. If excellent horror fiction that return to ‘normal’ reality never arrives and the new unfamiliar reality goes on forever,

I think that David Lynch is one of our greatest horror directors. Not everything he makes is horror, certainly Dune is not, but a lot more is horror than is conventionally recognized.

Lynch’s world are often very much like our own, but quickly he leads the audience into a nightmare where nothing is what it seems, where images and sounds unsettle, where identity crumbles, and sane rational explanations never arrive. In Twin Peaks, now returning for its 3rd season after a break of 25 years, there is unquestioningly super natural elements, but even with demons and doppelgangers Lynch finds horror to unsettle and unnerve us. But in other works, Mulholland Drive, Lost Highway, Earserhead, these same very powerful sensation are invoked and rational explanations are withheld. Though the critics, devoid of thee usual easy identifiers or aliens, monsters, and bloody deaths, rarely labeled these films as horror, to me that is exactly what they are.

The only question is intent. Lynch is famous for never explaining the purpose or meaning of his films. Part of any art is the viewer/reader’s interpretation and for Lynch that means you don’t impose, in any way. your won view as artist, but rather you leave the viewer fully empowered to experience it on their own terms. This is challenging and Lynch has never and will never find easy commercial success but we would be poorer without his visions disturbing and unsettling us.

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Movie Review: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell no Tales

So, we have come to number five in the Pirates franchise. Roger Corman I understand once advised that film franchises rarely go beyond three because after that point you have run out of variations on a theme. Clearly there are exception to Corman Rule, Bond and Godzilla both come to mind. With the Pirates movies I would argue that the series ran out after film one.

Dead Men Tell no Tales adds very little of value to the wider story of Pirates of the Caribbean though perhaps the producers should have considered that we really didn’t need a wider mythos for that story. The protagonists of the story are Henry, son of Will Truner from the first movie, out on a quest to claim Poseidon Trident to free his father of the curse that makes him Davy Jones, and Carina Smyth, a young woman of scientific inclination out to prove a mythical map is real, said map leading to said Trident. We of course have the Return of Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow, crew after his luck has turned bad, and Geoffrey Rush’s Barbosa, no leading a fleet of pirates across the Atlantic. Added to the mix is David Wenham Royal Navy Officer Scarfield, who wants the Trident to make England the undisputed master of the seas, (Wait, at this time she already is, frankly it would have more interesting to posit that is why England rules all the waves around the globe.) and for a villain we have Javier Bardem as an undead Spanish naval officer who hates pirates and Sparrow in particular.

Sounds confusing and overly complicated? It is. This is a script fully slaved to the big set action pieces and special effects with almost nothing left for character. What is left for character is too fragment to hold interest as everyone has a storyline where they briefly feature, learn a valuable life lesson, and grow just a little bit.

The film is not original in story, character, or action and rarely engaging. Frankly, this one is a wait for video and then watch something else.

 

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Thoughts on Roger Moore

I am a few days late in posting my remembrances in part because I so rarely engage in public displays related to celebrity deaths but also in part because this feels more like a Friday topic.

As a baby boomer Roger Moore was a facet of my entertainment environment, television and film he remained for decades a familiar and stable cast member. Like many people he was my first Bond. I was staying the summer with my sister Carol and she took me to the movies to see Live and Let Die. Coming from a small town in Florida and before that an even smaller town in the rural mountain of North Carolina this was my first exposure to a true multiplex theater and I just adored the idea of so many movies in one location.

I became a Bond fan but there was always a little dissatisfaction with the franchise. The tone, silly and fun didn’t connect for me on what I thought a spy movie should be. However I did return again and again to watch Moore’s wittily save the day. Exploring past film I discovered Connery and Lazenby and I really like Lazenby but I have always walked out of step. My favorite Bond is the current one, Craig.

Outside of Bond there were a number of project that Moore had become famous for but one that did not add significantly to his fan, and that is a flawed film, was one that became a personal favorite, ffolkes.

Early 80’s this is the story of a Scot mercenary ffolkes (Moore) who tackles the problem of terrorists who have taken hostage three oil platforms in the North Atlantic. The film is cheesy enough to have been produced in Wisconsin but for me is fun enough that I continually lose myself in it.

I think I shall need to give it another viewing soon.

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Logan Noir

Last night I took a little time of from writing to head up to the local Arclight theater and watch Logan Noir. This is last year’s film and swan song for Hugh Jackman as the character Logan/Wolverine but presented in black-and white.

The film remains a power story about family, friendship, and frailty. The B&W presentation was simply gorgeous. I am happy to see this trend of films being re-released in B&W. For the longest time the mass opinion was that a monochrome movie was inferior to a color one, but that is not the case. B&W presents images in a stark format and for some stories that conveys an entirely different set of emotional undertones.

I ran into an old friend at the theater. Someone I had not seen in decades and that was very nice. We chatted briefly before and after the film.

I have to say I am somewhat saddened by the loss of the 800-1200 words I would have written last not but I do not regret going.

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Saturday Celebrations

So today is my official Birthday and while my sweetie-wife and I will be celebrating quietly together, yesterday was a larger and noisier day.

My desire for a birthday part was fairly simple I wanted friends, I wanted pizza, and I wanted movies. I got all three

The Pizzas came from Costco, they make a decent pizza at a really good price. My friends showed up at noon and we engaged in a triple feature of genre films.

First up was 1932’s Island of Lost Souls, the first and in my opinion still the best, adaptation of H.G. Well’s The Island of Dr. Moreau. A pre-code movie the filmmakers to the plot into area not only not mentioned in the text but actively despised by the author, bestiality. Despite this there is no doubt the thought put into this movie is top notch and Charles Laughton’s performance is the heart of the production.

Forbidden Planet played next. There is little I can so about the much discussed movie. Inspired by The Tempest it is a serious, big budget, and glossy mid-50’s science-fiction film that actually tries to get its science correct. Heavy on the exposition and hopelessly trapped by the social conventions of it’s period this is still a worthy film.

We finished up with fun and cheestastic Flash Gordon (1980.) Staring Sam J. Jones and providing evidence that there is simply is no line that cannot be delivered with utter conviction by Max Von Sydow, Flash Gordon is thrilling, fun, and an utterly insane romp.

After the films we played card and board games and instead of cake I had some fantastic apple pie.

All in all yesterday was a great day and I look forward to many more years of such celebrations.

 

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Movie Review: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Middle films are difficult beasts. When you are part of a larger franchise, particularly with the experiment in printing money called the Marvel Cinematic Universe, pulling off a satisfying film that takes place during an unresolved arc can be challenging. It is a challenge that many fell George Lucas failed at with The Empire Strikes Back but that Peter Jackson succeeded with in making The Two Towers. James Gunn has succeeded with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.

Since the Guardians are going to be playing a major role in the upcoming Avengers: Infinity Wars the sequel to their own hit movie was sort of trapped running in place, unable to invest in major changes of the sort Marvel’s did with Captain America: Civil War. Gunn’s solution to this problem is a terrific one; Focus On Character.

The heart and theme to Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is family; the family that we can’t choose and the family that chooses us. Major unresolved threads from the first film, principally the identity and nature of Peter Quill’s father sort as the engine moving the narrative along, but every character is explored through the lens of family. It is a testament to the writing that when reveals are exposed we can see that Nebula’s hatred for her sister Gamora is not entirely unfounded.

Another aspect of the scrip that displays true craftsmanship is the proper implementation of Chekov’s Gun. This is not a reference to the Enterprise’s humorous nationalistic navigator but the esteemed Russian playwright who famously advised that of there is a gun on the mantle in the first act it must be fired by the last. There are plenty of writers who competently place those guns on the mantel, fired them diligently, and then drop them to the side, forgotten. The best writers not only put the gun there, but use it again and again through the story, drawing a tight weave of elements making it so that the gun is not there simply for that one shot, but is a legitimate part of the world’s texture. Elements in Guardians are established, play their part, and then return to play further parts, driving the narrative forward with a relentless sense of inevitability that heightens the resolutions.

This film would be fun to watch on its own, but as a further exploration of these quirky characters and their tangled relationships, it’s a sheer joy. I fully endorse anyone going out and seeing it.

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