Dec 312019
 
one reel

Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) sends his X-Men—Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Quicksilver (Evan Peters), and Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee)—on a dangerous mission into space for…reasons…in an airplane that definitely can’t go into space, but does anyway. There, a lot of CGI happens, and afterward, Jean acts like she’d like to have some fun, which makes Cyclops suspicious because… just because. It seems she has absorbed the ultimate power in the universe, or something like that—it isn’t really explained—and that makes her libel to blow up people. After the X-Men get in a fight with her for…reasons…she goes off to see Magneto (Michael Fassbender) for…reasons. Then an alien (Jessica Chastain) comes to chat with Jean because…sure, why not? And then there’s more CGI. So… Yeah, that’s about it.

I expected Dark Phoenix to be bad. The Dark Phoenix storyline from the comics is very long, very convoluted, occasionally goofy, and only works because you have years of Jean being a dull prude, so her breaking free and going wild was an event. Of course they can’t do that with a movie, so they were going to have to chop it to something very simple. They did that before with X-Men: The Last Stand, and it didn’t work out well, and I had no reason to think it would this time. They’d already introduced the phoenix force in a previous movie in a way that suggested they were going to repeat past mistakes, but then I’d heard they were going to just drop that continuity and start over (which they did), and that seemed worse.

The last few X-Men films had put the series on a wrong track, and then Dark Phoenix had substantial production problems before they panicked about similarities with Captain Marvel and reshot the last act. Nothing says quality like ditching the entire direction of your film and replacing it with whatever random thing you could think of in the middle of the night. I saw Sophie Turner hit the talk show circuit only to have the film pulled from the release schedule a few days later. Clearly Fox had no confidence in the picture, nor did its new owner, Disney. I also knew that Jennifer Lawrence, now being a big star, no longer had interest in the project, nor sitting in a makeup chair—the result being the worst makeup in X-Men franchise history, looking like something from a lower budget 1950s film, and Mystique being written out of the story early simply so that Lawrence only had to be on set a few days. I’d also heard that they rewrote the nature of the villain while shooting (and reshooting).

So yeah, I expected it to be bad.

But it wasn’t what I expected. I expect huge, ridiculous moments. I expected something silly. I expected the likes of X-Men Origins: Wolverine or The Last Stand. No, what I got was emptiness. It isn’t bad in the way something is when people make stupid decisions or freak out when their plans fall through. It’s just tired. It’s as if everyone trudged to work each day, moaning softly and longing for bed. It’s as if the writers could barely lift a pencil. It’s like director Simon Kinberg was slumped forward in his chair, whispering “cut” before falling to the floor. Sophie Turner was there, at least it body, no doubt carried by slaves of the pit from set to set, and then left, uncertain of where she was, or even if she was. James McAvoy and Nicholas Hoult seem too exhausted to say their lines, or look up. Maybe they were dreaming of a needle and the cold oblivion it brings. I can only assume that Michael Fassbender paused in his daily planned suicides to creep from his trailer to the set, yet, being Michael Fassbender, he’s still pretty good (that’s the only time “good” will be used in reference to this film). I’m not sure Jennifer Lawrence did show up. It seems clear that editing was done, with hundred year old equipment located in limbo, by insomniacs whose eyes no longer focus as they hold heavy rusted blades above the slowly moving film stock that never stops for all of eternity.

Maybe Dark Phoenix wasn’t made by a human-run film company at all. It sits in the shadows between life and death and the wind never blows, where there is no joy, no energy, and no care.

I’m not saying that Dark Phoenix is depressing, or at least much more than other X-Men films. “Depressing” is an attribute, and it has no attributes. There needs to be life for depression. Dark Phoenix doesn’t live. It exists, though I suspect most of those involved don’t care, or perhaps aren’t even aware. It’s not that they wish it didn’t exist—that would suggest some level of engagement. They don’t dislike Dark Phoneix, nor hate it, any more than I do. There is power in hatred, and there’s no power here. There is nothing here. Dark Phoenix is the void outside the realm of cinema.

My 1 star rating says to skip it, but that’s too strong a statement. You should skip bad films. You should see good films. This is neither. See it, or don’t see, but don’t try to do either of those things. No one involved tried to do anything. Why should you?

 Reviews, Superhero Tagged with:
Dec 202019
 
two reels

All the galaxy knows that Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) has returned and has a huge fleet at a secret Sith base which he plans to use to conquer the universe. Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega), and Poe (Oscar Isaac), with help from Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) and C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) hunt down information on the location of that base so they can stop him. Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) also wants to stop him as there can be only one supreme leader, and his plans involve Rey. Leia Organa is also around…just because, and Rose occasionally pops her head in

Ah, what the hell, let’s just restart the trilogy. That’s what the poorly titled The Rise of the Skywalker does. The last two movies matter for character, but for story, not at all. We start with new villains, a new threat, a new big bad, and a new quest. We meet new allies, and are given new histories. By “new” I mean re-purposed, but they’re not the ones from the last two films. So we start all over, jump around with multiple climaxes till we reach the grand finale. Yes, it isn’t just a new start, but an entire new trilogy in one flick.

Actually, it plays like a serial. Star Wars was based on ‘30s & ‘40s serials and no Star Wars film has ever been closer to that source. For a good portion of the runtime, its three friends off on adventures. This is also when the film works best. It’s fun and exciting and quite mindless, with some great banter between Poe and Finn. Poe gets the award for most improved as his digs and sarcasm are pure gold. And of course there’s lots of running, fighting, things blowing up, and general action mayhem. But it’s just adventure serial fun. The Last Jedi tried to be more. The Rise of Skywalker puts in real effort to be less.

Where is does rise is in the relationship between Rey and Kylo Ren. Whatever heart and depth the film has is with them. Their interactions, no matter the form, resonate. Adam Driver and Daisy Ridley have fantastic chemistry together, more than in the previous two films.

Of course this is J.J. Abrams, the man whose main skill as a director is “borrowing” from other directors, and he plies that craft with enthusiasm. As should be a surprise to no one, he starts with a copy of Return of the Jedi as all the new trilogy films have copied the original trilogy ones. But of the three new films, this one resembles its foundation the least—though it is still noticeable. No J.J. isn’t making a remake or a re-imagining. He’s got more swiping to do. He (clearly with the support of Disney) just grabs everything he can from the older films. I’d call it fan service, but is it still fan service if everything is fan service? There are multiple characters who exist in the film only because they existed in earlier films. We have captures like we did before. We have escapes like we did before. We visit planets because we visited them before. J.J. seems scared to death to do something new. This makes the ending disappointing, though it should be expected. In 1977, or 1983, or even 1999 I might have been more excited, but I’ve seen it too many times, and the entire last third of the film is so blatant about everything happening because that’s what happened before. Apparently, Star Wars is always the same.

Funny, I felt it was quite different in 1977.

J.J. also does his best to ignore The Last Jedi. He undoes several important points from that film, and shifts characters’ personalities. Rose is also sidelined, even though she could have easily replaced several of the new characters in scenes. He may have done this in response to fan-boi whining, or just because that wasn’t his story. It doesn’t matter why, though it is annoying. However it is less annoying than it might be if The Rise of Skywalker was a weightier film.

Another problem was forced upon him. The death of Carrie Fisher left a hole, and it is noticeable. Since all of her shots were leftovers from the last two films, for her scenes the script couldn’t be what was best for story or character, but whatever could stitch together the frames they had. The result is underwhelming.

For two-thirds of the way, they had me. Oh, I’d seen it all before but it was fast and fun and engaging, and I can excuse a good deal of pandering. But the last third, particularly the scenes without Rey and Kylo were a bridge too far. Taken piece by piece The Rise of Skywalker is a better film than Rogue One, which was a mess for a full half. But you’ve got to stick the landing.

If my review sounds dire, remember this is a Star Wars film and I’m grading on a curve. It looks great. Not The Last Jedi great, but The Force Awakens great, and that’s a high mark. The music is thrilling. The CGI is stunning. The sound is awe inspiring. And unlike the first six films in the series, the acting isn’t a detriment. It’s cheap, lowest common denominator fun. Who doesn’t like cotton candy?

Oct 312019
  October 31, 2019

elsa lanchesterUnusual both on and off screen, Elsa Lanchester was a skilled and artistic actress, and Hollywood never figured out what to do with her. She could have made a great leading lady, with her unconventional beauty and dancer’s body, but was only given leading parts twice (both mentioned below). Most often she was relegated to support status, often in quite small parts as maids and housekeepers, where her quirkiness was an asset. But this suited her as she was more interested in live performances, particularly of the music hall variety.

Besides being the Bride of Frankenstein, she is probably best known as the wife of Charles Laughton. They appeared together in twelve films.

An honorable mention to Mystery Street (1950), a solid B&W police procedural, where she’s a landlady who thinks that blackmailing a murderer is a good idea, and to the rat-filled horror film Willard, which was in tight competition for 8th place below. Additionally, a couple of honorable mentions for bit parts opposite Laughton, in the anthology film Tales of Manhattan (1942) and The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), as well as one for her cameo in Mary Poppins (1964)—the part is too small to count for her list.

On to her top 8:

#8 – Passport to Destiny (1944) — Lanchester finally gets a leading part and top billing in this strange little wartime comedy. The first part is charming; she believes she’s invulnerable due to a magic eye, so waltzes into Germany with the intention of assassinating Hitler. The second half takes it a bit too seriously, but as a whole it’s fun and worth seeking out.

#7 – The Beachcomber (1938) — An African Queen-like tale, though lighter, with Lanchester in her only other leading role, as a prim and prissy missionary’s sister, and Charles Laughton as a boozy reprobate. Robert Newton is the bored magistrate who envies the wild life. Lanchester is superb and is the reason to watch. The rest is good, but she’s superb.

#6 – The Spiral Starcase (1946) — A tense Old Dark House mystery filmed in luscious, deep focus B&W, in which a killer is hunting “imperfect” women. Unfortunately Lanchester’s part is small as the housekeeper, but as always, she’s memorable. (My review)

#5 – Bell Book and Candle (1958) — This should be on everyone’s Halloween viewing list, or Christmas. Jimmy Stewart is a bit gray for his starring role in a supernatural romantic comedy, but Kim Novak is breathtaking as a powerful, sexy witch and Ernie Kovacs, Jack Lemmon, and Lanchester are all marvelous. [Also on the Jack Lemmon list and the James Stewart list]

#4 – The Big Clock (1948) — One of the great Film Noirs; Ray Milland is placed in charge of an investigation to find a man who turns out to be himself. Lanchester plays an avant-garde artist who knows something odd is going on with the search. Remade in ’87 as No Way Out with Kevin Costner. [Also on the Ray Milland list] (Full Critique)

#3 – The Bishop’s Wife (1947) — A Christmas classic. David Niven is a bishop who has lost his way and Cary Grant is the angel who comes to help, but also makes things uncomfortable. Once again, Lanchester is in a supporting role. [Also on the David Niven list]

#2 – Witness for the Prosecution (1957) — A courtroom thriller, it’s the best adaptation of an Agatha Christie story, and is often mistaken for a Hitchcock film. It’s Marlene Dietrich’s best film, and arguably Laughton’s. Lanchester was nominated for an Oscar for Supporting Actress for her role as the greatly put upon nurse. The dialog is fast and funny, and the mystery is solid, with one of the great film twists. [Also on the Great Director’s List for Billy Wilder]

#1 – Bride of Frankenstein (1935) — Arguably the greatest horror film of all time, and the greatest sequel of all time. It is weird and wild. Sure it’s horror, but it’s also black comedy and satire. Lanchester plays duel roles, as Mary Shelley and The Bride, and is dark, sexy, and engaging. Her screen time is brief, but in it she became an icon. [Also on The Boris Karloff List and on the Great Director’s List for James Whale] (My review)

Oct 292019
 
three reels

Another new future, another antagonistic AI, another protector sent to the past, another terminator popping up a few minutes later. The specifics this time around: Grace (Mackenzie Davis) is an “augmented” soldier from the future, sent back to protect Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes), who will become humanity’s savior. Out to assassinate Dani is the Rev-9 (Gabrel Luna), which is more or less the T2, but he’s black liquid instead of silver and he can separate out a skeleton. When the initial fight starts going wrong for the good guys, Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) shows up to keep everyone fighting for another day. Our heroes run. The Rev-9 chases, and eventually they run into a T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger), so they can fight some more.

Terminator movies have never gone wildly off the path. Terminators 1, 2, and 3 were essentially the same movie. They were all “chosen one + protector(s) run from unstoppable killing machine until they run into a way to stop it. Terminator 4 & 5 swapped things up a bit—not much, but a bit—and that didn’t go well, so Terminator 6 returns to that the center of the path. How much you enjoy it will be based on how keen you are on seeing the same thing again. If you like that structure, and have watched Judgment Day so often that you’d like to see it with different actors (as well as the same ones), then Dark Fate will be fine. If you want something new, you are out of luck.

There’s a lot of gun fire, a lot of explosions, a lot of crashes, and a lot of heavy objects smashing into faces. It all looks good, and it looks familiar. But then most car chases look familiar. There’s a few adrenaline-rush moments, though I wasn’t sitting on the edge of my seat. I expected the action to be good, and it is. It’s isn’t special or revolutionary, or memorable, at least for anyone who’s seen T1T3, but it’s professional. Likewise the FX do their job. Again, nothing special, but professional.

There’s a few rough spots with a script, leaving a few too-visible plot holes, but it isn’t as if Judgment Day could stand up to substantial scrutiny (it was just less likely you’d go looking). And things slow down for too long in the middle, but then they had to put some character development in somewhere.

As for those characters, Machenzie Davis’s amped up warrior is the high point. I can’t say I cared about her backstory, but Davis had a way of projecting both toughness and vulnerability simultaneously that makes Grace sympathetic without a lot of talk. Dani isn’t terribly interesting, but she’s less annoying than several of the past saviors-needing-saving in the franchise, so grading on a curve, she’s pretty good. I was distracted by her age. At 32, she’s at least a decade too old for the innocent target, and unless Dani invents some anti-aging drugs, the new judgment day has to be sometime in 2020. I liked the idea of bringing Sarah Connor back to the franchise, but the character has little to offer this story. I’m sure they thought they had a good emotional story for her, but it doesn’t resonate, and you could yank her out of the movie and change nothing. Hamilton’s performance is a little shaky too. She’s best when she’s shooting a gun, not when she’s talking. Arnold’s T-800 is better, and does bring some life to the proceedings, but I can’t help thinking that he too was unnecessary, and they’d have been better sticking with a new cast. On the other hand, none of the film was necessary, and if I’m asking for changes I’d be better off asking for a new story.

James Cameron has said that this is the true sequel to T2: Judgment Day. It certainly is a sequel, in the sense like so many sequels, it’s just doing it all again, and there’s an extra problem when you copy something twenty-seven years later: The world has changed. T2 was playing off of a particular set of societal fears: nuclear war and computerization. Those aren’t today’s fears, but Dark Fate pretends they are. Social media, the rise of fascism, racial unrest, and climate destruction are more pertinent today, and while a trip through a boarder crossing had the potential to mine current issues, Cameron and director Tim Miller don’t do anything with it. Well, if you watch T2 you aren’t going to dig into our current national psychoses either.

Dark Fate is fine if you feel like an action film. I prefer T3: Rise of the Machines as the sequel to T2 and as a franchise finish if I’m allowed only one of them. But I’d put this above Terminator Salvation and Terminator Genisys, which few people will take as a ringing enforcement. To make it even less so, while I’m giving it 3-Reels, it’s a weak 3, and that just means that if you want to see it, the bigger the screen, the better.

Oct 252019
 


(Opening to Friday night’s Creature Features, where I originally saw all of the classic Universal monsters)

The one problem with making a Classic Horror list is that so much of it will be obvious. Half of my choices will be on any top 10 list and most will be on all. But Classic Horror contains more of the greatest horror films of all time than any other subgroup, so it’s worth examining again.

I’m using “classic” to refer to the horror films that started the sound era and created the monsters that we know today. These are B&W films, often with a German expressionistic style, and made primarily by Universal Pictures, RKO, and Poverty Row studios. The Classic period was the 1930s and ’40s, fading away in the ’50s.

 

#10: Creature From The Black Lagoon (1954)

Creature From the Black Lagoon is included as a “classic” because the Gill Man was the last of the great Universal Pictures monsters, but otherwise, it has more to do with ’50s filmmaking; it’s less stylized, non-gothic, with lower contrast photography. It looks very much like the atomic monster films that would soon become popular.

The monster is sympathetic, and has a fantastic design. He’s often described as Kong in water. Greed is the human motivating factor and leads to the tragedy. Even with the stereotypical characters, uninspired dialog, and uneven acting, this is a good version of the monster-wants-girl story. (My review)

 

 

#9: Son of Frankenstein (1939)

The last of the great Frankenstein films, and the last with Boris Karloff as the monster, Son of Frankenstein brings in Basil Rathbone as a new protagonist, with his legendary purring voice, and also Bela Lugosi as Ygor in what is probably his best role. But the real star is the German expressionistic art design: a post-apocalyptic wasteland, a surreal nightmare castle, and high contrast lighting. It’s beautiful.

This is the film Mel Brooks parodied in Young Frankenstein. The parody is good. The original is better. (My review)

 

 

#8: Island of Lost Souls (1932)

The first, and best adaptation of H. G. Wells’s novel, the film shifts the tone of the tale away from science fiction and toward horror. In doing so, the story is given greater power. The leads are generic, but Charles Laughton makes a real impression as a suave, clever, domineering, and evil scientist.

There’s so much to bite into. You can spend the entire film dwelling on the philosophy and sociology it brings up, but if that’s too much thinking, you can just dwell on the more sensational aspects, like the house of pain.

This is the first of three non-Universal films on this list. (My Review)

 

 

#7: The Invisible Man (1933)

With The Invisible Man, director James Whale really cut loose, filling it with his dark humor. It’s horror, and actually has the highest body count of any of the classic Universal monster movies, but it’s also funny. And like all of Whale’s work, it’s beautiful.

Karloff was originally planned to star, but a spat between the actor and director lead to the casting of Claude Rains. It was inspired. Since the lead is invisible, it’s all about the voice, and Rains’s voice is magnificent. The combination of Whale, amazing special effects, and Rains produces a gloriously unhinged performance.

 

 

#6: I Walked With a Zombie (1943)

The second leg of Classic Horror is the Val Lewton produced RKO films. While Universal put the monsters front and center, Lewton was more subtle, often leaving it open if there’s a monster at all. It was cheaper that way. This is his masterpiece, a version Jane Eyre. He kept the gothic romance, but instead of a mad wife in the attic, there’s an undead one.

Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur create a world where magic merges with nature, which is beautiful and dreadful simultaneously. It isn’t filled with big scares, but an eeriness and that stays with the viewer long after the film is over. This is clearly the best voodoo film, and arguable the best zombie one. (My review)

 

 

#5: Dracula (1931)

The first sound Universal monster movie, Dracula still has one foot in silent pictures. There’s a lot of pantomime and no musical track (as the studio though audiences would object without an in-film source). It’s a transitional film, and takes a bit of patience for modern viewers.

It succeeds less as a modern narrative film than as a series of visual poems. Moments of this film are absolutely wonderful and have become part of our culture. And then there’s Bela Lugosi; his expressions, piercing eyes (enhanced by lighting) and stylized voice combined death and sensuality in a way that had never been done before and has seldom been approached since. (My review)

 

 

#4: Frankenstein (1931)

This is the most influential horror film (talkie) of all time. It created the mad scientist sub-genre, massively expanded the use of German expressionism in film, created the iconic flat-headed, bolt-necked monster, and along with Dracula, brought horror films to mainstream audiences.

James Whale (he’s on this list a lot) created a strange gothic world, with a graveyard that looks like it exploded, a purposely artificial sky, and a tower designed by a mad man. It’s often said that the moral is not to mess with the laws of God, but that’s not message. Rather Whale suggests that new, bold steps are what makes us human and worthwhile, and our failure to act responsibly with the results of such steps is what makes us fools. (My review)

 

 

#3: The Wolf Man (1941)

This is probably my favorite horror film. Yes, it’s tragic, but it’s also fun, and exceedingly fast paced. Lon Chaney Jr. puts in the best performance of his career and it made him a star, at least of monster movies. The supporting cast is excellent as well: Bela Lugosi, Claude Rains, Ralph Bellamy, Warren William, Patric Knowles, Maria Ouspenskaya, Evelyn Ankers.

This is where werewolves, as we know them, began, not in novels or myths. Silver kills them because this film said so. Full moon? This film. Universal had tried out a few ideas with Werewolf of London in ’35, but it hadn’t gotten the public’s attention. This did. (My review)

 

 

#2: The Uninvited (1944)

A Paramount production, The Uninvited is the first Hollywood talkie that dealt with a haunting in a horror context. Before this ghosts showed up in comedies. And it’s been copied over and over again. If you’ve seen any horror ghost movies, you’ll recognize the structure: One or more people enter a haunted house, people who seem to have no connection to previous events, and they find themselves at risk. The supernatural activity starts slowly and builds, with one person being more of a target. They set out to uncover the secret that created the ghost and then confront the ghost with events of the past. No film has done it better. It is subtle, but not slow. Frightening, but at times light.

The cinematography is superb  and the piano piece, “Stella by Starlight,” became a hit. (My review)

 

 

#1: Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

Bride of Frankenstein takes what was good in Frankenstein, and improves it. The amazing art design is even more breathtaking. Karloff, now a speaking monster, will tear your heart out. Elsa Lanchester is sexy and playful as both the Bride and Mary Shelley. And there’s a stirring and emotional score by Franz Waxman. But the big addition is James Whales’s dark humor, presented mostly through Ernest Thesiger’s theatrical Doctor Pretorius. He’s wickedly funny and dominates the movie.

There’s so much going on in the film, with dozens of intertwined messages you can come away with, involving birth, class, religion, and gay life to name a few. It’s strongest with its thoughts on the outsider: It’s always those society brands as monsters who suffer, and they deserve better. I choose Bride of Frankenstein not only as the best Classic Horror film, but the best horror films of any kind. (My review)

Oct 212019
  October 21, 2019

LonChaneyjrThe third of the Big Three icons of classic horror (Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney Jr.), Chaney may have come on the scene last, but he was born for it. Lon Chaney Sr. had been the lone icon of silent horror and Creighton Chaney spent much of his career chasing his father’s star, though the name change to Lon Jr. was not his idea. He was king of the Universal monster films of the 1940s, playing The Wolf Man five time, Dracula (in Son of Dracula), Frankenstein’s Monster (in The Ghost of Frankenstein), and The Mummy Kharis in three films. He died, never knowing the heights he had attained, or that new generations would know him better than his father.

He was more often a character actor. When he was the lead it was normally a B-picture. In later years, he ended up in what I call C & D-pictures, hired just for his name. His alcoholism didn’t help.

An honorable mention to Chaney’s 2nd, 3rd and 4th appearances as Larry Talbot, The Wolf Man, in the monster mashes Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945). Each is a little weaker than it’s predecessor, but the films are still fun and The Wolf Man is good in all of them.

8 — The Defiant Ones (1958) – The first of Stanley Kramer’s socially conscious message pictures. It made a strong statement on racism and had a major part in destroying the black list. It’s also shot well, but the theme overwhelms the picture, giving us speeches instead of conversations. Chaney has a small but important role as an ex-con that helps our escaping convicts.

7 — The Haunted Palace (1963) – A Lovecraft film (though marketed as Poe) starring Vincent Price as a man being possessed by his ancestor. Chaney acts as the evil man’s assistant. There’s little new here, but what’s old is quite good. (My review)

6 — Of Mice and Men (1939) – This is a good adaptation of a good novel and Chaney is…good. Certainly the film has had a noticeable effect upon pop culture (“Let me pet the rabbit George”) but it’s a bit too simple to be that interesting. If this was a list of my favorites, I’d rank The Haunted Palace and Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man above it, but this is a “best” list.

5 — High Noon (1952) – It’s aged poorly, with uneven acting, slight characters. and dialog that’s hard to take seriously, but it was a metaphor for the communist witch hunt of the House Un-American Activities Committee at a time when such a metaphor was needed. Chaney plays a retired lawman and his is the best performance in the film. As with my 6th place film, it would be lower on a favorites list.

4 — My Favorite Brunette (1947) – Bob Hope teams with his Road picture co-star Dorothy Lamour in a Noir spoof that has him battling Peter Lorre and Chaney. [Also on the Bob Hope list]

3 — Spider Baby or, the Maddest Story Ever Told (1967) – This weird cult films acts as a bridge between the old dark house movies of the ‘30s & ‘40s and the degenerate family gore-fests of the ‘70s and later. It’s darkly comedic, and reasonably messed up. Chaney gives his best performance in at least 20 years.

2 — Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) – One of the top horror comedies ever made, and surprisingly, one of the better Universal Horror films, and by far their best monster mashup. It’s only the second time Bela Lugosi played Dracula on screen and it is a welcome return. Chaney is good as The Wolf Man, the plot works, and Abbott and Costello are at their best.

1 — The Wolf Man (1941) – This is the movie that created everything that has become part of the modern view of werewolves. Bela Lugosi, Claude Rains, and Evelyn Ankers are fantastic in this masterpiece while Chaney puts in the performance of his lifetime. It’s romantic, exciting, scary, and tragic. [Also on the Bela Lugosi list] (Quick review)

Sep 142019
 
two reels

In this reboot of the franchise, Hellboy (David Harbour), is a grumpy and grungy half-demon who is sent by his adopted father (Ian McShane) to battle supernatural enemies. After a series of such fights, he’s joined by psychic Alice (Sasha Lane) and hard-ass soldier Major Daimio (Daniel Dae Kim) to stop the resurrection of Nimue (Milla Jovovich). If she’s allowed to rise, she will release a plague that will kill all of mankind… Or maybe she won’t and instead join with Hellboy to cause an unrelated apocalypse… Or maybe this pig fairy will kill Hellboy… Or perhaps Baba Yaga, who set the resurrection in motion, has a plan of her own… Or maybe Daimio will kill Hellboy… Or maybe something connected to King Arthur will… Oh who cares. It’s about Hellboy hitting things.

Well… It isn’t horrible. Sure, the dialog is something out of a junior high schooler’s fan fiction (Hellboy only whines or speaks in quips), the characters are underdeveloped, the tone wavers around aimlessly, and the structure is a mess, but the end result isn’t horrible. It just isn’t very good.

I feel I need to say that as multiple reviewers immediately put Hellboy on their worst of the year list, and it doesn’t belong there. There’s some nice monster design work, primarily on some creatures that show up only briefly in the finale, but it is nice. And there’s lots of action—none of it is memorable, but it’s serviceable if you aren’t asking for much. And while it takes itself too seriously at times, it isn’t a non-stop gloom factory.

It fits nicely with other poorly thought-out genre projects like The Last Witch Hunter and Season of the Witch, which are more rightly forgotten than actively hated.

The problems are apparent with its construction, which screams “designed in editing.” We start with a wrestling death match before Hellboy is sent off to England where things end in a couple more fights. He’s then tossed in with a team which is sent to a manner house he’d passed through for a scene of horror—and that’s where the movie should have started. The previous action scenes (40 minutes worth) have nothing to do with the “story,” could have been cut without effecting the “story,” and they set a very different tone than the one of horror we are now thrust into. But that tone doesn’t stick either, as Hellboy meanders from battle to battle, shifting from light comedy to adventure fantasy and back to horror based purely on the footage they happened to have of that particular fight.

There’s no character development, but rather character exposition, as we’re told that Hellboy’s “father” was a killer who decided not to kill Hellboy and is now nicer (why? In what way?). told that Hellboy and Alice are close (in what way? When?), told that Hellboy is upset about his past (why? How?), and the list goes on. Without character, there are no stakes, and nothing propelling the “story” forward.

As for that story, well, it’s just whatever they decided to drop in: Nazi’s and Rasputin at the beginning, but then they’re gone; Giants and other fairy folk rising, but they don’t matter for long; The witch Baba Yaga’s manipulations, which seem vital, but vanish; A species-destroying plague, which also is forgotten; Arthurian legend, which after a brief mention, is not touched on until an hour and twenty minutes into the film, and becomes the main plot for a time; And Hellboy as the cause of the apocalypse, which weaves around the other threads. Choose a plot guys!

And while it is nice to looks at a film purely on its own merits, when part of a franchise, a movie must always stand with its kin; In this case, its kin are Guilermo del Toro’s Hellboy (2004) and Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008). Perhaps this Hellboy reboot shouldn’t be blamed for putting the final nail into the coffin of del Toro’s proposed final film in his unfinished Hellboy trilogy, but it can’t avoid comparison to the two finished films, and they are so much better. Hellboy 2019 is inferior in every way: character, story, plot, acting, dialog, art design, special effects (yes, a 2004 film runs rings around a 2019 one), makeup, editing, cinematography, music, emotion, and theme (why in the reboot was the individual standing up for an oppressed minority made to be the villain—might want to think about that). If this was the only Hellboy film, it could have been thought of as an overpriced B-movie for kids (as long as you don’t mind kids hearing “fuck” every other sentence), but next to those, I can’t see it as anything but a failure of imagination and opportunity.

I give it Two Reels, but make that a very weak Two.

 Fantasy, Reviews Tagged with:
Sep 062019
 
three reels

Foster child Billy Batson (Asher Angel) escaped from another home to search for his real mother. He’s placed in a group home with attention-seeking Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), kind Mary (Grace Fulton), hacker Eugene (Ian Chen), quiet Pedro (Jovan Armand), and loving Darla (Faithe Herman), run by Victor & Rosa Vasquez (Cooper Andrews & Marta Milans). After protecting Freddy from bullies, Billy is chased into the subway where he is magically transported to an underground lair to be tested by a Wizard (Djimon Hounsou) to determine if he is worthy to receive the power of SHAZAM. Billy rejects the demonic Seven Deadly Sins, and so is made a superhero, one who appears as an adult. But as a fourteen-year-old with no instruction, he doesn’t know what to do, and he and Freddy experiment to learn his abilities. Elsewhere in the city, Dr. Sivana, who had been found unworthy years ago, discovered how to reach the Wizard, and he took the power of the Seven Deadly Sins. He is instructed by those Sins to find and defeat this new superhero while he can.

This is a kids film. Most superhero films of recent times have been family movies aimed at everyone, while a few have been intended for an older audience. But Shazam! is purely constructed for the middle school and below set. That’s not just due to a young teen protagonist. It’s a very simple film, going exactly where even kids would expect it to go. There are no complexities. No shocks. No deeper messages than “love is good” and “family is good.” Everyone is a stereotype, the story is jammed with clichés, emotional attachments develop in a day, and nothing gets too tense for a six-year-old. I wouldn’t expect a young child to be unhappy about any of that. And he shouldn’t be. This is a good kids film. And it’s reasonably entertaining for an adult—as better kids films often are—as long as you ask very little from it.

Where Shazam! excels is in the relationships of the group home family, and in the humor. I liked all the kids (Darla is adorable) and I’m a hard sell. The children seem to genuinely like each other in a way that isn’t sickeningly sweet, and the parents are not played as fools or fanatics. I’m used to this type of parent—ones who are broadly accepting—being made fun of in film, but they are portrayed as loving and good at what they do. It’s very nice. Thoughtful? No, but it’s nice and occasionally nice is refreshing.

The jokes work by showing what we should have been seeing in most superhero films, but didn’t because it isn’t epic. Our hero tries for clever quips, but isn’t good at it (as few people are). Dramatic monologues can’t be heard, as they shouldn’t be over distances in large cities. And how do you know if you are fireproof? I laughed and I suspect eight-year-olds will be in stitches.

There’s lots of minor flaws: The structure is off a bit, the villain barely registers, the CGI is so-so, Billy is too old (12 would have worked better), and it’s too long (what’s wrong with a 90 minute movie? They don’t all have to cross 2 hours). But these are problems for a movie trying to be something more substantial. Shazam! isn’t trying to be great. If it was made perfectly it still wouldn’t be great. It wants to be a pleasant distraction for people whose brains are still developing (and nope, it isn’t trying to help that development), and in that it succeeds.

 Reviews, Superhero Tagged with:
Aug 152019
 
two reels

In a teal world, a group of “eco-terrorists” breaks into a Monarch facility, taking Dr. Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga) and her monster communication device, as well as her daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown). Their plan is to wake the ancient monsters all over the world and let them remake the planet. Monarch, lead by Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) wants to stop them, and brings along Dr. Russell’s estranged husband, Mark (Kyle Chandler) who also happens to be an expert on the “titans.” They all set off into rain, fog, mist, shadow, and storms, where they keep running into a monster leg here, a wing there, and a head or two briefly. One thing is certain: whatever happens, it will be very, very serious.

I’d give Godzilla: King of the Monsters an extra star if they re-colored it. Or just colored it. This is essentially a B&W film, with teal taking over for white. For huge swaths of the movie, everything is blue-green. Sky? Teal. Water? Teal. Buildings? Teal. Ice? Teal. Faces? Teal. It’s a mind-boggling choice. Ghidorah, the great three-headed GOLD dragon is teal most of the time. It’s ugly and oppressive.

Oppressive is the word for the film overall. The plot is silly and half the things that happen are nonsensical, but those aren’t major problems in a giant monster movie. But the tone is deadly. This could never be a deep, thoughtful film. It’s not like Gojira (1954). By its nature, it’s a big adventure popcorn movie. And those should be fun. And this isn’t. It’s solemn and completely humorless.

There needed to be characters who weren’t either angry or grieving, but those are the only emotions in this film. Every discussion, every meeting (and there’s a lot of those), every interaction—it’s just anger or grief. And that gets old fast. I need some meat with my movie if I’m having to endure all that. But this is giant monsters shooting beams at each other and somehow feeling bullets while not being bothered by missiles. It’s not thoughtful. So why does it all have to be so grim?

It’s made worse from our lead couple, who are just awful. Mark is a terrible human being, and he’s a bright light next to Emma, who might be one of the worse humans ever born. But they aren’t terrible in a fun, charismatic way, but in a trudging way that only escapes being boring because of how annoying they are. Whatever they wanted, I wanted them to lose. The rest aren’t as bad, but none of them are interesting or engaging.

OK, so I’m talking a lot about the humans. What about the monsters? Don’t get your hopes up, because this is mainly a human film. The monsters aren’t around much. But when they are in the film…they still aren’t around much. You rarely see them. You see fog (haven’t we learned from failed superhero films that fog is not an interesting villain), and you see swirling rain, and then you’ll see a foot. Then a head will pop out, and then more fog. Then it’s time for a long shot, which is quickly obscured by debris. And then it’s a few overly close shots where it’s impossible to really see what’s going on (Michael Bay would be proud) before it’s back to darkness and fog. Just pull back the damn camera, lay off the fog overlay, and turn on a light other than teal! It’s maddening.

There are a few moments here and there that will get your blood pumping if you are a fan of giant monsters, but those are the moments that make it maddening. This could have been a fun film. It should have been better. It took some conscious decisions to screw it up. Still, for those few good moments, I say catch it on TV if you like huge radioactive lizards and over-sized moths.

Jul 232019
 
three reels

Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a mentally ill for-hire-clown attempting to become a stand-up comic. At night he cares for his elderly mother. He lives in Gotham City (no relation to any Gotham City you may have heard of) which is falling apart, with garbage in the streets, rats running rampant, and crime rising. Arthur is attacked multiple times, loses his job, his identity, and is insulted by TV personality Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). He loses what little he had, pushing him to find a new identity for himself, and to find hope in the form of homicidal mania.

In this sequel to Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy
What? It’s not a sequel?

OK, in this remake of The King of Comedy
Really? Not a remake.

One more time. In this theft of Scorsese’s The King of Comedy, combined with chunks stolen from Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, director Tod Phillips effectively conveys the grim reality of the poor in America, and the hopelessness of their lives in the present system. Phoenix is solid, believable as a man whose minor connection to sanity is being torn away. I could feel Arthur’s pain, frustration, loss, and longing. Yes, this is Taxi Driver filtered through The King of Comedy, but that’s good material. The building strain between the social classes is clearly displayed. This is a film with a message, one that is front and center at all times, but somehow didn’t feel obnoxious to me.

And the connection to the Batman world works. This is not the Joker from the comics or TV or other films. It isn’t a new interpretation. It is a different character, just as this is a different Gotham and a different Thomas and Bruce Wayne. But that connection helps to throw some light on this world. I know those other Waynes—rich, powerful, and privileged—so show me only a second of Thomas’s arrogance and lack of empathy, and I have a complete picture of who and what he is. Joker’s world, the world of this film which is not the world of the comics, becomes full and complex.

So, for a rip-off cash grab, Joker isn’t bad. It’s actually surprisingly—shockingly—good. So much of it works. There are some emotional moments that hit hard, and here and there a shot that should become iconic.

But Tod Phillips is not Martin Scorsese. Phillips is the man behind Starsky & Hutch: The Movie and the excruciatingly unfunny School For Scoundrels. He doesn’t understand how to use color in a drama ( for God’s sake, the world is not teal). He has no idea how to edit a serious film. And he didn’t get the help he needed behind the camera as he brought along his cinematographer and editor from his previous projects, so we’re talking The Hangover Part III quality. They are out of their league. Over and over I could see how a scene would work better if the camera was shifted over, the lights were brightened, or a second was trimmed. Much of the dialog needed to be punched up. And the entire climactic talk show scene needed to be rewritten and shortened—this is a visual medium; everything doesn’t have to be explained in a speech. This is a good film, that could have been a great one if it had a few better filmmakers involved. Hey, you know who they should have called? Martin Scorsese. I bet he would have done a great job.

 Reviews, Superhero Tagged with:
Jul 092019
 
four reels

After the events of End Game, Peter Parker (Tom Holland) wants a break from being a superhero, and more, the idea that he is supposed to replace Tony Stark, so he heads to Europe on a school field trip, along with best friend Ned Leeds (Jacob Batalon) and potential girlfriend MJ (Zendaya). But there’s no escaping his job. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) show up with Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) in tow, wanting him to join in their fight against mysterious elemental monsters that are attacking the world. The only other superhero on hand is Quentin Beck, aka Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal), who has come from a different Earth that has already been destroyed by the elementals. Fury also hands him Tony Stark’s last gift: a pair of glasses that gives him control over a powerful world-wide surveillance and defense system, one that Peter doesn’t feel he’s ready for.

The MCU course-corrects in a big way with the best Spider-Man film to date. The action and adventure are a step up from Homecoming, the angst a touch lower, the comedy even better, and it all fits together effortlessly. Holland continues as the #1 Spider-Man, and the only one in a live-action film that’s pulled off appearing to be a teenager. Zendaya is likable and fun and has substantial chemistry with Holland, elevating the teen comedy parts of the film, though the best bits in those sections belong to Ned and his sudden relationship with queen-bee Betty Brant (Angourie Rice), one that’s both amusing and refreshing.

Things get even better when we aren’t in high school mode. It’s not just the special effects and fabulous action scenes, but Spidey mixing it up with an irritable Nick Fury, dealing with Fury’s rough looking henchman turned tour-bus driver, and having some moving moments with Mysterio. Gyllenhaal is extremely effective, taking a very comicbook-y character and making him believable. I’ve never seen him better.

This is a smarter film than a pair of recent MCU entries. Here, if something doesn’t seem right, if there’s apparent inconsistencies in the story or in the characters, there’s an underlying reason; it isn’t just a mistake. Feel free to dig deep into what things mean. You’ll be rewarded. You’ll need to wait till a post-credit scene to see if you’re right in one case. It’s smart in another way. It doesn’t try to look at the after effects of Infinity War/Endgame on a world-wide scale. Instead, we see things only through the eyes and priorities of high school students. That makes it complete, in a narrow view, without giving us hours of melodrama. Economic volatility isn’t going to mean as much as a little brother now being a class ahead.

This is a careful review as it’s a hard film to discuss without touching on some major spoilers and while you’ll figure out a few things before they happen (if you haven’t already), it’s more fun figuring it as you go along. So staying vague, Far From Home is yet another success for the MCU. Everyone is good, and I haven’t even touched on great stuff from Flash Thompson (Tony Revolori), Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), and Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) with his best appearance in the series.  It doesn’t have the heights of The Avengers or Ragnorak, but there’s never a slip, never a fault, and it’s always a lot of fun.

 Reviews, Superhero Tagged with:
Jun 232019
  June 23, 2019

GoodOmensI enjoyed the Neil-Gaiman-Terry-Pratchett-based mini-series Good Omens well enough, but I was filled the entire time with the feeling that it should be more. Crowley, the not-so-evil demon is delightful, and David Tennant’s performance even more so. The interaction between Cowley and the angel Aziraphale (Michael Sheen) is a good time, though it’s mainly Cowley, and those two are the heart of the series.

The story is fine. It goes pretty much exactly where you’d expect it to go with the setup and the fluffy sitcom tone. With a darker, more satiric edge—with the Antichrist being truly evil and more insightful commentary—it could have been more interesting, but that’s not what they were going for. So, there are no surprises and it’s…fine. Which means it’s all up to the characters to carry the show, that and the jokes. And Crowley and Aziraphale do an excellent job. Cowley rules every scene he’s in, being both hilarious, heartwarming, and a touch scary. Aziraphale makes for a reasonable partner with some nice development moments.

The problem is we leave them. A good deal of time is spent with the four children, and with the witch and witchhunter, and with the witchhunter-sergeant and faux-psychic, and with the four horsemen, all to give us plot points that are obvious. And none of it is funny. Cowley and, to a lesser extent, Aziraphale have tons of great gags. The children have none. The two couples have none. The four horsemen have potential, but again, aren’t funny and give us nothing which isn’t obvious.

And there’s a lot of time spent with these “side” characters—hours. For the most part they aren’t terrible, although the insults of the witchhunter-sergeant do get old quickly, but they add nothing and aren’t amusing on their own. The omniscient view also puts us ahead of all of the characters, and we’re stuck waiting for them to catch up. Sticking to the more limited view of Cowley and Aziraphale would have made for a funnier, more intriguing, and fast moving show. It would have been better to be with Cowley and Aziraphale as they discover they have the wrong Antichrist and join them in their discoveries, instead of us knowing from the beginning exactly what happened.

I’m sounding more negative then the overall series deserves, but the negative stands out. You could even now trim out an hour of the side characters and effect nothing except making the show flow better. If done in production, giving us more of our demon and angel heroes, this could have been great. Instead there’s a lot of filler, and it is passably good.