Friday, August 12, 2016

Lights Out: Horror Flick Puts Fear of the Dark in a New Light

I don't think there's a fear that's more universal than being scared of the dark. If you have a wild imagination, there's no end to the possibility of the variety of things that might be lurking in it. And while this has been a staple in scary movies for a while, Lights Out lets this theme take the lead in a creative plot that'll have you sleeping with the lights on, just in case.

Hey, you never know.

The story revolves around a mother (Maria Bello), her son Martin (Gabriel Bateman), and his half sister, Rebecca (Teresa Palmer). After the mysterious death of her husband, the mom is kind of losing it, and with a history of mental illness things aren't looking so healthy for Martin's wellbeing. But as the story progresses we soon learn that maybe it's not mental illness alone that's driving her so crazy. A thing known as Diana seems to be affecting her. Only existing in darkness, Diana tries her damnedest to monopolize the mom's time and energy, lashing out violently when she's told to share her. As Rebecca and Martin uncover more about Diana's past and try to help their mom, it's a race against time to see whether their mission will cost them their lives.

"The mom's all yours! Anyway bye!"

Other than the fantastically scary trailer (scroll to the bottom if you haven't seen it), I was drawn in by James Wan's producer credit on this movie. If you've read any of my horror reviews before, James Wan is basically my favorite scary guy of all time and his name on anything is almost a stamp of certainty that I'll see it.

I was not let down.

The movie is original, simple, and damn scary. Director David Sandberg takes something so universal and turns it into a real scare-fest. Diana is scary, and while she's lurking in the shadows, the evidence that we see of her will scare the pants off you. Lots of jumps in this, and lots of old-school horror.

The movie is very self-aware of bringing classic horror to a new front, but does so with themes rather than messing with classic horror plot formulae. Rebecca is a strong independent female character, the story highlights mental illness, and the kid is smart as a whip. We're not feeding into character stereotypes, and that's super refreshing. Teresa Palmer is (fucking gorgeous and) powerful as Rebecca, who can't get over the early loss of her dad but steps up to plate when it comes down to protecting her family, and Maria Bello is convincing as the exhausted mother.

Like why are her eyes so giant and beautiful?? Anyway, I digress...

I can't really expand on the movie too much without giving a bunch away, but suffice it to say that this one puts a new spin on classic horror, and it's definitely a fun watch. Looking forward to where this franchise goes.

8 outa 10. Winner, winner.

(Like, seriously, how scary is this trailer though!?)


Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Ghostbusters: All-Female Cast Makes Best of No-Win Situation

Honestly, when I first heard that they were remaking the Ghostbusters, my first thought was "Oh no." Another classic that was plunging headlong into unwinnable territory. And though I was intrigued by the direction that they were taking with it (better to go away from your source material than to try and copy it, especially in comedy), I'm sorry to say that my first impression was mostly right.

The plot follows three women who have always had a vested interest in the science behind the paranormal, and who are later joined by another woman who has an extensive knowledge of the city where they live: New York City, of course. As they track isolated incidents of ghosts being a little...overactive, they uncover a madman's plot to try and bring destruction to New York. It's then up to the four new Ghostbusters to try and stop him before his plan is complete.

These ladies gon' kick your ass, evildoer.

The cool thing about this movie is how hard they try to keep it contemporary while still paying tribute to the original. The ghostbusters are now four women, they're all scientists, the comedy is once again improv-based, and the story is set in New York with innumerable homages to the original film. Each comedienne plays her strengths and there's a lot of throw-away lines that keep the movie entertaining in a way that makes a little more sense for 2016.

That being said, the movie is kind of weird in deciding to be a remake and not a continuance of the original. For all the shoutouts that they give the original, it would've probably made more sense for the girls to grow up idolizing the original Ghostbusters and not just inventing a ghost-hunting business from scratch. With an audience that has grown up watching the cartoon series and sipping on Hi-C Ecto-Cooler, the idea of Ghostbusters is far from revolutionary. I would've loved to have seen a plot that acknowledged the past of the Ghostbusters while maybe growing a little more cynical -- I think that would match the 2016 mood perfectly. Also, with a continuance, they could've gone the route of having the inclusion of the old guys without having to give them obscure roles that stand out like sore thumbs. Bill Murray's role is woefully incomplete, and the others settle themselves with roles where they spit out 5 lines before disappearing from the screen altogether.

Anyway see ya later.

I also felt that while each of the four actresses are all hilarious in her own right, their individual versions of comedy have a hard time marrying well in this. In what feels like it should be another Bridesmaids, Wiig's drippy character remains drippy without really going through any kind of metamorphosis, and McCarthy's character isn't allowed the characterization of being weird, nor the whacky scenarios that are so perfect for her brand of improv. It must be said that Kate McKinnon steals that thunder for herself as the Class A Weirdo of the bunch, and Leslie Jones tries her best to balance them all out. All said, it reads a little weird. Maybe it's too many comedians? While the original had four, it was also a different, understated brand of comedy that they just can't copy for modern audiences. It's just too different.

All said, is the new Ghostbusters bad? No. Is it good? No.

Nope. Not even this beautiful specimen could make it better.

To be fair, I think that any remake of the movie would have been given a no-win scenario in which old comedy is trying to be made new. Comedy has evolved so much over the past few decades that any remakes are rendered practically impossible. Look at Dumb and Dumber, or Zoolander 2. Half the time what was funny is now not, and while Ghostbusters tries to sidestep that problem, they end up in the same cheap boat as every other forgettable remake/sequel made after a 20-30 year gap.

6.5 outa 10. A lot of funny moments, but a lack of cohesion and an over-awareness of the original material makes this a disappointingly average comedy. Sorry, ladies.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Finding Dory: Pixar Rips Out Our Heartstrings Once Again

Contrary to what you might think after looking at my last few reviews, I am not generally a fan of sequels. Broadly speaking, since characters have already been introduced and established in the first film, unplanned sequels can take on a watered-down sort of flavor and plots can seem a little...thrown-together. And while Finding Dory ends up being a pretty good movie, the film doesn't shake this thrown-together feel until you're about halfway through.

The plot follows Dory a year after she and Marlin have (spoiler alert) found Nemo. After her memory gets jogged by something random, she remembers her parents and goes on a quest to Morro Bay, California to find them. On the way, she gets separated from Marlin and Nemo, and has to make her own way while Marlin and Nemo try to (wait for it) find Dory. On the way, she meets a bunch of new characters, remembering things that she hasn't been able to recall in years.

Oh boy!

First of all, I'd like to commend Pixar on once again ripping my goddamn heart out. Between Baby Dory's sweet little baby angel voice (WHICH KILLED ME), the fact that she's lost her parents at the age of like 3 years old, and the fact that they keep having to run around in circles all around this damn place trying to find everyone -- I may be overly sensitive but this movie killed me. It's not like Pixar is ever coy with breaking your heart, but good lord. They just spent an entire movie trying to find Marlin's son, and now they've gotta break our hearts all over again as they try and figure out how Marlin and Nemo can find Dory. It's too much, Pixar. Can we have some sunshine and rainbows next time please? Kthanks.

Alright, back into adult critic mode.

Good things: this is not Pixar's first rodeo. While I may just be overly emotional, the fact that I cried at a forgetful baby fish with giant eyes only proves that Pixar is a veritable wizard at playing people's emotions. This is a very heartfelt tale of someone trying to reconnect to their roots and to find a portion of their past. It's extremely poignant, especially the ending, without being sappy, and funny without being cheap. And of course it's a masterpiece of computer animation as all Pixar films are (how they get the ocean to look 100% real is beyond me). All told, it's a well-made film, if not the masterpiece that is Finding Nemo.

It's not you, it's your predecessor.

Now the things that bugged me: in terms of flow, the movie reads a little wonky. The first half is so jumpstarted that it's a little bewildering. Not even ten minutes after getting a first glimpse of her original life with her parents, we're thrust back into the "present" for about five minutes only to then be thrust right back into the past as Dory begins to remember things.A few jump-cuts later and we're already in Morro Bay. After about 45 minutes in, the movie finally finds its pace and the audience can settle in, but the first third of the movie is so bewilderingly jumpy in contrast to the meandering adventure of the first...it's just a little jarring.

Also, this movie has a totally different vibe than Nemo. Since this movie is told largely through Dory's eyes, there's also an underlying anxiety in this sequel that isn't present in the first. In the first one at least she has a chaperone to help her out. And while a lot of this movie is about her being able to navigate her own way as an adult with a disability, it creates so much tension that the movie ends up being a lot more on-edge than its predecessor. Far from being a determined rescue adventure with a set destination, most of the movie is spent with each character running around in circles as they keep on missing each other by inches. And with Dory's shaky memory plopped on top of that exasperating run-around, it's a wonder that anyone finds anyone.

7 outa 10.

LISTEN TO SWEET BABY DORY FISH'S VOICE IN THIS TRAILER.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

The Conjuring 2: Not for the Faint of Heart

Went ghost for a little while but now I'm back. What am I reviewing, you may be asking yourself (if you're bad at noticing titles)? Will it be the latest Avengers movie? Will it be a low-key indie film? Will it be Warcraft?!

Nay.

We're going to be discussing The Conjuring's amazing second installment, otherwise known as (wait for it)....The Conjuring 2.

Honestly, how they come up with these names for sequels
 I will never have any idea.

Let's get down to the plot: Ed and Lorraine Warren (graciously played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) are back slaying evil in this amazing sequel to The Conjuring. After gaining some insight into Lorraine's personal demons (like, literally) at the beginning of the movie, we're whisked away to London, where a family is experiencing some disturbances in their home. Young Janet, eleven years old, thinks she's being tormented by an evil spirit with a sinister agenda. It throws her from her bed, trashes her family's house, and frequently uses her as a host through which to speak. After the church gets wind of the disturbances, they send Ed and Lorraine out to London to assess the situation and see if the claims have any depth. It's then up to them to tell whether the whole thing is a hoax or whether they're putting themselves in extreme danger.

The fantastic thing about this sequel is (despite it's horrendous title) its originality and how it plays with your head -- and this is why James Wan is a goddamn horror master. You enter the theater expecting a straightforward scary story: there's a definite evil presence, you have a sympathetic view of the main character, and then the presence either wins or is vanquished. But the movie takes it a little further than that. This movie is a bit long, setting itself up (most horror movies run about an hour and a half -- this one is two and a quarter), but it weaves an intricate question throughout itself: "Is this girl actually possessed?" The audience's trust of the Warrens and their doubt in the girl's situation make you legitimately wonder despite the overwhelming evidence. But it's the ending that really pays off here, explaining everything. This movie's also a great example of how directors can get creative with the paranormal and make up their own rules.

Moving onto the most important part of any horror movie: was it actually scary?

Honestly, this movie was way scarier than I had anticipated. And thank god I saw this in a theater of like-minded scaredy cats and we all screamed in unison.

How do you outdo an evil, 16th-century witch? 
Oh, just make a demonic nun, totally cool.

So often horror sequels (and even originals) rely on a series of repetitive pop-ups to frighten you, and the effect turns cheesy -- especially with a subpar cast. But in The Conjuring 2, the characters aren't stupid, and the forms that the spirit takes are really frighteningly and surprisingly diverse. This is another way that Wan really stirs up some amazing horror: The "monster" is never redundant. Fear is based on the unknown, and he does a brilliant job of letting evil be unpredictable. Is it in the house? Is it outside? Is it possessing the girl again? Is it walking around on its own? Is it an old man? A nun? The crooked man?

(Spoiler alert: I screamed embarrassingly loud whenever the crooked man showed up. 
Prepare yourself.)

Really, I can't divulge too much without giving everything away, but suffice it to say that this is one sequel that is done incredibly well. The suspense sustains itself, the questions keep on popping up, and the acting is great. Wan knows what scares people, and he creates movies that get under your skin, creating an atmosphere where everything is unpredictably terrifying.

9 outa 10. Excellent classic horror movie.

Omg, even this trailer tho...


Sunday, March 27, 2016

My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2: Like the First One, Minus the Magic

Oh MBFGW2. My sweet baby child. I've gotta be honest, the speed with which Hollywood studios are cranking out sequels to beloved "new classics" didn't have me optimistic when I was walking into the theater. Frankly, the only reason I decided to see it was because my best friend and I have both seen and quoted the original more times than is feasibly countable. "There is a hole in this cake." "Iss okay, I make lamb." "There you go." "E-yahn Meeler." (Literally any time I've met anyone named Ian. Sorry to all you Ians out there.) Anyway, this seemed like more of an obligation than anything else.

LOOK EVEN THE POSTER IS THE SAME.

The plot (somehow) begins 17 years after Ian and Tula have gotten married. Their kid Paris (worst name ever) is in high school, where Ian Miller (John Corbett) is now the principal. Tula (Nia Vardalos) is still working at her family's restaurant, and is taking care of her parents as they advance further into old age. The main story follows both Tula and Ian as they work on their marriage, Tula and Pairs as they try to deal with her going off to college, and Gus and Maria as they decide to make their marriage legal (due to a paperwork flaw).

I feel like the paragraph above should sum up how all over the place the movie is. Honestly, all that MBFGW2 is is a vehicle to further the personalities of the original film. But in this sequel it simply doesn't hold water. Whereas in the first film there were regular insights and heart to each of the characters despite their overblown obnoxious qualities, the second film forgets itself and decides, instead, to stock up on cheap laughs. This works for some of the characters (Aunt Voula literally saves this entire film from being boring, and Gus delivers some sweet feelings in some parts), but for the most part the lack of central narrative is distracting.


I'd rather have seen Aunt Voula's Big Fat Greek Opinion on Everything

There is a weird mixture here, too, of amateur actors vs. old hats. While the characters of Gus, Maria, and Aunt Voula (played by old pros) can give some depth to the story working with what they've got, a subpar script makes the work by the newbies gratingly abrasive. Even Nia Vardalos who played the role of Tula in the first film so embarrassedly and so sweet seems to have turned a corner in which all of her bits scream "I AM ACTING. THIS IS ACTING. LOOK AT ME ACTING RIGHT NOW." I couldn't figure out if it was her trying to convey that the old "frump girl" Tula was gone for good, or whether she's become so self-aware that the role completely lacks the authentic vulnerability of the original. (Hint: I'm pretty sure it's the latter.)

Also, I'm so sorry, but I felt the part of Paris (played by Elena Kampouris) was done horrendously. While the acting by the original cast is a little clunky, the character of Paris falls completely flat. With hairstyles that rival the Lizzie Maguire 'dos of 2001 and the emotional depth of an emo 12-year-old, Paris's annoyance at her family is her only quality. We never learn another single thing about her. What does she want to go to college for? What does she think about her parents' marriage? Why these puzzling hairdos? Instead of focusing on the new idea of being a first-generation kid with a mixed heritage, the film cheaply compensates with the leftovers of the original. There could've been a cohesive plot there, Vardalos! What were you thinking!?

Like, what is this. What's happening here.

5 outa 10. A handful of laughs, but I'm tired of these dumb sequels that just sell off the bits of the original and fill the rest in with fluff.

Monday, March 7, 2016

The Witch: Well Done, Different, and Horrifying

I haven't seen a horror movie this well-made, or this depressing, in a very long time. Honestly, when I saw the trailer, I thought it was going to be a lofty, artsy kind of horror, more along the lines of It Follows (which I wasn't very fond of) than The Conjuring (which I loooooved). But I got the pleasant surprise of discovering that it's sort of a mishmash of traditional horror and something a bit more artistic.

"Dear Lord, lmk if my daughter's a witch, kthanksamen."

Here's our plot:

The movie starts off by showing us a family leaving their home at a colonial plantation. There's a mother, a father, two girls, and three boys. After making a home for themselves in a random field, things are not going in their favor. The corn crop is no good and they're having trouble trapping animals for meat. Soon after these things come in succession, the family's eldest daughter, Thomasin, is playing with her baby brother outside, when suddenly he's gone, disappeared. While this is viewed as a strange tragedy, and one that the mother never seems to recover from, the family can never find closure on what actually happened to him. Then stranger things start to happen. Caleb, the second oldest child, gets lost in the woods, and the parents are distraught. With one coincidence piled on top of the other, the idea crops up whether they have a witch on their hands causing them all of this pain and suffering. The film then speculates whether the family will believe the truth on faith alone.

Can you handle it? I pose that you cannot.

What I really loved about this film is that it's so original. We often see horror movies where people get killed off and you're left to sit there wondering who the murderer is, but rarely is there a well-made horror film in which the characters seriously accuse one of their own of being possessed. And the isolation of the family makes the film even more dreadfully horrifying. With no one to bear witness to what's happening besides themselves, and with a zealous faith that defies reason, it's a breeding ground for paranoia.

WARNING: SPOILERS. SPOILERS EVERYWHERE.

The other amazing thing about this movie -- which I wasn't expecting -- is that there is an actual witch. I feel like so often anymore, it's an infuriating habit for films to be like "Idk, WAS she a witch? I leave that to interpretation." That drives me insane. Was she or wasn't she. I don't want to have to read through a 30-page analysis of your film before I learn that it was about the gas crisis in the 1970s and not about witches at all. Yes. There is a real witch in this. And the film makes it a point to show her early-on so that we have no doubt as to the foul play. But it also takes careful time to make sure that you can see how the family would think Thomasin is a witch, too. And that's what makes it good. Thomasin isn't crazy religious, she is so unfortunately present when each tragedy strikes, and messing with her siblings really comes back to bite her in the ass. But the question lingers in the back of our minds how the movie will end. Is she really a witch after all? That duality plays out so incredibly well. It's impressive.


"God, srsly, is Thomasin a witch or what."

Actually, this movie ended up reminding me a lot of The Shining, where you have a family in an isolated situation that could tempt insanity, but where evil is also very clearly present. Would the family accuse their eldest daughter of being a witch if they were back in England? Is there a spell over the woods too? The soundtrack seems to suggest so! (Side note: the soundtrack and a bunch of other shots seriously reminded me of The Shining as well, maybe it's an homage.)

OKAY WE'RE DONE WITH THE SPOILERS.

The only bummer of this movie is that it's so damn depressing. Colonial times were rough enough without having to wonder whether your kids were possessed by the devil. And it's not like there were any psychiatrists around to talk you down when one of your kids went mysteriously missing. The movie is incredibly bleak, but because of this the scares really do scare a bit more effectively than they might've otherwise.

Set-wise this was also very different. The last colonial horror movie I remember seeing is An American Haunting, and the setting alone makes things incredibly creepy. Makes evil seem so ancient and unconquerable compared to slasher or supernatural films that are set today. At least we can call a priest when we need him!

8.5 outa 10. Incredibly creepy -- and this movie doesn't rely on cheap jumps, it messes with your head.


Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Deadpool: The Superhero Flick We Didn't Know We Needed

Remember when Guardians of the Galaxy came out? What a time to be alive, right? A superhero movie starring Chris Pratt that was super self aware, wasn't afraid to make fun of itself and its genre and was just good, old-fashioned, self-depricating humor.

Well then Deadpool comes along.

And while Guardians of the Galaxy is your new-wave family comedy, Deadpool is the adult comedy that we've all been waiting for.

Hi, I'm here to make super hero movies bearable for people your age.

Deadpool follows Wade Wilson, a (sort of?) hit man who now begrudgingly helps the weak. But he's no little bitch (his words, I'm sure, not mine). Life seems to be going pretty well for Wade, especially after he picks up a hot chick at a strip club and they discover that they're soul mates. There's one bummer though: Wade gets cancer. No, this is not a Fault in Our Stars scenario. In fact, Wade tries to think of ways to dodge this illness and comes up empty, until he's approached by a government man who says that he can cure him by causing his body to mutate. (Side note: this story takes place in the X-Men universe, so mutants are a thing.) After abandoning his girlfriend until he can cure himself, Wade goes through an excruciating process that's meant to pump his mutant genes into action. Needless to say, there's a nefarious head doctor. He ends up torturing Wade to the point that he gains insane healing powers, but at the cost of his dashing good looks. Wade then makes it his mission to seek his revenge on the doctor to get his looks back to normal, and ultimately marry the girl of his dreams.

But will he do it!?

So that's the plot, but I feel like I'm not doing justice to the tone of this movie.

It's like Ryan Reynolds was born to play Deadpool. The character is such a smart-ass, hilarious, lewd guy, and that is totally unexpected from most of the super hero movies that we're used to. Not to say that we don't get quips from Iron Man and or that most of the superhero movies that we've seen lately haven't stepped their game up in poking fun of the genre, but this takes it to a whole new level. Deadpool slays any expectation that the audience would've had at seeing a decent, upstanding citizen on the screen -- and the audience has been more than happy to root for an anti-hero that isn't plagued by alcoholism or inner demons or other things that bring down the mood (see: Jessica Jones or The Dark Knight).

To add to this unusual bundle of traits, Deadpool also has a tendency to break the fourth wall*. The character reveals plot holes, mentions budgets, and talks to the audience in a way that is so unusual, yet so refreshing. We know he's in a movie -- and so does he! (Side note: Deadpool is also notorious for doing this in the comics, if you care to look up some examples.)

Get it?

Honestly, one of the things that makes this movie so successful is that it's completely self-aware. It reacts to stereotypes in superhero tropes, making fun of them while simultaneously admitting that they're pretty f***ing cool. And it has fun. It's like hanging out with your older brother's hilarious, douchebag best friend for an hour and a half. Like, is he pretty gross and lewd? Sure. But is he real as hell and quick with comebacks? Hell yeah. Do you admire him for reasons that you don't understand? Exactly.

9 outa 10. Deadpool is refreshing and completely current for an audience who's tired of tropes.

Side note: ALL of the 90s R&B in this movie alone makes it worth seeing. That is all.




*Oh hey! Welcome to learning more about "breaking the fourth wall." "Breaking the fourth wall" is a term for when characters address an audience, or otherwise allude to the fact that they're in a work of fiction. This happens a lot in theater, when characters ask audience members for advice, or talk to them directly, before retreating back into the world of the work. Click here for examples.