Monday, June 18, 2018

Gremlin (2017) Review


Last week I found a movie online called The Jurassic Games, and right after I watched it, I instantly declared it my favorite movie of 2018 so far. Obviously, it’s only been a few days since then, so that’s still the case, and I liked it so much that I decided to look up the writer/director Ryan Bellgardt and check out some of his earlier work. Turns out he has two other features credited to him on IMDB, one from 2013 called Army Of Frankensteins, which I actually picked up a few years ago and just never got around to watching, and another from last year called Gremlin. Just by virtue of the insane title and the fact that it’s Bellgardt’s first movie, I probably should have started with Army of Frankensteins, but I thought it would be interesting to watch his evolution as a writer and director in reverse order, so I started with Gremlin instead, and if anything, it only makes me more excited to see what else this guy is capable of.

On the subject of titles, it’s already pretty ballsy to name your modern horror movie about a diminutive killer monster so closely to one of the most beloved horror/comedies of all time, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some people who come across Gremlin might just dismiss it out of hand based solely on the presumption. The movie doesn’t try to ape the 80’s classic or its far superior 90’s sequel in any way, instead opting for a fairly dark and effecting supernatural thriller that’s surprisingly down to Earth apart from its one clearly out there central conceit. It’s about a family already struggling with personal tragedy and festering dysfunction beset by a mysterious paranormal force that threatens to break the family bonds that were already bending, gradually escalating hardship upon hardship in ways they can’t hope to escape from and can only barely understand.

If that premise sounds eerily familiar to you, its because in the broadest strokes, it deals with a lot of the same themes as the new critically acclaimed horror film Hereditary, which I hated so much that it compelled me to return to online movie reviews after a several year hiatus, just so I could warn people about how bad it is. At the risk of sounding like a troll at this point in the middle of my Gremlin review no less, I was able to indulge in a bit of schadenfreude as I saw the parallels play out in Gremlin and actually be executed so well in contrast to how terribly these same themes were tackled in the so-called scariest film since The Exorcist. As far as I can tell, Gremlin received none of the fanfare or mainstream critical buzz of Ari Aster’s new film, and if I can in some small part remedy that past wrong, I’m happy to do so.


I don’t just bring up Hereditary because of the broad strokes either. There are clear structural similarities that I am sure are entirely coincidental, but nonetheless striking enough to make Gremlin a recommendation purely on the novelty of comparison. The biggest of these would regrettably be a major spoiler for both films, but if I can dance around it a bit, both movies start out as one thing, than dramatically shift into another at the half way point after the families involved suffer very similar tragic events that open the floodgates of supernatural evil to propel the rest of their respective narratives. The difference is that Gremlin’s narrative is actually satisfying because it comes about from an organic series of escalating complications that build upon one another and bring together the individual character arcs and the larger story, instead of just presenting a bunch of interchangeable bits of spooky imagery and random bullshit.

To be honest, apart from a solid prologue setting up an intriguing mystery, the first half of Gremlin was actually beginning to feel a bit underwhelming. You get your characters set up, each with their own personal dilemmas to seed in potential interpersonal conflict and then once the titular gremlin starts literally popping up, I was starting to wonder if this was going to turn out to just be a generic, if generally well made creature feature. This would have been perfectly fine in its own right, just nothing special, but then that plot turn punches you in the gut at the half-way mark and everything changes. Suddenly those incidental character beats start to matter more to the supernatural mechanic of the movie, with two plot beats in particular involving pregnancy and adultery becoming much more pivitol to the plot than I anticipated they would be.

At the heart of Gremlin is a curse not unlike the sexually transmitted stalker from It Follows, only instead of a death sentence that requires you to do a thing everybody loves and is probably doing anyway to pass it on, this one forces you to do something few people could ever bring themselves to do. The curse is a box containing a monster that slips out when you’re not looking and kills anything it sees. If you try to throw it away or leave it somewhere, it will always come back, and the only way to be permanently rid of it is to gift it to someone you love, condemning them to make the same choice and hope the person they choose continues the cycle, with the natural risk being that someone along that chain will inevitably hesitate or disbelieve long enough to let the monster loose. Like the It Follows curse, there are a million nitpicky ways you can deconstruct the mechanics of this, but if you’re willing to just accept that this family is human and doesn’t think with the ridged logic of someone watching a movie and analyzing in hindsight, it’s not hard to consider that you might fall into the same trap they do, letting mistakes in judgement compound and spiral out of control until the point of no return.  



The realistic way in which the characters react to and struggle with the chaos unfolding around them is what makes Gremlin more interesting than your typical monster movie. A significant section of the film deals with the family debating and then carrying out the concealment of a dead body, because they know that they wouldn’t be able to explain to the police that a magical box gremlin was the culprit. Then later, they have to grapple with the morality of complicity when they’ve been pushed to the breaking point and suddenly realize that they have a candidate for re-gifting that technically counts as a loved one, but one that they’d be willing to sacrifice if it means protecting their core family unit. Gremlin could have easily settled for a repetitive litany of special effects kill scenes, but it takes the time to explore the characters instead so that you care about them beyond how they potentially might die.

If I had one major issue with the film, its with the ending. Gremlin presents a primary conflict that is by its own stated nature essentially unresolvable, and then attempts to kind of resolve it in a way that isn’t so much disappointing, as much as it feels like the ending to a different movie altogether. I was instantly reminded of the end of 10 Cloverfield Lane, where a grounded psychological thriller suddenly just threw in an alien fight in the third act to justify the Cloverfield imprint. The ending to Gremlin is not nearly as incongruous, but it feels like a twist for the sake of a twist more at home in a pulpier movie, or a feature length episode of the 90’s Outer Limits TV show. I’m typically not a fan of ambiguous endings that leave the conclusion of a movie up to the audience’s interpretation, but I’m almost tempted to make an exception here and say that might have been better, if only because the cyclical pattern of the Gremlin curse would seem to preclude a more concrete endpoint.

There’s a good chance that you probably hadn’t heard of Gremlin before now, as I’m pretty up on new movies as they come out and it completely passed me by last year. If not for my own experience with the writer/director’s most recent film, I likely never would have had any reason to bother with it, and I’m glad I did. If you’re sick of horror movies that are too reliant on jump scares, meaningless atmospheric visuals, and other tricks to distract you from the lack of a real story, Gremlin is a fine antidote to your lazy horror fatigue that puts in the work and doesn’t put on airs. It’s not the scariest movie since The Exorcist, but its the kind of movie that actually digs deep into the humanity of its characters to derive horror from your empathy, beyond your visceral, sympathetic response of how you would feel if the circumstances of the film were happening to you. I highly recommend Gremlin, and now I get to watch a movie about an Army of Frankenstein’s monsters fighting in the Civil War with what appear to be steampunk cyborgs. So wish me luck I guess?

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Tag (2018) Review


2018 is shaping up to be a pretty good year for the kind of broad, mainstream comedies I usually hate. First we had Game Night, which managed to walk a very fine line between bubbly charm and dark, David Fincher inspired grittiness, and then Blockers re-contexualized the all in one night “gotta get laid before an arbitrary milestone” sex comedy through a modern progressive lens. Even the new Melissa McCarthy movie this year Life of the Party, while by no means good, was more in line with the inoffensively bland ones like The Heat or The Boss rather than the offensively terrible ones like Tammy or Identity Thief. And now this week we have Tag, a fun, silly little movie built on character interactions, dialogue, and clever set pieces instead of shock value, pop culture references, and endless improv that goes nowhere. Its the kind of movie that gives me hope for the state of modern comedy, which will almost certainly be dashed whenever I finally get around to seeing that Overboard remake, or Action Point, or I Feel Pretty, or Show Dogs. You know what, forget everything I just said.

Had it not been for the Goldbergs style home movie montage at the end, I would not have known that Tag was based on a true story, because it is a legitimately crazy set up that you would think would only happen in a movie. It’s about a group of adult friends who have been carrying on the same game of tag since they were kids, taking one month out of the year to chase each other around for bragging rights and keep their camaraderie alive across time, distance, and family obligations via the dumbest full contact sport conceivable. When the only one of their group to never be tagged decides to retire after his wedding day, the others agree to a temporary alliance in order to finally catch up to him, only to be continually stymied by his Sherlock Holmes style deductive combat skill and insanely agile CGI arms. Yeah, look that up for yourself, because I barely noticed it in the film so I can’t exactly criticize it, but its still a bonkers testament to the limitless potential of modern day filmmaking.


Any ensemble comedy lives and dies by its cast and its character work, and admittedly it feels like Tag is cheating a bit, assembling a group of actors you’ve seen in other comedies before playing types of characters you’ve seen them play well before, and just sort of mixing them together into a new context. Ed Helms is the same doofy everyman from The Office, Isla Fischer is the manic firecracker from Wedding Crashers, Jon Hamm is smarmy but affable, and Hannibal Buress is ponderous and deadpan. Oh, and Jake Johnson is that guy you kinda remember as the vaguely stonery comic relief character from that movie or TV show you never watched. Is it stacking the deck a little bit to have all these comedians playing to such easily recognizable types? Sure, but they mesh so well together and it works well enough that you’ll probably be willing to forgive it and just go along for the ride.

The standout, and this surprised the hell out of me, is easily Jeremy Renner. It’s not that I dislike Renner as an actor, it’s just that he’s the only member of this troupe without an obvious past comedic performance to draw any sort of expectations from, with the closest thing being his bizarre cameo in The House last year, which was more funny for the stuff that was happening to his character rather than anything he brought to the role. That he can shift so effortlessly from something like Wind River to Tag showcases a range that I wish he’d been given the opportunity to indulge in more before now, and I hope he keeps finding chances to step out of the gritty action drama box he’s been put in so often. He’s still playing the smooth, super competent action hero type, making me think this might just be what Hawkeye does when not shooting arrows at aliens, but in the margins he captures a willingness to let loose that indicates he’s having so much fun in that way that encourages you to have fun along with him.


That sort of encapsulates the whole movie for me. It doesn’t demand too much of its audience and just keeps trying to find clever and inventive ways to play around with its oddball premise. For example, you get Renner’s Sherlock style tactical narration throughout, but before it can get old, you get the same set up but with the other characters’ much less bad-ass inner monologues. Its so enjoyable to just watch the increasingly elaborate ways Renner’s character evades his pursurors and their feeble attempts to counter his gambits, especially knowing how many of these scenarios were apparently just as over the top in real life. One scene in particular set in the woods outside of a golf course escalates to an inspired level of silliness that feels like the perfect execution of the film’s central conceit. It even lets itself get a little dark now and then without spoiling the mostly upbeat tone, most notably in an assault on an AA meeting that sets up a running gag involving a miscarriage that culminates in easily the funniest line of dialogue in the entire movie.
  
Tag isn’t perfect by any means. There’s a love triangle subplot that basically goes nowhere, a whole character that follows the main cast around but doesn’t really add anything to the plot, and the ending gets a little too maudlin for my tastes, choosing to emphasis the larger theme of the groups enduring friendship where it seems to beg for a more cynical twist to undercut the schmaltz. It’s likely not something that will go down as a classic you go back to years from now, and it probably won’t end up on too many best lists, but its more than enjoyable enough to be worth the ticket price, if only to encourage more movies like it and less movies like, well, all the other movies that shoot for laughs but invariably fall flat. Tag gets the big stuff right and even manages to be a little heartwarming by the end, moving fast enough to never let the seams show or overstay its welcome, and it may be my incredibly low standards for modern comedies talking, but I think that’s good enough. Also it doesn’t have Melissa McCarthy in it, and if I gave letter grades, that would merit a whole grade up in my book. 

Saturday, June 16, 2018

I Have Podcasts!

It suddenly occurs to me that since I started blogging again, I haven't pimped the fact that I have two ongoing podcasts you can enjoy!

The first is called The Dirty Sons Of Pitches, where my friend and writing partner Nate Zoebl and I talk about the new movies of the week and pitch movie ideas based on them. We also play a really dumb game afterwards involving bad Gene Shalit impressions.

http://sonsofpitches.libsyn.com

https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/dirty-sons-of-pitches/id511780183?mt=2

The second is called Saturday Night Jive, where my brother and I watch and review a typically obscure movie featuring a randomly selected SNL cast member, due to a weird mutation of our original format that proved unworkable.

http://saturdaynightjive.blogspot.com/

https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/saturday-night-jive-podcast/id790767956?mt=2

Check em out if you want.

Friday, June 15, 2018

The Jurassic Games (2018) Review


Growing up on straight to video Full Moon movies and Cannon films schlock has instilled within me a pretty high tolerance for B movie cheese. While many might scoff at the bad special effects, poor acting, or generally low production values of say an Asylum film, I’m usually able to look past those technical problems as long as there’s an interesting story, well told, with characters I come to care about over the course of the narrative. Still, it is extremely rare that a low budget movie released directly to now VOD is good enough to break into my top ten for the year, and I didn’t anticipate it happening this year, that is until I saw The Jurassic Games. I heard about this one last year and it sounded like everything I could ever want in a movie - Jurassic Park meets The Hunger Games (or Battle Royale, or The Running Man, or Turkey Shoot, etc), and I am delighted to say that it lived up to my wildest expectations.

Do I need to recap the plot of this movie for you? It’s called The Jurassic Games and the cynical “this movie meets that movie” pitch structure is literally built into the title. Just go watch it right now. Seriously, I don’t even care what kind of movies you think you like or what your personal tastes are. Stop reading this review, go see this movie, and then come back when you’ve had time to change your pants after you stopped furiously ejaculating into them. The Jurassic Games is exactly what you think it is and exactly as awesome as you want it to be, and if you don’t like it, I’m sorry, but you need to just stop watching movies, because nothing is ever going to be good enough for you, and frankly you just don’t deserve good things in your life. It’s the Hunger Games, with god-damn, motherfucking dinosaurs in it. What more do you people want?


Of course, that isn’t entirely true. What I’m about to reveal about the premise of the movie might feel like something that completely ruins any fun to be had, and it almost did for me until every other aspect of the film was the best thing ever in the history of things. You see, the dinosaurs in this movie aren’t real. This isn’t a world where dinosaurs have been genetically engineered and brought back to life or just never went extinct. The dinosaurs are part of a virtual reality program, and I know the narrative purpose for this, to provide the film with just enough of a sliver of plausibility so that the audience can suspend its disbelief at least as well as in say, The Purge franchise. Still, come on, you just viscerally want these to be real dinosaurs chomping on people, and for most of the movie, this was the one big thing that was holding me back from calling The Jurassic Games an unqualified success even as every other facet of it had me hooked. And then the third act exploded awesomeness all over my face and waited until literally the last shot of the movie to completely justify the VR mechanic in one insane image, as if it were just flat out telling me to go fuck myself for ever questioning that it would.

Okay, so…the plot. The movie opens with a quote from one of my favorite George Carlin bits, about turning capital punishment into a reality show to distract the masses. The Jurassic Games is that, just in VR with dinosaurs. Murderous volunteers culled from death row are given one chance for a full pardon if they can be the last to survive for an hour in a place literally designed to kill them where dying in the game means an instant lethal injection in the real world, just before feeling the very real pain of being mauled by a prehistoric monster, or taken out by a fellow contestant. All of this is televised to a dumbed down populace with a few glimmers of resistance to what gradually appears to be a vaguely dystopian society, complete with Verhoven-esque media satire like commercials for convicted killer action figures and instant replays of hapless victims being thrown around in a T-Rex’s mouth. Again, I feel like I shouldn’t have to keep taking about this stuff to get you to see this movie.

This set up provides the perfect platform for organic exposition and character development. It’s a bunch of crazy archetypes thrown together into an even crazier situation, left to form alliances or fend for themselves and ultimately reveal who they are as people through action and dialogue, with any other necessary information and backstory filled in by programming inserts from the TV show they’re all on. As characters, the contestants are all fairly standard for this sort of thing - of course our hero is a guy who claims to have been wrongfully convicted, the one who seems innocent at first is really a sociopath, and the guy who seems like a raving hillbilly cannibal is a raving hillbilly cannibal. They’re the types you’d find in the videogame version of a story like this, but the movie goes out of its way to play with your expectations about them, either subverting them, or rewarding them just after it trained you to expect subversion.


For instance, the save the cat moment we get with our hero finds him rescuing a young woman from a hulking rapist, and because you know how movies work, you assume this is The Jurassic Games equivalent to a meet-cute, and we’ll eventually find out that if this damsel is guilty at all, it will probably be for something justifiable that we can forgive her for so that they can fall in love. Then she turns out to be a vicious, unrepentant serial killer, so the movie introduces another girl and you think that this one will be the REAL romantic love interest, and then she’s even worse! And the fact that the good guy is the one sympathetic character in a group of monsters isn’t just a shortcut for the audience to like him; it becomes a plot point as the viewers begin to root for him and his story of innocence becomes a ratings ploy, adding to the satirical side of the movie. Then you have the Pablo Escobar-esque drug kingpin who’s still trying to use his influence on the outside to blackmail people in the game by exploiting their families, or the Chinese dissident who has a freaking kung fu fight with three velociraptors in the maze from The Maze Runner. I feel like I should repeat that. There is a kung fu fight with three velociraptors in this movie. The guy even does that “come and get it” finger beckoning thing…to a velociraptor!

All of this chaos is presided over by The Host, played with smarmy abandoned by Ryan Merriman, whose face I was trying to place for the entire film until I realized I was remembering him from a cheesy Disney Channel Original Movie from the early 2000’s about leprechauns playing basketball. He’s easily the highlight of the movie, acting as the greedy, amoral narrator of events, and thankfully eschewing the weird stare acting of Wes Bentley’s similar role in the Hunger Games in favor of a clear homage to Richard Dawson’s Killian from The Running Man, by way of an even more dickish Ryan Seacrest. Given what kind of movie this is, it shouldn’t count as a spoiler to say that he naturally gets his own bloody and hubris-laden comeuppance in the end, but it is so satisfying when it happens, if only because he gears you up to hate him so well that you’re willing to ignore the fact that it goes against the anti-death penalty message of the movie to punish him with such a gruesome death, and because it represents the second or third in a series of five or six rapidly escalating payoffs in the final minutes.  

If I could say I had one major problem with The Jurassic Games, its that there’s a brief lull in the action late in the second act, where it begins to feel like the dinosaurs are almost superfluous to the story, or at least being somewhat taken for granted as a threat. There are several kills where the dinosaurs aren’t involved at all, which would be fine if it were characters killing each other, but then one of them gets eaten by a killer plant, or a swarm of giant bugs, and it kind of loses focus on the central conceit that drew me in, at least until the last third brings it all back sharply. Also, the VR element does present some unnecessary questions, like why they would insert Brontosauruses into the game. It’s the opposite of the problem from the Jurassic Park movies, where you wonder why they would risk re-creating dinosaurs that ate people; here you wonder why they would bother populating a virtual reality world with any dinosaurs that wouldn’t eat people. And all the players have collars that make their heads explode if they cheat or refuse to play, but if this is VR and the lethal injection happens seconds later in the real world anyway, wouldn’t you want a slower, pain inducing method of correction rather than a vaporizing instant death?


Overall, these are minor nitpicks, as the totality of The Jurassic Games is a nearly pitch perfect execution of a concept that would have been so easy to screw up by either being too self-aware and meta, or just too slap dash and unwieldy. There is a point towards the start of the film where all of the contestants are just dropped in, and they first see the dinosaurs and begin to grapple with the reality they are now facing, and the camera pans over to one of them who despite the terrifying thing in front of him, smiles to himself. Then a few seconds later, he’s the first one to be eaten, because this movie is so awesome that its willing to introduce an incredibly interesting character with one shot of his odd reaction, and then immediately dismiss all the potential this movie could have had with them, because it knows how great everything else is going to be, so it doesn’t even matter that he’s dead. If I was going to rate The Jurassic Games on a scale of “completely flaccid” to “painfully erect,” it would get a “my dick rips itself from my body and rockets into space.” Drop whatever you’re doing and buy it now. What in the VR dinosaur hell are you waiting for?!?

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Incredibles 2 (2018) Review


It seems weird to say that I’ve always felt a little bit conflicted by the prospect of an Incredibles 2, considering its been fourteen years since the original, even as its never stopped feeling like a foregone conclusion we’d inevitably get another one. The first Incredibles is still my personal favorite Pixar movie, and arguably one of the best animated movies of all time, and over the the years we’ve seen several franchises built out of other Pixar properties with far less depth and potential for expansion. My concern has always been that these other sequels have often been mediocre (Monsters University, Finding Dory) to outright terrible (Cars, Cars, and more Cars), with the Toy Story trilogy being the only one that really worked at all, and even then, there’s always been the sense that Pixar was leveraging the goodwill they developed with their earlier movies to cash in rather than maintain what appeared to be their almost slavish commitment to quality storytelling. The Incredibles was really the only Pixar movie that ever seemed to me to actually demand further adventures, and thankfully I’m happy to report that it was more than worth the wait.

Incredibles 2 starts off literally exactly where the first film left off with the titular heroes defending the city against the subterranean Underminer and his giant drill tank. Unfortunately the battle doesn’t go very well, and a resulting public relations backlash forces the superhero relocation program to shut down, leaving the Parr family with few options, until help arrives from a pair of wealthy sibling superfans with a plan to bring supers back into the limelight, and hopefully create enough support to overturn the superhero ban altogether. This time around the story focuses more on Elastigirl’s heroic aspirations, with her greater popularity pushing her to the forefront of the pro-super campaign, forcing her husband Mr. Incredible into the role of reluctant stay at home dad. If the first movie was the superhero take on a man’s mid-life crisis, this new story is its take on a woman’s drive to break the glass ceiling, and it provides a nice contrast to the previous film that actually allows for a little more room in the narrative to let the ensemble develop as everyone has to learn how to cope with this new paradigm.


The problem with this is that I kept having to remind myself that The Incredibles exist in this strange hybrid universe of modern and retro sensibilities where the expectations of the traditional nuclear family still go mostly unquestioned, assigning old school gender roles without much in the way of contemporary subversion or examination, even as the narrative challenges those very assumptions. Mr. Incredible’s instantaneous jealousy over his wife’s greater popularity, as well as his frustration at being forced to take on his wife’s former duties and forego what he had always considered to be the man’s responsibility as provider, are played for comedy, and a more modern character, or a movie more concerned with modern perspectives, would at some point acknowledge the sense of male entitlement that suggests about him. Throughout the film he learns to accept that the partnership inherent in his marriage is strong enough to account for this new balance, but some of the moments watching him get there were a bit cringeworthy only because I had liked his character so much from the first film, and had kind of just assumed he was already there and didn’t need to learn this lesson.

Its a minor quibble, as for the most part the character work in this movie is on point and in line with the first film. Everyone gets their moment to shine and contribute to the larger ensemble arc, including all the people you love and a host of new ones that fit in with the original cast very well. The older daughter Violet gets a nice little side story about balancing her new found zeal for crime-fighting with trying to live a normal life, and the younger son Dash continues to struggle with his super speedy ADHD hyperactivity, but the clear highlight of the movie is baby Jack Jack. The fact that I’m able to say that was probably my biggest surprise, as just based on the trailers I was positively dreading the larger emphasis on the cute little baby trope, but every time he revealed a new superpower or a previously revealed superpower paid off for a story point or interesting action set piece, it was a highlight, not the least of which being a mad cap chase sequence in the third act that brings all of them together in a rare moment of wacky cartoonish mayhem for one of the more grounded Pixar worlds.


It’s the cumulative effect of a lot of smaller incidental elements like that sequence that makes Incredibles 2 so much fun. Little things like Elastigirl’s motorcycle being specifically designed to exploit her stretching ability turn what could have otherwise been a fairly simple train chase into a completely unique and visually interesting variation on Fast and Furious style vehicle action that only this movie could have done this well. We also get a whole new team of young superheroes inspired by Elastigirl to come out of hiding, and each one has a superpower that at first blush seems like a standard comic book concept, but when they’re unleashed all at once their abilities all blend together so well into this perfectly orchestrated panoply of action-packed insanity very rarely scene even in live action superhero movies outside of the famous airplane scene in Captain America: Civil War. At so many points the movie takes full advantage of being a sequel in a way that few manage to accomplish, recognizing that it doesn’t have to spend so much time setting up the world, and actually taking the opportunity to just live in it and explore fun new things about it.

If I had one other minor complaint about the movie, its in the twist surrounding the nature of the main villain. I won’t spoil it here, but you’ll probably see it coming from miles away, and it’s not nearly a big enough reveal to justify the build up. I actually guessed it months ago from reading a casting notice before the first round of trailers even came out, and while it’s not necessarily a huge problem since enjoying the film is not dependent on being surprised, the story is still structured with it being a surprise, so it’s a little annoying that it’s so telegraphed. One interesting thing to note about the villain is that the politics seem to have switched around completely from the first film. The Incredibles embraced a clearly Randian ideal that social inequality was a natural and perfectly acceptable consequence of meritocracy, with Syndrome’s goal of democratizing superpowers being a threat to that worldview. This time around there’s a similarly conservative message that over-reliance on protection from powerful people and institutions, be they superheroes or governments, makes us soft, but this message is coming from the villain, and the heroes come to embody a much more altruistic and much more liberal point of view that if you see something wrong and have the power to stop it, it is a moral imperative to try.

Incredibles 2 is actually better than the first film in almost all but the most important ways. Its more inventive, more visually interesting, and just more fun to watch. Its the big stuff, narrative, characterization, thematic resonance, where the original outshines the new and remains the more significant achievement. There is never a moment in the new film like Mr. Incredible breaking down in front of his wife and admitting the thing he fears most is losing her again, or like Elastigirl being forced to tell her children how dangerous the world really is, taking away their innocence for their own protection. Incredibles 2 never really escapes the feeling like its just playing around in the sandbox of a much bigger and more well-realized idea, but its so satisfying to watch it play that it doesn’t really matter in the end. Yes, technically Incredibles 2 is not quite as good as one of the best movies to ever come out of one of the best production houses currently working today, but its still no doubt far better than the vast majority of movies you’re going to see this year, and its easily a must see. 

Sunday, June 10, 2018

First Reformed (2018) Review


First Reformed is not a movie that you would ever think would require a spoiler warning. There are no superheroes in it and it doesn’t end with a post-credit sequence setting up the Paul Schrader Cinematic Universe (though I would totally watch the hell out of that). Its the kind of small scale indie character-driven drama you’re likely to see in a tiny art house theater like I just did with a smattering of oldies and hipsters. Or rather, that’s how it starts, but as it gradually digs deeper into the dark, slowly deteriorating inner life of its protagonist, it builds to a climax that manages to be both shocking and surprising even as it feels like the only thing that could have happened if you were paying attention to what was being set up throughout the film. It isn’t a twist ending as such, even if it does wrap up at the diametrically opposite end from where it started, but precisely because it is so well-executed that it only seems so obvious right after you realize what’s going on, I almost don’t want to say anything else about the movie except to emphatically recommend you go see it while you can. Of course I am going to say more things, because what would the self-indulgent exercise of online film criticism be without verbosity?

First Reformed follows Reverend Toller, a former military chaplan turned small town pastor of a church with almost no congregants, financially maintained by a donor base of wealthy patrons as a local historical monument and occasional tourist attraction. Toller has been placed here as a steward and figurehead content to pass off most serious issues relating to the moral well being of his parishioners to the bigger, more corporately minded mega-church down the street. That is, until one of his flock insists that he talk to her husband, an environmental activists whose despair about the future stability of the planet has convinced him to demand his wife abort their unborn child. The reverend debates the activist in a sequence that takes up a significant portion of the first act, and that might try the patience of some viewers used to more fast paced blockbusters, but its a conversation that opens the door to an ideological and personal conflict for Toller that propels him through the rest of the film and takes him to a place that’s more than worth the slow build-up.


To be honest, slow might actually be a bit of an understatement. First Reformed is the slowest of slow burns, and your ability to fully appreciate it will almost certainly depend on how much lee-way your willing to give the film before everything comes together in the final act. Though it is otherwise a very different film, I was strangely reminded of Yorgos Lanthimos’ last movie The Killing Of A Sacred Deer, which similarly but for a completely different stylistic purpose seems to almost revel in the quiet banality of its main characters’ lives. In the first half of First Reformed you see the repetitive cycle of Toller’s daily chores, taking out the trash, fixing the toilet in the men’s room, and tending to the graveyard behind the church, and it takes a good hour or so before these simple everyday moments begin to coalesce and take on greater significance as he struggles to maintain the facade of a soft-spoken pillar of the community while his psyche is crumbling on the inside.

I obviously want to leave the specific details of his descent into darkness unspoiled, except to say that the film posits a primary character arc and ultimate conclusion that on paper would seem to be completely unbelievable, and then proceeds to justify them so completely that there doesn’t seem to be anywhere else the character could have gone in retrospect, much like how Breaking Bad managed to convince you that a milquetoast highschool chemistry teacher could transform into a ruthless meth kingpin over the course of five seasons. Ethan Hawke likewise imbues his bad breaking clergyman with the quiet, smoldering intensity of a man who has suffered multiple tragedies while maintaining a Job-like adherence to his faith in God, only to lose all faith in his fellow man or in any kind of happy future for himself. Amanda Seyfried plays the wife of the environmental activist who sets Toller on his journey, ingratiating herself into his life as a source of innocence and hope to counterbalance his growing certainty that neither exists for him anymore. In the end, her presence in his life presents him a final choice of whether to reject her and complete the downward path he’s on, or let her save him from it, and while I would have preferred a more ambiguous resolution to that choice, the last shot of the film manages to provide a cathartic release for the rapidly escalating tension of the moments preceding it that I appreciated nonetheless.


In many ways, First Reformed is a movie intensely preoccupied with the concept of salvation, both in the Christian context and the more universal human one. Its about what happens when you get it, what happens when you take it for granted, and what happens when you discover its limits. Its also a powerful mediation on forgiveness, what we can and cannot forgive, and what we can and cannot be forgiven for. On another level, at least for me, it represents the salvation of its director Paul Schrader, who you may know as the writer of most of Martin Scorsese’s best movies, or as the director of some wonderfully dark and gritty films of his own like Hardcore and Auto Focus. Or you may know him as the guy who thought it was a good idea to make The Canyons, a movie with the production values of a telenovela about shallow, listless Hollywood kids starring porn actor James Dean and future porn actress Lindsey Lohan. Having not seen the two straight to VOD Nicolas Cage movies he made after that abomination, I can’t honestly say if they were any good, so I don’t know if this is a return to form for Schrader, or the continuation of an upward trend. In any case, I never thought I’d be able to forgive Paul Schrader for unleashing The Canyons into the world, but First Reformed has renewed my faith in one of my favorite director’s abilities to make good movies again, so maybe, just maybe, that means that God really is watching over us after all.

But still no, probably not. 

Saturday, June 9, 2018

The Strangers: Prey At Night (2018) Review


I am almost certain that I saw The Strangers when it originally came out back in 2008, but even as I say that, I don’t remember anything about the movie that wasn’t in the trailer, and I’m beginning to wonder if maybe that’s all I saw, and I’ve just invented the whole experience of seeing the full film in my head in retrospect. I’m only considering this now as a possibility because I am also almost certain that ten years from now when The Strangers 3: Strangers In A Strange Land comes out to the excitement of no one, I will also likely find myself struggling to remember if I actually saw the second film in the franchise, Strangers: Prey At Night or just the ads. I literally just watched this movie five minutes ago from the comfort of my own home, and it was either completely unmemorable, or it somehow gave me early onset Alzheimer’s disease.

I distinctly remember the trailer to this new Strangers outing, because it was one of the dumbest in recent memory. If you didn’t catch it, the set up presented your standard slasher formula with a group of people trapped in a secluded area being stalked by faceless killers in spooky masks, but then half way through, the scary music switched over to Tiffany’s “I Think We’re Alone Now” for no discernible reason, instantly removing any promise of tension the previous images might have suggested. At the time I just assumed this was a bit of too clever by half marketing done in the wake of Suicide Squad’s famous Bohemian Rhapsody ad that prompted a full on re-edit of the movie it was advertising. What I did not anticipate was that random kitchy 80’s music drops placed over the score with no apparent context would turn out to be this movies primary motif.

The plot is unremarkable to say the least: a family spending the weekend in a trailer cabin is stalked by what I think is implied to be another family of psychopaths who pick them off one by one, blah blah, final girl, blah blah. The music on the other hand almost pushes the movie into “so bad its good” territory, just with how blatant it is at trying to force a style onto material that was clearly filmed with no such style in mind. The kills are especially boring and unimaginative, but every time one of the killers approaches a victim, a random 80’s song starts playing out of nowhere, as if to beg the audience to appreciate what I think was a half-formed attempt at meta commentary beginning and ending with the superficial understanding that slasher movies were big in the 80’s and uptempo 80’s pop music would be cute juxtaposed against horrific violence.


Is it possible that an unfinished excuse for an idea like that combined with the perceived cache of an at best marginally well known IP is enough to green light a sequel to a movie ten years after the original? I didn’t think even I was that cynical, but there is literally nothing else about this movie that I can see anyone pitching a studio on. It’s not even like its set in the 80’s, which I assumed was the case until the teens brought out their smart phones, and its not satirizing or directly parodying anything related to the 80’ even if it is shamelessly cannibalizing the tropes of 80’s slashers because it has nothing original or interesting to do on its own. It’s just the music, and they don't even take the time to pick songs that have lyrics with ironic relevance to the action on screen to match the ironic tonal inconsistency. And come to think of it, I'm pretty sure "I Think We're Alone Now," the only one I can think of that would have had ironic relevance was switched out with a different song in the actual movie! It might seem like I’m harping on this, but its so obtrusive and annoying that it makes everything else that’s terrible about the movie pale in comparison.

There’s a scene at about the midway point where one of the characters is pinned inside of a crashed vehicle, helplessly watching as one of the killers approaches. The killer climbs into the passenger seat and his posture suggests that he’s relishing the opportunity to take his time on a prone victim, which might have been a creepy moment, except he takes time out to slowly turn on the radio and methodically find a station playing an 80’s song before he starts carving into his prey, as if its a required ritual before the bloodletting. I’m reminded of a joke from of all things the Adam Sandler comedy That’s My Boy, where Sandler’s drunken loser protagonist and his inexplicable best friend Vanilla Ice are racing to stop a wedding, and when their car ends up in a ditch, its revealed that the Meatloaf song scoring the scene was actually playing on a mix-tape, prompting Sander’s character to worry that he won’t be able to make it without his “kickin’ tunes”. It’s like that, but in a freaking horror movie that wants you to take it at least somewhat seriously.

This actually gets at one of the fundamental problems with how the music is specifically integrated into the action of the film - its diegetic to the story. These songs aren’t just playing over the soundtrack, it has to be presumed based on the sound design that the characters in the movie can actually hear the music as it plays. An earlier scene finds the mother and daughter trapped in a bathroom with the killer stabbing in the door, and as they attempt to escape through the skylight, the music continues, but muffled on the outside, so its clearly playing inside the house. There is no indication of exactly where the music is coming from, so we have to assume that the killer is wearing a hipstery 80’s walkman and turned it on just before deciding to attack. If this had been the joke, it might have worked if executed well, like maybe having the victims hear the catchy songs as ominous warnings or even use hearing the music as a tactical advantage, but there is otherwise no acknowledgement that its even happening. Later, Total Eclipse of the Heart is heard while a victim is attacked in a pool, but it is drowned out whenever he goes underwater, implying that we are hearing it as he does, which means the killer took the time to find a speaker system beforehand, because you just can’t put an axe in a dude without spinning that Bonnie Tyler LP first.


Admittedly, I’m focusing so much on this one stylistic element because the movie has so little else to offer even in things bad enough to criticize, which isn’t to say that the rest is good, but rather its so bland that I can barely summon up the ire to protest. You can imagine how well-written the movie is for example when the best line of dialogue concerns a man stubbornly insisting that the people around him explain to him what a queef is. And while I hate to boil down a movie like this to the creativity of the kills, I would be remiss in not mentioning just how startling the lack of creativity is here. There is nothing remotely memorable about any of the murder set-pieces, and since nothing else surrounding them tries to do anything either, I just can’t fathom what anyone might have seen in this exercise worth doing. Normally I would be incensed by the opening note that the film is “Based on True Events” but I’ve long since given up on railing against this trend in modern horror movies, still I do call BS, as the only way a movie this generic could possibly be based on a true story is if the producers are trying to say its based on literally any time anyone has ever been murdered, or just the general concept of murder itself.

In the end, I guess I just wonder if the central conceit of the original film was ever substantial enough to sustain a sequel even if the best possible creative minds were behind it. There are only so many motionless creepy masks you can throw out at us before the image just gets boring without another gimmick to go along with it, and it feels like the Purge franchise has taken all the good ones in the last decade anyway, while adding on a political angle to keep the creepy killer thing fresh enough across at least four movies and a proposed TV show.And the reveal that these killers have no real ideology or agenda beyond random murder and that their specific identities are irrelevant is carried over to this film, but there are several moments when the prospect of pulling off their masks and revealing their true faces is treated like a suspenseful cathartic release, when the whole point is that they’re nobodies and there is no mystery attached to who they are. The Strangers: Prey At Night is as empty and meaningless as its antagonists, the reveal behind the mask being exactly as uninspired as it should be and as you would expect, but not in a meta-textual or thematic way that might have been satisfying, because the only themes we get are crappy 80’s songs. You probably skipped this when it came out, and you were right in doing so. 
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