Tuesday, January 2, 2018
Paul Conway is a 13-year-old boy whose IQ exceeds most children his age, but he's also lacking in any proper social skills. Nicknamed "Piggy" because of his weight and mocked by his peers, Paul's only friend is a robot he's created, BeeBee. Following a death he accidentally caused at his previous school and the subsequent divorce of his parents, Paul moves into the town of Welling with BeeBee and his mother, newly single Jeannie. Paul manages to befriend another boy named Tom, nicknamed Slime, and his next-door neighbor, 11-year-old Samantha Pringle, a beautiful young girl he finds himself falling in love with. However, Samantha, also a child of divorced parents, is abused at home by her father Harry, an alcoholic. When both Samantha and BeeBee are taken away from this world by the cruel winds of fate, Paul can't accept this as he cannot let Samantha go. He steals her dead body and uses his gifts of genius to bring her back from beyond the grave, only to discover too late that she's turned into a terrifying force of vengeance-driven destruction.
My first experience with Henstell's story, truth be told, wasn't with the book. My introduction to the material was with its 1986 film adaptation, Deadly Friend, one of horror director Wes Craven's lesser-known works. It was a film I enjoyed, and I still do to this day, but I acknowledge its multitude of flaws (which I can't necessarily blame Craven for if its troubled production complete with negative scores and reactions from preview audiences at test screenings and studio-mandated re-writes, re-shoots, and re-editing are anything to go by), one of which being that there are much more interesting and even thoughtful directions that can be taken with this kind of story, especially one with such a dark yet powerful emotional underpinning seemingly at its center, than resorting to cranked-up jump scares and unintentionally hilarious sequences of jarring, out-of-place violence and gore. Henstell's book gave me that and then some.
The story, at its core, is a tragic love story between a mentally unbalanced boy with no friends and a troubled past and a shy girl who's beaten at home with hardly anyone else in town batting an eye and takes her subsequent post-resurrection rage out on those who wronged her. But there's more to it than simply that. Much like Shelley's Frankenstein, the story is also a dark and uncompromising look at the dangers of meddling in the domain of those of a much higher power. In the book, it's explained that Paul is a vehement agnostic, a person who doesn't believe that the existence of God can be proven. This is what turns his professor at school and much of the townspeople against him and BeeBee. They see these two as anomalies, spectacles, no-good troublemakers.
Another compelling layer to the story that makes it stand out from others of its ilk is how Samantha, even when she's brought back to life as a monster that kills people, isn't the true villain of the story. The true villain of Friend is the town of Welling, specifically its people. People who don't care about the world around them. People who know what's going on with Samantha back at home but don't care enough to do anything about it. They just go on with their lives. It's this type of callousness that's arguably the most frightening aspect of the story. It's them where the true evil resides within, not Samantha, living or dead. It's a story about the unpredictability of those around her and the evil that men do.
What makes this story work so strikingly well is how well Henstell draws her characters. One of the most interesting characters in the story is Harry, Samantha's father who routinely beats her and makes her do everything around the house, from cooking to cleaning. His wife Grace left him for another man due to his violent ways and Sam had to stay with him and not her. It's because of Grace's actions that he resorts to alcoholism and violently abusing Samantha, using her as a vent for his rage and feelings of jealousy and rejection. He feels so rejected that he even stares at Paul's mother Jeannie in her nightgown through his window at night and narrates disturbing rape fantasies to himself. Henstell wisely doesn't attempt to make Harry's character sympathetic because of his actions but at the same time we are able to understand why he is the way he is.
Jeannie is also one of the most interesting characters in the book, as well as one of the best-written and most complex in terms of motivation and development. As opposed to the film adaptation where she is almost a non-event and doesn't really have that much of a purpose to serve to the story, Jeannie is a troubled character in the novel whose relationship with Paul is on increasingly thin ice following the accident, the divorce, and the move. She's haunted not just by the accident but by her separation from her husband who was cheating on her with another woman. She struggles with wanting to give Paul his own space while also wanting to properly care for him and be motherly towards him. She struggles with wanting Tony back in her life while also wanting to move on and date other people.
Of course, since this is a dark romance, it's the love story between Paul and Samantha that shines the brightest in the story. These are two characters who have both dealt with and suffered from tragedy in their lives, with Piggy's in the past and Sam's ongoing, and this is what makes these two bond with one another and connect. Paul can relate to Sam's ongoing pain and her anger as a result of her parents' separation from personal experience. Even when Sam is turned into a murderous creature, Paul can't let her go no matter what she does. She's a monster, but he still loves her, because he understands why she's become a monster. The image of a lonely boy dragging his dead friend through the streets in the dark of night and cold of weather is undoubtedly effective. Their characters' relationship is realistic and endearing and it's this, along with Paul's refusal to let nature take its course, that gives the story heart. This is especially evident in the bleak, bittersweet ending, a masterfully crafted conclusion that's rich with poignancy and is the perfect way to bring closure to this story.
FINAL SCORE: 10/10
Friend, even during its darkest and most unsettling moments, is a beautiful little gem of a book that deserves another shot at being adapted. It's a shame that greedy studio executives more passionate about money than art failed to see the heart of the story and instead demanded the pointless, off-putting addition of senseless violence. With this book, Diana Henstell has crafted something truly special and unique. It's one of my favorite books and it earns my highest recommendation.
Tuesday, December 19, 2017
Months after the events of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and inspired by Kal-El/Clark Kent/Superman's (Henry Cavill) sacrifice for humanity, Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck) and Princess Diana/Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) unite a team consisting of Barry Allen/The Flash (Ezra Miller), Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Momoa), and Victor Stone/Cyborg (Ray Fisher) to face the catastrophic threat of Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds) and his army of Parademons, who are on the hunt for three Mother Boxes on Earth.
Starting in the spring of 2016, it seemed as if the executives at Warner Bros. made it their mission in life to actively anger moviegoers and ruin their DC Extended Universe. They demanded Zack Snyder cut over thirty minutes out of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, resulting in a confused mess of a theatrical cut that made no sense and was insanely hard to follow. They ordered David Ayer to write the script for Suicide Squad in six weeks with an already-set release date and demanded reshoots to drastically alter Ayer’s initial vision for the film with disastrous results. And now, they strike a third time.
In March of this year, director Zack Snyder’s daughter Autumn tragically committed suicide, which led to Snyder leaving the project to be with his family in this time of grief. It was initially reported that Snyder knew the film needed more work so he hired Joss Whedon to write additional scenes for the film, and when he left, Whedon was hired to also direct those additional scenes and stick around for post-production. But then I’ve been hearing about how it was actually the decision of Geoff Johns and the higher-ups at the studio to hire Whedon and not Snyder’s, and after I saw this, I’m inclined to believe that.
So what does work about Justice League? Quite a few things, actually. First, the cast. The actors are all trying really hard to make this work and they do deliver impressive performances. Ben Affleck is still good as Batman, although you can definitely tell in a few scenes that he really doesn’t want to be there. There have been several rumors that he wants to leave the DC Extended Universe, and if he does, I don’t blame him. You can tell from his facial expressions that things weren’t going the way he had hoped.
Gal Gadot is the highlight as Wonder Woman, still embodying the character and getting her down right to the last detail just like she did in her solo film and in her short appearance in Batman v Superman. She also has a couple scenes with Batman that reminded me of how they were portrayed in the Justice League animated series. Jason Momoa is my favorite new addition as a more hard-eged, alcoholic version of Aquaman. I just loved how energetic he is and his personality made the character a lot of fun to watch, which bodes well for his upcoming solo film.
Ray Fisher is also a decent new addition as Cyborg, one of the more tragic characters in the film as he doesn’t want to be what he is now and wishes his father would've just let him rest in peace. His character was initially conceived to be the heart of the film before rewrites and reshoots ended up giving him the shaft, which is really disappointing. Ezra Miller is also fine as The Flash, for the most part, and you can tell he’s having a lot of fun playing the character. The camaraderie between the League is well-handled and you can see that they have chemistry with one another.
The film’s action sequences are also entertaining to watch and it helps that it’s beautifully shot, as usual for a Zack Snyder film. Fabian Wagner and Jean-Philippe Gossart’s cinematography is very much solid from beginning to end, even if it’s a bit too reminiscent of Seamus McGarvey’s work on The Avengers, and the fact that they're both shot in the same aspect ratio isn't really helping matters. There’s a lot of visually stunning imagery on display here. I know Danny Elfman’s score has gotten a lot of flak but I personally thought Elfman did a decent job and I liked how he managed to incorporate the classic Batman and Superman themes into the music.
Also, let’s talk about Henry Cavill. Yes, Superman does come back in this film, and I will admit, I thought his resurrection was well-handled, even if it could've been better. I liked how when we wakes up, he’s confused and the only memories he has of Batman are when he was trying to kill him in Batman v Superman, so he fights the League but he encounters Lois and they fly away to Smallville so he can calm down and recover his memories. When he comes back to join the League, he ends up acting and feeling more like the classic Superman from the original comics and the Richard Donner films and Cavill plays it so well. He’s completely charismatic and it bodes well for a potential solo Man of Steel sequel.
So, yes, all of this resulted in me having a decent enough time with this film and giving it a pass. However, you can tell that Snyder’s vision has been compromised and royally botched. I normally love Joss Whedon, but my God does his extended involvement hurt this film. There’s a really awesome scene with Batman chasing a criminal only to be ruined by the comedic tone and Batman acting out-of-character by literally saying Alfred’s name. Batman doesn’t seem to care about keeping his identity a secret, which leads me to believe that Whedon doesn't at all understand the character.
There’s also a lot of painfully forced humor, specifically with The Flash, who cracks jokes about him looking like a snack, him not understanding brunch at all, him being a Batman fanboy, and there’s even a scene played for laughs where he accidentally lands on Wonder Woman’s chest and falls on her breasts. There’s also a scene where Martha Kent is talking with Lois Lane and she accidentally misquotes Clark and calls her thirsty instead of hungry. Hungry as in passionate about her job, thirsty as in desperately wanting sex. Not all of them are bad, some did admittedly get a chuckle out of me, they are so painfully out of place and the change in tone doesn’t feel earned.
Justice League is a film that's in desperate need of an identity. It reeks of a botched, compromised product that doesn’t know if it wants to be one thing or another. I know it was intended from the beginning to be lighter than the previous films, but what I thought was that it would be along the lines of Wonder Woman, a film that takes itself seriously but knows when it's the right time to take a breather and lighten up, and has a hopeful and optimistic sense of spirit and heart at its center. But no, instead we get a mostly lame attempt to copy Marvel, sacrificing potentially interesting and complex ideas for the sake of pandering and playing catch-up.
Several scenes that popped up in the trailers, such as Alfred talking to Superman about hoping he’s not too late, aren’t even in the film. Warner Bros. head honcho Kevin Tsujihara wanted the film to be cut down to two hours and rush post-production to meet the November 17th release date just so he can get his bonus. It’s disastrous. It results in utterly clumsy editing and several characters being underdeveloped, as well as certain subplots and story arcs going nowhere in the end. There are some genuinely emotional scenes with Aquaman and Mera, Barry Allen and his father Henry, and Victor Stone and his father Silas that don’t really lead to anything. The Knightmare sequence, the Flash cameo (minus Lois Lane being the key), Lex Luthor’s warning, and the dirt rising from Superman’s grave, all from Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, all seem to be forgotten about.
The rushed post-production and studio mandates especially hurt the effects. For a film with a gigantic budget of $300 million, making it the third most expensive film ever made, the CGI is shockingly uneven. Some parts look pretty good while others look downright awful, such as Superman’s upper lip and even Steppenwolf. Speaking of Steppenwolf, good Lord is he such a boring villain. He’s to this franchise what Malekith is to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. His motivation is that he wants all three Mother Boxes so, in an an attempt to join the New Gods and please his nephew Darkseid, he can take over the world and terraform to have it be more like Apokolips, his homeworld. So we’re basically retreading what Zod was trying to do in Man of Steel, only much lamer and more boring. Ciaran Hinds does a decent job in the role but his character is so poorly written and it doesn’t help that the motion-capture work and CGI makes him look like a PlayStation 3 video game cut-scene.
It really angers me that Warner Bros. refuses to learn their lesson, even with all that’s happened with their franchise in-between Man of Steel and this. Contrary to what these moronic money-grubbers believe, their comic book films are at their best when they let their directors actually create. Richard Donner with Superman, Tim Burton with Batman and Batman Returns, Christopher Nolan with the Dark Knight trilogy, James McTeigue (and the Wachowskis) with V for Vendetta, Patty Jenkins with Wonder Woman, Zack Snyder with 300, Watchmen, and Man of Steel... need I go on? This outdated and, dare I say it, dangerous method of interference and mandating is only going to hurt them, their films, and the audiences even more and it’s no wonder this is a box office disaster.
FINAL SCORE: 6/10
In the end, I acknowledge that this is film is fundamentally flawed and I can only hope that an extended cut or Zack Snyder’s initial cut gets released. Still, and as much as I should hate this, I just can’t bring myself to do so despite all that it has working against it. I did have a fine time with this. I simply found it to be okay. I feel the same way about this film as I do about Suicide Squad: what's good works really well and what's bad is pretty terrible. It was genuinely cool seeing the Justice League come together on the big screen in live-action for the first time, but in the end, it could’ve and should’ve been so much better.
Monday, December 18, 2017
After trying and failing to find the Infinity Stones, Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the God of Thubder who’s being held captive on the alien planet Sakaar without his mighty hammer Mjolnir, must win a gladiatorial duel against his old friend and fellow Avenger, Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), in order to return to his home of Asgard in time to, with the help of Hulk and drunken bisexual warrior Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), stop the villainous Goddess of Death, Hela (Cate Blanchett), and the impending Ragnarok, the doom of all Asgardian civilization.
When it was announced that What We Do in the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople writer and director Taika Waititi, everybody was pretty much saying the same thing. That he’s a great director but Marvel’s going to force him to bow to their whim, remove any sense of what makes his films so great, and pump out another mediocre borefest. I guess they forgot about how the Marvel Creative Committee was disbanded and booted out of Marvel’s film division, thus meaning these new Marvel films wouldn’t have that problem anymore. Plus, there was also the fact that people weren’t all that excited for a third installment, with the first one being one of the more overlooked installments and the second one being one of the worst installments. But lo and behold, Thor: Ragnarok turned out surprisingly really awesome and the absolute the best in the Thor trilogy by far.
First, I want to talk about the humor. I don’t think a single joke in this film didn’t have me busting a gut laughing. I especially loved two moments, one with Thor talking about a childhood story about Loki turning into a snake and another one involves the Grandmaster’s spaceship. Those two had me dying. Sure, it all seems like typical Marvel comedy, but the way it’s directed and delivered is what makes it all so consistently funny. The comedic timing is absolutely superb throughout and you’re still invested in the story even with the onslaught of comedy.
The performances are all fantastic from beginning to end. Chris Hemsworth is clearly having a blast playing the God of Thunder and I love how he embraces the more comedic and ridiculous aspects of the character and his history. The entire cast works off each wonder beautifully. The dynamic between Thor and Loki in this film is especially wonderfully done and the chemistry between Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston has never been better than in this film. New cast members such as Jeff Goldblum, Tessa Thompson, and Cate Blanchett are all phenomenal. Thompson gets some of the best moments in the film, Goldblum gets some of the funniest moments in the film, and Blanchett chews the scenery with glorious relish.
The characters in the film are also very engaging along with the storytelling. I love Thor’s arc in this film, especially near the end when he realizes his full capabilities. Valkyrie’s backstory is rather been there done that but the writing, acting, and direction are so strong that I can easily overlook how generic it is. Hela is also arguably one of the most entertaining villains of the franchise and it helps that she’s also a very interesting character who has a deeper personal connection to our hero that we didn’t expect based on the trailers. I also love how they handled Hulk’s character, especially in regards to where he first transforms back into Bruce Banner for the first time since the events of Avengers: Age of Ultron. Also, Hulk talking in comprehensible sentences for the first time was also a lot of fun to watch.
The cinematography by the criminally underrated Javier Aguirresarobe is gorgeous. The camerawork is consistently slick and smooth and he makes great use of bright, shining colors that radiate and pop in every shot and are nothing short of dazzling to look at. I also love the set, production, and costume designs, as well as the stunning visual effects, with the exception of the green-screen in the scene in Norway with Odin, although I understand why Waititi moved it to Norway instead of the originally-shot New York. You can really tell how Waititi and company were heavily influenced by the art of Jack Kirby in old-school Marvel comic books and it shows in literally every single frame. You can also see in the use of lush colors how Waititi was also influenced by a lot of 1980’s films and a lot of film, video game, comic book, and music poster cover art during the time period.
Speaking of heavy 1980’s influences, I absolutely adore the musical score by the great Mark Mothersbaugh, who delivers inarguably one of the best and most memorable and unique scores of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s just such a feast for the ears, it’s an utter treat to listen to. Mothersbaugh’s fittingly puppy work makes great use of both classic orchestras and retro electronic synthesizers. It’s just such a beautiful score. The synth aspect makes it that much more exciting and unique.
The film’s action sequences are just a blast to watch and Taika Waititi really delivers his A-game in this department. He has a great eye for energy and stylish visual flair and he immerses the audience into the action just like a good director of action should. It’s consistently fast-paced and exciting and not a single moment is dull. The editing by Joel Negron and Zene Baker keeps the film moving very smoothly. It moves as fittingly quick as lightning and nothing ever gets boring or uninteresting. It’s lean, mean, and sweet from start to finish.
FINAL SCORE: 9/10
Yet another winning entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Thor: Ragnarok is both the best of the Thor trilogy and another sign that 2017 has been one of the best years for comic book films in a long time, with stunning visual effects, gorgeous cinematography, fantastic set designs, thrilling action sequences, hilarious comedy, engaging characters, excellent performances, and energetic direction. If Waititi gets the chance to direct more Marvel films, I’m very excited to see what he can do.
Over thirty years after the defeat of the Galactic Empire at the hands of the Rebel Alliance, the galaxy faces a new threat from the evil Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and the sinister First Order. When a defector named Finn (John Boyega) crash-lands on the desert planet Jakku with Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), Finn meets Rey (Daisy Ridley), a tough orphaned scavenger, and BB-8, a droid that contains a top-secret map. Together, they join forces with Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) to make sure that the Resistance, led by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), receives the intelligence concerning the whereabouts of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), the last Jedi Knight.
We never thought after Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith that we would ever see another live-action Star Wars film. But then, something unexpected happened. In 2012, George Lucas sold his production company Lucasfilm to Disney, meaning that the House of Mouse would now be the new owner of the epic saga. Some saw this as an opportunity for new live-action films to come, while others saw this as a betrayal. Nonetheless, shortly afterwards, Disney announced their intention to develop a new trilogy of films set after the events of Return of the Jedi as well as multiple standalone spin-off films and television shows outside of the main saga. Fans were pumped when it was announced that J.J. Abrams would direct the first in the planned trilogy, Lawrence Kasdan of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi fame would return to co-write the screenplay, and the film would mostly utilize real sets and practical special effects just like the original trilogy did back in the old days. Star Wars: The Force Awakens ended up becoming the most highly anticipated film of 2015 and when it came out, we were all blown away. Star Wars was back and better than ever.
It seemed at the end of Return of the Jedi that balance was brought to the Force, that things would now be great, that things had been going smoothly with our heroes. But as they always say, things will always change over time. Not all stories fully end with happily ever after. Now, I will admit, the story is very much derivative of the original trilogy, specifically A New Hope, like almost beat-for-beat the same as that film. I will admit that. I’m not stupid. I know this. I’ve known it since I saw it in the theater twice back in December of 2015. But here’s the thing, I was able to let this slide because of what Abrams was trying to do. Many fans who grew up with the original trilogy and were disappointed with the prequels wanted something closer in line with the original with this film and they got just that. What Abrams wanted to create was a love letter to the original trilogy, and in that regard, he succeeded triumphantly.
Even with its familiarity, Abrams and company knew that they had give the franchise a good shot in the arm because of how many people were disappointed with the prequel trilogy, which was lambasted for poor direction, cheesy writing, wooden acting, draggy pacing, and overuse of CGI among a lot of other things. Also, this film is the start of a brand new trilogy. Much like Abrams’ Star Trek films (specifically the first one), Star Wars: The Force Awakens had to not only introduce new characters but re-introduce old characters to a new generation of Star Wars fans and it also had to re-introduce a science fiction slash fantasy universe that wasn't seen in theaters for over a decade. With what they had to accomplish, I’d say they all did a bang-up job and just because they play it safe for the first installment doesn’t mean they’ll do so with the next two installments.
The new characters are all absolutely wonderful. Kylo Ren is a fantastic villain and his characterization is how Anakin Skywalker should’ve been handled in the prequels: someone who’s conflicted, someone who knows what they have to do but doesn’t know if they have the strength to do it, and Adam Driver plays the character beautifully. He’s essentially a Darth Vader fanboy who aspires to be as powerful as him but never will be because of how he often resorts to whining and temper tantrums when things don’t go his way. He has anger issues and is emotionally tortured. Even with all the evil things he does, Kylo manages to be a surprisingly sympathetic character whose motivations and goals we can understand. It’s also refreshing to have a villain in this universe who looks a normal everyday person, just like you and me.
John Boyega’s Finn is not only incredibly likable and sympathetic but also hilarious, getting some of the funniest moments in the film. Poe Dameron may not have a great amount of screentime, but he’s still awesome and Oscar Isaac is great in the role, often reminding me of how Han Solo acted in the original trilogy. Daisy Ridley is phenomenal as Rey, an orphan who’s still waiting on the desert planet Jakku for her parents to return after they were taken away from her at a young age. This is a genuinely strong and independent character who can take care of herself without anyone’s help and really cares about the new friends and allies she makes along her unexpected journey.
And no, I will not let you give me that nonsense that Rey’s a Mary Sue. That has been a terrible argument since day one and it will forever be a terrible argument. To paraphrase CinemaWins, “It makes sense that an orphan left to fend for herself on a planet full of mostly male scavengers would have learned to defend herself. Her years of being alone scavenging for parts that would earn her food give her technical and mechanical know-how. And as was established throughout, she has some serious Force sensitivity. She surprises herself with her capabilities. She even says that she’s flown some ships but she’s never left the planet.”
As for the other new characters, Domhnall Gleeson is great as General Hux, especially in that scene where he’s giving an epic, over-the-top, Hitler-esque speech to the Knights of Ren before Starkiller Base is activated. Lupita Nyong’o is wonderful as Maz Kanata, a pirate and smuggler who managed to find Luke Skywalker’s old lightsaber that ends up calling to Rey in a really chilling sequence. Andy Serkis is amazing as always as Supreme Leader Snoke, even if his character is probably the least interesting of the bunch. Gwendoline Christie is also awesome as Captain Phasma even if her character doesn’t have a whole lot to do.
And yes, the old characters are still as awesome as they were in the original trilogy, especially Han Solo, with Harrison Ford giving one of his best and most energetic performances in years. This is an older and sort-of wiser Han who’s still cool but also acknowledges that everything in regards to the Force and the Jedi are all true and you can tell in the scene on the bridge that he genuinely cares for his son and would do anything to help him in spite of the terrible things he’s done after turning to the Dark Side. Han also has a couple great scenes together with Leia, now a general for the Reistance, once again played beautifully by the late Carrie Fisher. My favorite character, however, has to be BB-8. Not only is he hilarious, and genuinely so, unlike a certain quote-unquote “key” to all of The Phantom Menace, but he’s absolutely adorable. Whenever he pops up on screen, I just want to give the little guy a hug. He’s that endearing.
Abrams’ work behind the camera is utterly breathtaking. He directs every single action set piece, every single moment in general really, with such a great eye and with such a raw, fierce intensity to them that you’re immediately immersed into what’s going on. The combination of traditional practical, make-up, and creature effects and digitally-enhanced motion-capture and CGI is amazing, and the production designs are simply stunning to behold. Everything looks and feels lived-in and authentic, making them all the more easy to be fully immersed into. The cinematography by the always phenomenal Dan Mindel is nothing short of gorgeous, with lots of fantastic shots throughout, slick camerawork, great lighting, excellent shot composition, and dazzling use of lush, radiant colors that burst on the screen and pop all over it.
The editing by Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey keeps the film, which runs at a runtime of two hours and sixteen minutes, moving at a lightning-fast pace. There isn’t a single boring moment in it. Not one. The world-building, just like all the other Star Wars films, is fantastic. And of course, I can’t not mention the forever great John Williams, who provides yet another exquisite and soulful musical score. It fits the film like a glove, from the first frame to the last. I especially love Rey’s theme. Every time I listen to it, I can’t help but smile. It’s just so beautiful.
Another thing that makes this film so special is its message and theme, which involves fear. Living in fear, running away from fear, facing your fears, learning that it’s okay to have fear, et cetera. Finn tries to run away from the First Order, Rey wants to stay on Jakku because of her missing parents whom she fears never seeing again, and even Kylo is afraid of how conflicted he feels, how he might never be able to up to the legacy of his grandfather and his empire and how he might not have the strength to do what he knows he must do. This is a great theme for a Star Wars film to tackle and the way it executes that theme and delivers its message is brilliant. It gives the film a lot of heart and makes it all the more special and unique.
FINAL SCORE: 10/10
Offering plenty of new things while still paying loving tribute to what came before it, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a fan’s wet dream come true and easily one of the best in the entire saga. I love it so much. After seeing how this and Rogue One turned out, the franchise is most definitely in good hands over at Disney. I can only hope that The Last Jedi turns out awesome and that Solo isn’t as bad as many fear and expect it to be.
Saturday, September 16, 2017
In the town of Derry, Maine during the summer of 1989, a group of outcast preteens known as the Losers Club, consisting of stuttering Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher), overweight Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor), absused Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis), foul-mouthed Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard), Jewish mysophobe Stan Uris (Wyatt Oleff), orphaned Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs), and hypochrondriac Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer), fight against an immortal, shape-shifting entity known only as It that awakens every twenty-seven years, usually takes the form of a dancing clown named Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard), and is responsible for the disappearances of dozens of children in their town, and are forced to confront their own personal demons in the process.
It, originally published in September of 1986, is quite possibly my favorite Stephen King novel. Yes, the sewer orgy is terrible and completely misguided, but it’s still what I consider to be the best of all of King’s works and it’s one of my favorite horror stories as well. The once-lauded but now unfairly maligned 1990 miniseries may not have aged the best but it’s still a really entertaining miniseries in its own right and a solid attempt to bring the story to life, with Tim Curry offering a brilliant interpretation of Pennywise the Dancing Clown. Now, we have the first attempt to bring this story to the world of cinema that’s finally being released after years in development hell with many writers, directors, and actors, including True Detective director Cary Fukunaga and Insidious co-star Ty Simpkins, going back and forth on the project, and I’m just going to say it: this is one of my new absolute favorite Stephen King adaptations. It’s that good.
First things first, the cast. They really couldn’t have chosen better people to play these parts. As for the standouts of this bright young cast, Jaeden Lieberher is excellent as Bill Denbrough, who’s still grieving the loss of his younger brother Georgie to the point where he just can’t accept it. Finn Wolfhard, who you may remember from Stranger Things, is phenomenal as Richie Tozier and gets some of the best lines and funniest moments in the film. My favorite of these kids, however, is Sophia Lillis, offering a brilliant portrayal of Beverly Marsh, creating a tragic and sympathetic character that you can really feel for. The other kids also do remarkable work in their roles. Even with the characters of Stan and Mike being less developed than the others, you’re still able to root for them.
That’s another thing that works especially well in this film, the character development. The way this film develops and fully fleshes out these character is absolutely stunning. Like the kids in Stranger Things and Super 8, and even kids in classic 1980’s films like Explorers, The Goonies, and another Stephen King adaptation, Stand by Me, these kids play off each other beautifully, they’re all incredibly likable and relatable, and they all act like real kids. Each one of them is given their own unique traits, characteristics, and personalities, making them stand out that much more. The bond these kids form with one another really gives the film a lot of heart even during its most twisted and disturbing moments. I loved how these characters were handled here and I’m really hyped to see what they’ll do with them as adults returning to Derry in the upcoming Chapter Two.
However, the best performance of all comes from Bill Skarsgard, son of Stellan Skarsgard and brother of Alexander Skarsgard, as the titular It, otherwise known as Pennywise the Dancing Clown. Much like with Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger as the Joker, I love Tim Curry as much as anybody, but my God, Skarsgard completely embodies this role, disappearing into it and becoming the definitive live-action take on the character. Skarsgard and everyone else involved get Pennywise’s character so right and they clearly understand it so well that it helps add to Skarsgard’s already chilling performance. Every time he came on screen, I got instant goosebumps. So thanks for the nightmare fuel, Billy boy.
Now, I’ll be honest, when Andy Muschietti was announced to direct this film, I was honestly very worried. I know many really liked his debut film, Mama, but I personally didn’t like it. However, after this, I was very surprised. Muschietti absolutely knocks it out of the park here. You can tell that he has a deep love and appreciation not just for this story but for other Stephen King stories as well. He even said in an interview that he wants to do an adaptation of Pet Sematary and I’d be totally down for that. He really understands the material and the way he creates tension and suspense is impeccable. The atmosphere he also creates is also jaw-droppingly gorgeous. He even uses CGI and jump scares for some of the big scare moments but the CGI actually look finished and those jump scares feel earned. Like with James Wan’s work on Insidious and The Conjuring, Muschietti doesn’t use jump scares as a means of simply startling people by jacking up the volume randomly, he uses them as a means to create real scares. Not false ones, real ones. Also like The Conjuring 2, this film managed to make me terrified of a painting.
What especially helps add to the sublime atmosphere is regular Park Chan-wook collaborator Chung-hoon Chung’s absolutely gorgeous cinematography. From the first frame to the last, this film looks absolutely striking. The lighting is absolutely perfect and the camerawork is smooth and stylish throughout. Claude Pare’s production design is also fantastic, capturing the 1980’s time period superbly and also helping add to the atmosphere created by Muschietti. Jason Ballantine’s editing keeps the film moving smoothly, even with a long runtime of 135 minutes. That’s normally way too long for a typical horror film, but when you’re adapting something as massive as It and you’re only focusing on the first half of the story, a runtime like that is much necessary. Muschietti’s currently working on a director’s cut for DVD, Blu-ray, 4K, and VOD that adds 15 minutes of footage back into the film and I can’t wait to see how that turns out.
The special effects and make-up in this film are also top-notch. This isn’t tame or sanitized like the 1990 miniseries (granted that was made for television, so limitations were inevitable), this definitely deserves its R rating. The gore effects are fantastic. We even see Georgie’s arm being graphically ripped off by Pennywise (and keep in mind that Georgie is a 7-year-old little boy), something that wouldn’t even be allowed in a typical horror film. Kudos to Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema for letting Muschietti stick to his guns and remain faithful to King’s vision. I also loved how they executed the blood fountain in the bathroom sequence. By far one of the most chilling sequences in the film.
FINAL SCORE: 10/10
Both a mature, emotional, witty, and heartfelt coming-of-age story and a genuinely dark, terrifying, and thrilling tale about both the manifestation and confrontation of your fears, It is destined to go down in history as not only one of the finest and most well-crafted horror films in the past twenty-five years but also one of the absolute best adaptations of renowned author Stephen King's legendary works, with beautifully written characters, wonderful performances, gorgeous cinematography, terrific effects, superb atmosphere, mounting tension, heart-pumping suspense, and rock-solid direction throughout. I’m so happy to see this film turn out so well and I’m even happier to see that it’s breaking multiple records at the box office. Bring on Chapter Two.
Wednesday, September 6, 2017
Former daredevil stuntman Johnny Blaze/Ghost Rider (Nicolas Cage) is in self-imposed exile from the world. Blaze has become a tormented soul, convinced that his powers are a curse. Blaze is then approached by Moreau (Idris Elba), a member of the monastic order of Michael, the warrior angel. Moreau seeks a protector for Nadya (Violante Placido) and her son Danny Ketch (Fergus Riordan), who are being pursued by a figure named Roarke (Ciaran Hinds), the biblical Devil himself with a detailed knowledge of the Ghost Rider and his different identities over the centuries.
For those who are unaware, the first Ghost Rider film from 2007 happens to be one of my least favorite comic book films. As its own thing, it’s just plain bad, with mostly cheesy visual effects, incredibly lame villains with poorly thought out motivations, wooden performances and dialogue, and just a sore lack of fun. As an adaptation, it’s insulting, taking great characters and making them the complete opposite of what they originally were. I will always defend writer and director Mark Steven Johnson’s work on Daredevil, but his work on Ghost Rider is unforgivable.
With its follow-up, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor and writers Scott M. Gimple, Seth Hoffman, and David S. Goyer have certainly cleaned up Johnson's mess. For those who haven't seen this and have only seen the first, this film has absolutely nothing to do with the original, even with Nicolas Cage returning to play the title character, and that’s probably the best thing about this film. Johnny Blaze and the origin of the Ghost Rider are vastly different this time around and it actually works.
For one, they actually incorporate the demonic Spirit of Justice, Zarathos, into his origin. From that moment forward, it was clear that this is, in fact, a reboot of the first film and not an actual sequel, which was a very wise approach. Not only that, but they also incorporate Zarathos fighting being in the body of the Ghost Rider, fighting within Blaze for control of the Ghost Rider powers and driving him to absolute madness. Where was this before? This is so much more engaging. They also get Blaze’s characterization closer to the source material. Instead of eating jelly beans out of martini glasses, laughing at chimpanzee videos, and listening to the Carpenters, he’s actually in a darker place this time around like he should be, guzzling alcohol.
Nicolas Cage also gives a much better and more committed performance than in the first film. Whereas he underplays it terribly in the first film, Cage is much more full of life here, occasionally going full-on crazy Cage in certain sequences, mainly thanks to Zarathos driving Blaze crazy (i.e. “Scraping at the door!”). He also thankfully gets rid of that terrible Southern accent and bad haircut he had in the first film.
Even the look of the Ghost Rider is much more closer to his depiction in the source material than in the first film. Ghost Rider has a black Harley, a dirty and realistic-looking skull, a black leather jacket, and black leather pants covered in soot. The Ghost Rider looks legitimately menacing and bad-ass and like he poses a real threat in this film, unlike in the first film where he looked like an unthreatening cartoon.
One of our villains this time around is Ray Carrigan/Blackout (Johnny Whitworth), a former mercenary and an ex-boyfriend of Nadya who's given powers by the Devil after a series of unfortunate events in order to retrieve Danny, who turns out to be the Devil's son. Blackout can make the world around him turn pitch-black and he can decay anything he touches. Whitworth does a solid job playing the character, who has different powers than in the comics but looks near exactly like his comic book counterpart.
A supposed plot hole in this film is that if Blackout can decay everything he touches, how would he be able to retrieve Danny and give him to Roarke, the Devil, without killing Danny? Well, let's look at this logically. If the Devil gave Blackout the powers to combat the Ghost Rider in order to retrieve his son, I'm pretty sure the Devil would make it where Blackout couldn't kill Danny. I'd like to think that the Devil isn't that stupid.
The always awesome Idris Elba chips in with a fine supporting performance as Moreau, Violante Placido and Fergus Riordan are both solid as Nadya and Danny (you can tell from their scenes together that they genuinely care for one another), and Ciaran Hinds is great as Roarke, but then again, Ciaran Hinds is good in anything, no matter how bad. However, as much as I liked him as the Devil, he should be playing Mephisto.
In the comics, Johnny was cursed by a normal demon named Mephisto, not the biblical Devil. I suppose it makes more sense in context, but then you have stupid things like the Devil driving a car, which is lame seeing as he’s the literal Devil thus he really wouldn’t need to do that, so just having him be a normal demon would’ve easily fixed this problem. Christopher Lambert, in a supporting role, is unfortunately given a limited amount of screentime. In fact, he had a swordfight with Idris Elba that was cut out of the film, which is pretty lame as I think that would’ve been a really fun scene to see play out.
In regards to Danny Ketch, I thought he made for an interesting character. Admittedly, I’m not familiar with Ketch as a character from the comics, but from what I’ve heard, he was originally Johnny Blaze’s brother who became a Ghost Rider and had the Penance Stare that Blaze had in the first film. That being said, seeing the present Ghost Rider (Blaze) and the future Ghost Rider (Ketch) together was a rather satisfying treat. Their father and son-like relationship was well-handled and in a way, it reminded me of the relationship between John Connor and the T-800 in Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Granted it’s not as good as that film’s bond, but it’s finely handled regardless.
The effects and action sequences are also much stronger this time around, completely destroying to pieces and burning to ashes everything its predecessor attempted to give us. You can tell in the big climactic action sequence, a really fun road chase by the way, that there was a real love for the Mad Max films, especially The Road Warrior, with Ghost Rider and Blackout hopping on multiple cars and motorcycles fighting each other.
What especially makes the action sequences thrilling and genuinely fun to sit through is the unique and hugely entertaining directing style of Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor that worked brilliantly in both of their Crank films. Whereas this type of style works terribly in most other action films and even in Neveldine/Taylor’s own Gamer, the style helps add to this film, and to the Crank films, rather than take away from it. Regular Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg collaborator Brandon Trost chips in with slick cinematography, and Brian Berdan and Doobie White’s editing keeps the film moving at a fast pace even if some of the editing techniques they incorporate come off more as tacky and gimmicky than anything else (I can easily see why Doug Walker and Mike Jeavons refer to it as hit and run editing in their Nostalgia Critic and Shameful Sequels crossover review). I also enjoyed the script’s rather quite dark sense of humor, which works especially well with the way they portray Blaze’s character here.
FINAL SCORE: 7/10
Overall, there's not much more I can say about this film that I haven't already. I know many hate this film, and I can totally understand why, but for me personally, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance is a vast improvement upon its incredibly boring and lousy predecessor. The story is darker, it’s well-paced and directed with a unique style, the action is awesome, the effects are top-notch, and the performances are very entertaining, especially from an often unhinged Nicolas Cage. It’s like if the Crank duology and Drive Angry had a baby, which is probably the best way to describe this film, and it’s quite a blast.
Wednesday, July 12, 2017
Months after the events of Captain America: Civil War, Peter Parker (Tom Holland) begins to navigate his newfound identity as the web-slinging superhero Spider-Man. Thrilled by his experience with the Avengers, Peter returns home to Queens, New York City, where he lives with his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), under the watchful eye of his new mentor Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.). Peter tries to fall back into his normal daily routine, distracted by thoughts of proving himself to be more than just the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, but when Adrian Toomes/The Vulture (Michael Keaton) emerges as a new villain, everything that Peter holds most important will be threatened.
When Sony made a deal with Marvel to incorporate the character of Spider-Man into the Marvel Cinematic Universe following fan rage towards the Amazing Spider-Man films and the infamous leaked e-mails, fanboys were hyped. While I was excited, I was also disappointed since I loved the Amazing Spider-Man films and was sad when Sony denied Marc Webb the chance to finish the series. That disappointment quickly faded away, however, when it was said that their plan for The Amazing Spider-Man 3 would’ve been an adaptation of the Clone Saga and not Peter fighting the Sinister Six, which The Amazing Spider-Man 2 was constantly teasing. That being said, when Spidey made his MCU debut in Captain America: Civil War, I was so pleasantly surprised that I got very much hyped for his solo film. Spider-Man: Homecoming is arguably the best Spider-Man film in thirteen years. Now, I will warn you that there will be major spoilers in this review so if you haven't seen this film yet, close the review, watch it, and then come back afterwards.
First, the cast. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: Tom Holland is perfect for this role. He’s not only the perfect Peter Parker, but also the perfect Spider-Man, capturing everything that makes the character so great. He not only looks the part, but he completely acts the part, delivering snappy one-liners with relish and aplomb. I love Tom Holland. What I especially love about Peter’s characterization in this film is that this isn’t just a typical superhero film, it’s also a coming-of-age story. Peter has been Spider-Man for months but is still trying to get down the mere basics of being a hero. He’s a kid who’s learning. This is why Tony Stark decides to give him back the suit at the end after taking it away from him following the ferry incident. He realizes that Peter is just a kid and Peter realizes that to stay on the ground means to be a kid, have fun, and help out the little guy, hence why he declines Tony’s offer to become an Avenger. Even though Peter is intelligent, he’s going to mistakes just like everyone else does and is eventually going to learn from them to be better. It’s what makes him so likable and relatable. They even make the action sequences a part of Peter’s coming of age, something I felt added a great touch to the proceedings.
As for the rest of the cast, I loved them. Michael Keaton is fantastic as Adrian Toomes, creating a villain who can be intimidating, even frightening, but also kind of funny and even very sympathetic. You understand why he’s doing what he’s doing, you understand why he went down this path, you completely get his motivations and goals, and even better, he and Peter have some similarities with one another: they both have secret identities and they both share the pain of losing someone or something they hold very much dearly. I loved this villain and he is easily one of the MCU’s best antagonists.
Robert Downey, Jr. is great as always and I appreciated how they used him sparingly, unlike the trailers which made him look like he’s a major part of the film. Marisa Tomei is beautiful and charming as a younger Aunt May, a change I had no problem with since it’s more realistic than in the source material where she’s very old. Speaking of Aunt May, I know many complained about there being no mention of Uncle Ben, but we didn’t need that here because we didn’t need to know about the origin story again and we already had a reference to his death in Peter’s introduction scene in Captain America: Civil War where he says this line to Tony: “When you can do the things that I can, but you don't, and then the bad things happen, they happen because of you.”
Jacob Batalon is absolutely hilarious as Ned, getting some of the best and funniest moments of the film, and I love how he and Holland play off one another. Also hilarious and very charismatic is Zendaya Coleman as Michelle, one of Peter’s classmates. Her comedic timing is spot-on and I even didn’t mind the homage to MJ with her nickname reveal at the end. Before any fanboys start chucking their laptops at me, hear me out: Just because she’s MJ doesn’t mean she’s Mary Jane Watson. It was simply a nod to their dynamic. That being said, if they were to introduce Mary Jane in a possible sequel (and ideally, do the whole blind date arrangement thing), have her introduction go like this:
Aunt May: “Peter, are you ready?”
Peter: “Yeah, right here. How do I look?”
Aunt May: “Great.”
Peter: “By the way, you still haven’t told me her name.”
Aunt May: “It’s MJ.”
Peter: “Michelle’s your neighbor’s niece?”
Aunt May: “Oh, no, no, no, this is a different MJ. Mary Jane.”
Peter: “So now I have two MJ’s in my life.”
Aunt May: “Funny how that works. Oh, I think she’s here.”
Neighbor: “Oh, hello, Peter, I’d like you to meet my niece.”
Peter: “Wait, you mean, that’s Mary Jane?”
Mary Jane: “Face it, tiger, you just hit the jackpot.”
Everyone else does a fine job in their respective roles. Regarding the supporting characters, much of them are very different from their comic book counterparts, to the point where they’re just different characters altogether, but this never bothered me. For one, the changes they made were to avoid stereotypes from the comics and the other films. Like for example, Ned Leeds acts much more like Ganke Lee than he does Ned, and instead of a jock bully like in the Sam Raimi and Marc Webb films, Flash Thompson is now an academic rival to Peter, so if you’re wondering why he’s not intimidating, there you go. Plus, it also gives diversity to show how New York City truly feels and looks. I can understand why these massive changes would anger hardcore fans, but as long as they tell a compelling story with fun and interesting characters (and they did), I can easily let those changes slide. Not to mention, these changes are really small things when compared to the main conflict.
One of my favorite supporting characters has to be Aaron Davis, played by the always awesome Donald Glover. For those who are unaware, Davis is The Prowler in the comics and is the nephew of another Spider-Man, Miles Morales. Like Adrian, he and Peter also have a similarity with one another: they both want to get rid of the dangerous weapons Toomes and his team have been collecting. He has a change of heart because he mentions in a conversation with Peter that he doesn’t want those weapons in a certain neighborhood because his nephew lives there. That line not only teases Miles’ possible appearance in a future Spider-Man film but also provides actual motivation for why Davis turns on the criminals he’s been dealing with. Even if you’re not familiar with Miles Morales, the line makes a lot of sense. It’s smart writing.
What also works very well is the comedy, which also adds to the coming-of-age aspect. This film is very much influenced by the works of John Hughes and it really shows here. The likable and memorable characters, the hilarious jokes, the engaging drama, the effortless charisma and heart. A lot of the humor here had me laughing very hard, especially the character of Ned. Speaking of characters, this is more character-driven than one would expect from a big-budget superhero film. It’s refreshing to see a more down-to-earth Spider-Man film and that approach not only fits the film like a glove but is also handled remarkably well.
The film has its drama as well and it’s also handled very nicely, like the scene where Tony takes Peter’s suit away and says this line (which is also a great callback to the criminally underrated Iron Man 3) to him, “If you’re nothing without the suit, then you shouldn’t have it.” What has to be my favorite moment in the film is the car scene between Peter and Adrian. Not only does the twist that Liz is Adrian’s daughter catch you completely off-guard and also help greatly connect Peter’s personal life with his life as Spider-Man, but the tension in that scene is impeccable. The dynamic between Holland and Keaton is fantastic even if they don’t have a lot of scenes together and Holland skillfully holds his own to Keaton’s excellent performance.
The plot is admittedly typical Marvel fare but it’s still insanely well-constructed and put together. It has plenty of characters yet it doesn’t feel overstuffed or overbloated in the slightest. It’s because of the easy to get invested in characters, the well-built up tension, the witty humor, and the heart it wears on its sleeve that the story, although standard, is incredibly engaging. The pacing is also great too, with Dan Lebental and Debbie Berman’s editing keeping the action exciting and the film’s 137 minute runtime feeling like a total breeze.
The action sequences are incredibly fun to watch and the visual effects work is, as usual for a Spider-Man film, rock-solid. Similarly rock-solid are the technical aspects. The cinematography by regular Ron Howard collaborator Salvatore Totino is excellent throughout, the set designs by Oliver Scholl are also impressive, I love how Spider-Man’s suit looks a lot like the original comics drawing of the costume, and the musical score by the always fantastic MIchael Giacchino is superb. I especially loved how Giacchino incorporated the classic Spider-Man cartoon theme. That was a stroke of absolute genius.
One thing I didn’t much care for in this film was the love story they set up between Peter and Liz (whose last name is changed from Allan to Toomes in this film). They don’t really share that many scenes together and when they do, the chemistry just isn’t there. Tom Holland and Laura Harrier are both good actors, but their characters relationship just isn’t handled all that well unfortunately. Still, I did like how it led to the twist with her being Adrian’s daughter and I also liked how Liz’s portrayal was similar to how it was done in The Spectacular Spider-Man.
FINAL SCORE: 9/10
Successfully pulling off the double act of being both a witty, charming, very much John Hughes-esque coming-of-age teen comedy and a colorful, well-constructed, ridiculously entertaining superhero action film that’s more down-to-earth and character-driven than expected, Spider-Man: Homecoming is not only another rock-solid Marvel Cinematic Universe joint but also arguably the finest and most lovingly crafted Spider-Man film since Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2. I really loved this film and I can’t wait to see him in future solo and Avengers films following this.