Archive | December, 2017

The Shape of Water – Review

17 Dec

Anyone who’s read my reviews knows that I’m a huge fan of Guillermo del Toro. I recently reviewed one of his earlier films, The Devil’s Backbone, and gave it all the praise it rightfully deserves. What makes del Toro’s movies so excellent you might ask? It’s the way he uses fantasy and horror to show that sometimes the scariest parts of life aren’t the creatures we create, but humanity itself. It’s truly hard not to feel for the characters in his films or get lost in the sweeping cinematography or awe at his outstanding creature effects. Now we have The Shape of Water to add to his continuing filmography of magical fantasy pieces that hold a mirror up to the world. It’s everything you could possibly want with a movie written and directed by Guillermo del Toro.

Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is a mute janitor at the Occam Aerospace Research Center. Her only friends are Zelda (Octavia Spencer), another janitor at the research center, and Giles (Richard Jenkins), a washed up artist struggling to get back on his feet. Elisa’s life completely changes one day when a new “asset” (Doug Jones) is brought to her work by the sadistic Col. Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), who makes it quite clear early on that he’s not a man that can be trusted or related to in any way. After some investigating, Elisa learns that the asset is a humanoid amphibian that’s capable of learning, understanding, and emotions. The two become very good friends, but Strickland’s intentions of killing the creature and dissecting it soon become clear. Elisa can’t allow that to happen, so with the help of Giles, Zelda, and an undercover Soviet scientist named Dmitri (Michael Stuhlbarg), rescues the Amphibian Man and brings him to Giles’ home until they can release him. As Elisa’s relationship to the Amphibian Man grows, Strickland’s mission to find him and kill him becomes more and more obsessive and dangerous.

There’s so much packed into this movie, it’s sort of hard to know where to start. The first thing that I really started picking up on was how strong the characters were. By strong, I mean they all felt real and had their own small quirks that made them all unique. Michael Shannon’s character was always biting down on the same green hard candy, Octavia Spencer’s character was constantly going on about her husband and how much her feet hurt, and Richard Jenkins’ character has his love for old film stars and anxiety about his hair. One of the main themes of this movie is togetherness and relationships, and seeing these rich characters’ personalities meshing and clashing added something really special to the movie and it made the idea of relationships feel solid.

While The Shape of Water is definitely about the power of relationships it also dives into the realm of political fears and conspiracies, accepting people’s differences, and understanding of the positives and negatives that shape our world. This really is a fully developed movie, but I’m always going to see The Shape of Water as a love story. It’s a story of romantic love, love between close friends, and also the dangers of the absence of love. Elisa may not have much, but the people around her all love her, even if it’s only her neighbor and a friend from work. Col. Strickland, on the other hand, has lost all connection with love of any kind. His family is the perfect nuclear family living in suburbia who still get excited whenever he walks in the door. To him that feeling is nonexistent and that clouds and darkens who he is as a human being and how he treats other humans, and in this case, humanoids.

This film is filled with some of my favorite performances of this year. Sally Hawkins is downright incredible as Elisa and she hardly speaks a word in this movie. She doesn’t even have to, and we all know exactly what she’s trying to say. Octavia Spencer and Richard Jenkins are great side characters to Elisa and Doug Jones once again shows his talent with work like this. Michael Shannon is my favorite actor, and even I was surprised with how he treated his character. My only real complaint about this movie was some of the writing. The reason the government wants to dissect the Amphibian Man is because of space research? I can’t say I really see the connection and leaving it as open as possible might have been better than giving a vague reason why. It just seemed kind of like an afterthought in del Toro’s grand scheme.

The Shape of Water is one of Guillermo del Toro’s finest works. He’s created a unique love story that’s also filled with fantasy, espionage, comedy, and an often dark and sad examination of character. Some of the writing could have used a little more attention, but this is still a movie that’s making my brain work on overdrive. The characters and their performers were all top notch, the creature effects were brilliant, and the connections between all of the characters felt organic for better or for worse. The Shape of Water is truly an excellent movie.

Final Grade: A

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Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956 & 1978) – Review

17 Dec

Science fiction is one of my absolute favorite genres because of how it can take problems of today and morph it into something that seems very unbelievable but also shockingly familiar. This is something that is explored to the fullest in the classic 1956 sci fi shocker, Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Released as a double bill with The Atomic ManInvasion of the Body Snatchers turned into something so much more than a well received B-movie. It’s become a classic film that’s regarded as one of the best of the genre. Not only that, but it’s remake from 1978 comes close to matching its greatness while also being considered one of the best remakes ever to be produced. You can’t go wrong with that, so I’m thrilled to finally get to talk about these classic films.

Let’s start with the 1956 original.

After being called back to town from a health conference, Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) is surprised to see a mental health problem affecting many people in the neighborhood. Multiple people seem to believe that their loved ones aren’t really who they say they are and, while they look exactly as they should, are actually imposters. While investigating this strange phenomena, Miles gets back together with an old girlfriend, Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter), whose own cousin is suffering from one of these “delusions.” When Miles’ friends Jack (King Donovan) and Theodora (Carolyn Jones) Belicec find a body in their house that looks just like Jack, it occurs to everyone that these accusations about imposters may not be so far fetched after all. With more and more people becoming closed off in the town, and with the FBI being completely unreachable, Jack and Dana have to pull together to get out of the town safely and warn the rest of the world about the “pod people.” But with imposters surrounding them, who can they really trust?

I first watched this movie back in college when I took a whole class on the Horror genre. Invasion of the Body Snatchers has been lauded as a masterpiece of science fiction, but also horror. I personally lean towards the side of horror because there’s something very unsettling about this film, and that has to be at least partially why this movie has stood the test of time. Sure, it is tame compared to sci fi horrors that come out today, but the black and white cinematography make the darkness feel extra dark and the soulless way the pod people move in complete unison at times is creepier than some of the more graphic scares of modern genre examples. This original movie also has one of the most exciting climaxes in this sci fi/horror genre which involves Miles running down a highway, desperate for people to heed his warning. Don Siegel’s exciting direction and Jack McCarthy’s terrified expressions make this whole segment a classic.

When this movie first came out, tensions were high and the Cold War was raging. People who worked on the movie have said that it was never their intention to write a movie that had any sort of political or societal message to it. That’s absolutely ridiculous to say. Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a brilliant look at not only tensions between the Soviet Union and America, but also the plague of McCarthyism that was tearing America apart and also the soul crushing drabness of suburbia. This is an intelligent examination of the whole state of affairs in mid-1950s America, so I can’t believe anyone would say that this is just an alien invasion movie and that’s that. If that’s what you believe, I feel like you’re missing out on a lot of what makes Invasion of the Body Snatchers such a classic.

What more can I say about this movie? Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a masterpiece of science fiction and horror. It’s a slow burn of a movie that doesn’t have any over the top scares, but there’s a looming sense of dread, despair, and hopelessness that clouds the entire movie and makes the suspense feel all the more urgent. This is a really fun example of a B-movie that was released on a double bill that was destined to be so much more. I absolutely love this movie.

Final Grade: A

Normally remakes are a touchy subject and I’ll be the first to admit that. In this case, however, the remake is well worth the time and can be considered a timely classic all its own. How often can you really say that?

After discovering a rare form of plant species, Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams), who works for the San Francisco Health Department decides to investigate further. While her research leads her to a dead end, her suspicions are still aroused after her husband begins behaving like a mindless drone that barely even recognizes her. She voices her fears to her coworker Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland), who is at first unsure, but begins believing her when strange things begin happening all over the city that sound directly related to her predicament. Bennell brings Elizabeth to his friend and pop psychiatrist, Dr. Kibner (Leonard Nimoy), who assuredly tells her that everything is ok. Things quickly go south when their other friends, Jack (Jeff Goldblum) and Nancy (Veronica Cartwright) Bellicic find a body in their massage parlor that looks exactly like Jack. As their investigation continues, it turns out no one can be trusted and extra terrestrial forces are closing in to take over their lives and eradicate the entire human race.

Take everything that’s super cool about the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers and expand on it to make it even cooler. That pretty much sums up the 1978 remake. More thought is put into explaining where the seeds that create the pods come from and the transformation of the regular humans into pod people is graphically shown. Philip Kaufman and his team clearly took the time and effort to create special effects that worked great for the time, without ever really overdoing it, and also using the camera and location to help tell the story better. One scene in particular has the camera dizzyingly following Donal Sutherland’s character threw the crowded streets of San Francisco. This clearly illustrates how alone, scared, and paranoid the character is without ever putting it into words. Not to mention, this movie has one of the most startling, bone chilling endings ever put to celluloid. That all being said, there are some flaws with this movie that don’t quite appear in the original.

In the original film, the relationship between Bennell and Driscoll is very natural and is a very believable and entertaining part of the story. It brings romance into the story, but it feels like a proper fit. In the remake, however, this romance is shoehorned into the plot and feels like a total afterthought. It’s one of those things where it really isn’t a huge problem, but it seemed so out of place that it took me out of the movie, and that’s the last thing you really want to have happen when you’re so sucked into it. This movie is also a lot longer than the original, which also isn’t a terrible thing. It just didn’t feel quite as tight, but the fact that the plot took its time also helps build the characters, lore, and suspense. The strongest part of this movie, and something that makes these tiny flaws feel super insignificant, is how the dread and suspicion and paranoia is turned up to 11. The late 1970s was a very different time than the mid 1950s, but that doesn’t mean people still weren’t afraid. The time of peace and love was coming to an end and the era of Watergate was upon them. It doesn’t quite have the same punch as the 1956 version, but the societal jabs are still there.

If you were to ask me if I’d rather watch the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers or the remake, I’d really have to think about it. The 1978 version ramps up the horror and special effects while also making the invading spores something much more physical and explained. There are a few storytelling hinderances that I can’t ignore, but this truly is one of the greatest remakes ever to be made. It’s smart, well acted, impeccably shot, and still provides all the scares that a fan of the genre can hope for. I’d say it’s just as good as the original, and if not that it’s pretty darn close.

Final Grade: A-

So there’s the first two films of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Both are excellent movies with their own strengths and weaknesses, but sci fi/horror really doesn’t get too much better than this. I’ll also be reviewing a few other remakes, Abel Ferrara’s 1993 film Body Snatchers and Oliver Hirschbiegel’s 2007 film, The Invasion.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri – Review

6 Dec

Martin McDonagh is a man of many talents. For years he’s been writing plays in Europe and has received much acclaim. Not only that, but every foray he’s made into film has also been a success. In Bruges took critics and audiences by surprise and was even nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. His next film, Seven Psychopaths, didn’t get the recognition that In Bruges did, but it worked as a darkly subversive comedy that broke all the rules of narrative. Well, I’m thrilled to say that McDonagh has really outdone himself this time with what is far and away the best film he’s ever made, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. This is the kind of movie that will give you a physical response that’s similar to a bag of bricks being dropped on your stomach. As the credits rolled, I almost couldn’t move because I was just so stunned at what I just saw.

It’s been 7 months since Mildred Hayes’ (Frances McDormand) daughter was brutally murdered and the police have come no closer to solving the crime and bringing justice to the killer. After seeing three unused billboards on a small road outside of town, Mildred decides to buy the ad space and put up three signs that ask why the murderer hasn’t been caught, with much of the hostility directed to Sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson). These billboards spark new life in the case of Mildred’s daughter but it also reveals a much uglier side to the town of Ebbing, Missouri. The town is quickly divided between those who support the billboards and Mildred’s crusade, and others who sometimes violently oppose it, including one of Willoughby’s officers, Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell). As tensions flare, Ebbing turns into a Cold War zone and it’s a time that will change the small town forever.

There’s so much to praise in Three Billboards that it’s hard to know where to start. What really had me overwhelmed the most was the whole concept of the film, but also how it was written. From the time the billboards are put up, tension builds quickly, and there are a few times where that tension explodes only to return with a vengeance. This film is relentless in its storytelling and barely gives the audience time to breath. Martin McDonagh is known for his ability to deftly blend dark comedy and brutally realistic drama, and this is the height of that. This movie is a lot sadder than it is funny, but there are plenty of belly laughs to have throughout the film’s narrative. When you aren’t laughing, however, McDonagh takes the dramatic side of the story and weaves it in a way I’m sort of unfamiliar with. There are few movies that really, genuinely shock me, but this one went places I never expected. This made the whole experience feel 100% fresh and new.

What really makes Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri work so wonderfully is emotional depth of the story. I’m not talking about if it makes you happy or sad or base feelings felt by the characters, but something that’s been lurking underneath the facade of the town for years. This is a story of hate exploding in an area not built to properly contain it. It’s a natural reaction felt by normal people living in a world that has become overwrought with anger and opinions mixed with violence. This is an incredibly timely film that also can be viewed as timeless. There’s no moral center in this film. No character serves as the hero. Each one is deeply flawed with thoughts that are so incredibly politically incorrect, you may find yourself with your mouth hanging open. At the end of the day, however, these are still people trying to find a comfortable place in a world that has become undone, and the town of Ebbing is just a microcosm of the bigger picture.

Now that I got all deep there, let’s talk about something more plain to see. Frances McDormand gives one of the best performances of her career that rivals her role in Fargo. She brash and mean but also sad and incredibly vulnerable. Equally fantastic is Woody Harrelson who has one of the most complex roles in the entire movie. I have to give a major shout out to Sam Rockwell, who continues to be one of my absolute favorite actors in the business. Give him any role, and I bet you he can nail it. This is all award caliber stuff here, folks, so keep your eyes peeled when the time comes. Speaking of that, Lucas Hedges returns after his work in Manchester by the Sea with a sort of similar role, but he still manages to knock it out of the park.

We’ve had a lot of great films this year. I always saw Wind River as my favorite with films like Dunkirk and Killing of a Sacred Deer coming in close behind. They still remain high on the list, but I don’t see how anything can beat Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. This film is a genreless masterpiece that defies what you may come to expect and the physical reaction it left me with is one of a kind. Martin McDonagh has given us the best piece of his film making career and it’s something that has been firmly on my mind since the day I saw it. Whatever you do, do NOT miss out on this movie.

Final Grade: A+

House Series – Review: Part 2

3 Dec

Through all my research into the House movies, there’s nothing that really points to them being success with critics or audiences, nor do I see them really killing it at the box office. That being said, we’re back to talk about the third and fourth entries into the series. I’m just not sure how these movies got this far. While the first movie balanced horror and comedy in a pretty entertaining way, I had more fun with the second movie that focused mainly on the comedy and provided some over the top adventure along the way. They were good movies, but nothing great. Let’s see how the later movies in the series fair.

Let’s start in 1989 with The Horror Show. This movie had a bit of an identity crisis before it was even released. In non-USA countries, this movie was marketed as House III, but not in America. We still got House IV over here, so I’m going to still treat this as the third film in the series.

For years Detective Lucas McCarthy (Lance Henriksen) has been hunting a serial killer known as Meat Cleaver Max (Brion James). After a particularly grisly showdown in an abandoned warehouse, Lucas finally arrests him and Max is sentenced to death. The day finally arrives for the execution, but Max doesn’t go down without a fight and warns Lucas as enough electricity is going through him to power a small village that he will be back for Lucas and his family. Of course, Lucas doesn’t believe that, but when odd things start happening around his and his family’s new house, he begins to get worried. Things only get worse when he actually starts seeing Max in his house and on his tv. After a parapsychologist tells Lucas that Max had enough electricity flowing through him to put his soul into another dimension, McCarthy has to find enough electricity to bring Max back and destroy him for good before anything can happen to him and his family.

So this is a hard movie to place into the world that House has built. It’s certainly not a comedy and it’s debatable as to wether it’s actually the third film or not. In some places you see this movie titled House III: The Horror Show and in other places it’s only called The Horror Show. How did that happen? Like I said, this movie does away with the comedy, and that does make for a focused movie in terms of tone, but The Horror Show also suffers from a major thing that the first movie did. That is that the story and the action and the horror simply didn’t go far enough to have really any effect on me. It’s clear they were going for something similar to A Nightmare on Elm Street with Max possessing certain objects in the house and having a dark wit about him, but he’s not in the movie all that much and when he isn’t, I couldn’t really feel his presence. A lot of the movie is Henriksen trying to either figure out how Max could be returning while also trying to convince the police he isn’t part of the violent things Max is still doing. It makes the whole second act feel extra long and really dry.

There are certain elements to The Horror Show that will certainly draw die hard fans of the genre to it. For one thing, seeing Lance Henriksen and Brion James, two great character acts, work side by side in main roles is a lot of fun. Both of them bring their best to the roles, and I really wish James was in this movie more. He stole every scene he was in, but Henriksen certainly keeps the boat afloat. There’s also a level of camp to the story with the parapsychologist and the talk of spirits traveling to other dimensions. It’s like The Horror Show almost wanted to be a horror/comedy, but the powers that be just wouldn’t allow it. I already compared this movie to A Nightmare on Elm Street, so there are times where the special effects are pushed to look like mid series Nightmare movies, but it never quite looks as good as those movies did.

After letting this one sit for awhile after I watched it, I’ve found less to really enjoy. It started off strong, but as the plot went forward the excitement faded away, I actually found The Horror Show pretty boring. Like I said, the fact that Henriksen and James star side by side make this worth checking out for die hard fans, but the scares happen too far apart and the drama that is built up is just bland and feels kind of forced. I have to say, I miss the humor of the other two because that at least made up for the lack of scares. Can’t say the same about this one.

Final Grade: C-

Somehow or another, this series got to a number 4. This time the haunting went direct to video with 1992’s House IV.

Roger Cobb (William Katt) has looked after his family’s old house for years, and has even gotten his wife Kelly (Terri Treas) and his daughter Laurel (Melissa Clayton) to be protective of it. After a particularly heated conversation with Burke (Scott Burkholder), his step brother, to sell him the house, Roger and his family leave to go home, but along the way get into a car accident and Roger is killed. Now Kelly and Laurel have officially moved into the Cobb family house, but is still pestered by Burke, who is actually working for a gangster, to sell the house so his boss can use the area for nefarious purposes. As Burke’s threats become more real, Kelly begins to realize that there are spirits lurking in the house that want to make themselves known and have a message of their own.

By this point, the House films have completely worn out their welcome. This is just another retread of what we already saw in the previous movie, but this is done way worse. The first glaring error that killed the first part of the movie for me was the complete lack of continuity. Why bring back Roger Cobb, played once again by William Katt, but have no connection to the first House. Not only that, but why completely erase all traces of continuity. The house is in a different place, it looks completely different, he has a step brother now, a different wife, and a daughter instead of a son! Why go through all that trouble to erase everything we thought we knew about a character when you could have just created a new one from scratch. It was really distracting to have to try and figure out if this was the same Roger Cobb.

That’s just the first offense. House IV is an all around disaster. The comedy isn’t funny and the horror isn’t scary, so what exactly is the point. By the time I had to sit through a scene of a singing pizza man, I knew I was  done for. The humor in this movie is so plain and juvenile and poorly timed that it just made for an awkward experience. There was one darkly funny scene towards the end that had me laughing, but that was it. Something also happens in the middle of the movie that was just absolutely disgusting and out of place. It wasn’t funny or disturbing, but just plain old gross out humor that was drawn out and just ugly. Finally, I hated every single character in this movie, especially Laurel, the daughter character. Her voice was like nails on a chalkboard and the lines she had to perform were just terrible. No one acts like the people in this movie, which served to be another distraction.

House IV is easily the worst of the series, but I’m thrilled to say that this is where it all ended. What a sour note to go out on. The humor is dumb and often gross, there’s virtually nothing frightening, and the characters are so annoying it’s almost unbearable. Oh, and let’s not forget the erroneous continuity or lack there of. This is just a mess brought to the extreme. It’s an ugly, unfunny sequel that completely negates everything the original had going for it while also taking the original’s flaws and amplifying them. Don’t put yourself through watching this even if your a fan of the other films.

Final Grade: F

I think these past two review of this series has shown that the House movies are less than spectacular. They never really reach any kind of touchstone that makes them memorable. The first two are fun and the third tries to take it in a new direction while the fourth is cinematic vomit. These films aren’t essential, but I can see where some enjoyment can be had.