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Death Wish Series – Review: Part 1

24 Mar

One of the most iconic action stars of the past century is the one and only Charles Bronson. He has a charisma about him that is undeniable, so it’s no surprise that he’s a name still remembered to this day. The film that got him raised to such a status is a well known thriller called Death Wish. While controversial for its time, and even this time in a way, it has garnered a lot of fans and a possible remake from Eli Roth. Like with other films of this time and genre, one movie wasn’t enough, which resulted in a total of five Death Wish movies. What can be said about them? Well… they’re certainly something else.

Let’s start with the original from 1974.

Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) is a liberal minded architect living with his wife (Hope Lange) and daughter (Kathleen Tolan) in New York City during a time when crime is sky rocketing. One afternoon, a group of thugs break into Paul’s apartment and assaults his daughter and murders his wife. Overcome with grief, Paul doesn’t know what to do and his beliefs are all starting to go down the drain. After a business trip, Paul comes home with the answer and a brand new revolver. He takes it upon himself to start working as a late night vigilante, walking the bad streets of New York and shooting anyone that threatens him or another person. This causes the media, citizens, and police to start paying attention to his actions, and things in New York begin to slightly change. With the people starting to fight for themselves, NYPD Lt. Frank Ochoa (Vincent Gardenia) begins his nearly impossible task of tracking down the vigilante and putting an end to his spree.

Death Wish was made in 1974 and based off of a novel of the same name that was published in 1972. This was a time when crime was really getting bad in major cities, and people just didn’t know what to do about it. This brought about a new age of action films, with the most resonant being the Dirty Harry series. This film doesn’t quite hit as hard as some other films because the idea of vigilantism isn’t explored nearly enough. The novel takes the idea and shows the dark side that it can create, while the film shows Kersey as a straight up hero who can do no wrong. This makes the film feel incredibly dated and kind of a shallow experience, especially if you’re approaching this wanting to see an action classic that can stand the tests of time. It can also come off as very preachy in terms of its right wing political ideology. I don’t care if a movie leans a certain way, but make it subtle and don’t talk down to an audience.

There are things in Death Wish that do stand out. For one thing, Bronson’s performance is good even though the character sort of feels a little bit underdeveloped. Instead of being this boisterous vigilante, he plays the role very quietly, which actually reflects the whole tone of the movie. As the series goes on, it gets more and more off the walls, but this film is much more down to earth. In fact, it’s hard to call this movie a full blown action movie when it often times feels like a drama. The plot moves along slowly, which in retrospect actually works better than I originally thought. There are also no grand action set pieces. The “action” happens very quickly with Kersey pulling out his revolver and shooting a criminal, and once that’s done he just leaves the scene. It felt gritty and real and wasn’t at all what I originally expected this movie to be.

Death Wish is an interesting time capsule of a movie, but it’s one that hasn’t really aged well. It’s political ideology is rammed down the audience’s throat to the point of being obnoxious and it features a well known main character that didn’t always feel too complete. It does feature some cool scenes that feel gritty and realistic and the whole approach of not making a grand scene of the violence is a good choice. I just wish that the idea of vigilantism and its dark side was explored more instead of the whole concept just being praised. It’s an interesting movie for any film history buff and fans of Charles Bronson, but it’s really lacking in many ways.

Final Grade: B-

Eight years later, in 1982, a sequel crept its way into theaters and dragged things down even further.

After his vigilante spree in New York City, Paul Kersey has found a peaceful home in Los Angeles. His daughter (Robin Sherwood) is in a mental hospital and improving significantly, and he’s also found new love with radio reporter Geri Nichols (Jill Ireland). All of this comes crashing down when his daughter is kidnapped and murdered by a gang of criminals, which forces Kersey to once again pick up his revolver and hit the mean streets. As Kersey starts his revenge quest on the group of thugs, Detective Ochoa gets wind of what’s happening and travels to L.A. to put an end to Kersey’s spree, but it can never be that easy.

Death Wish II is straight up garbage. There’s no use beating around the bush with this one. It doesn’t even try to be anything different than the original. Kersey is living a happy live, then someone he loves is killed which brings him to his vigilantism. That’s the same exact plot as the original Death Wish. At least that one raises some questions and presents the material in a subtle way. This one, however, is just violence for the sake of it without any interesting material to back it up. That would be acceptable if this film had any sense of style, but it doesn’t even have that. It’s just a gray, ugly looking movie filled with cannon fodder for Bronson to take his anger out on. It’s absolutely mindless and devoid of any sort of flash to pull the viewer in.

Death Wish II succeeds at only the most base level. I will say that compared to the first one, there’s a bit more mindless entertainment. There’s no real set up to the movie. Things happen right away which leads Bronson to start his vengeful murder spree. If you want to see an action star just blow criminals away, this is the right movie to look at. There’s a lot more action and the violent scenes do feel bigger and more exciting, which is definitely a plus. The only problem, like I said before, is that there’s no style and the motivation feels completely stunted by Charles Bronson’s lack of dramatic presence.

There’s really not much to say about Death Wish II. It feels like a rehashing of the first film, but more loud and more violent. This would be a welcome addition if the story felt different and something new was added. There’s really nothing new here at all. The only time there was a plot development that could lead somewhere interesting, the film makers decided to cut that off prematurely in favor of more mindless proceedings. This film is really a waste of time and only die hard Charles Bronson fans should give this movie any sort of respect.

Final Grade: D-

But the series wasn’t done with the stinker that is Death Wish II. Not by a long shot. In 1985, Death Wish 3 was released, and this is where things really started to go off the rails.

Paul Kersey has been living the life of a vigilante for too long and has finally decided to put away the revolvers and lead a normal life. This personal promise to himself is shattered upon his return to New York City where he finds his long time friend bleeding to death after being attacked by a group of thugs in his apartment. Kersey is than approached by Inspector Shriker (Ed Lauter), who makes an off the records demand of Kersey to return to his old ways and clear the neighborhood of the goons responsible for all the mayhem. Kersey finds allies in the tenants of the apartment building, especially with WWII veteran Bennett Cross (Martin Balsam) and the mild mannered Rodriguez (Joseph Gonzalez). With the support of his neighbors and other victims of the community, Kersey wages war with the criminals and their leader, Fraker (Gavin O’Herlihy).

Death Wish 3 is one of the most unintentionally hilarious movies you or I may ever see. To be fair to it, it’s a slight step up from the second film but for some of the wrong reasons. I do like that the plot deviates from someone hurting his family, but it just goes right to someone hurting his friend. Where the movie really differs in that Kersey becomes something of a guardian angel to the neighborhood, and by the end they all join him in his war against Fraker and his goons. The third act of the movie, by the way, is an extended shoot out in the streets that seems to never end. It’s so much fun to watch but it’s some of the most absurd, mind numbing violence. By the end of it, there’s no emotion or excitement to be felt, other than the moment of joy when the first end credit begins to scroll up the screen.

The rest of the movie is also devoid of any kind of emotional or dramatic impact, which would be fine if the rest of the movie was as entertaining and off the walls as the third act. It isn’t unfortunately, and this is where things really get bogged down. It does have more memorable characters than the previous film, but they don’t really have to much to say or do until things really start happening. There’s a few scenes of Kersey gunning down people throughout the movie, but it’s just all part of the formula by now. Even with a storyline that’s changed, it’s not enough.

If you want a good laugh, Death Wish 3 might be worth checking out, if only for the outrageous finale. It still keeps up the same trend that the other ones did, so the whole routine is feeling kind of stale at this point. It is a step up from the second movie, but that’s hardly saying much.

Final Grade: D+

So that’s the first three films in the Death Wish series. I still have two more movies to go, so keep an eye out for the next part of this review.

Kong: Skull Island – Review

13 Mar

I love monster movies. Like I really, really love monster movies, so the fact that Legendary is giving us a whole universe dedicated to giant monster brawls is almost too exciting. The first film in the MonsterVerse, Godzilla, came out in 2014, and despite some mixed reviews, I thought it was pretty badass. It did have some flaws, but when it got down to the monster mayhem, it really knew what it was doing. Now we have the second film, Kong: Skull Island, which introduces King Kong and the island to the universe. This beloved ape has been around since 1933, and it’s awesome to see that he has no intentions of giving up his big screen glory. This film is excessive, yes, but it’s also an extremely entertaining and action packed thrill ride.

William Randa (John Goodman) is a government official who has all the proof he needs to lead an expedition to an undiscovered island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean called Skill Island. After fighting for approval, he finally gets the go ahead and begins assembling his team. His first order of business is to find a tracker, which he finds with James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), a former SAS captain that served in the Vietnam War. He also recruits the help of Lt. Col. Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) and his regiment, the Sky Devils, as a military escort. Photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) also joins the expedition with hopes of uncovering some unknown government conspiracy. When the group finally gets to the island, it doesn’t take long for the protector of the realm, a 100 foot tall ape named Kong, to show up and defend his land. This attack splits the group in two, which forces them to work together and keep their eyes peeled for Kong and the other horrors that wait for them on the island.

I had such a blast with Kong: Skull Island, that I’m still getting excited thinking back on it. It’s exactly what I wanted from this movie, and based on what some other critics were saying, I was kind of worried I was going to be let down. One thing that’s worth noting that can be seen as a negative are some of the characters. Samuel L. Jackson’s Packard and John C. Reily’s Hank Marlow are two examples of well thought out and fully realized characters. I understand their motivations and they stand out amongst the rest. There are other side characters that also have large personalities that make them memorable, but there’s no real development with any of them. Tome Hiddleston and Brie Larson, however, seem to hardly be in character at all. They’re just the stereotypical heroes you would expect to see in this movie. They try to add a little back story to them, but that exposition doesn’t really help at all. They’re just there to save the day, and that’s about it.

The original King Kong has one of the most classic stories in the history of film, and no sequel or remake since then has been able to capture that same essence and feeling. Kong: Skull Island doesn’t even try, and it’s all the better for it. Sure, it has the same kind of set up with the characters being introduced and sailing to the island, and there are natives which are to be expected on Skull Island, but that’s where the similarities end. The story of this movie pretty much revolves around Hiddleston and company trying to stay alive and get to the rendezvous point on the other side of the island. This is really all I needed, but there’s a cool subplot added in with Jackson’s character that raises the stakes even more. I was so thrilled to see this movie not get bogged down in trying to be something more than it is. The plot was there to drive the movie forward, but it wasn’t so stale and uninteresting that I lost track of what I was really watching. This keeps the pace fast with the action always moving forward. It’s cool to say that I was never once bored watching this movie.

Let’s talk about the man of the hour though. Toby Kebbel is tasked with being a side character soldier, but also was the motion capture actor for Kong. This seems appropriate since he did the motion capture for Koba in the new Planet of the Apes movies. He really brings Kong to life in this movie, which is awesome, and the physicality of the role is not to be forgotten. Kong has major throw downs in this movie that will force any viewer to go into popcorn munching overdrive. This is where the movie really shines, and I appreciate the visuals that add to the excessiveness that I mentioned I loved so much. Sure, the close ups and the crazy compositions of Kong back lit by the sun may seem cheesy, but they’re really just too cool to look at, and provided some of my favorite parts of the movie.

Is Kong: Skull Island going to match the classic status that Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack did with the original back in 1933? Of course not, but it does add a fulfilling new chapter to the MonsterVerse, and also was just a highly entertaining film. Once the characters get to the island, the action very rarely slows down and I found myself getting lost in the visuals of the island and the monster brawls that seemed larger than life happening before my very eyes. This isn’t a movie about characters nor does it have any important lessons to teach the viewer. This is about giant monsters throwing down for a couple of hours. In that way, it did not disappoint.

Final Grade: B+

Get Out – Review

13 Mar

When Key & Peele first aired on Comedy Central, I didn’t think the show was going to go anywhere, but then I watched it and realized that the two stars had an incredible talent when it came to comedy and satire. I loved their movie, Keanu, and when I saw Jordan Peele was writing and directing a horror film based on racism I was immediately on board. I knew that it would be a blend of horror and sharp satire, and at times probably even be funny, and that’s exactly what I got. Get Out is a really smart, eerie, and subversive film that has many different ideas and perspectives while also telling a creepy, and sometimes even gleefully campy, horror story.

Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) and his girlfriend Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) are at the point in their relationship where it’s time for Chris to finally meet her parents. Normally, this would be a passably awkward experience, but Rose’s parents have no idea that Chris is black. Despite Rose telling Chris that her parents, while being typically eccentric, are nothing to really worry about. Upon their arrival to their suburban home, Chris is whole heartedly greeted by Dean (Bradley Whitford) and Missy (Catherine Keener) Armitage. Over time, Chris starts to notice strange remarks concerning both him and the Armitage’s black housekeepers. Things only get stranger when Missy hypnotizes Chris during a late night conversation, a session which ignites a furious paranoia in Chris that causes him to investigate what is really going on in that house and the real horrors that lie beneath the surface.

There’s so much to say about Get Out that I don’t really know where to begin. When this movie was first previewed, there was a lot of backlash for it showing this overt racism directed at one particular race to another. The thing is that this movie is not as clean cut as that. There’s a lot going on beneath the surface that trailers can’t convey, and I’d be pretty upset if they did because the way this movie unfolds is riveting. While Peele does explore the overt racism towards African Americans, it doesn’t really stop there. The story also delves into the realm of paranoia and preconceived notions of both races that arise because of these problems. It also goes in a pretty cool direction where certain actions from people, while they claim they may be trying to help, are only making certain situations worse or changing nothing at all and coming off as condescending. While not giving anything away, the last third of the movie goes absolutely haywire and only makes things more complicated with certain unexpected twists that come out of nowhere… Twists that just so happen to be awesome.

While this is definitely a horror movie through and through, there’s a couple really cool things that kind of help Get Out step outside of the box and escape genre conventions. For one thing, this film can be super funny. Like gut busting funny, and a lot of that comes from the hilarious performance by Lil Rey Howery, who plays Chris’ best friend. We all knew that Jordan Peele was a really funny guy, but it’s impressive that he can so seamlessly weave his off the wall sense of humor into a genuinely unnerving horror tale. I mentioned that the third act just introduces a whole new layer in terms of thematic material, but it also really shakes things up when it comes to style and genre conventions. I’m not going to say anything about what happens, but any B-movie fan will appreciate the story taking a sudden turn into that kind of territory.

What would have been a major problem for this movie was if it was too obvious. If Peele whacked you over the head with the messages and points he was really driving at, the movie would feel too preachy. While there are a few moments that do feel a tad bit heavy handed, they are completely out shined by the subversive nature of the rest of the film. This is mostly due to Jordan Peele’s fantastic screenplay and direction, but credit also has to go to the actors. I had no idea who Daniel Kaluuya was before seeing this movie, but he was outstanding. He gives a very natural and level headed performance that can be both shocking and funny. The other stand outs are Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener as the older Armitages, who just seem to radiate the kind of eerieness this movie needs. I already mentioned Lil Rey Howery, but I just have to reiterate how funny this guy is and how essential he is to the entire movie.

I’ve been saying recently that we are living in a renaissance of horror, and Get Out only proves that point even more. This is a brilliant and wonderfully subversive film that gets under your skin while also succeeding at making you laugh. It has some really great thematic depth to it that will make any audience member with half a brain think about the characters and motivations, which is a great first step to making a great film. Add on some memorable scenes and a lead character that you can’t help but love and you have a winner on your hands. Get Out is a superb film that will challenge your mind as much as entertain you.

Final Grade: A-

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai – Review

9 Mar

Jim Jarmusch is quite possibly one of the most critically acclaimed film makers working in the industry today. Even with all of this critical feedback, his films rarely see the light of day in terms of the mainstream market, but Jarmusch never compromises his vision for something more accessible, and I respect that. While most of his films are very interesting an defy genre conventions, one that really stands out to me is Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, which was released in 1999. It’s a story that combines a mafia crime story with an urban drama that has elements of an Eastern samurai tale. It’s a very unique movie that has a lot of elements working together, but sometimes at the expense of other aspects that could have been explored more.

Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker) is a mysterious hit man that lives by the code of the samurai, which was written in the Hagakure. Part of the code is to honor his boss, a mobster named Louie (John Tormey) who saved his life some years before this story takes place. Part of his honoring Louie is to perform contract hits without question. One of the hits is Handsome Frank (Richard Portnow), a made man who is in a relationship with mafia don Vargo’s (Henry Silva) daughter (Tricia Vessey). After successfully performing the hit with the daughter being unexpectedly present for it, Vargo puts a hit on Ghost Dog, much to the chagrin of Louie, who is forced to go along with it to some degree. Now, Ghost Dog is going to have to come out of seclusion, and in the traditional ways of the samurai, get his revenge on the mafia family that wants him dead.

So while this does have a pretty classic revenge story going on, the core of this movie is Ghost Dog. It’s more of a character study than anything else. There’s bursts of violence that happen, but it’s the downtime that sticks with me more. There’s a great scene in a park where Ghost Dog is talking to this little girl he just met about different kinds of books. This scene added a lot of humanity to Ghost Dog, a man who is essentially a murderer for hire. This kind of humanity makes him a very conflicted and complicated character whereas he can be gentle to most anyone he meets, but also kill you without batting an eye. This study of Ghost Dog makes for slow paced storytelling, but it works for this movie. What doesn’t really work is when the slow pace slows down to a halt. There’s a lot of scenes where Ghost Dog is just driving and listening to music, which is brilliantly composed by RZA. As great as the music is, these scenes go on way to long, and unless you’re 100% invested in everything in this movie, you’ll probably find yourself drifting from time to time.

What really makes Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai unique is the seamless genre blending. Like I said before, this film works as an urban drama and a crime thriller with sprinklings of Eastern philosophies and styles. I really love when movies defy all genre conventions, which is a major strength of Jim Jarmusch. The combination of RZA’s hip hop score with the imagery of Ghost Dog practicing with his katana on a rooftop in the middle of the city is just super cool, and when he’s comparing the philosophy of the samurai with the violent revenge he’s getting on the mafia also makes for a really cool blend. Now, the problem with having all this stuffed into one movie that isn’t even 2 hours means that some stuff is lost or pushed aside. Not a lot of Ghost Dog’s past is explored and a lot of side characters are just pushed away for long periods of time when a little bit of development would have went a long way. I know this story is more about Ghost Dog, but having certain characters stand out more would have made his actions have more consequence. It’s a small price to pay for fitting in all of the cool stuff that is prominent.

Ghost Dog is a really good example of the kind of writing that Jarmusch does and why it’s really a style all his own. There’s a lot of really cool bits in this movie that shouldn’t be under appreciated. There’s a Haitian character that doesn’t speak or understand a word of English, but he’s also Ghost Dog’s best friend even though they don’t understand each other. There’s also a gangster on Ghost Dog’s hit list that has a passion for Public Enemy, especially Flavor Flav. This whole movie is filled with these strange moments that make it feel surreal, but also down to earth since everyday life can be surreal. Jarmusch is as much a writer as he is a director, and it really shows in this movie.

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai is definitely a cool and well made movie, and it’s one that should be remembered for being something so unique. It’s a blending of so many different genres and themes and styles while also being an in depth character study. I just wish it was a little bit longer. There’s a lot of different characters and elements to the story that could have been explored a little bit more. Still, what does remain is a very cool story about a one of a kind character. It’s definitely worth a watch or three.

Final Grade: B

Logan – Review

6 Mar

The X-Men series of movies seems to have been around forever. The beloved team of mutant heroes were shown onscreen in live action for the first time back in 2000, and there are a few of these actors that are still playing the same roles almost two decades later. In this case, I’m talking about Hugh Jackman as Wolverine/Logan and Patrick Stewart as Charles Xavier/Professor X. Now, here in 2017, we’re seeing the departure of these two actors from their respective roles in the newest film of this series, Logan. What a movie to go out on. This isn’t just the best X-Men film to date, it may very well reign supreme as the best superhero film ever made.

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In the not so distant future, mutants are on the brink of extinction and have to go into hiding to avoid certain death squads and other forces that want them gone. One of these mutants is a much older Logan (Hugh Jackman) who is working as a limo driver to support his vices while also supporting a sickly Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart). A chance encounter with a nurse ends with a little girl, Laura (Dafne Keen), being left with Logan and Charles who are tasked with transporting Laura to a safe haven for mutants. Laura is soon revealed as a mutant test subject known as X-23, who is on the run from the company’s head of security, Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook), and his soldiers called the Reavers. Against Logan’s best wishes and attempts to rid himself of the responsibility, he takes both Laura and Charles out of their compound and begin their journey to the haven with Donald and his men hot on their tails.

There’s so much about this movie I want to dive right into that I have to force myself to stay focused. Let’s talk story first. I tried to keep my summary as vague as possible because there are so many layers and feelings that start to peel away as the movie goes on. It would be impossible to try and cover everything that is important in this movie because there isn’t one frame that is unnecessary. The story to Logan isn’t like any other X-Men movie, and it plays out like a very intense character drama as much as it is a graphically violent action film. The main reason this movie worked so well for me is because of how deep the story is and how it explored parts of these characters that were never seen before. The story is about Logan and Charles protecting X-23, but it’s also a story of family, regret, and severe, relentless pain. It’s can be a rough one at times, but I commend writer/director James Mangold and his co-writers for going there.

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The decision to make Logan rated R was a very smart move from 20th Century Fox, especially after the over the top success of Deadpool. This works great for the drama that I’ve already talked about as well as the action sequences. Let’s talk action, now. This is still a superhero movie, and a superhero movie completely devoid of action would be weird. Wolverine has always been viewed as an angry character prone to violent outbursts, and we’ve seen that in previous X-Men movies, but never like what I’ve just witnessed in Logan. This is Wolverine at his most unhinged. Limbs fly, heads roll, and the scenery is often times showered with pieces of whoever got in Logan’s way. What’s cool about it, also, is that it isn’t violence for the sake of violence. There’s a fair amount of action sequences that go heavy on the violence, but it has weight backing it up, and it never gets to a level that’s solely exploitive and gratuitous. It’s very well handled and was never anything less than exciting.

Finally, Logan has an excellent cast of characters and actors who play them to perfection. Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart have been playing these parts for years, so it’s pretty clear that they have their roles completely covered. Stewart gives a subtle and often sad performance here, where we see Professor X in ways that I’ve never thought I would. As for Hugh Jackman, this is simply his best performance. It’s controlled while also being ferocious, but the quieter and more contemplative scenes is where Jackman really shines by making Logan so vulnerable and appear so broken. There’s also some great newcomers to the series that are memorable. Dafne Keen, despite her relatively young age, is outstanding as X-23 and can really hold her own in terms of the ferociousness that is expected from the character. I also really enjoyed Boyd Holbrook’s portrayal of Donald Pierce, whose villainy oozed through every scene he was in. It’s exactly how I like my comic book bad guys.

I really wasn’t a fan of X-Men Origins or The Wolverine so I was really hoping that Logan was going to do the character right. Well, it sure does and it does even better than I could have hoped. It’s sad to see Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart bowing out of their roles, but this was the send off that they deserved. This is a powerful film that has some really heavy storytelling that will leave you teary eyed yet incredibly satisfied. This is the best written and executed entry of all the X-Men films and it brings something new and exciting to the superhero genre that can potentially change the game. I absolutely loved Logan.

Final Grade: A+

Willow Creek – Review

4 Mar

In 1967, the Patterson-Gimlin Film was released, which appears to show a giant creature walking along a riverbed somewhere in the forests of California. This footage has been a favorite amongst the cryptozoological community and has been said this is the proof of the existence of Bigfoot, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. When I heard that Bobcat Goldthwait was going to be making a found footage horror film that explores the lore of Bigfoot, I was at the same time confused and intrigued. It’s been over three years since the film’s release, but I’ve just gotten around to seeing it, and I have to say that I’m more than a little surprised. Willow Creek is a suspenseful and often frightening film that is full of sharp dialogue, two rich lead characters, and a third act that provided me with some chilling moments.

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Jim (Bryce Johnson) is a Bigfoot enthusiast who decides to head to the area of Willow Creek and Bluff Creek to make his own documentary on the Patterson-Gimlin footage and his own attempts to find the area and possibly run into Bigfoot. Along for the ride is his girlfriend Kelly (Alexie Gilmore), who is an adamant denier of the creature, but also wants to support Jim in his efforts to shoot his film. The two finally arrive in Willow Creek and spend some time interviewing locals who have has some sort of encounter with Sasquatch, but some also warn them not to go into the woods. Despite the warnings, Jim and Kelly enter the woods where it is believed Bigfoot resides, and it doesn’t take long for them to realize that they are no longer hunting for Bigfoot, but it’s Bigfoot that’s hunting them.

So let’s get what I wasn’t a huge fan of out of the way first. For one thing, this is a pretty standard found footage movie when it comes to certain beats and the structure of the narrative. I knew pretty much exactly how the movie was going to play out and, for the most part, I was right. It even has the horror cliché of locals telling the main characters not to go somewhere, and then, of course, they go anyway. Shocker. I also just wanted a little bit more from this movie. This can also be seen as something of a compliment because I was really enjoying the movie and I wanted more of it. If another 10 or 15 minutes were added to it, I would have been thankful for it. I’m all for leaving things kind of ambiguous, and that shouldn’t change, nor do I want any more that what is shown, but a couple more scenes to build up some extra tension would have been much appreciated.

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There’s a lot more to like in Willow Creek than I would’ve ever thought. For one thing, the two main characters are very well thought out and feel genuine. They have a past and a future and it’s briefly explored through dialogue to give them more weight. They aren’t just living in the now of the movie. This makes what happens to them later on in the movie even more intense because they’ve been developed so much that we want them to escape the terrors of the woods. Goldthwait also made the smart choice to make this a slow burn of a horror film. The first 40 minutes or so may seem boring on the surface, but I didn’t find them so at all. It took its time building up the characters, the town and its inhabitants, and the lore of Bigfoot. It’s a sharply written film that is just as sharp in its execution.

So, let’s talk a little bit about the last third of this movie. Holy hell, is it something else. Put yourself in these characters’ positions. Stuck in the middle of the woods in the middle of the night with your only protection being the tent that you’re sleeping in. There’s a 20 minute long take of the couple sitting in the tent and listening to the bone chilling sounds happening outside, like footsteps and howls getting closer and closer to the tent. As this is all happening, their efforts to talk themselves down become futile. The suspense is almost too much and when Willow Creek finally explodes, it will leave you tired. It perfectly utilizes the idea that less is more and what the imagination creates, especially in this atmosphere, can be even more horrifying than anything that exists.

When this movie came out just a few years ago, found footage movies were still over saturating the market, so the only way to do the genre right is to create something special. I think Willow Creek is a special kind of horror movie. It has a tight script with witty dialogue and fully realized characters, but also a really courageous move to make a scene of suspense happen inside a tent during a 20 minute long shot. This is a very impressive film that would have been made even better if some more was added to the story or if some of the derivative moments were removed. Even with these small problems, Willow Creek stands, to me, as an under appreciated gem of modern horror.

Final Grade: B+

The Great Wall – Review

3 Mar

I recently did a review for Zhang Yimou’s 2011 war drama, The Flowers of War. In that review, I mention that Yimou is a very respectable film maker who has an especially strong talent for filming what I believe to be some of the most beautiful looking movies I’ve ever seen. His latest film is The Great Wall, a monster movie that involves protecting the Imperial City from creatures hell bent on destroying civilization as we know it. That combined with Yimou’s colorful and sweeping directorial style kind of made this a must see for me. Well, all I can say is that this film definitely looks great. That’s pretty much where the compliments end.

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William (Matt Damon) and Pero (Pedro Pascal) are two mercenaries scouring the East looking for “black powder,” which we now know as gunpowder. During their search, they end up at the Great Wall of China and are questioned about their intentions immediately upon their arrival. The two partners soon learn why the soldiers at the wall are so concerned about their motives. During a seemingly quiet afternoon, the wall is raided by alien monsters called the Tao Tie, whose goal is to penetrate the wall and continue on to the Imperial City. It doesn’t take long for William to come to a decision as to wether he wants to escape with Pero and another Englishman, Sir Ballard (Willem Dafoe), or if he would rather stay and defend the Great Wall with the newly appointed general, Lin Mae (Jing Tian).

I was excited for this movie for multiple reasons. First off, I was pumped to see Zhang Yimou tackle a big budget monster movie and have his style painted all over the movie. I was also just pumped to see another monster movie from Legendary, which has pretty much become the monster movie company for America. In these ways, the movie does succeed. When battles start happening, I got really into it. The special effects look kind of cartoony, but for some reason, that didn’t really bother me. I was taken aback by Yimou’s use of color and framing scenes to make them look as epic as possible. One of these shots in particular happened in the very first battle where you can see most of the battle in one super wide shot. Another really cool thing are the different regiments of the soldiers and the uniforms they wear to identify themselves. Honestly, in terms of style and scope, this movie stands tall.

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Like I said before, that’s pretty much where all of the good stuff ends. The Great Wall really isn’t all that good of a movie despite having a really cool premise. My biggest problem was the characters. I haven’t seen such poor development and writing in a really long time. Any scene that didn’t involve a battle or special effect of some kind fell flat. Like completely, utterly flat. It’s incredible how an epic period piece featuring alien monsters attacking the Great Wall of China could be so boring. There are a few characters worth something, but that’s not saying to much. William’s partner Pero has a good amount of one liners and a story that at least attempts to go somewhere before that’s shut down by some idiotic decisions from the writers. Lin Mae is also a pretty cool character who feels the most human out of anyone else. The worst offender of characters not worth anything is Sir Ballard. If you were to take Willem Dafoe out of this movie, nothing would be different. He’s completely wasted here.

I was also really bothered by the acting in this movie, but part of this also has to fall on the writers. There was so much clunky and awkward dialogue in this movie which only made me more distracted during the down time that I’ve already complained was boring enough. Like I said before, the only exceptions from this are Pero and Lin Mae. They weren’t perfect, but they were better than the rest. Honestly though, I was mostly shocked at how flat and uninspired Matt Damon was. I didn’t know until the end of the movie that he was supposed to be European, and I still don’t know exactly where he’s supposed to be from. His accent is on and off throughout the whole movie, and the way he delivers his lines is cringeworthy. Aside from his weird accent, he uses this over the top tough guy voice that wore thin on me after the second line of dialogue he had.

The Great Wall is a very disappointing movie. Throughout its run time, I saw a lot of hope for potential, but nothing really came of it. I will say that this is a fantastic looking movie with cool creature design and some excellent use of lighting and costume design. Everything else from the characters and their development to the structure of the narrative is flat, recycled, or just plain boring. As a monster movie, it works at the most basic of levels. As a movie to be appreciated and viewed for something more than that, it’s a failure.

Final Grade: C-