Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Rings: Another Middle-of-the-Road Horror Flick


Director: F. Javier Gutiérrez
Stars: Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz, Alex Roe, Johnny Galecki, Vincent D’Onofrio

Fun fact: the first DVD I ever bought was The Ring from 2002. It was a total blind-fire in my movie-watching infancy: I thought it looked really scary, I heard it was really scary, and I bought the really scary movie. Nostalgia is likely what brought me to the movie theater yesterday and asked for enough butter on my popcorn to drown a toddler. I didn’t go into this movie with a lot of high hopes, but I ate most of my popcorn by the end of it. It wasn’t a stellar movie, and it wasn’t a bad movie—it was just okay. There wasn’t much that was really striking about it, but it had its upsides and downsides.

Rings is a third installment of The Ring movies—and here I was thinking that it was only the second installment. I completely missed The Ring 2. This newest movie branches off from the original story of The Ring: if a person watches a certain internet video, one full of cryptic images and grotesque frames, that person will receive a phone call immediately after the video; a mysterious voice says, “Seven days,” implying that that is when the viewer will be killed by Samara—who is something like a technological ghost. Samara was an abused orphan who died in the bottom of a well after her adoptive mother tried to suffocate her and dispose of her body, and she now exacts revenge for her earthly suffering on viewers of the video. Rings picks up the story as Holt (Roe) leaves his girlfriend, Julia (Lutz), to go to college. Once there, Holt joins an experiment about the afterlife with Gabriel (Galecki), the lead professor and researcher. When Holt stops returning Julia’s calls, she decides to visit his college and find him—but the two of them fall into deep water as they uncover more about Samara’s past. (Get it? Like they’re falling into a well! I’m so sorry, keep reading.)

There were a couple of instances where Ring’s cinematography struck a chord with me. Julia and Holt think that by finding Samara’s body and cremating it, that might do the trick to setting Samara free and ending the cursed video. When Holt and Julia find the crypt where the body is held, Julia crawls into it to investigate. It’s a horror movie, right? Crawl into the crypt, why not. As she crawls inside, though, the cinematographer carefully places the camera in such a way that all of the walls of the crypt are visible around Julia—thereby creating a feeling of being surrounded or trapped, almost as if she was being buried alive. In another part of the film, Julia stumbles across a makeshift prison cell, and again, that “trapped” cinematography comes back. In one frame, Julia stands in the doorway of the cell, and we see the left wall, right wall, ceiling, and floor—the frame, itself, closes in around her. I thought it was a neat effect.

At the same time, some of the visuals in Rings were cliché or blatantly contrived. It’s a horror movie, so to fit with the horror movie genre, the filmmakers had to throw in some creepy-crawly stuff: there were ants, centipedes, a random snake, and a swarm of cicadas, just to make sure that we got those people with bug phobias (read: me) to writhe in their seats a bit. To highlight that something paranormal is happening, we also have a very quick scene with Galecki standing in front of a wall of windows where the rain is falling upward. The images throughout the movie feel very contrived, and that’s my bigger peeve about Rings. To go along with the ideas of The Ring, the original movie, the main characters had to watch Samara’s doom-video, and then the rest of the movie piece-meals the video together in a fairly natural way—if an image appeared in the video, Naomi Watts’ character would find that image in real life, and the original movie would have a quick jump cut back to the video to show the connection. While this felt very natural in The Ring, the images in this Samara doom-video seem quite deliberate, as though the filmmakers sat down and said, “Hmm, what’s kind of ominous and spooky and ring-shaped? Oh, I got it! A church bell when you look at it from below!” Some of these images seem like a stretch to fit the “ring” motif, and it pulled me out of the movie.

As far as acting goes, I wasn’t horribly impressed—with one exception. I had never heard of Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz or Alex Roe before, so placing them into leading roles for what felt like a large box office film seems a bit odd. The two of them had a goopy love story, just a couple of young adults in a relationship; while the goop of their love was quite strong, the rest of their acting was just okay—nothing really breathtaking. Johnny Galecki certainly stepped away from his recurring role as the nerdy, timid Leonard on The Big Bang Theory, trading particle physics for afterlife studies, and I actually enjoyed his acting for the most part. Some of it seemed like a stretch, such as the first encounter between him and Julia: she very politely asks him if Holt had been to class lately, and being the stereotypical asshole research professor, he tells her a bit too bluntly to forget about Holt and move on. Overall, the acting was okay, but it was nothing groundbreaking to me.

The one exception in the acting department comes from Vincent D’Onofrio, and he steals the show toward the end of Rings. The last time I saw D’Onofrio was in Netflix’s adaptation of Daredevil as Kingpin, the massive mob boss who shakes things up in Hell’s Kitchen. I liked him in that role and found him very believable—just as believable as I find him in this role. In Rings, he plays a kind-hearted, soft-spoken blind man who lives in the town where Samara’s body was laid to rest. As Julia and Holt search for answers about Samara’s life—if it can be called such—he invites them into his home and answers the questions he can answer. There wasn’t a moment that felt contrived from his performance, so it was nice to see some stellar acting in this movie.

Overall, again, I wasn’t horribly impressed with Rings, but it could have been a lot better. As bits and pieces of Samara’s life were being uncovered by Julia and Holt, I always felt like I was one step ahead of them, so the story felt fairly predictable. I saw where things were going before they showed up on the screen, but it’s a (1) a horror movie and (2) a sequel. Things aren’t ever thought out or as planned out as the original, and that definitely shows here. The writing isn’t horrible, and the dialogue is okay, but again, this movie is a popcorn-muncher and not much more. 

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Gods of Egypt: Where to Begin? Why to Begin?

Gods of Egypt (2016)

Director: Alex Proyas
Stars: Nikolaj Coster-Waldu, Brenton Thwaites, Gerard Butler, Geoffrey Rush

Because it’s January, it’s cold outside, and I don’t have any papers to grade yet, I figured I should get up to speed on a few movies I missed over the past couple of years. Last night, I realized that I hadn’t used my free month trial of HBO content via Amazon Prime, and I fell into a rabbit hole of movies that I’d wanted to see. I’d originally planned to watch a few movies and do another compilation post like I did with my summertime horror-fest, but this movie…needed a lot more explanation than a mini-post could give. My usual recommendations are “Sure, watch this” or “Watch this when you get a chance, it’s okay” or “Don’t waste your time”—but Gods of Egypt gets a special recommendation: watch this with your friends and turn it into a drinking game. I’m sure there will be some easy way to do that. The story (and film, as a whole) is bloated and ridiculous, the acting and humor is forced most of the time, and the CGI overwhelms the movie.

Horus (Coster-Waldau) is about to receive kingship over Egypt when his uncle, Set (Butler), ruins the party and steals Horus’ eyes—which magically pop out of his head and turn into shining blue gems. Set takes the throne as a tyrant, and Bek (Thwaites) plans to steal Horus’ eyes from Set and return them to Horus in hopes that Horus will regain the throne and benevolently rule. After Bek, a mere mortal thief, steals one of the eyes and returns it to Horus, the two set out on an odd-couple adventure leading through the pyramids, over the Nile, and even up to visit Grandpa Ra (Rush) who controls the sun.

What…even is this? By the trailers I saw when this movie came out, it looked like a train wreck of a story. I’ll be honest: I went in wanting to hate this movie, and that goal was verily achieved. This is a bloated mess, as if I’d show this to a bored history student to say, “See?! Egyptology can be super cool and interesting!” The director must have really wanted to cram as much Egyptian mythology as possible into this flick, because there’s a ton of stuff that could have been cut, such as the numerous action scenes that didn’t really progress the plot at all. The movie was two hours, but it could have been cut down to 90 minutes pretty easily. We didn’t need to have a ten-minute fight with giant snakes, we didn’t need another ten-minute fight with the sphinx, and we didn’t need a climactic battle against a space monster. Yes. You heard me. Let that sink in.

The treatment of female characters in Gods of Egypt helps cause the bloatation of the story. You might have noticed that I didn’t list any women in the “Stars” section at the beginning of this post. That is because the women in this movie really serve no purpose: they’re plot devices. Horus wants to overthrow Set—why? Number one, yes, Set is a jerk of a king, but Set also took Horus’ girlfriend. Bek wants to help Horus overthrow Set—why? Because Bek believes Horus can help bring back his girlfriend from the underworld. Set besieges the temple of his ex-wife, Nephthys—why? Not because she’s a threat or anything, but because he wants to strip her of her godly powers and use them for himself. The women in this movie don’t really do much or have much agency of their own, so I’m not sure why the director wanted to keep all these loves stories in here. Wouldn’t it be enough for Bek to want to help wrest Egypt away from Set because he’s a bad ruler? No? Well, better give Bek a girlfriend to save. This is a classic case of “How do we sell this movie? Oh yeah, we need a love story.”

Throughout the film, the acting was pretty bad, even with the big names they tacked onto it. The poster for this movie on Amazon Prime lists Coster-Waldau, Butler, and Rush—again, throwing out the big names to draw people in, but a good amount of the cast wasn’t anybody I recognized from other movies (except Chadwick Boseman). It seemed
like most of the actors realized what a bomb this movie was going to be and said, “Eh, it’s a paycheck.” In period films like this, especially the ancient period, it seems like there’s a convention where all the actors try to put on an English accent, like an English accent is somehow related to antiquity; that being said, the actors weren’t really on the same page there: some actors did the accent, some actors didn’t, and Butler’s accent is…all over the place. He tries to drop his regular Scottish accent, but it still comes through quite a bit. Even Rush, an Oscar-winning actor, seemed to be half-hearting his role. Most of the cast seemed to go through the motions, and this definitely showed in the humor.

Amazon lists this as a fantasy-adventure movie, so it’s probably going to have some campy moments or, at least, some humor injected into the dialogue. I recently watched The Hobbit trilogy again, and there were plenty of funny moments there for a fantasy-adventure, but Gods of Egypt forced a lot of the dialogue—which, in turn, forced a lot of the humor. Because the actors didn’t seem into it, the dialogue fell pretty flat, and the humor that did show up was fairly predictable to me. For all the light-hearted moments in the film, I don’t remember laughing a single time. I laughed at the movie as a whole, but not the jokes that were being told. Maybe that’s how Gods of Egypt can be turned into a drinking game: drink whenever you don’t laugh at a joke in the movie. If you drank whenever there was a CGI effect on-screen, you’d need a new liver by the end credits.

With all the advances in motion capture technology in Hollywood, it seems like every new action movie—especially fantasy-adventures—are using tons of CGI. That’s exactly the case with Gods of Egypt, and it’s overwhelming to say the least. For starters, the gods are said to be much taller than mortal humans, so there’s some CGI to make those actors look taller than the extras around them; I’m assuming that Proyas based this on ancient hieroglyphics depicting the gods speaking to humans, but I found it very distracting. Next, the gods can turn themselves into fantastic beasts made of metal (or something?) when they want to really fight tooth and nail, so there’s even more CGI. Add in sandstorms, the underworld, Ra’s sun-ship, a space monster, and numerous overhead shots of the kingdom of Egypt, and that all makes for a hell of a lot of CGI. I don’t really have anything against CGI work, but the filmmakers could at least try to use some practical effects before going to the computer and saying, “No, I want the laser beams here, here, and here.”

Practical effects: make up and costuming that looks good

CGI to make Anubis, god of the underworld

I’ve said all this, and I didn’t even touch on the film’s controversial “whitewashing”—casting white actors to play roles that are logically meant for non-white actors, such as Egyptian gods who are played by a bunch of white folks. I could have taken this a little more seriously without the whitewashing, but that’s something you can find online for yourself. Like I said at the beginning, this movie is an absolute train wreck. Again, it’s a movie I wanted to see because it looked so bad. I’d like to say that this is a thoughtless popcorn movie, but there’s so much weird stuff—bad stuff—happening that I can’t really recommend it. Unless there’s drinking involved. This is one of those movies that’s so bad that you need to watch it with friends and play Mystery Science Theater to make it truly enjoyable.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Fantanstic Beasts: Some Hits, Some Misses, All Fun

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Director: David Yates
Stars: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Alison Sudol, Dan Fogler, Colin Farrell

Again, I’ve emerged from my semester-long hibernation to write another post. It’s difficult for me to read so many papers and assignments throughout the semester while trying to keep up with this blog, but one of my New Year’s resolutions is to write at         least one post per month, whether that’s a post about a new movie or one of my old favorites.

Now that the housecleaning is out of the way, let’s talk about the newest silver-screen debut from J.K. Rowling: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. As somebody who really liked the Harry Potter movies, I was split on watching this one: part of me felt like this was a stab for money, but part of me was still excited at an expansion of the universe. Everything said and done, I would recommend this movie. It’s a fun, popcorn-chomper of a movie, and it hints at some deeper elements of American society, but there are still a few problems.

Our story begins as Newt Scamander (Redmayne) arrives by boat to New York City and goes through customs with an enchanted suitcase full of fantastic beasts. After one of his crazy critters gets loose in a bank, Scamander’s suitcase gets mixed up another one carried by a nomaj—a person who doesn’t know magic—named Kowalski (Fogler). Scamander and Kowalski attempt to recapture the creatures that escaped from the magical suitcase, but they are quickly apprehended by an American magic-police officer, Tina (Waterston). A mysterious beast is threatening the city, however, and Graves (Farrell), the head of the magic-police, blames Newt for the invasive species that’s terrorizing New Yorkers. Scamander, Kowalski, and Tina team up with Tina’s sister, Queenie (Sudol) to find the menacing monster before it’s too late.

I had a lot of fun with this movie, and that’s partly because of the expanding Harry Potter universe. There didn’t seem to be much of an expansion in the normal Harry Potter sense, but it took the series in an interesting direction. In the proper Harry Potter movies, there’s a focus on using spells, dueling with wands, and brewing potions—and that makes sense for those movies, considering we’re following our main characters throughout their time at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. That being said, Fantastic Beasts moves away from spells and wizard duels and toward Hagrid’s realm of care for magical creatures. I found the designs for the various creatures very interesting, and the animation was all well done. There wasn’t any place containing beasts where I felt like I was taken out of the movie. It made me smile to see an even larger universe.

Though this movie focused less on wand-work and more on care of magical creatures, I felt underwhelmed with the wand choreography in the movie. What I mean by “wand choreography” is the natural look of an actor using a wand in the context of a scene. In the Harry Potter books, we learn that “the wand chooses the wizard,” but the wand almost becomes an extension of the self (something, something, phallus reference). If the wand is an extension of the self, it becomes an extension of the user’s personality. Take Sirius Black in The Order of the Phoenix: the climactic battle shows him waving his wand with light-hearted flourishes and little twists, like he’s expressing his fun-loving personality through his wand-dueling. In a stark contrast, Newt Scamander seems like more of an academic, not a fighter, and he’s kind of an awkward, shy person—he doesn’t have those aggrandizing flourishes with his wand. My big issue here is Colin Farrell: his portrayal of Graves doesn’t seem natural with his wand. We would expect Graves, as a captain of the aurors, to be a tremendous fighter with a list of really good wand-dueling moves, right? Wrong. Farrell swings his wand around almost like he’s trying to lasso cattle, and it took me out of an important scene.

I did find it quite interesting that Fantastic Beasts explores magic society in America—and even brings in some contemporary issues in American culture. The movie brings up a salient point about America’s divisiveness: an American magic-user normally doesn’t associate with a nomaj person, which creates a huge rift between two parts of American society. This felt incredibly important that the characters noted this division, especially in today’s culture. Another example of Fantastic Beasts’ exploration of American culture comes when a group of aurors—which are more or less magical police officers—destroy a dark wizard, though Newt is speaking to and calming down the wizard. Though Newt’s conversation with the dark wizard seems to be leading them in a direction where fatal violence seemed unnecessary to me, the aurors still fire away and kill the dark wizard. I watched this movie with my fiancée, and she was of the belief that the dark wizard was too powerful and unstable to leave alive; I can see her point of view, but the point remains the same here that the magical police might have been a little too trigger-happy (wand-happy?) in this instance. These little moments seemed to point to larger issues in American society that aren’t simply relegated to the magical community, however, and that helped me immerse myself in the story even more.

 The music in Fantastic Beasts was an issue for me. After having eight films’ worth of music—music that is iconic and almost universally known in American culture, I felt very disappointed that there wasn’t a new, interesting diddy to go along with this new series. I discussed this with my fiancée afterward, and I compared it to The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit movies: The Lord of the Rings had beautiful soundtracks thanks to Howard Shore, and he also scored The Hobbit series. While the Hobbit movies do share musical similarities with The Lord of the Rings’ soundtracks, the Hobbit movies still had their own identifiable music—music that says These movies all belong to the same universe, but they’re separate stories. Fantastic Beasts didn’t use much of that iconic music that we’ve grown to love with Harry Potter, and I honestly don’t remember much of it even now, having left the theater only a couple of hours ago.

In the end, Fantastic Beasts was a fun movie, and I’d definitely like to see it again someday. The creatures are fun and interesting, and they’re definitely the spotlight of this movie, and the hinting at American society, as oblique as some of those hints are, was a nice touch. I’m always going to be disappointed with the wand-duels in this movie, however. My love of movie soundtracks wasn’t tickled with this new iteration of the Potter universe, though, and that was also really disappointing. Overall, though, I’d recommend this one.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Suicide Squad: A bit late to the party, but it was 'meh.'

Suicide Squad
Director: David Ayer

Stars: Will Smith, Jared Leto, Margot Robbie, Viola Davis

If you’ve been following my blog a while, you know that I like my superhero movies, so the new Suicide Squad flick shouldn’t be any surprise. I love the movies that Marvel has been putting out, but DC still seems a bit off its game—first with Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, and now, with Suicide Squad. The plot seemed slow with an odd tempo, the acting was pretty bad, and Jared Leto’s Joker was…I don’t even know where to start there.

Suicide Squad tells the story of the aftermath of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice where the world is under threat of other “metahumans” like Superman—those people who have exceptional skills or powers that could be a threat to national security. Amanda Waller (Davis) assembles a team of metahumans—“the worst of the worst,” she notes—to defend us from the next Superman, should he or she arrive with less-than-noble intentions. At the top of that list is Deadshot (Smith), an expert in all guns and weaponry; also on the team is Harley Quinn (Robbie), a psychologist-turned-baddie whose main squeeze is the Joker. Another villainous member of the team, the Enchantress, goes rogue while fueled with an ancient and mystical evil power. It’s up to the Suicide Squad to take her out—or die trying.

Suicide Squad had a very strange tempo in the storyline, like the filmmakers tried to add too much in too little space on-screen. The Suicide Squad was new to me (as a filthy casual to the comic book world), and the movie had to do a lot of background on each character so the audience would know something about each villain’s backstory. The squad had at least six members—I honestly can’t even remember them all now—which meant that the story was bogged down time and time again by trying to explain each character’s backstory through flashbacks. While those flashbacks did add a bit of action to the movie, the overarching storyline of the film seems to get drowned out by all the necessary background information for the team members. In the end, Suicide Squad almost plays out like a road movie for as much travelling as the characters had to do to get to the finale fight with the Enchantress.

I honestly don’t know where to start with the acting, because there were so many bad, cringe-worthy moments in Suicide Squad. It seemed like the casting was all over the place in this movie—some of the casting was spot on, such as Davis’ portrayal of Amanda Waller as a stone-cold government entity or Jay Hernandez as the repenting—but fiery—Diablo. I had a lot of issues with Will Smith as Deadshot; after playing the Arkham Batman games, I’ve always thought of Deadshot as a loose cannon, both figuratively and literally. He always seems to shoot first, ask questions later with a bit of a temper…but that temper didn’t really show up with Smith. Rather, he seemed to take the character in more of a quipping, one-liner direction who made light of situations instead of releasing his rage through wrist-mounted guns.

I feel conflicted about Harley Quinn in Suicide Squad, since I expected a bit more of a feminist slant from her. From an acting standpoint, Margot Robbie felt natural in this role, and she encapsulated how crazy Harley is in the comics with a splash of dark one-liners; to boot, her costuming seems natural to this new iteration of the character compared to her full-body costume from the Batman cartoons where she debuted. That being said, I thought Quinn would be more of a feminist presence in the film, and it didn’t really seem that way to me. I discussed the sexualization of a half-orc woman in Warcraft in a previous post, and Suicide Squad definitely took Harley Quinn in a sexualized way, too. Is that altogether wrong? No—but this reeked of fan-service. The primary audience for most superhero flicks is going to be young men, and the filmmakers seem to cater to that particular audience by gratuitously showing Margot Robbie walking away from the camera in blue-and-red hotpants every few minutes—isn’t that going to make the audience objectify her to some degree? I’m still really torn over this debate, considering I know a little bit about Quinn’s “relationship” with the Joker, but I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below. Can we consider Harley Quinn a feminist character in this movie?

I’d really like to talk about Jared Leto’s portrayal of the Joker, but I made a boo-boo. I’ve tried to find the time and ambition to write this post for the past couple of months, and I’ve never gotten that creative and critical jolt I needed—until today—to finish the post. That being said, it’s been too long since I watched Suicide Squad, so I would need to rewatch it in order to write a more accurate review of Leto’s performance. Would anybody be interested in a post specifically aimed at the Joker’s portrayal in film? If so, let me know, and I’ll get to work on it while focusing on method acting.

I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from Suicide Squad, but here’s the thing: I wasn’t entirely disappointed in it, and I wasn’t completely in love with it. I wouldn’t give this movie my stamp of approval—I’d rather give it my stamp of “Well, I guess it was okay.” It’s not something I plan on buying, which is similar to my view of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, but I’m still looking forward to Wonder Woman to see if DC can start gaining the same traction as Marvel Studios has.

Thank you for your patience, dear reader! I’ve been quite busy with school and other life events recently, but I’m trying to get back into the swing of things. Now to find time to go to the movies…

All photos taken from the Internet Movie Database (www.imdb.com).

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Horror Movie Master-Post!

I’m currently in a long-distance relationship with Renee, and whenever we get to spend time together (usually summers and Christmas breaks when we’re not working), we love watching horror movies together. That being said, instead of doing my typical one-movie-per-post write-up, I’m going to lay out this horror movie master-post to give a quick rundown of the movies we’ve viewed throughout this vacation.

The Conjuring (2013)
Director: James Wan
Stars: Patrick Wilson, Vera Famiga, Ron Livingston

I had heard so many good things about this movie that I had to watch it. The Conjuring follows two paranormal investigators, a husband-and-wife team (Wilson and Farmiga), to an old swamp house where mysterious things start happening—specifically involving the mother of the family who resides there. This was a pretty decent movie: the pacing was really good, the effects were interesting, and the acting didn’t put me off like so many horror movies do. What I get really interested in, however, is sound—nothing makes a horror movie for me more than sound. From the creaking sound of a noose swinging on a rafter to off-key piano notes, the sound in this movie made it scary. Overall, the plot seems a bit run of the mill, but it’s a solid movie.

The Hallow (2015)
Director: Corin Hardy
Stars: Joseph Mawle, Bojana Novakovic

This title cropped up on Netflix, and the movie poster drew me in. A young couple (Mawle and Novakovic) and their infant son move to a secluded house on the edge of an Irish forest, but things begin to go bump in the night. As I watched this with my girlfriend, we immediately made the connection of Ireland and changelings, monsters that steal babies, and we were both surprised—I couldn’t tell you the last time I’d heard of a horror movie based around Irish folklore. This plot was quite original, and we both enjoyed that part of it, but where The Hallow really shines is in the make-up and creature design. The monsters from the forest all take on an earthy tone: most of the monsters seem vaguely humanoid, but they’re made from sticks, leaves, and mud. For what seems like a low-budget movie, having (I think) three characters with speaking roles, the movie is worth the watch.

They Look Like People (2015)
Director: Perry Blackshear
Stars: MacLeod Andrews, Evan Dumouchel, Margaret Ying Drake

This is another Netflix pick that came up out of the wild blue yonder, and again, it surprised me and Renee with how good it was. Christian (Dumouchel), an up-and-coming employee at a design firm, runs into an old, mysterious friend, Wyatt (Andrews). Wyatt is convinced that a war between good and evil is coming, and the story follows his prep-work and armament—but is the war real or only in his head? While this movie smacks of a student film, it felt very tense the whole way through the story because of Wyatt’s paranoia: the whole idea here is that the evil creatures are taking over people’s bodies—they look like people—and he can’t tell who is good and who is evil. That tension builds even more as Wyatt gets eerie phone calls in the middle of the night; and we watch Wyatt prepare weapons for the (maybe fake, maybe real) coming apocalypse. On top of being a very tense movie, the film also explores the meaning of masculinity, which definitely piqued the interest of me and Renee, since we’ve both done research in gender and masculinity studies. This movie is definitely worth a watch because it's just so simple.

We Are What We Are (2013)
Director: Jim Mickle
Stars: Bill Sage, Ambyr Childers, Julia Garner

Another Netflix pick, We Are What We Are explores the relationships between Frank Parker (Sage) and his two daughters, Iris (Childers) and Rose (Garner), who must carry on the family tradition after their mother’s death—a tradition that involves eating people. This movie was based off of a Mexican horror movie of the same name—Somos lo que hay—and it seems like a more original story than most horror movies tell because it adds the family dynamic to the cannibalism. That being said, there wasn’t enough tension to really hold our interest during this movie; we didn’t care about most of the characters, and personally, I didn’t feel like I was rooting for anyone to survive. The movie pokes at the theme of “traditions” and questions why we do the things we do, as a culture, but it didn’t really work for me. You aren't going to miss much with this movie, and it was one of the least favorite ones out of this list because the characters didn't really mean much to me, and it dragged on so long. 

Would You Rather? (2012)
Director: David Guy Levy
Stars: Brittany Snow, Jeffrey Combs

Iris (Snow) needs a significant amount of money to pay off her brother’s medical bills until Shepard Lambrick (Combs) invites her to a very special dinner party where she and the other contests play a game—to the death. I added this movie to my Netflix queue months ago, but I never got around to watching it: whenever I scrolled over it, it piqued my interest enough to not remove it from my list, but it wasn’t interesting enough to watch. Now that I’ve watched it, I feel like my actions were justified. It was okay, but it wasn’t really anything groundbreaking. Renee described it adequately as “torture porn,” which is a trap that many horror movies fall into: the story doesn’t need to be good, but the visuals have to be gory enough to keep audiences on edge. If this review were based entirely on the “torture porn” aspect of this movie, I’d be writing a great review, but horror movies shouldn’t be based entirely on how gory they are and how queasy they can make audiences. Again, this is another one you could skip, and it's another of my least favorites in this list: there was just too much imbalance in the character development, story, and torture porn. 

Come Back to Me (2014)
Director: Paul Leyden
Stars: Matt Passmore, Nathan Keyes, Katie Walder

The thing that drew me in about this movie was the poster, and that’s sometimes how Renee gets drawn into movies, too. Come Back to Me delves into the sudden night-terrors of Sarah (Walder) after a creepy neighbor named Dale (Keyes) moves in across the street; Josh (Passmore), Sarah’s husband, tries to support her through her horrifying dreams, but he works night shifts in a casino—meaning that Sarah is alone and afraid throughout most of the movie. Let me get this out right away: the acting in this movie is terrible. The only one who I found believable was Dale, because he’s supposed to be a socially-awkward weirdo neighbor. The rest of the cast was very meh—Josh’s character felt wooden most of the time, and Sarah’s character seemed to overdramatize everything. The movie fell short in a lot of areas, but the ending caught me be surprise. I'm not going to say that this is a "must see," by any stretch, but it's a poorly-acted movie that has a fun idea, and that's kind of worth the watch.

Starry Eyes (2014)
Director: Kevin Kolsh, Dennis Widmyer
Stars: Alex Essoe, Amanda Fuller, Noah Segan

It wasn't so much the poster for this movie, but the Netflix thumbnail of this movie with a woman with pentagrams drawn over her eyes. I really like movies about demonic possession, and I thought that this would be up that alley--I was a little off, but it wasn't bad. Sarah (Essoe), an actress in Hollywood looking for her break-out role, finds an opportunity at a highly-regarded yet mysterious production company...but she doesn't understand what she has to trade to reach fame. Essoe does very well in her role, and she's very believable throughout the movie; on top of that, the makeup used on Essoe's character is pretty good (though some of the blood in the movie looks like red-tinted chocolate syrup). I did like this movie, because it tapped into my feminist side: Starry Eyes highlights the distinct differences between men and women in the film industry by suggesting what a woman must do to get a break...a break that isn't necessary for a man in the same position. The biggest thing that stuck out to me was the storyline: it's an interesting storyline, but it quickly turns into a Faustian bargain where Sarah more or less trades her humanity for beauty and fame. The plot, especially where she fulfills that Faustian bargain, made me raise an eyebrow, and I'm not sure where the writers were going with some of the unnecessary torture porn that ensues. Despite the oddness in the plot, I'd still recommend this movie.

Sinister (2012)
Director: Scott Derrickson
Stars: Ethan Hawke, Juliet Rylance, James Ransone

This is our second go-around with Sinister, because I honestly didn't remember a whole lot from it the last time we viewed it about two years ago. Ellison Oswalt (Hawke) needs to write a new best-seller crime novel to keep his family from drowning in debt; a quadruple homicide case in Pennsylvania might be the answer to his family's problems--or it might cause more. Sinister has incredible work in sound design that definitely makes things more tense, such as the whirring of a video projector after Ellison finds a box full of Super-8 reels...that show various murders. As we watched this movie, we realized that we liked the first two-thirds of the movie; after that, the filmmakers decided that the story was too complex, so they felt the need to "dumb it down," like the audience wasn't quite following things well enough. Renee even said toward the end of the movie, "They could've ended this movie five minutes earlier and it would've been way scarier." I completely agree that the ending dragged on way too long and explained things that didn't need explaining, and there was one sequence where Ellison scours the house after a mysterious noise only to be followed by spoopy ghosts--but in horror movies, less is more. What we can come up with in our own heads is often more scary than what's shown to us on the screen. This one is a cool movie, one that you should definitely watch, but don't let the ending turn you off from it. 

Any horror movies that we should tackle? Have a different opinion on one of the movies I’ve listed here? Write a comment below!

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Warcraft: Stay home and play World of Warcraft instead


Director: Duncan Jones
Stars: Travis Fimmel, Paula Batton, Ben Foster

You know, at this point in my life, I should know that I shouldn’t watch video game movies. I shouldn’t. I just should not. The issue is that Blizzard’s World of Warcraft (WoW) video game sucked me in when I started college, and I got caught up in the nostalgia of that universe—and I actually paid money to watch this movie. I was not impressed with the film at all. Did it touch me in the Department of Nostalgic Feels? Sure. Did it make me want my money back? Hands down, yes.

Warcraft seems to take place in the time before the events of the video game WoW, which is where most of my knowledge of this universe lies. Gul’dan, an evil orc sorcerer, builds a massive, magical gate by which to send himself and his orc brethren to Azeroth; the issue is that Azeroth is already inhabited by humans, night elves, and dwarves—a group that normally goes by the title of the Alliance. As Gul’dan leads a war party of orcs through the portal to Azeroth, the captain of the humans’ forces, Anduin Lothar (Fimmel), seeks counsel from the Guardian, a powerful magic user known as Medivh (Foster). Lothar and Medivh attempt to protect Azeroth from the orcs’ onslaught, but that onslaught is reconsidered by Durotan and Orgrim, two orcs who realize that Gul’dan’s magic poisons and destroys the lands it touches—and that’s the reason why Gul’dan moved the orcs through the portal in the first place, since he basically usurped the orcs’ original home. Gul’dan must be stopped before all of Azeroth suffers the same fate.

I have to ask, dear reader: were you able to follow that last paragraph? There’s a ton of stuff happening in Warcraft, and the movie seems like more of a nod to WoW players than a real narrative. Even as a player of WoW, I recognized a lot of the names mentioned, but I was still miffed by quite a bit of it—it seemed like that one friend of yours who makes a joke and then smiles really wide and asks, “Did you get it? Huh? Right there? Huh?” There were mentions of Elwynn Forest, the beginning area in WoW for the human characters, Goldshire, another part of the humans’ starting area in the game, and even Dalaran, the floating city where magic users gather and study together—again, how much of this are you actually following if you’ve never played the game? There’s an awful lot of fan-service going on, and I suppose that’s to be expected in a video game movie—but this was piled way too deep.

In addition to the overbearing fan-service, the themes presented in this movie were mostly forced. One theme dwelled on racial issues, though this use of “race” refers more to the different kinds of beings in Azeroth, such as the “race of Men” (to steal Tolkien’s terminology), the “race of night elves,” etc. One character, Garona (Patton), represents a mixed-race being: half human and half orc; at one point in the movie, three main characters sit around a campfire and tell their backstories in an attempt to make viewers make deeper connections with those characters, and I still didn’t care about Garona (or anybody else, for that matter). Really, it seems like Garona’s only purpose in Warcraft was to sneakily add in a sexually-appealing orc character for—you guessed it—more fan service. Even the theme of fatherhood is tacked on, like the writers were trying to force the story to be deeper than it was. All of a sudden, Lothar’s son pops up in the movie with little to no backstory—and then he dies. Okay, well, sorry (not sorry), I still didn’t care about this character, but he’s gone now…so there’s that. If they really wanted to play up one particular theme, they should have stuck with the idea of a “homeland”—the orcs are trying to find a new homeland, and the humans are trying to defend theirs. Yes, it does come up that Lothar and the humans are fighting for Azeroth, and “For Azeroth!” does become a battle-cry here and there, but again, most of the themes in the movie are just thrown in for no reason.

Don't even try to tell me Garona is in here for anything more than fan-service sex appeal. Come on.
I know I’ve ragged on this movie a little at this point—okay, a lot at this point—but the shining point was really in the CGI. This movie shows us the height of motion capture technology, since several characters—and I think all of the orcs (except Garona)—are CGI. These shots are masterfully done, and I was truly amazed by how far CGI technology has come over the last few years. Before seeing Warcraft, I watched a Youtube video that helped explain how motion-capture CGI works, and it was fascinating. In the same vein, Gul’dan and Medivh using their respective magic spells was equally amazing. It didn’t take me out of the movie when I saw characters lobbing spells or opening huge portals to another dimension in a stone gateway. These instances of CGI felt very natural to the movie, and they helped make a very pretty movie (at times).

With that small glimmer of light, most of the budget was spent on CGI (I’m guessing), since the costuming was absolutely terrible. As I watched the movie, I could tell that the costuming wasn’t all that good, but I was trying to go along with things while sitting in the theater—you have to give things a bit of a chance, right? When talking to my partner about this movie, she pointed out that the CGI looked incredible, but the physical characters’ costumes—especially the soldiers’ armor—looked like cheaply-made plastic from a Halloween costume shop, and I’d have to agree. The WoW universe is quite stylized, such as the Alliance shields that have high-relief lions and eagles on them, and for as stylized as this movie tried to be, the costuming took me out of the movie way too much to enjoy things.

Watching people fight in that armor was also pretty awful, but I blame that more so on fight choreography. People who are supposed to be wearing heavy armor aren’t going to have much mobility in real life—but this isn’t real life. If you watch any of the WoW cinematic scenes that begin each new expansion of the game, there are incredible fight scenes, but Warcraft’s fights seemed bland, almost like they were done in half-hearted slow motion and sped up in post-production to make the fight scenes more fast-paced. I love watching escapist movies with interesting and different worlds, but all of these factors made it hard to watch Warcraft, as nostalgic as it felt to be placed in that universe again.

Overall, I wouldn’t recommend this movie--again, except for the CGI. If you’re looking to get that same nostalgia you felt from the vanilla WoW game, you’ll probably find it here, but If you’ve never played WoW before, you’re not going to have a great time. Even if you have played WoW, don’t hope for much. Before I gave up WoW, I think I’d logged about a thousand hours in-game, which is a pittance compared to many other players, but I feel like you need to play the game instead of watching the movie: the game has so much more content to get that immersion in the universe that Warcraft lacks. I’d love to see Assassin’s Creed, the new video game movie with Michael Fassbender that’s coming out soon—but do gamers expect too much from video game movies after logging extensive hours in the actual video games? What do you think?

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Her: "Play melancholy song," then watch this movie.


Writer/Director: Spike Jonze
Stars: Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Scarlett Johansson

After Her was released in 2013, a friend approached me and said that I should really watch it. I shrugged it off, since I’m not a huge fan of Joaquin Phoenix. Furthermore, I’d really not heard anything about the plot except that it was a romantic movie; I normally don’t shy away from romantic movies, but they really aren’t my go-to when it comes to movie nights. One of my students wrote a review of it recently, and the student included a brief synopsis of the story, and I knew I had to give it the ol’ college try. Within the last little while, I’ve been more in tune with sci-fi movies about robots, such as 2015’s Ex Machina, and hearing the synopsis of Her really struck a chord with me.

Theodore Twombly (Phoenix) gives off that loner vibe as the movie begins, and we quickly find out that he’s not much of a success with the ladies. Case in point, he’s actually going through a pretty rough divorce from his wife, Catherine, and he’s not quite over her yet—to the point that he’s been keeping Catherine in limbo by not signing the paperwork to finalize their divorce. Theodore’s life is filled with insincerity and mundanity, and his friend, Amy (Adams), attempts to set him up on a blind date—but again, another strike. In his wanderings around the city with an earbud in his ear and listening to a robotic voice read his emails to him, he sees it: an advertisement for the world’s first artificially-intelligent operating system. Siri and Cortana can eat their hearts out, because Theodore’s operating system—who names herself Samantha (Johansson)—can do it all for him. Literally. All of it. As the two of them spend more time together, Samantha learns about Theodore, and he learns about her.

This movie has (sort of) pulled me out of my Joaquin Phoenix slump, because he made this an incredible performance. In terms of The Revenant from earlier this year, my actor friends argued with me about how deserving Leonardo DiCaprio was because of his performance in that movie and having to act alone throughout most of the movie; I can only imagine how hard that movie was to film, and he’s a real trooper for doing it. That being said, I found Phoenix’s performance here just as dramatic and emotional as DiCaprio’s was in The Revenant—if not more so. Whenever Theodore and Samantha speak to one another, Theodore has to have an earbud in his ear in order to hear her (unless he’s sitting in front of his computer speaking to her directly from his desk chair). Again, having to act in a movie like this all alone is incredible to me, and again, I can only imagine how hard that is to shoot, considering Ian McKellen broke down on the set of The Hobbit because many of his fellow actors were added into his scenes after he completed shooting.

The big thing I love about this movie was the comparison and contrast of humans and machines. The way that Jonze presents Theodore and Samantha’s relationship is so interesting, because he portrays it as a taboo—a taboo that may become more of a reality in coming decades. In our time, if someone loves a machine, we think it’s totally absurd, but in Theodore’s time, set in the near future, it sounds almost acceptable, but it reminded me a lot of how people sometimes hide relationships because they’re ashamed of their partners or because they know society will view the relationship as “abnormal.” In the same vein, Theodore hides his relationship with Samantha from those closest to him, and it’s a good way into the movie before he reveals the relationship to Amy—who also begins dating her own artificially-intelligent operating system.

The human/machine line is crossed further when we start thinking about genuine emotions. Are emotions purely a human thing, or can a machine also have human emotions? Or is a machine simply mimicking human emotions and thereby manipulating the humans around it? These are all questions that Her brings up, from Theodore and Samantha falling in love to Theodore and Catherine falling out of love. When Catherine learns of Theodore’s technological tryst with Samantha, she brings up his introversion and even questions his ability to feel, since he claims to have pushed Catherine away during their marriage when times got tough. Looking toward Samantha, philosophers say that upon the invention of AI systems, those systems will match—and then surpass—human knowledge, so in surpassing human knowledge, is Samantha then more able to feel human emotions, or again, is she simply better able to mimic those human emotions?

In playing with this gray area of human/machine, there are several other areas of the film that could be explored. For example, Theodore works for an online company as a professional writer—of personal letters for people who aren’t good at writing personal letters; a client sends a few pictures and a brief description of the rhetorical situation, and Theodore dictates the content of a personal letter to his computer: the content appears on his screen in a handwritten font, and he then prints the letter and sends it for the client. If people are complaining nowadays about how technology use is ruining young people’s ability to communicate with other humans on a personal level, is this the future that we have to look forward to? Could I be a professional writer who writes personal letters for people whose personal feelings are so inept that they can’t write a letter themselves?

The gray area expands even further when looking at the way that Theodore uses humans/machines (because the line is so blurred, humans and machines are almost the same at this point). Theodore and Samantha start exploring the sexual portion of their burgeoning relationship, which pretty much boils down to cyber-sex or phone sex. Samantha wants to keep pushing this boundary with Theodore, and she invites a woman over. The woman places an earbud in her ear so that she, too, can hear Samantha’s voice, and the woman more or less acts out Samantha’s role in the sexual relationship—which more or less turns the woman into a sex toy. This represents a powerful scene in the movie, and it further blurs the already-blurry line between humans and machines.

Overall, this movie is an absolute triumph, and I’ve found so few movies recently where I’ve actually raised questions about the movie’s themes after it was done—I’m really impressed by the whole thing, and I’d like to buy this soon. This movie felt like a punch in the gut—but in a good way—and it’s definitely worth the watch. Even with all the melancholy bits to this movie, it's still got some great moments of humor that made me laugh really hard.