Tuesday, October 22, 2019

31 Days of Halloween: "The Haunting" 1998, "Rosemary's Baby" 1968, "Mad Monster Party?" 1967 Party"

I am really sorry I have not been keeping up with these. Its been a busier month than I originally figured it would be. But here I am with three new recommendations as October keeps chugging along.

When you watch the 1998 remake of "The Haunting," one thing you'll notice is that the visual effects are really outdated. That's because the movie was made in the late 90's, it makes sense. Recently when I rewatched this one, and I remember being much more scared of it when I was younger and I guess at a time when I believed more in special effects. Those effects may not have aged well, but the genuine creepiness of the film sure did. Its got a small yet effective cast including Lily Taylor, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Owen Wilson and Liam Neeson. Its always great when actors you admire are taking something hyper-real serious. The 90's were defined by teenage slasher flicks, so it felt fresh to watch a modern day haunted house flick from this era.

As a first time father, I have been riddled with anxiety, over things that way off for my child and things that are out of my control. It's a roller-coaster being a parent, but the best kind. I have noticed ever since becoming a father that my perspective has certainly changed, and anything regarding children affects me much more now then ever before. "Rosemary's Baby" was always a great horror movie, but it didn't haunt as much as it did recently. The entire movie feels like a dream, and you are never really sure what's real and what isn't, until the end. I love that movie constantly keeps you second guessing what is or isn't real, and for much of the movie, it really can go both ways. There is a creepy atmosphere all throughout, which gives the movie its power.

So far during this countdown, I haven't recommended anything that's very age appropriate. I think if kids are going to be into horror, they start to slowly push their boundaries at a young age. If you want something for the Halloween season that is fun for the whole family, track down "Mad Monster Party," a wonderful little stop-motion animation movie about all your favorite monsters. It is literally "Hotel Transylvania" before "Hotel Transylvania." Its a goofy, funny little plot that even features Boris Karloff himself as Baron von Frankenstein. It would be a fun way to introduce the classic monsters to your kids, and just see if horror is a genre that interests them. 

Monday, October 21, 2019

How much hate does Marvel actually earn?

Shots have been fired. Citizens are arming. The knives are out. Honestly, we all should have expected it, no matter if you watch Marvel movies or not.

The success of Marvel Studios has been staggering to say the least. Nobody would have guessed that an interlocking superhero franchise would have garnered so much praise from millions of fans, tons of dollars earned and hell even three Oscars. This franchise has been trucking along for eleven years now, and it doesn't seem like its running out of breath. This, of course, leads to criticism. Even though Marvel is getting plenty of flock lately from Hollywood's crowd, we actually do see this stuff happen all the time. Anytime something is popular, there will come a time when people will come out of the woodwork to trash it. There are people out there who are watching eagerly, waiting for a big failure, ready to watch Marvel Studios topple over.

I've read what Martin Scorsese has had to say about the studio. I have read what Jennifer Aniston said, and what Francis Ford Coppola said and what Steven Spielberg and James Cameron have said over the years. You all know how much I love Marvel, but here's the thing. These guys and gals are half right and half wrong. At least in my eyes. I think Marvel Studios has graced the industry with many blessings, but I think they also have plenty of sins to answer for.

I've been noticing something ever since I was in middle school, and its seems to get progressively worse as the years pile on. I've written about it before on this blog. But every time a studio becomes successful, all the studios will try to copy and imitate that success. When "Lord of the Rings" was successful, we got a avalanche of fantasy films. Also, when the superhero movies "X-Men" and "Spider-Man" were so successful in the early 2000's, that's when this big superhero craze began. (Funny, because the only way Fox got Bryan Singer to direct X-Men was by NOT calling it a superhero movie, they called it a Sci/Fi film)

It wasn't until the 2010's where the business really discovered what could be done with superhero movies. The studios saw what Marvel was doing and again, tried to imitate it. Except these days, the studios seem to take that to the extreme. Each studio is so obsessed with creating their own shared universe that they are collectively pushing everything else out. Original movies don't seem to be made anymore, if its not contributing to a company's universe, it doesn't get made. The movie market seems so small these days because of these practices. In passed years, studios would make these "tentpole" movies so they could finance other, smaller visions. But today, these tentpole movies have become the go-to, and if one should fail, a studio is in danger of watching their whole company crumble to the ground.

These movies have also given Disney the power to buy other properties. If there is no competition, there really isn't much creativity or vision on display. Disney has a very specific voice to their work, and if everything looks the same, is that really a good thing? It also leaves the little man in the dust. When Disney recently bought 20th Century Fox, some of Fox's independent studios shut down. Any time the little man is incapable of voicing themselves, that is definitely a problem.

But most of that has little to do with what Marvel has done, and the movies they've made. For better or for worse, Marvel has carved a space for themselves in the pop culture pantheon. Now everyone knows about them. After eleven years, it seems like Hollywood has finally decided it is now okay to shit on that success. It is now finally cool and hip to rip on a studio that has accomplished so much. Scorsese says they aren't cinema. Coppola says their despicable. Spielberg says they will eventually go away.

I've always respected Scorsese as a filmmaker, and have always considered him a great auteur. At the same time, I am puzzled why he thinks any of this matters. There is no textbook definition of what cinema is and what it isn't. So because Scorsese has made some world-renowned movies and he's got a shelf full of awards, he somehow knows something nobody else does? Art is subjective, and movies are art. Once someone releases that art, it then, in a way, belongs to the people. So when was it collectively decided what constitutes as real cinema and what doesn't?

There are always going to be pompous film snobs who will only like things with deep metaphors and deep thoughts. Then there are people who are action junkies and superhero fanatics, and those types of movies are the only movies they will be willing to see. And yet, can you honestly tell me why either of those groups are really wrong? Is it because as superhero movie has colorful costumes and they use green screens that they are somehow not cinema? Do we honestly think there are no deep messages hidden in superhero movies? Why not?

As a lover of all movies, I think cinema can be more than just one thing. I love movies that transport me. I love movies that challenge or confirm my beliefs. I love movies that have something on their mind. But I love a big, crazy, action-packed thrill ride at the same time too. It's all valid to me because they both have the capability of emotional empathy. A lifelong comic reader can get wrapped up in the characters and their journeys. A Oscar lover can see the things nominated each year and feel emotionally and intellectually whole. At the end of the day, each person is different. We respond differently to art. We all get different things out of it. Therefore, nobody is right and nobody is wrong when it comes to discussing films. It all comes down to personal preference and personal taste. Seriously, somebody's favorite movie somewhere in the world is "Mannequin."

For my money, I can tell you that becoming a father has changed how I view art. I can say that my own personal experience shapes how I view art. I think we all bring our own biases and our own baggage to the theater, which is why we all have very different opinions on movies. Also what we want and need from movies changes as we get older. If you asked me as a teenager what my favorite movies of the 90's were, I'd no doubt say "Fight Club," "Pulp Fiction" and "The Usual Suspects" were my top three. In that order. At 30 years old, I'd say "Fargo," "Heat" and "Goodfellas" are my top three of the 90's. That doesn't make me a liar, its just that our tastes change as we change. I am still madly in love with "Fight Club," "Pulp Fiction" and "The Usual Suspects" but their importance has dimmed just a bit. Other movies have stepped up and I think I get more out of certain movies as I've grown more mature. A favorite film critic of mine actually said something interesting. Movies are like time bombs and sometimes it takes years and possibly decades for them to go off. What may not have seemed important then can be important now.

Cinema is something that is constantly changing, constantly evolving. So trying to figure out a concrete definition seems almost silly. This world is full of billions of people, and we all react differently to art. What may be universally panned may be somebody's lifeline on the other side of the world. So for me, all film should be treated with respect, and let's let time be the deciding factor on what's important. Some movies fade, but that doesn't mean people don't like them. So we should allow all movies into the cinematic conversation. Yes, some movies may be viewed as more important than others simply because they inspired many people and lots of directors take ques from them and even if you haven't seen them, you know them. But just because a movie is important doesn't mean you are required to love it in return.

Someday this whole superhero craze could end, so what's wrong with enjoying it while its happening. No matter what you like to watch, its all art. So let's celebrate, huh?

Review: "Jojo Rabbit" is several important messages wrapped in hard (truth) candy

Jojo Rabbit Review
There seems to be a current outcry that comedy doesn't work anymore. That certain topics are off-limits. That people are too offended and too uptight for "real comedy" anymore. All I can say is I am glad something like "Jojo Rabbit" exists so I can point to that to shut those naysayers up. There is a fine line between finding the humor in something dark or off-color and then being a total prick and calling it humor. Comedy is not even close from falling apart and dying. If we get more people making movies like "Jojo Rabbit," people like Taika Waititi are pushing the genre and the medium forward and we will all be richer for it.

I have said already that Taika Waititi is a comedic genius. "What We Do In The Shadows" was the first Waititi movie I saw. A mockumentary about a group of vampires who live together, and how they live out their lives. Its proof that it doesn't matter how many vampire movies you've seen, you can still approach these archetypes in very unique and original ways. Then there's "The Hunt For The Wilderpeople." Its a movie that I can barely describe, but it announced Julian Dennison as a capable actor and its hilarious from start to finish. I've begun to thaw surrounding my feelings on "Thor: Ragnarok." Those first two "Thor" movies are pretty cookie-cutter and dare I say, bland. Waititi was unafraid to throw out the original Thor models and just start over with something else. The end result was a Marvel movie unlike any other. 

He may have leveled up quite a bit with "Jojo Rabbit," a movie that feels like the wildest mixture of "Duck Soup," "Schindler's List" and "The Great Dictator." Except, its really not like any of those movies either. It's not quite the movie you think it is, and that is important as we navigate through the rest of this review. In the simplest terms, "Jojo Rabbit" is a comedy about a boy who wants to become a Nazi and runs around with an imaginary Adolph Hitler. Now, many of you may have just vomited in your mouth a bit, reading that last sentence. As you read on, remember that context matters on every front.

Roman Griffin Davis plays Jojo, a boy who has become smitten with the Nazi way and will do anything to prove himself at his Hitler Youth Camp. The thing is, everything about Nazism seems pretty rad to Jojo, except anything to do with killing, and this gets him a lot of flack from the older boys in the Youth Camp. Jojo will do anything to prove himself meaningful to Germany's cause, but if he is unwilling to use his knife in combat, how will he ever be any use to Germany's cause? He is alienated for having no father, who vanished under unknown causes. Which may reinforce Jojo's need to belong to this group, he is adrift, which may explain his overwhelming need to become Hitler's best friend.

The movie really picks up when we find out Jojo's mother Rosie (Scarlet Johansson) is hiding a young Jewish girl named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) in their home, which alarms Jojo to a high degree. Elsa and Jojo begin hating each other with a furious passion. Jojo then sees a silver lining, one that could get him closer to Germany's cause. He plans to write a book about Jews, and he rigorously begins to interview Thomasin, hoping to use the information to get closer to the Top Brass in the Third Reich. Elsa, in turn, begins to make up the craziest falsehoods as fodder for Jojo's book, because Jojo promised as long Elsa participates, she will be kept a secret.

This is the material that pushes "Jojo Rabbit" passed simple satire. If we are ever going to extinguish hate anywhere in the world, we have to be willing to stare at the void without blinking. We need to see hate dead-on, learn from it, see how it courses itself inside someone and reach an understanding on how it spreads. One thing that makes me angry these days is the good people of our country are more comfortable bickering with each other instead of mobilizing to stop hate. It's easier to see somebody on TV and think you have them all figured out. It's easier to soak up the buzzwords political pundits spew out on a daily basis, perhaps not realizing that they get paid a pretty penny to pedal a bunch of bullshit. It's easier to point that the people on the other side of the fence and say everything wrong with the world is their fault, so they should fix it. The thing, we can fix the problem together, its just that nobody is willing to thaw.

There was a movie I saw about a month ago that I really liked, but I was nervous to write about it. It was a documentary called "Hail Satan?" Can you perhaps understand why I was nervous to write about it? Its a movie about people who worship the worlds biggest supervillain, right? Except it doesn't glorify them, it simply discusses their beliefs and the things they fight for as people. It asks the tough questions. What if your neighbor was a loyal, honest, uncorruptable figure? What if they did dozens upon dozens of good things for your community? What if they were always there to give you advice and were never judgmental. You could go to them with anything? Imagine if the only rub was they go to Black Mass every night. Does that change your opinion of them? Why? Can you honestly answer that question? Does it make somebody a bad person if they read the Bible and think instead of Satan coming to Jesus in the desert as a snake trying to tempt him, he instead just wanted to make sure Jesus didn't die?

"Jojo Rabbit" knows that we can't reach the Richard Spencers or the David Dukes or the Christopher Cantwell's of the world, but there is a way to help make sure more Richard Spencers and David Dukes and Christopher Cantwell's don't replace them. If we understand hate and what it stands for, we begin to educate others on why its not good for them. For a director to so eloquently preach these ideas while also shaking out a laugh is a miracle. In fact, its necessary. Because a movie like this needs to be as accessible to as many people as possible. Especially right now, because it seems like racism and fascism are fighting for breathing room in the world again and we need to educate as many people as possible to spot what this looks like. We need to be willing to call out everyone for their hatred, no matter what political party they belong to and no matter how they come off in the public light.

Taika Waititi is proving more and more to an unbelievably talented director of children. The work by both Roman Davis and Thomasin McKenzie is absolutely impeccable. Their relationship sells the movie and Davis in particular is both laugh-out-loud funny and sweetly sincere throughout. They've got a great cast to bounce off of, including the likes of Sam Rockwell (who seems awesome in everything), Alfie Allen (Theon Greyjoy), Rebel Wilson and Stephen Merchant himself. Waititi himself plays the imaginary Hitler that hangs out with Jojo throughout the whole movie and oh my goodness. Great chemistry doesn't even begin to cover it. They are just fabulous together.

The script by Waititi is both nimble and whimsical, and I give him big props. Any time something is a little too whimsy, it can flop. But Waititi maintains control the whole time, even though its fairly evident that there is a heightened reality to it all. That control over transition and tone is another thing that sells the movie for me. There is a scene in the last 1/3 of the movie that, literally, made me gasp. Because it was a moment I wasn't expecting at all. It proves that Waititi isn't messing around with his message. I found the last 1/3 of the movie completely unpredictable, and just when you think you have this figured out. You don't.

Its up to us whether or not hatred wins in this world. If we are willing to take things at face value and understand what words means and what rhetoric stands for, we just might be okay. It's going to take a big swing though. You can go ahead and not see this movie and keep your mind closed and think you know what this movie is based on my review. Or you can see it for yourself and allow yourself to question certain aspects of this world. Make up your mind if you want a better tomorrow. It's up to us, we can do it. "Jojo Rabbit" is more than satire, more than simply pointing your finger at something and laughing at it. Its up to you if you are ready to understand it, though.

FINAL GRADE: A+

Saturday, October 19, 2019

31 Days of Halloween: "Scary Movie" 2000 and "Scary Movie 2" 2001

I really wish the Wayans brothers would have stuck it out with the "Scary Movie" franchise. I think Keenan Ivory Wayans really got what made the spoof movie tick so well.

You know why so many of Mel Brooks' spoofs are considered classics? When you look at something like "Blazing Saddles," its pretty clear that Westerns were a genre Mel grew up loving and appreciating. Same can be said about the Universal Horror films, because every beat of humor in "Young Frankenstein" is amazingly realized and terrifically staged. When Mel got his Hitchcock on with "High Anxiety," its clear that Hitchcock was a guy he very much appreciated. The best spoofs come from love, at least that's my perspective. I think the Wayans brothers loved grew up on a steady stream of horror movies, they understood what made them tick, what made them scary, and they drew their humor from those situations.

What's also amazing is how they made some pretty year specific jokes in both movies, and they both don't feel dated. I watch both again last night for the first time in a long time, and I am still laughing. Some movies that make dated jokes end up not aging well, and I think what Wayans pulled off here goes really well through the years. 

I am not sure I can say the same about the rest of the franchise. The rest of the "Scary Movies" fail to be very funny. They just seem to set up random scenes from random movies (most of which aren't even scary movies.) replace the characters from random movies with A List celebrities and then have them partake in poop and fart jokes. They get really old really fast. Wayans understood the mechanics of the movies he was spoofing, which is why the humor works. In the first film, he made great puns out of all the slasher movies of the 90's. For the second film, it was time to make fun of the haunted house films throughout history. 

If you don't like the scary but still like to celebrate in festivities this time of year, you know where to look!

Thursday, October 17, 2019

31 Days of Halloween: "The Ritual"

It seemed like any other day at the pub. Five friends were planning their next guys trip. One of the friends, Rob, suggests hiking in Sweden and the others turn down that spot almost immediately. Later that night, Rob and one of the other friends Luke go into a shop real quick to buy vodka when they are right smack dab in the middle of a robbery in progress. Luke retreats behind an aisle. While Rob is held up, being told to give up his wallet and watch. Luke is contemplating using the vodka bottle as a weapon, but he can't bring himself over to the robbers. When the robbers ask Rob for his wedding ring, he stands firm and says no. He is killed for it. This will go on to haunt Luke for a long time, since the last thing Rob saw was the whole of Luke's eyes.

Luke wakes up from a nightmare recalling the incident, he wakes up in a tent several six months later. To honor Rob's friendship and legacy, Luke along with their other friends; Dom, Phil and Hutch all go to Sweden for the hiking trip Rob suggested. Everything seems to be going okay, even if feelings are still a little raw. But that mostly changes once they begin having severe nightmares, and they start getting lost in the woods. 

If you think this is a simple slasher movie, you'd be mistaken. "The Ritual" takes some ques from "Blair Witch Project," "The Thing" and "The Wicker Man" and blends them into something that is solely its own thing. There is striking mood and atmosphere throughout the whole movie. There are some wickedly gruesome deaths. There is a creepy cult and quite possibly the creepiest creature I've seen in a movie in a long while. This is a movie that has a little bit of everything, and it relishes every moment of it. 

This is a British production, and the only actor you'll probably recognize the most is Rafe Spall. But the acting is amazing across the board. This is a modern movie that really delivers the scares and its one of the very best Netflix originals around right now.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

31 Days of Halloween: "Monster Squad" 1987

What would you do if the classic monsters of yesteryear got together to try and kill you?

That's essentially "Monster Squad" in a nutshell. It's a crazier, yet more fun version of "The Goonies." The Monster Squad is group of pre-teen friends who are obsessed with the Universal Monster movies. They know all of their trivia, they know each old movie and each character by heart. They have a strict code and you really need to know your shit if you are going to join them. They club consists of Sean, the leader and his friends Patrick, Horace and Rudy. This being a 1980's movie, of course Sean has a obnoxious sibling who wants to join the club, and of course these poor guys get bullied at school.

Sean's family was given a diary, one that apparently belonged to monster hunter Dr. Abraham Van Helsing. The only problem is that the entire diary is in German. There is an elderly man in their neighborhood, one they sort of fear. Again, because this is an 1980's movie there's a creepy neighbor who happens to be German. Once the kids officially meet him, he's a kind gentlemen. He gladly translates the diary for the Monster Club.

The club learns of an amulet that is full of good energy. Once a century, when good and evil are in balance, the indestructable amulet becomes vulnerable for destruction. The monsters are searching for the amulet so that they can destroy it, that way nothing can stop them from world domination. The kids learn further in the diary that they must find the amulet, and on the balance day at the stroke of midnight, use it to cast the monsters into limbo. Count Dracula gets the Wolfman, the Gill-Man, the Frankenstein Monster, and the Mummy to help him look for he amulet.

Its broad stroked and goofy fun. The make-up effects are pretty nifty. It's a pretty fun concept. Like I said, kind of like "Goonies," even though I have to admit, I think I prefer this.

Review: "3 From Hell" is a oddly structured, yet typical Zombie movie

3 From Hell Review
Rob Zombie is a filmmaker in the 21st Century working like he's still in the 1970's. He makes movies you used to be able to find at the crackjack theater on the wrong side of the tracks, back in the glory days of the grindhouse. They are shock value, through and through. "House of 1,000 Corpses," "The Devil's Rejects" his "Halloween" movies, they all take on the exact same anesthetic. They are extremely violent and gory, they are full of sex and sexual violence, they are vulgar, filled with cursing. The thing all of the movies above have in common is that they all seem to run out of steam before Rob Zombie crosses the finish line.

I thought he was turning a new league when he made "Lords of Salem" Watch all the movies I listed above then watch "Lords of Salem," I'd be hard-pressed for anybody to find similarities in style and tone in those examples. The only thing that connects "Lords of Salem" to Zombie's other work is hiring his wife as the lead. "Lords of Salem" is nothing like the rest of his filmography. I was hoping his movies moving forward would be more "Lords of Salem" in tone and style.

But when returning to the story of the Devil's Rejects killers, that is simply not the case. Baby Firefly (Sherri Moon Zombie), Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig) and Otis Driftwood (Bill Moseley) are all back, taking place some years after "The Devil's Rejects" and they are finally captured and been through the prison system. We learn Spaulding gets the lethal inejection (may Haig continue to rest in peace), we learn Baby Firefly is deep in a sentence, and Otis has...well...escaped custody. Because of course someone had to. Because of Haig's untimely death, Otis is now running around with his half-brother Fox (Richard Blake).

The movie seems to suggest that its going to be about how Fox and Otis plan to break Firefly free from prison. This being a Rob Zombie movie, Fox and Otis kidnap all the family and friends of the prison warden in order to get the warden to free Firefly. What ensues is an overly-long, explicit stretch of movie where there is plenty of gore and depravity onscreen. Sometimes, its shot in strict seriousness, which brings on a certain level of creep factor. Other times, its shot with some stylized cornball wit that only Zombie can muster. It's inconsistent work, and I have to say I was more repulsed than I was scared. Anybody who was too disturbed by "Joker" should try and sit through this.

After the three evil people are reunited, you'd think that would be the end of the movie. Unfortunately you have a whole other 40 or so minutes left. The movie feels like a drag and the last half feels like a completely different movie. The three retreat to Mexico to stay away from the police, and while they are South of the border, they get tangled with a drug cartel. The cartel wants revenge on Otis for killing their leader in prison (a tiny cameo by Danny Trejo). Rob Zombie tricks us now that we've seen the Devil's Rejects do some pretty appalling things to a group of innocent people, we now have to cheer for them because they are fighting drug dealers? Again, it all feels like we suddenly stumble into a completely different movie, and the transition is tone deaf.

Sherri and Bill have pretty much become these characters at this point, and these aren't the type of performances that get you nominated for awards. It's fine work acting wise, but nothing special. I think the appeal of these movies are equal to endurance tests. Zombie wants to see how much he can push the envelope. I am sure there is a certain audience for this movie and this series as a whole. I'm just not sure it's me. We've seen horror come a long way this past decade, and it seems to me what Zombie did here is a bit of a downgrade.

FINAL GRADE: C-