Friday, March 30, 2018

(Don't You) Forget About The 80's

Year: 2018
Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn
Run Time: 2 hours 20 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

Of all the properties that exist out there in this wide world of ours, Ready Player One was probably the one most begging for the Steven Spielberg treatment. A parade of nostalgia triggers for people who grew up in the 80's, who could be a better match than the man who shepherded so many of those childhoods with his visionary blockbusters? Unfortunately, that man doesn't exist anymore. Who we got is the guy who made The Post and Lincoln and The BFG. And I didn't want to do this to you, but let me remind you that Bridge of Spies is a thing that happened.

Now can you relate to people who want to escape their own reality?

In Ready Player One, we meet our hero Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) in a futuristic Columbus, Ohio trailer park in the gently dystopian future of 2045. Famines and poverty have caused many people to want to shrink back from the real world, so they've become obsessed with the virtual reality open-world game of the OASIS. When the game's creator Jim Halliday (Mark Rylance) dies, he reveals that has he created an Easter Egg hunt, where the first person to find all three of the keys he has hidden throughout the OASIS will become the sole proprietor of the entire game.

This business model clearly has some glaring flaws, the biggest being the fact that the wicked company IOI has hired expert drones, led by Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), to crack the codes as quickly and efficiently as possible and thus own the biggest tech resource on the planet. But only the true fanboys and girls know enough about Halliday's past and his favorite old movies and video games to be able to get to the heart of the hunt. As the two factions get closer and closer to the finish line, Wade, under his online alias Parzival, must team up with other players, including his crush Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), his best friend Aech (Lena Waithe, a casting decision the movie doesn't want you to know at first, but the marketing has already blown to ribbons), and the prominent Japanese players Daito (Win Morisaki) and Sho (Philip Zhao).

And the true key to the heart of America, pop culture references. 

It's no use beating around the bush. The novel Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline (the screenwriter behind the execrable Star Wars-fellating road comedy Fanboys), is hot garbage. It's an incoherent, blithering mass of pop culture references that is mostly just a list of obscure anime and John Hughes movies masquerading as an adventure plot. It's an insufferable piece that beats the drum of nostalgia so fiercely that it rips right through the very fabric of art.

Ready Player One the movie is a massive improvement, because it almost completely throws away everything the book was working with. Some of this is due to necessity: you can't turn this crap into a movie. And you can't keep a plot moving when every challenge involves sitting down and playing an Atari game for hours. Other improvements are the invention of the filmmakers, like the fact that the egg hunt relies on the players being able to dig into Halliday's past and uncover more about his character, rather than random 80's detritus like his top 10 favorite music cues from Tron or whatever.

I can't say there were a lot of decisions in the making of either the book or the movie that were truly great, but that character exploration is certainly one of them. I'm not sure I'm loving what Mark Rylance is putting down with his performance here (it's very nebbish and Mark Zuckerberg-y, with a certain scatterbrained, naïve charm, but it slips into feeling like a monologue from Dexter's Laboratory a little too often for my liking - although the way this illustrates the difference between the real life version of him and his in-game avatar is truly special), but converting Halliday into an actual character - rather than a Willy Wonka who makes Monty Python references instead of chocolate bars - was a genius move.

That hairpiece not so much, but you can't have everything.

One area however where the film truly fails is the character of Art3mis. It shouldn't have been hard to make her not a Manic Pixie Virtual Reality Girl, but they actually made her role even more reductive and pointless. More reductive and pointless than something in an Ernest Cline novel. Let that sink in. Whereas in the book she was just as knowledgable about 80's trivia as the rest of the egg hunters, to the point that she was incredibly famous in the OASIS (a girl who knows pop culture? I'm quivering already), here she only exists to gasp with delight whenever Wade explains things to her, then reward herself to him as the ultimate prize.

Her position as ego-booster to this nerdy dweeb is demonstrated in this unwatchable scene where he throws on a Bee Gee's track and she grins, complimenting him on being "old school." Girl, this is the OASIS! People give lectures on the biographies of Atari programmers and treat Buckaroo Banzai like it's a cornerstone of world cinema. Everything is old school!

If only any of the people making this movie had an actual woman to consult with.

But enough about characters. This movie is meant to be a visual spectacle, and I guess that's what it is. The unreality of the OASIS prevents the CGI technicians from having to go out of their way to make things seem realistic, which is both a blessing and a curse. It allows things to become stylized in an interesting way (the OASIS' interface and item screens are actually pretty intuitive and fun extrapolations from modern gameplay), but it too frequently becomes a maelstrom of unintelligible pixels flying around in muddy clumps of mottled color. Also, I'm not really even sure what Steven Spielberg had to do on set, because a good 75% of the movie is literally just a cartoon. This explains why he was able to make an entire The Post while this film was still in production.

The only time where the visuals truly come alive and work within the story's pop culture milieu to create something unique and spectacular is a scene that turns The Shining into an interactive minigame, delightfully combining old film stock with 3D CGI in an impressive feat of creativity that easily trumps the analogous moment in the book.

Unfortunately, aside from that scene, not a lot in Ready Player One is anything more than basically watchable. The run time never feels punishing thankfully, but you don't feel fully swept up into the world of the film. Maybe it's the endless, frustrating expository dialogue. Maybe it's the lame plot points involving Post-It notes. Maybe it's the odious cameo from an autopilot T. J. Miller. Maybe its Alan Silvestri's shallow John Williams impression on the soundtrack. But there's a lot here that just doesn't click.

Ready Player One might be a massive improvement on the source material, but that novel was so dire that even taking leaps and bounds above it leaves you in a very average, unimpressive place. That said, it's still the best movie Spielberg has turned out in years, unless The BFG was a secret masterpiece, because I surely haven't gotten around to seeing that one.

TL;DR: Ready Player One is a gleaming popcorn movie, but it can't escape the deep, deadly flaws of its source material.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1275

Thursday, March 29, 2018

I've Got A Rumbly In My Tombly

Year: 2018
Director: Roar Uthaug 
Cast: Alicia Vikander, Daniel Wu, Walton Goggins
Run Time: 1 hour 58 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

So, video games are here to stay, huh? As the format progresses and games like The Last of Us or Far Cry 4 get more and more cinematic with their gameplay-integrated storytelling, it's no surprise that Hollywood is taking another crack at converting them into movies. Of course, the game they chose is the one where the chick with pointy boobs jumps a whole bunch, but you can't expect them to ever entirely get with the times.

We ran out of Hunger Games movies, so why not?

So, in Tomb Raider, we are introduced once more to Lara Croft (Alicia Vikander, the second Oscar-Winning actress to think it was a great idea to immediately sign onto a Tomb Raider project), the daughter of the prominent businessman Richard Croft (Dominic West). He's in the same business as Bruce Wayne, which is... business. You know, companies and stuff. Look, he's rich, OK? And seven years ago, he disappeared.

While Lara refuses to sign his death notice and thus can't receive her inheritance, she spends her time training in MMA (to what end I don't know, other than that it's fun - she doesn't seem to care about any competitions or anything) and delivering food on her bike. Eventually her dad's executor gives her a frustratingly simple riddle that could be solved by anyone who's read at least one Encyclopedia Brown book, which he hilariously fails to understand. This allows her access to her dad's inner sanctum, where she discovers that in addition to being Bruce Wayne, he's secretly also been Indiana Jones this whole time.

She follows his trail to the island of Yamatai, enlisting Chinese boatsman Lu Res (Daniel Wu) to help her. There, she finds the villainous slave-driver Mathias Vogel (Walton Goggins), whose employers want him to open the tomb on the island, where a mythical Japanese death queen is supposedly buried, hidden behind protective layers of traps and puzzles. Unfortunately, she has brought her father's research directly into his hands, so it quickly becomes a race against time to prevent him from opening the tomb, oh no!

Spoilers: In Tomb Raider, a tomb gets raided.

Literally the only thing that was exciting to me going into Tomb Raider was that it was the big Hollywood crossover of Norwegian genre director Roar Uthaug. A prominent member of the school of Norway filmmakers who consumed ample amounts of American B-movies, then regurgitated those tropes in a much better way than U.S. filmmakers have been able to do for ages, Uthaug has proved his worth beyond a doubt with the delightful 2006 slasher Cold Prey. He also helmed the 2015 disaster movie The Wave, which I have unfortunately yet to see but have heard good things about.

Unfortunately, the last time this happened, it was with Dead Snow director Tommy Wirkola, and he gave us Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters. I personally haven't seen it, so I can't share any opinions (honestly, I feel like I'd love it), but that movie didn't exactly set the world on fire. At least that, as a manic horror-comedy, had a chance to show off the guy's personality. Tomb Raider is the exact sort of carefully shepherded intellectual property that will bury any director worth his salt in an immobilizing mound of script notes. And guess what happened? 

Exactly that. That's what happened.

One thing I can say with respect to my beloved Uthaug is that his action scenes do have a certain zippy energy, especially an early sequence involving an urban bike chase. The second best action sequence involves a rusted-out plane pulling a Lost World by dangling off a cliff, and that scene extends the tension for much longer than should be satisfying without feeling drawn-out or boring, even if it's a bit derivative. The combat scenes suffer a lot from the pulled punches of that toothless, bloodless PG-13 rating, but the adventures sequences are mostly satisfying, even if they have all the emotional resonance of tapping X to double jump.

But yeah, pretty much everything else is as dispiritingly average as it's possible to be. The puzzles are alternately overexplained within an inch of their lives or leave us entirely absent from the solving process (also, maybe if people learned to watch their feet and not step on obvious triggering floor panels, the whole thing could have wrapped up much quicker), the villains' motivations are malnourished, and SPOILERS [the plot introduces a rage zombie plot thread out of nowhere that makes me actively root against Lara Croft, because I would love the sequel to this to be a 28 Days Later movie].

The acting isn't even remarkable, not that it really could be. Vikander does her best, at least anchoring the movie onto what feels like an actual human being and not a pile of 0's and 1's in a tank top. I especially love the way she doesn't play Lara as particularly butch. Her mid-fight screams and grunts are girlish and feminine. She's still tough, but she doesn't have to be so in a traditionally masculine milieu

As for the rest of the ensemble... I love Walton Goggins, but he gets nothing to do here except glare directly at the camera. Plus, I could never really get a bead on what Daniel Wu was doing. And just when I was starting to get familiar with his sort of peculiar characterization, he starts to vanish from the film for twenty minutes at a time so more white people can step on floor panels like f**king idiots. Honestly, the entire film is stolen by a not-especially-hilarious cameo from Nick Frost that is still far and away the best thing in the movie.

That's not where you really want to be with your Hollywood blockbuster, but at least it's not soul-suckingly terrible, because we all know the way most video game adaptations swing. Unfortunately, there's absolutely no reason to see this movie. Though, if you do get dragged to it, you won't suffer. It's just utterly milquetoast, and slides right through the back of your head the millisecond it enters your eyes.

TL;DR: Tomb Raider is a thoroughly generic bit of popcorn cinema fare, and my affection for the director doesn't change how unimpressive it is.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1065

Friday, March 23, 2018

Reviewing Jane: Oh! Who Can Ever Be Tired Of Bath?

In which we review (almost) every film adapted from or inspired by the works of Jane Austen, as I read through her extended bibliography for the first time.

Year: 1987
Director: Giles Foster
Cast: Katharine Schlesinger, Peter Firth, Robert Hardy 
Run Time: 1 hour 28 minutes 

Did you think I could leave you with just one adaptation of Jane Austen's first novel Northanger Abbey? No, this marathon is moving thirty years backward and hopping the channels to hit the 1987 BBC production of the very same story. You'd think things would be pretty much the same, but you would be so, so wrong.

For one thing, the hats are even more out of control.

Once again, as though we're caught in a Groundhog Day time loop, we see young novel-obsessed Catherine Morland (Katharine Schlesinger who, weirdly, played the title character in the miniseries of The Diary of Anne Frank) get invited to spend some weeks in the town of bath with her affluent neighbors Mr. and Mrs. Allen (Geoffrey Chater and the incomparably named Googie Withers). In spite of the lust of John Thorpe (Jonathan Coy of that other abbey, known as Downton) and the attentions of his sister Isabella (Cassie Stuart), who is pursuing Catherine's brother James (Philip Bird), she falls in love with Henry Tilney (Peter Firth, no relation to that other Austen paramour).

During a stay at Tilney's family home at Northanger Abbey, she learns that his father (Robert Hardy, who played Cornelius Fudge in the Harry Potter movies, but unsurprisingly also appeared in Sense and Sensibility, because there's always gotta be an Austen crossover) is a cruel tyrant who rules over his children with an iron fist. How can they possibly get married now?

And - more importantly - why would she WANT to marry this man who looks like a melting wax figure of Ed Sheeran?

The thing that's perhaps most striking about this iteration of Northanger Abbey is just how 80's the whole thing is. Considering that it's a period piece set in Regency England, I figured nothing but the film stock would betray it as thirty years apart from the Felicity Jones version, but I was sorely incorrect in that assumption. For huge swaths of this movie, it's basically a Bonnie Tyler video, complete with flowing nightgowns, a few cubic acres of smoke, and electric guitars rattling around on the soundtrack. 

Now, I know I just made this movie sound awesome, but don't be fooled. I love any artifacts from the 80's, especially if they're incongruously sneaking into a Jane Austen tale (the fluffy mullet that threatens to devour Catherine's younger brother's head and the sexy saxophone music that accompanies a lakeside stroll are both just as bizarre and delightful), but they're not present in nearly high enough quantities to prevent this from being anything other than a stuffy television drama made before the BBC got cool.

Maybe I'm just impossible to please, but whereas the 2007 version was much too sexed-up and ribald, this version is so stiff and genteel that even an Austen character would think it was putting on airs. The high humor of the novel is completely lost on the filmmakers here, who reimagine the story as a stone-faced drama, save for one clever line from Mr. Tilney himself. But if you strip Northanger of its humor, you steal away everything that made it special, for there certainly isn't a plot worth a damn anywhere to be found.

Literally the entire conflict of the first volume is whether or not Catherine is going to go on a walk.

And the trouble is, they don't really even seem to be trying to find anything worth exploring in the narrative machinations. Even though this version of Northanger does find a way to incorporate Catherine's fantasies into the third act in a way that actually drives the plot, it still completely fails to set up and pay off the central dramatic setpiece of the second volume, in which Catherine discovers a stack of receipts in the back of a wardrobe (it's riveting stuff on paper, I promise).

It certainly doesn't help that the two lovers here are epically ill-matched. Tilney, as I have previously observed, isn't exactly a dreamboat, and Katharine Schlesinger seems to have decided to draw on Pamela Springsteen from the Sleepaway Camp sequels as her acting inspiration. She shrieks every line with her eyes bugged out as wide as humanly possible. This romance between what is essentially a minor Fraggle Rock character and a block of wood isn't the stuff of legend, nosireebob. Their leaden flirtations form empty pockets of air that fill the movie with shovelfuls of passionless nothing.

In general, the acting is even worse than the 2007 film (I take back every mean thing I said about Felicity Jones, whose clumsy grip on the character at least means she has her hands on it at all). Only Googie Withers makes something more of her character than her 2007 counterpart. She's actually quite delightful, because she actually understands the ironies of the shallow busybody character as written.

All hail Googie Withers and her impressive ability not to have her neck snap under the weight of all that nonsense on her head.

The only elements that are actually intriguing (other than the costume and set design, which is pretty commendable across the board) are the ones that actively break the movie from its reverie, like the Bonnie Tyler music video moments or the dream sequence where Mrs. Allen shoves a needle through her finger! Seriously, the f**k?! Northanger Abbey takes some intensely weird detours on the way to the conclusion of its run-of-the-mill literary TV movie.

And I haven't even mentioned the French aristocrat lady's little African servant who forces Catherine to watch him to cartwheels on the Northanger lawn. Nor should I, because it has nothing to do with anything, but I'll always take a little dash of weird to liven up an occasion.

OK, let's be nice for a second. Visually, there's more at play here than the 2007 film, and the director actually seems to wake up from time to time. I loved a moment that cross-cuts between a conversation about General Tilney and the man himself spinning a coin in an imposing shot that belies his power over everything in his home. And a metaphor involving a canary is a little blunt, but at least it's something.

A straight-faced Northanger is something that exactly nobody needed, but at least there's enough going on along the fringes that it doesn't make you long for the more extravagant pleasures of the Regency era, like playing cards for eight hours, staring at a fire, or falling deathly ill for a couple weeks.

TL;DR: Northanger Abbey is a humorless, arid approach to one of Jane Austen's least consequential novels.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 1143
Other Films Based on Northanger Abbey
Northanger Abbey (Foster, 1987)
Ruby in Paradise (Nunez, 1993)
Northanger Abbey (Jones, 2007)

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Somebody Get An Iron

Year: 2018
Director: Ava DuVernay
Cast: Storm Reid, Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon 
Run Time: 1 hour 49 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG

I, like most people who were once children, have definitely read Madeline L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time, really enjoyed it, and remember almost nothing about it. So you don't have to take my review with a grain of salt. I won't call this film a bastardization of the book. It hasn't ruined my childhood. Because, for all I know, this is the most faithful adaptation ever conceived. I literally don't remember.

I recall there being a character named Charles Wallace, and there's one of those in the movie, so it passes the test.

So, here's the plot of A Wrinkle in Time, which you probably don't remember even if you saw the movie today: young girl Meg (Storm Reid) is still wracked with grief over the disappearance of her scientist father (Chris Pine) four years ago. He disappeared right after adopting her younger brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe). And her mother (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) doesn't do all that much, but you can't just not mention Gugu Mbatha-Raw if she's in a movie.

Charles Wallace introduces Meg to three weird mystical women named Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), a scatterbrained woman who doesn't appreciate Meg's distrust and closed-off emotions, Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), who only speaks in literary quotes, and Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey), who seems to be the ringleader and is hilariously 30 feet tall for the first third of the movie. Who these women are married to, I'll never know. Anyway, they know how to bend time and space to travel thousands of light years in a split second, and in order to rescue their dad, who is being held captive by an evil force spreading darkness throughout the universe, the kids must team up with the women and their random useless neighbor Calvin (Levi Miller) to go on a cross-universe adventure.

At the very least, I'm glad this movie finally allowed Oprah to show us her true form.

A Wrinkle in Time is whimsical as f**k, and that's actually one of its rawest strengths. Director Ava DuVernay (whose previous works are well-respected but certainly in no way implied that this is the type of movie she had the capacity to make) definitely has a vision and is pursuing it full-bore. The costuming is like watching a full season of RuPaul's Drag Race condensed into 100 minutes, blasting a glitter cannon into your face every six minutes or so. There is no moderation in the design elements of Wrinkle in Time whatsoever, and between the fact that Oprah's bejeweled eyebrows change between every scene, the glorious, intricate hairpieces they slam onto Mindy Kalings scalp, and the rumpled pillowcase Reese Witherspoon seems to be dressed in, it's a sumptuous visual feast that pulses with energy.

Kids will certainly relate to this film, because that energy is exactly as empty and ephemeral as the sugar rush they'll be getting from their fistfuls of Skittles they got at the concession stand. A Wrinkle in Time jams you through its plot with a total lack of focus and broad, brittle dialogue meant to force you down the narrative track like bumpers on a bowling lane. Even though the world they inhabit is a free-flowing mass of sparkly fabrics, the characters and their arcs are stilted and strange, and the script frequently dips into being actively unbearable (the theme of the film is presented via a cootie catcher, for one thing, but this high-fantasy movie also relies on a radio news report for important exposition, which is the laziest way to do just about anything).

The plotting is equally messy, which to be fair is probably due to the highly metaphysical, internal nature of the original book, but still. The third act just turns into a video game where every rule we've seen established is instantly broken and most of the conflicts are converted into music videos for one of the many atrocious pop songs that are sticking out of the movie like razor blades in the face of a Hellraiser Cenobite.

Mindy's face when she read the script for the first time.

Luckily, the movie doesn't really rely on its script to carry things. Unluckily, it mostly just relies on kids going "whoooooooaaaaa," at a big heap of CGI nonsense flying around. For as much personality as the Misses bring to the film, the worlds they visit are too-similar, slickly designed landscapes so smooth and digital that your eye slides right off them.

The acting is fine at least. Charles Wallace is strangely wiggly in his physicality when push comes to shove, but let's not hang around insulting children. Kaling and Winfrey are absolutely satisfying, even if they don't push themselves particularly hard, and Witherspoon certainly gets across the airy inhumanity of her character, though her performance slips into manic a little too often for my liking.

Although A Wrinkle in Time is mostly forgettable, it's anything but anonymous. Whatever the movie's faults are, they are entirely its own, and to that point, if you're in the right mood some of those faults can be strengths (funnily enough, that idea is actually a major plot point). I for one was captivated by the completely strange presentation of Meg's school bully, who hangs out of her window at a 45 degree angle to spy on her at home. And the way Levi Miller exits a doorframe, milking it for every ounce of emotional weight it's worth and then some, squeezing out every last drop of screen time he can possibly glean, is a fascinating trainwreck of a scene.

All in all, I didn't hate it, but A Wrinkle in Time is a huge, flabby disappointment. That's the way these things go sometimes.

TL;DR: A Wrinkle in Time is ambitious, but entirely too messy and bland to be satisfying.
Rating: 4/10
Word Count: 987

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

What Would Bryan Bertino Do?

Year: 2018
Director: Johannes Roberts
Cast: Christina Hendricks, Bailee Madison, Martin Henderson
Run Time: 1 hour 25 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Honestly, the most surprising thing about The Strangers: Prey at Night is the fact that the 2008 home invasion shocker The Strangers didn't get a sequel immediately. As I pointed out in my review, it's not a movie that I love, but it wholly deserves its modern classic status and those instantly iconic villain masks should have already launched a sprawling franchise that we're just starting to get sick of by this point. But here we are. It's been 10 years, and now we're at the point where we can say, "wait, really?"

The times, how they change.

In Prey at Night (which - by the way - is a title I just can't abide. Is it a pun? On what?), a family is traveling to their uncle's secluded trailer park on the way to dropping off delinquent teen daughter Kinsey (Bailee Madison) at a correctional boarding school. Mother Cindy (Christina Hendricks) and father Mike (Martin Henderson) have their doubts about their decision, and brother Luke (Lewis Pullman) is just along for the ride.

As you might imagine, they never make it to that school because a trio of masked strangers descend on the park with flashing knives and an aim to wipe this family off the face of the Earth.

But not before repeating as many scenes from the original as possible.

Prey at Night is one of those "is it a sequel or is it a remake?" situations, and the answer is yes. It's a sequel to The Strangers. And it's a remake of every John Carpenter movie ever made. Director Johannes Roberts made a conscious effort to channel as much of the style and substance of 80's horror as it's possible to do in 2018 (turns out, it's very possible). Prey at Night grafts the score from The Fog onto the cinematography of Halloween onto a showdown from Christine - with some Scream and Texas Chain Saw sprinkled in for flavor. Sure, 80's pastiche in modern horror is about as uncommon as people shouting "who's there?!" but injecting it into this grim franchise is especially jarring and doubly refreshing.

You won't catch me complaining about synths being liberally slathered over a movie, and though this score (by Becoming Jane composer Adrian Johnston, for some reason) is by all accounts almost note-for-note The Fog, at least that great score is finally applied to a movie that's not boring as sin. Although, I do have my breaking point. The many 80's pop needle drops - provided by the male killer's obsessive, Baby Driver-esque need to have the radio playing while perpetrating murders - just don't do anything for me (save for one major scene involving just a splash of Bonnie Tyler, who makes any scene better).

The cinematography is also slick, fog-filled candy. It might be a little too reliant on dubiously long establishing shots and sluggish zooms, but its excellent, judicious use of swooping crane shots and dashes of neon are a starling improvement from last year's Roberts' feature 47 Meters Down, which had the most painfully ugly color scheme I'd seen in over a decade.

I could swim in the colors of this movie anytime.

Love the aesthetic of Prey at Night though I do, it's still just as flawed as the original film, in strangely similar ways considering how very different the movies are as a whole. The only true liability here is the Kiwi actor Martin Henderson, who attempts to hide his accent Walking Dead-style behind a Southern drawl that only draws more attention to how out of place he is in this cast, but oh what a liability. Any scene he shares with his son loses emotional impact by the ton, as their attempts at igniting hysteria mostly just look like they're working on their Beavis and Butthead impressions.

There's also the problem that these characters are complete, eye-gouging idiots. The decisions they make rarely resemble an action any human being has taken in recorded history, and the way they're forced through a litany of horror clichés doesn't even make them particularly interesting stupid decisions.

But Prey at Night has a secret weapon. I don't know how much weight this will carry with hardcore fans of the original film, but at the very least it's is certainly less of a dour slog. The audience I was with almost immediately got swept up in rooting for the protagonists, and there are a lot of moments that elicit cheers or groans. It's a roller coaster ride that pumps up the adrenaline more than a grim boot of misery stomping into your throat over and over again.

That's definitely more my style... But it's not really a Strangers movie, ya dig? If you loved the original, you might actually want to turn back before buying a ticket. That's probably not the sphere a sequel should exist in, but it's the truth. It's fun on its own terms, and those masks are still entirely terrifying, but they're completely different, equally fine movies.

TL;DR: The Strangers: Prey at Night is a stylistic triumph, although it's just as flawed as the original - in very similar ways, which is surprising given how different it is.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 888
Reviews In This Series
The Strangers (Bertino, 2008)
The Strangers: Prey at Night (Roberts, 2018)

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Reviewing Jane: Now I Must Give One Smirk, And Then We May Be Rational Again

In which we review (almost) every film adapted from or inspired by the works of Jane Austen, as I read through her extended bibliography for the first time.

Year: 2007
Director: Jon Jones
Cast: Felicity Jones, JJ Feild, Carey Mulligan
Run Time: 1 hour 24 minutes

Jane Austen's novel Northanger Abbey is defined by a certain lack of plot and a coterie of hilariously biting, satirical characters, so it's probably the most likely entry to be adapted into a film that exactly fits my tastes. There's nothing I love more than a brisk, character-driven movie. But unfortunately, Northanger Abbey is perhaps the least known and least respected of her six novels, so it was never going to get the grandiose big-budget treatment of a Pride and Prejudice (take your pick which one I'm talking about).

It's just one of the endless pitfalls of having good taste.

In Northanger Abbey (the 2007 Masterpiece production, and boy oh boy is it going to be important to specify which one we're talking about as we get deeper into this marathon - there's literally two iterations of Emma from the exact same year), Catherine Morland (Felicity Jones) is a young teen from a family of ten. She's invited on a trip to the town of Bath with some family friends, and she doesn't hesitate at her chance to get out and see the wider world, which she's only read about in books.

Unfortunately, her perceptions of the world and the people in it are entirely based on the plots of the Gothic romance novels she devours, so she has herself a bit of a vivid imagination that hasn't exactly prepared her for the mundane realities and pettiness of the people she meets there. Although she falls in love immediately with the handsome gentleman Henry Tilney (JJ Feild, who we just saw playing a Darcy analogue in Austenland), she encounters certain obstacles in the form of the lecherous boor John Thorpe (William Beck), who fancies himself in love with her; his sister Isabella (Carey Mulligan, who we will see playing one of the assorted sisters in Pride and Prejudice - get ready for a bunch of overlaps, because the British do not skimp on their Austen adaptations), a false-faced dilettante who fancies herself in love with Catherine's brother James (Hugh O'Connor), until somebody better comes along; and Tilney's father (Liam Cunningham), a dictatorial tyrant with a nasty temper.

She is also exposed to a great number of terrible hats, such is the danger of the outside world.

Northanger Abbey is very clearly a low budget affair, but the good thing about shooting in England is that the whole country is basically a period piece, so it doesn't weigh on your wallet to find some grand crumbling castle or other to shoot in. So the locations at least provide a level of production quality that isn't reflected in, say, the lighting. 

But one odd choice that makes itself immediately known is the way that Northanger Abbey sexes up the original storyline. This only rears its ugly head in a few cases - most notably in a dalliance between Carey Mulligan and someone who is patently not her fiancé, but also in some truly disgusting extras work that includes the line "she's a ripe peach ready for the plucking" - but it's a jarring decision that adds nothing to the work and doesn't commit hard enough to feel like anything more than lascivious window dressing. It's a horny movie, but it's still a Masterpiece Theatre production, so there's a very low ceiling for what is permitted here. It feels slightly at war with its own impulses, which I guess makes it in and of itself a perfect Jane Austen character, but definitely not a satisfyingly consistent narrative.

You can't just show SHOULDERS and expect to get away with it, Masterpiece!

Also there's no getting around the score, which is just tragically miscalculated. It's like the Harry Potter theme got co-opted by a Steamboat Willie short, and it cartoonishly underscores every minuscule movement onscreen. If it turns out it's not royalty-free library music, I'd definitely start to worry about the sanity of whoever composed it, because they clearly fundamentally misunderstand the tone of Jane Austen, and possibly humanity as a whole.

But hey, we can forgive a movie its budget if it's engaging, and Northanger Abbey is... well, it tries. The most important visual element introduced into the story is frequent Scrubs-esque cutaways to Catherine Morland's imagination of what any particular moment will be like. She recasts the important figures in her life into a grand Gothic soap opera that is tremendously fun to watch, and really highlights the character perhaps even more than the book manages to. Unfortunately, this element is dropped exactly where it is needed most - when Catherine's explorations of the titular home of the Tilneys lead her to some very dangerous, incorrect assumptions about the Northanger patriarch.

The plot of the third act suffers mightily from a lack of these fantasies, telling rather than showing the entire conflict that drives the climax. You need to have read the book to get even a drop of tension out of the plot at this point, and if your movie's success relies on a viewer having read the least well-known Austen novel, that is a gargantuan failure.

JJ Feild's face isn't a failure though, so that helps smooth things over.

But Northanger Abbey isn't all bad. The pacing is fleet-footed, zipping past so quickly, you couldn't possibly be bored. And while nearly the entire ensemble gives the kind of flat, utilitarian performance you'd expect from a Masterpiece production, the three leads all provide something exciting to watch.

Felicity Jones, on the one hand, is kind of awe-inspiringly terrible, and that's not nothing. She has a rough-hewn movie star charisma that you can't help but watch, even as she indulges in a routine of indicative gawping every chance she gets. It's like she's trying to be a mime or something, and it's fascinating, but you can see the potential for her to become to blandly functional leading actress we know her as today.

Acting circles around her are the real reasons to watch the movie: Feild and especially Mulligan. Feild's Tilney is rakish and charming without seeming too much like a romantic cypher, and he and Jones have a genuine chemistry. But enough about men. This is a Jane Austen novel, and Carey Mulligan is pulling out all the stops here, burying her character's hopeless self-absorption in a series of fluttery little genteel movements that are just aching to be watched rapturously by any fan of a good diva.

All in all, Northanger Abbey is a reasonably satisfying first venture into the world of Austen, if not particularly inspiring. There are going to be a lot of future movie stars lurking about these here parts, and that excites me, but turning her most shallow novel into an even more shallow movie doesn't exactly lend me toward recommending it.

TL;DR: Northanger Abbey is an unimpressive low budget TV movie with some surprisingly high wattage stars.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1189
Other Films Based on Northanger Abbey
Northanger Abbey (Foster, 1987)
Ruby in Paradise (Nunez, 1993)
Northanger Abbey (Jones, 2007)

Monday, March 19, 2018

Simon Says

Year: 2018
Director: Greg Berlanti
Cast: Nick Robinson, Jennifer Garner, Josh Duhamel
Run Time: 1 hour 50 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

There was a time in my life when I would have welcomed a Love, Simon with open arms. As a gay teen, I devoured stuff like this. Only, the thing is, I never had a Love, Simon. I came out circa 2010, which doesn't seem that long ago, but in gay years, it feels like centuries. Sure, I was living in a world that had already given us Another Gay Movie (a remake of American Pie that's kind of awesome and whose title falsely posits that there are enough gay teen movies around that you could possibly be sick of them) and Were the World Mine (a glorious musical that retools A Midsummer Night's Dream).

We no longer live in a world starved for gay YA content, but Love, Simon is still the first studio film with a considerable budget to tell the story of a gay teen. That's incredible. Only, pretty much every gay high school movie necessarily deals with the age-old issue of Coming Out, and you know exactly what I don't need at my stage of life? 

Although, to be fair, Coming Out is at least third on the odious gay movie cliché scale, behind AIDS and Let's Fix Some Straight People.

But whether or not I needed Love, Simon, the world deserves Love, Simon, flaws and all. We need to allow gay movies to be just as mediocre as every other movie, because how else will we achieve true equality? So let's not get mad, let's get cracking with that plot summary.

Simon Spier (Nick Robinson) is a regular average teen, just like you. Assuming that you are an affluent white person in a nuclear family with 2.5 kids and a gross income that's literally gross because you're rich enough to afford a nauseatingly oversized McMansion. Only he has a Big-Ass Secret! You guys, he's gay! (The fact that the opening monologue to this effect assumes that the audience is entirely straight is either an oversight or a reassuring sign that we're living in a post-homophobia world)

When a classmate of his - known only as Blue - reveals that he's in the closet on an anonymous secret-sharing web site, Simon contacts him under the pseudonym Jacques (inspired by a photo of a trip to France with his parents, just like every average family has). While he gets close to Blue via email and attempts to find out his true identity, he is being blackmailed by theater geek Martin (Logan Miller), who screenshotted his emails and is using them as leverage to get inside information on Simon's hot friend Abby (Alexandra Shipp).

He wants to come out, and he finds courage in Blue's emails, but he's worried about the effect it will have on his parents (Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel) and his best friends (Katherine Langford and Jorge Lendeborg Jr.).

Pictured, from left to right: Spider-Man: Homecoming, Jurassic World, X-Men: Apocalypse, and 13 Reasons Why. These teens are doing just fine.

Honestly, Love, Simon is more than OK. It's... fine. Look, it's gentle and charming, and the fact that you won't be rolling in the aisles is mostly made up for with the warm-blanket atmosphere that permeates the whole thing. And Nick Robinson is game for the kind of low key character-based humor the movie is working with (the script is from the co-showrunners of This Is Us, who aren't exactly the second coming of Charlie Chaplin). The only people who really runs away with the humor here are the outspoken drama teacher played by Insecure's Natasha Rothwell, and maybe Tony Hale as the oversharing vice principal, though it would be nice if they hadn't clearly shoehorned him into random scenes in scenes so visibly nabbed in reshoots that you can taste the greenscreen.

What Love, Simon does get almost exactly right is the way emotions in high school play out, with all the big, stupid decision-making that that entails. These characters make fools of themselves in public about every twenty minutes, and their sloppy, overheated approaches to romance make you feel right at home. And anyone who has distractedly drifted through their daily routine while anxiously waiting for their phone to buzz with a message from a particular sweetheart will relate to Simon's achey, breaky hormones.

The film is also visually kinetic enough to keep the teen brain occupied, especially during the scenes where Simon imagines what Blue is doing, pasting on the face of whatever classmate he's hypothesizing his pen pal to be at that moment. Love, Simon shines the most when it's a romantic mystery, which it is for a good three-fifths of the time.

The question being who let this potential Blue get those highlights.

And there's one element I unequivocally love, which uses a repeat shot of Simon ordering coffee to show how even the tiniest details of his routine change with every decision he makes.

Unfortunately, those other two-fifths are Coming Out porn to the highest degree. I speak from experience when I say that I know full well that having liberal parents doesn't make the process any easier internally, but Love, Simon exists in a world where the stakes are well and truly null. What it gets right about the coming out process (the way the school will go ahead and assume you're dating the only other out gay kid in school - in my case, it's because I was, but whatever; the way it forces your heterosexual exes into a period of intense self-examination; the way you turn to the Internet for advice on how to live the Gay Lifestyle) is overshadowed by the toothless barrage of hyperbolically supportive conversations that form pretty much the entire final half hour of this movie.

There is an awkward Christmas scene that captures a family interaction in one perfect little crystal, but mostly Love, Simon ignores those feelings (and the repercussions of Simon's actions, especially as it relates to his hideously precocious younger sister) in favor of yet another tearful Oscar reel moment. Although, I will give credit to Jennifer Garner for selling the hell out of her Call Me By Your Name soliloquy in the third act.

Nothing but respect for MY Michael Stuhlbarg

There are a thousand teens out there right now who desperately need this movie, and I'm so glad they have it. But the parts that fail to speak to me aren't quite redeemed by what's ultimately a fun bit of fluff that isn't worth getting your panties in a knot over. There's no reason for an adult to watch it, other than to give that box office a necessary boost in hopes that they'll keep making these things and maybe strike gold at some point in the future.

TL;DR: Love, Simon is a charming little wish-fulfillment trifle.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1155

Thursday, March 15, 2018

People Are Strange

Year: 2008
Director: Bryan Bertino
Cast: Scott Speedman, Liv Tyler, Gemma Ward
Run Time: 1 hour 26 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

I consider myself a wee bit of a horror expert, but one of my hugest blind spots has definitely been The Strangers, the 2008 home invasion film that was almost immediately minted as a modern classic. Now, I'm not here to strip it of that status, which it rightfully earned, but the reason I've been avoiding it for ten years is pretty similar to the reason I didn't love it as I watched it in prep for the sequel.

I don't need anything distracting Dennis from It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

The Strangers is about a couple: James Hoyt (Scott Speedman) and Kristin McKay (Liv Tyler). Their suffering begins long before the horror plot kicks in, because she has just refused his proposal at a friend's wedding reception (way to steal the thunder, my dude). They continue their planned trip to his family's summer house, but there's an icy rift between them that prevents them from talking in anything above a forlorn whisper.

Their night is interrupted seemingly innocuously when, in the middle of the night, an unseen girl knocks on their door, asking for Tamara. They turn her away, but when James is on a cigarette run the girl returns. It soon becomes evident that she's not alone, because she is one of a trio of masked strangers who have come to murder the crap out of this couple. Thus begins a Long Night of the Soulless, where James and Kristin struggle to survive in any way they can.

Those ways mostly involve walking veeeeeery slooooowly down hallways.

I do admire The Strangers for its bold formal choice at the beginning, pulling a Texas Chain Saw Massacre with a gravelly opening monologue about how this movie is "based on true events" that "totally happened, we promise." That's a fun move that shows how it's in touch with its horror predecessors, but it's probably the only thing about the movie that could be called fun.

Not that that's a problem. The bleak register The Strangers operates in has been a boon to many a classic chiller, but in my mind they work a little better when the movies are a little better. The Strangers has plenty of elements that really work, which we'll go into in a minute, but the pacing has some serious problems. And that's pretty shocking considering that, when all is said and done, by the time the super slow, feature-film-run-time-reaching credits roll, only one hour and seventeen minutes have elapsed.

For one thing, I just scrolled up to check something in the first paragraph and I thought I'd accidentally embedded the same screenshot twice in a row. Nope, those are two different scenes about thirty minutes apart, which should tell you just how committed to repetition this movie is: walk down a hall, hide in a small space, leave the small space, return to the small space, find a new small space, lather with blood, rinse, repeat. I understands the constraints of the low budget horror world, but the movie doesn't utilize the space for anything other than slow stalker shots of people who really should know to look behind them at least once every five minutes or so.

Also, the grainy handheld aesthetic the film uses just hasn't aged particularly well, but that's not entirely its fault, so I won't dwell on that one. And I hate to say it, because she does do well in the terror scenes, which are really the most important, but anytime Liv Tyler has a line of dialogue, it's delivered in a breathy whisper like she's in a hypnotic trance. Most of the movie isn't dialogue-driven, thankfully, but that vacant Marilyn Monroe burble drags you out of the movie like an electromagnet.

I wanna be stabbed by you, just you, and nobody else but you.

But all that aside, The Strangers is still spooky as heck. Home invasion movies are good at getting under the skin of just about anyone, but the masks are so spectacularly well-designed that they'll stick in your nightmares much longer than any of their peers. And the sound design is also pretty sharp, buffeting you with eerie silence until a sudden sharp shock slices through the tension. 

But one thing that really skeeves me out the most is the fact that the masked figures here are actually given a voice. It is established horror movie dogma that masked killers don't speak, because it is scarier that way. But when the doll face mask mutters one line in a cruel monotone, that's even creepier because it's not supposed to happen. By breaking the rules and conventions of the horror genre, The Strangers reached an even higher plane than those that came before, at least for one scene, and that's the reason it's a classic.

The atmosphere created by The Strangers is unassailable, and certainly the reason it has enjoyed such a sterling reputation in spite of its fairly major flaws.

That said, the bleakness and lack of catharsis in this movie isn't for everyone. You have to be in a certain mood to truly enjoy The Strangers, because it is not a movie designed to be enjoyed. It's designed to be a sensory battering ram, and it's just as blunt, crude, and powerful as you'd expect one of those to be.

TL;DR: The Strangers is a solid low budget shocker, though it obviously has its limitations.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 926
Reviews In This Series
The Strangers (Bertino, 2008)
The Strangers: Prey at Night (Roberts, 2018)