2 Aug 2017

Film Summary: July 2017

I've been doing this monthly film viewing summaries for a few years now and I've decided that this will be the final one. Due to increased busyness I've had to unfortunately cut down on a lot of movie-watching, but I also have a desire to diversify my writing. I want to have to freedom to spend more time on more detailed reviews rather than mere summaries, but also undertake some other writing projects in general. For me, writing should always be something rewarding and over time I've found these summaries have become monotonous to do. Instead I'll share what I've thought about movies I've just checked out in other way. Without further ado, let's dive in.

Matilda (1996) – 7.5/10
A wonderful little girl blessed with intelligence and telekinesis learns to navigate the troubles brought by her terrible parents and even worse principal with the guidance of her teacher. Remembered as one of the most well-liked family films of the 90s, but perhaps somewhat forgotten today, ‘Matilda’ still proves to be honest, light-hearted fun with a positive message. Nine year old Mara Wilson delivers an exceptional performance for a child actor, and given it’s one of the few performances that aren’t totally over-the-top I think this reflects even more positively for the young talent. Danny DeVito’s direction is full of charm, but has enough of a quirky visual element to stand out, giving Roald Dahl’s source material of signal of respect. While at times the humor of Matilda gets out of hand at the expense of its daring dark elements, and kids will certainly enjoy it far more than an adult audience, ‘Matilda’ is a nice treat.

Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (1991) – 8/10
In an attempt to prevent Japan’s success in the distant future time travellers erase Godzilla from history and unleash King Ghidorah to annihilate the country in the early 90s. This one is held up as a favorite among many fans of the series and I can definitely see why. It has a much more up-to-date feeling that the two prior Heisei films, it features some entertainingly mind-boggling time travel concepts, but all up it’s simply a generally fun monster movie. Stating the obvious, Godzilla and King Ghidorah are simply badass and modern effects put their battles in the distant past to shame in comparison. As one would expect, the human story remains unfortunately pretty shallow, but in all fairness I think lumping anything involving rubber monster suits is a tedious effort. So far I’ve been very happy with the Heisei series and the love of destruction in Godzilla movies in general, and ‘Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah’ promises that, plus a little extra.

Notorious (1946) – 8/10
The daughter of a convicted Nazi sympathiser is asked to spy on a group of German scientists hiding out in Rio de Janiero, but when she falls in love with the American agent advising her the already dangerous task becomes more complicated. I really believe that the 1940s was the decade when Hitchcock went from merely being a great filmmaker to being on his way of becoming one of the best of all time, and ‘Notorious’ is proof of that. Capitalizing on the recent end of World War II and the ensuing hunt for escaped Nazi criminals, the film takes us right back to the mood of the latter half of the decade and puts us right into the shoes of the main characters. As a spy film, ‘Notorious’ is thrilling and holds us in anticipation for inevitable results. As a film noir, it’s not quite as visually stunning as some contemporaries, but still illustrates Hitchcock’s knack for visual aesthetics. Finally, the romance is thrilling in its own right. I was actually amazed by how the interplay between leads Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman and Claude Rains could surround a love story with such suspense, but then again we’re talking about the master here.

Whisper of the Heart (1995) – 8/10
After meeting a boy chasing his dream to be a violin maker, a young book-loving girl sets out to develop herself as a writer while dealing with the pressures of adolescence. For a premise that may suggest a generic teen romance, you can put faith that Studio Ghibli would do their best to defy the expectation. ‘Whisper of the Heart’ may not have the outlandish fantasy elements of some more notable Ghibli titles, but it is a very heartfelt look at the age group of its main characters and in many ways I found it reflecting back at my own past, which I think any great film should do. It embraces the immaturity, confusion and conflicting feelings that come with adolescence in a way that’s ultimately reassuring. Through Shizuku and Seiji we’re reminded of the importance of having passions and goals that line up with them and having to take the sacrifices that come with it. Many make a special note of its romance, but frankly I think side of the film is far less important than its great aesthetics, positive message and all around feel-good nature.

Hairspray (1988) – 7/10
A ‘pleasantly plump’ teenager becomes a TV dance sensation in 1962 Baltimore and finds that her newfound fame can be used to push for racial unity in a deeply segregated city. One of John Waters’ most well-known works is somewhat of a cult music sensation for the generation of youth in the 1980s, and this status reflects the range of its appeal. I don’t think of ‘Hairspray’ as a great film personally, but rather merely a good film with a few distinctive traits. Sometimes falsely labelled as a ‘musical’ I actually think the film could broaden its appeal in doing so. I thought its characters were more devices for plot than engaging participants in it and I found the campiness to be excessive to an occasional annoyance. Waters does however take a unique look at the 1960s, commenting on both the dark truths of two divided societies clashing with one another and the over-the-top materialism linked to what was then new popular culture. It’s arguably Waters’ most accessible movie, but it’s distinct enough to be considered acquired taste.

Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) – 8/10
After his experience with the Avengers Peter Parker returns to New York City and begins leading a double life as both a high school student and the superhero Spider-Man. The Marvel Cinematic Universe certainly has been a mixed bag, with some titles greatly impressing, some simply coming along only to fade into an inevitable obscurity and others being plain disappointing. Fortunately ‘Spider-Man: Homecoming’ is more than competent, even if not revolutionary as a superhero or high school movie in any respect. I really enjoyed Tom Holland’s performance and I feel he has a fruitful future ahead of him as an actor. It’s the little things that make this film work. I didn’t find its action to be particularly outstanding and admittedly even at times I saw it as an excess, but the honest depictions of high school life, the consistent humour and the ways in which the theme “with great power comes great responsibility” is weaved into the interactions between story and character are far more meaningful than a blunt statement. While not my favorite Spider-Man movie by a long shot, it’s pretty good.

Deepwater Horizon (2016) – 7.5/10
A dramatization of the disaster on the Deepwater Horizon in 2010, based on the experiences of a select group of individuals following the explosion that ultimately led to the worst oil spill in American history. For a director that gave us a terrible film like ‘Battleship,’ ‘Deepwater Horizon’ is an immense step forward for Peter Berg. It incredibly explosive and essentially a thrill ride, but it doesn’t obscure the realities of the tragedy, the lives lost or the lessons learned from it. Surprisingly the environmentalist element is restrained, and the script instead focuses more on the nature of corporate greed and negligence. Performances by Mark Wahlberg, Kurt Russell and Gina Rodriquez are quite strong, but don’t stand out to any lasting significance. Where ‘Deepwater Horizon’ truly thrives is in structure. It makes a brilliant use of foreshadowing, exposition and dramatic timing to keep us fearing the inevitable result, and while its CGI can be very in-your-face at times the overall experience is one of respect to those involved rather than a product of exploitation.

Sssssss (1973) – 7.5/10
A college student agrees to be the test subject of a snake venom-based serum, but only learns of the scientist’s grim intentions when it’s already too late. It’s impossible to have any kind of discussion on ‘Sssssss’ without mentioning how awkward and cheesy the title is, but it’s generally a very engaging creature feature and it’s completely unabashed about its B-grade status. This isn’t to say that it’s implausible factors don’t glare nor that it excels in performances, storytelling or even in the terror it promises to induce. There’s a certain wow factor behind its fictional science that acts as the real driving force, which eventuates in the form of some truly impressive makeup and a few fairly effective shock moments. The real problems with ‘Sssssss’ are not in a lack of ambition, but rather the writing is too uneven to maintain the tension necessary or develop characters appropriately. Otherwise, it’s trashy fun and I recommend it.

La La Land (2016) – 8.5/10
An aspiring playwright/actress and a jazz pianist meet and have a wondrous romance while supporting one another’s dreams and waiting for their big breaks. It’s taken me a while to get around to it, but I’m glad to say I’ve finally seen ‘La La Land,’ the latest film by ‘Whiplash’ writer-director Damien Chazelle and a major contender for Best Picture of its year. There’s really not much I can add to the praise that critics and everyday moviegoers alike, but I’ll go ahead and say it anyway. ‘La La Land’ is reminiscent of a cinema experience from the past. It’s incredibly theatrical, has a magical quality in its music and visuals, and it’s a film that ultimately leaves us feeling very positive and inspired. In saying so it’s really not the little things that accomplish this. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are great as Mia and Sebastian, but I feel the real credit goes to the way these characters are written. Their nature is incredibly relatable to the artist and dreamer in us all and their story is honest over the blood, sweat and tears of making anything great possible. As a film about people chasing the extraordinary, it’s only appropriate that watching it should feel the same. Sure to be remembered as one of the modern greats of cinema, ‘La La Land’ deserves its praise.

Dunkirk (2017) – 8.5/10
Towards the end of the battle of Dunkirk troops from Britain, Belgium and France are evacuated in a hurried struggle as the German army surrounds the few beaches still held by the Allies. There are few directors working today whose films become a special event, and every few years Christopher Nolan holds that honor. ‘Dunkirk’ is really a different step for the acclaimed filmmaker, and it doesn’t fit the usual conventions of either his most recent work or the war movie genre. It’s surprisingly not very character-oriented, but it pulls you in on a much more subliminal level. That isn’t to say it doesn’t compel with its depictions of the heroism and despair involved in the Allied retreat, but it’s so heavy on atmosphere and mood that it feels like it’s somewhat of an art film. The spectacles of warfare are contained, yet hit us in such a way that we’re held in a state of fear at every given moment. Some are already calling ‘Dunkirk’ one of the best war movies ever made and a contender for Best Picture, and I think a win for Christopher Nolan is overdue. It has the best aspects of the modern genre entry and has the ambitions to set itself apart from the very same movies.

The Trouble with Harry (1955) – 8/10
The trouble with Harry is that he is dead, and everybody in this small Vermont town in convinced that they have something to do with it and feel they have to do something about the body before the authorities discover it. We tend to associate Hitchcock with intense thrillers and murder mysteries, and what’s fascinating is that at the height of his success as a filmmaker he experimented in black comedy with ‘The Trouble with Harry.’ The great result illustrates that Hitchcock’s talents were universal. It’s incredibly amusing to see all these different characters react to the situation in their own ways. There’s a morbid edge to it that generates suspense, but it simultaneously directs the film into a cheery romantic comedy, a genre that’s complimented by its use of picturesque landscapes. It’s not an edge-of-your-seat thriller, nor do I think it’s hilarious, but it’s filled with a lot of feel-good vibes and Hitchcock masterfully puts his twisted spin on it. This makes ‘The Trouble with Harry’ more than worthwhile.

To Sir, with Love (1967) – 8/10
An educated engineer takes up a teaching post in London’s East End and gets more than he bargained for when he gets a class of delinquent kids. ‘To Sir, with Love’ is a distinctive product of the 1960s and I really couldn’t see such a film succeeding in such a way at a later point in time. Is does mean that in some ways it’s outdated, but I think it holds up pretty well. Lulu’s hit song seems to be the most identifiable trait, but like any great film it’s not popular music that drives success, it’s a meaningful narrative. ‘To Sir, with Love’ capitalizes on the era’s growing concerns of social justice, namely race relations and poverty. Sidney Poitier really is the big selling point of this film for me. His performance is both sentimental and authoritative, proving that he truly is one of the greatest actors of his generation.

War for the Planet of the Apes (2017) – 8/10
As the conflict between humans and apes continues, Caesar seeks to end the war by undertaking a quest to avenge his kind and confronting his darker instincts. While the title would suggest truly epic proportions it proves to be pretty misleading. This fact however does not work against ‘War for the Planet of the Apes.’ It’s actually a very sombre exploration of our nature at its worst and the horrors that hate and fear can lead to. This is exemplified by both our hero Caesar, once again brilliantly played by Andy Serkis and the new villain, Woody Harrelson’s Colonel. Despite the more intimate explorations of character the film is largely a depressing experience. A bleak visual style and uncompromising depictions of cruelty can make the film sometimes very difficult to watch, but in true blockbuster fashion we’re given an ending that satisfies after everything we’ve been put through. Admittedly it’s probably my least favorite of this new Planet of the Apes franchise, but knowing more movies in this universe are already being planned there’s more to be excited for.

The 300 Spartans (1962) – 7.5/10
The tale of a small army of 300 Spartans, who defend Greece from invading Persians at the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC. While many audiences today would sooner think to the 2007 film based on the Frank Miller graphic novel, the story of Leonidas and his men was told in a truly Old Hollywood fashion and in doing so presented a uniquely American attitude towards the Cold War. Politically and as a film epic it hasn’t aged nearly as well as some of its contemporaries. It doesn’t have the strongest or most compelling characters, its action is repetitive and its inevitable conclusion is mostly unsatisfactory and rushed. ‘The 300 Spartans’ does however boast the positives associated with this genre at this time in film history: Depictions of unbridled heroism, compelling performances by stars, a likable romantic subplot and the struggle between good and evil that’s essential to any great story.


Top 10 Films for July 2017
1. La La Land
2. Dunkirk
3. Notorious
4. To Sir, with Love
5. The Trouble with Harry
6. War for the Planet of the Apes
7. Spider-Man: Homecoming
8. Whisper of the Heart
9. Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah
10. The 300 Spartans

6 Jul 2017

Review: Army of Darkness (1992)

Directed by: Sam Raimi
Written by: Sam and Ivan Raimi
Starring: Bruce Campbell, Embeth Davidtz, Marcus Gilbert, Ian Abercrombie and Richard Grove

With even the greatest sequels it's almost a certainty that the third film won't live up in some way. This rule of course isn't universal, but I think that when we have three consistently good entries it's worthy of discussing movies by their own individual merit. Taking 'Evil Dead' out of the title of Army of Darkness certainly indicated that the marketing team wanted this movie to stand on its own to some extent, and it does. Some regard it as superior to Evil Dead II. I honestly can't choose between the two, but the two make for perhaps the ultimate double feature of sequels better than the original.

At the climax of Evil Dead II, Ash Williams is transported back to the year 1300 A.D. He's immediately taken captive by a Lord's army who believe him to be in league with their enemy, but earns their respect after he defeats a deadite in what was intended to be a sacrifice. Believing Ash to be a prophesized hero, he's sent to retrieve the Necronomicon Ex-Mortis, the demonic book of the dead that has both the power to return him back to his own time and unleash a horde of deadites on the world.

Army of Darkness takes a starkly different approach from the prior entries in the trilogy. I must confess that I do miss the cabin in the woods setting. It was perfect for creating that atmosphere of isolation and really prompted us to understand the unknown entities lurking within. That's all lost with this film, and I didn't think the Medieval setting was particularly unique. While this does mean that Army of Darkness isn't as terrifying as its predecessors, it thrives in a very different way and I think we should all be glad for it. I think of it as more of a comedic fantasy with dark, horrifying elements. It's a really impressive merging between genres that unlike Evil Dead II favors humor first. I don't know how to describe how awesome it is to have this explosive violence share the screen with what seems like it came out of a Three Stooges short, so I'd implore you to check out the scene where Ash first battles his evil clone instead.

Bruce Campbell had established himself as a cult icon by this point, but it's clear that over a decade after working on The Evil Dead his abilities as an actor had expanded. Playing Ash was not just a role in a movie anymore, he was able to become that character like nobody else. Only with his charisma and gift for spouting off one-liners with such energy could we get behind a hero that is so incompetent and selfish. In a sense, Campbell has had to learn to play his character twice, taking into account his portrayal of the villain Evil Ash, which is also pretty great.

The final battle between Ash, the medieval-era people and the army of darkness may very well be the greatest moment of the Evil Dead trilogy. There's no real horror here, just an all-around kickass showdown in the spirit of Ray Harryhausen. Any film nut will see the stop-motion skeletons as a heartfelt throwback to Jason and the Argonauts, and in the most amusing way it paints Ash Williams as the hero of a modern day Greek mythology.

We have two Evil Dead sequels and they both absolutely rule. Which one is better? Anybody could make a compelling argument for why they prefer one over the other, and what's so fascinating is that it's so dependent on where your tastes lean. Do you prefer horror or comedy? Either way the Evil Dead trilogy has always been about playing with the two genres in unconventional ways and Army of Darkness is no exception.

My Rating: 8.5/10

4 Jul 2017

Review: Evil Dead II (1987)

Directed by: Sam Raimi
Written by: Sam Raimi and Scott Spiegel
Starring: Bruce Campbell, Sarah Berry, Dan Hicks, Kassie Wesley DePaiva and Ted Raimi

I've always loved reading about what those out there consider the best movies to be, and perhaps what's the best within a certain group of movies. Evil Dead II AKA Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn is a movie that often gets placed among films like The Godfather Part II, Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan as one of the all-time greatest sequels. But is it truly a sequel? And if so, how does it match up against its predecessor? For whatever reason The Evil Dead was the one film in the series I watched repeatedly when I was younger, yet Evil Dead II was the first entry that I actually owned. I'm a little weird with these movies, but that's okay because these movies are weird and that's one element of a great cult film.

Ash Williams and his girlfriend Linda travel deep into the woods and uncover an ancient book of the dead and a tape recording of its translation. Upon playing it they unleash a demonic entity into the wilderness that preys upon the souls of the living. During the onslaught Ash initially finds himself alone and fighting for his life, but eventually holes up in a cabin with a group of strangers and learns of ways to battle the Evil Dead.

To this day there's a huge debate surrounding Evil Dead II. Is it a sequel to The Evil Dead or a remake? Ask any fan and you're bound to get either answer, and truthfully I'm undecided on this. Your perspective may have an influence on how you look at it, but the more positive outlook I find is viewing it as a sequel. Some consider the first ten minutes to be a 're-cap' of the original's events, but if it's a remake these early parts of the film can feel dangerously rushed and losing your feet as a viewer. I just revisited this movie in a marathon with the other two entries, and it generally flows well as one single trilogy. That said, its re-enactment of the original's most memorable scenes definitely stand out.

Regardless of this debate there's no denying that Evil Dead II takes a far more unique approach to this tale. While the original has a low-budget, slasher-like quality, this film is more expensive horror-comedy that has maximized director Sam Raimi's creative potential. In a lot of ways the comedy of this film surpasses the horror. Bruce Campbell returns as Ash Williams, but he's written with far more personality and as more of an antihero. He's both hilarious with his one-liners, sarcasm and irritability, yet totally badass at the same time. It's a great feat to pull this off, and have it be accepted by an audience. One of my favorite scenes is when Ash battles his own possessed hand before cutting it off with a chainsaw. It's a great example of the series' balance between the absurdly funny and the bloody. This and scenes like it were made possible by a budget that was lacking in the original, and astonishingly this film stands out for its marvellous gore and creature effects.

Is Evil Dead II a sequel, remake or a mixture of both? That's up to the audience to decide, but what's most clear to me is that this is The Evil Dead realized to its full potential. With better writing, a bigger budget that freed up Raimi and his team and an ambition to master two opposing genres at once it's only appropriate to call Evil Dead II one of the best sequels and remakes of all time.

My Rating: 8.5/10