22 Jun 2017

Review: The Conjuring (2013)

Directed by: James Wan
Written by: Chad and Carey Hayes
Starring: Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston

Going back ten years ago I started my first YouTube channel at 13 years old. While all I did was make short musical montages paying tribute to my favorite horror movies I did find myself taking part in a vibrant community of horror hounds. One of the most common sentiments most of us shared was that modern horror films simply don't cut the mustard like those of the past did. Why couldn't we see more movies like Rosemary's Baby, Psycho, A Nightmare on Elm Street or The Shining? While many doubt the future of the genre, The Conjuring is proof that Hollywood is still capable of delivering outstanding horror.

In 1971, Roger and Carolyn Perron and their five daughters move into an old farmhouse, and rather than finding a home to start a new life in they're instead subjected to a series of paranormal occurrences that escalate into a living nightmare. In desperation, the family contacts the famed demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren for aid. This is followed by revelation that the house is possessed by the spirit of an accused witch while the supernatural forces seek to destroy them all.

As far as premise concerned it isn't all that different from the typical haunted house movie, but it's much less to do with plot, or anything that could be speculated about the real-life Harrisville case or the Warrens' claims. It's about execution. Not to say that I haven't enjoyed director James Wan's work in the past, but was surprised to see how effectively he uses techniques fashioned after the great horror films of the past, all the while gripping modern audiences that may not be attuned to them. If the widespread acclaim is indicative of anything, it's Wan's understanding of how to bring the fear out of us all. As resilient to horror as I am, the dark visuals, ambience and depicting the unexplainable terrified me. For as long as The Conjuring withholds exposition, it allows our imaginations to run away with the minds of its main characters and grabs us off-guard one time after another. If anything I kind of wish story development wasn't so crucial here as not to undermine other shocks potentially lost by revealing too much information.

Naturally it's hard to overlook the claims of being based on a true story in films like this, so I'll offer my own thoughts. I honestly think the Perron family has staged a hoax and that the Warrens are phonies. With a lack of any concrete evidence supporting the claims of a haunting it only leads me to side with the contrary view. That said, I view this as a successful example of cinema taking us from our reality. No matter my feelings on those involved in the case, I look at Wilson and Farmiga's Ed and Lorraine as simply great characters that guide us through a fictional world.

I've seen this movie twice and was incredibly impressed both times, making it all the more likely I'll be coming back to it time and time again. As far as these kinds of films go I look at Robert Wise's The Haunting from 1963 as the gold standard. The Conjuring should be honored by being called its modern equivalent.

My Rating: 9/10

16 Jun 2017

Review: Gremlins (1984)

Directed by: Joe Dante
Written by: Chris Columbus
Starring: Zach Galligan, Phoebe Cates, Hoyt Axton, Frances Lee McCain, Polly Holiday and Corey Feldman

When we think of any movie we think of certain genre conventions. On the topic of Christmas movies we associate them with cheer, family, Santa Claus, sitting by the fireplace with hot cocoa, not unlike the holiday itself. These kinds of movies are usually very funny and leave us with a feeling of joy. The movie I'm about to review definitely incorporates all of these elements to one extent or another, but it's also one of the great movies that defies those very conventions at the same time. Gremlins is a Christmas movie, but it's also one ready to break the rules all while throwing back to different cinematic conventions of the past.

It's Christmas time and Billy Peltzer, despite being down on his luck in many respects maintains his love of the holiday season. His father buys his a small creature called a mogwai, bringing a revived happiness into his life. After naming him Gizmo, Billy is given three rules to follow: Keep him out of sunlight, don't get him wet and never feed him after midnight. Through no fault of his own, Billy breaks these rules and unleashes a horde of nasty, mischievous monsters on his small town.

Viewing the film itself, it can lead one to making a variety of conclusions. The most prominent one for me is how Gremlins is essentially a tribute to both Christmas movies and creature features of that past. Whether it's The Blob or It's A Wonderful Life, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms or Miracle on 34th Street, we can see a little of all of this in Gremlins. It's very consistent with the films of director Joe Dante, a wonderful filmmaker who both pays homage to the films that inspire him while exciting us in new ways. Funny knowing that his and writer Chris Columbus' individual approach ultimately led to the PG-13 rating being introduced by the MPAA.

These extent of influence of older films and the testing of boundaries of what a Christmas movie are however trivial in comparison to the achievements Gremlins accomplishes on its own. Although I think all the performances are generally strong, contrasting the dark with the campy and delightful it should come as no surprise that the gremlins are the real stars of the show. They're like a fusion of Bugs Bunny with a Grade A psychopath, and the effects are staggeringly good. Utilizing puppetry, animatronics and stop-motion all at once, it achieves the best of all three worlds.

Growing up with Gremlins was wonderful. It taught me everything from appreciating how different genres of film can be combined to a greater effect and the charm of robotics and practical effects over CGI. It introduced me to Joe Dante, who has since become one of my favorite directors and it more generally demonstrates that unpredictability is one of storytelling's greatest strengths and a key ingredient for an exciting movie.

My Rating: 9/10

1 Jun 2017

Film Summary: May 2017

May was pretty hectic, but certainly a dramatic improvement over the chaos I dealt with back in April. Despite some busyness with work and college stuff I have been feeling relatively enthusiastic. I joined a gym that I'm enjoying a lot, setting fitness goals for myself and the like. I also took to renewing my love for the heavy metal music genre by venturing out to discover new bands while reacquainting myself with some old favorites. I saw 21 movies in June, and though many were entries in the Godzilla franchise I nevertheless had a great variety in my viewing.

The Secret World of Arrietty (2010) – 7.5/10
The Clock family, three miniature people living anonymously in another person’s home find their world turned upside down when their daughter Arrietty is discovered by a human boy. One of Studio Ghibli’s more recent films are hardly one of their most ambitious, but it has its own charms that are both unique by the standards of a Ghibli film and delightfully enhance its small, but rich world. This one is all about beautiful simplicities, so while it’s not always exciting it’s nevertheless always engaging. I sense there’s somewhat of an environmentalist theme implying the importance of allowing natural forces to run their course, but I found myself more drawn into the plights of its trio of tiny characters. There’s something fascinatingly reflective about it. It asks us to be aware of what we’re doing to those around us and why, but above all it’s always great to see these people navigating the often unpredictable worlds that Ghibli creates. A comparatively more tame project, but its aesthetics will sweep fans regardless.

The Magnificent Seven (2016) – 8.5/10
When a ruthless industrialist threatens the homes of a small town’s people they hire seven gunmen to protect them. Director Antoine Fuqua has brought to life a wonderful remake of the classic ‘The Magnificent Seven’ from 1960. Is it a better film? No, but I think it’s on-par and an honourable entry into the 21st century’s comparatively smaller number of westerns. Rather than merely re-enact the original it makes an effort to stand on its own feet. This approach might not offer anything new, and in a lot of ways it feels as though it’s simply ticking the boxes on genre conventions, but I found it to a genuinely thrilling action spectacle. While much of this is owed to modern production values and the dramatic build-up in the script it’s impossible to not mention its wonderful cast. Denzel Washington is phenomenal as Chisolm, bringing just the right amount of humanity and outlaw toughness to the performance, but one can hardly single out anybody especially given the likes of Chris Pratt bringing their own unique blend of humor and dramatic input. This is a great western and I hope it leaves a long-lasting impact on the legacy of the genre.

Godzilla vs. Hedorah (1971) – 6/10
A monster born of the Earth’s pollution attacks Japan and threatens the health of the planet and its inhabitants, only to meet its match in Godzilla. Released as ‘Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster’ in the US, this entry into the Godzilla series is arguably better than its goofy predecessor ‘All Monsters Attack’ but it suffers from similar problems. It has somewhat of a child-friendly approach with its incorporation of comedic elements, but this isn’t even where it falters. It suffers from an overabundance of different storytelling styles, and at times becomes borderline incoherent with rapid scene transitions and some creative decisions that are hardly more than totally random. It succeeds where one would expect: Godzilla shows up and brawls with Hedorah, and it’s as fun as ever, but this instalment is pinned down by its eccentricity and its failed environmentalist message. Fans will find something to enjoy, but others should avoid it.

King Soloman’s Mines (1950) – 8/10
Set in late 19th century Africa, adventurer Allan Quartermain leads an expedition deep into the wilderness searching for a missing explorer chasing down a fabled diamond mine. Though many adaptations of ‘King Soloman’s Mines’ have been brought to the silver screen, the 1950 version is honoured by a Best Picture nomination that it lost to ‘All About Eve.’ While many would call this tame by modern action movie standards I found it to be a riveting adventure based around survival and the search for the unknown. Taking an observable colonial-era mentality, it effectively provides the sense of vastness that comes with uncharted territory. You feel as though there’s more of this world to explore, but without the privileges of Western civilization our heroes are subject to its dangers. While its characters are far from the greatest and the film is undeniably dated it’s a visual feast and an on-location shoot that takes advantage of all the creative possibilities.

Down Under (2016) – 6/10
Set in the aftermath of the Cronulla riots, two groups on both sides of the fight, fuelled by hate are driving the streets the Sydney looking for revenge. I had a lot of fascination in the project from its release, and I hoped it would showcase a positive and intelligent message. It’s there, but I don’t think it’s explored to any meaningful extent. What we’re instead treated with is a couple of tales centred on two groups of obnoxious imbeciles. I really did not like any of these characters at all. They’re boisterous in their stupidity and the select few that do have a redemptive element are treated as tools for its message on the futility of racism. At times however ‘Down Under’ works very well as a satire and showcases why patriotism is a driver of violence in a way that makes us laugh. Many have described the film as important for its comments on very recent Australian history, but I personally found it exploitive and preachy. It does have its moments though.

The Old Dark House (1932) – 8/10
Set in a remote part of Wales, a group of travellers take refuge from a rainstorm in the mansion of a family that hold dark secrets and may be insane. James Whale is a contender for greatest horror filmmaker of his generation and ‘The Old Dark House’ is, much like his earlier classic ‘Frankenstein’ proof of that. Although the title might lead one toward thinking it’s generic, this film is a chiller of the highest order. The feeling of entrapment brought about by the constant sound of rain and thunder, the almost exclusive use of interior sets and its dark lighting really put you into the action. Its characters are the real point of fascination. You sense the anxieties of the protagonists and you’re constantly speculating what the Femm family wants and what it is they’re hiding. Boris Karloff is the big name attached, but in all honesty I can’t single out any performance as greater than any other. They’re a wonderful cast who bring to life characters with explosive chemistry, and ‘The Old Dark House’ knows all the tricks to making an effective, creepy movie.

Godzilla vs. Gigan (1972) – 4/10
Cochroach aliens disguised as human beings plan to use the monsters King Ghidorah and Gigan to conquer the world, which brings Godzilla and Anguirus to come to the Earth’s defence. The Shōwa Godzilla series is up to its 12th instalment with ‘Godzilla vs. Gigan’ and it’s really starting to take a toll on my patience. Reverting back to a somewhat less child-oriented approach, this entry suffers from being wholly unremarkable and frankly incredibly dull. Making use of a cliché-ridden plot and uninteresting human characters, what Godzilla movies usually do best is hardly a saving grace here. It’s a monster mash and it’s cool, but these scenes are overlong and shamelessly exploit prior instalments’ stock footage. ‘All Monsters Attack’ is often labelled the worst film in the series, but I honestly found this one harder to get through for its lack of charm and its rushed production rubbing off on the final product.

Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973) – 4/10
An underground kingdom unbeknownst to human civilization sends the monster Megalon to destroy humanity for their own protection, leading to a confrontation between Godzilla and the robot Jet Jaguar. Originally not even intended to be a Godzilla movie but rather a solo vehicle for Jet Jaguar, a character who was legitimately designed by an elementary school student as part of a competition. This fact really rubs off. It’s sadly an irritatingly underwritten film that lacks the creative drive of earlier entries in the franchise. I do really like its two villainous monsters Gigan and Megalon, and seeing them brawl with the likes of Godzilla is fun, but sadly is also prone to getting old. There’s a modicum of humor stemming from its cheesiness and I think this alone puts it slightly above its weak predecessor. The Godzilla series really needed its spirit back at this time and this movie showcases that. Fortunately from what I hear the next film is a return to form.

Alien: Covenant (2017) – 8/10
The crew of the colony ship Covenant discover an unchartered planet that appears perfect for human settlement, only to learn of a terrible secret that threatens their lives. A sequel to Ridley Scott’s earlier film ‘Prometheus’ and a new entry into the larger Alien franchise proves to be more than competent. It’s a great thriller and I always welcome insight into the dark universe constructed throughout this long-running series. The problem is it doesn’t offer anything new and it feels very much like it has some of the same issues as ‘Prometheus’: A lot of lingering questions and it’s left without a sense of finality. That said, it’s a fairly dramatic experience, delivering both sombre moments of exposition and intense if infrequent burst of sci-fi action. I admire the film’s building of atmosphere, even if this becomes a little lost in favour building up to something we’re yet to see. ‘Alien: Convenant’ left me hungry for more, but it can’t compete with greats like the first two Alien movies.

Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (1974) – 7.5/10
Apes from outer space intend to take over Earth by having a mechanical version of Godzilla battle humanity’s protector. After a few flops with ‘Godzilla vs. Gigan’ and ‘Godzilla vs. Megalon’ I was happy to see an instalment that’s in the same spirit of the earlier Shōwa. It is light-hearted and cheesy, but doesn’t toss creativity aside entirely. You can’t put too much faith in the stories of these movies, but ‘Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla’ does make an honest attempt by drawing on its own mythology and putting nature into conflict with the heartless and mechanical. Although the film’s action is sparsely distributed it really does pay off. The monster suits look great, there’s no shameless use of stock footage and Godzilla still proves his knack for goofy humour. The film isn’t perfect given some underwritten and flat out pointless choices for what to add to its story. As far as early Godzilla movies go this is definitely a positive entry, and I look forward to finally concluding the original series with the next movie.

Detroit Rock City (1999) – 8.5/10
Set in 1978, four rebellious teens resort to every act of desperation to see a KISS concert in Detroit. While it’s evident that ‘Detroit Rock City’ is attempting to emulate ‘Dazed and Confused’ and other teen movies of the 1990s I think it stands strong as a true party flick. It’s great to see a film that’s clearly so light-hearted still go ahead and attempt to serve as a period piece. There’s a real hilarity, especially in retrospect knowing that a band like KISS was seen as a Satanic group corrupting America’s teenagers. The spirit of this movie is of course in its fun-loving nature and depiction of youth. Although I was never this irresponsible I found the four protagonists to be hilariously relatable. There’s something about loving heavy music that’s hard to articulate to those that don’t understand it, but ‘Detroit Rock City’ is fully in touch with this. With a legendary soundtrack, numerous laugh-out-loud gags and an evident fascination with the 70s, this movie is sure to leave one feeling positive.

Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975) – 7/10
When an alien race starts rebuilding Mechagodzilla to destroy both humanity and Godzilla a traitorous scientist provides them with access to another monster, Titanosaurus. Although it was the least successful film in the entire Godzilla franchise financially it certainly isn’t from a filmmaking perspective and it’s a solid farewell to the Shōwa series and Godzilla’s temporary retirement. Although not one of the best it does continue the usual Godzilla traditions of the time. The fights between Godzilla, Titanosaurus and Mechagodzilla are the real highlights, and the human story utilises an amusing science-fiction cheesiness. Many of the tropes are truly tired out at this point and the wear is still too evident even with improved writing considered. Lacking in any unique themes or stand-out moments, it works as a campy action flick.

Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1974) – 8/10
While hiding in an insane asylum Baron Frankenstein is joined by a recently condemned doctor in reanimating an ape-like inmate that committed suicide. The last of Hammer Film Productions’ Frankenstein series is a fine if flawed conclusion to the gothic reimagining of Mary Shelley’s source material. While some of the creations brought to the screen in prior instalments have been underwhelming when compared to earlier examples ‘Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell’ corrects this mistake by giving us a truly memorable monster that’s both creepy and brutish. There’s always been a sympathetic element surrounding them though, painting Peter Cushing’s Frankenstein as manipulative and sociopathic as he is cunning. Although it often lacks suspense given the characters’ anonymity in this sequel it’s made up for in fascination. This film really is about prompting intrigue and pushing the boundaries of this world’s science. Sadly the film is given an extremely abrupt ending and doesn’t see the series end in the best way, but the overall film is a great conclusion.

Serial Mom (1994) – 8/10
A devoted wife and mother takes to dealing with the imperfections of her life by becoming a serial killer, but as her habit becomes more compulsive a media circus and a police hunt for the infamous ‘Serial Mom’ develop. If there’s any way to describe the films of John Waters it’s that they’re unique often to a fault and many find them to be an acquired taste. For whatever reason ‘Serial Mom’ wasn’t donned with the same cult status of something like ‘Cry-Baby.’ I personally consider this to be a superior film. It relies heavily on the shock value of its sporadic violence and its central character’s regular acts of cruelty, largely inspired by the films of Herschell Gordon Lewis (which are given little nods throughout) but it’s the ironic humour that makes this film great. It’s well aware of its goals by using heavily-exaggerated dialogue and drawing the absurdities out of numerous situations, but at its core it’s a criticism of the hypocrisies of a conservative suburban lifestyle and it’s suggestive that the picturesque image we conjure isn’t without an ugly side that can put us on the edge. ‘Serial Mom’ won’t be for everyone, but those with a grim sense of humor will love it.

Sully (2016) – 8/10
After Chelsey Sullenberger miraculously lands an airbus in the Hudson River following an accident and saving all the lives on board he has to deal with his newfound status as a hero while a developing investigation threatens his career as a pilot. Despite some excellent work earlier in his career many feel that Clint Eastwood is slipping as a filmmaker, but ‘Sully’ is, to me, proof that isn’t necessarily true. Perhaps it’s imperfect, but I really believe this is Eastwood’s best film since ‘Gran Torino’ and one of the best stories of the everyday hero in recent years. This isn’t a story about tragedy, but rather not-so-straightforward aftermath of becoming a hero. Making a clever use of structure, the film repeatedly comes back to the few moments defining Sully’s unforeseen achievement and amazingly delivers a different emotional result each time. If at times it doesn’t always do its best by secondary characters, and a rushed ending leaves one slightly unsatisfied ‘Sully’ is a solid achievement for both Eastwood and star Tom Hanks.

The Return of Godzilla (1984) – 8/10
Thirty years after his original rampage Godzilla re-emerges and attacks Japan, bringing the threat of a nuclear conflict with him. Considering how goofy the original series became by the 1970s I’m beyond that Godzilla went into a temporary retirement and came back in full force with ‘The Return of Godzilla.’ While it’s no competitor with the 1954 classic it’s succeeded wonderfully in updating its message to the 1980s. Godzilla is a force of chaos, but what this film asserts is that humanity’s capacity to destroy itself through atomic war is a much greater danger than a villainous giant lizard. Lacking in any standout performances or any truly compelling human characters it makes up for it in the joyous destruction and flashy (if outdated) special effects. What the original Godzilla did for post-war Japan, this movie does the same for the intense final decade of the Cold War and this makes it better than any sequel in the Shōwa series.

Ender’s Game (2013) – 7.5/10
Fifty years after the initial invasion of Earth by a genocidal alien race is prevented, young Ender Wiggin is selected for his intelligence and empathy to lead a new generation of fighters in his planet’s defence against their enemy. Everything I’ve heard about the original novel is that it’s thought-provoking and full of excitement. This film is an underachiever in both of these respects, but still proves competent as a sci-fi movie. What holds ‘Ender’s Game’ back from achieving real greatness is its own thematic confusion and lack of payoff. It does very little in exploring the relevance of our hero’s incredibly young age or the moral implications of military aggression in the name of defence. The maturity of Ender and a solid performance by Asa Butterfield draw us into the many battles of this character’s life, but when much of the plot is dedicated to simulated warfare scenarios it begs the question of what genuinely constitutes genuine cinematic action. Regardless of some flaws, I loved the surprises of the final act that do, if briefly, summarise its pro-peace, compassionate message.

Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey (2005) – 8/10
Sam Dunn travels the world exploring the musical subculture of heavy metal, looking into its origins, key groups, genre distinctions and the qualities that make it both loved by fans and condemned by those outside of it. This is not my first time watching ‘Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey,’ but it’s a documentary film I’ve always found myself coming back to. How could I not be drawn to a film about the best music in the world? What Dunn’s film illustrates is that metal isn’t a casual element in the lives of its fans, but an empowering force that few understand (and we won’t have it any other way). Structurally the film is appropriately broken down into key areas demanding exploration. Media censorship, male dominance, Satanism, the works. The only issue is that given the genre’s immensity attempting to cover everything is far too ambitious. Regardless of whatever shortcomings there may be ‘Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey’ is a passionate documentary, and if its many interviews are indicative of anything it’s that its fans and musicians love the music and the heavy metal way of life.

The BFG (2016) – 7.5/10
An orphan girl befriends a compassionate giant, and together they attempt to stop his man-eating co-dwellers from harming the human world. With two huge projects based on real-world subjects ‘Lincoln’ and ‘Bridge of Spies,’ Steven Spielberg has given us a solid family-fantasy film based on the famed Roald Dahl book. Does it work? Predominantly, yes. ‘The BFG’ is light-hearted and puts a smile on the face, but it also doesn’t leave much of an emotional impact. For everything that’s charming and funny about this film there’s usually something painfully clichéd or dare I say even immature. At times it seems as though the film isn’t sure of what to do with a plot too thin for a near two hour runtime and it aimlessly plays around rather than building stakes or characters. As a family film it succeeds in inspiring the imagination through its fantastic visuals and innocent nature, but where ‘The BFG’ falls short is in pacing and its leaving us craving more.

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) – 8/10
Chick and Wilbur, two hapless freight traders find themselves subject in Dracula’s plot to revive the Frankenstein Monster while the Wolf man tries to stop him. ‘Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein’ can be understood in two ways: As proof that the classic Universal monsters had become so tired to the point of being comical, and as one of the great horror-comedies of the golden age of cinema. Wanting to think positively I subscribe to the latter position, but the former undoubtedly holds weight. The joys of this movie really have little to do with whatever creep factor you might associate with its trio of monsters, but the role they play in juxtaposing their iconic status with Abbott and Costello’s humor. There are times where we’re treated with mere laughs, and other times more dramatic stakes enter the picture. Either way the film is a delight thanks to the titular duo’s screen performances, a genre-balancing script and the long-awaited reprisal of Bela Lugosi as Dracula.

The Boy and the Beast (2015) – 8/10
A recently orphaned boy inadvertently wonders into a world of bipedal beasts and is taken under the wing of an insecure and short-tempered warrior. The latest film by animator-director Mamoru Hosoda is fantastical if any movie ever was, and it continues in the line of his three great earlier film, ‘The Girl Who Leapt Through Time,’ ‘Summer Wars,’ and ‘Wolf Children’ although admittedly it is my least favorite of the four. ‘The Boy and the Beast’ succeeds in the expected areas. It’s a beautifully animated movie full of vibrant color and infinite levels of imagination in its fictional world, but the real appeal is in its more human drama. Encompassing themes of abandonment, family, belonging, personal growth and the objective good, we’re treated to a story about a boy’s unlikely, yet quarrelsome relationship with someone that proves to be symbiotic. ‘The Boy and the Beast’ is sometimes very funny, sometimes touching, but most of the time it sweeps you up in a wonderful world that turns the turns the ordinary into the extraordinary without trivializing anything human.

My Top 10 Movies for May 2017
1. Detroit Rock City
2. The Magnificent Seven
3. King Soloman's Mines
4. Sully
5. The Boy and the Beast
6. The Old Dark House
7. The Return of Godzilla
8. Metal: A Headbanger's Journey
9. Serial Mom
10. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein