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Bullet Train (2022)/ The Princess (2022)

Bullet Train and The Princess are two recent releases that could serve as a double feature for all they have in common. Both movies prioritize fun above all else, both of them feature stylized violence and bloodshed, both of them have a perverse sense of humor, and both of them feature young actress Joey King (The Kissing Booth, Wish Upon), coincidentally playing the listed roles of Prince and The Princess. What more do you need for this combo? If you are a fan of Bullet Train, you’ll likely be a fan of The Princess, and vice versa, because both of them are exactly as advertised. They’re wild, whimsically violent, but succeed with nimble action construction, bizarre and engaging characters, and high energy that sparks fun escapist entertainment.
Bullet Train is set almost entirely on a speeding bullet train in Tokyo, and we follow a group of hired killers, mercenaries, and generally nasty people all sharing one very fast locomotive. “Ladybug” (Brad Pitt) is a reformed hitman who only takes snatch-and-grab gigs as he’s trying to better himself with therapy and meditation. He’s meant to grab a briefcase of money and get off the train. Naturally, things don’t go as smoothly as planned. Onboard the train are “Lemon” (Brian Tyree Hill) and “Tangerine” (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who have the briefcase in their possession along with the prodigal son (Logan Lerman) of a scary Yakuza boss known as “The White Death.” Also on board is Kimura (Andrew Koji) seeking to find the person responsible for pushing his child off a rooftop, Prince (Joey King) using her diminutive stature to trick unsuspecting men, the Wolf (Bad Bunny) seeking out the person responsible for the death of his bride, and several other masked killers looking to up the ante. Characters will clash, many will die, and “The White Death” will be appeased by the end, coming to collect a blood debt from all.

Bullet Train was, blissfully, everything I was needing it to be. It’s a universe familiar to fans of Quentin Tarantino and especially Guy Ritchie, with colorful and threatening characters with large personalities and quirks colliding in unexpected and violent ways. I’ve seen so many Tarantino knock-offs, and Tarantino knock-off knock-offs, so I appreciate when someone is able to understand what it takes to succeed on this unique playing field. Screenwriter Zak Olkewicz (Fear Street: 1978) knows how to sharpen the kind of off-the-cuff banter that makes these movies excel, with space given for the characters to make a sizable impression. There needs to be time to get to know them, their quirks and faults, and then send them all running at one another at cross-purposes, interacting in fun ways that lend to one character screwing something up for another. There’s about a dozen characters dropped upon us, and just about everyone gets a flashback or introduction set piece, sometimes more, sometimes extensions of previous flashbacks, sometimes extensions from alternate perspectives. Part of the fun is just seeing how the different characters relate to one another, so there is a period of time where the mask has to eventually drop, and the reveal needs to be worthwhile. It’s a lot, and Bullet Train gleefully trades in excess upon excess all in the name of chasing after a good time, and if you connect on its zany and breezy wavelength of reckless violence and dark humor, then you shall be happy for the ride.
The movie is constantly reshuffling and transforming, allowing it to hyperextend into whatever shape it necessitates before contorting back to its next phase. This malleability makes the movie far more responsive, sometimes overlapping, and it provides an extra level of energy. It’s reminiscent of Snatch, my favorite of the Ricthie cockney crime capers, where the story zigged and zagged through linear time, providing answers to different stacked questions. I won’t say the characters are as distinct as Snatch, but Olkewicz takes his time to introduce each with relish. Pitt may be the marketable star of the movie, at least as far as advertising is concerned, but it’s really much more of an ensemble, and one anchored by Lemon and Tangerine. Their droll, snappy banter really cements their long-term relationship almost like a screwball romance. They end up becoming, strangely, the heart of the movie, if one were to suggest a movie with an entire wedding party vomiting their guts to death had a beating heart. Their exact connection and genuine affection for one another, even when they’re driving one another mad, is one of the film’s many surprises as it zooms ahead. There are fun cameos, and some unexpected abrupt deaths, but Bullet Train works because of the entertainment of the kooky killer characters. I enjoyed that one character’s obsession, namely likening people to Thomas the Tank Engine avatars, has a personal connection but actually leads to some ironic turns. Not every set-up has the best payoff (Chekov’s toilet snake comes to shockingly little) or resolution (why wasn’t the snooping conductor thrown back in or given a revelation?) but with so many characters criss-crossing, so many goofy asides and cul-de-sacs, and so much bloody mayhem, there’s a steady stream of fun, satisfying payoffs and retribution until the mid-credits sequence.

To me, the water bottle symbolizes Bullet Train at its best and worst. After two hours of multiple characters and their out-of-order flashbacks shuffling for dominance, we get an inanimate object with its own flashback. It’s a goofy and superfluous addition, as the water bottle has served as a plot device but has served its ultimate plot purpose already, so seeing its entire history offers no new information that the audience didn’t already have. However, what it does is show the movie from the perspective of this bottle, and many sequences are reframed from the bottle’s rigid point of view. It made me think about how after they got their shot setups, someone on staff would then call out, “Okay, we need the water bottle POV shot now,” and they would film that. I appreciate the effort for something this fleeting and silly. They didn’t need to put in this flashback or this level of attention to an object that ultimately just gets thrown at a guy’s head. However, it’s the misdirect, the ridiculous inclusion on top of the others, and the ramping of energy that made me smile, even as little else came out of it. I appreciated the showmanship. For me, this is emblematic of the movie as a whole, an overload of style and energy just for the fleeting hell of it.
Under the direction of David Leitch (Atomic Blonde, Deadpool 2), the action is as fun and energetic as the colorful characters. Leitch has become one of the best modern directors of action movies. The hand-to-hand combat is refreshing and makes use of close quarter combat demands. I enjoyed that the two participants in a fight are trying to sneak in quick moves without getting caught by an older lady who demands quiet in the quiet train car. I enjoyed the zany flashback where Tangerine and Lemon recount to the camera and dispute the number of men killed on a previous job. With a character cursed with bad luck, it provides opportunities to have fun with accidents and bad timing, which Leitch works into different action set-ups and setbacks. Even when the movie literally goes off the rails and becomes a big cartoon, Leitch finds ways to marry the big tone in such a manner that the ridiculous doesn’t prove off-putting. When characters are swinging samurai swords in slow-mo, while a Japanese version of “Holding Out For a Hero” is pumping on the soundtrack, I just sat back and soaked up the deliciously disposable fun times.

The plot of The Princess is as straightforward as Bullet Train is knotty. The Princess (Joey King) of a fantasy kingdom is chained at the very top of a castle tower. Her captor, Julius (Dominic Cooper), has imprisoned her family and plans to wed the princess and become king. The princess, however, has other plans. Thanks to her martial arts and weapon training, she breaks free and becomes a one-woman wrecking crew as she descends the tower floors to freedom.
I was genuinely surprised at how well developed and exciting the action sequences were. The Princess shares more in common with The Raid than anything by the Grimms. The script by Ben Lustig and Jake Thornton follows the model of a video game; every new floor is a literal new level with a new boss or new objective to be achieved to advance to the next level. The simplicity of the premise is refreshing, and the movie doesn’t waste any time ramping things up. Blood is shed within the first few minutes and it doesn’t let up. What I really appreciated was how well constructed each new action set piece was. There’s variety and specification that challenges our heroine, who is powerful but still not all-powerful and bereft of vulnerability. Each new encounter forces our protagonist to think through a different application of skills. There’s a situation that involves overpowering a larger and stronger man, a situation trying to wound a fully armored man, a situation battling two men, then even more, a situation with men charging into the battle and having to escape to a safer environment, a situation where she has to swing along the outside of the castle to enter a different room, a situation involving stealth, and many others, but each requires something different and thus each proves to flesh out our main character and her capabilities and problem-solving acumen. It’s always a pleasure to watch smart people overcome challenges in fun and smart ways, and The Princess has this formula down. I was worried the movie might get repetitive with its video game level design, but each new challenge is an opportunity to dazzle and enlighten us about our John Wick-esque fighter.

That’s probably the best comparison, the John Wick franchise, because it’s a series of movies that is defined by the thrills of its fight choreography and action set pieces. That’s it. The world has some interesting flourishes but the draw is the fight scenes and the pleasure of watching professionals operating at such a high level and with demonstrations that allow us to better immerse and appreciate the artistry of the fighting. And it’s good here. The impressive choreography has a really nice A-to-B propulsion, with each move connecting to the next to tell its own story of countermoves and adjustment. I really appreciated how the specific geography of each location is incorporated into the action, whether that be as a hindrance or an assistance to the fighting. It makes the sequences more meaningful and better developed. It’s also a movie that understands that if you give your villains specialized weapons, they better use them in fun or nasty ways. If all you’re looking for is imaginative, bloody, and brutal fighting, The Princess delivers it all. Credit also to King for throwing herself completely into the role. She effortlessly executes complicated fight moves and swordplay during long takes. You can tell she’s having a blast being a badass. Think of The Princess like a feminist version of The Raid or an upside-down version of Dredd (“Instead of fighting up, this character fights her way… down.”).

The Princess could have made more social statements but its very conceit is a feminist reworking of outdated fantasy tropes, so I don’t mind that it’s a streamlined action movie with a blunt yet obvious point. The familiar story tells us that these damsels in distress are the maidens in need of rescuing (“Sorry, our princess is in another castle” and the like), so just having the princess be her own champion is a simple yet satisfying subversion. This is an action movie and less one on politics; however, it’s a movie that cannot help from being political because it’s upsetting the expected social norms, that women are docile and weaker and at the whims of men. The Princess isn’t breaking new ground here. There have been plenty of movies that re-contextualized the feminine roles of old legends and folk tales and made them more capable and strong and fierce. That doesn’t mean there’s any less enjoyment watching our princess take down one leering man after another. It’s the appeal of the underdog who makes men pay dearly for underestimating her. These repeated interactions and bloody comeuppance speak about as well as necessary for this kind of movie. I doubt things would have radically improved if one of the characters broke into a treatise on the misapplication of gender roles. It’s a woman beating the stuffing out of creepy and lascivious misogynists. For this movie, that’s more than enough to keep me watching.

Where The Princess starts to lose itself is once it shifts into its final act and abandons its formula. I can understand wanting to shake things up so the viewer doesn’t get lulled into complacency, but because the sequences were, beforehand, varied, my interest was not lagging. During this final stretch, the titular princess leads a squad to take down the baddies, and the movie becomes any other number of similar fantasy action movies. The enjoyable fight choreography is still present, but it feels like a rush to clear everything in comparison to the methodical floor-by-floor clearing from before. I wish the filmmakers had merely held steady with their plot rather than throwing things out and relying upon a grand team-up revolutionary raid. There’s also a sudden shift that throws out the rationale for keeping the princess alive. The bad guy just shrugs and says, “Forget it, I’ll find a replacement,” and it feels too arbitrary of an escalation. If he could do this, why was he so insistent for the first hour that she not be killed? It’s not a bad ending or one that ruins the movie but it’s definitely a downshift from the action excitement highs from before.

The Princess and Bullet Train are both frantic, over-the-top, cartoonishly violent, while still understanding how to effectively sell their escapist mayhem. We need to be dazzled by the action sequences and have them be meaningful (check), we need weird and interesting characters that we want to root for or watch bumble onscreen (check), we need payoffs that feel rewarding (check), we need an onslaught of style and attitude (check), and we need, above all else, fun and surprises (check). Neither of these movies is going to qualify as one of the best movies of the year. That’s just not the kind of experience either is shooting for. However, they may be some of the best fun you have with movies for 2022, and in a world in short order of fun, that’s plenty.

Nate’s Grade’s:

Bullet Train: B

The Princess: B

Going in Style (2017)

If seeing Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, and Alan Arkin pal around and bicker for 90 minutes is enough reason to see a movie, then Going in Style offers that and precious little else. This is a movie that offers little more than three great old codgers doing their schtick as they plan to rob the bank that is cheating them out of their hard-earned pensions. The old-guys-acting-up routines vary from mildly amusing to sad and desperate, like a sequence where the trio inexplicably decide to practice their criminal impulses by robbing a convenience store. It’s all so broad and obvious and lackluster. There’s a scene where they get high and the mere utterance of the word “munchies” seems like it’s intended to be a comedic payoff. Going in Style is a remake of a 1979 movie where George Burns, Art Carney, and Lee Strasberg take to a life of crime to animate them from a forgotten existence. It was strangely serious and had pockets of depth about the kind of care the elderly were receiving and how invisible their needs became to our country. This update loses any seriousness for exasperated and hollow hijinks. One-time indie darling Zach Braff (Garden State) takes his turn as a hired gun directing for the studio system. I don’t know if he was easily cowed by the acting veterans or the studio, but his comedy instincts honed over several seasons from Scrubs feel muted here. My theater was packed with people old enough to get their social security checks and they were barely chuckling politely. It’s predictable every step of the way and ginned up with contrived conflicts. Still, if all you want to see is a group of octogenarians crack wise and act foolish and you have no other pressing demands, Going in Style may be just enough to get by.

Nate’s Grade: C

Independence Day: Resurgence (2016)

independence_day_resurgenceI can recall actively counting down the days until Independence Day was released in 1996, gobbling up every newspaper clipping and magazine article I could. I was a big fan of director Roland Emmerich’s Stargate, which is still a terrific movie, and I was eager to watch the end of the world, as we know it, in the privacy of my local theater. It was a blast, no pun intended, and one of the biggest box-office successes at the time. Surely there would be a sequel, especially after it helped launch Will Smith into another level of stardom. Flash forward twenty years, and here comes Independence Day: Resurgence, a sequel that misses what marked the original as escapist entertainment.

Twenty years later, human beings have been planning for the eventual return of their intergalactic invaders. Former president Whitmore (Bill Pullman) and CIA director David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) have been trying to get the world prepared and studying our alien enemy. A psychic link is still formed from Whitmore’s brief bond in the first movie, and he keeps drawing mysterious symbols. Whitmore’s daughter, Patricia (Maika Munroe), is a former fighter pilot who works for the current president (Sela Ward). Patricia’s boyfriend and fellow fighter pilot, Jake Morrison (Liam Hemsworth), is stationed on the moon building a defense system. Then the aliens come back and pick up where they left off, annihilating Earth’s landmarks and population centers. It seems that their spaceship is going to suck out the Earth’s molten core, and by all accounts, that’s bad. Our ragtag group of characters must come together and overcome substantial odds once more to save the Earth from certain doom.

So where exactly did things go wrong? I’m not one to simply state that the filmmakers missed their window of making a quality sequel. While twenty years is a long time in between outings, it doesn’t mean that you will fail to come up with a compelling movie. Mad Max was 30 years between movies and this didn’t stop Fury Road from being a masterpiece. By most accounts, yes, there is certainly less of an appetite for an Independence Day sequel in 2016 than there would have been in 1998, but the first film is still fondly remembered and a worthy sequel would be welcomed regardless.

746I think one of the bigger causes to Resurgence not working is the fact that the rest of the moviegoing world has caught up when it comes to big screen spectacle, therefore spectacle by itself is not enough without a zeitgeist edge. In 1996, cutting-edge special effects-laden destruction on a global scale was reason enough to buy a ticket and the largest tub of popcorn. In the ensuring two decades, large-scale cataclysm has become commonplace on the big screen; just about every climax of a Marvel movie involves some world-devastating threat. What once quickened pulses has now become ho-hum. Emmerich himself has become a modern-day Irwin Allen since the first Independence Day, almost specifically focused on global disaster movies. I honestly don’t think there’s a better director working in Hollywood for that gig (his next movie is about the moon crashing into the Earth, so “familiar” territory). I think Emmerich’s skill and vision for big screen spectacle goes unheralded too often and he gets lumped in with empty visual stylists like Zack Snyder and Michael Bay. He’s better than that. However, the tide has turned, and audiences have become sated from empty spectacle. They need something more, or at least something compelling, and Resurgence struggles to achieve this. It feels like the aliens are back and they’re bigger, and that’s about it, folks.

Disaster movies are generally judged by their set pieces, and what is most surprising about Resurgence is that it really doesn’t have action set pieces as it does skirmishes. The movie is only two hours long, which seems like a rarity nowadays, but this is one of the few movies I think could have benefited from some extra breathing room. It feels too rushed, its internal logic often forcibly contrived, and this is evident most in its action sequences. A better term would be “skirmishes” because the sequences themselves are so curiously brief save for the climactic fight during the third act. We’ll get bursts of intensity or dread that comes to a head with violence, but then that’s it and the movie moves along. It’s usually mere moments of brief alien destruction. The action lacks proper development. One of the keys to great action sequences is naturally complicating and developing the events. Resurgence doesn’t even change gears. It provides exactly what you expect, and then it’s over, the surprise being how unsatisfying and short the unimaginative experience was for all parties. It’s a long wait until the third act where the alien queen comes outside to play. The movie shifts into a giant monster melee and it’s the one time where Resurgence feels most lively. It still follows a contrived logic (the Queen has a shield… now she doesn’t…) but I’ll credit the movie with at least saving the best for last and finally letting the action expand. I had enough fun with the final act of Resurgence that I was able to forgive some of its early transgressions.

The first Independence Day wasn’t by any means a cinematic milestone but it was fun and had a clean enough throughline. We spent the first hour in typical Emmerich fashion being introduced to the different characters and then watching the dispirit elements come together. The mystery of what was out there was intriguing and it became a step-by-step process of deducing how mankind should respond. When their hostile intent was revealed, it then became a learning experience as to how to fight back. Aerial dogfights won’t work. Nuclear weapons won’t work. It was a simplistic examination of the threat. While the solution of giving an alien operating system a virus is still a head-scratcher, at that point the movie had earned its ham-fisted solution because it had followed a logically satisfying path of discovery and response from the moment of first contact. Resurgence lacks any real internal logic. Things just sort of happen when the plot requires them and then don’t. If you’re establishing a science-fiction landscape, establishing the rules of what is possible and allowable is essential to the audience’s understanding and enjoyment. Otherwise it feels arbitrary, much like Judd Hirsch driving a school bus of children across the salt flats into danger. This literally happens in Resurgence.

Also fighting for time is a slew of new characters that are charisma-free and contribute little to nothing to the larger story. The biggest offender may be Dylan Hiller (Jessie T. Usher), the son of Will Smith’s character. What does Dylan offer as a character? His entire characterization is, and I kid you not, that he’s upset with Jake over a training accident. He punches Jake in the first act and then… he just sort of pilots ships and shoots things in the sky. That’s it. He doesn’t feel the burden of living up to his father’s reputation, or trying to make his own name for himself. He just has a quarrel to settle and does and then he still just sort of exists in the movie and the screenwriters were like, “Oh right, he’s still here. Well, have him fly something.” Jake and the rest of the young pilots don’t fare that much better as characters. Besides superficial distinguishing characteristics, they’re all variations on the same person. They’re a multi-ethnic collection of vacuous character placeholders; it’s like you took Randy Quaid’s kids from the first movie and made them on par with Smith and Goldblum. These bland characters inspire little love and are often boring with little investment. If the next movie started with them in a car and a giant pillar crushing it, I would not mourn their cinematic loss.

independence-day-2-resurgence-trailer-breakdown-easter-eggs-753096There are some familiar faces returning but none of them are able to compensate for the deficit of charisma and screen presence that is Will Smith. Goldblum is on autopilot and doing his stare off into the distance and talk deadly serious thing. Pullman shows up again as a warning of what was coming, though a superfluous one at that. The biggest screen presence from the first movie belongs to Brent Spiner (TV’s Star Trek) as the Area 51 scientist who conveniently has also been in a coma for twenty years. Some of his comic relief is rather labored and cheesy, but it’s at least something. Charlotte Gainsbourg (Nymphomaniac) collects a check as a psychiatrist who has little bearing other than to be Goldblum’s ex. The most interesting new character feels like he stepped out of a Street Fighter arcade game; he’s an African warlord (Deobia Oparei) who likes to use a pair of machetes to kill the aliens. “You have to get them from behind,” he keeps insisting, and I keep snickering. There’s also that Emmerich staple of an officious government weakling who comically grows a spine. It just so happens this part is played by one of the screenwriters of Resurgence, Nicolas Wright. He studied, apparently.

The best thing Resurgence has going for it is the expansive world building, one of the few aspects of the movie that shows actual thought and care. This is one of the few movies I can recall where people actually try and use the technology of their defeated invaders. Rather than just throwing all those dead spaceships on a junk pile, mankind has decided to backwards engineer technological advancements. As a result, the contemporary feels like a sci-fi hybrid of humanity and the alien technology. It’s interesting to see what advancements have been made and how these have been integrated into regular society. I do question why we only have one defensive weapon/colony on the moon when there’s also one as far as Saturn. I wanted a bit more of a sociological examination on what life post-War of 1996 means. Life would be so fundamentally altered by the realization we are not alone in the universe, and not only that but that we need to play catch up fast to survive. The assumption would be that they will be back. The threat of annihilation unifies the world but what are those consequences? What are the consequences of living in a permanent military state of readiness and anxiety, wondering is it all going to be enough?

If you have fond feelings for the original Independence Day, there may be enough good will with the sequel to appease your demands, though probably only barely. Resurgence suffers from CGI-heavy spectacle that has long lost its appeal without supplying helpful additions like characters to care about, exciting action sequences that develop and impact the plot, meaningful plot turns, and a story that follows some form of logic. It’s not a disaster in all senses of the word. In a summer that’s already building a reputation for its mediocrity, I think there may be enough that Independence Day: Resurgence has to offer that select moviegoers will walk away feeling momentary entertainment. It’s not that the first film was intellectually rigorous sci-fi, but it went about its destructive business with a satisfying precision. This movie all too often just feels like things happening, then not happening, and with characters that are there but without any compelling reason beyond survival. The end of the movie sets up an intended sequel and possible extended franchise of sequels with a larger galactic war against the alien invaders. It’s both hopeful and naïve, dangling the promise of another tantalizing humans vs. aliens throwdown. It’s also a bit aggravating because the premise of the hypothetical sequel (I’m going on record saying it won’t come to fruition for another 20 years) is much better than the “they came back again” sequel we get with Resurgence. Don’t make me pay my money and then tease me with a better movie down the road. Nothing should be taken for granted. Independence Day: Resurgence takes too much for granted, and that’s likely why this resurgence will stop with one entry.

Nate’s Grade: C

The Conjuring (2013)

the-conjuring-poster1Does it seem like it’s getting harder and harder to scare people? Perhaps audiences have grown jaded by a real world kept at a fever pitch of post-9/11 anxiety and economic uncertainty. It seems that one solution is to just up the gore/gross factor, or overdose on grisly nihilism, but there has to be a law of diminishing returns to pointless shock value. The core elements of a good scary movie will usually be the same: make us care about the people onscreen and make us dread what happens next. What The Conjuring does so well, almost effortlessly, is what all provocative horror movies should accomplish, and that’s the formation of a truly effective spooky atmosphere. There may not even be any gore whatsoever in this film and very minimal jump scares, two overused tools in modern horror filmmaking. This is old school horror played to spine-tingling satisfaction.

Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) are the top paranormal investigators in the nation. In 1971, they’re asked to determine what is tormenting the Perron family in rural Rhode Island. Carolyn (Lily Taylor) and Roger Perron (Ron Livingston) and their five daughters cannot rest as a vengeful spirit is wrecking havoc with their lives. The spirit wants a body count and won’t go away before it has blood.

100355_galDirector James Wan (Saw) and his team take their time to build a direct sense of unease, a chilling mood that leaves you dreading what may happen next. The success of a horror film isn’t necessarily the fear of what you see but more so what you fail to see. The buildup, in essence, is more pivotal than the boo part. Credit also needs to go to twin screenwriters Chad and Carey Hayes (Whiteout, House of Wax) who show off their skill at setting up scares and delivering (I credit their work on Baywatch Nights because, well, someone has to remember that spin-off). The child game of Hide and Clap, where one person wanders blindfolded trying to find their compatriots, requesting three claps to locate them, is just a flat-out terrific idea to parlay into a horror movie. There’s the staple of dramatic irony, realizing what the onscreen character does not, and the increasingly suspenseful dredge into unknown danger. Another example is a wind-up toy that, when its jingle is complete, should reveal something ghostly in its mirror. This is a great device that delivers tension in budding anticipation. Then there’s one daughter’s habit of sleepwalking, which again leads to some effective unease. The Hayes find smart ways to introduce elements to their ghost story and then integrate them again and again in satisfying and spooky ways. Plus there’s all those groping in the dark moments and a super effective sound design. The film does an excellent job of developing old school scares, taking its time to get under your skin.

It also helps when you actually care about the character being tormented. The Conjuring does a good job of making its characters relatable given the outlandish circumstances. At no point does any character really violate the Law of Stupidity, where our allegiance reverses. They even present plausible reasons why the family can’t simply move out of its haunted abode (financially under water, no one to buy the estate, the ghost will just follow them). The Perron clan is a loving family that feels real. The Warrens themselves are given their own vulnerability, which is important since they are the experts. Having a know-it-all character without a weakness doesn’t make for an interesting battle against the paranormal. Lorraine can sense things, yes, but she also loses part of herself every time, thus endangering herself with every new case, making herself more susceptible to the forces she feels she’s been chosen to defend others from. When Lorraine accidentally leaves behind a family locket, with a picture of her daughter, it brings an escalated threat level that hits home for the Warrens. The acting form top to bottom is also exceptional. They don’t oversell the scares. You feel their fear in a palpable way.

Another aspect of a haunting story is the mystery surrounding the angry spirit. If it’s a compelling investigation, you’re intrigued by every new clue or revelation and enjoy how the pieces come together. While there isn’t a complex backstory to the haunting of the Perron home, The Conjuring has enough creepy historical details to add to the overall atmosphere. I enjoyed that the evil spirit cursed anyone who lived on her property, eventually divided up into different owners. I liked that the spirit had a mother-child fixation, turning mothers against their children. And I liked that these peripheral ghosts, many of whom killed themselves in ghastly fashions, also pop up to terrorize the Perrons. It adds further depth to the world of the film while upping the spooky factor.

THE CONJURINGI need to single out one section of the plot that was eerie but also a bit confounding. The opening case doesn’t have anything to do with the Perron family but it does set a nice mood. It’s about a cracked, fraying, and altogether creepy porcelain doll that appears to be possessed and leaving notes for its roommates (“Miss me?”). We later see this creepy doll again because the Warrens have an entire garage filled with creepy artifacts from previous investigations. They argue destroying the possessed items because it would unleash all those demonic forces, so instead the garage serves as a sort of prison (a priest comes by every so often to re-bless the premises, which sounds like a nice side gig for the Vatican). I’ll accept the Warrens reasoning that locking away these dangerous items, each with its own troubling story, is safer for mankind. It’s also just a great set that begs for further analysis to pick apart every artifact. What I do not understand at all is that it looks like the Warrens have no protective lock with this door. Their young daughter stumbles in at one point. I don’t want to give anybody parenting tips, but if you have a room stocked with demonically possessed items that can escape, perhaps, I don’t know, you get a padlock for that door to safeguard against unwanted intrusions.

While entertaining to the end, the third act doesn’t have the same effect because it transitions wholly from a haunted house story into an overt exorcism film. For my tastes, it’s less interesting and exorcism films have always come across as fairly lazy for me. Once you bring a demonic possession and a set of familiar rules, it sort of goes on autopilot and rarely strays from the same template as the most famous of exorcism movies (Naturally I’m talking about Repossessed). For fans of that horror subgenre, they’ll be tickled, but I found it a lesser way to steer the movie to its conclusion. I realize that we’re dealing with the parameters of a personal account (I’m hesitant to say “true story” when it comes to paranormal events, but that’s my own bias), so I understand that this is the direction the story must conclude. I just thought it was a slight downgrade.

If you’re looking for a scary movie this summer, then The Conjuring will do the trick. It’s an old school horror movie that’s more concerned with properly established atmosphere, a mood of dread, and paying off well-developed plot elements that pack a punch. The best compliment I can give Wan, the Hayes, and everyone else involved is that I was squirming throughout much of the movie, uneasily shifting and dreading what was next. There’s a maturity to the film and Wan’s direction, as if he’s patterned his style after the films of the 1970s themselves. After Insidious, Wan definitely knows a thing or two about keeping an audience afraid. There are several moments of unsettling imagery that should find a way to creep out just about everyone. Just remember: don’t invite dolls to live with you, do investigate those strange bruises, and always lock up your demonic possessions, people. In short, The Conjuring doesn’t reinvent the wheel when it comes to ghost stories but it doesn’t have to, because this movie is scary good.

Nate’s Grade: B+

White House Down (2013)

white-house-down-poster2Director Roland Emmerich, the maestro of the dumb fun blockbuster, is never going to get the credit he deserves but the man is something of a mad genius when it comes to putting together spectacle-rich, low-calorie but still satisfying summer entertainment. Take White House Down, the second of 2013’s Die-Hard-in-the-White-House movies. It’s really more of a buddy film contained to that famous structure. It’s not a smart blockbuster by any means but it makes up for any and all flaws with its sheer overpowering sense of fun. Stuff gets blown up real good, the action is brisk, and there are satisfying payoffs for story elements that felt like they were, at first glance, merely thrown together. You may walk away surprised at how much you’re enjoying the comedic interplay between Secret Service agent Channing Tatum and president Jamie Foxx. Plus it’s fun to see the president in on the action instead of merely as a hostage, like the earlier Olympus Has Fallen. In direct comparison, I’d have to say White House Down is the better of the two movies, both in payoff and action. It’s nice to have a movie that’s just fun to watch, that goes about its blockbuster business with precision, supplying a few decent twists, and giving us heroes worth rooting for and action sequences that are well developed and that matter no matter how ridiculous. Emmerich movies are blissfully free of self-serious malarkey, though his weakest hit, 2004’s Day After Tomorrow, got a bit preachy. His movies know what they are and know the demands of an audience. What I needed this summer was a movie designed to make me cheer the impossible. White House Down is a romp.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Oz the Great and Powerful (2013)

1942Usually when I’m watching a bad movie I have to stop and think where did things go so wrong, where did the wheels fall off, what choice lead to the disaster I am watching play out onscreen. In the case of Disney’s Oz the Great and Powerful, a Wizard of Oz prequel that pretty much hovers over the cusp of bad for its entire 130 minutes, I have to stop and think, “How could this movie ever have gone right?” I don’t think it could have, at least not with this script, this cast, and the edict from the Mouse House to keep things safe and homogenized, smothered in CGI gumbo and scrubbed clean of any real sense of venerable movie magic.

In 1905 Kansas, the magician Oz (James Franco) is used to bilking country folk out of their meager earnings. He’s a con man and runs afoul with a strong man in his own traveling circus. He makes a hasty escape in a hot air balloon and, thanks to a coincidental tornado, is whisked away to the Land of Oz. The people have long been told that a wizard would come and rescue them from the tyranny of the wicked witch. Theodora (Mila Kunis) and Evanora (Rachel Weisz), sisters controlling the Emerald City, task Oz with killing the other witch, Glinda (Michelle Williams). If he succeeds, Oz will become king and riches will be his. Along his journey he collects a band of cuddly sidekicks (flying monkey, China doll, munchkin) and learns that he may indeed be the hero that Oz needs to save the day.

95873_galOz the Great and Powerful is really just 2010’s Alice in Wonderland slapped together with a fresh coat of paint and some extra dwarves. I say this because, like Alice, this movie suffers from a plot that feebly sticks to the most generic of all fantasy storylines – the Great prophecy speaks about a Great savior who will save us from the Great evil. Naturally, the so-called chosen one has internal doubts about the burden they face, initially ducking out before finding that inner strength they had all long to prove they were indeed the one prophesized. It even got to the point where I was noticing some of the same plot beats between the two movies, like how last in the second act we spend time with a woman dressed all in white who we’ve been told is the villain but who is really the good guy. Then there’s the now-routine rounding up of magical creatures to combat the evil hordes in a big battle. Considering Alice was billion-dollar hit for Disney, it’s no surprise they would try and apply its formula to another magical universe hoping for the same results. Well I thought Alice was weak but Oz is even weaker. However, at least nobody absurdly starts breakdancing by the end. Small victories, people.

Beyond the formula that dictates the plot, the characters are poorly developed and broach some off-putting gender stereotypes. The character of Oz is portrayed as a scoundrel who eventually learns to be selfless, but I never really bought the major turning points for his character arc. Do all major characters need to be flawed men in need of redemption in magical worlds? I understand what they were doing with his character but I don’t think it ever worked, and certainly Franco’s performance is at fault as well (more on that later). The ladies of Oz, however, just about constitute every female stereotype we can expect in traditional movies. One of them is conniving but given no reason for why this is. One of them is pure and motherly. And then one of them gets lovesick so easily, falling head over heels for a boy in a matter of hours that she’s willing to throw her life away in spite. And all of these witches, who can actually perform magic unlike the charlatan Oz, sure seem like they don’t need a man to run the kingdom for them and tell them what to do. It’s sad that a conflict that involves feudal power grabs should devolve into a misconstrued love triangle. Then there’s the role of the little China Girl (voiced by Joey King) who adds absolutely nothing to the story except as another female in need of assistance and doting, except when she inexplicably behaves like a surly teenager in a tone-breaking head-turning moment. Oz keeps resting the very breakable doll on his shoulder, like a parrot. I suppose it’s better than tucking her in his pants.

The movie is also tonally all over the place. It wants to be scary but not too scary. Personally, I always found the talking trees to be spookier than the flying monkeys but that’s my own cross to bear. It wants to be funny but often stoops to lame slapstick and Zach Braff (Garden State) as a goofy flying monkey sidekick. It wants to be exciting but it never takes a step beyond initial menace. Its big climactic battle is more like a children’s version of something you’d see in the Lord of the Rings. The movie fails to satisfyingly congeal and so every set piece feels like it could be from a different movie.

95875_galSome notable casting misfires also serve to doom the project. I like Franco (Rise of the Planet of the Apes) as an actor, I do, but he is grossly miscast here. He does not have the innate charm to pull off a huckster like Oz. Franco usually has an off kilter vibe to him, one that’s even present in this film, that gives him a certain mysterious draw, but he does not work as an overblown man of theatricality. Combined with lackluster character, it makes for one very bland performance that everyone keeps marveling over. It’s like all the supporting characters, in their fawning praise, are meant to subconsciously convince you that Franco is actually succeeding. Kunis (Friends with Benefits) is also a victim of bad casting. She can do the innocent ingénue stuff but when she (spoiler alert) turns mean and green it just does not work. When she goes bad she looks like Shrek’s daughter and she sounds like a pissy version of her character from Family Guy, which is ineffectual to begin with. Kunis cannot believably portray maniacal evil; sultry evil, a corrupting influence like in Black Swan, most definitely, but not this. There are lines where she screeches at the top of her lungs and it just made me snicker (“CUUUUUURSE YOOOOOOU!”).

I had faith that a director as imaginative as Sam Raimi (Spider-Man, Drag Me to Hell) would be a stolid shepherd for a fantasy-rich project such as Oz. I never got any sense of Raimi in this movie. It felt like he too was smothered completely by the overabundance of special effects. It’s a common complaint that modern movies are buried under an avalanche of soulless computer effects, but usually I find this bromide to be overstated. Having seen Oz, I can think of no more accurate description than “soulless computer effects overload.” At no point in the movie does any special effect come close to feeling real. At no point do you feel immersed in this world, awed by its unique landscapes and inhabitants (it feels often more like the land of Dr. Seuss than Oz). I chose to see the film in good ole standard 2D, though the 3D eye-popping elements are always quite noticeable. At no point do you feel any sense of magic, the most damming charge of all considering the legacy of Oz. The original Wizard of Oz holds a special place in many a heart. We recall feeling that sense of wonder and magic when we watched it as a child, the idea that movies could be limitless and transporting. While watching Raimi’s trip to Oz, I only felt an overwhelming sense of apathy that grew disquieting.

Then there’s the matter of the questionable messages that the movie posits. It celebrates the power of belief, which is admirable, but it’s belief in a lie. Oz is a fake, yet the movie wants to say that faith in false idols is something worth celebrating. Oz and his cohorts put together a deception to fool the denizens of the world into a false sense of security. Everyone believes in the Wizard of Oz so he has power but it’s all a sham. We’re supposed to feel good that these people have been fooled. Didn’t The Dark Knight Rises basically showcase what ultimately happens when a society’s safety is based around a lie and false idols? I understand that as a prequel one of its duties is to set up things for when Dorothy comes knocking, but do I have to be force-fed disingenuous moral messages?

Oz the Great and Powerful is a wannabe franchise-starter that feels like it never really gets started. There’s a generic hero’s journey, some underwritten characters, mixed messages, and poor casting choices, namely Franco and Kunis. The sense of movie magic is absent and replaced with special attention to marketing opportunities and merchandizing (get your own China Girl, kids). It feels more like the movie is following a pre-planned checklist of stops, cribbing from Alice in Wonderland playbook, and trying to exploit any nostalgia we have for this world and its characters. Except we love Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, the cowardly Lion, and Toto. I don’t think anyone really had any strong affection for Glinda or the Wizard. Just because we’re in the same land with familiar elements doesn’t mean our interest has been satiated. The Wizard of Oz backstory has already been done and quite well by the Broadway show Wicked, based upon the novels by Gregory Maguire. That show succeeded because it focused on the characters and their relationships (extra points for a complicated and positive female friendship dynamic). We cared. That’s the biggest fault in Raimi’s Oz, that amidst all the swirling special effects and fanciful imagination, you watch it without ever truly engaging with it. You may start to wonder if your childlike sense of wonder is dead. It’s not; it’s just that you’re old enough to see a bad movie for what it is.

Nate’s Grade: C

Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011)

Crazy, Stupid, Love was sold as being a smart, urbane romantic comedy for adults, and this is accurate to some degree. It’s certainly worlds better than anything Katherine Heigl has been inflicting upon the public. At the same time, this film exists entirely within that familiar universe known as Movie World. It polishes old genre clichés, but in the end they’re still clichés. The movie follows playboy Jacob (Ryan Gosling) coaching Cal (Steve Carell), a divorced dad, on how to get back his mojo and seduce women in a modern world. Along the way, Jacob falls for the cute Hannah (Emma Stone), Cal’s teenage son (Jonah Bobo) is hopelessly in love with his 17-year-old babysitter (America’s Next Top Model contestant Analeigh Tipton), and the babysitter is secretly crushing on Cal. There are passing moments of awkward but recognizable reality, especially the free-falling nature of divorce, but they are eventually smothered by the gloss of rom-com schitck. Because this exists in Movie World, every character, including a one-night stand (Marissa Tomei), will pop back up because every character is related to everyone else in this tiny fishbowl. That also means that contrivances and misunderstandings will culminate in a comic clash. Oh, and don’t forget the grand public pronouncements of love. This is the only movie I can ever recall where the dissemination of child pornography is treated like a payoff or as something to cheer (naked babysitter pics are passed along). Huh? Crazy, Stupid, Love is a fitfully entertaining movie but don’t let the pretensions of maturity fool you, this is strict rom-com stuff.

Nate’s Grade: B

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