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The Black Phone (2022)

This is the movie that director Scott Derrickson made after departing Marvel over “creative differences” with the Doctor Strange sequel, differences I feel like I can agree with. Based upon Joe Hill’s short story, The Black Phone is a return to Derrickson’s horror roots, along with regular screenwriting collaborator C. Robert Cargill, and you can feel the director’s reflexes resetting. It’s like three movies in one, not all of them needed or entirely coherent. It’s about generational trauma and abuse, a survival thriller about escaping a psychotic serial killer, and a little kid trying to hone her nascent psychic powers. The stuff with Ethan Hawke as “The Grabber,” a kidnapper of children who imprisons them in a locked basement dwelling with a broken black phone attached to the wall, is great, and Hawke is fascinating and unsettling. Each mask he wears seems to come with a slightly different persona attached, so with each appearance we get another sliver of who this disturbed man may have been. The story of survival is made even more intriguing when our protagonist, young Finney (Mason Thames), learns that the past victims can communicate with him through the mysterious black phone. The scene-to-scene learning and plotting is fun and efficient and requires Finney to be a little bit of a detective, exploring his dank surroundings and the failed escape attempts of the other kids to utilize for his own hopeful plan. The ghost kids also have limited memory of their experiences, which is smart so that he isn’t given a clear advantage without limitations. The parts that drag are where Finney’s little sister tries to convince the skeptical police officials that her dreams are real and can help find her missing brother. There is one hilarious moment where she prays to Jesus for guidance and then profanely expresses her disappointment, but otherwise it feels like a Stephen King stereotype leftover (Hill is the his son; apple meet tree) that doesn’t amount to much besides padding the running time. It doesn’t even lead to big breakthroughs for Finney to be rescued. As a small-scale creepy contained thriller, The Black Phone is an engaging survival story with a supernatural twist that works as well as it does. It doesn’t have much more depth or meaningful characterization, it’s really just about a kid using the power of neighborhood ghosts to escape a crazy man, and that’s enough at least for a passably entertaining 100 minutes.

Nate’s Grade: B

Doctor Strange (2016)

doctor-strange-comic-con-posterAfter eight years and over a dozen movies, the unstoppable box-office juggernaut that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) seems like it could successfully sell the public on any concept, no matter how undeniably bizarre. This is the same studio that made us weep over the death of a tree that said three words. At this point, I think I can argue that the MCU has a higher film-to-film consistent quality of excellence than Pixar, the other most trusted brand in cinema (Pixar’s creative/emotional highs are certainly higher but they’ve had their share of misses). Marvel has earned the benefit of the doubt. The common complaint is that their movies feel too formulaic and insubstantial. I would definitely argue against the latter and the former needs no real defense. Marvel has built an empire on a system that works because it delivers crowd-pleasing and character-oriented blockbusters that are packed with payoffs for fans and newcomers. The alternative, chiefly the dour bombast of the fledgling DC film universe, isn’t much more appealing, but then again I have been labeled a “Marvel shill” by those infuriated from my inconceivable pan of the very conceivably terrible Suicide Squad, so take my word with some skepticism. For any other brand, Doctor Strange could be too weird. With the MCU, it’s another comforting sign they really know what they’re doing.

Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a brilliant New York neurosurgeon who loses full control over his hands after a horrible car accident. He travels to Nepal to seek out holistic remedies to aid his recovery and instead finds the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), a powerful mystic. She takes a liking to Strange and invites him into their temple to train as a pupil of powerful sorcerers (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Wong). Former sorcerer, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), has gone rogue and believes the only way to survive the oncoming cosmic giant Dormammu is to join him. Doctor Strange must summon all the skills of multiple dimensions in order to save the day.

doctor-strange-movie-tilda-swinton-benedict-cumberbatchDoctor Strange is at its core an origin tale and one that feels somewhat familiar at least for its first half. It’s likely not an accident that Stephen Strange bears more than a passing resemblance to Marvel’s other egotistical, arrogant charmer, Mr. Tony Stark. He’s a man who has to be humbled and learn the error of his ways and his outsized hubris, which makes for an effective character arc to structure an introductory movie around. It also makes fine work of Cumberbatch’s otherworldly sense of haughty superiority (I can’t wait to watch future Strange and Stark banter). The first half is essentially Training Montage: The Movie. Strange learns about the ancient mystic arts and, more importantly, super powers. The movie doesn’t follow Thor’s lead and argue that magic is another form of science. It declares magic as its own thing. Strange learns how to open portals, how to shift reality, how to astral project, and even how to stop time. Each new power is given proper attention and the learning curve adjusts as needed, allowing an audience to process the various rules and dramatic stakes. It’s a structurally smart assembly of mini-goals to keep an audience secure in what otherwise could be overwhelming for its New Age mumbo jumbo.

After the origin heavy lifting is taken care of that’s when Doctor Strange becomes everything I could hope for, namely a highly imaginative action movie with a breakneck pace and a boundless sense of imagination. This movie feels kinetically alive and unpredictable in ways that few Marvel movies even approach. Once Strange and Kaecilius meet at the halfway mark it becomes a gallop to the finish line with one highly entertaining action set piece after another, and even better they are wildly different. We don’t have battles about running and firing weapons or just punching bad guys extra hard; instead, it’s reality itself that bends to the will of the fighters. Characters walk on walls, shift the state of architecture, create teleportation portals to hop in and out of, shift the entire gravity of the world to force people away from said portals, and turn New York City into a kaleidoscopic playground. There’s an extended chase scene that literally feels like a series of M. C. Escher paintings come to starling life. The sequence is eye-popping in the best way and, shocking enough, it’s not even the climax of the movie. There are so many fun possibilities for crazy action sequences. There are other sequences that stand out, such as an out-of-body fight between two warring astral projection foes. The real climax of the movie is something I’ve never seen before, a battle that takes place as time resets. The smoldering ruins of a cataclysm are put together brick-by-brick and characters dodge the debris as it rapidly reforms. It’s visually thrilling to watch but it’s also a clever sequence because there are continuous opportunities for danger and in many ways that your brain cannot naturally suspect, like when a wall reforms and traps someone within. Whatever your feeling on the general MCU and its blockbuster formula calibrations, Doctor Strange is a great leap into something different, momentously exhilarating, and inventive.

Director Scott Derrickson (Sinister) was an intriguing choice considering his background in supernatural horror, but, as should be obvious, the MCU overlords score again with their foresight and risk-taking. Derrickson’s visual influences hew much closer to Christopher Nolan and the Wachowski Siblings than the greatest hits of the MCU, and that’s exactly what this world needed to stand out on its own. I cannot overstate just how enjoyable the last hour of the movie can be, though this isn’t meant as a backhanded slight against that first half. The action-packed hour only works because of the setup from before and laying a careful foundation for the characters, their dynamics, and the rules of this trippy universe that bends conventional physics. All the careful world-building and training montages set up the sprint through a fireworks factory of fun, and I had a smile plastered to my face the whole time, eagerly anticipating the next detour into crazy.

I’m even going to impart you, dear reader, with some advice I haven’t given since 2013: if possible, see this movie in 3D. The hypnotic visuals and elusively shifting reality demand to be seen with the added help of the third dimension. The movie will still obviously work in a non-3D format but why deny yourself the full impact of these incredible visual experiences? New York City contorting is worth the extra few bucks alone.

doctor-strange-spell-cumberbatchThe acting is another highlight for such an enjoyable movie. Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game) easily makes for a terrific lead actor, someone who can bring a sense of gravitas or dry sarcasm when called upon. His sense of comedy is underrated and this Sorcery Supreme gets his fair share of punctuating the weird and wild with a perfectly delivered joke. A bit with a sentient cape allows for great physical comedy. His American accent is also much improved from earlier far spottier efforts in 2013’s August: Osage County and 2015’s Black Mass, which featured perhaps the worst “Baustun” accent in recent memory. Cumberbatch is the charming smartass, the know-it-all who realizes how much he still has yet to learn, and his final showdown with the Big Bad Evil sheds large-scale disaster for something much more personal (no giant portal in the sky or faceless army of monsters/aliens, hooray!). His character arc of learning that it’s not about himself culminates in a brilliantly conceived sequence that satisfies. The other standout is Swinton (Snowpiercer) who once again melds with her character, who happens to be a mysterious Celtic mystic who may not even be human. The early half is instantly elevated when Swinton is on screen. She presents a matter-of-fact sense of the preposterous that is downright serene. It’s also a role that is more than just a requisite mentor as The Ancient One has some secrets that will be revealed. I was also genuinely pleased with how much screen time Mikkelsen (TV’s Hannibal, Rogue One) gets for his villain, who has a wicked deadpan. I pity Rachel McAdams (Spotlight) who plays the underwritten love interest role we’ve seen similar to Natalie Portman prior performances. She at least gets a few good scenes before being forgotten.

With each additional entry into the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe, the fan in me gets to reexamine and realign the pecking order of quality. In my own subjective rankings I would say that Doctor Strange is just below the top tier of the MCU (Guardians of the Galaxy, Civil War, Iron Man) and on par with Winter Soldier. This is a highly enjoyable and highly imaginative action movie teeming with eye-popping visuals. Many of the visual set pieces are stunning and demand to be witnessed on the largest screen possible. The movie never loses its sense of fun and wonder while still respecting the dramatic stakes of the cataclysmic events, and when it goes big it makes it matter. I have no previous attachment to this character and Doctor Strange was just about everything I wanted the film to be and then some. It’s another sign that Marvel can take any property and find the formula to make it a satisfying smash. I enjoyed Doctor Strange enough that I want to see it again, and this time even bigger to better soak up the strange.

Nate’s Grade: A-

The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)

The 1951 original The Day the Earth Stood Still is considered a sci-fi classic for a reason. Versatile director Robert Wise (West Side Story, The Sound of Music) used a robot and an alien invader to help hold a mirror up to the world, asking how humanity was treating its brethren. The technology is easily dated and the tone a bit stately, but the movie is a complex, thoughtful, and relevant tale that begs for caution and kindness. It still holds up much better than most sci-fi chestnuts from yesteryear. And of course anything that film audiences have warm feelings for will be repackaged by Hollywood into a new more mass-appealing product. That means that big-budget Day the Earth Stood Still remake is likely to have no real improvement over the original. Well, it is in color. That’s an improvement for some.

A giant glowing spaceship lands in New York City’s Central Park. A glowing figure exits the craft and enters our world. This figure is Klaatu (Keanu Reeves) who is an alien creature in the guide of a human body. He has been sent by a community of planets to judge the inhabitants of the Earth. You see, the universe is an awfully large expanse of space but it has a limited number of habitable planets. The rest of the universe is taking note of how human beings have treated their home, and they may just decide that the planet is better off without us. Klaatu is helped out by a sympathetic scientist, Helen Benson (Jennifer Connelly). Eventually the alien escapes and the entire U.S. government is on high alert. Helen is trying to convince Klaatu to not rush to judgment. She’s also trying to connect with her angry step-son Jacob (Jaden Smith) after his father died in war. He’s not very trustful of Klaatu and, like plenty of other people, wants the alien dead.

Whereas the original was a cautionary tale about the Cold War and mutual destruction, and Klaatu was a peaceful Christ-like figure, the new version skips all this. It would rather recycle a message that human beings need to be nicer to Mother Nature. Now, this is an important concern but it’s harder to take seriously when the movie pretends it’s all about doom and gloom and then basically wimps out on an ending. The film is ready to wipe humanity off the globe and even gets a head start with what looks like swarms of microscopic metallic locusts. But then Klaatu looks out at mother and child, embracing as the world they know may come to an end, and concludes that human beings deserve yet another chance because they have the ability to “change.” That’s all it takes? This kind of cop-out ending reminds me of The Happening, another eco-horror movie that wanted to kill off all those pesky humans but then decided they could walk the Earth a tad longer and hopefully wiser. I’m sorry but this is weak. Profess an environmental message but do something with it, don’t thump your chest about taking personal responsibility and then skimp on repercussions. Remember filmmakers that this is fiction. You have the ability, nay the right, to destroy mankind on screen while I safely watch and consume popcorn.

You know what else keeps hurting the weight of the environmental message? The lousy relationship between Helen and her step-son Jason. This entire storyline needs to not exist. I recognize that the original movie had a substantial storyline where a single mom and her precocious son befriend Klaatu, but that doesn’t mean this remake has to reignite old storylines if they just simply won’t work in this retelling. Every time the movie spends significant time with Helen and Jason I felt like the Earth was standing still. This storyline just does not fit. The kid comes across as bratty and dumb and I actually wanted him to be micro-locust food at some points. He’s angry because his father died and that makes him argue that “Kill them all” is a serviceable foreign policy position. Whatever. This storyline is handled so terribly that every moment of drama it is intended to evoke hits with a resounding thud. When the little kid suddenly turns on a dime and helps his alien fugitive, there’s no explanation. He says he’s afraid of being alone. Well what did you think would happen when you called the U.S. government to come and abduct you? I swear that I do not have a heart of stone, and I love children, but every moment of this character felt false and annoyingly so. That’s why The Day the Earth Stood Still grinds to a halt whenever it switches back to this kid. It makes the whole alien threat a lot less menacing when we spend more time with this kid. Don’t we have far more significant things going on in this story than one kid working through his grief and learning to be less bratty?

Director Scott Derickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose) doesn’t have a firm handle on how to establish an exciting action set piece, and he also makes his points very bluntly, though that’s also due to the script by David Scarpa. The beginning is the best part of the film, as scientists are whisked away by government authorities who can only say that the threat to the planet is grave. Interest is piqued at this point, as we, like the scientists, try and discover with a mixture of curiosity and anxiety what exactly the Earth is facing. It doesn’t much improve after the 15-minute mark. The movie just looks so drab. There is a discerning lack of action or excitement in a movie that threatens to eliminate the human race. The movie has long boring stretches that almost kill all momentum, and then the movie tries to compensate with an avalanche of special effects.

There are plenty of intriguing concepts and conflicts that fall by the wayside. In the original Klaatu hid among human beings and came to understand people, but in this new version he’s on the run from the start. I don’t necessarily need some tired fish-out-of-water comedy with Keanu, but seeing him learn about humanity before making a judgment is vital to his character. The remake opens in 1928 with aliens taking a DNA sample from a mountain climber (also Keanu Reeves) and then they use his blood to create a human host. What if that guy is still alive and sees his face on the news? What about his family going through and wondering what connection they might all have to the fate of mankind? Wouldn’t it have been easy just to swap Connelly’s character into this role and thus she is the descendant of that mountain climber and has to look in her grandfather’s face as he proclaims humanity’s end? That storyline would be more interesting and playful than anything with the step-kid.

Occasionally sci-fi movies can be partially redeemed by superior special effects. The Day the Earth Stood Still has some pretty shoddy effects that didn’t look much better when I watched the film in IMAX. The aliens have scrapped the older model flying saucers and decide to travel in giant glowing spheres, which may be awe-inspiring to see in person but it’s mostly lame to watch on screen. It’s not even that hard of a CGI effect to perform. The new likeness is completely wrong for Gort, one of the most famous movie robots of all time. In the 1951 original, Gort was a teen foot tall robotic guardian for Klaatu. Derickson has made Gort 40 feet tall and he looks weirdly like an Oscar statuette. The awesome robot is ridiculously captured by the U.S. military so that they can try and drill into it, which makes no sense at all. Then the robot transforms into that swarm of robo-locusts and that’s the last we see Gort in action. That’s just dumb. I would much rather see a giant robot wrecking havoc than a swarm tear apart Giants Stadium. The filmmakers decided that a hazy cloud would be more visually interesting than a giant robot. Give me more Gort!

I must say that hiring Reeves was the smartest move that the movie made. Reeves’ naturally stiff and aloof line delivery works nicely as an alien trying to some to grips with his new flesh and blood body. Reeves consistently entertains and adds a dash of fun that is mostly missing in this humorless and stubborn remake. Connelly works with what little she’s given, and man can she make her eyes glisten in the most beautiful manner, tearing up at a moment’s notice. Most of the other actors are wasted in stock roles, including Kathy Bates as the Secretary of Defense and Mad Men‘s Jon Hamm as a man who only serves to spout exposition. That’s the dashing Don Drapier, and you give him exposition? I won’t belittle Smith’s performance because in all honesty the kid is a fairly good actor. It’s not his fault he got stuck playing a dumb character that routinely hijacks the movie.

The newest Day the Earth Stood Still does little to justify its existence. This remake would have been better served either cribbing more of the superior original film or just cut off all ties. The remake tries to incorporate plot points that don’t work while also trying to tell its own environmental tale with bigger effects, which also doesn’t fully work. The Day the Earth Stood Still is a plodding and unnecessary remake that fails to stumble into an exciting scenario despite the fact that it involves aliens threatening the planet. But hey, it is in color.

Nate’s Grade: C

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