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The House with a Clock in Its Wall (2018)

Who could have guessed that splatterhouse horror director Eli Roth (Hostel, The Green Inferno) was the right candidate to helm a children’s movie that hearkens back to the 90s era of Disney Channel? The House with a Clock in Its Walls is a whimsical and enjoyable family movie that is definitely made primarily for those under the age of twelve. It features a young boy (Owen Vaccaro) going to live with his uncle (Jack Black) who is a warlock and where the neighbor (Cate Blanchett) is a witch. He learns magic, self-confidence, and the legend of the hidden clock that may or may not trigger a doomsday. The 1950s house itself and its magical elements is practically another character in the movie and there’s a cheerful sense of discovery throughout, with a dog-like armchair, a topiary griffin, and a stained glass window that keeps changing. The school scenes could have been trimmed entirely, especially when you consider our main kid had enough motivation to try and bring his departed mom back to life. He didn’t need to impress a bully at school because he wanted a friend. Black (Jumanji 2) is charming as ever and a natural with children. The visuals are colorful and fun. The signature weird and icky details Roth adds made me smile, like pumpkins that vomit pumpkin guts as a weapon. Kyle Maclachlin (TV’s Twin Peaks) plays an evil wizard who wants to end the world after seeing the horrors of the Holocaust. That’s a dark implication for a “children’s movie,” and I appreciate that the film allows for the existence of darkness, which also includes unvarnished appearances of the occult and a red-eyed demon. How about that? The House with a Clock in Its Walls is an entertaining fantasy adventure for families whose kids like to tip-toe into spooky material but aren’t quite ready yet for the harder edged PG-13 scares.

Nate’s Grade: B

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The Nun (2018)

It’s amazing to me that The Conjuring series has become a literal billion-dollar franchise and in only four cost-effective movies. Rare is the film franchise that births spin-offs so readily, but The Conjuring has already introduced two Annabelle movies, one Nun film, and an upcoming Crooked Man feature. It’s almost as if any supernatural creature given a minor spotlight in the James Wan-produced series is destined for greater things. It’s like the Conjuring universe is a pipeline to stardom for America’s next big malevolent demon. I’m thinking the Conjuring 3 could spend 30 seconds on some tall tale about a haunted plunger and it would be spun off into its own franchise within a year, tops. The Nun is the fifth film in the series, the second spin-off film, and probably the movie with the least amount of narrative substance given its starting material. It’s a mixture of old horror staples and exorcism mumbo-jumbo, and it’s also not half bad.

In 1950s Romania, a small abbey is being haunted by an evil presence that had been confined behind a door that ominously warned, “God ends here.” A nun has committed suicide under mysterious circumstances. Father Burke (Demian Bichir) is called by the Vatican to investigate the strange happenings. He teams up with a local nun-in-training, Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga), and a traveling merchant Frenchie (Jonas Bloquet) who first discovered the dead nun’s body. The sisters inside the abbey are behaving oddly and it’s not long before our characters realize they’re trapped in the abbey with something wicked looking for a human host to escape.

There’s not really much to the plot of The Nun so the emphasis comes in the realm of atmosphere, unsettling visuals, and unnerving set pieces. The investigative process with our priest and nun-in-training doesn’t amount to many revelations, and the information won’t be new for the audience considering this specific demon Valak has been seen in two other Conjuring-related movies now (maybe three?). It becomes a haunted house thriller and, like the earlier and much ballyhooed Hereditary, a movie of moments. So your mileage will vary depending upon how affected you are by the atmospherics and imagery. With The Nun, I felt like the visuals were built upon more rigorous Catholic religious iconography and a foundation of decades of accumulated exorcism film imagery. Plus the very design of the titular nun is just super unsettling by itself, let alone placed in a spooky setting with spooky lighting. Director Corin Hardy (The Hallow) finds visually pleasing and distressing imagery that he emphasizes for better effect, like a team of faceless nuns standing in formation, or a tormented boy with a snake that slithers out of his screaming mouth. It’s not subtle in the slightest but credit for not relying upon an inordinate number of jump scares for its chief spooks. In the realm of schlocky horror, The Nun is actually a little restrained when it isn’t being ridiculous, but it’s the kind of ridiculous that makes you laugh and anticipate the next scene rather than check your watch. Again, your mileage will vary, but I enjoyed the theatrics and imagery more than the overrated Hereditary.

This brings me to the biggest head-scratcher in the movie that would have seemed designed to ensure audience investment. I had no idea Taissa Farmiga (TV’s American Horror Story) was going to be in this movie let alone the co-lead of the movie. As soon as I saw her face I leaned forward, newly intrigued. My working assumption was that the younger Farmiga was going to be the prequel version of the character played by her older sister, Vera Farmiga (yes, they’re sisters and not mother/daughter). Suddenly this made her character that much more interesting and created a direct connection from the events of the nuns to the larger Conjuring universe, providing a back-story for the Warrens to lean upon. It also allowed me to transfer my feelings for the character onto Taissa Farmiga, making me care far more about her well-being as she creeped around dimly lit corners than if she had been any other woman in a habit in a bad place. The fact that The Nun had so effectively hidden Taissa Farmiga’s presence from the marketing made it feel like an intentional surprise, something to let the audience know the filmmakers weren’t skating by. It raised my opinion of the movie and my enjoyment from scene-to-scene.

And then I found out Taissa Farmiga’s Sister Irene is a separate character from Lorraine Warren. Huh? Of all the young actresses in the world to select, choosing the literal younger sister of Vera Farmiga, who looks strikingly similar, feels far too intentional to be coincidental. Why isn’t she just the younger version of Lorraine Warren, setting her up for a life of hunting the supernatural after this formative experience? She’s even presented as a nun in training and not a full-fledged bride of Christ. Even the decades in age difference would add up. It’s not like you’re playing that close to the facts of the case when it concerns the Warrens who, by modern accounts, are considered frauds by many. Come on, James Wan. Come on Conjuring universe. What are you doing here? The solution was right within reach and you deliberately ignored it.

The Nun is a moderately entertaining movie subsisting on strong production design, exorcism iconography, and solid performances from capable actors. It’s not really more than the sum of its parts but, for me, there were enough effectively creepy moments and punchy images that won me over by the end of its 96 minutes. If you’re a fan of the Conjuring series, or particularly demonic possession/exorcism movies, then you’ll likely find enough entertainment to be had, even if the filmmakers absurdly decide not to have Taissa Farmiga play the younger version of an already established central character. Was this a late-in-the-game rewrite to absolve her of her connection to Vera Farmiga? I’m happy for anyone connected to the production to contact me and clear this up (after my surprising conversation with a key creative on Sherlock Gnomes, I’ll just start openly asking for clarifying correspondence from Hollywood filmmakers now). The Nun in essence does just enough to be silly or scary when needed and possibly worth a watch for horror fans. Now about that haunted toilet plunger. I may have a pitch ready if you’re open to it, James Wan. After all, what’s scarier than a broken toilet?

Nate’s Grade: C+

Hereditary (2018)

Hereditary has built up a great roaring buzz from film festivals and its oblique marketing. Numerous critics are hailing writer/director Ari Aster’s debut film as one of the scariest movies of a generation. The studio, A24, which has built up a fine reputation for art movies and genre fare, is releasing it. Except A24 has some trouble when it comes to its horror thrillers. Last year’s It Comes at Night was similarly beloved by critics yet audiences generally disliked it, angered by the misleading marketing that framed it as a supernatural horror (there was none, no titular “it” to come at night). I wonder if A24 learned their lesson and that’s why the trailers and ads for Hereditary have been intentionally hard to follow. After watching Hereditary and feeling let down, I wonder if A24 is in for another disparity between critics and audiences. This is a sloppy, unfocused film with little sense of structure, pacing, or payoffs. It’s a movie of moments and from there your mileage will vary.

Annie (Toni Collette) and Steve (Gabriel Byrne) are ordinary middle-class parents living with two teenage children, the older Peter (Alex Wolff) and the younger Charlie (Millie Shapiro), a girl given to peculiar habits. Following a tragic accident, the family is struggling to come to terms with their loss and their new lives. Annie seeks out comfort from a group meeting, and that’s where she meets Joan (the great Ann Dowd) who shows her how to contact the spirits of the dead via a handy incantation. From there, Annie tries to establish a connection to the realm beyond and possibly unleashes a spirit targeting her family.

With the rapturous critical acclaim that Hereditary has garnered, I was expecting something far more engrossing and far less sloppy. Structurally, this movie is a mess. It feels very directionless from a story standpoint, like the movie is wading around and blindly looking for an escape route into the next scene. Rarely will scenes have lasting impact or connect to the following scene; you could literally rearrange the majority of the scenes in this movie and not affect the understanding whatsoever. That’s, simply put, poor screenwriting when your scenes lack a more pertinent purpose other than contributing to an ongoing atmosphere of paranoia (more on that later). I’m struggling to make broader connections or add lasting thematic relevance to much of the plotting, and that’s because it feels so convoluted and repetitious for so long, until Aster decides it’s time to throw the audience the most minimal of lifelines. There is a moment late in the second act where a character finds a convenient exposition dump by looking through a photo album and a book that is literally highlighted. That at least explains the intent of the final act, but even as that plays out, by the end it’s still mostly confounding. The film ends with another exposition dump, this time as voice over, and I got to thinking that if it wasn’t for these two offhand moments you would have no idea why anything is happening. I had a friend whose girlfriend had been bugging him for Hereditary spoilers for months, so I carefully explained the movie to them as precisely as I could. By the end, he told me, “I still don’t get it.” Yeah, I didn’t get it either and I was actively trying.

There is a type of horror fan that will lap up Hereditary, namely the kind that places the creation of dread and atmosphere and memorable moments above all else. If you’re a gushing fan of David Lynch movies or Dario Argento and their sense of strange dream logic, you’ll be more ready to prize the sum rather than the whole of Hereditary. The aesthetics are pleasurable thanks to crafty production designer Grace Yun (First Reformed) and the moody photography from Pawel Pogorzelski (Tragedy Girls) that maximizes the space and draws out the anticipatory dread. There are effective moments where I gasped or squirmed, but there were also moments where I wanted to laugh. The key term is “moments.” Without a structure, sense of development, and attachment to the characters and their lives, Hereditary left me chasing fleeting entertainment.

Now when it comes to horror moments, I’ll again admit that everyone’s mileage will vary. Some people will watch Hereditary and be scared stupid. Others will shrug. That’s a deeply personal response. I can look at a movie like A Quiet Place and point to its intricate structure and execution to explain why its suspense was so affecting and satisfying. With Hereditary, because all it supplies is moments, I can’t explain why something will work or won’t for a person. Maybe you have a thing against headless corpses. Maybe you have a thing for jump scares (there are more than a few). Maybe you have a thing for invisible girls making clicking noises with their tongues. Then again maybe you’d enjoy a narrative that gave you a better reason to care and that organically built meaningful scares through tangible circumstances.

If you can hang onto the final nightmarish act, that’s when Hereditary is at its best, finally picking up a sense of momentum and finality. The first forty-five minutes of this movie more closely resemble something like Manchester by the Sea, a family unit becoming undone through grief and guilt, simmering grievances just under the surface. It’s well acted, especially by Toni Collette (Krampus) as a mother barely escaping the pull of her boiling anger at her son and the universe as a whole. She gets a few quality moments to blow up and it feels like years of painful buildup coming out. The awkward family interaction is chilly but missing greater nuance. It has marked elements that should bring nuance and engagement (Personal Tragedy, Mental Instability, Blame, Guilt, Obsession), but with Aster’s undercooked screenplay those elements never coalesce. This is a movie experience that is never more than the sum of its spooky parts. Byrne (The 33) is essentially just there, and the fact that the 68-year-old actor has two teenage children is a little hard to swallow. Wolff (Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle) does a fine job of showing his deteriorating mind late in the movie. The problem is that these characters just aren’t that interesting, so when the supernatural acceleration creeps in, there’s already a ceiling as far as how much we, the audience, will care about what befalls them. What are the stakes if you don’t understand what’s happening and don’t genuinely care about the central characters?

My pal Ben Bailey chided me after seeing Hereditary that I was trying to do the movie’s work for it by looking for deeper connections and foreshadowing clues. Is there some greater meaning for the headless women motif? Is there a larger reason why the dollhouse God imagery is prevalent? Is there a reason, after finding out about the haunting, that the family still leaves their beleaguered son alone? Is there a mental illness connection or is it all a manifestation of hysterical grief? The English teacher discusses the Greek tragedy of Iphigenia (see: a better movie following this model, 2017’s Killing of a Sacred Deer) and whether being predestined for sacrifice is more tragic than choosing your own self-destruction, and is that a glimpse at thematic relevance in a way that seems almost half-hearted? The problem with a long, incoherent story built upon a heaping helping of creepy imagery and atmosphere is that it can often fall into the lazy trap where the filmmaker will just throw up their hands as if to say, “Well, it’s up for interpretation.” I don’t mind a challenging movie experience (I was on the side that enjoyed, if that’s the correct term, Darren Aronofsky’s mother!). I can appreciate a movie that’s trying to be ambiguous and ambitious. However, the pieces have to be there to form a larger, more meaningful picture to analyze and discuss, and Hereditary just doesn’t offer those pieces. It’s an eerie horror movie with its moments of intrigue and dread but it’s also poorly developed, too convoluted, and prone to lazy writing and characterization. I’ll highlight it for you, Hereditary-style: if you’re looking for more than atmosphere and tricks, seek another horror movie.

Nate’s Grade: C

The Bye Bye Man (2017)

I think La La Land has a shadowy culprit to blame for the big slip-up at the 2017 Academy Awards where it mistakenly was declared Best Picture before the rightful winner, Moonlight, was crowned. Actress Faye Dunaway was the one who spoke aloud the infamous slip-up, but I think she had something else on her mind. She was so preoccupied with trying NOT to think about the Bye Bye Man that she wasn’t fully paying attention to the moment. Fortunately, Moonlight got its rightful due. Unfortunately, The Bye Bye Man exists as a horror film and Dunaway within it. This is a movie whose mantra is “Don’t say it, don’t think it,” all but begging to be forgotten.

If The Bye Bye Man had been the film it appears to be in its opening scene, we might have had an effectively unnerving horror thriller. We watch in a single long take as a distressed man drives home, mutters to himself, and takes out a rifle and systematically kills every person who admits they said “it” or told someone. He goes from person to person, pleading whether they told anyone, and it’s always yes. Then he moves on to kill that person, asking them the same question. It’s an effectively chilling scene and a fantastic way to open a horror movie. And it’s all sadly downhill from there, folks. The rest of the movie is a stupid thriller with stupid teenagers doing stupid things.

Any power the Bye Bye Man has as a concept, a mimetic virus, is wasted as a goofy Boogeyman knockoff with vague powers and intentions. Apparently, one of the insidious side effects of the Bye Bye Man is his ability to cause erectile dysfunction. After the first night he-who-shall-not-be-named is named, two of our college students talk about trying again and how “that” never happens to them, all but implying the Bye Bye Man was a sexual detriment. Another weirdly defined power is that the Bye Bye Man causes his victims to see hallucinations, though sometimes they’re nightmares like maggots crawling out of eyeballs, and other times they’re fantasy, like a naked friend beckoning for a lustful tryst. One character hears disturbing scratching noises and then visions of people standing buck naked on train tracks (the amount of brief nudity made me recheck that this received a PG-13 rating). “We’re all losing our minds at the same time,” a character bemoans at the 41-minute mark. At one point, the Bye Bye Man sends himself as a GIF, knowing how to reach millennials. I don’t understand why these kids don’t accept that if they see something horrific it’s probably false. They know the Bye Bye Man is terrorizing them with their fears and yet they fall for it every time. When you’re talking with someone and all of a sudden they start seeping blood from every orifice, maybe that should be a clue. If Elliot (Douglas Smith) knows he’s afraid of his girlfriend sleeping with his best friend, then shouldn’t he doubt the voracity of seeing them together after the malevolent force with evil visions has entered his life? What’s the point of scratching “don’t say it, don’t think it” as a preventative measure? That calls more attention to the forbidden item. It’s like in Inception, when they say, “don’t think about elephants,” and invariably that’s what you’re going to think about.

If the Bye Bye Man can make people say its name, then why isn’t it doing this all the time? Why all the hallucinations to drive teens to kill themselves? That seems ultimately counter productive to Bye Bye Man business. Any businessperson will tell you the key to expanding your outreach is through happy customers. Fulfill these people’s wishes and then come to collect later. I can write an entire proposal for the Bye Bye Man to shore up his business. He seems to be doing everything wrong. If the goal of the Bye Bye Man is to spread its name/message, along the same lines of self-preservation through proliferation like the haunted Ring VHS tape, then it needs a more straightforward approach. Let these doomed teenagers know their nightmares will end if they bring in an additional however many new victims. Alas, the Bye Bye Man is painfully unclear (it even has zero references on the Google imitator search) and just another boo spook.

Even for horror movies, the characters can be powerfully boring and meaningless. The entire premise is a group of college kids moving into a house that used to be owned by the crazy guy in the opening flashback. They each take turns seeing things, hearing things, and doing things, some as mundane as scribbling without their direct knowledge. The plot is in a holding pattern that requires characters to repeat the threat over and over. The only setup we have with these characters is one house party so we don’t exactly know what they’re like before they start going crazy. Much of their hallucinatory confusion could be mitigated if they just communicated with one another. “Help, Friend A, I am seeing [this]. Is that what you are seeing as well, Friend A?” It leads to a lot of rash actions for supposed friends. Elliot even refers to his friend as a “jock,” which is a term I don’t think anyone out of high school says. When the police suspect Elliot of foul play once his friends start dying, he is acting completely guilty. He begs Carrie Anne Moss (The Matrix) not to force him to say a certain name or else her kids might be in danger. That sounded like a thinly veiled threat. And then the police let him go!

The mystery of the Bye Bye Man’s history is the only point of interest in this story, and even that has its limits. The librarian (Cleo King) is hilariously hyper focused on delivering exposition. She even knows the protagonist on a first name basis. I think she lives to tell people about this one weird event in the school’s history. She even calls Elliot on the phone! The librarian reaches out to him, saying, “I’ve had some strange dreams ever since we talked.” She then asks if she can come over to his house later. What kind of relationship does this person forge with students? Dunaway is featured as the wife of the opening killer, and I just felt so sorry for her during every second on screen. She deserves better than this. Somebody go check on Faye Dunaway and make sure she’s okay.

The Bye Bye Man is a horror movie that’s so bad it can be outlandishly funny. It starts off well and deteriorates rapidly, abandoning sense and atmosphere for jumbled scares. There’s an extended bit during a climactic dramatic moment where a father has to convince his daughter to pee out in public. I felt so bad for every actor involved. I’ll even spoil the ending, which made me howl with laughter. A little girl talks about how she saw a table with some writing. “What did the writing say?’ her father asks, and oh no, here we go again you think to yourself. Then a second later the little girl says, “Daddy, you know I can’t read in the dark! What do you think I am, a flashlight?” My God, that moment should have been followed by a rimshot. This half-baked movie opens up a lot more questions than it has the ability to answer. What is the mythology of this character? What’s with the constant train imagery? Why does the Bye Bye Man have a pet dog? Why are the coins a significant part of its Bye Bye motif? And always, if it can simply make people talk, why isn’t it doing this all the time to spread its name? The Bye Bye Man is fun bad but oh is it still bad.

Nate’s Grade: D

A Ghost Story (2017)

Ever wanted to see Oscar-nominated actress Rooney Mara eat a pie? Odd question, I realize, but apparently one that writer/director David Lowery felt compelled to answer. With the success of last year’s utterly heart-warming Disney remake of Pete’s Dragon, Lowery secretly made a low-budget movie with Casey Affleck and Mara, reuniting two of his actors from Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. The end result, A Ghost Story, literally involves a deceased Affleck stalking the screen in a long white sheet with two eyeholes. Lowery’s tone poem of metaphysical grief will likely alienate just as many people as it dazzles, and I fall squarely in the former camp. This movie is arthouse bluster.

This is a twenty-minute short stretched beyond a breaking point to fit a feature-length running time. It’s an impressionistic movie in the guise of the works of Terrence Malick, small and earnest and far more concerned about mood than story. That’s fine but if you’re going the impressionistic route I need scenes that aren’t self-indulgently laborious and constantly striking the same note. The majority of this movie is beautifully composed shots that eventually reveal the ghost standing in the background. It becomes a game of guessing when the camera will reveal the ghost’s presence. I understand that grief and loneliness is going to naturally deserve a slower pace to get a sense of the melancholic loss, but a slow movie that keeps delivering the same imagery is monotonous. The metaphors get old. The only thing holding the audience together is the time-traveling quest for the ghost to retrieve the note Mara’s character slipped into a door jam. It’s a long mystery that will ultimately prove an unworthy payoff. If Lowery is intending for the audience to feel the same sense of boredom and isolation as the ghost, that’s fine, but the movie dwells in this same emotional space with too little variance or further insight.

And this is where I have to come back to the pie as a symbol of the film’s self-indulgence. I have felt the urge to walk out of other movies but never acted upon them. I was minutes away from walking out on A Ghost Story, and it was the pie-eating scene that almost pushed me to bail. The idea of binge eating your feelings is a suitable metaphor for grief, and it works on its own initially, as she sniffles and holds back tears with every bite. And then she keeps eating. And then she keeps eating. The scene goes on for like ten minutes, uninterrupted, and with no further commentary. You are literally watching Mara eat a pie in real time and then throw up. After the sixth or so minute of pie consumption, I started laughing out loud, and then other people around me joined in. What can you do? Just as Mara’s character overindulges to the point of sickness, this scene pushes the beleaguered audience to the point of running out of the room gagging.

This would be different if the movie gave Mara anything really to do besides swallow her feelings. She has a few more scenes of the humdrum of moving on, painting the house she shared with her loved one, and then leaving. It seems like an awful waste of Mara’s talents but I would say the same thing for Affleck. I’m sure not having to memorize any lines after the ten-minute mark and getting to emote entirely through physical expression could be fun for an actor. It’s practically a throwback to silent film thespians. However, he’s just kind of there, like living furniture. I understand that part of grief is feeling like you’re a forgotten being and that time is infinite and punishing. I understand that sadness can feel numbing and cut to the bone. I get the mood; I even get the central metaphor of the de-contextualized ghost in a sheet just hanging around old haunts, unable to do much else, disconnected from the world and unable to move on or make sense of things. My issue is that this approach relegates the actors to stand-ins, squeezing the characters into intentionally bland ciphers for audience relatability. They are not allowed to be characters because somehow this would detract from the artistic appeal or message.

It’s frustrating because A Ghost Story has ideas, images, and moments that intrigue, beguile, and have a poignant power. It’s when the film expands beyond its limited parameters that it becomes its more interesting shape. As the ghost attempts to keep watch over Mara’s character, time moves much faster, to the point that a mere walk from one room to another can be the expanse of months. The triptych sequence of being unmoored through time, as everything speeds by so quickly, accentuates the helplessness of the ghost as well as the isolation. It’s like the world and life itself is outgrowing them, forgetting them, and leaving them further and further behind. There are also other ghosts and our ghost has a subtitled dialogue with them. It sounds silly but it’s actually one of the most sublimely affecting moments in the film, an idea that actually hits its intended mark. Take this exchange: “I’m waiting for someone,” “Who?” “I don’t remember.” Then the other ghost goes back to waiting, forever hopeful, forever clinging onto something that has long since evaporated, where even the memory, the concept of the idea of why has also vanished. Late into the movie the ghost starts going backwards and forwards in time, to a distant future of Bladerunner-like neon high-rises, to the nineteenth century to track a family of westward settlers. The abrupt careening through time says more about the ghost’s existence and it keeps things fresh. If this movie was a total wash, I could write off Lowery’s curio as self-important navel-gazing, but there are kernels of ideas, or moments, that stand out and demand a better presentation for better effect

A Ghost Story will definitely strike different people differently. It’s a deeply personal, poetic, and, if you’re not properly attuned to its metaphysical funeral procession, pretentious and pondersome film that wears out its welcome long before the end credits. I found the substance to be spread too thin over such a longer running time than this execution deserved. If you’re going for an impressionistic evocation, then the scenes need to be paced better. If you’re going for a mood of loneliness, then latch onto the character better and let’s follow Mara’s character as she rebounds and grows old. If you’re going for an existential horror movie, then present more confusion and terror and less of the same visual metaphors on constant repeat. If you’re going for Rooney Mara eating an entire pie in real time, then, well, actually you’ve succeeded. Congratulations. A Ghost Story is going to be one of those movies that critics fawn over that leaves me shrugging.

Nate’s Grade: C

XX (2017)

XX is the first horror anthology comprised entirely of female writers and directors. That’s the most noteworthy thing for this relatively disappointing movie. None of the four main segments are that interesting and several don’t really have endings. The first segment has the most potential, “The Box,” about a child that stops eating after getting a peak inside a stranger’s wrapped gift. The family joins him one by one except for the mother. That’s it. There’s no resolution, one moment of shocking gore, and the rest is straightforward maternal ennui. The second is from musician St. Vincent (née Annie Clark) called “The Birthday Party” and it’s not really horror so much as it is dark comedy with a heaping helping of slapstick. Melanie Lynskey (Togetherness) is an overextended mother who discovers the dead body of her husband on the morning of their daughter’s birthday. She has to go to elaborate measures to hide the body while still juggling all the responsibilities others expect from her. It’s amusing in spurts but is often too obvious. The third segment “Don’t Fall” is the most professionally realized and has some nasty special effects, but it’s nothing more than another throwaway entry in the teens-meddle-with-forces-in-nature-and-are-swiftly-punished subgenre. It’s the shortest segment so that helps too. Finally, Karyn Kusama (Jennifer’s Body) writes and directs “Her Only Living Son” which intends to flip the script on the Rosemary’s Baby scenario. The segment reveals its secrets slowly, which makes it a more engaging short to digest. However, it too ends on a perfunctory note. I know there are many talented female filmmakers out there biding their time, waiting for their chance to show their mettle in genre filmmaking, an area that skews heavily male. That’s what makes XX so frustrating. There has to be better material and better filmmakers out there who would kill for this kind of showcase. Maybe next time (XX2?).

Nate’s Grade: C

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (2017)

Rest assured fans, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is a definite improvement over its waterlogged 2011 predecessor, but I can’t help feeling like the magic of this franchise, and even the high spirits of the immediate sequels, has been squelched. It’s a multi billion-dollar franchise born from a theme park ride and now I think I’m ready for that ride to come to an end.

Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) is once again in the middle of some high seas hijinks. Everyone is on a collision course with the world’s most infamous, swishy, and soused pirate. The ghostly Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem) and his undead crew are looking for a release from their curse and of course vengeance against Sparrow, and Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) is their key to reaching their target. Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites), the son of Elizabeth Swan and Will Turner, is looking to retrieve the mystical Trident to erase all nautical curses, thus freeing his father’s indentured servitude aboard the Flying Dutchman. Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario) is looking to discover the whereabouts of her father via clues tied into astronomy. All the parties are fighting to be the first to discover the location of the Trident and get what they feel is deserved.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales has some advantages that are worth discussing before attention turns to what’s wrong with the franchise as a whole. Unlike Rob Marshall, directors Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg (Kon-Tiki) understand how to expressly direct action sequences. They have a strong sense of visuals and know how to hit some majestic big screen imagery, whether it’s a see-through silhouette of a zombie shark, or Salazar’s ship splaying like a retracting ribcage, or a runaway bank heist with a literal runaway building. There’s a terrific scene of visual comedy and action when Sparrow is trapped in a spinning guillotine, with the blade coming perilously close only to fall away from gravity and then repeat the process. That was a moment that made me think of the original 2003 film’s comic inventiveness. Instead of just having cool ideas and concepts (carnivorous mermaids, a psychically controlled ship), Pirates 5 at least puts them to better effect. It feels like greater care has been put into meaningfully incorporating the elements of the story, though there are still noticeable shortcomings. I loved the look of Bardem’s villain and the CGI texture that made him seem like he was underwater. It added an unsettling dreamlike quality. Jack Sparrow is thankfully once again a supporting character. There are also several other characters that are worthy of our attention, plus the welcomed return of Barbossa. The movie comes together quite well for an extravagant final set-piece that reasonably serves as an emotional climax.

For the last couple days since my screening, I’ve been turning over in my head reasons why the Pirates sequels, especially of late, have felt so removed from the original film and even the lesser sequels from 2006 and 2007. I think I have deduced the three essential missing ingredients: clarity, urgency, and characters.

The first three Pirates films were gloriously complicated and convoluted, a series of spinning plotlines that weaved in and out, intertwined with conspiracy, collusion, and reversals. They’re overly plotted affairs, and eventually the third films succumbs to the pitfalls of convolution. However, something readily apparent in those movies was a sense of clarity in the individual scenes. Perhaps the overall picture was murky but in the moment you knew what needed to happen, which characters had opposing goals, and what those conflicts were. It’s those opposing goals that provide much of the enjoyable confrontations and complications in the film. Take for instance the first meeting with Jack Sparrow and Will Turner in the blacksmith’s shop. Jack is looking to free himself of his shackles and escape. Will is looking to capture Jack, for his believed assault on Elizabeth, and he’s also looking to prove himself as a swordsman. One of them wants to leave and one of them wants to delay that leave. It’s clear. The scene plays out as the characters clash but we, the audience, know the needs of the scene, and it allows each to reveal their character through action. The majority of the first three films follow this edict. The allegiances are all in conflict: Barbossa wants to alleviate his curse, Jack wants vengeance and to regain his ship, Will wants to rescue Elizabeth, and none of them trust the other. While the dynamics are complicated they are built upon classic storytelling devices of conflict/opposing goals and there’s a genuine clarity in the micro. You know what the characters need scene-to-scene and why they are in conflict and what those goals are. In Pirates 5, the goals are too vague or overly generalized, and from scene-to-scene there’s little internal logic established for the actions to have significance.

The next missing element is urgency, which is a natural byproduct of clarity. If you don’t know what your characters are doing or what their goals are then it’s hard to maintain a sense of urgency. The stakes of this franchise have felt a bit wishy washy after the culmination of 2007’s At World’s End. Before, the characters felt like they had something to lose, something that might not be accomplished. Look at the first Pirates film and you see that those goals are being accomplished poorly. There are complications and unexpected detours, but the stakes felt real because there were ongoing challenges. I think the absolving of stakes in the franchise has gone directly hand-in-hand with the series becoming more jokey. Once characters become cartoons the sense of danger dissipates and then anything can become lazily excusable. There is no recognition of an over-the-top anymore, which then makes the characters feel limitless. That’s not good when they’re supposed to be going against supernatural villains who present their own special powers. In Pirates 5, the characters bumble through every sort of scenario, and while they may not be in control at the moment, you never really fear for them. It’s a safe series of chases and escapes like a Saturday morning cartoon you know will merely reset its characters back to their starting positions by the next adventure. It feels weightless, which is shocking considering the Macguffin everyone is after eliminates all known curses.

Finally, with the series becoming jokier, it’s become more of the Jack Sparrow Show to its overall detriment. Maybe it’s too much of a good thing, or maybe it’s a latent realization that Sparrow was never the main character of the original trilogy, but Depp’s iconic figure has simply lost some of his luster. It feels like Depp is on sashay autopilot. He’s still a charming rogue but it’s become drastically obvious that he needs supporting characters that can stand on their own to serve as foils. He’s a character that leaps off the screen; however, if he’s our only focus, then his act starts to curdle into schtick. There are sequences that only serve to deliver misapplied comedy, like a beachside wedding where Jack is strong-armed into marrying an ugly woman. Jack should not be the lead character but he also still needs to be a character with a sufficient storyline and arc, which has not happened since At World’s End. He’s become the Halloween costume of Captain Jack Sparrow, content to coast on audience good will repeating the same act and delivering the same punchlines. Likewise, the characters supporting Jack Sparrow need their own individually compelling stories and motivations to alleviate some of the pressure.

Fortunately, one of the more noticeable improvements with Pirates 5 is that there are some interesting supporting characters, chiefly Scodelario (The Maze Runner). She could have been a discount version of Keria Knightley, much in the same way that Thwaits (The Giver) is so bland he comes across as a discount Orlando Bloom. While she follows the same feisty, independent-woman-ahead-of-her-time model, she manages to separate with her own identity, a woman who loves science, pushes against authority, and is desperate to discover the whereabouts of her father. Her discovery of her lineage provides the film with an unanticipated degree of emotion. She’s a fun character who can provide a rich, exasperated sense of irony as a learned woman constantly being mistaken for a witch, and then when called upon, she provides the heart of the story with her family drama. Likewise, Barbossa has always been one of the series highlights and in particular the MVP of On Stranger Tides. As he’s waffled between friend and foe, Rush has always found a way to make him worthy of our attention. He gets what I’ll call the Yondo treatment in Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 (supporting character elevated into force that can legitimately elicit audience emotion). He comes into the film late but he dominates the second half. Pirates 5 also has a superior villain to On Stranger Tides. Javier Bardem (Skyfall) eats up every second as his ghostly captain and his enjoyment is infectious. He’s weird and creepy and just the right kind of crazy to make him even more dangerous.

Also worth noting is a flashback scene that explores the personal connections between Sparrow and Salazar, though Salazar’s back-story is still rather weak even with the mysterious Caribbean volcanic lava pits. The sequence is noticeable for the fact that it employs the de-aging CGI technology on Depp, making him look like a plasticized version of himself circa… Edward Scissorhands? It’s a neat trick and it seems like nobody does the de-aging effect better than Disney at this point (Michael Douglas in Ant-Man, Robert Downey Jr. in Civil War). But then the movie keeps featuring the effect, showcasing it in ill-advised close-ups, and the magic starts to fade and we’re reminded of its fakeness. It’s a moment that inadvertently sums up the later Pirates sequels: a neat trick undone by sloppy repetition and a lack of self-control.

If you’re a fan of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, by all means you’ll find enough to satisfy your appetite with the fifth installment. At this point audience expectations have become entrenched, which is one of the reasons why Jack Sparrow has morphed into a Looney Tunes cartoon rather than a fleshed-out comic character with depths of danger. I don’t regret seeing the latest Pirates film but I would also shed few tears if this were the last time we visit this universe. The recent sequels leave the inescapable impression of listless fan fiction. They’re trying to recapture the magic formula of the original but missing the crucial elements that made a movie about drunken pirates and zombies a zeitgeist-harnessing, culture-defining classic. The sequels have lacked consistently effective clarity, urgency, and characterization to register as anything but generally incomprehensible, vacant, disposable mass entertainment. It’s become product, and maybe that was inevitable for what once felt like something so different and subversive, especially coming from the Mouse House. Age softens all franchises and a safe sense of routine creeps in. They start becoming imitations of themselves and then imitations of the imitations. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is a fitfully entertaining venture that saves its best stuff for last, has some solid supporting turns, and decent fantasy-horror visuals. It’s also a reminder of what has been lost and, unless the franchise changes course, will continue to be lost.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)

fantastic-beasts-where-find-them-movie-posterThe Harry Potter publishing universe is almost twenty years old and has racked up more money than can be printed, so it was only a matter of time before some enterprising soul thought about expanding from author J.K. Rowling’s seven novels. I wasn’t anticipating that it would be Rowling as the one reopening her world for untapped franchise potential and financial windfalls.

Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is one of the world’s foremost experts on magical creatures and will one day write a definitive magizoology textbook for students to doodle inside while they sit bored in magic class. He’s traveled to New York City in 1926 and through a series of misunderstandings he exchanges briefcases with Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a factory drone trying to secure a loan to open a bakery. Inside Newt’s briefcase is a collection of colorful and unique magic creatures with goofy Dr. Suess-styled names, and they break free and need to be rounded up. Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) is a disgraced magic authority agent who tries to regain her reputation by helping Newt gather his living contraband before they are discovered by muggles, or as the Americans refer to them, no-majs. Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) is a gravely serious magic official keeping a close watch on the alarming activity. He also has an unclear interest in a fringe political movement that believes witches are real and a real threat. If only they knew the full extent, as a mad wizard-supremacist is also on the loose.

eddie-redmayne-in-fantastic-beasts-and-where-to-find-them1Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a better franchise catalyst than it is a movie, with several competing storylines that don’t really gel or feel properly developed. This feels like a series of set pieces in search of a movie to unify them. Much of the movie involves dueling storylines that dawdle until they are smashed together at the very end, much like Rowling’s storytelling habit of keeping so many characters and storylines on the fringes and simmering until they are called upon for revelatory disclosure. Storyline number one follows a daffy British magizoologist as he scours New York trying to retrieve his strange and adorable magical creatures. It’s relatively light and mostly fun. Storyline number two is a buddy movie with Newt and Jacob, which is also light and mostly fun. Then storyline number three is an abusive anti-magic movement that may be conspiring to kill wizards that stand in their way, revealing to the wider world the magical realm and the potential threat it poses. This storyline is much darker and adult and it contrasts sharply with scenes like Newt doing a silly dance to present himself for mating with a gigantic rhinoceros creature in heat. It’s hard to reconcile whimsical magic creatures one moment and stern child abuse the next. The varying tones don’t ever gel. The majority of the film is watching Newt scamper around trying to recapture his creatures and stumbling into bigger plot events that are kept on the edges of relevancy.

This movie is more about laying a foundation than telling a relatively complete and gratifying story. The narrative brick laying may be essential for future sequel success but it doesn’t make for the best experience in the theater. Rowling’s first crack at screenwriting has a few hallmarks of novelists-turned-screenwriters (cough, Cormac McCarthy, cough), namely the fuzzy narrative clarity and digressive asides that deter the film’s progressive momentum. It’s hard to critique certain themes and characters that feel useless (Jon Voight for starters) without knowing whether Rowling will decide they are secretly important three movies onward. I don’t know what this movie is about other than setting up lucrative sequels.

18fantasticbeasts1-master768Another area of concern is whom Rowling has decided to be the leader of this voyage back in time; Newt Scamander is quite a lackluster lead character for one movie, let alone the prospect of up to five of them. I found this protagonist rather boring. He’s a kind figure and cares for his exotic animals but the man is pretty much the exact same person by the end of the movie as he is at the start and with only passing hints at a secret tragic past as something to enliven what is assuredly a dull, mumbling character. I’m not against Rowling’s decision to catapult a mild-mannered, shy, polite man as her main character especially in the face of paranoia and fear mongering, but the guy has to at least be interesting. There is not one interesting thing about this character outside of his briefcase full of magical creatures. He is a void of character, a blank slate that isn’t any more filled in by the conclusion. The lack of substance also allows Redmayne to retreat into his actorly tics playing up Newt’s social anxiety, almost to a degree that seems recognizably autistic (at least it was with my friend who saw it with me who is on the spectrum). He feels sensitive to the point that his body is going to collapse inwardly upon itself. I saw the same impulses with his overrated, overly mannered performance in The Danish Girl. When lacking significant depth to his character, or at least something of significant interest, he overcompensates with what he’s given and that’s not usually for the best. Just see Jupiter Ascending if you’re truly brave enough or equipped with enough liquor.

I think the stronger lead character would have been Newt’s buddy, Fogler’s no-maj Jacob Kowalski. He’s already our entry point into this older time period so why not make him the focal point? Jacob is a far more interesting character and he’s actually astonished by the revelations of a magical world right under his nose, adding to the general sense of discovery for himself as well as the audience. He’s the more relatable character as he discovers the world of magic and develops fluttery feelings for a magical lass (Porpetina’s psychic sister, Queenie, played by Alison Sudol). The sweet and flirty stutter-stops of a possible romance with Jacob and Queenie are far more heartfelt and engaging than whatever the film tries to pretend has been set up for Newt and Porpentina. By the very end, the movie expects a few smiles and arbitrary sexual tension to compensate for the rest of the film’s 133 minutes that did not establish one passing moment of attraction. Sorry, Rowling, but cinematic romance doesn’t work in spontaneous vacuums. If you want us to fee for the characters and compel them to get together, we need to see your work if you want the coupling to be remotely satisfying.

The rest of the actors do what they can with the thin scraps of characterization that Rowling provides. Fogler (Fanboys) is a reliable source of comic relief. His sincere pleasure from the magical world and its inhabitants makes him endearing, seeing this world through necessary fresh eyes. Waterston (Inherent Vice) is a screen presence that stands out from the pack, though her character is too muted to leave the same impression. Her character’s goal is to clear her name but she seems to readily forget this motivation. Until writing this review I had no idea that Sudol (Transparent) was the songstress A Fine Frenzy, an artist I’ve enjoyed for a decade. Her acting isn’t quite as accomplished as her singing but Queenie is something of a walking ethereal, sad-eyed psychic kewpie doll. Rowling treats her more as a handy plot device when she needs some item explained or intuited. Queenie’s budding relationship with Jacob makes her more interesting. There are plenty of familiar faces that are stranded in underwritten and confusing roles. The likes of Colin Farrell, Samantha Morton, Ezra Miller, Zoe Kravitz, Carmen Ejogo, Jon Voight, and Ron Perlman, as a mo-cap goblin, must have simply been happy to participate, and I can’t blame them considering the fortunes that await this franchise.

rs_1024x683-161111052810-1024-fantastic-beasts-and-where-to-find-them-111116The world building is hazy yet the world of wizards in 1920s New York City is intriguing enough to keep me hopeful that a better movie could emerge later. We’ve never been stateside before in this universe so my first point of interest was the difference between the magical authorities from across the pond. Apparently the magic-inclined aren’t legally allowed to romantically mix with no-maj folks (call it muggle miscegenation laws). That’s interesting but we only get a glimpse. The Second Salem movement in the United States seems to believe that witches and real danger. They seem like a fringe political conservative movement. It’s interesting yet we only get another glimpse at best. Then there’s an evil wizard who wants to wipe the world of the unclean, surely a setup for You-Know-Who and his malevolent Death Eaters. He’s kept further to the background and only bookends the movie. I just looked it up and Voldermort was born in 1926, so expect even more foreshadowing in the future. I wanted to know more about the world inside the Magical Congress of the United States of America. Why do they have a killer magic tar pit and what does it really do to people? There are passing references to the pre-established Harry Potter universe, small morsels for the crowd to hold onto to get them through this muddled expository journey. Still, there is an undeniable entertainment value of seeing magic interact with a 1920s American landscape. A magic speakeasy is a delightful moment to open up this world in amusing historical ways. Newt’s suitcase and its vast interior world is also a great source of wonder and a potent highlight.

Fantastic Beasts doesn’t quite rise to the level of fantastic implied with its title, though if you’re a Potter fan it could be a welcomed and promising start. That’s really what this movie is, a start, and not so much a complete story. It’s a Potter prologue that provides just enough to get an audience interested but not enough to perhaps get them excited. The main character is a total washout and the varying tones and storylines fail to gel. Rowling has some screenwriting novice growing pains and her general world could use more texture amidst all the special effects sequences. Those magic critters are cute I’ll give them that. There just doesn’t seem like there’s enough here of genuine substance in any capacity, other than setting up a playpen for its four sequels. Director David Yates has shepherded the Potter universe for five movies now. The visual continuity from prequel to main story arc reminds me of Peter Jackson’s turn at reviving the Hobbit trilogy. Actually, Fantastic Beasts reminds me of the Hobbit films in more ways than one. They were both somewhat crass moneymaking ventures inarticulately stretched and padded to ensure more movies and more profits. They are also decidedly lesser than the main story arc. To my movie muggle tastes, Fantastic Beasts ranks toward the bottom of the Potter franchise, just a step above Half-Blood Prince. Too often it feels like textbook Potter stuff minus the character investments. It’s a series of set pieces and latent possibilities and less a full movie. Then again, take my so-so critique with a relative grain of salt, Potterheads.

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-

 

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016)

miss-peregrines-home-for-peculiar-movie-posterMiss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children feels like Tim Burton’s X-Men franchise, and it’s just as awesome as that sounds. Burton has always had an interest in the outcasts and misfits of society and now he has his chance to leave an imprint on the ever-present superhero phenomenon. His own personal group of gifted youngsters is looking to form a funky family and fight against fearful forces that have their sights set on exploiting these special children or worse. It’s a natural fit for a man who has become a Gothic industry unto himself over three decades of peculiar and spooky filmmaking. This is Burton’s chance to flex franchise tentpole muscles with a subject matter perfectly attuned to his offbeat sensibilities, and watching the fabulous final product is akin to watching a master musician dive into Beethoven’s Fifth. This movie was flat-out delightful.

Jake (Asa Butterfield) is reeling from his beloved grandfather’s (Terrence Stamp) mysterious death. The old man loved sharing his stories about tending to the shape-shifting Ymbryne Miss Peregrine (Eva Green) and her wards, a group of children with special abilities including starting fires, controlling plants, invisibility, and being able to float lighter than air. On a trip to Wales to investigate grandpa’s stories, Jake discovers a time portal and is taken back to the WWII era where Miss Peregrine is waiting for him. She and her children relive the same day and will never age. They’re hiding from Barron (Samuel L. Jackson) and his group of scientists who wish to hunt the children. Jake is tasked with being the new protector, as he is the only one that can see an invisible band of slender monsters known as hollows that feast on the children.

738There’s a whimsical nature to the dark elements, and the script is rife with enjoyable payoffs and fun moments that cry out for a full visual immersion. This is Burton’s best film since 2007’s Sweeney Todd (I have a soft spot for that macabre musical), arguably best since 2003’s Big Fish, and maybe his most fun movie since his 90s heyday. If you’re a Burton fan, you’ll be tickled by all the imagination and humor. I grew up on the cinema of Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands and The Nightmare Before Christmas (yes, directed by stop-motion maven Henry Selick but still very much a Burton film), so I’ll admit that seeing Burton in high form once again warmed my little mischievous heart.

You get a sense just how involved Burton was in the filmmaking and its details, the degree of passion and involvement, and also his commitment to being a dark movie intended for peculiar children and adults with macabre interests all over the world. I kept thinking that the 12-year-old version of myself would have adored this movie, never mind the 34-year-old version of myself who greatly enjoyed it too. This feels like a natural evolutionary step for children and adolescents who gorged themselves on the works of Edward Gorey and R. L. Stine. It’s not a significant spoiler but it’s something I feel you, dear reader, need to know in order to properly assess just how wonderfully morbid the movie can come across. There is an entire visual feast of a group of villains dining upon the delicacy of… children’s eyeballs. You read that right. It’s a silver platter piled high with severed eyeballs, and they get slurped down like it’s spaghetti. I could only cackle to myself at the audacity of the movie to embrace the fun of the darkness rather than hiding from it, mitigating it, trying to be delicate with tone. The villains want to return to a normal state that can only be achieved by consuming the eyeballs of peculiar children, and so they are hunted not for sport or prejudice but for eyeballs. That’s wonderfully squirmy, and it definitely affected me, an avowed cinema patron who gets extra squirmy with any onscreen eye trauma. There are other creepy and memorable moments, like a dead child being used as a ventriloquist doll and the slenderman-styled hallows creatures. The moments are plenty but they don’t choke the story’s momentum, which hums along with great imagination and lucidity.

There’s a lot going on with Miss Peregrine, and Jane Goldman’s (Kingsmen) screenplay juggles a lot of rules and world building without losing momentum. I was intrigued early and the movie would widen its focus, providing more texture and connection to the world in calculated doses. It was enough that I always felt like I was learning something while still being able to see how the pieces snapped together in retrospect. There’s time travel that has to be done at a very specific point, the rules of who can travel back in time to these bubbles of safety, the history of this specific day stuck in time, the non-linear history of the protectors, the fact that the bubbles are also teleportation hotspots, the history with Jake’s grandfather, the history of the Ymbryne and their powers, the powers of all the peculiars, dream prophecy, mad scientists and their peculiar ailments, the differences between the hallows and the predatory scientists, and also establishing the character dynamics of several lost children and a budding YA romance. It’s amazing that Goldman’s script is as understandable as it is considering all that heavy lifting. It’s not completely free of muddled plot points and some hazy explanations, but those instances are a clear minority to what works so effectively. I wanted to know more about this world, and once they added time travel and teleportation, I was hooked. I enjoyed the movie so much that I’m considering reading the additional books for my next freaky fix.

miss-peregrines-home-for-peculiar-children-2016The acting ensemble is full of bright spots and none brighter than the new queen of genre gusto, Eva Green. I raved about Green’s magnetic performance in the considerably lesser 300 sequel. She was easily the best part of that movie and it suffered whenever she wasn’t on the screen. The same can be said for the too-long-in-the-making Sin City sequel. She was the best thing in Burton’s otherwise forgettable Dark Shadows feature. In short, this woman is incredible, and she digs into the vampy and ridiculous with the right degree of malevolence and glee. Green is a wonderful hostess into this magical world, and her foreknowledge gives her a caffeinated energy that makes her even a tad more peculiar. Her children are all fine actors who have uneven parts thanks to the unfair distribution of their powers. Not everyone gets super useful abilities. I felt sorry for the kid who projected his dreams from his eyeball especially during the third act scuffles. A mouth in the back of the head doesn’t seem very useful either. I enjoyed the idea that the invisible kid needs to be fully naked to be fully invisible, and everyone acknowledges this reoccurring fact with shoulder-shrug nonchalance. The standout amongst the peculiars is Ella Purnell as the winsome girl who will float away. She has an innocent and yearning quality that doesn’t sink her character. She’s more than just a love interest to Jake and Purnell helps channel great affection. Jackson (The Hateful Eight) is expectantly highly entertaining as the lead villain and Butterfield (Ender’s Game) is perfectly acceptable as an audience surrogate into this wild world.

I was duly impressed with just about every element, from the structure of the screenplay and its precision with information and intrigue, to the level of acting, to the dark and whimsical tone, to Burton’s own peculiar particulars that fill out the film with adoration. It may sound corny but there is an affection woven throughout the film, for its dispirit outcasts, for their strangeness, for the ardor of telling a spooky story that can appeal to children without pushing away adults. There’s a care that’s been absent Burton’s other recent films, especially Dark Shadows, which left me bewildered whether Burton had any genuine fondness for the source material. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is a haven for fans of the peculiar, Burton’s oeuvre, and those looking for a quality children’s film that has some bite. I can only hope for more fantastical adventures.

Nate’s Grade: A-

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