TV Superlatives: June, July, August – 2020

It’s that time again! We must discuss only the most prestigious of TV Awards: Favorite Sidekick, Best Revenge, Most Horrifying Fashion, Favorite Ship, and more!

A quick reminder for how these work: I will bestow whatever TV shows I’ve recently been watching with such awards, whether they’re currently airing or not. As always, any awards with spoilers will be very clearly marked. As a reference point, here are the shows I’ve been watching for the past few months:

Agents of SHIELD (Season 7)
Village Survival: The Eight (Season 2)
Star Trek (Season 2: Ep. 7-10)
Last Week Tonight With John Oliver (June 7th – August 30th)
13 Reasons Why (Season 4)
Floor is Lava
Mystic Pop-Up Bar
Dear White People (Season 1)
Unsolved Mysteries (2020)
Dark (Season 3)
The Baby-Sitters Club
I Remember You (Hello Monster)
It’s Okay to Not Be Okay
Chip-In
Love in the Moonlight (Moonlight Drawn by Clouds)
Lovecraft Country (Ep. 1 – 3)
Running Man (er, just a bunch of random episodes from multiple seasons)

(You may notice that some shows have two titles listed. K-dramas usually have at least two, and sometimes my brain flip-flops helplessly between both. I’m going to attempt some consistency throughout these superlatives, but I make absolutely no promises.)

Also, clearly, it’s just . . . it’s a lot of K-Dramas, folks. MY LIFE HAS BEEN TAKEN OVER BY K-DRAMAS AND VARIETY SHOWS, AND I’M OKAY WITH IT.

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Triple Scoop Review: Doctor Sleep, Underwater, and Tigers Are Not Afraid

Doctor Sleep

Year: 2019
Director: Mike Flanagan
First Watch or Rewatch: First Watch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Amazon
Spoilers: Some
Grade: Vanilla

Let’s get this out of the way for anyone who doesn’t already know: I’m not a huge fan of The Shining. (Honestly, I’m not a huge fan of Kubrick’s work in general: I tend to like the cinematography and not much else.) Many adaptational changes annoyed me, especially as I saw the film soon after reading the novel. Admittedly, that was all roughly 15-20 years ago now, so I might feel differently if I were to ever try it again. Point is, unlike many horror fans, I didn’t come into this weird hybrid of a sequel with much in the way of expectations, high or low. It was pretty easy to judge Doctor Sleep as its own thing. And fortunately for me, I enjoyed the hell out of it.

Unlike The Shining, which is straight-up horror, Doctor Sleep has more of a dark fantasy vibe. Like, there are creepy moments, absolutely (I fucking loved it when Abra turned the tables on Rose), but the overall flavor of scare is different, kinda like the transition between the quiet, claustrophobic horror of Alien to the action-fueled horror of Aliens. It seems like a natural progression, but I can also see how fans of the original might have been disappointed. What’s really impressive, though, is how much I enjoyed this film, despite its two-and-a-half-hour runtime. Horror movies, especially, have to work hard to earn that length without losing tension or momentum, and Doctor Sleep does a pretty good job with that: there are problems in the third act–which we’ll get to shortly–but overall, the slow, steady pace of the film works well for me.

The cast is great, especially Kyliegh Curran (who’s absolutely fantastic as Abra) and Rebecca Ferguson (who makes for a pretty iconic villain, one who I’d like to cosplay immediately.) Ewan McGregor does solid work as grown-up/fucked up Danny Torrance, and I like pretty much the entire supporting cast: Carl Lumbly is a stellar choice as Dick Hallorann, Cliff Curtis is instantly likable as Billy, and Zahn McClarnon is an excellent right-hand man/second banana bad guy. All of McClarnon and Ferguson’s interactions are pretty great; in fact, the whole villainous family dynamic is awesome and makes these guys much more compelling as antagonists.

Unfortunately, that third act is where things start to falter, which is frustrating because most of the problems here could easily be solved by just not returning to the Overlook. Physically, that is; half the Final Battle takes place in Danny’s head, anyway, so why not just make the entire thing one big mental showdown? We could still get all those iconic references and flashbacks without Danny and Abra literally driving to Colorado for no goddamn reason. (There is a reason: Danny is convinced that they can’t beat Rose on their own, but that’s sorta nonsense because at this point, their batting average against her is pretty goddamn phenomenal.) This would also eliminate the awkward sense of Abra just chilling alone in the car for ten minutes, while Danny has an emotional catharsis inside the hotel with his dad. Like, I genuinely enjoy that scene, but also . . . maybe don’t leave the kid alone outside when a monster is literally hunting you down?

Random Notes:

1. Actually, maybe we could scale back just a bit on those iconic references? Cause I do want them, but also, it feels like Mike Flanagan is vomiting The Shining at you for the last 20 minutes? Like, hey, here are the twins, here is the blood, here is the bartender, the axe, the door, the boiler room, etc., etc., etc. Give me these moments, but not one for every goddam minute, please. Space them out or whittle them down.

2. Snakebite Andi might be the most Stephen King name I’ve ever heard in my whole fucking life. I really liked Emily Alyn Lind in the role, though, since I forgot to mention her before. Also, MR. HOMN!

3. I wish Rose the Hat’s hat was, like, more important? Especially after the grocery store scene, I kind of expected something else. Still, I’m never gonna complain too hard about fashionable millinery. I will complain about Danny hitting rock bottom, however, because I definitely interpreted that scene as “baby starved to death after Danny left him alone with his dead mom,” which . . . yeah, didn’t sit well with me. Apparently, though, there are multiple different interpretations of what actually happened to Mom and Baby? Still. If you’re trying for a redemptive story, IDK, I think everyone should be real clear on exactly what your MC is being redeemed for. Especially if it’s dark ass shit like that.

4. Now that I’ve read the differences between book and movie, holy shit, I’m kinda glad I never read this. The 9/11 subplot? The “we’re related” nonsense? What the actual fuck?

5. I’m just gonna say it: “steam” is a little hard to take seriously.

6. Finally, there is a RWBY poster in Abra’s room. I haven’t watched that show in years, but still, I found this small detail surprising and delightful.

Underwater

Year: 2020
Director: William Eubank
First Watch or Rewatch: First Watch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Amazon
Spoilers: VERY MUCH SO
Grade: Strawberry

This was fun enough, but it also could’ve been better. Some scenes are successfully creepy and tense: whenever our characters are crawling through Way Too Tiny Shit, for example, or when poor Mamoudou Athie fucking implodes. (I was disappointed by this; I really thought he was going to last longer.) Most of the cast is pretty great, although I’d probably recast and rewrite Paul (TJ Miller). Still, I’m here for Kristen Stewart’s whole aesthetic, am happy that Smith survived, was amused by last minute Cthulhu, and really enjoyed that Jessica Henwick was our surprise Final Girl. Holy shit, that’s two Western horror movies now with Eastern-Asian women who live. 2020, this is actually something I like about you.

So, that’s the good. As far as the bad, well. The voiceover shit completely fails, like, I honestly have no idea what it’s even doing in this movie? The beginning is especially weird because the first few minutes have this strange, in medias res quality to them that makes the whole scene kinda feel like a dream. It doesn’t fit at all; in fact, I seriously wondered if they were trying to set up some kind of unreliable narrator here. But the rest of the movie is a pretty straightforward action-horror movie (with just a bit of a Lovecraftian twist).

Not all the action scenes work for me, either, because some of them are so muddy it’s impossible to tell what’s happening to whom. Like, I get it: Underwater is underwater. Chaos, poor visibility, all that. Still, when a monster drags two characters away, I wanna be able to tell who they are. I might’ve been more inclined to forgive this if these scenes were strictly from Norah’s POV, as she sadly loses her glasses early in the film and presumably can’t see for shit; unfortunately, that’s not really how they play. Which is a bummer, actually: if I ever lost my glasses in any kind of horror movie scenario, like, it would very much impact my day and/or likelihood of survival. It might’ve been kind of neat, seeing Norah actually dealing with this during the film.

Also, the character work needs, well, work. Norah (Stewart) and Smith (John Gallagher Jr.) both lost someone–the same someone–prior to the events of this movie, but for some reason, they barely have any interactions throughout to build their dynamic and/or lay in the groundwork for this reveal. More space, too, could’ve been given to the Captain and Norah’s relationship, or to Smith and Emily’s. Instead, we spend too much time with TJ Miller, who’s supposed to be the funny, weird guy, and generally lands harder on the latter than the former. (Although I will admit to laughing when he fake-volunteers Emily (Henwick) to investigate something, all, “This is your moment.” That shit was funny.)

Random Notes:

1. I love that Emily saves Norah, and Norah saves Emily, and they both save Smith together. Also, kinda love that Norah punches Emily in the face. Not because she deserves it, but because it’s a good “who will sacrifice themselves for the other” moment.

2. I’m considerably less impressed by how the women have to get way more naked than the dudes. Except TJ Miller, of course, but this is purposefully meant to be comedic, rather than sexy, presumably because he’s fatter than anyone else in the cast. #RAGE

3. The hands-down funniest thing about this movie: Paul carries around this stuffed bunny, right, like, he cradles it, strokes it, makes sure it’s okay as he’s going through dangerous, water-logged parts of the station, etc. He is 100% acting like it’s a real bunny, and I was seriously wondering if we were gonna get some kinda high-pressure nervous syndrome/space dementia subplot shit going on, especially because of all the Alice in Wonderland references. But apparently, there actually was a real bunny while filming, until the director got a stuffed one instead because of safety concerns. Only for whatever reason, he never bothered telling Miller that the stuffed rabbit wasn’t a stand-in. So, dude acted like the rabbit was real because he thought it would be post-production. I can’t begin to tell you how much this all delights me.

Tigers Are Not Afraid

Year: 2017
Director: Issa López
First Watch or Rewatch: First Watch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Other – Shudder
Spoilers: Mild
Grade: Chocolate

I’ve been meaning to watch this Mexican dark fantasy film for a while now, and I’m so glad I finally did, because it’s pretty fantastic. Admittedly, I probably could’ve picked a better week for it, like, if you need an escapist upper, uh, this isn’t it. (I literally held my breath when two of the kids walked up to a police car, and was utterly relieved when the cops just took off without killing them.) The violence here isn’t particularly gratuitous; in fact, it’s not a very gory film at all. But children do die, and die violently, on screen. Best to know that going in.

All of the kids are fantastic, especially Estrella (Paola Lara) and Shine (Juan Ramón López). I’m amazed that none of them had any prior acting experience because they’re all so good in this movie. One of the things that works best about Tigers Are Not Afraid: the quiet, funny moments when the kids are just hanging out: play-acting some American Idol shit in an abandoned building, telling ghost stories about this dude who eats kids with his pepperoni, etc. And while I can be hit or miss on stories that walk the line between “literal magic” and “is it, though?” I think the ambiguity serves this dark fairy tale well. Which probably isn’t so surprising, as it’s definitely a Monkey’s Paw kind of story.

I honestly don’t have many criticisms with this one. There are a few moments with this stuffed tiger that I found sorta hard to take seriously, but . . . yeah, that might kind of be it. While I’d hoped for a few specific things that didn’t end up happening, the actual ending itself fits the story well and isn’t wholly, needlessly bleak. And since I am, for once, trying not to spoil too much here, let me leave you with a vague list of some other things I really enjoyed:

The trails of blood
The goodbye scene
Morro is adorbs
The chalk
When the bodies are found

Also, the movie was both written and directed by a woman. YES!!!! I’m always excited to see more horror crafted by women!

Triple Scoop Review/Year of Monsters: BONUS VAMPIRE ROUND – Drácula, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Dracula 2000

Drácula

TFW you have to improvise because there aren’t any GIFs or trailers for the 89-year-old movie you’re reviewing.

Year: 1931
Director: George Melford
First Watch or Rewatch: First Watch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Other – Personal Collection DVD
Spoilers: Yep
Grade: Vanilla

In 1931, Dracula (the English language film starring Bela Lugosi) was shot during the day, while Drácula (the Spanish language film starring Carlos Villarías) was shot during the night. Earlier this year, I’d wanted to watch Drácula to compare and contrast; alas, I wasn’t able to find the film streaming anywhere online. Fortunately, I have an incredibly sweet friend, Rob, who bought me a special edition DVD copy of both films because he is the absolute best. Thank you, Rob!

In regards to which film is better . . . honestly, I like both for different reasons. On one hand, I think Pablo Álvarez Rubio makes for a fantastic Renfield. I didn’t have any particular problem with Dwight Frye, but Rubio is the superior choice as the bug-eating lackey, and delightfully, this film gives him a little more screen time to work with. (At least I’m pretty sure it does, but admittedly, I have watched like four different adaptations of this novel now, and they are starting to bleed together a bit.) I like this version of Mina (named Eva here) a little better, too, specifically when she’s all dark and vampire-influenced. And this version actually bothers to give Lucía’s story an ending, unlike poor Lucy in Dracula, who is pretty much just forgotten about between scenes. There are some particularly nice shots in this film, too, specifically the last one where Eva and Juan Harker ascend the staircase, leaving Van Helsing below with Renfield’s body–although to be fair, I like some shots in the English language version, too, like when the vampire brides back away from Dracula and Renfield’s unconscious body.

OTOH, I’m afraid I can’t take Carlos Villarías as Dracula seriously at all, like, he’ll have an okay moment or two, and then he’ll smile, and I’ll just start cracking up. Dude’s just so damn goofy. Bela Lugosi is very stagey, but somehow that feels more stylized, theatrical. This is different. This just feels absurdly cartoonish. And I prefer Van Helsing in the English language version, too, probably because this one seems shocked by things that just aren’t very shocking. Like, he’ll present some hypothesis (for example, Dracula is a vampire, and therefore must not have a reflection), and then seem flabbergasted when he immediately proves himself correct. He also has a hilarious reaction when Dracula threatens to kill him; likely, he’s supposed to seem scared, but it comes across more like, “Whaaaat? You’d . . . you’d really kill me?”

Watching both of these movies is absolutely fun, but my perfect film would be some unholy combination of the two, with Bela Lugosi and Pablo Álvarez Rubio and, most especially, the Philip Glass score from the 1990’s.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

Year: 1992
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
First Watch or Rewatch: Re-Watch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Amazon, I think? TBH, it’s been a few weeks.
Spoilers: Yep
Grade: Strawberry

Look, there are some amazing things about this movie. The opening music, for instance? Fantastic. And the fashion? Oh my god, the FASHION in this film. Dracula’s costumes alone, like, we’ve got the grey suit and top hat pictured above, his memorable Transylvania look, the red armor he wore as a human (which is basically just what J-Lo wore in The Cell,) etc. Then, of course, we have Mina’s lovely green dress and hat, as well as Lucy’s hilariously anachronistic red dress. And then, of course, Dead Lucy, which is the absolute cream of the crop. God, I’d love to cosplay the hell out of this someday.

So, yeah. I’d watch the hell out of this movie as a series of well-made fanvids; unfortunately, as a whole ass film, I have . . . problems. The entire prologue, for instance: like, the BS reincarnation love story I don’t care about (I was so baffled by this addition the first time I watched this movie), or how Anthony Hopkins is playing this ancient priest dude for no apparent reason. The fact that someone apparently fetched Mina’s perfectly undamaged corpse out of the river just to throw her ass on the floor, even taking the time to grab her suicide note and artfully tuck it into her hand. (Oh, apologies, there was physical damage: a single trail of blood from the corner of her mouth. Holy shit, that just makes it even funnier.) And Gary Oldman’s rage freakout, like, don’t get me wrong, I know the guy is a good actor, but also, dude sometimes makes some ridiculously over-the-top choices that I just cannot take seriously. I was giggling like mad throughout this whole prologue, which I really don’t think was Coppola’s intent here.

If the whole movie was like that, I could happily enjoy Dracula as a so-bad-it’s-great film. But those kinds of movies are generally best appreciated when they’re under two hours; this film is 2 hours and 35 minutes, and unfortunately, its dreadfulness isn’t always the sheer delight that is this gloriously terrible train ride into Hell scene. Which is to say, some of the bad stuff just drags, particularly in the second half of the film, where I slowly became consumed by boredom. And honestly, there’s a lot of bad to go around: Dracula as a wolf-troll-thing raping Lucy? Nope. All the orgasmic vampire shit and the plethora of relentless boob shots? Thanks, pass. I’d love to know whose idea it was to make Dr. Seward a morphine addict for, like, a scene. Also, why, in a movie with such fantastic costumes, does Keanu’s gray hair look like someone just threw flour over his head? And while I’m genuinely delighted by the current Resurgence of Keanu Reeves–he seems like a nice dude, and I enjoy a lot of his movies–like, this is easily his worst performance, and I’m including Much Ado About Nothing in that. (A film I have a huge soft spot for, honestly, but there is more than one woeful miscasting in that movie.) It’s not just that Reeves’s accent is terrible, though it is; it’s more that he’s so damn stilted here. Winona Ryder’s accent isn’t winning awards, either, but at least there’s some flow to her dialogue.

Finally, a few random things:

A) Everyone’s kind of an asshole in this movie, including Jonathan, who doesn’t like Mina staying with her BFF cause Lucy is rich, and what if Mina wants a rich boy now? Jonathan, you’re a tool. Van Helsing, though, is probably my favorite asshole because of hilariously casual lines like this: “Yeah, she was in terrible pain; we cut off her head. She’s dead now.”

B) The Texan suitor, played by Billy Campbell, is shockingly the least objectionable character, which is presumably why he dies.

C) Wow, I forgot there are so many other people in this movie! Cary Elwes! Richard E. Grant! Tom Waits as Renfield, what?

Renfield’s hair, at least, is properly fantastic.

Dracula 2000

Year: 2000
Director: Patrick Lussier
First Watch or Rewatch: Re-Watch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Amazon
Spoilers: Definitely
Grade: Chocolate

Okay, sure, this isn’t a great movie, but unlike Bram Stoker’s Dracula, it never really pretended to be, either. Dracula 2000 is so incredibly of its time, and I have all kinds of silly nostalgia for it. Ton of people in the cast, too: Jonny Lee Miller (the hero), Justine Waddell (the heroine), Christopher Plummer (the dead meat vampire-hunter mentor), Vitamin C (the dead meat BFF and vampire bride #1), Jennifer Esposito, (the brief fake-out love interest and vampire bride #2), Jeri Ryan (the random hot reporter and vampire bride #3), Sean Patrick Thomas (a thief), Danny Masterson (a thief who gets a leech to the eyeball), Lochlyn Munro (a thief and also the First to Die), Omar Epps (the Thief Boss who very suavely wears glasses), Shane West (the cameraman who dies very, very quickly), Nathan Fillion (a young priest who shockingly doesn’t die), and, of course, Gerard Butler (the Big Bad, AKA, Judas “Dracula” Iscariot).

Miller and Plummer probably do the strongest work here, but I enjoy pretty much everyone except maybe Jennifer Esposito, who I never quite buy–although to be fair to the actress, she does get some of the worst dialogue. Like the “all I wanna do is suck” pun or the “how does one become a lover” exchange, ugh. There’s some bad dialogue to go around, though: JLM’s “never ever FUCK with an antiques dealer” is beyond awful, like, as a blooper line? It’s hysterical. I’d have laughed my ass off had I seen this in the blooper reel. As an actual line in the movie? NO, GOD, WHY WOULD YOU DO THIS, NO.

OTOH, I do genuinely enjoy a lot of the humor, even the very on-the-nose stuff. I’ll admit to laughing at the “sorry, sport, I’m an atheist/God loves you anyway” exchange; also, Masterson’s hilariously petulant “I said I was sorry.” The sheer outrage in Miller’s delivery when he says “undead–UNDEAD!” cracks me up every time. I’m also very amused by Dracula calling the Bible “propaganda” as Simon tries to defend himself with it. And when Dracula perfectly describes Mary’s Mom’s interior decorating style as “Catholic,” yeah, I laughed pretty hard at that.

And while Dracula’s secret origins as Judas are kinda unbelievably silly, I suspect someone could actually make this work in a miniseries or TV-show, something with a serious, historical bent and plenty of room to focus on the themes of evil, forgiveness, and redemption in a universe where choice and action are presumably predestined. Dracula 2000 was obviously never gonna be that story, as it’s a campy ass horror film, and its reliance on Dracula’s origins as a twist means it only has about 15 minutes to even remotely address the philosophical and theological ramifications of this identity reveal, while also wrapping up the entire main plot. So, yeah, that was kinda doomed to silly failure. But credit where credit’s due: this is the first and only time I’ve ever seen a vampire die by hanging.

Finally, a couple last thoughts:

A) I owned a fair amount of horror and SF movie soundtracks in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, and you better believe that Dracula 2000 was one of them. (See also The Faculty, Scream, Queen of the Damned, and The Matrix.) I still listen to songs from it, too, especially System of a Down’s cover of “Metro.”

B) Remember in The Last Jedi, how Rey and Kylo spend a lot of time psychically gazing at each other from separate locations? Well, Dracula and Mary Heller-Van Helsing did it first, only with Godhead (and Marilyn Manson) playing in the background, so, obviously, they kinda win.

Shit. Now I just wanna see TLJ with the Dracula 2000 soundtrack. SOMEONE MAKE THIS HAPPEN.

Year of Monsters: Nosferatu

Well, it’s our penultimate movie, folks, and the oldest Year of Monsters film selected. It also happens to be the first vampire movie ever made, not to mention a completely unauthorized retelling of Bram Stoker’s Dracula that, due to a lawsuit, was nearly wiped out of existence. It’s hard to overstate the influence of Nosferatu; this movie is legend. It is quintessential horror film history.

So, I kinda wish I had more to say about it.

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Year of Monsters: The Phantom of the Opera

I should probably state upfront that I was kinda doomed to dislike this movie.

I tried to read The Phantom of the Opera in high school when the library finally got new books. I can’t say I gave it a particularly fair shake, just realized I was bored and didn’t really like anybody and quickly moved onto all the other new books. Much later, I tried out Joel Schumacher’s The Phantom of the Opera, and boy, did I HATE it. It seemed to take forever, I despised basically every character that wasn’t Minnie Driver, and while I freely admit to not knowing much about music, some of the singing seemed, ah, not great? I’ve always felt like I should I see the musical in theater at some point to see if the sheer spectacle can pull me in, but even if that was a possibility at present, I’m reluctant to part ways with that much money over a story that, traditionally, has made me wanna stab people every time they open their mouths.

Alas, I must inform you that even in the silent version, I still hate all these motherfuckers.

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Year of Monsters: Dracula

Dracula is one of the rare Universal classics I’ve actually seen before; it was many years ago, though, and at the time, I found the film rather boring. Watching it again, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that, while the story is undeniably chaotic, I enjoyed Dracula quite a bit. There are multiple reasons for that, but the most strikingly obvious one is the fantastic score.

And if you’re thinking, Wait, I’ve seen that movie, and there IS no score . . . well, you’re right. Until the late 1990’s, at least.

Let’s get into it, shall we?

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TV Superlatives: December, January, and February – 2019/2020

It’s that time again: our winter TV Superlatives!

A quick reminder for how these work: I will bestow whatever TV shows I’ve recently been watching (whether they’re currently airing or not) with awards like Favorite Bromance, Favorite WTF Moment, Best Profanity, etc. As always, any awards with spoilers will be very clearly marked.

As a reference point, here are the shows I’ve been watching for the past few months:

Busted! (Season 2)
His Dark Materials
Nancy Drew
The Mandalorian
DC Universe’s Harley Quinn
Watchmen
The Expanse (Season 4)
A Black Lady Sketch Show
The Witcher
Barry (Season 2)
The Good Place (Season 4)
Star Trek: Picard
Legends of Tomorrow (Season 5)
Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Season 7)

Let’s get to it, shall we?

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Year of Monsters: The Invisible Man

I’ve never considered myself a science person, partially because I have no natural aptitude for it, partially because the science you learn in high school isn’t the kind of shit that interests me. (Well, mostly. We did get to learn forensics my freshman year, and I do remember enjoying it, even if I couldn’t tell a single fucking fingerprint apart.) But I am a science-fiction person, one who’s generally drawn to pro-science stories. We’ve talked about a couple of these already during our Year of Monsters: Creature from the Black Lagoon, for instance, and It Came From Outer Space.

Alas, we’re now heading back to the 1930’s, where science is generally not our path to enlightenment but to our downfall and destruction. Science is the method we foolishly use to try and control what mankind was never meant to master. Clearly, this is a pretty familiar theme: if Frankenstein is about trying to master death, then Jurassic Park is about trying to control life, and Deep Blue Sea is about trying to defeat dementia. Or sharks. The point is, progress for the sake of progress must be discouraged.

Enter . . . The Invisible Man.

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Triple Scoop Reviews: Shazam!, Joker, and Little Women

Shazam!

First Watch or Rewatch: First Watch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Other: HBO Now
Spoilers: Yup
Grade: Vanilla

Imbalanced, but cute. Tonally, Shazam! is wildly different than its DC live-action brethren, which makes it both a breath of fresh air and also a little, like, huh? Shazam! doesn’t always feel like a superhero movie to me; instead, it’s more of a fantasy-action film about magical kids, a film geared towards young children and their long-suffering parents. I’m having trouble describing exactly why those two sub-genres are different, but they have become different, at least in 2020.

There’s a fair bit in Shazam! that doesn’t work for me. Mark Strong’s villainy game, for example, is usually on point–all hail SEPTIMUS!–but he makes for a pretty boring villain here. Dr. Sivana’s origin story has potential, but it goes nowhere interesting, and the film would be better off if the majority of his scenes were cut. Zachary Levi, meanwhile, is generally funny, but it rarely feels like he’s actually playing Billy; mostly, he comes across as any random kid who’s been magically transported into an adult’s body. It creates a real disconnect for me throughout the film, especially when it comes to the conflict between Billy and Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer). Which is unfortunate because that relationship is a huge part of the story. This movie falls down hardest, I think, in its second act.

OTOH, I really do love Billy’s foster siblings, especially Freddy and Darla (Faithe Herman), who are charmingly chaotic and adorably sweet, respectively. The script is sometimes (okay, often) very on the nose about the found family stuff, but fuck it, these kids are cute, and their parents are sweet and well-meaning, and I just want them to all be happy, OKAY? And can I tell you just how much I adored these kids becoming superheroes at the end? The cameos are fantastic: I am 100% here for Adam Brody as Superhero Freddy, plus Ross Butler was a nice surprise, and Meagan Good was delightful as Superhero Darla. It’s especially awesome they get to remain superheroes, too, like I just assumed this would be a one-time sidekick deal, not that we’d end the movie sharing a secret lair. (Obviously, other viewers were prepared for this, but the majority of my Shazam knowledge comes from animated movies like Superman/Batman: Public Enemies and TV shows like Young Justice.) I’m kinda so-so on this particular film overall, but I find the ending so charming that I’m genuinely interested in seeing a sequel.

A few quick asides:

A. Poor Djimon Hounsou. He so rarely gets to play anybody interesting, and this movie is no exception to that rule. Hounsou plays the Wizard who gifts Billy with his powers, and the most interesting thing about him–other than his hilariously fake hair–is that he is just such an incredible dick. Like, I just called him Asshole Dumbledore the whole movie. (Yes, Dumbledore himself is also Asshole Dumbledore, but still.) Cause, sure, you can’t hold this guy responsible for everything our villain does, but you can definitely hold him responsible for being needlessly cruel to a small child, traumatizing countless people across the world, and, oh yeah, that whole car accident thing. I’m just saying.  No one’s weeping for you, my dude.

B. It’s a very minor complaint, but when your bad guy unleashes the seven deadly sins as his henchmen, like, I just wish they were a lot more fun and distinct than this.

C. That last scene with Superman? Fucking amazing.

Joker

First Watch or Rewatch: First Watch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Other: On Demand, I think? (My friends rented it)
Spoilers: A few, yes
Grade: Strawberry

Well, I watched it. And as suspected, I just wasn’t into Joker. Joaquin Phoenix is undoubtedly creepy with his weird laughter and off-putting grin and seriously disturbing ribs–like, man’s got a freaky AF energy to him, I will absolutely give him that. But his performance also feels pretty static to me, like, once I’d seen roughly 15-20 minutes, I felt like I’d seen the whole thing. Plus, I’m just kinda tired of awarding rich white dudes for being difficult to work with, and continuing to glorify actors who starve themselves for roles? Like, no, this is so unhealthy for everyone involved; please, let’s just stop.

The narrative structure of Joker goes something like this: introduce a mentally ill man and present him with about 80 triggers until he inevitably explodes. Which is . . . fine, but the build feels off to me here. The revolution is weak, primarily off-screen and inspired by murders I never quite bought as a rallying point. The social commentary feels thin, too; like, “eat the rich” is a pretty popular theme these days, but this might be one of the least successful versions of it I’ve seen. There are some ideas I like, if not always their execution: Gotham from the POV of the lower classes, for instance, or reinterpreting Thomas Wayne as a mega Chief Asshat. The eternal, cyclical nightmare that is this city, how Gotham creates villains by failing the people, and how those villains in turn create our heroes, who only ever perpetuate the system . . . but the writing is just such weak sauce, lazy and muddled. If this wins for Best Adapted Screenplay over Little Women, I swear to God . . .

I also can’t say I’m particularly impressed with any of the female roles, either. Zazie Beetz is criminally underused: her character has no real function, except to serve as a Big Twist, one that fails to be meaningful, compelling, or even surprising. It would, at least, take a modicum of effort before one could cut Penny (Frances Conroy) out of the film, but still, the whole backstory about Joker’s mom is just so . . . meh, all of it, meh. Joker is hardly the worst film I’ve ever seen: the acting is generally fine, and I quite like the cinematography. I had a good time hanging out with my friends and eating pizza, at least. But I just didn’t connect to this film at all, and I remain a bit baffled by its multiple Oscar nominations. There are so many better movies than this. My nerdish heart wants more.

Little Women

First Watch or Rewatch: First Watch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Other: Actual Goddamn Movie Theater
Spoilers: Yep
Grade: Chocolate

Initially, my interest in Little Women was mild. I’ve never read the book, and I was pretty content with the 1994 adaptation I’d grown up with. I didn’t know I needed another version of this story. But then I became more interested, partially because I’d like to support more female directors, partially because I desperately didn’t want Joker to be the only Best Picture nominee I’d actually seen, and partially because of this video by Be Kind, Rewind, which examines four different film adaptations of Little Women and discusses how each teaches us something about the era it was made in. (Oh, and because I wanted to finally check out the Alamo Drafthouse, and Little Women was the only film playing that I wanted to see. Not gonna lie, folks: if either Parasite or the less cinematically beloved Underwater had been available, you probably would’ve gotten a different review.)

Happily, I thought Little Women was fantastic. I was surprisingly engaged throughout the film, which is partially due to the changes in narrative structure. It’s not that telling a story using flashbacks is some groundbreaking approach never accomplished before; it’s that using flashbacks to tell this story gives these characters so much more dimension (and their respective arcs better shape) that I could’ve possibly imagined. Not to mention, the juxtaposition of certain scenes, like watching Beth’s miraculous recovery right before Beth’s tragic death, is just beautifully heartbreaking. And while I had my doubts, initially (as “ambiguous” and “meta” are not always words I enjoy when applied to endings), I quite like how this movie concludes. I love that Little Women never forgets Jo’s consistent antipathy towards marriage, and the more I learn about Louisa May Alcott, the more this ending really appeals to me.

The acting, too, is all-around spectacular. Amy is a much more interesting character in this version of the story, and I think Florence Pugh does an absolutely fantastic job. Her acting nod feels well-earned, and the same for Saoirse Ronan, who I think makes for a very compelling Jo. I quite like Emma Watson as Meg, too; considering she previously played both Hermione and Belle, Meg is the non-standard choice, and I’m kind of obsessed with it. I also like Eliza Scanlen as Beth, but I’ll admit, she’s probably the character that suffers most by comparison, if only because “Claire Danes,” “90’s,” and “ugly cry” are so inextricably linked in my head. You know who really gets me to ugly cry in this movie, though? Mr. Laurence, as played by a nearly unrecognizable Chris Cooper. Jesus Christ. I was bawling well before Beth even died because of this kindly motherfucker.

TBH, my only real problem with Little Women is that for a film which gives us a much more sympathetic Amy, I’m at least twice as mad about the whole “burning Jo’s book” scene. Partially because I’m slightly more inclined to forgive Kirsten Dunst purely on the basis of age, partially because Pugh’s Amy is much more deliberate, methodical, and smug about what she’s done, partially because Amy’s apology here feels so obviously forced and insincere . . . but mostly, I think, because there’s something about this new version that seems to especially condemn Jo’s fury, and it leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I’ll freely admit to carrying some personal baggage with “be the bigger person” arguments, but there are times when that message works for me: Jo not lashing out at Amy about Europe, for example, is one such occasion. But to expect Jo to forgive Amy in less than 24 hours, to show Jo’s righteous fury wholly and immediately redirected at herself after Amy’s near-death experience . . . you know, maybe it’s not that this version is any more cruel than the others. Maybe it’s just that in such a revisionist adaptation, I wish Greta Gerwig had updated this scene as well. Because the idea that you have to forgive your family, no matter what, simply because they’re your family . . . I think it’s an unhealthy message, and it’s my only real disappointment in what I think is otherwise a thoughtful and fantastic film.