Thursday, June 30, 2016

Gods of Egypt (2016)

Gods of Egypt (2016)

Director: Alex Proyas

Cast: Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Courtney Eaton, Brenton Thwaites, Elodie Young, Gerard Butler, Rufus Sewell, Geoffrey Rush

Every once in a while a movie tanks at the box office, when it shouldn’t have. I mean surely, most of the films that get the shaft by audiences usually deserve it, but in the case of Alex Proyas big budget fantasy extravaganza Gods of Egypt, it didn’t. I kick myself in the ass for listening to that first batch of negative reviews that accused the film among many things of “white washing” the cast, which means that a group of people got angry because characters that were Egyptian (and therefore should look Egyptian) where being played by white actors. I don’t really care about that sort of thing; I’m just enjoying a movie here. Weren’t we past the whole skin color thing? Guess not. Anyways, reviewers decided to spew their hatred at this one and well, no one went to see it. This is the kind of film that was badmouthed even before it was released. And so, it only made back 31 million dollars on a 140 million dollar budget, which means it was a gargantuan flop. It’s sad because a box office flop of this magnitude cold  spell the end of Alex Proyas career, which means no more big budget films for him. The worst part is that this movie, in my opinion, is an excellent action adventure fantasy extravaganza that deserved to be embraced by audiences.

The story is multi faceted, on the one hand it’s about Horus, the God of Wind, trying to recover his god hood and his kingdom. On the other hand, it’s a story about a young man named Bek, trying to recover the love of his life from the icy grips of death. You see Set, the God of Chaos has taken over the land and rules it with an iron fist. Since this is a full on fantasy film, Set can do things like changing the rules of what happens after you die. Where in the past all you had to do was be a good citizen and work to go to heaven, now in order to earn your way into the afterlife you have to pay! If you don’t have something of value you are sent to hell, but if you got the goods you go to heaven with the Gods. This of course spells certain doom for poor people who have nothing to give to the Gods. Will order be set again? Can Horus learn to fight for the rights of the people? Will the Gods learn to care about humans? Or will they remain self centered and egotistical?

This film was awesome for many reasons, number one, it has a good story. It grabs you from the get go because it pits the despotic ruler vs. the unpredictable rebel trying to fight for his rightful place in the world. Unfortunately, Set the despotic ruler cares nothing for “the little people”; he only cares about power and riches. So it’s that classic class struggle story, the powerful vs. the working class. They had this awesome visual idea for this movie where ‘The Gods’ look slightly bigger than the humans, so it’s like they aren’t gigantic, but they are a few inches bigger than the regular humans, which made for a cool visual. I’m sure it must’ve been hell to film though, this visual effect makes practically every scene in the movie a special effect! And speaking of effects, they are top notch on this show! It's a visual feast, more so for lovers of fantasy and escapism.

Gods of Egypt is one of those movies in which most of the surroundings are computer generated. In this sense Gods of Egypt is like the Star Wars movies, which is normally something that I frown upon. I’ve always resisted “all CGI” movies, where only the actors are real. Sadly, this is the face of the new Fantasy/Science Fiction film. They’ve evolved into this; we might as well accept it. Stop motion, matte paintings and the use of miniatures have all been replaced by computer generated images, which is fine. It’s just another form of art, thought if I had to choose, I’d choose practical old school effects. Call me old fashion but they had more artistry to them if you ask me. I have to admit that this “all CGI” element of this film was the main reason why I didn’t go see it in theaters. Yet I have to admit that like all types of special effects, when done right, they can (and should) blow you away.  I have to say that on Gods of Egypt the effects worked extremely well. There’s this show stopping scene with these two giant monster Cobra snakes attacking Horus that was just awesome.  Actually, what Gods of Egypt feels the most like is those old Ray Harryhausen Sinbad movies, with all the monsters and creatures.

Alex Proyas brought Egypt to life in grand fashion. Gods of Egypt feels like one of those big budget bible movies like Ben Hur (1925) or The Ten Commandments (1956), you know, films with thousands of extras and huge sets, only this time the sets and the extras are mostly digital. Alex Proyas is famous for directing dark moody films like The Crow (1994) and Dark City (1998), so Gods of Egypt is a change of pace for Proyas. This is a huge fantasy, action adventure, which in my opinon Proyas directed with gusto, with an affection for this type of film. If only it hadn’t tanked so spectacularly at the box office…it’s one of those films that didn’t deserve to fail at all, I’m sure it will connect with audiences down the road. I place it among the cream of the crop of new fantasy films like Immortals (2011), 300 (2006), 300: Rise of an Empire (2014) or Brett Ratner’s extremely underrated Hercules (2014).  One of the things that Gods of Egypt is being accused of is of being “dumb”, and while I won’t be the first to admit it’s not Shakespeare, I have to say that it does play with its fair share of important themes. I mean, here’s a movie in which the Gods learn to care for the people, they learn the value of humans, of the ones they consider less than them. Here’s a movie where Gods die and tyranny rules the land as the people suffer. Here’s a film where true love conquers even the cold arms of death itself. All these themes, embellished by awesome effects, a quick pace and likable characters, I ask: what’s not like? I say give this one a chance, you probably overlooked it, same as I did.

Rating: 4 out of 5 

Friday, June 24, 2016

The Conjuring 2 (2016)

The Conjuring 2 (2016)

Director: James Wan

Cast: Patrick Wilson, Vera Fermiga, Madison Wolfe, Frances O'Connor, Franka Potente, Simon McBurney

The Conjuring (2013) was one of 2013’s best horror movies, it harkened back to those serious horror movies of the 70’s that made audiences gasp and scream in the theater, then go to church the next day. It was the kind of movie that took advantage of people’s fears of the supernatural, of demons, of Christian mythology. Which means that if you’re a church goer, you’d find movies like The Conjuring extra scary because suddenly demons, possessions and supernatural shenanigans become that much more real. The Conjuring was the kind of horror film that got people talking, it had that “buzz” around it, which always translates to big bucks at the box office. And of course, one successful film is always followed by a sequel that will usually stick to Hollywood’s rules of giving us more of the same, only bigger and louder and with double the budget, which is exactly what they did for The Conjuring 2. Did it manage to be entertaining anyways? Does it avoid the trappings of ‘sequelitis’ a term us movie buffs use to refer to sequels that tend to go down in quality as a franchise moves along? Did The Conjuring 2 suffer from this ailment?

The Conjuring franchise is based on the supernatural adventures of The Warren’s, a couple that specializes in helping others deal with their supernatural problems, in other words, if you ever have any trouble with ghosts, demons or poltergeists haunting your home, you don’t call the Ghostbusters, you call The Warrens. In case you’re not up to date with who The Warrens are, well, let me enlighten you.  Ed and Lorraine Warren are real life paranormal researchers. They’ve been helping families deal with their supernatural troubles since the seventies. Their popularity grew when they visited the real Amityville home, there are pictures of this! Look them up, on your search, you’ll probably stumble upon pictures of the Raggedy Ann doll that had the habit of moving by itself and scaring the living shit out of some family. Said doll ended up being the basis for a film produced by James Wan called Annabelle (2014). Of course, many of these stories are total bullcrap and don’t have an ounce of truth to them. In fact some of them having been proven to be hoaxes. But whether these stories are real or not doesn’t matter because it gives the filmmaker an excuse to put the “based on a true story” slogan on the poster and boom, audiences are crapping their pants even before the movie has started.

For the Conjuring 2 James Wan decided to focus his story on one of the many cases that The Warren’s got involved with, the one commonly referred to as ‘The Enfield Poltergeist’. Do a little search on this case and you'll find pictures of these cases, the families, their homes, their frightened faces, of course, these pictures will only make the film all the spookier, because these people existed and supposedly experienced something like what we are watching on the film, albeit a bit exaggerated for dramatical purposes. You can even hear the voice of Janet, the little girl who was supposedly possessed by the ghost of an old man. In the recorded interview, this little girl talks in a scruffy voice which will have you believing in demons and possessions in no time flat. The premise for the film is that an angry ghost is terrorizing a family in England and The Warren’s are called in by the Catholic Church to be their unofficial eyes and ears on this thing, to make sure that it’s not a hoax. Of course it turns out to be super real and they end up fighting the specters. Question is,  will they survive the ordeal?

What I’ve always liked about James Wan is that he is a master at orchestrating a good scare. He might not be all that original in terms of the stories he chooses to tell, because most of the time you can tell exactly which films he is feeding from, but when it comes to scaring your pants off, he knows how to do it beautifully! If you've seen other James Wan films, like say the Insidious films, then you'll feel a familiarity here, he uses some of the same scares, but some of the scares are pretty original and well orchestrated, so expect a little bit of the old (like toys moving on their own) and a little bit of the new. And speaking of how Wan feeds off other horror films, The Conjuring 2 feels like a mix between The Exorcist (1973), The Amityville Horror (1979) and Poltergeist (1982), but that’s probably because all of these films are feeding off the same source materials, three  of the most famous “supernatural” stories out there. The possession of Anneliese Michel, which served as the basis for The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005) and The Exorcist (1973), ‘The Enfield Poltergeist’ which is the case that inspired Poltergeist (1982) and the most famous case of them all, The Amityville Horror case which spawned a whole series of films on its own. What James Wan has done is, he joined all these cases in one huge hodge podge of a supernatural film. Hell, we even get demonic nuns on this one! So when people say that Wan has thrown everything but the kitchen sink in there, they aren’t kidding.

James Wan started his directorial career as a horror director with SAW (2004) and Dead Silence (2007). He even kicked off a successful horror franchise by directing Insidious (2010) and Insidious:Chapter 2 (2013). The Conjuring (2013) was his most successful horror film to date scaring in more than 137 million at the box office on a 20 million dollar budget. When your horror film makes more than six times its budget back, Hollywood tends to give you free reins on what you want to do, they also tend to throw big budget projects at you which is why Wan ended directing Furious 7 (2015). Wan even hinted at quitting horror for good, but I never bought it. It’s interesting he chose to go back to his horror roots with The Conjuring 2 (2016). It means he’s a real horror nut at heart, without realizing it; he’s becoming a true blue horror director, could he turn out to be one of the greats of his generation? Time will tell if he sticks with the genre. His next film is Aquaman for Warner Bros, yet another big budget film that’s sure to be successful, so it looks like we’ll be seeing Wan directed films for a while. But will he return to horror? All I can say is he’s demonstrated great ability at telling horror stories, He’s shown great command over choosing the right angles, the appropriate lighting, the camera movement, the control of atmosphere…he knows how important these elements are, how important it is for it to be raining, for those skies to look gray, for that wind to be blowing and those leaves to be rustling through the grass. He understands the importance of sound and music in a horror films, he knows how these elements work best and he uses them to tell his stories in the spookiest way possible. Here’s hoping he doesn’t give up on the genre!

Rating: 4 out of 5

Patrick Wilson and James Wan

Friday, June 17, 2016

Batman (1989)

Batman (1989)

Director: Tim Burton

Cast: Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson, Kim Basinger, Jack Palance, Billy Dee Williams, Michael Gough

Well, as I write this review, I’m right in the middle of Summer 2016 and I’ve decided to focus my attention as a movie buff on mind blowing Summer Blockbusters. You know, big budget, loud movies released in Summer time. Inevitably, my mind went to Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), one of the biggest Summer Blockbusters ever; period. Now every time I think about Tim Burton’s two Bat films, Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992) I go into this mental struggle as to which one is the better of the two. I ultimately end up using the argument that parents use to refer to their children “I love them both for different reasons”. A lot of kids growing up nowadays don’t realize the kind of phenomenon that the release of Burton’s Batman (1989) meant to the world. I mean this movie quite literally took over the world! “Bat fever” took over the nation, the bat insignia was on everything from t-shirts to sneakers and Prince’s monster hit “Batdance” played nonstop over the airwaves! There was video games, comic books, costumes, anything and everything based on the movie. I mean, I remember people getting hair cuts that resembled the bat insignia! It was crazy, but of course, it all came as a result of Tim Burton’s fantastic movie, which I must say still retains that sense of spectacle even by today’s standards.

The story revolves around Jack Napier, a gangster who is transformed into a freak when Batman throws him into a vat of toxic chemicals. The chemicals turn Napier’s skin white and leave a permanent smile on his face. From then on, he calls himself “The Joker”, to him life is now one big bad joke. He wants to take over Gotham by making a mockery of them first; he wants to kill Gothamites with a chemical that kills them from a laughing fit and leaves their corpses with a big fat grin on their face. What thrusts this films villain is his hatred of society, to him society is a joke meant to be laughed at and squashed like a cockroach. He uses society’s greed against them, criticizing a society that revolves around the love for money. To him their lives are “failed and useless” and they have to be relived of them. Moving the story forward is the classic good guy mirrors the bad guy motif, one created the other and vice versa. It’s the classic “freak vs. freak” storyline culminating on top of a gothic church, with a duke out between the two freaks. In the balance is the life of Vicky Vale, Bruce Wayne’s love interest and the life of all Gothamites.

At the center of this film’s success is director Tim Burton. Having directed two back to back box office winners: Pee Wee’s Big Adventure (1985) and Beetlejuice (1986) he was chosen to direct the new Batman film; which had been under development at Warner. Two comedies like Pee Wee’s Big Adventure and Bettlejuice don’t exactly scream “dark gothic comic book film!”, but we need to remember that Burton was gothic and dark from the very beginning when he was making short films like Vincent (1982) and Frankenweenie (1984). So in many ways, he was the perfect choice for taking on the rigors of directing a film that takes place in the ultra gothic Gotham City. Actually, Burton embraced that Gothic element of the comic books better than any director before or after him. Nobody has gone as gothic as he did, which is what sets his bat films apart from all others. Yet, on hindsight, and considering what the producers wanted to achieve with this movie, I think they chose him precisely because of the comedy. You see, the producers of this here film wanted to make a Bat film that was closer in tone to the television show, so I’m thinking that when they hired Burton, they thought they’d get this guy who’d make a campy film, a la the television show. What they got instead was the soon to be master of goth.

Having Burton as a director actually saved the film from campiness hell because producers were always pushing for the campy sense of humor from the television show because they thought that’s what people remembered about Batman, they thought that this is what people would want and would expect from a Batman movie. Yet for his take on Batman, Burton went for the darkness seen in Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, a graphic novel that has gone on to influence almost every single Batman film to date. Hell, we even see images from Miller’s seminal graphic novel in Zack Snyder’s Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)! With his graphic novel, Miller stepped away from the campy vibe of the show and what DC had done with the character up to then to present us with a dark, aged, pissed off Batman. Burton latched on to that rather than the campiness and audiences loved it. Gotham City streets looked shadowy and dangerous, not colorful.

But producers didn’t give up on the campy television show vibe. The finally found a director who gave them exactly what they wanted with Joel Schumacher, who made the franchise killing Batman Forever (1995) and Batman & Robin (1997). The death of that first run of Bat films proved that Burton had made the right choice in stepping way from the campiness. Without Burton’s creative force behind the films, they became exactly what the producers wanted: silly children’s films. We have to remember producers are more interested in marketing capabilities of a film, the deals, the toys, the cartoon shows, the action figures, which is probably why a lot of companies where upset at Burton’s film, they felt it was too adult to create merchandising for kids; though most companies later gave in due to the films gargantuan success.

After the films success, it was Bat everything! And it’s true, when we look at Burton’s Bat films, there’s something very adult about these movies, the themes, the dialog. In Batman, Bruce Wayne and Vicky Vale have sex, Jack Napier was screwing Grissom’s girl, there’s tons of double entendre, more so on Batman Returns (1992) .Yes my friends, this Batman film was a strange bird, though it seemed tailor made for kids, Burton gave it an adult twist. Sure Batman has its origins in comic books, which for the longest time were associated as something strictly for children, but to everyone’s surprise Burton’s film was dark, “adult” and sexual. What makes it a strange bird is that it didn’t lose that fun comic book vibe either. We still had the bat mobile, the bat jet and the utility belts! Usually films that defy their target audience end up as huge failures (The Monster Squad for example), but Batman walked that fine line and came out winning in the end.

The film has a violent edge to it, its heroes and villains were not squeaky clean, in fact, they were on the edge of insanity! For example, The Joker electrocutes someone to the point where he becomes a charred skeleton. Characters aren’t afraid to kill and be insane, I mean, villains like Nicholson’s The Joker are rarely seen in films these days, today studios prefer to be extremely politically correct, which is just a bore when it comes to a big bad villain. Back in the 80’s villains were over the top, sometimes taking over a film as was the case with Batman. It’s Nicholson who steals the show, who gives the stand out performance. Nicholson said on many occasions that this was his favorite character, and one can clearly see he is having a blast playing the clown prince of crime. It’s so refreshing to go back and see these films, villains feel more intense, more evil. Even Batman was a little more intense than expected, he actually tells The Joker that he wants to kill him; something that goes against what Batman is all about in the comics. Batman doesn’t kill villains, he brings them to justice, he sends them to Arkham Asylum. He doesn't end up killing The Joker, but you could hear it in his voice that that was his intended to do and he would've done it, had the Joker not done it himself.

Actually, many comic book fans were enraged with this film, starting with the choice to cast Michael Keaton as Batman. I have to admit, like most, at first I agreed. How the hell was Beetlejuice going to play Batman? The two didn’t go together in my mind. But then I saw the film and boom, Keaton is Batman, there was no doubt about it. Now, most people agree that Keaton’s take is the best. I screened both of these films (I screen movies at a local dive bar) and to my surprise, a lot of people came to see both of them. At a certain point in the night one guy said “that’s the real Batman!” We can’t forget Danny Elfman’s amazing music, which is just harrowing. It honestly is a huge part of this films success. We can’t leave out the art direction which is so gothic, so grimy! By the way, the art direction won the film an academy award! Who would’ve thought it right? A comic book movie winning an Oscar!

Since then, comic book films have come a long way. Today we get a comic book film every few months, but back then? A good comic book film was a rare thing! And we have two great films to thank for this, Richard Donner’s Superman (1978) and Tim Burton’s Batman (1989). Both of these films were two giant steps for comic book films! They showed that comic book movies, when done right, had huge money making potential. People embraced them. Between these two important comic book films, it was Batman (1989) that elevated things to another level, it was simply put an incredibly lucrative hit, the biggest comic book movie of its time, an incredible success all across the world. The phenomenon took a life of its own, but we need to remember that the phenomenon came as a result of an amazing movie, which remains, in the eyes of this comic book fan, a timeless film worth revisiting  time and time again.  

Rating:  5 out of 5

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Behind the Scenes Awesomeness! Total Recall (1990)

Total Recall (1990) director Paul Verhoeven and Arnold Schwarzenegger show their appreciation to each other.

Make Up Effects genius Rob Bottin working his magic.

Friday, June 10, 2016

The Witch (2015)

The Witch (2015)

Director: Robert Eggers

Cast: Anya Taylor Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw

The quintessential ‘good horror film’ is a diamond in the rough, hard to find, elusive, so when it comes across your path you thank the cinematic gods for it; you cherish it like the delicacy that it is. The Witch is such a film, a true blue fantastic horror film that plays with your notions of religiosity and the supernatural. It takes place during the sixteenth century in New England, a place and time in which being a witch meant you’d get either tortured or hanged, most of the time both.

 On a personal note, it’s interesting that I saw The Witch days after taking a college class on the late works of William Shakespeare. On said class I wrote an essay on the supernatural elements in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. In this essay, I wondered if Macbeth, the power hungry king, had actually spoken to witches and seen actual ghosts and apparitions, or if it was all just part of a head trip in his guilt ridden mind. I concluded that it was a little bit of both. The Witch is similar to Macbeth in that sense; it keeps you on a loop about the witches. Are they real? Are the village folks simply bible crazy? Are they simply religious fanatics willing to take their beliefs to the extremes? Or are witches really snatching up babies for sacrificial purposes?

On The Witch we meet a family of Puritans who are psychologically traumatized by the fact that their baby has disappeared. I mean, literally, the baby was there one moment and the next it wasn’t, vanished into thin air. To make matters worse, the baby disappeared while under the care of the adopted daughter of the family, a girl whom they’ve always suspected of being a witch. But is she? Are they just looking for a scapegoat to blame? As you can see, there are always two possibilities to everything in The Witch; there’s that ambiguity to the story which I loved. You’re never really sure where to stand, which in my opinion makes the film incredibly effective.

Artistically speaking the film is a wonder to behold, the art direction, the wardrobe, the dialog; it all evokes its era to perfection. For starters, the film was mostly shot with natural lighting, this means, little to no artificial light was used during the shoot, which gives the film an amazing look. Interiors were lit with candles; exteriors were lit by the sunlight.  Few directors have pulled this off effectively because it’s a difficult way to shoot a film, a lot can go wrong; you risk images ending up grainy and losing definition. Yet on The Witch, this natural lighting goes so well with the era they are depicting, an era where there was no electricity. Last time I checked, Stanley Kubrick was the last one to pull this off perfectly in Barry Lyndon (1975). So The Witch has a great spooky dark look to it. Another added bonus that adds authenticity to the film is that the dialog rings true. It doesn’t feel out of time or place; this is due to the fact that they used real life accounts of “witchcraft” to write the screenplay. This is why the dialog sounds like something straight out of Shakespeare.

They also got the behavior of these characters right. You feel the backwards mentality of these Puritan Christians. You believe they truly think evil lies within the woods. You feel the paranoia, you feel that genuine fear of God and the Devil and you feel how dangerous it all is. How once you got blamed for possibly being a witch meant you were going to go down even if you weren’t, because now doubt had been planted. The film shows how dangerous religion and hive like mentality can be. How superstition can turn its back on you and bite you in the ass in a heartbeat!  I mean, back then they used witchcraft as an excuse to kill a person. Let’s say you were a rebellious woman who had an opinion, suddenly they’d blame you for witchcraft and boom, days later you’d be hanging from the ugly end of the rope. A lot of innocent women died this way. So you get that vibe with this film, that when the masses turn on you, you’re done for. For more films dealing with witchcraft watch The Crucible (1996), Witchfinder General (1968) or Haxan: Witchcraft through the Ages (1922), the last one being an exploration of the origins of witchcraft.

I have to hand it to director Robert Eggers for doing his homework and making sure every little detail is faithful to the time period, the 1600's. I mean, so many things worked in favor of this film, right down to shooting in a remote, real location where these actors could cut loose, that was genius. This isn’t some set in a green room, the exteriors were shot a real location, with real freaking trees and mountains and wind, that’s a plus for me in this day and age of computer generated everything’s. The isolated location lends itself to making everything look evil somehow, you know those films that make even nature and animals look evil somehow? Films like Lars Von Trier's Antichrist (2009)? Well, that's what they achieved with The Witch, where even aninals look like they could have evil within them, more so if they are black goats. And speaking of solid performances, that’s what you get all around. Special shout out to Harvey Scrimshaw, the child actor who portrayed the character called ‘Caleb’, he really knocks it out of the park with his performance. He portrayed a child whose psyche has been damaged by religion and its fears. And while I’m at it, kudos to first time director Robert Eggers who made this fine film on his first outing. Here’s hoping this wasn’t just some fluke and he ends up making more films as good as this one.

Rating: 5 out of 5  


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