BlacKkKlansman (2018): A Powerful and Relevant Masterpiece

 

Along with “Hereditary,” “BlacKkKlansman” is my favorite movie of the year thus far. This is a movie that shows why Spike Lee is considered one of the greats. He tackles issues that matter related to race and class and creates compelling characters. This film is a shining example of his expertise and I look forward to checking out more of his past work.

Spike Lee directed, produced and wrote this movie along with quite a few other folks. For producers, you might know Jason Blum, from Blumhouse Productions, and Jordan Peele, from “Get Out”. Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz and Kevil Willmott wrote it with Spike Lee. You can definitely see their influence in all the best ways, as Blum at his best brings tension and Peele brings awareness.

The story follows Detective Ron Stallworth (John David Washington, son of Denzil Washington) as the first African-American police officer in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He infiltrates the KKK after a phone conversation with their leader David Duke (Topher Grace) leading to the department assigning Detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to be the face people see as they uncover the operation the KKK has in the area.

SPOILERS ahead

The Cinematography – The cinematography is great at creating tension and Chayse Irvin does a fantastic job of making each scene feel a claustrophobic. This is a film where you feel the pressure of being undercover and just how awful humans can be. At times, it has the closeness of a documentary, but it still manages to capture the feel of an action film through the entire run. We see this from the beginning with Ron appearing small and confined in the Black Student Union events as well as the full room feeling small as well. This makes a second appearance at the end when the KKK burns a cross on the hill across from Patrice’s and Ron’s apartment in retaliation for the events of the film. The camera gets in close on their panic and pans out a small window to reveal the large seen of terror meant to overwhelm them. Claustrophobia is simply used masterfully for both symbolism and fear.

The Characters – The characters are the strongest part of this film. Each of them gives a different perspective in relationship to racism and justice. How that is explored gives different dimensions to all of them as the film progresses.

Flip – Adam Driver plays Detective Flip, a Jewish-American detective who goes undercover in the KKK as Ron Stallworth. It is here that he realizes just how deep anti-Semitism goes in the United States.  From this, he begins to relate much more to Ron’s struggle as an African-American man in Colorado Springs. He questions the mission at first, but after coming around he gets angry at the Police Department for shutting down the investigation after they prevent a KKK terror attack.

Patrice – Patrice is the President of the Black Student Union at Colorado College. She doesn’t trust the police and we see why when one of them sexually abuses her after a march. Laura Herrier (Liz from “Spider-Man: Homecoming”) does an amazing job. She is wholly focused on justice and brings in speakers to the college. These lectures are throughout the film and boost the main themes present in the movie, as speakers talk about structural racism that exists and pervades in the United States.

Ron – Ron is the detective who is undercover in the Colorado College Black Student Union. As someone who relates to all they are going through (he is the first African-American cop in this small town and obviously grew up facing extreme racism) he speaks in defense of them and eventually uses his place on the force to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan. He calls their headquarters and gets membership, convincing David Duke he is a white. Over the course of the film we see how his relationship with Patrice develops, with him eventually revealing that he is an undercover cop and why he was at Black Student Union events in the first place. This changes their relationship, but they get through it. She never ever trusts him fully, given her own past experiences and privileges provided to police and abuses she has experienced and witnessed. Ron understands this but doesn’t leave the force even though the chief at times looks down on him and he is never given the chance to do undercover work. Him calling David Duke was him taking action because he was bored and saw being on the narcotics force as doing nothing to help people. Any action he takes to make things better is him coming up against the system that he is a part of and it makes his relationship as a cop on the force intriguing.

History and Structural Racism – On what I said before, racism has not gone away. This is a film that recognizes that (it is Spike Lee, I’d be surprised if it didn’t). Spike Lee digs into the power of the KKK, of how the one guy who wants to go after them (Ron, and later his partner) get turned away by the police department because those in power don’t want those who sympathize or help the KKK to get heat. This is still reality. It is hard to say it has gotten better when the President says, “There are good people on both sides,” at a White Nationalist Rally where a counter protester was murdered. The current President of the United States said that, and that cannot be understated. Things don’t just change when laws are passed, racism is real as is the fact that if you are white in America, you are privileged and more likely to be in positions of power. History isn’t just erased, it moves forward with everything else and current events illustrate that horrifyingly.

The Past and Today – The end of the film ends with Trump failing to condemn the White Nationalists / KKK folks and saying there were good people on both sides. Something that should be easy wasn’t… who does someone like that surround themselves with? That is the reality of where we are today and why the fight for civil rights is ongoing. You don’t kill racism or upend structural racism in a generation. It takes time, generations and work. Look at anywhere around the world that has gone through extreme turmoil and oppression. The story of humanity isn’t pretty and the only way anything gets done is by speaking.

This was a film that deals with the modern terrors of the KKK, racism and the structural racism of the past and present and tells it through compelling history and characters. The demons of the past have never left the United States and I believe in this movies call to action. Call out racism where you see it and work to make things better for everyone. Structural racism and the sins of the past that seep through the present can’t be ignored. This country can be so much better, as can all the individuals who make up the U.S.A.

Final Score: 10 / 10. Perfect and relevant.

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Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018) – The Best Spider-Man Film

       Sony has made so many crappy films recently. “The Emoji Movie,” the past “Amazing Spider-Man” films just got worse over time and felt like commercials for franchise management. The clips I’ve watched of “Venom” haven’t helped that as the writing I witnessed was just awful so I really don’t want to spend money to even rent that film, it makes “Suicide Squad” look like a work of amazing art. So Sony doesn’t have a good track record with Spider-Man outside of the first 2 Raimi films and their co-operation with Disney with “Homecoming,” until this film. This is my favorite Spider-Man film and easily one of my favorite films of the year, and is likely to end up in my Top 5 Films of 2018.

“Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” was directed by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman who was one of the writers along with Phil Lord. Phil Lord is the writer behind “The Lego Movie” and he brings that same fun and surprising level of depth here.

The story follows Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) who is a young kid in Brooklyn is bit by a radioactive spider in an abandoned ally and witnesses Peter Parker facing off against foes. He soon realizes there are many other Spider-Men and must deal with the consequences of their plans as well as coming to terms with becoming Spider-Man himself.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

The Soundtrack – The soundtrack is on it. It taps into the core emotions of Miles and the other characters and when they reach their highs it soars, and when there is a threat you can feel the tension eating at your skull. Daniel Pemberton did an amazing job. This music explores the full spectrum of what it means to live and is energizing at so many moments in the film. The impact of scenes would not have been the same without the power of this music.

The Animation -They started work on this film back in 2014, and I can see why. “Into the Spider-Verse” combines multiple animation styles (anime for Peni Parker, black and white for Spider-Noir, WB Cartoon for Spider-Ham and real life inspired for Gwen, Peter B. Parker, Peter Parker and Miles) and never stops being beautiful. From the Particle Accelerator being activated and the colliding of multiple dimensions, with the creation of a near black hole at the finale, to a forest with golden leaves contrasted with the red of Peter and Miles and the White of Gwen…this team knew how to use color and styles to make a seamless masterpiece. This film better win best animated when the Oscars role around.

The Villains – This is a film with some well designed and sometimes extremely compelling villains. I’ll cover 3 of them here. There is Liz Octavius who works for Kingpin and invented the Particle Accelerator that brought all the Spider-Men out of their universe in the first place. She is the passionate mad scientist and I love how she is never afraid of Kingpin even when we know he will kill anyone for failure.

Kingpin is the main baddie and his motivation is to bring back his wife Vanessa and their son as they died in a crash when he as about to kill Spider-Man years ago. You get his motivation as he is a man full of guilt who is ready to risk everything for another chance with the people he loves. This is no Netflix’s “Daredevil” Kingpin but he serves his purpose well. I wanted to see more of who he was and know more about his past, so he succeeded at keeping me interested.

Prowler is the best of the villains. Prowler we learn is Miles’s Uncle who has been supporting his art and is in deep with owing his life to the Kingpin. We see the threat of who he is as he helps Kingpin kill the original Peter Parker, but also his empathy as when he is given the choice to kill Miles, he saves him and admits he admires the person Miles is becoming. In the books Prowler is a black-mailing, gas-lighting bastard and inspires Miles to be better by how terrible he is. The complexity is still there, but I enjoyed this version so much more. Mahershala Ali is also one of my favorite actors and him voicing Prowler helped. I loved seeing his dynamic with Miles and that even though he was doing bad, he never stopped loving his nephew.

The Heroes – The heroes are easily the best part of this film and they do more in less time than Marvel’s MCU. Most of the characters of the MCU we love have had at least one film of development. These are character who don’t receive that but accomplish more, largely from the writing, acting and animation that is able to add a level of depth that is wholly unique to the film while still taking inspiration. If the Villains had been on this level chances are this film would be the best film of the year, they were great…but not as great as the heroes and I’m going to explore why.

Miles’s Parents are great in that his dad is a police officer who has so much suppressed masculinity he can’t talk to his own son and is showing him up early on until he is willing to open up after he is afraid he is going to what relationship he has.

Aunt May is the heart of the film as she is the one who is carrying on Peter Parker’s legacy after he is killed by Kingpin. She is the mentor figure for all the different Spider-People and can hold up her own. Lily Tomlin gives so much gravitas and empathy to the role. I loved every scene she was in as each time it revealed something more about whatever Spider-Person she was interacting with.

Peni, Spider-Ham and Spider-Noir are the support characters and play off the core leads of Gwen, Peter B. Parker and Miles really well. You have Peni who is the young sincere anime girl, Spider-Ham as the classic cartoon  pig who jokes but works with cartoon physics so is quite powerful and the grim and gritty Spider-Noir (voiced by Nicolas Cage) who is the edgy private eye who spends his time fighting Nazis in his universe. The way they play off the villains the heroes is a lot of fun and I’d watch films from all of their universes. Spider-Noir I especially found intriguing.

Gwen Stacey / Spider-Woman is one of the core leads of the film as she is one of Miles’s teachers and saves him and Peter B. Parker after they steal from Kingpin in order to stop his plan. I’ve read the first “Spider-Gwen” comic and I like the world. The righting for Volume 0 isn’t the best but I’m willing to read on because I love the character, the art and the world. This version is not quite that Gwen Stacey (this one dances) but takes inspiration from it, just as Miles takes inspiration from the “Ultimate” comics universe he was created in. She is a character alone until her friendships with the other Spider-People and seeing her open up is a really cool arc. Hailee Steinfeld is wonderful in the role. I hope they do some spin-offs in her universe as I think she is the best character in the movie outside of Miles Morales.

Peter B. Parker is from a world where Spider-Man’s personal life falls apart. In his world he buried Aunt May, he ends up getting divorced from Mary Jane and is wholly Spider-Man. He has no life outside the character so is a perpetual child. He takes up the mentor role when the machine pulls him into Miles’s world and it is from this he grows up, discovering that he even wants kids. His arc is really cool as he has a death wish for most of the film because of how miserable his life is and it is only through Miles showing him there is another way that he finds a reason to live again. Jake Johnson does a fantastic job in the role and gives the character a lot of depth.

Peter Parker is voiced by Chris Pine and exists in Miles Morales’s universe (like in the “Ultimate” comics). He rescues Miles but is killed by Kingpin before he can teach Miles how to be Spider-Man. It is a powerful death that you feel through the entire film. Mary Jane makes a speech on how Parker shows anyone can be Spider-Man and Stan Lee as a comic book owner says the same thing. This Spider-Man is very much the Parker from the comics but with inspiration from the Sam Raimi films and it is wonderful how they blend those elements together (Spider-Man has a flashback of him doing the dance from “Spider-Man 3”) and it is because this Peter is at the top of his game and still so young (having married Mary Jane pretty recently it seems) has his life together, only for Kingpin to take it all away. It is a tragedy that matters and he doesn’t come back. Death matters in this world and it means everyone we lose during the film is felt.

Miles Morales is the main character of the film and his arc is taking responsibility for the role that was thrust upon him. He is full of so much fear (new fancy school, new powers by accident) and that is a difficult path for him. What makes things complicated as well is his relationship with his dad, who is a cop who doesn’t let anyone close. It is only in the death of Prowler (when Prowler chooses not to kill Miles) that healing finally happens. Miles was always closest to his Uncle Aaron (Prowler) and his dad regrets the relationship he lost with his brother. This motivates both Miles and his dad to try and make a relationship happen. It is beautiful and organic and I can’t wait to see how things develop further. Miles is also the rookie out of all the Spider-People and none of them take him seriously except for Peter B. Parker so he has to not only prove that he can be a hero to himself, but to those already excelling in their roles as heroes. I loved how it was executed. Miles is one of my favorite characters and I highly recommend Bendis’s “Ultimate Spider-Man” run where Miles is introduced to anyone. This one has more heart than that run (Prowler is handled better) but both are amazing and if you loved Miles in this film, you will love him in the comics. Shameik Moore gives this character so much heart.

This was the perfect film and I hope it at least wins Best Animated Film at the Oscars. There is so much heart in all the characters who are each compelling, there is loss with the deaths our heroes experience and each action has consequences. This is a film that pays tribute to the creators (Ditko, Lee and Bendis) and truly shows that anyone can be a hero. If you enjoy great animation (seriously this is one of the most beautifully animated films I’ve ever watched) and amazing stories you owe it to yourself to see this film. Sony has put out a lot of crap and there hasn’t been a great Spider-Man film since “Spider-Man 2.” As a Spider-Man fan this was everything I could ever want in a film and I can’t wait to see it again.

Final Score: 10 / 10. Can’t wait to see what they do with the Spider-Verse in the future.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018): The Dark Humor and Despair of the “Old West”

      I am a huge Coen Brothers fan. “Fargo,” “Blood Simple” and “The Big Lewbowski” are some of my favorite films of all time and I love the desolation and farcical nature that is brought to so many of their dramas. “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is certainly up there with those films, but doesn’t quite reach their level of perfection. Lately they’ve been doing more collaborations but this is wholly a Coen Brothers film as they wrote, produced and directed this film.

    “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is a Western anthology that follows the tales of the gunslinger, the thief, the conman, the prospector, the cowboy and the bounty hunter. Each story is haunted with tales of death and destruction as all are faced with choices told in a storybook fashion. The name of the anthology also is the name of the first story within the anthology itself.

I’m judging each story individually before an overall take on the whole, since though they are each connected in theme, it is still an anthology film.

SPOILERS ahead

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is one of the happiest of the tales, as even though death and destruction happen, Buster Scruggs always has a song on his lips and his sheer joy rubs off on the events throughout the story. The story follows Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson) the Gunslinger as he goes about from town to town, taking out people who challenge him. It finally all comes to a head when the Man in Black finds him and it is the duel he finally loses, that brings his story to an end. This one was great as a musical and I love Tim Blake Nelson’s energy as Buster Scruggs. He is fun and funny and even though is willing to kill always treats people as a good person first and always has a song on his lips. This is what makes his death tragic, but he does get to go to Heaven and gets angel wings, so his story isn’t entirely tragic…especially compared to the stories that come up later.

Score: 9.4 / 10. The cinematography is beautiful, the music is great and if we’d had more time with characters it could have been a perfect Musical Western.

Near Algodones

This story is comparable to “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” in how absurd it is, though it differs in that it doesn’t have the joy of that story. This is a story of desperation and lack of luck where every situation leads to a worse one. The story follows a young cowboy (James Franco) who is attempting to rob an isolated bank. He fails and is about to be hung by local law enforcement, when some Native Americans attack and leave him to die. Another band of thieves takes him and and they are caught and brought to town to be hung. This is the young cowboy’s second hanging and the one where he finally dies. This was the story that made me wish we’d gotten the Native story in these tales. They are all from the perspective of the privileged old west, which does have intriguing stories, but the Natives are only ever antagonists or in the case of this story, indifferent. Some of that tribe’s story could have been explored in this but instead Franco’s character just takes the long way around to finally getting hung.

Score: 7.5 / 10

Meal Ticket

This story was by far the most haunting and probably my most favorite. There are two characters, the Impresario (Liam Neeson) and his actor Harrison (Harry Melling). Harrison doesn’t have arms or legs and performs speeches and Shakespeare as the Impresario travels through towns to make money. We don’t know how they came about together but we soon see how little the Impresario doesn’t care about Harrison at all leading into a tragic ending, where the Impresario buys a chicken who can do basic math and it is implied he drops Harrison into the river. This is after Harrison has stopped bringing in the money he once did. Liam Neeson plays the Impresario and is wonderfully creepy. He reminds me of a much worse version of Fagin from Dickens’ “Oliver” and seeing just how much he disregards Harrison is powerful as well as Harrison’s fear as Harrison only acts through his eyes and the acting he puts into the shows. This story is all about exploration and despair and how powerless the only good person (Harrison) is in a world that sees him as a burden or something to be exploited. It is a tragedy and easily the best story of the bunch.

Score: 10 / 10.

All Gold Canyon

“All Gold Canyon” is a film focused on the beauty of nature and the ravings of an old prospector (Tom Waits) searching for gold in the wilderness. I really enjoyed this story as so much of it is Man v Nature as the prospector goes through the process of finding gold flakes and eventually hitting the gold but finding himself attacked by a young man who was watching him as he is no longer facing the wilderness but facing the selfishness of humanity. He ends up killing the man after he outsmarts him and buries him in the small hole he created in his search for the gold. It is a really great story with the only problem being how distracting the CGI deer is. There was no reason not to use a real deer given how beautiful the landscape is and the owl looked real at least. If there hadn’t been the deer and bad CGI this story would have been perfect for what it was. I was rooting for the muttering prospector who talks to himself, I wanted him to find the gold and I was happy when he did and survived.

Final Score: 9.6 / 10

The Gal Who Got Rattled

“The Gal Who Got Rattled” is the weakest of the stories and brings everything else down. There are far too many characters, none of them are really likable or interesting and it has nothing profound to say and lacks a coherent point. The story follows Alice (Zoe Kazan) who is traveling west with her brother to marry. Her brother dies along the way and we learn she’s been conned and now doesn’t have any money. One of the cowboys falls in love with her and that goes nowhere, and later she is with her brother’s dog when they are attacked by Natives and she ends up killing herself when the leader of the caravan says she should do it cause it is a better fate than getting captured. This one has the same problems as “Near Algodones” in how the Native Americans only exist as a threat and also in that we never get to really know any of the characters. They are doing things but I couldn’t really tell you who they are. This story is cinematically beautiful, but when that is the only thing I’m saying as a pro, you kind of failed.

Final Score: 6 / 10

The Mortal Remains

“The Mortal Remains,” is also one of the best stories of the bunch. This is a story that has an element of magical surrealism to it as for a good portion of the film I thought all the characters might be dead. The story follows 5 characters in a carriage on their way to Fort Morgan in a stagecoach. The conversation unfolds as we learn about our characters and their relationships. From an old religious lady who is coming to see her husband, the Frenchman who says that her professor husband was probably cheating on her, a trapper who has no internal editor and is looked down on by the lady for how unclean he physically is and the Irishman and Englishman who we learn at the end are Bounty Hunters. There is an heir of foreboding through the entire conversation and outside it is dark and covered and mist, this made me think of the afterlife and if they were all being transported their. The fact that the carriage doesn’t stop until they reach Fort Morgan played into this. We see this theme in the hotel they stop at has a stairway of light leading up that the bounty hunters carry the dead body up and in the carriage driver whose face we never see and is always moving. My favorite characters were the bounty hunters as the others with them were a bit bland. We learn their backstory but they are more interesting in how they reacted to their situation and the bounty hunters. Their fear and not knowing what to do made them more compelling than the backstories they shared, which made the story work.

Final Score: 9 / 10. Solidly great. Would have been better with more interesting characters outside of the bounty hunters.

“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is well worth your time if you are a Coen Brothers or western fan. This film captures so much of what works and doesn’t work about westerns and I loved the absurdity, detachment and sorrow that the Coens bring to their films. This is a beautiful anthology and I would have watched more stories if it had been longer. When it is great it is perfect and when it is flawed it is still enjoyable. Not many anthology films can claim that, as average is easy. This was an amazing film and definitely one of my favorites, though it might not make my Top 5 at the end of the year. This year is a year of steep competition and the things that bring the anthology down are enough to keep it from landing higher up on the list of greats this year. Still, this is a film I highly recommend. Check it out.

Final Score: 9.6 / 10 The bad stories bring it down, though the great stories make this score still very high.

Upgrade (2018): An Amazing Sci. Fi. Thriller Worth Your Time

   “Upgrade” is a really great film. This is the kind of film that reminded me so much of “Ex Machina” as it deals with a similar exploration of Artificial Intelligence and what makes a person, which any story exploring personhood and identity is something I am always intrigued by. These are ideas that when pulled off well, lead to unforgettable films, and “Upgrade” does not disappoint.

The film was directed and written by Leigh Whannell. He’s written a lot of horror movies mostly, like the “Saw” Franchise and “Insidious.” This film certainly has horror elements but is more of a thriller.

The story follows Grey (Logan Marshall-Green) a stay at home mechanic. When his wife Asha (Melani Vellajo) is killed and he is paralyzed in a mysterious attack. After the attack his enigmatic CEO client Eron gives him STEM, an A.I. that makes it so he can walk again also can communicate with him. With new drive he seeks out those responsible for the killing of his wife.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

The World – The world is a sci. fi. future where there are self driving cars and areas of extreme tech. advancement and desolate poverty, such as where Grey grew up. The world is fascinating and it is a believable place where the plot that goes down would happen. The through line of wonder and desperation makes the world real and I would watch another story told in this universe.

The Lighting / Cinematography – Part of what brings this world to light is the cinematography. This is a film that uses light really well. There is a red tinge pver everything and when they are in the poorer areas of town everything is draped in darkness. These things do a great job at racking up the tension and isolating Grey. The use of red and black express the isolation beautifully and that is part of what makes the film’s presentation work.

The Plot – The plot revolves around Grey hunting down his wife’s killer and the mystery with that as he learns to work with an A.I. that he lets control his body in life and death scenarios. There are some dark twists as each new reveal shows that there was another manipulation going on, leading up to the final reveal. All is not as it seems and this film is figuring out just how many betrayals are in store for Grey.

The Reveal – STEM is the bad guy and wins. STEM wanted to become human so it created the circumstances where Grey would accept taking it in and in the end takes control of Grey’s body and mind and kills the CEO who created it, preventing another STEM from being born. It is a dark, powerful and fascinating story.

Okay:

The Wife and CEO / Supporting Cast – The supporting cast is okay but I felt like the wife, CEO and gangster who killed the wife could have done with more exploration. They are plot mechanics in the end for the advancement of STEM’s self-actualization, which worked but it kept the film from perfection. If they’d all felt as fully realized as Grey or STEM this film would have been perfect as the mystery and tension never lets up. All it needed was more realized characters on the sidelines.

This is a film I highly recommend to any fan of sci. fi. Like “Ex Machina” before, this is a film that doesn’t have a large cast and doesn’t need one. The core ideas being explored of personhood and fear of A.I. are handled really well and the main thriller is masterfully executed. I highly recommend checking this film out if you get the chance. Might not make my Top 5 at the end of the year, but it is competing to be on that list.

Final Score: 9.6 / 10

 

A Quiet Place (2018): The Beauty of Silence

  “A Quiet Place” is a masterfully done work of suspense. I wish I’d seen it in theaters, as even watching it on amazon, I couldn’t pull away. How quiet the movie is works at keeping you involved in the personal struggles the different family members are going through against this unknown threat. Before I get into spoilers and details, this is a film I highly recommend to any fan of horror films.

   The film was directed and co-written by John Krasinski, along with Bryan Woods and Scott Beck as the other co-writers.

   The story follows the Abbott family, who must deal with creatures that hunt by sound and have taken over Earth, so they stay silent in order to live. They are able to because they have deaf daughter, and learned ASL in order to communicate prior before the takeover. The story involves their survival and wrestling with a tragedy that has divided them.  

The Pros:

The World – Monsters that hunt by sound is such a cool concept, and you don’t see them until the end, like any great monster movie. The world is post-apocalyptic with everything just dead and humanity reeling as they don’t know to find the weakness of the monsters.

The Family – John Krasinski is owns his role as the father and has near perfect chemistry with Emily Blunt, who plays his wife, and their three children. Millicent Simmons is great as their daughter Regan, whose character is deaf. Millicent Simmons is also a deaf actress in reality. She plays a part in a a tragedy when her youngest brother activates a toy that she gave him, after he steals the batteries for the toy and turns it on. This leads to the creatures attacking and killing him. It is this guilt that drives the relationship between her and the family after that.

Wrestling Guilt  and Finding Peace – Wrestling with guilt is a major theme of the film, as both the dad, Lee, and his daughter, Regan, carry the tension over the death of the youngest son. The father for not being able to save the son, and Regan for giving him the toy. This disharmony is finally resolved when they talk to each other and realize there isn’t blame. I loved it, especially as the payoff was the father’s gift to Regan, the ear implants, that when turned up knock out the creatures. Each must confront their fear of themselves and the monsters to defeat the monsters and this all done in near silence. The tension exists in the slightest of sounds and when the sound is finally activated the discovery…the monster’s weakness to the implants’ frequency. There is relief and victory. The payoff was amazing, and how each found peace was wonderful as Lee sacrifices himself to save his kids and the mother Evelyn and daughter Regan save the baby and find the weakness of the creatures in the process.  

(add the silence factor.)

Okay:

The Monsters – The monsters work until you see them. This is a problem with most monsters, as once you see the monster, they just aren’t scary anymore. This applies to these guys, who are scary in what they do (instant killing of the victim), but once they are close up they are no longer monster perfection. They don’t have eyes so they look like the Venom Symbiote in Spider-Man when it has a host, except without eyes. It wasn’t bad, but it didn’t scare me. The scenes that made me jump, were when I didn’t see the monsters and only saw what they did. I wish they’d always been in the shadows. Their shape is alien and disfigured but the moment you see it, that alienness doesn’t matter anymore. They are just another cgi affect. 

Why a Baby? – They are having a baby when the Earth is occupied by aliens who sense sound. This is so stupid. I get life needs to go on and their plan to hide the sound was good (they have a quiet room in the basement), but I still didn’t see how it was logical, given that they didn’t know the monsters’ weakness until the very end after the baby was born.

    This is a movie I’d highly recommend. I didn’t get into horror movies until later in life and this one does the job of a horror film perfectly. So much of what makes horror works is what makes, any great story work… Does the story have tension? Do I care about the characters? This film works because of the characters. This is a family that has gone through tragedy and as they are being torn apart in surviving the unknown threat of the monsters, they find the power to come together, which is the core of the film. I cared about what happened and the struggles I saw on the screen. This is something I wish more horror movies would take note of. If you care about the people, you care about the film. 

Final Score: 9.6 / 10

 

Hereditary (2018): Layers of Horror and History in a Beautiful Miniature

 

“Hereditary” thus far is my favorite movie of the year. This is a horror movie that does horror perfectly. It is a slow burn, keeping you horrified and scared for the characters the entire time. This film is difficult to watch in all the right ways, as horror is meant to be unsettling and to make you uncomfortable. This films does this phenomenally and gives compelling characters, powerful themes and a mystery that is never revealed until the end.

“Hereditary” was written and directed by Ari Aster. The story follows the Graham family, specifically the mother, Annie, who is a famous miniature artist who recreates moments from her past. She has a husband and 2 kids, each deals with the death of Annie’s mother in different ways as their shared trauma slowly drives them apart.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

The Tension and Tone – This is a film that is seeping with tension. The film is uncomfortable and creepy from the first scene, and you are left guessing where it is going to take you next. I was at the edge of my seat through most of the film, and that was because of how unsettling the tension and tone were. The movie goes through slow escalation ,and each scene adds more intensifying moments as you spend more time with the family while they fall apart.

The Cinematography – This is a beautiful film. There is symbolism in the artwork of Annie, who has created miniatures from her life experiences, and in the house they are in. Moments are captured in the miniatures that mirror or lead into horrifying events in reality. The use of shadows around the house is done really well too, as is the red light from the tree house that sits outside the home. This use of light is haunting and fits the themes where reality is becoming distorted for Annie, as she learns the truth about her mother.

When Family Falls Apart – The main drama is the family falling apart. Annie nearly killed her son and daughter when she sleepwalked (nearly set them on fire), the son hates her because of it. Her daughter also saw the grandmother as her mother as she was nursed from birth by the grandmother who sought to indoctrinate her. From the get go the only stable part of Annie’s life is her husband. After Annie’s daughter is accidentally killed in a car crash by her son things deteriorate further as she starts seeing ghosts, and more sinister forces manipulate her grief. The characters are all compelling, and the father is especially  intriguing, as he is torn between protecting and loving his son, and taking care of and loving his wife. 

Occult or Mental Illness? – One of the things I liked is that the film is ambiguous on whether it is a history of extreme mental illness that is causing the meltdown, or if it is the cult and the demon that actually exist. By the end it is implied that the demon does exist and ends up possessing the son after the grandmother, mother and daughter have all died. But, even given that fact… the demon works as metaphor, given that it is the unaddressed illness and trauma that are passed on, and in the end destroy the house. It is beautiful and terrifying and works on multiple levels.  

 This is a film that I highly recommend if you are into horror movies. The characters are compelling and you care about all of them. None of the family members are bad people, they are just so broken, and caught in things so far out of their control, that tragedy is the only realistic end the story can tell. This is my favorite movie of this genre, and I’m not a fan of the occult type horror films, however, ghost stories or monster films are more of my jam. The occult is perfect for the story this movie tells, though, and it is a masterpiece well worth your time.

Final Score: 10 / 10

Avengers: Infinity War (2018) – The Power of a Compelling Villain

“Infinity War” is easily in my Top 5 MCU films. This is a film I saw a second time before writing this review, and the only other Superhero films that have been that lucky were “The Dark Knight” and “The Dark Knight Rises.” As you can tell from those and this film, I enjoy my superhero films depressing or bittersweet. This is a film that hits you over the head with loss, and doesn’t stop until the end. Thanos is the villain, but also the protagonist, as his actions drive the film and force our heroes to make choices that define them before the loss comes. I’ll get into spoilers deeper into the review, but for now, this is a film I highly recommend.

This film was directed by the Russo Brothers, written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, while being produced by Kevin Feige.

The story involves the Avengers trying to stop Thanos from getting all the Infinity Stones (cosmically powerful stones born at the Big Bang, and scattered through the Universe), as when he does, he plans to wipe out half the universe.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

The Universe – It is the Marvel Cinematic Universe… a universe full of aliens, cultures, clashing personalities, heroes, villains and in the end consequences. There is a reason I’ve become so drawn into the comic books. What Marvel and Disney have done is to interpret so much of that beautifully on the screen, and each new film I like returning to this enjoyable and fascinating world.

The Superhero Teams – The driving action of the film is the team-ups between different heroes. Characters clash and have to work out their conflicts in order to take on Thanos to keep him from destroying half the population of the Universe. I’ll cover what I liked about the teams below.

Bruce Banner and the Secret Avengers – The film kicks off with Thanos killing Loki and knocking out the Hulk. The Hulk is saved by Heimdall and sent to Earth where Hulk retreats into Bruce Banner. From here we see Banner reunite with the Avengers, and have to depend on his brains to take on the Black Order, as Hulk is afraid to come out after losing to Thanos. It is wonderful seeing this dynamic in action, with those in Wakanda, as he fights in Tony’s Hulkbuster armor against the alien swarm. Banner has always been the outcast in the Avengers, and now that he’s back he can’t even depend on his power as the Hulk. This forces him to adapt to thinking things through as Banner, as he realizes he has deeper issues to explore with the Hulk. I can’t wait to see where his arc goes with the Hulk and the Avengers in “Avengers 4.”

Spider-Man, Doctor Strange and Iron Man – This dynamic is fun. To kick things off, Doctor Strange is the one who doesn’t care about people (he tells Tony and Peter that he will let them die before he gives Thanos the Time Stone). Spidey is full of pop culture references that annoy Tony, and Tony Stark is always trying to take control, which leads to conflict with Doctor Strange because of it. They succeed in taking out a member of the Black Order, but face deadly fallout when they reach Titan, Thanos’ homeworld, to battle the Mad Titan himself.

Star-Lord, Gamora, Drax and Mantis – 3 of this group eventually team up with Spidey, Strange, and Stark against Thanos… which happens after Gamora is kidnapped by Thanos, as she knows the destination of the Soul Stone. She has some powerful scenes with Star-Lord, and some funny scenes with Drax.

Rocket, Groot and Thor – This was my favorite team up, it happens after the Guardians of the Galaxy rescue Thor from his destroyed refugee ship. Thor’s ship was destroyed by Thanos when he picked up the Space Stone from Loki, before Thanos kills Loki. It is the death of Heimdall and Loki, and half of Asgard that have Thor full of anger and broken. This leads to Rocket stepping up to be the Captain and helping Thor through the process of healing, as they head to the legendary location of Nidavellir, so that Thor can create a god killing weapon. Groot is a teenager and full of attitude, but steps up to the plate when he contributes part of himself to making Thor’s new weapon.

The Story Arc of Thanos – Thanos is the protagonist of this film. It is desire for balance in the universe (which he believes can only come about through genocide after his planet is destroyed from running out of resources and overpopulation) that drives his desire for the Infinity Stones. Each stone costs him, as the members of the Black Order are all eventually killed by the Avengers. To get the Soul Stone he has to sacrifice the only one he ever loved (Gamora), and getting the Mind Stone out of Vision nearly costs him his life, when Thor attacks him with the God killing weapon. In the end he wins and wipes out half the universe. Where his story goes from here remains to be seen, as he achieved his goal, and as far as he knows… he is the monster who brought balance to the universe. Josh Brolin truly did a masterful job and is easily one of the best villains in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Okay:

The Black Order – These 4 look really cool but weren’t as effective as they could have been. I would have liked at least one of them to kill one of the good guys. They might be back now that Thanos has all the Infinity Stones, so they could get more development later on… we’ll just have to wait and see.

The Battle in Wakanda – The Battle in Wakanda is pretty generic compared to most of the other fights in the film. Most of the other fights involve use of the environment and powers to try and stop the Mad Titan, where here it is a bunch of expendable aliens against a group of superheroes and soldiers all lined up. It is like every other “big battle.” It still looked good, but the genericness of it all kept it from being a truly memorable part of the film. It was the kind of action we see in every other MCU film.

Pacing – The first time I saw this film I didn’t notice any pacing issues. The second time I watched I thought the beginning could have been cut down and happened faster, the Battle of Wakanda is too long, and Thanos needed more scenes with people. Each film develops him further, and with better pacing we could have gotten more of that, or least more exploration of his faction, the Black Order.

The team ups, the comedy, the action, the characters and their arcs… there is so much I have to recommend about this film. This is a film that could have been a gigantic mess, given how large the cast was, and all the different parts that are in play. The Russo Brothers managed to pull it off. Once again, showing why they are the ones shaping the story of the MCU. If you haven’t seen this movie yet, do it. This is a film that is well worth your time and shows just how powerful stories can be.

Final Score: 9.8 / 10