The Grinch Review

Special Order 937 from Illumination Entertainment’s upper management:

“Priority one. Ensure return of cash profit. All creativity secondary. Audience expendable.”

If that Alien reference was to crass or obscure for you, let me clarify. I’m catching on to Illumination Entertainment’s (the makers of Despicable Me, Sing, etc.) business model of putting financial gain before creativity and filmmaking passion. They actively strive to meet the animation industries bare minimum requirements for a passable mainstream picture. The character models and backgrounds they use are cheaply rendered and don’t have a lot of detail, all to save a quick buck. Their stories are average and likely to go for cheap sentimentality to appear emotional and deep.

Case and point, The Grinch.

I’m sure you know the plot to this classic Dr. Seuss story. It takes place in the town of Whoville, inhabited by a group of jolly people that love the Christmas season. Yes, everyone loves Christmas, all except for the mean old Grinch (Benedict Cumberbatch) who lives atop a mountain with his pet dog Max. Harboring a hatred for all things Christmas, The Grinch devises a plan to steal Christmas by thieving the Who’s holiday gifts and possessions.

A fun, stylish children’s book that rejects consumerism and materialism around Christmas, How the Grinch Stole Christmas! becomes a little more relevant with every passing year. This 2018 interpretation of The Grinch doesn’t take much of a stance on anything, and its reason for existing is questionable. Nothing added is new to the story and therefore is quite predictable and bland. It’s the cinematic equivalent to a rice cake. You eat it because it’s filling and not too unhealthy, but it’s still bland and not very tasty.

The Grinch himself isn’t very “grinchy”. He’s more just a slightly irritable jerk than the ultimate antithesis to Christmas joy. Less mean-spirited, more goofball. Heck, The Grinch smiles more than probably every other incarnation of The Grinch put together. I think Illumination did this so that his character would appeal more to young children, but in the Chuck Jones animated version The Grinch looks menacing, and kids love that TV special. And to top it all off, they had Benedict Cumberbatch voice him, which really baffled me. They thought, “Hey, Cumberbatch is a big star that audiences like, have him voice The Grinch!” The problem there is that he doesn’t fit the character well, completely wasting his acting ability.

It’s tragic because there’s some decent voice acting from very talented actors throughout The Grinch, including Cumberbatch. Rashida Jones, Kenan Thompson, and even Pharrell Williams (who provides the narration) lended their voices for the film. It’s too bad their roles in The Grinch didn’t allow them to utilize their unique acting abilities. All except maybe Kenan, who really gets to be vocally expressive in his role as an obnoxiously jolly individual.

Overall, I believe young children and parents may enjoy the bright colors and “in your face” slapstick humor, but the reality is that this film had so much potential to be something more. Illumination has the talent, money, and resources to pull off something exciting, something magical that is truly memorable for all the right reasons. But with films like The Grinch they play it safe, making a film that’s so sanitized and cautious that there isn’t a truly new idea in sight. And sooner or later their shortcuts are going to reflect in their box office revenue.

I’m fully aware that studio films must be made with a financial profit in mind. Period. But with animation companies like Disney, Laika and DreamWorks there’s at least some give and take with money vs creativity. They take some gambles and put their all into making something people won’t only want to see, but something they can come back to years later and still enjoy. Bottom line, a clear artistic vision is always present with these studios, even if the film isn’t very good. I still go back and watch movies like Coraline, Beauty and the Beast, and Shrek 2. Unfortunately, I can’t see myself going back to view Illumination’s The Grinch ever again.

The Verdict: C-

-Zachary Flint

 

 

 

 

Overlord Review

Don’t you find it frustrating when people compare the quality of one film to that of another? Especially when one is sub-par and the other is regarded as a classic. That’s how I felt going in to Overlord, a film I’ve seen likened to that of 1982’s The Thing as well as Saving Private Ryan, the most brutally realistic depiction of warfare put to screen.

Overlord tells a tale of WWII paratroopers set to airdrop over France the night before the Invasion of Normandy, D-Day. The Allied soldiers have one mission and one mission only: destroy a German radio tower so that the European invasion can be effectively carried out. After their aircraft is shot down before they could reach their target, they are left with only a handful of men to carry on the job. Chief among this squad of soldiers are Cpl. Ford (the battle-hardened leader of the bunch played by Wyatt Russell), Pvt. Boyce (our main protagonist played by Jovan Adepo), and Tibbet (the wisecracking New Yorker stereotype played by John Margaro).

And upon discovering the radio tower, wouldn’t you know it, they uncover an evil Nazi plot involving serums, secret labs, and even zombies. In the words of Indiana Jones, “Nazis. I hate these guys.” Now crunched for time, our heroes must foil a plot with the potential to secure the Third Reich a one thousand year reign.

The truth is, Overlord really isn’t like either of those films I previously mentioned, mainly because it couldn’t decide whether it wanted to be a full on B movie or a more serious war drama. So, instead it rides the line between earnest and corny, never giving us enough of either to be worth our time. Not that war dramas cannot ever be both silly and serious, as we’ve seen with such films as Inglorious Bastards. But where Bastards intentionally blended the two with clever fiction writing, Overlord is neither artistic enough nor dumb enough to make the silliness work to its benefit.

There are hints of “brothers in arms” kind of emotional filmmaking, but the exaggerated characters were a little too out there for me to take it seriously. The motives and characterization of Cpl. Ford is always fluctuating with no consistency, and Tibbet is too stereotypical to the point where he’s irritating.

There’s also hints of science fiction elements to it that jumble up Wolfenstein and even some straight to SyFy Channel schlock. This stuff is fun whenever it comes up, but engaging moments like these mostly don’t come until towards the tail end of the film.

Around the middle chunk of the Overlord was when things were the slowest, and I didn’t feel like the film was utilizing its time well. Our heroes were too frequently placed in boring situations when they could’ve been off doing something vastly more interesting. What would you rather watch, WWII soldiers fighting zombies, or soldiers hiding in an attic for forty minutes?

The real tragedy of it all is that while the writing and story of Overlord are confused and lacking, there was a lot of potential hidden just beneath the surface. I highly enjoyed how cinematic the directing was, and some of the beautiful shot compositions really display the true horrors of warfare. One scene had the outlines of paratroopers dangling from trees silhouetted against the smoky, burning forest in the background. This moment was both stunning and horrifying, and it stuck with me long after I saw it.

The action and special effects, when we finally witness their full potential in the final act, are quite good and easily the most memorable part of Overlord. This is when the movie becomes fully unhinged, giving audiences this unnerving experience through effective body horror and top notch CGI. There’s zombies, nice set pieces, frightening imagery that made my skin crawl, and just about everything else I had been hoping to see all throughout the picture.

Overlord is clearly a bit of a mixed bag. Like several previous Bad Robot productions, it has very high highs and painfully low lows. Its premise is fascinating and sounds like a naturally exciting story, but the writing sabotaged the film every step of the way.

The Verdict: C

-Zachary Flint

The Old Man & the Gun Review

Some men rob banks just for the heck of it. Because the thrill of the chase is just too pleasing and satisfying to pass on. At least, that was the mindset of Forrest Tucker (Robert Redford), a bank robber and escape artist known for escaping prison more than a dozen times. Tucker was recognized as the guy who commits armed robbery in the kindest and most respectful of ways, all while having a smile on his face.

Depicted here are the later years of Tucker’s life, after he meets a rancher named Jewel (Sissy Spacek) who quickly becomes his love interest. While balancing between his love and criminal lives, he discovers a detective named John Hunt (Casey Affleck) is hot on his trail. And Tucker isn’t far from being caught again.

It’s a quaint little movie, and it peacefully tells its story without the flashiness of other bank heist features. There aren’t any shootouts or elaborate theft plots, just a quiet and well-meaning story told in a compelling and ambient way. In fact, we cleverly never even see Tucker draw a gun on someone, an interesting display of the strong screenwriting.

Robert Redford as Tucker is a genuine actor at the top of his game, and dare I say he overshadows the great performances of Sissy Spacek and Casey Affleck. Every word that leaves his mouth is charming, and it’s hard to believe this sincere old man is a lawbreaker and prison escapee. Yet, even with this knowledge we attach ourselves to and sympathize with Tucker.

At the center of The Old Man & the Gun is a vaguely uplifting tale about aging, and where people derive satisfaction from life. Forrest Tucker continues to steal money to feel alive, perhaps not fully happy living under the normal circumstances of an aging man. John Hunt, the detective tasked with bringing Tucker down, is in the middle of a midlife crisis. A crisis only cured by his desire to discover and capture the elusive criminal. Not a lot is shared in terms of the philosophy of life, but I think the average viewer can take plenty meaning from it.

The Old Man & the Gun is most easily described as a boring movie that keeps you entertained. It sounds paradoxical, but just like the slow-moving individuals the film depicts, The Old Man & the Gun is doing everything other powerful dramas of our time do. Just, at a lot slower pace.

The Verdict: A-

-Zachary Flint

Night of the Living Dead (1968) Review

I am completely exhausted of the zombie craze, and it’s not an overstatement to suggest that others are too. For years the zombie has become increasingly embedded in our culture, with an influx of television shows, movies, and video games all about them. Many use the same plot formula and clichés, while others try to add their own blend of creativity to this oddly wide-open genre.

In the wake of the zombie craze, I feel it’s important to go back and understand where this obsession with the undead first started, or at least when it became popular.

Night of the Living Dead wasn’t the first film to use a zombie. In fact, I remember several zombie-ish films like White Zombie and The Last Man on Earth. Despite that, Night of the Living Dead did give us the modern interpretation of a zombie. They’re actually not even called zombies in the film, rather they are referred to as “ghouls”.

Released in 1968 and directed by George Romero, Night of the Living Dead is known for its explicit gore and grainy realism. It stars Judith O’Dea and Duane Jones as survivors immediately thrusted into a random apocalyptic event. The undead have risen, and our everyday heroes are trapped inside a small farmhouse surrounded by cannibalistic evil. Who will live and who will die?

Our characters aren’t completely void of intelligence. They argue and squabble over the situation they’re in, and what the best course of action will be for the group. Should they stay and barricade the house, or take their chances outside on the road? At one point the argument goes so far it results in a woman being punched directly in the face (not unprovoked, of course). The characters all think for themselves, and therefore feel like real people trapped in a real situation.

Some sequences are leisurely paced by today’s standards, yet there’s a certain level of charm to this I admire. You must remember that Night of the Living Dead established many of the zombie tropes and clichés that we take for granted. How a zombie behaves, how to kill one, and even how to protect yourself; all common zombie movie scenarios that Night of the Living Dead pioneered. In other undead films these aspects are all assumed and therefore glossed over, whereas here everything comes as a slow realization that must be explained through exposition and televised emergency broadcasts. All of which adds to the terrors of the unknown.

The most uncomfortable, disturbing scene is when the ghouls pull the mangled guts and remains of a couple from a truck. The ghouls then precede to hunch over and gruesomely devour what’s left of them. Apparently, Romero obtained large quantities of real meat from the local butcher for the specific scene, and its authenticity pays off. This moment (as well as many other tense scenes) is accompanied by vile, minimalist sound effects that really drive home the horrors.

Each of Romero’s zombie flicks have an overarching theme that to some extent lingers over the film. Like American consumerism in Dawn of the Dead or the birth of internet culture in Diary of the Dead, relevant social satire persisted (and to varying effects).

In Night of the Living Dead, it’s all about race. To a modern viewer it would not immediately appear so, at least not until the surprise ending that’s as tragic as it is shocking. To those who saw Night of the Living Dead back in 1968, the racial message was much clearer and more obvious. Casting Duane Jones as a Black man in the leading role was revolutionary and bold for the time, and his unjust demise is rightfully upsetting. My own realization of the film’s true intents wasn’t until the credits, where we see Duane dragged out of the house by hooks, and his limp body thrown onto a bonfire.

Some people retrospectively call Night of the Living Dead boring, but I believe it maintains its spot as one of best, and most important horror films to date. I honestly find myself much more scared of it now than when I was younger, and I think that’s attributed to my appreciation of the genre. Night of the Living Dead utilizes its unique plot and style, mixes it with creepy sights and sounds, and gives the audience one truly frightening experience. It’s a film I continue to go back to time and time again and gain a little more respect for it with each viewing.

The Verdict: A

-Zachary Flint

Halloween (2018) Review

Forty years ago, on Halloween night, Michael Myers (Nick Castle) stalked and killed the residents of Haddonfield, Illinois. Now he’s back with a vengeance to kill Laurie Strode (the scream queen herself, Jamie Lee Curtis) and family in an all new franchise reboot by Blumhouse Productions.

John Carpenter’s classic slasher flick remains an iconic cultural piece of history and is often regarded as among the best horror films of all time. I make it a tradition to watch the original twice every Halloween, and I consider it one of my favorites.

There have been countless sequels, remakes, rewrites, and reboots. Yet, this is the first time there’s been so much hype revolving around a Halloween movie. Despite the hype and raving reviews, I’m not quite sure the magic transferred over here.

Too much of Halloween mimics past films within the franchise. Kills, plot points, and major scenes are completely ripped from the original Halloween, Halloween II, Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers, Halloween H20, and even the Rob Zombie remake. Having so much potential to succeed and a wide-open platform to speak on, Halloween made little effort to differentiate itself from any sequel in the series. If you were to blend up some of the best and worst aspects of all these movies and put it into one modern film, it would be Halloween 2018.

Some of the dialogue and sound effects were awkward and frankly dead on arrival. All the humor was misplaced and didn’t make sense in the context of what was happening on-screen. The jokes got occasional laughs from the audience, but I don’t believe anyone will be highlighting the quality of the humor as a selling point.

No, we’re more concerned with the gore, a staple of the slasher genre. And as sad as it is to say, it wasn’t as graphic as one would hope. Now the original film could hardly be called graphic by today’s standards, but at least most of the kills were on-screen. I swear only half the kills in this movie even take place on-screen, with many characters shown to already be dead. Some are murdered slightly off-screen, as if to tease us. Strangely, this directly contrasts with several incredibly gruesome death scenes, including a gory head smash that we see every bit of. It was as if the filmmakers couldn’t decide if Halloween should be PG-13 or R, so they just met in the middle.

There’s a nice long tracking shot of Michael Myers as he goes from house to house slaying victims, getting adjusted to murder once more. It’s very cinematic, and the visuals within the sequence are filled with a nostalgic, spooky atmosphere. Festive decorations, pumpkins, and costumes line the streets that Myers haunts, and I loved every bit of it.

The main event, if you will, of Halloween is the showdown between Laurie Strode and Michael Myers. In a sense it becomes a classic game of cat and mouse, with the odds not always in Myers’ favor. This was hands down the best part of the film, the moment everyone was waiting for. And did it deliver? Yes, yes it did. We’re given a satisfying, tense, and kick butt conclusion to one big shoulder shrug of a movie.

If you wanted a Halloween movie that looks, feels, and plays out exactly like previous installations, then this is the film for you. Just like many Blumhouse films, the Halloween remake plays it safe in the most frustrating and painstaking ways. The unoriginality negatively impacted many key death scenes, as I could accurately predict almost every twist and turn just off prior movie knowledge. Even disregarding the rest of the series, this new Halloween was just lacking in the spooky department. It’s Halloween, I’m entitled to one good scare, and this just didn’t fully do it for me.

The Verdict: C

-Zachary Flint

Bad Times at the El Royale Review: A Neo-Noir Masterpiece!

After a rather predictable year of predictable films, it sure is refreshing to watch something like Bad Times at the El Royale. A neo-noir/thriller film that prides itself on keeping you on the edge of your seat, biting your nails and guessing what’s going to go down next.

The movie begins with a fixed, locked-down shot of your average motel room. A man enters, carrying only a duffel bag and a loaded gun. We see this man, clearly agitated, meticulously pull back the carpet and furniture, carefully remove the floor boards, and hide the duffel bag underneath the ground. He then seals everything up perfectly the way it was before he arrived. Suddenly, another man barges into the door and murders the first guy in cold blood.

After this jarring sequence we flash forward to ten years later, as several unique individuals check into an isolated, poorly maintained motel known as the El Royale. Among these people are a kindly priest (Jeff Bridges), an outgoing vacuum salesman (Jon Hamm), and a struggling soul singer (Cynthia Erivo). None of whom are exactly as they seem.

Bad Times at the El Royale was the most fun I’ve had at a movie in some time. In theme and concept, it draws inspiration from the style of Quentin Tarantino’s works. Most notably, his isolated mystery/drama film The Hateful Eight. It’s mysterious, neo-noir genre directly contrasts with the upbeat, late 60’s soundtrack. Also artistic in nature is the overlapping sequence of events that we continue to jump between, all separated into different chapters. A neat touch that again hearkens back to Tarantino film’s like Pulp Fiction.

I love when a film can predominantly take place in a single location and still maintain the full attention of the audience. El Royale does this with ease, as the stakes are always high and the mystery always unfolding. But it never unfolds far enough as to give away its many secrets. For example, our character with the clearest, most established motives is killed off early on; taking the more active, investigative moviegoers back to square one in terms of why these events are taking place. We don’t really get “that character” to latch onto from beginning to end, because everyone is shrouded in mystery up until the final act.

To make a perfectly reasonable Jeff Bridges reference, by the end of El Royale I felt like The Dude from The Big Lebowski. Grasping for answers to a rather needlessly complex set of circumstances that our protagonist just so happens to be a part of. A bad case of the “wrong place at the wrong time”. And while the film leaves us with a satisfying conclusion, there’s still plenty of intriguing factors left unexplained for the audience to contemplate. My idea of the prefect ending to a movie.

And at the heart of El Royale we get a moving story about faith and redemption, and what those things can mean to a man. These themes are unmistakable to the right viewer, so long as you’re willing to look that far and read the writing on the walls. There’s also a healthy dose of sociopolitical commentary. It doesn’t slap you across the face and shove morals and messages down your throat till you choke, but those picking up what El Royale is putting down will surely walk away respecting the film a little more.

Bad Times at the El Royale isn’t the kind of movie I recommend skipping over. The complicated plot, long runtime, and moody genre may be enough to steer some people away, but those willing to stick around and invest their time and attention into this picture are sure to enjoy it.

The Verdict: A

-Zachary Flint

First Man Review

“One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

A quote from one of the United States’ most iconic figures in history, and depicted in the latest Hollywood biopic First Man.

The film documents the major life events of American hero Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling); all leading up to his Apollo 11 mission that made him the first person in history to step foot on the moon. We see his trials and tribulations, and how the loss of his infant daughter (and several close friends) impacted his psyche, as well as his drive to complete his mission to the moon. Also depicted is the strain on Neil’s family life, and how his wife Janet Armstrong (Claire Foy) coped with his emotional reclusion from her and the kids. An added level of storytelling that was almost as fascinating as the main plot.

The space flight sequences here are shot with this cinematic, visceral intensity that I imagine was quite difficult to capture. I felt myself getting physically anxious for Aldrin and Armstrong, and the excitement was a roller coaster ride. Without knowing a single thing about space flight, I was left feeling hopeless when random knobs were frantically being pulled as Armstrong and friends soared through space in their claustrophobic shuttle. Effective, nerve-racking filmmaking at its finest.

I highly enjoyed Gosling’s portrayal of Armstrong, as he gives him this distant, almost reclusive personality you wouldn’t expect here. And even though Armstrong felt emotionally distant, deep down the audience could empathize with him and his personal struggles. Through Gosling’s performance it’s clear he never came to terms with the traumatic grief of his daughter’s death. This theme of grief is present throughout the entirety of the flick and is perfectly (and most likely fictionally) all resolved in the dramatic, heartwarming climax.

Towards the end of First Man I really started to feel the runtime weighing down the film. It seems to be that way for a lot of dramas (and biopics), where they become less impactful as they progress simply because they’ve been drawn out for way too long. In reality, this just isn’t the kind of movie that necessitates a two plus hour runtime to share its message, no matter how wonderful or touching that message may be. A solid fifteen minutes could’ve been shaved off First Man to condense it into an even stronger, more emotional film.

First Man is a kindly Hollywood tribute to a cherished American hero. Whether the real Neil Armstrong wanted or felt he deserved all the showing praise, it doesn’t matter. He gets it here.

The Verdict: B+

-Zachary Flint