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

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

Venom Review

With only a few weeks till Halloween, I was expecting to review more seasonal movies this time of the year. Instead, I’m stuck reviewing yet another divisive superhero movie to split critics and audiences right down party lines. It comes as no surprise that this divisive movie was made by Sony and is their loose interpretation of the fan favorite Marvel character Venom.

Venom tells the origin story of Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy), a renowned investigative journalist who hits rock bottom after doing a hit piece on a notorious businessman, Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed). While investigating one of Drake’s scientific investments, Eddie becomes fused with an alien entity known as Venom. Now filled with a dark and twisted split personality, Eddie must try to control his new superhuman powers as Venom slowly consumes his identity.

The mood of Venom was a weird blend of dark and goofy, an immediate indication that this film wasn’t taking itself seriously.  Some scenes are frightening and given as much raw intensity as it’s PG-13 rating can muster. Police and criminals are thrown about, killed, and eaten, all in a somewhat mild manner. Other scenes simply have Tom Hardy going bananas. Throwing rage-filled tantrums and engaging in bizarre dialogues that were so perfectly timed that I couldn’t help but laugh. The tone of the writers tended to ape this humorous sentiment, leading me to assume that the film was supposed to be bizarre.

Major continuity issues plagued Venom from start to finish. Poor day and night consistency, unusual (or nonexistent) character arcs, and characters being in two places at once are just a handful of examples displaying the botched editing job. I’m not sure whether the studio or the filmmakers are at fault for these problems, but on several occasions they became a hindrance to the enjoyment of the film. I was left scratching my head when an important scientist in the film appeared in two back to back scenes in different locations, all with no indication of a time-lapse.

Venom was a bit of a mixed bag for me. On the one hand, I can see where people would be disappointed with the turnout of the film, it basically being one big comical farce. Nothing is taken seriously, some characters don’t have story arcs, and some people just duck out of the movie altogether.

On the other hand, I rather enjoyed the nonsense of Hardy’s “symbiotic” relationship with Venom. The unpredictable antics and wild outbursts of Hardy were laugh out loud hilarious, and the personality of Venom provided a nice contrast in the overall tone. I never found myself too bored with the film and I quite enjoyed some of the action, despite the sub-par editing that made certain scenes confusing.

I wouldn’t recommend that typical superhero movie fans go and see it, but Venom definitely doesn’t deserve the harsh feedback it’s received from critics. Venom differentiates itself enough from the Marvel “happy-go-lucky” blend of movies for those craving something a little unorthodox.

The Verdict: C+

-Zachary Flint

Hell Fest Review: One Helluva Movie!

While at the local showing for the new Halloween-themed flick Hell Fest, I noticed the formatting of the film on the screen was off by several feet. Meaning that the film projected on the wall and not completely on the screen. However, five-minutes into the film I realized it simply wouldn’t be worth the effort to raise from my chair and notify the staff of the issue.

The central idea (or should I say gimmick) of Hell Fest is that it all takes place inside a large haunted house. Six millennial teenagers act as our protagonists and go expecting to have the time of their lives. Only problem? A real-life murderer sneaks into the scare zone, slowly killing off our unsuspecting millennial stereotypes.

Starting with the characters, they’re so blandly clichéd that it’s almost a cliché to even talk about it. These types of cookie cutter characters have been done to death, and films have been satirizing these dull, bimbo idiots even before Wes Craven’s Scream made it cool to do so. They’re so overly sexualized, awkward, and annoying that at no point does it come off as cute. The one benefit to the terrible characters was watching them get killed in some pretty clever ways. One guy gets his head smashed by a test your strength carnival mallet, which I don’t think I have seen in a horror movie thus far. It’s funny, it’s unique, and horror fans will get a kick out of it.

Honestly, if Hell Fest took place anywhere other than a haunted house, I’d be hard pressed to find any redeemable qualities to the film. Thankfully, the costume designer and cinematographer put in overtime making sure the audience absorbed every inkling of horror-themed atmosphere. Everywhere you look there’s another cool costume or interesting prop that really gets me in the spirit of Halloween.

Unfortunately, this novelty wears off.

On a technical basis, Hell Fest was too preoccupied with scaring the cast and not with scaring the viewer. There were far too many reaction shots of the characters being frightened, as if they forgot that we were the ones supposed to be startled. Many moments where somebody jumps out and goes “Boo!”, the camera is focused on the protagonist and not the scare actor, therefore leaving the scene without tension. What’s even worse, we always know exactly where the real killer is going to be, leaving us with a net total of zero scares.

The biggest insult of all was the ending, which was very visibly rushed and ill-thought-out. Without spoiling anything (not that you probably care), there’s hardly a villain vs. hero showdown, and we never see a solid conclusion to the identity of the killer. Really, it felt like Hell Fest was building up to something that it never quite reached because it got bored and gave up.

They attempt to go for the nameless killer trope established in movies like The Strangers, but here it’s much lazier.  And that’s the key word there, lazy. Everything about the direction of Hell Fest just felt like a dull, straight to Netflix horror movie you watch when there’s nothing else on. Instead of earnestly trying to make a decent movie with a good payoff, they distract you with a clever Eighties throwback marketing campaign. Don’t let them trick you into believing this is a nostalgic romp. It’s not.

Hell Fest was essentially a scattershot of excellent Halloween visuals and remarkably poor writing. Those with a passion for the spooky festivities of the season will get the most enjoyment out of Hell Fest, but the rushed third act and lack of resolution is enough to disappoint any moviegoer. Sadly, Hell Fest just didn’t deliver in the scary department.

The Verdict: D+

-Zachary Flint