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

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

The House with a Clock in Its Walls Review

Leave it to director Eli Roth (Hostel, The Green Inferno) to make a children’s fantasy film that’s full of bizarre humor and dark imagery. I didn’t even think it was possible to make fun of the disabled in a mainstream movie anymore Yet, Roth made it happen, and somehow the well-timed joke landed a perfect 10 in the process.

This movie begins where most movies are at the 30-minute mark. There’s no introduction to characters or the fantasy world they inhabit. No, we’re thrown right off the deep end without any floaties. Before you know it, our soulless protagonist is learning magic and is knee deep in what this film considers “plot”.

Why is the house alive? How is Jack Black a magical warlock? What is the extent of this magical universe? Who knows and who cares! Pretty much the perfect tagline for this movie.

I’ll attempt to summarize the plot; however it’s been only 24 hours since I’ve seen the film and I already forget several key plot details. Like a distant, hazy dream.

After a car accident kills both his parents, Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro) goes to live with his mysterious kimono-wearing uncle Johnathan Barnavelt (Jack Black). Lewis quickly learns that Johnathan and his home aren’t as they seem, discovering that his uncle is in fact a wizard. And after Lewis accidentally raises the dead with a powerful spell, he must help his uncle save the world from a malevolent force. Mixed into the plot is a variety of frightening images and intense scenes fused with a whimsical message about family and magic.

The child actor in The Clock deserves an award for worst acting in a motion picture, period. It’s so awkward that scenes meant to be emotional and touching just come off as strange and unintentionally hilarious. In one scene, Owen is crying over the recent death of his parents, and Jack Black attempts to cheer him up by pulling an endless length of handkerchiefs from his pocket. An old magician gag. It’s supposed to be quirky and heartfelt, but the whole scene was just odd.

Yet, that’s kind of the unexpected charm of The Clock, as it teeters between predictable family adventure flick and unforeseen absurdity. Even with the many little idiosyncrasies and plot holes there’s something enjoyable to find in almost every scene. Whether intentional or not.

The House with a Clock in Its Walls is a good fall themed movie for families with small, brave children that don’t mind some oddball (and slightly offensive) jokes. If you’re laughing at the terrible acting, weird plot, or deliberately goofy scenes, it doesn’t matter. The important thing is that you’re laughing and entertained, so I say mission accomplished.

The verdict: B-

-Zachary Flint