Refn brings his wild sensibilities to a dark fantasy epic involving the possible course of a Viking trip to North America before anybody other than the Natives set foot on its ground.
Sunshine. 2007. Directed by Danny Boyle. Screenplay by Alex Garland.
Starring Cillian Murphy, Rose Byrne, Chris Evans, Cliff Curtis, Troy Garity, Hiroyuki Sanada, Benedict Wong, & Michelle Yeoh. 20th Century Fox/DNA Films/Ingenious Film Partners/MPC.
Rated 14A. 107 minutes.
Ever since first laying my eyes upon Trainspotting, I’ve more or less knelt at the altar of Danny Boyle. His films are incredible, often very emotionally compelling and with lots of interesting things happening, no matter the subject. I’m a fan of most of his films, barring a couple that weren’t my cup of tea. On the whole, he’s fantastic. Particularly I find he has two talents: working with science fiction elements (even if he’s only really done that previously with 28 Days Later…) and working with human drama. Luckily, sometimes both of these crossover into one another.
Sunshine is such a film. There’s part of this story focused on the sci-fi plot, the idea of the sun beginning to burn out and mankind trying to find some way to reignite it, lest they be relegated to a world that will perish without its heat and power. The other part is about men and women, human beings, how we see the world and how we imagine what’s outside our own. Furthermore, Boyle and writer Alex Garland look at the human relationships which ultimately the fate of mankind will rely on should we need a crew like those abord the Icarus II to go on a similar mission. In addition to the great drama and the solid science fiction, Sunshine is a visual and auditory journey which many films of its kind aren’t often able to achieve. Garland gives us the interesting writing, as Boyle works his magic with the help of cinematographer Alwin H. Küchler to craft a gorgeous piece of cinema that stands up to some of the better efforts out of the genre in these past few decades.
I’m sure a good deal of right-wing leaning moviegoers will dismiss this as leftist propaganda. However, forget those types. This is a solid science fiction story. It has echoes of other films we’ve seen before, from Event Horizon to Alien. But Sunshine is very much its own tale. Alex Garland is a solid screenwriter, having already worked with Boyle on The Beach and 28 Days Later…, so that’s at least given them chemistry. And they use it to their advantage. Garland is great at getting to the raw emotion of characters, which is evident in the other aforementioned films, as well. When Capa (Cillian Murphy) must be the only one to go through the airlock, the interim captain isn’t happy, and this brings out a load of tension for a while that plays into the idea that humans aren’t all built equipped with the capacity to handle such tension. These are the situations of human drama that make science fiction better than just a ton of wild elements. Without this basic suspense and tension brought out through the humanity of characters (they don’t even need to be human just have to have heart), sci-fi can easily fall flat. This movie is served well by the writing of Garland’s characters, their development, and the situations in which they find themselves forced along their arduous journey.
Moreover, Garland has a good writer’s mind for action. Not every writer is as good with one as the other. Although, Garland breaks that open being capable of good dialogue, interesting characters, as well as making the story feel exciting by pacing things well, and adding in the appropriate action like he does here.
A few of the sequences are spectacularly adrenaline-filled. One of my favourites is the whole airlock scene, as the interim captain ends up floating off in space and freezing, his face cracking into bits. Sad, even if he’s an asshole. Then just the entire suspense of Mace (Chris Evans) nearly freezing to death too is thick enough to cut with a knife. The first time watching, I wasn’t sure he’d make it. Nice when action scenes aren’t simply big set pieces or explosions or anything like that, but rather built on suspense and tense developments.
Not only are the characters and the plot well written, Garland’s writing is given breath by the excellent performances. Cliff Curtis, ever a solid character actor, does such a good job as the resident psychologist, whose own obsession with the sun mirrors the villain Pinbacker (Mark Strong). Love Curtis and to see him here giving his all is one reason the supporting cast is as good as the leads. Rose Byrne and Michelle Yeoh are each excellent, as well. They add a great element to counter all the testosterone brought particularly by Evans. Speaking of him, he does well with his character, meant to be a hot-headed sort that wants to kind of push his way forward rather than sit around and talk. In that sense, Evans and Murphy’s characters are juxtaposed nicely. Murphy, as always, is a powerhouse, and he gives a quiet, thoughtful performance as the lead Robert Capa. On his back and through his perspective we encounter each twist and turn throughout Icarus II’s mission. There’s always an intriguing aspect to Murphy, both physically in his looks and in the way he acts. He can become many types, most recently wowing me in BBC Two’s Peaky Blinders. Here, he plays this young doctor, but one with a head on his shoulders, a conscience, so that Capa eventually goes through this trial where he’s put to the physical test, not just having to use his brain but also his body. Lots of great performances make this one entertaining bit of science fiction adventure.
There’s a bittersweet devastation about the finale. Sunshine takes you to a place of serious science fiction and drama, then twists it all up into something amazing, dark, exciting. Once we come to discover Pinbacker, the fifth crew member left on the Icarus II in its waning moments, the whole eerie angle of the story comes to light (pun not intended; pun hilarious, though). The final half hour has plenty of sweaty tension once more. This carries you right to a beautiful yet slightly sad conclusion. Either way, Danny Boyle and Alex Garland created one hell of a sci-fi picture. From the 1990s onward there aren’t a huge amount of sci-fi movies that I consider amazing. Some, yes. Not a lot. In my humble opinion, Sunshine is an amazing film. It is beautiful, strange, dark at times. Never will you find the pace too slow, nor will you feel as if excitement is lacking. With so many good performances and the writing tightly woven into an emotion-filled, tense, and wild story, it’s hard not to enjoy. Throw this on next time you need a science fiction injection. I hope Boyle will go back to the genre someday, as he has great chops for it.
A first-person shooter inside an action film inside a sci-fi story inside a whole lot of fun.
Midnight Special. 2016. Directed & Written by Jeff Nichols.
Starring Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Jaeden Lieberher, Adam Driver, Bill Camp, Scott Haze, Sam Shepard, Paul Sparks, David Jensen, Sharon Landry, Dana Gourrier, Sharon Garrison, Allison King, & Sean Bridgers. Faliro House Productions/Tri-State Pictures/Warner Bros.
Rated PG. 112 minutes.
When it comes to independent films, Jeff Nichols is a writer-director I’ve admired now for a few years. Shotgun Stories in 2007 was a great little movie that tackled the flawed masculinity inherent in Southern blood feuds as it examined two sets of half brothers in the aftermath of their father’s death. It also starred the wonderful character actor Michael Shannon, whom many have grown to love as of late particularly. Later, in Take Shelter again starring Shannon, Nichols took us into a highly psychological world that bent the limits of reality, begging us to wonder whether or not the events onscreen were real, or if they were just manifestations of the lead character’s troubled mind. Mud was an interesting, subtle look at people on the fringe, how they come together, and how they survive.
But now, teaming once more with Shannon alongside a slew of other wonderful talents from newer (Adam Driver) to classic (Sam Shepard), Nichols breaks out with an emotionally charged, intelligent, slick thriller that runs the gamut of family drama and adventure to science fiction. Midnight Special is a lot of things. Above all, it is engaging. In a day and age of remakes – some good, a lot terrible – big budget blockbusters without any soul, Nichols’ films are continually a ray of light. This is no different. There are many things to enjoy. And if I can suggest anything, go in without knowing anything. Even the plot. It won’t ruin things if you do, but the beginning is even more tense and filled with excitement if you’re relatively clueless.
And for that reason let’s just dig right in.
The plot is a lot of fun. Despite knowing from trailers that the film is heavily science fiction, there’s a very raw human drama to the opening few scenes. It doesn’t stop there either. As Roy (Michael Shannon) and Lucas (Joel Edgerton) rush Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher) around from one place to the next, under cover of night, all we know of the situation for sure is that there’s a massive hunt for the boy, an amber alert, everything. So if you had no better idea it’d seem like a truly distressing situation. But slowly, Nichols lets the information trickle down. What starts and continues as a human drama also takes on elements of a larger, more complicated, complex universe that Nichols has created.
We’re introduced to people from The Ranch, the men dressed in suit and ties, the women dressed like Jehovah’s Witnesses. They all seem to have a strange fascination, or rather obsession, with little Alton. And the gravity of everything is so evident. Not only are Roy and Lucas transporting Alton extremely secretively, to the point of gunning down a cop early on, it seems the father is dead set on protecting the boy. There are a ton of things happening, too. In a movie that’s just a little shy of two hours in length, Nichols packs a good punch. All the different aspects of the screenplay are pretty well fleshed out without having to be too full of exposition. Plus, things get real action oriented past the half hour mark, which then takes the pacing to another level. The first thirty minutes are a nice, effective slow burn that picks up steam quickly heading forward.
When we finally start to see more of Alton and his powers, the whole movie gets infinitely more interesting. More and more, scene after scene, Nichols reveals further bits of the boy’s abilities. Yet there’s a cryptic nature to them until late in the game. We’re never cheated, but Nichols definitely draws it out. Expertly. The suspension and tension as the plot moves on at a steady pace really will get your heart rate up, in the best kind of sense.
Alton: “What‘s Kryptonite?”
Lucas: “It‘s the only thing that‘ll kill Superman”
Roy: “It‘s made up”
There is never enough Michael Shannon. He’s a talented actor whose work is consistent. Even in movies that aren’t so great (i.e Man of Steel, The Iceman, Premium Rush), his talent makes things more interesting, more credible. He can really disappear into a lot of different roles, which is why he’s best deemed a character actor. His strength is that he’s got the handsome look, though there’s something odd about him, too. He has an affable quality, then there is a dangerous, strange side to him that can come out just as easily. Here, he plays a devoted, loving father pushed to the limit. He is a father under special circumstances. So there’s all this conflict in his character, but above all he is a father who wants to protect his son, no matter what the cost. And he’s forced into a blind faith, all out of love for his boy. A great performance, well written role.
The rest of the cast are equally as excellent. Edgerton is a fantastic talent (also a good writer) and he plays well off Shannon. They’re very believable together, which is honestly something I never predicted beforehand. What I like is that Edgerton has the same kind of qualities as Shannon, except in a different way. He is at once that manly, tough-looking kind of guy when he wants to be, at others he has a sensitive quality. In addition, Kirsten Dunst is good here as the mother of Alton, estranged from Roy. I’ve long said she is a solid actor, having recently given a complex performance in Season 2 of Fargo. She adds an extra, intriguing aspect to Alton and Roy, as a family. That brings us more of the family drama that makes Midnight Special a more interesting science fiction themed film than many others out there.
When the action gets pounding the film never lets up. There are moments where it’s a chase movie, others the guns start to fly. Sometimes we get wild expressions of Alton’s powers. All the while, the cinematography by Adam Stone captures everything so naturally, and in turn beautifully, even in the moments of pure speculative fiction that happen throughout. Add to that some really great synthesizer score from composer David Wingo, and those moments of tension where things are tight, the pulse is pumping, they become more intense. Sometimes it’s a semi-homage to the 1980s, but most of all it is simply an effective bit of electronic music that serves to augment a film; like any good score should.
This is all around an excellent film in terms of its visual components and its sound, not just the score but also the design. There are too many moments to list really. But Nichols, as director, crafts Midnight Special into a beautiful piece of work aided by these two artists.
Absolutely a 5-star film. There are so many derivative science fiction works out there, in movies and literature. It’s nice to see Jeff Nichols take the initiative and make something different. He lets everything flow out organically, never pushing the plot too much or too far, but rather just allowing it to unfold. The science fiction, though utterly central to the story, is not always the most interesting element. The family, the cult at The Ranch, the relationship between father and son, the relationship between best friends Lucas and Roy; so many things take precedence over the presence of a little boy with sort-of-super powers. Everything comes together here and Midnight Special takes its rightful place near the top of the best list of modern science fiction over the past couple decades. Nichols turns this into something completely unexpected. By the time it’s over, you won’t know what hit you.
Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. 1977. Directed & Written by George Lucas.
Starring Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, Peter Cushing, Alec Guinness, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, Peter Mayhew, David Prowse, Jack Purvis, and James Earl Jones. Lucasfilm/Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. Rated PG. 121 minutes.
Even though I do like certain novels and films in the science-fiction genre, mostly it isn’t one I’m huge on overall. Not knocking it. I prefer horror, of many kinds, dark dramas and thrillers. Yet that’s the thing about Star Wars, its appeal crosses over regular genre boundaries. It reaches out on many levels to different audiences and draws them together. People act like the franchise’s fans are strictly a ton of sci-fi nerds. Wrong. There are so many people who love Star Wars that come from different backgrounds, in terms of their genre preferences.
Above all else, George Lucas’ first Star Wars film, fourth in the timeline, A New Hope is an incredible achievement. It breaks us into a massive space opera story, throwing us into its middle in an ambitious move by a somewhat beginner filmmaker (yes I know he made films before but c’mon – this is way bigger than anything else he’d done before). The way Lucas fleshed out a massive franchise by putting us into Episode IV as the start of the films released, it’s pretty damn impressive. The ambition is strong in this one.
With a ton of interesting and innovative effects, alongside fun performances from relatively unknown actors at the time, and a truly interesting overarching story, Lucas was able to birth one of the most influential franchises in film history, as well as one nobody who’s a fan will or could ever forget.
I won’t waste time explaining any of the plot, as I usually do with my reviews. If you haven’t seen this yet you probably already know a good deal, having heard much about Princess Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) and his often times pessimistic companion C-3P0 (Anthony Daniels), as well as the handsome smuggler with an attitude Han Solo (Harrison Ford). Even those who’ve never seen a single film in the entire franchise know many of these names. Very hard not to, especially in today’s age of social media.
So instead of recounting the plot a little, I’ll dive in.
Immediately, the first few scenes of A New Hope always grab me. I particularly love the Stormtroopers and their gun fighting, lasers going everywhere, pew pew pew. But it’s the white, sterile sort of spaceship in which they’re fighting that grabs me, then in the middle of it all Darth Vader (played by David Prowse; voiced by James Earl Jones) strolls past in his stark black costume, the iconic helmet shaped like an old Rolls Royce. There’s something about the visuals in the beginning which continually gets me. No matter how many times I see it, no matter that I know what’s coming, there’s a quality to the beginning of the film that catches me and from the start keeps me wanting more. Of course, more comes. Even better is the fact everything outside the spaceships looks so rustic, from the planet Tatooine itself with its desert feel to the cantina, to the Millenium Falcon with its lived-in sense of atmosphere, as if everything is old, used, and the battle between the Empire and the Rebels has decimated almost everything wherever anybody goes. So what really impresses me off the bat about Star Wars: A New Hope is the production and set design, the art department, and more. Once you get further into the story, the special effects impress. And after finding out the origins of the many iconic sounds – lightsabers in battle, the firing guns of the spaceship and so on – it’s all the more interesting because you can see the innovation it took on the part of Lucas and his entire team. They didn’t half-ass a single second.
From the look of the film physically, in terms of set and design overall, we also need to remember the magic cinematography of Gilbert Taylor. His amazing credits include Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, Roman Polanski’s harrowing Repulsion and his later film Cul-De-Sac, as well as The Omen, all of which saw him in the role of Director of Photography. And because of this, we have him to thank – as D.P. once more – for the gorgeous look of how A New Hope was filmed. Then, you add in the massively talented John Williams, whose score is one of the most iconic bits of film history; even if you don’t know the movies, you probably could recognize the theme and other portions of the music.
Moving on, the editing is also a large part of why the movie works, from its wonderful sideswiping transitions to the excellent cuts between the action. Several editors worked on the movie, including an uncredited bit of magic from Lucas himself. However, Paul Hirsch is the one I find myself most interested in, as his work spans many genres, many amazing filmmakers: several Brian De Palma masterpieces such as Sisters, Phantom of the Paradise, Carrie and Blow Out; then there’s also his work on Creepshow (“The Crate”), Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, one of the funniest films ever Planes, Trains & Automobiles, Falling Down, another excellent De Palma adaptation on Mission: Impossible, plus several more recent films that are pretty fun and interesting. So Hirsch brings all that talent to A New Hope – one of the first half dozen movies he worked on. Moving past his efforts for Lucas, which also include the sequel The Empire Strikes Back, he’s become a sought out editor having done one of the latest Mission: Impossible sequels, as well as the upcoming Warcraft movie. Most of all, you can tell even in this movie, at the early stages of his career, Hirsch was talented. The editing could’ve easily been shoddy in A New Hope, but his work, plus the work of the others involved in the editing room, makes this piece of science fiction a masterwork. The transitions between scenes has a remarkable feel, which makes you often forget you’re watching a supposed space opera. Instead, it feels like any other classic, well-made film of its era. Perhaps even better. All due to so much great technical work behind the scenes, elevating all the other work out front.
But without the power of the actors starring in A New Hope, even the most amazing work in terms of editing, cinematography and score would all fall short. Carrie Fisher plays Leia as both a strong yet still vulnerable person, as does Mark Hamill; the parallels between there characters exists in the fact they’re both natural leaders, however, they’ve not yet realized it in this first film. At the end of the movie, both Luke and Leia appear to us now more mature, changed, ready to take on whatever else comes.
Further than that, once Harrison Ford’s Han Solo comes on the scene there is an extra dimension of charisma and swagger not yet present in the filmic universe of Star Wars. Not only does Solo give us a bit of comedic relief at times, there’s also an intensity to his character, the rebel who is not actually a Rebel, if you get my drift. Him and Chewbacca are the two inseparable friends whose job takes them from one end of the galaxy to another. Moreover, Han plays the part of the disbeliever – the one whom Luke, mainly, must convert. So what I like is that Solo also brings in questions of faith, of belief, and this gives us a nice counterpoint to someone like Skywalker who believes deeply in the force, certainly once he starts to discover his Jedi connections. Truly, though, if Ford didn’t play the character, I’m not sure who could’ve done the job. Definitely sure there aren’t many, if any, who could have come into their own as Han Solo and look as good doing it as him. It’s hard now to imagine anyone playing either of these main parts, but seriously: these actors brought a ton of emotion and charisma to the entire movie. The most important of these elements? They bring heart and soul.
This has always been a favourite of mine, specifically in the science fiction genre. While it’s not as leaned towards science as other movies, in regards to authenticity, that does not matter. You know, I love Neil deGrasse Tyson, but following along closely with actual science isn’t something I care about when watching films.
For a long time, I considered this a great film. Nowadays, after watching it more than several dozen times in my life, I consider A New Hope perfect. Not to say there aren’t any little mistakes or flubs along the way. But to me, personally, this is a 5-star film. This has a beauty and grace about it, and also contains work above and beyond the call of duty in terms of its technical aspects. Not to mention I still get chills now and then whenever I put the Blu ray on. The influence of A New Hope is vast, it will never ever die. And with Episode VII The Force Awakens recently rocking the box office, continuing to do so, the legacy of George Lucas and his original work from 1977 endures. Its light won’t ever, ever go out.
The Creeper a.k.a Rituals. 1977. Directed by Peter Carter. Screenplay by Ian Sutherland.
Starring Hal Holbrook, Lawrence Dane, Robin Gammell, Ken James, Gary Reineke, Murray Westgate, Jack Creley, and Michael Zenon. American Pop Classics. Rated R. 100 minutes.
This 1977 horror-thriller, The Creeper a.k.a Rituals, is one I’ve heard about for about for well over a decade now, almost two. Horror fanatic since the age of twelve, when I first discovered Hal Holbrook outside of those interests I soon came to discover he’d been in an early slasher type film. So sticking that in the back of my head, at the time with no real way to see the movie since it wasn’t at my local video store, I hoped someday I’d be able to finally see it. Somehow. Some way.
Well recently I tracked down a digitally remastered copy from American Pop Classics, which was reasonably priced and pretty decent looking for such a rare cult horror flick. This one came out on the verge of slasher horror becoming super popular, due to John Carpenter. It wasn’t the first, with classics such as Black Christmas coming out in 1974, Psycho having been released seventeen years prior. But still, I think The Creeper did some interesting things. This movie might not have hit it big, it didn’t at all from what I gather, don’t let that sway you. There’s a good bit of backwoods horror here and most certainly anyone who has seen it will find themselves influenced by its creepy qualities.
A group of doctors get together in the Canadian wilderness. They’re dropped off by plane out to some remote part of the forest. The men head to a place called “The Cauldron of the Moon” by Aboriginal peoples. Hiking through all sorts of terrain, the doctor friends camp for a while. However, once they’re shoes go missing, except for one man, things start to get scary.
The one with his shoes left decides to walk out for help. It’s after he leaves when the others discover something disturbing is happening in those woods. A deer head appears outside their camp, then the terror truly begins.
There’s a bleak atmosphere from the beginning of The Creeper. Everything is isolated, so far up into the backwoods. Even further, director Peter Carter captures the desolate feeling with a ton of great wide shots; the forest and the mountains together swallow up each of the characters. There are so many beautiful scenes. Even when one of the doctors ends up with his decapitated head on a pike, and another of them throws it down the mountain in anger, there’s this sweeping shot that goes over Hal Holbrook’s head as the head/stick goes flying; strange for it to be a beautiful shot, but it certainly is that.
Another thing I think helped overall is that this screenplay wasn’t the typical slasher horror writing either. Perhaps because it was one of the earliest slashers, a prototype, it didn’t fall for all the exact similar things later slashers made into the genre tropes. Better than that, the characters themselves were decently developed. There were a few points where I thought the development was subtle, things didn’t get spelled out obviously right in front of us; for instance, a conversation around the fire has two of the doctors revealing bits and pieces of their lives before the events of the film, sort of filling in gaps to who they are as people. A lot of modern slashers try to jam pack loads of exposition into their screenplays. Here, there’s enough to hook us, but also leaves some things to our imagination. Part of The Creeper‘s charm is, evidently, the way it sort of creeps on you. Between the isolation, the wide and desolate shots, as well as the characterization, everything in the film will grow and fester in you until the events start to get real terrifying.
The moments of slasher horror, so to speak, are pretty damn effective. From the beginning, when the deer head shows up, things are nasty enough. Solely because of the malicious intent. But things only get worse and worse. The decapitation, as I mentioned. Afterwards, one of the doctors ends up tied to a a stake and lit on fire. There are several truly gruesome aspects to the film.
I think it’s the very finale I found most jarring. There a two instances where the sound design uses an echo, which was interesting. It worked and had a strange effect. It’s unsettling, yet I can’t say exactly why. Sort of amplified the emotions happening at the time, almost as if the echoes were in the characters’ own heads.
Ultimately, what makes so much of The Creeper work in terms of its outright horror is the solid acting from Holbrook. He really has great skills. Even when the rest of the acting isn’t all perfect, Holbrook keeps us grounded and his intensity, the anxiety he gives us through his character, all the tension in him, it helps the horror and terror of the plot become more plausible, it feels more real. In particular, there’s a scene where Harry (Holbrook) discovers a deep cut around his femoral artery, and he stops for a moment, regrouping, as his friend is tied to the stake; the way Harry is calm compared to the other man, the demeanour he displays, this gives us such an excellent impression of this man’s character. I imagine Harry as a good doctor, someone who doesn’t allow the pressure to bear down on him. These few moments were great in this respect. Not only that, the entire sequence following after is horrific and Holbrook makes it come off spot on.
The final shot of Harry sitting on the highway was amazing – panning back behind him, the open road ahead, such a fitting way to end things after all the chaos. Everything becomes sunny, open, beautiful, as opposed to the darkness and horror in the forest. Love this finish.
While there are some aspects which could’ve been improved upon, The Creeper deserves a 4 out of 5 star rating. I truly feel this is a good slasher, especially considering this came a year before John Carpenter’s Halloween. With a good lead actor to hold things in place, some nice writing and very effectively creepy effects at key moments, this is a solid cult classic. It’s tough to find and the quality of the DVD I found isn’t even immaculate, nowhere near. But you’ll be surprised. This is a very subtle and low budget film, though, its merits are evident once you get through the film. For a rare movie, I’m pleased to have even gotten a copy. Check this out if you’re ever so lucky. You’ll find a nice dose of slasher horror in an unusual package.
Goosebumps. 2015. Directed by Rob Letterman. Screenplay by Darren Lemke from a story by Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski; based on the novels by R.L. Stine.
Starring Jack Black, Dylan Minnette, Odeya Rush, Ryan Lee, Amy Ryan, Jillian Bell, Ken Marino, Halston Sage, Steven Krueger, Keith Arthur Bolden, Amanda Lund, Timothy Simons, and Karan Soni. Columbia Pictures/Sony Pictures Entertainment. Rated PG. 103 minutes.
As someone who grew up reading all of R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps series, I was more than happy to go to the theatre with my dad and my little stepbrother today and see the new Rob Letterman-directed adaptation; in 3D, no less. For many of you that have been around my site before, you’re aware I’m a big fan of horror movies. I attribute part of that love to Stine. There are way too many instances in his novels where I found myself creeped out. Even after getting into them, reading any one I could put my hands on, I’d always come across another story that would frighten the life out of me just as I thought I’d become accustomed to Stine’s scares. He was always a consistently imaginative and slightly scary type of author. A favourite of mine was always The Haunted Mask, which shows up briefly in the film.
While I’d actually love a more horror version of Stine, this adaptation of Goosebumps was still a lot of fun, as well as the fact it’s definitely something your entire family can enjoy. Predominantly a comedy, there are plenty of the Stine monsters here with several fan favourites, and Jack Black certainly plays the author himself with youthful vigour. One of the greatest parts of the film is the acting because the kids and adults seem to have a blast. And even as a horror fan, I still thought there were a few creepy moments calling back to Stine’s books. It really made the nostalgia inside me flare up remembering all those spooky nights laying in bed with one of his haunting stories.
When Gale (Amy Ryan) and her son Zach (Dylan Minnette) move to the – fictional – town of Madison, Delaware, their life starts to get more exciting, or possibly more frightening than ever before. Settling in, Zach discovers the next door neighbours are a little odd. Well, Hannah (Odeya Rush) seems to be lots of fun. She and Zach bond almost immediately. But it’s Hannah’s father, Mr. Shivers (Jack Black), who is the rough and jagged personality in the house. After Zach believes Hannah is being kept captive against her will by her father, he calls the police. After they bumble around and do nothing, Zach – with the help of silly sidekick Champ (Ryan Lee) – sneaks into the house to try and rescue Hannah.
But what comes next is unexpected. Inside the house, Zach accidentally releases the monsters from a set of locked books…. belonging to none other than R.L. Stine. The supposed Mr. Shivers is really the Goosebumps author hiding out, trying to live a normal life. Because what is in the books has come alive, each and every monster Stine ever dreamed up in the course of his life now roaming the streets.
And nobody is safe.
First and foremost, the acting is solid from start to finish. Jack Black does a great job playing R.L. Stine, not only adding mystery to the character, but as he usually does adds plenty excitement and charisma. While he’s not the wildly frenetic Black sometimes on the screen, there’s such an interesting quality to this fictional Stine and I’m not sure anybody else would’ve been as well suited to the role. There’s even a nice cameo near the end where Stine himself walks by, greeting the fictional version, to which the fictional author replies: “Mr. Black”
Then there are the younger actors, each giving it their all in respectively fun roles. Dylan Minnette played Zach well and very believably, which played well off the skills of Odeya Rush. These two were good together, as well as apart. Mainly it’s the subplot of Hannah (Rush) which makes their dynamic work so well; they’re a real and genuine pair of teenagers embedded in a highly supernatural situation. On top of their talents, young Ryan Lee does a fantastic job with the Champ character. While there are all kinds of cheap jokes and real cheesy ones, as expected in a PG film especially, I found Lee made me laugh out loud. There are moments with him and Minnette where they had me cracking up, from big laughs to more subtle bits. These three actors added to the energy of Black as Stine are one of the major reasons Goosebumps is enjoyable, despite its flaws.
All the monsters included were extraordinary. Keep in mind, I did see this in 3D, so a certain amount of why I loved the big flashy stuff is because of this reason. I’m not usually huge on CGI, much more a big fan of practical effects. But all the same, the way this film used the monsters it played out like a light-horror disaster movie – in undeniably exhilarating fashion.
The werewolf is one of my favourite creatures. Also, the ghouls are amazing! When they started to break through the cemetery ground, grabbing at the kids and Stine, I was creeped out and pumped at once. Really brought in a nice dose of horror. Again, while this isn’t exactly horror there’s still plenty of that aspect out of Stine’s novels here. It isn’t savage or anything, not by a long shot. Yet it’s spooky at certain times, and of course infused with action. The abominable snowman sequences, especially early on, were too fun and suspenseful. It’s almost like the larger the creatures/monsters get funneling off the page, the more wild and enjoyable the film gets. This isn’t always the case with monster movies, but the way all of Stine’s monsters converge on the tiny Delaware town is really well done and goes to show how the screenplay is written with a lot of thought given towards honouring Stine.
My only complaint about the monsters? Not enough Haunted Mask. A little shoutout, just wasn’t enough for me.
This is certainly a 3.5 out of 5 star film. I had a lot of fun in the theatre watching this; a huge film fan, I’m not particularly fond of seeing movies in theatre honestly because people bother me with their ignorant stuff. More than that, 3D usually makes me feel sick after an hour. But this Goosebumps film adaptation wrapped me up in its unbridled fun, almost right from the beginning, and the nostalgia it offered was almost enough to sell me on the whole thing. While I did find the script could’ve went for more creepiness and done away with some of the super cheesy portions, overall I found the screenplay really kept the heart of Stine, in many ways, and the characters were rich enough I forgot most of my gripes by the time the film ended.
If you’ve got some young ones around, I would totally suggest taking them out to see this before Halloween. Nice movie for the family and if you were an R.L. Stine fan/still are, you owe it to yourself to go see this fun flick.
The Cave. 2005. Directed by Bruce Hunt. Screenplay by Michael Steinberg & Tegan West.
Starring Cole Hauser, Eddie Cibrian, Morris Chestnut, Lena Headey, Piper Perabo, Rick Ravanello, Daniel Dae Kim, Kieran Darcy-Smith, and Marcel Iures. Screen Gems/Cinerenta Medienbeteiligungs KG/Lakeshore Entertainment/City Productions/Cineblue Internationale Filmproduktionsgesellschaft.
Rated 14A. 97 minutes.
Having recently reviewed Neil Marshall’s fabulously claustrophobic horror The Descent (which actually came out the exact same year this), I also decided on revisiting this guilty pleasure of mine. While I cannot, at all, say The Cave is a good movie, it’s not the worst I’ve seen, it’s – for me – on par with a lot of big budget popcorn flicks. And that was this is, a turn your brain off, have a snack and laugh with someone or even by yourself. Burn one down, throw this on. There are some laughable bits, absolutely. Are there some scary moments? For me, as someone who finds caves creepy, someone whose claustrophobia knows no bounds, and also as a person who loves the water/is terrified of it as well, there are definitely a handful of scenes where I found this movie really played hard on my fears.
The majority of The Cave‘s problem is the screenplay has one hell of an amazing plot and story, yet still this is squandered through bad dialogue, middle of the road acting, and effects which lack any sense of realism to help frighten us viscerally. Mostly, you could call this a creature feature, and though I find the creatures in this horror movie creepy, sort of intimidating at times, once you get more than the mysterious looks at it, hints of its size and power, the magic is lost. Regardless of its flaws – and there are a bunch – I’m still able to throw this on once every now and then, especially if I can’t think of anything else or if I know I want to turn my brain off a while to get some quasi-horror and a dose of action.
Decades previous to the film’s events, a team of explosives experts are caved in while exploring a stone church built deep in the Carpathian Mountains. Dr. Nicolai (Marcel Iures) arranges a team of scientists and cave divers to examine the ruins and the massive cave system which exists below the church itself. Two brothers, Jack (Cole Hauser) and Tyler McAllister (Eddie Cibrian), lead everyone into the caverns, travelling over its steep rock walls and its seemingly never ending pools of dark water, mapping territory no one else has ever set foot on.
Or perhaps someone has already.
Deeper and deeper into the cave system, Jack and the crew begin to discover there is in fact someone else who has been down in those caves before. Even worse than that, they never ever left. In fact, they got bigger… they got more vicious… and they adapted to a world underground, without light, in the cold, deep, dark waters.
The opening sequence is a lot of fun. Later, once the diving team are headed into the cave system there’s an excellent callback to the beginning, as we see what happened to those characters who went into the old mountain church, falling through the floor and into the murky depths of what lay below. I won’t ruin it for anyone who’s yet to see it, but I really dig that whole aspect. They could’ve easily done something different and less effective. This was a nice way to introduce the virus aspect of the creatures in the cave, all the while Cole Hauser’s character becomes a living representation of that. Although the screenplay is not solid, there are bits and pieces I do enjoy. Overall, it’s messy. I’m just glad certain sequences were written well enough that the entire film isn’t useless.
Many action moments come off decent, as well as scenes of intense horror. One part at which I always shudder: the crew are in one of the various underground lakes in the cave system, in two groups – Dr. Nicolai (Marcel Iures) is taken by one of the cave’s creatures, at which point Jack McAllister (Hauser) looks under the water only to see the monster disappearing further and further into the deep, dark waters below, fading into black. HONESTLY, this brief moment scared me as much as anything in Jaws, which is saying something because that is one film that always left an indelible mark on my psche (I love the ocean/am terrified by it). But, that being said, it’s only one scene. The rest of the movie is nowhere near up to par with Steven Spielberg’s classic. A few other creepy sequences exist in The Cave, though, nothing as wild and unsettling as this one I’ve mentioned. As far as action goes, I did like some of the rock climbing scenes; they brought intensity, as well as surprise in a few cases. So there’s enough action-adventure at times to keep you glued. Problem is, never enough to make you love the movie, or to get you past its myriad script/overall problems.
Director Bruce Hunt, by all accounts, should’ve done better. Perhaps I expect too much of a man whose career as a Second/Third Unit Director has been fairly impressive: Dark City (director – additional second unit + miniatures & visual effects director), The Matrix (second unit director), The Matrix Reloaded (third unit director: Australia), The Matrix Revolutions (third unit director), as well as Australia (director – splinter unit), and the nice looking but less than stellar Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (second unit director – splinter unit). Sadly, none of his previous work comes to bear on this project. For a man who had a part in the effects of Dark City especially, I expected something more. Nevertheless, many of the special effects here are brutal, and it’s only when the cave monsters are relatively still that they look good. In other scenes where they’re flying around or attacking the diving team, they look terribly cheesy and underdeveloped, patched together with bad CGI. If more practical work could’ve been done, The Cave and its creatures could easily have raised above mediocre to forgettable. Instead, we’re left with not only a poor screenplay, but also too many visuals lacking the proper effectiveness a monster movie must have in order to be successful.
This is, at best, a 2(out of 5)-star film. The story itself is intriguing enough, as well as the film’s opening sequence and the return to it later in the plot. But an interesting plot does not a proper movie make. The acting isn’t anywhere near what it should be, considering everything else falls so flat. If there were a few better elements the film could’ve passed for half decent. Instead, it is less than mediocre and forgettable. All the same, I still watch it from time to time as a guilty pleasure.
Sightseers. 2012. Directed by Ben Wheatley. Screenplay by Alice Lowe & Chris Oram; additional material by Amy Jump.
Starring Alice Lowe, Steve Oram, Eileen Davies, Roger Michael, Tony Way, Seamus O’Neill, Monica Dolan, Jonathan Aris, Aymen Hamdouchi, and Tom Meeten. BFI/Big Talk Productions/Film4/Rook Films/StudioCanal.
Rated 14A. 88 minutes.
I’m a hardcore fan of Ben Wheatley. Some say he’s the best thing to happen to British film in a while. I say he’s one of the best directors to come along in a while, period; not just British, but all over. I think there’s something I enjoy about Wheatley because all of his films are, at their core, fairly simple. Not meant in any way negatively. What I enjoy is that he can take those simple, smaller premises and turn them into something big and exciting.
Even in this case a couple’s week-long trip in caravan, under direction of Wheatley, becomes an intriguing and unexpected story. What could easily be something dull – and I’m sure there are detractors who say it is – turns into a tense and weird ride alongside an equally tense, weird two lovers. Not only is there tension happening, Sightseers is one hell of a riotous black comedy.
Until now I had no idea Edgar Wright was an executive producer on this film. Turns out the screenplay by stars Alice Lowe and Steve Oram had been turned down for years – too dark, they said – and Wright came along to greenlight the project. I think this fits so well with Wright’s own style as a director that it’s no surprise he was willing to get onboard.
With the purposefully awkward and tense atmosphere, dark laughs, added to excellent directorial choices, I really think this is one of the best comedies I’ve seen in the last 5 years. A highly underrated film, at least on this side of the pond. I’m sure the British film fans have been ALL over this already.
Little moments which make this so funny, often in a dark way, make the movie so memorable.
For instance, even right after they’ve cleared everything with the police following Chris running over a stranger by accident, killing him, Chris tells his girlfriend Tina “he’s ruined this trip for me“.
Later while Chris and Tina are having some fun, getting the caravan all setup at the campsite, they all of a sudden notice a bright splash of blood on one of the hubcaps, abruptly interrupting their laughs. It’s in the way Chris responds I get a kick, how casual and unassuming he is about the whole thing. Gets me every time.
Then there are the tensely awkward bits of which I can’t get enough. Like the first encounter Chris and Tina have with another couple out in their caravan. Right from the beginning it is so incredibly painful to watch, but in the right way – these two are socially inept, they’re both on the fringe of life in so many ways. However, as the caravan holiday wears on, Chris and Tina find themselves becoming less and less awkward, while becoming more and more sinister. The comedy coasts along with them, only it gets progressively darker and more unsettling; at the same time, it also gets foolish with great effect.
The whole bit of the film with Martin testing his mini-caravan is ABSOLUTELY HILARIOUS! So awkward and weird and way too funny. Even from the first scene, as Chris leaves after talking with him and then Martin gets into the mini-caravan only to roll away down the hill chaotically; I burst laughing at this moment. There are a bunch of these great bits.
Something I love about Wheatley’s films are the way in which they’re edited. The are a couple other editors on this film, including Amy Jump and Robin Hill, aside from Wheatley. Hill and Wheatley have worked together ever since Down Terrace; the trio have edited together on Kill List, this film, and A Field in England. I totally dig how these three edit films. There are countless examples of how well they work.
WARNING! SPOILER AHEAD!
My favourite here, I believe, has to be the scene where Chris sneaks up on the writer he and Tina met; Vanilla Fudge’s excellent cover of Donovan’s “Season of the Witch” plays, as Chris follows him along the highlands, creeping behind, then smashes him in the head with a rock. The great part is how it’s edited with cuts of both Tina, as well as the writer’s wife. In particular, the wife is interesting – she steps on a piece of broken plate, one Chris tipped over purposely earlier, then hauls it from her bleeding foot. I thought this was just a genius bit of editing, snapping between these quick cuts at times. Not sure what it means, other than Chris sort of hurting them both simultaneously – albeit one worse than the other; the writer husband more actively, the wife inadvertently. But either way, how the editing cuts here I find is extremely effective.
HERE ENDETH THE SPOILER!
For me, the greatest part of Sightseers is the juxtaposition of the comedy and its awkwardness with horrific murder at the hands of both Chris and Tina. Every excellently hilarious segment seems to come along with a heart dose of violence.
The best scene of murder, and in turn makeup effects, comes when Chris murders a man chastising Tina for leaving dog shit at a public historical site. Building up to the violence, there’s this funny moment when Chris and Tina sort of land on the same page; if only for a moment. Then Chris traipses up behind the man, who decides to walk away instead of pursue an argument with this manic couple, and proceeds to bash his skull in with a big, heavy walking stick. When we get slight glimpses of the leftover face, it is HEINOUS! In the best possible horror-ish sense.
But this leads me to another part of Sightseers I found interesting. There’s a strange sort of awakening in this scene, as Chris and Tina become closer. While Tina watches Chris bashing in the man’s head, though she appears to be slightly traumatized, not long after she seems to be totally in on it, willingly; a radio report they hear in the car prompts her, and Chris, to go mad with glee. Then later, Tina herself joins in on the murder without even being coaxed into by Chris (except for the dumb and thoughtless flirting he engages in). They become, tenuously, a murder couple.
So it’s this weirdly violent story undercut with a romantic tale. The ending is the ultimate undercutting of the romance, however, there’s still a love between Chris and Tina. It reminds me of the real life story of Ian Brady and Myra Hindley who committed the Moors Murders – as in, if Tina had never gone on that caravan holiday with Chris, she’d probably never have killed a person in her life. Yet Chris and his personality, his actions, draw her into murder. It’s no secret Tina is a bit slow, in many ways, so I’d venture to bet she would probably have lived at home with her mother until the end of time had she not met him.
This is absolutely a 4.5 out of 5 star film. While at times it might seem there’s nothing going on, plenty happens under the surface and right in front of us. Dark comedy comes as immediately obvious, but underneath it all there’s the story of two damaged people. Chris and Tina are the victims of unfulfilled expectations – most of all, Chris hates himself and everyone around him who are either more competent or more successful than he is. This is where the violence originates from. However, it’s interesting to see how Tina latches onto Chris and sort of supports this vicious, animalistic side to him; for her, being a muse to his violence is equal to or even greater than being the muse to some writer. It’s only once Chris sort of messes it all up by shamelessly flirting that Tina turns against him, using her own violence to then turn the tables. Without ruining the ending, Tina gets a major last laugh that I’d not expected whatsoever, personally.
If you’re a fan of Ben Wheatley, then absolutely see this as soon as possible. Great black comedy, burnt like toast. As well as there’s a real horror aspect at times, between the violence and a trippy little dream sequence. I’m a huge fan of Kill List, as well as the vastly different A Field in England and Down Terrace. Ultimately, though, I’m beginning to think my favourite of his work is Sightseers. The performances from Alice Lowe and Steve Oram, also the screenwriters along with frequent Wheatley collaborator Amy Jump, are so unbelievable and it’s as if they’re being completely natural; so much so you’d almost have a hard time separating the actors from their characters’ personas. This has got a bit of everything, from a road trip-like feel of adventure, to awkward and dark comedy, and even a nice dash of horror for good measure.
What’s not to like?
If you’ve got any SENSIBLE and thoughtful comments about Wheatley’s film, drop one below and let’s chat!
Avengers: Age of Ultron. 2015. Directed & Written by Joss Whedon; based on the Marvel comics by Jack Kirby & Stan Lee.
Starring Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, James Spader, Samuel L. Jackson, Don Cheadle, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth olsen, Paul Bettany, Cobie Smulders, Anthony Mackie, Hayley Atwell, Idris Elba, Linda Cardellini, Stellan Skarsgård, Claudia Kim, Thomas Kretschmann, Andy Serkis, Julie Delpy, and Stan Lee. Marvel Studios. Rated PG. 141 minutes. Action/Adventure/Sci-Fi
I’ll start off by saying, for those might doubt my allegiance, when I was growing up I absolutely loved comics. For me, I was always a huge X-Men fan, not particularly a lover of The Avengers. But still, I’ve always been into comics and lots of the characters. Even Thor himself I’ve enjoyed, just never been big on Iron Man/Tony Stark or The Avengers team. Separately from the group, as individuals I do like a lot of the characters. For instance, I think the concepts behind both Hulk and Captain American SO INTERESTING – for Hulk it’s this incredible duality between man and the beast within, ever since Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde this has been explored and I think in the comics this pans out to something even more fun; in Cap’s case, I think that idea of the “perfect American”, that ultimate patriot, is another compelling idea because it entails everything we want to believe in soldiers, that we want them to be this perfect warrior and patriot yet underneath they are STILL human, just like Steve Rogers underneath all the Captain America experimentation.
So when I say that I’m not really huge on either of The Avengers films, maybe you can chalk that up to me not being a fan of them in general. However, I can absolutely admit when there’s a good film, whether or not I’m into the source material.
For me, I just don’t get enough heart. Not saying there’s no emotion, not at all; there is plenty. What I mean is that there feels like, beneath the CGI and the star powered cast, there is ultimately nothing much going on. While the action sequences are wild, the inner headspace of some characters get explored, but in the end there’s nothing hugely impressive to me which puts this above any other blockbuster in the summertime.
Avengers: Age of Ultron has a lot going on. This is one of my first real problems with the film. When I first sat down to see this, I knew it would be long, but when I learned it was near two and a half hours the urge to leave struck. But I’m not afraid of a long movie, there are plenty of films I enjoy that run well past two hours (The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, & those are just the classic ones). It’s just that, personally I can’t see how a near two and a half hour movie is necessary. Sure, there are lots of characters in here – The Avengers alone are too many to flesh out in a regular length film – but is there really any need for such length?
There’s a great part to this movie, which is that we get to see more of who The Avengers themselves are, as individuals. That’s something I do love because like I said in the beginning, it’s most the characters individually I like rather than the team as a whole.
And still, I think there could’ve been about 20 minutes yanked out of this screenplay without really hurting any of the character development, or the plot for that matter. I get it – there’s tension between the team, between certain members, even within themselves. There’s just no world in which I can see myself agreeing with the need for a two and a half hour Marvel movie. The complexity is there to work with, no doubt. Not enough to justify the length, though.
My other big beef with these Marvel movies, this one especially seeing as how I’ve watched it recently, is the fact everything is so drenched in CGI. I absolutely understand that a lot of what happens in these comic book stories WILL NEED CGI. Totally understandable. In opposition, even if you don’t like Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and The Dark Knight Rises, you have to at least give Nolan the benefit of agreeing that he attempted to use practical effects wherever possible. Even with The Dark Knight, you actually get to see Bale as Batman on the edge of an insanely tall building, and other shots such as this; of course it’s not ALL practical, not even close, but there’s still effort to try and ground SOME of the movie in a tangible world.
With Age of Ultron, there’s scene after scene of CGI madness, over and over. In between there are wonderful little scenes between actors, just straight up good writing/dialogue and story. Most of the time, however, Joss Whedon is just giving us a CGI show, everything is green-screened and any real, visceral emotion simply gets taken out of it. I think there’s definitely enough on the brainy sides of things – love the plot of this story Whedon gives us out of the comics – but to go with that there’s nothing here drawing me in, making me feel those emotions Whedon injects into his script, nothing hooking me other than “Wow that looked cool” or “Robot James Spader is wild”, or “LOOK AT ALL THOSE BUILDINGS AND CARS AND OTHER THINGS GETTING SMASHED”, or “Ooh pretty laser… ooh pretty laser… ooh pretty laser.”
I’m not saying I want the quote-unquote gritty version that everyone seems to crave after Nolan’s Batman. Frankly, I’m sick and tired of it all. Because in the end, so much of it is ultimately superheroes just flying around, beating each other up, with the tiniest bits of human drama and emotion peppered in for a scant flavour. That’s AWESOME if you’re a kid, or maybe if that’s your style – I don’t mean to knock you. For me, I need something more than Whedon and his Avengers seem capable of serving up.
While I don’t like this movie, not in the slightest really other than a casual admiration for the technical work and some of Joss Whedon’s screenplay, I’ll give it 2 out of 5 stars on those aspects alone. I cannot deny AT ALL that Age of Ultron is a technical marvel (see what I did there?). There’s a great deal of effort in so many areas which went into the making of this huge blockbuster film. I bet there are plenty, millions, of people out there who downright loved this! No doubt in my mind.
For me, and for others I’m sure, the amount of CGI smashing together and flashing all over the screen during most scenes throughout the enormously bloated runtime isn’t all that exciting. Visually there’s a feast of things to look at, but not a feast I’m starving for really. I like to see some interesting set pieces, costumes, effects as much as the next filmgoer. On the contrary, I like to see practical effects, and above all I like an emotional story that can entertain you with a bit of thoughtfulness while also sucking you into its intensity. Age of Ultron is, for me, too big and bright and it has no solid core. There are a TON of amazing actors here – I’m particularly a big fan of Mark Ruffalo and Paul Bettany – I just don’t think there’s enough time individually for any of them to make a real impressive impact.
See it and judge for yourself. I’m no one to listen to, surely. Objectively, I can’t agree that this is a great film. It’s mediocre at best, served up as near to the lowest common denominator of movies – a mindless bit of action. But whereas some action films get into you viscerally, put you right in the seat of the heroes matching up against the villains, there’s none of that here, in my opinion. Joss Whedon is a good writer and director, I’d rather see him take something else on other than his childhood love for comics. Might be great for some. Me? I’m worn out. As a lover of comics when I grew up, it’s still too saturated a market for me nowadays when it comes to superheroes, and it’s all the same as this: big, loud, flashing bright, but only to mask there’s nothing other than that to offer. Even further there’s the fact the Marvel movies always end the same way – heroes win, bad guys lose, another day they’ll find more bad guys to fight. You know from the get everyone will be alive at the end, no lives will be lost. Starting to get tedious, if you ask me. Maybe if the next Marvel film opts to kill off a big character, not for novelty but for a well-written reason in Whedon’s screenplay, then I’d be more inclined to take it in (this one doesn’t count because the ‘big’ character who dies in this one isn’t around long enough for me to or anyone to really care about).
Otherwise, it’s the same routine, over and over, where you don’t really have to ever worry because your favourites will ALL BE SAFE AND SOUND. No tears.
Mission: Impossible. 1996. Directed by Brian De Palma. Screenplay by David Koepp & Robert Towne from a story by David Koepp/Steven Zaillian; based on the television series created by Bruce Geller.
Starring Tom Cruise, Jon Voight, Emmanuelle Béart, Henry Czerny, Jean Reno, Ving Rhames, Kristin Scott Thomas, Vanessa Redgrave, Ingeborga Dapkunaite, and Rolf Saxon. Paramount Pictures.
Rated PG. 110 minutes.
There are certain movies out of the 1990s I remember fondly because they’re titles I’d rent on the weekend and watch with my parents. They were always pretty good about letting me watch a lot of things, as long as my little sister wasn’t around, and depending on how crazy it was they would probably watch it with me. But even before that, when I lived with my grandparents – my grandfather was a member of Columbia House when it was in its prime and he’d get like 9 VHS tapes for such a low price. So their place was full of old movies on VHS; I saw tons of stuff I probably shouldn’t have seen at ages 7-8.
Mission: Impossible is one of those movies I remember seeing after it came out on video. My parents and I rented it, I remember enjoying it so much it was one of those films I’d watch over and over. Honestly, I think Brian De Palma did an excellent job directing this with a great deal of suspense and tension, plus there’s the fact I think it’s a pretty damn good adaptation from the original 1966 series. No doubt hardcore fans of the original television series might not enjoy it, however, I think they modernized it, updated things just well enough while keeping the spirit of the original to make it something interesting.
When Jim Phelps (Jon Voight) heads to Prague on another mission with his IMF team – including wife Claire (Emannuelle Béart) and top agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) among others – things begin as per usual. Unfortunately, there is an incredible failure during this new mission; a fatal failure. But no one is sure who did what to cause the chaos.
After he is left the sole survivor in a massacre which sees Phelps and Sarah Davies (Kristin Scott Thomas), among others, all die at the mysterious hands of an outsider, Ethan Hunt is accused of mutiny and the failure of their mission is pinned on him. With the help of Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) and Franz Krieger (Jean Reno), and even a shadowy arms dealer named Max (Vanessa Redgrave), Hunt goes underground, using everything and everyone at his disposal in order to uncover exactly what has been happening. Most importantly, he hopes to find out who laid waste to his colleagues from the IMF and why they hoped he would be framed.
Above all else, I think De Palma does well by crafting a genuine atmosphere of suspense because while there’s action here, it would come off like any other action film were there no such feeling to the movie. It follows along with the flow of the plot well. As we start, things are light and fun – the team feel in sync with one another, joking, laughing, generally acting as if being secret undercover agents in a dangerous high stakes type of game is no big deal. However, this quickly cuts from that lighthearted feel to one of tension. As the IMF team, one by one, are dispatched, the tension gets thicker. Even the way in which De Palma has the scenes go, the fog on the night air almost seems to intensify with the plot’s movement. Everything is shrouded, until finally it’s Ethan left; things clear off, he is the only one living, and then there are the police. This sets up how the next segments will feel, as we move into the heavy mystery of Mission: Impossible.
Something I’ve always loved about this movie is how there’s a ton of action, but it’s not a load of gunshots and muzzle flares and smashing objects, walls and other set-pieces filled with bullet holes. I find it’s all intense action while not having to resort to the typical gunplay with which so many other American action/crime/thriller movies seem to be obsessed. This is where that ever present air of suspense and tension helps.
While many films might’ve flubbed the scene where Ethan Hunt (Cruise) suspends himself down over the lasers, in that high tech security room from Thieves Hell, De Palma makes this so insanely tense you can almost feel Tom’s butthole clench just watching it. It’s great stuff because what could be so simple and visually unappealing at the hands of another director becomes the stuff of action movie legend under the guidance of Brian De Palma. He doesn’t have a perfect track record as a director – but honestly who in the hell does? Not even Kubrick for those typical film fans who say he’s perfect; he was amazing but not perfect – but I think De Palma is absolutely one of the greats of American cinema. No doubt in my mind about that. Here, he shows why he’s a master of the craft.
The entire sequence leading up to the ‘suspended above lasers’ moment is classic. Well filmed, nice pace, and the set they used for that is very cool. Always loved the way De Palma includes the shot showing a drop of perspiration slipping off a plastic cup, setting off the alarm in the laser protected room; such a perfect zoom in close on the cup as Ethan Hunt describes the security inside. Not sure why I particularly enjoy that little moment, but it’s always one that strikes me for whatever reason.
Ever the fan of Alfred Hitchcock, as so many are, De Palma has a magnificent shot a little over 30 minutes in which reminds me of the staircase in Vertigo (which is my personal favourite Hitchcock). I don’t know if that was intentional, or simply a wonderfully coincidental shot that came up from the use of that location, but either way it is awesome. A wonderful homage. The camera rotates opposite the staircase and it creates a neat effect. Disorienting slightly, in a good way.
One of my favourite scenes is when Ethan uses his explosive gum. The way it’s shot, the angles De Palma frames each one, there’s a good pace of suspense up until the explosion, then Hunt is gone again. Not a long scene, it’s just well executed. De Palma goes for a lot of interesting low angles and tight close-ups in those suspenseful moments. Another great example is when Ethan first meets Max (Redgrave) and they’re watching for a signal – something simple, once more, becomes impressive because of the precise, honed direction. Has all the earmarks of a fabulous thriller.
Though I do like a couple of the other Mission: Impossible films, it’s easy to see the distinction between this and every other one. I was even a huge fan of Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, though, there is still no comparing it the original in this series of films. I mean, there’s such a genuine measure of tension built up throughout almost every scene, or every second one, that the movie never seems to let you go. Start to finish. From those opening bits, as the IMF team watch Ethan Hunt do his thing – mask and all – to the incredibly subtle, suspenseful moments as Ethan is being lowered into the ultra secure room at Langley a.k.a CIA Headquarters in Virginia; every important piece is shot in such a way that the maximum suspense comes out. Most of the franchise after the first movie seems to rely heavily on massive, epic-style set-pieces alongside fast paced action sequences and gunfire, as well as the odd explosion and demolition. I’m not saying that’s no good because with movies such as Mission: Impossible, you do come looking for a certain degree of explosive, big Hollywood budget type action movie stuff.
However, Brian De Palma gives us so much more. Almost each shot is deliberately framed which aids in setting the pace, and in turn the tension. Even in Ghost Protocol which I enjoyed to the fullest, there’s not the same type of tense atmosphere and tone created in any of the sequences, it’s mostly balls to the wall sort of filmmaking. Again, nothing wrong. Just different here. De Palma makes this more than another action flick, and more than a reboot of some old television series (something ALL too familiar now in 2015) – this is a genuine thriller, with mystery to boot, and there’s a bonafide sense of old school filmmaking from an old school director.
While my only complaint is mostly a bit of the acting (mainly Jon Voight who I find personally is either hit or big miss), I think the script itself is pretty solid. Lots of good twisty-turny corners and red herring-like activity going on, which fits perfectly with Brian De Palma who, as I mentioned, comes from the school of directors who pretty much worship Hitchcock. Overall, I’ve got to say this is a solid 4.5 out of 5 star film. A few things could’ve been improved on, but I think ultimately so much of this is pure excitement, thrill, and suspense/tension that it’s hard to deny how great of a film it is. Not to mention De Palma’s direction elevates this above all the general tripe we get calling itself action these days.
Naturally, there are some over-the-top elements absolutely. However, I think the way De Palma plays with everything, plus the fact the script knows exactly what it is and what it aims to do, really helps make it all so very worth it. Boasting an impressive performance by Tom Cruise, including his penchant for trying to do as much of his own stunt work as possible, Mission: Impossible is one of my all-time favourite action movies; it has everything from intensity to a drop of humour, and don’t forget there’s an expertly cultivated atmosphere at the hands of De Palma which would never have made it to the screen had this film been helmed by anyone else.
The Pyramid. 2014. Directed by Grégory Levasseur. Screenplay by Daniel Meersand & Nick Simon.
Starring Ashley Hinshaw, Denis O’Hare, James Buckley, Christa Nicola, Amir K, and Faycal Attougui. Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.
Rated R. 89 minutes.
There’s no way that I can honestly say The Pyramid is a great horror – most of the CGI alone warrants enough criticism to put it out of the running.
However, what I can say for my personal take on Grégory Levasseur’s film is that I enjoyed it simply because it’s fun.
A movie does not need to be perfect to be enjoyable. You don’t have to either love or hate a movie; not in the real world. It’s silly to think that movies have to be flawless in order to be enjoyed.
By the same token, you can both criticize a film for its flaws while simultaneously you’re still able enjoy what you’re watching.
The Pyramid is enjoyable for me because it’s fun. It isn’t the same old found footage movie of people going out into the woods, or a tv show presented and his crew get trapped inside a haunted building. At the very least, we’re treated to a location and situation that isn’t often touched on through found footage (the only similar film is another one I enjoyed though plenty seem to hate: As Above So Below).
The Pyramid takes place during 2013 as the protests in Egypt against President Mohamed Morsi were heating up big time.
Father-daughter archaeology team, Dr. Miles Holden (Denis O’Hare – of whom I was a big fan already but especially since his genius turns on FX’s American Horror Story) and Dr. Nora Holden (Ashley Hinshaw) are on a dig where a pyramid with only three sides, as opposed to the four contained on the pyramids in Giza. Once the structure is unearthed, a robot is sent in – as soon as the pyramid was opened, toxic air inside killed a man in a near instant. After the robot goes offline, the Holdens, as well as their team – along with Sunni Marsh (Christa Nicola), a documentary host, and her cameraman Terry “Fitzie” Fitzsimmons – all head inside, geared up, ready to discover what they can.
Unfortunately, the area is being cleared out due to the protesting in Giza and surrounding areas. Quickly the team enters the pyramid quickly as possible without alerting any of the authorities.
Inside there are dark and dangerous things lurking amongst the shadows, things that have spent centuries feeding, and waiting for the arrival of fresh meat.
“Stop being an archaeologist for a second and start being a human being” – I keep seeing people cite bad dialogue, using this as a source. I mean, why? What makes that such a bad line? Denis O’Hare’s character was just saying he didn’t want to destroy a wall because it had been put there, however long ago, by people who’d built that pyramid, so much historical hard work. Instead of wanting to get out of that place, he was more concerned with preserving things for historical and archaeological purposes. So I don’t understand how that line comes off as poorly written dialogue. Someone please explain to me why that line written on paper is bad because I don’t see it. Maybe the delivery isn’t perfect? Either way, this is not, to me, an example of bad writing. You don’t think someone would ever say those words? Try being trapped in an ancient, underground pyramid with a guy who’d rather just suffocate alive than bust up any of the old artifacts down there. Then perhaps the line might feel more ‘natural’.
Now, I’m not saying that The Pyramid avoids all the tropes of the found footage genre, or that it’s perfect – as I said starting out, it’s far from a perfect horror.
Typically there are always the arguments of “You lead us here”, et cetera. This moment comes, of course, after things start to get really hairy and one of the members, MIchael (Amir K) on the expedition is killed. Sunni flips on Miles and blames him for leading them down there, but as he points out she has to take responsibility because nobody forced her into the pyramid. I guess you can’t really avoid these types of arguments in found footage, as usually there is a ring leader. Most often, though, it’s usually the person insisting on keeping things filming – SO THAT THE WORLD WILL KNOW WHAT HAPPENED! If anything, at least they don’t go for that exact scenario. There’s a reason to keep filming here, as just being in the pyramid alone is a pretty amazing feat. I’m just glad there isn’t the same series of arguments over “Get that camera out of my face” and “Stop asking me questions – what is wrong with you?”, and so on. Might not be all fresh, but it does still avoid some of the familiar nonsense of the sub-genre.
There’s no part of me that will deny the CGI throughout The Pyramid is pretty bad. Almost all of it, honestly.
I guess when it comes to certain stories, characters, et cetera, in horror films there’s only so much you’ll be able to accomplish with practical effects beyond the blood and the murders. That being said, there’s no reason CGI has to look atrocious. I think, had the filmmakers somehow come up with a way to costume an actor instead of draping them in CGI, the Anubis creature could’ve been much more frightening.
Problem is that when bad CGI dominates the screen, there’s a real smack in the face for an audience. You go from seeing these big sets, this giant pyramid and all these hieroglyphics around, statues, to this hulking presence of bulbous CGI pushing through the frame. It’s too much of a contrast from the real look of everything else to the fake look of Anubis, as well as the other little creatures and things. I liken it to looking a nice painting then throwing a bunch of cartoon cutouts on top and acting out a scene. There’s already suspension of disbelief with a horror like this, but that doesn’t mean things need to look fake and silly looking. I’m sure it’s easier said than done to balance the budget of a huge film, especially when there are so many costs. However, with Alexandre Aja (director of such films as the fantastically gruesome High Tension, the stellar remake of The Hills Have Eyes, and another I enjoyed which others hated – adapted from Joe Hill’s novel, Horns starring Daniel Radcliffe) backing this project, you’d think there would be some way to make sure the CGI came out looking much better. Really dropped the ball on this aspect, which is one of the reasons so many people did not enjoy the film overall, I think.
SPOILER ALERT – HERE THERE BE SPOILERS!
One effect I did like, or at least the second half of it, is when Dr. Miles Holden gets his heart ripped out. The first part looked a bit cheese-filled, but when the hand is sticking out, Miles is staring wide-eyed at it, and then it pulls back out of him, I thought that piece of the effect went really well. Because it didn’t look completely CGI built, it had at least a fraction of practical effects. Another bit I liked was the first night vision bit with Fitzie where he sees Dr. Holden get his face melted off – Anubis is all CGI, but the face melting still looks pretty damn gnarly!
For me, I love the practical make-up effects instead of big nonsense computerized junk – any day of the week. Most horrors will at least get a star or two alone from me if there’s an effort on the part of practicality. If not, I find it hard to engage with. Some horror does have pretty good CGI, but the good ones in that arena are those that don’t overuse it either – they know when to employ it, sparse, and they recognize all the other times where there’s no need of it at all. So, if The Pyramid was able to include more effects of a practical nature there might have been a better visceral reaction to all the other.
I can’t recommend The Pyramid in that way I would recommend other horror movies I’ve enjoyed. Simply because I don’t think this is a great movie.
But like I said in the beginning – you don’t have to think a movie is perfect to have a good time watching. There are fun bits in The Pyramid. While the CGI is far from anything I thought worked, there’s adventure to this horror-thriller. We don’t have to watch a bunch of young people running around in the woods, constantly screaming – both in terror and at one another – there’s actually a different story here than the same old tripe with which we’re presented.
The Pyramid does not need to be perfect. Sure, I would’ve loved to see a lot of changes because this could’ve been an absolutely excellent horror movie if there were better practical effects and not so much reliance on the bad CGI. Especially the final 10 minutes – Anubis looked the worst when the red flare lighting was glowing and you could seem him terribly clear. Before, he skulked around in the dark, so there were times it didn’t look as glaringly bad.
So there is plenty of room for improvement. I don’t deny that at all.
What I’m saying is, just because a movie doesn’t work as a 5-star film does not mean it has to be without merits. There is at least some decent acting, a halfway sensible script (despite what others might say), and an intriguing location/plot to work around in. See this for a bit of fun – don’t expect something on the level of William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, but don’t expect a complete piece of trash like some reviews might have you believe.
Enjoy – or don’t! That’s up to yourself.