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Movie Review: Zack Snyder’s Justice League Shows Bigger Isn’t Always Better

Zack Snyder's Justice League

In 2017, I was excited to see Justice League on the big screen. The film brought together classic DC characters in a new formula that skipped the individual origin films and started with a spectacle. The film was middling, not good and not bad. There were things to like and things not to. Four years later, we get to see a new take on the film on HBO Max with Zack Snyder’s Justice League.

The film is director Zack Snyder‘s take using some of his original material and some new scenes and reshoots filmed just for this. Snyder was unable to deliver his vision originally due to a family tragedy. And all these years later, we get a sense of what he wanted to do and while it’s very different, it too is rather middling. Like the original take, some things work and some things don’t. It’s not a disaster of a film but also delivers nothing new, in fact, it feels like steps back in the gains comic films have made in the four years since.

Zack Snyder’s Justice League basks in its creator’s vision. That’s drilled into viewers before the first scene rolls, stating that’s the reason the film is in 4:3 ratio. The movie is full with visuals that only work on a big screen (thankfully my tv is large with a solid sound system) and has a glee about it, like a child playing with toys in an ever-escalating adventure. It’s also very basic in its concepts. At no point does it really show that it “gets” its characters beyond their powers in a very surface-level way.

Despite a reported additional $70 million spent, the special fx far too often looks dated. This becomes apparent early on in the opening slow-motion of various Mother Boxes where some look very “off” in a glitchy sort of way. Wonder Woman’s opening scene is another example of this. Her speed was handled in a less jerky/choppy way in her own film. Here, here movements look like a nightmare from 1999’s House on Haunted Hill. Her solo film handled this in a much-improved manner and one that’s more visually appealing. Cyborg, Steppenwolf, far too much looks slightly off in its delivery where lines don’t match up at times or even “collisions” of objects. There’s far too much of a reliance on CGI that hurts the film and distracts.

Slow motion is to Snyder’s vision as lens flair is to J.J. Abrams. It’s overused and a distraction. In Snyder’s case, it also drags out the film, slowing the pace to the point of near boredom at times. The dour mood of the film is enhanced by the overuse and obsession with the technique. It’s so overused that by the time The Flash is introduced (in the third segment) that his powers, which benefits from the technique, no longer feels interesting visually.

At a little over 4 hours, the film delivers more of everything. Each of the characters are given more to do as the movie attempts to deliver the epic fight with evil while acting as an origin story for six characters. It does what it can with that with a jumble of side-quests and tangents as we meet the various pieces of the puzzle. The Flash and Cyborg, play by Ezra Miller and Ray Fisher gain the most out of this and each plays a more pivotal role than just members of the team. Miller especially comes out a star with his different and very likable take on Barry Allen.

There are things that make absolutely no sense in the film beyond style. The battle between the Amazons and Steppenwolf left me with so many questions. Queen Hippolyta pausing to do battle while escaping. The fact they thought sealing a rock building would do anything. And again, the fx that look like they belong in video games like Dragon’s Lair and Revolution X as opposed to a big-budget film in 2021. The movie is filled with WTF moments that feel so stilted and not fleshed out and dialogue that’s childish in creativity at best.

About the only way Snyder’s version improves upon the original release is in the film’s ending. Though there are some issues with it still, the film delivers a more satisfying ending in its key action, again giving The Flash and Cyborg a much bigger role in stopping things. The epilogue too feels like it’s a much better way to send things off.

This is a film though that’s Snyder’s to own. And it’s a depressing one. From the action sequences, to the look, to the color, the film has a dour sense about it. It’s drap, depressing, and lacks joy. The actors (as wonderful as Gal Gadot, Ben Affleck, and Henry Cavill are in their roles) feel like it’s all a bit too serious. Beyond Miller’s Flash, everyone feels like a stick is up their asses with a stiffness that sucks the fun from it all. It’s a bit too serious and at four hours, it all drags.

Zack Snyder’s Justice League isn’t bad. There’s a lot to enjoy about it. It’s an improvement upon the original in some ways. It’s a step back in others. The enjoyment of it all will be in the eyes of the viewer and whether you enjoy Snyder’s style. It can work, and work well, in a lot of his other films, but here it results in a downer of a film. This is one that should have been an exciting coming together of titans but the end result is a film that takes itself too seriously.

Overall Rating: 6.0


You can view Zack Snyder’s Justice League on HBO Max

Movie Review: The Vigil turns Jewish folklore into claustrophobic horror

Much has been said about how The Vigil ventures into Jewish folklore to create a truly genuine Jewish horror story. The movie accomplishes this convincingly and it’s nothing short of impressive, especially when one considers how much of it happens almost exclusively in a small house setting.

The Vigil is a very focused horror movie. It takes place in a small Hasidic household that hides more secrets than one thought possible along with a Jewish entity known as the Mazzik (from the Hebrew word mazikeen which translates into “damager” or “destroyer”). A member of the Orthodox Jewish community has passed away and a man called Yakov Ronen (played by Dave Davis) is asked to become the body’s shomer from midnight to early morning, a religious responsibility that entails acting as the deceased’s watchman. He’s supposed to care for the dead man’s soul as it crosses over.

The Vigil
The Vigil

Complications arise as we learn Yakov has recently left the Hasidic community after a traumatizing experience. In the process, his faith has been broken, leaving him somewhat isolated while in the process of dealing with his separation from the life he’s always known.

Director Keith Thomas, who also wrote the film’s script, decided to cram as much as possible into the story to create a fully realized nightmare specific to the Jewish experience. The intention is to get at the terror behind trauma, memory, and the unknown.

It all speaks to Thomas’ ambitiousness and drive to create an authentic Jewish horror film by fully committing to the culture behind its subject matter. The film goes as far as shooting on location at Williamsburg and Borough Park, two places known for their Hasidic populations, to capture as much as possible from the community that hovers around the main character.

Horror
The Vigil

Despite these elements being put firmly in place for maximum narrative effect, what makes The Vigil intriguing is its decision to keep to an enclosed place as it makes Yakov relive his traumas just as the house’s cursed memories start spilling out.

The small, two-story house the story takes place in carries itself like an old and bruised place, overtaken by shadows that seem to only recede in dimly lit spots. Light sources themselves are tinged with opaque reds and greens, making everything seem somewhat shapeless. It makes for a location that comes across as ill-intentioned, persistent in boxing in its chosen victim with no escape in sight.

Thomas uses this to his advantage and amplifies it by keeping the camera close to Yakov. And yet, there’s always enough space left over to peer into the background and see if something unnatural moves closer to him. It allows for a heightened sense of tension and dread to build up and it results in some great scares.

Dave Davis makes the entire experience work with his measured and tortured performance as Yakov. His fear is palpable, but so is the pain he carries. The house and its entity put Yakov inside a black hole of fresh wounds and traumatic memories, all concerning his decision to leave the community he’s currently back in for the night, in spite of his best efforts.

Davis lets the viewer in on his character’s suffering and makes him infinitely relatable, even in the face of his character’s specific cultural traits. The house’s lack of big open spaces creates the eerie sensation one is also trapped inside it with Yakov, making us feel the same claustrophobic terror he’s engulfed in.

Jewish horror
The Vigil

In this regard, The Vigil reminded me in parts of Scott Derickson’s Sinister. That movie’s demon also turned the house setting into a place where memories and hard life choices became things an evil entity could feed on. It exposed them and turned them into nightmares of their own. The Vigil showcases a similar approach to its horror, basically turning the house into a representation of the character’s fractured psyche.

In the middle of all this, the movie also finds a way to comment on antisemitism—from the Holocaust all the way to more modern forms of it—but not in a way that feels heavy-handed or forced. It’s presented as a constant that doesn’t need to rear its head on-screen to remind viewers of its existence, but it’s present enough to also play a role in creating its own sense of claustrophobia for whose who are victims of it.

The entity that attacks Yakov, both spiritually and mentally, is cleverly allowed to be seen in key moments so as to not allow the film to be solely consumed by its metaphors. The Vigil has a lot of things to say, but they don’t get in the way of making sure the movie also gives its audience a proper horror experience. The Jewish demon is memorable and is given the full weight of myth and history to have it embody a kind of evil that is ancient but still relevant.

The Vigil
The Vigil

The Vigil succeeds at making each story beat and horror sequence correspond organically with its Jewish folklore influences and elements. The demon, the house’s haunted memories, and the trauma are all specific to the Jewish experience, but they never close the door on audiences from other cultural backgrounds so they can relate to the horrors on display. It’s claustrophobic and it actively tries not to make anyone feel safe within its story, all attributes of a great horror movie.

Movie Review: Saint Maud offers a disturbing portrayal of faith and loneliness

Saint Maud
Saint Maud

Pay attention to the title of the movie Saint Maud. Really think about what it is that makes someone a saint. In fact, if you look up some of the key saints from Christianity you’ll find the path to sainthood is often paved in blood. Be it through obscure instances of violence or culpable sin, the title of saint is still considered as an undertaking of absolute faith with the good grace of God standing as its ultimate reward.

Rose Glass Saint Maud looks at all this through a different lens, employing psychological horror to produce one of the most disturbing explorations of faith, devotion, and mental illness in recent memory.

Written and directed by Glass, Saint Maud follows a young, pious nurse called Maud as she comes to terms with the meaning of her relationship with God. In essence, Maud lives to answer the question of what God wants with her. As she looks for answers, she’s assigned to take care of a woman dying of cancer. Maud believes she can save the troubled woman’s soul, but God seems to have a harder test in the works for her.

The movie’s most resounding successes rest on the shoulders of actress Morfydd Clark, who plays Maud. Clark masterfully captures the title character’s tug and pull with being both hopeful and lost at the same time. Clark plays Maud as a young woman constantly teetering between a full-blown mental breakdown or a divine revelation.

Maud is given brief but revealing bits of internal dialogue that keeps viewers informed on the latest developments on what she thinks God is asking of her. Morfydd’s narration does a great job of showing Maud’s frustrations with her lack of understanding, always aware of the mounting pressure she faces while trying to make sense of her situation.

Saint Maud plays a bit with what’s real and what’s inside the main character’s head, but it prefers the less ambiguous approach to what’s actually happening. There’s more evidence of Maud suffering from a severe mental illness rather than a fundamental crisis of faith. And yet, it’s her faith that wins out as the thing that guides her in this new phase of life as a recent convert. Maud wasn’t always religious. There’s an obscure trauma at play that the movie cleverly keeps pretty much under wraps. It’s what might explain how God has so completely taken a hold over her.

Saint Maud
Saint Maud

The manifestations of her faith do one very unique thing here that not many other horror movies can claim to do. It makes the movie unfold as a kind of possession story where God is the invading spirit. Maud’s religious devotion plays a central role here as her decision to give in to faith keeps her isolated from almost everyone else.

Glass’ script is careful not to overindulge with the supernatural elements, but whenever something gives the appearance of being otherworldly, the horror gets ramped up considerably. Glass does an excellent job of playing with shadows and dark corners without stripping a single scene of all color. In fact, the movie contains a very clear and solid color palette that serves to heighten the terror at the heart of Maud’s process.

This figures into Glass’ decision to put Maud in big open spaces that aren’t exactly crowded with people. Quite the opposite. Maud seems to live in a world devoid of meaningful human contact. This becomes an especially powerful source of pain while in the presence of male characters, none of which see Maud as someone worth being treated with care or respect. Maud’s world is hostile and even God is suspect.

Saint Maud has a lot of moving parts, each made more complex and disturbing thanks to the fact the element of faith serves as its source of horror. Clark’s performance elevates the story’s focus on the consequences of unchecked piousness with an eye to question not just religious behavior but also the effects it can have on a troubled mind. As far as explorations into these matters are concerned, Saint Maud stands as one of its greatest.

Movie Review: 76 Days

76 Days

January 23rd marks the one-year anniversary of the start of the COVID-19 lockdown in Wuhan, China. 76 Days is a documentary directed by Hao Wu, Weixi Chen, and “Anonymous” taking us into the region and giving us a look at their struggle against the deadly pandemic. The film takes place through four Wuhan hospitals beginning a few days after lockdown.

The documentary opens with a gut punch as family is torn apart from each other. It delivers a visceral start of a raw and emotional journey the world has been experiencing for over a year. The film focuses on the struggles of the people of Wuhan in the earliest days of the outbreak. It’s the stories at the humans at the center of ground zero attempting to survive and do their best in impossible times.

76 Days

Early on we’re takento a hospital as it needs to hold back the hoards of individuals attempting to seak treatment. The film feels like a zombie horror film as the hopsital staff are clad head to toe in protective gear and individuals bang on the door looking for treatment and refuge. It’s a surreal segment that doesn’t feel real taking us into the city’s lockdown and extreme measures from there. 11 million people on the frontline of the crisis.

The film might take place across the world but its struggles are universal. The pain clear. It’s hard to not tear up at as the phones of the deceased ring and messages are sent. To not cry as individuals recount the dead and family they’ve lost.

It also highlights the efforts of so many to fight the disease in its early days and the complete chaos of the situation. They were up against impossible odds constantly adapting and learning what they were up against. A year later, we’re in much of the same situation as the disease mutates and tests the world’s abilitiy to fight back once again.

76 Days

The humanity on display is inpsiring. Doctors and nurses scrambling to fight for patients, some of who have little fight in them. Some cut off from their family, these medical soldiers adopt their patients becoming their surrogate families in these trying times.

But what’s amazing is, this is a city clearly at war with a force it can’t see. This feels like a battle for survival. It’s amazing to watch this and reflect on the laxidazical response by so many in so many other regions.

But the film goes beyond that showing the impact on others. A woman faces a C-section alone as her husband isn’t allowed to attend the birth due to the risk of disease. Beyond that we see the struggle of the same family to bring their child home during a pandemic. We see the lines of food being handed out to keep individuals at home. There’s the amazing level of work put in to disinfect so much regularly. Often reminding workers of those lost to the disease and how it doesn’t care about age or class.

76 Days

But, the film constantly comes back to the struggle within the hospital. The hurdles are far more than I ever realized beyond the disease itself. Patients with different needs. Patients with different dialects. Some take to the internet filling them with misinformation. Some suffering from other diseases like dementia. It all comes together to make the battle that much more difficult.

This is a war film. There are losses and death. There is trauma that will live with individuals for years. For 76 days the city and its people struggled. It’s a struggle the world continues to experience with no end in sight.

Movie Review: Wonder Woman 1984 Delivers Throwback Fun

Wonder Woman 1984

The much delayed and anticipated Wonder Woman 1984 has finally been released in an unprecedented roll of the dice and experiment by Warner Bros. and its parent company AT&T. Released on HBO Max and in theaters, the film has pivoted a few times due to the current pandemic and shifting needs of consumers. Taking advantage of my big-screen television and surround sound, and not wanting to risk COVID, I took advantage of my HBO Max subscription to watch the film and in doing so, I felt transported back decades to the early years of comic film adaptations. That’s both a good and bad thing in the end. But, the end result is a film that’ll be polarizing and over years most likely dissected, analyzed, and opinion will shift for the positive.

Shifting the setting decades from the original, Wonder Woman is now in 1984 living her dual life. Longing for the return of her Steve Trevor, she’s been lonely and somewhat isolated. Enter the dreamstone, a MacGuffin that can make wishes come true. A failed businessman, Maxwell Lord, also wants the statue in hopes that he’ll be able to turn around his ventures and become a worldwide business dynamo. What results is a film that examines the 80s while also upending superhero movies in many ways.

Directed by the returning Patty Jenkins, Wonder Woman 1984 features a story by Jenkins and Geoff Johns with a screenplay by Jenkins, Johns, and Dave Callaham. The story and direction have their bumps but overall the film feels like a throwback to earlier years of superhero films both in tone and look. This isn’t a film filled with cynicism and negativity. Instead, it’s a story about hope, love, and a positive future. It’s bright at times and wears its pacifist leanings on its armored sleeve.

The biggest break from other superhero films is the lack of a villain with a motivation to cause harm. Played by Pedro Pascal, Maxwell Lord is Donald Trump mixed with 1980s television hucksters. It’s established early Lord is a fraud attempting to make money through a pyramid scheme. He wants a successful business not to rule anything and we see that through his actions.

In the end, the issue presented is desires uncontrolled. Lord’s plan spirals out of control putting the world on the brink of nuclear war. In that way, we get a very different story from DC and Marvel films of the past. This isn’t a nefarious plan so much as a mistake. It’s a scam that gets out of control and results in unintended consequences.

Jenkins attempts to have fun with that spiraling out of control world as things amp up slowly and then the avalanche. Lord wants more and uses his newfound powers in an attempt to enrich himself and at the same time also create some stability… which only creates more instability. We’ve seen a similar plot in Bruce Almighty. While that film stayed isolated to Buffalo, this takes it to a global scale.

The team slowly builds Lords out of control failure from his empty office, to the Middle East, to the White House, and then beyond. It’s a ramping up of an out of control power and a man desperate to figure out what to do next. He easily could have just made himself the ruler of the world but he doesn’t. He wants to be “the” businessman.

Jenkins attempts to bring an 80s vision to the film’s 1980s setting. That results in a mixed result. The tone of the film has much more in common with Richard Donner‘s Superman than it does with anything post-2000, the “modern superhero film era”. Its colors, lighting, and overall attitude are one of positivity. It has a light tone never taking itself too seriously and playing loose with the logic of the story. We’re treated to a finale that breaks from the traditional punching that crescendoes most comic films. It puts an exclamation point that the film attempts to do something different.

But what the film really does is remove itself from the meta-cinematic universe we come to expect. Yes, the film has the return of Steve Trevor from the first story but it has little direct impact on other DC films nor does it set up or continue a meta story that involves 20 other films. It’s a two-issue story arc giving us breaks between drawn-out “events”. It’s supposed to be a breezy popcorn film focused on fun and it generally succeeds.

The film absolutely has issues with its story. Trevor’s return has a lingering of rape due to how it’s done. Kristen Wiig‘s Barbara Minerva/Cheetah is underused. Some of the film could have been tightened up in the details. The film is loose with some fat to it. Minor changes would have made a leaner and tighter film. Special effects at times are rough and some fight sequences feel a bit uninspired. But, every comic film released has had problems none are perfect and there are modern releases that are in a far rougher shape than this.

The actors all bring some interesting aspects to the film. Gal Gadot is supposed to be front and center and while she plays alone very well, she doesn’t quite have the draw power she had in the first film. That’s partially because everyone else is so over the top in their performances that her Diana/Wonder Woman comes off as too serious and dour at times.

Returning is Chris Pine as Steve Trevor. Pine has the most fun of the actors continually being excited about the world he’s returned to. The joke happens over and over but Pine’s delivery never gets old and through him, the film gets to poke a lot of fun at the time period. Pine is our time capsule reminding us of the fashion, dances, and innovations of the decade.

Joining Gadot and Pine are Kristen Wiig as Barbara Minerva and Pedro Pascal as Maxwell Lord, the two “villains” of the film. I put that word in quotations because neither is truly evil.

Wiig plays the bookwormish Minerva who also works in the museum with Gadot’s Diana. In Diana she sees someone she inspires to be and her wish to do so brings unintended consequences. Wiig does a fantastic job of evolving from one thing to the other playing a convincing flower blooming. She does the stumbling nerd well and then the confident woman everyone wants to be around. There’s a lot of 80s John Hughes in the performance and it captures the decade well.

Pedro Pascal puts in an over the top performance tapping so much of what was wrong the decade. His scheming Lord is the insecure loser and con-artist we knew so many of the titans of the time were. Donald Trump, televangelists, late-night infomercials, Lord is all of these things in a bad wig. He’s the embodiment of everything wrong during that time period and does it with a delivery that emphasizes the slime. But, he also gives us a villain who isn’t so much one and as we learn someone the audience can relate to more than they want to admit.

Wonder Woman 1984 feels like the enjoyment will be directly inversed to how cynical one is. The more you are, the less you’ll like it. It’s a film that doesn’t take itself seriously and just roles with its ideas. The action sequences are enjoyable, performances a bit over the top, and a story that you just roll with. This is a popcorn film that wants you to not think and just go for the ride. It’s comic book escapism that takes its tone and look from comics delivering popcorn digital enjoyment.

Overall Rating: 8.0

Apple TV+’s Wolfwalkers Shows 2-D Animation at its Finest

Wolfwalkers

Animated films have received a ton of attention this year (since the production of many live-action films was postponed), with more on the way. Despite many big studio releases, I think it will be very hard to top Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart’s Wolfwalkers, another visually stunning work heavily inspired by Irish history and folklore. I say “another” because Tomm Moore and the studio Cartoon Saloon have been consistently crafting fantastic films in this vein for years. Secret of the Kells, Song of the Sea, and now Wolfwalkers all pull from similar legends and historical art to create a trilogy of mesmerizing and joyous tales. All of the lessons learned from their previous works are on full display in this new release, as it deftly explores themes of otherness, transformation, and responsibility.

Wolfwalkers is set in Ireland during the Interregnum at the end of the Irish Confederate Wars, a period in English history where the monarch was overthrown and Oliver Cromwell made himself head of state and lord protector of the country. Cromwell then asserted control over Ireland, passing laws that discriminated against Irish Catholics and confiscating their land. This tension is baked into the story. As we are introduced to the main character Robyn and her father Goodfellowe, other children show disdain for Robyn because she’s English. Her father serves Cromwell in his crusade to tame the wild land (it’s not subtle, but it’s for kids, y’know?). Robyn’s desire to follow in her father’s footsteps lead her to meet Mebh, a girl who can turn into a wolf when she falls asleep. Robyn’s relationships with her father and with Mebh soon come into conflict after Cromwell orders all wolves in the forest killed.

In contrast to many of the Pixar-esque, 3-D animated films of this century, Wolfwalkers shows that 2-D animation is stronger than ever. The near death of 2-D animation in popular studios has led to innovation that few 3-D animated features have achieved. Even with several big 3-D movies being released this year, Wolfwalkers sets itself apart with its attention to visual storytelling.

Wolfwalkers

The film pulls heavily from Celtic art and imagery, while also using that imagery to contribute to the film’s story. The difference between settings is shown by the drastic visual contrast, as Robyn’s village is rendered in rigid, straight lines, while the surrounding forest is made up of semicircles and curves. As the villagers cut down the forest, we literally see the fields become drawn more like the town, with angular tree stumps covering the frame. This attention to detail is also present in the designs of the wolves, as the sketches their final animations were based on can be seen in many scenes. All these touches serve to emphasize Wolfwalkers’ themes, as the forest and the wolves feel unfettered and free while the inflexible angular lines of the town feel like a trap for the characters. Symbols of chains and prison bars are used in the village to highlight Robyn’s desires, while they reinforce her father’s worries.

All this artistry serves a well-told, if predictable story. This conflict has been seen in other children’s films (even other ones with wolves in them), but a smart script and a few twists and turns give the film enticing energy. I would rewatch this for the animation alone, but it’s so fun I ended up watching it twice before finishing this review! Wolfwalkers is an excellent addition to Tomm Moore’s unofficial Irish trilogy with stunning animation elevating its story to one of the best told of the year.

Review copy provided by Apple TV+

Movie Review: The Dark and the Wicked will settle for nothing less than your soul

There’s no other horror movie out there, this year, as sinister as The Dark and The Wicked. It’s relentless and cruel and impossible to stop watching. Director/screenwriter Bryan Bertino has put together a legitimate gauntlet of horrors in an almost micro-setting, focusing on a sister and brother duo that return to their farm home to take care of their haunted and lonely parents. Whatever’s oppressing this family takes no prisoners and is dead-set on indulging in as much evil as it can. It’s some of the scariest stuff to ever have been put on celluloid.

The Dark and The Wicked
The Dark and The Wicked

Bertino has chosen to put loneliness under the proverbial microscope with his movie. It’s mostly about the demons that such a circumstance invites and how family can be the antidote and the poison that enables it all. The small family at the core of the story have all become distant from one another. The siblings went their separate ways at one point in time and looks as if they didn’t keep in touch as they probably should’ve. Their only true connection is a bed-ridden father and an emotionally disturbed mother.

What’s impressive about this setup and how each character develops around is that none of the family’s prior history is flat out explained or dumped on the viewer through exposition. The way the siblings react to each other and speak tells you enough about the distance between them.

Keeping the story so focused on just a few characters really helps drive the point home. The farm where most everything takes place seems remote, almost devoid of motion even. Night scenes are drenched in deep shadows and the knowledge of remoteness heightens the tension. It always feels as if of some impending horror is primed and ready for torture at any given time.

Cinematographer Tristan Nyby deserves a lot of praise for this as the movie’s dread factor comes straight out of carefully selected shots that play with negative spaces and different tones of darkness. This is amplified by the film’s sound design, which refreshingly opts to interrupt silence with demonic growls and hellish sounds that few horror stories opt to indulge in.

The Dark and The Wicked
The Dark and The Wicked

Of course, this all rests on the shoulders of a tight script that wants to play up the devilry, without leaving doubt as to the source of the evil that’s invaded the family. There’s very little time spent with traditional horror tropes such as the one where the people involved spend a good portion of the movie trying to decide if the haunting is real or not. The siblings come to this conclusion fairly quick and know they have to do whatever they can to get everyone far away from their family home and its devil. Their disagreements and unresolved issues, though, is what holds them back.

Actors Marin Ireland and Michael Abbott Jr. are exceptional in their roles as the siblings. They project the burden of family and responsibility in their body language alone and excel in presenting their characters as people that do not know how to navigate the problems they face. Their reactions to the horrors is convincing to the point one can easily relate and see themselves in their position. They transform into people that are just like us. Not special. Just ordinary with a liberally portioned side of hell.

In a way, it does remind somewhat of movies like Hereditary and The Exorcist. The evil is real, which allows the narrative to go deeper into the terror. As a result, we get a story that’s heavy and overwhelmingly oppressive at certain points. The punishment the main characters are subjected to is relentless, but it really opens up the playing field for some very intense and very scary sequences. I won’t spoil those here but get ready for horrifying stuff.

The Dark and The Wicked is also well-paced. Though it hits hard and insistently, the movie never feels lethargic and it makes good use of its hour and a half runtime with something new happening in every scene. There are no repeated instances of self-slamming doors or flickering lights. The entity likes to go straight to the hard stuff.

Bryan Bertino should have everyone itching for a hint of his next movie, whatever that may be. The direction, the writing, the performances, and the tech artistry on display is impeccable. His movie is one that continues to haunt in the days following the first watch. It’s a story that has to be endured, but the reward is an experience unlike no other.

Movie Review: Borat Subsequent Moviefilm

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is a giant middle finger to the right and an exploration of the spiral into insanity the United States has fallen into since the previous movie. Continuing the same gonzo style filming, the movie puts Borat on a mission to deliver a gift to Donald Trump so that the leader of Kazakhstan can become his friend. That gift? Borat’s daughter. Yes, Borat has a partner in crime, his daughter Sandra Jessica Parker Sagdiyev.

Borat is the creation of comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, who has perfected the use of characters to skewer his topics. This film is no exception. With the first film being such a success, the character has been ruined in a way. Cohen comes up with the brilliant alternative of having Borat play other characters as he makes his way around on his mission. Of course, things don’t go right and each character allows him to explore and create commentary about each of his targets. They range from QAnon conspiracists to the Christian Right, to Mike Pence and Rudy Guiliani. The film has a target and it’s the regressive, racist, and backward aspects of America.

The inclusion of the daughter adds new few layers to Cohen and Borat’s usual schtick. Played by “Irina Novak,” (really Maria Bakalova) Tutar, aka Sarah Jessica Parker, gives as good as she gets in the film. She also forces Borat to be more than a one-note character while also exploring and skewering aspects of society that he wouldn’t be able to touch. Abortion, misogyny, masturbation, and more are explored through the character. She also creates a new layer of jokes that are amazing.

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is an amazing exploration of America. Of course, what Borat and Sarah Jessica Parker say is shocking but it’s the lack of response and shock from those around them that’s the point. They expose the underbelly of rot that exists throughout the nation. Racism, antisemitism, misogyny, are in their crosshairs. Through their, and especially Sarah Jessica Parker’s journey, they expose the lies not of Kazakhstan but of America. They spotlight the ugly underneath and the acceptance of it by so many in so many different positions.

Through the offensiveness, there’s a lot of heart. We see the character grow as he interacts with his daughter and the film spotlights reason and sanity. A segment in a Jewish Temple and another with an African American women deliver the voices of reason. Though there’s many jokes made out of each segment, they give a break from the hate and ignorance spewed by so many others. Their focus in this film is clearly the white right, especially the privileged.

What’s more interesting in the film is that many more of the moments feel like pre-planned segments. There’s either complete random luck in the subjects, a lot of throwing darts to see what works, or it’s pre-planned sketches. No matter the method, the results are amazing and create a narrative that’s perfectly timed for the election. There’s also something that makes you appreciate what is pulled off, even more, when you attempt to figure out the logistics of it all. There are also such amazing lapses in security… it’s just baffling.

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is the movie we need for the November election. Not only does it skewer the right, but it also shows the left’s heart. It weaves together topics like COVID and politics with a clear goal and points to make. It does so with humor and a no-fear attitude. It’s gonzo journalism wrapped up as sketch comedy. It’s not the same schtick as the original, it pulls off its brilliance and takes it to another level by adding in more of a plot and story.

There’s no way that Borat can go on as a character after these two films. He’s too well known. The film almost feels like it wanted to take everything so many found offensive about the character and show that he’s what America has let fully loose. The conspiracies, the misogyny, the antisemitism. And then take Borat and show he can grow. That you don’t need to be that way. There’s such a subversive flip in the film compared to the first. The original film had Borat highlighting horrid beliefs and actions while this film has that but growth and uncomfortableness on full display in its two main characters. The United States and its citizens are who we should be offended by is the point of the film.

It’s the rare sequel that might surpass the original. Borat Subsequent Moviefilm takes its weaknesses, a known schtick, and makes it its strength. It also shows that Cohen can make his characters more than simple jokes and he, and they, have so much room for growth and hopefully so much more to say.

Overall Rating: 9.0


Borat Subsequent Moviefilm will be released through Amazon Studios on Amazon Prime on October 23.

Movie Review: Push Attempts to Lift the Veil on Housing Issues

Push Movie Poster

As wages are stagnating, the price of urban life continues to rise across the globe. Director Fredrik Gertten’s new documentary PUSH follows UN Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing, Leilani Farha, as she meets with people from around the world who are struggling to afford housing.

PUSH presents interviews with disaffected tenants, city mayors, and experts in international economics, connecting the several stories to the main issue. The film does not focus on one city, but on many. We follow Farha everywhere from Harlem to Seoul. The wide variety of perspectives very effectively put us in the shoes of Farha as she tries to come to a greater understanding of why housing inequality is such a big issue in many cities today.

Since the film spends so much time with Farha, it’s a good thing that she is a very compelling subject. Her passion for the cause endears us to her and to everyone she fights for. We also see the frustrations she faces within the UN and with large companies profiting from the current system. From UN delegates ignoring her to Presidents of Real Estate companies refusing to meet with her, the struggles Farha faces help us to empathise with her and believe in her cause.

One way Gertten connects the viewer with the topic is through the cinematography. It excellently captures the details of each city Farha visits. As we see the forces that are profiting off of displacing communities, Gertten also takes time to show small moments of joy that make those communities so powerful. We see a neighbor waving goodbye to children on their way to school, two men having a cup of coffee together, and a family relaxing on their couch. Though there are some points where the film drags, the editing and pacing keep us engaged throughout while the cinematography connects us with the circumstances each subject is facing.

A larger issue with PUSH is that it does not have much focus on history. Housing inequality such as redlining and segregation in the United States and other nations is touched on, but not discussed in much detail. The majority of people Farha meets with over the course of the film are white, and little time is devoted to discussing these points with POC. Though the documentarians might have felt unqualified to discuss such topics, I believe it could have strengthened their message to point out how the housing market has always been unequal.

Considering how world events are affecting many people’s ability to pay their rent, this film has become even more pertinent to our current situation. Though the message could have been stronger if it delved more into the history of housing and included more diverse voices, I would still recommend PUSH. It makes a strong case that the housing crisis should be taken seriously.

Bill and Ted Face the Music is a Joyous Finale

Bill and Ted Face the Music

When Ed Solomon and Chris Matheson first pitched their script for Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure in 1987, they had difficulty finding a studio that would take a chance on such a silly, over-the-top idea. With 31 years of hindsight, those studios might have jumped at the opportunity. Bill S. Preston Esquire (Alex Winter) and “Ted” Theodore Logan (Keanu Reeves) quickly became icons and have only grown in popularity due to nostalgia for the 80’s and 90’s. After living through the meat grinder of America in 2020, Bill and Ted’s positive attitude about any situation they find themselves in is refreshing. Whether they are trying to pass high school history, stopping evil robots, or saving reality, no obstacle can keep them down. The franchise has produced two T.V. shows, comics, video games, a musical, and everyone’s favorite… Bill and Ted’s Most Atypical Movie Cards and now Bill and Ted Face the Music. Bill and Ted is a franchise, dudes.

How many of us have quoted these movies with our bros? How many have triumphantly played air guitar in tribute to them? How many have been waiting expectantly for the finale to be released? I was so eager to see how the saga came to a close ever since the movie started production. After all this anticipation, I am happy to report that Bill and Ted Face the Music is a most bodacious sequel that lives up to the legacy of its excellent prequels.

Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter have effortless chemistry as Ted and Bill (it feels kind of weird writing it like that…) whenever they are on-screen, but also bring a gruff edge to their performance when they play progressively more jaded versions of themselves. The script gives both of them some hilarious lines as they misunderstand their wives, themselves, and their mission. Both bring so much physical comedy to their scenes while never feeling too jarring. They also model a relationship that is not often seen in film, a supportive, loving friendship between men. Their work together is joyous to watch and cements them in my mind as one of the great cinematic duos. 

One issue the film faces head on is how to retcon the ending of the previous movie, where Bill and Ted seemingly wrote the song to save humanity. Rather than ignoring that, the opening scenes focus on how far Bill and Ted have gone to embrace their destiny. As Bill and Ted fumble around with bizarre instruments and begin throat singing at a wedding reception, we are shown all the years of dead ends they’ve faced and what brought them to this moment rather than it being limited to exposition. 

Of course, Bill and Ted have also been raising their two daughters to be versions of themselves from their prime. Once they begin their mission to make the best band of all time, their true strengths are revealed. Their years of listening to music and creating their own inspire a passion in every historical figure they meet, even Death himself! Samara Weaving and Bridgette Lundy-Paine are clearly having a great time with their roles and I was too as I watched them go further into the past while their fathers traveled to the future.

The two main stories complement each other as refined and trimmed down versions of the previous films in the series. While Billie and Thea’s adventure recalls the quest to find historical figures in the first movie, Bill and Ted’s journey more closely resembles the second film where they faced evil versions of themselves. The writers enjoyed building on the legacy they created while not relying on nostalgic references like other big franchise movies. These cinematic parallels also emphasize the theme of passing the torch, as Bill and Ted realize their destiny was fulfilled by their daughters, the true main characters. These two plotlines converge as all of time begins to converge as well, with a final scene of truly epic proportions.

While many smaller roles get terrific comedic bits to chew on (the marriage counselor fleeing her office, Louis Armstrong being transfixed by a smartphone), some feel under-utilized or mishandled. Dennis, the Bill and Ted Universe’s Terminator, started to grate on my nerves in the final act. His addition felt unnecessary in a group filled with great comedic roles and few straight men. Kid Cudi, while hilarious in parts, only seemed to have one joke and the reveal that he knew about Station, the extremely smart aliens from the second film, was confusing in a way none of the other references were. My issues with Dennis and Kid Cudi are relatively minor compared to one missed opportunity I noticed. During the first act of the movie, I was excited to see the story of the princesses after their bizarre double date/couples therapy appointment, but instead they are mostly ignored. The intriguing setup left me a bit disappointed. Their family members all have strong character arcs while they are mostly absent. 

Overall, the stories of Bill and Ted, and Billie and Thea were so strong that my minor issues with the film didn’t detract from my enjoyment. Bill and Ted Face the Music is a joyous finale to one of my favorite comedy series of all time and one I hope to revisit soon.

Score: 8.5

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