6.24.2019

Child's Play (2019)


DIRECTED BY
Lars Klevberg

STARRING
Gabriel Bateman - Andy Barclay
Mark Hamill - Voice of Chucky
Aubrey Plaza - Karen Barclay
Brian Tyree Henry - Detective Mike Norris
Tim Matheson - Henry Kaslan
David Lewis - Shane
Carlease Burke - Doreen Norris
Marlon Kazadi - Omar Norris
Beatrice Kitsos - Falyn
Ty Consiglio - Pugg

Genre - Horror/Slasher

Running Time - 90 Minutes


PLOT (from IMDB)
A mother (Aubrey Plaza) gives her 13-year-old son (Gabriel Bateman) a toy doll for his birthday, unaware of its more sinister nature.

REVIEW
Back in 1989, I watched 1988’s CHILD’S PLAY in theaters in a double-feature with NO HOLDS BARRED. While I was probably more of a wrestling fan than a horror fan at that point in my life, the origin of serial killer Charles Lee Ray sending his soul into a Good Guy doll named Chucky left more of an impression on me. CHILD’S PLAY gave me the creeps as a child, especially since I owned a Teddy Ruxpin doll and was terrified it would turn evil on me. CHILD’S PLAY was a pretty big hit at the time, making Chucky a horror icon alongside Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers. Ever since, we were blessed [or cursed, depending on who you are] with six sequels that varied from stereotypical slashers to straight up dark comedies that either invited or turned off fans along the way. The series had lost its way for a while until the recent direct-to-blu-ray releases [CURSE and CULT] brought the film back to its horror roots and opened up a new mythology that an upcoming SyFy television series plans on continuing with much excitement. Don Mancini’s creation has been going strong for over 30 years with no end in sight.

Which made it surprising when MGM announced a remake of CHILD’S PLAY - a remake that Don Mancini had no part of or no say into what it’ll involve. The idea started becoming dour when it was revealed that Chucky would be an evil AI rather than a doll possessed by the soul of a killer, making many wonder what the point of all of this was besides a cash grab. Even an interesting cast and a couple of trailers didn’t really boost my interest in this reboot of sorts. It was only when Mark Hamill was announced as the voice of the new Chucky that I started to get curious about the project, especially when Hamill is one of the best voice actors of any generation. Even though none of my friends or family wanted to go see it, I decided to go to the theater to see the new version of CHILD’S PLAY like I had 30 years ago. I went in with low expectations, yet with an open mind since I knew this wouldn’t be the Chucky I’m familiar with. And surprisingly, I had a lot of fun with the new CHILD’S PLAY. It’s not perfect and nowhere as good as the original film, but there’s a lot to appreciate here if you’re willing to give it a chance.

I think what I liked the most about 2019’s CHILD’S PLAY is the unexpected substance the story actually presents. Since there is no longer a possession storyline going on in this version, the producers had to come up with a modern twist as to why Chucky is evil. While making the doll a faulty AI that learns to be violent is not a novel idea at all, at least it’s used to create somewhat a social commentary on our reliance on technology. No longer a Good Guy doll, the Buddi doll is pretty much the film’s version of Amazon’s Alexa product - a device used to turn other devices on, play music or movies, order food or products, and other activities that have really made our society a bit lazy and too easy to make things happen and get them done. While this is convenient technology, it could also come with negative effects - such as reports that Alexa actually records things and relays them to the government as some sort of spy. While it’s unclear that Chucky is doing this, the fact that he’s not technically where he should be as a device makes him an unseen danger to those around him. Technology always advances and believe me, I’m grateful that certain aspects of my life are made easier just by voice recognition or a click of a button. But with the good, there’s always the bad. Chucky is an embodiment of this, doing bad things because he doesn’t understand morality. And why should he since he’s just an AI? 

There are other moments in the film that also add to the commentary. A focus of the film’s final act, a new version of the Buddi doll [the Buddi II] receives a huge presentation at the local big chain store like any new video game, sneakers, or even smartphone would. It’s a version that fixes the flaws of the original, even coming in different skins like animals and different ethnicities. This is obviously a “first world problem” that a lot of us fall into, wanting that new piece of technology because it’s faster, more reliable and even stronger than the previous edition. The film doesn’t really do much with it by the end of the film, but at least it brings it up and showcases our view on technology in general. We evolve as soon as it evolves. Another moment involves the film’s Uber system that picks up riders in a remote-control car that doesn’t require a driver, taking people across town via GPS through an app. The media has debated back-and-forth whether this type of smart car is a safety concern, which CHILD’S PLAY definitely showcases the negative aspect of it, leading to deadly results. For a remake that could have just capitalized on what was done before for some quick cash, CHILD’S PLAY 2019 tries to be more intelligent in what it wants to say. I appreciated that and was a very good approach to separate it from the original film to be its own thing.

I also thought the new Chucky character was handled well. I liked that we were told Chucky was faulty from the start, due to some disgruntled worker in Vietnam who wanted to do damage to his employer. This guy took off all the safety and security protocols, giving an easy reason why Chucky becomes what he would become. I also bought that he was treated as an afterthought by Andy, who felt he was too old for a doll, slowly endearing himself with Chucky because of his fierce loyalty to him. And that’s one of the biggest differences between this film and the original. In the 1988 version, Chucky used Andy in order to trust him enough to steal his body by transporting his soul into it. In the new version, Chucky is actually extremely fond of Andy and wants to be his bestest friend - to the point that Chucky wants no one else taking his spot in Andy’s life. Chucky, also, doesn’t start as a killer but learns from things he sees, especially taking notes from a quick viewing of 1986’s TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2 which leads to a cool death sequence later on in the film. I’m guessing that’s a take on the whole UK controversy of the early-1990s, where there were a couple of murders blamed on the original CHILD’S PLAY series. The 2019 version is a FATAL ATTRACTION tale that I kind of dug, giving this iteration of Chucky a different path he can travel if they decide to make sequels in this continuity. 

I will say that Chucky’s new design wasn’t great though. I got used to it as the film went on, but it looked pretty funky to me - and not in a good way. I’m glad they didn’t totally copy the original design, but that’s the best they could come up with? I’m surprised anyone would want a doll that looks like this version in their home. At least the original design had an attractive appeal, like those Cabbage Patch Kids from back in the day.

The other characters aren’t as interesting as Chucky, unfortunately, but some are definitely better than others. I liked Andy Barclay, as he is less naive and more action-oriented than the original version. He’s over the whole toy phase, more interested in playing on his smartphone. But he grows to like Chucky since the toy is the only person who doesn’t judge him. When Andy does befriend some neighborhood kids, Chucky starts feeling neglected, which leads to some violent moments. He also has a strange dynamic with his mother, where they act more like siblings than mother and son. I wish there was more of that in the film. I also wish there was use of Andy’s hearing disability [he has a hearing aid]. The only times it would come to play is when Chucky would create static that would disrupt the aid. Other than that, nothing comes of it besides being a plot device to justify why Andy feels like an outcast. A part of me wishes that the character was a bit younger like in the original to create a bit of tension within his friendship with Chucky. But I didn’t mind the change all that much. I also liked the new version of Mike Norris, the film’s resident detective. Instead of being a hard ass, this version of Mike is a likable and funny guy who visits his mother [who happens to be Andy’s neighbor] and sort of plays surrogate dad to Andy whenever Andy’s mom had to work the late shift. The moments where the two interact as friends are some of the best moments in the film, but there aren’t enough of them unfortunately. Still, I liked the different dynamic between Andy’s relationship with the Norris family when compared to the relationship with his own family. 

Speaking of that, I felt that Karen Barclay was a wasted character for the most part. It’s one of those situations where I can’t help but compare the reboot with the original. The original Karen was a pro-active, strong and caring mother who tried to save Andy from the evil of Chucky, once she found out about the doll. She had a lot of depth and enough personality for the audience to sympathize and care about her. In the new version, she’s a troubled single mom who seems more into making her boyfriend happy than giving her handicapped son any sort of attention. In fact, I never felt a mother and son vibe between her and Andy, but more of a sibling one. It was kind of sad and maybe that was the point. But I didn’t really care about this version of the character. I also thought Karen’s boyfriend, Steve, was your stereotypical asshole who just used Karen for sex and treated Andy like he was an obstacle in his happiness. I did like the twist with the character, which only makes you hate him more, but not much depth besides that. And while Andy’s neighborhood friends had cool moments and added things throughout the film, they were never really given enough development for us to know them really. It was as if CHILD’S PLAY wanted to do what a lot of other horror films involving children and teenagers feel compelled to do - borrow from Netflix’s Stranger Things. Sometimes it works, sometimes it feels forced. And it felt forced here because it never felt earned. Like one moment, one of Andy’s bullies treats him like crap and then they’re best friends in the next scene. I don’t mind Andy having a squad to take down an evil AI doll, but give it some justification.

The direction by Lars Klevberg was mostly positive. The film looked great and I thought Klevberg really showcased the death sequences really well. In particular, I loved the scene involving a lawn mower and Christmas lights that was bloody fun [pun intended]. There’s also that scene with the Uber car that I mentioned previously, plus drones attacking and dolls going apeshit on people in a store. When CHILD’S PLAY is out for blood, it doesn’t mess around and uses the R rating well. In most of these scenes too, Klevberg provides some nice atmosphere and suspense, which I honestly wasn’t expecting. It was nice to have a sick feeling of excitement when you realized some bad stuff was going to go down because of Chucky.

I also felt that Klevberg directed the first half better than the second. The first half was more about the set up and focusing on the blossoming relationship with Andy and the people around him, especially Chucky. When they’re playing board games, watching television, or trying to scare neighbors for fun, it’s an enjoyable watch. It also helps separate the reboot from the original, making us forget about what we’ve been familiar with for decades. The second half’s strong suit are the deaths. But it loses its way besides that. The film starts to feel rushed, with some editing that felt really choppy. It was as if the studio only wanted a 90 minute film, so the director and editor had to cut a ton of stuff to make the important elements fit within the run time. I usually don’t want long films, but here’s an example where I wish maybe we had gotten fifteen more minutes to tell a fuller story. I would have been okay with that. Visually, Klevberg did a nice job overall.

The acting in CHILD’S PLAY was fine. Mark Hamill, obviously, steals the show as the voice of Chucky. I still think Brad Dourif shouldn’t have been replaced [thankfully he’s voicing the television series], but Hamill did give Chucky a lot of life. I like how innocent he sounds until he gets angry, cackling and acting deranged once the full violence demeanor kicks in. There was a bit of Joker in there at times, plus the laugh resembled Dourif’s, which was a nice touch of respect. Hamill was probably the best replacement you were going to get for the character and he did a great job. I also liked Gabriel Bateman as Andy. I thought he had nice rapport with the rest of the cast and really brought something authentic and genuine to a role that could have been really annoying and unsympathetic. He made Andy feel like a real teenager dealing with angst, just wanting someone to try and understand him without judgment. I also liked how Bateman played against Chucky, giving the character a nice foil. Aubrey Plaza is great, but she doesn’t get a whole lot to do as Karen. She does have her quirky moments that are funny at times, but I wish she had more things to do in the film. Brian Tyree Henry was great as Mike Norris. He has nice comedic timing, but can also bring the seriousness too. It was a total 180 degrees from Chris Sarandon’s take on the character and I appreciated it. The actors who played the children were good in their archetypical roles. I liked the cast, even though some of them got short-changed in the script.

THE FINAL HOWL
Probably the movie surprise of 2019 so far, the reboot of CHILD’S PLAY is actually pretty darn good. The first half of the film is really strong, while the more flawed second half has cool moments of gore and kill sequences. The direction was very good for the most part, even though it rushes through its final act and plays it a bit too safe, in my opinion. The acting, especially by Mark Hamill, Gabriel Bateman and Brian Tyree Henry, is solid. CHILD’S PLAY does what a good remake should do - maintain elements of the original concept and update it for a newer generation by being its own thing. I wasn’t expecting much of out of this film, but it provided some clever and witty commentary about our over reliance on technology that created some memorable and entertaining moments. Go into this one with an open mind and don’t try to compare it too much to the original. On its own, it’s a solid reinvention of a beloved character that ought to be appreciated for what it does right.


SCORE
3 Howls Outta 4



6.21.2019

Brightburn (2019)


DIRECTED BY
David Yarovesky

STARRING
Elizabeth Banks - Tori Breyer
David Denman - Kyle Breyer
Jackson A. Dunn - Brandon Breyer/ Brightburn
Gregory Alan Williams - Sheriff Deever
Becky Wahlstrom - Erica
Emmie Hunter - Caitlyn
Matt Jones - Noah McNichol
Meredith Hagner - Merilee McNichol

Genre - Horror/Drama/Fantasy/Aliens/Superheroes

Running Time - 90 Minutes


PLOT (from IMDB)
What if a child from another world (Jackson A. Dunn) crash-landed on Earth, but instead of becoming a hero to mankind, he proved to be something far more sinister?

REVIEW
If you can sum up the plot of the James Gunn produced BRIGHTBURN, it would be “What if Superman had turned evil instead of standing for truth, justice and the American way?” It’s not a foreign concept, as comic books and recent video games [such as the Injustice series] have used the angle of having one of the most popular and powerful superheroes take a ride on the dark side. BRIGHTBURN plays out like a DC Comics “Elseworlds” scenario, in which a Superman-like character would eventually come from an alien planet destined to rule it by any means necessary, no matter the good nurturing he received from human parents during his childhood. I’m surprised not many films have tried to visually execute a story like this, but maybe BRIGHTBURN proves it’s for good reason. While the film does a lot of things well, it unfortunately flounders on its most important asset - its story.

Let’s get the good stuff out of the way first. The horror aspect of BRIGHTBURN is done very well. This isn’t surprising since the film was produced by James Gunn, who comes from a horror world via Troma and later on with films like SLITHER and some aspects of 2010’s SUPER. The film gives us a nightmarish vision of what Superman would be like if he just used his powers to cause destruction. And the film never shies away from that, as we see some pretty gory stuff that you wouldn’t see in most superhero films. We get a cringe-worthy moment where glass impales someone’s eye, heat vision burning off a face at point-blank range, letting people fall to their deaths from out the sky, and so on. It carries its R rating well, especially when these scenes are directed with some nice tension and suspense to build up to these horrific scenes. If BRIGHTBURN was trying to be the anti-superhero film, the horror aspect sure helps in achieving that.

I also enjoyed the acting in BRIGHTBURN as well. Both Elizabeth Banks and David Denman are pretty good as the wannabe Kent parents, Tori and Kyle Breyer. Banks, especially, really plays on the emotions of a mother who doesn’t want to believe the miracle baby she found and raised turns out to be a homicidal maniac with superpowers. That’s not to say that Denman is any less good as the father who is quick to wash his hands of his son’s malicious nature. Their dynamic with each other feels very realistic and I thought they grounded the story. The star of the film is Brandon/Brightburn himself, Jackson A. Dunn. Dunn looks like an innocent child, but plays an evil one very well. I thought he portrayed his confusion as to who he was convincingly, slowly making it easy to believe his sociopathic tendencies when he did terrible things. I thought he was very unnerving whenever he had interactions with his crush, played well by Emmie Hunter. He came across very creepy in those scenes. I wish the script gave him more depth at times, but Dunn well-handled whatever the script gave him to do. All around, I think the acting was good.

I also didn’t dislike the direction by David Yarovesky. A fave collaborator of the Gunn family, Yarovesky manages a nice balance of the dramatic aspects of BRIGHTBURN with the horror sensibilities during the second half. The film flows really well and the picture looks nice. And the special effects are nicely handled as well, making BRIGHTBURN feel like it fits within the superhero genre. Not sure what Yarovesky has directed previously, but I could see him doing more work in the genre since BRIGHTBURN is a visually pleasing film that showcases his potential for the future.

And while the concept of BRIGHTBURN is great on paper, I wish it had been better executed on screen. The characters are fine. The film does exactly what you’d expect from it, besides an ending that some people may not expect. All the beats to a story like this exist in BRIGHTBURN. But the film never does more than that, playing things safe without trying to expand on the basic idea to give BRIGHTBURN a reason to exist. Is this film a commentary on the over saturation of superhero films? Is it a film on how bullying effects young people? Is it about toxic masculinity? Is there something more to BRIGHTBURN besides being just an evil kid film?

My main issue with BRIGHTBURN is the lack of struggle between good and evil for young Brandon. Prior to his spaceship telling him his destiny once he becomes a teenager, Brandon seemed like a good kid who was going to follow the same steps that Clark Kent had in DC. But once he finds out he’s powerful and not from Earth, Brandon decides that getting what he wants is more important, even if he has to hurt and/or kill others to make that happen. This is fine and all, but where’s the internal conflict? Where’s the character study that debates nature versus nurture? Brandon is just evil because… he just is? Where’s the story then? The screenplay just feels empty without nothing meaningful to say. Brandon gets bullied in school and that could have given the journey some depth if it went anywhere. And his social awkwardness makes his crush scared of him. But that tends to just fade away as well by the final act. There are a lot of aspects that could have given some meat to the story’s bones, but the film would rather focus on a evil kid killing people in superpowered ways than give us something to think about in terms of an interesting story arc. It’s a shame because this had the potential to be more. Luckily, BRIGHTBURN has a cast who cares and tries to make the most of what they’re given. But you’re just left feeling like there’s something missing by the end of it.

THE FINAL HOWL

BRIGHTBURN was one of the films I was most excited about during the 2019 Summer Movie season. The film has good horror moments, with some cringe-worthy gore at times. The acting is solid all around, especially by Elizabeth Banks and Jackson A. Dunn. And the direction is well done, with a nice pace and cool special effects handled well. And while this “Evil Superman” story contains all the beats and tropes needed to tell the story efficiently on a superficial level, there’s nothing really underneath to give BRIGHTBURN any depth. It’s a shame because it could have been an interesting commentary on the superhero genre, or just a neat character study on an alien being who struggles with his destiny versus the morals he was entrusted with from his parents. The film doesn’t burn as bright as it should have, but it’s worth at least a watch if an “Elseworlds” or “What If?” type of Superman story interests you.


SCORE
2.5 Howls Outta 4



6.14.2019

Morgan (2016)


DIRECTED BY
Luke Scott

STARRING
Kate Mara - Lee Weathers
Anya Taylor-Joy - Morgan
Toby Jones - Dr. Simon Ziegler
Rose Leslie - Dr. Amy Menser
Boyd Holbrook - Skip Vronsky
Michelle Yeoh - Dr. Lui Cheng
Jennifer Jason Leigh - Dr. Kathy Grieff
Paul Giamatti - Dr. Alan Shapiro
Brian Cox - Jim Bryce

Genre - Horror/Science Fiction/Action

Running Time - 92 Minutes


PLOT (from IMDB)
Lee Weathers (Kate Mara) is a “risk-management specialist” for genetic-engineering company SynSect. She arrives at the rural site hosting its L-9 project, an artificial being with nanotechnology-infused synthetic DNA named Morgan (Anya Taylor-Joy). The “hybrid biological organism with the capacity for autonomous decision making and sophisticated emotional responses” is smarter than humans and matures quickly, walking and talking within a month and physically a teenager despite being five years old. Due to her latest violent impulses, Weathers must decide whether to terminate Morgan, but Morgan may have a deadly opinion on the matter.

REVIEW
As it’s funny now that I’m motivated to review things again here on this blog, my slow return has been me discussing films that are pretty sub-par or average that honestly should have been a lot better than what was executed. Another film that falls under this category is 2016’s MORGAN, a film that pretty much came and went during its theatrical run, not making much of an impression on anyone despite its mega-talented cast and a son of a very famous director behind the lens. What begins as an interesting sci-fi drama and character study dissolves into a predictably bland horror film that’s pretty forgettable once its all said and done. It wants to be two films at once, but never managing to execute one the way it should have.

MORGAN is just another in a line of films that tackles the idea of Artificial Intelligence and the concept of “how much God should man play” when it comes to science. The first half of the film is concerned with the L-9 Project, or Morgan, who grew up as a synthetic being through the splicing of DNA to study her human behavioral patterns. Technically only five years old, she has a great level of intelligence but isn’t exactly sure how to react to what she learns emotionally. At first, she behaved like a regular child - enjoying playing outside and laughing with the scientists who she saw as her friends and family. But as she learned more and grew up, her lack of conscience or soul has made her do terrible things - to the point where she has to be locked in a glass cell. When she’s threatened that she will never go back outside, she injures her friends because she doesn’t know how else to react. We’ve seen this kind of story told in other AI films, such as BLADE RUNNER or even EX MACHINA, where machines can look and act like human beings, but don’t have the moral compass to tell what’s right and what’s wrong. While MORGAN doesn’t add anything new to the genre that other films have done way better in doing, at least the film tries to have some sort of message about the evils of playing God with things we can never have the grasp on. You can create looks, personality, intelligence, or even sexuality when it comes to artificial intelligence. But even the greatest of science can never achieve a moral compass or conscience that a computer or science project would be able to comprehend. Morgan is just a physical representation of human nature and the Freud “id vs ego vs superego” theory that we’re taught in psychology books. And because of this, the first half works somewhat to its benefit.

However, the story quickly becomes this horror film where the science project starts killing those she feels have entrapped her because freedom is one of the key things we all want as living creatures. It feels cheap and predictable, never really giving us a reason to care about what’s going on after a decent build of learning about Morgan’s plight. It doesn’t help that the characters around Morgan aren’t all that likable or sympathetic in any way. A couple seem like good people and care about Morgan, but are never given enough time or scenes to really make their relationship with Morgan mean much. The only one who gets any sort of major screen time with Morgan is Amy, a scientist who would spend time with Amy on the outside and sneak her out without the others knowing. Morgan only shows genuine affection towards Amy because she’s been nice to her, and Amy is completely protective over Morgan to a point where it seems like she’s in love with her. It’s an interesting angle I wish was explored more, as it feels as the only one that has any depth. The other characters are either nice to Morgan because they care, or because they have ulterior motives. Some just turn their back on her once she starts behaving out of sorts. Most of these characters don’t feel like real people, just two-dimensional lambs for an eventual slaughter. 

The worst care of this is the other main character besides Morgan - Lee Weathers. Lee is called into the situation to analyze the risks with Morgan, wondering whether the project has any chance of being saved, or should be terminated for the benefit of mankind. While we have an excuse as to why Morgan acts a bit cold besides when it comes to Amy, Lee pretty much has no personality whatsoever. She’s almost robotic in her presence, not allowing us to feel anything about her. Sure, she has a flirtatious relationship with Boyd, the group’s nutritionist, but even that feels sort of one-sided and a bit flat. There’s a twist that reveals some things which make it obvious as to why people behave the way they do, but at least make your main characters likable. I wasn’t sure whether to root for the flawed science project with homicidal tendencies or the cold hearted woman who was there whether to determine whether Morgan lived or died, regardless of how the people around her felt about her decision. That’s not good.

MORGAN is Luke Scott’s [son of famed director Ridley Scott] first feature film. And honestly, I’m not sure what kind of director he wants to be. It’s obvious he has taken things he has learned from his father. Scott definitely has an eye for filmmaking, as the composition of the film looks great and the set designs look modern enough to keep audiences interested. And the action is somewhat shot like what his father would have done if he had directed this film. But there’s no real individual voice yet, as MORGAN looks like any other film you may have seen of this type within the last five to ten years. That being said, the drama-filled first half flows nicely enough and the messy second half is kind of held together by interesting action shots. Unfortunately the film lacks tension, suspense, or excitement for any one to care about what they’re watching. It’s too early to say if Luke Scott should stick with being a second unit director, or continue directing more films. But he definitely has potential as long as the script is a lot better.

MORGAN has a lot of great actors involved, but most of them are pretty wasted here. Anya Taylor-Joy does what she can with the title role, but really isn’t given much to do besides the final act. Taylor-Joy is a very good actress that should have been allowed to portray a beefier role with more depth. But she tried. Kate Mara gets to do more as Lee Weathers, especially during the final act. She plays a cold, stoic woman well, but it doesn’t give her character any depth or likability. At least she got stuff to do. Everyone else do what they can with their roles, with Rose Leslie and Boyd Halbrook being the standouts really. It’s a shame because this is a very solid cast capable of elevating a mediocre film. But because of the bland script or Luke Scott’s inexperience behind the lens, the cast is just sort of there playing archetypical roles. Too bad.

THE FINAL HOWL
Despite a solid cast and directed by the son of a famous director, MORGAN is a misfire on so many levels. The screenplay doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be in terms of a horror film or a sci-fi drama. The visuals are pretty bland and never provide any sense of tension or excitement. The actors are all good in their roles, but they don’t really get a whole lot to do. The worst part about MORGAN is that it should be a silly fun flick, but never ever tries to be one. It’s an empty film that has nothing to say, even though all the elements that make up the film give it the means to. Watch SPLICE or EX MACHINA if you want a good film about artificial beings. This experiment is not worth exploring.


SCORE
1.5 Howls Outta 4



5.23.2019

The Last Witch Hunter (2015)


DIRECTED BY
Brick Eisner

STARRING
Vin Diesel - Kaulder
Rose Leslie - Chloe
Elijah Wood - Dolan 37
Michael Caine - Dolan 36
Olafur Darri Olafsson - Baltasar Ketola/Belial
Julie Engelbrecht - Witch Queen

Genre - Horror/Fantasy/Science Fiction/Action/Witches

Running Time - 106 Minutes


PLOT (from IMDB)
The modern world holds many secrets, but the most astounding secret of all is that witches still live amongst us; vicious supernatural creatures intent on unleashing the Black Death upon the world. Armies of witch hunters battled the unnatural enemy across the globe for centuries, including Kaulder (Vin Diesel), a valiant warrior who managed to slay the all-powerful Queen Witch (Julie Engelbrecht), decimating her followers in the process. In the moments right before her death, the Queen curses Kaulder with her own immortality, forever separating him from his beloved wife and daughter in the afterlife. Today Kaulder is the only one of his kind remaining, and has spent centuries hunting down rogue witches, all the while yearning for his long-lost loved ones. However, unbeknownst to Kaulder, the Queen Witch is resurrected and seeks revenge on her killer causing an epic battle that will determine the survival of the human race.

REVIEW
You’d think a film where badass Vin Diesel battles witches would be awesome, if not at least fun, right? Unfortunately if you’ve watched 2015’s THE LAST WITCH HUNTER, you’d know the idea sounds cool on paper but the execution leaves a whole lot to be desired. It’s disappointing because I’m a sucker for any Diesel vehicle, but this film didn’t do much for me to be honest. If I wanted to watch the same story that THE LAST WITCH HUNTER tries to tell, I’d rather watch CONSTANTINE, VAN HELSING, BLADE, or any other film that tells a similar story in a more entertaining way regardless of their respective quality. For a film about hunting witches, it sure had no idea how to put me under its spell.

The best thing about THE LAST WITCH HUNTER and the only reason it was made to begin with is Vin Diesel himself. Diesel has a really interesting personality in which his muscular frame contradicts with how big of a nerd he is. Even though he can probably handle himself well in a physical fight, Vin Diesel seems more at ease playing "Dungeons & Dragons" or watching some sci-fi show like Star Trek. I think it’s really cool to see himself embrace his geekdom, making him relatable as a fan of these types of films. His character of Kaulder is actually based on a character he created while playing Dungeons & Dragons when he was younger, which in turn helped bring this film to life. Out of all the actors in the film, Diesel feels the most comfortable with everything, playing himself as a tortured man who hunts and kills evil sorcerers as an act of vengeance. His character is the only one that feels fleshed out in any way, making us care about him somewhat and giving us a reason to understand his actions along the way. The probably is that the film seems to be based on an idea of this Kaulder character without really knowing how to interestingly create a world for him to live in. It’s a cool idea on paper and Diesel is obviously game for it all, but it doesn’t matter if we don’t give much attention to everything else that’s happening around him.

It doesn’t help that the script isn’t all that inventive. Or creative. Or even silly enough for us to have fun with. THE LAST WITCH HUNTER takes its dumb concept too seriously and never lets the actors and their characters enjoy themselves along this adventure. The first half of the film is at least coherent, as we’re given an interesting mystery that allows the film to introduce characters and world-building elements to flesh out a universe in which Kaulder and company exist in. But the last half just meanders into a boring mess of a film that’s too focused on creating relationships for characters that never earn them, or plot twists that we see coming a mile away but don’t really matter at the end because they’re never given enough attention for us to care. There's a lot of potential going on here, but it's never fully realized whatsoever. It’s obvious with all the jammed-in subplots going on in the film, the producers wanted THE LAST WITCH HUNTER to begin a new franchise for Diesel. But studios have seemed to have forgotten that franchises are earned, not forced upon us because Marvel hit a major jackpot with their MCU success over time. Instead of trying to set up things for possible future movies, focus on a single-film narrative that would be good enough for audiences to want more. And judging by the lackluster success of this film, I think everyone involved probably realized that the hard way.

The direction by Breck Eisner, who also made the not-so-great SAHARA and a good remake in THE CRAZIES, is just there. It visually never feels innovative or passionate, instead feeling like Eisner was hired by a studio to film this in their vision rather than his own. The pacing is off at times, with the action scenes and the slower moments never flowing right. In fact, a lot of the middle portion of the film that involves Diesel and friends going around town to find out answers to the film’s mystery can feel downright dull in terms of its presentation. The action scenes are okay, but unfortunately are edited with quick shots and close ups that never allow us to feel thrilled by what we’re watching. The CGI is a mixed bag as well. Some characters, like the Witch Queen and the monstrous Sentinels look pretty damn good. But the rest of the effects look like a cartoon, taking me out of the film when they appear. It almost makes me wonder where the budget went if this is the best they can do with special effects.

The acting is just there as well. Vin Diesel plays himself, only as a witch hunter this time around. Since it’s based on a character he created, Diesel is totally into his role and made me wish he was in a better written film to really make it work. Rose Leslie as Chloe is cute and actually helps give THE LAST WITCH HUNTER some much needed personality whenever she appears. But she has a two-dimensional role that never really goes anywhere. Michael Caine came for a paycheck, but at least he seems in on the joke. I wish Caine was in the film more because he shared some nice chemistry with Diesel. Their banter was quite fun. Elijah Wood tried to make his role of Dolan 37 work, but he felt out of place for me. It didn’t help that he didn’t do much in the film besides look surprised or confused until the end. He’s usually reliable, but he didn’t seem all that invested here. And Julie Engelbrecht was a pretty bland villain, but she tried to act menacing. Meh.

THE FINAL HOWL
THE LAST WITCH HUNTER is the epitome of an action-horror film that has a cool character idea, but never knows how to form an investing universe around it to execute the narrative properly. Vin Diesel is the only real redeeming part of this film, as he’s playing a character that’s probably close to his heart and is totally passionate about. But with a messy narrative that’s more focused on building a franchise rather than telling us a good standalone story, characters that aren’t fleshed out enough for us to care, visuals that are a mixed bag and actors who don’t get much to do because the script doesn’t allow it, THE LAST WITCH HUNTER is a disappointing and dull failure for the most part. There’s nothing bewitching about this one.


SCORE
1.5 Howls Outta 4



5.10.2019

Deadbeat at Dawn (1988)


DIRECTED BY
Jim Van Bebber

STARRING
Jim Van Bebber - Goose
Paul Harper - Danny
Megan Murphy - Christie
Marc Pitman - Bonecrusher
Ric Walker - Keith

Genre - Thriller/Action/Horror/Drama

Running Time - 80 Minutes


PLOT (from IMDB)
After one too many encounters with The Spiders, The Ravens’ leader’s (Jim Van Bebber) girlfriend (Megan Murphy) tells him to quit the gang or it’s Splitsville. He does so, but the leader of the Spiders (Paul Harper) is hellbent on revenge and arranges the murder of the girlfriend. That ticks off the boyfriend, who wreaks havoc with the two gangs, who have joined forces in order to pull off a security truck heist.

REVIEW
If you cross 1979’s THE WARRIORS and 1984’s COMBAT SHOCK, you’ll get 1988’s DEADBEAT AT DAWN - a low budget and ultra violent action-thriller that proves with just four years and $10,000 at his disposal, one man could make a gritty, grindhouse cult film that even over three decades later would still be talked about and admired. It’s gritty, violent and disturbing in all the right ways. When you can make THE WARRIORS feel tame, you’ve got something with your movie. DEADBEAT AT DAWN isn’t a complicated film, nor should it be. It’s your standard revenge film, where the protagonist loses a loved one due to a rival and just wants vengeance against this individual. It’s DEATH WISH, but more romantically punk and rough around the edges. 

What makes the simple story work are the major players that get most of the focus. It helps that DEADBEAT AT DAWN revolves around Goose, the leader of The Ravens who goes through a lot within 80 minutes. While a bit of a prick at first, we soon see how much he loves his girlfriend Kristy. So much so, he’s willing to step down as leader and leave The Ravens [which doesn’t settle well with the rest of the gang]. Even though he’ll sell drugs and steal to make ends meet for him and his girl, Goose comes across as caring and romantic in an unorthodox way that makes him likable and charming in his own unique way. Unfortunately, his life crumbles when Kristy is murdered, leading him down a path of drinking, doing drugs, and even dealing with a greedy drug addict for a father who is still suffering PTSD from his time in Vietnam. But when he’s forced back into gang life, he decides to finally take control of his own destiny by getting revenge on everyone who’s wronged him. Most 2 hour films barely have any character arcs that are as detailed as Goose’s in DEADBEAT AT DAWN. The man completely changes from the start of the film right to the film’s very bloody end. I’ll discuss Jim Van Bebber’s performance in a bit, but he really gives Goose life and makes us care for him to the point that no matter how he has to do it, you want him to get revenge on these bastards who took away everything that meant something to him. That’s the quality of an interesting, well-written (enough) character.

The other major characters are memorable as well. Goose’s girlfriend, Kristy, is obviously the inciting incident that sets everything to its downward spiral. But she’s an interesting love interest as she dabbles in witchcraft, meaning as a means to protect her boyfriend from getting hurt, or even killed. She’ll talk to fortune tellers, play with Ouija boards, and even create magical amulets for Goose to wear as protection even if it will cost her hers. She doesn’t have a whole lot of depth, as she’s the typical girlfriend character, but these other elements give her enough to stand out. On the other side of the spectrum, we have Danny - the leader of the Spiders. Talk about a character we were born to love to hate. Not really sure what his deal with Goose is, but it’s probably due to Goose defeating him in every fight and pretty much owning his turf. When he ends up ordering for Goose’s death but gets Kristy’s instead, he uses it to his advantage to get one up on his rival. It also doesn’t help that Danny is an abusive creep, beating up his loving girlfriend - in one case, punching her when she declares her love for him. What a stand up guy you want taken care of by the end of this film. His sidekick, Bonecrusher, is no better. The guy is a psychopath who enjoys hurting others and proudly using it to get a reaction out of others. Bonecrusher probably has the best dialogue in the film and it’s no surprise why he’s considered a cult fave. The dude is nuts. Another person of note is Keith, who was Goose’s second-in-command but turned leader when Goose leaves The Ravens. His disapproval of Goose’s quitting turns him into a creep, becoming power-hungry and even working with his enemies just to get a quick payday. While we don’t know their life stories or anything deep like that, the supporting characters fit their archetypes well and help create a bleak atmosphere that makes the actions of these characters tolerable and understanding to watch unfold.

If there was any flaw with the script, it would be that sometimes the film has exposition or moments where characters talk about something that doesn’t really contribute a whole lot to their characters or the plot. A lot of exploitation films do this to compensate for a lack of a major budget and/or to beef up the run time. It doesn’t detract much from DEADBEAT AT DAWN, but you can tell when the film is trying to fill up time before the next major incident happens. I also would have liked a bigger backstory about the rivalry between Goose and Danny, but again doesn’t really hurt the film since Danny makes things really personal within the present story. 

The direction by Jim Van Bebber [who also wrote, produced, and even plays main character Goose] is pretty good, considering Bebber didn’t have a ton of resources to use while filming. Shooting around Dayton, Ohio provides a ton of gritty atmosphere, as the location looks like a place no one would want to live in and would shape people into violent and heartless folks. I’m surprised that Dayton looked really dirty and bleak back in the late-80s. You’d think it was pre-90s New York City or something. The editing and sound design at times can be a bit rough, but it sort of brings a certain level of charm to the film. I did think the fight sequences looked and felt as realistic as possible, despite a lack of polish choreography. There are some cool gore effects, including a hand being shot off, fingers bitten off, throats being pulled apart, and even decapitations. Plus, Bebber is awesome with a pair of nunchucks, kicking major butt with them. The film also has a nice flow and moves pretty quickly for its 80 minutes. It looks and feels like an exploitation film made for grindhouse theaters, which is probably why DEADBEAT AT DAWN works better than it should. The most interesting thing about the film is that while bleak and sort of depressing in terms of its premise, the execution plays out as this over-the-top fun time in terms of its violence and oddball characters. Bebber had a clear vision and did a great job visualizing it on film.

The acting isn’t the greatest out there, but it works for DEADBEAT AT DAWN. Paul Harper plays a really hatable villain in Danny, a role I’m sure Harper had a lot of fun to play. Marc Pitman is even better as Bonecrusher, portraying a nut job with gutso, enjoying himself while quoting the film’s most memorable lines. Megan Murphy and Ric Walker are good in their respective roles. But the real star is Jim Van Bebber as Goose. The man is captivating on film, portraying a man with so many layers, it’s hard not to care and root for the guy. He’s a force on screen, peeling every layer out of Goose from start to finish. From happiness, to grief and to angrily vengeful, Van Bebber creates a fleshed out human being that we wish deserved a better run at life than he actually does. The man also did his own stunts and can wield a wicked pair of nunchucks like nobody’s business. DEADBEAT AT DAWN exists because of this man and he makes the most out of everything. Nothing but respect and appreciation for his performance and his behind-the-scenes work.

THE FINAL HOWL
DEADBEAT AT DAWN eluded me for decades, but I’m glad I finally got to catch up with this awesome exploitation film. Gritty and violently fun, it’s a film that won’t win any awards but will keep your interest at how well done it is considering it is super low-budget. You have a revenge story you can understand, over-the-top gore that will either shock or impress you, and a strong performance by jack-of-all-trades Jim Van Bebber that more than keeps the film afloat for its short runtime. Fans of ultra-violent exploitation action films should get a kick out of this one if they haven’t already.


SCORE
3.5 Howls Outta 4



4.04.2019

What We Do In the Shadows (2014)


DIRECTED BY
Jemaine Clement
Taika Waititi

STARRING
Jemaine Clement - Vladislav
Taika Waititi - Viago
Jonathan Brugh - Deacon
Ben Fransham - Petyr
Con Gonzalez-Macue - Nick
Stu Rutherford - Stu
Rhys Darby - Anton

Genre - Horror/Comedy/Vampires/Werewolves

Running Time - 85 Minutes


PLOT (from IMDB)
Viago (Taika Waititi), Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) and Vladislav (Jemaine Clement) are vampires who are finding that modern life has them struggling with the mundane - like paying rent, keeping up with the chore wheel, trying to get into nightclubs and overcoming flatmate conflicts.

REVIEW
Did you ever wonder what THIS IS SPINAL TAP would look like if it involved vampires instead of a fictional rock band? Well you’re in luck, as WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS is pretty much that film. A horror-comedy that’s played more for laughs than scares, WWDITS is a 2015 film that is produced by Jemaine Clement & Taika Waititi - the men responsible for the cult favorite Flight of the Conchords. With the film now having been adapted into a TV show on the FX Network, I figured it was time to finally watch it and see what the fuss was about when the film was released four years ago. And while it’s not a perfect horror-comedy, WWDITS is definitely a must for anyone interested in a comedy based on horror roots.

What makes WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS work is how self-aware it is. Unlike a terrible spoof film like 2010’s VAMPIRE SUCKS, which used TWILIGHT and other pop culture elements to “make people laugh”, WWDITS is a mockumentary that follows a few vampires who live in a house together and film their lives in a human society [with some werewolves mixed in]. It’s The Real World with fanged creatures who attempt to adapt to a modern world and use this learning experience to feed on victims and figure out where they fit in within a society that sees them as sort of a joke. They dress as if they’re still living in their previous era. They have trouble getting inside establishments because they need to be invited. They still pine for a lost love from ages ago from afar. They feel out of place in a world that doesn’t take them seriously nor understand them in a way they want to be understood. Even the werewolves they encounter have a better grasp on the world than they do. Watching them fumble and live their lives within a society that has already moved on is both funny and clever, as most vampire films never really do that sort of thing. It’s also great that they mention pop culture references, such as the noodles from THE LOST BOYS and even mentions of TWILIGHT. It’s obviously the creators are in on the joke and allow us to be on it as well.

The characters are what makes WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS works, as each one has a distinct personality and allows the story to play out as one would expect out of a reality show documentary. Vladislav is the aristocratic Dracula wannabe who loves sex while still being heartbroken by “The Beast”. Viago is the nice vampire who is love sick, a bit effeminate and is innocent in a childlike way. He also seems to be the most grounded and the leader of the house.  Deacon is the bad boy who believes he’s a hipster and just the coolest vampire ever. Add in Nosferatu looking Petyr [who never says a word and has been living in the basement of the house since before the trio moved in] and you have unique characters you’ll be invested in. The drama ramps up when young Nick, a victim-turned-vampire by Petyr, joins the fray. While he’s the youngest and hippest of the group, which angers Deacon, he’s also kind of a douche bag as he goes against every single vampire rule throughout the film. The only reason they keep him around is due to Nick’s best friend Stu, a human the vampires refuse to turn because he helps them adjust to the modern era. Plus, the vampires just like him for some reason. We don’t know why but because they like him, we do also. We also get familiars, werewolves, and that previously mentioned “Beast”. A colorful cast of characters that you entertain you during the film’s short running time.

The direction by Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi is pretty damn great. There’s nothing too stylistic about it, but it works because it’s meant to look like a documentary/reality show. It flows well between characters and the way the character arcs play out are visually expressed well. The film also has some great special effects considering the budget, especially when the vampires turn into bats and start fighting each other. The werewolf costumes are laughingly bad though, but luckily they’re kept in the shadows when they do make their appearance. I also enjoyed a lot of the editing and transitions in the film, which spiced the look of the film. It was simple filmmaking, but it kept your interest the entire time.

The acting is spot on. Jemaine Clement, inspired by Gary Oldman’s performance in BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA, is great as the sex-crazed and aristocratic Vladislav. I also enjoyed Taika Waititi’s performance of the innocent Viago, which was inspired by his own mother. The nagging, effeminate nature of the character was comedy gold. Jonathan Brugh was cool as Deacon, a vampire who thought he was younger and cooler than he actually was. I thought the three of them had great chemistry together, playing off of each other as if they really had been living together for centuries. Even Con Gonzalez-Macue’s cocky performance as the unlikable Nick didn’t hurt the chemistry, even though it sure raised the drama. I even thought Stu Rutherford’s performance as human background player Stu added a lot to the film, even though he was quiet. The cast was totally into their roles and I thought they played loving homages to past vampires while goofing on them at the same time.

THE FINAL HOWL
I can’t believe it took me so long to sit down and watch WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS. It’s a clever, witty take on MTV’s The Real World, but with vampires who decide to get real and attempt to adjust to a modern world that doesn’t quite get them. The characters have depth and all feel unique from one another, thanks to the cast who seem to enjoy goofing on the vampiric pop culture while also playing tribute to that world. The direction isn’t anything special, but it works for a mockumentary that happens to showcase some nice special effects and cool gore. I’m glad the film was brought back to my attention thanks to the very good FX television series of the same name. Not every horror-comedy works, but WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS’ humor definitely worked on me. Invite this one in if you haven’t already.


SCORE
3.5 Howls Outta 4




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