7.16.2019

Breakin' (1984)


DIRECTED BY
Joel Silberg

STARRING
Lucinda Dickey - Kelly ‘Special K’ Bennett
Adolfo ‘Shabba Doo’ Quinones - Orlando/Ozone
Michael ‘Boogaloo Shrimp’ Chambers - Tony/Turbo
Ben Lokey - Franco
Christopher McDonald - James
Phineas Newborn III - Adam
Ice T - Rap Talker

Genre - Music/Drama/Comedy

Running Time - 87 Minutes


Even though films like SKATETOWN U.S.A., XANADU and ROLLER BOOGIE weren’t critical or commercial successes, Hollywood never faltered in taking opportunity to produce a film around a fad that was most likely fading away by the time the film was actually released. Films about dancing were pretty huge in the 1980s, especially as MTV started to gain momentum and present the art to a mainstream audience to sell records and soundtracks. Films like FLASHDANCE, FOOTLOOSE, and especially DIRTY DANCING were huge pop culture moments of the decade in terms of their films and their incredible soundtracks that played all over Top 40 radio. A similar trend even occurred in the 2000s with films like SAVE THE LAST DANCE and STEP UP. 

But none of those films were the first to present the art of breakdance to the mainstream like 1984’s BREAKIN' - a Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus produced movie for Cannon Films that proved to be one of the most important films in that studio’s history, as well important for dance movies in general. Inspired by Golan’s daughter [who was impressed by a California breakdancer], as well as a 1983 German documentary about breakdancing called BREAKIN’ 'N' ENTERIN' [which also starred Ice-T and Michael ‘Boogaloo Shrimp’ Chambers], Golan & Globus rushed BREAKIN' into production so it could beat the release date of rival Orion Pictures’ own breakdance film of the same year, BEAT STREET. The strategy actually worked, as BREAKIN' made $38.7 million on a $1.2 million budget and proved to be the studio’s biggest success in its history. A sequel was rushed into production [the infamously named BREAKIN' 2: ELECTRIC BOOGALOO, released in the same year], but the Cannon bloom was off the rose at that point due to the company losing their lucrative MGM/United Artists contract due to their release of BOLERO, which was considered an X-rated film. However, the sequel did do well in the box office amid all the behind-the-scenes drama.

So… what made BREAKIN' so popular and commercially successful back in 1984? I mean, the film even made money than SIXTEEN CANDLES in its first weekend, even though it was in less theaters! What was so appealing about this film and is it even worth popping and locking for?

PLOT
A struggling young jazz dancer named Kelly (Lucinda Dickey) meets up with Ozone (Adolfo Quinones) and Turbo (Michael Chambers) - two breakdancers who show her that dancing is about the art, not about the money. Together, they become the sensation of the street crowds and the mainstream audience, to a snobby dance instructor’s (Ben Lokey) dismay.

REVIEW
I feel the most important aspect of any dance film is the music, correct? While other dance films probably have stronger and more memorable soundtracks overall, the music of BREAKIN' still manages to capture that time frame wonderfully. Honestly, the soundtrack and the dancing that takes place in front of it are the only reasons why BREAKIN' works better than it has any right to. The soundtrack itself was a major hit upon its release, even securing a Billboard Top-Ten single with the still infectious Ollie & Jerry’s “Breakin’… There’s No Stopping Us”.


We also have Rufus and Chaka Khan’s classic “Ain’t Nobody” during a dance montage, as well as an early track by Ice-T, which shows how far he has come since then. While not on the soundtrack, Art of Noise and Kraftwerk can be heard as well. Other dance movies have better soundtracks, but the music included fits the scenes they’re used for. 80s dated cheese at its finest.

Speaking of 80s cheese, BREAKIN' is definitely one of those time capsule films that captures the era so well, it makes me feel nostalgic for the good ol’ days. The fashion is the epitome of the decade, with leg warmers and headbands in the forefront. The hairstyles and colorful neon clothes and locations quickly tell you what era this film is in. Even breakdancing isn’t as popular as it was back in 1984, giving us a look at the street culture and how many in the African-American and Latino communities expressed themselves and bonded. It’s refreshing to watch a movie where rival gangs would rather have dance offs to prove who is the best rather than having them shoot and stab each other for the same reason. I know it’s not realistic, but the world would probably be a better place, right? BREAKIN' is definitely good escapism for 90 minutes.

The characters are also colorful and memorable for the most part. Kelly, or Special K, is your typical female lead in a dance movie. She’s an aspiring dancer who believes dancing formally will get her success in life, not realizing that she’ll make better connections doing street dancing instead. She brings some optimism into the film and is the bridge between the street and the high society. Ozone is the hothead leader of TKO, who doesn’t want to make a career out of dancing, even though it’s the best thing he’s good at. He also likes Kelly and quickly gets jealous and paranoid over any guy who gives Kelly any kind of attention. Turbo is the best dancer in the film, having no issues teaching neighborhood children to dance as good as him, while not easily trusting outsiders who may plan to complicate his life for good or bad. These three quickly bond over dance, defying class and race issues to become the best of friends and a solid dance trio.

Then we have the stereotypical snobby dance instructor, Franco, who is also a sexual predator and a manipulator to keep street dancing out of the mainstream. And then we have James, Kelly’s agent who plans on making her a famous dancer. And while these kind of films would make the agent a slimy creep who is willing take advantage of our protagonist, BREAKIN' does the total opposite and makes him a genuinely good person who wants nothing but the best for Kelly and her friends. It feels odd because it’s rarely done in films, but it’s also a pleasant surprise. Here’s a film where people support each other to make their dreams come true, no matter if higher ups and people who don’t understand try to keep them down. That’s why BREAKIN' is still remembered today. It wants its audience to feel good and achieve their dreams - something we all want in life.

While BREAKIN' is focused on the dance sequences, as it should be, it would also help if the film had a story to connect the dance scenes together. Unfortunately, the standard plot has no substance at all and brings down the film as a whole. Now if BREAKIN' was just dancing from beginning to end, this wouldn’t be an issue. But the film tries to add certain plot elements that are barely developed. For example, there seems to be a love angle going on with Kelly and Ozone that the script wants to push for a certain demographic. Even moments of Ozone getting mad at Kelly whenever another man is around showing her affection are just played off as if it doesn’t even matter. And it doesn’t by the end, as the relationship remains the same as it did in the beginning of the film. In fact, the film seems to push more chemistry between Ozone and Turbo [that doesn’t go anywhere either]. Also, the happy ending of BREAKIN' comes off way too predictably and way too simple. I get that BREAKIN' wants people to feel good, but you have to add stakes and a struggle to keep people invested. I’m honestly surprised it took three people to write this film. Like… how??

I also felt that Joel Silberg handled some of the direction in a bland way where the dancing didn’t really electrify the film. BREAKIN' is not a flashy film and shots mostly stay static as people dance on screen. And while the dance choreography was good, I felt that whenever people danced together, everyone was doing their own thing and never felt like a real team trying to win battles. Say what you want about those STEP UP movies or YOU GOT SERVED. But at least those films had cohesion in the dance department, making you believe the dancers were in a real squad together. You barely feel that here and the direction doesn’t help.

The acting is also a component that brings BREAKIN' down. I’m not saying that some of it is not unintentionally funny. There is a moment between Lucinda Dickey and Adolfo Quinones where they argue about why they dance that tries to be super dramatic, but ends up being hilarious because Dickey is a bit bland and Quinones tries to compensate by overdoing the emotion and line delivery. I actually busted out laughing because it wasn’t good. Now, I can excuse the dancers for not being the best actors because that isn’t their true profession. Even then, I felt the dancers showed more charisma and personality than Dickey, who just coasts through the film with the same blah delivery. She’s a beautiful woman and she can dance, but the script and her handling of it does her no favors at all. Thankfully Christopher McDonald was around to keep things afloat any time he appeared.

I also have to give a shout out to some guy named… Jean-Claude Van Damme?




I mean, look at this guy! I wonder if he made something of himself after this. Eh, probably not.

THE FINAL HOWL
In terms of dance films, BREAKIN' may be one of the most important entries in that genre. Even though FLASHDANCE was released a year earlier and was a huge success in terms of box office and soundtrack, BREAKIN' is really the movie that set the tropes for dance movies that were released afterwards. While the lack of story, not-so-good acting, and some of the direction on the dance sequences bring the film down, BREAKIN' does what it needs to do - showcase a dance fad and give the audience a reason as to why it was so popular at the time. The film also happens to be a fun watch, with colorful characters, cheesy but right-for-the-era music, and cool montages of breakdancers poppin’ and lockin’ for our entertainment. While it’s certainly dated, it’s still a nice nostalgic trip for 90 minutes.



SCORE
2.5 Howls Outta 4



7.10.2019

Angel (1984)


DIRECTED BY
Robert Vincent O’Neill

STARRING
Donna Wilkes - Molly ‘Angel’ Stewart
Cliff Gorman - Lt. Andrews
Susan Tyrrell - Solly Mosler
Dick Shawn - Mae/Marvin Walker
Rory Calhoun - Kit Carson
John Diehl - The Killer

Genre - Action/Drama/Thriller/Serial Killers

Running Time - 94 Minutes


PLOT (from IMDB)
15 year-old Molly (Donna Wilkes) is the best in her class in high school. Nobody suspects that the model pupil earns her money at night: as prostitute "Angel" on Sunset Blvd. The well-organized separation of her two lives is shattered when two of her friends are slain by a necrophile serial killer (John Diehl). She's the only eye witness and becomes a target herself. The investigating Detective Andrews (Cliff Gorman) helps her, not only to survive, but also to query why she keeps on humiliating herself and to stop it.

REVIEW
One of the more famous exploitation films of the 1980s, New World Pictures’ ANGEL was another film that was part of the whole teensploitation sub-genre that involved young women having to prostitute themselves as a plot device to tell the movie’s story. While the 1970s did have its share of films that focused on young women who did what they had to in order to survive - 1976’s TAXI DRIVER, 1978’s PRETTY BABY and 1974’s THE WORKING GIRLS come to mind - the 1980s really glamorized it with 1984’s SAVAGE STREETS and 1985’s STREETWALKIN’. I mean, just look at the tagline on the film’s poster, “High school honor student by day…Hollywood hooker by night!” It’s no wonder ANGEL was a sizable box-office hit, although it’s a wonder why anyone would feel scandalized about the film’s themes. It’s a Grindhouse exploitation film, duh!

Surprisingly, ANGEL isn’t as sleazy as one would expect from that tagline. In fact, the film looks and almost plays out as a TV Movie of the Week if it didn’t have swear words, nudity, and blood. But the message of “young women putting themselves in danger if they solicit themselves in the streets” is still very evident and works well enough in terms of storytelling. There’s not much to ANGEL other than that, playing out as an action-thriller where women close to Molly ‘Angel’ Stewart are being murdered one-by-one by a serial killer. She’s a witness to one of the murders, making her an obvious target to the point where she has to grow up fast and fight back in order to survive. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that, but I do wish it was a bit more exciting and fun in terms of its execution. But ANGEL is never boring and it's easy to see why there were three sequels that followed to varied success. 

What really makes ANGEL the cult classic that it is are the interesting characters that Angel surrounds herself with. Drag queen Mae is probably the best of the lot, as she has the best dialogue in the film and seems to be the more fleshed out of all the characters. She’s sassy, foul-mouthed, tough, yet extremely caring and protective of Angel - considering Angel is only fourteen-years-old and working the streets. Mae is Angel’s mother and father figures all wrapped up into one, making her extremely likable and fun to watch. Landlord Solly is also up there, as she’s just as crude as Mae and just as loving towards Angel and sympathetic. Mae and Solly’s banter with each other give the most memorable bits of dialogue in the film, genuinely making me laugh at how unpolitically correct they are. Dialogue like this would get flamed in 2019. But in 1984, this was just standard exploitation storytelling. We also get Cowboy Kit Carson, who pretty much runs the part of Hollywood Boulevard that Angel frequents. He’s a bit of a western caricature on the surface, but there’s more to him that we learn by the film’s end. We also a magician dressed as Charlie Chaplin who befriends the prostitutes [even falling for one], leading to a memorable moment where he learns she was murdered and he just grieves for her. It gives the character a lot of depth in just a minute. And in a film like this, we obviously need a detective character, Andrews, who investigates the murders and befriends Angel to the point where he sort of takes her under his wing more or less.

And then there’s the killer himself, who is described by Andrews as “probably bisexual, impotent and was beaten by his daddy.” He’s also a necrophiliac, which makes certain scenes a bit uncomfortable to watch. He also doesn’t say anything until the very end of the film, just eating raw eggs, working out, and murdering hookers after charming them with his muscles and creeper face. He probably should have felt more of a threat than he did [the killer in 10 TO MIDNIGHT comes to mind] had more going on, but he’s still not a guy I would like to bump into the street.

The best character is obvious Molly, or Angel, who honestly has the most depth of any character. A fourteen year old, her parents had abandoned her and relied on hooking at age twelve to pay her tuition to prep school, as well as pay bills and rent. She has a lot of sass and is not a girl who is willing to let people step all over her. An issue pops up though, as both her lifestyles don’t ever seem to connect in a single film. Schoolgirl Molly and hooker Angel feel like characters from two different films than a natural progression. And if she had been hooking for over 2 years, why was she recently busted by schoolmates just now? And no one realized she wasn’t living without any parental units at all? These things feel like plot conveniences rather than something natural the character would have lived through. But it’s an exploitation film, so I’m not expecting a high quality of art here. 

The direction by Robert Vincent O’Neill is a mixed bag. Nothing about the film is all that stylish, as it feels like a TV movie made for a theatrical release. The tone is mostly balanced, although there are moments where one could struggle with the question of whether ANGEL is a drama made for ABC’s Afterschool Special, or a provocative thriller about a necrophiliac murderer targeting a teenage girl. There’s no real sleaze in the film besides a few men acting like pigs towards Angel. And the violence is quite tame, with no real graphic murder scenes at all. We do see the aftermath with bloody corpses, but they’re never really the focus of the film. I will commend O’Neill on the gritty look of the film, as it captures 1980’s Hollywood Boulevard extremely well and gives you a sense of how street smart you had to be to survive. And probably the best moment of the film - a drag queen fighting a Hare Krishna that was shot really well and was more amusing than it had any right to be. Only in the 1980s could a film like this had been directed. I’ve seen a lot better exploitation films of this kind, but at least it’s easy to follow and is short.

The acting is a bit hammy at times, but I didn’t hate it. Donna Wilkes, probably best known for JAWS 2 and ALMOST SUMMER, was actually 24-years-old playing a 14-year-old. But she kind of pulled it off and portrayed Angel as a fleshed out character who was vulnerable, tough, sassy and smart all in one. Wilkes actually followed prostitutes and spent time in halfway houses to make the role authentic. I respect that and Wilkes was very charming as the lead. Dick Shawn was a hoot as drag queen Mae, spouting off offensive one-liners and kicking butt to protect her girls. He also seemed to enjoy wearing that dress and being Mae, so respect. Susan Tyrell is just as funny and kooky as Solly, while Cliff Gorman played the stereotypical hard-as-nails police detective who gains a soft spot for our heroine. As for John Diehl, he played a pretty convincing silent killer, using just facial expressions and body language to give the character a bit of depth. For a film like ANGEL, the cast was perfectly fine for their roles.

THE FINAL HOWL
While not the greatest 80s exploitation film out there, it’s pretty easy to see why ANGEL became the cult classic that it did. It has B-movie humor, interesting characters that elevate a generic plot, and a great look at what Hollywood Boulevard looked like back in the early 1980s. It also has charming acting - especially by Donna Wilkes as the title character, Dick Shawn as a funny and tough drag queen, and John Diehl as a creepy silent killer. It’s not the most exciting film and for an exploitation film, it doesn’t do a whole lot of exploiting. The violence is tame, the sex is barely there, and feels like an ABC Afterschool Special for much of its run time. But it does have a drag queen and a Hare Krishna battling each other for a bit, as well as a teenage prostitute fighting back against a slimy murderer. How many films can you say have either of those? ANGEL isn’t a must see, but it’s definitely worth a look if you enjoy Grindhouse exploitation cinema that could never be made in a politically correct modern world.


SCORE
2.5 Howls Outta 4



7.06.2019

Original vs Remake: Let The Right One In (2008) vs. Let Me In (2010)


Credit to: 


DIRECTED BY
Tomas Alfredson

STARRING
Kare Hedebrant - Oskar
Lina Leandersson - Eli
Per Ragnar - Hakan
Henrik Dahl - Erik
Karin Bergquist - Yvonne
Peter Carlberg - Lacke
Mikael Rahm - Jocke
Ika Nord - Virginia

Genre - Horror/Drama/Romance/Vampires

Running Time - 114 Minutes



DIRECTED BY
Matt Reeves

STARRING
Kodi Smit-McPhee - Owen
Chloe Grace Moretz - Abby
Richard Jenkins - Thomas
Cara Buono - Owen’s Mother
Elias Koteas - Detective

Genre - Horror/Drama/Romance/Vampires

Running Time - 116 Minutes


PLOT (from IMDB)
Oskar/Owen (Kare Hedebrant/Kodi Smit-McPhee), a bullied 12-year old, dreams of revenge. He falls in love with Eli/Abby (Lina Leandersson/Chloe Grace Moretz), a peculiar girl. She can't stand the sun or food and to come into a room she needs to be invited. Eli/Abby gives Oskar/Owen the strength to hit back but when he realizes that Eli/Abby needs to drink other people's blood to live he's faced with a choice. How much can love forgive?

REVIEW
More of a romantic coming-of-age drama than a horrific vampire film, LET THE RIGHT ONE IN is still one of the finest entries in cinema vampire lore and one of the best horror films of the 2000s. Funny how big of a difference LET THE RIGHT ONE IN is to another 2008 vampire film, TWILIGHT, even though they share a lot of similarities on the surface. Both were adapted by novels. Both have young people, one human and one a vampire, falling in love as they try to understand each other and themselves. Both vampire films are about the soap opera and character element rather than the horrors of being a vampire. Yet their presentations are total opposite, as TWILIGHT caters to pre-teens who need fan fiction ideas while LET THE RIGHT ONE IN is more adult-oriented and deserved more attention than TWILIGHT ever did.

What really makes LET THE RIGHT ONE IN work are the young protagonists. Both Oskar and Eli are outcasts for different reasons. Oskar, coming from a broken home, is constantly bullied in school and not given much love or affection at home. The lack of positive emotional stability makes Oskar want to lash out on his enemies violently, almost being nurtured into a potential sociopath. Eli also has violent tendencies, but only because she’s a vampire stuck in a 12-year-old body who needs blood to survive. Both feeling alone and misunderstood, the two slowly forge a connection that begins as friendship and turns into something more. Eli and Oskar are Ying and Yang - Oskar providing Eli a sense of humanity a vampire can’t really feel, while Eli feeds into the bloodlust and violent tendencies that Oskar is willing to experience, pushing him to hit and fight harder when bullies try and humiliate him. It’s also great that they don’t judge each other. Oskar never blinks when Eli reveals she’s a vampire and that she may not even be a girl. Oskar has unconditional love for Eli and Eli is truly loyal to Oskar, which is something rare when it comes to child characters in horror films. Watching them interact and bond to the point where they’re willing to risk their lives for each other makes Oskar’s and Eli’s relationship believable due to strong screenwriting - which isn’t surprising since the novel’s author, John Ajvide Lindqvist, also adapted the screenplay.

That’s not to say that vampirism doesn’t come into play. Eli portrays the typical traits of one, meaning she wants blood, sleeps during the day, and can’t enter a room without an invitation first. And Eli’s thirst leads to a vengeance subplot involving Lacke, a man who loses his best friend and girlfriend due to Eli’s action. It strengthens the bond between the two young characters while giving them a major threat that could separate them. There’s also Oskar’s bullies, who torture him any chance they get and become the focus of Oskar’s revenge. LET THE RIGHT ONE IN doesn’t really focus on these characters a whole lot, but they’re pivotal to the film’s story and help us sympathize with the protagonists, even if they may not be morally correct with their actions.

The direction by Tomas Alfredson is strong, visually pleasing and confident. Instead of filming LET THE RIGHT ONE IN as a horror film, Alfredson treats the movie with tenderness and romanticism, wanting the audience to focus on the characters and their interactions rather than the violence and bloodshed. Along with cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, Alfredson create a lot of atmosphere within the film’s Scandinavian landscape. Snowy and set in Winter, the setting feels cold, which contrasts to the warmth of Eli’s and Oskar’s relationship. The film flows extremely well, never making the drama feel boring or plodding, while the horror moments are presented as jarring but in a good way. The vampire stuff is never the real focus and Alfredson clearly lets us know that right from the start. The film is a great slow build as the main relationship blossoms, giving the film an essence not many modern horror films can achieve. It’s superb work from a director who prefers subtlety over shock value, which I appreciate a great deal.

The acting is pretty great here, especially by the two young leads who carry LET THE RIGHT ONE IN on their shoulders from beginning to end. Kare Hedebrant is good as Oskar, the bullied young man who just wants to be understood and loved. His blonde hair and almost albino looks makes you believe he’s already a vampire. But he’s just an innocent boy trying to find his place in a dark life. Even better is Lina Leandersson as Eli, bringing both coldness and darkness as a vampire, while showing a level of vulnerability, intelligence and strength as she tries to be more human for Oskar. The two actors share a very likable chemistry that helps hold up the film after all these years. Without them, we wouldn’t still be talking about LET THE RIGHT ONE IN today.

And since I’m already discussing LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, I might as well give thoughts on its 2010 American remake, LET ME IN. For a film that didn’t need a remake to begin with, LET ME IN manages to surprise as it’s actually pretty damn good. While it doesn’t reinvent the film it’s based on, it does enough small changes to the story and visual style to make it stand on its own, never once disrespecting the original film in any way.

The story is very much the same as LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, with some scenes actually quoting dialogue word for word from the original. The small changes are interesting though, even though I’m not sure if it makes the film any better or worse than its predecessor. The ambiguity of Eli’s, or Abby’s in this case, gender identity is made more clear in this remake, as well as her relationship with the old man she lives with. Abby and Owen’s relationship is a bit more judgmental here, especially when he realizes he’s friends with a vampire. It’s not that bad, since it’s realistic that a child would be frightened by something he doesn’t understand. The sunlight death is done much differently in this version. And the vengeance angle is replaced with a standard police investigation that doesn’t end well for the detective. The film also takes place in 80s America instead of 80s Stockholm, helped by the use of popular 80s music, classic arcades, and television footage of then-President Ronald Reagan questioning good and evil. The Reagan stuff doesn’t really add anything besides Owen questioning if there is really evil in the world, which doesn’t go anywhere since the film ends the same way as the original. I think people who haven’t seen the original would enjoy the story regardless, but the original’s subtlety wins out for me.

Matt Reeves, who previously directed 2008’s CLOVERFIELD and will helm 2021’s THE BATMAN, does a commendable job understand what made LET THE RIGHT ONE IN work and capturing its tone and atmosphere almost perfectly. Reeves, however, doesn’t direct the film shot-by-shot like Gus Van Sant did with PSYCHO in 1998. He adds his own touches to the familiar scenes, using different perspectives or camera angles to present the story for a different audience. It’s still a slow moving affair and Reeves lets scenes play out without having to rush things or “Hollywood” them out for the mainstream. It feels just as bleak and cold in LET ME IN than it does in the original, and I gotta respect Reeves for respecting the original so much. My only gripe would be the CGI during Abby’s feeding scenes, which look like a cartoon that doesn’t fit in at all with the scene they’re a part of. But other than that, great visuals.

The acting is also pretty solid. Chloe Grace Moretz is a very good actor and does well as Abby, playing the role with sadness and loneliness unlike Lina Leandersson’s haunting portrayal. I do think Leandersson plays the role better, as she’s able to convey more through facial expressions and body language than Moretz does in the role. However, I feel that Kare Hedebrant is overshadowed by Kodi Smit-McPhee, who plays the role of Owen wonderfully and sympathetically. Smit-McPhee understands the role so well, you honestly believe he’s been through this in real life, conveying anger, loneliness, confusion, and fear so perfectly. He also shares nice chemistry with Moretz, even though I feel the original actors had more of a connection personally. But Smit-McPhee is the star of this film because he makes us care for him a great deal. Supporting actors Richard Jenkins and Elias Koteas are also very solid in their roles, adding a lot of nuance and tension to the film’s main story. Really solid cast here who took the material super seriously.

THE FINAL HOWL
While TWILIGHT tried to take down vampire storytelling one sparkle at a time, LET THE RIGHT ONE IN proved within the same year that vampire films can still be well told tales and must see movies. Bleakly atmospheric with solid child characters and a slow pace that lets the story simmer to a romantic ending, LET THE RIGHT ONE IN proves that serious vampire stories can still resonate in a modern society. In fact, LET THE RIGHT ONE IN is one of the best horror films of the last twenty years in my opinion. But if you don’t like foreign films or subtitles for any reason, the 2010 American remake LET ME IN is still a very well made film that respects the original while adding a few small twists to cater to an American audience. Same bleak atmosphere, solid acting especially by the child actors and still the same simmer that makes LET ME IN a remake worth checking out whether you’ve seen the original or not. Both solid interpretations of the same novel, but my vote goes to the original. But LET ME IN proves that not all horror remakes suck - pun intended.


SCORE
LET THE RIGHT ONE IN 
4 Howls Outta 4


LET ME IN
3.5 Howls Outta 4





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



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