Film Review – Ghostbusters (2016)

I approach all summer blockbusters in the same way. I think of them as movies made for fun, meant to be enjoyed for what they are and how they make you feel. They are the cinematic equivalent of pop songs and I love them for it.

Examples of summer blockbusters include:

You see, with tempers running hot all across the internet, people seem to have forgotten about the fun. The original Ghostbusters tackled a serious plot through a cast of comedians, which injected the movie with humor. So does the reboot.

But let me back up a little.

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via giphy.com

To help you understand where I’m coming from with this review, it’s essential to know that I went through a few emotional stages before heading to the theater. When I heard they were rebooting Ghostbusters, I was skeptical.

Then again, I am always skeptical when it comes to remaking movies that I think either got it right the first time or wouldn’t gain anything from advances in special effects or changes in social message. That is to say, there’s room in my cinematic world for reboots but you really have to sell me on the idea.

When I read that the reboot was going to feature a team of women busting ghosts, I was on board. It’s a new take on the original plot that provides an opportunity for the characters to take on the same challenges from a different perspective. So far, so good.

Then I saw the trailer.

To be honest, this didn’t really thrill me (though not in the same way it didn’t thrill others).  I was disappointed because I wanted them to nail it and instead I felt like the jokes fell a bit flat. I know all four of those busters are insanely talented, monumentally funny women, and I was worried that the movie reduced them to caricatures. If they were going to reboot with a female team, I knew they had to be at the top of their game to sell it.

After seeing the movie, I can now say without hesitation that they sold the hell out of it.

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via Ghostbusters.com

First of all, the cast works together in a way that feels effortless. Each member of the ensemble is an essential piece to building a well-oiled comedy machine that never stops delivering from the opening credits to the post-credits bonus scene. (Some people in the theater did not stay through the credits. Don’t be like those people. Those people were fools.)

Second of all, Kate McKinnon.

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via giphy.com

She is a revelation in this movie. I’d argue that her character is the brains and the heart and the muscle of the team. Holtzmann is the glue that holds everything together. Also, Kate McKinnon is officially invited to every party I ever host from now until the end of time. (Kate, if you’re reading this, I genuinely mean it. Stop by any time.)

Holtzmann has a way of making you feel fine with the fact that she makes you feel uneasy. Like you know she’s teetering on the edge of insanity, but because she means well you’re willing to go ahead and call that sane. You want to be on her team because you know she’s in it to win it.

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via Ghostbusters on Facebook

Then there’s Leslie Jones. Man did the trailer sell her character short. Not only does Patty literally know her way around the city, but she’s also a New York history enthusiast who knows all about the landmarks and the people who built them. The most refreshing element of her character is the fact that she’s coated with a teflon layer of positivity, greeting even the most surly of commuters with a smile. The entire team believes in the science, but Patty also believes in the team.

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via medium.com

Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy play characters who were childhood best friends, and their level of comfort with each other on screen makes that scenario entirely believable. They revel in success like people who love each other and they fight like it too. Most importantly, they are both extremely proud to be researchers and have a great respect for the scientific method. They are exactly the type of female role models I want to see on screen.

Chris Hemsworth is goofy and charming. The cameos from original film cast members are everything you would want them to be. Minor character roles are played by a great mix of both veteran comedians and up-and-coming comedic talent. The CGI choices that had me raising my eyebrow watching the trailer translated wonderfully to the big screen – The ghosts had a consistent ethereal style that made it feel like a dreamscape.

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via Ghostbusters on Facebook

But ultimately, none of these elements are as effective an endorsement as it was to see a little boy in a Ghostbusters shirt excitedly hopping out of his seat as the lights came up in the theater, already ready to talk with his mom about what he had just watched. He had loved it. His sister loved it. The middle-aged guy in the seat in front of me loved it. The snarky hipsters in the back row loved it enough to un-ironically declare, “Why aren’t they making Ghostbusters 2?” (Interesting note: They actually might be.)

Everyone in the theater loved it.

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via wikipedia.org

I know this because I spent two hours with these people as they belly laughed. I know this because the whole room was giddy. I know this because every person turned to friends at the end of the movie and said, out loud, that they loved it. I know this because we were all walking out of the room grinning.

At the end of the day, that’s what a summer blockbuster is meant for. If you walk out of the room smiling, it did a good job. If you walk out of the room grinning, it did a great job.

As with almost any movie, there’s still room for improvement. I would have loved for this reboot to be somehow connected to the original beyond cameos. I think it would have been so cool if one of the lead scientists was the daughter of a previous buster who had grown up steeped in the lore. Maybe the government managed to convince the people of New York that they had suffered a mass delusion in the 80s, that none of it was real. Give it a conspiracy theory feel.

But even without that, the movie still works. It’s pithy, it’s silly, and it gave me such a rush to see it all play out on screen. If you don’t have fun watching Ghostbusters it’s only because you went into the theater determined not to.

4.5/5 stars

Film review – Pandorica

Well, hello there internet friends. I’m back! I took another little writing hiatus to do more book outlining (on which I made great progress) and visit my awesome friend Alex in Australia (on which I ate many delicious indigenous animals). Despite my concerns about that crazy island, I managed not to get mauled by any adorable furry creatures or giant bugs and return home in one piece to you good people.

Although, that meant leaving behind one of my favorite people on that crazy island. Alas.

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Now that I’m finally over my jet lag and back in the swing of things, I’m delighted to get back to the blog with another film review. After my recent watching of Refuge I’ve been optimistic about the increasing quality of independent horror in both writing and production value.

When I saw that another indie film I’d had my eye on was available, I naturally jumped at the chance to see it. Pandorica could be categorized in a number of ways – thriller, horror, apocalyptic, dystopian – and I think that’s one of the really appealing aspects of the film.

It picks up several generations after what they call The Great Reset, some sort of worldwide disaster that decimated all but the most isolated communities. Three youth of the Varosha tribe – Eiren, Thade, and Ares – are preparing to take part in a selection test, during which the tribe’s current leader Nus will select his replacement.

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The selection test is a rather vague process that comes with folklore (told over a campfire, naturally) and is carried out whenever the previous leader feels the next crop of kids are old enough to compete. Normally that would be too generic for my taste, but I do think Pandorica‘s story benefits from being intentionally ambiguous. When things seem to go awry during the test, there’s still a little voice in the back of your head that’s saying, “But maybe that’s how it’s supposed to play out.”

What immediately grabbed my attention even from the trailer was how intensely dark it is. And I mean that quite literally. Most of the action in the film takes place over the course of one night, illuminated only by the moon or torches or campfires. Dealing with shadows in that way is seriously tricky business and I think they handled the self-imposed lighting challenge wonderfully.

There are also several sweeping aerial landscape shots that are absolutely breathtaking. In particular I was enamored with a series of wide pans over the forest as they traveled from their tribal home to the location of the leadership test. This can be attributed partly to the inherent natural beauty of the set location, but even that can’t stand on its own without skilled camera and editing work.

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The plot is not the most original construction – A group of headstrong kids in their late teens or early 20s compete against each other in a selection process to shape the future of their community. That’s kind of par for the course when it comes to modern dystopia, and director Tom Paton has even said in interviews that he sees the setting more as a way to explore interpersonal relationships than explore a likely apocalypse scenario.

The film at its core is about leadership, and earning the right to call yourself a leader. I believe in today’s world, power it [sic] too easily acquired by some and is likely the reason that people at the bottom find themselves mistreated… I think it was about looking at a big message and then applying to the world I know so that hopefully, whatever industry you are in, you can see shades of how you lead and who gets promoted in these characters. (lovehorror.co.uk)

In another interview, he even went so far as to self-identify the setting as cliché.

After reading his thoughts, I went back and watched some sections a second time. A lot of interactions that had previously felt sort of “apocalypse light” to me now play out like the most amazingly intense office team-building retreat ever taken. (And if you’ve ever been subjected to one of those personally, you’ll understand why that’s appealing.) Whether that was his intent or not is kind of irrelevant if it means I enjoy the experience more through that lens.

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The film is not without flaws. There were character actions that were easy for me to telegraph. You don’t really get much introduction to the world beyond a text-on-screen opening montage. Some of the potential impact of the script was lost by having the main characters speak English using an awkwardly manufactured accent.

In the grand scheme of things these flaws are really just minor bumps on an otherwise picturesque road. There’s plenty of imagination involved in setting the scene – especially in makeup and costumes – and it’s easy to see just how much heart went into making this film. It’s clear the cast was fully on board with Paton’s vision and I appreciate his attention to detail.

My overall recommendation – Watch Pandorica. The film takes a well-worn genre and uses it as the backdrop for something intimate and unusual. Though the plot is more about the journey than the destination, it’s still an interesting journey to take. And if nothing else, the movie is a visual feast.

3/5 stars

 

 

 

 

 

 

Film review – Refuge

Cbq_dLcWAAAbBvTIf you’ve been around the blog long enough, you’ll know that I’m a sucker for an apocalyptic tale. Even though I tend to gravitate to zombies, I’m an equal opportunity end-of-the-world enthusiast.

In fact, having spent six years living in Beijing (with a population of over 20 million crammed into tight quarters), I really connect with storytellers who imagine the collapse of society as the product of disease rather than creatures. I was once on a Beijing bus so crowded that a man couldn’t help sneezing directly into my mouth. In addition to being terribly grossed out, I had the flu within 12 hours.

 

I also made the grand mistake of watching Contagion for the first time at the start of the 13 hour flight back to China. Halfway through the film I realized everyone around me was coughing and spitting into paper bags and I spent the next 12 hours very consciously trying not to touch my face.

Which is a roundabout way of saying that Refuge resonated with me in a very real way. The premise of the movie is that a so-called “Nightmare Superbug” resistant to antibiotics has spread globally, decimating the population. The country falls apart, and the only people left are those who have isolated themselves and avoided contact with the infected.

While I wouldn’t consider them spoilers, I am going to talk a bit about the characters and very general plot points. Keep this in mind as you read ahead.

REFUGE: Available on iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, Vudu, Youtube & VOD on Comcast, Time Warner, Fios, etc. from Passerby Films on Vimeo.

Aside from a montage flashback during the opening credits that outlines the pandemic, the movie is set several years after the complete collapse of society. Survivors have been reduced to roving bands of scavengers, trying to glean whatever scraps of food and medicine are left in abandoned homes, all while continuing to protect themselves from coming into contact with any infected corpses.

In essence, Refuge is a movie about tribes. There are no lone wolves, no solitary hunters, but instead people have grouped themselves into what could be considered post-apocalyptic family units. Jack, Nell and their daughter Birdie are an actual biological family, with the supplementary addition of Kyle – an artist they took in and who serves as a secondary patriarch.

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On the opposite end of the spectrum you have a sort of hybrid of The Lost Boys and the Manson Family, a pack of young men who revel in violence and mayhem. Led by the cold, brutal, and arguably sociopathic Rez, they take whatever they want and kill indiscriminately. Russell is running with Rez’s crew, but it’s clear that he’s not on board with their methods. When he crashes his motorcycle trying to get away from them, Jack finds him in the road and takes him home to set his broken leg.

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Other groups cross their paths over the course of the movie, each categorized as being on either extreme side of this morality scale. It’s not necessarily new ground being covered here in terms of characters or themes, but that’s par for the course when it comes to exploring human nature. It’s not about coming up with a unique scenario, it’s about coming up with a unique approach to immersing the viewer in that scenario.

This movie’s approach immerses you fully, putting you right in the thick of things. You see, more than anything else, ambiance is what revs my horror engine. Refuge leans heavily on the sounds of an abandoned world – crickets chirping, leaves crunching underfoot, the labored sound of breath through a gas mask, papers rustling, wind pulling at branches – and all that natural atmosphere makes you as the viewer really feel the weight of the emptiness. The soundtrack weaves in between these sounds and amplifies their impact.

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The loyalty Jack’s family members (related and adopted, old and new) show to each other is fierce, and when they are not together the separation anxiety is real and intense. He can be a bit sharp, to the point where it feels almost cruel, but you get the impression that this is a well-honed survival reflex and his family understands and respects that. None of them seems to question why they press on, they just continue to live because living is what they do.

In my opinion, Refuge nails the pacing – not so much slow as it is deliberate, punctuated with moments of intensity. It is not an action-packed thriller in the traditional sense, but it still does have both action and thrills. For maximum effect, I’d recommend you watch it with the lights out, on a larger screen. If you’ve got surround sound, even better. It’s available to purchase VOD from a variety of services.

3.5/5 stars

Film review – The Witch

There has been a lot of buzz floating around about The Witch ever since it hit the festival circuit last year. Rolling Stone promised it would “scare the hell out of you” and declared it “a crafty calling card brimming with beauty and terror” for first time writer/director Robert Eggers. The Atlantic gushed over it, saying it was “a film that conjures its scares not from sharp jumps, but from the eerie hostility of the untamed American wilderness.”

And on, and on, and on.

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I read praise heaped upon praise for the stark foreboding of the unforgiving forest, for the raw desperation of the isolated family, for the power of superstition to cast doubt on those we love most. Critics could not say enough about how wonderfully different this was from your run-of-the-mill slasher, and comparisons to the atmospheric magic of It Follows were plentiful.

To a certain extent, I blame the hype for coloring my viewing experience (a phenomenon perfectly addressed here) but then again It Follows was also hyped and I thought it delivered on its promise several times over. The Witch, on the other hand, left me feeling remarkably underwhelmed as the end credits rolled.

Some spoilers ahead – Plot points and themes

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My first instinct as the lights came up in the theater was to laugh. Not the nervous laugh of someone who has just been emotionally drained by a fine piece of psychological terror, but rather the amused “you got me” laugh of someone who was just tricked into paying to see the equivalent of a student film with a decent costume budget.

The atmosphere, while decidedly desolate, didn’t strike me as all that creepy. But maybe that’s because I took many childhood trips to New England to visit family and I understand that it really is that damp and gray for chunks of the year. More than anything else – more than fear or shock or terror – I honestly just felt sorry for eldest daughter Thomasin.

Right at the start she definitely looked pissed that her dad was too weird to function in town as he thanked the committee of men in funny hats for banishing him from society. So there she is, stuck on the edge of a forest void of edible plants, living in an attic with a younger brother who can’t stop drooling over her cleavage, creepy twin siblings who talk to the family goat, a father whose only skills include chopping wood and praying, and a mother who likes the idea of having babies but not taking care of them.

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Thomasin is old enough to remember what it was like living home in England (where they had “real glass” in the windows) and there is a point where she desperately tries to get her brother to remember as well so that she has someone to commiserate with. She’s the one watching the infant when he disappears (either by wolf or by witch, depending on which weirdo family member you ask) and her mother refuses to forgive her for losing track of the baby she only seemed interested in nursing but not raising.

The film is, at its core, a puberty allegory with all the requisite elements – temptation, loss of innocence, mood swings, anger, desire, and blood.

So. Much. Blood.

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It’s the confusion of “becoming a woman” (a phrase I really detest) coupled with the societal fear of the power of an independent female. And even the independent female, manifested here as the witch, is only granted her power by handing over an unspecified aspect of herself as payment to the devil.

Basically, they could have called this “We Need to Talk About Thomasin” and cut through to the heart of the matter. The family is full of suspicion and doubt about the mysteriously witchy happenings, but there’s nothing unexpected about that since they’re ultra-religious (I suspect perhaps Calvinists?). The same historical setting that provides the isolation also provides predictability in terms of reactions to unexplained phenomena.

Twins speaking in tongues? Must be a witch. Son wanders home naked and disoriented? Totally a witch. Go to milk the goat and get an udder full of blood? Oh yeah, that’s some witchcraft right there. And the obvious person to point the finger at is the exasperated teenage girl who just can’t seem to embrace the prayer and solitary confinement her parents thrust upon her.

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The actors all did admirable jobs in their roles, and I really have nothing bad to say about their performances. They were doing their best with the source material they were given, and I think the youngest children in particular were well cast. Anya Taylor-Joy has some great nuanced facial expressions. Ralph Ineson captures the essence of a man who is in way over his head. Black Phillip really sells the whole demon goat thing.

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But in the end, neither the atmosphere nor the plot were engaging enough to hold my attention. I feel like I need to qualify this by saying that this is not because I don’t appreciate subtlety in the horror genre. I love The Babadook and Let The Right One In. I also love Hellraiser and Halloween. I appreciate a slow mood-builder and I appreciate a bloodbath, each for their own merits.

I didn’t dislike The Witch because it was atypically atmospheric. I disliked The Witch because it was boring. Then again, I’m at a loss trying to come up with a better scary movie about a witch, so maybe this is just the best we’re going to get.

2/5 stars

Film review – Zombeavers

Last night’s Season 2 premiere of Z Nation spread the camp on pretty thick (just the way I like it). Nuclear fallout? Little House on the Zombie Prairie? Undead strippers? Using zombies as a shuffling hat rack? And that’s just a fraction of what they managed to pack into an hour.

So, when I woke up this morning to a dreary, rainy day, I was inspired to tackle another bit of zombie camp that’s been sitting in my Netflix queue. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you, Zombeavers:

For starters, I love comedic horror with a passion. My favorite kind of comedic horror is the particular brand of meta horror perfected by the late great Wes Craven (I’m watching Scream right now as I write this). My second favorite kind is comedic horror that is more self-aware than meta, and Zombeavers definitely falls squarely in this category. They know they’re campy, they’re proud they’re campy, and they’re just going to keep dialing up that camp-o-meter until they break off the knob.

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The premise of the movie is fairly classic as far as zombie plots go – toxic waste accidentally falls off a truck, resulting in the creation of zombies that terrorize hormone-driven coeds in a remote cabin. Except the truck accident is a totally deadpan chuckle-fest, the zombies are beavers, the coeds are comically sex-crazed and the remote cabin is adjacent to a second remote cabin where a charmingly foul-mouthed, totally hip-to-the-kids older couple lives.

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Yes, there is gratuitous nudity. Yes, there are ample beaver jokes. But there’s also genuine hilarity in all of it. When the girls go swimming, one of them peels her top off and revels in baring her chest. Later on, one of the dude bros gets maimed by a zombie beaver, and they need to make a tourniquet. The same girl goes to take off her bikini top and her boyfriend dismisses her, saying, “No, that’s too small” and grabs her dog’s life vest instead.

It’s goofy, the special effects come in just above low-budget level, the zombeaver attacks are amusing to watch, and the characters develop in (very) unexpected ways. Perhaps what I liked most about Zombeavers is how the film thumbs its nose at the tired final girl trope. That and how the beavers were intelligent enough to chew through all the phone lines (those lovable scamps!), which were of course the only means of communication since the cabins were too remote for cell signal.

All in all it’s an enjoyable watch and the perfect diversion for a rainy Saturday. My verdict: 3.5/5 stars

Film Review – Advantageous

After spending a good chunk of the holiday weekend patriotically binge-watching The West Wing, I wanted to cleanse my streaming palate with another genre. Suffice it to say that Advantageous didn’t just cleanse my palate. It grabbed my palate with both hands and power-washed it, in the best way possible.

I wasn’t entirely sure how to write a plot synopsis, because the film is about so many different things. It’s about a mother (Gwen) wanting to do what’s best for her daughter. It’s about the intricacies of relationships within families. It’s about the pressure put on women to possess an ideal balance of intelligence and beauty. It’s about finding your place in the world. It’s about the automation of the workforce. And more and more and more.

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Advantageous is simultaneously straightforward and complex. It strikes me as a sort of dystopian feminist David Mamet play, in that most of the scenes take place in single rooms as contained conversations between two or three people. These conversations are intimate, heavy with mood and yet nuanced enough that the weight is applied in layers. You feel all the frustration, all the agony, and all of the love as well.

It’s worth adding that Advantageous also carries the mood over into the visuals. Soft pastels, muted light, large swaths of cold metallic accents, lingering shots on Gwen’s face as she looks at her daughter. It’s clear that this is set in the future, but mixed in with all the technology there are still touches of now.

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This isn’t an action flick and yet I was still on the edge of my seat, genuinely riveted by the twists and turns. I was also emotionally exhausted by the end of the film, which to me is the mark of a story well told. Advantageous is currently available to stream on Netflix, and I would absolutely suggest that you do so.

4/5 stars