61. Bad Moms

Bad Moms

I’ll be honest; I only saw Bad Moms due to the leftover good will that Mila Kunis and Kristen Bell retain in the wake of Forgetting Sarah Marshall.  The trailer, in my mind, was not very funny, at all.  And even the above poster is a jumbled, cluttered mess.  So, while there have been several instances when I’ve applauded marketing departments for their efforts in getting me and others into the theater on opening weekend, I can’t give the Bad Moms marketing team the same praise.  For me, personally, it all came down to stars who have earned my patronage.

Mila Kunis plays Amy, an exhausted wife and mother who just needs a break from her own life.  She finds some like-minded friends in Kristen Bell’s Kiki and Kathryn Hahn’s Carla and, from there, we’re off to the races as the three face off against a trio of Mean Moms played by Christina Applegate, Jada Pinkett-Smith, and Annie Mumolo.

There’s actually a lot more to the film than that, but I don’t want to spoil anything.  For the second day in a row, I was actually very pleasantly surprised by the film that I watched.  While I’m not prepared to put Bad Moms at the level of quality of Forgetting Sarah Marshall (which is my all-time favorite comedy, so that’s not a knock), it’s far funnier than the trailers suggest and a pretty great time at the movies.

The three leads are all terrific and each brings their own unique qualities and vibe to the film.  Amy (Kunis) is the closest to being the audience’s anchor – the most “normal” of the bunch, so to speak.  Due to getting pregnant at the early age of 20, Amy feels like she missed out on the years where people are supposed to enjoy life and have fun.  I found her relatable in that sense because I also feel like I missed out on those years.  The difference is that she missed out due to getting pregnant and I missed out because I suck at life.  And that’s where my ability to relate to this film ends.

But my ability to enjoy it continues!  Kiki (Bell) is the oddball of the group.  I’m so, so glad Kristen Bell was chosen for this role because I’ve previously lamented that she typically gets cast in the straight role while everyone around her has the opportunity to be funny.  Not this time!  Bell is absolutely a joy to watch and is easily my favorite character in the movie.  She doesn’t go over the top with it, playing it very quietly and subtly but that makes it twice as funny as the material would be on the page.  Her performance as Kiki is restrained, hilarious, and completely unlike any other I’ve seen in a comedy, this year.  I imagine that much of her humor will fly right by a lot of people who may be distracted by something else they’re seeing or hearing but I ask you to keep your eyes and ears trained on Kristen Bell in this movie.

Generally speaking, I expect Kathryn Hahn’s Carla to get the most frequent and the biggest laughs from audiences who venture out to see Bad Moms.  And, frankly, she deserves them.  Carla is the in-your-face, I-don’t-give-a-spit mom and Hahn nails it.  She genuinely made me (and everyone else in the theater) laugh out loud on multiple occasions with her absurd, obnoxious, filter-less dialogue.  I don’t blame the marketing department for not featuring her funniest moments in the advertising because they simply can’t be put on television or in a green-band trailer.  And that’s her appeal.  She’s charmingly profane and impossible to dislike.

The three of them together have tremendous chemistry and truly feel like a group of friends.  They pick on each other, they joke with each other, and they laugh with each other.  That’s a rarity in movies, and it was something I also noticed in Ghostbusters.  It seems that, in movies, groups of friends are virtually always portrayed as people who in actuality can’t stand each other but they each tolerate the others because they don’t have anybody else.  They don’t appear to actually enjoy each other’s company or have fun.  That’s not the case, here, and it’s refreshing.  It’s clear why Amy, Kiki, and Carla are friends and it’s equally clear that they truly are friends.  This is a truly welcome change of pace that I felt needed to be acknowledged.

While the film never forgets that it’s a comedy, there are enough emotional beats and there is enough heart to give it weight.  During the closing credits, there is a nice collection of talking head interviews with the cast and their real-life mothers, with the mothers talking about moments that made them “bad moms” while raising their kids.  It’s charming and unique.

There’s also enough going on underneath the surface of the movie that the title Bad Moms, itself, can be interpreted about a half-dozen ways by time the movie is over.  I didn’t expect that but, again, I appreciated it.  It seems like mothers can never be good enough for people in modern society (for example, the mom of the boy who fell into the gorilla pit, not so long ago) and nothing they do is right.  The film centers on this idea all while having fun with it and celebrating motherhood.

If, like me, you were thinking about seeing Bad Moms but were talked out of it by the marketing, I assure you that it’s better than you expect it to be.  If you liked the trailer, then rush to your local theater because the actual movie will be the greatest thing you’ve ever seen!  If Kathryn Hahn doesn’t make you nearly choke on your drink as she shocks you into a laugh at least two or three times, then you just came in determined to hate it.  Kristen Bell gets to show a different side or herself and it makes her even more lovable than she already was.  And Mila Kunis takes charge as the lead and reminds us all why being a parent is the toughest, yet most-important, job there will ever be.  Put this all together, and Bad Moms is a great time!

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61. Bad Moms

#ThrowbackThursday – Ouija

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Original US release date: October 24, 2014
Production budget: $5,000,000
Worldwide gross: $103,590,271

Once again, I leave #ThrowbackThursday up to the randomizer and, once again, it chooses a horror film.  But it works out seeing as how the follow-up (and prequel, it appears) Ouija: Origin of Evil is set to be released, this October.  That’s a completely different project with an all-new group of filmmakers both in front of and behind the camera, but it will still be fun to take a look back at this one.

I have known multiple people to have personal experiences with Ouija boards.  Reliable people.  Once, I was at a party.  Most everyone else was drinking (I don’t drink, but I don’t care if other people do) and then they decided to pull out the Ouija board.  I quickly deduced that this was a bad combination and I hightailed it out of there and headed straight home.

I also believe that I’ve personally seen a ghost (a story for another time and place) so ghost-based horror films always intrigue me.  I enjoy seeing other people’s ideas and interpretations of that realm of the supernatural.  Ouija boards have been used to various effects in other films, but this was an attempt to make it the centerpiece of the story.  It felt like Ouija was a long time coming.

Ouija was also Olivia Cooke’s highest profile film role to that point (though she also starred in The Quiet Ones – another horror film – at around he same time) after making a splash in A&E’s excellent Bates Motel series.  She’s fantastic, so it’s great to know that she was cast by Steven Spielberg to be the co-lead in his upcoming adaptation of Ready Player One.  That will be huge for her and should put her firmly on the Hollywood map.

Ouija, itself, is a bit of an enigma.  Technically, it’s based on a “game” but I’m not so quick to casually reduce the Ouija board to that dismissive of a categorization.  Many people do, however.  Just ask Hasbro, who’s been selling them in toy stores for years.  So, even though the characters in the film (led by Cooke’s Laine Morris) bring the events upon themselves, it’s hard to label that as unrealistic since so many people do it every year in real life.

Once things get into gear, we have a mixed bag.  Initially, the characters aren’t quite as quick on the take as they probably should be that things are not as they seem, but they get a little smarter as the film goes on.  Something else happens, as the film continues, however.  I noticed that it was all feeling a little familiar.  It didn’t take all that long for me to realize that the story was hitting virtually all the same notes that – surprise, surprise – The Ring hit, twelve years before it.  I’m starting to notice just how many filmmakers apparently look up to that movie as much as I do, because with it being fresh in my mind again after my recent re-watch, I’m noticing its influence all over the place.  It was certainly there in Lights Out, but Ouija is just a couple of steps away from being a remake, once you get past the differences on the surface.

That’s not to say that it’s as effective or immersive as The Ring was.  Not even close.  But the same basic story beats are there: a loved one dies under mysterious circumstances, the female protagonist investigates and makes the same mistake that said loved one did along the way, she then proceeds to unravel the mystery to save herself and everyone around her, and then she’s hit in the face by a twist – the same twist – once she thinks she has it all figured out and taken care of.  It’s really quite remarkable.

Having said all of that, there are still some pretty good jump scares and creepy visuals throughout the film and the atmosphere is well-maintained throughout its duration.  The film looks nice, as well, with a clean, crisp, colorful presentation giving way to a moody, darker appearance when the time is right.  And Olivia Cooke shows why Spielberg took an interest in her as she effortlessly strolls through her role, coming off just as natural and believable as one could ask for – even crying on demand.  This film was a good showcase for her and she’s clearly taken advantage of it.  I hope she has a long, successful career and that Ready Player One is as fantastic as it is likely to be and makes money hand over fist.

What this all comes down to is that Ouija is essentially a lazy, but mostly-competent film.  It borrows way too much from what I consider to be the greatest horror film ever made to be considered overtly fresh, but it does some fairly effective things with those borrowed elements.  And Olivia Cooke shines.  If you devour horror movies (or are following Cooke’s burgeoning career) , you’ll probably find Ouija worth a look.  If you’re typically picky about your horror, skip it and just watch The Ring.  With Ouija: Origin of Evil on the horizon at the end of October, hopefully a completely new filmmaking team will mean we gets something a little more outside-the-box.  Or, we may just get a clone of The Conjuring.  We’ll find out in a few months.

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#ThrowbackThursday – Ouija

60. Nerve

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The origins of Nerve probably depend on who you ask.  Some will tell you that the film is adapted from the 2012 novel of the same name by Jeanne Ryan.  And, strictly speaking, that’s true.  But upon seeing the initial trailer, I was reminded of another film I watched (and really liked) not too long ago starring the late Anton Yelchin called 13 Sins.  That film was released in 2014, but it’s an American take on a film from Thailand called 13 Beloved or 13: Game of Death.  That film came out in 2006 and is apparently itself based on a comic book called 13th Quiz Show.  I’m sure most – if not all –  involved with Nerve would cry, “Coincidence!” and maybe it is, but the similarities of the two properties are awfully similar.

Nerve, however, has a handful of talent that no version of the other project had.  Firstly, Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost are co-directors.  They are the ones who brought the world Catfish.  And I’m referring to the groundbreaking documentary that clued film lovers around the world into the meaning of that term long before the two developed it into an MTV series for the masses.  Following that, the pair dabbled in the horror genre, directing both Paranormal Activity 3 and Paranormal Activity 4.  These films were a marked improvement over the lackluster Paranormal Activity 2 and suggested that good things were in their future.

Dave Franco assumes a leading role in Nerve but he’s sharing the spotlight with the underrated Emma Roberts.  Franco is a talented it-guy, following in the footsteps of his better-known brother, James.  He’s been largely pigeonholed into supporting comedic roles, so Nerve is a bit of a departure for him.  Roberts has been able to show more versatility throughout her relatively short career and has recently shined on Fox’s Scream Queens, completely stealing every scene she’s in.  She’s been able to distance herself from the shadow of her aunt Julia, who has been a household name for decades.

So, we have an interesting mix of elements in Nerve.  Lots of fresh, up-and-coming talent but a concept that has already been done – and done well – albeit on a much smaller scale.  As the movie ended, I likened the Nerve/13 Sins comparison to another popular one – that of The Hunger Games and Battle Royale.  Much as the Hunger Games series did with Battle Royale, Nerve takes the concept already explored in 13 Sins and amps up the scale, ultimately crafting it into its own unique story.  So, while the basic premise and backbones of the two films are the same, the narrative, characterization, and themes of Nerve are its own.

Firstly, when compared to 13 Sins, Nerve is bigger, sexier, and funnier.  It shoots for a broader audience and it should succeed in that effort.  But I want to discuss Nerve as its own entity and not constantly put it in the shadow of its 2014 counterpart.  Because, while that film came first, Nerve has something completely distinctive to say.

While 13 Sins (I know, I know, sorry!  Last mention, I hope!  It’s really tough not to draw those comparisons, if you’ve seen that earlier film!) is a small, intimate horror story, Nerve is a broad, sweeping thriller.  In the former film, the in-film game is completely secret and isolated whereas in Nerve, it’s a social media fad growing in popularity by the second.  Yet, despite the magnitude of the story, the film manages to tell a very personal story along the way.  Emma Roberts’s Vee is the primary protagonist and she’s created to be admirable and likeable in every way.  While the film never dives deep into serious melodrama, Vee is given enough of a backstory and a social/familial circle to flesh her out and ensure that the audience has a very clear picture of who she is and what motivates her.  I was pleasantly surprised by this, as I expected the film to tell, and not show (which you might know by now is a pet peeve of mine), these aspects of her life in order to jump right in and get to Dave Franco’s Ian as quickly as possible.  Laying that groundwork alone is enough to raise the quality of the film far above what most people will anticipate.

The characters are smart (or at least not actively of below-average intelligence) and well-meaning, and I found this also adds to the appeal of the film.  There are some characters with an air of mystery surrounding them, and I won’t necessarily include them in this generalization in order to preserve the filmgoing experience for you , but most of the figures in the film are complex, flawed, and believable.  They react in realistic ways to their ordeals as established by the rules of the world that they inhabit.

And that world isn’t very far removed from our own, which just so happened to be the entire message of the film.  On the surface, Nerve addresses modern society’s social media obsessions but, when digging deeper, the film is really a commentary on that sect of online personalities who fail to recognize that those they interact and cross paths with online are very real and very human.  These are the people who spend their time leaving insulting, negative comments on every message board post they can find.  They are the people who tease and bully other strangers – often without provocation – to get themselves over with their brainless friends.  These are the people who send insulting messages to celebrities through Twitter or post joking Facebook statuses when a celebrity dies.  These people are mental midgets who aren’t advanced enough to comprehend that their actions and words carry weight and consequence and that their relative anonymity doesn’t absolve them of responsibility.  These are the people that Nerve wants to address.  And I applaud the effort.  I wish I believed it would make a difference.

My biggest problem with the film came with one of the rules of the Nerve game.  Basically (and I guess this could be considered a mild spoiler, but not really.  It’s established right off the bat and I will not be discussing how, or if, it comes into play in the film.  Regardless, the rule makes little sense.), the third rule is to not tell the police about the game.  Yet, the game is a huge phenomenon and there’s no way that the police wouldn’t already know about it and also know exactly who is participating.  The game itself thrives on people being aware of it, so this is a huge contradiction that I’ve been unable to reconcile.

Despite that, I found myself enjoying Nerve significantly more than I expected to.  Roberts shines and Franco charms (also, Orange is the New Black fans can keep their eyes open for both Poussey and Soso), the challenges of the game are intense and entertaining, the pace is quick and fun, and the film makes a very relevant statement.  Even without the latter, it’s easy to be swept into the film and forget the real world for about 90 minutes.  I was worried that the 13 Sins similarities would be insurmountable for me, but this falls into the idea that I’ve discussed before where someone (in this case, author Jeanne Ryan) was perhaps exposed to an idea and thought, “What if that idea had been explored this way, instead?” and then went and did just that.  And that’s okay.  Nerve is not a direct lift of that previous story and even has some extra enjoyable elements that that initial take on the idea does not.  My suggestion?  See both Nerve and 13 Sins and decide for yourself.  And, maybe, you might just enjoy each of them based on their own merits, exactly as I did.

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60. Nerve

59. Star Trek Beyond

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I’ve never considered myself a Trekkie.  I watched some of the original Star Trek series in syndication as a kid (I’m not old enough to have watched it as it originally aired.  It feels so nice to say that.) but it never hooked me.  I did enjoy J.J. Abrams’s 2009 Star Trek, however, and – to a lesser extent – Star Trek Into Darkness, as well.  So, at best, I’m a casual Star Trek fan.

I’m absolutely a J.J. Abrams fan, however, and he steps aside for this third franchise installment and hands the reins over to Justin Lin of the Fast and the Furious series.  I haven’t watched any of those films (not a car guy) but I know a lot of people really enjoy them, so my hopes were high.

Those hopes were further boosted by the opening scene, which I thought was tremendous.  When the film begins, we are immediately thrust into the weirdness of the life of Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) and the world that surrounds him.  The scene carries a sense of immediacy and then plays out in a completely unexpected and undeniably entertaining fashion.  It’s a warm welcome back into the Star Trek universe and gets the movie off on the right note and with the perfect tone.

I wish I could say that I felt it all went smoothly from there.  The film is by no means a disaster.  I just found it to be more of the same.  Following that opening sequence, it seems that all ingenuity and imagination is left behind and we get a film that is a run-of-the-mill blockbuster hopeful.  I’m not suggesting that the story is any sort of a retread, such as the case is with The Secret Life of Pets (probably the worst offender of this sort in recent memory).  The story is original (to my knowledge) and it’s fine.  It’s plotted and paced well with solid moments for the principles and emotional arcs that pay off.  The story isn’t a problem and, as I said, the film isn’t a disaster, or even bad.  There are just a couple of areas where I believe it’s underdeveloped.

The first of those is the dialogue.  It’s flat and largely uninteresting.  I had to consciously force myself to listen to it during many sections of the film because it’s mostly devoid of any bite, wit, or energy.  And this isn’t the fault of the cast.  The cast is excellent and they do what they can with it.  Some dialogue is simply so bland that it actively resists artificially-induced kineticism.  And some jokes are so transparent that not even perfect delivery and timing can save them.  Despite a few contradictory moments sprinkled throughout the film, the majority of the script suffers from these issues.

The other problem area is in the action.  And let me once again clarify, it’s the action, not the effects, that I found lacking.  With the exception of the scene that introduces Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), the choreography and construction of the action is lazy and uninspired.  I kept waiting for something that I didn’t expect or that felt like something I had never seen before.  I got a little of it in that Jaylah scene, but nothing outside of that.  The expectations for these big-budget tentpoles have been highly elevated over the last decade and to stand out, a film needs to deliver in this arena.  The action looks nice and is well-crafted but not particularly well-conceived.

One other problem I noticed is that the film appears very dark.  Not in tone (the tone remains appropriate throughout the course of the film) but in the visuals.  The daylight scenes are very dreary and the scenes that occur in darkness are sometimes downright hard to make out.  This could have been the fault of the theater, but I’ve seen many movies there and have never had that problem, before.  I hope that was the case, however, and that it was an anomaly.

I know it seems like I’m focusing more on the negative than the positive.  That’s because the negative stands out whereas the positive is just that – positive, but not in any sort of extraordinary way (again, except for that opening scene).  What works (the cast, the story, the pacing, the tone) works but has trouble compensating for what doesn’t work (the dialogue, the action) because the things that don’t work are the very components that should be driving the film.

Still, if for any reason, you’ve been excited about seeing Star Trek Beyond, then go see it!  Don’t let me talk you out of it; you may enjoy it more than I did (and while there are no additional scenes during or after the credits, there is some cool animation and a nice dedication to Leonard Nimoy and Anton Yelchin, midway through).  I have to assume that there will be another installment in the near-future and I just hope the people behind it take a look at what some others are doing and use it as motivation to raise their game.  The film was fine, but I wanted to be blown away, and it didn’t happen.

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59. Star Trek Beyond

58. Lights Out

Lights-Out-Poster

Lights Out had me at “Hello”.  I consider its trailer to be the best of the year and after seeing it for the first time, Lights Out leaped close to the top of my must-see list.  In fact, I put off the new Star Trek film until tomorrow in order to prioritize Lights Out, tonight.  It’s been getting great reviews and has a simple, yet effective concept.  It’s so simple that it’s kind of bewildering that it hasn’t been done, before.

It’s interesting that I posted a #ThrowbackThursday post about The Ring, today, because I was reminded of that movie in several ways as I watched Lights Out.  The most critical similarity is that they both presented original concepts to the horror genre that use our real-life fears of the supernatural as a launching pad.  The Ring played on our worries that the monster in the scary movie will come to get us if we watch it.  Lights Out preys upon our very basic, core fear of the dark.  As long as the lights are on, nothing will get me.  This film takes that literally.  As I said: simple and effective.

But not as effective as it could have been.  Not for me, at least.  First off, allow me to state that Lights Out succeeds as a film.  The characters are well-developed and -portrayed.  The writers and actors play it honestly, speaking and behaving as real people with their life experience would speak and behave in the same situation.  This is critical to every film, and there are no issues with that here.

The creature design is masterfully done, as well.  Thanks to the premise, mostly only the silhouette of the monster is visible.  It’s a visually disturbing silhouette, however, and I’ve stated before that the less that is seen of the creature, the scarier the film will be.  The sound crew do their job, as well, as the creaks, scratches, and snaps that accompany her presence are extremely disturbing.

In addition, the story, itself, is solid.  The narrative is character-focused and -driven.  There are real stakes and I would have found it difficult to not be invested in the cast and their plights.  And, yes, I meant to pluralize the final word in the previous sentence.  The story is layered and there is more going on here than simply a supernatural infestation.  When I say that there are stakes, I’m not only referring to those of life-and-death.  While those physical stakes are certainly present, there are also emotional stakes relating to the relationships that are explored in the film.  Those relationships drive the action and mold several satisfying character arcs that add an extra layer of depth to the film, paying off magnificently in the climax.

My problem comes not from the story elements, themselves, but with the story construction.  I mentioned that horror films are scarier when it’s difficult to visually see the threat, and that’s true.  But there’s another component to that idea that I’ve also brought up in previous posts.  Not only should the audience see as little as possible of the threat, but we should also know as little as possible of it.

This is where the film makes its only substantial misstep.  But I feel that it will affect the film dramatically for some (as it did for me).  I won’t go into details because I refuse to spoil anything, but the audience is completely filled in on exactly who this creature is and her backstory incredibly early in the film.  She’s humanized almost from the very outset.  For me, this diminishes the sense of urgency and creates sympathy for her.  I could see the characters being threatened by her, but I rarely felt that the primaries were in any real danger.  And it was because I knew who she was, what mattered to her, and what her motivations were.

Because I don’t like to criticize without offering up an alternative, I’ll say that I believe this could have been avoided.  The story could contain the exact same beats, but laid out and presented in a different, more effective way.  Keep her history a mystery (rhyme unintentional, but I’m not editing it) and that would add an extra layer to the film as a whole.  Construct the narrative so that the connections are only made at the apex of the finale and then we have a compelling anecdote that’s filled with dread and features the same emotional payoff at the end.

I could hear other members of the audience reacting appropriately to the scary scenes, so this won’t be an issue for all.  But, from my perspective, learning too much too soon lowers the creature’s threat level from red to orange.  I don’t want to suggest that I dislike the movie.  That’s not the case.  But it doesn’t reach the instant classic status that movies like The Ring or both of The Conjuring films do, like I was hoping it would.  Ultimately, what we get is an original concept that works as a very good film, with some pretty good – but slightly underachieving – horror elements.  I would still rate it as the second-best horror film of the year.  I just really wanted it to be in the running for the best.

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58. Lights Out

#ThrowbackThursday – The Ring

The Ring

Original US release date: October 18, 2002
Production budget: $48,000,000
Worldwide gross: $249,348,933

Pop quiz, hotshot!  Daveigh Chase, the actress who portrayed the terrifying Samara in The Ring, also voiced what much-beloved Disney character?  Well, I’ll get into that.  But, first . . . a story.

I couldn’t decide what movie to feature for last week’s #ThrowbackThursday.  So, I entered the title of every movie I own (that’s a lot.  A whole lot.) into a random selector and it chose The Grudge.  Awesome.  So, I re-watched The Grudge, typed up a column that involved a lot of comparison and contrast between it and The Ring, and then I auto-set it to post last Thursday.

After that, I started thinking about how the site was going to be short on content for a couple of weeks due to my being out of town and hours away from a first-run movie theater.  I decided to go ahead and work up another #ThrowbackThursday post for the following Thursday, as well.  And, once again, I would let the fates decide which film to feature using the same random chooser.  And, honest to Zod, it chose The Ring.  So, here we are.  Last week, The Grudge.  This week, its progenitor, The Ring.

Not that I mind.  If you’re a regular reader, you already know that The Ring is in the running for my all-time favorite scary movie.  Only The Conjuring and The Conjuring 2 are considered competition.  As I’ve said before, those three films aren’t content with only being great horror movies; they’re simply great films.

The Ring was also a groundbreaker in the horror genre.  It was the first modern horror film (and certainly the first since 1982’s Poltergeist) to be universally considered terrifying without also being rated R.  Thanks to Gore Verbinski’s genius direction, millions of people all around the world finally understood that blood and gore aren’t inherently scary; they’re just bloody and gory.  Mood.  Tone.  Atmosphere.  Dread.  Imagery.  These are the things that scares are made of.  These are the things at the heart of The Ring.

Also worth noting is that Verbinski’s film is an adaptation of Hideo Nakata’s 1998 Japanese thriller, RinguThe Ring kicked off the Japanese horror craze in America which lasted for a good decade or so before fading away.  Only The Ring and The Grudge truly achieved any success from that fad, however.  And that’s because there was true love and care behind both of those films.  The Grudge was helmed by the creator of its original Japanese predecessor and The Ring was molded by an ambitious, up-and-coming filmmaker who went on to direct the first three Pirates of the Caribbean films.

I actually prefer Verbinski’s The Ring to Nakata’s Ringu.  I feel it’s better structured and more accessible.  I’m not knocking Ringu.  I just find The Ring to be more successful at creating a connection with the audience and therefore heightening the entire experience.  In fact, the sequel, The Ring 2, was actually directed by Nakata and was not nearly as successful either commercially or critically.  Nakata had true vision, but Verbinski’s sensibilities in the delivery of that vision were simply more on-point.

In addition to that, The Ring has the added value element of the fantastic Naomi Watts.  Playing the main protagonist, Rachel, Watts brings a wonderful mix of brain and heart to the proceedings.  Rachel is a reporter who uses her talents to unravel the mystery of her niece’s death.  Stories around the death are circling around a fabled VHS tape (those were still a thing in 2002) that, seven days after the fact, kills anyone who watches it.  Why seven days?  Well, that’s part of the mystery.  And as the terror hits closer and closer to home, the urgency ramps up, with Watts powerfully conveying Rachel’s ever-increasing desperation without betraying the character’s strength and resolve under pressure.  You root for her, you feel for her, and – most critically – you fear for her.  And yourself.  After all, when Rachel watches the video . . . so do you.

And that right there – the very premise of the film, itself (watching a scary movie that later kills you) – brilliantly plays on the fears we all had as a kid (still have as adults, in some cases, perhaps?) that the creatures we see in horror films are going to come for us.  It’s why so many people won’t watch horror movies alone.  Or at all!  It’s why I had to watch some comedy shows before I went to bed on the night I saw The Conjuring 2.  Subconsciously, we’re all afraid that Jason or Freddy will get us once the lights go out.  And in The Ring, that’s exactly what happens; you watch the video and then it comes for you.  It’s so simple, yet so masterful.

Also expertly crafted is the murderous video, itself.  It’s deliciously creepy, with disturbing image after disturbing image popping up on screen, each more unsettling than the last.  All the while, there’s a score playing behind the visage that’s less like music and more like the sound of happiness being bludgeoned by a meat tenderizer.   The credit for that goes to the legendary Hans Zimmer, who goes the extra mile with his score to maintain the discomforting atmosphere throughout the film.  You never really know how much an unresolved chord can bother you until you realize you’ve been hearing them for two hours.  The overall package is almost unfathomably effective in its efforts to disquiet the audience.  But it doesn’t end there.

Rachel realizes that almost every single image in the video has meaning.  in response she sets out to decrypt the video and discover its origins, initially in an effort to find the truth behind her niece’s death.  Her motivations evolve as the story unfolds.  For those of you who are among the unfortunate few who haven’t seen The Ring, I won’t go into details, here, but what Rachel discovers about the origins of the tape and the origins of the ghostly Samara is one of my favorite aspects of the film and only increases the impact whereas other, lesser films, would have used that storyline resolution as a release valve and ease up on the audience, letting them off the hook.  No such luck, here.  Verbinski and company mean business.

Speaking of Samara, the final crucial piece to the puzzle of The Ring is, of course, Samara, herself.  She has gone on to become an iconic movie monster, played to perfection by Daveigh Chase.  (What most audiences didn’t realize is that many of them had already become familiar with Chase, earlier that very year, as she was also the voice of Lilo in Disney’s Lilo & Stitch!  And people thought Michael Keaton’s jump from Beetlejuice to Batman was an extreme turnaround!)  Samara is as harrowing as any movie monster in cinematic history and, thanks to Verbinski’s direction and Chase’s performance, has more than earned a spot on Movie Monster Mount Rushmore.

The Ring is an undeniable all-time horror classic that has withstood the test of time.  Verbinski, Watts, Chase, and everyone else in the cast and crew deliver their absolute best work and create a film that succeeds on every single level.  It sticks with the audience, not just for the night, but for the rest of their lives.  In that sense, it was The Exorcist of a new generation.  The tagline of the film is, “Before you die, you see the ring.”  That’s intended to be a warning.  With just a couple of slight punctuation/grammar tweaks, I’m going to change it to a demand: Before you die, you see The Ring!

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#ThrowbackThursday – The Ring

57. Ghostbusters (2016)


I have returned!  After a wonderful week in rural Alaska, I feel like I haven’t seen a movie in about a year.  But I did see glaciers, beaches, sea otters, eagles, and a great friend, so it was well worth the trip!

But it’s back to business with the much-anticipated Ghostbusters!  I hated that I was unable to catch this on opening weekend as there’s been so much pre-release discussion and even controversy (if that’s the appropriate word) surrounding the film.  This is one of those movies that people decided to hate long before it was even released.  But, for some reason, the anonymous, emotionally-stunted Internet trolls have seemed to reach a new extreme regarding Ghostbusters.  People professed that the trailer was the worst trailer they’d ever seen (for what reason, exactly, I’ve never been clear on).  They rejoiced with every negative review (even though the positive reviews were greater in number).  And many people sunk to a frighteningly-more-common-and-acceptable low, launching personal attacks at star Leslie Jones (Patty, in the film) on Twitter to the point that she left the social media platform.

That’s absurd.  As much as I love movies, allow me to clearly state: it’s just a movie.  It’s not a justification for hate speech or slander.  But what about the attacks on the movie, itself?  Are those justified?  Well, that sort of thing is never justified before a movie has been released or viewed.  But now that I’ve seen it . . ..

I enjoyed it.  I was entertained from beginning to end and that’s all I was hoping for.  The cast is unquestionably the backbone of the film and are to credit for maintaining much of the tone and atmosphere.  I would say that Kate McKinnon is the standout as the delightfully bizarre Jillian Holtzmann.  I’m not sure how much of the dialogue is directly from the script and how much is improvised but McKinnon consistently delivers lines and performs sight gags that I can’t imagine working with anyone else in the role.  Even better, the film offers no explanations or apologies for why she’s as hilariously absurd as she is.  Just enjoy her.  Just accept her and enjoy her.

Chris Hemsworth has to get a specific mention, as well.  He’s perfect as the Ghostbusters’ well-meaning dolt of an assistant, Kevin.  Kevin is also regularly ogled by the women (particularly Kristen Wiig’s Erin) and nobody is offended because 1) he’s obviously a good-looking fella, so what’s the harm in acknowledging it?, and 2) the whole thing is pretty funny.  As is Hemsworth, in general.  His earnest, deadpan delivery is spot-on and, for me, the funniest scene in the whole film is his job interview.  If there was a Comedy Mjolnir, Hemsworth would be worthy of wielding it.

Melissa McCarthy, Wiig, and Jones all hold up their end of the deal, as well.  McCarthy and Wiig have both had better and funnier roles in the past, but they aren’t wasted and neither is Jones.  I won’t go further into the cast, but – for all of the objections that were solely based on their gender – they nail it.

The 2016 Ghostbusters isn’t a direct remake of the 1984 classic.  There are elements that remain the same and many, many references to that film, but this is an original story with original characters.  I can’t help but wonder if much of the initial backlash against the film would have been curbed if this film was set in the same universe and timeline as the original.  In my head, I see this new group being inspired to continue the original Ghostbusters’ mission when the need arises.  Very little of the final film would have required change and the whole project would have been seen as a continuation and not an attempted replacement.

By the way, that backlash started so early in the film’s production cycle that there are many (not-so) veiled references to it in the film, itself.  There’s even an entire character that represents the armchair haters.  I’m honestly not sure how I feel about that.  The character exists to make the point that these people’s opinions are irrelevant and they shouldn’t be given any credibility or attention (which I do agree with).  But then, director Paul Feig (who was very publicly angered by the attacks on his film) goes against that very idea with this particular character.  I see both sides of it, though I feel it ultimately distracts from the main ongoing narrative.

There’s also one line in the film that I feel didn’t belong.  It’s heavily featured in the trailers and TV spots and involves Leslie Jones’s Patty crowd-diving, only for the crowd to sidestep her entirely, allowing her to crash to the floor.  She angrily retorts with, “Okay, I don’t know if it’s a race thing or a lady thing, but I’m mad as hell!”  This is also possibly at least a partial reference to the sexist backlash that began as soon as the project was announced, and there are films where lines like these work, but I truly feel it isn’t a good fit for Ghostbusters.  This material is supposed to be a lighthearted escape fantasy and this just dragged me right back into our racist, sexist world and reminded me of how very unfunny those particular realities are.  It’s an ill-conceived moment but it’s also, thankfully, the only one of its ilk.

Also worth noting is that Ray Parker, Jr.’s legendary, beloved Ghostbusters theme gets two covers: one by Fallout Boy and the other by Walk the Moon.  Neither are anywhere near as good as the original but Fallout Boy’s, in particular, is pretty atrocious, completely abandoning the jovial spirit of Parker, Jr.’s classic hit.  The original gets a lot of play, though, and is a running theme in the film.

All in all, Ghostbusters is a fun time at the movies.  The humor works more often than not, the creature designs are outstanding, and the cast (particularly McKinnon and Hemsworth) delivers.  It’s not going to win any Academy Awards or make many Top Ten lists at the end of the year but it accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do: it provides an entertaining diversion and an introduction to the property for a generation of audiences who refuse to watch anything that came out before 2010.

And stay through the credits.  You’ll get a hint of things to (hopefully) come.

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57. Ghostbusters (2016)