2016 Year In Review – Top 5 Horror Movies

top-5-horror-movies

This is the first of a series of 2016 Year-in-Review lists that I’ll be doing, here at the March.  Honestly, I’m holding off on most of them because there are still quite a few 2016 movies that I need to see (they’re slowly expanding into my area) and I want to give those a chance to make these lists, for better or for worse.  However, there are no horror movies left, so I figured I’d go ahead and do this one.  The other lists will roll out at random times and it’s likely it will be the end of January before we get to the big one: The Top 25 Films of 2016.  That’s right, I couldn’t stop at 10!  But, that’s for another time.  For now, let’s get to . . .

THE TOP 5 HORROR MOVIES OF 2016

What qualifies a “top” movie, exactly?  Well, these are the ones I liked the most.  Pretty simple.  Also, the definition of “horror” is always open to a little bit of interpretation, but if there was any sort of sense of foreboding doom from a human or supernatural source combined with heightened suspense, I considered it to be horror.  So, let’s get started with number 5!

5. The Purge: Election Year
election-year
Not only was The Purge: Election Year a gripping, thrill ride of a movie, but it continued the tradition of the Purge series by being eerily prescient and timely, full of poignant political commentary and observations about the direction in which our society seems to be heading if we allow it to continue down its current path.  Throw in excellent performances by Frank Grillo (he owns this part) and Elizabeth Mitchell and you have a little gem that was buried in the midst of bigger-budget summer releases.  (Original post.)

4. Ouija: Origin of Evil
ouija-origin-of-evil

No political commentaries, no social satire – Ouija: Origin of Evil is just a good, old-fashioned, scary movie.  Possession films have been all the rage, lately, and many of them are forgettable.  But some stand out above the others, and Origin of Evil is one of those stand-outs.  It resonated well enough with audiences, grossing nine times its budget, and was overwhelmingly superior to its 2014 predecessor.  Check this one out, if you haven’t, yet.  (Original post.)

3. The Witch

the-witch-splash

I liked The Witch quite a bit upon my theatrical viewing, but when I re-watched it on blu-ray, I loved it.  The difference?  Subtitles!  Yes, that’s right!  The cast in this film is amazing.  They are so amazing, replicating 17th century New England accents so authentically, that I could only understand about 75% of what they were saying (some characters, less).  This is the only English-speaking film for which I’ve ever used subtitles but, once I did, I was absolutely transfixed by all of the subtleties of the film.  Despite the fact that it’s mostly talk and not a lot of action, the 90 minutes flew by to the degree that it felt like I lost time.  Throw in a star-making performance by Anya Taylor-Joy and The Witch is a an art house horror winner for lovers of sophisticated filmmaking!  (Original post.)

2. 10 Cloverfield Lane

10-cloverfield-lane

10 Cloverfield Lane was one of the most exciting, gripping filmgoing experiences of the entire year.  It’s classic simple-and-effective storytelling – a combination of suspense, mystery, and . . . well, I’m not going to say.  John Goodman got all of the press (and he was fantastic as always) but Mary Elizabeth Winstead is the heart of the film, a completely sympathetic protagonist who uses her brain and her body in unison to survive.  Smart, strong, and resourceful, her Michelle functions as the hero and the audience surrogate, allowing us to join her on the wildest ride of any of our lives, from the everyday horrors of life to the unbelievable ones we don’t want to imagine.  (Original post.)

1. The Conjuring 2

the-conjuring-2

This wasn’t even close.  The Conjuring 2 is not only the best horror movie of the year, without question, but it’s one of the best films of the year, period.  Aside from containing what, for me, is the single most terrifying scene I’ve ever seen in a film, the series maintains its pattern of making the stories about the people, first.  Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson are invaluable in their roles as real-life paranormal investigators Lorraine and Ed Warren.  They keep the proceedings grounded and inject immeasurable warmth and humanity into what would otherwise be cold, cynical films.  There’s a scene with Patrick Wilson and a guitar that almost makes the movie for me (along with the above-mentioned scarefest and the soft, delicate closing) and it’s those moments that set the Conjuring films so far above its genre competition.  This film is easily the greatest horror sequel ever made and casually conquers the rest of the field to claim the crown as the Best Horror Film of 2016!  (Original post.)

One list down!  An indeterminate number yet to come!  At . . . uh . . . some random times in the future!  Until then, I hope you all have a happy new year!  Ring it in with some 2016 scares and by following us on Facebook!

2016 Year In Review – Top 5 Horror Movies

#ThrowbackThursday – Batman Begins

batman-begins

Original US release: June 15, 2005
Production budget: $150,000,000
Worldwide gross: $374,218,673

Not too long ago, I did a #ThrowbackThursday on Tim Burton’s franchise starter, Batman.  Well, here we have Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, the film that started the next Batman franchise.  Unlike the franchise before it, this one ended up belonging entirely to a single director in Nolan, who made a name for himself with his brand of cerebral, gritty storytelling best exhibited by what I consider to be the Greatest Film of All-Time, Memento.

Even Nolan had a challenge in front of him, here, though, as the previous Batman film, Joel Schumacher’s overwhelmingly derided Batman & Robin from eight years prior, was a huge failure in every way imaginable and had soured the public’s perception of the Batman character as well as the franchise as a whole.  So, what to do?  Give the public the Batman they want, that’s what.

Batman Begins borrows heavily from the comic book source material.  Screenwriter David Goyer cites The Long Halloween and Dark Victory as his primary inspirations (specifically stating that he did not use Year One, despite the film having several characters and themes in common with that particular story).  Regardless, the inspiration is obvious, as much of the film feels as if it was ripped straight from the pages, themselves.  The silhouette of Batman standing on the precipice of massive gothic architecture is as comic-bookish as it comes and the imagery in the film sends chills up the spines of any longtime reader.  Nolan, Goyer, and company clearly wanted to craft a film that would appeal to diehards and casual audiences alike.

As made obvious by the title, Batman Begins traces the path taken by a younger Bruce Wayne following the murder of his parents.  This path of course eventually leads him to a life of dressing up as a giant bat and fighting crime.  The moment where Thomas and Martha are gunned down in Crime Alley is iconic and has been told over and over and over.  But, before this film, the mainstream Batman stories have always jumped from that occurrence to Wayne as a fulltime vigilante, with little insight into what happens in the years between.  So, this was a story that had yet to be told in this medium.  And, needing a fresh start after the Schumacher debacle, it was the right story to go with.

While I do think the pacing could use a little work, the time is used well.  A lot of attention is paid to giving Bruce Wayne his motivations as well as the logic behind why he chooses to go about his crime-fighting in the way that he does.  At first, his moral center is somewhat fluid.  He’s angry after seeing his parents die and he hasn’t had enough life experience to cement his ethical core.  During his training, he comes across Ra’s Al Ghul (Ken Watanabe) and his right-hand man, Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson).  After spending time with them and learning much, Wayne comes to the realization that, though Al Ghul and Ducard ultimately have the same goals as Wayne, they desire to achieve those goals by joining the ranks of the vile, not by standing in stark contrast to them.  This discovery jolts Wayne.  Combined with guidance from his childhood friend, Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes), this is enough to set Wayne on the route to becoming Batman.

Much has been made about Batman’s willingness to let people die (in other words, “to kill”) in this film.  Whatever.  Batman doesn’t enjoy killing, but he’s certainly willing to do it, and that has typically been the case, even in the comics.  These types of complaints have nothing to do with being true to the spirit of the property (which Nolan’s films were) and everything to do with being too cool for school.  In addition to retaining the original spirit of the source material, as long as the characters stay consistent within this world (which they also do), there’s no space for these types of baseless criticisms.

The action set pieces are at once beautiful and enthralling.  For me personally, the Batmobile (or Tumbler, if you prefer) chase across the rooftops and through the streets of Gotham City is one of my favorite scenes from any movie that features Batman.  Sure, he’s a little haphazard in the way he deals with the police officers who are tailing him, but it’s a total adrenaline rush and is accompanied by a thrilling score from James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer.  It just feels so authentically like Batman.

That goes for the entire film (and subsequent follow-ups).  Nolan famously went for a more grounded approach, but that works for Batman.  He has no superpowers, nor do most of his rogues gallery.  There may have been some constraints placed upon the series in later installments due to that decision, but they were fairly minimal and did nothing to harm this first entry.  Nolan changed the public’s perception of Batman from being campy and silly to being cool and relatable.

Something worth noting is that the film barely made enough money to warrant a sequel (the first of which of course ended up being The Dark Knight).  Critics loved it, but most audiences used the film that came before to decide ahead of time if they like the new one.  They weren’t aware of the new creative team or the new approach and unfairly judged the film based on the merits of another film, missing out on a much superior film.  This isn’t the only time this has happened.  They did it with the Hulk.  They did it with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  And, in each of those cases, it was a mistake.  We’re lucky to have gotten The Dark Knight and it was only because Warner Brothers had faith in Nolan’s vision and because of strong word of mouth and box office legs (suggesting that audiences were discovering the film later into its life, and would continue to discover it once its theatrical run was finished) that the series continued.  So, listen to the critics.  See movies that other people love, even if you wouldn’t have expected that you would love it, yourself.  It often pays off for everybody.

Batman Begins has gotten a little lost in the shuffle over time, but without it, where would superhero films be, today?  It laid the foundation for so much to follow and elevated the entire genre to a new level.  The story is a little simple, and at times a little slow, but it was a necessary one that had goals to achieve and a new status quo to establish.  By the time the narrative kicks into high gear, there’s no question that this is Batman as he’s meant to be and that he was never the same, again.

Spread the word, share the page and your favorite posts, and follow us on Facebook!

#ThrowbackThursday – Batman Begins

104. La La Land

la_la_land_ver3_xlg

Well, here we are with the final film that made my list of 10 Fourth Quarter 2016 Films to Be Excited About.  There’s certainly been a buzz around La La Land and it seems poised to be one of the two or three awards season darlings of 2016.  Writer/Director Damien Chazelle made a huge splash with 2014’s incredible Whiplash and now he’s back and getting people talking, once again.

Well, this time, he’s getting people talking . . .and singing . . . and dancing . . . and laughing . . . and crying.  And none of that would have been possible without Chazelle’s writing/directing and the brilliant performances of Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone.  They are the heart of the film and they are who most casual moviegoers will be talking about when they leave the theater.  (And there will be a lot of those moviegoers; my screening was nearly sold out.)

The film centers around a couple (Ryan Gosling’s Sebastian and Emma Stone’s Mia) who meet in Hollywood and encourage each other to follow their dreams.  Sebastian wants to open a jazz club while Mia longs to be a world-renowned actress.  The themes of following one’s dreams and believing in oneself are impossible to miss and, while those are hardly uncharted territory for films about Hollywood, what really stands out in La La Land is the execution.

Everything about the film not only works but soars.  The dialogue, the characterization, the music, the singing, the dancing, the story, the directing, the cinematography, the art design and set decoration . . . all of it stuns and dazzles from the opening number to the powerful and poignant finale.  And everywhere you turn there are ideas.  Fresh ones.  Funny ones.  Clever ones. All new ones.  Chazelle understands on the deepest level imaginable how to craft a story and shoot a film for maximum impact.  He plays with the audience and gets the exact reaction he desires, without exception.  It will go unnoticed by casual audiences.  They’ll give the credit to Gosling and Stone.  And while Gosling and Stone deserve untold heaps of praise for their part, it all started with Chazelle and his master plan.

While Chazelle has crafted a film that’s about dreams, he’s also delivered a film that reminds us that life is ultimately about choices, and they aren’t always easy ones.  In fact, the big ones never are.  On one hand, musicals are the least-realistic genre of film in existence, but Chazelle’s story is honest and heartfelt and touching.  It also serves as a love letter to both film and music.  Chazelle teases both art forms about some of their sillier aspects but does it in a playful way that never feels mean-spirited.  All art has something to offer and it’s pretty obvious that Chazelle loves what he’s doing for a living.  And so do I.  After this film and Whiplash, if Chazelle isn’t careful, he’s going to end up as one of my favorite filmmakers.

Let’s talk about Ryan Gosling.  It’s time to be open about the fact that he’s one of the greatest talents in the industry.  His versatility is second-to-none and he simply has a knack for performing.  That includes acting, but is in no way limited to it.  He does so much more than act and, in La La Land, he actually transcends acting and reaches a level of just . . . being.  He truly becomes Sebastian in every way.  Also, I’d like to point out that even though Gosling has never been considered a comedian, his ability to get laughs is pretty much unrivaled.  His timing and delivery are flawless without exception and he provided 2016 with two of its funniest performances in Sebastian and also Holland March from The Nice Guys.  On top of all of that, as Sebastian, he gets to shred the piano the way so many people think they shred the guitar.  Seriously.  He was so good that he made co-star and pop artist John Legend jealous.  Gosling can do anything and the world needs to begin acknowledging it openly.

They already acknowledge that Emma Stone can do anything, and that’s good, because she can.  And her turn in La La Land does nothing to contradict that.  Sweet, charming, and endearing, Stone continues to press all the right buttons with audiences around the globe and, as Mia, Stone will win hearts the world over, once again.

Both of their characters exhibit true passion for their dreams, to the extent that “passion” could actually supersede “following your dreams” as the central theme of the film.  Sebastian talks about jazz from a place of frustration, having to constantly hear laypeople who don’t truly understand jazz speak as if they do and then dismiss it without ever even beginning to understand its depth and finer points.  Just by listening to him, I gained a greater appreciation for it, myself (I never claimed to be knowledgeable about jazz, though, so I would hope he wouldn’t consider me among the lemmings of which he speaks), and I appreciate the character’s enthusiasm in his defense of it.  I feel that same enthusiasm and frustration almost every time I try to talk to people about film, comics, and even professional wrestling, which is misunderstood to an unrivaled degree by people who don’t watch it – and even most people who do.  Seeing Sebastian express his frustration so eloquently and display a true understanding of something that he loves is the defining moment for the character and also the moment where I became invested in his story.

Mia has a similar passion, but it’s harder to boil down to a single moment.  Instead, she suffers a long, extended torturous existence full of pain and rejection, forcing herself to carry on and forge ahead, despite any evidence that her perseverance will ever pay off.  Her entire future is in the hands of others, and therefore the path of least resistance is to simply give up.  After all, this is a story about modern Hollywood and how easy is it in our current culture to actually believe in someone else?  To trust them to care enough about you that they’ll help you to achieve your dreams?  The very word “passion” comes from the Greek word that means “to suffer” and that’s exactly what Mia does, all in an effort to achieve her dream.  But she does it with a smile and an optimism that makes her all the more lovable.

All of this combines into a single experience that at once entertains and moves.  The comedy hits.  The drama hits.  The music hits.  And both stars work together with their director to make a film about love of all different kinds, and the joy and sorrow that that love brings along with it.  La La Land is the absolute pinnacle of filmmaking and deserves every award that will inevitably come its way over the next few months.

Speaking of passions, I started the Movie March to 100 because of my passion for movies.  I love writing about them and I love interacting with other likeminded people.  I’ve gotten a good amount of support and I want to thank any of you who have contributed to that support, whether it was from the beginning or if you just discovered me, last week.  Building an audience is difficult, however, especially when there’s not a lot of money behind the project.  And I don’t have a lot of money to put behind it.  So, it’s been tough and it’s often felt as though I was writing for just a handful of people.  There have been moments of brightness.  And I feel like those who read like what they’re reading.  There just aren’t as many readers as I would hope for.

But I can’t get more if I stop, now, can I?  So, the March will continue into 2017!  There will be a slight re-working.  I’m not shooting for any specific number of movies.  The format will shift, a bit.  But I’m going to keep trying this and see if I can turn it into something.  Any help you can provide would be immensely appreciated.  In the meantime, I have more 2016 movies to see, so those will get added to the count.  2017 films will not have a number attached.  Some fun Year-in-Review columns are in the works and who knows what else?

So, keep following the Facebook page and share it around.  If you know of other online film communities, share it with them!  Get the word out so you can say that you knew me when!  Thanks, everyone!  Don’t go anywhere, it’s just going to get better!

104. La La Land

103. Sing

sing_xlg

You may remember that I’m not a big fan of Illumination Entertainment’s films, so far, and I especially didn’t care for their shameless Toy Story clone (rip-off), The Secret Life of Pets.  The lack of originality in that film was borderline insulting and, combined with the lackluster Despicable Me series, didn’t fill me with much hope for Sing.  The trailers for Sing have been unquestionably entertaining and amusing, but they’ve also stayed mostly focused on the auditions, much as the marketing for The Secret Life of Pets focused almost entirely on the one scene where the pets let loose after their owners leave for the day, leaving me to wonder if the rest of Sing would have anything else worthwhile to offer.  Still, I’m always open to giving a movie a chance and that’s what I did, today.

As the film begins, and then proceeds beyond the much-hyped auditions, it’s a bit of a mixed bag.  Unlike Pets, Sing contains a unique story (at least for an animated film), so it automatically gets a boost for that, alone.  It might have been a little more timely before “American Idol” was removed from the air (though some of its pretenders to the throne still persist), but I won’t fault Illumination too much for being slightly behind the times.  A fresh film idea is a fresh film idea.

The storytelling is kept simple, with each of the principles being introduced, one-by-one.  Each of them has their own story and character arc that then merge with the others via the singing competition.  None of them are fleshed out to the degree that we’re accustomed to from Illumination’s top competitors in the world of animated cinema, but the trade off is that we get a group of characters who are put on level playing ground, with no real idea how it’s going to play out at the end.  That’s a good thing and animated films, in general, have gotten less predictable in recent years.  Sing is no exception.

Where the film doesn’t rise above previous efforts by Illumination is in its humor and dialogue.  I half-chuckled perhaps twice throughout the entirety of the film, which is every bit as devoid of wit and comedic timing as its Illumination predecessors (though I enjoyed the J-Pop foxes).  The studio almost entirely aims its humor at children (or adults with childlike sensibilities and mentalities), abandoning the parents and film lovers in the crowd through a series of slapstick attempts and an abundance of toilet humor.  Until Illumination fixes this, they’ll continue to make money while falling short of taking home any awards.

The characters also have very little of interest to say.  They’re most interesting when singing, which is also when – in all but one case – they’re spouting words not written by the filmmakers.  It’s not the content of their message, but the uninspired delivery of it.  The voice actors are a talented and capable bunch, but they can only work with what they’re given.  In fact, it’s the cast that injects the material with enough life to keep it interesting.  Even the kids in the crowd that I saw the film with weren’t laughing at the “jokes” but they also never grew restless.  That’s due to a combination of the animation and the voice acting.

Speaking of the animation, it’s strong, but not Disney/Pixar quality.  Disney Animation Studios’ animated models, in particular, have gotten to the point that they act better than many real people.  Illumination isn’t yet at that level.  But it’s good enough and the designs are beautiful with plenty of texture and eye appeal.

The music is a lot of fun and there’s a good mix of newer tunes and classics from years gone by.  The film builds to the final competitive performance but – without going into detail – it takes a turn that I wasn’t expecting.  This is of course good in the sense that, again, it was unpredictable.  But it’s also used as an excuse to – in a way – bail on the original premise of the film.  This is frustrating as a film should always deliver on its promises and it could have coveyed a nice message along the way.  But, as the film was playing out, I was wondering how a winner would be chosen and the others – all likable – would be designated “losers”.  Well, the director/writer Garth Jennings had a plan for it, though I prefer to call it a “cop out”.

At this point, I was starting to turn on the film.  It had been enjoyable enough – and certainly loads better than Pets, but it was beginning to feel like another example of Illumination failing to deliver.  But then the characters started rolling out their final performances.  Having each chosen a song of personal empowerment, based on their own individual story arcs, the climax delivers an emotionally satisfying and resonant conclusion, despite the sleight-of-hand bait-and-switch tactic that Jennings pulls over on the viewer.  I can’t entirely decide if it’s a fair exchange, but I can say that, ultimately, I was happy with the end result.

In totality, Sing is an entertaining little film with some strong messages of confidence and perseverance.  The execution isn’t as masterful as films coming from other studios – at most, it’s the fifth-best animated film of the year – but it’s easily Illumination’s best film, so far, even if it won’t likely approach the box office success of the far-lesser Despicable Me.  Seeing the endearing characters learn about themselves by way of the singing competition was certainly satisfying and will hopefully steer some kids out there towards the arts as a form of expression and an extracurricular activity.  If you’re down for an animated family film, you could do much worse than Sing.

Follow us on Facebook!

103. Sing

102. Manchester by the Sea

manchester-by-the-sea

Awards season continues on with Manchester by the Sea, a heartfelt character study about family, loss, and searching for any sort of love in a largely loveless world.  This is the third directorial effort from Kenneth Lonergan (who also wrote the script) and is the highest profile of the three, putting him on the map and in serious contention for some major awards over the next few months.

The film essentially functions as a Casey Affleck vehicle, as he plays Lee Chandler. Lee is a damaged man with a tragic backstory who doesn’t know how to exist on a day-to-day basis.  Barely scraping by in every sense, all he wants is to do his thing and exist.  He’s lost all faith in himself and the world around him and simply doesn’t believe that there’s anything to be found in life beyond just being.  Modern society is a selfish, heartless entity and Lee lacks the proper support or motivation to truly life to its fullest potential.  Suddenly, he’s put in a situation beyond his control where he is required to help another.  But how can he guide someone else – someone very important to him – when he can’t even figure things out for himself?

Affleck gives a subdued, but stirring performance.  He’s the king of repression, bottling everything up until letting out just enough to relieve the pressure.  It’s a grounded, genuine turn and we’re going to be hearing a lot about him through this spring.

Michelle Williams plays Randi, Lee’s ex-wife.  Williams completely won me over in My Week With Marilyn.  She’s the strongest talent involved with Manchester, though her screen time is minimal.  Despite that, she maximizes her opportunity every time she appears and reminds us why she’s one of the best working, today.

The film, as a whole, relies on the performances and relatability of the subject matter to carry it along, as significant events occur relatively sparingly.  Again, the film is about character and people.  Things certainly happen, but the film isn’t about those occurrences but rather the impact they have on our cast.

There’s a scene around the middle of the film that is easily one of the most heartbreaking scenes I’ve ever witnessed in a film.  Just imagining what it would feel like to go through that experience is enough to wreck anyone with a heart.  And that’s where the impact of the film lies: its ability to make the audience to evaluate its own life.

This is a movie site, but it’s also a blog.  And blogs are personal.  And I set this one up to relay my experience as I went to the movies, this year.  Manchester by the Sea had an effect on me.  I’ve been struggling all year with family issues.  And I know everyone says this but these issues are literally the result of something I wasn’t even involved in, yet I’m now the only one still being punished.  It’s three days from Christmas and I’m all but certain that I’m not going to be invited to Christmas dinner and I’ve honestly done nothing to cause it.

If I try to fix it, things will just be worse.  I try to pour my love into other things – movies, TV, comics – because I can’t love most of the people that I want to.  If I try to fix it, I’ll just make it worse.  Manchester by the Sea is making me wonder if I should try, anyway.  Because, just like Lee knows, love doesn’t just go away and we should try to love people, regardless of what it might mean for us.

I don’t know what I’ll do.  I don’t know.  I want my family back but I don’t want to damage anything beyond repair, either.  But Manchester by the Sea resonates with me on a deeply personal level and that’s the hallmark of true art and effective filmmaking.  Congratulations to all involved for putting together such a profoundly emotional, yet understated work.  See you at the Oscars.  It will be much deserved.

Follow us on Facebook!

102. Manchester by the Sea

#ThrowbackThursday – House on Haunted Hill (1999)

house-on-haunted-hill

Original US release date: October 29, 1999
Production budget: $37,000,000
Worldwide gross: $65,090,541

Remaking a Vincent Price classic from forty years prior, 1999’s House on Haunted Hill from director William Malone (Feardotcom) was a bit outside the norm for a horror movie in the nineties.  Scream rejuvenated the slasher film craze, and it was then followed by I Know What You Did Last Summer and a whole slew of other films of the type.  So, going in a more supernatural direction allowed House on Haunted Hill to stand out from the rest, for better or for worse.

The 1959 version of the film actually had a bit of a reputation in my family as I was growing up because it scared my dad so much as a child that that was pretty much the end for him as far as horror movies go.  For the record, this was the moment that did it:

house-on-haunted-hill-witch

Ha!  Dad.

The 1999 version maintains the basic premise of the original in which a millionaire offers a group of people a lot of money (in this case, $1,000,000) if they can survive the night in the house on Haunted Hill.  Geoffrey Rush takes the lead as the millionaire, Stephen Price.  The character is clearly named as a nod to Vincent Price, but the similarities don’t end there as the character design and, to a degree, the performance is an obvious reference to the legendary horror director.

Joining Rush is the underrated Famke Janssen – just months before appearing as Jean Grey in X-Men – as Price’s wife Evelyn, “Saturday Night Live” star Chris Kattan, future genre-movie queen Ali Larter, model-turned-actor Taye Diggs, former genre-movie queen Bridgette Wilson, and the man with the eyebrows Peter Gallagher.  Everyone does what they need to.  Janssen is delightfully seductive and simultaneously repulsive.  Kattan brings a touch of humor to lines that weren’t even necessarily written to be funny.  Larter adds a strength to her character that may have ended up helping her attain the role of Claire Redfield in the Resident Evil series, though that’s just my speculation.  Wilson provides a familiar face for fans of cult cinema and then Gallagher brings the street cred.  Nobody is pushed to the limits of their talents, here (this isn’t The Conjuring), but it’s clear that they each understand their role and what they need to bring to the picture as individuals.  Janssen and Rush have the meatiest parts but it doesn’t really matter.  People watch these movies to see beautiful people get terrified.  The fact that these beautiful people also have talent is just a happy little bonus.

The story is essentially a locked-box mystery, a concept of which I’m personally a big fan.  The “mystery” aspect of that combination is a little ambiguous, though.  It’s more of a mystery for the characters, and not so much for the audience.  But that doesn’t make it any less fun.  There are a couple of truly bizarre sequences in the film and I have to say that the swerves aren’t entirely predictable.  Right from the beginning, we see that Price is a master of misdirection – an amusement park tycoon (the film uses Universal Studios Orlando’s Hulk coaster in the film – my personal favorite roller coaster) that delights in subverting expectations.  That plays itself out in the film and his character stays consistent throughout.  But it’s the audience, along with the other characters, who is misled along the way and it becomes clear by the end just why Stephen and Evelyn are so perfect for each other (whether they want to admit it or not).

The film becomes overly dramatic in places, but that seems deliberate – a throwback to the era of films to which its progenitor belonged.  Unfortunately, the climax loses sight of what the film is supposed to be and why it appeals to its audience.  Malone and company must have felt that they needed to go big in order to go home, but that’s a counterproductive notion.  What results is a convoluted CGI finale that’s utterly devoid of the scares or atmosphere that so strongly define the rest of the picture.  On one hand, I get it.  Horror movies are tough to do and they’re especially tough to end.  Different people are scared by different things, so how can a filmmaker be expected to know what sort of climax would be the most terrifying to the most people?  But the formless monstrosity that they settle on just doesn’t cut it.  They overreach their budget and lose sight of the basic tenet that simple is best.

Still, the rest of the film is a fun sequence of events with an equally fun cast of characters.  By containing them to a single location, the focus is kept on character and scares and it all works up until the final few minutes.  It’s more intense and more adult than anything Vincent Price would have been allowed to do in his day, but I would like to think he would have enjoyed this homage to his work, for the most part.  It’s not a Top Ten horror movie, but it’s underrated and has seemingly been lost to time.  There are certainly worse ways to spend 90 minutes than by watching House on Haunted Hill and its relative simplicity is a thing that many horror films of today could stand to learn something from.

Follow us on Facebook!

#ThrowbackThursday – House on Haunted Hill (1999)

101. Passengers (2016)

passengers_xlg

I’m pretty sure I’ve seen the trailer for Passengers before almost every film I’ve seen for the last three months.  That’s okay, though, because I’ve been looking forward to it.  It made my list of 10 Fourth Quarter 2016 Films to Be Excited About for a reason, you know.  Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt are both genuine movie stars and two of the most likable people in the entire industry.  Combine them with a unique concept and Passengers is likely to appeal to audiences of various demographics.

The basic premise is that 5000 people are put into a cryogenic sleep and sent off into space with the goal of colonizing a new inhabitable planet.  The trip is set to take 120 years, but two of the passengers, Chris Pratt’s Jim and Jennifer Lawrence’s appropriately-named Aurora are woken up 90 years too soon, with no way of re-inducing sleep.

I haven’t read any other full reviews of Passengers, yet. I tend to wait until I’ve seen and written about the film before I read other people’s detailed thoughts.  However, I saw that my favorite critic referred to the ending as “sexist” in the headline for his review, which surprised me a bit.  As a result, I was on the lookout for what could be interpreted as sexist towards the end of the movie.  I have to say . . . nothing obvious jumped out at me.  I can see where maybe someone could twist the events that take place into something that could be interpreted as such.  Maybe.  But it would really have to be forced.

The truth of the matter is that referring to the end as “sexist” is an incredibly reductive criticism of a fictional situation that is far more complex than most – even within the world of science fiction.  It’s impossible to know for sure what any of us would do in their places, much less what other people would and should do.  This seems to be a case of events being labeled as “sexist” because a woman makes decisions for herself based on her circumstances and not based on what forward-thinking society as a whole has unilaterally decided women should hold important.  Aurora is a strong character who has the same needs and desires as the rest of us.  She makes her own choices and then follows through on them without the need for approval from anyone else.  If Jennifer Lawrence – another strong woman – doesn’t find the film sexist, then I don’t see where I could.

Speaking of Jennifer Lawrence, she gives a natural performance that makes the hardest aspects of acting look easy.  It’s the best I’ve ever seen her.  Chris Pratt has had meatier roles (Star-Lord is going to be tough to top) but he plays his part perfectly.  Passengers is a two-person show and director Morten Tyldum picked the right two people.

The narrative is full of twists, turns, and reveals that unfold at a logical pace.  There are scenes of excitement, but I would hesitate to call the film an action movie.  But there’s a consistently building tension as it’s clear from the opening scene that something is happening in the background and the longer it goes unaddressed, the worse it’s going to be for our protagonists.  Where the film is most gripping is in its psychological component.  What would happen to a person, mentally and emotionally, in that situation?  It could go any number of ways and the film explores a couple of interesting paths.

The characters sometimes make utterly selfish decisions, yet it’s entirely understandable.  That doesn’t necessarily make it defensible, but certainly understandable.  And that’s the fun of the film.  There’s a depth and realism to the characters that grounds the film in reality, despite its fantastic premise.  There is one story beat that didn’t quite sit right with me, though.  Without spoiling it, I’ll say that it has pros and cons; it adds more depth to the characters and relationships and it also helps to avoid the trappings of a convenient yet overwhelming coincidence, but it’s also clichéd and the wait for the secret’s reveal temporarily takes priority over the film’s more pressing (and more interesting) practical problem at hand.  It feels like conflict for the sake of conflict and, though I appreciate where the filmmakers are coming from, I think the film would have been a little bit better off without this particular component.

Despite that single hiccup, Passengers is a pretty fun ride.  I enjoyed Chris Pratt, as always, and I enjoyed Jennifer Lawrence more than ever.  The questions raised by the premise are fascinating ones and are simultaneously fun and frightening to contemplate.  If I had to sum up the experience in terms of previous films, it plays much like a combination of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Titanic in terms of the concepts.  But the themes and characters are unique unto itself and are the true strength of the film.  There’s a lot of competition out there, right now, but Passengers should hopefully be able to hold its own – both creatively and financially – in the crowded marketplace.

Follow us on Facebook!

101. Passengers (2016)