#ThrowbackThursday – Thir13en Ghosts

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Original US release date: October 26, 2001
Production budget: $42,000,000
Worldwide gross: $68,467,960

Released in time for Halloween in 2001, Thir13en Ghosts was, at that time, the latest in a string of horror films in the late-nineties and early-naughts (or “noughties” as I like to call them) capitalizing on a craze that was spawned by 1996’s Scream and then fully ignited by 1999’s The Blair Witch Project.  Studios had caught on to the fact that horror movies were by-and-large cheap and popular – an excellent combination for anyone looking to offset the risks of more expensive projects.  If executed correctly, horror movies are as close to a sure thing as exists in Hollywood and they continue to populate cinemas today, if not quite with the frequency that they did at that time.

Feeling confident in the genre, Warner Brothers developed Thir13en Ghosts (Agh!  It hurts just to type that!), a remake of the 1960 film 13 Ghosts (much better) by prolific horror director of the fifties and sixties, William Castle.  (Another of my #ThrowbackThursday columns focused on a remake of one of his other films, and you can find that here.)  Warner Brothers handed the reigns of this remake to director Steve Beck, who was not prolific in horror films, as Castle was, but was instead a prolific commercial director.  There’s nothing wrong with that, per se, as many directors have made that transition, but it was very obvious that Beck had trouble getting commercials out of his system as Thir13en Ghosts seems to constantly go overboard as if it’s trying to sell us a story instead of tell us a story.

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Here’s the premise: eccentric millionaire Cyrus Kriticos (F. Murray Abraham) dies and leaves his entire estate to his nephew Arthur (Tony Shalhoub) and Arthur’s children Kathy and Bobby (Shannon Elizabeth and Alec Roberts).  What Arthur, Kathy, and Bobby don’t know is that dear old Uncle Cyrus has a collection of angry and vengeful spirits locked up in the basement, just waiting for their chance to get free and exact revenge for their imprisonment.

The premise itself is fine, and different from what viewers typically see in a horror film.  But director Beck has trouble reining himself in.  The film is absurdly loud, brash, and over-the-top . . . just like a commercial.  One of the keys to effective horror is restraint.  Revealing too much too soon quashes any semblance of suspense, and suspense is the foundation of great horror.  Not only that, but the movie is so cacophonous that the suspense couldn’t build even if the pacing were to allow it.  The movie plays as much like an action film as a horror film, if not more so.

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A great horror film should put the audience in the shoes of the sympathetic protagonist(s) so that the viewer feels as if the on-screen terror is happening to them.  Think back to the times you’ve been frightened at night.  How often is it loud and how often is it quiet?  The absence of sound is itself frightening.  Thir13en Ghosts is an assault on the two senses that are used to watch film and it’s counterproductive to the perceived goals of any horror film.

I wish the advertising approach to Beck’s filmmaking stopped there, but it continues.  Beck assembles a capable cast, but he directs them to oversell everything (although that’s par for the course for Matthew Lillard) as if he expects so little of his audience that he doesn’t believe they can follow subtlety.  The most casual lines of dialogue are practically shouted.  Every physical movement is an unnecessarily wild gesticulation.  Even the newspaper headline announcing the death of poor Uncle Cyrus is punctuated with an exclamation mark, which is simply ridiculous.  And the script is full of unnatural conversation that doesn’t sound like any actual people I’ve encountered throughout my lifetime.  It’s stilted, it’s awkward, and it’s disingenuous.  I’m not asking for Tarantino-esque wit and charm, but at least give your actors a chance to portray characters who approximate real people, thereby giving your audience a chance to empathize with them and subsequently fear for them.

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If that’s not bad enough, the story gets bogged down in too much side-questing, forgetting why the audience is there to begin with.  There are crazy contraptions, giant machines, shifting hallways, magical spells and it’s just too much.  Most of it exists solely to explain away the ghosts and their predicament, and that leads to another issue where the spirits are presented as victims and it’s therefore relatively easy to feel sympathy for them.  As I said, it’s just too much.  Horror should be kept as simple as possible.  Character complexity is always desired (see films such as The Conjuring and its excellent sequel) but narrative complexity should be handled delicately with the eye never taken away from the goal of establishing clear-cut admirable heroes and terrifying villains (such as my personal favorite horror movie of all-time).

In spite of its flaws due to being mishandled by an inexperienced director who wasn’t ready for this sort of project, Thir13en Ghosts is still entertaining at times and a pretty easy watch.  It doesn’t hurt that the film clocks in at a brisk 91 minutes.  But the movie is in no way “good”, with the exception of the work by the entire production team who made the film look great.  But is that enough?  If you like anything horror or if you (still?) have a thing for Shannon Elizabeth, then maybe.  Otherwise, you may find yourself constantly shouting things like, “What?” or, “Why?” or, “Huh?” or any other number of monosyllabic vocal exclamations.  Ultimately, the film has a charm or two, but there are many better options out there for those who are looking for a fun fright night at home.

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#ThrowbackThursday – Thir13en Ghosts

Review – Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri

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My catch-up weekend concludes (though there is more catching up to be done at a later date) with Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri. Written and directed by Michael McDonagh, Three Billboards tells the story of heartbroken mother Mildred (Frances McDormand) as she makes a very public challenge to local authorities to catch her daughter’s rapist/murderer after seven months go by without an arrest. Joining McDormand in the principal cast are Woody Harrelson as Sheriff Willoughby, Sam Rockwell as Deputy Dixon, and Caleb Landry Jones as Red.

I had heard much praise regarding Three Billboards, but sometimes a film can take one by surprise, no matter what or how much has been previously heard. This is one of those films. Obviously, just based on the brief premise that I outlined above, the film tackles some heavy topics, and while it does so with unabashed frankness and honesty, it also blankets the issues in much respect. The story is told as McDonagh wishes to tell it, warts and all, but it’s never exceedingly graphic or inconsiderate of the audience or, perhaps more importantly, its characters.

And those characters are irrepressibly memorable. McDormand’s Mildred is not a perfect person and she is not a perfect mother. Her bad habits and foul mouth are hallmarks of her personality. They rub off on her children. It’s possible she’s never smiled a smile of joy, amusement, or happiness in her entire life. But it’s all a charade. She cares deeply for people. She feels. She hurts. And she’s never hurt more than she is hurting when we meet her.

As she lights a metaphorical fire under the butts of the entire town of Ebbing, Missouri, her power and influence begin to manifest and spread. Discovering exactly how is the fun of the film, but Willoughby, Dixon, Red, and the rest are all there to rise to the challenge, just as the actors who portray them seem to be motivated by McDormand’s energy.

Harrelson plays within his comfort zone, but that doesn’t negate his unusually tender performance. Perhaps no one is better at playing a grade-A a-hole than Sam Rockwell, and he gets another opportunity to do that, here. Yet, there’s more going on with Dixon than is readily apparent on the surface. And this film is the first time I’ve actually enjoyed Caleb Landry Jones in anything, ever. When I saw his name on the cast list, I groaned. From my perspective, he tends to overact. In Three Billboards, however, he’s natural, relaxed, and even likable. I’ll take it.

Everyone shines because everyone – even those in smaller parts who I haven’t mentioned – are fortunate enough to be gifted with meaty roles. Each character is extraordinarily complex and, therefore, entirely believable. In the real world, we’re accustomed to thinking of good people as doing good things and bad people as doing bad things. But, sometimes (maybe more often than one would believe), good people do bad things and bad people do good things. There are greater consequences to that notion that the film addresses. To avoid spoilers, I’ll leave it that way. But the cast is game and more than carries their weight.

Having established that, complex characters are wasted if the rest of the film is pedestrian. Not to worry; Three Billboards is perhaps the most excruciatingly thought-out and developed film of 2017, so far. It’s also extremely topical, perhaps even more so than McDonagh and the rest of his crew could have imagined. Police brutality and the sexual harassment and assault of women are key topics that are addressed by the film, with the former being approached more directly than the latter.

And then there’s the ever-present issue of people peaceably taking a stand for what they believe in despite massive, high-ranking opposition. This is never an easy thing for one to do. The one (or ones) doing it never benefit personally. They sacrifice themselves for others – for the greater good. Mildred’s method for handling her problem in no way makes her life easier or better. But she has to try. How often do we hear self-made soothsayers proclaim, “Why try that? It won’t make a difference!” The answer: because if we don’t try – if we don’t even attempt to make things better – we lose our humanity. Mildred clings to her humanity in the face of overwhelming pressure to let it go for someone else’s benefit.

Yet amidst all of this, McDonagh never comes across as preachy, as though he’s attempting to make a statement. He simply presents small town America as it often is in many circles and allows the viewer to make a judgement call for themselves. And then, once that happens, he tosses a curve ball at the unsuspecting audience and asks them to think again.

There are actually a lot of curve balls in Three Billboards. Some are narrative. Some are character-based. Others are thematic. And then some are content-oriented. This may be surprising but Three Billboards is easily one of the funniest movies of the year. I laughed out loud multiple times throughout the duration of the film and I wasn’t alone as the others in the theater with me were joining in.

But that’s life. Life is complex. We laugh one moment and cry the next. And Three Billboards exuberantly represents the complexity of life. It also represents the beauty and power of filmmaking. Gripping from the beginning, Three Billboards forces the audience to look at life and at people from all angles and it does so in relentlessly entertaining fashion. This is the film I’ve been waiting for. The Oscar gauntlet has been thrown down. I can’t wait to see who steps up.

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Review – Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri

Review – Wonder

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When I was in ninth grade, I took a Biology class.  I was one of only a couple of freshmen in the class, as it was considered a sophomore course and most freshmen took Earth Science.  I expected my classmates to be of a more mature and respectable nature than most of my fellow freshmen.  Our teacher was an affable guy.  A little goofy, but nice, well-meaning, and good at his job.  One day, someone came to the door and asked him to step into the hall for an irrelevant reason still unknown to me.  While he was out of the room, one of the upperclassmen ran up to the board, grabbed the chalk and, on the board, wrote something very profane and insulting about our teacher.  When he came back into the room and saw it, the look on his face was so full of hurt that I still get sad thinking about it, to this day.  He proceeded to leave the comment up on the board for the rest of the class, writing around it without any sort of verbal or physical acknowledgement . . . except for the look on his face.  I wish I could say that I stood up to that upperclassman man-child in the making – that I put him in his place – that I let our teacher know he wasn’t alone in the room on that day.  I didn’t.  I was a freshman and I was intimidated.  But I never forgot that moment.

Kids can be so mean.

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Then there was one time I was at a WWE Raw in Charlotte, North Carolina.  My friend and I were in the third row.  Next to me was a man who was there with a mentally handicapped child.  Behind us was a mother with her son who was approximately seven or eight years of age.  We had chatted a bit, and he was a sweet kid.  It was his first time at a WWE event.  This man next to me was a huge fan of a wrestler named Santino Marella – a silly, lower-card comedy act.  But when Santino came out, this guy wouldn’t sit down, even after the bell to begin the match rang.  The kid behind us couldn’t see.  He politely tapped the man on the back and asked him to sit down.  The man ignored him.  The mother then also politely asked.  The man turned around and said (and this is an exact quote), “Shut up, bitch.”  The boy tapped him one more time.  The man turned around and piefaced this little kid, shoving him back down into his seat.  Unlike when I was a freshman, I didn’t let that one go.  I made sure that kid and his mother knew they weren’t alone in that arena of 16,000 people.  But that’s not the point of the story.

Adults can be so mean.

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Stephen Chbowsky’s Wonder is the movie of the moment.  It’s outperforming all expectations and now I understand why.  For those who are unfamiliar, the film is an adaptation of R. J. Palacio’s novel of the same name in which ten-year-old August “Auggie” Pullman (Jacob Tremblay) makes his first leap into public school after a lifetime of being homeschooled by his mother due to being born with severe facial deformities.

I’m going to spend exactly one paragraph talking about Wonder from an objective filmmaking perspective.  The cast is fantastic.  Tremblay soars, just as he did in the outstanding Room from two years ago.  The rest of the cast aren’t challenged as much, playing mostly within their comfort zones, but they play their roles perfectly.  The movie is funnier than I expected and the story is more than sufficient, if a little clichéd and predictable.  The dialogue is sharp and attention-grabbing, though occasionally comes off as slightly unrealistic when the younger children are interacting with one another.  There are some issues with focus, caused by some interesting but questionable structural choices, but the narrative does a good job of communicating the entire story.  After all, there are always two sides.

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So, technically speaking, from a purely critical viewpoint, Wonder is a very good film, though maybe not quite great.  But, as I’ve said many, many times, filmmaking is art.  And the entire purpose of art is to make the beholder of it think and/or feel.  And on that level, Wonder is unmatched.  This is the rare sort of film that transcends silly little critiques of structure or of brief moments of unnatural dialogue.  Because, while watching this film, I never stopped feeling.  There are many films that have powerful, moving moments when a character finally finds the hero within themselves during the climax, sending the audience home with the renewed belief that “maybe the world isn’t so bad, after all”.  Wonder has one of those moments approximately every five to ten minutes.

That’s the effect that Auggie has on those around him.  And that’s the effect Auggie is having on audiences around the country.  At first glance, on the surface, this is a film about love, kindness and bravery.  But Wonder takes it a step further.  It’s not only about love, kindness, and bravery; it demonstrates how to love, be kind, and be brave.

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As with the real world, there are good and bad people in the film.  But, in the face of everything we see on the news and in the streets and, yes, in the schools these days, Wonder chooses to believe in the good.  Auggie’s family (played by Julia Roberts, Owen Wilson, and Izabela Vidovic) are flawed but genuine people who sincerely love one another and who each do the best they can to help and support the others, even when it causes their own lives to be more difficult.  This love infects the people around them, breeding more love and making their immediate world a better place.  There is much to be learned from their example, not the least of which is that giving up on the good in the world is the quickest way to ensure it’s expulsion.

Some will say the film panders.  Some will say it takes the easy road.  I say that love is never the easy road.  I have been disappointed by so many people in my life that I rarely let anyone new in.  I very much appreciate the few who have never let me down and who have chosen to let me in.  This movie made me appreciate them more.  And there are people who aren’t around in my life, right now, for any number of reasons, who I miss terribly.  This movie made me miss them more.  So, maybe it panders.  But it won me over, and that’s all I really care about.  Shame on me for getting behind a film that rightly declares that we should all treat one another with care and respect.  Perhaps I’m a sap.  Perhaps I’m a “snowflake”.  But Wonder is easily one of my favorite films of the year, despite its minor-to-moderate flaws.  Sometimes it’s not all about technical or artistic achievement.  Sometimes it’s about reaching people in the right way at the right time, and that’s what Wonder does.  So, maybe I let my humanity supersede my objectivity.  I’m okay with that.  To those who aren’t, all I can think to say is . . . snowflake and proud, a-holes.

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Review – Wonder

Review – Lady Bird

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Two A24 films in one day?!  And it’s not even a weekend?!  That’s right, I decided to treat myself on this Thursday, and catch up on a couple of smaller Oscar bait films, and Lady Bird is the second of the day.  Earlier this week, the film became the best-reviewed film in Rotten Tomatoes history, so if it wasn’t on my radar before that (it was), it would’ve been after.  Before I looked into the movie a bit, I actually thought it was a historical biography about Lady Bird Johnson.  As reasonable an assumption as that was (and I know I’m not the only one who has made it), it couldn’t have been more incorrect, as, in actuality, the film is a coming of age tale by Greta Gerwig and starring Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf.

In 2002, 17-year-old Christine McPherson (Ronan) – who has dubbed herself “Lady Bird” – faces the pressures of looming adulthood.  As she struggles to not only determine who she currently is but who she wishes to be in the future, life is made more difficult by her overbearing and unsympathetic mother Marion (Metcalf).  As Lady Bird comes to terms with the meaning and significance of the other primary figures in her life – most notably her loving and supportive father Larry (Tracy Letts), brother Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues), best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein), and her two potential love interests Danny and Kyle (Lucas Hedges and Timothée Chalamet, respectively) – she must continuously navigate the landmine that is the relationship with her mother.

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Coming of age stories are not remotely uncommon, making it exceedingly more difficult for new ones to stand out amongst a very crowded and beloved mass of others both past and present.  What primarily makes Lady Bird different from the rest is that the primary relationship in the film is that of mother and daughter.  Typically, these films follow a young adult as they find their way into a place of comfort with their peers while we occasionally get a glimpse of how those efforts are affecting their home life.  In Lady Bird, the title character’s entire foundation is shaped and molded by a mother by whom Lady Bird feels she has never been accepted.  So, flipping the script, the viewer sees how this single relationship creates a butterfly effect upon all of the others in Lady Bird’s life.

On one hand, Marion’s parenting style can be chalked up to fear.  For instance, it’s been less than a year since the attacks of September 11 and her daughter wants to leave Sacramento and go to college in New York City.  But on the other hand, the ways in which Marion channels and expresses these fears are simultaneously selfish, childish, and hurtful to Lady Bird, putting the emotional well-being of her own daughter second to that of her own.

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Ironically, that means Marion potentially has a lot to learn from her own daughter, Lady Bird, who feels torn between being true to herself and being who her mother wants her to be, just to get a taste of the acceptance she has always desperately wanted.  Essentially – and sadly – Lady Bird feels that any love for her that is felt by her mother comes from a place of obligation rather than one of sincerity.

That’s something I can to relate to, not regarding my mother, but with other members of my family.  And I know I’m not the only one.  So, anyone who has felt like the odd one out in their own family will have plenty to latch onto in Lady Bird.  It’s an oft-overlooked component of life, but one that is extremely impactful and formative, especially – but certainly not exclusively – in the years of early adulthood.

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This dynamic leads to a pair of memorable performances from both Ronan and Metcalf.  As Lady Bird, Ronan feels the need to maintain a tough exterior, but there are subtleties underneath the surface of Ronan’s performance that leak through with flawless timing and seasoned delivery.  Metcalf’s Marion is similarly tough on the outside, but also much more expressive and emotional.  At times, Metcalf is permitted to provide some rather moving moments that should touch any viewers capable of the slightest bit of empathy.

For me, this film doesn’t approach 2016’s coming-of-age classic The Edge of Seventeen, but that’s more due to the fact that Seventeen is an exceptional film that excels in every single way – a truly special movie – than because of any shortcomings in Lady Bird.  Simply put, even if I wasn’t quite as drawn in by Lady Bird as I was by SeventeenLady Bird still does everything right and puts a new spin on the coming-of-age subgenre.  It reminds me of the truth that film reflects society and the more we watch, the more viewpoints we come to see, and therefore the better we understand the world around us (I wrote an entire column about that here, though I focused on event films in that particular piece).  Through Lady Bird, Gerwig has something new to say, and she does so in a funny, entertaining, poignant, and resonant way.  Expect plenty of award nominations to be racking up for this one, soon.  Catch it before there’s a bandwagon.

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Review – Lady Bird

Review – The Killing of a Sacred Deer

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I have had one heck of a time getting to a theater to catch The Killing of a Sacred Deer.  I featured it in my Ten Fourth-Quarter 2017 Films to be Excited About! column, but it took a while before it finally arrived within driving distance of my house.  And then I was out of town or otherwise predisposed during the weekends and couldn’t get to the nearest theater (an hour away) to catch it.  But I finally managed to do it, taking advantage of a rare Thursday off.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer is another film from A24 Studios, one of the two most consistent and reliable movie studios in the business today (along with Marvel Studios.  Pixar has fallen to a clear third, even taking the brilliant Coco into account.). This is the second film for A24 that has been written and directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, after 2016’s The Lobster. After seeing The Killing of a Sacred Deer, it is becoming clear that Lanthimos has a distinct and recognizable style all his own. What I’m not yet sure about is whether or not it’s deliberate.

Like The Lobster, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a quirky science-fiction drama starting Colin Farrell. This is one of those films that’s rather difficult to discuss without spoilers, so I’ll sum it up by saying that Farrell plays cardiologist Steven Murphy, who makes a critical mistake for which he is forced to either atone or face dire consequences. It takes about ten or fifteen minutes longer than it should to get to the hook, but it’s a gripping, fascinating hook, once it arrives. Hang in there.

Consequences and atonement are unquestionably the themes of the film. In addition to working side by side with the always-great Nicole Kidman, Farrell plays opposite Barry Keoghan, who plays Martin, Murphy’s young protege. Keoghan gives a chilling performance as Martin morphs and shifts throughout the course of the narrative and more is revealed about his history and motivations. Farrell does well as he plays off of Keoghan and, in turn, Kidman performs admirably, as well, as her character of Anna reacts to her husband’s choice of actions. But, ultimately, everyone except for Keoghan is hampered by Lanthimos’s stubborn insistence upon leaving his own style in place, rather than allowing the film to grow naturally.

I say that because there are more similarities between this film and The Lobster than what I mentioned above. Like that film, the dialogue is stilted and often downright bizarre, with characters saying unimaginable things to each other given the natures of their relationships and/or the circumstances under which a given conversation is occurring. This is not the mistake of an inexperienced writer, either. It’s an artistic choice seemingly designed to unsettle the audience from the beginning of the film and set the tone (which the long, steady opening shot also accomplishes. I’ll allow you to discover that on your own.). To compound matters, when any particular character utters something too forward or unusual or even a total non-sequitur, the opposing character just rolls with it, as if it’s a typical conversation on the porch swing at Grandma’s house.

It doesn’t end there. Throughout the majority of the film, Lanthimos directs his cast to perform with as little emotion as possible. It’s not just in the dialogue that characters are unfazed by the disquieting behavior of the others, but in the performances, as well. In the back half of the movie, Farrell and Kidman get to emote to a degree, but it’s still far too restrained considering what is playing out on-screen. Keoghan is fortunate in the sense that this approach is logical for Martin, but the others in the cast aren’t so lucky.

So, if all of this was also the case in The Lobster, why didn’t it bother me it that film? Simple: it made sense for The Lobster. The Lobster was about a bunch of people who spent their lives having difficulty forming connections with other people. If they’re awkward, unsociable, or just don’t understand how to properly interact with others, those traits gel with their current spot in life. In Sacred Deer, we’re looking at a fully-formed, longstanding family unit with two very successful (on all fronts) adults at the helm. Those same traits just don’t work for these people.

If this is Lanthimos’s attempt to craft a cinematic image for himself, it will end up being a misguided one. His ideas for film premises are already distinctive enough. Sabotaging his own films by making all of his characters feel robotic and inhuman will do no favors for his own future. I was interested in this story from a broader perspective of caring about people in general but I felt no personal connection to it, at all.

I’m reminded of Wes Anderson. I have a hard time with his films because of the way he handles his characters and dialogue, presenting them in a distinctly non-realistic way. I tend to tune out quickly because I don’t believe a thing I see or hear. I know a lot of people love him (he’s my best friend’s favorite), but I just can’t connect. Lanthimos will be the same way if he’s not careful, with the difference being that, while his weird stories are good for me, unlike Anderson’s, they’re probably too over the top for many general audiences. And that will cause a problem if he can’t connect with them through narrative or character and dialogue. If he wants a long, successful career, he should focus on the work and not his own reputation.

I don’t love or hate The Killing of a Sacred Deer. I love the concept and the story. I’m mixed (at best) on the execution. This isn’t a film that will appeal to the typical moviegoer, but those who like strange and quirky storytelling may still want to give it a look, depending on how much my own personal issues with the film would bother them. Still, A24 has put out another film that’s an easy conversation piece and certainly unforgettable. As long as they keep doing that, I’ll keep showing up.

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Review – The Killing of a Sacred Deer

#ThrowbackThursday – Raging Bull

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Original US release date: November 14, 1980
Production budget: $18,000,000
Worldwide gross: $23,383,987

I make no secret of the fact that Rocky is one of my all-time favorite films.  For me, it’s tough for any other boxing film to truly compare to that undeniable classic.  However, legendary director Martin Scorsese released his own boxing movie, Raging Bull, towards the end of 1980.  The film was nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards and won two Oscars, including a Best Actor award for lead Robert De Niro.  In the decades since, Raging Bull has stood tall beside Rocky as a classic boxing film, so I decided to take a look at it for an edition of #ThrowbackThursday.

Unlike RockyRaging Bull is explicitly based upon a true story: that of boxer Jake LaMotta.  Adapted from LaMotta’s autobiography, Raging Bull follows LaMotta from the burgeoning days of his career until its end and somewhat beyond.  It’s not an uplifting tale.  Truth be told, LaMotta is as unsympathetic a lead as I can recall in a major motion picture – at least as far as leads who are supposed to be protagonists are concerned.  He pursues underage girls, has a hair-trigger temper, treats the people around him like trash, and generally only cares about himself.  For me (and I would many assume others, as well), LaMotta’s repulsive personality and demeanor make the film rather difficult in which to become engaged.  I had no interest in seeing LaMotta succeed in his personal or his professional life and struggled to stay invested in his journey.

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Scorsese made the call to shoot the film in black and white, reportedly to differentiate the movie from the aforementioned Rocky, to keep the blood from being too vivid in full color, and to better represent the time period in which the film took place.  That second reason seems a little suspect to me as Scorsese has never shied away from blood and violence in his films.

Something else stuck out to me, however; the makeup and prosthetics job on DeNiro for LaMotta’s later years is quite remarkable, particularly for a film released in 1980.  Had the film been in color, the authenticity of that particular visual effect would have been severely diminished and may have even caused irreparable harm to the film as a whole (think American Sniper‘s fake baby).  I can’t speak to whether or not that played a part in the decision to film in black and white, but it certainly didn’t hurt.

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What truly stood out to me was how full of Scorsese’s hallmarks Raging Bull is.  The main character is beyond being an alpha male – overflowing with toxic masculinity – who is loud, boorish, and quite frankly a horrible person.  Scorsese also directs his actors (as he often does) to alternate between shouting at the top of their lungs and mumbling almost unintelligibly.  Characters talk over each other (both while shouting and while mumbling) and it sometimes becomes a bit of a chore to try to listen to the dialogue.  As I mentioned earlier, DeNiro won Best Actor at the Oscars for this performance but I wasn’t feeling it.  I’m sure he did exactly as he was instructed, but much of it was over-the-top and unnatural, taking me out of the film even more than I already had been due to the unlikeable LaMotta.  DeNiro was very obviously acting and it just didn’t work for me.

Scorsese was also not a sports or boxing fan before helming Raging Bull and it shows.  The fights play out in ludicrous fashion, with athletes regularly taking a dozen or more clean, square, rapid shots to the head and then dancing away on their feet.  Staying upright after more than three hard consecutive shots to the skull is just silly.  Combine that with the tight shots and lifeless presentation and Hollywood boxing has never been so dull.  I understand that the film isn’t supposed to be glorifying the fighting, yet it certainly felt to me as it LaMotta’s behavior outside the ring was being glorified.  He was never angled as a villain who was due a comeuppance.  So, if Scorsese was determined to challenge the audience’s very moral foundations, he could have at least struck a balance by recruiting some assistance in making the boxing scenes relatively exciting.

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Raging Bull is considered an all-time classic, but I just can’t get on board with this one, even without comparing it to Rocky.  LaMotta is unappealing, the boxing is spiritless, DeNiro tries too hard, and Scorsese strays outside of his comfort zone.  The film looks nice, but I much prefer Scorsese’s later works (such as The Departed, Shutter Island, and Hugo) to Raging Bull.  Still, to each their own, and for the many, many others who love this film, I look at you with jealousy.  I wish I could feel the same way.  I really tried to.  Heck, I even expected to.  Having said that, I can’t in good conscience suggest to anyone that they shouldn’t see Raging Bull.  Chances are good that most will love it and, even for those like me who don’t, at least you can be in the conversation and maybe get a “Jeopardy!” question or two correct in the future.

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#ThrowbackThursday – Raging Bull

#ThrowbackThursday – Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

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Original US release date: December 25, 2011
Production budget: $40,000,000
Worldwide gross: $55,247,881

There have been a number of films to tackle the topic of the terrorist attacks that took place on September 11 of 2001 and the perpetual efforts of the people of the United States to deal with the losses resulting from those attacks and attempt to move forward.  Based on Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel of the same name, Stephen Daldry’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close deals with the subject matter from a unique perspective.  While often, stories look at those events through the eyes of the direct victims or the common, everyday citizens who became heroes during the rescue efforts, this particular story looks at the aftermath of that day from the perspective of a young boy named Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn).

Oskar and his father Thomas (Tom Hanks) have a strong relationship and a close bond that is expressed by their shared love of puzzle-making and -solving.  They toss brainteasers and mindbenders at each other and both relish in the challenge of taking the other’s best shot.  Thomas uses these exercises to help build Oskar’s intelligence, confidence, and social skills, but that all comes to a tragic end when Thomas is killed during the events of September 11.  Left behind with his mother and Thomas’s wife Linda (Sandra Bullock), Oskar yearns for the lost connection with his father.  When he finds a clue accompanying a mysterious key in his father’s closet, Oskar sets out with adamant determination to discover what the key unlocks and hopefully receive one final message from his father.

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I remember first seeing the film upon its original release and despising Thomas Horn’s performance as Oskar.  I thought he was unnatural, wooden, and he took me out of the film.  I have to say, I don’t really understand where I was seeing that.  I’m not going to proclaim Horn one of the all-time great child actors, but with this re-watch, I think he did fine.  Oskar appears to be somewhere on the spectrum and Horn plays it well.  So, I’m not sure what my problem was, back in the day.  Hanks is great as always, though his screen time is limited.  Bullock has more time than Hanks but is also firmly entrenched in supporting player territory.  This is Horn’s film.

Many people loved this film and many hated it.  I can see both sides, as there are both good and bad components of the film.  As mentioned, the cast is good (along with Max Von Sydow, who gets to play a different sort of role, almost as if he’s in a silent film), as is the premise.  This is a story about coping with unfathomable loss when one isn’t old, mature, or experienced enough to know how to do so.  The idea of Oskar searching for the lock that goes along with his father’s key is a clever one and certainly compelling (adding mystery to a weighty drama provides a unique twist to the presentation), but the execution is often lacking.

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The dialogue is unnatural and forced.  Characters don’t respond believably to each other, instead sounding like they are waiting to deliver lines that real people wouldn’t typically say.  And not only is the dialogue overly contrived, but many of the scenarios in which the characters interact are strange and even occasionally off-putting.  The narrative offers an explanation as to why so many adults in New York City would so eagerly and willingly open their arms to a young boy who knocks on their doors with no forewarning, but it doesn’t exactly explain why they would so eagerly allow him to witness their most personal moments or share their most painful and intimate memories.

I’ve seen some wonder how or why Oskar’s mission would help him cope with his father’s death, but I dismiss that question as I find it illegitimate and inappropriate.  Everyone deals with loss in their own way, and movie critics are not psychologists.  And they are certainly not child psychologists.  And they are even more certainly not experts on children with emotional development issues.  So, I’m not about to question Oskar’s motivations.  But I do have a hard time buying that this story could have actually played out in the way the film presents it.  I suppose it’s technically possible, but most everything is possible.  That doesn’t make it plausible.  And, as well meaning as this film is, any attempt to deal with such a raw, real, resonant happening needs to do so in a way that is equally raw, real, and resonant.

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The film is resonant to a degree, but that’s more due to the subject matter than the effectiveness of the storytelling.  Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close has its heart in the right place but needs a little more filmmaking experience behind the camera in order to reconcile it in a more appropriate manner with the real-world events by which it was inspired.  I wouldn’t say it’s not worth watching – especially for fans of Hanks and/or Bullock who both do good work, despite their limited screen time – but be prepared to feel somewhat perplexed by the events as they play out, even as they lead towards a somewhat touching conclusion.

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#ThrowbackThursday – Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close