#ThrowbackThursday – Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

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Original US release date: May 23, 1984
Production budget: $28,000,000
Worldwide gross: $333,107,271

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was Steven Spielberg’s follow-up to his massively successful Raiders of the Lost Ark (for which I previously did a #ThrowbackThursday column, which you can find here).  It was a follow-up at a time when follow-ups were, though not quite unheard of, rare.  (Notice I didn’t say it was a sequel.  Because it isn’t.  It’s a prequel.)  It was an easy proposition; the original film made more than 21 times its budget, and this one followed up by making almost twelve times its own (making 2.5 times the budget typically guarantees profit).  Indiana Jones had become a pop culture phenomenon and Harrison Ford successfully made the leap from Star Wars star to genuine movie star.

Despite its financial success, this particular installment in the Indiana Jones franchise wasn’t as critically well-received as its predecessor, and it’s easy to see why, as it’s quite a mixed bag.  Ford, himself, is as commanding as ever as the titular Dr. Jones, but his supporting cast doesn’t fare quite so well.  Accompanying Indy on this adventure are two notable and memorable accomplices.  Since we last saw him, Indy has found a young Chinese boy who goes by the name Short Round.  Short Round works as a driver and a sidekick for Indy, tagging along wherever he goes and doing what he can to carry his own weight.  Opinions vary on Short Round, but put me down as a fan.  Not only is he unique, but Jonathan Ke Quan (then billed as Ke Huy Quan) turns in a solid performance.  Under other circumstances, he would come across as a little over the top.  But he’s a kid!  And kids are over the top!  So, it works, especially since he never overdoes it.

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The final third of our protagonist trio doesn’t fare as well.  Playing vivacious nightclub singer Willie Scott is relative newcomer Kate Capshaw.  Watching Capshaw try to act makes me think about what would happen if I took a mediocre Algebra student and put them in charge of teaching my Statistics class.  Occasionally, they’d get something right just by sheer luck, but they’d spend most of their time trying to fake it until they would hopefully make it.  There are moments when Capshaw is fine (her reaction to the Snake Surprise is pretty much exactly what mine would have been), but she’s never good – much less great – and she’s frequently bad.  I’ll even go so far as to say that her delivery of the infamous, “We’re not sinking – – WE’RE CRASHING, AHHHHH!” line is among the worst I’ve ever seen in all of film, TV, stage, local theater, and even high school plays.  She’s over-the-top, unnatural, and just can’t seem to relax.  Her casting worked out for director Steven Spielberg, because he and Capshaw eventually married in 1991, but he’s the only one that benefitted.  She was way out of her depth in a movie that didn’t even require that much depth to begin with.

Aside from Quan and Capshaw, the villains are also silly and exaggerated.  Part of it is in the writing (the film even ends with a clichéd everybody-laughs-at-something-that-isn’t-especially-funny moment), but much of it is in the performances.  This starts right at the beginning in Club Obi Wan (an early example of an Easter egg) where Indy meets Willie during an encounter with nefarious Chinese diplomats.  The characterizations are by far the weakest aspect of the film, affecting virtually everyone except for Indy and, arguably, Short Round.  Nobody else is even remotely believable, whether it comes to the writing or the performances.

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And the writing makes other questionable choices, as well, often pushing forward with an idea just for the sake of doing it.  One moment, Indy and Willie can’t stand each other and she’s being portrayed as an annoying nag, and the next, they’re flirty and lovey with no transition or explanation.  And they aren’t just hoping for a hookup; supposedly true feelings and attraction simply materializes out of nowhere.  This is just one example, but the film seems determined to check off as many tropes as possible.  On top of that, the film is oddly a prequel, though there’s no story points that necessitate such a choice.  Living through this adventure even contradicts Indy’s declaration in Raiders that he doesn’t believe in magic.  So, yes, the writing here is weak.

On the flip side, the setting and action scenes are a lot of fun.  For me, in particular, I still consider the mine cart chase to be my favorite scene in the entire franchise.  And it was an influential one, too.  Its impact can still be felt in everything from other movies (the Harry Potter series) to video games (“Donkey Kong Country”, “Final Fantasy”).  The entire final third of the film, once they enter the temple, is a pretty raucous ride, with plenty of engaging, innovative excitement that is quite frankly so good that it tips the scales and makes the film enjoyable in spite of its many other flaws.

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Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is not as highly regarded as other films in the series, but it has its moments.  Unfortunately, many of them are bad.  But what’s good is very good and no film geek is worth their street cred without having seen this one at least once.  The extended, pulse-pounding finale makes all of the tedious build worth it, in the end.

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#ThrowbackThursday – Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

#ThrowbackThursday – Les Misérables (2012)

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Original US release date: December 25, 2012
Production budget: $61,000,000
Worldwide gross: $441,809,770

I was just talking about this movie, a few weeks ago, when I did a #ThrowbackThursday post for 2004’s The Phantom of the Opera by Joel Schumacher.  Like that one, Les Misérables is a beloved musical (though probably more highly-regarded than Phantom in literary circles) that has seen many different interpretations over the years.  This particular incarnation came from Tom Hooper who was riding a wave of momentum following the massive box office and critical reception of his previous film, The King’s Speech.  That one won Best Picture at the Academy Awards (and elsewhere) and while Les Misérables couldn’t quite make it two in a row for Hooper in that regard, it still earned a nomination in that category, wins in other categories, and a massive total at the worldwide box office, solidifying the film as an unqualified success.

Set in nineteenth-century France, Les Misérables tells the story of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a man who was imprisoned for nineteen years after stealing bread to feed his nephew.  Upon his release, he fails to report in, thereby breaking parole and putting himself on the run from policeman Javert (Russell Crowe).  In the meantime, Valjean sets up a new life for himself, and agrees to care for the daughter of the impoverished Fantine (Anne Hathaway).

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There’s a lot going on in this story and there are a couple of time jumps involved, as well, to push the narrative along to its relevant plot points.  I’m of two minds about the film, feeling that the execution could be stronger but also unable to deny the inherent power in the performances and many of the musical numbers.

Jackman is in his wheelhouse (or at least one of his wheelhouses) as the lead star.  His background is in musical theater, so he makes it all look easy as he sings, acts, and emotes all over the place.  Valjean is a good man with a good heart who has been on the bad end of circumstances and spent a lifetime paying for it.  He hopes to lift up others around him so they won’t have the same experiences but Javert makes it difficult with his relentless pursuance.

Russell Crowe’s casting as Javert was the strongest point of contention upon the film’s release at the end of 2012.  Most will agree that Crowe is a fine actor and he does nothing to bring that into question, here.  It’s his singing that raised some eyebrows among both audiences and critics.  He was the reason I brought this film up during my look back at Phantom of the Opera as Gerard Butler’s vocal ability was also questionable in that film.  Crowe isn’t the best singer, but, after hearing them so close together, I can state with confidence that he’s better than Butler.  Truth be told, Crowe isn’t a bad singer, but he is an average one.  And average stands out when surrounded by the likes of Jackman, Hathaway, and others who can really go.  I imagine he felt insecure and nervous about his abilities, so my hat’s off to him for sticking it out and doing his best.  He’s actually okay, but he was hired for his presence and acting ability and he still excels in those areas.

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Speaking of excelling, Anne Hathaway manages to essentially steal the entire picture with one scene and one song.  Her performance of “I Dreamed a Dream” may be the single greatest musical performance ever committed to film.  Les Misérables got much praise for recording the cast’s singing live on set as they were being filmed, rather than in post-production ADR (automated dialogue replacement – i.e. dubbing).  The entire movie was certainly helped by that decision and none more so than Hathaway.  For the scene, Hooper places the camera in her face and just sits back while she kills it in one, unbroken take.  And, though the take was unbroken, hearts were not, as she grabbed the entire world and forced them to feel her pain and sorrow.  It’s raw and it’s real and it’s everything that every performance in every movie should be.  I thought to myself immediately, when seeing the film in the theater, that she needed to win an Academy Award for the part.  And she did, securing Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role at the Oscars, just a couple of months later (she didn’t have enough screen time for the Leading Role category).  She honestly just didn’t have any competition; Hathaway is just that good, here.

That scene happens relatively early in the film and while I’m not going to say that it’s “all downhill” from there, her big moment is certainly the high point of the film.  Still, there’s plenty of good to follow, even if none of it is iconic, as Hathaway’s scene is.  Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter lighten the mood with a delightfully fun performance of “Master of the House” (for which I will forever incorrectly sing the lyrics, thanks to George Costanza on “Seinfeld”).  And in any other film that didn’t feature that Hathaway performance, Samantha Barks would have been the talk of the industry for her version of “On My Own”, which, to her credit, is almost as powerful as Hathaway (it’s actually my favorite song in the film).  Eddie Redmayne really delivers with his performance of “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables”, as well, and the conclusion to the film actually made me teary-eyed during this re-watch, which I don’t remember happening, before.

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So, yeah, there is much good to be had in Les Misérables.  But I have one big issue, as well.  I mentioned in my Phantom review that I’m not crazy about dialogue being sung outside of dedicated songs, and that’s almost all we get, here.  There are very few spoken lines.  I understand that’s a personal preference and mileage will vary, but sometimes the singing is harder to make out than speaking would be – especially in large choral arrangements.  As a result, it can be very easy to miss something important – not because the viewer isn’t paying attention, but because the line was sung so quickly or so quietly, in preparation for the next one that’s about to be projected, that it was nigh unintelligible.  For example, suddenly, a character may be dying and you might have no idea why.  And that might happen three or four times.  Don’t write me; I know why the characters die, but it’s not because it was made clear by the filmmakers.  If you have no problems understanding sung dialogue, then you’ll have no issues, here.  If you do, however, come with a backup plan to make sure you’re following all of the events of the film.

Despite not being a perfect viewing experience, there’s little arguing with the power of the film and the high level of performance from the cast.  The movie is a bit of a marathon and there’s some downtime between the truly notable songs, scenes, and moments, but, overall, it’s a rewarding experience that will leave a lasting impression if the viewer gives themselves over to it.

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#ThrowbackThursday – Les Misérables (2012)

Review – It Comes at Night

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From fledgling director Trey Edward Shults and burgeoning studio A24 comes the horror film that seemingly everyone has been talking about, It Comes at Night.  A24 has quietly become one of the three most consistent and reliable studios out there, churning out quality films like they have an assembly line, while covering all genres and all types of film – from comedy to horror to drama.  Earlier this year, they won Best Picture with Moonlight and they had many other films on the tongues of fans and critics alike all throughout 2016.  They’ve come at us with such gems as The Witch, Swiss Army Man, 20th Century Women , The Monster, and others.  And now they’re back with It Comes at Night.

As is typical for A24, It Comes at Night is an adult, sophisticated film that falls within whichever genres in which it finds itself.  In this case, we’re talking horror-drama.  The title might be misleading, however, as there is no physical supernatural force at hand in this film.  Rather, It Comes at Night deals with a post-apocalyptic world that has been ravaged by a supervirus.  Clearly, this isn’t the first outlet for kind of story, but It Comes at Night approaches the idea from a smaller-scale, more personal perspective.  The title, itself, has a meaning that is best left to be discovered and even analyzed.

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The film begins with the family of protagonist Paul (Joel Edgerton) suffering a painful loss.  Immediately, the entire family is conveyed as relatable and sympathetic, forming an quick and easy connection with the audience.  When an unexpected visitor comes calling, the family must decide how best to handle their arrival in the face of the omnipresent viral threat as well as their own safety and survival.

It Comes at Night is not the feel-good movie of the year.  If you want that, head back out to Wonder Woman.  Rather, in this film, one will get a reminder of the importance of their loved ones, as well as the fragility of life.  Less obtusely, the film also serves as a commentary on the ever-present struggle between trust and paranoia in modern society.  It’s a difficult topic that is making itself known on a daily basis through our news broadcasts, at our airports, and on our sidewalks.  Few take a pragmatic approach to the topic, instead aiming to force it into a simple binary scenario with no shades of gray, but It Comes at Night does a fantastic job of contradicting that idea with some masterful storytelling.

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No matter who the audience sees as heroes and who they see as villains in this tale, it’s difficult to argue with the actions of any of the characters.  No one in the narrative wants anything bad to happen to anyone else, but each also understands that their survival and the survival of those closest to them should be most important.  And that’s tough to argue with.  As a result, the story is a challenging one to watch at times as impossible decisions are made by people who have no desire to make them.  And it starts right at the beginning.

This sort of tale can only be properly presented if the filmmakers come armed with a capable cast, and Shults has certainly done so.  The cast is small, but finessed.  Their performances can shift from endearing to heartbreaking in the blink of an eye without losing even an ounce of credibility – whether it be for the story or for their respective characters.  And that goes for all of them; no exceptions.  Riley Keough gives such a soulful, gut-wrenching turn that she nearly made me emotional at one point in the film.   Technically, it’s a horror-thriller, but there is a great weight to the proceedings and it’s difficult to remain detached from it all when the cast is so accomplished at forcing the viewer to care.

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There has been some controversy around the film as some people have complained(whined) that it isn’t what they expected.  I have two suggestions for those people.  1) Do some actual research.  If you’re so desperate to know everything you’re going to see before you see it, then do a search.  It’s easy.  And it’s all out there.  Or, preferably, 2) Don’t have expectations.  Let the filmmakers tell you their story instead of mindlessly, absurdly demanding that they tell yours.  If you do that, and you’re up for something aimed at a more refined, discerning audience, then there will be much to revel in with regards to It Comes at Night.

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Review – It Comes at Night

Review – The Mummy (2017)

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As you may be aware, The Mummy is not only a revival of the classic Universal monster who first hit the big screen way back in 1932 (as portrayed by Boris Karloff) but is also an effort by Universal to launch their own connected universe, ala Marvel’s MCU, built around their movie monster library.  To hopefully get things off on the right foot, they have enlisted the services of megastar Tom Cruise as lead protagonist Nick Morton as he takes the battle to the mummy of the new age, played by Sofia Boutella (Star Trek Beyond).  Backing the pair up is Russell Crowe as Dr. Jekyll, a very public casting that is undoubtedly setting up a future installment in what Universal has dubbed their Dark Universe.

Seemingly everybody is trying to get in on the shared universe idea after seeing Marvel’s unparalleled success with The Avengers and the rest of their Cinematic Universe.  Warner Brothers has their DC Extended Universe, which is a natural fit, but beyond that, it remains to be seen if this is a good idea, in general.  Ironically, WB’s latest DCEU entry hit big, last weekend, and has taken hold of the public zeitgeist in a way that would make it difficult for virtually any film to follow – at least at the box office, if not creatively.  So, the timing of the release of The Mummy may come back to bite it, but we’ll deal with that should it come to pass (for the record, I’m predicting a weekend box office repeat at number one for Wonder Woman).

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The important topic at hand is simply whether or not The Mummy works on its own.  Forget about Dark Universes; if this film fails to stand on its own two feet, audiences might lose interest in any potential follow-ups.  Right off the bat, Universal goes out of its way to ensure that the audience understands that this is a Dark Universe film, as they’ve added a Dark Universe logo to accompany their Universal logo.  This might seem a little ham-fisted upon initial consideration, but that’s branding for you.  If Universal is going all in on this thing, they need to make sure that audiences comprehend it and begin to look for it.  They have a lot invested in the idea as well as all of these monster properties that they’ve had in their possession for nearly 100 years, so I can’t blame them for going the extra mile.  In a similar situation, any of us would be wise to do the same.

Continuing on the topic, Universal and director Alex Kurtzman let their inexperience with this sort of thing show through a scene designed entirely with the purpose of pushing this Dark Universe.  It’s forced and it feels out of place, but much worse than that, it’s entirely underwhelming.  If they want to do a connected universe like Marvel, that’s their prerogative and there’s nothing wrong with that, in theory.  It could actually be kind of cool.  But they have to understand that their properties aren’t the same as Marvel properties, so they need to take their own world-building approach and not so blatantly rip off the folks at Marvel who did it first and continue to do it best.  They stopped short of a post-credits tag with Samuel L. Jackson, but it was still a jarring and deflating diversion in the middle of a film that needs all the positive word-of-mouth it can get.

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Outside of that, I’m honestly still deciding how I feel about the movie.  I know I didn’t actively dislike it, though I disliked elements of it.  But other components were rather enjoyable.  The dialogue is on the weaker side.  It’s not uninteresting, but attempts at humor generally fall flat, despite the cast’s best efforts (especially Jake Johnson, who has excellent delivery.  But even Amazon delivers crap if that’s what’s in the box.)  The characters are mildly compelling, at best, and not particularly relatable.  I suppose that’s not a crime, but relatability helps if an invested audience is desired.  And there are clichéd action/suspense moments that don’t follow any sort of internal logic (including the infamous Stormtrooper aim).  So, bleh.

On the flip side, the cast is watchable in spite of the lackluster material they’re given.  Sofia Boutella looks to be having a good time as the villainous Ahmanet.  The action is mostly fun and surprisingly varied in style for a movie centered around a supernatural force of evil, returned from the dead.  Some of the beats and visuals are borrowed from the pair of Stephen Sommers Mummy films (both underrated and superior to this installment, as a whole.  I really miss Arnold Vosloo shouting, “ANCK SU NAMUN!!!”), but maybe we’ll just call that an homage and keep moving.  I was both pleased and surprised by the horror elements of the film.  Yes, it’s horror-action, but those Sommers films practically jettisoned horror, altogether.  So, it’s nice to get a healthy dose of it in this reboot, for a change.  The action is relatively small scale, but it’s also a hard-hitting combination of traditional action set pieces infused with ancient Egyptian horror.  It all feels at once unique and familiar, which is enough to essentially make it fresh, even in the face of so many Mummy films from decades past.

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I’ve already seen some critics wield the tired expression “joyless” as a sword against the film, and I call foul.  Firstly, the film aims  for light moments.  It doesn’t necessarily succeed, but it tries.  But, even if it didn’t, so what?  It’s bad enough that all of the studios seem to believe that if their big-budget films don’t play like a Marvel film, they’ll fail, but now some critics are basically telling them that they’re right.  Blockbusters don’t have to have comedy and lightness to be “joyful”.  Joy can come from other places, varying based on the individual viewer.  In general, I personally get joy from exquisitely crafted action scenes.  And horror.  And a masterful acting performance.  And lots of other things.  I’m sure a lot of people will get joy from this film just by looking at Tom Cruise for two hours.  “Joyless” is not a legitimate criticism; it’s a personal preference being projected as a fact.  You know what’s joyless?  Reading those short-sighted, uninsightful “reviews”.

That’s not to say that The Mummy is perfect or will be enjoyed by everyone.  Neither is the case.  I mostly enjoyed it (I liked it more than Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales), but not with any sort of overwhelming enthusiasm like I felt for Wonder Woman.  If nothing else, at its best, the film is a fairly unique take on the Mummy mythos that stays true enough to still feel familiar and faithful.  At its worst, it tries too hard to sell an audience on the Dark Universe before they’ve even been completely sold on The Mummy.  So take all of this and do what you will with it.  The movie is probably worth a look if this sort of film is your thing, but there are definitely better – and more important – films out there, right now.

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Review – The Mummy (2017)

#Throwback Thursday – Tucker & Dale vs. Evil

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Original US release date: September 30, 2011
Production budget: $5,000,000
Worldwide gross: $4,749,516

There have been many horror-comedies throughout the years, but none (that I’ve seen) like director and co-writer Eli Craig’s Tucker & Dale vs. Evil.  Playing as part sendup of, and part homage to, the classic backwoods horror films of the seventies and eighties (ala Texas Chainsaw Massacre), the film tells the story of a group of college students who head to the woods for a debauchery-filled excursion only to run into a pair of menacing hillbillies who seem up to no good.  Well . . . that’s kind of the story.  That’s the story from the perspective of the college students.  But, unlike every other film of this kind, this narrative is told from the perspective of the hillbillies, Tucker and Dale (Alan Tudyk and Tyler Labine, respectively), as they have innocently made their way to Tucker’s cabin in the woods for some fishing and old-fashioned outdoor work.

I used the word “sendup” because, though the film is unquestionably a comedy, it stops short of being a parody.  Craig has no intention of making fun of the classic horror films that so many grew up on and hold dear in their hearts.  This is just a comedic take with a twist.  So, no worries about this being another version of a Scary Movie film.  It’s not even close.  While those movies are rife with easy, brainless, lowest-common-denominator “humor” (I liked the first one.  The rest were awful.), Tucker & Dale relies on situational comedy, a fresh angle, clever twists, and a perfect cast.

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A while back, I did a column entitled Interlude – Top Five Favorite Comedies.  Now, I feel bad about it.  Because I had forgotten about this film and there is no doubt it is one of the five funniest films I’ve ever seen.  As much as the movie has in common with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre from a thematic and narrative perspective, from the filmmaking point of view, it has much more in common with Clue.  The film isn’t about jokes.  It’s about humor coming from absurd situations and then the characters’ reactions to them.  The events that play out in the film, one after the other, are even almost plausible if you take them one at a time.  I suppose in order for them to be believable in the slightest, one also has to accept the general stupidity of certain people in the world.  But, hey, you and I both live on the same planet and it’s not that tough to believe in general stupidity, is it?  Think about it; how often do you see someone texting and driving?  If you take a moment to look for it, many times a day.  The stupidity that the characters in this film put on display is just a slightly – slightly – exaggerated version of that.

None of it would work without Tudyk and Labine.  They make the film what it is.  Both of them give all-time great comedic performances.  They are immensely restrained as the bewildered country men who can’t comprehend the events that are unfolding around them.  Both inject an earnest sincerity into their performances and that choice is what elevates the film from a good and entertaining to one of the best of its kind.  Tudyk is a living legend in the geek world but I haven’t seen Labine in any sort of significant role outside of this one, and that’s regretful.  He’s clearly an intelligent guy who understands what’s funny and – more importantly – why.  His timing and delivery are impeccable and the world of comedy could use more Tyler Labine.

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As silly as the movie is, there is actually some well-meaning subtext underneath it all.  It’s hard to ignore how the characters judge each other, deciding in their heads who the others are without having any sort of meaningful interactions with them, and then refusing to believe anything else.  With each passing year, the world becomes more and more judgmental.  It’s okay to judge people for things they’ve actually said and done, but too many judge without knowing for sure those they are judging have, in fact, said and/or done those things.  In this story, that leads to vast and immediate calamities, while real world consequences are typically much more subtle and poisonous in the long-term.  But the comparison is still there and worth noting.

In other odds and ends, the film is brutally violent in an over-the-top way that precludes it from being truly gory.  It’s all played for irony and comedy.  Katrina Bowden (“30 Rock”) sizzles as the requisite Hot Girl, Allison, who is caught in the middle of it all as both a friend of the college students and also the object of Dale’s affections.  Like Tucker and Dale, Allison breaks stereotypes by being more than just eye candy.  She’s smart, wise, and caring and Bowden does a great job bridging the gap between the students and the locals.

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There have been many films where the hot young cast believe they’re in a comedy (usually a sex comedy) only to discover that they’re actually in a horror movie.  Tucker & Dale vs. Evil is the only movie to flip the script on that as the college students think they’re in a horror movie when they’re actually in a comedy.  Either way, whenever a character in any film isn’t actually in the film they think they’re in, bad things happen.  And bad things definitely happen in this film.  But you’ll be laughing the whole time.  See this movie.  It’s a modern classic and genius at its finest.

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#Throwback Thursday – Tucker & Dale vs. Evil

Review – Wonder Woman

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It’s finally here.  Seventy-six years after her creation by William Moulton Marston, there’s finally a Wonder Woman movie.  By comparison, it took Kick-Ass only two years to get a movie.  That’s more – so much more – than a little absurd, when you stop to ponder it.  The long-overdue film is the fourth chapter in the DC Extended Universe (following Man of Steel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and Suicide Squad), as Warner Brothers continues to do their best to bring their popular library of characters to the big screen in glorious live-action.  Now, some parts of the DCEU have admittedly been more glorious than other parts.  But Wonder Woman was supposed to be the one to finally give the DCEU a critical feather in its cap, in addition to a financial one.

I’ve personally been looking forward to this one for a long time.  I don’t necessarily mean a Wonder Woman film, in general, but this specific film.  Gal Gadot’s dramatic debut in full Wonder Woman gear in last year’s Batman v Superman might have been my favorite film moment of 2017.  It gives me chills every time I watch it.  Every single time.  Then, the San Diego Comic Con trailer dropped last July and set the world on fire.  I was cautiously optimistic with each promising new morsel of footage, reminding myself that Suicide Squad looked good in all of the promotional materials, as well, yet turned out to be a creative disaster.  But this Wonder Woman footage felt different.  It felt sophisticated and mature.  And director Patty Jenkins (who was originally slated to direct Thor: The Dark World for Marvel) clearly demonstrated a poise, respect, and sense of responsibility towards the character, understanding that Wonder Woman is an important and iconic figure.  I kept the faith.

 It paid off.  Boy, did it pay off.

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Despite the fact that I really liked two of the first three DCEU films, there was something missing from all of them.  I didn’t even realize it until I was watching Wonder Woman, but when it hit me, I immediately knew it to be true.  So what does this film have that those others didn’t?  Charm.

It would be easy for me to sit here and say that Gal Gadot is entirely responsible for said charm, because she is overwhelmingly charming.  As Diana of Themyscira (as she is known in the film, sensibly enough), Gadot exudes what many will likely label an endearing naiveté, but that would be a misnomer.  In order for her to be naïve, she would also necessarily possess a certain amount of ignorance.  And while Diana is certainly perplexed by the ways of the world outside of the home she grew up in, her moral center comes not from ignorance but from heart.  The world outside of her home bends over backwards to excuse and justify hate, murder, and general wrongdoing.  Diana has no time or patience for such inanity.  That idea isn’t entirely new in the world of genre filmmaking, but seeing the way that Diana handles her objections, and Gadot’s embodiment of all that the character stands for, is immensely satisfying as a viewer.

Gadot, in general, is simply spectacular.  I’m a huge advocate for Henry Cavill’s Superman (sorry, haters; he’s perfect in the role), but Gadot carries over the momentum from her show-stealing appearance in Batman v Superman and shows the world that it wasn’t a fluke.  Gadot is Wonder Woman and she’s also my favorite performer/character combination in the DCEU.  Her first appearance in costume in this film is every bit as momentous and impactful as her arrival in Batman v Superman, but carries additional weight, buoyed by the development of the character that led up to the seminal moment.  Seeing her become – truly become – the character that has long deserved this film is chill-inducing, on multiple occasions.  Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman is now the DCEU’s MVP.

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Chris Pine is also spot-on as Steve Trevor.  Diana is not solely responsible for the film’s charm, because Pine is right there alongside her, ready to serve up his own heaping helping.  Steve is irresistibly likable as the guy that all guys should strive to be, since Superman, Spider-Man, and Captain America aren’t realistically attainable.  He’s grounded and entirely believable, regularly reacting to Diana in the embarrassingly American way that we would all have been trained to react, while also striving for more than what he has been told he should be.  Steve and Diana have both been indoctrinated by their environments and blinded to certain truths of the world around them.  As a result, neither would know how to handle the unexpected without the other.  They are perfect complements and Pine is remarkable, turning in the best genre performance (so, that doesn’t count Hell or High Water) of his career.

But that’s not all the charm.  No, no, not by a long shot.  Allan Heinberg’s screenplay dovetails perfectly with director Jenkins’s sensibilities and, together, they work hard to provide a fluid narrative that unfolds organically but doesn’t forget that life is made of the small moments.  This entire story – not just the climax – is a journey for both Diana and Steve.  Diana, in particular, is learning about the world outside of Themyscira for the first time in her life, and she’s doing it against the backdrop of World War I.  But life isn’t only made up of death and suffering – not even in wartime.  There’s so much more, and every moment provides something new for Diana.  My favorite scene is a quiet one of dialogue in a boat.  No punching, no shooting, no Lasso of Truth . . . just talking.

And, despite the quantity of humor being low, the quality is high.  Just a couple of minutes of humor made Wonder Woman a funnier film than the entirety of Suicide Squad.  Unlike that film, Heinberg’s Wonder Woman script understands that character-derived reality is what’s funny – not forced and unoriginal “jokes” and one-liners.  It adds a sincerity to the film that has also been somewhat – though not quite entirely – absent from the DCEU, up to this point.

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The whole film reeks of that sincerity.  Jenkins never attempts to sell the audience anything or to try to convince the viewer of something that they aren’t going to be able to easily believe.  The characters play honestly.  The story unfolds naturally.  No tricks.  No gimmicks.  Just great storytelling by great filmmakers.  It’s confident.  And, therefore . . . it’s charming.  And, for that, the whole film is lovable.  I love it.  I love it unabashedly.  I love the film, I love Gadot, I love Pine, I love Jenkins, I love Diana, I love Steve, I just love the whole freakin’ thing.  I hated that I hated Suicide Squad.  I grew up on Marvel, but I still love DC, too.  I want them to succeed.  I root for them, every time out.  And, this time, they succeeded.  And I’m thrilled.

So, we have a job, everyone.  We need to reward them for it.  We need to show them that this is what we’ve been waiting for from them (it is) and we need to show them that female characters and filmmakers are just as viable as male characters and filmmakers (they are).  We need a huge opening weekend.  So go.  Go see it.  Maybe more than once.  Because you’re going to love Diana.  And then, we can all love her again in November, when Justice League drops.  Because I think she’ll bring in more people than anybody else in that film.  Step aside, Batman.  It’s Diana’s world, now.

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Review – Wonder Woman

#ThrowbackThursday – The Village

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Original US release date: July 30, 2004
Production budget: $60,000,000
Worldwide gross: $256,697,520

If you’re a regular reader, you may know I was once among M. Night Shyamalan’s biggest fans.  He lost me after a handful of subpar films, but has recently been winning me back with The Visit and Split.  This particular film, The Village, is where he began to lose some of the general public, who had enthusiastically embraced his three previous films, The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs.  So, what was the problem?  And did he begin to lose me here, too?

For those who may be unfamiliar, The Village tells the story of a nineteenth-century settlement whose peaceful existence is threatened by tales of a monstrous presence lurking in the surrounding woods.  This film continued Shyamalan’s journey towards becoming a modern-day Hitchcock with his propensity for stories that exist on the fringe and often conclude with an unforeseen twist.

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I want to start by mentioning that the cast of The Village is pretty handily the strongest cast that Shyamalan ever assembled for one of his films.  He secured William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver, Bryce Dallas Howard, Judy Greer, Joaquin Phoenix, Adrien Brody, Brendan Gleeson, Cherry Jones, and Jesse Eisenberg and still made the film for only $60,000,000.  He certainly got his money’s worth and even if one doesn’t care for the film itself, it’s still a pleasure to see all of these professionals ply their trade and bounce off of one another.  I had forgotten about most of them being a part of the film and every time a new face popped up during this re-watch, my enjoyment of the film increased.  If you believe a movie is only as good as it’s script, you’re wrong.  And this group of people are here to prove it.

Beyond that, the movie, itself, is an interesting experiment.  I remember hearing many, many people hate on the film when it was released and they all had one sole, common complaint: the twist ending.  Naturally, it’s going to be tough to discuss said twist without spoiling it for those of you who haven’t seen the film (I encourage you to watch it and make up your own mind, as long as you’re mature enough to watch it with an open mind and not be influenced by what you may have heard from others), but I fall in the middle with regards to it, leaning towards liking it.  I can admit that it’s implausible.  And, anticipating the questions that viewers would have about it as they rise up to challenge its believability, Shyamalan jumps through hoops to proactively address and answer some of them, himself (literally).  It feels a bit forced and unnaturally delivered.  The movie flows smoothly up to that point and to suddenly have exposition thrust at our faces just to satiate the haters is disorienting.

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On the other hand, as implausible as it is, I’m not going to be so arrogant as to state that it’s unequivocally impossible.  But, even if it is impossible in our world, there are other perspectives to consider.  For one,  much less plausible than the twist ending is Bryce Dallas Howard’s character of Ivy.  Ivy is a fine, upstanding young woman who has just started to form her own life, independent of her parents.  She’s also blind.  Howard plays blind extremely well, never overdoing it in a desperate effort to communicate to the audience that Ivy can’t see.  However, the script requires Ivy to perform tasks that I have a hard time believing a blind person could pull off.  Early in the film, Ivy runs freely through an open field, even taking a turn to reach her desired destination.  Okay, I can buy that she grew up in her village and would know that the field is a clearing with no trees or other obvious obstacles.  I can maybe even buy that she’s so familiar with the lay of the land that she would know when to turn in order to head home.  Maybe.  But what about the little things?  Groundhog holes?  Hidden rocks?  This isn’t all, as she is also seen walking briskly while somehow avoiding tree roots and the like.  Howard does what she can to make it feel natural, but it’s a tough sell.

But another look at the story shows that it’s all one big metaphor.  And, even if the surface elements of the narrative don’t all click, the subtext works quite well.  Ivy’s affliction functions as the primary metaphor of the film as the people around her are blind to the fact that they are being controlled by others through fear, misplaced trust, and gullibility.  Fear has often been the most effective method of control and manipulation, from the early days of mankind all the way through today.  People controlled by fear will commit atrocities for their puppet masters.  They’ll betray their loved ones for them.  They’ll vote for them for president.  It’s a potent message and I can’t elaborate any further without exposing story elements that shouldn’t be exposed, but I’m willing to tolerate some of the less palatable cosmetic flaws of the film in order to fully absorb the deeper meaning.

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The Village isn’t flawless.  And it isn’t as strong as Shyamalan’s first three films, though I argue it’s better than any of his films that followed it, up until The Visit (Lady in the Water was rough going, but The Happening truly remains one of the worst films I’ve ever seen and it nearly killed his career for good).  No film lives or dies on its ending.  The ending can help or hurt a film, yes, but it’s never everything.  Whether one likes the ending, or not, there is more going on in The Village than the final five minutes.  It closes the circle of the comparison between the situation created and experienced by these characters and the harm we inflict upon ourselves as a society.  And the story is acted out by a cornucopia of master thespians (and Eisenberg, who is talented, but not versatile enough to be a “master thespian”.  His role is tiny, though.) who deserve respect and acknowledgement for the subtleties they inject into the film.  An insightful viewer will find enough meat to The Village to consider it worthwhile.

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#ThrowbackThursday – The Village