A suspenseful game of cat-and-mouse
Halloween (2018): Laurie Strode comes to her final confrontation with Michael Myers, the masked figure who has haunted her since she narrowly escaped his killing spree on Halloween night four decades ago.
Jason Blum can do no wrong. The CEO of Blumhouse Productions, executive producer of 2018’s Halloween, and one of the biggest names in Hollywood you've probably never heard of, Blum and his team at Blumhouse have been behind some of the most successful horror films of the last decade+, for better or worse. Paranormal Activity. Inisidous. Sinister. Split. The Purge. Happy Death Day. And, of course, Get Out. Now, the famous executive and his studio is back for the unimaginitevely titled Halloween, a direct sequel to John Carpenter's 1978 classic by the same name. (Seriously, though, this movie’s good and all, but could we have at least seen a different title? There have 5 films in this franchise called either Halloween or Halloween II....) And, like much of Blumhouse Productions catalog, it's a shockingly well executed film that hits all the right notes at all the right times. So let's dive in, shall we?
I'll cut right to the heart of this film: (don't worry, I'll be here all night) the cat-and-mouse dynamic between Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) and Michael Myers is one of the more interesting dynamics I've seen in a modern horror film. Director/writer David Gordon Green spends less time going for the cheap jump scares and more time developing the characters of Strode and Myers, which makes the climactic third act as tense and effective as it is. And tenseness is something of an understatement for the third act, as the cat-and-mouse game between the two leads comes to a head and the scares that are usually cheap become freakishly effective. The decision to have Jamie Lee Curtis double as a producer for the film pays dividends: Curtis had an undeniably major role in painting the picture of her character. Laurie Strode is a traumatized mom and grandmother, struggling to maintain her relationship with her family, while dealing with her own PTSD. And she plays off the classic villain incredibly well.
However, the supporting cast is one of the weakest parts of this film. Strode’s daughter, played by Judy Greer, has a rather shallow and undeveloped arc with a laughable conclusion, while Strode's granddaughter, played by newcomer Andi Matichack, does a good job with the material she's given…..if only that material was actually worthwhile. And don't get me started on Dr. Sartain. (Haluk Bilginer) Yes, it's a horror movie, but compared to some other previous Blumhouse Productions installments, like Get Out, most of the supporting cast is nothing more than meager plot devices with a good moment here and there. Also, I do have to commend the fact that this film features three heroines more than capable of handling themselves, and the film never even makes a thing about it which is even better. Absolutely love.
But, at the end of the day, this is great horror film. It has some good scares, and compared to a lot of modern horror films, has some great character development and suspense between its two leads. For me, it doesn't land quite as well as 2017’s It did, in part because a voiceless, faceless villain is in itself limiting, but it still gets the job done. Ultimately, isn't that all you want out of a horror film?
The Critique: featuring a suspenseful dynamic between its heroine and villain, Halloween features effective suspense and good scares, despite a weak supporting cast
The Recommendation: if you're a horror fan, or a fan of the original film, it's well worth a watch. Even the casual horror fan may find something to like here. However, if you're looking for a gateway into the genre….. this ain't it. (Try Get Out instead)
Rewatchability: Moderately High
The Verdict: 7/10 Good.
First Man (2018): A look at the life of the astronaut, Neil Armstrong, and the legendary space mission that led him to become the first man to walk on the Moon on July 20, 1969.
Damien Chazelle is BACK. After setting Hollywood ablaze with the 1-2 punch of triumphs Whiplash and La La Land, (in my opinion two of the best films I've reviewed on this blog) the studio executives at Universal decided to give the director a chance to put himself squarely in the realm of “blank check” directors. (To join the upper A-list of names like Spielberg, Nolan, and Fincher, to name a few.) And that, in short, sums up what First Man is: an audition. So does Chazelle pass the bar? ……..yes and no. (Oscar, can I set myself up for a question that I don't answer? No? Well, I'm gonna do it anyway….)
So here's the long-form answer to that question, because it's my job to over explain things. This is an ambitious film. As do most biopics that cover huge ground, the film bites off way more than it can chew, but it manages to show its intimacy in the individual scenes. For example, Claire Foy plays Armstrong's wife, Janet Shearon, and isn't given nearly enough to do. (As would be expected in a film about her husband.) She's basically “the wife,” which shouldn't come as much surprise. But in her criminally limited on-screen time, Claire Foy delivers one of the best “the wife” roles I've ever seen. Shearon’s dominating presence is felt all throughout the film that she's not featured nearly enough in. Makes sense, right? At the center of it all, though, is Gosling's reserved performance of Neil Armstrong. It doesn't bring a prestigious “Oscar-worthy” title with it, but it effectively paints the picture of a quiet and almost socially awkward figure who is probably just as surprised he's a titanic hero of recent American history as we, the viewer, are to discover he was not oozing with charm and charisma. While at many points this is the film's hidden strength, it also serves to be its greatest weakness, as moments that should be intimate and emotionally devastating become as awkwardly uncomfortable as Armstrong, the man, was. If anything, it goes to showcase why this iconic moment in history has been largely avoided by Hollywood cinema over the years.
One thing that has no doubt in its magnificence, though, is the technical side of First Man. This film is a visual marvel, and if you are going to see it try and see it on the biggest screen that you can find. The film features multiple thrilling setpieces, and while it does cheat at points in said setpieces with close-ups of Armstrong throughout the take offs and landings, and unnecessary shaky cam, it does not skimp on all of them. (The take off of Apollo 11 in particular is spectacular.) Additionally, the film's sound design and editing is incredible, to the point that its beauty is downright distracting at times. But expect Oscar nominations for the sound department this Oscar season. Finally, Justin Hurwitz, Damien Chazelle’s personal composer, continues to showcase why he REALLY needs to branch out to every movie ever, because once again his music is spectacular. It's subtle while still memorable, subdued while still dominating. Hurwitz walks all the tightropes. Please, dude. Put yourself in more films ASAP. (Sits by the door and waits for my First Man soundtrack to arrive.)
So one would think after reading all of that, the answer to the question of “Did Damien Chazelle pass his audition to join the upper echolon of Hollywood directors?” with First Man would be a resounding, "Yes." And yet….I'm not so sure because of one real reason, and it's kind of an important one: box office results. See, I have the luxury of being able to jump on a soapbox here because it's Wednesday and the film has been out almost a full week (time-stamping when I wrote this review!) and that's long enough to see the film is performing well under expectations. And I'm worried that Chazelle is going to front the blame for this, and it makes me sad. Because it's not his fault at all. Take a second, step back, and ask yourself: who is this movie for? Who is the target audience? This is where the problems lie, because it's not going for elitist intellectual types. It's going for the American Sniper crowd. A crowd that has effectively turned its back on liberal Hollywood unless the 'Murica themes are over-the-top obvious. (And not showing Buzz Aldrin plant the American flag in the moon does not bode well to showcase those overtly patriotic themes. Honestly, while it's not a necessary inclusion, I'm not really sure why they didn't include it, either. There's my #HotTake, Oscar.) But I'm worried that the studio execs will look at this performance, flip out, and look for someone to blame. And that someone will likely be Chazelle, which is a real shame. However, I sincerely hope Chazelle is given a blank check for his next film because, for picking something that he wasn't even passionate about a few years ago, (he knew almost nothing about the moon landing, and had no interest in it, but reading the book from James R. Hansen changed his mind) I think he did a pretty good job. And while the finished product falls just short of greatness (which is, admittedly, a let down from his previous works) Damien Chazelle further showcases with First Man that he should be a household name among the very top directors in the business. Whether that actually happens, however, is yet to be seen.
My Number: 7.5/10
And the Oscar Goes to.....
A Star Is Born (2018): A musician helps a young singer and actress find fame, even as age and alcoholism send his own career into a downward spiral.
Wow. Talk about coming into your own. A classic story re-imagined for the 21st century featuring the directorial debut of Bradley Cooper and the silver screen debut of Lady Gaga, A Star Is Born is a truly incredible and remarkable film. Cooper's directorial debut reaches for the stars and succeeds on nearly every level. It was an ambitious undertaking for the prolific actor turned rookie director, to say the least: reinterpret one of the most reprised stories in Hollywood for a modern era, (this is its 4th iteration, and each time the starpower has been there, with actors like James Mason, Kris Kristofferson, Judy Garland, and Barbara Streisand playing the lead roles) and as if that isn't enough, might as well put an established pop star with virtually no previous dramatic acting experience in the lead role because....why not? But every facet of the movie works with flying colors, making A Star Is Born one of the best films of the year and an early heavyweight contender for this year's Oscar season. It's well worth the watch!
There's not much this film does wrong, so I'll intersperse it throughout my glowing sentiments about this uplifting film. The heart and soul of this is, of course, Lady Gaga. Almost certainly the favorite for Best Actress this year, Gaga makes the accomplished cast of this film look like amateurs with her iconic performance as Ally. Bradley Cooper wasn't kidding when he said that he fell in love with Lady Gaga's eyes when he decided to cast her, and I can see why: her incredible performance starts with the amount of emotion she can convey with nothing but her eyes. I haven't seen that much emotion one's eyes since Nicole Kidman in 2016's Lion, which is still one of my favorite performances of recent memory.. And that's just one of many things that contribute to her enduring performance. She also has an incredible amount of control over her voice. I know, she's a pop star so this shouldn't be too surprising, but Gaga shows a meticulous level of attention to detail with her voice to convey the emotions she needs to in any given scene. Seriously: Lady Gaga's performance is the best I've seen this year, (sorry, Toni Collette, but I'm still rooting for you to at least be nominated!) and it's worth the cost of admission by itself. And I haven't even mentioned Bradley Cooper or the songs yet!
Which are amazing, obviously. The lead single of this film, "Shallow," is all but assured the Oscar for Best Original Song. Even 2016's La La Land wishes it had music as good as this. Because the crazy thing about this film's music is how diverse it is. It's not like every song in here is a country song. No, no. There's some rock, some pop, some country, there's something here for everyone. And all of it is executed flawlessly. I'm already playing the music on repeat on Spotify, and I suspect this will only increase as time goes on. Oh! And, ya! Bradley Cooper is really, really good! His portrayal of the troubled music star, Jack, struggling with alcoholism is fantastic. He plays off Ally exceptionally well while letting her be the star of the show.
And that, my friends, is the strongest part of this interpretation of A Star Is Born. The 1976 version is really good, don't get me wrong, but there is a frustrating amount of time spent focusing on John Howard (Kris Kristofferson) when the film should be spending 80%+ of its time focusing on Esther Hoffman. (Barba Streisand) Fortunately, the same mistake is not made here. This is Ally's show, from start to (almost) the end. Speaking of, the ending has been updated, but it's still a little messy and the weakest part of the film as it does become a little too much about Jack, despite giving Ally the best solo number of the film to wrap it all up. Either way, it is a HUGE improvement over its 1976 counterpart, so I'll take it. Hopefully the next version will finally be able to smooth this out. In conclusion, though, this movie is fantastic and a great pick-me-up for what's happening in the world right now. It is well worth your time and money at the theater right now.
The Critique: Featuring phenomenal original music and a great supporting cast, A Star Is Born effectively showcases the diverse talents of its lead actress while all but ensuring her (at least) an Oscar nomination.
The Recommendation: You could probably guess this one, but seriously: it's an absolute must-see for everyone!
The Verdict: 9/10 Awesome.
Oscar Talk: Haven't done this in a while! Ya, I keep saying it, and I'll say it again: I will fall to the floor in utter disbelief if Lady Gaga doesn't receive nominations for both Best Actress and Best Original Song. The Best Actor field is shaping up to be a bit more competitive this year, so I'm not sure if Bradley Cooper will join her. If anything, I'd say it would be more likely to see him receive a Best Director nomination. Also, expect a Best Original Score nomination as well, assuming it's eligible for the category. (There are some weird rules with Best Original Score that I don't entirely understand.) Oh, and it's almost a given, but expect a Best Picture nomination as well!
Nowhere near enough Venom
Venom (2018): When Eddie Brock acquires the powers of a symbiote, he will have to release his alter-ego "Venom" to save his life.
Ok, seriously: what was that? Because I have no idea. I'm sitting here in Darkness Brewing. There's a heavy metal cover of Maroon 5’s “Misery” playing as I type this, and it's not the weirdest thing to happen in my life this evening. It's been a solid 30 minutes since the movie ended, and I still haven't the faintest idea what I just saw. What WAS that? Was it a comedy? A romance? An action flick? I don't know, and I'm pretty sure the movie doesn't know either. To say Venom is a mess is something of an understatement, and there's no doubt that your mileage will vary tremendously with this abomination. That said…..did I have fun? …...kind of? I think I was having fun at the movie’s expense, but fun is fun is fun is fun. Right?
Let me first say that before you completely dismiss my opinion because of my (self-admitted) preconceived biases against the avalanche of comic book films we've seen in recent years…..Venom has always been my favorite supervillain. And I actually quite enjoyed Tom Hardy's erratic and unpredictable interpretation of the antihero Eddie Brock. He is undoubtedly the best thing about this very raw and messy film, as director Ruben Fleischer clearly gave Hardy total creative freedom in portraying the character. Your mileage will vary with this polarizing performance, and, fair warning: if you're not a fan of it, there really isn't anything else here to enjoy, because the rest of this movie suuuuuuuuucks. We'll get to that. But first, I have to send some shoutouts: to Riz Ahmed, who portrays a rather entertaining villain Carlton Drake, as well as the great Michelle Williams as Anne. Anne is not given the screen time she deserves, however I mention her because she's played by Michelle Williams, and I love her and she needs to be in literally everything. Carry on.
You know what is bad, though? Every second of this movie where Eddie Brock/Venom aren't together. Which is…… a lot. Specifically, for the first 45 minutes of this thing Fleischer and co. RUSH through a meaningless backstory for Eddie Brock that features some hilariously bad montage sequences, dialogue, and plot points. Honestly, this would've been a better film had we simply started with Eddie/Venom merging together, because after the first 45 minutes trying to be a cheesy soapbox romantic drama, the film veers HARD right into a shockingly entertaining comedy. I was never really sure if I was laughing with the film or at the film, but I knew I was laughing throughout the second act. That's really all that matters, right Oscar? Doesn't matter how you have fun just as long as you have fun? Well, this fun quickly dissipates in the final act as Venom falls victim to some horrific CGI sequences that even give The Amazing Spider-Man 2 a run for its money. Which makes even less sense than it does already because the second act had a fairly enjoyable action sequence in it as Eddie learned what Venom could do on the fly while he mowed down baddies in true PG-13 fashion.
Which brings me to my original point: what is this film trying to be? As it incomprehensibly moves from act to act, from sequence to sequence, the only thing that is certain is that your guess is as good as mine. And that Tom Hardy is nuts when he wants to be. OH. Oscar! Can I talk about the post-credit scenes? Because I want to talk about the post-credit scenes. Because oh my GOD they are TERRIBLE. The first introduces Woody Harrelson and a HORRIFIC wig in a shameless attempt at sequel-baiting that does anything but get me excited for Venom 2, and the second is a tease for Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse. So literally nothing but long teasers for upcoming Sony/Marvel films. Seriously?????? That's what these obligatory post-credit scenes have become? Teasers for upcoming films? Siiiiiiiigh. Anyway, where was I, Oscar? Right. This movie is unashamedly outlandish and it all hinges on Hardy's polarizing performance. If you're into it, there's enough here to like in between the useless opening act and CGI-thon of the final act, but if not? Stay VERY far away
The Critique: pinning its hopes on a uniquely bizarre performance from Tom Hardy, Venom is an incomprehensible mess of a film that still manages to be somewhat fun, even if you are having said fun at the movie’s expense.
The Recommendation: Seriously. Wait until this thing hits streaming services so you can skip through the first 45 minutes and the ridiculous CGI onslaught at the end.
Rewatchability: Moderately Low
The Verdict: 4/10 Below Average.
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