Oculus (2013): A Study in Perception and Dread

October 6th, 2016

Oculus posterI love a good psychological horror film about as much as I love a good ghost story. In both those sub-genres, you have some question as to the actual nature of the events going on. When done right, it’s the film version of print’s “unreliable narrator” technique. It leaves the characters–and the audience–wondering, at least for a little while, if not indefinitely–whether what they’ve seen happen actually happened.

Oculus is solid example. It has various twists and turns and is all about not being sure if what you’re seeing is real.

The Plot

Tim and Kaylie Russel had a very traumatic time as children. According to the official reports, they both were forced to watch as their father tortured and killed their mother over the course of days (if not longer) and then, presumably in self-defense, Tim killed his father so the siblings could escape.

At first, both maintained that there were supernatural forces at work, ones that twisted perception and drove their parents mad. When pressed, Kaylie drops that part of the story, leaving her brother to be sent away to years of psychiatric care. He’s finally divested himself of the idea that something supernatural went on in his childhood and is released.

When the siblings are reunited, one of the first things Kaylie tells her brother is that she’s tracked down the mirror that started their nightmare and now it’s up to them to destroy it.

Needless to say, Tim is a bit… concerned. And confused. And a bit angry. (All rightfully so, I’d say.)

So begins a journey back into madness and terror where nothing is quiet what it seems and not everyone will make it through the night alive.

Twisted Reflections

I managed to miss Oculus when it was in the theaters and everyone was gushing over it. When I did finally see it, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the gushing was worth it. The story twists and turns at just the right times and in just the right ways to keep you on edge, never quite sure what’s real and what’s being imagined–or if anything is real.

There are some truly trippy moments when the psychological rug just gets pulled completely out from under you and the ending is perfectly choreographed, yet still at least moderately surprising–and super effective.

The performances are above average and, for a film with few characters and more or less a single setting, things stay interesting and engaging for it’s entire run. Karen Gillan, at the time likely best known for her run on Doctor Who, not only nails an American accent the entire time, but embodies the frenetic, obsessive, energy of Kaylie in tragic and believable ways. Brenton Thwaites, as Tim, swings back and forth between wanting to believe his sister, despite what he’s just spent a decade or more convincing himself wasn’t true, and wanting to desperately help her escape the delusion that killed their parents.  In flashback sequences, Katee Sackhoff expertly portrays their mother’s descent into a twisted version of herself (a transformation which may or may not have been a result of that ornate mirror).

The Verdict

You will lose track of what’s going on in this movie. That’s on purpose. It’s also what’s happening to the characters. You’re all in the same boat and that ship’s not just sinking, it’s on fire and sinking.

If you can’t handle repeated moments of complete uncertainty, you’ll hate this film. If you don’t mind having the ground you’re trying to walk on be a bit unstable and those little trips and drops get your brain screaming for more, you’ll love this movie.

Most people will fall somewhere in between. They’ll really dig some parts of it and be completely turned off by others. This is one of those movies that surprised everyone by doing as well as it did in theaters, which means it actually did hit on the deep unease a lot of people are experiencing in their real lives.

Definitely check it out… maybe watch it a couple of times, actually. (And since you’ll be watching it at home, don’t hesitate on a second viewing to rewind to double-check those reality switches… they’re very well done.)

Young Frankenstein: Comedy Born From Horror

October 5th, 2016

Young Frankenstein posterIf you haven’t seen Young Frankenstein, you’re missing one of Mel Brooks’ greatest comedies. A good deal of that greatness rests on the shoulders of co-writer and star Gene Wilder… and the rest of the fantastic cast.

This is one of those films that wouldn’t have existed at all if it weren’t for the original Universal Studios series of Frankenstein films. It is, effectively, if not quite canonically, a further sequel to the original–making clear and distinct references to that original and the films that came after. It is a tongue-in-cheek love letter to those classic horror films. And it nails so much perfectly. (Heck, even the equipment in the lab is the actual equipment from the original film.)

The Plot

Frederick is a scientist who happens to be descended from the infamous Frankenstein family. He has tried very hard to divest himself of that legacy, going so far as to “correct” the pronunciation of his name. When he inherits the family castle and stumbles upon his great grandfather’s notes of how be brought life to dead tissue, the pull of destiny is more than Freddy can resist.

Hilarity ensues.

The Laughs

This is a case where the actual details of the plot don’t matter anywhere near as much as the sweep of the story. Everything is a series of comedy bits–plays on words, slapstick, allusions and euphemisms, and straight up hilarious acting (and reacting) from the cast. Elements of the original Frankenstein are definitely used, as are the general structure and look of the classic Universal pictures.

Thanks in no small part to a vicious editing process (according to some, the original cut of the film was twice as long, with a lot of stuff that didn’t quite work), the film as it exists provides a regular stream of absolute humor. (Especially for those who know the source material.)

Both Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder have listed this as one of their favorite films–if not their most favorite. That love shows through if you’ve ever seen either of them talk about the making of the film. And that joy is something that just oozes from the screen when you watch it.

There’s actually a new book coming out shortly about the making of this film. It’s bound to be enlightening and entertaining.

The Verdict

There is very little (if any) horror in this film. But without the history of horror behind the Frankenstein name, there wouldn’t have been anything to poke fun at.

This is the typical progression of horror. What was once terrifying, becomes common, then it becomes a joke. This wasn’t the first project to poke fun at the Frankenstein idea. Ten years earlier, The Munsters had hit TV, and, among all the sequels, reboots, riffs, and whatnot of the original film, more than a few were satire or comedy.

What makes Young Frankenstein stand out from all of those is the near perfection to which it apes the style of the original while adding more modern (for 1974) touches here and there (like the whole “Putting on the Ritz” number, which itself has gone on to inspire parody and re-use).

If you haven’t seen this film, you should. Even if you don’t like it as a whole, there will be at least one or two bits that bring you joy. More importantly, if you really watch it, you’ll see where so much that’s come after it–regardless of the subject–still draws inspiration from.

This is rightfully regularly listed as “one of the [some number] of films you have to see.”

House on Haunted Hill (1959): More Than Just a Gimmick

October 4th, 2016

House on Haunted Hill posterThe House on Haunted Hill is one of the earlier horror films I saw growing up. It still stands as one of my favorite “haunted house” films, even though the question of just how haunted (if at all) the house is remains unanswered.

There’s a lot to like right off the top. It’s got Vincent Price in it–so you know there’s at least some style. It’s in classic black and white–so you know there’s at least some atmosphere. It’s from smack in the middle of the horror renaissance, after the Shock Theater package has gone out to TV stations across the country–so you know there was that odd mix of old and new horror to be had.

This is also one of those “horror films for people who don’t like horror films.” Because of its age, there’s not a lot of gore to be had and the overall atmosphere was so prevalent and specific to the time it was made that by today’s standards, it’s almost campy. (Because it’s one of the films that help set all those tropes that are all too familiar now.)

The Plot

The plot is direct: A rich guy and his ostensibly gold-digging trophy wife throw a party in a haunted house and all the guests are supposedly complete strangers. Everyone who survives the night gets $10,000. The door locks at midnight and doesn’t open again until sunrise. There’s no way out and no one other than the hosts and the guests in the house… except maybe the ghosts of the people who were murdered there years earlier.

Needless to say, things go awry. There is death, screaming, confusion, and the subdued sort of mayhem that was common in classic horror films. Tame by today’s standards, yet still just tense enough to keep things interesting.

All the Fun

Really, what makes the film sing is Vincent Price’s performance as amoral host Frederick Loren. The glee he takes at manipulating his guests and the spiteful banter between him and his wife (also played well by Carol Ohmart) manages to walk that fine line between classy and sleazy that only someone like Price can pull off. Without a doubt, this film is the one that really started my appreciation for his style.

This was one of William Castle’s films, which means during it’s original release in theaters there was a gimmick. In the case of House on Haunted Hill, that gimmick was a plastic skeleton that would fly out over the audience during a key scene in the film. I’d imagine that was scary for all of half a second before it was just giggle-worthy. It did get people to come back and see the film again… there are stories of kids making multiple trips so they could throw things at the skeleton when it swung out. That, of course, spoiled it for everyone and that “Emergo” gimmick was done away with quickly.

Aside from real world gimmicks that came into play, the various murders in the film are all a bit gimmicky in and of themselves. Frederick, it seems, is as much a showman as Castle was and more than happy to stage elaborate illusions and scenes to terrify his guests.

There’s a colorized version of the film out there that shows up a lot. I don’t like it anywhere near as much as the black and white version. I think it loses a bit of the atmosphere that makes the black and white version effective.

In 1999, there was a remake of the film. It needlessly complicated the story, added a lot of fancy effects, and managed to lose just about every bit of class the original had. Not that the remake didn’t have anything going for it–there were some fun scares–but it did little, if anything, for the legacy of this film.

The Verdict

You simply can’t be a fan of classic horror without having seen House on Haunted Hill. It’s required watching for fans of Castle and Price. It’s a seminal “haunted house” film–from the initial setup on, it’s a formula that was used many times before and after, on screen and in print. It also holds a pretty solid place in the overall cultural history of horror in the U.S., since it was one of the best known of the gimmick films at the time and then spent a long time in steady rotation on television and home video (thanks in no small part to a copyright snafu that dropped it into the public domain).

Sure, by today’s standards it could seem a bit dull. Definitely a bit corny. But like most classic genre films, the whole trick is to watch is as if you haven’t seen anything that came out after it was released. You have to first and foremost weigh it among its contemporaries, forgetting how over-done some of the “tricks” have become over the decades.

Among all the films that have entertained and inspired me, this one ranks high. The clear progression of the plot, the ostentatious “reveal” at the end, the way some things are just left hanging, but, overall, the style of the closed room mystery set in a place where you’re not sure you can actually see all the players. That makes for a good classic horror film. At least in my book.

House: Not the Doctor Show, the Haunted Kind

October 3rd, 2016

House PosterWhen I first saw House, around the time it came out on home video or HBO in the late 80s, I don’t remember thinking of it as a horror-comedy. Part of the reason for that is that I saw House II first which is more of a comedy with horror elements in it. Putting the two side by side, the first in the series is more than a few shades darker than the second.

That’s not to say it’s without humor. In fact, as is often the case in well done horror, it’s the bits of levity that make the horror all the more stark and the characters all the easier to relate to.

House was pretty much an unqualified box office hit (made on a budget of around $3 million and pulling in nearly $19.5 million), with a long life on cable and home video. It brought Willam Katt, who had spent a few years on TV as a bumbling super hero in The Greatest American Hero, back to the big screen and gave him a chance to once again show off some of his dramatic acting chops.

It’s one of my favorite horror films with a Vietnam connection. (And, yeah, that is kind of a sub-genre of horror film from the 70s and 80s, even a little into the 90s in some cases.)

The Plot

Roger Cobb is a Vietnam vet who’s been making a living as a horror writer. At least until his life becomes a real life horror story. His son goes missing while visiting Cobb’s aunt’s house, leading to the shredding of both his marriage and his career.

Not too long after everything in his life comes crashing down, Cobb’s aunt passes away (by hanging herself) and he inherits the house. Well behind on the deadline to finish his next book, and with nowhere else to go, he moves into his aunt’s house.

Between writing and renovating the property, he begins to have odd experiences, many of them related to his time in Vietnam… but also a number of truly paranormal and otherworldly encounters.

Eventually, he discovers a portal to a dark and twisted supernatural realm (in the bathroom medicine cabinet) and gets pulled through. He discovers that his son was also pulled into this nether realm and finds him (miraculously) still alive (and sane). Father and son fight their way back into the real world, culminating in Cobb finally facing his fear and guilt about Vietnam and destroying the house.

Subtext and Parallels

When this movie came out, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder was kind of a new thing in the public consciousness. The ravages of the war plus the lack of support for veterans when they returned from Vietnam had contributed greatly to a number of problems for those men. There was a lot of commentary on this surfacing in horror and other genre fiction at the time–both in print and on screens large and small (there’s a fantastic episode of The New Twilight Zone called “Nightcrawlers” that I can’t recommend enough).

In House, Cobb is a man who came back from the jungle when many friends of his did not. He’s been channeling a lot of that into his horror fiction, but, when his son vanishes, the new trauma dredges up all the old. Among all the more typical “haunted house” stuff and truly bizarre (and unexplained) supernatural creatures that show up in this movie, the most menacing is Big Ben (played by Richard Moll), the buddy who Cobb left for dead, only to find out later he didn’t die before he was tortured by the Viet Cong.

That survivor’s guilt serves as both the key to Cobb’s suffering and his escape from the hellish otherworld where he’s found himself and his son. These kind of metaphorical and allegorical setups are why horror can be a super-effective way to deal with issues the public–and those suffering directly–otherwise are hesitant to deal with.

Cobb’s triumph and escape–especially since he also rescues his son in the process, atoning in a way for leaving Big Ben behind–is a solidly heroic journey. One which many in the real world face without the proxies of special-effects-generated dark dimensions and skeletal specters of guilt.

The Verdict

There are a few different ways you can watch this movie and get something worthwhile out of it.

You can watch it as a straight up horror film and soak in the dread of Cobb’s missing son and his personal hell for what he didn’t do for his friend back in ‘Nam. Marvel at the effects, especially Big Ben near the end of the film, which were pretty impressive for 1986. You’ll likely come away suitable entertained by the jump scares and overall story.

You can watch is as a study of or metaphor for PTSD and associated trauma disorders. Katt does a great job of playing though those emotions (which is one of the reasons I most certainly didn’t remember the comedy elements in this when I first saw it… some of those emotions are raw). And revel in how, ultimately, not only does he triumph over his problems, but helps save his son from falling prey to the fallout from them.

You can watch it for the comedy bits… which are, indeed, there. Not just in the design of some of the monsters, but in the way a number of the situations are played. This actually downplays the horror aspect of a number of things, but, again, makes the more important horror bits–those with Big Ben–stand out all the more.

Overall, at just over an hour and a half, you really can’t go wrong checking out this film. It’s one of the more solid ones from the time, with an edge that still holds up today (especially now that we’ve been dealing with an influx of soldiers who have “seen too much” in the war zone and struggle with the same problems Cobb does).

The Woman In Black (2012): A classic ghost story with a twist

October 2nd, 2016

Woman in Black PosterI like ghost stories.

Ghost stories aren’t always “monster movies” or the kind of horror that makes you jump out of your seat. A good ghost story will leave your skin crawling long after you’ve finished it. A great ghost story will leave you questioning reality at least a little. Sure, there may be a few good jump scares in there, but it’s the underlying sense of unease that really makes the story work.

The Woman in Black does a decent job of doing that. It’s not an action-packed, jump-scare-filled, special effects blockbuster. It’s a slow-burn descent into horror with an unexpected ending that, when it hits you, sticks.

The Plot

Arthur Kipps is a lawyer who’s seen better days. His ability to do his work has suffered greatly over the past four years, ever since his wife died while giving birth to their son. Given one last chance to keep his job, Kipps is sent to the remote village of Cryphin Gifford to attend to the settlement of an estate. The village isn’t all that welcoming and, with no room at the inn, Kipps finds himself staying at the house that is the main holding of the estate he’s settling.

This is, of course, where the ghost in the ghost story comes in. The property is haunted by the titular Woman in Black. Long ago, her young son drowned in the marshes surrounding the estate. His mother blamed the negligence of others and, ever since, has sought vengeance. As part of this, she “steals” children from the nearby village.

As the story presses on, the attacks against Kipps and the children of the village escalate. The once skeptical Kipps soon comes to believe, at least a little bit, in the supernatural root of the problems at hand. When his own son becomes a target, he does what he can to put the ghost to rest.

The Creeping Terror

The pacing of this film is solidly slow, but always moving. The actual level of “unexplainable” things doesn’t jump right out. For a good portion of the film, there is some question as to whether there’s anything more than folklore and superstition to the whole story of the ghost that haunts the estate. The odd occurrences and strange coincidences that are experienced are soon punctuated with some subtle special effect and, eventually, escalate into full-on ghost shenanigans.

No small part of the feeling of dread that permeates this film comes from Daniel Radcliffe, still best known for his portrayal of boy wizard Harry Potter. He brings a thoroughly distraught energy to the role of Kipps, the sense of loss in the man palpable and deep. When that turns around and fuels his desire to protect not just his own son, but all the children the ghost threatens, it’s a believable switch… and the final actions he takes (which I won’t spoil, because they play out so well) make perfect sense in retrospect.

Like many of the well-done ghost stories that I love, the build up of dread happens naturally. It escalates into blatant fear numerous times, but then quiets back down so you don’t know when it will strike again. The tension is constant, but not at a consistent level–so as not to burn the audience out (which often happens in full on, balls-to-the-wall type horror films… which often end up being such an assault on the senses and sensibility that you just end up numb by the end)–and still leaves space for the final spike after the tale is done. That final spike, much like the classic Henry James story Turn of the Screw, happens when the implications of everything that’s gone on fully click in your head.

That’s what stays with you. That’s what changes your overall perception of the world. That’s what brings into question the very nature of “safe” reality.

The Verdict

If you like slowly building stories, solid but subtle performances, and endings of questionable happiness, then you should definitely check this out.

This film is also notable in that it’s Radcliffe’s first “grown-up” post-Potter role in a film. (He’d done a very well-received run on stage in Equus.) It shows off his true acting chops and lets him slough off the whole “child star only known for one role” stigma quite well.

All of the other performances are solid, too. The quiet terror among the villagers. The anguish and anger from the ghost. All of that comes through true and believable. The special effects, both subtle and blatant, add to the atmosphere and never get in the way by distracting from the scene. (Far too often, especially in horror, you have the “oh! look at the monster!” moment that places the technology and spectacle before the plot… I consider that a big problem, especially in a film like this.)

Even if you’re not generally a fan of horror films, you should give this one a go. It’s not grotesque or bloody, but, trust me, the horror is real.

Of course, if you’re a fan of gore-based horror films… or need a bunch of bloody action… then this film will bore you to tears.

Frankenstein (1931)

October 1st, 2016

Frankenstein posterThanks to my father’s love of the monster movies of his youth, I grew up watching horror films.

It started with the old Universal Pictures movies that were shown sporadically on channel 13, the PBS station out of NYC. One of the first I remember seeing, the lights dim in the living room, was the 1931 version of Frankenstein. (Along with Dracula and The Wolf Man, you’ve pretty much got the unholy trinity of classic monster movies.)

By today’s standards, the movie itself is tame. This is true of almost all of those classic films that set the groundwork for the horror genre of film. When it first came out, with popular movies being just shy of a generation old, many scenes in the film were shocking and some even found themselves censored from future releases of the film.

By now everyone knows the basic story told by the movie. It’s been done hundreds of times–in other movies, on many television shows, retold and reminagined in every medium that’s become available. At it’s core, it’s based on Mary Shelley’s novel of the same name which first came into print in 1818, and has spawned numerous sequels.

The Plot

The film plays out a little differently than the book it is based on. A good hunk of the story from the book doesn’t come into play until Bride of Frankenstein in 1935.

We are introduced to Henry Frankenstein, a young and ambitious scientist with some unorthodox ideas about life and death. Together with his hunchbacked assistant Fritz, Frankenstein cobbles together a monstrous body made from various corpses. Using the power generated from lightning, that gestalt form is brought to life.

The Monster is new to the world, mute and awkward in his movements. Quickly he begins to understand, but still lacks full comprehension of how fragile the other beings around him are. Henry is horrified by his creation, locking it away in a cell. Fritz taunts The Monster, inciting it to panic by thrusting a lit torch at it. That fear causes The Monster to break it’s chains, kill Fritz, and flee into the countryside.

Briefly, The Monster is recaptured and thought killed by Frankenstein, who then leaves to prepare for his wedding.

Townsfolk, already suspicious of Frankenstein’s activities, are further riled up when The Monster throws a little girl into a lake (ostensibly wondering if she’ll float like the flowers the two of them have been tossing into the water) where she drowns.

This would be where the now iconic torches and pitchforks come out and The Monster is chased to an old mill, which is subsequently set on fire, leaving everyone believing The Monster is, finally, truly dead.

Frankenstein recovers from his confrontation with his creation and proceeds with his wedding.

Why This Is A Classic

It’s more than just straight age that makes this movie a classic. If age alone were the determining factor, the first adaptation of the story from 1910 would be the gold standard. The Universal production, helmed by James Whale managed to hit at just the right time and did so with amazing (for the time) special effects and compelling acting (mostly from the then mostly unknown–despite the fact that he’d been in a number of films prior–Boris Karloff as The Monster) made this a hit with the public.

What really cemented this versions status as a classic, though, was its inclusion in the “Shock Theater” package of films that hit TV in 1957. This introduced a whole new generation to the film (and its sequels). Through this new distribution medium, Frankenstein (and many other of Universal’s films) became staples of Halloween and late night viewing. The rise of horror hosts like Zacherley is directly tied to Shock Theater and, while those presentations tended toward humor, the horror and philosophy of the films remained intact and caught the imaginations of thousands.

Intrinsically, Frankenstein is a fantastically made film for its day. It’s even one that deals with some relatively complex issues–literal matters of life and death, questions of just how far science should go, the idea of taking responsibility for actions, and some musing on man’s place in the universe. Plus it’s got an amazing monster. The makeup by Jack Pierce literally set the standard for decades to come.

Even though the film is technically an adaptation of an adaptation (having been adapted from a stage play based on the original novel), Whale still captures the essence of those deep questions. He would then go on to surpass this film in Bride of Frankenstein… but for a few years, much like Dracula, there was nothing better to be found that drew from the source material. Some would say that there still isn’t.

The Verdict

If you’re a fan of classic horror or film history and you haven’t seen Frankenstein, you absolutely need to do so. If you’re a student of film or culture, you also need to be familiar with not just the movie, but the way it influenced many things that came after it, as well as a large part of the youth culture of the early 60s.

Be aware that this is a film from a distinctly different time. The pacing, by today’s standards, is slow (though nowhere near as slow as some other films of the time), the acting is a bit stylized (more akin to classic stage acting), and the cinematography was limited by the technology of the time (shots tend to be much more static than we’ve become used to, without a lot of different cuts, zooms, or pans). The story itself still holds up, due in part to it’s stripped down simplicity.

If the thought of a movie done in black and white is beyond your capacity to even imagine… well, there’s nothing I can say that will make you consider this a good film. It’s definitely not for you. (And, with that mindset, you’re missing out on a lot.)

This has been and likely will always be one of my absolute favorite movies.

Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru

September 30th, 2016

I Am Not Your Guru PosterAnyone who’s spent even half as much time watching TV at odd hours in the late 80s through the 90s will recognize Tony Robbins immediately. His infomercials were ubiquitous in those wee hours and, as he became better known, ads for his books and seminars would seep into various other viewing hours. He’d show up, or be mentioned, on various shows and in movies (notably being the catalyst for the entire plot of Shallow Hal), and, of course, all over the place in daytime TV and late night talk shows.

When people say “Self Help Guru” there’s a good chance Robbins will be the first person who comes to mind–in part due to that long-time ubiquity in the public consciousness, in part due to his distinct look. You can say “Everyone knows him” and only be guilty of a slight hyperbole.

In all that time, through all the profile pieces and interviews, there was never a really solid documentary about what his events are actually like. Sure, you can shell out the money for the DVDs of his big seminars or, if you’ve really got the cash to burn, pay a few thousand to attend one of the big ones yourself. Or, as of July of 2016, you can pop over to Netflix and watch Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru.

Filmmaker and documentarian Joe Berlinger (who’s made more than a few documentaries I’ve seen over the years) managed to get himself pretty much full access to one of Robbins’ big annual seminars: the 6-day, 2500-attendee, “Date with Destiny” (the next of which has ticket prices ranging from $3995-$7995).

The result is relatively impressive.

The Rundown

Berlinger knows how to weave reality into a good story. So does Robbins. That makes the in-seminar bits of this documentary pretty spectacular. The drama of the moments, the emotions that run through not just the person in the spotlight, but the whole crowd, is palpable. They’re almost the kind of bits you’d see in an ad for the seminar.

But there are also the rougher bits… the shots of doubt, of defiance, of utter breakdown. The stuff that you wouldn’t necessarily put in an infomercial, but that illustrate that we are, indeed, seeing real people go through real life-changing moments.

The real gold here, though, is the out-of-seminar stuff. Behind the scenes with Robbins as he prepares to hit the stage, as he cools down between segments, as he runs the business end of the whole show. Those bits are the meaty parts for anyone who thinks this is anything other than a well-oiled machine, honed over decades of practice.

Also part of the “golden bits” are the out-of-seminar interviews with the staff and attendees. These are people who believe in what they’re there to do (as well they should, for the amount of money they paid). They’re all working hard. The staff to ensure the well-being of the attendees as they go through some serious emotional challenges and the attendees to deeply dig into themselves with the “homework” exercises Robbins assigns.

This is no walk in the park for anyone.

What really brings it all together, though, are the follow-ups done at the very end. Where Berlinger catches up with the attendees whose stories are featured most prominently during the in-seminar parts of the documentary. These follow-ups go a long way to smoothing over what I considered some questionable advice given during one of the segments. (If you watch this documentary, you’ll likely have the same “wait a minute” moment I did.)

The Verdict

Whether or not you like Robbins methods or business model, check this out to see his technique. The man is an expert in what he does. Of that, there is no question. His work ethic and passion are also beyond reproach.

If you’ve ever wondered “What’s the big deal?” about him, but you were never willing to drop any cash to learn more, this is the documentary for you. If you’ve ever wondered how these “self help guys” work with people, watch this–a lot of the younger people in the industry out there have learned directly from Robbins (or, at least, have him as a serious influence).

Finally, if you just want a solid example of a good documentary, check this out. It’s about as far from dry and clinical as you can get. It could be a little more critical in places, but it’s far from a pandering feel-good piece.

It’s a profile of a man who’s dedicated his life to a specific purpose… and the people who come to him hoping to be helped.

His overall goal? Not to be the guru they come to and bow before, but to be the person who gets them to stand up and take him on toe-to-toe with an amount of passion for their lives that matches his.

Man of Steel: Not My Superman

September 29th, 2016

Man of Steel PosterWhen Man of Steel was first announced, I wasn’t as excited as I wanted to be.

I’d already been burned a bit by Superman Returns (which, in my opinion, told a bad story and wasted some really solid actors), not to mention Superman IV (the last of the Christopher Reeve films). They weren’t going to spin-off from Smallville, which, despite it’s uneven track record, did a great job overall with Clark and, especially, Lex Luthor.

As more and more came out before the release, I became less and less enthused about the prospects. I had mixed feelings about Zack Snyder doing the film–I’d liked a few of his other films (like 300, and I think he did a good enough job on Watchmen)–but his immediately prior Suckerpunch had left me questioning a number of his style choices, especially when put in the context of the Superman character.

All was not hopeless, though. David Goyer had been involved in a number of movies and TV shows as writer and creator that I really, really liked. Henry Cavill looked like a good choice for our Kryptonian hero and I’m a bit of an Amy Adams fan in general. So maybe it could all work.

I caught it opening weekend with a friend of mine and we both walked out more than a little unhappy.

The Plot

It starts out the same as every other Superman franchise ever–retelling how Kal-El was shot off into space by his parents in order to escape the destruction of Krypton, how he was found and raised by the salt-of-the-earth Kents on their Kansas farm, and how he, eventually grew to be a man. The difference here kicks in with the Kents. Gone completely is the “help others, but be careful of exposing yourself” sensibility of every other iteration. Instead, after Clark saves a school bus full of kids, he’s told he probably should have let them die rather than risk exposing himself.

That’s… a pretty big difference. And it carries through the rest of the film.

Because he’s been conditioned to keep his secret at all costs (that includes letting his father die in a tornado when he could have easily saved him without revealing himself), Clark ends up not the friendly, happy, decent guy we know. Instead, he’s basically a sullen loner. Spending as little time as possible around people. Moving on if he ever fails to keep his resolve and actually uses his powers to save a life or ten.

The only thing that brings out the “hero” in Clark is when the safety of the planet as a whole is threatened by a band of other Kryptonian survivors lead by General Zod.

Many questionable decisions are made and, after a fight that destroys most of Metropolis and kills many thousands of people, Zod is vanquished and Superman is… feared? A hero? Still considered a threat? On his way to becoming a bastion of altruistic good? All of those? None of those? It’s really not all that clear. (But boy was it a pretty ride to get there.)

The Problems

This has been one of the more talked about films of the past decade. If you don’t know the details of what happened in it, you likely don’t care. What I’m going to be getting into here is spoiler-filled, but everyone’s been talking about this stuff pretty much since the movie came out. That’s how much is pissed people off. (And not in the normal “comic book purist” sort of way.)

Here’s the thing: At his core, Superman has always been the good guy. Could he pretty much take over the planet all on his own? Yep. Does he? Nope. Why? Because he’s the good guy. Because he was raised by the Kents to put other people first, to believe in “Truth, Justice, and The American Way.” (Yes, there have been some great stories told where he’s not the good guy… but those are all alternate universes or propagated by extenuating circumstances like various flavors of Kryptonite… the main Superman has always been the Boy Scout.)

There are two things not to be seen in Man of Steel: those true good guy colors (both literally and figuratively) and awareness of the safety of others. A third thing, bad writing, contributes to the problems caused by both of these other things.

This all comes to a head in the final fight with Zod. Leaving aside the fact that Zod, an undisputed military genius, chooses to fight to the death, one on one, with Superman instead of anything more tactically sound, there’s a lot wrong with how this fight plays out.

First is that Superman never tries to move the fight outside of the city. These are two men who can accidentally destroy buildings, slugging it out, in a major population center that has not, in any way, been evacuated. Superman generally couldn’t care less, apparently, as he continues to throw Zod through populated buildings and rain debris down on the crowds in the streets. This whole fight should be Superman rushing to save people while Zod tries to tire him out by continually putting people in danger… it is not.

The much bigger deal, especially for me, is that this ends up being a fight to the death. Superman kills Zod. Snaps his neck. Right in front of a crowd of horrified men, women, and children. It’s hand-waved away as the “only way” he could have stopped Zod. But that’s not true. We’d seen Superman weakened earlier in the film by some Kryptonian atmosphere (which, really, brings up the question of why, exactly, would Zod want to terraform the Earth).

Just about any other version of Superman would have gone out of his way to get the fight out of Metropolis. To keep from being a second-hand mass murderer. Any Superman other than Snyder’s would also have found another way to incapacitate Zod–even if it was just a temporary solution. Superman doesn’t willingly and knowingly put people in danger and he doesn’t kill people, even his enemies (yes, there are other canonical exceptions, but the general rule stands).

There are tons of other little problems I have, but they all stem from the distinct lack of appreciation this film has for the idea of a selfless hero… of a genuine Good Guy. (Also the questionable writing.)

The Verdict

As a summer blockbuster, Man of Steel wasn’t bad at all. It’s a pretty move to look at. Even with all the muted colors, there’s a depth to the shades of gray and brown that permeate the film. The cinematography is generally solid, the action quotient high, and the destruction level off the charts. So, as a summer blockbuster, total success.

As a Superman movie, though… as a Superman movie it lacks everything that makes Superman “Superman.” He’s not that shining bastion of hope and goodness. He’s not the kind of quirky nice guy who would be so awesome if he’d just get contacts and stop dropping things so often. He’s a detached loner who only saves people when he absolutely has to. He’s grim and he’s a killer.

I distinctly did not like it and I think it set a very bad precedent for the DC movie universe. (That was a fear I had going into this movie when it opened… and a fear that has been justified twice over so far. I’m hoping that Wonder Woman will break that depressing streak.)

If you’re a Superman fan like me, skip this and pretty much anything else so far that has Superman in it. You will, at best, not be happy. At worst, you will be livid.

If you’re just looking for a casual action film and don’t care about any fidelity to one of the most recognizable and known characters in the world… you’ll have a good time with this.

Now You See Me: Illusion and Magic

September 28th, 2016

Now You See Me PosterI’ve always been a interested in stage magic. Every since I saw my first bit of slight of hand when I was a kid, I wanted to know more about it. That made me a wee bit annoying for, say, local magicians playing birthday parties and community events. Especially once I figured out how some of the tricks were done. (I still take great pride in figuring out how the tricks are done, but now I’m much better about keeping my mouth shut and letting people just enjoy the show.)

Over the years, I’ve also come to really enjoy heist movies and, to a lesser extent, real life stories of creative robberies (be they successful or amazing failures).

Now You See Me (I watched the extended cut) blends both of those interests together in a reasonable entertaining way. Not flawless, but it’s a fun ride.

[There are going to be some serious spoilers after “The Plot” section here. So, if you plan to see the movie, you may want to skip down to “The Verdict” after you get a taste for the plot. Or, y’know, just go watch the movie now, then we can share the secrets together.]

The Plot

Four stage magicians with disparate personalities, styles, and levels of success are called together by a mysterious figure. A year later, now calling themselves The Four Horsemen, they cap off their biggest show ever in Vegas by staging a bank robbery… of a bank in France… without leaving the stage.

This puts them on the radar of the FBI and INTERPOL and catches the attention of a former magician who now makes his money exposing how tricks are done.

Two more “impossible” heists follow, always with the Horsemen at least two steps ahead of the law, and everything culminates in the revelation of the true reason behind all the spectacle… and, maybe, some magic more real than mere stage illusion.

The cast plays super well off one another–which is something you can always expect from the likes of Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine, and we know what we’re getting when Woody Harrelson and Jessie Eisenberg take the screen together–with the scripted rivalries and repartee really fleshing out the depth of the story, even without additional exposition.

There are twists and turns, but most of them make perfect sense and flow very well.

The Illusion of Sensibility

[This would be the part where there are spoilers… if you’re going to see this movie, skip this.]

As I said, I’m a bit of a fan of stage magic. Illusion and misdirection are natural components to good storytelling–be it dramatic or comedic–so a movie about stage magicians (technically, one egotistical illusionist, one snarky escape artist, one bastard of a mentalist, and one up and coming slight of hand/pickpocket close up guy) should be full of both. This movie is. And most of it works.

For some reason, despite the truly amazing things that modern illusionists pull of on a regular basis, the filmmakers decided to go with a lot of CGI and genuinely impossible tricks. For example, there’s one sequence where Henly jumps into a bubble that Atlas has produced and floats out over the crowd. That… was silly. Neat looking, but silly. As was the case of the CGI swooping curtains that lead to the reveal of the “teleportation” machine.

You wouldn’t necessarily expect it, but things that fantastical broke the illusion of the movie more than anything else.

The biggest issue, though–the thing that breaks the overall sensibility of the movie the most–is the big twist. When we find out that it’s Rhodes, the FBI agent who’s been chasing the Horsemen, who’s actually the ultimate mastermind behind everything so much of what we’ve seen him do on screen up to that point is just made ridiculous. It coms out of nowhere so much, it’s kind of disappointing.

Now, don’t get me wrong–the Count of Monte Cristo level decades-long plotting of revenge is awesome and well played–but the near complete lack of hints that this is the guy behind it all, when the rest of the movie is so well plotted, placed, and revealed feels out of place.

If there had been just one time, when only the audience was seeing what Rhodes was doing, that he broke character, that would have been something. Instead, what we got was a guy who was always “on”, going so far as to go out and get drunk, alone, after apparently failing–even though that “failure” was an integral part of his long-term plan. What we got was a guy who, when he’s privately told that his INTERPOL partner is likely the mastermind, flies off the handle at her, much to everyone else’s confusion, even though he knows, without a doubt, that she’s not involved.

The actual reveal itself is done amazingly, so it took a minute for that bad aftertaste to roll in. But once it did, it burned a lot of goodwill and made me not like the movie as much as I had been.

One other, comparatively minor, thing… the movie never really seems to have decided if real magic is a thing in this world. The vast majority of what goes on can be explained by more or less contemporary techniques–sometimes pushed a bit into scifi levels, but still recognizable and sensible enough for movie use. But, every now and then (like that floating bubble bit, perhaps.. definitely the end of the film) there seems to be the heavy suggestion that there is, indeed, something paranormal going on, some sort of real magic being used to literally bend the rules of reality.

Maybe that gets explored more in the sequel… maybe not. I haven’t seen it yet.

The Verdict

If nothing else, this movie is a fun ride with solid characters working will off of one another.

Most of the stage performances that go on evoke the best of the modern magic institution, while some of the plot points dig at the dark and problematic side of those same talents for showmanship. There’s definitely a lot of moral gray area to think about.

Ultimately, I do think most people will enjoy this film. It’s fun most of the time, stylish all of the time, and, generally, plays well. The pacing is very good, and I watched the extended cut… so I’d imagine the regular cut is even tighter.

If, like me, you’re a fan of illusionists and their ilk, you’ll recognize some very familiar types. All of the psychology that comes into play is pretty much textbook–and applied with great effect by Harrelson’s mentalist character. Almost all the set-ups play through in satisfying and sensible ways.

If you don’t care much for even mild fantasy in your caper flicks, then you should probably skip this. It will annoy you at times. It will make you roll your eyes and possibly throw things at the screen as they roll back and show what “really happened” in previous scenes.

Overall, I really look forward to getting around to the sequel… and there’s a third on the horizon.

Adventureland – Quirky and Awkward as Expected

September 27th, 2016

Adventureland PosterAdventureland has been on my list to see since it came out. It always seemed exactly like the kind of movie I love and, well, it is. It’s the kind of film I relate to probably a bit more than I should.

It’s not a screwball comedy or, really, even a standard rom-com. It doesn’t quite dip into the “stoner” genre, even though there’s a bit of weed involved here and there in the film. It’s just the sort of film that feels “real” to me, in part because of all the flaws I see in the world and the people around me… and how those flaws often come together in amazing ways to make the magic of friendship, love, and adventure happen.

The Plot

James has plans. Before heading off to college in New York City with his best friend, they’re going to spend the summer in Europe, living it up. James has never really faced any hardship, or been left wanting for much in his life. That all changes when the bottom falls out of family fortunes and he’s told that, instead of going to Europe, he’s going to have get a summer job in order to pay for college.

That… doesn’t go so well, as he’s never worked a day in his life. (And really can’t sell himself very well, either.)

Eventually, his job search takes him to Adventureland, a third-rate amusement park near his home town. He is, of course, immediately hired and set to work running one of the (rigged) games in the park. His coworkers aren’t exactly the cream of the crop, many of them have made some very poor life choices or suffer from really low self-esteem. Some, even though they’re in their 20s, are still stuck in a very “high school” mode of behavior–longing to be like the “cool kids” and jockeying for popularity and status among their peers.

He kind of falls for one of those coworkers, Em, who also, reluctantly, falls for him. Unfortunately, much like in life, even that summer romance isn’t something simple and fun.

The Heart of It All

Like I said, this is the kind of movie I love. There isn’t a single “clean” character in the mix. Every single one of them has rough edges and flaws that will remind you of at least one person you know. Possibly even yourself. The interactions (and bad decisions) are familiar not despite, but because of, their sometimes awkward nature.

There’s more than just “nostalgia” and “quirk” value, it being set in the 80s and all that. It’s not a Judd Apatow film, but it feels just enough like one. It’s not a Cameron Crowe film, either, but it feels a bit like one of those, too. If you lived through the 80s and can remember them, well, the sound track just kicks ass.

All of that comes together into a story of self-discovery and the importance of actually taking responsibility for the direction you go in life. James has the rug pulled out from underneath him (more than a few times in the course of the film, actually) and he doesn’t always handle it well. Em is so used to making bad decisions that it’s literally traumatic for her to actually take control of her life and try to do the right thing.

I know a lot of people don’t really care much for Jesse EIisenberg or Kristen Stewart, but they’re perfectly cast in this film (and in the others they play opposite each other… their mutual “oddness” just works… at least for me). Having Ryan Reynolds as the local epitome of cool (yet still terribly, terribly flawed) just makes everything else work all the better.

There’s plenty of comedy here. Some of it a lot more witty and rye than other bits. As with many newer films that focus on the “freaks, geeks, and weirdos”, derogatory “humor” that happens isn’t glorified and it’s never actually the punchline. The bullies get their due, the nerds endure (not always gracefully, but they always end up among friends).

There’s plenty of drama here, too. The relationship dynamics play true to so much I’ve seen in life over the years it’s not even funny. The failures are legitimately painful. The successes, fully joyful. Most stuff, though… most stuff hovers somewhere in between. Even when everything goes great, there’s still that reminder of there always being consequences somewhere down the road.

The Verdict

It’s the kind of movie that, very often, is a bittersweet pleasure. These days, I think, this and others like it leave me more maudlin than they used to. Of course, that’s no surprise, since one of the reasons I’ve waited so long to get around to this is because I wanted someone else to watch it with, to experience it with, to have more than just my own experiences coloring the afterglow of the film.

Not at all unlike James in the film. Or Em.

This movie is about discovery. Discovering who you really are, what really matters to you. Pushing through the pain and crappy hand life has dealt you and doing something with it. Not just “something”… your thing. Finding those who will support you, and those who will tear you down or hold you back, and then choosing which ones you’re going to keep in your life.

It’s also about how things don’t always work out as planned. How what you discover isn’t always good or comfortable or pleasant. And how that won’t necessarily be the end of the world for you.

Anyway, if you like kind of quirky and awkward semi-romantic, low-key, almost rambling tales of relationships (both romantic and otherwise), check it out.