Cruella Review

Disney’s recent fixation with remaking their beloved animated films into live-action features has been met with a mixed reception. To be fair, not all of these live-action remakes have missed the mark (I rather enjoyed 2016’s The Jungle Book and 2019’s Aladdin). But Disney turning the idea of remaking their animated legacy as live-action films into a kind of sub-genre seems superfluous. Disney’s animated films are (mostly) considered timeless, very few of them are actually asking for a remake. And with the possible exception of the aforementioned Jungle Book, I don’t think any of these live-action remakes have been as good as the animated movies they’re adapting.

Interestingly, in 2021 Disney released Cruella, a live-action film about the villainous Cruella de Vil character from 101 Dalmatians. I say that’s interesting for two reasons: the first reason is that Disney already made a live-action remake of that movie in 1996 which starred Glenn Close as Cruella. The second reason (and perhaps as a consequence of the first reason) is that 2021’s Cruella isn’t really a remake of 101 Dalmatians, but an origin story for the Cruella de Vil character, with Emma Stone in the title role.

Personally, I don’t think Cruella de Vil needed an origin story. But to be fair, Cruella is actually a pretty entertaining movie. Though I’m not too sure who its intended audience was meant to be.

Cruella is set in 1970s London (the change in decade is a notable alteration from the animated original, seeing as that film was released in 1961). A young girl born with half-black, half-white hair named Estella has a gift for fashion, but has a notorious mean streak, with her mother Catherine (Emily Beecham) giving her the moniker ‘Cruella’ to address the less ideal half of her personality. When Estella’s behavior lands her in trouble, her mother hopes to transfer her to a better school, but lacks the money to do so. So Catherine stops by the notorious Hellman Hall to ask for a loan from her old friend and former employer, the Baroness (Emma Thompson). While there, Estella is chased by the Baroness’ three dalmatians, who end up knocking Catherine off a cliffside balcony to her death…

Before I go on, I have to stop and address this. Disney movies often feature the death of a parent or guardian, going all the way back to Bambi. Usually, these moments are appropriately sad and meaningful. But I gotta say, death by dalmatian pushing someone off a cliff… now THAT’S a new one. And is this supposed to justify Cruella’s disdain for dalmatians down the road or something? As if someone hating dogs could ever be justified.

As ridiculous as this moment is, the story does pick up. So let’s move on.

Estella, now an orphan, flees Hellman Hall, accidentally leaving behind the necklace her mother passed down to her. She ends up meeting two orphaned boys, Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser), and she becomes something of their surrogate sister. The three grow up living as conmen and petty thieves. One day, on her birthday, Estella is gifted an entry-level job at a department store by Jasper and Horace, as they believe Estella is too talented and deserves better than what life with them can provide.

Though the job isn’t much, it opens the door for Estella’s dreams. Eventually, she winds up getting a job as a designer for none other than the Baroness herself. Though her dreams seem to be coming true on paper, the reality of it is much less of a dream, as the Baroness rules her empire with an iron fist. While Estella seems to manage the hardships (and verbal abuse) for a while, her attitude shifts when she realizes the Baroness has her mother’s long-lost necklace. Estella enlists the help of Jasper and Horace – as well as their dogs Buddy and Wink – to try to steal the necklace back (Estella’s argument being that the necklace is technically hers), which eventually escalates into a rivalry with the Baroness. Estella will stop at nothing to bring the Baroness’ empire down, both from the inside and outside of it, adopting her old moniker of ‘Cruella’ when she starts a rival fashion company of her own. But the deeper the rivalry goes, the more the Cruella persona begins to take over Estella’s life.

The film basically plays out like The Devil Wears Prada taken to the extreme. And to be perfectly honest, Cruella ultimately is a fun movie, due in no small part to its cast, Emmas Stone and Thompson in particular elevating their characters and their rivalry. And it’s an appropriately fun movie to look at, due to its emphasis on fashion as well as its setting. I was actually surprised in how much I ended up enjoying Cruella and how engrossed I got in the rivalry between its titular anti-heroine and the Baroness. With that said, there are still a few questionable elements in the film.

First and foremost, try as it might, Cruella can’t quite justify why Cruella de Vil needed an origin story (other than to separate this film from the 1996 live-action remake, I guess). During many of the earlier scenes of the movie, whenever Estella was getting a tongue-lashing from the Baroness, I couldn’t help but think the movie could have worked just fine if Cruella had been in the Baroness’ role, and Estella could have instead been the character Anita from the animated film. Seeing as Cruella and Anita were described as ‘schoolmates’ in the 1961 original, changing that history to that of boss and employee would at least explain the mysterious age gap between the two characters from the animated film. That’s certainly not a knock on Emma Stone’s Cruella, of course. It just seems like the movie could have cut out the middle man.

Anita does show up in the film (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), as a gossip columnist who ends up helping Cruella in her schemes against the Baroness. And if you’re wondering, her future husband Roger shows up as well (Kayvan Novak), as the Baroness’ lawler.

Maybe the reason Disney opted for an origin story for Cruella was that it was the only way to make a movie about Cruella and still have the audience root for her? Cruella de Vil was always one of Disney’s most popular villains, but she’s one of the least likable of the lot when you think about it (her goal in the animated film was to skin a bunch of puppies to make a fur coat, after all). They couldn’t exactly make a movie about Cruella as depicted in the animated film and still expect the audience to cheer for her. I guess the origin story was Disney’s way of having their cake and eating it too. But, like Maleficent, it does make me wonder how fans of the character would take to the film, if they had to change Cruella so much in order to make her the central character (though the results here are much better than they were in Maleficent, and at least in this movie Cruella’s personality ends up closer to her animated counterpart by the end, whereas Maleficent never did in either of her live-action films).

Maybe some fans of Cruella de Vil will like the movie, and maybe some won’t. But I don’t think younger fans of 101 Dalmatians will much care for it. I guess, to be fair, the film is rated PG-13, so it is probably made with older kids and teenagers in mind. But that again makes me wonder why Disney would adapt 101 Dalmatians in order to make such a movie. Cruella is a movie for teenagers based on a movie for kids about that movie’s villain in which that villain is now a good guy. I guess it’s not impossible to make that odd concoction work, and I have to admit that Cruella does mostly work. But I think it still suffers a bit of awkwardness from that identity crises (do I need to point out “death by getting knocked off a cliff by a dalmatian” again?).

I don’t think Cruella reaches the same heights as the Jungle Book or Aladdin remakes, but it’s maybe a better movie than you’d expect. Emma Stone and Emma Thompson really make the film engaging, and the supporting cast help carry things as well (I especially like Hauser as Horus, who is the most faithful to the animated character).

Cruella is a curious little oddity for Disney fans, and a fun movie in its own right. It may be a bit ridiculous at times, but it’s a pleasant surprise.

6

Spider-Man: No Way Home Review

Spider-Man: No Way Home is the third installment of the Spider-Man sub-series of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, starring Tom Holland as Peter Parker/Spider-Man. It seems the animated film Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse has had a strong influence on the direction of the MCU’s Spider-Man, with No Way Home introducing a multiverse into the series. While the whole multiverse concept is done to death these days (and often feels like a cheap means to “change up” a series and its characters), No Way Home at least uses the concept in a fun way to connect itself to the pre-MCU Spider-Man films (AKA the better Spider-Man films, at least in regard to the original Sam Raimi-directed features). While the merging together of different Spider-Man adaptations provides an entertaining feature filled with fanservice that I think is a step up from the previous Tom Holland-era Spider-Man flicks, No Way Home can feel a bit overstuffed at times, and it doesn’t always do right by the characters it brings back from yesteryear.

Taking place shortly after the events of Spider-Man: Far From Home, No Way Home sees the aftermath of Peter Parker having his identity as Spider-Man revealed to the world by J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons). Having been framed for the death of Mysterio, Parker becomes public enemy number one, with his worldwide infamy not only affecting his life, but also those close to him: his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), his girlfriend MJ (Zendaya) and his best friend Ned Leeds (Jacob Batalon).

With his life in shambles, and his loved ones suffering as a consequence, Peter Parker turns to his fellow Avenger Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) to find a way he can get his life back to normal (I guess if you know a wizard, that’d be the person to turn to for answers). Strange says he can perform a spell that will undo the world’s knowledge of Peter Parker’s identity (in a scene I’m sure you’ve seen a hundred times in the trailer). But because Tom Holland’s Peter Parker is annoying and intrusive, he keeps bothering Dr. Strange during the spell, and the magic is botched. Not only does the spell fail to erase the world’s knowledge of Spider-Man’s identity, but it also starts summoning people from other universes who are aware of Spider-Man’s identity in their world. Namely, it starts bringing in Spider-Man’s foes from other worlds: Norman Osborne/The Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe), Dr. Otto Octavius/Dr. Octopus (Alfred Molina), Flint Marco/The Sandman (Thomas Haden Church), Dr. Curt Connors/The Lizard (Rhys Ifans), and Max Dillon/Electro (Jamie Foxx).

With all these villains on the loose, Dr. Strange instructs Peter Parker to help him collect these villains in order to send them back to their own worlds, as their continued presence in this world threatens the fabric of reality. But after learning of the sad fates that await each of his foes in their own world, Peter Parker starts to have second thoughts about his mission (though Sandman got off pretty easy in Spider-Man 3, if you remember).

The plot is a little… wonky, for lack of a better word. I love the idea of bringing back these past villains, particularly because the Sam Raimi era antagonists (the first two, anyway) were much better written than any baddie in the MCU (their inclusion here is basically Marvel’s way of admitting “yeah, we can’t do better villains than that. So just bring them back in our movie.”). But the setup of resurrecting these villains just feels kind of clunky. It gives off the impression that the filmmakers saw Into the Spider-Verse, and wanted to use a similar multiverse setup, and then had the idea to use that as a launching pad to connect the film to pre-MCU Spidey films and bring back the classic villains (an admittedly fun idea). But then they suddenly remembered they had that cliffhanger from Far From Home that they needed to address, and then scrambled to find a way to connect that cliffhanger with their multiverse/returning villains idea. And because these MCU Spider-Man movies love shoehorning in another Avengers hero, they decided to use Dr. Strange – a wizard – as an easy means to link their new concept and lingering plot thread together (because the MCU only acknowledges magic when it’s a convenient plot device).

“I gotta say, I’m getting really tired of Spider-Man being gifted with all these gadgets and gizmos from other Avengers. As if Spider-Man needs anything other than being Spider-Man to be cool.”

So the premise is weak. But at least it gives us a chance to revisit all these memorable foes of yesteryear, with the highlights of course being Willem Dafoe’s Goblin and Alfred Molina’s Doc Ock (the latter of which I’ll still say is hands down the best villain in any Marvel movie). On the downside, No Way Home seems to take delight in poking fun of these characters and their movies as much as it pays homage to them, because of course the MCU just has to undercut anything serious or heartfelt with a snide remark or two.

The Sam Raimi Spider-Man movies, as campy as they could get at times, never felt the need to belittle their own stories for the sake of jokes. That might explain why I still remember them so fondly, whereas the MCU films have much less of an identity of their own (that, and the MCU’s constant need to hype up future movies at the expense of the story at hand). The Sam Raimi films could be cheesy, but they were honest and genuine in a way that even the best MCU films are not. Even Spider-Man 3, as messy as it was, was at least its own mess.

I mention this because, by bringing in characters from the past Spider-Man films, No Way Home inadvertently exposes the MCU for its over manufactured nature. We’ve seen this same Green Goblin and this same Doc Ock in other movies that had heart. No Way Home acknowledges that these villains have more to them than meets the eye, but it’s tough to say whether or not No Way Home has anything more to itself. Just as Green Goblin and Doc Ock are displaced from their time and place in the film’s story, they’re also displaced as complex villains from more genuine superhero movies who now find themselves in an increasingly pandering “cinematic universe” (fun though it may be). The films Green Goblin and Doc Ock came from had something to say. The MCU is always hyping what’s on the horizon, rarely taking the time to say much.

Annoyingly, the film makes the returning villains out to be not much of a threat on their own – being quickly beaten or outsmarted by MCU’s Spidey and Dr. Strange – and only banded together do the bad guys prove dangerous to the MCU heroes (because the MCU is childish like that and NO ONE CAN BE STRONGER THAN ITS CHARACTERS!). It’s just kind of weird how the film wants us to delight in the nostalgia these characters provide, only to undermine it by enforcing the idea that these characters aren’t as good as the new ones (a concerning trend in the MCU as of late). There are ways to make a current story feel more important without stepping all over the past. Maybe by caring more about the present and less about hyping the future? Just a suggestion.

I guess I shouldn’t say it’s all hype this time around. No Way Home gives a solid effort and has some strong emotional moments, but it still ultimately succumbs to some MCU-ness that takes some of that away. At least Tony Stark’s overbearing presence is no longer casting a shadow on these Spider-Man films, though you could say Dr. Strange simply takes over that role, conveniently just in time to build hype for his upcoming sequel.

“Dr. Strange knocking the soul out of Spider-Man… it’s almost symbolic of Strange’s role in the movie itself.”

Okay, I’m sounding pretty negative. But I suppose most of my complaints are more towards the MCU as a whole, and how it affects No Way Home, than they are with No Way Home itself. On the positive side of things, No Way Home brings fun back to the Marvel Cinematic Universe after Eternals saw fit to be an excruciating bore.

Spider-Man: No Way Home doesn’t skimp on the action scenes, and though they can’t quite match those of the recent Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, the action scenes here are more visually distinct from most of those in the MCU. An early encounter against Doctor Octopus on a freeway over a bridge is a notable highlight (due in no small part that Doc Ock’s conceptually simple power of having mechanical arms on his back provides a visually perfect supervillain). A duel between Spidey and mentor Dr. Strange also delivers a visual spectacle (especially since it seems to unapologetically turn to the video game Portal for inspiration). And of course, No Way Home features plenty of great fanservice moments, perhaps more so than any other MCU film (Endgame be damned), seeing as it gives so many blatant callbacks to the original Spider-Man trilogy and the Amazing Spider-Man films in addition to the usual MCU fare. Again, some of the references are deprecating, which is disappointing. But when No Way Home pays proper respects to past movies, damn, it’s satisfying. Without spoiling anything, one moment in particular is probably the most touching piece of nostalgia/fanservice I’ve seen in a long time, and honestly gave me a lump in my throat. If you’ve seen the movie, it’s probably not the moment you’re thinking of. Or that other one. Or that other one. But it was special to me.

“The perfect Spider-Man villain doesn’t exi…”

Spider-Man: No Way Home is a very entertaining movie, even with its faults. It provides the crowd pleasing fun you’d expect from the MCU, and even has moments that pack an emotional punch. Simply seeing Alfred Molina and Willem Dafoe back as Dock Ock and Green Goblin (and to a lesser extent, the other villains) is an utter joy. But it’s a shame the setup to it all feels a bit forced. It has plenty of merit, but Spider-Man: No Way Home can’t help but feel a bit cluttered, and the overarching MCU is starting to negatively affect the individual stories within it (I’m really not spoiling much by saying the end-credits sequence here is literally a trailer for the Doctor Strange sequel). As big as the MCU has become, it would do well for itself to learn from the movies that No Way Home borrows from.

“And the rest!”

I think my point can be summed up by the character of J. Jonah Jameson. While I couldn’t be happier that Marvel brought back the great J.K. Simmons to portray Jameson in the MCU (making him something of the “connective tissue” between Spider-Man’s cinematic past and present), the MCU version of the character is purely antagonistic. He’s a corrupt newsman who spreads misinformation and fearmongering. While the real-world parallels are timely, they come at the expense of the character himself, who’s now a one-note villain. Compare him to the Jameson of Sam Raimi’s trilogy: he was still a biased newspaperman who let his emotions get the best of him, but there was more to him than that. In the 2002 film, Jameson was loud, bombastic, and was out to smear the good name of Spider-Man, the hero we were meant to cheer for. But as soon as Green Goblin attacked Jameson in his office demanding to know “who takes the pictures of Spider-Man” for Jameson’s paper, without missing a beat, Jameson wouldn’t surrender Peter Parker’s name to the Goblin. The same character who up until that point was depicted as antagonistic comic relief was suddenly willing to risk his life to save someone he barely knew.

“The perfect comic book movie casting doesn’t exi…”

That’s the kind of character element that continues to make the Sam Raimi Spider-Man films so memorable. And it’s something the MCU is sorely lacking. Spider-Man: No Way Home tries to replicate that by bringing back the classic villains and the stories they entail. But it only seems to half-understand what it has on its hands. Either that, or it’s place in the MCU only makes it able to half-realize it.

To this day, 2004’s Spider-Man 2 is not only my favorite Spider-Man movie (sorry Into the Spider-Verse), but my favorite Marvel movie. And possibly one of my favorite movies outright. It had its faults and its cheesy moments, but damn it all, it had heart! Suffice to say, I don’t think Spider-Man: No Way Home poses any threat to displacing Spider-Man 2 as my favorite Marvel/Spider-Man movie. But in a way, No Way Home reminded me why I love Spider-Man 2 so much. I suppose that’s a victory in its own right.

7

The Lord of the Rings Turns 20!

“A wizard is never late, Frodo Baggins. Nor is he early. He arrives precisely when he means to.”

November had more than a few anniversaries to make us feel old, but now it’s December’s turn! Today marks the twentieth anniversary of the release of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring in theater. That’s right, the first installment in cinema’s greatest trilogy first hit the big screen on December 19th 2001.

Wow, twenty years… On one hand, it really does feel like a distant and ever so fond memory, seeing Fellowship of the Ring in theaters for the first time. On the other hand, it’s so vivid in my mind it feels like it wasn’t long ago at all.

“I’ve certainly gotten good mileage out of this gif, haven’t I?”

The Lord of the Rings trilogy made fantasy mainstream (okay, Harry Potter also helped, but J.K. Rowling’s imagination was never on Tolkien’s level). It helped change the way movies are made, and revolutionized visual effects in a way similar to Star Wars, Roger Rabbit or Jurassic Park before it, and in a way I don’t think we’ve seen since.

Peter Jackson’s films proved to be perfect adaptations of Tolkien’s work. I know some purists would hate me for saying that, given the changes Jackson did make to the material. But keeping in mind that books and movies are different artforms, I feel those changes were necessary and complimentary to bringing Middle-Earth to life on screen. So yes, they are “perfect adaptations” in that sense. I honestly can’t imagine the Lord of the Rings films being any better. Both individually and as a collective trilogy, they easily rank highly among my all-time favorites, and may even be my favorite films that aren’t animated.

The Lord of the Rings films were (and are) so great, in fact, that even the Academy Awards, who are so averse to fantasy and seemingly allergic to imagination, couldn’t refrain from lavishing the trilogy with awards!

The quest to destroy the One Ring, an epic journey that has yet to be matched in cinema, first began two decades ago. And in those years, the trilogy hasn’t lost any of its luster or mystique. Peter Jackson’s later adaptation of The Hobbit couldn’t hope to match what was accomplished with The Lord of the Rings, though personally I think the Hobbit films are much, much better than they get credit for (they’re certainly better than other spinoff movie series we’ve seen, such as the Star Wars prequels and sequels, or the Fantastic Beasts movies). But it’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy that’s undoubtedly a timeless classic.

Come to think of it, The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and Spirited Away all celebrated their twentieth anniversaries this year. I think it’s safe to say that 2001 was easily the most impactful and influential year for fantasy films.

Happy twentieth anniversary, Lord of the Rings!

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to dedicate the next few days to watching the extended editions.

Ghostbusters: Afterlife Review

Well, this has certainly been a longtime coming. The original 1984 Ghostbusters remains one of the most beloved comedies of all time. It’s one of those movies that helped define its decade and shape a generation. Simply put, Ghostbusters was a phenomenon.

Despite being an adult-oriented comedy, its fun, supernatural premise made Ghostbusters one of those movies that won over audiences of all ages, with toylines, video games and a popular cartoon series released in its wake. Such franchising may seem commonplace these days, but in 1984, the only other movie that had that kind of impact was Star Wars, released seven years prior. One would think with the level of success Ghostbusters reached, that we would have seen many Ghostbusters sequels by this point.

Nope.

Five years after the first film, Ghostbusters II was released. Though a modest success, it failed to reach the critical and commercial heights of its predecessor (though the sequel has gained more appreciation in the years since). While it’s understandable that the humbler success of Ghostbusters II slowed things down, this was still Ghostbusters we’re talking about. A third film (and more) seemed inevitable. Yet fans waited and waited for years and years and years, and ‘Ghostbusters III’ never materialized.

It wasn’t for lack of trying. Series creator, co-writer and co-star Dan Aykroyd had ideas planned out, and even scripts written in various different forms over the years. I can’t remember a time growing up in which there weren’t talks of Ghostbusters III nearing production. And yet, it never happened. Despite being one of the biggest hits of the 1980s, one of the earliest blockbusters, and one of the most popular film franchises in history, Ghostbusters – as far as the movies went – seemed locked in the 80s.

Fast-forward to 2009, which saw the release of Ghostbusters: The Video Game on Xbox 360 and Playstation 3. Not only did the game bring back the original cast to voice their respective characters, it was even based on several of the potential Ghostbusters III ideas. The game’s success, and the fact it was able to nab the cast (including Bill Murray, who was previously reluctant to return to the franchise) revitalized studio interest in possibly producing a third Ghostbusters film. A few more years went by, and still, nothing came about.

Sadly, in 2014, actor and filmmaker Harold Ramis – who portrayed Ghostbuster Egon Spengler and wrote the first two films alongside Aykroyd – passed away. This halted plans for Ghostbusters 3 yet again, which eventually lead to Columbia and Sony deciding to outright reboot the franchise.

It didn’t go well.

The 2016 reboot ended up being a box office bomb and was, sadly, one of those things that became unnecessarily politicized due to its all female cast, with studios all too willing to vilify disappointed fans, and blaming its lackluster box office run on sexism (Wonder Woman and Frozen say hello, by the way). In actuality, it was the nature of rebooting the Ghostbusters outright that was so deflating to fans (myself included). Again, we weren’t talking about a franchise that already had several sequels and was in need of a fresh start. Ghostbusters bizarrely halted after its second entry, and ‘Ghostbusters III’ always seemed to be floating around. Fans simply wanted it to become a reality. A reboot was not something that anyone asked for.

Finally, in 2019, it seemed like Ghostbusters III was actually happening, with Ghostbusters: Afterlife being revealed by director Jason Reitman (son of Ivan Reitman, the director of the original two films). The movie was originally scheduled for a Summer 2020 release, but we all know how 2020 ended up, and the film’s release was delayed by over a year.

So here we are, thirty-two years after Ghostbusters II, and audiences are finally getting a follow-up to the classic 1980s films. Being thirty-two years old myself as of this writing, Ghostbusters: Afterlife is, in a way, a movie I have waited my whole life to see.

Though it isn’t the movie that I (and I think others) ultimately wanted, Ghostbusters: Afterlife still provides an entertaining feature that plays out more like a love letter to Ghostbusters, and a fun way for today’s kids to jump into the series, if maybe not the proper Ghostbusters III we’ve waited ever so patiently to see.

Appropriately set thirty-two years after the defeat of Vigo the Carpathian, the Ghostbusters have long-since disbanded due to the lack of supernatural activity in New York City. Right off the bat, that’s a little disappointing. Knowing that the Ghostbusters didn’t have any further adventures in between Ghostbusters II and Afterlife is kind of a bummer. The film could have at least said the ghost activity quieted down after another decade or so, to at least let us imagine the shenanigans the Ghostbusters could have gotten into together during that time.

Anyway, as the Ghostbusters went their separate ways, only Egon Spengler continued his research on the supernatural. These studies eventually lead him to the small town of Summerville, Oklahoma, a town founded by the Gozerian cultist Ivo Shandor (who was mentioned in the original film, and served as the villain in the 2009 video game). Sadly, Egon has recently passed away due to a heart attack, leaving his Summerville farmland to his estranged daughter Callie (Carrie Coon).

Callie has recently been evicted from her apartment in the city, and moves into her father’s farm with her two kids, Trevor (Finn Wolfhard) and Phoebe (McKenna Grace), who never knew their grandfather and are unaware that he was a Ghostbuster. Though neither kid is too enthusiastic about living in the dilapidated farm, Trevor quickly takes to the new town, getting a Summer job at a restaurant to be close to his new crush, Lucky (Celeste O’Connor). The more socially awkward Phoebe has a tougher time fitting in, but manages to find a friend in a kid who calls himself ‘Podcast’ (Logan Kim). Though Phoebe is more interested in the ghostly presence that seems to be living in the farm than she is with the town itself.

Naturally, as time goes by, the Spengler kids begin to unearth their family history. Phoebe discovers her grandfather’s secret room, where he kept most of his Ghostbusters equipment, while Trevor repairs the Ectomobile hiding out in the shed. Additionally, Phoebe’s Summer school teacher, Gary Grooberson (Paul Rudd), a lifelong admirer of the Ghostbusters, helps the kids learn of their grandfather’s work.

Of course, with Summerville being founded by Ivo Shandor, there’s going to be more to the town than meets the eye. And Summerville hides a secret that connects it to the evil, interdimensional entity Gozer.

Ghostbusters: Afterlife is undeniably a fun movie: It plays up the fanservice for the series and introduces us to some fun new characters, it’s a well-acted picture (with particular praise going to McKenna Grace, who fittingly makes Phoebe a young, female version of Egon), and the visual effects are quite good. But the film does hit a few bumps in the road.

Let’s get to the elephant in the room right away: the original Ghostbusters cast are barely in the movie. Bill Murray, Ernie Hudson and Dan Aykroyd all return as Peter Venkman, Winston Zeddemore and Ray Stantz (respectively), but only for a few all-too-brief moments of screentime.

Now, okay, I get it. It’s not their movie. I understand that, and I’m fine with it. After things got to a certain point, I always figured a potential third Ghostbusters movie would be about the Ghostbusters passing the mantle down to a new generation. The issue I have is that Ghostbusters: Afterlife isn’t that. The original Ghostbusters just kind of show up in Afterlife, without any real significance to the story, other than Egon’s legacy. While seeing Peter, Winston and Ray will always be a welcome sight, their role in Afterlife feels kind of like a glorified cameo. Annie Potts also returns as Janine Melnitz, but what you saw of her in the trailer is what you see of her in the movie. At least they’re all playing their beloved characters this time, instead of unrelated cameos like the 2016 movie.

What I’m getting at is the film really takes its time relishing in the fanservice of all the gadgets and gizmos of the Ghostbusters. The movie basks in the glory of the Ecto-1 and the ghost traps, but it didn’t stop and think that, just maybe, the fanservice Ghostbusters fans would most want is the Ghostbusters themselves? Again, I’m fine with the fact that it’s not their movie anymore, but after all the time that’s passed since Ghostbusters 2, I’m sure I’m not the only one who would have loved to have seen the iconic original cast actually have some role in the plot. I can kind of get what they were going for, building up to the classic characters that made us love the series to begin with. But after thirty-two years and all the start/stops of a potential third entry, we kind of want to spend a little more time with these beloved characters.

It just seems so weird that Sony and Columbia can’t seem to figure this out. First they give us a reboot that no one asked for, and now we finally have a follow-up to Ghostbusters 2, and the role of the Ghostbusters is minimal. It really shouldn’t be a difficult concept to grasp. You have a Ghostbusters movie, give us the Ghostbusters!

Okay, I’m going on about this quite a bit. But I think this is an important aspect to bring up because I think depending on how you view Afterlife’s position as a sequel to Ghostbusters II will affect your overall opinion of the film (if you’re a longtime fan of the franchise like me, anyway). If you’re looking at Afterlife as Ghostbusters 3, then you’re probably going to be disappointed, because it doesn’t really fit that bill. But if you view Afterlife as its own movie that simply takes place in the Ghostbusters universe, it becomes easier to admire.

Even with its merits, however, Ghostbusters: Afterlife still folds a bit under the pressure of living up to the original 1984 film, as much of the plot is derived from the mythology surrounding the Gozer character established in that film (and sadly, as a fan/nerd of the series, I can point out some inconsistencies Afterlife creates within the established Gozer mythology). One of the downsides to this is that Afterlife simply recreates many of the same story beats of the original film in regards to said Gozer mythology, instead of getting creative and making something new out of it (we are talking about an interdimensional god, after all. There’s plenty of room to get creative with that concept). There are so many directions they could have gone when you have a villain like Gozer, so it’s a shame that Afterlife chooses to fall back on familiar territory.

Unfortunately, as much as Afterlife loves to make callbacks and create fanservice, it only does so in regards to the original film. Because outside of a few background Easter eggs, the only reference to Ghostbusters II is that Ray is back working at his occult book store, first seen in the 1989 sequel.

Look, I understand that Ghostbusters II isn’t as esteemed as its predecessor (I love it to death, personally), but it’s still an important part of Ghostbusters history. The characters in Afterlife are constantly referring to the events of the original film as the “Manhattan Incident,” but shouldn’t it be the Manhattan IncidentS? Did everyone just forget that the evil spirit of a 16th century tyrant almost resurrected himself through a painting, and that the Ghostbusters animated the Statue of Liberty to stop him? That seems like something the characters in this movie should remember. It’s almost like Afterlife is embarrassed by Ghostbusters II’s initial reception, and glosses over its events as a result. But in ignoring the sequel to Ghostbusters, it makes Afterlife’s reverence for the series’ history feel incomplete.

Another downer is that the whole subplot involving the Ivo Shandor character feels underdeveloped, like maybe there were several scenes involving this aspect of the story that were cut from the final film. Ivo Shandor’s subplot in the film is introduced, forgotten about, and then rapidly resolved all at once (sadly for fans, this also probably means Ghostbusters: The Video Game is no longer canon). Without spoiling any details, the scene that wraps up Ivo Shandor’s role in the story is also the worst scene in the movie, being edited so sloppily you can tell some of its events are clearly playing out of order (and not in a way I think was intentional). The scene in question moves so hectically and sporadically, that I wonder if the editor downed an entire gallon of Kool-Aid beforehand. It’s reminiscent of the chaotic pace of The Rise of Skywalker, albeit not nearly that bad (and at least here it’s just a single scene, not the whole picture).

Aside from that one scene/subplot, most of my complaints with Ghostbusters: Afterlife are admittedly rooted in my status as a lifelong fan of the series (it plays up fanservice but doesn’t feature enough of the Ghostbusters themselves. It pays homage to the original film but ignores Ghostbusters II, etc.). Granted, due to the continuity of the films, I feel those complaints are still worth mentioning, but they are still the complaints of someone who’s been waiting their whole life for Ghostbusters III. But let’s be fair, Ghostbusters: Afterlife is not Ghostbusters III. It’s Ghostbusters: Afterlife. And that’s okay.

I admit it took me two viewings to be able to properly appreciate Ghostbusters: Afterlife. The first time, the shadow of its predecessors (and the whole “waiting my entire life” thing) worked against it. I still enjoyed it, but my misgivings were stronger the first time around. Only after seeing it a second time, and seeing it only for itself, did my complaints become more subdued.

There is a lot to like about Ghostbusters: Afterlife once you accept it for what it is. The film made the right choice by making its young heroes the descendants of Egon Spengler, with the whole film playing out like a loving tribute to Harold Ramis and the character he brought to life. There are also plenty of fun scenes to be had, with some highlights being a chase sequence where the kids follow a runaway ghost in the Ecto-1, and a scene where an army of mini Stay Puft Marshmallow Men torment Gary Grooberson in a Walmart.

Ghostbusters: Afterlife is an entertaining movie. It may get bogged down at times by playing up the fanservice and not always getting it right. But this is a movie aimed more towards introducing a new generation of kids to the Ghostbusters. It presents the material in a more kid-friendly, Spielbergian way. So even though the film may fall back on nostalgia, it does open the door for a new direction for the series going forward. The Spengler family and their friends could have more adventures, and the film even hints that one of the original Ghostbusters may start things back up in New York.

During my first viewing of Ghostbusters: Afterlife, there was a group of kids in the audience dressed like Ghostbusters. It warms my heart knowing that the series still appeals to kids today. I think it’s important to remember that Ghostbusters: Afterlife was made more for these kids, with us older fans still getting a little bit of what we want out of it.

Ghostbusters III, as we always wanted it, is a myth. Sony and Columbia (bafflingly) missed that opportunity years ago. But Ghostbusters: Afterlife gives us something else to enjoy in its own right. And if all goes well, maybe the kids that this movie was made for can get a Ghostbusters III of their own.

7

8-Bit Christmas Review

8-Bit Christmas is a new HBO Max Christmas comedy, about a father recounting a story to his daughter. The story of his quest to get a Nintendo Entertainment System for Christmas during his youth in the late 1980s. As soon as you read that premise, your mind is probably thinking 8-Bit Christmas is like A Christmas Story meets Jingle All the Way, and I think that’s what the movie is aiming for. Unfortunately, that fun combination of retro Christmas movies exists in premise only, as 8-Bit Christmas seems to squander its humor – and the simple premise of “kid wants Nintendo for Christmas” – at every other turn.

The aforementioned father is Jake Doyle (Neil Patrick Harris), who begins telling the tale when his family visits his parents’ house for the holidays, and he and his daughter boot up his old Nintendo Entertainment System (or simply “the Nintendo” as the film calls it, as many of us did back in the day). They pause the game as soon as they start playing it in order for Jake to spin his yarn, with the movie failing to make the obvious jab at the irony that they could be playing the Nintendo instead of talking about how he got it. If the movie fails to even make that obvious joke, well, let that be an indicator of things to come. There’s a lot of missed opportunities for humor going forward.

Flashing back to the “late 80s” and young Jake Doyle (Winslow Fegley) wants nothing more than to get an NES for Christmas. But his parents (Steve Zahn and June Diane Raphael) have no intention of getting him the console, citing its hefty price tag and, more annoyingly, buying into the hysteria of video game violence that many a dumb parent bought into during the 80s (and well into the 90s). The only kid in town who owns a Nintendo is a spoiled rich brat who insists the other kids in the neighborhood bring him gifts just for the opportunity to watch him play Nintendo. But Jake is desperate enough that he does what the rich kid asks just to catch a glimpse of the video game system.

That all changes when an accident occurs at the rich kid’s house, as the brat grows frustrated at his defective Power Glove (that is to say, his Power Glove) and he jumpkicks the TV, which falls and crushes his dog. The dog ends up being okay, but the film takes its sweet time letting us know this, which seems awfully cruel for a PG-rated movie (when will comedies learn that you can’t make a dog getting hurt funny? It just doesn’t work. It can’t). The rich kid’s parents then lead the neighborhood’s revolt against video games (though this isn’t brought up until later, and even then, feels only half-realized).

With his only access to Nintendo in the past, the young Jake Doyle decides to take matters into his own hands and win a Nintendo for himself, as his scout troop is giving one away to whomever can sell the most Christmas wreaths. Of course, that ends up being just one of several endeavors Jake Doyle partakes in his quest to get his own Nintendo. Sadly, every last one of these endeavors ends up feeling, you guessed it, half-realized.

That’s the main issue with 8-Bit Christmas, it introduces a number of situations that could be funny, but never manages to wring anything memorable or comedic out of them (I guess the idea that the gym teacher was among those bringing gifts to the rich kid in order to see the Nintendo was kind of funny, but that’s one quick gag). You could argue that the movie puts the nostalgia for Nintendo and the 80s ahead of the comedy, which could provide something entertaining (if pandering) in its own right. But 8-Bit Christmas even fails at the nostalgia.

For example, the only two real life games you see played in the movie are Paper Boy and Rampage, which are hardly the first two games you’d think of when you think of the NES. The game you see given the most play time is a fighting game made exclusively for the movie (leading me to think the images the filmmakers made for the game were simply placeholders until they could secure the rights to use a real game, but never ended up getting the rights to whatever that was). Despite the movie being about a kid’s obsession with Nintendo, Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda only get one verbal mention apiece. I mean, if your movie is going to pander to the nostalgia of people like me who grew up with Nintendo, then at least give us what we want to see.

There are other details the movie gets wrong about the time period, like how Jake’s sister is part of the Cabbage Patch Kids craze, something that happened in 1983, two years before the NES was even released. Granted, I think the movie is trying to use Jake’s faulty memory as a means to give its flashback narrative an excuse to smoosh together as much 1980s as possible, similar to the television series The Goldbergs, but that can only go so far. It’s one thing if Adam Goldberg wears a Roger Rabbit shirt in a time before he should be wearing it, but it’s another thing if the entire story is built on some weird Frankenstein’s Monster of the 1980s.

The movie has a little bit of fun with the idea of Jake’s memory at first, like when he’s seen riding his bike wearing only a cap, until his present-day daughter asks if he wore a helmet like he always tells her, and then a helmet magically appears on the young Jake’s head in the flashback. There’s also Jake’s father’s penchant for swearing being replaced with an angry “God bless it!” as Jake censors the story for his daughter. Then there’s Jake’s parents’ blatant favoritism towards his sister, which he’s adding to his story to make it sound like the odds were stacked against him all the more. And I think we’re to assume the rich kid’s aforementioned jumpkick to the TV is supposed to be an embellishment. These are fun little ideas, but the movie seems to forget about this element as it goes on, which is a shame because this is where playing with the idea of faulty memory can be fun. Had they stuck to it throughout there could have been more creativity here.

I suppose asking for creativity out of this movie is asking for too much. Again, this is a movie of half-realizations. The pieces are all here to make for a good Christmas comedy, but nothing ever really comes together. For example, there’s a scene where – after all the stores sold out of Cabbage Patch Kids – Jake and his father decide to buy one for his sister from a “street dealer” in the middle of the night. The dealer (David Cross) opens the trunk of his car to reveal the Cabbage Patch Kids among other toys, including an NES. The scene feels entirely detached from the main plot until Jake sees the Nintendo in the trunk. But nothing comes from it. Jake doesn’t try to talk his dad into it or barter with the toy dealer to get the NES. So what’s the point of the scene? What’s the punchline? The concept of the guy dealing toys on the streets is an appropriately silly concept, but you kind of have to bring it to life with jokes and writing. Suffice to say, the Seinfeld scene with showerhead smugglers, this is not.

8-Bit Christmas’s inability to bring out the comedy in its situations is one of its two great faults. The other is that the movie can’t seem to decide who it wants its target audience to be. Given the film’s PG rating, it’s as crude as it can be, with references to vomit and diarrhea abound. At times it seems like it wants to get cruder with its content (like dropping a TV on a dog, not that that would ever be funny no matter the rating), but it’s too skittish to go further because it also wants to be a kids’ movie. But it also isn’t smart enough to figure out how to tell jokes within the “restraints” of its PG rating. 8-Bit Christmas is a movie that’s almost one thing, and not quite another.

This indecisiveness is perhaps most prevalent in the film’s finale in which – without spoiling anything – the movie suddenly tries to salvage itself with a heartwarming ending between young Jake and his father. Up until that point the movie has been aiming (and missing) to just be dumb fun, when it isn’t trying to be crude and irreverent, that is. So for the ending to suddenly try to bring sentimentality to the picture makes that sentiment feel unearned.

You can tell 8-Bit Christmas is yearning to be compared to A Christmas Story, which is considered a classic Christmas comedy. It’s not A Christmas Story, it’s not even Jingle All the Way. At least that movie embraced its lunacy and, dumb as it may be, is the kind of movie that will leave you with a big, goofy grin on your face. I would have been perfectly fine if 8-Bit Christmas were simply “Jingle All the Way but with a Nintendo.”

I admit I’ve seen far worse Christmas movies than 8-Bit Christmas. Winslow Fegley fits the role of a Nintendo obsessed kid in the 80s, and Neil Patrick Harris’s narration helps move things along. And its jabs at the pointless controversies surrounding video games back in the day are funny (though they’re only really funny if you’re someone like me, who remembers all that silliness, as opposed to the film bringing anything funny out of it through its own creativity). But the film ends up feeling aimless and directionless as it fails to capitalize on any of the situations it introduces. Was it really so difficult for 8-Bit Christmas to just have the silly, simple story of a kid wanting a Nintendo for Christmas, and running with it?

One other movie that 8-Bit Christmas may draw comparisons to is The Wizard, the 1989 Fred Savage vehicle that was little more than an advertisement for Nintendo (and Universal Studios). The difference between the two is that you can laugh at The Wizard, because it was supposed to be serious despite its failings. But when you’re supposed to laugh at something and can’t, it’s harder to appreciate even ironically.

8-Bit Christmas is like the Power Glove… it’s so bad.

4

The Beauty of Ghostbusters 2’s Optimism

First thing’s first, I owe Ghostbusters 2 an apology. In a recent post, I described it as a “disappointing” sequel. I suppose, in an objective sense, that’s kind of true, seeing as Ghostbusters 2 was only a modest success, whereas the original was a decade-defining movie. But I spoke out of faulty memory. I hadn’t seen Ghostbusters 2 in years, and after you hear/read about how it wasn’t as good as the original Ghostbusters so often, I guess at some point I let that get the better of me. As I’m gearing up for Ghostbusters: Afterlife (a movie I have quite literally waited my whole life to see, given I was born the year of Ghostbusters 2’s release), I watched the original two Ghostbusters movies. And you know what? Ghostbusters 2 is actually a solid sequel. Maybe not an all-time great like the 1984 original, but Ghostbusters 2 is definitely better than it gets credit for.

Sure, Ghostbusters 2 has its faults: some story elements feel very loosely connected, the story of the Ghostbusters getting back together plays a little too close to the story of the formation of the Ghostbusters in the first movie, and that echoing is really felt in the third act, which feels a bit too familiar. There’s also that weird part with the disembodied heads in the subway which comes out of nowhere. Point being Ghostbusters 2 is a good movie that has its flaws, but it’s better than its reputation suggests. It just has the burden of being a good movie that follows-up a great one.

With that out of the way, there is one element of Ghostbusters 2 that stands out from its predecessor: it has something to say. While the original is one of my favorite films (and arguably the most quotable movie of all time), it is more about the comedy, the concepts and the entertainment. But Ghostbusters 2 has a message for its audience, and while it may be a bit overt, it’s so well meaning and earnest that it’d be hard to call it preachy.

In Ghostbusters 2, as the titular paranormal exterminators are slowly reforming, they discover a mysterious pink slime is taking over New York City. Meanwhile, at an art gallery, the spirit of a 16th century tyrant, Prince Vigo von Homburg Deutschendorf, begins to enter the world of the living through a painting, with his presence bringing about other specters as well.

It turns out that the slime is a physical manifestation of human emotion. Though the slime that’s building up under New York City is specifically the product of negative feelings: people’s anger towards one another, their contempt, frustrations, hostilities, and hatred. Vigo, the spirit of a wicked magician, is drawing strength from the presence of the negatively charged “mood slime,” allowing him to gain more and more power and influence in the physical world (though he plans to kidnap a baby and possess it to have a proper physical form).

The presence of the slime both creates and feeds off the negativity of people. When Ghostbusters (and friends) Ray Stantz and Winston Zeddemore (Dan Aykroyd and Ernie Hudson) are exposed to it, they nearly come to blows. The negativity of the people of the city created the slime, and the slime in turn enhances that negativity. Hatred begets more hatred.

Later, the Ghostbusters learn that the slime can in fact be purified when exposed to positivity: love, friendship, hope, happiness, even song and dance. The presence of the “evil” slime isn’t entirely doom and gloom, and people can in fact reverse the negativity that they themselves created.

As Vigo gains in power, he can manipulate the negative slime to do his bidding, eventually sealing the art gallery with an impenetrable shield of negative energy so no one can interrupt his planned ritual to possess the aforementioned baby. To combat Vigo’s power, the Ghostbusters need to produce a massive amount of positivity in order to enter the art gallery. They end up using the purified “good” mood slime to animate the Statue of Liberty (“something that everyone in this town can get behind… a symbol“) as a means to instill hope and unity in the people of New York, blasting Howard Huntsberry’s “Higher and Higher” through loudspeakers for good measure.

Using the Statue of Liberty and the positivity it produces in people, the Ghostbusters break through the barrier into the art gallery. Although Vigo manifests, overpowering and immobilizing the Ghostbusters, the people throughout New York City, inspired and united, begin singing and embracing each other, weakening Vigo and forcing him to retreat into his painting. The Ghostbusters are then able to use the positive slime on the painting (in an admittedly disappointing final encounter) to seal off Vigo’s access to the physical world. Although the Ghostbusters get that last little moment of action, the real victory took place a few moments before then, when they instilled hope and happiness in the citizens of New York. It’s that positivity that destroyed Vigo’s power.

“Aw hell yeah!”

A few other creative works have had similar messages, that the very idea of good can save the day, but they are still pretty rare, and fewer still that feel genuine enough for their message to ring true (It’s a Wonderful Life and EarthBound are among the exceptions that come to mind). And it’s this optimistic, hopeful attitude that I feel propels Ghostbusters 2 into being a better film than it gets credit for (this, and the entertainment value).

Some may say that’s cheesy or naive (though by doing so, those same critics may be proving the movie’s point), but I think it’s a beautiful little message. One that resonates truer today than it did in 1989 when the film was released. In this day and age when it seems like people want any and every excuse to be angry at the world, hate on everything, and embrace cynicism and nihilism as some forms of intellectualisms, we could all learn a thing or two from something so purely optimistic. We’re willingly bringing about Vigo’s world. Let’s all try to be a little more like the Ghostbusters, piloting the Statue of Liberty and bringing out the best in each other.

Home Sweet Home Alone Review

Home Sweet Home Alone is a new Disney+ exclusive movie, and the sixth – yes, sixth – entry in the Home Alone franchise. The first two Home Alone films, released theatrically in the early 90s, have become holiday classics that people watch annually during Christmastime. They made Macauley Culkin a household name, as he starred as Kevin McCallister, a young boy who was accidentally left, well, home alone around Christmas. A duo of bungling burglars, Harry and Marv, tried to rob the McCallister home (and other nearby households) while the family was away for the holidays, only for Kevin to foil their efforts with a series of cartoonish booby traps that left Harry and Marv beaten and battered.

The original Home Alone was a massive hit. The immediate sequel was more of the same, but set things in the big city of New York. The sequel was less liked by critics, but audiences still embrace it as another annual viewing to this day.

After Macauley Culkin aged out of the role, you’d think the series would be good and done with. It wasn’t exactly a big fantasy franchise with a world of characters and deep mythology to explore. Kid beats up criminals at Christmas. That’s it. Audiences liked the first two, there didn’t need to be more.

But Hollywood being Hollywood, more Home Alones were made. They were various forms of standalone sequels and reboots, none of which featured anyone from the original cast. The third film was theatrically released, though after that it was straight to TV for the series. In this day and age of streaming services, it’s much less of a sting that Home Sweet Home Alone was released straight to Disney+, and in all fairness, it probably is the best installment since the first two films (but that’s a low hurdle to jump). Despite a solid effort, Home Sweet Home Alone still can’t escape the shadow of the first two beloved entries.

The story here is (what else?) a kid winds up being left home alone during Christmas, and has to fend off some burglars with some cartoonishly violent hijinks. Okay, I guess I should specify a little more, since the film at least tries to alter some elements of the formula.

In this entry, the kid is Max Mercer (Archie Yates), an English boy whose family has recently moved to the United States. Max and his mom (Aisling Bea) stop by an open house so Max can use the bathroom. The open house belongs to the McKenzie family, notably husband Jeff (Rob Delaney) and wife Pam (Ellie Kemper). The McKenzies are reluctantly selling their house (they haven’t even told the kids yet) as Jeff has recently lost his job, and Pam’s salary alone isn’t enough for them to keep their home. While Max is in the McKenzie house, he notices a box of old dolls, which Jeff inherited from his mother. Max and his mom note that the dolls are probably worth some money, particularly one malformed doll with an upside down head.

Jeff wishes his family could keep their home, and after doing some research on the dolls, realizes they are indeed worth good money, with the upside down-faced doll in particular being a rare misprint worth a small fortune. With that doll, the McKenzies can keep their home. The only problem is the doll has gone missing! Jeff suspects Max took the doll during his visit, and so tracks down the boy’s home. But by that point, everyone in the Mercer family has left on their vacation to Tokyo. Everyone, that is, except for Max, who fell asleep in a car in the garage to avoid all the noise of visiting relatives.

Through a typical Home Alone series of events, the Mercers are already on their way to Japan before they realize they’ve left Max behind. Meanwhile, Jeff and Pam, desperate to save their home, plan on breaking into the Mercer house in order to retrieve the missing doll, not knowing that Max is still inside. Max manages to overhear the McKenzies outside plotting their eventual break-in, and after misunderstanding a joke (Jeff mentions selling “an ugly little boy,” referring to the misprint doll), Max believes the McKenzies are planning to kidnap him. He wants to call the police, but fears his mother may get arrested for leaving him home alone, and so instead sets an elaborate series of booby traps in his house to beat the crap out of the McKenzies.

That’s kind of a bit of explanation for a Home Alone movie, don’t you think?

I suppose, to be fair, the movie is aiming for something more lighthearted, giving the “antagonists” a bit of sympathy so there can be a little heartwarming get-together once the misunderstandings are inevitably cleared up. It’s well intentioned, but the problem is making the “burglars” of a Home Alone movie into sympathetic characters works against the appeal of the franchise.

One of the reasons Home Alone appealed to young audiences is because the third act features a clever kid outsmarting some bad grownups. Though Kevin McCallister’s traps were often (cartoonishly) violent, you didn’t feel bad for laughing because Harry and Marv deserved it. They were jerks who broke into family homes and stole stuff during the Christmas season (with Marv going a step further and flooding the homes they stole from by clogging the sinks and turning them on full blast). They were simply bad guys. The audience delighted in seeing Harry and Marv get their comeuppance at the hands of Kevin McCallister. By contrast, Jeff and Pam McKenzie are a husband and wife simply trying to retrieve a family heirloom they think was stolen from them so they can save their family home. It’s a lot harder to laugh whenever Jeff and Pam get smacked in the face with a bag of flour. Or fall down a staircase. Or get their feet set on fire.

So, in a roundabout way, by trying to make Home Alone more family friendly (the kid isn’t in any real danger) they’ve actually made it less appropriate because now we’re laughing at the misfortunes of good people. Admittedly, I may be overthinking this a bit, but I do think Home Sweet Home Alone’s good intentions in this area are ultimately misguided for the material.

Something to note about Home Sweet Home Alone is that it actually does take place in the same continuity as the original two films. Kevin’s older brother Buzz McCallister is now a cop in Max’s neighborhood (with Devin Ratray reprising the role), and the Mercer family uses the “McCallister Home Security System.” The obvious implication being that Kevin grew up and started the home security company, which I found hilarious. The film isn’t overburdened with references to the original Home Alone movies, but what’s here is appreciated. Though it is a bit disappointing that Macauley Culkin didn’t have a cameo after rumors (and false confirmations) suggested otherwise ever since Home Sweet Home Alone was announced.

“Buzz McCallister is now like the Nick Fury of the Home Alone Cinematic Universe.”

If I’m being honest, I expected much worse from Home Sweet Home Alone. Perhaps the overreactions of people in the age of social media simply made me fear the worst. But Home Sweet Home Alone is more bland and forgettable than it is outright horrible. Making the burglar “antagonists” sympathetic characters while still expecting us to laugh at the pain inflicted on them is the movie’s only egregious misstep. The rest is simply stuff we’ve seen done better in the first two movies. I admit I found some of the jokes to be funny, and Archie Yates is a cute kid who can carry the material (he was arguably the best part of Jojo Rabbit). Young audiences might get a kick out of the movie. It’s just that, of course, they’d be better off watching the original. Or even Home Alone 2: Lost in New York.

5

No Time to Die Review

No Time to Die is the twenty-fifth film in the James Bond franchise produced by Eon Productions, and the twenty-seventh Bond film overall. Notably, it is also the fifth and final entry in the Daniel Craig starring sub-series of James Bond films that began back in 2006 with Casino Royale. Though No Time to Die can’t quite measure up to some of Craig’s previous Bond efforts, it still manages to provide a fitting conclusion to Craig’s tenure in the iconic role.

Beginning shortly after the events of 2015’s Spectre, No Time to Die sees Bond living a new life with Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), until he is tracked down by Spectre agents. Although Bond escapes the assassins, he believes Madeleine has betrayed him, and they part ways.

Fast forward a few years, and Bond is no longer working for MI6, but the CIA. His MI6 code number of “007” now belongs to a new agent, Nomi (Lashana Lynch), whom Bond inevitably has to work alongside in order to bring down the remaining Spectre agents.

Though someone else is determined to destroy the remnants of Spectre, Lyutsifer Safin (Rami Malek), an international terrorist with ties to Madeleine’s past. Safin has hijacked a secret lab and kidnapped/bought off one of its scientists, and is now in possession of ‘Project Heracles,’ a nanomachine bioweapon that infects its targets’ DNA. When Bond’s meddling with Spectre puts him in Safin’s sights, the secret agent finds himself on a mission to save the world from Safin’s plot. A mission that reunites Bond with Madeleine.

The plot is familiar territory for Bond films, and a number of key players make their return for Daniel Craig’s farewell as Bond. Ralph Fiennes is back as M, Naomie Harris as Moneypenny, Ben Whishaw as Q, and Christoph Waltz makes a comeback as Ernst Stavro Blofeld, after appearing as the iconic villain in Spectre. No Time to Die even brings back Jeffrey Wright as Felix Leiter, after the character’s absence in both Skyfall and Spectre.

With most of the key players back, it really helps add to the finality of the film. I admit I haven’t seen every James Bond movie, but I don’t think the series necessarily started over every time a new actor took on the role of Bond. As far as my knowledge goes, these Daniel Craig Bond films are the first series within the greater franchise to have a definitive beginning, middle and end. With No Time to Die being the last in this series, the filmmakers have given the film an appropriately melancholic tone throughout.

“Ana de Armas appears in one entertaining sequence as a CIA agent named Paloma. It’s one of the best parts of the movie, which makes it all the weirder that she disappears from the rest of the film afterwards.”

That’s not to say that it’s all down and depressing. This is very much a James Bond film, and there’s still plenty of entertainment to be had. Some of the action scenes are genuinely exhilarating, and the plot makes some exciting twists and turns.

In a number of ways, No Time to Die not only feels like a respectful sendoff to Daniel Craig’s Bond, but a loving tribute to all things James Bond, past and present. There is a caveat to this, however: both Skyfall and Spectre already kind of did that. And with due respect to No Time to Die, I think those films did it better.

Part of Skyfall’s appeal was that it was released around the 60th anniversary of the James Bond character, and the film celebrated the history of the character throughout. Spectre had a similar reverence for James Bond’s history, but celebrated in a different kind of way. Spectre brought back Blofeld, the recurring primary antagonist in the series, after years and years of legal issues prevented the use of the character, to give Bond his biggest threat. Both films played around with the history of James Bond, while creating entertaining, standalone movies in their own right.

By contrast, No Time to Die feels like the celebration has been going on a little too long. If Skyfall was like the main event, and Spectre was a much appreciated encore, No Time to Die feels like an additional encore that doesn’t have a whole lot to offer that hasn’t already been done. The party’s over, it’s getting late, we’ve got things to do in the morning.

That’s not to say that I don’t appreciate No Time to Die. It is a good movie. But the previous two films already gave Daniel Craig’s Bond two performances that would have made for fitting final acts (in fact, I believe at different points both films were considered the last Craig Bond films). So No Time to Die can at times feel like an epilogue that’s simply going through the motions. It does what it does well, I just think Casino Royale, Skyfall and Spectre did the same things better.

I think a major factor to that is that I just didn’t care for No Time to Die’s villain. Skyfall and Spectre both gave us all-time great Bond villains. The former featured Javier Bardem as Raoul Silva, a physically intimidating foe who could get under Bond’s skin. As mentioned, the latter featured Christoph Waltz’s take on Ernst Stavro Blofeld, who could outsmart Bond and company at every turn.

Rami Malek’s Lyutsifer Safin is a villain of little presence. We’re told he’s a genius, and a dangerous one at that. But with the past few villains we got to actually see them be geniuses and dangerous. We’re seemingly just supposed to accept Safin as James Bond’s greatest foe just because the movie tells us he is.

“Many James Bond villains have a ‘hook’ to their physical appearance: Blofeld is usually bald and has a nasty scar across his face. Oddjob has his bowler hat. Jaws has, well, a big, metal jaw. What does Lyutsifer Safin have? Bad skin. It doesn’t really have the same effect, does it?”

It probably doesn’t help the matter that Christoph Waltz’s Blofeld has a single scene cameo in the film, and in that one scene proves he’s the superior villain to Safin. I also don’t really understand what Safin’s motivation is. He wants to destroy Spectre out of personal revenge for his father, I get that. But then why does he also want to spread a DNA nanomachine virus across the globe, which is the kind of thing Spectre itself would do?

“This should have been the main conflict of the movie.”

Though No Time to Die is a good movie, I think it would have been a much better one had the film simply kept Blofeld as the antagonist. For some reason, movies these days don’t have faith in the idea of a returning villain, as if being beaten by the hero once somehow destroys their credibility as the bad guy. There’s an advantage to returning villains in sequels in that we already know who they are and what they’re about, allowing for more time to be dedicated to the current story at hand. And considering this is the last James Bond film in its current incarnation, it would be all the more fitting to have kept Blofeld – the James Bond villain – as the big bad. By having Blofeld as the antagonist in the previous film and now bringing in a new villain out of the blue for the current James Bond’s big sendoff, it actually makes the proceedings feel less important as a result.

So No Time to Die may suffer from its villain scenario, and because it feels like it’s parroting its immediate predecessors too strongly while offering very little of its own. But No Time to Die is a good Bond film in its own right, providing the high quality action and spectacle you’d expect from the series. Though it may not be the best celebration of all things Bond in recent years, it’s still a celebration worth attending for fans of the series. And it gives a fitting farewell to arguably the best Bond since Sean Connery.

6

Eternals Review

*Caution! This review contains minor spoilers*

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has long-since grown into the biggest movie franchise in history, producing 26 films since it began with Iron Man in 2008, and is now finding its way into television series (well, it did that a few years ago as well, but now those early ones don’t count). 2021 will ultimately see no less than four new movie entries in the franchise, and the past few months have already seen several streaming series added to the MCU. While the sheer amount of Marvel content is getting excessive, at the very least, it’d be hard to describe any entry in the MCU as “boring.”

Until now.

Although not all of the MCU films are equals, Eternals – the third MCU film released in 2021 – is the first that had me waiting in anticipation not for something exciting to happen (though anything exciting would have been appreciated), but just for it to end. Even the weaker Marvel Studios movies (The Incredible Hulk, Captain Marvel) have at least provided some entertainment value, but Eternals – in a misguided attempt to prove its importance – apparently decided that it has no room for fun. Though the film’s over two and a half hour runtime suggests they could have found some time to boost the audience’s spirits.

Eternals tells the story of, well, the Eternals. An immortal race of super beings created by even more immortal, even more super beings called Celestials (basically giant robot gods). The Eternals were created to protect Earth (and other inhabited planets) from the Deviants, their evil counterparts. The Eternals are permitted by the Celestials to only use their powers to fight the Deviants, as to allow life on Earth to continue, but are not permitted to interfere with human conflicts and advancement (which is really just a weak excuse as to why the Eternals haven’t shown up in the MCU until now).

But they seem to interfere a hell of a lot anyway, with the Eternals being the real beings responsible for a number of human inventions (because God forbid humans are actually capable of accomplishing something). One of the Eternals even has the power to mind control humans, which seems entirely contradictory to their instructions not to interfere with humans.

The Eternals had seemingly rid the world of Deviants long ago, and gone their separate ways. They’ve moved on to live regular lives on Earth while they wait for centuries for their creator Celestial – Arishem – to instruct them to leave Earth in their ship (which looks like a triangular Kit Kat bar). But it seems the energy produced by the “snaps” of Thanos and the Hulk have somehow reawakened some Deviants, which have begun wreaking havoc once again. One Deviant, in particular, is capable of stealing the powers of Eternals and is beginning to gain sentience. So the Eternals must reassemble to stop the increasing threat of the Deviants (I guess the Avengers turned a blind eye to this one).

“The Deviants all basically look like variations of Bahamut from Final Fantasy X.”

The Earth Eternals are an ensemble cast of characters: Ajak (Salma Hayek) is their leader, and has the power to heal. Sersi (Gemma Chan) is the compassionate one, and has the power to manipulate inanimate matter. Ikarus (Richard Madden) is the strongest, and possesses the powers of flight and laser eyes. Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani) can shoot projectile energy from his hands. Sprite (Lia McHugh) is an Eternal with the appearance of a child, and can project lifelike illusions (so she’s basically Loki). Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry) has the ability of invention, which isn’t really a superpower, but I guess it is in this movie since humans are incapable of invention themselves. There’s also Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), a deaf Eternal with super speed. Druig (Barry Keoghan) possesses the aforementioned mind control. Gilgamesh (Don Lee) has the gift of super strength, and is the gentle giant of the group. Finally, Thena (Angelina Jolie) is the fiercest warrior of the Eternals, and can produce energy weapons from her hands.

It’s an eclectic lineup of characters, and the movie seems to have good intentions with its diversity (along with the culturally diverse cast and one character being deaf, Phastos is also gay), but the film ultimately fails these characters because they never really show any development as individuals.

Perhaps the one exception would be Kingo, who at least has a fun character history. While most of the Eternals have lived low-profile lives on Earth, Kingo has found fame as a Bollywood star. More specifically, as an entire lineage of Bollywood stars (to keep his immortality a secret). This would be the movie’s best idea, except it’s bettered a few moments after being introduced when – after Kingo is called back into action – production of his current film is halted, so he has his manager Karun (Harish Patel) join the Eternals on their adventure to film the whole thing as a documentary. So the manager is just tagging along for the rest of the movie.

“The saving graces of this movie.”

An immortal superhero who doubles as a Bollywood star with his (quite regular human) manager at his side? Now that’s a fun idea! I’d see a whole movie based on that concept in a heartbeat! It’s just a shame the rest of Eternals is nowhere near as fun or creative as that one element.

The entire movie seems to be an extended sequence of flashbacks and exposition. It gets so tangled up in talks about how things happened and introduces so much faux-philosophy of how things could be, that Eternals seems to forget to actually tell the story at hand (the previously mentioned Deviant who gains sentience seems completely forgotten about as soon as he gains that sentience, until he randomly stumbles into the finale as the movie remembered about that loose end at the last minute).

There’s an attempted twist with the plot early on when the true nature of Arishem’s plan is revealed: Long ago, Arishem selected Earth to be a host planet for the birth of a new Celestial. The “seed” for the Celestial was planted within the Earth, but in order to grow, it needs a large number of intelligent life to inhabit the planet in order to produce the amount of energy needed to birth the Celestial (or some BS reason like that). So Thanos wiping out half the population prolonged “the Emergence,” while the Hulk bringing that half back all at once sped it up. The looming threat being that the birth of a Celestial means the death of the planet that births it.

“So like, are the Celestials the greatest power in the Marvel universe, or is it the TVA? The mythology of the Marvel movies seems all over the place right now. Just bring in “The One Above All” and call it a day.”

This is where that ‘faux-philosophy’ rears its ugly head. Once Arishem’s true nature is revealed, the movie seems to think it’s providing some deep moral dilemma for the Eternals (and the audience) to ponder: do they save the Earth and its people at the expense of a Celestial? Or do they let Earth die because the Celestial could maybe make more planets that may or may not develop life?

That’s a stupid ass question. Of course saving the Earth is the only right answer! It’s not like another inhabited planet is at stake. It’s literally either the lives of every human being and living creature on Earth, or save some space robot so he can create some space junk and see what happens. We’re already here. So tough luck, space robot.

If the movie took a direct approach and came to the obvious conclusion that yes, Arishem is wrong and Earth needs to be saved, it would be alright. But the fact the movie treats it as such a thought-provoking conundrum is unintentionally hilarious. Although I suppose even if Eternals just ran with the idea, the whole “we were working for the bad guy all along” concept is the single most obvious “swerve” a movie like this could have possibly attempted. We now live in a time in which a movie where the good guys are simply the good guys and the bad guys are simply the bad guys would be a refreshing, original concept.

The movie as a whole just has an undeserved air of importance. It’s something closer to DC’s Man of Steel than it is any of the entertaining MCU features of yesteryear.

I am the first to admit that I dislike when Marvel movies (or any movie) undercuts emotional moments with an unnecessary bit of humor. So many movies today seem hesitant to let audiences feel emotions (“gotta throw in a dumb joke in a sad moment or the audience might actually feel sad!”). But now, here I am being a complete hypocrite, because I wish Eternals could have provided me with something, anything, to lighten the mood.

“I’m packing you an extra pair of shoes and your angry eyes, just in case.”

The whole movie is so joyless, and embracing in that joylessness as some kind of intellectualism. We have a bunch of apathetic characters who have lived for thousands of years (later revealed to actually be millions of years, because unless something is at least a million years old it doesn’t matter in Marvel movies anymore), and all they ever seem to talk about is how terrible humans are based on all the horrors they’ve witnessed over time. And of course, anything good humans did was actually an accomplishment made by the Eternals. How convenient.

You know what I miss? I miss the Sam Raimi Spider-Man movies. Now those were Marvel movies that showed what a super hero should be: a symbol of hope. Crucially, they also showed the importance of the people Spider-Man was fighting to protect, with the first two Raimi films featuring memorable scenes where the people of New York helped Spider-Man save the day, and stood up for their hero. Even J. Jonah Jameson was given a moment of selfless heroism.

These days, between the mini-series Loki and now in an even more boring package with the Eternals, the modern Marvel movies and series seem to treat humanity as an afterthought. The heroes are no longer fighting for people, because people are insignificant and just exist to run around and scream whenever the villains are doing something bad. As a result, the heroes just come across as fighting for their own egos instead of fighting for what’s right.

Eternals was directed by Chloé Zhao, who has recently risen to prominence and even won an Oscar. One would hope that such a director would bring a new artistic touch to the superhero genre. Instead, Zhao’s film simply strips away the artistic merit the genre does have, and tries to turn it into something else. Eternals is an attempt to turn a superhero movie into an arthouse film, and not a very good one.

These Marvel movies show no signs of slowing down. Here’s hoping that Eternals is simply a bump in the road, and that these movies can get back to what made us all like them to begin with.

At least Shang-Chi was good.

3

My Month in Movies (October 2021)

Hey! I’m doing this again!

Somehow, my October movie watching managed to surpass my September movie watching. So I figured a second edition of this “My Month in Movies” thing was in order. But I stress this again, don’t expect this to be a monthly thing. Only something I’ll do when I feel I’ve watched enough movies to warrant it, and if I have the interest. But I certainly had the interest this month!

I managed to watch twenty-five feature films throughout the month of Halloween, with the holiday itself inspiring me to watch a number of them as a means to get in the holiday spirit (I’m festive like that). And somehow, I still managed to find the time to rewatch the entirety of what is arguably the best television show of all time. I honestly don’t know how I managed to watch everything I did in October, but I guess a bit of insomnia freed up some of my usual sleep time, so that probably “helped.” Additionally, the only video games I put any time into during the month were Metroid Dread and Mario Party Superstars, the latter of which wasn’t released until the tail end of the month (but it was still released before Halloween, which is what Nintendo should have done with Luigi’s Mansion 3 a few years back. No, I still haven’t forgiven them for releasing Luigi’s Mansion 3 on the day of Halloween but constantly advertised it as being “just in time” for Halloween).

*Ahem!*

Anyway, my point being my free time this month was basically in watching, not playing. Which is another reason why I may skip writing another one of these next month (we’ll see). I’m so backlogged in my reviews and write-ups for video games, that I really should prioritize that aspect of my website for a while.

Why am I explaining all this to you? I have quite a few movies to talk about, so let’s get cracking at this.

Here is the full list of movies I watched in October 2021, in chronological order of when I watched them. Once again, movies I watched for the very first time are marked with asterisks.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze

The Maltese Falcon

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 3

Spirited Away

Casablanca

Venom: Let There be Carnage*

The Addams Family 2 (2021)*

No Time to Die*

North by Northwest*

Dick Tracy*

The Adventures of Tintin

Jaws

Jaws 2*

Jaws 3(D)*

Jaws: The Revenge*

The Evil Dead*

Evil Dead 2*

Army of Darkness*

Dune (2021)*

Psycho

Rear Window

Howl’s Moving Castle

The Birds

Ghostbusters

In addition to all these movies, I also watched all 180 episodes of Seinfeld, as well as the 50-minute Disney+ special, The Muppets Haunted Mansion, which was cute (Gotta love The Muppets).

So quite the eclectic lineup, I must say. While in September my overall “flavor of the month” seemed to be action movies, for the obvious reasons in October it seemed to be various forms of horror and suspense. But if that’s too obvious, let’s say the flavor of the month was Alfred Hitchcock, seeing as I watched no less than four films by the great director. And yes, I started things off by watching the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles trilogy again. What of it?

After Ninja Turtles, I rewatched The Maltese Falcon for the first time in a few years. A classic Humphrey Bogart film, and the first to pair him up with actors Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet, the latter of which made his acting debut in The Maltese Falcon as the villain, Kasper Gutman, AKA “The Fat Man.” The Maltese Falcon is often considered the first film noire, but that’s debated. Either way, it’s a great piece of classic cinema.

Then I had the terrific opportunity to once again (more specifically, thrice again) see my all time favorite movie, Spirited Away, on the big screen. With Spirited Away’s limited re-releases in 2016 through 2019, as well as these three viewings and when I first saw it in 2003, this brings my overall theatrical viewings of Spirited Away to 14! That’s the third most I’ve seen a movie in theaters (or fourth, depending on how you view a tie), and if these re-releases keep up (please do), it will climb it’s way to the top in no time. It would be fitting, seeing as it is my favorite film.

You know, I’ve made it no secret that Spirited Away is my favorite movie (along with My Neighbor Totoro), and yet I still procrastinate on making my lists of favorite films (whether by decade, genre, overall, what have you). And I feel like I’m not alone there. It seems like a lot of people can point out their absolute favorite of something, but then when it comes to making some kind of concrete list, there’s some pressure with making it for some reason. You’d think knowing your favorite would make everything else fall into place. I don’t know, that’s just an observation.

Next up was Casablanca, one of the most acclaimed and beloved films of all time, and another that starred Bogart and featured Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet. It also features one of the most famous misquotes in movie history (“Play it again, Sam!” is never actually uttered. Though Bogart’s character does tell a character named Sam to play a song on a piano, the words are never in that specific order). Another great classic.

After that I saw some recent movies in theaters. I’ve already reviewed Venom: Let There be Carnage and The Addams Family 2, so you can go ahead and read those if you want. But I also saw the newest James Bond film, and the last to star Daniel Craig: No Time to Die.

I mostly enjoyed No Time to Die. It featured some exhilarating action scenes, and it was a fitting, melancholic sendoff to Daniel Craig’s James Bond. With that said, I don’t think it was as good as Casino Royale, Skyfall or Spectre (I actually still haven’t seen Quantum of Solace). Despite doing most of what it did well, I don’t think No Time to Die did them as well as those aforementioned movies. But one thing that was a huge downgrade from the past few Bond films was the villain. The past two films featured Javier Bardem and Chrisoph Waltz as the villains (the latter as James Bond’s big bad, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, no less). The former was physically imposing, the latter was mentally intimidating. So when No Time to Die wheels out Rami Malek as the bad guy, he kind of falls flat. He just doesn’t have a villainous presence like his predecessors, and his character’s motives are murky, at best. Not to mention his defining physical trait is that he has bad skin. A lot of Bond villains have some hook to their appearance: Blofeld is usually bald and has a nasty scar across his face; Oddjob has his hat; Jaws has, well, a big metal jaw. But No Time to Die’s villain, Lyutsifer Safin, has bad skin… Yeah, not quite the same.

What’s really disappointing is that No Time to Die brings back Christoph Waltz as Blofeld, but just for a single scene cameo. He should have just been the villain again, really. Especially since this was Craig’s last Bond film, it would have made all the more sense for Blofeld to be the final villain, given the character’s history in the franchise. By making Blofeld the villain of the previous film and then ending this current James Bond series with a new villain, it actually makes the whole scenario feel less important. Why doesn’t Hollywood have any faith in the idea of returning villains anymore?

I really should just review No Time to Die. Maybe some day I’ll rewatch all of the Craig Bond films and give them all a write-up.

North by Northwest was the first Hitchcock film I watched in October, and was the only one of the four I watched during the month that I watched for the very first time. Even if you’ve never seen North by Northwest, if you’re familiar with iconic movie moments, you’re probably familiar with this one.

The fact that I watched North by Northwest right after a James Bond film was coincidental, but fitting, seeing as it greatly influenced the spy thriller genre, most notably James Bond. The twist here being that the main character isn’t actually a spy, but gets mistaken for one. This is another great Hitchcock film, but one that I feel has one major flaw: the ending is waaay too abrupt.

I know, I’ve committed cinematic blasphemy once again. But the film has such a great build and execution to just about every moment beforehand, and then it literally wraps up seconds, seconds, after the final confrontation with the bad guys. If a modern movie did the same thing, all people would ever talk about would be the abrupt ending. With classic Hollywood it’s the opposite, and we skirt over something like that and only highlight the good. Granted, I would prefer people be more positive and have the outlook that the good outweighs and overpowers the bad, but it does seem like film buffs have a bit of a double standard with these things.

Otherwise North by Northwest is another winner in Hitchcock’s belt. The film’s writer even mentioned that he wanted to make sure he wrote “The Hitchcock film to end all Hitchcock films” (which admittedly seems a bit odd. You’d think Alfred Hitchcock would be the only person in the film’s production who could rightfully make that call, really).

Next we have Dick Tracy from 1990. What a wild ride this movie is. Although its story and characters are very simplistic, what really makes Dick Tracy stand out is its utter commitment to style. While modern comic book movies try to make the worlds of the comics look “grounded” and “more realistic,” Dick Tracy had the complete opposite mentality. It wanted to make reality look like a comic book! Talk about being ahead of its time!

There’s so much color and style in Dick Tracy, that its imagery really sticks in the mind afterwards. Not to mention its wild parade of villains, with pretty much all of them hiding under heaps of prosthetic makeup. You have guys with tiny faces, guys with no faces, and guys with prune faces!

Dick Tracy kind of reminds me a lot of The Rocketeer (1991), which I guess is fitting, seeing as both films were attempts by Disney to create their own Indiana Jones-esque franchise. The key difference between the two is that Rocketeer was released under Disney itself, while the (relatively) more mature Dick Tracy was released under Disney’s now-defunct Touchstone brand (which, despite popular misconception, was just a brand name Disney used for more mature movies, and not a separate studio). Both should be ranked among Disney’s best live-action films.

I also reviewed The Adventures of Tintin already. And Fun Fact: I posted that review on the tenth anniversary of the film’s original release in Belgium (which is appropriately where the film was released first). Again, I’m festive.

After that, I watched the Jaws movies. Or should I say I watched Jaws, a genuine classic of horror, suspense and action, and then proceeded to watch three fanfictions that somehow got turned into feature films?

Okay, so in all fairness, Jaws 2 isn’t so bad, it’s just that it really had no hope to live up to the original. Jaws 3 is pretty darn bad though, but it actually got off a little easy over time because Jaws: The Revenge is so bad that it became the one everyone talks about in hate and disgust to this day.

At any rate, I don’t think anyone would blame me that I’ve seen the original Jaws many times over the years, but only just now watched the sequels for the first time. The first Jaws is an all-time classic, and the film that made Steven Spielberg Steven Spielberg. It was the first-ever Summer blockbuster, and it still has to be one of the best.

Steven Spielberg’s films are rarely complex, but they’re so well done at everything they do that he makes them unforgettable. Jaws really is a simple horror movie at heart, but it’s surely one of the best ones. It really helps give the film some emotional weight that Spielberg made the three main characters into complex figures, and that each of the shark’s victims aren’t simply treated like mere “movie kills,” but are made appropriately tragic (two concepts that seem lost on most horror movies). And the shark (which is its name, not “Jaws” like the James Bond villain, just “The Shark”) is one of the great movie villains. A mostly unseen presence of terror and death, defined by its theme music.

Jaws really hasn’t aged a day. In fact, in some respects, it may resonate even stronger today in many ways. A deadly problem arises that could be resolved if a few simple rules are followed, but some selfish, greedy, stupid people blatantly ignore those rules and make the problem worse. Why does that sound so familiar?

It’s definitely worth mentioning that Spielberg had no hand in any of the Jaws sequels. Though to their credit, I suppose the Jaws sequels produced two of the most famous/parodied taglines in movie history. Surely you’ve heard some variation of “Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water” (Jaws 2) and “This time, it’s personal” (Jaws: The Revenge).

After Jaws I went into even more horror territory with the Evil Dead trilogy by Sam Raimi. The first Evil Dead is a straight-up horror movie. A low budget affair that sees the now iconic Ash Williams character (Bruce Campbell) survive a haunted cabin as his friends are possessed by demons one by one.

Evil Dead 2 is probably the best movie of the trilogy, and combines the horror with comedy. Interestingly, it’s as much a remake as it is a sequel, with its first ten or so minutes retelling the events of the first film while omitting most of the characters from the original (save for Ash and his girlfriend) and retconning the ending. And then many of the events of the first movie that involved the characters left out of the sequel are redone with different characters and situations in part 2. It’s an interesting take on a sequel, to say the least. I admit I have some mixed feelings about how it wipes away certain elements of its predecessor (effectively making the original movie a half-canon prologue), but Evil Dead 2 really does outdo the first film in basically every way otherwise. Plus, this is the one where Ash gets his chainsaw hand.

The third film of the trilogy, Army of Darkness, is relatively less acclaimed, but kind of brilliant in its own way. Although it’s still classified as a horror movie, it feels more like a total change of genre, doubling down on the cartoonish comedy of the second entry and placing the action in a swords and sorcery setting (okay, chainsaws and sorcery). That’s right, Ash goes back in time to medieval days and battles an army of skeletons. You have to respect a sequel that’s willing to be so different to what came before. It’s one of the most bonkers sequels ever.

We go back to modern releases with Dune, the latest cinematic interpretation of Frank Herbert’s influential sci-fi epic. Like No Time to Die, maybe I’ll write a full review of this in the near future, but I have to say I wasn’t won over by it. I feel like Dune is one of those things where you really, really have to love sci-fi to get into it. I don’t know, it feels like one of those sci-fi stories that’s more about the situation and politics of its world than it is about story and characters. I find it really difficult to get into that kind of thing. And when turned into a movie it kind of works against itself. It’s basically watching a movie where people are constantly explaining things, but you don’t really feel for any of it. The new Dune movie takes its sweet time with so many things, but little of it goes into making you care about who the characters are. And I found the constant presence of big name celebrities to be more distracting than anything (a guy takes off his mask to reveal, dun dun dun, it’s Javier Bardem!).

I will say, the film is a spectacle, sometimes an effective one. And I think Bootstrap Baron Harkonnen is a good bad guy. A big, floating fat guy. Now that’s a villain! More villains need to be big, floating fat guys.

Back to Hitchcock with Psycho and Rear Window.

Psycho is probably Hitchcock’s most widely known film, and one of my favorites. The first half is more of a suspenseful movie, as a young woman steals forty-thousand dollars and runs off to start a new life with her boyfriend, only for it to switch into a horror film once she stops at the Bates Motel on her way to reunite with said boyfriend. The switch occurs, of course, in the infamous shower scene, which has to be the most famous “movie kill” in any horror movie. It also has to be the biggest switcheroo of a movie plot, and Alfred Hitchcock went to great lengths to ensure theaters wouldn’t permit anyone into the movie after it had already started, as to avoid spoiling the surprise. Wouldn’t that be cool if such a thing could still happen today? A classic.

Rear Window is less horror, but more suspense. The Entire movie takes place in a single location, but you really forget about that fact when watching it because it’s so engrossing. Rear Window is, of course, the movie where James Stewart plays a photographer (L.B. “Jeff” Jeffries), who has a broken leg which is keeping him stuck in his apartment. So he takes on the hobby of peeping at his neighbors to pass the time (yikes!), but suddenly his pastime has some importance, as he realizes one of his neighbors has murdered their wife in the middle of the night. Another very effective thriller by Hitchcock.

Along with Spirited Away, Hayao Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle was also given another limited re-release in theaters (though I only saw Howl once this time around). I’ve stated in the past that Howl’s Moving Castle is the only Miyazaki film that’s notably “weaker” than the rest of the great director’s works, but that really is a very relative complaint. Howl’s Moving Castle still is a magical, imaginative movie with memorable characters. I got very nostalgic watching Howl this time around, with memories of seeing it in theaters when it was first released in the US sixteen years ago (geez, how has it been that long? How?). The screening of Howl’s Moving Castle even featured a showing of On Your Mark, the only music video directed by Miyazaki.

Going back to Hitchcock yet again, I watched The Birds, probably the most famous post-Psycho Hitchcock film (unless I’m forgetting the ordering of his movies, which is possible because he directed a ton of them). Another great horror movie. You could even make the argument that The Birds is a zombie movie, even though there’s no actual zombies, just (quite living) birds. But the way the movie plays out certainly feels like a zombie movie.

The Birds tells the story of a young woman who, after an encounter with a man at a pet store, decides to purchase him some birds (it’s more complicated an encounter than it sounds, but we’ll save the details for another time). She buys a couple of lovebirds, and shortly after delivering them to the man’s family home in the middle of a fishing hamlet, all of the birds in the area – regardless of species – begin to attack people. The film has a nice slow burn, with about a full half hour going by before the first bird – a single seagull – attacks our heroine.

One of my favorite things about The Birds is its heavy use of uncertainty, which really adds to the horror element. There’s never a given reason why birds start violently attacking people. It’s implied to the audience (not the characters) the presence of the lovebirds is the cause. But that’s – quite wonderfully – an explanation that creates more questions than answers. Hitchcock didn’t want to give a detailed explanation for why the birds start going crazy, which I can’t imagine a movie like this would do these days. If there were a modern movie like this, it would no doubt have to explain away every last detail. But Hitchcock was wise enough to know that the uncertainty of it makes it all the scarier.

That uncertainty is also present in the birds’ attacks. In the film, birds just start gathering in large numbers, and will swarm and attack at seemingly random moments. To add even more uncertainty to the picture, The Birds doesn’t really have a traditional ending. It ends with the surviving characters quietly leaving town after another attack – with the lovebirds in tow(!!) – amidst a currently tame mass of birds.

I kind of like that The Birds doesn’t really have an ending. Some may say that’s hypocritical, given my complaints with North by Northwest’s ending. But the difference is I feel like the vague ending of The Birds fits with the kind of movie it is, whereas the ending to North by Northwest is so abrupt it feels out of place in a movie that otherwise takes its time.

Finally, the last movie I watched this month was Ghostbusters, the 1984 comedy that was one of the biggest hits of its decade, and still a comedy classic. It was followed by a disappointing sequel in 1989, and an even more disappointing and unnecessary reboot in 2016. Ghostbusters: Afterlife, a third film in the original series (finally) comes to theaters later this month. Here’s hoping that Afterlife ends up being the first worthy sequel to Ghostbusters (not counting the animated series The Real Ghostbusters or the 2009 Ghostbusters video game, both of which seem to have a mostly fond reception).

It’s kind of funny that Ghostbusters spawned such a big franchise, because it really wasn’t that kind of movie. It was a comedy starring SNL alumni that was based in Dan Akroyd’s interest in the paranormal. But the film was just so well made, from writing and dialogue to its special effects, and perhaps most importantly, it had an imaginative story that in turn captured the imaginations of audiences. Ghostbusters is one of those comedies that stops being “just” a comedy and is simply a great movie all around.

Also of note, Ghostbusters was the first “visual effects comedy.” Before Ghostbusters, comedies weren’t considered commercially viable enough for studios to spend the money required for big visual effects. In that regard, Ghostbusters opened the door for movies like Back to the Future and Who Framed Roger Rabbit. It’s just a shame that visual effects comedies are now basically extinct (can you think of a modern example of the sub-genre?).

Now I’m turning into a Ghostbusters history book. Point being, it’s a great movie, and one of my favorite comedies. But I guess I’ve rambled enough and we should be moving on. Let’s dish out some awards to the movies I watched in October!

Best Movie I Watched All Month: Spirited Away

Seeing as Spirited Away is my favorite movie, it’s guaranteed to be the best movie I watch in any month I watch it (if I watch it in the same month as My Neighbor Totoro, I guess it would be a tie between the two). With all due respect to the numerous great movies I watched this past month like Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, Psycho, Ghostbusters and Jaws, Spirited Away of course wins the crown. Chihiro’s odyssey to save her parents in a world of spirits and monsters is unforgettable from beginning to end.

One of the funny things about having favorites of anything (movies, video games, TV shows, songs, etc.) is that after a while, you tend to only think of the “whole” of your favorites, and take for granted the little details that helped make them your favorites to begin with. And when you experience your favorite things again, every now and again you’re reminded of those little things.

Spirited Away is a beautiful, touching film. But something these recent viewings reminded me of is its sense of humor. There are so many funny little touches to Spirited Away: The witch Yubaba using her magic to repair the damage done to her office, only to manually straighten a lampshade. A bowl of rice melts into goo due to the stench of a Stink Spirit. There’s the famous scene with the soot sprites carrying coal to a furnace. Chihiro notices one such sprite struggling to carry his lump of coal, and takes it upon herself to carry it for him (struggling herself in the process). Afterwards, all the soot sprites purposefully drop their coal in hopes Chihiro will do their work for them.

As an added bonus, the English dub features a small role for John Ratzenberger (remember that the Pixar guys helped in the dubbing of Miyazaki’s films), and the actor delivers some terrifically funny adlibs (that also don’t detract from the spirit of the movie, importantly).

Spirited Away is my favorite film, so I’ll continue to talk about it whenever I can. But because these recent viewings really made me appreciate Spirited Away’s many humorous moments all over again (and reminded me the part they played in me loving the movie to begin with), I figured I’d highlight those here. Spirited Away is widely (and rightly) acknowledged as one of the greatest and most influential animated films, but its sense of humor doesn’t get talked about as much as many of its other aspects. It should be talked about more, because along with everything else, Spirited Away is also a very funny film.

The best movie.

Worst Movie I Watched All Month: Jaws: The Revenge

From the highest of highs to the lowest of lows…

Last month, I mentioned how Speed 2: Cruise Control is sometimes considered the worst sequel ever. While Speed 2 is a bad sequel, and sadly crushed any hopes for a Speed 3, it did have some merit. The same cannot be said of Jaws: The Revenge. Behold, the worst sequel of all time!

Well, I may have to double check that later. But considering how great the original Jaws was in relation to how truly, unspeakably awful Jaws: The Revenge is, it has to be the greatest drop in quality a movie series has seen. It just has to be. How could something be worse?

Sure, there were two other Jaws movies in between the first Jaws and The Revenge, but The Revenge is so bad it could have been 16 sequels worth of diminishing returns. The Revenge is an insult to Jaws 3, let alone Jaws 2, let alone the original!

Why is it so bad? Geez, where do I even begin? Wait, I know a good spot to begin: the fact that the shark in this movie is literally out for revenge on the Brody family for what happened to the sharks in the first two movies! Oh yeah, I say the first two movies because Jaws: The Revenge ignores the events of Jaws 3 and is its own third entry. So it’s basically Jaws 3-2.

Not only is the idea that a shark could actively seek revenge absolutely ludicrous, but it even contradicts a line of dialogue from Jaws 2. This is also the movie where the shark roars like a lion. The movie where the shark blows up after getting stabbed by the front of a ship. And I don’t mean its body pops and blood and guts fly everywhere, I mean the shark actually explodes into a fireball!

Okay, so the movie is insulting to the audience’s intelligence, but even if we try to look past the idiocy, it’s still a bad sequel all around: Chief Martin Brody is dead from the get-go, having died of a heart attack in between Jaws 2 and this movie. So Roy Scheider is sorely missed (by the audience, I’m sure Scheider was happy he wasn’t featured). I guess he wasn’t in Jaws 3 either, but at least that continuity didn’t kill Martin Brody off screen. Though I guess getting killed off screen is a better character fate than surviving one horror film only to get killed by the same/virtually the same villain in one of the sequels, which just undermines their victory in the first movie. I hate that!

So the widowed Ellen Brody is the main character here. Her younger son is engaged to be married, only to be killed by the revenge-seeking shark…at Christmastime, of course (let’s kick Ellen Brody while she’s down). So Ellen leaves Amity Island to stay in the Bahamas with her older son, where the shark naturally follows her in a matter of days. That is one fast as hell shark!

And did I mention that Ellen Brody seems to have a psychic connection with the shark, and is able to sense its presence when it’s near? She also has flashbacks to events from the first movie in which she wasn’t even there to witness them. Geez…

Do I have to keep talking about Jaws: The Revenge? Maybe one day I’ll review all of the Jaws movies. But damn, what a fall from grace.

The worst sequel.

Best Movie I Watched for the First Time This Month: Dick Tracy (Evil Dead 2/Army of Darkness are close runners-up, and let’s include North by Northwest out of obligation)

If we’re being technical here, then sure, North by Northwest was the “best movie” I saw for the first time this past month. But I really can’t get past that abrupt ending. So North by Northwest seems like the answer I’m supposed to say here, but not the one I pick.

Evil Dead 2 and Army of Darkness may have also taken the crown, but I’m undecided as to which one I actually prefer (Evil Dead 2 is probably the best of the trilogy from a pure filmmaking perspective, but I really like how Army of Darkness just changes genres and goes nuts). Since I’m undecided there, I guess I can go ahead and select Dick Tracy as the winner for now.

Okay, so maybe my pick here isn’t as definitive as last month’s, but it’s something.

Again, Dick Tracy isn’t anything complex, but it’s a very easy movie to appreciate, perhaps more so today than it was in 1990. This is a movie that is unapologetically faithful to its source material. If anyone in the audience is confused or weirded out by it, that’s their problem. That’s a beautiful mentality that I wish we saw more of in movies today, when comic book movies and fantasy and science fiction feel the constant need to compromise.

As mentioned earlier, Dick Tracy reminds me a lot of The Rocketeer, released by Disney a year later. But where The Rocketeer had one villain encased in prosthetic makeup, I think Dick Tracy has more actors wearing prosthetics than those not wearing them. What other movie would give Al Pacino a hunched back, a goblin nose, and a butt chin? Or give Dustin Hoffman crooked lips and have him speak in incoherent mumbles?

Dick Tracy’s use of bright colors and cartoony sets are a constant delight, and its sheer commitment to bring the look of a comic to life in the most literal sense is admirable. Some might say that Dick Tracy is an exercise in style over substance, but so are Quentin Tarantino movies, and people seem to like those just fine. Not every film has to be deep.

On the downside, Dick Tracy is (like last month’s The Fugitive) one of those rare movies that was a really big deal the year it came out, but then fell under the radar over time. That’s a shame, because it really is something to see. Let’s start talking about Dick Tracy again! But let’s all try to forget the NES video game adaptation…

Another issue is that Dick Tracy is one of those movies Disney seems embarrassed of today, and the film is unavailable on Disney+. Probably because you can see boobs in one scene of the movie. Disney is okay with Thanos murdering half the population of the universe, but showing boobs? That’s going too far!

It may not be as readily available as other Disney movies, but Dick Tracy is definitely worth seeing. Don’t expect a masterpiece, but expect something that looks unlike anything else, and is defiantly itself.

One more thing: Big Boy did it.

The Guilty Pleasure Award: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze

This crown really belongs to the 1990s TMNT trilogy as a whole, but I think Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze is the one that best exemplifies “guilty pleasure.”

The first TMNT movie is probably the most genuinely liked of any TMNT movie. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 3 is probably the most hated (though I can certainly find joy in it, if even ironically). But the second entry is the one where things started to get goofy, what with the “traditional pre-fight donuts” and the annoying pizza delivery boy sidekick and that Vanilla Ice scene. Not to mention the titular “secret of the ooze” isn’t actually revealed in the finished film (in early drafts of the script, the film would have revealed David Warner’s character to have been an Utrom, the same alien species as Krang. So the “secret” would have been that the ooze was created by aliens. Good thing they cut that but kept Vanilla Ice).

It’s a silly movie, but one in which my enjoyment of it is genuine. The first two TMNT movies remain some of my earliest movie memories, and while the first film is the better movie, as a wee tyke I preferred the sequel because it had mutant bad guys for the Turtles to fight (perfectly sound reasoning for a young child). It’s a nostalgic treat for me. But a really powerful one where it doesn’t merely bring back fond memories, but watching the movie takes me right back to the feelings I had when watching it as a kid, as if no time has passed. It’s hard to explain.

Simply put, TMNTII: The Secret of the Ooze is dumb fun. And I love it.

Just don’t ask me how regular Shredder survived getting crushed by a garbage truck in the first movie, yet meets his ultimate demise in TMNTII when a bunch of planks of wood fall on him after he mutated into the Super Shredder. I’ve been pondering that one since I was a kid…

The Best Sitcom Ever Award: Seinfeld

As mentioned, October wasn’t all about the movies for me, as I watched the entirety of Seinfeld (again), the best sitcom of all time. One of the few shows I appreciate in the same way I do a great movie.

Seinfeld began airing in 1989 (the year I was born, no less). Interestingly, that’s the same year The Simpsons debuted, and unless you count the locally broadcast “season zero” of Mystery Science Theater 3000, it’s the same year that show debuted as well. So 1989 was basically the most significant year ever for television comedy, but that milestone rarely gets brought up for some reason.

Seinfeld, the “show about nothing,” really was one of a kind. A show of a thousand catchphrases, that permeated through pop culture and created (or popularized) terms and phrases that people still use today (“Yadda yadda yadda, anyone?). Virtually every episode provides something memorable and quotable. And what other show continued to create iconic moments even in its late seasons (the infamous “Soup Nazi” episode was a product of season seven)?

An important element to Seinfeld’s enduring appeal is that it ended. When the show was at the zenith of its powers as the zeitgeist of all pop culture, Jerry Seinfeld and company decided to end the show on their terms, as to not overstay their welcome. I can’t think of another show that decided to end when it was still the show. In true George Costanza fashion, Seinfeld went out on a high note. If only The Simpsons had been so wise.

Sure, Seinfeld hit some bumps along the way (unpopular opinion, but Elaine really became insufferable in the later seasons), and the finale itself may not be so fondly remembered, but it wasn’t anything that damaged the reputation of the show (it wasn’t the Netflix seasons of Arrested Development, after all). Hey, with 180 episodes, it can’t all be perfect. There were bound to be some missteps. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

The best sitcom.

And there we go. It’s done! Goodness gracious, I did not intend for this post to be this long at all. This My Month in Movies could eat the last My Month in Movies. If I decide to write any more of these down the road (emphasis on if), I certainly hope they don’t end up this long by default. I don’t know what happened here, I just started writing and then couldn’t stop.

There are a few movies I’d like to review soon: the fact that I still haven’t reviewed Luca and The Mitchell’s Vs. the Machines is dumbfounding for me. I should have reviewed them sooner. I would also like to review Ghostbusters: Afterlife once I’ve seen it. And I may review The Eternals, seeing as I’ve reviewed so many Marvel things already it feels like I’m obligated to do so by this point (though truth be told, I think I’m finally getting a bit Marvel’ed out… I blame Loki). Aside from those, and maybe a review for an older movie or two, I really want to start focusing this site on video games again for a while. Remember when this site used to be focused entirely on animated films and video games? I do. And I kind of miss it.

I have a whole stack of games that are ready and waiting for their reviews, I don’t know why I haven’t gotten to them yet. Maybe I just needed a break from writing about games and just needed to enjoy them for a while? Playing video games for fun… what a concept!

Anyway, I hope you had a fun read with this. It certainly was fun to write. It’s kind of nice to just write a bunch of quick things about a bunch of movies, as opposed to one big review for each individual movie. In a way, this felt like the “writing about movies” equivalent of WarioWare. Which reminds me, I still need to review the newest WarioWare. Dang it!

At the very least, I like to think I gave a sneak peak into my love of Spirited Away and Seinfeld, and gave you a place where Casablanca, Psycho and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles all live in harmony. Now I’m off to review some video games.

Until next time… do something!