The 800th Blog Spectacularsaurus Indoraptor III: Third Strike

Behold and quake in fear, mortals! For I have amassed 800 blogs here at the Wizard Dojo!

Gee, I’ve certainly been a busy bee, haven’t I?

Thank you, my kind, dear readers, for sticking with me for these past four-plus years and seven-hundred and ninety-nine blogs. You people are what keep me keepin’ on keepin’ on.

Anyway, let’s get to celebrating this milestone with some answers to questions and lists and stuff!

Now then, let’s hop to it.

 

Continue reading “The 800th Blog Spectacularsaurus Indoraptor III: Third Strike”

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Glass Review

*Caution: Review contains major spoilers for both Unbreakable and Split*

 

If ever there were a textbook example of how to bring a movie trilogy to a satisfying close… Glass is the exact opposite of it.

Now, to be fair, not everything in Glass is terrible: The early portions show a lot of promise with the concept of a singular film serving as a sequel to two others, and the main players of Bruce Willis as Dennis Dunn, Samuel L. Jackson as Elijah Price (AKA the titular “Mr. Glass”), and James McAvoy as Kevin Wendell Crumb (AKA “The Horde” due to the multiple personalities existing within him) bring with them all the talents they brought to Unbreakable and Split. But poor M. Night Shaymalan just can’t help himself. Instead of the satisfying conclusion to Unbreakable and Split’s respective mythologies we were hoping for – or the build-up to more Shaymalan super heroes and villains it could have been – we get an eye-rolling, stereotypical Shaymalanian plot twist that robs the third act of any and all momentum, with the remainder of the film limping feebly to get to the end credits.

It seems like “subverting expectations” is the big thing directors are going for these days. On one hand, I can totally respect that. Audiences don’t want to see the same thing over and over, and seeing something new or being surprised can be a real treat. But there are also times when maybe filmmakers should take a step back and not try to buck trends just for the hell of it. Subverting genre norms can indeed work wonders (M. Night Shaymalan did it himself with Unbreakable). But if you give me the option between a well-directed, good movie that may be a tad formulaic, or a clunky, bad movie that also happens to be original, well, I know which one I’d rather watch.

Glass seems like it’s actively trying to disappoint fans by the end of it. I’m almost impressed with how much effort seems to have gone into giving the “Eastrail 177 trilogy” as unsatisfying of an ending as possible.

Now, again, there is some merit to be had with Glass, but mostly in its first half. David Dunn now operates a security company by day, and dishes out vigilante justice at night. Having embraced his superhuman abilities since the events of Unbreakable, David has earned the monicker of “The Overseer” for the watchful eye he has over the city. The film begins with Dunn tracking down The Beast who, as anyone who watched Split will know, is the super-powered, animalistic personality of Kevin Wendell Crumb (who has a total of twenty-three other, non-super-powered personalities).

When Dunn finds Crumb’s hideaway and rescues his most recent captives, the fight that ensues – true to the nature of the series – is nothing flashy or pretty to look at. It isn’t heavily choreographed and there’s no spectacular stuntwork. It’s an appropriate slugfest between an average Joe and a mentally unstable individual who both just happen to possess super strength.

“There’s a little too much of THIS in the movie. A little more anything else would have been nice.”

But then…the fight abruptly ends, as both men (all twenty-five men?) are then taken into custody by the police, and are sent to a mental institution. Another patient of the institution is Elijah “Mr. Glass” Price, the super genius with fragile bones who served as the deuteragonist/surprise antagonist of Unbreakable. Because of his super intellect, Price is under constant sedation to prevent him from causing harm or escaping. All three men are under the watchful eye of Dr. Ellie Stapler (Sarah Paulson), who believes all three men to be suffering from delusions of grandeur, and that there’s nothing truly ‘super’ about them.

And then… most of the film takes place in the mental institution. That’s right, this crossover sequel featuring a super powered Bruce Willis, an unhinged James McAvoy and an evil genius Samuel L. Jackson is predominantly relegated to the cramped rooms and halls of a mental institute. Gee, I’m sure that’s exactly what fans were hoping for after Split revealed itself as a surprise Unbreakable sequel just before the credits rolled.

Once again, in the name of fairness, I was onboard with the confined setting for a while, as it seems that the film was actually going to be more about David Dunn, Kevin Wendell Crumb and Elijah Price as characters than it was going to be about the epic showdown between the Overseer and the Beast. In that regard, the “subverting of expectations” was making sense to me. But once Glass veers off and takes a wrong turn, it just keeps making them.

At the end of Unbreakable, David Dunn is warned that villains come in different varieties, specifically “soldiers” and “masterminds.” Mr. Glass was revealed to be a mastermind, and when Split revealed that it was in the same world as Unbreakable, Kevin Wendell Crumb’s Beast gave us the answer as to who would play the role of soldier. All Glass really needed to be was the story of these three characters coming together. David Dunn taking on the Beast, the latter under the influence of Mr. Glass. And for a while, that’s what Glass seems to be building towards. But then it decides that isn’t good enough, and instead spends more time with Ellie Stapler trying to convince the established characters that they aren’t comic book characters before shoehorning in an utterly souring plot twist. Glass just overthinks what it needs itself to be, and ultimately stumbles because of it.

Of the three primary characters, only Kevin and his various personalities gets any real time to shine. We even get to see a few more of Kevin’s twenty-four personalities, which gives McAvoy plenty to do. If only Glass were as interested in the Unbreakable side of the spectrum. Once the film gets to the mental institute, David Dunn doesn’t so much feel like the hero of the story so much as a player who happens to be in it. We never really get a sense of motivation from Dunn. And Mr. Glass himself – the namesake of the movie – gets surprisingly little screen time. Of course Samuel L. Jackson steals the show when he’s allowed, but he rarely seems allowed. That’s a true shame, because Unbreakable made Mr. Glass into hands down the best character in any M. Night Shaymalan film.

“Each superhuman has a close affiliate: David has his son, Glass has his mother, Kevin has…his kidnap victim…”

Glass also ends up finding its own ways to cripple the characters that Unbreakable and Split built. Casey Cooke (Anya Taylor-Joy), the sole survivor of the Beast’s crimes, suddenly seems to hold pity for the kidnapper/murderer/cannibal, which seems to undermine her character growth from Split (I get that Kevin is an ill man, but he literally became a comic book monster, so… kind of hard to feel too sorrowful for the guy). Her sympathy for Kevin can – at the worst of times – almost come off as romantic, which pretty much obliterates her character arc entirely. Combine that with David Dunn’s lack of presence, and Mr. Glass’s limited screen time, and the movie ends up feeling squandered in many different directions.

“Is it too much to ask for a little more Mr. Glass in a movie named after him?”

Once again, I have to admit that there are moments of Glass that are good (one of my particular favorites sees Mr. Glass consoling Kevin’s perpetually nine-year old personality, Hedwig, by reassuring him that he too is ‘special,’ despite not boasting the superhuman abilities of the Beast. It’s one of the few moments that reminds us why Mr. Glass is such an interesting, charismatic character). The film is at its best when it feels like a continuation of Unbreakable and Split. But the more it delves into its own story, the more it seems to go off-the-rails and lose any consistency in themes or tone. It’s as though Shaymalan took his best film (Unbreakable) and his comeback (Split), and put them together while simultaneously forgetting to include the strengths of both films. The director’s infamous weaknesses come into play (“what a twist!”), which makes it feel as though Shaymalan refuses to learn from his past mistakes. That these weaknesses have found their way into the joining together of Unbreakable and Split ends up turning what should have been something special in Glass into a bastardization of both parties involved.

Glass should have been an easy win for Shaymalan. And while it’s far from the director’s worst work (we are talking about the man who helmed The Last Airbender here), it is, unquestionably, his most disappointing film. By the end of it, I can’t imagine any fans of Unbreakable and Split walking away satisfied.

 

3

Split Review

*This review contains spoilers in regards to the “twist” at the end of the film…but that twist should be common knowledge by this point anyway. There are no spoilers in regards to key plot details*

Split was seen as something of a return to form for director M. Night Shyamalan. The once-promising director of The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable seemed to lose his touch with critics and audiences (and general storytelling coherence) with his post-Unbreakable career. Whether it was relying too heavily on forced twists in obvious attempts to recreate the buzz of The Sixth Sense, or just helming outright cinematic disasters like The Last Airbender, M. Night Shyamalan became more of a parody of himself than he was adding to the legacy he started with The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable. Critics found 2015’s to be a step in the right direction for Shyamalan, before Split arrived a year later and was considered the director’s  comeback. Although it doesn’t reach the same heights of Unbreakable, Split is unquestionably Shyamalan’s best film since (that may not sound like much, but it’s intended as a compliment).

This is pretty appropriate, because (here comes the twist spoiler) Split takes place in the same fictional universe as Unbreakable. Wisely, the film never advertised itself as a sequel, and for the most part, it’s a standalone film. It’s only after the story is done that we get a cameo by Bruce Willis returning as David Dunn that it’s confirmed that the psychological horror film Split is a companion piece to the 2000 super hero flick. It seems like an odd connection, but it makes more sense than it sounds.

The setup of the film is simple enough: three teenage girls; Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), Marcia (Jessica Sula) and Casey Cooke (Anya Taylor-Joy) are kidnapped as they’re leaving a party, and are held captive in an underground building. Their captor is Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy), a man suffering from a severe case of dissociative identity disorder (DID), with Kevin possessing twenty-three different personalities in his body.

It is those multiple personalities within Kevin that help elevate Split from being just another horror movie. Some of Kevin’s personalities, such as the “nine-year old” Hedwig, are friendly to the girls. Others, such as “Patricia” and “Dennis” are more sinister. Kevin’s (current) dominant personality, Barry, is just an average guy working at a zoo. But he’s quickly losing control of Kevin’s body to Patricia and Dennis.

This is where things become a little more “comic book-y,” as Patricia and Dennis both worship a soon-to-be-unleashed twenty-fourth personality, The Beast, who possesses superhuman strength and agility. The Patricia and Dennis personalities are behind the kidnappings, as they plan on ‘sacrificing’ Claire and Marcia – whom Kevin’s wicked personalities deem “unsure” due to their sheltered lives – to the Beast once it awakens (Casie, the heroine of the movie, wasn’t an intended target, but was at the wrong place at the wrong time).

It sounds a bit silly when I type it. But similar to how Unbreakable made a grounded superhero by exaggerating reality, so too does Split with its eventual super villain. It exaggerates DID and concepts like mind over body into the realms of fantasy. Kevin’s psychiatrist, Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley), believes that different personalities of people with DID can exhibit different body chemistries from one another, but believes the foreshadowed “Beast” to be a figment of Kevin’s imagination, as opposed to another personality, given its promise of outright superhuman ability.

As you might expect, the film is about Casey, Claire and Marcia trying to escape captivity, often by means of finding an Allie in Kevin’s less malicious personalities, with the constant threat that Dennis and Patricia might take over. It’s a fun take on horror tropes that keeps things interesting, and allows for McAvoy to display a good range of acting ability. The film also takes a number of detours into Casey’s troubled childhood, with her harsh past coming into play with her survivability.

Split is a unique movie in that it has since become regarded as the first super villain origin story movie. That’s actually a pretty accurate description, and it cleverly masks this super villain origin story under the guise of a horror film. And Split ultimately works on the levels of both horror and an origin story.

Admittedly, the film does lack any real surprises (though I suppose that’s a godsend compared to the wonky twists Shaymalan is known for), and the horror elements lose some of their psychological edge when the super powers come into play. But overall, Split is a solid effort. It takes a tried-and-true horror setup (escaping a captor), adds a nice spin on the equation through its villain’s multiple personalities, and does a good job at character growth for both Kevin and Casey. And it’s all held together by McAvoy’s versatile (often creepy, sometimes humorous) performance.

 

6

Unbreakable Review

*Minor, non-specific spoilers included in this review*

 

Unbreakable, M. Night Shyamalan’s 2000 feature, has quite the interesting history. As Shyamalan’s directorial follow-up to The Sixth Sense, audiences and critics had a lukewarm reception to Unbreakable. The Sixth Sense made a huge impact at the time, especially with its big twist at the end (which, in retrospect, seems kind of obvious). Audiences expected another psychological thriller in the same vein as The Sixth Sense, but Unbreakable was a subtle super hero film masquerading as a drama (the super hero aspect was underplayed in marketing, as Disney – who distributed the film under their Touchstone banner – felt the genre wasn’t “lucrative” enough. My, how times change).

Over the years, however, Unbreakable not only gained a cult following, but is now often regarded as M. Night Shyamalan’s best film. Shyamalan himself even regards it as his personal favorite film he’s directed. All this praise is with good reason: Unbreakable is M. Night Shyamalan’s best movie.

Now, given the director’s shaky resume following Unbreakable (to put it lightly), that may sound like a backhanded compliment. But I say this is Shyamalan’s best film with complete sincerity, as Unbreakable was not only a great movie in 2000, but is a rare example of a film that has become deeper and more relevant with age. It would still be two years until Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man turned the super hero film into the go-to genre for blockbusters. And yet, Unbreakable felt like a deconstruction and rethinking of that very genre before it really kicked off.

Unbreakable tells the story of David Dunn (Bruce Willis), a security guard and everyman seeking a purpose in life as his marriage begins to fall apart. On his way home from a job interview, his train (the “Eastrail 177”) crashes. Miraculously, David is not only the sole survivor of the train crash, but walks away from the disaster completely unscathed.

At the memorial service for those that perished in the accident, David receives a message to meet with the owner of Limited Edition, a comic book art gallery, who is fascinated with David’s situation.

The owner of Limited Edition is one Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), a super genius born with Type I Osteogenesis Imperfecta, a condition which makes the bones extremely fragile and easy to break, earning Price the monicker of “Mr. Glass” during his childhood. Price – a lifelong fan of comic books – has long held a theory that there may be some truth to the superhuman nature of comic book heroes, and that if someone with his extreme frailty exists, then there may exist his extreme oppose, a person who is more or less unbreakable. That is to say, a super hero.

David Dunn, naturally, believes Price to be a kook. But Dunn’s young son, Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark), believes there’s something to Price’s theory. The rest of the film is more or less an origin story, with Dunn coming to the realization that there may have been something more to his miraculous survival than sheer luck. And as David and his son try exploring and coming to terms with his superhuman abilities, they are under constant watch by Price, who begins an uneasy friendship with Dunn.

What really stands out about Unbreakable is that it’s a very grounded super hero film. Dunn may possess traits of invulnerability and superhuman strength, but it’s never presented as particularly farfetched. For example, Dunn begins learning of the depths of his strength when his son adds about two-hundred extra pounds to his daily weightlifting, far more weight than Dunn previously thought he could lift. It may not be ‘realistic‘ per se, but it’s an exaggeration of reality. David Dunn is not about to leap tall buildings or shoot lasers out of his eyes.

There’s nothing wrong with heroes with more fantastic powers, of course. But in this day and age when it seems every blockbuster features numerous characters who can destroy cities with their every grudge match, it’s really interesting to look back on a movie that – in 2000 – tried to subvert that. This was five years before Batman Begins grounded Batman, a super hero who already doesn’t have super powers. But Unbreakable tells the story of a man who possesses superhuman abilities, yet convincingly presents it as real. David Dunn never ends up donning a super suit, though he does end up with raincoat that reflects the capes and cowls of many heroes. Even when David Dunn confronts his heroic nature to stop an evildoer, it doesn’t culminate in an epic battle with a super villain, but saving a family from a (depressingly real) home invasion.

Elijah Price, knowing a thing or two about comic book heroes, often dissects the genre, its heroes and its villains when trying to help David find his place in this mythos. In retrospect, Unbreakable almost seems to be a commentary on the super hero genre, while simultaneously embracing and rethinking it. I enjoy the MCU as much as anyone, but Unbreakable seemed to predict the over saturation of the genre it loves and expresses a means to keep it fresh and unique years before the genre needed help in those departments.

It’s not just genre subversion that makes Unbreakable a captivating entertainment. It also works on a more human level, with David Dunn and Elijah Price being two brilliantly realized characters. Just as much of the film is focused on Dunn trying to work things out with his wife Audrey (Robin Wright Penn) for the sake of his son as there is to Dunn’s discoveries of his superhuman nature. And by description (a man who believes comic book superheroes are real), Elijah Price may sound crazy, but the film does a great job at understanding his mindset, and his yearning to discover his opposite.

Unbreakable works as both a character-driven drama and as an alternative super hero flick. It takes its time to tell an origin story that may only serve as the first act in any other super hero movie, and it’s all the better for it. If Unbreakable features one grave flaw, however, it’s the ending.

No, I’m not talking about the film’s twist (which, unlike many of Shyamalan’s plot twists, feels neither forced nor a crutch for the entire film to hold onto). That twist actually helps shake up the film from a character standpoint. But even Unbreakable’s most diehard fans will tell you that what comes immediately after said twist is disappointing. And that’s because, after the twist, the movie just abruptly ends…with on-screen text. It’s weird, because you can’t imagine there would have been all that much movie left anyway, but it would have helped the movie come to a far more satisfying close if we actually got to see these ending events unfold, instead of simply being told “here’s what happened.” It’s a popcorn fart of an ending to an otherwise captivating movie.

Ending aside, Unbreakable remains a standout feature in the super hero genre. And uniquely, it has only become a greater standout over the course of time, and the countless super hero films that have been released since. Unbreakable is a low-key character drama and innovative dissection of the super hero genre that has, like a fine wine, only gotten better with age.

 

7

Mary Poppins Returns Review

Disney is in an interesting place at the moment. While their much-beloved animated features are fresher and more inventive than ever, pushing their studio’s narratives and themes forward, their live-action slate is more or less being dictated by its past. The live-action remakes of their animated back-catalogue seem to be popping up left and right, and now Disney has reached 54 years into their past to deliver a sequel to arguably the most beloved Disney movie of all time, Mary Poppins.

That’s certainly means that Mary Poppins Returns has some pretty big shoes to fill. The film itself seems largely aware of this, and follows much of the same path as its classic predecessor to such a degree that it can sometimes feel more like an echo of Mary Poppins as opposed to a sequel. This of course means that Mary Poppins Returns is an incredibly familiar film (and thus not quite “practically perfect in every way” like its forebear), but still provides an undeniable good time. Perhaps most impressively, Mary Poppins Returns displays a sense of whimsy without once feeling the need to give a wink to the camera about it which, in this cynical day and age, can feel like a godsend.

Mary Poppins Returns is set twenty-five years after the original. The Banks children, Michael (Ben Whishaw) and Jane (Emily Mortimer) are now grown. Michael is recently widowed, and lives in his childhood home with his three children; Annabel (Pixie Davies), John (Nathanael Sales) and Georgie (Joel Dawson). Jane has moved in with Michael in his time of need, and soon learns that Michael took a loan from the bank to pay for his late wife’s medical expenses, a loan that will cost him his home if he can’t pay it back by the end of the week.

Soon thereafter, Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) quite literally blows into town, and immediately resumes her duties as the nanny of the Banks family. Though Michael and Jane are in awe of Mary’s apparent lack of aging, they have long since written off the magical adventures they once had with the nanny as their childhood imaginations running wild. But together with a lamplighter named Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda) – an apprentice of the first film’s Bert the chimney sweep – the younger generation of Banks children learn there’s more to Mary Poppins than meets the eye.

It’s a simple and charming plot that, as stated, can feel like something of a cover version of the original 1964 film. There are many fun sights to see, whimsical scenarios take place, and a good number of songs throughout. It’s all well and good, but each sight, scenario and song seems to reflect those of the original film a little too closely, right down to when they each take place within the film. Returns’ most captivating scene – in which the live actors are joined by hand-drawn animated characters, feels like a remixed version of the similar sequence from the first movie, and even takes place around the same time within the plot. And when it’s time to recreate the scene where Bert was joined by his fellow chimneysweeps for a good song and dance number, we get Jack and is fellow lamplighters doing more or less the same thing.

Mary Poppins Returns plays things safe then, and can feel like it suffers a bit of what I like to call “Home Alone 2 syndrome” (that is to say, it’s a sequel that plays out just like the original). But unlike most sequels which seem to mimic their predecessor as a means for a quick cash-grab, Mary Poppins Returns instead seems intimidated by its predecessor’s reputation, and doesn’t want to tamper with what isn’t broken. It’s a considerable bit more respectable than most other such sequels due to that reverence for its predecessor, but it still doesn’t change the fact that this may have been a better sequel if it were willing to be more of its own movie.

Still, as overly familiar as it may be at times, Mary Poppins Returns is nonetheless an undeniable charmer. It’s great to see a movie in this day and age where fantastic occurrences can just happen without needlessly being explained or attempted to be rationalized. Today’s audiences seem to have goaded movies to try to make sense of everything, no matter how fantastic the material. So to see Mary Poppins fly down to London on a kite, travel to an undersea world via bathtub, and transport herself and company to the  hand-drawn world of a painting on the side of a bowl without explanation is kind of beautiful.

Although the aforementioned songs may play into the film’s familiarity in terms of their placement and tone, in terms of lyrics and melody they stand on their own two feet (the film wisely goes against trying to recreate Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, which just couldn’t be done). The songs are fun and catchy, and really help the film’s enjoyment factor.

Another highlight of the film is Mary Poppins herself. Emily Blunt puts a nice spin on the character, playing her as more brash and curt than Julie Andrews did in the original. There’s just something appealing about the Mary Poppins character. She seems to work within her own world of childlike logic (with her ‘things can happen because magic’ mentality), yet has a number of adult character traits (arrogance, somewhat condescending, and a little bit of a smartass), putting her in a unique archetype that you really don’t see much of. And Emily Blunt brings out the best in it.

On one hand, Mary Poppins Returns is a welcome and refreshing type of movie for today’s audiences: one which is only cynical towards cynicism itself. It’s a whole lot of fun, and can even feel magical at times. But on the other hand, it accomplishes these feats by more or less being a mirror image of the iconic 1964 film. In a lot of ways, I’d say Mary Poppins Returns is a great movie. But because of its similarities to the original, it’s greatness may simply be a testament to just how great the original was.

It would have been exceedingly difficult for Mary Poppins Returns to ever become as iconic as the original Mary Poppins. But it does do a great job at echoing just how special Mary Poppins and her world are.

 

6

From Dusk ‘Till Dawn Review

*This review contains major spoilers! Though I usually refrain from including spoilers in my reviews, anyone who has seen From Dusk ‘Till Dawn will tell you it’s a difficult film to talk about without divulging its plot twist. But, seeing as this is a film originally released in 1996, I’m pretty sure anyone interested in reading this is already in the know, anyway. And now, the review*

 

From Dusk ‘Till Dawn is the kind of movie that was designed to be a cult classic. This joint effort by writer Quentin Tarantino and director Robert Rodriguez retains many of both filmmaker’s trademarks, and includes a mid-movie tonal shift that seems to happen just for the hell of it. While Rodriguez and Tarantino are no strangers to making cult films, most of their filmographies are easy to love for any fan of cinema. From Dusk ‘Till Dawn, however, feels like it was tailor made for the niche, to the point that it may prove more polarizing to many fans who might otherwise appreciate both filmmaker’s outputs. I myself have flip-flopping feelings over the film’s complete gearshift at the halfway point.

So what is this big tonal shift that happens during the movie that I keep bringing up? It’s that the movie’s first half is a dialogue-heavy, character-based crime thriller, but then abruptly transforms into a vampire-themed B-movie in which blood and gore take center stage.

On one hand, you definitely have to admire Rodriguez and Tarantino for making so big of a gamble as to entirely change the film’s genre midway through. Unfortunately, unless you really dig B-movies, the film’s second half may completely lose your interest.

From Dusk ‘Till Dawn tells the story of the Gecko brothers, two criminals who are on the run from the law after a successful bank robbery: Seth (George Clooney) is the level-headed professional, and has recently been busted out of jail by his younger brother, Richie (Tarantino). Contrary to Seth, Richie is a violent psychopath, and his unhinged mentality makes him a far sloppier criminal than his reserved older brother.

While on the run, the Geckos encounter the Fuller family: Jacob Fuller (Harvey Keitel), a widowed pastor questioning his faith, and his two children; Katherine (Juliette Lewis) and Scott (Ernest Liu). The Geckos take the Fuller family hostage as they make their way to the border. It’s these parts of the film that contain most of From Dusk ‘Till Dawn’s best moments, with the banters between the Geckos and Fullers (particularly the dialogue exchanges with Seth and Jacob) showcasing Tarantino’s writing abilities.

Once they arrive in Mexico, the party makes their way to a strip club, where the Geckos are to meet their contact at dawn. However, things go awry when the bar employees reveal themselves as vampires who feast on unsuspecting patrons at night. Trapped in the club amidst an army of vampires, the Geckos and Fullers set aside their differences and, together with a biker named Sex Machine (Tom Savini) and a Vietnam vet named Frost (Fred Williamson) – who also just so happened to be in the bar at the time – have to survive the night and slay the undead army.

The complete change in genre is admittedly a hoot, with the film suddenly deciding it’s about vampires at the drop of a hat. It’s easy to see why From Dusk ‘Till Dawn has earned its cult status. But at the same time, the crime thriller half of the movie seems to be building towards something special, while the vampire half seems to just make due.

Yes, there’s a lot of B-movie violence and gore to be had, which is fun in its own right. But it’s a shame the quality of the movie seems to dip at this point, with the entire vampire half being mostly comprised of intentionally cheesy action. If this were Mad Max/Mission: Impossible/Indiana Jones levels of action, it would be easier for this second half to stand on its own two feet. But cheesy, B-movie action is a much harder sell, and I’m afraid From Dusk ‘Till Dawn is one of those movies that may have some audiences asking themselves if paying homage to B-movies gives a film a pass, or if it just makes it a B-movie itself.

“Jacob Fuller’s makeshift “Cross Shotgun” is simply classic.”

That’s not to say that things are flat-out bad, if you’re a fan of this kind of thing, you’re in for a treat. But if you’re not, you may lament that the writing and character moments from the earlier half of the movie couldn’t find their way into the latter half (though Jacob eventually gets some moments to shine. Being a pastor, he should be at an advantage when up against vampires, but his increasingly shaky faith leaves this in question).

Perhaps if the film had a specific villain, it could have given the characters someone else to interact with amidst all the chaos, leading to more Tarantino dialogue and character growth. Instead, slaughtering vampires by the dozen takes center stage, which isn’t a bad thing in of itself, but it just doesn’t feel as well made as the events of the film’s first half. As respectably daring of a move as it was to change genres midway through the film, it can feel like the second half of From Dusk ‘Till Dawn simply threw its hands in the air and went the easy route.

I don’t want to write off From Dusk ‘Till Dawn completely, as it can be a fun movie and, again, its risk-taking is admirable. But I find myself flip-flopping whether or not I like the movie. I guess I appreciate it, to an extent. But when you know that Rodriguez and Tarantino can both do so much more, it can be a hard pill to swallow knowing this joint venture between the two feels like its settles on being a B-movie tribute, and not something more (especially knowing that Tarantino would later transform a cheesy movie homage into something truly great with Kill Bill). When my own feelings towards a movie feel like they could be determined by a coin flip, I guess that means it’s a little difficult for me to recommend it on the whole. But for that very specific audience who doesn’t mind indulging in a little B-movie goodness, then From Dusk ‘Till Dawn’s abrupt tonal shift won’t be a deterrent at all.

 

5

Bumblebee Review

Oh my God! It’s a good Transformers movie!

While I would love to wrap-up my review right there for a bit of humor, I suppose a proper review is in order, seeing as Bumblebee accomplished the seemingly impossible and delivered the Transformers movie fans of the franchise have waited for (and deserved) all along.

Let Bumblebee stand as a counterpoint to all the pretentious cynics who dismiss franchise films on the basis of being franchise films. The Transformers film series as helmed by Michael Bay has ranged from passable (the 2007 original) to some of the worst movies ever made (pretty much every entry thereafter). But now, under the direction of animator Travis Knight (director of Kubo and the Two Strings), Bumblebee produces a genuinely entertaining and heartfelt movie out of the very same franchise. Bumblebee is proof that even a big sequel-heavy franchise is still ultimately the work of artists. It all boils down to the filmmakers behind the movies. It wasn’t the fault of the Transformers brand that the movies up to this point have sucked. Under more creative and thoughtful hands, the franchise has now produced a lovingly crafted piece of entertainment.

What separates Bumblebee from the previous Transformers movies is that this film actually has a good, character-driven story (as opposed to the bathroom jokes, racist caricatures and robot testicles of the Michael Bay features). Taking place in 1987, Bumblebee shows the fall of the planet Cybertron – home of the Transformers – as the evil Decepticons have overcome the Autobots. Out of desperation, the Autobot leader Optimus Prime sends his surviving followers across the galaxy, in hopes that the Autobots can rebound at a later time.

One such Autobot, B-127, is sent to the planet Earth. But B-127 has been followed by a Decepticon, and the two wage battle. Though B-127 comes out  on top, he loses his voice and memories from the battle. But before he shuts down, B-127 scans a beetle parked nearby, and assumes its form as a disguise. The aforementioned giant robot fight also happens to take place near a training exercise by a secret government agency, with the ensuing chaos leading Agent Jack Burns (John Cena) to believe that all of these interplanetary robots mean to do harm to Earth.

Later B-127, the robot-turned-car, is found by a junk dealer, which is frequented by one Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld), a young woman with a strong knowledge of mechanics. Charlie is going through a rough time in her life, as she’s still grieving over the loss of her father, while her mother and younger brother have moved on with her new stepfather so quickly that Charlie is feeling forgotten, a point that is hit home when her parents get her some rather uneventful gifts for her eighteenth birthday. So Charlie decides to get something for herself and ends up buying a certain beetle from a certain junk dealer. And when she goes home to repair the beat-up vehicle, it transforms back into its robot self, whom Charlie then names Bumblebee.

As you might expect, there are more Decepticons involved, with two of them, Shatter (Angela Bassett) and Dropkick (Justin Theroux) on a manhunt for Bumblebee on Earth. Meanwhile, Agent Burns is on his own hunt for Bumblebee, in an attempt to neutralize what he perceives as a threat.

Bumblebee’s 80s backdrop doesn’t just serve as the film’s setting, but also a reflection of the movies it pays homage to. This is, for all intents and purposes, a 1980s movie released in 2018. Anyone familiar with the popular films of the 80s should be right at home with Bumblebee, as it follows a very similar structure of the blockbusters of that decade. While the five Michael Bay directed Transformers films felt tonally confused with its insistence on crude humor and over sexualization of what is supposed to be a children’s franchise, Bumblebee’s focus on feel-good nostalgia better compliments its standing as a family film.

Not only do we get plenty of 80s goodness in the music and scenery, but we even get a heartwarming story out of Bumblebee as well. Aside from the Transformers license itself, Bumblebee’s biggest 80s influence seems to be E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial. Much like Steven Spielberg’s seminal feature told a simple “boy and his dog” story, but with an alien playing the role of a dog, Bumblebee provides a “girl and her dog” story in which the dog is portrayed by a robot. It’s true that the Transformers franchise was created to sell toys, but what many adults fail to remember is how much children love their toys. So while the previous five Transformers films seemed to cynically only see dollar signs in the Transformers property, Bumblebee understands that there should be a beating heart to the story as well, so that the movie can recreate a similar sense of wonder that a kid may have when playing with action figures.

In yet another breath of fresh air for the franchise, the Transformers now actually look like, well, Transformers. Gone are the hideous junk constructs of Michael Bay’s films, and in their place are character designs that are fun and colorful. The past Transformers movie may have had large budgets for their visual effects, but the character designs for the Transformers were so ugly it was hard to care. But here everything looks fun and lively. You actually enjoy looking at this picture. And yes, the Decepticons finally have some color to them as well.

While Bumblebee may play by the 80s movie rulebook in many ways, it ultimately wins us over by the simple fact that it’s a fun movie and (take note Michael Bay) features characters we actually care about. To say Hailee Steinfeld is an improvement over the likes of Shia LaBeauf is like saying jumping will give you more elevation than sitting. She’s downright charming in the role, and gives this franchise a much-needed hero you actually want to root for. Charlie’s ventures with Bumblebee are later joined by Memo (Jorge Lendeborg), Charlie’s next door neighbor who has a crush on Charlie, but is put into a more unique “not-quite a love interest” role. Meanwhile, John Cena’s Jack Burns gives the franchise a (relatively) complex human antagonist, whose hatred for Transformers – Autobot and Decepticon alike – is made into an understandable fear due to his early circumstances in the film, as opposed to the generic “I hate things because reasons” type of villain we’re used to seeing in these kinds of movies.

Bumblebee adds a much-needed soul and genuine sense of fun to a franchise that has been soulless and boring since it made the jump to the big screen in 2007. Though one has to hope that Bumblebee serves as a reboot to the Transformers franchise, as opposed to a prequel (one would hate to think that an enjoyable story such as this would eventually devolve into the schlock that came before it). It may not be the most original blockbuster out there, but like the 80s movies that inspired it, Bumblebee should leave audiences with a big smile on their face when all is said and done.

 

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