Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Movie Review: The Girl on the Train

This book was read during our book club. For whatever reason, perhaps I was gun shy after reading Gone Girl and hating it, I skipped. If you didn’t read the book, I don’t think you’re missing too much, however you won’t get all the nuances of the characters. In a way, this story is about a reformed drunk, but that’s cutting a lot of other stuff out. If you did read the book, I’m told the story mostly sticks to what happens, yet leaves a lot of details out, as per usual. This could devolve into a rant about how Hollywood ruins everything it touches, but that would require more than one blog post.

The movie begins with Emily Blunt riding the train to and from NYC (the book was set in London, but they moved it because: Hollywood knows best). Rachel (Blunt’s character) sees this girl out the window of the train and her imagination runs wild, concocting a story for her that is based partially on a reality that for reasons we sort of learn later, she can’t remember. The girl goes missing and Rachel creates an entire narrative about what might have happened. Her drunkenness creates obvious issues and the cops begin to think she’s involved.

Part of the frustration of this movie, and Gone Girl, is that it uses the unreliable narrator. We, as the audience, can’t trust the narrative perspective to be accurate or truthful. I’ve read books that execute this well, in a movie format, I’m not sure I like the effect. There are a lot of scenes that are disjointed or hazy, with Blunt stumbling through dialogue with other characters as if it is the first time they’ve spoken about a particular topic. I know I’m not distilling this very well, but that is a direct reflection of the movie, which was executed somewhat poorly.

Emily Blunt is a great actress. There is little she can’t do well, but if the direction and story are so consumed with holding onto a surprise ending, then that becomes the focus, as it did in this movie. This isn’t a horror movie, it is a mystery. Yes, at one point we do wonder if Blunt killed the girl, but that becomes less and less likely. The twists and turns felt more annoying than intriguing. I don’t know if I just found everyone unlikeable, but the movie was meh, at best. I saw it for $6 and I wouldn’t do that again. As for my Hina test: there were only white people in this movie. Even though the movie centered around a woman, she was a bedraggled, weak character throughout. In no way did this movie represent diversity or women in a positive or fair way.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Movie Review: The Blair Witch

Come on, if you didn’t see this coming, you must be very new to this blog. If there’s a horror movie out, no matter how bad it might be, I will watch it. I still remember seeing the first movie and not understanding what had happened until we see those fatal, final shots. I went into this movie with pretty high expectations. I should have reset that to something far more realistic. The original movie was made with practically no script and a shoe-string budget. This movie had way more hype and funding and yet it still was basically the same movie.

In case you’ve never heard of the original, The Blair Witch Project, the movie centers around a found-footage premise where three filmmakers go out to investigate the folk lore about the Blair Witch and never return. The movie itself was quite revolutionary at the time. The found-footage genre was barren and the idea of having the actors double as cameramen saved majorly on the budget. The three filmmakers decide to camp in the woods, which are purported to be haunted, and terrifying things begin to happen. The map is the first thing to get lost (long before GPS) and the group walk in circles for days. One member goes missing and then the last two members end up at an abandoned house, never to leave it. The movie ends on that note. A sequel was made, but I never subjected myself to it, so I couldn’t tell you what it’s about.

Fast forward about fourteen years and the audience meets James, the then four-year old brother of Heather, the only woman in the first movie. James stumbles upon some guy uploading a video to YouTube with a clip that may, or may not, be his sister. The footage was supposedly found near where she disappeared. James’ friend, Lisa is making a movie for school and decides to make James’ search for his sister the subject. The two are joined by James’ childhood friend Paul and his girlfriend Ashely (both are African American). The four set out to meet the guy who found the footage. The audience meets Lane and Talia. These two are characterized as the usual small town hicks. They insist on going out with the friends and this creates some tension, as Lane has a Confederate flag prominently displayed in his house.

Without divulging too many SPOILERS the movie follows very closely to the original. The African American characters are the first ones to be attacked or go missing, fulfilling the usual horror trope. The antics that plagued the first film crew repeat, though with some added assistance from Lane and Talia, who plant some evidence, only to be proven to have planted the items in the first place. It is at this point that the group disbands. Lane and Talia are sent away and the other four friends try to make their way out of the forest, only to get hopelessly lost. The rest of the story devolves further into the original, instead of really introducing anything new except the idea that you shouldn’t look the witch in the eye.

And this is the point where I was more frustrated than anything. This was the chance for the filmmakers, real ones, not the ones in the movie, to add to the lore, to enhance what has been said about the Blair Witch. I think of the infinite possibilities. It almost cheapened the movie to have her on-screen, however grainy that might have been. The concept of ‘time travel’ through the movie was also mind numbing. Lane and Talia are lost for a week, but James and Co (the characters being followed) are lost for a half a day. This is never fully explained. There were so many places where the story could have improved upon what was a pretty strong base, but it just fell flat and wasn’t scary at all. For my new-found Hina test, this did pass, but barely. There were three female characters, all strong in their own right. There were two minorities in the movie, one making it almost to the end of the movie. None seemed forced into the story. I have to give this a pass on the Hina test.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

New Bechdel Test: The Hina Test

I have a tendency to rate movies based on a variety of measures. There is the generic good vs. bad, as in, did I enjoy it or was it just boring? I also look at the execution of the cast to the story that is being told. By no means am I an expert. I wouldn’t call myself a critic, per say, but just a person who would like to see certain things in movies: like strong female characters and a diversity of casting. In fairness, this isn’t something that can easily be applied, like the aforementioned Bechdel test, which just requires to female characters to have a conversation that doesn’t just center around a man. In, what I am calling the Hina test, the viewer would really have to assess, on his or her own, whether the two needs are met. I’m going to make this as simple as I can.

The first question of the test: Are there strong female characters in the movie? The definition of this is a woman that doesn’t require a man to save her. That should be simple enough. For example, the Avengers movies would meet this as Scarlet Witch doesn’t need anyone’s help. In a more recent movie, Morgan actually meets this. The main character, played by Kate Mara was a badass, she was self-sufficient.

The second question: Is there diversity in the casting? The definition of this is that the cast is not entirely one color. I don’t know how to say that any other way. I recently watched The Host (which was a Korean horror movie) – that movie would fail because all of the characters except one was Korean. Again, Morgan would pass this test, as the cast was well represented. There is a careful line that needs to be drawn around having diversity and those people not being integral to the plot. This also includes diversity with sexuality, as a sworn #Clexa fan I would be doing a disservice to the cause by not addressing the Bury Your Gays issue that pervades Hollywood. I think that might be harder to assess, but should be taken into consideration when watching movies/TV.

I’m curious what, if anyone, will say to this new test I’ve developed. I think I’ve seen enough movies that these are the two things that are often glaringly missing. Comments or thoughts are always appreciated.

Movie Review: The Disappointments Room

Wow, where to begin on this one? It has been a long time since I’ve seen a movie that held my interest so little and had zero, if any, payoff. For the hour and a half you sit there, the ending makes really no sense, but that is par for the course as the entire movie almost seems like a slapdash plot tied together with Kate Beckinsale’s terrible American accent. On a side discussion, is it really that hard for Brits to do American accents? Emma Watson has also struggled with this in the past (Bling Ring, Perks of Being a Wallflower). 

Back to the movie. From the beginning, you should know that there isn’t much substance to the movie, the trailers were only sort of interesting, but I still though, the idea is cool. The story revolves around a family, mom, dad and kid who are moving from the big city to the country (New York). The mom is an architect and the dad doesn’t seem to have a discernible job. The kid is your typical moderately annoying child in a movie, but for some reason, horror movies seem to have an abundance of these. On the flip side, Stranger Things on Netflix had lots of kids, not one of them were annoying.

The family moves in and the house is a wreck. The mom hires a really cute guy to help her fix it and he makes overt implications to have an affair. The house has a secret room in the attic and when the mom and dad finally get in, there’s no handle on the inside and Beckinsale’s character thinks she’s trapped in there. If this is as disjointed as it sounds, this is how the plot was running. The mom is clearly suffering from a psychotic break and we later learn that she suffocated her baby by falling asleep on it. Dear lord, who thought that would be a good scene to put into this movie? Friends from the city, or somewhere come visit, one of them was Angela from Bones, so that was fun, and she gets drunk and almost kills her kid. The family just up and move out, end of movie.

Yeah, the movie made the story, which was supposed to center around these rooms built back in the ‘old’ days called Disappointments Rooms. When people had children that didn’t look normal, they’d build a room, lock the child in and wait for the inevitable end. Sounds like a solid premise for a movie, something along the lines of The Orphanage. The execution could not have been worse. The movie instead centered around the really uninteresting story of why they mom was kinda crazy and could have played that against the room if there had been some backstory to tie the two together. There was not. I'm developing a new test, like the Bechdel test, to gauge whether there are any strong female/minority characters. This movie failed on all fronts at this. Don’t waste your time and money on this movie. It was a literal disappointment, but I guess I should have known given the name.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Movie Review: Morgan

Once again, I’d like to state my protest that a movie entitled ‘Morgan’ that doesn’t have Morgan Freeman in it is inherently false advertising. The man is in practically everything. That notwithstanding, a new movie came out, could be placed in the horror genre, so, I saw it. I know, cover your shocked face. Unlike last week’s surprisingly white and disturbing Don’t Breathe, there was a tad more diversity in this movie, but the story wasn’t nearly as griping as it could or should have been.

There was a great article last week from The New Yorker about women in movies being personified as these perfect beings, created by man. This is no exception. Morgan is a test tube experiment. A five year old experiment that looks to be a teenager. An incident occurs and someone has to come in to assess whether the experiment is viable (can live) or must be ended (terminated). The agent, played by Kate Mara, is also working with, so to speak, a psychologist, played by Paul Giamatti. From the moment Kate Mara’s Lee Weathers graces the screen, something seems off about her. There are subtle places where she just seems more awkward than usual, but as a viewer, you brush it off, at first. It isn’t too far into the movie where I suspected what turned out to be true.

There may be SPOILERS ahead. Morgan is your typical teenager. There is clearly something wrong with her. The first scene she’s in, she stabs someone in the eye and doesn’t seem quite bothered by it. Her answers to Weathers, at first, seem coached, like she knows she needs to respond a certain way. There is a small element of clairvoyance being employed, but it isn’t enough for her to see that her rash anger bout will cost her everything. The cast of characters around them fits pretty every much avenue one might imagine for a cast of about ten. There’s the smart Asian, the organized African American project manager, the white guy chef who hits on everyone, the inter-racial couple (white man, black woman) and the obligatory Lebanese woman. The diversity can’t be complained about, suffice it to say, the first person to be killed is a white man, so that almost made me feel better about the representation, until Morgan goes on a killing spree leaving, surprise, the white chef and Lee Weathers (of course) alive, while taking the Lebanese woman hostage. Basically, the whites make it to the race.

What isn’t apparent, but sort of is, is that Morgan is a newer model of what Lee Weathers is. As the movie closes, the voice over, of three white men in business suits, are deciding that all genetic engineering will continue to pace with the Weathers version of the model. The larger debate the movie should be making is about white men, once again, controlling everything in the world, using women to their own ends. What I would have liked to see is Weathers destroying them, as a true kiss off to trying to control others. The movie sort of fell flat as it went on. There wasn’t a lack of action, but there was a lack of heart. Weathers was quite bland and that made for a  great science experiment, once the audience was given that peak behind the curtain, but it made for most of the story being blah. For $6, I’d see it, but that’s the best I can offer.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Book Review: The Girls

Rarely if ever do I find a novel winning me over not just in a few pages, but still holding me rapt and fascinated by the last pages. I am the hardest member of the book club to appease. This novel was hyped beyond belief. This was a first novel for Emma Cline and I should only hope that even one sentence of a book I write would be a fraction as good as her work. While the biggest detraction I can speak of for Ms. Cline is that her writing is so hypnotizing that you almost forget the story. The descriptions are utterly effortless. The main character isn’t instantly likable, but I was drawn to her just the same.

The novel follows, through time, the travails of Evie, a young girl who somehow gets caught up in a cult in an act of defiance to her estranged parents. That brief sentence doesn’t do justice to the journey that the reader and Evie take as she meets a trio of wayward girls, then a cult leader. Evie portrays the poor little rich girl with ease, yet you soon discover she is not nearly as content as she could be. Her life is anything but a fairytale and when she catches sight of a striking young woman, everything changes. The author turns the crush of Evie for another woman seem like it is perfectly natural. The attraction wasn’t evident from the beginning, but as the closing pages come, it is clear that Evie is still enamored with the aloof Suzanne, even after all the tragedy that surrounded them.

I would hate to spoil what was a not entirely surprising, but very well written story. In some cases, books are written beautifully, but the stories aren’t always enthralling. In this instance, Ms. Cline wrote a terrifyingly beautiful book from beginning to end. I honestly can’t remember the last time I wrote a book I really enjoyed. The prose was masterful. Every word was chosen with care and it shows. I have never given a book five stars, but this one was an easy choice to give that honor to. This book may not be for everyone, based on the content, but you’d be depriving yourself of one of the best written books from a modern author.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Movie Review: Don’t Breathe

Has it really been a month since I went to the movies last? I almost did a double feature yesterday. I wanted to see Hell or High Water, but after running/jogging 11 miles at 5.30 yesterday morning, I needed some nap time, which the Washington Nationals provided with a lackluster performance against the Colorado Rockies. Yes, this is my life and this is also a judgement free zone, because I said so.

I was genuinely surprised when I saw this movie took the box office this weekend. I was in a mostly empty theatre, less than a hundred people in a pretty big space, one that probably fits closer to 250-300. The commercials were fairly accurate in portraying how haunting the film would be. The circumstances of all the characters made the ending conflicting for me.

The movie is set in Detroit. The opening scenes pan through the remnants of what was once a prosperous area of the country. Now the roads are pitted with potholes, the houses empty, covered in graffiti, people downtrodden, finding no place to work. The sad setting blends into an opening scene with the audience meeting the three main characters, petty thieves who have keys to different places because one of the character’s father is a security guard. To make money, the group steal from these homes, keeping the costs below a certain amount so it won’t be considered grand larceny. I don’t know the specifics of the law, so I took the information at face value. This attention to detail comes up when they decide on their next target.

Rocky, the female protagonist, is living with her mother and a small child who I’m still unclear as to whether this was her child or her little sister. The reason Rocky and her friends, Alex and Money, because they are trying to make enough cash to leave Detroit. This goal doesn’t justify their actions, but it does reinforce the circumstances that have befallen them and the US economy.

When Money fences the items they stole at the beginning of the money, he gets a paltry amount for it. The man who he sold the stuff to gives him a location of a man who lives in an abandoned neighborhood of Detroit who has a lot of cash, or so they think. The three case the man’s home, seeing that he doesn’t go out much, has a vicious dog and is blind. The last part makes them think twice, but Money counters with the oddly true statement that ‘the man is no saint.’ 

The group set out for the house and when they try to break in, realize there are four locks on the door whereas they only have one key. This forces them to use a window to climb through in the second floor to get in. Rocky is the smallest and climbs through, letting the other two in. Money sets of some sort of chloroform like bomb in the room with the blind man, but unbeknownst to our so-called heroes, he isn’t asleep. There is nothing to be found in most of the house, save for a locked door leading into the basement. Money shoots the lock off, which causes Alex, the ‘smart’ one, to want to leave, because having a weapon during a crime makes the stakes increase exponentially. He heads for the door, putting his shoes back on. Money shoots the lock of and the blind guy isn’t so asleep, killing him right before Rocky. The title of the movie very much comes into play as the rest of the movie turns into a big game of cat and mouse. The story takes a vicious turn when Alex and Rocky end up in the basement, finding a women imprisoned below.

The rest of the story continues to be jarring. For once, I didn’t have reasonable alternatives to what the protagonists should have been doing. I won’t SPOIL the entirety of the movie, but it doesn’t go well for at least half of the people involved. Much like Purge Election Year, this movie had more that it was saying than just the usual horror fare. The necessity to rob makes the protagonists ones you want to cheer for. When you first meet the blind man, a veteran, you feel badly for him. The two sides, kids who need money, and a guy who has money but will miss it, are two groups that should be clear cut. The movie throws in the tragedy of the man’s daughter being killed and the killer going free, until we find her in the basement. The blind man has captured her (how a blind man accomplished this without anyone knowing seems like a story by itself). The story devolves further and the blind man is turned into a straight villain, one that has a secret he needs to protect, so the one person who does survive can escape without retribution, or so the audience is led to hope.

Again, I’m not sure I’d recommend this movie. There were absolutely no minorities represented, and for a movie set in Detroit, it seemed mystifying that no African Americans existed. There is at least one scene that is downright cringe-worthy, and not for the horror element. The acting was solid, the story kept me engaged and the atmosphere was near perfect for a horror movie.