Monday, December 31, 2018

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)

So yeah, this movie. I’ve held off on reviewing it for about a year, because so many people have said so many things… and a lot of it has been toxic and nasty. There seems to be very little middle ground with The Last Jedi and I was hoping that a year down the road it might be safe to have a normal conversation about the film. But man, does this movie seem to trigger the haters. I’m having flashbacks to the post Phantom Menace world. Still, I can’t put it off forever. So here are my thoughts on this, the most divisive of Star Wars films yet.

Summary:

General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) finds the Resistance on the ropes. The First Order lead by the fearsome Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) has discovered their secret base, destroyed it and now is relentlessly pursuing them. With limited fuel, ships and personnel, the General finds herself between the Rancor and the Sarlacc Pit (see what I did there). Finn (John Boyega), Poe (Ocar Isaac) and newcomer Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) hatch a dangerous plan that may allow the fleet to escape from the First Order.

Meanwhile, Rey (Daisy Ridley) journeys with Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) to a distant world to find the legendary Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). Turns out that Luke is a bitter and angry old man who blames himself for the rise of Kylo Ren’s dark powers. Rey does her best to convince him that his twin sister and the Resistance need his help. She also reveals her budding powers with The Force. Luke remains convinced that he will only do harm by restoring the Jedi Order. Meanwhile, Rey finds herself in a strange Force fueled communication with Kylo Ren, and she feels she may have a chance to pulling him from the evil Snoke’s (Andy Serkis) sway. Before it is all over, the fate of the galaxy will rest in the hands of The Last Jedi. Lupita Nyong’o, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Gwendoline Christie, Laura Dern and Benicio Del Toro round out the cast.

Good Points:
  • Impressive, dynamic visuals make this the best looking Star Wars film to date
  • Shatters audience expectations
  • Creates some truly iconic sequences 

Bad Points:
  • Tries a little too hard to shatter expectations
  • One of the storylines feels like nothing more than wheel spinning
  • At times feels like it is attacking the previous films and mythology

Overall:

To be honest, The Last Jedi was what I wanted this episode to be. It veered away from being a copy of The Empire Strikes Back, and at nearly every turn surprised me with the narrative direction. It doesn’t always works, with Finn and Rose feeling like they suffer a frustrating narrative arc. There are some amazing visuals in the film. Kylo Ren and Rey get some excellent sequences together. When all is said and done, the film moves the series in an interesting new direction, and I’m looking forward to see what happens next.

Scores(out of 5)
Visuals: 5
Sound: 5
Acting: 4
Script: 4
Music: 4
Direction: 4
Entertainment: 4
Total: 4

In Depth Review

At the end of my review of The Force Awakens I wrote the following:

But I will also say that I won’t accept that kind of safe story telling for episode eight. The stage is set for some really interesting plot and character development. I want to see new worlds, new paths and new revelations. I don’t want to see Empire Strikes Back in a new coat of paint. If episode eight forges its new path, than I think those that don’t care for The Force Awakens too much will be willing to accepts its role in the series. But if episode eight continues down this path of manufactured familiarity, we’ll see some disgruntled fans that may be wishing that Lucas were back in the drivers seat.

Rey is ready to take her next step into the larger world.
Looking at the reaction The Last Jedi got, it is kind of funny about how wrong I actually was. I think there were a lot of fans who spent way too much time predicting how the movie was going to play out, and how most of that was going to be a rehash of The Empire Strikes Back. They were let down by The Last Jedi because it didn’t follow the same beats as the 1980 film. And then because of certain narrative choices, these fans felt the film was actively attacking them… and it kind of was.

So let’s get this out of the way. The director has said that he wrote the story to deny many of the fan theories out there. It resulted in people feeling like they a) wasted their time and b) are stupid. He was basically trolling a portion of his audience. Never a good idea. The result has been a lot of very toxic and angry commentary directed at a movie that doesn’t really deserve it.

Luke trolls Rey, just as Johnson trolls his audience.
Is The Last Jedi a great film? No. It’s a good Star Wars film that does a lot of things right and takes things in a fascinating new direction. That is fine. In fact, in the grand scheme of things, it is what we should expect. There have been only one truly great Star Wars film, and quite a few good ones (and yeah a couple stinkers). So these folks who are acting like The Last Jedi broke Star Wars are just blowing it all out of proportion.

Ok, that’s about the last I want to write about the “great debate” surrounding this film. Let’s take a look at the film itself.

Visually, The Last Jedi is probably the most impressive looking Star Wars film we’ve seen up to this point. Director Rian Johnson combined the visual style that J.J. Abrams created in The Force Awakens and adds a bit more of a stylistic touch to the film. Not too surprising from the director of Brick.

Dammit Ackbar, stop playing Yar's Revenge! We are in crisis mode here!
There are some really impressive sequences brought to life in the film, including the initial bomber assault on the First Order fleet, the visually dynamic vision sequences Rey experiences, the demolition of the casino, the final confrontation with Snoke and the ensuing battle, the last ditch defense by the Resistance, and of course Luke and Kylo Ren’s face to face battle.

Johnson uses the color red through out the film, giving the color a vivid garish quality that adds some weight and threat to the film. In fact, burning, fire and red seem to be seeping into all aspects of the film. During flashbacks we see Luke among the burning training grounds where he lost Kylo Ren to the dark side. When Rey and Kylo face down Snoke’s guards the throne room is wreathed in flames and the guards red outfits and Kylo Ren’s saber move all around Rey, dressed in neutrals and wielding her blue saber. The battle on Crait features a world of red ore and minerals covered in a layer of white salt. All this plays into a key element of the finale of The Last Jedi

Johnson’s use of flames and red reminds me strongly of a similar use in Akira. We have a film where anger and rage are uncontrolled, and being unleashed. We see this in the performances by members of the First Order and even Poe. The universe is literally burning around the characters, seeming to be consumed by the hatred fueled by the dark side of the force (represented by Snoke and then Kylo Ren). This rage is power and all consuming and our heroes seem to be helpless in the face of it.

Lightsaber tag is really really dangerous. Play freeze tag instead.
To contrast this we have neutrals colors and blue around the Resistance that will become the Rebellion. I’ve already mentioned Rey, but even General Leia is primarily seen in toned down colors, as are all the ships the heroes use. This stays pretty close to what was established in the original trilogy but the direct visual contrast to red fire gives it greater prominence in The Last Jedi.

In many ways, this film is a little less utilitarian in its presentation and a bit more mythical. Images feel more iconic and powerful because of the framing and use of color. It really seems to embrace the fantasy aspect of Star Wars more than the previous few films (such as Rogue One, that went for a much more realistic feel). That works fine in these main storyline films, and I’m happy to see a director really dive into the mythical feel of these movies. Sure there are plenty of space ship battles and melee combat, but the key moments are ones between characters and how they relate to each other. This is not only done with dialogue, but also visually: isolating certain characters in frame, or using angles to create intimidating moments or eerie sequences. Johnson really gives The Last Jedi a unique but completely workable visual aesthetic that is refreshing to see in these films.

Kylo watching over Rey. Was he manipulator or manipulated?
As we expect the visual effects are top notch. All the big sequences look impressive. We get to see some new ships doing things we’ve never had a chance to see before. The bomber sequence is very intense, and something that fans of the series knew existed in the older trilogies (both the Empire and Rebellion had specialized bombing ships, but we only saw the TIE Bombers in action for about 20 seconds in The Empire Strikes Back). Johnson puts us in the bomber crews place in The Last Jedi and it is a great sequence. There are lots of new aliens, droids and ships in this film, which is always fun to have. We also get the expected planet hopping with three different locales: the islands on Ahch-To, the casino world on Canto Blight, and the red and white planet of Crait.

It is obvious that I loved the visuals in The Last Jedi; they are the strongest part of the film. The sound work rises to meet that bar. We get a great combo of the classic sound effects with some new sound work. All of it is nice and immersive. Sound is balanced to provide some nice powerful sequences while allowing us to hear the dialogue clearly.

I swear James Bond is about to enter stage right.
Following along is the music composed by John Williams. It is a pleasure to hear Williams continue scoring these main storyline films, and his work on The Last Jedi seemed to take him in a new and yet familiar direction. Williams created a sequel score that essentially takes many of the themes from The Force Awakens as well as the familiar Force theme from the original trilogy and builds with those blocks. Williams will usually present multiple new themes in these films and blend them with the older ones. But for The Last Jedi, Williams only gives us one new theme for Rose, and couple minor motifs. The rest of the time he manipulates his older themes in interesting and unexpected ways.

Those looking for a fresh Star Wars experience from a musical point of view may be disappointed. But Williams keeps things interesting by allowing all the older themes to play off each other and shift in interesting ways. I love Rey’s theme from The Force Awakens and we get quite a few new variants of it in The Last Jedi as her character continues her journey. Kylo Ren’s theme gains more power and menace as the film moves forward.

Admiral Holdo doubts the veracity of your claim.
But it is the return of old themes that really clicks. We get a taste of Yoda’s theme, as Luke struggles with his role as a mentor. We get a wonderfully touching version of Luke and Leia’s theme as the siblings meet again after so many years apart. In fact all the variants of Leia’s music in the older trilogy (Leia’s Theme, Han and Leia’s Theme, Luke and Leia’s Theme) all make an appearance during the film. Hints of The Emperor’s theme during Snoke’s interview with Kylo Ren (as well as the Imperial March) are played. For fans of Williams work in the previous film, this score almost becomes a game of spot the theme.

It works well in The Last Jedi supporting the action and emotions. But part of me wishes there was a bit more new musical color in the film. It is part of what gives each Star Wars film a unique personality, and yet tied to the whole. This film score feels like an extension of The Force Awakens, which the film really is. It is a minor issue, but one that did stick out to me a bit. Williams’ work is always top notch and as always works wonderfully in the film. So I can’t fault any of that.

I said... get off my lawn.
The cast was pretty much set in The Force Awakens. I really enjoyed their performances in that movie and thought they continued their fine work here. Our protagonists are all very likable (even when they are doing foolish and ridiculous things). Of the main cast I think Ridley and Driver have the best scenes in the script and get to play them very well. Ridley does an excellent job with Hamill and Driver, and really holds her own in some intense scenes. Boyega has good chemistry with newcomer Tran, and they have some really fun scenes together.

Are space slugs supposed to do that? Gross!
On the dark side of things Driver dominates the scenes as Kylo Ren. The character has so much going on, that he is really the most interesting and imposing of these villains. Gleeson chews up all the scenery as Hux, and he looks like he is having a good time. Serkis gets a bit more screen time as Snoke, and his arrogance almost physically manifests. 

The Last Jedi was Carrie Fisher’s last performance, and she does a fine job as General Leia Organa. She feels like the heart and soul of the resistance and her interaction with Isaac and Dern are handled well. As I already mentioned the scene between her and Hamill is one of the best in the series. It isn’t very long, but both actors really give you the feeling that they are siblings who care deeply for each other and yet have grown distant. 

"I must know... do you still keep in touch with Wicket?"
The only weak point, from an acting point of view, is Laura Dern. I’m still not sure what it is about her performance as Admiral Holdo but it just doesn’t’ click for me. This is so strange; normally Dern is excellent in just about anything she is in. But here, I never really felt that she was that character. The movies doesn’t give us a lot of screen time with her. It just doesn’t ever seem to gel, until we see her interacting with Fisher late in the film. But it is so brief, it just kind of goes by.

So now we come to the main issue with The Last Jedi, the script. We have a story that feels like it is focused on two things, building tension and shattering expectations. I think the script handles the tension elements pretty well, and goes above and beyond when it comes to shattering expectations.

Finn is the RAD RACER!
I think we are missing a clear idea of where the characters were going to end up. As the middle section of a trilogy, you need to really put the main characters through the ringer, so they can rise to the challenge in the final episode. Star Wars films are mythology after all. There is a clear set up for how these things build and release. In the original trilogy, we had the classic hero’s journey. In the prequels we had the classic tragedy. Based on how The Force Awakens was executed we are heading into classic heroes journey again. 

All that said, the concept of where this episode needs to end must be clear. To me, it feels like this was lost somewhere in the writing process. Then remembered at the last moment and shoehorned back in. Both Rey and Kylo Ren have clear arcs that feel like they build to where they need to go. But the Resistance and the characters locked in that conflict feel like they didn’t accomplish all that much. But you could argue that the main point of that storyline is destroy the resistance and create the rebellion.

The tempest of mystery calls to us and Rey
But here is the problem; we never have a clear idea of what “the resistance” is. We get an idea of what “The Rebellion” means to people, and that comes across pretty well. But The Force Awakens never made the political situation very clear. I think this was done because everyone complains about the “boring senate scenes” in the prequels. But part of the issue there is that we have no investment in the politics in the prequels really. 

For old fans of the original trilogy, we are invested in the heroes and the fate of the rebellion and empire. The Force Awakens never clarifies any of it, and The Last Jedi continues on its merry way. We never get the idea that the Resistance is this small rag tag organization – and if it is, what the hell is the big deal of creating The Rebellion. Is it more than a matter of semantics? If that is the main goal of the second storyline in The Last Jedi and all the events tied to it feel hollow.

To quote a famous scoundrel, "This deal is getting worse all the time."
That brings me to the whole construction of that storyline, the extended chase scene. The logistics that seems odd on the first watch, and then fall apart during your refrigerator moment. We are essentially going through a storyline that is an exercise in futility. And you can make that kind of story work, and in many ways, it does work in The Empire Strikes Back. But in The Last Jedi it feels less like a series of cliffhangers where the enemies keep getting the upper hand, and more like a series of mistakes and bumbling that could have been avoided. 

I would trust Poe to blow up a Death Star, or two.
Why does it feel that way? Because Rian Johnson’s script goes out of its way to avoid any predictable plot elements. More than that Johnson’s script actively attacks audience expectations, but not replacing them with anything that furthers the second storyline or builds the desperation in a meaningful way. The whole Poe vs Holdo storyline feels poorly executed, because we are invested in Poe, and his viewpoint seems very clear to us. Holdo comes across (through writing and performance) as very unreliable. If Poe had been a bit more impressed with her war record, and had Holdo actually attempted to engage in productive conversation with one of her best soldiers, it might have worked for more viewers.

Then you have the Rose and Finn storyline. I really like Rose as a character and Tran does some great things with her. She has some really good moments with Boyega, but man, does their whole side quest feel forced and uninteresting. It doesn’t stop the story dead like I’ve seen some folks endlessly complain about. It does end up feeling futile from a narrative point of view, or at least have a very tiny pay off (tied to the rebellion vs. resistance issue). And yeah, you could argue that the whole point of that side story is express how some things in life are pointless and futile… but is Star Wars really the place you want to express that theme? And to do it in a side story gives it even less importance. Star Wars is mythic storytelling; heroes in myths rarely do anything that ends up being pointless. 

Well at least Phasma has a point in this movie... oh wait... 
The other issue I have with separating all the characters up was that part of what made The Force Awakens so much fun was the great character interplay, especially Rey and Finn. To have them separated for nearly 98% of the movie was a bit of a letdown for me. I like Rose, and think she makes for a good addition to the cast, but there had to be a better way to use this character.

Finally lets take a look at the theme of the film, because boy is it confusing. The imagery of the movie feels very clear – let go of the past, look toward the future. The script seems to support this in the way it destroys so many of the expectations viewers had about how they felt The Last Jedi was going to play out. It didn’t, and I think that is great. It fits the theme of letting go of the past. But here is the problem with the way the theme is executed here

I AM suppressing my rage!
What is the beacon shimmering in the future? The rebellion. The state of affairs that was established at the end of Revenge of the Sith. So, the future state of hope is based in the past? Wait, what? 

It works a little better with The Force and the Jedi order. We saw how ineffectual the Jedi Council was in the prequels. We saw how old thinking nearly destroyed Luke in the original trilogy. It makes perfect sense to move the Jedi into something new and fresh. And THISis what the new trilogy should have been about. Seeing how powerful and interesting all this material in The Last Jedi is, makes me realize that this is the storyline that should have been explored in greater depth. Drop the First Order and Resistance material that feels all surface and no depth. The Force Awakens feels like a title that never got the movie it deserved. 

Drawing a line in the salt.
I agree with Luke, the Jedi order had its time, before the prequels. Now is the time for something new. Rey could and should be the first of that new direction. We seem to be moving in that direction, and because Johnson already took the great Luke-centric moments from the original trilogy and twisted them around in The Last Jedi. He put J.J. Abrams on the spot. He can’t rely on recreating Return of the Jedi’s scenes without looking like he is aping to previous films. Hopefully this forces his hand to go in a new direction for Episode IX.

All in all Johnson’s direction is very good. Even when The Last Jedi feels like it is spinning its narrative wheels, he keeps everything moving and visually interesting. He created a very good Star Wars film, one that does some great stuff. I think he should have given the script a few more passes, tried a bit less hard to troll old time fans and fan sites obsessed with predicting the way the series was going to play out (and I admit, I found all that super annoying too, so I understand his frustration). He should have focused his script on telling a compelling story. Instead we have a good movie with one great storyline and one that feels like if flounders around in a visually exciting way. We almost got another Great Star Wars film.

Their last battlefield?
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Friday, December 21, 2018

Let's Have a Patrick Swayze Christmas!

I saw this posted by the folks at Satellite News a few years back, and I just make sure it makes the rounds again this year. Remember the little ditty that Joel and the Bots sing during the Santa Claus Conquers the Martians episode? Well someone decided to take that, arrange it for a choir and then record it. Check out the serious faces as they sing these wonderful festive lyrics. And keep an eye peeled for a nod to Pod People as well.


Just figured I'd spread some MST3K inspired holiday cheer! Hope you all have a great end of the year.

Friday, December 14, 2018

And Then This Happened... Santa Claus Conquers the Martians

Hooray! I thought I had posted an image from this fine film to our little caption game a couple years ago. I was wrong. So really, how could I resist putting one up this year. Tis the season and all that.

You know, one thing I've noticed over the years, is that Santa Claus in most family films and shorts is not really jolly, or even holly jolly. He's insane. For some reason the line gets crossed. Not sure if it is the acting, the direction or the story surrounding the character, but when Santa laughs the whole world wants to back away. I think most of this comes from the fact that MST3K and Rifftrax always find the most disturbing holiday films they can find for riffing, but that is my impression and I'm sticking to it.

Case in point. Good old Saint Nick in Santa Claus Conquers the Martians seems a bit unstable at times. I mean the man is interested in interplanetary conquest, so maybe he's more Ming the Merciless than Santa Claus. All I'm saying is that the FBI may want to open a dossier on this guy.

And then this happened...


Monday, December 10, 2018

Score Sample: Scrooged (1988)

Time to listen to some more holiday movie music. But what to pick, what to pick? Could go with some classic stuff, or even with some John Williams. But I decided to go a little stranger. And even though I highlighted his work in October, I'm once again throwing Danny Elfman some love on this blog.

Elfman's film scoring career really took off in 1989 with Batman. But before that we got a bit of a warmup with his score to the Bill Murray Christmas comedy Scrooged. Elfman's distinctive style is present from the opening cue, and fans of his work from Edward Scissorhands will certainly recognize this era of Elfman's writing. Elfman has fun adapting some familiar Christmas carols to his unique orchestral voice, but it is the children chanting "la la la" in an eerie voice that just gives the score its darkly festive touch.

The fun start with the Main Titles/Terrorist Attack as Elfman gives us his main theme combining dark overtones and festive la las. Then it transitions to sparkling joy as we enter Santa's workshop. Things take a turn for the action packed as Elfman unleashes a strident propulsive action theme as terrorists attack Santa's workshop. The only man who can save them... Lee Majors. I'm not kidding.

So enjoy the opening track from Scrooged composed by Danny Elfman.


Friday, November 30, 2018

And Then This Happened... Outlaw of Gor

It is good to be king. You can wear whatever you want. Command all your minions. Demand absolute obedience from your subjects. And of course you get to make proclamations. But sometimes wearing whatever you want while making the proclamations can turn out to be a bad thing.

Case in point in the example below.

But still, this moment from Outlaw of Gor gives us the perfect opportunity for caption fun. So we can't be all that mad at King Goofy here.

And then this happened...


Tuesday, November 27, 2018

And Then This Happened... Samson vs. the Vampire Women

We all know who you need to call when there is something strange in the neighborhood. But who do you call when you have a silly looking bat floating outside your window? Who do you call when every time you look outside your daughter's window, there is a creepy woman staring at her? Well the answer is obvious, right?

I think you can also call the same number if your lasagna won't cook in your oven. You could also call him if you have issues with robots mocking every movie you put on your television. I think he also handles medical and legal advice, but I'll need to check out his website.

In any case, I think it is time to come up with a caption for this image from Samson vs. the Vampire Women (aka Santo Versus the Vampire Women).

And then this happened...


Tuesday, November 20, 2018

MST3K - Season 12 Overview

With the outstanding success of Season 11 of Mystery Science Theater 3000, most fans were hopeful that the series would continue. Sure enough Netflix ordered up another helping of episodes. Joel gathered together the crew and got back to work.

The good news is that Jonah would return as the host of the series, not to mention Patton and Felicia coming back as the mad scientists. Good to see the familiar faces in front of the camera.

But other changes were in the works. Season 12 would be shorter, with six films riffed. But in an attempt to make the series more "binge-able", Jonah and the bots had to riff all six movies in a row. Kinga (Felicia Day) declares it "The Gauntlet" and laughs madly... because she is a mad scientist after all.

What this means for the series, well, I'm sure I'll have something to say about it. But let's also take a look at the this line up of movies. The bad movie gods were smiling, because we have some great fodder here. Let's see how Jonah and the bots handle them.


  • 1201 - Mac and Me
  • 1202 - Atlantic Rim
  • 1203 - Lords of the Deep
  • 1204 - The Day Time Ended
  • 1205 - Killer Fish
  • 1206 - Ator: The Fighting Eagle


Friday, November 16, 2018

MST3K - The Gauntlet is Coming!

Well November has rolled around again, and that means it is time for more Mystery Science Theater 3000. Thanksgiving is turkey day and for the past few years Shout! Factory has been streaming a MST3K marathon on their channel. They serve up episodes from across the 10 seasons (Comedy Central and Sci-Fi years), and usually have bumpers with cast and crew from the series.

But 2018 is going to be a bit different because SEASON 12 (aka The Gauntlet) is premiering on Netflix on Thanksgiving. That's right six new episodes of the series featuring the cast of the previous season are back on the satellite. Some really perfect films for riffing are lined up, so this season looks like it could be a blast. The whole season drops onto Netflix on Thursday, November 22.

But wait, what about the Turkey Day marathon?

No worries Shout! has you covered. They will be running the marathon on Sunday, November 18th. It will include six episodes, intros from Joel and Jonah, some sneak peaks of Season 12 and a few surprises.

Head on over to MST3KTurkeyDay.com for more information on how to catch the marathon.

Need more, here are some trailers!





Yep, this Turkey Day looks like it might be a little more hilarious than normal.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Bloodlust: Subspecies III (1994)

Over the past couple years I’ve been exploring the 1990s vampire series, Subspecies. Today we dive into the third film of the franchise (or Subpecies cinematic universe if you prefer). When it comes to horror series, it is usually a case of diminishing returns. But a couple of things give this film an edge. They planned to make this particular sequel and the surviving cast returns from the previous film. All they need to do is finally get a decent script. Should be easy, right?

Summary:

The film opens moments after Bloodstone: Subspecies II ended. Rebecca (Malanie Shatner) left her vampiric sister Michelle (Denice Duff) in a tomb to wait for nightfall. The plan is to return with help and then… um… well Rebecca’s plan is unclear. But it doesn’t matter anyway because the decaying Mummy (Pamela Gordon) is still alive! She seizes Michelle and drags her back into the depths of the tomb. There she performs blood rites to resurrect her son Radu (Anders Hove). The three then transform into mist (with a lot of over the top chanting, laughing and screaming) and escape, just as Rebecca returns with American diplomat Mel (Kevin Spirtas) and skeptical Detective Marin (Haiduc).

Now the hunt returns to Radu’s mysterious castle as Rebecca, Mel, and detective Marin attempt access the fortress via the crypts. Meanwhile Radu and Mummy continue to train Michelle in her new vampire powers and force her to embrace the darkness. Villagers are abducted, blood is spilt and Radu gets to drool a lot more gore. Finally Mel contacts his CIA pal Bob (Michael Dellafemina) to lead the attack against the castle. But will a trained military operative be enough to defend against Radu’s Bloodlust?

Good Points:
  • Feels like a natural continuation of the previous film
  • Hove is still horrifying as the vampire Radu
  • When the movie goes over the top it is at its best 
Bad Points:
  • There doesn’t appear to be much of a script to this film
  • So many ideas are brought up, but never explored
  • Never gets into a solid and entertaining flow
Overall:

When it comes to these films the script has been the major issue. We run into that again. But this time it feels like they added a bunch of padding because they only had a few ideas (and locations) to explore. The result is a movie that has some of the best scenes of the series surrounded by scenes that meander in circles. The climax is impressive and fitting to a trilogy, but I will say it is the weakest of the three films.

Scores(out of 5)
Visuals: 3
Sound: 3
Acting: 3
Script: 2
Music: 3
Direction: 3
Entertainment: 3
Total:  3

In Depth Review

"Oh yes, I'm back, and droolier than ever!"
Ah Subspecies, you try so hard, and yet sometimes I wonder if you are trying at all. There is so much potential in the series as a whole, and specifically in Bloodlust: Subspecies III (calling it Subspecies III from now on). But time and again the movie unravels at the seams and just never quite recovers. I was entertained for most of it, but as a whole the movie falls flat.

So what happened? Mostly the script (or lack of one) happened. Just about all the production elements remain the same. Visually the movie looks a lot like the previous one, with some excellent location shooting in Romania. But we’ve seen many of the locations already, like the castle and Bucharest. There is a new village we get some time in, and some more scenes in the forest surrounding the castle, so that helps things a bit. The familiarity of the settings isn’t a deal breaker, but it was one of the advantages the previous films had over your typical vampire horror. 

"No seriously its just marina sauce, and a little blood. But not my blood. That makes it OK, right?
The acting remains solid over Subspecies III. Duff and Shatner do a good job as the tormented sisters. I actually came to really root for Rebecca in this one, and Shatner’s acting is a big part of it. She really convinces me that she is desperate to save her sister, even if she isn’t sure how to do it. Duff gets to embrace her dark side (a little bit anyway) over the course of this film. When she is haunting the village and using her new powers she does a good job of getting us to believe her dark desires are taking over. The script stumbles a bit with her motivations as the film progresses, but Duff’s acting is not the issue.

I think Spirtas is actually a bit better this time as Mel. He as a little more to do here, becoming a full-fledged vampire hunter. His interaction with Shatner works well, and his disgust and horror at Radu and Mummy is palpable. As for Detective Marin, well Haiduc is playing the same skeptical clueless detective he played before. He’s supposed to be the comic relief, and he doesn’t really succeed. But it’s a thankless and pointless role anyway. He just takes up too much screen time for so little payoff. I never laughed or really even smiled when Marin was around.

Not really comedy gold here, more like comedy pyrite. 
Now when Pamela Gordon was around as Mummy, I was entertained.  She is just as over the top, gross and ridiculous as she was in the previous film. Her antics are quite entertaining, especially when she ends up arguing with Radu over the fate of Michelle. There is less for her to do in the film, which is both good and bad. She brings some energy to her scenes, but I still don’t like the way the character dilutes the horror of Radu.

Still Anders Hove has so much presence and goes for the blood drooling with such gusto that he overcomes a lot of the issues within Subspecies III. He has some really good scenes with Michelle, and manages to show some kind of affection for her, in his own twisted way. Hove is absolutely fearsome when he faces down those that would attempt to separate him from Michelle. When Radu is on screen the movie is usually at its best, and it is a shame that the script is so flimsy because we could have had a real winner here.

"See I have the Bloodstone right here. It isn't going to impact the story, but I still have  it."
The sound effects and music remain in the same realm they were in previously. The sounds support the film well enough. The music is an assortment of tracks that build some mystery, chime in with the recognizable title theme and other times use the screechy violins to denote horror. Not bad stuff, but lacks some of the punch of other horror scores of the time.

So lets look at the culprit right in the face – the script. Subspecies III builds on the events in the previous two films, but only in a halfhearted way. It almost feels like they had a series of ideas they wanted to explore over the two sequels, but never really fleshed out a full script until they were close to shooting. With most of the intense stuff captured in Bloodstone, they were left with not a whole hell of a lot for Bloodlust. The result was sequences and scenes that just kind of go in circles. 

Looks like someone had one hell of a night... get it, hell... see what I did there.
One example happens right off the bat. Subspecies II ends with Rebecca saying she’ll wait for Michelle outside the tomb until nightfall. Then Michelle is seized by the roasted Mummy and hauled into the tomb screaming. Rebecca heard that right? Well according to Subspecies III, Rebecca leaves the tomb right after saying she’ll wait. She goes off to find some help, and comes back with Mel and Detective Marin. In some ways it makes sense, but we needed a quick scene of her making up her mind to get help, or something. Because it just feels arbitrary that she wanders off into the woods. And keep in mind the film starts off with a montage of moments from the second film, including the scene where Rebecca promises to wait. So her decision to leave feels even stranger.

Then there are a number of scenes where characters go the castle, can’t get in, talk for a bit about how they need to get into the castle, and then drive away. It happens about four different times and doesn’t do anything to forward the story. From a narrative point of view you only need that to happen one time and then have Rebecca and Mel head to the town to regroup and come up with some kind of idea (maybe contact agent Bob at that point). Detective Marin adds nothing to these scenes and we spend way too much time with him and his “funny” antics.

Mel and Rebecca doubt the veracity of your claim.
That is the main issue with Subpecies III. It doesn’t realize that the more interesting story is the power struggle between Radu, Michelle and Mummy. All the best scenes in the film occur with these three characters. The main issue here is that the script never clarifies where Michelle stands on any of this. Sometimes she seems to have accepted her fate as a vampire. Other times she seems to be resisting it. Sometimes she begs for death. Other times she begs Radu to teach her more about the vampire’s powers. Michelle needed the evolution of character here and one that is pretty easy to chart. After being dragged into the darkness at the end of Subspecies II she could have embraced her darkness, and even decided that she didn’t want or need Radu. Her whole goal cold be to surpass him in power and then destroy him. Then her interplay with Radu could be more effective, and her natural conflict with Mummy would have more bite.

Mummy just hates Michelle on principle and you don’t have to do too much with her. But I think she remained around a little too long. I love that Radu kills her (and the way he rips off her arm and beheads her with the knife still clutched in the desiccated hand is wonderfully ghoulish) because she just keeps trying to kill Michelle when he isn’t around. 

Oh yeah, Michelle goes all femme fatale goth style in this moment.
Finally if we go this way with Michelle’s character (as the vamp femme fatale) then it fits the idea that Radu is easily controlled by women, and supports the ridiculous relationship between him and mummy established in the previous film. Because some of those conversations between Michelle and Radu work really well. I love how he reflects on the fact that he has wiped out his whole family because of his passions. I feel the pleasure he takes in teaching Michelle to use her powers. It would work great if she was manipulating him (he could even figure out what she was doing part way through the film), and then as she was really delving into her dark nature be faced with her sister again. Lots of natural drama right there to explore.

The vampire scenes have less padding but they still suffer a bit because Michelle keeps changing her motivations and seems to reset to whimpering and helpless every other scene. This worked fine for Subspecies II, but by the time we get to Subspecies III we need to do more with her character. 

Nice little chat about finger demons.
I’m coming down a bit hard here because I see the potential for a really good movie buried in there. They could have doubled down on the drama and gothic horror. Or they could have embraced the over the top madness of two scenes that make Subspecies III memorable.

The first is Bob the CIA agent. When he shows up, it feels like you popped in a whole new movie about one liner spewing army heroes storming Dracula’s castle. Bob is a surreal character that comes out of nowhere with his machine gun and camo gear. His first reaction when he sees the desiccated Mummy is to shout “Heads up Granny” and open fire. It is hilariously silly and then his demise is just about the funniest thing in the entire Subspecies series. If the film had embraced this horror comedy feeling it would have been wonderful. Instead, it just feels like an odd moment that sticks out in the meandering film.

Bob and Mel: Fearless Vampire Slayers!
Then you have the climax of the movie. Hove finally gets to dive into his diabolical performance and chases our heroes through the castle, looming out of the shadows and growling at them. His intensity and their fear work so well, you feel like you are watching a genuine horror film. Then you have Rebecca trick Radu into trying to catch the Bloodstone as she hurls it over the castle wall, and into the open, as the sun ascends into the sky. (Side note, the Bloodstone once again appears and is once again completely pointless to the plot – what a waste of a great MacGuffin). Radu hurtles into the light and then proceeds to melt, burst into flame, hurtle over the castle wall and then land impaled on a dead tree as he roasts and melts. Yeah we get wood right through his oozing skull. It is gross and over the top, but a fitting end to the vampire. 

"Oh man I should really pay attention to my Swatch!"
This over the top ending to Subspecies III helps redeem it a little bit. I just wish he whole film had doubled down on this type of approach… or any type of approach really. The movie is a mess, but so were the previous two, but this one feels more disjointed and little less fun. The meandering characters and plot distract from the good and great portions of the film. It gives the Subspecies series an ending and that is good. It makes for fun viewing in October with you expectations adjusted. But I did end up wishing it had been given a bit more attention with the script. Once again, if Hollywood must keep remaking movies, the Subspecies films have a lot of potential in them. They could be improved and we’d have a fine horror trilogy ready to unleash on an unsuspecting public.

I think Michelle has a little surprise for her sister.
Would you trust these two to do anything right, much less slay a vampire and his Mummy?
I don't know who is more offended in this picture.
"No problem. Everything is fine. I'm sure there will be another sequel or two."

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Thursday, October 25, 2018

When Marnie was There (2014)

I assumed that Studio Ghibli had gotten all their spooky antics out of their system with the amazing Spirited Away. But it turns out that one of the last films the studio made was a supernatural puzzler… but you know, for families. I was just as surprised as you were. Could a studio long known for their family fare actually pull off a movie that has more in common with Vertigo than Kiki’s Delivery Service?

Summary:

Anna Sasaki (Hailee Steinfeld) is at a rough age. She feels awkward and misunderstood at school. Her home life became difficult after she made an unwelcome discovery. It caused her pull away from her foster mother. After suffering a stress induced asthma attack, Anna is sent to the coast to live with her aunt and uncle. At first things don’t go much better, as Anna’s discomfort around strangers causes her to snap at the people around her.

But things change when she spots a strange mansion on the coast that is accessible only at low tide, but requires a boat to visit otherwise. Anna finds herself returning to the place again and again to sketch it and peer into the abandoned interiors. But one night she sees a young blonde girl inside the house. She eventually meets the girl, Marnie (Kiernan Shipka) who is the same age and also going through some tough issues at home. Anna is drawn to her new friend; despite the fact that no one else acknowledges Marnie or the parties her parents throw. And why is everyone in the old mansion dressed in 1920s fashions? Is Anna suffering a mental breakdown, or is she looking into the past, at a time When Marnie was There?

Good Points:
  • Some wonderful animation immerses viewers in the setting and atmosphere
  • Effective performances by the English voice cast
  • Keeps the viewer’s wondering just what is happening to Anna, and the mystery of Marnie
Bad Points:
  • Moves at a very measured pace
  • Looking for an outright thriller? Not in this film.
  • Why is this animated?
Overall:

I was impressed by how well this film works. Anna is a very relatable character, even if she can be difficult. The more we find out about her, the more we understand her reactions to others and especially to Marnie. The film does a good job of never giving away too much about Marnie until the right moment. An easy recommendation if you are looking for a coming of age film meshed with a psychological mystery.

Scores(out of 5)
Visuals: 5
Sound: 4
Acting: 4
Script: 4
Music: 3
Direction: 4
Entertainment: 4
Total:  4

In Depth Review

For Anna it is easier to focus on her sketches and ignore people.
It is difficult to write too much about When Marnie Was There without giving away the mystery of the film. That mystery is one of the key elements that engages the viewer. But the core of the movie is the excellent characterization of Anna. When these two elements merge When Marnie Was There becomes a very effective and moving film, one that children around Anna’s age, and adults can relate to.

Anna arrives at her new home in the coastal town.
Visually Studio Ghibli did some wonderful work here. Don’t come in expecting those wonderful action flourishes or flying moments that thrill in the films of Miyazaki. Instead director Hiromasa Yonebayashi focuses on creating a sense of place and atmosphere in the movie. The coastal town where most of When Marnie Was There takes place feels like a real location. We see plenty of details in the buildings, the countryside and of course the mysterious mansion to have them crystallize in our minds. As Anna explores these locations we take them in with her. Details like a flapping curtain in an “abandoned” building or the way the tide creeps in closer and closer as time passes establish the feel of the town. Like Anna, we find it a bit strange at first, but soon come to enjoy its oddities.

Anna's first glimpse of the mysterious house where Marnie awaits.
For atmosphere Yonebayashi doesn’t go for anything as overt and mind bending as Satoshi Kon did with Perfect Blue. Obviously this isn’t a horror/thriller. But he does use some of the more subtle techniques that Kon would utilize, such as holding some shots just a little too long; building the mystery using pacing. He also uses light and shadow to great advantage, especially as Marnie and Anna meet more and more frequently. Darkness seems to be overtaking Anna and it adds a disconcerting feeling to the whole friendship. The strange hazy light during the parties creates a dreamlike feeling to those scenes. Even simple moments with Anna and Marnie on the boat and talking feel slightly off center. It all builds into in a wonderfully subtle feeling of unease..

Meeting Marnie by moonlight.
The sound and the score do a good job supporting When Marnie Was There. The sound work is mostly real world sound effects, keeping the film grounded, even while are doubting our eyes. The score by Takatsugu Muramatsu works fine. It is low key, supporting emotions and atmosphere without drawing attention to itself. Some of the key emotional scenes at the end do rise to the occasion and work very well in the moment. But the score didn’t really draw me in with themes. That is fine, not every score has to. But I usually expect something a bit more colorful from Studio Ghibli films. The song during the final moments of the film Fine on the Outside by Priscilla Ahn is a soothing piece that works well in the film.

Looks like someone is ready to party!
The English voice cast did a very good job in the roles. Steinfeld and Anna and Shipka as Marnie have the most challenging parts, and both ladies do an excellent job. Steinfeld keeps Anna relatable, even when we think she is being unreasonable. Anna’s struggles come through in the voice acting as well as the animation and Steinfeld’s performance is key. Shipka is also very good at making Marnie feel like a genuine girl, but also keeping a bit of the mystery to the character. It is a tough balancing act, and the animation surely helps. But some of Marnie’s lines need to be said in just the right way, and Shipka is up to the task. Aside from that the voice cast included several well-known names (Vanessa Williams, Catherine O’Hara, Geena Davis and John C. Reilly to name a few) keep things appropriate low key and believable.

"Come play with me Anna..."
Where When Marnie Was There really shines is in the execution of the story and the character of Anna. The film has three parts. The first establishes Anna and her life in the city. The second brings her to the coastal town and into contact with Marnie. The third comprises Anna’s attempt to figure out who Marnie is and the impact it has on Anna’s life. Each portion of the story must be told completely and well for the ending to have the necessary emotional impact.

Visiting the house later, Anna sees that it is a real fixer-upper opportunity.
Pacing is important, and I know the slow pace is not going to work for all viewers, I feel it is necessary. The story does a good job of establishing Anna in the first portion of the film as an introverted pre-teen that is having trouble coping with growing up. Her asthma attack seems to be a symptom of her anxiety. As the film continues we start to get more and more clues about Anna’s life. We find out that she is a foster child. We find out that her parents died when she was very young. Her natural insecurities are increased when she finds out a secret about her foster mother. Each piece of Anna’s puzzle gives her more depth as a character, but more importantly it allows us to understand her relationship with Marnie.

Marnie marvels at the meticulous sketch.
The build up to the first encounter with Marnie is handled so well. It is mysterious and dreamlike all at once. Because we know that Anna has some emotional issues already, we begin to wonder if any of this is really happening. That balancing act is maintained throughout When Marnie Was There. It makes it a very engaging watch the first time through, but I dare say that the characters of Anna and Marnie will draw me back for repeat viewings.

A stormy night in a dangerous tower, what could go wrong?
Finally I would be remiss if I didn’t point out a few correlations between When Marnie Was There eand the films of Alfred Hitchcock. Many of these may be unintentional, but I get the feeling they were not. The obvious one is that Hitchcock directed a film called Marnie. Next is that the mysterious woman in this film is the classic Hitchcock cool blonde with blue eyes. A key sequence takes place in a silo that could be dead ringer for the tower in Vertigo, and we even get a moment where the Vertigo zoom is used when Anna experiences a revelation. Anna spends quite a bit of time peering into window and watching the mansion from a distance, very much like Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window. You could say that the coastal town in When Marnie was There is a sister city to Bodega Bay featured in The Birds. I haven’t seen all of Hitchock’s films, but I’m guessing there are a few more nods to his work in the film.

A lot could go wrong.
But cast those aside and you still have a really engaging film. When Marnie Was There may not go down as one of the best films from Studio Ghibli. But it is well worth seeking out and watching. It shows that even at the end the famous studio could still craft a movie that draws viewers in and allows you to feel along with these animated characters.

Anna and her new pal are ready for some sleuthing.
Marnie takes us on a little voyage to her home.
Is Anna sketching her new friend... or something else entirely?
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