Birds of Prey

2020 | dir: Cathy Yan | 109 m

From the very beginning, Birds of Prey was going to face an uphill battle. Being a semi-spinoff of the panned Suicide Squad was not going to do this film any favours, but bringing the focus entirely on that film’s brightest spot was certainly the right move and a promising decision. Harley Quinn explodes onto screen with a flurry of colours, boisterous music and incredible energy, all of which made the film a joy to watch. However, there was something that just didn’t connect with me, and I reckon to reason that it’s the core storytelling technique put to use here, although I can’t discount the sad, nearly empty IMAX screening experience as setting a certain tone and expectation.  

The movie bounces back and forth numerous times and honestly, just wore me out. Utilizing Black Mask’s night club as the hub, the story will progress, then quickly roll back in time often enough that I felt the trope had run its course. To credit, the technique certainly lends a hand to the anarchy on-screen and probably improved the flow of the plot, which is a relatively straightforward and never a bad thing, especially when you put Margot Robbie’s incredible performance at the forefront. With that, I couldn’t really find anything else to really lay against this movie negatively, except perhaps that I was exhausted by the end of it. 

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Doctor Sleep

2019 | dir: Mike Flanagan | 152 m

The anticipation for Doctor Sleep was quite real, as both my regular theatre-going friend and I were eager to buy our ticket and watch this followup to The Shining, but there was an issue: Jojo Rabbit came out around the same time, and there was a certain fear that Jojo – being a “smaller” film – would disappear from local cineplexes fairly early. Indeed, there have been times when these movies only see a week in town before heading off. Doctor Sleep was going to be a big movie, and would stick around for a while, right? The decision was made, and we bought our tickets for a Tuesday evening showing of Jojo Rabbit. The first hint that something was amiss should have been the comically absent lobby poster for the film; in its stead, was a black and white 8x10 tacked unceremoniously in the poster’s large glass case. We interpreted that sign as a clue that we were correct, but we couldnt’ be more wrong: Doctor Sleep quickly disappeared from the theatre, while Jojo remained there for weeks upon weeks (and yes, that tiny make-shift poster followed it to the different screens at that theatre). With quiet indignity, we set forth with resolve to watch Doctor Sleep as soon as it hit home video. 

Last week I ventured out and bought the UHD release; a relatively bold move considering the price and unwatched nature of the film, but I figured if it was truly bad, I could quickly sell it for an eighth of the price and maybe pawn the digital code off online. In reality, I knew that would not be the case. We planned it carefully: being a slightly longer movie, we would bring dinner (that is, pizza) back to my place, and get an early start on the film – it measures in at two and a half hours, so yes, that means no director’s cut upon first viewing. I had watched The Shining a few weeks ago (it has a recently released beautiful 4k UHD on the market) and my friend did the same. This was not the first time that I had seen the film, and unfortunately, I wouldn’t be able recollect that particular memory, so I’ll play it safe and say I watched it with my film-obsessed roommates back in the early aughts that I unceremoniously refer to as “the university days” where we probably spent more time watching movies than studying, and my biggest regret is not skipping an entire night’s sleep to watch The Godfather trilogy.  I did rewatch The Shining a couple of times over the years, but felt as though I really delved into it with vigor just a couple of weeks back. Immediately I signed the digital copy of Stephen King’s book out from the local library so I could better prepare for Doctor Sleep, which takes on the unenviable task of trying to please both readers of the books, and fans of Kubrick’s 1980 film. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be, as I only meandered my way through a fifth of the book before movie night was upon me, and Doctor Sleep was finally happening.

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Crawl

2019 | dir: Alexandre Aja | 88 m

I probably wouldn’t have sought out Crawl if it wasn’t for a couple of things; the first one being that it’s produced by the beloved Sam Raimi and directed by the intriguing Alexandre Aja, who has some decent films under his belt, including Horns and Mirrors (which I remember watching nearly a decade ago and being legit nervous to look in the mirrors of my apartment when I got home). The second, more prominent reason for Crawl to float to the top of my watchlist was just how many damn alligator movies that I’ve been watching with my friends lately. It started innocently enough with a couple of Australian pictures (and yes, they were crocodiles there and my inexperienced Canadian-reptile brain doesn’t know much of the difference) then into a couple of North American releases aptly named “Alligator” and unoriginally, “Alligator 2.” They were tremendously fun films – maybe it was the foreign feel of a giant lizard roaming about: I’ve seen enough movies about bears to know to be on the lookout for them here in my native country, but alligators are so far removed from what I would expect walking in the woods, or, in the case of some of these, finding in my basement. 

This movie checked all the boxes of the horrors of man-eating alligators that I know about, which is mostly that they will bite your limbs and once they got you, perform their patented Death Roll, which will either drown you or use centrifugal force to rip your limbs off (which may not be scientifically accurate but this is fact in my mind). Moving along at a brisk eighty eight minutes, Crawl goes further and checks off the prerequisites for some apex predator horror, including some effective jump scares, adequate gore and a healthy dose of on screen deaths that never feels excessive. I wasn’t entirely sure where the story was going: having seen the first bit of Sharknado years ago (falling asleep from heat stroke midway through and never seeing the reason to finish it off) I kind of assumed we would be going location to location within Florida as we try to run away from The alligator, but what Aja did here was more traditional and effective. We follow a woman trying to find her father as a hurricane approaches, then promptly getting stuck in the basement of their house, trapped by injuries and really pissed off gators. I’m glad there were so many of them, although I can’t comment on their behaviour, or if they would treat hurricane conditions with such ferocious glee, but it worked for this film.

The generated establishing shots of the hurricane and town feel a bit off right from the beginning, and it’s no surprise to find out the film wasn’t even shot ‘on location’ in Florida, but in the far off lands of Serbia. With most of the film taking place in tight quarters and obviously a water-logged set, I left with a sense of efficient budgetry: where they may skimp on those shots earlier are made up with some decent looking gators, although I may be too used to the mid-80s animatronic alligators from the past few months, so anything looks great now. I’m not convinced though that’s it: I was sufficiently pulled into the action on-screen and invested in the simple narrative to take much heed to technical details, or bother myself with analysing plot and character choices. Crawl got the job done, and did it well. We may take a little break from alligator movies for a bit and further explore the wild boar horror that we saw a few weeks ago in 1984’s Razorback. I remain hopeful Raimi and Aja can thrill us some more with further wild animal thrillers.  

Rating: 3 / 5

Terminator: Dark Fate

2019 | dir: Tim Miller | 128 m

Terminator: Dark Fate is another in a long line of belated Terminator sequels that I will have to try to actively forget. In this case, it shouldn't be too hard. Terminator: Dark Fate was an utterly forgettable film, but at least it wasn't aggressively bad like the previous entry in the series, Terminator: Genyisys. (I still die a little inside whenever I read that title). Why are studios still subjecting us to these sequels? And perhaps more importantly, why are audiences still subjecting themselves? The obvious answer is that because the original Terminator is an iconic sci-fi film and Terminator 2: Judgement Day is widely regarded as one of the greatest (if not the greatest) action movies of all time, they set the bar so high and piqued our interest so much, that we're willing to risk laying down our hard-earned cash for utter garbage just for the slim chance to chase that high again.

And like most junkies, Terminator fans still haven't learned our lesson. For some insane reason, despite all obvious evidence to the contrary, I had incredibly high hopes going into Dark Fate. Alas, any hope I had was wiped out quicker and more thoroughly than humanity in a thermo-nuclear war launched by a rogue AI. We've had a mixed bag when its come to decades-later sequels. For every Blade Runner 2049 there seems to be a A Good Day to Die Hard. But with Dark Fate, they got the band back together. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Linda Hamilton reprising their roles as an unstoppable killing machine and Sarah Connor, a waitress turned commando, respectively. James Cameron back to... produce. Well, that's something, I guess. It was a direct sequel to Terminator 2, ignoring or retconning (as all the cool kids are saying these days) all of the other Terminator films that came before it save the first two, if not out of existence, then at least out of the canon. Then, right out of the gate, Dark Fate tries to pull an Alien 3 opening, failing to do so, and setting the stage for disappointment right there. Don't promise me the long-awaited return of Edward Furlong as John Conner, for that kind of nonsense. Alien 3's decision to kill off main characters from the previous film rather unceremoniously still doesn't sit right with me, but I can appreciate what David Fincher was trying to achieve in the context of the story, and it made sense. Dark Fate's similarly dark opening just felt cheap by comparison. I've felt cleaner after leaving a Russian brothel than I felt after watching that opening.

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2019 Year in Review

Two hundred sixty four. I still look at that number and question its authenticity; while it’s true you could probably knock a few titles off that list depending on your standards, it’s my own count and it holds true as I compare it to other years gone by (and yes, I will eventually make a more refined count later on, one that does not include short films or certain television episodes – looking at you Black Mirror). 264 represents a fairly sizable increase and upward trend: 2018 saw 245 and 2017 saw 203 titles in the log. As you may be aware, I log everything through Letterboxd, and pay for the yearly stats so it can point you in the direction of my obsession:

https://letterboxd.com/ryebone/year/2019/ 

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Morbius: The Trailer

Based on the trailer that recently dropped for Morbius, it looks like the suits at Sony forgot to tell director Daniel Espinosa that he's not making a Batman film. As Jared Leto stood in a cave surrounded by an agitated colony of bats (colony is the correct term, you can look it up) flying around him as if in kinship, I couldn't help but think of how eerily similar they were to scenes from Batman Begins which was released, ah yes, let's see... fifteen years ago. Well, that flew by.

It seems that the fluke success of Venom, which managed a box office of over $800 million in its theatrical release alone, has emboldened the Spider-Man film rights holders over at Sony to spin that roulette wheel once again, and hope that the movie-going public rewards them for making a film of which the best that can be said was that it wasn't a total dumpster fire. And I mean, if we're being honest with ourselves, the only real reason Venom wasn't completely dead on arrival was that with all the talk of production issues, audiences were expecting a complete train wreck and were surprised when they didn't feel the need to boil their eyes in bleach afterwards to try to wipe away the residue of it from their optical nerves (also known as The Suicide Squad Effect).

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The Innocents

1961 | dir: Jack Clayton | 100 m

After accepting that The Haunting didn't sit well with me, I was expecting some more classic horror disappointment, but from start to finish, I found The Innocents creepy, fascinating and incredible. Deborah Kerr as Miss Giddens, a woman who has been charged with the niece and nephew of a wealthy man, all the while caring for his estate in the country (with the help of a crew of grounds and house keepers). Of course, things immediately go sideways as she suspects to see and hear things in and around the house itself as her paranoia increases. The return of the nephew kicks things into gear as he seems to behave a bit odd, unlike a child his age; maybe it's just his personality, right? The film is full of beautiful composition, the black and white imagery is quite striking and atmosphere is perfect. Kerr plays the part wonderfully and as her paranoia increases your own skepticism grows in tandem. Every scene where the nephew, Miles, appears in, is stolen by Martin Stephens; this kid really shines and his interactions with Miss Giddens are entrancing. There are some really chilling parts here, including the kiss scene, where I could feel my soul slowly rising up from my seat, mouthing "w...t...f..." and applauding the film later on when it turns proves itself instrumental to the story and not being some strange byproduct of a different time. There are no real mistakes here as every element of each frame is carefully placed.

The Innocents has really stuck with me; an entire month later and it's still in my head. Expect this one to jump into some favourites lists later on.

Rating: 4 / 5

The Changeling

1980 | dir: Peter Medak | 103 m

Hopefully you don't mind a little context for this. I've tasked myself over the past few months to follow along with The Evolution of Horror podcast series as they take on the various genres of horror; first was slashers, and now we're onto 'ghosts' and as a result, I've been watching a decent number of older ghost-related movies (as evidenced by a few quick entries on this very site). There's been one problem though: I've found my mind wandering and quickly becoming bored with many of these films; I felt especially bad for The Haunting, which is highly spoken of but I could barely sit through it without checking my phone and yes, even excusing myself from the room brush my teeth during one particular scene. So I was nervous to continue on this trend, less I don't give these movies the respect they deserve - although honestly some of them may not: nobody is saying they all have to be good. My friend suggested turning my phone off while the movie is on, so I took it a step further: I let my battery drain to under 10% - and those who know me will realize how scandalous this is - and put it in another room while it was charging.

So either a) this strategy worked, or b) The Changeling actually engaged me. 

The first half of The Changeling had me sufficiently spooked, with some fairly typical haunted occurrences happening to George C Scott's character, John Russell, in his newly leased, comically large and gothic semi-abandoned mansion. What really gets me here is now nonplussed Scott is in his reactions to these obviously supernatural happenings, although to be fair - in a home this size - you could believe one of the staff stuck around after their shift and decided to mess about by turning on the fourth-floor bathroom's tub, and the rest may be sleep-derived hallucinations. At no point is it inferred that John may be losing sleep to these things; instead, he explores casually and encourages what could be a spirit by inviting the best known seance folks in to reach out to what he suspects is the spirit of a child. The scene itself is quite engaging and I was on the edge of my seat. 

As we reach the halfway point of the film, it takes a bit of a turn into a more traditional mystery: we've established the place is haunted, and John is motivated to uncover the mystery of just why its haunted. Maybe in this universe it's a more common occurrence or he's just emotionally turned to dust from having lost his family in a tragic incident years previous, but he seems to accept that yes, there are ghosts and yes, that kind of confirms an afterlife. It seems like a tremendous wasted opportunity that he doesn't approach any angles to maybe reach out to his daughter, or find any way to communicate with her. Instead, he focuses on helping the house's boy, and begins piecing together the mystery that shall eventually uncover the titular changeling itself. The film reaches a crescendo for me when John convinces a stranger to cut a giant hole in their child's bedroom (with the help of the child seeing a ghost there themselves) in order to uncover a long-buried well that might contain some human remains. The rest blazes a quick trail to the ultimately satisfying conclusion to this ghost story.

And I can conclude that at no point during this movie was I tempted to jump into the other room to grab my phone: The Changeling was too engaging to miss.

 

Rating: 3 / 5