ReelReviews #134: Overlord (2018)

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NOV 20, 2018: Overlord

 

You ain’t never seen a World War II movie like this.

 

“Overlord is a unique cinematic animal, yet somehow cobbled together from bits and pieces of other cinematic troupes.  The movie starts off as a gritty, hyper-realistic war drama, and eventually becomes an over-the-top fantasy horror film by its third act. What was amazing for me is there wasn’t any jarring effect here, or sudden “twist” that caused the film to change direction. The whole movie works as a natural progression to that point and flows naturally, which was remarkable to me since the two genres shouldn’t mesh at all.

 

Trying to describe the movie itself without ruining the story for future audiences is a very difficult task. The best way to do so is thru allegory. Katie Walsh, a professional film critic with the Tribune News Service, noted “If anyone ever wished ‘Saving Private Ryan’ were more of a B-movie splatterfest, this movie is for you”.  I think she summed up my interest in this film quite well. I appreciate Saving Private Ryan for what it was – an ultra-violent, raw World War II tale— though it’s not my kind of film. ‘Overlord’ has the same tone and setting but ultimately delivers something more akin to “Evil Dead 2”, which IS my kinda movie.    Another critic compared Overlord to “Inglorious Bastards meets Saving Private Ryan meets Resident Evil”, which likewise I think gives audiences a good idea what kind of movie they’re in for.

 

Other films have tried to pull off this type of story, but I’ve never seen it done well.  When I fell in love with the film Let Me In, I noted that it was the kind of film that Twilight WISHED it could be – Let Me In wanted to do a tragic romance angle between a vampire and a human, and completed nailed it. In this case, think back to the ill-fated movie adaptation of DOOM from about a decade ago. It knew what it wanted to be, it just failed miserably at doing that.  Overlord, on the other hand, pulls it off beautifully. In fact, with perhaps a few minor tweaks to the script, Overlord could have been a movie adaptation of Wolfenstein 3D (the brutal fighting against NAZIs make it in the ideal setting), and we might have gotten a rare example a good video game adaptation. One final good comparison along the allegory route is the kind of movie Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter wanted to be.  We all know what they were aiming for: make the historical 1860s civil war setting very realistic and believable, but at the same time, find a way to center the plot around traditional vampires, and make the two mesh well together.  Again, Abraham Lincoln failed miserably at this (even though I liked the movie overall).  Overlord, on the other, excels at it.

 

But enough with the allegorical comparisons, let’s get back to the movie itself. It was delightful for me precisely because I hadn’t read anything about the movie before I saw it on the big screen. For most of the movie, I was convinced this was indeed, a straightforward historically accurate World War II drama, albeit with fictional characters.  Having recently watched “Darkest Hour”, I got a similar vibe from Overlord. Overlord is first and foremost a war drama, with the fantasy horror stuff woven in as icing on the cake. Much of the film’s production is spot on, from the casting, acting, set designs, costumes, etc., to recreate World War II in excellent detail. In fact, you could capture several stills from the movie, put them black & white, and it probably match actual World War II images quite well.  And while Overlord is quite dark and extremely graphic, it’s not the kind of film that will suck all the joy out of you, as the characters are fun and the story is compelling and holds your interest.  Surprisingly, this film is from much the same team working on the Star Trek reboots: Bad Robot is the production company, J.J. Abrams is the producer, and the screenwriter is Mark L. Smith of ‘The Reverence’ fame – the same guy recently hired to pen Quentin Tarantino’s pitch for Star Trek.  If this is the kind of material they’ll give us, someone in Hollywood needs to scrap the proposed Chris Hemsworth Star Trek movie and move right into the Tarantino project.

 

I did have a few minor nitpicks with the movie. There was only one major historic inaccuracy, and that is the film has a major element of white soldiers and black soldiers serving side-by-side and working together, when in reality the U.S. military was still segregated at that time and wouldn’t be desegregated until Korea.  Overlord also has many things I dislike about war movies – chaos, endless shouting, and firefights, which make it especially hard to follow at certain points in the film, and often during the climax. Still, this was most likely done to reinforce that war is hell, and it fit the movie.

 

I’d recommend Overlord even if war movies and gross body horror isn’t your thing.  It stands out as a cool experiment in Hollywood history that does something cool with these tired genres. You ain’t never seen a World War II movie like this.

 

***  out of ****

 

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ReelReviews #133: Hamilton (2015 Broadway Musical)

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NOV 1, 2018: Hamilton (The Broadway Musical)

 

 

Live, on stage, it’s founding father Alexander Hamilton, now a Puerto Rican rapper!

 

“Hamilton” is the first blog review I’ve done of a non-film. Due to the fact that it’s a musical stage show, I ended up getting myself a recorded copy of the show, and watching it at home on DVD.  I almost never see live musical theatrical shows on stage (I remember I had to see several for a college assignment, was looking forward to seeing A Chorus Line, then came away disappointed and thought it sucked), but Hamilton has “near universal acclaim” from both critics and audiences alike, despite the premise sounding god-awful. It’s an example of the old “You gotta SEE it yourself to understand how awesome it is” mentality, and so I decided to “give it a chance”.  So fine, let’s take a look at this “sensation” and give it an honest review.

 

For starters, “Hamilton” IS a lot of fun.  That being said, I can’t say I “loved” it, and I’d have to disagree with people who say it’s great to take your kids to so they can “learn history”.   The show is an attempt to take real life historic events and make them fun and sexy and “relevant” to “modern audiences” by having song and dance numbers done in a “hip” contemporary musical style, and “updating” the dialogue so there are some f-bombs and so on.  Before seeing the show, I asked myself how Lin-Manuel Miranda could convincingly play Alexander Hamilton. The answer is that he really doesn’t. Rather, he plays Lin-Manuel Miranda experiencing the events of Hamilton’s life.  This means we get his character saying lines like “Aw, shit!” and “Are you outta yo’ goddam mind?”

 

To be fair, the show does contain a lot of accurate details about historic events, and I give it credit for providing audiences with some very good information about an overlooked founding father. I will also admit a lot of the show is genuinely moving – the dire circumstances the American colonists were facing during American Revolution is conveyed quite well in a moving number called “The World Turned Upside Down”, and the fact Hamilton didn’t live to an old age like the rest of the founding fathers and had his life tragically cut short after being murdered by Aaron Burr in a duel really hits home in the show’s final monologue.  Still, much of the show was simply annoying to me and felt like an insult to make colonial era figures “cool” to “modern” audiences, such as one particularly cringe-worthy moment at the start of Act II where Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson (played by a black guy with an afro) have a rap battle over policy differences.

 

The truly “fun” parts come from a lot of the clever dialogue and over the top characters. I couldn’t suppress a laugh when “George III” first came on stage, and the actor really made him a ridiculous caricature of the stereotypical image of George III as an elitist, smug, out-of-touch, aristocratic ruler.  When snootily he refers to America as a so-called “country” after their independence, it’s very amusing, although the real George III probably wasn’t nearly as bad as the play’s interpretation of him.  In many ways, I found it reminiscent of musical plays I enjoy like “Jesus Christ Superstar” (which also attempted to make it “relevant” for then contemporary early 1970s audiences by making Jesus out to be a hippie like figure, making it a “rock-opera” with disco numbers, and having some color blind casting). George III’s ridiculous image in this play is very much in the vein of the King Herod scenes in Jesus Christ Superstar (where Herod is portrayed as a goofy, fat, filthy rich, flaming gay Hollywood type figure, and has a very singable number testing Jesus that was condemned by the BBC as ‘sacrilege’). They are effective and memorial scenes, though very much nothing like the real life figure, and invented for the benefit of amusing a live audience.

 

Still, “Hamilton” never reaches the levels of Jesus Christ Superstar – partly because it doesn’t’ have any type of genuinely emotional and heartfelt moments like Jesus’s sincere “Gethsemane (I Only Want to Say)” number, where you can really feel his anguish and torment at knowing he will die in a few hours (Ted Neeley very effectively sang this in the movie adaptation). “Hamilton” is more along the lines of the 1996 “Romeo + Juliet”, where the classic Shakespearean characters were re-imagined as contemporary figures fighting in present-day southern California “Verona Beach”, whipping out machine guns while saying classic Shakespearean dialogue about “drawing my long-sword at thee”. It’s fun, but ultimately feels shallow.

 

 

I also feel “Hamilton” is flawed in that it’s pretty much in the vein of Robert Benigni’s “Pinocchio” from 2002 (which, unlike “Hamilton”, got awful reviews). In that respect, it’s because while the creator DOES truly want to “honor” the original story, he has no interest in being FAITHFUL to the original figures – rather he wants to make it a vehicle for showcasing himself and his OWN message, and something gets lost in the translation because he doesn’t fit the role at all (In Benigni’s case, he was a 50-something balding comedy actor playing a little wooden puppet child who longed to be a real little boy). I simply disagree with Lin-Manuel’s assertion that he cast the characters to “look like America today”.  Rather than to “color blind” casting, Manuel seemed to deliberately cast as many minorities as possible to basically thumb his nose as what he perceives to be the status quo. There are a handful of white actors, mainly cast as authoritative figures like George III.  “America is the 21st century” is still majority white, whether Lin-Manuel likes that fact or not. As a result, his casting decisions give us a portrait that looks more like “Brazil today” than the United States. I think his ideology hurts the play’s overall effectiveness.  While I can say the show overall had some good musical numbers, great chorography, and solid history lessons, I can’t say I really drawn into the show or that I would want to see it again.  It seems to me critics and audiences fawn over this show simply because they want to be perceived as being “cool” for having “liked” such a trendy thing.  I did read one more down to earth review that gave Hamilton a more subdued 7 out of 10 score, and that sounds fairly accurate to me.

 

On a final note, I will note one very interesting side effect of “Hamilton”. There was a movement a couple years back to replace the figure of Alexander Hamilton on the $10 bill with a woman or minority figure from American history, as it was thought we needed more “diversity” on our money since it was all white men, and Hamilton, being a non-President and lesser known figure, was an ideal target to go.  Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway show had the odd timing of showing up right in the middle of that debate, reigniting interest in the historic figure of Alexander Hamilton, and swelling public interest in keeping Alexander Hamilton on the $10 bill. In many ways, then, the Broadway musical “Hamilton” seems to have the exact OPPOSITE effect on present day society that Lin-Manuel Miranda would prefer.  That makes me smile, in much the same way that the increasingly downgraded budgets and cast and box office numbers of the three “Atlas Shrugged” movies taught Americans about the free market and supply-and-demand economics – just in the opposite way that Ayn Rand cultists hoped they would.

 

** 1/2 out of ****

 

ReelReviews #132: Universal Horror Trilogy

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OCT 31, 2018: The Wolfman (2010)/Dracula Untold (2014), The Mummy (2017)

 

 

Nothing seemed like a better movie marathon for Halloween than Universal’s three separate attempts in the last decade to revive their iconic “Universal Monsters” heyday from the 30s and 40s. Sadly, this wasn’t much of a treat at all, but it was certainly a trick. I went into the experience knowing all three movies were considered “bad”, but perhaps they could have a “so bad its good” feel and leave me laughing at how silly and campy they were.  Alas, that is not the case. These films are just bad.  The weird thing is it’s not like one director or one creative team worked on remakes of The Wolf Man, Dracula, and The Mummy, and kept proving they suck at it.  Nope, this was three completely different attempts, and all of them sucked for different reasons. So what went wrong? Let’s take a look.

 

The Wolfman (2010)

In some ways, The Wolfman (2010) might actually be the “best” of the three attempts, which is oddly ironic since it was so poorly received at the time and landed with a thud. Looking back on it now (and especially comparing to the later attempts to revive Universal Monsters), there is much that “The Wolfman” gets right: the cast is solid and well selected for their roles (and for those who bash me when I’m criticize casting that changes a character’s ethnicity, let me say proudly that the Hispanic actor Benicio del Toro very convincingly plays the role of Welsh-American character Larry Talbot, which had been originated by Lon Chaney Jr.), the updated makeup by Rick Baker is faithful to the original Wolf Man design while bringing the effects into the 21st century, it is perhaps the ONLY one of the three films to correctly understand and embrace the “gothic atmosphere” that was a central part of the original Universal Horror movies, and it is faithful to the original story. So what went wrong? Basically everything else. The biggest problem is the film is insanely boring (as I started to tune out while watching it originally in 2010, and did so again while trying hard to give it a second look now) and the film is way too predictable and cliché, especially if you’ve seen the 1941 original movie and know what’s going to happen. Considering the film had never been remade before and that nearly 70 years had passed since the original, you’d think they could come up with something more thrilling and provide more twists and excitement into this story.  The film is basically just adequate and “acceptable” and that simply made it forgettable and meant it failed to generate a profit. As such, Universal basically decided to bury any memory of the movie and decided to start over from scratch when it came to reviving iconic horror characters. The end result was….

 

Dracula Untold (2014)

I had never seen “Dracula Untold”, and comments I had heard about it left me really pessimistic about the premise.  “It’s like the true story of Vlad the Impaler, except they change it to make it exciting for teenagers, like inventing the idea he had mystical powers and stuff”. Ugh. I was not looking forward to that.  Surprisingly, the premise of the movie is ACTUALLY the best part! It’s everything else that’s bad.  “Dracula Untold” is not a remake of Dracula, nor is it an attempt to do a biographical film about the real life figure of Vlad the Impaler. It IS an attempt to do a new “origin story” for Dracula, and it is a clever attempt to weave a real life historic setting and people with completely fictional vampire mythology. As a result, it’s basically in the genre of “historic fiction”. In that respect, it actually works and is the kind of movie I would probably write.  The entire film is basically the whole prologue in the 1992 film “Bram Stoker’s Dracula”, aside from the fact that Francis Ford Coppola told it much better in five minutes than “Dracula Untold” did in two hours.  Of the three movies, I had the most “fun” watching this one, but it is not a good movie, nor does it work well as a springboard for a sequel or a franchise, though it desperately wanted to be one (and even ended on a forced “cliffhanger” that was an obvious setup for a sequel we never got) The climax really hurt this film for me, as the film resorted to ridiculous stuff like dubbing in lion-like growls to portray the characters that had now been turned into vampires, and the film obviously suffered from studio tampering that turned what was meant to be a stand-alone film into a “To be continued” first installment.   I felt this film would have worked great if it hadn’t been so sloppily executed. But since it failed, Universal Studios decided to disavow it and decree another film would be the “start” of their new monster universe, and thus was born…

 

 

 

 

The Mummy (2017)

Why, Universal, Why? This is the first film since the 2005 remake of House of Wax that I put off watching for months (because I knew it would suck, and then decided “eh, they’re not gonna make a sequel anyway, might as well see why it sucks so much”) and instantly regretted subjecting myself to that.  “The Mummy” is the last and certainly the least of the attempts to revive Universal Horror.  The fact they are remaking a movie NOBODY wanted remade AGAIN is oddly enough, perhaps the least the film’s problems.  I was surprised that this film is actually nothing like the story of 1999’s The Mummy (with Brenden Fraiser), nor any previous “Mummy” for that matter – including the 1932 original.   Film studios seem to be very much confusing reboots with remakes these days. (This film is very much a total reboot of The Mummy franchise, whereas a film marketed as a “reboot” like Man of Steel is just a worthless remake/ripoff of Richard Donner’s Superman I & II) The biggest problem with The Mummy is the film is basically made by some Hollywood committee with a laundry list of things to do. Objective no. #1 for them was to copy the “format” of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and create a “shared universe” of their own, which basically means we get an over-the-top CGI infested action movie with lighthearted comedic elements, instead of an actual horror film.  There are actually some legitimate “jump” moments and creepy scenes (two effective moments are a scene where The Mummy is attacking them on a speeding jeep, and another where corpses come alive and swim after them in the water), but overall this is NOT a “horror movie”.  People also blamed Tom Cruise for this movie flopping. While it seems he phoned in his performance and basically gave us the “generic Tom Cruise action movie” performance (complete with mugging the camera, giving smart ass dialogue, and doing the charming Tom Cruise grin), I don’t blame him because that’s what he was told to do.  Tom Cruise CAN do legitimate Gothic horror (screen “Interview With The Vampire” for an excellent example, but he wasn’t called upon to do that here.  The other two “lead” actors, (Sofia Boutella as The Mummy and Russell Crowe as “Dr. Jekyll” actually gave good performances as well (Crowe made Mr. Hyde completely different and even changed his accent to a cockney voice), but were neutered by the crappy script they had.  Alex Kurtzman was responsible for this abomination, and has quickly become one of my LEAST favorite Hollywood writes.  If you want to know why I have zero faith in a new “Jean Luc Picard” Star Trek series, look no further than the fact Kurtzman is in charge of it. I was done with “The Mummy” after about 45 minutes into the movie, but it kept on going and annoying me for another unbearable hour or so. This is one you should definitely skip.

 

So, after viewing this trilogy of crap on Halloween night, here’s my final scorecard!

 

 

The Wolfman (2010)

** out of ****

 

Dracula Untold (2014)

*3/4 out of ****

 

The Mummy (2017)

* ½ out of ****

 

ReelReviews #131: Bad Times at the El Royale (2018)

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OCT 16, 2018: Bad Times at the El Royale (2018)

 

 

 

I never see many films in theaters (probably 2-3 per year at most) and most of the ones I DO end up seeing on the big screen end up disappointing me and making me think it wasn’t worth seeing on the big screen (Star Trek Into Darkness, Pacific Rim: Uprising, etc.)   But here is a rare example, indeed.  “Bad Times at the El Royale” is a film I didn’t know much about, wasn’t too thrilled about, and only went because a group of friends were planning to go and invited me out to the show on a day I was free from work.  My reaction? “Bad Times” is very, very good.

 

To be clear, the film is no masterpiece, but it IS pretty solid entertainment.  “Bad Times” is a bit of a throwback movie. It’s basically one of those “whodunit?” murder mystery thrillers, so it harkens back to the kind of genre that was more popular in the 1940s than in 2018.  The film is an ensemble piece with seven strangers meeting up at a hotel on the California/Nevada border, which each of them holds a dark secret and is not the person they seem to be at first.

 

I watched this film over the Halloween season, and its perhaps a better Halloween treat than your typical genre horror movie. “Bad Times” tells its story in a non-linear format, with several events overlapping as see them happen from different characters points of view. Jeff Bridges and Dakota Johnson (both playing guests at the hotel) probably get the most screen time, but each character is instrumental to the story, and a surprise late appearance by Chris Hemsworth (as “Billy Lee”) really ups the stakes in this film. (I also think the actor really relished his role!)

 

The film has been called “low rent Tarantino” by some critics. While I would agree a lot of it does seem to be similar to Taraninto’s style (sudden shocking violence, tongue-in-cheek reveals, clever homage to older genres), I actually enjoyed this a lot more than a lot of Tarantino films, as the latter seems to be a bit more cartoonish and smug that the kind of story that director Drew Goddard gave us here.  Rather than calling it “Tarantino style” as a bit of a swipe at the film’s quality, I’d use it here to look at the film more positively.  This isn’t a direct knock-off of Tarantino, but if you like his style, you’re probably love this movie. As for me, Tarantino is a mixed bag, but I thoroughly enjoyed this film.

 

Perhaps the best compliment I can give to this film is I actually missed what others later told me was the “best part of the movie”, as there was a climatic shootout scene that I missed because I had to step out for a  bathroom break after being unaware the film had a 140 min. running time.  Even missing this key piece of the movie that tied all the loose ends together, I still though it was a fun movie and I still got something special out of the ending.  After I learned there apparently IS a real-life hotel on the California-Nevada border (which apparently is sadly foreclosed now), it made the film an even cooler experience for me. The Hotel itself is very much its own character in the movie, as “Bad Times” has something a lot of modern films really lack: tons of atmosphere.  A real-life attraction really ought to be built that based on the El Royale Hotel setting from the movie, it would be loads of fun.

 

“Bad Times” does have some flaws, and some weak spots, but none that can really be discussed in detail without spoiling the fun of a mystery movie.  This is one to definitely check out on video. I’ll be giving it a second look, so I hope you give it it a first.

 

*** out of ****