Film Review: The Call of the Wild (2020)

Dir: Chris Sanders
Starring: Harrison Ford, Terry Notary, Dan Stevens, Omar Sy, Karen Gillan, and more.
Rating: PG
Runtime: 1hr 40min
Spoiler Level: Light! Book spoilers are noted.

As a self-admitted former wolf girl, one of my favorite books growing up was The Call of the Wild by Jack London. However, my introduction to the legendary tale of a dog named Buck was actually through the Great Illustrated Classics version, which are “softer” adaptations of classic novels. Much later, in high school, my love for the story was reignited when I finally read the original and was able to better appreciate the sharper edges of London’s story.

download (1)When I saw the trailer for the new film, I was skeptical – and not only because the CGI was a little sketch upon first viewing, and the rating for the film was not indicative of the novel’s contents. And yet, I felt that pull – that inner, long-dormant wolf girl instinct – to see it. So I was there on opening night, in a totally full theater, and, inevitably, I was in tears by the end.

The Call of the Wild tells the story of Buck (Notary, via motion capture), a massive St. Bernard / Scotch Collie mix who is abducted from his pampered life in California, taken to the frigid Yukon, and sold as a sled dog at the height of the 1890’s Klondike Gold Rush. Thrust into a new world much harsher than the one he’s known, Buck must adapt to life in the unrelenting north as he grapples with his wild instincts, establishes himself as a powerful leader, and forges a life-changing bond with a lonely, troubled man named John Thornton (Ford.)

Buck’s adventure is a thrilling one, as audiences watch him go from the spoiled pet of a respected judge, to a broken, lonely outcast, to a defiant and capable leader, and a stalwart, beloved companion. The supporting characters – mainly the human ones – come and go from his life at various intervals, and each teaches Buck unique lessons. He learns the “law of the club,” from his captors, teamwork and duty from postal workers Francois and Perrault, folly and greed from Hal, Mercedes, and Charles, and asserting dominance from his husky rival Spitz, who, I realized upon watching, is literally Steel from Balto. But amidst these lessons are over-arcing themes, many of which are rooted in London’s original novel, such as the brutality of nature, grief and loss, and survival against the odds. And, of course, there are familiar cliches and predictable moments, but it’s a family film, so that’s no surprise.

This film truly shines when it features Buck’s growing relationship with John Thornton – the most notable and important friendship that Buck forms. Buoyed by an evocative performance by Harrison Ford, it is clear from the first harmonica exchange that the bond between grizzled man and dog is going to be special. Thornton and Buck come together at a vital stage in each of their respective journeys, at the exact time when they need one another the most, as Thornton is inspired by Buck’s resilient spirit, and Buck is drawn in by Thornton’s genuine kindness and companionship. Watching their stories combine, and seeing their love for one another grow, is peak “man and his dog” goodness and delivers, if I may, “all the feels.” I didn’t think Harrison Ford and a CGI dog would pull on my heartstrings as much as it did, but boy, it did.

I felt the tears spilling down my cheeks as the film drew to a close – against my expectations, I had formed an attachment to the characters in the film, boosted by my already existing love for the story. The finale, the vital moment where Buck answers that call and embraces the instincts that have been subtly guiding him toward his ultimate journey’s end, is wholly satisfying, if bittersweet.

The visual effects for the dogs are a little cartoony – as is Dan Stevens as the mustachioed, villainous Hal, who also entirely shoulders the villain role in the stead of minor novel characters, but that’s not the fault of effects – which will certainly bother some viewers. I appreciated Buck’s overall “look,” as he didn’t look like a wolf, which is the erroneous direction other adaptations have taken. I didn’t find myself distracted by the effects too much, as I was fully engaged in the story, and impressed by the beautiful environments and backdrops. But I also sat through the entirety of Cats, so take from that what you will. Additionally, the score by John Powell is exceptional and is already on my playlist.

Fans of Jack London’s original work will, of course, note the obvious omissions from the source material. This film is not what I would call a “faithful” adaptation. Much of the violence – and the brutal, if realistic view of “survival of the fittest” – has been toned down, likely to appeal to families and younger audiences. Not to spoil a 100+ year old story, but particularly grisly elements (***SPOILER ALERT*** such as Buck killing Spitz, Francois taking an ax to a rabid dog’s head, an entire team of sled dogs drowning after falling under breaking ice, and a negative representation of Native Americans ***END SPOILER***) are either completely absent, or have been “softened” to suit a PG rating. And while I love London’s stark portrayal of the life of a dog in the cold, cold north, and I respect the era in which it was written, I personally didn’t mind the changes in this version. Many of the original themes – nature versus nurture, the enduring relationship between man and dog, and the pull of primordial instincts, etc. – remain important touchstones to the story, even if they are shown in a different way.

Sometimes, The Great Illustrated Classics version of a story – or the PG film version – can open the gateway for a young reader or film-watcher to someday experience the original work, and glean an entirely separate appreciation from it when the time comes. For that reason, this tamer version of The Call of the Wild has earned my full admiration.

Overall rating: 8/10

One Shot: Fantasia (1940)

Perhaps one of the most revered – and, simultaneously, the most forgotten – Disney titles of all time is the 1940 symphonic masterpiece, Fantasia. Featuring some of the most gorgeous, frightening, and imaginative animated sequences ever to come from the studio, and heavily influenced by some of the most incredible classical music pieces of all time, Fantasia is a unique film whose imagery lingers in the mind long after watching it. I often watched this film as a kid, and I still remember the vivid scenes of centaurs, hippos dancing with alligators, leaves spiraling through the air, and the bone-chilling terror of the Night on Bald Mountain segment, with the mountain-dwelling demon Chernabog and a horde of spectral ghosts and ghouls wreaking havoc on a small town.

But the most iconic segment of the film is probably The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, starring Disney’s main mouse, Mickey – and it features the definitive image of the film as a whole.

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In the sequence, apprentice Mickey dons the hat of his master, Yen Sid, and begins to cast magic that he is not quite prepared to handle… and, as magic tends to, matters swiftly go awry. There’s brooms and flooding involved. Even if you’ve never seen the full film, you are probably familiar with this image and know a bit of the story behind it.

This image is what Fantasia means. It’s magic, wonder – and a lesson to be learned. By putting that hat on, Mickey discovers how it feels to create, to be masterful, to have power beyond trudging up stairs carrying water pails. But he neglects the fact that he is not ready to wield that power, and faces the consequences of those actions as he loses control. Just by looking at this image, a viewer can see what Mickey is doing – and knows that an ominous undercurrent weaves beneath the magical glow of that starry cap. He is not big enough to sit in his master’s chair, his robe is too large for his tiny body, and darkness creeps all around him as he does something forbidden… and yet, there remains the shining allure of that magical hat, which he can’t keep his eyes off of. The viewer knows, after seeing this single shot, that they are about to witness a story to remember, and that Disney magic is about to be born, even if our favorite mouse must suffer a bit in order to learn what it means to wrestle with power you aren’t ready for.

Fantasia is a film with animated sequences that evoke feeling without any words – aided only by the sumptuous, classical soundtrack – and this single image is the impetus of a magical journey about to begin. For all the films that have been locked away in the vault, this one shall remain timeless, and should never be forgotten.

I’ve Got Plans

Hours at my job vary depending on a multitude of circumstances. Some days I can (allegedly) trek home after 9 hours, which is the standard length of a shift for a salaried executive at my workplace. Though, to be honest, I don’t think I’ve worked a 9 hour shift since I started, and the other day I pulled a 6AM to 9:30PM, then Sheetz forgot to put tater tots in my made-to-order burrito I bought on my way home, which really capped off a wonderful day, but I digress…

Last Friday, I went to work at 6AM and aimed to leave by 5:30 at the latest because I had plans. I’d mentioned it in passing to my coworker, who also had plans, so we both vowed to leave “on time.” The day wore on, hitting the same type of beats they always do, maybe a couple of snags, until the sun went down and reinforcements arrived, allowing us to wrap up and prepare to head off into a nice weekend off.

As we were preparing to leave, my coworker asked me, “So, what movie are you going to see?”

I was about to answer, but paused. When I’d mentioned having plans, it had been only a brief thought – I’d not divulged any details. So I furrowed my brow and asked, “How did you know I was going to see a movie?”

She laughed, and said something to the effect of, “Well, no offense, but what else would you be doing?”

I took no offense at all – because she was 100% right, and I was meeting my parents for an opening-night screening of 1917. My actions may be predictable, but it’s a comfortable sort of predictability, one that I can happily accept as a part of my identity. Movie-going, and film-watching, is my thing. In my circle, it’s what I have come to be known for, and I like that. When I say, “I’ve got plans,” those who know me can say with about 90% certainty (sometimes I just go to dinner) what exactly that means.

Top 10 Favorite Films of 2019

I usually do this as a dual post with my favorite books I read in 2019, but I had a not so great reading year last year, chalking up roughly half the amount of books I usually do, so this year it’s film only! Also, bear in mind, this is a list of my favorite films of 2019. The films that I personally enjoyed the most – not the ones that I believe were the best. That list would be different. I’ll get more into that around Oscar time, per usual.

If you’d like to see the full list of movies I saw this year, it’s here. I also won’t be including the first few movies on this list since I saw them so early into the year, and discussed a lot of them during Oscar season last year.

Honorable mentions:  Shazam!, Aladdin, Dumbo, Late Night, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Us, The Mustang, Wild Rose, The Peanut Butter Falcon, and Ad Astra. 

So, in order…

10.) Ford V Ferrari
I know diddly squat about cars – I don’t understand the fascination with them, nor do I know the ins and outs of all the different brands. But I do love Christian Bale – if he’s in a movie, I’ll see it, and I’m glad I did. Ford V Ferrari adapts the true story of automobile visionary Carroll Shelby and race car driver Ken Miles and their journey to emerge victorious over Ferrari at Le Mans in 1966. This film is an exciting, edge-of-your seat ride that kept me engaged from start to finish, and even made me emotional at times, which is unusual for me with a film like this. Plus, it was super nice to see folks filling the theater who I don’t typically see out at the cinema on a Friday night – lots of grumpy old dudes in Nascar jackets, intently watching the racing scenes.

9.) Detective Pikachu
As a child of the 90’s, I’ve loved Pokemon almost my entire life. That remains true, even though I’m in my late 20’s now. I was skeptical when a live-action Pokemon movie was announced, but the story of a young lad teaming up with his missing father’s wisecracking Pikachu (perfectly voiced by Ryan Reynolds) is charming, funny, and will entertain fans of all Pokemon generations. It’s fun just to watch and try to pinpoint all the different Pokemon walking around in the background of various scenes.

8.) Knives Out
I went into Rian Johnson’s murder mystery film expecting a Clue-style whodunit – but the trailer is kind of a misdirect. In the best way, of course – because this film still delivers thrills and a twisty-turny plot that sets a unique, more modern tone for a mystery film. Daniel Craig is a Pierrot-esque Southern-drawling sleuth of great renown who must uncover the truth behind the death of famed mystery-writer Harlan Thrombey… and hijinks ensue, of course. The story is far from predictable, the cast are all entertaining, and the film balances laughs with suspense in a way that kept me fully engaged from start to finish. 

7.) Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
First of all, Tom Hanks.
Second, the perfect way to tell the story of iconic children’s entertainer and overall excellent human being Mr. Rogers is through the eyes of someone else, showing the impact he has on others, which is why this film works so well. Adapted from Tom Junod’s article “Can You Say… Hero?”, this movie features incredible transition sequences that evoke the style of Mr. Rogers’ television program, and tells an important message about anger, understanding, acceptance, and the complicated relationships between family, and it does so in a beautiful, inspiring way. Even if you didn’t watch Mr. Rogers on television as a child, this movie is worth seeing simply for the themes, and for another brilliant Tom Hanks performance.

6.) Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
For all its faults (and I admit there are many), and despite all the rumors swirling around about the existence of a “J.J. cut” and lots of Disney interference, I still found the final installment in the Skywalker saga to be a wild and exciting ride. Maybe I’m not as difficult to please as other Star Wars fans, but honestly… I just really love Star Wars. The saga has always been about exploration – not only into new worlds in the farthest reaches of a galaxy far, far away, but of the characters and their personalities, of their struggles and their triumphs. I’ve been invested in Rey’s journey since TFA back in 2015, and seeing her complete her journey – which was interwoven with so many other beloved characters both old and new – was one of my favorite cinematic moments of 2019. And I now have a new favorite droid in D-0.

5.) Booksmart
This is the first movie that I saw as part of a free screening offered at my local theater, which made my lofty movie critic dreams feel not so out of reach. Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut is a hilarious, but honest look at the difficulties teenagers encounter as they prepare to face the post-graduation world, following two “booksmart” friends on a quest for one wild night to close out their study-focused high school experience. The duo of Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever is incredible, and the film does an excellent job of balancing comedic moments with the vulnerability and uncertainty of a young person facing the unknown. If this movie flew under your radar, then you need to GET ON IT.

4.) Joker
This film was incredibly divisive when it was released, with some claiming that it promotes violence and glorifies mental health struggles, but it hit quite differently for me. Of all the superhero/comic book movies coming out over the last two decades, this one might be the most realistic – and that’s terrifying. Joaqin Phoenix’s portrayal of a failed stand-up-comedian whose life and mental state deteriorate to the point where he rebels against what he perceives as a corrupt society, becoming an almost deified symbol for anarchy, is not one that should inspire anyone – rather, it serves as a warning, as a cautionary tale. I was enthralled by a powerful performance from the leading man, who manages to evoke both sympathy and fear, the unsettling music, and the spellbinding cinematography.

3.) Little Women
Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel isn’t one of my favorites, but Greta Gerwig’s film is a beautiful adaptation that translates seamlessly into modern times because it so perfectly encapsulates the messages of the original novel in a way that will resonate with current audiences – even those who did not read the book. Watching the March sisters navigate the trials of love, ambition, sisterhood, and friendship on the paths to their respective futures is enthralling from start to finish – you root for Jo and her writing and her strong stance on being an individual, you hope for Beth to heal and create more beautiful music, you want Meg to find happiness in marriage, and for Amy to paint her way into a successful future and grow out of her childishness. Plus, this movie is just straight up gorgeous to look at.

2.) Jojo Rabbit
I was sold from the first moment I saw Taika Waititi as Hitler in the trailer. Jojo Rabbit tells the story of a Hitler youth who wrestles with his beliefs (in the form of a fictionalized/imaginary version of Hitler) after he discovers that his mother is hiding a Jewish girl in their attic during WWII. This movie, however absurdly hilarious it is, also features the most emotionally devastating cinematic scene (for me) in all of 2019, but I won’t share what it is because I don’t want to spoil anything. The humor won’t land with everyone, but I felt that this movie achieved the perfect balance in tone between the sentimental and the comedic. It makes you feel even as it makes you chuckle, and the incredible cast of characters will stick in your mind long after viewing.

1.) Avengers: Endgame
After ten years of world-building, the MCU dished out the end to a 20+ film saga in the dramatic and climactic Endgame. As a loyal follower of the films ever since Iron Man came out over a decade ago, the payoff from this epic film was totally satisfying, and even though parts of it broke my heart, the adrenaline-pulsing moments, the humor, the action sequences, and the conclusion to several dangling plot threads more than make up for it. Hype for this movie was off-the-charts before it came out, and it still managed to impress, with iconic moments that have been built-up over the span of multiple movies. As a Captain America fangirl, I found the end of his arc perfectly fitting for his character, and even though this movie felt like the end in so many ways, I can’t wait to see what Marvel has in store for the future.

 

 

 

The Star Wars “Problem”

*** WARNING: THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER AND THE ENTIRE SKYWALKER SAGA. PROCEED WITH CAUTION. ***

Back in 2015, as the lights dimmed in the theater and those iconic words lit up the screen, and John Williams’ fantastic score transported the audience into the vast reaches of a faraway galaxy, I had tears in my eyes knowing I would finally get to experience a Star Wars film on the big screen. The Force Awakens reignited my interest in the revived, freshly Disney-purchased Lucasfilm franchise, just as it inspired a ton of new fans, including the little girl I saw in line at the theater this past Sunday, clutching her Rey doll in her hand and bouncing on her heels in excitement while waiting for her popcorn. Things like that warm my jaded, cold heart and make me earnestly believe that films are made in order to legitimately inspire others, not just to make money.

The Force Awakens was, in more than one way, an awakening. An awakening of new fans, of a new chapter in the franchise, of new cash flow for the House of Mouse, of new beginnings… and of an onslaught of criticism, backlash, and controversy, not entirely undeserved, which has culminated in a massive divide in fan reaction of the last release in the Skywalker saga, 2019’s The Rise of Skywalker.

Full disclosure: I’m not a lifelong Star Wars fan. I didn’t deep dive into the books or the extended universe, but I love the original films, I tolerate the prequels, and I liked all of the sequel films. I liked The Force Awakens. I liked The Last Jedi. And I liked The Rise of Skywalker. But I will say, as a whole, that the sequel films do not feel like a completely cohesive trilogy – and that is likely due to different approaches in directing and storytelling creating an over-arcing plot that stuttered when it could have truly shone, which probably has something to do with Disney’s overlords, too. No disrespect to the Mouse, of course. Y’all have plenty of my money, don’t worry.

Of course, my appreciation for the newest cinematic adventures long ago in a galaxy far, far away, and my defense of their merit is not to say that all three sequel films were without problems. Do I think certain things could have been different? Of course. TFA could have been less derivative. TLJ could have retained more elements of TFA to make them feel more connected. And TRoS could have felt less crammed, done less backtracking, and could have handled characters/stories better. And that’s the short list.

I don’t read reviews and try to avoid reactions for Star Wars films until after I see the films myself. When it comes to toxic fandoms, Star Wars is near the top of the list – as is expected with fandoms that are also highly passionate – so I like to steer clear of the horde yammering about “so and so should have happened” and “so and so should have done this” and “my theory was wrong and now I’m going to whine about it on the internet” and “well, in the lore they did this” until I can form an opinion on my own, untainted by the interpretation of others.

Many complained that The Force Awakens was too much like A New Hope – and it certainly does follow extremely similar story beats. A new hero rises to prominence and must go on an adventure with some recruited droids/friends and a reluctant mentor, there’s a conflicted bad dude in a mask, Rey witnesses Han’s death the same way Luke sees Obi-Wan’s, big spherical evil base gets destroyed, etc, etc.

So, when Rian Johnson took the helm for The Last Jedi, he abandoned many threads introduced in TFA and defied story tropes by claiming that our heroine, Rey, was actually “no one,” and thus an incredible Force user without strong blood-ties to a prominent family, by having Kylo Ren kill the “Big Bad” Snoke, by showing a divisive side of Luke Skywalker, and introducing the first female POC major character in the films, Rose Tico – and it sparked a volatile reaction among the fandom, despite critical praise. Toxic fans went after Kelly Marie Tran because they didn’t like her character, fans rebelled against the idea that Luke Skywalker would just “walk away” from being a Jedi, and many hated the idea that Rey was not related to anyone from the original films. Not invalid complaints by any means, but complaints nonetheless.

Perhaps due to the backlash kicked up by TLJ, J.J. Abrams took the reins back for The Rise of Skywalker, and, predictably, he picked up some of the ideas that Johnson had abandoned. Palpatine is back – or, rather, he was there all along. The Knights of Ren are back. Rey is revealed to be a Palpatine, thus explaining her strong connection to the Force. Kylo Ren – the “villain” – is redeemed, and his name of Ben Solo restored. Easter Eggs, fan service, and callbacks to the original films and other Star Wars media everywhere you look. And, yet again, fans and critics are calling it the worst film in the entire series. That is a bold claim after Phantom Menace (I kid, I kid… maybe).

I understand a lot of the criticism surrounding the newest release. Palpatine being the big bad regurgitates another villain. Rose Tico / Kelly Marie Tran – and her 76 seconds of screen time – certainly deserved better. Introducing Zorii Bliss as some old flame of Poe’s felt forced, though her character is cool. Jannah feels similarly short-changed, and I hope we see more of her in the future. We have no idea what Finn is going to do next. It was difficult to watch Ben Solo earn his redemption and take his name back only to give up his life force to save Rey, although it makes narrative sense. I mean, I loved Driver’s emotionally-charged portrayal in all 3 films and Kylo Ren/Ben Solo is my favorite character in the new trilogy with the exception of General Hux, but that’s due to my crush on Domnhall Gleeson. A HEA between Ben and Rey might have worked and part of me would have loved it due to their incredible onscreen chemistry and their almost palpable bond, but it’s hard to just forget how many times over the series he gaslit and manipulated Rey to try and convince her to his way of thinking, including the whole “the only way you get to Exegol is with me” moment, which is a big no no in a relationship, but that’s also besides the point and I won’t drone on about it. I know he was basically a puppet and manipulated into becoming a villain from the start, and he was extremely conflicted about his evil deeds, and he did reject the Sith in the end, but that doesn’t entirely absolve him of things like killing his dad, even if Han forgave him. Would have at least liked to have seen him as a Force Ghost at the end, if not be permitted to take further steps on Redemption Road. The whole “Rey Skywalker” thing is… meh. I get it, but I also think she could have owned her Palpatine name instead of burying it. In all, TRoS is predictable entertainment, and it retreats into familiarity instead of breaking new ground… but as the finale to a trilogy of trilogies, one that must conclude a nine film saga, that is to be expected.

Basically… both TLJ and TRoS (and Johnson and Abrams, respectively) made an effort to undo what their predecessor did – one by taking daring new steps in a progressive direction, the other by sticking to a proven formula that honors tradition, and, at times, “caves” to the toxicity of the fandom. And the effect is certainly… jarring. TLJ feels the most out of place in both tone and plot – I’m not saying that’s bad, because it’s not, and the film certainly hearkens back to ESB the way that TFA does to ANH – and it’s sandwiched between two Abrams-directed films, which, as a result, makes the trilogy feel disjointed, and contributes to much of the dissatisfaction with the conclusion. TFA was too derivative, so TLJ made some changes, and TRoS undid those changes. I mean…. I’m not going to say it was a directorial pissing contest, but maybe it was – I’m not sure what went on behind the scenes. Then again, I also don’t know how much either director knew about what the endgame was, or how much overall plot was worked out beforehand, so I can’t criticize their decision-making too much. Point is, a lot of valuable plot time was probably wasted – especially in TRoS – trying to “fix” ideas from the previous film that fans and critics took issues with.

It’s easy to say what should have happened in retrospect, but I truly believe the films would have benefited from having the same director for all three. This one probably should have been Abrams, only because he started it off with TFA. I would have liked to see what he could have done if he had been behind the camera for the second film, as much as I appreciated TLJ – which features one of the absolute greatest scenes in the entire series in the Kylo Ren/Rey fight against the Praetorian guards. Like, imagine if The Two Towers was directed by… Michael Bay, instead of Peter Jackson. That’s an extreme and not totally equivalent example, but you get the point – it does make a difference. Cohesion is so, so important to a story. And when directors aren’t on the same page – and producers most likely aren’t helping matters by meddling, which did not help Solo or Rogue One either – you fail to achieve balance, and it will be noticeable in the final product.

That’s also why I hope Johnson gets his shot at a new trilogy or film, if he’s still on board for making one and if producers butt the eff out. If nothing else, moviegoers should check out his other work as well. Knives Out, which he directed and which is still playing in theaters – is one of the best films of the year, by far. He didn’t deserve the backlash he got for TLJ, and I, for one, would love to see what he could do with the Star Wars universe if given a totally clean slate. His ideas are compelling – and he could make some serious galactic magic.

As a fan, I was satisfied, but not blown away by the conclusion of the Skywalker saga. I have fallen in love with new characters, new worlds, and new droids – here’s looking at you, D-0. Do I think things could have been different, and perhaps better? Sure – they always could, no matter how great films are or how much we like them. But perhaps the biggest, baddest enemy in the Star Wars universe is not Emperor Palpatine… but the franchise itself, bogged down by it’s own nostalgia and strict adherence to tradition and the familiar. Listening to fans is not always the best policy. I can only hope that small sparks – like Solo, Rogue One, and The Mandalorian, which are of a more standalone nature – shall lead to a bright future and continued success for one of the greatest franchises of all time.

Film Review: Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (2019)

Dir: André Øvredal
Starring: Zoe Colletti, Michael Garza, Gabriel Rush, Austin Abrams, Dean Norris, Gil Bellows, Lorraine Toussaint
Runtime: 1hr 47min
Spoiler Level: Light!

When my class had library periods in elementary school, back in the late nineties/early 2000’s, there was one book series that had a waiting list – the Scary Stories books by Alvin Schwartz. Whispers of the terrifying stories and the even more petrifying illustrations (by Stephen Gammel) rippled rampantly through my peers, with many claiming that they had trouble sleeping at night after reading such creepy tales.

When I finally got my hands on the books they did not disappoint, and many of the stories – and legendary artwork – have stuck in my mind and sent shivers down my spine years and years afterward. So when I heard there was going to be a film adaptation, produced by Guillermo del Toro, I was hoping to see the monsters from my childhood come to life.

Scary_Stories_to_Tell_in_the_Dark_film_logoSet in a small Pennsylvania town in the fall of 1968, Scary Stories To Tell in the Dark follows a group of teenagers who accidentally incur the wrath of the spectral Sarah Bellows after removing her book of “scary stories” from the basement of a haunted house on Halloween night. They must find a way to appease Sarah, or become the stars of their own scary stories…with less than pleasant endings.

Since the original books are more or less anthologies featuring ghost stories, cautionary tales, and folklore, the film isn’t a straight-up adaptation. Instead, references are peppered throughout an over-arcing narrative that has been constructed for the film, and many of the most memorable “monsters” and stories make appearances with clear inspiration from Gammel’s original artwork. It’s a decision that works well, because fans of the books get to see characters like “Harold” and experience some of the best tales, with some fresh twists, while the unfamiliar can follow along without feeling lost.

The film employs familiar tropes connected to the horror genre – jump scares, a jarring neck snap or two, straw-spewing, the usual – but it manages to balance telling a well-paced story for the uninitiated while also aiming to please fans of the books. The music builds tension where it needs to without being overwhelming, which can be difficult in films where sound is so critical to the atmosphere. 

The plot – a group of teens aiming to appease a vengeful spirit of sorts or face untimely or maybe even slightly comical deaths – isn’t unfamiliar, but it works, mainly because it never tries to break the boundary and veer into “too much” territory. The cast function like a slightly more sinister version of the Scooby Doo crew, and though some receive more development than others, it’s easy to feel and empathize with the characters as their lives spiral into chaos and their friends start dropping like flies. Sure, the film doesn’t do anything revolutionary in terms of horror. It’s not Hereditary, or Get Out, or A Quiet Place. But it doesn’t have to be – and it’s easy, while watching it, to forget that certain features and characters are gleaned from a series of books intended for children.

Overall, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is not super scary, earning a PG-13 rating. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t jump in my seat a few times, and I’m not easily swayed by the genre, so even if it is a bit tamer than horror films with a higher rating, it can definitely frighten children and might lead to some sleepless nights, though fans of the books may be more affected by the scares than others. Seriously… The Pale Lady was terrifying in the book, and she’s just as scary onscreen, especially knowing that she was created using practical effects. 

If a spooky night at the theater is what you’re after, then Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is a solid choice – not too scary, not too long, and not too much.

Overall rating: 8/10

Take a Chance

Way back in 2008, I was sixteen years old and on vacation with my family in Massachusetts. My dad and I got into an argument over movies – he had already seen Iron Man, and insisted it was better than the film I had twice seen already, The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian. However, neither of us had seen the other film, so how could we make a determination?

My dad had no desire to see Prince Caspian, and, I’ll admit… I didn’t really want to see Iron Man. Shocking, I know, since I am such a huge fan of the MCU nowadays. But back then, I was way more into Batman, so most Marvel heroes weren’t even on my radar. But I wanted my dad to see the Narnia film more than I didn’t want to see Iron Man, so we brokered an agreement – he would take me to see Iron Man and I would take him to see Prince Caspian.

We went to see Iron Man first… and the first seeds of my MCU admiration were planted. I became a fan, and I had to admit that it was an excellent superhero film. Of course…The Dark Knight came out later that summer, which sparked my overall love of film, but Iron Man was still an awakening for me. I had to admit, even though I had previously felt no inclination toward seeing the film, I was glad my dad convinced me to see Iron Man. From that moment, I never doubted a Marvel film… well, except Thor 2.

Later, we went to see Prince Caspian. I was a bit worried that my dad wouldn’t enjoy it, because he had never expressed an interest in either the films or the books. But toward the end of the film, when the battle is taking place and the Narnian forces emerge from trap doors beneath the ground, my dad turned to me in the theater and said, “Awesome,” which proved my worries had been for naught. And once it was over, he admitted that he had enjoyed it quite a lot, and we bought the soundtrack to listen to in the car.

That summer, we both took a chance by going to see films outside of our typical realm of interest – and it paid off. And ever since, we have both recommended films to the other, and have taken those suggestions to heart, and we go to the movies together more often than ever before.

So next time you think a film might not be worth your time, go ahead and take chance. It just might work out for you.

Film Review: Detective Pikachu (2019)

Dir: Rob Letterman
Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Justice Smith, Kathryn Newton, Ken Watanabe, Bill Nighy, and more.
Runtime: 1hr 44min
Spoiler Level: Light!

As someone who was around back in the late nineties, when the Pokemon sensation swept the globe, I remember the craze when it was at full glory. Not only that, but I actively participated in it. I had a poster of the original 151 Pokemon over my bed, so I could look at them all every night before I went to sleep. I wore my favorite shirt, emblazoned with a Pikachu, until it was too ratty to wear. I’ve played every game since the Blue and Red era, and I forced my poor mother (love you, Mom!) to take me to see Pokemon: Mewtwo Strikes Back! back in 1999. Needless to say, she did not take me to see Pokemon The Movie 2000 – which I still contend is a great movie, but that’s beside the point…

Pokémon_Detective_Pikachu_teaser_poster.jpgDetective Pikachu follows 21-year-old Tim Goodman (Smith) as he attempts to solve the circumstances behind his father’s disappearance with assistance from a caffeine-addicted, wisecracking, deerstalker-hat-wearing Pikachu. But the search for clues leads the unlikely duo into a mystery more intricate than either could have anticipated, and finding answers could save or condemn all of Ryme City.

Honestly, the biggest surprise in this film is that it’s good. And I don’t mean that it’s just a good Pokemon movie – it is a legitimately good movie overall. It works on a level that many other video-game or anime or cartoon adaptations have failed to achieve… because it doesn’t rely solely on nostalgia or fan-service to make a quick buck, nor does it neglect the source material so not to alienate new viewers. Instead, Detective Pikachu balances well-placed nods to the fans (both old and new) while presenting a film with believable characters and motivations, a story that is intriguing to follow, and it takes great care in bringing everyone’s favorite pocket monsters to life onscreen in a way that fans have been yearning for since 1999, or even earlier.

Despite the fact that Pikachu himself is CGI, the chemistry between the leads is superb, especially their banter and the evolution of their relationship as the story develops. Justice Smith is easy to root for, Pikachu/Reynolds offers steady doses of both heart and humor, Kathryn Newton (and her Psyduck) is a charming reporter eager for the truth, and both Ken Watanabe and Bill Nighy, known for their decidedly more “serious” work, give solid performances.

I haven’t played the Detective Pikachu game – I’ve stuck to the main games – so I knew basically nothing about the plot going into the film. The story flows well, and there are parts of it that are predictable and familiar – it is a “kids” movie, after all – but I was genuinely surprised and impressed by a couple of twists. As in, my jaw dropped and I said, “Oh my GOD” to my friend at one point. It’s not Sherlockian-level sleuthing taking place, but it’s also not Blue’s Clues level, if you catch my drift. The dialogue isn’t dumbed down, it’s sharp and won’t give adults a headache. And it feels like the people who made this film actually know Pokemon. As a longtime fan, it is awesome to see Charizard’s flamethrower come to life, Pidgeotto soaring in the air, Loudred beat-boxing in a club, and Magikarp flapping uselessly on the ground. The Pokemon aren’t crammed into the film to try and appease fans, thrown in wherever for throwback or nostalgia reasons; they have purpose, are immersed in the world, the effects are impressive, and their design does true justice to the originals. No, that’s not a dig at Sonic… or maybe it is

Now, does this mean this film will be able to lure non-Pokemon fans into seats? Maybe not – though a few might make the venture based on the adorable titular character, voiced expertly and hilariously by Reynolds. However, it’s definitely the sort of film that won’t bore parents being dragged to the theater by their Poke-crazed kids. If this had come out when I was ten, my mom would have taken me to see the sequel. It has a cohesive narrative, a snappy script, and doesn’t delve so deeply into fan-service that the uninitiated can’t follow what’s going on. It’s one of the first films of this nature that feels like it can make the cross-medium jump without crashing and burning. It’s a solid mystery film for Pokefans young, old, and new, and though it hits familiar beats, it doesn’t feel tired or overdone, and might even generate interest for a new era of fans. 

Sure, non-fans might not be able to pick out their favorite Pokemon puttering about in the background – I got treated to Gengar and Blastoise, two of my favorites, though I missed my beloved Alakazam – but that doesn’t diminish the quality of the film. References may fly over the heads of Poke-novices, but will warm the hearts of wannabe champions from Kanto to Unova. Let’s face it folks – we all live in a Pokemon world. And it terms of video-game film adaptations, Detective Pikachu might just be the greatest master of them all.

Overall rating: 8/10

Film Review: Avengers: Endgame (2019)

Dir: Russo Bros
Starring: Everyone, really.
Runtime: 3hr1min
Rating: PG-13
Spoiler level: Light (ANY MAJOR SPOILERS WILL BE BELOW A CUT)

20190425_172726_HDR.jpgAt last, the moment Marvel fans have been waiting for is finally upon us – the hotly-anticipated sequel to 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War and the culmination of a 22-film saga that began with 2008’s Iron Man has been released for eager audiences to devour. Avengers: Endgame is an epic three-hour adventure that offers an explosive, entertaining, and emotional ending to  the first major chapter of a steadily expanding film universe.

Avengers: Endgame follows the remaining non-dusty Avengers in the post-Snap world as they come to terms with Thanos’s actions and seek to inject hope into their seemingly-dismal circumstances.

There were several things that Endgame needed to accomplish on the heels of the dramatic Infinity War, and hundreds of dangling threads to tie together from multiple movies in the franchise. I don’t know how the Russo brothers, the writers, and everyone who works on these films does it, but somehow, some way, they managed to balance out fan-service, humor, heart, action, a balanced narrative, and a multitude of characters and their interactions in a huge film universe to create a thrilling and satisfying conclusion. Sure, some folks can probably nitpick and find a stone or two left un-turned, but of all the factors fans expected this film the deliver, the most important is probably closure. And though certain fans may disagree with how certain events played out, this film felt complete when the credits began to roll.

Of course, the core of the Avengers are the original squad, with RDJ as Iron Man / Tony Stark, Chris Evans as Captain America / Steve Rogers, Chris Hemsworth as Thor, Mark Ruffalo as Hulk / Bruce Banner, Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow / Natasha Romanoff, and Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye / Clint Barton. They’ve been with us the longest, have fought the most battles, and have established themselves as characters who are important to fans, and have had a lasting impact on audiences. Appropriately, much of the spotlight centers on them this time around – not entirely on them, because there are a lot of characters to give screen-time to, but primarily on them – and it gives each a chance to show how far their characters have come since their initial appearances. And by the end, each of their journeys feels finished, their arcs complete, their characters fully-developed.

Endgame delivers the usual Marvel staples – witty banter and memorable quotes, bombastic fight scenes and action sequences, stunning visuals, and throwbacks to prior films and other Marvel lore. It’s all too easy for MCU films to rely on hallmarks and a successful formula – I mean, if it works, it works – but even 22 films deep, this installment offers up twists and surprises. Some familiar, but perhaps unexpected faces show up. Some plot points seem predictable, but take jarring detours. Even the expected events are engrossing. It didn’t feel like I was sitting in a movie theater seat for three hours, and not once did I think, “Is it over yet?” I laughed, I sat in open-mouthed shock, and yes… there were tears. And when it was over, the fan in me was so happy to have been along for the entire ride, and I’m excited to see where the MCU goes next.

For a film series that has been churning out successful film after successful film, barreling forward and building momentum since 2008, Endgame offers a finale that is sure to keep audiences engaged from start to finish. The MCU has experienced some bumps in the road and has battled through fatigue in order to keep viewers in their seats, but they have also proven the merit of superhero films time and time again, and when it matters most, they deliver the closure that the Infinity Saga needs.

Overall rating: 10/10

***********UNDER THIS ARE THE SPOILERS, BEWARE, STOP READING IF YOU DON’T WANT SPOILERS!!!!! THERE IS A READ MORE THING UNDER THIS BUT I KNOW IT SOMETIMES DOESN’T WORK, SO HERE IS YOUR WARNING!!!!!*************

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Five Favorite Avengers from the MCU!

(To celebrate the coming of Avengers: Endgame this Friday, I thought I would list my five favorite Avengers thus far. I am on vacation atm, so I apologize if this post is not as fleshed out as it could be!)

198336-004-0F77A0005.) Black Panther / T’Challa 
In the MCU, T’Challa’s rise to prominence has been one of the most unique – and one of the best to witness. After getting a taste of Black Panther’s abilities in Captain America: Civil War (2016), his following 2018 eponymous solo-film solidified his place as one of the coolest, and most well-developed characters in the entire MCU, despite being one of the newest. He is not just the King of Wakanda – he is a hero who has faced doubt and uncertainty head on, and strives to do what is best for the people he is sworn to protect. His suit is awesome, his character and personality are balanced, and I look forward to seeing him (and Okoye and Shuri, of course) grace the silver screen in future installments. If the others can bring him back from “The Snappening”, of course.

Brie-Larson-as-Carol-Danvers-in-Captain-Marvel4.) Captain Marvel / Carol Danvers
Another brand-new face in a sea of super greats, Captain Marvel’s 2019 solo outing was out first official look at the character, other than a tiny teaser at the end of 2018’s Infinity War. Honestly, I didn’t expect to like Carol as much as I did, but, despite being so new, I already find her to be one of the most endearing heroes in the whole MCU. She displays a compelling balance of humanity, vulnerability, humor, and badassery, which combines to make her journey thrilling to watch. As someone who was once a little girl who loved superheroes, it warms my heart to see little girls buying Captain Marvel merchandise and wearing shirts or bags with her likeness on it. However, Captain Marvel is not just a great female superhero – she is an amazing hero who anyone can look to and find a bit of themselves in. If she truly is meant to be the new face of the MCU, then I have the utmost faith in whatever is to come next. 

236ebe085b15fa7af27b80a63c6240053.) Doctor Strange / Steven Strange
What can I say? I am drawn to sarcastic assholes. I knew little about the character when I sat down to watch 2016’s Doctor Strange, but emerged from the theater totally spellbound. His abilities are the coolest to see onscreen, bar none – but his magic is not only visually striking, it’s capable of incredible, unorthodox feats that standard butt-kicking isn’t able to convey. But his hero persona is only half of it – he’s also a compelling character because Steven Strange isn’t completely likable, despite his quick wit and serious nature. He starts out sarcastic and pompous and downright arrogant, and though he changes and admits to his faults and embraces his new role as a master of the mystic arts by the end of his solo film, he never quite sheds those prickly bits of his personality. He doesn’t have the charm of Tony Stark to dampen those traits, but really, that just makes him more relatable – heroes aren’t always perfect role models, after all. Plus, he’s got the best sidekick in the entire MCU – his cape.

images.jpg2.) Ant-Man / Scott Lang
I’ve said it before, and I will say it again (and again, if I have to) – Ant-Man and his epic size-changing adventures are the kind of breather fans of the MCU need to break up the do-or-die, lives-at-stake nature of most films in the series. Both 2015’s Ant-Man and 2018’s Ant-Man and the Wasp came on the heels of significantly more “dramatic films” in Age of Ultron and Infinity War, and were welcome doses of heart and humor after such high-stakes installments. Scott Lang is – arguably – the most “human” of the Avengers; he’s a family guy with a complicated criminal history and he just wants to do right by his daughter and those he cares about – and maybe save the world, if he gets included in events like 2016’s Civil War. Ant-Man is the perfect example of what happens when a truly average person gets bestowed with great responsibility, which makes him easy to watch and connect with. He makes mistakes, but also does his best to right them no matter how difficult it can be. Besides… his size-changing hi-jinks will never not be funny to me. Heroes do come in all sizes – and Ant-Man is the literal embodiment of that sentiment.

captain-america.jpg1.) Captain America / Steve Rogers 
Of the original crew of major Avengers, I have found Captain America’s journey to be the most compelling. From 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger, where a scrawny boy finds not only incredible physical power, but the strength within himself to become a hero, to 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier, where Cap’s unwavering sense of honor drives him to walk away from, and uncover the conspiracy within S.H.I.E.L.D, to 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, where Steve refuses to comply with restrictions and stands up for what he believes is right, even if it means splintering the Avengers at their core… his trilogy has felt the most complete. His character arc has experienced the most ups and downs across all of his appearances, but they have all contributed in making him a multi-layered, believable, and interesting character to watch, and he has always felt genuine in all of his actions. Captain America went from the poster boy for S.H.I.E.L.D. to a defiant rebel who will stand by his choices, but maintains the heart and the loyalty that have defined him from the start. Cap’s remarkable journey may soon be coming to an end following Endgame, but if it does… I can proudly say that he is my favorite, and will likely continue to be, no matter how many new characters are introduced.