Review: Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn (2020)

Review: 2016’s Suicide Squad is probably one of my least liked in the DCEU brand. There were a lot of great ideas behind it, but ultimately it’s potential was wasted with a poorly constructed plot and bad editing. But one thing that truly stood out as a saving grace for the film was without a doubt, Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn. There is simply no denying that she stole the film with her larger than life performance as the character, which generated major demand for more Harley Quinn in the DC Universe. For a while the potential of a solo Harley Quinn movie seemed very promising, even a Joker/Harley film which would have seen her fabulous emancipation from the clown prince of crime. But alas, none of those panned out quite as hoped. Instead, we got “Birds of Prey: & the Fantabulous Emancipation of one Harley Quinn.” A mouth full, for one, and almost nothing to do with the actual Birds of Prey. But that isn’t to say Birds of Prey is by any means a bad movie. It does have it’s pros and at it’s core, is quite entertaining. However, it is also a very problematic film, which I will elaborate on later in this review. 

Let’s get started by addressing the acting here, which is largely well done! Mary Elizabeth Winstead is amazing as Helena Bertinelli aka Huntress. I would dare to say that her portrayal as the character was perfection. And while at first glance one might argue that she doesn’t dress like her comic book counterpart. Her counterpart from the source material was usually reduced to eye candy outfits that left very little to the imagination as where Winstead’s take has the character donning tracksuit look that comes off as tactical and more combat-like. And overall it just looks amazing as fuck if I may say so. My favorite scene with her happens in the 3rd act during the Funhouse raid. It’s probably one of the best moments in that sequence and it honestly had me thinking “she is one badass motherfucker!”. Winstead owns the role, there is absolutely no debating it. However, it Is somewhat disappointing to see her presence in the film being somewhat small. Initially I had my doubts about Jurnee Smollett-Bell as Black Canary, but thankfully they were proven wrong. Smollett-Bell brought a new take to the character that was both fun and fresh. And even though she doesn’t wear the character’s signature fishnet stocking, Smollett-Bell totally rocks the gold pants like a freaking badass! I also liked Ella Jay Basco as Cassandra Cain. It took some time warming up to her take on the character, but once I did I enjoyed it a fair bit. 

Moreover to some of the other performances like Ewan McGregor, who I think did a fine job portraying infamous gangster Roman Sionis. Although there is a something done to the character I was kind of furious about, but we’ll get back to that topic later when I point out the things I did not like. But I digress, McGregor really immerses himself into the role and becomes this short tempered, easily set off type of gangster that is determined to get what he believes is his by right. McGregor is a seasoned actor and it’s evident here with the quality he pours into his performance. Margot Robbie once again shines bright like a diamond as Harley Quinn. It’s almost as if the character and herself were destined for each other. The only complaint I have with her performance is that there were a few instances in which she over does the Brooklyn accent. Which was a little annoying, but it’s a minor nitpick that can be easily overlooked. But I digress. Robbie has a lot of fun with Quinn this time around and some of it pretty damn amazing, especially with the choice of color pallets they went with in the cinematography. It’s really colorful like earlier we see Quinn blow up the Ace chemical plant as the ultimate “fuck you!” to the Joker in a drunken rage for dumping her and throwing her out into the streets. This platter of colorful shots is seen again later on in the film during the police station raid, in what I consider the film’s best moment. Harley basically goes in with a teargas gun and it taking on the cops with gas and glitter grenades. The scene is colorful and hilarious, and I adored the slapstick sense of humor that was incorporated into the action sequence. Now I would be doing the film a massive disservice if I didn’t mention the film’s soundtrack, which is pretty amazing. Love or hate the movie, you cannot deny that the soundtrack is on point and kicking all kinds of ass. 

Now that I’ve said everything I loved about Birds of Prey, and it was a lot great stuff to unload. Now I have to talk about the things I did not like. And here is where things may get a tad bit controversial. Some may agree. And some may outright lambast me for saying it. But the film’s overall tone handle’s the topic of toxic masculinity all wrong by painting literally every male character in a negative light. Seriously, you will not find a single male character in BoP that is in any way good towards women. The film portrays all men as sexist, violent towards women, or having violent tendencies. And are untrustworthy towards women. I get what message BoP was trying to get across with this narrative. But the way it went about it was all wrong. Yes showcasing toxic musicality and the violent patriarchal system of misogyny against women is something that is deserving of being told on the big screen. But not all men are trash, which is something the film failed to grasp in it’s plot. A great example of praising feminism and putting patriarchal misogyny on blast is 2017’s hit Wonder Woman, and 2019’s Captain Marvel. Both films showcased the uphill battle women face in a man’s world, but also portrayed male allies. Men who did not look down on the opposite sex, but rather respected them as equals and fought alongside them in the good fight against evil. This is storytelling done right, sadly a memo that BoP must not have received during it’s developmental phase. Which while I’m on the topic of it’s development, whoever chose the title of the film really needs a demotion. “Birds of Prey: & the Fantabulous Emancipation of one Harley Quinn” is simply too long of a title. To be frank, I don’t think the movie should even be called Birds of Prey as none of the Birds are formed together until the very last 15 – 20 mins of the film. Nor do the birds really get ample time to shine since Harley hogs the spotlight from start to finish. A more appropriate title for the film would have been “Harley Quinn and the Birds of Prey.” Which is ironically similar to what the studios went with after it’s opening weekend. But to be frank, it’s too little, too late. 

I love actress Rosie Perez, she’s a very talented actress that is highly underrated in my opinion. She  a good match for the role of Renee Montoya. However, the way the plot portray’s the character was irksome. In the movie Montoya is seen as a joke in the GCPD. No male cop respects her. And her own boss basically steals every single bit of credit that rightfully belongs to her. This does the source material of the character a great disservice. In both the comics, novels and even animated series Montoya is viewed as a highly respected member of the GCPD. Often at times she is considered as one of Commissioner Gordon’s right hand LieutenantEven taking charge when Gordon himself is out of commission for whatever reason. Yet, here theres no indication that she and Gordon are even colleagues as she doesn’t work at the main station nor is he even referenced. This is the first time Montoya is given time to shine on the silver screen and her debut is massively botched not by Perez by any stretch, but rather by poor writing. Which is another thing. Early on WB made it clear to fans that BoP would have an LGBT+ presence in a really big way. Yet, moviegoers were queer-baited with a scene so short it lasts for maybe 1.5 seconds. A literal blink and you’ll miss it early on in the movie. And as for Montoya? The only indication made that she is a lesbian is through a voice over done by Margot Robbie as Harley in one scene when referring to Montoya’s ex girlfriend who happens to work in the Gotham City DA’s office. The characters have zero past romantic chemistry between them and the only thing suggesting that they once dated is a the voice over. In my opinion, the studios likely did this to avoid issues in certain markets. Which is honestly a lazy cop-out. Which is a running theme you will notice with BoP. It has a plethora of brilliant ideas but never quite follow through with them to be great. 

Another example of queer-baiting that the film mildly suggests that Victor Zsasz and Roman Sionis might be gay, or bisexual at the very least. But beyond hints and suggestions, just like the Montoya fiasco BoP never quite settles on it. Which is a real shame because it could have worked. But more on Roman Sionis, for those who aren’t aware, he’s a mid tier villain in the Batman rogue gallery and is most notorious for his signature black mask, hence the name Black Mask. But we don’t really get to see him in the mast a whole lot here. In fact, he doesn’t done the mask until midway into the 3rd act, for which he is seen wearing for mere portion of the climatic final battle sequence in the funhouse. After that he, surprise surprise, takes the goddamn mask off! Really? That’s like Bane taking his mask off after wearing it for a mere 5 mins. Or Joker deciding to take a wet wipe to the face because he can’t have all this makeup on before his big showdown. Which while I’m on the topic of Joker. McGregor does a fantastic job as Sionis. But he never quite achieve’s the presence of main villain in the film. Because even though he isn’t at all in the movie. Joker casts a massive shadow over the entirety of the film. From members of the BoP continuously bringing up his name, to Sionis and his gang to the officers of GCPD. Joker is literally everywhere in this movie and at the same time not. And it’s hard to take the threat of a big bad gangster like Sionis seriously when you’re constantly asking “I wonder what Mr. J is doing right now?” Or “Where is the Joker’s gang in all this?”. I’m no fan of Leto’s Joker. To be frank, he’s my least liked incarnation of the character. But considering this film is a direct sequel to Suicide Squad, it’s a damn shame we didn’t true closure to the Harely/Joker arc that began in the former. 

Final Verdict: BoP is a lot of things. It’s wild and full of stylish creativity that it deserves credit for. What it was really trying to be was a fun lighter tone answer to the dark gritty nature of Joker (2019). In some ways it succeeded, while in other ways it failed. I’ve bounced back and forth wether or not I liked or hated BoP. There is no true short answer. Because there is enough stuff in BoP that I absolutely loved, but also there were stuff I really hated. All in all, BoP isn’t a terrible movie, but it isn’t the masterpiece that it could have been. It’s still a watchable film, if you keep expectations at it’s lowest. 

Rating: 6/10

Review: Ocean’s 8 (2018)

Directed by: Gary Ross
Written By: Gary Ross, Olivia Milch
Starring: Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Anne Hathaway, Mindy Kaling, Sarah Paulson, Awkwafina, Rihanna, Helena Bonham Carter

Genre: Action, Comedy, Crime

Plot: Debbie Ocean gathers an all-female crew to attempt an impossible heist at New York City’s yearly Met Gala.

Reviewed by Clifford Kiyabu

Rating: 6/10

for months now the 4th installment in the Ocean’s series, Ocean’s 8 (2018), has sparked my curiosity. Especially after learning that it was not a remake, reboot, or reimagining, but rather a spinoff from the existing Danny Ocean storyline, which had me excited with anticipation. Considering that I have not seen any of the films in over a decade, I recently decided to do a complete revisit of the Steven Soderbergh Trilogy in preparation of the spinoff. Revisiting them have left me with mixed feelings, however. Ocean’s Eleven is, in my opinion, the superior in the trilogy, with Ocean’s Thirteen coming in a close second place. don’t get me wrong, Ocean’s Twelve is a good movie, just not nearly as entertaining as id like it to be. It suffered from being the middle child that tried a little too hard to win their parents approval.

this review will contain spoilers to the current installment so if you have not seen it yet and do not wish to be spoiled I recommend you stop reading now…

Ocean’s 8 picks up present day, following the release of Debbie Ocean (Bullock), younger sister to Danny Ocean. After meeting up with her longtime friend and partner-in-crime, Lue (Blanchett), the two set off to recruit a ragtag team of uniquely skilled women to aid them in the ultimate jewel heist, and possibly, get some much-needed revenge in the process. Overall I had a fun time with Ocean’s 8. Like its predecessors before it, the film has a certain charm to it that wheels you in from the start. However, while it did hold my attention for the entirety of the runtime, I was somewhat disappointed. To say Ocean’s 8 is a bad movie would be quite a stretch. however, it wasn’t really a great movie either. Much like Ocean’s Twelve, 8 tries too hard to capture the personality and magic of its predecessors and falls flat on doing its own thing. While the heist scene was pretty entertaining, it felt too safe. Never once in the film did I feel any risk for these characters. In the previous films, the main characters were constantly put in situations where it seemed like failure was more than a possibility. In Ocean’s 8 we never quite feel a sense of danger for any of Debbie’s crew.

Another issue lies in the fact that this film is filled with a cast of top-tier talent. Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Anne Hathaway, Mindy Kaling, Sarah Paulson, Awkwafina, Rihanna, and Helena Bonham Carter. each of these amazing ladies is truly a force to be reckoned with. They can, and have proven how marvelously talented they are. Bullock and Blanchett aside, the rest of the cast feels so underused here. But, the biggest sin Ocean’s 8 committed, in my opinion, lies with its villain. Claude Becker (Richard Armitage) is so forgettable as a character and villain, that you already begin to forget him by the time the credits start rolling, which is a real shame. Because for the Ocean’s films the villain has always played a key role in the formula. Terry Benedict (Andy García) is a character that you could help but love to hate, and he was nicely fleshed out and given some depth over the span of the entire Trilogy. In Twelve, we had Baron François Toulour AKA The Night Fox (Vincent Cassel) an egotistical thief who proved to be a formidable adversary to the Donny and the gang. And in Thirteen we got Willy Bank (Al Pacino), a narcissistic casino resort owner give’s Terry Benedict a good run for his money. As you can see each of these villains stand out. They’re almost iconic in their own way for the franchise. But as for Becker, he comes off as a throwaway character that didn’t deserve the effort put in for such a noteworthy revenge. And that’s a real problem for Ocean’s 8. The villain is so two dimensional that you really don’t care why Debbie is going out of her way to pay him back for selling her down the river.

Overall; Ocean’s 8 isn’t a bad film by any means. it’s easily much better than Ocean’s Twelve. but struggles behind Eleven and Thirteen. would I recommend seeing it? Sure, if you’ve got time to spare, then it’s an okay way to kill a couple hours. Otherwise, don’t waste your time.

In Retrospective: The Transformers Series

Summer is in full swing, which means only one thing; Blockbuster season at the box office! Among the many releases during this time of the year are popcorn flicks. You know the type. Massive explosions, hot girls in skimpy outfits, angled camera shots, larger than life villains, and a story that is so mindlessly ridiculous that you’re better off just checking your brain at the door. And when it comes to popcorn flicks of a larger than life magnitude there is no better master of the art than filmmaker Michal Bay. Here I review the latest installment of the Transformers franchise Transformers: The Last Knight, as well as examine the franchise as a whole and highlight where it went wrong.

Over the last decade, the Transformers franchise has gained a reputation for all the hallmarks that make a summer blockbuster. Love them or hate them you can’t deny that the films have made a tremendous impact on the summer movie season, particularly at in box office numbers. However, the latest installment, Transformers: The Last Knight has performed quite poorly both domestically and abroad in certain key markets when compared to its predecessors. Domestically this is the lowest grossing film in the series. It has also seen a significant loss in its audience during its second week in several prominent markets. A small loss is acceptable and usually happens anyway, but not by a huge percentage. While the TF series gradually spiraled downwards regarding the quality of writing, it has always proudly embraced its reputation for being a sure cash grab at the box office with each film making more or as much as its previous installment. But one could argue that despite its repeated success over the years the series has flouted in a box office bubble of its own design. And like any bubble, it’s only a matter of time before it pops and everything comes crashing down.

While some people say the franchise as a whole has been total garbage, I argue that it hasnt. At least not entirely anyway. I still remember the opening day the first Transformers movie was released. It was 2007, Bluray and HD DVD were locked in a heated battle for dominance over the physical media market, Paris Hilton spent 23 days in jail, Britney Spears shocked the world by shaving her head. And the final installment to author J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter book series ‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows’ was released. 2007 was quite a year for controversies, scandals, and entertainment. But among those was awaiting a sleeping giant in the form of Michael Bay’s Transformers franchise. Despite some unsureness, TF proved to be a success both commercially and critically. It had a decently well-written plot that had a layer of depth but was also simple enough to be relatable by the majority of moviegoers. There was enough action to knock your socks off six ways come Sunday. But more importantly, it gave us characters that we connected with in some form. TF delivered on all the right elements in the right timing to connect with its audience for its time. All was right in the world, and for once a live action movie based on a kid’s product was a success… But then TF: Revenge of The Fallen was released. And thus so began its descent into eternal damnation.

Revenge of The Fallen took everything that was great about the first TF movie and essentially defecated all over it. Instead of growing and evolving these characters we were given an inferior plot that mostly shadowed by a mind numbing amount of action and cheap humor, followed by an excessive amount of fan-service of Megan Fox in suggestively angled shots. Then, of course, there were those stereotypic Autobots meant for tung and cheek laughs but ultimately came off as very offensive. What made it worse was that the film’s plot centralized around the relationship of the two lead protagonists and their attempt to repair their damaged relationship. Only to see it meant for nothing in the next sequel when actress Magen Fox was suddenly replaced by Victory Secret model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley in Dark of The Moon due to some poorly worded choice of words by Fox at the time.

Her replacement was meant to continue the franchise without requiring her involvement, but instead signified a grim outlook on the cute and sometimes awkwardly corky courtship that began between the protagonists in the first TF. While DOTM was by no feet a great film, it was still a slight improvement from ROTF. And in my opinion, the franchise really should have concluded there with a complete reboot to overhaul the franchise back to its grassroots given some time… But nope! We got “Age of Extinction”; a sequel with no reason to exist except to pump out more bucks at the cinema.

Suddenly Shia LaBeouf’s Sam Witwicky was out and replaced with Mark Wahlberg as Cade Yeager. And look, I’m a fan of Wahlberg. There are quite a few of his films that I hold in high esteem. But a Transformers film is not one of them. That was a huge miscast by the studios in my opinion. Terrible acting, mundane plot and an over excessive use of explosions and female objectification. Simply put, Age of Extinction is 2 hours and 45 minutes of my life I will never get back again… And so finally this brings me to the main course of this article, TF: The Last Knight. The latest installment to what has come to feel like a never ending road of bad decisions for the franchise. For a film like “Transformers,” where Optimus Prime is a prominent figure featured in every trailer and poster, we end up seeing very little of him. The majority of Prime’s screen time are scenes already shown in the advertisement, which is a damn shame considering he is supposed to be the leader of the Autobots and the poster-child to the entire franchise. Not featuring your main face of the brand in the film would be the equivalence of a Batman movie that featured no Batman. Or a Spider-Man movie that didn’t even involve the web-head. Simply put, it’s a friggin bad idea! Instead, we are given an over abundance of Mark Wahlberg. Even Isabela Moner, who was given a strong presence in the advertisement as the new fresh face of the franchise was under-utilized. It is disappointing considering there was a great opportunity to use her character to connect viewers to someone they could relate to.

My only assumption to justify this travesty of a film, and greater tragedy of a franchise is that they either A: thought the audience was too stupid to comprehend a real story and character development. Or B: chose this as the least worse possible choice out of a slew terrible ideas. Which I certainly hope they went with the latter in this scenario. But I digress. One can only hope that TLK is the last of the franchise. But sadly it is not likely. And it is very plausible the franchise won’t be dead and done for many more years to come.

Review: The Mummy (2017)

Directed by: Alex Kurtzman
Written By: David Koepp, Christopher McQuarrie, Dylan Kussman
Starring: Tom Cruise, Sofia Boutella, Annabelle Wallis, Russell Crowe, Jake Johnson.

Genre: Action/Horror/Fantasy

Plot: An ancient princess is awakened from her crypt beneath the desert, bringing with her malevolence grown over millennia, and terrors that defy human comprehension.

Reviewed by Clifford Kiyabu (The Doctor)

Rating: 5/10

Shared universes are all the rage among moviegoers currently, so it’s only fitting that the film industry would as well too. This, of course, is partly due to the success of Marvel/Disney’s MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe), and more recently Warner Bros’ DCEU. Despite the bombardment of criticism the franchise has received by critics (pre-Wonder Woman), it has still proven to be very lucratively pulling in well over $2.9 billion to date at the worldwide box office. Ultimately, it is the moviegoer, not the critic who decides its fate. But I digress, just about every major studio in Hollywood has joined in on the current trend in some compacity may it be by entering a partnership with another competing studio or starting a shared universe of their own. Which brings me to Universal’s Dark Universe, an extended universe which serves to reboot all of their classic Universal Monsters with a more modern take on them. Yeah sure the idea does sound somewhat intriguing to hear, but in all honesty, there hasn’t been any real demand for it.

Despite all the negative reviews published on The Mummy, I still went in with a relatively open mind. And as a credit to the movie, I actually got some entertainment out of it. Likewise, I also had some grievances, too. The Mummy commits quite a few cinematic sins. Most notable is the lack of character development. It seems as though most of these characters are launched into the plot with very little development. Now that is not to say there is zero character development here, of course, there is some, just not enough to give us any real clear cut vision behind some of these character’s motivations and hints as to where their developing agendas lie. It also has a problem with delivery and execution on humor. Yes, it is first and foremost a horror/action. But it also attempts to tap into the same formula the Brendon Fresher Mummy films succeeded with when mixing action-horror with a subtle touch of humor. The problem here is unlike the Fresher films which came off as charming and engaging. This flick, however, comes off as dull and out of place. A good example of this comes directly from my experience. There are a few particular moments in the mummy that I felt were crafted to incite the audience into a roar of laughter, or at least a few chuckles at best. Instead, my theater room was so soft that the sound of a pin hitting the floor could be heard from across the theater room. It was during these moments during the movie that I would recall the long-running gag on the animated series Family Guy in which a lone ostrich sat in the stands giving a single sarcastic “HAHA!”.

Moreover, I felt an issue that kept coming up in The Mummy was its chemistry. More particularly the chemistry between Tom Cruise and the impressive Annabelle Wallis. Both of them are great respectively on their own, but as a pair, I wasn’t feeling it. Their romance felt more manufactured than organic. And that is, in my opinion, a major mistake when trying to establish a sense of history and weight in your characters. However, despite all the problems I’ve pointed out about The Mummy, and I’m sure I could go on about it even more. I honestly felt that some critics were a bit harsh. And I especially believe that some of that stem from the constant reminder that it truly wasn’t all that long ago that we got the last Fresher installment. Yes, it’s been nine years since The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008) was released, and yes I guess that is considered a long enough gap of time to warrant a full reboot to the franchise. But it doesn’t change the fact that the impact of the previous films still lingers in our minds. It also had a lot riding on it for being the flagship film of the Dark Universe. Which caused a lot of raised eyebrows considering that there were last minute reshoots made for another Universal film called Dracula Untold (2014) which was originally meant as the official launch of the Dark Universe, but was later extensively downplayed when The Mummy was in development. There is no doubt that some felt rubbed the wrong way by this sudden change of direction, especially since Dracula Untold was a success at the box office for Universal. And despite its problematic plot holes and over the top cheesiness, despite all its flaws, it was still a somewhat decent popcorn flick.

But I firmly believe there is still hope for this franchise that nobody asked for, and it will depend on the steps Universal make in the upcoming years. Especially with its next installment. Right now the franchise is at a critical crossroads point. Some might argue that the franchise is already dead on arrival, but while that might be the case from a critical viewpoint. Money speaks louder than words. And right now The Mummy is sitting on a $377 million intake at the overall box office and still counting. It is also one of the largest box office openings in history for any Tom Cruise film in the European market. And the movie hasn’t finished debuting in the Asian market yet, so it’s world wide box office numbers is expected to continue growing as time continues. While The Mummy isn’t something I would recommend to see at the cinema, it is by no means the worst film of 2017.

Fear, Inc. (2016) Film Review


Starring: Lucas Neff, Caitlin Stasey, Chris Marquette, Stephanie Drake, and Abigail Breslin

Written By: Luke Barnett

Directed By: Vincent Masciale

Grade: A-

Like most horror fans, Joe Foster (Neff), the lead character in the smart, surreal, and sadistically fun horror comedy, Fear, Inc., finds himself so hungry for a good scare this Halloween season, but feels constantly let down. Every haunt he goes to seems so predictable and not nearly real enough. After consuming so many gory, disturbing horror films and visiting haunts that put millions of dollars in to effects and art design to put you inside a hellish world, after a while it can lose the impact and feel like you’ve seen it all. How do you really outdo it? Especially some of these immersive horror theater experiences or even extreme haunts where you can get physically and possibly emotionally scarred? How far can you go in making a simulated living nightmare real when you know it is staged? Fear, Inc. plays with the question of what it would take for such a desensitized horror fan to really be immersed and believe in a personal horror coming alive around him and just how horribly wrong that could go. It’s quite an amazing feat just how many times the film pulls you back and forth between the mentality of this is real and this is just a masterful bloody, cruel illusion and all a part of the game. The end game is completely unpredictable, perhaps the real illusion our characters experience is control and any sense of safety.

Fear, Inc. is incredibly written, acted, and directed film,  especially being the first feature film by director Vincent Masciale. It has such a vibrant tone and energy I guarantee will be the fuel to the fire horror fans crave. I’ve been rather disappointed by a lot of horror films in the past few years and Fear, Inc. was really a breath of fresh air. It teeters between being pure horror homage fun and making you so invested in the horrors before you. It really is horror comedy perfection. The creators list Scream as one of their favorite movies and what they were looking to create something in a similar vein, they completely nailed it. There are about as many horror movie and genre movie references in this film that one could possibly fit, while still being its own unique story with relevant intriguing exploration on the current climate of the immersive horror theater and extreme haunt world.

The film is colorful, fun, witty, psychological, and most importantly is horror with a purpose. Horror comedy can be a very tricky thing to pull off, but Fear, Inc. excels at this too. The comedy doesn’t overpower the horror; you are utterly invested in it all. You care about the characters and are in the same position as them, enjoying it, but also realizing at a certain point this has to be real and you are horrified and fear for them greatly as the horrors unleash and the fun horror fanboy’s fantasy world and the grim, shocking reality collide and clash again and again. We are affected by this mind fuck just as much as Joe is so we are really experiencing this all through him, getting us to question what we would do in his shoes.

There’s some very interesting questioning of what crossing the line is with horror simulation, which I think is an equally fascinating and terrifying subject. It also questions would anyone of their right mind really want to be pushed so far to experience even seemingly real torment? And what type of person does a company like this attract, the people that willingly sign up to invoke real fear and a power play over someone in an environment where in a way they have permission to do this because the client “wanted this”. The nature of what Fear, Inc. as a company does is a bit different than extreme haunts, but it still is very obviously in the same realm and exploring it and inherent themes in their own way. With haunts and simulation experiences becoming more and more real, where there isn’t necessarily the safety net of thinking “Oh nothing can really happen to me, it’s all a show” if one seeks out an extreme enough production, Fear, Inc. tackling and really exploring these themes from many different angles is very interesting and offers great substance to the film. In fact, I think this subject matter is really its saving grace in retaining its individuality and having its own voice. Being an homage to so many horror films it would be easy to lose its identity, but I think it’s key that by the chosen subject matter, it manages to have it’s own identity and be its own surreal macabre journey.


Things of course are pushed to the extreme here and you do need to suspend some disbelief that all this could be pulled off and the victim would perceive it a certain way, whether it’s fake or real. It’s well worth it to suspend that disbelief and play along, to lose yourself in the madness of it all. The one thing I wouldn’t have mind being dug in to more was this concept that this company made custom scares. I think it would have been more interesting to dive in to that client’s personal most crippling fears. I didn’t get a sense that anything that happened was Joe’s greatest fear he was being forced to face. Most of it was homages to all of his favorite movies and was fun for him to play and be a a part of it until of course things got a little too real. In some ways that limited his vulnerability and didn’t focus on fear itself as much as I would have liked. I think it could have been even more dark and fascinating, questioning the very nature of fear and how our own fears say so much about us and can push something out of us.

Hearing people who really do enjoy going to the most extreme haunts in the world, where they are being physically hurt and they come back again and again, this is why they say they do it; because it allows them to understand something about themselves and who they are in the face of true fear. Touching on that would have made the film that much more relevant, wise, and important I thought it might go there when I read “custom scares” were a part of the plot, but that would have just been a different way to go about it. Personally I think that could have propelled the film to greatness, but I totally respect that wasn’t the story they were quite looking to tell. Instead they took ones’ horror fantasies and twisted them on the person to show the devastation it could bring once it became more than a game. It was simply a different approach so I don’t have any real issues with this. As is it was quite an enthralling story.

fearincbreslinfear656The cast was absolutely incredible. Abigail Breslin, one of my favorite young horror starlets, had a great cameo in the opening that gave us a taste of what Fear, Inc. was all about. It was an intense, yet fun classic horror scene and let us in on the secret that this is not a game you can quit. Lucas Neff as the horror loving Joe was perfect. He nailed all of the comedic timing, he was loveable and relatable, and at times a bit insane, yet still realistic, for how much he relished in being the star of his own horror film by the hands of Fear, inc. Yet when it called for it the emotion and fear was there just as strong. I’ve been a fan of Chris Marquette’s for a long time and it was wonderful to see him in this as Joe’s right hand man and fellow horror buff, but much more cautious and the voice of reasoning. There were some great buddy moments between the two, but Marquette certainly held his own as well, especially when you consider the back and forth between supposed fiction and reality and how at times his character was on a different psychological playing field than the audience even realized.

This if my first time seeing Caitlin Stasey outside of The CW’s Reign and she was just as strong and at home in the horror realm with great emotional range. Patrick Renna (most well known for The Sandlot and The Big Green) brought his A creep game and the instigator for the warped world of Fear, Inc. to come in Joe’s life in the first place. There were a number of fun chilling moments with featured genre actors like Naomi Grossman and Maria Olsen. Really every actor gave a great performance, no matter how small the role was, which just made it feel like it was all that much more real and a compelling fight for your life adventure you could get lost in.

The film’s pacing really was a great strength as well. It gets higher paced and intensity as it goes on, eventually being a whirlwind of enticing meta slasher chaos. Yet it also takes its time and lingers on moments that deserve it. The escalating terror isn’t immediate of course, but the first act of the film doesn’t drag for a moment either. There was no one moment where I wasn’t totally engaged in the film. We spend time with our characters and really get a chance to connect and love them as well as just sit back and enjoy the wonderful horrorphile talk that really touches on the genuine love the characters, the audience, and clearly the writer and director feel for the genre, which really gives the film an infectious spirit that makes it an admirable horror entry among the likes of Scream and The Cabin in the Woods. This is a film not to be missed, it’s very much a film for the horror fans.


Tobe Hooper: Rodney Dangerfiel of Horror

Hooper-01 Tobe Hooper: Rodney Dangerfiel of Horror

By Michael Goth

A Profile of the legendary director of Poltergeist, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Salem’s Lot.

In his biography of horror director/writer Wes Craven, author John Kenneth Muir refereed to the legendary director of A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Last House on the Left and the Scream trilogy as “the Rodney Dangerfield of horror”. I questioned this as Craven’s films have generally been highly regarded by even mainstream critics and quite a few had been major box office hits. If the term “Rodney Dangerfield of horror” were to apply to anyone working in cinematic horror, it would be Tobe Hooper. Tobe Hooper is definitely a man who cannot get respect.

Despite having directed 17 motion pictures and an odd number of television projects over the last four decades, Hooper is best known for the groundbreaking 1974 indie classic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (As well as its forgettable 1986 sequel.), the well produced 1979 television miniseries based upon Stephen King’s sophomore novel Salam’s Lot and the excellent 1982 Steven Spielberg produced and co-written Poltergeist.

With the exception of these three films, Hooper’s work has been written off by most critics and mainstream moviegoers, despite many of his films developing cult followings. Films such as Eaten Alive, The Funhouse, Lifeforce, Invaders from Mars and The Toolbox Murders. Hooper’s most recent film, 2013’s Djinn, was never released in theaters in the United States and was not issued on DVD until late last year. It didn’t seem to matter that Djinn was Hooper’s most accomplished film in nearly 30 years.

William Tobe Hooper was born in Austin, Texas on January 25, 1943. He became interested in filmmaking at age nine and went on to study film and television production at the University of Austin. During the second half of the sixties and early seventies Hooper earned his living as a college professor while shooting documentaries on the side, including 1965’s short film The Heisters as well as the low budget Eggshells, a film on the counterculture that was given limited theatrical release. He also directed a documentary on the folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary.

In the early seventies, Tobe Hooper was holiday shopping at Montgomery Ward when he suffered an anxiety attack in the power tools section. It was one of those holiday shopping days where the stores are so busy that one can hardy breath. Hopper imagined that he used a chainsaw to clear a path to the exit.

texas-chainsaw-massacre“Upon arriving home, Tobe began drafting a story outline for what would become The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Later fleshing out the script with friend Kim Henkel. The character of the chainsaw wielding Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen), who wears a mask made from human skin, was based upon notorious serial killer Ed Gein, who was also the inspiration for Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a horror movie take on the death of the 60’s dream. On a steaming hot afternoon, Sally (Marilyn Burns), and a group of friends are out for a weekend drive when they come upon the family from hell, a clan of cannibals. Sally and her friends represent the 60’s generation and Leatherface and his brothers (And a corpse of a grandfather.) are essentially the Manson family. Charles Mason and his followers murdered actress Sharon Tate and several friends in a horrific event that helped end the idealism of the 1960’s and ushered in the cold, harsh reality of the 1970’s.

Produced on a budget of a mere $300,000, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was a hit with audiences. Playing mainly in second run theaters and drive-in’s, the film would make about roughly $30,000,000 over the next three years.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was a hit with many filmmakers and critics, while others were less impressed with the film. One of its champions was William Friedkin, the Oscar winning director of The French Connection and The Exorcist, who has on a number of occasions referred to Hooper’s low budget shocker as one of the only films that ever truly scared him.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has never been broadcast on television in America and has never been shown in England at all until a few years ago. The film has a reputation for being extremely gory, though in reality it is not a bloody film at all. Chainsaw’s attack is purely psychological, leaving viewers feeling they have witnesses much more than they actually have.

As it took three years for Chainsaw to earn its $30,000,000, at first Hooper did not find himself buried with offers to direct another film. When he was offered one, it was a strange little movie called Eaten Alive.

Eaten Alive is certainly not a worthy follow up to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre but as a low budget grindhouse film, it works. The mentally ill and drug addicted Judd (Neville Brand), is the owner of the run down Starlight Hotel. If the fact that the hotel is hanging by threats doesn’t keep customers away, Judd’s pet crocodile, which he keeps in a swampy pond off the hotel’s porch, will. Or maybe it won’t.

Tobe Hooper’s talent kept Eaten Alive from being a forgettable b-movie. This is a movie that is perfection in its pure campiness. Hooper also designed the movie so that it is never day nor night but always dusk. Eaten Alive also benefits from a very good cast, a mixture of television veterans like Stuart Whitman, Carolyn Jones, Mel Ferrer with horror icons Robert England, Kyle Richards, William Finely and Chainsaw’s Marilyn Burns.

If Eaten Alive didn’t serve as a rightful follow-up to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Tobe Hooper’s next project would. Producer Richard Kobritz had seen Chainsaw and was impressed with Hooper’s talent and felt he was the perfect choice to direct the made for television miniseries based upon Stephen King’s novel Salem’s Lot in 1979. Unlike many big screen directors, Hooper had no reservations of working in television and the project came with a budget of $4,000,000, unquestionably his biggest to date.

Like many of Tobe Hooper’s films, Salem’s Lot revolves around the idea of an evil house and the sort of people such a place would attract. David Soul plays Ben Mears, a bestselling author who has returned to his hometown to write a book on the Marsten House, the site of many mysterious and horrible incidents. When residents of Salem’s Lot begin the turn up dead, Ben begins to suspect the Marsden House’s new resident, an English dealer in antiques named Richard Stracker, played very effectively by James Mason.

Salem’s Lot is a great film. Despite being a television movie, it is of motion picture quality. Infact, a shortened version of the film was released theatrically oversees. David Soul and James Mason are both terrific as is the rest of the cast which includes Lance Kerwin, Bonnie Bedelia, Lew Ayers, Julie Cobb and Geoffrey Lewis. Not all of the novel’s fans liked the idea of Hooper and producer Kobritz changing Kurt Barlow (Reggie Nader), the suave vampire of the book into the more monster like creature in the film. You can’t please everyone.

Tobe Hooper’s third theatrical film, The Funhouse, was released in 1981 and was his best film to date. It was also his most difficult production. Rumors of Hooper’s cocaine addiction and a poor relationship with his producers plagued the filming of this really great film.

Though Universal Studios promoted The Funhouse as one of the many teen slasher movies that had come in the wake of John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) and Friday the 13th (1980), the movie was a clever blend of many different styles of horror movies woven together with plenty of humor-including parodies of Psycho and Halloween-and likable characters.

Elizabeth Berridge was very effective as high school senior Amy Harper who attends a funhouse with her best friend Liz (Largo Woodruff), Liz’s boyfriend Richie (Miles Chapin) and the James Dean like Buzz (Cooper Huckabee), a friend of Richie’s who Liz has set Amy up with.
The kids decide to stay overnight at the funhouse but their evening of fun turns to horror when they witness the death if Madame Zena (Sylvia Miles), a fortune teller and possible prostitute, by the hands of something that is not quite human.

The Funhouse received good reviews and the novelization by a young Dean Koontz (Which is still in print) was a bestseller but the film grossed only a little over $7,000,000. The Funhouse’s weak performance at the box office is likely more a result of Universal’s poor marketing of the film as it’s a great movie.

Hooper’s next project Poltergeist, promised to be the film that would break Tobe Hooper into the mainstream. The film had a then sizeable budget of $10,000,000 and was produced and co-written by Steven Spielberg.

Poltergeist Spielberg had originally planned to direct Poltergeist himself but a clause in his contract with Universal Studios prevented him from directing any other film while E.T.-The Extra Terrestrial was in any phase of production. Having admired Hooper’s work on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Spielberg hired him to direct Poltergeist.

Poltergeist was envisioned by Spielberg as being the flip side of the same coin as E.T.-The Extra Terrestrial. While one is the story about family who is visited by a friendly alien, the other is about a little girl who is abducted from her home by supernatural forces.
Poltergeist takes place in the same Spielbergian middle class suburban neighborhood as E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. In one of the homes, which is basically identical to the one on either side of it, lives the Freeling family: the parents, Steven (Craig T. Nelson) and Diane (Jobeth Williams), their children, 16-year old Dana (Dominique Dunne), 8-year old Robbie (Oliver Robins) and little 5-year old Carol Ann (Heather O’Rourke). At first the supernatural spirits are friendly but then turn to evil, taking Carol Ann.

Poltergeist is one of the greatest films ever made and Tobe Hooper’s fully realized and polished movie. The film has a great cast, special effects that are still stunning and a mesmerizing score by Jerry Goldsmith. Poltergeist was a huge hit, grossing over $70,000,000 and ranking as one of the 10 highest grossing movies of 1982.

Directing the 8th highest grossing movie of 1982 should have been the triumph that would have taken Tobe Hooper’s career to the next level. However, it wasn’t. While still in production, rumors began to circulate that Hooper’s cocaine addiction had become so severe that Steven Spielberg had to unofficially direct the film himself. As to who really directed Poltergeist? It’s a topic still discussed by film fans to this day. It’s of my opinion that Poltergeist was a collaboration between Hooper and Spielberg and that the film is a product of both their sensibilities.

It would be three years before Tobe Hooper, now drug free, directed his next film, 1985’s Lifeforce. Lifeforce was the first in a three picture deal Hooper signed with Cannon films and for my taste is not only the best of the three films but second only to Poltergeist as Tobe Hooper’s greatest movie.

Lifeforce was based on the 1976 novel The Space Vampires by Colin Wilson and is the story of a space shuttle, the Churchill, that while exploring Halley’ Comet discovers an ancient vessel at the tail end of the comet with two naked males and one female in hibernation. Back on Earth, the three aliens attempt an escape with only the female (Mathilda May) surviving. She has the ability to take a person’s life force, or soul, and it is believed by Dr. Fallada (Frank Finlay) that this alien race visited Earth in its distant past and is the source of the vampire legend.

Lifeforce is a brilliant film featuring a good cast that includes Steve Railsback, Peter Firth and Patrick Stewart, great visual effects and a driving musical score by Henry Mancini. However, as had happened with Tobe Hooper too many times before, Lifeforce was brutalized by critics and failed at the box office.

Hopper’s two other films for Cannon, Invaders from Mars and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, met the same fate. Invaders is actually an enjoyable if sometimes silly remake of the 1950’s film of the same name. Chainsaw 2 is an awful film and a horrible sequel. While the original film sacred its audience with psychological horror, the sequel is extremely gory for the sake of being gory. The humor in the film also fails and in some cases is offensive.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 marked the creative decline of Tobe Hooper. Over the last 30 years his cinematic output has consisted of such forgettable films as Spontaneous Combustion, The Apartment Complex, Crocodile and Mortuary. Though there have been a few exceptions like The Toolbox Murders and Djinn.

Despite these later misfires, from 1974 to 1986, Tobe Hooper’s star shined very bright. During this period he gave us such genre masterpieces as Poltergeist, Lifeforce, The Funhouse, Salem’s Lot and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. For these films alone, fans of cinematic horror will forever remember the name Tobe Hooper.

This article is dedicated to my dad and to the memory of Heather O’ Rourke, Dominique Dunne, Marilyn Burns and Gunnar Hanson.

Vampire Academy (2014) Film Review

vampire-academy-posterVampire Academy (2014) Film Review

Starring: Zoey Deutch, Lucy Fry, Danila Kozlovsky

Written By: Daniel Waters (Screenplay), Richelle Mead  (Novel)

Directed By: Mark Waters

Grade: C+

My initial viewing of Vampire Academy left me with very conflicted feelings. Part of me felt so let down and angered at Mark and Daniel Waters for bringing so little justice to the material of one of my favorite book series and dumbing it down in the process. Another part of me was so thankful and thrilled to have Rose and Lissa and the secret vampiric society they resided in before me on the big screen at all; something I had been craving for a long time. I followed this film coming to life every step of the way through development when it became clear it would become a reality. I wrote a review after seeing the film nearly two years ago, an extremely critical one, even attacking so many little details that in the grander scheme of things I now realize don’t have the damaging weight they seemed to at the time. I never published that review, because I think a part of me knew a lot of that was just the initial surprise of what the film ended up being after waiting to see it realized for so long. I knew a second viewing was essential to determine what my true views on the film would be. Luckily, during my second viewing I was able to enjoy the film a lot more, but that doesn’t mean the flaws weren’t still evident.

Rose Hathaway (Deutch) is on the run with her vampiric best friend, Lissa Dragomir (Fry), from their entire world. Lissa is the last in a royal line of moroi, a breed of endangered magic using, good-natured vampires. Rose is a dhampir, a breed of half-vampires/ half-humans who put their lives on the line to protect moroi. The biggest threat to the moroi are strigoi, the most lifeless, vicious eternal beings imaginable that the vampire legend was built around. There is not a shred of the humanity that once resided still in them; they are ruthless and extremely hard to kill. They are the poison of the vampire world; the worst fear come true that could end both the moroi and dhamphir species as well as turn the human world to complete destruction and chaos.

Rose has been trained to kill strigoi since she was a little girl as all guardians have. However, Rose’s allegiance to protecting Lissa at all costs goes deeper than the typical guardian responsibility. They’ve been best friends, practically sisters, for as long as they can remember. Their bond became even more intense when Lissa’s entire family died in a car crash and Lissa and Rose were the only survivors. They formed a literal mental bond, albeit a 1 way bond. What is going on in Lissa’s life will enter Rose’s mind at random times, but especially when she is hurt or in danger of any kind. It’s as if Rose is seeing it through Lissa’s eyes as she’s experiencing it in that very moment. Even when Rose isn’t seeing complete scenes, she can still feel her emotions, including fear. This comes in handy as Lissa faces many threats and Rose will die before letting anything happen to her.



We catch up with the girls after they’ve been on the run for a year, living outside of the walls of St. Vladimir’s Academy, or as Rose likes to call it “Vampire Academy”. They were warned of a great danger to Lissa that lied inside the walls of the academy. They don’t even know the face of this danger themselves, but Rose decided to escape first and ask questions later. Rose does everything she can, but fate finally catches up with her in the form of an unbeatable guardian god, Dimitri Belikov (Kozlovsky). They are dragged back to the vicious, unforgiving gates of St. Vladimir’s to face the consequences from the head mistress and worse yet, teenage gossip and jealousy that quickly turns far more morbid and cruel than your average bullying. Someone is taunting Lissa, her life very well might be in great danger. Lissa, determined not to be a victim anymore, takes matters in to her own hands. She dives deeper in to her very complex and unknown magical affinity, which begins to take a bigger toll on her and rips apart the person she once was, the person Rose will never stop fighting for.

It’s still evident to me that the Waters brothers were ashamed of “Vampire Academy” for being in the vampire sub-genre. Once Twilight came out there was such enormous hype around it, it also created such hate and prejudice of these types of films from then on. The vampire sub-genre seems to continuously get shamed before people even know what the content of a particular book, show, or movie holds. Vampire Academy, as a film, is an unworthy victim of that, even victimized by its own creators.

I was initially quite thrilled to hear of Mark and Daniel Waters involvement as the first “Vampire Academy” book especially had some strong statements on the ugly side of human nature and the cruel battlefront high school can be. The Waters’ brothers being responsible for bringing us Mean Girls and Heathers, two very smart, fresh comedies on the viciousness of cliques and drastic measures sometimes needing to be taken, I thought they would really take to the material and elevate it to something that was intelligent, rich, and truly made an impact. Sadly, it felt like they got lazy with the film and were trying to hide the promising and intriguing themes and story by throwing as many dumb one liners as they could at us, especially relying on Rose’s sarcasm. That felt really cheap to me, like a bad Disney channel show, insulting the audience by suggesting we are much less evolved than we are. Some of these lines really are things that don’t need to be said. It’s a staple of storytelling that everything that doesn’t add to the story takes away from it. The artificial comedy really doesn’t belong and strips away the heart of the dark situations and compelling characters and the story they have to tell.

I also think the marketing is partially to blame for this bombing like it did. It almost seemed like they were trying to turn the vampire element in to a gimmick, rather than something of great complexity and originality that it was portrayed as in the book series. I get that they were trying to appeal to as many viewers who were new to the story as possible. With fantasy epics like this, it’s so costly that the film really has to blow up at the box office or it’s a complete failure. So trying to appeal to mass audiences makes sense, but it was the fans of the books that supported the film. They were the ones that went out to the theater and even when many weren’t thrilled, still stood by it. The marketing attempted to make it look like an oversexed dumb teen comedy and didn’t bring in the new audience they had hoped for. In fact, it probably turned away some people in the process and rightfully so, because if you came looking for that you would have been disappointed. Vampire Academy, at least the original novel, is really the anti-dumb oversexed comedy; it’s more about strong, fierce women (and men) who have a higher purpose than just as sex objects.

Luckily, the film itself had more depth to offer than what the marketing campaign made it seem like it had, but still, it was obvious the focus was all wrong. They shouldn’t have tried to make it anything other than what it already was; an incredibly unique version of vampire mythology in the modern world with compelling politics, social statements, and unique powers and realities. The original material showed seriously fierce and lovable characters battling with demons of their own in addition to the more obvious monsters that constantly kept them in fear and on the defensive. I don’t think the Waters brothers diminished that completely, that is all still there in this film, but I also don’t think they tried very hard to bring out compelling themes or deeper meaning creatively or intelligently. There are many things consistent with how the story unravels in the books, the material is so strong, it holds some power itself, but it wasn’t appreciated and explored nearly as well as it could have been.

I’m still not sure whether it’s better or worse being a fan of the series going in this film. Yes, I had to deal with a lot of the dumb one liners when I knew the material was far better than that, but I knew the depth behind everything without it needing to be said; the true spirit of these characters and all they were up against. I already loved these characters and felt such strength through them. I knew the significance of many moments the audience members who didn’t read the books probably did not. Since the film didn’t truly embrace and bring out this potential though, I was also a lot more let down than non-readers of the book series probably were.

We do get an overview of this world and to give it a little bit of a break, it’s not easy to fit all the complexities of this world in to an entire book series, let alone in the introduction of a film without seeming too exposition heavy. I think they did a decent job of showing us what the realities of this world were. As with many adaptations there are some moments where the significance is lost. One of these moments is the weight of a dhampir giving blood to a moroi not being very effectively communicated. In this society, many female dhampirs end up being what they call blood whores, basically a dhamphir women live in communes who are often fed on by rich, powerful moroi men for pleasure, but never for love or hope of a future. Blood exchange during sex can be nearly as exhilarating for both parties as the sex itself, if not more so. It’s extremely taboo though, especially since it takes away all credibility and purpose for a dhamphir. It makes them nearly worthless to their society.  The resistance to becoming a blood whore is one reason most dhampirs become guardians; trained fighters, defending the moroi at all costs. It’s their chance to do something that matters; to show strength, rather than weakness. Especially for someone as determined and fierce as Rose, it could destroy who she is at her core and everything she fights for; her entire purpose. When rumors of both Lissa and other moroi vampires in the school taking Rose’s blood spreads, it’s more than idle gossip. It threatens to break who she is, simply out of jealousy and resentment by over-privileged people with their egos bruised.  I don’t think that comes across at all in the film, thus the deeper layers are lost and it risks seeming like that trivial high school film that marketing made it out to be.

All that being said, it probably sounds like I hated this movie. On the contrary, I genuinely enjoyed it and will likely own it and revisit it. I would even welcome another film, especially since it would give us one of my favorite fictional characters- Adrian Ivashkov! This is unlikely to happen due to the failure the first was financially though. Which is a shame, because some of the best material is still to come.

When you compare the film to the book, even with lowered expectations, it falls devastatingly short. Once you can let go of what it perhaps should have been, you can accept it for what it is, an offbeat vampire high school comedy/action/ female-centric coming of age film that reveals the secrets of this world, letting us glimpse inside as bigger evils and fears are introduced.  As I’ve covered, there are flaws, but on its own, they’re fairly inconsequential. Some of the forced comedy and unnecessary, hollow lines, are really the biggest weakness. They often rubbed me the wrong way and took me out of what could have been a strong moment. Even as an immense fan of the series and coming in to my second viewing of Vampire Academy with a much lowered opinion, really the only moments that took away from the material were those one liners that irked me. This tells me the average viewer not comparing it to anything and feeling at a loss for what wasn’t delivered, just judging it for what is there, there being a few dumb lines of dialogue for attempted comedic relief when threats, darkness, and the unknown surround our heroines, really isn’t such a bad offence and makes me have a higher opinion of it as an enjoyable film. I have to admit some of the comedy does work too. It’s not the intelligent, witty comedy I expected considering the creative forces behind the film, but it does make it a fun adventure to have with these complex girls you can’t help but love.

Rose (of the books) was always a complete rebel at heart. She was feisty, had attitude for days, and wasn’t afraid to challenge anything in a world where even questioning the way they protected both species was so against their nature. “They come first”, them being moroi, were the words they lived by. Nothing else mattered. Rose never questioned that, but she did question the way things worked in other aspects. Rose is one of the strongest female characters in YA fiction I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know and quickly came to love. She’s a character I hold inside myself and aspire to have a part of her come to life in my spirit and my own battles in life.

It’s hard not to feel like the fierceness of Rose was dulled down in the film, but we have to remember this is essentially just the first chapter and only so much can be portrayed in one film. We’re still at the point where Rose has never actually battled with a strigoi and is still in the shock phase when seeing one in the flesh, not to mention in many ways she’s still growing to be who she will become as a person. Readers of the books know Rose evolves and becomes so much stronger than she already is. We are just getting to know her. The truth is Rose’s defiant attitude and resilient spirit is shown in every frame of the movie, that was there from the beginning. Even among some of the less well written remarks she is given, the sarcasm matches her character perfectly. It also does a bit more than that. Rose is very much a part of this world, but she is not quite like anyone else that resides in it. With her never being afraid to challenge things or fight against every force that comes against her, even through poking fun at certain things or having sarcastic comments, in a way it binds the audience to her. We’re an outsider to this world, but through the eyes of an estranged warrior in training that essentially lives by her own rules, we feel more connected to it and are happy to have this adventure with her.

Any thoughts of Rose not being as fierce as she should be is really just the comedic flare sometimes clouding the more serious emotions and intensity that fuels through her. This tone is what the Waters’ chose to emphasize with her character in the film especially, but is also just the tone they choose for the film. It doesn’t make her any less fierce in reality. She is a warrior and we see the capability in her, but she is still learning and figuring out the person she will ultimately be. I initially had some regrets about Zooey Deutch playing Rose, but I think for who Rose was and the stage she was at in this film, Deutch did a fine job. She portrays everything Rose is from the spunky teenage girl to the relentless loyal spirit-bound guardian to the friend she could never bare to lose.

With any adaptation the actors are probably going to be a bit different than what you pictured for the characters. I have to say there’s something about Lucy Fry that didn’t quite match up to Lissa in my mind, but I really can’t have any complaints regarding her performance itself. She actually brought out quite a bit through her portrayal of Lissa. She was kind, a natural healer, emanated such a light, but was clearly a victim to the darkness, especially with how powerful she was and the unknown nature of the magic she carried within her. Even throughout getting sucked in to this darkness that took her victim, it was all because she didn’t want to be a victim. Rose protected her to the death. Most moroi knew the guardians were there to protect them and didn’t give another thought of fighting their own battles so to speak. She knew Rose would be there for her, but she didn’t want to depend on her, she wanted to take things in to her own hands. We see Lissa get lost and pulled away from her pure, kind- hearted nature. We see her flawed, confused, emotional, erratic, lost, and as she’s pulled out of this, she’s stronger for it, which should only make you love her more. Fry portrayed this all in a subtle, yet still powerful way.

Danila Kozlovsky made a great Dimitri, going with an authentic Russian actor definitely helped this truly feel like Rose’s favorite comrade. He portrayed the resolute, always 5 steps ahead, guardian powerhouse, while still letting that sliver of the man behind the stake come out. Rose is really the only one who he ever lets this sliver out for and even then it’s guarded, yet all the more precious when we see some deeper substance and charm from him. That is basically Dimitri in a nutshell and Kozlovsky nailed it. Overall, I don’t know if I saw their fiery passion and chemistry between Rose and Dimitri as much as it seemed I should, but it was definitely there, just more understated. Again, this is just the beginning, it builds, especially as Rose grows and they get deeper in to the danger that still lies ahead.

My favorite portrayal of all was Dominic Sherwood as Christian Ozera. I always was very intrigued by Christian in the books; I felt for him, understood him, and saw great strength in him. Especially regarding the Christian/ Lissa romance, there is no questioning how perfectly they compliment and support one another. She’s the vision of light to his perceived doomed darkness, but she has more darkness in her than others realize and he has more good. They balance this out in each other and bring out each other’s light. Despite seeming to be so opposite, they are like-minded souls who see something in each other that the rest of the word doesn’t. I must say Sherwood brought this character to life so perfectly. He brings out the outsider, somewhat creepy, and very misunderstood persona, but somehow in his portrayal it seemed so real and spoke to me in a deeper way than the character ever did in the book. His on screen presence is incredible and makes you gravitate towards him and the importance of his character holds so much more weight. Mr. Sherwood, I believe you are the one thing in this adaptation that exceeded the material in the books for me, well done. I officially have my eye on you.

I do appreciate that Daniel Waters was at least true to the story, keeping many iconic and memorable scenes from the first book. If it was just loosely inspired by the characters and the basic plot, without really telling the same story, I think there would be a lot more lost. One of the most notable scenes is when the allegations of Rose being a ‘blood whore’ come out and Christian being the bad ass, unlikely knight in shining armor he is, sets the deserving perpetrator on fire without moving a finger. It was portrayed just as it was in the books and is an example of how even if fans might be disappointed with some of the wasted potential, there’s a lot for us to appreciate too. Just the simple fact that these scenes aren’t just playing in our minds anymore, but on the screen before us, fully realized, is something pretty special.

Vampire Academy brings upon complex feelings for the existing fans of this story, where as those who are new to the story can likely watch it without all the baggage and issues and feelings of coming up short. However, they also will lose some of the depth and realization of just how remarkable it all is. Would I have liked to see what someone else could do with an adaptation of “Vampire Academy”, someone who truly embraced what it was, and wanted to expose and explore the strength, complexities, and power of this story? Yes, very much so. I also think they had the right idea with the new Shadowhunters series based on “The Mortal Instruments” books. It wasn’t as successful as a movie as it could have been, financially or creatively. It’s easier to get people to watch a TV show than to go out the theaters these days and a lot easier to be profitable. There’s so much more time to really spend the proper time on character development and gripping suspense, constant twists and turns, building the story in ways that are mind blowing and connect the audience to all that is going on. A lot of the setbacks in the Vampire Academy movie is that it is introducing a very different world and reality, very complex characters, and diving in to a rich, intricate story, that is really just the beginning of much bigger things. Even for someone who really wants to bring this material to the full potential, showing all the depth on hand, it’s not an easy task and a feature film with a world this expansive has limits. With that in mind, the shortcomings don’t seem so bad.

The characters are still infectious, multifaceted, and strong. We are still introduced to a very unique version of the vampire myth that not only exists hidden in our same world, but draws so many parallels with the politics of the vampire government and hierarchy to the more basic struggles of being a teenage girl in the hateful, backstabbing halls of high school. The only difference being that at vampire academy, vile, petty rumors become even more deadly by hiding the true enemy. Danger lies in the unseen shadows, which surround them. It’s a world and climate we can all relate to nonetheless. Some of the themes and importance of the story are ever so slightly hit on in these moments, which is something to appreciate. It reminds us this isn’t a hollow adaptation; it may not have the depth and importance of the books, but there is still some resonance and meaning there among a fun, imaginative world of vampires and spirited heroines who are just coming in to their own as they face the battles ahead of them. It may only scratch the surface of all that inspired the film, but even the surface is utterly captivating.

Brooke Shields: America’s Princess

402354b4093f2e4b91a5949846469151Brooke Shields: America’s Princess
By Michael Goth

If one young person could be picked who most personified the 1980’s, Brooke Shields is one such person who would come to mind. In fact, in a 1981 cover story Time magazine named Brooke, “The Face of the Eighties”.

Brooke’s career as an actress and model has been filled with contradictions. At a young age, Brooke appeared in several films that caused controversy over the sexual matter in which she was portrayed. As did the series of famous Calvin Klein print and television ads where 14- year old Brooke, often presented in a provocative manner, uttered the tagline “You want to know what comes between me and my Calvin’s? Nothing!”

Off screen Brooke was insecure, suffered from bouts of depression and didn’t lose her virginity until her early 20’s. She also headed a campaign in the early 1980’s to keep cigarettes out of the hands of children. Brooke spoke about these very contradictions in her recently published book There Was A Little Girl: The Real Story of My Mother and Me.

As an actress, Brooke has continued to act into her late 40’s, most notably in the sitcom Suddenly Susan, which ran from 1996 to 2000. However, as an actress Brooke will probably be best remembered for three coming of age dramas, Louis Malle’s Pretty Baby (1978), The Blue Lagoon (1980) and Franco Zeffirelli’s Endless Love (1981).

The only child of Frank and Teri Shields, Brooke Christa Shields was born on May 31, 1965 in New York City. Her parents were divorced before their daughter was even born and though Brooke would remain close to her father and step family, she was raised primarily by her alcoholic mother who could often be both physically and emotionally abusive. Despite this, Terri was very protective of her daughter and kept her safe from the darker sides of fame that have so often consumed many a young celebrity. Also, a real bond of love and affection existed between mother and daughter.

Brooke was the first member of Generation X, those babies born between 1965 and 1978, to achieve superstardom. And her road to the top began when Teri got her daughter cast in an Ivory soap ad when Brooke was 11-months old. A successful career in modeling soon followed.
Brooke’s first film role came at age 10 in the well-made but little known horror film Alice, Sweet Alice. Though like many low budget indie horror movies, Alice, Sweet Alice gained a cult following but quickly disappeared from theaters. Though Brooke’s role is small, she gives a solid performance that showcases her acting talent at such a young age.

Brooke’s break through film came in 1978 with Pretty Baby, a highly controversial film directed by Louis Malle, in which Brooke plays an 11- year old prostitute who lives with her mother in a brothel. Though Teri had it put into Brooke’s contract that her daughter would not perform any nude scenes and that a body double would be required, many questioned her wisdom in allowing her daughter to appear in such a film. Despite controversy over that some felt the film promoted child pornography, Pretty Baby and Brooke received positive reviews from critics. Pretty Baby was a hit overseas but didn’t perform well in America. The film moves at a snail’s pace and, frankly, who wants to see a film about an 11-year old prostitute?

Following Pretty Baby, Brooke appeared in several films that went unnoticed at the box office, though Wanda Nevada and Just You and Me, Kid are very enjoyable. Upon turning 14 in 1979, Brooke would be cast in the film that she would become most known for, The Blue Lagoon.
The Blue Lagoon was a pet project for Randall Kleiser, the director of the 1978 blockbuster Grease. The Blue Lagoon was based upon a novel by Henry De Vere Stacpoole and tells the story of two cousins, Emmeline (Brooke) and Richard Lestrange (Christopher Atkins), who become marooned on a deserted island. Away from the norms of society a passionate love affair develops between the young couple as they enter puberty.

The Blue Lagoon caused controversy over its depictions of underage nudity, though like in Pretty Baby, all of the scenes where Brooke’s character appears unclothed were performed by a body double. Despite its controversy, The Blue Lagoon is a very sweet coming of age story which was beautifully shot in the South Pacific and features strong performances from both Brooke and Christopher Atkins. To this day, The Blue Lagoon remains Brooke’s second best film.

The last film that Brooke would act in as a child actress was the 1981 adaptation of Scott Spencer’s 1978 bestseller Endless Love, the story of a doomed love affair between two Midwestern teens, 17- year old David Axelrod and 15-year old Jade Butterfield. Both Brooke and her mother felt that Endless Love was a good project as the great Italian director Franco Zeffirelli was attached to the film and the actress wanted to work with an artistic filmmaker, which she felt she hadn’t done since Pretty Baby. Also, Brooke loved Zeffirelli’s 1968 version of Romeo & Juliet.

In his autobiography, Zeffirelli: The Autobiography of Franco Zeffirelli, the director said that at first he was hesitant to work with Brooke but once filming began in Chicago, he found the young actress to be of promising talent. In There Was A Little Girl, Brooke spoke about how her famed director often bullied her but that she felt that he truly respected her as an actress.

Endless Love’s cast included unknown Martin Hewitt as David, Jade Butterfield’s (Brooke) troubled love interest as well as a strong supporting cast including Don Murray (Who Brooke said she loved in 1957’s Bus Stop), Shirley Knight, Richard Kiley, Beatrice Straight, James Spader and Tom Cruise in his film debut.

Brooke sites Endless Love as featuring what she considers her best performance which she attributes to working with Franco Zeffirelli. Endless Love is an amazing piece of work that is both moving and disturbing as it tells a story of love young turned obsession. After 34 years, it remains Brooke Shields greatest film and performance.

Avoiding the pitfalls that overcome many young actors, Brooke Shields has continued to work in film and television. The 1993 film Running Wild and the 2005 television movie Gone but Not Forgotten were especially memorable. However, Brooke Shields will probably always be remembered for her early roles as a child actress. As it is my opinion that she was the best there ever was.

Review: Within These Walls (2015)

MV5BMjE3MDYyOTQwOV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNzgxNjY0MTE@._V1_SX640_SY720_Directed by: James Tucker
Written By: Kelsey Zukowski (screenplay) & James Tucker (story)
Starring: Kelsey Zukowsk, Laura Godown-Mortensen, Felissa Rose, Marv Blauvelt, Jessica Rogers, James Tucker, Kate Atack.

Genre: Horror

Plot: A prisoner in her own home, a captive in her own body. Assaulted and trapped with no one to hear her cries for help…and knowing no one will believe her if they do. This is the terrifying reality Alaina finds herself in when she moves in to the house her mother died in. At first she thinks it’s the loss of her mother that is haunting her, but she is soon shown it is something far more malicious and unrelenting. The spirit taunts her as it invades her body, mind, and soul, completely trapping her. Alaina has to fight for answers on what really happened to her mother if she has any hopes of survival. She must find a way to endure this monster who lives and breathes to rob her of her sanity as it demands a savage hold on her.

Reviewed by Clifford Kiyabu (The Doctor)

Rating: 8/10

My Thoughts: What is it about the paranormal that sparks our curiosity? It is in our very nature as human beings to be drawn to the unknown… To bask ourselves in that which we don’t understand. Or is it the thirst for answers that pulls us in? Or is it something else? What happens when we stare deep into the abyss in search of answers and something stares back?

Directed by James Tucker and written by Kelsey Zukowski comes Within These Walls (2015). A haunting and chilling tale of a young woman’s endurance to unearth answers behind her mother’s death. Her search leads her down a dark and turbulent path of both physical and mental torment. Her only hope for survival is to endure and persevere.

WTW combines both classic and modern horror in a disturbingly delightful way while also setting its own artistic mark in the indie-horror genre. There’s no denying the film has qualities that are inspired by such cult classics as The Entity (1982), but by no means does it have similarities to it, nor does it rely solely on the inspiration. No, it relies on its own originality, which is wonderfully displayed in the writing, directing and performances. It’s a breath of fresh air in my opinion. Many horror films today (even in indie-horror) rely too heavily on shock value to carry itself rather than allow the story do its job, WTW however focuses on the actual plot to guide the film rather than cheap chills and thrills to keep viewers interested. Which in a sense has also become a signature of MS Zukowski’s style of writing. Anyone whose read her previous works know that everything has its purpose, nothing in place is there for mere shock value or cheap eye candy. WTW proves that good horror doesn’t require A-List actors, a superior budget, or even an over the top production to be astonishing. All that is needed is a cast and crew whom are passionate about the work and are dedicated to the art of filmmaking.

Where the directing and writing is impressive without question, the performances by the cast also proved to live up to expectations. Kelsey Zukowski performance as Alaina Olsen is amazing. You feel her pain, her torment… her struggle. You want to see her fight through it all to beat the odds. This is largely due to how fluent Zukowski comes off in the role and how well she’s able to project her emotions in the role. Marv Blauvelt and Laura Godown-Mortensen, who played Alaina’s parents were fantastic. Both actors share a form chemistry with the lead actress on screen that comes off as natural and honest.

Final Thoughts: WTW proved to be as amazing and fascinating as it was disturbing. I believe in the saying less is more, and in WTW’s case, the less you know going in the more you’ll get out of it. I highly recommend.

Life Itself (2014) Film Review

Life Itself Poster

Roger Ebert is the person who first got me to both understand and love movies. His words spoke to me greatly and got me to see movies as something more, to let them really have an effect. His words flew off the page and allowed me to experience so much through them. That was when I really learned the power of words, because his words changed my life. I clung on to that and wanted nothing more than to express the same understanding in such a beautifully vivid way. Since then I have always reveled in the challenge of putting together the puzzle pieces of thoughts and emotions after a film ends and it’s left a mark on you one way or another. Ebert awakened something in 14 year-old me, something that has become such a vital part of me. He inspired me then and he only inspired me more throughout time. Ebert touched so many lives, some I’m sure he realized, while some of these people he never met. Life Itself will offer closure for those of us who he had this impact on. It’s a heartfelt goodbye and one more chance to remain connected to this one of a kind film critic and man. The film reminds us how lasting his impact will remain through his memory, his work, and his infectious spirit. Even viewers who may not be Ebert fans will get a captivating story of one man’s legacy and they’ll begin to understand why many of us regard him so highly.

Life Itself is everything a film on legendary film critic, Roger Ebert’s, life should be. It’s gripping, honest, heartbreaking, inspiring, and even has comedy sprinkled throughout, matching Ebert’s wit. Most importantly it’s a movie that really hits you and makes you feel such raw intense emotion. Ebert held the classic films in high regard and was very analytical with a film’s technical and intellectual aspects, but what was even more important to him was the unique experience that a particular movie held and what it made him feel. Life Itself truly is an experience; one with gut-wrenching emotion on many different levels throughout.

Siskel & EbertThe film hits all angles, not just on the emotions and thought it invokes in the viewers, but showing us so many aspects of Ebert’s life. We are taken from Ebert’s childhood, becoming an editor by age 15, to getting a job at the Chicago Sun-Times right out of college and falling in to the open position of film critic 5 months later. The film follows his life as he became the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize and reflects on more troubling times like his battle with alcoholism. Life Itself spends the bulk of the time on Siskel & Ebert and the love-hate relationship between the two critics that might have initially been more hate, but over time stemmed in to a mutual respect and adoration for one another. Siskel’s replacement, Richard Roeper isn’t mentioned at all in the film however nor is there a single interview with him, which does feel a bit odd. I would have liked them to touch on this stage in the show and Ebert’s life, but for whatever reason they excluded this from the film.

The film wonderfully showcases just how large of an impact Ebert had on so many people’s lives, a few mentioned in the film include Martin Scorsese, Werner Herzog, and Errol Morris among many independent filmmakers who credit Ebert for drastically changing their careers and touching their lives. Scorsese talks about how he was at such a dark, low point in his life, ready to give up when Siskel and Ebert presented him with an honorary award at The Toronto International Film Festival, which he sites as a major turning point that drastically changed his life. Ebert saw the artistry, talent, and depth in Scorsese’s films, although he wasn’t always a fan of every film and didn’t hesitate to make clear just what he expected from him as a filmmaker. Scorsese says that at times Ebert seemed to recognize something in him that it took him years to discover about himself.

Life Itself is a very honest film. We are shown the true impact of Ebert’s outlook on film and the bigger picture, but we also see both Siskel and Ebert’s ego and relentless arguing (on and off screen) among their other flaws and complexities as individuals and together. Ebert didn’t want to portray anything but the truth about his life with this film. In an email to the filmmaker, Steve James, Ebert writes, “It would be a major lapse to have a documentary that doesn’t contain the full reality. I wouldn’t want to be associated. This is not only your film.” I think most of us will only respect him more for this. We are shown each chapter in Ebert’s life mostly in chronological order with various levels of Ebert’s fight with cancer weaved throughout.

LIFE ITSELFEbert sites his wife, Chaz, as the main reason he was able to go on fighting and still have such joy inside of him even when so much of the life he knew was being ripped away from him. Chaz is right there with him every step of the way with nothing but love and encouragement. We see a lot of lighthearted moments between them, clearly embracing each moment with the other and determined to keep the other’s spirits up. The film goes in to Roger and Chaz’s story, from when they met and how their love flourished from there. They saved each other in a way and their love is evident and completely heartwarming to witness.

There are so many wonderful little moments in Life Itself. It’s difficult to watch Ebert in the hospital and witness the struggle he faced. Some of these moments are the most touching though. This shows us his true character by allowing us to see him at his worst and there still being such a life to him. He never lost his love for film or his passion for writing and sharing that treasured cinematic experience with others. You can tell how much it killed him to leave his show, something that had become such a constant in his life for so long, but he didn’t let that defeat him. Ebert turned to his blog as his outlet and to his readers that were on this journey with him as the viewers of this film are. He acknowledged how difficult everything he was going through was, but we see such a spark of excitement when he got the chance to watch a film again. He explains how writing allows him to go in a zone, to escape from his troubles, and put his energy and spirit in each shot of a film he took in and each word he typed thereafter.

I’ve always respected that Ebert didn’t have the cynicism or prejudices towards certain film genres like other mainstream film critics. He still had a way of appealing to the masses. Ebert had such a vivid and emotional response to movies that you felt that much more connected to him, almost as if you experienced the film through him. He judged films for what he saw in them and what they made him feel even when it wasn’t a popular opinion or what others expected of him. Ebert was also fiercely loyal to the Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago as a whole, which is nearly a character in the film itself. As he became more and more prolific he was given job offers left and right for the most well respected publications in the country. No matter how much money was thrown at him he never even considered it. He found his home and his colleagues were his family, there was no reason to look elsewhere.

Ebert could appeal to film scholars just as much as the average American; his reviews connected to people, spanning all ages and walks of life. A very important part of this is that he had a genuine love of cinema which is wonderfully celebrated in Life Itself. He wanted to like a movie going in to it and he was the first to recognize it when a film presented something of value, whatever it might be. He fought for the films he believed in. Ebert made friends with many filmmakers he respected, yet wouldn’t let these friendships cloud his judgment and his responsibility to give his audience an honest review. His voice would never falter or be compromised.

This made his work and perspective stand out from others, gave a new life to film critics, and even spawned a wider appreciation for film. This genuine love and voice that became such a vital part of Ebert never left him no matter how grim things became. He couldn’t talk, eat, or walk, yet he still lost himself in the movies and his craft again and again. In the film Ebert says that in his last year through his blog he became a stronger writer than ever. Most people would have lost the energy and drive, lost the passion, questioned why fictional character’s problems and the world they lived in mattered when their reality seemed so hopeless as their world was quickly ending. It would be so easy for him to flee from a medium that could likely remind him of his pain and suffering rather than giving him a way to fight through it. Not everyone is Roger Ebert though. His passion only became stronger, giving him something to hold on to dearly. He kept on writing and threw so much of himself in to it. Whether you admire Ebert’s writing and perspective as much as many did or not, his relentless determination to keep up with his passions, diving in to them even further, and letting his voice linger on for all those that cared to listen as well as for himself, is one of the most inspirational things I can think of considering all that he was up against. Ebert lost the ability to use his voice in one sense, but he never let his literary voice die. He had great strength and never lost that. Witnessing this is truly breathtaking. Life Itself is a moving cinematic experience I highly encourage all to engage in.

“The soldier of cinema, a wounded comrade who cannot even speak anymore but he soldiers on. That touches my life very deeply.” – Werner Herzog in Life Itself

Life Itself Roger Ebert


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