Greatest MCU Scenes: Captain America: Civil War – Peter Parker Meets Tony Stark

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The Setup: Sony has held ownership over Marvel’s Spider-Man film license since 1998, and through the bulk of the 2000’s, audiences were satisfied. Then Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3 released. A misstep undoubtedly, but surly Raimi would redeem himself with a part 4, Right? Nope. Given Sony’s forced inclusion of the symbiote suit and Venom into Spider-Man 3’s narrative, Raimi felt a Parker-like responsibility to hold full creative control over the follow up as to ensure a less muddled outcome. Naturally, heads butted, so Sony decided to push the emergency reboot button on the franchise. The decision was disastrous. Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) suffered as a lifeless retelling of an overly familiar story and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014) fell victim to more executive meddling, shoving in as many villains and sub-plots as possible to ensure brand recognition for Sony’s planned (at the time) Sinister Six spinoff. Most importantly, the box office returns for both were nowhere near where they should be for movies featuring one of Marvel’s most recognizable characters.

Sony was in desperate need of direction. Cue every Marvel fan’s dream come true when Marvel Studios extended their hand to cut the tangled web Sony found themselves in. Deciding if you can’t beat them, join them, Sony allowed Kevin Feige, producer and creative overseer of the highly successful Marvel Cinematic Universe, to integrate a newly rebooted version of Spidey into his Avengers-connected movies. Feige and his team would take full creative control over the character and his narrative within the MCU while Sony would collect the profits from each of the solo Spider-films. Fans were happy. Marvel was happy. Sony was happy. And after announcing Tom Holland as the new Peter Parker to be fist introduced in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, directed by the Russo brothers, every spider-fan was foaming at the mouth to find out how Peter Parker would fit into an established Marvel cinematic universe.

Why it’s great: If you were there opening night of Civil War’s premier, chances are your theater erupted in ovation when the Queens title card encompassed the screen. An hour and fifteen minutes had already passed and given just how engaging the story and conflict between Steve Rogers and Tony Stark was up to that point, it could easily have been forgotten that a certain web-slinger was soon to be involved. And what better way to announce the character’s entrance, not through the grandiosity of Spider-Man swinging into action, but with the quaint Peter Parker in his humble neighborhood. Alt-J’s “Left Hand Free” plays as a segue into Parker’s world, capturing perfectly the youthful energy of a sixteen year old returning home from school and riding a high from nailing his algebra test.

The Russo’s choice to have Aunt May raising Peter in an apartment rather than in a house, as had been tradition in all Spider-Man media up to this point, was smart given how outlandish owning a house in Queens on a middle-class income is today compared to the character’s debut in the sixties. And the modest setting adds strides to Peter’s shock of finding a world-famous, billionaire superhero awaiting him in his living room. Peter mumbles and bumbles his way through grasping the situation while Tony winks and raises his eyebrows, signaling him to play along in front of his aunt. It’s a hilarious moment that instantly has you loving Holland’s rendition of the character, connecting with the relatable awkwardness of trying to keep his cool in an inconceivable situation, nearly losing himself to nerves and astonishment. And given how well known the character is, there’s no need to spell out the stakes right away, we know Peter keeps his identity secret from May, Tony could ignite his life by letting that cat out of the bag right there in his living room.

Tony knows the power he holds over Peter and flaunts it in the most Tony Stark way possible. When the scene moves to Peter’s bedroom and Peter tries to press Tony for answers, Tony responds, “me first,” and pulls up footage of Spider-Man to show what he knows. There’s no greater Tony Stark trait than taking control of a situation and showing that he holds all the cards. Tony’s in investigation mode, trying to find out if Peter is the real deal. He’s clearly studied this new hero in Queens, even tracked him to the point of discovering his identity, but he’s still suspicious. Could a sixteen-year-old kid really pull off the tech and smarts he needs to do what he does? As the scene progresses, Robert Downey Jr. conveys a subtle warming up to Peter as he discovers that this kid is just like him, a teenage Tony Stark from much humbler beginnings, without the money and inheritance to fund his genius. When Peter reveals that he invented his own webbing, Tony tries his best to hide his visible shock. He might have a contender for smartest person in the room, and it’s a high school kid.

Mid-scene, Tony gets Peter to fess up to his secret identity and refers to the fledgling hero as Spider-Boy. Peter, somewhat embarrassed, tells Tony that he goes by Spider-Man. Given the MCU’s timetable, Peter would have grown up with Iron Man and the Avengers in the news, looking up to and being inspired by their heroics. So, when he got bit by a spider and acquired powers of his own, putting on a costume and giving himself a superhero identity would have been, to an extent, influenced by coming of age in an Avengers-world. Likewise, Tom Holland grew up in a time that Iron Man and The Avengers dominated the box office and zeitgeist. The Russos have been candid in saying this was an essential aspect to casting Holland. The intimidation Tom felt while acting one-on-one with a veteran actor he grew up admiring translated perfectly to Peter’s headspace in the scene. The moment when Tony gets up to sit next to Peter and tells him to “move the leg” wasn’t scripted. Tom forgot his stage direction and Robert was calling out the rookie mistake. It’s this real-life dynamic that blossomed the mentor/mentee relationship between Tony and Peter with such grace. And Tom, in the course of just this one scene, solidifies himself as the definitive on-screen Peter Parker. His body language and voice displays a bashful diffidence on the surface, while at the same time giving the slightest fragments of assurance and strength that slowly reveal themselves throughout the scene – most notably when Tony throws a webbing cartridge and Peter catches it instinctively without looking, or in the final moment when Peter stands up, pumps out his chest and webs Tony’s hand to the doorknob in reaction to Tony threatening to “tell Aunt Hottie.”

Perhaps the most notable aspect of this scene is that it reiterates Peter’s origin without feeling like a retread of already covered ground. Which is saying a lot, considering this was the character’s second reboot in four years. Peter’s admittance that he’d love to play football but “couldn’t then, so I shouldn’t now,” says precisely what Uncle Ben would have taught him off-screen, that if he’s got a gift, he must use it to help others rather than himself. Tony then emphasizes that Peter’s different, to which Peter quickly retorts, “But I can’t tell anyone that, so I’m not.” With just that line, we feel Peter’s isolation from having to hide his gifts from his peers in order to conceal his identity. And then, instead of using the exhausted “great power, great responsibility” line, Peter says, “When you can do the things that I can, but you don’t, and then the bad things happen, they happen because of you.” Combining that line with Holland’s display of internalized torture, the guilt, pain and responsibility Peter feels over his Uncle’s death is conveyed without a single mention of Ben Parker or the moment he died. At a time when the Uncle Ben origin had been retold countless times in various mediums, this moment of subtlety was all that was needed for the MCU to make a nod to that crucial event so it could finally move into new storytelling territory.

Tony hearing and being affected by Peter’s philosophy is key to the overarching narrative of Civil War. At this point in the story, Tony was just commanded by General Ross to put a team together and bring in Steve Rogers. He’s wrestling with the hard fact that his and Rogers’ apposing beliefs may lead to battle. Tony’s doubts are kicking in. So, when a sixteen-year-old kid explains the simple idea of individual responsibility to do what’s right, Tony’s reminded why he signed the Sokovian Accords in the first place, to prevent the bad things from happening before they happen. He’s provided a much-needed reminder on why he’s fighting for what he believes in.

What really makes this scene great is that it shouldn’t have worked at all. Adding a popular character into a movie after just acquiring the rights to said character has “disjointed mess” written all over it. The truly amazing part is that it provides a much needed, middle of the story, fleshing out of both a prominent theme in the movie – the responsibilities of those with great power – and Tony Stark’s character motivations. And at the same time, it reboots and introduces the latest rendition of Spider-Man into the MCU, all in one impressive scene that is an engaging rollercoaster ride of tremendous chemistry, humor and emotion.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010): Confronting Repressed Trauma

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Opinions regarding the plethora of sequels and spin-offs from 1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street vary from one horror connoisseur to the next, but the 2010 reboot is easily the most collectively abhorred of the series. Discredited by critics as a pale imitation of Wes Craven’s horror classic, the Michael Bay produced Freddy Krueger vehicle does have its fair share of derivative ingredients to back up those denouncements. From dialogue that hits square on the nose to abandoning the colorfully surreal nature of the original for more bleak, saturated cinematography, it’s no surprise there was a stringent rejection by Craven purists. But what is greatly overlooked and undervalued about director Samuel Bayer’s updated vision is that it evolves the core concept of the original into its own darkly absorbing tale that explores the deep-seeded effects of childhood trauma.

Craven’s nightmare dealt with a deranged individual who murdered children when he was alive, but to the late director’s admittance, he abstained his original idea to make Krueger a child molester as well, believing sensitive audiences at the time would reject his vision of the most evil person he could possibly imagine. This of course did nothing to detract from what made the original a classic to this day, that the monstrosity of Freddy is but a placeholder for the unassailable darkness deeply seeded within the human psyche. Thoughts of death, depression or existential dread can all be projected onto what Freddy’s nightmares represent, but the very idea that the children in the white-bread suburban town of Springwood had to face this unseeable, but very real, evil on their lonesome while their parents attempted to suppress and deny its existence spoke significantly to a generation.

By the time the reboot came to its 2010 fruition, the new storytellers decided to go all in on the notion that Freddy was a child molester. This provided the opportunity to explore lead characters who had been personally victimized by Krueger as young children, as apposed to Nancy and her friends from the original who were never confirmed to share any personal relation to the tragedies of their town’s past. Having a new cast of characters slowly discovering their memories of being abused by a child predator cast an even darker shadow on this new iteration, but it resulted in a unique investigation of repressed wounds.

The remake abandons all characters from the original, save for the lead’s first name, Nancy, and, of course, head honcho slasher, Freddy Krueger. But Freddy takes on a slightly different persona here. Gone is the playful trickster Robert Englund excellently conquered the personality of. Instead, Jackie Earle Haley brings the grim and scary, conveying a jaws-like inevitability while approaching his victims, feverishly rubbing his finger-knives together, hungry for blood. His voice booming and arresting. This is one intimidating rendition of Freddy. And it all works to portray a more aggressive abuser necessary for this new narrative.

The movie begins, like the original did, by tricking the audience into thinking the lead roll belongs to another. Though her screen presence lasts a mere ten minutes longer than Tina’s from the original, our time with Kris actually feels more intimate, witnessing more of her nightmares as she searches for clues from her childhood. Even those who have seen the original might be tricked into believing Kris is the head scream queen. As Kris recounts her nightmares of Freddy to her boyfriend, Jesse, it becomes clear that he too has been encountering the same monster in his own dreams. As the teens in this story move into adulthood, the nightmares that begin bubbling are memories of repressed physical and sexual abuse they experienced in pre-school from the grounds gardener at the time, Freddy Krueger. But Jesse denies Freddy and the very real past he and Kris share with him. When Kris ends up dead at the hand of Krueger’s nightmare, Jesse can no longer deny the truth.

The deaths in this movie are a direct metaphor for a victim’s suicide when the haunting memories of abuser’s actions become too overwhelming to bare. At the start of the story, the first of the victimized teens to die, Dean, is forced by the specter of Freddy to cut his own throat. “You’re not real,” he screams just before making the slash. Just as anyone who must confront the hard reality of a traumatizing past, denying the truth of such a memory can lead down an insufferable road that, all too often, ends in tragedy.

After Kris and Jesse end up dead by way of nightmare, Nancy and Quentin take on the roll of investigators to a past that’s back to haunt them. Both characters are outcasts to a length, with Nancy the most socially introverted. As an artist, she stays indoors and in touch with her creative side, a trait often manifested in those who have suffered a damaging past.

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As the two characters avoid sleep at all cost, their tired appearances evoke a visual resemblance to that of drug abuse. The less they rest to avoid the nightmare of Freddy, the more pronounced the shadows under their eyes and the blotching in their skin appears. The lack of sleep Nancy and Quentin undergo here is purposely analogous to a victim’s turning to harmful drugs to suppress the pain from their wounded psyche. In both cases, it’s the only way to avoid a cruel ghost of the past. The movie makes this connection most notably in a scene where Quentin drives to a pharmacy to refill the pills he needs to stay awake while Nancy awaits in the parked car. Quentin aggressively begs and pleads to a pharmacist who refuses to refill his prescription, while Nancy – covered in sweat as though fighting withdrawals – reaches for the car’s plug heater and jams it into her forearm to jolt herself awake. Her relief from the sensation comparable to a junkie’s relief from self-injecting a needle.

About halfway through the movie, Quentin experiences a nightmare that reveals his and Nancy’s parent’s involvement in Krueger’s murder. After finding out their parents committed the crime without any hard proof of Krueger’s wrongdoings, Quentin and Nancy begin to sympathize with their former abuser, believing he may not have actually been guilty of the heinous violations their parents accused him of. This uncertainty Quentin and Nancy feel is akin to the regret that many real-life victims experience when making accusations against their abuser. The mental wounds inflicted by the victimizer can be so domineering that, in some cases, the victim will actually be convinced that their own memories of the past are a lie. And it’s this misplaced belief of being in the wrong that lead Nancy and Quentin right into Freddy’s trap.

When their investigation takes them to the basement under their former pre-school, Nancy and Quentin find undeniable evidence of Freddy’s disgusting violations against them and their classmates as children. But Freddy wants them to remember, just as any true victimizer would, because their memories are what grants him his power over them. As Quentin puts it, “We were wrong. He’s not after us because we lied. He’s after us because we told the truth.” The nightmares they experience aren’t due to their own wrongful accusations, they’re from very real scars that were inflicted on them beyond their control. A fact that is, sadly, oftentimes difficult for victims of repressed trauma to accept.

In the climax, Nancy makes the choice to confront the trauma of her past once and for all by willingly entering Freddy’s nightmare in an attempt to capture and bring him into reality. After all, the only way any victim can truly overcome traumatic stress is by first acknowledging and accepting the reality of it. Once there, Freddy ties Nancy down in bed with her childhood dress, forcing her to relive the nightmare he made of her childhood. He tells Nancy to, “Look what you did to me,” while gesturing at his burnt face, attempting to, once again, elicit her guilt for the consequences of his own actions. But this time Nancy fights back, wise to his illusions. Managing to bring him into reality and, with the help of Quentin, subdue him, she cuts off his razored hand – dismantling the very appendage used to assault her and her classmates as a child – and slices his head off, killing him once and for all. An affective sequence that displays the attainable empowerment found from confronting and coming to terms with psychological wounds of the past.

Although in no way a game changer to the horror genre, 2010’s A Nightmare on Elm Street brought new layers of depth to a well that had long since been run dry. As a remake, it takes the essential ingredients of the original and uses them as a means to explores the psychological ramifications of child molestation in an allegorical manner that is both raw and empowering. It also manages to restore a level of tensity and terror that had been long lost on legendary slasher, Freddy Krueger. These additions to the series alone make this reboot, at the very least, a worthy endeavor.

 

 

 

 

 

The Invisible Man Review

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The Invisible Man opens on Elisabeth Moss’ Cecilia as she makes a carefully planned escape from her abusive husband in the dead of night, tactically leaving the bed they share and shutting down the high tech alarm system that safeguards their secluded home by the ocean. It’s quiet and we know the jump scares are inevitable as she scampers around the darkened house, any wrong move can sabotage her plan. The fast-beating tension penetrates effectively because we’re in Cecilia’s headspace, anxiously hoping for her escape. We feel her terror. But we’re provided no context as to why she should be so frightened by the man she shares a bed with, no flashbacks to set up the anguish he’s caused her. We simply take Cecilia’s in-moment terror as all the needed proof. We take her word for it. This trust we find in the alleged victim will define the rest of the movie.

Having escaped the clutches of husband Adrian, Cecilia takes solace in the home of her best friend James and his daughter, Sydney. The trauma from whatever horrors Adrian must have inflicted linger strong as Cecilia can barely muster the courage to step outside her new shelter. But the good news she soon receives – Adrian has suddenly killed himself and left behind millions of dollars for her – quickly becomes a nightmare when an unseeable presence begins exacting psychological torment on Cecilia. Could she be loosing her mind? Let’s just say it’s no coincidence that Adrian was a genius scientist who specialized in optics.

Drawing from the over 120 year old H. G. Wells tale about a man who uses science to turn himself invisible and scare the hell out of everyone around him, writer/director Leigh Whannell not only finds a way to reinvent this classic concept as a timely metoo metaphor, he also manages to create a truly memorable horror super-villain. Adrian doesn’t just want revenge on Cecilia for leaving him, he wants to see her suffer in all the worst imaginable ways. He grants her the relief she aches for by letting her believe he’s dead. He awards back her agency in life by giving her the money that she in turn donates to friend Sydney’s college fund. He endows the picture perfect life to Cecilia, if only for the sadistic enjoyment of stripping it all away. And he does it as any great villain would, by striking at the heart, turning Cecilia’s support system against her and destroying her very identity to the point of seemingly no return.

The notion of trusting in what your own eyes can’t see is handled with superb affect by Whannell who, through the first half of the movie, elicits unease from the simplicity of the unknown. Casually turning the camera from Cecilia’s mundane actions to a vacant corner of the room triggers serious anxiety. At least we can keep an eye on how Michael Myers is about to strike when he’s face to face with his victim, here we’re left with nothing but imagination. That is, until Elizabeth Moss brings the hard-hitting reactions. No stranger to the portrayal of female subjugation with the likes of Mad Men and The Handmaid’s Tale, Moss is the ideal fit, now able to fight back in more empowering ways than ever that only this kind of genre fiction can provide a platform for.

Benjamin Wallfisch’s score provides an arresting presence for the invisible man. Not unlike what Hans Zimmer’s stress induced strings brought to the joker in The Dark Knight, the phantom-like theme for this movie equips a suffocating inevitability to the unseeable evil. The action sequences in the ladder half, featuring an invisible man who’s invisibility is wearing off, gracefully transitions us from horror to action-thriller. Well choreographed and filmed with few cut aways, it’s no surprise Whannell nails these scenes given that his last film, Upgrade displayed a practical mastery for adrenaline-induced action.

If there’s a gripe to be had though, it’s with how the script forcefully transmits Cecilia’s isolation. After the invisible Adrian tricks best friend James into thinking Cecilia assaulted his daughter, James takes off with his only child in a protective rage, leaving Cecilia alone at his home for the remainder of the day and the entirety of the night. Given his knowledge and sympathy for Cecilia’s abuse up to this point, it’s hard to buy James leaving his supposedly mentally unstable friend alone for so long. A similar contrivance occurs with Cecilia’s sister shortly after. It’s all made to sell the idea that even those closest to a female victim are quick to victim blame, but such an important insight deserves less extreme and more finesse. The subtler approaches to this observation throughout – moments when Cecilia’s friends listen to her theory of an invisible Adrian with skeptic confusion, wanting to trust her but hesitant to – are far more effective in driving the point home.

The fact that we’re provided no flashbacks to Cecilia’s abusive relationship with Adrian may at first glance seem like a flaw, but in hindsight works to inform a legitimately strong ending. One that, without spoiling anything, will force audiences to question just how much they believe their heroin and the morality behind the ultimate justice served. The answers will very from person to person and gender to gender, but the ambiguity we’re left with is an undoubtedly clever way to start a conversation regarding society’s response to female victimhood.

This one just hit theaters over the weekend. Check it out if you want to see Peggy Olsen advertise an all new line of crazy, MC Ren duke it out in a rigged fight with an invisible man, some genuinely unexpected narrative twists and the one minute removal of stained paint from a suit that even Billy Mays would be shocked to witness.

 

Brahms: The Boy 2 Review

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The awkwardly titled, Brahms: The Boy 2, sees the the original movie’s director, William Brent Bell, returning to the antics of the off-putting creepy doll known as Brahms. This time with an all new cast of characters to be terrorized by the pale figurine’s mischievousness. But while the first Boy movie managed memorability thanks to its rambunctious twist ending, the sequel commits the crucial sin of being, quite simply, boring.

After a vicious home invasion attack on Liza (Katie Holmes) and son Jude (Christopher Convery) while her husband (Owain Yeoman) was away, the family decides to leave behind the wounds from the city and move into a secluded mansion in the woods. Jude’s mental shock from the assault has left him mute, but when he finds Brahms the doll buried in the land near their new home, Liza can’t shake the feeling of a sinister influence from her son’s new playmate. Are the peculiar happenings around the house a result of Jude acting out his psychological stress or is there a spiritual malevolence within Brahms?

Bell demonstrates moments of legitimate talent behind the camera here with some genuinely well produced shots throughout. The opening home invasion sequence starts by building tension with the ominous shadow of a burglar under the transparent stairs that an unaware Holmes walks down. The lighting plays an affective roll and the boxlike structure of the family’s swank apartment showcases the claustrophobic trauma their city living leaves them with. And the closeup shot (as seen in the trailer) of Brahms and Jude’s faces while the doll and the boy meet for the first time is an intriguing reflection of the blank slate that Jude’s traumatic encounter has left in him.

Unfortunately, all the camera pizzazz in the world couldn’t save the fact that the plot stays mind numbingly stagnant, almost stubbornly so, as if it feels insecure in stepping out of its overdone genre trappings. It meanders while hitting all the familiar beats and delivers no shortage of jump scaring. A horror movie can get away with a handful of standard jump scare fare, but not only does Brahms deliver way too many, it makes them its bread and butter. And it does this all while pulling the phew, it was just a bad dream card all too often, to the point of being a fall back from building any real tension or stakes. These dream sequences are mostly made to emphasize Liza’s mental anguish from her survived home invasion encounter, but it gets to a point of hitting them over the audience’s head to fill a runtime and check some conventional scare boxes.

Buried beneath the saturated mundaneness lies a stimulating seed about a mother’s insecurity for being unable to protect her son and the harbored guilt she bares in being responsible for his mental damage. But not only does the fruitless script keep this idea from growing, the dull casting provides little assistance as well. Katie Holmes delivers all that you might expect out of her, but she’s also never given a proper moment of emotional confrontation to let the audience form a real connection to her inner turmoil. Christopher Conveyer as young Jude portrays a numbingly banal version of horror’s latest creepy child. Ralph Ineson shows up as an offbeat groundskeeper. His energetic performance, especially in the final act, is a curious one to say the least. A miss for his talent given his much more effectively withheld work as the father in 2015’s The Witch. But it doesn’t help that the character he’s playing here is one of the most by the numbers versions of eccentric exposition guy for family in haunted house.

Any hope that the climax can make this humdrum by-product of every other scary doll movie worth the watch is shot down with a substantial letdown of an ending. The way the evil of the nefarious Brahms is overcome feels less like an insightful challenge for the characters and more like an excuse to end the tedious endeavor as quick as can be. At this point, a sincere confrontation is in order for a mother and her child, but little weight is held in their moment while little Jude’s face is covered in a Brahms-like mask. It all amounts to stuffy lifelessness.

This one just hit theaters this weekend. Check it out if you want to see the psychological horror from the first movie completely undone with no subtlety whatsoever, Katie Holmes throw burning candle wax at a weird guy’s face, identical matching clothing on a little boy and his doll and the gruesome outcome when a dog thinks it can fuck with Brahms.

Fantasy Island Review

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After the not so well received, critically or financially, Truth or Dare, Blumhouse Productions decided to give director Jeff Wadlow and star Lucy Hale a second chance at winning over the hearts of horror fans. Unfortunately their second swing, Fantasy Island, and it’s one hell of a swing, quickly turns from a fun-enough gander at the vicarious nature of movie viewing into a perplexing soap opera that overstays its welcome. 

Loosely based on the 70’s television show, this thrill-induced reimagining begins as five contestants arrive at Fantasy Island where their most desired fantasies are promised to come true. Michael Peña plays Mr Roarke, a mysterious host who cryptically brings his guest’s fantasies to life. By the time the credits roll, you’ll either be deeply bothered or laughably impressed by his consistent over-delivery of “fantasy” (“Let me officially welcome you to Phahntasy Island,” “there is only one phahntasy per guest,” “you must see your phahntasy through no matter what”).

Fantasy Island‘s strongpoint is in the setup for each of its character’s fantasies. The first hour alludes to an amusing examination of the deceptive fantasies that movies can sell audiences. Melanie (Lucy Hale) wants revenge on a bully (Portia Doubleday) who’s high school abuse caused years of mental anguish, so she’s presented with a torture chamber setup to physically, mentally and socially destroy her harasser any way she pleases. Only Melanie believes its all smoke and mirrors, that she’s only tormenting a hologram. Not unlike a horror movie audience deriving enjoyment from on-screen suffering. As long as it’s not actually real, it’s okay. But when Melanie comes to grasp the realism of her actions, her attitude turns to empathy.

The notion of delving into the raw realities of a life that some movies sell as ideal fantasies is an intriguing one that Fantasy Island drops all too fast. Elena (Maggie Q) gets to live out her ideal life with her ideal man, the happily ever after promised from romance movies that just won’t sit right with her for some reason. Bradley (Ryan Hansen) and Brax (Jimmy O. Yang), the two brothers and token comedic airheads, choose to “have it all,” only to learn the burdensome cost when competing gangs come to take it all from them in a Scarface-esque raid. And Randall (Austin Stowell), having dreamt his whole life of joining the military, confronts the atrocities of warfare that your average heroic war movie may gloss over and glorify.

Had it operated safely, stuck to its breezy, slightly sarcastic horror tone and played out a transparent plot for the remainder of its second hour, Fantasy Island would have made out just fine. But it doesn’t. The schmaltzy, insipid terrain it instead enters only baffles and begs the question, what were they thinking? Remarkably large plot holes regarding the ludicrous rules of the island stand out while characters, one after another, throw out convoluted narrative twists as if they’re in competition for most ridiculous shocking reveal. Each one of these turns is described in overbearing detail to drive home what’s happening, only to backfire and cause even more bewilderment. It doesn’t make any sense is an often unearned and overused description to quickly shoot down movies, but this one proudly earns that description. Wadlow is clearly aiming for absurdist B-movie enjoyment, but that’s a tough invitation to accept when the choppy tone seems just as lost on the cast as it is to the audience.

This one just opened in theaters. Check it out if you like backflips on fly boards at the best island party ever, beautiful people, more beautiful people, strange accents in devil face masks and Angela from Mr. Robot being Angela from Mr. Robot…on a magical island!

Come to Daddy Review

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Turns out Come to Daddy isn’t the next video in your Pornhub cache, it’s actually the Auckland based Ant Timpson’s feature film debut. A debut that declares his appreciation for a vast range of cinema, from reflective indie examinations to grindhouse carnage. Timpson affectionately makes the movie he wants. If only the result wasn’t as scatterbrain.

We open to the Beverly Hills based Norval Greenwood (Elijah Wood) trudging through a dense Oregon forest on his way to estranged father, Gordon’s (Stephen McHattie) secluded cabin. The don’t go in the woods trope lingers heavy and keeps you guessing just how and when this story will enter deadly territory.

The entire first act is especially intriguing while Norval, so set on building a relationship with a father that’s been vacant for thirty years of his life and is just now reaching out, ignores the treacherous nature that we can just taste in McHattie’s performance. Why would Gordon invite the son he abandoned to his secluded lake house only to treat him as an unwelcome smudge? Timpson relishes our played expectations. One moment you may have this one pegged as a man coming to terms with his remote dad narrative, the next maybe a quirky love drama between a hipster man-child and a blunt, small town coroner. But when the mystery’s put to rest and the gory mayhem takes off, the jarring curve this path takes feels like a let down.

Elija Wood, however, is anything but a letdown. Wood, much like Daniel Radcliffe, is determined to shed his fantasy epic stardom by jumping into obscure indie flavored rolls he’s passionate about, putting everything he’s got into Norval who, on paper, is the kind of superficial Hollywood d-bag you’d immediately stereotype. But with the fragile exterior that comes equipped with Wood, you find a well meaning person to get behind.

To its credit, Come to Daddy‘s heart never loses its center. The focus kept squarely on Norval’s self discovery by way of his twisted lineage to the very end. But the sudden third act genre shift takes the personable drama with a tinge of unsettling horror and abandons that grounded reality for one filled with pulpy caricatures and comedically unrealistic odds. This clashing new absurdist horror territory still hits a fair amount of its blood-soaked fun (an abruptly over the top performance from actor Michael Smiley is head scratching at first but earns a good laugh by his final scene). Unfortunately, none of that feels worthy of leaving behind what the movie starts out as, a quite confrontation on the expectations and realities of an inattentive father set to a beautiful lakeshore backdrop.

This one’s currently available to rent on streaming or at a finite amount of select theaters. Check it out if you ever wished to see Frodo confront daddy issues, dress up like a lady hobbit or become a bad-ass, blood-soaked metal hobbit.

The Lighthouse (2019) [Horrific Hidden Meaning]

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Horrific Hidden Meaning is a series that explores how horror movies can provide a platform of discussion for the uncomfortable realities within society and the human psyche.

Although not a full fledged horror film, cherrypicking ingredients of comedy, drama, fantasy and more, Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse  builds itself on a rock of horror stacked with deeper meaning behind its esoteric, Greek mythos-inspired exterior. Egger’s first film, The Witch, dealt heavily with female adversity in the 1630’s, not far removed from the events of the Salem witch trials, that echoed eerily similar to our current world. As a thematic follow up, Eggers’ second outing delves deep into the trenches of the male psyche and explores the undignified darkness within.

Dropped into a sort of cinematic limbo set in the 1890’s, we find ourselves at an isolated lighthouse island where Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) and Thomas Wake (William Dafoe) have just arrive for a contract job. The older, experienced Wake barks and bellows orders at the younger Winslow, tasking him with all the dirty work like disposing the two men’s feces, stirring the oil and swabbing the floors. It quickly takes a toll. Winslow’s youthful reserved demeanor gets pushed to the brink.

Winslow can be any modern young man in a capitalist driven workforce. As long as he keeps his head down, works hard and earns his keep, he’ll someday enjoy the light at the top of the ladder. This light representing all the fortunes of becoming rich and successful. The power felt and the satisfaction earned from attaining The American Dream when the game is played just right. The inherit competition of such a dream, as explored through Winslow and Wake’s dynamic, can influence the alpha-male psyche in a seriously destructive manner.

Wake is an elderly, successful man who has achieved his goals and now, in his old age has earned the satisfaction of possessing the light all to himself. He gets to be the boss. And he enjoys the hell out of it, holding it over his underling and reminding him to know his place every chance he gets. This dynamic is demonstrated early on as Winslow painstakingly refuels the lighthouse. The camera pans up from Winslow in the dark bowels and rises up to Wake enjoying the blinding bright light in nude ecstasy. But unbeknownst to Winslow, we see an expression of discomfort in Wake while in that lantern room. His excessively orgasmic enjoyment of the burning brightness is taking some kind of toll on him, demonstrating the dissatisfaction felt by men who have invested their entire life to achieving a career or social status that the light represents, only to feel the emptiness that those excessive riches provide them. Winslow, much like any capitalism-driven young man, is attracted to the glamor at the top and the benefits that await, ignorant to the cost such a fixation can take on the soul.

Despite Wake’s grave warnings of the curse that comes with killing a seagull, Winslow snaps and takes his frustrations of subjugation out by smashing a particularly bothersome one to death. The second Winslow takes this step out of line from Wake’s overbearing rules and expresses anger, the camera pans up to reveal a harsh change in weather. The powers that be, mother nature herself, is not pleased. And as punishment, nature’s wrath shifts Winslow’s reality and the reality of the movie itself. From here on, whether we’re witnessing full-fledged delusion or not is anyone’s guess.

Winslow’s sin opens up the flood gates to his base conscious. The first manifestation of his torment arrives as a beached mermaid. His initial reaction is to lust over the beautiful creature. As he touches her breasts, the mermaid awakens and emits an agonizing mixture of scream and laughter, triggering Winslow to run in terror. A grim representation of the heterosexual male desire turned nightmare. A fantasy twisted into a horrifying rejection with the object of Winslow’s lust laughing at the vulnerable thing he is. And Winslow is particularly vulnerable considering his very name was stolen by a man he allowed to die in an accident he saw and did nothing to prevent. His guilt becomes more and more burdensome as nature’s curse weighs heavier. Later, Winslow submits to his cursed instincts, feverishly masturbating while his fantasies of having sex with the mermaid are engulfed by his unearthed guilt in a primal whirlwind of defeat.

Winslow’s capitalist-centered mindset of attaining the light at the top, perpetuated by his outburst of killing the seagull, triggers his unsavory base impulses. A metaphor for self-defeating feelings so easily provoked within men entangled in a capitalist rat race. A system that rewards indifference toward one another, rather than compassion, in the name of attaining optimal wealth and status. The internal guilt this heartless roadmap to success can evoke is symbolically portrayed with Winslow’s dredged up guilt from allowing a man to literally die for his selfish gain.

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Excessive alcohol consumption becomes Winslow’s one way to bond with Wake and escape his contempt, revealing an apt analogy. Men are not commonly expected to share vulnerabilities, and the inherent cutthroat competitive essence of business only accentuates the sentiment. Introduce alcohol and those walls come down. But the nightmare of any career driven male would be to spill his beans to a rival coworker in a drunken state, allowing them to use it against his character, to sabotage his chance at “the light.” When Winslow pours his guilty heart out to Wake in a drunken outpour, Wake’s eerie voice echoes through the walls, Why’d y’spill yer beans? In Winslow’s mind, he’s exposed his weakness and left himself defenseless, conveyed in his fever dream of a nude Wake standing above him and feeding the light’s power into a submitted Winslow’s eyes.

At this point, real or not, Wake has become the personification of Winslow’s internal shame, ridiculing and gas-lighting the feeble Winslow. The way Winslow sees it, he has no choice but to dominate and end this phantom of guilt and humiliation. A sequence of Winslow overpowering Wake, treating him like a dog and burying him metaphorically implies the dominating male ego overtaking and concealing its fragile vulnerabilities, in Winslow’s case, to a point of psychosis. A demented depiction of the male ego’s rejection of its vulnerabilities. This unhinged madness results in Winslow murdering Wake. Now with his projection of self-ridicule removed once and for all, Winslow can climb the stairs to the light, freed from his manifested guilt holding him back. But the light for which he sacrificed his own humanity to obtain devours him, its all consuming power completely undoing him. Just as wake knew, and just as any experienced man at the height of his success can impart, what is supposed to bring boundless satisfaction can instead bring unsatisfying madness if not kept at a measured distance.

Birds of Prey Review

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Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of one Harley Quinn) takes your fondest memories of 2016’s Suicide Squad (Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn) and ditches the rest, delivering a Looney Tunes-fueled glitter rocket of a movie that reflects the splashy hallucinations of its protagonist.

Freshly dumped by The Joker, Harley Quinn now has to make it all on her own in the mean streets of Gotham City, devoid of the guidance from her former lover who defined her identity. It’s the “woman finds herself after devastating breakup” premise meets superhero fantasy. How Harley Got Her Groove Back. But in this feminist spin, instead of finding a more suiting man, she’s challenged to discover her independence alongside some new ass-kicking lady friends.

The schizophrenic plot revolves around a McGuffin diamond sought out by psychopathic gangster, Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor). When the prized gemstone winds up in the hands of a young pick-pocketing thief (Ella Jay Basco), mayhem cuts loose on the streets of Gotham as Harley fatefully finds herself between Roman and the kid. The non-linear story structure as Harley herself recounts events may come off as a jumbled turnoff to some but I found it apt for a story told from the perspective of an unbalanced mind. Spending time inside Harley’s delusional psyche is a gaudy treat as it becomes quickly apparent that the narcissistic, unreliable narrator is strong with this one.

And Margot’s Harley is so damn entrancing you can’t help but brush off her sociopathic tendencies the same way she so naively does. Margot’s at a highpoint in her career and can seem to do no wrong, owning the image of a beloved comic book character as a mere side project to her more academy-centric endeavors. Rosie Perez enters the nest as Renee Montoya, a gifted detective held back in her career by the credit stealing men she works under, delivering a solid, par for the course performance. Jurnee Smollett-Bell makes her jump from small screen to big as famed DC comics heroine, Dinah Lance, aka “Black Canary.” Her jaded, over-this-shit attitude accommodates even though the script provides little more than typical reluctant hero fare. Despite her limited screen presence, Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s hard-ass portrayal of Helena Bertinelli, aka “Huntress” makes out as most memorable of the supporting Birds, impeccably balancing the tragedy, humor and grit her character calls for. Unfortunately, Ella Jay Basco as adolescent thief Cassandra Cain is the least memorable of the cast. Given that a large chunk of the story hinges on shared chemistry between her and Harley, Basco’s monotone, shruggie demeanor adds little to what should be a defining relationship.

Overall, the true scene-stealer here is Ewan McGregor as the villainous Black Mask. McGregor has a playfully good time with his part, manifesting a one-dimensional, crazed bad guy into one of his most committed performances in years. He’s hilariously over the top one moment and a delicate time bomb the next, demanding the attention of everyone in the room, and the audience. A blast to watch. During a gruesome face-carving revenge scene, he offers one of his victims a chance to live, only to change his mind over a “snot bubble”. A callous moment turned ludicrous that earns a laugh thanks to McGregor’s delivery. Also, an honorable mention must go to McGregor’s right-hand-man, Victor Zsasz, played by Chris Messina with perverse magnetism. A welcomed bonus to Black Mask’s threat.

Prey draws inspiration from both the irreverent, fourth-wall-breaking Deadpool and the punk rock, team up antics of Guardians of the Galaxy that would have benefited more by staying on the Deadpool side. Guardians was defined by its ensemble, each character aided by their chemistry and interaction with one another. The same can’t be said here. Birds is defined solely by Harley Quinn, ditching the rest of the team as an afterthought. The result is something that feels like it should be, and maybe even was in the early development stages, two movies, Birds of Prey and Harley Quinn. The third act brings the Birds together in a gloriously choreographed (as is all the action throughout) team up sequence undercut by the fact that this group has had little to no interaction up until now. The squad dynamics are lacking, reiterating that this should have been Harley’s movie from the get-go, demonstrated even further when the thrilling climactic standoff ditches the rest of the Birds to give us Harley’s character defining moment. She is, after all, the one we’re invested most in up to this point. The rest of the Birds should have been allowed their own feature to fully spread their wings in rather than share the limelight.

And while overcrowding may be only one of a few narrative cohesion issues, any hang ups are far outweighed by the film’s punching vivacity and ceaseless charm. Best exemplified during the middle act when Black Mask accepts a flimsy proposal to let our anti-heroin live despite having every reason not to. Before you get a moment to register it as a flaw, Harley’s very own musical head-trip cover of “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” absorbs the screen and wins you right back. It’s this kind of unhinged imaginative battiness throughout that makes for a fitting and irresistibly entertaining Harley Quinn led movie.

This one just released to a theater near you. Check it out if you like Margot Robbie, satisfying close-up shots of greasy breakfast sandwiches, kick-ass action sequences or a DC Extended Universe movie that doesn’t leave you feeling cold and empty.