Category Archives: Film and TV Reviews

The Current State Of Comic Book Movies, And Thoughts On The Future

Some time into Avengers: Age of Ultron, I came to the realization that the comic book movie genre is going to go through major, major changes in the next several years.

I am going to share a lot of varied opinions on the genre here, some complimentary and others negative. Because of that, I’m going to come outright and say this; I fucking love comic book movies. Love them love them love them. I look forward their releases, and more often than not I have a fun time watching them. Speaking frankly, as someone who grew up as a comic book fan and also vividly remembers the pre-Iron Man era of the genre, I couldn’t be happier that they have reached such a level of popularity and, for the most part, consistent quality. Because, not long ago, comic book movies as a whole were simply awful. They were either MTV-reject dreck such as Daredevil and Ghostrider, unbearably corny offerings like the Fantastic Four series, or overly stylized music videos like 300 (if you’ve never seen 300… please, do yourself a favor and do not watch 300). The genre has grown tremendously since 2008, with Marvel offering a cohesive cinematic universe of fun popcorn movies, Fox giving out some truly exciting and emotionally resonating films with X-Men: First Class and last year’s excellent Days of Future Past, and DC giving us The Dark Knight. Even some of the missteps, most notably the fascinating mess that was Man of Steel, still offer some glimpses at the potential of director-driven superhero blockbusters; just imagine if DC had given the same amount of artistic license to an actual visionary director, and by that I mean someone who is not Zack Snyder. The point is, we live in a time where comic book movies are more often than not good movies, a concept which was unheard of ten years ago.

Avengers: Age of Ultron, a movie that I saw with friends on opening day as a birthday present to myself, is indicative of what I believe the next wave of superhero movies will be. I personally found the movie to be great silly fun, which is certainly Joss Whedon’s strong suit, but not without its flaws; and how Marvel (and, subsequently, the other major studios) reacts to both its merits and its drawbacks will strongly influence the coming tide of superhero titles. I will start with what the movie does well – character, team dynamics, memorable quippy dialogue, and action with clear regard to collateral. The characters are all portrayed very well here, and many of the minor Avengers get some much-needed development (most notably Hawkeye, who is fleshed out much better here than he was in the film’s predecessor, and ends up being the unexpected heart and soul of the movie). The teammates all have great interplay and interactions, showcased best during a party sequence early in the film which I believe is the best scene altogether. A majority of the jokes land, and the movie’s sense of humor keeps it from taking itself too seriously for its own good. Finally, something which was a major relief to me, the climax does not forget that superheros are supposed to save people firstpunch bad guy second. Perhaps as a response to the oft maligned destruction-without-consequence that made up the last 45 minutes of Man Of Steel, the Avengers are clearly shown to be taking the safety of citizens as their top priority, focusing on evacuating the city before concentrating all their efforts on stopping RoboSpader.

However, this movie is not without its faults, and I bring them up because some of them point to trends in the genre that stand in the way of overall growth – overstuffing action at the expense of character, over-reliance on outside media, and problematic story elements. While there are quite a few excellent character moments throughout the film, it often feels like those moments are struggling to share screentime with the Big Bombastic Setpieces; and it is easy to see why that would be the case, since the rigid formula that Marvel movies (successfully) adhere to essentially calls for a Big Bombastic Setpiece every 20 minutes. Whedon has gone on record that about an hour has been cut from the film, most of it being character scenes, in order to keep the movie under 3 hours and make room for all the action; this is problematic because, while I am a big fan of athletic actors punching face, ultimately it is character that drives story forward, not action. The movie begins and ends with exciting, elaborate action sequences, and I cannot help but feel that there could have been action in between those parts that could have been trimmed down in favor of more character development; I look forward to seeing the Extended Cut that is supposed to be released with the Blu Ray, to get a better grasp on what exactly was sacrificed for the action. Beyond that, the major problem that specifically Marvel Studios suffers from is their reliance on outside media to patch up and explain story elements in their movies; to name a specific example from Avengers, apparently the Hellicarrier that Nick Fury resurrects in the finale is explained on an episode of Agents of SHIELD. I do not watch Agents of SHIELD. I do not have an interest in ever watching Agents of SHIELD. I should not have to watch Agents of SHIELD to get background information on a moment that should have been explained in the movie that it occurred in. A cohesive cinematic universe of movies and television series is a fun idea, but these projects should all work as standalone stories without having to rely on outside stories to explain other elements.

The third big problem in the newest Avengers, and a problem with the genre as a whole, is the aforementioned problematic story elements. I am not going to devote the rest of this article to feminism – no, that is a conversation for a different day. I am, however, going to touch upon it briefly, because feminism is: A) Important to quality storytelling, character development, and the future longevity of the superhero genre, and B) Something that this genre, and Marvel Studios in particular, has had problems with. I will start off by saying that, for the most part, Black Widow is a very engaging, fun, and well written character in this movie. Joss Whedon is not perfect in his representation of female characters despite his good intentions, but he remembers one thing that many, many screenwriters forget: Women are human beings, writing human beings as well-rounded characters is essential to writing a good story, therefore writing women as well-rounded characters is essential to writing a good story. However, he still includes two instances in the film which are problematic in their representation of women; the first is the now-infamous “Monster scene”. While revealing to Bruce Banner that she cannot have children, a moment that was otherwise a very sobering and effective piece of character development, Black Widow ends her revelation with the sentence “So I guess you’re not the only monster here,” a line that is absurdly offensive and ends the scene in very, very poor taste. Do I think Whedon actually believes that sterile women are monsters? Of course not, that would make him a horrible man, and in my experiences he is a very well-intentioned person who would never view women through such an antiquated and frankly misogynistic lense. But Whedon’s personal views do not detract from the fact that this scene comes off as abhorrently sexist, nor do they absolve him from writing it. This line pushes the age-old belief that women who are unable to carry children are “incomplete” or “not real women”, and it completely sours the scene by taking a moment that could have been very empowering toward women who cannot have children, and turning it into a scene that instead looks down upon them. This is why I look forward to seeing the extended cut; perhaps there is a scene at the end of the film where Black Widow comes to terms with her sterilization and realizes that not being able to have children does not make her a monster. I dearly, dearly hope there is such a scene.

The second moment occurs in the third act, wherein Black Widow is taken hostage by Ultron and Bruce Banner comes in to save her. Not only does this scene feel  completely unnecessary due to the fact that Act 3 has a perfectly fine amount of action without it, it also pushes the Damsel in Distress trope, another sexist storytelling device that paints women as helpless victims who need men to save them. In addition, it’s so weirdly out of character for Black Widow, who has always been portrayed in these movies as being more than able to hold her own and certainly able to escape a metal cage without the help of her boyfriend. These two moments are very frustrating because, if they were taken out, Black Widow would have otherwise been a very refreshingly well-written female character; by all accounts, throughout the rest of the movie she is just as engaging, likable, and fun as the rest of the team. I bring this up because this inconsistent treatment of women – which, to be clear, is also a major problem with blockbusters and movies as a whole, so it is not just specific to comic book movies – is something that, if not improved going forward, could be a severe danger to the overall longevity of the sub genre. Women make up approximately half of the audience for superhero movies, and if these inconsistencies in their representation don’t improve as time goes on, these films might very easily lose that audience. Perhaps this is the optimist in me shining through, but I feel we are definitely heading in the right direction in regards to women in superhero movies; characters we have now such as Black Widow and Gamora from last year’s Guardians of the Galaxy are much better written than the women in older superhero movies (just compare Gwen Stacy in the recent Amazing Spider-Man series to Mary Jane in the Spider-Man movies from ten years prior; Stacey is leaps and bounds better as a character), and between the announcement of upcoming female-led superhero movies like Captain Marvel and Wonder Woman, plus the fact that Selma director Ava DuVarney is currently being tapped to direct an upcoming Marvel Studios project, I believe the future of the genre bodes well for the cinematic treatment of women.

Moving on from the newest Avengers outing, the not-too-distant future of comic book movies is going to face another obstacle to overcome; overcrowding. Marvel’s Phase 3 bracket is already packed, with a whopping total of 10 films planned between now and 2019. In addition, we have DC jumping into the fold, putting their own cinematic universe into full swing next year with David Ayer’s Suicide Squad and Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, a movie that I don’t have to come up with a dumb sarcastic title for because it already did that for me. On top of that, we’ll have Fox putting out more X-Men movies, Deadpool coming in 2016, and whatever the hell Sony’s doing. That’s roughly 5-7 comic book movies per year. That’s a lot. This will either end two ways: A) All of these studios continue with their successful formulas and story structures and visual aesthetics and the general public gets burned out by around 2018 and the genre implodes, or B) The increase of products forces each studio to take more risks, switch up their familiar formulas, and we get 5 more years of truly different and exciting comic book movies. The comic book fan in me wants this genre to continue as long as possible, but the film fan in me knows that in order for that to happen we absolutely need more diversity, more genuine risks, and more legitimate attempts at making these movies grow rather than remain stagnant.

Perhaps it’s the optimist in me speaking again, but I genuinely believe these studios will pick the second option.

A Tale of Sin Cities

I have been mulling over my experience watching this summer’s Sin City: A Dame To Kill For in my head for the past week and a half. I didn’t feel comfortable writing a review until now because, until very recently, I wasn’t sure whether I liked the movie or not. Although my viewing was marred by a disconnect towards what was happening onscreen, and a simple lack of care I had toward any of the characters, I didn’t leave the theatre angry; disappointed, yes, but not angry. After giving it much thought, I realized that every ounce of confusion or uncertainty I had towards the new film was partnered with a desire to compare it to the original; almost as if A Dame To Kill For was simply part of a larger puzzle, and not its own independent film. Judging it accurately could simply not be done in my mind without the inevitable comparisons to the original.

Which presented me with a challenge, given that I have not seen the original Sin City since I was in middle school.

Most of the memories I have for the 2005 movie were vague, but for the most part complimentary. I remember how distinct the cinematography was at the time I saw it; I remembered that Clive Owen’s Dwight McCarthy was my favorite character; I remembered the brutality of such scenes as Mickey Rourke dismembering Elijah Wood’s serial killer Kevin, and Bruce Willis flat-out ripping off That Yellow Bastard’s genitals. After a quick re-watch a few nights ago, the movie has held up for the most part. All the positive aspects that I remember from those late-night HBO viewings during my teenage years were still there; Owen was still my favorite, the cinematography was still great, the genital scene was still so absurdly brutal that I just had to admire it. But all the flaws that had slipped from the edges of my memory came rushing back, and are now much more obvious to me as an adult. Benicio del Toro gives a much more irritating performance than I remember; Michael Madsen now seems so much more obviously inebriated; Jessica Alba’s performance as Nancy, in particular, is now ridiculously flat and distracting to me. Sin City is still a very fun and visually daring comic book movie, but it is not the balls-to-the-wall piece of awesome that middle school me loved so much. It’s very much like Donnie Darko or Zack Snyder’s Watchmen adaptation; a good movie, but the kind that loses much of the appeal after you grow older and experience more of what cinema has to offer.

Because of that, I can honestly say that the biggest crime co-directors Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller have committed with Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is the nine year gap between it and the first movie. A Dame to Kill For is honestly not a steep fall off a precipice from the quality of the original, and in many ways it’s very similar. The problem is that a nine year wait was not worth the end result of simply another movie like the first one; a near decade of absence should warrant something different, a movie that respects the original’s aesthetic but goes into new directions with it. It is my honest opinion that A Dame to Kill For would have been just as enthusiastically received as the original if it were released in 2007, when the first movie was still fresh in the public’s mind and before Miller killed the visual aesthetic with his uninspired version of The Spirit.

That said, the sequel does have some distinct flaws that the original does not. As good as Josh Brolin is as the pre-surgery Dwight McCarthy, the film creates a major continuity flaw by not bringing back Clive Owen for the post-surgery scenes, instead opting to put a black wig and bad facial prosthetics on Brolin; as a result, I would not be surprised if a casual fan unfamiliar with the history of McCarthy were to get confused and possibly not pick up on the fact that Brolin and Owen were playing the same character. The visual style, which seemed so fresh and innovative in 2005, has also grown stale after its use in The Spirit to the point where it feels less like an aesthetic and more like a gimmick because Rodriguez and Miller are not doing anything new or interesting with it. The best story in this one is The Long Bad Night, following Joseph Gordon-Levitt as cocky gambler Johnny, but even that one manages to end in spectacularly anti-climactic fashion that elicits nothing from the audience but a feeble “So what?”

The titular story of A Dame to Kill For should have been far better than it was. They had excellent source material in what was one of the most stand-out tales in the comics, a perfect protagonist in Dwight McCarthy, and what was easily the best performance in the entire film from Eva Green. But despite the cool, Mirrenesque demeanor that Green brought to the character of Ava Lord, the story instead feels lifeless and devoid of any real passion or personality. Nancy’s Last Dance is even worse, anchored entirely off an almost fascinatingly detached and soulless performance by Jessica Alba, whose attempts to be dark, brooding, and intimidating fail spectacularly. What every one of the stories in this movie truly do wrong, however, is their unfortunate misuse of the Marv character. Clearly responding to Marv’s status as a fan favorite, the directors shoved him clumsily into all but one story, to the point where he seems like a lazy addition to the film as opposed to being an organic part of the world.

In the end, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For comes off as nothing more than an unnecessary film, an afterthought to the first one. It does not come off as the same work of passion and ambition that the original undoubtedly was, but instead every uninspired frame feels like Rodriguez and Miller conveying to the audience, “Shit, we forgot to make a sequel to that one.” Had this film been released in 2007, I am sure it would have felt like an organic continuation of the original. But because Sin City is so far back in our collective memory, the sequel is instead a feeble reminder that these characters exist, and nothing more. It is not insufferable like Miller’s The Spirit, it is not visually ugly like Rodriguez’s Machete Kills, and it is not obnoxious like his Spy Kids sequels. It is just utterly, forgettably unremarkable.

DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES and the Importance of Character

DOTPOTA-6

I have seen Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, a movie that has been resonating strongly with audiences this summer, twice in theaters. More often than not, I will see a movie only once during its theatrical run, for no other reason than the fact that most movies only require one viewing for me to soak everything in. I saw both Expendables movies one time each, not because they are necessarily bad, but because they are movies where everything that the filmmakers are trying to say is pushed to the surface; to put it bluntly, there is not much to them beyond what you see. Sometimes there are exceptions; 2007’s Shoot ‘Em Up is similarly shallow, and yet I saw that twice in theaters and own it on DVD because that movie is immensely entertaining and thus has fantastic replay value (whereas the aforementioned Stallone action series is only moderately fun, in my eyes). Besides rare exceptions like that Clive Owen masterpiece of pulp, the only times I will see a movie more than once theatrically is if I think there is more to be found and dissected under the surface. I saw The Dark Knight three times in cinemas to fully appreciate its themes of morality and corruption; I saw Scott Pilgrim vs. The World twice during its run because of director Edgar Wright’s meticulous attention to detail; just this spring I saw X-Men: Days of Future Past four times because of how taken aback I was by its rich themes of depression, substance abuse, and loneliness. What makes my multiple viewings of Matt Reeves’ sequel to 2011’s Planet of the Apes reboot significant is my reason for doing so.

I saw Dawn of the Planet of the Apes twice in theaters because I don’t see what everyone else sees in it.

To be fair, I enjoyed it. Both this and its predecessor, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, are fine blockbusters with exciting cinematography, a sense of love and admiration for the original film series, and some of the best motion capture performances I’ve ever seen. But I’d be lying if I said the utter enthusiasm and praise logged at this series doesn’t surprise me, simply because, as a whole, neither of these movies particularly stuck with me. Rise was a decently fun watch to which I never gave a second thought after I left the theater; I was planning to skip Dawn altogether due to lack of interest, until the enthusiastic reviews and audience reactions began to pour in. While I didn’t get a bad movie in any sense of the word, I got more or less the same experience I had with the first movie; moderate fun for 120 minutes without any heavy investment. The difference this time around was that, because of the universal praise it got, I felt as if I missed something on my first viewing. A week later, I went back to my local cinema to see it again, this time with two goals in mind: to see what literally every other moviegoer saw in this one, and to figure out just what exactly was the source of my emotional disconnect with these movies. After this second viewing, I more or less figured out the answer to the first problem, and completely solved the second.

My problem with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is that I don’t care about any character besides Caesar. Before I delve into the supporting cast, I will say that I think the element that is the source for this movie’s adoration is, without a doubt, Andy Serkis’ simian protagonist. Caesar is not only an example of how spectacularly performance capture can be used to give humanity to computer generated creatures, but more importantly is an incredibly likable and fleshed out protagonist who reaches that perfect balance of being noble and entertaining. The problem I’ve consistently had with characters like, for example, most interpretations of Superman, is that there’s an enormous emotional detachment for me; Superman is an incredibly noble character with many traits that I would find admirable in any human being, but there is so little charisma or depth beyond his dignity (with a few notable exceptions) that I don’t find him entertaining to watch. Caesar is the perfect response to that character flaw, wherein he shares many of Superman’s nobility and honor, while also having a clearly defined personality and humanity to him. Caesar is, by all accounts, an exceptionable blockbuster protagonist.

What takes away from the film is that literally everyone around him is almost painfully uninteresting. Koba is about as bland as an antagonist can be, with nothing more to him than the anger that lies on his surface; this would be fine if he was a minor character, but as the overall villain, it substantially takes away from what should be an enormous aspect of the film. Imagine Heath Ledger’s Joker without the poignant sense of anarchy and irresistible charm, or Hans Landa without the sharp menace softly boiling underneath his charismatic demeanor; if your movie has an uninteresting villain, then the film as a whole suffers considerably. The human element, which is a substantial aspect of Dawn, is given an even more halfhearted treatment. While Koba at least has some recognizable personality traits on his surface, what does Jason Clarke’s character have? Or Kerri Russell? Or Kodi Smit-McPhee? These three characters are the human leads, and yet none of them have any distinct personality. The biggest stretch I can make is that Clarke is…trusting? McPhee is…quiet? This is a two hour movie wherein these characters are given a majority of the screen time, and yet we know next to nothing about them. The only human character with any semblance of actual humanity is Gary Oldman, who makes the most of his criminally limited screen time with a few truly touching moments of emotion and one hell of a speech. If Oldman was the human lead as opposed to Clarke, this movie would have roped me in far more, but as it stands we have one phenomenal ape protagonist surrounded by one dimensional characters whom I couldn’t care less about.

What I feel the screenwriters don’t understand is just how integral the characters are to the central conflict of a story. The heart of the movie is the friction and eventual battle between the apes and the humans, but if one side is comprised entirely of characters that I have absolutely no investment in, and the other side only has one fully fleshed out character, then how am I, as a viewer, supposed to have any interest in any of this? When the characters have rising tension between them, the audience should feel that tension by caring about the characters; if we are given nothing to care about, then why should we feel what the humans and apes onscreen are feeling? There should be great emotional stakes felt by the audience during the finale, as hordes of apes and humans are slaughtering each other; instead, during this sequence I felt an aching sense of boredom. The battle was beautifully shot, but because I did not care about most of the apes or any of the humans, the entire third act of the movie was nothing more than a series of images to me. Compare it to this summer’s Guardians of the Galaxy; while the characters are not strictly speaking original, they are given endearing personalities and backstories rich with tragedy and pathos. Because the audience is made to have a connection to them, by default we also have made a connection to the central conflict. Without character, there can be no conflict, and since Dawn is a movie that is entirely about conflict, its lack of interesting characters creates a colossal flaw that is literally impossible to overlook. A two hour movie cannot be sustained on the back of one protagonist; there is a reason why the supporting cast is called a supporting cast.

I did not hate Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, nor did I even dislike it. I was moderately entertained by it, and was able to sit through the two hour run time because of Matt Reeves’ energetic direction, Michael Giacchino’s immensely enjoyable score, and Andy Serkis’ layered performance as Caesar. Because these three elements were executed so expertly, I can see why the movie has resonated with audiences the way it has. But I found it to be lacking in what is arguably the most essential element of a story; character.

Modern Cinema and Fanbase Entitlement

Premiere Of Paramount Pictures' "Pain & Gain" - Arrivals

An Editorial by Ethan Dunlap

Trigger Warning: Mentions of rape.

Picture this scenario: It is the height of the summer movie season, in any given year in recent memory. A blockbuster, based on a highly popular and beloved cartoon / comic book / video game (most likely from the late 1980’s or early 1990’s), has just been released. Directed by a largely disliked gun-for-hire director (we will call him “Michael Bay” for the sake of this hypothetical scenario), the movie was released to exceptionally high box office fare, but middling-to-scathing reviews. Taking to the internet, hordes of entitled fans, feeling personally betrayed by this less-than-stellar piece of cinema, proceed to unleash a mass verbal beat-down on the film, even going so far as to say it “raped my childhood”.

If this completely hypothetical scenario seems even remotely familiar to you, then congratulations, you have had internet access for the past few years. I would say it seems like an annual event, but that implies that this reaction is only seen once a year, when in fact it is seen almost year-round, like clockwork. An adaptation of some beloved nostalgic property comes out, it turns out to be terrible, cue the “raped my childhood” sentiments.

I understand the disappointment, I really do. I was born in the 90s, and practically raised on cartoons and comic books; I understand the immense letdown one feels when something I loved as a child is adapted into a mediocre Roland Emmerich clone like Dragonball: Evolution, Michael Bay’s Transformers quadrilogy, and this week’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboot. But can we all collectively stop pretending that the mere existence of these movies somehow destroyed the sanctity of our childhoods? And furthermore, could we stop equating that to the sexual assault of said childhoods?

There’s a disturbing trend prevalent on the internet to equate any mundane issue (such as, off the top of my head, disappointing movies) to rape. “This movie raped my childhood” is almost guaranteed to show up in the comments of any discussion about such recent adaptations as the ones I listed above, and much, much more. Normally I don’t mind the use of hyperbole to illustrate frustration, something which I myself have partaken in many times before, and likely will many times in the future. But equating it to rape is simply too far. Rape is an incredibly sensitive topic; in my personal opinion, it is among the worst atrocities human beings can possibly inflict on one another, and I’ve been hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t share that sentiment. Victims of sexual assault suffer from grueling psychological trauma after going through such a heinous act, trauma that they will likely never get over for the rest of their life. In some cases, the mere mention of rape (be it in an actual discussion on sexual assault, the casual dropping of the word, or even through hearing/reading a rape joke) can trigger post-traumatic stress in the victim. To trivialize something as deplorable and psychologically damaging as rape by comparing it to a disappointing movie adaptation is not only incredibly insensitive, but it’s also unbelievably childish.

Furthermore, even if we were to ignore the rather disgusting trivialization of rape, the entire concept that one of these films ruined your childhood makes absolutely no sense. Take Dragonball: Evolution, for example; a movie that, without a single shred of doubt, is one of the most trite exercises in blockbuster filmmaking that I have ever seen. Dragon Ball and Dragonball Z were two of my absolute favorite shows when I was growing up; they (along with Yu Yu Hakashu, Lupin III, and Rurouni Kenshin) were my introductions to anime, and an enormous early inspiration for my art style. When a live action movie adaptation was announced, I went in hoping for nothing more than a fun 90 minutes of Goku being hilarious, Roshi being additionally hilarious, and hopefully a climax which involved screaming blond men punching face with other screaming blond men whilst preferably not wearing shirts. Instead, I was treated (and I use that term as loosely as humanly possible) to 90 minutes of excruciating boredom and visuals that could only be described as “eye feces”.

But, despite how insufferable that viewing experience was, I never thought any aspect of my childhood was ruined. The memories I had of Saturday nights in my bedroom, watching DBZ on Toonami and reenacting the fight scenes with my action figures and trying to color my hair with a yellow highlighter so I could be a Super Saiyan, were still there; the entire original series that I loved was readily available on home media, and no matter how trite the movie was, it did not take that show or those memories away from me. The same goes for the recent TMNT; it was by all means a mediocre blockbuster without half the heart or endearment of any of the three cartoons or 90s movie trilogy (yes, I am including the third movie in there, because that piece of shit is hilarious), but I never felt robbed, or my memories of the TMNT cartoons sullied, by this movie’s existence.

I believe that a large part of this mindset comes from a sense of entitlement that we, as fans, have. “This was my childhood, dammit,” the furious fanboy screeched as he raised a fist to the computer monitor, “And I am owed a good movie!” However, we have to come to the collective realization that, contrary to what we believe, Hollywood does not owe us shit. These movies may be based on properties that we grew up with, but do not think for a second that they are making them for us; they are making them for themselves, to make more money. It is a tired statement, but a universally true one at that. Filmmaking, while mostly an art form, is also a business, and directors like Michael Bay simply do not give a damn about making the fans happy, and more than likely do not give a damn about the properties they are adapting; their entire priority is to make dumb, loud movies that will make inhuman earnings on their opening weekend, which general audiences will proceed to forget about in a month’s time. They should make a good movie, yes; that is common sense. But they do not owe us a good movie.

Adaptations, no matter how unfaithful or insulting, will never ruin our childhoods. Our childhoods are still there, they happened, and they are stored securely in the safe confines of our memory until the day we die (unless you are a soap opera character that recently got amnesia, in which case I offer my deepest condolences). These movies do exist, and I may not like them, but instead I simply push them off to the side and ignore them, where they cannot touch the originals that I loved.

DELIVER US FROM EVIL (2014)

A Review by Ethan Dunlap

The supernatural has been one of the most frequently explored areas in the history of fiction. Ever since humanity grasped the concept of imagination, and to convey that imagination in the form of storytelling, the tales of ghosts and phantoms, of vengeful demons and restless spirits, have littered the tapestry of fiction. This has continued into the 21st century, where it seems each new year brings us a cavalcade of the paranormal; 2010 gave us James Wan’s refreshing ghost thriller Insidious and the embarrassingly mishandled The Last Exorcism, 2012 brought Scott Derrickson’s surprising chiller Sinister, and just last year saw two supernatural horror films from James Wan (the excellent The Conjuring and the criminally underrated Insidious: Chapter 2). In this modern era of cinema, the growing trend that innumerable haunted house and demonic possession movies have jumped onto is branding themselves as being “Based On A True Story”. Deliver Us From Evil, Scott Derrickson’s new exorcism/cop thriller (a sentence I never thought I’d say), does just that.

Allow me to address the elephant in the room; I don’t think 90% of this movie actually happened.

When any film, particularly in the horror genre, sells itself as being a TRUE STORY, it is always best to take it with a grain of salt. It is nothing more than a harmless gimmick, made to stir up publicity and put large sacks of money in the producer’s front lawn; and truly, it has no bearing on the quality of said movie. In fact, many of the films that claim this are actually very well done; The Conjuring was one of the best major releases of last summer, and I believe the events of that movie to be true about as much as I believe The Adventures of Baron Munchausen to be a documentary about the fall of the bourgeoisie. The duty of an effective horror film is not to have journalistic integrity, but to weave an entertaining story while at the same time exuding a sense of fear or unease onto the audience. This, ultimately, is where Deliver Us From Evil fails.

This is not a bad film; it is, in many respects, a very, very good one. It has an unorthodox mix of genres that make perfect sense together (a cop thriller and a supernatural horror tale), a solid cast featuring stand-out performances from Eric Bana and Joel McHale, and a terrific unsettling score. The problem is that instead of the cop angle and horror angle working seamlessly to create a story that utilizes the best of both genres, the two seem to clash. It does not know whether it wants to be a police thriller or a demonic possession movie, and it becomes very obvious which genre it would have been best in.

The weakest part of the movie, what truly holds this back from being great, is the horror element; which is bizarre, given Derrickson’s obvious skill at using fear to tell an effective story, evidenced in both Sinister and 2005’s The Exorcism of Emily Rose. What made those films work was the ability to build tension; both have their share of jump scares, but a majority of the time there was a steady air of unease that built and built until finally coming to a head. However, with this film, every time the atmosphere is beginning to set in (and if there’s one thing Derrickson knows, it’s atmosphere), it is immediately punctured by a loud music spike and a shot of a cat, or a potted plant falling, or some mundane act of the like. The problem with jump scares is that, contrary to what their name suggests, they are not scary. They are simply startling, the cinematic equivalent of your friend jumping out from behind a tree and wailing “OOGAHBOOGABOOGA!”. The tactic has become infuriatingly popular in the horror genre since the early 2000s, turning most of the mainstream offerings from potentially effective movies into loud, bombastic trite that aims to surprise rather than scare. In the first two acts of this film, instead of lingering, the “frights” disappear faster than the jarring music note that cued them in. I cannot help but feel bad for Derrickson, a highly talented director with an unfortunately spotty track record, for the tired and uninspired over-use of jump scares reek of studio meddling. This makes it all the more heartbreaking, because there are moments where it is obvious that Derrickson is attempting to try new things in the admittedly fairly stale genre of exorcism movies; between the blending of the police drama element, and the fact that one of the characters has a close-quarters knife fight with a possessed man (something that I am surprised I have never before seen in a mainstream horror film), it is clear that given more creative control, this movie had the potential to be a breath of fresh air in a genre that has grown tired and muddled.

Many individual elements don’t work, the most major and insulting being the possessions. Unable to recapture his unsettling depiction in The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Derrickson’s version of the possessed in this film comes off as more comedic than frightening; even the main figure, whom engages in the previously mentioned knife fight and is very imposing from an action standpoint, never truly came off as scary. Logical inconsistencies bog down the movie as well, such as when the leads are investigating the Bronx Zoo after a massive power outage, and yet are able to enter the lion den, which has electronically activated gates. In a better movie, this gripe would only be a nitpick, but among this mediocre fair, it actually highlights the ineptitude of the rather shallow script (a script that perhaps should have gone through one or two more drafts). Also dragging the film down is the unenthused performance of Edgar Ramirez as the token priest. On paper, this character has the potential to be genuinely fascinating; a former heroin addict, haunted by the ghosts of his past, who continues to indulge in cigarettes and hard liquor to tame his temptations to use again. However, any of this potential is immediately squandered by Ramirez, who delivers each line in a monotone that likely was meant to be stoic and weary (perhaps to illustrate the character’s past struggle with substance abuse), but instead comes off as wooden and lifeless. In the hands of a more capable actor, such as Pedro Pascal or Clifton Collins Jr., this character could have emulated the pain and weariness that was no doubt intended.

Conversely, the cop element of the movie is perfect. We are introduced to Bana’s protagonist, Ralph Sarchie, in a refreshingly somber shot of him recovering a dead baby from the dumpster of a dingy South Bronx alleyway. Before delving into the disappointing horror plot, the audience is treated to an excellent sequence where Bana and his partner (played by an outstanding Joel McHale) respond to a domestic violence call, leading to a chase scene which ends with Bana savagely beating a skinhead wife-beater on the streets of New York. Once the third act kicks in, which is easily the best part of the movie, the horror gives way to police action, the highlight of which is the aforementioned fantastic knife fight between Joel McHale and the possessed figure the cops have been tailing for the entire film; its brutal, exciting cinematography made me wish it was gracing a much better movie. Immediately afterward, we get treated to a flashback sequence (shot on what looks like Super 8, a nice visual reference to the disturbing home movies in Sinister), where Bana chases down a notorious pedophile and ferociously beats him to death in broad daylight. Watching this sequence made me think, “I wish I was watching that movie instead”. This is also a film that fully embraces its R rating, as opposed to homogenizing every aspect into a tame PG-13 as the modern Hollywood horror scene is apt to do; the characters in this movie cuss up a storm, they chain smoke, they down hard booze like there is no tomorrow. This is a movie where the characters have vices, complimenting the refreshingly gritty and somber tone that Derrickson conveys. By not subjecting the film to the squeaky-clean tone that litters the works preceding it, it is saved from the cinematic death trap of blandness. Disjointed and disappointing as the film no doubt is, it does not commit the cardinal sin of moviemaking; it does not fall prey to mediocrity.

Deliver Us From Evil is not a terrible film; it is not even a bad one. It is an excellent cop thriller trapped inside a mediocre horror movie. While not being Derrickson’s worst movie (that would have to go to 2008’s utterly forgettable remake of The Day The Earth Stood Still), it is easily his most disappointing, both because of the stellar job he did with his previous horror offering, and because of the hints of true promise that were squandered by an under-developed script and extensive studio meddling.