Halloween (2018, Directed by David Gordon Green) English 7

Starring Jamie Lee Curtis, Judy Greer, Will Patton, Andi Matichak, Virginia Gardner, Haluk Bilginer, Toby Huss

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(7-Very Good Film)

Adept. Brutal. Successful.

It’s the return of the original boogeyman: Michael Myers; master of hide and seek, teleporter, Trappist monk, hand-to-hand fighting expert, strongman champion of the world, and cat with nine lives. Forty years after he terrorized a neighborhood, stalking babysitters and their boyfriends in the original John Carpenter classic, this Halloween opens with Myers chained up in a rehabilitation hospital, where a couple of over-eager journalists hope to meet and interview him. You’ll note right away that writers, Jeff Fradley, Danny McBride, and David Gordon Green (also director), wisely throw away all previous sequels. They even score a fun bit of meta humor off of it when one character asks, “Wasn’t it her (Strode’s) brother who murdered all those babysitters?” “No,” replies another, “He was not her brother, that’s something that people made up.” While Myers has been locked up and dormant for forty years, Laurie Strode (Lee Curtis), iconic final girl and retired babysitter, got married (twice) and divorced (twice), and had a daughter, Karen (Greer). Strode, embittered and cynical from the events of the first film (who wouldn’t be), becomes reclusive and a self-made soldier preparing for a day when Myers might return. She was also incredibly tough on Karen, who came to resent her for it, and now, seems to want nothing to do with her infamous mother. Her own daughter, Allyson (Matichak), is going through high school, and about the age Laurie Strode was in the first one. Sidenote: I understand that Laurie wants to confront Myers, and would wait in that small town of Hattonfield for him, but why the rest of the family still lives there is beyond me. I guess they’re counting on the lightning never strikes the same place twice principle. In any case, Myers escapes a day before Halloween, the town’s children still go trick or treating the night of, parents still go on dinner dates and leave their loved ones with promiscuous babysitters. It’s what we expect and want, and Halloween delivers and even surprises.

Halloween proves early that it’s going to be a well-made film. The actors are strong and each character is given adequate time to develop (at least, relative to other slashers). In fact, I’d say the strongest part of the flick is the structure which makes several characters the focal point of whatever scene their in at separate times. Obviously, we know Laurie Strode is the star, but by making it more of an ensemble piece, Halloween makes us identify with characters we know will die. Even worse are scenes featuring characters we aren’t sure about.  With doomed characters, it’s only a question of when, but there were a couple of characters in the movie that I could see living or dying, and the suspense then is stifling. Will they or won’t they? Another great decision on the filmmakers’ part was to make Laurie Strode this traumatized vigilante with family issues. We are 99% sure she’s not going to die right? So how do you make a character interesting in a slasher when we’re basically comfortable anytime she’s on screen? Comfortable because she’s not going to die. We can breathe easy when she’s around, right? Laurie is obsessed with a reunion with Myers. She wants to kill him. By making her the predator, the suspense is on the other side. Will she get him?

The violence and gore, once it gets going, is visceral and memorable. David Gordon Green blends cutaways, reveals, shocking gore, and a very, beautifully limited amount of jump scares. You need to have at least 2 or 3 especially nasty moments in these movies to successfully establish what the audience should be afraid of. What are the consequences of being caught? In Halloween, the consequences of being caught are graphic and deeply unsettling. This makes the long sequences of quiet, like when one of the characters in this film cuts through the woods, truly suspenseful.

My problems with the film can barely be said to be problems. More accurately put, they’re limitations of the Michael Myers character that were present in the original and still persist here. It shouldn’t be a spoiler if you’re a fan of Halloween for me to say the guy just will not die. For some, it’s what makes him scary. Not for me. I find human villains scarier, or if not human, monsters with rules. Dracula can’t deal with sunlight. Werewolves can’t withstand silver bullets. The Thing is susceptible to fire. If a villain is unbeatable, I get really negative, and start thinking why bother trying. If you can’t win, why play? A second limitation is that much of the enjoyment, thrill, and fear for Halloween come from not knowing when it’s coming (it being Myers). Now that I’ve seen the film, will it be as enjoyable the second time? The masterpieces of the genre( The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, The Thing) get under my skin every time.

Halloween is everything I could have hoped for in a sequel made forty years after the original: a deeper Laurie Strode, excellent script and direction, same old brutal Michael Myers.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

First Man (2018, Directed by Damien Chazelle) English 6

Starring Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Kyle Chandler, Corey Stoll, Jason Clarke, Lukas Haas, Patrick Fugit, Shea Wigham, Ciarán Hinds

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(6-Good Film)

Austere. Accomplished. Dispassionate.

Neil Armstrong, American hero, first man to set foot on the moon, and family man, gets the A-list Hollywood treatment. Played by Ryan Gosling, reteaming with Oscar winning La La Land director, Damien Chazelle, Armstrong appears in First Man as a quietly driven man, unflappable and stoic. The film opens with the death of his young daughter. He cries for her, and seems unable to cry again after, despite the loss of friends and colleagues throughout Project Gemini’s run. Gosling makes Armstrong a credible man, complete with flaws. He struggles to relate to his wife, Janet (Foy), and two sons, communicating less and less as the movie goes on. His sit-down talk with his sons before taking off for the moon is, for me, the best scene in the film. I was less interested in Janet’s passages. The strong supportive wife is crucial to the story, but not exactly gripping. The rest of the cast of characters is filled out with familiar faces that make up for the lack of character development. Chazelle goes for more of the impressionistic approach, less compelled to give us all the details, instead opting to immerse us in the key events and let us fill in our own blanks. We know much of the history already. I think his approach is right, though I still came away from the picture underwhelmed. It’s technically astounding, well-acted, and paced, but perhaps too stiff, especially for those like myself with only a marginal interest in space exploration.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(58)

A Star is Born (2018, Directed by Bradley Cooper) English 7

Starring Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga, Sam Elliot, Dave Chappelle, Andrew Dice Clay, Anthony Ramos

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(7-Very Good Film)

Effective. Melodramatic. Accomplished.

Every film, or any work of art for that matter, is essentially a vanity project. Every artist has an ego. For whatever reason, whenever an actor decides to take a risk and try directing a film, it gets belittled as a vanity project. I think it should be completely a matter of, “is the film good or not?” Anything else is secondary if salient at all, and Bradley Cooper’s A Star is Born is a good film. Not great. This is the fourth version of the tragic romance, and incapable of surprising most viewers, but what works are the performances from a well-rounded cast led by stars Cooper and Lady Gaga, filled out perfectly by two offbeat choices in Andrew Dice Clay as Gaga’s father and Sam Elliot as Cooper’s brother. One fear I had going in was that Cooper might put too strong a focus on himself as the lead in the film, but I feel he gave every actor their moments, and ultimately allowed Lady Gaga to showcase her unbelievable talent. Credit also should be given to the amount of authenticity he brings to the material, which is, and always has been, clichéd melodrama. Though this Star is Born falls short of George Cukor’s 1954 version, starring James Mason and featuring a towering performance from Judy Garland, it does beat Barbra Streisand’s take.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(49)

Bad Times at the El Royale (2018, Directed by Drew Goddard) English 8

Starring Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson, Jon Hamm, Cailee Spaeny, Lewis Pullman, Chris Hemsworth, Nick Offerman, Xavier Dolan

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(8-Exceptional Film)

Intricate. Exciting. Engrossing.

“Good artists copy. Great artists steal.” So says technology pioneer Steve Jobs. Every story has been told in one way or another, and every filmmaker borrows from the greats that came before. Bad Times at the El Royale bears many of the trademarks of a Quentin Tarantino film: chapters, nonlinear storytelling, shocking violence. Indeed, in more than just the style, Bad Times at the El Royale is reminiscent of The Hateful Eight. Here, seven strangers with dark secrets meet at a secluded, rundown motel split between California and Nevada. Who they are along with their motivations gradually become clear as they spiral towards violent conclusions. All this said, the similarities understood, the important thing is that Bad Times at the El Royale is an excellent film. Best of the year so far. The actors, Jeff Bridges and Cynthia Erivo especially, give their characters and this film a pathos sometimes missing in even the best of Tarantino’s work, and the El Royale offers a handful of exceptional, memorable set pieces. Some films focus solely on shock and awe, confusing the audience, or seeming ultra-hip. This film starts with a great story, and then tells it in a way that maximizes the suspense.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(60)

Venom (2018, Directed by Ruben Fleischer) English 6

Starring Tom Hardy, Michelle Williams, Riz Ahmed, Jenny Slate, Scott Haze

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(6-Good Film)

Campy. Silly. Fun.

Occasionally, not often, I’ll watch a film that makes me question my own cinematic taste. I’ll watch Blade Runner 2049 and be bored to tears, or, on the opposite end of the pole, I’ll thoroughly enjoy a film like Venom. Torched by critics, who, to be fair, only reaffirmed my belief that the Tom Hardy, superhero vehicle would be a massive waste of time, a box-office dud, and an embarrassing cash-grab by Sony, I was surprised five minutes in to find myself intrigued by what was going on, and shocked by the end to find I liked what Sony did with the movie. Does that make it a good film?  I decided to let some time pass. Maybe I was influenced by the natural high I sometimes achieve eating Walgreen’s candy at the movie theater. Best to keep my opinion to myself, I thought. But I couldn’t keep it to myself. I texted a dozen people that Venom was, against all odds, a good film, and now, two days later, I feel confident enough to put it in writing. Venom is a good film.

Eddie Brock leaps from the comic book pages onto the big screen in a solo film that not many people thought would ever happen, and even fewer felt he deserved. Played by Tom Hardy, in a bewildering performance best described as Nicholas Cage-esque (I’m leaning towards that being a compliment), Brock is a hot-headed, investigative reporter who runs afoul of corporate thug, Carlton Drake (Ahmed, an odd but entertaining choice), resulting in him losing his job and his fiancée, Anne (Williams). Drake has some kind of sinister, shady plan afoot involving symbiotes from outer space (more interesting to watch than to explain; the film, to its credit, recognizes this), and Brock ends up merging with one of them. The symbiote, named Venom (I don’t remember why the symbiotes speak English but they do) inhabits Brock and can communicate with him through thoughts. Venom has seemingly unlimited power, though we learn his weakness is fire and high-pitched noise. Brock, as he grows accustomed to the powers, goes after Drake who’s planning to take over the world-typical super villain stuff-and Venom’s motivation for helping him ends up being quite funny rather than perfunctory.

Sony and the filmmakers eschew the problems of most super hero origin stories. Venom is never boring. It’s not dark and brooding, which, I know a lot of people were upset that this isn’t R rated. Maybe a dark and reflective Venom could have worked (it worked so well for Ang Lee’s Hulk), but this Venom is funny (usually intentionally), fast, cheesy, over-the-top, fresh, silly, and fun. At its core, it’s a compelling bromance between Eddie Brock and his symbiote friend, Venom, and it took me by surprise.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

Smallfoot (2018, Directed byKarey Kirkpatrick) English 5

Voices of Channing Tatum, Zendaya, Lebron James, James Corden, Gina Rodriguez, Common, Danny Devito, Yara Shahidi

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(5-Neutral Film)

Uninspired. Competent. Obvious.

I wish these animation studios, if even just occasionally, would risk making a terrible movie for the sake of reaching for greatness. Mix it up. For every three bland, guaranteed-to-turn-a-profit pictures they produce, how about make one where they take a chance? Instead, they’ve settled in, satisfied enough to make lucrative mediocrity. Everyone knows Pixar is still king of the mountain. Walt Disney Animation Studios is doing great work again (though their upcoming slate bears too many sequels), and Laika is making special movies (go watch Kubo if you’re unfamiliar with their work). Meanwhile, Dreamworks, Sony, and Warner Bros. keep giving us unexceptional, uninspired offerings, and I’m bored of it. Smallfoot, Warner Bros.’ latest, imagines a world where yetis are afraid of humans (does it sound like Monster’s Inc. to you too?), though they’re told by their village leader that humans, or smallfoots, don’t exist. Channing Tatum voices Migo, a skeptical yeti, who meets a human, but without evidence, is unable to prove it. He then sets out to find the legendary smallfoots, and show his people that they’re real. It’s a fine story, with enough humor and colors and cookie-cutter songs to entertain, but I’m remembering that Warner Bros. animation was once a powerhouse producing Looney Tunes shorts and features, and now, no matter how much money this makes, they are completely irrelevant. Everything about this feature is just okay, and I find that sad.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(73)

A Simple Favor (2018, Directed by Paul Feig) English 6

Starring Anna Kendrick, Blake Lively, Henry Golding, Linda Cardellini, Jean Smart, Rupert Friend, Andrew Rannells

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(6-Good Film)

Twisty. Sly. Lurid.

Gone Girl came and shocked a lot of people. Amy Dunne, portrayed by Rosamund Pike, is an unforgettable character. Like every huge Hollywood hit, Gone Girl has a host of imitators. What separates A Simple Favor from the cheap imitations is its playful take on the sensationalized material; director Paul Feig (Bridesmaids) and writer, Jessica Sharzer pace the twisty plot with the occasional riff that feels like a wink at the camera. They know this is derivative of Gone Girl and its rip-offs, so that A Simple Favor works both as a comedy-a spoof of sorts- and a thriller-the plot is absorbing and surprising. Anna Kendrick plays Stephanie, the perfect stay-at-home mom who befriends Emily (Lively). They both have grade school age sons, but that’s where the similarities would seem to end, until Emily disappears and it comes out that both women have secrets. Lively plays her role straight and plays it well, creating an enigmatic character that you know is trouble but can’t help but be drawn towards. Anna Kendrick gives the material its gently satirical edge; a fish out of water at first glance, but with the ability to surprise you. Like most of these stylish, over-cooked thrillers, A Simple Favor is incredibly entertaining, well-plotted, and effective, but loses something upon further viewings.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(42)