Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Movie Review: Vampires vs. The Bronx

The weirdest aspect of Vampires vs. The Bronx might be that it's essentially a throwback '80s comedy/horror/adventure flick that doesn't appear to be rooted in '80s nostalgia. The underlying structure is there - it's a story about a group of kids facing a supernatural threat no one else believes in, so it's up to them to face their fears and save their home. Tonally, it's reminiscent of movies like Monster Squad and Gremlins: it gets dark at times, but this is still ultimately kid-friendly (at least for older kids).

But despite essentially being an updated spin on Lost Boys, its references skew more towards '90s horror. The movie directly references Blade (very directly - it's a plot point and recurring gag), and the monster designs seem to be primarily based on Buffy. On top of that, I couldn't shake the feeling this probably wouldn't have been greenlit without the success of Stranger Things.

In other words, Vampires vs. The Bronx is essentially 3rd or 4th generation '80s nostalgia, which I suppose is appropriate since the '80s movies in question were themselves based in nostalgia for monster movies of the '50s and '60s, which in turn...

I know none of that tells you anything about the quality of the movie, but I haven't got a lot to say in that regard, other than assuring you this movie is, in fact, good.

Okay, I probably should have opened with that. Vampires vs. The Bronx is a funny, clever movie that's mildly scary in a PG sort of way. The protagonists are likeable, the villains are interesting, and it actually offers a unique spin on the underlying mythology. Vampires have always represented old money and customs - incorporating that into a story about gentrification is a natural evolution.

The movie's one main flaw is its budget isn't quite sufficient for the story they want to tell. This is one of those movies where it feels like there are only forty or so residents in what's supposed to be a large community. Likewise, without giving too much away, the ending really wanted to be bigger. There's a significant moment towards the end of the movie where the focus shifts from the protagonists to the entire neighborhood, and it really would have helped if there were a few dozen more vampires and another few minutes of fighting.

This isn't just a spectacle thing - thematically, we really needed some minor characters to get hero moments instead of just... being there.

Even with an underwhelming finale, the movie was still a ton of fun and well worth your time. Still, I wish the investors had been willing to pump a little more cash into this project, because it wouldn't have taken much to nudge this from "really good genre flick" to "shortlist for one of the best installments in this sub-genre ever made." The script and acting were there - it just needed a little extra cash. 

If you've got a Netflix subscription, you can see for yourself - it's streaming now.

Thursday, October 8, 2020

Catch Up, Part 4: Dead Things

Welcome to the fourth installment of my series on movies I didn't watch until recently, a premise which is both stupid and undermined by the fact I actually saw some of these more than six months ago and just held off posting until I had enough "thematically connected" to justify grouping them together.

And speaking of themes, this one's a hell of a stretch. It's fall, and I already burned off most of the horror movies I've seen over the last year (though there are a couple that make it in here). So... yeah. Bodies. Scary. Or something.

Blow the Man Down (2019)
This is probably the most obscure movie on this list, but it's also my favorite. Blow the Man Down is an independent production bought by Amazon and tossed up on Prime. It's a crime thriller about two sisters in a coastal village in Maine.

I just... I don't know where to start, other than the following two points:

  1. Whatever you're imagining based on that description is wrong.
  2. If you have Prime, you should really just stop reading and go watch it now.

The closest comparison is probably Fargo. The two movies strike similar tones at times, and both make use of their settings' winter imagery through long shots that build tension. So, if you like Fargo (i.e.: if you have a pulse), go watch this.

I also want to call out the fact this movie captured something about the state of Maine I don't ever recall seeing on film before. There's a sense of history here, in the buildings and in the faces. You feel like the characters are surrounded by ghosts, despite there being nothing explicitly supernatural on screen.

My one nitpick is that the accents sounded a little more Massachusetts than Maine to my ear, but that's a minor quibble. I absolutely loved this movie.

The Old Guard (2020)
I found myself frustrated by this movie. The cast was fantastic, and it includes some amazing moments. There are awesome action sequences and - more importantly - a moment that ranks favorably with the best romantic scenes in genre movies of all time. I'm talking up there with Han's "I know," in Empire. THAT GOOD.

The problem is the movie, as a whole, just isn't as good as the sum of its parts. The script leans too heavily on introspective, existential questions I found boring in context. To put that in perspective, I concentrated in philosophy in college - I'm not inherently adverse to musings about the meaning of life and time when they're interesting.

But here... they're just not. Too much of the movie is devoted to characters moping and acting depressed. That sort of thing that could have been salvaged with interesting stylistic choices and tones. Unfortunately, the movie mostly looks and feels like every other generic action flick out there, which transforms what should be an interesting premise into something bland and often tedious.

Yes, the action is really good. And that scene - trust me, you'll know it - is incredible. Several others are, as well - The Old Guard delivers some really good moments. Whether that's enough for you will likely hinge on how personally those moments hit for you versus how much of a slog you find the overall story.

Ready or Not (2019)
I've said it before, and I'll say it again - horror isn't one of my go-to genres. I don't enjoy being scared or grossed out, so that eliminates a lot of the appeal. However, horror tends to incorporate elements and conventions from related genres I love. Fantasy and science fiction are the two obvious examples, but it's also one of the few areas you can still find comedy used in innovative and effective ways.

And that brings us to Ready or Not, a horror flick that evokes Heathers in some ways. It's a weird, funny, dark film that's more funny than scary, but doesn't shy away from the blood. There are some clever thematic beats around class and misogyny, and I like the amount of time put into the antagonists, who are portrayed as rounded, comedic characters rather than generic bad guys.

All that said, I found the resolution a bit underwhelming. Without giving too much away, the movie had a couple directions it could have gone in, and - at least in my opinion - it took the less interesting path.

Still, this was a solid horror/comedy hybrid.

Doctor Sleep (2019)
I completely understand why this wasn't more successful, but I absolutely loved this weird, flawed movie.

It's a horror film that's almost entirely devoid of anything scary. The movie murders its tension by having the "helpless child" utterly kick the main monster's ass twice in the middle of the movie. Structurally, this is an utter mess, featuring TWO time jumps in the first act and huge POV issues. You're allowed to change the central protagonist in a movie, but it's hard to argue that it's a good idea to change from one character to another a third of the way through then shift back for the last third.

I've never read the book this is based on (hell, I've never even read The Shining), but this feels like a situation where they adapted the source material a little too closely. You can get away with a far looser structure in a novel than you can on screen.

In short, I get why this wasn't better received by critics and horror fans. Hell, it's less a horror movie than a drama set in a world where monsters, ghosts, and psychic superheroes exist. Then again, doesn't that more or less describe most Steven King novels?

This movie is chock-full of world-building, explaining and expanding on the events introduced in The Shining, along with a healthy number of allusions to The Dark Tower. It features some fascinating uses of psychic powers, particularly those employed by Abra. The villains are fascinating characters in their own right. For once, the monsters have real personalities, quirks, and emotions.

If that and the fact it's a sequel to The Shining aren't enough to pull you in... I get it. But something about the world and characters clicked with me. Doctor Sleep was a movie with almost unlimited flaws, but they felt more like technicalities to me. I enjoyed the film immensely, flaws and all.

Knives Out (2019)
Despite trying to avoid spoilers, I went into Knives Out knowing who the killer was. Fortunately, this didn't matter much, because that detail doesn't make the top ten list of most interesting aspects about Knives Out. This is largely because...

I can't even begin to do this without spoilers. I'm not going to touch the plot or resolution, but I am going to need to discuss what the movie is, what it isn't, and what's really surprising about all that. So if you haven't seen Knives Out, stop reading and go see it if you like any of the following: comedies, mysteries, movies, acting, puppies, chocolate, literally anything, etc.

Just watch the damn movie - it's great.

So, spoilers here on out. The thing about Knives Out is I watched it expecting a mystery, only to discover that only encompasses half the film. Probably a little less, honestly. The detective, the mystery, the interviews with the suspects... all of that's really the B-plot. The A-plot follows Ana de Armas's character, and from her perspective this is more a Hitchcockian suspense than a mystery.

And even that's just scratching the surface. Knives Out is also a rather compelling metaphor for our society. More importantly, it accomplishes all this without sacrificing its humor: it's a pleasure to watch.

This instantly became my favorite film by Rian Johnson. I have no idea what the announced sequel will be like, but it should be fascinating to find out.

I Lost My Body (2019)
This was a weird, quirky French animated movie about a severed hand crawling around Paris as it attempts to locate the body it was cut from. It was nominated for Best Animated Picture, and I was rooting for it (I think I just dated how long this one's been in the queue).

The movie shifts from drama to adventure to outright horror. The hand's fight with some hungry rats on subway tracks was one of the tensest action sequences I've seen in years.

Ultimately, this is magical realism doing what that genre does best: exploring weird premises and just soaking in tone and theme. It's bizarre, dark, beautiful, gross, sad, and unsettling - do NOT make the mistake of watching this with kids. But if you enjoy animation as an art form, this is absolutely worth seeing.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
Well. That was awesome. I knew almost nothing about this going in, not even that it was an anthology. I'm not sure there's a wrong way to watch this, but just in case: if you haven't seen this and are a fan of the Coen Brothers, westerns, and/or good film making in general, maybe stop reading and head over to Netflix now.

I'm not sure where to begin. This was weird and off-kilter in the best way. It's sort of an existential look at American history and mythology through the prism of dark comedy. It's funny but unsettling: the component pieces are arranged so you feel as though something's off. That something, of course, is our own past. The stories in this movie are fictional and mostly ridiculous, but the core of this movie - that our nation's expansion brought a wave of death in its wake - is all too true.