Movie Review – “Don’t Breathe” (2016)

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Sometimes simplicity is the best way to scare and thrill an audience. You don’t always need convoluted plans, big explosions and lots of plot twists (though that isn’t always a bad thing). There are moments where putting two opposing sides in a dark and dangerous situation can give you the best results.

“Don’t Breathe” lets every situation and scene speak for itself, without any scene overstaying its welcome and each one doing something fresh to its simple premise. At times, it feels like the film is pulling this off effortlessly, as we watch a group of teenagers break into the home of an elderly man who lost his sight in Iraq, with the kids knowing there is a lot of money somewhere in that house. But the man is not defenseless and uses his increased senses of hearing and smell to track the teens, forcing them to hide in this rundown shack from a pissed off army-veteran who has nothing left to lose.

What I loved the most about “Don’t Breathe” was how it painted a distorted picture of both the teenagers and the blind man. Both parties have their reasons for doing these acts – The teens want to get out of Detroit and need the money to get all three of them down to California, where they can start their lives over again. They don’t steal money, only valuables like watches and jewelry, and they only steal from the already wealthy. They don’t want to hurt anyone, they’re just sick of living their current lives and want to start over. And that isn’t cheap.

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This doesn’t excuse breaking into people’s houses and stealing from them, but you see where they’re coming from.

As for the blind man, you’d think he would be the innocent party in all this. These kids broke into his house, are stealing his goods and are threatening his life. But, as the film goes on and we learn more about what this man has done, we realize this is a man who takes the law into his own hands. He doesn’t believe in a proper justice system, since the girl who killed his daughter never saw the inside of prison cell, or in any sort of God – What kind of God would take away the eye-sight of a man who was only serving his country?

And then we see what this guy is doing to keep himself busy.

At that point, I knew that “Don’t Breathe” was not trying to paint the teenagers as the bad guys or the blind man as the innocent victim, but showing shades of grey and ambiguity to both sides. They are not being written as protagonists and antagonists, but as imperfect people, who make selfish and sometimes terrible decisions in life. They believe they’re in control of their own lives and nothing bad could go wrong, so long as they are prepared. Which is why these two groups must butt heads – so that both sides can realize the error of their ways.

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Outside of that, “Don’t Breathe” never gets boring. Every scene flows neatly into the next one, and always finds a way to add something new to the tension, like when the teens are trying to escape through the basement, but the blind man turns off the lights and now both sides are blind. The elder is able to feel his way through the basement, recognizing familiar structures, while the teens stumble their way through the dark.

The film does not get bogged down in pointless moments, as everything we’re shown does eventually come into play. Unlike most horror films, “Don’t Breathe” has very few jump scares, and the ones that do occur are used well, like one involving the blind man’s dog early on. Once the dog comes into play again, you’re constantly on edge, wondering if the dog will pop up again. Jump scares are used at just the right moments to keep you wondering what might be lurking around the corner.

The blind man does not have many lines throughout the film, but he doesn’t need many lines. He keeps his dialogue to basic questions, like asking his intruders how many are in his house. Instead, we see him tracking down the teens, by realizing there are multiple pairs of shoes in the house, and they don’t smell like his shoes.

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“Don’t Breathe” takes full advantage of its premise and works in some creative bits, using almost entirely visual queues to tell this story. This film is simple and yet ingenious at the same time, with how it portrays the small cast of characters who are all just trying to survive. This one is always thrilling, tense and claustrophobic, making it one of the best horror films in recent memory.

Final Grade: A

 

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Movie Review – “Hell or High Water” (2016)

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“Hell or High Water” is a tale of two well-written stories that run parallel to one another – One about a tired generation of farmers looking out for their children so they don’t have to go through the same sorrows they did, and another about an aging Texas Ranger looking for one last chance for glory before he retires. All while having a “No Country For Old Men”-esque style, tone and pacing, giving the characters plenty of time to think about the wrongs they’ve made to get where they are.

Brothers Toby and Tanner Howard (Chris Pine and Ben Foster, respectively) are about to lose their land to the bank, having just lost their mother and putting down a reverse mortgage to cover the medical bills. But after Toby finds out there is a large oil deposit underneath the farm, he is dedicated to paying off the mortgage by any means necessary. Toby contracts Tanner, recently released from prison, to help him rob banks of their small bills until they make enough to pay off the mortgage.

Meanwhile, Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) is close to retirement and hears about several banks being robbed, making this his last case. Marcus is able to deduce the Howard brothers actions and seems to be behind the two every step of the way.

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Perhaps “Hell or High Water” feels so much like “No Country For Old Men” because of the Texas atmosphere, taking place mostly in rural country towns, where everyone is doing their best just to survive. It might be that both films are about aging police officers hunting down criminals who always seem to be on the run, someone they can never catch. But I think it has to do with the similar theme of confusion and worry for the next generation.

“No Country For Old Men” was about how the criminal mind had evolved to the point where we couldn’t calculate or understand it. That criminals were no longer looking for something, but just wanted to invoke chaos and anarchy. They want to see others suffer, just because they could do it. Similarly, “Hell or High Water,” is about how the banks, a system sworn to protect and safeguard the people of Texas, has been stealing everyone’s money and forcing them out of them own homes. The banks have become so greedy, that they only see their clients as their next cash cow.

This is helped by the many vacant or run-down houses Marcus and his deputy come across during their travels, with rusted or broken-down cars and not a soul in sight. The deputy, who is part-Native American, gives the speech about how his ancestors land was stolen, and now the children of those thieving ancestors are getting their land stolen as well, except this time it is the bank that is stealing.

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This makes Toby and Tanners crusade so fascinating. The two are only stealing money from the bank that holds the mortgage on their land – They intend to pay the bank back with their own money.

While a heist movie at its core, “Hell or High Water” is a piece filled with intriguing characters, mostly looking for their place in the world. There are no major gun-fights until near the end of the film, so if you expected a rough-and-tough shoot-em-up action piece, you’ll have to look elsewhere. What you’ll get instead are some well-acted scenes between Chris Pine and Ben Foster, who always have this friendly-yet-physical relationship, as well as Jeff Bridges wondering what he’ll do with his life after the chase has ended.

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Overall, I enjoyed “Hell or High Water” for its world building and making this rural land look like it was once a wonderful place to live, but has been destroyed due to a cancerous economy. In a way, the film is about the remnants of that old world looking to build a better world. This is a smart, beautiful and well-written piece that I wouldn’t mind watch again.

Final Grade: A-

 

Movie Review – “Steamboat Bill Jr.” (1928)

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If you love classic cinema, this question is bound to come up – Who is funnier? Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton?

This answer always varies from film buff to film buff. Chaplin was more emotional in his comedy and love to have exaggerated body movements, like a Looney Tune. Keaton, on the other hand, was far more story-driven and was known for his stone-face expression, like all these crazy shenanigans had no effect on him. Chaplin was known for his sketches and segments, while Keaton was a stunt-man, pulling off insane jumps and moves that had audiences reeling and terrified back in the 1920s.

Both certainly had their strengths over the other, and it was easy to see why the two of them were the leaders in silent comedy. While I consider myself a bigger Chaplin fan than a Keaton fan, there is something to admire about the stunts that Keaton was able to pull off, most coming either “The General” or this film, “Steamboat Bill Jr.”

This is where Keaton perfected the famous cyclone sequence, where an entire town is destroyed by a storm and Keaton is stuck right in the middle of it. His bed is blown throughout the collapsing city, while he is later forced to move against the hurricane-force winds, while a large truck comes barreling the other direction. But perhaps the most notorious part is when the side of large stone building is about to fall right on top of Keaton, only for him to be standing exactly where the window is.

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As with every other Buster Keaton film at this time, there was no trick photography with this segment. That was a real building falling down on top of the real Buster Keaton. No wires if anything went wrong, no editing to make sure Keaton wasn’t in danger, and no stuntman.

This scene has been parodied so many times that it has almost lost all meaning, but this is something to be truly admired. To pull off large-scale stunts like this, creating a miniature town only to have it be torn apart by a gigantic windstorm, in 1928 when nothing to that scale had been done before, says a lot when people are still parodying it. Almost 80 years later, and we’re still impressed by Keaton’s skill as a comedian and a stunt-maker.

However, outside of the cyclone sequence, “Steamboat Bill Jr.,” does not have much else going on for it. There are a few other cute comedic sequences, like Keaton trying on a bunch of different hats and his strict father turning down every hat his son liked, but that’s about it. Nothing too impressive about the rest of the film, but it is worth it for the final cyclone scene.

Final Grade: B

 

Movie Review – “Robin and the 7 Hoods” (1964)

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Every fiber of my being is telling me I should despise this movie. That it is confusing, convoluted, non-sensical and poorly paced. And yet, I loved every second of “Robin and the Seven Hoods.” This one was just as big of a surprise as “Mister Roberts” was.

The film is set in 1920s Chicago, right in the middle of the Prohibition Era, when crime boss “Big” Jim Stevens (Edward G. Robinson) is gunned down at his own birthday party. He is replaced by the crooked Guy Gisborne (Peter Falk), who is willing to give every gang in the city protection from the police, but at the cost of half of their daily earnings. Gisborne is soon approached by Robbo (Frank Sinatra), who won’t be apart of Gisborne’s gang and sets out to make a name for himself in Chicago.

After a run-in with Big Jim’s daughter, Marian (Barbara Rush), Robbo earns a large sum of money he doesn’t want, and it is given to an orphanage. One of the caretakers for the orphanage (Bing Crosby) is delighted by all this and starts spreading the good word about Robbo, the modern-day Robin Hood.

The reason I say “Robin and the Seven Hoods” is confusing and convoluted is because it wants to be many genres at the same time – Gangster, comedy, musical, courtroom drama, as well as a modern retelling of Robin Hood. At times, it even feels like “Seven Samurai,” where the gang of misfits help the villagers for no intended reward. And yet, I love the film because it is so tongue-in-cheek about everything, while still pulling off the 1920s-gangster feel and some beautifully choreographed musical numbers.

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Normally, I’d say a film should stick to one or two genres, but “Robin and the Seven Hoods” tries to be four or five genres at once, all for laughs. Naming the love interest Marian and Robbo’s best friend “Little” John (Dean Martin) is one thing, but turning their casino into a church within a couple of minutes to hide from the cops is so ridiculous that it is hilarious.

Everything about this film is cranked up to eleven and I can’t help but appreciate it. Peter Falk as the eccentric gangster was pitch-perfect casting, from the voice and mannerisms to the need to feel important and constantly failing at it. The courtroom trail is short and sweet, especially when they give the verdict and shows that this town is smarter than it looks. But my favorite comedic bit is the last twenty minutes of the film, when Marian continually goes on the same type of date with different men, including Robbo, Little John, Gisborne and the deputy sheriff, in a bid for power and continually being shot down.

There was just something that really got to me about Marian’s plans falling apart, only for her turn around and come up with another power struggle idea one second later. All her plans are the same, which might be why they’re so great to see falling apart at the seams.

Overall, “Robin and the Seven Hoods” was a genuine surprise. At times, it feels like an authentic gangster film, but then it breaks into a musical number the next moment, all while telling the story of Robin Hood. I respect this movie and its filmmakers for having such a care-free attitude throughout the film and being able to pull off so many genres at once.

Final Grade: A-

 

Movie Review – “Black Sabbath” (1963)

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My first adventure into the world of Italian horror. Or at least, an Americanization of Italian horror.

I got a taste of this genre with “Crimson Peak” last Halloween and I am beginning to see why Italian horror films, especially those by Mario Bava, resonate with horror fans. Part it might be the old-school style of filming, reminiscent of early Universal monster films like “The Mummy” and “Frankenstein,” but have the added benefit of being shot in color. As great as some of the early Universal films were, horror works better when you can see the sunken and disturbing colors on a shocked face.

Another part might be that Bava believes in the concept that true horror comes from what we don’t see, letting our imaginations and fears fill in the gaps for us.

But after doing some research on this film, “Black Sabbath,” I found that Bava shot in the film in Italian, but was heavily changed, re-edited and even re-shot when the film was bought for distribution by Warner Brothers. The reason American companies were interested in this particular movie was because Bava had begun to make a name for himself around the world as the next great master of horror, and because Bava cast Boris Karloff as the narrator throughout the film, with Karloff still being the biggest name in horror films since “Frankenstein.”

The version I saw of “Black Sabbath” was the American version, which did show the three horror anthology segments in a different order than Bava intended and lacks a proper ending narration from Karloff.

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I found “A Drop Of Water” to be the most fascinating segment, since it hooks you in from the beginning with a wonderfully vibrant color scheme and a rickety old house, yet there is a single occupant that is more than content living there. It is the shortest of the three segments but makes the most of its time with a simple story of haunting an old friend who has mistreated the dead.

“The Telephone” started off wonderfully, almost like a “Twilight Zone” episode, invoking mystery and intrigue about a man considered dead contacting his girlfriend through a blood-red phone, talking about how the two of them will soon be together forever. But by the end, most of the intrigue is gone and things are wrapped up a little too nicely for how strange it was trying to be.

Finally, we have “The Wurdalak,” which feels more like a lost Universal horror film than anything else. It doesn’t have the same level of intrigue and mystery as the other two segments, so this one feels out-of-place in “Black Sabbath.” It does introduce a type of vampire I’ve never heard of, a vampire that only feeds on people they love, but it does not do anything with that premise outside of the usual vampire traits we have all heard of before.

Overall, “Black Sabbath” is hit-and-miss, or at least the American version is. I can’t say anything for the Italian version, but this did make me want to check out more of Mario Bava’s work and see his ideas of horror expanded upon. “A Drop Of Water” was brief yet satisfying, and the better parts of “The Telephone” were captivating and terrifying. But as a horror anthology movie, this one was so-so.

Final Grade: C+

 

Movie Review – “The Black Cat” (1934)

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Wow, I would have never guessed – Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff are the same height. Either Dracula is taller than I thought he was, or Frankenstein is shorter than I gave him credit for.

The height of these two massive horror stars does come into play at one point their first meeting, 1934’s “The Black Cat,” with Lugosi playing a Hungarian psychologist who has recently been released from a massive prison after 15 years, supposedly put there by Karloff, an eccentric Austrian architect who has build his futuristic mansion on a former battlefield. Lugosi blames Karloff for his imprisonment and for the death of his wife and daughter, with Karloff keeping the wife encased in a glass shrine, so that everyone may see her beauty for all eternity.

In other words, Lugosi is psychically seeking revenge, while Karloff is obsessed with collecting people and death.

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For a film coming off the heels of “Dracula” and “Frankenstein,” it is strange to see these two in roles that doesn’t involve anything supernatural. To see these icons play people, crazed as they may be, instead of other-worldly monsters and abominations. Which is why their same height is so striking – it makes you realize they are playing humans who are equally matched, instead of monsters that tower over us.

However, I will say that “The Black Cat” takes a while to get moving. There’s a plot involving a couple on their honeymoon, whom Lugosi saves and takes to Karloff’s castle for rest, but we learn little about these two, outside of the husband being a famous writer of mysteries. They move the plot forward and give Lugosi’s character something to fight for, but all they do distract from some of the better scenes involving the two lead actors.

Overall, “The Black Cat” has some great scenes between Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, the first time these two shared the screen together, and does a wonderful job showing how both men are despicable creatures who enjoy the sight of others in pain. But with too much focus on other uninteresting characters, this one does leave me cold, wishing there had been a tighter focus on the lead actors, or at least better written minor characters.

Final Grade: B-

Movie Review – “The Mummy” (1932)

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This has quickly become my favorite of the early Universal horror films, even ahead of “Dracula” and “Frankenstein.” While those horror movies rely on high-concept monsters that have since become larger than life, “The Mummy” relies heavily on mood and atmosphere, where the empty darkness is just as much of a player as the titular mummy.

If you’ve seen the 1999 remake of “The Mummy” starring Brendan Fraser, then you know the basic premise – archeologists uncover an ancient tomb and disturb the slumber of a 3,700-year old mummy, who is now set on bringing is one true love back to life as well and silence anyone who gets in his way. While the remake is more action-oriented, the 1932 film focuses on the unnerving performance by horror-icon Boris Karloff, who gets far more screen time than he did in “Frankenstein,” and gets to speak, always about his undying love for his Ankh-es-en-Amon.

While Karloff offers subdued control throughout the film, always using the archeologists to get what he needs and using his ancient magic to kill those who stand in his way, the lack of a score throughout most of the film and the dark lighting play just as big of a part. There is a general feeling of emptiness in “The Mummy,” like the sands of Egypt, that provoke a sense of unease and mystery. Like you might be swallowed by the shifting sands at any moment. This is something other early Universal horror films lack, the atmosphere that nature is just as much of an enemy as the monster.

Overall, “The Mummy” not only sets the standards to every following supernatural archeological movie, but shows that silence and a creepy Karloff performance can be as terrifying as everything else. While it is a shorter film, around 75 minutes, every frame is oozing with atmosphere.

Final Grade: A