KNOCK AT THE CABIN movie review

Knock on a different cabin. M.Night Shyamalan’s latest horror film Knock at the Cabin attempts to explore thoughtful themes but the storytelling is clunky due to the poor plotting and contrived character development. Moreover, this is a case wherein film form is employed as a tool to compensate for underdeveloped meaning and story structure. Where the film excels is in the characters and casting. Yes, the character development is contrived, but I appreciate Shyamalan’s character mix. In particular, it’s a refreshing mix because the fact the parents are a same-sex couple doesn’t factor heavily into the plot nor become a sermon, like it so often does. It simply is and that’s it. Furthermore, the casting of not only the central parental couple, but all of the characters shines because of the realistic representation of everyman. Bautista is provided a platform to portray a much different character than he has in the past, which is fantastic to witness! He is given an conduit through which he can more freely exercise his acting chops. Visually, the film is striking; there is an emotive dimension to the montage of the motion picture and the cinematography. Again, the film form is outstanding! Unfortunately, the screenplay is lacking the same degree of thought that was found in the technical approach to crafting this film.

While vacationing at a remote cabin in the woods, a young girl and her parents are taken hostage by four armed strangers who demand they make an unthinkable choice to avert the apocalypse. Confused, scared and with limited access to the outside world, the family must decide what they believe before all is lost.

Knock at the Cabin excels in montage and cinematography because of how the eye of the camera oscillates between subjective and objective placement, much in the same way our own eye (and mind’s eye) operates in real life. Treating the camera as our own eyes allows Shyamalan a brilliant opportunity to bring the audience into the narrative. Unfortunately, this is hampered by the clunky storytelling. However, because of the stylistic choices for camera placement and scene framing, the film is successful in delivering an unsettling mood and suspense with the camera (in a Hitchcockian manner). Furthermore, the film proves to be exemplary in the area of montage (or dramatic film assembly) demonstrated by the stylistic choices that provide the film with steady pacing and guiding our focus from character to character or scene to scene. While the story may be lacking refinement, the editing crafts a visual narrative that is lean and mean.

Struggling narratively, the film fails to sufficiently provide thoughtful critique (or commentary) on any area on which it concerns itself. I don’t mean to sound vague, but to discuss the themes, symbolism, or commentary would require me to divulge spoilers. What I can say, without getting into spoilers, is that there is an attempt to critique: preconceived opinions or judgments of people, willful disbelief in the face of evidence, and toxic ideologies. I appreciate what Shyamalan set out to accomplish; it’s clear that this film was supposed to be a vessel to foster conversations about the themes and subtext, but no single area of theme or subtext was setup or developed adequately. We receive glimpses in the dots Shyamalan attempted to connect, but they are glimpses at best. Flashbacks are used as a tool to provide clarity on present conflicts, but that (often abused) storytelling tool is wielded ineffectively and wastefully.

Ryan teaches Film Studies and Screenwriting at the University of Tampa and is a member of the Critics Association of Central Florida and Indie Film Critics of America. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter. If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with him.

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BABYLON (2022) film review

Whoa, that’s a lot of movie. Damien Chazelle’s decadent film of bombastic proportions is simultaneously mesmerizing and repulsive, coherent and incoherent, thoughtful and thoughtless. Suffice it to say, it’s interesting to behold. This overstuffed fever dream collage of 1920s and 1930s Hollywood is trying to tell so many stories, that it winds up not telling any of them effectively enough. There are competing A-stories (outside/action plots), each vying for to be the story about which the audience empathizes with the most. To dramatize these ideas, Chazelle assembles a mise-en-scene that’s ostensibly a combination of Singin’ in the Rain, Boogie Nights, Sunset Boulevard, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, with a little Caligula and Wolf of Wall Street thrown in to provocative proportions. Ultimately, what we have here is more of an exercise in montage–the assembly of a motion picture–more so than we have a clearly defined narrative. Undoubtedly, this will become a film that is shown in film studies classes in the future, and will be used for close reading discussions, much like I show Boogie Nights in my American Cinema class. There is a prolific amount of imagery to analyze, as the film follows four different Hollywood stories that all intersect one another. Just for whom was the film created? Certainly not general audiences. It is likely going to be most appreciated by Chazelle himself and with some critics and scholars (tho, not this scholar nor the majority of the critics with whom I screened this film).

Decadence, depravity, and outrageous excess lead to the rise and fall of several ambitious dreamers in 1920s Hollywood.

One thing is clear, Chazelle’s intention was to craft a boisterous love letter to the allure and power of cinema whilst negatively critiquing the Hollywood system that creates and destroys careers on a whim. Furthermore, the film seeks to provide thoughtful commentary (just how thoughtful? that is for you to decide) on the superficial, fleeting nature of fame and celebrity. Where the film excels is in the both the performative dimension and Chazelle’s direction. Unfortunately, Chazelle’s screenplay is all over the place.

While audiences may not remember the four individual story threads that make up the outside/action plot, audiences will definitely remember the prologue and final scene. Chazelle certainly captures the unbridled decadence that is probably not unlike the level of debauchery that ran rampant after the great movie people migration from Europe (mostly Germany and France) and eastern U.S. (avoiding Edison’s motion picture patent policing) after the first World War. It was certainly the wild west with a seemingly unending source of money (coupled with massive debt). To borrow from Outback’s former slogan no rules, just right, that describes the atmosphere of the greater Los Angeles area. No order, only chaos. Which is not unlike this film–lots of chaotic images and plot points.

The prologue to Babylon is truly a spectacle that words simply cannot capture accurately. That’s not to say that all of the creative decisions were plot or character-driven–I’ve said it before–that even provocative imagery can be used to further the plot or character; and therefore, that which would otherwise be evaluated as gratuitous, is actually purposeful. However, much of what goes on in the opening scenes is simply gratuitous for the sake of shocking the audience–for an extended period of runtime. I am reminded of the opening to Boogie Nights, and how at first glance it may seem gratuitous, but actually the opening scene is needed for plot and character development. It’s not so much shocking as it is crafted for a strategic purpose.

While elements of the prologue are justifiable, in the relationship to plot and character, there are many moments that are no more than prolific debauchery simply because Chazelle could. Now, what I did find most interesting–and to the point that I greatly appreciate the prologue–is that much of the deplorable chaos is underscored by the score from Fritz Lang’s masterpiece Metropolis in the Babylon scene with MechaMaria. Something Chazelle wove into the scene for the film scholars in the crowd.

Jumping to the end of the film, there is a–what amounts to a–clip show featuring iconic films from the 100+ years of cinema history we have. I get it, Chazelle is communicating to audiences that being part of filmmaking means that you’re part of something bigger than yourself, something that will live on decades and (by extension) centuries after you pass away. It’s this artform that will continually be rediscovered and influence people and cultures (good, bad, or indifferent). While it’s clearly designed to be an emotionally moving moment in the film, as indicated by the tears in the character in that scene, it comes off as lazy, derivative montage that does little more than remind the audience of better films for the rather long sequence of imagery. Instead of being a deeply, moving scene, it’s rather vapid.

The four competing A-stories depict four different (but not too dissimilar in substance) Hollywood stories. (1) an A-list star that feels the pain as he watches his star fade with changing times (2) An up and comer that is thrust into the spotlight for a brief time, just to continue to fall due to tragic flaws and a talent that simply didn’t transition to talkies (3) an immensely talented individual subject to the prejudices of the general public and Hollywood executives and (4) and an animal wrangler turned studio executive by being in the right place at the right time, but even that level of fame and success is not invincible to human error and poor judgment. Any one of these stories would have made for a great A-story, with others falling in line thereafter. But each one of them feels like it’s vying for the main outside/action story. This is where Chazelle should have worked with a screenwriter that could have taken his concepts and ideas, and fashioned them into a much better structured and plotted narrative.

Perhaps it’s a film ahead of its time, or perhaps, it truly is the Heavens Gate of 2022. Maybe it will see success on down the road like Boogie Nights and Showgirls has, but only time will tell. Presently, it’s a wild, bloated film that lacks basic storytelling.

Ryan teaches Film Studies and Screenwriting at the University of Tampa and is a member of the Critics Association of Central Florida. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter. If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with him.

Follow him on Twitter: RLTerry1

VIOLENT NIGHT Christmas movie review

Highly entertaining and hilarious! Better watch out burglars, Santa’s coming to town. Universal Pictures’ Violent Night hits theatres this week. And you don’t want to miss this fantastically fun horror-adjacent Christmas action movie, which is equal parts Die Hard and Home Alone with some Krampus thrown in for good measure–and it that still has plenty of Christmas spirit! Not since Krampus have we had such unconventional Christmas movie in cinemas. Not quite unsettling enough to be a horror movie, but gorier than a typical action movie, Violent Night sits comfortably in the middle (but a little closer to action). One of the things that makes both Gremlins and Krampus work so well is that the violence is played for laughs, and audiences will find that to also be true in this movie. Even though the violence is prolific, it is schlocky and even campy, at times. Despite the creative, gory kills and pulse-pounding action sequences, Violent Night takes times to impart valuable lessons in family, hope, and even redemption. It simultaneously acknowledges how hard the holidays can be on folks that have become disillusioned with Christmas and yet manages to show the importance of never losing hope in the magic of Christmastime. Even though we may not know how it works; it’s important not to allow cynicism of this world to overpower the optimism of hope the holidays bring. With a solid screenplay, effective direction, and entertaining kills, Violent Night is an instant modern classic that is sure to find its way onto annual watch-lists every December.

An elite team of mercenaries breaks into the Lightstone family compound on Christmas Eve, taking everyone hostage inside. However, they aren’t prepared for a surprise combatant: Santa Claus is on the grounds, and he’s about to show why this Nick is no saint.

I often remark that some of the best movies are those with a simple plot and complex character, and that is what we have here! On the surface, it may be a horror-adjacent heist movie, but beneath the creative kills and campy characters lies a movie that has a lot to say about the various feelings about Christmas (and the holidays in general).

Before you dismiss this movie as just a schlockfest, there is discernible depth to this story that will resonate with audiences of all walks of life and opinions on the magic of Christmas. The commentary on the Christmas season is witnessed in the characters, specifically Santa, Trudy, and Scrooge. By extension, other manifestations of holiday feelings are expressed through the rest of the cast of Lightstones and mercenaries. Santa has become a Christmas cynic himself, because of the rampant entitlement and greed of the world, Trudy holds true to the magic of Christmas despite the negative stressors of her family, and Scrooge represents the idea that Christmas is nonsensical and worthless. All real feelings. Furthermore, the film does not shy away from discussing the gross consumerism that is so often, yet unfortunately, at the forefront of Christmas.

A growing trend for films that aim to be character studies is to neglect the plot. Not true with Violent Night! Again, the surface is a gory action movie, but at its core, it is a character study on reactions to Christmas. Even character studies need to have a well-structured plot, because the outside/action story is a visualization of the inside/emotional story. We get both in this fantastically fun movie! Santa must reconcile his purpose with the state of the world, Trudy must reconcile her belief in the magic of Christmas within her dysfunctional family, and Scrooge (more specifically pre-Christmas Eve Scrooge) gets his just desserts for reining terror. Moreover, I appreciate how the movie provides thoughtful commentary on some of the worst people–and I am not talking about the mercenaries (tho they are deplorable people), but the Lighthouse family members represent people we know from our own lives.

Much like Krampus (but far more violent and a little less scary), Violent Night is a cautionary tale on the dangers of selfishness, greed, and toxic celebrity-ism. We’ve all been Santa, Trudy, or one of the other characters in the movie. Don’t miss the schlock, hijinks, and heart of the action-packed Violent Night this Christmas season.

Ryan teaches Film Studies and Screenwriting at the University of Tampa and is a member of the Critics Association of Central Florida. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter. If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with him.

Follow him on Twitter: RLTerry1

ELVIS biopic review

The King of visually spectacular biopics! Tom Hanks and Austin Butler deliver command performances that transcend impersonations and transform them into The Colonel and The King. You’ll want to sing along with this dazzling tribute to the King of Rock ‘n Roll from visionary director Baz Luhrmann. A landmark biographical motion picture for both the technical achievement and performative elements of the mise-en-scene; however, the screenwriting (inclusive of plotting and narrative) lacks the gravitas of the visual elements. Needless to say, my initial reaction to the film was higher than it is now that I’ve had some time to think on it. That’s not to say that I wasn’t impressed by it–I was! Parts of it, anyway. The more I thought about the screenwriting, the more frustrated I became with the film. Frustrated in that it felt like a hybrid biographical film meets documentary. Furthermore, the full impact of the story is hampered by the poor pacing. Perhaps Elvis would have made for a better limited run HBO series. Of course, then you’d not likely have Luhrmann at the helm, which is ultimately why this film works as well as it does. From his humble beginnings to Graceland and Vegas, the film includes milestones in Elvis’ legendary career. The influence of rhythm and blues and gospel music on Elvis’ life is witnessed throughout the filmWhile the storytelling may be weak, the sensory explosion of the film coupled with the performances are the reasons to watch this on the big screen.

Elvis Presley rises to fame in the 1950s while maintaining a complex relationship with his manager, Colonel Tom Parker.

What performances! Both Butler and Hanks are sure to wow you with their portrayal of The King and the Colonel. We could definitely see some Best Makeup Oscar nominations for both, especially for the Colonel. Other than when it was established that Elvis put on a significant amount of weight (but we cut back to Butler’s slender Elvis), he completely embodied the legendary entertainer. From his voice to his signature pelvic moves, everything about Butler screamed that he was truly Elvis. With so many impersonators out there, and some very good ones, it’s difficult for an actor to take on an iconic role such as this, and elevate it from impersonation to transformation. Fortunately for Elvis, Butler transformed with great authenticity. Moreover, Hank’s unbelievable transformation as the Colonel is on par with the Oscar award-winning hair and makeup of Jessica Chastain’s Tammy Faye last year in The Eyes of Tammy Faye. Although Butler certainly has the moves to drive you wild, it’s really Hanks’ story. Oh you get lots of Elvis, but the main action plot is really told from the perspective of The Colonel. Which is why there are narrative problems.

The movie opens and ends with The Colonel, with all the Elvis in the middle. Because of the competing plotlines, the movie suffers from poor pacing and clearly misguided diegetic direction. Audiences are never able to go as deep as they would like because as soon as we begin to focus on one element of Elvis’ or The Colonel’s life, we are then thrust into a different chapter in Elvis’ life. While that may seem like the movie to too quickly paced, it actually has the opposite effect by dragging it down. Stays too long in some places, whilst not enough in other places. BioPics like this often suffer from poor plotting, because they are ultimately a visualization of a Wikipedia page. Lots of information and chronological events, but little time and room to become emotionally involved with the characters. If this movie had not been about Elvis, and was just another tragic story of an entertainer from humble beginning, hitting it big, losing themselves, just to have a major comeback before an untimely death, then I would probably not care about these characters as much as I do. I am invested in them because of who they are, not because of the journey I witnessed in the film.

The technical achievement of the film is off the charts good! The stylistic cinematography and editing choices are Luhrmann’s signature style. It’s an experiment of the apparatus of film, and how it can be manipulated and crafted to take a typical BioPic, and transform it into a cinematic experience. And that’s what Elvis is, an experience! It is a brilliant combination of stagecraft and cinema. Yes, some of the sets look like they are on a stage, but that adds to the dimension and character of the film. It gives it this other worldly feel that wouldn’t be achieved simply by using all real places (as many still exist). Several times during the film, the cinematography and editing made me feel like I was literally at an Elvis concert! A sensory explosion that only Luhrmann could dream up. The down side to this approach is that there is so much emphasis on the visual elements and the technical achievement of the film that the actually storytelling suffers….sometimes feels like a bad television limited run series.

While I have my reservations with the screenwriting, there is no doubt in my mind how much fun I had with this film! Whether you’re a lifelong fan of Elvis or not, you will have a wonderful time!

Ryan teaches Film Studies and Screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with him.

Follow him on Twitter: RLTerry1

THE UNBEARABLE WEIGHT OF MASSIVE TALENT film review

Massively fun! Nicolas Cage IS Nicolas CAGE in the hilarious yet thoughtful and action-packed The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent. You don’t want to miss this highly entertaining motion picture on the BIG SCREEN! On one hand, it’s a fictionalized self-referential character study, but on the other, it’s Taken. It’s a metanarrative that delivers both the exploration of the fascinating career, larger than life persona, and highly publicized financial problems of the screen legend. In other words, this film is in full Cage Rage mode from beginning to end. For the film studies enthusiast, scholar, or just film fan, there is also a running commentary on the evolution of filmmaking spanning over 100 years. This is most noticeable when the foundational work The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and contemporary works Paddington 2, Marvel and Star Wars are referenced. In an exchange between Cage and Pedro Pascal when instead of Marvel or Star Wars movies, they both want to make films that are “intelligent,” “character study” pieces. It’s that tongue-in-cheek humor paired with the bombastic screen presence of Cage that will have you rewatching (or watching for the first time) films like Face/Off, Moonstruck, Con Air, Mandy, and yes, even The Wickerman. In fact, the screenplay pulls from all Blockbuster and obscure corners of Cage’s filmography to craft a film that is grounded in character that is thoughtfully developed over a high concept action plot. At the end of the day, this isn’t a film about a fictionalized Nicolas Cage, but a film about the transformative power of motion pictures that stars Nicolas Cage as himself.

Unfulfilled and facing financial ruin, actor Nick Cage accepts a $1 million offer to attend the birthday party of Javi Gutierrez (Pedro Pascal), an immensely wealthy fan. Things take a wildly unexpected turn when a CIA operative recruits Cage for an unusual mission. Taking on the role of a lifetime, he soon finds himself channeling his most iconic and beloved characters to save himself and his loved ones.

The Cage Mythos is alive and well in this film. Cage both embraces and pokes fun at the prolific number of myths inspired by his vast career. Moreover, regarding the metanarrative, this film reminds the audience (and Hollywood producers) of the Cage Range of his acting prowess. Few actors have inspired as many bad impressions, memes, and have left the undeniable impression that Nicolas Cage has. What the films ranging from the obscure artsy “direct to video” (streaming nowadays) titles to the Blockbusters have in common is how much they resonate with audiences. By his own admission in the movie and in real life,

Cage is a working actor. He’s never viewed acting as a career as much as it is a series of gigs with which he has had lots of fun, and will continue to do such. Perhaps he is a contemporary Christopher Lee. Sir Christopher Lee still holds the record for sheer number of roles over his storied career. In many ways, Cage is not unlike Lee. Whether the man is the myth or the myth is the man, Cage plays right into it. He know precisely what his fans and audiences want to see from him–they wanna see Full Cageness! Cage has the benefit of a distinct voice–he IS a movie star, in the classical definition of the word. Regardless of how many bad movies he’s made, he maintains a larger-than-life screen presence that is peerless.

The movie that Javi and Nick are working on in Massive Talent parallels that of this movie itself. They both speak of a character study piece that turns into a genre picture. Furthermore, the central character of the screenplay within the movie has the same struggles that this fictionalized Nick Cage has. As Cage is developing this idea-turned screenplay with Javi, he undergoes self-rediscovery and ultimately reconnects with his estranged family (this isn’t a spoiler…it’s rather obvious). But that’s the point. It is a tried and true, simple plot on which complex characters are created and change over the course of their respective arcs. Simple plots, complex characters. That is what I tell my screenwriting students makes a great story!

If you are knowledgable in Cage films, then you will absolutely love all the easter eggs, references, and clips. I attended the screening with a friend of mine that hasn’t seen many Cage films; still, he found The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent to be highly entertaining and fun. Suffice it to say, just like there is a Nick Cage for everyone, there is a little something for everyone in this film–but fans of Cage will definitely get the most out of it!

Ryan teaches Film Studies and Digital Citizenship at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with him.

Follow him on Twitter: RLTerry1