EMPIRE OF LIGHT film review

Underwhelming. Sam Mendes’ Empire of Light tries to be too many things, and winds up being none of them sufficiently enough. Furthermore, it’s a story out of time that would have played better had it come out 30-40 years ago. Moreover, it’s poorly paced, and Olivia Coleman’s Oscar-reaching performance is simply not enough to save this film that so desperately desires your affection. Is it a story about the challenges of a mixed race couple in the 1980s? Is it a story about the love and healing nature of cinema? Is it a story commenting on and challenging ageism in romance? Or, is it a story about trauma and mental illness? It’s all of those subjects–and–none of those. None of them effectively enough, anyway.

A romance develops in a beautiful old cinema on the south coast of England in the 1980s.

In an age in which mixed-race couples are increasingly common, movies about the healing power of cinema have been done–and much better (ie Cinema Paradiso), and films about mental illness are common, the story that needed to be the central focus was the one on ageism in dating. And yet, that subplot takes the furthest backseat to the others. Empire of Light never lands on any one outside/action story paired with an inside/emotional story. Neither does Coleman’s character effectively go though a growth arc–she is largely the same at the end of the movie as she is at the beginning–save the healing power of cinema (which isn’t her chief struggle).

This film stands as another example of a director with an idea(s) that should have worked with a screenwriter, because any screenwriter with his/her weight in salt would’ve cautioned Mendes against the plethora of subplots and inner-needs. A closer look at this film suggests that Mendes desired to create this generation’s Cinema Paradiso, but the movie simply doesn’t deliver on that theme or subplot. Like with all the other themes and motifs, the narrative feels desperately forced. I’ll leave you with this: where the film does excel.

Empire of Light ‘shines’ best through the brilliant eye of director of photography Roger Deakins. It’s because of his incredible talent that the film looks as gorgeous as it does. Furthermore, the setting and production design shine brilliantly. I wish that the outside/action story included the renovation of the older auditoriums and ballroom. Would’ve made for a fantastic manifestation of one of the inside/emotional stories.

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

GUILLERMO DEL TORO’S PINOCCHIO motion picture review

Positively avant-garde! Easily among the best pictures of the year, period. Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio is a brilliant stop-motion picture that will stir the hearts and minds of any audience! In many ways it’s reminiscent of 80s dark fantasies such as The NeverEnding Story and The Dark Crystal. Which should come as no surprise that del Toro worked in collaboration with the Jim Henson Company. Audience will be completely transported to the post-World War I Italian world that del Toto meticulously recreates, complete with the fascist movement, which underscores much of the film. Not since Kubo and the Two Strings have we had such a gorgeous, imaginative animated feature film–a film that was robbed of its deserved and earned Beast Animated Film Oscar (no, Zootopia is in no universe a superior film). Let’s hope that the Mouse doesn’t rob Pinocchio of it’s well-deserved Academy Award for Best Animated Feature.

The story may seem familiar: A father’s wish magically brings a wooden boy to life in Italy, giving him a chance to care for the child. But you’ve never seen Pinocchio like this before!

Before you dismiss Del Toro’s Pinocchio as another soulless, cash-grab remake, this much more macabre version of the titular puppet’s story delivers immense depth and dimension. Not only of technical achievement, but of theme, plot, and character development. This animated film proves that animation isn’t only for kids, because this film is far more thoughtfully crafted than most live action films this ear. And yes, I agree with recent comments from Quintin Tarrantino that we are experiencing one of the worst eras of cinema in history. No doubt this is true. However, this year has seen some real winners such as Top Gun: Maverick and now Pinocchio. Suffice it to say, this is not your kid’s Pinocchio. And, although there are important life lessons in the film, it goes to places, both figuratively and literally, that may not be appropriate for kinds under 12 years of age. While Pinocchio is in its limited theatrical run, see it on the BIG screen!

While there are certainly plot beats which are shared by the original 19th century story, the 1940 Disney adaptation, the wretched Robert Zemeckis’ remake earlier this year, and countless stage adaptations (funnily enough, I saw the operetta Pinocchio this week as well), Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio takes on a life of its own. It isn’t often that the filmmaker added a possessive to the film title. Whereas it’s commonplace for Disney to add Disney’s… to literally everything, it’s uncommon for director’s or producers to add a possessive to the film’s title. Notable exceptions include Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas (directed by Henry Selick), Bram Stoker’s Dracula (directed by Francis Ford Coppola), and now Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio. This possessive form of title is often employed to signify (1) the filmmaker’s confidence in his or her work of motion picture art and (2) to separate it from all other versions of the same story (and/or title). Moreover, this often indicates to audiences that they are about to witness the work of a true auteur (not the case when we see Disney’s…–that’s just plain branding).

Is it del Toro’s arrogance or an ego trip that prompts such chutzpah in this film’s title? Not at all. Del Toro has been working on this passion project for over 15 years. Before you feel that’s an exaggeration, let the finished motion picture be the demonstrable evidence of meticulous work frame-by-frame in this nearly two-hour film. Images are most often captured at 25-frames-per-second, so to achieve the fluid motion del Toro has, you just do that math. Del Toro crafted intricate animation captured by a camera that is repeatedly started and stopped over the course of day, weeks, years. Each mouth, arm ear, eye, literally any object that has movement, is moves a little at a time, frame-by-frame. Not only does del Toro’s craftsmanship translate to beautiful, seamless movement by the characters and environment in the film, he successfully captures the visual and emotional miracles that can only be accomplished through stop motion animation. There’s a reason why we go back to the Rankin & Bass Christmas classics every year; there is immense simplicity and beauty in stop-motion animation. Why? Same reason why practical effects will always be superior to (overt) CGI effects–depth, dimension, the way real light bounces off objects and into the camera lens.

Even though the film is quite dark from the moment the atrocities of war are witnessed, it is not without its levity and uplifting scenes. To get into a central theme of the film involving stages of grief (which makes it unique compared to other iterations), would mean venturing too far into spoilers, which I would like to avoid, and with that theme, there are many scenes that force the audience to confront what many fear most. Because of this theme, one might think the film is somber most of of the time, and fortunately, this is not true. There are plenty of moments that break up the sadness to inject a healthy dose of laughter. And more often than not, we have Sebastian J. Cricket to thank for that! (I’m sure the “J” is a playful jab at Disney). DelToro’s sardonic, raconteur cricket always has the perfect witty remark or anecdote to provide insight into a given plot point or emotional beat. Because of Sebastian J. Cricket’s running commentary and moral/ethical guidance, the audience is willing to go on this emotional roller coaster. The moment of levity allow for an emotional and psychological reset to face the darker moments.

Outside of the imagery of the stages of grief, there are other fascinating areas of social commentary in the film as well. I love how del Toro moves the real boy imagery, how it’s traditionally interpreted: wood vs. flesh, to one that posits ideas of what it means to be a real man. These arguments are mostly seen in the Mussolini’s youth armies scenes. In the world of fascist Italy, to be a real man meant taking up the arms and creeds of Mussolini’s Italy to fight the allied forces. Pinocchio must decide what it means to be a real man. Another area that is interesting is the relationship between Geppetto and the village (Catholic) Church. While there may be various ways of interpreting this imagery and these scenes, which are bookends for the film, I feel it is best interpreted as Geppetto never compromising on his faith in God even though the Catholic Church, at that time in Italy, was being infiltrated by Mussolini’s fascist ideals (cleverly disguised to sway some in the faith community).

Lastly, we cannot talk about this film without highlighting the moving score and outstanding original songs. While Pinocchio is not a musical, it has several original songs that will move audiences! Not only does this film boast exquisite animation, but it delivers outstanding original music and lyrics as well. Audiences will find both diegetic and non-diegetic musical numbers in the film. This combination works incredibly well to wrap audiences in the mesmerizing story!

Even though Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio is coming to Netflix in December, look to see if it’s playing at theatre near you for the full experience!

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

GLASS ONION: A KNIVES OUT MYSTERY whodunit movie review

Cloth Mask: a COVID Mystery. The real mystery is why Johnson didn’t turnover his idea for this chapter in the fledgling franchise to a different screenwriter. World famous detective Benoit Blanc is back, but this mystery suffocates under constant reminders of the varying degrees of response to COVID-19. At the core of this Knives Out installment is an intriguing mystery; however, throughout the whole movie, the audience is reminded of about two years of recent history that most people would rather forget. The best part of the movie is a cameo, near the beginning, of a truly legendary TV detective. Even if you don’t want to watch the whole movie, watch the first few minutes, because you will undoubtedly love the cameo as much as I did.

Tech billionaire Miles Bron invites his friends for a getaway on his private Greek island. When someone turns up dead, Detective Benoit Blanc is put on the case.

Before I break down my thoughts on the movie, just who is that legendary TV detective that surprises us with a heartwarming cameo? None other than Dame Angela Lansbury, aka Murder, She Wrote‘s Jessica Fletcher! Knowing she makes her final film appearance in a murder mystery is incredibly poetic, and will absolutely thrill audiences.

While there is certainly a time and place for films that depict or are an abstract representation of events and people from real life, for purposes of inspiring conversations, most fictional films should transport us, be a momentary break from the negative stressors of life. From beginning to end, Glass Onion is a manifestation of COVID Theatre–and not for purposes of parody or satire–because it’s neither funny enough to be parody nor clever or thoughtful enough to be satire. Even though Rian Johnson is reprising his role as the writer-director of this one, the loss in quality from the brilliant Knives Out to this installment is rather conspicuous. Perhaps this is yet another example of why some directors need to stick to directing, and turn their ideas over to a screenwriter. Evidence of the poor pacing and structure is demonstrably witnessed in the simple fact that nothing big happens for an hour and fifteen minutes into the movie.

Another troubling aspect of this movie is the showdown. And no, I am not about to get into spoilers. But it’s a subject matter that certainly requires critiquing. Keeping in mind that when Glass Onion was written, Johnson could not have possibly known about now-recent headline-grabbing events (in Europe presently) about a group that feels by being a (to quote the movie) a disruptor that they can get their way. And in the film, something rather disturbing happens that could very well serve as inspiration for the continued despicable actions of this group. When these events began happening a few months ago, Johnson (or Netflix) should have rewritten and shot the ending because as it stands, the ending is tasteless.

The set and production design of the movie is nothing short of impressive. While the constant reminders of COVID do nothing to transport us to another world, the setting of this movie certainly does! I absolutely love witnessing the hand of the artist in the design of the palatial house and manicured gardens of the location where the murder mystery takes place. Much like the house in the original Knives Out felt like the Game of Clue, this one delivers a similar feel, which causes the house to feel like a character in and of itself.

While the story execution and writing leave much to be desired, the casting is great! Daniel Craig’s Benoit Blanc is just as entertaining as he was in the first movie. Outside of the foghorn leghorn detective, Jannelle Monáe delivers a fantastic performance as the ex-wife of our murder mystery weekend host Miles Bron, enthusiastically played by Edward Norton. You’ll recognize many to the other cast members and there are a few cameos that will garner a laugh or two. Some of the characters aren’t given much to do, so they become filler. But for the characters that have something of substance to do, they are mostly entertaining.

Unlike the previous movie, this one feels very “Netflixy,” so it’s not one that benefits from a theatrical viewing. Watching it at home will be sufficient enough. However, an advantage to watching it during its limited theatrical run is avoiding spoilers on social media.

For more on the movie, visit Netflix.com/GlassOnion.

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

BONES AND ALL horror adjacent movie review

Intriguing concept, poorly written. The highly anticipated film from director Luca Guadagnino (Call Me By Your Name) leaves a mediocre taste on the palate. Moreover, Bones and All represents another example of the result of concentrating more on atmosphere and technical elements than on strategic storytelling and proper plotting. “A day in the life of…” or simply “dealing with life” is not a goal; therefore, a plot it does not make. Vapid dialogue and lack of diegetic purpose plague this rather gothic romance. However, the gore is handled tastefully. The most pleasant surprise in the film is the cameo by veteran horror actress Jessica Harper of Suspiria fame! She may only be on screen for a few minutes, but her performance will captivate audiences! Unfortunately, the rest of the film is largely forgettable. In contrast to many other films this year that greatly exceed the two hour runtime, this one clocks in at a sluggishly paced two hours and ten minutes.

Love blossoms between Maren (Taylor Russell), a young woman on the margins of society, and Lee (Timotée Chalamet), a disenfranchised drifter as they embark on a 3,000-mile odyssey through the backroads of America. However, despite their best efforts, all roads lead back to their terrifying pasts and a final stand that will determine whether their love can survive their differences.

While the concept is interesting (although Warm Bodies did it better), the execution is sloppy. And I am not talking about the dining habits of our central characters. I’m talking about the disregard for screenwriting conventions. There are many refreshing ideas in the film, but the ideas are not fleshed out sufficiently. I applaud the film for delivering an original expression of an extension of the zombie genre, but I wish the story had been better paced and structured–oh yeah–an external goal for the central characters would’ve been nice too.

Although the film boasts solid casting choices (especially the Harper cameo), the visual aesthetic the central characters bring to the screen is not supported by compelling talent or character arcs. There simply wasn’t much to these characters; they are borderline one-dimensional. Lots of potential for depth, but the characters are largely the same at the end as they are at the beginning.

For all the potential for the film to serve as a social commentary on feeling alone in the world, the film never thematically lands on any particular ideology or observation of society. Extrapolating from the thematic evidence the audience is given, the film is most likely attempting to craft a story depicting when someone feels alone in the world, but surprised to find out that they are not. When relationships with your fellow man (be it platonic or romantic) are actually possible.

Despite the film taking place in the late 1980s (an era that is growing blasé as a setting for film and TV), it shares a lot in common with gothic romances because of the subject matter. Seems like every other movie releasing takes place in the 1980s, which is beginning to become tiresome and unimaginative. But, I suppose we have Stranger Things to thank for that. On the topic of visual aesthetics and production design, the film’s various midwest settings feel like a character in and of themselves. I appreciate design most when you can see the hand of the artist.

Perhaps Bones and All works better as a novel because it is overwhelmingly internally driven. Not having read the novel, I can merely infer what may have been lost in the novel to screen adaptation. Most likely what is lost is that which cannot be shown on screen, so I cannot fault the screenwriters for that. Where I do find fault is neglecting a proper outside/action story driven by a plot that points and builds to a climactic showdown and resolution. We have plenty of internal need (aka inside/emotional story), but simply dealing with life or finding love is not sufficient for purposes of compelling cinematic 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