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

THE FABELMANS film review

An intimate portrait of an ultimately underwhelming quasi autobiographical story. Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans looks gorgeous and delivers a performative dimension with heart, but the story, largely inspired by his own life, struggles to capture the magic in which it so eagerly wants to wrap audiences. Tony Kushner’s screenplay, with story by Spielberg, starts and finishes well; however, the middle (or development stage) lacks focus and stakes, and even ventures into needless satire. If audiences are seeking a film about the transformative power of filmmaking and following one’s passion–despite the odds–then they will be better off with the Italian cinematic masterpiece Cinema Paradiso. This film is best experienced on the big screen because of the beautifully crafted cinematography, so if you plan to see it, do not wait for it to hit Peacock or Amazon Prime to view at home. Clearly this is the most personal motion picture from the king of the box office form the late mid 1970s to mid 1990s, but hopefully now that he has made his fictionalized autobiographical picture, he will get back to thrilling and entertaining audiences with pictures that are talked about decades later.

Young Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle) falls in love with movies after his parents take him to see The Greatest Show on Earth. Armed with a camera, Sammy starts to make his own films at home, much to the delight of his supportive mother. But a dark family secret threatens his idyllic family.

While The Fabelmans attempts to inspire audiences through its central character of Sammy’s journey, audiences may find it difficult to connect with a central character from an upper middle, if not, upper class family that experiences fewer obstacles to the pursuance of art than does a typical working class individual. Why is this important? Because the film focuses on Sammy’s struggles (primarily during his teenage years). While Sammy certainly experiences emotional and psychological struggles, it’s difficult for audiences to connect with a central character that has far fewer financial and time obstacles than most people experience when pursuing passions. It’s far easier to pursue art as a career when sufficient financial backing is present. It’s characters that have to scrimp, save, and balance making a living while pursuing art (or other less conventional passions) that impact audiences most.

Michelle Williams (Mitzy, Sammy’s mom) delivers an outstanding performance! Moreover, Gabrielle LaBelle (Sammy), and the rest of the cast all display exceptional chemistry and dimension. There is a surprising cameo at the end of the film that is the icing on the cake of this exemplary cast. From the cast to the characters themselves, audiences will be impressed by the authenticity of the Fabelman family. Unfortunately, that same authenticity is not reflected in all the ancillary characters. Even in Spielberg’s big blockbuster films like Jaws, ET, and Jurassic Park, the cast is always excellent! That’s likely because each of the characters feels like an everyman, someone that could be you or someone in your life.

A closer look at the plot reveals a lack of a substantive goal(s) for Sammy. Fortunately, his mother Mitzy has a goal, but I won’t get into spoilers. Kushner’s screenplay neglects to provide Sammy’s outside/action story with high stakes. He’s never at risk of losing anything–personally–anyway. Therefore, he’s always in a safe position. One may be able to attempt an argument on losing his family, but that is more relational than an actual goal to achieve or fail to achieve. Dealing with life or a day in the life of are NOT plots nor goals. Aside from remaining alive, there is nothing measurable to gain or lose. For example, his goal could be to complete a particular picture or to land a job with a studio, but neither are that to which all the scenes point. Much like with many other movies and films as of late, this one isn’t written well. Lots of ideas, some of which are refreshing, but not woven together in a compelling narrative.

In terms of the relationship between Sammy and his camera, and Sammy and his family, I appreciate the film’s commentary on how a true artist experiences great pressure from family and friends as they work on their art. It can mean, making self-centered decisions that support the creation of art versus being emotionally or physically available to family and friends. Furthermore, the film teaches us that the camera itself never lies–it captures that which is placed in front of it–but it’s the editing (or montage) process that can selectively tell a particular story from the collection of raw footage. Sometimes the camera shows us things that we are afraid to confront otherwise.

Undoubtedly, there will be critics and general audiences that praise the film for being Spielberg’s most personal. And it is–but–therein lies part of the problem with the storytelling. A filmmaker directing a film that is ostensibly about their life demonstrates a huge ego trip. It also means everything that is dramatized is highly subjective, giving way to feelings weighing greater than facts. When a motion picture is biographical in nature (even when it’s a fictionalized account), audiences want to know how it really happened.

The middle of the film, specifically when Sammy’s Jewish family is relocated from their beloved Arizona to northern California, is plagued with caricatures of both school bullies and Christians. Due to the subjective nature of this narrative, one cannot help but wonder if the bullies were exaggerated and if the ridiculous level of cult-like fanaticism of his Christian girlfriend were misrepresented and mischaracterized for dramatic purposes. If Spielberg and Kushner were making fun of any other faith group, it would be seen as disrespectful. But they will get a pass because in Hollywood, it’s perfectly acceptable to make fun of members of the Christian community–but–completely unacceptable to stereotype or satire any other faith group or subset of the general population. If it’s evaluated as in poor taste to treat other groups with disrespect, then it should be viewed the same way here. Spielberg and Kushner could have found more tasteful ways to highlight the religious conflict in Sammy and his girlfriend’s relationship, and methods that were good-natured teasing or fun, but it was clearly more of an importance to show the girlfriend as a fanatic.

The opening sequences and scenes paired with the final scene of the film are thoughtfully crafted to transport audiences to a world of awe and wonder, and for those scenes, I applaud the film. Unfortunately, the film gets bogged down with a convoluted mess of ideas in the middle that do not add to the experience of the film, or send constructive messages to the audience.

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

WHY HORROR? (Preface)

My book exploring why we love horror so much is taking longer than I originally projected, but I thought I would share the preface with you. If you like the preface, then you’ll want to purchase the book when it releases! At the time of this posting, I am on Chapter 12.

PREFACE

“What’s your favorite scary movie?” (Ghost Face, Scream). There is something to be said about the measurable energy of an auditorium at the cinema when a crowd is energized for opening night of the latest horror film. Moreover, the same can be said about your own living rooms when gathered with friends to watch a horror movie on-demand or through a streaming service. We turn into quasi participants because of the strong physiological and emotional responses to the stimuli on screen. Best enjoyed in a group setting, these movies are the stuff of nightmares and fond memories!

The American horror film brings so many people of all ages together from a bevy of ethnic, cultural, religious, and socio-economic backgrounds unlike any other single film genre. Spawning conventions, theme park events, inspiring indie and pop artists, the fandom of horror is incredibly diverse and stratified. While the science-fiction/fantasy fandom is large and vocal, it does not often display the level and degree of diversity that horror does both presently, in our culture, and has for more than a century. From the dawn of cinema, horror has been a staple for big studios and small production companies alike.

By analyzing horror films, we can learn a lot about our past, our present, and even our future. While film is largely a reflection of life, horror is the best cinematic mirror of all because it forces us to face our fears. The monster in a horror film, may just be the manifestation of a force or idea in the real world delivered to us through a terrifying cautionary tale.

Even when a bad horror movie gets released in theatres, the auditoriums are usually full on opening night–even through the weekend–before the numbers fall off, and that title is available on-demand in a few weeks. The influence of horror on our society is witnessed throughout the decades. A great example of this is seeing fans from across four decades all gathering in one place to watch 2018’s Halloween.

Unlike other critical and box office successes in recent years, this particular franchise boasted a 40 year old legacy that brought fans and spectators of all ages together. I remember sitting there in my seat, simply in awe at the sea of people and feeling a kinetic energy surge through my mind and body, especially when the Halloween theme music began to play. What other genre generates this?!?

In order to best explore why horror brings so many people together, we need to first look what the formula is for the American horror film and then at why we are attracted to it. From there, we can travel through the decades to learn how and why the horror film developed in the manner that it did.

Understanding what comprises the American horror film will support our exploration because it will create a theoretical framework through which we can analyze the popularity and fandom of horror. When I lecture on horror to my film studies and screenwriting students at the University of Tampa, where I’ve taught since 2016, I describe the makeup of the American horror film this way:

(Art movements of) German Expressionism + French Surrealism = horror’s aesthetic

(Writings of) Sigmund Freud + Edgar Allan Poe = horror’s content

At its root, all genre horror films can be traced back to these aforementioned elements and formulas. This chapter will focus on horror’s aesthetic, while the next chapter will focus on its content. 

Ask anyone, and the single most famous scene in all of cinema is the famous shower scene from Hitchcock’s Psycho, widely regarded as the most pivotal horror film in all cinema history. The aforementioned scene gains a greater eerie feel upon the close of the movie when the audience realizes that Norman has little to no control over his mind and actions.

The studio responsible for solidifying the horror film as a popular genre, and you could say is the parent of the American horror film is Universal Pictures. Not only is horror the most bankable genre of film, generally speaking, it is also one of the most fascinating to analyze because many horror films written in the classical sense are social metaphors.

Throughout this book, you’ll learn about the current events that preceded a particular movement in horror, and how those fears and anxieties were explored through characters and plots. For example, it was the space race of the mid 20th century that inspired many of the alien movies of the 1950s. And with the space race, came a fear of what lies beyond our atmosphere.

Although the “modern” horror film began with Psycho, horror was an influential genre and box office draw from the dawn of cinema. In fact, many of the characters you enjoy watching today in horror films has their first appearance in the early 1900s.

“Oh no, don’t go into that house!” “Watch out! He’s right behind you.” Some of the most memorable movies of all time are the horror films. They draw our eye’s attention to that which would otherwise repulse us in real life. At the same time, our own eyes are being threatened with disturbing or bizarre imagery.

But why does that which would repulse us in real life and that which is terrifying to behold, bring us together? That is what we are here to explore together! So join me as I lead you on a journey to dive deep into why horror brings us together.

From Nosferatu to (my favorite icon) Freddy Krueger and beyond, the American horror film continues to leave a huge footprint in our collective zeitgeist.

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

NOPE horror film review

Nope, no plotting here. With a sensory explosion of stunning shot composition, outstanding sound design, and unnerving score–combine those with a refreshingly original expression of the classic monster movie–and you should have a great horror film, right? That was almost the case here, had it not been for the meandering narrative and thoughtless plotting. Brilliant idea, but poorly mapped out. There is so much to like about NOPE, but the full potential of this beautifully looking film is ultimately held back by screenwriting mechanics. Peele’s NOPE feels like a combination of The Birds, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Signs. Unfortunately, it lacks the structure and substance of any of those. Clearly, Peele had a wonderfully original idea for his latest feature film, but his idea fails to deliver narratively. The plotting is all over the place; there are scenes that simply do not pay off dramatically. Individually, each scene is meticulously crafted, but many are not connected methodically to the rest of the film. What we have here is a film, that clearly demonstrates a love for horror cinema and film history, that pushes experiential boundaries, but the plotting leaves much to be desired. Moreover, there is a disconnect between the performative element of the mise-en-scene and characterization. Fantastic performances; but the characters, as they are written, are not very well developed. The pretense of the film is one exuding cinematic gravitas, but the pretense is the equivalent of a beautiful house with a shaky foundation and infrastructure.

To go into why this film’s plotting does not work would be incredibly spoilerific, so I cannot go into many details. All throughout the film, I thought to myself “I can tell that this is supposed to mean something, perhaps subvert something, but those idea are not being communicated effectively.” What this film will likely become is one of those that a pretentious cinephile or armchair critic will respond to those that express difficulty in following the plot with “it’s not for everyone” or “you just don’t get it.” Whenever I hear those remarks in defense of films that objectively fail to deliver narratively (plot+story), it makes me want to vomit. They are copouts for explaining away why a film doesn’t have to follow established storytelling conventions; furthermore, the “you just didn’t get it” is a tool for the cinephile to establish intellectual superiority over the individual rightly questioning the screenwriting of a film.

Caretakers at a California horse ranch encounter a mysterious force that affects human and animal behavior.

Where the film excels is in the very concept of the film itself and the technical achievement! Upon watching it, I was reminded of great films such as The Birds, Signs, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Moreover, I was also reminded of the sci-fi/horror movies of the 1940s and 50s. Because I was reminded of those, that demonstrates Peele’s love for classic horror cinema! And I applaud him for attempting to craft something for modern audiences that feels familiar yet fresh. To the best of my knowledge, there has yet to be a film (classic or more contemporary) that expresses the alien plot in the manner that Peele does. Where the films to which he’s harkening surpass NOPE is in the plotting. Original ideas are very much needed in 21st century cinema, but these ideas need to be paired with coherent plots.

Peele’s eye for shot composition is exceptional. He knows precisely how to frame and shoot a scene dramatically, even when the shot is largely static. What makes his shot compositions work so well is that the shot is a direct extension of the emotion of the scene. The camera isn’t merely documenting the course of events, but is ostensibly an active participant in how the scene unfolds.

The brilliant sound design and unnerving score work in tandem to draw the audience into the film, especially when watching the film in Dolby Cinema (which is what I did). No sound effect or bar of score is wasted. Every sound, every note is intentionally selected as an extension of the action or emotion of a scene. Although a film should not rely upon a great score to carry the story, sound and music are two very important tools in a filmmakers tool belt to increase the sensory stimulation of the film.

Peele is such a gifted director, but I hope he chooses to work with other screenwriters in the future to take his original ideas and map them out methodically and chronologically (whether linear or nonlinear) more soundly. We need refreshing ideas such as his, but we also need them executed in more conventional ways. Have the thoughtful subplot and subtextual theming that will inspire discourses, but make the outside/action plot more accessible because it’s the vessel through which the subplot and theming is communicated.

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

JURASSIC WORLD DOMINION movie review

Some stories are best left extinct. Looks like we need to implement the lysine contingency with this one. Don’t bring anything back that you cannot control. Jurassic World Dominion represents the final nail in the coffin of this once best picture quality motion picture property. It’s as if the writers never watched the original Jurassic Park nor read Crichton’s masterful novels Jurassic Park or The Lost World; simply watched highlight reels and read Sparknotes. After the disappointing Fallen Kingdom, I was hoping the writers and producers would take that as a cue to return to the legacy franchise’s roots. Instead, this bloated, glorified B-movie (and that’s being generous) delivers an abysmal story, a convoluted web of competing plots, and wasted characters, all underscored by a CGI crapfest of dinosaurs (or, it could be the inverse). Extinct is the magic that made the original one of the most beloved motion pictures of all time. Furthermore, this movie is perpetually in the third act, leaving little room for setup and development. With so much brilliant material from which to pull in the original film and two novels, how on earth did we get the preposterous slapdash story (rather, collection of stories) that we did??? It truly pains me to have to write about the franchise this way, as Jurassic Park is my No.1 favorite film of all time. I think I’ll cleanse my cinematic palate and rewatch Maverick for a third time or watch Jurassic Park at home. Even the first Jurassic World is far more enjoyable than Dominion.

The future of mankind hangs in the balance as humans and dinosaurs coexist following the destruction of Isla Nublar, another Biosyn/InGen dark secret is revealed, giant locusts pose an eminent threat to agriculture, and Owen and Claire embark on a dangerous rescue mission. (Yeah, all of that is in the movie).

There is soooo much going on, here. Clearly, Trevorrow, Emily Carmichael, and Derek Connolly struggled on any singular outside-action story, and made the unfortunate decision to just go with all of their ideas, everywhere, all at once. And when that didn’t work (surprised, as they may have been), they knew they had to get the Jurassic Trinity back (Dern, Neill, and Goldblum) in order to try to make something of this diegetic mess that was probably greenlit while drunk. Seeing the original cast all together is one of the few highlights from the movie, but I wish they had been given more agency and depth. Moreover, character development is a struggle all the way around.

While one may attempt to argue that all art is completely subjective–I assure you that is not the case. Yes, there is subjectivity in art, but there are also accepted best practices and conventions that are time-tested and should be adhered to in order to tell a thoughtful story with logical plotting (unless you know how to break them, and this movie did not). Jurassic World Dominion is objectively found wanting. Not even so bad, it’s good, just bad. Cheesy B-movies with dinosaurs from the first half of the 20th century are more coherent.

When I watch movies like this (like this, meaning movies that really should be taken seriously out of respect for the source material and predecessors), I wonder how on earth could a team of writers forget the screenwriting fundamental convention and best practice of simple plot, complex characters. Instead, in Jurassic World Dominion, we get simple characters, complex plots. The inverse of what works dietetically and cinematically. The outside-action story (supported by strategic and coherent plotting) should be easy to follow; however, the emotional/cerebral subplots and character development add the thoughtful complexities that provide depth for cinema. While none of the Dominion stories Trevorrow attempted to bring to to the silver screen are compelling in any way (and contradict past precedent plotting or themes set in the franchise), any two of them would have made for a better main and subplot than any combination of all 4+ of them.

The fan service is both prolific and incredibly forced. Is there anything wrong with strategically placed fan service–those moments or references that only legacy fans will appreciate? No, definitely not. Is there anything wrong with fan service that isn’t emotionally earned in the present movie? Yes, definitely yes! From beginning to end, the fan service is everywhere, and very few of those moments pay off dramatically or emotionally. Perhaps if Maverick had come out first, then Trevorrow’s team would have observed how to integrate nostalgia and throwbacks perfectly. Nostalgic gestures like most of the ones in this movie are empty–devoid of any substance. There is one moment, in particular, that is so unlikely (the logic escapes me) to have happened that it’s practically impossible; however, it’s written into the movie in an attempt to forcibly craft some poetic justice.

If you’ve read the novels Jurassic Park or The Lost World, then you’ll remember how significant the character of Lewis Dodgson is. And, I did appreciate how Trevorrow brought Dodgson and Biosyn back because the roles they play in the novels, especially The Lost World, are incredibly signifiant to the plot. No spoilers, but Dodgson is way more than the guy that paid off Nedry to steal the embryos and giving rise to the GIF and callback “Dodgson, Dodgson, we’ve got Dodgson, here!” I just wish Trevorrow and his team took more inspiration from the novels than a singular character and company. Honestly, The Lost World novel could have been adapted to fill the role as the tertiary movie in the Jurassic World trilogy, considering very little of the plot in the novel was used in the movie adaptation.

Thematically and subtextually, Dominion experiences great trouble. The themes are both counterintuitive to itself and the preceding five films. Much of the subtext defies all known logic, both logic in terms of real-life ecology and how the science of the films was presented in the past. Instead of using the world of the films to write the next and final chapter in the Jurassic era, Trevorrow forces his ecological and anthropological opinions on the plot and characters. Nothing wrong with a writer-director doing that, but it has to be setup diegetically in order to have the payoff the writer-director desires. Otherwise, it sticks out like a puzzle piece that doesn’t quite fit the rest of the puzzle. Nothing in science supports predators and prey or two competing carnivores peacefully coexisting in some sort of ecological utopia; it’s illogical.

To end on a positive note, and aside from the return of the original cast, there is only one part (well, it’s really two scenes) that put a big smile on my face. And it’s the return of the Dilophosaurus!! And considering she makes an appearance in the trailer, this is not a spoiler. It’s only taken since 1993 to give Dilophosaurus some (non-holographic) screen time! I’m glad it wasn’t turned into a main dinosaur in this movie; how she was reintroduced and used was just right, and has a great payoff.

If you love the original Jurassic Park and first 2/3 of The Lost World, then you’re probably going into this one with the wrong mindset. If you go in with a desire to be entertained by a glorified popcorn B-movie, then you’ll likely have more fun than I did. Perhaps I went in with the wrong mindset, thinking that it was going to fix what Fallen Kingdom failed to do. Do yourself a favor, and watch it in IMAX, Dolby, or other premium format because it is a visual spectacle that is in perpetual third act gear the whole 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