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.

Follow him on Twitter: RLTerry1 and LetterBoxd: RLTerry

M3GAN horror movie review

Old school plot meets 2020s world. Universal and Blumhouse’s M3GAN sets the bar high for 2023 horror movies. Solidly written, this horror movie proves that some ideas and themes are simply timeless! M3GAN can be read as a cautionary tale of the terrors of technology. Moreover, a closer reading reveals that it also concerns itself with an exploration of the responses to grief, sudden life change, and fears of parenting. While the movie takes itself seriously, the conflict and violence is done for laughs–and it certainly delivers both chilling and laughable moments! I can easily see it becoming a house at a future Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Orlando and Hollywood.

A robotics engineer at a toy company builds a life-like doll that begins to take on a life of its own. Short synopsis, but that’s pretty much it. Simple, yet effective storytelling.

From the 1930s to the 1950s, horror/sci-fi movies were often about the dangers of technology. Ultimately, it can be boiled down to fear of the unknown, but this exploration of when technology rebels against its creator is a premise that remains timeless as technology is always changing. Back in the early to mid 20th century, it was robots; and here we are in the 21st century, and it’s still robots (well, more accurately androids or AI). The possibility of intelligent robots turning on us has always stoked fear because of the loss of control. Even in Terminator and Terminator 2, we witness the attempt to wipe out humanity. I appreciate this movie’s premise and themes for taking direct inspiration from and paying homage to all the horror-scifi movies to comes before it that fall within this subgenre of horror.

M3GAN reminds me of a feature length episode of Black Mirror or The Twilight Zone. Written by Akela Cooper (writer of Malignant), the pacing and structure are lean and never lag; however, there are elements of the story (provided by James Wan) that should have been better developed. These shortcomings do not significantly impact the movie’s immense enjoyment factor. Where the film most noticeably struggles is in the direction by relatively new director Gerard Johnstone. That’s not to say that it’s poorly directed–not at all–but had the directing been stronger, the performative dimension would have benefitted. Still, I’m eager to continue to follow Johnstone as he develops as a director.

Universal and Blumhouse take the terror of a killer android and place it within a child’s toy. Again, this isn’t new, but it is a new approach to the Talkie Tina episode of The Twilight Zone or Child’s Play. Much like Black Mirror was a better Twilight Zone than Jordan Peele’s Twilight Zone remake, M3GAN may be a better Child’s Play than the remake/reboot of Child’s Play from 2019. I haven’t rewatched the Child’s Play remake since it released, so I will be careful not to presume M3GAN to be better. But my gut reaction is that I enjoyed this movie more than the quintessential killer doll legacy property.

Beneath the outside/action plot of the self-aware killer robot, are themes of grief/loss and parenting fears. After Katie loses her parents in a tragic car accident, she is placed under the guardianship of her (moderately) estranged aunt Gemma whom is an engineer for a Funko-like toy company (in the movie, the toy company is named Funki). Clearly, Katie’s aunt is uninterested in being a parent–she wasn’t even interested in being an aunt–but Katie has nowhere else to go except to her father’s weird family in Jacksonville, FL. So Gemma reluctantly becomes her guardian. Where the film is particularly fascinating, in the area of commentary on parenting in the 2020s, is Gema and Katie’s interactions (or lack thereof) with one another.

Gemma takes an analytical approach to parenting by identifying logistical problems and providing measurable solutions. When Katie doesn’t respond as anticipated, Gemma is at a loss as to what to do. Gemma lacks the empathy and emotive responses that a parent (biological or adopted) needs to exhibit when rearing a child. Gemma’s life plan was abruptly interrupted and introduced to dynamics over which she had little control. In her desire to control, she builds M3GAN as both a groundbreaking toy and as a surrogate parent-like figure in Katie’s life. Through the events of the movie, Gemma learns that there is more to being a parent than providing food, shelter, clothing, and companionship. Furthermore, this serves as a cautionary tale of parents turning child rearing and education over to technology. Without human empathy, critical thinking, and intuition, a child’s cognitive and social development may be warped.

The other area on which this horror movie provides commentary is on grief/loss. Not a new theme in horror movies, it is explored in a new way in M3GAN. Katie suffers the worst loss a child can: the death of both parents. Because of the lack of real empathy and emotive care from aunt Gemma, Katie forms an unhealthy attachment to M3GAN. Because Gemma and Katie never talk about what happened (and the therapist is pretty much useless), Katie never goes through all the stages of grief and therefore never processes (to what extent a child can) the tragedy and how to move forward. M3GAN provides that which is (and should be) provided by parents and friends, but as the events of the movie unfold, we learn just how dangerous that attachment can be for Katie and those around her.

While the writing is mostly strong (save a couple of setups that aren’t followed through in a substantive way), the direction is weak in places. Over all, fairly well directed. But the performative dimension is where the movie struggles. Even though some of the characters are more-or-less caricatures of types of people we have in our lives, there are several scenes in which the performances aren’t campy enough to be funny nor are they realistic enough to be taken more seriously. Some performances fall somewhere in the middle. Perhaps it’s a casting issue, but this is where a director needs to be strong enough to get the appropriate performance out of the actor.

For those that are so often worried about a horror movie with a PG-13 rating (a sentiment that I’ve never understood), rest assured that M3GAN is wildly entertaining and, yes, you still get some fun kills and bone-chilling scenes. That said, I imagine that there will be an unrated or R-rated release of the movie on BluRay. If this movie is an indicator of that we are to expect from 2023 horror, it may be a banner year! Only time will tell, but regardless, it is one that horror fans are sure to enjoy!

Don’t wait for M3GAN to his Peacock or Prime, if you’re a horror fan, then you want to see it on the big screen! You’re definitely in for a wild ride that will have you jumping and laughing.

Ryan teaches Film Studies and Screenwriting at the University of Tampa and is a member of the Critics Association of Central Florida and Indie 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.

Follow him on Twitter: RLTerry1 and LetterBoxd: RLTerry

THE BLACK PHONE horror movie review

Delivers on atmosphere and tension, but the characters are largely one-dimensional. The solid lead and chief supporting cast do their best to convince audiences there is more here than what you actually get. Who’s even the audience for this???

Blumhouse sets out to terrify audiences with their summer horror offering; and while it has some fantastic moments of tension and an ominous atmosphere, it fails to deliver on both plot and character. In a manner of speaking, writer-director Scott Derrickson, took a page out of the typical A24 handbook, and place far more emphasis on aesthetics than story.

Finney Shaw is a shy but clever 13-year-old boy who’s being held in a soundproof basement by a sadistic, masked killer. When a disconnected phone on the wall starts to ring, he soon discovers that he can hear the voices of the murderer’s previous victims — and they are dead set on making sure that what happened to them doesn’t happen to Finney.

On one hand, this movie would’ve been more enjoyable had it really leaned into the camp factor that is present, but because of the subject matter, an intentional camp approach would have been even more tasteless than this movie already is. What camp would’ve afforded is overcoming plotting problems. After all, we don’t watch campy horror movies for the brilliant plotting. But when you take, what should’ve been camp, and make it something to be taken more thoughtfully or seriously, then it suffers from identity crisis and is relegated to something to perhaps ben seen once, then forgotten shortly thereafter.

Our lead cast struggles to connect with audiences because of how unrelatable they are. Films such as Stand By Me work across ages because of how relatable the boys are. Moreover, the dialogue for the all the characters is lazy and base; nothing about the way these kids speak or act feels even remotely believable. Furthermore, the central conflict of kidnapping goes to incredibly dark, cringeworthy places that are borderline inappropriate for the age group of our lead cast. While the subject matter of the film is for 17+, in my opinion, the characters do not connect with that audience.

The release time of this movie is bothersome as well, because it was Father’s Day on Sunday, yet we have two sinister examples of adult men whom each have respective father issues. Tasteless. In an era in which it is increasingly important to showcase healthy father-child relationships, this film seeks to undermine any efforts to shift the predominant and unhealthy narrative spun over the last couple of decades. There are far more great men and fathers out there than abhorrent ones. Let’s write those stories. For more on the toxic ways of how men are portrayed in TV and film, checkout my article The Man Vanishes.

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 BAD GUYS animated film review

Highly entertaining with heart! Disney-Pixar, eat your heart out! Whether you’re typically interested in animated films or not, you don’t want to miss Universal-DreamWorks’ The Bad Guys opening this week only in cinemas. Prepare yourself for a refreshing, high octane Oceans 11 meets Zootopia heist comedy for the whole family. Honestly, this is the best animated film that I have seen in a long time. The Bad Guys delivers audiences a simple, lean plot with complex central characters that will completely delight you from beginning to end with its innate ability to find the humor in the smallest details. While the film borrows from Oceans 11 and Zootopia, it is crafted in an almost Tarantino for kids storytelling method. This atypical approach to animated film storytelling (popularized by Into the SpiderVerse), has opened the floodgates for subverting our expectations for styles we have long -since associated with animated films. Furthermore, films such as the remake of The Lion King have inspired CGI artists to go for more of a photorealistic aesthetic. What The Bad Guys does is paint a 2D world with some 3D enhancements, which demonstrates more of an affinity for stylization over realism–great! Too many animated motion pictures lean into realism therefore negating the magic of animation. In my opinion, if the animation is going to be so incredibly realistic-looking, then just make a live action picture. The advantage of the stylized approach is that there is very clearly a design to each and every frame. Perhaps it lacks the cinema stylo of hand-drawn frames, but it certainly delivers more style than anything released by Disney-Pixar in recent years. On a scale of Kubo and the Two Strings (the best animated film in the last decade) to The Lion King, I’d say The Bad Guys is much closer to a Kubo. With witty comedy and adrenaline-pumping action, you don’t want to miss seeing this film on the BIG SCREEN.

After a lifetime of legendary heists, notorious criminals Mr. Wolf, Mr. Snake, Mr. Piranha, Mr. Shark and Ms. Tarantula are finally caught. To avoid a prison sentence, the animal outlaws must pull off their most challenging con yet — becoming model citizens. Under the tutelage of their mentor, Professor Marmalade, the dubious gang sets out to fool the world that they’re turning good.

What a(n animated) picture. Seriously. It’s been a long time since I enjoyed an animated motion picture this much. Over the last decade, only Kubo, How to Train Your Dragon 2, and Onward stand out to me. As I was exiting the auditorium following the screening, I talked with the general audience members that were in attendance, and nearly every one with whom I spoke said variations of the same things: entertaining, fun, and thrilling. During the screening, I heard many kids (and their families) laughing along with the characters. Although it is clearly aimed at kids, there are comedic moments for adults too. What we have here is a good story! Remembering my Sunset Boulevard

Joe Gillis: “-Ah…one of those message kids. Just a story won’t do…”

Betty Schaefer: “I just think a picture should say a little something.”

I reference this exchange between the struggling screenwriter and the aspiring reader turned screenwriter because too many animated films (mostly from Disney/Pixar) suffocate their stories under oppressive, cynical social commentary; so much so, that the story suffers because the focus is on the sermon instead of the characters. You will find the absence of overt social commentary in The Bad Guys refreshing! Does that mean there is no depth or thoughtful elements? No. But the message of the film is that we are all capable of a redemption arc. Granted, it’s not as strong a redemption message as we have in A Christmas Carol, but for a kid’s movie, they will undoubtedly pickup on it.

The screenplay is well structured and paced. While the bones of the screenplay are rather paint by numbers, the the superstructure is creative and stylish! Furthermore, in a film that looks to be one that will throw a joke a minute at you, it holds back the cards, delivering the humorous dialogue and site gags in a method that allows them room to breath. The laughs are setup, reinforced, then twisted thoughtfully.

All around, this is a solid animated feature that should be on your watch list while it’s in cinemas.

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