Film Review: Life Itself (dir by Dan Fogelman)


Watching Life Itself is like getting a Hallmark card from a serial killer.  Even if you appreciate the sentiment, you still don’t feel good about it.

Written and directed by This Is Us creator Dan Fogelman, Life Itself attempts to juggle several different themes, so much so that it can sometimes be difficult to understand just what exactly the film is attempting to say.  That said, I think the main lesson of the film is that you should always look both ways before stepping out into the middle of the street.  It doesn’t matter if you’ve got a horrific backstory, involving a decapitated father, a pervy uncle, and a gun.  It doesn’t matter if you love Pulp Fiction or if you think Bob Dylan’s more recent work is underrated.  It doesn’t matter if you’ve got a dog and husband who is so in love with you that he’s practically a stalker.  It doesn’t even matter that your pregnant and looking forward to naming your firstborn after your favorite musician.  If you don’t look both ways before stepping out into the middle of the street, you’re going to get hit by a big damn bus.

That’s the lesson that Abby (Olivia Wilde) does not learn and, as a result, she not only gets run over by a bus but we, the viewers, are subjected to seeing her repeatedly getting run over by that bus.  As temtping as it is to feel bad for Abby, my sympathy was limited by the fact that she and her husband (Oscar Isaac) named their dog Fuckface.  I mean, seriously, who does that?  Not only is it cruel to the dog but it’s also inconsiderate to the people who have to listen to you shouting, “Fuckface!” whenever the dog gets loose.  For whatever reason, the movie doesn’t seem to get how annoying this is.  That’s because Life Itself is another one of those movies that mistakes quirkiness for humanity.

The other annoying thing about Abby is that she’s an English major who somehow thinks that the use of the unreliable narrator is an understudied literary phenonema.  In fact, she’s writing her thesis on unreliable narrators.  Her argument is that life itself is the ultimate unreliable narrator because life is tricky and surprising, which doesn’t make one bit of sense.

Speaking of narrators, Life Itself has three, which is three too many.  Two of the narrators are unreliable but I get the feeling that the third one is meant to be taken literally, which is a shame because the film would have made a lot more sense if it had ended with a Life of Pi-style revelation that none of what we just watched actually happened.

Anyway, Abby getting hit by a bus has repercussions that reverberate across the globe and across time.  Not only does it lead to her husband writing a bad screenplay but it also leads to him committing suicide in a psychiatrist’s office.  Abby’s daughter, Dylan (Olivia Cooke), grows up to be what this film believes to be a punk rocker, which means that she angrily covers Bob Dylan songs and stuffs a peanut butter and jelly sandwich down another girl’s throat.  Meanwhile, in Spain….

What?  Oh yeah, this film jumps from New York to Spain.  In fact, it’s almost like another film suddenly starts after an hour of the first one.  You go from Olivia Cooke sobbing on a park bench to Antonio Banderas talking about his childhood.  Banderas is playing a landowner named Vincent Saccione.  Saccione wants to be best friends with his foreman, Javier (Sergio Peris-Mencheta) but Javier suspects that Saccione just wants to steal away his saintly wife, Isabel (Laia Costa) and maybe Javier’s right!

Javier has a son named Rodrigo (who is played by five different actors over the course of the film before eventually growing up to be Alex Monner).  When Saccione gives Rodrigo a globe, Javier decides to one-up him by taking his wife and child on a vacation to New York City.  Rodrigo has a great time in New York, or at least he does until he distracts a bus driver, which leads to a bus running down a pregnant woman…

…and the movie’s not over yet!  It just keeps on going and believe it or not, there’s stuff that I haven’t even mentioned.  Life Itself has a running time of only two hours.  (For comparison, it’s shorter than almost every comic book film that’s come out over the past few years.)  This is one of the rare cases where the film might have been improved with a longer running time because Fogelman crams so much tragedy and melodrama into that running time that it literally leaves you feeling as if you’re being bludgeoned.  This is one of those films that gets in your face and screams, “You will cry!  You will cry!”  Even if you are inclined to cry at movies (and I certainly am), it’s impossible not to resent just how manipulative the film gets.  You get the feeling that if you spend too much time wondering about the plot holes or the on-the-nose dialogue, the third narrator might start yelling at you for not getting with the program.

Life Itself is full of twists that are designed to leave you considering how everything in life is connected but, for something like this to work, the twists have to be surprising.  They have to catch you off-guard.  They have to make you want to see the movie again so that you can look for clues.  The twists in Life Itself are not surprising.  Anyone who has ever seen a movie before will be able to guess what’s going to happen.  For that matter, anyone who has ever sat through an episode of This is Us should be able to figure it all out.  Life Itself is not as a clever as it thinks it is.

Also, for a film like this work, you have to actually care about the characters.  You have to be invested in who they are.  But nobody in the film ever seems to be real and neither do any of their stories.  (To the film’s credit, it actually does point out that one narrator is idealizing the past but that’s an intriguing idea that’s abandoned.)  Everyone is just a collection of quirks.  We know what type of music they like but we never understand why.  Background info, like Abby being molested by her uncle or Isabel being the fourth prettiest of six sisters, is randomly dropped and then quickly forgotten about.  Almost ever woman has a tragic backstory and, for the most part, a tragic destiny.  (Except, of course, for Rodrigo’s first American girlfriend, who is dismissed as being “loud.”)  Every man is soulful and passionate.  But who are they?  The film’s narrators say a lot but they never get around to answering that question.  This is a film that insists it has something to say about life itself but it never quite comes alive.

Some critics are saying that Life Itself is the worst film of 2018.  Maybe.  I don’t know for sure.  The Happytime Murders left me feeling so icky that I haven’t even been able to bring myself to review it yet.  Life Itself, on the other hand, is such a huge misfire that I couldn’t wait to tell everyone about it.  There’s something to be said for that.

Here Are The Confusing San Diego Film Critics Society Nominations!


The San Diego Film Critics Society announced their nominees for the best of 2015 and … well, there’s a little bit of confusion.  As Paddy Mulholland of Screen on Screen points out, the San Diego film critics did not list their nominees alphabetically.  But, at the same time, the SFDC hasn’t acknowledged that the nominees were listed as a ranked slate either.  So, when they list Ex Machina as their first nominee for Best Picture and Brooklyn as their second, were they announcing that Ex Machina was their pick for best picture and Brooklyn was the runner up?  Or did they just decided to randomly list the nominees?

The official winners will be announced on December 14th, at which point we will have clarity!

Anyway, here are the San Diego nominees.  And again, h/t on this goes to Screen on Screen:

Best Picture
1. Ex Machina
2. Brooklyn
3. Mad Max: Fury Road
4. Room
5. Spotlight

Best Director
1. George Miller (Mad Max: Fury Road)
2. John Crowley (Brooklyn)
3. Lenny Abrahamson (Room)
4. Tom McCarthy (Spotlight)
5. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (The Revenant)

Best Actor, Male
1. Leonardo DiCaprio (The Revenant)
2. Jason Segel (The End of the Tour)
3. Matt Damon (The Martian)
4. Bryan Cranston (Trumbo)
5. Jacob Tremblay (Room)

Best Actor, Female
1. Saoirse Ronan (Brooklyn)
2. Brie Larson (Room)
3. Charlotte Rampling (45 Years)
4. Charlize Theron (Mad Max: Fury Road)
5. Alicia Vikander (Ex Machina)

Best Supporting Actor, Male
1. Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies)
2. Tom Noonan (Anomalisa)
3. Oscar Isaac (Ex Machina)
4. Paul Dano (Love & Mercy)
5. R. J. Cyler (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl)

Best Supporting Actor, Female
1. Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl)
2. Jennifer Jason Leigh (The Hateful Eight)
3. Helen Mirren (Trumbo)
4. Kristen Stewart (Clouds of Sils Maria)
5. Olivia Cooke (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl)

Best Original Screenplay
1. Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig (Mistress America)
2. Alex Garland (Ex Machina)
3. Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi (What We Do in the Shadows)
4. Quentin Tarantino (The Hateful Eight)
5. Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer (Spotlight)

Best Adapted Screenplay
1. Nick Hornby (Brooklyn)
2. Emma Donoghue (Room)
3. Charlie Kaufman (Anomalisa)
4. Donald Margulies (The End of the Tour)
5. Drew Goddard and Andy Weir (The Martian)

Best Cinematography
1. Roger Deakins (Sicario)
2. Yves Belanger (Brooklyn)
3. Dariusz Wolski (The Martian)
4. John Seale (Mad Max: Fury Road)
5. Emmanuel Lubezki (The Revenant)

Best Editing
1. Margaret Sixel (Mad Max: Fury Road)
2. Joe Walker (Sicario)
3. Pietro Scalia (The Martian)
4. Michael Kahn (Bridge of Spies)
5. Nathan Nugent (Room)
6. Stephen Mirrione (The Revenant

Best Production Design
1. Colin Gibson (Mad Max: Fury Road)
2. Mark Digby (Ex Machina)
3. Arthur Max (The Martian)
4. Francois Seguin (Brooklyn)
5. Adam Stockhausen (Bridge of Spies)

Best Sound Design
1. The Martian
2. Mad Max: Fury Road
3. Ex Machina
4. Sicario
5. Love & Mercy

Best Visual Effects
1. The Martian
2. Ex Machina
3. Mad Max: Fury Road
4. The Walk
5. Jurassic World

Best Use of Music in a Film
1. The Hateful Eight
2. Love & Mercy
3. Mad Max: Fury Road
4. Sicario
5. Straight Outta Compton

Best Ensemble
1. Spotlight
2. The Hateful Eight
3. Straight Outta Compton
4. Inside Out
5. The Big Short
6. What We Do in the Shadows

Best Animated Film
1. Inside Out
2. Anomalisa
3. Shaun the Sheep Movie
4. The Good Dinosaur
5. The Peanuts Movie

Best Documentary
1. Amy
2. He Named Me Malala
3. Cartel Land
4. Meru
5. The Wrecking Crew

Best Foreign Language Film
1. Phoenix
2. Taxi
3. White God
4. A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence
5. Goodnight Mommy

Best Breakthrough Artist
1. Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl / Ex Machina)
2. Jacob Tremblay (Room)
3. Emory Cohen (Brooklyn)
4. Abraham Attah (Beasts of No Nation)
5. Sean Baker (Tangerine)

 

Late To The Party : “Ouija”


ouija-movie-poster

 

I was thinking of sub-titling this review “What To Expect When You’re Expecting Nothing,” or something equally less-than-clever, but it just seemed too damn obvious — I mean, how many of us were expecting 2014’s Ouija to actually be any good?

Let’s face it — Hasbro inking a deal with Michael Bay’s Plantinum Dunes to make a series of movies based on their various board games is probably a pretty stupid idea for a number of reasons — not the least of which is that Clue probably just plain can’t be topped in the “best-board-game-movie-of-all-time” category — but what can I say? While there was no way in hell I was going to spring to see Ouija when it was out in theaters, I added it to my Netflix DVD queue when it came out simply because I like to punish myself from time to time by sticking my head into the toilet bowl of PG-13 “horror.” I guess I’m just masochistic like that.

All that being said, director Stiles White (who co-wrote the film’s screenplay along with Juliet Snowden) manages to under-perform here even though the bar was set exeptionally low. We’ve all seen the “malignant spirit haunts teenagers” trope done to death, to be sure, but rarely is everyone so clearly and plainly going through the motions as they are in Ouija. It’s like somebody figured out how to put celluloid on Xanax and then sat back to see what the end result would be.

download (1)

Speaking of Xanax,  Olivia Cooke, of sleazy prime-time soap Bates Motel, certainly looks and acts like she’s on it — she absolutely can’t carry a film, as she ably demonstrates in her starring turn here as nominal heroine Laine Morris. She has precisely one facial expression — the “concerned as shit” look — and can’t even manage to get away from it entirely when she’s supposed to be smiling and looking happy. Not that she’s got a whole lot to be happy about, mind you, given that her best friend, Debbie Galardi (Shelley Hennig) apparently just killed herself after playing around with a Ouija board (hint to Hasbro, by the way — if the primary goal of your newfound motion picture enterprise is to move more of your product, as I’m assuming it is, suggesting that said product actually works in terms of conjuring up evil ghosts maybe isn’t the smartest idea). So, like any intrepid young protagonist, the charisma-free zone that is Laine decides that she’ll get her boyfriend, Trevor (Daren Kagasoff), their friend Isabelle (Bianca A, Santos), and dead Debbie’s (now ex-, I suppose) boyfriend,  Pete (Douglas Smith) together to hold a seance at the scene of the crime. When her perpetual-pain-in-the-ass younger sister, Sam (Ana Coto), proves once again that she can’t be left home alone while their dad is out of town, she gets dragged along to the party, as well.

I fucked around with Ouija boards plenty when I was younger, but one thing this flick taught (a term I use very loosely, I assure you) me is that if you look through the plastic-coated hole in the center of the planchette, you’re supposed to be able to see whatever ghost it is you’ve disturbed from their slumber. Laine certainly sees one, and from there on out, our plucky young crew is put through the dullest, most un-involving “living hell” you’re ever likely to see play out before your eyes — suffice to say, the haunted shit they’re all being subjected to ties in to a (yawn!) ghastly crime committed at Debbie’s house many years ago. And in order for the spirits to rest, they’ve gotta (yawn again!) put things right.

ouija-movie-1-720x380

Further details are probably pointless here, but that’s okay — so is the movie itself. I’ve been sitting here scratching my head trying to think of one thing Ouija has to recommend in its favor, but I gotta be honest — I’m drawing a complete blank. The acting’s bad, the story’s stupid and predictable, the “scares” are anything but scary, and the whole thing is a rancid mess.

That may sound harsh, but trust me when I say that, if anything, I’m actually underselling how genuinely lame this thing is. I almost didn’t even bother to review it because it was too easy a target, but I figured that if I could warn off at least one other person from seeing it, then I could chalk it up as my good deed for the day.Sure, the picture and sound quality on the DVD are both fine (I can’t really comment on the extras because the disc I got from Netflix was one of those “bare-bones” rental versions, sorry), but so what? It’s a brand new movie, the technical specs should be flawless.

olivia-cooke-in-ouija-movie-7

So — what do you get when you go into a movie expecting nothing? In the case of Ouija, precisely that.

2014 In Review: 20 Good Things That Lisa Saw On TV In 2014


So, I’m sitting here and I’m trying to make out my annual list of good things that I saw on TV over the previous year and I’ve just realized something.

I did not watch as much TV as usual last year.

It wasn’t a conscious decision on my part.  Up until this very moment, I was actually thinking that I watched too much TV last year.  But, honestly, 2014 was a busy year for me.  Between work and dance and family and romance and writing and seeing movies and shopping and being sick and getting well and the manic states and the depressive states, I just didn’t have as much time as usual to devote to television.

In fact, the only shows that I always made it a point to watch were two reality shows and that was mostly because I write about them over at the Big Brother Blog and the Survivor Blog.

That takes me by surprise because I love television.  I’ve never made any secret of that fact and I’ve never felt guilty about it.  When I’m writing, I find it helps to have the TV on in the background.  As well, knowing that a certain show is always going to be on at a certain time tends to help me deal with my Obsessive Compulsive tendencies.  I’ve always felt that, in a perfect world, I would have my own TV network.  It would be called the Lisa Marie Network (LMN) and I would be in charge of programming every single minute.

But, for whatever reason, in 2014, I didn’t watch as much as usual.  So, don’t consider the list below to be a comprehensive list of everything that was good on television last year.  Instead, consider it to just be 20 good things that I was lucky enough to see.

So, here’s the list!

1) Too Many Cooks on Adult Swim

You knew that I’d have to start out with this one, especially considering that I still find myself randomly singing the theme song.  “When it comes to the future, you can never have too many cooks!”

2) Figure Skating at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics

I actually enjoyed watching most of the 2014 Winter Olympics.  (Except, of course, when Bob Costas was there with his fucked up eye.)  But what I especially loved was watching the figure skating.  How couldn’t you love the chemistry between Charlie White and Meryl Davis or the amazing grace of Yulia Lipnitskaya or Ashley Wagner’s refusal to hide her disgust with the judges?

Figure Skating - Winter Olympics Day 1

3) Veep

Without a doubt, the funniest show on television.  Anyone who idolizes a politician should be forced to watch it.

4) Community ended its network run on a decent note

After a rough fourth season, Community made a comeback of sort during the fifth season.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to keep NBC from canceling the show but still, it was good to see a few more decent episodes of Community before the show moved over to Yahoo.

5) True Detective

True Detective has been praised so much that I really don’t have much more to say about it, beyond the fact that I found it to be endlessly fascinating.

6) Sharknado 2!

So, I wasn’t necessarily a huge fan of the first Sharknado.  (I was even less of a fan of the way the media seemed to believe that Mia Farrow was the first person to ever live tweet a movie, especially considering how lame most of Mia’s Sharknado tweets were.)  But I loved Sharknado 2!  Sharknado 2 was everything that the first Sharknado was supposed to be and more!

IZ in Sharknado 2

7) The Old People TV Networks

This is the year that I really made an effort to explore all of the channels that I have available to me.  What I discovered is that there are a lot of stations that are apparently dedicated to exclusively showing shows that were made long before I was even born!  For a history nerd like me, coming across these networks is a bit like accidentally digging up a time capsule.  Add to that, I’ve discovered that old TV shows make for perfect background noise.  I call these networks the Old People TV networks but I do so with affection.

8) Seeing my friend and fellow movie blogging Irish gal Kellee Pratt in the audience whenever TCM rebroadcasts that interview with Maureen O’Hara.

9) Opposite Worlds on SyFy

Opposite Worlds was a reality show that was broadcast on the SyFy Network.  Contestants were divided into two tribes.  One tribe lived in the luxurious future, complete with a fully automated house.  The other tribe lived in the past, which basically meant wearing furs and staying in a cave.  The two tribes competed every week.  Many contestants were seriously injured.  I was hoping that Samm would win, mostly because I share her struggle.  But I was okay with Frank eventually winning.  He turned out to be a nice guy.

(By the way, SyFy, I’m still waiting for a second season…)

10) Bates Motel

Bates Motel got better and better during its second season.  I still think Olivia Cooke needs a spin-off where she solves crimes.

bates-motel-season-2-freddie-highmore-600x412

11) True Blood ended before it totally went the way of Dexter.

To be honest, True Blood was definitely showing signs of its age.  I wasn’t really happy with the final season but I was relieved to see that it still ended on a better note than Dexter did.

12) Flowers in the Attic

2014 got off to a great start with Flowers in the Attic, one of the best movies to ever show up on Lifetime.

13) Lizzie Borden Took An Axe

In fact, the only that kept Flowers in the Attic from being the best Lifetime movie was the fact that Lizzie Borden premiered a week later.

Lizzie

14) The Way The Saved By The Bell and Aaliyah Movies Brought Us Together As A Nation

For two nights, our often troubled country was united by the power of mass snarkiness.

15) Coverage Of The Fact That Paul Rosalie Was Not Eaten Alive

There was something greatly satisfying about how, after spending weeks promising that he would be, Paul Rosalie failed to be eaten alive by an anaconda.  I think one reason I especially enjoyed this fact that I didn’t actually watch the special.  I thought the whole thing sounded stupid and crass.  That made the subsequent ridicule all the more satisfying.

16) Key and Peele

Without a doubt, the funniest sketch comedy program on TV today.

17) Talking Dead

To be honest, the only reason I watch The Walking Dead is so I’ll be able to understand what they’re talking about on The Talking Dead.

18) Daft Punk At The Grammys

It was great to see the Robots enjoying themselves.

Pharrell Williams, Daft Punk, Nile Rodgers

19) Weather On The Local News

“Folks, we’ve got a storm system approaching but don’t worry.  Channel 4 will keep your 4warned…”  Some things never change.  I’ve reached the point where I can find the humor in watching our local meteorologists panic every time that it starts to rain.  This past year, whenever I was stuck inside while a light drizzle fell outside, I knew that Pete Delkus, Larry Mowery, and David Finfrock would be there to amuse me with their dire warnings of a weather apocalypse.

"A storm's coming!"

“A storm’s coming!”

20) Degrassi!

Degrassi endures.  And we’re all the better for it.

Degrassi_Season_13_title_card

On one final note: GetGlue, R.I.P.  For five years, I enjoyed checking into tvs, movies, books, and emotions on GetGlue.  Sadly, GetGlue (or TV Tag as it came to be known) went offline on January 1st.  Goodbye, GetGlue.  It was fun while it lasted and I’ll always remember that week when me and that guy from Indonesia were violently fighting over who would get to be the guru of pepper spray. (GGers will understand.)

Tomorrow, my look back at 2014 continues with my ten favorite novels of the year!

Previous Entries In The TSL’s Look Back At 2014:

  1. Things Senor Geekus Dug In 2014 Off The Top Of His Head
  2. 2014 In Review: The Best of Lifetime and SyFy
  3. 2014 In Review: Lisa’s Picks For the 16 Worst Films of 2014
  4. 2014 In Review: 14 of Lisa’s Favorite Songs of 2014
  5. 2014 in Review: Necromoonyeti’s Top 10 Metal Albums of 2014

And Yet 6 More Reviews Of 6 More Films Lisa Saw in 2014: Art and Craft, The Book of Life, The Box Trolls, The Quiet Ones, and Vampire Academy


Art and Craft (dir by Sam Cullman and Jennifer Grausman)

Art and Craft is a fascinating documentary about a fascinating human being.  As quickly becomes obvious, Mark A. Landis suffers from any number of mental illnesses.  However, he’s also one of the most successful art forgers in history.  While his own artwork is undistinguished, Landis is capable of perfectly imitating the work of other artists.  For 30 years, Landis would forge the work of other artists and then donate the forged paintings to museums across America.  (Since Landis never made any money off of his scam, he never technically broke any laws.)  The documentary follows Landis as he prepares for a show of his work and it features revealing interviews with both him and the people he fooled.  Ultimately, this is a film that — much like Exit Through The Gift Shop — forces us to consider just what exactly makes something a work of art.  Is it the name of the artist or is it the work itself?

The Book of Life (dir by Jorge Gutierrez)

The animated film The Book of Life was released in October and, for whatever reason, it never seemed to become quite the hit that a lot of us were expecting it to be.  However, even if I don’t think it came anywhere close to reaching the heights of producer Guillermo Del Toro’s best films, I still rather liked it.

The film tells the tale of Manolo (voiced by Diego Luna) who is tricked, by Xibalba (voiced by Ron Pearlman), the ruler of the Land of the Forgotten, into believing that the love of his life, Maria (Zoe Saldana), has died.  Eager to see her again, Manolo allows himself to be bitten by a snake, which kills him.  Now trapped in the spirit world, Manolo has to find a way to return to life and be reunited with Maria.

The Book of Life is a gorgeously animated film that pays wonderful tribute to the culture and mythology of Mexico.  And it’s great for los niños!

The Boxtrolls (dir by Graham Annabelle and Anthony Stacchi)

The Book of Life was not the only animated film to not quite get the respect that it deserved in 2014.  The Boxtrolls was another perfectly charming film and, considering its dual message of tolerance and not giving into paranoia, one that more people should have seen.

Taking place in a town that’s full of stupid people who are obsessed with cheese, The Boxtrolls is a memorably dark little film from the same studio that gave us Paranorman.  The citizens of the town live in fear of the Boxtrolls, a group of creatures who live underneath the city.  Little do they understand that the Boxtrolls are actually peaceful and the only reason that they come out at night is to scavenge through trash.  The citizens of the town hire the evil Snatcher to take care of the Boxtrolls and, because of their paranoia and fear, they are soon literally slaves to the whims of Snatcher.

(Insert your own NSA surveillance analogy here.)

The Boxtrolls is a memorably subversive little film, one that makes the argument that even the ugliest of animated monsters still deserve a chance to find happiness.

Dolphin Tale 2 (dir by Charles Martin Smith)

So, as some of you may remember, I absolutely loved the first Dolphin Tale.  The sequel is not quite as good as the first film but you know what?  I saw it with my niece and she absolutely loved it and I loved watching it with her and yes, the film totally made me cry.  So, as far as I’m concerned, the film succeeded.  Winter the Dolphin appears as himself and he’s joined by Hope the Dolphin.  And both Winter and Hope give Oscar-worthy performances.

The Quiet Ones (dir by John Pogue)

Want to hear something sad?  The Quiet Ones, which is probably one of the most forgettable films to be released last year, was produced by Hammer Studios.  That’s right — the legendary British studio that produced such immortal films as Horror of Dracula — also produced The Quiet Ones, a film that could have just as easily been made by …. well, by anyone.

Borrowing multiple pages from The Conjuring, The Quiet Ones takes place in the 70s, is “based on a true story,” and features a creepy doll!  Jared Harris plays a psychiatrist who wants to prove that ghosts do not exist and that poltergeist activity is the result of telekinesis.  In order to prove his theory, he and his forgettable students isolate an orphan named Jane (Olivia Cooke) and go out of their way to upset her, hoping that she’ll lash out at them with her telekinetic abilities.  Apparently, nobody in this movie has ever watched a movie before or else they would have understood why this was a bad idea.

Anyway, The Quiet Ones feels like about a hundred other recent horror films, right down to having Sam Claflin play a student with a camera who records the entire experience.  Jared Harris is well-cast and Olivia Cooke proves that she deserves a better film but otherwise, The Quiet Ones is forgettable.

Vampire Academy (dir by Mark Waters)

Speaking of being forgettable…

Actually, Vampire Academy is not as bad as a lot of critics said.  It was one of the many YA adaptations that were released in 2014.  It deals with a bunch of teenage vampires who are attending St. Vladimer’s Academy.  When the film tries to be Twilight, it’s boring.  When the film tries to Mean Girls, it’s a lot more tolerable.  Best of all, one of the main characters is named Lissa and I like any film that features a Lisa.

But, otherwise, Vampire Academy was pretty forgettable.

TV Review: Bates Motel 2.6 “Plunge”


Bates Motel The Plunge

Now, I know what you’re saying.

“Gee, Lisa — late much?”

Well, yes, this review of the latest episode of Bates Motel is rather late and for that I apologize.  I have spent this week dealing with the world’s worst cold.  Seriously, it has been pure misery!  However, as I sit here rewatching “Plunge” and working on my review, I think that I may finally be on the road to recovery.

In short, I think I’m finally well enough to take the plunge and review this week’s episode!

This episode was all about people taking “the plunge,” both figuratively and literally.

For instance, Emma — after being goaded by both her new pot-dealing boyfriend and Norman’s latest unlikely girlfriend, Cody — removed her oxygen tank and took a plunge into freezing water and nearly died as a result.  Fortunately, Norman Bates was on hand to pull her out of the water and save her life.  On any other show, this would lead to the rebirth of Norman and Emma’s romance but, since this is Bates Motel, Norman ends up going so overboard in his anger towards Cody and Emma’s boyfriend (who I know has a name but I can never remember it) that he quickly goes from being a hero to being the guy who freaks everyone out.

(On a personal note, I have to admit that this whole sequence freaked me out because I don’t swim and, as a result, I very much found myself identifying with poor Emma.)

Norma, meanwhile, takes a plunge into municipal politics.  With the encouragement of her new friend Christine (who I don’t trust) and Christine’s brother George, Norma lobbies to be appointed to the city council.  The Mayor — whose name is Rob — agrees while making it clear that he’s mostly appointing Norma because of who she knows (i.e. Nick Ford).

To a certain extent, you have to wonder just how naïve Norma is.  At the start of this episode, Norma confronted Nick and told him that she didn’t want to work with him anymore.  Nick, more or less, told her that she didn’t have much choice in the matter.  Now, she’s been appointed to the city council and you have to wonder if she realizes just how much of a pawn she has actually become.

Speaking of being a pawn, Dylan has taken the plunge of moving in with Jodi Ford Wilson (Kathleen Robertson), Nick’s daughter and the head of one of the two drug cartels that are currently at war.  Is White Pine Bay really big enough for two drug cartels?  The drug war, to be honest, feels like it belongs in a totally different show.  But, I like Max Thieriot so I can’t complain too much.

Sheriff Romero, who is still living at the Bates Motel, took the plunge of informing Norma that, from his motel room, he has a view of her whenever she undresses in her bedroom.  The awkward flirting between Norma and Romero has been one of the highlights of the second season.

Finally, Norman took the plunge of trying to get his driver’s license.  However, Cody told Emma that Norman suffers from blackouts and Emma responded by calling Norma and telling her (at the exact moment that Norma is watching Norman taking his test).  Norma responds by running over to the car and telling Norman’s driving instructor.  The end result: Norman can’t give his driver’s license and now has another reason to both resent and be dependent upon Norma.

Random Observations:

  • Vera Farmiga kicks ass.  I know that’s become a running theme as far as my Bates Motel reviews are concerned but seriously, she really does.  This week’s Vera Farmiga highlight was the scene where she literally ran down a hill to jump onto Cody’s car.
  • Speaking of kicking ass, just how scary is Michael O’Neill in the role of Nick Ford?  That man can make a simple hello sound like a threat.
  • “Who’s Rob?”  That’s okay, Norma.  I’m not always sure who my mayor is either.
  • I found myself wondering which three senators George helped to get elected.
  • “There are reasons he should not drink.  Medical reasons.  And that’s all I’m going to say.”
  • Norman’s flashbacks while hiding in the closet were disturbingly effective.
  • Wouldn’t it be neat if it turned out the Mayor was related to Nick Ford as well and his name was Rob Ford?
  • If I was Norman’s mom, I probably wouldn’t like Cody either.  Seriously, mother’s worse nightmare that one is.  That said, I relate to the character.  I went through my Cody phase when I was younger.  I think everyone has.
  • George gets extra cool points for liking The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
  • Bates Motel has been renewed for a third season!  So, we’ve got at least one more year of White Pine Bay melodrama to look forward to.

 

 

TV Review: Bates Motel 2.5 “The Escape Artist”


 

Bates Motel The Escape Artist

After I posted my extremely laudatory review of last week’s episode of Bates Motel, I received a very interesting comment on Facebook from the veteran horror director and screenwriter Alan Ormsby.  (Among Ormsby’s screenplays: the excellent Deathdream and  Deranged, a film inspired by Ed Gein who, as any Psycho fan knows, also inspired Robert Bloch to first create Norman Bates.) In his comment, Ormsby pointed out something that I had failed to take into consideration.  Whereas Bates Motel presents Norman as suffering from a split personality as a teenager, Psycho established that Norman didn’t “become” Norma until, after years of abuse, he snapped and murdered his mother.  Norman became his mother because he didn’t want to face the reality of his crime.

That’s quite a contrast to the story that is currently being told on Bates Motel.  Whereas Mrs. Bates was the villain of Psycho, she’s become the protagonist of Bates Motel. Whereas the film’s Mrs. Bates was a demonic force who, even after her death, continued to possess her son, the show’s Norma Bates is often times portrayed as just trying to protect both her son from an increasingly amoral world and the world from her obviously disturbed son.

Now, I know that a lot of people are going to argue that Bates Motel is just a TV show and that it’s best not to give it too much thought and they’ll probably start tossing around words like “canon” and “fanfic.”  They’ll say, “Just relax and don’t worry about it.”

But what fun is that?

So, how to explain the difference between the way Norman and his mother are portrayed on TV and in the film?  I’ve come up with a few possible explanations.

1) The doctor at the end of Psycho could have misdiagnosed what happened with Norman and his mother.  As played by Simon Oakland, the doctor was awfully glib and seemed to come from the overdramatic Dr. Phil school of psychology.  After the shocking discoveries at the Bates Motel, everyone needed an explanation and the doctor was happy to provide one as long as he got paid upfront.

2) Bates Motel could be taking place in a parallel universe, one that plays out right next to the Psycho universe, with certain elements occasionally crossing over.  Maybe, when Freddie Highmore’s Norman finally gets around to looking through the peephole behind the painting, he’ll find Anthony Perkins staring back at him.

3) Maybe the Norman Bates of Bates Motel is not actually the Norman Bates of Psycho.  Maybe the TV show will end with Norman and his wife Emma staring down at their newborn son, Norman, Jr.

4) Or maybe Norma is destined to be murdered by her son and that son is destined to take on her identity, run the Bates Motel, and eventually murder both Marion Crane and Milton Arbogast.  However, maybe that son is not going to be Norman but instead, it’s going to be Dylan.  After all, Dylan has been through a lot of emotional and mental turmoil since he tracked down his mother.  Who is to say that he didn’t finally snap and, after killing both his mother and his younger brother, ended up taking on both of their identities?

Obviously, the most plausible solution is the first one but I’m partial to the idea that Bates Motel is taking place in a parallel universe.  That would certainly explain a lot.

As for this week’s episode, it was a rather low-key affair, especially when compared to everything that went on last week.  But you know what?  That’s okay.  Bates Motel has reached the point where not every episode has to have fireworks.  In its second season, Bates Motel seems to be a lot more confident about what type of story its trying to tell and therefore, it can get by with a few episodes that are mostly about appreciating the performances and the show’s off-center vibe.

That’s not to say that things didn’t happen.  Actually, a lot of things happened but none of them were quite as memorable as Norman waving a knife at his uncle while taking on Norma’s personality.

Perhaps the episode’s most dramatic moment was Dylan getting run down in the middle of the street while firing a gun at a car full of rival drug dealers.  (I don’t find the whole drug war to be all that interesting but I do find it amusing that, in the small town of White Pine Bay, nobody ever seems to notice people shooting at each other in broad daylight).  At first, this panicked me because, as played by Max Thieriot, Dylan is one of my favorite characters on the show.  But, it turns out that not only was he not seriously injured but, after being taken to the hospital, he also got to meet his boss and — gasp! — she’s a woman!

We also found out tonight that, on the other side of the drug war, is the Ford Family.  And guess who is in charge of the Ford Family?  None other than Nick Ford, the friendly but slightly sinister guy who has promised to help Norma stop the bypass.  This week’s episode ended with the implication that Nick killed the councilman who was so rude to Norma at the city council meeting.

Speaking of Norma — well, where to begin with what’s going on with Norma?  Not only has she managed to ally herself with a drug lord but she’s also having to watch Norman as he runs around with Cody, a girl who not only has tattoos but who smokes and listens to loud music as well.  On the plus side, Sheriff Romero will apparently be spending several months at the Bates Motel now that the town’s drug dealers have burned down his house.  The scenes between Vera Farmiga and Nestor Carbonell were definite highlights of this week’s episode.  I love the chemistry between the outspoken Norma and the withdrawn Romero.  I’m predicting right now that they’ll be a couple before the final episode of the season and it probably won’t end well.

Vera Farmiga also had another great scene during this episode, in which she responded to Olivia Cooke’s Emma asking her about sex.  Speaking of Emma, she lost her virginity to the cute pot dealer.  Norman has already hinted that he doesn’t consider the cute pot dealer to be a good person so we can probably guess what’s going to eventually happen here.  That said, I’m just glad that Emma finally got to do something that she wanted to do, as opposed to just standing in the background and staring forlornly at Norman.

And finally, Norman is growing even closer to Cody, eventually having sex with her.  (And, again, this is more evidence of my parallel universe theory since the Norman Bates of Hitchcock’s film was a virgin.)   Eventually, he even confessed to her that he often has blackouts.  He also discovered that she comes from an abusive home.

And again, this is probably not going to end well…

Random Observations:

  • Nick Ford’s boat is named “Amnesia.”  What is it with evil people and boats?
  • Did Norman kill Uncle Caleb?  Hopefully, this won’t be another randomly abandoned Bates Motel subplot.

TV Review: Bates Motel 2.4 “Check-Out”


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As this week’s episode of Bates Motel came to an end, my immediate response was to say: “Now, that’s what I’ve been talking about!”

Much as Norman Bates could never quite decide if he was himself or if he was his mother, Bates Motel has always struggled with whether to fully embrace the over-the-top potential of the show’s concept or whether to try to be a more conventional and audience-friendly show.  Those of us who have been watching since the first episode have often been left to wonder whether Bates Motel would ever truly allow its version of Norman Bates to become as mentally conflicted as the version who showed up in Alfred Hitchcock’s film and Robert Bloch’s novel.  I have always been on the side of those who wanted the show to start boldly going over-the-top and to truly embrace its status as a prequel to Psycho.

The first three episodes of the second season provided hints that the show’s producers agreed with me.  Last night’s episode, however, proved it.

The episode’s final moments , which featured Norman (Freddie Highmore) slipping in-and-out of his mother’s personality while waving a knife at his Uncle Caleb (the same type of knife that was used to kill Janet Leigh in Psycho), were so powerful that they tended to overshadow everything else that happened during the previous hour.  Now, in the case of the drug war subplot, I really don’t mind forgetting.  The drug war is probably the least interesting part of the show and I always find myself hoping that each new episode will be the episode that wraps it up.  Both Dylan (Max Thieriot) and Sheriff Romero (Nestor Carbonell) are interesting characters and they’re both played by talented and appealing actors so why not put them in a subplot that is truly worthy of their talents?  Both of these characters are at their strongest when they’re having to deal with Norma and Norman so why waste time with a plot that — so far at least — has nothing to do with either of them?

However, I did enjoy the episode’s other two storylines.  It’s hard not respect just how determined Norma (Vera Farmiga) is to pretend that everything is normal when it’s clear to everyone else that nothing is normal.  As I’ve stated since this show began, Vera Farmiga kicks ass.  As a result, even though we all know that she’s making the wrong decisions and is raising a future serial killer, it’s impossible not to cheer for her.  From the creepy scene where she and Norman talked to each other while laying in bed to her harrowing argument with Dylan to her hilariously awkward date with George (Michael Vartan), this week’s episode was full of classic Farmiga moments.  Incidentally, I still don’t trust George.  He seems like a nice guy but then again, so did Deputy Shelby.

(Speaking of Deputy Shelby, whatever happened to that girl who chained up in his basement?  Is she still running around in the woods?)

Meanwhile, Emma (Olivia Cooke) may have finally found a boyfriend.  She started the episode waking up in a motel room with the cute guy that she met at Bradley’s beachside memorial.  No, he tells her, they did not have sex though Emma later tells the guy that she would like to do it with him but, at the same time, she wants her first time to be special — especially since it might be her only time.  Emma is my favorite character on the show and Olivia Cooke always does a good job playing her, so I’m always glad to see her get to do something but I have to admit that her new boyfriend isn’t exactly an exciting presence.  Typically, when it comes to television romance, we always hope that our favorite supporting character will end up with the show’s main character.  Certainly, Emma still likes Norman but do we really want to see her get together with him?

Especially after what happened last night.

Freddie Highmore really does not get enough credit for his performance as young Norman Bates.  A lot of that is because Norman is written to be something of a blank.  Highmore has to bring to life a potentially soulless character while also working in the shadow of Anthony Perkins’s iconic performance in Hitchcock’s film.  However, especially during this season, Freddie Highmore has really made the character of Norman Bates his own.  That was especially obvious during this week’s episode.  While soft-focus images of his mother being abused flashed through his mind, Norman waved a knife at Uncle Caleb while speaking in Norma’s voice and it worked brilliantly because of Freddie Highmore’s introspective performance.  Freddie Highmore take a potential jump sharking moment and turned it into the climax of the show’s best episode yet.

Did Norman kill his uncle?  That’s something that we’ll have to wait until next week to find out but one thing is for sure.

Bates Motel, much like the characters who run the show’s title establishment, is capable of anything.

Review: Bates Motel 2.3 “Caleb”


Caleb

Well, that’s certainly icky.

Regardless of whatever else may have happened on this week’s episode of Bates Motel, it will always be remembered as the episode where things got even ickier than before.

I’m talking, of course, about the revelation that Dylan’s (Max Thieriot) father also happens to be his uncle, Caleb (Kenny Johnson).  I have to admit that I wasn’t necessarily surprised by this.  In fact, when one thinks about the world that Bates Motel takes place in, there was really no way that Caleb wasn’t going to turn out to be Dylan’s father.  It explains why Norma wants nothing to do with her oldest son and Max Thieriot, Vera Farmiga, and Kenny Johnson all deserve a lot of credit for their performances tonight.

That said, I’m hoping that Caleb — much like Deputy Shelby and so many of the other sleazy men who have stopped off at the Motel — will not be around that much longer because, seriously, he is just so icky!  Bates Motel has a good track record for violently executing sexual predators and I expect that same fate is waiting for Caleb.

If nothing else, Bates Motel seems to be making a good case against men in general.  Is there a single man in Norma Bates’s life who isn’t a deviant of some sort?  Earlier in the episode — before we discovered that Caleb was Dylan’s father — Norma met a guy named George (Michael Vartan).  George seems like a really nice guy but, seeing as this is Bates Motel, I’m still expecting him to have somebody chained up in his basement.

Along with the arrival of Uncle Caleb and Norma meeting George, this week’s other major subplot was Emma (Olivia Cooke) attempting to throw a beachside memorial service for Bradley.  As I’ve stated in the past, Emma is my favorite character so I was happy to finally see her getting to do something.  The memorial service was neatly contrasted with the garden party that Norma attended.  And just as Norma met George, Norman got to know Cody (Paloma Kwiatkowski), who, now that Bradley is gone, is apparently going to be the latest obstacle keeping Emma and Norman from getting together.

Then again, that might be for the best.

Norman and Emma are an adorable couple but, ultimately, he is Norman Bates, isn’t he?

Random Thoughts and Observations

  • This week’s “Vera Farmiga is a great actress who deserves an Emmy moment”: The Grand Canyon joke.
  • The great White Pine Bay drug war is apparently still raging.  Fortunately, I love Max Thieriot or else the whole drug war would be kind of boring.
  • That said, Dylan was kinda lingering a bit while Norma was getting dressed.  Again — icky!
  • The name of the town newspaper is the White Pine Bay Current.  For some reason, that amused me.
  • I felt so bad for Norma when she saw she hadn’t been cast in the town musical.
  • Tonight’s episode was directed by Lodge Kerrigan, who has a great name.
  • One thing that was not mentioned in this week’s episode: The murder of Ms. Watson.  I really hope that the show isn’t going to abandon that mystery just because Sheriff Romero arrested the wrong guy last week.  I have to admit that I’m still holding out hope that Norman did not kill Ms. Watson.
  • It’s interesting to note that Bates Motel and The Following both air on Monday nights.  They’re both unapologetically sordid shows about psychotic murderers and sexual deviants.  However, I love Bates Motel and I absolutely hate what I’ve seen of The Following.  The difference is that The Following is a sincerely misogynistic show whereas Bates Motel seems to actually like its cast of misfits.
  • “You’re in the chorus?  Do you want to be in the chorus?”  Trust me, nobody wants to be in the chorus!
  • That said, I would rather be in the chorus than be on the tech crew.  Poor Norman.

Review: Bates Motel 2.2 “Shadow of a Doubt”


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I have to commend Bates Motel for directly referencing Alfred Hitchcock with the title of its latest episode.  Shadow of a Doubt is not only one of Hitchcock’s finest films but it’s also one that shares quite a few themes in common with Bates Motel.  Like Bates Motel, Shadow of a Doubt deals with  the way an outwardly placid surface can hide all sorts of scary and dark secrets.  At this point, it’s a lot easier to imagine Freddie Highmore’s blankly charming Norman growing up to be Joseph Cotten’s friendly murderer Uncle Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt than the twitchy character made famous by Anthony Perkins in Psycho.

Still, it’s hard not to feel that an even better title for last Monday’s episode would have been Norma Bates Sings.

That was pretty much the highlight of last night’s episode and that’s not at all a complaint.  The people behind the show obviously realize just how lucky they are to have Vera Farmiga playing the role of Norma Bates.  The show works best when she’s allowed to take center stage and that’s what literally happens in Shadow of a Doubt.

Norma was singing because she and Norman were both trying out for the town musical.

I loved this subplot on so many levels.

First off, it made perfect sense that Norma, who obviously believes that Norman killed Ms. Watson, would try to find an activity that she and Norman could do together.  This, of course, both allows Norman to be occupied with something other than death and gives Norma an excuse to keep an eye on her possibly dangerous son.

Secondly, and perhaps even more importantly, it seemed exactly like the type of thing that somebody like Norma Bates would get excited about.  Being something of a community theater refugee myself, I couldn’t help but smile when I saw Norman and Norma at the auditions because it felt exactly right.  Everything from Norman’s sullen attitude to Norma’s surprisingly heart-felt (yet endearingly awkward) audition rang true.  During those scenes, Bates Motel went from being that strange little show about a boy who might be murderer to being a very believable and almost touching story about a loving but overdramatic mother and her socially awkward son.

As for the rest of Monday’s episode, I have to say that I was slightly relieved to see Bradley safely get on that bus and head off for a new life.  It’s not so much that I thought Bradley wouldn’t make it as much as I was worried that I’d have to sit through several episodes of Bradley hiding in the basement and Dylan being forced to help search for Gil’s murderer.  Don’t get me wrong.  I think that Nicola Peltz’s performance as Bradley was underrated by a lot of critics and I also think that, as played by Max Thieriot, Dylan is one of the most intriguing characters on the show.  It’s just that I felt that Bradley’s subplot was good for, at most, two episodes.  Bates Motel wrapped it up in two episodes and good for them.

The other big development is that Sheriff Romero arrested a drifter and charged him with Ms. Watson’s murder.  We knew the guy didn’t do it.  The drifter certainly knows he didn’t do it.  And, for that matter, it’s pretty obvious that Romero knows that he’s got the wrong guy too.  However, that is what makes Romero such an interesting character.  He’s less concerned with solving crimes and enforcing order than he is with maintaining balance.  It’s obvious that the entire town of White Pines Bay has found a balance between good and evil, legal and illegal and that balance works for them.  Ms. Watson’s murder threw that balance off and Romero’s actions are more about resetting everything back to normal than anything else.

Otherwise, the townspeople might end up burning somebody alive in the town center again.  (And is anyone ever going to mention that happening ever again or has everyone on the show just blocked it from their mind?)

So, all in all, Shadow of a Doubt was a pretty good episode of Bates Motel and hopefully, it’ll be a sign of things to come for season 2.  My only complaint?  So far, Emma, my favorite character, hasn’t gotten to do anything.

Hopefully, that’ll change in the upcoming episodes.

Personally, I can’t wait to find out!