movies

Truth: Blumhouse’s Truth or Dare is Weak Sauce by Ryan Hill

 
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Going on a trip over Spring Break – be it to Mexico, Florida or anywhere else – is guaranteed to end poorly. At least in movies. People are murdered to appease ancient gods (Cabin in the Woods), killer plants attack (The Ruins), and sometimes a corn-rowed James Franco shows up, saying, “Spring Break” over and over (Spring Breakers).

Basically, it’s best to stay home over Spring Break if you’re in a movie. If only the characters in Truth or Dare did the same. Or went on a Habitat for Humanity mission, which Olivia (Pretty Little Liars’ Lucy Hale) was planning on doing before her best friend Markie (Violett Beane) convinced her to go to Mexico instead for Spring Break. There, the meek Olivia meets a cute guy at the bar who convinces everyone to leave the bar in favor of making the long trek to an abandoned church to play… wait for it… Truth or Dare. And in Truth or Dare, once someone plays, they have to follow through with the truth or dare. Otherwise, they die in a some PG-13 way that’s not nearly as graphic as it should be.

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The idea of making Truth or Dare a horror film is genius. It opens the door for all sorts of ingenious death scenes, the kind that would make the Final Destination series jealous. Instead, Truth or Dare is saddled with a PG-13 rating, so there goes any hope for wild, gory death scenes. Throw in some silly plot involving a demon and Truth or Dare becomes another low-level horror that’s more cash grab than inspired terror.

Truth or Dare is one of those horrors where the characters get picked off one at a time by some supernatural, all-powerful being. Those don’t work unless the characters are awful people, making the audience root for their demise. It’s one of the biggest lessons Cabin in the Woods taught us. Even Blumhouse’s Happy Death Day was smart enough to have its main character start out as a horrible human being.

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It’s hard not to draw comparisons between Truth or Dare and Happy Death Day, since both are PG-13 horror flicks from Blumhouse. Death Day wrung every ounce of PG-13 fun from its Groundhog Day premise. Truth or Dare, on the other hand, does very little with its premise, even forcing the characters to pick dare after a while.

Written and directed by Jeff Wadlow, who made the bad Kick-Ass movie, Truth or Dare is lazy from the start. Before leaving for the Spring Break trip, Olivia and Markie talk about having fun “before life tears them apart,” which isn’t ominous. At all. The rest of the dialogue is so on-the-nose, that every dare (and truth) is visible from a mile away. And what fun is a game of Truth or Dare with predictable dares? My guess is probably as much fun as watching Truth or Dare, i.e. not much.

 

Thor Brings on Ragnarok with a Wink and a Nudge by Ryan Hill

 
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Let’s be honest. Thor may do cool things with his magic hammer, but he’s one of the least interesting characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. He’s not particularly funny, he’s difficult to connect with, and he’s, well … kind of boring. The first Thor was decent enough, but after the mess that was The Dark World, things needed a drastic makeover if Thor: Ragnarok would be worth anyone’s time.

Enter writer-director Taika Waititi, another art house director getting their big break on a comic book film. Waititi doesn’t have a high profile here in the U.S., with his highest grossing film, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, making a little more than $5 million. Waititi sounds like a major gamble, but look closer. Wilderpeople was a delight from beginning to end, and the director’s vampire mockumentary What We Do In The Shadows is a comedy classic.

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Maybe to assuage fears that Waititi wasn’t up to the task of Thor: Ragnarok, Marvel released a sort of preview of what to expect with Team Thor, a short detailing what the God of Thunder was up to during the events of Captain America: Civil War. Some of the jokes from Team Thor even made it into Ragnarok.

Ragnarok finds Thor learning that he has an older sister, Hela (a delicious Cate Blanchett), the Goddess of Death. The only thing that’s kept her from destroying Asgard all these years has been their father Odin, who imprisoned her. The problem is Odin at death’s door, and once he dies – which he does early on – Hela is freed, and quickly returns to wreak havoc. Things get tricky when Thor is captured by Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) and becomes a slave/prisoner who works for free under the control of the Grand Master (Jeff Goldblum). Thor is forced to fight to the death in a sci-fi gladiator arena, and runs into his old pal Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), who’s been missing since the end of Avengers: Age of Ultron.

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Ragnarok isn’t the best Marvel film, but it is one of the best, and is definitely the funniest. None of the other Marvel films come close. Not even the Guardians of the Galaxy movies.

Chris Hemsworth has always been funny, but he takes it to another level under Waititi’s direction. His dry, silly brand of humor works perfectly with Hemsworth. Waititi injects a lot of the humor himself, playing Korg, a character made up entirely of rock. There’s also fun cameos galore, and the supporting cast, especially Jeff Goldblum, is clearly having a blast. Ragnarok is the first time Hulk has been featured as someone who does more than just smash things, teaming with Thor to make an intergalactic odd couple. Blanchett’s Hela, despite being a typical “big bad,” has some fun moments, and even Tom Hiddleston’s Loki is more enjoyable than usual. It should be noted that while I’ve enjoyed Loki, I’ve always found him a bit overrated. He’s never as fun as he could be.

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Anyone familiar with Waititi’s previous films will delight in Ragnarok. This isn’t a case of an art house director cashing in on a studio film or getting overwhelmed with the jump from working with a $2 million budget to $180 million. Marvel wisely let Waititi do his own thing, and the result is Thor: Ragnarok is exactly the entertaining and joyful ride one would expect from a $180 million budgeted Taika Waititi film.

Stephen King's It Gets a Scary, Funny Adaptation by Ryan Hill

 
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Does anybody really like clowns? There’s something not right with them. The white faces? The wigs? The silly behavior? All of the above? Hard to say. But pretty much everyone under the age of, say, 45 is terrified of one clown in particular.

Pennywise, the evil clown from Stephen King’s novel It.

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Famously played by Tim Curry in the 1990 miniseries, Pennywise comes to Derry, Maine every 27 years to feast on scared children. In the hands of Curry, the clown was as evil as he was fun. An all-time villain that to this day still holds up. Now, 27 YEARS AFTER THE MINISERIES, Pennywise has returned on the big screen.

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It’s the summer of 1989, and a group of kids dubbed the Losers want nothing more than to have a fun summer with no worries and no run-ins with the local bullies. That doesn’t really go according to plan, thanks to Pennywise, who terrorizes the kids one by one, feeding on their biggest fears. Bill, the Losers’ leader, is haunted by the death of his little brother Georgie, whom Pennywise killed the year before. Another is terrified of a strange painting. In true Stephen King fashion – and an obvious nod to his novel Carrie – the lone girl in the group is most afraid of her period. As the summer goes on, the Losers realize they’re all being hunted by Pennywise, and since the adults won’t do anything, take matters into their own hands.

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The 1990 miniseries version of It introduced a generation to the work of King with a bang. The author was HUGE in 1990, and King’s novels, with their supernatural elements, piqued the interest of eager young readers like myself. The catch? Most of us weren’t allowed to read his books, because they were “too scary.” The It miniseries was a chance for my generation to finally get a taste of King, and it did not fail to deliver. I was 10, and even though the miniseries aired on network TV, prompting a lack of gore, Pennywise scared the dickens out of everyone.

This new version of It is the first of two films based on the novel, with this one focusing on the Losers as children. Cutting King’s 1,100-page novel into two is no easy feat, and the first half of It can basically be described as evil clown messes with kids. There’s a struggle to reconcile the connection between the Losers and Pennywise, but once those two threads come together, It becomes almost non-stop horror.

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The film is vintage King. Children coming of age, over-the-top adults, sadistic baddies, shocking terror … It, more than maybe all the other King adaptations, feels like one of his novels come to life.

It’s also maybe the funniest King movie.

Yes, It is full of solid scares. Where the 1990 version of Pennywise was scary and fun, this version, played by Bill Skarsgard, is just plain menacing. With the freedom to work within an R-rating, director Andy Muschietti doesn’t skimp on the gore, fully realizing the horror within It. But none of it would work without the Losers. They trade rapid fire quips, and drop F-bombs just like regular kids. The best of the bunch is Richie (Finn Wolfhard of Stranger Things), who regards his mouth as a gift. The Losers are so funny and authentic, they’d fit in with any of the John Hughes films around at the film’s 1989 setting.

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It’s hard to look at this new adaptation of It without acknowledging the miniseries’ huge influence, but the film really does stand on its own two feet. Alternately hilarious and scary (and not without a couple of shortcomings), It is, to coin a generic critic phrase, a roller-coaster ride.

Spider-Man’s “Homecoming” is Pretty Amazing by Ryan Hill

 

There was a minute there when nobody cared about a Spider-Man movie anymore. After the disappointment of “Spider-Man 3” in 2007, the series was rebooted in 2012 to mixed results, and that reboot was scuttled after only two films. It seemed Spider-Man could no longer do whatever a spider could. The character was so downtrodden, Spidey’s parent studio worked out a deal with Marvel to use the character in their cinematic universe.

Now, after all these years, Spider-Man is finally home with “Spider-Man: Homecoming.”

But does the world need a second reboot of Spider-Man, the sixth film featuring the web-slinger since 2001? In the hands of Marvel, the answer is hell yes.

“Captain America: Civil War” gave the world a glimpse at what Marvel could do with their most popular character. In short, they nailed Spider-Man. In the web-slinger’s limited screen time, Tom Holland portrayed the character with a perfect mix of wonder, amazement and snark. The Tobey Maguire trilogy was good but mopey, the Andrew Garfield films were, eh, whatever, but “Homecoming” is everything that makes Spider-Man so great.

“Homecoming” ignores Spider-Man’s origin story, but still focuses on Peter Parker/Spider-Man’s life in high school. He’s tormented by the bully Flash, crushing hard on his debate team colleague Liz, and wishing more than anything Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) would make him a full-time Avenger.

But the fifteen-year-old Parker has bigger fish to fry outside of the classroom, like stopping Vulture (Michael Keaton) from stealing weaponry left behind in the wake of battles fought by the Avengers.

Director Jon Watts, who made the Kevin Bacon indie “Cop Car,” also knows just how New York-centric Spider-Man is. Without the skyscrapers of that metropolis to swing from, Spidey is left to hitch rides on trains or run around, resulting in a great “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” homage. It’s one of many nods to the great John Hughes, which “Homecoming” takes most of its cues from. The film is very much in the vein of a Hughes film, just with … you know … a guy running around in red tights shooting webs from his wrists.

“Homecoming” is one of the most fun blockbusters – comic book or otherwise – out there. It rivals “Guardians of the Galaxy” for sheer joy and is as good as, if not better than, “Spider-Man 2,” which is considered one of the best superhero films ever made. It even has a solid villain in Vulture, something the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been missing outside of Loki, who even then hasn’t been fully utilized.

The key word for “Homecoming” is fun. By keeping the stakes lower – Spider-Man doesn’t have to save the world – the film avoids the underlying sadness of Ben Parker’s death, which anchored the original trilogy, and veer away from pretty much everything in the “Amazing Spider-Man” films. Marvel is free to embrace the Spider-Man character, relishing in Peter’s high school years, but without that pesky origin story.

It’s also one of the best Marvel films, and arguably the best Spider-Man film ever.