Categories
Horror Movies Reviews

Review: The Grudge (2020)

Distributor: Screen Gems (through Sony Pictures Releasing)

Director: Nicolas Pesce

Writer: Nicolas Pesce, Jeff Buhler (story), Takashi Shimizu (original screenplay)

Composer: The Newton Brothers

Starring: Tara Westwood, Andrea Riseborough, John Cho, Lin Shaye

Genre: Horror, Mystery

The Grudge franchise was a major contributor to the J-Horror trend in the early 2000s. Containing a multitude of Japanese films and spilling over to three American adaptations, the series was typified by its anachronistic narrative structure, creepy hauntings and an unrelenting curse. If it didn’t create a number of horror movie tropes and clichés still seen to this day, then it certainly perpetuated them. By 2009, the straight-to-DVD American film, The Grudge 3, signified the fall of this once-respected franchise. The cyclical presentation of the titular curse that was once thrilling with its sense of fatalism had now become boring. The story had run its course.

So it’s genuinely surprising to see another American Grudge film. As a fan of the franchise, I was genuinely excited to check this one out, though unfortunately Australians had to wait another month for its release compared to the United States. Though while I waited, I did wonder: what else there was to explore? This was a film that ran the risk of re-treading the same ground, but will a new approach save this atrophied franchise?

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: This is a horror film that aims to scare its audience with violent imagery, jumpscares and heavy gore. Multiple close ups on blood splatter, pooled blood, and physical injuries (some self inflicted, going as far as amputation). Grossly disfigured, rotten corpses are shown. Drowning, arson, and suicidal gun violence are depicted (the latter occurring off screen). The story heavily revolves around a double-murder suicide. Ghosts frequently appear suddenly, spewing black bile and attacking people.

Language/Crude Humor: God and Jesus are said as exclamations. The f-bomb is dropped once or twice, along with the s-word and a few h*ll.

Drug/Alcohol References: A character is a cigarette smoker—there is mention of quitting, though it’s clear the habit has restarted. One character is seen drinking alcohol while resting at home.

Sexual Content: None.

Spiritual Content: The movie is a about rampant curse that begins when someone dies in the grip of rage or extreme sorrow; it’s a supernatural force that overwhelms the life of anyone that encounters it. Considering this is a ghost story, there is a brief discussion about the afterlife and what happens once we die.

Other Negative Content: A pregnant couple touch on the possibility of abortion. There is heavy talk concerning assisted suicide/assisted dying practices.

Positive Content: This film contains a fatalistic message, so it’s hard to extract a positive moral from the story. Regardless, the majority of the characters are hard-working figures that try to do the right thing.

Review

It’s difficult to talk about The Grudge (2020) without also discussing the previous films. If you’re new to this franchise, it can be understandably confusing as to where to begin. So first of all, let’s do a history lesson…

If you wish to simply read about the newest film, then scroll down to the next underlined sentence.

Most of the films link back to Japanese director, Takashi Shimizu. He started exploring this narrative back in 1998 with his two short films, Katasumi and 4444444444. He later expanded them to two feature-length movies, Ju-On: The Curse and Ju-On: The Curse 2, both made in 2000 and released to V-Cinema (sort of like Japan’s version of direct-to-video, though it operated like a bastion for creative expression for experimental directors).

Obviously these early films will be difficult to track down. Most people (myself included) start with Takashi Shimizu’s first theatrically released movie, Ju-On: The Grudge (2002). Even though it’s technically a sequel to his previous features, this film still sets up the basic premise—due to a rage-induced double-murder suicide (kinda), the site of these violent deaths becomes cursed, engrossing and destroying anyone who enters the haunted house. The story was told through a series of vignettes set over the course of a number of years, detailing the death or mysterious disappearance of the characters that encountered the titular grudge, usually carried out by Kayako’s vengeful spirit (although her dead husband, Takeo, and deceased son, Toshio, can also make an appearance).

Kayako and Toshio from Ju-On: The Grudge (2002) doing their typical haunting thing.

The J-Horror (Japanese Horror) trend in cinema was where the old met the new. Taking the folktales and spooky legends traditionally told through Kabuki or Noh theatre, it was combined with modern society’s increasing concerns over our reliance on technology. Pale faced with long, black hair, Kayako’s appearance and backstory is reminiscent of an Onryō in Japanese culture, though she has the ability to haunt her victims through phone calls, security footage and other electronic devices. Japanese audiences already have a traditional understanding of the narrative’s backstory, so the film makes no effort to explain certain elements which are otherwise foreign concepts to overseas viewers.

Whilst I personally haven’t revisited the next sequel in the series, Ju-On: The Grudge 2, in over a decade, I still recall it being the scariest one out of the main films. Made in 2003, it once again told the fate of its hapless victims through interweaving vignettes, though its increasing sense of fatalism and surrealism resulted in a freakishly bonkers ending that no viewer will forget any time soon. The untraditional narrative structure and the “foreignness” of the film’s style were appealing to Western audiences, as it was unlike the ghost stories they were normally accustomed to seeing. It wasn’t long till Hollywood studios clued in that this was the next franchise ripe for an American remake, following in the footsteps of the other J-Horror granddaddy, The Ring.

In a surprising move, Takashi Shimizu was given the opportunity to direct the first two American films, so naturally they stay close to the source material. The setting is still in Japan (the design of the original house was even replicated in the soundstage) and some of the original Japanese cast still feature in the American version. Though Takashi Shimizu did lament that the change in audience meant heavier exposition due to a Western viewer’s lack of knowledge regarding Japanese culture. It’s genuinely difficult to pick which version is better; the Japanese films can be convoluted at times, although they pull off the creepy vibe better, whilst the American movies are more streamlined and neater with their storytelling.

Sarah Michelle Gellar stars in the first American remake, The Grudge (2004), which essentially retells the events in the Japanese film, Ju-On: The Grudge (2002).

Essentially The Grudge (2004) and the Japanese film, Ju-On: The Grudge (2002) tell the same story, though they diverge in the final act. The parts of the narrative in the Japanese version that aren’t covered in the 2004 film, are later adapted in 2006’s The Grudge 2, which is the second American movie in the franchise. The events in Ju-On: The Grudge 2 (2003) aren’t really remade in any of the American incarnations.

Like a good little sequel, 2006’s The Grudge 2 develops more of Kayako’s backstory whilst also cementing the franchise’s horror traits. Those are: Kayako’s vocal fry, Tashio’s screams sounding like his deceased cat, Kayako’s creepy-crawly movement, supernatural black hair, lights going out signifying the grudge getting closer, an unexpected hand in the hair, and the curse’s otherwise unrelenting pursuit of its victim. For the most part, these four films (Ju-On: The Grudge, Ju-On: The Grudge 2, 2004’s The Grudge, The Grudge 2) are still fairly strong even today.

The third American film, The Grudge 3, is where things get interesting from a film criticism perspective. A straight-to-DVD sequel and the first film without Takashi Shimizu’s involvement, it’s clear this move struggles to find its own identity. It rightfully continues to explore the idea that the curse can infect entirely new areas, creating different methods of transmission. Yet it’s still hopelessly bound by its own tropes. There’s only so many times Kayako can crawl across the floor and Tashio can meow before it becomes funny instead of scary. The unrelenting cyclical nature of the curse, which was once the franchise’s unique strength and trait, now became the film’s downfall as it had all been done before. After The Grudge 3 the franchise began to atrophy, with all subsequent Japanese films (and a Wii game) never reigniting the same level of horror as its predecessors.

By the time The Grudge 3 rolls around, Kayako, Toshio and Takeo stop being scary and start to become unintentionally funny instead.

So where does the 2020 film come into all of this?

Many have stated that this is a reboot, though that is technically untrue. It’s a sidequel. The story starts off in 2004 (same year as the first American film, The Grudge) outside the infamous haunted house in Tokyo that is featured in all the previous major films in the franchise. While it’s unclear precisely where in the timeline this sits in regards to whom enters the house when, it’s obvious 2020’s The Grudge still doesn’t want to completely detach itself from its Japanese origins. From there it adopts the rules and mythology developed in The Grudge 3, where if the grudge’s cycle is replicated in a new house then a new curse is born. While the plot occurs concurrently to the events in The Grudge (2004) and The Grudge 2 (2006), there are no direct references to the other characters of these films, aside from the original cursed Japanese family.

I certainly don’t envy the director and screenwriter, Nicolas Pesce. This is a hard franchise to fix. It popularized a number of horror tropes, which then inspired the next generation of films in the genre, including but not limited to the found-footage Paranormal Activity series, and The Conjuring universe—both franchises which are also now in their final death throes, inspiring yet another generation in the process. The Grudge’s time has come and gone; it made its contribution to cinema, and others have already adapted and evolved its legacy. So how does someone pay homage to a set of films that are now littered with clichés? It’s the equivalent of watching a John Woo movie and rolling one’s eyes every time a dove flies in slow motion, not realizing that he was the one to start the trend.

Hmmm, let’s check out the creepy bathwater, because that has always gone well for everyone in the history of The Grudge!

It seems that Pesce has learnt from the mistakes of The Grudge 3. Like with any movie monster that suffers from overexposure, Kayako simply isn’t scary any more. All sense of mystery has been lost. So as sad as it is to say goodbye to Kayako and her twisted, ghostly family due to them being so iconic, it is a wise choice from a narrative standpoint to not have her as the main focus. Instead Kayako’s curse has been transferred to the Landers family, with their double-murder suicide sparking a new grudge.

2020’s The Grudge is the most “American” out of all the films thus far, not only because of where it’s set and the lack of returning cast, but also in how it’s filmed. This movie is easily the goriest in the main franchise, swapping out creepiness for jump scares. With their mud-dusted skin and oozing black blood, the look of the ghosts are more reminiscent of American horror films, like The Evil Dead. The scenes are well lit and the movie is beautifully shot, certainly making it one of the more visually stunning instalments to this never-ending franchise.

The cast is stacked with talent, including twice Oscar nominee, Jacki Weaver, and recognizably experienced actors such as John Cho, Demián Bichir, Andrea Riseborough, William Sadler, and Lin Shaye. They all do the best they can to bring their shallowly crafted characters to life. Since this film was released in the United States early in 2020, many viewers were quick to declare this January flick as a bad horror movie, predicting it will be a contender for the worst in the year. Firstly, it’s not—I’m willing to bet that Netflix’s Deadcon will hold that honor for many months to come. Secondly, it’s not as though they didn’t try. They gave this film the best shot they could. The main grief circling this movie is with the unavoidable makeup of the franchise itself.

The Grudge (2020) is one of the first films in the franchise to provide their characters with decent backstories. One character is dealing with the loss of loved one to cancer, another is questioning the future of their unborn child, then there’s one person who wishes to remain detached due to past traumatic events, while the most unique perspective is provided by a husband exploring the assisted dying process for his mentally unwell wife. Yet none of that ultimately matters. The franchise’s almost iconic vignette style cripples any solid growth the cast may experience, truncating longer character journeys as the runtime is spread too thinly across its multiple timelines. This was the main criticism Ju-On: The Grudge received, and the problem still persists to this day.

Kayako’s curse is the most unforgiving entity in the entire horror genre; it’s a darkness that merely consumes and destroys everything it encounters. You literally have better chances facing up against Final Destination’s version of Death, outwitting the creature in It Follows, bypassing the effects of Sadako’s cursed video tape from The Ring, or utilizing Brightburn’s Brandon Bryer’s kryptonite despite the heavily unmatched odds of survival. So if you find yourself in a Cabin in the Woods scenario picking between movie monsters, remember: never, ever, ever, ever, ever choose the grudge! It’s by far the worst one.

As terrifyingly strong as this curse is, Scriptwriting 101 dictates that it’s always the better narrative choice to have the villain related in some way to the hero, and sadly Kayako’s grudge is as impersonal as it gets. Doesn’t matter how varied or detailed the victims become, the curse is a constant force that eventually treats everyone the same, making the characters’ arcs seem rather disconnected to the hauntings themselves, unlike such masterpieces like The Babadook or The Orphanage where the two events are inseparably married. The Grudge desperately wants to gut-punch its audience, but it never develops the thematic weight to deliver a hit worthy of any strong emotional reaction. Instead it’s a franchise filled with a revolving door of realtors, social workers and police officers, with all of them simply going about their jobs until their fatal mistake catches up to them.

What’s disturbing is that the heart of the piece is hollow as well. The police frequently ponder over the motive behind the Landers’ family tragedy, yet there is no real mystery to be solved. The audience understands the Landers were merely echoing the events that occurred in Japan, so we’re stuck following an imitation; a shadow of an inciting incident that originally had some depth to explore but none anymore. In turn, nothing in the film feels genuine—try as they might, portraying the Landers as something evil feels off, given that their state of affairs differs little from the fate of their victims.

The Grudge (2020) is like an old car that has been outfitted with new upholstery and given a lovely paint job, but it ultimately still drives the same. A lot more could be replaced, particularly the engine itself. But then it becomes like the philosophical saying where one wonders how many pieces can be removed and updated before it simply no longer resembles the original product and becomes and entirely new entity instead?

Kayako and her twisted family have already been cut, along with her mannerisms and her certain style of haunting. Once again, this was a smart decision, as she was no longer working as a scary character. This leaves the anachronistic narrative and the unrelenting curse as the only remaining defining attributes of the franchise. Yet these no longer work either; it seems that a Grudge film is merely a typical ghost story but told in the most convoluted way possible.

The biggest problem is that the Conjuring Universe has already carved out a massive territory in the haunted house sub-genre. If the Grudge franchise were to remove the anachronistic approach to its narrative, then it loses that little bit of extra flavour to an otherwise bland ghost story. Likewise, if it waters down the nature of the curse, then how is it different to an entire multitude of other films, including its rival, The Ring? The Grudge is renown for its severity. It could possibly change up its cast, where instead of featuring passive protagonists, it starts including more active ones. Though the most logical path would be to have a group of paranormal experts inspect the house, but once again the franchise will be stepping into the Conjuring Universe’s well-guarded territory, even if it explores its Shinto roots. There is very little wiggle room left for this intellectual property.

Still, one more film could be squeezed out of the Grudge’s dying premise. If it altered the tone and upped its sense of fatalism to mimic that of Kairo (Pulse), or dared to do a deep dive on the subject of domestic violence—something which underpins the entire story which oddly hasn’t been fleshed out as of yet—then maybe this franchise might find its unique voice again. Alternatively it could wholesomely embrace its anachronistic nature and take it to the next level, becoming an anthology film made up of several shorts that simply set up and paid off different aspects of the curse. It may be reminiscent of Ju-On: The Grudge 2 by doing so, but it would continue to differentiate itself from an already overcrowded sub-genre.

Then again, maybe the very nature of depicting a curse that repeats itself over and over is a concept that only works for a single film, two at most, due to simply running out of perspectives to explore. Maybe this was never an idea that was fit for franchising? (Although the cynic in me snorts that this is exactly what a franchise is in the first place, in which case maybe the Grudge can start to parody the nature of the repetitive film industry)!

For Christians, there’s little to mull over, as there is no good vs. evil dynamic to thematically explore, nor does God feature in the world of The Grudge. As it stands, like a lot of horror movies, the film is most suited to older teens and young adults—people that are relatively new to the genre that are seeking something more gory than what the Conjuring Universe has to offer. For veterans of this franchise, you already know what you’re in for. It’s a rather boring experience as a result, while newcomers will be disappointed once they discover how shallow this plot has become. It had the best of intentions, but it seems it may be best to put this curse to rest once and for all.

Categories
Action/Adventure Animated Movies Reviews Sci-fi/Fantasy

Review: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Distributor: Sony Pictures Releasing

Director: Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman

Writer: Phil Lord, Rodney Rothman

Starring: Shameik Moore, Jake Johnson, Hailee Steinfeld, Mahershala Ali, Brian Tyree Henry, Lily Tomlin, Luna Lauren Velez, John Mulaney, Kimiko Glenn, Nicolas Cage, Liev Schreiber

Genre: Superhero

Rating: PG

Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the mad geniuses behind such family-friendly works as The LEGO Movie and such adult comedy turns as 21 Jump Street, seem to have made breaking all the rules and conventions of modern cinema into an art form all their own.  Almost anything they set their mind to appears on the stage with no irony and no apologies. They know what they are, they present themselves as such, and leave the audience to accept or reject as they will. I can’t help but respect that kind of gumption, so anytime I see one or both of their names behind just about anything, my interest is fastened.

Into the Spider-Verse is no exception. At first glance, it seemed like something better suited for the direct-to-video fare, but so did The LEGO Movie, and look how that turned out. It could be said that the ostensibly unassuming presentation was used both to lull us into a false sense of security ladened with conventional expectations for the team to upend as well as a means of setting the stage for reflective commentary on the thematic dimensions of the work itself.  Let’s just say I was more eager for this viewing than I had for most other superhero film releases recently.

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: Intense large-scale action violence/destruction/explosions and close-up fighting/confrontation, nearly always between a Spider-person and enemies (monsters, bad guys, etc.). Frequent suspense/peril and potential for mortal danger. Chases, pursuits, narrow escapes; multiverse portal dangerously destabilizes the city. For the most part, superhero powers/laser-type weapons are used for fights/combat, but an actual gun is used to injure/kill a few characters. And (spoiler alert!) characters do die: Not only does one Peter Parker/Spider-Man die at the hands of a supervillain fairly early in the film, but so does an important secondary character later on. In quick flashbacks, various Spideys share whom they’ve lost; a villain’s personal losses are also shown.

Language/Crude Humor: “What the…” (unfinished), “crap,” “hell,” “dang,” and “freakin’”.

Sexual Content: Miles flirts with Gwen using a “shoulder touch” move he learns from his Uncle Aaron. They later make eyes at each other but don’t go further than hugging.  A married couple embraces.

Drug/Alcohol Use: None.

Spiritual Content: None.

Other Negative Themes: Some youths get in perilous situations against their parents’ wishes.

Positive Content:  Strong messages about friendship, mentoring, perseverance, the importance of power and responsibility, and working with others for the greater good. Characters must learn both to trust themselves and to rely on others. Sometimes you have to take a leap of faith to succeed.

Miles, like Peter Parker before him, actively works to find his place in a world where he’s got powers only other Spider-people can understand. Miles is courageous, committed to doing the right thing, even when it puts him at risk. Miles’ parents are supportive, encouraging, make it clear they have high expectations but also love him unconditionally. Peter, Gwen Stacy, other Spider-people each have talents, strengths they share with the group. Peter particularly helps train and mentor Miles–and learns something about teamwork and selflessness.

Review

Where both animation and Spider-Man are concerned, our frenemies at Sony have been dropping the ball more often than not.  Sure I’ve caught wind of a particular friendly neighborhood hero making a splash on the PS4 recently, but aside from that, what have they done for us? On film, Spidey hasn’t been anything impressive since 2004 (which, yes, was fourteen years ago as of the time of this writing), with his legally uneasy venture into the Marvel Cinematic Universe be something approaching an exception, but certainly not a credit to Sony in any meaningful way.

Business being business, it’s perfectly clear that Sony needs to do something in order to justify the iron grip they have on Spidey’s film rights, lest the folks and the Mouse House start asking for their toys back. Not an easy feat, given that they’ve tried just about everything they could, especially after those milquetoast-to-retched films starring Andrew Garfield. What was needed at this point for this franchise more than anything was a fresh pair of eyes with a daring soul behind them to revitalize the energy and panache that everyone’s favorite wallcrawler is known for.

As fate would have it, Sony managed to get their feelers out on two noteworthy pairs of eyes to do just that. Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, the visionaries who gave us The LEGO Movie and 21 Jump Street, came onto the scene with a markedly unique way not only of seeing things but of doing things. Ever since they had their brief day in the sun with Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, they made it clear they came to play in a way few would even consider, let alone attempt.

For me, arguably their most impressive capability is to turn what is almost universally considered an inalienable weakness in the essential fabric of the film and somehow make it into its greatest strength. Sure, The LEGO Movie seems like little more than a feature-length advertisement for the LEGO brand. In fact, in many ways, it is exactly that. But it makes no apologies for being so, and still manages to tell an effective and affecting family-friendly story with that seemingly cynical vision in mind. It’s straight up alchemy, I tells ya.

With Sony and Spider-Man, there’s enough material for mockery and self-deprecation to be had for days on end. This is not an area of storytelling to which Lord and Miller (their names together would make a good name for either a beer or a law firm, now that I think on it…) are in any way adverse. If The LEGO Batman Movie is an indication of anything, it would seem these guys have self-aware humor down to a science. With that established, it should be no surprise that Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse has more than enough meta to satiate the internet trolls who only seem to be able to comprehend that sort of comedy.

Never let it be said that Lord and Miller are ones to cave to the asinine nihilism to which an unbridled cynic all too often falls prey. There is a heart to all their productions that actually has something meaningful behind the bite and farce, and Into the Spider-Verse is one of the most well-polished and refined examples in their entire oeuvre. I’m tempted to call it their finest work to date.  At the very least, it’s the best Spidey film since Sam Raimi’s turns over a decade ago.

It should be stated from the outset that, yes, this is another origin story. Thankfully, it is not Peter Parker’s origin story. The screenplay, penned by Lord and Rodney Rothman, recognizes and respects the audience’s familiarity with everything about Uncle Ben, and great power, and great responsibility, and what have you. “You already know the rest” is a recurring statement. In the midst of the expected self-effacement, there is a level of style and flare to the whole project rarely seen outside of an episode of The Amazing World of Gumball.

“What it lacks in substance, it makes up for with style” is a statement I’ve had to make far too often in my history of critical thought. Thankfully, the trio of directors here are professional and daring enough to ask the dangerous question, “¿Por qué no los dos?” Unorthodox camera maneuvers, candidly chosen audio clips from side characters to accentuate the protagonist’s inner thoughts, effective and appropriate use of comic-style panels and compositions; the film is just bursting to the seams with ingenuity of execution.

If not Peter Parker’s, then whose story is it? It turns out that in the comics a few years ago, a young Afro-Latino boy from Brooklyn named Miles Morales was introduced as the new big web-slinger in town. He was such a hit with the reader base, that his version of New York went on to be carried by Marvel as the new official canon. It is young Morales, here played by Dope star Shameik Moore, who gets the lion’s share of development and attention.

His is an enviable life for one of his position. His father, Jefferson Davis (Brian Tyree Henry), is an NYPD cop with an unshaken sense of duty, and his mother Rio Morales (Luna Lauren Velez) is a nurse with a solid grip on her position as the glue holding her small family together. With all the good that the MCU has done for its viewers, it is fair to ask whether it’s too much to get more superhero fare for the younger crowds–ones for whom the brash vulgarity and college dorm room-style debauchery of the Guardians is less than suitable. With Into the Spider-Verse, such an offering now acts as a clarion call to all other studios with similar film rights. A comical scene from the trailers depicting Miles’ first day at a new boarding school shows in one stroke just how enormously blessed he his as well as being riotously funny.

Miles’ regular mild-mannered life is compelling and interesting enough on its own. Even without a radioactive eight-legged creepy crawly eventually doing what it does and adding another layer of complication to his life (or two…or three…), I could see a very rewarding narrative experience from him, his family, and his friends. With that being said, this is still a superhero flick, and things gotta get shaking in that direction.

Much like Peter, Miles shares an intimate relationship with his uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali), but one that enables his creative activity of graffiti and sticker patching the city. Needless to say, its a hobby that his dad would not approve of under usual circumstances, and the eventual development of this arrangement sends young Miles into a tailspin of heroism and villainy that he never would have expected. To make things a bit more unnerving, it turns out that Miles’ world already has a Spider-Man (Chris Pine), and one who is best suited to guide our young hero into his newfound life of wall-crawling and crime-fighting. Thanks to the villainous efforts of a giant-sized version of the Green Goblin, Miles will be finding help in a more unconventional and less desirable way.

Pretty soon, the identity of the “one and only Spider-Man” becomes a lot less “one and only” fairly quickly. Thanks to some interdimensional finagling by the local mob boss Kingpin (Liev Schreiber), a bevy of other spider-folk make their way into the drama with varying levels of charm and charisma to earn their keep. The first to whom we are properly introduced is another Peter Parker (Jake Johnson), but one who’s largely come down on his luck and is fairly disenchanted with the idea of hero work.  Already among Miles’ group of new acquaintances at the boarding school is the headstrong and slick Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld), who makes quick work as a fan favorite, both here and from the comics. It is these three who mainly hold up the story, but more otherworldy web-slinging mishaps stumble onto the stage.

Nicholas Cage delivers everywhere it counts as the shady “Noir” Spider-Man, operating only in black and white except where Rubik’s cubes are concerned. Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn) comes straight out of a G-rated version of Ghost in the Shell complete with a rad spider-bot with which she shares a psychic link. The scene-stealer was certainly John Mulaney’s turn as Peter Porker/Spider-Hog, who, yes, has been an actual character in the Marvel canon since 1983–LONG before that one-off gag in The Simpsons Movie, thank you very much.

Like Lord and Miller’s magnum opus, all this might seem at first glance to be overstuffed. It can be said that it is in some places, but never once does the film forget that this is first and foremost Miles Morales’ story. What was particularly satisfying to me is that young Miles’ struggling with his newfound ability and identity was believably rendered across the whole plot. He doesn’t immediately become a honed master over his powers overnight (especially since his array of powers includes some tricks that the other spideys lack), but stumbles and trips over them as much as he did over his place at the boarding school. The development is palpable and believable. It really begs to be seen more than once.

I honestly wonder again how these guys manage to deliver solid and rewarding character drama alongside all the expected meta humor with such confidence and aplomb. I don’t mind a good deconstruction comedy every now and again, especially when it’s called for. One of my favorite flicks this year was Teen Titans GO! To the Movies, and that was nothing if not a multi-dimensional deconstruction derby of self-effacement.

With that said, one could reasonably feel a bit underserved by the total lack of any real drama, stakes, or payoff going on there. Into the Spider-Verse gives us the best of both worlds. As irreverent as the film is towards what Spider-Man has become in recent years, it has all the reverence in the world for what he should be at heart. Top that off with arguably the most effective Stan Lee cameo of them all, and you’ve got a work that is more than worthy of praise and patronage.

What’s more is that all the side characters earn their place by accentuating the story without ever detracting from it. Aunt May is here realized as a tough-as-nails tech maestro voiced by none other than Lily Tomlin (Ms. Frizzle from The Magic School Bus) and helps to kick everybody into gear when needed. The Doc Ock of Miles’ plane of existence is a genderbent mad scientist voiced by Kathryn Hahn who wound up being a lot more fun than I expected. Honestly, the only major player here who feels rather lukewarm is Kingpin. Sure, his background is fleshed out enough to give weight to his motivations, but only barely, and not in any way with which we’re not already familiar. He serves his purpose, but in a rather perfunctory manner.

What is it about Lord and Miller that they so consistently give us the breath of fresh air we so often need? And how do they manage to persuade the producers to let them have a go at it time and again? Into the Spider-Verse has redefined what an animated movie, and superhero blockbuster movie, and a Spider-Man movie can be all in one fell swoop. The term “leap of faith” becomes a mantra spoken in times of resolution throughout the movie. It could be seen as Lord and Miller giving a backhanded admonition to the film industry as a whole. Perhaps some more daring productions would do us all some good. At the very least, this was the first time in a VERY long time that I’ve actively yearned for a follow-up or a sequel to a Spider-Man movie (one has been greenlit, thank God).

It’s clear these guys want you to expect a sequel as well, considering the after credits scenes (PLURAL). I strongly suggest you keep around for both of them, dear reader. You won’t be disappointed.

Categories
Action/Adventure Movies Reviews Sci-fi/Fantasy

Review: Venom

Distributor: Sony Pictures Releasing
Director: Ruben Fleischer
Writer: Jeff Pinkner, Scott Rosenberg, Kelly Marcel
Starring: Tom Hardy, Michelle Williams, Riz Ahmed, Scott Haze, Reid Scott
Genre: Superhero
Rating: PG-13
As a big screen entity, Spider-Man has been through more ups and downs than most franchises go through in an entire lifetime.  The first two Sam Raimi outings defined an entire generation of summer blockbuster cinema with the third acting as a harpoon through the very heart of the whole franchise.  The Amazing Spider-Man reboot movies starring Andrew Garfield were largely uninspired duds with nothing of the spirit or finesse of Raimi’s work.  The famed wallcrawler has made a substantive return through the ever-expansive Marvel Cinematic Universe on a rather shaky agreement between Disney and Sony, and now Sony plans to deliver on a film project that’s been bounced around for over 15 years with one of Spidey’s more iconic foes.  A strange turn of events to be sure.

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: Intense comic book/fantasy violence. Little blood. Slicing/stabbing with Venom-made blades. Lots of punching, hitting, fighting, etc. Venom throws his victims around and bites off a few heads. Guns and shooting. Some onscreen deaths, many offscreen deaths. Car chases/crashes. Exploding rocket ships. Thug threatens a woman at gunpoint. Vomiting. Venom is very scary to look at, with his vicious fangs and overall menacing appearance.
Language/Crude Humor: The amount of language pushed the PG-13 rating even into an R-rating perhaps. Sh** is said frequently and there is one f-bomb.
Sexual Content: Frequent kissing. A couple falls into bed and is later shown sleeping together (sex is implied). They talk about getting married. Months later, the woman briefly kisses another man.
Drug/Alcohol Use: Main character drinks whiskey in a bar and a beer from his fridge. Glasses of wine are seen on table at dinner.
Spiritual Content: A secular post-modern take on the Binding of Isaac story is made.
Other Negative Themes: Few genuinely honorable characters are present, if at all.
Positive Content: Pretty minimal: The bad guys believe humans have ruined the world/environment and no longer have any right to live, and the good guys believe everyone has a right to live.

Review

If you were a boy growing up in the 90s, your favorite superhero then was Spider-Man (or maybe the Ninja Turtles…I won’t judge), and your favorite villain from Spider-Man was Venom under penalty of…well not death, per se, but something close to it.  We could easily grasp and resonate with the monster-faced evildoer because there really wasn’t much to him.  Sure, the “bad-guy-version-of-the-good-guy” is a character trope at least as old as Bizarro or Reverse Flash, but Venom was a product of our time.  Since Spider-Man himself was already plenty awesome with his gymnastic agility and clever quips, how much more awesome with he be with an all-black suit, a killer instinct, a menacing row of chompers, and a flippant attitude towards the law?  Simply put, Venom was cool.
I’m not sure if it’s still cool to be cool, but it was in the 90s.  And it was around the time when Marvel Studios CEO Avi Arad was actively gunning for Venom to have a solo film, which has been tossed around at least since Sam Raimi’s first Spider-Man movie was released in 2002.  After well over a decade of pass-offs, revisions, rewrites, and a bevy of screenwriters and directors coming and going in and out of the production even as early as last year, one has to stop and wonder if the project itself was still worthy of pursuit, let alone if it was still “cool” enough to register with the jaded summer blockbuster crowd of today.  “Cool”, after all, has the expiration date of sour cream sitting on the windowsill in the spring, and if “cool” is all you have on offer, then so do you.
Is there some substance to the character of Venom beyond his superficial “cool” factor?  Well, that’s up for debate.  Characters of his sort rarely have much to them beyond first impressions.  In his original incarnation, Venom is the unholy union of the unscrupulous news reporter Eddie Brock and a living sentient alien creature known as a symbiote, both with a personal vendetta against Peter Parker/Spider-Man.  This proved to be one of the earliest conceptual obstacles to the very idea of a Venom solo film.  As a character, Venom is the direct outgrowth of actions and missteps committed by Peter Parker, and thus his very essence is somewhat inextricably indigitated with the friendly neighborhood wallcrawler.  In blunt terms: Without Spider-Man, there is no Venom.
With Sony having struck a deal with Disney and Marvel to have Spider-Man running about with the Avengers and the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in recent years, and the Amazing Spider-Man reboot films having blown over like a lead balloon covered in lard, the path for Venom to take in a solo venture got more narrow with every passing moment and director.  Against all odds and with countless shakers and movers having done their time with the project, Venom has finally come to us crawling and wounded from intellectual abuse of various sorts.
Considering the mire of rushed and ill-advised motivation that produced its release, it could be considered rather miraculous that Venom is even watchable at all.  Director Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland, Gangster Squad) wasn’t even officially signed on until two years ago, and Tom Hardy was called out of the blue as a last minute resort to capitalize on a popular action movie talent.  The most shocking marketing maneuver here is this version of Venom is completely detached from the hero of his source material.  As far as this movie is concerned, Spider-Man doesn’t even exist as a basic idea.  To solidify as vast a distance from the original incarnation as possible, Venom takes place in San Francisco as opposed to Peter Parker’s hometown of New York.  “Drastic” is a fairly apt description of every choice that makes up this production.
With all that established, screenwriters Jeff Pinkner, Scott Rosenberg, and Kelly Marcel really had their work cut out for them to somehow embellish both Eddie Brock and the symbiote creature with a believable and somewhat honorable motive, since they’re taking the primary spotlight now.  They also have to come up with a replacement for an opposing entity, since the typical guy isn’t present, and said antagonist has to be somehow palpably more menacing than a guy who eats people as a gag.
The answer to that challenge comes ready-made and package-sealed in the form of Riz Ahmed’s Carlton Drake, a multi-billionaire inventor who acts as the mastermind behind the Nostromo-esque campaign to retrieve an assortment of amorphous extraterrestrial creatures that may very well serve as the next step in the development of human civilization.  Drake is pretty much like every other multi-billionaire supervillain with a god complex and no qualms about tossing the most vulnerable and disadvantaged to an early grave for sake of fulfilling his ambitions.  If you’re thinking what I think you’re thinking after that last sentence, dear reader, the writers were clearly thinking the same thing.  Drake is even allowed to make reference to “fake news” at one point.
Whereas Eddie Brock was an unethical journalist with a penchant for twisting the facts in order to buttress his own job position in his original outing, here Tom Hardy performs as a headstrong, stubborn, and morally unfaltering investigator who won’t shy away from putting his own livelihood and those of his closest friends and loved ones at risk in order to score a big story or expose the true colors of local ne’er-do-wells.  It’s a fine change of pace that still sits comfortably with the established mythos to be sure.  It’s how this material is put to work that betrays the total lack of a soul and direction that’s on display here.
I can’t say I take issue with the idea of Eddie Brock being given a whole new arrangement of motivations completely distinct from what I’m used to.  It’s when the combinations of motivations among all the players in this drama don’t really coalesce in any sensible – let alone meaningful – way that I wondered if my time at the theater would have been better spent elsewhere.  Through a few bouts of infiltration and serendipity, Brock comes into contact with one of the symbiotes that takes him up as a fitting host and proceeds to drive him to the brink of insanity with newfound tastes for living flesh and haunting, thunderous, guttural voices lingering in his psyche.
Tom Hardy really gives his all in this role, twitching about and performing impressive feats of action choreography while the CGI symbiote makes quick work of assailants, dispatching with impalements, broken bones, PG-13 friendly dismemberments, and cheeky, comically misanthropic quips.  Another major dispute over the course the film’s development was deciding whether or not to aim for an R rating in order to score some of that sweet Deadpool money.  After seeing it played out screen, I can honestly say going full circle in that direction may have helped with the film’s integrity.
While the writers seem to have little to no care or respect for the more dramatic dimensions to Brock’s plight of being an involuntary host for an ostensibly malevolent alien entity, they show their strength in the comedic dimensions to that internal struggle.  Comic book heroes (or anti-heroes in this case) engaging in argumentative banter with their suits and outfits is an established feature in the medium’s lore, found among characters like Iron Man or the Blue Beetle, and the trend gets a very satisfying exhibition here.  In fact, the best moments in the film are when it’s only trying to get a laugh, and these moments are sadly far too short-lived.
A more minor concern I had was when the symbiote inhabiting Brock introduced itself as “Venom”.  In the original canon, “Venom” is the name Brock and the symbiote take up to mark their new collective identity with each other.  The symbiotes themselves are typically nameless on their own.  Though with the original reason for that pathological moniker being absent, I can understand the rewrite.  If only the script had been a bit more clever with the revision.
With all the tepid directing, phoned-in writing, and afterthought special effects composition, it should be noted there are some miniscule nuggets of achievement to be gathered from the rubble.  One of the oft-acknowledged strengths of Sam Raimi’s productions was how alive and full of spirit even the side characters who were on screen for mere minutes could be.  There’s some vestige of that here in Venom with store clerks, security personnel, the homeless, and janitors coming in and out with a moment of empathy to share.  It helped the film to feel at least somewhat alive even if all else was nearly vacuous.
In fact, all actors on board are doing the best they can with what they’ve been given.  Never let it be said Tom Hardy doesn’t know how to sell unhinged and mentally comprised mannerisms with striking aplomb.  Michelle Williams appears as dysfunctional love interest Anne Weying, shifting with surprising confidence in her role as a character the film obviously has no idea what to do with.  A personal favorite of mine was Jenny Slate’s turn as Dora Skirth, a research scientist in service to Drake who experiences a plot-turning crisis of consciousness and is sadly not given much time to develop.
Venom is largely not a very good movie.  This is primarily because a Venom movie is not a very good idea.  Despite this, what carries a film forward is box office success, and in that regard, Venom somehow managed to deliver.  There’s an after credits scene giving clear hints of what’s to come next for this project and I nearly held back tears for the actor revealed there that they managed to hook in for this job.  The guy’s way too good to be here.  But hey, Sony’s gotta keep that license under their name somehow.  Play on, Sony.  Just know the Mouse is hungry…and those box office numbers over the weekend are looking mighty juicy.
Categories
Action/Adventure Movies Reviews

Review: Alpha

Distributor: Sony Pictures Releasing

Director: Albert Hughes

Writer: Daniele Sebastian Wiedenhaupt & Albert Hughes

Starring: Kodi Smit-McPhee & Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson

Genre: Historical, Adventure

Rating: PG-13

I’m sure I’ve said somewhere that I appreciate when movies that focus on the desperation of mere survival bring me into thinking on matters that we modern folk take for granted. What I don’t appreciate is when the actual film before me doesn’t actually warrant such introspection beyond its trappings. The Hughes Brothers are a bit of a mixed bag with their film outings. Since Albert Hughes moved to the Czech Republic in 2004, the duo has only directed one film together, the spectacularly broken 2010 post-apocalyptic thriller The Book of Eli. The sense of visceral style that has been a staple of the duo’s films since the early 90s is present in Albert’s latest film Alpha. Does the substance therein match it? Let’s take a look.

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: It’s a survival story, so the main character and his wolf ally face significant, intense peril, including cliff falls, animal attacks, exposure to the elements, hunger and thirst, lingering injuries, and illness. Animals are killed out of necessity. In one scene, teens are briefly beaten by adults as part of a rite of passage, but it’s not done viciously and not shown closely (it’s out of focus in the frame).

Language/Crude Humor: None.

Sexual Content: None.

Drug/Alcohol Use: None.

Spiritual Content: Something akin to ancestral mysticism is present.

Other Negative Themes: Some frank moments of survivalist grit.

Positive Content: Courage and belief in yourself are core messages. Perseverance, cooperation, resourcefulness, and love of family are all present as well. One key to both the main character and the story is empathy. Animals are hunted out of necessity, not for pleasure. The main character has many positive qualities, including courage, perseverance, empathy. His parents are loving, teach him well.

Review

At times when I’m left alone to ponder certain things, I really marvel at how much we modern folk take for granted in our livelihoods. How often do we fail to recognize that our state of easily accessible food, clothing, shelter, and luxury is one that has been completely alien to most of the stretch of human history? Even as recently as 1895, the average person living in Western civilization was living on roughly $1 USD a day. And that’s in current inflation rates.

For most of human history, the norm has been a lifestyle rife with constant danger and desperation, where basic necessities were acquired through militant means of tracking, hunting, and killing. It certainly kept one free from ennui for any stretch of time, as any sign of complacency and fragility was soon snuffed out either by the society or by the natural surroundings. Many of us today couldn’t make it through a day without our smart devices. Imagine how we’d fare in an environment without grocery stores.

This was my state of mind when Alpha, the latest film directed by one half of the Hughes Brothers, opened itself with a small Cro-Magnon hunting party tracking down a herd of bison. The movie certainly came dressed to impress, and on a visceral level, it delivers where it counts. The production made every attempt to recreate the world of precivilization by shooting on site in wide stretches of Canada and Iceland, and the wide panoramic vista shots of the untamed wilds are guaranteed to please.

Of course, having the impression of a deeply introspective exploration into mankind’s relationship with nature only gets you part of the way. The drama has to be just as sophisticated as the aesthetics suggest it to be in order to justify the appearance. Alpha at its heart wants to be a soulful bond between man and beast, but the developmental choices are too unspecified to land any of the emotional resonances successfully.

In effect, Alpha reads like a dramatized nature documentary of early European man, and there’s nothing really wrong with that. Taking place 20,000 years ago, we are introduced to a conventional survival drama setup, initially focusing on a young and waifish sapling of a hunter-gatherer named Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and his strained but affecting relationship with his chief father Tau (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson). Keda isn’t a very ideal Cro-Magnon, with very little in the way of fierce grit or warrior’s heart. Even his doting mother Rho (Natassia Malthe) notes that he “leads with his heart, not his spear”. Tau is perfectly aware of this but is also aware that life is grim and must be met grimly.

All of this is delivered with the actors performing very convincingly with a fictional Cro-Magnon language, so subtitles are in abundance. What’s sadly not in abundance is any sense of immediate empathy with the characters or their struggles. There is some high-minded and nigh-on mystical talk of ancestral traditions, leadership, and the wisdom of the past found in constellations and cairns that grants an aura of soulful weight to the drama, but that’s also done from a notably etic perspective that isn’t worked into the fabric of the drama at any point.

The story proper doesn’t really get going until after the climactic encounter with the bison that leaves young Keda for dead on the side of a cliff. From there, what follows is very much a grindingly generic survival drama featuring desperate scrounging for sustenance, harsh life-threatening changes in the weather, crippling injuries with cringe-inducing self-remedy methods, and vivid dreams about home in moments of reflection. It all looks quite impressive, and if other reviewers are any authority on the matter, I might have missed out by not paying extra for an IMAX 3-D showing.

With that established, what’s supposed to be the selling point is Keda coming in violent contact with a pack of dire wolves, injuring one in self-defense, and nursing the would-be predator back to health. This serves as a useful catalyst to what amounts to something of a primordial dramatization of a major turning point in human development.

When I was young, I loved reading the fables of Rudyard Kipling, especially the ones offering fantastical explanations for the physical oddities we observe in many animals (“How the Rhino Got its Skin”, “How the Camel Got Its Hump”, etc.).  Under certain slants, Alpha can be considered a more authentic attempt at a Kipling-esque tale (“How the Canine Became Domesticated”).  With that in mind, I can largely forgive the rather superficial development in the relationship between Keda and the wolf he affectionately grants an eponymous name. Only largely, though.

In all honesty, I was expecting something more akin to Ang Lee’s Life of Pi in how Keda and Alpha (played by a Czech wolf-dog named Chuck) learn the mutual respect necessary for survival. Granted, there is a major divide in the settings and contexts in which those two stories play, but something more personally explorative and substantiating in Keda’s trek across the unforgiving frozen wilds would have been welcome. Sure, I could do without the religiously pluralistic gobbledygook of Ang Lee’s film, but treating these characters as actual characters instead of superficial molds of characters meandering to the tune of an ambitious cameraman would have been a welcome choice. A scene in which Keda falls under a sheet of ice with Alpha pawing at the surface to facilitate a rescue is one of the more intense and suspenseful moments and is worth the price of admission alone if that’s worth anything.

The story of a boy and his dog is a very easy and effective tale full of empathy and easy emotional points of entry, but that doesn’t serve as a justification for abdicating legitimate dramatization. Familiarity with this sort of narrative can enable the audience to fill in the gaps in the development. It is somewhat odd to find the wild wolf Alpha becoming so cloying and obedient to Keda after only a moment or two of interaction. Seeing more prickly conflict between the two as their understandings of each other are made manifest would have both served to strengthen the payoff of their interdependence and given much-needed weight to Keda’s coming to meet the demands of his manhood.

With the focus on a frail son of a war chief nursing and earning the camaraderie of a wild beast that he personally injured and bringing about a new era of cooperation between his people and the beasts after a particularly perilous adventure, you could be forgiven for thinking that the subtitle “How to Train Your Wolf” would have been fitting. However, save for one noteworthy last-act twist, there’s little here that’s surprising or daring enough in the drama to justify that comparison.  uch like The Book of Eli, the film here ends in a way that a sequel is certainly viable, but in no way made to seem likely to occur. Seems the Hughes Brothers have a penchant for doing their employers’ marketing work for them. I wonder how long until they start including arbitrary after-credits scenes.

Categories
Animated Comedy Movies Reviews

Review: Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation

Distributor: Sony Pictures Releasing

Director: Genndy Tartakovsky

Writer: Genndy Tartakovsky, Michael McCullers

Starring: Adam Sandler, Andy Samberg, Selena Gomez, Kevin James, David Spade, Steve Buscemi, Keegan-Michael Key, Molly Shannon, Fran Drescher, Kathryn Hahn, Jim Gaffigan, Mel Brooks

Genre: Comedy

Rating: PG

Say what you will about the Hotel Transylvania movies. They’re no Pixar productions by a long shot. They’re not even DreamWorks on a good day. What they are is riotous clean fun (for the most part). If you’re a fan of a traditional cartoonist’s aesthetic, they’re even more than that. And if you’re a fan of the cartoon works of Genndy Tartakovsky? They’re a day at the beach.

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: The Van Helsings go after Dracula and other monsters with weapons (ray guns, etc.) and schemes; an early montage includes fights, chases, crashes, and more–injuries happen but aren’t lingered on. In one sequence, Ericka purposely puts herself in danger to see if Dracula will save her; he does (from booby traps galore). At the beginning of the movie, a monster with spikes nearly impales Mavis, but it’s played for laughs. The most frightening scene is when a large, scary Kraken starts to attack all the monsters on Atlantis and nearly kills everyone. A human/robot hybrid can be creepy. A little werewolf bites off Frankenstein’s finger. In a comedic sequence, an airline called Gremlin Air features the chaotic monsters nearly injuring everyone on the plane. Underwater volcano. Slapstick falls.

Language/Crude Humor: A couple of fart jokes because vampires are “garlic intolerant.” Jonathan tells Mavis she did a “cute toot.” A suggestive comment or two: “Would you like to see my parts?” and “Stitches in all the right places.”

Sexual Content: Two newly married monsters kiss at their wedding.  Drac briefly uses a monster version of a Tinder-like app to look for online dates. Three buxom, randy witches stare at Vlad in his (very skimpy) bathing suit and chase/make flirtatious overtures toward him. Drac and Erika dance, flirt, and kiss. A few butt-focused jokes/visual gags. A minor character is very voluptuous. References to “looking hot” and “working it.” Shirtless male waitstaff.

Drug/Alcohol Use: Champagne, drinks at cruise events. El Chupacabra’s drink of choice is a goat in a glass. Two characters are tranquilized and hidden/captured.

Spiritual Content: None.

Other Negative Themes: Familial grudges are present. There are a couple of slightly insensitive jokes toward women–for example, on a dating app, Drac matches with a photo of a beautiful witch, only to video chat with her and discover she’s a warty old crone. And a trio of randy witches seems to only care about chasing Vlad. Some German stereotyping. Frank appears to be a gambling addict.

Positive Content: Positive messages include the importance of tolerance, letting go of old grudges, being open to new relationships, fighting prejudice, communicating with your family members, parents reconnecting as partners, and celebrating family and friends. “You have to honor the past, but we make our own future.”

Drac is a caring, attentive grandfather, even though he lies about where Dennis is in one scene. He loves his daughter, son-in-law, and friends and would do anything to protect them. He falls for Ericka even though she’s human and is willing to overlook her past and ancestry. Ericka learns to look past her family’s legacy and decides to see the good in Dracula.

Review

Few people would be more ecstatic than I about Genndy Tartakovsky establishing a reputation in the field of feature film animation. After making a significant name for himself in numerous small-screen animated works such as the sci-fi sitcom Dexter’s Laboratory and the award-winning post-apocalyptic fantasy adventure series Samurai Jack, trying his hand at a feature CGI production is a sensible next step in his career. Of course, such a venture came with a number of obstacles and difficulties.

When I first saw the original Hotel Transylvania, I saw the growing pains of one accustomed to short-form storytelling being asked to stretch out his methods for a feature-length format.  After so many years of telling complete stories in a matter of 22 minutes at most, trying to maintain the high-octane energy of TV animation for longer than an hour is a serious challenge.  Building a story that can accommodate such energies is an even bigger challenge. This would explain why arguably the biggest flaws of the last two installments were dragging periods of dead space desperately trying to get to the next set piece before becoming too dull or self-conscious. At the very least, Tartakovsky and company managed to find a significant room for improvement in each cycle.

Hotel Transylvania 2 made the wise choice of allowing characters to venture out into other locales beyond the eponymous hotel itself, allowing for set pieces and dynamics otherwise not available. Thematically, these movies have a had a very simple and timely premise. Prejudice is the topic at hand; primarily that between monsters and humans, though the dynamic seems to be reversed from the norm, with monsters fearing oppression and persecution from humans rather than vice versa. The particulars of this thematic setup are not very well refined in some ways (it’s unclear as to whether or not humans are really that aware of the existence of monsters for the most part, for example), but it works well enough to sell a few key points of consideration.

Probably the most valuable element thematically is the suggestion that both sides on a fence of prejudicial practice can both be guilty of being pre-emptively scornful with deleterious effects. It also suggests that being isolated in an intellectual echo chamber is also the most formidable barrier to advancing beyond such harmful presumptions. Hotel Transylvania 2 dealt with misanthropic tendencies in monsterkind, whereas Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation directly addresses the issues of bias on the other side of the human/monster divide.

It could be said that while the fundamental plot premise of Hotel Transylvania 2 was better-suited to a feature film production than that of the first film, Genndy was a bit out of his depths in how to furnish it in many respects. This time around, what is on offer is a simple plot premise that could easily fit a typical animated series episode but is given enough tangential substrata and embellishment to do justice to the runtime without the team putting themselves in anymore uncharted territory.

Fearing that her father Dracula (Adam Sandler) is being overworked with his managerial position in the hotel, the waifish vampire lady Mavis (Selena Gomez) books a cruise to the unlost city of Atlantis for seemingly all the residents of the hotel. At the very least, Dracula and his close friends and family were invited to the getaway. Little does Mavis know that Drac’s recent melancholy is due more to his loneliness after orchestrating a wedding than his being overworked, and so the one saving grace to an otherwise undesired cruise trip is the fetching and dynamic female captain of the ship, Ericka (Kathryn Hahn). Despite all predisposition to the contrary, Drac is immediately smitten with her–or “he zinged” as the lingo of the movies goes.

Supposedly, monsters can only “zing” once in life, and since Drac is a widower, he’s used up his only chance for life-long love (whatever that means for the undead). This is a major talking point throughout the film, but it isn’t ever really explained or reconciled. It does provide some useful familial conflict later when the prologue setup of Drac’s age-old nemesis and Ericka’s great-grandfather Abraham Van Helsing (Jim Gaffigan) comes to fruition in the present time.

In fact, that is the major strain riding along as the catch of this whole escapade. Ericka Van Helsing has vowed to carry on the family legacy of monster hunting under the direct tutelage of what remains of her great-grandfather’s steampunk-cyborg body by catching as many of the hotel’s residents in a concentrated location and eliminating them all at once. She’s something of a human reflection of Mavis except she was more effectively brainwashed in the biases that distinguish her kind with relation to monsters. Since this whole run of films has been about overcoming such prejudices, you can be rest assured that this will also be resolved by the end of the runtime in some way.

Some side characters get their own arcs to varying levels of completion. This approach plays to Genndy and his team’s strengths for shorter productions in a more agreeable fashion, resulting in the best written Hotel Transylvania title to date. The werewolf couple of Wanda and Wayne (Molly Shannon and Steve Buscemi) are treated to the cruise ship’s daycare center, liberated from the presence of their enormous litter for the first time in a long while, and use the opportunity to return to their primitive canine ways for a day. The returning sidekick trio of Murray the Mummy (Keegan-Michael Key), Frankenstein (Kevin James), and Griffin the Invisible Man (David Spade) come in and out to comment on Dracula’s reemerging love life when least appropriate with hysterical results.

Another subplot draws from something previously established in an early production. Remember when Dennis (oddly named Asher Blinkoff), the dhampir son of Mavis and her human husband Johnny (Andy Samberg), got a puppy in the animated short that preceded The Emoji Movie? Actually, do you remember The Emoji Movie? For your own health, dear reader, I would hope not. Well, the gargantuan pup Tinkles introduced there has a continuing presence here. Dennis and his puppy love interest Winnie the werewolf child (Sadie Sandler) are taking extra pains to ensure that Tinkles is able to accompany them on the cruise. This actually has some payoff at the film’s climax, so this plotline has some respectable significance.

What probably impresses me the most about all of these movies is the grace with which Genndy’s two-dimensional visual library has translated to CGI. I personally would love to see the sketchbooks for this production as the character designs are some of the best that have done for a feature animated production in recent memory. The storyboard artists are very much in love with depicting the characters in a profile view, and rightly so. These characters have lovely profiles.

In fact, it could be said that the entire Hotel Transylvania project is something of Mr. Tartakovsky’s answer to another visually distinctive work done by his colleague Craig McCracken. The highly praised Cartoon Network series Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends boasts similarly eccentric character design work that has received a number of accolades and also takes place in a hotel-like complex operating as a bastion of security for monstrous rejects. With that in mind, it may have behooved Genndy to pitch his operation as TV production for familiarity’s sake if nothing else. Wait, isn’t there already a Hotel Transylvania series somewhere? Oh, nevermind.

Out of all the releases, the sense of humor is probably sharpest and most effective here with a few key reveals and set pieces providing great laughs while being visual marvels. Probably the most brilliant moment is one featuring Dracula and Ericka performing a literal danse macabre in a deathtrap-riddled temple. In expert ballet fashion, Drac whisks and maneuvers Ericka out of the way of spring-loaded slings and arrows while allowing himself to be riddled and marked with an increasing number of injuries and blows that would be fatal to all but the undead with remarkable finesse. Another amusing turn features the Kraken (Joe Jonas) imagined as a colossal jazz club-style crooner that later appears as a more menacing presence in a moment of musical combat.

The endings have been weakest points for both of the previous movies and that’s still the case here, but at least it doesn’t end with a dance party this time around. In fact, a conventional dance party is interrupted by a DJ battle near the final turning point, and that’s certainly a preferable decision. While this particular team might still be in their training wheels when it comes to theatrical releases, this turn made me more disappointed than ever about that Popeye production that Genndy was supposed to lead. Please, make that happen again, Sony…