Raphael Bob-Waksberg- BoJack Horseman
Watch the series on Netflix now.
DISCLAIMER: I am absolutely going to avoid “actual” spoilers at all costs. However, there will be moments where I spoil themes of the season, so if this bothers you, please watch the season before diving into this review.
BoJack Horseman (Will Arnett) is more horse than man. Or is he more man than horse? Either way, he’s the star of his titular show, which is not only one of Netflix’s first original series, but also Netflix’s first original cartoon. Back in 2014, this cartoon was a trojan horse (no pun intended) masquerading as your typical adult animated sitcom like Family Guy or Rick and Morty. But a few episodes in, BoJack reveals its secret: it’s actually a dark, serious drama sprinkled with moments of humor to keep the tone from getting too cynical. Essentially, every character in the show has some sort of fatal flaw that makes them relatably human, even if their character isn’t human. As the show goes on, it gets darker and darker, leading to the heartbreaking finale of season three. Season four restores a little hope, and I guess after all the doom and gloom season three left us, it was due for a change of pace. It worked beautifully. Some characters ended the season on a sour note, but the overall future seemed much more promising than in any other season; even the credits song was changed to the upbeat “Wake Up” by singer-songwriter Jenny Owens Young, way more positive than Nina Simone’s rendition of “Stars” at the end of season 3. The fifth season of the Netflix original series comes with a big question: can BoJack Horseman remain fresh?
BoJack never ceases to amaze in character development. There’s been a time where Diane Nyugen’s (Alison Brie) character development showed us a character just as self-destructive as BoJack, such as in the latter half of season 2 and a good chunk of season 4. In the second episode of the season, “The Dog Days Are Over,” we see how Diane tackles the current obstacle in her life, and how she re-defines herself in the process, which in turn makes her more of the “voice-of-reason” character we saw in season 1. Of course, she does have her lapses, especially at the ending of “INT. SUB,” but overall she is much more reasonable this season. It’s actually Mr. Peanutbutter (Paul F. Tompkins) who takes over the role Diane fulfilled in previous seasons. Of course, he is the happy go-lucky character who hides his darker private life away from public, but his character has much more destructive tendencies in this season, especially towards the newly-introduced character, the pug waitress Pickles (Hong Chau), whose character is set up much like Mr. Peanutbutter in season 1. This comes out very clearly in “Planned Obsolescence” and “Mr. Peanutbutter's Boos,” where we really see Pickles and Mr. Peanutbutter put to the test. Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedrais) finally gets her own episode in “The Amelia Earhart Story,” where we get a look at her teenage life of teen pregnancy and stillbirth, paralleling the current year’s preoccupation with adoption and the responsibilities of motherhood.
Since season 3’s finale, Todd Chavez’ (Aaron Paul) character development has been beautiful to watch. When he was introduced in season one, he was shown to be the generic wacky best-friend archetype that these animated sitcoms shows have. The end of season three, however, brings new light to Todd’s character that has quickly turned his storyline into one of the show’s most intriguing, with its themes of sexuality, the lack of it, and how to understand both. This is explored in this season with his girlfriend Yolanada (Natalie Morales) in “Planned Obsolescence” and with his childhood friend and ex-girlfriend Emily (Abbi Jacobson) in “Ancient History.” Seasons four and season five do an excellent job of exploring the concept of asexuality, something rarely, if ever, represented in television. Every character, regardless of differences, is crafted with utmost respect to their sexuality and gender. It’s not shoved in your face as it is in other forms of media that shoehorn in characters for the sake of diversity: if the sexuality of a BoJack character is supposed to be a big deal, then they will make sure it is, but most of these characters are not “set apart.” They just happen to be queer. As a queer myself, I am so relieved someone is writing our representation correctly.
Last season introduced us to Flip McVicker (Rami Malek), who didn’t have much background. He was a kind of awkward guy with a dream to make his show Philbert. In season five, we see he’s an insane asshole when in power right off the bat in the first episode, “The Light Bulb Scene,” when he forces his actors and actresses into doing things they obviously aren’t comfortable doing. This progresses in episodes like “BoJack the Feminist,” when he takes advantage of social movements to target a demographic for profit. And in “The Showstopper,” he asks his camera crew to film a scene that embodies just how little Hollywood cares about the safety of its actors and actresses. Also this season are Gina (Stephanie Beatriz), Philbert’s sassy cop partner in the show, and a BoJack’s "love interest" for the season; and the return of Hollyhock (Aparna Nancherla), who reminds BoJack that there is still a kernel of good inside of him, despite all the waste that covers it. Other notable names with minor roles include Whoopi Goldberg and Daveed Diggs (clipping.), who do their part to keep BoJack Horseman rolling bleakly onward.
There are moments of levity throughout the season, the most light-hearted being the episode “Mr. Peanutbutter’s Boos,” which shows how Mr. Peanutbutter and his partners have used their time during BoJack’s “annual” Halloween party. This is one of the more “fun” episodes of the series in general, but it still makes important points and develops Mr. Peanutbutter’s character. We also have an entire Todd plot point that goes on for the latter half of this season that’s just as wacky and silly as Todd’s plots tend to be. Even episodes like “BoJack the Feminist,” that deal with the serious topic of women’s rights, trend a little more “comedic” for the series, bringing humor to the show’s sociopolitical anxieties. Of course, BoJack Horseman likes to throw in its little animal references to show that these characters, despite their humanoid depiction, are still animals.
How could we talk about this series without talking about BoJack Horseman himself, the sympathetic asshole at the center of it all? We hate his every action and what he does, but we relate to his reasons all the same. There are episodes that remind us of his humanity and his vulnerability in episodes like “Free Churros,” but we also have to see his character deal with addiction in a way no other adult animated character has presented before. It’s typical for these animated shows to glorify alcoholism, which is present to some extent in BoJack, but there’s a new type of addiction on the show’s mind this season. This addiction becomes more and more of a problem throughout until it climaxes in the worst way possible on “The Showstopper.” BoJack Horseman’s team always made sure shit hits the fan by episode 11, and this season is no different. This episode explores all of BoJack’s worst tendencies amplified to a hundred, the sum of all his troubles and mistakes from previous seasons (especially season two). Hell, some of his actions in this episode even call back to his persona back in “BoJack the Feminist,” exposing how fake BoJack actually is. The series has gone to great lengths to show that BoJack treats his life like a television program, but I don’t think it’s ever rung more true than in this episode.
This all leads up to the eventual use of the word “fuck.” Netflix originals aren’t restricted from profanity like cable network TV, but they opted to have this word said only once per season (with the exception of two jokes in the previous seasons, but those “don’t count.”) This word became very symbolic in the BoJack Horseman universe. It’s meant to signify that the bond between BoJack and a character has broken beyond the point of repair. For some characters, it just means their relationship with Bojack will never be as strong as it once was, but for the most part, it’s used to show that the character has turned on BoJack and wants nothing more to do with him. This season’s use of the word is really powerful, coming in right after we see our horse doing, arguably, the most fucked up thing he has done in his five seasons on Netflix--which is saying a lot after the shit he’s pulled for 61 episodes, and especially after the partial redemption of season four. This brings us to the finale of this season, “The Show Stopped,” which delivers all the depression we can take in with a side dish of hope to make sure we aren’t totally destroyed by the end.
For five seasons now, BoJack Horseman has brought light to serious issues in the most respectful of ways. There’s a reason people always contrast this Netflix Original and its depiction of depression against 13 Reasons Why. Every season reorients itself around a different issue, and you can tell the writers put effort into making these topics as relatable as possible. In its fifth season, BoJack tackles one of the hardest hitting topics of all: addiction. What it does to the victim’s mental state and how it affects those around them. I truly thought I had seen it all with BoJack, and that season four was the absolute peak of the series. I couldn’t have been more wrong, and I am so eager to see what happens next on my favorite series.
VERDICT: BoJack Horseman continues to live up to its masterpiece status with its darkest, most intimate season yet.
- Alex Brown
Upgrade is the latest love letter to the phenomenon of 80s action movies. In this movie, we are taken to some time in a distant future where we meet a man named Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green) who just witnessed a gang murder his wife (Melanie Vallejo) and permanently crippled him. After this incident, a young but intelligent boy Eron Keen (Harrison Gilbertson) offers Grey the ability to function once more with a tiny piece of technology known as STEM. Soon after receiving the implant, Grey realizes that STEM can talk (voiced by Simon Maiden) and is incredibly efficient, recognizing small details that the police missed from the crime scene. This starts Grey on a journey to hunt down those who have took his wife, with Detective Cortez (Betty Gabriel) watching him closely. Thus, we embark on an hour and a half adventure filled with all sorts of blood, gore, and action.
The action scenes in this movie are absolutely impeccable. It’s been a while since I’ve seen fight scenes that are crafted this uniquely. STEM typically is in control of Grey when he is fighting someone, so all of his moves look as unnatural as possible; he looks like a robot that doesn’t fully understand its functions. It’s a fast-paced but coherent and beautifully-shot movie. With the first fight Grey gets into with a gang member, you can see how much care they put into crafting these scenes, and it only continues with each subsequent fight scene. Plus, you get a good dosage of blood and gore through these fights, so it’s pretty much everything you can hope for in an action movie.
Each character has their own personality and brings something special to the movie, even if they little more than archetypes. You have minor characters like the bartender at Old Bones who brings in a classic style of 80s comedy, bringing some levity to the film’s darkness. Grey is a pretty typical protagonist for this sort of movie, but comes to life when he is equipped with STEM. STEM is truly a masterful character, despite being a small piece of technology. It’s intelligent and has an amazing dry humor delivered in monotone. Characters such as Cortez, Eron Keen, and Fisk (Benedict Hardie) exhibit great character in the movie, especially as it races to the end.
The sets are fantastic, and unlike many movies that take place in a futuristic societies, most of the places we visit are very much “normal,” apart from some, say, Eron Keen’s home and some vehicles. Then you had your dark areas: neighborhoods that just never caught up with technology. Old Bones is very much like any other gross bar you’ve been to. The apartment building is a basic rundown apartment. This gap between the advancement of technology and the reality that many will simply not be able to keep up is something I feel that many dystopian-future films fail to address. Yeah, Blade Runner does this to some extent, but not in the same way as Upgrade, which is worth respecting.
The acting is sometimes shaky, which is really the only thing I can level against Upgrade. The beginning is a little weird. Grey’s wife Asha only ever refers to him as “husband,” which makes me uncomfortable; even though I like Eron Keen as a character, and that that character is supposed to be an awkward recluse, it really seems as if he might be reading off a teleprompter in the early portions of the film. His performance is a bit too awkward to believe at first, but once the plot kicks in, the issue improves immensely.
The ending makes up for absolutely everything. It manages to tackle the fear of technology in ways I feel films like Ready Player One couldn’t possibly address. In fact, it does a better job at showcasing the horrors of being stuck in VR in a single scene than Ready Player One did in two hours and twenty minutes. Even more than that, the film showcases both the positives and negatives of a world remarkably advanced by technology. The films ending brings this all together and reminds us to be careful with what we plot next. I am not going to spoil it here, but I will say that the final scene alone is worth a full ticket price.
Upgrade is one of the best action movies to come out in a very long time. It has that 80s charm to it while also presenting us something fresh. The beginning of the film simply has to be endured, but it’s entirely worth it. I never expected to love Upgrade as much as I do. The fact that this move was made on a $3-5 million budget and looks better than most, if not all the movies I’ve seen this year thus far, is incredible. Definitely make time to see this one.
VERDICT: I went into Upgrade expecting a fun action flick. I got much more than I could have imagined.
- Alex Brown
Annihilation - Alex Garland
Cresting a wave of high-concept, hard sci-fi entertainment at a fruitful time for the genre, Annihilation distinguishes itself from Arrival, Westworld, Ex Machina, Black Mirror, Amazing Stories, Blade Runner 2049, and others by 1) not being based on a Philip K. Dick story, and 2) by actually being based on a recent work of literature by Jeff VanderMeer: the eponymous novel is the first installment in VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy, an post-modernist sci-fi eco-horror that’s easier to class as Weird fiction, with a capital W, or New Weird, differentiating modern authors in the style from H.P. Lovecraft and authors like him.
Helming the movie is Alex Garland, who has quickly developed a reputation for intelligent, interesting sci-fi. His directorial debut Ex Machina is an objectively great first feature, but his writing credits stretch as far back as Dredd, 28 Days Later, and the underrated Sunshine, too; he’s been honing the skills he deploys in Annihilation for some time, and the truth of the matter is that no one in Hollywood was better equipped to take on the challenge the source material presents.
Alex and I watched the movie on opening night through different prisms. I had read the book prior (I’m wrapping up its sequel at the time of this writing), and Alex had not. Although we both agreed that Annihilation is a great movie, our perspectives differed, and we found those differences interesting enough to warrant two reviews: one for readers and one for viewers; one containing no major spoilers, and one with many.
Natalie Portman stars as Lena, a cellular biology professor, still reeling from the disappearance of her husband (Oscar Isaac), who vanished on a top secret mission with the military. After twelve long months, he returns with little to no memory of the mission or how he got back. He falls suddenly ill, but en route to the hospital, the military descend on the ambulance and take both the biologist and her husband to a mysterious facility known as Area X. Demanding answers, Lena learns her husband crossed an inexplicable boundary called The Shimmer and into a zone that many research team enter, but none leave. Lena gets a spot on a new team setting out into the Shimmer in hopes of understanding what is happening.
There's an immediate feeling that you can’t seem to shake, and it's a sense of unnerving anxiety that surrounds the mystery of The Shimmer. Everything is presented straightforward cinematically, but all the information you are given breaks down the further you get into the film. This instability can be communicated by something as simple as a jump cut. We see, firsthand, how the characters cross into this enigmatic zone and then suddenly “wake up’ only to realize they have lost four days. These sensory gaps become even more intriguing when we consider that the entire story is told from the perspective of the only surviving member of the expedition. How do know we can trust what she says? It's reminiscent of Arrival in that sole testimony, how characters seem to use select words wrong at times, and the actions of a certain individual during the finale. Their actions challenge the notion of the phenomenon that makes one question even further the preceding events.
On a technical level, I’m a bit torn. Little effort is present during downtime sequences, but the scenes that matter have just the right amount of concrete fundamentals as well as flair. Specific scenes that come to mind are a few animal attacks - for instance, there is a scene where a genetically altered bear slowly enters a room where our protagonists are in the midst of an escalating confrontation. Everyone has their back to the door and are afraid any movement will set it off. We can see the bear enter, but it's out of focus because no one has seen it clearly, and it's only when the it sticks its face between the crew that we catch a few focused glimpses of the creature. On the other hand, these creatures in action are one hundred percent CG and it wouldn’t bother me if some of them didn’t look like assets from a Playstation 2 game in 2004. In other scenes, there are great displays of prosthetics that are examined closely and you have a chance to take in the breathtaking work. The dichotomy between these effects took me out of the film momentarily, but only when they were on screen, and it's a testament to the intrigue around The Shimmer.
It's hard not to give Garland a hand for transferring a complex story into an accessible studio film. For the most part, it's seamless, but there are problems in the very last twenty minutes. Garland clearly respects his audience as well as the people who wander their way into the theater, unsure of what they're in for. The rules of the world are explicit and concise without getting too technical or too vague, which is understandable since the crew is made up exclusively of scientists. This level of broad tactfulness is honestly astonishing. Ex Machina was a quiet, exploratory, off-putting experience for many viewers, but seeing that he can handle a more conventional blockbuster-style movie has me excited for Garland’s future with bigger budgets and more creative freedom.
Brian's Review & Analysis
Annihilation is a little different on the page, so what follows is the summary transcribed directly from the back cover of Jeff VanderMeer’s novel. Note that in discussing both the movie and the novel, my references will swing freely between the two, and that although I will do my best to make it clear when I am talking about one or the other, I will almost inevitably slip.
The summary reads:
Area X has been cut off from the rest of the world for decades. Nature has reclaimed the last vestiges of human civilization. The first expedition returned with reports of a pristine, Edenic landscape; the second expedition ended in mass suicide, the third in a hail of gunfire as its members turned on one another. The members of the eleventh expedition returned as shadows of their former selves, and within weeks, all had died of cancer. In Annihilation, the first volume of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy, we join the twelfth expedition.
The group is made up of four women: an anthropologist; a surveyor; a psychologist, the de facto leader; and our narrator, a biologist. Their mission is to map the terrain, record all observations of their surroundings and of one another, and, above all, avoid being contaminated by Area X itself.
They arrive expecting the unexpected, and Area X delivers--but it’s the surprises the came across the border with them and the secrets the expedition members are keeping from one another that change everything.
At bottom, Annihilation is a deconstruction of the relationships between language, communication, and meaning masked as a straightforward account of an expedition gone wrong--a stray thought the biologist has early on, that we do not generate ideas but are colonized by them, doubles as the novel’s thesis. Garland’s film ignores it, choosing to preserve the aspect of an expedition and step up the ecological horror that makes up the novel’s periphery, altering enough details along the way as to fashion a completely different story. His Annihilation is like Solaris in the way it frames the sci-fi around an emotional journey, deploying instances of freakishness to pry into the psyches of its characters. Had the movie hewn closer to the novel, the result may have been like a nightmare version of Arrival, deriving its horror from the limitations of communication and the changeability of meaning. For example: one of the first things the biologist and her team encounter once inside Area X (in the novel, this is the name of the zone inside “The Shimmer,” rather than the facility from which the team deploys) is a manmade structure. We are explicitly told by the biologist that the structure is a tunnel. Rationally, she understands that it is a tunnel, and all of her senses agree, but she cannot bring herself to believe it is anything but a tower. Although we are explicitly told that this structure is a tunnel, the biologist can only thereafter describe it as if it was a tower, and soon, we forget the tunnel. We are colonized by the idea.
You will find more of this decidedly Weird content the deeper you go in the novel, and virtually none of the movie’s sympathetic portrayal of a woman in search of answers to the mystery that robbed her of her husband. The novel is a linear, first-person account intended as a scientist’s defense of her sanity, and her sometimes desperate need to be rational, factual, and clearly understood in response to phenomena that are not any of those things lends the novel a unique tension that would have been cumbersome to realize on screen. The additions of scenes between Lena and her husband, and the fact that he not dead before the movie even begins; that we are allowed to observe Lena’s fractured psyche in the wake of his disappearance, and how it leads her to infidelity, confusion, and emotional isolation; the ramped-up action, including a “bear attack,” and the greater focus on the scientific anomalies within Area X/The Shimmer: these things belong to the movie and are necessary to a more cinematic adaptation of Annihilation. We can applaud their execution and how they make the story more digestible. It’s a very, very good movie. At the same time, we can recognize how these things are clutter.
Toward the end of VanderMeer’s novel, the biologist discovers a mouldering heap of notebooks that appear to have been left behind by previous expeditions. It’s clear by the sheer volume of material that there were far more than eleven previous expeditions. She begins to comb through them in search of information. She singles out one notebook in particular, although it ostensibly contains no information--instead, it seems to be filled with nothing but repetitive, exhaustively-detailed descriptions of a type of thistle that grows within Area X. She reads it, but puts it down, unnerved, when she begins to understand that its singular focus seems to be less the product of mundane obsession than of terror--as if the author was trying to avoid something more horrifying, something he or she could not bring themselves to discuss. To some degree, this seems like a reflexive commentary on Annihilation itself, if not the very philosophy by which it was written. As a first-person account of an event of which only she was witness, we are subject to the limits of her imagination, the limits of her vocabulary, and the limits of her discretion--we have only her testimony, and there is plenty of reason to doubt that she is telling us everything, even when she swears she is, whether by choice or by pure limitation. What is she hiding? What doesn’t she realize she’s hiding?
This unreliability is translated into the movie’s classic flashback structure. Lena verbally recounts the events of the expedition to interrogators in hazmat suits, as well as an audience of Area X personnel lined up outside the glass walls of the interrogation room. It is also addressed in a scene exclusive to the film, when a member of the expedition ties up the others and accuses them all of a conspiracy, singling Lena out as its mastermind when she discovers that her husband was a part of the previous expedition. Setting aside the fact that her relationship to a previous expedition member is no secret in the novel (also, that the biologist does not harangue her way onto the team; she volunteers, and the other members are fully aware of her emotional investment in the expedition, and in fact train together for many weeks prior to entering Area X), this scene could be interpreted as a manipulative fabrication by Lena, a sort of built-in “proof” of the veracity of her story. Her truthfulness seems to have been tested by this confrontation while inside The Shimmer, but how do we know the confrontation, or any of her story, actually happened? She seems to have vindicated herself of doubt, but what proof do we have but her word?
The most glaring omission from the film is the expedition team’s voluntary hypnosis at the hand of the psychologist (Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character in the movie; also, the director of the Southern Reach, a fact key to Annihilation’s follow-up, Authority). Early in her account, the biologist mentions that she has become resistant to the psychologist’s hypnotic suggestions, which she attributes to exposure to some of Area X’s plantlife. After a while, she is able to identify the commands in the psychologist’s speech by the emphasis the psychologist places on certain phrases, and the further the hypnosis erodes, the more she seems to understand about Area X. Again, there is doubt toward this assumption--she was, after all, contaminated by something which she refers to as a “brightness,” only as an approximation--but the larger importance of hypnosis in the novel, and its exclusion from the movie, is multilevel. In the novel, this language-activated hypnosis is a useful metaphor for the experience of reading; we are comfortable with certain writing and narrative tropes, without our native languages, and when they are subverted or eliminated as they frequently are in Weird fiction, we find ourselves lost in a wilderness of words without definitive meaning. Removing this element was the right choice for the film; it would only complicate the already dense analogies between Lena’s emotional arc and the escalating danger within The Shimmer. This hypnosis is also important to Authority, which means that to some degree, it is tool of foreshadowing that would have been useless to the film. Once again, it was necessary to cut.
However you choose to interpret the role of hypnosis in the novel, it radically shapes the reading. Taken literally, it shields the expedition from the more ungraspable anomalies within Area X, preserves their objective, and protects their sanity. Taken metaphorically, it draws attention to the formal elements of the writing--to the diction, grammar, syntax, and perspective--and opens the novel up to myriad interpretations in concert and in conflict with one another, creating an overlapping swarm of ideas that, not unlike those first flowers Lena observes in the film, are “stuck in a constant mutation.” In place of the hypnosis, I think Garland’s Annihilation does a very smart thing: it gives its role to the Shimmer, which, as Josie (Tessa Thompson) describes in what I still can’t decide is necessarily clunky or just clunky exposition, is a prism; a force that refracts the basic composition of everything it affects into ever-more kaleidoscopic configurations--leading to shark-toothed crocodiles, parroting bears, human-shaped plants--just as the emotional strain of separation, absence, and loneliness changes Lena over time; just like the movie’s flashbacks to the months since her husband’s disappearance radically alter the viewing and our understanding of Lena. Perhaps the movie is the Shimmer, delicately reconstructing VanderMeer’s story from the inside out; perhaps it’s the light-creature that’s taken up residence in the lighthouse (via projectile, as we see in the very first seconds of the movie), whose intention is neither to harm or to help, but simply to make something new.
The third act of Annihilation has attracted discussion, and with good reason--it’s weird as hell. The novel’s climax is, if anything, even more ambiguous and outlandish: the entity the biologist eventually encounters is described through a cascade of confusing imagery that makes it more unknowably alien than a shape-shifting, psychedelic orb of smoke and light could possibly be. With that caveat out of the way, it’s hard to argue that what happens in the lighthouse isn’t one of the most fascinatingly strange sequences in a movie of this budget and caliber we’ve seen yet, off-putting and enticing in equal measure, and in all the right ways. The sudden, sustained eruption of the score, absent for most of the movie, is glorious; in a well-equipped theater, when that ethereal snatch of melody present in the trailer slides in over a gut-rattling bass hum, it will feel as if you are floating out of your seat and into the screen like Lena’s blood drawn into the light.
The climax of the novel is a peek into greater mysteries, maybe more than the Southern Reach Trilogy can answer, lodging the chill of cosmic horror deep in the bones; in the movie, it’s a moment of mingled horror and catharsis as Lena confronts both the truth of what happened to her husband and what will happen to her, capped with the claustrophobia of the entity, assuming humanoid form, nearly crushing Lena against the lighthouse wall. It’s at once a terrifying facsimile of a hug, a rapist pose, and a futile effort at closeness, made more disturbing by the fact that it may not have even been aware she was there, as Lena later reports. And then, of course, the final Invasion of the Body Snatchers twist. There is precedent in the novel--the shine in her eyes when she embraces her husband’s replacement seems to represent the “brightness” the biologist feels inside of her, not quite a consciousness, not quite a light, but somewhere in between--and, in fact, it makes perfect sense according to the movie’s emotional logic. Lena is not who she was; Garland’s movie literalizes that.
Annihilation is a great movie and a bad adaptation. It can be both. It takes much of what’s superficial about Jeff VanderMeer’s novel and crafts a compelling movie out of it with a completely different agenda in mind, which is hardly a bad thing: Annihilation impresses on its own terms, with great performances and consistent internal logic. There are numerous little differences and deviations from the source material than can be bothersome, but ultimately cannot impede or detract from the movie’s ability to captivate. Garland’s Annihilation not a good representation of Jeff VanderMeer’s, but in a way analogous to the relationship between Stephen King’s The Shining and Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation--and that, I think, is the highest praise I could possibly give it.
- Brian L.
Paco Plaza - Veronica
Streaming on Netflix
Holy shit. That’s all I have to say to start this review. If the name of the director doesn’t look all too familiar to you, you might recognize the franchise he has helmed in the past: REC. Plaza is no stranger to horror and proves yet again that he is a master of getting in your head and scaring the living shit out of you. Between his intricate script and Pablo Rosso’s beautiful cinematography, you are in for what could be one of the best paranormal horror movies ever.
15 year old Veronica, played by the wonderful Sandra Escacena, is tasked with both managing her social life at catholic school and being a mother to her siblings, since their actual mother is works all day and night. You’re greeted with a gripping tale of teenage exploration and supernatural ideas that might sound generic on paper, but is amazingly executed on film.
I think what amazed me the most about this masterpiece is that it was more than just a horror movie--which doesn’t mean it isn’t filled to the brim with scares of all different types, but that you also see this teenager struggle with the weight of the world and juggle all sorts of real-life hardships without losing her mind. You watch all of this psychological terror unfold over a simple botched seance, one she only participated in to get in touch with her deceased father. Of course, this is a horror movie, so that isn’t who she was contacting.
I went into this film on the strength of Plaza’s previous movies, and there was not a single moment where I wasn’t absolutely gripping the edge of my seat, even during the set-up portion of the film. There are scenes throughout that will make your skin crawl with nothing more than a well-framed shot or the movie’s diverse takes on foreshadowing. If there is one thing that stands out about this movie, it’s the fact that it’s really a tale of becoming what you are afraid of, and that sometimes you are your greatest fear.
“DEVILMAN Crybaby”- Masaaki Yuasa
Watch “DEVILMAN Crybaby” on Netflix
This review is as spoiler-free as possible. Unfortunately, it’s difficult not to spoil some of the major beats of the anime. Read with caution.
DEVILMAN Crybaby is a 10-episode Netflix original anime series inspired by the 1970s manga and anime, Devilman. The story revolves around a teenage boy named Akira Fudo, who lives a normal teenager’s life until his best friend, Ryo Asuka, informs him about demons returning to Earth to destroy it. Believing that the only way to defeat the demons is by combining a demon and human, Ryo fuses Akira with the demon Amon, giving Akira the power to eliminate the demons. However, Akira begins to realize that the demons may not be what they seem--they may, in fact, be more human than we think.
The execution of the story is incredible. I am not particularly fond of binging shows, but I just had to binge this one. The first five episodes are mainly spent developing the characters and their environment, leaving about five or so minutes per episode devoted to super violent action sequences. In the latter half of the series, more time is spent building up to the conclusion of the series. The animation can get choppy, especially during scenes of dialogue, but the action is always animated well. If you’re a fan of Elfen lied and Another, you definitely do not want to miss out. The shows sets up the kind of scenarios you just need to witness to believe, and DEVILMAN Crybaby goes above and beyond to give its dark, gritty tone purpose.
While it is very much in the style of Japanese animation, the series is not animated like your typical Shonen anime, but more in the vein of The Tatami Galaxy over DragonBall Z, which is something that might catch viewers off guard. My only issue is that mouths are sometimes drawn uncomfortably big; otherwise, the the show is packed with beautiful scenes, especially towards the latter half. I should also mention that the soundtrack is always on point; mostly synthwave with a dash of neo-classical, it’s well-suited to the anime’s mix of old and new tactics. There is an unfortunate freestyle rap by Wamu and his gang, but outside of that bizarre misstep, the soundtrack is phenomenal.
Thematically, the most important thing to focus on is the origin of the devilmen. They are created at raves, known ironically as “Sabbaths.” In the world of the show, raves are places of pure hedonism, places for humans to indulge their darkest impulses, allowing the demons to possess their bodies and lend them their powers. This is how Akira becomes a devilman. There are various other religious references as well that deepen the show’s thematic ambitions. Interestingly, the original Devilman is actually an anime and manga in Crybaby’s universe, and serves a pretty vital part in how Ryo develops.
DEVILMAN Crybaby has a lot of good things going for it, but it’s not without its cliches. Most of its character are not badly written, but only Ryo Asuka feels well-fleshed-out, with some ambiguity to his character. While his devilman forms are pretty neat, Akira’s character is as archetypal as anime protagonists get. He continually shouts out who he is and what he wants, and he cries every episode. I guess I should have expected that from the word “crybaby” in the title, but it doesn’t make it any less obnoxious. As for everyone else in the anime, none of them serve any more purpose than to progress the story, and while they do a fine job, I didn’t really care for their fates. I also wish some of the dialogue was better, especially in moments of more adult-oriented conversation.
Despite its problems, DEVILMAN Crybaby is easily Netflix’s best attempt at anime yet, and easily one of the best original shows that Netflix has to offer this year. The series improves as it goes along, balancing story and action well. The lead-up to the final two episodes is one of the most rewarding I’ve seen in anime. If you are a fan of violent, gory, and occasionally reflective anime, give DEVILMAN Crybaby a watch.
Well, it’s Halloween!
This is the end of Metal Lifestyle’s 31 Nights of Horror, and we thank each and every one of you that’s taken the time to read or take our suggestions and add one of our recommendations to your watch list, and hope you have a blast tonight (or this weekend). I tinkered for some time with this entry, unsure of how I wanted to cap our first annual 31 Nights of Horror. Michael Myers is the once and future king of Halloween, and the Sanderson Sisters its queens; and while I doubt that will change anytime soon, that’s not to say it won’t ever change. Since 2007, Michael Doughtery’s Trick 'r' Treat has developed a cult following and snowballed--at least in my opinion--into the other must-see Halloween movie.
It’s an anthology movie of several interlinked stories told on a cleverly staggered timeline. In order of appearance rather than occurrence (a big part of the movie’s appeal is untangling all the narrative threads), these stories are: a couple returning from the night’s festivities; a principal with a dark secret; a virgin and her not-so-virgin friends on their way to a Halloween party in the woods; a group of kids collecting jack-o-lanterns; a vampire on the loose; and a stodgy old man drinking his way through the night. The common thread? A mysterious, sack-headed little figure named Sam.
Trick 'r' Treat’s festive atmosphere, braided narrative, and relatively brief 86 minute runtime makes it an easily-digestible movie with seemingly endless replay value. Every frame is packed with detail, and there are enough little nods, gestures, and clues to keep you entertained for hours. Above all, it’s the movie’s holiday spirit, somewhere between the autumnal chilliness of Carpenter’s Halloween and the silliness of Hocus Pocus, that makes it both a perfect bridge between the two and--arguably--the best of both worlds.
Happy Halloween from all of us at Metal Lifestyle!
I told you we’d come back to Australia to visit Sean Byrne one last time, and here we are: seven long years after making a splash with The Loved Ones, Byrne is back in his element with The Devil’s Candy, the movie Deathgasm can only dream of being. Yeah, it’s not good form to praise one movie by trashing another, but give The Devil’s Candy a watch and see for yourself the level this movie is operating on compared to Deathgasm.
A deftly-wrought horror movie, The Devil’s Candy is built on the complicated dynamics of a family that isn’t just a main character and kill fodder: protagonist Jesse Hellman (Ethan Embry, Late Phases) is both a father and an artist, struggling to balance his creative passions with the need for financial security and his family’s well-being, which means he sometimes has to paint butterfly murals for local banks, and sometimes can’t be there for his wife and daughter, Astrid (Shiri Appleby) and Zooey (the wonderful Kiara Glasco), who love him almost as much as he loves them. The Devil’s Candy, like Deathgasm, is a movie by metalheads, ostensibly for metalheads; but it’s clear from the posters in Zooey’s room and the stickers on Jesse’s car that Byrne knows his stuff far better than Deathgasm’s creators. His love for the genre doesn’t go unappreciated at Metal Lifestyle, and neither do those Cult Leader and Young and in the Way stickers on the back windshield of Jesse’s car. Most importantly, his characters aren’t completely defined by their music choices--it’s the family’s relationships to one another that define the movie and give it its beating heart, one that will weather a lot before all the supernatural maliciousness of their suspiciously dirt-cheap new home is through.
Sure, “new family moves into old house with a dark secret” is a familiar enough premise to warrant some skepticism, but The Devil’s Candy is one of those rare movies that truly upends old formulas in the spirit of his first feature The Loved Ones, blazing new trails in the pursuit of great modern horror. It movie carries absolutely no fat on its lean 79-minute body, cutting all the repetitive haunted-house and possession tropes to focus on its people, so that when the horror kicks into high-gear in the third act, the danger hits like an axe to the chest. Effortlessly balancing its dramatic weight on a tightrope of hardcore horror and light goofball comedy, The Devil’s Candy is unlike any horror movie this year, and is therefore unquestionably one of the year’s best.
Plenty of horror movies can be described as “nightmarish,” and plenty evoke the sense of non-sequiturial unease we feel in our strangest nightmares; and while there’s an entire history of surrealist and expressionist film dating back well before it’s time, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that recent weirdness like We Are the Flesh wouldn’t exist, or be half as potent, without Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm.
Blending comedy and horror under the umbrella of uniquely dreamlike mood, Phantasm pits a boy, his older brother, and his uncle against a supernatural mortician known as The Tall Man (played by the late Angus Scrimm) and his hordes of cloaked dwarves. Even a shoestring budget and the limited acting abilities of its cast can’t get in the way of Coscarelli’s singularly weird imagination, or Mr. Scrimm: with his bulldog face, imposing height, and a gravelly, authoritarian voice, he’s an instant horror icon from the moment he locks eyes with protagonist Mike Pearson (A. Michael Baldwin) from across the street, through a cloud of vapor from a nearby ice cream cart. And like every good horror icon, he has a signature weapon: his flying death balls. These shiny, silver, blade-equipped orbs whizz through the air to latch onto the faces of the Tall Man’s enemies, and while they’re used less sparingly in future Phantasm installments (oh yeah, it’s a franchise), there’s nothing quite like that first death-by-ball. Nothing at all.
Phantasm recently got a full 4K blu-ray restoration overseen by none other than J.J. Abrams, if you needed anymore proof of the legacy of this underground horror gem. No shelling out for overpriced bootleg DVDs or scrounging around pawn shops in hopes of a lucky find--Phantasm is more widely-available than it ever has been before, and looks the best it ever will, so go watch it!
South Korea should be the first place you look for new and engaging horror. If I Saw the Devil didn’t do it for you, 2016’s The Wailing is an even more sprawling and absorbing movie from the director of The Chaser that made waves on its debut, quickly becoming one of the most profitable movies to come out of South Korea in a long time. While we know sales don’t always equate to quality, The Wailing is the real deal: a true epic of the genre, it’s a monster of a picture with a long, long shadow.
Big things start small: The Wailing initially passes itself off as a police procedural, following an officer’s investigation into a series of criminal activity in and around the village he polices, but this is only as the foundation on which the movie will pile its layers of intrigue. It’s cornerstone, and initiating event, is the arrival of Japanese stranger who gains the immediate distrust of his neighbors in the village. The Wailing doesn’t rush its plot points, so its first third of will test the patience of certain viewers as it stacks its pieces; but rest assured, the movie’s Jenga tower of homicides, ghosts, and inexplicable illnesses will mount into a fearsome horror movie before a jaw-dropping South Korean exorcism (that has to be seen to be believed) collapses the movie into a Rubix cube of ever-shifting parts, resolving as much as it complicates, shuffling up tones and tropes until whatever you imagined this movie would be seems like a grievous mistake, and whatever you want it to be doesn’t matter. It will suck you down and hold you there.
Every minute of The Wailing’s five-year gestation period is up on the screen. Nothing that happens or is said wasn’t carefully weighed and considered. Nothing was left in that didn’t need to be there over the course of the movie’s two hour and thirty-six minute runtime. There are no loose ends; and while there is some sag in the middle, it’s more like the slack of a tripwire than any misstep in the narrative--because the moment the movie enters its final act, it will close on you like a steel trap. You don’t just walk away from this movie. It sticks.
Although it’s now receiving the accolades it deserved all along, John Carpenter’s Apocalypse Trilogy--The Thing, Prince of Darkness, and In the Mouth of Madness--has been through some rough times. Part of the blame rests with The Thing, a critical darling and, to be fair, one of the greatest horror movies ever produced, remake or not. It’s a bonafide classic, with all the hallmarks of a classic; and whether the technical aspects of Prince of Darkness and In the Mouth of Madness measure up to it or not, it can’t be denied that all three movies are pieces of a singular vision, one that owes as much to H.P. Lovecraft as it does to the westerns John Carpenter so loves to emulate, and whose mix of Wild West grit and gooey existential horror even feels, at times, like a spiritual ancestor to Stephen King’s Dark Tower series.
Prince of Darkness is at once the silliest and most mysterious entry in the trilogy, and far more deserving of praise than its reputation suggests. Whether or not Carpenter knows what he wanted to say or do with its witches’ brew of theology, mathematics, and eschatology, it’s a novel and absorbing concoction only let down only by tough sell of a plot--although, amid the movie’s aura of intrigue and those ominous synth-strikes on the score, its outlandishness doesn’t really set in until after that haunting final shot. Prince of Darkness is the story of a group of university students brought together to study and decipher a series of mathematical and audiovisual phenomena occurring at a local church. These phenomena, we discover soon enough, are caused by a glowing green canister in the basement of the church. This canister is...Satan.
Carpenter never directly adapted Lovecraft, which is a shame: he nails the point of his fiction that we discussed back in Re-Animator. Prince of Darkness isn’t out to make us afraid of some green slime--the horror comes from its dramatic reframing of Genesis, positing that Jesus Christ and Satan were aliens, creatures of unknown origin whose feud defined our evolution, but wasn’t necessarily intended to (sound familiar?). It implies our existence is accidental, trivial, and unimportant, which is a horrifying prospect all on its own. It doesn’t need recurring dreams, body horror, or Alice Cooper as the leader of the horde of zombie-like Satan-worshippers that surround the church as night falls--but they certainly don’t hurt!
"Curtains" is where you can catch movie reviews by the Metal Lifestyle staff.