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The Witch (2015)
8/10
Summary:
2 March 2016
This is a story set in the early colonial period of New England. It has the authenticity of a well-researched historical drama, up to and including dialogue delivered in a period accent and vocabulary (softened a bit so that it's easy to understand). Instead of drawing on historical events, though, it draws on historical folklore -- it's the story of witchcraft afflicting a family, such as might have been told at the time.

The characters are a very believable, ordinary family, with the sorts of tensions and problems you'd expect from people living a hard and substantially isolated life after being exiled from the local colonial town. They also have period Calvinist attitudes, and the storytelling doesn't present an outsider's view of this or offer a modern commentary, but instead it just displays these attitudes and tells a story from the characters' standpoint.

Their reliance on period folklore means that it doesn't strictly follow modern horror movie tropes, either. It has the slow build of a modern psychological horror/thriller as well as the standard formula where tragedies start from tragic flaws, but the traditions it's drawing on depend on a Calvinist's conception of flaws, and treat witchcraft as a horrible, well-understood occurrence rather than a shocking supernatural surprise. This story applies these perspectives.

It's very well done in terms of writing, acting, and other aspects of execution, so it might have cross-over appeal to fans of horror, folklore, or straight period drama from colonial America.
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7/10
Good riff on a traditional story
11 December 2015
The story of Frankenstein has been told and retold repeatedly since Shelley's novel, and previous movie treatments have aimed variously for Gothic horror, action adventure, character study and psychological drama.

In this case, the plot of the movie is a riff on the 1931 Boris Karloff version and direct derivatives (assembling a human body from parts and animating them with lightning, police nemesis, hunchbacked assistant, remote castle), with a change of focus from the tragedy of the monster (also a primary theme of the novel), or even from the monster entirely, to an attempt at answering a central question about Dr. Frankenstein himself: "What was he thinking?" We are given the perspective of the assistant, designated as "Igor", with enough backstory to make him sympathetic and his choices comprehensible, and through him we are introduced to medical student Frankenstein, well-rendered as an otherwise decent person who is believably and dangerously manic and obsessive (rather than theatrically insane or cold-blooded and sociopathic). We follow Igor as he is drawn first by gratitude and loyalty, then friendship and compassion, to assist in a project that at first sounds dubious and gradually turns disastrous and horrible.

The movie will not be satisfying to an audience hoping for extended combat scenes featuring the monster, brooding character studies in dark motivations, or wide, cinematic views of lonely Gothic settings (most of it takes place in a repurposed urban warehouse), although it as brief and well-chosen examples of all of those things. Frankenstein himself lacks the usual wife/fiancé, and the only romantic angle is an association of Igor's that serves to frame the plot.

The story the movie actually chooses to tell is engaging and well done.
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4/10
Never quite makes up its mind what story to tell
21 March 2015
Any five to ten minute excerpt from this movie could easily lead a viewer to conclude that this is a well made horror or suspense thriller. The production values are high, the performances good, and so on.

The problem is that the parts of the film don't fit together. The sequence of action has the usual slow build and accelerating pace of any good thriller, but while the set-up is promising, and the events proceed logically enough as interesting and sympathetic characters are frightened, threatened or killed off, the reasons underlying the events remain obscure.

Hints and suggestive exposition are introduced, and then forgotten. There are explicit references to religious-themed horror fantasy, speculative science, and even a few elements of a possible conspiracy. An elaborate backstory is gradually revealed, and then abruptly dismissed. The conclusion doesn't really conclude anything: there's a decisive ending, but no resolution, no revelation, not even a clear idea of the probable consequences.

It's possible a re-edit could address these issues and make it a decent film. As it stands, though, it just doesn't work.
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Agent Carter (2015–2016)
2/10
A series in the style of "Golden Age" comics
28 January 2015
The story has the general framework of Golden Age detective/adventure comics from comic books and newspapers, and the art direction follows these lines without going to the extremes of Dick Tracy or Sin City. Period details are intentionally highlighted: for example the protagonist eats regularly in an automat, the 1940s equivalent to a fast food restaurant.

Likewise, the characters are period storytelling stereotypes, with standard 1940s hard-nosed G-men, a chatty waitress, a proper English butler, etc., and the story follows the Golden Age comic adventure formula. Added to the usual period elements is the modern theme of sexism and misogyny, which, consistent with Golden Age style, is blatant and encountered frequently.

Having watched the first three episodes, my assessment is that while they stick to the Golden Age adventure formula, they haven't actually done anything with it. The larger story arc isn't really advancing, so we're left with action and conflicts that seem like arbitrary back-and-forth struggles followed by a scattering of a few bits of suggestive exposition when the sequence concludes. MacGuffins are sought, clues followed, villains fought, chases occur, government investigators get in the way, a final plot hook is presented, and then on to the next episode. It's possible they intend to invert or subvert the stereotypes of the characters they've presented, but this would break the period feel without actually adding anything.

A story like this is framed around the assumption that the audience simply likes the main character and enjoys watching her operate. I suppose this would be my objection: I find the most engaging and sympathetic character to be the waitress, with a majority of the regular characters coming off as obnoxious or a bit boring. Without an intriguing mystery or an exciting adventure story, there's very little to watch if you don't find the central characters interesting.
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8/10
Character story in a modern military setting
24 January 2015
This movie is essentially a character piece in a military setting, describing the life, motivations, and choices of Chris Kyle as he joins the military, serves with distinction as a Navy SEAL sniper, and deals with the mounting personal impact of repeated tours in Iraq.

Despite the subject matter, the movie has a relatively low-key feel, and presents setting and events in a very neutral way. The audience is invited to discover the significance of key points without exaggerated dramatic highlighting to draw their attention. In particular, the physical and psychological costs of military service to Chris Kyle, some of his compatriots, and his brother are made clear without melodrama or overt contrivances.

His meeting with his future wife, their marriage, and the increasingly stressful absences from his growing family during tours, punctuated by eventful calls home, provide the essential notes of what proves to be a love story, but the movie restricts itself to just the essential notes. And given his unexpected and untimely death in 2013 only a few years after his honorable discharge, it's hard not to look on it now as a tragic love story.

According to posts on boxofficemojo.com, the film has demonstrated broad appeal among both art house film fans and general audiences, and I've read a number of reviewers suggesting that the story's presentation lets it play well to people with very different social and political attitudes, because the audience is not explicitly led to a particular interpretation of the events described. Reviews here suggest that the lack of a carefully scripted subtext is also the source of resentment, at least for some, but again, the box office receipts would suggest this opinion isn't prevalent.

Intended as a dramatic depiction of a true story rather than merely being "inspired by" or "based on" real people and events (as with, for example, "The Imitation Game"), American Sniper is constrained as to the kind of plot it could have or events it could contain without violating the integrity of the film. The movie benefited from this by being less "Hollywood", at the price of having a plot which (in a sense) is less intense than something explicitly designed to trigger audience response. That said, I would rate it very highly among the war and military-related movies I've seen, with the understanding that it's a drama, not an action-adventure or suspense/thriller film.
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Hannibal (2013–2015)
8/10
Hitchcock and Lynch
26 March 2014
Technically this series could be described as a police procedural, but it might be better described as an unusual take on the psychological thriller genre. Rather than building tension in the form of suspense, however, a combination of precisely chosen, expressive dialogue and carefully composed visuals are contrasted with the macabre, unrealistically elaborate efforts of serial killers to create a thoroughly creepy, disturbing atmosphere.

The effect is suggestive of a series of tableaux presenting classical works of art, alternating between beautiful and grotesque subject matter. The precision and sense of the aesthetic maintained throughout serve to heighten this effect, giving us a glimpse of the worldview of the title character, Hannibal Lecter.

The style might be described as a combination of Hitchcock and Lynch. It's surprisingly explicit for American network TV, though almost tame compared to some cable TV fare. It doesn't have anything close to enough gory imagery or violence to please fans of the Grand Guignol gruesomeness found in many modern horror/suspense films, but it has enough that a warning to the audience is appropriate.

Each of the regular characters are developed and explored with care, and even the minor characters come to life. The dialogue has the quality of a good play rather than the commonplace, realistic vernacular one might expect from subject matter like a series of FBI investigations.
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Veronica Mars (2014)
7/10
Having never seen the TV show
23 March 2014
The movie "Veronica Mars" is listed as "comedy, crime, drama" in IMDb, and functions well as all three.

Following the practice of both comedy and mystery, the characters are presented as fairly simple, easy to understand "types", giving the audience well-defined expectations to be confirmed or contradicted for humor, plot developments or reveals. The humor is almost entirely in the form of snarky dialogue, quick-paced and sharp, but not over the top. The investigation plot would be sufficient to carry a shorter mystery story on its own, though there was a slightly contrived tone that kept it lighter than the subject matter would have otherwise demanded: they let the story follow comic beats often enough to break up the suspense and tension of a typical mystery.

A certain depth is added to both the characters and events by implicitly referencing the backstory established during three seasons of the TV show, but neither the backstory nor the need to please existing fans gets in the way of telling a complete, independent story (and a simple plot device smoothly covers most of the required "where are they now" exposition). Characters also make some abrupt choices for which one might have expected a few additional scenes of doubt or deliberation in a standard cinematic drama or rom-com. These might have been more natural developments for an audience familiar with the series.
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Dracula (2013–2014)
7/10
A change of heart
16 March 2014
I watched the pilot for this series, and based on what I perceived to be a set of clear warning signs, dismissed it as clichéd, highly derivative, pandering trash. By chance I saw the second episode on Hulu, and then systematically watched the whole series. My revised opinion is that it's creative, intelligent, well-produced gaslamp fantasy/horror, and one or more people on the creative team are familiar with both the source material and previous "reimaginings" (good and bad), as well as with certain works of mainstream literature relating to the approximate period.

All of the flaws I perceived in the pilot carried through the entire season, but they proved to be an irrelevant background, overwhelmed by the various plot threads of intrigue, subterfuge, romance, and calculated revenge, and offering no impediment to the development of the primary characters.

If you read Dracula, The Count of Monte Cristo, and some of the more fantastic conspiracy theories about the Knights Templar, Freemasons, and Nicola Tesla, you could conceivably end up having a dream similar to this series.

The program is likely to be canceled, but is currently available on Hulu. My advice, should you decide check out the show, is to watch at least the first two or three episodes. The pilot is actually fine if you know where the story is going, but it might discourage further viewing if taken by itself. At least that was my experience.
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