No, Ghostbusters 2016 Is Not Better Than Ghostbusters II

This week marks the release of Ghostbusters: Afterlife, the true third installment in the Ghostbusters franchise. Fans have been waiting for the long-delayed third film, not just over the course of a pandemic, but really, since 1989.

Original star and writer Dan Aykroyd had tried for years to make a true Ghostbusters sequel. Stories were developed that featured the original cast, as well as some that had new casts of characters that had been trained by the old guard. Unfortunately, a major roadblock was Bill Murray, and his disinterest in returning (apparently he said he would only return if he was a ghost).

Over the course of the 90’s and early 2000’s, many proposed Ghostbusters movies were announced, but failed to ever get off the ground. Sadly, Harold Ramis’ passing in 2014 put the kibosh on the original crew ever returning together again. So, instead, the 2016 reboot with an all-female cast was greenlit. The film goes by many titles – the opening proclaims it as just Ghostbusters, while the end credits and Blu-Ray/DVD covers refer to it as Ghostbusters: Answer The Call. From here on out, it will be referred to as Ghostbusters 2016.

Fans maligned the film and it did mediocre box-office, but recently, there has been a growing trend amongst viewers to compare it favorably to Ghostbusters II. I’m here to say that as disappointing a movie Ghostbusters II is to some, it’s of course better than Ghostbusters 2016!

The first Ghostbusters is such a perfect movie. It’s a beautiful blend of comedy and sci-fi and it really feels like a movie about best friends, made by best friends. Ghostbusters utilized each of its performer’s comedic strengths and didn’t shy away from getting a little dark when it could easily be very silly. Despite the fact that 3 out of the 4 Ghostbusters are scientists, it feels like a blue-collar film. They curse, smoke, and work hard doing a dirty job, and despite the fact that the movie is a comedy, it respects its macabre subject matter and takes its scare scenes very seriously.

Ghostbusters II was inevitable, but it took too long to get made. In between movies, the children’s cartoon show The Real Ghostbusters became popular so the more family friendly Ghostbusters II feels more like an adaptation of the cartoon show rather than a sequel to the first.

The biggest problem with the sequel is that it repeats the beats of the first film almost exactly. The film features montages of them catching ghosts, as well as a period where no one believes them, then they get bullied by a bureaucrat, and finally conjure up a giant figure in the third act. To so clearly parrot the formula of the original is unforgivable from a storytelling perspective, yet there is so much good stuff in Ghostbusters II that it’s impossible to call it a bad movie.

Rick Moranis’ expanded role as Louis Tully is comic gold, and the courtroom scene is one of the best scenes in either film. Peter MacNichol’s Yanoush steals every scene that he’s in, and the film doesn’t avoid menace. For a comedy, there are actually a few geniunely scary moments, such as when Dana’s bathtub tries to eat her, and when the gang finds themselves in the subway surrounded by decapitated heads on pikes. It’s hard not to love these characters, and they’ve become iconic for a reason — something the film proves. Ghostbusters II may not be a great movie but it’s, without question, an entertaining movie. 

And that brings me to Ghostbusters 2016, a film mired in controversy due to its decision to feature an all-female cast. Despite all that, the problems with the movie have nothing to do with the cast’s genders. The entire cast is talented and funny, but the movie’s problems are ultimately with the writing and directing.

Director Paul Feig brings a style of humor to the movie that’s different than the first two, and because of it, there are no stakes. Unlike the original which created a real world with fantastical things happening, Ghostbusters 2016 exists in an unbelievable world. And the unbelievable happening in an unbelievable world isn’t all that interesting. The original Ghostbusters films had humor coming from the main cast while the rest of the movie’s world was serious. However, Ghostbusters 2016 has funny characters in a funny world where all of its inhabitants are idiots who crack jokes, riff endlessly, and are just plain stupid.

The other big thing about Ghostbusters 2016 is the setting. Despite being set in New York City like the originals, it was mostly filmed in Boston and never feels like a New York movie.

Ghostbusters is one of the best NYC movies ever made, and 1980’s NYC seeps from the pores of every shot of the first two movies. The hard and grimy NYC setting matches the fact that these are really working class guys doing amazing things.

Also, the writing of the original film’s characters were spot on, with each one having a specific personality trait and finding the humor in that. The four women all have the same personality traits as the originals do, yet they all can’t seem to stop riffing as if the entire movie was one big improv sketch.

And why does the only non-scientist character have to be black again? And speaking of science, one of the better aspects of the original films was that it really took the ghost science seriously, to the point where the conflicts had to do with the struggle of trying to trap ghosts. Ghostbusters 2016 forgets the science of the supernatural and its finale is a CGI-filled spectacle of the characters just zapping ghosts in cool ways, which just isn’t as interesting as the jeopardy featured in the original.

While Ghostbusters II may not be as good as the first one, it still features an amazing and iconic cast firing on all cylinders. Despite its faults, it will never be worse than Ghostbusters 2016, or whatever it’s called. Did I mention the dancing? Why is there so much dancing in that movie?

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Sleepy Hollow at 22: Tim Burton’s Last Good Movie

At one time, Tim Burton was one of Hollywood’s hottest new directors, bringing dark visions to commercial films and creating beautifully gothic fairy tales and superhero epics. However, while he was one of the most sought-after directors in the late 1980s and throughout the 90s, Burton, once a unique visionary, has drifted far from the shore.

After achieving massive success with his first several films, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, and Batman, Burton created his most personal film, and, what some call his masterpiece, Edward Scissorhands. It was a type of film that no one had seen before. It creatively juxtaposed dark gothic worlds with modern suburbia and featured a unique and outcasted protagonist.

He followed that up with his other masterpiece, Ed Wood, which featured Johnny Depp as the infamous B-movie director. Following creative and critical success, Burton went more comical with Mars Attacks, a clever send-up of the type of B-movies he profiled in Ed Wood. The film was not well received despite its star-studded cast, but remains an underrated gem.

Burton would then sign on to direct Superman Lives, starring Nicholas Cage as the Man Of Steel, however, infamously, the project never got off the ground. Following this disappointment, Burton took on Sleepy Hollow instead, which fit more in his wheelhouse and would perhaps be his final good film.

Scripted by Seven’s Andrew Kevin Walker, Sleepy Hollow was a modest hit when it opened in November 1999. The film is a reimagining of The Legend Of Sleepy Hollow, updated to be a murder mystery with Johnny Depp’s Ichabod Crane now a detective instead of a school teacher. Sleepy Hollow concerns Constable Ichabod Crane sent to Sleepy Hollow to investigate a series of decapitations the local God-fearing townsfolk believe to be the work of the legendary Headless Horseman.

Burton made the film as an homage to the great Hammer horror films, and even features a cameo by Christopher Lee.

Aside from Edward Scissorhands, Sleepy Hollow remains Burton’s most visually stunning film. Lensed by master cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, who hadn’t yet made a name for himself in America at the time (his three consecutive Oscars would come many years later), the film is a gothically photographed nightmare where the sun never shines and seemingly every shot is blanketed in fog.

In post-production, the film even went through a process called “bleach bypass,” which saturates the image, takes the life out of it, and makes every human character pale as a ghost (to see how the film was initially shot, watch the original trailer to see more color in the actor’s faces).

Besides the image, the design of the film is horrific, from the twisted trees to liberally applied thick, dark red blood. Even composer Danny Elfman’s score is a career-best, as with the music he provides as much atmosphere to the movie as the cinematography does, crafting haunting and terrifying melodies that are almost a character in themselves.

There is so much to love in Sleepy Hollow, from Christopher Walken’s horrifying and monstrous cameo as the horseman to the incredible practical effects, such as when the Headless Horseman on horseback leaps out from underneath the “Tree of Death” which, like many frames in the film, could be its own gothic painting.

While the film does have some weaknesses like Christina Ricci’s lifeless line readings, Crane’s backstory that ultimately goes nowhere, and the fact that the horseman is being controlled instead of acting on his own, Sleepy Hollow remains an endlessly watchable film that’s both thrilling and, at times, darkly haunting – this was Burton’s first R-rated film.

Sleepy Hollow harkens back to a time when Burton was truly putting his offbeat touch on commercial films. Nowadays, Burton’s style has been copied so much that his more recent films have felt as if they were Burton knockoffs.

After Sleepy Hollow, Burton directed the poorly conceived Planet Of The Apes remake, and followed that up with the crowd-pleasing Big Fish. Audiences enjoyed Big Fish but, while it has a lot going for it, it’s Burton’s inability to adequately do sentimentality that holds it back from being a truly great film.

More Burton disappointments in the years that followed would be Charlie and The Chocolate Factory, Sweeney Todd, Alice in Wonderland, and the disastrous Dark Shadows. His most recent output was Dumbo, which bombed, and he currently has no movies in development.

His next project is directing a Netflix original series centered around Wednesday Addams of The Addams Family, which is ironic as the original Addams Family film is clearly a Tim Burton knockoff, and he’s actually been considered for years to direct an adaptation of the classic TV series. While this project is perfect for Burton’s sensibilities, it would be better if he focused on creating new original works like Edward Scissorhands instead of putting his stamp on projects that already fit his style.

It is unfortunate that someone so talented and starkly unique hasn’t been able to deliver something new and exciting in his own brand. Despite his acclaim, Burton has always been criticized for being style over substance, however, it’s movies like Sleepy Hollow that prove that sometimes that’s all you need to make an entertaining film.

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My Trip To The New Academy Museum

Recently, I got to check out the new Academy Museum Of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles. Believe it or not, it’s the first museum dedicated to movies in Hollywood (the closest type of museum like this in the USA is the Museum Of The Moving Image on the completely opposite coast – Astoria, Queens) and it, largely, did not disappoint.

How an item gets included in the museum is a bit unclear since the main theme of the museum seems to be the Oscars, yet there were several artifacts from films such as Midsommar, Dolemite Is my Name, and The Big Lebowski, which never received any Oscars. However, it was still cool to see them included. The museum begins with the first exhibit, “Stories Of Cinema” which the museum describes as “an immersive, multi-channel media installation” that chronicles the history of film. However, it was basically just a montage of movie clips throughout history with the sound jumping from one screen to the next. In a museum dedicated to film, I’d prefer to see what I haven’t seen or what I haven’t seen up close, instead of an entire exhibit dedicated to why I’m here in the first place.

However, the next exhibit is where the museum really shines, which is a collection of props, equipment, costumes, and more from some of your favorite movies. A cool artifact is one of the surviving Rosebud sleds from Citizen Kane on loan from Steven Spielberg as well as the original ruby slippers from The Wizard Of Oz. One of my favorite exhibits was the Spike Lee room which featured props from his movies, Mookie’s shirt from Do The Right Thing, and even movie posters signed to him by other directors. The museum is big on equity and spotlighting underrepresented groups in films and a fascinating exhibit is on Oscar Micheaux, an African American director who made more than 44 films in the early 1900s using all-black casts – something unheard at the time, since all Hollywood movies were made up of white casts with black actors only playing maids and servants. Personally, I didn’t know that such films were made and would love to see Spike Lee or another black filmmaker take on his life story for a movie one day.

My only problem with the museum was the so-called “Oscar Experience.” For an extra fifteen dollars, guests can simulate what it’s like to win an Oscar, and it’s all recorded and edited into a video that’s immediately sent to them. Sounds pretty cool, right? As I walked through the museum I heard guests remarking that they had heard it wasn’t that great. I later discovered they were right. First, I was unable to remove my mask for the video, which kind of devalued the experience. I was confused as to why because you needed to be vaccinated to enter the museum and you’re alone in the room in which they record. However, I wasn’t going to argue with them and, ultimately, knew they’re just trying to make everybody safe. Second, the experience itself and the resulting video were underwhelming. All you do is hold an Oscar in front of a screen playing a clip of people applauding for you. And the video they send you is a mere 14 seconds. The experience is an interesting concept as everyone dreams of winning an Oscar, but it doesn’t seem to be thought out entirely.

It’s hard not to love a museum dedicated to film. Being a huge movie fan, it’s easy to gaggle at all the wonderful props. Hell, I got excited just seeing the lenses that shot Citizen Kane. There should be more museums dedicated to film because these pieces are a part of history. They may not be important artifacts like what we find in the Natural History Museum, but they are cultural artifacts that should be shared. It may not be the first fork but movie props do mean something to people and we should be given more access to them. I hope that as years go on the exhibits change and more material from films are shared with fans and respected for the historical pieces that they are. It’s strange it took this long for a movie museum like this to open in Los Angeles, a town built on the film industry, but I’m glad one exists to celebrate the great moving miracle known as film.

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‘Venom: Let There Be Carnage’ is the Horrible Mess That May Have Saved Hollywood

Rating: 4 out of 4.

Venom: Let There Be Carnage is the follow-up to the 2018 hit film Venom, which was based on the famous Spider-Man villain. The first Venom wasn’t very good, and the sequel has many of the same problems and more. Like its predecessor, the movie hasn’t been received well by critics, but it made a ton of money in its opening weekend. This is a good thing. Theaters have needed a hit like Venom and as much as I hated it, I’m so glad it was a hit because frankly, cinema in general, needed it.

The past year has been rough on movie-going fans like me. Many cinemas were shut down for months last year and, unfortunately, many closed for good. I myself crossed state lines to be able to see Tenet. The idea of a darkened theater, surrounded by people, all having a shared experience is one of the things COVID destroyed. Since movie theaters have generally re-opened and studios have begun releasing movies again, it’s been slow at the box office. Many of the movies that had a planned theatrical release went straight to streaming last year, with more on the way. However, Venom’s $90 million opening shows that people still want to see movies in a theater and will go to a theater despite a pandemic. So, how did we get here? The idea of people not wanting to go to movies seems like that would never happen but, unfortunately, it’s been heading this way for a while. The pandemic just accelerated it.

Since the dawn of home media, movie watchers have enjoyed viewing movies in the comfort of their own homes. Along came HBO, and high-quality TV movies started to get produced. However, Hollywood was doing itself no favors. As home video, and later DVDs, were becoming popular, movie tickets were getting more expensive, so the cost of a family of four going to the movies (plus popcorn, candy, and soda) became astronomical. Audiences weren’t going to see Sinatra live. They were seeing the newest Adam Sandler movie in a sticky and butter scented theater.

After becoming prominent, streaming sites like Netflix and Amazon began producing their own content. This came at a time when Hollywood was making less risky content to ensure big box-office and really bank on those rising ticket prices. In doing so, mid-budget movies were not being produced, and nowadays studios make very few original mid-budget films. Many movies today are based on familiar properties like books, comic books, and true stories, with budgets ranging from very low to very high.

However, streaming sites make the kinds of movies that studios used to for theatrical release, and people watch them there because audiences would rather pay one price for a swath of risky content rather than pay one price for one. Because of this, we see more sequels and superhero movies released to theaters instead of original and potentially risky material. I don’t think any movie known as a classic was ever considered a “sure thing.” Prior to the pandemic, movie theaters were seeing record highs but the truth is that the average person only goes to the movies twice a year. If movie theaters are only banking on these big event movies, they’re in trouble. 

But back to Venom.

Venom: Let There Be Carnage is a 90-minute cash grab that barely has a plot. It’s too bad because Tom Hardy is a great actor, but his performance as Venom sounds like a drunk Bane and the relationship between him and Eddie Brock is cutesy and annoying when it should actually be kind of scary.

The film doesn’t contain any stakes at all (I reread the plot synopsis when I got home – nope – none), and it really feels like it was made because they knew by having fan favorites Venom and Carnage in one movie, it would make money, and despite a pandemic – it did. What’s sad is there are many truly people behind the film. Andy Serkis directed it, and one of the world’s greatest cinematographers, Robert Richardson, shot it (though it’s clearly his worst photographed film).

Not a scene of this film has any artistic value, and it feels like it was only made to showcase live-action Venom and Carnage, with a weak plot shoehorned in. Is this where we’ve gotten with film – these are the movies that need to be made to get people to come to movie theaters? In 2021, Venom is what you have to see if you want to go to the cathedral of world’s greatest artform. But honestly, why would anyone love two ugly CGI characters who look basically the same fighting? It’s mind-boggling. But you can’t argue with a $90 million weekend.

As mentioned, as much as I hated Venom, I’m glad it was a hit. We need to keep movie theaters open. Despite what people may feel (too expensive, have to drive there, have to get a babysitter, have to sit with other people) there is nothing like seeing a movie in a theater and experiencing a filmmaker beam their art into you, instead of watching it at home where distractions galore can take you away from the experience.

If movies like Venom keep movie theaters open — so be it, because if they’re open, that means there is a chance a great original movie will slip through the cracks and make its way to the big screen — where it’s meant to be seen.

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‘Halloween Kills’ Director David Gordon Green’s First Four Films Are All Underrated Indie Gems

As a filmmaker, David Gordon Green has never been a household name. But since directing the 2008 hit Pineapple Express, he’s been steadily working in both film and television in a number of genres ranging from stoner comedies like Your Highness to political satires (Our Brand is Crisis), and now of course, horror remakes. 2018’s Halloween remake was the beginning of a new trilogy, the second entry of which, Halloween Kills, comes out this weekend. The final chapter, Halloween Ends, also directed by Green, is already in the can and slated for 2022, and he’s currently in pre-production for an Exorcist remake and a Hellraiser TV series.

Before going mainstream with Pineapple Express, however, Green made four micro-budget independent dramas – none of which fared particularly well at the box office, but all of which are great underrated gems in their own way. Here’s a look at David Gordon Green’s four early career indie efforts that movie fans should definitely seek out.

George Washington (2000)

Green’s debut feature began its festival run at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2000. It would eventually go on to gross a meager $283,000 worldwide. The film is as “indie” as it gets: made for $42,000 starring non-professional child actors in a small North Carolina town.

The film is a coming of age story tinged with mature and tragic elements. Its evocative tone made it a hit with critics. Despite its nearly non-existent box office performance, it was sufficient to showcase Green’s talents as a director (he was only 24 years old at the time), and attract funding for his sophomore feature.

All the Real Girls (2003)

Green returned to his southern roots for his next film, the excellent 2003 romance drama, All the Real Girls. Paul Schneider stars as a small town playboy who falls in love with his best friend’s sister, played by Zooey Deschanel in one of her first ever starring roles.

Deschanel would become a major name later that year with the release of Elf, but unfortunately, her star power did little to boost this film’s cache. It recouped less than a third of its $2.5 million budget at the box office, and remains mostly unknown to this day. Nonetheless, it’s a superbly written and directed love story that is achingly authentic and beautifully sincere.

Undertow (2004)

A darker entry in Green’s filmography, 2004’s Undertow is a family drama-turned violent chase film starring Josh Lucas, Jamie Bell, and Dermit Mulroney, and featuring a 13-year old Kristen Stewart. Combining gritty depictions of rural poverty with surrealist imagery and an eerie, dreamlike ending, the movie earned mixed reviews from critics.

It did however get a full endorsement from Roger Ebert, who rated the film a perfect 4 stars and included it on his yearly top 10 list – a major boon for a film that grossed a paltry $159,000 at the box office.

Snow Angels (2007)

Arguably the best of these four films, 2007’s Snow Angels boasts two excellent lead performances by Kate Beckinsale and Sam Rockwell as an estranged couple whose daughter goes missing.

Rockwell is at once a menacing yet sympathetic character, a suicidal alcoholic trying – and failing – to put his life back together. His desperation is as palpable as the cold in the air. Compelling scene writing, terrific acting, and a plot that unravels along with the characters’ psyches make Snow Angels a harrowing and constantly entertaining indie drama. It grossed just over $400,000 at the box office, but has since rightfully gained a small following on DVD and streaming.

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When Prequels Work And When They Don’t

With the release of The Many Saints Of Newark: A Sopranos Story, many Sopranos fans are wondering if the film’s events will change the way they feel about the show. Will we understand more about Tony Soprano’s actions and what he’s going through on the iconic series based on the events in the new film? Perhaps it will even change the way we see him, or make us think more about why he is the way he is.

Prequels have always been a popular way to show how our favorite characters came to be. While sequels have always been great to show audiences more adventures of a certain character, we as an audience also like to see everything that led up to what we’ve seen already. Recently, there has been a swath of prequels produced, including the recently released Cruella, which, oddly, is a nearly two-and-a-half-hour movie made to set up an hour-long cartoon…but I digress. Sometimes these prequels bring us new insights and actually improve upon the original film, while, unfortunately, others prove that prequels ruin the mystery of movies, and that a story begins where it does for a reason. Below is one example of each:

Better – Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

While there have been many prequels made over the years, perhaps the most famous (or infamous) are the Star Wars prequels. The three Star Wars prequels that took place before original 1977 classic were met with derision from fans and critics alike. These much maligned prequels pulled back the curtain on how the original trilogy came to be and presented some pretty silly ideas: The Clone Wars actually refer to a war fought by clones? “Midichlorians” in Jedi’s blood are the reasons behind the force? The “Star Wars” began over taxes? These revelations took away from the original trilogy’s mystery and made them less fantastical and left much less up to the imagination.

While the Star Wars prequels were mocked for trying to set up everything in the original trilogy, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story took a small yet important detail in Star Wars lore and made a whole movie out of it without feeling contrived or forced. A New Hope is set in motion by the fact that plans detailing how to exploit the Death Star’s weakness are stolen and then eventually used to great success. It’s just one sentence in the original film’s opening crawl, but here it’s expanded into a thrilling and emotional adventure.

Rogue One details how those plans were stolen in the first place, and it actually leads directly up to the 1977 film’s opening scene. The story concerns Jyn Erso, a rebel who leads a small group to retrieve the plans containing the Death Star’s flaw and get them to the resistance so they can exploit the flaw and blow up the Death Star – which is exactly what happens in A New Hope, thanks to Luke Skywalker.

Instead of detracting from the original like the prequels do, Rogue One actually makes the first one better because it details the immense struggle and sacrifice required to retrieve those plans.

Yes, it’s the rare film where all the heroes die, but they died for a cause, which makes Luke’s victory at the end of A New Hope all the more satisfying, cathartic and meaningful. So instead of trying to unravel the mystery of everything mentioned in the original trilogy, Rogue One took an important event that had previously been glossed over and made a great film that actually raised the stakes of the original and made it better. Also, the Darth Vader lightsaber attack scene at Rogue One’s conclusion is one of the greatest scenes in Star Wars movie history, and better than anything in the first three Star Wars prequels.

Worse: Prometheus

The most brilliant thing about 1979’s classic sci-fi horror Alien is its simplicity. At its core, Alien is a haunted house movie set in space. Astronauts investigate a distress signal and follow it to a derelict spaceship, where they encounter a terrifying alien, known as a Xenomorph, that attaches itself to a crew member and wreaks havoc aboard their ship, the Nostromo, and eventually leaves only one survivor – Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley. The story is simple by today’s standards, but it is extremely effective.

Following Alien, three sequels were made with diminishing returns. However, fans have always been interested in seeing where the Xenomorphs come from and perhaps even getting to visit their homeworld. While this idea floated around the minds of Alien producers for many years, a prequel to Alien wasn’t set in motion until 2012, and it opted to go a different route. Prometheus’ story actually revolves around a group of space-exploring scientists’ discovery of tall humanoid aliens called “Engineers,” who are actually the creators of humans. The film includes nods and connections to the original film, including featuring Peter Weyland, the founder of the company that the Nostromo reports to in the original film, and even explains who the “space jockey” is: the mysterious dead alien creature at the helm of the derelict alien ship. Having said all that, aside from some zombies and squid monsters, Prometheus doesn’t concern any Xenomorphs… until the very end.

The film takes all of the mystery out of the original and explains way too much. It’s revealed that the God-like world creators not only created humans, but actually created the Xenomorph as a biological weapon that went wrong, which means that the aliens audiences have come to know and be horrified by aren’t even aliens at all — they are a biological experiment. This not only ruins the original movie, but it discredits the title as well! Unlike viewing Rogue One and A New Hope back to back, if a fan were to view Prometheus and Alien back to back, it would disappoint the viewer knowing they’re not actually watching a mysterious and terrifying alien of unknown origin attack a spacehship’s crew but instead they’re actually watching a manufactured biological weapon.

What makes Alien, and other films like it, so scary is that this horrific creature appears out of nowhere, with no explanation. For years, fans have speculated where it came from, what its homeworld is like, and why it has acid for blood. Frankly, it should have stayed that way. A sequel to Prometheus entitled Alien: Covenant followed a few years later, which added more Xenomorph action but tried to further explore the experiment mythos of the creature. A third film was planned to complete the prequel trilogy but, alas, Alien: Covenant bombed, so we’ll never see the conclusion to a story we didn’t need to begin with.

The Subversive Optimism of ‘Nine Perfect Strangers’

WARNING: This article contains significant plot spoilers for Nine Perfect Strangers.

“I mean to fuck with all of you,” says Nicole Kidman’s Masha at the end of the first episode of Nine Perfect Strangers, the new eight-part series from David E. Kelley. Based on the novel by Liane Moriarty, the show tells the story of four individuals, one couple, and a family of three (nine in total) who check into Tranquillum, a mysterious wellness retreat, to purge themselves of their mental and emotional traumas.

The Marconi’s, played by Michael Shannon, Asher Keddie, and Grace Van Patten, are grieving a suicide in the family. Ben and Jessica are a lottery winner and Instagram influencer, respectively, whose marriage is beginning to deteriorate. Bobby Cannavale plays Tony Hogburn, an ex-football star whose battle with addiction has left him estranged from his family. He forms an unlikely bond with Melissa McCarthy’s Frances, a washed up romance novelist whose latest manuscript has just been rejected by her publisher. Lars, played by Luke Evans, is a journalist whose relationship has recently failed. Finally, Regina Hall’s Carmel has a personal axe to grind against Masha, the enigmatic guru who vows to heal them all.

Masha’s treatment protocols are unconventional, to put it mildly. Throughout their stay, the “strangers” are put through the wringer, physically, mentally, and emotionally, and medicated with heavy doses of powerful hallucinogenic drugs. Given Masha’s troubled past of her own, her seemingly cavalier attitude towards the safety of her patients, and her shady behavior towards her own staff, it’s impossible to know her actual M.O.. All we know is that something seems off from the jump, and each episode is filled with a sense of foreboding as we try and pinpoint Masha’s hidden agenda, and the real purpose of Tranquillum.

The series is executed with the skill one would expect given the pedigree of its creative team. Kelley’s dialogue is sharp, efficient, and wittily funny in places, just as it’s been throughout his extensive career as a television writer. Shannon and Cannavale are consummate actors who never hit a false note. Regina Hall gives a fantastic performance as perhaps the most severely tormented character in the show. Nicole Kidman, despite some fans’ qualms with her Russian accent, is also excellent – her character is intentionally impossible to figure out, which makes the job of portraying her all the more challenging.

Great scene-writing and performances aside, perhaps the most notable quality of Nine Perfect Strangers is its surprisingly anodyne resolution.

Even the series’ most chilling scene – the cliffhanger ending of its penultimate episode in which it’s revealed that Carmel is Masha’s stalker who nearly murdered her in a parking garage years prior – is resolved with peaceful reconciliation at the start of the finale.

Later in the final episode, Napoleon Marconi (Shannon) gets a nosebleed, which he thinks is an aneurysm, and we immediately assume that he’s experiencing a fatal side effect of Masha’s mysterious medicinal concoction she’s given him to conjure the presence of his dead son. As it turns out, it’s nothing more than a harmless nosebleed.

When Masha locks six of the nine patients in a padded room and proceeds to set “fire” to their building, we’re finally convinced of her murderous intent. Again, these assumptions are upset, as we soon find out that she only simulated the smell of a fire in order to giver her patients the simulation of a near-death experience, which she believes will prove helpful to their healing process in the end.

In all of these individual examples, and as a whole, Nine Perfect Strangers subverts its audience’s expectations of doom and gloom by essentially validating Masha’s bizarre coaching methods and affirming that her desire to treat her subjects was sincere all along. In the end, all nine of her patients are healed in one form or another.

The series ends with a montage in which we can see each of the characters well on their way to recovery. Finally, we see Masha, all smiles, driving along a beautiful coastal highway in the yellow Lamborghini she stole from Ben (turns out she wasn’t all that innocent after all), with the presence of her deceased daughter riding in the passenger seat. Even as the camera pans out to the ocean, it occurs to us that there may be some final shocking image in store for us that upends this impossibly benign ending. Instead, the shot cuts to black, and the series concludes on an optimistic note that none of us expected going in.

Nine Perfect Strangers is not without its flaws. Some episodes rely too heavily on extended dialogue scenes that become repetitive and formulaic. Others are overly brooding in their emotional intensity to the point where the plot slows to a stand still. Some characters are better developed than others, and the love triangle between Masha and her two staff members unnecessarily distracts from the show’s more intriguing plot elements. All in all, however, it’s an entertaining series that, as promised in its premiere, fucked with all of us and kept us hooked until the final frame.

As a Movie,Candyman Isn’t Scary. As Social Commentary, it’s Horrifying

The latest sequel continuing the trend of being titled the same as the film its following is Candyman – the follow-up to the 1992 horror classic starring the great Tony Todd as the titular boogeyman. Based on the trailer, the new Jordan Peele-produced Candyman appeared to be a remake, but it’s actually a sequel to the original film. However, instead of just being a continuation, Candyman 2021 (which is what it will be referred to from here on out) explores how problematic the original is, while going for real-world horror rather than typical movie horror.

Fans of the original Candyman might be disappointed in this sequel because Candyman 2021 overtly wants to get a message across. It doesn’t want to make you so scared you close your eyes, it wants to make you so scared you open them wide enough to see what’s going on in the world when it comes to the black community. Yes, this is a movie about white supremacy, gentrification and more. While Candyman 1992 fans might be frustrated this new version takes a deliberately political turn, truthfully, the story of Candyman has always been political.

Candyman 1992 was based on a story by prolific writer Clive Barker called The Forbidden which was about class in Liverpool and revolved around an urban legend about a killer wielding a hook known as Candyman. When adapted as a film, writer-director Bernard Rose changed the theme of the movie from class to race and made Candyman black and had him terrorizing a real housing project in Chicago called Cabrini Green. Candyman’s movie backstory is that he fell in love with a white woman and was murdered because of it. Now, he returns and kills whomever summoned him whenever his name is recited five times into a mirror. The pros of the original film is that it proved a black actor could play just as effective a boogeyman as Robert Englund or Doug Bradley. Tony Todd gives a masterfully terrifying performance and audiences can’t seem to forget his chilling voice. Having said that, the cons are that the story is still problematic. Despite being a popular film, many in the black community have taken issue with the fact that Candyman terrorizes members of the black community and they don’t understand why he would. Now, you may think that’s not an issue. After all, white serial killers in movies kill other white people. The issue is Candyman’s origin story is rooted in race. He’s a victim of discrimination, so why would he kill poor black people? 

Candyman 2021 attempts to address the original’s problematic issues but only partially succeeds. While the film’s message is an important one, how it’s delivered is where the film struggles. Politics in horror movies is nothing new. Movies like Night of The Living Dead and The People Under The Stairs are great examples of political horror movies but Candyman 2021 seems more interested in the politics than the horror. The movie revolves around a painter, Anthony, (Yahya Abdul-Matten II) who decides his next subject will be the Cabrini Green projects and Candyman. However, the Candyman this film revolves around is a different Candyman. Instead of Tony Todd’s Daniel Robitaille, the new Candyman is Sherman Fields, a man unjustly murdered by police years prior. The film posits that there are actually many “Candymen,” all victims of violence against black people (which is cleverly depicted in the film’s closing credits using puppets) and their supernatural abilities are born out of black pain and tragedy. The always amazing Colman Domingo plays Billy, a Cabrini Green resident who tells Anthony about Daniel Robitaille, and all the other Candymen that have come since. It’s revealed that Anthony is the son of one of the residents terrorized by Candyman in the original film. In Candyman 1992, Candyman tries to sacrifice Anthony until he’s saved by Virgina Madsen’s character Helen Lyle. While this is an interesting tie into the original, it plays too much with the lore of the first film. In the original, Daniel Robitaille gets his hand chopped off and replaced with a hook, yet Sherman Fields also has a hook for a hand, and wears the same kind of jacket. Having multiple Candyman legends throughout time is an interesting idea but do they have to look the same too? Anthony is stung by a bee early in the film, his wound grows and by the end of the movie, his body has completely deteriorated and he discovers he’s turning into the next Candyman. Billy decides to use this for his masterplan to create a new Candyman legend. The concept of Anthony slowly morphing into Candyman isn’t exactly original and it’s not really even explained how exactly Billy knows Anthony is supposed to be the next Candyman. Billy’s idea is to change the legend and turn Candyman from being a victim of black pain to an avenger – a supernatural figure who protects those who need help instead of killing them. To do this, Billy cuts off Anthony’s hand, gives him a hook and even a similar Candyman jacket. In the end, after Anthony’s girlfriend is erroneously arrested, she’s able to summon Anthony, now Candyman, who kills the police and saves her life. Clearly, director Nia DaCosta is talented and has something important to say but there are too many plot holes and contrivances to get us there.

Candyman 2021’s message is an important one, and while Candyman could be seen as a prescient film right now, perhaps it would have been better if an original story was crafted instead and maybe not even under the guise of a slasher flick. Candyman 2021 is a scary movie because of what it says about the state of the black community vs white supremacy in today’s culture, but it fails at being a scary horror movie. The movie lacks any real scares or true tension-filled moments that made the original so good. While the original film left viewers with horrifying imagery such as the infamous bathroom scene or Todd’s mouth filled with actual bees, Candyman 2021 fails to have any. This may have been on purpose but the scariest scenes in the movie don’t have much to do with horror at all. Sherman Fields’ murder by police is marvelously well directed and horrifyingingly realistic. When the movie attempts actual horror movie moments, it oddly fails to rise above being a generic slasher film. While the original may be problematic, it succeeds as a great horror film. Audiences just have to decide what they want in a horror movie. Do they want to see monsters? Or do they want to see a movie about life’s real monsters? There is no wrong answer as both can be equally terrifying. It all comes down to skillfully applying one to the other. Candyman 2021’s ideas are important and should be heard, but Candyman may have been the wrong vessel in which to bring them to audiences.