Movie Review: BRIGHTBURN – how they managed to make this horror movie take on Superboy is beyond me – but I loved it

While I’m a sucker for the Marvel movies, my personal favourite movie about superhumans is 2012’s Chronicle, a movie that appeals to the side of me that sees the crossover potential of the superhuman in fiction, and not keep it limited to the kind of material that’s been pounding the cinemas for decades now, and now Brightburn, a modestly made indie movie produced by Guardians of the Galaxy‘s James Gunn has cemented itself right by it.

I remain a dedicated and passionate fan of the kind of comics produced in the 60’s by Marvel Comics.  I can reread those comics over and over, but it was the British revolution in he 1980s, spearheaded by Alan Moore, that first showed me the possibilities of mashing up the “superhero” genre with others.  So far, that has actually only rarely happened in both comics and other forms of popular culture, and likely will never actually be the thing I think it could be.  Both Chronicle and Brightburn have made terrific attempts to show the consequence of superpowers that very often are glossed over in the plots of the Marvel and DC Comics superhero universes, which are primarily concerned with generating as much income as possible while sticking to the traditional good guy v bad guy plot.  The FX driven collateral damage that comes with these big battles has only been addressed once, in the aftermath of Avengers: Age of Ultron, the repercussions of which precipitated the movie Captain America: Civil War, but even there it just felt like a plot point, not an organic admission that superhumans are serious trouble for the rest of us, not just inconvenient.

I won’t discuss Chronicle in any detail here, only to say that if you’re anything like me and haven’t seen it, it’s a must-see.  Brightburn is a natural spiritual companion to Chronicle in how it handles not just superpowers, but the effects of superpowers on the individual.  In Chronicle, three lives are affected by the transformative, separational effect of acquiring superpowers, in Brightburn, it’s a 12 year old boy.  What’s astounding to me is how the movie got made in the first place: it’s a blatantly unashamed retelling of the Superman origin story. Not only does it involve a childless couple finding a crashed alien ship containing a humanoid baby, the crash site also happens to be a farm in rural Kansas! I’d think there are some kind of “parody” type laws of the same kind that protect the porn versions of superhero movies that came into play here, because I can’t imagine Warner Brothers never once tried to intervene in the making of this picture – of course, that’s idle speculation on my part, but c’mon!  So, the kid grows up and he’s all the couple (Elizabeth Banks and David Denman) could ever have wanted; quiet, sensitive, and loving, until he starts to come under a strange influence that reaches out to him psychically, turning his world upside down, and when his parents get an inkling of this, they have the same fear any adoptive parents would: the child they have loved as their own will one day discover the truth about himself and seek a greater meaning to his life than they can provide.  In this section there’s an origin story of sorts as the kid, Brandon – played well by Jackson Dunn (who also plays the teenage Scott Lang in Avengers: Endgame, oddly enough) – discovers his nascent superpowers and begins experimenting with them, and slowly, the uneasy mixture of abilities beyond any other human being, and the twilight zone of encroaching puberty, allow Brandon to make his own choices, to the detriment of almost everyone around him.  In this case, Brandon’s arc is similar to that of Chronicle’s Andrew Detmer (Dane DeHaan), fulfilling the old adage that with power comes corruption, as Brandon sets about righting the wrongs that his young mind perceive as having been done to him, similar in spirit to the final act of Carrie, now that I think about it.  But where Carrie ends, Brandon’s superhuman spree of carnage is simply the beginning, and with his power comes a mean streak that’s highly reminiscent of the character Johnny Bates, in the seminal comic series Marvelman (renamed Miracleman – a saga unto itself).  In what could easily be considered the first attempt to show the superhuman in the “real” world, Johnny Bates is the former sidekick, Kid Marvelman, to the titular hero, who, during his adult sidekick’s disappearance from the scene, grew up with his powers, developed them in secret, and then finally, unable to see past his hatred of us lesser beings, unleashed a tidal wave of brutality that ultimately decimated the people and city of London.

In fact, there are two scenes in which Brightburn, written by Gunn’s brother Brian and cousin Mark, that shows the direct influence of Marvelman, both lifted from the comic.

This movie didn’t light up the box office the way Marvel, and to a lesser extent, DC have done, and given its R rating and low budget it was never going to compete, but I found it to be satisfying, and a great counterpoint to the kind of superhuman movies the world is used to seeing.  I’m also a horror movie fan, and I greatly appreciated an R-rated superhuman movie that doesn’t just earn its rating from the lead character being a sarcastic pottymouth.  And while Logan’s violence was kind of what you’d expect from that character, it never felt authentic to me, just fanservice.  Brightburn had violence that mattered, it had violence that came with consequences that went way past just the gory death of a bad guy, consequences for both Brandon and those around him, just like Chronicle.

In act 3, though, I feared it would all fall apart due to a simple lack of belief in the screenwriters, and their possible inability to actually follow through with the premise they had come up with, an unwillingness to plow forward to the movie’s natural conclusion, and Brandon’s ultimate fate – but I’m happy to say that wasn’t the case, and I came out the theater with an immense sense of satisfaction over how it ended.  Perfect, given the material and genre.

As an aside, it came to me as I pondered this review, that Henry Cavill’s portrayal of Superman as a resentful, moody, humourless bore with what appears to me a strong streak of narcissism (look at how he appears to drink up the adulation of the crowds that surround him) seems very much as if he could be the grown-up version of Brandon, once he’d grown out of his pubescent phase.  Looking at it that way imbues the movie version of Superman with more meaning to me than it actually deserves.

I greatly enjoyed this rare attempt to show the true potential of the superhuman in fiction, and wish that Marvel would make some braver creative decision that could push some of their characters in a more naturalistic, darker direction, but so far, only the Daredevil show on Netflix has tried.  Highly recommended to fans of the genre.

4.0/5.0

© Andrew Hope, 2019

Links to other reviews mentioned here

GUARDANS OF THE GALAXY VOL 2

CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR

 

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Movie Review: US – Jordan Peele’s follow up to Get Out is doing big business, but I found little to like.

The review title says it all, doesn’t it?  Consider that a tl:dr, if you don’t want to read a dissenting opinion, but if you’re curious as to why I seem to be in the overwhelming minority when it comes to this movie, plough your way through.

I’ll say at the top that I wasn’t a great fan of Get Out either.  I thought the hype and critical praise for a mostly just good movie was startling.  My own daughter, whose opinion generally aligns with mine on horror movies, was one of those people who thought Get Out was fantastic, and I approached it with some excitement, as someone who generally feels let down by most movies in the genre.  It happened with Get Out, and to an even greater degree with Peele’s sophomore work, Us. Continue reading “Movie Review: US – Jordan Peele’s follow up to Get Out is doing big business, but I found little to like.”

Movie Review: PET SEMATARY – The 2nd attempt to film Stephen King’s best novel makes a lot of changes, but few of them work.

I am a child of the 80s, and just like whichever decade your teen years were set, that is the era that defined me.  Part of that period in my life was where my affinity for the horror genre evolved, with the books of Stephen King maybe the largest single element.  Throughout that decade, with no internet to make things easy, I devoured not just his books, but also news of his books.  Each time I went into a book shop with the intent of picking up his newest release, I left in a hurry to get home to crack open the cover.  I remember calling the US telephone operator from my bedroom in Scotland around 1987 or so and actually getting the number of King’s Bangor mansion, but there was never an answer each time I called.  All this is to tell you that I was a big fan of King, to preface the review of 2019’s Pet Sematary.

Continue reading “Movie Review: PET SEMATARY – The 2nd attempt to film Stephen King’s best novel makes a lot of changes, but few of them work.”

Movie Review: BIRD BOX – this Sandra Bullock movie is so bad I wished I’d brought my own blindfold.

So yeah, you know how this review is going to go down based on the title.  No major reveal here, so it’s kind of like the movie itself!  I actually hadn’t heard of this movie until a few weeks ago, and the trailer and accompanying article didn’t exactly set me on fire.  It seemed too much like A Quiet Place for my liking, and that was a movie I mostly disliked.  Now most places you will read about it are indeed referring to it as “A Quiet Place … for eyes!”.  Not only didn’t I like Birdbox, I hated it!

Continue reading “Movie Review: BIRD BOX – this Sandra Bullock movie is so bad I wished I’d brought my own blindfold.”

Movie Review: GHOST STORIES – another good contemporary “horror” movie, but does the ending show the writers’ true colours?

The horror genre is undergoing something of renaissance in the last few years.  A younger generation of moviemakers appear to have finally embraced the fact that above all else the genre embodies existential panic greater than no other.  I think we can all agree, whatever side of the political divide one happens to be, that the current state of the world is doing nothing to allay our fears.  Disenfranchisement, loneliness, depression – all emotions that are running at higher rates than at any time in recent memory.  Why do we need the familiar movie monsters to scare us, when those that lurk inside ourselves are so much worse?

Horror is my first love – I was exposed to the Hammer and Amicus movies as a child and it imprinted upon me a strong attraction to the darker side of life, but I’m also a pretty discerning viewer, and I don’t like any old shite just because it happens to be in the genre.  I was never all that interested in the celebrity monsters (though I have a soft spot for the early Universal movies) – I prefer the creative energies that emerge from indie moviemakers, and the last couple of years has seen some great talents arrive on the scene; the team of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead (Spring, Resolution, and The Endless), and auteur Mickey Keating (Ritual, Darling, Carnage Park) have a keen sense of the kind of horror that strikes the core of the modern soul.  No cartoonish Jasons or Freddy from these guys, the focus of their movies is the effect on the protagonist with real character-driven stories.  It’s been a good year for this kind of existentialism  – even when the movies don’t up the body count or splatter the screen with gore, what they do is creep into the mind, remind us that we are all just a couple of hard luck events from losing everything we have and are.

Ghost Stories, written and directed by Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson, adapted from their own stage play, has been compared to the British anthology movies from the 60s and 70s like The House That Dripped Blood and Tales From The Crypt – movies that were part of my own introduction to the genre – for me, though, the resemblance stops there.  I don’t know if it was Nyman and Dyson’s intention to just do a modern version of this kind of movie, but I didn’t truly feel that when I watched their movie.  When you watch from beginning to end, you realize that the anthology structure is a storytelling device that ultimately tells something completely different, in short, there’s a grand reveal that takes precedent over everything that comes before it.  I really enjoyed it, but at the same time as though lodged in the back of my mind: were Nyman and Dyson faintly embarrassed about the horror genre?  One can choose to look at the ending as the moviemakers saying, “all that horror stuff … it was just to get to this point, a necessary evil” and I think that while it’s clearly a straw man argument on my part, it’s a valid take on the movie.  As clever as it is, and as much as I liked it, there’s still that little nagging feeling …

The movie is uneven, but not so much in terms of quality.  It’s structured as three stories told to Philip Goodman, a paranormal debunker (played by Nyman), after he’s challenged to investigate them as examples of undeniable proof of the existence of the supernatural.  While the stories as told in cinematic terms are mostly gripping, they’re still just anecdotes as far as the character Goodman is concerned, and as timid and driven Goodman seems to be in his James Randi-like mission, he always seems to be possessed of a need to believe, regardless of how skeptical he appears on the outside.  It can’t be just accidental or bad writing – it’s something I appreciated, although Nyman could have played it a little more subtle for it to feel like a more authentic character study.

In chronological order, the stories are: a night watchman’s shift in a creepy old building is disrupted by a possibly malevolent entity; a teenager dangles on the edge of sanity as he recounts the story of hitting a demonic entity while driving through the woods; a rich man is plagued by poltergeist activity in his magnificent modern-day mansion while waiting for his wife to give birth to their first child.  These stories are reluctantly told to Goodman by the participants, and as I mentioned, they’re uneven,  The first story you’ve seen a few times before, and it reminded me a lot of the terrifically unnerving Session 9.  It’s good, but treads familiar ground.  The second story stars the excellent young actor Alex Lawther (so good in the Black Mirror episode Shut Up and Dance), but it’s much shorter than the others and didn’t convince me that it was necessary, despite an implication-heavy storyline.  My favourite of the three stars Martin Freeman (Cargo, Black Panther) as the haunted rich man, a far cry from the kind of characters audiences are more familiar with him playing.  I liked this one because of the sheer austerity of the location, and the cold detachment played by Freeman here.  It’s a modern take on the haunted house story with a significantly more personal angle to it.

Although these three stories make up the bulk of the running time, the actual story only starts when these tales are finished – to go any further here would put me deep into spoiler territory, so I won’t say anything more about the how the movie wraps up, other than it immediately went in a completely unexpected direction in both story and character.  I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I think most people will feel the same way about it once they get past any initial confusion arising from the transition scene.  More than a few viewers will feel that “Aaaaaaaahh,” moment that comes a couple of minutes from the end.  I liked that part,  but didn’t love it, and it’s why I feel that Nyman and Dyson didn’t make a movie that committed to the genre.  Nevertheless, it’s also going to be an ending that a lot of people like because of that same reason.

It’s been a good year for thoughtful horror – here’s to it continuing!  Check out my reviews of Hereditary and Pyewacket if you’re looking for something in a similar vein.

3.5/5.0

© Andrew Hope, 2018

Links to other reviews mentioned here:

SPRING

RESOLUTION

THE ENDLESS

RITUAL

DARLING

CARNAGE PARK

CARGO

BLACK PANTHER

HEREDITARY

PYEWACKET

 

Movie Review: CARGO – Martin Freeman is the emotional center of a zombie movie that evokes 70s Australian film.

I’ve said in a couple of reviews that I’m jaded with the zombie horror subgenre.  I can blame The Walking Dead for the saturation of badly made movies and shitty Kindle books that are hasty knockoffs of AMC’s hit show that’s currently shooting its 9th season.  Even the show’s producers seems to realize this particular monster is played out – zombies haven’t been a major component of The Walking Dead for years, and when they do appear, the scenes mostly feel like cutscene filler.  There’s nothing you can really do with this particular movie monster, though people still try to squeeze some juice from it.

Continue reading “Movie Review: CARGO – Martin Freeman is the emotional center of a zombie movie that evokes 70s Australian film.”

Movie Review: HEREDITARY is the latest in the series of “SCARIEST MOVIE EVER!” clickbait headlines. It’s good, but too flawed to be great.

If you’ll remember, going waaaaay back to February of 2018, one of the scariest movies EVER was released.  I’m talking about Veronica, the Spanish language movie about the cost of freeing malevolent entities via the old Ouija board.  I found it to be not only hackneyed and cliche, but also not scary at all – click the link to read my review.  Admittedly, I’m a horror movie fan and I’ve sat through some great horror, and the appreciation of horror (and what we find scary in general) is subjective.  So I’m not slamming people who genuinely did find Veronica scary, more the idiots who make up clickbait headlines to promote either product, their website, or themselves.  Hereditary arrived with such a campaign.

Continue reading “Movie Review: HEREDITARY is the latest in the series of “SCARIEST MOVIE EVER!” clickbait headlines. It’s good, but too flawed to be great.”