Guest Post: Formulaically Entertaining-The Purge vs Hotel Transylvania

Piece written and contributed once again by Uday Mehta, who you can support by clicking here.
_____________________________________________________________________________

It’s a tired but only partially true cliché that Hollywood doesn’t have any original ideas. Of the top-25 grossing movies of 2018 (domestically through July), nine (Ready Player One, A Quiet Place, Rampage, I Can Only Imagine, Game Night, Book Club, Blockers, Tomb Raider, and Tag) weren’t part of a series, franchise, or cinematic universe (although Tomb Raider was a video game and Ready Player one was a book). There were only seven (Coco, Dunkirk, Get Out, Boss Baby, Greatest Showman, Split, and Wonder) in 2017, none of them in the top 10. You’d have to go back to 2006 – before Twilight, Divergent, Hunger Games, Planet of the Apes, Maze Runner, Hangover, Transformers, The Hobbit, and the entire MCU – when the only real franchises were Harry Potter, X-Men, and Pirates. That year, a whopping fifteen of the top 25 were originals, among them The Departed, Cars, Borat, The Da Vinci Code, The Pursuit of Happyness, and Click for some reason. We keep watching the same characters in the same movies; just in the last few weeks, we got Mission Impossible 6, Mamma Mia 2, Equalizer 2, Ant Man 2, Incredibles 2, Jurassic World 2, Incredibles 2, and the fourth Ocean’s movie. Even things like Goosebumps and Bad Moms are getting sequels. At least half of these movies don’t need sequels, another quarter of them are just bad. There are, fortunately, a select few which successfully make the same movie, but in a good way.

Both Hotel Transylvania and the Purge are several movies into their run, and will undoubtedly each return for at least one more. While you’d be hard-pressed to find movies that are more dissimilar, they are alike in one very important way – their sustained run of success despite mixed critical response, a lack of star power, a generally predictable plot, and an apparently limited demographic. Transylvania is an animated franchise that features an actor that everyone is tired of (Adam Sandler) voicing the lead, and is primarily intended as a family movie. Purge shuffles its cast every film (the biggest names being Ethan Hawke, Lena Headey, and Michael K. Williams) and is rated R for disturbing violence. So why do they still exist?

The holy grail of sequels is 22 Jump Street (honorable mention to Empire Strikes Back and The Dark Knight), a meta self-referential comedy which openly joked about how they were making the exact same movie a second time, including an extended credits sequence that showed all the potential sequels they could do. That movie came out four years ago, and Channing Tatum has yet to sign on to a potential third project because he isn’t sure whether the joke will work a third time. And he’s probably right – barring an Incredibles-like decade-plus hiatus, a third Jump Street movie would probably be stale and uninspiring because there’s not a lot of places you can really go with the premise of ‘undercover cops’.

Conversely, both of these franchises rely on the strength of their premise to drive their longevity. Transylvania starts with a human vs. monsters conflict, leading to the establishment of a monsters-only five-star hotel where a collection of adorable monsters convene. Purge centers around a day where all crime including murder is legal, something which apparently brings down the crime rate during the rest of the year and allows the economy to flourish. Those premises – while not always executed to their full potential – are deserving of multiple movies just so the concept can be explored to its limits. It’s like the opposite of something like Step Up (by the way, did you know that the original Step Up movie with Channing Tatum had the worst-critical reception of all five movies?), where the movie centers around the idea of a dance battle, something that might be entertaining as a YouTube video but less so as an actual movie.

Due to the leeway each premise provides, both are fueled by the in-movie creativity, a creativity which doesn’t necessarily manifest in good plot, but the type that makes them an engaging watch throughout. Averaging out to be 90 and 100 minutes respectively, there are few moments which seem unearned or unimportant. Transylvania flexes its animation ability, using it to transform things like volleyballs and wedding rings into one-off monsters that can eat up scenes. The style is evocative of a Sunday morning cartoon, corny DJ battles and all (you can get away with that in a cartoon, less so in a live action movie like say, Guardians of the Galaxy). Purge makes good use of its jump scares, glowing green eyes, and pointed iconography, jumping between points-of-view to create a feeling of disorientation. Their evolution between movies, however, is where their true appeal lies. While the first Transylvania is pushed by the classic story of a forbidden love, the second switches to a generational family dispute. By the third film, Transylvania actually leaves the titular location, spending all but ten minutes of the movie on a cruise ship headed for annihilation. While all three maintain the human-monster divide, the way in which it is presented continues to be fresh. Purge starts with an affluent white family trying to make it through the night, then moving to a working-class bunch, and in 2016 to a politician trying to campaign for the presidency. The latest film, a cleverly placed prequel, tells the story of how Purge night came to be with a ton of social commentary (financial incentive for people to participate, minority population in Staten Island, government affiliation with gun organizations, people in hoods marching in the streets).

Of the seven combined movies, I’ve seen all of them. Sure, they have a finite ceiling, but a pretty high floor as well. They’re satisfying in their predictability, a known quantity that makes room for appreciation of the finer points of each.

2018 Best Picture Nominees – The Shape of Water

On second thought, maybe I don’t want fried fish for dinner.

If you’re following my takes on the Best Picture Nominees, here’s what I have so far:

old review on Dunkirk

Darkest Hour

Link to the podcast where my co-host and I talk The Post

___________________________________________________________________________________

[NO SPOILERS]

“The Shape of Water” is directed by Guillermo Del Toro and is a Fantasy/Drama film about a mute woman who falls in love with a…well…you’ve probably heard by now.

So when it comes to Guillermo Del Toro, I’ve always disagreed with some of my peers. For anyone just joining us on this review, I don’t do the “film school” type of reviews and I’ve emphasized quite often that I’m just a regular guy who loves movies. That being said…I did not care for “Pan’s Labyrinth”. I don’t know why, I just thought it was dumb. Maybe it wasn’t for me, maybe I watched it in a bad mood, but for whatever reason I didn’t see what the big deal was. So right off the bat, my relationship with Guillermo Del Toro wasn’t a great one.

So when I sat down to watch “The Shape of Water”, I did my best to go at it with an open mind and take it for what it is. In the process of doing that, I can very easily see why this film seems to be the “favorite” for many people among this year’s nominees. However, it fell short for me and so far I’d put it as #2 on my list of the 5 I’ve seen (I haven’t done a review for my #1…but we’ll get to it eventually). While being a consistent, beautiful, sometimes breathtaking story with great characters, this film tends to have me hooked and then lose me with certain decisions or scenes I found ridiculous. It felt like eating an amazing candy bar and at some point finding a random raisin in it. The raisin doesn’t offend every fiber of your being, but still messes with the experience and you remember the raisin every time you remember the candy bar as a whole. If you’re already confused/annoyed…it gets worse. So maybe we should do positive points first.

There is a consistent theme here that I interpreted as being the concept of loneliness, and the movie makes sure we see how these different characters deal with that. Everyone here feels empty and wants to feel full (not from candy bars…and most certainly not from raisins) and they find that through the various things that come their way. The main character Elisa, played by Sally Hawkins, obviously finds her comfort and fulfillment in the creature himself. Whereas the antagonist Strickland, played by Michael Shannon, finds his comfort in his professional success and in being superior to others. Not only do both characters have the similar feeling, but both rely on the creature for their fulfillment and the two forces clash very well and make for drama that the audience can get emotionally invested in. It also helps that both Hawkins and Shannon have put on performances that put them as the top contenders for the acting awards, especially considering that Hawkins is playing a character that doesn’t have dialogue.

The romance aspect of the film itself (initially what I wasn’t looking forward to) was something that I could actually believe by the end. While I think some viewers may struggle with a sense of disbelief, I don’t think this was the case for me and most others because of the way it is presented. My only wish was that they spent a little more time showing us the little things that cause the romance to blossom and why Elisa specifically feels love towards this creature, as opposed to those things being in a montage to progress the story to the actual point of conflict. Even then, Del Toro did a phenomenal job of exploring and showing a romance between two individuals that don’t really have anyone else, and I think that message really sticks with viewers and fosters the love for this film. That’s honestly the main thing, this whole movie is just very sweet and that’s something we genuinely don’t see as much. Add in all the magnificent visual storytelling that Del Toro has a knack for and it’s no surprise that you end up having a movie that could walk away being the best picture of 2017.

So what’s the issue? Even after me admitting all of this, why would I still have anything wrong with this? To be fair, they are little things, but they bothered me nonetheless. I feel like at some points the movie sacrificed subtlety and executed its points in a very obvious, cheesy, and sometimes predictable manner.  Without being too specific to avoid details, there is a point where Elisa feels something towards this creature…and instead of showing us her expression and letting her feelings be obvious that way (which I KNOW the actor and director are capable of) instead we get the most out-of-place musical number ever (I’m not kidding). There was more than one moment like that which just took me out of the emotional ride the movie put me on, and sometimes I feel like these things happened all for the sake of being abstract, which is fine..as long as it stays within the boundaries of what was presented and created in the first place. Even with that aside, while I think this was an incredibly creative movie and I admire it, I always want a “best picture” to do something different and stun me in a way I didn’t think about before. In that context, I think this movie is amazing but the overall premise feels a little familiar to me and it didn’t help that some of the story beats were mentally being laid out in my head before it happened on screen.

That previous paragraph aside, I still do mainly think of the positives and find this movie a beautiful piece of art. Even if it didn’t have that final x-factor to make it my favorite this year, I’m still giving “The Shape of Water” a 9/10.