Movie Review ~ Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch

The Facts:

Synopsis: A grumpy Grinch plots to ruin Christmas for the village of Whoville.

Stars: Benedict Cumberbatch, Rashida Jones, Cameron Seely, Keenan Thompson, Pharrell Williams, Angela Lansbury

Director: Yarrow Cheney, Scott Mosier

Rated: PG

Running Length: 90 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: It’s probably wrong to admit it, but I went into the screening of The Grinch actively trying to dislike it.  I didn’t see the point of yet another retooling of the classic Dr. Seuss tale when there was already a perfectly wonderful book from 1957 and classic holiday special from 1966 that have stood the test of time.  Though Universal had already tried to bring The Grinch to life in 2000’s ghastly How the Grinch Stole Christmas featuring Jim Carrey as the green meanie, it didn’t weasel it’s way into the holiday canon and is widely regarded as a majorly misguided misfire.  18 years later they’ve teamed up with Illumination Entertainment (the animation group behind the Despicable Me and Minions movies) for a colorful retelling of the familiar tale and, as much as I wanted to dismiss it, I found myself succumbing to its charms.

It’s the week before Christmas and the tiny town of Whoville is getting ready for the big day. Houses are decorated, presents are bought, the holiday spirit radiates out of everyone.  Overlooking Whoville is Mount Crumpit, home to The Grinch (Benedict Cumberbatch, Doctor Strange) who can’t stand Christmas or the Whos.  As Christmas Day draws near, The Grinch comes up with a plan to steal Christmas from the Whos, hoping to prevent Christmas from coming.  Dressed up as Santa, The Grinch makes his way through Whoville on Christmas Eve robbing the sleeping Whos of every speck of yuletide garb and gifts, aiming to toss it off a cliff.  Unless you’ve been living under a rock and never allowed to watch television you know how it ends up, so it’s not a spoiler to say that eventually The Grinch welcomes not only Christmas into his heart but the Whos as well.

Screenwriters Michael LeSieur (Keeping Up with the Joneses) and Tommy Swerdlow have taken the original 69 page book by Dr. Seuss and expanded it to a 90 minute family friendly film that maintains the structure sourced from Seuss.  Most of the rhymes are still there in the narration from Pharrell Williams but the screenplay adds in extra material for The Grinch and especially Cindy Lou Who.  The 2000 script for the live action film was similarly overstuffed but it was in service to special effects and production design, not story.  Here it feels more organic and in line with giving the characters a more modern feel.  That may displease purists who appreciate the simple joys of the original Seuss tale and even though I’d count myself as one of them I didn’t really mind the updates.

More time is spent on carving out distinctive personalities for several of the Whos. Cindy Lou Who’s mom (Rashida Jones, Tag) is now an overworked single parent raising her daughter and twin boys and Bricklebaum (Keenan Thompson), the merriest Who of all, is all about having the best holiday decorations on display.  Angela Lansbury (Beauty and the Beast) is heard briefly as the mayor of Whoville ready to light their enormous tree and who tasks the Whos with making Christmas three times as big as last year.   Cindy Lou herself (Cameron Seely, The Greatest Showman, whose animated alter-ego looks strikingly like Amy Poehler) is a tom-boyish do-gooder that wants to forgo presents and ask Santa to help her mom out instead.  Her infamous meeting with The Grinch during his nighttime burglary is now orchestrated by her as a way to get some face time with the guy in the red suit.

As The Grinch, Cumberbatch has the unenviable task of following in the aural footsteps of Boris Karloff who voiced the green guy in 1966 and did the narration as well. His Grinch is more nasal and nerdish, less outright cruel but still just as unflinchingly mean.  It was wise for the writers to ease up a bit on his harsh-ness because sitting through even an hour of that would be something he could never bounce back from.  Time is spent exploring his history and explaining why he hates Christmas so much as well as providing moments of interplay with his faithful dog Max and a new character, a rotund reindeer named Fred.  I wish the filmmakers would have let Cumberbatch narrate the film as well in his deep accented voice, Pharrell’s reading just doesn’t land with any weight.

While the score from Danny Elfman (Dark Shadows) is a nice callback to the original tunes from 1966 there is a fairly awful reworking of ‘You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch’ and a positively hideous closing number, both performed by Tyler, the Creator. Though the soundtrack is filled out with other holiday numbers, I was a bit taken a back that ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ and the phrase “Remember Christ our Savior” was featured prominently in one comedic sequence.  In a film aimed at international audiences across all religious beliefs, it was an interesting inclusion on the part of the studio.

As we near our own holiday season there will be a host of movies out there for families to choose from and I’m pleased that for a second week in a row we have a movie that I’d feel comfortable suggesting as an all-ages option. The Grinch is rated PG for brief rude humor and honestly, I don’t even remember what that was.  It’s refreshingly free of fart jokes and bathroom yucks and, like The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is a movie parents will likely be as entertained with as their kids.  Please promise you’ll watch the 1966 version first, though!

 

Movie Review ~ Overlord

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: On the eve of D-Day, a group of American paratroopers are dropped behind enemy lines to carry out a mission crucial to the invasion’s success. But as they approach their target, they begin to realize there is more going on in this Nazi-occupied village than a simple military operation.

Stars: Jovan Adepo, Wyatt Russell, Jacob Anderson, Dominic Applewhite, Pilou Asbaek, Iain De Caestecker, John Magaro, Mathilde Ollivier, Bokeem Woodbine

Director: Julius Avery

Rated: R

Running Length: 119 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: I’m old.  Or, at least, I felt old at the 10pm screening I attended near a local college campus for Overlord.  The audience was largely college students in their pajamas (or whatever constitutes proper sleeping attire nowadays) and the conversations were about everything from the mid-term election the next day to what their actual mid-terms were going to be about.  Driving across town from another screening I was exhausted and not sure why I was subjecting myself to such a late night showing.  Mostly I was just praying I wouldn’t fall asleep and have the screening rep catch me with eyes closed.

I shouldn’t have been worried because Overlord comes out so guns a-blazing that it would be next to impossible to snooze through this highly effective hybrid of war movie and B-horror flick.  Deliberately disorienting when it intends to be and purposefully focused when it needs our attention, the movie is a neat surprise.  With all the mystery surrounding the production of the film I wasn’t sure quite what to expect going in, yet it kept me engaged and on the edge of my seat throughout.

It’s 1944 and a regiment of soldiers are being deployed into a hornet’s nest in Nazi-occupied France.  Among the gang are the mild-mannered Boyce (Jovan Adepo, mother!), the hot-headed Tibbet (John Magaro, The Big Short), photographer Chase (Iain De Caestecker, Lost River) and the newly transferred Ford (Wyatt Russell, Everybody Wants Some!).  No sooner do they parachute behind enemy lines on a mission to take out a radio tower on top of a church then they come across Chloe (Mathilde Ollivier) who brings them into her village crawling with Nazis.  This is no ordinary village, though, and the soldiers will soon find out why the population keeps dwindling.

To say more about what happens over the course of one nightmarish evening for Boyce and his fellow brothers in arms would be to spoil the fun screenwriters Billy Ray (Captain Phillips) and Mark L. Smith (The Revenant) have cooked up.  I will say it involves disturbing Nazi experiments and the creation of a serum with a powerful impact on anyone injected with it…living or dead.  Especially the dead.  As the night wanes on and the men try to complete their mission that will help the entire armed forces, they must also outwit a Nazi madman (Pilou Asbaek, Lucy) and not wind up the next specimen for the bizarre trials being conducted in the cavernous underground basement of the church.

Director Julius Avery starts things off with a bang, in a sequence that made me recall fondly Steven Speilberg’s opening to Saving Private Ryan.  Now I wouldn’t dare to compare the two as equals but there are a lot of parallels on how both films open in absolute chaos before settling in and settling down.  The sound level in my theater was cranked up and at times I thought the roof was going to blow off the joint.  Avery deftly movies between these action sequences and smaller character driven moments between Boyce and Chloe.  Taking the time to give us these insights helps us relate to them more…we get invested pretty quickly in each person we meet which winds up raising the stakes in our rooting for their survival.

Leading the cast is Adepo in a strong performance as a solider that has his eyes opened to the horrors of war.  Starting off as (literally) not being able to kill a mouse, he gets his sea legs quickly when faced with the nastiness that he finds in the village.  I also quite liked Russell as his commanding officer who has already seen enough atrocities to last a lifetime and isn’t as easily spooked as his direct report.  He’s gruff and tough but not without common sense.  Ollivier is more than a token female and gets her share of time to stand up for herself and younger brother.  It’s a strikingly well cast movie, from minor roles that are briefly onscreen all the way up to Asbaek’s increasingly unhinged main villain.

In this time of tentpole films and franchise starters, I also liked that Overlord felt like a self-contained movie.  It’s not out to create a series (though it easily could) and doesn’t need to cheapen a fine wrap up by ending with a “that’s not all folks” stinger.  There’s no post-credit scene so what you sign up for is what you get – anything more than that can all be worked out later.  I get the feeling this is a one and done endeavor and that’s totally fine with me.  It’s a strong film with a few good scares that hits all the right notes and would easily be something I’d watch again with friends.

Movie Review ~ The Girl in the Spider’s Web

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Young computer hacker Lisbeth Salander and journalist Mikael Blomkvist find themselves caught in a web of spies, cybercriminals and corrupt government officials.

Stars: Claire Foy, Sverrir Gudnason, Lakeith Stanfield, Sylvia Hoeks, Cameron Britton, Stephen Merchant, Claes Bang, Christopher Convery, Synnøve Macody Lund, Vicky Krieps

Director: Fede Alvarez

Rated: R

Running Length: 117 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: When 2011’s U.S. remake of the 2009 Swedish phenomenon The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo failed to bring in the kind of audience Columbia Pictures and MGM was hoping for, the two planned sequels were put on an indefinite hold.  What a pity.  Though the remake had its share of detractors, it was a compelling mystery and expertly made film that took its time to explore the characters and wasn’t afraid to wallow in some dark material.  Director David Fincher is a master at what he does and the look and feel of the movie, not to mention the fantastic performances from Rooney Mara (who received an Oscar nom for her work) and Daniel Craig, has helped to keep the film a singular experience.

Deciding to skip the two direct sequels and start over with a new novel released in 2015 brought a challenge. With Fincher, Craig, and Mara all released from their contracts and on to different projects, when the time came to bring the franchise back to life for The Girl in the Spider’s Web the studio had to go back to the drawing board and find a new director and star.  Bringing on rising director Fede Alvarez (Evil Dead) and hiring Claire Foy (Breathe) as the titular character were impressive gambles that don’t completely pay off.  The resulting film works fine as a standard thriller if you didn’t have any previous knowledge of the characters but as a continuation of what Fincher started back in 2011 (and what really began with the original film trilogy in 2009) it misses the mark by a longshot.

It’s been three years since the events of The Girl in the Dragon Tattoo and computer hacker Lisbeth Salander has become a not-so-secret vigilante of sorts in Stockholm, coming to the aid of women wronged by men.  The opening of the film (spoiled, like much of the movie, by trailers that have given away far too many key plot points) finds Salander giving a wife beater a bit of sweet vengeance.  Foy plays the exchange like she’s buying carpet for her rec room at IKEA, it’s fine to be emotionally removed from these abusers but her monotone delivery suggests boredom rather than detachment.

Salander’s ally Mikael Blomkvist (Sverrir Gudnason) hasn’t seen her since her wrote an exposé centered on her family.  Though his editor and sometime lover Erika (a sadly underused Vicky Krieps, Phantom Thread) urges him to move on, he can’t forget the troubled girl. Much like Fincher’s film, Alvarez keeps Lisbeth and Mikael apart for a good half of the film but unlike the previous entry when they do share screen time there’s next to no spark between the two.  That’s partly because the dynamic in this movie feels like it’s shifted and Mikael is now more of a second banana to Lisbeth’s main character.

When Lisbeth is asked to retrieve a computer program that becomes a threat to the national security of America and Sweden, she’s thrown into a conspiracy that will bring her back to painful memories (and people) of her childhood.  If you’ve read the book The Girl in the Spider’s Web is based off of, be prepared for major changes.  For fun, after the screening I read the plot synopsis of the novel and was amazed at the liberties screenwriters Alvarez, Jay Basu, and Steven Knight took with David Lagercrantz’s original text, rendering it almost wholly new.  For what it’s worth, the novel sounded far more muddled and complicated, something that wouldn’t have translated easily to the screen.

That leaves Alvarez to cut his own course with the material, leaving out the connective tissue that helped make The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo such an intriguing mystery.  There’s no real thought process from anyone in the movie, they either just “know” the answer to a perplexing puzzle or whatever methods they use to figure things out happen offscreen.  One example is a character in the U.S. who is trying to locate a hacker by tracing their location.  The location is narrowed down to Stockholm, at which time the character grabs his coat and runs directly to the airport…because Stockholm is so specific. Part of what makes these kind of films fun is playing detective alongside our lead characters but here we are so far removed that it’s like someone is reading us a story instead of inviting us to follow along.

The screenwriters also make a giant leap in turning Lisbeth into more of a superhero than a heroine.  She takes a licking and keeps on ticking, bouncing back from explosions and beatings needing little to no recovery time.  One moment Lisbeth has been drugged and the next she’s snorted some crushed opioids and is driving a car in pursuit of cybercriminals.  She also has a curious knack for knowing the right way out of dead end.

I’ve enjoyed Foy in her films so far in 2018.  She was great in the paranoid thriller Unsane and good in October’s First Man.  Here she’s merely OK and it’s mostly due to her being miscast as an edgy character lacking bite.  Mara and her Swedish counterpart Noomi Rapace played Lisbeth as damaged goods, alternately withdrawn and feral which led to her being unpredictable.  Foy isn’t afforded much in the way of surprise so we’re just tagging along for what is largely an unremarkable ride for the actress.

As a jumpy NSA agent on Salander’s trail, Lakeith Stanfield is even more of an enigma.  There’s no backstory to his character by way of an introduction nor do we get any blanks filled in along the way.  We get a sense he’s good at his job but how spectacular can he be if he’s constantly bested by Salander and the thugs on her trail?  By the time he’s somehow called on to be an expert marksman in an admittedly nicely constructed action scene, I sort of stopped asking questions.

The best performance in the whole film is Sylvia Hoeks as a ice blonde specter from Lisbeth’s past.  Dressed head to toe in red and never speaking above a child-like purr, she’s intimidating without even raising a finger.  It does veer toward campy Bond villainess at times (the whole film feels like a gender-bending Bond romp, actually) but Hoeks knows exactly what film she’s in and sinks her teeth into every bit of scenery she can get her hands on.  Much like she did with her unsettling character in Blade Runner 2049, she becomes the focal point of any scene she’s in.

Alvarez shows off some style in his eye for imaginative camera angles with the help of cinematographer Pedro Luque (Don’t Breathe) and slightly macabre visuals but he is far more restrained than he was in previous films.  Aside from one rather ghastly sight of a man missing a key piece of his face it’s relatively tame.  I appreciated that he included a brief title sequence, nicely echoing the unforgettable pulse-pounding nightmare credit sequence of the first film.  The music by Roque Baños (In the Heart of the Sea) helps to set the mood, even if that mood too often requires Baños to veer into action movie histrionics.

I’m not sure what the impetus was for the studios to revive this franchise again in 2018 (were they about to lose the rights?) but they’ve given us another chapter in the Dragon Tattoo collection that doesn’t even feel like it’s in the same universe as what’s come before.  The characters deserve better, the actors deserve better, we deserve better.

Movie Review ~ The Nutcracker and the Four Realms

The Facts:

Synopsis: A young girl is transported into a magical world of gingerbread soldiers and an army of mice.

Stars: Keira Knightley, Mackenzie Foy, Helen Mirren, Morgan Freeman, Misty Copeland

Director: Lasse Hallstrom, Joe Johnston

Rated: PG

Running Length: 99 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: In the last few months we’ve really been treated to a lot of good entries at the movies. The dramas have soared (A Star is Born), the scary movies have been freaky fun (Halloween), and the romantic comedies (Crazy Rich Asians) have been at their fizzy best. The one movie we’ve been sorely lacking is an honest to goodness family film that isn’t filled with double entendres to go over the kiddies heads and lame-brained humor that make the parents shift grumpily in their seats. The arrival of The Nutcracker and the Four Realms signals the first purely PG movie I’ve seen in a long time, slightly too scary to get the golden G but worthy of consideration when planning a family outing to the movies this holiday season.

Young Clara (Mackenzie Foy, Interstellar) is getting ready to celebrate the first Christmas with her family after losing her mother. Her father (Matthew Macfadyen, Anna Karenina) is too bereaved to be able to emotionally connect with any of his children, least of all his inquisitive daughter and when they arrive for a holiday party at the expansive manse of Drosselmeyer (Morgan Freeman, Now Your See Me) father and daughter exchange harsh words that only divides them further.

Searching for a present from Drosselmeyer, Clara winds up entering a magical world of four realms that her mother had a connection to and which she now plays a part in overseeing. Accompanied by a kindly solder (Jayden Fowora-Knight) she makes her way to the palace and meets the rulers of three of the lands that have been awaiting her arrival. Hawthorne (Eugenio Derbez) comes from the Land of Flowers while Shiver (Richard E. Grant, Can You Ever Forgive Me?) calls the Land of Snowflakes his home. The unofficial leader of the trio is the ever sweet but sturdy Sugar Plum (Keira Knightly, A Dangerous Method) who takes Clara through a tour of the realms and warns her of Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren, Red 2), the leader of the Land of Amusement, the fourth realm.  As Clara takes in her surroundings, she decides to stay and help Sugar Plum get a special key from Mother Ginger that will help unlock not only a machine meant to protect the kingdom from Mother Ginger’s clutches but will also open a special egg of her mother’s. Journeying to the dark Land of Amusement with her solider is just one of the adventures Clara goes on and which introduces the first of several surprises along the way.

Continuing Disney’s tradition of turning celebrated classics into live-action extravaganzas, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is stuffed to the brim with feasts for the eyes. Though the film bears the name that suggests it will follow Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s famous music and seminal ballet, it’s only loosely inspired by the original short story by E. T. A. Hoffmann. That being said, there are numerous musical cues that will sound familiar, part of the cheery score supplied by James Newton Howard (The Dark Knight). One of the best moments in the movie is a centerpiece involving a ballet performed by famous ballerina Misty Copeland. Copeland’s got incredible charisma and her dancing nearly turns the movie into a 3D experience. If only she had more to do here, still, it’s more than easy to see why she’s risen to the top of her field.

Foy is a lovely lead, head-strong and boasting a more than passable English accent. She’s in almost every scene of the movie so it’s important to have someone in that central role that doesn’t grate on the nerves. While we’re talking about nerves, I’m not sure what Knightley was going for but her lines are delivered with a baby voiced tweet that seriously bugged me right from the start. This is a fantasy to be sure but every time she opened her mouth I was jolted back to reality. Grant and Derbez seem to be literally hiding behind their costumes and I’m wondering if their roles were cut back in editing. As much as I love Mirren and Freeman, not a ton of effort is put forth on their part which is disturbingly becoming the norm for Freeman.

While the production design is mostly fairy tale-perfect, some of the sets and costumes look like they’ve been in storage just waiting for another Santa Clause film. Disney has spent a boatload of money and it’s all up there on the screen for audiences to see. There are some that will find the film hollow yet pretty on the outside and maybe that’s a fair assessment but I found it an enjoyable bit of holiday entertainment on a scale we haven’t had in some time. Directors Lasse Hallstrom (The Hypnotist) and Joe Johnston (Jurassic Park III) never the let movie spin too far out of control and punctuate it with a lovely finale.

Why Disney is releasing this movie so early in the season is beyond me. It’s likely they were weary of receiving a critical drubbing in a more targeted holiday release so instead they chose to open it just as the leaves were starting to change. I feel it would have been better suited to come out Thanksgiving weekend which would carry it into the Christmas holiday. I’m not yet in my Scrooge mood which is why I probably fell for the charms of The Nutcracker and the Four Realms a little easier than I normally would. I still would whole-heartedly recommend this as an ideal family film.

Movie Review ~ Bohemian Rhapsody

The Facts:

Synopsis: A chronicle of the years leading up to Queen’s legendary appearance at the Live Aid concert.

Stars: Rami Malek, Lucy Boynton, Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy, Joseph Mazzello, Aiden Gillen, Tom Hollander, Mike Myers

Director: Bryan Singer

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 134 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  It’s only fair to say first off that the best part of Bohemian Rhapsody, the biopic that’s not totally about Freddie Mercury but not really about Queen, is the final fifteen minutes.  That’s where the film finally draws some electricity and commands some attention from the audience.  As Mercury, star Rami Malek struts and poses with flair and gives off the kind of energy that’s been sorely missing for the previous two hours.  At my screening, you could almost feel the crowd waking up and making a connection with what was happening on screen. The problem with all this is that it’s nearly a shot for shot recreation of Queen’s Live Aid performance that you could easily watch for free on YouTube.  Why go to the movies to see something easily available at your personal fingertips?

The answer is Malek.

Let’s back up a bit, shall we?

Bohemian Rhapsody has finally arrived in theaters after a development process that could most kindly be called tortuous.  Over the years many directors have come and gone along with potential stars.  Once set to feature Sacha Baron Cohen as the late lead singer of Queen, he departed due to ‘creative differences’ and the film was eventually made with rising star Malek (Papillion) and director Bryan Singer (X-Men: Apocalypse).  When filming was nearly finished, Singer was fired from the picture after not showing up for work and whatever was left to shoot was taken up by producer Dexter Fletcher.  Though Singer’s name remains on the final product, the director is not doing press for the film and Malek’s own press junket has had some rocky moments.

If the film were anything memorable, this may all be a tragic series of unfortunate events but it’s so ho-hum and lazily assembled that you wonder why anyone put the effort in at all.  The film was produced by two surviving members of Queen and if you believe what is in the news they had a strong hand in guiding the movie to not make anyone look that bad, except for Freddie Mercury who isn’t alive to defend himself.  The screenplay by Anthony McCarten (Darkest Hour) and Peter Morgan (Rush) takes great lengths to show how Mercury caused the band to implode (though they never broke up as the film seems to suggest) and how the other members were model family men who contributed to the band’s success.

Playing like an abridged version of an already sanitized biography, the movie is never fully about the rise of Freddie who came from a traditional Pakistani family to become one of the most enigmatic but frustrating rock stars of his generation.  It also isn’t really about Queen whose virtuosic talents are heard courtesy of the greatest hits soundtrack but never felt as performed by the actors taking on the other members of the band. Instead, it awkwardly hops along a middle line that fails to deliver anything we couldn’t have learned from reading the Queen Wikipedia page. There’s head-scratching leaps in time and curious historical omissions, then there are the downright oddball choices like having Mike Myers play a music industry exec who rejects Queen’s epic anthem Bohemian Rhapsody outright saying no one will be rocking out to this in their car.  This from the actor that starred in Wayne’s World which featured a carful of metalheads rocking out to…guess what?  It’s an unnecessary bit of goopy meta humor, one of many kooky moments that happen in the movie.

While the men playing Brian May (Gwilym Lee), Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy, Only the Brave), and John Deacon (Joe Mazzello, Jurassic Park) acquit themselves in shallow roles, two performances keep the movie afloat and both actors are working their butts off to do so.  The first is Lucy Boynton (Murder on the Orient Express) as Freddie’s first love and fiancée before he comes out as gay.  Though he cheats on her she remains loyal to him first as a lover and then as a confidant.  When Freddie gets tangled up with a shady manager (Allen Leech, The Imitation Game) with personal and professional interests of his own, she’s the only one that calls Freddie out on his blindness and reminds him of who has always stuck by him.  Boynton turns up regularly in these types of roles but she aces them all.

Then there’s Malek who is the real reason you should consider seeing the movie at all.  Though saddled with a pair of false teeth to create Freddie’s pronounced overbite that feel two sizes to big, he brings out the loneliness felt by this star and that’s where some true emotion finally is felt.  Though it tends toward “poor Freddie with no friends and no companion” at times (again, what does this script have against him??) Malek manages to rise above all of that and find the heart if not totally the soul of the man. If only Malek was paired with a screenplay that was willing to be a warts and all tour of Queen’s journey to fame.

It all comes into focus, though, in those final fifteen minutes which are enough to send you out of the theater on a rock and roll high.  I felt it for a good day or so after I saw the film but the more I thought about the rest of the movie and it’s tuneless trappings the more I started to come back to earth.  Fans of Mercury and the band have likely been waiting a long time for this biopic and maybe they’ll get what they need out of this surface skimming endeavor – but I think it will take another set of filmmakers more removed from their subject to give us the real story.

Movie Review ~ Can You Ever Forgive Me?

The Facts:

Synopsis: When Lee Israel falls out of step with current tastes, she turns her art form to deception.

Stars: Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant, Dolly Wells, Jane Curtin, Ben Falcone, Anna Deavere Smith, Stephen Spinella

Director: Marielle Heller

Rated: R

Running Length: 106 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  I know we’re always supposed to be able to gaze beyond the actor and see them for more than their past roles but there was a moment in Can You Ever Forgive Me? that I looked at its star Melissa McCarthy and marveled that this was the same actress that frantically pooped in a sink in her Oscar nominated turn in Bridesmaids.  Though McCarthy has spent the years after her nomination in mostly comedic roles (Tammy, The Boss, The Heat, Life of the Party), she takes a striking detour for this true story based on the autobiography of author Lee Israel.  Gone (mostly) are the overzealous line readings desperate for laughs and the physical humor that had her laughing before we could.  In its place is an honesty McCarthy hasn’t yet showed on screen but is wholly appreciated.

In 1991 Lee Israel was a struggling writer of biographies.  Though she was a New York Times bestselling author, she’s suffering from a serious case of writer’s block and her agent (a brilliantly sardonic Jane Curtin) finally levels with her that ‘no one wants a biography on Fanny Brice’.  If Israel can’t find another topic to write about (and fix her brusque personality at the same time) her agent can no longer advocate for her with publishing houses.  Faced with unpaid rent and a sick cat, Lee resorts to selling a personal letter she received from Katherine Hepburn to a local collector, Anna (Dolly Wells, Bridget Jones’ Baby). When she comes across several letters stashed away in her materials on Fanny Brice and then nabs some more cash for those, Israel comes up with a plan.  She can use her own literary talents to falsify personal letters from celebrities and sell them to the collector willing to pay cash.  Soon, she’s writing in the style of Noël Coward, Dorothy Parker, and Marlene Dietrich and seeing her bills disappear.  Looping in sometime friend and drinking buddy Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms) to her scheme, her ambitions get loftier even while her grand plan starts to crumble around her.

Director Marielle Heller (Diary of a Teenage Girl) really gets the aesthetic of the material and creates a rather sad view of New York in the early ‘90s.  There’s little color to the film and it’s mostly played out in bars, bookshops, and apartments that have the kind of authenticity often difficult to convey on film.  She’s aided by the marvelous script from Jeff Whitty and Nicole Holofcener (Enough Said) who hone in on the personal problems the otherwise verbose Israel kept packed away.  There’s hardly one false or extraneous line of dialogue here, the hallmark of a well-crafted screenplay.  Adding to the atmosphere is Nate Heller’s jazz infused score that manages to mirror the inner thoughts of our characters and sets them to orchestral music.

In her mousy brown bowl cut and dull clothes that feel like constraining armor, McCarthy totally disappears into Israel and turns in her most accomplished work to date.  Israel was an out lesbian unlucky in love (largely by her own doing) and the mature unexpected flirtation between Israel and Anna will have you rooting for her not to mess it up.  By all accounts Israel kept most people at an arm’s length and a conversation with her former lover (the fantastic Anna Deavere Smith) gives great insight into what it was like to be her partner.  All of these nuanced moments are handled expertly by McCarthy.

As Jack Hock, Grant also has several brilliant moments to shine. Whether its smooth talking his way into Israel’s inner circle of one or sweet-talking collectors into buying Israel’s fake letters once they refuse to buy from her directly, he’s utterly captivating.  With his purring voice and steely eyes, Grant’s Hock is always playing either for fun or for his own benefit.  When Hock makes an honest mistake and gets upbraided by Israel for it, you can see the hurt and embarrassment he feels at failing a person he considered a friend.

In fact, Can You Ever Forvgive Me? doesn’t have one bad performance in the bunch.  Even the smallest roles are cast to perfection and many familiar character actors pop up in small parts.  I especially liked Curtin’s beleaguered agent who is maybe too nice to fully give Israel the boot but doesn’t hold back when giving her honest advice.  Then there’s Wells as the sensitive Anna who takes a liking to Israel, willing to look beyond the rough exterior and hoping to get a glance at what’s underneath.

I went into the movie not totally sure what ended up to the real Israel and I’d advise you to do the same.  Not knowing creates some genuine tension and I found myself unbelievably rooting for her to get away with it all because McCarthy has moved us to be squarely on her side.  This is a crowded year for acting recognition and while Grant is sure to get an Oscar nomination for his supporting turn it’s not a sure thing that McCarthy will be on the final list for Best Actress.  That would be a shame because, like Bridesmaids, this is a chance to reward an actress for bringing an unexpected performance to the screen.

31 Days to Scare ~ Suspiria (2018)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A darkness swirls at the center of a world-renowned dance company, one that will engulf the artistic director, an ambitious young dancer, and a grieving psychotherapist. Some will succumb to the nightmare. Others will finally wake up.

Stars: Tilda Swinton, Dakota Johnson, Mia Goth, Chloe Grace Moretz, Jessica Harper, Lutz Ebersdorf, Sylvie Testud

Director: Luca Guadagnino

Rated: R

Running Length: 152 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: Though Dario Argento’s 1977 film Suspiria has long been considered a giallo classic, filmmakers have been trying to remake it for decades. Most recently, it was going to be a project for Natalie Portman and director David Gordon Green, until arguments over the budget caused the in-demand duo to move on to other projects. Portman, who had begun training for the dancing in Suspiria, went on to win an Oscar for Black Swan, which was considered by many to be a film in the same vein. Though he had put a lot of heart and soul into his vision of Suspiria, even casting the film with some impressive names, Green wouldn’t delve into horror again until 2018 when he successfully rebooted Halloween.

The person that brought the project to Green was director Luca Guadagnino who met with Argento and his co-screenwriter Daria Nicolodi to get their blessing to remake the film. With Green on to other projects and Guadagnino gathering strong accolades for his work, plans continued to simmer until it was officially announced in 2015. Three years later we have what Guadagnino considers an homage to the original film instead of an outright remake. Though the original Suspiria will always have a place in the horror history books for it’s gorgeous production design and creative visuals, Guadagnino’s version is the superior one with the director and screenwriter David Kajganich holding nothing back. It may lack the color and vibrant gothic-ness of Argento’s vision but it takes the morsel of an idea Argento set on the plate and turns it into a five course banquet of riches.

Once again, the film is set in 1977 but the political unrest at the time is felt throughout and becomes a secondary character at times. Televisions broadcast news of a plane hijacking and there are demonstrations in the street from youths rebelling against their parents and grandparents who are being held responsible for the atrocities conducted in WWII. Into this mix comes American Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson, Fifty Shades of Grey) who has arrived from the safety of her Mennonite upbringing. Growing up Susie always felt out of place in her devout and traditional family but an early exposure to the Markos Dance Academy creates a strange pull to the modern dance pieces they originated. It was her dream to attend and after an impressive audition she is granted a spot in the company.

Susie has shown up right after the disappearance of Patricia (Chloe Grace Moretz, Dark Shadows) who we see at the beginning telling her therapist Jozef Klemperer that she thinks the academy is being run by witches. When Patricia vanishes completely, Klemperer begins to investigate on his own which will drum up painful memories of his past and endanger his future. At the same time, Susie is drawn deeper into the darkness that haunts the academy as well as the intoxicating aura of Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton, Only Lovers Left Alive) who takes her under her wing.

The bones of the film Argento created are still there, with Susie’s friends falling prey to an unseen evil but Guadagnino takes things further into more psychologically complex territory. With no male actors playing a major role in a film directed and written by men, the movie is completely void of a male point of view, a smart move made by Guadagnino and Kajganich to get out of the way of the imperious actresses hired to play their sinister characters. Suggesting the witchcraft at play is part of the undulating movements by the dance students and choreographed by Blanc, Guadagnino and Kajganich move away from our traditional thoughts of spells and sorcery.

As Susie, Johnson gets her best role to date, showing just how much the Fifty Shades series failed to utilize her strengths. Far more nuanced than the original character portrayed by Jessica Harper (who pops up in an important supporting role here), Johnson’s Susie is innocent but not naïve, green but not inexperienced, clever but not all-knowing. Where she begins at the start of the movie and where she ends are light years apart and Johnson skillfully takes us step by step through her journey. As Susie’s friend that begins to get more suspicious of her beloved academy and teachers, Mia Goth conveys a nice amount of terror as she becomes a target of evil and Moretz’s brief appearance fits in nicely with the paranoia of her character.

Guadagnino (Call Me By Your Name) has populated the staff of the academy with brilliant European actresses, all notable stars in their own right. It’s Swinton who is given center stage in not one, not two, but three different roles and the performances are, as expected, brilliant. That Swinton could so believably play multiple parts (and ages, and genders) is another tribute to her willingness to lose herself entirely in a role. The filmmakers at first tried to deny she was playing more than her central role of Madame Blanc but it quickly become a well-known fact that she was also playing Klemperer. The third role she’s playing I leave it to you to find out on your own.

As a horror film, the movie delivers the shocks in several truly disturbing sequences that I’ve honestly had trouble shaking off. If you get woozy at the sight of blood this is definitely not the film for you as the last third of the movie is drenched in the red stuff. That being said, the violence is effective because it is so straight-forward and horrifying, some of it coming out of nowhere. A dynamite sequence interspersed with the troupe performing a new piece is a harrowing experience. There are also quiet moments, such as an outstanding epilogue that conjure the kind of emotions not usually felt in a horror movie.  Special mention must go to Radiohead’s Thom Yorke for his first feature film score that is all moody creepiness and melds perfectly with several of Guadagnino’s uncompromising sequences.

As is the case with many of these overtly arty horror films, Suspiria isn’t for everyone…nor should it be. At 152 minutes it’s a commitment but one that I felt flew by in a flash. Your experience will likely be different than mine, but I’m hoping people go into this one with their eyes wide open, knowing it’s a challenging film on many levels. I found it to be a largely unforgettable winner and a loving homage to the 1977 original.

31 Days to Scare ~ Suspiria (1977)

The Facts:

Synopsis: An American newcomer to a prestigious German ballet academy comes to realize that the school is a front for something sinister amid a series of grisly murders.

Stars: Jessica Harper, Joan Bennett, Alida Valli, Stefania Casini, Flavio Bucci, Miguel Bosé, Barbara Magnolfi, Susanna Javicoli, Eva Axén

Director: Dario Argento

Rated: R

Running Length: 98 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: Few movies considered classics can truly live up to their reputation and I think it’s especially hard for horror movies to hold up as the years go by. Audiences have become too desensitized to extreme violence, cheap scares, and ‘gotcha’ twists that looking back on what was once considered cutting edge becomes increasingly difficult. I’ll admit that re-watching director Dario Argento’s Suspiria I was keenly aware of all the moments that someone experiencing it for the first time might roll their eyes or check their watch. This is a movie that favors art over substance and atmosphere over narrative, possibly making it a rough sit for those looking for a traditionally structured fright flick. However, if you can settle in and let Argento’s most celebrated picture work its magic on you, you’re going to get a huge reward.

By the time Suspiria was released, its director was already well known in the film world for his lavishly ornate visions of horror. In films like Deep Red and The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Argento had created a calling card of sorts for the look and feel of his films. Focusing on production design and complicated camera angles that often played a part in furthering the central mystery of his bloody thrillers, Argento’s films were unpredictable and quickly moved him to the top of the list of giallo filmmakers. Receiving good notices and distribution across Europe and the US for his earlier work, Argento hit a new level of box office success with Suspiria when it arrived in 1977 . We were at the tail end of the paranoid and demon possession horror entries of the early ‘70s (like The Exorcist) and a year before John Carpenter’s landmark Halloween gave birth to the slasher film. The timing was perfect for a movie that straddled the line between popular film and art-house exclusivity. Along comes Suspiria , dripping with amazing visuals and several hair-raising passages.

Arriving in Germany one rainy night, American Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper, Minority Report) has come to study dance at the renowned Tanz Dance Academy which is run by Madame Blanc (Joan Bennett, 1950’s Father of the Bride). She’s barely made it to the front door when she sees a frantic girl running out of the academy into the darkness. We follow the girl as she seeks asylym with her friend, only to be stalked and elaborately slaughtered by an unseen creature. The next day Suzy begins her studies under the watchful eye of Miss Tanner (a devilishly manic Alida Valli) and soon begins to experience strange visions while people start to die horrible deaths around her. As Suzy investigates more into the origins of the academy, she begins to suspect it’s being run by a coven of witches who are more than willing to trim their student roster if anyone steps out of line.

There are many unforgettable sequences bestowed upon us by Argento. From the opening kill to a spooky death in a shadowy courtyard, the master takes his time toying with the victim and us. An extended chase sequence that ends with the victim falling into a nest of barbed wire is satisfying but feels like it plays out in real time. It’s all accompanied by a downright eerie score from frequent Argento collaborator, The Goblin. Having seen multiple Argento films I know the director likes to proceed slowly and with precision, often to the exhaustion of the viewer. There are times when you’re wondering how anyone could fall victim to a killer that moves so deliberately but it’s all constructed with such elegance you have to admire the effort.

Narrative has never been Argento’s strong-suit and having seen the remake of Suspiria released in 2018 before re-watching this I see how simple his idea for the film is. There’s nothing too deep about what he’s trying to say and while the overall impact of the movie is profound it’s hard to argue there’s very little story to sink your teeth into. Even a late in the game cameo by Udo Kier (Downsizing) as a professor who provides information on witches to Suzy doesn’t fully resonate.

Though Argento would receive critique throughout his career for not being overly kind to his female characters, there are several strong women in the film that are shown to have their wits about them. Harper’s wide eyes and general mousiness take her a long way in establishing her stranger in a strange country approach but her line delivery (even those that weren’t dubbed by her later) feels a little comatose. That stands in stark contrast to Bennett who speaks each of her lines without punctuation, pause, or purpose. She just sort of exhales and words happen to come with it. Most of the film was dubbed after the fact, creating some moments that are in sync and others that are way off.

This was the first film in a trilogy of movies surrounding covens of witches that Argento imagined. The second, Inferno, came out in 1980 and the final, Mother of Tears, arrived without much fanfare in 2007. I’ve yet to see the final film but Inferno suffers from much of the same issues present in Suspiria – a lot of great looking visuals without a truly intriguing story. There’s no question Suspiria deserves it’s spot on the list of influential horror films in history and you should absolutely see it, just be prepared for a pretty exterior and a frustratingly hollow center.

31 Days to Scare ~ Beetlejuice (1988)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A recently-deceased husband and wife commission a bizarre demon to drive an obnoxious family out of their home

Stars: Alec Baldwin, Geena Davis, Michael Keaton, Jeffrey Jones, Catherine O’Hara, Winona Ryder

Director: Tim Burton

Rated: PG

Running Length: 92 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review:  Some movies feel like great equalizers, something we all can agree on even when we disagree on most everything else.  For me, Beetlejuice is one of those movies.  Even the hardest of hearts and the most unpleasant of critics are able to find something to praise in this loads of fun horror comedy first released in 1988.  Now celebrating it’s 30th Anniversary (and with a musical stage adaptation headed for Broadway in 2019), it’s a great time to revisit ‘the ghost with the most’ in all his ribald glory.

Director Tim Burton cut his teeth with many darkly comic shorts in the early ‘80s, making his big screen debut with Pee Wee’s Big Adventure in 1985.  Three years after that and one year before he’d officially be catapulted into the A-List with the summer smash, career-defining adaption of Batman, he gave us this endlessly creative and visually captivating flick.  Though originally intended to be a much darker film (and almost starring Sammy Davis Jr. as the titular character) it was wisely steered in the direction of going for more laughs than shrieks.  Sure, there are scary parts to Beetlejuice but with its focus on dynamite practical effects and ingenious make-up (which would win an Oscar) the majority of film wants to make your jaw drop in awe instead of in a scream.

Adam and Barbara Maitland are just settling in to a two-week vacation at their home in postcard perfect Winter River, CT when they die in a car crash after careening off a picturesque covered bridge.  They find themselves trapped on earth in their previous home with its new tenants, pretentious NYC transplants. Though they try to get rid of the family first in their own newbie ghostly way, they eventually summon Beetlejuice, a bio-exorcist for the undead that has more effective ways of cleaning house.  When Beetlejuice sets his sights on marrying the goth daughter of the owners, the Matilands take further action to evict the trouble-making exorcist.

Though later on in his career Burton would use his actors more like scenery in service to his muddy CGI vision (yikes! Sweeney Todd!) here he has cast the film to absolute perfection.  Alec Baldwin (Aloha) and Geena Davis (A League of Their Own) ably play the slightly square recently deceased couple who sees their house go from Norman Rockwell perfection to new wave mania.  It’s fun to see Jeffrey Jones (Howard the Duck) and Catherine O’Hara (Frankenweenie) play off of each other’s small town discomfort in a Green Acres-sorta way.  The film also nicely introduces Winona Ryder (Mermaids) to a larger audience with Ryder nailing her adolescent ambivalence toward most everything she comes in contact with.

Even if he has the least screen time of any of the principal actors, when you hear the word Beetlejuice you can’t help but instantly think of Michael Keaton (Spotlight, Gung-Ho, Pacific Heights).  Making the most out of his limited appearances, Keaton is a live wire with enough energy to practically lift him off of the ground.  His make-up and costuming could have been limiting or in the hands of a lesser actor could have done the work for him but Keaton mines every opportunity to go big before he goes home.  If the Oscars had been a bit more free-thinking, it’s the kind of memorable performance that should have put Keaton into the awards discussion as an outside of the box nominee for Best Supporting Actor.

While Burton (Dark Shadows, Big Eyes) would go on to create they moody Batman and its sequel, he never has returned to this type of free-wheeling carnival of fun and that’s a damn shame.  He clearly knows his way around this tone and finds a perfect balance throughout.  When CGI became more available he started to rely on that way too much and all but abandoned the kind of in-camera effects and large scale production design employed here.  While his next film, Dumbo, looks like a heart-tugging triumph…all I can see is the overuse of CGI again.  If anything, Beetlejuice remains a reminder of the kind of filmmaker Burton originally started out as and what I hope he’ll continue to work back toward being.

This is one of the rare movies I manage to see at least once a year.  I watched it on a plane back in January and then attended a 30th Anniversary Screening of it recently and I could easily see watching it again before the year is through.   I’m seeing the musical in a month so I have a lot of Beetlejuice in my life right now…and so should you!