31 Days to Scare ~ The Witches

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The Facts:

Synopsis: In 1967 an orphaned boy and his grandmother find themselves in an unexpected battle against a coven of glamorous witches.

Stars: Anne Hathaway, Octavia Spencer, Jahzir Bruno, Stanley Tucci, Chris Rock, Kristin Chenoweth, Josette Simon, Codie-Lei Eastick, Charles Edwards, Morgana Robinson

Director: Robert Zemeckis

Rated: PG

Running Length: 106 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: Oh, but do I love the 1990 adaptation of Roald Dahl’s 1983 fantasy book The Witches.  How much do I love it?  At our local discount movie theater I managed to see it a whopping ten times when it played for several weeks on account of its good business in the later months of 1990.  Though it failed to catch major fire at the main box office, it’s gone on to become one of those movies you can mention to kids who grew up in that generation and they’ll light up recalling their memories of their first or forty-first time seeing it.  The practical effects by Jim Henson (it was the last film the creative puppeteer/designer personally oversaw), the wickedly wonderful performance from Anjelica Huston as the Grand High Witch, and a lovely overall production shaped by director Nicolas Roeg made The Witches a nicely askew family film.  A rare treat in those tricky times.

Full disclosure, I was fairly incredulous when I heard the news director Robert Zemeckis was undertaking a remake of The Witches for Warner Brothers and it’s not just because I was feeling a little protective of a childhood favorite.  Zemeckis had a decidedly spotty track record over the past decade with Welcome to Marwen (awful), Allied (good but forgotten), The Walk (more technical than personable), and Flight (compelling but also not entirely memorable) unable to create the same excitement as the Oscar-winning director’s phenomenal run in the ‘80s and ‘90s.  With Academy Award-winners Anne Hathaway (The Hustle) and Octavia Spencer (Ma) joining the cast and word of the script being a collaboration between Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water) and Kenya Barris (Girls Trip)…my initial reaction began to soften.

Around the same time, I heard del Toro and Barris had shifted the setting from England to the South in the 1960’s and suddenly…I was totally sold on it.  It was a brilliant idea to make this change and taking the opportunity to utilize the time period of the ‘60s and oceanside location was a great way to update Dahl’s original upper crust seaside resort. It also helped provide an easy solution to the lack of diversity in the previous version – now the film has the look and feel of Alabama in the waning days of 1967 when a young boy from Chicago (Jahzir Bruno) loses his parents and comes to live with his grandmother (Spencer) in the fictional southern city of Demopolis.  Other than these geographic changes and a few adjustments along the way, little more had to be done to get The Witches on its broomstick and off on some high flying fun.

When a snowy car crash claims his parents, a big city youngster is taken in by his small town grandmother.  At first, the boy lacks any will to do much of anything, despite his grandmother’s best efforts to break him out of his funk.  Eventually, a pet mouse encourages him out of his shell…just in time for a local witch to make her presence known.  Alerting his grandmother to the strange woman with a raspy voice, gloved hands, and odd lines on the side of her mouth, she tells him the truth about witches inlcuding how to spot one, and how they despise children more than anything.  Dabbling in a bit of magic herself, the grandmother senses danger is close and whisks the boy away to a luxe resort presided over by a stuffy hotel manager (Stanley Tucci, Beauty & the Beast) where they’ll be safe…if it wasn’t for the convention of witches that have arrived on the very same day.  Now, they’ll have to outsmart the Grand High Witch (Hathaway) who has devised a sinister plot to rid the world of all children with a mere drop of a special potion.

Sticking closer to Dahl’s original story (ending and all) than the 1990 film, Zemeckis has returned to the kind of full-out fantasy storytelling he was so good at in the Back to the Future series and the dynamic blending of special effects with live-action performances he pioneered in 1992’s Death Becomes Her.  The production design throughout is pristine, as are the colorful costumes (and wigs) worn by the witches and especially Hathaway’s killer garb.  I appreciated the focus first on character building before getting to the witch-y business and Zemeckis takes his time getting to the convention, by that time we’ve grown attached to the boy and his grandmother so we are completely invested in their surviving this battle royale with demon do-baddies.  Though it eventually gives way to a series of sequences dependent on believable effects, the film isn’t entirely beholden to its computer generated imagery as has been the case for a number of Zemeckis films.

In my original review of Roeg’s The Witches, I mentioned how I thought that film was too scary for young children, but this outdoes that one by a mile.  These witches have large mouths that open like wolves, noses that expand, and appendages that give the special effects folks space to let their imaginations run wild.  All of the CGI looks stellar and is convincing in the context of the world Zemeckis has established, but it does ratchet up the intensity as the ferocious faces and claws almost appear to push out into the screen…and if you know Zemeckis you know he loves a close-up of his work.  This is absolutely, positively, not for young children.  For adults, however, it’s tremendous fun that also has moments of riotous humor sprinkled throughout.

Like Huston before her, Hathaway is practically drooling with delight throughout the film and you get the impression she may have offered to pay the producers back some of her salary because she had such a good time.  She’s sets the tone for the rest of the witches who factor in less than the original, so much so that they are almost a non-entity – I would have liked to have a few of them step out more and had their own development but by and large it’s a one-witch-show with Hathaway dominating their scenes.  She’s paralleled nicely by Spencer as the warm-hearted but tough-love dispensing heroine who has already dealt with a witch before once and lived to tell the tale and doesn’t intend to let her grandson fall victim on her watch.  The children, Bruno and Codie-Lei Eastick (Holmes & Watson), do most of their work in voice-over and still manage to create commendable characters from just their voices.  Speaking of voices, Chris Rock (What To Expect When You’re Expecting) narrates the story with a gruff sparkle that kicks things off with a jolt of energy.

It must be the destiny of The Witches to fall flat at the ending and while this follows the book’s finale closer than before the ending that’s included here feels rather perfunctory and tacked on.  It’s almost as if del Toro, Barris, and Zemeckis weren’t quite ready to end things so they just stopped filming one day and never came back.  The rest of the film is so satisfyingly entertaining that these final moments are a strange deflation after so much puffing up.  Originally intended for release in theaters until the pandemic derailed the plans, it’s a real shame The Witches isn’t getting a debut on the big screen because it would have looked fantastic projected on a large scale to enjoy the world the creators have brought to life.  Available to stream on HBOMax in time for Halloween is a good substitute, though, and this is by far one of the best offerings I’ve seen so far this season to consider for your October 31st selection.  A truly wonderful remake.

Movie Review ~ Borat Subsequent Moviefilm

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Kazakh funnyman Borat risks life and limb when he returns to America with his young daughter to take on a pandemic as well as politics.

Stars: Sacha Baron Cohen, Maria Bakalova, Mike Pence, Rudolph Giuliani

Director: Jason Woliner

Rated: R

Running Length: 95 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  It’s almost fitting that in a month where I’m running a series called 31 Days to Scare I’d also happen to screen a movie with a premise that makes me squirm more than any horror film out there.  There’s something about watching normal, everyday people being interviewed or at the center of an elaborate set-up where they aren’t in on the joke that makes me incredibly uncomfortable – it’s just not a space I like to live in, though I know it’s a sweet spot for a number of viewers.  Still, I watch through the kind of splayed fingers that I imagine many would screen a slasher film or gooey alien science fiction picture, feeling my blood pressure rise the longer the gag goes on.

Fourteen years ago, British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen brought Borat Sagdiyev, his popular Kazakh journalist character that came to prominence on Cohen’s lightening rod program Da Ali G Show, to the screen.  That film, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, was made on a miniscule budget but was a runaway hit that saw its box office grow week after week and it’s title character’s quotable catchphrases enter the vocabulary almost instantly.  It also nabbed an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay, not too shabby for a film that featured large chunks of improvisation and introduced many audience members to the mankini.

Since that time, Baron Cohen has found ways to bring Borat back but he’s such a recognizable character that it was next to impossible to make a follow-up and capture that same innocence.  His subsequent attempts at new creations or taking the same route with other of his sketch eccentrics haven’t caught fire the same way, though Baron Cohen has gained some ground in feature films that allow him to stretch in other ways, most recently in The Trial of the Chicago 7 for Netflix.  Throughout the last year there had been rumors of Borat sightings and news of Baron Cohen’s run-ins with the law at key events gave the impression he might be up to something.

It shouldn’t come as a huge surprise, then, to have seen the announcement that Borat Subsequent Moviefilm (shortened from, well, something longer) was not only a go but already done, edited, in the can, and ready for release on October 23 through Amazon Prime Video.  In the past, Baron Cohen said that if he did release another film that followed in the same footsteps as the original Borat it would be closer to an election to better highlight the failures of democracy and after viewing the sequel under a veil of steely secrecy I can see why.  No mistake should be made about the timing of this release, and if you’re reading this in the future remember that the third presidential debate is scheduled for October 22, the election is less than two weeks away, and someone in this film working for the Trump administration has been desperately trying to stir up trouble for the opposition in advance as a way to distract from an incident captured here that will surely come back to haunt him.

My first reaction to Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is that it’s missing the lightness that made the original have such near universal appeal.  In creating a character that was so misguided and culturally insensitive, Baron Cohen was able to represent a large swath of the world having their eyes opened at the same time – and in 2007 that still meant something.  Consider that since the first film was released the musical The Book of Mormon debuted to astounding acclaim and it covered similar ground using reverse satire and shockingly un-PC language to skewer topics of race and religion.  There’s an attempt to create a similar reaction in this sequel film but viewed through the 2020 lens it just doesn’t have the same impact because we’re not in that headspace of easy alignment, our division has grown too far and the message already conveyed via better methods.  So the abnormalities he’s shining a light on seem less vital and easier targets than what had once been interesting underground groups before.

Disgraced after his previous trip to America resulted in a film that embarrassed everyone in his country, Borat has spent the last decade breaking rocks in a grueling prison.  However, now that the government is pleased that “Obama’s reign of terror” is over, they are interested in making friends with their favorite supreme leader Donald Trump and, more importantly, Vice President Mike Pence and they decide to send Borat to offer a bribe of sorts to gain back the trust of the US.  Without his right-hand man (funnyman Ken Davitian is sadly missed here), Borat has only his stowaway daughter (Maria Bakalova) who becomes the back-up gift intended for Pence after the tragic demise of the first present. (Don’t ask).

Together, Borat and daughter move throughout America encountering locals who barely (unbelievably in some cases) bat at eye at the ludicrous situations a disguised Borat/Baron Cohen introduces them to and making over the daughter into a “Melania”.  A number of these sequences have the requisite effect of laughs but more than a few are in such poor taste even from a social commentary standpoint that you just feel awkward for everyone involved.  There are two people (women, naturally) that seem to take the antics seriously and, more importantly, to heart.  The time they take to have an actual conversation with the Bakalova and Baron Cohen are the most genuine moments in the film, the reinforcement of the good in our communities.  It’s worth nothing one of these women passed away after and the family is suing the producers for false representation, though I think she’s the one that handles herself with the most grace.

The moment that is sure to be talked about, though, and which I’m not going to spoil for you comes near the end of the film and it involves Bakalova’s interview with a certain former Mayor of a particular city known for its Broadway shows and Yankee baseball team.  It’s the part of the film I thought I was going to have to leave the room or not watch at all because it was too stressful…and then it takes things a step further and I was truly, completely, stunned.  If Borat Subsequent Moviefilm was looking to be part of the conversation leading up to the election…this is the scene that will make it happen.  And it should be talked about.  It’s right there on tope. That’s all I’ll say.

I still find the film lacking in an overall point, though.  The observations aren’t fresh and even the gags in the storyline (a whopping eight writers contributed to this) don’t feel that inspired.  Are period jokes, Holocaust deniers, and abortion riffs still the most shocking things that will get Americans going?  I hate to say that the production lucked out with the onset of COVID-19 but it definitely gave them more material to work with and exploit, not to mention it provided them with a key plot point that feels like the late-in-the-process script change it most certainly was.  What this feels like to me more than anything is Baron Cohen and his team having a thin idea for a plot but when they landed on something of importance within one of their typical ‘gotcha gags’ the rest was rushed to completion, forgetting to add the same creativity springing from curiosity into Borat Subsequent Moviefilm.

31 Days to Scare ~ Rebecca (2020)

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A young newlywed arrives at her husband’s imposing family estate on a windswept English coast and finds herself battling the shadow of his first wife, whose legacy lives on in the house long after her death.

Stars: Lily James, Armie Hammer, Kristin Scott Thomas, Keeley Hawes, Sam Riley, Anna Dowd, Bill Paterson

Director: Ben Wheatley

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 123 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  Ah…remakes.  They’re a funny thing, aren’t they?  Sometimes you find a film that is so perfect that to remake it would seem like blasphemy but with a clever way in and enough time between the original it just might work.  Then there are the re-dos for the sake of lining the pockets of investors and those, dear reader, never turn out well.  What about the remake that is perfectly fine, entertaining but sort of listless and doesn’t really fit into any category in the good or bad column?  These are the ones you have to think a little harder about, because they require some effort to review.  To make that final judgement you’ll have to dig a little deeper in your feelings.

First published in 1938, Daphne du Maurier’s (The Birds) gothic novel Rebecca has been a best-seller that has never gone out of print and it’s not hard to see why.  There’s a little something for everyone in the story of a shy girl who falls for a haunted man and it’s no wonder that director Alfred Hitchcock saw fit to turn the novel into a film in short order.  Nominated for 11 Oscars and winning two in 1940, including Best Picture, Rebecca set a high water mark for slow-burn mysteries that didn’t need to boil over to be highly effective.  The performances in Hitchcock’s film are legendary, particularly Judith Anderson’s unnerving presence as housekeeper Mrs. Danvers.

Over the years, Rebecca has been adapted for a number of mediums, and if you want a good lunchtime read, look up the lawsuit surrounding the failed attempt to bring it to Broadway as a musical.  It’s a doozy.  Yet for all the various versions of the work it’s been quite some time since the material was reexamined and provided a fresh adaptation and that’s what’s been worked out in a new production debuting on Netflix.  With a screenplay by Jane Goldman (The Woman in Black), Joe Shrapnel (Race), and Anna Waterhouse (Seberg), that pays homage to the novel in ways the 1940 version couldn’t while providing its own tweaks along the way, this Rebecca is grand in scale and design yet somehow less atmospheric than the original Oscar winner and I think I have an idea why.

First…let’s talk plot.  Lily James (Darkest Hour) plays a young girl (it took me until ¾ of the way through to remember we never learn her first name) who has no family to speak of caught up in a whirlwind romance with handsome widower Maxim de Winter while working for a aging ninny (Ann Dowd, Bachelorette) in Monte Carlo.  Accompanying him back to Manderley, his opulent English seaside estate presided over by the perilous head of household, Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas, Military Wives), it’s obvious from the start this new life is going to be a tough adjustment.  Not that she receives much help from her husband (Armie Hammer, Call Me by Your Name) or the household staff, many of who seem to still be loyal to the first Mrs. de Winter.

The longer the new Mrs. de Winter stays at Manderley, the more curious she becomes with her predecessor and the power she seems to have had over everyone.  More than that, it feels as if Mrs. Danvers is actively trying to keep Rebecca’s seat at the table unoccupied for her eventual return…meaning the new bride should be careful who she trusts.  With her new husband sleepwalking often into the wing of the house he shared with Rebecca, occasional visions of a mysterious woman in a red dress, and a cliffside boathouse holding secrets that will reveal more about the goings-on at Manderley, the new Mrs. de Winter launches her own fact-finding mission to discover the truth.  Then, a body is found nearby.

It was exciting to find out this new Rebecca was being directed by Ben Wheatley who was behind the terrifying Kill List from several years back (an early entry on 31 Days to Scare, by the way).  I knew Rebecca wasn’t exactly a “scare” kind of picture but more of the “dramatic suspense” sort of genre so I’m shoehorning this in a bit but I expected Wheatley to take this a little further than he does…and even then it’s not as sharp as it could have been.  Instead, I think Wheatley and the screenwriters focused on making their film a classy-first affair and resisted the urge to sully it with anything that could detract or distract from the love story (haunted or otherwise) at its center.  Fans will either appreciate that (if you like the book) or be disappointed (if you like the director).  Me, I leaned more toward the appreciation side of the fence because it’s all handled with a high level of craftsmanship, from the striking costumes to the gorgeous production design.  What it lacks in high stakes it makes up for in high quality.

Casting was key to this and I wouldn’t have wanted to fill the shoes of any of the three leads – all of them had an uphill battle but I think they all slid down the other side without any skinned knees.  Hammer likely struggles the most but only because it’s the toughest nut of a part to crack and he’s following in the footsteps of Laurence Olivier…unenviable.  Still, he looks great in a suit (though doesn’t look remotely like he belongs in this time period).  First becoming a start on Downton Abbey, James curiously also doesn’t quite look like she belongs in this era, although her change from naïve girl to devoted wife is quite convincing.  Make no doubt about it, the best role in Rebecca is Mrs. Danvers and Scott Thomas enters the film, sits down, puts her napkin in her lap, and proceeds to make a meal out of her role and then finishes everyone else’s plate for good measure.  Nothing will ever erase Judith Anderson’s searing performance but Scott Thomas comes awfully close…it’s a treasure.

I need to go back and watch the 1940 Rebecca again because I failed to do that before watching the new version; however I almost preferred to go in with just the memories of the original on my mind and not having it quite so fresh.  That way, I didn’t have the ghost of that haunting me like the woman herself haunted all the people at Manderley.  I think this new version acquits itself nicely.  It looks terrific and has two solid performances and one that’s a must-see.

31 Days to Scare ~ Memories of Murder

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: In a small Korean province in 1986, two detectives struggle with the case of multiple young women being found raped and murdered by an unknown culprit.

Stars: Kang-ho Song, Sang-kyung Kim, Roe-ha Kim

Director: Bong Joon Ho

Rated: NR

Running Length: 132 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  With the landmark, well-deserved victory for South Korean director Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite at the Academy Awards last year (can you remember that far back?), not to mention the director himself taking home an additional two statues for Best Original Screenplay and Best Director, it seemed only natural that his previous films would come up in conversation.  He’d already been riding a nice wave of admiration with Okja for Netflix in 2017 and 2013’s Snowpiercer which is where he truly broke through to a US audience.  I first came to know his work with the monster movie The Host in 2006 but also was familiar with him from 2009’s Mother (don’t get it confused with the grody mother! from 2017) – so I felt I’d already had a good primer for his work.

One film had eluded me, though, and it happened to be the one that many cite as his best of all so it was just my luck that indie movie studio Neon (which released Parasite and has been crushing it with honing in on the next big thing lately) is re-releasing it in a special version.  Remastered and showing for two special nights before becoming more widely available, 2003’s Memories of Murder is director Bong’s epic crime saga that follows a police investigation of a serial murder/rapist on the hunt in a remote Korean town.  The hype was high for this before I pressed play and I was expecting the same skill on display in Parasite…which makes the feelings I had by the end that much more disappointing.

I struggled for a while to find exactly what turned me off so much about Memories of Murder but perhaps it’s a cultural thing that I never warmed to.  There’s a deeply misogynistic and repressive feeling to the film, with gruff men exuding force to get their way and ignoring all others who might argue otherwise.  This is true for both the good and the bad individuals in the world director Bong has created and by the end of the very long running length you feel like you haven’t come up for air all day.  The overarching message that appears to be relayed is that strong men take what they want and the weak, infirm, handicapped, minority, gay, female, will subjugate to them at all costs.  It’s likely the intent to illustrate some point that’s never made completely clear but it makes the movie a tough, ugly sit and therefore it isn’t one I’d ever want to return to for a second viewing.

It’s very much your standard serial murder story with women being brutally tortured, killed, and then defiled after the fact.  (As is director Bong’s fascination, a fuzzy fruit plays a twisted part of the killer’s calling card.)  The police investigation into the crimes is hackneyed with little technology available in the mid-1980s setting and hardly any attention really paid to the slayings at first.  The methods of extricating confessions from potential suspects is problematic to say the least and a number of detainees are cornered and subjected to heinous treatment based solely on hunches.  If it all led to something of substance, you might be able to rationalize out the means to an end but it spills out into a void of nothingness that stretches on for infinity.

If I’m being honest, I’m a little surprised Memories of Murder is the film that’s singled out as representative of the kind of filmmaker director Bong wanted to be.  Every film after this seems to have gotten more sophisticated and more attune to the governance of human decency toward others.  I haven’t loved each of his films (I thought The Host was terribly overrated, so you can do with that what you will) but have found them to carry some sort of balance to them.  Not here.  This is a grim, grimy experience and while it may have its share of chilling imagery and a plot that mirrors a number of similar serial killer films found in the US, it’s insistence of wallowing and then pressing our face in it didn’t work for me at all.

31 Days to Scare ~ Happy Halloween: A Halloween Kills Fan Film

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The Facts:

Synopsis: In this lost scene from Halloween 2018, a police officer, a trick-or-treater and three high school friends have a deadly encounter with THE SHAPE.

Stars: Vincente Disanti, Berlin Edmond, Landon Strain, Mark Gonzalez, George Champane, Jimmy Champane, Ryan Becker

Directors: Courtlan Gordon & Jimmy Champane

Running Length: 14 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Up until yesterday, I had every intention of using today’s entry to look back at Rob Zombie’s 2007 remake of Halloween and the 2009 sequel that was very much his own vision of a follow-up.  I’d watched the films again after a number of years and gritted my teeth through Zombie’s unfortunate fixation on finding meaning behind Michael Myers actions and wanting to explain away the violence that tore through Haddonfield.  Frankly, Zombie just didn’t understand that what made John Carpenter’s original film and even the subsequent sequels so scary was that there was no motivation and the more the franchise tried to put a purpose on the perpetrator, the less frightening he became and the less it all made sense.  I can’t even begin to dissect the sequel which a cache of fans actually feel is better than the Zombie’s remake because it externalizes PTSD.  No thank you, and no more please.

Instead, I was pleased to get wind of a something I’ve yet to cover on 31 Days to Scare and it’s the legendary fan film phenomenon that’s been around for some time.  In between sequels that can cause long gaps between films, ardent followers of their favorite characters will either spend their time writing stories that spin the character off in another direction or continue the plot after the previous entry ended.  In this age where you can make a movie with your iPhone and simple editing software, aficionados are more likely to attempt a film to bridge that length of time…many to less that stellar results.  I’ve gone down a YouTube rabbit hole many times and spent anywhere from 20 seconds to 20 minutes watching projects that showed what happened after the shark exploded, after the priest fell down the steps, and even what went on before the counselors arrived at Camp Crystal Lake.

With the coronavirus bumping out Halloween Kills, the sequel to 2018’s Halloween, out an entire year, those longing for that middle part of the trilogy which hopefully laid the groundwork for a resolution of the Laurie Strode/Michael Myers story, were going to be left empty-handed come October 31st.  Thankfully, fans Courtlan Gordon & Jimmy Champane had our best interest at heart and have released Happy Halloween: A Halloween Kills Fan Film, a fairly striking short film produced with no budget and is a true labor of love.  Supposedly a lost scene from the 2018 film, it’s brief and brutal and what it lacks in production value it more than makes up for in the type of gore and atmosphere showcased in the best entries of the series.

The structure is a bit odd and I won’t give away why but let’s just say that Michael Myers is doing his thing and doesn’t run into many obstacles along the way.  Gordon and Champane appear to only be concerned with seeing their friends get sliced and diced in gruesome ways and the effects are impressive considering this was touted as being produced with no funds.  I’d be interested to hear what the filmmakers of the official franchise think about this effort and wouldn’t be shocked to see the two directors get involved in some kind of low-budget horror film in the near future, they’ve clearly got an eye for the genre and how to stage a stalk and stab scene on a nickel and a dime.  It may only be a fun size bar of candy but Happy Halloween: A Halloween Kills Fan Film is exactly the kind of treat you’re looking for.

Here’s the film if you’re ready to watch it now:

31 Days to Scare ~ Anaconda

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A film crew traveling on the Amazon River is taken hostage by an insane hunter, who forces them along on his quest to capture the world’s largest – and deadliest – snake.

Stars: Jennifer Lopez, Ice Cube, Jon Voight, Eric Stoltz, Jonathan Hyde, Owen Wilson, Kari Wuhrer

Director: Luis Llosa

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 89 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: If there’s one thing you should have gathered by now if you follow this blog on any kind of regular basis, it’s that The MN Movie Man loves a good creature feature.  Though they often fail to meet their potential, I’m notoriously a sucker and pretty forgiving for any movie that has a slimy monster, razor toothed alien, or, best of all, some underwater beast.  Big studios have become averse to toss their money toward these movies because they’re often heavy on CGI or animatronic effects, which increases the costs significantly, making the possibility to turn a profit more difficult for a genre that gets the most bang on opening weekend. However, don’t forget that in the late ’90s the teen slasher film was back on the rise so young audiences looking for thrills were being catered to more than ever. So while Sony was getting I Know What You Did Last Summer into production and ready for release, they already had a stealthy sleeper hit ready to slither into theaters in early 1997.

Keep in mind that when Anaconda was released in April of 1997, it carried with it a $45 million dollar price tag and a cast not known for raking in audiences.  Oscar-winner Jon Voight (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) wasn’t exactly a cover story anymore and Ice Cube (21 Jump Street) the actor wasn’t nearly as popular as Ice Cube the rapper.  Eric Stoltz (Kicking and Screaming) was more recognized for his brief turn in Pulp Fiction than he was for his dynamite roles in 1987’s Some Kind of Wonderful or 1985’s Mask and Owen Wilson (Zoolander 2) was just perfecting  his California surfer boy cool vibe that would land him a number of roles for the next two decades.  Then there was female lead Jennifer Lopez (Second Act) who we now always remember as being a star but back then hadn’t yet fully capitalized on her sensational breakthrough in Selena — that would happen in 1998’s Out of Sight.

So there was nothing to suggest Anaconda would be anything more than a silly B-movie of with a decent mechanical snake that would be substituted for a semi-convincing computer generated one for the fast moving shots.  And you know what?  That’s exactly what it is…and it’s great.  Sometimes it’s nice to just kick off your shoes and relax into a horror film that’s going to give you a little zing but isn’t going to to send you leaping out of your seat every six seconds.  There’s a particular level of fun to be had with a film like Anaconda because it gives you exactly what it promises (and a little extra) and doesn’t overstay its welcome.  It’s campy but in all the right ways and takes itself only as seriously as the material will allow — to spoof it or make it joke-y would spell disaster so the cast (and even the snake) seem to have a tiny twinkle in their eye.

Not that it really matters, but the plot finds a film crew led by Stolz and Lopez floating down the Amazon that picks up a stranded man (Voight) who turns out to be a psycho snake hunter.  He’s obsessed with capturing a large anaconda said to lurk in the waters far off the beaten path and takes control of the expedition so that he may use their boat to get where he’s going.  Looping crew member Wilson into his plot, Voight (sporting an accent questionable for its authenticity and political correctness) may prove to be more dangerous than the snake as the rest of the cast fights to survive being offed by him before the snake can give them a good squeeze.  Director Luis Llosa keeps the action brisk and and, considering the deadly subject matter, surprisingly jovial.

When the snake does appear, the results are mostly good but can be mixed at times thanks to mediocre CGI that can make its actual size confusing.  The practical snake is finely detailed and quite effective but the computer generated one looks an awful lot like a cartoon in some shots.  Then again, the editing is so fast and quick that you don’t get much time to see it in full and Llosa goes the Spielberg route and keeps it out of sight as much as possible for as long as he can.

Ultimately, it’s a solid effort and for the time period the movie was made you can see where the money went…although you look at a movie like Jaws and wonder how they made such a realistic shark in 1975 with absolutely no computer effects yet twenty two years later they can’t make an anaconda go from point A to point B and appear mostly convincing?  Say what you will about Voight nowadays but he’s never less than fully committed to the role and the loopy performance…and his famous “wink” scene is well worth the wait.  You don’t get a huge sense of the star Lopez would become but there’s definitely something there that makes you want to see more.  Audiences clearly were charmed by this big snake film because Anacadona wound up rattling the box office with a final take of nearly $137 million dollars.  It’s no wonder it was followed with several sequels of gradually decreasing quality, many of which bypassed theaters entirely.  There’s nothing quite as entertaining as the original and it holds up well even now.

Special Series ~ 56th Chicago International Film Festival – Update

I’m currently providing coverage for the 56th Chicago International Film Festival.

Click here for my latest updates on two new titles, the German horror film Sleep and Sweat from Poland.

 

Movie Review ~ The Trial of the Chicago 7

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The Facts
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Synopsis: The story of seven people on trial stemming from various charges surrounding the uprising at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Illinois.

Stars: Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Sacha Baron Cohen, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Keaton, Frank Langella, John Carroll Lynch, Eddie Redmayne, Mark Rylance, Alex Sharp, Jeremy Strong, Daniel Flaherty, Noah Robbins

Director: Aaron Sorkin

Rated: R

Running Length: 129 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: All of these years I knew I had a good education in high school and in college.  I keep up with the news, I read books, I watch enough Jeopardy! and movies and television to know a thing or two about a thing or two but I almost comically have to admit something.  History buffs, please put down your virtual stones and don’t hate me but I wasn’t familiar with the Chicago 7 before I fired up The Trial of the Chicago 7, now available to stream on Netflix.  Weird, right?  The names Tom Hayden, Abbie Hoffman, and Jerry Rubin were familiar to me for other reasons and I was surprised that such an event could occur that I wouldn’t have at least peripherally tied to the trial over some medium.  Hey, you learn something new everyday, though, so I guess my lesson this particular week was related to the historic court case charging seven individuals with various crimes related to demonstrations and protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

If you’re thinking this hyper-politically charged time we’re living in would be a prime time for a retelling of a landmark case brought by the government under not so honorable circumstances, you’d be correct.  Add writer/director Aaron Sorkin (Molly’s Game) to the mix and you have sparks flying with Sorkin’s traditional rapid-fire banter helping to establish mood and place, not to mention character and intent from the start.  Right off the bat we feel like these are well-formed individuals because even if they may not talk like us (Sorkin’s prose is great but, let’s face it, no one talks like he writes) they are speaking a language that instantly engages you in small ways, helping to paint a picture in your mind.

The events surrounding the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago are doled out gradually once the film has introduced us to the defendants by way of brief glimpses into their preparing to head to the event.  Passing glimpses at Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne, The Danish Girl) & Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp, The Hustle), Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Aquaman), David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch, The Invitation), Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong, Serenity) & Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen, Les Misérables), Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins, The Assistant), John Froines (Danny Flaherty, Hope Springs) show all signs point to the men having fairly benign plans for the day. From there, we jump forward to Washington D.C. when a young attorney (Joseph Gordon Levitt, Premium Rush) under a new administration is prodded into the prosecution of eight men that were arrested in connection with a string of crimes the former administration had declined to prosecute.  How we get from eight men to seven is something Sorkin will illustrate as he takes us through the lengthy trial that goes on for multiple months and is governed by a tyrannical judge (Frank Langella, Robot & Frank) who may be losing his mind.  A defense attorney for the majority of the men, William Kuntsler (Mark Rylance, The BFG), struggles to make his case in the face of prosecutorial tampering and a judge that doesn’t remember some of his own rulings.

Little doubt remains that this trial was a huge miscarriage of justice and had enormous complexity given the scope of the charges and men involved.  Sorkin’s film also feels equally enormous with a lot of ground to cover and a clock ticking down to get it all in.  What I thought would be the film’s climax turned out to be the first of several false ones and it started to drag as it approached its second hour, a rare occurrence for a Sorkin film that often chugs along with the energy of a locomotive.  Perhaps it’s due to the structure of having to tell so many competing storylines that rarely converge on each other or more likely its because not all of the Chicago 7 are as interesting as the rest.  It might even come down to performance…because I think there is great acting going on here as well as some goofy attempts at faux-counterculture attitude.

For instance, I think Baron-Cohen’s Abbie Hoffman is a strong interpretation of the social activist known for his courtroom antics and outspoken public behavior.  Baron-Cohen is known for creating these larger than life roles that are often obnoxious and finally he’s playing a character that is actually obnoxious and he manages to make him a comfortable fit.  On the flip side, recent Emmy-winner Strong is completely out to sea as Jerry Rubin, giving the exact type of nuts and berries performance you’d expect when you hear the word “hippie” – no surprises here.  I think Rylance could have done this part in his sleep and he looks at half-mast for most of the film, as does Redmayne who feels more concerned about maintaining his American accent and keeping his hands in his pockets than delivering a single focused line-reading.  The best acting going on in the film is far and away Langella as the lunatic judge who terrorizes the defendants, jurors, prosecution, and probably anyone he comes in contact with.  Still one of the finest actors working, Langella should be justly rewarded for his wonderful work.

While I ultimately appreciated the history lesson and education brought on by The Trial of the Chicago 7, it’s fractured time frame and tendency to tell instead of show gets a bit oppressive after some time.  The court moments are the most energetic and where Sorkin finds the best sequences to shine.  That’s when things really pick up and a rhythm is established.  It’s when we head out of that space where The Trial of the Chicago 7 becomes, well, a trial.