The Silver Bullet ~ Underwater



Synopsis
: A crew of underwater researchers must scramble to safety after an earthquake devastates their subterranean laboratory.

Release Date:  January 10, 2020

Thoughts: Watching the preview for Underwater, I kept wanting to shout out “This trailer knows me, it really, really knows ME!”  Horror movie? Check. Underwater horror movie? Check check. Underwater horror movie with creatures from the deep picking off the crew of a felled sea lab? Check check check!  As excited as I was to see this, I can’t help but feeling a little nervous at the same time.  I just finished reading an exhaustive profile of star Kristen Stewart (Personal Shopper) and though it talked about several of her upcoming projects, there was not a peep about this one – strange, right?  Also, its January release date is either a smart move of counter-programming to clear out the post-holiday stuffiness or a keen way for Disney to quietly burn off a 20th Century Fox film that came with the studio when they purchased it.  I did a quick check online and until today there had been next to no news this movie even existed…much less that it had already received a PG-13 rating and a locked in release date.  Yet, nerves aside, I’m pulling for this one…if only to help me relive some 1989 nostalgia and resurrect some interest in titles like  DeepStar Six and Leviathan.

Movie Review ~ Luce


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A married couple is forced to reckon with their idealized image of their son, adopted from war-torn Eritrea, after an alarming discovery by a devoted high school teacher threatens his status as an all-star student.

Stars: Naomi Watts, Octavia Spencer, Tim Roth, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Norbert Leo Butz, Astro, Marsha Stephanie Blake

Director: Julius Onah

Rated: R

Running Length: 109 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review:  If there’s one thing that’s been plaguing many recent theatrical releases, it’s an infestation of predictability.  Used to be that curse was relegated to the big budget franchise blockbusters that operated on formula as part of their plan on delivering exactly what an audience expects but I’ve noticed a lack of creativity creeping into the smaller films arriving as well.  Blame it on an industry more averse to risk than ever before, hardly willing to gamble on not quite a sure thing.  Yet it’s these roll of the dice titles that do make their way into theaters that remind you how fun it can be to not know what’s going to happen next, to not arrive at the conclusion a half hour before the characters do.  Films like Booksmart, The Farewell, The Kid Who Would Be King, and, yes, Crawl are all part of the 2019 unpredictable list.  All from different genres, but all are going after something off the beaten path.  You can go ahead and add Luce to that roster now.

Based on JC Lee’s play that had been well received in its 2013 NYC premiere at Lincoln Center, it’s been adapted for the screen by Lee and director Julius Onah (The Cloverfield Paradox).  I was unfamiliar with the play and had managed to screen the film without seeing the preview and I’d encourage you to do so as well.  Besides, there’s something pleasant about going into a movie with no expectation because you’re letting the film set its own bar it has to jump over.  It’s clear from the start that Lee and Onah know they’ve set their stakes high and are confident enough to traverse the increasingly barbed terrain introduced over the next two hours.  What they have is a tense, at times terrifying, look into the dark recesses behind privilege and the expectation of excellence.

When Amy and Peter Edgar adopted their son Luce as a young boy from Eritrea, one of Africa’s poorest countries, they wanted to give him a better life and over the last ten years they think they’ve done a good job.  Luce is a star athlete and an honors student, a polite and sensitive young man with a bright future and, after years of therapy to help resolve the trauma he suffered before he was adopted, reasonably well adjusted.  As the film begins, Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr., The Birth of a Nation) is giving a speech at a school function after which his parents are introduced to Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer, The Shape of Water), Luce’s world cultures teacher.  The tension is evident and when pressed by Peter (Tim Roth, The Hateful Eight) later about Miss Wilson, Luce dismisses her to his parents as a “bitch”, much to the dismay of Amy (Naomi Watts, Allegiant) who knows her son has more respect than that.

This is the first crack in the relationship not only between mother and son but between husband and wife. While Peter initially sides with Luce over his caustic relationship with an overly difficult teacher, when Miss Wilson makes a further claim about a concern she has observed and Luce’s behavior toward her, the loyalties switch and suddenly Amy is the one defending her son while Peter takes the opposing view.  Turns out the minor concern Miss Wilson has is only the tip of an iceberg of secrets involving the school that provide some surprising twists and turns for all involved.  At the center of all of it is Luce, and though his past positions him to be someone we want to root for and believe in, could he harbor the dark side Miss Wilson observes or is he the golden child being misunderstood by a teacher holding him to a different standard?  Or perhaps he’s neither and no one, not even his involved parents, knows the real Luce.

These questions are posed with skill by Lee and Onah, creating shifting allegiances not just with the characters on screen but with audiences trying to decipher it for themselves.  One moment you think you’ve figured things out and the next Lee has thrown a curve ball and perhaps you’ve jumped to a conclusion that’s too easy and also…why was it so easy for you to jump to that conclusion in the first place?  Questions of nature vs. nurture are explored as well as racism not just between blacks and whites but within the same rice.  Films adapted from a play can often have the feel of being too talky and stage-y and Luce does have its fair share of scenes that I’m sure were lifted verbatim from the original text but it never feels stage bound.  Lee and Onah have opened up this world to include all.

The performances across the board are outstanding and it reinforces the already strong material with an extra layer of steel.  It’s a long standing joke that Watts often gets the roles that her best friend Nicole Kidman passes on because they look so similar and Watts can seem like Kidman-lite but I can’t imagine anyone tackling this role and displaying the nuanced layers brought forth as well as Watts does.  I’m often very on the fence with Roth but he’s paired believably with Watts and handles a late breaking personal revelation with the appropriate amount of inward turmoil.  As Luce, Harrison has a tricky line to walk because he can’t ever show his cards too much or else the audience will finalize their conclusion about him.  By keeping us off-balance with his charm one minute and his Bad Seed-iness the next, we know not to get too close to Luce…but also not to take our eyes off of him.

Octavia Spencer was working long before she won her Oscar for The Help and has continued to show up in an impressive amount of movies every year.  They aren’t all winners but she has a way of rising to the top of any project she’s working on…even serving as producer of last years’s Best Picture Oscar Winner Green Book.  Sometimes her performances get a little campy but, if marketed and promoted right, her role in Luce could get her another Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress.  I’d argue Lee has made Miss Wilson the most multifaceted of all his characters in the film because not only do we see her dealing with the Luce situation, we observe her trying to take in her mentally disabled sister (Marsha Stephanie Blake) who has her own set of devastating challenges.  That Spencer gets the absolute best moments in the movie doesn’t hurt her chances of staying in the Oscar conversation.  No actress working right now can convey so much with just a shift in her eyes.

The summer days are dwindling down and the “big” movies are largely behind us.  While the kids go back to school and we all have a little more free time on our hands and breathing room in the theaters, here’s hoping theaters find space to include Luce and you seek it out.  It’s well worth your time and provides edge of your seat entertainment that even the best of the 2019 supposed summer thrill machines couldn’t muster.

Movie Review ~ Where’d You Go, Bernadette


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A loving mom becomes compelled to reconnect with her creative passions after years of sacrificing herself for her family. Her leap of faith takes her on an epic adventure that jump-starts her life and leads to her triumphant rediscovery.

Stars: Cate Blanchett, Kristen Wiig, Billy Crudup, Judy Greer, Emma Nelson, Laurence Fishburne

Director: Richard Linklater

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 103 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  I want to take this very public forum to officially chastise myself for not finishing Maria Semple’s popular bestseller Where’d You Go, Bernadette before the movie opened.  Though the release date for the film was delayed twice, I just never got around to completing what I heard was a fun read.  I literally carried the book around in my bag for months and it still was passed over in favor of other fiction I had on my list to get to.  Blame summer going too fast, blame a busy schedule, but definitely blame me for not getting my butt in gear.

I’m wondering if I had finished the book what I would think of the film version that’s finally seeing the light of day after the aforementioned release date shifts.  Some in Hollywood viewed this as a sign the movie was in trouble but others looked at its Oscar-nominated director, its Oscar-winning star, and the adaptation of the still popular novel as a slam dunk for a late summer sleeper hit, like Crazy Rich Asians was in about the same spot last year.  While I can’t say for sure if fans of the novel will be pleased, I can say that while the film isn’t an outright misfire and has a few spirited moments, it’s suffering from a curious lack of purpose, a feeling echoed by the titular character.

From the half of the book that I did read, the film seems to hew closely to Semple’s examination of Bernadette Fox (Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine) a middle-aged mother living with her successful husband Elgin (Billy Crudup, Jackie) and teenage daughter Bee (Emma Nelson) in a dilapidated reform school on the outskirts of Seattle.  Unlike most mothers that have children at Bee’s prestigious school, Bernadette doesn’t have time for the PTA or social activities but instead prefers to stay in her home away from the outside world.  Her daughter is her best friend and her husband is her ally but not her confidant. Her only real connection is through Manjula, her assistant in India that is delegated much of the household planning.

When Bee reminds her parents they promised her she could have anything she wanted if she maintained her grades at school, she chooses a trip to Antarctica, which sets into motion a series of events that will change the Fox family forever.  Socially awkward Bernadette is terrified of the thought of leaving the comfort of home, bringing back memories of her life before Bee came along when she was a sought after architect whose brilliant designs made her a top name in the business.  Disappearing from her career after a highly publicized debacle, a meeting with a former colleague (Laurence Fishburne, Last Flag Flying) opens up the wounds from the past right around the same time the family is about to leave for their trip.  What happens next is a journey of self-discovery not only for Bernadette but for the entire Fox clan…and disappointingly it’s not exactly the amusing mystery you think it’s going to be.

I find it fascinating that director Richard Linklater was attracted to this project.  Though Linklater has shown up in different genres over the years, most recently with the genius Boyhood in 2014 to the all-out fun of Everybody Wants Some! in 2016, he feels like an odd fit for a movie about a woman experiencing a mid-life crisis.  The special charm the director has in eliciting the unexpected isn’t found here, even from the usually reliable Blanchett who can’t ever decide if she’s playing high drama or marginal camp.  It’s a quirky movie and I appreciated that it embraced some of its weirdness…but it didn’t go far enough in my book.  A key ingredient is just not there and it feels like the movie is held back because of it, never truly finding its footing, though it does feature several rather swell sequences.

At 103 minutes, I’m wondering if Semple’s comedic meditation on a woman feeling constrained and fleeing into the most unexpected of remote hiding places might have worked better with a little more heft to it.  Why not have it be a four or five episode mini-series on HBO or some streaming service that could have let Linklater and Blanchett breathe a bit more?  It doesn’t feel like a project that needed to be a feature film in any way.  There are enough supporting characters like Kristin Wiig’s (The Skeleton Twins) tightly-wound mom that can’t stand Bernadette, the strange appearance of Judy Greer (Halloween) feels like much of her performance was left on the cutting room floor, or any number of the small cameos from Linklater’s friends would have provide plentiful material to justify extra time.  Instead of going deeper in with Bernadette and her family, we only skim the surface and that doesn’t make for a satisfying meal.  What is there feels curtailed and constrained…Bee and Bernadette are supposedly close yet there are some major life events from Bernadette’s life Bee doesn’t know about?

Where the film does have strong points in calling out the struggles people feel at certain points in their life when they know they have so much going for them but can’t overcome some obstacle, be it real or imaginary.  They have the kindling and matches but can’t make the fire.  Bernadette knows she has a creative mind that is wasting away in her rundown manse but fear of repeating her past mistakes is keeping her locked away in the prison she’s made for herself.  There’s some good reflection of that very real feeling on display and for that, I give the movie much credit.  If only that clear message wasn’t surrounded by so many hazy tangents.

Movie Review ~ Blinded by the Light


The Facts
:

Synopsis: In 1987 during the austere days of Thatcher’s Britain, a teenager learns to live life, understand his family and find his own voice through the music of Bruce Springsteen.

Stars: Viveik Kalra, Kulvinder Ghir, Meera Ganatra, Nell Williams, Aaron Phagura, Hayley Atwell, Dean-Charles Chapman

Director: Gurinder Chadha

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 117 minutes

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review:  I suppose it’s nice to know that in this climate of constant disagreement, there is something we can find common ground on.  Though we may not be able to see eye to eye on politics or the environment it seems that we all can agree that Bruce Springsteen is, in fact, The Boss.  The New Jersey singer/songwriter that experienced his, ahem, glory days in the mid ‘70s through the late ‘80s and has enjoyed a steady career since has a way of unifying even the most contrarian among us.  A 2016 biography of his rough upbringing was a national bestseller and a subsequent solo show on Broadway was the hottest ticket in town.

Ever since Bohemian Rhapsody became an unlikely hit (like, totally unlikely given how bad it really is) there’s hope that even the smallest bit of rock and roll nostalgia will equate to big box office.  May’s Rocketman, a musical biography of Elton John, was an absolute delight and danced circles around Bohemian Rhapsody but it didn’t have the same staying power and though Yesterday marketed itself as a light-hearted romantic fantasy set to a Beatles score, in actuality it was a total misfire that was sent back to Abbey Road without any fanfare. I haven’t checked lately, but I’m sure other long gestating projects inspired by the songbooks of classic musicians gained some traction thanks to the Freddie Mercury/Queen film.

All that being said, it’s easy to see why Blinded by the Light is hoping to draw those Springsteen fans in based solely on name recognition alone.  Yet, like Yesterday, filmgoers are getting the old switcheroo and are in for a movie that feels different than what was advertised.  Far from the breezy and fun promise put forth in the trailer, this film that was inspired by a true story goes in hard on tired tropes and an astounding amount of cliché.  I arrived at the screening knowing nothing about the movie so had no preconceived notions of what to expect and was still left feeling let down.

It’s 1987 and Javed (Viveik Kalra) is coming of age in a small town in England.  This is during the time of Margaret Thatcher when the economic situation for the middle class was turning dire and the racial tension against non-British was heating up.  Living with his traditional Pakistani parents who work tirelessly to make ends meet, Javed hides a secret wish to become a writer.  Composing poetry in the privacy of his room and away from the watchful eye of his strict father (Kulvinder Ghir), Javed’s world is changed when a classmate gives him a Bruce Springsteen cassette.  By this point, Springsteen was already a worldwide sensation with numerous number one hits…and he’s also seen by the teens of the time as old news.  So when Javed starts to dress like Bruce and quote his lyrics like scripture, it doesn’t get him a free pass to sit at the cool kids table.

Director Gurinder Chadha (Bend it Like Beckham) can’t seem to find an element of the movie to hone directly in on so everything plays a bit like an episodic chapter book.  Secondary characters like Hayley Atwell (Avengers: Endgame) waltz in and out of the action at will and it creates a disjointed feel that interrupts any rhythm the director is going for.  That’s partly on Chadha the director but mostly on Chadha the screenwriter and her co-writers Paul Mayeda Berges and Sarfraz Manzoor.  There isn’t a stereotypical stone unturned in Javed’s rebellion against his father and no development that isn’t telegraphed well in advance.  While this isn’t a spoiler review site, if I told you the climax of the movie hinges on a Big Speech Javed gives that suddenly, somehow, opens the eyes, ears, and hearts of those that previously didn’t understand him…would you be at all surprised?

That’s all fine because, you know what, there’s space for these kind of formulaic films as well but it’s all in the execution and Kalra simply isn’t a compelling enough lead for us to care if he gets to go to Springsteen concert or not.  It’s strange, as an audience member I never seemed to be on his side when the movie truly wanted us to be.  The lucky thing for Kalra is that Chada has cast the engaging Ghir as his withering father and the memorable Meera Ganatra as his strong-willed mother.  Ganatra’s quiet pain when her husband loses his job and she has to sell off her wedding ring to help pay the bills is heartbreaking…I kept wanting to know what kind of music SHE was listening to.

The oddest thing about Chadha’s film is that it so desperately wants to be a musical that it almost can’t help itself.  One musical interlude with Javed, his friend, and a punk girl he develops feelings for, is modestly entertaining but clumsily performed.  I kept feeling like if Chadha had gone all the way with incorporating more of Springsteen’s music into the movie as fantasy sequences or with more creativity (and not just having his animated lyrics flying around the screen) the film would have garnered more interest.  At nearly two hours, it was frankly a bit of a bore to sit through.

A biographical film of Bruce Springsteen will most certainly get made but who knows when that will be.  Until then, it’s unfortunate that Blinded by the Light is the only movie out there representing The Boss’s work because it lacks the same forthrightness that have made his songs enduring classics.  While it’s endearing to see how the blue collar musician’s music stretched over the pond and had an impact on the life of another and empowered him to aspire higher, the workmanlike delivery by the filmmakers keeps it frustratingly grounded.

Movie Review ~ Piranhas (La paranza dei bambini)


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A gang of teenage boys stalk the streets of Naples armed with hand guns and AK-47s to do their mob bosses’ bidding.

Stars: Francesco Di Napoli, Viviana Aprea, Renato Carpentieri

Director: Claudio Giovannesi

Rated: R

Running Length: 105 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: When I heard a movie called Piranhas was making the rounds of the festival circuit and getting accolades, my Spidey-senses started tingling. A horror movie about killer fish had received a prestigious roll out? Of course, doing my homework like every critic should clarified the film was less about razor-toothed creatures from the deep and was more in line with the growing slate of Italian-produced films centering on mafia influence and mob families. So, my dreams of monster movies making a run for Oscar gold would have to wait.  Still, these youngsters are every bit as dangerous as those pesky toe nibblers.

Originally titled the far more docile and innocuous La paranza dei bambini (The parade of children) adapted by author Roberto Saviano from his source novel “The Piranhas: The Boy Bosses of Naples”, for distribution outside of Italy the film was renamed Piranhas and I can see the rationale behind it. Contrary to what Hollywood would have you believe, piranhas aren’t usually a danger to humans unless they are in a stressful situation. By nature a timid fish, they most often gather in a school to fend off their predators when they come under attack.  The boys that form the central “school” of piranhas in this film are from poor families in a section of Naples, Italy that was once prosperous but has now fallen on hard times. These families are barely scraping by and when the young teens see an opportunity to fight back against the mafia thugs gleaning wages from the hard-working townspeople, they gather to attack. Leading the charge is Nicola (Francesco Di Napoli) a 15 year old living with his single mom and younger brother who has a chance meeting with Agostino, the nephew of a former crime boss that was well respected in their infamous neighborhood, the Rione Sanità.

Teaming up with Agostino as well as his own impressionable friends that are in search of a leader and needing a purpose, they start off small by dealing drugs for a local mob boss before going across town and graduating to working with firearms. When Nicola sees they are becoming exactly like the men that have oppressed their families for so many years, he takes steps to counter their burgeoning violent acts by cleaning up his own neighborhood and making a better life for those around him. A new relationship with a girl from a rival town plays out like a West Side Story narrative without the song and dance act and only spells more trouble as loyalties change and crime begins to spin out of control.  What Nicola thought was an improvement might actually be another wave of crime he helped usher in.

There’s a lot of familiarity to be felt when watching Piranhas. We’ve seen this story countless times, youth being exploited by experience and falling prey to the excesses that come with quick success. Kids that start off the movie barely getting enough money to go out for the evening and formerly shoplifting for new clothes can now walk into these same stores with wads of cash and buy anything they want. The adrenaline that comes with their authority, as expected, begins to go to their heads and the limits of how far their influence reaches starts to be tested with increasingly dangerous results.  The changes over the course of the film are subtle, but drastic and ultimately devastating.

The movie may remind astute viewers of 2008’s similarly themed Gomorrah and for good reason. It’s based on the non-fiction book that was written by the same author that penned Piranhas. While both films deal with the Camorra (a crime-syndicate operating in Naples), Gomorrah’s narrative was more sprawling than the one taken up here. By honing in on this small group, there’s more room to get to know them, if not individually, than with some familiarity. Even if director Claudio Giovannesi doesn’t bring much in the way of style to the film,  that’s not to say it isn’t an involving experience. There’s a raw energy to the performances (many of the actors are novices) and the way he follows them through their routines gives the movie a voyeuristic feel…like we’re always watching over their shoulders and just as much at risk as they are.

The threads of the movie get a bit tangled as we near the end with some routine plot twists that at this point are, I guess, standard for any mob movie. What I appreciated about the film most was its way of reserving dialogue for only important information but letting the majority of the movie speak by the actions of the actors. A lot happens in the final few minutes of the movie and it’s largely dialogue free – yet what’s happening is as clear as if someone was narrating it for us.  These films can’t ever be classified as “pleasant” to watch but the rough edges of the cast lend authenticity to the action that makes it a compelling piece to sit through.

The Silver Bullet ~ Last Christmas



Synopsis
: A young woman, who has been continuously unlucky, accepts a job as a department store elf during the holidays. When Kate meets Tom on the job, her life takes a turn.

Release Date: November 8, 2019

Thoughts: There are certainly many reasons why Last Christmas checks off a number of boxes on my list.  There’s its holiday theme, its London setting, the involvement of director Paul Feig (Spy), not to mention it’s written by Oscar-winner Emma Thompson (Late Night) who also has a co-starring role.  Feig’s casting of his A Simple Favor star Henry Golding (Crazy Rich Asians) is a nice bonus and I’ll never turn my nose up at a movie that proudly touts that it is “featuring the music of George Michael”.  However…I’m not totally sold on it…at least not yet.  Why?  I’m just not on the Emilia Clarke train yet.  Though she’s gained a lot of press for her work on Game of Thrones as well as nabbed starring roles in Me Before You, Terminator: Genisys, and Solo: A Star Wars Story, I’ve yet to be convinced she’s the next big thing.  Perhaps this will be the holiday romance to convince me.

Movie Review ~ Them That Follow


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Set deep in the wilds of Appalachia, where believers handle death-dealing snakes to prove themselves before God, a pastor’s daughter holds a secret that threatens to tear her community apart.

Stars: Alice Englert, Walton Goggins, Olivia Colman, Kaitlyn Dever, Thomas Mann, Lewis Pullman, Jim Gaffigan

Director: Britt Poulton & Dan Madison Savage

Rated: R

Running Length: 98 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  I admit it, at my age I’ve become one of those fair weather church-goers who only venture into a pew for the holidays or for special events.  Even then, I often find myself contemplating thoughts of the coffee hour after rather than what hymn in next in my book.  I’m not going to get into a religious discussion here but I have my own communion with a higher power and don’t necessarily need the building to have that bond.  I do respect how helpful the act of “going to church” is for people, though, and have seen first-hand how it’s a lifeline for those in need of support or comfort.

I speak on religion first in this review of Them That Follow because I want to be clear that I’m no expert on the practices displayed within or pass no judgement on the churchgoing folk the film centers on.  Lately I’ve been stepping back from my Midwestern safety bubble and taking into consideration the cultures of other walks of life and using the films I see as a way to open up new doors for me to explore.  I tell you, it’s helped greatly in finding a take-away in even the most middle of the road movies I’ve seen.  Such is the case with Them That Follow, a short wanting to be a full-length movie that only simmers when it should be boiling over.

A congregation of Pentecostals in rural Appalachia are presided over by Pastor Lemuel Childs (Walton Goggins, The Hateful Eight) who preaches of the devil’s trickery and the need to cleanse oneself from wicked sin.  To rid oneself of sin, his congregants show their devotion to God in the handling of venomous snakes. If the snake strikes, the parishioners are left to fend off the venom on their own.  If they survive, it is Gods will and they are forgiven.  As the film opens, the church is under the watch of the local authorities investigating the death of a person that perished under these extreme circumstances.

Unbeknownst to the Pastor, his daughter Mara (Alice Englert, Beautiful Creatures) has gotten pregnant by Augie (Thomas Mann, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl), a local boy that has been exiled from the church for rejecting their teachings.  While Mara contemplates her future within the community and what this baby means in the wake of her recent betrothal to Garret, a handsome new arrival (Lewis Pullman, Bad Times at the El Royale), her faith is tested at every turn.  How long can she keep the secret from her father, the man she’s been promised to, and the man she has feelings for but can’t be with?  It all comes to a head when Augie comes to visit the church and makes an unexpected request.

The poster for Them That Follow and the trailer hint of a movie with a more sinister edge but writer/directors Britt Poulton & Dan Madison Savage don’t have enough plot to get around any twists and turns.  What we have is a movie I think would have worked quite nicely as a short film but, at feature-length, strains to make a case for the extra running time.  I was actually surprised to find this didn’t originate as a smaller project first because the final act especially has a few taut moments that would have worked better if the first 2/3rds were trimmed down. Another distraction adding to the feeling is a slow pace that keeps the movie from finding a rhythm within this community.  You can’t have a slow-burn if you aren’t willing to light a fire in the first place.

Those skeeved out by snakes are advised to steer clear of this one.  There are ample shots of the large reptiles slinking around the forest as well as over the bodies of the church-goers throughout the film.  Despite the threat of danger, there’s little tension to be had because the filmmakers haven’t raised the stakes high enough for audiences to be holding their breath.  While Goggins relays his usual dialed up, toothy, performance it surprisingly doesn’t reach the fever pitch of fire and brimstone that would have goosed the film in positive ways.  While Englert’s quiet moments are keenly felt, she’s a bit of a non-entity when sharing the screen with more formidable co-stars.  Strangely enough, I’ve sometimes gotten Mann and Pullman confused so it was nice to see them in the same frame to clarify once and for all they are different actors.

There are a few upsides to the film.  The location filming is quite lovely.  Kaitlyn Dever (Booksmart) is a nice presence as Mara’s timid friend abandoned by her mother that comes to live with the Childs family.  Harboring her own feelings for Garret, she has to watch her best friend agree to a marriage she clearly doesn’t want while the man she likes has no idea she’s interested.  Dever handles this balance nicely, never playing her role too addled or selfish in the face of her love going unrequited.  Then there’s Olivia Colman, following up her Best Actress Oscar win for The Favourite playing a character named Sister Slaughter who finds herself divided between her loyalty to her community and her son, Augie.  Colman’s choices are unexpected, small, and intense…all the makings of a well-thought out performance.

In many ways, I’m glad Them That Follow didn’t devolve into some gory horror film with religious undertones.  It could easily have pivoted to something completely different but not wholly unexpected but it resisted and stayed in a safe lane.  True, there is one squirmy scene near the end but it’s largely an off-screen event so there’s little horror to be found aside from the isolation Mara feels.  While it does provide some additional interest for me to learn about these snake handling communities, there’s not much about the film as a whole that’s worth circling back on with much consideration.

The Silver Bullet ~ Little Women (2019)



Synopsis
: Four sisters come of age in America in the aftermath of the Civil War.

Release Date: December 25, 2019

Thoughts: It’s a curious thing, watching this first trailer for the much-anticipated holiday release of Little Women.  I mean, it’s not exactly like we’ve been starved for adaptations of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved novel.  There was a modern remake last year, a well-regarded BBC mini-series in 2017, and the 1994 version starring Winona Ryder still ranks high on my list.  Let’s not forget the Katherine Hepburn entry from 1933 or the one in 1949 with Elizabeth Taylor among the dozens of other takes on the source novel.  All this to say I was surprised director Greta Gerwig chose this project as her follow-up to her breakout hit Lady Bird.  To me, the way the preview is cut feels too indie twee for me, but Gerwig has assembled a heck of a wonderful cast with Saoirse Ronan (How I Live Now), Timothée Chalamet (Beautiful Boy), Meryl Streep (Florence Foster Jenkins), Florence Pugh (Midsommar), Laura Dern (Smooth Talk), and Emma Watson (The Bling Ring) getting into the period costumes to once again bring Alcott’s characters to the screen.

Movie Review ~ Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Stories have a way of becoming all too real for a group of teenagers who discover the terrifying tome of a young girl with horrible secrets.

Stars: Zoe Colletti, Austin Abrams, Gabriel Rush, Michael Garza, Austin Zajur, Natalie Ganzhorn, Dean Norris, Gil Bellows, Lorraine Toussaint

Director: André Øvredal

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 111 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: There were a few books in my elementary school library that, should you be lucky enough to catch them on the shelf and check them out, were signs of great prestige. As a fifth grader, I remember being so desperate to read the first volume of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark that through some junior detective work I found out who currently had the book and made a deal with them to be there when they returned it so I could swoop in and have it next. Then they went and screwed it up by returning it in the book drop first thing in the morning, forcing me to haunt the library until they opened and I could retrieve it. I definitely carried the book around on top of my Trapper Keeper so all could see during the day while I saved the reading for the evening.

The three books that make up the trilogy of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark have become famous, if not quite literary classics on a Dickens level but legendary in their own right for their popularity with youngsters and their unpopularity with their parents. Often banned in libraries for their intense content and routinely challenged at school board meetings, the slim (none are more than 130 pages) collections of terrifying tales by Alvin Schwartz have inspired countless imitators over the years. It’s telling that none have come close to the simplicity of the way Schwartz relayed his collected stories of urban folklore with sinister twists.  Since the first entry was released in 1981, they have held up remarkably well.  Revisiting a few selections recently I was amazed at how vivid the storytelling remained all these years later.

I’m actually surprised it took so long for a film version of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark to find its way to the light.  It just missed the anthology-movie boon of the late ‘70s and lacked the hard edges that became popular in the mid ‘80s. Some of the urban legends have expanded into their own films or were lifted in part into the plots of other horror flicks but nothing has come out that bore the title that stirs so much nostalgia in my particular generation. These small volumes were to me what the Goosebumps books were to kids that came up after I did. While I was unsure at first in the wake of the recent silliness of the Goosebumps film and its even wackier sequel, it was encouraging to see this movie greenlit under the watchful eye of Oscar winner Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water) who then hired up and coming Norwegian director André Øvredal to handle the directing duties.

While I’d love to report the final product was every bit as spine-tingling as I wanted it to be, the overall experience was more like revisiting something that was scary when you were younger but had decidedly less of an impact when you returned to it as an adult. Though it has a handsome production design and a fairly engaging and intense opening act, it quickly turns back from the horror elements I craved in favor of embracing its PG-13-ness in all its vanilla gore-less glory. Usually, I’m a fan of less is more and wishing a filmmaker would be creative in their power of suggestion rather than crude in their need to shock but by the end I desperately wanted Øvredal to amp up the chills.

On Halloween night, friends Stella (Zoe Colletti, Annie), Auggie (Gabriel Rush, The Grand Budapest Hotel), and Chuck (Austin Zajur, Fist Fight) run afoul of a local bully (Austin Abrams, Paper Towns) and wind up exploring the deserted Bellows mansion and uncovering its dark history. With a drifter (Michael Garza, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1) along for the ride, the friends uncover a mystery tied to the family that owned the house and ran the local paper mill before vanishing into thin air. When Stella takes a book from a hidden room within the expansive manse, she unleashes a vengeful spirit that starts writing stories in the book, stories of murder, stories of monsters, stories that feature her friends who begin to disappear at an alarming rate.

It was a nice touch for screenwriters Dan and Kevin Hageman (The LEGO Movie) to set the film in the low-tech 1968 when the country was tuned into the continued conflict in Vietnam while deciding between Nixon and Humphrey for the presidency. By having the movie take place half a century ago, there’s a certain unsullied charm to the investigation Stella launches into the sordid history of her town. The kids may be going through some of the same growing pains experienced nowadays but with the war not yet totally encroaching on their lives they remain, well, kids and not the woke meta meme-ified generation that we have now.  If anything, there’s too much time spent on character development at the expense of keeping the forward momentum the movie really needed to gain some steam.

As he showed so brilliantly in The Autopsy of Jane Doe (for real, check out that underseen gem), Øvredal has a way with creating a distinct atmosphere that greatly influences the overall feel of the production. Though set in 1968, the movie isn’t screaming ‘60s and Øvredal puts more emphasis in fleshing out the Bellows mansion and, later, a hospital that holds key clues to the mystery. I only wish once we were in these locations Øvredal was able to turn the dial on frights a few degrees higher. It’s all appropriately creepy but never truly scary, like the filmmakers were afraid (or opposed?) to delivering what seems inherently promised by the title.  Aside from several notable sequences that achieved their desired impact of raising both goosebumps and pulses, there’s a curious lack of follow-through despite a valiant set-up.  A creepy scarecrow turns out to look more menacing than he actually is, a toe-less ghoul is all moan but no mayhem, a plain teenage zit harbors the best pop for your buck even if it’s achieved with some iffy CGI.

Maybe I’m being too hard on the movie though. Perhaps the books were meant for my generation while this film is intended as a low-impact primer for budding (young) horror fans. After all, reading the books opened up my imagination to run wild with the delightfully demented legends Schwartz included. So could it be that Øvredal and del Toro held back from giving the full horror monty to viewers in the hopes they would create some of the scares themselves in their minds? It seems a bit of stretch but at the same time this isn’t your standard cut and paste waste of space either. There’s some sophistication to the movie, for sure, just not the quality scares I had came looking for.

The Silver Bullet ~ Ready or Not



Synopsis
: A bride’s wedding night takes a sinister turn when her eccentric new in-laws force her to take part in a terrifying game.

Release Date: August 21, 2019

Thoughts: It’s not often I start a review of a trailer actively advising my readers not to watch the preview I’m showcasing but I feel strongly in the case of Ready or Not like you should avoid seeing this one.  For those that don’t care about spoilers or for the horror fraidy cats that want a good idea of what’s in store for them, by all means, have at it, but if you’re like me and don’t want to see numerous key plot points revealed outright then you should just read the synopsis above, pencil August 21 in on your calendar, and plan to be surprised.  It’s a growing frustration of mine that studios are so willing to let the entire cat out of the bag in a two and a half minute trailer and then ask audiences to pay good money to fill in the gaps.  Every once in a while you get lucky and the best twists are saved for the big show but it doesn’t seem like much of Ready or Not is held back.  Directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett (V/H/S) and starring Samara Weaving (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri), Andie MacDowell (Only the Brave), and Adam Brody (Shazam!) this looks like a lot of fun based on the poster alone.  I’m going to try to forget what I saw, though, in the hopes I can go in as fresh as possible.