Movie Review ~ Black Christmas (2019)


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Hawthorne College is quieting down for the holidays. One by one, sorority girls on campus are being killed by a stalker. But the killer is about to discover that this generation’s women aren’t willing to become hapless victims as they fight back.

Stars: Imogen Poots, Brittany O’Grady, Lily Donoghue, Aleyse Shannon, Cary Elwes, Caleb Eberhardt, Simon Mead, Madeleine Adams

Director: Sophia Takal

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 92 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: This hasn’t been a great year for remakes of horror films.  Earlier this year, I suffered greatly at the hands of a hideous attempt to put a new spin on Child’s Play and the results are going to wind up on my list of worst movies of the year.  I was especially worried about another remake of 1974’s classic slasher film Black Christmas because it had so much strange buzz surrounding it as the release date was drawing near.  Though it had already been remade once in 2006 in a gory mess that strayed in parts from the original storyline, this new version appeared to diverge completely from Bob Clark’s plot of sorority girls menaced by a prank phone caller who turns deadly.

Then the trailer came out and from the looks of it gave away some rather large plot twists and soon after that it was revealed the film would be released with the more teen-friendly PG-13 rating…and that’s when the guts really hit the fan.  Now, I’m not of the belief that horror needs to carry an R rating to be considered worthy but even I was surprised this was aiming to land in a softer place for audiences.  The filmmakers at Blumhouse countered that it was always filmed with the intention it was to be released as a PG-13 film but that seems like an easy excuse…and from what I saw in the finished movie totally not true…but more on that later.  The real kiss of death is when the studio didn’t screen the film for critics before its release – a strange thing to hold back on, especially considering the truly awful garbage Blumhouse has willingly previewed in advance.  So there I was for the first showing on a Thursday night, the third person in the audience, prepared for the worst lump of cinema coal.

Guess what?  This is a remake that doesn’t go on the naughty list.

Surprisingly, this is a sharp and conscientious horror film that’s very of the moment in this era we’re living in.  Directed by Sophia Takal and written by Takal and April Wolfe, it’s a pro-female update to a property that hasn’t treated women as much more than objects that scream before they’re slaughtered horribly.  There’s death and destruction in this remake but it’s not as easily-won as other similar genre titles and that creates some tension that was sorely lacking in the previous attempt.  You have to wait your turn in Takal’s feminist take with men and their interests coming second to providing fully realized female characters that have personas, flaws, and passions of their own.

Opening with a kill that has a clever finish, we jump right into the final days of school at Hawthorne College before Christmas break.  Sorority sisters Riley (Imogen Poots, Green Room), Kris (Aleyse Shannon), Marty (Lily Donoghue), and Jesse (Brittany O’Grady) will be sticking around for the holiday and plan an evening dinner that is upstaged by ominous texts that begin to arrive from an account belonging to the problematic founder of the college.  Said to have a past tied to black magic as well as slavery, the founder has ties to a popular fraternity on campus…a fraternity previously led by a person Riley has a traumatic history with.  When he returns to initiate new pledges, it brings up bad memories for Riley and it’s also when a rash of killings begin.

If you’ve seen the preview (I’d advise you not to), you’ll already know most of what transpires next but there’s a few extra layers that Takal and Wolfe have held back for the final moments.  At a trim 92 minutes (including credits) it’s a fast-moving film, given forward motion by some exceedingly good performances and smart use of creepy spaces to play around in.  Takal and Wolfe get a tad lost in their resolution, trying to get a few too many ideas shoved into the final moments but they get a solid A for effort in their delivery of said finale.  It’s a bold way to summarize not just the film but a lot of other things happening to woman’s voices and equality in the world today.  I recently reviewed another feminist thriller, Knives and Skin, and it wasn’t able to get to its point in the succinct way Takal and Wolfe were…and Black Christmas was 30 minutes shorter.

Where the film feels like a letdown is in the lack of standard horror elements that appear to have been filmed but later removed.  I don’t fully believe the movie was meant to be PG-13, there are too many well-shot sequences in the movie to excuse away the shoddy editing anytime a weapon makes contact with a head/body/appendage/etc .  Also, you can tell there’s been looping done after the fact to tone down some language “jerk off” was mysteriously changed to “junk off”…why?  These pulled punches start to add up in a frustrating fashion near the end, here’s hoping a fully uncut version is revealed at some point.

You get the impression Takal and Wolfe have watched a bunch of horror movies because while they borrow some elements from the masters (one jump scare is totally lifted from another film) they’ve seen enough to know what needed to change in their version of Black Christmas.  This isn’t a meta, self-referential horror film like Scream but a movie that’s in touch with itself and its own emotions.  There’s a lot of talk of sisterhood in here and it doesn’t come off as cornball or as some ‘down with men’ battle cry.  Blumhouse has long been criticized for not hiring female directors and Black Christmas was their first opportunity to address those concerns – I’d say they made a smart choice.

Movie Review ~ Richard Jewell

1


The Facts
:

Synopsis: American security guard, Richard Jewell, heroically saves thousands of lives from an exploding bomb at the 1996 Olympics, but is unjustly vilified by journalists and the press who falsely report that he was a terrorist.

Stars: Paul Walter Hauser, Sam Rockwell, Kathy Bates, Jon Hamm, Olivia Wilde, Nina Arianda

Director: Clint Eastwood

Rated: R

Running Length: 129 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  First off, let me say that I hope by the time I’m 89 years old I can remain as active and involved as Clint Eastwood has.  At a time when many of his contemporaries have taken their leave of Hollywood or reduced their profile, Eastwood is still going strong and managing to remain a prolific filmmaker.  Not only does he manage to keep making movies, but with a few minor exceptions they are often quite profitable at the box office.  So studios are clamoring for his time because he can do a lot with a little and actors want to work with him for his laid-back style and easy-going nature.  His time as an actor has made him a rather dependable director, even if he’s not always the most exciting or obvious choice.

Remember last year when The Mule was feared by so many awards pundits that saw it looming at the edges of the holiday release schedule?  Eastwood had been known before to swoop in at the last minute and upset a locked-in season…at least that’s what all these podcasters would have you believe.  That only happened once, with Million Dollar Baby and ever since then anytime an Eastwood movie quietly sneaks into theaters in late December without screening far in advance everyone gets worried it will be another scenario where the film will open and blow everything else out of the water.  It almost happened again with American Sniper, it definitely didn’t happen with The Mule (which was actually kind of interesting in a weird way), and it’s not likely to occur with Richard Jewell…though it’s already created a few waves.

I have to admit that while I was familiar with the name Richard Jewell, I had forgotten the actual details of the events and eventual outcome surrounding the 1996 bombing that occurred in Atlanta during their Summer Olympics.  I made a point not to refresh my memory before attending the screening so I could take the movie at narrative face value and look up the nitty gritty details later – otherwise I’d be spending the majority of my time noting the liberties screenwriter Billy Ray (Captain Phillips) took with the facts of the case.  Based in part on a Vanity Fair article by Marie Brenner with some material also culled from an investigative book, Ray appears to be simpatico with Eastwood in his desire to explore the breakdown of due process by the government and news media.

After struggling to maintain a position in local law enforcement, Richard Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser, I, Tonya) was working as a security guard in Centennial Park on July 27, 1996 when he saw a suspicious backpack left unattended.  Known for being an overzealous stickler that excites easily, his colleagues and police officers on duty don’t pay much attention until looking closer and finding Jewell’s hunch wasn’t off the mark.  An anonymous call into 911 warned of an impending detonation and though Jewell and others try to clear the area as best they can, the bomb goes off to devastating effect.

Hailed as a hero and becoming an overnight minor celebrity, the bright lights turn dark quickly for Jewell when a former employer notifies the FBI of his erratic behavior in the past.  When information on Jewell becoming a suspect is leaked by a top agent (Jon Hamm, Million Dollar Arm) to a local news reporter (Olivia Wilde, The Lazarus Effect) and she in turn runs the story on the front page, it soon becomes national news.  While his mother (Kathy Bates, A Home Of Our Own) watches helplessly, Jewell is vilified in the press and hounded by federal agents and it’s only when he calls on Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell, Vice) that he starts to find some solid ground to fight back on.

You don’t have to dig too deep into Richard Jewell to see Eastwood passing down a condemnation on the clumsy way this was handled and it’s true that Jewell was done a great disservice.  All he ever wanted to do was be in law enforcement and it’s a bit of a cruel joke that he was railroaded with no real purpose.  More than anything, Eastwood comes down like a twenty ton anvil on the news media and, in particular, the sensationalist journalism that prints first and asks questions later.  It’s a huge problem for Richard Jewell the person and it’s become a huge problem for Richard Jewell the motion picture.

The issue stems from the portrayal of Wilde’s character, Atlanta-Journal Constitution reporter Kathy Scruggs.  Scruggs is shown to be a wildcat reporter that shows up for work looking hungover and mussed, dressed like Erin Brockovich.  Standing in stark contrast to the other mumsy women that work in the office she claims are jealous of her and the stories she gets, Scruggs is later shown trading sex for stories, something her co-workers and family object strongly to.  Ray even has her indicate she’s not that good of a writer, imploring a desk reporter to do the majority of the work for her.  While Wilde turns in her best performance in years as Scruggs, it’s unfortunate she’s doing it in such a fish eye-d lens of a male gazed upon character.  Scruggs was a real person and the various men she rubs up against are fictitious creations serving as stand-in amalgams for others, so it feels a bit shameful to denigrate her by name only, especially considering the real life Scruggs passed away in 2001 and isn’t here to defend herself.

That problematic slice of the film aside, I found myself oddly compelled by Richard Jewell and I think it’s largely due to the lead performances of Hauser and Rockwell.  Both are so invested in their roles that for one of the rare times this year I was able to set aside previous roles they’ve played and let them inhabit these characters here and now.  It’s easier for Hauser to do that because he’s had less roles but that doesn’t mean he isn’t doing some complex work – while he’s done the simpleton act to perfection before there’s a graceful edge he gives Jewell that elevates this above those other roles.  Rockwell is getting good at playing fired up and Eastwood gives him a long leash to play, to often pleasing results.  Together, the two men share some well-worked scenes that have a real ring of truth.

As is the case with most Eastwood films, the supporting cast is a mixture of faces familiar and new.  I still want to go on record and say that Hamm is absolutely 100% in no way a movie star and he demonstrates here again why that is.  There’s just a limited range for him to play and even when given a role with some darker edges he can’t quite find the right shade.  The real buzz from the movie is with the performance of Bates and while I always like seeing her onscreen, like Laura Dern in Marriage Story this is one of those “It’s fine, I guess” turns that don’t seem that huge of stretch from an actress we already know can do wonders.  If anything, I liked Nina Arianda (Stan & Ollie) as Bryant’s no-nonsense secretary more than the rest.  Even saddled with a hideous wig and not much meaningful dialogue, she has a presence in every scene she turns up in.

I fully know I fell a bit under Eastwood’s “stick it to ‘em!” spell of an approach but I didn’t find myself filled with a lot of regret in the act.  Eastwood and I don’t agree on a lot of things but we seem to agree that Jewell was mightily wronged.  I can see this movie appealing to a particular crowd of folks and being considered complete troublemaking propaganda to another – but at least it creates a dialogue.  I’d rather have a movie like Richard Jewell come out with its clear message (whether you want to hear it or not) that gets people talking than something you see and forget about instantly.

Movie Review ~ Knives and Skin


The Facts
:

Synopsis: In the wake of a high school student’s mysterious disappearance, a collective awakening seems to overcome the town’s teenage girls — gathering in force until it can no longer be contained.

Stars: Marika Engelhardt, Grace Smith, Ireon Roach, Kayla Carter, Tim Hopper, Kate Arrington, Audrey Francis, James Vincent Meredith

Director: Jennifer Reeder

Rated: NR

Running Length: 111 minutes

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: As I approach a milestone birthday in 2020, I’m wondering if I’m starting to turn into a grumpy old man.  I see the signs all around me to suggest the transition is beginning.  I get annoyed when whippersnappers play their music too loud on the train, wondering at the same time what happened to good tunes.  No one has manners anymore, people leave their garbage anywhere they want and feel they are entitled to do what they want when they want to, regardless of anyone else in the room.  There’s no respect for authority or leadership.  Plus, I just really look forward to the bran muffin my work offers up every Friday.  I’m one cardigan and a couple of belt loops away from being ready to go ice fishing with Walter Matthau.

Reading the synopsis for Knives and Skin, I found a great deal of promise.  A modern noir mystery written and directed by feminist filmmaker Jennifer Reeder that would have its own voice could be just what this era of filmmaking needed.  A genre dominated by males and male-appealing storylines was due for a little shake-up, why not start at the indie roots and work our way up into the mainstream?  Sounds like a winner, right?  I thought so too but watching the film is a different experience entirely and this blossoming grumpy old man wasn’t having it.  Despite some intriguing interludes, a welcome all-inclusive vibe, and a keen visual eye, Reeder’s teen noir isn’t some revolutionary piece of cinema like I was hoping it would be.

Eschewing the hard-boiled grit of an East coast setting or the sinister sunny skies of the West coast scene, Knives and Skin centers on the residents of a small Midwestern township that could be called Anytown U.S.A.  It’s here that Carolyn Harper (Raven Whitley) goes missing after being left in the middle of nowhere by school crush Andy (Ty Olwin) when she rebuffs his advances.  Carolyn’s already slightly on the edge mother, Lisa (Marika Engelhardt), teeters further on the brink when her daughter vanishes, resorting to wearing her clothes to feel closer to her child.  Her friends think she’ll show up soon and aren’t too worried, though.

Lisa’s also the music teacher at the town’s high school and Reeder has stuffed the gymatorioum full of hyped up, highly emotional teens that struggle with the disappearance of a classmate at the same time their hormones are raging at a fever pitch.  Juggling these kids as well as a healthy stable of adults showing up as predatory teachers and troubled parents presents the viewer with a lot of plotlines and perverse people to keep track of.  While the town goes about their business, Reeder also presents Carolyn (or Carolyn’s lifeless body) to us at several points, blurring the lines of reality further so we aren’t sure if this is meant to be real, taken as a dream of the filmmaker, the dream of a character, or merely symbolic of something else entirely.

Bravo to a few performers here, namely Engelhardt, who are asked to go above and beyond for their performance.  Most of the actors are entirely forgettable, hindered by clumsy, babbling brook-ish dialogue and some truly heinous line deliveries but there are several standouts.  As an avant-garde student that catches the eye of a popular football star, Ireon Roach is the most interesting one of the lot and I longed to see her in a remake of Pretty in Pink, which is kinda the point Reeder is making.  The parents/adults are the true duds here, each performing like this is their big Hollywood break.  Every emotion is huge, each word of dialogue is barked out with eyes bulged to the back of the theater.

I’d read some critics kindly compare this film to the work of David Lynch and more power to them.  I found this to be an extremely unpleasant movie on the whole, even considering there are some strong performances and there’s true technique involved in the production design and cinematography.  It’s fine to create a work that has some characters audiences are repelled by but Reeder has found a way to make almost every person that shows up on screen so obnoxious and repulsive in their own way that for the first time in a long while I almost gave up on this entirely.  If there’s truly one thing that saves the film from being a total waste, is Reeder’s inclusion of several ‘80s tunes sung by the school choir or as musical interludes, artfully edited.  They’re hopelessly emo but well performed and they stuck with me much more than any one person did.

There’s clearly a strong voice in Reeder and I’m going to keep my eye on what the filmmaker does in the future – I’m hoping there’s more focus into the plot (oh, you forgot this was a mystery, didn’t you?  So did I at times) and less on exposing the sordid side of a small town.  What Reeder uncovers here isn’t anything new or exciting, nor is her delivery as audacious as it could have been.  It’s less knives on skin and more nails on a chalkboard.

 

The Silver Bullet ~ In the Heights



Synopsis
:  A bodega owner has mixed feelings about closing his store and retiring to the Dominican Republic after inheriting his grandmother’s fortune.

Release Date: June 26, 2020

Thoughts: By now, most fans of the musical phenomenon Hamilton are well-aware of creator Lin-Manuel Miranda’s previous Broadway success story, In the Heights.  Also a celebrated piece of theatrical entertainment and winner of multiple awards, when I saw the show in its national tour it didn’t quite land with me as much as I thought it would.  That’s why I’m especially interested to see the film adaptation arriving next summer which is getting a flashy treatment from Warner Brothers.  I think this is going to transfer well to the screen and by the looks of the first trailer of the big-time movie musical directed by Jon M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians) and starring Anthony Ramos (A Star is Born) taking on the role Miranda (Mary Poppins Returns) originated, this could be a hot ticket come June.  While we wait for the inevitable film version of Hamilton, fingers crossed In the Heights shows how easy it is for Miranda’s work to soar in a different medium.