31 Days to Scare ~ Razorback (1984)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: As a vicious wild boar terrorizes the Australian outback, the husband of one of the victims is joined by a hunter and a farmer in a search for the beast.

Stars: Gregory Harrison, Arkie Whiteley, Bill Kerr, Chris Haywood, David Argue, Judy Morris, John Ewart, John Howard

Director: Russell Mulcahy

Rated: R

Running Length: 95 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: To all of you out there that remember the halcyon days of the home video market I want you to stop and remember the beauty of the clamshell packaging for Warner Brothers releases.  This was that lovely piece of black plastic casing with a vinyl cover that squeaked when you opened it, took up a phenomenal amount of shelf space, and often featured a full essay printed on the back of the box art that could spoil the whole movie if you read too far. I consider these mini treasures and while they were eventually replaced with the slimmer cases certain boxes remain seared in my memory, whether I saw the actual movie or not.  The Neverending Story was one and, for some reason, Razorback was another.  Featuring the art that you see on the poster above, for as much as I was a fan of the creature feature I’m surprised it took me as long as I did to see the movie itself.

Ever since Jaws debuted in 1975, there was an influx of copycat films that tried to recreate it’s man vs. beast success and most failed to come even close to what Steven Spielberg did.  Spielberg traded on simplicity and suggestion of a creature many people had never seen close up and what those that followed failed to realize was that the more you showed, the less scary it was.  However, with gore and violence becoming more popular it was go big or go home.  By the time Razorback arrived from Down Under in 1984, there had already been two sequels to Spielberg’s original shark tale as well as imitators involving piranhas, orcas, bears, alligators, octopi, barracudas, as well as countless other monster shark features. 

One of the rare examples of a Jaws rip-off that triumphs on its own merits and benefits greatly from its Oz-ploitation roots, Razorback really caught me off guard when I decided to give it a go one late night not so very long ago.  I honestly wasn’t expecting much, certainly not the well-made and suspenseful yarn from director Russell Mulcahy I got.  While it has its moments of careening awfully close to some of the same structure as Peter Benchley’s shark story with similar character archetypes, most of Everett De Roche’s screenplay (based on the novel by Peter Brennan) charts its own course forward into darker territory than Americans were used to.

You could almost say the film has two prologues before the main action begins.  Opening with Jake Cullen (Bill Kerr) being attacked in his home by a huge razorback boar while babysitting his grandson and subsequent murder trial when the town doesn’t believe his tale of the massive predator, the film jumps ahead a handful of years when an American reporter (Judy Morris) also winds up encountering the creature in a terrifying sequence of events.  Only when her husband (dependable ’70s and ‘80s soap opera hunk Gregory Harrison) arrives to search for his missing wife does the film begin to settle in and let the viewer acclimate to a community that is probably aware of a deadly presence but without resources to stop it. 

While Mulcahy keeps the film as tight as he can, dotting solid thrills at opportune moments, he can’t keep the movie from dragging in it’s middle and it’s just because the story runs out of steam or, more precisely, characters that can adequately fill the action.  Harrison is a vanilla-ish lead and while an added layer of conflict is introduced in an illegal canning operation in town from two scuzzy brothers (whom his wife also encountered), all we really want to do is see the boar in action because that’s where the excitement is generated the most consistently.

Thankfully, this is 1984 before the advent of CGI and the production team spent some decent money on several animatronic boars so we have actors interacting with something tangible and it shows how important that is to a performance.  Mulcahy goes the Spielberg route and rarely shows the beast in full (whether that is because of budget or not, I can’t say) but it’s effective more often than not so that when the final confrontation in a dilapidated factory happens, we’re amped up enough to forgive anything that looks a little rubbery.  Add in some truly impressive cinematography from Dean Semler (who would win an Oscar in 1990 for Dances with Wolves) and you’re riding high on a far above-average film that rises above its mere rip-off label.

If it tells you anything about my admiration for Razorback, I first watched it on a DVD copy checked out from the library but appreciated the viewing experience so much that I wound up buying an import BluRay copy from Australia.  There’s good replay value here and if you can track it down, it comes with a strong recommendation.  If only the BluRay came in an oversized black clamshell…ah…those were the days.

Movie Review ~ My Name is Pauli Murray

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Overlooked by history, Pauli Murray was a legal trailblazer, activist and poet whose ideas influenced RBG’s fight for gender equality and Thurgood Marshall’s landmark civil rights arguments.

Stars: Patricia Bell-Scott, Dolores Chandler, Brittney Cooper, Sonia Pressman Fuentes, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Tina Lu, Marghretta McBean, Ernest R. Myers, Mary Norris

Director: Julie Cohen & Betsy West

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 91 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  Sometimes you choose documentaries based on personal interest (guess what, I like documentaries about movies!) and sometimes documentaries choose you.  Had My Name is Pauli Murray not been offered to me as a screening opportunity, I’m not sure I would have taken the time to review it and I actually declined the first time because of competing priorities.  When it was offered again, I had an opening in my schedule and thought it would be good to expand my knowledge base outside of my usual scope and I’m so glad I did.  You always learn something new from these films but in the case of this particular documentary feature, viewers that never knew the name Pauli Murray are in for an eye-opening look into the life of a pioneer activist that paved the way for many of the liberties we enjoy today.

Fairly early on one of the many people directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West interview own up to never having heard of Pauli Murray growing up and even into adulthood.  They’re playing the pivotal role of audience member stand-in because I think most of the viewers will be in the same boat.  Some of the achievements Murray set into motion or suggested have either been attributed to others or were part of a larger movement that absorbed their participation into a mere footnote.  How did Murray come to be the strong-willed person they were?  And being what we now know as non-binary (hence the they/them/their pronouns), how did they manage to live their personal life when the world was still unaccepting? Using a trove of archival material as well as audio recordings from Murray, the directors piece together a straightforward narrative of a life that was filled with achievements, setbacks, steps forward, and loss. 

Now widely recognized as a key figure in the early Civil Rights movement and a vanguard in the fight for Women’s Equality, Murray was always first in the door but was often usurped by another similar situation down the line.  They were involved with a bus re-seating incident years before the one that turned Rosa Parks into a symbol of freedom nearly a decade later as well as staging a sit-in at a diner to protest the unfair treatment of black Americans far earlier than the one made famous in national news.  These facts aren’t presented to diminish these other important moments in the fight for Civil Rights, but to show that the work was being done already and a reason why these later events had such a groundswell of strong support is because the ACLU already knew how to approach the situation based on Murray’s involvement and strategizing.

I found the stories of Murray’s early years truly fascinating.  Even before they became involved with more politicized work, they rode the rails and, perhaps as a precursor to their own investigation into their questions on gender, often lived life as a man as a way of protection.  How lucky to have so many pictures from this era showing the evolution from child to teenager to young person.  Eventually going into college to study law where they were again met with adversity, Murray eventually formed a life-long bond with Eleanor Roosevelt.  Writing to the first lady to protest unfair treatment of their denial in admission to school, the two corresponded for much of Roosevelt’s life, with Roosevelt calling on Murray often to provide content and context for racial equality issues.

Discussions of Murray’s long-standing relationship are tender and there are a few tough sections involving Murray’s psychological problems that stemmed from gender confusion and a medical society that didn’t listen to the patient.  Cohen and West provide good commentary for these eras of Murray’s life, although at times it does feel like the pundits are speaking a little too much about what Murray was thinking when all we can go on is the writings the activist left behind.  Drawing too much into devised narrative is dangerous when the rest of the documentary is told from such a factual perspective.

A short but packed 91 minutes, My Name is Pauli Murray is an absolute must watch for anyone with interest in Civil Rights era activism, LGBTQ+ history, women’s history, and social reform.  Everyone else should also take note of the opportunity to gain knowledge on a name not always featured in the first paragraph of the historical text but who likely should be mentioned among the greats.  Pauli Murray was their name and now, thanks to this well-made and informative documentary, they won’t be forgotten.

Movie Review ~ Falling for Figaro

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A brilliant young fund manager leaves her unfulfilling job and long-term boyfriend to chase her lifelong dream of becoming an opera singer in the Scottish Highlands.

Stars: Danielle Macdonald, Hugh Skinner, Joanna Lumley, Gary Lewis, Shazad Latif

Director: Ben Lewin

Rated: R

Running Length: 105 minutes

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review:  I watched Falling for Figaro on a rainy day hoping that it’s frothy premise and appealing stars would bring a little sunshine to an otherwise dreary day.  Here was a film that I would consider a slam dunk on paper.  You have extremely likable star Danielle Macdonald in the lead who has shown in a short amount of time that no matter what role she’s playing, you’re apt to root for her regardless of if you’re supposed to or not.  The Australian actress has a charm about her that’s undeniable and it’s only a matter of time (and, I think, an award nomination) before she’s finally recognized properly.  Supporting her would be the master of dryly detached humor Joanna Lumley and her leading man is scruffy English lad Hugh Skinner.  Throw in the Scottish Highlands as your backdrop and big dreams of opera stardom into the mix and there’s a movie perfect for a pick-me-up kind of mood.

Disappointingly, Falling for Figaro stumbles out of the gate and continues to trip over itself for the next ninety minutes, eventually becoming a staid and painful example of why romantic comedies are so difficult to navigate and how romantic dramadies are almost better left for only the most skilled filmmakers.  Instead of the breezy fun and low commitment this promised to be, the viewer is left increasingly uncomfortable with stars playing opera hopefuls that are clearly not singing and a general lack of overall conviction from anyone.

All Millie (Macdonald, French Exit) has dreamed of is to sing opera but a career in finance took precedence and now she finds herself an American working for a London firm and cozying up with her boss and boyfriend Charlie (Shazad Latif, The Commuter).  Just as she’s being offered a more permanent position with a lucrative pay increase, she chucks it all (but keeps supportive Charlie on retainer) to give opera a shot for a year.  Now, I know several friends who have worked for years in opera, and they’ll tell you what Millie’s professional friend tells her – it’s rare for anyone to start and become a pro so late in life…especially without any training.  Millie’s self-assurance and eye on the prize attitude is a plus and she’ll need it as she dives into a whole new world starting at the ground level.

Her friend advises the best way to fast-track to success is to win a “Singer of Renown” competition and land a part with a major opera company, and a former opera star now teacher like the semi-retired Meghan Geoffrey-Bishop (Lumley, The Wolf of Wall Street) is just the one who could help her do it.  Living in a tiny town at a farmhouse left to her by a fan, the droll diva is already working with Max Thistlewaite (Skinner, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again) who has been trying to win the same competition for years.  Of course, Millie gets off to a rocky start with both upon her arrival.  Her singing isn’t up to snuff, but her money stream appears never-ending, so Meghan is happy to teach her and take her dough while Max bristles that Meghan’s attention is drifting from him to someone new and less experienced. 

What writer/director Ben Lewin (The Sessions) has forgotten in his script (and direction) is to create any real problems for our lead.  In even the most mundane of romantic comedies, the leading lady must walk through some sort of fire to come out the other side changed but Millie has a wonderful boyfriend and great job at the beginning, can afford to take a whole year off and sing the days away in the countryside, and becomes an opera aficionado quite quickly.  And she nets another paramour in the process (Max, duh).  It makes the character less complex and, therefore, less interesting.  It’s not Macdonald’s fault and credit goes to her for bringing a sliver of energy to the role, but there’s a sense that she knows there’s something missing and it’s not just her own singing voice.

We have to address the vocals in this film because it has some of the absolute worst dubbing I’ve seen outside of Italian horror films or low-budget martial arts movies of the ‘80s.  There’s a lot of opera singing going on in the movie and anytime someone opens their mouth, the music is never convincingly matched to their mouths.  Like, ever.  It’s incredibly distracting and instantly takes you out of whatever mood the filmmakers were trying to convey.  How nice would it have been for Lewin to cast actual opera singers in these roles and then see what happens?  Something tells me the movie would have been improved by a large margin if we believed Millie was getting better by believing the actress playing her was singing.  Again, this is no disrespect to Macdonald because she’s doing her job well.  This is just one of those, “Opera singers can act as well, you know!” kind of moments.

As it rounds the bend to an especially strained and painful final act (and oh, that epilogue…yeesh!), I felt more like running from Figaro than falling for it.  There’s something just all around off with the movie and it’s not just the mismatched vocals.  The comedy isn’t quite sharp enough, the drama isn’t deep enough, and the romance not convincingly established.  All the elements are there…they just brought the curtain up before everyone was truly ready to perform.  I could see Falling for Figaro being re-worked as a stage play/musical and being far more successful and entertaining – at least then you’d get actors that were actually singing.