31 Days to Scare ~ Jacob’s Ladder (1990)


The Facts
:

Synopsis: The life of a traumatized Vietnam veteran begins to unravel as the line between reality and nightmarish visions becomes blurred

Stars: Tim Robbins, Elizabeth Peña, Danny Aiello, Matt Craven, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Jason Alexander, Patricia Kalember, Eriq La Salle, Ving Rhames

Director: Adrian Lyne

Rated: R

Running Length: 113 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: There are a few reasons why I do this special series 31 Days to Scare every year.  First and foremost is that it commits me to writing something every day and doesn’t give me an excuse to forget or procrastinate.  Another reason is that I’m primarily watching horror/suspense films throughout October so why not make it easier on myself and write about what’s totally fresh in my mind?  The third reason is that is gives me an opportunity to go back and revisit older films that I’d been wanting to review but hadn’t or saw long ago and didn’t remember.  I’ve found there’s a nice balance to doing that and during the year I’ll bookmark titles that I want to save for this month.

One of those selections that’s been in the hopper for a few cycles now is Jacob’s Ladder, a 1990 horror film from director Adrian Lyne.  I’d seen it only once, when it was first released on VHS and never again since but bits and pieces of it had stuck with me over the years.  I didn’t really recall the finer details of the plot so I figured I had enough distance to come at it with a decently unvarnished perspective.  Often listed on lists of the best scary movies from that era, viewing Jacob’s Ladder as an adult I can see why it’s more mature take on death, hell, and demons wouldn’t have spoken to me as an adolescent.  Now, the watch was harrowing.

Opening in 1971 Vietnam, we find Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins, Thanks for Sharing) and his platoon unaware of the danger waiting close by.  An enemy attack leads to a frenzy of action and carnage, leveling the unit in what we think is one thing but turns out to be another bleak nightmare from a future Jacob who has already returned safely from the war.  Obviously damaged by what he saw and experienced, he continues to have dreams of dying and these visions begin to manifest themselves in his daily life.  He sees tentacles and tails on friends and loved ones, a charge nurse has something growing out of the back of her head, he’s pursued by a faceless gang of terrors, but none of this is witnessed by anyone else.

His girlfriend Jezzie (Elizabeth Peña, Grandma) is concerned at first but eventually turns fearful for Jacob as his body begins to show the effects of his paranoia.  Still grieving the loss of his son from his first marriage, she tries to help him stave off those memories in the worst way possible and her tough love approach appears to the audience to be doing more harm than good.  When Jacob meets up with his army buddies and discovers they too have been having similar visions, they start to uncover a conspiracy tied to their time in the war that may explain what’s happening to them now.

There’s more to Jacob’s Ladder than meets the eye at first glance.  I don’t want to say it has a twist because then you’ll be spending the movie looking out for the tables to turn.  Think of it more as a different way of viewing what you’ve just seen because it’s a really a key bit of information given to the audience at the very end.  You may have already arrived at that information on your own but even knowing the ending myself and watching for any clues, Lyne and screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin (who would win an Oscar the same year for Ghost) do a remarkable job keeping their cards close while not cheating.

Known for directing his more adult films like Fatal Attraction, 9 ½ Weeks, and Flashdance, Lyne brings his same attention to detail and eye for making New York look ominous yet strangely attractive all at once.  The movie would be spooky under any director considering Rubin’s trippy script but Lyne does actually fill it with arresting imagery that creates some honest to goodness frights.  Not just your run of the mill jump scares but visuals of eyeless surgeons and bloody ghouls that will haunt you long after the movie has concluded.  On the flip side, when Lyne wants to change the mood he’s able to take us to a lighter place to comfort us by having cinematographer Jeffrey L. Kimball (Top Gun) soften some of the harsh gradients.

I’ve never made a firm decision on my feelings toward Robbins but this turns out to be a great role for him.  His lanky frame, glassy eyes, and sallow face speak to a man troubled by lingering memories from his past that have now come back to steal something more in the future.  It’s a rough road Lyne asks him to travel but Robbins is up for the race.  He’s well matched with the late Peña as his girlfriend that we aren’t sure if we fully trust or not.  Required to be more naked than I think is necessary (until I remember this is an Adrian Lyne film), the actress handles these and other spoiler-y scenes near the end with a cool professionalism.  Pour one out for Danny Aiello (Radio Days) as a kindly chiropractor and the rest of the platoon and large supporting cast filled with familiar faces.

Not a huge box office hit when first released, Jacob’s Ladder was given some semblance of a new life on VHS where it was able to find a more relaxed audience.  I’m glad it did, too, because it’s a strong effort from all involved and one that has good replay value.  The popularity was so big, in fact, that it was said to have influenced the creators of the video game Silent Hill and even got itself a lackluster remake in 2019.  My advice is to stick with the original and give it a shot.  Not only does it represent a fine slice of early ‘90s entertainment from a top director of the time but you might find yourself keeping a light or two on after.

31 Days to Scare ~ Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb

The Facts:

Synopsis: A British archaeologist and his team bring an embalmed Egyptian royal back from their latest expedition, and trouble ensues when the archaeologist’s daughter is possessed.

Stars: Andrew Keir, Valerie Leon, James Villiers, Hugh Burden, George Coulouris, Mark Edwards, Rosalie Crutchley, Aubrey Morris, David Markham

Director: Seth Holt

Rated: PG

Running Length: 94 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: I’m still more than a little disappointed that 2017’s The Mummy was such a lackluster bust.  Not only did it stop Universal’s planned onslaught of re-envisioning their classic monster catalog, but it wasted a prime opportunity to use their gender-swapped title character in any meaningful way.  It was more about star Tom Cruise than any gauze-wrapped undead wreaking havoc in modern times.  While Universal making their mummy female was applauded, it was far from the first time that change was made (that would be 1944’s The Mummy’s Curse) and other studios had attempted their own twist on mummy norms over the years.

One studio that gave it a shot was Hammer, this British company that churned out oodles of genre pictures covering every kind of beastie and baddie.  Already three deep in their mummy series and wanting to change things up, they looked to none other than Bram Stoker for inspiration on their next picture, Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb.  Stoker’s The Jewel of Seven Stars was published in 1903 and concerns an ancient evil Egyptian queen, a group of unwise archaeologists, and a young girl that becomes a vessel for the rebirth of the queen’s violent spirit.  This would be a different kind of mummy movie, with the same storyline fueled by revenge but carried out in far more supernaturally obtuse methods and showcasing less rotting flesh in favor of the ample cleavage of its well-endowed star.

Margaret (Valerie Leon, The Spy Who Loved Me) has been having increasingly vivid nightmares about the mummification of a beautiful queen.  Adored in finery and surrounded by key artifacts, not to mention a whopper of a ring, the body is well-preserved save for her hand which is violently cut off but remains fairly…active.  In present day, her father (Andrew Keir) a retired archaeologist gives her the same ring from her dreams as an early birthday present, a coincidence that’s just the beginning of Margaret completing a long-gestating connection to Queen Tera, the woman of her dreams. As Margaret becomes more entwined with the spirit of Queen Tera, her father’s old expedition companions begin to sense what can only be described as a disturbance in the force.  Flashbacks reveal their presence as Margaret’s father discovered Queen Tera’s tomb (of course dust/cobweb free and with her body in immaculate condition) and they all took something from their find.  Now, with Tera controlling Margaret, she needs these pieces back by any means necessary so she may live again and continue her reign of terror.  The bodies start to pile up at the same time Tera’s treasures begin to find their way home, leading to a showdown for Margaret’s spirit.

The production of Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb is legendary.   Original star Peter Cushing left the production after a day to tend to his terminally ill wife, a production assistant was killed, and director Seth Holt died before filming was completed.  Seemed there was a curse of some sort over the film and perhaps that’s why it had a rather lackluster reception at the time of its release, despite it being a fairly enjoyable, if overly tame, ride when compared to its elegantly wrapped series siblings.  There’s just something odd about calling the film a mummy movie when it’s more about possession and reincarnation than anything.  The final image is a great visual and teed up a sequel that, due to poor box office returns, sadly never materialized.

Hammer produced so many films that it can be easy to start writing off the lesser known ones like this…just as it’s easy to call titles that aren’t that great underrated.  I think this falls somewhere in the middle of it all…and at least from what I hear it’s better than The Awakening, the 1980 Charlton Heston version of Stoker’s story.   There are definitely things to improve in Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb but I can’t help but wonder if that change of directors didn’t figure into some of the confusing plot shifts in the final act (a main character leaves a room and dies in such a strange way it feels like a dream) so it’s possible to give the film a pass on that.  Though she’s inexplicably dubbed, Leon is a lovely lead and there’s a slow-motion shot of her walking toward her evil double in the middle of the night that’s truly haunting but also beautiful at the same time.  If you can find this one, I say give it a go because you might be surprised at how much you like it.

Movie Review ~ On the Rocks


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A young mother reconnects with her larger-than-life playboy father on an adventure through New York.

Stars: Bill Murray, Rashida Jones, Marlon Wayans, Jenny Slate

Director: Sofia Coppola

Rated: R

Running Length: 96 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  Let’s have it out right now at the start so we can move on.  I’m not a fan of Lost in Translation and I don’t get it’s appeal.  Whew.  There, I said it and I feel better.  Do you?  Sorry, but that film just didn’t land with me and I know I like a bunch of movies that may leave you wondering if I have a sane bone in my body but Sofia Coppola’s Oscar-winning screenplay left me freezing.  I guess I could watch it again and see if my mood on it has changed but…I just don’t think so.  Her subsequent films have been a mixed bag too, with 1999’s The Virgin Suicides being right on target and Marie Antoinette making 2005 buzz with its charisma and style.  I was marginally sold on The Bling Ring but less enthused with her remake of The Beguiled, which is all to say that I approached her new film On the Rocks (which has been playing in theaters and now premieres on Apple+) very carefully.

The story of an almost-40 New York mother of two (Rashida Jones, The Sound of Silence) who suspects her busy husband (Marlon Wayans, The Heat) of cheating on her with his co-worker could have easily been another in a long line of crestfallen big city women in crisis movies that you’d rent from Redbox and then forget about forever.  Yet Coppola has made one of the more interesting films of the year by casting one of the more interesting actors working today and giving him his best role in quite some time.  That moves On the Rocks from the watch it and forget it column to the watch it, talk about it, think about it, tell all your friends about how good Bill Murray is in it sort of deal.

At first, Laura (Jones) isn’t sure her successful husband Dean has strayed in their marriage.  A half-awake Dean has returned from a lengthy flight and when he flops into bed and she greets him, he appears surprised to hear her voice.  She actually writes off the incident and even believes the rational reason he provides when she finds the make-up bag for his co-worker in his luggage.  Then she has lunch with her retired art-dealer dad Felix (Murray, Moonrise Kingdom) and that’s when he plants the germ of a seed of doubt in her mind and proceeds to help her nurture it.  A notorious womanizer that has struggled to stay faithful himself, he seems to know what he’s talking about.  Even though Laura doesn’t want to believe the hard to believe signs, maybe her dad is right…but does she want to risk her marriage on a hunch?

Coppola’s film is mainly a drama, a family drama no-less, but there are elements of a number of different genres present.  It’s a buddy film in the way that Laura leans on Felix for support during this strange period of her life as it doesn’t appear she has any female friends she can open up to, surely not the self-involved women (including a scene-stealing Jenny Slate, Zootopia) at her children’s school.  There’s a road trip adventure quality to it as well when Felix convinces Laura to follow Dean to Mexico to surprise him on a co-workers only trip in the hopes of finding him with another woman.  It’s a mystery too, as the audience is never quite sure how allegiant Felix is to his daughter – we feel like he wants the best for her but it’s also clear that for as much shameless flirting and grandstanding gladhanding as he does, she may be his only true connection and if she remains so devoted to Dean where does that leave him?

I wish Coppola had a bit more to say about these relationships in her wrap-up because the conclusion is definitely nowhere near as interesting as the carefully laid out (and highly enjoyable) first ¾ of the movie.  There is a feeling too that had Wayans been a more dynamic actor the stakes may have been raised a bit higher.  As it stands he’s just not on the same level as Jones who in turn isn’t at the same level as Murray.  So you have three different actors all at differing levels of range – sometimes that doesn’t make a difference but in emotionally fueled movies like On the Rocks it does become part of a make or break discussion.  Murray is fantastic, easily the best and brightest he’s been in years – fingers crossed he gets some recognition for this effort – and I hope Coppola continues to explore this side of her narrative storytelling.  Just work on the ending.

31 Days to Scare ~ Bad Hair


The Facts
:

Synopsis: An ambitious young woman gets a weave in order to succeed in the image-obsessed world of music television circa 1989. However, her flourishing career comes at a great cost when she realizes that her new hair may have a mind of its own.

Stars: Elle Lorraine, Jay Pharoah, Lena Waithe, Kelly Rowland, Laverne Cox, Chanté Adams, Judith Scott, James Van Der Beek, Usher Raymond IV, Blair Underwood,  Vanessa Williams

Director: Justin Simien

Rated: NR

Running Length: 115 minutes

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review:  Not that I have much of it to speak of now, but there was a time when getting a haircut was a big deal.  When I started making my own hair decisions (meaning, my dad stopped taking me to his barber and telling him to “give me the usual”) it took a while to find the right person to give me the cut I wanted.  Looking through the men on both sides of my family I knew I was fighting a losing battle so was always prepared for the end.  Until that time, though, I was going to treat my hair with flair.  So I get the way that hair plays a huge part into the way we feel about ourselves and why a haircut during a difficult time in our lives is often the way we first signal a change is necessary.

In 1989, I think I had those horrible parallel gradient lines buzzed into my hair (all photo evidence has been destroyed or is in a safe location so don’t go looking for it) but for Bad Hair’s Anna Bludso (Elle Lorraine), her situation is far worse.  As a child she had a bad run in with a poorly applied relaxer and her scalp has never been the same, forcing her to keep her style largely natural to avoid any further irritation.  Normally, this would be something most of us could live with but Anna’s working in Los Angeles at one of the hottest music networks (think MTV but run by a James Van Der Beek type, played by James Van Der Beek) and dreams of becoming a host on their popular video program.

When her team undergoes a restructuring, she impresses her new boss Zora (Vanessa Williams, Miss Virginia) with her ideas but not her looks.  The ex-model suggests Anna start with her hair and offers the name of a stylist that had recently worked wonders on singer sensation Sandra (Kelly Rowland).  Determined, Anna heads to Virgie’s (Laverne Cox, Charlie’s Angels) where the cryptic woman helps her find the perfect weave.  Armed with a glam new look and a fresh aura of confidence, Anna is set on a path to success only to be derailed when her locks begin to display strange, life-like behavior and a fondness for blood.  Possessed by her hair, no one is safe from Anna’s tresses of terror.

Writer/director Justin Simien’s film has so many things going for it that it depresses me to no end to report that Bad Hair (streaming on Hulu starting 10/23) isn’t the fun bit of campy horror it sounds like it’s going to be.  True, there are moments of wit and some humor to be had from the observances from the time and the cultural norms of the day, most of it provided by Lena Waithe (Queen & Slim) as Anna’s co-worker who already hosts her own show.  The biggest problem going on here is the severely poor special effects that sink an already shaky ship.  Plenty of films can skate by with a small budget and decent special effects because they know how to work around them.  However, in Bad Hair, Simien relies so much on terribly rendered effects that its robs the actors and action of any credibility or suspense because the viewer is totally taken out of the moment thinking about the poor quality of what’s onscreen.

You can also add an unnecessarily long run-time to the list of thumbs-down factors because at 115 minutes, Bad Hair needs a good trim.  It’s simply too long and unruly to justify that length and the time it does use up it doesn’t dole out wisely.  Not enough effort is spent to set-up the acknowledgement that something awful is happening in the offices of the music network – people are vanishing left and right courtesy of the hungry hair yet there are hardly any establishing scenes showing anyone is discussing this.  Basically, it’s just a series of scenes of Anna’s weave acting wonky and then the next event happens.  There’s a mass slaughter of key players and all is well the previous day.  Did they not have the police working back then?  The first twenty minutes are so cleverly constructed that you wind up wondering where all that creative energy went in the final 90 minutes that seem to stretch on forever.

The best thing to come out of this experience is getting to know Elle Lorraine as the dynamite lead of the film.  Whatever I thought about the movie, its effects, or its pacing, there’s little denying that Lorraine is a bona fide star and will go on to better things after this.  She’s practically the only person other than Waithe and a great Judith Scott as Anna’s ousted boss, who feels like they realize they’re in a feature film.  Everyone else is strictly playing for a television audience, none more so than Vanessa Williams.  Oh dear.  Vanessa. Williams.  Playing her umpteenth ex-model witchy backstabbing narcissist, I simply don’t see the rationale for Simien using her for this role.  Bringing nothing new or interesting to the role and developing into exactly what we think she will, Simien lost a chance to go after someone unexpected not known for playing this type of maneater and non girls-girl to play a type of role Williams has got the market cornered on. What a flat, boring,  uninspired casting choice on a grand scale.

I almost feel like a broken record saying this but I get to thinking that Simien’s story started out as an episode for some anthology series or film that he then expanded to full-feature length.  It doesn’t have the substance to qualify for that expansion, even though a head-spinning ending created a twist so devious (and, yes, interesting) I wish the actor involved had been in two or three more scenes so their reappearance made more sense.  If you’re going to attempt a final zinger like Simien does, you have to set it up better and, like many things in Bad Hair, it isn’t fully realized.  I expected much more from this and had hoped it would have found the same Little (Hair)Shop of Horrors vibe it felt like it wanted to go after.  Instead, the effects weren’t even comically bad in an Ed Wood sort of way.  Very disappointing.

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.