Movie Review ~ The Curse of La Llorona


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Ignoring the eerie warning of a troubled mother suspected of child endangerment, a social worker and her own small kids are soon drawn into a frightening supernatural realm.

Stars: Linda Cardellini, Patricia Velasquez, Raymond Cruz, Sean Patrick Thomas, Marisol Ramirez, Madeleine McGraw

Director: Michael Chaves

Rated: R

Running Length: 93 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: Loosen your belts, good audience members, because The Conjuring Universe continues to expand at a rapid rate. The Conjuring sent moviegoers screaming in 2013 and it wasn’t long before we had a decent sequel and spin-offs including 2014’s Annabelle (and its 2017 far superior follow-up Annabelle: Creation) and 2018’s The Nun. Now, hot on the heels of the new release The Curse of La Llorona, is Annabelle Comes Home, arriving in just a few months. What began as unexpectedly frightening solid shocker stand-alone film has grown into a cottage industry franchise of fear. The question is, in a saturated market of theatrical releases, movies on demand, and streaming originals, can the filmmakers behind these horror flicks continue to introduce interesting characters that make future sequels of interest?

While The Curse of La Llorona ultimately fares better than The Nun (partly because it manages to make it to the finish line making some modicum of sense), the cracks are starting to show in The Conjuring Universe and it’s time for some originality to be brought back into the mix. The film is efficient, well-made, and delivers the requisite scares to give the audiences a jolt every five minutes (sometimes less) but it doesn’t captivate you like truly memorable horror films should. Like a late night trip to Taco Bell, it gets the job done but isn’t all that good for you.

A short prologue set in idyllic 17th century Mexico introduces us to a mother (Marisol Ramirez, Circle) who suddenly drowns her young sons for no apparent reason. Flash forward to 1973 Los Angeles and the story picks up with widowed social worker Anna (Linda Cardellini, Green Book) making a house call to Patricia (Patricia Alvarez, The Mummy) who has two boys that haven’t shown up to school lately. Finding the mother out of sorts (to put it mildly) and the boys locked in a closet, Anna steps in and places the boys in protective care while their mother gets the help she needs.

Unfortunately, the moment Anna opens that closet door she becomes part of a curse that affects everyone around her, including her children Chris (Roman Christou) and Samantha (Jaynee-Lynn Kinchen). She’s incurred the wrath of La Llorona, a vengeful spirit doomed to roam the earth searching for children to replace the two she murdered. Stemming from Mexican folklore, La Llorona is used as a way for parents to scare their children into following the straight and narrow. “You better be good or La Llorona will come and get you!” Now, this spirit has her sights set on Anna’s children and will stop at nothing to make them her own.

Working from a script by Mikki Daughtry & Tobias Iaconis (also represented currently in theaters with Five Feet Apart), director Michael Chaves (who is signed up to direct The Conjuring 3) doesn’t bring the same kind of flashy élan to the frights like other directors in The Conjuring Universe but what he does have is a good sense of rhythm in keeping the scares coming at a good pace. True, most of the frights are forced into your body because they’re accompanied with a loud noise that you can’t help but tense up at but there are a few nice shocks delivered just after the hairs on the back of your neck have been raised to full attention.

Daughtry and Iaconis unfortunately dumb down Anna and her kids into people that experience something they can’t explain and choose not to tell anyone else. All three of them are living in the same house and they can’t share they are all seeing the same ghostly apparition of a creepy lady in a white dress? To their credit, Cardellini and the children make a believable family unit, one that is still grieving over the loss of their father, which is one of several plot points never fully explored. There are attempts to link the movie to the original Annabelle film but aside from that brief glimpse of the creepy doll in a flashback this is largely a property unto itself.  Several characters are also introduced and you think they’re going to play a major role…but we wind up never seeing them again.

If there’s one thing I can say that I’ve enjoyed about these films in The Conjuring Universe it’s that they’ve all been set in the past. This removes the advances of technology as a way to help our terrorized family and prevents them from roaming the internet for ways to escape the ghoul preying on them. In The Curse of La Llorona, the lack of outside assistance/knowledge brings about the introduction of a shaman (Raymond Cruz), a sort of a stone-faced wise-cracking urban exorcist. Cruz’s character may bring some comic relief to the proceedings but his once-holy man seems to come from another movie entirely.

At a scant 93 minutes, The Curse of La Llorona doesn’t overstay its welcome and my audience seemed to have a dandy of a time screaming along with the movie. The scares are modestly commendable when they are doled out with precision and less successful when things just pop into frame along with a loud sting of music. I saw this in IMAX and should have brought earplugs. I’m sure the movie will do the kind of business that will encourage the people behind this franchise to keep going – I just ask that they take a little more time to think things through in future entries. If they want to make this a true universe, they should also be attempting to connect their films more than just having random props from other movies pop up.  I mean, the doll from Annabelle also appeared in Aquaman and Shazam!…do they belong in The Conjuring Universe too?

Movie Review ~ Pet Sematary (2019)


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Dr. Louis Creed and his wife, Rachel, relocate from Boston to rural Maine with their two young children. The couple soon discover a mysterious burial ground hidden deep in the woods near their new home.

Stars: Jason Clarke, John Lithgow, Amy Seimetz, Jeté Laurence, Obssa Ahmed

Directors: Kevin Kölsch & Dennis Widmyer

Rated: R

Running Length: 101 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: Normally, I’m not a fan of remakes of originals that were just fine to begin with. Stephen King’s 1989 adaption of his own novel Pet Sematary was a solid horror film that has held up quite well over the past thirty years. Sure, it’s low tech and some of the performances delve into out-of-place hysterics at times but it was largely a successful effort and often spoken of highly as one of the better King adaptations that have made it to the big screen.

Yet I wasn’t that mad at the fact that the source material was going to get another treatment…and I actually thought it was long overdue. After a lackluster sequel that failed to move the series forward in any compelling way, the property just sort of sat there on the shelf for the ensuing years. I’ve always considered the book and its concept to be one that would lend itself well to multiple sequels and creative approaches yet no one had bothered to take another crack at it. As the original film approached it’s 30th anniversary, Paramount decided to dig up their former horror hit and handed it over to three guys that have been making a name for themselves in the scare business.

The new film has a screenplay written by Jeff Buhler who already had The Prodigy in 2019 and will pen upcoming remakes of Jacob’s Ladder and The Grudge, and was directed by Kevin Kölsch & Dennis Widmyer who gave us the underrated horror gem Starry Eyes. Having these three give King’s tale of a city family that moves to the country and experiences the dangerous power of a nearby burial ground seemed like an on the money choice and with stars like Jason Clarke (The Aftermath) and John Lithgow (Pitch Perfect 3) on board this remake was elevated up a few notches from being just a shameless cash-in.

The Creed family has uprooted their life and moved to a small town in Maine so Louis (Clarke) can be a big fish in a small pond as the doctor at a local university. Like the first film, his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz, You’re Next) doesn’t seem to have much of a life of her own outside of taking care of their two young children so while Louis goes to work Rachel begins the process of setting her family up in their new house. Friendly neighbor Jud (Lithgow) catches young Ellie (Jeté Laurence) exploring in the woods and shows her the pet sematary on their property where children come to bury their pets. When tragedy strikes the Creed family, Louis is driven to make an unholy choice involving the pet sematary that has deadly repercussions for everyone.

While the film largely falls into the remake category, with names and situations that echo what we’ve read/seen before, certain elements of the plot have been reimagined and not all of them work as well as they should. If you’ve seen the previews you’re likely aware of the one big change from the book/original film and that choice is, in hindsight, a smart one considering what it allows the filmmakers to do with the final 1/3 of the movie. What I didn’t care for, actually, was that last act when it became less of a slow-burn horror movie and more of a cheap scare machine which undercut some of the strong structure that was built up early on.

Another strange thing about this film is that Buhler’s script is overly talky. In most cases, having some extra character development in a movie designed to provide maximum scare time would be welcome but there seemed to be an endless series of scenes with Louis and Rachel talking in their bedroom. Feeling like low-grade Cassavetes, their marital squabbles and differences of opinion in how much they share with their children about death starts to feel intrusive to the frights. After a while, you begin to wish the bad thing that is coming will just happen so they’ll have something else to talk about.

Clarke, as usual, makes for a reliable leading man and the conflict Louis experiences sits well with him. No one plays tragically at odds with oneself quite like Clarke can. Like the movie, he starts to veer off course near the end but he holds on longer than the film does. I’ve not seen Seimetz in a lot of things but she brought a nice layer to Rachel that wasn’t present in the previous film. The subplot concerning her guilt over an incident from her childhood involving her dying sister isn’t as scary as the 1989 version because its less subtle but she navigates some jarring pseudo-scares quite well. The Jud character was always the most memorable in these films and while Lithgow is no Fred Gwynne, his wind-beaten face and growly voice convinced me right off the bat he was the right guy for the role. The trickiest part in the film is taken on by Laurence as the Creed’s daughter who has to play a whole range of emotions – for a young performer tasked with the film’s most important material she is a strong presence.

As they demonstrated in Starry Eyes, Kölsch & Widmyer know how to slowly turn up the heat on their movie pot and allow it to boil over at just the right time. Here, though, the pot stays on the fire just a hair too long, that is the difference between a remake that sticks its landing, and one that bites off more than it can chew. (I’m trying to jam pack this with metaphors today, clearly). The ending of the film doesn’t measure up and just gets too bizarre to the point where the audience laughs in all the right places but more than a few unintentional passages as well.

I feel like we’re going to be seeing more of these remakes of popular films over the next few years and if they turn out like Pet Sematary I won’t be totally disappointed. There’s some thought that went into this one and more than few examples of creativity on display that are worth noting from directors that are continuing to hone their craft. Showing a bit more appreciation for narrative follow-through and arriving at an ending that satisfies is what was missing.

Movie Review ~ The Best of Enemies


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Civil Rights activist, Ann Atwater, faces off against C.P. Ellis, Exalted Cyclops of the Ku Klux Klan in 1971 Durham, North Carolina over the issue of school integration.

Stars: Taraji P. Henson, Sam Rockwell, Anne Heche, Wes Bentley, John Gallagher Jr., Bruce McGill

Director: Robin Bissell

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 133 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: The filmmakers for Green Book haven’t even had their Best Picture Oscar on the shelf long enough to gather dust before another problematic movie on race relations has made it to theaters. Now I have a feeling that The Best of Enemies tells its tale with a bit more honesty and is unquestionably less outright manipulative but still…something feels off here. Though, like Green Book, it boasts two likable stars (one a recent Oscar winner) and is based on actual events, The Best of Enemies overstays its welcome by hammering home its message audiences will have received loud and clear early on.

It’s 1971 and Durham, North Carolina is still racially divided. Though laws on desegregation have chipped away at the antiquated restrictions at many institutions within the state, the schools remain separated by race. Continuing to fight for her civil rights and the rights of others was the outspoken Ann Atwater (Taraji P. Henson, What Men Want), a grassroots activist that wasn’t afraid to raise her voice to call attention to injustice within her community. On the other side of the coin was Ku Klux Klan leader C. P. Ellis (Sam Rockwell, Vice) who also felt like he was seeing the rights of another population of Durham being restricted. The two public figures were both respected within their individual circles and known to each other…and they didn’t care for the other one bit.

When a fire destroys part of a school that served the black children of Durham, it sparks a debate that leads to the city council voting whether or not to allow children of both races to attend the same school. At the same time, a court-ordered school desegregation decree has finally come into play but instead of being the deciding vote and making history, the district judge involved passes the decision down to the people of Durham. Through a structured two-week community meeting known as a charrette, Atwater and Ellis become co-chairs and lead a group of representatives from the city in deciding how they want to move forward on several key issues, the biggest being fully integrating their schools.

Writer/director Robin Bissell (a producer of The Hunger Games) has adapted Osha Gray Davidson’s book and while it’s clearly a labor of love, it is quite a labor to get through. At two hours and thirteen minutes, the movie takes a while to get moving and then just sort of treads water for a good sixty minutes rehashing what we already know or setting up more scenes of racial tension designed to elicit the appropriate rage from the audience. By the time the film reaches it’s predicted climax, audiences might be a bit numb after all the elevated dramatics Bissell introduces.

The saving grace of the movie lies in the casting and it starts at the top with Henson and Rockwell. Both are actors that invest themselves fully into their roles and that’s certainly the case here. Though Henson is sporting an almost comically large fake set of breasts, she brings a dignity and strength of soul to Ann who wrestles with wanting to practice what she preaches about acceptance even when the person on the other side won’t look her in the face. You may think Rockwell has played a version of this character already in his Oscar-winning role in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri but the differences between the two men are vast. At the beginning of the film Ellis actually believes in the racist thoughts he spews forth but Rockwell takes us through each crack in his belief system as he spends time not only with the black members of Durham but other white people that don’t share his values.

There’s nice supporting work from Anne Heche (Volcano) as Ellis’ wife who doesn’t suffer fools…especially her husband, Wes Bentley (Interstellar) as the prototype KKK member of that era in that area, and Bruce McGill (Lincoln) as a crooked councilman. I also liked John Gallagher Jr. (10 Cloverfield Lane) as a local shopowner sympathetic to the integration that has to choose between what’s right for him and what’s right for his community. He shares a brief scene with Rockwell that hints at the kind of impactful moments the movie is sorely short on. Yet the film never takes off quite so much as when Henson and Rockwell are bickering or, eventually, seeing eye to eye.

Conceived as a historical piece documenting an important turning point in the Civil Rights movement but orchestrated as an audience rousing drama where everyone goes home happy, The Best of Enemies wants it both ways. It tries awfully hard, though, and that work doesn’t go unnoticed. Yet it winds up feeling like another strange misstep in Hollywood’s attempt to get a movie about the Civil Rights…right.

Movie Review ~ Shazam!

1


The Facts
:

Synopsis: We all have a superhero inside us, it just takes a bit of magic to bring it out. In Billy Batson’s case, by shouting out one word – SHAZAM! – this streetwise 14-year-old foster kid can turn into the adult superhero Shazam.

Stars: Zachary Levi, Asher Angel, Mark Strong, Jack Dylan Grazer, Grace Fulton, Faithe Herman, Ian Chen, Jovan Armand, Cooper Andrews, Marta Milans, Adam Brody, Djimon Hounsou

Director: David F. Sandberg

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 132 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Those poor souls over at Warner Brothers/DC Comics were likely looking at 2019 and feeling crestfallen at their prospects. With three highly anticipated Marvel films set for release and their Wonder Woman sequel pushed back to 2020, it must have felt like any hopes of getting another foothold in their franchise ladder weren’t going to happen. I’m not sure how much faith they had in Shazam! at the outset but they should have pumped this one up a bit more than they did. Sure, I saw the preview more times than I needed to before other films but going into the movie I wasn’t expecting anything vastly different than the soulless offerings they’ve been churning out in the past decade.

Thankfully, it seems like they may have stumbled onto something good.

Foster kid Billy Baston (Asher Angel) has found himself on the wrong side of the law for the last time when he is apprehended after obtaining information from a police database. He’d been attempting to find his mother after they were separated when he was a toddler and hasn’t given up hope that she’s out there and is looking for him as well. Taken in by another foster family that already boasts a diverse line-up of kids in similar family situations, Billy bides his time until he can run away again to continue his search.

When he’s mysteriously brought to the temple of an aging Wizard (Djimon Hounsou, Serenity) tasked with guarding the seven deadly sins, he absorbs the fading Wizard’s magic and turns into a buff superhero (Zachary Levi, Thor: The Dark World) anytime he says the Wizard’s name: Shazam. Unware of the extent of his newfound powers, Billy has the mind of a teenager in the body of a mature adult and at first doesn’t exactly use his upgrades for good. Though he runs through some trials of his abilities with his foster brother (Jack Dylan Grazer, IT), he starts to be the kind of hero that’s only looking out for himself instead of assisting others.

He’s put to the ultimate test when Sivana (Mark Strong, The Imitation Game) enters the picture. Obsessed with finding the temple of the Seven Wizards that he too visited as a young child, the grown man eventually makes his way back to the hidden dwelling and frees the sins from their prison. Now being used as their vessel for evil, Sivana sets his sights on taking the Wizard’s power from Shazam (who has become something of a local Philadelphia celebrity) and eliminating everyone he loves.

If there’s one thing that’s been sorely missing from the DC slate of superhero movies it’s a sense of humor and finally the stiff suits at the studio backed up and let wiser talents guide this process – and it’s largely successful. Though the previous credits for screenwriters Henry Gayden (Earth to Echo) and Darren Lemke (Goosebumps) might not have suggested they’d be the right choices to bring Bill Parker and C.C. Beck’s superhero to the big screen, Shazam! is a welcome change of pace from the darker-hued adventure films the studio has been greenlighting. Adding director David F. Sandberg (Lights Out, Annabelle: Creation) was another inspired choice as he’s nicely able to balance the lighter/more comedic elements of the plot with the darker edges supplied by Sivana.

Sandberg has cast the film well starting with Levi as our hero that becomes more than the sum of his bulging muscles and caped suit. Seeing that he’s actually a teen given awesome powers, Levi might overplay the sarcasm and wise-cracks a bit early on but it provides him a place to jump off from as he grows into a more responsible hero and a more understanding teenager. He has a nice rapport with Grazer and his other foster siblings, adding some layers to a character that could easily have been pretty one-dimensional. The villain role doesn’t seem to be much of a stretch for Strong at this point and while he’s perfectly fine in the part it would have been nice to see it played by someone a little less expected. It’s just too easy for Strong to slide into these wicked characters by now.

While it’s a good 10-15 minutes too long, spending unearned time with Sivana and following Levi through perhaps a few too many blunders, Sandberg and the screenwriters manage to introduce a late breaking twist that I found pretty delightful and nicely inclusive. Buoyed by strong performances by the child actors (a rarity these days) and a nice dose of humor and creativity, Shazam! is a fun right turn from the careening curve DC studios couldn’t pull out of.

Movie Review ~ Hellboy (2019)


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Hellboy and his closest allies battle an undead sorceress who has the intention of destroying the world

Stars: David Harbour, Ian McShane, Milla Jovovich, Sasha Lane, Daniel Dae Kim, Thomas Haden Church, Penelope Mitchell, Sophie Okonedo, Brian Gleeson, Alistair Petrie

Director: Neil Marshall

Rated: R

Running Length: 121 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: I believe it’s best for me to out myself right at the top of this review. I was not a comic book kid so have never been well versed in the mythology of the characters that have turned up in the pages over the years. From Marvel to DC to the Dark House imprint that published the Hellboy comics, it was just never something that I found any traction with so I was left to be a happy fan that would see these characters come to life for the first time on the big screen. I mean to show you how out of the loop I was, when The Avengers was first announced I thought it was another remake of the UK series from the 1960’s.

I give this disclaimer at the beginning of my review of Hellboy because I’m coming at this with no knowledge of what the characters SHOULD be or what the tone of the comics was. All I can report back on with my modicum of authority is the quality of this rebooted product taken as an outsider. Though it starts off with some verve and vigor, far too soon it becomes packed with the kind of noise and shoddy CGI that overwhelms the audience instead of impressing them.

The road to this Hellboy restage has been a long one, with plans for a third film under director Guillermo del Toro’s watch being abandoned in favor of starting fresh. That meant del Toro (who would wind up winning an Oscar for The Shape of Water) and original star Ron Perlman (Pacific Rim) were out and director Neil Marshall (The Descent, Tales of Halloween) and David Harbour (Suicide Squad) were in. Further separating this film from the 2004 original and its 2008 sequel was a desire to bring the character back to his darker roots and away from the more outwardly heroic (and PG-13) character del Toro and Perlman created. This new Hellboy was going to be an R-rated brawler pitted against a host of ghastly foes.

Marshall makes it clear from the opening that his approach will be different. The first shot of the film finds a crow picking the eyeball out of a corpse while Ian McShane (Jack the Giant Slayer) narrates a prologue littered with foul language. It’s here we’re introduced to the evil witch Nimue (Milla Jovovich, Zoolander 2), known as The Blood Queen, who is defeated by King Arthur and cut into pieces that are spread around the world so her powers can never again be restored. Jumping ahead to introduce Hellboy as he searches for a missing agent within a nest of Tijuana vampires, the bloodletting continues.

These early scenes kick off the movie with some semblance of charm and hint there is some playfulness afoot in Andrew Cosby’s screenplay that mixes Arthurian lore with tales of vampires, witches, giants, and various other ghoulies and beasts. It’s when Hellboy’s dad (McShane) sends him off to England to assist members of The Osiris Club take down a trio of ugly giants that the film begins its gradual decline into less interesting territory. It’s also when the two weakest links in the film are introduced.

Daniel Dae Kim (Allegiant) and Sasha Lane (American Honey) become allies of Hellboy as he hunts down Nimue and her warthog henchman and you’ll wish he were working alone. As Ben Daimio, an agent harboring a dark secret, Kim barely registers as Hellboy’s opposites attract sidekick who starts off trading barbs with the red devil before softening the more he gets to know him. While Kim may struggle with his British accent it’s nothing in comparison to the abysmal effort from Lane as Alice Monaghan, a woman abducted by faeries as a child that has the ability to speak for/as the dead. Everything about Lane is wrong, from her atrocious accent (when it’s there) to her basic line readings that often arrive without inflection – if ever a single performance could ruin a movie, this is it.

As our main guy, Harbour brings the requisite attitude to the proceedings, with his Hellboy a more tortured soul haunted by his past than Perlman chose to play him. I feel like Perlman still has the edge on the role, though Harbour makes his Hellboy wholly separate and his own. The person that seems to be having the most fun and who recognizes what movie she’s actually in is Jovovich as the villainous Blood Queen seeking to find a king to rule alongside her. Reaching out to Hellboy as a possible contender for the throne, Jovovich manages to find some strange sparks with Harbor – it’s not exactly sexual chemistry but something a little more meaty and wicked. Jovovich has been relegated to Resident Evil sequel hell for years and it’s nice to see her show up in something different.

Most of the practical make-up effects are quite impressive, from Hellboy’s detailed horn stumps to the truly terrifying character of Baba Yaga. Their meeting in a nightmare-scape is a highlight of the film and I wished that Baba Yaga was given more screentime, though it feels like the studio is holding onto her for intended future installments. It’s the CGI effects that are uneven throughout. Some of the visual effects look downright terrible, a few notches up from something you would see on the SyFy channel. We’re supposed to be immersed in this world yet the sub-standard effects keep jarring us back into the reality we’re in a theater. Some late in the game scenes of extreme gore (think innocent Londoners literally ripped in half) are kind of a hoot but wind up so fake looking that the impact isn’t what the filmmakers intended.

I’ll be interested to hear what fans of the Hellboy comics think of this new film and if it aligns more with their vision of the character. Two post-credit scenes signal intentions on keeping this franchise going and if a sequel ditches Kim and Lane, improves the effects, and maybe uses make-up that is more practical than computer generated it might smooth out some of the rough edges of this reboot.

Down From the Shelf ~ Pet Sematary Two

The Facts:

Synopsis: A teenage boy and his father move to his recently deceased mother’s hometown, where they encounter the ancient Native American cemetery with the power to raise the dead.

Stars: Edward Furlong, Anthony Edwards, Clancy Brown, Jason McGuire, Sarah Trigger, Jared Rushton, Darlanne Fluegel

Director: Mary Lambert

Rated: R

Running Length: 100 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: If you were to be browsing the roster of movies that have been made from the novels/novella/short stories of Stephen King, you’d notice the strange absence of a popular Hollywood occurrence: sequels. Something about King’s work has never leant itself well to a continuation of the story, mostly because the tales are largely self-contained within the singular telling. When the effort has been made to squeeze a little more money out of a popular title, you wind up with an icky franchise like the Children of the Corn saga, which has produced numerous sequels. (I stopped watching after the third one and stopped counting after the sixth). Then you have interesting misses like The Rage: Carrie 2 and this sequel to 1989’s Pet Sematary.

I could actually see where Pet Sematary would be a valid property to revisit seeing that the ending of the first film was so open-ended and ambiguous. The evil at its center, an ancient Indian burial ground where dead things come back to life, was still open for business so what was stopping another unsuspecting family from moving into the neighborhood? With the slate wiped clean there was an opportunity for screenwriter Richard Outten (Journey 2: The Mysterious Island) and returning director Mary Lambert to expand on King’s original idea and go deeper into the origins of the cemetery.

Unfortunately, this was 1992, when the goal of studios was to make their horror films as straightforward as possible. There’s little care for those pesky detailed complexities of backstory that would take time away from gore and bloodshed. So instead of a creative furthering of the material, Outten opts for a vague rehash of the original where someone learns the hard way that you shouldn’t re-bury dead things.

After watching his B-movie star mother get electrocuted in a freak accident on the set of her latest flick, Jeff (Edward Furlong, A Home of Our Own) returns with his father Chase (Anthony Edwards, Top Gun) to her hometown of Ludlow, Maine to bury her and start a new life. Chase sets up shop as the town veterinarian while Jeff quickly runs afoul of the school bully (Jared Rushton) and befriends a lonely outcast (Jason McGuire) with a tyrannical stepfather (Clancy Brown, Thor: Ragnarok). When the stepfather accidentally kills his friends dog, Jeff is introduced to the local pet sematary and the dark magic it holds.  Everyone in town knows what happened to the Creed family just three years earlier…and now Jeff is standing in the same location where the dead can walk.

Like the wiley cat in the first film, the once docile dog returns as an aggressive pup and causes all sorts of trouble that lead Jeff and Justin down a morally dangerous path. As they try to undo their dirty deed and as Chase learns more about what his son has been up to, the movie feels like it shows its hand far too early on. The big reveal on the ultimate power of the burial ground in the original movie was kept for the last twenty minutes or so but here you have someone resurrected about 45 minutes in and that person becomes almost an almost comedic figure, intentional or not.  Though they are supposed to be menacing, one-liners and a strangely goofy stare are clearly meant to put this character in the Freddy Krueger territory as someone who might kill you but also might just as well make you sit down and listen to their comedy routine first too.

Lambert actually succeeds well in the first half of the movie, starting with the creepy opening on the movie within a movie. She’s not working with A-list actors here and this is another opportunity to wonder why the screechy Furlong was ever considered a commodity in Hollywood. As the movie devolves into its expected violent end it never brings any scares along with it – and that starts to get mighty frustrating because you want something more to be happening. I appreciated Lambert opted to include scenes with some sincerity in them, such as when McGuire is mourning the loss of his dog but then they are overshadowed with lame pseudo-terror sequences that feel imposed upon her by the studio. The ending is especially problematic and bombastic, feeling like it was made by another filmmaker entirely.

Not surprisingly, Pet Sematary Two failed to dig up the same kind of business its predecessor did and it’s largely because no one bothered to come up with something interesting for audiences. Instead of giving us just another story of death, burial, resurrection, and violence why not go back and show us a little more about its origin? I’m sure everyone made a nice buck off of their time spent on the project…but it effectively killed any chance of a third film or more. And this is one that could have, in my opinion, had a few more sequels up its rotting sleeve.

Down From the Shelf ~ Pet Sematary (1989)

The Facts:

Synopsis: For most families, moving is a new beginning. But for the Creeds, it could be the beginning of the end.

Stars: Dale Midkiff, Denise Crosby, Fred Gwynne, Miko Hughes, Blaze Berdahl, Brad Greenquist

Director: Mary Lambert

Rated: R

Running Length: 102 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: When Pet Sematary was released to theaters in April of 1989, Hollywood had already worked its way through many of Stephen King’s earliest works. Carrie, Cujo, Christine, The Shining…these and more had found their way to the big screen and the attention was now turning to his more obscure works as well as the new novels he was continuing to publish. Largely, the results weren’t that impressive, resulting in some clunkers and a few passable entries in the anthology horror genre before a welcome detour into nostalgic drama with the now-classic Stand by Me.

So going into opening weekend Pet Sematary wasn’t exactly a license to print money like some King adaptations would be several years after this one made nearly sixty million dollars at the box office. Yet the reason why Pet Sematary stands above many of the films that came before it and after (with a few notable exceptions) can be attributed to several factors. Unlike other novels that got the silver screen treatment, the source material was strong, the script from King himself was much more focused than anything the author had turned in before, and the direction from Mary Lambert was skilled at turning even the most benign situations into the stuff of nightmares.

Moving from the big city of Chicago to the small town life in Ludlow, Maine, the Creed family is ready for a change. Louis (Dale Midkiff) is the new doctor at a local college while his wife Rachel (Denise Crosby, Unearthed & Untold: The Path to Pet Sematary) sets up home with their two young children (Blake Berdahl and Miko Hughes, Kindergarten Cop). Aside from being directly next to a busy road that sees semis frequently speeding past, it’s a welcome change of pace. They even have a friendly neighbor named Jud (Fred Gwynne) who has lived in the same house long enough to fill them in on all the town gossip…including what’s at the end of the path behind the Creed’s house.

That’s where the pet sematary is…where the children of the town bury their dearly departed animals that either died of old age or met an untimely end thanks to the dangerous road right outside the Creed’s front door. Filled with headstones and gravemarkers that date back almost a century, there’s plenty to see here…but there’s also a place beyond the standard burial ground that holds a darker secret and it’s where Louis Creed will innocently cross a line that will lead to deadly consequences for his family.

King has gone on record saying his 1983 book is the only one that truly scared him when he was writing it and there’s something to the simplicity of the set-up that makes you understand why. What King is detailing in the events of the movie are all of our wishes to bring our loved ones (human and animal) back but not understanding that often, dead is better. King also turns the tables on those that feel a sense of relief when the sickly do die…showing that they are haunted by memories long after the other person has been buried.

Director Lambert has a rock and roll vibe to her movies but also perfectly captures the small town feel the movie requires. Largely taking place inside and around the Creed house, it’s a contained picture with only a few players and keeping it small makes the shocks more effective. It also shows some of the limitations to the actors with people like Crosby and especially Berdahl coming off as weak counterpoints to Midkiff and Hughes (who, at 3 gives a remarkable performance). Still, it’s Gwynne who walks away with the film with his Maine accent delivered in his basso profoundo voice. I also liked Brad Greenquist (Annabelle: Creation) as a mostly benign (if ghastly) ghost trying to guide the Creed family away from the evil they can’t seem to avoid.

With a remake of Pet Sematary on the horizon, it’s nice to look back and remember how solid this first pass at King’s tale of terror is. Admittedly, it starts to get a bit histrionic in the last half hour with the dial being turned up on everything from Elliot Goldenthal’s music to Midkiff’s performance but when it plays it cool it’s highly effective.

For an in-depth look at the making of Pet Sematary, check out Unearthed & Untold: The Path to Pet Sematary.  It’s available on Amazon Prime!

Movie Review ~ The Aftermath


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Post World War II, a British colonel and his wife are assigned to live in Hamburg during the post-war reconstruction, but tensions arise with the German who previously owned the house.

Stars: Alexander Skarsgård, Keira Knightley, Jason Clarke, Flora Thiemann, Kate Phillips, Alexander Scheer, Tom Bell

Director: James Kent

Rated: R

Running Length: 108 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review: You’d be forgiven if you glanced at the poster for The Aftermath and thought it was going to be more prestigious than it actually turns out being. I mean, you have period dramas #1 go-to-gal Keira Knightly front and center looking striking flanked by the brooding stares of Jason Clarke and Alexander Skarsgård. If you did further investigation you’d find out it was a post-WWII drama adapted from a bestseller which adds a little more fuel to the thinking that this would be a decent bit of counter-programming for a discerning adult audience as we move into the spring movie season. Alas, despite some handsome production values and the presence of the aforementioned stars, The Aftermath comes up far short of being anything to get excited about. Just a few steps up from a television soapy melodrama, it’s a strikingly ordinary bit of filmmaking that doesn’t bother to uncover the rich layers suggested by the source material or the performances the actors are trying to give.

Based on Rhidian Brook’s 2013 novel of the same name, the film opens with Rachael (Knightley, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms) traveling to Hamburg to meet her husband Lewis (Clarke, All I See Is You), a colonel in the British Armed Forces. The couple lost their only child during the war as the result of a Nazi attack so Rachael traveling to the heart of Germany is anything but a welcome journey for the still-grieving mother. As she travels by train, she sees the devastating impact the war has had not just on the physical structures but on the emotions of the people that were left behind. Now, after its defeat, the country has begun the arduous process of rebuilding their cities under the watchful eye of foreign nationals.

Lewis has commandeered a sprawling mansion for his military operation in Hamburg, which displaces the owner of the house a widowed German architect Stefan (Skarsgård, The Legend of Tarzan) and his young daughter, Susan (Flora Thiemann). Surprisingly, instead of fully asking Stefan to leave, Lewis attempts to forge new lines of compassion and allows the father and daughter to stay in the attic. This drives a deeper wedge between Lewis and Rachael, who can’t believe her husband is taking pity on anyone that might have been a Nazi sympathizer, though Stefan claims he was not. Eventually, Rachael begins to soften not only to Susan but to Stefan and before you know it…there’s a love triangle afoot.

Having not read the book, I’m not sure how many liberties director James Kent and screenwriters Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse took with the source material. Certainly there’s a decent set-up for a steamy romance between Germany and Great Britain but it’s handled in such a paint-by-numbers manner that there’s no thrill to any of it. At first, Rachael can’t stand Stefan but then she gets to know him and, guess what, she starts to like him! To their credit, Knightely and Skarsgård do their darndest to drum up some sparks but their early friction fails to lead to a bonfire of passion when they get down to it. Skarsgård especially looks totally lost and unsure how to handle a character that should be more complex than the screenwriters make him out to be. Only Clarke manages to work his way toward something interesting, presenting a man trying to forget the painful memories of his past by losing himself in the present.

The Aftermath may turn out to be one of those films you make time for on a sick day when you want a starry drama but don’t feel like investing too much in anything happening on screen. You could honestly fall asleep for part of the movie and wake-up without losing much in the way of plot. Some movies are slow-burns, this one is just slow.

Movie Review ~ Dumbo (2019)


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A young elephant, whose oversized ears enable him to fly, helps save a struggling circus, but when the circus plans a new venture, Dumbo and his friends discover dark secrets beneath its shiny veneer.

Stars: Colin Farrell, Nico Parker, Finley Hobbins, Danny DeVito, Michael Keaton, Eva Green, Alan Arkin

Director: Tim Burton

Rated: PG

Running Length: 106 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: As the screening date for the live-action remake of Disney’s Dumbo was arriving I realized I hadn’t seen the original in probably two decades. Though it is classic Disney, 1941’s Dumbo is just not one that has ever made it on my rotation when it comes to revisiting the old classics. Plus, I still think I have traumatic memories of Dumbo’s Circus on the Disney Channel back in the day. So I decided to fire up the 64-minute chestnut and there were a few things that really stood out for me. One was the simplicity in the storytelling and animation – this is why movies becomes timeless because they are handled with a delicate touch that helps them transcend the years. The other thing was, slightly spoiler-y, but the dang elephant doesn’t even fly until the last five or six minutes of the movie. You remembered it differently, too, right?

Now seeing that Dumbo isn’t one of my all-time favorites I don’t have the same precious feel toward it that I would have with, say, Cinderella, The Sword in the Stone, Pinocchio, or Sleeping Beauty. So I was less up-in-arms with Disney continuing their trend of turning their animated classics into live-action films…but more concerned with the guys they hired to do it. First up was screenwriter Ehren Kruger, best known for Scream 3 and a handful of the Transformers movies. What about his credits made it seem like he’d be the best choice to tackle the tale of a baby elephant at first ostracized for his large ears before being embraced when those same ears allow him to take wing? Second potential problem was the one time can’t-miss director Tim Burton, who hasn’t had a sizable hit for years and already biffed a major Disney adaptation with his brain-numbing bloated expansion of Alice in Wonderland.

Then the first teaser appeared and it seemed like things may be going in the right direction. Showing just enough of those baby blue elephant eyes against the strains of the melancholy Oscar-nominated song Baby Mine hit audiences with the right dose nostalgia and the tide seemed to shift from uncertainty to curiosity as to how Burton would bring Dumbo and his circus adventures to life. Maybe Burton would go back to the type of fantastical creations that became his calling card in his early films before he fell into relying on a never-ending rampage of CGI world he’s been filming in for the last two decades.

Sadly, Kruger (Transformers: Age of Extinction) and Burton (Big Eyes, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, Frankenweenie, Dark Shadows) have not only run off with the circus in Dumbo but they’ve taken most everything you liked about the original with them. What they’ve given audiences (family audiences, no less) is a tale that’s too dark, scary, and frankly, boring. It also represents yet another failure by the studio to make any kind of case that these live-action remakes are somehow improving upon their source material. In fact, going all the way back to the Glenn Close led 101 Dalmatians, Disney has yet to totally perfect this formula…though 2015 lavish Cinderella came quite close.  And it’s another Burton fiasco where an entire world is created on a soundstage rather than use the types of old-school Hollywood movie-making that used to set Burton apart from his peers.  It’s all make-believe but there is no whimsy or fantasy to anything.

It’s 1919 and the Medici Bros. traveling circus has seen better days. Led by Max Medici (Danny DeVito, The Lorax), the performers are weary of another season traveling on a shoestring budget yet they are happy to see trick riding sharp shooter Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell, Saving Mr. Banks) back from the war. Holt returns to his two precocious children (Nico Parker & Finley Hobbins) to be a father figure to them after the tragic death of their mother while he was overseas. Though he lost an arm in battle, Holt is eager to engage in his old act…if Max hadn’t sold his horses and most of his possessions already. Max suggests Holt work with the elephants, and it just so happens a new one has arrived and is due to give birth any day. When the baby arrives he causes an uproar with his oversize ears…as if any of these circus clowns and carnies don’t also have faces/features only a mother could love.

How the baby elephant gets his name is one of the few clever bits Burton brings forth but too soon the kids have figured out Dumbo seems to take specific delight in flight whenever a feather is in his presence and we’re off on a very different movie. In the original film Dumbo doesn’t learn to fly until the final moments, in the 2019 version he’s soaring around the circus tent before the movie is ¼ finished. That leaves 75% of the movie for Kruger and Burton to expand Dumbo’s world and introduce new characters and, in some good news, excise those horribly racist crows.

Michael Keaton (RoboCop) positively chews his way through every green screen Burton has erected as V. A. Vandevere, the scheming sovereign of Dreamland, a permanent circus that bears a striking resemblance to Walt Disney World with it’s multiple themed lands, wildlife on display, and cleverly concocted thrill rides. His star attraction is aerialist Colette Marchant (Eva Green, Cracks) and after seeing Dumbo in the local papers Vandevere sets his sights on purchasing Medici’s circus and establishing an act between Colette and Dumbo that will pack the audiences in. When Max, Holt, and the kids find out Vandevere has set them up only to gain access to Dumbo, it’s up to them to save the elephant and expose Vandevere for his greedy selfishness.

This plot is directly from any number of family films (many released by Disney) so it offers little in the way of surprise or fulfillment. It’s hard to believe Disney executives green lit something so pedestrian, actually. Considering this is the studio that also has live-action remakes of Aladdin and The Lion King still coming in 2019…I’m worried more than ever about how those films will turn out. As for Dumbo, this is mostly disappointing because there was potential here to make something with more appeal and charm.

Aside from the CGI elephant, there’s a seriously lack of personality anywhere to be found in the movie. DeVito seems like someone wound him up with a coffee IV and let him go while Farrell (who looks more handsome in clown make-up than he has any right to) is almost completely disengaged with the action. It doesn’t help the two tykes playing his kids are not only struggling to hide their British accents, they also are incapable of pulling empathy from an audience with their pallid line readings. Green, as always, feels like she wants to do something wild with her character but is operating within a framework that doesn’t support that. There’s no depth to anyone here, least of all in their choices or actions which are wholly dictated by the screenplay not by any real passion.

If you’re looking for any hold-over moments for the original, you’ll be disappointed to know that most of the music has been replaced by Danny Elfman’s same-sounding score. There are hints at the original tunes but maybe the biggest sleight of all is the beautiful lullaby Baby Mine delivered by a ukulele strumming carnival worker as a campfire dirge to no one in particular. Admittedly, the Pink Elephants on Parade sequence has made the transition into the remake largely intact, this time as part of an impressively trippy Dreamland circus act. When all else fails, there’s Dumbo who will likely charm the pants off you and nearly made me forget how crummy the rest of Burton’s film is.

Movie Review ~ Us

1


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A mother and a father take their kids to their beach house expecting to enjoy time with friends. But their serenity turns to tension and chaos when visitors arrive uninvited.

Stars: Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Evan Alex, Elisabeth Moss, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Madison Curry, Tim Heidecker Anna Diop, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II

Director: Jordan Peele

Rated: R

Running Length: 116 minutes

TMMM Score: (9.5/10)

Review: I don’t think anyone expected 2017’s Get Out to be the massive critical and commercial hit it eventually became. Though the early trailers looked intriguing, it’s January release and low-grade buzz didn’t cause Hollywood to give it much more than a second glance. Besides, did one half of a television comedy duo have the goods to deliver a social commentary thriller in his first time out of the gate as a writer/producer/director? Well, a huge box office take, multiple memes, endless cultural analysis, and an Oscar later I think Jordan Peele proved he had more than an inkling as to what he was doing. So when his second feature, Us, was announced, everyone held their breath to see if the sophomore slump would strike someone everyone was now rooting for.

A mere two years after Get Out landed with a bang Peele is back with a film that’s bound to be compared to his previous work but is actually a different experience all together. Where Get Out was a slow-burn thriller, a clear (and clever) response to the then current political climate when it was made, Us is pure horror and doesn’t dig quite as deep into what divides us as a community but instead turns the attention into what defines us as individuals. It’s no less thought-provoking but is resolutely aiming for any exposed nerve where it can strike…and strike hard.

Arriving at their California lake house outside of Santa Cruz, Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o, Non-Stop) and Gabe (Winston Duke, Black Panther) are ready for a serene weekend with their children Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex). It looks to be an ordinary few days. The kids bicker like most siblings do while the parents settle in. Gabe has bought a boat he wants to take for a spin around the lake but first he has to convince Adelaide to spend the day at the beach with their casual friends Kitty (Elisabeth Moss, The Old Man & the Gun) and Josh (Tim Heidecker, Ant-Man and the Wasp). Yet there’s something about the beach at Santa Cruz that puts a knot of fear into Adelaide…and we’ll soon find out why.

To give away much more than that would possibly delve into spoiler-territory and I wouldn’t want to reveal any of the secrets the film has been wisely holding back in its carefully curated promotional materials. What I can tell you is nothing the previews haven’t already given away. Another foursome confronts Adelaide and her family on their first night, a family that looks an awful lot like them, a family that may have a link to a traumatic incident from Adelaide’s past that has come to haunt her present, a family we come to know as The Tethered.  And they have a rather unique score to settle.

Peele drops clues to what’s happening along the way but most are only obvious in hindsight as you drive home or start to discuss the film in the parking lot with your friends and loved ones. Like Get Out, Us will be a movie that is fun to dissect long after it’s finished and already ranks high on the re-watchability scale. I also appreciated that Peele kept the movie mostly within the realms of acceptable reality. This is not a supernatural movie where people walk through walls or events occur that are totally unable to be explained. It amps up the tension and makes you feel like what’s happening could conceivably take place. Even if all the pieces don’t quite line up under our modern microscope, there’s enough giddy ways that things fall into place that I was able to forgive the elements that didn’t quite get resolution.

While Get Out was a fairly solid movie considering the budget and novice of those involved, Us represents a leveling-up of all elements. Peele’s already present confidence as a writer and director has grown even more, this is clearly an individual that knows his film history and respects the process.  He has an eye for what looks good and crafts several sequences that are not only technically difficult to construct  but are visually impressive as well.  Everything just looks wonderful in Us. The production design, costumes, cinematography, and score are all key players here and add to the overall effect the film has on its audience. If any of these areas were weak it would have left the film feeling off-kilter in unintended ways. So many horror films that take place in the dark are hard to see but even in dark settings you can follow everything that takes place (though you may be watching it from behind your fingers covering your eyes) and Peele blessedly sets many scares in the stark daylight.

Nyong’o already has an Oscar for her devastating work in 12 Years a Slave and if I had any say in the matter she’d be in the running for another one for the stunning work she turns in here. Playing a dual role that requires her to play two very different sides of a complex coin, she separates the characters so much that when she shows up for the first time as her other character I actually didn’t believe it was her at first…even though I knew it was. It’s a total transformation and though through the wonder of special effects she can share the screen with herself it feels like there are actually two actresses on screen with one another at the same time. Both roles are infinitely challenging and tightrope walking in their level of skill and I can’t imagine any other actor working today who could have done what she did with them.

As he did on his first film, Peele demonstrates a keen eye for casting and has filled the rest of his cast with standouts from top to bottom. Duke is a great match of Nyong’o, he’s a laid-back dad and supportive spouse that holds his own with his formidable co-star. Joseph and Alex make good on going the extra mile in difficult roles for young actors and complete a convincing family unit with Duke and Nyong’o. In their small supporting roles, Moss and Heidecker are appropriately awful in their triteness. Moss especially seems to enjoy basking in her California housewife attire and saying things like “it’s vodka o’clock”…something you know the actress has never said (and would never say) in her entire life.

A huge part of the fun in Us will be for audiences to experience it in theaters with a crowd. While Get Out worked like gangbusters on the big screen for an initial viewing, it’s thriller nature leant it to play just as strongly if you saw it for the first time at home. Yet I think Us will best be enjoyed first and foremost if you’re shoulder to shoulder with another person getting the same jolt you are.