Movie Review ~ Jojo Rabbit


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A young boy in Hitler’s army finds out his mother is hiding a Jewish girl in their home.

Stars: Roman Griffin Davis, Scarlett Johansson, Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson, Thomasin McKenzie, Alfie Allen, Taika Waititi, Stephen Merchant

Director: Taika Waititi

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 108 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: As I was watching Jojo Rabbit a few weeks back one thought kept running through my mind and it was this: “Gosh, I hope people get this is satire when they see this.”  Now, I’m not saying our society has become overly sensitive and far be it from me to use a gross phrase like ‘cancel culture’ with any literal purpose in my review but let’s face it, in the past few years there’s been a strange urge to jump on seemingly innocuous thoughts, words, and deeds and make them into what they aren’t.  Plenty of ideas and texts are out there that were obviously meant to harm, so it takes a little restraint to step back and look at the big picture to separate the serious from the satire.

Jojo Rabbit is a clear satire of anti-hate rhetoric and it couldn’t be clearer of its intentions.  Yet I sat through the screening so worried that no one was going to get the joke and take the film literally.  There are some horrific jokes concerning Nazis, concentration camps, genocide, and misogyny (to name but a few) yet they are presented in such a way that if you aren’t in on the joke you might be squirming in your seat during the opening credits when young Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) skips with carefree glee around his tiny German village “heil-ing” all his friends and neighbors.  I admit it took me a few introductory scenes to thoroughly settle into writer/director Taika Waititi’s sardonic structure before I gave over fully.  Once I did, I found a lot of heart in addition to the laughs.

A 10-year old member of the Hitler Youth, Jojo is off to his first training camp with his best friend Yorki (an adorably scene-stealing Archie Yates) and his imaginary best friend, Adolf Hitler (Waititi, Thor: Ragnarok).  With Hitler as his imaginary friend, you can imagine the kind of pep talks Jojo gets as he begins his service and in Waititi’s hands Hitler is presented as an easily excitable, petulant, man-child that provides Jojo some moral support but not always the best guidance.  Teased at camp for his sensitive nature in an arena of hate, he gets the nickname Jojo Rabbit from his fellow Nazi buds and makes a bold gesture as a way to show them he’s stronger than he looks.  When an injury sidelines Jojo, he’s put to work in the office of Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell, Vice) distributing propaganda while his single mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson, Under the Skin) works to make ends meet.

Often left at home alone, Jojo is surprised to discover his mother has hidden a young girl (Thomasin McKenzie, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies) in the walls…and she’s Jewish.  Having lost her parents and everyone else she cares about to the war, Elsa has no one to depend on but Rosie’s kindness and has developed a steely exterior that matches well with Jojo’s extreme indifference to a girl he feels he’s supposed to hate on sight.  With imaginary Hitler encouraging Jojo to study this girl so he can file a detailed report later on (in a manifesto with a title that becomes a running joke), Jojo gets closer to her and both find out they have more in common than they think…or what they’ve been taught to think.

For all the comedic elements to Jojo Rabbit, there’s an even deeper emotional core running through the center of the movie and I was surprised as how moving the film becomes as it goes on.  With several unexpected twists (and one downright jaw-dropping one), Waititi keeps audiences involved with Jojo and Elsa’s story but never lets them get ahead of the action.  We all know how the war ended but I had no idea where their stories would wind up.  The outcome surprised me and was par for the course with the rest of the film which never followed the path I thought it would.

Walking the fine line of comedy are a strong roster of actors, some appearing only in brief cameos.  Stephan Merchant (Logan) and Rebel Wilson (Isn’t It Romantic) may pop in for a moment but they each get at least one hefty laugh; Wilson in particular gets one of the best jokes in the entire movie.  While I like Rockwell and feel he’s been on a nice roll the past few years, his role here skewed a bit too farcical compared to the other players.  On the other hand, I often struggle with Johansson but found her work as Jojo’s strong-willed but vulnerable mother to be incredibly moving.  The real stars are McKenzie and Griffin who carry the film with conviction – two young talents handling difficult subject matter but doing so with a mature sophistication.  Really stellar work.

Expected to be a major player at the Oscars, Jojo Rabbit won the People’s Choice Award at the 2019 Toronto Film Festival. In the last 11 years, 10 of the winners have received a Best Picture Oscar Nomination.  It will certainly divide people and that’s a good thing because even with the satire carefully identified it might not be the movie for you, but I’d hate to see the movie discounted solely for the fact that people didn’t get it’s sardonic tones.  Waititi adapted, produced, directed, and stars in this and deserves some credit for magically making something so audacious work so well.

Movie Review ~ Harriet


The Facts
:

Synopsis: The extraordinary tale of Harriet Tubman’s escape from slavery and transformation into one of America’s greatest heroes, whose courage, ingenuity, and tenacity freed hundreds of slaves and changed the course of history.

Stars: Cynthia Erivo, Leslie Odom Jr., Janelle Monáe, Joe Alwyn, Jennifer Nettles, Clarke Peters, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Zackary Momoh, Deborah Ayorinde, Vondie Curtis-Hall

Director: Kasi Lemmons

Rated: PG-13 minutes

Running Length: 125 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  It’s been over 40 years since the last time there was a movie about the life of Harriet Tubman.  I had to check to make sure because I couldn’t quite believe her story hadn’t been told at length on film since the 1978 television movie A Woman Called Moses starring Cicely Tyson.  Yet, it’s true.   Though Tubman has had a bit of a resurgence in the last few years having been featured on the now-cancelled series Underground and was chosen to replace notorious slave-owner Andrew Jackson on the $20 in 202 (though those plans have now been put on hold because the current administration happens to like Jackson where he is), she’s been out of the verified mainstream for too long.

It’s been some time since I was in an American History class and I’m ashamed to admit I don’t know as much as I should about the key players in the Underground Railroad movement that helped so many slaves move toward freedom.  Tubman is one of the most well-known conductors on the Underground Railroad, that much I did know, but how she came to become a part of that network was an educational lesson I sorely needed a refresher course on.  While I know it plays a little fast and loose with the timeline, the new biographical drama Harriet, is a straight-forward depiction of Tubman’s life as she escaped from slavery in Maryland and made her way to safety in Philadelphia.

Beginning shortly before she flees the plantation she’s lived on with her parents and siblings since she was a child, we meet Harriet (Cynthia Erivo, Bad Times at the El Royale) as she’s having one of her “spells”. Suffering a head injury when she was young, she often will fall into a trance like state where she’ll receive visions she interprets as guidance by a higher power of things to come.  Married to a free man, Harriet wishes to be free herself and have children born outside the burden of slavery but when she’s denied that right and is put up for sale by Gideeon (Joe Alwyn, Boy Erased) the smarmy son of her late master, she knows she has to take freedom into her own hands even if that means leaving everything she loves behind.  A well-staged escape is designed for audiences to lean forward in their seats, even though we know the outcome.  Her eventual first step to freedom is the first of many moving moments in the film.

Director Kasi Lemmons (who had supporting roles in Candyman and The Silence of the Lambs before turning to directing) wrote the screenplay with Gregory Allen Howard (Remember the Titans) and the two manage to pack a lot of events into a trim 125 minutes.  Obviously, this can’t possibly cover everything of importance in Tubman’s life so audiences are given a surface skim of the next years as Tubman arrives in Philadelphia and meets William Still (Leslie Odom Jr., Murder on the Orient Express) the abolitionist that came to be known as the Father of the Underground Railroad.  She also takes a room in the boarding house of Marie (Janelle Monáe, Welcome to Marwen) a free-born black woman that hasn’t had the same struggles as Harriet but through her friendship comes to understand her pain.

While this film may get dinged a bit for it’s workmanlike way it moves through Tubman’s life events, I found the way Lemmons and Howard chose to focus on her accomplishments instead of her setbacks really refreshing.  So often with movies about the horror of slavery directors feel a need to wallow in the cruelty and ugliness of that abhorrent period in our American history.  Instead of having the obligatory vicious scene of a whipping or lynching, Lemmons and cinematographer John Toll (Cloud Atlas) catch us off guard when a character takes off their shirt and reveals their scars from a previous lashing.  Seeing these reminders that will never fully heal or when Harriet recounts a beating when she was young have more of an impact the way they are presented than if we were to bear witness to them play out in real time.  Same goes for the way Lemmons reserves the use of the “n” word to punctuate a character’s hate, not make it their defining manner of speech.

Lemmons and Howard also capitalize on Erivo’s talents as an award-winning singer and feature her gorgeous voice throughout the movie.  In addition to Erivo writing and performing a song over the closing credits there are carefully selected spirituals or call outs during the film that are moving in their sound but haunting in their purpose.  While I’m not sure how historically correct it is, I’d even say Lemmons and Howard seize some opportunities to turn Tubman into a bit of an action star, with Erivo slinging a gun and hauling off a few shots from the back of a horse.  I say more power to them because it only added to the audience’s appreciation to the film.  For each nuance they give Tubman (Erivo’s headstrong portrayal is a brilliant head-to-toe transformation you won’t be able to take your eyes off of) they seem to take two or three away from other actors like Alywn or country star Jennifer Nettles playing his deeply indoctrinated mother.  Though under no obligation to give depth to characters that offered little hope or free-thought to others, Lemmons and Howard have etched out little pieces of informed info about nearly everyone else that to have these two figures so blank is curious…or maybe it’s precisely the intent.

Since her feature directing debut in 1997 with the unforgettable Eve’s Bayou (rent it, trust me, just rent it), Lemmons has been a little hit or miss in her efforts but she’s scored another win with this engaging look into the life of one of the most important women, or person, in American history.  I’d likely have sat for another twenty minutes or so had Lemmons and Howard wanted to take a little more time in the middle or even at the end for a bit more of a measured wrap up of events.  It ended a little abruptly…or perhaps I just wasn’t quite ready to leave off in Tubman’s story.  Even if Harriet doesn’t quite dig as deep as it could have, it’s a captivating film made even more enthralling by a lead performance that truly soars.

Movie Review ~ Terminator: Dark Fate


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Sarah Connor and a hybrid cyborg human must protect a young girl from a newly modified liquid Terminator from the future.

Stars: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, Mackenzie Davis, Diego Boneta, Gabriel Luna, Natalia Reyes

Director: Tim Miller

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 128 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  In 1984’s The Terminator, a man sent from the future to protect a woman targeted by an unstoppable killing machine has memorized the the phrase “No fate but what we make” and that’s quite apropos to the subsequent films in the franchise.  The 1991 sequel set a gold standard for how to jump back in years down the line and continue on not only with brilliant advances in technology but by adding deeper mythology to the narrative.  After that blockbuster, without creator James Cameron to provide guidance the producers of the next three films let the quality and storytelling slide and it seemed the fate of the series was sealed by the lackluster reception for 2015’s misguided Terminator Genisys.

Unwilling to let the machines win, Cameron (The Abyss) was lured back with the promise of more creative control, eventually signing back on as a producer and providing a story idea he’s been toying with as well.  Though it was briefly discussed to have star Arnold Schwarzenegger (The Last Stand) sit this one out, wiser heads prevailed, and the bulky former Governor of California joined Cameron for what would become Terminator: Dark Fate.  Then there was the big get…Linda Hamilton.  Absent from the series since Terminator 2: Judgement Day in 1991, Hamilton had been married to Cameron and their 1999 divorce (with Hamilton walking away $50 million richer) was said to have contributed to her moving into more television/video work and less feature films.  Somehow, someway…they got her and that became the lynchpin for kickstarting this production into high gear.

Taking a page from 2018’s Halloween, Terminator: Dark Fate ignores the events from every sequel after T2 and the studio logo plays over a familiar scene with Hamilton’s character from that film.  To its great credit, T:DF opens with an unexpected twist of events that will have an impact on everything we’ve come to know about Sarah Connor (Hamilton, King Kong Lives) and her son John Connor (Edward Furlong, A Home of Our Own) who would grow up to lead the resistance against weaponized machines hell bent on exterminating the human race.  Twenty-two years later, in Mexico City we witness the familiar electrical surges that signal the arrival of two time travelers from the future.  One is Grace (Mackenzie Davis, Blade Runner 2049), an enhanced military soldier, sent to protect Dani (Natalia Reyes) from the Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna, Bernie) a new breed of liquid metal Terminator that can separate from his endoskeleton if he needs an extra hand.

Director Tim Miller (Deadpool) wastes no time in getting straight to the action with our bearings barely established before the first major action sequence is initiated.  That leaves little time for any kind of character introductions or development, a key piece that was such a benefit in previous films.  Before we even know who we’re supposed to be caring about, we’re already watching them being kept out of harms way by a skilled soldier gamely standing her ground against a seemingly indestructible robot.  Thankfully, right about the time the movie threatens to move at such breakneck speed everything begins to become a blur, Miller hits the skids and gives Hamilton a hell of a great entrance that had our audience (and likely yours) cheering. I was worried that Hamilton’s return would be a lot of build up but no pay off and it’s definitely not that, she’s top-billed in the credits for a reason.

That’s not to say it’s smooth sailing for T:DF.  While it’s arguably the best sequel since T2, it struggles with some hackneyed dialogue and uneven performances that don’t provide a consistently level ride.  When Hamilton as Sarah meets up with yet another version of Schwarzenegger’s make and model Terminator, their rapport is such that you get a feel of how easy-going the film should feel.  While Davis has been dynamic in other films there’s something curiously lacking in her delivery as a leading action star and it doesn’t get better as the film chugs along.  Same goes for Luna who is a complete blank slate as the mission focused death-bot…I understand he’s not programmed for much emotion but even Robert Patrick’s unforgettable villain in T2 presented a few levels to his reaction shots.  Saddled with the worst dialogue and overacting the most is Reyes, never quite finding any equilibrium.  She plays such an integral part to the plot (notice how I’m not bothering to provide details, just to say the gender-swapping doesn’t stop at a female protector being sent from the future) that it’s disappointing Reyes isn’t a stronger presence.

For fans of the franchise, I think they’ll be happy (if not satisfied) that the production has learned from the last few films and got back at least in some small part to what made the first two movies such landmarks.  That pulsing score and central theme is ever-present and having Hamilton’s Sarah Connor as we’d imagine her to be all these years later front-and-center was a wise way to evoke good-willed nostalgia, even if what we’re watching still can’t quite measure up.  No fate but what we make…and I think Cameron and company have taken that to heart while putting Terminator: Dark Fate together.  It’s not the fully assembled machine we’ve been waiting for but this model will do…for now.

 

31 Days to Scare ~ Halloween Treats

So here we are, it’s Halloween!  We’ve made it through 31 days of monsters, slashers, hauntings, old classics, new favorites, and just the occasional disappointment.  Overall, it’s been a good time and I thank you for taking this ghoulish journey with me.  I wanted to leave you with not just one review but with five movies to think of this year if you can’t decide on what to watch after the trick-or-treaters have gone home or if you turned out the lights early and wanted the evening to yourself.  These are some well-tested favorites of mine and even if you have your own list of movies that are Halloween traditions keep these five scary selections in mind for the future.

Hope you had a great 31 Days to Scare!  

The Facts:

Synopsis: When the king of Halloween Town, Jack Skellington, gets bored of his job preparing for Halloween every year, he discovers Christmas Town and is inspired to take control of Christmas season for a change. Unfortunately his ghoulish subjects have difficulty getting the festive holiday quite right.

Stars: Danny Elfman, Chris Sarandon, William Hickey, Glenn Shadix, Catherine O’Hara, Paul Reubens

Director: Henry Selick

Rated: PG

Running Length: 76 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review:  You’ve stuck with me all month so I’m going to let you in on a big secret that I’ve kept – I HATED this movie the first time I saw it.  I thought it was so slow, so stupid, and I couldn’t wait for it to be over.  Flash forward several years and I watched it again on video and wondered what the hell my problem was when I originally caught it in theaters.  This stop-motion animated film based on a poem by Tim Burton has now become a treasured favorite of mine, not just for its clever wit and gorgeous technical elements but for its beautiful music and story.  Watching Jack Skellington (voiced by Chris Sarandon but sung by Danny Elfman) grow weary with his reign as king of Halloweentown and finding pure joy when he discovers Christmastown is a delight whether you consider this a Halloween movie or a Christmas movie.  If you can’t decide, maybe split the difference and make it a Thanksgiving option… It does skew a bit older due to some intense sequences with impish kidnappers and a main villain that’s bug-infested, so it’s not for young children (hence the PG rating) but for kids not yet old enough for more adult fare (and PLEASE, let them be kids a while longer!) this is a good option.  You just might get sucked in too!  I just love this one.

The Facts:

Synopsis: In a tiny California town, high school students discover a strange, gelatinous substance that melts the flesh of any living creatures in its path.

Stars: Kevin Dillon, Shawnee Smith, Donovan Leitch Jr., Jeffrey DeMunn, Candy Clark, Joe Seneca

Director: Chuck Russell

Rated: R

Running Length: 95 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: You can keep the memories of 1958 original version of The Blob safely in your heart and still find immense fun with this dynamite 1988 remake.  Director Chuck Russell pivoted off the success of A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors to this wonderful update about an outer space goo that lands on the outskirts of a California town and begins to feed off of any living thing it comes in contact with.  The more it eats, the bigger it gets and it proves to be an unstoppable force capable of getting in anywhere it wants…like it has a mind of its own.  Recently released in a new Collector’s Edition BluRay from Scream Factory, The Blob is often mentioned in discussions of best modern remakes and for good reason.  It moves like a locomotive and boasts some great effects…and it’s funny too!  Aside from star Kevin Dillon’s remarkable mullet, it’s aged fairly well also.  This is a good one to have in your back pocket if you have friends coming over – it’s short enough to not take up all of your night and so surprisingly entertaining that you’ll earn points for suggesting it.  A fun ride — this is a title I always wished I was old enough to have seen when it first played in theaters.

The Facts:

Synopsis: Ichabod Crane is sent to Sleepy Hollow to investigate the decapitations of three people, with the culprit being the legendary apparition, The Headless Horseman.

Stars: Johnny Depp, Christina Ricci, Miranda Richardson, Michael Gambon, Casper Van Dien, Michael Gough

Director: Tim Burton

Rated: R

Running Length: 105 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: So here’s another one that I eventually came around to after not loving it the first time.  With Sleepy Hollow, I think my expectations were so high that it came down to me just feeling like it wasn’t the movie I wanted it to be when actually Tim Burton gave me something much more sophisticated.  I watched this one again a year or so ago and was surprised at a) how fully immersed into the time period the movie brought audiences and b) how deliciously frightening some moments were.  Burton and his often used muse Depp were firing on all cylinders here and even if Depp’s Ichabod Crane was painted as a bit more of an outcast than an odd duck, he’s still presented as a sympathetic lead audiences could relate to.  Burton hadn’t fully given himself over to being so CGI heavy and while there are large portions of the movie relying on computer effects an equal amount is practical as well.  Add to that some fun supporting performances by a stable of faces familiar to old school horror fans as well as a whodunit mystery element that diverged from Washington Irving’s original story and you have something that feels fresh.  A good date night scary movie thanks to some nice jolts, a decent amount of blood, and a quirky Gothic romance between Depp and co-star Christina Ricci.

The Facts:

Synopsis: A family heads to an isolated hotel for the winter where a sinister presence influences the father into violence, while his psychic son sees horrific forebodings from both past and future.

Stars: Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd, Scatman Crothers, Barry Nelson, Philip Stone

Director: Stanley Kubrick

Rated: R

Running Length: 144 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: You don’t have to use the November 8 release of Doctor Sleep, the Stephen King-penned sequel to his 1977 novel The Shining as an excuse to revisit Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 adaptation.  This is one movie that works any time of year but add in that extra layer of Halloween atmosphere and the tale of a man driven insane while serving as a imposing hotel’s winter caretaker and you have a doozy of a scare fest.  Kubrick infamously made alterations to the novel that King didn’t approve of but audiences haven’t seemed to care much over the years, routinely naming The Shining one of the all-time great horror films.  It’s extended running time requests your full attention and Jack Nicholson’s lead performance demands it – that indelible image of his crazed face pressed against a door as he tries to get to his unraveling wife (poor Shelley Duvall who really suffered making this film) and troubled son (a grating Danny Lloyd) is burned into many a memory.  The supernatural elements of the movie are handled by Kubrick with a mix of reality and fantasy, blurring the lines constantly so we’re as off-kilter as Nicholson is by the time he fully loses it.  It’s a completely unforgettable film that I’ve come to appreciate more the older I get.  Those wanting to do an even deeper dive into the mythology behind the movie should check out the documentary Room 237.

The Facts:

Synopsis: A group of women organize a trip into a large cave. After descending underground, the women find strange paintings and evidence of an earlier expedition, then learn they are not alone.

Stars: Shauna Macdonald, Natalie Mendoza, Alex Reid, Saskia Mulder, Nora-Jane Noone, MyAnna Buring

Director: Neil Marshall

Rated: R

Running Length: 99 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: For the strong-willed among you, The Descent is a great option to test your mettle.  It’s one of the best horror films to come out in the last few decades and remains one of the single most frightening movies I’ve seen.  I remember watching this in theaters and at one point wondering who just yelped so loudly…only to realize it was me.  I spent most of the running time either holding my breath or gripping my armrest, a relaxing experience this most definitely was not.  It was an incredibly satisfying one though, from a horror fan angle, because it delivered a nearly flawless presentation of a bad dream that turns into an all-out nightmare.  Opening with a bang before letting the audience get a breather for about 20 minutes, the action picks up again when friends get trapped in an underground cave and find out far too late they have more to worry about than finding another exit.  Who or what is down there with them is fingers-over-the-eyes scary and director Neil Marshall is unrelenting in the vice grip he puts on the audience.  Fighting for survival and with matters complicated by personal demons surfacing, the women are intelligent but not above pushing each other buttons when stressed.  This is horror at its most primal, consistently going for the ultimate nerve-shredding scare/visual and Marshall doesn’t make a wrong step.  The ending, usually a sticking point in horror movies, is handled well and I can say the movie got a better than average sequel without it spoiling anything for you.  If you can handle it, take a journey with The Descent.  One of the very few movies that can be called a modern classic and have it mean something.

31 Days to Scare ~ High Spirits

The Facts:

Synopsis: The owner of an Irish castle decides to attract visitors by falsely claiming the building is haunted, only to have a pair of real ancestral spirits start causing trouble…

Stars: Peter O’Toole, Daryl Hannah, Steve Guttenberg, Beverly D’Angelo, Liam Neeson, Peter Gallagher, Jennifer Tilly, Donal McCann, Mary Coughlan, Liz Smith, Tom Hickey, Tony Rohr

Director: Neil Jordan

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 99 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  As another October was drawing to a close and it was getting time to step away from focusing solely on scary movies for the year, I was thinking about what to feature for the last few posts.  I knew I’d cover some well-known titles and already planned out my Halloween entry but it was that last day, the 30th, that had me scratching my head.  Then it hit me…or actually it came crashing down.  I was just waking up this morning when a unexpectedly picture fell off the wall, causing a great deal of noise and starting the day off with a startle.  A faulty nail is the assured culprit but…what if a ghost was having some fun with me in the early hours?  For some reason, it got me in haunting mood and my mind went right to High Spirits, a silly but fun favorite of mine.

Now, let’s be clear.  A horror movie this is not so if you’re looking for blood, guts, and gore you can skip to tomorrow but if you need a spooky/goofy respite from suspense and are up for a trip back to the late ‘80s you have come to the right place.  Released in 1988 to mediocre reviews and no box office, this isn’t exactly an unheralded classic that didn’t get its due.  While I personally find it to be a riot, at the time it arrived in theaters audiences were already distancing themselves from this broad type of farce.  Over time, I think the movie has aged well and the cast is chock full of familiar faces, many of whom are turning in sharp and ribald performances.

Poor Peter Plunkett (Peter O’Toole, The Stunt Man) is having trouble getting guests to stay at his castle in the Irish countryside.  Though the place is in need of repair, Plunkett and his staff of locals don’t do much to spruce it up to make it more appealing to the tourist trade.  When he’s (literally) at the end of his rope, a light bulb for an idea goes off when he’s reminded by his boozy mother (a delightful Liz Smith) about the numerous ghosts that supposedly live in the castle.  Why not market the castle as haunted and, once the guests arrive, fake the appearances to create massive buzz?  That should keep the rooms occupied and the cash coming in.  Right?

The plan works…almost.  When the first batch of tourists arrive, they include Jack (Steve Guttenberg, Diner) and Sharon (Beverly D’Angelo, The Sentinel) a couple on their second honeymoon and they clearly need it.  She’s an uptight city gal while he’s looking forward to getting the most out of their creepy Irish adventure.  They’re joined by a priest (Peter Gallagher, Hello, My Name is Doris), a sexpot (Jennifer Tilly), and a demanding family from the suburbs (led by Martin Ferrero from Jurassic Park).  The staff do their best to give the group a good scare but the results are less than thrilling.  Figuring out they’ve been duped pretty quickly, the guests plan their escape…and that’s when Jack meets Mary Plunkett (Daryl Hannah, Splash!), Peter’s very beautiful but very dead relative.

Murdered on her wedding night by a jealous husband (Liam Neeson, The Haunting) and doomed to repeat the violent act nightly for eternity, when Jack intervenes in a drunken daze it breaks the cycle and Mary is freed to be a regular old spirit.  Grateful to Jack for freeing her, the two strike up a connection that neither really found with their significant other.  The movie then becomes your typical boy meets ghost story, further complicated by her dead husband and his living wife getting into the mix.  All this happens while Plunkett tries to keep the other guests out of harm’s way when their less than haunted experience gets very real after the rest of the Plunkett ancestors get roused and the line between the living and the dead is tested.

Written and directed by Neil Jordan (who would score an Oscar four years later for The Crying Game and also gave us Greta in 2019), the movie is total Sunday afternoon rainy-day fare and I think it’s a lot of fun.  It’s obviously not trying to be a classic in any sense but it has some memorable moments and performances that are off-the-wall enough to be quite amusing.  Smith is a hoot at Peter’s mum who is always three sheets to the wind while it’s nice to see Neeson so early in his career in a lark of a comedic role.  Guttenberg and D’Angelo can play these types of roles in their sleep but they’re engaging nonetheless and Hannah makes for a lovely apparition.  The production design of the castle is impressive and, haunted or not, you’ll likely wish a similar stay would be in your future.

High art?  No.  High Spirits?  Yes.

31 Days to Scare ~ The Ring (2002)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A journalist must investigate a mysterious videotape that seems to cause the death of anyone one week to the day after they view it.

Stars: Naomi Watts, Martin Henderson, David Dorfman, Brian Cox, Jane Alexander, Lindsay Frost

Director: Gore Verbinski

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 115 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: There’s nothing like seeing a movie in a packed theater.  Nothing.  I don’t care if it’s a high octane action adventure, a period drama, or a raucous comedy, the energy that comes from being shoulder to shoulder with a group of people all having the same shared experience is not something that can be duplicated at home.  That’s especially true with horror movies because often it’s hearing the shrieks of others that add to the engagement of the crowd – maybe you chuckle at the screamer for jumping at such an obvious moment or perhaps you nervously laugh because it could have been you that let out that great big yelp.

I vividly remember being jam-packed into a theater for an early screening of The Ring in October of 2002 and feeling a palpable tension before the movie even began.  The trailer for the movie was pretty freaky and while the general plot of the movie was known, not much more had been revealed so unless you were familiar with the original Japanese novel by Kôji Suzuki or 1998 movie you likely were going into the film without any idea of what you were in for.  Being a remake of a Japanese film, this isn’t simply an outright horror gore fest but a mystery with terror elements coming into play as the protagonist gets closer to the truth.  Even rewatching it recently, I was pleasantly surprised how well it held up after all these years…especially the scares.

An investigative reporter (Naomi Watts, Luce) looks into the death of her niece and uncovers a supernatural evil that follows her home.  A videotape exists that, once watched, will start a cycle of death and madness that must be stopped before seven days have passed.  When her son (David Dorfman) is exposed to the tape she works with her ex-boyfriend (Martin Henderson, Everest) to find the origin of the VHS, eventually tracing it to a family haunted by secrets living on a remote island.  As the days tick away and an evil presence grows closer, the journalist must figure out how to break the curse before it comes for her.

It’s nice to remember that of all the remakes of Japanese horror films, The Ring was the first out of the gate and is the most successful of the lot.  Director Gore Verbinski (The Lone Ranger) and screenwriter Ehren Kruger (Dumbo) have taken the original 1998 film Ringu from Hideo Nakata and nicely transplanted it to Washington state in addition to other easy adjustments for US audiences.  It’s lacking in some of the subtleties that helped make Ringu so frightening but it achieves its own share of scares that are often as memorable.  Verbinski’s film looks great and I’d only wish the performances were a bit more even-keeled throughout.  Watts makes for a strong and competent lead but she’s prone to jump into wild-eyed mode at the drop of a hat.  Less successful are Henderson and Dorfman as the two men in her life…both are kinda duds and feel like they get in the way of Watts when she’s trying to keep the picture chugging along.

Inspiring an uninspired sequel (that brought back director Hideo Nakata) and an even worse third film that barely got released, I’m dreading the day when I hear this is going to be remade in a similar fashion to The Grudge.  Another US remake may improve The Grudge which was never that strong to begin with but The Ring got it right out of the gate so there’s nothing to be gained from restarting from the ground up.  I enjoy this movie for its craftsmanship and high scare factor – no improvement needed.

31 Days to Scare ~ Haunt

The Facts:

Synopsis: On Halloween, a group of friends encounter an “extreme” haunted house that promises to feed on their darkest fears. The night turns deadly as they come to the horrifying realization that some nightmares are real.

Stars: Katie Stevens, Will Brittain, Lauryn Alisa McClain, Andrew Caldwell, Shazi Raja, Schuyler Helford

Director: Scott Beck & Bryan Woods

Rated: R

Running Length: 92 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Let me tell you, every October I go on high alert looking for a newer horror film I can get behind.  With so many ways for filmmakers to deliver scares to us now (theatrically, streaming, etc.) it can be tough to keep track of everything that comes out so it’s best to go where the buzz is.  Horror fans are a picky bunch and while we often will feast happily on even meager scraps if available, when there’s the opportunity to eat like royalty we’ll let everyone else know what’s for dinner.  So when I heard Haunt was gathering some strong word of mouth momentum in its on-demand release I made it a priority to get it to it before the month was over.

I’ve come to not put too much credence in advertising for horror movies that say “from the writers of” or “from the studio that brought you” just because it rarely equates to little more than evoking your positive thoughts of that previous release.  In the case of Haunt, the presence of producer Eli Roth (The House with a Clock in Its Walls) didn’t intrigue me as much as the bit about the film coming from the writers of the clever surprise hit A Quiet Place, Scott Beck & Bryan Woods.  Beck and Woods direct Haunt as well and it’s interesting to note it finished filming in November 2017, the same time as A Quiet Place, though it’s only coming out now.  Whatever the delays were, they were worth it because Haunt is a real diamond in the rough – a focused horror movie that, while not always original in thought, is genuinely scary.

As a way to clear her mind after breaking up with her abusive boyfriend, Harper (Katie Stevens) spends Halloween night with her roommate Bailey (Lauryn Alisa McClain) and their two friends Angela (Shazi Raja) and Mallory (Schuyler Helford).  A noisy club doesn’t prove to be any fun and definitely doesn’t get them in the Halloween spirit so after meeting Nathan (Will Brittain, Everybody Wants Some!!) and Evan (Andrew Caldwell) the group decides to look for another venue that’s a bit more in line with the spooky holiday.  A flyer boasting an Extreme Haunted House catches their eye and before you know it the six are headed out into the middle of nowhere searching for the location where the big scares are.  We’ve already seen a little of the inside during the credit sequence, watching an unseen figure making preparations but it isn’t clear until they arrive just how isolated it is.

Now, if Haunt were made ten years ago audiences may have balked at the willingness of the guys and gals to enter the sketchy looking industrial rundown warehouse but we’re in the era when an old-school haunted house just doesn’t cut it.  Many scare-hounds are now looking for that extra bit of realism and lived-in experience that puts them in the center of an attraction that feels dangerous.  So when Harper and her friends have to sign waivers and relinquish their cell phones it doesn’t seem that odd of a request.  At first, the space seems fairly standard but the deeper they travel (and the more clown-mask wearing staff they meet) the more they realize this really isn’t like anything they’ve seen before, it’s far deadlier.  As they are separated by various detours and trap doors they are hunted by a malevolent gang sporting nightmare-inducing masks and maybe something even freakier underneath.

Blessedly, while Haunt is gore-heavy it’s not of the Saw variety where it veers toward torturous rather than creative.  As someone that has worked in a similar haunted house that was built from the ground up inside an old factory, the production design is spot on and is elaborate enough to suggest significant work went into the mazes and puzzle rooms but not so over designed that it would come off as unbelievable.  Also, a few of the rooms are super creepy and unsettling, with an eerie menace that’s helped along by solid performances from the cast.  The make-up effects are well done and more than a few sights for sure gave me goosebumps.

It’s also nice to report that Haunt actually has a beginning, a middle, and an end.  There’s no prolonged finale that drags on or multiple fake-outs capped off with a last blast to goose you up and out of your seat.  Though it may strain just a tiny bit to get past that 90 minute marker, it does so by taking its time with the stalking scenes.  This gives the terrorized guests an actual shot at fighting back instead of just rolling over and awaiting their fate.  Attempts at character development are noble, though it’s really only Harper that gets any kind of major movement in that area.  The motives for the staff of the haunted house aren’t quite clear but their actions speak (scream) louder than words.

Easily a top recommendation in 2019 for those looking for something brand new to tune into this Halloween, Haunt is handled with care and intelligence.  It provides the requisite scares but also supplies another layer of creepy that is much appreciated.  I can see this being one people are excited to discover down the line and it’s absolutely one I’d enjoy introducing friends to.

31 Days to Scare ~ The Lost Boys

The Facts:

Synopsis: After moving to a small town in Northern California with their divorced mother, two brothers discover the area is a haven for vampires.

Stars: Jason Patric, Corey Haim, Kiefer Sutherland, Dianne Wiest, Jami Gertz, Corey Feldman, Barnard Hughes, Edward Herrmann

Director: Joel Schumacher

Rated: R

Running Length: 97 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  If I think real hard and squeeze my eyes shut I can picture myself as a seven year old in the summer of 1987.  Likely wearing a blue and red (okay pink) tie-dyed shirt from Disney World paired with above-the-knee khaki shorts and tube socks topped off with slip-on black loafers I wasn’t exactly the epitome of cool so seeing the movie poster for The Lost Boys at our local mall and subsequent TV ads made me do a double take.  What was this movie featuring vampires and young kids dressed like they hadn’t picked out their clothes the night before about and when would I ever be old enough to see it?  It would be several years later when The Lost Boys VHS finally came home with me and by then I’d learned a thing or two about proper attire.  I also knew a good vampire movie when I saw one.

Brothers Michael (Jason Patric, Sleepers) and Sam (Corey Haim, Lucas) move with their mother (Dianne Wiest, Parenthood) to the seaside town of Santa Carla, California to live with their grandfather (Barnard Hughes, Doc Hollywood).  Leaving their friends and father behind wasn’t an easy step and the boys take some adjustment to the raucous beach town that’s quiet during the day and a party city in the evenings.  Teens flock to the boardwalk to play video games, hear bands, or just hang out and summer is in full swing by the time the boys arrive.  There’s also been an influx of strange disappearances lately but it’s mostly going unnoticed due to the large number of people that pass through nightly.  A few of Sam’s new friends (one played by Corey Feldman, Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter) suspect vampires are behind the unexplained vanishings and educate him on how to spot a creature of the night.

With Sam preoccupied hunting down vampires and his mother spending more time with a local businessman (Edward Hermann, Overboard), Michael falls for Star (Jami Gertz, Sixteen Candles) a mystery girl who runs with a crowd of punks led by David (Kiefer Sutherland, Flatliners).  For Michael to get to know Star better and be included with David and his troupe, he goes through an initiation that starts to change his sleeping habits as well as his reflection in mirrors.  Now Michael has more than just being the new kid on the block to worry about and when he attempts to quell his burgeoning taste for blood with the help of his brother it only makes David come on stronger…but is David the only big bad vampire in Santa Carla Michael and Sam need to worry about?

Over the years there have been countless movies about vampires young and old but none have truly captured a time and place quite like Joel Schumacher did with The Lost Boys.  Though watching it now it’s clearly a film that’s starting to crystalize in amber, it doesn’t yet feel stale in the least and improves with each watch.  There’s a music video style to the film that keeps it energized from the chilling opening to a surprising finale that throws a few curveballs at the audience courtesy of a clever, tuned-in script from Jeffrey Boam (The Dead Zone), Jan Fischer, & James Jeremias.  There’s an ample amount of comedy as well, with the screenwriters making good use of the talents of both Coreys to go for the teenybopper crowd while leaving the more serious business for Patric and Sutherland.

Like what he did when elevating the John Hughes genre film with the more adult St. Elmo’s Fire, Schumacher takes what could have been a run-of-the-mill bloodsucker flick and turned it into an enduring modern classic horror film.  Featuring a roster of attractive talent right on the cusp of breaking big in Hollywood, Schumacher was never quite as on the money as he was with The Lost Boys.  The soundtrack is great, the pacing is on the money, and the practical special effects add suspense on top of the moderate blood and gore.  It works like a charm and remains an entertaining popcorn blockbuster even if you’ve seen it dozens of times.

31 Days to Scare ~ What Lies Beneath

The Facts:

Synopsis: The wife of a university research scientist believes that her lakeside Vermont home is haunted by a ghost – or that she is losing her mind.

Stars: Harrison Ford, Michelle Pfeiffer, Miranda Otto, James Remar, Wendy Crewson, Amber Valletta

Director: Robert Zemeckis

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 130 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review:  As we are pummeled with more and more content in streaming services and theatrical distribution, I’m finding that I have less and less confidence in feeling satisfied with my overall experience.  There’s simply too much coming too fast and that has led me to latch on to older films that I know will always deliver.  Cinematic comfort-food, these movies can be relied on to provide laughs, thrills, chills, or tears exactly when I want them with little risk involved.  Around this time of year, I’m clearly in the mood for some scares and though it’s nice to explore the available new releases and to dig into the past to discover overlooked older titles there comes a time when only the true-blue winners will do.  The time is now.  And What Lies Beneath is one such film.

On paper, you couldn’t have asked for a more perfect movie in the eyes of this critic back in 2000.  A lifelong Michelle Pfeiffer Pfan (not sure if that’s a thing, but I’m starting it now) and having grown up on Harrison Ford adventures, watching them being teamed up in a Robert Zemeckis suspense/thriller was just too very good to be true.  I trolled the movie websites endlessly for news of the production, bought the poster and hung it in my room, watched the trailer on repeat, and was there opening night to see the finished product.  Delivering on every promised level, it’s a well-orchestrated, old-fashioned scare machine that unapologetically jolts you as much as it can in 130 minutes.

After sending her only daughter off to college, Claire Spencer (Pfeiffer, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil) is dealing with the empty nest blues in her New England lake house.  With her university professor husband Norman (Ford, Blade Runner 2049) busy working days and long nights at the college, she’s often alone and becomes interested in the tempestuous couple who have moved in next door.  Eventually turning into full-on nosy neighbor with binoculars in tow, Claire is startled when she witnesses the wife (Miranda Otto, Annabelle: Creation) having a private emotional outburst that hints she’s somehow scared of her spouse (James Remar, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood).  When the wife disappears and a ghostly spirit seems to start sending Claire messages, she becomes convinced a sinister presence has descended over the house.  What she doesn’t expect is just how close to home the spirit may be.

Fans of the Marvel movies will be interested to note the screenplay was written by Clark Gregg (Agent Coulson in Iron Man, etc.) and he’s done a good job, especially in the first hour, of establishing Claire and Norman’s relationship and how it changes the more she believes she’s being haunted.  Norman is sympathetic to his wife’s feelings, having supported her through a recent accident, but can’t quite get on board with her paranormal paranoia.  Gregg’s script does shift into a different gear that is clearly a nod to Alfred Hitchcock and it’s not the last of the twists the movie has in store for us.  True, if you watch the preview (which I highly suggest you Do Not Do) you’ll have picked up on the turn of events but almost 20 years after its release I think we’re far enough along that you could watch the movie again and not remember where it’s heading.

Made during a hiatus in filming Cast Away when Tom Hanks was losing all that weight, Zemeckis (Welcome to Marwen) pulls out all his bag of tricks and creates a few new ones along the way.  There is one camera move in particular involving Ford and Pfeiffer that’s often cited as a “How’d They Do That” moment and it is quite impressive.  The entire film looks amazing with each piece perfectly assembled and every clue exactly where it needs to be to assist audiences in putting the puzzle together.  Even if you are a few steps ahead of the Spencers in figuring it all out, you’ll still be impressed with what Zemeckis and his team have done in the presentation of the film.  As mentioned before, the scares are plentiful and become relentless in the final forty minutes.  Not just relegated to jump scares, some genuinely hair-raising moments and shocks come when you are the least prepared for them.

While Ford may get top billing, this is Pfeiffer’s film all the way.  In nearly every scene of the movie, she’s totally glorious as a woman already a tad emotionally vulnerable teetering on the edge of feeling crazy but also knowing she’s not imagining the strange occurrences and sights that are happening in her house.  She’s gets ample support from an energized Ford who would soon turn into a bit of a grumpy presence in film; he’s quite invested here playing against his usual action hero role type as a man with imperfections that may be contributing in part to what’s happening with his wife.  Pfeiffer has to go through a lot, spending a large portion of the film soaking wet but it’s all in great service to the success of the performance and film.  In a small supporting role, Diana Scarwid (Mommie Dearest) is kooky fun as Claire’s eccentric friend.  Though I get the impression more of her work was left on the editing room floor, what little we see of her brings a welcome lightness to the movie.

Released in the summer of 2000 to great box office and becoming the 10th highest grossing film of the year, it surprised me critics weren’t kinder in their original takes on the film.  Sure, it’s definitely derivative of Hitchcock and yeah, of course it would have been more enjoyable had the trailer not given away one major twist which rendered the first hour almost inconsequential, but not totally. Thanks to Pfeiffer’s commitment alone, there’s a high-class of sophistication to this thriller so few movies aspired to even back then.  We definitely don’t have movies like this anymore…all the more reason to celebrate the shivers it so gleefully gives.

31 Days to Scare ~ Paradise Hills

The Facts:

Synopsis: A mysterious boarding school perfectly reforms wayward girls to fit their surroundings’ exact desires.

Stars: Emma Roberts, Eiza Gonzalez, Awkwafina, Danielle Macdonald, Milla Jovovich, Jeremy Irvine

Director: Alice Waddington

Rated: NR

Running Length: 95 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: When Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives was first published, in 1972 it came at a time when the women’s liberation movement was starting to gain greater momentum on a national level and the book served as a good reminder that conformity could be downright dangerous.  Adapted as a chilling movie in 1975, the term “Stepford Wife” became a term used to describe a woman who appeared submissive to her spouse – not the nicest of terms.  A 2004 remake tried hard to update the social satire for a different generation in the new millennium but studio tinkering and behind-the-scenes turmoil turned the film into a sour mess.

There’s a whiff of Stepford hanging over the new release Paradise Hills but don’t go looking for extreme similarities between the two because this is better than just another reimagining of that original text.  Written by Nacho Vigalondo and Brian DeLeeuw working from a story by director Alice Waddington, it takes some ideas from Levin but largely cuts its own path in creating a creative narrative.  Waddington, a Spanish artist making her feature directing debut, contributes a highly visual film that doesn’t compensate flair for plot.  It’s artsty-fartsy but still takes time to connect the dots.

Kicking things off with a glam wedding designed to the hilt, Waddington takes some inspiration from Tarsem (The Cell) in her camera movements and attention to details in the foreground and background.  It’s nuptials day for Uma (Emma Roberts, We’re the Millers) and while she smiles, greets her guests and sings a song for her new husband, something doesn’t seem quite right.  Later that evening we’ll find out why but not before flashing back several months to Uma arriving at Paradise, an isolated island she’s been sent to for refusing to marry the man her parents set her up with.  Independent and single-minded, she loves another (Jeremy Irvine, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again) and wants to live free from the constraints of her family and societal norms.

Ruled by the Duchess (Milla Jovovich, Zoolander 2), Paradise is a tranquil finishing (more like re-finishing) school wealthy families can send their daughters to if they are in need of a little attitude adjustment.  Maybe they need to lose weight like Chloe (Danielle Macdonald, The East), perhaps they struggle with anxiety disorder like Yu (Awkwafina, The Farewell) or, in the case of famous pop singer Amarna (Eiza Gonzalez, Welcome to Marwen), they could just need a break from mainstream culture.  At first, the courses administered are designed to change their outward appearance but things take a darker turn when the inward feelings are targeted.

As the girls get closer they begin to see the island and its presiding Duchess have a devious plan for them all, one that’s been hidden in the depths of the labyrinthine estate they live in.  When girls start disappearing and the Duchess begins to demonstrate some rather strange behavior that seems to have a direct impact on the island’s flora, Uma leads her new friends in a plan to escape before their nightmare stay in Paradise becomes permanent.  Unable to stay awake through the night to explore what is being kept from them, Uma and Amarna team up to find a way to outwit the authority figures and get to the bottom of what seems to be coming for them.

While not as outright a horror film as I could see it tiptoeing around at times wanting to be, enough of the action is steeped in mystery that you can’t help but feel its occasional electric charge when it uncovers another clue.  The solution is fairly obvious but the answer isn’t as simple as you’d expect.  The performances are strong throughout, with Roberts continuing to hone her skills and improving with each role she takes on.  I especially liked Jovovich playing a quasi-fairy tale queen with a sinister edge.  If this had been made ten years ago, I could easily have seen Jovovich in the Roberts role.  Though hampered by some limitations in budget and issues with follow-through of the intriguing ideas it introduces, it succeeds more than I anticipated it would.