Movie Review ~ Frankie


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Three generations grappling with a life-changing experience during one day of a vacation in Sintra, Portugal, a historic town known for its dense gardens and fairy-tale villas and palaces.

Stars: Isabelle Huppert, Marisa Tomei, Brendan Gleeson, Greg Kinnear, Ariyon Bakare, Vinette Robinson, Pascal Greggory, Jérémie Renier

Director: Ira Sachs

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 98 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  Maybe it’s an only child thing.  Movies that revolve around family conflict tend to just zoom on by me with little effect, rarely landing with any kind of weight.  I’ve discussed this with those that come from large families with siblings and been told that it’s because as an only child I haven’t had that experience dealing with the kind of dynamics that exist when there are other personalities to take into account.  In my family, it was just the three of us so there was little room for gambit when you wanted something or were frustrated – everything was always out in the open.  So it’s tough for me to watch “family drama” films whether they’re good (August: Osage County) or bad (This is Where I Leave You) and find a thread to grab onto. That could be why I found it almost impossible to engage with Frankie, even though I’m a fan of the director and the majority of the cast.

At this point, I’m interested in anything Isabelle Huppert (Greta) shows up in, with the actress finding her ways to intriguing roles if not fully satisfying films.  Her Oscar-nomination for Elle was a deserved turning point in recognition of a long career of bold choices and she’s continuing to show up in curious places.  Then there’s Marisa Tomei (Love the Coopers), Brendan Gleeson (Paddington 2), and Greg Kinnear (I Don’t Know How She Does It), three more actors who have amassed an impressive list of credits on IMDb with both mainstream films and indie flicks.  With writer/director Ira Sachs guiding them all, this seemed like a pleasant gathering of talents; however like the titular character it’s a movie that keeps you at arm’s length and rarely allows you to see underneath its hard shell.

Set over the course of one day, Frankie centers around the family and close friends of celebrated actress Françoise “Frankie” Crémont (Huppert) who are gathered in a picturesque town in Portugal.  Even though they are in paradise, emotional baggage is being unpacked as the movie opens.  Frankie’s daughter (Vinette Robinson) is grappling with a marriage that may have run its course and her son (Jérémie Renier) has once again fallen in love with the wrong woman and is despondent.  Her ex-husband (Pascal Greggory) has stayed in the picture, though he hasn’t quite given up wanting to care for his former spouse.  That extra attention doesn’t seem to bother her current husband (Gleeson) because nothing seems to truly turn him askew.  Things get more complicated with the arrival of Frankie’s former make-up artist Ilene (Tomei) who has invited her friend Gary (Kinnear) along which throws a wrench (delicately) into a grand scheme Frankie has been working on.

Frankie is really just a series of conversations between characters, rarely more than two people at a time.  While this allows for some freely interesting insight at first (and blessedly Huppert is allowed to speak in French to those that communicate likewise), by the time the movie is half over you find yourself longing for something of import to happen or be revealed out of these exchanges.  Many of these dialogues are inward musings spoken aloud that another person just happens to be there for, they rarely are as revealing or revelatory as they may have been intended to be and, honestly, it often comes across as shallow whining from the privileged upper class.  That would be fine, if only there was a balance to show the movie understood it was commenting on that position of opportunity.  It becomes obvious early on why Frankie has gathered these people together so there’s not some big awful secret waiting to be revealed, but the slow turning of the wheels feels overly laborious for the usually smooth sailing writing of Sachs and his co-writer Mauricio Zacharias.

As a writer and director, Sachs has shown in his previous work to have a finely tuned ear for how real people speak and, flawed though they may be, has presented them with some wholeness to them.  When I interviewed him in 2014 for the release of his wonderful movie Love is Strange, he spoke of wanting to present characters with a certain humility about them that reflects their class and age and I can see some of that intention present in the outlines of the characters in Frankie.  What I didn’t find was anything more than those outlines underneath it all.  It’s a curious circumstance, to be in this beautiful setting with such an appealing cast but not be able to generate any kind of emotional resonance from anything you’re hearing.  It doesn’t help the actors don’t seem to know quite how to sell it either, with Huppert appearing distant and not in the way I think Sachs intends her to be.  Only Tomei feels like she’s at peace and she brings a noted warmth to all of her scenes.  It’s a mixed bag from everyone else, especially out of sync with everything else are scenes with Frankie’s granddaughter and a local boy that catches her eye.

There’s a shot in Frankie where all the characters trek to look out on the edge of a cliff into the vast openeness of the sea.  With so much to admire, so much to think about, and so much to take in, they barely stay for a moment before turning back and walking back from where they came and where they are comfortable.  That’s a lot like Frankie the film.  A lot of effort is spent getting to a place that should be a thing of beauty, only to turn around and head back without taking time to think about what we’re looking at.

Movie Review ~ Doctor Sleep


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Dan Torrance meets a young girl with similar powers as his and tries to protect her from a cult known as The True Knot who prey on children with powers to remain immortal.

Stars: Ewan McGregor, Rebecca Ferguson, Cliff Curtis, Kyliegh Curran, Zahn McClarnon, Carl Lumbly, Alex Essoe, Bruce Greenwood, Emily Alyn Lind, Jacob Tremblay

Director: Mike Flanagan

Rated: R

Running Length: 151 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review:  It’s time to own up to the dark truth that I’ve seen every Stephen King movie but never read a Stephen King book.  I know, it’s a horrible thing to admit and I don’t offer it up with any amount of pride, only to say that I’ve appreciated that King is a writer with work that has provided so many wonderful adaptations.  Way back in 1980 when The Shining first premiered, it’s well known it wasn’t King’s favorite interpretation of his work.  Legendary director Stanley Kubrick took quite a lot of liberties with the source novel, eliminating characters or changing their make-up all together, to say nothing of the reworked ending.  While a TV adaptation hewed closer to King’s original vision, it paled in comparison to what Kubrick had created.   Over the years, King came to some finality with the movie, for better or for worse, and it was generally accepted by all in thinking of King’s novel and Kubrick’s film as two separate entities that shared similarities.

Re-watching The Shining again (released in a spectacular 4K BluRay) for my 31 Days to Scare, I was struck by how little actually happens (in terms of on-screen action at least) in Kubrick’s film up until the final third.  Over the years I’d always remembered the movie to be this non-stop cabin fever scare-fest that was a journey into madness from the start but that’s what a young imagination falsely remembered will do to you.  Seeing it through a more adult eye with a critical angle, I was taken by how well Kubrick turned up the heat on the Torrance family as they came to the Overlook Hotel in Colorado and the horrible fate that befell them.  Jack Nicholson’s performance is legendary to say nothing of Shelley Duvall’s unfairly maligned and unjustly ignored heroic work as his wife who comes apart at the seams on account of her husband’s own mental breakdown.

Kubrick’s The Shining ended (spoiler-alert) with Jack Torrance frozen to death in the Overlook’s hedge maze and his wife Wendy and son Danny high-tailing it down the mountain to safety.  So when King went to write a sequel to the novel years later, he obviously was writing a sequel to his story that ended with the Overlook destroyed.  King’s follow-up, Doctor Sleep, was a well-received best-seller and soon it was time to consider making that into a movie as well.  Yet, how to merge this book with the previous movie?  Enter Mike Flanagan, riding high off of his success with a series of successful genre films Oculus, Hush, Gerald’s Game, and the series The Haunting of Hill House on Netflix. Hired to adapt and direct Doctor Sleep (he also edited the movie), Flanagan worked with King to adjust the novel to fit with Kubrick’s original film and the result is a seamless continuation that’s supremely satisfying and frequently frightening.

Picking up in 1980 where Kubrick left off, Doctor Sleep starts not with the Torrance family but with Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson, The Greatest Showman) and other members of The True Knot.  Surviving on the essence, or “steam”, of those with special powers like Danny has, they move throughout the country hunting children because that is when their “steam” is at its most potent.  The more they feed, the longer they live and the stronger they become.  At the same time, Danny and his mother (Alex Essoe, Starry Eyes) have relocated to Florida where Danny sees visions of a familiar friend from the Overlook.  Jumping ahead 31 years, Danny (Ewan McGregor, Christopher Robin) has dulled the memories of his past and stifled his “shining” with alcohol and drugs and is barely standing when he meets Billy Freeman (Cliff Curtis, The Meg) in a small New Hampshire town.

Finding a new life and sobriety, Danny spends the next eight years working at a hospice and often using his gifts to help patients transition to the other side with peace.  He’s also been communicating telepathically with Abra (Kyliegh Curran) another child possessing the power of the shining equal to Danny who has caught the attention of The True Knot.  When she begins to see visions of Rose the Hat and The True Knot in action, eventually finding a link into Rose’s consciousness, Abra knows she can’t take them on alone.  Asking for Danny’s help, he has to decide if he can open up the door to let his dark past back in he’s worked so hard to keep boarded up for these many years.  With so many ghosts from the Overlook locked away inside their individual Pandoras boxes, if that portal opens Danny isn’t sure what else might return with them.  But does he have a choice when a hungry cult will stop at nothing to get to Abra and now for the first time has also sensed his power and presence?

At 151 minutes, Doctor Sleep outpaces The Shining by 5 minutes but offers more movement and thrills at the outset than Kubrick did in his film.  Now, some may see that as a good thing or it could be a sign of Flanagan not totally trusting the audience to wait for two hours to get to the main event – but I don’t agree with that.  This is a movie that has measured out it’s shocks in just the right places, aiming squarely for maximum impact and not just to goose audiences with short attention spans.  No, Flanagan has previously demonstrated in his projects that he knows just when to push the button on the scare machine and here again he proves his timing is spot-on.  He doesn’t even have to push hard, simple things like music cues or familiar images can get those tingles started in your tailbone and send them upwards fairly quickly.

The references to The Shining are both obvious and sneaky and you’ll have to keep your eyes peeled for some fun ways Flanagan and his production team have tipped their hat to Kubrick’s original design.  While some scenes from the original are recreated in part, I was so glad to see it wasn’t with old footage made to look new or digitally altered to appear as if Nicholson and Duvall had come back for reshoots.  Casting new actors in these roles that aren’t exactly lookalikes but aren’t doing a pronounced impression was a wise choice too – you get the general idea of the previous actors but it’s more the character that’s important above all else.  Someone at my screening whined at the end they wished Nicholson had returned…but that would have been a huge distraction.

As is typical, Flanagan has assembled an interesting array of actors and it’s not just those at the top.  While McGregor is in fine form as the tortured Danny and nicely conveys the sense of loss and ongoing struggle he’s going through, he often takes a backseat when someone like Ferguson is onscreen because she’s such a commanding presence.  Stalking around the movie (and other actors), Ferguson’s character is wicked scary and doesn’t oversell why she’s the leader of this bloodthirsty pack.  There’s no campy acting going on with Ferguson.  Rose the Hat has survived for a number of years doing what she does and she has little qualms about taking the lives of the young — it’s a really evil role and Ferguson is impressively menacing in it.  I also quite liked Curran’s Abra, delighting in her burgeoning powers but also realizing the reality of the terrifying visions she’s seeing.  She ably holds her own against more seasoned performers and does so in the face of some disturbing material.

That’s another thing about Doctor Sleep that got under my skin and I couldn’t shake, it’s a very unsettling film.  Horror movies are meant to jostle you a bit and then let you go on your merry way into the night but Flanagan’s film digs in and sticks with you for a while after the movie is over.  While the imagery might not be all that gruesome, there are some suggestions of terrible acts that are hard to brush off and it adds to the growing sense of dread leading to the climax of the film.  While I won’t say how or where the film ends, speaking for myself I left the movie feeling satiated with where Flanagan (and King) led these characters.

Bound to keep a new generation of viewers up at night by pairing this with the original, Doctor Sleep is another win for Mike Flanagan and well as fans of Stephen King.  It’s a handsome production that provides the requisite shivers and shudders but takes it’s time to find an emotional core beneath it all.  Adding in the strong performances from the leads and supporting players and you have a solid effort worthy of sitting on the shelf next to its predecessor.

Movie Review ~ Last Christmas


The Facts
:

Synopsis: When Kate, a cynical Christmas store worker who has been continuously unlucky, keeps running into an overly cheerful man and begins to fall for him, her life takes an unexpected turn.

Stars: Emilia Clarke, Henry Golding, Michelle Yeoh, Emma Thompson, Lydia Leonard, Boris Isakovic, Rebecca Root

Director: Paul Feig

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 102 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: A few months back, the Hallmark Channel announced it had smashed their own record for original seasonal films by offering up a whopping 40 holiday movies that would arrive between October and December.  Now, I’m not above spending a day (or two, or three) in front of the television partaking in their programming while wrapping presents or trimming the tree because they tend to be films that don’t require a ton of commitment.  There’s a specific guidebook to the way these little larks are crafted where you know going in that the woman who moves back to her hometown to (insert save family business or refurbish inherited money pit) and falls for the local (insert widower, handyman, or widowed handyman) will wind up happy and fulfilled.  I got a similar feeling of familiarity while watching Last Christmas but the difference here was that I couldn’t watch this one in my pajamas.

What’s surprising about Last Christmas is just how many talented individuals are involved with what is a fairly standard-fare offering from a major studio.  Inspired by and taking its name from the 1984 song from Wham! written by George Michael (when was the last time you saw a movie credited to a song?), the film was developed by Emma Thompson and her husband Greg Wise, with Thompson going on to write the screenplay with performance artist Bryony Kimmings. While it’s exactly the type of mid-budget romantic comedy I’ve often bemoaned the lack of in theaters, it’s often decidedly slight but makes up for that with strong, quirky performances that commit fully to the material that doesn’t always rise to meet them in the middle.  Thompson and Kimmings have a knack with introducing a few out of left field characters and ideas but just as soon as they’re established they drop them for something different.

Working as an elf at a Christmas store in London’s Covent Garden selling tacky ornaments, Kate (Emilia Clarke, Terminator Genisys) couch hops amongst her friends instead of living at home with her immigrant parents (Thompson, Late Night and Boris Isakovic).  Wearing out her welcome quickly because she tends to act like a human wrecking ball, she has dreams of becoming a musical theater performer but only half-heartedly purses it.  She’s more into late nights and a free wheeling attitude, though this being a PG-13 film the worst we see Kate is with tousled hair and streaked eyeliner.  After a health scare a year ago, her family and boss (Michelle Yeoh, Crazy Rich Asians) urge her to be kinder to herself but it doesn’t deter Kate from continuing with an unhealthy lifestyle.

That all changes when she spots Tom (Henry Golding, A Simple Favor) outside the shop and strikes up a conversation with him.  A man almost too happy-go-lucky but with an air of mystery about him, Kate’s intrigued by Tom but can’t quite put her finger on why.  As they get to know each other better, he inspires her in small ways to treat herself with a little more consideration, which leads to Kate finding new passions she can focus on.  Several subplots emerge, though none are truly fleshed out by director Paul Feig (Spy) and that’s a disappointment because it feels there are ample opportunities to give a few of the minor characters more of a boost.  In the past, Feig has excelled with making stars of of supporting players and while the cast is an appealing mix of different looks, they aren’t fully tapped to step into the spotlight.  Instead, too many machinations are put into place in order for Thompson and Kimmings to get to a pivotal turning point in the movie that some will see coming from a mile away.  I get why that wrinkle is there but it’s such a minor point you can almost see where the filmmakers tried to parse it down and switch the attention elsewhere after the movie was shot — maybe I’m off base but it sure seems like they did.

Though popular from her time on Game of Thrones, I’m still not quite on the Clarke train yet, but Last Christmas helped get me closer to buying a ticket.  She’s a bit more grounded here than her last romantic outing (Me Before You) and you can see the change her character goes through from the start of the movie to the end.  Plus, she shows off a sweet singing voice chirping through a few George Michael tunes (the singer’s music is used almost exclusively throughout) and acquitting herself nicely doing so.  Golding continues to charm, even if his character is a bit of an enigma most of the time.  Thompson gave herself a nice role as Kate’s Yugoslavian mother still worried the KGB is looking for her and Yeoh is a lot of fun as Kate’s spiky boss.  Her strangely funny romance with a German man is so odd and inconsequential to the movie as a whole, I was surprised it made the final cut even if it was fairly amusing.

This is making it sound like Last Christmas is a tough movie to sit through and it’s not – it’s more enjoyable than I’m making it out to be.  While watching the movie, I was quite taken by it’s brisk pace and ability to bounce forward without getting too tangled in plot developments that would drag other similar movies down.  The script eliminates the usual entanglements often present in romantic comedies and clears the way for Kate to be center stage.  It helps that Clarke is at her most likable and that she’s not such a disaster we don’t want to see her pick herself up and succeed.  It’s a very timely movie as well, with newsworthy discussions of Brexit of all things coming into play (albeit briefly) and using that as another way for Kate to connect not just with her family but with other people in her city.  It’s a bit shoehorned in and a rather obvious statement moment, but it’s valuable nonetheless.  The only thing that truly bothered me is that Feig didn’t know how the end the movie.  There’s at least one scene too many at the end, maybe two depending on how tidy you like your edges when a movie wraps up.

Like those schmaltzy Hallmark movies, Last Christmas is arriving well ahead of the Christmas rush in order to beat the crowded boon of films vying for your attention as we head into a busy December.  It’s a smart move because there’s not a whole lot else like it out there right now.  At times it gets to feel like it’s moving through a checklist of people and situations required to be in these movies but somehow I went along with it without much fuss.  I recognize the movie can often be like one of those gaudy ornaments Kate is selling (and of which I own a few of).  You know it’s not the greatest, the prettiest, or the most expensive but you still like to look at it for what it means to you.  You’ll definitely put it on your tree…but maybe it will go closer to the bottom or toward the back.  I don’t think it’s destined to be a new Christmas classic but neither are any of those Hallmark movies that come out every year.

Movie Review ~ Parasite


The Facts
:

Synopsis: All unemployed, Ki-taek’s family takes peculiar interest in the wealthy and glamorous Parks for their livelihood until they get entangled in an unexpected incident.

Stars: Song Kang-ho, Yeo-jeong Jo, Woo-sik Choi, So-dam Park, Seo Joon Park, Hye Jin Jang

Director: Bong Joon-ho

Rated: R

Running Length: 132 minutes

TMMM Score: (10/10)

Review: We’re at the point of the yearly movie cycle when you’re going to be bombarded with a lot of pull quotes that proclaim every movie to be the “best” thing you’ll see featuring the “greatest” performances and the most “revolutionary” filmmaking and frankly, they can’t all be winners.  Each studio hopes to hang their hat on at least one movie that will generate the good buzz that can carry their film, or even key players in their film, through to the awards season that is advancing at us at a rapid rate.  Audiences can look forward to new work from old masters as well as sophomore films from festival darlings that will surely garner the popular vote and net some admirable box office returns.  Yet there’s one film that’s bulldozing them all…and it isn’t doing it quietly.

Since premiering at the Cannes Film Festival in May and winning the prestigious top prize by a unanimous vote (a rare feat), the Korean film Parasite has been knocking the socks off critics as it gears up to a tiered release around the country.  After Cannes, it continued to play well at subsequent festivals and its entire opening weekend in NYC sold out before the first showing.  Early reviews touted the film as the new surprise front runner for Best Picture and its slick trailer enticed the viewer without giving too much of the plot away.  The hype machine on this one was gassed up and ready to go without going into overdrive…but could it possibly live up to all that advance praise?

I’ve been to this rodeo before where I’ve heard nothing but cheers for a film only to finally see it and not get what all the fuss was about.  The same thing happens when general audiences see the movie as well and the box office reflects it too when a film that scored a bunch of awards at a supposed award precursor is finally released and flattened by less than enthused mainstream media and viewers.  While I was excited to see Parasite and thrilled my city was on the list to be in the first wave of release, I took my seat with more trepidation than usual because this was one I truly wanted to meet the expectation I had for it.  It didn’t meet my expectations…it exceeded it.  And then some.

Director Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite is such a tight knot of a film that I feel as if I have to be careful with what I say for fear I’ll somehow assist in unraveling it.  There is so much surprise to be had in the performances and so many unexpected turns in the plot that there’s no way you can say at the beginning you’ll know where the movie will wind up by the time the credits roll.  There’s just no possible way you could do it.  It takes a true master storyteller to weave this kind of complex tale of social commentary and still manage to make it a lively, nail-biting, funny, incredibly entertaining piece of cinema.

Living in a run-down sub-basement apartment and taking odd jobs to make ends meet, Kim Ki-taek (Kang-ho Song) and his wife Chung-sook (Hye-jin Jang) have raised their son Ki-woo (Woo-sik Choi) and daughter Ki-jung (So-dam Park) to make the most out of any opportune moment.  When Ki-woo’s friend turns up and says he’s leaving to study overseas, he offers Ki-woo the chance to take over his job as an English tutor for the daughter of a rich family.  When Ki-woo arrives at the pristine mansion of the Park family, he’s instantly taken by their deluxe lifestyle and the relative naiveté of Mrs. Park (Park Yeon-kyo) who he soon begins to manipulate.

With the rest of his family looking for work and possessing a knack for filling a certain gap that exists (whether it already it exists or is cleverly manufactured), it isn’t long before Ki-woo’s parents and sister are employed at the Park villa and that’s when the lines between the haves and have-nots become disturbingly blurred.  As Ki-woo continues to teach the daughter and his sister becomes an art instructor for the son, Ki-taek takes over chauffeur duties for Mr. Park who is your typically detached husband.  It’s an easy family to insinuate themselves into.  While the Kim’s aren’t necessarily bad people, they are extreme opportunists who seize upon every advantage presented to them, whether it will ultimately provide value to them or not.  Only realizing the consequences later, the Kim’s abandon any measure of caution as they are swept away by the allure of the Park’s lavish lifestyle. Right about the time you think you see where the Kim’s might be heading, a doorbell rings and changes everything.

What I so enjoyed while watching Parasite was a genuine feeling that anything could happen.  Around every corner was the unknown and down each staircase was a new twist waiting to be discovered – I can’t remember the last time a movie held such interest for so long.  In the past, writer/director Bong Joon Ho has delivered some impressively detailed films with a strong familial core like Snowpiercer, Okja, The Host, and Mother (not the awful Jennifer Lawrence movie) and he’s focused his eye once again on a family that has a lot going on under the surface.  As the head of the family wanting to provide for his wife and children, Kang-ho Song is wonderful trying to navigate keeping up appearances not only with the ruse he’s pulling on the Park’s but in saving face in front of his loved ones.  I also found Jeong-eun Lee to be dynamite in a tricky role playing the Park’s first housekeeper, a genial if all business woman that learns too late not to underestimate the new hires the lady of the house has taken on.  The entire film is well cast, down to the Park children who are just the right amount of cluelessly spoiled.

Shepherding the first Korean film to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes is a high honor and well-earned bragging rights for director Bong Joon Ho but the commercial success of Parasite will be the truest test of all.  I can see good word of mouth elevating this one, and with good reason.  For once, the preview hasn’t ruined any of the surprises or given any more clues than I have at what may be going on in the latter half of the movie.  Subtitled films are a tough-sell for audiences that like their movies loud and with impressive special effects but this is one that would be wholly enjoyed with a full theater.  That way, you can all share in the experience of discovery at the same time – and what a find this excellent film is.  Don’t miss it.

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.