31 Days to Scare ~ Alien (1979)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: After a space merchant vessel receives an unknown transmission as a distress call, one of the crew is attacked by a mysterious life form and they soon realize that its life cycle has merely begun.

Stars: Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, John Hurt, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, Ian Holm, Yaphet Kotto, Bolaji Badejo

Director: Ridley Scott

Rated: R

Running Length: 117 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (10/10)

Review:  It’s Memorial Day weekend 1979 and you are an audience member in one of the 90 theaters showing a movie called Alien.  You’ve only seen the poster with the tagline, ‘In space, no one can hear you scream.’  Maybe you saw the teaser trailer (one of the all time best) in front of another movie earlier in the year or perhaps you’ve seen nothing of the film at all.  This is a time before the internet and the type of massive publicity surge studios use to show nearly everything but the closing credits before a movie opens.  No one else has told you what to expect, no dialogue later to become iconic has been quoted endlessly, there have been no copycats that tried to ride its genre coattails to similar success.  Everything about this is new to you.  I am so jealous of you!!

Seriously, think back to a time before you saw one of your favorite movies and then think about yourself now and how things changed after that experience.  You wish you could go back and relive that first thrill again.  While you can watch your go-to dozens of times over and only grow to love it more, nothing will beat that sweet first glimpse of greatness that made it so memorable in the first place.  Jaws, Jurassic Park, Moulin Rouge!, Grease 2 (yes, Grease 2), Rear Window, The Sound of Music, The Godfather – just a handful of titles that come to mind I’d love to go back and experience again like I’d never seen them before.  Ridley Scott’s sci-fi classic Alien sits high on that list as well…and pretty high up.

A supreme genre hybrid and crown jewel in both science fiction and horror, Alien is the be-all, end-all of creature feature films set in the stars while also impressing as an incredibly scary haunted house flick with a few nods to the Westerns made famous in the ’50s.  Go into Alien without knowing what’s in store and you are sure to have shock after shock, finding a scream around every corner of the large commercial space vessel Nostromo which gets cleverly boarded by our titular character. 

The original idea of screenwriters Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, both sci-fi fans with ties to the industry, the existence of the film can be tied back to the Star Wars craze.  Fans were clamoring for more space odysseys and with The Empire Strikes Back still in development/production and not due until 1980, 20th Century Fox took the first space script that came to them, then called Star Beast.  Renamed Alien, the studio hired relatively new director Scott (recently represented with The Last Duel) to lead the way of the modestly budgeted picture and Scott cast the film using the freedom the script gave him by making the characters unisex.  That means we could have gotten a male Ripley if Sigourney Weaver (Copycat) had decided to skip her audition that day.  While Weaver is just one of a fantastic ensemble of actors and would only later truly step into a spotlight leading role in 1986’s Aliens, almost from the start you can see the then 29 year-old actress taking control of the screen anytime she’s present. 

Weaver hangs to the side for much of the first hour of the film, as her crew answers a distress call on a small moon they were redirected to as they made their way home.  Landing on the barren terra, the three crew volunteers tasked with finding the source of the signal instead find what looks to be a spaceship in ruins and eventually encounter an…unpleasantness which leaves one crew member incapacitated.  Bringing him back on board to give him medical care, they restart the journey home as fast as possible but it’s already too late.  They’ve brought something on board that will emerge, grow, and kill them one by one until only one is left to face the towering creature head on.

Even watching the movie for as long as I have, I’ll never get over at how ahead of its time it was.  On so many levels.  First off, the presence of such a strong female character that winds up the lead is so rare in this genre and this certain type of take-charge female is particularly impressive.  Other films feature women that become strong or fall into a position of being forced to adapt or else, but Weaver plays Ripley as a woman that’s always been proving herself and this experience is not all that different.  She would return to the role again in three subsequent sequels and was Oscar-nominated for the next film but here is where it all began, and the groundwork is laid strong for what develops over the years. 

Another way the film seems ahead of its time is that it literally looks like it was made a decade or more in the future and then shipped back for the audience to view.  The special effects are outstanding and deservedly won an Oscar and the production design was also nominated and could have likely won as well because the magnitude of the sets is jaw-dropping.  Budgeted at 11 million dollars, the producers made their money go a long way and it shows in each blinking light on the control panels, grandeur of the planetary design, and scale of the ship’s shadowy corridors.  The alien itself is just a man (Bolaji Badejo) in a rubber suit but the costume is so detailed and the editing from Terry Rawlings and Peter Weatherley so skilled that you never notice the seams. 

Anyone with a pulse should feel it racing at some point during Alien.  Using not just the creature itself but light, practical design/effects, and our own imaginations to create scenarios in our head, Alien creates a high sense of dread that rarely lets the audience have time to catch their breath. The cast, the production, and Scott’s assured hand in direction combine to give what could have been a B-movie in the wrong hands a classy sheen that’s stood the test of time.  Even today it remains an extremely frightening film that works because of its simplicity in scaring us. Countless movies have tried without the same type of (or any) success in recreating what Alien brings forth…just stick with the biggest baddest mother of them all.

31 Days to Scare ~ The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A newly engaged couple have a breakdown in an isolated area and must seek shelter at the bizarre residence of Dr. Frank-n-Furter.

Stars: Tim Curry, Susan Sarandon, Barry Bostwick, Richard O’Brien, Patricia Quinn, Nell Campbell, Jonathan Adams, Peter Hinwood, Meat Loaf, Charles Gray

Director: Jim Sharman

Rated: R

Running Length: 98 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: To truly appreciate a show like Richard O’ Brien’s The Rocky Horror Show, you have to see it live on stage.  That’s really the only way you can get the full-on experience of how O’Brien originally conceived it and see it for its clever ode to the schlock cinema from the ‘50s and ‘60s.  Set to O’Brien’s undeniably catchy tunes and lyrics that range from the divine “Dana Andrews said prunes gave him the runes” to the make-it-work “Planet, schmanet, Janet!”, the stage version premiered in 1973 in a small UK venue and gradually moved up through larger houses as word-of-mouth buzzed through town.  American producer Lou Adler caught the show one night, saw $$$ after the recent success of Jesus Christ Superstar on stage and screen, and began the musical’s journey to cinemas at the same time it was crossing the pond to take on the U.S.

By the time The Rocky Horror Picture Show opened in 1975, the stage show had played a successful run of nine months in L.A. (with original London star Tim Curry and future movie cast member Meatloaf), transferred to Broadway with the same players, and closed after an infamously short run after a disastrous NYC reception.  In between the two bi-coastal runs Curry and Meatloaf flew to London to make the movie which was planned to be released while the Broadway run was enjoying a warm reception and oodles of awards.  Sadly, only the mononymous Chipmonck was recognized with a Tony nomination for his lighting design of the 4 previews and 45 performances at the Belasco theater in March and April of 1975.

That was the stage show and the movie is a different beast all together, one that found a its own kind of status over time.  At first, though, it looked like the hope for Rocky Horror finding longevity was slim.  Opening in August 1975, director Jim Sharman’s film version is bound to be a strange experience for anyone coming in cold to the show.  The title has such a history attached to it, with the legendary tales of midnight screenings and groupies that dress up like the characters and act out scenes in front of the screen while audience members talk back to the actors in the film.  Toast is thrown, as are rolls of toilet paper, rice, cards (for sorrow), cards (for pain), and make sure you have a newspaper with you because someone will absolutely be squirting water during a rainstorm scene early on in the film.  This all happens if you attend one of those packed screenings that still exist, but not as frequently as they had in the past.

I’ve seen the show multiple times in a movie theater and onstage but rarely at home with just myself and the television and watching it with my partner for his first time it was odd to have it so…quiet.  Where were the people yelling back at Brad (A**hole!) and Janet (S*ut!)?  Why was I the only one standing up doing the Time Warp?  It did give me a chance to appreciate how nicely made most of the movie is, with several sequences edited with such immense precision it give me goosebumps (take a look at how sharp the opening to “Touch-a-Touch-a-Touch-a-Touch Me” is timed).  True, the storyline is still a bit flouncy and drifts away every so often only to have O’Brien reel it in as we round the corner to the finish line, but it’s immense fun for the most part. 

The chief reason why the movie worked then and continues to work now can be summed up in two words. Tim. Curry. All the recent hoopla about Ben Platt recreating his Broadway role in the film version of Dear Evan Hansen for no real reason should use a performer like Tim Curry (Clue) as an example of why sometimes it is the best choice after all to have the OG star in the film.  20th Century Fox pushed to have Barry Bostwick (Tales of Halloween) and Ride the Eagle’s Susan Sarandon (having an absolute ball here) cast in the roles of the virginal couple that get lost in the rain and find themselves mixed up with Curry’s party of weirdos but it would have been a death sentence for the film if Curry hadn’t been brought along from the stage show.  No one has ever come close to beating him in the role and it’s so important that a performance of this magnitude has been preserved like this forever.  Same goes for O’Brien, Nell Campbell, Jonathan Adams, and Patricia Quinn (The Lords of Salem), all original stage stars appearing in the movie with only Adams not playing the same role he did onstage.  Quinn, in particular is impossible to not watch every moment she’s onscreen…like a demented Bernadette Peters she’s always up to something.

It’s easy to throw around the term “cult” and randomly apply it as the status of a movie, but few truly earn it.  The Rocky Horror Picture show is more than worthy of being bestowed that honor and while it went up in smoke during it’s early run in theaters, I think it wound up doing just fine over the last 46 years.  The last count was that it has made over 170 million dollars in box office returns – not bad for a movie that cost 1.4 million originally.  If you can’t make it to the theater to see it live, give this one a try at home.  A bonus: you likely have the most important props (toast, newspaper, toilet paper) close at hand!

31 Days to Scare ~ The Fury (1978)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A former CIA agent uses the talents of a young psychic to help retrieve his telekinetic son from terrorists who want to use his mental powers for evil.

Stars: Kirk Douglas, John Cassavetes, Carrie Snodgress, Charles Durning, Amy Irving, Fiona Lewis, Andrew Stevens

Director: Brian De Palma

Rated: R

Running Length: 118 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: I always find that I have a certain kind of soft spot for the movies such as The Fury.  Or, rather, the movies that come right after a director has scored with a monster hit.  There is always so much pressure and expectation because audiences are trained to expect the same type of experience and rarely does a bar raised so high get met on a second attempt…even if it’s quite good when taken on its own merits.  Often when we return to these features after enough time has passed, we can see them as the individualized projects they are if that’s indeed how they were intended and in all fairness there are clearly cases when you can tell a director or screenwriter simply tried to recreate what was so successful just before.

There’s a little bit of both going on in The Fury and that’s why I think viewers and critics might have been a little confused when it was released in early 1978.  Though overall it scored highly with critics and at the box office, the film about telekinetic teens shivered a bit in the shadow of its director’s film that came just before it, a little yarn from 1976 called Carrie.  Based on Stephen King’s book and featuring two Oscar nominated performances, Brian De Palma big screen adaptation of the bestseller was a smash and remains a thrilling classic even today while The Fury isn’t talked about nearly enough as an intriguing part of De Palma’s hit-or-miss oeuvre. 

Based on a 1976 novel by John Farris (who also wrote the screenplay), De Palma enlisted Kirk Douglas (still a virile leading man at 62) to play Peter Sandza, a father who watches helplessly along with his old colleague Ben Childress (John Cassavetes) in the opening prologue as armed men interrupt a vacation in Israel to abduct his son Robin (Andrew Stevens), who possesses psychic abilities.  An ex-CIA agent, Peter figures out quickly that he’s been double-crossed and vows to get Robin back by whatever means necessary.  Shifting the action to Chicago, we meet Gillian Bellaver (Amy Irving) just as she’s discovering her own psychic powers and how, when uncontrolled, she can be a danger to anyone that encounters her.

To help her control her growing abilities, Gillian is taken in at an institute for special children…. which just happens to be under the umbrella of the same people responsible for Robin’s abduction.  It’s only a matter of time before Peter and Gillian’s paths cross and after Gillian begins having visions of Robin, suggesting a psychic connection, the two work with Peter’s connection inside the institute (Carrie Snodgress) to stage an escape so that Gillian can locate the missing boy.  However, during his time separated from his father, Robin has been getting his own training from people that don’t have his best interest at heart and the family reunion Peter has been waiting for might not be as warmly received as he thinks. 

Even this early on in De Palma’s career, all of the hallmarks of what makes a “De Palma Film” were beginning to pop up.  The split screens, the visual angles, the healthy use of slow motion paired with a grandiose score from John Williams (a truly spectacular one in my opinion).  De Palma may be working with a similar theme of telekinesis run amok, just switching the relationship to be about a father and a son, but there’s more adult situations going on here as well, with the people possessing these powers truly seeing firsthand the consequences of their actions. In Carrie, the recognition wasn’t always there but here, there are some truly frightening visuals.

Speaking of visuals, get your remote handy for that finale because the ending to The Fury is maybe one of the most satisfying out there in the way it delivers exactly what’s coming to a character.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen the film where I haven’t rewound it three or four times to watch it again…it’s that memorable. Where the movie could be improved is tightening up some of the action throughout.  There are strange comedic foibles for Douglas in the opening hour where he disguises himself as a way to evade capture and these scenes feel like they are out of a different movie all together.  I could also do without some of the lengthier scenes around the middle during Irving’s stay at the institute…but that would mean losing some of the work the great Snodgress was doing so I don’t know if I could bear to part with it. 

If you’ve only experienced the “big” De Palma films and haven’t yet made time for the ‘in-between’ films such as The Fury, you just have to give this one a go.  It’s got the thrills and an unbelievable ending that make it required viewing.

In Praise of Teasers ~ Strange Days (1995)

In 2013 I was feeling pretty blue about the state of movie trailers.  For a time, it was imperative for me to get to a theater in time for the previews or else some of the fun would be missing from the experience of going to the movies because, let’s face it, sometimes the coming attractions were more entertaining than the feature presentation.  That started to change when the previews became less of a creative way to market the film and more of way for studios to put all their cards on the table with little artistry.  Like I said back seven years ago, it seems like nearly every preview that’s released is about 2:30 minutes long and gives away almost every aspect of the movie, acting more like a Cliff Notes version of the movie being advertised rather than something to entice an audience into coming back and seeing the full product.

Sadly, in the years since I did my first run of the In Praise of Teasers series, not a lot has changed and it may have gotten worse.  It’s gotten to the point where I almost avoid watching a trailer all together because so much of the plot is given away.  This site used to feature a wealth of movie previews but I just can’t bring myself to post too many because they’re so spoiler-y.  Only the rare well-done coming attraction or preview for an “event” film gets through…and even then I can’t think of anything recent that could go toe-to-toe with the brief bites I’m going to share with you over the coming weeks.

That’s why I’ve decided to revive In Praise of Teasers now.  In this day and age where all aspects of a movie are fairly well known before an inch of footage is seen the subtlety of a well crafted “teaser” trailer is totally gone…and I miss it…I miss it a lot.  Let’s revisit some of the teaser trailers I fondly remember and, in a way, reintroduce them. Whether the actual movie was good or bad is neither here nor there; but pay attention to how each of these teasers work in their own special way to grab the attention of movie-goers.

Strange Days (1995)

It’s easy to see that the problems for Strange Days started with this teaser trailer.  Here was a movie written by James Cameron who had just scored a gigantic success the year earlier with True Lies and directed by his ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow still, four years later, riding high off of her blockbuster Point Break.  Though the two were no longer a couple, they continued to collaborate on this project which had been on Cameron’s shelf for years.  Arguably, Bigelow was the right person to direct it but its virtual reality plot line was, in hindsight, perhaps too ahead of its time…and add to that a complicated conspiracy thread running through the film and technical elements that impressed but at times overwhelmed and it all becomes a bit of a blur.  Honestly, the movie is still mostly a jumble in my mind, even today.  I do need to watch it again because it’s got such a great team behind the scenes and an intriguing cast that it should work.  Like I said at the beginning, though, this teaser trailer is too manic and blippy for its own good and doesn’t entice the viewer in for more.  If this were made today, Bradley Cooper would be staring back at us and not Ralph Fiennes, right?  Fiennes is a strong actor but this close-up of him is majorly intense and in a way off-putting, pushing the audience to lean back rather than lean in.  The perfect teaser to me is one that I could see and know right away I’d want to watch the movie without anything else to go off of.  This brief look at Strange Days wouldn’t have been enough to get me in the door, even with Cameron’s name attached.

For more teasers check out my posts on The Fifth Element, The Addams Family, Alien, Misery, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Showgirls, Jurassic Park, Jaws 3D/Jaws: The Revenge, Total Recall, Halloween II: Season of the Witch

Movie Review ~ Underwater


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Mysterious creatures terrorize crew members aboard a research station located seven miles below the surface of the ocean.

Stars: Kristen Stewart, T.J. Miller, Jessica Henwick, Vincent Cassel, John Gallagher Jr., Mamoudou Athie

Director: William Eubank

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 95 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: I write these reviews as if the reader has read every other post I’ve written these past nine years so I feel I should probably start out my review for Underwater to say for all you first-timers out there that I. LOVE. MONSTER. MOVIES.  Also.  I. LOVE. UNDERWATER. MONSTER. MOVIES.  There.  It’s out there again, I can be free to go on with my reflection of Underwater, and you can understand why I was both excited and a little bit nervous going into this 2020 release because I really wanted it to be good.  I wanted it to be so good, in fact, that I even spoke the words out loud in the theater beforehand to my partner so it would be clear that, no matter what happened, I was always rooting for the film to succeed.  It has been so long since we had a good creature feature that I felt it was high time for something new to try to break through but I never thought it would come from 20th Century Fox starring indie-darling Kristen Stewart.

Filmed all the way back in early 2017 (we’re talking March-May), Underwater was made when 20th Century Fox was still its own studio and not owned by the Disney corporation.  Once Disney shelled out big bucks for Fox they acquired all of their movies set to be released and have been gradually rolling them out to strategically not interfere with the release dates of their own in-house movies.  Ad Astra was given a bit of a short shrift earlier this summer and, while it did decent business and received good notices, it wasn’t nearly the blockbuster it might have been had it been solely under the Fox banner.  Then again, that movie had its own share of challenging advertising issues…not really being an action movie but being marketed as one.

Back to Underwater, this is another case of Disney burning up a Fox release in that no man’s land of January and hoping that something will come of it.  Thankfully, this is one title they blessed with an advance screening so others could get the word out, but with the studio releasing it against the Oscar hopeful 1917 and the comedy Like a Boss, there wasn’t a huge audience left over for Underwater. That’s likely why the movie didn’t make much a dent during its opening weekend, despite costing upwards of $80 million to produce.  Ouch.  Let’s put that aside for the moment and focus on the movie, though.

It’s good!  Like, really good!

Actually, let me take a step back and I’ll temper my enthusiasm with a caveat that I was pre-destined to like this film based on my above mentioned penchant for this particular brand of horror movie.  Even if it was kinda bad, I probably sorta would have liked it.  That it was competently made, admirably performed, and skillfully executed only added to the enjoyment level of it and I have to say that it exceeded any expectations I had going in.  Knowing next to nothing about it thanks to a buzz machine that barely got started, it was fun to go in fairly blind and I think you should do your best to know as little going in as possible.  So I’ll keep this brief.

The set-up sounds familiar.  In an isolated area miles below the surface, an accident decimates a drilling station that is exploring the depths of the Mariana Trench, stranding a handful of crew members that were lucky enough to survive the initial incident but unlucky to live to face a perilous fate.  Mechanical engineer Norah (Kristen Stewart, Charlie’s Angels) is plucky and resourceful, rarely fazed by the obstacles that lay before them.  This comes in handy when the survivors realize they have to exit their doomed vessel and walk a stretch of exposed ocean floor in suits that may not stand the pressure to another station that might be in a similar wrecked state.  Oh…and there’s a rash of sea monsters released from the depths of the ocean by their drill trying to eat them.

Writers Brian Duffield (Insurgent) and Adam Cozad (The Legend of Tarzan) devise some nifty set-ups and nasty ends for the workers and it helps that most of the supporting cast is played by familiar but not too familiar faces.  You never know quite who is famous enough to make it to the end, and even that isn’t a guarantee.  There are some surprising twists I wasn’t expecting but they all make sense in the overall story Duffield and Cozard set out to tell.  Along with William Eubank’s tight direction, there isn’t a moment wasted in Underwater and even some late-breaking attempts at giving greater depths to certain characters don’t feel completely out of nowhere if you consider the life or death situation they are all in.

I find it so intriguing the choices of roles Stewart is drifting toward lately.  Though filmed several years ago, taking on a studio monster movie must have been a leap for her but I can see why this more introspective character appealed to her.  There are shades of Alien’s Ellen Ripley in Norah and while she doesn’t have the opportunity to go full Ripley mode, the final twenty minutes of the movie are an exciting ride with Stewart in the drivers seat.  When T.J. Miller (Office Christmas Party) pops up I groaned, fearing the weary comedian’s way of sucking the life out of anything he appears in but aside from a bumpy start he actually becomes quite endearing.  I get the impression the Captain character played by Vincent Cassel (Trance) may have been trimmed in editing to save time but what’s been left behind is good enough to make it a memorable showing.  Rounding out the small group of survivors are Jessica Henwick (Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens) and John Gallagher, Jr. (10 Cloverfield Lane), with Henwick nicely going from naif-y to taking charge after being pushed into service.

From a production standpoint, Underwater is incredibly successful and highly effective; the sets and visual effects are solid even if you can’t always make out what you are seeing.  This adds to some, if not all, of the tension Eubank creates and there are several true edge-of-your-seat-hold-your-breath sequences that were quite enjoyable to sit through with a packed audience.  Even better, these passages lead to a pay-off of value, not some cheap scare that vanishes into the ether.  All in all, a handsome effort in front of and behind the camera.

The performance of Underwater, 2018’s The Meg, and 2019’s Crawl, not to mention their better than average reviews, indicates audiences are open to the next wave of monster movies and they don’t have to be franchise pictures either.  I don’t need a Godzilla: King of the Monsters to fill my bucket when a simple story about nature run amok will suit me just fine.  Here’s hoping more of these are produced over the next few years – if they are as well made as the three I just mentioned above, this creature feature fan would be in seventh heaven!

The Silver Bullet ~ The King’s Man



Synopsis
: As a collection of history’s worst tyrants and criminal masterminds gather to plot a war to wipe out millions, one man must race against time to stop them.

Release Date: September 18, 2020

Thoughts: In 2014, the spy adventure Kingsman: The Secret Service was a surprise hit with audiences and critics and presented a cheeky fun alternative to the wise acre superhero franchise films that were multiplying like rabbits.  It also helped to introduce the public to Taron Egerton who would return in 2017 for the go-big-or-go-home sequel before hitting the big time with his hopefully Oscar nominated turn in 2019’s Elton John biopic Rocketman.  With Egerton’s star on the rise and booked out on other projects and with the franchise having bankable legs, 20th Century Fox was in a bit of a tough place with director Matthew Vaughn on how to continue the story of the elite gentlemen’s agency that battled boffo baddies in style.  The answer?  Go back to the beginning. Recently moved from it’s original February release date, September 2020 will now bring us The King’s Man, tracking the original formation of the organization featuring Ralph Fiennes (Official Secrets), Gemma Arterton (Quantum of Solace), Djimon Hounsou (Charlie’s Angels), and Harris Dickinson (Maleficent: Mistress of Evil).  I’m sure I’ll miss the Egerton-factor but this second trailer feels in the same spirit as the two previous films with action packed intrigue to spare.  Looks like royal fun.  

Movie Review ~ Ford v Ferrari


The Facts
:

Synopsis: American car designer Carroll Shelby and driver Ken Miles battle corporate interference, the laws of physics and their own personal demons to build a revolutionary race car for Ford and challenge Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1966.

Stars: Christian Bale, Matt Damon, Caitriona Balfe, Jon Bernthal, Tracy Letts, Ray McKinnon, Josh Lucas, Noah Jupe

Director: James Mangold

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 152 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review:  With authors, historians, and filmmakers having greater access than ever before to archival materials for events throughout history, it isn’t long before we’ll have an easy way to bring up a certain important milestone that occurred and research it’s significance.  In the meantime, we have to rely on those who seek to preserve these cultural touchstones and explore the work they do to bring that information to the general public.  Maybe it’s an art exhibition of a painter that died before their time and was never known for their technique in their lifetime.  Perhaps it’s a long-lost book of essays from a famous writer that was found in a safety deposit box of their former lover.  Or it could be something as simple as a movie documenting the rivalry between two car companies seeking to win a world famous race and pushing each other to build better vehicles in the process.

That’s how I choose to look at Ford v Ferrari, the dandy new racing drama zooming into theaters this weekend.  Sure, it looks like that late in the year release that feels like a perfect film for your dad to enjoy while you’re shopping for the holidays at the mall but it’s far more than a mere ‘Dad Film’ and you should consider riding shotgun for this one as well.  If you do, you’re going to find a film gassed up and ready to go from the start, with A-list talent in the driver’s seat and a fine supporting cast of venerable characters actors admirably doing stellar work in the pit crew.  Though I know over the years I’ve come across a number of them, the last racing movie I can remember seeing (and liking) in a theater was a whopping 28 years ago with the (still great!) Days of Thunder – so it was high time to get back behind the wheel and try out this model that had some history to go along with it.

As a barely casual Formula 1 viewer, the only races I had any familiarity with were the Daytona 500 and the Indy 500 so learning about the 24 Hours of Le Mans that plays such a major role in this movie was a real eye opening experience.  According to Wikipedia, it is “the world’s oldest active sports car race in endurance racing, held annually since 1923 near the town of Le Mans, France. It is considered one of the most prestigious automobile races in the world and has been called the “Grand Prix of Endurance and Efficiency.”  I had always thought cars went around the track for a while and eventually whoever had the best time after a certain amount of laps won.  It totally blew by me that there was a strategy and skill involved in endurance racing, especially when you consider the length of time of Le Mans and how specifically the car has to be made to survive those conditions.

By 1963, the Ford Motor Company was in trouble.  Business wasn’t great and their production line wasn’t appealing to a younger culture that were becoming more enamored with the European cars they were seeing in films.  These foreign cars, driven by the likes of James Bond, were sleek and sexy, not boxy and chaste like the types Ford was churning out.  Inspired by his Vice President Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal, The Accountant), Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts, Lady Bird) makes an offer to buy the cash-strapped Ferrari who had steadily been losing business after investing so much money into their countless efforts to win Le Mans.  Hoping to claim a Le Mans victory for his company, Ford II or “The Deuce” as he was called behind his back, thought that by buying Ferrari he was guaranteeing himself a win.  When Ferrari balked, The Deuce made it his mission to destroy Ferrari by gathering a team of his own and winning Le Mans as a way to get a kind of revenge against Ferrari.

At the time, the best man to go to about cars was designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon, The Martian) who had previously driven a car to a Le Mans victory in 1959.  The brusque Texan knew the right people to gather together to get the job done but also knew the corporate red tape that would ultimately get in the way – yet he soldiered on, eventually bringing in unpredictable British driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale, American Hustle) to test the car and steer it to victory.  Miles was known for his brilliant knowledge of cars and his talent behind the wheel, but also for his hotshot attitude and aversion to authority, a problem that comes into play when a ego-centric Ford company man (Josh Lucas, Thinner) gets promoted to oversee the racing team.  Under his penny pinching corporate eye, Shelby and Miles collaborate on a revolutionary automobile though and field test it endlessly to prepare for the legendary race.  The road to Le Mans is filled with potholes, though, and over the next years Shelby and Miles would have their professional relationship and friendship tested on multiple occasions as they navigated a company that wanted to win but with compromise and a leader who valued personal victory over loyalty.

Based on the 2009 book “Go Like Hell: Ford, Ferrari and Their Battle for Speed and Glory at Le Mans” by A.J. Baime was adapted by Jez Butterworth (Edge of Tomorrow), John-Henry Butterworth (Get on Up) and Jason Keller (Mirror, Mirror) into a well-oiled screenplay that, while heavy on car talk, doesn’t leave us non-car people in the dust.  In doing my research I’ve found that by and large Ford v Ferrari sticks fairly close to the events as they happened, taking few liberties with the real people that lived it.  As always, a movie can’t concentrate on every member of the larger team that led to success and I think focusing on Shelby and Miles was a good idea, mostly because the roles are so different yet complement each other so nicely.  Most agree that Shelby and Miles were key figures in Ford’s development of a racing car for the Le Mans race, though it’s well known it was a large team effort that wasn’t just accomplished by grease monkeys and the non-corporate type.

Director James Mangold (Logan) and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael (Nebraska) make the non-racing scenes look absolutely stunning, whether it be a conversation Miles is having with his son (Noah Jupe, Suburbicon, in another winning performance) or when The Deuce is throwing a tantrum in front of his executive staff.  It’s the racing footage that’s truly, incredibly, awesome.  Putting you right into the drivers seat without the shaking camera that often accompanies these views, whether we are looking in, out, or around the car Papamichael makes sure we know where we are and who we are following at all times.  With several races to go through before Le Mans, it allows audiences time to get a rhythm for the racing before the big one that takes up a large part of the last hour of the movie.  Having no knowledge of this event beforehand, I didn’t know the ultimate outcome of the Ford/Ferrari match-up and I’m so glad – it helped make the movie that much more enjoyable to be in some suspense as we near the finish line.

There’s already been a lot of talk about Ford v Ferrari around the performances of Damon and Bale, questioning if one actor should put himself in the running for Best Actor and one for Best Supporting Actor.  If we’re being fair, both are leading actors of the movie but I’d argue that Bale has the larger and more pivotal role…which is of course why many are saying he should campaign as Supporting Actor (??).  Even so, it appears both actors are going for the leading category now and I worry that it will either leave both out of the nominations or allow Damon to get in instead of Bale.  Nothing against Damon because he’s very good in this, I just responded more to what Bale was putting out onto the screen.  I also greatly enjoyed the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Letts as the obnoxiously pompous son of Henry Ford.  Wait for the scene where Damon’s character takes him on his first ride in a true racing car…it’s worth the price of admission.  As the lone female in the film with any kind of significance (the film’s one true drawback), Caitriona Balfe (Now You See Me) is stuck with the Wife That Is Supportive Above All Else but makes it less saccharine than it could have been.  If only the script had allowed her a few more dimensions, Balfe would surely have been up to the challenge.

Some movies are easy to skip in theaters and wait until they arrive for rent at home.  This is not one of those movies.  I’d advise to see this on the biggest screen possible with the best sound system available.  It can only enhance what is already a thrilling film experience, a history lesson brought to considerable life by a crackerjack team of professionals at the top of their game.  I’ve had this one on my mind quite a lot over the past week and feel as if it’s one I’ll revisit sooner rather than later.  Definitely worth your time to see it in theater.

31 Days to Scare ~ Vampire Circus

The Facts:

Synopsis: As the plague sweeps the countryside, a quarantined village is visited by a mysterious traveling circus. Soon, young children begin to disappear, and the locals suspect the circus troupe might be hiding a horrifying secret.

Stars: Adrienne Corri, John Moulder-Brown, Laurence Payne, Thorley Walters, Lynne Frederick, Anthony Higgins

Director: Robert Young

Rated: R

Running Length: 87 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  A longtime fan of Hammer Studios and their horror tales, I’ve come to see recently just how limited my scope was in my formative years.  I’m making up for the time that I focused in on some of the more generic (but still worthy!) offerings and am quite enjoying expanding my horizons. With titles that might not be so in the mainstream featuring the familiar names that trigger a notion of what you can expect, like a Dracula or a Frankenstein or a Werewolf, I’m finding some fairly excellent experiences on a regular basis. I almost feel bad saying I’ve “discovered” these movies because they’ve been there all along just waiting for me to find them. So, with great humility, let’s talk about Vampire Circus.

How had I never seen this one before?  I’d heard Vampire Circus spoken of highly before and know I’ve seen the poster numerous times over the years; it’s striking image of eyes wide and a mouth open and fangs bared is instantly memorable.  Making an impact with promises of blood and mayhem, I can say the movie delivers on all accounts and it’s an R-rated delight from a studio that started off a little tentative in their willingness to go the extra mile.  From the beginning, it’s clear this isn’t just another standard vampire flick filmed against an eastern European backdrop…there’s some plot that’s been thought out and it’s exceedingly well made.

An extended prologue finds a group of villagers in the Serbian village of Stetl finally doing away with the vampire Count Mitterhaus (Robert Tayman) who has been preying on the young children in the village.  As he dies, he curses the townspeople and their children, promising they will all die in order for him to live once more.  Entrusting a follower (Domini Blythe) to find his relation and tell him what the villagers had done, the Count dies and his castle is destroyed.  Fifteen years pass and the village has indeed been plagued by one problem after another.  A plague has cut them off from the rest of the world and no one can go in or out…until the circus comes to town.

Led by a flame-haired gypsy woman (Adrienne Corri), the Circus of Night arrives in the village under mysterious circumstances and quickly begins to enthrall the townspeople with their unbelievable acts of daring and transformation.  High flying twin acrobats turn into, well, bats.  A panther can turn into a smoldering man in the blink of an eye.  Then there are the dancers who perform a risqué pas de duex (with full nudity, another reason the movie was slapped with an R rating) along with a funhouse hall of mirrors that turns deadly.  Oh…and most of them are vampires.  So begins a three-ring act of violence and revenge, with each victim being brought to the Count’s final resting place and being offered as a sacrifice, their blood restoring him to his full gory glory.

It takes longer than it should for the townspeople to figure out what’s going on but even when they do there are still a few mysteries yet to be solved that are gradually doled out before a blood-soaked finale set in a tomb.  The special effects are well-rendered and it’s more than a little bit scary at times.  In general, the atmosphere is right on target for the time and place, something Hammer was always so pitch perfect in achieving time after time.  The production design is lovely and the location shooting in Europe adds to the authenticity of the work.  Even the performances manage to be more than just your standard victim and prey stock characters, though not everyone can bare their fangs and sink them into necks as good as Anthony Higgins.

This is an absolute must-see for fans of horror, classics and new.  Especially if you have a penchant for the vampire genre and especially the Hammer brand of filmmaking, it’s an essential watch.  It drags ever so slightly in the middle with a bit of repetitive kills and sensuality but at 87 minutes you aren’t waiting around too long before things pick up again and the Vampire Circus prepares for its big finale.

Movie Review ~ Ad Astra

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Astronaut Roy McBride undertakes a mission across an unforgiving solar system to uncover the truth about his missing father and his doomed expedition that now, 30 years later, threatens the universe.

Stars: Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga, Donald Sutherland, Liv Tyler

Director: James Gray

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 122 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: It’s well-documented (on this site) that I’m a sucker for any film set in space so it was probably always a given that Ad Astra was going to rank high with me.  Unless it was just a film where Brad Pitt watched Melissa McCarthy’s Tammy on the International Space Station for two hours, chances are I’d find something to like about it.  Thankfully, this features no McCarthy stinker but is instead a James Gray directed thinker and it is a wonder to see and feel.  With an excellent production design and stellar technical features across the board, Ad Astra might not be exactly the pulse-pounding action film advertised in trailers but it’s a worthwhile excursion into deep space with an A-list movie star continuing a 2019 winning streak.

Years into the future we’ve made advancements in our space exploration.  We have colonized the moon and have ventured further into our solar system, establishing an outpost on Mars and sending manned expeditions to look for intelligent life in distant galaxies.  It was on one of these expeditions that H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones, The Homesman) went missing on his way to Neptune.  Sixteen years later, a series of solar flares are threatening Earth and grow more dangerous with each passing day.  Scientists have pinned the source of these anomalies emanating several light years away.  From an insolvent spaceship long thought lost.  Near Neptune.

That’s when Roy McBride (Brad Pitt, The Big Short) is brought in.  A decorated astronaut known for his calm demeanor even in the most stressful of circumstances (his heart rate never goes above 80, even when involved in a catastrophic event), he’s the only son of Clifford McBride and hasn’t quite gotten over the absence of his father during his formative years.  Though he’s followed in his father’s footsteps, he can’t get out of his shaow. Now, with new intelligence gathered, the military has evidence that Roy’s father might not be as missing in the line of duty as they once thought. Hoping to stave off the global event on the horizon, the military asks Roy to venture to the ends of the galaxy to locate his father and stop him from plunging the Earth into ruin.  Along with Colonel Pruitt (Donald Sutherland, The Hunger Games), an old friend of his father’s, Roy first travels to the Moon, then Mars, and then…well, you’ll see.

Director James Gray has had an interesting career up until this point.  Starting out with five very New York-centric films that feel, to me, very similar, he hit upon something truly wonderful in 2016 when he adapted the bestselling novel The Lost City of Z.  The trouble is, Amazon Studios who did not quite know how to release it correctly, distributed it and it unfortunately was lost in the rubble.  Three years later Ad Astra almost suffered a similar fate when it was caught in the crossfire after Disney bought 20th Century Fox and moved around its release date.  Thankfully, the studio heads at Disney stuck with their plans to release it and even if they’ve still slightly bungled the marketing of the film they have given it a decent sized push.

It’s not exactly a spoiler to say Ad Astra is more heady drama than sci-fi action film like Gravity or The Martian.  It’s more cerebral than anything else and at 122 minutes doesn’t mind taking its time to get to the point.  Taking a cue from Kubrick, Gray isn’t above letting the audience make up their own minds about plot developments and meanings behind what goes on the further Pitt’s character travels toward his long-delayed reunion with his dad.  I’m sure they’ll be a lot of analysis as to the psyche behind Roy, the distance he travels, and the outcome of it all but it’s best to go in knowing the film isn’t all action.

Not that Gray doesn’t feature several impressive sequences of thrill along the way because he sure does.  From a cat-and-mouse chase played in fraught silence on a lunar surface to a recon mission that takes a freakish turn, Gray surprised me at the lengths he was willing to go to keep Roy and the audience off balance.  On the other hand, there are a few moments that could be tightened up a bit; shoring up some of the more protracted passages would help us arrive at the final act a hair more alert.  Though it may be traveling further into slightly more spoiler-y territory, I was disappointed to see Ruth Negga (World War Z) and Liv Tyler (Robot & Frank) not utilized more in their tangential roles.  Negga’s character, especially, seems like there was something left on the cutting room floor.

Like the aforementioned Gravity and The Martian, the movie fires on all cylinders when its just the audience and the star and Pitt is more than enough to hold our interest.  Coming off the rousing success of July’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood (which will most likely garner him another Oscar nomination and likely win), Pitt has come back this year in a big way.  I wouldn’t be opposed to seeing him a double nominee at the end of the year, being recognized for his work here would be rewarding another side to his acting that we don’t get to see that often.  While Pitt has played drama before, he’s never been as focused or introspective as he is here.  There’s a lot going on and Pitt handles it all with a master’s touch.

Looking back now, it likely was a wise move by Disney to reposition Ad Astra out of the summer movie season and get it into theaters after the heat died down.  Now, it doesn’t have the weight of “summer blockbuster” to live up to or, looked at another way, live down.  Now, the movie can be looked at for the drama it really is at its core.  The visual effects and production design could get some awards love and, while the movie may alienate some, I found a lot to take away from Gray’s familial space drama and Pitt’s, ahem, stellar performance.

Movie Review ~ Ready or Not


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A bride’s wedding night takes a sinister turn when her eccentric new in-laws force her to take part in a terrifying game.

Stars: Samara Weaving, Andie MacDowell, Mark O’Brien, Adam Brody, Henry Czerny, Nicky Guadagni

Director: Matt Bettinelli-Olpin & Tyler Gillett

Rated: R

Running Length: 95 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Plenty of people are planning end of summer bashes to celebrate the highs and lows of the last few months.  After all, before it’s time to settle into more serious fall endeavors, it’s nice to be able to blow off some steam with a devil-may-care bit of frivolity.  When Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw barreled into theaters a few weeks back, I thought that would be the fun party to send a rather middling summer off with a bang…but it turns out there was one final blowout waiting around the corner.  Though it was made for a fraction of the budget of the majority of movies released over the past three months, Ready or Not bests them all with its dark sense of humor and creativity.

As I mentioned in my review of the spoiler-heavy trailer for Ready or Not, I was nervous going in the filmmakers had given away too much of the plot too soon.  Coming out on the other side of the credits I can say that yes, some fun moments have been diminished if you’ve been exposed to the preview too often but, surprisingly, it didn’t lessen the impact the movie had overall.  While some horror movies released to theaters are perfectly fine to pass on in favor of waiting for home consumption, this is one of the rare cases of a genre title you would benefit from seeing in a theater packed with like-minded individuals out for a good time.  My audience ate it up and I’ll bet would be willing to come back for seconds.

At a trim 95 minutes, directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin & Tyler Gillett waste no time introducing us to Grace (Samara Weaving, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) as she rehearses her vows before her wedding.  Marrying the estranged scion of wealthy family that made their fortune off board games and other profitable endeavors, she can already tell her in-laws will be a handful.  An orphan that grew up in the foster care system, she loves her fiancé Alex Le Domas (Mark O’Brien, Bad Times at the El Royale) and is willing to put up with a few days of weirdness at the massive Le Domas estate in exchange for a lifetime of happiness and the promise of a permanent family.  With their engagement, Alex has returned to his family with his bride-to-be in tow and though his mother (Andie MacDowell, Magic Mike XXL) is happy to have her son back the rest of the family seems curiously on edge.

Later that evening, before the bride and groom can enjoy their first night together, Alex lets Grace know about a family tradition all new members must go through at the stroke of midnight.  Grace will have to play a game with them, a game to be chosen through a secret ceremony, and while she initially laughs off this requirement as another Le Domas quirk, the actualities of what await her are the stuff nightmares (and entertaining horror films) are made of.  Unfortunately for Grace, the game she’s selected to play is the deadliest one of all and it sets the stage for a hunt that takes no prisoners and might not leave any survivors.  You see, the Le Domas family is no ordinary self-made clan but one that came to their status with a little…help.  It’s this assistance the family is willing to kill to protect and before she knows it, Grace is playing hide and seek from a pack of vicious psychos with varying degrees of bloodlust.

Surprisingly, first time feature screenwriters Guy Busick & Ryan Murphy (no, not that Ryan Murphy) manage to pack an amazing amount of exposition and ideas in without slowing down the action too much.  There’s an astounding array of backstory and context provided and it all makes sense in a weird, twisted way.  The characters they’ve etched out are kooky but deadly and, when put in the hands of a game ensemble of actors, spring to life.  You never are quite sure if all the family members are playing the game or playing along and that helps extend the mystery surrounding the origin of the game longer than I expected it to.  With the huge mansion’s hidden passages and shadowy hallways, you feel just as in the moment as Grace does, not knowing who will pop out when or what awaits her around the next corner.  Or what weapon they’ll be wielding.

Weaving is well-cast as Grace, ably taking on the pursued with a mixture of strength and fragility.  Though she’s running for her life around the house and grounds in her increasingly tattered wedding dress, she always has an air of, well, grace about her and that makes her an endearing heroine.  It helps that she’s not been written like a limp noodle, obviously drawing from her self-sufficient past to steel herself in the present fighting off these family fiends.   O’Brien, too, works well as the son knowing the secrets of his family but hoping his new bride can overcome years of passed down history and stay alive.  MacDowell and Henry Czerny had some good moments as Alex’s parents but the film is continually stolen by Nicky Guadagni as Aunt Helene, a scowling shock-haired relative who doesn’t have time to mince words.  Guadagni has some incredibly well-timed line deliveries and is at the center of the film’s biggest shocker and most satisfying moment.

Obviously working on a small budget, Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett stretch their monies to give Ready or Not a handsome and gothic-lite look.  Filming in Canada and using a number of local actors and crew, they’ve also invested wisely in stand-out make-up effects that give the blood and violence an extra amount of oomph.  There are two scenes of gore in particular that I had to watch through squinted eyes.  Even their finale managed to stay true to the tone of what came before, finding a well-timed laugh amidst an unexpected bit of shock and mayhem.  While I would have wanted perhaps a bit more polish on the film as a whole, particularly in the final act, I left the theater wholly satisfied and ready to play this game again.  I can see this one having high replay value and Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett are clearly a team that will rise in demand for more clever work in this genre.