31 Days to Scare ~ Elvira, Mistress of the Dark

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The Facts:

Synopsis: When her great aunt dies, famous horror hostess Elvira heads for the uptight New England town Falwell to claim her inheritance of a haunted house, a witch’s cookbook and a punk rock poodle. But once the stuffy locals get an eyeful of the scream queen’s ample assets, all hell busts out and breaks loose.

Stars: Cassandra Peterson, Edie McClurg, William Morgan Sheppard, Daniel Greene, Susan Kellerman, Frank Collison, Jeff Conaway, Pat Crawford Brown, William Duell

Director: James Signorelli

Rated: PG-13

Running Length 96 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: Along with the classic horror films and modern shockers, it’s nice to have a few scary-adjacent films in your back pocket on the off chance you find yourself in the company of someone who’d rather not feel the fright.  There are plenty of these types of films, with family fare like Hocus Pocus finding a wider audience outside of the PG crowd throughout the years.  I’d also add Elvira, Mistress of the Dark to the pile of alternative titles that can be a fun substitute when gore just won’t do.

Originally introduced in 1981 as a midnight movie hostess on a local cable access station, Elvira (Cassandra Peterson) soon gained wider popularity thanks to her revealing attire and tongue in cheek snarky comments about the low-budget horror films she was showcasing.  People started to tune in just to see Elvira and treated the movies like commercial breaks.  With multiple products bearing her likeness and licensing deals for promotions on a global scale, what better way to capitalize on that fame then to have Elvira star in her very own movie, right?  A total no-brainer.  And that’s what you get.

I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that Elvira, Mistress of the Dark is pretty silly and downright stupid at times but watching it again recently I was amazed at how brisk it moved and how much energy Peterson brings to the character.  When Elvira gets sacked from her late night gig and owing money to producers of her upcoming Las Vegas show, her future looks grim.  Then, out of the blue, she’s informed she’s the beneficiary of an inheritance just waiting for her to claim in a conservative New England township.

She’s not in town long before she’s alienated the local goody-goody (Edie McClurg, Frozen), run afoul of a trio of no goodniks (Susan Kellerman, Frank Collison, & Jeff Conaway), and thrown a wrench into the plans of her uncle (William Morgan Sheppard, Star Trek) who has sinister inclinations involving witchcraft.  She also catches the eye of the town hunk (Daniel Greene) and rouses the town’s teenagers from their fun-free, repressed comas.  There’s plenty of boob jokes and bad puns, all delivered by Peterson with zany charm and a totally wacky musical number at the film’s conclusion.

Look, Elvira, Mistress of the Dark is no shining example of cutting-edge writing or overly competent filmmaking but it’s quite funny and self-aware.  Co-written by Peterson, the movie is tailor-made to fit into the Elvira brand and while not a critical or box office hit, it gained enough notoriety through video rentals to keep Elvira alive and kickin’.  Even today, Peterson looks like a million bucks in her Elvira get-up and keeps her fans happy with each appearance.  Though a sequel, Elvira’s Haunted Hills, appeared over a decade later it couldn’t quite match the fun of her original outing which has aged well…much like its star.

Movie Review ~ Frozen

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Synopsis: Fearless optimist Anna teams up with Kristoff in an epic journey, encountering Everest-like conditions, and a hilarious snowman named Olaf in a race to find Anna’s sister Elsa, whose icy powers have trapped the kingdom in eternal winter.

Stars: Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, Jonathan Groff, Josh Gad, Santino Fontana, Alan Tudyk, Maia Wilson, Ciarán Hinds, Edie McClurg

Director: Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee

Rated: PG

Running Length: 108 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Perhaps it’s the kid that still bounces around within me, but I still get a little twinge of excitement every time a new Disney film is about to open. Though I’ve long since given up hope that the hand drawn animation of the late 80’s/early 90’s age of Disney films will ever truly make a comeback, I find myself remaining interested in what projects the studio is working on.

The latest output from the House of Mouse is a wintery musical (very) loosely based on Hans Christian Anderson’s The Snow Queen, refashioned as a tale of sisterly bonds and the embracing of our own individuality.  Featuring a welcome return to the musical roots of the Golden Age of the studio, Frozen boasts some very appealing tunes by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez heartily sung by a roster of Broadway actors that help to keep the movie afloat during several slow stretches.

After their royal parents are lost at sea, sisters Elsa (Idina Menzel) and Anna (Kristen Bell, Hit and Run) are left to rule the Nordic land of Arendelle. The sisters rarely speak due to a childhood accident involving Elsa’s powers to turn anything she touches to ice.  With the help of some magical trolls, the royal parents and Elsa decide to keep her away from Anna, adjusting her memory so that no harm can come to Elsa or the villagers that may not understand her powers.

This separation has come at a price, though, because Anna doesn’t understand why her sister has cut her off.  That all changes when Elsa comes of age to inherit the throne and accidentally unleashes a massive winter freeze on the sunny village and hills of Arendelle.  With Elsa fleeing to a wintery castle of her own creation, Anna treks after her to bring her sister home and end the chill of a winter without end.

Bell gives Anna just the right amount of pluck and spunk, not to mention a clarion singing voice that is a nice fit to the various musical styles of the Lopez/Anderson-Lopez score.  There’s some classic Disney princess-ey whimsy going on here and Bell skips right along with it.  Whether she’s dealing with a handsome prince (Santino Fontana, also lending strong singing chops) or bumping heads while climbing a mountain with the local (and now unemployed) ice delivery man (Jonathan Groff), Bell keeps Anna in good spirits and great voice.

While Menzel brings her Broadway belt with her for the Act 1 power ballad “Let it Go”, there’s something about her voice that doesn’t match up with the character that’s been animated for her.  The booming timbre and slightly raspy tones sound great on the CD but strangely feel awkward and out of place when you see it onscreen.  It’s a disappointing wrinkle and the fault lies with the concept animation, not in Menzel’s performance.

I’m not a huge fan of Josh Gad (Thanks for Sharing, jOBS, The Internship) but I have to say that this is probably the most I’ve enjoyed him in anything so far.  As charmingly daft snowman Olaf, Gad pretty much walks away with the movie thanks to his stellar timing and easy-going approach to what could have been a much sillier role.  There’s a welcome tenderness to this particular character that gives the movie extra oomph.

While the 3D animation is, as usual, crisp and intriguing I found myself less interested in it than I have in previous efforts like Tangled.  As pleasing as the voices are and as soothing as the snowflake heavy animation is, it all feels vaguely familiar…and not as original as I wanted it to be.  On the other hand, there’s something to be said about the magic of a Disney film and how it can somehow overcome its shortcomings.  Though initially pleased but not overwhelmed by the film, I find myself humming the tunes and thinking about the characters…and that’s nice when you consider how rare animated musicals are nowadays.

A special note, Frozen is preceded by a brand new neat-o Mickey Mouse animated short that gives a nice nod to the black and white cartoon origins of Disney before breaking through (literally) to a more modern day feel.  Don’t be late…and stay through the end credits of Frozen too!

Movie Review ~ Wreck-It Ralph

The Facts:

Synopsis: A video game villain wants to be a hero and sets out to fulfill his dream, but his quest brings havoc to the whole arcade where he lives.

Stars: John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Jack McBrayer, Jane Lynch, Alan Tudyk, Ed O’Neill, Mindy Kaling

Director: Rich Moore

Rated: PG

Running Length:  101 minutes

Trailer Review: Here and Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  Nostalgia filmmaking is not for everyone.  As much as something can seem like a slam dunk on paper, movie studios tend to tread carefully with films that might appeal to audiences that don’t go to the movies quite as often as they used to.  If they get it wrong, they’ve alienated your base demographic and the repeat business is a bust.  If they get it right, they guarantee their product has a longer shelf life.  Thankfully, the makers of Wreck-It Ralph fall into the latter category and have delivered a high gloss animated comedy that is a mostly winning treat.

I’ve always appreciated that the Walt Disney Studios haven’t been afraid to look for anti-heroes when creating new work.  The central character in Wreck-It Ralph is the ‘bad guy’ in an 80’s style video game that longs to be a winner.  Now, he’s not asking to be good necessarily…he just wants to win the coveted medal that his nemesis Fix-It Felix achieves every time he defeats Ralph.  We are given an inside look at the world inside Ralph’s game and see what happens when the arcade closes and the work day ends for the inhabitants of the game.

Yeah, there is more than a passing connection to Toy Story in that aspect but the similarities end there.  When Ralph goes “Turbo” (explained in greater detail with a neat-o double twist) and leaves his game for greater glory, he sets off a series of events that threatens to pull the plug on several games.  Along the way he enters a first person military game and then winds up in a Candy Land-eqsue racing game (Sugar Rush) where he meets a mischievous glitch that may hold the key to salvation.

The film is a candy color-ed adventure that works on several levels.  It’s quite creative in its employment of familiar characters to anyone that ever had an Atari or Nintendo growing up.  There are enough in jokes and references that don’t go too far over the heads of youngsters that adults will get a kick out of things as well.  It’s also (per usual Disney fare) a strong morality tale of being happy with yourself for who you are, not what people may label you as being.

Reilly is a nice choice to voice Ralph…his genial lunk headed-ness comes across well in an easy-going delivery that allows audiences to feel empathy for our nice-bad guy.  Silverman goes wild as glitch Vanellope and Lynch does her normal shtick as a hardened soldier that falls for Felix (McBrayer).  Tudyk channels Ed Wynn as the crazed King Candy who is intent on keeping Vanellope out of a big race that the film speeds toward.

With the added benefit of some swell 3D and a perfected Disney sheen, Wreck-It Ralph is an enjoyable film that probably goes on ten minutes too long.  It’s in these extra ten minutes, gathered from various scenes along the way that you start to feel a bit bogged down by some unnecessary restatements of thoughts/ideas the film has already made clear.

With a curious lack of strong family fare this holiday season, it’s no wonder that Wreck-It Ralph has cleaned up at the box office the past few weeks.  It’s getting some competition in the next few weeks but expect this one to stay on top of them all a while longer.  It’s typically strong Disney fare that has its heart and brain in the right place.