31 Days to Scare ~ Witch Hunt

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The Facts:

Synopsis: In a modern America where witches are real and witchcraft is illegal, a sheltered teenager must face her own demons and prejudices as she helps two young witches avoid law enforcement and cross the southern border to asylum in Mexico.

Stars: Gideon Adlon, Abigail Cowen, Christian Camargo, Elizabeth Mitchell, Echo Campbell, Lulu Antariksa, Ashley Bell, Sadie Stratton

Director: Elle Callahan

Rated: NR

Running Length: 98 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  Warts on noses, pointy hats, green skin, broomsticks, cauldrons boiling over with toil and trouble, and black cats as their only companions…boy, witches have sure had it hard over the years and that’s just in the plain old nursery rhymes and kids’ stories that are told time and time again.  In the movies, they’ve gotten a real bum rap and it’s been awhile since the spell casting dames have had a film that took them somewhat seriously released widely (or to widespread acclaim).  An updated take on The Craft was better than expected and while it disappointingly came and went without much more than a puff of smoke, with its diverse casting it did signal there was space being made for different kinds of stories to be told.

In this new era that bolsters post-modern feminism, it would seem that Elle Callahan’s Witch Hunt would make for a good entry into this canon of new witchy business but alas, the high concept devised is rendered null because while it attempts holding a mirror to important subjects through the supernatural, it only winds up fogging it up thanks to its own hot and heavy breathing.  Undone but its own thesis, despite game performances and so-so production values, Witch Hunt dissolves faster than a love spell cast by the harvest moon’s dying light. 

High school student Claire (Gideon Adlon) is having recurring dreams of a woman being burned at the stake and it’s no wonder why she’s on edge with this dramatic horror foretold.  Her mother Martha (Elizabeth Mitchell, The Purge: Election Year) has made a practice of using their out of the way California country home to harbor witches being hunted down by ruthless government agents (including head bad guy Christian Camargo, Europa Report) who has banned their kind.  The arrival of two new young witches sparks something in Claire, awakening powers deep down that she’s been too scared to admit were growing.  Grappling with wanting to lead the life of a normal teen but knowing she has a responsibility to protect her family, Claire learns more about history to secure her future.

No one should have to point out the kind of appalling blunders Witch Hunt makes drawing parallels between a fictionalized modern world where magic is all around and witchcraft punishable by death and real events like abolitionism and the Holocaust. (Hello! Hiding people persecuted by the government in walls and smuggling them through secret networks.) Adding insult to injury, the movie is painfully white so the connecting of these dots is all the more cringeworthy. 

One shouldn’t fault the actors for these stumbles, and all make a decent showing throughout.  Callahan, who also directed the at-first intriguing but ultimately flat thriller Head Count, should have explored more outside the box and been as creative with her cast as she was in concept.  Even with a limited budget this could have worked better with more of an overall recognized conscience.  While it’s not all together scary per se and does stray into aimless territory halfway in, the production quality is higher than you might expect.  If only it wasn’t so problematic in its execution.

Movie Review ~ Queen Bees

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Helen is an independent widow who moves into the Pine Grove Senior Community and discovers it’s just like high school – full of cliques and flirtatious suitors.

Stars: Ellen Burstyn, James Caan, Ann-Margret, Jane Curtin, Loretta Devine, Elizabeth Mitchell, Matthew Barnes, Christopher Lloyd, French Stewart, Alec Mapa

Director: Michael Lembeck

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 100 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: I normally wouldn’t mention this because it has little to do with the movie proper, but when I fired up the online screener for Queen Bees I noticed that the file was titled At Last.  Having recently received the wrong link for another movie I paused, wondering if the same thing had happened again.  Deciding to forge ahead to see what I might have received instead, the mystery deepened as the movie began with the title Never Too Late.  What was going on?  Now I was really confused.  At least Oscar-winning actress Ellen Burstyn is one of the first things we see once the film actually begins so I was able to relax and know a mistake wasn’t made in the screening factory.  However, the triple title snafu proved a harbinger of just how much Queen Bees can’t decide what type of film it wants to be.

Still regal as she approaches her 90th year, Burstyn (Pieces of a Woman) seems to always be game for trying out different genres and colorful characters and cantankerous Helen is no different.  Continuing to live alone in her house though her concerned daughter (Elizabeth Mitchell, The Purge: Election Year) would rather she sell it and move to a nearby retirement community, she finally agrees to a month’s stay at Pine Grove Senior Community after a fire causes damage to her kitchen.  {Side note: what kind of senior residential community just allows for an extended stay in a furnished unit? Aren’t we always hearing in films how precious these properties are?} Owly and not happy about being displaced from her home, at first Helen doesn’t bother getting to know people around Pine Grove but after some encouragement from her adult grandson of indeterminate age (Matthew Barnes) she forms a friendship with the ladies in her bridge group.

Well, almost all the ladies.  Known as the Queen Bees (“the ‘B’ stands for”…you know the drill) by the other residents, the women sit where they want and rule the roost around Pine Grove.  In actuality, it’s Janet (Jane Curtin, Can You Ever Forgive Me?) who is the chief mean girl with Sally (Loretta Devine, Urban Legend) and Margot (Ann-Margret, Kaye Ballard – The Show Goes On) mostly her silent followers.  Helen’s arrival inspires Sally and Margot to be more vocal toward Janet, driving a wedge between their once-tight bond.  Out for revenge, Janet makes several nasty moves to keep her status, which has a cascading effect on Helen’s relationship with her family and a new man (James Caan, The Gambler) that’s been successfully wooing her with his charm.

Let’s start with the good.  You can hardly ask for a better cast to carry this old folks comedy with jokes far creakier than the septuagenarians (and upward!) who are telling them.  Burstyn manages to bring some depth to the screenplay from Donald Martin and Harrison Powell which often comes off like a television movie of the week instead of one intended for a larger audience.  That might make sense considering Martin’s history of writing Hallmark movies and director Michael Lembeck working almost exclusively in television sitcoms with only the occasionally feature film on his resume. It’s no great acting exercise for Burstyn at the end of the day but you can see she’s not phoning it in, either.

I wish I could say the same for Caan.  Obviously dealing with some back issues (you can see a rigid brace holding upright), Caan looks uncomfortable and not just because of any lumbago that might be flaring up.  To be fair, he’s often struggled with playing second banana to strong women and with this movie already being light as a feather you can hardly blame the guy for swinging by to say his lines and pick up his check.  As always, Devine is a riot when she wants to be but can turn on a dime to pull at your heartstrings and if anything, Queen Bees just proves again we don’t have enough Ann-Margret in our lives.  Her tender relationship with Christopher Lloyd’s character suffering from dementia is unexpectedly heartbreaking.  It more than makes up for sticking Lloyd (Nobody) in a stunningly bad, on purpose, toupee.  Though I love Curtin, she’s always come off as a solid television actress to me and I think she makes the most out of an unrelentingly mean character.  I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention just how truly terrible French Stewart is as the director of the senior center.  How we allowed him to become a TV star back in the day (co-starring with Curtin on 3rd Rock from the Sun) is something we all have to live with.

It’s obvious the movie has gone through some significant editing to get it to where it is now and that gives it a bit of a gangly energy, never able to sit with a theme or emotion for too long.  One moment, it’s a drama about Burstyn struggling to come to terms with moving on from her perceived independence, the next it’s a comedy involving pot smoking grandmas, then we have your expected cancer diagnosis, but wait, we’re back to more adventures of the old ladies foiling a purse thief.  Somewhere, there’s a through line that would indicate some steady plot that focuses on Burstyn’s story or is more aware of sharing the wealth, but in the end only a few loose ends feel tied off appropriately.

The ups and downs of Queen Bees can be distracting at times, but I have to tell you, I don’t regret watching it for one second.  These are fine performers and good acting is good acting – I’d take an up-for-anything Ellen Burstyn performance in a middling comedy way before I’d sign up for another Adam Sandler mess, that’s for sure.  For me, it’s nice to have something I can recommend to my mom and her friends that won’t give me pause – and that’s not a dig at the movie…or my mom’s taste in movies.

Movie Review ~ The Purge: Election Year

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Two years after choosing not to kill the man who killed his son, former police sergeant Barnes has become head of security for Senator Charlene Roan, the front runner in the next Presidential election due to her vow to eliminate the Purge.

Stars: Frank Grillo, Elizabeth Mitchell, Edwin Hodge, Betty Gabriel, JJ Soria, Mykelti Williamson

Director: James DeMonaco

Rated: R

Running Length: 105 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: I’m not sure if The Purge: Election Year was part of writer/director James DeMonaco’s long-term Purge franchise plan from the start, but with Americans steeling themselves for another bitter election in November and the continued struggle with gun control it’s arrival is anything but poorly timed. Now, the movie itself is fairly run of the mill with performances that range from metered investment to foamed-mouth zeal but, like its two predecessors, its morality tale is disquieting and prescient.

What started as a home invasion thriller in 2013’s The Purge morphed into a rough and tumble sequel in 2014’s The Purge: Anarchy. Both films pretty much disintegrated in their third acts and The Purge: Election Year also struggles with making it over the finish line with any semblance of order…but for me it was an improvement over the previous entries thanks to a strong build-up.

Set in the year 2025, Election Year brings back Frank Grillo from Anarchy as Leo Barnes, no longer out for revenge for his son’s murder but instead focusing on protecting a beacon of hope to end the yearly Purge. That hope is Charlene Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell) an idealistic senator hoping to win the approaching election to unseat the bureaucratic nebula called the NFFA (New Founding Fathers of America) that instituted and continue to support the annual Purge. Running a campaign based around her desire to outlaw the yearly Purge, she’s made a number of enemies from the elite NFFA who conspire to use the pending Purge to get rid of her.

Though their methods of dealing with conflict differ greatly, Roan and Barnes are united in knowing the horrors the Purge can bring. When Roan is double-crossed by agents meant to protect her, Barnes teams up with an inner-city crew to keep Roan alive until the night is over. As in Anarchy, Election Year introduces us to another set of characters whose storyline will intersect with Barnes and Roan sometime during the night. Those other characters are a deli owner (Mykelti Williamson), his immigrant employee (JJ Soria), and a reformed tough-gal (Betty Gabriel) who has left her Purge bloodlust behind and helps transport victims to a triage center instead.

A solid first 45 minutes gives way to another Purge night filled with gory killings and ordinary citizens turning into crazed psychos. All manner of crime is legal for one night…yet DeMonaco never focuses on the jaywalkers, embezzlers, mattress tag rippers, and movie pirates. I suppose it would be tough to generate a thrill from following people that steal stop signs all night, but when we see yet another shot of someone getting an arrow through the head or turning up at the business end of a guillotine it does make me wish for more white-collar crimes.

The film has several endings, none of which are very satisfying. Most of the bad guys are dead, some of the good guys are…but nothing feels finalized or complete. Grillo (Captain America: The Winter Soldier) and Mitchell are strong leads and I liked what Gabriel was giving us. Williamson gest a full meal out of his scenery chewing while Raymond J. Barry and Kyle Secor (The Doctor) devour the film like they’re at an all-you-can-eat buffet. I have to make some space for Brittany Mirabile for her absolutely unhinged schoolgirl turned savage out for payback on Williamson and his store. I’m not saying it’s a good performance, but credit Mirabile for having gusto to just go for it.

It feels like this could be the last entry in The Purge franchise and that’s AOK with me. There’s not a lot further DeMonaco could take the concept/characters and the true finale hints at a Purge-less future that may be even scarier…mostly because it reminds us of the here and now.