Movie Review ~ Fear Street Part Three: 1666

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The Facts:

Synopsis: In 1666, a colonial town is gripped by a hysterical witch-hunt that has deadly consequences for centuries to come, and it’s up to teenagers in 1994 to try and finally put an end to their town’s curse, before it’s too late..

Stars: Kiana Madeira, Olivia Scott Welch, Benjamin Flores Jr., Ashley Zukerman, Fred Hechinger, Julia Rehwald, Jeremy Ford, Gillian Jacobs, Emily Rudd, McCabe Slye, Sadie Sink, Ted Sutherland, Jordana Spiro, Michael Chandler

Director: Leigh Janiak

Rated: R

Running Length: 114 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  OK – here we are in the final week of Netflix’s bam-bam-bam release schedule for a trilogy of scary releases based on the books of R.L. Stine.  Inspired by that author’s phenomenal roster of slim novels for young adults that everyone had tucked in their Jansport backpacks during the late ‘80s and ‘90s, the movies were pitched as an event saga for July and after the first two weeks I can say that I was truly looking forward to the final chapter.  Unlike Part One and Part Two, Netflix made press wait a bit longer to take in Part Three, likely to keep some of the more revealing spoilers at bay, but you know I wouldn’t dare dampen your fun.  With that in mind, if you haven’t yet seen either previous film you should steer clear of my review below because we’ll be covering the events of both movies.

Are you sure you want to go forward?

You’ve watched Part One: 1994?

You’ve come back safely from Camp Nightwing? (Part Two: 1978?)

OK…we’re a go for Part Three: 1666.

Some weeks back I expressed a gnawing trepidation in my review of the first in the Fear Street trilogy, set in 1994, feeling that by the end I wasn’t sure how the subsequent two films would continue to hold viewer interest.  That original film covered a lot of exposition that gave viewers a pile of backstory and overall history of the towns of Shadyside and Sunnyvale and the supposed witches curse that has haunted the land for over three hundred years.  With Sunnyvale and its citizens prospering with horrible things happening to those in Shadyside, by 1994 it’s just accepted that the less popular province is simply the epitome of the wrong side of the tracks.  After another killing spree puts the town on edge and high school flames Deena (Kiana Madeira) and Sam (Olivia Scott Welch) become involved with the witch’s curse, they watch as their friends fall victim to a bevy of resurrected killers from the past.

Thankfully, Part One was just an entertaining bit of groundwork that set the stage for the larger framework constructed during Part Two.  Fashioned as more of a summer camp slasher movie than an outright continuation of the story that began in Part One, the 1978-set film was quite fun as we saw a possessed axe-wielding killer with a face covered by a burlap sack hack his way through the camp on a rampage.  With only two once-bickering sisters to stop him, their sacrifice leads back into the 1994 present where Deena makes a connection to a time even further back than a previous decade.  As we saw at the end of Part Two, by making contact with the earthly remains of Sarah Fier, Deena now has a psychic bond and is able to “see” the part of the Shadyside/Sunnyvale creation story they haven’t been teaching in school.

This origin story forms the basis for most of Part Three and once again director Leigh Janiak and her co-screenwriter Phil Graziadei have brought in a third, Kate Trefry, to help flesh out some of the finer story points.  I’m so interested to see what the writing process for this was like because while there have been new writers on each film, there’s a collective voice and through line that has given them all a consistency and coherence.  While we’ve seen these stories of a person transported back in time a million times before, this isn’t that.  Deena isn’t “Deena” in the past, she actually “is” Sarah living her life.  For all we know, everyone else is “seeing” the real Sarah Fier (Elizabeth Scopel) and we are only seeing the actress playing Deena because that’s a character/actress familiar to us.  That’s also why actors from previous films (I’m not saying who) pop up, sometimes as veiled nods to who they play in earlier entries.  Perhaps this suggests their family line predestines them to certain behavior…

Janiak and her writers clearly have thought this one out because while the solution becomes readily apparent upon the appearance of another modern-day character, it’s well-explained and carried forward when the timeline inevitably jumps again.  When that happens, it’s another brilliant piece of ingenuity (and a clever way for Janiak to actually break the movie into a tetralogy right under our noses) and keeps the final act energy hurtling forward at breakneck speed.  It does get a little Home Alone-y but I almost wouldn’t have wanted it any other way – it’s all in keeping with the spirit of all three films.

What fun this series has been and who knows, perhaps another project like this could get made and readied for next summer. While this wasn’t based on a particular R.L. Stine Fear Street book by name, there are definitely a long list of titles that could be chosen from if they needed inspiration for the future.  They’d have to have this trilogy to contend with though, one that starts off strong and only gets better as it goes along.

Movie Review ~ Fear Street Part 1: 1994

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A circle of teenage friends accidentally encounter the ancient evil responsible for a series of brutal murders that have plagued their town for over 300 years.

Stars: Kiana Madeira, Olivia Scott Welch, Benjamin Flores Jr., Fred Hechinger, Julia Rehwald, Jeremy Ford, Charlene Amoia, Noah Bain Garret, Ashley Zuckerman, Maya Hawke

Director: Leigh Janiak

Rated: R

Running Length: 105 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  If you suffer from severe bouts of nostalgia that only a well-worn VHS copy of The Breakfast Club or a dog-eared first edition of your favorite Christopher Pike paperback can cure, you’re the target audience for a rad new trilogy of films Netflix has cooked up to make this sweltering summer just a wee bit cooler.  Inspired by the Fear Street series of novels written by R.L. Stine, the three films would each take place in a different time period, were shot back-to-back, and will be released one week apart starting with Part One, set in 1994.  Timing-wise, I’ve seen the first two but will only be reviewing Fear Street Part One: 1994 here.  Come back next week for my thoughts on Part Two and the week after that for Part Three.  If the first two chapters are any indication, this is a trilogy where the suspense builds as you go along.

The fifth Scream film is due out in 2022 but those who can’t wait quite that long will get a fun little amuse-bouche in a pre-credit sequence set in the after-hours Shadyside Mall where one B. Dalton employee has a terrifying encounter with a masked killer.  Sadly, it’s not the first such incident for Shadyside, which has a bloody history dating all the way back to 1666 when the townspeople killed Sarah Fier, believed to have been a witch.  Every few years, seemingly normal people snap and go on a rampage, leaving a trail of bodies in their wake.

While the killing doesn’t go unnoticed, it hardly registers for teen Deena (Kiana Madeira) and her friends Simon (Fred Hechninger, The Woman in the Window) and Kate (Julia Rehwald).  They’ve got their own problems to deal with.  Deena is feeling the sting of a break-up after her love interest moved to neighboring town Sunnyvale while Simon and Kate’s side-business of selling prescription drugs is constantly being threatened by exposure.   Coming face to face with her former flame, the still in the closet Sam (Olivia Scott Welch), at a sports event between the two towns leads to a prank that goes awry and stirs an evil curse from its slumber.  With the help of Deena’s brother Josh (Benjamin Flores Jr.) and more of the town’s history under their belt, the teens bond together to stop an unrelenting force and a barrage of Shadyside’s most infamous killers from finding them.

Part One is a bit of a strange beast and I think it’s almost helpful to know there are two more chapters that come after it.  Often I found myself wondering what purpose the other two movies would serve seeing that we already know what happens and even having footage of those two movies spliced in to prove it.  It’s like watching Friday the 13th and having clips from Parts II – IV cut in throughout – if we know where it’s all headed then why continue to watch?  Ah…but that’s where director Leigh Janiak and her co-screenwriters Phil Graziadei and Kyle Killen have some tricks waiting for you and, without any spoilers for this film or what’s to come, I’ll just say…keep watching. 

While that bodes well for the trilogy as a whole, it does leave Part One feeling very much as the introduction it firmly is.  I’d almost suggest waiting until Part Two is available so you can watch those back-to-back…or if you can wait then take in all three at once.  I like that Netflix is doling these out one at a time and hope they do this with future movies with similar themes but for me personally, Part One didn’t feel fully complete to me without having something to compliment it fairly quickly.  It also strains to make it past 90 minutes, with a number of conversations between Deena and Sam being stated and restated a number of times.  I know, I know.  Teen problems and all, but…there’s only so many times you can hear “I love you, but you moved.”  “I moved, but I still love you.” and not want to scream “Geography!  Get over it!”

These are also extraordinarily well-made films, with striking production values that don’t bop you over the head with period details (heck, they don’t even display any B. Dalton signage so the budget couldn’t have been THAT big) but instead focus on making things crisp and clean.  The gore is gruesome (and often unexpected) and people you may not think will get sliced get diced just when you’ve gotten comfortable.  The performances are good and, best of all, by the time it ends you’ll want to hop right into the next part…a sure sign that Fear Street Part One: 1994 is worth making a trip to.

Movie Review ~ The Woman in the Window (2021)

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: An agoraphobic woman living alone in New York begins spying on her new neighbors only to witness a disturbing act of violence.

Stars: Amy Adams, Gary Oldman, Julianne Moore, Anthony Mackie, Brian Tyree Henry, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Fred Hechinger, Wyatt Russell

Director: Joe Wright

Rated: R

Running Length: 100 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  Once upon a time, the big screen adaptation of a best-selling suspense novel would have been cause for some semblance of celebration.  Bringing to life characters readers had only imagined and finding the right way to recreate the puzzle the author had designed might be a challenge but when everything lined up perfectly the result was a surefire blockbuster that left fans of the novel happy and movie studios flush with cash.  Saturation of the market over the past decade has led to novels being written like adaptations of movie scripts…almost like the writers were already imagining the hefty checks they’d receive for selling the rights to the film versions.  So, while we’d get the rare winner like David Fincher’s sleek take on Gillian Flynn’s unstoppable hit Gone Girl and, to a lesser extent, an effectively serviceable read on Paula Hawkins The Girl on the Train two years later, the number of page to screen adaptations was on the decline.

While it wasn’t ever going to change the dial significantly on this downward trend, 20th Century Fox’s release of A.J. Finn’s megahit novel The Woman in the Window at least represented a rarefied bit of sophistication in a genre that wasn’t always known for its refinement.  Helmed by Joe Wright, a director with a fine track record for telling visually appealing films that had a deeply rooted emotional core and adapted by Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy Letts (who also appears in the film), no stranger himself to adapting work for other mediums, the film seemed like it had prestige in its very building blocks.  Add in a coveted cast with a combined total of 14 Oscar nominations between them and you can see why initial buzz had this, like Gone Girl, on many an early shortlist as potential awards candy upon its release. 

Then the problems began.

First, and this was going on even before the film got off the ground, author A.J. Finn was revealed to be a pseudonym for Dan Mallory, an executive editor at publisher William Morrow and Company who published the novel.  Mallory’s shady past came to light in a earth scorching article published in the New Yorker which detailed how he very likely lied, cheated, and schemed his way through his educational upbringing and career to date.  That this was reignited during the film’s production did no favors for it’s promotional promises.  Then early test screenings received poor scores leading to reshoots and rewrites, which isn’t uncommon, but the poisonous word spread fast that the movie was in trouble. 

Caught in the crosshairs of the Fox/Disney merger, the finished film languished in limbo until Disney sold it off to Netflix who adios-ed a theatrical release because of the pandemic and is now releasing it a full year after its originally announced date.  Adding unspoken insult to injury, the cast and production team are doing no press for the film…making it look like no one has any confidence in it.   Really, who can blame them?  The past year the film has been made a mockery of by gossip hungry columnists, bloggers, and podcasters and the punchline of many jokes at its expense.  The movie and its actors have been set-up to fail, and I’d say that many of those reviewing the film are going in prepared to dislike it and ravage it just because it’s an easy target. 

I’m happy to spoil their fun and report that The Woman in the Window isn’t anywhere as bad as we’ve been led to believe nor is it even a minor misstep compared to some of the dreck major studios still put out and screen a number of times before opening wide.  A film lost in the shuffle of studios in flux and the victim of negative press because of its author, the tumble it has taken shouldn’t be a signifier of the quality of the effort of those involved.  It may take a while for the cord to be pulled tight for viewers, but once Wright (Anna Karenina) and Letts (Lady Bird) stop trying to find a way to emulate Finn’s inner monologue narrative of the leading lady and start bringing their own strengths to their responsibilities, the movie truly takes off with a bang.

Agoraphobic child psychologist Anna Fox (Amy Adams, American Hustle) doesn’t have much to do but wander around her spacious NY brownstone in between getting blackout drunk on glasses of wine and watching film noir.  Separated from her husband and her child because of a trauma that slowly comes into focus, her fear of leaving the house has gotten so bad she can’t even take one step out of her front door without passing out from anxiety.  One of her comforts is keeping track of the goings-on in the neighborhood and its her luck the house across the street has a new family that will soon become a major part of her life. 

She first meets Ethan Russell (Fred Hechinger, News of the World) when he comes to drop off a housewarming gift and shortly thereafter meets his mother (Julianne Moore, Still Alice).  When Alastair Russell (Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour) pays her a visit, his greeting is chillier which might explain why Anna sees the family fighting later and then a scream in the night followed by what looks like Ethan’s mother covered in blood.  Calling the police (Brian Tyree Henry, If Beale Street Could Talk) to investigate turns up nothing suspicious in the house but a different woman (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Single White Female) claiming to be Alastair’s wife.  Convinced of what she saw and determined to prove the Russell’s are hiding something, Anna does what she can from the confines of her house to find out what happened to the woman she met days earlier.  However, with her new neighbors on to her snooping, a basement tenant (Wyatt Russell, Overlord) with a violent past, and secrets of her own that may implicate more than we’re aware of initially, is there any one person we can honestly trust?

Fans of the book will be pleased with the way Letts brought Finn’s book to life, tightening up some of the crinkly edges of his storytelling and removing complexities that made an already hard to swallow situation that much more far-fetched.  It’s still achingly reminiscent of third-rate Hitchcock (take a shot every time you think of Vertigo or Rear Window…and for that matter drink a whole whiskey highball for the film’s outright duplication of 1995’s excellent CopyCat) but considering how chintzy it could have been in less assured hands, this comes off as far classier than it has any right to be. 

Speaking of (W)right, credit goes to the director for elevating the film with his eye for detail and willingness to take chances on some striking visuals that leave an impression.  No spoilers but at one point Anna sees something inside the brownstone that shouldn’t be there, and it’s so beautifully shot that you forget for a moment you’re watching a thriller.  In the same breath, I’ll say there’s also an icky bit of cheek-y gruesomeness that was so shocking I gasped…and not one of those quick whisps of air kind of gasps but the type you hear when you’ve been underwater for three minutes and just reached the surface.

Did anyone come out of Hillbilly Elegy looking as bad as Adams?  Say what you will about the source material, some of director Ron Howard’s choices, and a few of the supporting performances, but for an established actress like Adams to turn in such a tacky routine was incredibly disappointing.  In all honesty, The Woman in the Window doesn’t start out great for her either and I began to wonder if Adams hadn’t lost a little of that luster that made her so appealing when she burst onto the scene.  I don’t know if it was because later in the film is where the reshoots happened or what, but the latter half of the movie is when Adams appears to not be taking the role to the mat like it’s her Oscar bid for the year.  This is not an awards type of film and by the time they got to reshoots I think she knew it…so she’s much more game to lean into the Olivia de Havilland/Barbara Stanwyck type of character this is modeled after.  Having the most fun of everyone is Moore, kicking up her heels and really enjoying the free spirit of her character – it’s the most relaxed the actress has been in a long while and it was fun to watch.  Not having any fun?  Oldman, white-haired, crazy-eyed, and wild-voiced, his performance looks cobbled together from all of his bad takes.

Is The Woman in the Window in the same league as Gone Girl or The Girl on the Train, two other novels turned films with leading characters that are unreliable in their narration and unlikable at times?  For my money, I’d put this on the level of The Girl on the Train as an adaptation that has come to the screen with promise that is mostly fulfilled.  It’s a better adaptation than The Girl on the Train was, that’s for sure, and to equate the movie with the failings of its author is wrongheaded.  The mystery at its core is kept decently secure until the finale and while you won’t be biting your nails with suspense throughout, it builds to a proper climax that proved satisfying.  Released as part of Netflix’s summer movie season, it’s a solid selection for a weekend viewing – especially considering many would have paid more than the price of a monthly subscription to the service to see it in theaters anyway.

Movie Review ~ News of the World

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A Civil War veteran agrees to deliver a girl, taken by the Kiowa people years ago, to her aunt and uncle, against her will. They travel hundreds of miles and face grave dangers as they search for a place that either can call home.

Stars: Tom Hanks, Helena Zengel, Michael Covino, Fred Hechinger, Neil Sandilands, Thomas Francis Murphy, Mare Winningham, Elizabeth Marvel, Chukwudi Iwuji

Director: Paul Greengrass

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 118 minutes

TMMM Score: (9.5/10)

Review:  As I sit here writing this in the second week of December, I realize that News of the World might just have been the last big potential Oscar nominee I would have had to see in theaters had they still been open.  While this grand scale western starring one of the most trusted men in America had always been targeted for a Christmas release, a number of other titles that have been mentioned as awards contenders were slated to come out over the past eight months and who knows where we’d be right now if they’d all made their original dates.  Would a film like News of the World, with its simple pleasures and old-fashioned storytelling feel as touching or impactful if we’d been inundated already with dozens of “prestige” pictures all vying for our votes?

Then again, there’s one thing all of those movies didn’t have: Tom Hanks.  That good-natured, dependable force of good who can turn your frown upside down has a way with a role that makes it uniquely his.  You may be able to imagine several other equally valid stars that could play the part and serve the material with grace but what Hanks can offer in terms of sincerity and core can’t be replicated by any ‘ole matinee idol or aging ‘80s action hunk.  There’s a line near the end of News of the World that Hanks speaks, it’s an important line but not a gussied up one (nothing in the screenplay from director Paul Greengrass and Luke Davies overreaches by much), and they way he pitches it and has it land found a way right into the center of my heart.  That’s talent.  It’s also why a movie like this, which is lighter on plot than a two-hour film out to be and overly episodic, even by normal page-to-screen adaptations go, lingers in the mind long after the final credits have faded.

Based on the 2016 bestseller by Paulette Jiles, the film is set in the Old West of 1870 and opens on Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Hanks, Sully) who travels from town to town reading the newspapers aloud for anyone willing to pay a dime.  Choosing his articles based on the crowd and territory, he’s part showman, part newsman, but a good man in sum and total.  In his latest journey between towns, he arrives at the scene of a deplorable crime and the one young survivor (Helena Zengel) who remains.  Rescued from a Kiowa tribe after being taken from her immigrant family as a small child, she was being transported to her only living relatives when another tragedy struck.  Realizing the only guarantee of her safe return is if he takes her, Captain Kidd agrees to accompany her on the journey home.  Speaking no English, the girl longs for the tribe that she was wrenched from, making her an orphan for the second time in her short life.  Yet the two disparate travelers set off on a harrowing journey, encountering dangers in each town they enter and every new territorial line they cross.  His advanced age and her lack of communication initially prove to be a hinderance, especially early on when they are cornered by a trio of violent thugs, but eventually they use these as tools to bring them together the closer they come to being separated forever.

Reteaming with his Captain Phillips director, Hanks revives a few of those same silently reflective scenes that made that earlier performance so effective (and, amazingly, not recognized by the Academy) yet he pitches them with the knowledge of a longer life lived and an entire war behind him.  Kidd has served his country and now serves the people by traveling around and bringing them information to make the world seem less small and their daily lives less routine.  Of course, all that keeping busy is hiding a pain within himself he can’t face, not until later on in the movie, at least.  Hanks has a way with achieving an almost instant audience buy-in whenever he shows up in a movie.  You just sort of instantly buy him in the role.  While his performance as Fred Rogers was lauded in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood last year, the movie didn’t 100% work for me but I totally bought him completely the minute he appeared onscreen.  It’s probably the confidence he exudes that brings us all under his spell…but it works every time all the same.

It was important for Greengrass and, I suppose Hanks, to find the right co-star and German-born Zengel is a real discovery.  Perfectly believable in a complicated role of a child stuck between two different worlds and three different languages, most of Zengel’s performance comes through in her expressive face and wide eyes, which cinematographer Dariusz Wolski (All the Money in the World) captures as beautifully as he does the pristine sights of expanse from the Old West long forgotten.  It would have been easy for Zengel to tip her acting slightly more one way and lose her balancing act, making the child unbearable but she has a strong scene partner with Hanks and she encourages him to be better as well.  Holding your own against such a force couldn’t have been easy but it all adds to the emotional complexity the role requires.

The supporting players are a strong mix of familiar character actors, with Elizabeth Marvel (Inheritance) being the standout among many greats as a proprietor friend of Hanks that offers some sage advice for her sometime companion.  Marvel is one of those actresses that, when she shows up, you know that however long she’s on screen it’s going to be something you’ll be interested in watching and that’s completely true here.  I suppose Thomas Francis Murphy’s (12 Years a Slave) grotesque manager of law and order in a civilian led town that Kidd and the girl have the misfortune of riding through could be dialed down a bit, if anything this is the sequence that has the most squirm factor.  Maybe it’s because it feels like it’s out of some ghastly American take on a Dickensian Western, but then again it’s another of those episodic entries the film has which is why it may seem like it could be sliced out and removed with no one being the wiser.

A handsome production on all levels, from the visuals to the unobtrusive editing from Oscar-winner William Goldenberg (Argo), News of the World has the gleam of polish to it and deserves to look so pretty.  Accompanied by another rousing score from eight-time Oscar nominee James Newtown Howard (The Nutcracker and the Four Realms) that extends through the closing credits, this is full-scale entertainment at a high level – exactly what we’re almost owed at the end of this year.  Hanks knows what I mean.  As one of the first celebrities to experience this terrible virus, he’s been through a rough patch in 2020 but should be able to rest his head easy once the reviews for News arrive.  Read all about it and see it when it arrives on Christmas Day.