Movie Review ~ Nightmare Alley (2021)

The Facts:  

Synopsis: An ambitious carny with a talent for manipulating people with a few well-chosen words hooks up with a female psychiatrist who is even more dangerous than he is. 

Stars: Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, Richard Jenkins, Rooney Mara, Ron Perlman, Mary Steenburgen, David Strathairn, Holt McCallany 

Director: Guillermo del Toro 

Rated: R 

Running Length: 150 minutes 

TMMM Score: (8.5/10) 

Review:  ‘Tis the season for directors that just ‘get’ movies to be coming back to theaters with a vengeance.  Filmmakers that simply understand the language of cinema and the power of the medium have had some time to either tweak their projects that were delayed due to the COVID-19 lockdown or have been continuing to work through the pandemic to finish their anticipated flicks on schedule.  And it’s so good to have them back because as much as we like to believe that moviemaking is more and more like a collaborative process, when all is said and done the buck stops with the director because it’s their vision that dictates what the tone of the film is going to be.  That’s why you can spot a Steven Spielberg (West Side Story) movie from a mile away or recognize the latest from Paul Thomas Anderson (Licorice Pizza) as it draws near, not to mention waffling around an Adam McKay satire (Don’t Look Up) and deciding if it’s for you or not.

Another director that has become instantly recognizable is Guillermo del Toro and maybe more than anyone I’ve already mentioned the Oscar-winner for The Shape of Water has a signature style that couldn’t possibly be anything else but him.  The early trailers for Nightmare Alley were classic del Toro, with the noir-ish period setting that we know was set in the past but how far in the past was anyone’s guess, well, if you hadn’t already read the 1946 novel by William Lindsay Gresham that inspired it.  Not just a well-respected filmmaker but a celebrated film fan as well, del Toro engineered those trailers and even the marketing of Nightmare Alley to be as mysterious as can be, keeping hidden the true plot of the film and it’s worked out wonderfully in creating interest to see just what is down this Alley of del Toro’s creation.

While you won’t get any spoilers out of me, I will say that like many of the foreboding places that frightened us when we were young, Nightmare Alley is a movie that gets less intriguing as more light leaks onto the shadowy plot, but for a time it does it’s work considerably well.  It also gives some already strong actors even more rich moments to add to their lifetime achievement reels.  If only the plot could be as finely etched as the performances that are floating through the piece, then we might have had something as grand as del Toro wanted to give us. 

Joining a traveling circus to escape a past we learn in doled out fragments, Stanton “Stan” Carlisle (Bradley Cooper, A Star is Born) remains a silent mystery for most of the first hour of Nightmare Alley.  Observing the carnies and hucksters who entice onlookers into the cheap freak show, he eventually moves onto working with Pete (David Strathairn, Nomadland) and Zeena (Toni Collette, Muriel’s Wedding) on their clairvoyant act.  Learning the secrets of their success becomes an opportunity for Stan and before you know it, events occur which send Stan out into a world removed from the carnival folk where he puts the “powers” he has gained to use as a way of reinventing his life.

Years later, he’s working with fellow former performer and girlfriend Molly (Roony Mara, Side Effects) in a sophisticated act for high-paying customers when an elegant but hard-edged woman (Cate Blanchett, Where’d You Go, Bernadette) tries to trip him up and expose him as a fraud.  How this woman plays into Stan’s life and what is means for his future is where the real story of Nightmare Alley begins…and where this part of the review has to end because I wouldn’t dare reveal the twists which begin to entangle with deadly results anyone that gets too close to Stan.

An overly hesitant first act/hour is mere set-up for Blanchett to swoop into del Toro’s grandly staged Nightmare Alley and remind us all how much she loves her job. In a cast of VPs, she’s ready for noir, elevating each scene to its chilling maximum potential.  The centerpiece scene between Blanchett and Cooper is a considerable crown jewel of filmmaking for 2021 and is rightfully being shown ad nauseum in clips for the film and in campaigns for both actors for awards consideration.  I don’t know if the movie will make it across that line but if anyone has the potential to get there, it’s Blanchett for her gorgeously mysterious and dangerous efforts here.

As expected, del Toro provides visuals that are impressive without being needlessly flashy. Cinematographer Dan Laustsen, The Possession, a long-time collaborator with del Toro, clearly speaks the director’s language and their work in tandem gives the film its flawless period look, along with Tamara Deverell’s beautiful production design. Though overly episodic at times and more simplistically predictable than I would have anticipated, it’s also stunningly rendered by its creative team. Expect to leave Nightmare Alley wishing to have had just one more scene for a few characters left dangling. The 150 never-boring minutes you spend in your seat with Cooper and company does fly by, though.

31 Days to Scare ~ Antlers

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The Facts:

Synopsis: In an isolated Oregon town, a high school teacher and her police officer brother become convinced one of her students is harboring a deadly supernatural secret.

Stars: Keri Russell, Jesse Plemons, Jeremy Thomas, Graham Greene, Scott Haze, Rory Cochrane, Amy Madigan, Cody Davis

Director: Scott Cooper

Rated: R

Running Length: 99 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: I have to admit that I’m still a little anxious when I get ready to head into a movie theater.  I’m all vaxxed up, masked, and ready for the theatrical experience but my heart beats a little faster when it’s time to venture in.  And I know what it’s like for others too who go through the same range of emotions after being used to watching their movies in the comfort of their own home for so long.  There’s a period of adjustment that’s needed before we can all feel like its natural to just head to the movies at the drop of a hat (or a mask, maybe).  The first few times I was back in the theater, I found it hard to relax and be comfortable but I’m getting there.

Understanding that is helpful at the start of my review for Antlers, especially when it comes right before I tell you that seeing this one in the theaters is well worth it.  I’d been looking forward to this Guillermo del Toro-produced horror film for nearly two years by the time I finally saw it and I’m so glad that Searchlight Pictures held it back from a streaming release until now.  That way, audiences can truly focus on the ambiance and environment created by director Scott Cooper and his crew, bringing viewers into an isolated community where a ancient legend lives and grows hungrier.

It probably helped that it was a dark and stormy afternoon that I saw the film because most of the movie takes place in a wet and rainy small town in Oregon which has suffered due to a local mining company closing and the opioid epidemic running rampant within the Northwestern communities.  As the film opens, Lucas Weaver (Jeremy Thomas) is waiting for his dad Frank (Scott Haze, Venom) and a buddy to finish clearing out their makeshift meth lab set-up in an old mineshaft.  The dark and dank locale is perfect for hiding their illegal operation and turns out, for an unseen creature to stalk them in the film’s first nerve jangling sequence of suspense.

Several weeks later, Lucas is in school but looks worse for wear but isn’t all that different from a number of the vacant eyed children that Julie Meadows (Keri Russell, Austenland) teaches.  A former townie that left because of deep-rooted family trouble, she’s living in her childhood home with a police officer brother (Jesse Plemons, Game Night) and a lot of bad memories she’d just as soon forget.  In line at the store, she glances at bottles of alcohol long enough for us to understand loud and clear that screenwriters C. Henry Chaisson and Nic Antosca (who wrote the original short story) want us to be sure to note that Julie has struggled with unhealthy coping mechanisms.  Back at school, recognizing signs of abuse in the boy’s drawings and behavior, Lucas catches Julie’s eye and makes the boy her mission in rescuing him from what she thinks is mistreatment. She’ll learn it is far more dangerous. Not before a whole bunch of people die, though.

I wouldn’t dream of spoiling how the second act of Antlers develops, only to say that even if it does dip slightly into some overtly conventional territory, it never sways from being completely entertaining.  Cooper (Out of the Furnace) excels at this type of small-town filmmaking and while the cast is made up of movie stars, they all seem to fit this Oregon lifestyle in unassuming ways.  While Russell and Plemons might not be the first choice to play siblings, they work well with one another and thank heavens there are no fussy romantic entanglements for either to get involved with that would slow things down.  Thomas is the star of the show, and the rest of the cast seems to understand that, allowing themselves to blend more into the background while he impresses front and center.  It’s a bear of a role to ask a child to play but, as we’ll come to see in several movies yet to release in 2021, the kids are coming to take over Hollywood.

It’s not easy to be consistent with a mood for any length of time, especially in horror films, but there’s this sense of dread that hangs over Antlers from the start that never lets up.  Beginning with the opening lines taken from the words of an indigenous First Nations myth to the tingly epilogue, Cooper might not wrangle every idea introduced down to be completely explained by the finale, but he at least makes the film interesting throughout.  You want a return on your investment of time and travel for going to the movies and you don’t always get it…Antlers sends you home fully vested.

Movie Review ~ Clapboard Jungle: Surviving the Independent Film Business

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The Facts:  

Synopsis: Following five years in the life and career of an independent filmmaker, supported by dozens of interviews, posing one question: how does an indie filmmaker survive in the current film business? 

Stars:  Justin McConnell, Tim League, Guillermo del Toro, Michael Biehn, Jovanka Vuckovic, Sid Haig, Paul Schrader, Tom Savini, George A. Romero, Larry Fessenden, Lloyd Kaufman, Heather Buckley, Uwe Boll, Todd Brown, Jennifer Blanc, Zack Bernbaum, Justin Benson, Yazid Benfeghoul, Charles Band, Patricia Chica, Jessica Cameron, Larry Cohen, Dean Cundey, Elijah Drenner, John Fantasia, Avi Federgreen, Mitch Davis 

Director: Justin McConnell 

Rated: NR 

Running Length: 98 minutes 

TMMM Score: (5/10) 

Review:  Pulling back the curtain on the perils of the movie business isn’t anything new.  It’s been done in feature films such as The Player from 1992, Robert Altman’s scathing analysis of Hollywood wheeling and dealing and in real life tales of the struggle to get a production off the ground like 1999’s classic American Movie.  While most making-of docs included in the extras on your DVD/BluRay will detail how the film you’re watching was made, there’s still more to the whole process before the cameras roll that remains a fascinating (for the viewer) and frustrating (for the filmmaker) journey.  If you have the right subject, taking this trip is a no-brainer because you have someone to root for and would want to see get their golden ticket to success at the end.  Get saddled up on the wrong horse and you’ll become aware pretty quickly why they may be an undiscovered talent. 

For a filmmaker like Canadian Justin McConnell, there’s a bit of a dilemma. He’s both the director and subject of Clapboard Jungle: Surviving the Independent Film Business.  His IMDb credits read like a padded self-curated list of anytime his name has appeared associated with a film (two of this Thanks credits are for Indiegogo contributions) and most of his work has been as a cinematographer of unseen/little-seen short films and packaged interviews included as special features on home media releases.  The films he has spearheaded have made little waves, with the online reviews suggesting it’s more than the low budget that has sunk these small ships.  Self-producing a number of titles and always with an array of irons in the fire, McConnell, like many fledgling filmmakers, has ambitions of being in a higher class of directors and thinks opportunity is the only thing keeping him from getting there. 

What a viewer watching Clapboard Jungle gathers after watching the film which follows McConnell over five years is that while opportunity might play a factor some of the time, it’s McConnell’s projects themselves that are holding him back.  That and the impression given off from clips we’re shown that his work isn’t polished enough to inspire a producer to take a chance on him.  Listening in on several pitch meetings from McConnell, even as a dedicated horror fan I strained not only to follow his concept but muster much enthusiasm for seeing the finished product.  If an ordinary viewer was getting that vibe, what must a financier with deep (or even half full) pockets think?   

There’s something to be said for gumption though, and for all the apparent lack of self-reflection McConnell shows at times, you have to give it to the guy for pressing on even when thrown countless roadblocks on the way to securing the monies to make his movie.  Just when he thinks he’s got the green light, the tide changes and he’s back to square one.  Attending numerous networking events and festivals, attempting different approaches, McConnell is up for most anything to get himself in front of the right people.  This works up to a point, but you have to wonder if McConnell’s bullish attitude toward criticism doesn’t play a factor in some of this lack of forward momentum.  It’s more than hinted by his parents of all people that he takes feedback quite badly and instead of exploring that area further to dissect his limitations we’re plunged right back into the same rinse and repeat cycle of the festival networking circuit. 

Where the film finds a wealth of value are the numerous interviews McConnell has conducted with other indie filmmakers, producers, actors, and distributors that are either one step removed from where he is or far advanced in their career and willing to sit down with an up and comer.  At times, the advice given in the interviews seems to contradict with how McConnell is trying to get ahead and it’s never clear if this is meant show some dark irony or not.  If the documentary was helmed by an outsider that could be objective, I would say yes but with McConnell as director he never makes a definitive stance if he’s trying to find humor in the situation or not.  Several of the subjects even boil McConnell’s main problem down perfectly without him even knowing it.  Legendary low-budget schlock-meister Charles Band points out that anyone can point and shoot a film, copy it onto hundreds of discs, design a great cover, and have it distributed it to the masses.  People still need to see the film and like it, though.  That’s where McConnell still hasn’t found the right path yet – creating a high-quality product. 

Including a section that discusses critics and how much or little their opinions should be valued is a tricky wire to walk, especially as you prepare to release your film to a wider audience.  It’s just another way that McConnell doesn’t wind up being that compelling of a subject to watch during Clapboard Jungle’s span of time.  At one point near the conclusion, he says “You may hate everything I do but it doesn’t really matter, because I’m doing it.”  I get what he’s saying because we all know you can’t please everyone but on the other hand you don’t instantly earn the credit just by picking up a camera and doing the work.  That’s why the business is hard, why films take forever to develop, why certain people rise to the top, and others flounder. It is indeed a jungle out there so it’s best to come prepared for whatever is thrown your way and be ready to adapt.    

 

Clapboard Jungle is available to rent On Demand or you can purchase a copy of the BluRay at ArrowVideo.

The BluRay is packed with a wealth of extras, including numerous short films from McConnell, commentary tracks, and FIVE HOURS of extended interviews with the various artists McConnell met with, a number of whom didn’t appear in the final film.

31 Days to Scare ~ The Witches

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The Facts:

Synopsis: In 1967 an orphaned boy and his grandmother find themselves in an unexpected battle against a coven of glamorous witches.

Stars: Anne Hathaway, Octavia Spencer, Jahzir Bruno, Stanley Tucci, Chris Rock, Kristin Chenoweth, Josette Simon, Codie-Lei Eastick, Charles Edwards, Morgana Robinson

Director: Robert Zemeckis

Rated: PG

Running Length: 106 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: Oh, but do I love the 1990 adaptation of Roald Dahl’s 1983 fantasy book The Witches.  How much do I love it?  At our local discount movie theater I managed to see it a whopping ten times when it played for several weeks on account of its good business in the later months of 1990.  Though it failed to catch major fire at the main box office, it’s gone on to become one of those movies you can mention to kids who grew up in that generation and they’ll light up recalling their memories of their first or forty-first time seeing it.  The practical effects by Jim Henson (it was the last film the creative puppeteer/designer personally oversaw), the wickedly wonderful performance from Anjelica Huston as the Grand High Witch, and a lovely overall production shaped by director Nicolas Roeg made The Witches a nicely askew family film.  A rare treat in those tricky times.

Full disclosure, I was fairly incredulous when I heard the news director Robert Zemeckis was undertaking a remake of The Witches for Warner Brothers and it’s not just because I was feeling a little protective of a childhood favorite.  Zemeckis had a decidedly spotty track record over the past decade with Welcome to Marwen (awful), Allied (good but forgotten), The Walk (more technical than personable), and Flight (compelling but also not entirely memorable) unable to create the same excitement as the Oscar-winning director’s phenomenal run in the ‘80s and ‘90s.  With Academy Award-winners Anne Hathaway (The Hustle) and Octavia Spencer (Ma) joining the cast and word of the script being a collaboration between Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water) and Kenya Barris (Girls Trip)…my initial reaction began to soften.

Around the same time, I heard del Toro and Barris had shifted the setting from England to the South in the 1960’s and suddenly…I was totally sold on it.  It was a brilliant idea to make this change and taking the opportunity to utilize the time period of the ‘60s and oceanside location was a great way to update Dahl’s original upper crust seaside resort. It also helped provide an easy solution to the lack of diversity in the previous version – now the film has the look and feel of Alabama in the waning days of 1967 when a young boy from Chicago (Jahzir Bruno) loses his parents and comes to live with his grandmother (Spencer) in the fictional southern city of Demopolis.  Other than these geographic changes and a few adjustments along the way, little more had to be done to get The Witches on its broomstick and off on some high flying fun.

When a snowy car crash claims his parents, a big city youngster is taken in by his small town grandmother.  At first, the boy lacks any will to do much of anything, despite his grandmother’s best efforts to break him out of his funk.  Eventually, a pet mouse encourages him out of his shell…just in time for a local witch to make her presence known.  Alerting his grandmother to the strange woman with a raspy voice, gloved hands, and odd lines on the side of her mouth, she tells him the truth about witches inlcuding how to spot one, and how they despise children more than anything.  Dabbling in a bit of magic herself, the grandmother senses danger is close and whisks the boy away to a luxe resort presided over by a stuffy hotel manager (Stanley Tucci, Beauty & the Beast) where they’ll be safe…if it wasn’t for the convention of witches that have arrived on the very same day.  Now, they’ll have to outsmart the Grand High Witch (Hathaway) who has devised a sinister plot to rid the world of all children with a mere drop of a special potion.

Sticking closer to Dahl’s original story (ending and all) than the 1990 film, Zemeckis has returned to the kind of full-out fantasy storytelling he was so good at in the Back to the Future series and the dynamic blending of special effects with live-action performances he pioneered in 1992’s Death Becomes Her.  The production design throughout is pristine, as are the colorful costumes (and wigs) worn by the witches and especially Hathaway’s killer garb.  I appreciated the focus first on character building before getting to the witch-y business and Zemeckis takes his time getting to the convention, by that time we’ve grown attached to the boy and his grandmother so we are completely invested in their surviving this battle royale with demon do-baddies.  Though it eventually gives way to a series of sequences dependent on believable effects, the film isn’t entirely beholden to its computer generated imagery as has been the case for a number of Zemeckis films.

In my original review of Roeg’s The Witches, I mentioned how I thought that film was too scary for young children, but this outdoes that one by a mile.  These witches have large mouths that open like wolves, noses that expand, and appendages that give the special effects folks space to let their imaginations run wild.  All of the CGI looks stellar and is convincing in the context of the world Zemeckis has established, but it does ratchet up the intensity as the ferocious faces and claws almost appear to push out into the screen…and if you know Zemeckis you know he loves a close-up of his work.  This is absolutely, positively, not for young children.  For adults, however, it’s tremendous fun that also has moments of riotous humor sprinkled throughout.

Like Huston before her, Hathaway is practically drooling with delight throughout the film and you get the impression she may have offered to pay the producers back some of her salary because she had such a good time.  She’s sets the tone for the rest of the witches who factor in less than the original, so much so that they are almost a non-entity – I would have liked to have a few of them step out more and had their own development but by and large it’s a one-witch-show with Hathaway dominating their scenes.  She’s paralleled nicely by Spencer as the warm-hearted but tough-love dispensing heroine who has already dealt with a witch before once and lived to tell the tale and doesn’t intend to let her grandson fall victim on her watch.  The children, Bruno and Codie-Lei Eastick (Holmes & Watson), do most of their work in voice-over and still manage to create commendable characters from just their voices.  Speaking of voices, Chris Rock (What To Expect When You’re Expecting) narrates the story with a gruff sparkle that kicks things off with a jolt of energy.

It must be the destiny of The Witches to fall flat at the ending and while this follows the book’s finale closer than before the ending that’s included here feels rather perfunctory and tacked on.  It’s almost as if del Toro, Barris, and Zemeckis weren’t quite ready to end things so they just stopped filming one day and never came back.  The rest of the film is so satisfyingly entertaining that these final moments are a strange deflation after so much puffing up.  Originally intended for release in theaters until the pandemic derailed the plans, it’s a real shame The Witches isn’t getting a debut on the big screen because it would have looked fantastic projected on a large scale to enjoy the world the creators have brought to life.  Available to stream on HBOMax in time for Halloween is a good substitute, though, and this is by far one of the best offerings I’ve seen so far this season to consider for your October 31st selection.  A truly wonderful remake.

The Silver Bullet ~ Antlers



Synopsis
: A young teacher discovers her troubled student’s father and younger brother harbor a deadly supernatural secret. Taking the boy into her care, the teacher must fight for their survival against horrors beyond imagination.

Release Date:  TBD 2020

Thoughts: Never judge a book by it’s cover and never judge a movie by its title.  The first time I heard about a horror film coming out called Antlers, I wrote it off as another nature run amok schlock fest.

Wait though, take a look at that poster.  It’s kind of creepy and a little intriguing.  Ooo…it’s produced by Oscar-winner Guillermo del Toto (Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark)?  It’s starring Keri Russell (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) and Jesse Plemons (Game Night), two interesting actors that seemingly make intelligent, thoughtful choices on their projects?  Hey now, you say it’s directed by Scott Cooper, the same guy that gave us Crazy Heart and Out of the Furnace and it’s being distributed by indie offshoot Fox Searchlight?  Ok, but let’s wait and see about the trailer.

(Watches trailer with its eerie imagery and scant details that give little about the plot away that hasn’t already been provided in the promotional materials.)

OK. I’m sold.

Movie Review ~ Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Stories have a way of becoming all too real for a group of teenagers who discover the terrifying tome of a young girl with horrible secrets.

Stars: Zoe Colletti, Austin Abrams, Gabriel Rush, Michael Garza, Austin Zajur, Natalie Ganzhorn, Dean Norris, Gil Bellows, Lorraine Toussaint

Director: André Øvredal

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 111 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: There were a few books in my elementary school library that, should you be lucky enough to catch them on the shelf and check them out, were signs of great prestige. As a fifth grader, I remember being so desperate to read the first volume of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark that through some junior detective work I found out who currently had the book and made a deal with them to be there when they returned it so I could swoop in and have it next. Then they went and screwed it up by returning it in the book drop first thing in the morning, forcing me to haunt the library until they opened and I could retrieve it. I definitely carried the book around on top of my Trapper Keeper so all could see during the day while I saved the reading for the evening.

The three books that make up the trilogy of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark have become famous, if not quite literary classics on a Dickens level but legendary in their own right for their popularity with youngsters and their unpopularity with their parents. Often banned in libraries for their intense content and routinely challenged at school board meetings, the slim (none are more than 130 pages) collections of terrifying tales by Alvin Schwartz have inspired countless imitators over the years. It’s telling that none have come close to the simplicity of the way Schwartz relayed his collected stories of urban folklore with sinister twists.  Since the first entry was released in 1981, they have held up remarkably well.  Revisiting a few selections recently I was amazed at how vivid the storytelling remained all these years later.

I’m actually surprised it took so long for a film version of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark to find its way to the light.  It just missed the anthology-movie boon of the late ‘70s and lacked the hard edges that became popular in the mid ‘80s. Some of the urban legends have expanded into their own films or were lifted in part into the plots of other horror flicks but nothing has come out that bore the title that stirs so much nostalgia in my particular generation. These small volumes were to me what the Goosebumps books were to kids that came up after I did. While I was unsure at first in the wake of the recent silliness of the Goosebumps film and its even wackier sequel, it was encouraging to see this movie greenlit under the watchful eye of Oscar winner Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water) who then hired up and coming Norwegian director André Øvredal to handle the directing duties.

While I’d love to report the final product was every bit as spine-tingling as I wanted it to be, the overall experience was more like revisiting something that was scary when you were younger but had decidedly less of an impact when you returned to it as an adult. Though it has a handsome production design and a fairly engaging and intense opening act, it quickly turns back from the horror elements I craved in favor of embracing its PG-13-ness in all its vanilla gore-less glory. Usually, I’m a fan of less is more and wishing a filmmaker would be creative in their power of suggestion rather than crude in their need to shock but by the end I desperately wanted Øvredal to amp up the chills.

On Halloween night, friends Stella (Zoe Colletti, Annie), Auggie (Gabriel Rush, The Grand Budapest Hotel), and Chuck (Austin Zajur, Fist Fight) run afoul of a local bully (Austin Abrams, Paper Towns) and wind up exploring the deserted Bellows mansion and uncovering its dark history. With a drifter (Michael Garza, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1) along for the ride, the friends uncover a mystery tied to the family that owned the house and ran the local paper mill before vanishing into thin air. When Stella takes a book from a hidden room within the expansive manse, she unleashes a vengeful spirit that starts writing stories in the book, stories of murder, stories of monsters, stories that feature her friends who begin to disappear at an alarming rate.

It was a nice touch for screenwriters Dan and Kevin Hageman (The LEGO Movie) to set the film in the low-tech 1968 when the country was tuned into the continued conflict in Vietnam while deciding between Nixon and Humphrey for the presidency. By having the movie take place half a century ago, there’s a certain unsullied charm to the investigation Stella launches into the sordid history of her town. The kids may be going through some of the same growing pains experienced nowadays but with the war not yet totally encroaching on their lives they remain, well, kids and not the woke meta meme-ified generation that we have now.  If anything, there’s too much time spent on character development at the expense of keeping the forward momentum the movie really needed to gain some steam.

As he showed so brilliantly in The Autopsy of Jane Doe (for real, check out that underseen gem), Øvredal has a way with creating a distinct atmosphere that greatly influences the overall feel of the production. Though set in 1968, the movie isn’t screaming ‘60s and Øvredal puts more emphasis in fleshing out the Bellows mansion and, later, a hospital that holds key clues to the mystery. I only wish once we were in these locations Øvredal was able to turn the dial on frights a few degrees higher. It’s all appropriately creepy but never truly scary, like the filmmakers were afraid (or opposed?) to delivering what seems inherently promised by the title.  Aside from several notable sequences that achieved their desired impact of raising both goosebumps and pulses, there’s a curious lack of follow-through despite a valiant set-up.  A creepy scarecrow turns out to look more menacing than he actually is, a toe-less ghoul is all moan but no mayhem, a plain teenage zit harbors the best pop for your buck even if it’s achieved with some iffy CGI.

Maybe I’m being too hard on the movie though. Perhaps the books were meant for my generation while this film is intended as a low-impact primer for budding (young) horror fans. After all, reading the books opened up my imagination to run wild with the delightfully demented legends Schwartz included. So could it be that Øvredal and del Toro held back from giving the full horror monty to viewers in the hopes they would create some of the scares themselves in their minds? It seems a bit of stretch but at the same time this isn’t your standard cut and paste waste of space either. There’s some sophistication to the movie, for sure, just not the quality scares I had came looking for.

The Silver Bullet ~ Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark


Synopsis: It’s 1968 in America. Change is blowing in the wind…but seemingly far removed from the unrest in the cities is the small town of Mill Valley where for generations, the shadow of the Bellows family has loomed large. It is in their mansion on the edge of town that Sarah, a young girl with horrible secrets, turned her tortured life into a series of scary stories, written in a book that has transcended time—stories that have a way of becoming all too real for a group of teenagers who discover Sarah’s terrifying tome.

Release Date: August 9, 2019

Thoughts: I can still vividly picture the covers of the three books that comprise the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark canon. I can also close my eyes and remember how my mind would play tricks on me long after I had finished a story, concocting various ways for the fictional tales of terror to become reality.  Oscar-winning director Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water) produces this big screen adaptation directed by André Øvredal (The Autopsy of Jane Doe) and the presence of these two guys with an eye for scares tell me to brace myself for more tingles up my spine.  This first look at the period set film isn’t at all what I was expecting and it feels like the movie will have some creepy images but may struggle in…other areas.  Still, the youngster in me is more than a little excited to see these stories come to life after all these years.

Movie Review ~ The Shape of Water


The Facts
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Synopsis: In a 1960s research facility, a mute janitor forms a relationship with an aquatic creature.

Stars: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Doug Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg, Octavia Spencer

Director: Guillermo del Toro

Rated: R

Running Length: 125 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: First impressions are everything and the underwater opening shot of The Shape of Water got in good with me.  Over the credits, director Guillermo del Toro navigates us through hallways submerged in water as if hazily coming out of a dream before revealing that’s exactly what’s happening.  It’s a beautifully artsy way to introduce his adult fairy tale and it sets a tone that’s well-maintained throughout.  This is an artisan that knows his way around strong visuals but sometimes struggles with a narrative to match those impressive sights.  Over-indulging with Pacific Rim but bouncing back nicely with the criminally underrated Crimson Peak, del Toro reaches new heights (or depths?) with The Shape of Water.

Living above a movie theater and working nights as a janitor at a government laboratory in 1960s Baltimore, Elisa (Sally Hawkins, Blue Jasmine) has been mute since an injury as an infant left her unable to speak.  It’s a quiet life ruled by routine, whether it be her standard breakfast or her “personal” time she makes sure to take every day.  Her job is mundane but she has a friendly co-worker in Zelda (Octavia Spencer, Fruitvale Station) and Giles, a kindly closeted neighbor to keep her company.

The lives of all three are altered significantly by the arrival of a secret experiment into the research facility.  A living, breathing sea-monster has been captured in South America and has been brought to the test center to be studied, observed, dissected.  Under the watchful eye of the evil Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon, Midnight Special) and the scholarly interest of Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg, Trumbo), the creature is kept chained in a tank and routinely tortured by his captor.

While cleaning the laboratory one night, Elisa connects with the creature and sees kindness in him where others see fear.  Over the next days they find a common language that leads to deeper understanding and maybe…love.  Set during the height of the Cold War with the threat of Russian spies everywhere, Strickland takes no chances in protecting his find at all costs, so when Elisa hatches an escape plan for the creature and brings Zelda and Giles (Richard Jenkins, White House Down) along as her co-conspirators, they face an obsessive hunter out for blood.

As is typical of a del Toro picture, the period details are precise down to the backsplash tiles in Elisa’s apartment.  An ardent fan of monster movies from Universal Studios, del Toro has intelligently put together this picture as a loving homage to his youth while relaying a very present message of acceptance at the same time.  The script, co-written by del Toro and Vanessa Taylor (Hope Springs), is filled with main characters that would be considered outsiders, or “other”, yet their position in the plot isn’t there to exploit what makes them different.  There’s even a sweet scene where fantasy and reality collide when Elisa imagines herself in a big budget Hollywood musical, featuring the creature as her dance partner.  It’s these bits of whimsy that parallel nicely with the darker turns the film takes in its final half hour.

Hawkins has next to no dialogue but conveys so much in her expressive face.  It’s difficult stuff to invite an audience so far inward but Hawkins has the goods to captivate us throughout.  While Spencer has played (and will continue to play) this type of whip-smart tough cookie roles before, there’s an added layer of angst in her personal life that ups the ante for her.  Jenkins continues to be a value add to any project he’s involved with, his gay illustrator longs for any kind of connection and his personal and professional rejections are heartbreaking to watch.  If all goes to plan, Stuhlbarg will be in three movies nominated for Best Picture this year (Call Me by Your Name and The Post being the others) and as a man harboring dangerous secrets he’s resplendent as always.  No one plays a nasty villain quite like Michael Shannon and while I’d long for a chance to see him play a Giles-like role someday, he’s a nice nemesis for Hawkins and company.

There’s going to be those that find the romantic relationship that develops between Elisa and the creature (marvelously played by Doug Jones, Hocus Pocus) to be troubling.  On the way out of the screening I heard one audience member remark they weren’t aware the movie was about bestiality and honestly, to reduce the movie to that is missing the mark entirely, especially when you take into account the open-for-further discussion ending.  I found the relationships between all of the characters incredibly moving and authentic, especially the dandy scene with Elisa pleading with Giles to help her save the creature.  If they know what’s happening is wrong and do nothing to help him, what makes them any better that Strickland and others who want to destroy something that is different?  It’s a lesson our country needs to hear right now and del Toro knows it.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Shape of Water

Synopsis: An other-worldly fairy tale, set against the backdrop of Cold War era America circa 1963.

Release Date:  December 8, 2017

Thoughts: This just shows you how much I’ve been paying attention.  I mean, I had no idea that The Shape of Water was even a thing much less that Guillermo del Toro (Pacific Rim) was behind the whole affair.  That being said, now that I’m aware of it I’m looking forward to it.  As usual, del Toro’s stories feel like dark fairy tales that push back at pre-conceived notions of darkness and light.  So as fans of the auteur we know it will be different and we know it will look great…but will audiences take a chance on a hard-to-pin-down flick like this?  I know I will, but del Toro’s track record has been spotty with attracting a crowd…which is too bad because he’s one of the very best filmmakers working today.  Starring Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine), Octavia Spencer (Fruitvale Station), Michael Shannon (Midnight Special), and Michael Stuhlbarg (Doctor Strange), The Shape of Water surfaces just in time for the holidays.

The Silver Bullet ~ Crimson Peak

crimson_peak

Synopsis: In the aftermath of a family tragedy, an aspiring author is torn between love for her childhood friend and the temptation of a mysterious outsider. Trying to escape the ghosts of her past, she is swept away to a house that breathes, bleeds…and remembers.

Release Date: October 16, 2015

Thoughts: There are very few directors out there that I can say I have trust in and Guillermo del Toro is right at the top of the list.  Sure, his last effort was Pacific Rim a bomb-tastic and bombastic spectacle of effects and overly dramatic performances…but it still possessed a style all its own.  Our first, um, peek at del Toro’s gothic horror film Crimson Peak gave me the kind of warm feeling in my belly usually reserved for holiday festivities and anytime I catch Grease 2 on television.  Modern audiences aren’t exactly clamoring for a Victorian set haunted house flick but they could be in for the fright of their lives if the finished product lives up to this impressive teaser.  Featuring hot commodities like Jessica Chastain (A Most Violent Year), Tom Hiddleston (Thor), and Mia Wasikowska (Stoker) my interest is most definitely piqued.