Movie Review ~ 8-Bit Christmas

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The Facts:

Synopsis: In suburban Chicago during the late 1980s, ten-year-old Jake Doyle embarks on a herculean quest to get the latest and greatest video game system for Christmas.

Stars: Neil Patrick Harris, Winslow Fegley, June Diane Raphael, Steve Zahn, Bellaluna Resnick, Sophia Reid-Gantzert, Che Tafari, Santino Barnard, Max Malas, Brielle Rankins, Braelyn Rankins, Cyrus Arnold, Jacob Laval, Chandler Dean

Director: Michael Dowse

Rated: PG

Running Length: 98 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review:  The golden goose for any Christmas related film is to obtain classic status; to make it into a yearly rotation in someone’s watchlist or be that particular title to which the season “can’t really start” until it has been seen.  Only a select few can be in that top tier (think It’s a Wonderful Life, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, Miracle on 34th Street, White Christmas, and A Christmas Story) but there are increasingly a nice batch of below the line selections making up a variety grab bag which can also signal the season is upon us.  Elf, The Holiday, Love, Actually, Home Alone, The Best Man Holiday, Krampus, and Scrooged are movies that may not be on every Christmas wish list but are popular enough to serve as primer or follow-up to the feature presentation of the genuine classics.

Each year more contenders attempt to add their name as another option and while there’s no chance for some (hello Fred Claus!), others fare better (Klaus, Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey).  2021 is no different and while we can very politely disqualify the Hallmark/Lifetime options for their machine-like churn of creation, I think Thanksgiving brought a solid selection not just for audiences this season but for many to come.  Checking a number of Christmas movie boxes with ease and possessing a nostalgic charm that works with its unabashed warm sincerity, 8-Bit Christmas fills the viewers cup right to the brim and then adds in an unexpected emotional punch which sends it overflowing with holiday spirit.

As they wait in his suburban Chicago childhood home for the rest of the family to arrive for Christmas dinner, Jake Doyle (Neil Patrick Harris, Gone Girl) needs to find a way to keep his young daughter distracted so he fires up his old Nintendo Entertainment System.  His daughter thinks it looks like Tupperware and isn’t sure what it is meant to do.  Shaking off that sting, he sits her down and, after properly cleaning the game cartridge by blowing on it (why?  “Because it just works.”), shows her how to play Paperboy while telling her the story of the Christmas he and his friends conspired to get a Nintendo of their own.

It’s 1988 and young Jake (Winslow Fegley, Come Play) is a typical youngster suffering through adolescence in grade school along with a group of close friends, all with their own identifiable (and movie ready) personalities.  There’s a set of twins who have to share everything, down to their birthdays being almost on Christmas.  One bud constantly quotes (G-rated) lines from the R-rated movies he’s allowed to see and another is a pathological liar who most recently claimed to have been Tom Cruise’s stunt double.  Everyone is united on one thing though, they all are obsessed with the recently released Nintendo and after the one system available to them from an ultra-elite classmate gets taken away, they have to come up with their own plan to gather their money and purchase one during a field trip into the city.

Standing in their way are PTA members who think video games rot the brains of impressionable youth, a massive class bully (Cyrus Arnold, Zoolander 2) who looks to have been held back about seven grades, and Jake’s parents (June Diane Raphael, The High Note, and Steve Zahn, Uncle Frank) neither of which seem to be keen on the idea of Jake getting the Nintendo. If he can’t pick up the dog poop in their yard (“the backyard looked like a vanilla cake that had chocolate chips dumped in it”…yuck) why should he be rewarded with something that will keep him further disinterested in doing his chores?  Over time, screenwriter Kevin Jakubowski (who wrote the book the movie is based on) shows that perhaps the dad’s motivations are more about an unspoken desire for more connection with his son but that isn’t as fully developed as it could be…though it does circle back nicely near the end.

Dotted throughout with wonderful references to the era without turning it into this caustic time capsule that make the ‘80s feel like some alien planet, director Michael Dowse (What If) and the production designer have an obvious affinity for the material and the decade the story takes place.  There are great references which are easy to find while some you have to work to pick up and these Easter Eggs are where the fun of a future re-watch will enter in. 

I couldn’t help, as many I’m sure will, but be reminded of A Christmas Story when watching this because the parallels between the two films are clear.  Boy wants a popular toy for Christmas that his parents don’t want him to have so he goes to great lengths and madcap adventures to obtain it.  I don’t quite connect to that earlier film, often because it turns to a nostalgia for a time that I don’t have a pull toward while the moments we revisit in 8-Bit Christmas are strikingly familiar to me.  So often during the film I could picture myself right there along with Jake and his friends being a part of their caper – so perhaps this film is to me what A Christmas Story was to my parents.

The film flows so nicely and lightly that a rather emotional ending hit me harder than I ever expected it would – and that’s not a bad thing.  It’s a credit to the performances and screenplay that whatever feelings we feel are real and not cheaply wrung as a ploy to send us back to our family gatherings with red eyes.  It may not be for the very young kids in a family but the big kids and adults that used to be the big kids will love 8-Bit Christmas for the comedy (even with some gross humor that I admit I laughed heartily at) and want to return to it again.  It may not be an annual event but as one to return to every few years as a way of reminding you the ‘80s were fairly rad?  Totally.

31 Days to Scare ~ Malignant

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Madison is paralyzed by shocking visions of grisly murders, and her torment worsens as she discovers that these waking dreams are in fact terrifying realities.

Stars: Annabelle Wallis, Maddie Hasson, George Young, Michole Briana White, Mckenna Grace, Jacqueline McKenzie, Jake Abel, Ray Chase, Jean Louisa Kelly, Susanna Thompson

Director: James Wan

Rated: R

Running Length: 111 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: I feel as if I should start a review of Malignant by dividing up the reader into two different categories.  Are you the type of person that sees a horror film and need to have it grounded in some kind of truth, a reality that benefits from an explanation with sound science behind it?  If you are, please step to the left and I can find you another movie later.  For the rest of you still with me, I invite you to try out this ambitious bit of terror that unfurls itself slowly before taking several shots of adrenaline as it reaches its climax.  It’s utter nonsense, let’s be real clear, and gets so crazy you almost wonder if it’s going to turn out to be some huge joke with a “Gotcha” dance break, but it’s in the way it takes itself so seriously that ultimately makes Malignant such a wild ride.

The movie locked me down almost from its first shot, the imposing Simion Research Hospital perched high on a cliff one rainy night in 1992.  Dr. Florence Weaver (Jacqueline McKenzie, The Water Diviner) is documenting the study of her patient Gabriel when she’s suddenly called to his room to witness something…strange.  Jumping ahead to 2019 and into the Seattle home of Madison (Annabelle Wallis, The Mummy) and her good for nothing husband Steve (Jake Abel, The Host), we barely get to meet the couple before we learn that Steve likes to rough up the pregnant Madison and that she’s lost several babies because of it.  It’s during one row that he smashes her head up against a wall, leaving her bleeding from the back of her head and needing to lie down.  Later that night, a ghostly figure appears and makes Madison a widow, eventually sending her to the hospital where she loses another baby. (Fear not of spoilers…this is all within the first 10 minutes!)

With the police investigating Steve’s strange death, Madison returns home with her sister Sydney (Maddie Hasson, We Summon the Darkness) and let’s her in on a little secret: Madison was adopted when she was very young after being abandoned by her birth mother. She also had an imaginary friend when she was young…a boy named Gabriel.  While Madison is putting her life back together and recovering, several other seemingly unrelated people are meeting the same dark figure that did-in wife beating Steve. One woman (Jean Louisa Kelly, Uncle Buck) is hunted down after giving a tour of Seattle’s underground city, others are violently slaughtered by the specter that walks funny and evades Detective Shaw (George Young) and Detective Moss (Michole Briana White, Songbird) with apparent ease.  It’s during these new crimes that Madison starts to see visions of the killer at work, like she is actually there when it is happening.

Director James Wan, working from Akela Cooper’s (Hell Fest) script (which he gets a story credit on along with his wife Ingrid Bisu who also appears in the film), has a long history with creating iconic horror characters and/or series.  An original creative behind the Saw series as well as directing Insidious and it’s sequel as well as The Conjuring and it’s follow-up, Wan fit in Malignant after directing Aquaman and before he set to work on the big-budget follow-up to that superhero film.  This feels like a pet project that Warner Brothers let him roll with and perhaps why Wan pulls out all the tricks in his arsenal for a movie that’s way more fun to watch than dissect.  There’s just too much bonkers business going on to take it all that seriously, even if some of the resolution has some grounding in science.

While the big reveal is a total doozy, it’s not close to the end of the film and it’s a credit not just to Wan but the rest of the cast that they are able to continue making the film engaging while carrying a rather strange idea to its bloody conclusion.  It’s during that time when Wan goes heavy metal on the action with dynamic camera angles (the director has never met a multi-level house he can’t shoot entirely from above in an uninterrupted take as an actor goes from floor to floor) and limber stunt people to bend and twist their way around in largely practical physical acts that boggle the mind.  It’s all very breathless and a tad exhausting…and I loved it.

It truly helps Wan has a cast that is taking the material deadly seriously.  Were they to even wink slightly at the camera it would have broken the illusion that someone was in on the silliness of it all.  With her dark hair and eye lined lids, Wallis is tortured soul personified and quite good as a wild-eyed woman putting together her past while trying to figure out if she needs to be worried more about her present.  Wan tends to cast his leading females well and he’s got another bullseye here.  Production elements are top notch and watching the film in 4K HD on HBOMax the cinematography from Michael Burgess (The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It) is spooky and spot-on. 

When this is published, Malignant is sadly not available to watch on HBOMax (who’s the smartypants that decided it shouldn’t be available for Halloween??) but could be playing at a local theater near you.  Try to catch it on a rainy night, because if you are in the right frame of mind, this is a decidedly good watch and fun for the “sure, ok, why not” explanation that meets viewers ninety minutes in.  The cast is strong and Wan is more than prepared to present a film made with precision and skill.  Don’t cut Malignant out of your queue without investigating it a little bit.

Movie Review ~ Those Who Wish Me Dead

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A smoke jumper and a 12-year-old boy fight for their lives as two assassins pursue them through the Montana wilderness while a forest fire threatens to consume them all.

Stars: Angelina Jolie, Nicholas Hoult, Finn Little, Aidan Gillen, Medina Senghore, Tyler Perry, Jake Weber, Jon Bernthal

Director: Taylor Sheridan

Rated: R

Running Length: 100 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Back in the days of “Old Hollywood”, stars would do most anything to get onto the lot for a big studio, a role in coveted film, or to work with the best directors.  Just look at all the ballyhoo actresses went through to try to nab the part of Scarlett O’Hara in 1939’s Gone with The Wind?  Documentaries, movies, and even plays have been fashioned around that race for the role.  With the antiquated studio system getting the heave-ho decades ago and stars working as free agents, they were given more autonomy to take command of their own careers and that’s when the real ‘movie stars’ emerged.  That’s why it’s often true now that getting a star to board your film sometimes means that the film itself has to bend to their needs and not the other way around. 

Take Those Who Wish Me Dead as the latest example.  One only has to read the plot summary of author Michael Koryta’s 2014 book to glean that the part Angelina Jolie is playing in the big screen adaptation premiering in theaters and HBOMax isn’t the lead as originally written by the author.  As Hannah, a grief-stricken smokejumper assigned to a lone fire tower outpost after a bad decision in the middle of an already unpredictable fire resulted in civilian casualties, Jolie is a natural fit for the role but would have seemed like too big of a star to be playing a supporting character (i.e. second fiddle) to the main cast members. 

That’s where Oscar-nominated screenwriter Taylor Sheridan (Hell or High Water) comes in.  Purportedly brought in to rewrite the script submitted by Koryta and Charles Leavitt (In the Heart of the Sea), he took such a shine to the story and the character of Hannah in particular that when the original director stepped down, he asked Warner Brothers if he could stick around and direct the film too.  Promising to get Jolie (Maleficent) for the role, Sheridan was granted the chance to direct only his second studio feature (after 2017’s Wind River, though it may seem like he’s directed more after writing the screenplay for 2015’s Sicario, it’s 2018’s sequel, and most recently Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse).  While the script retains the basic ideas found in Koryta’s best-selling novel, Sheridan has largely shifted its focus of characters, jettisoning lengthy plot fabrications that added time and winds up delivering a taut thriller in the process.

Realizing his life and the life of his son Connor is in danger because of what he knows and has shared with the D.A. of Florida who was recently murdered, a widower (Jake Weber, Midway) flees with Connor to the only place he can think of that would be safe, the survival school of his friends Ethan and Allison Sawyer (Jon Berenthal, The Accountant, & Medina Senghore).  Unbeknownst to him, sibling assassins Patrick (Nicholas Hoult, Tolkien) and Jack (Aiden Gillen, Bohemian Rhapsody) Blackwell are already in pursuit and one step ahead of them.  When Connor (Finn Little, 2067) escapes a backroads ambush, he disappears into the forest and runs into Hannah who, displaced from her fire tower because of a lighting strike, is having a bad day herself.

With the brothers tasked with finding the boy that was given critical and damning info by his dad, a forensic accountant that uncovered some shady business dealings, it becomes a race to keep Connor away from the Blackwell Brothers while avoiding a large forest fire they started to smoke out the young witness and his protector.  Needing to overcome her own fears of failure in her recent past, Hannah eschews taking on a total motherly role for Connor and opts instead to treat him like one of her young recruits, pushing him forward as a way to make sure he remains safe in the face of danger.

In moving Jolie’s character to the front of the line, Sheridan does sacrifice some of the business Koryta had involving Connor and the Sawyers…but that doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t have anything to do, either.  Senghore in particular is a real find in one of her first major movie roles and by the time you are biting your nails for her character your remember how well Sheridan has written for strong female characters in the past…though he could do to include a few more here and there.  What Sheridan doesn’t do as well in Those Who Wish Me Dead is fill in the character details as richly as he has in the past.  There’s obviously some deeper and darker things going on in Hannah’s life and connections she has to a few of the men in her squad (not to mention Ethan, Jolie and Bernthal share an excellent scene early on in the film that makes even more sense later) but save for showing viewers her penchant for risk-taking by zoom-zooming in the flatbed of a truck down a highway and then opening up a parachute, the character development is lacking in a lot of places.

The good news is that Sheridan has assembled a fine cast that mostly make it over these hurdles with ease.  Jolie’s gamine gait can easily clear unevenly written parts, so she’s taken care of but Hoult and Gillen struggle with defining the Blackwell’s as more than just rote killers.  From what I gather, the brothers were the true stars of the original novel (so much so that family members turned up in unrelated novels by Koryta in the future) but the chemistry between the two men is off.  Heck, I didn’t even know they were brothers until I read the press materials.  Holding much of the movie on his young shoulders, Little acquits himself nicely as a boy that’s seen too much and will pay the ultimate price unless he gets some immediate help.

Running a short 100 minutes, I appreciate that Sheridan kept this running at breakneck speed and think it’s fine how it is but wonder at the same time if Those Who Wish Me Dead might have also benefited from a little extra in its midsection.  The opening has a lot of ground to cover and we all know diving right in is always advisable to grab your audience from moment one and as you approach a finale you should never let the ending dip in energy.  I’d have been OK with having a few more breaths to take around the halfway mark and I think audiences who are enjoying the film will too.  This is above average popcorn entertainment that strikes the right balance in having a movie star paired with the right script/director.

Movie Review ~ Zack Snyder’s Justice League

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Determined to ensure Superman’s ultimate sacrifice was not in vain, Bruce Wayne aligns forces with Diana Prince with plans to recruit a team of metahumans to protect the world from an approaching threat of catastrophic proportions.

Stars: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Gal Gadot, Jason Momoa, Ezra Miller, Ray Fisher, Amy Adams, Jeremy Irons, Connie Nielsen, Diane Lane, J.K. Simmons, Ciarán Hinds, Amber Heard, Joe Morton, Ray Porter, Jesse Eisenberg

Director: Zack Snyder

Rated: R

Running Length: 242 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review:  Has there ever been a more bizarre and divisive situation of nerdom than the one surrounding the twisted tale of Zack Snyder’s Justice League?  By his own request, the director was replaced during the final weeks of production on the 2017 release (including editing and reshoots) so he could deal with the emotional recovery of the death of his daughter.  It was the right choice for Snyder but it left the film in the hands of Joss Whedon, the Marvel marvel who couldn’t find the same tone Snyder was going for and leaned into a more studio and populous theater friendly piece that didn’t serve the darker storyline that was imagined.  Not unexpectedly, though the film was ultimately credited to Snyder it bore little resemblance to his original vision and was hampered by many of Whedon’s trademarks, down to cringy bits of humor that didn’t work and a stupefying amount of bad special effects.

With Warner Brothers and the DC Universe riding high off the phenomenal success of Wonder Woman released earlier that year, the dismal failure (and tepid reception) of Justice League put a nail in the coffin for Henry Cavill’s Superman and encouraged Ben Affleck to exit a solo Batman project that was in the works.  It also derailed a planned film for The Flash and bumped the Wonder Woman sequel out, not to mention leading to some troubling accusations from co-star Ray Fisher on how the studio treated him after voicing concerns about unprofessionalism on set.  All in all…a big mess.  While a subsequent Aquaman film performed well and looked encouraging for Jason Momoa’s future as a box office star, Wonder Woman 1984s bow in late 2020 was met with true vitriol (all very unfair in my eyes) so the shaky ground remained.

While all of this was going on, though, a strange groundswell was starting that began almost as a joke but started to catch on before turning into a full-blown movement by comic book and franchise fans.  This was of course the birth of the # phenomenon and it was hard to avoid the #ReleaseTheSnyderCut pandemonium that took over Twitter.  Everyone knew that Snyder had expressed some displeasure that his vision wasn’t seen through to the end and that so much of what he shot wasn’t included or scenes he had wanted to shoot weren’t shot at all.  What people were clamoring for was to see Warner Brothers to hand the movie back to Snyder and let him re-edit the movie into the “Snyder Cut”… which is not exactly unheard of.  They’ve done it before with 1980’s Superman II, replacing director Richard Donner before filming was over but releasing his (not as good) version decades later.  Director’s cuts are fairly standard for releases now but there was something about this particular movie that kept both sides tight-lipped, with Warner Brothers even claiming at one point that there would definitely be no Zack Snyder’s Justice League.

Here we are, though, and HBOMax is releasing a four-hour cut of Snyder’s reassembled film that aligns with his original plan.  Running a full two hours longer than the 2017 release, Snyder used material that Whedon chose not to go with and also shot quite a lot (a lot!) of new footage – so much so that this feels almost like a remake of the film everyone thumbs down-ed four years ago.  We all know that longer doesn’t equal better but in the case of Zack Snyder’s Justice League, it most certainly does.  My original review of Justice League pointed out that the film’s introductions to the new characters felt rushed and not a lot of the movie felt cohesive due to the streamlined runtime.  With four hours to work with, Snyder is able to give each character their due and then some, providing more than enough character building to have the head spinning finale actually mean something this time around.

By and large, the story is mostly the same.  After burying Superman at the end of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Batman/Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck, Live by Night) begins to assemble a team of other individuals with superpowers while Wonder Woman/Diana Prince (Gal Gadot, Ralph Breaks the Internet) returns to her civilian life with the occasional crime fighting break now and again.  Batman has a sense that a darkness is coming and the need for a team of united strength is important and it’s only after Wonder Woman gets a desperate sign from her homeland with the key to a hidden message that she joins him in the recruitment process.  Together, they seek out Aquaman (Momoa, The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part) who has remained a mystery man in the waters off Iceland, The Flash (Ezra Miller, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) a kind-hearted social outcast that can run faster than the speed of light, and Cyborg (Fisher) a former high school football player saved from death by his scientist father (Joe Morton, Godzilla: King of the Monsters) now struggling to adjust to his altered appearance and overwhelming technological access.

Their combined powers will be needed to defeat Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciarán Hinds, Closed Circuit) a ghastly beast that has arrived on earth searching for three boxes that, when united, will call forth a dangerous entity that will destroy Earth.  As he travels around the globe gathering the pieces of the puzzle from clans that have an impact on Wonder Woman and Aquaman, the group realizes that the box possesses multiple powers.  (Yes, you’re correct in thinking this is all hokey pokey stuff and it’s just as absurd as it was the first time around…but with more time to add in context and backstory, it goes down just a little easier.) In addition to vanquishing all life, the “unity” can also restore it and bring the dead back to existence.  A fairly good tool to have when you’re down one superhero and know where he’s buried…

Like I said before, everything about Zack Snyder’s Justice League, is just…more.  There’s more story, more action, more blood (when people get thrown against walls, their heads tend to explode quite messily), and more gritty language than what you’ve come to expect.  It isn’t anything gratuitous and only adds to the all-encompassing feeling that Snyder has returned to the film.  I couldn’t shake off the feeling while watching it that it was the kind of event entertainment that back in the day networks would have shown once a year and the entire family would watch as a group.  Could the film have been trimmed down a bit – absolutely – but I was fairly enraptured with it all from the moment it started until it ended.  It may run 240ish minutes but it definitely doesn’t feel that long.

Not to say there weren’t some clunkier moments along the way.  At times, when the action dips you start to try to pick out which scenes were new and which ones were previously shot and it’s fairly obvious by tracking Affleck’s face which switched between expertly chiseled and comfortably fuller throughout.  Several scenes were clearly filmed on a soundstage that doesn’t match the rich detail of the other production design so one moment you’re with Diana as she’s traveling through a cave, Indiana Jones-style, and the next you’re watching a random actress silently acting out an overly cliché scene that’s there to show Cyborg’s softer side.  There’s more than a handful of effects which come off like a video game or Saturday morning animation than the polished inspired moments they could be.

Speaking of the effects and visuals, aside from the occasional sketchy etching a great effort has clearly been made to right some terrible wrongs seen in the original, namely the horrible job done on Cavill’s (Enola Holmes) face to digitally remove a mustache he had while filming reshoots.  Either those scenes were jettisoned completely, or the hundreds of digital techs credited at the end had their work cut out for them because by and large the movie looks sharp and excellent.  A number of action sequences have been restored and they haven’t been carelessly re-inserted – they’ve all been smoothly incorporated into the rest of the movie.  An early sequence of Wonder Woman stopping a bank robbery/bombing has been elongated and made it far more intense, visceral, and displays more of Wonder Woman’s abilities.  I went back and watched the same scene from the original and its so watered down and brief that it barely registers as a bout of action for the heroine.  Now it’s suspenseful and doesn’t feel like it minimizes the superhero or the plot.

Divided into six parts and an epilogue (which has about three or four endings within and several whopper surprises), Zack Snyder’s Justice League, is big big BIG and doesn’t quit until it’s good and ready to.  Its release renders the previous version totally obsolete in my book and this will be the only Justice League that I’ll recognize for future rewatches because it appears to tell a full story with a better overall picture of where these characters are headed.  Or were headed.  Last time I checked Cavill and Affleck were out and a new Batman movie is due out soon with Robert Pattinson in what looks to be the darkest take on the Caped Crusader yet.  Who knows what will come of this group for future outings but we do know that another Aquaman is swimming into production and due in 2022, the same year as The Flash movie which is rumored to have Affleck in it as well.  Despite those off-the-mark reviews for the recent sequel, a third Wonder Woman film has thankfully been greenlit.  Perhaps we’ll get a Cavill appearance in one of those films…or maybe Snyder will benefit from another Twitter grassroots campaign and a Justice League II will come to pass.  No matter what, Snyder’s vision is finally out there and whether you were a strong supporter of this cut being released or think the studio caving to fan demand is the most terrible thing ever (um, why?) this a film that demands some attention and a little admiration as well.  It’s goes for the brass ring with bold gusto.

Films in the DC Extended Universe

Man of Steel (2013)

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)

Suicide Squad (2016)

Wonder Woman (2017)

Justice League (2017)

Aquaman (2018)

Shazam! (2019)

Birds of Prey (2020)

Wonder Woman 1984 (2020)

Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021)

Future films

The Suicide Squad (2021)

The Flash (2022)

Aquaman 2 (2022)

Shazam! Fury of the Gods (2023)

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.