31 Days to Scare ~ Play Misty for Me (1971)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A brief fling between a disc jockey and an obsessed fan takes a frightening and perhaps even deadly turn when another woman enters the picture.
Stars: Clint Eastwood, Jessica Walter, Donna Mills, John Larch, Jack Ging, Irene Hervey, James McEachin, Clarice Taylor
Director: Clint Eastwood
Rated: R
Running Length: 102 minutes
TMMM Score: (7.5/10)
Review:  After seventeen years as an established star in Hollywood, by 1971, Clint Eastwood was looking to take more ownership of the work coming his way. Conquering television and film in several now-legendary high-profile projects had made him a household name, but Eastwood sought to try his hand behind the camera and be his own director. Forming his production company with the profits he made from the spaghetti westerns he churned out in Italy in the late ‘60s eventually allowed him to front the bill for a different type of movie audiences were accustomed to seeing. 

With 1971’s thorny The Beguiled yet to come out, a psychological thriller like Play Misty for Me might have seemed like a far reach for Eastwood on his first outing, but it turned out to be precisely what he needed to cut his teeth as director/star. Filmed practically in what would become his literal backyard (on location in Carmel-by-the-Sea, where he would serve as mayor between 1986 and 1988), watching the movie today, you can see how modern films about obsessive love (think Fatal Attraction, Obsessed, or Swimfan) took key cues from Eastwood’s efficient playbook.

Eastwood (The Mule) stars as Dave Carver, an easy-going evening DJ with a fan who calls in nightly, asking him to “Play Misty” for her. When that same fan shows up after his shift at his local watering hole, he takes her home for the night, a one-night stand that gives Evelyn (Jessica Walter, Home for the Holidays) the wrong impression of his interest. Now, she keeps showing up unannounced at his sprawling (and not very secure) home by the ocean, ready to continue the relationship. At first, her advances seem pushy but sincere in their intent for something serious. However, when Dave clarifies that he is trying to rekindle a romance with former flame Tobie (Donna Mills, Nope), who has recently returned and is willing to give him a second chance, her true borderline nature and tendency toward violence is revealed.

Like most of these types of thrillers involving females stalking a male they can’t have, there comes a point when all the male must do is tell enough people the truth about what is happening, and the problem will be solved. By speaking up for his part of the crossed wires, he can get her help and, in turn, help himself out of an increasingly dangerous situation. Yet they never do. There is always a reason why they feel the need to keep secret, and it often comes with bloodshed. 

The screenplay from Jo Heims and Dean Riesner lets Eastwood’s character off the hook for far too long, allowing him to play a dogged semi-hero while Evelyn is a crazed schizoid (which, admittedly, she is, played beautifully by Walter), but it rarely takes him to task for his aloof silence. He ignores his new flame to placate Evelyn, then puts Evelyn off for Tobie and lets someone else entirely foot a horrific bill for that insult. It’s only during Play Misty for Me‘s tense finale that penance gets paid by all parties, and the result is, appropriately, satisfying.

For his first run behind the camera, Eastwood demonstrates how much he’s learned from watching the greats until then. (He even cast his frequent director, Don Siegel, as a bartender to have him close by!)  He nabs a nifty supporting cast (Clarice Taylor has a golden cameo as Carver’s no-nonsense housekeeper) and has a good eye for visuals. The movie meanders like early ‘70s films often do, taking its mellow time to move between action. Two long walks between Eastwood and Mills seem more like travelogues for Carmel-by-the-Sea than anything to do with the movie, and the infamously random sequence shot at the Monterey Jazz Festival can almost be skipped entirely.

Where would we be today without Play Misty for Me? Would Eastwood have gone on to direct so many memorable movies, winning multiple Oscars not just for himself but for the actors who starred in his films that came in under budget and on schedule? Walter was nominated for a Golden Globe for her work, teeing off a new stage of her career that kept her working until her passing in 2021. Now more than fifty years old, the film holds up well when the suspense kicks in and plays as an obvious model for the movies it has inspired since. Play it for the first time, or play it again. 

Movie Review ~ What You Wish For

The Facts:

Synopsis: A down-on-his-luck chef gets more than he bargained for when he steps into the life of an old culinary school pal, a private chef for the über-rich.
Stars: Nick Stahl, Tamsin Topolski, Randy Vasquez, Penelope Mitchell, Juan Carlos Messier, Brian Groh
Director: Nicholas Tomnay
Rated: NR
Running Length: 101 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: Admittedly, I have the palette of an 11-year-old, but wow, do I love watching cooking shows involving fine dining! Hold the mushrooms, but please let me watch you sauté, bake, fry, boil, reduce, sous vide, steam, tonight’s meal. Unsurprisingly, given my love of all things “chef” and suspense, it didn’t take much arm-twisting to get me interested in this sly thriller, written and directed by Nicholas Tomnay. Making its North American debut at Fantastic Fest after its premiere in Canada at the Fantasia International Film Festival in late July, What You Wish For is a dish you bite into thinking it’s one temperature but realize after chewing it over that its true heat breaks late.

Arriving in an unnamed Latin American country, we aren’t sure if Ryan (Nick Stahl, Hunter Hunter) is where he should be. Texts on his phone suggest he’s trying to get away from someplace (or someone), and there’s an edge of desperation recognizable on his face that tells us he’s bearing a heavy burden. He’s quickly whisked away in a fancy car to a secluded villa where he meets up with a longtime friend and fellow chef, Jack (Brian Groh, Breaking), who has been hired to cook for an exclusive party in several days’ time. The gig is that he arrives early, sources the local produce, and has everything ready before the clients come. Jack and Ryan had recently reconnected, and the timing was right (very right, it turns out) for Ryan to get out of the States. 

Through a series of events (no spoilers, remember?) Ryan poses as Jack for the party hosted by Imogene (Tamsin Topolski), Maurice (Juan Carlos Messier), and their small, international group of guests. At first, Ryan thinks this dinner party is your standard affair and attempts to fall back on his culinary school tricks…but Imogene and Maurice have arranged something different with Jack. What this party is for, why the police show up, and what is being served are all questions that you’ll need to figure out on your own; it’s all part of the tricks Tomnay has up his chef’s jacket. 

For once, I found myself leaning forward in a movie about a man’s lies getting him deeper and deeper into trouble. Usually, I recoil the longer a charade goes on at the absurdity of not just telling the truth. Still, Tomnay and Stahl subtly sell it that Ryan would need to maintain his cover as long as possible in these circumstances. A level of danger is inherent in what’s taking place, and the stakes only get higher as the night progresses. The film takes a few giant leaps as it nears the conclusion that doesn’t jive with the established realism of the rest of the movie, but that can be forgiven because so much of the film is captivating. 

As a critic, you wish for movies that will shake up the norm in a genre and give you something new to digest. What You Wish For may have some twists you can smell coming from a few paces away, but I’m guessing it will keep you hungry to discover what happens in the final course. Stahl and Topolski are lethally good together; you are reminded again how strong of an actor Stahl has always been, and I found Topolski’s cool-as-ice performance to be top-notch. If you see this one on your (video) menu, order it up!

Movie Review ~ Pet Sematary: Bloodlines

The Facts:

Synopsis: In 1969, a young Jud Crandall has dreams of leaving his hometown of Ludlow, Maine, behind, but soon discovers sinister secrets buried within and is forced to confront a dark family history that will forever keep him connected to Ludlow.
Stars: Jackson White, Forrest Goodluck, Jack Mulhern, Henry Thomas, Natalie Alyn Lind, Isabella Star LaBlanc, Samantha Mathis, Pam Grier, David Duchovny
Director: Lindsey Anderson Beer
Rated: R
Running Length: 87 minutes
TMMM Score: (3/10)
Review: The more movies that get made out of the novels of Stephen King, the more you grow to appreciate the early standouts that have had a lasting impact. 1989’s Pet Sematary, directed with homespun folksiness by Mary Lambert, had a freaky poster/VHS box that always scared me as a kid. The movie was no slouch either, with hissing cats, evil children, and an infamous moment involving a scalpel that had even the toughest codger biting their knuckle. Lambert returned for a less convincing sequel in 1992, and while there were hopes a 2019 remake would have the guts, alas, there was no glory.

In true Hollywood machine style, the studio heads have returned to the Stephen King well, plucked a tiny sliver of an idea (a chapter from the 1983 novel), and positioned it as a sequel to the 2019 film. The result is Pet Sematary: Bloodlines, a straight-to-streaming project debuting on Paramount+ after premiering at Austin’s Fantastic Fest. While considerably well made, thanks to cinematographer Benjamin Kirk Nielsen giving the film a first-rate period look, director and co-screenwriter Lindsey Anderson Beer can’t dig up enough new ideas to resurrect interest.

It’s 1969, and the Vietnam War still hangs like a shadow over the country when the film opens. For the townspeople of Ludlow, Maine, you either stick around and be stuck or get out the first opportunity you can grab. Suspiciously spared from the draft while his peers have been shipped off to war, young Jud Crandall (Jackson White) knows he must go and is leaving to join the Peace Corps with his girlfriend Norma (Natalie Alyn Lind). His father (Henry Thomas, The Haunting of Bly Manor) is pushing him to leave, knowing the town has certain secrets from its past that won’t stay hidden forever…secrets that are unearthed quicker than anyone can imagine.

Beer and co-writer Jeff Buhler are likely aware that the audience for what is ostensibly a fourth Pet Sematary film would know the established rules by this point. Yet, they appear to want to tailor the mysticisms surrounding the sacred grounds that can bring back the dead to their screenplay. That leads to the graveyard being used more like a battery charging station for the recently deceased instead of a revival location that comes with deadly consequences. 

Eventually devolving into a series of scenes of pointless attacks with little thrill, there’s a lot of energy wasted in Pet Sematary: Bloodlines planting seeds that we know will never grow into anything. In the process, good performances from Thomas and Samantha Mathis as Jud’s mother get lost in the shuffle. David Duchovny and Pam Grier are also phoning it in present, but they look like they have arrived to shoot a movie set in 2009, not 1969. Finally, instead of working to dovetail the film to join up with the 2019 remake, Beer leaves the audience with an awkward finale that may deliver on the blood and guts, but narratively falls flat.

To complete your Pet Sematary experience, check out Unearthed & Untold: The Path to Pet Sematary, a fantastic documentary on making the original film!

Pet Sematary: Bloodlines will be available October 6 on Paramount+

Movie Review ~ Bad Things

The Facts:

Synopsis: A group of friends go to a hotel for a weekend getaway and soon discover that women do bad things here
Stars: Gayle Rankin, Hari Nef, Annabelle Dexter-Jones, Rad Pereira, Molly Ringwald
Director: Stewart Thorndike
Rated: NR
Running Length: 87 minutes
TMMM Score: (4/10)
Review: I’ll start reviewing the new horror film Bad Things by doing a visual exercise. Imagine that you are dressed in your finest clothes to go out to eat. You are picked up in a fancy car and dropped off at a restaurant serving the cuisine you crave. The setting is exquisite as you get to your table; every detail has been considered, and the chair the maître d’ has pulled out for you is plush and luxurious. As the waiter emerges from the kitchen with a covered serving platter, gleaming from polish, your mouth starts to water at the food you are so hungry to eat. The plate is set down in front of you, and the cover is removed to reveal your dish: a plain hamburger on a soggy bun. Sure, you are hungry, dressed up, out to eat, and have made a night of it, so you’ll eat the hamburger…but it’s not what you wanted.

That’s exactly how I felt while watching writer/director Stewart Thorndike’s Bad Things, which has the ingredients to create a humdinger of a scare but isn’t assembled in a way that audiences will want to devour. Each chef (director) can create their dish, but if no one comes to eat…you can’t stay open. 

Ok…enough with the food talk. Let’s get down to it. Bad Things is not a great movie, but it has intriguing elements that kept me involved until the (very) bitter end. The good things are star Gayle Rankin (The Greatest Showman) as Ruthie, who has inherited a closed hotel she’s visiting for the weekend with her partner Cal (Hari Nef, Barbie) and their friends Fran (Annabelle Dexter-Jones) and Maddie (Rad Pereira). Ruthie’s past fling with Fran has Cal’s trust issues on high alert, but they are reassured by Ruthie’s plans to re-open the hotel she grew up in as a child.

Of course, there’s history to this hotel, and over the weekend, the friends will be haunted by not just ghosts from the past but by their behavior. Is the hotel making them act out of sorts, or is the isolation freeing them to try out their worst instincts? These interesting questions should have yielded 87 minutes of creepy twists. However, Thorndike’s strange dialogue and diversions, not to mention some broadly unwieldy performances, keep Bad Things from growing beyond good ideas.

If I can say anything to get you to keep watching this and not give up (it’s far too easy to do this nowadays), stay for Molly Ringwald’s (Jem and the Holograms) slick third-act cameo. Sharing the screen with Rankin, it’s the kind of crackling scene Thorndike needed more of in Bad Things. Despite a few creepy moments, the Ringwald sequence is the one truly good thing in the picture.

Now Available On Shudder and AMC+

Movie Review ~ Dark Windows

The Facts:

Synopsis: A group of teenagers take a trip to an isolated summerhouse in the countryside. What starts as a peaceful getaway turns into a horrific nightmare when a masked man begins to terrorize them in the most gruesome ways.
Stars: Anna Bullard, Annie Hamilton, Rory Alexander, Jóel Sæmundsson, Morten Holst
Director: Alex Herron
Rated: NR
Running Length: 80 minutes
TMMM Score: (6.5/10)
Review:  I tend to have a strong aversion to screenplays that double back on themselves, so generally, movies that start at the end raise an alert for me. Inevitably, what we’re shown at the start is a red herring to what occurs when we return to the action an hour or so later. I’ve never understood the purpose of this awkward framing device, primarily because it’s been used so often, and you wonder if the filmmakers think audiences aren’t aware a bait-and-switch is about to happen.

English-language Norwegian horror thriller Dark Windows begins at (or very near) the end when a survivor of a night’s worth of terror has been cornered and is seemingly ready to meet their maker. A quick jump takes us several days earlier to find Tilly (Anna Bullard) struggling to enter the wake of Ali, a friend recently killed in a car accident. Tilly, Monica (Annie Hamilton, Marriage Story), and Peter (Rory Alexander) were in the car, but all three made it out with barely a scrape. Feeling the pressure of a town’s worth of stares and questions about why they survived, and their friend didn’t, the three escape to Monica’s remote weekend home for a few days to relax and take stock of what’s next.

What’s next is being stalked by a killer intent on making them pay for their survival by ensuring they don’t see the light of day. Gradually, secrets from the night of Ali’s death are revealed, leading audiences to believe that maybe the killer knows what they did that summer night and is taking bloody steps in avenging a loved one…or is someone closer to them trying to eliminate loose ends?   

Director Alex Herron maintains a good air of suspense throughout, and despite some third act swerves into true brutality, the viscera found in Dark Windows is relatively tame. That leaves room for tension to rule above gore and fleshed-out performances (solid across the board) to emerge. It’s a fairly standard story, as written by Ulvrik Kraft, but getting it on its feet and handing it to the filmmaker and actors puts it in the “worth a peek” category.

Now Available On Demand

Movie Review ~ The Passenger (2023)

The Facts:

Synopsis: Randy is perfectly content fading into the background. But when his co-worker Benson goes on a sudden and violent rampage leaving a trail of destruction in his wake, Randy is forced to face his fears and confront his troubled past in order to survive.
Stars: Kyle Gallner, Johnny Berchtold, Liza Weil, Billy Slaughter, Kanesha Washington
Director: Carter Smith
Rated: NR
Running Length: 94 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review: Here’s a perfect example of why watching a preview can ruin the natural discovery you get when watching a movie. While the trailer for The Passenger doesn’t tell you everything you can expect to find if you decide to hop on an intense road trip with two men from the same non-descript small town, it does reveal a vital pivot point that might have held a decent element of surprise at the end of the first act. Knowing what awaited me, I began the movie with a specific idea of certain characters without letting the film define them for me as it played out.

That may not seem like a big deal for most, and from what I gather when talking about this with friends and family, it hasn’t bothered them on the same level that it does for me. When I break it down for them and say, “But what if you went in not knowing this <insert any moment from the Scream VI trailer> was going to happen?” that’s when it clicks, and they realize how much was spoiled in advance. Now, The Passenger doesn’t hit Scream-level spoilers, but if you can’t tell, I’d urge you not to watch any preview in advance and go in as blind as possible. 

By all accounts, it looks like it will be another mundane day for Randy (Johnny Berchtold). We can tell by his room, house, car, and how he holds himself that he’s settled into a stagnancy that won’t change anytime soon. Small-town life doesn’t just suit him, it is him, and he’s blending into the scenery. Even showing up at his job, a roadside burger joint, barely receives any notice from his horny co-workers Jess (Jordan Sherley, Do Revenge) and Chris (Matthew Laureano), his boss (Billy Slaughter, The Magnificent Seven), or Benson (Kyle Gallner, Smile), another lone wolf like himself.

Today is not going to be like any other day, however. And it’s not because of the good news that his boss asked him if he’d be interested in a management position at a new (better) location nearby or because Chris humiliates him in front of the others as they prepare to open. After a shocking outburst of disgusting violence, Benson will take a vested interest in Randy’s future and bring him along for a ride that will push him past his limits. In a mad attempt to break Randy out of his cocoon, Benson goes to extreme lengths to force a change in the docile man, uncovering secrets from his past and using them twistedly to open his eyes to the world around them.

With its brief, but stomach-churning, eruptions of violence (some of which skids the line of bad taste), The Passenger arrives at its destination with most of its important pieces intact. That’s thanks partly to a tight script from Jack Stanley (Lou) and more focused direction from Carter Smith than he displayed in 2022’s Swallowed. Smith also draws more consistent performances here, with Bechtold and especially Gallner creating distinct, deeply flawed men with more issues to be worked out than can be handled in a 94-minute car ride.   There’s excellent supporting work from Liza Weil as a critical influence from Randy’s past and especially Kanesha Washington as a diner waitress who stands out in two pivotal scenes.

How much mileage you get out of The Passenger may be in your ability to look past the film’s tendency for overzealous violence and instead appreciate the way it attempts to be a character study of the trickle-down effect of the bully. Both men are bullies in their own ways, but digging into how they resolve those issues and their fractured histories is where the film fires on all cylinders.   

THE PASSENGER will be on Digital and On Demand on August 4, 2023
and coming to MGM+ later in 2023.

Movie Review ~ Talk to Me (2023)

The Facts:

Synopsis: When friends discover how to conjure spirits using an embalmed hand, they become hooked on the new thrill until one of them goes too far and unleashes terrifying supernatural forces.
Stars: Alexandra Jensen, Joe Bird, Otis Dhanji, Miranda Otto, Zoe Terakes, Chris Alosio, Marcus Johnson, Alexandria Steffensen
Directors: Danny Philippou & Michael Philippou
Rated: R
Running Length: 94 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: Though still early in the summer evening, the sky was beginning to turn an inky black when I was parking my car in the lot before the screening of A24’s new horror film Talk to Me.  Our up-and-down summer weather had gone from the swarm of heat to the threat of rain quickly, so I was happy to be headed indoors for the next few hours, and a possible thunderstorm felt like the perfect way to get in the mood for what was to come.  Sure enough, by the time I was walking inside, I could feel the raindrops start, and it had gotten so dark it looked hours later than it was.  Leave it to A24 to think of everything in promoting their films…even corralling the weather into a mean frenzy.

I don’t think you’ll need thunder and lightning, or even the lights entirely off, to get a good jolt out of the slick scares offered up in this original endeavor from brothers Danny Philippou & Michael Philippou.  Hailing from Australia, the twins became YouTube famous for their award-winning comedy horror channel RackaRacka.  I wasn’t familiar with their work going in, and without that previous knowledge had a low bar to scale or compare their feature film debut to.  If Talk to Me is any indication, they’ve amassed much skill from their YouTube days and experience working as crew members in 2014’s The Babadook.

A horrific incident at a noisy party opens the film, left unexplained, until it eventually crosses paths with Mia’s (Sophie Wilde) encounter with the embalmed hand of a medium who could speak with the dead.  Still fractured after the unexpected death of her mother and detached from her remaining parent, Mia experiences the appendage at a large gathering as part of a viral challenge within her extended friend group.  Her best friend Jade (Alexandra Jensen) knows better than to tempt fate, but Mia, desperate to connect with someone and possibly make a play to impress cool clique master Hayley (Zoe Terakes), willingly offers herself up.

The experience of what happens when a person touches the hand is best left for you to find out at the theater, but it’s different for everyone in the film.  No one can hold on longer than 90 seconds, and the candle lit at the beginning of the game must be blown out, or the spirit that comes to speak might not leave so easily.  Guess what happens after a second night of hand chats, this time with a smaller group involving Mia, Jade, Hayley, and others including Jade’s younger brother Riley (Joe Bird)?  Note to self in any séance situation: always blow the candle out.

As with many horror films involving an object, the more we find out about the item, the less interesting it becomes.  Perhaps that’s why the brothers Philippou make Talk to Me less about the hand and more about its effect on Mia’s already fragile psyche.  It’s a smart move, and Wilde’s performance is first-rate, starting the film as a relatable and vulnerable innocent but slowly changing course to a more problematic lead being guided by the wrong agenda.  The script keeps the cast small and, aside from Miranda Otto’s (Annabelle: Creation) refreshingly no-nonsense effort as Jade and Riley’s mother, mostly adult free.  The kids are not all right, and no one is coming to save them.

Skidding on the side of derailment during its final minutes but ending with a proper shiver chill, a future installment of Talk to Me might satisfy those who like their horror with all the blanks on their Mad Lib card filled in by the end.  A sequel would likely delve into origin and further the mythology of the mysteriously powerful hand, plot points this film doesn’t have the patience (or, frankly, the time) to cover.  Instead, the Philippou brothers have trained their gaze on what they have a talent for and delivered it at a high level.

Movie Review ~ Haunted Mansion (2023)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A single mother and her son move into a New Orleans mansion, only to find that it isn’t quite as empty as expected. To combat the spirits, they hire a grieving widower who works as a ghost tour guide, a psychic, a priest, and a local historian to exorcise the spirits from the Haunted Mansion.
Stars: LaKeith Stanfield, Tiffany Haddish, Owen Wilson, Danny DeVito, Rosario Dawson, Chase W. Dillon, Dan Levy, Winona Ryder, Jamie Lee Curtis, Jared Leto
Director: Justin Simien
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 123 minutes
TMMM Score: (4/10)
Review: Spend enough time at one of the Disney theme parks worldwide, and you’ll hear the words “rope drop” murmured around your resort hotel by experienced guests who know the drill.   Rope drop is the time of day when the park opens, the free for all moment that separates the runners from the walkers, the Space Mountain rocketeers from the Jungle Cruise captains. If you want to go on the Peter Pan ride and not wait hours, you better make a beeline for the queue, or good luck standing shoulder-to-shoulder with a noisy family from Kentucky. 

Everyone has their favorite rope drop ride (often the most in-demand attraction), but if I manage to drag myself out of those comfy Disney beds early enough, I know which ride at Walt Disney World will always be my first choice of the day: The Haunted Mansion. A classic Disney “dark” ride that is a fantastic blend of skilled animatronics, Imagineering magic, and good old-fashioned bold design, I’ve traveled through the attraction dozens and dozens of times (sometimes on the same trip) and always found something new to enjoy.

That’s why Disney’s first stab at making a Haunted Mansion movie in 2003 was a bummer. Starring Eddie Murphy in one of his phoned-in, for-cash-only performances, it had a silly plot, goofy effects, and ultimately failed to capitalize on the same inspired spirit which made Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl a gigantic hit a few months prior. Despite rumors that Guillermo del Toro was interested in re-opening the franchise a decade ago, the property toiled around in limbo until it was revived shortly after the pandemic restrictions lifted.

Directed by Justin Simien (Hulu’s Bad Hair) and written by Katie Dippold (The Heat and 2016’s Ghostbusters), I had hoped a rebuilt Haunted Mansion would repair the shoddy work done by the original, but alas, it’s still creaky and moldy in all the wrong places. Not quite the wild ride I’d imagined, Disney’s 2023 take on Haunted Mansion is a weird misfire that has the right actors for the job but can never decide if it wants to be a mellow and melancholy tale of lost love and moving on or the effects-heavy romp of ghoulish delights it only doles out in small doses over two hours (yes, two hours).

There’s a sense the film is off track from the start, with visits to New Orleans locales playing more like an ad for Louisiana tourism than a mood-setting introduction. Keeping things at a forward narrative standstill as we wait for the titles to appear, we witness photographer Ben (LaKeith Stanfield, Knives Out) meet Alyssa (Charity Jordan, Respect) and learn she gives ghost tours before jumping ahead a handful of years to find Ben a grieving widower that has taken over his wife’s business. Rather than being an inviting way into the story, it’s an awkward, roundabout way of establishing our leading man and how he comes to the attention of Father Kent (Owen Wilson, Paint).

Hired by single mother Gabbie (Rosario Dawson, The Water Man), who is having trouble with the new home she purchased for her and her son Travis (Chase W. Dillon, The Harder They Fall), Kent is desperate for an extra set of hands to identify what forces are disturbing the peace of the single mother and child. He’s heard that Ben may be an expert on the supernatural and uses a hefty cash donation as an enticement to take a look at the place. The only problem is that once you enter the Haunted Mansion, you can’t shake the ghosts that inhabit it. Therefore, it greatly behooves Ben, Kent, mystic Harriet (Tiffany Haddish, Girls Trip), and a local historian (Danny DeVito, Dumbo), who join forces to unlock the secrets of the manor and find out what evil is controlling the grim-grinning ghosts that have come out to wreak havoc.

The 2003 release of Haunted Mansion was rated PG and accessible for families and youngsters that didn’t mind the light spookiness. Twenty years later, however, we find the reboot netting a PG-13 and often deserving it. It’s more than a little scary and not for little ones. I’d argue they’ll be more inclined to wriggle in their seats of boredom more than it will freak them out, and at over two hours, the studio has seriously miscalculated how much movie they needed to produce. Dippold’s script can never commit to being geared toward a more adult drama with gothic overtones or maintain the fun zip of the ride that I’m pretty sure most fans wanted. There’s fan service paid, and it’s chiefly in Jared Leto’s (House of Gucci) #1 bad guy, the infamous Hat-Box Ghost, but you’ll have to take my word for it that it’s Leto under the (well-done) CGI created ghoul because he’s barely seen in human form. 

What kept tripping me up was how odd it was that so many good actors were in a movie that was consistently mediocre and off the mark. Take Jamie Lee Curtis (Halloween Ends), playing the famous psychic Madame Leota. Curtis is decked out in fab costumes in flashbacks, but Madame Leota is most known for being an all-knowing head in a crystal ball, and she’s rendered via arguably terrible CGI in her globe. Couple that with a questionable accent (and even more questionably applied CGI lipstick), and Curtis’ first post-Oscar work is a big dud. The ray of light is Stanfield, terrific throughout and almost able to salvage the film when it gets lost in one of its oddly maudlin tangents. 

Punched up at times through a score by Kris Bowers (The United States vs. Billie Holliday), what’s missing are the raucous effects sequences that would have kept the film’s energy up longer. Some astounding effects scenes work nicely, and Jeffrey Waldron’s cinematography (You Hurt My Feelings) is often tonally on the right track, but you have to wait for long stretches before you get any reward in the light frights department. By that point, the payoff seems less worth it. When you finally check out of the Haunted Mansion, I’m guessing you’ll have more thoughts about the unanswered questions it leaves you with than you did about the secrets it held before going in. I hope Disney can renovate again with a new team more committed to keeping it old-school and resisting the urge to build it modern.

Movie Review ~ Final Cut (2022)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A director is charged with making a live, single-take, low-budget zombie flick in which the cast and crew, one by one, actually turn into zombies. A French remake of Shin’ichirô Ueda’s cult hit One Cut of the Dead.
Stars: Romain Duris, Bérénice Bejo, Finnegan Oldfield, Matilda Lutz, Grégory Gadebois, Simone Hazanavicius
Director: Michel Hazanavicius
Rated: R
Running Length: 111 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: It will always and forever more be a puzzlement to me why an established (and furthermore, Oscar-winning) director would want to take an existing film and remake it without having much to say in the retelling. Conversely, a filmmaker trying to establish a foothold in the industry might want to challenge themselves to use their voice to retell a previously made movie. This could be their way of honoring a director with a style that inspired them or an opportunity to do something radically different, allowing both films to live independently.

For better or worse, what we have with Final Cut (or Coupez! as it was known when it premiered at Cannes in 2022) is the first scenario I described with a little bit of scenario two thrown in. While it doesn’t leave much room for an invigorating reimagining of Shin’ichirô Ueda’s One Cut of the Dead from 2017, it at least is a wild and often wildly entertaining reminder of what made that original film so special. We may have a relatively straightforward, sharply made remake in the hands of a talented director like Michel Hazanavicius, yet there’s a reverence in the redo of each tricky twist that unfolds.

A rag-tag film crew presided over by a manic director (Romain Duris, All the Money in the World) is making a low-budget zombie flick and struggling to get the last shots. The leading lady (Matilda Lutz, Revenge) is more zombie than her co-star (Finnegan Oldfield) is pretending to be, infuriating her director. A comforting make-up artist (Bérénice Bejo) tries to console the actress and entertain the stars with her talents at Krav Maga between awkward pauses and oddly improvised moments. Then she casually lets it slip that they are filming in the exact location where experiments were conducted on humans earlier and that no one goes there because it is said to be cursed. Before you know it, the crew turns into zombies (with terrible make-up — again…weird), and the set erupts into a gore fest, all captured in one bloody uninterrupted take. 

Though I remember seeing One Cut of the Dead when it was initially released, it had been a minute since I had thought about it, and I made the mistake of diving into Final Cut without refreshing my memory. That was a minor mistake because I nearly bailed ten minutes in. If you find yourself in this same situation, let me assure you that it’s best to press on and don’t give up. You may be wondering why the actors and crew speak French but have Japanese names, and you could be thinking how awful the production values feel. Is Hazanavicius making fun of the original film by remaking it scene for scene but amping up the carnage and hysteria? Yes and…no. Well…you’ll have to see.

Giving away where Final Cut goes would make me a real stinker, and I honestly want you to be able to experience it for yourself. Though gifted with higher production values than its predecessor, neither movie is above scrutiny for being silly and overly wink-wink-nudge-nudge at a film industry obsessed with delivering low-quality products but still charging top-flight prices. For either film to work, a set of pieces must be lined up perfectly at the outset, and in that respect, Hazanavicius understands the assignment. In many ways, making The Artist, predominately a silent film relying on reaction and little on dialogue, helps the director find actors that can convey a lot physically without moving the narrative dial very far with dialogue.

The remake is a solid twenty minutes longer than the original, and it feels like it. Some unnecessary beats could be shored up, and there’s a frustrating tendency to let the focus shift to characters we aren’t fully introduced to or care about instead of the more interesting actors in the room. When Hazanavicius strikes gold, though (particularly with his wife Bejo, who gets into a giddy groove near the end), there’s little stopping him, and that’s when Final Cut skims close to surpassing its inspiration. If you stick with it and don’t give in to your instinct to flee, you’ll find a winner you won’t be able to look away from.

Movie Review ~ Run Rabbit Run


The Facts:

Synopsis: A woman grows increasingly unsettled by her young daughter’s claims to have memories of another life, stirring up their family’s painful past.
Stars: Sarah Snook, Lily LaTorre, Damon Herriman, Greta Scacchi
Director: Daina Reid
Rated: NR
Running Length: 100 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: Striking while the iron is hot is critical to longevity in the entertainment industry, so I can understand why Run Rabbit Run is coming out at this strange point in the summer. Lead star Sarah Snook has completed her run on HBO’s much-lauded series Succession, and her unpredictable performance over the seasons is widely regarded as key to why it became such a crave-able hit. I’ve yet to finish the series, but even from what I’ve seen and based on the previous performances Snook has given, I’m not shocked that her star is on the rise. I’m just amazed it took this long.

I worry that a film set up to boost her profile, like this slinky Run Rabbit Run, which has premiered on Netflix, is bound to get lost when pushed out during many summertime options. Coming out just as audiences are about to careen down the most prominent hill in the blockbuster rollercoaster ride known as July, how much room is there for a quiet ghost story mystery that takes its time to unravel its secrets? Is there room for something so small when viewers are offered IMAX-sized thrills down the block?

Divorced mom Sarah (Snook, The Dressmaker) is a fertility doctor and always keeps daughter Mia’s (Lily LaTorre) well-being at the forefront of her mind. Still dealing with the loss of her beloved father and being unable to unpack his boxes from her garage, she puts all her energy into work and her child. There’s a sense of running away from a past she’d like to forget, and how she reacts to specific names confirms pent-up tension that overflows quickly. With her ex-husband starting a new life with his girlfriend and suggesting he may want to bring Mia with them, the pressure rises again for Sarah, who thought their life had reached a tranquil place.

Around this time, Mia starts to exhibit strange behavior that ties back to Sarah’s family history, memories that begin to haunt them both and get very real the longer they are ignored. As Mia brings up people, places, and things she couldn’t know about, Sarah must confront a shadow following her since childhood and reexamine her actions from that time. When mother and daughter travel to Sarah’s childhood home in the remote Australian country, a dark energy that has been waiting for them is unleashed with deadly consequences.

Originally a vehicle for Elisabeth Moss, who worked with director Daina Reid on the Hulu series The Handmaid’s Tale, I’m thrilled that Snook wound up in the role. She’s capable of playing an exhausted do-it-all woman who had built a wall around a personal secret only to have that protection infiltrated when she least expected it. LaTorre is appropriately creepy as the little girl possibly in contact with the beyond, and while we’re talking about longevity, it’s great to see Greta Scacchi (Operation Finale) turn up as Snook’s dementia-plagued mother who isn’t as frail as she appears. The original script from author Hannah Kent is a change of pace for the historian, but it takes its time working toward a finale that is obvious from the start but arrived at with a great deal of earned spooky mood. And that’s all one should have at the top of their list for a commercial thriller like Run Rabbit Run. Does it earn all its dark shivers? Yes, completely.