31 Days to Scare ~ Rebecca (2020)

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The Facts
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Synopsis: A young newlywed arrives at her husband’s imposing family estate on a windswept English coast and finds herself battling the shadow of his first wife, whose legacy lives on in the house long after her death.

Stars: Lily James, Armie Hammer, Kristin Scott Thomas, Keeley Hawes, Sam Riley, Anna Dowd, Bill Paterson

Director: Ben Wheatley

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 123 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  Ah…remakes.  They’re a funny thing, aren’t they?  Sometimes you find a film that is so perfect that to remake it would seem like blasphemy but with a clever way in and enough time between the original it just might work.  Then there are the re-dos for the sake of lining the pockets of investors and those, dear reader, never turn out well.  What about the remake that is perfectly fine, entertaining but sort of listless and doesn’t really fit into any category in the good or bad column?  These are the ones you have to think a little harder about, because they require some effort to review.  To make that final judgement you’ll have to dig a little deeper in your feelings.

First published in 1938, Daphne du Maurier’s (The Birds) gothic novel Rebecca has been a best-seller that has never gone out of print and it’s not hard to see why.  There’s a little something for everyone in the story of a shy girl who falls for a haunted man and it’s no wonder that director Alfred Hitchcock saw fit to turn the novel into a film in short order.  Nominated for 11 Oscars and winning two in 1940, including Best Picture, Rebecca set a high water mark for slow-burn mysteries that didn’t need to boil over to be highly effective.  The performances in Hitchcock’s film are legendary, particularly Judith Anderson’s unnerving presence as housekeeper Mrs. Danvers.

Over the years, Rebecca has been adapted for a number of mediums, and if you want a good lunchtime read, look up the lawsuit surrounding the failed attempt to bring it to Broadway as a musical.  It’s a doozy.  Yet for all the various versions of the work it’s been quite some time since the material was reexamined and provided a fresh adaptation and that’s what’s been worked out in a new production debuting on Netflix.  With a screenplay by Jane Goldman (The Woman in Black), Joe Shrapnel (Race), and Anna Waterhouse (Seberg), that pays homage to the novel in ways the 1940 version couldn’t while providing its own tweaks along the way, this Rebecca is grand in scale and design yet somehow less atmospheric than the original Oscar winner and I think I have an idea why.

First…let’s talk plot.  Lily James (Darkest Hour) plays a young girl (it took me until ¾ of the way through to remember we never learn her first name) who has no family to speak of caught up in a whirlwind romance with handsome widower Maxim de Winter while working for a aging ninny (Ann Dowd, Bachelorette) in Monte Carlo.  Accompanying him back to Manderley, his opulent English seaside estate presided over by the perilous head of household, Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas, Military Wives), it’s obvious from the start this new life is going to be a tough adjustment.  Not that she receives much help from her husband (Armie Hammer, Call Me by Your Name) or the household staff, many of who seem to still be loyal to the first Mrs. de Winter.

The longer the new Mrs. de Winter stays at Manderley, the more curious she becomes with her predecessor and the power she seems to have had over everyone.  More than that, it feels as if Mrs. Danvers is actively trying to keep Rebecca’s seat at the table unoccupied for her eventual return…meaning the new bride should be careful who she trusts.  With her new husband sleepwalking often into the wing of the house he shared with Rebecca, occasional visions of a mysterious woman in a red dress, and a cliffside boathouse holding secrets that will reveal more about the goings-on at Manderley, the new Mrs. de Winter launches her own fact-finding mission to discover the truth.  Then, a body is found nearby.

It was exciting to find out this new Rebecca was being directed by Ben Wheatley who was behind the terrifying Kill List from several years back (an early entry on 31 Days to Scare, by the way).  I knew Rebecca wasn’t exactly a “scare” kind of picture but more of the “dramatic suspense” sort of genre so I’m shoehorning this in a bit but I expected Wheatley to take this a little further than he does…and even then it’s not as sharp as it could have been.  Instead, I think Wheatley and the screenwriters focused on making their film a classy-first affair and resisted the urge to sully it with anything that could detract or distract from the love story (haunted or otherwise) at its center.  Fans will either appreciate that (if you like the book) or be disappointed (if you like the director).  Me, I leaned more toward the appreciation side of the fence because it’s all handled with a high level of craftsmanship, from the striking costumes to the gorgeous production design.  What it lacks in high stakes it makes up for in high quality.

Casting was key to this and I wouldn’t have wanted to fill the shoes of any of the three leads – all of them had an uphill battle but I think they all slid down the other side without any skinned knees.  Hammer likely struggles the most but only because it’s the toughest nut of a part to crack and he’s following in the footsteps of Laurence Olivier…unenviable.  Still, he looks great in a suit (though doesn’t look remotely like he belongs in this time period).  First becoming a start on Downton Abbey, James curiously also doesn’t quite look like she belongs in this era, although her change from naïve girl to devoted wife is quite convincing.  Make no doubt about it, the best role in Rebecca is Mrs. Danvers and Scott Thomas enters the film, sits down, puts her napkin in her lap, and proceeds to make a meal out of her role and then finishes everyone else’s plate for good measure.  Nothing will ever erase Judith Anderson’s searing performance but Scott Thomas comes awfully close…it’s a treasure.

I need to go back and watch the 1940 Rebecca again because I failed to do that before watching the new version; however I almost preferred to go in with just the memories of the original on my mind and not having it quite so fresh.  That way, I didn’t have the ghost of that haunting me like the woman herself haunted all the people at Manderley.  I think this new version acquits itself nicely.  It looks terrific and has two solid performances and one that’s a must-see.

Movie Review ~ Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

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The Facts:

Synopsis: When Jacob discovers clues to a mystery that spans different worlds and times, he finds Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. But the mystery and danger deepen as he gets to know the residents and learns about their special powers.

Stars: Eva Green, Asa Butterfield, Ella Purnell, Samuel L. Jackson, Allison Janney, Kim Dickens, Judi Dench, Terence Stamp, Chris O’Dowd

Director: Tim Burton

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 127 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: For some time now, I’ve been looking for director Tim Burton. Not that he was lost in any back-of-the-milk-carton sort of way but the filmmaker that kicked off his career with supremely surreal oddities and favored practical (read: expensive) sets gradually morphed into a director that saw the world only in CGI possibilities. His movies became eyesores, with audiences not only straining to keep their eyes focused but their minds too.

Last represented in cinemas with 2014’s disappointingly stale Big Eyes, Burton has finally found a project that feels like a throwback to his early work with Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. Adapted from the novel by Ransom Riggs, when it was announced that Burton had signed on to direct I remember thinking what a perfect marriage this was. The novel was a curious eccentricity in and of itself, inspired by old-time pictures of unexplained human phenomena Riggs had collected through the years and then fashioned a story around. Looking at these pictures now, they seem like snaps Burton himself art-directed.

Though Jane Goldman (X-Men: Days of Future Past, The Woman in Black) made some alterations in her screenplay (namely swapping the ‘peculiarities’ of two children), it arrives on screen mostly the way Riggs originally laid it out. Young Jacob (Asa Butterfield, Hugo) travels to Wales to learn more about his grandfather (Terence Stamp) who died under mysterious circumstances. Looking for the orphanage featured prominently in his grandfather’s cautionary bedtime stories, Jacob finds himself traveling through time and meeting up with Miss Peregrine (Eva Green, reteaming with her Dark Shadows director) and her charges.

The headmistress and children all have special talents that attract the attention of other power hungry peculiars with a fondness for extracting and consuming the eyes of their prey. While Jacob is learning more about the life his grandfather never explained to him and becoming enamored with a girl that’s literally light as air (Ella Purnell, Maleficent), peril is in store as a predatory leader (Samuel L. Jackson, The Hateful Eight) arrives with a hefty appetite. It all culminates in an effects heavy third act that disappointingly jumps through time and space with little regard for plot coherence.

Were it not for this dreary misstep, Miss Peregrine might be filed higher up in the Burton canon seeing that the rest of the film is chock full of unexpected flights of fancy. Green seems to be having a ball and not just because she’s decked out in some typically impressive Colleen Atwood (Into the Woods) costumes. Her body movements and line delivery are razor sharp without ever careening into camp territory. Butterfield makes for an impressive hero and the various children create personalities that go beyond their idiosyncrasies. I would have preferred someone other than Jackson as the main heavy as he doesn’t quite get the tone everyone else is going for and Chris O’Dowd (The Sapphires) is barely there as Jacob’s bird watching father. I get the impression Judi Dench (Skyfall) and Allison Janney (The Way Way Back) signed up as a personal favor, neither have much to do or work with which is saying something for the two cracker-jack scene stealers.

Like the best of Burton’s oeuvre, it scores the most points by embracing the peculiar and like the worst it stumbles when it becomes less about the performances and more about the special effects. Still, aside from Burton’s feature length remake of his short film Frankenweenie, it’s an improvement over much of his output over the past decade.

The Silver Bullet ~ Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

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Synopsis: When Jacob discovers clues to a mystery that spans different worlds and times, he finds Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.

Release Date:  September 30, 2016

Thoughts: Usually when you see a preview of an upcoming Tim Burton film you have to squint hard to see the calling cards of the director that gave us more than a few memorable movie moments.  Now favoring creating CGI worlds instead of practical sets (I get it, it’s less expensive…and less impressive), the director comes back from the disappointing drama of Big Eyes with this adaptation of the novel by Ransom Riggs.  Re-teaming with Eva Green, his Dark Shadows leading lady, Burton seems like the perfect fit for this piece and I was certainly enticed to see more after this long-ish tease.  Still six months from theaters, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children could be a fine return to form for Burton if he resists going overboard on the CGI landscapes.

The Silver Bullet ~ Kingsman: The Secret Service

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Synopsis: A veteran secret agent takes a young upstart under his wing.

Release Date: October 24, 2014

Thoughts: This adaptation of the comic book “The Secret Service” looks fairly interesting based on this trailer I originally saw way back in May with X-Men: Days of Future Past. Sure, we’ve been inundated with countless big screen treatments of books focusing on seemingly ordinary teens that are tasked with saving the world…but something about this reminds me of a working class James Bond and that’s intriguing. Though I’ve grown weary of Samuel L. Jackson (RoboCop) popping up in every movie, I’m even more concerned about the recent overexposure of Colin Firth (Magic in the Moonlight). Kingsman: The Secret Service will mark the sixth film of his to be released in 2014…thank heaven he dropped out as the voice of December’s Paddington! Directed by Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass 2), this potential franchise starter could be a nice film to take in during the crisp autumn season.

Movie Review ~ X-Men: Days of Future Past

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The Facts:

Synopsis: The X-Men send Wolverine to the past in a desperate effort to change history and prevent an event that results in doom for both humans and mutants

Stars: Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Hugh Jackman, Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy, Jennifer Lawrence, Halle Berry, Nicholas Hoult, Ellen Page, Shawn Ashmore, Peter Dinklage, Omar Sy, Daniel Cudmore, Fan Bingbing, Boo Boo Stewart, Adan Canto, Evan Peters, Josh Helman, Lucas Till, Evan Jonigkeit

Director: Bryan Singer

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 131 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  Ok, I believe by now we’ve established the kind of reader-critic relationship that allows me to be as open and honest with you as I possibly can.  So, I the spirit of putting it all out there on the table I need to tell you that the X-Men and all their variations have never really been my thing.  Aside from a childhood desire to beat the SEGA game, I’ve never truly warmed to Professor X and his motley crew of mutant heroes and villains…even after seven films.

Though the overreaching message of the film (we’re all mutants in some form or another and that’s ok) is a positive one that has the ability to speak to anyone, there’s something about the over eagerness of the filmmakers to constantly “get it right” that I find myself enjoying the spectacle at a distance.

It doesn’t help that the quality of the movies hasn’t maintained any sort of consistency since X-Men was released in 2000.  The first sequel improved upon its predecessor but when original director Bryan Signer vacated the series for Superman Returns the third entry landed with a thud.  Spinning off the series into a poorly executed Wolverine origin story further dug a hole for the franchise before 2011’s X-Men: First Class saved a listing ship.  I didn’t dislike 2013’s The Wolverine as much as my colleagues but by that point fans were a little sensitive to their mutants getting less than stellar cinematic adventures.

Now we’ve arrived in the present with X-Men: Days of Future Past…but we won’t stay there long as the enjoyable seventh entry of the series is more interested in looking back than moving forward.  There’s a lot (A LOT) going on in Simon Kinberg’s script…so much so that I often found myself struggling to remember how all the pieces fit, who is who, and what decade we’re in.  After an opening in a desolate not-too-distant future, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman, Prisoners, who must have been paid in how many bicep veins are present) is sent back to the early 70’s by Professor X (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug) to prevent rouge Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle) from setting a series of events into motion in the past that will have a deadly impact for the future.

Juggling two separate time frames, returning director Bryan Singer manages to keep everything in balance for the most part.  Having watched X-Men: First Class directly before seeing this new film, I was impressed that Singer and Kinberg carved out a new path while keeping continuity through some difficult loose ends previous director Matthew Vaughn left for the new crew to figure out.

Less impressive is an overall humdrum feeling the movie left me with after all was said and done.  I’m not suggesting the movie isn’t terrific popcorn entertainment or doesn’t contain a handful of impressively filmed sequences (like Evan Peters as Quicksilver showing off his talents while Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle” plays in the background) but it all feels overly calculated, designed to allow the franchise to continue without really having to answer for past mistakes.

With Lawrence’s star gone supernova since the last installment, her part is significantly beefed up here.  Mystique has never been so front and center and Lawrence manages to eek out some nice moments under her full body make-up.  As the younger Professor X and Magneto, James McAvoy (Trance) and Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave) don’t seem quite as invested this time around, but then again there’s not the same kind of character discovery available to them.  Jackman can play the role in his sleep…and by now it looks like he is.

Moving fast through its 131 minute running length, the end of the film sets up the next volume of X-Men escapades nicely…but then again if you really think about it that’s all the movie seemed interested in in the first place.  Fairly and frequently violent for a PG-13 film, parents should think twice before bringing young children along…Godzilla has less death/carnage in it.

With all my griping about overall ulterior motives, I’ll admit the movie fits neatly into the mode of summer blockbuster by combining all the right elements into the mix.  I think fans will look back and see the mechanics of the script in years to come…but by that time these will be the true days of future past.