Movie Review ~ Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

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The Facts
:

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

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

Director: André Øvredal

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 111 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Movie Review ~ Aladdin (2019)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A kindhearted street urchin and a power-hungry Grand Vizier vie for a magic lamp that has the power to make their deepest wishes come true.

Stars: Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott, Will Smith, Marwan Kenzari, Nasim Pedrad, Navid, Negahban, Billy Magnussen, Numan Acar

Director: Guy Ritchie

Rated: PG

Running Length: 128 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review: When Disney released their animated Aladdin in 1992 it was right around the time when I had passed over from being the target audience for their bright musical fare. I remember seeing it in the theaters, though, and finding it to be long and kind of…boring. Over the years it has been one I’ve regarded with some occasional interest but it’s never high on my list of re-watchable Disney Classics. To me, the movie will always be synonymous with two things: Robin Williams as the Genie and the song ‘A Whole New World’, both enduring classics no matter what you think about the film.

When Disney announced Aladdin would join their ever growing roster of live-action adaptations of animated classics, I could understand why they’d think this would be an eye-popping visual feast that would translate well but couldn’t for the life of me figure out why they’d want to try and top the unforgettable work of Williams. It seemed like a losing battle. As the movie came together, there were more curious decisions from the studio. Tough-guy director Guy Ritchie (The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) would be at the helm? No songs from the expensive Broadway musical of Aladdin would be utilized in the film? Will Smith would be taking over as the Genie? Early previews and set pictures didn’t do much to quell the fears that this was going seriously astray but I can honestly say when I walked into the screening on a rainy day I was looking forward to settling in for something special.

The short and easy review of the 2019 live-action Aladdin is say that it rubbed me the wrong way. Almost from the very beginning, I knew this wasn’t going to meet expectations on any level and I was proven right for the next 128 minutes. From the rushed opening third to its saggy middle and lackluster finale, it seems like almost everyone involved forgot what kind of movie they were making. When they were focusing on music, they forgot to make it sound good. When they were focusing on fantasy, there was no effort to be truly transporting. This is film that’s overly conscious and cautious, staying decidedly in a safe zone much of the time, only occasionally finding some magic.

An unnecessary framing device introduces Smith (Suicide Squad) as a mariner with two children asking him to sing them a story instead of just telling them one. Not known as a singer, when Smith opens his mouth to sing for the first time it’s a remarkably flat tone that rarely shows range. The big notes feel enhanced or are drowned out by a gigantic chorale delivering quite a few new lyrics written by Pasek/Paul (The Greatest Showman) and original composer Alan Menken (Beauty and the Beast). Smith’s narrator relays the story of Aladdin (Mena Massoud, Run This Town) a scrappy ragamuffin on the streets of Agrabah that has a meet cute with a Princess in disguise (Naomi Scott, The 33) and falls in love.

When Aladdin later sneaks into the palace to reconnect with Princess Jasmine, he’s caught by Jafar (Marwan Kenzari, Murder on the Orient Express) the Sultan’s traitorous Vizier who needs to find a “diamond in the rough” to enter the Cave of Wonders and search for a magic lamp. When Aladdin accidentally releases a Genie (Smith) from the lamp and is granted three wishes, he uses one to become a visiting Prince to win the heart of Jasmine. It isn’t long before Jafar recognizes the Prince, putting all in Agrabah in danger when the Vizier schemes to get back the lamp at any cost.

The story of Aladdin stretches back to ‘The Arabian Nights’ from the 18th century and is an oft-told tale through the centuries. Surprising to me was that its original story differs quite a bit from the fairy tale we all grew up on, though it isn’t shocking how dark things get for Aladdin the way he was originally written. Screenwriter Ritchie and John August (Frankenweenie) stay away from a total revisionist version of Aladdin (ala the stellar live-action remake of Pete’s Dragon from 2016) instead choosing to follow the structural outline from the animated film rather closely. This makes the film feel even more beholden to its hand-drawn predecessor and invites unfavorable comparisons off the bat.

For starters, there seems to be a need to speed through the introductory moments of the movie. The credits have barely ended and we’re on a bullet train to get to that magic lamp and Smith’s Genie – which is understandable because the Genie is supposed to be the most memorable thing in the movie. The trouble is Smith’s rather charmless Genie is kind of creepy, all buff torso and swirly cloud for legs. The ‘Friend Like Me’ number, such a mega-shot of adrenaline in the film and a literal showstopper on the Broadway stage, barely registers because Ritchie has the Genie zooming around the screen in such a frenzy we don’t know where to look or what to follow. Unconvincing CGI throughout doesn’t help matters when you are always keenly aware the desert-set movie was shot on a soundstage, even if some location shooting was done in Jordan.

While Kenzari sinks his teeth nicely into the scenery as Jafar, I questioned why they turned the character from a creepy older man in his fifties to a brooding mid-thirties guy that isn’t quite threatening until his true intentions are revealed. Massoud is just fine as Aladdin, as blandly interesting as the character has always been. He may be the titular character but he’s never been the star of his own movie…not with Williams (and now Smith) there to overshadow him. He develops some good chemistry with Scott, though, and that goes a long way in making him more memorable. The real find is Scott who gives Jasmine the kind of 2019 make-over the character was sorely needing. Though saddled with the worst song (Pasek/Paul/Menken’s woefully Glee-ish ‘Speechless’) she makes the scene directly after that truly come alive by delivering a very “woke” speech with conviction. For some reason, Billy Magnussen (Game Night) turns up as a doofus Prince also vying for Jasmine’s affection in a scene that should have been excised.

Flashy numbers like ‘Friend Like Me’ and ‘Prince Ali’ are meant to be the crowd-pleasing ones but the most winning number in the movie and, ultimately, the best sequence in the film is the one that has always worked like a charm and that’s the ‘A Whole New World’ number. Flying through the skies on a magic carpet, Aladdin and Jasmine sing that beautiful music and lyrics and you remember, however briefly, why Aladdin became a classic in the first place. If only the filmmakers had used this simple and sweet sequence as a jumping off point maybe they would have dialed down some of the garish excess evident in the rest of the movie.

So far in 2019, Disney is 0 for 2 in live-action remakes. Dumbo didn’t fly back in March and while I think Aladdin will make more money, it won’t do the kind of business Disney is hoping for. That leaves The Lion King in July with a big question mark and an even bigger target on its back. Can that be the one to right this sinking adaptation ship?