31 Days to Scare ~ Come Play

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A monster targets a non-verbal autistic boy along with his family and friends by manifesting through their smart phones, computers, and other electronic devices.

Stars: John Gallagher Jr., Gillian Jacobs, Azhy Robertson, Rachel Wilson, Winslow Fegley, Jayden Marine, Gavin MacIver-Wright, Eboni Booth, Alana-Ashley Marques

Director: Jacob Chase

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 96 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  Too often, it feels like we think of horror on a grander scale than it has to be.  Why must everything be catered to the masses or to what a certain demographic wants to see on the big screen?  Sometimes it’s nice to push play on a scary movie that feels like it was targeted for a particular group of viewers, maybe not even your own, but at least you come away with the impression the filmmaker(s) knows their audience they’re seeking screams from.  The best place to find examples of this is in horror shorts that pop up on festival circuits, carefully curated bite-sized morsels that are compact in size but jam-packed with tension.

In recent years, a number of these shorts that were so well received at global festivals have caught the eye of studios looking for projects that aren’t going to cost them an arm and a leg to produce.  After all, horror is the genre that regularly pays for itself in the opening weekend box office receipts so why not pick a young talent out of the crowd, give them their big break, and maybe make a little money out of the deal in the end?  That’s how we came to get 2013’s Mama from director Andy Muschietti who would go on to direct the 2017 blockbuster remake of IT and it’s less-successful 2019 sequel.  It’s also how David F. Sandberg expanded his 2013 freaky short Lights Out into a full-length 2016 film and parlayed that into directing gigs on the well-received Annabelle: Creation and hit superhero movie Shazam!.

Before Come Play crossed my desk, I’d never heard of Larry, the 2017 five-minute short from writer/director Jacob Chase that he expanded into this new film released from Focus Features and Amblin Partners. (You can watch it below)  Knowing that a number of these short film inspirations would recreate or gently rework their original scenes in their longer film, I deliberately kept away from watching the short film until after and I’m glad I did.  The short film is all about scares (and good ones, too) while Chase has struggled with the expansion of his idea, showing that not all shorts can make the leap to long-form and consistently maintain what made them so special to begin with.  Admittedly, Come Play has its moments to admire and maintains a slick shine of a filmmaker with promise, but it’s lost a valuable simplicity of design in favor of efficiency of storytelling.

Young Oliver (Azhy Robertson, Marriage Story) is a non-verbal autistic who communicates chiefly through an app on his phone that speaks his words for him.  This has created an attachment to the electronic device that is both regrettable and necessary at the same time.  His deep dependency on his technology has even distracted him from the situation developing in his own home because his parents Sarah (Gillian Jacobs, Life of the Party) and Marty (John Gallagher Jr., Underwater) are in the middle of a separation.  She’s frustrated from always being the enforcer of rules and watching Marty sweep in to be the “good” parent; he doesn’t want to say it, but deep down hasn’t fully accepted his son’s diagnosis.

Late at night, Oliver’s phone suddenly displays a new program, a story he can swipe through about an unhappy monster named Larry who has no friends.  Curious to Larry’s tale of woe and feeling a sense of kinship to the friendless outsider, Oliver progresses through the e-book and the further he goes, the more strange things begin to happen around him.  Lights flicker, objects move, a Snapchat filter picks up more than just Oliver’s face as he stands next to a dark closet…all leading to a fateful sleepover between Oliver and several kids from his class that normally bully him.  The four boys also read the book to terrifying and lasting consequences.

Up until this point, Chase has built up a nice amount of suspense as Oliver is essentially stranded alone to face whatever evil entity Larry is.  His dad has moved out and his mom doesn’t understand his fears, pushing him to socialize more for her benefit than his.  Chase introduces some interesting dynamic between this mother-son relationship but never truly cracks the code, and sadly that’s mostly the fault of Jacobs who is completely miscast as Oliver’s overstressed mother.  Her line readings are so bad and insincere you almost wonder if she was trying to make her character sarcastic and Chase or his editor cut the film incorrectly to make her look bad.  It’s a performance that has a large impact in breaking the film in two, with Jacobs on one side and the rest of the cast on the other.

The more we learn about Larry the less the creature manifesting in front of us begins to make sense or follow whatever rules Chase has designed…if any are given at all.  One moment he has set his sights on Oliver and the next, he’s after Marty at his nighttime job as a parking lot attendant.  There are two scenes set here and they’re arguably the ones that will give you best case of the shivers…so it’s no coincidence the original short film was the inspiration for these passages.  Strange, then, that Chase didn’t include the best scare from that short in his feature…because it was a doozy.  You would think he’d at least include that.

There are some good things to report, though.  Child actors can be the absolute worst but Chase lucked out with not one but four good kids cast in roles.  I cannot imagine how impenetrable that sleepover scene would have been if those kids had been impossible to watch, but they play the dialogue and rising fear so well without becoming obnoxious that you have to applaud their performances.  The scares are decent too, with a number of shocks that don’t come with loud music stings or unknown haunters jumping out at you – it’s often what you aren’t seeing or just the suggestion of a presence that sends you sliding down in your seat.  As much as I disliked Jacobs, she’s part of a visual near the end that is truly nightmare-inducing.

The good news bad news here is that Come Play is overall a fine film and that’s why I’m rating it higher than you might think after reading the review.  It stumbles a bit during its last act and doesn’t have a finale that feels fully explored but Chase has crafted a well-made, technically sound film if you’re stepping back and looking at the big picture.  I missed a simpler brand of storytelling in favor of a deeper complexity with a “message” that made it more than it needed to be, but for the audience it is aiming to please I think it mostly makes it up the hill it chugs up for 90-some odd minutes.  There’s definitely a spark in Chase that studios should explore and for a Halloween option new release, Come Play might be worth inviting your friends over for.

 

The original short film, Larry, from director Jacob Chase.

Movie Review ~ Underwater


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Mysterious creatures terrorize crew members aboard a research station located seven miles below the surface of the ocean.

Stars: Kristen Stewart, T.J. Miller, Jessica Henwick, Vincent Cassel, John Gallagher Jr., Mamoudou Athie

Director: William Eubank

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 95 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: I write these reviews as if the reader has read every other post I’ve written these past nine years so I feel I should probably start out my review for Underwater to say for all you first-timers out there that I. LOVE. MONSTER. MOVIES.  Also.  I. LOVE. UNDERWATER. MONSTER. MOVIES.  There.  It’s out there again, I can be free to go on with my reflection of Underwater, and you can understand why I was both excited and a little bit nervous going into this 2020 release because I really wanted it to be good.  I wanted it to be so good, in fact, that I even spoke the words out loud in the theater beforehand to my partner so it would be clear that, no matter what happened, I was always rooting for the film to succeed.  It has been so long since we had a good creature feature that I felt it was high time for something new to try to break through but I never thought it would come from 20th Century Fox starring indie-darling Kristen Stewart.

Filmed all the way back in early 2017 (we’re talking March-May), Underwater was made when 20th Century Fox was still its own studio and not owned by the Disney corporation.  Once Disney shelled out big bucks for Fox they acquired all of their movies set to be released and have been gradually rolling them out to strategically not interfere with the release dates of their own in-house movies.  Ad Astra was given a bit of a short shrift earlier this summer and, while it did decent business and received good notices, it wasn’t nearly the blockbuster it might have been had it been solely under the Fox banner.  Then again, that movie had its own share of challenging advertising issues…not really being an action movie but being marketed as one.

Back to Underwater, this is another case of Disney burning up a Fox release in that no man’s land of January and hoping that something will come of it.  Thankfully, this is one title they blessed with an advance screening so others could get the word out, but with the studio releasing it against the Oscar hopeful 1917 and the comedy Like a Boss, there wasn’t a huge audience left over for Underwater. That’s likely why the movie didn’t make much a dent during its opening weekend, despite costing upwards of $80 million to produce.  Ouch.  Let’s put that aside for the moment and focus on the movie, though.

It’s good!  Like, really good!

Actually, let me take a step back and I’ll temper my enthusiasm with a caveat that I was pre-destined to like this film based on my above mentioned penchant for this particular brand of horror movie.  Even if it was kinda bad, I probably sorta would have liked it.  That it was competently made, admirably performed, and skillfully executed only added to the enjoyment level of it and I have to say that it exceeded any expectations I had going in.  Knowing next to nothing about it thanks to a buzz machine that barely got started, it was fun to go in fairly blind and I think you should do your best to know as little going in as possible.  So I’ll keep this brief.

The set-up sounds familiar.  In an isolated area miles below the surface, an accident decimates a drilling station that is exploring the depths of the Mariana Trench, stranding a handful of crew members that were lucky enough to survive the initial incident but unlucky to live to face a perilous fate.  Mechanical engineer Norah (Kristen Stewart, Charlie’s Angels) is plucky and resourceful, rarely fazed by the obstacles that lay before them.  This comes in handy when the survivors realize they have to exit their doomed vessel and walk a stretch of exposed ocean floor in suits that may not stand the pressure to another station that might be in a similar wrecked state.  Oh…and there’s a rash of sea monsters released from the depths of the ocean by their drill trying to eat them.

Writers Brian Duffield (Insurgent) and Adam Cozad (The Legend of Tarzan) devise some nifty set-ups and nasty ends for the workers and it helps that most of the supporting cast is played by familiar but not too familiar faces.  You never know quite who is famous enough to make it to the end, and even that isn’t a guarantee.  There are some surprising twists I wasn’t expecting but they all make sense in the overall story Duffield and Cozard set out to tell.  Along with William Eubank’s tight direction, there isn’t a moment wasted in Underwater and even some late-breaking attempts at giving greater depths to certain characters don’t feel completely out of nowhere if you consider the life or death situation they are all in.

I find it so intriguing the choices of roles Stewart is drifting toward lately.  Though filmed several years ago, taking on a studio monster movie must have been a leap for her but I can see why this more introspective character appealed to her.  There are shades of Alien’s Ellen Ripley in Norah and while she doesn’t have the opportunity to go full Ripley mode, the final twenty minutes of the movie are an exciting ride with Stewart in the drivers seat.  When T.J. Miller (Office Christmas Party) pops up I groaned, fearing the weary comedian’s way of sucking the life out of anything he appears in but aside from a bumpy start he actually becomes quite endearing.  I get the impression the Captain character played by Vincent Cassel (Trance) may have been trimmed in editing to save time but what’s been left behind is good enough to make it a memorable showing.  Rounding out the small group of survivors are Jessica Henwick (Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens) and John Gallagher, Jr. (10 Cloverfield Lane), with Henwick nicely going from naif-y to taking charge after being pushed into service.

From a production standpoint, Underwater is incredibly successful and highly effective; the sets and visual effects are solid even if you can’t always make out what you are seeing.  This adds to some, if not all, of the tension Eubank creates and there are several true edge-of-your-seat-hold-your-breath sequences that were quite enjoyable to sit through with a packed audience.  Even better, these passages lead to a pay-off of value, not some cheap scare that vanishes into the ether.  All in all, a handsome effort in front of and behind the camera.

The performance of Underwater, 2018’s The Meg, and 2019’s Crawl, not to mention their better than average reviews, indicates audiences are open to the next wave of monster movies and they don’t have to be franchise pictures either.  I don’t need a Godzilla: King of the Monsters to fill my bucket when a simple story about nature run amok will suit me just fine.  Here’s hoping more of these are produced over the next few years – if they are as well made as the three I just mentioned above, this creature feature fan would be in seventh heaven!

The Silver Bullet ~ Underwater



Synopsis
: A crew of underwater researchers must scramble to safety after an earthquake devastates their subterranean laboratory.

Release Date:  January 10, 2020

Thoughts: Watching the preview for Underwater, I kept wanting to shout out “This trailer knows me, it really, really knows ME!”  Horror movie? Check. Underwater horror movie? Check check. Underwater horror movie with creatures from the deep picking off the crew of a felled sea lab? Check check check!  As excited as I was to see this, I can’t help but feeling a little nervous at the same time.  I just finished reading an exhaustive profile of star Kristen Stewart (Personal Shopper) and though it talked about several of her upcoming projects, there was not a peep about this one – strange, right?  Also, its January release date is either a smart move of counter-programming to clear out the post-holiday stuffiness or a keen way for Disney to quietly burn off a 20th Century Fox film that came with the studio when they purchased it.  I did a quick check online and until today there had been next to no news this movie even existed…much less that it had already received a PG-13 rating and a locked in release date.  Yet, nerves aside, I’m pulling for this one…if only to help me relive some 1989 nostalgia and resurrect some interest in titles like  DeepStar Six and Leviathan.

Movie Review ~ The Best of Enemies


The Facts
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Synopsis: Civil Rights activist, Ann Atwater, faces off against C.P. Ellis, Exalted Cyclops of the Ku Klux Klan in 1971 Durham, North Carolina over the issue of school integration.

Stars: Taraji P. Henson, Sam Rockwell, Anne Heche, Wes Bentley, John Gallagher Jr., Bruce McGill

Director: Robin Bissell

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 133 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: The filmmakers for Green Book haven’t even had their Best Picture Oscar on the shelf long enough to gather dust before another problematic movie on race relations has made it to theaters. Now I have a feeling that The Best of Enemies tells its tale with a bit more honesty and is unquestionably less outright manipulative but still…something feels off here. Though, like Green Book, it boasts two likable stars (one a recent Oscar winner) and is based on actual events, The Best of Enemies overstays its welcome by hammering home its message audiences will have received loud and clear early on.

It’s 1971 and Durham, North Carolina is still racially divided. Though laws on desegregation have chipped away at the antiquated restrictions at many institutions within the state, the schools remain separated by race. Continuing to fight for her civil rights and the rights of others was the outspoken Ann Atwater (Taraji P. Henson, What Men Want), a grassroots activist that wasn’t afraid to raise her voice to call attention to injustice within her community. On the other side of the coin was Ku Klux Klan leader C. P. Ellis (Sam Rockwell, Vice) who also felt like he was seeing the rights of another population of Durham being restricted. The two public figures were both respected within their individual circles and known to each other…and they didn’t care for the other one bit.

When a fire destroys part of a school that served the black children of Durham, it sparks a debate that leads to the city council voting whether or not to allow children of both races to attend the same school. At the same time, a court-ordered school desegregation decree has finally come into play but instead of being the deciding vote and making history, the district judge involved passes the decision down to the people of Durham. Through a structured two-week community meeting known as a charrette, Atwater and Ellis become co-chairs and lead a group of representatives from the city in deciding how they want to move forward on several key issues, the biggest being fully integrating their schools.

Writer/director Robin Bissell (a producer of The Hunger Games) has adapted Osha Gray Davidson’s book and while it’s clearly a labor of love, it is quite a labor to get through. At two hours and thirteen minutes, the movie takes a while to get moving and then just sort of treads water for a good sixty minutes rehashing what we already know or setting up more scenes of racial tension designed to elicit the appropriate rage from the audience. By the time the film reaches it’s predicted climax, audiences might be a bit numb after all the elevated dramatics Bissell introduces.

The saving grace of the movie lies in the casting and it starts at the top with Henson and Rockwell. Both are actors that invest themselves fully into their roles and that’s certainly the case here. Though Henson is sporting an almost comically large fake set of breasts, she brings a dignity and strength of soul to Ann who wrestles with wanting to practice what she preaches about acceptance even when the person on the other side won’t look her in the face. You may think Rockwell has played a version of this character already in his Oscar-winning role in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri but the differences between the two men are vast. At the beginning of the film Ellis actually believes in the racist thoughts he spews forth but Rockwell takes us through each crack in his belief system as he spends time not only with the black members of Durham but other white people that don’t share his values.

There’s nice supporting work from Anne Heche (Volcano) as Ellis’ wife who doesn’t suffer fools…especially her husband, Wes Bentley (Interstellar) as the prototype KKK member of that era in that area, and Bruce McGill (Lincoln) as a crooked councilman. I also liked John Gallagher Jr. (10 Cloverfield Lane) as a local shopowner sympathetic to the integration that has to choose between what’s right for him and what’s right for his community. He shares a brief scene with Rockwell that hints at the kind of impactful moments the movie is sorely short on. Yet the film never takes off quite so much as when Henson and Rockwell are bickering or, eventually, seeing eye to eye.

Conceived as a historical piece documenting an important turning point in the Civil Rights movement but orchestrated as an audience rousing drama where everyone goes home happy, The Best of Enemies wants it both ways. It tries awfully hard, though, and that work doesn’t go unnoticed. Yet it winds up feeling like another strange misstep in Hollywood’s attempt to get a movie about the Civil Rights…right.

Movie Review ~ 10 Cloverfield Lane

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ten_cloverfield_lane_ver2
The Facts
:

Synopsis: After getting in a car accident, a woman is held in a shelter by two men, who claim the outside world is affected by a widespread chemical attack.

Stars: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Goodman, John Gallagher Jr.

Director: Dan Trachtenberg

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 105 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Boosted by a bold teaser trailer that left audiences riddled with questions, 2008’s Cloverfield was a fairly genius example of how the right marketing could create all the buzz that was needed to guarantee a healthy debut at the box office.  I mean, they didn’t even give the title of the film away…which drove audiences to fire up their Dell laptops and do some old fashioned sleuthin’ to find out more about the found footage flick. Was it a disaster movie? Was it a monster movie? No one really knew until the film was released…and was a bit of a dud in my book.  Undone by its hype, the hand-held filmmaking churned my stomach and lackluster plot developments frustrated way more than it frightened.

Fast forward to January of 2016 when Paramount revealed the trailer for 10 Cloverfield Lane…a mystery film that somehow managed to fly so far under the radar that even the most tapped in film fans were thrown for a loop.  In this day and age of spoiler heavy early reviews, I’d classify that as a not-so-minor miracle…so my first reaction was respect more than anything else.  Then I remembered how I felt going into Cloverfield and instantly started to lower my expectations so the buzz bar wouldn’t be raised too high.

So…before we go on…it’s next to impossible to talk about 10 Cloverfield Lane without going into certain details that may be considered minor spoilers. I’m going to do my best to keep it vague, but for those sensitive souls out there (you know who you are) tread carefully.

Ok?

Ready?

The first question you’ll want an answer to is wondering if this is indeed a sequel to Cloverfield.  Yes…and no.  I’d call it a sequel adjacent, related to events from the previous film but very much with its own story to tell.  This is both a good thing and a bad thing because the script was rewritten to fit into the same universe and it feels like it…especially in the third act when it becomes almost an entirely different film.  I’m getting ahead of myself though…

Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, The Spectacular Now) is running away…from what we’re not sure.  It could be her heard but not seen boyfriend (listen closely and see if you can pick out his Oscar nominated voice) or it could be life in general…we don’t know and it ultimately doesn’t matter.  After being involved in a violent automobile accident, she wakes to find herself chained to a wall in an underground bunker presided over by Howard, a twitchy survivalist (John Goodman, Argo, Flight) that makes sure she knows he’s her savior.  There’s a wicked whiff of Misery at play in these early scenes as Michelle comes to terms with her good Samaritan (or captor?) and the rules he has for life under the ground.

Why are they holed up there you may ask?  Well if you believe Howard there’s been an attack that’s left the world above ground in a desolate state of fallout that will take years to bounce back from. Do you trust Howard, though?  That’s the question Michelle and another shelter mate Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr) are troubled by the more time they spend in confinement and the more discrepancies they find in Howard’s version of events.  And with that, I think we’re at a good place to stop and let you find out for yourself the truth behind it all.

Made for a fifth of the budget of Cloverfield, the $5-million-dollar movie is a handsomely produced bit of entertainment that has its fair share of genuine shocks and out of left field developments. My jaw dropped more than once at what transpires, creating a giddy sense of old school movie-going fun that few films seem interested in tapping into.  If there are a few hokey moments, there’s enough good will generated to forgive some sloppy storytelling and iffy effects (though none as dreadful as the ones you’ll find in London Has Fallen) that don’t mar much of the overall experience.

With only eight actors listed in the credits, the film simply wouldn’t have worked as well without its cast, namely Goodman, creepy-as-all-get-out without doing much more than giving Winstead a once-over with his eyes.  Winstead, nicely plucky as a heroine that isn’t perfectly formed into a cookie-cutter robot is interesting to watch and a viable actress to root for even if we can tell she has some hidden backstory that may make us like her less if the situation was different.

First time director Dan Trachtenberg keeps the film racing along (the first time I checked my watch was 95 minutes in) in a most agreeable way, aided by Bear McCreary’s (Europa Report) pounding score.  The first 15 or so minutes of the film are dialogue-free, leaving McCreary’s music to tell the story and ratchet up the suspense for the remainder of the running time.  The score is almost a character in and of itself.

My best advice for you would be to go into 10 Cloverfield Lane with as little information as possible…you’ve come to the end of this review so you’re already clued in a bit but trust that I’ve saved the twists and turns of the movie for you to enjoy on your own.  A far superior effort than Cloverfield (though, to be fair, they are two totally different pictures), 10 Cloverfield Lane is worth a stroll.