31 Days to Scare ~ Halloween Treats

So here we are, it’s Halloween!  We’ve made it through 31 days of monsters, slashers, hauntings, old classics, new favorites, and just the occasional disappointment.  Overall, it’s been a good time and I thank you for taking this ghoulish journey with me.  I wanted to leave you with not just one review but with five movies to think of this year if you can’t decide on what to watch after the trick-or-treaters have gone home or if you turned out the lights early and wanted the evening to yourself.  These are some well-tested favorites of mine and even if you have your own list of movies that are Halloween traditions keep these five scary selections in mind for the future.

Hope you had a great 31 Days to Scare!  

The Facts:

Synopsis: When the king of Halloween Town, Jack Skellington, gets bored of his job preparing for Halloween every year, he discovers Christmas Town and is inspired to take control of Christmas season for a change. Unfortunately his ghoulish subjects have difficulty getting the festive holiday quite right.

Stars: Danny Elfman, Chris Sarandon, William Hickey, Glenn Shadix, Catherine O’Hara, Paul Reubens

Director: Henry Selick

Rated: PG

Running Length: 76 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review:  You’ve stuck with me all month so I’m going to let you in on a big secret that I’ve kept – I HATED this movie the first time I saw it.  I thought it was so slow, so stupid, and I couldn’t wait for it to be over.  Flash forward several years and I watched it again on video and wondered what the hell my problem was when I originally caught it in theaters.  This stop-motion animated film based on a poem by Tim Burton has now become a treasured favorite of mine, not just for its clever wit and gorgeous technical elements but for its beautiful music and story.  Watching Jack Skellington (voiced by Chris Sarandon but sung by Danny Elfman) grow weary with his reign as king of Halloweentown and finding pure joy when he discovers Christmastown is a delight whether you consider this a Halloween movie or a Christmas movie.  If you can’t decide, maybe split the difference and make it a Thanksgiving option… It does skew a bit older due to some intense sequences with impish kidnappers and a main villain that’s bug-infested, so it’s not for young children (hence the PG rating) but for kids not yet old enough for more adult fare (and PLEASE, let them be kids a while longer!) this is a good option.  You just might get sucked in too!  I just love this one.

The Facts:

Synopsis: In a tiny California town, high school students discover a strange, gelatinous substance that melts the flesh of any living creatures in its path.

Stars: Kevin Dillon, Shawnee Smith, Donovan Leitch Jr., Jeffrey DeMunn, Candy Clark, Joe Seneca

Director: Chuck Russell

Rated: R

Running Length: 95 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: You can keep the memories of 1958 original version of The Blob safely in your heart and still find immense fun with this dynamite 1988 remake.  Director Chuck Russell pivoted off the success of A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors to this wonderful update about an outer space goo that lands on the outskirts of a California town and begins to feed off of any living thing it comes in contact with.  The more it eats, the bigger it gets and it proves to be an unstoppable force capable of getting in anywhere it wants…like it has a mind of its own.  Recently released in a new Collector’s Edition BluRay from Scream Factory, The Blob is often mentioned in discussions of best modern remakes and for good reason.  It moves like a locomotive and boasts some great effects…and it’s funny too!  Aside from star Kevin Dillon’s remarkable mullet, it’s aged fairly well also.  This is a good one to have in your back pocket if you have friends coming over – it’s short enough to not take up all of your night and so surprisingly entertaining that you’ll earn points for suggesting it.  A fun ride — this is a title I always wished I was old enough to have seen when it first played in theaters.

The Facts:

Synopsis: Ichabod Crane is sent to Sleepy Hollow to investigate the decapitations of three people, with the culprit being the legendary apparition, The Headless Horseman.

Stars: Johnny Depp, Christina Ricci, Miranda Richardson, Michael Gambon, Casper Van Dien, Michael Gough

Director: Tim Burton

Rated: R

Running Length: 105 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: So here’s another one that I eventually came around to after not loving it the first time.  With Sleepy Hollow, I think my expectations were so high that it came down to me just feeling like it wasn’t the movie I wanted it to be when actually Tim Burton gave me something much more sophisticated.  I watched this one again a year or so ago and was surprised at a) how fully immersed into the time period the movie brought audiences and b) how deliciously frightening some moments were.  Burton and his often used muse Depp were firing on all cylinders here and even if Depp’s Ichabod Crane was painted as a bit more of an outcast than an odd duck, he’s still presented as a sympathetic lead audiences could relate to.  Burton hadn’t fully given himself over to being so CGI heavy and while there are large portions of the movie relying on computer effects an equal amount is practical as well.  Add to that some fun supporting performances by a stable of faces familiar to old school horror fans as well as a whodunit mystery element that diverged from Washington Irving’s original story and you have something that feels fresh.  A good date night scary movie thanks to some nice jolts, a decent amount of blood, and a quirky Gothic romance between Depp and co-star Christina Ricci.

The Facts:

Synopsis: A family heads to an isolated hotel for the winter where a sinister presence influences the father into violence, while his psychic son sees horrific forebodings from both past and future.

Stars: Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd, Scatman Crothers, Barry Nelson, Philip Stone

Director: Stanley Kubrick

Rated: R

Running Length: 144 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: You don’t have to use the November 8 release of Doctor Sleep, the Stephen King-penned sequel to his 1977 novel The Shining as an excuse to revisit Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 adaptation.  This is one movie that works any time of year but add in that extra layer of Halloween atmosphere and the tale of a man driven insane while serving as a imposing hotel’s winter caretaker and you have a doozy of a scare fest.  Kubrick infamously made alterations to the novel that King didn’t approve of but audiences haven’t seemed to care much over the years, routinely naming The Shining one of the all-time great horror films.  It’s extended running time requests your full attention and Jack Nicholson’s lead performance demands it – that indelible image of his crazed face pressed against a door as he tries to get to his unraveling wife (poor Shelley Duvall who really suffered making this film) and troubled son (a grating Danny Lloyd) is burned into many a memory.  The supernatural elements of the movie are handled by Kubrick with a mix of reality and fantasy, blurring the lines constantly so we’re as off-kilter as Nicholson is by the time he fully loses it.  It’s a completely unforgettable film that I’ve come to appreciate more the older I get.  Those wanting to do an even deeper dive into the mythology behind the movie should check out the documentary Room 237.

The Facts:

Synopsis: A group of women organize a trip into a large cave. After descending underground, the women find strange paintings and evidence of an earlier expedition, then learn they are not alone.

Stars: Shauna Macdonald, Natalie Mendoza, Alex Reid, Saskia Mulder, Nora-Jane Noone, MyAnna Buring

Director: Neil Marshall

Rated: R

Running Length: 99 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: For the strong-willed among you, The Descent is a great option to test your mettle.  It’s one of the best horror films to come out in the last few decades and remains one of the single most frightening movies I’ve seen.  I remember watching this in theaters and at one point wondering who just yelped so loudly…only to realize it was me.  I spent most of the running time either holding my breath or gripping my armrest, a relaxing experience this most definitely was not.  It was an incredibly satisfying one though, from a horror fan angle, because it delivered a nearly flawless presentation of a bad dream that turns into an all-out nightmare.  Opening with a bang before letting the audience get a breather for about 20 minutes, the action picks up again when friends get trapped in an underground cave and find out far too late they have more to worry about than finding another exit.  Who or what is down there with them is fingers-over-the-eyes scary and director Neil Marshall is unrelenting in the vice grip he puts on the audience.  Fighting for survival and with matters complicated by personal demons surfacing, the women are intelligent but not above pushing each other buttons when stressed.  This is horror at its most primal, consistently going for the ultimate nerve-shredding scare/visual and Marshall doesn’t make a wrong step.  The ending, usually a sticking point in horror movies, is handled well and I can say the movie got a better than average sequel without it spoiling anything for you.  If you can handle it, take a journey with The Descent.  One of the very few movies that can be called a modern classic and have it mean something.

Movie Review ~ Judy

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The Facts
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Synopsis: Legendary performer Judy Garland arrives in London in the winter of 1968 to perform a series of sold-out concerts.

Stars: Renée Zellweger, Michael Gambon, Rufus Sewell, Finn Wittrock, Jessie Buckley, Bella Ramsey

Director: Rupert Goold

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 118 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  It’s so strange to look back at this same point last year before Bohemian Rhapsody had been released.  The buzz on the movie wasn’t great and star Rami Malek impressed in photos as late Queen singer Freddie Mercury, but how would he be in action?  We all know how that turned out: with Malek mystifyingly sailing into a Best Actor Oscar win for a hammy performance in a heavily sanitized biopic…and he didn’t do any of his own singing.  Then came Rocketman in May of this year and the same narrative preceded it into theaters, scrutinizing leading man Taron Egerton taking on the role of rock icon Elton John.  Though not the huge box office hit that Bohemian Rhapsody was, Rocketman was better in all aspects…and Egerton did all his own singing.  Now we have Judy and it falls somewhere in the middle.  As far as biographies go, it offers a standard narrative without much flash but it’s got something the other two films doesn’t.  Renée Zellweger.

We’ve really had a huge exposure to Judy Garland in the 50 years since she died at the too-young age of 47.  There have been TV specials, TV movies, stage plays, stage musicals, drag performers, impressionists, etc., all celebrating that famous face with the instantly recognizable voice. Garland’s star burned bright in her years as a juvenile box office darling for MGM appearing in The Wizard of Oz and alongside Mickey Rooney in a number of “let’s put on a show” musicals.  While she made the transition to adult roles just fine, her time in the studio system came at a price.  Years of diet pills and amphetamines given to her by handlers laid the groundwork for substance abuse issues that would follow her for the rest of her life.  When Garland finally succumbed to her addiction, she had gone through five husbands and left behind three children.

Aside from a few flashbacks to her childhood memories at MGM involving interactions with Louis B. Mayer, a fake date with Rooney for the newsreels, and even a birthday party held months in advance that’s fit into her shooting schedule, the majority of Judy is set in 1968 when Garland came to London.  Desperate for cash and needing to be financially stable enough to continue to have custody of her two youngest children, she accepts an offer for a long-term engagement at the popular Talk of the Town nightclub.  She’s set up in a lavish hotel room and put under the watchful eye of Rosalyn Wilder (Jessie Buckley, Wild Rose) who is more than aware of Garland’s antics.  With her reputation for being late and showing up less than sober preceding her, Judy tries to stay on the straight and narrow but a lifetime of dependency is hard to quit cold turkey.  The shows suffer, she suffers.  When new flame Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock, Unbroken) appears in her life there’s a glimmer of newfound happiness but the darkness eventually creeps back in.

The movie is based on the play End of the Rainbow by Peter Quilter which I saw in its American premiere at The Guthrie Theater in 2012.  I remember it being a devastating trip through Garland’s tortured final months and was expecting the film to be in the same melancholy vein.  Surprisingly, the screenplay from Tom Edge isn’t into wallowing and feels most focused when it showcases Garland triumphing over her setbacks, many of her own making.  Yes, it’s difficult to watch multiple scenes of Garland stumbling through her sets and suffering the indignity of having food thrown at her (those cheeky Brits!) but at least the screenplay leaves out a few of the harsher incidents that were documented, including an irate patron getting up onstage and shaking Garland by her shoulders.  If anything, Edge throws in maybe one too many Good Garland moments, such as a fictionalized one where the singer accompanies a gay couple back to their flat after they waited for her at the stage door. It’s nice to see her out of her element, but it doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know about her…though Edge does tie this outing to a bit of business in the end in a rather clunky manner.

Had it not been for its leading performance, Judy would likely have been included in the pile of middling biopics that seem to pop up every few years.  However, with Renée Zellweger as Judy Garland the entire film is elevated to another level.  Over the years, Zellweger (Bridget Jones’s Baby) has somehow gotten a bad rap from people and I can’t for the life of me figure out why.  She’s reliably good in nearly everything she’s done and has multiple Oscar noms and one win to prove it.  All that she’s done before pales in comparison to the performance she gives here and it will surely knock your socks off.  She may not sing quite like Garland, (her vocal register is higher), but who really does?  She may not always look exactly like her, though the majority of the time it’s downright uncanny how much she resembles the singer. More than anything, Zellweger has found what I think is the soul of Garland and brought that forth – it goes far beyond a mere impersonation or recreation of signature moves.  The first time she sings, really sings, in character on stage is watershed moment for the movie and Zellweger as an actress.  At this point, it’s safe to say she’s a lock for an Oscar nomination and I can’t see anyone putting up much of a fight to beat her.

Yet one wishes the movie were as solid and satisfying as Zellweger’s performance.  As directed by Rupert Goold, there’s not much pizzazz to be found when Zellweger isn’t on screen so it’s a good thing she’s rarely out of sight.  Like the audiences in London all those years ago, you’re coming to see Judy Garland and Goold and company make sure she’s front and center as much as possible.  London in the late ’60s is recreated well, but it’s an awfully gloomy view of the town with the sun rarely shining.  The supporting players are serviceable, with Buckley as her increasingly unamused babysitter faring the best.  Earlier this year, Buckley also gave a thrilling musical performance in Wild Rose and might find herself competing against Zellweger for one or two awards.

Culminating with a truly breathtaking final 10 minutes that expose the heart of Garland’s deep vulnerability, it’s easy to excuse some of Judy’s more melodramatic moments along the way.  I found Zellweger to be downright mesmerizing as the troubled singer and am looking forward to watching her victory lap over the next few months.  Judy Garland sadly never won an Oscar the two times she was nominated (that she didn’t emerge victorious for 1954’s A Star is Born is an absolute crime!) but hopefully Zellweger winning one for playing Garland will make up just a teeny bit for that.

Movie Review ~ Paddington (2014)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A young Peruvian bear travels to London in search of a home. Finding himself lost and alone at Paddington Station, he meets the kindly Brown family, who offer him a temporary haven

Stars: Sally Hawkins, Hugh Bonneville, Jim Broadbent, Nicole Kidman, Ben Whishaw, Peter Capaldi, Julie Walters, Imelda Staunton, Michael Gambon

Director: Paul King

Rated: PG

Running Length: 94 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: I wouldn’t hold it against you if you took one look at the above poster for Paddington and wanted to run for the exit – with it’s on the nose tagline and been-there-seen-that antics you may write off this big screen adaptation of Michael Bond’s beloved literary bear as a kids-only affair.  That would be a mistake.

My history with Paddington goes way back to a local theater company in Minnesota.  My first theatrical experience was seeing a stage production of Paddington at the Children’s Theater Company and ever since then I’ve had an overwhelming fondness for the bear from darkest Peru that arrives in London looking for a family that will take him in.  As lovable as that other popular children’s bear, Winnie-The-Pooh, but faced with bigger city adventures, Paddington was a true bear of the world.

As this is (surprisingly) Paddington’s big-screen debut, we’re treated to a streamlined origin story that shows how our hero moves from living the wilds of Peru with his aunt and uncle (Imelda Staunton, Maleficent, and Michael Gambon) to modern day London where he’s taken in by the Brown family.  When his arrival catches the eye of a sinister taxidermist (Nicole Kidman, Stoker), it’s up to Paddington and the Browns to outwit her and avoid getting stuffed.

Had Paddington been an American production, this whole set-up might have played like the also-ran story it is.  Under the helm of a British team, however, the movie is positively charming from its spirited performances to a colorfully gorgeous (not gaudy) production design.  Populated with richly strong primary colors that ground the movie in a kind of whimsical reality instead of the pure fantasy it actually is, there’s interesting detail around every corner.

Director Peter King keeps things moving at a brisk pace, never letting the 94 minutes feel slack.  True, that does mean some slight overuse of slapstick humor but it’s a good natured fun that’s well-mannered and veddy veddy British.

Though originally voiced by Colin Firth, the voice of Paddington comes courtesy of Ben Whishaw (Skyfall) and it’s easy to see why Firth and the filmmakers parted ways.  Firth’s voice was perhaps too mature for the impish bear and Whishaw gives him a youth that rings true.  Hugh Bonneville (The Monuments Men) and Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine) are nicely paired as the head of the Brown family.  She’s a free spirit and he’s a button-ed down businessman overly protective of their two children which leads to a nice subplot about the Browns that blends nicely with Paddington’s tale.

Even saddled with a platinum bob that appears to have gone through several iterations during filmmaking, Kidman is razor sharp as the villainess of the picture.  Even when she’s popping up in slight films, Kidman keeps things interesting so while her role may veer to the “too scary for young kids” side (you decide if you want to explain taxidermy to your youngins) she’s a statuesque ice queen that’s nicely menacing.

A true unexpected delight, it’s a shame the film wasn’t released in its original Christmas slot to attract the kind of family crowds it deserves but it was quite a busy time for holiday releases.  The humor may not be crass enough to keep U.S. audiences used to fart jokes appeased but I was downright charmed by the movie.  It’s sweet, quite funny, and exceedingly well made…did I mention the visual effects deserve a round of applause?  Paddington has taken a long time to get from Peru to movie screens…and the journey was worth the wait.

The Silver Bullet {Flashback} ~ Toys (1992)

toys

Synopsis: When a military general inherits a toy making company and begins making war toys, his employees band together to stop him before he ruins the name of Zevo Toys forever.

Release Date: December 18, 1992

Thoughts: With the tragic passing of Robin Williams this week, I’ve seen a lot of people bringing up some of his more underappreciated film roles and thought I’d toss one out there as well. For every Mrs. Doubtfire Williams had a Bicentennial Man, for every Jumanji there was a What Dreams May Come, with each Dead Poets Society there was a Lee Daniels’ The Butler…the list goes on. 1992’s Toys is an oddball film to be sure that still doesn’t quite work for me but there’s something about the Oscar nominated design and the balanced performance of Williams that helps the movie click on more than a few occasions. I can’t imagine anyone else playing Williams’ zany role with quite the same amount of sensitivity – give this one a whirl and see how a good Williams can overcome a bad script.

Movie Review ~ Quartet

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The Facts:

Synopsis: At a home for retired musicians, the annual concert to celebrate Verdi’s birthday is disrupted by the arrival of Jean, an eternal diva and the former wife of one of the residents.

Stars: Maggie Smith, Billy Connolly, Michael Gambon, Pauline Collins, Tom Courtenay, Sheridan Smith

Director: Dustin Hoffman

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 98 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again…the best kind of movies are the ones that sneak up on you and take you in a different direction than you originally thought.  Like Silver Linings Playbook, Quartet is a film that on the surface (and certainly in its preview) looks like it’s rather conventional but in reality it provides a wealth of entertainment for those that like to color outside of the lines.  It takes a slower pace than one might expect and occasionally wanders off topic but it all somehow works to end up a quite satisfying experience.

I tried to resist describing Quartet as a mash-up of Downton Abbey and Fame but fans of both should see where I’m coming from once Quartet has begun.  Though it takes place in the present, it sets its action at a stately retirement home for musicians in the English countryside.  The large estate looks like a scaled down version of the famous Downton Abbey location – the various rooms and grounds provide a great setting for the story to unfold in.

The previews for Quartet are a bit misleading – it’s not an outright comedy about the antics of seniors living out their days in a community of their previous peers and rivals.  It’s also not a pained examination of what the aging process is like and how it takes its toll on all of us.  Rather, it’s a film that shows respect to its actors, characters, and subject matter by portraying these people as realistically as possible.  Even the more outsized characters (like Gambon’s puffy blowhard) seem familiar and relatable.

It’s hard to believe that Hoffman has never taken a turn behind the camera before.  The Oscar winning actor has been a lauded member of the Hollywood community for years so it’s even more interesting that he would choose such a stately British piece (by Sir Ronald Harwood, adapting his own play) to start out with.  Hoffman lets the actors play their scenes without doing anything fancy…he just lets the camera roll and some nice magic occurs.

Smith, recently self-described in an interview as ‘spikey’, has been the go-to actress for British resiliency. In 2012 she turned in a typically acerbic performance in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and her reign as queen of Downton Abbey is undisputed.  She plays a similar character here but with a grace that proves once again why she’s one of the best actresses out there.  It’s a vulnerable and intimate performance that should have been recognized by the Academy Awards.

The other three members of the quartet are played equally as strong, especially Courtenay as Smith’s ex-husband.  Her arrival stirs emotions he had long since pushed aside and forces him to confront them all over again.  Connolly plays another rascal and Collins is appropriately dotty in her comedic relief role.  Other inhabitants of the home include real life retired performers that once graced the stages all over the world.  Stick around for the credits to see pictures of the large cast throughout the years – it’s a striking montage.

Add in some nice zingers that get lobbed and Smith’s utterance of a word she’s never said in film before and you have a real winner.  While it may be slower than most will have the patience for, I was immensely satiated by Quartet thanks to Hoffman’s gentle direction, Smith’s incredible performance, and superb supporting work from a talented cast.