31 Days to Scare ~ Drag Me to Hell

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A loan officer who evicts an old woman from her home finds herself the recipient of a supernatural curse.

Stars: Alison Lohman, Justin Long, Lorna Raver, Dileep Rao, David Paymer, Adriana Barraza, Chelcie Ross, Reggie Lee, Molly Cheek, Bojana Novakovic

Director: Sam Raimi

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 99 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: So here we are, the final day of the annual 31 Days to Scare and we’ve covered everything from maniacs to vampires, monsters to animated mystery-solving dogs.  We’ve looked at series that took us inside Bly Manor and eight strange tales from Monsterland and caught up with a TV movie from the early ‘70s.  They haven’t all been winners, but some have been pleasant surprises.  In the end, I wanted to sidestep an older feature and go with a title that I think will stand the test of time and be one that viewers several generations from now will dust off and enjoy.  I also wanted to pick something that wasn’t so extreme and too off limits for everyone but would still give fans of the genre a good rattle to keep them happy.

Narrowing down the list for my final title, I kept finding my thoughts drifting to Drag Me to Hell.  The 2009 Sam Raimi-directed feature checked off all the requirements to keep it rising to the top of the pile and that’s how I knew it was sort of the perfect movie to wrap up my month-long film fright fest.  Seeing it for the first time in theaters was one of those deliriously fun experiences I’ll never forget.  I had somehow missed it’s opening weekend and several subsequent weeks after but heard so much good buzz about it from friends and even co-workers that I knew I had to get to the theater post-haste to see if all the good notices were true.  Not only did the film live up to its reputation, it became something of a litmus test I used for my own friends…showing it to others  over the years has been a real treat and almost as good as seeing it for the first time all over again.

Mild-mannered Christine (Alison Lohman) is tired of not getting ahead at her job as a loan officer at a no-name bank in Los Angeles.  Though she has an understanding boyfriend (Justin Long, Tusk) and a supportive boss (David Paymer, Where’d You Go, Bernadette) that tries to coach her, she just can’t be the cutthroat shark that he needs in an upper level employee.  That all changes when she musters up the courage to deny a loan to a kindly old lady (Lorna Raver) requesting an extension on her mortgage.  Though the older woman begs her to reconsider in an act of desperation, Christine remains firm, impressing her boss.  It does not, however, impress the woman who is shamed by this rebuke and returns later that evening to place a gypsy curse on poor Christine.  Now, Christine has a demon after her wanting to, you guessed it, drag her to hell within three days’ time, but if she can pass the curse on to someone else, she can be saved.  Consulting a mystic (Dileep Rao) who eventually brings her to a psychic (Adriana Barraza, The 33) that has dealt with this evil force before, Christine is put through a number of tests and trials on her way to uncover more information about the origin of the curse, the whereabouts of the old lady, and who might be a good candidate to pawn her fast approaching demon off to before it’s too late.

Director Raimi (Indian Summer) had been working on this film long before he ever got caught up in the web of his Spider-Man trilogy but put it aside to focus on those films.  First making a name for himself with his landmark film The Evil Dead (itself a perennial horror classic), Raimi put his name on a number of interesting projects of the same variety before really going the major studio route in the mid ‘90s (like Darkman…remember that?) and onward.  While Drag Me to Hell is a slickly produced film released from a big studio (Universal) it doesn’t have blockbuster expectations tacked onto it, it definitely feels more in line with Raimi’s earlier indie work and that’s a very good thing.

From the opening prologue that gives you information and characters from the past that won’t make sense until a good deal later, Raimi’s film (co-written with his brother, Ivan) is in constant motion with plot developments clipping along at a good pace.  Crafting each truly terrifying scene like an action set-piece from one of his superhero movies, he has a way of building upon each shriek so that at some point you have to give over to amazed laughter that it’s still going on.  Raimi just isn’t content with one scare…I mean, why get a single scream from the audience when you could potentially get half a dozen with six well-timed jolts?  It shouldn’t work as well as it does but expect your nerves to be fried when this one is over.

Originally set to star Ellen Page, I think it’s almost better that Lohman stepped in because she’s such a bland actress.  Now hold up for a second.  Before you get on my case about that statement, let me clarify.  Lohman has always held a certain blankness for me and it gets the desired effect for some films but doesn’t work for others.  Here, it’s great, because Christine is so awkward and unsure at the beginning that Lohman fits into her soft-spoken essence easily, building her confidence slowly as the movie progresses and Christine has a litany of horrors befall her.  There’s also a disgustingly hysterical running gag of her mouth getting filled, mid-scream, with whatever slop, goo, slime, or secretion is being vomited up by the demon or other nasty creature she encounters.

This is just pure fun from beginning to end.  It’s funny, it’s clever, it winks so hard at the audience you can almost hear it batting its eyelashes at you, and Raimi isn’t afraid to let viewers bask in some very strange moments along the way.  Like the goat.  That’s all I’ll say.  The goat.  Raimi clearly knows his audience and while it isn’t strictly for The Evil Dead gang, it could be something they could watch with their teenage children instead of showing them that more intense film.  Drag Me to Hell is strongly recommended not just as a superior horror film but as entertainment at a high level in general.  Fire it up on Halloween for your guests…you’ll have a blast.

 

31 Days to Scare ~ The Birds

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A San Francisco socialite pursues a man to a small Northern California town that takes a turn for the bizarre when birds of all kinds suddenly begin to attack people.

Stars: Rod Taylor, Tippi Hedren, Suzanne Pleshette, Jessica Tandy, Veronica Cartwright, Ethel Griffies, Charles McGraw, Joe Mantell, Elizabeth Wilson, Doodles Weaver, Richard Deacon

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 119 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review:  I’m not one of those people that can watch films by the great director Alfred Hitchcock over and over, endlessly analyzing the way he constructed shots and drove narratives in exciting new ways.  I prefer to take long-ish stretches between viewings because not only does it help me appreciate the movie when I return to it, I also come back just a little hazy on all the plot mechanics.  This helps achieve somewhat of a “fresh take” on repeat viewings.  I should also probably confess that I’ve yet to make it through the entire Hithcock catalog, though I’m slowly ticking them off as the years go by.  Shamefully, it took a pandemic to help me watch North by Northwest for the first time!

Anyway, this all goes to say that I can’t even remember the last time I’ve watched 1963’s The Birds from start to finish.  I’ve caught bits and pieces here and there, sure, but taking the whole thing in has been likely decades in the making.  What I do remember is that the first time I saw it as a teenager I found it incredibly slow and talky, not the thrilling horror as promised.  I mean, of course I did!  At that point, all I wanted was to get to the bird-killing action and seeing people running away from beaks and clawed feet.  What’s all this banter between the striking blonde (Tippi Hedren) and stone-jawed hunky leading man (Rod Taylor) got to do with flesh-craving birds?

Viewing it as an adult who has a more rounded view of cinema and of the oeuvre of the director, I understand the structure of the screenplay of The Birds and how Hitchcock uses the first hour or so to establish time, place, and character.  Without these factors being cemented, the last half of the film wouldn’t work nearly as well because we’d have no idea of the isolation felt by the people fending off flocks of seagulls.  It makes perfect sense to stroll through a curiously event-free 25 minutes before the first angry bird makes its presence known, that way we’ve gotten to know flirty Melanie (Hedren) who has tracked twinkle-eyed Mitch (Taylor) to his weekend retreat in Bodega Bay, California.

Melanie’s arrival appears to coincide with a strange convergence of birds who seem to escalate their assaults rather quickly on the unprepared seaside town.  This allows Hitchcock to stage some masterfully suspenseful scenes, rendered with a mix of live and animatronic birds as well as more that were added in later using a state-of-the-art special effect.  No one is safe in this story, not even the town’s children who become the first targets of a terrifying mob of razor beaked crows.  As the birds continue to destroy Bodega Bay and its residents without any explanation as to why, Melanie winds up with Mitch, his mother Lydia (Jessica Tandy, Still of the Night), and his younger sister Cathy (Veronica Cartwright, Alien) in their remote home far from the town and any true safety.

I still find the film overly talky at points, not so much in the opening when it makes sense but in that final stretch when the momentum should buoyed a bit more.  Hitchcock lets the dramatics of Evan Hunter’s screenplay (Hunter was the pseudonym for popular crime author Ed McBain) be prioritized over sustained suspense which is disappointing considering how truly scary the movie is at times.  Perhaps it was done to give the audience of the time a way to catch their breath but viewed now it comes off like a train that starts to slide back down a hill just as it makes it to the end of a wild ride of twists and turns.  While it did diverge quite significantly from author Daphne du Maurier’s original short story, I think everyone made the right call to tweak it the way they did.  It does have a number of unforgettable images, like a wooden door gradually being pecked away and Hedren’s wild eyes as she is set upon by a swarm of flying evil.

The performances are impressive too, with Hedren one of the more fun “Hitchcock Blondes”; she really earns her paycheck late in the film for a bird attack scene that took a week to film and sent her to the hospital for exhaustion afterward.  Brawny Stewart was never a huge A-lister but he’s a good match of Hedren and the film, though his heavily bronzed face makes him look as old as his mother at times.  Tandy is most remembered for her late in life roles when she played a spry elder so it’s wonderful to watch her forty years before she would win her Best Actress Oscar.  Cartwright and Pleshette have their nice moments but you can’t mention The Birds and not call out the delightfully droll Ethel Griffies as Mrs. Bundy, the natty townslady who just so happens to be an expert on birds.  Her small scene reveals a great deal about the habits of the winged creatures…which is directly contradicted by the unexplained behavior we then witness for the next 60 minutes.

You can see why this is often called the most straight-forward scary film Alfred Hitchcock made because it often pulls no punches when it comes to vicious bird attacks. I’m sure PETA would have a field day with it now but the live birds look positively horrific flapping about the actors and dive bombing for their fingers and faces.  Though not in 3D, it gives off the effect of it by a constant swirl of movement which is disorienting but not hard to follow.  The director earned the title The Master of Suspense for a reason and The Birds is the movie you can point directly to if anyone questions it.  All they have to do is watch the scene where a murder of crows slowly gathers on a jungle gym behind an unsuspecting Hedren – you can literally feel your heart beating faster.  This is a great option if you’re in the mood for a horror film elevated to the highest level of sophistication.

Movie Review ~ You Should Have Left


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Strange events plague a couple and their young daughter when they rent a secluded countryside house that has a dark past.

Stars: Kevin Bacon, Amanda Seyfried, Avery Tiiu Essex

Director: David Koepp

Rated: R

Running Length: 93 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  Ever since movie theaters shut down in early April, there has been much discussion over the big summer blockbusters that have seen their release dates shuffled around or delayed indefinitely.  Buzzed about franchise pictures set to make studios millions (billions, potentially) are now waiting in the wings, dependent on a vaccine for the virus that kept audiences in lockdown to emerge.  Because, let’s be honest, no one really feels completely confident about heading into a enclosed space with a bunch of unknown factors still in play.  I sure don’t, that’s for sure.

So instead of heading to the theaters this summer film fans have been doing their movie-going with their remotes and that’s been a boon to smaller films that might not have received the recognition had they had to compete with movies that had a bigger advertising budget.  That’s why for a few weekends a month ago the smaller horror film The Wretched was the number one movie according to the limited figures available…it also helped that the indie fright flick was fairly decent.  The other difference between a movie like The Wretched and the new thriller You Should Have Left is that The Wretched was likely always going to be a direct to streaming film while You Should Have Left had loftier plans from the start.  The Blumhouse production shifted its release from theaters to On Demand and that plan will most certainly help overall, not just because far more people will see it due to a lack of other similar available content but I think it won’t be judged as harshly as it would have been as a theatrical offering.

Adapted by director David Koepp (Premium Rush) from a 2017 novella by German writer Daniel Kehlmann, You Should Have Left follows Theo Conroy (Kevin Bacon, Patriots Day), his actress wife Susanna (Amanda Seyfried, Scoob!) and their daughter Ella (Avery Essex) as they take a few weeks away from her busy filming schedule for a family retreat in Wales.  Theo’s visit to Susanna’s set early on gives us an indication not only of his jealous side but also hints that he’s famous in his own right…and not for anything particularly pleasant.  The house the family rents is nicely secluded and a wonder of modern design, with clean lines and confusing hallways that are easy to get turned around in.  Right away, Theo can sense there’s something off but can’t quite figure out what’s amiss…and a strange visit into town with its peculiar townspeople doesn’t settle his paranoid nerves any.

As is often the case lately, the first hour of the movie contains some genuine interest and sincere head-scratching moments as Theo starts to unravel the longer he spends within the house.  Is it related to his troubled past and has the dwelling awakened a sinister spirit out to reclaim something from him?  Or is his long gestating lack of confidence in the sincerity of his much-younger wife bubbling to the surface at a most inopportune time?  Basically…is he imagining the house is designed to confuse or has he managed to find a rental property built on top of the devil’s doorway?

If only Koepp could have kept up with the suspense, You Should Have Left might have been a nifty little film that truly delivered.  As it stands, it winds up falling apart in short order and disappointingly so.  Koepp has explored similar themes of isolation/seclusion like this in his previous films Secret Window from 2004 and 1996’s The Trigger Effect so this should be familiar territory to navigate for him.  Maybe the problem is Koepp’s adaptation, which as far as I can tell added in cumbersome elements that seems to have taken Kehlmann’s original simplicity in storytelling and weighed it down with more emotional baggage.  Adding that in complicates things and makes the movie accountable for explaining too much…about Theo, about Susanna, about the house and its origins.  Though it’s handsomely made, it’s in that final half hour where precious little makes sense and Koepp loses control of what up until then had been a precise thriller.

It’s good, then, that we have Bacon on hand to sell what at times is a little hard to swallow.  Bacon is such a dependable presence in even the smallest of roles, it’s nice to see him back in a leading role and re-teamed with Koepp after their superior effort, Stir of Echoes, in 1999.  Even if the film starts to go off the rails, Bacon stays on track and resists the urge to overdo things.  (It’s interesting to note, if the IMDb trivia page is to be believed, Nicolas Cage was originally attached to star – I can only imagine how he would have handled some of the twists of the final act.)  I’m glad the script makes a pointed issue of the age discrepancy between Bacon and Seyfried, their 27-year age gap is very much a piece of the puzzle…though it is still awkward to imagine them as a couple.

For a weekend option, I can imagine that You Should Have Left would be a decent choice for those that have exhausted their Netflix and Amazon Prime queues and need a jolt of newer release.  It’s better than a number of Blumhouse productions that have found their way to theaters and while it doesn’t stand up in competition to their slick update on The Invisible Man earlier this year, it’s watchable more often than not.

The Silver Bullet ~ Candyman (2020)

Synopsis: Candyman, a murderous soul with a hook for a hand, is accidentally summoned to reality by a skeptic grad student researching the monster’s myth.

Release Date:  June 12, 2020

Thoughts: As I recalled in my 31 Days to Scare review, 1992’s Candyman remains one of the rare movies that still manages to frighten me to this day.  It scared me terribly when I first saw it and I get a little rush of sweat in my brow when I know I’m going to be seeing it again.  It’s just that well-crafted of a horror film.  So I was more than a little curious when a remake was announced, thinking it was just another in the long-line of ill-conceived reboots that no one asked for.  It’s when Oscar-winning screenwriter and surging director Jordan Peele (Us) came on board to co-write the script and director Nia DaCosta signed on to direct that I really got interested and if this first trailer is any indication, this 2020 Candyman is going to pack that same scary sting as the original.  With an enviable cast including Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (Aquaman), Teyonah Parris (Chi-Raq), Colman Domingo (If Beale Street Could Talk) and even original cast member Vanessa Williams (no, not that one) returning as what looks to be the same character this one is something to look forward to.  Looking over the cast on IMDb reveals Peele is either making a sequel ala the recent Halloween or remaking the original with a twist…either way I’m in for some sweet screams.

Movie Review ~ Dolittle


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Dr. John Dolittle lives in solitude behind the high walls of his lush manor in 19th-century England. His only companionship comes from an array of exotic animals that he speaks to on a daily basis. But when young Queen Victoria becomes gravely ill, the eccentric doctor and his furry friends embark on an epic adventure to a mythical island to find the cure.

Stars: Robert Downey Jr., Antonio Banderas, Michael Sheen, Emma Thompson, Tom Holland, Ralph Fiennes, Selena Gomez, Rami Malek, Octavia Spencer, Kumail Nanjiani, John Cena, Marion Cotillard, Craig Robinson, Frances de la Tour, Jessie Buckley, Harry Collett

Director: Stephen Gaghan

Rated: PG

Running Length: 101 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: When someone is so closely associated with a role or a franchise, it’s always interesting to see what they will do when they venture out of that safe paycheck cocoon.  Will it be something radically different or could it be another project similar in tone, which suggests the star enjoyed being in that comfortable space of little challenge but big reward?  I mention this because as the release date of Dolittle (finally) approaches, I’m reminded that this is the first non-Iron Man role Robert Downey Jr. has played since 2014’s The Judge.  That’s five movies in a row where he’s been the same superhero, albeit one that he’s had the chance to add some dimension to as the role progressed.

By the time we got to Avengers: Endgame, Downey Jr. had turned Tony Stark/Iron Man into more than just another world savior stock character, giving him the same character development (and, I’d say more) than other roles he played previously.  Heck, there was even a concerted effort to get him an Oscar nomination for his efforts until he poo-poo-ed the idea, wishing to just let his involvement end on the high note and not have to make award season schmoozing part of the package deal.  Besides, he knew he had Dolittle on the horizon and perhaps he wanted to ensure he had as little time in front of the press as possible.

If you pay attention at all to Hollywood buzz, you’ve likely heard about the tumultuous journey this film has had making it to theaters.  A new adaptation of Hugh Lofting’s quirky character first created in the early 20th century (said to have been written in the trenches of The Great War), it finished filming in June of 2018 and after a poor test screening went through an unheard of 20+ days of reshoots in April of 2019.  Languishing without a release date for some time, Universal eventually gave it the troubling roll out of January 2020…a notorious month known as a dumping ground for movies that are problematic.  Suddenly, this 175 million movie directed by an Oscar winner with a blockbuster star in the leading role and a host of big names providing voices to CGI animals looked like it was confirmed to be the turkey everyone had thought it was.

Yet after seeing the film early on a Saturday morning with a theater full of children I’m sure had been up far longer than I had, I found Dolittle to be not as bad as I would have guessed and not as much of a write-off as many will expect.  It’s far from a great film and certainly not the franchise starter I’m positive Universal wanted it to be (hence why it’s been unloaded hastily) but as a 101 minutes of family friendly entertainment, it more than fits the bill.

With narration provided by parrot Polly (Emma Thompson, Late Night), we are introduced to the world of Dr. John Dolittle through an animated prologue showing how he first learned how he could talk to animals.  It’s here we also learn why he is so depressed at the beginning of the film, having long since shut himself away from the outside world, content to spend his days with just the company of his animals.  He plays chess with gorilla Chee-Chee (Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody) with mice as the pieces and is tended to by wise dog Jip (Tom Holland, Spider-Man: Homecoming) and resourceful duck Dap-Dap (Octavia Spencer, Luce).  Years of solitude has left him looking like a wholly mammoth, his hermit-like attitude overtaking every facet of living.

Urged on by his mischievous friends and his own curiosity, local lad Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett, Dunkirk) sneaks into the walled off grounds of the Dolittle estate on the very day Dolittle is called on by a representative from Queen Victoria’s court.  It seems the young Queen (Jessie Buckley, Wild Rose) who took such a liking to Dolittle in his prime has been felled by a strange illness and needs his special expertise to find a cure.  After catching Tommy on his property but finding a kindred spirit of sorts within the boy, Dolittle (after a good tidying up, including a haircut courtesy of the beaks and teeth of his animals…ew) brings him to the Queen’s palace where they soon embark on a dangerous mission into unknown territory in hunt of rare fruit from a fabled tree.  Their travels will lead them to far off places where Dolittle will need to call on not just his talents but the special skills of his animal friends if they are to save the young royal from a sinister saboteur.

For a movie that has been delayed nearly nine months from its original release date, Dolittle feels like it has arrived at a relatively fortuitous time.  There’s not a lot of other solid family options out there presently and perhaps the extra time and reshoots helped give the movie the structure, however lopsided, it manages to construct.  Director and co-screenwriter Stephen Gaghan won an Oscar for writing 2000’s Traffic and directed George Clooney to a Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 2005’s Syriana but I doubt there will be the same success for the writing or acting in Dolittle.  The bad guys, Jim Broadbent (Paddington 2), Michael Sheen (Passengers), Antonio Banderas (Pain & Glory), are all etched in crayon that’s been pressed hard on the paper.  They leave an impression but it’s never quite clear what they set out to create.  Thankfully, Collett isn’t one of those effervescently precocious child stars that Hollywood produces by the sackful so he’s a good sidekick but the movie outright wastes Buckley, relegating her to bedrest for much of the movie.  The voice talent don’t always feel like they match up well with their animal counterparts, like Selena Gomez (The Dead Don’t Die) lending voice to a lanky giraffe, though I did get a nice laugh out of Ralph Fiennes (Official Secrets) as a short-fused tiger harboring a love-hate relationship with the good doctor.

Credit to Downey Jr. (In Dreams) for not simply sailing through the film on his laurels.  Yes, most of the movie he’s definitely flying on cruise control but it never requires more of him in the first place.  What he does bring to the event is that ease of emotional access when the laughs stop and its time to get serious.  He also never gives off the impression he’s above the material…I mean, at one point he’s shoulder deep in the business end of a stopped-up fire-breathing dragon so there’s little opportunity to maintain a sense of dignity in those situations.

Stick around for a few minutes into the credits, not just to see some colorful paintings of the cast set to a new song from singer/songwriter Sia but for a bit of closure the movie holds back until that point.  Aside from that, I’m not sure what else could be done with this new Dolittle beyond what Gaghan has given.  At one point my mind drifted to thinking if a sequel to this was possible and while it could definitely be created I’d question if it would benefit any of the characters (or sanity of the actors) to revisit the Dolittle estate and the animals within.  I guess I should ask the animals what they’d think of it all…

Movie Review ~ 1917

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Two young British privates during the First World War are given an impossible mission: deliver a message deep in enemy territory that will stop 1,600 men, and one of the soldier’s brothers, from walking straight into a deadly trap.

Stars: Dean-Charles Chapman, George MacKay, Mark Strong, Andrew Scott, Richard Madden, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch

Director: Sam Mendes

Rated: R

Running Length: 119 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (10/10)

Review: As we come to the end of the second decade of the 21st century, many have been looking back at the past ten years in movies and musing on how the medium has evolved.  Could we have predicted ten years ago that a service that used to deliver DVDs by mail would become a heavy-hitter film studio producing movies that are becoming more and more friendly with Oscar?  Would we know that the biggest hits in the end-of-the-year box office tally would be dominated by franchise pictures and the mid-budgeted flicks that kept theaters packed in the ’90s would largely be wiped out?  Even the way we watch movies has changed from having to physically go to the video store to nowadays when we can view thousands of choices at the press of a button.   What hasn’t changed is the process of getting out of your house, battling traffic, and sitting shoulder to shoulder with others to have a shared experience of movie-going.  Sure, the seats are reserved now and more comfortable (and heated!) than your chairs at home but there’s no comparison to being in a cinema seeing a movie on the big screen.

Films about the first World War aren’t as common as those set in WWII (like 2019’s Midway), Vietnam (2015’s documentary Last Days in Vietnam), or in more recent wars that still play a large part in our daily news headlines.  The Peter Jackson-produced documentary They Shall Not Grow Old was a staggering piece of filmmaking using real footage from the first World War but for me it wasn’t able to overcome some narrative challenges that were almost unavoidable considering the approach.  That’s why the imminent arrival of movie like 1917 is so exciting to me.  Here’s a large scale war film that, overdone as the genre may be, strives to be something unique and not just because of its well-publicized “one-shot” cinematography.

By 1917, the “war to end all wars” had been going on for four years and had claimed thousands of casualties.  Shortly after the German armies had retreated from their trenches in France, officials received intel the German drawback from their enemies was a well-set trap and now a British battalion of over 1,500 men was walking straight into an ambush.  Two soldiers, Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman, Blinded by the Light) and Schofield (George MacKay, How I Live Now) are called up and tasked with delivering news of this ensnarement to the front lines before men are sent to a slaughter they are unaware of.  Though the stakes are already sky high for the British forces, the importance of success is even greater for Blake because his brother is in the company that will be sent out on the attack first, facing certain death.  The two young men set off on a breathless mission through enemy territory that will bring them up through idyllic countryside that masks hidden dangers and enemy-built trenches designed to slow their progress.

Based partly on the recollections of his grandfather, director Sam Mendes (Skyfall) co-wrote 1917 with Krysty Wilson-Cairns and the two have crafted a corker of a war movie that hits the ground running and doesn’t offer much reprieve over 119 minutes.  That forward motion is largely a direct result of Mendes working with Oscar-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins (Blade Runner 2049) to shoot the entirety of the picture as if it was one long interrupted take.  Without these obvious moments of cuts, the effect on a viewer is something akin to a relentless rollercoaster with moments of flattened cruising that are small respites to harrowing drops and spins.  It’s clear there are moments when Deakins had to cut to use a different camera but aside from a few obvious splices they are hidden so well you’d have to be focused solely on finding these moments to really see them.

Utilizing state-of-the-art technique, “how’d they do that” camera moves, and lighting nighttime scenes to increase their intensity tenfold, it could have been easy for the movie to become all about this trickery but thankfully everyone involved doesn’t let the technology overshadow the story.  Mendes helps this along with the casting of Chapman and especially MacKay as the young men on a mission who risk their lives to get their message into the right hands.  Chapman’s bravado at the outset hides the fear of arriving too late to save his brother while the more world-weary MacKay has his eyes further opened as he encounters civilians and other troops along the way.  The two aren’t totally familiar faces to audiences and that works to the advantage of the immediacy and “anything can happen” created by their mission.  The inclusion of more known names/faces such as Mark Strong (Shazam!), Andrew Scott (Victor Frankenstein), Richard Madden (Rocketman), Colin Firth (Magic in the Moonlight), and Benedict Cumberbatch (Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch) could be seen as a distraction but all play their roles succinctly without much preening for the camera.

This is really a boffo film that knocked my socks off.  I’m not usually so enamored of movies about the war but there’s something in the humanity on display from Mendes and Wilson-Cairns that moved me on a whole other level.  Aside from the jaw-dropping filming from Deakins that is truly incredible (if he doesn’t win the Oscar this year, I’d be stunned) there is rarely a frame that feels out of place or extraneous.  While some war movies can drag on and be a punishing sit, 1917 uses its running time wisely by never letting the characters (or the audience) rest too much.  As I watched the film I became conscious that I was holding my breath for a few reasons.  First off, the tension created was so spot-on and could only be achieved by a filmmaker who knows what he’s doing.  The second is that I didn’t want this spell to be broken and for Mendes and his team to make a misstep.  Thankfully, I believe Mendes achieved the mission he set out for and 1917 is one of the very best movies of the year.

Movie Review ~ Cats

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A tribe of cats called the Jellicles must decide yearly which one will ascend to the Heaviside Layer and come back to a new Jellicle life.

Stars: Francesca Hayward, Robbie Fairchild, Taylor Swift, Jennifer Hudson, James Corden, Ian McKellen, Idris Elba, Laurie Davidson, Mette Towley, Judi Dench, Rebel Wilson, Jason Derulo, Ray Winstone

Director: Tom Hooper

Rated: PG

Running Length: 110 minutes

Trailer Review: Here and Here

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review: The much anticipated arrival of the long in the works big screen adaptation of the stage musical CATS is forcing many of its closeted fans out of their cozy hiding nooks.  Before, we were able to slink away with our vinyl record of the London cast (or, if you’re an extra special fan like me, a coveted CD copy of the French cast with its shattering version of the hit anthem Memory) but now…now we’d have to stand up and be counted.  I’ve always been and out and proud supporter of CATS the musical (and the animal), having been taken to countless tours of it growing up and even seeing it solo in its original London home, revolving seatbank and all (look it up…you don’t know what you were missing).  It was glorious having those actors in wild make-up, punk wigs, leotards, and legwarmers writhing around the stage and the aisles in an athletic song and dance spectacle.

Rumors about the musical making the transition from stage to screen had been going on for so long it even became a joke in the play Six Degrees of Separation, with a charming young man conning a gaggle of socialites with promises of cameos in the upcoming film version his father was working on.  Yet no one was quite able to figure out how to translate what was happening on the stage into cinematic form.  Should it be entirely animated?  Do you use the original costumes?  Do you use real cats and just animate their mouths?  A gussied up version of the stage show was filmed but, while professionally made and performed, it lacked that immediacy that gave the live experience it’s spark.

Along comes director Tom Hooper, an Oscar winner for The King’s Speech and riding high off bringing another blockbuster musical to the screen, Les Miserables.  Supposedly, Hooper had a special affinity for CATS and had long wanted to bring the show to theaters and, seizing on the opportunity along with screenwriter Lee Hall (Rocketman), partnered with Universal Studios and Amblin Entertainment to finally make it happen.  A star-studded cast of obvious and not-so-obvious names were gathered and using new motion capture technology were turned into dancing felines, trilling out the ear worm-y songs from Andrew Lloyd Webber based on the poems of T.S. Eliot.

It’s hard to know where to begin when talking about Hooper’s film version of CATS.  A surreally bizarre journey through the backalleys of London that follows a group of cats on one special night, I guess the emotion that best describes the experience for me is uncomfortable. There’s something off-putting from the start as the overture plays introducing us to this miniature world of alley cats (known as Jellicles) that come to see new arrival Victoria (Francesca Hayward) who has been tossed aside by her owner.  Guided by Munkustrap (Robbie Fairchild), Victoria is introduced to the various cats of the group, some who are competing that very evening to be chosen by Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench, All is True) to go to the Heaviside Layer, a mystical place where Jellice cats are reborn once a year.

There’s Jennanydots (Rebel Wilson, The Hustle), a pudgy housecat and orchestrator of a Busby Berkely dance routine with mice and cockroaches, the plump and pompous Bustopher Jones (James Corden, Into the Woods) who prides himself on being the ‘stoutest of cats’, and the fast-tapping Skimbleshanks (Steven McRae) a cat toiling the days on the railway.  During the night, Victoria meets the suave Rum Tum Tugger (Jason Derulo), the aging Gus (Ian McKellen, Beauty and the Beast), and the sometime magician Mr. Mistoffelees (Laurie Davidson, The Good Liar) before running afoul of the troublemaking Macvity (Idris Elba, Miss Sloane) and Bombalurina (Taylor Swift, The Lorax, turning up over an hour into the movie and not worth the wait), his henchwoman.  Watching on the sidelines is Grizabella (Jennifer Hudson, Chi-Raq) a former glamour cat on a downward spiral who has been ostracized from the group.

Like the stage show, the movie is pretty much sung-through, with 23 songs to cover over 110 minutes, including a new tune written by Swift and Lloyd Webber that didn’t even make the Oscar shortlist.  Most are handled with serviceable panache from the cast, though Corden manages to overplay an already exaggerated character and Wilson positively butchers her comic number with a reedy, unpleasant squeak of a voice.  Derulo has fun with his song but it’s so broken up by the frantic camera work and choreography that it doesn’t show off his full range.   Dench, originally cast as Grizabella in the first London production before snapping her Achilles Tendon during rehearsals, has a full circle moment here appearing as the wise, revered matriarch of the herd.  The voice is shaky and breathy but manages to make sense thanks to her performance of the songs themselves.  I’ve been a bit put off by the Grizabella’s getting younger and younger over the years and questioned Hudson’s casting at first but she winds up turning in the most emotionally grounded and guileless rendition of Memory I’ve heard in a long time.  Perhaps the intensity is turned a little high too early, but it worked for me – transcending the strange CGI cat they’ve turned her into.

Ah, the CGI.  I’ll say this.  Some of the designs work better than others.  Dench for instance, looks fairly convincing and it’s mostly because she’s not required to move much.  Anytime there’s motion involved the effect becomes quite startling and while Hooper filmed the actors on an actual set they’ve done something in the conversion to kitty that makes it look like they’ve been Photoshopped on a background…and not convincingly so.  The look of the cats are a bit strange too, some are wearing clothes while others are, I’m guessing, naked.  Wilson has one scene where she’s flat on her back, legs open, scratching her inner thighs and I audibly gasped.  What is this all about?  What made the dancing work well on stage was the impressive choreography executed with style – in Hooper’s computer generated world the cats perform Andy Blankenbuehler’s sinewy moves with some digital assistance.  That doesn’t evoke much awe.

I wonder if CATS was ever destined to be made into a good movie or if this is the best Hollywood had to offer.  I definitely think the effects could have been kicked up a notch; we should be further along than what’s on display here and the best scenes in a movie with actors turned into singing CGI cats shouldn’t be when they’re standing still.  Yet it’s these very moments that have stuck in my, uh, memory more than the sequences that I felt were ghastly at first watch.  I wouldn’t discourage anyone from seeing this, it’s absolutely something you should see just to say you saw it…but don’t judge the show by the movie.  And get that French CD if you don’t believe me!

Movie Review ~ Black Christmas (2019)


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Hawthorne College is quieting down for the holidays. One by one, sorority girls on campus are being killed by a stalker. But the killer is about to discover that this generation’s women aren’t willing to become hapless victims as they fight back.

Stars: Imogen Poots, Brittany O’Grady, Lily Donoghue, Aleyse Shannon, Cary Elwes, Caleb Eberhardt, Simon Mead, Madeleine Adams

Director: Sophia Takal

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 92 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: This hasn’t been a great year for remakes of horror films.  Earlier this year, I suffered greatly at the hands of a hideous attempt to put a new spin on Child’s Play and the results are going to wind up on my list of worst movies of the year.  I was especially worried about another remake of 1974’s classic slasher film Black Christmas because it had so much strange buzz surrounding it as the release date was drawing near.  Though it had already been remade once in 2006 in a gory mess that strayed in parts from the original storyline, this new version appeared to diverge completely from Bob Clark’s plot of sorority girls menaced by a prank phone caller who turns deadly.

Then the trailer came out and from the looks of it gave away some rather large plot twists and soon after that it was revealed the film would be released with the more teen-friendly PG-13 rating…and that’s when the guts really hit the fan.  Now, I’m not of the belief that horror needs to carry an R rating to be considered worthy but even I was surprised this was aiming to land in a softer place for audiences.  The filmmakers at Blumhouse countered that it was always filmed with the intention it was to be released as a PG-13 film but that seems like an easy excuse…and from what I saw in the finished movie totally not true…but more on that later.  The real kiss of death is when the studio didn’t screen the film for critics before its release – a strange thing to hold back on, especially considering the truly awful garbage Blumhouse has willingly previewed in advance.  So there I was for the first showing on a Thursday night, the third person in the audience, prepared for the worst lump of cinema coal.

Guess what?  This is a remake that doesn’t go on the naughty list.

Surprisingly, this is a sharp and conscientious horror film that’s very of the moment in this era we’re living in.  Directed by Sophia Takal and written by Takal and April Wolfe, it’s a pro-female update to a property that hasn’t treated women as much more than objects that scream before they’re slaughtered horribly.  There’s death and destruction in this remake but it’s not as easily-won as other similar genre titles and that creates some tension that was sorely lacking in the previous attempt.  You have to wait your turn in Takal’s feminist take with men and their interests coming second to providing fully realized female characters that have personas, flaws, and passions of their own.

Opening with a kill that has a clever finish, we jump right into the final days of school at Hawthorne College before Christmas break.  Sorority sisters Riley (Imogen Poots, Green Room), Kris (Aleyse Shannon), Marty (Lily Donoghue), and Jesse (Brittany O’Grady) will be sticking around for the holiday and plan an evening dinner that is upstaged by ominous texts that begin to arrive from an account belonging to the problematic founder of the college.  Said to have a past tied to black magic as well as slavery, the founder has ties to a popular fraternity on campus…a fraternity previously led by a person Riley has a traumatic history with.  When he returns to initiate new pledges, it brings up bad memories for Riley and it’s also when a rash of killings begin.

If you’ve seen the preview (I’d advise you not to), you’ll already know most of what transpires next but there’s a few extra layers that Takal and Wolfe have held back for the final moments.  At a trim 92 minutes (including credits) it’s a fast-moving film, given forward motion by some exceedingly good performances and smart use of creepy spaces to play around in.  Takal and Wolfe get a tad lost in their resolution, trying to get a few too many ideas shoved into the final moments but they get a solid A for effort in their delivery of said finale.  It’s a bold way to summarize not just the film but a lot of other things happening to woman’s voices and equality in the world today.  I recently reviewed another feminist thriller, Knives and Skin, and it wasn’t able to get to its point in the succinct way Takal and Wolfe were…and Black Christmas was 30 minutes shorter.

Where the film feels like a letdown is in the lack of standard horror elements that appear to have been filmed but later removed.  I don’t fully believe the movie was meant to be PG-13, there are too many well-shot sequences in the movie to excuse away the shoddy editing anytime a weapon makes contact with a head/body/appendage/etc .  Also, you can tell there’s been looping done after the fact to tone down some language “jerk off” was mysteriously changed to “junk off”…why?  These pulled punches start to add up in a frustrating fashion near the end, here’s hoping a fully uncut version is revealed at some point.

You get the impression Takal and Wolfe have watched a bunch of horror movies because while they borrow some elements from the masters (one jump scare is totally lifted from another film) they’ve seen enough to know what needed to change in their version of Black Christmas.  This isn’t a meta, self-referential horror film like Scream but a movie that’s in touch with itself and its own emotions.  There’s a lot of talk of sisterhood in here and it doesn’t come off as cornball or as some ‘down with men’ battle cry.  Blumhouse has long been criticized for not hiring female directors and Black Christmas was their first opportunity to address those concerns – I’d say they made a smart choice.

The Silver Bullet ~ 1917



Synopsis
: Two young British soldiers during the First World War, are given an impossible mission: deliver a message, deep in enemy territory, that will stop their own men, and Blake’s own brother, from walking straight into a deadly trap.

Release Date:  December 25, 2019

Thoughts: Every year around this time it becomes pretty clear who the Oscar front runners are and the pundits start to put their ballots together with ballpoint pen.  There’s always those last slots they keep open, though, for the movies that don’t screen until very late in the season and that’s where a movie like 1917 will play a big factor.  Last time I checked, no one had seen this World War I film from Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes (Skyfall) yet and that’s fairly unheard of in mid-November.  That creates a bit of an electric excitement because there’s hope this could be a game changer and knock a few sure things off their paths to Oscar gold.  Paired again with the legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins (who finally won an Academy Award for Blade Runner 2049) and supposedly shot to look like it was filmed in one continuous take, Mendes appears to have something fairly mighty on his hands and history buffs are hoping 1917 can succeed where another anticipated war film like 2017’s Dunkirk couldn’t and snag some top prizes come year end.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Invisible Man (2020)



Synopsis
: When Cecilia’s abusive ex commits suicide and leaves her fortune, she suspects his death was a hoax. As a series of coincidences turn lethal, Cecilia’s works to prove she is being hunted by someone nobody can see.

Release Date:  February 20, 2020

Thoughts: In 2017, Universal Studios had big plans to create their own tentpole franchise by resurrecting their classic monsters in a new Dark Universe where stories/characters could crossover.  Announcements were made with A-list stars signed on and release dates staked out – this sounded like it could be something to get excited about and a nice alternative to the superhero series that had been dominating the box office.  Then, The Mummy starring Tom Cruise came out and completely tanked…uh oh.  As expected in this risk-averse era, everyone got cold feet and all the grandiose plans for the Dark Universe were scrapped.

It’s interesting, then, to see this first trailer for The Invisible Man make its debut.  Written and directed by Leigh Whannell (Insidious: Chapter 3) and starring Elisabeth Moss (Us), it appears this was made by Universal Studios without any restriction on future sequels or how it might fit into larger plans for existing projects.  That means it could be a nice little mystery building off of the name of the novel by H.G. Wells, though it doesn’t seem to share many similarities to 1933’s The Invisible Man.  I worry the trailer is a tad too long and wish it left a little more to the imagination…but there’s something intriguing about this concept and it makes me think of those slick ‘90s thrillers we don’t seem to get on the big screen anymore.