Movie Review ~ Us


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A mother and a father take their kids to their beach house expecting to enjoy time with friends. But their serenity turns to tension and chaos when visitors arrive uninvited.

Stars: Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Evan Alex, Elisabeth Moss, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Madison Curry, Tim Heidecker Anna Diop, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II

Director: Jordan Peele

Rated: R

Running Length: 116 minutes

TMMM Score: (9.5/10)

Review: I don’t think anyone expected 2017’s Get Out to be the massive critical and commercial hit it eventually became. Though the early trailers looked intriguing, it’s January release and low-grade buzz didn’t cause Hollywood to give it much more than a second glance. Besides, did one half of a television comedy duo have the goods to deliver a social commentary thriller in his first time out of the gate as a writer/producer/director? Well, a huge box office take, multiple memes, endless cultural analysis, and an Oscar later I think Jordan Peele proved he had more than an inkling as to what he was doing. So when his second feature, Us, was announced, everyone held their breath to see if the sophomore slump would strike someone everyone was now rooting for.

A mere two years after Get Out landed with a bang Peele is back with a film that’s bound to be compared to his previous work but is actually a different experience all together. Where Get Out was a slow-burn thriller, a clear (and clever) response to the then current political climate when it was made, Us is pure horror and doesn’t dig quite as deep into what divides us as a community but instead turns the attention into what defines us as individuals. It’s no less thought-provoking but is resolutely aiming for any exposed nerve where it can strike…and strike hard.

Arriving at their California lake house outside of Santa Cruz, Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o, Non-Stop) and Gabe (Winston Duke, Black Panther) are ready for a serene weekend with their children Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex). It looks to be an ordinary few days. The kids bicker like most siblings do while the parents settle in. Gabe has bought a boat he wants to take for a spin around the lake but first he has to convince Adelaide to spend the day at the beach with their casual friends Kitty (Elisabeth Moss, The Old Man & the Gun) and Josh (Tim Heidecker, Ant-Man and the Wasp). Yet there’s something about the beach at Santa Cruz that puts a knot of fear into Adelaide…and we’ll soon find out why.

To give away much more than that would possibly delve into spoiler-territory and I wouldn’t want to reveal any of the secrets the film has been wisely holding back in its carefully curated promotional materials. What I can tell you is nothing the previews haven’t already given away. Another foursome confronts Adelaide and her family on their first night, a family that looks an awful lot like them, a family that may have a link to a traumatic incident from Adelaide’s past that has come to haunt her present, a family we come to know as The Tethered.  And they have a rather unique score to settle.

Peele drops clues to what’s happening along the way but most are only obvious in hindsight as you drive home or start to discuss the film in the parking lot with your friends and loved ones. Like Get Out, Us will be a movie that is fun to dissect long after it’s finished and already ranks high on the re-watchability scale. I also appreciated that Peele kept the movie mostly within the realms of acceptable reality. This is not a supernatural movie where people walk through walls or events occur that are totally unable to be explained. It amps up the tension and makes you feel like what’s happening could conceivably take place. Even if all the pieces don’t quite line up under our modern microscope, there’s enough giddy ways that things fall into place that I was able to forgive the elements that didn’t quite get resolution.

While Get Out was a fairly solid movie considering the budget and novice of those involved, Us represents a leveling-up of all elements. Peele’s already present confidence as a writer and director has grown even more, this is clearly an individual that knows his film history and respects the process.  He has an eye for what looks good and crafts several sequences that are not only technically difficult to construct  but are visually impressive as well.  Everything just looks wonderful in Us. The production design, costumes, cinematography, and score are all key players here and add to the overall effect the film has on its audience. If any of these areas were weak it would have left the film feeling off-kilter in unintended ways. So many horror films that take place in the dark are hard to see but even in dark settings you can follow everything that takes place (though you may be watching it from behind your fingers covering your eyes) and Peele blessedly sets many scares in the stark daylight.

Nyong’o already has an Oscar for her devastating work in 12 Years a Slave and if I had any say in the matter she’d be in the running for another one for the stunning work she turns in here. Playing a dual role that requires her to play two very different sides of a complex coin, she separates the characters so much that when she shows up for the first time as her other character I actually didn’t believe it was her at first…even though I knew it was. It’s a total transformation and though through the wonder of special effects she can share the screen with herself it feels like there are actually two actresses on screen with one another at the same time. Both roles are infinitely challenging and tightrope walking in their level of skill and I can’t imagine any other actor working today who could have done what she did with them.

As he did on his first film, Peele demonstrates a keen eye for casting and has filled the rest of his cast with standouts from top to bottom. Duke is a great match of Nyong’o, he’s a laid-back dad and supportive spouse that holds his own with his formidable co-star. Joseph and Alex make good on going the extra mile in difficult roles for young actors and complete a convincing family unit with Duke and Nyong’o. In their small supporting roles, Moss and Heidecker are appropriately awful in their triteness. Moss especially seems to enjoy basking in her California housewife attire and saying things like “it’s vodka o’clock”…something you know the actress has never said (and would never say) in her entire life.

A huge part of the fun in Us will be for audiences to experience it in theaters with a crowd. While Get Out worked like gangbusters on the big screen for an initial viewing, it’s thriller nature leant it to play just as strongly if you saw it for the first time at home. Yet I think Us will best be enjoyed first and foremost if you’re shoulder to shoulder with another person getting the same jolt you are.

Movie Review ~ Happy Death Day 2U


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Tree Gelbman discovers that dying over and over was surprisingly easier than the dangers that lie ahead.

Stars: Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard, Phi Vu, Rachel Matthews, Ruby Modine, Suraj Sharma

Director: Christopher Landon

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 100 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: I think it shocked everyone when 2017’s Happy Death Day was such a sleeper hit. Sure, it was released on a Friday the 13th and made for a miniscule budget so the target audience was primed and the success factor was measured by a low bar but there was no denying the movie was very likely better than it ever should have been. A fun PG-13 horror spin on Groundhog Day that didn’t have the blood quotient to deter the gore averse or totally turn off the hardcore fans looking for the next great slasher film, the general consensus was that the film took it’s concept capably to the finish line and earned it’s place on the higher end of lighter horror fare.

A little over a year later, Happy Death Day 2U has arrived in theaters just in time for Valentine’s Day and both Blumhouse Productions and writer/director Christopher Landon (Scout’s Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse) have another pleasantly pleasing winner on their hands. Though it’s less of an outright horror film this time around, the movie aims to keep things light when it has to and isn’t above pumping the brakes to take its time navigating through some surprisingly dramatic territory. In many ways, it feels like a superior film to its predecessor because everyone involved knows what they are getting into and doesn’t hold back.

If you haven’t seen the first film and don’t want key plot points spoiled (even though the trailer already spoiled them for you!) then you are free to stop reading now – thanks for visiting! Everyone else, read on for a spoiler-free look at what new directions the sequel takes the action.

Picking up where the first film left off, Tree (Jessica Rothe, La La Land) has discovered who was trying to kill her and broken the time loop that kept her waking up on the same day over and over again. No longer afraid of being killed and having to relive her death day in and day out, she’s settling in with Carter (Israel Broussard, The Bling Ring) when his roommate Ryan (Phi Vu, Pitch Perfect 2) comes into their shared dorm room with some strange news. He’s reliving the same day after being killed the day before…something Tree knows a thing or two (or 11) about.

How and why Ryan gets stuck in the same time loop as Tree is linked to Ryan’s science project that deals with time and space, and when it’s activated again by the Dean of the college trying to shut the study down it sends Tree back into her previous death day cycle. Now Tree is stuck in her old pattern but with new wrinkles as she finds herself in an alternate reality where the previous killer is now a victim, old enemies are friends, and a deceased loved one apparently never died. As she keeps dying in her quest to figure out an algorithm that will send her back to her previous reality, she needs to decide if this reality is better and what she’s willing to sacrifice to save those she loves.

As with most sequels, the stakes are higher and credit should be given to the producers for throwing some more money at this follow-up and to Landon for taking some time to think through the set-up of the next chapter. The logic is still fairly broad and wouldn’t hold up in a court of law but there’s a breezy effortlessness to everything here that makes it all go down without much fuss. The killer out to get Tree becomes a glorified subplot and only shows up again near the end when the action needs a little zap of energy.  Mostly, this is a film that owes more to Back to the Future II than Groundhog Day, with the consequences of changing things in alternate realities playing a part in most everything Tree is thinking about. The performances (particularly Rothe’s) are more assured here and even though production on this one started fairly soon after the release of the original it was nice to see the entire cast (and some extras!) reassembled for this follow-up. Like the first one, Rachel Matthews as Tree’s rival sorority sister gets some of the better moments, even if the outlandish comedy of her faking being a blind foreign exchange student feels like it’s out of a totally different campus frat movie.

At the theater I attended on Valentine’s Day, I was surprised how many of the audience at Happy Death Day 2U were females who apparently had a ball with it. The reactions to the scares were received well and the comedy landed exactly in the right places. It’s horror-lite to be sure but it was an entertaining mix of time-travel comedy and gore-less horror. Blumhouse and Landon obviously are hoping for a third chapter if the mid-credits stinger is to be believed, and I’d be interested to see where they think future time loops could take things.

Movie Review ~ First Man


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A look at the life of the astronaut, Neil Armstrong, and the legendary space mission that led him to become the first man to walk on the Moon on July 20, 1969.

Stars: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Kyle Chandler, Corey Stoll, Pablo Schreiber, Jason Clarke

Director: Damien Chazelle

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 141 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: There’s nothing I love more than a movie about space.  I like seeing monsters in space, I cheer for Muppets in Space, I love space adventures, and I really enjoy movies about the space program and how we made it into orbit.  So you can imagine that First Man, focused on the life of Neil Armstrong, seemed like a slam dunk winner to me when it was first announced.  Adding to that confidence was Oscar winning director Damien Chazelle (La La Land) and Ryan Gosling (Blade Runner 2049) so my interest was definitely piqued.  Then something really strange happened…I saw the movie.

Little doubt remains that Chazelle is an accomplished filmmaker and that Gosling is one of the best actors working today but their reunion after La La Land is a chilly film that I just could not connect with.  I know many supporters of the film have said that Armstrong himself was a hard nut to crack, legendary in his aloofness, and Gosling was just paying service to the man he was playing but the disconnect goes beyond that.  I found it hard to find anything warm in the movie, not even Claire Foy (The Girl in the Spider’s Web) overselling her much ballyhooed role as Armstrong’s wife.  This is the third Foy film I’ve seen in 2018 where she’s struggled with maintaining an American accent throughout and I’m wondering if anyone is listening to her in post production.

Where the film finds some modicum of success is chronicling the dangerous space program that Armstrong and his compatriots participated in in the race to beat the Russians to the moon.  These men put their faith in new technology and materials that were unproven and were pioneers in our exploration of areas outside our atmosphere.  With people dying in the process you do have to ask yourself if it was worth it and by the time Armstrong lands on the moon there is a sense of accomplishment you feel just as much as they do.  Chazelle and screenwriter Josh Singer needed to find more of these moments to give their film a little more life.

31 Days to Scare ~ The Frighteners (1996)

The Facts:

Synopsis: After a tragic car accident kills his wife, a man discovers he can communicate with the dead to con people. However, when a demonic spirit appears, he may be the only one who can stop it from killing the living and the dead.

Stars: Michael J. Fox, Trini Alvarado, Peter Dobson, John Astin, Jeffrey Combs, Dee Wallace, Jake Busey, Chi McBride, Jim Fyfe

Director: Peter Jackson

Rated: R

Running Length: 123 minutes (Director’s Cut)

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: What I love so much about movies is that over time bad ones can become good and good movies can become bad. We’ve all had experiences where we have this certain vision of a movie in our head (positive or negative) and then, upon revisiting said movie, our opinions can change. Then there are the movies that you liked but didn’t quite catch on with others which eventually gained a cult following in the ensuing years. The Frighteners is one of those movies that I remember really liking when I first saw it but a prime example of a one that didn’t get the audience is richly deserved. With the rise in popularity of its director over the last two decades, more and more people are “discovering” this horror-comedy and claiming it as a spooky favorite. Better late than never, in my book.

In 1996 director Peter Jackson hadn’t yet become ‘Oscar winning director of The Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Hobbit trilogy Peter Jackson’. He had found underground success with Meet the Feebles and Dead Alive, his first two movies that were truly out there in their oddity (both cult classics unto themselves). It was his 1994 film Heavenly Creatures (introducing most of us to Kate Winslet for the first time) that really put him on the map and caught the eye of big shot Hollywood director Robert Zemeckis (Flight). Originally bringing Jackson on to create another film in his Tales from the Crypt series, Zemeckis read the script from Jackson and Fran Walsh and decided it was good enough to be a standalone film. Using their homeland New Zealand as a stand-in for a seaside California town, Jackson and Walsh gathered their friends at WETA studios, the fledgling effects company that would explode with the LOTR films five years later, and set about to make a different kind of ghost story.

Frank Bannister (Michael J. Fox, Back to the Future) is an opportunistic ghost hunter looking to con unsuspecting people out of their money in exchange for ridding their houses of poltergeists. The catch is that he can actually see these ghosts and has conspired with them to swindle the townspeople of Fairwater. When otherwise healthy townsfolk starting dying at an alarming rate, Frank realizes a malevolent spectre is at work…one that he may just have a personal history with. And what of the meek woman (Dee Wallace Stone, The Lords of Salem) being terrorized by an unseen force in the home she shares with her mother on the outskirts of an abandoned mental hospital? Is the same ghost responsible for all of the shenanigans going on?  With the help of a local doctor (Trini Alverado) and his ghostly friends (John Astin, Chi McBride, and Jim Fyfe) Bannister avoids a creepy detective (Jeffrey Combs, Re-Animator) and goes further into the unknown as he seeks answers to who has gone-a-haunting (and a-hunting) within the town.

Jackson and Walsh have imbued their script with a truckload of dark humor and it’s easy to see why it may have been off-putting for audiences looking for a more straight-forward tale of terror in the summer of 1996. The movie takes a while to get hopping and when it does it blasts off like a locomotive with little reprieve. It’s an effects-heavy film and one that famously held one of the longest shooting schedules ever approved by Universal Studios. The extra time was worth it, though, as even twenty years later the movie holds up to CGI scrutiny with the best of them.  I recently watched the Director’s Cut for the first time and it’s about 10 minutes longer than the version released in theaters.  The added scenes flesh out the characters (pun mostly intended) and provide a little gasp of air while the movie is moving at lighting speed. Jackson is good with setting up extended scenes of delirium but he’s not simply out to give you the willies. He’s more concerned with the overall film experience and that speaks highly of the kind of filmmaker he was growing into.   Much like he immersed us in Middle Earth with his unimpeachable LOTR trilogy, he gives the audience checking out The Frighteners what they came for and much more.

The Silver Bullet ~ Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again

Synopsis: The film will go back and forth in time to show how relationships forged in the past resonate in the present.

Release Date:  July 20, 2018

Thoughts: It has been a decade since the boffo stage hit Mamma Mia! danced its way to the big screen and made millions but it was a bit of a puzzlement when this sequel was announced.  Where did the film have to go and how many more ABBA tunes could be culled from their catalog for the characters to sing?  This first look at Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (ugh, that title!) has arrived and, I warn you, it’s fairly alarming.  The sun drenched Greek setting is back as are most of the buoyant cast members…but someone is noticeably absent from most of the merriment.  Meryl Streep…or to be more specific, Streep’s character.  Sure, Streep (Hope Springs) is present in flashes but she’s not front and center like the original film and that’s inspired people to ask if the filmmakers killed her character off.  Not sure how I feel about that and even more unsure if it’s wise to make this a prequel when the back story was such a flimsy throwaway in the first place.  Director Ol Parker (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) has brought on Lily James (Darkest Hour) to play Streep in her twenties and landed Cher (Mermaids) to play her mother (!!!).  No question I’ll be lining up to see this but if it’s going in the direction I think, I’m already blue since the day I first saw this trailer.

Movie Review ~ Girls Trip


The Facts
:

Synopsis: When four lifelong friends travel to New Orleans for the annual Essence Festival, sisterhoods are rekindled, wild sides are rediscovered, and there’s enough dancing, drinking, brawling, and romancing to make the Big Easy blush.

Stars: Regina Hall, Jada Pinkett Smith, Queen Latifah, Tiffany Haddish, Larenz Tate

Director: Malcolm D. Lee

Rated: R

Running Length: 122 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: The latest in a long line of Women Can Be Raunchy Too comedies (like Bad Moms and Rough Night), Girls Trip is better than you or I thought it would be.  Maybe it was wrong to doubt it in the first place, though, because it stars four actresses who could each easily headline their own film and is the kind of free-for-all extravaganza of ribald humor rarely seen anywhere in film lately.  Better still, it winds up touting a message of acceptance of oneself from within instead of opting for an easier and more expected takeaway.

The members of the Flossy Possy are four friends that grew up together, went to college together, lived together, but then forged their own paths in varied directions.  Sasha (Queen Latifah, Joyful Noise) is a gossip blogger nearly bankrupt, divorced mom Lisa (Jada Pinkett Smith, Magic Mix XXL) hasn’t had a fun night out in years, man-loving Dina (Tiffany Haddish) just got fired from another job, while Ryan (Regina Hall, Vacation) is reaching the pinnacle of her career as an Oprah-esque self-help guru that seems to have it all.

When Ryan is asked to be the keynote speaker at the Essence Festival in New Orleans, she decides to make it a (ta-da!) Girls Trip and invites her three best friends that she hasn’t seen in years.  Over the next several days the women party, play, fight, dance, take absinthe, and a whole host of other NSFW activities that can only be appreciated when experienced with friends.

The four women elevate the material to something better than it ever was intended to be.  I’d bet dollars to doughnuts that Latifah was originally approached to play Hall’s part and vice-versa.  Both actresses have done those types of characters before and it’s nice to see them take on something different, especially Latifah who’s taken some pretty bland roles lately.  Pinkett Smith seems at home in the mother hen role but let’s loose when she’s good and ready.

Truly, though, the star of the show is Haddish as a wise-cracking, foul-mouthed broad that owns her sexuality and honesty like a badge of honor.  Impossible to embarrass, Dina will say anything and do anything to get a reaction out of her friends and Haddish goes to the same lengths to set herself apart from her costars who all have more experience on the big screen.  What Haddish does with a banana and a grapefruit at one point should earn her some sort of special medal for bravery.

Sure, the movie feels cheaply made with an abundance of “group” shots that look like they were filmed at different times and badly photoshopped at that.  Then there’s the supporting cast that seemed to be comprised of actors that would work for scale just to keep their health insurance going.  I’m not saying that Kate Walsh (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) is in it just for the money but she does subject herself to some pretty embarrassing “I’m so WHITE!” dialogue and one whopper of a sight gag when she drunkenly grabs the wrong cocktail glass.

This is one that would be best to see with a large audience and if they are anything like the people I screened this with, it will only add to the ‘if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em’ feeling.  There’s a bit of graphic nudity early on in the film that elicited screams of laughter from the audience, screams that remained going strong for a solid minute.  Then there was the projectile urination scene…but I’ll let you see for yourself what that’s all about.  While it frustratingly bottoms out several times, it sticks its ending with a fresh message of be your best self that feels genuine in its delivery.

The script from Kenya Barris and Tracy Oliver and direction from Malcolm D. Lee are, to be honest, nothing special.  Most of the jokes are telegraphed in advance and even some of the tackier vulgarity feels also-ran.  The movie heads in exactly the direction you think it will and rarely strays off course.  Allowing his movie to go on too long by a good 15 minutes, Lee seems beholden to give each actress the exact same amount of screen time, whether we like it or not.  This creates a Girls Trip that overstays its welcome at times but ends with a bang.

Movie Review ~ The Mummy (2017)

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: An ancient princess is awakened from her crypt beneath the desert, bringing with her malevolence grown over millennia, and terrors that defy human comprehension.

Stars: Tom Cruise, Sofia Boutella, Annabelle Wallis, Jake Johnson, Courtney B. Vance, Russell Crowe

Director: Alex Kurtzman

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 110 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

Review: You’re going to hear from a lot of people that The Mummy, Universal’s first entry in their new Dark Universe franchise, is a baffling bomb.  Those people aren’t totally wrong but they’re not completely off the mark either.  The worst thing a movie can be is neither good nor bad but just mediocre and too much of this new take on The Mummy straddles that fence, stubbornly refusing to slump into schlock or get its ass into a higher-quality gear.  It’s not a total wash but the potential was there to take a fun step forward and the studio is too, uh, wrapped up in their quest for a new charter film series that they’ve lost sight of the here and the now.

As most of these creature-features often do, The Mummy opens with a little history lesson concerning an ambitious Egyptian princess (Sofia Boutella, Kingsman: The Secret Service) seduced by evil forces that promise her eternal life.  Clearing her way to the throne in a bloody rampage, she’s eventually captured and buried alive in a deluxe sarcophagus within an ultra-complex underground prison.  Remaining hidden for thousands of years, she’s unearthed by two unscrupulous soldiers (Tom Cruise, Oblivion and Jake Johnson, Safety Not Guaranteed) looking for antiquities to sell on the black market in modern day Iraq.  Once released from her prison, she wastes little time in bringing down a plane transporting her to London and proceeding to suck the life out of anyone that gets in her way, turning them into the walking dead for good measure.  It’s up to Cruise and a pretty prehistorian (Annabelle Wallis, Annabelle) to end the madness, a task made more difficult when our Mummy Princess sets her sights on making Cruise her eternal mate.

The framework of plot supplied by a screenplay written by David Koepp (Jurassic Park), Christopher McQuarrie (Edge of Tomorrow), and Dylan Kussman (Flight) has potential to it but director Alex Kurtzman (People Like Us) never fully trusts the material, opting instead to let Cruise take up too much space and pushing others to the sidelines.  Let’s not forget that in addition to the above brief outline, Cruise is introduced to the Prodigium, a secret group dedicated to hunting supernatural baddies and beasties.  Led by Dr. Henry Jekyll (yep, the one and only), look closely during a visit to Prodigium’s lab for a few familiar creatures that may pop up in future Dark Universe entries.

I get the feeling that when the script for The Mummy was sent to Cruise, it was with the intent he consider taking on Dr. Jekyll (played here by a twinkle-eyed Russell Crowe, The Water Diviner) but Cruise missed the memo and just assumed he’d be the lead.  Clearly written for a younger actor, everyone in the film at one time or another looks at Cruise (who’s still in fine shape and loves a good stunt sequence) and clearly is thinking, “You’re too old for this role!”  His chemistry with both of his leading ladies is strained and it becomes the Cruise show the moment he arrives onscreen with the titular character taking a frustrating back-seat to the A-list star.

Crowe seems keen on having some fun and while his storyline could be excised from the film entirely, he at least has the right idea of what his contributions are.  Knowing that Universal plans to craft a new franchise from their Stable of Scary, I wonder if the whole Prodigium business was folded in late in the game to tee up the Dark Universe.  Poor Wallis has a role that is entirely exposition, I don’t think she’s given one line that isn’t specifically meant to explain or clarify so the performance feels like the appendix it was written to be.  The true star here is Boutella and whenever she’s onscreen the film starts to crackle and pop only to be muffled by Cruise’s overbearing presence.  I like Cruise quite a lot but even I must admit he’s been given too much room to play.

Amidst a bunch of hokum happenings and a screenplay that’s pretty pokey, there are a handful of slick moments of fun that hint at what the movie could have been had it found a better focus.  A mid-air disaster is staged with edge-of-your-seat excitement and an underwater chase managed to make me hold my breath as Cruise and Wallis try to outswim a horde of the undead.  Being released in 2D and 3D formats, I caught it in 3D and since so much of the film is set at night or in dark underground lairs I’d advise going for a 2D screening which might produce clearer visuals.

There’s nothing I look forward to more than a good old-fashioned monster movie.  I don’t need flashy special effects or 3D gimmickry to get on board, just give me a good creature, a decent plot, and invested performances and I’m happy.  While Universal’s reboot of The Mummy doesn’t consistently hit any of the above specifications, it grazes them long enough to produce a somewhat enjoyable but ultimately misguided first step into a new franchise involving their classic catalog of monsters.

Movie Review ~ Split

split_ver4
The Facts
:

Synopsis: After three girls are kidnapped by a man with 24 distinct personalities they must find some of the different personalities that can help them while running away and staying alive from the others.

Stars: James McAvoy, Anya Taylor Joy, Betty Buckley, Jessica Sula, Haley Lu Richardson

Director: M. Night Shyamalan

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 117 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  I hate to say it, but M. Night Shyamalan brought it all on himself.  With a succession of movies, the writer/director (producer, cameo, etc.) introduced sophisticated ideas wrapped in a mystery to less and less fanfare.  Known more for his twist endings than the sum total of his accomplishments, the director of The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs began to lose himself in the inner-workings of his storytelling. Sacrificing plot, good dialogue, and characterization for that one moment, “the twist”, that would entice an audience into sticking with the film despite the absurdity of it all, it wasn’t long before Shyamalan’s name stopped being the selling point and instead became an Achilles Heel.

Laying low for a few years and producing the occasional movie or TV show, Shyamalan emerged from the shadows with 2015’s The Visit, a tight little scare fest made for a small fee which wound up doing surprisingly good business.  Showing he wasn’t entirely beholden to his twist endings (though that film did have one), good will led Shyamalan back into the conversation and it felt as if his second act in Hollywood had begun.

The first thing I’ll tell you about Shyamalan’s Split, and to keep spoilers squashed I won’t tell you much, is to do your best to go in without thinking of this as the horror film its being falsely marketed as.  True, the film boasts a few nerve jangling moments and an overall sense of dread usually reserved for films with a high body count, but I made the mistake of expecting a thrill ride when in reality Split is more like an uncomfortable Sunday drive.

A trio of girls celebrating a birthday at a local mall are abducted in the parking lot and held captive in an underground compound by a man (James McAvoy, Trance) with dissociative identity disorder (DID).  While two of the girls (Jessica Sula & Haley Lu Richardson, both largely forgettable) plot a way of escape, the third (Anya Taylor Joy, Morgan & The Witch) takes a different approach, recognizing their captor could be manipulated depending on which of his 23 personalities they are talking to.  Time is running out, though, for several of the identities talk of a 24th personality, The Beast, that’s “on the move.”  Meanwhile, the man’s psychiatrist (Betty Buckley, Carrie), disturbed by a concerning change in demeanor for her patient, attempts to lure out the new personality that’s been causing trouble.

To me there are two short films going on here with overlapping ideas that Shyamalan couldn’t quite stretch to feature length.  The first is the kidnapping plot with its increasingly desperate attempts at escape from the teenagers and the second is a film centered on the psychiatrist exploring the inner workings of DID.  Both have some value and are staged nicely by Shyamalan with tight close-ups that give the film a claustrophobic feeling but to really take on discussions of mental illness Split needed to choose which story to tell and it never can decide.

Taylor Joy’s saucer-eyes look great in a Shyamalan close-up and the actress keeps a sense of mystery along the way that’s as interesting as it is slightly creepy.  Through flashbacks we see her as a child spending time with her father and uncle; there’s something off about these memories and as the film progresses, we begin to see why.  Shyamalan throws a lot of unspoken feelings at Taylor Joy and asks her to fill in the blanks which she winds up conveying quite convincingly.

Surprisingly, it’s Buckley that nearly steals the show…though considering her storied history on stage and screen it’s not that surprising at all.  Her therapy sessions with McAvoy’s character(s) give the film it’s most crackling edge and I kept wondering if these intimately crafted scenes hadn’t originally been written for the stage.  Buckley doesn’t appear on screen as often as she should but her performance here makes you wish she would.

At the end of the day, though, this is McAvoy’s picture and he walks away with the whole kit and caboodle.  There’s such a very fine line between honest and camp when it comes to playing a character with multiple personalities but McAvoy approaches each with a level of dignity and respect.  True, there are some moments McAvoy got too actor-y for my taste but overall it’s a dynamic, full-bodied performance that goes far beyond simply changing his voice or how he holds himself.  With each new personality introduced, McAvoy seems to change appearance entirely which makes the impending arrival of the feared 24th identity even  more ominous.

Audiences familiar with Shyamalan have been well trained to prepare for a twist but my advice would be not to look too hard.  There are a few late-breaking turns that won’t come as a total surprise and one big shocker at the end you’re either going to love or hate (the audience at mine was an audible mixture of both) but Split is less concerned with fooling its audience and more interested in bringing them into the mind of trauma victims coping with their past in the present.  It’s not an entirely successful film (and at nearly two hours, a too long one at that) but it’s stuck with me just like Shyamalan’s earlier work did.

31 Days to Scare ~ Nightmare (1964)

nightmare

The Facts:

Synopsis: Janet is a young student at a private school; her nights are troubled by horrible dreams in which she sees her mother haunting her. Expelled because of her persistent nightmares, Janet is sent home where the nightmares continue.

Stars: David Knight, Moira Redmond, Jennie Linden, Brenda Bruce, George A. Cooper, Clytie Jessop

Director: Freddie Francis

Rated: NR

Running Length: 82 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: As a life-long fan of scary films and all things that go bump in the night, I frequented the horror sections of local video stores in search of something to give me the shivers.  No matter what I saw from hungry piranhas to red-coated killer dwarves, my favorites were always the vampire movies.  That dates back to the first movie I ever rented (back when you rented the movie AND the VHS player at the same time!) which was Hammer Studios production, Horror of Dracula.  An ever-so slight re-working of the classic Bram Stoker story, this Dracula re-telling had Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing in roles they would return to in the ensuing years.

I give that context because aside from Horror of Dracula and several of its sequels, I’m not as familiar with the Hammer Stuidos catalog as I should be.  Not just focused on vampires, mummies, creatures, or monsters, the studio also produced a range of thrillers where psychotic men and women were the ones to be feared.  I recently picked up an 8-film collection with an assortment of offerings from Hammer Studios and Nightmare was the first film I gave some attention to.

Directed by Oscar winning cinematographer Freddie Francis (who would film Cape Fear for Martin Scorsese late in his career) in glorious black and white, Nightmare has some twists that could be considered cliché by today’s standards but still manage to work well thanks to the overall strength of the production. Janet (Jennie Linden) is sent home from her boarding school when her night terrors become too disruptive.  Accompanied by a kindly teacher (Brenda Bruce), Janet arrives back at her stately country manse and is welcomed by her loyal chauffeur (George A. Cooper) and housekeeper (Irene Richmond).  There’s also a new nurse (Moria Redmond) sent by the family lawyer (David Knight) to keep an eye on the unstable Janet who fears she is insane just like her mother was.

A change of scenery doesn’t help things and it isn’t long before Janet begins to see a strange woman in white walking the hallways and beckoning her to follow.  When the woman turns up with a knife in her chest only to disappear again before anyone else can bear witness, the line between nightmares and reality begin to blur as Janet comes to realize she can’t trust herself or her actions.  But is she really losing her mind…or is someone helping her descend into madness?

As is typical of any Hammer production, the production design and costumes are gorgeous and the music loud and dramatic.  While there aren’t any true ‘scares’ in the picture, it’s nicely ominous with above average performances from every single actor – overall, quite enjoyable.  Those that have been around the block with these movies will be able to spot the clues that lead you to solve the mystery long before the characters do, but the ride is brisk and entertaining.

31 Days to Scare ~ Psycho II

psycho_ii

The Facts:

Synopsis: After twenty-two years of psychiatric care, Norman Bates attempts to return to a life of solitude, but the specters of his crimes – and his mother – continue to haunt him

Stars: Anthony Perkins, Vera Miles, Meg Tilly, Robert Loggia, Dennis Franz, Lee Garlington, Claudia Bryar

Director: Richard Franklin

Rated: R

Running Length: 113 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 slow-burn thriller Psycho remains one of the most famous and famously recognizable movies.  With its iconic ‘shower scene’ and last minute twist, the movie was already interred in the Hollywood history books by the time 1982 rolled around.  That was the year that Robert Bloch, author of the novel Psycho was based on, had published a sequel that found escaped madman Norman Bates turning up on the Tinsel Town set of a movie based on his life and eventually getting back to his own tricks.  While this was a surprisingly meta take (and one the Scream sequels would steal) executives over at Universal Studios who owned the sequel rights weren’t thrilled about their town getting skewered and satirized.

Hiring screenwriter Todd Holland and director Richard Franklin, both having had recent successes with horror films of their own, Universal decided to beat Bloch to the punch and draft their own take on the further adventures of Norman Bates.  The resulting film was far removed from the original, more in the slasher vein which was enjoying peak popularity at the time.  That’s not to say it exists without merit because Psycho II is very much its own film, strong enough to withstand ornery critics who grumbled that it sullied Hitchcock’s memory.

Released from a mental hospital when he’s deemed to be harmless, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins, wisely changing his mind and reprising his role before Christopher Walken could be seriously considered) has only one place to go.  Home.  The house he lived in still stands, as does the motel where guests checked in but didn’t check out…well, at least the ones that showered.  22 years after being apprehended dressed like his dead mother and speaking in her voice, the house brings back bad memories…and maybe his killer instincts.  Not long after he arrives people go missing, dispatched in a variety of gruesome ways.  Is it Norman brandishing the knife or is it someone else with their own motives?

Surprisingly, Psycho II is filled with decent twists and winds up to be quite entertaining.  I somehow get amnesia between viewings and always forget how the pieces fit together.   Aided by Jerry Goldsmith’s (Poltergeist) score that thankfully doesn’t even attempt to top Bernard Hermann’s string heavy orchestrations from Psycho, this has more than its share of spooky moments from toilets overflowing with blood all the way through it’s surprising finale.  Franklin doesn’t try to mimic Hitchcock’s style but cinematographer Dean Cundey (Halloween) does liberally lift familiar camera angles right from the previous film (not to mention Franklin taking a huge risk by recapping the first film in clips before the opening credits).  He even manages to work in a nice tip of the hat to Hitch – try to see if you can spot a recognizable shadow when looking around the room that used to belong to Norman’s mother.

Along with Perkins, Vera Miles (The Initiation) is a returning player from the original as the sister of Janet Leigh’s doomed character leading a one-woman crusade to keep Bates behind bars. Robert Loggia (Jagged Edge) is nicely sanguine as Norman’s psychiatrist and Meg Tilly’s (The Big Chill) waifish waitress cautiously befriends Norman and eventually takes up residence with him in the main house.  Character actors Dennis Franz, Lee Garlington, and Claudia Bryar are all standouts in the well-cast ensemble.

It wouldn’t have been possible to top Psycho but it could have been easy to drag its good name through the mud.  Thankfully Psycho II is elevated from cheap cash-in sequel to respectable continuation thanks to a cast and crew who obviously held the original film in high regard.  Now Psycho III and Psycho IV: The Beginning…those are the sequels you should be worried about.