Movie Review ~ Minions: The Rise of Gru

The Facts:

Synopsis: The untold story of one twelve-year-old’s dream to become the world’s greatest supervillain.
Stars: Steve Carell, Pierre Coffin, Taraji P. Henson, Michelle Yeoh, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Lucy Lawless, Dolph Lundgren, Danny Trejo, Russell Brand, Julie Andrews, Alan Arkin
Director: Kyle Balda
Rated: PG
Running Length: 87 minutes
TMMM Score: (7.5/10)
Review:  It surprised me how much I had enjoyed 2010’s Despicable Me, primarily because by the time that non-PIXAR/Disney film arrived, I was long out of the target audience for its colorfully wacky shenanigans. Following Gru, a supervillain and his tiny yellow minions who are changed when he takes in three orphaned children, it spawned two sequels and launched the goofy golden sidekicks into their own spin-off in 2015. While I had enjoyed the sequels (and even the eye-popping, brain-shaking Minions ride at Universal Studios Florida), I found that outing for the Minions pre-Gru to be lackluster and missing some of the charms that made the Despicable Me films so engaging. Even boasting the voice of Sandra Bullock in a rare villainous turn couldn’t sway the movie in my favor. 

Seven years and one major global pandemic later, we have Minions: The Rise of Gru, and returning director Kyle Balda and writer Brian Lynch (co-scripting with Matthew Fogel) have learned a bit since their last Minion-centered adventure. Far funnier than any previous franchise entry, it wisely retains a period setting (adjusting slightly into the mid ‘70s) and begins to weave threads of early Gru (Steve Carrell, Foxcatcher) into the mix. That makes it less of a Minions-only movie and slightly more akin to a bona fide Despicable Me prequel, but with main Minions, Kevin, Stuart, and Bob (all voiced, as all Minions are, by Pierre Coffin) primarily driving the action, fans clamoring for more of the banana loving creatures will get their fill.

The year is 1976, and the Vicious 6 is a top criminal organization being watched by the Anti-Villain League. Led by Easy Rider-ish Wild Knuckles (Alan Arkin, Indian Summer), the remaining crew is comprised of Belle Bottom (Taraji P. Henson, What Men Want), Jean Clawed (Jean-Claude Van Damme, The Last Mercenary), Nunchuck (Lucy Lawless), Svengeance (Dolph Lundgren, Aquaman), and Stronghold (Danny Trejo, The Legend of La Llorona). Hunting for a stone that harnesses the power of the Chinese Zodiac, the group faces a division that leaves them down a member, an opening that Gru hopes to fill. The trouble is, he’s only 11 and still in school. 

With the help of his trustworthy Minions, who will do anything for their leader, Gru first sets out to join the Vicious 6, but after finding out they aren’t as welcoming as he’d hoped, he winds up on the run from them. While Gru goes in search of assistance from an unlikely source that knows the inner workings of the Vicious 6, Kevin, Stuart, and Bob receive education in Kung Fu from a former teacher, now acupuncturist Master Chow (Michelle Yeoh, Gunpowder Milkshake). All will need to be at full force to face what’s coming toward them, a crime ring of villains with an ancient power they are ready to wield at anyone daring to challenge them.

For most of the running time, Minions: The Rise of Gru is a breezy bit of comic mayhem that takes every opportunity to capitalize on the appeal of the jibber-jabbering of the titular characters. Their amalgam of languages and speech will never be truly deciphered, yet you understand them all the same. When in doubt, Balda/Fogel/Lynch shows a Minions yellow rear end and lets the laughs rip…and at least in my audience, the effect of seeing the little round butt worked like a charm on the kids who roared with hilarity each time. It’s not a sophisticated comedy for the most part (though again, as in the last film, Balda has the Minions gibber through a surprisingly adept song in their native tongue), but it lets the 87-minute film fly by with ease.

What doesn’t work in quite the same way is a scary finale that comes out of nowhere, and parents will likely want to keep an eye on their kids to see how they react to a slew of creatures who pop up for a battle royale with Gru and the gang. The animation in the sequence is dazzling, but it’s an oddly intense passage to have when so much of the overall vibe has been chill. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t say that it’s disappointing to see Yeoh slogging her way through yet another “wise combat teacher” role she’s played countless times before. Coming on the heels of a career-best (and maybe Oscar-winning?) role in Everything Everywhere All At Once, this feels like a giant step backward. 

I’ll spare you the extra sit and say that once the final credit crawl gets underway, you can head home, but stay through those first few minutes after the movie ends for a bit of fun. It’s another way the filmmakers behind this series think in complete sentences throughout. These movies may not sit on the same shelf as the emotionally complex features from the heyday of Walt Disney Pictures or even the more modern classics at Pixar. They are indeed quite entertaining, though, and that’s often worth more than any number of tears that those films can wring from our emotions. Minions: The Rise of Gru ranks higher than the previous film and is one of the strongest in the overall Despicable Me franchise. If I had to choose between this and Lightyear, I’d want to watch the little yella fellas have their fun again.

Movie Review ~ The Black Phone

The Facts:

Synopsis: After being abducted by a child killer and locked in a soundproof basement, a 13-year-old boy starts receiving calls on a disconnected phone from the killer’s previous victims.
Stars: Ethan Hawke, Mason Thames, Madeleine McGraw, Jeremy Davies, James Ransone
Director: Scott Derrickson
Rated: R
Running Length: 102 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review:  In much the same way I implored you a few weeks back to see Top Gun: Maverick in theaters because I felt it was vital to watch it on the biggest screen possible to get the full effect, I’m going to strongly suggest another trip to your local venue for The Black Phone. Before my screening this past balmy summer night, I had forgotten how nice it was to be at a scare-packed movie with an attentive, engaged audience. Over 100 minutes, seats were jumped out of, popcorn tubs spilled in fright, & shrieks of all tones & timbre were heard. You can’t get that same experience at home, and some of the enjoyment derived from this adaptation of a short story comes directly from that audience energy.

Not that the film doesn’t stand up quite well on its own. It’s a sophisticated scare that director Scott Derrickson (Sinister) has in store for you, far removed from the cruddy slice and dice fare rushed to the screen or the lower-budget releases from the same producer, Blumhouse. No, The Black Phone has been treated with great care, and you can see how that level of attention yields a much better result in the end. Now, you have a movie that has you inching ever forward in your seat as you nibble at your nails, only to be jolted back with one good fright after another.

Set in 1978, it opens on a baseball game on a bright day in April. Young Finney (Mason Thames, quite impressive) desperately wants to strike out the player at bat, mostly to impress a classmate on the sidelines. The game’s fate is inconsequential because not everyone makes it home that day, the result of The Grabber, the name the children give to the individual abducting young boys in the area over the following months. Flashing forward to October, a handful of other adolescent boys have vanished into thin air. The police have little to go on, save for a new tip: Finney’s sister Gwen (Madeline McGraw, American Sniper) dreams about the crimes with details she can’t possibly know.  

Living with their alcoholic and abusive father (Jeremy Davies, Twister) after the death of their mother, the siblings hold onto each other for sanity. Still, when Finney is taken suddenly by a masked madman, Gwen is left on her own to probe her visions for clues that will lead her to her brother. Meanwhile, Finney is trapped inside the basement of a psychotic (Ethan Hawke, Boyhood) whose calm demeanor gives way to violent rages that echo his terrifying shrouded face. His hopes of escape seem futile…until an assumed broken black phone on the wall starts to ring with someone on the other line that has an important message for the trapped lad.

The previews and marketing for The Black Phone have given away some of what happens next, but not quite all, so let’s leave the rest of the movie for you to discover. Based on Joe Hill’s short story, it shouldn’t surprise you that Hill is the son of Stephen King because The Black Phone feels like it could have been featured in one of King’s short story collections through the years. Its period setting with a lack of technology recalls a slower time for information to travel but a more viscerally violent one in the way people deal with problem-solving. Numerous scenes of kids being beaten (by adults or each other) are disturbing to watch, as are the implications you derive from the dominating games Hawke’s twisted character wants to play with the young boy.

It starts to get a little disjointed and messy as it approaches the finale, and once it gets where it’s going, it doesn’t feel like the payoff was worth it, but that realization only comes far later when you’re home, and the adrenaline rush has worn off. Before then, The Black Phone was an easy film to fall into and get scared over. It’s genuinely creepy, primarily due to Derrickson’s classy direction of the material and Hawke’s unnerving and against-type performance. Get to this one in the theaters and check beforehand to see that it’s nearly full – I think you’ll enjoy it more the greater the number of bodies in seats. All the better to scream along with.

Movie Review ~ The Last Mountain (2021)

The Facts:

Synopsis: The unforgettable story of the 30-year-old climber Tom Ballard who disappeared on the so-called killer mountain, Nanga Parbat, in 2019.
Stars: Tom Ballard, Kate Ballard, Karim Hayat, Alex Txikon, Stefania Pedreriva
Director: Chris Terrill
Rated: R
Running Length: 107 minutes
TMMM Score: (6.5/10)
Review: Through Oscar season and now during writing for the SXSW Film Festival, I go through many documentaries. The subjects can be anywhere from the immigrants of the war in Sudan to the costume design of a Polish opera, all the way to meeting a man who makes specialty guitars. They tend to be my favorite films to discover each year, and I’m constantly amazed at how filmmakers can stitch together narratives using footage they discover as well as film they shoot. For me, the best kind of documentaries have found that balance while also knowing what story they are most focused on, remaining unwavering in their goal. 

There’s a sense early on in Chris Terrill’s The Last Mountain that he’s heading in the right direction by concentrating on the life and legacy of Tom Ballard as well as his sister’s journey to visit not only where he perished, but where their mother died nearly twenty-four years earlier. The history of tragedy in this family of mountain climbers is fascinating, as are the dynamics existing between the father and daughter that remain. Terrill has been with this family for years, first gaining access through the initial success of Alison Hargreaves then witnessing the impact of her loss while coming down from a mountain in Pakistan.

When her son, Tom, became a well-regarded climber himself, home movies show that he felt the shadow of his mother’s legacy and her death hang over him early on. Perhaps that’s why he was drawn in 2019 to the same mountain range where she died, eventually succumbing to the same fate. Facing the need for resolution and closure she never got for her mother or brother, sister Kate decides to return to the mountain and say goodbye to the family she lost. Retracing a journey she made as a child, also documented by Terrill, Kate reconnects with a local man that served as a nanny of sorts to her and began the pilgrimage to begin true healing.

Had Terrill stopped with this story, he’d have had an Oscar-worthy (maybe winning) short documentary that radiates emotion and tells a rich narrative of one family deeply impacted by a specific drive to achieve. The trouble is that this is only half of The Last Mountain and the other half of the movie that Terrill cuts back and forth from tells more about the events that lead to Tom’s death and the man he was with when he died. Suggesting his climbing partner was perhaps more inspired by fame and notoriety than Tom feels like punching low and not in the same spirit as the rest of the movie, giving an awkward tone to the proceedings. Nearly every time Terrill returns to Kate, I felt my emotions rise in response to the sadness of a sister and daughter trekking across the globe to the final resting place of her brother and mother. Anytime we switched back, all the air went out of my sails.

Using the Ballard/Hargreaves home movies and incredible video captured of the mountains Tom and his mother both ascended, The Last Mountain would be best viewed in a theater or on the largest screen in your house. It’s worth it mainly for the scenes documenting the family that was and never will be again, frozen in time on video while two bodies rest forever on a mountain range in Pakistan. 

Movie Review ~ The 355

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The Facts:

Synopsis: When a top-secret weapon falls into mercenary hands, a wild card CIA agent joins forces with three international agents on a lethal mission to retrieve it, while staying a step ahead of a mysterious woman who’s tracking their every move.

Stars: Jessica Chastain, Lupita Nyong’o, Penélope Cruz, Diane Kruger, Fan Bingbing, Sebastian Stan, Edgar Ramírez

Director: Simon Kinberg

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 124 minutes

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: Back in those free-wheeling pre-pandemic days, it was a lot easier to track the ebb and flow of a movie season.  Coming into the new year, all the studios had put their might behind the films they hoped could snag an award or two so January was a common “dumping ground” for their less than desirables, a wasteland of also-rans where they could offload a turkey that was beginning to mold or take something off the shelf which had been gathering conspicuous dust.  Now, however, when films have been delayed due to multiple release date shifts, it’s getting harder to know what is truly a movie in trouble or one just caught in the crosshairs of a global health crisis affecting the entertainment industry.

When marketing for the spy thriller The 355 kicked back up again recently, I vaguely remember seeing early trailers for it well over a year ago and having my interest pinged because of the international cast assembled by Universal Studios.  No dummies to foreign distribution and marketing, the film boasted top talent (if not exactly mega-watt superstars who guaranteed blockbuster opening weekends) that held smart appeal teaming up for an ensemble adventure which felt like Jason Bourne meets Oceans Eight in execution.  Swallowed up by a number of moves on its way to opening, it’s only now being released nearly a year after originally scheduled and while I would love to report it’s one of those good movies with bad timing, it’s a cringe-y outing for a number of likable actresses attempting to act smart through a pretty dumb film.

A deadly device has been created that, when activated, can tap into the electronics of any system in the world and take control.  Whole cities can be shut-down, airplanes can be crashed, you name it.  Obviously, it’s a weapon every bad guy or gal would want to get their hands on and luckily there’s only one of them in the world and conveniently there’s only one person who knows how to make it.  The opening finds DNI agent Luis Rojas (Édgar Ramírez, Point Break) locating the mechanism and its creator before it can fall into the wrong hands but not before the CIA is alerted to his location.  Sending their two best agents Mace Brown (Jessica Chastain) and Nick Fowler (Sebastain Stan, I, Tonya) to broker a deal with Rojas in Paris, the plan goes haywire thanks to German agent Marie (Diane Kruger, Welcome to Marwen) intervening, sending a number of standard plot mechanics into motion across a global playing field.

I won’t spoil the details of just how Oscar-winning stars Lupita Nyong’o (Black Panther) and Penélope Cruz (Pain & Glory) enter the picture, but both feel miscast in roles that don’t quite suit them.  Take Nyong’o, as a former MI6 agent who tells one character that she is a top computer specialist who is the best in the world as what she does when listing her achievements and then within minutes is telling the same person she can’t crack the code on a locked iPhone.  Cruz may have it a little worse, spending most of the movie either whimpering that she “doesn’t want to be here” (join the club) or wearing one of The 355’s 355 questionable wigs.  Both actresses are better than this and by the time the movie realizes it is underserving the Academy Award winning stars, it’s too late to fix it. (And it does it in a shamefully gross way involving the type of violence only a studio forced rewrite could have asked for.)

Born from a desire Oscar-nominated star Chastian (Lawless) had to create a female-driven spy franchise to rival the likes of James Bond or a modern-day Mission: Impossible, The 355 (a reference to the codename of an unidentified female spy who fought for the Patriots during the American Revolution) was written by playwright Theresa Rebeck who’s previous known-for was the TV series Smash.  The musical TV series Smash.  Now listen, I’m not saying Rebeck is perhaps a bit underqualified for the type of dynamic writing a film in this genre requires but the entire endeavor pretends like the audience has never seen a film involving espionage before.  Double crosses are introduced as if we can’t see them coming from a mile away and romantic or familial entanglements are awkwardly asked to take center stage at inopportune times.  Truthfully, it plays like a bad pilot episode of a show for television…and with a PG-13 rating that prevents much bloodletting or violence it’s not even cable television but something from the NBC Wednesday Night line-up.

Directed by Simon Kinberg who was also behind the fantastically reviled X-Men: Dark Phoenix (which I will still stand-by as not nearly as bad as people said it was), the action sequences are so goofy looking at times it feels like it was created by the studio photo editor based on what would look good in a promo shot.  There’s nothing special about any of the heavily choreographed fights and early on they start to blend together.  Even the more strident stunt sequences don’t appear ground-breaking, they just look painful.  Keep your eyes open for Chastain jumping from a crane to a shipping crate. She (or, rather, her stunt double) hits the side of the crate so hard all I could think about for the rest of the movie were how many ribs were totally shattered as a result.  It almost feels like this is the fifth film in a franchise because so little effort has been put into making The 355 stand out in any way from others in its field.  I think it’s admirable Chastain talks the talk and walks the walk in work she has faith in (her performance in The Eyes of Tammy Faye in 2021 was really incredible, another project that came about based on her interest) but if the end result is something as lackluster as this, it tends to diminish the original intention. 

Movie Review ~ Sing 2

The Facts:

Synopsis: Buster Moon and his friends must persuade reclusive rock star Clay Calloway to join them for the opening of a new show.

Stars: Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Scarlett Johansson, Taron Egerton, Bobby Cannavale, Tori Kelly, Nick Kroll, Halsey, Letitia Wright, Bono, Jennifer Saunders, Chelsea Peretti, Nick Offerman

Director: Garth Jennings

Rated: PG

Running Length: 109 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: As animated films have developed into more sophisticated works over the last two decades, they’ve been praised for their efforts to include their adult audiences in on the fun just as much as their target audience.  The feeling from the studios seemed to be, “why not engage the grown-ups taking these kids to our movie at the same time.  It will likely attract more ticket-buyers who won’t mind taking their small ones to a particular title instead of the more mature content they might drag them to instead.”  (Truly, anything to keep an adult from bringing anyone under 14 into an R-Rated movie is absolutely fine by me!)  This attitude toward inclusion of all ages has led to a boon in business and writing that is more finely tuned, something I appreciated.

Lately, however, I’ve noticed that unspoken truce between studios and adults has waned more than a little bit and a number of animated films have become little more than ninety-minute noise machines, swirls of color that pass by without leaving any lasting impression on the viewer.  At least the reviewer that has a driver’s license, votes, and pays taxes.  I know I’m not the target audience for a movie like Sing 2 so ultimately all that matters is what a youngster comes out of the film feeling.  In that light, take my review as thoughts for the adults that may be considering this title over another to watch with their kids or even a solo trip based on their film preferences….because if you ask a child what they think about Sing 2 after all 112 minutes are up (yes, nearly two hours long), they’ll give it a guaranteed thumbs up. 

It’s been a minute since Buster Moon (voiced by Matthew McConaughey, Serenity) rebuilt his decaying theater, saved by a kindly patron (Jennifer Saunders, Isn’t It Romantic) who witnessed the talent from a motley crew of animals with various hang-ups who participated in a singing competition.  Still selling out crowds, Moon wants to take the show to the next level, but a visit from a talent agent speaking on behalf of tycoon Jimmy Crystal (Bobby Cannavale, Annie) tells them they aren’t up to snuff.  Undeterred, Moon gathers his top talent (including Reese Witherspoon, Mud, as a mother pig with confidence issues) and heads to meet Crystal in person and in the process winds up pitching an over the top show starring a reclusive singer (Bono) without having the faintest idea of how to pull it all off. 

It’s simple to see how writer/director Garth Jennings plans to connect the dots from the start, so the best you can do is wait to see which songs Jennings chooses to use.  As in the first one, the voices on display from the cast are surprisingly strong from actors that aren’t (or weren’t at the time of the original) known for their singing.  Taron Egerton (Rocketman) performs a powerhouse version of Coldplays “A Sky Full of Stars” while Scarlett Johansson (Black Widow) makes a loud entrance with “Heads Will Roll” by the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s.  Bono’s presence means a good supply of U2 songs are touched on and the band contributes an original song that isn’t half bad.  The bummer is that so many of these singing moments are brief snippets of songs.  Coming out so soon after West Side Story and tick, tick…BOOM! when we basked in the glow of full-scale musical numbers, this feels like a Cliff Notes version of what a musical should be.

I imagine the first film is one a number of parents will have on as background noise to keep their kids occupied while they wrap their presents, and it might be wise to wait until Sing 2 is available next Christmas to do the same.  It’s not worth the time (or cash) to travel to the theater for that family event, not when there are other titles with better lessons out there (Encanto springs quickly to mind, available soon on Disney+) hitting stronger notes.

31 Days to Scare ~ Frankenstein (1931)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Dr. Frankenstein dares to tamper with life and death by creating a human monster out of lifeless body parts.

Stars: Colin Clive, Mae Clarke, John Boles, Boris Karloff, Edward Van Sloan, Frederick Kerr, Dwight Frye, Lionel Belmore

Director: James Whale

Rated: Passed

Running Length: 70 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: Until recently, I’d never seen director James Whale’s landmark 1931 version of Frankenstein before, but I felt like I had.  That’s because there are so many iconic images, scenes, and vocals from it existing in popular culture that, like the creature at the center cobbled together from multiple bodies, one could easily have assembled it in their mind.  There’s obviously nothing like sitting down and actually watching the 70-minute film from beginning to end and the viewer is reminded again why some movies are classics and stand the test of time while others fade from memory before you’ve even made it home from the theater.  This is not one that’s easily forgotten.

After the unexpected success of Dracula in 1931, Universal Studios fast tracked their plans to create a host of horror films that could be made for relatively little money but would turn a nice profit for the studio.  The next film in this mix was Frankenstein and though originally intended to star Bela Lugosi as the Monster, the star of Dracula left after being unhappy with the way the role was coming together.  Looking back, it was fortunate that Lugosi could remain ever associated with the vampire Count he made iconic, making way for Boris Karloff to put his stamp on the Monster creation of Colin Clive’s Henry Frankenstein. 

While the movie is ostensibly based on the book by Mary Shelley that was published in 1818, it’s by way of an adaptation of a 1927 play that was itself adapted from the novel.  Like a game of telephone, Shelley’s story lost some of its intensity in the transition of mediums, but the outline is generally the same.  Scientist Frankenstein (Victor in the book, Henry in the movie) is obsessed with creating life out of dead matter and will resort to unorthodox methods to test his experiments.  Assembling a body out of the parts of cadavers, he brings the Creature (dubbed the Monster in the movie) to life but becomes repulsed by what he has created and abandons his work for his waiting fiancée, Elizabeth.  When the Monster breaks loose and starts to wreak havoc on the nearby village, Frankenstein has to confront his creation and put an end to the horror.

It’s hard not to watch Frankenstein and stop yourself from being a little awed at both the enormity of the impact the film has had while at the same time recognizing how scuttle bones the picture is at times.  Backdrops that ripple to indicate it’s not a cloudy sky but a painted curtain, concrete walls that bounce, some hasty editing to cover for special effects that weren’t quite perfected.  Yet for all those rinky-dink callouts, oh my goodness is this film gorgeous when it comes to costume design and some of the sets that were constructed.  Frankenstein’s lab and lair are incredible sights to behold, and the windmill finale is as impressive a set piece now as I’m sure it was then. 

At the beginning of the film, one of the actors comes out and makes a grand announcement to the audience that the movie we are about to see is shocking and this is our final warning to leave if we didn’t think we could take it.  It’s a nice touch to set the mood and I’m sure must have gotten some audience members hearts racing.  Of course, we look at a low impact (in terms of horror) film such as Frankenstein now and wonder how it could have ever been considered ‘scary’ but then again, consider that much of the talk then was based on word of mouth so many people were going to this after someone told them about it.  The hype built up in their heads was likely looming large and this pre-show announcement would only boost that hope for thrill even more. 

Performance-wise, the film tends toward the typical broad-ness of the era with everyone affecting that same stage-y presentational way of delivering their dialogue but it’s really all about Karloff as the Monster. While Karloff also memorably played The Mummy the next year in 1932, he would always be associated with Frankenstein and for good reason.  There’s an emotional core to this creature and Karloff discovers it early on.  The Frankenstein character has gone on to be portrayed as a mouth-breathing dunderhead at times but not the way Karloff has played it. This is a confused living being trying to adjust to his surroundings that didn’t ask for the situation he’s in but being forced to conform.  It’s no wonder we often sympathize with the Monster more than any of the other characters.

Followed by six sequels that started with Bride of Frankenstein in 1935 (no, I haven’t seen that either…yikes!) and ending with Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein in 1948 (yes, I’ve seen that and it’s grand!), Karloff would return for two as the Monster and one as Dr. Frankenstein!  The character of the Monster would go on to be a popular figure in many horror related features through the years, it certainly helped Universal continue to churn out their initial batch of now-legendary monster movies.  Attempts at remakes that are closer to Shelley’s original novel have been made over the years, but the image of this 1931 Frankenstein sets a high bar for any subsequent production.  That’s saying something about the longevity of this picture.  It’s (still) alive, indeed.

31 Days to Scare ~ Death Valley (1982)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A divorced mother, her young son and her new boyfriend set out on a road trip through Death Valley and run afoul of a local serial killer.

Stars: Peter Billingsley, Paul Le Mat, Catherine Hicks, Stephen McHattie, Wilford Brimley, Edward Herrmann

Director: Dick Richards

Rated: R

Running Length: 87 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: One of my bucket list road trips remains an out West journey to visit the Grand Canyon and drive through Death Valley.  So perhaps watching this 1982 horror movie about a family that get tangled up in a murder mystery after the precocious youngster of their trio stumbles onto a murder scene and makes off with a key piece of evidence that can identify the killer wasn’t the best advertisement to pack up the car next summer.  On the other hand, as presented by director Dick Richards from Richard Rothstein’s original screenplay, Death Valley is a lot less intense than it could have been and that’s both a good thing at times and a bad thing when it sadly should count the most.

Shall we pump the brakes for a second, take the first exit, and make a quick loop to see what got us here?  We’re back in the early days of the slasher film when the studios were clamoring for content, but no one had truly settled on what was going to be attractive to audiences.  They’d later find out that this crowd preferred as much violence, gore, and nudity as possible, so these initial attempts were cautious on all of the above elements and that’s readily apparent in Death Valley.  Even the casual observer can tell Richards is uncomfortable with bloody violence and has included only the bare minimum and though there was obviously more nudity in one scene early on, it’s been edited down to a quick glimpse to protect the innocent. 

This leaves Death Valley feeling like a movie that’s almost embarrassed to be what it is and what it is ain’t that awful, just half-baked…or maybe overbaked depending on how you look at it.  At 87 minutes, Rothstein doesn’t quite have enough plot to fill a feature length so there’s more family drama included than audiences of that time would have cared for.  Take the opening of the movie for instance, with child star Peter Billingsley (a year before his iconic role in A Christmas Story) as Billy walking around NYC with his dad (the late Edward Hermann of The Lost Boys) before saying goodbye as Billy heads off with his divorced mom for a trip to the other coast with her new boyfriend.  This is precious time eaten up by melodrama of the Douglas Sirk variety.  The actors are quite stellar and it’s the first indication of the strength of the main cast but, accompanied by a bouncy score, it feels incongruous for what’s to come next.

Arriving in Arizona for their road trip, Billy meets Mike (Paul Le Mat, Puppet Master) the high school sweetheart of his mom Sally (Catherine Hicks, Child’s Play) who has come back into her life after her marriage ended.  Reluctant to accept the new man at first, his aloofness to Mike spurs on his curiosity to explore the sights whenever they stop off at a tourist trap.  That’s how he ends up (rather boldly, like a true New Yorker) going into an RV that has just been occupied by an unseen killer and his latest victims.  Finding a necklace on the ground, he picks it up and walks away with it, only realizing later that it’s the same one the unsettling server (Stephen McHattie, Eddie: The Sleepwalking Cannibal) at their motel wears. Cue the clanging orchestral score to indicate danger. No, really, composer Dana Kaproff’ love of a nice sting is worse than a persistent bee and as effective as it as when it aligns with the action, when it doesn’t it feels like something went wrong in the editing.

While the movie offers a few surprises along the way, including and up to an interesting finale, it has some stretches that get a little iffy where time is concerned.  Like Billy’s evening with a babysitter which is essentially us observing him and his caretaker watching TV while she eyeballs his stash of candy.  Riveting stuff, this is not.  When Richards does put things into motion, there’s a degree of suspense but it’s of the slow-boil variety, never red-hot tension.  It’s fitting that Rothstein went on to create the mystery anthology series The Hitchhiker because Death Valley feels like it could be a predecessor to that show in content and form…and might have worked better within that shorter running time.  This isn’t a skippable effort at all, it’s just a bit of a trip you don’t have to take if you have other destinations, you’d rather get to first.

31 Days to Scare ~ Scream Pretty Peggy (1973)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A sculptor hires young college girls to take care of his elderly mother and his supposedly insane sister, both of whom live in the old family mansion with him.

Stars: Ted Bessell, Sian Barbara Allen, Bette Davis, Charles Drake, Allan Arbus,Tovah Feldshuh

Director: Gordon Hessler

Rated: NR

Running Length: 74 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: All I keep reading about in the many movie rabbit holes I often find myself in was how different TV movies were before the advent of cable television.  Back in the ‘70s and ‘80s these were stop-what-you’re-doing and watch events that commanded the attention of a public that saw famous faces from screens big and small.  While not the most current A-listers, these stars of yesteryear or rising hopefuls would appear weekly in dramas, comedies, and a rather large selection of mysteries/thrillers or horror films with commercials to break up the mounting tension.  These are the ones that are the most interesting to me (obviously for this series) because to hear people tell it, they still remember the scares these tales of terror gave them. 

One of the most famous stars to grace these pulpy movies was none other than Oscar winner Bette Davis (The Watcher in the Woods). While her time on the silver screen had mostly run its seasoned course by the time the TV Movie of the Week picked up steam, she found regular work as a “special guest star’ in numerous television projects that made good use of her poise and presence.  It could be said the first TV horror for this era was 1973’s Scream Pretty Peggy and while it doesn’t rank high on the list of the most memorable roles Davis created, it is notable for providing the actress some meaty moments to chew on while the rest of the cast is left with paltry scraps to pick over.

It’s almost unfair to promote Davis as being such a star of the movie because she’s really not in that much of the 74-minute film.  The cast is small enough as it is but the bulk of it plays out between young Sian Barbara Allen as college student Peggy Johns who seeks out a job as a housekeeper at the massive estate of famed sculptor Jeffrey Elliot (Ted Bessell).  Hired more to look out for his aging mother (Davis), Peggy’s eager to please Jeffrey because she has an ulterior motive for wanting the job in the first place.  An aspiring artist herself, she seeks his approval for her own piece and maybe something more than their employer/employee relationship but both Jeffrey and his mother keep themselves at a distance for reasons that slowly become clearer.

I’d say more but there’s not a lot of plot left to talk about above and beyond that.  I was surprised the script, co-written by longtime Hammer Studios screenwriter Jimmy Sangster (Horror of Dracula, The Brides of Dracula, among others) and Arthur Hoffe is so staid and without much action.  I’ve a feeling it was Hoffe’s premise that Sangster was brought it to flesh out and amp up.  Yet there’s only so much one can do to raise the stakes, especially in the early ‘70s on network TV, for this particular story with its similarities to another famous suspense director’s most known movie. I won’t say which, but the lead actress has a daughter that followed her into the movie business, same genre too. 

More energy in direction from Gordon Hessler would help, or at least from the cast. However, aside from Davis who is a massive trooper in getting her scenes imbued with some sense of urgency, the two main leads treat the proceedings like they’re acting out a family drama rather than a house of horrors mystery.  In fact, while I liked Allen’s free-spirited Peggy at first, once it becomes obvious how much of a follower she was and to such a wet blanket like Bessel’s cardboard bland Jeffrey I was almost rooting for the sinister figure we assume to be Jeffrey’s insane sister to catch and eliminate her like she had a young Tovah Feldshuh (Love Type D) in the pre-credit sequence.

How glad was I to see that boutique home media distributor Kino Studio Classics was releasing a number of these TV movies in a 2K remaster just in time for Halloween?  I’d started to watch Scream Pretty Peggy on YouTube before (tip, you can watch SO many of these old movies of the week via YouTube) and the quality was good but not great.  The folks over at Kino Studio Classics have obtained a sparkling remaster that looks just gorgeous.  It’s crisp and colorful, down to the gaudy eye make-up and lipstick Davis wears, a small callback to her look in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, maybe?   For that alone, the movie is worth a look, but it will likely be more of a view out of curiosity than anything else.  It’s not bad enough to be laughable, not scary enough to be scream-able, but Davis makes it interesting enough to be watchable.

If you’re looking for reviews of other TV movies of this era, check out my posts on Home for the Holidays (1972) with Sally Field and A Howling in the Woods (1971) with Barbara Eden.

31 Days to Scare ~ Halloween Kills

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The Facts:

Synopsis: The nightmare isn’t over as unstoppable killer Michael Myers escapes from Laurie Strode’s trap to continue his ritual bloodbath. Injured and taken to the hospital, Laurie fights through the pain as she inspires residents of Haddonfield, Ill., to rise up against Myers.

Stars: Jamie Lee Curtis, Judy Greer, Andi Matichak, Will Patton, Thomas Mann, Anthony Michael Hall, Kyle Richards, Nancy Stephens, Charles Cyphers, Nick Castle, James Jude Courtney, Robert Longstreet

Director: David Gordon Green

Rated: R

Running Length: 106 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  The release of a new Halloween film in 2018 that reset the timeline for the rocky franchise was a refreshing inhale of breath for both cast, creatives, and audiences alike.  Trapped for years with characters that were connected by blood (more like lazy screenwriting) and a once-human killer that grew more supernaturally inhuman with each passing chapter, the series was in terminal status when director David Gordon Green (Our Brand is Crisis) and actor Danny McBride teamed up with Blumhouse Productions and convinced original star Jamie Lee Curtis to return to the role she created.  Also snagging John Carpenter to come along and give his blessing helped get the longtime fans on board as well.  The well-received and ambitiously thoughtful effort was a revitalized movie that didn’t completely reinvent the concept of the reboot, but it laid groundwork that continuations to an original story were possible, especially with the involvement of those that were there when it all began. 

Perhaps you can believe the story now that Green and McBride originally pitched their first round of Halloween as a two-parter but later thought it best to see how a standalone installment would work instead, but there was a sweet finality in the ending of the 2018 film that didn’t feel like a wide enough door was kept open for what has led to the far less impressive goop that is Halloween Kills.  The first of two movies shot back-to-back in 2019 and originally intended to be released in 2020, this middle chapter of trilogy of films from Green and McBride picks up almost precisely where the previous film left off, on a Halloween night 40 years after Michael Myers (Nick Castle in some scenes, James Jude Courtney in the more physical ones) went on a killing spree in Haddonfield, IL. 

With Michael apparently trapped in survivor Laurie Strode’s (Curtis, Knives Out) compound which she set on fire with the help of her daughter Karen (Judy Greer, Lady of the Manor) and granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak, Son), the three Strode women head to the hospital to tend to their wounds.  Never count out the Haddonfield Fire Department, though, who have raced to the scene and find Myers very much alive and blazing mad.  As Myers begins to slash his way through Haddonfield, reports of the murders that took place earlier in the evening have gotten back to Tommy Doyle (Anthony Michael Hall, Live by Night), Lindsay Wallace (Kyle Richards, The Watcher in the Woods), and Marian Chambers (Nancy Stephens, Halloween H20: 20 Years Later) who are holding their yearly survivor’s celebration at a local bar.  Like Laurie, they’ve chosen to deal with their own trauma of that night in their own way but unlike Laurie have found comfort in sharing that experience with others.  With news of Myers return, the three instinctively jump into action and rally a group of townspeople along with them.  Now it’s just a matter of finding Myers and stopping him again.  But where is he going and who might he be looking for?

That’s the tidiest description of messy plot slapped together by Green, McBride, and Scott Teems and I was a little taken aback by how much the three had abandoned the subtleties introduced in their first outing.  Whereas the reintroduction of the Laurie character felt like an interesting way to look at a lifetime of living with PTSD, survivor’s guilt, and paranoia, the people we meet in the sequel are enigmas with only names that sound vaguely familiar to us.  Sure, we know who Tommy Doyle is but other that that…who is he?  As played by Hall, he’s someone harboring a lot of shame over lack of action even though he was a child when he was attacked while Laurie was babysitting him.  Same goes for Lindsey, though Richards doesn’t crank up the angst meter as far as Hall does.  We don’t have the luxury of being reacquainted with these faces from the past before they’re called on to take center stage…and they definitely are because the stars of the last film are curiously absent for quite a lot of Halloween Kills.

Of all the callbacks, I doubt anyone wanted to be thinking of Curtis being stuck in a hospital bed for much of 1981’s Halloween II but that’s where she’s confined to for lots of Halloween Kills.  When she does amble about, she’s not at full Laurie strength so whatever vengeance Curtis came back with in Halloween is a bit hollow here.  That’s at least better than what poor Greer gets, though.  Relegated to the role of “he’s coming for her!” paranoid protector, Greer is adrift and robbed of the modicum of found strength afforded to her at the end of the last movie.  The only Strode that continues to show potential is Matichak and while Allyson has a number of insanely unwise choices, she roars to life just as the movie is on life support in the final act.

As for the main attraction?  Well, what can I say?  I mean, Michael Myers has returned to his gruesome killing methods that reached a Grand Guignol peak in the two Rob Zombie barf-y films.  Murder is here for the sake of murder, and I have to wonder what kind of pleasure is to be derived from a filmmaker including a scene where a mortally wounded victim watches helplessly as their dying (or even already deceased) significant other is slowly stabbed by a multitude of knives by Myers.  Why?  The two characters have no bearing on the plot, the scene comes right after an insanely bloody murder scene, and it’s followed by more murder.  Myers kills a huge number of people in vicious, heinous (pointless) ways and even as an ardent fan of horror movies I wanted to tap out…this was no fun, no fun at all. (Side note, the amount of couples that die at the hands of Myers in this one is almost laughable…I guess the screenwriters didn’t want to leave anyone partner-less and in mourning.)

I’m not entirely sure why Green, McBride, and Teems decided to go in this direction.  The first film focused on Laurie and examined her trauma – this was interesting material to explore in a mainstream horror movie and a franchise not known for its sensitivity to such matters.  In Halloween Kills, they’ve shifted from Laure’s grief to a larger view of how the town has suffered.  This is another nook with great potential, but it’s wasted on appalling displays of grunting vigilante justice and toxic mob mentality as the ruling authority.  In that way, the movie becomes more obnoxious than disappointing.

I mentioned this script is very bad, right? At times, I wondered if the actors were just improvising dialogue because the number of times the phrase “Evil Dies Tonight!” is used is mind-boggling.  Eventually turning into a greeting of sorts from one character to another, I started silently saying under my breath “…next year.” knowing the true finale of the night he came back home wasn’t going to finish up until October 2022 with Halloween Ends.  After a head-shakingly crazy finale, I can’t even imagine how Green and company are going to keep this one going until the break of dawn.  Hasn’t Haddonfield suffered enough? After Halloween Kills, haven’t we?

Movie Review ~ Candyman (2021)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: For as long as the residents can remember, the housing projects of Chicago’s Cabrini Green neighborhood were terrorized by the word-of-mouth ghost story about a supernatural killer known as Candyman, easily summoned by those daring to repeat his name five times into a mirror. A decade after the last of the Cabrini towers were torn down, a visual artist’s chance encounter with a Cabrini Green old-timer exposes him to the tragically horrific nature of the true story behind the Candyman, unleashing a terrifyingly viral wave of violence that puts him on a collision course with his destiny

Stars: Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Teyonah Parris, Tony Todd, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, Colman Domingo, Vanessa Williams, Rebecca Spence, Kyle Kaminsky, Christiana Clark

Director: Nia DaCosta

Rated: R

Running Length: 91 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review:  Even as the Delta Variant rages through the U.S. and hints of another shutdown begin to loom large, films that were delayed from a year ago are sliding into theaters and making their rescheduled dates and for that I’m grateful.  Of all the movies that were bumped around the calendar due to the original pandemic lockdown in 2020, I was most disappointed that producer Jordan Peele’s ‘spiritual sequel’ to 1992’s Candyman was affected because as a huge fan of the original I was looking forward to what Peele and director Nia DaCosta could do with this property.  More than that, I was intrigued to see what it was going to be in the first place.  We knew it wasn’t a remake, but was it a direct sequel, a stand-alone film, a re-imagining of Clive Barker’s short story “The Forbidden” that inspired the first movie?  We had to wait a whole year to find out but Peele (Us) and DaCosta kept us engaged along the way with creative trailers and morsels of hints that showed more of the movie yet still didn’t reveal all of their cards.

As it turns out, this is one of those films that was well worth the wait.  A rare delight that pays service to fans of the original while addressing a new generation of devotees that have come onboard over the years (and maybe during this last year alone), DaCosta’s Candyman picks at the fabric lining the jewel box the 1991 movie was placed in and uses it to craft a horrific new garment all its own.  There’s a distinct voice present throughout that isn’t just Peele’s with its direct or indirect societal symbolism but a generational one that lives, works, fears, and loves in the environment DaCosta and her crew probe to terrific results.  That it manages to cover a lot of ground in such a short time frame without ever feeling rushed is a testament to efficiency on all levels.

The original Cabrini Green towers have long since been torn down but their dark history remains nightmare material only spoken about in hushed whispers or, better yet, not at all.  Now, new housing has been built on the same site and after a brief prologue set in the late ‘70s we meet two new tenants of the gentrified Cabrini.  Brianna Cartwright (Teyonah Parris, Chi-Raq) and her artist boyfriend Anthony (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Aquaman) are settling into their new digs when Brianna’s brother (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, The Kid Who Would Be King) tells them the story of Helen Lyle, a grad student that went crazy after visiting Cabrini looking for an urban legend known as Candyman.  With a hook for a hand, the killer was said to haunt the projects and called Cabrini his home, but Helen took the investigation too far, becoming obsessed with her own research, killing numerous people, and abducting a small child that almost died at her hands before she was finally burnt alive.  Scary stuff that Brianna doesn’t want to know about. (But viewers of the original know the story isn’t quite accurate…)

Once stunted artistically, the terrifying tale inspires Anthony in surprising ways.  Researching Candyman by visiting the old part of the neighborhood and meeting a long-time resident (Colman Domingo, Without Remorse), he comes away with a new zeal for expression, just in time for an art show at the gallery Brianna works at.  The piece he creates is a mirror and he provides instructions on how to ‘call forth’ the Candyman by saying his name five times to your reflection.  One unfortunate soul does it, then another, and before you know it, bloody death is everyone around Anthony…but is he to blame for all the carnage or is he simply fulfilling a destiny that started long ago and was never truly finished?  Perhaps a visit to his mother Anne-Marie McCoy (Vanessa Williams) will explain it all…

Originally written as a short story set in London’s tenement neighborhoods, the director of the 1992 film wisely moved the action to Chicago’s projects and it gave the film some credibility as a statement on how communities create their own legends.  Sometimes it is to protect themselves from the evil that lurks within but often it can be to keep the more wicked outsiders from entering.  Peele, DaCosta, and co-screenwriter Win Rosenfeld latch onto that notion and run with it, exploring how the tale of Candyman has evolved overtime and why it’s possible that a society might need a Candyman just as much as he needs them to believe in him.  It’s surprisingly not as tangled or heady as it could have been and the script isn’t interested in making more out of it than that. 

I also appreciated that while this new Candyman is brutal in its violence, much of it is restrained and either shown at a distance or just offscreen.  After the last year, many of us have seen death firsthand and so anything we see portrayed on film could never been as disgusting or horrific as what we’ve witnessed real people, not actors, doing to each other.  When it’s appropriate, DaCosta lets the audience have it but there’s ample build up to get to those moments of bloodshed.  Accompanied by stellar production design from Cara Brower (Our Friend), unique cinematography by John Guleserian (Love, Simon), and a nerve-jangling score courtesy of Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe, all of the elements are there to keep you on the edge of your seat, breathless, waiting for the next shock to arrive.

There was a time when remakes of these old titles felt like betrayals of trust but when they’re handled with such intelligence and care like Candyman has been, I find that I can relax a little bit when the next one is announced and hope that future filmmakers learn a thing or two from it.  This is how you take a fan-favorite property and do something of your own with it, while at the same time allowing that previous film to live on (and thrive) because your film is equally as terrifying and well-crafted.  Sweets to the sweet is a famous bit of graffiti seen on the walls of Cabrini Green in the original film and that goes double for DaCosta and her crew.