Movie Review ~ A Star is Born (2018)


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A musician helps a young singer and actress find fame, even as age and alcoholism send his own career into a downward spiral.

Stars: Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga, Dave Chappelle, Sam Elliott, Anthony Ramos, Andrew Dice Clay

Director: Bradley Cooper

Rated: R

Running Length: 135 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: If there’s one thing I can say about this fourth version of A Star is Born it is that you should most definitely believe the hype that has followed the film for the last several months as it has held private screenings and then debuted at the fall festivals. After laboring in development for nearly a decade and going through directors like Clint Eastwood and Steven Spielberg and rumored stars such as Will Smith and Beyoncé, the stars have aligned (literally) and produced a mega-watt 2018 version of this timeless tale of stardom.

I think we can all thank our fair godmothers Eastwood didn’t find his way behind the camera. As much respect as I have for him as a director, his films over the last few years have gotten stodgy and square which is the exact opposite tone of what was needed to bring this story into a new era. Instead we have Eastwood adjacent Oscar-nominated Bradley Cooper in the director’s chair and he’s definitely taking a confident page from his American Sniper colleague in moving from the actor period of his career into the actor-director phase.

The last time A Star is Born was seen onscreen was a whopping 42 years ago in Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson’s ill-advised update which moved the action from Hollywood to the rock-and-roll music scene of the late ‘70s. That version was sunk by a lead actress that wasn’t right for the character, a leading man that wilted in the presence of his co-star, a script that stunk, and a director that couldn’t salvage it. Plain and simple, it was a blight on the 1937 and 1954 versions and while it was the third highest grossing film of 1976 it’s considered by many to be the least enjoyable of the triptych.  It’s no small miracle, then, that Cooper and fellow screenwriters Eric Roth (Forrest Gump and Wolfen) and Will Fetters (The Lucky One) managed to keep the music setting of the 1976 version but brought back the magic and music of the 1954 version along with the tragedy of the 1937 original. Here’s the best cinematic take on the material, a handsome film that runs too long but has such a dynamic duo at its center that audiences will easily forgive sitting in their seats 15 minutes longer than necessary.

Though decades have passed, the story of A Star is Born remains the same: A young upstart is guided to fame by a man whose own career is nearing the end. Aging country singer Jackson Maine (Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook) is a hard-drinker that’s losing his hearing. Though not struggling to stay relevant as previous iterations of this character, he’s in a certain holding pattern in his career where he can see the writing on the wall. Desperate for another drink and not wanting to go back to his hotel, he has his driver drop him at the nearest bar…and it happens to be a drag club that Ally (Lady Gaga) is performing in. Her performance and presence captivate him and they spend a night discussing his life, her plans, and everything in between.

The first hour of A Star is Born is devoted to Jackson and Ally’s burgeoning relationship as he whisks her away from her job and family (dad is played by Andrew Dice Clay, Blue Jasmine) to constantly be by his side. Jackson’s creativity is reenergized by Ally’s talent and by the time he brings her onstage for a duet of the song they co-wrote on the fly the film is positively bursting at the seams to have audiences stand up and cheer. Much like Judy Garland’s performance of The Man that Got Away early on in the 1954 version, the rest of the film can’t quite match that jolt of lightening moment, even though Cooper and Gaga fill the remaining time with memorable music and scenes that highlight the rocky road to fame and the dramatic fall of losing it all.

All pervious takes on A Star is Born have placed the female lead as the heart and soul of the picture but, and this is no slight on Lady Gaga who more than holds her own in the acting department, Cooper walks away with the movie. His greasy hair, grizzled features, and gravely voice instantly give you the entire story of years of rough living and his weary eyes tell of a man with a soul that is winding down. Meeting Ally and falling in love saves him from falling over the edge but is her love and care enough to keep him on steady ground? Cooper digs deep here and by the time the film reaches it’s four-hanky finale with the most startling ending yet, your heart more than aches for him.

As mentioned above, any fears that Lady Gaga wouldn’t be up for the challenge vanish almost the moment she appears onscreen. Though she does her best work while signing (as someone who has attended four of her concerts I can tell you she gives 150% every time and that’s the same here) Cooper coaxes far more nuance out of her than most people will realize. The chemistry between the two is off the charts and you can expect both actors to be showered with awards and/or nominations at the end of the year.

Another person to mention is Sam Elliott (I’ll See You in My Dreams, Grandma) as Cooper’s manager/big brother who has had to play father and sober cab nursemaid to his sibling while foregoing his own dreams and aspirations. Elliott has always been a strong presence in films but he’s given some pretty special scenes here that allow him to stretch further than he’s gone in quite some time. It helps that Cooper matches Elliott’s bottom basement growl; I had no trouble believing these were brothers with a fraught history.

The first half of the movie is so good and well paced that the numerous leaps in time that fill the second half are a bit jarring. Focused on Ally’s rise to fame as a pop music star (hosting Saturday Night Live, being nominated for a Grammy, etc) the film hops around quite a bit and leaves some storytelling elements in the dust. That’s also when Lady Gaga is at her weakest as her musical performances feel a bit restrained and overproduced. Anytime the two leads are alone on screen, however, brings the movie back to solid ground and by the time we reach the end we’re on the edge of our seats even if we already know how it’s going to end.

It’s easy to see why this garnered such hugely positive buzz months before it was released. It’s been finished for some time and waiting for it’s October release date. In the meantime, Cooper isn’t a dummy and wisely showed it to several big names in Hollywood (including Streisand) who have been effusive in their praise of the film. When it rolled out to critics they too were taken by the prestige of the picture and by the time the general public gets their eyes on it this weekend I’m certain even more good notices will come their way. It’s going to go even further with strong word-of-mouth and, I’m guessing, repeat business. I’m already finding time in my schedule to see it again.

Movie Review ~ The Nun


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A priest with a haunted past and a novice on the threshold of her final vows are sent by the Vatican to investigate the death of a young nun in Romania and confront a malevolent force in the form of a demonic nun.

Stars: Demián Bichir, Taissa Farmiga, Jonas Bloquet, Charlotte Hope, Ingrid Bisu, Bonnie Aarons

Director: Corin Hardy

Rated: R

Running Length: 96 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (5.5/10)

Review: I have to hand it to director James Wan for going the distance with this notion of creating a universe of movies inspired by his film, The Conjuring. Starting with the lackluster Annabelle and it’s much superior prequel, Annabelle: Creation, Wan sought to expand the playing field by spinning off frightening characters introduced in his massively scary 2013 film and its 2016 sequel. With Annabelle 3 going into production soon and another offshoot based on the Crooked Man from The Conjuring 2 slowly coming together, the wheels are certainly turning in Wan’s scare factory.

A priest, a nun, and a French-Canadian walk into a haunted convent…sounds like the start of a late night joke told in a dive bar but no, that’s the premise of The Nun which is Wan’s latest bid for domination of the horror genre. While it doesn’t fall as flat as Annabelle, it doesn’t rise to the thrill level found in the other fright flicks released to date. Still…there are far worse way to scare yourself silly while paying top price ticket fees in the process.

Set in 1952, The Nun follows a priest (Demián Bichir, A Better Life) called by the Vatican to look into the suicide of a nun at a secluded convent in Romania. He’s accompanied by a novice (Taissa Farmiga, The Bling Ring) who has yet to take her final vows but possesses a talent Vatican officials feel will be useful in the investigation. It’s never fully explained (at least not to my satisfaction) just why she’s sent along for the ride but her presence helps the priest gain access into the cloistered abbey where evil is certainly playing a wicked game.

Local food delivery boy Frenchie (no, seriously) shows the two the way into the massive castle-like convent which once housed some decidedly unholy tenants. Catholic guilt is no match for Hollywood terror so check your religious piety at the door if you don’t want to be too offended by stigmata, a few naughty nun jokes, and one scene where it looks like the devil is playing a game of nun bowling. The bulk of the film follows our investigators as they are terrorized by the demon Valak (Bonnie Aarons, Silver Linings Playbook) who has taken on the terrifying visage of a nun and appears at numerous inopportune times.

The screenplay from Gary Dauberman (IT) with input from Wan (Insidious, Insidious: Chapter 2) has a nice set-up for the first forty five minutes or so, finding a lighter tone and quick pacing to keep things moving. Strangely, it’s when the guests arrive at the moody monastery that reveal some peculiar twists that never find a good pay off. Over the top sequences I swore would be revealed to be dreams were actually occurring and the finale felt like too many ideas shoehorned into a quick wrap-up. As in previous films of The Conjuring Universe, there’s an effort to tie this film into later events but it hinges on you remembering a minor incident from The Conjuring.

Performances here are fairly standard with Bichir plodding through the film with conviction, even if he’s oddly given a truly been there, done that backstory involving a botched exorcism. While her sister is the star and highlight of The Conjuring films, Farmiga doesn’t quite have the same gravitas of her elder sibling. As Frenchie, Jonas Bloquet (Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets) feels like he walked in from a Netflix rom-com with his arched eyebrows and one-liners at the ready. If there’s one thing that truly saves the film and actually elevates it, it’s the production design and cinematography. This is one of the best looking horror films in recent memory and the 22 million dollars allocated for the budget were certainly put to good use. Its European setting reminded me more than a few times of the classic Hammer Horror films and director Corin Hardy makes the most of several ominous set pieces. Fantastic production values aside, the catacomb-y finale felt like a test run for The Nun’s guaranteed appearance at Universal Studios Halloween Horror Nights in 2019.

Make no doubt about it, Wan is on to something with this idea to bring all of his scary creations to life in films of their own. He’s learned from his past mistakes and is bringing in the right people to get the job done…but if this universe is to continue to thrive attention needs to be paid to all the details and not just chuck careful planning out the window in favor of a cheap-ish scare. There’s no prayer for forgiveness required from The Nun…but penance must be paid in future installments if the filmmakers don’t plot their approach better.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Nun

Synopsis: A priest is sent to Romania to investigate the mysterious death of a nun.

Release Date: September 7, 2019

Thoughts: Man, the suits at Warner Brothers and New Line Cinema are really going for this Conjuring Universe, aren’t they? After The Conjuring, there was the lackluster spin-off Annabelle which was followed by the enormously entertaining sequel, Annabelle: Creation.   Now comes The Nun which focuses on that terrifying bride of Christ who kept popping up to scare Vera Farmiga (and this critic) in The Conjuring 2.  There’s nothing particularly special about this early teaser trailer but it does give the summer movie audiences a jolt of a reminder that there’s another scary film coming up this autumn to look forward to…after Halloween, of course.

The Silver Bullet ~ A Star is Born (2018)

Synopsis: A movie star helps a young singer and actress find fame, even as age and alcoholism send his own career into a downward spiral

Release Date:  October 5, 2018

Thoughts: A third remake of 1937’s A Star is Born has been in the works for a while.  It was long thought Clint Eastwood would direct Beyoncé and Will Smith in the story of a fading rock icon mentoring and falling for a star on the rise but the A-listers couldn’t align their schedules and Eastwood lost interest.  Cut to Oscar nominee Bradley Cooper (American Hustle) directing his first feature and snagging Lady Gaga, one of pop music’s most prominent celebrities, to costar alongside him.  It’s a well known secret many people in Hollywood have already seen this  – the notoriously fame-averse Sean Penn says its one of the best films he’s seen and calls Gaga “a miracle.”  While Gaga earned a Golden Globe for her work on American Horror Story: Hotel her acting, well, didn’t quite sing in my book.  After catching this first look at her work here, could Gaga be on the Cher route to Oscar gold?

Movie Review ~ Life of the Party

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: After her husband abruptly asks for a divorce, a middle-aged mother returns to college in order to complete her degree.

Stars: Melissa McCarthy, Gillian Jacobs, Maya Rudolph, Julie Bowen, Matt Walsh, Molly Gordon, Stephen Root, Jacki Weaver, Adria Arjona, Debby Ryan, Luke Benward, Jessie Ennis, Heidi Gardner

Director: Ben Falcone

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 105 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: I’ve got good news and bad news for you if you’re considering making a trip to the movies to see Life of the Party this Mother’s Day weekend. The bad news is that most of the jokes have been spoiled for you in the previews, the good news is that the two best jokes haven’t. A semi-refreshing twist on the old fish-out-of-water/parent-going-back-to-school storyline, this isn’t a movie out to reinvent the comedic wheel but it does manage to capably overcome initial tone problems. What results is a sweet, if completely predictable, comedy that has its heart and brain in the right place.

The third collaboration between star Melissa McCarthy and husband Ben Falcone (What to Expect When You’re Expecting), Life of the Party represents the best of their work together so far. Their first outing was 2014’s Tammy, a movie so godawful I don’t permit its name to be uttered in my presence. They bounced back in 2016 with The Boss, which found more humor, less aggravation, and an overall better script. Writing together allows the couple to play off McCarthy’s strengths but continues to show Falcone’s weakness as a director – I’d love to see what another director would do with one of their screenplays.

Frumpy housewife Deanna (McCarthy, Spy) and her husband Dan (Matt Walsh, Into the Storm) have just dropped their daughter Maddie (Molly Gordon, Love the Coopers) off for her last year of college when Dan announces he wants a divorce. He’s fallen in love with a realtor (Julie Bowen) and is selling their house, leaving Deanna without a home or an income. In a surge of confidence, Deanna decides to reenroll at the same college she dropped out of in her senior year 20 years earlier…the college her daughter now attends.

Going back to school to finish her archeology degree, Deanna finds that while the times have changed the people getting the college experience haven’t. There’s still the mean girl (Debby Ryan) who tears down anything she doesn’t deem cool, the parties are drunken ragers, the sorority sisters have the same doubt about their futures, and Deanna’s fear of public speaking hasn’t dissipated over the last two decades. That proves especially hard during the film’s funniest sequence by far, when Deanna has to give an oral presentation that quickly devolves into a sweaty, knee-buckling, nightmare.

Still, a few things in her homecoming to co-ed life catch her off-guard. Unexpected bonding with her daughter tops the list as well as a realization she can reclaim some of the years she feels were spent in a troubled marriage by returning to finish what she started. Then there’s the romance with Jack (Luke Benward), a younger frat boy which takes some surprisingly genuine turns as the movie progresses. Eventually, even with one nice twist involving Jack, the movie works toward its predictable conclusion yet even though you know where it’s all heading it’s not hard in the least to sit back and be entertained.

That’s not to say the movie doesn’t have moments that call for a markdown on the final grade. As is usually the case with these McCarthy/Falcone features, there’s an overabundance of periphery characters that serve no purpose to any of the characters or the story. Usually friends (or family!) of the director and star, these annoying additions pad the running time and bring down some of the solid funny framework that has been created. Even the usually dependable Maya Rudolph (The Way Way Back) is given far too long a leash as Deanna’s friend – I almost wonder what things would have looked like had Rudolph and the tightly wound and miscast Bowen had swapped roles. There’s also at least one too many sorority sisters for my money. And Deanna’s parents (Jacki Weaver, Stoker, and Stephen Root, Trumbo) could have been removed all together and no one would have been the wiser.

You also have to ding the couple for not editing their films better or providing information to fill in large gaps that go unexplained. It’s never clear until far too late how Deanna is paying for college or what hoops she had to jump through to get back to her studies in less than several weeks. Timelines are also fuzzy, with events either happening too close together or too spaced out and, as with most college movies, everyone seems to only go to one class or not attend at all.

Yet the film is getting high marks from me because even with all these nitpicks, there’s a certain whiff of clean air and good intentions that keep this one afloat. McCarthy again carries an entire film on her shoulders and while that might get exhausting after a while she’s got the boundless energy to pull out all the stops when called upon to do so. While she’s never one to shy away from physical stunts, this is another pleasant example of McCarthy’s continued maturing as a performer with her comedy coming from situational happenstance instead of corporeal humor. Whether she’s dancing in ‘80s-inspired couture, trashing a wedding reception, or performing alongside a pop star’s amusing cameo, there’s always a human being underneath it all.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Meg

Synopsis: When a submersible lies disabled at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, an expert deep sea diver is forced to confront his fears and risk everything on a single question: Could the Carcharadon Megalodon – the largest marine predator that ever existed – still be alive and on the hunt?

Release Date: August 10, 2018

Thoughts: This lover of all things (and movies) related to sharks has been waiting for The Meg for almost twenty years.  Based on Steve Alten’s silly but entertaining beach read MEG, the film rights were snapped up right away but the movie took forever to get off the ground due to its sizable budget.  Warner Brothers (the studio behind Deep Blue Sea, the last decent shark flick released theatrically) finally took the plunge, added a “The” to the title, reworked the plot, wisely partnered with an Asian studio to maximize international box office revenue, and in August we’ll see just how well it all  paid off.  This first look at The Meg has plenty of exciting images but also an unexpectedly comedic slant that I’m not quite sure about.  Based on the tongue-in-cheek feel, Jason Statham (Spy) could be a good fit for the leading man but it’s clear that while this one has Jaws in its veins its not angling to take itself too seriously.

Movie Review ~ Pandas


The Facts
:

Synopsis: In the mountains of Sichuan, China, a researcher forms a bond with Qian Qian, a panda who is about to experience nature for the first time.

Stars: Kristen Bell

Director: David Douglas & Drew Fellman

Rated: G

Running Length: 50 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: I’ll admit that I have a rather large soft spot for the furry animals at the center of a new IMAX film opening at the MN Zoo. So it’s no wonder that I found myself on a gloomy Monday feeling downright elated watching panda cubs romp around their playground habitat and be a little mischievous as only baby giant pandas can be. More than this base joy that sends the cute quotient right off the charts, Pandas has a engaging story that follows one cub as she matures and gets ready to be released back into the wild.

With the numbers of wild giant pandas starting to dwindle, there is an effort in China to reintroduce cubs born in captivity back into their natural habitat. Most of these cubs have been born to mothers who have only lived in zoos or protected nature preserves so they don’t have anyone to show them how to hone their instincts. Researchers turn to a New Hampshire man who pioneered similar work with black bear cubs for ideas on how to achieve success with the giant panda.

Back in China we’re introduced to Qian Qian (Shin-Shin) who is singled out from her fellow cubs to become the focus of the second half of the movie. We watch her grow and prepare for her journey past the fence that separates her nature preserve from the mountains where pandas roam free. Over several years, her American handler works alongside the Chinese zoologists to ensure Qian Qian is progressing toward her intended release. When she does cross into the unknown, what will happen?

Pleasantly narrated by Kristen Bell (A Bad Moms Christmas), the nature documentary is presented in striking clarity that adds to the 3D presentation making it worth your time as well as your money. Watching the pandas from infancy (when they can’t even crawl) to their young adolescence is sure to inspire many a coo of approval from adults and children alike. I seriously could have watched Qian Qian chomp away at a stalk of bamboo for another thirty minutes and been more than content. Throw in some adorable baby black bears in New Hampshire and you have a film that is entertaining for young children and educational for older kids too.

Movie Review ~ Game Night

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A group of friends who meet regularly for game nights find themselves trying to solve a murder mystery.

Stars: Jason Bateman, Rachel McAdams, Billy Magnussen, Sharon Horgan, Lamorne Morris, Kylie Bunbury, Jesse Plemons, Danny Huston, Chelsea Peretti, Michael C. Hall, Kyle Chandler

Director: John Francis Daley, Jonathan Goldstein

Rated: R

Running Length: 100 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Game Night is one of those movies I refer to as a Goldilocks outing. It’s not really great but not really bad, it’s decently funny but isn’t chock full of laughs, it’s more creative than it should be but still oddly formulaic. In the end, it winds up being just right – very much what the doctor ordered for those looking forward to a harmlessly pleasant night out at cinemas.

Meeting and falling in love during a rousing round of bar trivia, Max (Jason Bateman, This is Where I Leave You) and Annie (Rachel McAdams, Passion) have settled into their suburban lifestyle, their ultracompetitive nature placated by a weekly game night with friends. Things are getting a bit staid, though, and when Max’s ultra-cool brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler, The Wolf of Wall Street) comes to town and offers to host game night in his new house, the group jumps at the chance to shake things up a bit.   Arriving for a night they think is coordinated by Brooks, they soon find themselves mixed up in the game Brooks orchestrated and real life danger, racing around town in pursuit of kidnappers while avoiding landing in the crosshairs of a deadly criminal.

Doesn’t sound like much of a comedy, right? Well, in the hands of John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein (who also directed the divisive update of Vacation) and screenwriter Mark Perez there are enough twists and turns to keep you guessing at what is part of the game and what actually is happening. Think 1997’s cool thriller The Game but not quite as clever. I have to say the movie kept my interest more than I thought it would considering it’s from “the guys that brought you Horrible Bosses.” That earlier film and its gross sequel upped the raunch factor that Game Night was wise to avoid replicating. There’s fairly little overly nasty humor here and what is present feels smartly placed as opposed to relying on cheap shocks for laughs. Sadly, one of the funniest gags involving an airplane engine was totally spoiled in the trailer.

Daley and Goldstein have assembled a crack cast that brings energy to the mix. Bateman is his usually Bateman-y self but with droll McAdams as his partner in crime there’s a nice balance between his snark and her sincerity. Billy Magnussen (Into the Woods), Sharon Horgan, Lamorne Morris, and Kylie Bunbury find some funny moments as Max and Annie’s friends that bring their own baggage along for the crazy ride while Jesse Plemons (The Master) is a riot as a former friend and weird police office neighbor the group has shunned. Plemons is so note perfectly odd that he quite nearly steals the show from his cast mates.

As with most movies with a mystery at its core, the film gets less interesting the more it reveals but then it pivots nicely by pulling the rug out from under you just when you think you’ve got things solved. It’s a silly film but more entertaining than you’d expect just from watching the trailers. Bound to please fans of the actors and creatives involved, the real winners of Game Night are movie-goers that check it out with their expectations set slightly lower.

31 Days to Scare ~ Night Watch (1973)

The Facts:

Synopsis: While rich widow Ellen Wheeler is staring out of the window one evening, she believes she’s witnessed a murder. The only problem is, does anybody else believe her, or is it just another manifestation of her recent nervous breakdown?

Stars: Elizabeth Taylor, Laurence Harvey, Billie Whitelaw, Robert Lang, Tony Britton, Linda Hayden

Director: Brian G. Hutton

Rated: PG

Running Length: 99 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Here’s a forgotten bit of fun for you today, the 1973 film adaptation of Lucille Fletcher’s 1972 play, Night Watch.  Fletcher was the celebrated author of the suspense thriller Sorry, Wrong Number which began as a radio play before making its debut on stage and, eventually, on screen.  While Night Watch wasn’t as successful as Fletcher’s earlier work in play or film format, there’s still something all-together interesting watching a star like Elizabeth Taylor sink her teeth into her juicy leading role and then shake it back and forth like a maniac.

Taylor appears as Ellen Wheeler, a widow living with her new husband John (Laurence Harvey, Liz’s co-star in her Oscar winning Butterfield 8) in an insanely well decorated London terraced house.  Her friend Sarah (Billie Whitelaw, The Omen) is staying with them, party to catch-up with her old chum and partly to be closer to a mysterious man she’s having an affair with.  Still haunted by the death of her previous husband who perished in an automobile accident with his mistress, Ellen stays up nights moping around her house.

One stormy night (don’t all good mysteries start like this?) Ellen sees what she thinks is a dead body in the decaying mansion next door.  The glimpse is brief (so brief I missed it and had to rewind it to see) but when the police investigate they turn up nothing.  Ellen is convinced of what she saw, though, and drives everyone around her mad with her protestations of what she believes she’s seen.

Though pretty stage-y at times (nearly the entire action takes place in several rooms in Ellen’s house), the film has a nice way of building tension the crazier Ellen starts to act.  Did she really see a body and does the killer set their sights on her?  Or is there something more sinister at work?  Don’t worry, I’ll never tell the twist.  I didn’t totally see it coming but thinking back the film sets up its finale almost from the start.  There’s even some clever bits of distraction that had me going down the wrong road for quite some time.

Harvey and Whitelaw are up for the challenge of going toe-to-toe with their violet-eyed costar and both add some nice layers to underwritten roles, Whitelaw especially never tips us off if she’s a friend to trust or to be suspicious of.  The film belongs solely to Taylor and the actress revels in her growing hysteria.  Add to that some hilariously flouncy muumuus she tears around her house in and a penchant for wearing heaps of make-up even in the dead of night and you have a camp performance that’s at times quite a hoot to behold.  Taylor’s a good actress, though, and knows when to dial back her effort, something that always set her apart from her peers.

I’d be interested in reading the play and see how much of it was changed as it transitioned to the silver screen.  For the year it was released and the rating it received, I was surprised at the amount of blood and mature situations on display.  It’s got a strong finale set in a dark house and if you can get your hands on a copy of Night Watch, it’s worth a look thanks to the leading lady and other strong performances.

If you want a good laugh, here’s a link to a review of a 1986 revival of the play from the New York times
http://www.nytimes.com/1986/12/09/theater/stage-night-watch-by-lucille-fletcher.html

31 Days to Scare ~ Eyes of a Stranger

The Facts:

Synopsis: A reporter suspects a creepy neighbor, who lives in the high-rise building across from hers, is a serial killer terrorizing the Miami area.

Stars: Lauren Tewes, Jennifer Jason Leigh, John DiSanti, Peter DuPre, Gwen Lewis, Kitty Lunn

Director: Ken Wiederhorn

Rated: R

Running Length: 85 minutes

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: This is a movie with a serious case of bad taste. It’s true that many similar early ‘80s slasher films had elements that called into question the morality of the filmmakers but Eyes of Stranger is a particularly good case study in just how far the limits of sleaze can be pushed. While it is better made than its modest budget would suggest and has one or two genuine ‘jump’ moments, the heart of the movie is so lurid and black that I’d question anyone that would recommend it without a major ‘buyer beware’ warning before doing so.

Eyes of a Stranger went into production just as the original Friday the 13th became a huge hit. Made by the same production company and featuring gore effects created by Tom Savini (often called the Father of Jason for the work he did on Friday the 13th and Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter), it was after the cameras were already rolling that more sex and blood were added, much to the dismay of several people involved. You can easily spot what’s been goosed up, mostly all of the elements that pander to the young audiences that were clamoring for more guts and gore.

A serial killer is on the prowl in Miami and an ambitious news reporter (Lauren Tewes, famous for her voyages on TV’s Love Boat) grows more fascinated with the case. We know she’s ambitious because she regularly interrupts the news anchor live on air to editorialize the lack of attention being paid by the police force. Living with her blind, deaf, and mute sister (Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Hateful Eight, in her first major role) in a fancy tower apartment, she’s guilt-ridden over an event from her childhood that resulted in her sister’s current condition. It’s this guilt that screenwriter Ron Kurz (Friday the 13th Part 2) uses to provide rationale for the reporter to be so gung-ho in tracking down the killer. It’s not a bad set-up, if I’m being honest, but it’s in the execution (pardon the pun) that the film becomes pretty icky.

Director Ken Wiederhorn doesn’t shy away from the scuzzier elements of the killer (John DiSanti) who likes to terrorize his victims with threating phone calls before he rapes and murders them. Decapitations, throat slashing, stabbings, it’s all part of his oeuvre yet there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to why he’s doing what he’s doing. A mindless maniac disguised as a schlubby loner, he strikes out with women so therefore he strikes back at them.

Several of these stalk-and-stabs are well staged and Savini’s effects are nearly too realistic, there were a few moments I got a good jolt or had to look away from the flowing blood. Still, by the time DiSanti is ripping Leigh’s shirt off and exposing her breats while he tries to kill her I just felt like I needed a Silkwood shower to wash off the thick layer of grime the movie leaves on you. While it’s nice (and rare for the time) to have two female leads in a film like this and not to have at least one of the lead protagonists be a total dimwit, Tewes and Leigh don’t have any real sisterly bond going. It’s clear which of the wo would have a lasting career.

I’ve seen a lot of these films over the years and it’s not hard to spot right away how effective they’ll be. I could see that Eyes of a Stranger was going to be a better-than-average entry in terms of production values but wasn’t expect to find it so garish at the same time. It’s one of the few films from this era that I could see possibly getting a remake, should the right writer/director come along that can smooth out some of the rougher patches and expand more on the scary sequences that leave a lasting impression.