Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

The short stories that this film is based on were apparently popular for several years and encouraged an interactive view of reading, with deliberate shouting at jump scare moments or a cleverly timed flashlight or hand touch. This is just the thing for adolescent ghost stories, told at a camp, retreat or sleepover. The film repeats the concept if not the exact stories. It is directed at a maturing tween audience, thus it is rated PG-13, with a good amount of creepiness but a very short supply of gore. It is a family friendly horror film that can be appreciated by mild core fans rather than just the hard cores gore crowd.

Back in the 1980s, this might have been an anthology film, like “Creepshow”, “Cat’s Eye”, “Twilight Zone:The Movie” or “Tales From the Dark Side”. Someone, probably co-screenwriter and producer Guillermo del Toro, decided to string the stories together in a single narrative that feels very episodic anyway. The concept does have the advantage of giving the audience a little more time to care about the main characters and what is going to happen to them. The thread of the book written by a spirit as a story plays out is just enough to make the plot work at moving forward coherently.

“Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” plays like a demented version of “Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”. As each victim gets singled out by a specialized need they have and it gets woven into the story, characters start to disappear. Unlike the Chocolate Factory however, there are no Ommpa Lumpas to make things right afterward. While it starts out as a haunted house movie, it really follows the curse plotline much more of the time. The doomed protagonists try to figure out what fate will befall them, and then the group reacts. There are some pretty good sight gags and more than a few jump scares to keep us interested. There are a couple of things however that don’t make a lot of sense.

Setting the story in the week between Halloween and the Election of 1968 does not seem necessary. Everytime we get some background on the Vietnam War or the campaign, it takes us out of the main idea of the story and redirects our attention. There is one minor plot point that might require this time period, but it seems so obscure and last minute when it gets dropped in, that most of the audience, especially the kids that this is directed at, will shrug their shoulders and wonder why this is being presented as a history lesson instead of a contemporary story.

This is a movie that will have a long future at Halloween film events focusing on kids. Maybe we can stop pretending that “Hocus Pocus” is a good Halloween movie, and instead get kids to watch something like this. It sure does feel like it is being set up for a series of sequel type films, but the producers may have painted themselves into a nostalgia corner with the time setting. I guess we will see in a couple of years.

47 Meters Down: Uncaged

As is readily apparent on this site,we have a soft spot for shark movies. We even see the bad ones, although I have to admit, I’ve missed a few of the “Sharknado” sequels. Two years ago there was a fun surprise when a movie which was saved from straight to video got a theatrical release and “47 Meters Down” turned out to be a modest hit. It was also a solid summer shark feature with an interesting premise, the perspectives of the shark attacks will be underwater rather than on the surface. Here we are two years later and it is time for a sequel of sorts.

Director Johannes Roberts returns to the subject of sharks underwater with a different cast and modified premise. So the only thing that you need to know from the original film is that there are sharks, otherwise the two stories are completely unrelated to each other. This one starts off with a pretty standard high school girls story. A awkward outcast is tortured at her new school by a Queen Bee and her minions. Her step sister refuses to step in and a tension filled family dynamic is set up. The father in the blended family, played by John Corbett, is an archaeologist, working on a sunken Mayan set of ruins. He attempts to have the two reluctant sisters bond over an expedition to a Great White Diving experience, but the more popular sister’s friends have a different plan in store and in an attempt to try to bond, the reluctant sister accompanies the group of friends. It turns out that one of the girls is dating the Dad’s assistant and he has shown her the access point to the underwater caverns. You can pretty much guess what happens from there.

The four girls all seem interesting and are stereo-typically cute, and they engage in the sort of group think behavior that would be likely in those circumstances. The underwater sequences are filmed in a supposed maze of ruins with a Mayan alter in the center. The girls believe their father is operating on the far end of the site so they think they can get away with this expedition. Cue the sharks. Oh and by the way, they are not just sharks. Since they have evolved in an enclosed area, their are sightless. That’s right, the threat will come from blind shark, Great Whites in particular. The second threat, which is a repeat of the premise in the original film, comes from the dwindling air supply of the four girls. Modern radio systems seem to allow the girls to speak to one another or anyone else in range while underwater, so that eliminates the need for a lot of pantomime or hand signals. They can scream in fear and offer narrative exposition as necessary.

So a combination of disoriented divers, cave ins, strong currents and of course blind sharks, are used to create the suspense of this film for the rest of the run time. The logic of what is happening is not exactly credible, but it is way ahead of “Sharknados” and as a result, real tension does build up. There are plenty of jump scares and a few moments of release, but like all films that involve jeopardy in nature, there is always one more thing that can go wrong. Let me assure you that plenty of people die from shark attack and that the visualization is effective if not as horrifying as the deaths we saw earlier in the summer in “Crawl”.

forty_seven_meters_down_uncaged

The alligator movie is a lot better than this film is, but I am not asking too much of this, just that it entertain me with shark related peril for a while, it does that. The director is competent in making the underwater action thrilling is not always entirely plausible. The four actresses have some TV credits and a couple of movies but they are largely fresh faces. Two of those fresh faces however belong to families that you are likely to know. Sistine Stallone, who plays the bratty friend makes her film debut in this movie, following a path blazed by her father, who you all know as Rocky. Corinne Foxx, the slightly older step-sister is the progeny of actor Jamie Foxx. After they are all underwater, it is hard to evaluate any of the actresses on their thespian skills, but no one makes the kind of misstep that would otherwise ruin this slightly preposterous nature thriller.

Lawrence of Arabia End of Summer

OK, yes, we went to see Lawrence again. I know this is getting a little redundant, but as I have said in the past, if you can see a movie you love on the big screen, jump at the chance. After all, life is short and you never know when the opportunity will arise again. We had planned on going to this Fathom event on Sunday, but after two late nights before and some planning of a birthday for the next day, we slid back into the Wednesday afternoon screening. This was the full roadshow presentation, with Overture and intermission. TCM Host Ben Mankiewicz introduced the film with some details about the casting process. Apparently a lot of money was spent on a screen test of Albert Finney but he fell out. Marlon Brando never responded to offers and when O’Toole was tested, halfway thru the test, Lean stopped and felt he had found his star.

I always try to find a little something different to emphasize about a film that I have written about before. It has gotten tougher over the years, because of the number of times I have seen certain films [Jaws and Lawrence stand out, but you can add almost every Bond film as well], to find a new angle. As I was sitting in the theater and the lights had gone completely out for the overture (modern theaters don’t quite get it), I was immersed in the score without any other sensory data. That inspired me to try and pay particular attention to the sound design of the film and the music cues. “Lawrence” is a film that is noted for it’s visual sweep and rightly so. I think it is also true that it is aurally a majestic piece of work as well.

The Academy Award winning score by Maurice Jarre is noteworthy because of the familiar title theme, but there is so much more in this film that the music enhances. The familiar melody reoccurs of course but there are other sections of music that are quiet and contemplative or strident and martial. They are integrated into the action seamlessly in every scene in the movie. What is also well crafted by David Lean and Jarre is the absence of music in some sections. The desert at night is often quiet. When Lawrence is thinking about the idea of attacking Aqaba there is an ominous score but as they travel under the stars later, it is eerily quiet.

In past posts I have mentioned the sound of the creaking tent poles in Faisal’s tent as the wind moves over the structure. There are dozens of other moments where the sound is equally important. At the well, listen to the echo as Tafas tosses the goatskin receptacle down to gather up some water for he and Lawrence. The ominous silence foreshadows the visual scene that is about to take place. When Lawrence is singing out to the echo and it is being heard by Brighton, the effect is staggering at suggesting the distances at which they are communicating with one another. The sound of the camels and horses at Auda’s camp is like thunder rolling over the dunes. Train whistles and steamboat horns also jump out at times, creating the equivalent of an audio jump scare. The clanging of two ladles, hanging from the animal of the retreating Turkish troops, builds an anticipation of the bloodbath that is about to begin.

From the beginning of the film, sound swallows us up before there is any dialogue. Lawrence’s motorcycle revs up as he takes off from his starting point and it ratchets up and down as he cruises through the English countryside. Note however the distinct difference in sound when the vehicle travels over the rise and we hear a hushed spinning of the wheels rather than the engine roar we had before. Every step of this film had little moments of genius like that, and then Jarre’s music cue would top it off immaculately. Frankly, I could have sat in the theater in the dark and listened to the score on the sound system and been happy. My emotions can be easily manipulated with the right musical note. Once again, my whole body shuddered with delight at the artistry of the film makers when we go to intermission.
Lawrence2

The Farewell

Here is another opportunity to visit with a different culture and see how it contrasts to the one you likely fit in. An immigrant Chinese Family returns to China to see an ill grandmother, but the extent of the illness is to be kept from the woman because of family expectations. When the granddaughter and her parents express their doubts about this choice, they explain to her Uncle, that it would not even be possible to keep this information from the woman, in the U.S. it would be illegal.  That’s a pretty stark contrast in values and there are other places where the differences come up as well.

Billi, the character played by star Awkafina, is devoted to her grandmother, speaking to her on the phone on a regular basis, even though it has been years since they have been together. Her parents are willing to go along with the charade, both out of duty but also because they too believe it is a wise thing to do. Billi is invited to not travel to the makeshift wedding of her cousin that has been established as the subterfuge to justify all the family members arriving simultaneously. Her parents do not believe she can be trusted to withhold her grief from Grandma [Nai Nai]. This is certainly true as the story goes on, because Billi cannot retrain herself from going to China and she is not a good enough actor to hide the fact that something is wrong. Awkafina on the other hand seems to be a good enough actress to show us all of those things about Billi, sometimes in narrative but usually in demonstration. Her bowed head and slumped shoulders are a giveaway that she is beaten down by life but especially by this moment in her life.

This story may pose an additional issue that is unrelated to a specific culture but is connected to all of us and our health. Ask yourself, “How important is my attitude toward the management of a heath crisis?” A doctor telling you that you only have so long to live, might actually be accelerating your decay by taking whatever wind out of your sails you may have had. Depression has got to contribute to the decline in quality of life and the foreknowledge of your diagnosis is certainly going to be depressing. There may in fact be people out there who are pursuing a different type of youth in Asia [That’s a pun folks, not a misunderstanding of the word].

The story is ultimately a heart warming experience with a family in a period of crisis. In the long run, it is a family that does have each others best interests at heart so the conflicts are minor rather than melodramatic. Nai Nai is a hoot, she says the right thing at the right time and her loving attitude toward everyone is something we could all hope for. The one thing that will stand out for most people is that eating is a critical part of these relationships, and as we see food being prepared, served, argued about and consumed, you will certainly wonder where you can get some of the dishes that are featured.

On a side note: This film is primarily in Mandarin with English subtitles. There are many sections in English but at least two thirds are in non-english formats. There were three large groups of families who came to see the movie which is great, but the one family that sat next to us proved a bit of a problem. The seven or eight year old boy was clearly not interested and apparently not capable of reading effectively. His mother narrated all of the film that was not in English and it was incredibly distracting despite the fact she was not particularly loud. So we are hearing the words in one language, reading them in another, and hearing them again in the second language. It was an annoying echo that undermined the experience substantially, and when the mother had to explain some things to the child, it was even more problematic. This was a bad choice for them and it was a worse one for us.

The Peanut Butter Falcon

I like all kinds of movies. Hollywood should adore a fan like me because I will turn out for the next tentpole blockbuster in the MCU, or a mainstream drama with major stars, or a gross out comedy or horror film. I also have a fondness for movies like our current subject, offbeat character pieces about subcultures and locations with which I am completely unfamiliar. Two examples from the last few years stick out for illustration purposes. “Moonlight“, the Best Picture winner featuring the history of a gay black drug dealer. That is not something that connects with my experience in any way but it was compelling. “Mud“, which should have been a Best Picture winner explores a Mississippi river community and the tangled relationships between adults and children, I thought it was the best film I saw in the year it came out. So in what ways are these films like “The Peanut Butter Falcon”?

Let me give you a thumbnail sketch of the movie and lets see if you can connect the dots. We have a Downs Syndrome, young adult, obsessive about TV style wrestling, who lives in the outer banks of North Carolina and gets involved with a disgraced crab fisherman. These are all cultures that I have had little or no contact with and my guess is most of the rest of us lack that connection as well. And this movie manages to bring us into those worlds, create a sense of empathy with those characters and build an emotional story that we will be engaged with for the time we spend with them. This is story telling rather than spectacle and I think that is as worthy of my time and money as any comic book movie would be.

Some might be put off by the presence of Shia LeBeouf in the cast. As a celebrity, he is problematic. Many of his antics are off putting and his persona might be objectionable. I really don’t care much about those sort of things. As an actor I have found him to be fairly consistent in turning in quality performances, both in CGI behemoths and in independent projects. This is probably his best work as an actor that I can remember. His manner of speech is not quite dominated by an accent as it is representative of a lifestyle and culture.  While much of that is the dialogue he has been given, he has to find a way for it to seem natural, and he does that quite well. The physical aspects of his performance are also solid. He is a young man, beaten down by circumstances and haunted by guilt. He is capable of enjoying moments of levity but you can see in most of his scenes that there is a shadow that hangs over him and that it pushes down on him physically as well as emotionally. The best news is, he is not really the star of the picture and all of his work is a reflection that he is a supporting character in the story, even though he has a substantial amount of the screen time.

Newcomer Zack Gottsagen is the real star of the film. He is an actor with Downs syndrome who has to carry the weight of the story on his shoulders. His openness is the main hook that makes the performance viable. Although he is playing a character with the same condition he has, that character has distinctive behaviors and attitudes that are part of the script. Toward the end of the movie, there is a moment of doubt and fear that has never existed in his character Zac, prior to that instant. The actor makes it real and that is one of the places that makes this a true performance and not just stunt casting. He builds credible relations with the other two major players and a series of other characters as well.

Although the movie focuses on the relationship between the two actors I’ve mentioned so far, there are several others that deserve to be mentioned, not the least of whom is Dakota Johnson. This young woman has the good fortune or curse of having been the lead in the series of Mommy Porn films based on Twilight fan fiction which became so popular a few years ago. The movies are widely derided and it would be easy to dismiss her as a pretty face without commensurate talent. That would be a mistake. She was quite good in last year’s “Bad Times at the El Royale” and she is touching and sincere in this film as well. She is a conflicted care giver who knows how difficult life for Zac can be, but she can also see the impact that the relationship Zac has with LaBeouf’s character  is a positive one. There are three terrific actors in relatively small parts in the rest of the film, all three are former Academy Award nominees. John Hawkes is cast in his usual redneck image and he is the villain of the piece in spite of his character being largely in the right concerning his dispute with LaBeouf’s Tyler.  Bruce Dern is in the early scenes as a sympathetic resident in Zac’s care facility, and he adds some spunk to the proceedings early on. Finally, Thomas Haden Church may have the best character part since his role in “Sideways”, as a wrestling figure from the past who is an inspiration to Zac.

The film has a great deal of humor based on character to offer us. Tyler does not start out very sympathetic either as a person or towards Zac. The film suggests that good will can manifest good relations and that those are the things we should value above everything else. The lack of good will exhibited by the facility administrators, the crab fishing rivals and a broken down wrestler are the reasons we can’t appreciate their behaviors, even when they are somewhat understandable. Tyler on the other hand, in spite of his criminal acts, turns out to have good will in his heart, the story attempts to show us how someone can recover that by caring for another person. Sometimes these kinds of films are refereed to as “feel-good” movies.  Unfortunately that label might be seen as some as disparaging. In my opinion, this is a movie that makes you feel good because it plays honestly with the characters, not because it manipulates them or us.

The Art of Racing in the Rain

If you look at this film from a cinematic perspective, you are unlikely to be impressed. It is well shot but there is nothing innovative here. The story is melodramatic, male weepy material, and the dog narrates. Those would be things that turn off serious film buffs but they are exactly the kinds of things that would sell this movie to a specific audience and make it work. Well, I’m that audience and guess what, on an emotional level it works. Movies where the dog is a featured character have been around forever and they usually are designed for one purpose, to wring as many tears out of a person as possible. Check that off the list, this movie brings the tears for dog lovers everywhere. From the opening scene, we know how the movie is going to end, and that includes not just the metaphorical puddle but a real one as well.

I’ve never seen “This is Us” the television series that features the star of this movie Milo Ventimiglia. He is apparently quite strong in that role since he has been Emmy nominated three years in a row, but this is my introduction to his work and he is fine. I don’t know that there is much he can do with the role because he is basically a human punching bag with a side kick. The character of Denny Swift is an aspiring race car driver, who has opportunities snatched away from him and side roads in his life that turn into bad trips. All of that is tolerable because he has a dog with him to remind himself of the possibilities in life that he talks about regularly.

Amanda Seyfried has reached the stage in life where she has gone from playing the ingenue to playing the young mother. Her romance with Denny is swift and their life together is beautiful, until it is time for more stuff to hit the fan, then she becomes another plot point in the story. Human characters elicit empathy in movies when we are engaged in their lives, so the events that overtake her don’t have the same impact as the third major character in the film. That third character is the one we will have all the emotional connection to. That third character is the dog.

Enzo is the name of the dog. He is played by at least three different golden retrievers, as a pup, a young healthy dog and the older wiser pooch we meet at the beginning of the story and at the end. In the first five minutes, the conclusion is foreshadowed and we get an hour and a half to gird ourselves for the denouement. It’s still not enough time. In addition to being the world’s friendliest looking dog, Enzo has the gravelly and still slightly whiney voice of Kevin Costner. The actor never appears on screen but he is the star of this movie, telling us the story from the perspective of the dog. I hope he got paid well because he earns all the emotional beats for the film’s narratives. Speaking of getting paid, I am looking in the mailbox for our residual check. Look at these pictures.

Our dog may very well have snuck off and filmed this movie while we were not looking. The number of times there was an expression on Enzo’s face that I have seen on our own dog’s face is too numerous to catalog. If you control for lighting, these dogs are the same and even have the same inner voice (dog owners know what I mean).

There is nothing subtle about where this is heading. The manipulative plot devise that involves a custody dispute aside, the dog’s arc is the backbone of the story. Kathy Baker and Martin Donovan have the thankless roles of antagonists in the later part of the story and Gary Cole provides his usual welcome presence in i small part as a mentor of sorts to Denny.  The best acting however is done by the dog and everyone knows that this is his film and let him walk away with the movie on all four paws. Bring your tissues because you will weep if you are a person who loves a dog.art_of_racing_in_the_rain