Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark: Old Fashioned Tales That Satisfy – Review

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, based on the books of the same name, is the latest offering to come from Guillermo del Toro. He shares credits of both producing and co-writing the screenplay and the story is as old fashioned as it is satisfying. It is, in short, a visual treat.

Directed by André Øvredal (Trollhunter, The Autopsy of Jane Doe) the film looks brilliant. If one is of a certain age, the tones, hues, and overall colour of the film looks like all those old photographs from childhood. Every frame reeks of nostalgic melancholy that feels at home with bell bottom jeans and cars that all came from Detroit.

The film offers nothing new. It does, however, take one right back to their childhood. Tales told breathlessly around campfires or, in some instances, around Ouija boards, that invoked disbelief, at first, and then, at last, a sense of dread and acceptance. It is not the tales themselves that impress so much as they way that they are presented.

Each vignette offers a sort of variation on original tales that have been updated or altered to fit this particular theme. Not having read the books, which is now on my list of things that must be done, it is not clear how well the filmmakers managed to capture the spirit of the source material.

Regardless of whether the film manages to capture the intent of author Alvin Schwartz or not is not up for discussion. It should be noted that the first iteration of these books caused an outcry amongst concerned parents. (Apparently the illustrations of Stephen Grimmell were considered quite unsuitable for the targeted age group.)

Gore factor aside, which the film manages to control rather admirably, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark entertains without offending anyone. Deftly mixing urban myths with some original myth making, the movie does produce a few jump scares. Sadly, most of the “scares” rely on the rather tired device of cranking up the sound to Boeing 767 level, but some do work without the volumetric control used too often.

There are some nice touches for the horror fan. One of the male characters (Auggie, played admirably by Gabriel Rush) sports a Halloween costume that could be right from the frames of the 1978 film Halloween. The “clown” outfit; “It’s a Pierrot,” argues Auggie repeatedly, feels like a deliberate homage to Michael Myers’ outfit in the original horror film. (While the two outfits are nothing alike, there is an odd resemblance. Enough of one, at least to this viewer, that it seemed glaringly obvious.) It should be said that there are other nods and winks to classic horror stories throughout.

The cast of the film; Rush along with Zoe Margaret Colletti, Michael Garza, Austin Zajur, Natalie Ganzhorn,  give it their all. Each convinces admirably and at no time does one ever doubt their character’s veracity. (Colletti will obviously go far in her chosen profession. She knocked it out of the park easily.) It was lovely to see firm favorite Dean Norris as the father. More of Norris would not have gone amiss but one obviously has to draw the line somewhere in terms of running time.

The cinematography is brilliant and the use of hues and tonal shifts in terms of colour works wonderfully to establish mood and direction. While it would have been interesting to see a much darker version of this movie, in other words if del Toro had directed the feature, Øvredal does an excellent job.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is not, overall, frightening. It delivers a great storyline reminiscent of Dr Terror’s House of Horrors or Asylum and does so with a certain juvenile panache. This is a kid’s film, after all, but it entertains very well. It earns a full 4 out of 5 stars for delivery and one should see it in the cinema.

Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood: Tarantino’s Ironic Nostalgic Twist

Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood is Quintin Tarantino’s latest offering…

once upon a time in Hollywood: Opinion

Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood is Quentin Tarantino’s latest offering. It is a slant on a nostalgic tinseltown that no longer exists, if it ever really did in the way that Tarantino depicts it, and the film’s ironic ending leaves one wondering just what his motives truly were.  Critics have complained that the movie spends too little time on the Manson family and its tragic victims but this is the purpose of the entire film, to give a “Hollywood finish” to reality.

The film, starring Tarantino semi-regulars Leonardo DiCaprio (Django, and Brad Pitt (Inglourious Basterds) Kurt Russell (The Hateful Eight, Death Proof) and Bruce Dern (in a blink and you will miss him cameo as a last minute replacement for the late Burt Reynolds) is a long, somewhat meandering affair. **It should be pointed out that along with Russell, Dern has the most credits listed under Tarantino.**

Margot Robbie is the tragic Sharon Tate and there are a number of familiar faces, some more special that others, who fill out the cast list of this odd offering. Please do not misunderstand, this is a visual treat for the viewer, it offers much in terms of interest and threatens to become a brilliant character study. Although it never really delivers in term of character but it teases in other ways and provides a few laughs along then way.

I was 11 years old when the 1960’s ended, along with the lives of Tate, Jay Sebring, Abigail Folger and Voytek Frykowski, and Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood brought the sixties screaming back into glorious discordant life. The sounds of the radio advertisements, the television clips, the colours, the clothes and the cars all threw me right back into a pre-pubescent memory lane. This was both enthralling and somewhat, rather oddly, disturbing.

Tarantino gives us his version of ’60’s Hollywood. He also, by design, gives us the “Hollywood” ending to the entire “Helter Skelter” true story that the film is based around. (Not upon, as his tale is, to paraphrase a line from 1969’s The Wild Bunch of the event, not from it. In other words, it is the frame he hangs his work on.)

Once Upon a Time… focuses on Rick Dalton and his stunt double Cliff Booth. Tate is in the periphery as a reminder of the impending tragedy. She flashes on the screen in small glimpses that are designed to show her as a sympathetic character, all the more to make the ending hit that little bit harder. This is, however, a ruse. A MacGuffin if you will. A tactic that sets us up instead for the “Hollywood ending.”

Tarantino lets fantasy intrude at the tail end of the movie and here the discussion will stop in order to keep spoilers from appearing in this review. In many ways, the ending is a disappointment until one realizes that the fantasy is what Hollywood studios would have ordered were the real life murders a movie.

Hollywood has long had a fixation with endings that allow the hero to ride off into the sunset with the girl on one arm and a fistful of money clenched in his fist. The bad guy gets his just reward, a bullet or a grave, or both, and everyone lives happily ever after.

There are enough nods are “real” Hollywood to allow this to work. Booth’s besting of Bruce Lee on the backlot is based around Lee’s time on The Green Hornet. He was also training many celebs and newcomers on martial arts for both onscreen and off. Lee trained Tate for her role in the Dean Martin “Matt Helm” movie The Wrecking Crew. (Coincidentally, this was the last Matt Helm picture made, despite another being touted at the end credits.)

Dalton’s foray into Spaghetti Western territory mirrors, to an extent, Clint Eastwood’s own journey into the Leonesque world of Western Opera. While the connection is tenuous as best, unlike the Bruce Lee vignette, it is there for the film fan to notice and appreciate.

Once Upon a Time looks luscious and real, except for the odd continuity issue, as the hippies all have filthy feet, legs and hair. Dakota Fanning plays stunningly against type as the “momma bear” Squeaky Fromme and Margaret Qualley as Pussycat is all scabby legs, black feet and sexual promiscuity wrapped in a teen drugged up dream. Qualley does such a convincing job as a Manson minion that one can almost smell the scent of eu de rubbish skip that must permeate her entire essence.

The violence in the film is convincing yet, strangely, funny in the way it is presented. All except the scene at the Spahn Ranch, the blood looked as real as the Korean cinema’s blood work, which is head and shoulders above the rest of the industry.

DiCaprio’s performance as Dalton is convincing and his suffering artist makes us feel for him. I will admit to being moved to tears when the child actor – Trudi (played exquisitely by Julia Butters ) leans over and tells a teary eyed Dalton that this is “the best acting I’ve ever seen.” Truth be told, Butters comes damn close to stealing the film from the entire cast. This is one young lady to keep an eye on.

Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood is one to watch. Perhaps not at the cinema, streaming or DVD may just suffice as despite looking brilliant and providing a magnificent nostalgic treat, it left me, at the end of the film, feeling a tad disappointed.  However, it is an excellent example of Tarantino’s skill at hiding a genius move in plain sight. Like Inglourious Basterds he gives us a fictional version of an awful reality, one that equals, to a degree, a happy Hollywood ending. This then, is the ironic twist to Tarantino’s nostalgic Hollywood tale…

Blade Runner 2049 (2017): Beautifully Disappointing (Review)

blade-runner-2049-main

The long awaited sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1982 sleeper hit “Blade Runner” is beautiful to look at and offers a ranging plot line but ultimately disappoints by the time the end credits run. Directed this time around by Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Sicario, Arrival) Blade Runner 2049 has the same dogmatic and plodding feel that the original film featured but with a lot more scope and, for lack of a better word, space. 

While the first film relied much more on the excellent Phillip K. Dick book “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” and a splendid cast that included Rutger Hauer as the lead replicant and a very young Daryl Hannah, this iteration moved forward in the verse to give us a different kind of “runner.”

K (Ryan Gosling) is a Blade Runner who is not human, he is a “new” replicant.  As he starts chasing down the remaining old replicants he finds a mysterious box after killing Dave Bautista’s Sapper Morgan. Inside the receptacle rests the bones of Rachel and evidence of childbirth. 

The film then follows K (or Joe as Joi – played with an aching poignancy by Ana de Armas – the computerized companion calls him) as he tries to find out who the child is. At one point we believe, as he does, that Decker (Harrison Ford) is his father, but later we learn more about this curious triangle. 

The performances in Blade Runner 2049 are top notch, with only Jared Leto letting the side down a bit with his take on Wallace.  De Armas manages to practically steal every scene she is in and it is nigh on impossible not to fall in love with this brilliant actress as she brings Joi to life.

Rutger Hauer may be missing from this tale but the Dutch are ably represented by the marvelous Sylvia Hoeks who manages to make her character suitably scary in all the right places.  Villeneuve does a good job recreating the verse that Scott initially brought to the screen but the film is over-long. Two hours and 43 minutes is a long time to sit and the slow pacing of the movie made this seem much longer at times. 

Like the first film the progress of the plot and story line plods along at a frustratingly pedestrian rate. Too much time is spent questioning something that the audience, if they have been paying attention, will have guessed  midway through the film.

Despite the film generating a overall feeling of mild disappointment, there are enough nods and winks to the original to keep fans interested and pleased. The origami sheep (made by Gaff – a clear nod to the Philip K. Dick book), the clear raincoat worn by Joi, the atmosphere of L.A. and the re-emergence of Rachel (Sean Young appearing in a clip and later as a CG creation that just was weird looking as the CG replication of the late Peter Cushing in Rogue One.

Blade Runner 2049 looks beautiful and feels like a logical carry on from the first. However, like Rutger Hauer has stated, the first film was almost sheer perfection. Any sequel, despite the love and care that went into it, was bound to fall short, as this does.

But…

This is a film that needs to be seen. It encompasses so much, while still falling that little bit short, that one must see it in the cinema to appreciate the sheer grandness of the world it presents. The sets, the costumes, the performances and the cinematography combine beautifully to take us into this gloomy downtrodden world.

The film manages to bring us into its tale of a miracle amidst so much decay and loneliness (which, ultimately, this sequel is all about) with a lot of care to detail and stunning visuals. Mild disappointment aside, Blade Runner 2049 is still one to watch on the big screen.

There is violence, not much in the way of nudity and very little foul language. While not as originally pleasing as Scott’s 1982 version, the film earns 4.5 stars in presentation alone. Similar to this year’s version of the Stephen King horror re-imagining “ItBlade Runner 2049 will deliver a potent punch for fans, while still managing to disappoint overall.

Is This Now (2017) Social Drama With a Bite (Review)

John Altman and Sabrina Dickens

Anyone who has read Mike’s Film Talk at all knows that we love Independent Films, Asian cinema and British film full stop. “Is This Now” is the latest offering from the stellar actress Sabrina Dickens and was written and directed by Joe Scott; this is Scott’s fourth film and his second time working with Dickens.

(The Bristol actress pulled in the Best Actress Award in the 2017 WMIFF. If one watches the film it becomes easy to see why.)

“Is This Now” follows the day to day happenings of Ingrid (played brilliantly by Dickens); a council estate orphan raised in the social services system. The film starts with Ingrid sitting in a toilet. She is naked and her legs carry the scars of self harm that many young women commit in order to handle stress.

Ingrid is singing but without listening to the song (one of the many penned by singer/song writer Kaya Herstead Carney) we know already that the system has let this young woman down. Later we learn of sexual abuse at the hands of the men in her life and how it has affected her.

Anu Hasan is Ms. Murray,  the social services worker who looks after Ingrid and Brigid Shine is Jade; another young woman who becomes a part of the abused woman’s life. John Altman (best known for playing “nasty” Nick Cotton on Eastenders) is Johnny, a band manager for JOANoVArc (the members of the band play themselves), who is, perhaps, the first male figure in her life who does not abuse her.

The young woman is in that vicious circle that abused survivors often find themselves in: In trouble with the police and unsure of how to react to anything “normal.” “Is This Now” follows two story lines with the same protagonist starting both.

Murray (played compassionately by Hasan who is another Eastenders alumni) tries to find justice for Ingrid within the system while the young woman herself undergoes a journey of discovery. On a trip to France she meets up with Jade and discovers a young man who manages to break through that thick and angry wall just a bit.

Dion (Fabien Ara) lives with his aunt who has a great huge mansion and a delightfully eccentric outlook on life. As things progress, it seems that Ingrid is slowly overcoming the hurdles that life has put in her way…Or has she?

The film itself looks brilliant. Filmed, in part, in Wales and parts of Liverpool, everything looks as it should. The Council office look spot on and the streets, as well as the shops and, in fact, all the sets feel perfect. Anyone who has ever gone to deal with Social Services or the Job Centre will recognize the surroundings.

Scott helms this drama very well. The theme, as well as the overall feel of the film, is as English as a “cuppa” tea and just as authentic. The music, the dialogue of the young people and the professionals around them – Murray and the bureaucrats she deals with – are all presented with a sure and certain ring of truth.

The story hides a surprising sting that is as satisfying as it is disturbing. It offers the viewer something with a bit of bite and is does not disappoint.

All the performers knock it out of the park and Altman is a delight as the band manager with a heart of gold. Scottish actress Ruth Millar is wonderfully eclectic as the aunt who dispenses more than a little advice to Ingrid when she really needs it.

(Altman also sings a bit and it is surprisingly good. It takes him far away from the nasty bit of work he played in Eastenders for so many years and is yet another indication of what a capable actor he really is.)

Dickens kills it as the council estate girl who is wrung through the wringer by life and her own demons. This is an almost addictive drama and her performance, along with Scott’s writing and direction, compels the viewer to stick around for the end.

“Is This Now” is an award winning film (Scott won Best Narrative Feature and the movie has pulled in two other awards.) that features very little violence, a touch of nudity and some brutal yet socially aware themes; i.e. the sexual abuse of children.

It is a film that focuses on the human condition and not on gratuitous violence. It is currently running the festival circuit and it is highly recommended that film fans keep an eye out for its theatrical release.

“Is This Now” is a full 4.5 star film that does not fail to make one think about life’s victims and their struggle to cope with it all.  We care about Ingrid, Murray and all the friends that the damaged young people interact with throughout the film. This one is a winner.

Sabrina Dickens

Don’t Breathe (2016): Scary Disinterest (Review)

Stephen Lang

Co-written and directed by Fede Alvarez (Rodo Sayagues was the co-author on the project) Don’t Breathe is an exercise in scary disinterest. No one character is appealing or sympathetic enough for the audience to ever really care about the outcome of this odd home invasion film.

At its core, this is what the marginally scary film is all about. A wounded veteran, played by Stephen Lang, who has been blinded in Iraq and been driven mad by the death of his only child, is targeted by three vapid and unlikeable young people. The trio decide to rob the old man of his settlement money after knocking him out with chloroform.

The vet is apparently immune to the homemade gas bomb and his dog is as well. The first of the three goes down (Daniel Zovatto as “Money” dies in a particularly graphic and impressive way – shot in the face; his lips blow out in what looks like a very realistic display of the gun’s power.)

This leaves Rocky (Jane Levy) and “Good Guy” Alex  (Dylan Minnette) to battle things out with the blind vet. There is no doubt that Lang’s character will end up on top. (The very casting of Lang ensures that the “victim” of this piece will win.)

By the end of the film, Lang’s blind man has almost impregnated Rocky, with a turkey baster, and nearly killed the young home-breaker as well. As scary as some of this film was, it lacked much in the plot department and did not feature one character that the audience could really care about.

The best parts of the film are those that feature Lang’s cold blooded but decent; “I a not a rapist,” he says while filling the baster, homicidal maniac who pulls out all the stops to defend his home and his self impregnated kidnap victim.

Don’t Breathe leaves things wide open for a sequel, where presumably the blind man hunts down the trailer trash survivor who robbed him of his replacement child and money.  He will have to travel to Los Angeles and may be a more grim version of that old blind warrior Zatoichi (which was re-imagined with Rutger Hauer in the 1989 action flick “Blind Fury.”) who uses guns instead of a sword walking stick.

The sequel may be more affected but will still suffer from having shallow and unlikeable characters. Without any one to really cheer for, apart from Lang’s vet who dishes out some well deserved retribution to those who would rob from a “helpless” veteran, this scary film’s second chapter will no doubt disappoint as well.

Lang kills it as the dangerous “cripple” who almost silent dispatches his home invaders. The rest of the young cast are adequate considering the lack of depth given their characters. Minnette, who was quite good in “Goosebumps” does not really shine here as his character is the least offensive of the three protagonists and is not really the good guy at all.

Fans of horror films may like this offering.  It is a 3.5 star effort that has some jumpy moments, no nudity, a lot of violence and a close call with a turkey baster.

Don’t Breathe is on Cinemax at the moment for steaming and can be rented via other platforms.