Fright Club: Skeletons in the Closet, 2021

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! The Oscars are coming and we get to spend some time celebrating the worst of the horror movies made by nominees. Have they made great horror? Well, Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out) and Anthony Hopkins (The Silence of the Lambs) are nominees, so yes. In fact, there are a whole slew of horror films made by this year’s batch of nominees, most of them far too good to qualify for this list.

No, we want the skeletons. And every single year, nominees have them. Here are this year’s contenders.

5. Daniel Kaluuya: Chatroom (2010) 

What is the matter with this movie? Writer Edna Walsh, who’d go on to pen the excellent films Disco Pigs and Hunger, adapted her own stage play. Hideo Nakata (Ringu, Dark Water) directed. The cast is exceptional: Daniel Kaluuya, Imogen Poots, Aaron Taylor-Johnson all play Chelsea teens who hang out in a new chatroom.

How did this to so terribly wrong? As five kids get to know each other online, it turns out that one is a predator looking for a very specific weakness and playing the others against each other. Not a terrible premise, and the overall design is surreal enough to avoid individuals at their laptops. Performances are solid as well.

But, ideas come and go, conflicts arise and disappear, characters appear without warning or introduction and vanish, and storylines fail to make any real sense.

4. Amanda Seyfried & Gary Oldman: Red Riding Hood (2011)

A two-fer! Truth be told, there were plenty of two-fer opportunities with Oldman on this list (he also co-starred with fellow nominee Anthony Hopkins in both Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Hannibal).

But this is the one, because it lets us talk about another time he co-starred with Amanda Seyfried. Both are nominated for their work together in 2020’s Mank. Neither were nominated for this.

Twilight director Catherine Hardwicke helms this fractured fairy tale, and it looks gorgeous. The story is overly complicated and stupid, but it hits all the important marks: Valerie (Seyfried) is loved by two potentially dangerous boys whose passion might actually kill her. Oh, it’s such an angsty YA dream!

Seyfried is fine. Oldman is a ham, and he’s such a joy when he’s a ham. There’s a fun cameo from Julie Christie as well. But the weak writing and utterly laughable performances by the two suitors (Max Irons and Shiloh Fernandez) are enough to sink this one deep.

3. Anthony Hopkins: The Wolfman (2010)

Hopkins has a lot of horror in his closet, much of it bad. The Rite is the least watchable, but this is the one that’s the most fun to lambast. What a ludicrous waste of talent!

Sir Anthony bites through scenery (among other things) as Sir John Talbot, father of Lawrence Talbot (Benicio Del Toro). Their background is murky, their property is foggy, their accents are jarringly different.

Director Joe Johnson likes stuff big and hokey. You’ll find that here. The film won an Oscar for its make up, which we cannot get behind. The final battle looks like two rhoided-up Pomeranians duking it out.

Still, Emily Blunt and Hugo Weaving are good, and even though the great Del Toro sleepwalks through this embarrassment, Hopkins is always a bit of fun when he camps it up in a bad movie.

2. Gary Oldman: The Unborn (2009)

Oh, Gary Oldman, why do you so rarely say no?

He’s just in so, so, so many movies – mathematically speaking, it only makes sense that a lot of them will be terrible. Like this one, a film that feels less like a single cohesive unit and more like a string of individual scenes filmed as examples of cliches and non sequiturs.

Oldman plays a rabbi who works with a Christian minister played by Idris Elba to help an incredibly entitled young woman who looks like a blander version of Megan Fox (Odette Annable) exorcise a Jewish demon who likes twins.

Cam Gigandet, Meagan Good, James Remar and Carla Gugino also co-star for no logical reason. Well, writer/director David S. Goyer is also writer David S. Goyer (Blade trilogy & Nolan’s Batman trilogy). This movie came immediately on the heels of 2008’s The Dark Knight, which explains Oldman as well as some unmet expectations.

1. Youn Yuh-jung: Insect Woman (1972)

Youn Yuh-jung is a treasure. Her fifty years in movies boasts dozens of remarkable performances usually marked by quirky humor that never feels gimmicky. She’s had a hell of a 2020, with pivotal supporting roles in Beasts Clawing at Straws and the Oscar-nominated Minari.

She does what she can in writer/director Kim Ki-young’s inexplicably titled Insect Woman.

Oh my God, what a trainwreck! What is going on here? Youn plays a teen with nowhere to turn once her father returns to his wife. Now her mother, older brother and she must fend for themselves. But how? Well, maybe she can be mistress to an impotent (or is he?!) high school teacher.

The film swings back and forth between highly irrational melodrama to profoundly unsexy eroticism to unconvincing gritty street indie. An hour or more into this, they introduce a vampire baby.

I swear!

Then it’s on. Who knows what the hell is happening or is going to happen or why it’s happening or what the film is trying to say. If it were a better movie I’d think Insect Woman was trying to make a point about misogyny and classism in South Korea.

It’s not a better movie, though. It’s very bad.

Tilting At Windmills

Mank

by George Wolf

Since its release in 1941, Citizen Kane has earned such a prodigious place in film and popular culture that the utterance of merely one word can summon it.

And as much as Orson Welles’s masterwork has been dissected over the years, Mank reveals its essence in unique and wondrous ways.

Director/co-writer David Fincher (who honors his late father Jack’s script by listing him as the sole writer) takes us into Citizen Kane through the shadowy side entrance of screenwriter Herman “Mank” Mankiewicz. Officially, Mank and Welles shared the Kane writing credit, though just who did the heavy lifting is still a source of debate for film historians.

Fincher’s view is clear. But even the dissenters may feel powerless to the seductive pull of Mank‘s immersion into Kane‘s creation, and to the stupendous lead performance that drives it.

As Mankiewicz (“and then out of nowhere, a ‘Z’!”), Gary Oldman is out-of-this world-good. His Mank is a charmer, a gambler and a frequent drunk, bedridden by injuries from a car accident and under the gun to deliver Welles a script in just 90…no make that 60 days. And no drinking!

Tick. Tock.

The first few pages bring a critique that “none of it sings,” which is funny, because all of this sings.

Fincher’s rapid-fire dialogue is beautifully layered and lyrically precise, more like the final draft of a script than authentic conversations, which only reinforces the film’s commitment to honoring the power of writing. Onscreen typeface and script direction transition the flashbacks to Mank’s years in the Hollywood studio system of the 1930s, running in social circles with power brokers such as Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard), Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley), Kane inspiration William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance), and Hearst’s not-so-dumb blonde mistress Marion Davies (a terrific Amanda Seyfried).

Oldman expertly sells Mank’s truth-to-power rebellion as a sly reaction to his own feelings of powerlessness. His charm as a “court jester” belies a growing angst about America’s power structure that Welles (Tom Burke) is eager to illustrate.

And though much of Mank‘s power is verbal (just try to catch a breath during Oldman’s drunken Don Quixote speech), Fincher crafts a luscious visual landscape. Buoyed by Erik Messerschmidt’s gorgeous B&W cinematography, Fincher recreates the era with sharp period detail and tips his hat to Welles with Kane-esque uses of shadow, forced perspective and one falling glass of booze.

Talk of “getting people back to the theaters” and manufactured news will feel especially relevant, but Mank provides a nearly endless peeling of satisfying layers. So much more than a story about how a classic story was told, it’s a sweeping ode to the power of courageous art, no matter how flawed the artist.

Like the Beat from a Tambourine

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again

by Hope Madden

You may be asking yourself, is Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again just 90 minutes of second-rate, b-side Abba songs? All those weird songs that no sensible story about unplanned pregnancy could call for? Songs like Waterloo?

Nope. It is nearly two full hours of it.

Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) wants to open her mother’s crumbling Greek hotel as an upscale island resort. She’s so terribly angsty about it! Will anyone come to the grand opening? Will her mom be proud of her? Can she handle the pressure if her husband’s traveling and two of her three dads can’t make it?

Transition to a simpler time, a time when her mom Donna was young (played by Lily James), bohemian and striking out on her own. She has chutzpah. She has friends who love her. She has great hair.

The majority of the sequel to Phillida Lloyd’s 2008 smash looks back on the romantic voyage that created the three dad business of the first film.

James is a fresh and interesting a young version of the character Meryl Streep brought to life in the original. Likewise, Jessica Keenan Wynn and Alexa Davies make wonderful younger selves for Tanya (Christine Baranski) and Rosie (Julie Walters).

The three dads have young counterparts as well, though only Harry (Colin Firth/Hugh Skinner) lands a memorable characterization. Firth is reliably adorable while Skinner’s socially awkward young man is as embarrassing and earnest as we might have imagined.

Also, Cher.

Expect an awful lot of needless angst and long stretches without humor. Whether present-time or flashback, the film desperately misses the funny friends. Desperately. But when they are onscreen, Here We Go Again cannot help but charm and entertain.

The story is weaker, although there is a reason for that. While the original gift-wrapped an origin story to plumb, the plumbing is slow going when you still have to abide by the Abba songtacular gimmick.

The sequel’s musical numbers rely too heavily on slow tunes and stretch too far to make the odder Abba songs work, but in a way, that is, in fact, the movie’s magic.

Your best bet is to abandon yourself to the sheer ridiculousness of it. There is literally no other way to enjoy it.





Radicalization and Reformation

First Reformed

by Rachel Willis

Reminiscent of both Andrei Tarkovsky and Robert Bresson, writer/director Paul Schrader delivers a nearly flawless meditation on faith and despair with First Reformed.

Schrader’s film centers around Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke), overseer of the small church, First Reformed. Reverend Toller lives a simple life. He delivers a Sunday sermon to a very small congregation, gives tours of the 250-year-old church, and occasionally ministers to a youth group. It’s a simple, but seemingly pleasant existence.

His life changes drastically when he’s approached by a young, pregnant woman named Mary (Amanda Seyfried). Mary seeks counsel for her despondent husband, Michael, and Toller agrees to meet with him. It’s a decision that will open the door to the question: Will God forgive us?

Much of the film’s success rests on Hawke. In what is possibly his best performance, he perfectly portrays the inner turmoil and anguish that seizes Reverend Toller. It’s a slow slide from a pleasant façade to destructive rage, and Hawke perfectly captures every emotion, every nuance of Toller’s internal crisis and its external manifestations.

The majority of the supporting cast is able to meet Hawke’s intensity with equal verve. Seyfried’s Mary is the dynamic foil to Toller, and she mostly manages to stay on Hawke’s level. At times, however, she seems out of place, unable to convey the depths of Mary’s feelings.

Schrader’s commentary on the state of the world is bleak, and there’s not much hope to be found in First Reformed. However, it can be seen in simple moments Toller spends with Mary. It provides a few moments of balance, and light, as Toller questions the right way forward.

As the tension builds, the understated score plays a phenomenal role in pulling the audience into Toller’s world. As he contemplates his future, there is a sense of dread that stays just beneath the surface, waiting to be released. There are many moments in which the stress is palpable.

Schrader’s film is a masterful character study that asks thoughtful questions about how our choices will be viewed in the eyes of God.





The Trouble With Harry

Gringo

by George Wolf

Gringo roll call: Theron! Edgerton! Oyelowo! Seyfried! Copley! Newton! Even M.J.’s daughter, Paris (better call her Miss Jackson, in case we get nasty).

The point is, there’s talent a ‘plenty here. The question is why?

Director Nash Edgerton (Joel’s brother) never fully commits to either madcap romp or suspenseful manhunt, settling for black comedy that’s never really dark or funny, and a tired, “wrong man” adventure propped up by tired cliches.

David Oyelowo gives it is all as Harold, a pharmaceutical exec who accompanies his bosses (Joel Edgerton and Charlize Theron) on a business trip south of the border. The deal, like most everyone around Harold, is shady, and quickly dissolves into mistaken identities, multiple kidnappings, and one drug lord who will kill you for bad mouthing the Beatles.

That drug lord goes by the name “Black Panther,” a minor point that only reinforces how forgettable this film is. The script, from Anthony Tambakis (Warrior) and Matthew Stone (Intolerable Cruelty) offers scattershot bits of promise, but nothing that provides any solid clue to why all these people signed on.

Maybe they all had a good time. Great, but Gringo runs in many directions without ending up anywhere worthwhile, and you’re left wondering just what the point was anyway.

 





Talkin’ Bout My Generation

While We’re Young

by George Wolf

So far, Hollywood’s attempts to address the social media revolution have fluctuated between lackluster and downright embarrassing (Men, Women and Children? Yikes). While We’re Young gets it more right than most, thanks to less of the usual microscope and more of a layered, universal narrative.

Writer/director Noah Baumbach is able to weave the contrasts between older technology “immigrants” and the younger tech “natives” into a larger, utterly charming overview of shifting generations and the humor in realizing you’re not so young anymore.

Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cordelia (Naomi Watts) are a happy, childless couple in New York who suddenly become friends with Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried), a pair of hipsters about twenty years younger.

In an instant, Cordelia and Darby are taking hip hop dance classes and Josh is shopping for fedoras with Jamie, then cranking “Eye of the Tiger” to get pumped up for a business meeting (even though he admits listening to the same song back “when it was just bad”). They ditch their longtime friends who now have young children, and convince each other they are free spirits blessed with limitless opportunity.

As Josh slowly begins to look a bit deeper into Jamie’s motives for hanging with him, their interplay comes to resemble Baumbach confronting his younger self, along with the futile anxieties of growing old “gracefully.” Baumbach seems perfectly comfortable in this new skin, crafting a film that is often smart, funny, and bittersweet all at once. His work has never been more accessible.

The characters are all sharply drawn and relatable, fleshed out by a talented cast that lets Baumbach touch on a variety of serious topics with a confident blend of laughter and nuance. The performances are all dead on, with Driver shining in the film’s most complex role.

Baumbach does risk a cop out with the convenient plot turn that comes near the finish, but it’s not nearly enough to derail the knowing smile that While We’re Young is bound to leave you wearing.

And that looks better than a fedora on almost all of us…of a certain age.

Verdict-3-5-Stars

 





Shooting from the Lip

 

 A Million Ways to Die in the West

by George Wolf

 

Picture Seth MacFarlane cracking wise as he watches an old western, and you’re probably not far from the inspiration for A Million Ways to Die in the West.

So how well do MacFarlane’s modern comedy cow patties work when dropped into a pasture of Old West cliches?

Pretty dang well, pardner.

MacFarlane, who co-writes and directs, also stars as Albert, a timid sheep farmer who’s brokenhearted over losing Louise (Amanda Seyfried) to the dashing Foy, owner of the town mustache emporium (Neil Patrick Harris).

Things start looking up when Anna (Charlize Theron) rides into town, and as she and Albert get friendly, Anna conveniently forgets to mention she’s already married to Clinch (Liam Neeson), the most feared gunslinger in the land.

With MacFarlane, you pretty much know what’s coming:  cutaway gags to reinforce a line, toilet humor, and sex jokes (turned up a notch here by the always-demure Sarah Silverman as a town prostitute). But the film also has good fun with the historical setting, as Albert often reacts to his world like a wiseass who just arrived from the future.

Even so, MacFarlane is wise enough not to resort to outright mockery, always keeping the door cracked open just enough to let some homage shine through.

The chemistry between MacFarlane and Theron helps loads. You saw it when she helped him with a bit during his stint as Oscar host in 2012 and you see it here:  they really like each other, and she thinks he’s really funny. Together, they’re a charming pair.

The middle suffers a bit from comedy drought, but the laughs come faster as Albert nears his final showdown with the evil Clinch. Expect a cast more than ready to poke fun at themselves, some very clever songs, a few inspired cameos and two extra scenes after the credits start rolling.

A Million Ways to Die in the West is a big, broad idea that’s thrown on the screen with more frenzy than focus. But will you laugh?

Darn tootin’.

Verdict-3-0-Stars

 

 





Halloween Calendar, Day 27: Jennifer’s Body

 

Day 27:  Jennifer’s Body (2009)

 

If Ginger Snaps owes a lot to Carrie (and it does), then Jennifer’s Body finds itself even more indebted to Ginger Snaps.

The central premise: Boys are stupid, throw rocks at them. Better still, lure them to an isolated area and eat them, leaving their carcasses for the crows. This is the surprisingly catchy idea behind this coal-black horror comedy.

In for another surprise? Megan Fox’s performance is spot-on as the high school hottie turned demon. Director Karyn Kusama’s film showcases the actress’s most famous assets, but also mines for comic timing and talent other directors apparently overlooked.

Amanda Seyfried’s performance as the best friend, replete with homely girl glasses and Jan Brady hairstyle, balances Fox’s smolder, and both performers animate Diablo Cody’s screenplay with authority. They take the Snaps conceit and expand it – adolescence sucks for all girls, not just the outcasts.

In place of two alienated sisters, Jennifer’s Body shadows best friends – the smokin’ hot cheerleader (actually, oddly, she’s on flag squad), and the best friend whose non-glam look bolsters the popular girl’s insecurity-riddled self-esteem.

Cody’s script shines bright, as she gives the horror genre the rare chance to benefit from the pen of an Oscar winner. In turn, the young talent handling her acerbic prose does her proud. Adam Brody’s smarmy, contemptuous indie rocker steals several scenes, including a screamer set to “867-5309 Jenny.” Other welcome faces in small but memorable roles include J.K. Simmons and Amy Sedaris, both showing off and having fun in a film that far surpasses expectations.

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LCSzYioSeT0