Trying Not to Hold One

The Grudge

by Hope Madden

Any time a film is remade, you have to ask why. Not to be cynical, but because it’s a legitimate query. Is there a compelling reason to watch this new one?

Nicolas Pesce hopes there’s reason to watch his retooling of The Grudge.

The Grudge began in 2000 with Takashi Shimizu’s Japanese horror Ju-on, which spawned three Japanese sequels and now four English language reworkings, two of which Shimizu directed himself. His 2004 version starring Sarah Michelle Geller became a tentpole of our J-horror obsession of the early 2000s.

Pesce, working with co-writer Jeff Buhler (The Midnight Meat Train—that was your first problem), pulls story ideas from across the full spate of Ju-on properties and braids them into a time-hopping horror.

Is there room for hope? There is, because Pesce landed on horror fanatics’ radars in 2016 with his incandescent feature debut, The Eyes of My Mother.  He followed this inspired piece of American gothic in 2018 with a stranger, less satisfying but utterly compelling bit of weirdness, Piercing.

And then there’s this cast: Andrea Riseborough, John Cho, Lin Shaye, Betty Gilpin, Jacki Weaver, Frankie Faison, Damian Bichir—all solid talents. You just wouldn’t necessarily know it from this movie.

Pesce’s basically created an anthology package—four stories held together by a family of especially unpleasant ghosts. But that one sentence contains two of the film’s biggest problems.

Let’s start with the ghosts. Shimizu’s haunters—Takako Fuji and Yuya Ozeki—were sweet-faced, fragile and innocent seeming. The perversion of that delicacy is one of the many reasons Shimizu’s films left such a memorable mark. Pesce’s substitute family loses that deceptive, macabre innocence.

The way the film jumps from story to story and back again undermines any tension being built, and each story is so brief and so dependent on short-hand character development (cigarettes, rosaries, ultrasounds) that you don’t care what happens to anyone.

Jacki Weaver, who seems to be in a comedy, is wildly miscast. Go-to horror regular Shaye has the only memorable scenes in the film. Riseborough, who is a chameleonic talent capable of better things, delivers a listless performance that can’t possibly shoulder so much of the film’s weight.

Jump scares are telegraphed, CGI and practical effects are unimpressive, editing is uninspired and, worst of all, the sound design lacks any of that goosebump-inducing inspiration Shimizu used to such great effect.

So, no. There was no reason to remake The Grudge.

Oceans Apart

Widows

by Hope Madden

There are few films I have been more geeked to see than Widows.

Co-writer/director Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave, Shame) and co-writer Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl, Sharp Objects) update a British miniseries from the ‘80s about a heist.

Wait, Steve McQueen made a heist movie? A filmmaker so punishing you watch a little Lars von Trier to lighten the mood?

He totally made a heist movie. It is a layered, deeply cynical, wildly faceted take on politics, organized crime, familial grief and the plight of a powerless woman. So, OK, maybe not your run-of-the-mill Liam Neeson flick. But Liam Neeson is in it.

Neeson is Harry Rawlings, top man in a group of criminals who hit vaults around Chicago. This last hit went south, though, and the bad men he fleeced need that cash back. Poor Mrs. Rawlings (Viola Davis, glorious as is her way), is handed the bill.

McQueen has not made an Oceans 11. Widows is not fun. It is smart, riveting entertainment, though.

McQueen’s Chicago landscape is peopled mainly with folks desperately in need of a change: the criminal trying to get into politics (Brian Tyree Henry), the career politician with daddy issues (Colin Farrell), but mostly the widows of Harry’s crew (Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki), all left as cash-strapped as Mrs. Rawlings.

It does not pay to marry a criminal.

Every member of the enormous ensemble runs with the opportunities this script allows, no matter how much or how little their screen time. Daniel Kaluuya relishes every sadistic moment he has as an enforcer, while Jacki Weaver establishes one character’s entire history with her two fascinating minutes onscreen.

But it’s Viola Davis who anchors the film. She is the grieving heart and the survivor’s mind that gives Widows its center and its momentum. She wastes nothing, never forgetting or allowing us to forget the grim reality of her situation.

There is a heist, don’t get me wrong. There are double crosses, flying bullets, car chases, explosions—genre prerequisites that feel like new toys for the super-serious director. McQueen proves a versatile a filmmaker, though he has certainly left his own distinctive mark on the action flick.






Hi Doggie!

The Disaster Artist

by Hope Madden

There is genuine affection in James Franco’s The Disaster Artist, a behind-the-scenes biopic that gets inside the making of the best bad movie of all time.

Yes, The Room is the best—better than Plan 9 from Outer Space and Trolls 2. They’re in the same league because The Room is what these “classics” are – a simply god-awful movie made with such unpredictable creative vision that you cannot help but be amazed. It’s just that The Room has it in greater abundance.

It’s also a story of Hollywood dreams coming true, as well as a lovely tale of friendship. And, of course, a glimpse at one of the most unusual men in film, Tommy Wiseau.

In 2003, Wiseau released The Room, a film he wrote, produced, directed, financed and starred in. Not particularly well.

Almost fifteen years later, The Room has seen cult adoration the likes few besides Rocky Horror would ever see. Because it is awful. So, so gloriously awful.

Directing his 19th feature (!!), Franco seems to have finally found a subject that suits his sensibilities, filling the screen not with vicious mockery as much as awe.

Jacki Weaver is magnificent as a baffled actor trying to do quality work. Zac Efron also turns in a startlingly solid performance – not because Efron is not usually solid, he is – but because this film doesn’t call for that kind of commitment. And Josh Hutcherson is a hoot in a bad, bad wig.

Franco’s performance as Wiseau is uncanny, and mercifully, his film doesn’t attempt to uncover the mystery behind this genuinely unusual creature. As future bestie (and author of the book on which the film is based) Greg, Dave Franco sets the mood almost immediately.

Recently embarrassed by his own stage fright during an acting class performance, Greg sits mesmerized by Wiseau’s writhing, prop-climbing onstage “Stella!” Where the rest of the class looks away in embarrassment, Greg soaks it in.

It strikes a sweet balance between embarrassment and affection that the film maintains throughout—one that not only allows us to embrace this freakish figure at the center of the film but mirrors the very emotion that has made The Room a lasting cult joy.

If you worry you won’t be able to follow The Disaster Artist without seeing The Room, two things: 1) Franco rolls scenes from both movies side by side to give you context and point out that this movie is no spoof. 2) Go see The Room!





Gritty Aussie Imports For Your Queue

Aussie filmmaker David Michod proves his mettle with his second effort, The Rover, releasing today for home viewing. A spare, brutal, deliberately paced dystopian adventure, the film marks another in a string of fine performances from Guy Pearce, and more interestingly, a worthwhile turn from Robert Pattinson. Michod knows how to get under your skin, how to make the desolate landscape work, and apparently, how to draw strong performances.

An excellent pairing would be Michod’s phenomenal first effort, Animal Kingdom. This 2010 export follows a newly orphaned teen welcomed into his estranged grandmother’s criminal family. Unsettlingly naturalistic, boasting exceptional performances all around – including the Oscar nominated Jacki Weaver – and impeccably written, it’s a gem worth seeking.