Thursday, November 15, 2018

“SKumm’s Thoughts” - THE GRINCH

“SKumm’s Thoughts”

In the year 2000, Ron Howard reimagined the Dr. Seuss classic “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” with a live-action film starring Jim Carrey.  There has been much debate over the film’s merit, as it stretched a classic twenty-six-minute television cartoon into a movie four times that long (not to mention the fact that it starred one of the most frenetic comedic actors of the time), and most viewers either loved or hated it.

Count me as one of the latter; something about the Who’s of Whoville brought to life really creeped me out, and I thought the casting of Mr. Carrey seemed out of place.

So why would Universal give it another try?  Why would the same studio take a film that, despite the mixed reviews, was highly successful at the box office, and remake it?

In short, because they could do it better.  This animated retelling may be the best iteration of the story yet—and I’m including the Boris Karloff led Warner Brothers cartoon in that.  I know, I know: blasphemy.  But the wunderkinds at Illumination have crafted a story that is touching, relevant, and extremely funny, and have wrapped it in sharp animation that pays homage to its predecessor and creates a sense of wonder which overshadows prior attempts.  There is something glorious about seeing all those lights in Whoville, and the attention to detail in the animation is precise and breathtaking.

Directors Yarrow Cheney and Scott Mosier, working from a script by Tommy Swerdlow and Michael LeSieur, keep the pacing consistent throughout.  There are no lulls in the storytelling or the laughs, and the cast does a wonderful job in making you care about the goings on of a tale you probably already know.  The standouts are Pharrell Williams as the narrator, whose lyrical delivery makes you want to reread the book (out loud, and with his voice), and young Cameron Seely as Cindy Lou Who.  Ms. Seely does a fantastic job capturing the nuances and attitudes of a child (probably because she is one, but her comedic timing nears brilliance in certain moments).  Benedict Cumberbatch is an interesting choice for The Grinch; he is confident and spontaneously erratic (when needed), and at times seems to channel only the better moments of Jim Carrey’s attempt at the role.  Yet he makes it his own when it comes to his delivery and his commitment to the material; whereas Carrey never seemed to stop being Carrey, you feel the change in Cumberbatch’s Grinch.  Occasionally, though, you wish Cumberbatch would just let loose a little more; his delivery is, again, confident, but his it also sometimes falls flat. 

The only drawback to the production is Tyler the Creator’s version of “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch”.  There really isn’t any way to beat or outshine Thurl Ravenscroft’s classic baritone voice, and the studio seems to get this by only using a brief twenty or thirty seconds of this attempt.  But said attempt is a mumbled mess, and honestly, pairing Tyler the (I am so not writing out his entire name again, as the only thing I think he created here is a new way to sing with a mouth packed full of stale sugarplums) with singing children is weird.  Weird, and creepy.

The rest of the soundtrack is perfectly chosen.  Danny Elfman’s score is inspired and complimentary to the action onscreen, and never once feels presumptuous or rudimentary.  If anything, Elfman’s music adds additional layers to the animation, if that’s even possible.

This is one of those films that bears seeing twice, as there are many details you will probably miss the first time around (including the lovely diversity within the populace of Whoville).  And to pull it off without any low-brow humor or fart jokes just shows the amount of respect the filmmakers have for the source material.  Congratulations to Universal for allowing Illumination to take the reins on this one, and to all those involved (except for Tyler the Agitator) for creating a film I will definitely be adding to my yearly Christmas watch list.

Grade: A-

-- T.S. Kummelman

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

‘Blu-ray or Bust’ - REPRISAL

‘Blu-ray or Bust’

There are times that I really, REALLY enjoy writing these reviews.  Mostly it is due to my excitement at being able to recommend something I really enjoyed, and other times, it is the joy I experience in coming up with new insults.

Thank you, Brian A. Miller (VICE, THE PRINCE) for giving us REPRISAL.  This is the third time he has directed Bruce Willis, and the third time that effort has sucked toad anus.  Seriously—movies don’t get as dumb as this one.  It is like watching a kid playing with those cheap store-brand cars, the ones that want to be Matchbox Cars but look and act more like crap with wheels that don’t spin.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not comparing Mr. Willis, or even Frank Grillo (CAPTAIN AMERICA), to poop toys.  While both are fine actors, neither one really acts their collective pants off here.  In fact, there are only three people taking this film seriously: the director (Miller), first time screenwriter Bryce Hammons, and “Legends of Tomorrow’s” own Jonah Hex, Johnathon Schaech, who is so excited to be playing the bad guy that he overacts his buns off.

The story revolves around a bank manager (Grillo), who’s branch is robbed one day by an occasionally violent baddie (Schaech).  He wants to clear his name so he can go back to work, therefore enlists the help of his neighbor (Mr. Willis), a retired cop, to track down the murderous thief.  At least, that’s the brief reason given to justify his motivation.  His neighbor’s motivation?  He’s retired, what the hell else does he have to do?  And, just as importantly, the bad guy’s motivation?  HE’S THE ANTAGONIST, HE DOESN’T NEED ONE.  If the fact that the bank manager and the retired cop figure out where the bad guy is hiding out through an extended and tedious montage doesn’t bother you, then you should definitely follow this film up with the other two frog-butt sucking movies I previously referenced.  Otherwise, please read on.

You know how you can skip from chapter to chapter on your Blu-ray player?  For this one, you should be able to skip to moments of absurdity and/or idiocy.  And they should have titles, like “Chapter 1: Dumbass Plot”, or “Chapter 7: How Cop Cars Skid Out During Chase Scenes When the Pavement Isn’t Wet”.  Maybe even “Chapter 20: When the Daughter Finally Speaks Above an Incoherent Mumble.”  There is so much wrong with this film, and everyone’s involvement with it, that you wonder how something this terrible could actually be regurgitated by Hollywood, and directly onto our eyes.  That’s right, folks: you could save yourself the time and trouble of watching this “film” by paying someone to throw up on your eyeball.  Same difference, really.

There are special features, but, really, who cares?  The last thing I want to watch is a bunch of people saying nice things about each other and the film when that is probably the best acting on the disc.  The special features should have titles commiserate with that of the film: “The Making of Reprisal: The Lengths We Went to To Ensure This Movie Was the Mental Equivalent of an Acidic Enema”.  And “The Casting of Reprisal: Actors That Thought This Would Be More Entertaining Than Watching a Competition Between Growing Grass (not the fun kind) and Drying Paint”.  “The Music of Reprisal: How to Play the Drums and a Tuba with Your Fart Hole”.

In summary: poop.
Grade: F+ (the “+” is for actress Olivia Culpo, the only spark of beauty in an otherwise crappy affair)
Special Features: F- (just because)
Blu-ray Necessary: If you buy this on Blu-ray, somehow, somewhere, entire colonies of cute puppies and kittens will simultaneously explode.  Please—don’t kill the puppies.

-- T.S. Kummelman

Thursday, November 1, 2018

‘Blu-ray or Bust’ - ANT-MAN AND THE WASP

‘Blu-ray or Bust’

Remember when there was a certain charm to the Marvel Universe?  It was a happy time, when Thor and Hulk bickered with their fists to perfect comedic timing, when Tony Stark’s wit and sarcasm were hilarious exclamation points to the action and kept everything feeling light and relatable?

And then the MCU got all dark and mysterious.  Okay, not really mysterious.  It was more like heavy-handed storytelling and origin stories which all followed the same blueprint.  Even the first ANT-MAN was guilty of that: hero comes into a superpower/supersuit, hero has to learn about defending the people and the greater good, hero battles someone that has the same type of superpower/supersuit.  But what set the first film apart from the rest of the MCU was its reconnection to the humor that charmed us in IRON MAN and GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY.  It was an origin story, yes, but it was also a crime caper.  It felt fresh, because it set itself apart from the rest of the pack by not reaching further than its geographical confines.

With ANT-MAN AND THE WASP, returning director Peyton Reed not only stays true to his method of storytelling from 2015’s ANT-MAN, but he ups things a notch.  He smoothly and without any heavy-handedness makes the viewer more emotionally invested in the characters—and he does it all with that lighthearted humor which is becoming unique to this little corner of the MCU. 

In this installment, scientist Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) figures out a way to rescue his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) from the quantum realm.  He just needs Scott Lang’s (Paul Rudd) help to do so—well, he and Pym’s daughter Hope (the badass Evangeline Lilly).  There are several elements that turn this story about a rescue operation into something more, and I’d be giving away too much by describing them all to you.  There is the comedic action, the easy banter between Lang and Hope, the nearly unbearable cuteness of Lang’s daughter (played with amazing timing by Abby Ryder Fortson).

Mr. Reed is smart enough to know that a film cannot rely on its title heroes alone; like the first film, the character that nearly steals the show is Michael Pena’s “Luis”, the fast-talking ex-con who tells a story like no other.  He is on point again, and even better than before. 

Keep in mind when watching, however, that whereas ANT-MAN was a crime caper, this one is a rescue mission.  Meaning, there is no need for a super-bad villain, one promising destruction of a city or the world.  This story is kept within Lang & Company’s little corner of San Francisco, and that’s just fine.  It helps keep the goings on more relatable, and the tone lighter. 

There are several special features, including a gag reel and two deleted scenes.  The docs deliver the usual, but what’s missing is more Luis.  For some reason, the Whale Boat Guy gets his own unused takes, but for a studio that was Luis-heavy during the film’s marketing campaign, not including more of him in the special features is a misstep.

ANT-MAN will be back in action in the next INFINITY WARS film, but that will be a brooding sequel to that last heavy, heavy AVENGERS film.  With any luck, he and The Wasp will continue on into the next phase of the MCU; I’m sure it will need a little (pun totally intended) levity following the end of the current one.
Grade: A
Special Features: B-
Blu-ray necessary: Absolutely

-- T.S. Kummelman

Thursday, October 25, 2018


“SKumm’s Thoughts”

I have never been a huge fan of Eli Roth; it seemed that most of his films were light on story, heavy on gore and torture, and the need to push the limits of the rating’s board.

So, when I heard he was directing a kid’s movie, I was a bit skeptical.  Who wouldn’t be?  This is the same guy that did HOSTEL, CABIN FEVER, and The Bloodiest Bruce Willis Movie Ever Made.  How in the wide world of sports was this guy going to pull off a PG-rated movie?  Turns out, spectacularly.

Working from the script by veteran television writer Eric Kripke (“Supernatural”, and the forthcoming “The Boys”), and based on the classic children’s series written by John Bellairs, Mr. Roth pulls off the seemingly impossible.  While the finished product is not wholly perfect, it is perfect in enough places to make it a thoroughly entertaining experience.

HOUSE stars young Owen Vaccaro (DADDY’S HOME) as Lewis Barnavelt, a recently orphaned boy who moves into his uncle’s house.  Uncle Jonathon (Jack Black, who tones down his Jack Blackness enough for you to enjoy his performance) lives in what, at first glance, appears to be a haunted house.  Stained glass windows rearrange themselves, chairs follow you around, and the griffin topiary likes to poo in the bird bath.  Yet things are not what they would seem: Uncle Jonathon is a warlock, and his feisty neighbor Florence (Cate Blanchett, giving me several more reasons to adore her) is a witch.  The house once belonged to an evil warlock who built a nefarious clock within its walls (duh—the title…), one which has remained hidden since his death the previous year.  Jonathon spends much of the nighttime hours searching for it, as he is certain it is up to absolutely nothing good.

There are several elements on display which work surprisingly well, not the least of which is Lewis’s plight.  He finds himself in a new home, in a new school where he struggles to make new friends, and trying to grieve for his dead parents.  Young Mr. Vaccaro plays his role quite well; he is sorrowful, yet still displays the curiosity inherent in any child.  He plays off his adult co-stars well, but it is the back-and-forth insults between his uncle and Florence that are some of the biggest highlights.  Black and Blanchett seem made for each other, so far as trading quips goes.  It is their chemistry as his bickering surrogate family that gives the story its hidden heart, that which guides Lewis through this tumultuous time.  And makes for some pretty good laughs.  Also on hand is Kyle MacLachlan as the evil warlock Isaac Izard, who doesn’t grind his teeth on the scenery so much as he gleefully gnaws on it.

This may seem like a movie just for kids, but the humor here is smart, sometimes biting, and the typical trappings of a tale about an orphaned kid are not present enough to bog down the story.  We see that Lewis is sad, but that isn’t and shouldn’t be the entire focus here; he’s a kid, and even when dealing with loss, there is still a certain feeling of wonder and beauty in childhood.  The script captures it, but, more importantly, Owen interprets it beautifully through his portrayal.  There are also some moments that could be a bit scary for kids, but not so much that they’ll be having nightmares over it.

There is a certain magic to this story, and to Mr. Roth’s way of telling it.  From the opening credits (he uses the old Universal Pictures logo to start things off) to the way he never once condescends to his target audience, here he seems a master storyteller.  He isn’t setting you up for the next gore-drenched scene, but rather guiding you along with a friendly nod and the gentlest of nudges.  With any luck, Mr. Roth has at last found his niche, and based on the latest box office returns, he should be given the opportunity to direct a sequel.

Grade: A

-- T. S. Kummelman

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

‘Blu-ray or Bust’ - HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL

‘Blu-ray or Bust’

You have to love Scream Factory.  They put together some rather incredible re-releases, and their attention to detail is right up there with the same applied standards as the masterful Criterion Collection.

Case in point: 1999’s HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL.  This reimagining of the 1959 classic starring Vincent Price has always been a personal favorite of mine.  It isn’t a guilty pleasure, as I feel very little guilt in smiling at the giddy and bloody mayhem which occurs throughout William Malone’s film about a billionaire offering six strangers a million dollars each to whomever survives one night in his haunted building, which used to house a lunatic asylum run by a mad scientist.  Basic premise with an easy set-up, but the horrifying shenanigans which ensue made this one of the most enjoyable horror films of the last few decades.

At the time of its release, no other genre movie had the blatant audacity that this one did.  In the few years following, several excellent films followed in the horror comedy footsteps laid most deliberately by HOUSE.  The year 2000 had GINGER SNAPS (another re-release handled deftly by parent company Shout! Factory), but that was a more a feminist envisioning of the classic werewolf tale via puberty, albeit a hilarious one with some great effects.  In fact, the only other film that came out within a recent time frame of HOUSE’s release which had the same frenetic energy would have been 2002’s GHOST SHIP—another very enjoyable ride, with some unique effects to it.  And it followed the same formula set up by Malone & Co.: a haunted location the protagonists cannot escape from, violent ghosts, and starred Hollywood up-and-comers and one excellent actor.

HOUSE’s playboy tycoon Stephen Price was played by none other than the Oscar winning actor Geoffrey Rush (PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN, THE KING’S SPEECH).  And his conspiring wife Evelyn by genre favorite Famke Janssen, who would go on to star in the first X-MEN films and the TAKEN series.  Their pairing is one of the genius casting moves on the part of the filmmakers; watching them bicker and banter and wish death upon each other is a chemistry which enhances the underlying devilish nature of the “house” they are all stuck in for the night.  You get the sense that their history is just as vile as that of the building itself, and their dark humor permeates the atmosphere created by all the dark corners and ill-lit hallways within.

The contestants themselves are just as impressive in their own rights: Ali Larter would go on to star in “Heroes” and the RESIDENT EVIL films; Taye Diggs has been on more hit TV shows (including “Empire” and “Grey’s Anatomy”) than I care to list here; SNL vet Chris Kattan, whose wise-ass Pritchett nearly steals the show; and Peter Gallagher, a character actor whose resume makes him one of the most easily recognized actors here.  And that’s not including Jeffrey Combs of RE-ANIMATOR fame as the evil scientist!

If you’ve never seen the film, you must—but you have to get Scream Factory’s release of it.  Between the deleted scenes (Debi Mazar: genius) and the immersive docs in the special features, there is enough here to keep you busy for a while.  You get an in-depth sit-down with director Malone, an interview with the film’s composer Don THE MATRIX Davis, and the original docs included with the previous release on DVD.  And the 2K scan of the original film looks amazing; from Malone’s unique color schemes to Rick Bota’s tight cinematography, this edition looks brilliant.

While Scream Factory has a number of releases scheduled for the next several months (CREEPSHOW, THE JERK, and STARMAN, to name a few), pick up HOUSE now.  If you aren’t sold on their products yet, you soon will be.  Besides; the movie is awesome.

Grade: A      
Special Features: A
Blu-ray Necessary: Abso-freakin’-lutely

--  T.S. Kummelman