Freaky

Posted on November 12, 2020 at 5:51 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Teen drinking, mother abuses alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Constant very intense and graphic horror violence, many grisly murders, disturbing images
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: November 13, 2020
Copyright Blumhouse 2020

If you read my reviews, you know I usually skip the horror movies. So, forgive me if my thoughts on “Freaky” reflect my ignorance. But I was intrigued by the premise of a large male serial killer switching bodies with a blonde teenage girl. And I like the cast, so I watched it, and it’s pretty fun.

But I don’t know enough about horror films to tell you whether the pedestrian set-up and stock characters are just a shortcut because the filmmakers don’t care — and know the audience doesn’t care — and everyone just wants to get to the good stuff, or because they are making some sort of meta-commentary on the whole idea and genre of teen slasher movies. Maybe both. Probably it does not matter. So, let’s just get to the good stuff.

Certainly, the movie wastes no time in getting there. It begins, as all good self-aware teen slasher movies should, with teens in a luxurious but still somehow creepy setting, outside a mansion, trading stories about a legendary serial killer known as the Blissfield Butcher. Some say he’s just a legend. Some say he re-appears every year. We have just enough time to see how arrogant and obnoxious these overprivileged kids are (that’s how we feel better about their horrific murders, right?) before the Blissfield Butcher (Vince Vaughn) arrives, killing them in various creative but grisly and very bloody ways.

Then we meet Milly (Kathryn Newton of “Big Little Lies”), who lives with her recently widowed and therefore vulnerable and clingy mother and her older sister, a police officer. Milly is in high school. She has two devoted best friends, Josh (Misha Osherovich) and Nyla Celeste O’Connor. But she also has bullies, including tiny but fierce mean girl Ryler (Melissa Collazo), some guys, and her shop class teacher (Alan Ruck, yes, Cameron in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”).

After the homecoming football game (which does not get cancelled even though a group of students have all been horribly murdered, but okay), Milly is left alone waiting for her mother to pick her up. The Butcher attacks her with a mysterious knife he stole from the mansion. And it turns out to have magical powers or a curse or whatever. When the Butcher stabs Milly, their bodies switch. And, as they will later find out, if they don’t switch back by midnight the next day, they’ll be stuck that way.

This is where everyone starts to have some fun. Vaughn is a hoot trying to persuade Nyla and Josh that it is really Milly inside that 6’5″ middle-aged male body. And Newton has a blast with her new bad self inside the body of a high school girl. Milly is not able to muster the courage to stand up to her shop class teacher or the bullies or to talk to her crush, Booker (Uriah Shelton), but Milly on the outside, Butcher on the inside usually does. Let’s just say that there’s a reason it’s the SHOP class teacher who has been so mean to her.

And of course it all ends up at a big teen party.

In between all of the murders and mayhem, there is room for some sly humor and some genuine warmth as Milly-in-the-Butcher’s-Body hides out in a discount store dressing room and talks to her mom on the other side of the door, and some romance as she and Booker have a quiet, very sweet conversation in a car. There’s a vicarious thrill at seeing the Butcher-in-Milly’s-body stand up (even if it is in a murderous manner) to the people who treated Milly badly.

I’m still not a horror fan, but I enjoyed this one, and if you are a horror fan I’m pretty sure you will, too.

Parents should know this is a full-on horror movie with many disturbing images and grisly murders. Characters use strong language and there are references to sex (some crude) and to alcohol abuse.

Family discussion: What did Milly learn about her mother in the dressing room? How would you convince someone that you were you if you suddenly looked completely different?

If you like this, try: “Jennifer’s Body” and “Shawn of the Dead”

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The Craft: Legacy

Posted on October 28, 2020 at 5:54 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, brief drug material, language, and crude and sexual content
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Brief drug material
Violence/ Scariness: Extended fantasy peril and violence, references to suicide, abuse, and murder, disturbing images
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: October 30, 2020

Copyright Blumhouse 2020
I’m a big fan of the 1996 original “The Craft” with Neve Campbell as one of four teenage witches who get up to mischief and then get into trouble, and then turn on each other. With “The Craft: Legacy,” writer/director Zoe Lister-Jones (“Band Aid”) has given us a smart and witty update that pays tribute to the original but is very much its own take on the subject, with a couple of delicious twists along the way.

Lily (Cailee Spaeny) and her mother Helen (Michelle Monaghan) are driving with a sense of fun and adventure, singing along to Alanis Morrisette’s “One Hand in My Pocket.” But they are not entirely carefree. We can see right away that they are very close but more pals than mother and daughter. When they tear up over some melancholy thought, is is the mother who turns to the daughter for reassurance and a touch-up of her make-up. They are starting something new, a new house, a new town, a new school, and a new family. Helen has a new love, Adam (David Duchovney), and they are moving in with him and his three sons. He welcomes them warmly. Lily is doing her best to be supportive, but she is startled by a striped snake, or perhaps it is just her imagination.

As she gets ready for school, Lily’s mother asks if she is looking forward to making new friends, and Lily answers, “That would imply I had old friends.” Her mother assures her, as she clearly has many times, that “your difference is your power.”

Things do not get off to a good start at school. Lily’s period bleeds through her jeans in class and boys jeer and hoot at her. When she is crying in the restroom, three girls enter to provide some sympathy and support and a change of pants. They are Frankie (Gideon Adlon), Tabby (Lovie Simone), and Lourdes (Zoey Luna), three girls who have been experimenting with witchcraft. They need a fourth to call the corners, so they will represent all of the elements and directions, and they sense Lily may be the one they’ve been waiting for, especially after a boy named Timmy (Nicholas Galitzine) who taunts her with a vulgar whisper in her ear somehow gets slammed into the lockers.

Unlike the 20-something actresses in the original, these girls look like they are in high school and Lister-Jones skillfully and believably mixes their witchcraft with the other concerns of adolescence. They talk about telepathy, shape-shifting, and telekinesis and about boys and parties. When they get dressed up, they don’t need or resort to magic to look their best. But they aren’t above casting a spell on the boy who harassed Lily. In the original film, the girls used magic to make the boy who treated them badly fall in love, and to deceive him. In this one, they use their magic to make him…well, after the spell he talks about reading an interview with Janet Mock, loving singer/activist Princess Nokia, and identifying himself as cisgender male. He is nicknamed “woke Timmy.” His vulnerability makes him attractive to Lily and her acceptance attracts him as well.

But things go wrong and the girls blame Lily, believing she abandoned their rules by acting carelessly and selfishly. They abandon her and bind her powers just as she needs both the most.

It is not as intense or dramatic at the original and spends less time on the girls and their lives and motivations. But it has a strong grounding in the essential power of friendship and loyalty, some revelations that add suspense, a sly take on toxic masculinity, and strong performances by Spaney and Monaghan. It deftly borrows from haunted house films and from scary neighbor films as well. Most important, it gives the girls agency and a sense of responsibility and a much appreciated sweetness.

NOTE: My daughter worked briefly in the costume department on this film. Needless to say, the costumes are outstanding. I don’t always give her films good ratings, so it was an added pleasure to enjoy this one as much as I did.

Parents should know that this film includes bodily functions and sexual references, brief drug content, and extended fantasy peril and violence. There are references to abuse, suicide, and murder.

Family discussion: What rules should a group like this adopt and how should they be enforced? Should Helen have told Lily the truth? Why is Lily’s birth name Lilith?

If you like this, try: “The Craft”

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Over the Moon

Posted on October 22, 2020 at 5:11 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for mild action and thematic elements
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Fantasy peril, sad death of a parent, themes of dealing with grief
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: October 23, 2020

Copyright 2020 Netflix
“Over the Moon” is a gorgeous, candy-colored fantasy adventure based on a Chinese myth, with an appealing heroine and some sensitive and child-accessible insights about grief and loss.

Fei Fei (sweet-voiced Cathy Ang) lives happily with her adored parents, who run a food cart specializing in mooncakes, a delicacy enjoyed each year at the Mid-Autumn Festival, inspired by the myths of Chang’e, the goddess of the moon. Fei Fei’s father (John Cho as Ba Ba) wants to explain her about the science of the moon but she would rather hear her mother’s stories of Chang’e, who consumed the elixir of immortality and mourns the loss of her mortal beloved, the archer Houyi.

But Fei Fei’s mother becomes ill, and dies (offscreen). Fei Fei and her father share their grief and take care of each other. Four years later, Ba Ba wants Fei Fei to meet a woman he is seeing, Mrs. Zhong (Sandra Oh), who has an energetic young son, Chin (Robert G. Chiu). Fei Fei is devastated. She feels that she cannot manage any more change and that bringing another woman into their home would be disloyal to her mother. And she decides that if she could just go to the moon and prove to Ba Ba that the legend of Chang’e’s enduring love is real, he will understand that he should, like Chang’e, be devoted forever to his lost love.

Fortunately, Fei Fei has become a STEM-science and engineering student. And so, she builds a rocket ship. Actually, she builds several model rocket ships which all fail. And then she figures out a way to use something that is going on in her town to power the ship enough to take her and her pet rabbit to the moon in search of Chang’e.

But Chin stows away with his pet frog, throwing off the navigation. Things look dire until two glowing magical lions rescue them and take them to the moon, where they do meet Chang’e, who will not help them until they bring her the “gift’ she needs to reunite with Houyi.

Long-time Disney artist (and son of the “Family Circus” comic panel Bil Keane) Glen Keane brings his experience on films like “The Little Mermaid,” “Aladdin,” and “Tangled” to his first film as a director, and we can see the Disney influence in the strong, big-eyed female leads and the Broadway musical-style “I Want” and other character-revealing songs. Chang’e is voiced by “Hamilton” star Phillipa Soo.

There may be a touch of Studio Ghibli inspiration as well, especially when the characters are floating in zero gravity amid a army (that is the collective noun) of giant frogs. The candy colors of the glowing space creatures are like jelly-beans illuminated by LED lights. A highlight of the visuals was the brief hand-drawn images of the Chang’e story.And the faces of the characters are exceptionally expressive, which grounds the story.

Gorgeous images and chases scenes, including one involving giant chickens on motorcycles, make this a visual treat. The Chang’e character is so imperious that it is not easy to appreciate her learning to be better, but a rare storyline for children about grief, and especially about how good feelings and new people in our lives are not disrespectful to those we have lost, gives the film warmth and depth.

Parents should know that this film includes sad (offscreen) deaths including the loss of a parent. There is some mild fantasy-style peril.

Family discussion: Why didn’t Fei Fei want her father to get married again? Why did she change her mind about Chin? What version of Chang’e’s story do you like?

If you like this, try: “Coco” and “Inside Out”

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The Witches (2020)

Posted on October 22, 2020 at 12:00 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Magical potions
Violence/ Scariness: Extended comedy/fantasy peril, children and witches transformed into animals, sad death of parents in auto accident
Diversity Issues: Diversity issues of the era briefly referred to
Date Released to Theaters: October 22, 2020
Copyright HBO 2020

The witches are back. First there was the the 1963 book by Roald Dahl (author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, the BFG, Matilda, and some creepy stories for grown-ups, too). Then there was the 1990 movie, starring Angelica Huston (and making a significant change to the ending). And now, CGI fantasy-master Robert Zemeckis (“Forrest Gump,” “Back to the Future”) gives us his version, starring two Oscar-winners and co-written with Kenya Barris of “Black-ish” and “Girls Trip.”

“Witches are as real as a rock in your shoe…They’re here and they live amongst us,” the narrator immediately identifiable as Chris Rock tells us. And “witches hate children. They get the same pleasure from squishing a child as you get from ice cream with butterscotch sauce and a cherry on top.”

Then we go back in time to 1968. The setting of the book and the first movie has been moved from Norway and England to a Black community in Alabama. Jahzir Bruno plays the unnamed boy whose parents are killed in an automobile accident in the first few minutes. His grandmother (Octavia Spencer) comes to get him. He’ll be living with her, in the house where his mother grew up. He describes her as “quick to give you a spanking if you deserved it or a hug if you need it.” She comforts him. And when he has a scary encounter with a gloved woman in a hat who offers him candy, she starts to tell him what she knows about witches.

She had her own encounter with a witch as a child, when one turned her best friend into a chicken. And so, to keep him safe, she takes him to a grand hotel. Unfortunately, it turns out the hotel is also hosting a convention of witches, led by the Grand High Witch (Anne Hathaway, relishing the opportunity to vamp up a storm).

One element of the story that has not aged well is the way it dwells on the physical deformities of the witches, bald, with scabby scalps, huge, gaping mouths, claw hands, and no toes. Even though the witches are not human, the association of disabilities with evil is less palatable than it once was. (Anne Hathaway has apologized for the insensitivity of this portrayal.)

Zemeckis sometimes gets so caught up in the visual effects that he overlooks the story, but here the visuals are almost entirely in service of the story, especially after the boy is turned into a mouse (which, adorably, he quite likes) and we get to see things from his angle. Dahl’s story provides a strong foundation, and Spencer, who could easily have phoned in a role like this, gives it her substantial all. I’d still give the 1990 version the edge, but it is good to see the original ending restored and this is a worthy Halloween treat.

Parents should know that this film has fantasy peril and violence and some disturbing images. A child’s parents are killed in a car accident. Children are turned into mice. Witches have physical deformities including huge, scary, gaping mouths. There is some schoolyard language and there are understated references to racism of the era.

Family discussion: Why did the boy like being a mouse? What was the scariest moment in the movie? Why do the witches do what the Grand High Witch tells them?

If you like this, try: the 1990 film with Angelica Huston and the book by Roald Dahl, as well as the movies based on his other books, including “Matilda,” “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” “James and the Giant Peach,” and “The BFG”

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A Babysitter’s Guide to Monster Hunting

Posted on October 15, 2020 at 12:00 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended horror-style peril and violence, monsters, childnapping, no one seriously hurt
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: October 15, 2020

Copyright 2020 Netflix
Kids know monsters. They always have. The very earliest stories of all, even before there were movies, before there were books, before there was written language at all, when stories were just told around a campfire, there were stories about monsters. Then, as now, they were stories about how scary the monsters were, before they were defeated. Those stories, at least the ones that survived the centuries to reach us today, were just scary enough until they were reassuring. Stories about monsters were among the first way humans began to make sense of the world, and they did it by imagining a narrative that helped them think about how they would outsmart whatever terrifying challenges came their way.

The latest in this grand tradition is the terrific “A Babysitter’s Guide to Monster Hunting,” based on the first book in the series by Joe Ballarini. Director Rachel Talalay knows scary — she is the only woman to have directed one of the “Nightmare on Elm Street” movies. And she knows how to mix fantasy and fun, because she has directed seven “Dr. Who” episodes. Her film has gorgeously imagined settings, a great cast, and an exciting story that hits the exact sweet spot between funny-scary and scary-funny. Which means it is exciting, fun, and, I hope, soon to be followed by Chapter 2.

Kelly Ferguson (Tamara Smar) is a shy high school freshman (but in sophomore math) who is looking forward to a Halloween party with her friends and the boy she has not yet had the nerve to talk to. But it turns out that her mother and father are also going to a Halloween party, held by her mother’s company, and they have promised the boss that Kelly will babysit.

The boss is Mrs. Zellman (Tamsen McDonough), imperious in a spectacular Ice Queen costume. She gives Kelly a long list of don’ts for taking care of Jacob (Ian Ho of “A Simple Favor”). No sweets, no ice cream, no gluten, no dairy, no more than 30 minutes of screen time, no running, shouting, or discussing current events, and a three-hour bedtime check-list. No trick-or-treaters. And she promises to be home at midnight on the dot.

Jacob is afraid of the monsters he sees in his nightmares. Kelly reassures him that “it’s just your mind playing tricks on you. They can’t hurt you…There’s no such thing as monsters.” She says when she was his age she thought the monsters in her nightmares were real, too. But then she grew up and is scared of real-life things like inequality, climate change, and talking to the boy she likes.

And then, Jacob is kidnappped by monsters. There are three scary/silly looking (CGI) toothy Toadies, led by The Grand Guignol (“Harry Potter’s” Draco Mallfoy, Tom Felton). Jacob’s gift for creating imaginative nightmares has made him a tempting target because his dreams can help create an army of infinite nightmares to ruin the world.

Kelly is at a loss, and then Liz Larue (Oona Laurence) arrives on a motorcycle, with a baby in her backpack. She is part of a centuries-old cadre of monster-fighting babysitters. Liz and Kelly will have to track down the underground lair of The Grand Guignol, Brown University, and that party where Kelly’s friends are celebrating Halloween. It will take courage, determination, magic, and, yep, math, to get Jacob home before his mother gets back.

Production designer David Brisbin and costume designer Carrie Grace deserve special mention for the gorgeous look of this film. Each of the settings, from the Grand Guignol’s lair to the babysitter headquarters is stunning and filled with enough intriguing detail to reward repeated viewings.

The young actors are all excellent, each creating a vivid and appealing character. It is a lot of fun to see Kelly grow in confidence and courage. Liz’s matter-of-fact, business-like curtness softens when she explains how she became a monster hunting babysitter. Felton has a blast as the monstrous nightmare collector (and the requisite British accent for a truly satisfying bad guy). His slithery movements are shiver-inducing.

It is also heartening to see these young characters solve problems with intelligence, courage, and teamwork. It was especially intriguing to see babysitters from around the world called on for help, and I hope we’ll get more from them in the next chapter.

As more kids are stuck at home this year, with trick-or-treating cut back by COVID-19, “A Babysitter’s Guide to Monster Hunting” is just the right movie to celebrate the year’s most happily scary holiday.

Parents should know that this is a Halloween movie about monsters with some scary images and peril, though it is punctuated by comedy and no one gets seriously hurt. There is some schoolyard language.

Family discussion: Where does the name Grand Guignol come from? Look up the famous names who are listed as historic babysitters including Rosa Parks, Frida Kahlo, and Maria Tallchief. Which of the babysitters is most like you? Which one would you want to sit for you?

If you like this, try: “Goosebunps,” “Monsters, Inc.,” “Spy Kids,” “Monster House,” and “The House with a Clock in its Walls”

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