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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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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Interview: Father Leahy on “Benedict Men”

Posted on September 30, 2020 at 11:45 am

copyright quibi 2020
Athletic competition is endlessly fascinating, not just because of the talent and skill but because no one becomes a champion without character and values: determination, courage, and the kind of teamwork that requires respect and responsibility. And because we love stories about underdogs who never give up and come from behind. Basketball superstar Steph Curry understands that, and so he is the producer of a superb new documentary series on Quibi called “Benedict Men,” the story of a small Catholic high school in New Jersey run by Bendictine monks, most of the students Black and from families struggling financially, with a basketball team that is consistently the state champion.

I spoke to Father Edwin Leahy about the school, the basketball program, and the documentary.

What defines the Benedictines? What makes them different from the Jesuits and other Catholic orders that run schools?

The Jesuits were created by St. Ignatius to be at the disposal of the holy father, the pope, to go wherever they needed to be in the world to evangelize. We on the other hand are the oldest order in the church because St. Benedict existed/lived in 480 or 530 more or less 540. The fundamental difference is that we take a vow of stability so we are vowed to a place. We have other vows as well but that is the distinguishing mark, that we don’t get moved around. We live in the same place for our lives until they carry us out of the church as they say in Spanish in pajamas of wood, in a box. We’re here to stay and that’s our great strength, it’s also our great weakness because if we don’t get vocations to come to our house there’s a problem because there’s no place else you transfer people in from.

So you’ve been at St. Benedicts for a long time.

I went to school here as a high school boy. My father wanted me to go to an all-boys school so I applied here. I got rejected and my father was not to be put off, he talked to the pastor of our church and the pastor interceded and I got in provisionally. The joke turned out to be some of the people who rejected me wound up working for me.

When I got here I loved it; I could take you to the place in the building where I stood the first and second day I was here. I was a 13-year-old at the time and I knew I was home; I have no idea why but I knew I was home and I belonged here and here we are fifty something years later.

I entered the monastery community here in 1965, professed vows in ‘66, took solemn vows in ‘69, was ordained a priest in ‘72. I’ve been living here in Newark at the abbey at St. Benedict’s Prep since 1969.

The school closed in 1972 after 104 years because of racism and we lost 14 men from our monastery; they went to another place and we were stuck with trying to live a community life with no common work. So, we decided we would try to do something in education which is what we had always done and what the city desperately needed. I was dumb enough to say I would try to do it in 1972 and I’ve been doing it ever since. For 48 years I’ve been doing this and loving it.

Copyright QUIBI 2020

We learn in the film that your school motto is “What hurts my brother hurts me.” How does that apply in the competitive world of sports?

It applies in every level of our operations here. It is the ability to understand the other’s struggle and the other’s sufferings. It’s hard to create community and it’s hard to create teams if you can’t understand each other’s reality and each other’s sufferings.

You see in the series it gets rough at the end because of difficulties in giving up “what I want” for “what we need.” That’s the nature of community because if you live in community you’ve got to give up what you want for what the community needs; not easy to do and none of us can do it consistently.

We have a tendency that we do it and then we slip, then we do it; that’s basically our life. Our Father Albert describes the life in the monastery this way. When people ask him what do monks do, he says, “We fall down and we get up, we fall down and we get up; we fall down and we get up,” and that’s life basically. So, the hope is there are more of us on our feet than there are on the ground at a given time, and then we can help people up. That’s it. That’s the secret and that’s what we try to do in this place in school all the time. That’s what you have to do on a team. If you can’t do that it’s hard to be a success.

I was surprised to see how many decisions at the school are made by the students. You give them a lot of leeway and a lot of power.

Our job here as adults is to prevent them from making decisions that will either physically hurt them or long-term hurt them. We’re not going to let kids make decisions because they can’t see 10 or 15 years from now that are going to damage them. So anything short of that, they decide it.

Remember, this place has to be re-created every year. In a company the CEO usually has the job for several years but here the CEO changes every year because there’s a senior year group leader who runs the place and he graduates and leaves. Well it’s early in the year one year and they decided that kids had worked really, really hard and they were going to have only half a day at school and at 12:30 they were going to be over. But we go from kindergarten to grade 12.

They tell me this and I said, “That’s a bad idea,” and they said “No, no, no we’re going to do it, we want to do it, we think it’s a good idea.” I said “I think you’re making a bad mistake, here’s why. First of all, you can’t let the little kids out without parents’ permission.” They said, “They’re going to stay all day.” “Oh, okay so that’s fair the little kids are going to go all day with the older kids having a half day; how is that fair?” “Well, we’ll figure out another way to do something for them.”

So, I said, “If something goes wrong when the middle school kids get out, who’s going to explain it to the parents?” I thought I got them to back off but they sent an email saying that school was going to be over at 12:30. I had about 15 minutes to pull this thing back. They pulled it off. They got in touch with faculty members and called the whole thing off and then we found another day down the road when we could give them the whole day off and not half a day and inform parents and all that but it took hours of discussion.
If they’re going to make it without adult advice they had damn well better be right because no parent is going to go after the 18 year old senior group leader; they’re going to come after me.

The rule is: do not do for kids what kids can do for themselves. So, here’s another example. 152 years we’re an all-boys school, last year two Catholic schools announced they were closing. One was a girl’s academy, the other was a co-ed school.

The girls unbeknownst to me came over here and they had a meeting in the boardroom and they decided that they were going to have a girls division here at St. Benedicts. I’m standing at dismissal time outside my office, outside the trophy room which is where everybody walks by; it’s like Times Square, everybody goes by there to go out the door. So, I’m standing there and one of the leaders, one of the guys, comes out and he says, “You got to come to this meeting.” I said, “What meeting?” “Oh there’s a meeting in the boardroom.” “What are you talking about? I don’t know anything about a meeting.” “Just come in.”

They grabbed me the arm and dragged me into the meeting, I sit down and it becomes obvious to me in about two seconds that the meeting is just about over. I wasn’t being called in to participate in any decisions; I was being called in to be told what was going to happen and that I had to have girls division. I said, “We can’t have a girls division. (1) we’ve never had girls and (2) we don’t have any space.” “Well, let’s figure it out.” I put every roadblock up in the world that I could think of and nothing; they ignored me, none, zero, none of them worked. I couldn’t stop them and to make a long story short, we now have a girl’s division here; created completely by the girls and our guys. I had very little to do with it; it’s amazing.

It’s been a great blessing to have the girls here. It was all created by the kids; they did the whole thing.

What do you want people to learn from watching this series?

I want them to better understand the struggles and the suffering of not just basketball players (these kids happen to be basketball players) but the struggles and sufferings of our brothers and sisters of color in urban America. To have to put all your energy, your effort, as a 16 or 17-year-old as our student C.J. Wilcher said, “to try to help my family,” is not right; it’s just not right.

To have people living in poverty and some living in misery in the midst of the first world is a disgrace to the country. So, I hope people get a sense of the sufferings of kids and the anxiety that some have to live with. Even some parents fall into this. They begin to treat their kids as assets instead of like their children and that’s a disaster. There are a million people in the world that could be their kid’s basketball coach or could be his agent, but there is only one person in the world that can be his mother and only one person in the world that

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