Archive for February, 2020

Brahms: The Boy II

Posted in Horror, Mystery, Thriller with tags on February 25, 2020 by Mark Hobin

brahms_the_boy_iiSTARS1.5Brahms: The Boy II is a fittingly awkward title for a story that did not demand a continuation.  The Boy was a modestly budgeted horror release in January of 2016.  It went on to gross $35 million in the U.S. and ultimately made $68 million worldwide.  It only cost $10 million so the fact that a sequel was made isn’t surprising.  The bewildering concept is that the previous entry ended on a note of finality.   A clever reveal made it seemingly impossible to create a compelling follow-up from that basis.  None of the actors from the film return incidentally.  My fears were indeed justified.  This movie is utterly uninteresting.

Killer toys usually involve a doll coming to life.  It’s practically a horror genre unto itself now.  They have a long and rich history.  I often point to the 1963 episode “Living Doll” from the TV series The Twilight Zone as a key inspiration.  It wasn’t the first example but it was a notable work.  The Child’s Play series is probably the most famous incarnation for audiences of today.  The Boy is part of that tradition and it was a serviceable drama that offered an amusing twist.  For this work to exist, however, screenwriter Stacey Menear had to retroactively introduce new elements.  These additions change what made the original film unique and reduce this new offering into something wholly pedestrian and dull.

Brahms: The Boy II is so thoroughly generic, mundane, banal, mediocre, uninteresting that to write a longer review would essentially be a creative exercise in using a thesaurus.  Sadly the narrative is a complete zero.   Nevertheless, it has some nice attributes.  I will admit the production design is lush.  The old mansion with its rooms of ornate furniture is nicely photographed and there is an underlying sense that something exciting could happen at any point.  Actor Christopher Convery as 8-year-old Jude conveys weirdness.  Sitting in a sweater-tie combo alongside his porcelain doll dressed in identical attire is a captivating image.  Now how’s that for a plot twist?  A one-and-a-half star review that ends on a positive note.

Downhill

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on February 23, 2020 by Mark Hobin

downhillSTARS3.5I’ll let you in on a little secret.  Downhill is not a comedy.  It may appear to be one given the presence of Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus.  It’s also from writing/directing duo—Jim Rash and Nat Faxon, who previously made the sweet summer comedy The Way Way Back.  Even the misguided marketing campaign promised frivolity by highlighting the amusing bits with lighthearted music underscoring the trailer.  As a result, hoodwinked audiences saddled the movie with a “D” Cinemascore.  Critics haven’t been very kind either.  I will confirm that this is an uncomfortable experience.  Yes, that much is true, but it’s also the entire point.  It is, in fact, a compelling profile of a marriage in free fall.

The Stauntons are an American family on a ski vacation in the Alps.  The plot is set in motion when an explosive charge sets off an avalanche that comes dangerously close to burying Mom (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), Dad (Will Ferrell), and their two sons (Julian Grey and Ammon Jacob Ford) while having lunch on an elevated patio.  The shocking event is the impetus for an existential crisis.  The argument which ensues causes the married couple to reevaluate their relationship and how they feel about each other.

Downhill is a remake of Force Majeure, a Swedish film I adored in 2014.  One might argue that the picture was perfect and didn’t require a redo.  Downhill doesn’t achieve the same heights.  I’ll concede that.   Nonetheless, Faxon and Rash have done more than simply translate the dialogue.  They’ve shifted the focus away from the husband, whose fraying masculinity was the focus in the original.  Downhill is about the wife.  She must come to terms with a marriage that isn’t in great shape to begin with.  The avalanche exposes a rift that’s already there.  That’s different. 

There’s a distinction in the way the two protagonists interact with other people at the resort as well.  Casting Americans as opposed to Swedes contrasts Scandinavian and American identities within a French setting.  There’s a complete personality shift to this family that gives the proceedings a singular feel.  When Billie goes down to complain to the mountain safety patrolman (Kristofer Hivju – who was also in Force Majeure) about the way the controlled avalanche was handed by the hotel, the narrative heightens a culture-clash between Americans and Europeans that was not present in the original production.  There’s also Charlotte (Miranda Otto), an oversexed concierge and a suave ski instructor named Guglielmo (Giulo Berruti).   The contrast in their behavior with the Stauntons is a droll riff on American sensibilities.

However the #1 reason to see Downhill is a stellar performance from Julia Louis-Dreyfus as wife Billie Staunton.  It’s no wonder the actress currently has a record-breaking 8 Emmys, the most wins for any performer (she’s tied with Cloris Leachman).  It’s rare for the actress to do a theatrical feature so when she commits to a project like this, it’s something to cherish.  Her last was the delightful Enough Said in 2013.  Billie is a structured bundle of exasperation slowly coming apart at the seams.  To observe her is to witness the gradual shock of a woman that has been betrayed.  Downhill is indeed messy and awkward and hard to watch.  That’s part of the experience.  I get why audiences have savaged this movie.  If viewed through a lens of needing laughs, it will come up short.  This is no more a comedy than Edward Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? or Noah Baumbach’s more recent Marriage Story.  There are some funny bits to lighten the mood.  There is a certain humor in Pete’s character flaws or Billie’s irritation, but at heart, this is a portrait of pain.  It feels honest and genuine and that’s uncommon.  The achievement is something to champion.

02-18-20

Sonic the Hedgehog

Posted in Action, Adventure, Comedy, Family with tags on February 20, 2020 by Mark Hobin

sonic_the_hedgehog_ver6STARS3.5Surprise!  Sonic the Hedgehog is a hit.  I must say it’s a happy ending for a production that was the focus of some seriously negative online buzz last year.  The trailer dropped in April 2019.  Admittedly the main character looked ugly.  Sonic appeared as a rat-like entity with human teeth.  He was more than just a bit unsettling.  The backlash was so severe it led animators to redesign his look which delayed the release until Feb 14.   In this case, the decision to heed the public outcry was — in retrospect — smart.  The $58 million debut far exceeded expectations.  At $75 million and counting it’s currently the 2nd biggest hit of 2020 (after Bad Boys for Life).  Not sure what this will mean when movie trailers undoubtedly earn unfavorable reactions in the future.  However, in this case, the filmmaker’s decision to react to feedback was handsomely rewarded.

No one could have been less interested in this feature than me.  First off, I don’t care for films based on video games.  I’d be hard-pressed to name one I genuinely loved.  Mortal Kombat (1995) has been my go-to answer when asked to name my favorite and I’ll admit there’s a little nostalgia mixed in my enjoyment of it.  Pokémon Detective Pikachu came out in May of 2019.  It starred a “pocket monster.”  I tolerated it, but I didn’t recommend it to anyone outside of die-hard fans.  Sonic is yet another creature.  This one is an anthropomorphic hedgehog that first appeared in a 1991 game for the Sega Genesis.  It wasn’t part of my childhood so I had no interest in the character which makes what I’m about to say even more astonishing.  Sonic the Hedgehog is the best video game movie ever made.

Now I know what you’re thinking.  You’ve read my intro.  The competition isn’t even that fierce but hear me out.  I am not damning with faint praise.  This is indeed an enjoyable movie.  The saga concerns a hedgehog from another dimension.  He’s a blue computer-animated creation voiced by Ben Schwartz (TV’s Parks and Recreation) but he interacts with human people.  While using magical rings like portals to travel to other planets, he ends up in Green Hills, Montana.  There he meets a man named Tom Wachowski (James Marsden) and his wife, Maddie (Tika Sumpter).  Tom is the local sheriff who wants to help Sonic find his missing rings so he can return home.  The two form a friendship, not unlike a boy named Elliott and another extra-terrestrial from a 1982 science fiction classic.

The adventure heralds the welcome return of Jim Carrey in his finest performance in a decade.  The Department of Defense suspects something dangerous is going on after a widespread power outage.  They enlist the aid of Doctor Robotnik (Jim Carrey), a scientific genius sporting a bushy handlebar-mustache that would make any member of a barbershop quartet jealous.  I cannot downplay how much I enjoyed his antics.  His presence is truly a return to form.  I’m talking zany bonkers Jim Carrey in 1994 when he made Ace Ventura, The Mask, and Dumb and Dumber all in the same year.  In the hands of a lesser actor, this role might be tiresome, but in his capable hands, the wacky physical comedy is hilarious.  The high point is when Robotnik does his dance of anarchy to “Where Evil Grows” by The Poppy Family.  His facial expressions and vocal delivery are amusing whenever he’s on screen.  He’s supported by a sidekick named Agent Stone portrayed by actor Lee Majdoub and he’s a calming counterpoint to Carrey’s wild shenanigans.

Sonic the Hedgehog may ostensibly be an adaptation of a video game.  The chronicle is merely about a character that gets into lots of mischief while trying to evade his captors but there’s just enough oddity and edge to delight adults too.  Jim Carrey is indeed the MVP but a charismatic cast featuring James Marsden, Tika Sumpter, Lee Majdoub, Natasha Rothwell and Adam Pally all contribute.  The entire production is blessed with memorable and likable personalities.  At its center is Sonic and Tom, a duo whose evolving dynamic develops from casual acquaintances into close friends.  Thanks to them, this ends up being a sweet, warm, clever, and funny story about the importance of friendship.  This may be a broad, accessible family-friendly film for the pre-teen set.  Yet the narrative delves deeper to extract a depth of heart and feeling.  I wasn’t expecting that in a video game movie.

02-13-20

Birds of Prey

Posted in Action, Adventure, Crime, Superhero with tags on February 13, 2020 by Mark Hobin

birds_of_prey_ver6

 

STARS1
“Anything you can do, I can do better. I can do anything better than you.”  That’s what Annie Oakley confidently sang to marksman Frank Butler in the musical Annie Get Your Gun.  She was boasting about her abilities as a sharpshooter and she wasn’t wrong.  Birds of Prey is about a decidedly different kind of feminist icon — Harley Quinn.  Some would even call her a villain.  There’s an ideology that subscribes to the idea that women can be just as — if not more than — coarse, vulgar and harmful as the men.  This is the approach where the very exhibition of destruction itself is an idea more cherished than drama, plot or logic.

Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn is a complete assault on the senses.  Even the unwieldy title is an irritant.  Warner Brothers also realized this later, because they have now retitled it as Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey as a course corrective.  At $33.0M, the movie had the worst opening since the DC Extended universe began in 2013.  One day the marketing campaign will be studied as a course entitled “What Not To Do”.  But let’s talk about the actual movie.  It doesn’t help that the plot is an incomprehensible headache to follow.  An animated intro — the only lucid thing in the whole production — informs us that the Joker and Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) were once lovers.  He has broken up with her and now she is no longer afforded his protection.  She is now pursued by numerous enemies.  The main baddie is an evil gangster named Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor) who owns a dance club.  He’s too much of a buffoon to be threatening.  Meanwhile, a teenage pickpocket named Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Bosco) has stolen and swallowed a precious diamond from Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina) one of Roman Sionis’ henchmen.  So Harley offers to retrieve it for Roman. In exchange, he will spare her life.

Suicide Squad doesn’t have a reputation as artistic cinema but it’s Citizen Kane compared to this bewildering collection of gibberish.  At least Suicide Squad had Margot Robbie’s appearance which rose above the chaotic assemblage of actors.  As part of an ensemble, Harley Quinn was the charismatic standout, but here as the main focus of a narrative, you realize just how shallow and empty she truly is.  The once certified psychiatrist is a brightly colored confection not motivated by anything.  She merely responds to whatever is happening around her.  For most of the saga, her raison d’etre is to simply not die.  As one brutal spectacle piles on top of another, I grew numb.

Margo Robbie isn’t a character she’s an affectation.  An entity entirely composed of mannerisms and attitude.  She’s Baby-Spice blasting glitter bombs, occasionally breaking the fourth wall by winking and talking to the audience under the guidance of director Cathy Yan.  This is the filmmaker’s second feature after the indie comedy-drama Dead Pigs.  Star Robbie is a two-time Oscar nominee.  She is unquestionably a talent but here she is being instructed to behave in a way that truly tests the patience of the audience.  Harley Quinn’s cutesy chirp of a New York accent seems cobbled from Madonna’s performance as Nikki Finn in Who’s that Girl (1987).  Even their names sound similar.  Harley also narrates the film in a scattered singsongy voiceover that explains what’s happening on screen.  Obviously required because no sane person could possibly divine a point to this nonsense.

There is no story — just a series of raucous setpieces to which Harley Quinn must react.  Fight scenes are accompanied by a rock soundtrack cranked at full volume to distract from the lack of rationality.  “I Hate Myself for Loving You”, “Love Rollercoaster” and “Barracuda” all play at various points in the background.   The aural soundscape blends together.  One scene bears little relationship to the one before it.  Indeed the tale is conveniently told in a nonlinear fashion.  The decision feels more like a desperate struggle to obfuscate the lack of structure rather than a purposeful choice of style.

Birds of Prey is a violent action fantasy based on DC Comics’ infamous supervillain “girl gang”.  They’re opposed by Roman and right-hand man Victor who cut their victims’ faces off while they’re still alive.  They gun down a family with children in a gory display too.  For most of the movie’s runtime, it concerns one Harley Quinn but three other women emerge who have been mistreated by men: a vigilante called Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a singer dubbed Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), and a police detective named Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez).  The screenplay disingenuously attempts — in the end — to reinterpret all this mindless cursing, and mayhem into a pseudo-feminist anthem of banding together against their male oppressors.  Yet the women are undeveloped and conventional as characters.  Their one-dimensional personas feel like a giant step backward for female empowerment.  Ultimately the disjointed narrative makes absolutely no sense.  Birds of Prey — utterly lacking in wit, cleverness or coherence — is a featherbrained mess.

02-06-20

2020 Oscar Nominated Short Films (Part 3 of 3)

Posted in Awards, Documentary, Shorts with tags on February 9, 2020 by Mark Hobin

ShortsTV continues to make all three of the Oscar-nominated short film programs (animated, live-action, documentary) available to audiences around the world. To find out where you can watch this year’s Oscar-Nominated Short Films, visit their Theatrical Release and On Demand pages.

Documentary

This victor in this category has always favored trends.  At one time it was the Holocaust.  Now the direction has been portraits about Muslim women.  I’ve reviewed and ranked these from my “want to win”  to my least preferred.  Personally, I don’t have strong feelings that one should triumph over the other.  I respect them all equally.  Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl) has the best title so I predict that will prevail.  The results will be announced at the Academy Awards on February 9th.

 

Walk Run Cha-Cha
USA/20MINS/2019
Director: Laura Nix
cha-cha
Paul and Millie are in love. They met as teenagers in Vietnam but the war separated them.  Years later they are reunited in California.  The doc shorts category tends to favor heavy subjects with a strong message.  This piece stands out because it’s the only one that’s blessedly upbeat and lighthearted.  It’s simply about love.  That is why it’s my personal choice.

 

In the Absence
US/SOUTH KOREA/29MINS/2018
Director: Yi Seung-Jun
Lavery-IntheAbsence-SewolFerryVid
Disaster footage from overhead shows a passenger ferry sinking off the coast of South Korea in 2014.  300 people — most of them schoolchildren on a field trip — lost their lives.  The official state response is a jaw-dropping document of ineptitude.  If the way this unfolds doesn’t make you angry, please check your pulse.  Watching the victims’ families and survivors suffer the aftermath is heartbreaking.

 

St. Louis Superman
USA/28MINS/2019
Directors: Sami Khan, Smriti Mundhra
superman
Bruce Franks Jr. is a Ferguson activist and a battle rapper who served for two terms in the Missouri House of Representatives.  He is a political powerhouse the likes of which you have never seen.  He fights for a bill critical for his community while contending with overwhelming personal trauma.  This emotional account is unquestionably an admirable portrait of overcoming adversity but the coda at the end feels a bit like a rug pull.  It ends on a depressing note.  I wish the directors had focused more on the positives because there are so many to this man.  P.S. The rap battle should be subtitled.  Highlighting the poetry of his words would have emphasized why he won.  I think he won.  It’s not clear.

 

Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl)
UK/US/Afghanistan/40MINS/2018
Director: Carol Dysinger
Skateboard
An inspirational tale about the status of Islamic women in Afghanistan.  Over the past decade, this theme has frequently won the award (Period. End of Sentence., A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness, Saving Face).  Noble and important but also unfocused.  The title implies this chronicle will be about young Afghan girls who skateboard but in fact, this concerns a variety of topics including a basic desire to just read and write.  The sports aspect is, unfortunately, a very small part.   At 40 minutes it’s the longest of all the 15 nominees in the entire shorts program.  It feels like it.

 

Life Overtakes Me
USA/37MINS/2019
Director: John Haptas and Kristine Samuelson
netflix-life-overtakes-me-review-3
Many refugee children and their families have fled to Sweden from traumatic experiences in their home countries.  Some still face deportation.  Over 400 have become afflicted with something called Resignation Syndrome.  This dissociative disorder appears to be a coma-like state.  The experience resembles sleep.  The documentary highlights a fascinating affliction but it begs so many more questions than it answers.  Is this real?  Why is this specifically happening to the refugees in this country?  Have the parents asked their children to “fake it” to improve their prospects?  Directors John Haptas and Kristine Samuelson don’t press for explanations.  That’s frustrating.

 

02-03-20

2020 Oscar Nominated Short Films (Part 2 of 3)

Posted in Awards, Drama, Shorts with tags on February 8, 2020 by Mark Hobin

ShortsTV continues to make all three of the Oscar-nominated short film programs (animated, live-action, documentary) available to audiences around the world.  To find out where you can watch this year’s Oscar-Nominated Short Films, visit their Theatrical Release and On Demand pages.

Live-Action

Let’s hear it for Tunisia!  The North African country actually figures in two out of the five films nominated in 2020.

As I do every year, I’ve reviewed and ranked them from my preferred champion to my least favorite.  I really enjoyed my top two picks a lot.  I would be happy if either of those won.  The results will be announced at the Academy Awards on February 9th.

 

The Neighbor’s Window
USA/20MINS/2019
Director: Marshall Curry
190426-neighbors-window-tease_bjkrab
The lives of Alli and her husband are affected when two free-spirited twenty-somethings move into the apartment across from theirs.  Large expansive bay windows without curtains conceal nothing.  Soon they’re immersed into the daily doings of the couple across the street like a TV show.   Actress Maria Dizzia gives an affecting performance as a new mother fascinated by her neighbors’ behavior.  This account was based on a true incident that occurred in San Francisco.  Few portraits can turn from lighthearted comedy into heartfelt drama on a dime and this does it as beautifully as any I saw last year. A real charmer. I teared up.

 

Nefta Football Club
FRANCE–TUNISIA/17MINS/2018
Director: Yves Piat
Nefta-Football-Club4
In the south of Tunisia, two young brothers come across a donkey in the desert on the border of Algeria. Strangely, the animal is wearing headphones over its ears.  Then they make a discovery.   I’ll be honest.  I wasn’t really digging this very sober and meandering chronicle at first.   Then I was on the edge of my seat fearing the worst.  This could’ve gone any number of ways.  It sticks the ending.   By far the funniest entry this year.  The final shot could be enough to actually win this award.

 

A Sister
BELGIUM/16MINS/2018
Director: Delphine Girard
A-Sister
A woman traveling in the passenger seat of a car is in trouble.  She makes a phone call.  Tense thriller doesn’t attempt to detail too much but does exactly what a short should.  This is a simple concept that extracts anxiety from the audience in an efficient way.  I was mesmerized although I had questions.  What kidnapper would let his victim make a 16-minute phone call?  It also loses points for its similarity to Danish crime thriller The Guilty which did this subject first and did it better.

 

Brotherhood
CANADA-TUNISIA-QATAR-SWEDEN/25MINS/2018
Director: Meryam Joobeur
Brotherhood
The 2nd of two films from Tunisia. This is the apparent frontrunner of the category but I would be shocked if it won.  Narratively opaque portrait of a callous shepherd named Mohammed living on a farm in rural Tunisia.  His oldest son Malik returns from Syria, with a mysterious new wife covered in a burka.  Director Meryam Joobeur doesn’t play fair with the audience purposefully hiding information so we cannot figure out what is going on.  The viewer (and father Mohammed ) is led to believe Malik became a radical and joined ISIS. Honestly, if father and son had simply had a conversation the misunderstanding at the heart of this drama could have easily been avoided.  Extremely frustrating for its inept depiction of the father’s shameful decision.

 

Saria
USA/22MINS/2019
Director: Bryan BuckleySaria
This true story dramatizes an appalling event that occurred at the Virgen de La Asuncion Safe Home in Guatemala in 2017.  A fire claimed the lives of 41 young women including two friends, Saria and Ximena.   This is a shocking violation of human rights.  The fact that real-life orphans are playing orphans is more interesting than the film itself.   The circumstances surrounding their deaths is clearly a tragedy worth telling so it gets credit for that.  However the film’s slick, unemotional presentation doesn’t feel as powerful as it should.  When the severity of these events comes across like a cliche, something is wrong.  Director Bryan Buckley has helmed over 60 commercials for the Super Bowl since 2000 so the cinematography is stellar.  I’ll give it that.

01-29-20

2020 Oscar Nominated Short Films (Part 1 of 3)

Posted in Animation, Awards, Drama, Sports with tags on February 6, 2020 by Mark Hobin

ShortsTV continues to make all three of the Oscar-nominated short film programs (animated, live-action, documentary) available to audiences around the world. To find out where you can watch this year’s Oscar-Nominated Short Films, visit their Theatrical Release and On Demand pages.

Animation

Regardless of how expected the rest of the Oscar races are, the shorts programs have always been the most difficult category in which to predict a winner.  They make forecasting interesting.

With the exception of Kitbull, this year’s selections all have to do with familial relationships but even that short is essentially about the connection that forms a family. They have all been carefully constructed to make you tear up — with either joy or sadness — in some way.

As I do every year, I’ve reviewed and ranked them from my preferred champion to my least favorite.  The results will be announced at the Academy Awards on February 9th.

 

Hair Love
USA/7 MINS/2019
Directors: Matthew A. Cherry, Everett Downing Jr., Bruce W. Smith
hair love
A young black girl is desperately trying to style her hair for a special occasion. She consults an online tutorial video for help but is unsuccessful. She then asks her father for help. This warm depiction highlights a loving bond between father and daughter. But where is the mother? That’s the poignant ending to this heartfelt account.

 

Kitbull
USA/9 MINS/2019
Director: Rosana Sullivan
kitbull
Appealing feature about a cat and a pit bull and the unlikely attachment that develops between them. This was produced by Pixar Animation Studios under their SparkShorts umbrella which gives employees the autonomy to create their own independent films. The characters are quite simply drawn, almost abstract, but the movement is spot on. The way the kitten moves is surprisingly realistic. The story adds depressing elements but it’s quite engaging.

 

Sister
CHINA-USA/8 MINS/2018
Director: Siqi Song
sister-oscar-nominated-animated-short-film
A man reflects back on his childhood memories of growing up with his little sister in China in the 1990s.  She is a constant annoyance to him.  This stop motion entry (there’s 3 this year) appears to be a rather simplistic tale at first.  A haunting reveal ends things on a very serious note.  It has a point and it effectively makes it.  This stayed with me.

 

Mémorable
FRANCE/12 MINS/2019
Director: Bruno Collet
image-louis-alzeimer_court-metrage-animation-memorable-bruno-collet-vivement-lundi_le-blog-de-cheeky
A painterly representation of one man’s descent into dementia.  The stop motion is an artistic manipulation of post-impressionism.  The characters look like living portraits by Van Gogh, Picasso, and other masters.  It holds an undeniably hypnotic quality that verges on calculated preciousness.  Alzheimer’s disease was the theme of last year’s Late Afternoon.  Do I sense the beginning of a trend?

 

Daughter
CZECHIA/15 MINS/2019
Director: Daria Kashcheeva
Daughter_Daria_Kashcheeva
This wordless recollection details the strained relationship between a young woman and her father.   The abundance of silence doesn’t help this obtuse chronicle.  The animation is stop-motion but then a handheld camera is used to heighten the movement so hey that’s different.  However, the pointless grudge this woman held her entire life could have been easily solved with a simple conversation.  Try talking to your father.  Narratively frustrating.

01-24-20

Gretel & Hansel

Posted in Fantasy, Horror, Thriller with tags on February 4, 2020 by Mark Hobin

gretel_and_hansel_ver3STARS3.5Cinephiles know that January is a dumping ground for terrible movies.  I’m not talking about pictures like 1917 which go wide in the first month.  Award-worthy films like that have limited openings in December in New York and LA to qualify for the Oscars.  No, I mean productions that drop in January for the first time.  Horror flicks are especially suspect in the winter months because the best ones are usually distributed in summer and fall.  The Grudge and The Turning both opened to extremely negative reviews and “F” Cinemascores.  Gretel & Hansel is also a horror movie released this month.  Plot twist: It’s actually good.

Gretel & Hansel is indeed based on the 200-year-old German folklore tale.  Those fables collected by the Brothers Grimm have always been a little twisted so the fact that this has been reimagined as a dark adventure isn’t such a stretch.  Director Osgood Perkins or rather Oz (son of Anthony) essentially recounts the same legend but with a few tweaks.  As the reversal of the title implies, the girl is the focus in this drama.  Gretel (Sophia Lillis) is now a teenager looking after her younger brother, Hansel (Sam Leakey).  Their father has already passed on.  After their awful mother kicks them out of the house, the two venture into the woods in search of food.  They come across a dwelling in a clearing where they meet a mysterious woman named Holda (Alice Krige).  In exchange for food and shelter, they’ll cook and clean for her.  Sounds like a fair trade…or is it?

The cast is uniformly excellent — particularly actress Alice Krige (Star Trek: First Contact) who narrowly gets my vote for the MVP as the wonderfully creepy Holda.  She delivers her lines with a Shakespearean energy that imbues the words with more importance than they actually deserve.  Sophia Lillis is exceptional as Gretel too.  Her interaction with the aged woman — OK let’s be honest, witch — is an interesting relationship that propels the story forward.   Gretel may exhibit an anachronistic personality but that demeanor makes her more relatable to a modern audience in fact.   The behavior applies to her brother, Hansel (Sam Leakey) as well.  Gretel has visions that verge on nightmares.  The witch senses Gretel’s abilities.  She teaches Gretel how to tap into her powers.   Also worth mentioning is Jessica De Gouw as a young Holda who is a malevolent presence.

Gretel & Hansel is the third feature from director Perkins.  He bestows a vibrancy to this ancient yarn heretofore unknown.  His previous efforts were The Blackcoat’s Daughter which made a mere 20k domestically and I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House which debuted on Netflix – both horror films.  It’s clear that Perkins loves the genre.  He explores it with a rare subtlety.  The box office of Gretel & Hansel may have been a modest achievement.  It earned just $6.1M in the U.S. opening weekend but given that the budget was only $5M, I’d call that a success.  It’s well on its way to profitability.

There is so much to recommend about this production.  As the PG-13 rating would imply, this movie relies far more on atmospherics than gore.   The outstanding production design is arguably the movie’s strongest asset.  Jeremy Reed extracts fear out of gloomy spaces.  The rooms and buildings have an ominous air to them.  Cinematographer Galo Olivares captures all of this with stylish elegance.  He was a collaborator on Roma and the talent he brought to that triumph is clearly evident here.  One particular set piece involving a bucket of guts leaves a lasting impression.  Now let’s talk about the soundtrack.  I love the Beatles and the Moody Blues so I’ve always been a sucker for any melody that features a mellotron.  The eerie synth-heavy score is composed by Paris-based composer ROB aka Robin Coudert (Maniac, Horns).  He adds a glorious soundscape that further immerses the viewer into a sinister environment.

If I must register a gripe, it’s that director Oz Perkins favors slow-burn pacing at the expense of a compelling story.  Ironically it’s during the climax that the chronicle suddenly feels rushed.  Plot is not this saga’s strong point.  However I enjoyed this overall, so I won’t end on a pessimistic note.  The gorgeous production is content to revel in a dark climate.  It’s intensely disturbing.  The music and visuals really add to the sense of dread.  I was quite taken by the mood.  Gretel & Hansel mesmerizes while it simultaneously unsettles.  What it lacks in a narrative, it more than makes up for in some hauntingly beautiful tableaus.

01-30-20