Friday, December 2, 2022

The Fabelmans

Steven Spielberg has always attested there was a personal element to all of his films, even if they were filled with popcorn movie spectacle as well. However, with The Fabelmans, Spielberg digs deep into his own unique and tumultuous childhood to craft his most personal film yet. Despite it being described as semi-autobiographical, the film digs deep into Spielberg's relationships with his family, especially his parents, as well as how his ongoing love for filmmaking began and developed. 

In 1952, young Sammy Fabelman (played by Mateo Zoryon Francis DeFord) is being taken to his first movie by his parents, Mitzi and Burt (played by Michelle Williams and Paul Dano), to his first movie. That movie is, of course, The Greatest Show on Earth and Sammy finds himself enraptured and thrilled by the images on the screen. Yet, he is haunted by the massive train crash set piece in the film. He even goes so far to ask for a train set for Hanukkah and proceeds to crash the train over and over again in an attempt to recreate what he saw in the movie. Soon, his mom suggests Sammy film crashing the train set and then he can watch that over and over again and therefore not risk permanently ruining his train set, which was a concern his father had. The results ignite something in young Sammy as he starts making other movies around the house, frequently casting his younger sisters in various roles. When his father gets a new job opportunity, the family winds up moving to Phoenix, Arizona along with family friend "Uncle" Bennie Loewy (played by Seth Rogen). As the years pass, Sammy (now played by Gabriel LaBelle), continues with his filmmaking passions, often incorporating family members and even fellow members of his boy scout troop into the productions and even beginning to experiment with special effects. He also begins to notice a growing attraction between his mother and Bennie, something that would dramatically change his relationship with both his parents as well as his family going forward.  

Steven Spielberg directed the film with a script he co-wrote with Tony Kushner. The resulting film is one he calls semi-autobiographical, but based on what is known about his childhood and his family, it seems to play closer to fact than many biopics I have seen. The film is perhaps a bit more fair to both of his parents that Spielberg probably was as a kid as his rocky relationship with his father is well documented as he had incorrectly blamed him for his parents divorce. The bulk of the film does focus on that chapter of his life, as well as balancing his growing passion for film with his family life, while also dealing with the turmoil of moving and growing up in areas without a large Jewish population that leads to some Anti-Semitic bullying. Yet, he does a wonderful job highlighting the two distinct sides of his family, with both his far more free-spirited mother on one side and his more analytical, technical minded father on the other and how both sides had their own impacts and helped form the person he would become. The film is beautifully shot by Janusz Kaminski with exquisite period detail from production designer Rick Carter. Throughout the film we see recreations of the short films Spielberg made as a kid and they are wonderfully reproduced and a joy to see the ingenuity he used with those films to simulate explosions or gunfire with simple effects, even if Spielberg couldn't help but occasionally improve on what he made before with better camera angles, etc.       

The film has a magnificent cast, led by Gabriel LaBelle as Sammy. LaBelle gives such a empathetic performance as his character goes through the various ups and downs of childhood as he works to make his dreams come true, even as his home life crumbles around him. There is a moment that sticks out to me, when Sammy is editing the home movies from the camping trip the family takes and as he watches the footage he sees the growing attraction between his mother and Bennie and LaBelle conveys so much without any dialogue at all. Michelle Williams has a tricky role as Mitzi Fabelman in that Mitzi is such a free spirit of a character, who can be impulsive and tend towards mood swings. Yet, Williams plays the role with real grace and emotion as a woman who finds herself caught between two men she loves and trying to figure out what she wants as well as how to keep her family together. She is also a colorful character, prone to doing such wild things as getting a pet monkey because she needed a laugh. Paul Dano has an interesting task at playing Burt, someone who is in many ways the opposite of Mitzi. He is far more technical, academic and scientific minded. When young Sammy is nervous about seeing his first movie, Burt breaks down how a movie works in very technical terms, that it's all just an optical illusion as opposed to Mitzi's far more poetic explanation. Still, Dano gives a real warmth to his character and it's clear he loves his family, even if he doesn't show it in the best ways. Seth Rogen makes a rare dramatic turn as Bennie Loewy and does a great job in the role. Some of the humor he is known for comes through in the role and he makes his character easy to love, but he also handles heavier dramatic moments quite well, especially a heart to heart talk with Sammy late in the movie. Judd Hirsch shows up in a small but pivotal role as Mitzi's eccentric Uncle Boris and absolutely nails his big scene when he gives young Sammy an impassioned speech about what it means to be an artist, drawing from his own past working in the film industry as well as with the Circus. 

The Fabelmans is easily one of the best movies of the year for me. He tells a deeply personal story of the formative years of his life with plenty of warmth and heart while, not unlike Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous before it, fictionalizing it somewhat in an effort to create a streamlined and satisfying film. It's a film he could probably only tell now with a certain sense of maturity and understanding required. I was also surprised by just how much I related to the film and the character of Sammy (and I suppose by extension, Steven himself). I won't get into the nitty gritty of it, but it certainly did bring back a number of memories for me of my own childhood. But then again, I suppose the themes of family, growing up and coming of age can be truly universal in their own ways.          

Monday, November 28, 2022

Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery

One of my favorite movies of 2019 was Rian Johnson's inventive and fun twist on the murder mystery Knives Out. So, naturally, I was very excited for the follow-up to arrive with a new case for that film's detective to solve with a whole new cast of colorful characters. The resulting film, Glass Onion, more than delivers with a follow-up every bit as good and fun as the original film. 

It's May 2020 and a group of five friends each receive an elaborate puzzle box from their longtime friend Miles Bron (played by Edward Norton), a billionaire and CEO of the tech company Alpha Industries. The folks getting the box include Claire Debella (played by Kathryn Hahn), Lionel Toussant (played by Leslie Odom, Jr.), Birdie Jay (played by Kate Hudson), Duke Cody (played by Dave Bautista) and Cassandra "Andi" Brand (played by Janelle Monae). Also receiving a box is renowned detective Benoit Blanc (played by Daniel Craig). Inside of each box is an invitation to a weekend retreat to Miles's private island to participate in a Murder Mystery game. Also arriving on the island is Birdie's personal assistant, Peg (played by Jessica Henwick) and Duke's girlfriend, Whiskey (played by Madelyn Cline). Upon their arrival, they are greeted by Miles who welcomes them all. However, he takes Benoit aside after and admits to being confused as to why he is there and he was not invited to the party. Miles quickly deduces that someone re-sent one of their boxes to him. But the question remains who invited him and why. Especially as secrets and animosities among this group of mismatched friends begin bubbling to the surface and it becomes clear someone really does want Miles dead. 

The film was written and directed by Rian Johnson who manages to craft another unique and thrilling mystery that is at once a traditional murder mystery while also playing with our expectations of the genre in deliciously unique ways. I want to try and preserve as many of the film's surprises as possible as there are a number of fun twists. There is also more humor in the film coming from it's array of colorful characters. Johnson is clearly taking inspiration from the Poirot movies from the late 70's-Early 80's, especially Evil Under the Sun, for this film from both the choice of location and overall mood. The production design of the film is incredible in terms of Miles' sprawling mansion that is the film's primary location, including the titular "Glass Onion", a large glass dome structure that is the centerpiece of the estate and also the location where the various layers of this group's pasts are revealed. 

Much like the first film, this one has assembled a fantastic cast led by Daniel Craig returning as Benoit Blanc. We learn a little bit more about him this time around, including getting a look into his home life, his partner, as well as how he copes when he doesn't have a case to solve. Craig is clearly having a blast with the role as he chews on that Southern accent while trying to solve a very unique and perplexing mystery. Edward Norton is a joy to watch as Miles Bron, the eccentric and potentially reckless Tech Billionaire. He does well portraying a character who has clearly bought into all their press and has an inflated ego as a result. Yet he also gives the character a lot of charm and personality that makes the character a delight to watch. Kathryn Hahn is a hoot as Claire Debella, current Governor of Connecticut and preparing to run for the Senate, a fact that drives her actions throughout the movie. Kate Hudson is hilarious online influencer Birdie Jay who says so many controversial and politically incorrect things online her assistant has confiscated her phone and refuses to give it back. Jessica Henwick plays off this wonderfully as her put upon assistant Peg. Dave Bautista is quite the character as Twitch streamer and Men's Rights activist Duke Cody, who has gained quite the following for his toxic masculine personality and goes nowhere without a pistol strapped to himself. Leslie Odom Jr. does well as the rare voice of reason in this group, as the brilliant mind behind many of the innovations Miles has taken credit for, creating some justified animosity between the two. Last but certainly not least is Janelle Monae as the cool and standoffish Cassandra "Andi" Brand, who has her own issues with Miles that are revealed as the movie goes on. She is fantastic in the role and how her character changes as more about her past and the relationships with others come to light. There is a lot with her character and I don't want to give anything away, so I will just leave it as she's awesome.                

Overall, Glass Onion is a worthy follow-up to Knives Out with another fantastic cast and a twisty mystery at it's core that at once both adheres to and subverts the tropes of the mystery genre. The set up of the film all feels familiar in that great way we all expect but then the film keeps going in other directions and really kept me on my toes throughout. I'd love to elaborate on what I mean by that but I would hate to spoil all the surprises the film has. It's a bummer that the film is only getting a one week, limited release as it is a movie that plays great with a large audience. I saw it in a packed theater over Thanksgiving weekend and had a blast with it. If you don't get a chance to see it in the theater, never fear as it will be premiering on Netflix starting December 23rd. 

Friday, November 11, 2022

The Menu

I had been completely unaware of The Menu until I first saw the initial teaser trailer but was immediately intrigued by the story of the film. Then the second trailer played in front of almost every movie my friend and I would see. It got to the point where we could quote along with it (and did, to our own amusement). So, naturally, when we got the chance to see it early we pounced. Thankfully, the film itself is quite good, filled with some of the best pitch black comedy mixed with unique thriller elements to make for a very memorable film. 

Hawthorne restaurant is a very exclusive dining experience located on a isolated island only accessible by boat. It is overseen by celebrity Chef Julian Slowik. The restaurant only welcomes 12 guests a night, at $1250 a head. Among the guests are obsessive foodie Tyler (played by Nicholas Hoult) and his date, Margo (played by Anya Taylor-Joy), food critic Lillian Bloom (played by Janet McTeer) and her editor, Ted (played by Paul Adelstein), wealthy couple Richard and Anne Liebbrandt (played by Reed Birney and Judith Light), a famous movie star George Diaz (played by John Leguizamo) and his assistant Shah (played by Ali Asghar Shah), and a trio of wealthy investment bankers, Soren (played by Arturo Castro), Dave (played by Mark St. Cyr) and Bryce (played by Rob Yang). They are given a tour of the facility by the Maître D' Elsa (played by Hong Chau), as she shows how they cultivate the food they serve and even have their own smokehouse. As they are seated for dinner, each course is served with disciplined precision and introduced by Chef Slowik starting with a loud clap of the hands. Each course is presented like a piece of conceptual art as part of an overarching theme that won't become clear until the end. As the evening proceeds, and each increasingly ostentatious course is presented, the night takes on a far more sinister tone as the guests realize they may be in the process of eating their last meal.

The film was directed by Mark Mylod from a script by Seth Reiss and Will Tracy. The film is an amusing and unique blend of haute cuisine satire and an at times shocking thriller. Yet, the film balances these elements quite well. I appreciated the way the film reveals their character's layers and secrets with each passing course, generating some genuine surprises along the way. As the film goes on, it becomes increasingly clear that Chef Slowik knows exactly who his guests are and that they are all there for a reason. All of this is paired quite well with some wonderfully savage humor as the movie takes some well pointed jabs at celebrity chef culture and gourmet dining, as well as foodie culture and even class warfare. Of course, with this being a movie about dining, the film boasts plenty of exquisite and tantalizing shots of the various dishes served throughout the film, each one crafted with artistic precision to ensure the audience is left wishing they could take a bite. Even the production design of the restaurant and surrounding island is a marvel to look at, with a décor that is minimalist and complements the natural environment it was built in that contrasts with the well stocked and impressive professional kitchen that is wide open and in view at all times by the guests. 

The film boasts an impressive cast led by Ralph Fiennes, who makes Chef Slowik an enticing enigma of a character. He takes cooking very seriously as each dish is prepared by his crew with utmost precision. He plays the character with a soft spoken seriousness that is often intimidating and occasionally hilarious and the way he can hit both notes with ease is impressive. Anya Taylor-Joy has a tricky role as Margo, the only character who isn't really enthused to be there and feels the whole affair is a bit ridiculous. In a role that could easily be a bit of a whiny wet blanket, she keeps the character likable and one to root for as she is clearly the odd one out in the group, especially as she tries to figure out just what is going on and what Chef Slowik's true intentions are. Being the only one not really into this exclusive event also makes her more keenly aware that something is not quite right about the situation. Nicholas Hoult is a hoot as Tyler, who is an obsessive foodie and ardent fan of Chef Slowik, savoring every course while remaining keenly and strangely unfazed as things take a darker turn. Hong Chau is memorable as Elsa, the Maître D who runs the front of house with the same seriousness and precision as Chef Slowik runs the kitchen. She portrays her character's dedication to Chef Slowik so well and makes her character both compelling and a bit intimidating herself. John Leguizamo plays Georgie Diaz and has fun with the role playing an actor who is trying to overcome a career slump after a few bad movies. Janet McTeer and Paul Adelstein are a hoot as food critic Lillian Bloom and her editor Ted and their ridiculously pretentious banter about each course.

It's always a joy to watch a movie where I have no idea where the story is going and any outcome seems possible and The Menu would be exactly that type of movie. With a unique blend of dark satirical comedy and genuine thriller elements is a combination that perhaps shouldn't work but the film finds the right balance between the two to create a deliciously twisted film. With each passing course, I was riveted to the screen to see there this movie was going to go and I was not disappointed. In fact, I look forward to a second helping in the future.               

Monday, November 7, 2022

Weird: The Al Yankovic Story

Like many people roughly my age, I grew up with "Weird Al" Yankovic. His oddball sense of humor always appealed to me as he continuously skewered Pop music. His music videos were always hilarious and on point. His first film, UHF, has garnered a devoted cult following. It was only natural that eventually his life would be depicted in his own bio-pic. In true Weird Al fashion, the resulting film is a hilarious satire of bio-pics.

As a young kid, Al (played by Daniel Radcliffe) developed an interest in the accordion only to be repeatedly discouraged from playing the instrument by his father, Nick (played by Toby Huss). Growing estranged from his parents as a result, he eventually moves in with his three friends, Steve (played by Spencer Treat Clark), Jay (played by Jack Lancaster) and Bermuda (played by Tommy O'Brien). After being rejected from yet another band not wanting an accordion player, he admits he just wants to make parodies of famous songs by changing the lyrics. Encouraging him, his friends turn on the radio while he fixes some sandwiches. As My Sharona by The Knack and immediately comes up with the song "My Bologna." They decide to record the song, settling on a nearby public bathroom due to the ideal acoustics. He sends in a copy to a local radio station where it gets played and becomes an instant success (literally the same afternoon he mails it). Soon, he's playing his first concert at a biker bar in front of a "Whiskey and heroin crowd" with his friends stepping in as his bandmates. He also attracts the attention of Dr. Demento (played by Rainn Wilson) who offers to mentor the up and coming musician. Soon enough, he's signed to the Scotti Bros. Record label and his first record goes multi-platinum. When it's discovered that sales go up for the original albums once Weird Al does a parody of one of the songs, Madonna (played by Evan Rachel Wood) starts courting Weird Al to do a parody of one of her songs, setting off a truly weird series of events for "Weird Al" Yankovic         

The film started out as a a mock trailer made for the site Funny or Die parodying the sort of Oscar Bait musician biopics that had been coming out. Based on the continued positive response to it, director Eric Appel and "Weird Al" Yankovic decided to expand it to a feature. As they watched the movies they were parodying and realized each one took plenty of dramatic license, they felt they could stray from real life as freely as they wanted, leading to some hilarious and unexpected turns in the film, especially in the second half of the film as Al begins drinking heavily, taking drugs, and becoming increasingly belligerent as his ego swings wildly out of control (all the funnier if you're familiar with Weird Al's history as a very clean cut musician whose career has been strangely free of controversy). The jokes come fast and often as it covers Al's life when he was a child through his rise to fame in the 80s. Aspects of Al's life are frequently exaggerated to great comedic effect even as the actors play the scenes deadly serious in the tradition of the best parodies. 

The film has a magnificent cast with Daniel Radcliffe nailing the lead role of "Weird Al" Yankovic. He plays the role with such deadpan serious in the face of such ridiculous events. Radcliffe really gives his all to the role even as the events around him grow more and more ridiculous. Rainn Wilson is a hoot in the role of Dr. Demento giving a very amusing performance as acts as something of a De-Mentor to Weird Al, although how good of an influence he proves to be is debatable. Evan Rachel Wood is clearly having a lot of fun playing Madonna, especially as the character becomes more exaggerated as the film goes on. Toby Huss does well satirizing the role of the disapproving and/or neglectful father that has itself become a well worn trope of these types of films. Much like the rest of the cast, he really nails playing the absurdity with deadly seriousness that makes the jokes land. The film also has a parade of cameos that I will not elaborate on because I don't want to ruin the surprises, but I have to say I enjoyed each one. 

Overall, Weird: The Al Yankovic Story is a hilarious satire of the music biopic genre, as well as offering a few kernels of truth about Weird Al himself even if the movie is 98% fiction. The majority of the jokes land with a talented cast that is 100% committed to the bit. The only downside of the movie is that because it is exclusively available on the Roku Channel, it is frequently interrupted by commercials. Here's hoping it eventually scores a Blu-Ray release as it is one I would love to add to my collection.        

Monday, October 31, 2022

Halloween Horrorfest: Poltergeist

When I realized that Poltergeist turned 40 this year, I knew what movie I needed to review to close out this year's Spooky Season. Few films have garnered the reputation this one has, especially for people my age, as not only an exceptionally scary movie but also as an allegedly cursed film. I'm not sure I believe in that last part but it is a film that has by and large held up remarkably well as a supremely scary movie. 

Steven and Diane Freeling (played by Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams) live in the suburban housing development Cuesta Verde with their three kids, Dana (played by Dominique Dunn), Robbie (played by Oliver Robins) and Carol Anne (played by Heather O'Rourke). Late one night, Carol Anne begins conversing with the family television set while the set is on static. When she does it again the next night, a ghostly white hand emerges from the television and the house is rocked by a earthquake, after which Carol Anne eerily announces, "They're here." Strange events occur the next day, including furniture moving on it's own, glasses breaking and silverware getting bent. Things escalate when the creepy old Oak tree outside the kids' room comes to life, breaks through the window and snatches Robbie right out of bed. While the rest of her family is distracted with rescuing Robbie, Carol Ann is pulled into a portal that opens in her bedroom closet. Not knowing how to rescue their daughter, Steven and Diane reach out to Parapsychologist Dr. Martha Lesh (played by Beatrice Straight) and her colleagues, Dr. Marty Casey (played by Martin Casella) and Dr. Ryan Mitchell (played by Richard Lawson). They eventually bring in a medium, Tangina Barrons (played by Zelda Rubinstein) to assist further once they realize just how much paranormal activity they are dealing with. 

Poltergeist is a unique collaboration between co-screenwriter and producer Steven Spielberg and Director Tobe Hooper. Controversy has raged to this day as to who the actual director of the film is. Tobe Hooper is the credited director for the film but rumors persist that Spielberg actually ghost directed the movie. I watched it again the other night with this controversy in mind to see if my knowledge of both filmmakers to see what I could discern and honestly, the bulk of the movie feels more like a Tobe Hooper movie than a Spielberg movie. That said, Spielberg's fingerprints are still all over it. He co-wrote the screenplay with Michael Grais and Mark Victor from a story he developed with Hooper. There are also some trademark Spielberg shots that show just how involved he was with the production and collaborated on shot setups and storyboards for the movie. Together, the two managed to craft one of the all time scary movies accentuated with a unique take on the haunted house genre and memorable special effects that still hold up today, including a couple really gnarly ones that had me wondering aloud, "This movie is rated PG?!". No doubt, this movie (along with Gremlins and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom a couple years later) would bring about the need for the PG-13 rating. 

The cast for the film is fantastic. JoBeth Williams does quite well as Diane Freeling, who finds herself tested in ways she could never imagine trying to protect her family from the evil forces that have invaded her home but she does a magnificent job portraying Diane's strength and resilience as she does what is needed to protect her kids. Craig T. Nelson is great as Steven, who is trying his best to cope with everything that is going on around him but of the two parents is definitely the more skeptical one, despite everything that is happening. Still, Nelson has one of my favorite moments late in the movie when he finally realizes the reason for the hauntings and has an epic meltdown on his boss, subdivision developer Lewis Teague (played by James Karen). I won't get into specifics because of spoilers, but it has been replaying in my head for the past day since I watched the movie. Beatrice Straight gives a  warm and caring performance as Dr. Lesh, trying to be reassuring to the Freelings even as she tries to figure out how to help them. Zelda Rubinstein is instantly iconic from the moment she steps on-screen as Tangina, giving her character a sort of no-nonsense seriousness that makes her character so memorable. Heather O'Rourke adds a certain otherworldliness to Carol Ann while being absolutely precious and lovable that makes it easy for her to endear herself to the audience, which is important since she spends so much of the movie off screen. 

Of course, Poltergeist would go on to spawn two sequels of varying quality but neither would match the original, which still holds up as the best film. I may have to cover the sequels at some point because neither is bad necessarily, but neither is perfect either. The first film stands on it's own as a classic scary movie (I think I can say that since it's 40 years old now) and perfect Halloween viewing for the whole family. I, for one, can't wait to show this one to my nephews. How else are they going to develop a totally normal and rational fear of clown dolls, skeletons, and half-finished swimming pools?   

Friday, October 28, 2022

Halloween Horrorfest: Session 9

Session 9 is a movie that I certainly knew by reputation as a very good scary movie but was one I kept putting off until finally this year I decided I was finally going to sit down and watch it. I went in knowing only the basic premise and not much else and was surprised what an effective little flick this was. 

Gordon Fleming (played by Peter Mullan) is the owner of a hazardous waste removal company. He and his associate Phil (played by David Caruso) are called in to assess cleaning up and removing asbestos from the abandoned Danvers State Mental Hospital. Desperate to land the bid, he agrees to have the job done in one week instead of the two-three weeks it would realistically take. They assemble a crew that includes Mike (played by Stephen Gevedon), a law school dropout who is familiar with the history of the asylum, Hank (played by Josh Lucas), a gambling addict who stole Phil's girlfriend, and Jeff (played by Brendan Sexton III), Gordon's nephew who has a pathological fear of the dark. As the crew gets to work with the clean-up, unsettling things begin to happen. Gordon hears a voice greet him by name and finds himself strangely drawn to the nearby cemetery that contains the remains of over 700 patients. Mike discovers a bunch of abandoned case files, including one in particular of a patient named Mary Hobbes, who suffered from Dissociative Identity Disorder. He starts to listen to a group of tapes he found of sessions between her and her doctor, a total of 9 sessions. As the days go on, the place starts to have an effect on each of the guys as they each begin to experience unsettling things within the confines of the hospital, taking a toll on their own mental health.

The film was directed by Brad Anderson from a script he co-wrote with Stephen Gevedon. There is a definite slow burn pacing to the film as it establishes the hospital and it's history as the film builds it's tension and sense of dread. The film was shot on location in the actual abandoned Danvers State Mental Hospital in Massachusetts and apparently they had to do very little work dressing the sets for the film. Much of what we see in the film is actually how it was, with all the abandoned equipment, as well as much of the vandalism and deterioration of the property being exactly as they found it. It's such a large and imposing building as well it is practically another character in the movie, not unlike the Overlook Hotel in The Shining, which this movie takes more than a little inspiration from. Still, the story did keep me on my toes throughout. I knew things were going to go wrong, I just wasn't quite sure how. This movie is also an example of less is more, using the atmosphere of the setting, the sound design and effective cinematography, as well as an effective score from Climax Golden Twins, to create the scares rather than CGI and extensive practical effects. 

The cast is really solid, led by Peter Mullan as Gordon. He captures his character's increasingly fragile mental state quite well without overdoing it. He really conveys the pressure he's under and how much is riding on this job so he can keep his company afloat. There are also certain other secrets with his character that he reveals in a way that is compelling and at times rather sympathetic. David Caruso handles the role of Phil well, who throughout the film is the voice of reason trying to keep it together for the rest of the group. Josh Lucas is clearly reveling playing the scummy and shady Hank, who loves to tease and torment his co-workers, among many other things. Brendan Sexton III gives some real vulnerability to his character of Jeff. He's a bit of a goof, but Sexton keeps him sympathetic without being annoying. 

Overall, I found Session 9 lived up to it's reputation as a unique and chilling spook flick, using atmosphere and subtlety to deliver it's scares. It may have taken inspiration from films that came before, but it also stands on its own as a unique and genuinely scary movie. I'm only sorry I waited this long to actually watch this one. 


Wednesday, October 19, 2022

Halloween Horrorfest: Urban Legend

On the surface, Urban Legend (or Lurban Egend, as it was referred to by my friend group back in the day for some reason) is a pretty shameless rip-off of the Scream films with a killer taking inspiration from famous urban legends rather than horror movies. That doesn't mean it's not an entertaining movie on it's own. Heck, in it's heyday, they Slasher genre was just a bunch of filmmakers shamelessly ripping each other off to varied success. Why should it be any different in the 90s? 

On a rainy night, Michelle Mancini (played by Natasha Gregson-Wagner) is decapitated with an axe while driving down an isolated road by an unseen attacker in her back seat (believe me, I have spent the past 24 years trying to figure out how they managed to do that too, even if the car was a huge SUV). Meanwhile, on the Pendleton College Campus, Natalie (played by Alicia Witt) is hanging out with her friends Brenda (played by Rebecca Gayheart) and Parker (played by Michael Rosenbaum) as the latter regales them with the tale of the Stanley Hall massacre that happened on campus back in the 70s, which Journalism student Paul (played by Jared Leto), overhearing the conversation, is quick to try to debunk. News of Michelle's murder spreads across campus the following morning, but Dean Adams (played by John Neville) and Campus Security Officer Reese (played by Loretta Devine) try their best to cover up the story, to the frustration of Paul when he finds them pulling copies of the school paper with the story he wrote about it featured on the front cover. Natalie takes the news of Michelle's passing hard as they had been close friends in High School. One of the classes they take is an Urban Folklore class taught by Professor Wexler (played by Robert Englund), who discusses and debunks such urban legends as the one regarding Pop Rocks and Soda. Soon enough, the killer strikes again and again as it becomes clear to Natalie that the killer is targeting her and her friends. Soon, she teams up with Paul to try and figure out who the killer is, their connection to her, and if it has anything to do with the impending anniversary of the legendary Stanley Hall Massacre. 

The film was directed by Jamie Blanks from a script by Silvio Horta. To their credit, they manage to craft a perfectly decent slasher movie with plenty of atmosphere and tension throughout. They even play things mostly serious for the bulk of the run time. The design of the killer, with the over-sized Parka with a large hood obscuring the killer's face is certainly a unique choice, even if it does make them stick out at a time that is definitely not winter. The setting of a secluded New England university certainly adds to the film with it's gothic architecture creating a foreboding mood. The death sequences are certainly memorable and tense as the killer offs the cast one at a time utilizing creative means that recall famous Urban Legends. That's not to say the movie doesn't have a sense of humor, which it certainly does, as the movie gets sillier as it goes along until it gloriously goes off the rails at the end when the killer is finally revealed, throwing everything we have just seen previously into question of plausibility. Even better, the killer gives a deranged rant that is so over the top it even includes a slide show presentation. Trying to figure out how the killer was able to set all this up while also chase after the main characters will no doubt make the viewer go cross-eyed, so best just to sit back and enjoy the lunacy. 

The film does assemble a solid cast of actors, led by Alicia Witt as Natalie. Witt does well in the role, giving her character a real strength and resourcefulness. When the authorities won't believe her that there is a killer on campus, she takes it upon to find out who the killer is. Jared Leto makes a decent partner in investigation as the two team up to figure out who the killer is. Leto also does a well playing to Paul's darker sides, including his lack of empathy regarding the stories he covers as well as being just suspicious enough to potentially be the killer. Rebecca Gayheart is clearly having fun in her role as Natalie's best friend. Loretta Devine his also clearly having fun as the Pam Grier idolizing Campus Security Officer Reese (and apparently the only Campus officer...we never see another one, which is...odd). She is easily one of the most memorable characters in the movie and one of the only competent members of the campus staff. Michael Rosenbaum is a hoot as the jokester frat boy Parker, making the most of his supporting role. Robert Englund is also having a good time chewing the scenery as Professor Wexler, being as menacing and suspicious as possible.     

Urban Legend is probably not top tier in the pantheon of 90's slasher flicks, but there is a certain guilty pleasure quality to it that makes it a lot of fun to revisit every couple of years. The movie is very much a product of the 90s, with amusing references to certain Noxzema commercials and a Dawson's Creek reference that will never not be funny to me. It's certainly an entertaining one and there is a certain amount of nostalgia tied up in this one for me to make for a fun late night watch from time to time.