The haunted house movie genre is one that always seems to be in constant ebb and flow when it comes to quality. For every stellar entry like The Conjuring or Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House, we get forgettable titles like Winchester and Amityville: The Awakening. The Turning, Hollywood’s latest mangling of Henry James’ classic 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw, sadly falls into the category of film that only exists to make the great ones seem greater by comparison. Despite starting with rich source material and incorporating some watchable rising stars into its cast, this redundant and horribly derivative would-be supernatural thriller offers very little in the way of fresh scares.
Set almost 100 years after James’ original tale, the story centers around kindergarten teacher Kate (Mackenzie Davis) as she takes a live-in nanny/tutor position for the recently orphaned Flora (Brooklynn Prince) and Miles (Finn Wolfhard). Helping manage the vast estate where the kids reside is housekeeper Mrs. Grose (Barbara Marten), who seems suspicious of Kate from the moment she steps onto the property. Although Kate and Flora seem to ease into a friendly relationship, Miles presents as much more abrasive and even lecherous to their new guest. It doesn’t take long for things to sour further as the haunts of the creepy manor materialize in the form of menacing apparitions that suggest a dark history.
Making the leap to feature films after crafting music videos for artists like Katy Perry and Justin Timberlake, director Floria Sigismondi can’t find her voice within this hopelessly generic adaptation. In an all-too-rare bit of meta humor, Kate murmurs “this can’t be real” as she pulls up to the house for the first time and beholds the barrage of cliches that fall before her: the dilapidated mansion, the impossibly long driveway adorn with dead trees on either side and, naturally, the gloomy weather to match. The truth is, it’s all real, at least in the sense that Sigismondi is going to take every trick and trope associated with the spooky house genre deadly seriously from there on out.
Screenwriters Chad and Carey Hayes, responsible for bringing The Conjuring to life, inelegantly stuff their script with suggestions as to what’s behind all of these creepy occurrences. The character work is especially thin, not leaving much meat on the bone for Davis and company to dig into past increasingly haunted facial expressions. The presence of props from pet tarantulas to porcelain dolls perpetuate a moody atmosphere that constantly comes across as contrived. Sigismondi assembles all of these tried-and-true gothic horror elements and tosses them into a blender, producing a bland purée that only the most gullible of teens will consume.
This is the kind of film that teases you for 90 minutes, dangling all manner of red herrings and half-reveals in front of our faces, until it finally gives the viewer the unfiltered truth in the end. If The Turning is remarkable in any way, it’s certainly in how unsatisfying and downright confusing a conclusion it offers as a bitter consolation prize for enduring its preceding narrative. Everyone who worked on the film should take comfort in knowing that most audience members will stay through the credits, likely to take a moment and wipe the perplexed looks off their faces. The Turning may indeed turn heads, even if it’s to the side to signify bewilderment.
Score – 1.5/5
Coming to theaters this weekend: Gretel and Hansel, starring Sophia Lillis and Sam Leakey, retells the dark fairy tale about a pair of siblings who get lost in the woods and stumble upon terrifying evil in the process. The Rhythm Section, starring Blake Lively and Jude Law, is an international spy thriller that follows a woman who seeks to uncover the truth behind a plane crash that killed her family three years earlier. Opening at Cinema Center is VHYes, starring Kerri Kenney and Thomas Lennon, a comedy shot entirely on VHS and Beta about a boy who accidentally records home videos over his parents’ wedding tape.
I’m joined by my wife Aubree as we discuss the year 2019 in film and run down each of our 10 favorites from last year. Then we’ll go over the major Oscar nominations with predictions, our personal picks and some overlooked options from 2019. Find us on Facebook, Twitter and Letterboxd.
Robert Downey Jr. is on top of the world. Recently capping off an eleven-year stretch as Iron Man in the obscenely lucrative Marvel films, in which he reportedly earned $75 million for his Endgame role alone, he could seemingly do whatever he’d like at this point. Given that, it’s downright bewildering that he would follow up the iconic superhero era of his career with Dolittle, a slapdash CGI trainwreck that’s as mindless as it is misguided. It’s neither thrilling nor funny, which is problematic for a film that purports to be an adventure comedy, and it’s difficult to imagine that anyone over the age of the average kindergartener will get much from this bloated mess of a movie.
Mangling an untraceable South African/Scottish/Welsh accent, Downey plays Dr. John Dolittle, a reclusive veterinarian who’s holed up in a mystical manor where he communicates with a menagerie of animals. When he gets word that Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley) has fallen deathly ill, he climbs atop his sassy ostrich and hightails it to Buckingham Palace alongside his companion creatures. He arrives to find that the Queen has been poisoned and that the cure can only be found on a remote island on the other side of the world. With his new human apprentice Stubbins (Harry Collett) and animal friends by his side, Dolittle sets out on a journey to retrieve the precious antidote.
Atop the heap of beguiling creative decisions behind Dolittle is the choice to have Stephen Gaghan, the mind behind hard-hitting political dramas like Traffic and Syriana, direct and co-write this would-be family entertainment. Besides 2016’s Gold, he hasn’t directed anything since Syriana back in 2005 and nothing in his previous work would indicate that he would even be a close fit for something this toothless and juvenile. He and his three co-writers strain hard for laughs that, aside from a misjudged Godfather reference, are aimed squarely at youngsters. Even though the story is ostensibly set in 19th century England, the animals interject frequently in 21st century American vernacular, as when an octopus warns Dolittle “snitches get stitches.”
The depressingly overqualified voice cast, which includes recent Academy Award winners like Rami Malek and Octavia Spencer, does their best to give life to their lifeless CG counterparts. Spencer, whose duck character is actually named Dab-Dab, is saddled with anachronistic clunkers like “do you understand the words that are coming out of my bill?” It’s difficult to imagine what could have compelled this many talented actors to sign up for this freak show in the first place. Most of the film is so on-the-nose obvious about what it’s trying to do and who it’s trying to appeal to, it plays out like one of the parody trailers that opened the Downey-starring Tropic Thunder.
The film’s peaks far too early with a lovely, hand-drawn animated prologue outlining Dolittle’s long-lost love and I would have much preferred watching a story carried out in this style. Instead, we have to bear the sight of Downey mugging against computer-generated cacophony with at least half of his lines sounding like they were re-recorded in post-production. With a $175 million budget, you may come in expecting Marvel-level visual effects but the fantastical creations here are much more dubiously rendered; other non-animal shots, like one in which Stubbins leaps from one part of a bridge to another, are equally unconvincing. Tepid and tedious, Dolittle is an endless parade of wasted talent both on and off-camera.
Score – 1/5
Coming to theaters this weekend: The Gentlemen, starring Matthew McConaughey and Charlie Hunnam, is the latest action caper from Sherlock Holmes director Guy Ritchie about a British drug lord attempting to sell his empire to a group of Oklahoma billionaires. The Turning, starring Mackenzie Davis and Finn Wolfhard, is a supernatural horror update on “The Turn of the Screw” about a newly appointed nanny who looks after two disturbed orphans in a haunted Maine estate.
Another year, another weird number of Best Picture nominees. At least this year we get 9, which is one more than last year. Of course, that means that plenty of deserving films like The Farewell and Knives Out got boxed out for that #10 spot. At this point, we seem to be in a three-way tie between Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, 1917 and Parasite, which all hit me very differently in terms of quality. Hollywood is the current favorite and I’m inclined to agree; look no further than the fact that it has “Hollywood” in the title. Indeed, the Academy does love to love movies about Tinseltown and this year looks to be no exception, unless 1917 pulls a Moonlight.
My Prediction:Once Upon a Time in Hollywood My Vote: Marriage Story Overlooked: The Farewell
Martin Scorsese – The Irishman
Todd Phillips – Joker
Sam Mendes – 1917
Quentin Tarantino – Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Bong Joon-ho – Parasite
This category looks to be much more difficult to call. With the exception of Phillips, you could make a case for any of the other 4 directors to take home the statue. My current gut feeling is towards Mendes, given how technically impressive his faux one-take war epic is. Bong Joon-ho, who helmed one of the most audacious and wildly enjoyable films of the year, would be my personal pick. Certainly a shame that Gerwig wasn’t represented for her terrific work in Little Women. Even though she was nominated previously for Lady Bird, her vision for Alcott’s classic novel deserved to be recognized here.
My Prediction: Sam Mendes My Vote: Bong Joon-ho Overlooked: Greta Gerwig – Little Women
A surprisingly competitive field for Best Actor this time, especially in comparison to last year. Previous Oscar winner Joaquin Phoenix seems to be an almost certainty for his undeniably great work in Joker. Great to see Adam Driver get recognition even though he won’t win; I’m sure he’ll have more chances down the road. As sleepy as The Two Popes was, Jonathan Pryce did reliably great work in it and Leonardo DiCaprio was hilarious as Hollywood‘s washed-up actor. Pain and Glory is one of the few titles nominated in a major category that I haven’t seen but I endeavor to do so before the big show.
My Prediction: Joaquin Phoenix My Vote: Adam Driver Overlooked: Adam Sandler – Uncut Gems
Probably my most frustrating category, as there were many brilliant female performances this year and yet, it looks very likely that the trophy will predictably go to Renée Zellweger for her admirable Judy Garland impression. I would much rather any of the other four actresses, especially Johansson, win the award and it looks like Charlize Theron has the best shot to upset. Still baffled that previous Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o got snubbed for her mesmerizing dual role in Us. The Academy did a great job at not ignoring Get Out two years ago, even though it came out early that previous year, and it’s a shame they didn’t give the same treatment to Peele’s follow-up.
My Prediction: Renée Zellweger My Vote: Scarlett Johansson Overlooked: Lupita Nyong’o – Us
My Prediction: Laura Dern My Vote: Florence Pugh Overlooked: Thomasin McKenzie – Jojo Rabbit
Strong supporting categories this year, especially Supporting Actor. Aside from the current favorite Brad Pitt, every other Supporting Actor nominee has won previously. I love Tom Hanks as Mr. Rogers, despite the disturbing lack of Pittsburghese in his performance, but my personal preference would be towards Pesci for his quiet commanding work in The Irishman. It’s good to have him back.
Like Pitt, Laura Dern is similarly a lock in the Supporting Actress field. I’m obviously a huge Marriage Story fan, so I’m happy with any awards that film can gather, even if Dern’s role wasn’t as challenging as some of her competitors. Willem Dafoe and Thomasin McKenzie are obvious snubs for me but I also would’ve loved to have seen a nod for 10-year-old Julia Butters, who more than holds her own against Leonardo DiCaprio in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
In the heart of Oscar season, two popular genres tend to dominate the multiplex: hard-hitting legal dramas and issues movies meant to provoke discussion about a hot-button topic. Destin Daniel Cretton’s JustMercy happens to fall narrowly in the middle of both of those categories. As this is the case, it tends to be doubly as familiar in some ways but also doubly as admirable in its successes, given the baggage of expectations that it carries on its shoulders. The issue at the center of the movie, the ethical ramifications of the death penalty and its staggering rate of error, has been examined on film previously but Cretton pursues slightly different avenues to shed new light on the subject.
Our story starts in 1987 Alabama, where Walter “Johnny D” McMillian (Jamie Foxx) is hastily tried and convicted for the murder of an 18-year-old girl with almost no evidence. Catching wind of the case, Harvard-educated lawyer Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) travels south to establish the Equal Justice Initiative with social worker Eva Ansley (Brie Larson). The EJI’s aim is to overturn wrongful convictions, specifically for those on death row, and McMillian’s case becomes the focal point of Stevenson’s efforts. His investigation draws the ire of many in the community who firmly believe in McMillian’s guilt, like the hot-headed district attorney Tommy Chapman (Rafe Spall), but Stevenson persists among the multitude of obstacles thrown his way.
Just Mercy plays out about how one might imagine. There’s the terse initial meeting between McMillian and Stevenson, in which an incredulous McMillian turns Stevenson away, even though we know the plot will of course hinge on the two working together. There are the multiple run-ins with sweaty bigoted members of Alabama’s law enforcement, desperate to take Stevenson and his team down at any costs. We have the procedural feel throughout the investigation, in which pages of law books are shuffled through in order to clear McMillian’s name in court. Yet, these recognizable story beats still resonate because of the conviction of the performances on-screen and the direction off-screen.
Where Cretton finds new direction in this harrowing true tale is in the relationships between McMillian and his fellow inmates. Often in capital punishment movies, the injustice of the system is the sole focus and while this film certainly accentuates that aspect, it also focuses on the human interactions and brotherhood behind the bars. Hope and inspiration are precious commodities on death row and the modicum that can be found are uplifting to behold, even in fleeting moments. As good as Foxx and Jordan are, supporting players like O’Shea Jackson and Rob Morgan are even better in roles that allow them to deeply humanize prisoners who know they may not get a second chance themselves.
At a stout 136 minutes, the movie does suffer from pacing issues and may overstay its welcome even for those who are interested in the material. Despite her real-life significance, I’m not certain that Brie Larson’s character even needed to be included in the film, much less given as much screen time as she is since her role in the case is relatively minimal. It’s reasonable to believe that Larson, who worked with Cretton previously in the excellent Short Term 12 and terrible The Glass Castle, was recruited post-Captain Marvel success to add another familiar face to the cast list. Despite its shortcomings, Just Mercy is a sobering and earnest examination of a broken system and the victims left in its wake.
Score – 3/5
Coming to theaters this weekend: Bad Boys For Life, starring Will Smith and Martin Lawrence, caps off the buddy cop trilogy about two reckless police detectives who reunite once again to take down a Romanian mob boss. Dolittle, starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jessie Buckley, retells the story of a renown doctor who surrounds himself with a myriad of wondrous creatures with whom he can communicate. Playing at Cinema Center is Parasite, the current Oscar front-runner for Best International Feature Film about a lower-middle class family who slowly insinuate themselves into the lives of a wealthy family.
The harrowing new World War I film 1917 opens on two British soldiers, played by George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman, getting some much needed rest. Little do they know, it’s the only bit of respite that they’ll get for the next two hours. After they’re awoken and given a mission by their General, played by Colin Firth, the pair is thrust into no man’s land to deliver a message with orders to call off an ally’s pending attack. Along the way, familiar faces from Benedict Cumberbatch to Mark Strong pop up to help our protagonists in their treacherous journey. What makes the experience different than almost any other war movie, however, is that we follow the action in real time as the film is presented to appear as one continuous shot.
This impressive technical feat, a collaboration between director Sam Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins, has been attempted several times in other non-war films. Hitchcock’s Rope was the first to approach the gimmick back in 1948 and recent films from Birdman to Son of Saul have used disguised cuts to appear as a single take. Even more rare are the films that are truly one unbroken shot, like the mind-boggling 140-minute heist film Victoria. Though Mendes does implement a few cuts from the action — particularly the most notable one separating day from night at the film’s midpoint — the effect is as arresting and sensational as the director intended. The level of coordination and timing on display within these lengthy long takes is simply unheard of, particularly for this genre.
Mendes wisely re-teamed with his Skyfall cameraman Deakins to carry out such an expansive experiment. Deakins, who won a long overdue Oscar a couple years ago for his work in Blade Runner 2049, is in line for another nomination and hopefully a win for his nimble and virtuosic cinematography. Whether his camera is skimming across shallow water to follow our heroes or pedaling back as a wounded German plane comes careening to the ground, the action is framed flawlessly in every sequence. Even more minor shots, like the claustrophobic one in the back of a crowded truck where a camera crew couldn’t possibly fit, highlight a level of preparation and commitment that is inspiring, to say the least.
If there’s disappointment in 1917, it’s that the story and character work simply doesn’t match the ambition and ingenuity of the technical aspects at play. We follow the primary soldiers as they doggedly trek through a series of perilous circumstances but we learn very little about them in the process. Nearly every other character is only on-screen for a few moments total and, perhaps by necessity, their roles are underdeveloped and unmemorable. Despite its technical excellence, the film dips into self-indulgence in certain stretches and at times, the film doesn’t seem to exist for any other reason than to show us how difficult it was to make.
Nevertheless, the behind-the-camera aspects, including a rousing and riveting music score from Thomas Newman, will deservedly draw attention in the upcoming award season. One area that will likely be ignored is the work by the two lead actors, particularly by MacKay. Acting is easier when one can rely on multiple takes upon which to cobble together the most optimal performance but the pressure on the performer is much higher when they have to be “on” for 45 consecutive minutes at a time. 1917 isn’t quite the all-time great that it wants to be but it’s a visceral and thrilling exploration of warfare from an audacious new perspective.
Score – 3.5/5
Also coming to theaters this weekend: Just Mercy, starring Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx, tells the true story of a civil rights defense attorney who takes the case of a wrongly condemned death row prisoner in 1980s Alabama. Like a Boss, starring Tiffany Haddish and Rose Byrne, is a comedy set in the cosmetics world about two entrepreneurs who start a beauty company but are hindered by a greedy benefactor. Underwater, starring Kristen Stewart and Vincent Cassel, is a spin on the Alien formula about a crew of underwater researchers who are left stranded when an earthquake wrecks their subterranean laboratory.