KOOKY BUT NOT ALTOGETHER OOKY

While their original mid-1960s TV show only aired for two seasons (but produced 64 episodes), the Addams Family have continually re-emerged in one form or another, including a 1977 reunion TV movie, a 1992 animated series, another TV movie in 1998, and a new sitcom in 1998. Beyond the original, which is essentially still the best incarnation, the biggest success was the 1991 movie starring Raul Julia and Angelica Huston that gave us a properly Latin Gomez and a bigger budget. A subsequent sequel flopped.

Now MGM has brought us the animated The Addams Family (2019) that attempts to modernize the franchise again with a narrative pitting the fiendishly fun, Gothly family against home improvement TV personality Margaux Needler (Allison Janney) whose home sales in her huge suburban development Assimilation are threatened by the presence of the Addams’ ominous house on the hill. When the drearily deadpan Wednesday Addams (Chloë Grace Moretz) befriends Margaux’s stifled daughter Parker (Elsie Fisher) in junior high, she further entangles the two worlds and predictably sets the stage for a showdown between the conformist townspeople and the nonconformist clan and their extended family. Not to mention that young Pugsley (Finn Wolfhard) is struggling with acceptance at home because he may fail his required Sabre Mazurka ritual.

This new Addams Family mixes the new with nods to the old. There are a lot of homages here: the red balloon from It, the growling “Get out!” line from the Amityville Horror, the head twirling from The Exorcist, and Wednesday quoting Rorschach from Watchmen. Oscar Isaac and Charlize Theron somewhat echo the Gomez and Morticia from the 1991 film, and hip-hop is again used to herald the arrival of Cousin Itt (Snoop Dogg, not that you can tell). The digital world also arrives: the disembodied hand Thing now sports a virtual eye through a watch and checks out hot nail polish on the Internet, Needler uses texting and hidden cameras to manipulate her tenants, and when a modern mob gets angry with the Addams Family, they bring up animated pitchforks on their phones.

Ultimately, this is a safe kids version of the ooky, kooky, spooky folks that first enamored us over five decades ago – they are more mainstreamed this time – and it does not feel like the stakes are very high. Like other modern Hollywood blockbusters, it attempts to get big with the effects but not the story or characters. One of the main jokes that works well in animated form is how Wednesday keeps spearing Uncle Fester with arrows shot from her crossbow. Which then makes me think that what the world could use is an R-rated Addams Family that really gives these groovy ghoulies the chance to shine in their inimitably dark way.

BACK FOR THE ATTACK

Like Aliens, a major mainstream sci-fi franchise that has been spread thin is The Terminator. While the first two films are bonafide classics, the next three were dicey sequels, along with the Fox series Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, although that two-season show won many loyal followers and a Saturn Award. Like many franchises that studios are trying to squeeze extra life out of, this one has been retconned with the recent Terminator: Dark Fate (2019) which reinstates original co-stars Linda Hamilton and Arnold Schwarzenegger for one last rodeo. And it is actually pretty good.

Reworking material from the first two installments, this direct follow-up to T2 finds us in a new future, one where Skynet never came to be. But John Connor was later killed by a rogue Terminator (Schwarzenegger) who did not know that his future was no more. Now a major AI threat has emerged in the future, and a young Mexican woman named Daniella (Natalia Reyes) is being targeted by a Latin-looking Terminator (Gabriel Luna). But an enhanced human from the future named Grace (Mackenzie Davis) comes from the future to save them, but they will ultimately need the help of Conner herself (Hamilton), and later an older T-800. It’s the same old story with new elements, but the situation is more desperate because this latest killing machine has more advanced shapeshifting techniques and can even split into two units.

Deadpool‘s Tim Miller knows how to keep the action flowing, and the script from David S. Goyer, Justin Rhodes, and Billy Ray offers enough respite from the mayhem to bring in the human touch that made the original films so effective. The writers wisely delay Hamilton’s appearance, and Schwarzenegger does not show up until halfway through. Hamilton is still ballsy and badass and brings an endearing crankiness to her world-weary hero, while Schwarzenegger deadpans some great one-liners when he finally emerges. A lot of the scenarios echo old ones: the police station slaughter of the first movie is echoed in a detention center siege here, and the industrial plant showdown of T2 is somewhat recreated in a different place in this movie’s finale. It’s not highly original, but this is fun and the best Terminator movie in nearly 30 years. It also wraps up the series nicely which is good considering its box office performance is unlikely to inspire another entry.

JOKER’S WILD

DC Comics have had very mixed success with their Extended Universe movies, raking in big bucks but arousing the ire of both critics and fans. The best so far has been Wonder Woman, whose dazzling-looking sequel is due out this spring. An even bigger critical and box office hit? Last year’s Joker (2019) with Joaquin Phoenix in the title role. Rather than give us the crazed supervillain psychopath of conventional Batman lore, we dive into the world of Arthur Fleck, an actual low-rent clown-for-hire who is verbally and physically assaulted by the world at large. While he lives with his despondent mother (who believes Thomas Wayne is his father) yet has a supportive girlfriend, Arthur copes with an uncontrollable laughing condition and his mental state begins teetering on the brink of madness, which leads to dire consequences for everyone around him.

Grossing an unexpected billion dollars globally, Joker has spawned a lot of fan debate over differences between the comic book villain and this one. While this early ’80s tale drew some basic inspiration from The Killing Joke graphic novel penned by Watchmen scribe Alan Moore, it has also raised eyebrows for cribbing from Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy and Taxi Driver along with Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan. (Robert DeNiro even shows up.) Phoenix’s performance is disturbing and first-rate while noted comedy director Todd Phillips (the Hangover trilogy) capably steers the ship. Does it deserve nine Oscar nominations? Probably not, but it’s a rare comic book-inspired film that appeals to a much wider audience and is definitely worth checking out.

LOVECRAFTIAN LURIDNESS

Reportedly inspired by but bearing no resemblance to the unfinished H.P. Lovecraft short story of the same name, The Lighthouse (2019) is director Robert Eggers surreal follow-up to his intense feature film debut The Witch (2015), a film that tackled Puritan extremism head on. Co-written with his brother Max, his sophomore effort features even fewer central characters, just two men taking care of a decaying New England lighthouse that is continually battered by a storm. The crotchety captain (Willem Dafoe) berates and humiliates his underling (Robert Pattinson) which leads to a clash of wills, crazed hallucinations, and revelations about their pasts and how they ended up at this Godforsaken post.

Shot in black and white with Lovecraft-inspired touches and echoes of his Cthulhu mythos lurking under the surface, The Lighthouse is not as direct in its storytelling approach as The Witch. But the phantasmagorical images and sound design, plus the intense performances of Dafoe and Pattinson, make it an equally mesmerizing cinematic experience. Bitterness and isolation make for a terrible emotional cocktail, and The Lighthouse gets us drunk on its potent mix. Bonus features including a behind-the-scenes featurette, deleted scenes, and director commentary that take us deeper into this eerie fever dream.

CELLAR DWELLER

Italian horror maestro Lucio Fulci was never known for complicated storylines or deep character insights. You watched his movies for their disturbing, sometimes hellish images and deliciously dark soundtracks. Released a year after the masterpiece of squirm-inducing gore, City of the Living Dead, his House By The Cemetery (1981) plays like a creaky old house tale crossed with a slasher flick. The set-up is simple: A researcher (Paolo Malco) takes his wife (Christina MacColl) and young son to temporarily live in a spacious New England home where a former colleague killed his mistress and committed suicide. This visit is already a bad idea, and with an evil entity lurking in the dark, dank cellar, we know where things are headed.

Let’s be honest: This isn’t a good movie. Some of the character motivations and reactions are weird, and the post-production dubbing, common for Italian films of the time, removes some of the urgency of the original performances. Having two kids dubbed by adults (likely to shield the young ones from the onscreen gore) makes it awkward. That said, Fulci fans are enamored by his work because of the weird set pieces, uncomfortable atmosphere, and distressing imagery he conjures on celluloid.

In that regard, The House By The Cemetery does not disappoint, and Blue Underground justifies their latest reissue of this film by creating the new Blu-ray from a 4K master, adding in new bonus features along with the generous supply of old ones, and tossing in Walter Rizzati’s fun, gothic-flavored soundtrack as a bonus disc. Also included are extensive new liner notes from longtime Fangoria scribe Michael Gingold, who mentions how the film was rumored to have its reels shown out of order upon its original U.S. release. That is actually fact: My friend Richard Torres experienced that in NYC back in the day, and it freaked his teenage self out more because the story became ghoulishly illogical. Perhaps that version should be the bonus disc next time!

RETRO RENTAL: THE BEST OFFER (2013)

This lesser-known release from Giuseppe Tornatore, who directed the Oscar-winning classic Cinema Paradiso, is an unorthodox drama in which an austere, lonely art auctioneer named Virgil Oldman (Geoffrey Rush) runs with a scam with an old friend (Donald Sutherland) who buys up paintings for him at his auctions. The works of art are actually done by major painters, but Oldman claims them to be lesser-known imitations so he can snap them up cheap and covet them in a secret chamber in his lavish penthouse apartment. One day, he receives a call from an anxious woman named Claire Ibbetson (Sylvia Hoeks) seeking to sell the artwork and other possessions in her decaying city villa. He begins to work with her but under strange circumstances – she is highly agoraphobic and resides in secret chamber on the estate, communicating with him only via cell phone or literally through the wall. An unlikely rapport grows between needy, moody Claire and the normally stern Oldman.  Like Tornatore’s detective thriller A Pure Formality starring Gerard Depardieu and Roman Polanski, The Best Offer is an underrated mystery tale. You will need to buy into the conceit, but Geoffrey Rush puts in a spellbinding performance while many of the support cast are quite good. You can rent it on Amazon Prime.

BINGE BUZZ:

THE MANDALORIAN – Many Star Wars fans have been bitterly debating the three-trilogy finale of The Rise of Skywalker, but even unhappy fans have found solace in the Disney+ series The Mandalorian. Created by Jon Favreau, who kickstarted the MCU with the superlative Iron Man back in 2008, this show follows a Boba-Fett-like bounty hunter through eight 30-minute episodes. As everyone knows by now, the true star of the show is Baby Yoda. It’s a marketing coup for sure, but the old school Star Wars vibe of the show has reportedly won over millions of fans worldwide.

LOST IN SPACE, Season 2 – While the ’60s series holds fond childhood memories for me (I saw it in syndication later), this Netflix reinvention is smart and compelling because it removes the camp that marred seasons two and three of the original. The family dynamic helps propel this intergalactic odyssey, and Parker Posey in particular makes Dr. Smith a worthy, detestable villain. The female-empowered cast fits in perfectly with modern times.

THE CHILLING ADVENTURES OF SABRINA, Part 3 – I am way behind on this series, but it is great to see an Archie Horror comic thrive on the small screen.  Inspired by his comic book reinvention of the same, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s dark reinvention of a character given the sitcom treatment in the ’90s certainly pulls no punches. In the first season, Sabrina was reconciling her half-witch, half-mortal identity and trying to get through high school. Now she’s going to Hell. Well, you gotta grow up sometime.

DRACULA – This epic new BBC mini-series is told in three parts over four and a half hours. It takes familiar characters we all know from the Bram Stoker novel and refreshes the storyline. Convalescing in a convent, severely ill lawyer Jonathan Harker (John Heffernan) recalls to an inquisitive, irreverent nun (Dolly Wells) how, after visiting Count Dracula (a sophisticated yet vicious Claes Bang) in Transylvania to set up his purchase of Carfax Abbey in London, he became a prisoner in a maze-like castle of horrors, saw himself age as his host became younger, and escaped before he was finished off. These flashbacks then set up a larger story to come, and there are some new twists added to this famous myth. Fans seem to be loving parts 1 and 2, even if the final part flies astray.

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