Voices of Jake Gyllenhaal, Dennis Quaid, Gabrielle Union, Lucy Liu, Jaboukie Young-White, Alan Tudyk, Karan Soni, Abraham Benrubi
“Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”
When Dorothy Gale enters Oz through the farmhouse door, leaving behind black-and-white Kansas, it’s a magical moment. Oz is a technicolor marvel full of strange creatures, whispering trees, beautiful witches, and talking lions. The contrast between drab Kansas and wonderful Oz is important. It’s the same contrast we get in Alice in Wonderland or Windsor McCay’s Little Nemo series. Strange World, Walt Disney Animation’s 61st feature film, is another in a long line of fantasies taking its hero into what is supposed to be an exciting new world. Its big mistake is making Avalonia, the world we begin with, more interesting than the strange world we will spend most of this movie in. Here, the hero’s name is Searcher Clade (Gyllenhaal), son of the legendary Jaeger Clade (Quaid), husband to Meridian Clade (Union), and father to Ethan Clade-Disney’s first openly gay teenage character. Searcher is revered by his neighbors for discovering a plant that turns Avalonia into a prosperous community, but when that plant shows signs of dying out, he and his family are thrust into action, leading them to the subterranean strange world of title. The three generations of Clade men, Jaeger, Searcher, and Ethan must figure out how to listen to and accept one another as they search for answers to save their world. Labeled a woke failure by some and a massive bomb at the box office, Strange World will likely find its place among films like The Black Cauldron or Home on the Range in Disney’s deep catalog. I like those films and I basically liked this one, though it is certainly mediocre. The strange world isn’t strange enough. It isn’t until the film’s final reveal that it becomes a little more interesting in hindsight. The characters are likable but with little romance, mystery, and no compelling villain, Strange World is never as exciting as it should be. (1)
Walter Tyrone Howard
Starring Gael Garcia Bernal, Laura Donnelly, Harriet Sansom Harris, Leonardo Nam, Kirk R. Thatcher, Daniel J. Watts
Directed by Michael Giacchino
Ulysses Bloodstone, legendary monster hunter and leader of an international band of monster hunters, has died. To determine his successor, his widow hosts a dangerous competition between 5 candidates and his estranged daughter to see who can track down and slay a mystery monster. Jack Russell (Garcia Bernal) is one of these candidates, but, as the film’s title suggests, he’s also a monster himself.
I’m not completely sure what to make of this…film? With 50 minutes of runtime, naturally, there’s not going to be much of it wasted on context or character development. Why, for example, do the monster hunters need a leader? Why is Jack Russell a part of this group in the first place? I don’t entirely see the point of Werewolf By Night being 50 minutes long. Why not just make a full-fledged film? The premise of a host of characters participating in a dangerous hunt is nothing new but still promising. This film completely undermines it immediately though by revealing that its protagonist has no interest in winning. The plot shifts gears more times than a full-length feature but never in a way that’s surprising. I would have been happier if it had just gone through the motions of a “The Most Dangerous Game” type film. As it is, the characters will likely return for better fare than this, so Werewolf By Night, it seems, is meant to be an appetizer. It plays more like a bonus feature than a fully satisfying short film. The visual style is attractive and responsible for the majority of any interest I did have. The other elements: undercooked.
Starring Dorothy McGuire, Ethel Barrymore, Kent Smith, George Brent, Rhonda Fleming, Elsa Lanchester, Gordon Oliver
Directed by Robert Siodmak
Helen (McGuire) is a young woman working on an estate in turn-of-the-century Vermont. Traumatized in her youth to the point of muteness, her beau proposes to take her away to Boston, where the best doctors can attend to her, and where the two of them can start a new life together. Standing in their way is another man, a crazed killer, murdering women across town, who’s stalked Helen back to the estate and who takes his time emptying the large house until he can be alone with her.
The Spiral Staircase has all the base elements of a modern slasher film. It’s well ahead of its time in that way, a fascinating mixture of later horror tropes and earlier aesthetics: a compelling final girl, a masked (figuratively) killer, an isolated setting, a bevy of supporting characters/ victims paired with gorgeous black and white photography. The mystery, after 70 years of influencing other films, can be seen as basic, or, as I see it, a film stripped down to the core of what works. Helen is an excellent heroine; extremely vulnerable but not weak, not stupid. Either she can’t call out for help or there’s no help to be found or the help can’t be trusted. The mise-en-scène and lighting are consistently impressive; one standout sequence being a late murder where the victim’s strangled in the pitch-black center while her hands flail in the lit edges of the frame. Classic suspense.
Starring Michael Brandon, Mimsy Farmer, Bud Spencer, Jean-Pierre Marielle, Oreste Lionello, Aldo Bufi Landi
The leader of a Rock and Roll band, Roberto (Brandon), angrily confronts a stalker one night and accidentally kills the man. When a psychotic, masked witness to the scene shows up to torment him, Roberto’s sure he’s been set up but to prove it, he’ll have to discover the identity of his tormentor. Within the broad strokes of this film is some of what would later prove to be greatness in its director, Dario Argento. He’s masterful at using setting and space to set the scene. The way he moves the camera is beautiful. Logic, character motivation, and acting don’t seem to matter to him. Four Flies on Grey Velvet, one of his earlier works, fails to scare up any excitement or intrigue mainly because the lead character is so bland and the two interesting characters, played by Mimsy Farmer and Jean-Pierre Marielle, drift in and out of the picture so indiscriminately. The killer’s mask becomes the star. The final result is a weak picture with some redeeming qualities.
-Walter Tyrone Howard
Starring Jeanne Crain, Ethel Barrymore, Ethel Waters, William Lundigan, Kenny Washington
Born to a poor black family in the deep south, Pinky Johnson (Crain) grows up pale enough to pass for a white woman. She moves to the North, studies, becomes a nurse, and gets engaged to a young doctor. Returning home to visit her grandmother, Dicey (Waters), Pinky’s confronted with all manners of injustice and bigotry. Knowing that she could walk away from it all-return North-at any time proves to be a crisis of identity for Pinky. Dealing with a most serious subject at a time when the majority of people were not ever going to be receptive makes Pinky something of a noble cause. Racism and the idea of “passing” is handled well, but at the center of the film is its biggest problem. Rather than cast Lena Horne or another light-skinned black actress of the time, the studio forced the director, Elia Kazan, to hire a white actress for the role. It undermines the film and blunts much of its sharpness. Crain lacks the righteous anger that the role calls for and instead looks perpetually apathetic. It’s still a compelling drama but not the heavyweight its material had the potential for.
-Walter Tyrone Howard-
Starring Bob Hope, Paulette Goddard, Willie Best, Anthony Quinn, Richard Carlson, Tom Dugan, Paul Lukas, Pedro de Cordoba, Noble Johnson
Capitalizing on the success of their previous horror-comedy collaboration, The Cat and the Canary, one of my favorites, Paulette Godard and Bob Hope team up again in The Ghost Breakers. Goddard plays an heiress warned to stay away from her land in Cuba which is said to be haunted by the ghosts of slaves and voodoo zombies. Hope, in a rare turn as the shining knight, shows up with problems of his own at just the right time to help her get to the bottom of her mysterious inheritance. Equal parts horror and comedy as all great mashups should be, The Ghost Breakers is a blast as all of Bob Hope’s best films are. A little confusing at times with an abundance of misdirection, the plot becomes slightly irrelevant the deeper into the picture we get, but the stars work well together and the set pieces-chiefly the climactic journey through her inherited mansion- are fantastic. Check out the Hollywood zombie circa 1940. Not bad.
-Walter Tyrone Howard-
Starring Feng Lu, Chen Kuan-tai, Philip Kwok, Lo Mang, Chiang Sheng, Sun Chien, Wang Lung-wei
Embittered by the slaying of his wife and maiming of his young son, a local leader, Chu Twin, becomes an unjust tyrant even after killing those responsible. Four strangers to the village fall victim to his wrath and are crippled as a result. One is blinded, one loses his legs, another is made deaf, and a fourth is rendered mentally challenged. Under the tutelage of an old master, the four team up and train for their revenge. This story is not as compelling as other films by this incredible team known as the Venom Mob. Their films Five Deadly Venoms, Five Elements Ninjas, and Kid with the Golden Arm are far superior. Crippled Avengers is mostly a showcase for their spectacular athletic ability and acrobatics. As such, it’s entertaining and worthwhile if not essential. The villains aren’t despicable enough and there’s no plot intrigue as in the previously mentioned films.
-Walter Tyrone Howard-
Starring Kenneth Branagh, Annette Bening, Tom Bateman, Russell Brand, Ali Fazal, Dawn French, Sophie Okonedo, Letitia Wright, Gal Gadot, Armie Hammer, Rose Leslie, Jennifer Saunders, Emma Mackey
Adapted from one of Agatha Christie’s best novels, Death on the Nile is her famed creation, Hercule Poirot’s, finest hour in my estimation. Aboard a river boat along the Nile, the detective (played by Branagh for the second time) is drawn in to a murder plot involving a woman who seems to have everything, Linnet Ridgeway (Gadot), her new husband (Hammer), and his jilted lover (Mackey). Like his previous adaptation, Murder on the Orient Express, Branagh’s work is flashy, old-fashioned, enjoyable, but crippled by familiarity. I’ve read the novel, I’ve seen the 1978 version, I know whodunit. A great adaptation can overcome this. Branagh’s film doesn’t. Outside of his likable performance as Poirot and the Otterbournes (Wright, Okonedo), the gallery of supporting characters don’t make much of an impression. Neither does the location which was Sidney Lumet’s Murder on the Orient Express’ greatest strength. I look forward to more outings from Branagh as Poirot but so far, there’s nothing essential about these films.
-Walter Tyrone Howard-
Voices of Rosalie Chiang, Sandra Oh, Ava Morse, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, Hye-In Park, James Hong, Wai Ching Ho
Meilin Lee is a 13-year-old girl in Toronto (2002) with a lot of personality. This sometimes puts her at odds with her strict mother who, for example, sees Meilin’s favorite boy-band, 4 Town, as “gyrating music.” Going through changes is par for the course with puberty, but Meilin soon discovers the extra burden of transforming into a giant red panda whenever she gets emotional. Turning Red has a lovely, hybrid (maybe a cross between 3-D animation and Japanese hand-drawn) art style and a charming, frenetic energy in its storytelling. The red panda is the obvious draw here and its as cute and cuddly as advertised. The music by Billie Eilish and Finneas O’Connell is catchy and serves its purpose perfectly. What’s missing, whether the cast and crew or angry fans on Twitter want to acknowledge it, is any originality in its themes or depth. This film is apparently almost expressly made by a female creative team and yet they’ve told the exact same story as Brave (2012). A maturing daughter rebels against her domineering mother resulting in the mother transforming into a colossal beast before they both realize how much they love each other and compromise. Turning Red is not unique beyond its style, it’s humorous but never funny, and it’s very obvious in its storytelling. It coasts on its cuteness. Telling a story about a different culture or about women or girls isn’t what makes a movie limiting. Being mediocre makes this movie limiting.
-Walter Tyrone Howard-
Starring Sophia Ali, Manisha Koirala, Rish Shah, Adil Hussain, Anita Kalathara, Deepti Gupta
Returning home to her affluent neighborhood and family in New Jersey, UCLA student, Ali Kapur (Ali), meets a handsome, working-class boy, Varun, and finds a host of family secrets among the classist society she grew up in. India Sweets and Spices is not the wise family-drama you might expect from its material. Nor is it really a comedy-of-manners. Honestly, it’s mostly a Lifetime movie, but that isn’t to say it’s not enjoyable, at times, or engaging, at times. The acting is strong and I’m not above shameless melodrama, but I did hope for more. Not a very thoughtful movie, it will likely be best appreciated in terms of its feminist-edge and solid female characters.
-Walter Tyrone Howard-