Friday, July 28, 2023

HAUNTED MANSION: As Unscary As It Is Unfunny

Opening today at a multiplex near everyone:

HAUNTED MANSION (Dir. Justin Simien, 2023)

20 years ago, there was a movie called HAUNTED MANSION, that, like this one, was based on the Disney dark park ride/tour that I’ve actually been on around a decade ago on a trip to Florida. I never saw the 2003 version, because I dismissed it as yet another lame Eddie Murphy vehicle (there were a lot of those at the time), but I’m wishing I had skipped the new one as it is as unscary as it is unfunny, with a chemistry-less cast giving us some tired-ass ghost story which it wants to be as hip as BEETLEJUICE, but it ain’t even up to CASPER standards.


I don’t even care how similar the plot it is to the original, but this time around begins with Rosario Dawson as a plucky single mother, and her son Travis (Chase Dillon) moving into the most rustic and most clichéd-looking, ancient New Orleans house and immediately finding out that there are ghosts there and that once you step inside the house, you’ll be haunted wherever you go.


LaKeith Stanfield shows up as an astrophysicist turned paranormal expert, whose wife has recently died as we learn from mawkish flashbacks, with other house guests including a laid-back priest played by Owen Wilson, a gruff history professor portrayed by Danny DeVito, and most obnoxiously, Tiffany Haddish as a medium who attempts to steal scenes, but her arsenal of lame one-liners stops her way short.


There’s also the house’s former psychic, Madame Leota (a game Jamie Lee Curtis), and the film’s villain, the Hatbox Ghost (Jared Leto, daring you to recognize him), who our Dawson, and Stanfield-led team go up against in a series of ho-hum hallway chases, and séances, while they bond, and deal with their grief. It’s a thoroughly unimpressive experience, but then I didn’t care for the ride either. The premise is as ancient as the mansion, with the mysteries surrounding the ghosts failing to keep me engaged as well.


When one says that a movie has its moments, they usually mean more than the one or two that this has (and spread over 123 min!), but I will say that the cast did their best with the dire material – especially Haddish, who had to spout out sitcom-ish lines about CVS, and Costco; the effects by the usually reliable Industrial Light & Magic were good (but not scary), and, uh, well, that’s all I got for the pluses.

So basically, BARBENHEIMER has nothing to fear from HAUNTED MANSION this weekend.


I think screenwriter Katie Dippold (Parks & Recreation, THE HEAT, 2016’s GHOSTBUSTERS) can, and will do better than this rubbish of a re-imagining, which at least will likely end up having a higher rating on Rotten Tomatoes than the 2003 original, which stands at 14%. But it really doesn’t deserve much higher than that.

More later...

Wednesday, July 19, 2023

Christopher Nolan's OPPENHEIMER Is Kind Of A Big Deal

Opening tomorrow at a multiplex near us all:

OPPENHEIMER (Dir. Christopher Nolan, 2023)

While there is visual splendor aplenty in this epic biopic of nuclear physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, played perfectly by a rail thin Cillian Murphy, the bulk of it concerns the 1954 security hearing, in which the scientist was grilled by the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) over his communist leanings. But the good news is all that talk, largely in stark, but pleasingly sharp black and white, is just as compelling as the sequences involving the Manhattan Project, especially the recreation of the Trinity test, the first nuclear weapon detonation, in New Mexico.


Simply put, Nolan’s 12th film, and second to be based on real events after DUNKIRK, is a masterwork, a rich powerful portrait that somehow makes science exciting, and justifies every second of its three-hour running time. It doesn’t matter that a lot of its dialogue, that has our hero brainstorming with his colleagues, will go over the heads of many movie-goers because the urgency and flow of the film, aided by composer Ludwig Göransson’s striking score will still hold audiences in its grasp. 

Told largely in flashbacks that are conjured by the panel hearing, the film illustrates how during World War II, Oppenheimer was appointed scientific director of the top-secret Manhattan Project at Los Alamos by General Leslie Groves (a great, gruff Matt Damon) as part of the arms race against the Nazi regime. After the war, and the devastating bombing of Hiroshima, and Nagasaki, a guilt-ridden Oppenheimer went against the thermonuclear weapon (H-bomb), and campaigned for international control of these weapons.

One of the key figures in this story is AEC Chairman, Lewis Strauss, who suspected that the scientist was a Soviet spy, and was among those behind the revocation of Oppenheimer’s security clearance. Strauss is portrayed, in heavy aging make-up, by Robert Downey Jr. in a career best performance. 

The actor shakes off his Marvel armor to deliver an impassioned, and at times desperate performance that is sure to be noticed by the Academy. At the film’s UK premiere, Downey Jr. said that, “This is the best film I’ve ever been in,” and I highly agree.


The rest of the film’s cast is as impressive as the effects, which Nolan claims contain no CGI, including an emotional Emily Blunt as Oppenheimer’s communist wife Katherine (“Kitty”), a long-suffering alcoholic, who was such because of her husband’s affair with psychiatrist, and another communist, Jean Tatlock, who is played by Florence Pugh initially as a sexy shrink (not that I’m complaining). 


Well placed in the roles of celebrated scientist colleagues are Kenneth Branaugh (in his third film with Nolan) as Danish physicist Niels Bohr, Josh Harnett as nuclear physicist Ernest Lawrence, and David Krumholtz as Isidor Isaac Rabi, another Noble Prize-winning physicist, who has a stirring scene that enhances the film’s conscience.


In less lofty, yet still crucial, parts are Casey Affleck as snooping intelligence officer Boris Pash, and Rami Malek as David Hill, an experimental physicist, who doesn’t make much of an impression at first, but is vital by the end.


But it’s the centerpiece of OPPENHEIMER, The Trinity Test sequence, that might be the film’s biggest star. Director of Photography, and frequent Nolan collaborator, Hoyte Van Hoytema’s incredible IMAX cinematography gives us the world’s first-ever successful atomic bomb detonation in all of its scary glory, and it’s as stunning as it is profoundly unsettling.


In his telling of the story of the man credited as “the Father of the Atomic Bomb,” Nolan working from the 2005 bio American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, employs Oliver Stone-style cutting, and ominous framing to take us into Oppenheimer’s politically paranoid world, while switching back and forth from crisp color to start black and white throughout (so much you forget about it).

All of these strong elements – its narrative arc via its layered, engaging screenplay; its excellent cast headed by a dead-on, invested Murphy whose towering, tortured close-ups are really cool looking in IMAX; its practical effects adding up to modern movie magic in our current CGI oversaturated superhero era; Göransson’s tension-filled soundtrack (the only negative there is that it overwhelms the dialogue at times); and its emotional sense of both fear and amazement that science could cause the end of the world – all combine to make the first great movie of 2023, and an absolute must see on the biggest screen you can find.


I first questioned why Universal would release OPPENHEIMER in the middle of the summer, going up against BARBIE, MISSION IMPOSSIBLE, and INDIANA JONES, when it seems more like a better fit for the prestige Oscar season in December, but with all its explosive power it more than deserves a place among those blockbusters (or flopbusters), and I’m betting it be far from forgotten at the end of the year.

More later...