Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark review

For inSing

SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK

Director: André Øvredal
Cast : Zoe Colletti, Michael Garza, Gabriel Rush, Austin Abrams, Austin Zajur, Natalie Ganzhorn, Dean Norris, Gil Bellows
Genre : Horror
Run Time : 1 h 48 mins
Opens : 15 August 2019
Rating : NC16

            We’ve heard the expressions that stories can be powerful, but it’s a figure of speech. In this horror movie, stories have literal, dark power, as a group of friends find their lives upended by a cursed book of spooky tales.

It is 1968, and in the town of Mill Valley, there is a local legend: a mansion on the outskirts of town is haunted by the spirit of a young girl who killed herself there almost a hundred years ago. On the night of Halloween, friends Stella (Zoe Colletti), August (Gabriel Rush) and Chuck (Austin Zajur) meet stranger Ramon (Michael Garza) at a drive-in movie. They are pursued by the bully Tommy (Austin Abrams), and they all find themselves in the mansion.

There, Stella comes across a book in which Sarah Bellows, the young girl in the myth, wrote horror stories. New stories appear to be written by themselves, as Stella and her friends are targeted by the otherworldly monsters that feature in said stories. Stella, August, Chuck and Ramon must unravel the mystery behind who Sarah Bellows was to save themselves from her deadly stories.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is based on the series of children’s books by Alvin Schwartz. The first volume was published in 1981, and they are akin to the Goosebumps books but for slightly older readers. The books were known for their haunting, nightmarish illustrations by Stephen Gammell, which were replaced with new illustrations by Brett Helquist in the 2011 edition.

When it was announced that Guillermo del Toro would produce and possibly direct an adaptation of the books, it seemed like a good fit because of the director’s imaginative take on the horror genre.

Del Toro is credited with co-writing the screen story and as a producer, with André Øvredal directing. The Norwegian Øvredal directed Trollhunters and The Autopsy of Jane Doe. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark follows in the current resurgence of live-action horror-tinged adventure stories starring kids, like Stranger Things and It: Chapter One – this can arguably be traced back to 2011’s Super 8, which was itself patterned after films E.T. and The Goonies. Unlike those other films and TV shows, the setting is the 60s rather than the 80s, complete with Nixon references.

While Scary Stories is a largely well-made movie that isn’t as cheesy or goofy as it could’ve been, it faces the conundrum of how scary a horror movie that is aimed at kids should be. Scary Stories often finds itself stuck in the awkward position of being too scary for kids and not scary enough for adults. The film is rated NC16 in Singapore but is rated PG13 in the US. This is of course considering that ‘scariness’ is subjective. The movie has more on its mind than the typical teen-aimed jump scare fest but struggles a bit with being consistently thrilling and entertaining.

Scary Stories does get a lot right – structurally, framing the individual stories with the device of a cursed book and the mystery of that book’s author prevents the film from feeling as episodic and disjointed as it could have. However, because the movie draws on multiple stories, some are noticeably stronger than others.

The film’s creature design is a mixed bag – a few of the monsters seem generic, but a few are ingenious and inspired, with one that both stays close to the original Gammell illustration and bears the hallmarks of a del Toro-influenced design. A lot of the practical makeup effects work is great, but the more obviously computer-generated monsters lose a bit of their scariness, even if the visual effects used to create them are technically competent.

Zoe Colletti’s Stella is a sympathetic and sensitive lead character. As a girl who’s a horror fan and aspiring writer in the 1960s, Stella is an outcast who finds solace in horror movies and novels. Having a writer as the protagonist in a movie about stories is one demonstrate of the film’s thematic awareness.

Michael Garza is handsome, but ultimately comes off as too innately decent to be convincing as the mysterious bad boy from out of town.

Gabriel Rush’s August is the voice of reason, while Austin Zajur’s Chuck is the deliberately annoying prankster character. There are attempts to make them more than the archetypes they stand in for, but the slasher movie mentality of the characters just being there to get picked off does creep in.

Austin Abrams’ Tommy does some despicable things, but Abrams himself is not sufficiently intimidating as the jock bully.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark has just enough of a del Toro touch to it to set it apart from the typical horror movie aimed at the younger set and it is driven by an affection for and appreciation of the book. While it is doubtful than any adults will find it truly frightening, it is wont to give kids a nightmare or two.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Brad’s Status movie review

For inSing

BRAD’S STATUS 

Director : Mike White
Cast : Ben Stiller, Austin Abrams, Jenna Fischer, Michael Sheen, Jemaine Clement, Luke Wilson, Shazi Raja, Luisa Lee, Mike White
Genre : Comedy/Drama
Run Time : 102 mins
Opens : 2 November 2017
Rating : M18

           It’s a familiar, painful feeling: the sense that everyone else has overtaken you, that your peers have gone on to bigger and better things, and you’re left wondering what you’ve done with your life. This might sound depressing, but it’s the basis for a comedy. Well, a comedy-drama.

Brad Sloan (Ben Stiller) is 47, married to Melanie (Jenna Fischer) and runs a non-profit organisation. Every day, he seems reminded of how successful his college classmates are: Craig Fisher (Michael Sheen) went from a job at the White House to being a bestselling author and sought-after speaker, Jason Hatfield (Luke Wilson) is a wealthy hedge fund manager, Billy Wearsiter (Jemaine Clement) sold off his tech company and has retired to Hawaii, and Nick Pasquale (Mike White) is a Hollywood filmmaker who lives in a mansion in Malibu.

Brad takes his 17-year-old son Troy (Austin Abrams) on a tour of potential colleges. Troy, an aspiring musician and composer, hopes to get into Harvard. As Brad attempts to reconnect with his old friends to call in a favour for Troy, he is forced to re-evaluate his disillusionment, discovering that perhaps the grass really isn’t greener on the other side.

Writer-director Mike White makes many pithy observations about the anxiety of feeling one doesn’t measure up. This is not the first movie about a man navigating a midlife crisis, but it’s done in a largely down-to-earth, relatable manner. The debilitating practice of comparing oneself to one’s peers isn’t particularly healthy, but it’s something everyone catches themselves doing. Brad’s Status punctuates the mundanity with dream sequences and flights of fancy, in which Brad imagines how glamorous and exciting his friends’ lives must be, as well as imagining how his own son might end up.

The film makes heavy use of voiceovers, but these sequences feel organic. Hearing Brad’s internal monologue makes audiences feel like they’re in the protagonist’s headspace, understanding how he ticks and becoming intimately familiar with his crippling insecurities. This is a role that fits Stiller to a tee – he isn’t do any forced, over-the-top mugging here, but is tapping on his appeal as a beleaguered everyman. Brad openly wallows in self-pity, and yet, he’s sympathetic because we’ve all been there. There’s a point in the film when Brad is told point blank that the world doesn’t revolve around him, and that his obsessing over his perceived shortcomings is a sign of self-centredness. There are no drastic leaps in his belated journey of self-discovery, and it’s easy for viewers to go along with him on this ride.

Abrams comes off as an ordinary kid, delivering an understated, amusing performance that parents of teenagers are sure to find thoroughly authentic. The relationship between father and son is convincingly developed, and the tensions that arise between the two during the college tour seem natural. Brad is at once anxious that his son achieve greatness, and simultaneously afraid that his Troy will eventually end up more successful than he is. There’s enough awkwardness and sincerity in the relationship for it to work as the film’s emotional core, without things coming off as overly saccharine.

The supporting cast is smartly selected, with Michael Sheen being the standout. Sheen grins his way through the performance, coming across as glib and self-satisfied, but not necessarily a bad person. Brad does a lot of projecting onto his friends, fantasising about how much better their lives are than his, when he has plenty to be thankful for. Shazi Raja is memorable as Troy’s friend Ananya, who winds up challenging Brad’s worldview. Luisa Lee, a violinist whom you might have seen on YouTube, also appears.

Brad’s Status doesn’t make any grand statements, but it is poignant and thought-provoking. It highlights the exhausting pointlessness of feeling like one never has enough and that everyone else has it so much better, without taking time to be grateful and to assess one’s priorities and maintain the personal relationships that truly matter. As a gentle takedown of entitlement, Brad’s Status might sting those who feel indicted by it, but it’s funny and heartfelt.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong