Netflixable? Horror with training wheels on, “Nightbooks”

Excellent effects and production values and casting Krysten Ritter as a witch (Why knew?) pays off in “Nightbooks,” a Goosebumped take on Hansel & Gretel.

It’s a kid-friendly horror tale — terror with training wheels on — about children lured with sweets, trapped and forced to entertain the witch each night with new stories designed to chill, thrill and creep out.

But there’s a gaping hole in the heart of it that you can almost guess from that plot description. The stories, invented by a little horror buff named Alex (Winslow Fegley), may be somewhat fancifully illustrated — children act them out in stage fog and in front of dark, expressionistic cyclorama paintings — but are seriously lame and not remotely scary.

They sound, in point of fact, like what they are supposed to be, a child’s idea of what a scary story might be — underwritten, plot-and-setting heavy, obvious.

Alex is in mid-meltdown when we meet him, a kid whose parents are heard discussing his troubling “obsession with horror.” He’s yelling about how bad this, that or the other story he’s written is when he storms into the elevator with an idea of burning them in the basement boiler room of their apartment complex.

But that elevator never arrives. Not there, anyway. He finds himself on a darkened floor, tempted into a darkened apartment where “The Lost Boys” is playing on TV. He can’t resist taking a bite of the pumpkin pie next to the television.

And when he wakes up, there’s no getting out of this strange, many-roomed, Hogwarts maze of an apartment. A bleached blonde witch (Ritter) demands, “Is there ANYthing special about you at all?” You know, something that would cause her to “let you live?”

“I write scary stories.”

Thus begins his Sisyphean task, coming up with something out of his backpack filled with his tales that will move his sharpest critic. The witch corrects, criticizes and insults the “The Playground,” “The Cuckoo Clock” and other short stories.

Let’s just say Alex is not exactly the second coming of Edgar Allan Poe. By rights, the witch should lose patience, lose her temper and bake him into a pie or something for these seriously-lacking scribblings.

There have been other kids lured there, trapped in this apartment. He learns that from Yasmin (Lidya Jewett), another survivor. There’s also a vast repository of horror tales in this never-ending library. Some are in published books, others in notebooks, stories written by hand by other, earlier children.

In those stories, in what long-term prisoner Yasmin has picked up and in Alex’s racing mind their might be clues to a way of getting out of this perilous purgatory.

There’s a lot of goo and slime to be endured. A (digital) hairless cat who can turn invisible is prone to pooping on the kids’ PB&J sandwiches). If you’re nine, you were probably sold on the story with just that plot element.

But there are troubling other rooms and gardens and creatures — crawling, buglike story-eaters called “shredders” — to be faced and bested. And every night, the witch returns, digs into a big meal and demands to be entertained with a story. Talk about pressure.

The act of writing is hard to render cinematic, and director David Yarovetsky (“Brightburn”) doesn’t succeed where others have failed. A little boy stomping back and firth, spitballing plots and ideas? Very “writer’s room.”

Despite moments of kiddie torture, the ongoing threat posed by our witch, who “won’t just kill you” if you fail, doesn’t raise the stakes or hackles. And while the finale works up a fine level of sound and fury, it’s something even a ten year-old — or at least one who’s been read “Hansel & Gretel” — could see coming.

The idea behind this Sam Raimi-produced movie is that the next generation of horror fans have got to start somewhere. “Goosebumps” or The Brothers Grimm or J.A. White (the author of the source novel here) are just gateway drugs to “Insidious/Annabelle/Amityville/Halloween,” right?

This may very well accomplish that, and one gets the sense they signed Ritter up for a franchise. But throwing a lot of production design at the limp stories within this recycled tale doesn’t make it look or play scary. It just makes it loud and expensive looking. Cute.

Rating: TV-PG, mild frights

Cast: Winslow Fegley, Lidya Jewett and Krysten Ritter.

Credits: Directed by David Yarovetsky, scripted by Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis, based on a novel by J.A. White. A Netflix release.

Running time: 1:43

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Movie Review: A West End drag-coming-of-age musical comes to the screen, “Everybody’s Talking about Jamie”

Another “coming out” tale, another dive into drag?

Another relentlessly upbeat and empowering pop anthem-packed musical?

Another hero who craves fame, the spotlight, who answers the call to perform only he can hear?

“Everybody’s Talking About Jamie” can seem dated and cute and quaint and faintly irritating. The songs are pleasantly forgettable in the modern style. But the pathologically upbeat are often the heroes of the most insipid musicals and can be wearing to spend two hours with.

Here, even the obligatory class bully (Samuel Bottomley) feels defanged, the “rules are rules” teacher-villainess (Sharon Horgan of TV’s “Catastrophe”) isn’t so much intolerant as annoyed at the spotlight-hogging diva in her class.

Who isn’t?

And yet “Jamie,” the London West End hit about a Sheffield teen who craves the spotlight and longs to be a drag queen, overcomes those cloying, built-in irritants and wins you over in spite of itself.

It was based on a documentary (sampled in the closing credits) about an aspiring teen drag queen that came out a decade ago — which accounts for the somewhat dated feel of it all. “Kinky Boots,” the movie, came out in 2005 and was turned into a musical in 2012, after all. But sometimes we need to be reminded of the breathtaking pace of social change and tolerance.

Nicely “opened up” from the stage production by choreographer-turned-director Jonathan Butterell, “Jamie” bounces by, amuses occasionally and touches often by remembering a little history and underscoring “how much things have changed.”

It’s the story of Jamie New, played by screen newcomer Max Harwood, a daydreaming 16 year old whose life goal, which he dare not reveal in “careers” class, is to become a drag queen and an “Insta(gram)” star. With classmates named Denzel and Tyson and more than a few kids sure they’ll find their way to “Britain’s Got Talent,” it’s no wonder Miss Hedge (Harwood) is at her wit’s end trying to impose “realistic expectations” and “real jobs” goals on this lot.

Jamie’s BFF Pitti (Lauren Patel), a Muslim with a Hindu first name (“Thanks, Mum and Dad!”), might be the only one with things figured out. She’s determined to get into med school and become a doctor. Her first mission, the self-centered Jamie believes, is being “the best friend a boy who sometimes wants to be a girl could wish for.”

His Mum (Sarah Lancashire) dotes on him, and covers for the fact that his divorced Dad (Ralph Ineson) wants nothing to do with him. Jamie has an idea, but lives under the illusion that his father is supportive, no matter what.

The kid tests the dress code at school, easily fends off what bullying there is, and finally figures out a public way of acknowledging his life’s goal. He’ll come to prom in drag.

That’s how he meets the proprietor of the House of Loco, an aged queen played and sung by Richard E. Grant. In the film’s stand-out performance and best number, he croons a history lesson which is exactly what “Everybody’s Talking About Jamie” is about.

“Let me tell you how it used to go, Freddie played on the radio,” Hugo, aka Loco Chanelle, sings. “The Iron Lady couldn’t stop the show.”

In fashbacks presented as old show footage, and news coverage of protests, he teaches Jamie whose shoulders he’s standing on in his new ruby red heels, the activists who wore drag as armor, the “warrior queens of the ’80s.”

The “I’m gonna be the one, I’m gonna kiss the sun” numbers are plentiful and generic, but well-staged and choreographed. The show didn’t get to me until Patel’s Pitti sings more downbeat but still hopeful numbers, that “I know that somewhere, they’re ‘playing your song.'”

The show’s structure is “get him to the prom” by overcoming obstacles banal. But to get Jamie there, he needs a mentor. This is how Grant makes the picture, a veteran character actor who’s made fey fops a specialty, his lectures about “You can’t just be a boy in a dress,” dig into drag in winning and informative ways.

“Shoot first, or they’ll shoot you,” Hugo declares, noting the “warrior” (hurling insults from the stage) nature of his generation of drag, when it was “not just a TV show, it was a revolution!”

Patel turns a “straight best friend” cliche into a quietly compelling sounding board, and never lets us see the wheels turning.

And Harwood does well enough by a preening character who is as capable of teen cruelty as any classmate, and frankly often unlikable.

That sort of applies to “Everybody’s Talking About Jamie,” too. This predictable predicament, that flash of foreshadowed bullying threaten to bring it to a halt. It meanders about, plays as entirely too tame, tries too hard to be adorable at times.

That it still manages to tickle and touch the heart is its own minor miracle.

Rating: PG-13 for thematic elements, strong language and suggestive material

Cast: Max Harwood, Lauren Patel, Sharon Horgan, Sarah Lancashire, Ralph Ineson, Samuel Bottomley, Karen Horgan and Richard E. Grant.

Credits: Directed by Jonathan Butterell, scripted by Tom MacRae and Dan Gillespie Sells, based on their stage musical. An Amazon Studios release.

Running time: 1:56

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Movie Review: A stoner, an heir and a professor contend with the ghost of the “Lady of the Manor

Agreeably shambolic, with a cast far funnier than the script suggests, “Lady of the Manor” is a ghostly comedy that comes apart more often than it comes together.

It feels and plays as largely improvised, with the improv lines rarely landing laughs.

Melanie Lynskey, Judy Greer and Ryan Phillippe seem so right in their parts that you’d think this comedy from writers/directors Justin and Christian Long could not miss. But it does, and more often than not.

Lynskey, seen recently in “Mrs. America” and “I Don’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore,” is Hannah, a Savannah (actually, Tampa/St. Pete) stoner/slacker vulgarian who barflies her way into a gig dressing as the lady of one of the historic city’s many manor houses, leading tours without memorizing any of the history she’s supposed to impart.

“Don’t worry, my ex-roommate used to watch ‘Downtown Abbey!'”

She spends a lot of time in her hoodie and pajama bottoms. She hits the pipe, a lot. She belches, stumbles, fumbles and swears, a lot, and finishes off each tour group with a farewell equally out of character.

“As Lady Wadsworth used to say, ‘You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.'”

Part of the gig is that she gets to live in the house, owned by an old Savannah family whose patriarch (Patrick Duffy) is running for mayor and whose ne’er do well son (Phillippe) figures he’s entitled to sexual favors from his latest hire, Hannah. Hannah figures this, too.

And that’s what brings the ever-so-proper ghost of the original Lady Wadsworth (Judy Greer, perfect) out in protest.

She drawls out “trollop,” and exhortations about what “a lady” should “NEVER do.” Hannah isn’t having it. She seeks help with this “old fashioned BITCH ghost” from a history professor (Justin Long), hoping a supernatural sage “cleansing” can be arranged, even an exorcism.

“Not like (with) an old priest, but a hot, young like ATHLETIC priest who can really take a beating!”

Eventually, the ghost and the tour guide reach a rapprochement, and Lady Wadsworth starts prompting Hannah on the tours, giving her “lady” comportment lessons, bread making lessons and diction lessons — “Say it without laughing, DICTion!”

Greer’s snooty, elitist Old South drawl colliding with Lynskey’s dazed doltishness is the reason to see this. That’s not enough.

There is a “plot,” a mystery to be solved, played up as a third act afterthought.

Not filming in Savannah means the film feels unmoored from its “Midnight in the Garden/Forrest Gump” dripping, drawling drollery.

The script is thin on laughs that aren’t built on drugs, drunkenness and the lazy comic’s best friend, “dick” jokes. The Long brothers were aiming for something with a “Bridesmaids/Girls’ Trip” vibe — vulgar hilarity. Neither they nor their cast were up to that level of crude.

The leading ladies gave me a chuckle or two, but the poor dears were on their own. The writing-directing (and in Justin’s case, co-starring) Long brothers let down the side.

There’s no reason this cast with this story in this setting shouldn’t have been something almost hilarious. There’s little evidence on the screen that was ever going to happen.

Rating: R for language (profanity) throughout, sexual material and drug use

Cast: Melanie Lynskey, Judy Greer, Ryan Phillippe, Tamara Austin, Justin Long, Luis Guzman and Patrick Duffy

Credits: Scripted and directed by Christian Long and Justin Long. A Lionsgate release.

Running time: 1:37

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Movie Preview: A tale of Monarch butterflies, Mexico’s Day of the Dead, and a scientist named Mendel — “Sons of Monarchs”

This Sundance award winner gets a theatrical release Oct 15, and comes to HBO Max. Looks lovely

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Movie Preview: Odom and Erivo, Pinto and Bloom hunt for a “Needle in a Timestack”

Leslie Odom Jr. and Cynthia Erick are the couple separated by time, or reunited by it, in this mid October romantic fantasy.

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Movie Review: Clint’s still kickin’, and ridin’ — “Cry Macho”

There was a time when Clint Eastwood, in the vigorous youth of say five years ago, was famous for whacking lines and pages of extraneous dialogue from any script he was acting in and/or directing.

That’s far from the case in “Cry Macho,” an absurdly chatty melodrama that shows Eastwood at his most enfeebled, making a screen elegy with little elegance, no pace, little excitement and the kind of clock-watching boredom that One Take Clint wouldn’t stand for on his set, much less sit through in a theater (or on HBO Max) himself.

“This looks like an interesting town,” his character, Mike Milo observes as he drives the teen (Eduardo Minett) he’s delivering from Mexico to the kid’s father (Dwight Yoakam) on the other side of the border.

Mike says he’s going to take a nap, to which the kid prattles, “Tired, eh? Old man needs a nap?”

Yeah. It’s what he just said. And that town? The camera shows us how “interesting” it might (or might not) be. Another statement of the obvious.

That sort of inane clutter is nothing compared to what screenwriter Nick Schenk (“Gran Torino,” “The Mule”), working from a novel by the late N. Richard Nash, saddles poor Yoakam with. Playing a wealthy horse trader and rodeo owner, Yoakam’s first pages are all exposition, giving Mike’s entire history, “before the accident” and “after the pills and the booze.” Yoakam’s Howard Polk character is filling in the story almost all the way to the final credits, half-hearted rants that begin with “You OWE me” and finish with LONG explanations of why that might be.

The movie Eastwood was angling for was an elegy to machismo, with maybe a hint of whimsy as an old man passes life lessons on to an impressionable boy. But in his stooped, sunken-cheeked state, there’s not much he can do with a line like “I used to be a lotta things, but not now.”

Parking him in a 1970s Chevy Suburban, the ancient tough guy can barely see over the steering wheel. He’s 91 trying to pass for 70something. And he can’t.

An opening scene set in 1979 has aged Mike showing up late to Howard Polk’s ranch, enduring a pointless, exposition-filled chewing out, and getting fired. It takes the entire opening credits to set up, and a couple of pages of Yoakam chewing to get through.

And it’s almost pointless. “One year later” Howard’s in Mike’s house, giving him the “you owe me” speech, asking (not hiring) him to go south of the border and fetch Polk’s estranged son from his “nutcase” Mexican mother.

Mike reluctantly agrees, drives South and promptly stumbles into a posh party at her lavish estate, where he’s captured by her hirelings. And then Leta (Fernanda Urrejola) proceeds to try and ply Mike with drinks and throw herself at the Gringo Viejo, who must be twice her age.

Feel free to slap yourself on the forehead over that. But not too hard. Another woman does the same in the second act.

The kid? He’s gone bad, “cock-fighting” and what not. But sure, if you can find him, take him away, Leta says.

She’s not serious about wanting the 13 year-old sent away, and the script and performance aren’t serious about how “bad” this kid is.

Rafa (Minett) dotes on his rooster, “Macho,” caves in to the whole “come live with your dad” pitch in an instant, even though he “hates” him, and generally gives the old man and the viewing audience nothing to grab hold of as “conflict” between the cuddly, weakened old cowboy and the kid, who is a pussycat. Minett comes off as “child actorish.” He’s as tough as a Disney Channel tween.

Things happen to trap them in Mexico in that “interesting” town they pass through. That’s where cafe owner Marta (Natalia Traven) doesn’t let the language barrier stand in the way of becoming smitten with Mike, whose “way with animals” gives him the chance to break a few more horses, teach the kid to ride and literally lay his hands on injured goats and elderly dogs, an aged healer from Texas bringing comfort to this tiny hamlet.

As unthreatening as Mike is in his advanced years — Eastwood walks gingerly these days — nothe Mexican bad guys crumble in his presence. Repeatedly.

The man’s lived his whole life in Texas ranch country, and doesn’t speak a word of Spanish (no subtitles are added, a nice touch). But damned if he didn’t he learn ASL somewhere along the way.

The character isn’t as interesting as he might have been, and the kid is barely worth the effort listening to his conversation requires, for Mike or the viewer. As was just as obvious in “The 15:17 to Paris,” One Take Clint is not a good fit with a young actor who could use help with his performance, the benefit of a second, third or fifth take to give the camera something interesting.

The plotting and a couple of the performances are straight out of vampy, overwrought telenovelas. Eastwood has slowed down and lost chunks of technique just in the short time since playing “The Mule.” But let’s not blame the players for the instantly-insipid script that Schenk tempted Eastwood with, like Tom Selleck peddling “reverse mortgages” to gullible seniors.

Truth be told, the damned rooster, who never gets into a cockfight but goes after anybody who threatens young Rafa, steals the movie. Pity he isn’t billed.

Time was when Eastwood would dare to allow silence to do his talking, stillness to set the tone and his spare style to hide his polished technique. Now, he can’t be bothered to disguise anything.

“Let’s talk,” the kid says when he and Mike first meet. “Not here,” Mike says, and you can see Clint-the-director in a rush to get another location in, trying to lend color to the next banal conversation he must realize he’s got to get through, because he’s forgotten he wouldn’t have to get through them if he whittled things down.

That editing made many a screenwriter seem sharper and more profound than was warranted, a way Eastwood protected them from their worst impulses and made lean, flinty dramas and thrillers.

Here, he doesn’t protect anybody — not the green, subtlety-impaired kid, not the writer and not himself. 

A screen elegy is supposed to make you sad and warm and give the viewer an appreciation for all this character and the actor playing him was, and a little of what remains.

“Cry Macho” just generates pity.

Rating: PG-13, for language (profanity) and thematic elements

Cast: Clint Eastwood, Fernanda Urrejola, Eduardo Minett, Natalia Traven and Dwight Yoakam.

Credits: Directed by Clint Eastwood, scripted by Nick Schenk and N. Richard Nash. A Warner Brothers release.

Running time: 2:05

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Movie Review: Nic Cage at his Cagiest — “Prisoners of the Ghostland”

Every film-lover has her or his idea of what constitutes “out there,” and what level of gonzo one will tolerate in that regard.

Some prefer the excesses of Yorgos Lanthimos to those of Terry Gilliam, Derek Jarman, Maya Deren or Dario Argento. Recently, some latched onto James Wan’s screwy “Malignant,” while others embraced Paul Schrader’s deep and dull disquisition on guilt, “The Card Counter.”

But fans of Nicolas Cage are in a league all our own. Our tolerances are hard-wired for wild-eyed screaming and Method acting brooding in plots seemingly concocted on cocaine.

Teaming him with the Japanese director Sion Sono, of “Suicide Club” and the best-titled thriller ever, “Why Don’t You Play in Hell?” for “Prisoners of the Ghostland” is freak flag flying at its finest…or weirdest.

It’s a dark, samurais and zombies slasher fantasy, the sort of movie Terry Gilliam might have made had he grown up in Japan and not Minnesota. Very “out there,” seriously “miss-or-hit,” in other words.

And Cage? Say this for the cinema’s most imitatably deranged leading man. He never stands pat in the poker game of his career. “Pig” earns him his best reviews in years? Let’s chase that bad boy with a psychotic turn as a brutish bank robber blackmailed into rescuing the granddaughter (Sofia Boutella of “The Mummy”) of a rich, powerful nutjob, played by horror icon Bill Moseley (“House of 1000 Corpses,” “Grindhouse,” “Repo! The Genetic Opera”).

Cage is simply named “Hero” here, and we meet him as a bank robbery, carried out with a trigger-happy Psycho (Nick Cassavetes), goes bloodily wrong. Flashbacks, always replayed in slow motion, show just how wrong.

Our Hero turns up in the hands of the Sheriff (Takato Yonemoto), but in the clutches of the Governor (Moseley). He’s a white-suited dandy (complete with cowboy hat) whose speech leans towards florid.

He is missing “Mah sweet sugah-pie. I would have her returned to me. I would have her returned posthaste.”

She was grabbed on “a stretch of highway where evil reigns,” our Hero is told. He’s given a black leather Elvis jumpsuit equipped with sensors and motivational pressure-point explosives. Do no cross the Governor, the Governor warns.

“To quarrel with me is a mistake many men have made, never to make again.”

Standing in a sea of Japanese cowboy cosplayers, backed up by the Governor’s samurai lieutenant, Yasuhiro (Tak Sakaguchi, of “Red Blade” and “Samurai Zombie”), who is our Hero to protest?

The nuttiness includes chanted rituals and mass sing-alongs to “My Grandfather’s Clock” in a post-apocalyptic wasteland where Rat Man and his Rat Clan roam free, geishas are enslaved, zombies and samurai have their moments and our Hero has almost no time to complete his mission before explosives injure this arm or remove that testicle.

The references dip into wasteland manga, “Alas poor Yorick,” “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” and “Long live Animal Farm!”

And no, it doesn’t make much sense. Surely this is the strangest movie Cage has ever been in, and that’s saying something.

But arresting image follows arresting image in Sono’s fevered vision and his one chance to reach a wide (ish) North American movie audience. It won’t be to many tastes, although some will get more out of it than others…or me.

Still, you know you’re curious. And if you’re anywhere near Nic Cage’s UHF wavelength, you can’t afford to miss him bike, bash and bludgeon his way through this Ghostland. It’s something to see, man.

Rating: unrated, graphic violence

Cast: Nicolas Cage, Sofia Boutella, Tak Sakaguchi, Nick Cassavetes, Narisa Suzuki and Bill Moseley.

Credits: Directed by Sion Sono, scripted by Aaron Hendry and Reza Sixo Safai. An RLJE release.

Running time: 1:43

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Movie Preview: Spielberg’s “West Side Story,” the full trailer

Whattaya think?

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Next Screening? Clint’s “Cry Macho”

Why do I keep wanting to title this “Cry Havoc,” is it the Shakespeare connection to that alternate?

Or is it fear for another sign that aged, impatient One Take Grandpa needs to surrender his keys? We all get there, eventually.

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Movie Preview: A little neighborly horror from Sweden — “Knocking”

This one played at Sundance and makes its way to theaters and streaming Oct.8.

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