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Schultz reviews: 'Come Away' and 'Freaky'

Schultz reviews: 'Come Away' and 'Freaky'

Carl Schultz



“Come Away”   Distributed by Relativity Media, 94 Minutes, Rated PG, Released November 13, 2020:

It must’ve seemed like a good idea at the time.

There’s quality to spare and an embarrassment of wealth in “Come Away,” the new movie from Relativity Media that reimagines the genesis of the works of both James Barrie and Lewis Carroll.  But despite good performances and superb production elements, this is one picture that unfortunately is not a sum of its individual parts.

Set in England in the late 19th century, more or less, in “Come Away” two young children (Keira Chansa, Jordan Nash) try to take on the emotional burdens of adulthood after the tragic death of their older brother (Reece Yates) plunges their parents (David Oyelowo, Angelina Jolie) into a funk of melancholia and despair.  But their vivid imaginations and penchant for adventure persist in drawing them back to the security and wonder of childhood.

Ambitious to a fault, “Come Away” starts out well, with a genuinely compelling once-upon-a-time quality that warmly invites the viewer into another time and place.  But despite often breathtaking period production design, vivid photography, heartfelt performances, and a beautiful orchestral score courtesy of composer John Debney, the movie quickly begins to meander between perspectives and genres, and eventually seems to get lost in its own overly complicated narrative.

Seemingly aimed toward younger viewers, at least during its opening scenes, the picture sometimes blurs the distinction between fantasy and reality, with awkward results.  Since the picture switches its viewpoints so often from the children to the adults, and from reality to imagination, the viewer is never quite sure which he’s watching.  It’s fun to see familiar elements of childhood tales turn up in everyday items (Tinkerbell is inspired by a tinker’s bell), but in its entirety the movie sadly just doesn’t make much sense.

Directed by Disney animation veteran Brenda Chapman from a script by first-time screenwriter Marissa Kate Goodhill, “Come Away” ventures into frontiers already examined in pictures such as 1985’s “Dreamchild,” 2004’s “Finding Neverland,” and “Wendy” earlier this year.  While the picture boasts good supporting performances from Angelina Jolie and David Oyelowo as the parents (with a nice cameo part for 87-year-old Sir Michael Caine as a former acquaintance of dad), “Come Away” really belongs to the kids, Keira Chansa and Jordan Nash as, appropriately, Alice and Peter.

Despite a family-friendly PG rating, the movie does occasionally stray into some uncomfortably mature territory indeed.  Alcoholism and addiction are included among the plot elements, and there are some explicitly nightmarish elements at play throughout the film, including hallucinations and a maiming.  The film’s closing revelation seems to anticipate tears, but instead inspires confusion.  In the end, regardless of its technical excellence and flashes of brilliance, “Come Away” fails because it lacks the one essential ingredient it seeks to emulate:  Disney Magic.

Not to be confused with the horror picture “Come Play” showing in theaters simultaneously, “Come Away” premiered in January at the Sundance Film Festival but was mostly lost in the wake of the similarly-themed “Wendy.”  Three production companies and thirty-three--count ‘em--producers contributed to this attractive little misfire.  The picture was eventually acquired for distribution by Relativity Media after Netflix declined to buy it for streaming online.  

Filmed at London’s Pinewood Studios with outdoor locations in Windsor Great Park in Slough, “Come Away” during its opening weekend was playing in 475 theaters across the US, earning only $108,000 in total box office receipts and an 11th place spot on the Box Office Mojo charts.  The picture is rated PG for unsettling images, fantasy action, strong thematic content, and some violence.  Proceed with caution.

“Freaky”   Distributed by Universal Pictures, 101 Minutes, Rated R, Released November 13, 2020:

In “Freaky,” the kids at small town Blissfield High School tell hushed stories about the generational serial killer known as the Blissfield Butcher.  But when the urban legend turns out to be true and the legendary killer goes after the awkward, hard-luck Millie Kessler, a ceremonial Aztec knife he chooses as a murder weapon causes the maniac and the school’s most unpopular girl to magically exchange identities.

Now trapped inside the hulking and shambling body of the fabled Blissfield Butcher, the hapless Millie has until midnight on Friday the 13th to track down her “Murder Barble” counterpart and reclaim her own shanghied body.  The complication:  Inhabited physically by the spirit and personality of the maniacal Blissfield Butcher, Millie’s popularity among her classmates is soaring...and the serial killer is beginning to enjoy high school life.

Released a little too late for Halloween but just in time for Friday the 13th, “Freaky” is a sort-of reimagining of the 1976 Disney comedy “Freaky Friday” (and its 2003 remake), blending the family-oriented identity-switching gimmick of the Disney pictures with a modern genre-hopping subtext, and playing each for thrills and laughs.  Directed by Christopher Landon from a screenplay he wrote in collaboration with Michael Kennedy,  “Freaky” becomes a curious hybrid of a picture--more effective as a comedy than as a thriller, but still not reaching the same inspired heights of lunacy as Landon’s “Happy Death Day” pictures.

One of our most versatile and undervalued actors, Vince Vaughn proves again that he’s able to persuasively inhabit any role, from airy comedy to deep darkness.  As Barney Calvin Garris, the Blissfield Butcher, Vaughn swings effortlessly between menacing and mirthful...and occasionally projects both simultaneously.  It’s a virtuoso performance and Vaughn pulls it off nicely, providing a balance to his notorious characterization as Norman Bates in director Gus Van Sant’s ill-advised scene-by-scene 1998 remake of Hitchcock’s “Psycho.”

Matching Vaughn nearly volt-for-volt is 23-year-old Kathryn Newton as the helpless, hapless Millie Kessler.  Newton has the task of providing a counterbalance to Vaughn’s antics, and while her transformation from Millie’s insecure and awkward teen to sadistic and murderous maniac is often a matter of makeup and posture, it doesn’t account for the actress’ near-flawless comic timing and effective delivery.  The highest praise:  The viewer never confuses one characterization with the other...although the difference is mostly playing different facets of the same role.

Although “Freaky” is seemingly influenced by not only the “Halloween” and “Friday the 13th” cycle of 1970s exploitation pictures but also the beloved classic B-movies from American International Pictures in the 1950s with titles like “Voodoo Woman” and “Blood of Dracula,” the movie is actually more in the spirit of the films of 50s schlockmeister William Castle, which included classics like “13 Ghosts” and “House on Haunted Hill.”  Castle’s pictures are often remembered for their silly gimmicks and miniscule budgets...but uncredited for the sense of sheer fun they inspired in audiences.  

While the violence in “Freaky”occasionally strays over the top (one guy is split in half with a table saw), that might be part of the picture’s intended charm.  As such, it’s at least as effective as, say, Wes Craven’s “Scream” pictures, or the predecessors in director Landon’s own filmography.  And although the humor is occasionally more self-conscious than the razor-sharp subversion of the “Happy Death Day” pictures, “Freaky” is still smart, caustic, effective...and frequently hilarious.  Plainly Christopher Landon has a gift for this kind of thing. 

Produced by Jason Blum through his Blumhouse Productions company and released through their arrangement with distributor Universal Pictures, “Freaky” debuted on Friday the 13th of November in 2472 theaters across the US.  The film during its opening weekend earned some $3.7 million in box office receipts, easily taking the week’s first place spot in the Box Office Mojo Top Ten over the returning “Let Him Go” in second and “The War with Grandpa” in third..

The cryptkeepers at Blumhouse Productions are already teasing a sequel...and possibly even a future mingling of the characters from “Freaky” with the folks in the “Happy Death Day” pictures.  Writer/director Christopher Landon is the youngest son of classic television icon Michael Landon...who once-upon-a-time was also the star of American International Pictures’ low-budget 1957 drive-in classic “I Was a Teenage Werewolf.”

“Freaky” is rated R for strong violence, horror sequences, sexual content, and language concerns.

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