INSIDIOUS: THE LAST KEY (2018) Drags Once Popular Horror Franchise Further into Obscurity

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The spirit world where all the dark and nasty things happen in the INSIDIOUS movies is called “the Further,” making it the perfect name for how this series has trended, further into obscurity.

INSIDIOUS: THE LAST KEY (2018) is the fourth INSIDIOUS movie and the second straight film in the series to be an underwhelming shadow of its original namesake.

INSIDIOUS: THE LAST KEY is also the second straight prequel in the series, providing additional back story for Elise Rainier (Lin Shaye), the demon hunting character in the original movie, who incidentally died at the end of that film.  Hence, the need for prequels, I guess, although Elise Rainier was never my favorite part of the original INSIDIOUS (2010), which is half the reason why the prequels don’t work all that well. Elise Rainier just isn’t that interesting a character. On the other hand, Lin Shaye who plays Rainier is very good in the role, and her performances in these films is one of the reasons none of the films have been flat-out awful.

This one begins with Elise’s childhood, as we see her and her younger brother living in a modest 1950s home with their parents.  Her father Gerald Rainier (Josh Stewart) is a sadistic bastard who deals with Elise’s “gift” of seeing spirits by punishing her, specifically by beating her and locking her in the basement.

The action jumps ahead to 2010, the year in which the events from the first movie occurred, and after the events depicted in INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 3 (2015).  Elise receives a phone call from a man seeking help with strange goings-on inside his house, but when he reveals that he lives in the house she grew up in, where her father beat her, she declines his offer. She has too many scars to return there.

But of course, since this is a horror movie, she changes her mind, and with her two sidekicks, Specs (Leigh Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson), two characters who have appeared in the entire series and are there to provide comic relief, heads off to New Mexico to wage war with the demons still haunting her house.  And while there, she learns more about what really was going on inside her house when she was a young girl.

The weakest part of INSIDIOUS: THE LAST KEY is its story, which is a yawnfest.  The strongest part is the acting, especially the performances by Lin Shaye, Leigh Whannell, and Angus Sampson, who all reprise their familiar roles and as such come off like three likable characters from a TV series you enjoy, but this time they’re stuck in a particularly mediocre episode.

The uninspiring story was written by Leigh Whannell, who also plays Specs in the film. Whannell wrote all four INSIDIOUS movies as well as the first three SAW movies.  He also starred in the SAW movies as well.

Whannell’s scripts for the first two INSIDIOUS movies were very good, while the latter two were simply meh.  INSIDIOUS is one of my favorite horror movies of the last ten years, and even that first film had its flaws, but I saw it in a packed theater, and the screams from the audience were so loud, it was the most fun I had watching a horror movie with an audience in years.

The sequel, INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 2 (2013) wasn’t half bad, and the story it told, since it was a direct sequel to the first movie, made sense and had some interesting tie-ins with the first one.  It wasn’t as good, but it wasn’t that bad either.  Of course, probably the biggest reason for the success of these two movies was that they were directed by James Wan.

Leigh Whannell actually wrote and directed INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 3, the first prequel in the series, and this film, probably the weakest in the series, really didn’t resonate at all. Here, in INSIDIOUS: THE LAST KEY. it’s Adam Robitel sitting in the director’s chair. While the film is professionally crafted, in that there aren’t any awkward or amateurish scenes, there’s also nary a scare to be found.  The creepiest part of this one is not the demons but Josh Stewart’s performance as Elise’s sadistic father Gerald.

Compared to the original INSIDIOUS, which was chock full of scares, INSIDIOUS: THE LAST KEY is a snoozefest.  Other than the cruel workings of Gerald Rainer, the only scares in this one are of the jump scare variety, and there simply aren’t many of those.

The story also doesn’t help.  While it’s fairly interesting to learn more about Elise Rainer, it’s hardly enough material to base an entire movie on.  And the present haunting, the one that brings Elise back to her house in the first place, is largely forgettable.  The story is simply an excuse to get Elise Rainer and her sidekicks Specs and Tucker back on-screen together again.

And the “last key” in the title is a reference to several things in the story, none of which are all that interesting.

As much as I’m not really a fan of the Elise Rainer character, I do enjoy Lin Shaye’s performances in these films.  She adds class and respectability to these stories, and she keeps these films from sinking to lower depths.

I was also never the biggest fan of Specs and Tucker and thought their humor in the first INSIDIOUS movie was out-of-place, but they’ve grown on me.  I enjoyed both Leigh Whannell’s and Angus Sampson’s performances here.  I even laughed at their recurring bad joke in the film, when they introduce themselves, pointing to Elise and saying, “She’s psychic. We’re sidekicks.”

As I said, Josh Stewart is creepy as Gerald Rainier in a small role.  Caitlin Gerard and Spencer Locke play Elise’s nieces Imogen and Melissa, both of whom seem primed to take over the demon hunting duties should there be more INSIDOUS movies, and since they are both young and beautiful, they attract the attention of both Specs and Tucker.

And Bruce Davison plays Elise’s estranged brother Christian, who wants nothing to do with her because when she left home, she left him alone with their cruel father.  Davison has enjoyed a long and varied career, including a prominent bit as Senator Kelly in the first two X-MEN movies, but I always remember him for his starring role in the original WILLARD (1971), a film that was one of the first horror movies I ever saw at the movies, at the wee young age of seven.  Like Lin Shave, Davison adds respectability to the story.

The Lipstick-Face Demon (Joseph Bishara), whose signature red face makes him look like Darth Maul’s long-lost cousin, was one of my favorite parts of the original movie.  He’s seen in the trailer for INSIDIOUS: THE LAST KEY, but you won’t see him much in the movie.  That’s because he shows up for about half a second.  Had someone written a back story about this guy, now that might have made for a worthwhile sequel.

INSIDIOUS: THE LAST KEY is not an awful horror movie.  It’s just not a very good one, nor is it all that necessary. Do I really care that much about these characters to learn more back story about them?  Not really.

I for one wouldn’t be disappointed if THE LAST KEY was also the last INSIDIOUS movie.

—END—

 

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THE 15:17 TO PARIS (2018) – Clint Eastwood’s Decision To Cast Real Life Heroes Ultimately Fails

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There’s a reason movies employ professional actors.

In Clint Eastwood’s latest film, THE 15:17 TO PARIS (2018), based on the true story of how three Americans thwarted a terrorist attack on a train bound for Paris, the iconic director made the curious decision to cast the three men who performed this act of heroism to play themselves in the movie.  And it was a decision that certainly caught my curiosity, as this unusual casting idea was the main reason I wanted to see this one.

Unfortunately, with the exception of the final ten minutes of the movie, where we witness the intense fight aboard the train, the lack of acting experience from the three leads really hurts as they simply can’t carry the story, even with its brief 94 minutes running time.

We meet the three principal characters right away- Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos, and Anthony Sadler, and they tell us they have been best friends since middle school and that to understand their story they have to tell it from the beginning.  And so the story jumps back in time to show us how they met in middle school, and then it continues through their adult lives, leading all the way up to their fateful decision to take a road trip together through Europe, a trip that eventually led them to being on that train that day.

As you can see, the bulk of the movie is back story, and so to ask these three men to play themselves is asking a lot.  They never really seem comfortable with the whole thing until the climactic reenactment of the terrorist attack.

It’s a funny thing to say because after all, they’re playing themselves.  Who would know better what they thought and felt than them?  But that’s where things get interesting. See, this is a movie, an art form, and as such that’s why you need professional actors who make it their living to be able to convince an audience exactly what their characters are thinking and feeling.  Halfway through this movie, it dawned on me that these three guys were rather boring. Don’t get me wrong.  I liked these guys a lot, but I didn’t buy a ticket just to see three friends chat and re-enact their life stories.  I bought a ticket to a movie, which is not real life, and as such, has to work through the artists who make them to come off as more true than real life.  That’s not the case here.  These three gentleman, as likable as they are, simply don’t possess the charisma to carry a movie or to make it a convincing 94 minutes.

And there is more that is wrong with THE 15:17 TO PARIS.  The script by Dorothy Blyskal, based on the book by Anthony Sadler, Alek Skarlatos, Spencer Stone, and Jeffrey E. Stern is incredibly dull.  There’s just not much to this story of how these guys became friends.

That being said, the three boys who played Spencer, Alex, and Anthony when they were in middle school, William Jennings, Bryce Gheisar, and Paul-Mikel Williams were very good, and I really enjoyed watching them.  Their scenes worked.  Although the school they attended was horrible. If the boys’ school was as bad as it’s depicted in this movie, it’s one of the worst schools going.

Judy Greer plays Spencer’s mom Joyce, and she too is very good in the role of the single mom who struggles to raise her son on her own.

But the film never becomes truly watchable until its final reel.  The climactic scuffle on board the train is by far the best part of the movie.  Eastwood does a terrific job here, and it’s also the one sequence where the three real-life characters seem to come to life.

Is it enough to save the movie?  Not really.

It would have been a far more suspenseful film had it been all about the train ride and the subsequent attack, but that is clearly not Eastwood’s purpose here. His purpose, which is highly commendable even if the film doesn’t really work, is to honor and celebrate the heroism of these three men. I think it would have worked better had this been shot as a documentary, where the story could have been told through interviews and anecdotes rather than flat reenactments.

I also appreciated Eastwood’s decision to pretty much exclude the terrorist from this movie.  It’s clear that Eastwood is saying that this is not the terrorist’s story.  It’s the story of the three Americans.  As such, we barely see him until the end, and his face hardly at all.

On the other hand, the main theme here of one’s inevitable fate didn’t really work for me. The three friends constantly talk about the feeling that they were born for a singular purpose, which of course turns out to be their successful thwarting of a terrorist attack. But the screenplay hammers this point home nonstop, and the result is nothing more than stating the obvious.

Clint Eastwood made an intriguing decision to cast the real life heroes in his movie, THE 15:17 TO PARIS, but it’s a decision that ultimately doesn’t work, as these three young men simply can’t carry the movie on their backs.  The best part is the final ten minutes, which chronicles the actual terrorist attack, but what comes before this exciting finale is tedious and mundane.

You might want to skip THE 15:17 TO PARIS and take the next train instead.

—END—

 

 

THE COMMUTER (2018) – Liam Neeson Action Formula Wearing Thin

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Vera Farmiga and Liam Neesson in THE COMMUTER (2018)

Like many of you, I’ve been a big fan of the Liam Neeson action movies, going all the way back to TAKEN (2008).

It’s been a fun ride, but these films are starting to wear out their welcome.  The trailers for THE COMMUTER didn’t look so hot, and the initial reviews were pretty bad, but being a Liam Neeson fan, I still wanted to check it out.

Yup, the formula is definitely wearing thin, but that being said, I still enjoyed THE COMMUTER, even though I pretty much didn’t believe any of it.

In terms of storytelling, THE COMMUTER gets off to a strong start as former cop turned insurance salesman Michael MacCauley (Liam Neeson) abruptly loses his job, as he is fired without warning, which leaves him a mess since he’s 60 years old with two mortgages and a son who’s about to go off to college. This plot point resonates because any family these days with kids getting ready for college knows firsthand how insanely expensive it is, and how unfortunately where a person can go to college often has less to do with ability than with finances.

Michael rides the train every day into and out of New York City, and on this particular day, on his way home, he meets a strange woman Joanna (Vera Farmiga) who tells him she’s a behaviorist who studies human behavior.  They strike up a conversation and she throws a hypothetical situation his way: would he be willing to do something without knowing its consequences if he were paid $100,000. Of course, on this particular day, without a job, Michael is intrigued, but he’s hardly interested, until Joanna intimates that she’s not kiddng and tells him $25,000 is hidden in the bathroom, and the rest is his after he finishes the job, which is to locate one passenger and place a tracking device in the passenger’s bag.

After Joanna departs the train, Michael’s curiosity gets the better of him and he checks out the bathroom, where he finds $25,000 in cash.  He decides to pocket the money and get off the train, but before he does another stranger warns him that he’s being watched and if he doesn’t do the job, they will kill his wife and son. Flabbergasted, Michael resists at first but he quickly learns that the powers that be are watching his every move and they will kill without hesitation if he doesn’t do what they want, which of course, begs the question: if they’re so all knowing and all powerful, why do they need Michael’s help in the first place? If they can kill at will without detection, why can’t they find one guy on a train?  You’d think they’d easily be able to do this themselves.

Anyway, Michael finds he needs to use all of his former police detective skills to locate the unknown person, all the while trying both to learn why this person is being targeted and how he can outsmart Joanna and her cohorts.

As action thrillers go, THE COMMUTER is pretty gimmicky.  With the exception of the initial plot point where Michael loses his job, I don’t think I believed any of it.  The idea that these people would go to such lengths to get rid of one person, and by such lengths I mean killing multiple people, coercing a former cop Michael to do a nearly impossible job, and eventually working to derail an entire train, is very hard to swallow.  One contracted hit man could have easily done the job without any fanfare.

Still, Liam Neeson is fun to watch, and I for one definitely enjoyed watching him.  He still makes for a likable hero who’s easy to root for, and Neeson remains a strong enough actor to carry a movie like this.  However, that being said, he’s certainly getting up there in years, and so it’s getting a bit more difficult to believe that he’s as physically unstoppable as his character is supposed to be here.

The film also boasts a veteran supporting cast, although no one really has a whole lot to do, other than Neeson.  I’m also a huge Vera Farmiga fan, and she’s excellent in her brief screen time, but sadly, it is brief.  And while she’s sort of the main villain, she’s never on screen enough to make much of an impact, which is too bad, because if she were, this would have been a much better movie.

Patrick Wilson plays Michael’s former police partner Alex Murphy, and Jonathan Banks, Mike on both BREAKING BAD (2009-2012) and its prequel BETTER CALL SAUL (2015-2018), plays Michael’s friend and fellow train commuter Walt.  And both Sam Neill and Elizabeth McGovern have thankless roles, Neil as police Captain Hawthorne and McGovern as Michael’s wife Karen.

THE COMMUTER was directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, who also directed the Liam Neeson films UNKNOWN (2011), NON-STOP (2014), and RUN ALL NIGHT (2015), all of which are better movies than THE COMMUTER.  The film does open with a creative commuter montage that sets the tone that this is going to be a slickly made thriller, and it is, as there are some vicious fights on the train and an exciting train derailment climax that unfortunately doesn’t look all that real.  In fact, the special effects of the crash look rather cartoonish.

Byron Willinger, Philip de Blasi, and Ryan Engle all wrote the screenplay which can be summed up with one word: contrived.  As I said, little in this movie was believable, and the main plot point of Michael being coerced to find an unknown person or else his family will be killed plays exactly like the plot point of a bad movie rather than something that would really happen in real life.  The dialogue is okay, with Neeson getting all the good lines, but even those aren’t really all that memorable.

If you’re a Liam Neeson fan, you’ll probably find THE COMMUTER fairly entertaining.  I did. But other than Neeson, and Vera Farmiga’s brief screen time, there isn’t much else to like about THE COMMUTER.  It’s really not that great a movie, and it’s certainly not a credible thriller.

Like its main character, Michael MacCauley, THE COMMUTER is a bit worn and weary, but while Michael has enough left in the tank to fight back, the same can’t be said for the movie.

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I, TONYA (2017) Examines Assault On Truth As Well As On The Ice

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The best part about I, TONYA (2017) is it takes a story we all think we know— Tonya Harding and the “incident” with Nancy Kerrigan— and gives it depth and resonance, fleshing it out to the point where Harding is portrayed as a flawed sympathetic human being rather than just a stock villain and a punchline.

The script by Steven Rogers is exceptional.  It breaks the fourth wall as characters address the camera at opportune moments, and it makes full use of an interview style where characters have their say about events, often contradicting each other, and makes a concerted effort to— no pun intended— hammer out the truth.  In fact, truth is one of the central themes of the movie, which is exceedingly relevant today where basic truths and facts seem to be challenged every day, as things like “alternative facts” are rolled out by government leaders as if they are real and valid.

I, TONYA begins with Tonya Harding’s childhood.  She’s skating on the ice when she’s just three years-old, pushed by her demanding mother LaVona (Allison Janney, in a performance that is every bit as good as advertised).  We follow her as she grows up in poverty, a self-described “redneck,” and it’s as a teenager that Tonya (Margot Robbie) meets the man she will eventually marry, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan).

It’s a tough life for Tonya.  She’s constantly abused by her mother, both verbally and physically, as well as beaten by her husband, all the while thinking these actions towards her are her fault.  And she snarkily says at one point that Nancy Kerrigan was hit once and the world cried, yet she was hit nonstop her whole life and no one cared.

She faces similar obstacles on the ice.  She’s a phenomenal skater yet struggles to earn top scores from the judges, as they admit off the record that it’s not the skating but her persona.  Americans want their Olympic skaters to represent family, their county, and wholesomeness, and with her crass rough demeanor, Tonya espouses none of these things. Tonya responds that if someone gave her the money to buy her clothes she’d at least look the part, but since she can’t afford the expected wardrobe she has to make her own.

And when Tonya receives a death threat that leaves her shaken and unable to perform, it gives her husband Jeff the idea that if they did the same to Nancy Kerrigan, send her some threatening letters, for instance, that it might shake her enough to give Tonya a competitive edge, a misguided plot that leads to the infamous “incident” where a man smashes Kerrigan’s knee with a baton.

Margot Robbie is sensational as Tonya Harding. It’s a spirited performance that has the desired effect of evoking sympathies for Harding.  We really get to see the kind of life that Harding grew up in, making her successes on the ice all the more impressive. We also see, at least according to the movie, that she really didn’t know what her husband and friends were truly up to, that she believed all they were going to do was simply send some threatening letters.

And at the end, at her sentencing, you can’t help but feel the injustice as the judge imposes a lifetime ban on Tonya from the U.S. Figure Skating Association.  As Harding points out, the men involved received short prison sentences, and she argues that she’d rather do prison time instead, but the judge is undeterred.  As we learn, her husband Jeff received an 18 month sentence, but only served eight months.  Tonya remains banned for life.

My favorite Margot Robbie performance remains Harley Quinn in SUICIDE SQUAD (2016) mainly because it was such an energetic and inspired performance that lifted that otherwise mediocre superhero movie to higher heights, but Robbie is every bit as good here as Tonya Harding.

The other impressive item about Robbie’s performance in I, TONYA is she did most of her own skating, as she trained extensively for the role.  Of course, she couldn’t do Tonya Harding’s signature move, the triple axel jump, which only a handful of skaters have ever been able to do.  In an interview, director Craig Gillespie explained that he learned there were only two skaters on the planet who could perform that stunt today and they were both training for the Olympics and were thus unavailable, so he had to resort to some CGI help to pull off the stunt in the film.

Sebastian Stan is also excellent as Tonya’s husband Jeff Gillooly.  Like the other characters in the movie, he’s fleshed out and comes off as a real person.  He’s a rather unlikable fellow, and yet he’s not a one-sided cardboard cliche, as we catch glimpses of his humanity, as with a later admission that he knows that he was responsible for ruining Harding’s career, and it’s something he says with profound sadness.  Stan has been appearing in the Marvel superhero movies as Captain America’s troubled best buddy Bucky Barnes, aka Winter Soldier, and Stan’s work here in I, TONYA resonates much more than his work as Bucky.

Of course, the performance of the movie belongs to Allison Janney as Tonya’s mother LaVona. It’s as good as advertised, perhaps better, and she definitely lives up to all the hype her performance is generating.  She makes LaVona absolutely relentless, from her first scene to her last.  She is a complete monster of a mother, and she’s one character you won’t feel much sympathy for.  But the amazing thing is in Janney’s hands this lack of sympathy doesn’t make LaVona any less real.  She’s also absolutely hilarious, her vulgar remarks producing loud laughter from the audience.  Janney has enjoyed a long and productive career.  I most remember her for her longtime role as C.J. Cregg on the TV show THE WEST WING (1999-2006).  Her role here is probably the best performance I’ve seen her give in a movie.

Paul Walter Hauser is hilarious as Jeff’s friend Shawn, the man who cluelessly orchestrates the plot against Nancy Kerrigan. Shawn lives in his own fantasy world, and the ease and confidence with which he believes his own lies, in all seriousness, frighteningly, reminded me of a certain President of the United States. The two sound eerily similar.

Julianne Nicholson adds respectability as Tonya’s longtime coach Diane Rawlinson, the one person in the movie who consistently seemed to care for Tonya’s well-being, and not surprisingly, was often the person Tonya listened to the least.  And Bobby Cannavale is amusing as news host Martin Maddox, who through interviews, explains how the media of the time covered the story.  He also gets one of the best lines in the movie, when he says his show HARD COPY was the exploitative news program that the respected news outlets of the time condemned and then later became.

Director Craig Gillespie gets nearly everything right here with I, TONYA. He takes full advantage of the chatty, conversational style of the script.  The film is light and witty throughout, and the movie flies by, but make no mistake, in spite of the humor I, TONYA is no comedy.  Sure, there’s laughter, but it’s from things people say, and the conviction and honesty with which they say them.  But at its heart, I,TONYA is a sad, tragic story with no happy ending.

Gillespie also handles the skating scenes with relative ease which all look amazing and authentic.  Gillespie’s success here comes as no surprise.  I’ve been a fan of his relatively small body of work.  He previously directed THE FINEST HOURS (2016), an underrated rescue drama starring Chris Pine and Casey Affleck about a 1952 Coast Guard rescue that sadly flew under the radar that year with little hype or fanfare.  It’s an excellent movie. Gillespie also directed the remake of FRIGHT NIGHT (2011) which wasn’t half bad.

I, TONYA also has a rocking soundtrack which captures the period from Tonya’s teen years in the 80s to her competitive skating years in the early 90s.

I, TONYA tells a remarkable story in a way that enables its audience to understand the motivations of its principal players to the point where it’s not unusual for even the most despicable people to come off as sympathetic.  That’s clearly the case with Tonya Harding, a person who was vilified by the press based upon actions that were clearly horrific, but yet here she’s portrayed as a real person with a horrific upbringing that makes her success on the ice all the more impressive.  As to the “incident,” it still remains horrible, but how much of that horror was of Tonya Harding’s doing gets a fresh hard look in this movie.

On top of this, the film also tackles the broader theme of the truth, as multiple characters all have their version of the truth as to what really happened that day.  The theme fits in perfectly with events of today, where truth is being attacked on a daily basis by those who feel completely comfortable with their own version of the truth, expressing little regard for those with opposing views, often labeling those folks as “enemies of the state.”

It’s an assault that is far more disturbing than the attack portrayed in this movie.  In fact, you could make the argument that the attack on Nancy Kerrigan as portrayed in this movie is symbolic of what happens when people who make their own truths get carried away with their own fantasies.

People get hurt.

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

THE SHAPE OF WATER (2017) – Exceptional Love Story Mired by Meandering Plot, Characters

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I had heard and read very good things about THE SHAPE OF WATER (2017), the new movie by writer/director Guillermo del Toro, and since the inspiration behind del Toro making this movie was CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954), one of my all-time favorite horror movies, I was eager to see this one, and admittedly, I had high expectations for it.

Sadly, those expectations were not met.

THE SHAPE OF WATER tells a poignant love story.  Mute Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) makes the best of her uneventful life in 1962 Baltimore.  She enjoys a sweet friendship with her artist neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), a man struggling with his own aging process and who can’t hold a job, due as we learn later to a drinking problem, but he is tender and caring towards Elisa.  When she leaves her apartment, she’s off to work as a janitor at a secret government laboratory, where her friend and fellow cleaner Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer) looks out for her.

When Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) brings in an Amphibian Man (Doug Jones) he captured in the waters of South America and houses it in the part of the lab Elisa cleans, she finds herself instantly drawn to the creature and soon begins secretly meeting with it, as she quickly discovers that it is highly intelligent and can communicate with her.  Since both she and the creature are mute, they immediately bond with each other, so much so, that in the classic Beauty and the Beast tradition, they fall in love.

This creative love story is the main story told in THE SHAPE OF WATER, and it’s the one that works.  Everything about the relationship between Elisa and the creature worked for me, and it’s the best part of THE SHAPE OF WATER.  But it’s everything else about this movie, from its supporting characters to its subplots that I found seriously lacking, and as such, dragged this movie down several notches.

One of the reasons the love story works so well is the tender performance by Sally Hawkins as Elisa.  Even before she meets the creature, Elisa is a likable character, from the way she interacts with her friend Giles to the way she does her job.  And when she connects with the creature, it’s a natural connection since in spite of her bright disposition, she still feels alone, without someone to love.  More so, when suddenly the feelings between Elisa and the creature become deeper, I completely bought into the relationship, mostly because Sally Hawkins’ performance convinced me her feelings were genuine.

It’s an impressive performance by Hawkins, especially since she plays a character who cannot speak.  She is probably the most expressive of any character in the movie. She’s certainly the most memorable character, and her performance is the best part of the movie.

The other reason the love story works is the writing by screenwriters Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor. The idea of taking an amphibious/human hybrid creature and showing off its intelligent and emotional side rather than turning it into just another movie monster, is a good one and one that I applaud.  I enjoyed the Amphibian Man here, and I was completely into the love story between this creature and Elisa.  Both the concept and the writing was refreshing and thought-provoking. My only wish is that they would have taken it even further and allowed us to learn even more about this mysterious creature from the sea.

And the Amphibian Man looks cool as well.  However, as played by Doug Jones, I was certainly reminded of a very similar character Jones played in another Guillermo del Toro movie, Abe Sapien in HELLBOY II: THE GOLDEN ARMY (2008).  The Amphibian Man here is clearly reminiscent of Abe Sapien, and so as much as I liked his look, it’s not entirely original.

Jones makes his living playing creatures and aliens, as he also played The Bye Bye Man in the dreadful horror movie THE BYE BYE MAN (2017), as well as the ghoul in OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL (2016), among others.  He currently stars as Saru in the latest Star Trek TV show, STAR TREK: DISCOVERY (2017-18), again hidden under extensive make-up.  Jones is fine as the Amphibian Man, but it’s nothing I haven’t seen him do before.

But the rest of THE SHAPE OF WATER simply didn’t work for me.  Neither the rest of the characters or storylines drew me in.

Michael Shannon’s villain Colonel Richard Strickland is far too one-dimensional to be convincing.  He’s your standard military bad guy.  Even scences showing him at home with his wife and kids do nothing to lighten his Neegan-like portrayal of a vicious, close-minded bully.

Now, Richard Jenkins’ Giles was a character that I did like, but the story spends far too much time on his back story, when he’s simply not as integral to the main plot as Elisa. During the first half of the movie, a lot of time is spent on his visits to a diner, because he’s attracted to the young man working there, and we follow him as he tries to get his job back.  The point seems to be to show that like Elisa he’s a fellow outcast, but the story tends to meander off the main path and would have been better served to remain focused on Elisa and the creature. When the focus is on them, the movie is much more compelling.

Which brings me to the story. As much as liked the screenplay when it relayed the story of Elisa and the Amphibious Man, I found myself scratching my head about its other choices. The presence of Octavia Spencer in the role of Elisa’s friend Zelda immediately brought to mind Spencer’s work in THE HELP (2011) and HIDDEN FIGURES (2016), two superior films which dealt with racism.

THE SHAPE OF WATER also plays the race card, but only superficially.  We see Octavia Spencer’s character dealing with it, and we also see a couple of other scenes showing prevalent racist attitudes in 1962.  The point again seems to be that the cruelty which villain Richard Strickland shows the Amphibian Man wasn’t specific to rare aquatic creatures but to fellow humanity.  But in this movie these scenes seem so out of place, I think mostly because one thing we do not see is Elisa’s reaction to them.  It’s not part of her story, here.

Likewise, since it’s the height of the Cold War, Soviet spies are actively trying to steal U.S. secrets and are very interested in stealing the Amphibian Man from the Americans, and so we are introduced to as it turns out a sympathetic Soviet scientist Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) who, like Elisa, finds himself wanting to help the creature rather than turn it over to his Soviet contacts.  But these scenes don’t really work either. Like the other subplots, they seem out of place and take away from the movie’s main focus, the love story.

I know this will sound like sacrilege to a lot of movie fans, but I’m not the biggest fan of Guillermo del Toro’s work.  I loved both his HELLBOY movies, but for me, that’s about it. Even his well-regarded PAN’S LABRYNTH (2006) didn’t do a whole lot for me. So, in a way, I’m not really surprised I didn’t love THE SHAPE OF WATER.  I’m just not a fan of the way del Toro tells a story.

That being said, the love story between Elisa and the Amphibian Man is touching and extremely well-done.  It’s everything else in this movie that doesn’t really work for me.

To make the love story here the centerpiece of the movie, the supporting characters and story should be built around this main story in order to support it, but that’s not what happens here. Instead, the other characters and storylines seem out of place and do nothing but distract from the main and much better love story in the film.

As a result, THE SHAPE OF WATER is a mixed bag.

Its love story is exceptional. If only the rest of the movie had been the same.

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Riveting Western HOSTILES (2017) Earns Its Title

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Rosamund Pike and Christian Bale share the danger in HOSTILES (2017).

HOSTILES (2017), the new western adventure by writer/director Scott Cooper, is anchored by a solid performance by Christian Bale as a hardened cavalry officer ordered to escort an aged and ill Cheyenne chief on a dangerous trek from New Mexico to Montana, a chief who was once responsible for the deaths of many of the officer’s men.

HOSTILES opens with a brutal attack on a family by a group of Comanches that leaves a father and three children dead.  The mother, Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike) manages to escape but not before seeing  her entire family, including her infant, slain.  The action switches to Captain Joseph J. Blocker (Christian Bale) receiving orders that he must provide safe passage for an ailing Cheyenne chief, Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and his family from New Mexico to his home land in Montana.  Blocker wants no part of this mission because he knows firsthand the merciless carnage which Chief Yellow Hawk once caused, but as his superior officer Colonel Abraham Biggs (Stephen Lang) reminds him, Blocker is no saint himself.

A career soldier and months away from retirement and a pension, Blocker reluctantly agrees to follow his orders.  Soon after Blocker, his men, and Chief Yellow Hawk embark on their journey, they come across and rescue Rosalie Quaid but realize the deadly Comanches are still on the prowl, putting everyone, including Chief Yellow Hawk and his family, in danger.  And the murderous Comanches are only one of the threats which Captain Blocker and his party must face on their increasingly treacherous trek to Montana, all of which provide for a very dark and thrilling western adventure.

If you like westerns, you definitely want to see HOSTILES.  Writer/director Scott Cooper, whose previous films include BLACK MASS (2015) and OUT OF THE FURNACE (2013), the latter also starring Christian Bale and one of my favorite movies that year, has made a tense, compelling drama that hooks you from the get-go with its savage opening scene and then pretty much never lets go. Sure, not everything works— Blocker’s story arc is a bit too neat and tidy at times— but enough of it does to make this movie a must-see trip to the theater.

Christian Bale is rock solid as Captain Blocker, a weathered military officer who has seen his share of deplorable acts of horror and has committed them as well, which he justifies because it’s his job to kill.  Bale brings the necessary intensity to the role, as well as the scars and pains which are apparent in his eyes throughout.  It’s a very satisfying performance, and I enjoyed Bale more here than in the previous two films I saw him in, THE BIG SHORT (2015) and AMERICAN HUSTLE (2013).

Bale is phenomenal, and he’s not alone.  HOSTILES boast a very strong cast.  Rosamund Pike is nearly as good as Bale here as the bereaved yet strong spirited Rosalie Quaid.  She is every bit as locked into her performance as Bale, and the two share an uneasy chemistry, brought together by tragedies in their past and their present.

Veteran actor Wes Studi, who I most remember for his powerful performance as Magua in THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS (1992) is sufficiently noble as Chief Yellow Hawk.  Jesse Plemons, who seems to be showing up everywhere these days and who stood out as Todd in the final season of BREAKING BAD (2012-2013), plays Lt. Rudy Kidder, a soldier on Blocker’s team with a solid resume but little experience in the field. And we just saw Plemons in THE POST (2017).

Rory Cochrane delivers a strong performance as well as Sgt. Thomas Metz, Blocker’s longtime military buddy and right hand man.  Stephen Lang, most recently seen as the blind man in the thriller DON’T BREATHE (2016) has a small role as Col. Abraham Biggs, the man who gives Blocker his controversial orders.  And Bill Camp, who also had a memorable small role in MOLLY’S GAME (2017) as a doomed poker player, is memorable once again in another small bit, this time as an annoying newspaper reporter.

Timothee Chalamet has a brief role as a young private.  Chalamet was impressive as one of Lady Bird’s boyfriends in LADY BIRD (2017), and he’s also receiving praise for his role in CALL ME BY YOUR NAME (2017).

Fans of THE WALKING DEAD will be happy to see Scott Wilson ride in as an angry land owner.  Wilson played Hershel on THE WALKING DEAD for a few seasons.  Of course, Wilson is known for much more than THE WALKING DEAD, as his career goes all the way back to IN COLD BLOOD (1967).

And Ben Foster even shows up as a military prisoner on death row who claims he’s no more dangerous than Blocker and that he’s seen Blocker do far worse things than he ever did. Foster is fine here, but he’s played this type of role before.  A lot.

Foster and Bale previously starred together in another western, 3:10 TO YUMA (2007), another hard-hitting action tale where Bale played the hero and Foster a loose cannon bad guy.

Scott Cooper’s screenplay, based on an unpublished manuscript by Donald E. Stewart, is a good one.  It tells a riveting story that held my interest throughout and it features characters even those in minor roles who are fleshed out adequately.

And Cooper is just as successful behind the camera.  The picturesque shots of New Mexico and Montana are reminiscent of the great western vistas captured by legendary directors like John Ford and Howard Hawks.  The action scenes are intense and suspenseful and provide some edge of your seat moments.

The first half of the movie admittedly plays better than the second half, when Blocker and company are dealing with the Comanches.  What follows, while interesting, never captures the same intensity as these early scenes, although the ending is powerfully tragic.

And the very ending, the final shot of the film, is as cinematic as they come, and could easily be destined as one of those closing shots that people long remember.

I loved HOSTILES.  It easily hearkens back to the classic westerns of yesteryear, films like STAGECOACH (1939), THE SEARCHERS (1956),  and Clint Eastwood’s UNFORGIVEN (1992). Yet it also possesses a dark edge that makes it every bit as gripping as a contemporary thriller.

You’ll easily understand why this one is called HOSTILES, an understanding that won’t stop you from enjoying this extremely satisfying film.

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DEN OF THIEVES (2018) – Action Flick Too Derivative To Stand Out

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Gerard Butler as tough unconventional cop Nick Flanagan in DEN OF THIEVES (2018).

DEN OF THIEVES (2018), the new action movie starring Gerard Butler, is a gritty violent bank heist tale that plays it “safe”— heh heh— with its by- the- numbers storytelling.

Worse yet, it’s rather derivative of previous movies of this type, a formula that prevents it from being all that memorable.

DEN OF THIEVES opens with the statement that Los Angeles, California is the bank robbery capital of the world, and then goes on to tell the story of two very different groups.  There’s the elite unit of the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department led by tough guy cop Nick Flanagan (Gerard Butler) who tells a man he’s interrogating that they don’t arrest people, they kill them, so he’d better talk. Yup, Flanagan and his team break all the rules to get the job done.

The other group, of course, is the bank robbers, led by a mastermind who goes by the name of Merriman (Pablo Schreiber) whose plan in this movie is to rob the one bank that no one’s been able to rob, the Federal Reserve. And his plan is a good one, with a decent chance of success, unless Flanagan and his team can figure it out and stop him first.

And that’s pretty much the story of DEN OF THIEVES. And while there are plenty of characters on both sides, on Flanagan’s team and in Merriman’s crew, the film mostly focuses on Flanagan and Merriman, with the exception of one other character, the driver for Merriman’s group, Donnie (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) who Flanagan and his men pick up, work over, and use as their insider to learn what Merriman is up to.  Of course, it works both ways, because once Merriman finds out, he uses Donnie to feed Flanagan false information.

As I said, DEN OF THIEVES is gritty and full of testosterone.  If you like your movies full of aggressive ripped characters, with barely a female character in sight, then this is the film for you.  Now, I like action movies as much as the next guy, but the biggest problem with DEN OF THIEVES is just how derivative it is.  It borrows heavily from other action films of this type, most notably Michael Mann’s HEAT (1995) starring Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, a film I happen to like a lot. It borrows heavily from other films as well, including THE USUAL SUSPECTS (1995).  As a result, nothing that happens in the film is all that refreshing or original.

While DEN OF THIEVES isn’t a straight remake of HEAT, its plot is basically the same. The characters’ names have been changed, and their situations are a bit different, but the story of unconventional cop vs. mastermind bank robber is identical.  And HEAT did a better job with its characterizations.

In DEN OF THIEVES, the characters really aren’t fleshed out at all.  We learn a little bit about Flanagan’s home life, as he is in the midst of a divorce, separating him from his two daughters, and we see him very upset about this.  But what we don’t see is how this affects him on the job.  You’d think he’d be in a really bad mood after being served divorce papers, and he might take it out on the bank robbers, but he must be good at repressing these feelings because they hardly affect him at all, the result being a one note performance by Gerard Butler: tough and mean, all the time.  I actually had to laugh the first time we find out Flanagan has a wife and two young daughters.  Watching this guy chain smoke, eat donuts and basically look like he’s heart attack waiting to happen, the last thing I expected was to find out that he was a family man.

First-time director Christian Gudegast, who also wrote the screenplay, does a better job behind the camera than at the keyboard. The action scenes here are decent, and a couple of high speed chase scenes satisfy, but the characterizations are thin, the dialogue basic, and the entire tale unoriginal.

Gudegast is the son of actor Eric Braeden, known to genre fans for his appearances in such films as ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES (1971) and COLOSSUS: THE FORBIN PROJECT (1970).  He also played the werewolf in the episode “The Werewolf” of the TV show KOLCHAK: THE NIGHT STALKER (1974) starring Darren McGaven as everyone’s favorite reporter/monster hunter Carl Kolchak.  Braedon’s also known for his work on the daytime soap opera, THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS.

Braeden appears here in DEN OF THIEVES in a small role.

The acting here is decent.  I enjoyed Gerard Butler as tough guy cop Nick Flanagan, even if he was a very unlikable character.  Pablo Schreiber is also convincing as Merriman, but the problem is we know less about Merriman than we do Flanagan, so neither one of these two characters, in spite of the acting performances by the actors, have much depth.

Probably the best performance in the film belongs to O’Shea Jackson Jr. as driver Donnie. He’s not only convincing to the audience, but to Flanagan and Merriman as well, both of whom decide to keep him alive when he tells them he knows nothing of what the other side is doing.  Donnie is the one character when he’s on-screen who you are curious about since you’re not quite sure what he’s really up to— an innocent driver, undercover cop, or something else?  It’s a good performance by Jackson, Jr., who is the son of rapper Ice Cube.

And while there are plenty of other folks on both sides, no one really stands out. 50 Cent looks tough as fellow bank robber Levi, but we learn nothing about him.  And for fans of THE WALKING DEAD, another baddie, Mack, is played by Cooper Andrews, who last season played Jerry, King Ezekiel’s loyal right hand man, on the popular AMC show.

DEN OF THIEVES is a decent action movie, but unfortunately it’s just not original enough to stand out.  It also has a script that doesn’t add any depth whatsoever, and it simply doesn’t have enough going for it to sustain its 140 minute running time.

I liked it while I was watching it, but five minutes after it was done, it was all easily forgotten.

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