Wonder Woman Leads the Way as Superheroes Save JUSTICE LEAGUE (2017)

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As a kid, I slightly preferred the Marvel superhero comics to DC, but I pretty much enjoyed them both.

But in the past decade, in the movie world, Marvel’s movies have been far superior to what DC has churned out.  The DC films have been largely problematic. That changed a bit earlier this year with the release of WONDER WOMAN (2017),  the best DC film to hit the big screen since THE DARK KNIGHT (2008).

The upward trend continues with the release of JUSTICE LEAGUE (2017), the tale of a group of DC superheroes working together for the first time.  While not as good as Marvel’s AVENGERS movies, JUSTICE LEAGUE is another step forward, helped immensely by the presence of Wonder Woman, played once again by the astonishing Gal Gadot.

When a JUSTICE LEAGUE opens, Superman (Henry Cavill) is dead, but as every superhero fan knows, the Man of Steel is never gone forever.  Movie fans will know as well, as soon as they see Henry Cavill’s name listed prominently in the opening credits.

With Superman gone, the door is open for the powers of darkness to make Earth their own, because frankly, while other superheroes may be tough, it seems only Superman can keep the truly heinous baddies from strutting their stuff.  In this case, it’s Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds) who centuries ago was banished by an alliance between the Amazons, the Atlanteans, and the humans.  With Superman dead, Steppenwolf returns to finish the job he set out to do eons before, namely, to destroy the world.

Realizing that Steppenwolf is a superior foe, Batman (Ben Affleck) assembles a team of heroes, including Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), the Flash (Ezra Miller), Aquaman (Jason Momoa), and Cyborg (Ray Fisher).  But even their combined strength isn’t enough to take Steppenwolf down, leading Batman to suggest the outlandish plan of resurrecting Superman from the dead, even if his newfound superfriends warn him against doing so. The young Flash nervously worries that such a plan could lead to Pet Sematary-like results.

I really enjoyed JUSTICE LEAGUE.  The script by Chris Terrio and Joss Whedon works mostly because it keeps things simple.  The story is not overly ambitious and therefore avoids being overdone and complicated, as was the case with the recent BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE (2016) which try as it might failed to establish a convincing relationship between Batman and Superman.  You could actually argue that the story here is rather stupid, but in this case, that doesn’t really matter because the strength of JUSTICE LEAGUE is its superhero characters, and the actors playings these roles all acquit themselves rather nicely.

Joss Whedon of course both wrote and directed THE AVENGERS movies, and his influence is apparent in this movie when the superfriends bicker and take jabs at each other.  And while Christ Terrio wrote BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE, a movie I didn’t like, he also wrote ARGO (2012), a film I definitely did like.  There is a lot of smart dialogue in this film, which helps lift it above its very standard plot, like when Batman criticizes Wonder Woman for not having ever taking a leadership role.  He correctly points out that Superman has been a beacon for the world, but he had never even heard of Wonder Woman until recently, and he accuses of her hiding in the shadows during the past century.

It’s safe to say that after the success of WONDER WOMAN, one of the biggest draws of JUSTICE LEAGUE is not Batman or Superman, but Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman.  Gadot does not disappoint.  She was clearly my favorite part of this movie, and when she is on-screen, the film is at its best.  She possesses such a strong screen presence, she’s astonishingly beautiful, and is completely believable as an unstoppable warrior princess.

But Wonder Woman alone wouldn’t be enough to save a movie called JUSTICE LEAGUE, and thankfully, her superhero counterparts are also quite good.

While I didn’t really like the look of Batman’s cowl and costume, Ben Affleck is quite effective as the caped crusader.  It’s a convincing performance, and I liked Affleck even better here as Batman than in BATMAN V SUPERMAN.  There are also plenty of potshots made by his friends at his lack of super powers.  At one point, he’s asked just what his superpowers are, and he answers, “I’m rich.”

Strangely, when Affleck appears as Bruce Wayne, he seemed a bit fleshy in the face which works against the idea that Batman is a fit fighting machine.  There’s also a neat nod to the Michael Keaton BATMAN movies here, as composer Danny Elfman incorporates his original BATMAN theme from that 1989 flick into some of the Batman scenes.

Likewise, Henry Cavill scores high as Superman.  In fact, it’s probably my favorite Cavill performance as the Man of Steel.  He comes off as sincere and is far less troubled than in previous films with concerns over how the world views him.  It seems death has been a good thing for Superman, as while he was gone, the world seemed to have missed him.

Ezra Miller is fun as the Flash, although at times the humor seemed a bit forced.  I also enjoyed Ray Fisher as Cyborg, and really enjoyed Jason Momoa as Aquaman, who gets some of the better lines in the movie.

The film is also helped by a strong supporting cast, led by Amy Adams as Lois Lane.  Adams isn’t in the movie much, but to have Adams in a cast as a supporting player can only add to a movie, and her few scenes are all nicely done.  Jeremy Irons gets a decent amount of screen time as Alfred, and he makes the most of his scenes.

Diane Lane is effective as Clark Kent’s mother Martha Kent, and Connie Nielson reprises her role from WONDER WOMAN as Queen Hippolyta. J.K. Simmons appears briefly as Commissioner Gordon, and Amber Heard is seen all too fleetingly as one of Aquaman’s associates, Mera.

Director Zack Snyder achieved better results here than he did with both BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE and MAN OF STEEL (2013). One of the ways that JUSTICE LEAGUE is superior is Snyder controlled himself here and didn’t film action scenes that went on for too long.  They are generally quick, efficient, and well done.

I thought the pacing was especially good.  The film runs for just about two hours, but it flew by for me and felt more like 90 minutes.

Like its Marvel counterparts, there are a couple of after credit scenes.  The first one is well worth the wait, but the second at the very end involves a certain villain played by a certain actor who I really don’t want to see again.  Oh well.

The film also opens with a curious bit featuring Superman, which was enjoyable enough, but I thought at some point in the movie the story would return to this moment, but it never does.

JUSTICE LEAGUE features a straightforward and rather simple if not predictable story, but in this case it seems to be just what these DC films have needed.  The DC films that haven’t worked have been bogged down with plot points that didn’t work and action scenes that went on for far too long.  It truly seemed as if they were struggling to find their identity.

WONDER WOMAN established its identity right away, and while JUSTICE LEAGUE isn’t quite as successful as WONDER WOMAN, it too establishes itself right away.  It sacrifices plot for characterization, using most of the screen time to establish its Justice League personalities, and the film is better for it.

The superheroes here not only save the world, but the movie.

As such, JUSTICE LEAGUE is highly recommended.

—END—

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MEMORABLE MOVIE QUOTES: THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN (1974)

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Welcome back to another MEMORABLE MOVIE QUOTES column, where we look at some memorable quotes from some pretty nifty movies.

We return today to the world of James Bond as we look at THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN (1974), the second film in which Roger Moore played secret agent 007.  The other neat thing about this movie, especially for horror fans, is that Christopher Lee played the villain, the man with the golden gun, the million dollar hitman, Scaramanga, who in this film has his sights on James Bond.  Scaramanga is one of Christopher Lee’s better film performances.

THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN did not perform all that well at the box office upon its initial release in 1974.  Audiences back then were still struggling with the transition to Roger Moore as Bond and were still craving a return by Sean Connery, but the film has aged well, and today it ranks as one of the better Bond movies.  It also has a memorable music score by John Barry.

And like most Bond movies, it’s chock-full of neat quotes.  Let’s have a listen to some of these quotes from THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN, screenplay by Richard Maibaum and Tom Mankiewicz.

Christopher Lee gets some of the better lines in the film as the villainous Scaramanga, especially when he spars verbally with James Bond, like in this scene where he suggests to Bond that they engage in a gun duel to the death:

SCARAMANGA: A duel between titans. My golden gun against your Walther PPK. Each of us with a 50-50 chance.

JAMES BOND:  Six bullets to your one?

SCARAMANGA: I only need one.

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Scaramanga vs. Bond

 

And in this scene where he explains to Bond how he first became interested in killing:

SCARAMANGA: When I was a boy I was brought up in a circus. My only real friend was a huge, magnificent African bull elephant. One day, his handler mistreated him and he went berserk. Bleeding, dying, he came and found me, stood on one leg, his best trick, picked me up and put me on his back. The drunken handler came along and emptied his gun into his eye… I emptied my stage pistol into his!

JAMES BOND:  An eye for an eye.

SCARAMANGA: You see, Mr. Bond, I always thought I loved animals. Then I discovered that I enjoyed killing people even more.

 

Of course, eventually, Bond gets to respond in kind:

JAMES BOND: You live well, Scaramanga.

SCARAMANGA: At a million dollars a contract I can afford to, Mr Bond. You work for peanuts, a hearty well done from her Majesty the Queen and a pittance of a pension. Apart from that we are the same. To us, Mr Bond, we are the best.

JAMES BOND: There’s a useful four letter word, and you’re full of it.

 

Scaramanga is as cool as he is deadly, as in this scene where he calmly kills the powerful Mr. Fat and politely addresses Fat’s subordinates moments later:

SCARAMANGA: Mr. Fat has just resigned. I am the new Chairman of the Board.

Fat always did like that mausoleum. Put him in it.

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Christopher Lee takes aim as Scaramanga in THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN (1974).

 

Of course, Roger Moore gets plenty of zingers as James Bond.  Let’s listen to a few:

SAIDA:  Ah! I’ve lost my charm!

JAMES BOND: Not from where I’m standing.

 

And:

JAMES BOND:  Did you see who shot him?

SAIDA: No, I was in his arms. My eyes were closed.

JAMES BOND: Well, at least he died happy.

 

And what would a James Bond movie be without the double entendre names?

JAMES BOND (approaches woman in swimming pool):  Good morning. How’s the water?

WOMAN: Why don’t you come in and find out?

JAMES BOND:  Sounds very tempting, Miss…?

WOMAN:  Chew Mee.

 

Even M (Bernard Lee) and Q (Desmond Llewelyn) get in on the act with this lively exchange:

JAMES BOND: And that is really all there is to report, sir.

M:  So if I heard correctly, Scaramanga got away – in a car that sprouted wings!

Q: Oh, that’s perfectly feasible, sir. As a matter of fact, we’re working on one now.

M:  Oh, Q, shut up!

 

 

But my all time favorite line from THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN is spoken by Roger Moore, and it’s also one of my favorite lines in the entire series.  As Bond tries to extract information from a gun manufacturer, he points a gun at the man’s groin area, and he says:

LAZAR:  Mr. Bond, bullets do not kill. It is the finger that pulls the trigger.

JAMES BOND: Exactly. I am now aiming precisely at your groin. So speak or forever hold your piece.

 

Gotta love it!

Well, that’s all we have time for today.  I hope you enjoyed this look at quotes from THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN.  Join me again next time when we look at more memorable quotes from other cool movies.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (2017) – All-Star Murder Mystery an Exercise in the Mundane

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Kenneth Branagh as Hercule Poirot in MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (2017)

I consider myself a Kenneth Branagh fan.

I have absolutely loved every Shakespeare play he has brought to the big screen, from his masterful debut with HENRY V (1989) to his wonderfully witty MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING (1993).  But his non-Shakespeare films haven’t been as successful, and I’ve never been exactly sure why.  His MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN (1994) didn’t work, and his THOR (2011) was just an OK Marvel superhero movie.

Branagh both directs and stars in today’s movie, MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (2017), which is based on the novel by Agatha Christie, and is a remake of the 1974 film of the same name directed by Sidney Lumet and starring Albert Finney as detective Hercule Poirot.  It featured an all-star cast of train passengers, including the likes of Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Jacqueline Bisset, Richard Widmark, and Sean Connery, to name just a few.

In this new 2017 version, Branagh plays Hercule Poirot, and he too has assembled an all-star cast of passengers, which for me, was the best part of this movie.  The cast is superb.

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS opens in the middle east in the early 1930s where famed detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) is busy solving yet another impossible crime.  His job done, he climbs aboard a train for some rest and relaxation, but things don’t go as planned when there is a murder committed on board, and suddenly Poirot finds himself once again trying to solve a complicated mystery.

And this is a mystery, so the less said about the plot the better.

As I said, the best part about MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS is its cast, and I’ll get to that in a moment, but for the film itself, it’s a mixed bag.  The biggest knock against this movie is it just never reached out and grabbed me.  There is never a defining moment in the film where I felt, okay, this is where it gets going.  It just move along at a steady pace with no sense of urgency or dramatic build-up.  It’s all rather listless.

It certainly looks good.  The shots of the train travelling through the snowy mountains are picturesque, and the costumes and set design are impressive.  But director Branagh seems satisfied to film a period piece drama without giving much emphasis on the suspenseful side of things.  This film just never gets going.

But the cast is fun, starting with Branagh himself as Hercule Poirot.  Branagh seems to be having a good time with the role, and he’s convincing as the meticulous borderline-OCD Poirot.  And his full mustache is so noticeable it’s nearly a character in itself.

Johnny Depp makes for an excellent gangster-type, and his was one of my favorite performances in this film.  I’ve grown tired of some of Depp’s off-the-wall acting roles of late, and it was fun to see him actually play a character.  He does a fine job, and I wish he would do this more often, play someone who actually seems like a real person.

I also really enjoyed Michelle Pfeiffer, and although she wasn’t as memorable as she was in MOTHER (2017) earlier this year, she’s still very good.  We haven’t seen a whole lot of Pfeiffer in recent years, and I hope this changes because she remains a strong talent whose presence has been missed in the movies of late.

Likewise, Josh Gad was particularly effective as Hector MacQueen, the right hand man and attorney for Depp’s Edward Ratchett.  While Gad was more memorable as LeFou in the recent live-action remake of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (2017), he’s still pretty darn good here.

Also in the cast are Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom Jr., Penelope Cruz, Derek Jacobi, Judi Dench, and Willem Dafoe. Now, all of these folks are fun to watch, but none of them do a whole lot.  Like the film as a whole, no one really has any signature moments.

Michael Green wrote the screenplay, based on Christie’s novel.  It’s a decent screenplay with believable dialogue and interesting characters, but it doesn’t score all that well as a whodunit mystery.  There is a murder, and Poirot investigates.  This in itself is interesting, but without compelling dialogue and conversations, and without energetic directing, the process of solving the crime somehow all becomes rather mundane and lifeless.

There are some good moments, like when Poirot says he’s reached the age where he knows what he likes and doesn’t like, and he partakes fully in all that he likes and completely ignores what he dislikes.  For those of us who have reached a certain age, this line rings true.  It’s too bad the same can’t be said for most of the other dialogue and situations in the film.

Green was one of the writers who wrote the screenplay to BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017), and he also worked on the screenplay to LOGAN (2017).  Of these three, the Marvel superhero film LOGAN is clearly Green’s best credit.

Another drawback to this film is if you’ve seen the 1974 movie, it’s hard to forget, and this new version doesn’t really offer anything that is new.  I’m going to guess that if you haven’t seen the 1974 movie, you might like this version better than I did.

I found MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS to be simply okay.  It didn’t wow me, didn’t have me on the edge of my seat, or scratching my head wondering who the murderer was, but it did hold my interest for the most part, in a rather routine pleasant sort of way, which for a period piece murder mystery, doesn’t really cut it.

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For The Love Of Horror cover

Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

 

 

 

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: THE BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960)

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THE BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960), Hammer Films’ second vampire movie, is so steeped in rich atmosphere you can almost feel the Transylvanian mist on your flesh.

It also ranks as one of the best vampire films ever made.

THE BRIDES OF DRACULA tells the story of young Marianne (Yvonne Monlaur) on her way to the Lang Academy at Badstein where she is to be a teacher.  Unfortunately, before arriving at the school, she spends the night at the Chateau Meinster where she meets the young dashing Baron Meinster (David Peel) who happens to be a vampire.

Doctor Van Helsing (Peter Cushing, reprising the role he played in HORROR OF DRACULA two years earlier) arrives in town to investigate the reports of vampirism in the area.  Van Helsing befriends young Marianne and discovers that Baron Meinster is the local vampire.  In a neat piece of drama, he is understandably shocked to learn that Marianne and the Baron are engaged to be married.  However, Van Helsing puts his personal feelings aside and pursues the vampire, eventually battling it out with Meinster in an exciting climax in a fiery windmill.

While THE BRIDES OF DRACULA is an excellent film, it’s not without its problems.  For starters, Dracula does not appear in the movie, so the title is a major misnomer and source of frustration for many fans.   Dracula is absent from the film because back in 1960 Christopher Lee refused to reprise the role for fear of being typecast.  And while David Peel performs admirably as Baron Meinster, he’s no Christopher Lee, and his performance lacks the powerful punch that viewers loved about Lee.

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David Peel as vampire Baron Meinster in THE BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960).

Also, the music score by Malcolm Williamson is so over the top in places it’s almost laughable.  James Bernard’s music is sorely missed here.

Still, there’s lots to like about BRIDES.

The cast is superb, led by Peter Cushing as Dr. Van Helsing.  Long before Hugh Jackman put us to sleep in the over-hyped yawn fest VAN HELSING (2004), Peter Cushing was THE film Van Helsing.  His performances in HORROR and BRIDES marked the first time the role was played as a younger action hero, rather than the old wise professor from Stoker’s novel.

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Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) fighting off a vampire in THE BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960).

The supporting cast is also very good, notably Martita Hunt as the Baroness Meinster, Baron Meinster’s mother, and Freda Jackson as Greta, Baron Meinster’s former nurse and current servant.  Jackson steals nearly every scene she’s in.

Jimmy Sangster, Peter Bryan, and Edward Percy all worked on the screenplay for THE BRIDES OF DRACULA.  Evidently, extra writers were called in and extensive rewrites were performed at the request of Peter Cushing who was unhappy with the original script.  For instance, in the original script, Van Helsing used black magic to fight off the vampires, and Cushing thought this was completely out of character for the doctor.

Director Terence Fisher gives the film its wonderful atmosphere by using rich colors and textures, elaborate sets and costumes, the whole bit.  It’s one of the reasons Hammer Films were so successful.  They always looked liked extremely high-budgeted movies when in fact they weren’t.

Fisher also creates some classic scenes in this film- Greta calling to the young vampire bride in her grave, the girl’s hand clawing its way out of the soil, Van Helsing burning the vampire’s bite from his own neck, and in the fiery climax, Van Helsing leaping onto the blades of the burning windmill to form the shadow of the cross on an adjacent building.

THE BRIDES OF DRACULA is an atmospheric gem, well worth sinking your teeth into.

—END—

(This column was originally published in the HWA Newsletter in November 2006.)

 

 

THOR: RAGNAROK (2017) – Colorful Superhero Adventure is the Best of the Thor Movies

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It’s no secret that I love the Marvel superhero movies.

And while I have enjoyed the THOR movies, I’ve preferred the IRON MAN and CAPTAIN AMERICA films.  They’ve had more life, and I just haven’t been a fan of the THOR plots which have taken place in the doom and gloom of Asgard, Thor’s home world.

Until now.

THOR: RAGNAROK (2017) sheds its seriousness within its first few seconds, and immediately becomes as playful and humorous as a GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY movie.

A lot happens in THOR: RAGNAROK, so the less said about the plot the better.  The very evil Hela (Cate Blanchett), the first-born of Odin (Anthony Hopkins), which makes her Thor’s older sister, sets her sights on conquering Asgard in order to make it her own, and it’s up to Thor (Chris Hemsworth) to stop her.  But this is a fight that Thor cannot win alone, and so he enlists the aid of the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), the warrior Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), Heimdall (Idris Elba), his estranged oftentimes evil brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), and even Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch).

The result is an action-packed often hilarious adventure that entertains from start to finish.

The best part of THOR: RAGNAROK is its lively script by Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, and Christopher Yost.  Evidently, the writers were influenced and inspired by the John Carpenter action comedy BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA (1986), a flick that is not among my favorite Carpenter movies, as it’s downright silly at times, but that being said it’s still colorful and entertaining, and it stars Kurt Russell.

Now, I can easily see this influence.  In fact, even before I knew of this connection, while watching the movie, I felt that this THOR film was playing out as if it had been directed by John Carpenter.  And Chris Hemsworth’s Thor in this film reminded me of Kurt Russell’s Jack Burton character in BIG TROUBLE, from the over-the-top dialogue like “because this is what heroes do,” to the moments where the bravado and boasts come back to hit our hero in the face.  In short, it’s fun to see Thor not take himself too seriously.

The dialogue is fun throughout, the situations exciting and comical, and the characters are all well-written and fleshed out.

Also, like most Marvel superhero movies, THOR: RAGNAROK boasts a cast that has no business being in a superhero movie.  The combination of superior acting and strong writing creates both lively characters and compelling situations.

Chris Hemsworth can pretty much play Thor in his sleep these days.  He owns the role. And while previous THOR films haven’t been among my favorite Marvel movies, it’s not because of Hemsworth.  He’s always been excellent as Thor.  And he’s just as good if not better here.  He dials things up a few notches on the humor meter, which isn’t completely surprising, since he’s always given Thor humorous moments. Not only is he funny here, but he’s completely believable as a hero strong enough to tangle with the Hulk.

Speaking of the Hulk, the giant green guy is the “guest Avenger” in this film, and Mark Ruffalo is back once again playing the character.  This time around we see more of the Hulk and much less of his alter ego, Bruce Banner. This is also the first time that Ruffalo is voicing the Hulk.  In previous movies, it’s been Hulk veteran Lou Ferrigno providing the voice.  Ruffalo does just fine, and I actually preferred his voice this time around.

As I said, Tom Hiddleston is back as Loki, Thor’s villainous brother who continually shows up in these Marvel movies like a bad penny.  Now, I’ve never been a fan of Loki in these movies, so it’s saying something about THOR: RAGNAROK that this is the first time I’ve really enjoyed Loki.  Hiddleston seems to be having a good time playing him, and we get to see Loki taking stock of his character, as he joins forces with his brother to take on his evil sister.  It’s fun to see Loki fight for the common good while still not shedding his darker side.

Cate Blanchett is icy cold as Hela.  She’s the first major female villain to appear in one of these Marvel superhero films, and that’s long overdue.  In general, the Marvel movies tend to stumble with their villains, who are usually the weak link in the stories.  Not so here. Blanchett’s Hela is a formidable foe for Thor and friends, and she’s both sexy and evil when she’s on screen.

Even better than Blanchett is Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie.  Her tough warrior heroine would give Wonder Woman a run for her money.  She was one of my favorite characters in the movie.

Jeff Goldblum chews up the scenery in a scene-stealing performance as the Grandmaster, and his arena of death is right out of a John Carpenter movie.  I half-expected to see Snake Plissken show up.

It was good to see Idris Elba get more significant screen time as Heimdall, and Karl Urban also provides solid support as Skurge, a character who finds himself drafted by Hela to be her local enforcer.

I could keep going, as there are still more solid supporting players here, including Anthony Hopkins as Thor’s father Odin, who’s more enjoyable here in his brief screen time than he was in the previous two movies, and Benedict Cumberbatch, who’s on hand briefly as Doctor Strange.

Director Taika Waititi has made a colorful, action-packed superhero tale which fits in perfectly with the Marvel universe.  It’s closer in tone to a GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY movie than a THOR movie, but that’s okay.  From its opening scene where Thor battles a giant villain and things don’t go as planned, to Thor’s first meeting with the Hulk and their subsequent banter, it gets the humor right.

The action sequences also do not disappoint.  The battle in the Grandmaster’s arena is a good one, as is the climactic showdown with Hela.

For most of the movie Thor is without his hammer, and he sees this as a disadvantage, and he questions his strength without it, but his father Odin tells him otherwise, which provides Thor with a telling and powerful moment later in the film.

But other than this, there’s not a lot of seriousness here. THOR: RAGNAROK is all fun and games, and this is a good thing.  It’s the perfect Marvel vehicle.

It’s easily the best of the THOR movies.

—END—

 

VICTORIA AND ABDUL (2017) – Light But Ultimately Superficial Tale of Unlikely Friendship

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There’s a funny line in VICTORIA AND ABDUL (2017) where Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) receives a mango from her entourage, and hearing her friend Abdul’s comments about the fruit, tells them, “This mango is off.”

The same can be said for the movie itself.  It starts off well, but as it goes along, I couldn’t help but notice it was all just a little “off.”

VICTORIA AND ABDUL (2017) begins playfully, as the first words on the screen are “Based on real events—- mostly.”  Good for a chuckle, it’s the first of many humorous moments during the movie’s first half.

It’s 1887, and Queen Victoria has been ruling for fifty years.  She’s pretty much bored to death with all the ceremonies and pomp and circumstance which surround her life. Enter Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), an Indian clerk who has been sent to present her with a ceremonial coin, a gift from the queen’s colony in India.  The queen notices Abdul, later quips that she found him terribly handsome, and the next thing Abdul knows he’s invited back.  Soon, Victoria is taking to speaking to Abdul privately.  Bored with her life, she is fascinated by his fresh positive outlook on life, and she even makes him her “Munshi,” a spiritual advisor.

These decisions absolutely enrage the officials surrounding the queen, including her whining son Bertie, the Prince of Wales (Eddie Izzard). It doesn’t take long for the plots to begin, plots to remove Abdul from the Queen’s confidence.  And it’s here where the film started to lose me.

The relationship between Victoria and Abdul is quite charming at first, but as the story goes along, it becomes less so because the movie does not give its audience reasons to really understand why this relationship is so important to them.  In terms of the queen, sure, she finds her life boring, and Abdul is like a breath of fresh air, and this works at first, but it only goes so far.  Abdul’s motives are far less understood.  In fact, of all the characters in the movie, he’s probably developed the least.

And then there’s the undercurrent of racism and imperialism.  The British officials disdain Abdul mostly because he is an Indian peasant, and they look down at him throughout the movie.  While this keeps the story real and relevant, it also doesn’t really mesh all that well with the lighter, fun tone of Victoria and Abdul’s friendship.  As the movie moves forward, the ugly imperial undertones grow stronger while the witty friendship tale reverts into the background, paving the way for Abdul’s eventual fate. The film does not end the way it begins.  In fact, the ending seems like quite the different movie.

I saw VICTORIA AND ABDUL because of Judi Dench, and she does not disappoint one iota.  She delivers a solid performance as Queen Victoria, and she is the main reason to see this movie.

I was less impressed with Ali Fazal as Abdul.  There was just something less real about Abdul than pretty much all of the other characters, and I believe the fault is a combination of the acting and the writing.  I just never really understood what Abdul really wanted.  Supposedly, in real life, he used his relationship with Victoria to be a voice for Muslims and their rights, but that kind of motivation is absent from this movie.

But the supporting cast here is very good. Adeel Akhtar, who was also memorable earlier this year in a supporting role in THE BIG SICK (2017), plays another Indian peasant named Mohammed who also meets the Queen with Abdul.  Early on, Mohammed provides plenty of comic relief as he criticizes what he sees as the barbaric English society, and later, he has one of the better dramatic moments in the film when he rejects the British officials’ plea to him to help them get rid of Abdul.

The recently deceased Tim Pigott-Smith is excellent as Sir Henry Ponsonby, the queen’s long-suffering handler who receives most of the pressure for not being able to rid the royal household of Abdul.  Eddie Izzard is both comical and menacing as Victoria’s whiny son Bertie.

Then there’s Michael Gambon as Lord Salisbury, Paul Higgins as the queen’s personal physician, Dr. Reid, and Olivia Williams as Lady Churchill, who all can’t wait to rid themselves of Abdul.  They all give very effective performances.  And Simon Callow even show up in a comical bit as the famed singer Puccini.

Stephen Frears directed VICTORIA AND ABDUL, and in terms of period piece photography, there aren’t any complaints here.  The film looks terrific.  The pacing is a bit slow, and while naturally entertaining, it doesn’t really take advantage of its more powerful moments.  The disturbing parts of the story are not explored as deeply as they could have been. Frears has had a long and successful directorial career, from films like MY BEAUTIFUL LAUNDRETTE (1985) to THE QUEEN (2006).

Lee Hall wrote the screenplay, based on the book by Shrabani Basu.  Early on, the humor works, but I never completely understood the relationship between Victoria and Abdul, mostly because I didn’t get a good sense of Abdul’s background and motivations.

And later, when things grow ugly, events just happen without there being much thought or reaction to them.  Again, it comes down to Abdul.  When things go badly for him near the end, his thoughts and feelings barely register.

VICTORIA AND ABDUL is a fairly entertaining movie.  Judi Dench gives a professional performance as Queen Victoria, and she’s aided by a strong supporting cast.  But there’s more to this story than just a lighthearted friendship between two unlikely friends. There’s a tale of racism and imperialism, but the film barely explores these darker more cynical parts of the narrative.  They’re there, but they remain superficial.

As does the entire movie.

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

Halloween Special 2: Karloff, Lugosi, Chaney,Jr., Lee, and Cushing Talk Monsters

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Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff

Welcome back to another Halloween Special.

Once again I’m conducting a mock interview with horror greats Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney Jr., Christopher Lee, and Peter Cushing. And while this interview is completely imaginary, their answers to my questions are real, taken from quotes they really said.

So, without further hesitation, let’s get started.

MICHAEL:  Welcome everyone to a very special treat.

Joining me today on this Monster Panel are Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney Jr., Christopher Lee, and Peter Cushing. Thank you all for joining me today.

Today I want to talk about monsters, specifically, your thoughts on just who is the greatest movie monster of all time.  And before you answer, I’m going to guess that you all will be partial to the monsters you played in the movies.  And as a famous comedian once said, “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”

Bela, let’s start with you.  Your thoughts on the greatest movie monster of all time.

BELA LUGOSI: Every actor’s greatest ambition is to create his own, definite and original role, a character with which he will always be identified. In my case, that role was Dracula.

dracula-1931-bela-lugosi

Lugosi as Dracula in DRACULA (1931).

MICHAEL:  So, you’re going with Dracula?

(Lugosi nods)

CHRISTOPHER LEE:  I agree.

Dracula is different; he is such an exciting person.

And it doesn’t bother me to be remembered as Dracula.
Dracula-Prince-of-Darkness_lee

Christopher Lee as Dracula in DRACULA – PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1966).

MICHAEL:  It doesn’t?
CHRISTOPHER LEE: Why should it? What does bother me is when people say, “Ah yes, there goes Dracula,” or “There goes the horror king.” It simply isn’t true. I’m quite annoyed when people don’t acknowledge that I’ve done anything else.
PETER CUSHING:  People look at me as if I were some sort of monster, but I can’t think why.
 (Everyone laughs)
 PETER CUSHING: In my macabre pictures, I have either been a monster-maker or a monster-destroyer, but never a monster. Actually, I’m a gentle fellow. Never harmed a fly. I love animals, and when I’m in the country I’m a keen bird-watcher.
 MICHAEL:  Boris, what about you?
 BORIS KARLOFF: The Frankenstein Monster.
Yes, the monster was the best friend I ever had.
Frankenstein-1931-Boris-Karloff

Karloff as the Monster in FRANKENSTEIN (1931).

 PETER CUSHING:  I know what you mean.
It gives me the most wonderful feeling. These dear people love me so much and want to see me. The astonishing thing is that when I made the Frankenstein and Dracula movies almost 30 years ago the young audiences who see me now weren’t even born yet. A new generation has grown up with my films. And the original audiences are still able to see me in new pictures. So, as long as these films are made I will have a life in this business — for which I’m eternally grateful.
curse of frankenstein - you're going to help me paul

Peter Cushing as Baron Victor Frankenstein in THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957).

CHRISTOPHER LEE:  Yes, and for me, quite frankly, I’m grateful to Dracula.
If people today remember me in the role and still enjoy it, I’m flattered. If, through some strange twist of fate, I was able to take a character some 25 years ago and create an impact where by I suddenly became known throughout the world, how can I complain?
 BELA LUGOSI: And never has a role so influenced and dominated an actor’s role as has the role of Dracula.
 MICHAEL:  We haven’t heard from you yet, Lon.  What’s your opinion on these classic movie monsters?
 LON CHANEY JR.: All the best of the monsters played for sympathy. That goes for my father, myself and all the others. They all won the audience’s sympathy.
  The Wolf Man didn’t want to do all those bad things. He was forced into them.
wolf man fog

Lon Chaney Jr. as The Wolfman, in THE WOLFMAN (1941).

 MICHAEL:  So, monsters are pretty special.
BORIS KARLOFF: My dear old monster. I owe everything to him. He’s my best friend.
 LON CHANEY JR.: The trouble with most of the monster pictures today is that they go after horror for horror’s sake. There’s no motivation for how monsters behave.
  CHRISTOPHER LEE:  That’s one of the reasons I will play no more monsters.
 Now villains are different.
Most people find my villains memorable because I try to make them as unconventional as possible. They are not overt monsters.
It’s easy to play a “heavy” straight down the middle, 100%, but it’s boring. I don’t think I’ve ever played a villain who didn’t have some unusual, humanizing trait. When I look back at my men with the black hats, they’ve always had something else going for them, whether it be a sardonic sense of humor or a feeling of desolation. I always try to throw as many curves the audience’s way as possible. That’s probably why people enjoy my villainy.
 LON CHANEY JR.:  There’s just too much of that science-fiction baloney.
 BELA LUGOSI:  Science fiction, perhaps.  Baloney, perhaps not.
Dracula has, at times, infused me with prosperity and, at other times, he has drained me of everything.
It’s a living, but it’s also a curse. It’s Dracula’s curse.
chaney lugosi

Lon Chaney Jr. and Bela Lugosi in THE WOLFMAN (1941).

 PETER CUSHING:  Yes.  In the early days I played a lot of comedy in the theater and on television. But once an actor becomes well-known in any kind of part, he tends to get stereotyped.

After I played Frankenstein, I was only thought of in that light. Of course, some actors are better at drama and some are better at comedy. But they can certainly have a stab at both. An actor should be able to do it all.

(Laughter)

BORIS KARLOFF: Before we go, since we’re talking about movie monsters, I just want to acknowledge Jack Pierce— the best make-up man in the world.

I owe him a lot.

MICHAEL:  Thank you all for joining me tonight.  I appreciate your taking the time to answer my questions.  And that’s all the time we have.

Thanks for reading, everybody!

—Michael

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For The Love Of Horror cover

Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.