WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR? (2018) – Documentary Defines and Shares Mister Rogers’ Legacy

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There are two things that WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR? (2018), Morgan Neville’s documentary on TV’s Fred Rogers, does well above all else.

It validates Rogers’ work during his thirty plus years on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, revealing him as more than just a kind and gentle host of a children’s TV show. His mission had a far deeper purpose.

And it delivers his ongoing message to today’s society, which is in desperate need to hear it and learn from it.

Fred Rogers, of course, was popularly known as Mister Rogers because of his time hosting Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, the iconic PBS children’s television show which ran from 1968-2001. WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR? chronicles how that show began and follows Rogers on his lifelong mission to connect with and care for young children.

Rogers went to school to become a minister but was both so intrigued by the new medium of television and disgusted by it in that it provided little to no proper programming for children, that he decided to put his ministry plans on hold and start his own TV show for kids. That show eventually became Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. And Rogers eventually became an ordained minister. Although he did not wear a collar, he would work as a minister his whole life, reaching out to children, spreading his message of love and acceptance during every episode of his show.

It wasn’t quite known how effectively Rogers was connecting to children until one day early on when WGBH in Boston invited Rogers to make a live appearance, and the line of children waiting to see him stretched outside around the building for blocks. From that time forward, Rogers became a mainstay on Children’s Public Television.

It almost didn’t happen, as the Nixon administration planned to dramatically cut funding for public television, and in one of the film’s more dramatic moments, we see Rogers testifying before Congress, where his powerful statement actually earns them the funding right there on the spot.

The movie also chronicles how bold Rogers was, as he was not afraid to cover controversial topics. He saw it as his mission to reach children and be there as the person who could explain these confusing and potentially upsetting things to them. The film shows clips from episodes on assassination following the Robert Kennedy assassination, on disasters after the Challenger explosion, and on divorce and death.

And with a regular character who was black, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood also consistently delivered a message on positive race relations.

But this was just a small part of what Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was all about. Rogers saw it as his mission to be an advocate for children and for his show to be that safe place where they could learn about life, and where they could be heard. Rogers speaks of the importance of listening, and also of quiet, and we see many of the quiet peaceful moments of his show juxtaposed with the loud, insane moments of other children’s’ shows and cartoons. As one interviewee said, “there were plenty of quiet moments on the show but no empty ones.”

And that’s one of the things that this documentary does the best. It makes clear that Rogers had a mission and a purpose, and that during the years his show ran, the mission was successful.

Yet the film shows Rogers lamenting near the end of his life that he feared that people still didn’t get his show and what he was all about, that he was seen as just an oddball Pollyanna character who talked slowly to children.

And he felt this way partly because of the backlash fueled by Fox News in the early 2000s where some claimed that Rogers actually harmed children by telling them they were special, because this kind of talk led to children growing up feeling entitled and becoming whiny adults. Rogers also faced protests from groups who felt offended by his acceptance of gays. These attacks by the political right were rather ironic since Rogers was both a Republican and an ordained minister.

It’s this part of the film that connects successfully to today, as here in 2018 we live in a time of massive political divisions and hatred, fueled by partisan fighting and ever-more-violent rhetoric. Rogers no doubt would be appalled to see what is going on today. He also no doubt would have been putting together his show to help children understand what is going on and help them be able to deal with it.

Director Morgan Neville has created a deep and resonating documentary with WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR? It’s not a superficial anecdotal film, where we learn why he wore a sweater, or why he changed his shoes. It’s about the man and his mission to reach as many children as possible and to tell them they are loved.

WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR? makes it clear that Fred Rogers was a remarkable and special individual, and when he passed away on February 27, 2003 at the age of 74, the world lost one of its staunchest child advocates, and children lost a treasured and dear friend. Indeed, the centerpiece of his show was his simple message that all children were loved, and everyone was special, that one didn’t have to do anything remarkable to be special. We are all born that way.

You make each day a special day. You know how, by just your being you. There’s only one person in this whole world like you. And people can like you exactly as you are. —Fred Rogers.

—END—

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IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: THE SKULL (1965)

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Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing in THE SKULL (1965).

 

Amicus Productions, the other horror film company from Great Britain that competed with Hammer Films in the 1960s-70s, is famous for their anthology horror movies, but one of their all time best horror films is not an anthology flick but one that tells a single story.

It’s THE SKULL (1965), starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, and it’s one of the better horror films to come out of the 1960s, if not for anything else, for its original story.

Of course, it helps to have superior source material.  THE SKULL is based on the story “The Skull of the Marquis de Sade” by Robert Bloch.

THE SKULL (1965) tells the story of Christopher Maitland (Peter Cushing), a collector of all things macabre, who is offered the skull of the Marquis de Sade by the shady buyer and seller Anthony Marco (Patrick Wymark). Not sure if he wants to add it to his collection or not, Maitland visits his friend Sir Matthew Phillips (Christopher Lee) to seek advice on the item’s authenticity and is shocked when Sir Matthew tells him it is the real deal because Marco stole it from him. When Maitland offers to help Sir Matthew get it back, Sir Matthew tells him he wants no part of it and warns Maitland against purchasing it, citing the skull’s dangerous supernatural powers. Maitland scoffs at his friend’s warning and even calls him a coward, saying he’d welcome the full force of the skull’s powers if they existed so he could write about them.

Maitland goes ahead and adds the skull to his collection.

You should have listened to your friend’s advice.

Because it turns out that the skull is indeed evil, and it leads to the death and destruction of everyone who comes in contact with it.

THE SKULL has a lot of things going for it, and it’s one of those movies that has aged well and holds up better today than when it first came out.

For starters, it’s one of the first Peter Cushing/Christopher Lee horror movies not to be a period piece. It’s set in modern times, and as such, as much as I enjoy all the period piece Hammer Films, THE SKULL plays like a breath of fresh air.

THE SKULL also gives Cushing and Lee a chance to appear in the same scenes together and actually hold some intriguing conversations. Prior to THE SKULL, most of their movie scenes together involved them dueling to the death, with Cushing’s hero usually gaining the upper hand over Lee’s monster. Here, they share some noteworthy scenes together. My favorite is their conversation over a game of pool where they argue over the power of the skull. With a little imagination it’s easy to perceive this scene as a dialogue between Baron Frankenstein and Scaramanga. It kinda has that feel.

There’s also a neat dream sequence— or is it?— where Cushing’s Maitland is whisked away by some weird gangster thugs and taken to a secret court where he’s forced to play russian roulette with a loaded pistol. It’s a bizarre sequence, but it really works.

The special effects here for a 1965 movie aren’t half bad.  The skull looks pretty cool, and the scenes shot from inside the skull, an idea conceived by director Freddie Francis, also work.

But what works against the movie, and in the past, used to prevent me from truly loving it, is it has pacing issues, especially towards the end, where there are long scenes of Peter Cushing sitting and staring at the skull, which are hardly all that thrilling.  There are a couple of reasons for this.

One, according to director Freddie Francis, the script by producer Milton Subotsky was largely unfinished and resembled more of an outline than a full-fledged screenplay. According to Francis, he had to add quite a bit to the film’s story to make it reach feature-length.

Also, while Freddie Francis directed a lot of movies, he’s more known for his cinematography, for films in the 1950s, and later, on such classics as THE ELEPHANT MAN (1980) and GLORY (1989). He’s not one of my favorite horror movie directors, although I did enjoy his work on DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE (1968) which I think is his best horror movie.

But as I said, THE SKULL has aged well, and I regard it much more highly than I did say thirty years ago.

The pacing remains slow, but that seems to matter less now, because its scenes of horror have only gotten better. It opens with an extremely atmospheric graveyard scene which takes place in the 1800s, and so even though this one isn’t a period piece, it begins that way, which makes its switch to modern-day later all the more effective.

There’s something very intelligent and artistic about the entire production, and that’s the part that seems to have gotten better with age. The other notable thing about THE SKULL is it’s not a movie where the good guys win. The forces of darkness are the victors here. In fact, the entire movie seems to be seeped in an aura of evil. It really resonates.

And the film has a very strong cast.  Of course, you have Cushing and Lee, but they’re supported by folks like Patrick Wymark, Jill Bennett, Nigel Green, Patrick Magee, Peter Woodthorpe, and Michael Gough.

Peter Cushing always delivers a top-notch performance, although his best work is when he plays the hero or the villain. Here, as Christopher Maitland, he’s a flawed character who isn’t strong enough to fend off the powers of the skull, but as such, it’s rather refreshing to see him play this kind of role.

Christopher Lee’s Sir Matthew Phillips is largely a supporting role, but it is an excellent performance nonetheless. As many of Lee’s early performances so often were, it went largely unnoticed by critics, but he is quite good here as the man who, unlike Maitland, realizes just how dangerous the skull is and tries to tell his friend to walk away from the supernatural object.  Lee does a terrific job creating a character who shows both strength and fear.

Producer and writer Milton Subotsky had a vision for this film to be a feature-length horror movie with very little dialogue. He once said in an interview, “It’s a fantastic film and I think, will someday be considered a horror classic.”

It may have taken over 50 years, but I think Subotsky was right.

We’ve reached the point where we can safely call THE SKULL a classic horror movie from the 1960s.

–END—

 

 

ANT-MAN AND THE WASP (2018) – Light, Fun, Another Marvel Hit

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Evangeline Lily and Paul Rudd in ANT-MAN AND THE WASP (2018)

ANT-MAN AND THE WASP (2018), the latest entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is a comedic vehicle that will have you chuckling throughout, which is just what Marvel fans needed after the devastating AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (2018) earlier this year.

After breaking the law by teaming up with Captain America in CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (2016), Scott Lang/Ant Man (Paul Rudd) finds himself under house arrest. He sees his young daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Forston), and he’s visited by his business partner Luis (Michael Pena), but he cannot leave his house, which explains his absence from AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR. Speaking of which, the events in this movie take place just before the events in INFINITY WAR.

Scott’s also not supposed to have any contact with Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lily) or her father Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) since they designed the Ant Man suit which he wore when he fought against Iron Man and half the Avengers when he joined Team Captain America. Hope and Hank are considered fugitives from justice. And Scott wants no part of seeing them since his house arrest ends in a matter of days.

But that all changes when Hope and Hank extract Scott from his house, telling him they need his help to find Hope’s mother Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer) who was lost years ago in the subatomic realm and considered dead, but since Scott had been reduced to a subatomic level and returned, Hank now believes it’s possible his wife is still alive. Scott reluctantly agrees to help them.

But along the way they find resistance from a shady business contact Sonny Burch (Walter Goggins) and a mysterious being with super powers greater than their own, both of whom want to steal Hank’s technology.

So, as you can see, the plot here is nothing heavy.  Ant Man is not trying to save the world, and after AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR, that’s fine with me.

How does ANT-MAN AND THE WASP compare to the first ANT MAN movie?  It’s as good if not better.

One of the strengths of the Marvel movies has always been that they have very strong scripts, and the screenplay here by Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Paul Rudd, Andrew Barrer, and Gabriel Ferrari is no exception.  It goes all in on the comedy and is light and funny throughout. Writers Barrer and Ferrari are new to the Marvel Universe, while Rudd worked on the screenplay to the first ANT-MAN (2015), and McKenna and Sommers were on the team that wrote the highly regarded SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING (2017).

The other strength of these Marvel movies is the impressive casts they always assemble.

Paul Rudd returns as Ant Man, and he’s about as likable a superhero as you’re going to find in a movie, mostly because he’s an unlikely superhero. He doesn’t see himself as much of a hero. In fact, he knows he usually messes things up pretty bad.  Rudd is fun to watch because of both his easy-going personality and his sharp comedic timing.

Rudd’s scenes with Abby Ryder Forston, who plays Scott’s daughter Cassie, are precious. The scene where she says she wants to be his partner is a keeper. And Forston also gets plenty of comedic moments as well.

Rudd enjoys fine chemistry with both Evangeline Lilly and Michael Douglas.  Lily is perfect as Hope/Wasp, as she’s both bitter and in love with Scott, and their scenes together have the necessary sexual tension and honed humor. Lily also makes for an impressive bad-ass superhero.

Michael Douglas gets plenty of opportunities to shine as Dr. Hank Pym. When he’s not chastising Scott or saying lines like “are we going to get out of here or are you two going to stare at each other all day?” to Scott and Hope when they become preoccupied with each other rather than escaping, he’s devoted to finding his wife.

And it was fun to see Michelle Pfeiffer back on the big screen in a superhero movie, something she hadn’t done since her phenomenal performance as Catwoman in BATMAN RETURNS (1992). Pfeiffer’s not in this one much, but she appears early on in a flashback as the first Wasp, thanks to some CGI/motion capture effects, looking years younger.

The rest of the cast is largely there for comedic relief.

Michael Pena has a field day as Scott’s business partner Luis, and as the movie goes along, he becomes more involved in the plot. Luis, along with associates Dave (T.I.) and Kurt (David Dastmalchian), form a team who when helping Scott are about as useful as the Three Stooges.

Likewise, Walter Goggins, who’s played some very serious villains in his day, in films like DJANGO UNCHAINED (2012) and THE HATEFUL EIGHT (2015), plays baddie Sonny Burch strictly for laughs. The scene where Sonny and his goons capture Luis, Dave, and Kurt and plan to use “truth serum” on them is hilarious.

Judy Greer returns as Scott’s ex-wife Maggie, and Bobby Cannavale returns as her new husband Paxton, and their scenes are comic as well this time around. And Randall Park plays lawman Jimmy Woo, also, you got it, for laughs.

The emphasis on humor would be bad if the film wasn’t funny, but it is, very much so, and all these actors excel in their roles. The result is a highly entertaining two hours which fly by incredibly quickly.

About the only two folks in the film not playing things for laughs are Hannah John-Kamen as the mysterious Ghost, and Laurence Fishburne as Hank’s former colleague Dr. Bill Foster. Hanna John-Kamen is okay as Ghost, but the character, in spite of an interesting background story, isn’t developed all that well.

Laurence Fishburne fares better as Dr. Bill Foster. He’s a man who’s often at odds with Hank Pym, but he’s trying to do the right thing. The scene where he puts his foot down with Ghost when she suggests they go after Scott’s daughter for leverage really resonates. When he tells her in no uncertain terms that going after children is wrong and that he will not be a part of using a child to get what he wants, it’s a telling moment.

ANT-MAN AND THE WASP was directed by Peyton Reed, who also directed the first ANT-MAN movie. He handled both films very well, and I think he outdid himself with this second film, as he pretty much got everything right with this one. The humor works, the action scenes are edited well and fun to watch, and the pacing is perfect. The special effects are also spot-on.

If there’s any flaw it’s I would have liked more Wasp.  I really enjoyed Evangeline Lilly as Wasp and would have loved to have seen her in even more scenes as the bad-ass superhero.

And while comedy ruled the day in ANT-MAN AND THE WASP, the events from AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR which have not happened yet loom like a cloud over the proceedings, which makes this story even better.

In the Marvel movie tradition, there are two after-credit scenes. The first is the big one, the one you definitely do not want to miss, while the second, at the very end of the credits, reverts back to the comedic.

ANT-MAN AND THE WASP is yet another high quality superhero movie from Marvel, as the studio continues its amazing run of entertaining movies, and it shows no sign of slowing down. In fact, the studio is having an extraordinarily exceptional year, as all three of their releases so far in 2018, BLACK PANTHER, AVENGER: INFINITY WAR, and ANT-MAN AND THE WASP, are among the best films of the year.

And since Ant-Man wasn’t involved in the devastating conclusion to AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR, he’s suddenly a very important superhero going forward. Be sure to catch him in this light adventure now, because the next time we see him in the next AVENGERS movie, things no doubt will be a bit darker.

Yup, the next time we see him he’ll be going up against Thanos.  Gulp!

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

 

IN THE SHADOWS: J. CARROL NAISH

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J. Carrol Naish as Daniel the hunchback in HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944)

 
Welcome back to IN THE SHADOWS,  the column where we look at character actors in the movies, especially horror movies.

Today in the shadows it’s J. Carrol Naish, one of the most respected character actors of his day, and while he’s certainly known for his horror roles, one of my favorite Naish roles is not from a horror flick at all, but from a superhero tale.

No, they weren’t making Marvel movies back in the 1930s and 40s, but they were making DC serials, and Naish starred in one of the best, BATMAN (1943), starring Lewis Wilson as Batman. This 15 episode serial marked the first time Batman would appear on the big screen, and it remains one of the better interpretations of the Caped Crusader, even all these years later. Another reason this one is so memorable? J. Carrol Naish plays the evil villain, Dr. Daka.

Since Naish was known for his multitudinous accents, he was a natural choice to play the Japanese Dr. Daka.  Remember, this was 1943, smack dab in the middle of World War II, and just two years after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and so it made sense to feature a villain of Japanese descent. Still, this one unfortunately contains some racial slurs which were redubbed in the VHS release, then restored in the later DVD release. Interestingly enough, Naish was originally signed to play the Joker, but the villain was changed to fit into a more contemporary and pressing storyline. Some remnants of the Joker still remain, like his hideout being inside a carnival.

I love Naish’s performance in BATMAN. Every time he gets the upper hand on one of his victims, and they lament, he tends to say, “Oh, that’s too bad.” Not quite a catch phrase, but there’s just something about his delivery that cracks me up every time.

But horror fans remember Naish for his horror roles, especially that of Daniel, the sympathetic hunchback in HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944).

Here’s a partial look at Naish’s whopping 224 screen credits, focusing mostly on his genre films:

THE OPEN SWITCH (1925) – Naish’s first screen appearance is in this silent crime drama.

GOOD INTENTIONS (1930) – Charlie Hattrick – Naish’s first screen credit. Another crime drama.

DR. RENAULT’S SECRET (1942) – Noel – horror movie also starring George Zucco as the mysterious Dr. Renault. Naish plays Noel, Renault’s strange assistant, whose real identity, is Dr. Renault’s secret.

BATMAN (1943) – Dr. Daka – 15 episode serial remains one of the better screen interpretations of the Batman. Also the first. Naish plays the villain, the evil Dr. Daka, which happens to be my favorite Naish role.

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J. Carrol Naish as the evil Dr. Daka in the 15 episode serial BATMAN (1943). 

SAHARA (1943) – Giuseppe – Classic Humphrey Bogart World War II adventure tells the story of a group of survivors in an army tank facing the Nazis in the desert. Naish was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

CALLING DR. DEATH (1943) – Inspector Gregg- Horror movie with Lon Chaney Jr. where Chaney plays a doctor who believes he has murdered his wife.

THE MONSTER MAKER (1944) – Markoff – Naish plays a mad scientist who injects his victims with a serum that causes them to become seriously deformed. Why? Because he can! Also stars Glenn Strange as the giant, who would go on later that year to play the Frankenstein Monster in HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944), which would also star Naish.

JUNGLE WOMAN (1944) – Dr. Carl Fletcher – horror movie featuring Paula the ape woman. (Not to be confused with Mildred the Monkey Woman. Or Clara the Cat Woman. Or Madge the Avon Lady. Seriously, though, Paula the ape woman???) Also stars Evelyn Ankers.

HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944) – Daniel – my second favorite J. Carrol Naish role after Dr. Daka. Naish plays the hunchback Daniel, assistant to Boris Karloff’s evil Dr. Niemann, who falls for the beautiful gypsy woman Ilonka (Elena Verdugo) but his love is not returned as she has eyes for the doomed Larry Talbot/The Wolf Man (Lon Chaney Jr.) in one of the film’s better story arcs. With Boris Karloff as Dr. Niemann, Lon Chaney Jr. as the Wolf Man, John Carradine as Dracula, and Glenn Strange as the Frankenstein Monster.

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Naish and Karloff searching the ruins of Frankenstein’s castle in HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944).

A MEDAL FOR BENNY (1945) – Charley Martin – Second and final time Naish was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in this war drama based on a story by John Steinbeck.

STRANGE CONFESSION (1945) -Graham – another horror movie with Lon Chaney Jr.

THE BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS (1046) – Ovidio Castanio – classic horror movie starring Peter Lorre about a murderous severed hand. Written by Curt Siodmark.

THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E (1966) – Uncle Giuliano- guest spot on the popular 60s spy TV show in the episode “The Super-Colossal Affair.”

GET SMART (1968) – Sam Vittorio – guest spot on the classic Don Adams comedy in the episode “The Secret of Sam Vittorio.”

DRACULA VS. FRANKENSTEIN (1971) – Dr. Frankenstein – Naish’s final film role is in this dreadful horror movie which falls under the “it’s so bad it’s good” category. Plays a wheel chair bound Dr. Frankenstein. Also notable for being Lon Chaney Jr.’s final movie. He actually fares worse here than Naish, as his character doesn’t even have any dialogue. Horrible, grade Z stuff.

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Lon Chaney Jr. and J. Carrol Naish in DRACULA VS. FRANKENSTEIN (1971), the final film roles for both these actors.

 

Naish passed away on January 24, 1973 from emphysema at the age of 77.

J. Carrol Naish – January 21,  1896 – January 24, 1973.

I hope you enjoyed this partial look at the career of J. Carrol Naish, one of the hardest working and most effective character actors of his day.  His horror movies were few and far between, but he was always memorable in them.

Thanks for joining me today on IN THE SHADOWS and I hope you’ll join me again next time when we look at the career of another great character actor.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

 

 

 

SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO (2018) – SICARIO Sequel A Solid Thriller

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Isabela Moner and Benicio Del Toro in SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO (2018).

 

SICARIO (2015) was my favorite movie of 2015.

It was also the first film written by Taylor Sheridan, who, along with his screenplays for HELL OR HIGH WATER (2016) and WIND RIVER (2017) has become one of my favorite screenwriters working today.

So, my interest in the sequel to SICARIO went up when I realized that Sheridan was writing it.

That sequel, SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO (2018), does what most sequels fail to do: it tells a completely different story from its predecessor, as it follows the natural progression of two of the main characters from the previous movie and tells their ongoing story. As such, it feels more like the next episode in a quality TV series rather than a rehash of the first movie, the trap into which many sequels fall. In fact, it’s the second chapter in a proposed trilogy of SICARIO movies.

Its plot is also timely, as it involves smuggling immigrants over the southern border from Mexico.

SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO opens with Mexican immigrants being rounded up as they try to cross the border. One of the men flees and just as the officials are closing in on him, he detonates a bomb and blows himself up. The action switches to Kansas City where we witness a deadly terrorist attack where suicide bombers blow up a crowded shopping area.

Special agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) is called in to meet with Secretary of Defense James Riley (Matthew Modine) and a group of other officials.  Graver explains that while Mexican cartels used to make most of their money smuggling drugs, nowadays they make more money smuggling people. Riley then informs Graver that the cartels have upped the ante as they are now smuggling terrorists.

Riley wants Graver to put a stop to this, and Graver, an expert in dealing with the cartels, says the best way to do it is to get them to fight each other, and so a plot is hatched to kidnap the daughter of a Mexican drug lord and make it look like the work of a rival cartel. Graver is given the green light to do whatever it takes, and as he assembles his team, he includes the shadowy hitman Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro).

Graver’s team pulls off a brazen daytime abduction of the daughter, Isabel Reyes (Isabela Moner) and they do indeed lay the blame on a rival cartel. But before their plan of getting the cartels to fight each other can take shape, things get messy, and as we know, the best laid plans of mice and men—.

In addition to Taylor Sheridan once again writing the screenplay, SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO also reunites two of the stars from the first movie, Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro, as they both reprise their roles from SICARIO, and as you would expect, they are both excellent once again, delivering solid performances.

On the other hand, Emily Blunt, who played the main character in SICARIO, did not return for the sequel and her presence is definitely missed. Likewise, director Denis Villeneuve also did not return, and these are two of the reasons why SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO, a solid thriller nonetheless, isn’t as good as its predecessor.

It’s a decent enough screenplay by Taylor Sheridan, although it’s probably not as tight as his previous scripts. It tells a tense and riveting story, and gives us realistic characters and dialogue. Like his previous screenplays, it also gives us layers. There’s a lot going on in this story.

One of the fresher and very timely aspects in the script is its take on immigrants coming into the country. For the most part, it seems to vindicate those who argue for stronger borders, but later in the movie, as the mission is spiraling out of control, it’s revealed that the Kansas City terrorists were American citizens and weren’t smuggled into the country after all, which turns the entire mission upside down. It also is one of those layers I was just talking about. Things are never black and white in a Taylor Sheridan screenplay.

But the story isn’t quite as tight as previous Sheridan tales. While the intensity is palpable for most of the film, it doesn’t quite hold up till the end. The story fizzles somewhat by the time we get to the final reel.

But as I said both Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro reprise their roles and are both exceptional. I actually enjoyed Brolin more this time around, as his character seemed to be a bit more fleshed out. Del Toro, while less chilling and mysterious than he was in SICARIO, still makes Alejandro a force to be reckoned with.  There’s more sympathy for the character this time around.

I like both these characters and would be more than happy to see them in yet another movie.

The younger actors here also fare well. Elijah Rodriguez is very good as Miguel Hernandez, a teen recruited by his adult cousin to work for the cartels smuggling immigrants across the border. It’s a cold-hearted performance that definitely strikes a chord.

But the performance of the movie belongs to young Isabela Moner as the kidnapped daughter Isabel Reyes. When we first meet Isabel, she’s in a fight at her school with another girl, and when she’s called into the principal’s office, she pretty much tells him off. And when he says he should expel her, she calls him on it, and when he does nothing, she says, “Yeah. That’s what I thought.” She then casually strolls out of his office, knowing full well she’s untouchable because of her father.

Once abducted, she’s terribly frightened, as she should be, and rather than being a clichéd “handful” she’s smart and resilient. The story arc where she bonds with Alejandro also works. It’s a terrific performance by Isabela Moner, and as much as I enjoyed Brolin and Del Toro in this movie, I think I enjoyed Moner even more. She really brings Isabel Reyes to life.

The supporting cast is full of veteran actors, including Matthew Modine, Catherine Keener, Shea Whigham, and Bruno Bichir.

Director Stefano Sollima doesn’t imbue this film with as much sweat-inducing intensity as Denis Villeneuve gave the original, but he’s also working with a weaker story. As much as I like Taylor Sheridan’s writing, the story told in the first SICARIO was a stronger one than the one told here.

Still, there are some effective scenes. The sequence where Graver’s team is attacked by the Mexican police is a good one, as is the initial kidnapping scene. And near the end, where Alejandro finds himself at the mercy of cartel members, the suspense is nail-biting.

But SICARIO was a tight thriller that remained riveting right up until the end, whereas SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO simply doesn’t do this. It has its moments, a lot of them in fact, but it doesn’t match the phenomenal original.

Sicario, by the way, is Spanish for “hitman,” and soldado means “soldier.” I’m guessing that’s a reference to Josh Brolin’s Matt Graver character, who’s portrayed here much more as a soldier this time around.  And he does tend to take center stage here.

I’m also guessing this one might underperform at the box office. I saw it on opening night with a sparse crowd which was almost entirely male. I spotted just one or two women in the audience.  And these guys were jacked and — well, let’s just say they  looked like they wanted to sign up for Matt Graver’s special ops team. So if you’re looking to put together a secret military unit, look no further than the audience at a  SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO movie.

SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO is nowhere near as strong a film as the original, but it’s still a hard-hitting thriller which successfully tells a complex and timely story involving cartels, immigration, and the shadowy missions of the U.S. government.

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com. Print version:  $18.00. Includes postage! 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.crossroadpress.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. 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

Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

JURASSIC WORLD: FALLEN KINGDOM (2018) – Just Another Inferior Sequel

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Jurassic-world-fallen kingdom - chris pratt

Time for another confession.

I’m just not a big fan of the JURASSIC PARK series. While I loved the original JURASSIC PARK (1993) when I first saw it at the theater upon its initial release and was blown away by its spectacular and genre-changing special effects, it’s one of those films that for me hasn’t aged all that well.  I tend to like it less each time I see it. And while its two sequels were okay, I didn’t love them either.

That being said, I did have a fun time watching the Chris Pratt reboot JURASSIC WORLD (2015), and I generally liked that movie, but now that its sequel has arrived in the form of JURASSIC WORLD: FALLEN KINGDOM (2018)  I just wasn’t feeling the love. I didn’t really feel like seeing this one, as it had inferior sequel written all over it.

Sometimes these instincts are right. Other times they are wrong. In this case, they were right on the money.

Yup, JURASSIC WORLD: FALLEN KINGDOM is just another inferior sequel. Sure, it has some nice moments, but they are few and far between. In fact,  JURASSIC WORLD: FALLEN KINGDOM is one of those movies that doesn’t get its story right until the final frame, wasting the audience’s time with a story that should have been cut after the first draft and rewritten to tell the tale which the end of the film unleashes.

Very frustrating.

In  JURASSIC WORLD: FALLEN KINGDOM, the dinosaurs left behind on Jurassic World are about to become extinct again because a deadly volcano is about to erupt and destroy everything in its path. Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell), dinosaur creator John Hammond’s former partner, wants to rescue the creatures and relocate as many of them as possible to a special sanctuary he has developed just for them. He hires Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) to help him, mostly because he wants her to reach out to Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) because he’s the only man alive who can get close enough to Blue, the last living Velociraptor.

Since this is a sequel, everyone quickly agrees to help out but there are sinister forces at work. Lockwood’s assistant Eli Mills (Rafe Spall) has plans of his own, and he’s given the aggressive soldier Ken Wheatley (Ted Levine) instructions to do whatever it takes to get the dinosaurs back, and these instructions do not include taking back any human survivors.

Which means that Claire and Owen and their team are on their own, and it’ s up to them to save the dinosaurs from the clutches of the evil Eli Mills.

As stories go, the one told in  JURASSIC WORLD: FALLEN KINGDOM just isn’t a very good one. It gets off to a slow start and things are rather dull early on as the plight of the dinosaurs and Claire Dearing’s concern for them just never really drew me in.

The screenplay by Derek Connolly and Colin Trevorrow offers little in the way of new ideas nor does it succeed in doing much towards character development. These guys also wrote the screenplay to JURASSIC WORLD, the previous entry in the series, and I actually enjoyed that screenplay more.

The film does have one really good sequence, and it’s the highlight of the movie. It’s the escape from the doomed Jurassic World, as Claire and Owen and friends, and the dinosaurs, race for their lives to get off the island before it is decimated by lava. As movie sequences go, this one is very exciting.  And the final image of the unfortunate Brontosaurus which doesn’t make it, is the one time in the entire movie that the story resonates emotionally. It’s also the film’s most cinematic moment.

Director J.A. Bayona does an okay job. He starts us off with a generally exciting opening sequence, but it’s nothing spectacular and certainly doesn’t give one the feeling that what is going to follow is going to be something special.  On the other hand, the movie looks good throughout and the special effects are top-notch.

If you’re a fan of Chris Pratt, you won’t be disappointed, because he does his “Chris Pratt” thing throughout, and he’s generally entertaining, but on his own, he’s not enough to save this one.

Bryce Dallas Howard is okay as Claire Dearing, but compared to other recent movie heroines, she doesn’t do all that much, and she seems to need Pratt’s Owen to get her out of jams.

Daniella Pineda is enjoyable in a supporting role as Zia Rodriguez, a paleo-veterinarian, and as she says, “yes, that’s a thing.”  She has a stronger personality than Claire, but she’s not in this one a whole lot.  Justice Smith is fairly entertaining as Franklin Webb, the oftentimes frightened former park technician who for most of the film serves as its comic relief.

Rafi Spall is a fine actor, but he’s stuck playing a one note character, as the villainous Eli Mills.  We’ve seen him before in films like PROMETHEUS (2012) and THE BIG SHORT (2015). Spall was particularly memorable in the decent low-budget horror movie THE RITUAL (2017).

Talented character actor Toby Jones shows up as a shady auctioneer, helping Mills sell off the captured dinosaurs in order to raise money to create a dinosaur super weapon. Ooooh!

Young Isabella Sermon looks cute and does “frightened” well as Maisie Lockwood, Benjamin Lockwood’s granddaughter, but the character is simply too similar to other children in movies like this to have any real impact. She is involved in an intriguing plot point, but it’s one that isn’t developed at all.  It’s mentioned and that is that.

And then there’s Jeff Goldblum, making his triumphant return to the JURASSIC PARK series after being absent for the past couple of movies. Actually, it’s not triumphant at all. It’s basically a cameo, folks. Goldblum shows up for two brief scenes in order to deliver one speech, which if you’ve seen the film’s trailer, you’ve already seen. Very disappointing.

And like I said, this one should have told the story it ends with.  See, after sitting through this dull tale of bad guys stealing dinosaurs, and good guys trying to save the dinosaurs from the bad guys, the dinosaurs are eventually released to the world, and Jeff Goldblum’s character finishes his big speech by saying humans and dinosaurs are going to need to learn how to live together, and we see some cool shots of dinosaurs existing in our world, like the shot in the trailer with the enormous sea creature ominously appearing in the surf beneath some surfers.

This has the makings of a really cool story, what life would be like with dinosaurs on the loose in the wild.  But alas, we’ll have to wait until yet another sequel to see it, and that’s only if the powers that be decide to tell that story.

I enjoyed the previous film in the series, JURASSIC WORLD, because it was a lot fun. JURASSIC WORLD: FALLEN KINGDOM really isn’t all that fun. It’s kind of a snooze.

As such, JURASSIC WORLD: FALLEN KINGDOM is a largely forgettable movie. It might satisfy hardcore JURASSIC PARK fans, but for the rest of us it’s hardly worth the trip.

Visit a different park instead.

—END—

TAG (2018) – Uneven Comedy Actually Based on True Story

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tag

The craziest thing about the new comedy TAG (2018) is that it’s actually based on a true story.

So, as much as I want to say that the plot point of a group of adults still playing tag is rather ridiculous, it actually happened. There really were a group of childhood friends who continued to play tag well into adulthood.

As a famous sports announcer used to say, how about that!

And that’s exactly the story that TAG has to tell.

Hogan (Ed Helms), Bob (Jon Hamm), Kevin (Hannibal Buress), Chilli (Jake Johnson), and Jerry (Jeremy Renner) have been friends since childhood, and now as adults, they continue to play the game of tag which they used to play as kids. It’s their way of both keeping young and keeping in touch, literally. Once a year, during the month of May, regardless of where they are, they find each other and play tag, and no one wants to be stuck being “it” for a year once the month ends.

And the one friend who has never been “it” is Jerry. He’s so good at the game that he’s never been tagged. Not once. And so the other four friends gang up on him with the plan of finally making Jerry “it.”

I have to admit, watching adult males doing whatever it takes to tag their friend and make him “it,” whether it be by taking fake jobs to get close to their target, wearing an old lady disguise, breaking into homes, and even crashing AA meetings, is fairly amusing. Up to a point.

I judge comedies by how much I laugh, and watching TAG, I laughed fairly often, but most of these laughs came during the first half of the movie. For the most part it’s a likable enough comedy, but it never becomes a laugh-to-you-cry type of experience. And that’s because even though this is based on a true story, the novelty of watching adult males playing tag only goes so far.

The jokes and situations needed to be sharper. The screenplay by Rob McKittrick and Mark Steilen is okay.  It does a nice job showing the lengths these guys go to in order to win the game, but during the film’s second half it’s just begging for things to get over the top and completely out of control, but this doesn’t happen, as the story goes for some sentimentality instead.

The recent comedy GAME NIGHT (2018), another “friends” comedy with a different contrivance -friends playing a murder/mystery game that unknown to them was in fact real— I thought had a stronger screenplay, with more jokes that worked and much funnier situations.  TAG has its moments, but it doesn’t stay consistently funny throughout.

The cast is fine. Ed Helms sort of has the lead role, as his character Hogan seems to try the hardest to win the game. Helms can do this sort of thing in his sleep, which is part of the problem. It’s nothing we haven’t seen Helms do before. I enjoyed him much more cast against type in a dramatic role in CHAPPAQUIDDICK (2017).

I’m a big Jon Hamm fan, and he kinda plays it straight here. He spends most of the time reacting to what his other friends are doing.  I would have preferred to have seen Hamm stretch his acting chops and go for some comedic timing.

The guy who is really funny is Hannibal Buress as Kevin.  He gets some of the best lines in the movie.

Jake Johnson is okay as Chilli, but the character is rather annoying and is certainly the least likable of the friends, which is saying a lot since Jeremy Renner’s character Jerry isn’t likable either.  I enjoyed Johnson much more on the TV show NEW GIRL (2011-18).

I can’t say that I enjoyed Jeremy Renner all that much either. His character Jerry spends most of the film talking down to his friends and acting superior to them. I get that he’s supposed to the tag champion, but the writing here does the character and the story no favors by making him a very unlikable guy.

And even though this is based on a true story, I doubt the game included the intricately choreographed stunts and fight moves that Jerry uses to elude his friends. Strangely, these CGI enhanced scenes, which reminded me a lot of the action scenes in the movie KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE (2014) were among the least funny scenes in the film.

On the other hand, some of the earlier scenes of physical comedy, scenes where Chilli tries to leap from a fire escape and where Jon Hamm’s Bob tries to smash through some unbreakable glass, for example, are funny.  Much of the film relies on the use of heavy slapstick rather than verbal jokes, but with mixed results, as a lot of those polished staged action scenes just don’t tickle the funny bone.

The women in the cast actually score a bit higher than the men.  Isla Fisher is hilarious as Hogan’s wife Anna. She makes Anna an over the top intense character, and it’s the type of thing that’s missing from her male co-stars’ performances. As such, it’s my favorite performance in the movie

I’m also a fan of Annabelle Wallis, a talented actress who is still waiting for her break-out film role.  She’s been in such movies as ANNABELLE (2014), KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD (2017), and, ugh, THE MUMMY (2017), and she was also on the TV show PEAKY BLINDERS (2013-2016). She plays it straight here as the newspaper reporter who decides to tell the guys’ story, but she’s very good in what otherwise could have been a forgettable role. She’s someone to watch going forward.

Director Jeff Tomsic gets mixed results with this one. I thought the plot was a good one. It was fun to watch how far these guys would go to play tag, and early on the physical comedy was pretty uproarious, but the film actually becomes less funny as it goes along because the concept of adults playing tag gets old quick without a strong script to add depth and keep things going.

I also never got the feel for how close these guys were. They said they were friends, but we don’t really see it other than in the context of the silly game of tag.

And I didn’t really like the Jeremy Renner “action” scenes at all. I thought they were the most phony and unfunny parts of the film.

TAG has its moments, and these moments were good enough to make me laugh here and there, but taken as a whole, it’s not quite the solid comedy it starts out to be. Like most games of tag, it kinda fizzles out after a while.

—END—