IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: MYSTERIOUS ISLAND (1961)

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Mysterious Island posterHere’s my latest IN THE SPOOKLIGHT column, now appearing in the June issue of the HWA NEWSLETTER.

—Michael

  IN THE SPOOKLIGHT

BY

MICHAEL ARRUDA

We lost a master of the genre when Ray Harryhausen passed away on May 7, 2013.  He was 92.

No one created stop-motion animation effects better than Ray Harryhausen.  His list of credits is extensive, from MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1949), to THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1958) to his final feature CLASH OF THE TITANS (1981), to name just a few.  The most impressive thing about Harryhausen’s movies is they are all quality credits.  A Ray Harryhausen movie with poor special effects doesn’t exist.  He brought his “A” game every time.  Considering how long Harryhausen would spend on these effects, sometimes taking several years to complete a project, it’s no surprise the results were always exceptional.

Today IN THE SPOOKLIGHT we look at the Ray Harryhausen movie MYSTERIOUS ISLAND (1961).

Loosely based on the novel by Jules Verne (very loosely), MYSTERIOUS ISLAND takes place during the American Civil War.  A group of Union soldiers escape from a Confederate prison using a hot air balloon.  The balloon gets blown off course, and the soldiers suddenly find themselves half way across the world where they crash land on a mysterious island.

Led by their captain, Cyrus Harding (Michael Craig) they forage for food and struggle to survive as they fight off various giant creatures, including a gigantic crab, a scene that is one of the movie’s highlights.  When a small boat washes ashore carrying two women, Lady Mary Fairchild (Joan Greenwood) and her niece Elena (Beth Rogan) they are welcomed into the camp and join forces to try to find a way off the island.  Their presence also offers a romantic subplot between Elena and young dashing soldier Herbert Brown (Michael Callan).

Things grow even more mysterious when a man emerges from the ocean, and lo and behold, it’s Captain Nemo (Herbert Lom) from 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA fame.  Nemo provides some dramatic revelations both about his history— his submarine the Nautilus is stationed in a watery cave beneath the island— and the future of the island, a future that spells doom for anyone who remains there.

MYSTERIOUS ISLAND is a neat adventure, the kind of movie that grabs you at the outset and never lets go, providing thrills, chills and solid entertainment throughout.  Sure, it slows down in its second half, but it still manages to please, and that’s because in addition to Ray Harryhausen’s special effects, the movie also features an energetic music score by Bernard Herrmann, fine acting performances, and a crisp script by John Prebble, Daniel B. Ullman, and Crane Wilbur.

It gets off to a rousing start, as the movie opens with the soldiers’ thrilling escape from the Confederate prison, and then jumps right into their hazardous balloon flight through a torrential storm.  You don’t get a chance to catch your breath until they finally crash land on the island, and that’s when the fun really begins.

Some of the highlights in this one include the aforementioned colossal crab sequence, brilliantly brought to life by Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion effects.  That’s a real crab, too!  No, Harryhausen didn’t give it acting lessons. He gutted it and fitted it with the mechanisms needed to animate it, so it’s not a model built by Harryhausen, but the exoskeleton of a real crab.

Other Harryhausen creations in MYSTERIOUS ISLAND include an oversized bird, monster bees, and a giant squid.  The special effects also include an impressive backdrop of the island’s volcano, and the ruins of an undersea city, not to mention the Nautilus submarine.

Bernard Herrmann’s score is potent as always.  While I prefer his score to THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD, this one’s a close second.  It’s a major part of the movie, especially during the opening twenty minutes, when so much is happening.  It really complements the action.

MYSTERIOUS ISLAND also has fine acting performances.  Michael Craig makes a strong, likeable Captain Harding, while Michael Callan and Beth Rogan make an attractive romantic couple.

Probably my favorite performance in the film belongs to Gary Merrill as reporter Gideon Spilitt.  Gideon represents the film’s moral conscience and gets to spout off commentary about the war and human nature in general.

Percy Herbert is also memorable as Sgt. Pencroft, the Confederate soldier who gets trapped on the balloon with the Union soldiers.  Once they get to the island, they put aside their differences in the interest of survival.

And then there’s Herbert Lom as Captain Nemo.  I’m a big fan of Herbert Lom’s, and there’s really nothing wrong with his performance here, as he lends credibility to the proceedings, but his Captain Nemo isn’t in the movie very much, and truth be told, there just isn’t a lot for him to do here.  James Mason in the Disney film 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA (1954) made a much more memorable Captain Nemo.

MYSTERIOUS ISLAND does slow down as it goes along.  I guess this is inevitable, since the first half of the movie rocks, with the prison escape, the balloon ride, and the crab battle.  The giant bird sequence is quite good, but by the time you reach the bee scene and the battle with the pirates, director Cy Endfield seems to have run out of creative ideas, and these sequences are handled with less inspiration than the previous scenes.  And the underwater battle with the monstrous squid towards the end is not that exciting.

Of the three screenwriters, only Crane Wilbur had genre credits, as he wrote the screenplay for several Vincent Price films including HOUSE OF WAX (1953), THE MAD MAGICIAN (1954), and THE BAT (1959).

Where does MYSTERIOUS ISLAND rank in terms of Ray Harryhausen’s work?  As I said earlier, Harryhausen brought his “A” game to each and every movie he ever made, so in terms of the quality of his special effects, they’re just as good here as they are in all his movies.

I’d rate the crab sequence as one of the top five sequences he ever created.  It’s up there with the skeleton battle in JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS (1963), the Medusa scene in CLASH OF THE TITANS, the Kali fight in THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1973), and the lassoing of the T-Rex in THE VALLEY OF GWANGI (1969).

You really can’t go wrong with any of the movies Ray Harryhausen lent his name to.  That’s a testament to the amount of talent he brought to the table.  Yet, strangely, none of his movies ever won an Academy Award for special effects.  Go figure.

MYSTERIOUS ISLAND is grand entertainment.  It’s a movie that won’t leave you crabby.

—END—

My EBook IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, a collection of 115 “In The Spooklight” movie columns, is available at http://www.neconebooks.com.

—Michael

DVD Review: RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES Lacks Vision

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Rise of the Planet of the Apes poster

DVD Review:  RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2011)

by

Michael Arruda

Will I finally get a rise out of RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2011)?

Unlike a lot of other people, I wasn’t too thrilled with RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES when it opened in theaters a couple of years ago.

RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES is the reboot/reimagining of the classic PLANET OF THE APES series begun with the iconic film from 1968 starring Charlton Heston and Roddy McDowall, a film so popular it led to four sequels and two short-lived television series, one of them animated.  During the early 1970s, PLANET OF THE APES was all the rage, as popular as STAR WARS would later become, and I remember as a kid absolutely loving it.  I was caught up in APES mania.  Of course, the whole thing was based on a novel, Planet of the Apes (1963), by Pierre Boulle, and I’d have to say that this is a case where the 1968 film was actually better than the book on which it was based.

Two summers ago, I was really looking forward to seeing RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, the first APES film since Tim Burton’s dreadful remake in 2001.  Word of mouth in 2011 was very good, and so I went into the theater with high expectations.  Sadly, when all was said and done, I wasn’t that wowed by it.  I found it all rather average, and its best scenes were given away in the film’s trailers.

So, two years later, I figured it was time to watch it again, to see if my opinion had changed, which is why I caught up with RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES on DVD recently.

The verdict, after seeing it again?  Truthfully, I liked it even less this time around!

The basic problem I have with RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, and the main reason I don’t like it as much as the films in the original series, is it lacks imagination.  The original series had at its core a story about apes evolving in Earth’s future and eventually taking over the planet once humankind had destroyed itself.  These apes were played by actors in make-up by John Chambers, who won an Oscar for his efforts, and there was a sense of awe about these creatures that was frightening.  The apes from the original series were scary.  Charlton Heston in the first movie didn’t shriek, “It’s a madhouse!” for nothing.

In RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, the mood and environment is just a little too sterile for my tastes.  Everything is just a bit too neat and tidy.  It’s not scary, never did I feel all that uncomfortable, and it’s certainly not that imaginative.

RISE is sort of a reboot of the fourth film in the series, CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (1972) which tells the story of how Caesar, the son of Cornelius and Zira, two chimps from the future, leads the present day apes in their revolt against humans.

Here, Caesar isn’t from the future.  His special cognitive abilities come from a super drug given to his mother by a scientist Will Rodman (James Franco), in his attempt to create a drug to treat Alzheimers.

This is the main reason this film doesn’t work for me.  Caesar’s story here is just too ordinary.  It lacks imagination, creativity, and vision.  At its core, it’s really a variation of the “man loses pet” plot.  Will allows Caesar to live in his home, they develop a bond, but things go wrong, and Caesar is taken away from Will.  Caesar then uses his super cognitive abilities to lead the apes in his compound to revolt and escape, seeking their freedom.  Blah.

The script by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver never gets inside Caesar’s head.  We never really know what’s it like to be Caesar.  Compare this to Roddy McDowall’s performance as Caesar in CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES and BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES (1973) and you’ll find in those movies that Caesar, brought to life by McDowall, is a complicated and ultimately very heroic and likable character.  This Caesar is just a smart monkey.

The true star here is the film’s CGI effects, and Andy Serkis as Caesar does an admirable job with the facial expressions, but it’s nothing we haven’t seen him do before.  He was just as good as King Kong in Peter Jackson’s KING KONG (2006) and of course he was even better and had much more personality as Gollum in the Peter Jackson LORD OF THE RINGS movies.

Here, Serkis looks great as Caesar, and at times I felt bad for Caesar, but I was never all that interested in him.

The rest of the cast also disappoints.  James Franco, who was so captivating in OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL (2013) is flat here as scientist Will Rodman.  He doesn’t come close to carrying this movie.  David Oyelowo as bad guy Steven Jacobs and Freida Pinto as love interest Caroline Aranha are both boring, and Brian Cox, almost always fun to watch, is wasted here in a small do nothing role as the guy who operates the ape compound.

The best performance in the movie belongs to John Lithgow as Will’s father Charles, who’s suffering from Alzheimers disease.  It’s a very sympathetic performance, but this film isn’t called RISE OF THE ALZEIMERS PATIENTS, is it?

Director Rupert Wyatt made a movie that looks really good but is seriously lacking in the imagination department.  What exactly is Caesar thinking? What is it like to be Caesar?  What do the other apes think about Caesar?  What’s their reaction when he speaks?  None of these questions are answered with any degree of satisfaction.

The ending is also unrealistic.  In this day and age, there’s no way I believe that a group of apes make it through San Francisco without all being shot dead.  Sorry.   I just don’t buy the grand escape.

RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES is technologically satisfying—it makes great use of its CGI effects— but that’s about it.  On both the intellectual and emotional levels, the film doesn’t cut it.  I wasn’t wowed by its story, its characters, or its plot, and it never really drew me into its world of its very super smart ape.  For that matter, I never really had a feel for just how smart Caesar really was.  As the movie goes on, he seems more angry than smart.

A sequel is scheduled for a 2014 release.  I’m not exactly going ape over the news.

—Michael

THE QUOTABLE CUSHING – THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN (1964)

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Evil of Frankenstein Baron FrankensteinTHE QUOTABLE CUSHING

 

Welcome to another edition of THE QUOTABLE CUSHING, that column where we look at some of Peter Cushing’s best lines in the movies.

Today we look at one of my favorite movies for Peter Cushing quotes, THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN (1964), Hammer Films’ third Frankenstein movie starring Peter Cushing as Baron Victor Frankenstein.  THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN is not my favorite Peter Cushing Frankenstein movie, but it does contain some of my favorite Peter Cushing Baron Frankenstein lines of dialogue.

THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN is the most action-oriented of the Hammer Frankenstein movies.  It’s also the film in which Peter Cushing portrays the Baron at his most heroic.   It’s not a dark film by any means, and as such, I’ve always thought this one was poorly named.  There’s just not a lot of evil going on.  A more apt title would have been THE ADVENTURES OF FRANKENSTEIN.  I know.  That sounds like a comic book title, but in a way, that’s how this movie plays, like a comic book adventure.

Okay, it’s time for the quotes from THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN, screenplay by Anthony Hinds.

Even though he plays Baron Frankenstein as a more heroic character this time around, Peter Cushing continues to portray him as a man driven by his unending quest to create life.  His ambition and his frustration over his failures have never been stronger.

In this scene, he’s talking with his young assistant Hans (Sandor Eles).  They have just discovered the body of Frankenstein’s Creature frozen in ice.  They thaw him out and using the equipment in Frankenstein’s lab, bring him back to life. However, although the Creature (Kiwi Kingston) lives, it’s apparently stuck in a comatose state, due to brain damage caused by the police bullets which had killed it years before.

The Baron is furious.

BARON:  Anything they don’t understand, anything that doesn’t conform to their stupid little patterns, they destroy!  They have to destroy it!  But they haven’t beaten me.  I won’t let them beat me!

With that, the Baron is off and running.  Cushing’s energy as Baron Frankenstein here is contagious.  Every time I see this movie, I want to run to my work room and start hammering out a novel.  Very inspirational.

VOICE OF REASON:  But, Michael, doesn’t the Baron always fail?  Don’t his experiments lead to the inevitable creation of a monster rather than a civilized man?

MICHAEL:  Yes, but you’re nitpicking here.  He still creates life, and he never gives up.  If the brain is damaged, he performs surgery on it, again and again, and if that doesn’t work, he gets a new brain.  You have to admire his tenacity.  Likewise, I’ve got novels sitting around that I wrote more than a decade ago.  I haven’t given up on them.  They just need a little more surgery, that’s all.  I won’t let them beat me!  Eh hem.

————————————————

Later, in the same scene, as the Baron and Hans brainstorm (heh heh) over what to do about the unresponsive Creature, young Hans makes a suggestion which the Baron isn’t too keen on.

HANS:  Some kind of physical shock?

BARON FRANKENSTEIN (exasperated):  I’ve just passed the full force of a bolt of lightning through its skull, Hans!  Isn’t that shock enough?

________________________________________________________________________________________________

To stimulate the Creature’s dormant brain, The Baron and Hans decide to involve a local hypnotist, the Great Zoltan (Peter Woodthorpe).  The Baron visits Zoltan and asks for his help.  He wants Zoltan to hypnotize his Creature, to stimulate his brain, but Zoltan refuses, not wanting to get involved with Frankenstein, who happens to be wanted by the police.  Plus, since he’s been performing at the local carnival without a license, he’s been ordered to leave town.  Frankenstein tells him he can make the trip to his chateau and still have plenty of time to leave town, if he fails.  Zoltan is outraged at the suggestion of failure.

ZOLTAN:  Fail?  Me, fail?  There isn’t a man born of woman I can’t put under!

BARON FRANKENSTEIN:  Then this experiment should prove very interesting.

_______________________________________________________________________________________________

In one of the film’s more comedic moments, Baron Frankenstein confronts the Burgomaster (David Hutcheson) in his home, fuming that the official has taken his property after he had been thrown out of town a decade before.

BARON:  I’ve come for my property, Burgomaster!  My ring for instance!  My chair, my desk, my carpet—.

At this moment, the Baron spies the Burgomaster’s buxom wife sitting in bed.

BARON:  Even my bed!!!

When the woman begins to shriek hysterically, the Baron confronts her.

BARON:  Be quiet woman!

He then slams the door on her.

The police arrive, but the Baron makes his escape, dashing into the bedroom and blocking the door.  He then fashions a rope using the bedclothes, all the while the police are pounding at the door, and the woman watches from her bed.

Just before the Baron leaps from the balcony, using the bedclothes as a rope, he turns to the admiring woman, and says,

BARON:  Good night.

There’s something almost James Bond-like in Cushing’s interpretation of Baron Frankenstein in this movie.  The audience begins to expect the snappy one-liners and curious quips.  Not for everyone’s tastes, especially those who prefer the darker Baron, but I’ve always enjoyed both this movie and Cushing’s performance in it.

Okay, that’s it for now.  See you next time on THE QUOTABLE CUSHING, when I’ll present more quotes from another Peter Cushing movie.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

SOME KIND OF FAIRY TALE By Graham Joyce – Book Review by Michael Arruda

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Some Kind of Fairy Tale coverWhat I’m Reading – Some Kind of Fairy Tale By Graham Joyce

Book Review by MICHAEL ARRUDA

 

What if twenty years ago your loved one disappeared, simply vanished from the face of the planet, and then one day, out of the blue, she returned, and she offered as the reason she was gone that she had been abducted by a fairy, would you believe her?

Probably not.

I know I wouldn’t, but that’s the situation in Some Kind of Fairy Tale, a fantasy tale by award-winning author Graham Joyce.  And as much as I enjoy Joyce’s writing, that’s the problem that I had with this story.  I simply couldn’t believe it.

Twenty years ago, 16 year-old Tara disappeared, leaving behind her grieving parents, her brother Peter, and a boyfriend Richie, who happens to be her brother’s best friend.  She’s a missing person, presumed dead, and her boyfriend Richie is suspected of the crime.  The accusation puts a strain on Richie’s and Peter’s relationship, and they don’t talk for twenty years.  The authorities never find Tara’s body, and Richie is never formally charged.

Twenty years later, Tara returns to her parents’ doorstep.  Her family is overjoyed, until they hear her explanation as to why she’s been gone:  she was abducted by a fairy and spent the last 20 years in some alternate reality in fairy land.  And for
Tara, only 6 months have passed, although for her family and friends, it’s been 20 years.

Her older brother Peter is outraged and thinks his sister is a liar.  He gets Tara to agree to see a psychiatrist, who after several sessions, believes Tara has concocted the story to cover up a traumatic event, perhaps being abducted and raped.

Strangely, Tara, although 36, still looks very youthful, as if she’s still 16.  She also agrees to see a dentist, who makes some tests, and deduces that Tara can’t be who she says she is because her teeth belong to a 16 year-old.

Or perhaps she is who she says she is, and her story of a fairy abduction is true.

While I enjoyed Graham Joyce’s writing in Some Kind of Fairy Tale, I was never completely won over by the story he had to tell.

I liked the intrigue the story offered.  Just what happened to Tara is the question which drives the novel along.  But considerable time is spent telling the tale of her experience inside the fairy world, and while this world is neatly constructed, almost perfectly so, I found it much less captivating than the events which occur in the real world.

The character I most identified with was Tara’s brother, Peter.  He doubts his sister throughout the novel, and I shared his doubts.  I was rooting for him to get to the bottom of her story, to find out where exactly she had been the past two decades.

I also liked the subplot of Peter’s son Jack, who accidentally kills his elderly neighbor’s cat and then begrudgingly accepts the task of helping her find it, even though he knows it’s dead.  Jack even goes so far as trying to replace the cat with another one that looks just like it.  The subplot of loss and return involving a pet parallels the main tale of the loss and return of Tara.

The story of Tara’s parents, their grief, and how they come to terms with their daughter’s reappearance also works.

The best story in the book though, belongs to Richie, Tara’s rock star boyfriend.  Richie possessed enough talent to make it in the rock music world, but he quickly became a has-been when he lost the drive to succeed after Tara disappeared.  How he reacts to Tara’s return, as he attempts to get his life back, is the most rewarding tale in the novel.

But, sadly, the most important story in the book, Tara’s story,  didn’t captivate me enough to win me over, and as a result I never was all that into it, which is a problem since the bulk of the book is about this fantasy aspect of the story.

It’s not a problem with Joyce’s writing.  He describes the land of the fairies, and the fairies themselves in vivid detail.  It’s just that I kept expecting some alternate truth to surface— the real story behind where Tara was the past twenty years— but that story never materializes. I would have preferred it had the story steered away from the fantasy and delved closer into reality, offering real alternatives as to what happened to Tara.  But this is not the story in Some Kind of Fairy Tale.

Why was this such an issue for me?  I mean, what’s the difference between believing in a story about fairies and believing in a story about vampires or zombies?  Technically, there is no difference.  But the case has to be made, that regardless of the fantasy element, the author still has to convince the reader that the story he’s telling just might be true.  In this case, I was never fully convinced.

Some Kind of Fairy Tale is a passable tale.  When dealing with real people and real problems, the book soars and makes for a compelling drama and mystery.  However, when it enters fairy tale land and deals with its fantasy elements, it lost me, and I found myself not caring all that much.  I was hoping for a darker tale with a trace of fantasy elements, but what I got was a fantasy tale with a trace of darkness.  For me, a trace wasn’t enough.  I wanted more.  In a tale about a young woman’s disappearance, I wanted something more sinister in its explanation.

Some Kind of Fairy Tale is exactly what its title says it is, a fairy tale.  I would have liked it better if it wasn’t.

—-Michael

Sneak Peak at FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR

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For The Love Of Horror coverHere’s a sneak peak from my short story collection FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, now available as an EBook from NECON EBooks at www.neconebooks.com.

In my short story “On the Rocks,” Rick has had it with his girlfriend Jill.  Things were great for a while, but now she’s pregnant, he’s about to go off to college, and he doesn’t want a baby to ruin his future.  He’s thinking some pretty sinister thoughts about her, including killing her.  It would solve all his problems.  Of course, in real life, he’d never physically harm anyone, especially someone close to him.  But the thoughts are there, in his mind, but that’s okay, because he has lots of thoughts he doesn’t act upon.  Right?

Then, one day, on the beach, on the rocks, something happens and suddenly Jill is dead—.

Here’s a preview of “On the Rocks”:

ON THE ROCKS

By             Michael Arruda

    The waves smashed the jagged rocks with a vengeance, and Rick found himself imagining the waves were his hands, and he was cracking  Jill’s head wide open on the rocks.

            But the second he saw this image, he felt sick.

He was no killer.

He hated stepping on bugs even.

Yet the fact remained he wanted to rid himself of her.  Badly.

He had even said the words to her earlier.  Said them aloud.  “I could kill you!”

He hadn’t meant it.  Not in the literal sense.  It was just one of those things people said all the time.  “I could kill you!”  That sort of thing.

Yet the very thought of inflicting pain on Jill made him sick.  He just wanted to be rid of her, that’s all.

He was very confused.  He also felt terribly guilty.

So he leaned across the beach blanket and kissed Jill on the forehead.

She pulled away.

“I’m not in the mood for kissing.”

Rick huffed and looked down at the sand.  He raised his right hand to his mouth and nibbled on his thumbnail.

There was no one else on the beach with them.  Most kids their age were swimming at Horseneck Beach.  Very few came to these small Padanaram beaches which were full of rocks and were more suited for amateur fishermen.  Besides, most were private.  The public areas were few and far between, and you had to know where they were.  Rick knew because his buddy Shawn lived here the past three summers with his father and had showed Rick the best places to hang out.

“Why did this have to happen?”  Rick asked.

“Will you stop saying that?”  Jill said.  She and Rick sat side by side on one large beach towel.  The sun had gone in behind a cloud, and both of them felt a shiver.  “It did happen.  Now we have to deal with it.”

“I don’t want to deal with it.”

“You think I do?  I’m the one with the baby inside me!”  Jill said.

“Can’t you— you know, have a—.”

“No!  I’m not having an abortion!”

Rick chewed his thumbnail off.  He nibbled on it between his front teeth.

“Are you going to help me or not?”  Jill asked.

Rick spit the severed nail into the rocky sand.  “I want to, you know that.  But I’m supposed to be going to college in two weeks.”

“Me, too.”

“Yeah, but you were supposed to—.”  His voice trailed off.

“Supposed to what?  Say it,” Jill said, but Rick wouldn’t say it.  He contorted his face into a grimace.  “I was supposed to put my diaphragm in?  Is that what you were going to say?”

“Just forget it, alright?” Rick said softly.

“I was drunk, remember?  I didn’t see you reaching for any condoms!  It’s just like you to put this on me!  You’re an ass sometimes!”

“I’m two weeks away from college.  It’s my ticket out of here,” Rick said.  “I know it’s yours, too.”  He closed his eyes for a moment.  “Can’t you see that if we have this baby, we’ll never have this chance again?  Never!”

“Well, it’s a little late for you to be thinking about that now!  You should have thought of that before!  I’m not killing this baby!”

“Then raise him alone, okay?  Because I don’t want any part of it!  I’m going to college, damn it!  I’m getting out of here!”  Rick said.  His voice was mean.

“Fine!  I’ll raise him alone!  You prick!”

“Shut up!”

“Well, you are!  You’re willing to let me ruin my life while you go off to Notre Dame and have fun.”

“Well what do you want me to do?”

“I told you!  I want you to help me.”

Rick shook his head.  “Marry you, right?  Raise a family, right?  And where am I supposed to work, McDonalds?”

“I don’t know, Rick.  I just thought you’d help me.  Why do I have to bear this alone?”

“Because you choose to, that’s why!  You can get rid of that baby like it’s nothing!”
“But it’s not nothing!  It’s a baby!”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah!”

“You’re a jerk.  You’re a jerk!”  Jill shouted.  She got up and walked away, onto the large rocks which jutted out towards the ocean.

Again, he thought about how he wanted to pick up one of those rocks and smash Jill over the head with it.

He just wanted her to disappear.  But why did his feelings have to be filled with so much anger and violence, he wondered?  He loved Jill, so why would he want to hurt her?

Because she never shut up, that’s why, he answered.  Never in all his life had he known anyone who talked as much as Jill and who got on his case as much as Jill.  Not even his own mother was that bad.

He didn’t really want to hurt her.  He just wanted to be rid of her and their little problem.  He couldn’t think of any other way to be rid of her completely.  If she were dead, that was the ticket, because he was never going to say “Okay, let’s raise this child together.  Let me put off college for a while.  I’ll find a job, we’ll live together, and we’ll make this work.”  He just wasn’t going to say it, and he knew she wasn’t going to let him go. Oh, she said she’d raise the kid on her own, but he knew she wouldn’t.  She’d tell everyone they knew that he was the father, that he had abandoned her.  He’d be hated by all their friends.  But worst of all, once his parents found out, there’d be hell to pay.  They’d kill him.  Not literally, of course, but they would certainly make his life miserable.  Guilt trips, lectures, and no more money.

Even if Jill said nothing, they’d put two and two together, and they’d know.  That’s why he wanted Jill to have an abortion.  His parents couldn’t find out.  If Jill could just disappear, that would solve everything.

She stood on the rocks which jutted out towards the ocean.  One little push—.

“Stop it!”  Rick scolded himself.

He was a coward, and he knew it.  He knew he was wrong to abandon Jill.  He knew she was right.  She deserved better.

“Okay.  Just stay in the real world,” he thought.  “Killing is for the movies.  You can’t do it.  You don’t want to do it.  Maybe it’s time you grew up.  Tell her that.  Go up there and tell her you’re not going to go to college after all.  That you are going to stay and help her raise the kid.  Tell her.”

A part of him wanted to tell her this, but the very thought of the kind of life he’d be leading if he stayed made him sick to his stomach.

“You’re thinking too much,” he said.

So he stopped thinking.  For a second.  Before he wondered what it would be like if he came clean yet still went to college?  Could that be done?  Would his parents be supportive enough to support Jill and the kid financially while he studied for his degree?  He knew Jill wouldn’t go for it.  She would want him there with her.

But it was a start, wasn’t it?  If he could tell Jill today, right now, that he’d own up to his responsibility, that he’d stop asking her to have an abortion, wouldn’t that be something?  Couldn’t they compromise?  Couldn’t they still go to college even with a child?  Surely there were more answers out there.  Suddenly he felt inspired and optimistic.

He jumped to his feet and made his way towards the rocks.  Jill was standing smack in the middle of them, and on both sides of her the ocean bucked and roared.

“Jill!”  He called.  “I have something to tell you!”

She turned around, her arms folded in front of her chest.  “What?”

He was close enough to touch her now.  “There’s something I want to say to you.”

“Yeah?”

“Help me.”

It was a whisper, soft, barely audible, but they both heard it.

Rick looked around them on all sides.

“Did you just hear that?” he asked.

“Yeah,” she answered, and she looked frightened.

“That was weird,” Rick said.

There was no one around.  The two rocky beaches on both sides of them were empty.  Behind them was the road, and they didn’t see any cars anywhere, other than Rick’s Honda, which was still parked on the dirt shoulder in between the winding country road and the partially hidden beach.  Ahead of them, nothing but ocean.

“You think someone’s pulling our chain?”  Jill asked.

“Dunno,” Rick answered.

“Help— me,” came the voice again, more deliberate this time.

Again, Rick and Jill looked around, scouring both sides of the rocks, and again they saw nothing but empty beach.  A group of crying sea gulls flew overhead.

“Maybe they’ve learned how to talk,” Jill said.

Rick shook his head.  “No.  Not unless they’ve learned how to throw their voices.  The voice we heard didn’t come from up there.”

“No, it didn’t, did it?”  Jill said.

“No.  It came from—.”

Jill pointed to the ground.  “Down there.”

They looked down at their feet.  The rocks on which they stood had plenty of gaps between them, some large enough for them to stick their legs into thigh deep.

Rick dropped to his belly and peered into one of these cracks.  He acted so fast he didn’t even think about what he might see.

So when he saw the man’s face staring up at him, he screamed.

The face looked dead, with pale flesh and lifeless bloodshot eyes.  It spoke again, and this time Rick saw its lips move.

“Help me.  Please,” the face said.

Rick grimaced.

“What is it?” Jill asked.

“There’s someone down there,” Rick said.

“Under the rocks?”

Rick nodded.  “Look.”

“I don’t want to!  Is there really someone down there?”

“Yes!”

“Oh my God!”  Jill screamed.  “What are we going to do?”

“We’re going to help him,” Rick said.  He peered back into the gap.  “We’re going to help you, okay?”

“No,” the man said.  “Too late.”  He said something else too, something Rick didn’t quite make out.  Rick thought it sounded like “run.”  But that couldn’t have been it, Rick thought.  Why would he say something like that?

Rick grabbed onto one of the large rocks in between him and the man.  It was really heavy.  He tugged but it wasn’t moving, not one inch.  It was like lifting a safe.  He knew because his cousins Jon and Randy had one in their basement.  The three of them together couldn’t lift it off the ground.

Rick tried again.  He wrapped his hands around the edges of the rock and pulled.  Grunted, groaned, heaved, and his right hand slipped, sliding along a jagged corner that sliced his palm.  He cried out and pulled his hand back, shaking it, trying to ward off the sting.  A bright white scratch ran the entire length of his palm, a scratch that quickly turned red.

“Damn!”  He cried.

“Are you okay?”  Jill asked.

“No.  It’s deep!”  Rick pressed his left thumb tightly over the wound, but he couldn’t stop the flow of blood.

“What are we going to do?”  Jill asked.

“Shawn lives five minutes from here.  We can go to his house and call 911,” Rick answered.  “You’ll have to drive.”

“I can’t drive a stick!”

Rick rolled his eyes.  “I’ll drive with one hand then.”  He got back down on his knees and leaned towards the man underneath the rocks.  “A friend of mine lives real close.  We’re going to go to his house and call 911.  Hang in there, okay?”

The man screamed.

It was an incredibly loud scream, high-pitched, the way Rick’s little brother Russ sounded when he fell off his bike and split his head open when he was 7.  It was almost a squeal.

It knocked Rick back onto his butt, and he felt his lips curl into a grimace.  Jill let out a shriek and jumped backwards.

The man squealed again, and this second cry was worse, worse than anything Rick had ever heard.  It was full of pain, and Rick knew that whatever was happening to this man it had to be bad.  No one sounded like that unless they were being dismembered or gutted or— Rick covered his mouth with his hands, and he could taste his own blood.

And then just like that the man’s screaming stopped.  Cut short as if he were gagged.  Jill continued to sob, and Rick remained sitting, too frightened to move.

Until the stink came up.

Like rotten eggs.  He cried out and keeled over on his side.

“That smell!  Christ!”

On his hands and knees coughing, Rick couldn’t expunge the odor from his being fast enough.   Jill started coughing too.

Over their coughing Rick became aware of another sound, a flip flop flip flop, like a fish flailing on a boat deck.  He looked up to see large tentacles, four of them, each longer than he and Jill were tall, reaching out from the cracks underneath the rocks, in effect surrounding them.  Before he could do anything, one of the dark green almost black tentacles whipped towards them and snagged Jill by the ankle.  She screamed.

Rick reached for her but suddenly she wasn’t there. The tentacle had yanked her feet out from under her.  She crashed face first on the rocks with a nauseating thud, and then the thing dragged her backwards away from Rick.

By the time Rick had jumped to his feet, a mere two seconds, a second tentacle had wrapped itself around Jill.  She wasn’t fighting back.  While the tentacles squeezed and pulled her this way and that, she lay limp, as if already dead.

.           Rick scrambled towards her.  He grabbed the tentacle wrapped around her waist.  It was cold, freezing, and although shiny was not slimy in the least but hard and thick like leather.  He grabbed it and pulled it, trying with all his might to wrench it from Jill’s body.

She opened her eyes.  A moment later she realized.

“Help me!”

“Oh Jesus!” Rick cried, still tugging on the tentacle and having about as much success as if he were pulling a tree out of the ground.  “Hold on, Jill!  I’m trying!  I’m trying!”

“Please!”

He felt something grab his ankle and looked down to see a tentacle wrapping itself around his foot.

“Get off me!” he shouted, kicking at the serpent-like appendage.

Another one shot at his face, as if it were going to grab him by the throat.  He let go of the limb around Jill and jumped backwards.  He lost his balance and fell off the rocks, landing hard on the rocky sand below.

He heard Jill shriek, and he clenched his eyes shut and screamed, begging for the horror to go away.  He opened his eyes and jumped to his feet and ran for the rocks.  He leapt to the top of the rock wall without using his hands, and he landed on his feet.

Jill had been pulled down into one of the cracks.  From the waist down her body was hidden.

She was still conscious.  Her eyes met Rick’s, and she screamed, “Oh Rick!  Please help me!  Help me!

Rick tried to run to her, but the tentacles were everywhere.  There were at least eight of them now.  If he got any closer, he’d be grabbed, too.  It would be suicide.

A large thick one the width of a python wrapped itself around Jill’s throat and began to constrict.  Her face went red as she gagged for air.

Tears poured down both their faces.

“Jill!  I can’t get to you!”

Her mouth was wide, in disbelief that she was going to die.  And then it was over.  Her eyes rolled, her tongue hung low beneath her lips, and the huge thick limb around her throat let go just as whatever was holding her legs pulled her down below, and just like that, she wasn’t there anymore.

“Jill!”  Rick shrieked.

The remaining tentacles swung and swooped, blindly reaching for more prey, until, as if satisfied with their recent prize, they retreated into their holes, like snakes slithering into the ground.

Then all was quiet.

Other than the sounds of Rick’s sobs and a buoy bell clanging from somewhere off in the ocean.

***

The fist slammed the table, and Rick jumped.

“What did you do to your girlfriend?”  Detective Orin asked.  It was the fifth time he had asked the question.

“I told you,” Rick said, swallowing, a dry lump caught in his throat, exhausted, looking up at the detective with swollen, crying eyes.  “I didn’t do anything to her.”

Rick sat on a tiny wooden chair behind a tiny wooden table in the police interrogation room.  Orin stood over him and leaned into his face.

“Bullshit!  We read all about it in your diary, Rick, how you wanted to get rid of her, how you wanted to kill her!  You even wrote down some of the ways you could do it, like throwing her off a cliff into the ocean.  How about that!”

“No, that’s not what happened.”

“Look, I know how things are,” the gray haired detective said, taking on a friendlier tone. “I’m a guy.  I was a teenager once.  No teenage guy wants his girl to get pregnant.  Yeah, that was in your diary, too.  I mean, you have your whole life ahead of you, right?  She didn’t want to have an abortion, and that was going to ruin your life, so you killed her, didn’t you, Rick?”

“No.  I didn’t kill her!  I told you, it was the squid thing!”

“The squid thing.  Yeah, right.  Maybe I should give fucking Ray Harryhausen a call to see if one of his creatures has come to life.  You know who Ray Harryhausen is?”

“No.”

“He used to make movies with lots of giant monsters in them.  Real fun but not very real.  Just like your story, Rick.  It’s not very real.”

“Look, if I was going to make up a story, would I make up something this stupid?” Rick asked.

“Had a guy once who told me his wife thought she was Supergirl and that’s how she ended up in bits and pieces on the park lawn.  She jumped out of the twin engine plane on her own because she thought she could fly,” Orin said.  He sat on the edge of the wooden table.  “I’ve been doing this for a lot of years, Rick.  You hear a lot of things, some of them even stupid.”

Rick sniffled.  “I’m the guy who called the police.  If I killed Jill, why would I do that?”

“No one’s calling you a serial killer, Rick.  Sometimes people just snap and in the heat of the moment do things they regret later.  Believe me, many guilty people call the police.”

“I’m not guilty!  I—I want a lawyer!”

“If you’re not guilty, what do you need a lawyer for?”  Orin asked.

“Because I’m entitled to one.  I don’t want to talk to you anymore unless I have a lawyer!  Or my parents!”

“I dunno, Rick,” Orin said.  He stood again.  “Asking for a lawyer.  You sure sound like someone who’s guilty.  But that’s okay.  We can play it that way if you want.  It’s just that, once you get a lawyer, then I can’t help you.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, if you tell me the truth now, that you lost control of your emotions, and you let your anger get the better of you, in short, you admit to killing Jill, the judge will go easy on you.  You call a lawyer, he’s going to advise you not to cooperate, and then the judge isn’t going to go so easy. I’m going to prove you murdered her, Rick.  I’m giving you the chance now to cooperate and get a lighter sentence.”

“I didn’t kill her, damn it!”

“Diaries don’t lie, Rick!  It’s right there in black and white, in your own handwriting!”

“Yes!  I wrote it, okay?  I write lots of things in my diary!  It’s a diary, for Christ’s sake!”

“Watch your mouth!”

“I wrote I was a secret agent too, but I’m not!  It doesn’t mean anything!”

“It means a whole lot to me, Rick.  It tells me you wanted that girl dead!”

“Yes, I did but—.
“What did you do with the body, Rick?

“Nothing!  I didn’t do anything with it!  I didn’t kill Jill!”

Orin shoved his face into Rick’s.

“Her blood is all over those rocks!  It’s on your clothes!”

I didn’t kill her!

            “Yes you did!  And I’m going to prove it!  I’m going to find her body or a piece of her clothing or maybe a broken fingernail, but goddamn it, I’m going to find something, and then you’re going to be sorry you didn’t confess right here and now, you snot nosed little bastard!”

************

To read the rest of this story, check out FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR at www.neconebooks.com.  My short story collection features 15 short stories, 7 reprints and 8 original stories, plus a wraparound story that ties everything together.

Thanks!

—Michael

THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD – The Quintessential Ray Harryhausen Movie

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7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD posterIn memory of Ray Harryhausen, here’s a reprint of my IN THE SPOOKLIGHT column on THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1958), one of Harryhausen’s best and my personal favorite.

THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1958)

Forgive me for never having grown up.

I love movie monsters.  From the classics to the films of today, I can’t get enough of them.

In horror movie history, one name stands above the rest when it comes to making movie monsters, Ray Harryhausen.  In a career that spanned 30 years, from MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1949) to CLASH OF THE TITANS (1981), Ray Harryhausen provided us with some of the best stop-motion animated special effects ever put on film, and while there have been many classics thanks to Harryhausen, the quintessential Harryhausen movie has to be THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1958).

THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD is a beautiful production shot in Technicolor with picture perfect pizzazz by director Nathan Juran, who also directed Ray Harryhausen’s 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH (1957), as well as other genre films such as THE DEADLY MANTIS (1957).

In THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD, Sinbad (Kerwin Mathews) must travel to the far ends of the earth to the Island of Colossus on a mission to save his beloved princess (Kathryn Grant).  The princess is doing her best “incredible shrinking woman” impression, shrunk down in size by the evil magician Sokurah (Torin Thatcher).  Along the way, Sinbad must square off against giant birds, a dragon, a sword wielding skeleton, and more than one giant Cyclops.

While there are many enduring images from this movie, there’s probably none stronger than Harryhausen’s creation of the giant Cyclops.  Once seen, you will not forget it.  From its muscular body, cloven hands and feet, and grotesque face, for the horror fan, he’s a keeper!  (“Hey, mom, look who I brought home!”).

The script by Kenneth Kolb is OK, not memorable by any means, but it does its job in setting up a rip-roaring adventure that is fun to watch.  The acting is also OK, with Torin Thatcher leading the way, delivering by far the best performance in the movie as Sokurah, the evil magician.  Thatcher, who died in 1981, is most memorable here because he’s the one player in this movie who makes you forget about Harryhausen’s creatures while he’s on screen, and that’s saying something.  His Sokurah is one of my favorite genre movie villains.

Bernard Herrmann wrote the memorable music score, one of his best other than PSYCHO (1960).  It’s a rousing piece of film music that you’ll be humming to yourself long after you’ve seen the movie.

But the true star of THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD is Ray Harryhausen.  His creatures here look fantastic, and we are treated to all sorts of spectacular scenes, including an exciting battle between one of the Cyclops and the giant dragon.  There’s also a memorable duel between Sinbad and a sword wielding skeleton, a scene improved upon five years later by Harryhausen in JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS (1963), where the choreographed fight involved a bunch of skeletons.

THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD boasts some of the best stop-motion animated special effects in motion picture history, and is right up there with the work of Willis O’Brien in the all-time best, KING KONG (1933).  It’s also among the best of the Sinbad movies, though it’s hard to crown it king because Harryhausen struck gold again nearly twenty years later with his follow-up feature, THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1974) which is every bit as good as THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD.

So, this summer, go ahead and be a kid again, and enjoy THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD.  Just don’t let me catch you playing with that Cyclops toy you picked up on eBay last month!

(July 2008)

——-

You can read all my SPOOKLIGHT columns in the IN THE SPOOKLIGHT EBook now available from NECON EBooks at www.neconebooks.com.

—Michael

NOT YOUR FATHER’S GATSBY

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THE GREAT GATSBYMovie Review:  THE GREAT GATSBY (2013)

by

Michael Arruda

 

This is not your father’s GATSBY.

The new movie version of THE GREAT GATSBY (2013) by writer/director Baz Luhrmann, and starring Leonardo DiCaprio as the mysterious Jay Gatsby, possesses more energy and pizazz than the stoic 1974 Robert Redford version, highlights the bawdiness of the 1920s with colorful flair, and really does a nice job getting to the heart of what’s behind one Jay Gatsby.

With a modern soundtrack, quick editing, and vibrant colorful photography in eye popping 3D, love it or hate it, this GATSBY was built with modern audiences in mind, and to that end, it’s an English teacher’s dream in that it’ll certainly titillate reluctant readers and at the very least pique their interest in the hullabaloo of all that is Gatsby.  To this end, F. Scott Fitzgerald would be proud of this version, because it captures what he wanted to say and it does so in a way that is true to the spirit of the novel.  After all, the novel The Great Gatsby is full of despicable characters who are tainted by money and live in another world because of it, sordid affairs, and ultimately, murder.

At the end of the day, all you really need to know about the new version of THE GREAT GATSBY is that it tells a good story.   It breathes life into one of the most famous literary characters of the twentieth century, Gatsby, and answers the question asked in so many sophomore English classes across the country, “what is it that makes Gatsby ‘great’?”

THE GREAT GATSBY is narrated by Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), as he looks back upon the time he lived next door to a certain Jay Gatsby.  It’s the roaring 20s, and Nick moves to New York to make his name in the world, working in the bond business.  When he visits his affluent cousin Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) and her husband Tom (Joel Edgerton), one of Nick’s college buddies, a former sports star and a member of one of the wealthiest families in the country, he meets their friend Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki) who asks if he’s met his neighbor Gatsby, a name that causes Daisy to flinch.

When Nick attends one of Gatsby’s huge parties, he listens to all the sordid theories as to who Gatsby really is and how he got all his money.  Some even suggest there is no real Gatsby, as no one has ever really seen him.  But soon after Nick does meet Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) and finds him much younger and more normal than he expected.

Gatsby invites Nick to lunch, and there introduces him to his gambler friend Meyer Wolfsheim (Amitabh Bachchan), the man who fixed the 1919 World Series.  Nick is clearly confused by Gatsby and is not sure what to make of him.  Gatsby is a teller of tall tales, yet his stories seem to be true.  Their friendship is tested when Gatsby asks Nick to arrange a meeting between him and Daisy, which Nick agrees to do.

And thus the story shifts to its love story, and in the process answers all of its relevant questions.  Just who is Jay Gatsby?  Where did he come from?  What’s his story?  Who will end up with Daisy?  Is Gatsby a murderer?  THE GREAT GATSBY has no shortage of intrigue.

Purists will probably hate this new version of THE GREAT GATSBY, but I loved it.  I loved its energy, its vision, and its performances.  This doesn’t mean the film doesn’t have flaws.  It does, but it also has an awful lot going for it.

My favorite part of THE GREAT GATSBY is that it does such a powerful job bringing the characters from the novel to life.

Tobey Maguire makes the perfect Nick Carraway, which is a good thing, because he pretty much has the most screen time in this one.  He’s every bit as good as DiCaprio in this movie.  Maguire does a nice job capturing the emotional gamut of what Nick goes through in this story, from his fascination with the times, with the glitz and wildness of Gatsby’s parties, to the pure disgust he feels the longer he knows these people, to the affection he ultimately feels towards Gatsby as he recognizes that in spite of everything, there is a hope about Gatsby that cuts through all the muck.

Carey Mulligan makes a beautiful Daisy Buchanan, and she’s much more successful at bringing this character to life than Mia Farrow was in the 1974 version.  I’ve often wondered when reading the book and seeing the 1974 film, just what the heck did Gatsby ever see in Daisy?  Mulligan answers that question with her performance, as she comes off as absolutely adorable.  She also plays her emotions perfectly.  We see and feel her angst at the key moments when she must decide between her husband Tom and Gatsby.  Her performance rings true and we know exactly what she’s feeling.

The film does steer her away from being a woman of money, as she’s portrayed in the novel, and leans more towards her affectations towards the actual men in her life, Tom and Gatsby.  It’s clear in the novel that her choice is based on money and the life of comfort she’s grown accustomed too.  Here in the movie her choice seems to be made based upon her feelings for the men, rather than the wealth they possess.

Joel Edgerton is also excellent as Tom Buchanan.  As much as I like Bruce Dern, I’ve always felt he was miscast as Tom in the 1974 version.  Here, Edgerton plays him with all his physical ferocity and privileged confidence.  He makes Tom a very unlikable fellow, not because he’s an evil man, but because his wealth has given him the power to do whatever he damn well pleases, and he does just that. Edgerton nails Tom Buchanan, and it’s a much more satisfying performance than his role in the recent re-imagining of THE THING (2011).

The supporting cast acquits itself well.  Elizabeth Debicki makes an icy yet captivating Jordan Baker, a woman who Nick seems to love and hate at the same time. He dislikes her personality, yet he can’t stop looking at her or wanting to be with her.

Isla Fisher is sufficiently sultry as Myrtle Wilson, the woman Tom Buchanan is having an affair with, while Jason Clarke is solid as her clueless sad husband George.  Amitabh Bachchan makes for a very memorable Meyer Wolfsheim, and he makes you believe that this is a guy who could have fixed the 1919 World Series.

But what about Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby?

It goes without saying that DiCaprio is excellent as Gatsby.  The guy’s a terrific actor who I continue to admire the more I see his performances in the movies.  He just might be the definitive Gatsby.  It’s hard to knock Robert Redford’s performance, because even though I don’t think he truly captured the Gatsby from the novel, he put his own stamp on the role, and it worked.  Redford’s Gatsby made sense, and I bought into the character even though I recognized it was different from the man in the novel.

DiCaprio’s interpretation is much closer to the way Fitzgerald wrote the character.  He brings that incredible sense of optimism and hope with him, which conflicts with his smooth fast talking business persona, of a man who may or may not be involved in very shady business transactions.  There is also no denying his love for Daisy, and the passion DiCaprio brings to the role might be the most satisfying part of his performance.  His Gatsby is a passionate man, much more so than the character in the novel, and certainly more so than the guy played by Redford.

And he succeeds in convincing us why Nick would call Gatsby great.  In spite of all the underhanded things Gatsby was involved in, Nick recognized that there was a sincerity about the man that drove him forward, that lifted him above others in similar positions.  Behind all the disreputable rumors was a man with a singular purpose, and that purpose had to do with love, not greed or power.  When Nick tells Gatsby at the end that he’s better than all the others, he means it.

Baz Luhrmann does a masterful job directing this movie.  He captures so many of the novel’s key scenes and key moments.  Gatsby’s parties are spectacular to behold, and the scene in the apartment with Tom, Myrtle, Nick and their guests is a keeper.  It captures so well what Nick was feeling during these moments, a combination of extreme discomfort, embarrassment, and drunken ecstasy.

The confrontation scene where Gatsby and Tom fight over Daisy is also potent, especially once the power shifts from one man to the other, which for me, always catches me off guard because I always expect the plot to go one way, and inevitably it goes the other.

The screenplay by Luhrmann and Craig Pearce should be applauded for bringing this story to life.  No doubt, THE GREAT GATSBY will be compared to Luhrmann’s previous efforts, ROMEO AND JULIET (1996) and MOULIN ROUGE! (2001)  I found GATSBY less gaudy than MOULIN ROUGE! and less innovative than ROMEO AND JULIET in terms of visual style, but GATSBY is a more handsome production than either one of them.  GATSBY also does a better job of telling its story.

But the film isn’t without flaws.  Once it shifts to its love story, it actually loses some steam.  This is probably inevitable, since the film really flies early on, with scenes at Gatsby’s parties, the gathering at Tom and Myrtle’s, and the highly intriguing and kinetic lunch date with Meyer Wolfsheim.

There are also a few awkward moments where the film’s visual style gets in the way of its story.  The worst of these is Gatsby entrance.  It’s done in such an overdramatic gawky way that both DiCaprio’s glowing expression and Maguire’s look of awe and surprise nearly made me laugh out loud.  What should have been a neat concise introduction is blown up into a silly goofy scene that is nothing short of comedic.

I suspect a lot of folks will have trouble with the modern soundtrack, but I think it worked surprisingly well.

THE GREAT GATSBY is a visual delight.  I saw it in 3D and enjoyed it, but I suspect it would have looked just as good in old-fashioned 2D.

It succeeds in breathing new life into a classic novel, and it does it with respect and reverence for the source material.  It also succeeds in capturing the essence of Jay Gatsby, so convincingly played by Leonardo DiCaprio, a self-made man of wealth for one singular purpose, for the love of a woman, and even though many question his motives and his dealings, it’s clear that through it all he has a sincere heart and a noble purpose, and we know this because the conscience of the story, Nick Carraway, brought to life in a brilliant performance by Tobey Maguire, gets to know him, grows to understand him and ultimately likes him.

THE GREAT GATSBY is an exceptional movie, well worth your time, and makes a worthy cinematic companion to one of the most intriguing and well-written novels of the twentieth century.

—END—