CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT PARTNERS UP WITH MOVIE AND MUSIC NETWORK

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Movie and Music Network BannerCINEMA KNIFE FIGHT PARTNERS UP WITH MOVIE AND MUSIC NETWORK

By

Michael Arruda

As you know, I review movies with fellow author and movie critic L.L. Soares at our very own web site, cinemaknifefight.com.

This past week we made a major announcement concerning a brand new partnership. What was this announcement?  Well, I’m glad you asked!

L.L. Soares and I are happy to report that Cinema Knife Fight, our movie site which features new content about movies nearly every day of the week, by L.L. Soares and myself and a staff of very talented writers, has partnered with the Movie and Music Network.

The Movie and Music Network is a new online source for movies and music.  You can check them out at http://www.movieandmusicnetwork.com.  They have a wide selection of movies, and if you like “B” horror movies, you’ll like what you find there, as their Terror Channel has been described as “B Movie heaven.”

At Cinema Knife Fight, we’ll be reviewing movies from their extensive library each month, and to make things even more fun, we’ll provide you with a link to the movie we’re reviewing so after you read the review, you’ll be able to click on the link and watch the movie for free.  It should be a lot of fun.  We’re definitely excited about it.

And once at the Movie and Music Network, if you like what you see, feel free to become a member so you can gain access to all their films.

Pay us a visit at cinemaknifefight.com.  Not only will you find our usual selection of movie reviews and movie related articles, but now you’ll have access to links for free movies at the Movie and Music Network.

Check us out!  We’ll be glad to see you there!

—Michael

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True Crime Tale LOST GIRLS – AN UNSOLVED AMERICAN MYSTERY By Robert Kolker Reads Like A Novel

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lost girls - coverWhat I’m Reading – Lost Girls- An Unsolved American Mystery By Robert Kolker

Book Review by MICHAEL ARRUDA

 

I don’t usually read true crime, but Robert Kolker’s Lost Girls – An Unsolved American Mystery was on the shelf next to the biography section, and it caught my eye because it was about an unsolved serial murder case in New York and New England.

My favorite type of nonfiction is the type that reads like a novel, and Lost Girls- An Unsolved American Mystery does just that.  Author Robert Kolker recounts the stories of the five female victims in vivid novel-like detail.

Lost Girls- An Unsolved American Mystery tells the true story of five women who disappeared between 2007 -2010. Each worked as an escort/call girl/hooker, and each used Craigslist, which is most likely how their killer found them.  Their bodies were discovered in 2010 wrapped in burlap in the island community of Oak Beach, New York.  The killer remains at large.

The first half of the book details with great precision and care the lives of these five women, explaining their backgrounds and telling how they became escorts.  It’s this part of the book that is most novel-like.  We are privy to conversations they had with their family members, and we get to know each woman as we learn their hopes and dreams.  We follow them during their everyday lives all the way up to the moment they disappeared.  These accounts are quite chilling.

The book then switches to a comprehensive description of the Oak Beach community, the place where the bodies of these women were discovered.  Oak Beach is a private, closed community, and Kolker goes into great detail about the people who live there. One character, a local doctor, is even considered a suspect by the family members, although the police dismiss him as a serious suspect early on in the investigation.

Book Two is the most painful and frustrating part of the book, as it tells the tale of how the bodies were discovered.  Police searched Oak Beach because one of the women was last seen there, and as they searched for her, they found the skeletal remains of the other women.  Ironically, the woman who disappeared in Oak Beach was the last body to be found.

Lost Girls- An Unsolved American Mystery   is exhaustedly researched.  It’s evident that author Kolker conducted many interviews and did his homework.

There are many unnerving moments in the story, none more than when the younger sister of one of the missing women received a phone call from her missing sister’s cell phone, and when she answered and said “Melissa?” a male voice answered calmly and confidently, “Oh, this isn’t Melissa.”  She would receive several more calls from this man, and not once were the police able to trace the call.

A large part of the book covers the families’ frustration with the local police, as they felt the police never took these women’s disappearances all that seriously since they were prostitutes.  Autopsies are sloppily conducted, conflicting statements are made by different police officials, and one police official even suggested one of the women was not murdered but died an “accidental death.

Lost Girls- An Unsolved American Mystery has a lot to say about how prostitutes are viewed by society and how dangerous a living it is, especially today when prostitutes and johns get together under the shadowy protection of the internet.  The fact that this was a true story and that it remains unsolved makes the book all the more disturbing.

Lost Girls- An Unsolved American Mystery is a captivating read that I pretty much couldn’t put down.  It reads like a novel and draws you in to its frightening and tragic tale from the first page.

Highly recommended.

—Michael

THE HORROR JAR: LON CHANEY JR. WOLF MAN Movies

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Lon Chaney Jr. as the Wolf Man in FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN (1943)

Lon Chaney Jr. as the Wolf Man in FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN (1943)

THE HORROR JAR:  Lon Chaney Jr. WOLF MAN Movies

By Michael Arruda

 

Welcome back to THE HORROR JAR, the column that lists odds and ends about horror movies.  Up today a look at the movies in which Lon Chaney Jr. played Larry Talbot, aka the Wolf Man.

Lon Chaney Jr. played the Wolf Man in a total of five movies, all of them for Universal, starting with arguably the best werewolf movie ever made, the classic THE WOLF MAN (1941).  He also made two other screen appearances as a werewolf that wasn’t Larry Talbot.

But it all started with THE WOLF MAN, a film that has aged well over the years, cementing its standing as perhaps the best werewolf movie ever made.

After working several years in bit parts using his real name, Creighton Chaney changed it to Lon Chaney Jr. upon the insistence of a producer, in order to take advantage of his deceased father’s name, Lon Chaney, one of the biggest silent film stars in movie history.  It was a decision that Chaney never liked, yet his career took off shortly thereafter.

His first big break came in 1939, when he played the role of Lenny in OF MICE AND MEN (1939) to great critical acclaim.  Two years later he took on the role which would make him famous, Larry Talbot, aka the Wolf Man, in THE WOLF MAN.

THE WOLF MAN is a remarkable film.  It boasts a fantastic cast that includes both Claude Rains and Bela Lugosi in addition to Chaney.  It’s one of Rains’ best roles, as he plays Sir John Talbot, Larry’s father, a strict moralistic man who means well but seems to hurt Larry with nearly every word he says.

Chaney is sensational as Larry Talbot, a tortured young man who wants no part of being a werewolf but becomes engulfed in the lycanthropic madness which surrounds him.  The original title of the movie was DESTINY, and it was to have featured Larry only becoming a werewolf in his own mind.   This idea was eventually scrapped, but you can still find traces and hints of this original concept in the final version.

Here they are now, the movies in which Lon Chaney Jr. played the Wolf Man:

THE WOLF MAN (1941)

Directed by George Waggner

Screenplay by Curt Siodmak

Music by Charles Previn, Hans J. Salter, and Frank Skinner

Larry Talbot/The Wolf Man:  Lon Chaney Jr.

Sir John Talbot:  Claude Rains

Maleva:  Maria Ouspenskaya

Gwen Conliffe:  Evelyn Ankers

Colonel Paul Montford:  Ralph Bellamy

Frank Andrews:  Patric Knowles

Bela:  Bela Lugosi

Running Time:  70 minutes

The cast alone makes this one a classic, but THE WOLF MAN is so much more.  It’s Lon Chaney Jr.’s first appearance as Larry Talbot, the Wolf Man, the role with which he would be forever identified.  This one has fine acting, an excellent script by Curt Siodmak, iconic Wolf Man makeup by Jack Pierce, and enough creepy atmosphere to make your skin crawl.  It also features an exciting conclusion, where young Gwen, Sir John Talbot, and the Wolf Man all cross paths in the fog-shrouded forest for the film’s heartbreaking finale.  Considered by many—myself included— to be the finest werewolf movie ever made.

FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN (1943)

Directed by Roy William Neill

Screenplay by Curt Siodmak

Music by Hans J. Salter

Larry Talbot/ The Wolf Man:  Lon Chaney Jr.

The Monster:  Bela Lugosi

Baroness Elsa Frankenstein:  Ilona Massey

Maleva:  Maria Ouspenskaya

Dr. Mannering:  Patric Knowles

Mayor:  Lionel Atwill

Rudi:  Dwight Frye

Running Time:  74 minutes

Universal decided one monster in a movie was no longer enough, which is too bad because had this been a straight Wolf Man sequel, Universal might have had another classic on its hands.  As it stands, FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN isn’t a bad film at all— it’s actually very good, and the novelty of two monsters appearing in one movie has held up over the decades, keeping this one a crowd-pleaser even today, but the first half of the movie, the part that is a direct sequel to THE WOLF MAN and resurrects Larry Talbot from the grave, is by far the best part of the movie.  Once Talbot discovers the Frankenstein Monster frozen in ice, and thaws him out, the film becomes less compelling and much more contrived.  Still, it’s a helluva show, and the film’s climactic battle between the two titled monsters although brief is still well worth the wait.

This one just might feature the best makeup job by Jack Pierce on the Wolf Man.  Chaney’s Larry Talbot is the most interesting character in the movie, and the Wolf Man even gets to be heroic as he saves the Baroness Frankenstein from the clutches of the Frankenstein Monster in the film’s conclusion.

 

HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944)

Directed by Erle C. Kenton

Screenplay by Edward T. Lowe, Jr.

Music by Hans J. Salter

Larry Talbot/The Wolf Man:  Lon Chaney Jr.

Doctor Niemann:  Boris Karloff

The Monster:  Glenn Strange

Dracula:  John Carradine

Daniel:  J. Carrol Naish

Ilonka:  Elena Verdugo

Inspector Arnz:  Lionel Atwill

Rita Hussman:  Anne Gwynne

Professor Bruno Lampini:  George Zucco

Running Time:  71 minutes

After the success of FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN, Universal decided that even two monsters in one movie weren’t enough, and so they invited Dracula to the party.  While not as good as its predecessor, HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN is still a pretty good movie, and had it been twenty minutes longer and added some depth to its story, it might have been hailed as another Universal classic.  As it stands, things move incredibly quickly, and all the action is jam-packed in the film’s brief 71 minutes.

HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN is probably most notable for the return of Boris Karloff to the Frankenstein series, after he missed the previous two films.  Karloff returned not as the monster but as the evil Doctor Niemann, a nice precursor to Peter Cushing’s dark interpretation of Baron Frankenstein in the Hammer movies a decade and a half later.

Lon Chaney Jr. fares rather well here in his very brief screen time as Larry Talbot, as his scenes as the Wolf Man are quick and fleeting.  Still, he gets involved in one of the movie’s better subplots, a love story with the young gypsy girl Ilonka.  In fact, HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN contains one of the more dramatic sequences involving the Wolf Man in the entire series, as Ilonka decides to take it upon herself to “save” her lover, taking on the Wolf Man with a silver bullet.  This emotional little sequence really packs a wallop.

HOUSE OF DRACULA (1945)

Directed by Erle C. Kenton

Screenplay by Edward T. Lowe, Jr

Music by William Lava

Larry Talbot/ The Wolf Man:  Lon Chaney Jr.

Dracula:  John Carradine

The Monster:  Glenn Strange

Doctor Edelmann:  Onslow Stevens

Police Inspector Holtz:  Lionel Atwill

Nina:  Jane Adams

Running Time:  67 minutes

Follow-up to HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN isn’t as good, but it’s still not a bad little movie.  This one is notable because Doctor Edelmann who treats all the monsters in this film, actually cures Larry Talbot!  So, at the end of the film, Larry Talbot, no longer suffering the effects of being the Wolf Man, actually gets to play the hero and save the heroine from the Frankenstein Monster.

Jane Adams, who played the hunchback nurse Nina, just recently passed away, on May 21, 2014 at the age of 95.

ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948)

Directed by Charles Barton

Screenplay by Robert Lees, Frederic I. Rinaldo, and John Grant

Music by Frank Skinner

Larry Talbot/ The Wolf Man:  Lon Chaney Jr.

Dracula:  Bela Lugosi

The Monster:  Glenn Strange

Chick:  Bud Abbott

Wilbur:  Lou Costello

Running Time:  83 minutes

Originally proposed as HOUSE OF THE WOLF MAN, this serious idea was scrapped in favor of a comedy.

Strangely, it took the comedic presence of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello to return the Universal monsters to their glory days.   Chaney was disappointed that Universal decided to put their monsters in an Abbott and Costello comedy, but the truth is the monsters fare better in this movie than the previous two.  They enjoy more screen time and have more dialogue than ever before.  Heck, even Glenn Strange as the Frankenstein Monster says a few lines!  Plus, Bela Lugosi returned as Dracula, the first time he played the role since the 1931 original.  This one works because the monsters play it straight and keep their dignity, and of course it doesn’t hurt that Abbott and Costello are downright hilarious in this movie.

Chaney delivers another excellent performance as Larry Talbot, this time focused on stopping Dracula from spreading his evil on the world.  Lots of Wolf Man scenes in this one.

And now for Chaney’s two non-Larry Talbot appearances as a werewolf:

ROUTE 66

Season 3 Episode 6 “Lizard’s Leg and Owlet’s Wing” (October 26, 1962)

Directed by Robert Gist

Teleplay by Stirling Silliphant

Lon Chaney Jr. dons werewolf makeup in this playful episode of the popular 1960s TV show.  Chaney, Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre all play themselves, as they are planning their horror movie comeback.  Karloff dresses as the Frankenstein Monster and Chaney dresses as the Wolf Man to see if they can still scare people.

FACE OF THE SCREAMING WEREWOLF (1964)

Directed by Gilberto Martinez Solares, Rafael Portillo, and Jerry Warren

Screenplay by Juan Garcia, Gilberto Martinez Solares, Alfredo Salazar, Jerry Warren, and Fernando de Fuentes

Music by Luis Hernandez Breton

The Mummified Werewolf:  Lon Chaney Jr.

Running Time:  60 minutes

An aging Lon Chaney Jr. plays a werewolf for the last time in this little seen Grade Z horror movie from Mexico.  The most notable thing about this one is that it took five writers to write it!

And that wraps things up for today.  I hope you enjoyed this look at Lon Chaney Jr.’s Wolf Man movies, and I’ll see you again next time on the next HORROR JAR.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

INTERSTELLAR (2014) – Science Fiction at its Best

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interstellar - posterMovie Review:  INTERSTELLAR (2014)

By

Michael Arruda

 

INTERSTELLAR, the latest film by writer/director Christopher Nolan of THE DARK KNIGHT trilogy fame is an instant classic, not only one of the best movies of the year, but also destined to be one of the all-time classic science fiction films ever made.  No kidding!

INTERSTELLAR takes place in the not too distant future, a time when Earth is in crisis due to a shortage of food.  People work as farmers, because the need for food is so great, even though the soil is dying, and the time is coming when the Earth will no longer be able to sustain life.

 Matthew McConaughey plays Cooper, a former astronaut/pilot who now works as a farmer, and he’s none too happy about it.  He has to raise his children on his own, as his wife recently died from cancer, and he receives some help from his father, Donald (John Lithgow).  Through an odd series of events, Cooper and his young daughter Murph find themselves inside a secret NASA base in which Cooper is reunited with his former professor, Professor Brand (Michael Caine).

Professor Brand informs Cooper that NASA is secretly working on a plan to save the human race.  A worm hole has been discovered near Saturn, and Brand reports that they have already sent manned space crafts through the worm hole in search of other habitable planets.  Now they need to send a new mission to seek out those previous missions in order to learn which planets if any are inhabitable.  Brand wants Cooper to pilot the mission.

Cooper decides to go, against the wishes of his ten year-old daughter Murph, and even though he promises her that he will come back, she doesn’t believe him.  Cooper leads the mission through the worm hole, and in a race against time, as their voyage through time and space will take years, they attempt to find a new planet able to sustain human life and then get the word back to Earth before the planet dies.

INTERSTELLAR is a compelling, exciting movie that works on multiple levels.  It contains enough big ideas and gets enough of the science right to succeed as an exemplary work of science fiction, and it also scores high with the human element, as it contains major conflicts for nearly every character in the film to overcome.  It also works as a melodrama, as it tells a riveting and oftentimes suspenseful story.  It’s visually very satisfying, it contains great acting from nearly everyone involved, and it has a fantastic script by brothers Christopher and Jonathan Nolan.  And oh yeah, there’s the work of its talented director, Christopher Nolan.

Some of the ideas explored in INTERSTELLAR include worm holes, black holes, the theory of relativity, and time travel.  The worm hole is the plot device which sets the story in motion, as it allows our astronauts to travel impossible distances through space in one lifetime.  The theory of relativity also takes a prominent role in the story, as on certain planets years pass by as mere hours.  Spend a few hours on the planet, and back on earth two decades pass.  These are highly interesting topics, and they’re handled in this movie by screenwriters Christopher and Jonathan Nolan with near perfection.  The science isn’t dumbed down to the point where it plays as theatrical fantasy, nor is it so highbrow that it flies over our heads.  It strikes a nice balance.

Like last year’s GRAVITY (2013) it also gets the silence of space right, as scenes of space travel are shot in eerie silence.

Only the dealing with the black hole gave me pause— at first.  The fate of someone entering a black hole is most likely death, and anything else seems somewhat less than believable, but since the truth is, we really don’t know what happens inside a black hole, there are certain creative privileges that go hand in hand with this subject.  In other words, until there is definitive scientific proof of what really happens inside a black hole, writers can get away with certain creative indulgences, as long as they remain believable.  What happens inside the black hole in INTERSTELLAR ultimately passes the believability test.

Nearly every character in INTERSTELLAR has a major conflict to overcome.  Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) in addition to trying to save the human race (yeah, that’s a biggie!) also wants to make good on his promise to his children that he will indeed return home.  Fellow astronaut Brand (Anne Hathaway), Professor Brand’s daughter, is in love with one of the astronauts from the previous mission and thus is biased about travelling to his planet.  Cooper’s adult daughter Murph (Jessica Chastain) desperately wants to prove that her father didn’t lie to her, that he really planned to complete his mission and return home to her.  Professor Brand (Michael Caine) in spite of his herculean humanitarian effort is harboring a terrible secret.  It’s one of the reasons INTERSTELLAR remains compelling for all of its 169 minutes running time, because nearly every character has a conflict to work through.

Another reason it remains enthralling is it doesn’t play like a cold stoic science fiction tale.  INTERSTELLAR is a heartfelt melodrama, with characters you truly care about placed in some very dangerous and life threatening situations.  There are also some exciting scenes of suspense, including a fierce fight on an ice planet, and a nail biting sequence involving an impossible space docking maneuver on an out-of-control space station.

Matthew McConaughey leads the very talented cast with another neat performance, this time as Cooper, the former astronaut who makes the bold choice to pilot a ship through a wormhole into the unknown in order to save humankind, all the while believing in the improbable, that he’ll be able to make it back home alive.

Jessica Chastain is equally as good as Cooper’s adult daughter Murph, albeit her screen time is much smaller than McConaughey’s, but it is these two characters who drive this story along.

Anne Hathaway is also excellent as fellow astronaut and scientist Brand, as is Michael Caine as her father Professor Brand.  Throw in John Lithgow as Cooper’s father Donald, Casey Affleck as Cooper’s adult son Tom, and a few other familiar faces, including a major star who appears unbilled, and you have the makings for a phenomenal cast.

Visually, INTERSTELLAR is impressive and doesn’t disappoint.  Director Christopher Nolan fills this one with memorable scenes and images.  Even better is the screenplay by Nolan and his brother Jonathan.  Everything seems to work.  I was hooked within the first few minutes and remained so for the nearly three hours the movie took to reach its conclusion.  It’s Nolan’s most satisfying film since THE DARK KNIGHT (2008).

Still, it’s not perfect.  The logic behind the appearance of the worm hole, for example, doesn’t exactly hold up to scrutiny, and a key scene where Cooper attempts to communicate across dimensions to his daughter had me scratching my head.

But these are minor quibbles.

INTERSTELLAR is a superior science fiction movie.  It’s better than the recent science fiction efforts like GRAVITY (2013) and PROMETHEUS (2012), and it deserves to be included in the conversation with some of the all-time greats, films like THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (1951) and 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968).

One of the best movies of the year, INTERSTELLAR is one voyage you definitely do not want to miss.

—END—

BEFORE I GO TO SLEEP (2014) Interesting Story, Mediocre Thriller

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Before-I-Go-To-Sleep-Movie-PosterMovie Review:  BEFORE I GO TO SLEEP (2014)

By

Michael Arruda

 

Midway through BEFORE I GO TO SLEEP, the new thriller starring Nicole Kidman, Colin Firth, and Mark Strong, I found myself thinking “something better happen soon before I go to sleep!”

 Sorry.  Couldn’t help myself.

BEFORE I GO TO SLEEP is a deliberately paced thriller, on purpose no doubt, that nonetheless crawls along at a sluggish pace all the way to its standard pedestrian conclusion.

It actually has a pretty interesting story.  Nicole Kidman plays a woman named Christine who wakes up in bed with a man she doesn’t recognize.  The man (Colin Firth) tells her that he’s her husband Ben and that she suffers from a condition in which every night when she goes to bed she forgets everything that happened to her the day before.  When she awakes in the morning, she has forgotten everything about her life.  Ben tells her that her condition is a result of a car accident in which she suffered severe head injuries.

One morning Christine receives a phone call from a Dr. Nasch (Mark Strong) who tells her he has been treating her, but that obviously since she forgets everything at the end of the day she has no memory of his treating her.  He directs her to a camera she has hidden in her closet, and she discovers that under his direction she’s been making a video diary of herself in order to work towards regaining her memory.

During this process, she begins to see glimpses of memories, including one where she’s viciously attacked by an unknown assailant. This memory is corroborated by Dr. Nasch who tells her that she was indeed assaulted and that her injuries were the result of this attack and not a car accident.  This revelation makes Christine wonder why Ben has not been truthful to her about the cause of her condition.  When asked, Ben tells her in the past the truth has caused her pain and so he has chosen not to reveal it to her any longer.

It makes perfect sense to Christine and she quickly moves on.  However, as she regains more lost memories, she finds other instances where Ben has kept the truth from her.  Worse yet, certain images in her mind raise suspicions about Dr. Nasch as well.  As she struggles to regain her memory, she finds herself doubting both her husband and Dr. Nasch and doesn’t know which one to trust, especially when the things they say contradict each other.  If only she could remember the truth.

For the most part, I enjoyed BEFORE I GO TO SLEEP.  The story it tells is a good one, and it kept me guessing all the way to the end.  However, it moves along at such a sluggish pace, it really prevented me from settling in and getting completely drawn into the drama.

Director Rowan Joffe seems to have done this on purpose to give the film a quiet claustrophobic feeling— Christine spends her days alone in her home— and thoughtful self-discovery.  So, the film certainly does a good job of capturing Christine’s mood and frame of mind, as she seems to be in a perpetual mental fog, struggling to learn the truth about herself, unable to take giant steps in her search for answers because of her condition.  But the trade-off is a movie that never rises above the curious, never becomes gut-wrenchingly intense, and never really attains that next level, the one necessary to make this one a memorable thriller.  At the end of the day, it’s all rather unmemorable.  Heh heh.

Nicole Kidman is fine as Christine and does a good job making her a vulnerable character, but it’s Colin Firth who has a field day here.  He turns in a first-rate performance as Ben, coming off at first as very sincere and loving, and every time Christine doubts him and shares her doubts with him, he has a satisfying answer for her.  Time and time again, Christine finds herself questioning her husband, and each time she confronts him, he convinces her of his love and loyalty with his charm, and yet thanks to Firth’s terrific performance, there’s an underlying quality of duplicity about him, something you can’t put your finger on but you know it’s there.  Firth really does a good job keeping the audience off balance here.  Is he really in love with her and simply being secretive because he’s trying to protect her? Or is he up to something sinister?

Mark Strong is serviceable as Dr. Nasch, but I’ve seen Strong much better in other roles.  Part of the issue here is most of the screen time goes to Nicole Kidman and Colin Firth, and so Firth gets to do much more in terms of making the audience question him than Strong does.  Strong’s role is much smaller, and as a result he doesn’t get a chance to strut his stuff as effectively as the two leads.

Director Rowan Joffe wrote the screenplay based on the novel by S.J. Watson.  As such, I expected this one to be much more fleshed out than it ultimately was.  Other than Colin Firth’s character, the rest of the characters and the story itself aren’t really developed enough to make this film a rewarding and satisfying experience.  Nicole Kidman’s Christine is not supposed to be as developed since she can’t remember who she is, and this is okay since we go along for the ride with her to find out who she is and what happened to her, but because of this, the movie needs a strong cast of supporting characters.  There is really only one, Firth’s Ben.

The story did manage to hold my interest for the most part, but it never reached that next level where I was squirming in my seat.  It could have used some more thrills.

The ending was also somewhat of a letdown.  What had been a clever mystery ends in an obligatory by-the-numbers physical confrontation where Christine fights for her life against her attacker.

It also doesn’t help that there really weren’t any memorable scenes in this one.  The best part is the story itself, as I wanted to find out what really happened to Christine and who it was who attacked her, and I enjoyed the gimmick of her twenty four hour amnesia. Likewise, I wanted to know which man she should trust, her husband, her doctor, both, or neither.  These story aspects were all good.

It’s just that the movie took its sweet time finding the answers, and the amount of thrills along the way was minimal.  And once we get to the ending, the payoff was anticlimactic.

I wanted more.

BEFORE I GO TO SLEEP is a mediocre thriller that benefits from decent performances by its three leads, Nicole Kidman, Colin Firth, and Mark Strong, especially Firth, but it lacks the intensity needed to make its mark.

After twenty four hours you’re likely to forget it all.

—END—

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: BLACK SUNDAY (1960)

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black_sunday-1960-posterHere’s my latest IN THE SPOOKLIGHT column, on the Mario Bava classic BLACK SUNDAY (1960), published in the November 2014 edition of The Horror Writers Association Newsletter.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT

BY

MICHAEL ARRUDA

BLACK SUNDAY (1960), Mario Bava’s classic horror movie about vampires and witches, is so steeped in atmosphere you’ll swear your living room has been transformed into a graveyard right before your eyes.

Well, almost.

Take the opening pre-credits scene for instance, where Barbara Steele’s witch Princess Asa is condemned to death, by her own brother, no less.  Torches, dead trees, fog, and the kicker, the mask with the spikes inside— the mask of Satan, which actually is the film’s American title on some prints- which the big burly executioner slams into Steele’s face with a mallet. Ouch!

Of course, before she gets those giant spikes driven into her skull, she swears that she’ll return from the dead to seek vengeance on her brother’s descendants.

The story then jumps two hundred years into the future, into the 19th century where we meet doctors Kruvajan (Andrea Checchi) and Andre Gorobec (John Richardson).   They’re on their way to some 19th century conference— on how to tell whether someone is a witch, perhaps?— when their coach has an accident, and they find themselves at a graveyard with some free time on their hands.

They discover the coffin containing the remains of Princess Asa, and Kruvajan knows about the legend and tells Andre all about it.  Moments later, Kruvajan is attacked by a giant bat, and in his struggle to defend himself, he cuts his hand, and some of his blood falls onto the body of the princess.  Blood dripping onto the body of a witch, vampire, or a demon is never a good thing [we just saw this same plot device used in the new movie ANNABELLE (2014) as dripping blood gave life to the evil spirit inside its demonic doll], and it’s certainly not here, as in the words of Dracula himself, “the blood is the life,” and having received a splash of Kruvajan’s blood, Princess Asa begins to stir from her long sleep.

Asa uses her powers to resurrect her former lover, the vampire Javutich (Arturo Dominici) and together they set their sights on seeking vengeance against Asa’s descendants, including young princess Katia (also played by Barbara Steele).  They also go after Dr. Kruvajan, which means it’s up to young Andre and the parish priest to battle the forces of evil and stop Asa and Javutich from completing their diabolical plan.

There’s a lot to like about BLACK SUNDAY, but the main reason I enjoy this film so much is the atmospheric direction by Mario Bava.  The black and white photography here is so impressive you’ll forget you’re watching a horror film.  It’s practically an art house experience.

BLACK SUNDAY is chock-full of memorable scenes and images.  It gets off to a shocking start with its opening sequence of the mask being driven into Princess Asa’s skull, and from there it never looks back.  There’s also a gruesome scene where Andre and the village priest drive a spike into a vampire’s eye.

The main star here is Barbara Steele, and she’s sufficiently sexy in her dual role as Princesses Asa and Katia.  I prefer her as the evil witch Asa, as she comes off as icy cold and devilishly wicked.

But my favorite character in BLACK SUNDAY is the vampire Javutich, who is a foreboding and menacing presence throughout.  Javutich as played by Arturo Dominici is certainly one of the scarier screen vampires.  I wouldn’t want to wake up and find him standing by the edge of my bed.

The rest of the cast are all rather bland, including John Richardson as the romantic lead Dr. Andre Gorobec.  Of course, the English dubbing doesn’t help.  The actors all sound like characters in a Scooby Doo cartoon.  Not very convincing. BLACK SUNDAY is an Italian production, and I’ve always wanted to see it in its original Italian language with English subtitles, but sadly I’ve only seen the English dubbed version.

BLACK SUNDAY tells a decent story with plenty of scares and thrills and does a nice job with its mixture of witches and vampires.  It’s the perfect horror movie to watch late at night alone in the dark.

Not into Black Friday this Thanksgiving?  Then try BLACK SUNDAY, and join doctors Kruvajan and Gorobec as they battle the witch Princess Asa and her vampire lover/assassin Javutich in castles and graveyards, all shot in glorious haunting black and white.

Of course, if you’d rather stay up all night and go shopping, that’s up to you.  Personally, I’d rather stay up and watch movies.

I’ll take one of those masks with the spikes, please.  Is the mallet extra?

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Bill Murray Lifts Predictable ST. VINCENT

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St. Vincent posterMovie Review:  ST. VINCENT (2014)

By

Michael Arruda

 ST. VINCENT just might be the most enjoyable trite, cliché-ridden, and predictable movie I’ve seen in a while.

It’s all three of these things, which usually spells doom for a movie, but in this case, excellent performances by Bill Murray and newcomer Jaeden Lieberher, who’s just eleven years old, and fine support by a subdued Melissa McCarthy, make this one much better than it should be.

Bill Murray plays Vincent, a cranky cantankerous old man who is having a rough go at life and is fine letting everybody know that he is.  He also hits the bottle regularly, often drinking far more than he should, and he bets on the horses, and loses, so much so that he owes some dangerous men a decent chunk of money.

When the movers moving in his new neighbors, a single mom Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) who’s smack dab in the middle of a divorce and a child custody battle, and her young son Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher), accidentally smash into the tree next to his house, severing a branch which crushes the top of his car, Vincent is quick to demand payment from Maggie for damages, something she promises to take care of soon.

After having a deplorable day at school, where he’s bullied cruelly, to the point where his clothes are stolen, including his house keys, Oliver returns home wearing only his gym clothes. Locked out of his house, he asks Vincent if he can use his phone to call his mom.  Vincent is none too happy about letting Oliver into his house, but he does, and he’s even more put out when Maggie asks if Oliver can stay there until she comes home from work.

The afternoon goes well, and Vincent finds himself enjoying Oliver’s company, even though he won’t admit it.  He also sees an opportunity, and he offers to watch Oliver every day after school while Maggie is at work, because he is in desperate need of the money.  Maggie agrees— which I found nearly impossible to believe since they had just moved there and she doesn’t know Vincent from a hole in the wall, and yet she trusts this man with her son?— and so just like that Vincent and Oliver are suddenly spending every afternoon together.

There’s little need to describe the rest of the plot because you can see it all coming a mile away.  In fact, by far, the worst part of ST. VINCENT is its predictable plot.  I so much wished this one had had a completely different story.  However, amazingly so, due to the strong performances, this movie works, and I can’t deny that I really enjoyed it from beginning to end.

As Oliver and Vincent get to know each other, Vincent helps Oliver with his bully problem, teaching him how to defend himself, and Oliver learns that Vincent’s wife is sick with Alzheimer’s in a nursing home, and that Vincent visits her nearly every day and does her laundry for her, even though she doesn’t remember who he is.  Of course, Vincent also takes Oliver with him to the horse races and also to his favorite bar where he drinks freely in front of the boy.

When Vincent suffers a stroke, Oliver and Maggie are quick to visit him and help him get back on his feet. And when it’s time for Oliver to write a presentation at his Catholic school about “saints among us” guess who he chooses to write about?  I told you this one was predictable.

And it is, terribly so.  But somehow it didn’t seem to matter.

First off, Bill Murray is terrific in this film, and he’s the number one reason this movie works so well.  I could pretty much watch Murray in anything, and he’d make it good, which is exactly what he does here.  Heck, in the opening montage of this movie, he enjoys more fine moments in the first five minutes than a lot of other actors do in an entire movie.  He brings Vincent to life immediately, and sets the tone for the rest of the movie.

While Murray is always funny, and he’s certainly is here in ST. VINCENT, his finest moments are actually of the dramatic variety.  In scenes where he learns that his bank account is empty, and when he receives awful news about his wife, the expression on his face resonates deep hurt and disappointment.  Murray comes off as weathered, seasoned, and frustrated by life.  I saw NIGHTCRAWLER the same weekend I saw ST. VINCENT, and I applauded Jake Gyllenhaal for his terrific performance in that film and said it was Oscar-worthy, and it was.  Likewise, Bill Murray might be receiving some Oscar consideration for his role here in ST. VINCENT.  He’s that good.

And just as good as Murray is young Jaeden Lieberher as Oliver.  Lieberher plays such a likeable little kid, it’s easy to see why Vincent enjoys spending time with him.  Oliver is wise beyond his years, and as cliché-ridden as his saint project is, it still is a moving moment in the movie, because Lieberher laces it with an incredible amount of sincerity.  In spite of the predictability of their relationship, I completely bought the friendship between Vincent and Oliver.

Melissa McCarthy has only a small role here as Oliver’s mom Maggie, and compared to her usual performances, she’s very subdued.  Yet, she still remains relevant.  Like Murray, her best moments in this film are the dramatic ones.  Sure, when she goes on about how hard her life is as a single mom, and that she has to work extra hours to make ends meet, and how she’s in a vicious custody battle with her ex-husband over their son, I could hear the violins playing and I wanted to gag.  It was a little bit much for my liking.  I half-expected to see a man in black knocking at her door demanding rent money.

But again, McCarthy, like Murray, rises above the material and makes it work.  She also gets to fire some zingers at Murray, putting him in his place for taking her son to a bar, for instance. McCarthy cuts Murray down to size and is believable doing it, which is no easy task.

Only Naomi Watts seems out of place as Vincent’s Russian stripper girlfriend Daka, who is crass and blunt and speaks her mind with regularity, and because of her difficulty with the English language, often says things that come out wrong, and this is supposed to be funny.  In fact, her character is pretty much completely played for laughs.  It was an odd role for Watts, and unfortunately I never really bought her Russian accent, or her character.

ST. VINCENT was written and directed by Theodore Melfi. I have mixed feelings about the script. On the surface, the story is pretty bad.  Crabby old man befriends a likeable young boy, does nothing for me as a story idea, and some of the story elements don’t work either.  I thought the majority of the scenes at Oliver’s Catholic school were unrealistic in terms of how schools and classrooms are run, and the dialogue in these scenes was trite and oftentimes ridiculous.  The subplot with Vincent and his Russian girlfriend Daka was weird and hard to fathom, especially when we see Vincent still so in love with his ailing wife.

And yet, most if not all of Vincent’s dialogue is spot-on.  When life throws him daggers, Vincent lashes out and the things he says are both funny and sad, but more importantly, make sense.  The scenes with Vincent and his wife are wonderfully done, as are the later scenes when Vincent has to deal with the effects of his stroke.

I have to give credit to Melfi as a director because he certainly gets the most out of Bill Murray, Jaeden Lieberher, and Melissa McCarthy.  I don’t think that all three of these actors delivered topnotch performances by accident.

The main reason though to see ST. VINCENT and ultimately why it’s so enjoyable is because of Bill Murray.  In ST. VINCENT, Murray gets to be hilariously funny, touchingly dramatic, especially in those scenes with his wife, and finally he gets to play a stroke victim, and you know what?  He’s fantastic in all three of these elements.

Bill Murray was one of the highlights in the George Clooney World War II drama THE MONUMENTS MEN (2014) which came out earlier this year, and he’s the main attraction here in ST. VINCENT.  We haven’t seen a lot of Bill Murray in the movies in recent years, but hopefully his appearance in these two movies in 2014 means he’ll be showing up more often.

Not everybody can take a mediocre story and turn it into an enjoyable experience.  In ST. VINCENT, Murray does just that, and he does it with ease.

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