NUMBERS: Halloween

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NUMBERS:  Halloween Jack O Lantern

 

By Michael Arruda

Here’s a list of some random fun numbers in time for Halloween:

350 million – copies sold of books written by Stephen King.

35 million- pounds of candy corn estimated to be bought for Halloween 2015 in the U.S., according to ABC news.

40,000– Dollar amount stolen by Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) in PSYCHO (1960).

278- The number of screen credits for Christopher Lee, according to IMDB.

22– The number of movies Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee made together

10 – The number of movies in the HALLOWEEN franchise.

8 – The number of times Colin Clive says “It’s alive!” in the creation scene in FRANKENSTEIN (1931)

5– The number of times Lon Chaney Jr. played Larry Talbot/the Wolf Man in the movies.

3– The number of times Boris Karloff played the Frankenstein Monster in the movies.

2– The number of times Bela Lugosi played Dracula in the movies.

1 – Number of times Christopher Lee played Frankenstein’s Creature in the movies.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

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THE HORROR JAR: The Universal DRACULA Series

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THE HORROR JAR:  UNIVERSAL DRACULA Series

Bela Lugosi as Dracula in DRACULA (1931).

Bela Lugosi as Dracula in DRACULA (1931).

 

By Michael Arruda

Welcome back to THE HORROR JAR, your home for lists of odds and ends about horror movies.

Up today, a list of the UNIVERSAL DRACULA movies, a series that began and ended with Bela Lugosi playing Count Dracula, but the rest of the movies in between, strangely enough, did not feature Lugosi.  And the fact that Lugosi is so identified with the character when he only played him in the movies twice is a true testament to his performance in the original DRACULA.  He’s pretty much remembered as Dracula based on his work in that film alone.

Unlike Boris Karloff, who played the Frankenstein Monster in the first three films of the Universal Frankenstein series, and then returned in HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944) to play the evil Dr. Niemann, thus appearing in four of the eight Frankenstein movies, Lugosi only played Dracula on two occasions in the movies, and the second time was in the comedy ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948), yet he is just as readily identified as Dracula as Karloff is as the Frankenstein Monster.

Let’s look at the movies:

DRACULA (1931)

Dracula:  Bela Lugosi

Van Helsing:  Edward Van Sloan

Renfield: Dwight Frye

Mina:  Helen Chandler

Harker:  David Manners

Directed by Tod Browning

Screenplay by Garrett Fort, adapted from the play by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston, based on the novel by Bram Stoker.

Running Time:  75 minutes

Released before FRANKENSTEIN (1931), this was the movie that began the Universal monster series of the 1930s and 40s.  Tod Browning’s masterpiece, the movie that made Bela Lugosi a star.  Silent star Lon Chaney was originally intended to play Dracula, but his untimely death from throat cancer paved the way for Lugosi ultimately getting the part.

At times talky and slow-paced, DRACULA nonetheless is full of hauntingly rich images. The decrepit Castle Dracula, Dracula walking the streets of London, and simply Lugosi himself all contribute to the iconic visuals found in this film.

Lugosi steals the show as the undead king of the vampires, but receives fine support from Edward Van Sloan as Van Helsing, Dwight Frye as Renfield, and Helen Chandler as Mina.  Indeed, Frye is every bit as memorable as Renfield as Lugosi is as Dracula, and if you’ve seen this movie, it’s hard to forget either one of them. DRACULA is chock-full of classic lines uttered by Lugosi.  A must-see at Halloween time.

“The blood is the life, Mr. Renfield.”

 

 

THE SPANISH VERSION OF DRACULA (1931)

Dracula:  Carlos Villarias

Eva:  Lupita Tovar

Directed by George Melford and Enrique Tovar Avalos

Screenplay by Baltasar Fernandez Cue, based on the screenplay by Garrett Fort, adapted from the play by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston, based on the novel by Bram Stoker.

Running Time:  104 minutes

Back in the day, Universal used to film Spanish versions of their movies using an all-Spanish cast and crew on the same sets as the American version, and so as a result, we have this special treat of a movie:  an entirely different director, screenwriter, and actors using the same sets as DRACULA making an entirely different movie.

Technically, the Spanish version of DRACULA is superior to the Tod Browning version. There’s more going on with the camera and it plays much more like a movie than a stage play.  It’s also a more risqué production, as it highlights the sexual side of the story in ways the Browning version didn’t.

However, I won’t go so far as to call it a superior version of the tale for the simple fact that the Tod Browning version had Bela Lugosi, and he alone made the U.S. version the better movie.  Of course, I would have absolutely loved to have seen Lugosi star in this Spanish version.  Now that would have been one remarkable movie!

 

 

 

DRACULA’S DAUGHTER (1936)

Contessa Marya Zeleska (Dracula’s Daughter):  Gloria Holden

Jeffrey Garth:  Otto Kruger

Janet:  Marguerite Churchill

Van Helsing:  Edward Van Sloan

Directed by Lambert Hillyer

Screenplay by Garrett Fort

Music by Heinz Roemheld (uncredited)Dracula's Daughter - Poster

Running Time:  71 minutes

The first of two very underrated movies in the DRACULA series.  Evidently, back in 1936, the writers hadn’t figured out yet how to resurrect a vampire, and so Count Dracula remains dead in this one, as this story focuses on his daughter.  So, no Dracula and no Bela Lugosi, two strikes which have forever worked against this film.

That being said, DRACULA’S DAUGTHER is a very good horror movie, one of Universal’s best!  It has a solid story, immediately beginning right where DRACULA ended, and finds Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) facing a murder charge for the death of Dracula.  He turns to his friend Jeffrey Garth (Otto Kruger) for help, who in turn becomes embroiled with Contessa Zeleska (Dracula’s Daughter), who unlike her father, seems uncomfortable as a vampire and wants to be cured.  Still, she’s every bit as deadly as her daddy!  Gloria Holden is very good as Dracula’s daughter, and it’s nice to have Edward Van Sloan back as Van Helsing, but it’s Otto Kruger and Marguerite Churchill who steal the show in this one, Kruger as the intellectual hero Jeffrey Garth and Churchill as his sassy secretary Janet.  These two share so much chemistry I wish they had returned to take on other Universal monsters.

 

 

SON OF DRACULA (1943)

Count Dracula:  Lon Chaney Jr.

Katherine Caldwell:  Louise Allbritton

Claire Caldwell:  Evelyn Ankers

Frank Stanley:  Robert Paige

Doctor Brewster:  Frank Craven

Lon Chaney Jr. as Dracula in SON OF DRACULA (1943).

Lon Chaney Jr. as Dracula in SON OF DRACULA (1943).

Professor Lazlo:  J. Edward Bromberg

Directed by Robert Siodmak

Screenplay by Eric Taylor

Music by Hans J. Salter

Running Time:  80 minutes

Another underrated Dracula film. Lon Chaney Jr. takes on the role of Count Dracula, and he’s actually quite good here.  In spite of the film’s title, he’s not really playing Dracula’s son— or is he?  He’s identified only as Dracula in the film, and there’s nothing in the story to indicate for a fact that he’s the son of Dracula other than the movie’s title. There is speculation among some of the characters in the film that he might be a descendant of Dracula, but another character states that he is the original Dracula.  I suppose, you could imagine him to be Dracula’s son, but since this isn’t ever clarified in the story, it would be purely speculation. Regardless, Dracula uses the name Alucard (Dracula backwards) in this movie, in order, I guess, to travel about incognito.

This one is steeped in atmosphere as it takes place in the Deep South of the United States, and you can also feel the humidity.  The atmosphere almost reminds me of an old zombie movie.  It also has a neat story where Dracula’s main love interest, the occult-loving Katherine Caldwell, has her own agenda and is more manipulative than Dracula here.

Chaney is quite good as Dracula, and he gives the role a completely different feel than Lugosi did.  It’s nice to see Chaney play evil, as opposed to sympathetic Larry Talbot aka the Wolf Man.  Chaney’s Dracula possesses an aura about him that immediately makes the characters around him uncomfortable and uneasy.  He’s less charming than Lugosi, less mysterious, but more in-your-face evil.

 

 

 

HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944)

Dracula:  John Carradine

The Monster:  Glenn Strange

Doctor Niemann:  Boris Karloff

Larry Talbot/ The Wolf Man:  Lon Chaney Jr.

The Frankenstein Monster:  Glenn Strange

Daniel:  J. Carrol Naish

Directed by Erle C. Kenton

Screenplay by Edward T. Lowe, Jr.

Music by Hans J. Salter

Running Time:  71 minutes

Ah, let the Universal Monster Bash begin!  Yup, beginning with HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, Universal would make three straight movies featuring their three main monsters:  the Frankenstein Monster, Dracula, and the Wolf Man, all of this happening of course due to the success of their earlier hit FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN (1943).

John Carradine takes over the role of Dracula here, and finally, we get to see Dracula resurrected (it took the writers long enough to figure this out!) as we watch the nefarious Dr. Niemann (Boris Karloff) remove the stake from Dracula’s skeleton, and before our very eyes, Dracula materializes back to life.

HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN has a rather uneven plot.  The first third of the movie features Dracula, and once he is killed off, it morphs into a straight sequel to FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN as Dr. Neimann leaves Dracula behind and sets his sights on the Frankenstein Monster and the Wolf Man.

John Carradine is very good as Dracula, although I’ve always preferred Lugosi and even Lon Chaney Jr. in the role.  Carradine adds a sense of elegance to the Count, and he definitely has a presence about him, but to me, his performance has always had one major flaw:  I never found him scary in the role.

 

 

 

 

HOUSE OF DRACULA (1945)

Dracula:  John Carradine

Larry Talbot/ The Wolf Man:  Lon Chaney Jr.

John Carradine as Dracula.

John Carradine as Dracula.

The Frankenstein Monster:  Glenn Strange

Doctor Edelmann:  Onslow Stevens

Directed by Erle C. Kenton

Screenplay by Edward T. Lowe, Jr

Music by William Lava

Running Time:  67 minutes

All three Universal monsters return, and this time Dracula gets more to do and survives a bit longer than he did in HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN.  Unfortunately, HOUSE OF DRACULA isn’t quite as good as HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN.  Everything about this production seems rushed.  It screams for an additional twenty minutes or so.

Again, Carradine is respectable as Dracula, and again, he’s simply not all that scary.

 

 

 

ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948)

Dracula:  Bela Lugosi

The Frankenstein Monster:  Glenn Strange

Larry Talbot/ The Wolf Man:  Lon Chaney Jr.

Chick:  Bud Abbott

Wilbur:  Lou Costello

Directed by Charles Barton

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

Music by Frank Skinner

Running Time:  83 minutes

This was originally going to be called HOUSE OF THE WOLF MAN before Universal decided to add Abbott and Costello and turn it into a comedy.  Strangely, this decision, which many people including Lon Chaney Jr., hated, didn’t stop this movie from becoming one of the best in the Universal Monster series.

The big news here was that Bela Lugosi returned to play Dracula, a role he hadn’t played since the original DRACULA in 1931.  It still amazes me that these are the only two movies in which Lugosi ever played Dracula, although he did play a vampire in MARK OF THE VAMPIRE (1935) and THE RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE (1943).

ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN works so well for two main reasons.  One, it’s hilariously funny.  It’s one of Abbott and Costello’s best movies.  And two, the monsters in this film all have much bigger moments than they did in the previous two movies.

Lon Chaney Jr. has a major role.  As Larry Talbot, he’s involved in the hunt for Dracula, and he has lots of scenes as the Wolf Man.  Glenn Strange, reduced to having little more than a cameo as the Frankenstein Monster in the previous two movies, has lots of screen time here and even speaks lines of dialogue!

But it’s Lugosi who steals the show in his return as Dracula.  Other than Abbott and Costello, he’s the main character in this movie, as it’s his plot to take Lou Costello’s brain and put it into the skull of the Frankenstein Monster, in the hope that he’d be able to control the Monster better with Costello’s simple mind.

Lugosi has many fine moments.  He gets to be scary and he seems to be having a lot of fun.

Terrific movie, terrific performance, and a fine way to end the Universal Dracula series.

“Young people.  Always making the most out of life. While it lasts.”  — Bela Lugosi as Dracula in ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN.

 

 

Hope you enjoyed this edition of THE HORROR JAR, and I’ll see you again next time with more horror movie lists.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

THE DROP (2014) Is Crime Drama At Its Best

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Blu-ray Review:  THE DROP (2014)

by

Michael Arrudathe drop poster

Tom Hardy is one of my favorite actors working right now.

Every time I see him in a movie, he’s playing a completely different kind of role.  Whether he’s the villainous Bane in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012) or the heroic Max in MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (2015) he’s making an impression.  In THE DROP (2014) which I recently watched on Blu-ray, he plays a soft-spoken ex-con bartender named Bob who works at a bar where there is more mob activity than alcohol served.  Bob is a fascinating character who plays his cards close to his vest.  You know there’s something more to this guy, but you just can’t figure out what it is.

In THE DROP Hardy is flanked by two equally talented actors, Noomi Rapace and the late James Gandolfini.

I saw THE DROP on Blu-ray the same week that I saw BLACK MASS (2015) at the theater, the lurid Whitey Bulger bio pic starring Johnny Depp as the infamous Boston mobster.  I found THE DROP to be the more compelling of the two, equaling the intensity of BLACK MASS but having a better story and more interesting and captivating characters.

In THE DROP, ex-con Bob (Tom Hardy) tends bar at Cousin Marv’s, a bar owned by Cousin Marv (James Gandolfini) himself.   It’s a drop bar, meaning that the mob deposits money there on a regular basis.  One night, the bar is robbed, an act that the Chechen mafia who rule that neighborhood does not take kindly to, and they immediately suspect Bob and Marv of being in on the robbery. While Marv reacts nervously, Bob seems to take it all in stride and goes about his business in a quiet, unobtrusive way.

When he discovers a badly beaten pit bull puppy left for dead in a garbage can, he’s encouraged to take the dog home by his neighbor Nadia (Noomi Rapace).  He doesn’t want to do this because he says he doesn’t know how to care for a dog, but Nadia pretty much tells him the dog will die without his help, and she in turn helps him take care of it, and soon they become good friends, until her former boyfriend Eric (Matthias Schoenaerts) shows up, claiming the dog is his and that he wants it back.  Bob tells him no, even though Eric has the reputation of being a loose cannon and evidently killed a man.  None of this seems to faze Bob all that much.

When Marv’s bar is chosen as the main drop bar on the night of the Super Bowl, meaning that a huge amount of mob money will be deposited there, the story comes to a head as Bob finds himself in the middle of yet another plan to rob the bar, the vengeful Chechen mafia, and the psychotic boyfriend who seems ready to kill Bob at the drop of a hat.

THE DROP works as well as it does because of the superb acting performances in the movie.  Tom Hardy knocks the ball out of the park with his performance as Bob, a man who finds himself in the tensest predicament yet doesn’t seem to break a sweat.  He’s a fascinating character who seems to be harboring some sort of secret, a key which defines his personality.

Noomi Rapace as Bob’s love interest Nadia has played this kind of role before and she can pretty much sleepwalk through it, but that doesn’t mean she’s not excellent.  She is.  Her part here reminded me a lot of her role in another thriller DEAD MAN DOWN (2013) but that didn’t stop me from liking her performance.

The late James Ganolfini is also exceptional here as Cousin Marv.  When the movie opens, he seems to be the wise and weathered bar owner, whereas Bob seems more naïve, but as the story goes on, we learn that this is not quite the case.  Marv has a troubled life, and he makes poor decisions as a result.

The screenplay by Denis Lehane is flat out excellent.  It’s a complicated story that is never too confusing.  It creates captivating characters who you want to learn more about. It’s based on his short story “Animal Rescue.”  Lehane also wrote the novels Mystic River (2003), Gone Baby Gone (2007) and Shutter Island(2010). And even though this movie was based on his short story, it plays like a novel.  Its story is rich and deeply textured.

Director Michael R. Roskam has made a very suspenseful thriller that is as dark as it is satisfying.

If you like your crime stories populated with multi-dimensional characters who face crucial decisions throughout, in the face of threatening mob violence all around them, you’ll love THE DROP, a compelling movie that isn’t afraid to take its time with its characterizations.  It allows its audience time to get to know its characters without sacrificing intensity or excitement.

It’s also a showcase for Tom Hardy who continues to impress in movie after movie.

I loved THE DROP.

It’s crime drama at its best.

—END—

SICARIO (2015) – TAUT THRILLER IS ONE OF THE BEST FILMS OF THE YEAR

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MOVIE REVIEW:  SICARIO (2015)Sicario poster

By Michael Arruda

 

In Spanish, “sicario” means “hit man.”  In English, it means “hit movie.”

That being said, SICARIO is not exactly tearing it up at the box office, which is a shame, since it’s one of the best films of the year.

SICARIO is the new thriller by director Denis Villeneuve.  Its story about the hunt for a Mexican drug lord has it all:  riveting direction by Villeneuve, a multi-layered and deeply resonating screenplay by Taylor Sheridan, and fantastic acting performances all around, led by Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, and Josh Brolin.

Wow.  And wow again.

Del Toro has been exceptional in a bunch of movies, so it would be difficult to call his role in this movie as the mysterious and oh-so-cool and deadly Alejandro his best, but he is phenomenal here.  Alejandro instantly joins the ranks of cinema’s most fearsome hitmen.

Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is an idealistic FBI agent who in the film’s opening segment leads a drug raid on an Arizona home that leads to both a gruesome discovery and tragedy.  Kate and her agents discover over two dozen dead bodies buried within the walls of the house, and later as the agents continue to scour the grounds, a bomb goes off killing members of Kate’s team.

Kate’s exemplary work attracts the attention of special agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), and he invites Kate to join his team.  His mission is to hunt down the drug lord responsible for the death of Kate’s men, and so naturally Kate wants in, despite her misgivings about the operation, fueled by Graver’s evasive answers to her questions.  For instance, he refuses to give her a straight answer regarding the government agency for which he works.

Kate’s by-the-book partner Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya) warns Kate not to go, but she is determined to take down those responsible for her agents’ deaths.  Things grow murkier when Kate learns that they’re not going to El Paso as promised but to Mexico.

On the plane to Mexico, Kate meets Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), a man whose demeanor immediately raises a red flag for Kate.  She demands to know who Graver and Alejandro are working for, and she wants to know if they are, as she suspects, CIA.  Graver, in his usual relaxed, calm, confident manner, tells Kate to chill and to simply go along for the ride to observe and learn, because as he says, the battle that they’re taking to Mexico, is on its way to the States, and she’ll soon be waging a similar battle back home.

Kate relents and goes with Graver and Alejandro to Mexico, where she sees firsthand the horrors and crimes committed by the drug lord they are seeking, a man known as Fausto Alarcon.  Graver has assembled a crack team including Texas Rangers and other military types to complete their mission which is to go in and extract one of Alarcon’s cousins in order to stir things up and ruffle Alarcon’s feathers.  Kate is uncomfortable by the methods she witnesses, knowing they are illegal, but she stays with Graver and his team anyway.

They get their man, and in one of the film’s tenser sequences, attempt to bring him back across the border to the States, where Graver’s work is far from finished.  As Kate is drawn deeper into a world she wants no part of, a world where the lines between friend and foe become more and more difficult to discern, she struggles between keeping to her ideals and knowing what is right, and helping Graver, a man who’s eventual goal in spite of his off the chart methods is exactly what Kate wants to achieve.

SICARIO tells a fascinating story that works on multiple levels.  It’s written by Taylor Sheridan, who has worked more as an actor than as a writer.  Sheridan played Deputy David Hale on the TV show SONS OF ANARCHY (2008-2010). SICARIO is his debut screenplay, and it’s pretty darned impressive!

We are immediately drawn into Kate Macer’s story from the very first scene.  We share her determination to hunt down the man responsible for her team’s death, but this is no vengeance plot.  Like Kate, we become increasingly frustrated by the constant slipperiness of Matt Graver.  We are made uncomfortable by the cold presence of Alejandro.  And like Kate, we are increasingly torn between these men’s methods and their goal.

Alejandro’s story might be even more compelling.  At first, he’s this shadowy figure who we, like Kate, immediately suspect is not who he seems.  And we’re right.  But his back story explains his motivations, and as the movie goes on he becomes more of a central player.  The best part of Alejandro is his complexity. He puts Kate on edge immediately, and yet he’s the man when they’re in Mexico who seems to have her back.  She eventually trusts him, but later his actions cause her to pull a gun on him, an action he quickly makes her regret.

And the plight of the Mexican people, caught in the crossfire between the drug cartel on the one hand and the U.S. government on the other, is captured brilliantly yet simply in a touching subplot involving a corrupt Mexican police officer named Silvio (Maximiliano Hernandez) and the relationship he shares with his son.  The simple shot near the end of the movie of his son standing next to his empty bed is just one of the many powerful images captured in SICARIO and succeeds in making its point far more effectively than any long drawn out scene of dialogue.

Directed by Denis Villeneuve, SICARIO is full of potent images.  From the disturbing sight of naked mutilated bodies hanging above Mexican streets, to the more subtle scenes of Mexican children playing soccer with the sound of gun shots in the distance, to the blazing display of gunfire and explosions in the Mexican night witnessed by Kate from a distant rooftop.

Villeneuve also directed the well-received kidnapping thriller PRISONERS (2013) starring Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal.  I enjoyed SICARIO better than PRISONERS, as it tells a more complex story and it’s more of a complete package.

SICARIO also features some of the more riveting film sequences I’ve seen in a while.  The trek to extract the prisoner from Mexico, where Graver’s convoy gets stuck in traffic because of an accident, allowing drug hitmen the time they need to descend upon them, is one of the more suspenseful and exciting sequences in the film.  Likewise, later in the film a pursuit into an underground tunnel is just as exciting.  There are plenty of nail-biting moments in SICARIO.

The cast is flawless.

Emily Blunt delivers her finest performance to date in SICARIO (2015).

Emily Blunt delivers perhaps her finest performance to date in SICARIO (2015).

Emily Blunt is outstanding as Kate Macer.  She’s the perfect combination of tough-as-nails strength and later as her world crumbles around her, frightened vulnerability.  Blunt’s performance in the Tom Cruise science fiction film EDGE OF TOMORROW (2014) was one of my favorite parts of that movie.  She’s even better here in SICARIO. It’s Blunt’s best performance to date.

Even better is Benicio Del Toro as Alejandro.  He possesses such a presence in this movie that he can unnerve you just by standing there without uttering a line.  And when he gets into his adversary’s faces, and he does, up close, you can feel their trembling.  Yet, as played by Del Toro, Alejandro is not a one-note heartless robot of a killer.  He’s much more intricate than that, and while he may be one of the more cold-blooded hit men you’ll find in a movie, his backstory and its resolution, may have you shedding a tear.

Benicio Del Toro delivers yet another exceptional performance in SICARIO (2015).

Benicio Del Toro in another exceptional performance in SICARIO (2015).

Alejandro also shares a bond with Kate.  When he tells her that she reminds him of someone special from his past, it’s not a cliché set-up for a long lost love, but something deeper and more touching.

Josh Brolin is just as good as his fellow co-stars, playing the evasive and confident Matt Graver who doesn’t seem to have a straight answer for anything, and yet he often is the most honest man in the story.  And that’s because in the process of not answering Kate’s questions, he tells the truth.  It’s just not what Kate wants to hear, but the information is accurate.  If ever there was a true CIA man it’s Graver.  Brolin is perfectly cast as the relentless government agent who is so relaxed chasing mass murdering drug lords that he wears sandals during high level meetings and sleeps like a baby on flights into enemy territory.

The supporting cast is also excellent.  Daniel Kaluuya is memorable as Kate’s loyal partner Reggie Wayne.  In addition to being an FBI agent, he’s also a lawyer, and he represents law and order in this story, constantly attacking Graver and Alejandro and their methods.  He’s also loyal to a fault to Kate, and in a world where it’s difficult to know who to trust and who might shoot you in the back, it was refreshing to have a character like Daniel in the story.

Victor Garber [ARGO (2013)] makes a memorable impression as Kate’s boss Dave Jennings, and Jon Bernthal (THE WALKING DEAD) impresses in a small role as a man Kate meets in a bar for what seems like a harmless sexual encounter, except that in this story very little is as it seems.

Probably the best of the supporting roles belongs to Maximiliano Hernandez who plays the Mexican police officer Silvio.  In a series of brief scenes, we get to know him as a father to his young son, which makes his ultimate and unfortunate fate as he crosses paths with Alejandro all the more sad and touching.

SICARIO also has an effective music score by Johann Johannsson which completely captures the mood of this one and complements the edge-of-your seat suspenseful scenes.

SICARIO is the perfect combination of suspense and drama.  It’s riveting from start to finish, and it’s full of deep layers that keep this one from being superficial and trite.  It’s as complex as the multi-faceted drug world it portrays, and yet it’s never confusing.  Like Kate, we are torn by this world, are put off by the methods and partnerships embraced by our own government officials to get the job done, and yet also like Kate, at the end of the day we are not completely sure we want them to be stopped.

SICARIO is a deeply satisfying and rewarding movie that will have you on the edge of your seat throughout.  It’s one of the best films of the year.

—END—

BLACK MASS (2015) Tells Lurid Tale of “Whitey” Bulger

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Movie Review:  BLACK MASS (2015)

By

Michael Arrudablack mass

 

BLACK MASS, the lurid bio pic of Boston mobster Whitey Bulger is as heartless and cold as its subject, and this isn’t necessarily a good thing.

Sure, Johnny Depp is near brilliant as Bulger, and co-star Joel Edgerton might be even better as FBI agent John Connolly, and both men lead a very talented cast, but Bulger’s story is as ugly as his crimes, and the result is a soulless movie that is difficult to like, in spite of its strengths.

For John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), life is about loyalty, and he sees as his ticket to success as an FBI agent reaching out to his childhood friend from his old neighborhood, Jimmy “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp) to form an alliance to work together to take down the Italian mob.  Connolly sees this relationship as his best chance for making it big, while Bulger views it as a business transaction to get the FBI to do his dirty work and take down his enemies for him.

And so faster than you can say “Don Corleone” John Connolly is bringing down members of the Italian mafia while Bulger moves from small time hood to the criminal mastermind of Boston, all while the FBI turns a blind eye towards him because of the information he is providing them.   The feds, led by Agent Charles McGuire (Kevin Bacon) constantly ask why they’re shielding Bulger, but each time the questions are raised Connolly comes to Bulger’s defense and sweet talks his superiors into letting the arrangement continue.

It’s not until a new superior Fred Wyshak (Corey Stoll) comes onto the scene, arriving in Boston from Philadelphia and decides to make it his business to go after Bulger that the arrangement between Bulger, Connolly, and the FBI unravels.

Johnny Depp is as good as advertised and leads a powerful cast in this effective crime drama.  That being said, “Whitey” Bulger is such a cold-hearted unlikable character that a movie about him is just as unlikable.

Joel Edgerton is every bit as good as Depp as FBI man John Connolly, but Connolly isn’t any more likeable than Bulger.  He’s loyal to his gangster buddy rather than to the FBI, and his arrangement with his childhood friend does more to raise crime in Boston than quash it.

Benedict Cumberbatch is also notable as Bulger’s politician brother Billy Bulger, but he rounds out the triumvirate of unlikable characters.  He’s not any more engaging than his mobster brother.  Three central characters.  Three unlikable souls.

Some stand-outs in smaller roles include David Harbour as Connolly’s willing and spineless partner John Morris.  The scene where “Whitey” torments him over dinner about his willingness to give up a family recipe is one of the better scenes in the movie.  Jesse Plemons makes good as a young man whose loyalty and devotion make him a “Whitey” favorite.  Plemons played a similar role during the final season of BREAKING BAD.

Dakota Johnson makes the most of her brief screen time as “Whitey’s” girlfriend Lindsey Cyr, and the scene where they argue over the fate of their young son is a keeper.  Peter Sarsgaard is effectively paranoid and hyper as the frightened loose cannon Brian Halloran.  W. Earl Brown and Rory Cochrane are memorable as “Whitey’s” loyal henchmen, and Julianne Nicholson is effective as Connolly’s fed up and frightened wife Marianne.  The scene where “Whitey” “visits” her in her bedroom is one of the more menacing moments in the movie.

The screenplay by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth, based on books by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, does a nice job showing how coldhearted “Whitey” Bulger was and explaining how his arrangement with John Connolly and the FBI came to pass, but in terms of creating compelling characters, it falls short.  It’s all very stoic and cold.  When the tide turns on John Connolly and he’s facing arrest, I didn’t feel for him at all.

The direction by Scott Cooper captures the feel of 1970s Boston, and it certainly shows the ruthlessness of “Whitey” Bulger, but as an entire package, I found his previous movie OUT OF THE FURNACE (2013) much more compelling.  Its story was better, and its characters were deeper and richer. BLACK MASS has characters I really had no interest in learning more about.

Still, BLACK MASS is a decent movie, worth a trip to the theater. It’s not sugar-coated, and it’s not glorified.  It is what it is:  a lurid tale of a Boston mobster.

What it does better than anything else is give you a seat at the dinner table right next to “Whitey Bulger,” up close and personal.  And that’s simply not a place I want to be at for very long.

—END—

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: THE TOMB OF LIGEIA (1964)

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tomb of ligeia - posterThis is a reprint of a column that originally ran in the October 2007 issue of The HWA Newsletter, on the Vincent Price movie THE TOMB OF LIGEIA (1964). It’s reprinted in the current October 2015 issue of the HWA Newsletter as well as here.  And don’t forget:  if you like this column, you can read 115 more in my IN THE SPOOKLIGHT collection, available both as an EBook (www.neconebooks.com)  and in a print-on-demand edition (https://www.createspace.com/4293038.).

Enjoy!

—Michael

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT

BY

MICHAEL ARRUDA

I prefer horror to be an emotional experience, which is why, sometimes Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe adaptations don’t work for me.

THE TOMB OF LIGEIA (1964), starring Vincent Price, Corman’s eighth and final Poe adaptation, is a perfect example.

Technically, the film is flawless.  It’s arguably Corman’s best job at the helm.  The film looks phenomenal, there’s great use of locations, and the camera work is extremely stylish.  For these reasons alone watching THE TOMB OF LIGEIA can be as rewarding and mouthwatering as reading a good novel.  Your intelligence won’t be let down.

It also has a decent screenplay by Robert Towne, which lives up to its source material.

However, THE TOMB OF LIGEIA has never been one of my favorites because as it plays out, it’s as cold as a corpse with about as much life (unless of course you’re talking vampire and zombies, which get around rather well, but there ain’t no vampires or zombies here!).  Perhaps this is on purpose, and perhaps it’s just another sign of Corman’s genius.  Could be.  But for me, the fact remains that as I watch THE TOMB OF LIGEIA, and as I recognize while watching that “hmm, this movie is extremely well made,” I also realize I’m not emotionally invested in the characters or the situations.

THE TOMB OF LIGEIA tells the story of Verden Fell (Vincent Price) who’s— what else?— brooding over the death of his wife, Ligeia.  When a new woman, the Lady Rowena (Elizabeth Shepherd, in a dual role, as she also appears as Ligeia) expresses interest in Verden, the ghost of Ligeia takes offense, setting off the usual, standard ghostly shenanigans.  We learn that Verden isn’t mourning his deceased wife— he’s afraid of her, afraid that she’s not really dead.  Turns out Ligeia was a bold, energetic woman who had asserted she would never die, and she definitely got inside Verden’s head.

It’s this part of the film that works best for me.  Is Ligeia really a ghost?   Or is it Verden?  So mind-washed by his deceased wife that he himself is causing the mayhem?  On this level, the film works well.

And the performances by the two leads are terrific.  Price stands out as Verden.  His look, with the dark brown hair and dark glasses, to shield his ultra-sensitive eyes from the light, is unique to this movie.  Price moves through this role effortlessly, as if he could do it in his sleep.  Elizabeth Shepherd is just as good as The Lady Rowena.  Her portrayal of Rowena as a strong woman who is not intimidated by evil spirits is refreshing.  Tomb-of-Ligeia-Price

But THE TOMB OF LIGEIA fails to connect on an emotional level.  Price’s Verden isn’t that likeable, and while Shepherd’s Lady Rowena is, she’s not a central enough character to carry the movie on her own.  I don’t really care about these characters, and as a result, I don’t care all that much about what happens to them, which makes for a lackluster movie viewing experience.

THE TOMB OF LIGEIA is a mixed bag, which for Halloween, is OK.  In a trick or treat bag, chances are you’ll get candy you’re not crazy about along with your favorites, but still, it’s candy, and you’re not going to throw it away.  Likewise, THE TOMB OF LIGEIA is a stylish, almost beautiful horror movie that is pleasing to the eye and to the intellect, but not so attractive to the heart.  For those of us who tell tales, the heart can be the difference maker.  Still, it’s Corman, it’s Price, it’s Poe, it’s candy.

It’s Halloween.  Eat up.

(October 2007)