Completely Sold on JOY (2015)

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joy poster

 

When I think of Jennifer Lawrence, I do not think of THE HUNGER GAMES series or the X-MEN movies, but rather, I think of her work in SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (2012), AMERICAN HUSTLE (2013) and now JOY (2015).  Without a doubt, she is one of the most exciting actresses working today.  JOY belongs to Lawrence.

JOY, the latest film by writer/director David O. Russell, who directed Lawrence in both SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK and AMERICAN HUSTLE, is based on the true story of Joy Mangano, who created the Miracle Mop and went on to build a very successful business after her appearances on the QVC Home Shopping Network.

I know.  This sounds like a snooze, and many people are poking fun at a story based on the creator of the Miracle Mop, as well as calling writer/director David O. Russell overrated, but I like his style, and I like Jennifer Lawrence.  Combine these two talents with an equally talented ensemble cast, and you’ve got a movie that yes, quite frankly, makes the story of the Miracle Mop compelling and then some!

The film works for two reasons:  Russell’s writing and directorial style, and Jennifer Lawrence’s amazing acting.  These two could probably make a movie about a mop and I’d enjoy it— wait.  That’s what they just did.

JOY is narrated by Joy’s grandmother Mimi (Diane Ladd), and she introduces us to Joy as a little girl who likes to make things, and Mimi predicts great things for her granddaughter, but when we jump to Joy’s adulthood, we see that these “great things” have thus far eluded her.

Joy (Jennifer Lawrence) owns her own home, but in this home in addition to her two young children lives her mother  Terry (Virginia Madsen), an agoraphobic who stays in her bed all day and watches soap operas, her grandmother Mimi, and her ex-husband Tony (Edgar Ramirez) who lives in the basement.  To make matters more complicated, her father Rudy (Robert De Niro) shows up after having been thrown out by his girlfriend, and Joy takes him in as well, as he gets to share the basement with Tony, and the two men can’t stand each other.

Now, this sounds like a horrible situation and it is, but it’s handled by Russell with lots of wit and humor, like when Rudy’s girlfriend announces to the household and to Terry in particular, “I’m returning him.”

Joy also shares a strange relationship with her ex-husband Tony.  As Mimi explains in her voice-over narration, they’re much better “ex’s” than they were a married couple, and throughout their lives they somehow remain friends.

When Joy comes up with the idea of the Miracle Mop, and gets Rudy and his new wealthy girlfriend Trudy (Isabella Rossellini) to invest in it, it’s Tony  who directs Joy to a friend of his at QVC Network when sales of the mop go nowhere.  Through Tony’s connection, Joy meets the man who run QVC, Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper), and although he’s not initially impressed, Joy does not give up and eventually is able to get her product on the network.

But success is not instantaneous, and there’s still a long road ahead for Joy and her dysfunctional family.

JOY is much closer in tone and feel to SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK than to AMERICAN HUSTLE, and since SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK is probably my favorite David O. Russell movie, it’s why I also like JOY an awful lot as well.  I think I still prefer PLAYBOOK, mostly because in that film in addition to Russell, you had two powerhouse performances by Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence.  In JOY, you have just the one, as it’s clearly Lawrence’s movie, and it’s her performance which drives it forward.  Cooper is just along fro the ride here.  He’s solid as always, but his role in this one is peripheral at best.

JOY belongs to Jennifer Lawrence.  She’s convincing as Joy throughout, even as she runs the full gamut of emotions from happiness to stress to flat out depression.  She covers it all and makes it look easy.  When she’s wide-eyed and inventive, she’s fun to watch, and when things go wrong as they do more often than not, she tugs at the heart strings, and when she has to be strong and feisty, she goes into full kick-ass mode and makes that work as well.

As I said, Cooper’s role is less impressive here, and for him, it’s almost a throwaway role as the part of QVC head Neil Walker could have been played by anybody.

The rest of the cast is solid and they really help this movie along.

The two stand-outs are Edgar Ramirez as Joy’s ex-husband Tony and Dascha Polanco as Joy’s best friend Jackie.  Ramirez does such a tremendous job as Tony that other than Lawrence, he was my favorite part of this movie.  He plays Tony as the guy who often doesn’t appear to be the smartest guy in the room, but he is the most loyal to his ex-wife Joy on a consistent basis, and so, as things move along, it turns out that more often than not in terms of looking out for Joy and having her best interests in mind, he is the smartest guy in the room.  Ramirez was in the underwhelming horror movie DELIVER US FROM EVIL (2014).  He played one of the leads, a priest battling demons.  Needless to say, he’s much better here in JOY.

Dascha Polanco plays a similar role as Joy’s best friend Jackie who along with Tony also proves to be her most loyal supporter.  Without Tony or Jackie, Joy’s success may never have happened.  Polanco, known for her work on the TV show ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK, is very good here.

The cast also includes Robert De Niro as Joy’s father Rudy.  It’s similar to the role De Niro played in SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK, where he played Bradley Cooper’s dad.  De Niro gets to enjoy some good moments, some comedic, some dramatic.  Isabella Rossellini also stands out as De Niro’s girlfriend Trudy, although it’s scary how much she reminds me of her mother, Ingrid Bergman.  There were a few lines there in the film which gave me chills as I almost felt I was watching Bergman again.

Trudy and Rudy end up financing the bulk of Joy’s mop project, and as things continually go poorly, the scenes where Trudy and Rudy berate Joy are some of the most painful moments in the film.  Trudy has a way of belittling Joy, and Rudy makes things worse by trying to sound supportive and saying lines like “It’s not Joy’s fault.  It’s my fault for encouraging her to be somebody she’s not.”  Ouch!

Rounding out this painful family trio is Elisabeth Rohm as Joy’s half-sister Peggy, who is clearly jealous of her sister.  Peggy sides with Rudy and Trudy and when they gang up against Joy it gets rather ugly, which is why Tony and Jackie’s support for Joy resonates so strongly.

Then there’s Virginia Madsen as Joy’s agoraphobic mom Terry.  She never leaves her bedroom— heck, she hardly leaves her bed— yet her scenes are hilarious.  Furthermore, Russell adds the gimmick of featuring real soap opera stars like Susan Lucci and Maurice Bernard on the goofy soaps which Terry watches all day.  And there’s even a dream sequence where these characters invade Joy’s dreams.

Screen veteran Diane Ladd is also very good as Joy’s grandmother Mimi, and she’s a central figure here since the story is told through her first-person narration.  Ladd is the real life mother of Laura Dern.

And if the showbiz mother/daughter combos of Diane Ladd/Laura Dern and Ingrid Bergman/Isabella Rossellini weren’t enough, there is yet a third connected to this film.  Joan Rivers is a character in the movie since she performed on QVC, and in JOY Rivers is played by her real-life daughter Melissa Rivers.

The other reason I enjoyed JOY so much in addition to Jennifer Lawrence’s performance and her supporting cast is the writing and direction of David O. Russell.  While I wasn’t as crazy about his previous film AMERICAN HUSTLE as a lot of other people were, I loved SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK and THE FIGHTER (2010).  Now comes JOY, another film I really, really liked, so I guess I’m becoming a fan.

In JOY, the script is quirky and funny and takes an otherwise so-so story and imbues it with life and humor.  If someone were to ask me if I were interested in learning about the life of the woman who invented the Miracle Mop I’d probably shrug and answer “not really.”  But Russell makes this woman and her story interesting and compelling.

He makes Joy attractive not because of the mop but because she’s the glue which holds her dysfunctional family together.  That’s her real talent.  She’s always there for her family, always, and when they are not always there for her, those moments are painful.  You want to see her succeed because she has worked so hard, not at trying to become rich by selling mops, but at trying to keep her family together and functional.

Russell’s direction is also lively and inspired, from quirky dream sequences mixing soap opera characters with real characters in the story, to uncomfortable family arguments, to the way this film looks.  While not as impressive as the 1970s look from AMERICAN HUSTLE, the cinematography in JOY is still carefully mastered, as the film effectively captures the feel and look of the early 1990s.

JOY is getting mixed reviews, but I absolutely loved it.  With David O. Russell at the helm and penning the script, and Jennifer Lawrence leading a talented cast, I found this one captivating and entertaining throughout.

I was completely sold.

I’ll take one of those mops, thank you very much.

–END—

 

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THE BIG SHORT (2015) Is a Worthwhile Investment

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The Big Short poster

Not so long ago, in a galaxy not very far away, a great misadventure took place: in 2008 the banks of the United States and the world collapsed, tanking the economy, putting people out of work, and generally wreaking havoc, all because of fraudulent practices by big banks.

THE BIG SHORT (2015) tells the incredible story of how this all went down, seen through the eyes of several different parties, who had one thing in common:  they looked at the numbers and predicted the mortgage industry would collapse, and they all decided to make money off this information, except things didn’t turn out as they had planned.

Michael Burry (Christian Bale) is a socially awkward numbers genius who one day sees inconsistencies in the mortgage market, and he makes the bold prediction that these mortgages long considered to be solid and financially sound will collapse.  Much to the shock of the stockholders of his company, Burry invests nearly all his company’s funds against the housing market.  He tells his stockholders that when the mortgages fail they will make lots of money.  Of course, mortgages have never failed to that degree, and so his stockholders think he’s crazy.

Others on Wall Street soon catch wind of Burry’s betting against the housing market, including Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) who contacts Mark Baum (Steve Carrell) and his small Wall Street team of investors.  Before Baum accepts Vennett’s offer to buy into the deal, he decides to investigate the mortgate situation for himself.  What he and his team discover sickens him.

He finds mortgage lenders getting approval for variable rate loans from banks without even needing to show proof of their clients’ employment or income.  He listens as these lenders brag about targeting immigrants who don’t understand what will happen to them if their variable rate should ever skyrocket which Baum knows is about to happen.  Baum also knows that these homeowners— some owning multiple homes with multiple mortgages— will never be able to make their payments once the rates go up, and it becomes clear quickly to Baum that the mortgage industry— in fact the entire U. S. economy – is going to tank.

The best part of THE BIG SHORT is that it takes a complicated story and makes it both interesting and easy to understand.

Director Adam McCay, known for his comedies, films like ANCHOROMAN:  THE LEGEND OF RON BURGUNDY (2004) and THE OTHER GUYS (2010), uses his comedic background to create a lively vehicle and turn an otherwise depressing story into a very interesting and highly entertaining tale.  For example, whenever there’s a complicated financial or Wall Street term in need of explanation, the film employs the gimmick of having a celebrity appear and explain the information using terms they know and that the audience understands.  It’s fun, and better yet, the explanations make sense.

THE BIG SHORT also boasts a creative script by Charles Randolph and director McCay, who also wrote the screenplay for the excellent Marvel superhero film ANTMAN (2015) earlier this year.  The characters often turn to the camera and address the audience, clueing us in on things that are contrary to what other characters say or do. For example, in one funny bit Vennet tries to impress Baum and his team by introducing them to his math guy, a Chinese mathematician, and Vennett says that he can’t even speak English and that he’s just a genius with numbers, at which time the mathematician turns to the camera and says, “Actually, I do speak English, but Jared always says that because he believes it makes me seem smarter.”

The style is quirky throughout, but that’s not to say the film is a comedy.  It’s not, and it takes its subject seriously.  At one point, for example, two of the characters who stand to make a ton of money off the housing collapse start to celebrate when they’re berated by the man they’ve leaned on for help, former Wall Street insider Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) who lays into them with what the collapse actually means to people in the nation. people who will lose homes and income.  It’s a sobering moment.

THE BIG SHORT is driven by its acting performances and they are all excellent.  Christian Bale is getting most of the hype for his performance as oddball Michael Burry, as there is Supporting Actor buzz surrounding his performance.  Bale is very good, but I actually was even more impressed by Steve Carrell and Ryan Gosling.

Steve Carrell’s performance as cynic Mark Baum is the glue that holds this movie together.  He’s the character audiences will no doubt most relate to since he’s the guy who uncovers most of the shocking information, and he’s also the one who reacts to it. He is totally disgusted by  the fraudulent unchecked behavior of the banks.

Ryan Gosling is also excellent as the high octane Jared Vennett.  At times you’re not sure whether to like or hate the guy.  And Brad Pitt in a smaller role also does fine as the former Wall Street insider Ben Rickert who assists two young friends make a ton of money simply because they asked for his help.

The supporting cast is also superb.  The guys playing Baum’s team are especially good, especially Jeremy Strong as Vinnie Daniel.    Marissa Tomei is also good in a small role as Baum’s sympathetic and supportive wife.

The term “short” refers to short-selling, buying low and selling high, which in effect is what these guys were doing when they were betting that the mortgage industry would fail.  In this case, their mega-deal was “the big short.”

The world of Wall Street does not interest me in the least.  I guess that’s why I’ll always be a “starving artist.”  But that didn’t stop me from really enjoying THE BIG SHORT.

If you want to understand what went wrong with the housing market in 2008, and how it was that this ordeal which in effect crippled our economy was allowed to happen, go see THE BIG SHORT.  

It’s a wise investment of your time.

—END—

STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015) Brings Home The Memories

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star wars force awakens poster

STAR WARS:  THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015)

Movie Review

By Michael Arruda

If there’s one thing that STAR WARS:  THE FORCE AWAKENS does well, it’s that it hearkens back to the original trilogy and if you liked those movies, you’re sure to enjoy this one as well.  Of course, it does a few other things well, too.

STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS takes place 30 years after the events in RETURN OF THE JEDI (1983).  As the familiar golden words on the screen at the beginning of the movie explain, Luke Skywalker has disappeared, and both the evil First Order and the feisty Rebels are looking for him.  A map exists which shows the hiding place of Luke.  Whoever finds the map will find Luke, and so the race is on.  That in a nutshell is the plot of STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS.

When the movie opens, a rebel pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) possesses the map, but he’s captured by the First Order, the baddies in this one who look and act exactly like the Evil Empire in the first trilogy.  Before he’s captured, Poe slips the map to his droid BB-8 and tells it to run.  [Sound familiar?  Princess Leia did the same thing with R2D2 in the original STAR WARS (1977).  There are lot of homage moments like this in the THE FORCE AWAKENS.  For the most part, I enjoyed them.  However, this ploy also works against the film’s originality.  More on this later.]

Poe is captured and interrogated by one of the leaders of the First Order, a Darth Vader wannabe, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), but with the help of a former Storm trooper Finn (John Boyega) Poe escapes.

Meanwhile, a young woman Rey (Daisy Ridley) crosses paths with BB-8 and befriends the droid.  When the First Order arrives in search of BB-8 and the map, Rey and the droid are helped by Finn.  They receive further assistance when old friends Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) arrive, and they bring the three back to the Rebels, now led by former Princess and now General Leia (Carrie Fisher).

The battle lines are drawn.  Both sides are searching for Luke Skywalker, while at the same time the Rebels are forced to defend the galaxy against another powerful planet-destroying weapon possessed by the First Order, a weapon that makes the Death Star in the original STAR WARS seem puny in comparison.  Of course.

STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS is clearly an homage to the original trilogy, especially to the first film in the series, STAR WARS. I had a love/hate relationship with this.

For the most part, the homage style works.  I absolutely loved how director J.J. Abrams re-introduced all the original characters.  Everyone- Han Solo, Princess Leia, Luke Skywalker, Chewbacca, C3PO, R2D2- receives a dramatic entrance.  Heck, even the Millennium Falcon gets a heroes-welcome first scene.  This all works for me and provides the fans with plenty of loud ovation moments.  It reminded me a lot of when I saw STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE (1979) years ago at the movies, the way that film gave each main character a dramatic entrance, as that was the first time those folks were appearing on the large screen.

However, where this style faltered was in the construct of the story’s plot. In STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS, once again the First Order is in possession of a planet destroying weapon, and once more the Rebels detect a weakness in its construction, and so they come up with a plan to sneak in and destroy it.  This plot point is right out of both STAR WARS and RETURN OF THE JEDI.  You would think that at this point the bad guys would have come up with a different weapon or would have eliminated these weaknesses.  They haven’t won yet.

While this may sound like nitpicking, a different plot point in these movies would be most welcome.  It’s like when Lex Luthor shows up as the villain in all the SUPERMAN movies.  Nothing against Lex, but can we have a different villain once in a while?

Likewise, I realize that it’s the STAR WARS universe and the expectation is that things are somewhat similar.  I have no problem with the style and the looks being similar, but in terms of plot they need to shake things up a bit.  Not all film series have to do this.  Take the ROCKY series for example.  You expect those films to end with a climactic boxing match.  That makes sense.  Rocky is a boxer.  But the STAR WARS films take place in outer space and have entire galaxies as their canvas.  The plot points should be endless.

I really enjoyed the cast in STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS, and the film combines both the old and the new seamlessly.

Of the original cast members, Han Solo (Harrison Ford) gets the most screen time, and since Han has always been one of the most interesting and compelling characters in the STAR WARS universe, this is a good thing.  Harrison Ford is once again excellent as Han Solo, and he shows that at 73 he hasn’t lost much in terms of his charisma and acting chops.

Carrie Fisher as General Leia is in the film less, and based on her few scenes, this is also a good thing.  Of course, we don’t see a lot of Luke, since a key plot point of the film is that he’s disappeared, but since his name is in the credits, it’s a good bet he will show up at some point.

That being said, this was another plot point of STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS that I did not enjoy.  Luke Skywalker is the single most important character from the original series, and now we have a new STAR WARS movie which hearkens back to the original, and as a key plot point, the film chooses to have it so that Skywalker has vanished?  I don’t know about that.  To borrow a title from that other science fiction series, I would have preferred that this movie not played out like STAR WARS:  THE SEARCH FOR LUKE, which is a roundabout way of saying I wanted more Luke in this movie.

Of course, what truly helps this movie is that the new cast members are for the most part excellent.  Daisy Ridley nearly steals the movie as Rey, the new heroine who promises to be the next big character as this series progresses.  She’s that good.  Other than Harrison Ford’s return as Han Solo, Ridley was my favorite part of this movie.

John Boyega is nearly as good as Finn, the former Storm trooper now turned rebel hero.  He’s likeable, humorous, and gutsy, and he fits in perfectly in the STAR WARS universe.

I didn’t think Oscar Isaac fared as well as super duper pilot Poe Dameron.  He’s likable enough, but he’s more one-dimensional than the other two characters.  Perhaps he will be developed more later.  We saw Isaac earlier this year in the science fiction film EX MACHINA (2015).  His co-star in that film, Domhnall Gleeson, also stars here in STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS as one of the villains, General Hux.

And this is another place where I thought STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS had some problems.  I just wasn’t all that impressed with the villains in this one.  The main villain, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) just didn’t do anything for me.  I found him whiny and wishy-washy, about as effective a villain as Loki in the Marvel superhero movies.

With his mask, he’s supposed to be a younger Darth Vader type, and in fact he is related to the character— another thing that strains disbelief in this film- everyone seems to be related to each other.  Is the universe really that small?— and some have cited his inner struggle— he’s not yet completely sold on the Dark side—as a compelling character trait.  I just found it weak and juvenile.  Choose a side and get on with it.  Hamlet, he wasn’t.

Plus, he takes off his mask at will.  What’s up with that?  What is the mask’s purpose, then?  A fashion statement?  To make him look scary?  Darth Vader wore his mask because without it he would die.  Kylo Ren wears his mask because he’s afraid to be evil without it, I guess.  I have to admit, whenever he took off his mask, I thought of Rick Moranis as Dark Helmet  in Mel Brooks’ SPACEBALLS (1987) and wanted to laugh.

The other villain in the film, Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis)— how’s that for a presumptuous name?  He’s the Supreme Leader because name says so, not because of anything he does in the movie!— is reduced to appearing as a holographic image a la the Emperor in the original series.  He gets to say ominous lines to Kylo Ren, but that’s about it.

Snoke is played by Andy Serkis, who is the top guy in the movies when it comes to motion capture performances, as he has hit homeruns with his performances as Gollum in THE LORD OF THE RINGS series, as Caesar in the new PLANET OF THE APES series, and he even made for a decent King Kong in Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake of KING KONG.  But here he’s reduced to a stationary holographic image.

Nuff said.

Chewbacca, C3PO, and R2D2 all enjoy fine moments, and the new droid BB8 is also very enjoyable.  One more new cast member who makes an impression is Max Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o).  Kanata is a CGI created creature with wide eyes who enjoys some key scenes, and Nyong’o makes the most of her brief screen time.

For the most part, I enjoyed the directorial work of J.J. Abrams here.  He has made a crowd pleaser, and STAR WARS fans should walk away from the theater satisfied.  It’s clearly a homage and it works.  It brought me back to the time when I watched the original three films at the theater, and this was a lot of fun.  STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS is a much more satisfying STAR WARS vehicle than the previous three films, the prequel trilogy of the 90s and early 200s.

And the film looks great.  Again, it hearkens back to the original series, and really captures the original look of the first STAR WARS.  And while there were some cool scenes, I can’t say that they blew me away, since nearly everything that happens in this movie was very familiar.

The screenplay by director Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan who also wrote both THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK and RETURN OF THE JEDI, and Michael Arndt successfully creates nostalgia but falters somewhat when it comes to original storytelling.  At times, STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS almost plays like a straight re-boot of the original STAR WARS.  I would have preferred it had this new film taken a far more original route.  Is it asking too much that the evil First Order develop a new way of doing things rather than creating yet another planet destroying weapon with a glaring weakness?  Is it asking too much that the good guys face some other conflict instead of trying to destroy another Death Star?  There are far too many exciting plot points for a STAR WARS movie not to seek them out.

John Williams once again wrote the music score, and once more it’s a phenomenal soundtrack.

STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS is a rousing tour de force, full of STAR WARS nostalgia and a genuine crowd-pleaser, but it lacks originality and as such offers nothing new, other than new younger characters who face the same adversities our original characters faced in the original trilogy.  So, yes, STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS  also plays like STAR WARS:  THE NEXT GENERATION.

While it’s all unabashedly fun, it’s also completely predictable.

May the Force Be With You.  Again.

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

STAR WARS Memories & Musings

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Star Wars poster

 

 

Like a “few” other people, I’ll be seeing the much hyped latest installment of the STAR WARS series, STAR WARS:  THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015).

And like these few other people, I’m a “bit”  excited to see this one.  I’m curious to see what J.J. Abrams does with it.

Of course, I was rather excited to see the original STAR WARS too way back in 1977.  It seems like only yesterday—.

Here’s a look back at some STAR WARS memories, along with some musings about then and now.

Here in 2015 as I see STAR WARS:  THE FORCE AWAKENS, I’m a middle school English teacher, and as such I teach 7th graders.

When I saw STAR WARS in 1977, I was in the 7th grade.

STAR WARS was the first film that I ever remember being hyped way WAY in advance.  It was months of STAR WARS promos, and this was before the internet.  Friends, relatives, classmates, everyone was talking about the new film STAR WARS that was due out later in the year.

I was particularly excited to see STAR WARS because I knew that Peter Cushing was in it.

STAR WARS was NOT the first Peter Cushing film I saw at the movies.  While I had seen most of his Hammer Films on television, I was too young to have caught them in the theater.  However, in 1976, I finally saw Peter Cushing on the big screen for the first time in Amicus’ AT THE EARTH’S CORE.

I remember my girl friends fighting over who was cuter, Luke Skywalker or Han Solo.  The girls my age mostly were in love with Luke, while the girls I knew who were in high school or older definitely were into Han.

I never thought Princess Leia was all that hot.  My first big screen movie crush was probably Jamie Lee Curtis in HALLOWEEN (1978).

I saw STAR WARS and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND  the same year.  I strongly preferred STAR WARS.

In 1977 Jimmy Carter was President and not very well respected.

In 2015,  Jimmy Carter is very well-respected.

In 1977 the TV show my friends and I couldn’t stop talking about was SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE.

In 2015, the TV show my friends and I can’t stop talking about is THE WALKING DEAD.

The comedian who was all the rage was a guy named Steve Martin.

Today I don’t know a comedian who is all the rage.

In 1977 I used to stay up late to watch Johnny Carson on THE TONIGHT SHOW.

In 2015, I can catch Jimmy Fallon on THE TONIGHT SHOW OnDemand.

For Christmas in 1977 my favorite gift was the STAR WARS soundtrack double album.  I used to blast John Williams’ rousing score on my stereo every day after school.  My parents were not amused.

For Christmas that year I also got the 12 minute Super 8mm version of STAR WARS, in color.  To own 12 minutes of that film was HUGE back then in the days before home video.  12 minutes.  Today like most everyone else I own the entire series.

As much as I loved STAR WARS, I was disappointed that my favorite magazine FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND gave it so much coverage.  I wanted to read about monster movies not space adventures.

Since I was in 7th grade I thought I was too old for all the STAR WARS action figures and toys, and so I never collected them.  My younger brother who was 8 at the time got to have all the fun.

STAR WARS was the first movie I ever saw more than once at the theater.

It was the first film I ever saw starring Alec Guinness.

THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK would be my first date movie.

THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK remains my favorite STAR WARS movie, but not for that reason.

RETURN OF THE JEDI was the first STAR WARS movie I was disappointed with.  It wouldn’t be the last.

John Williams music score for STAR WARS reminded me an awful lot of the soundtrack for my favorite science fiction TV show as a kid, LOST IN SPACE.  It came as no surprise then when I learned shortly afterwards that Williams had also scored LOST IN SPACE.

C3PO and Dr. Smith do seem like distant cousins.

I liked Han Solo better when he shot first.

May the Force Be With You.

Thank you, George Lucas.

Thanks for reading.

—Michael

 

 

 

IN THE SHADOWS: GEORGE ZUCCO

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IN THE SHADOWS:  GEORGE ZUCCO

By

Michael Arruda

George Zucco

Today IN THE SHADOWS, that column where we look at character actors in the movies, especially horror movies, we examine the career of George Zucco.

My first time seeing George Zucco in a movie was probably HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944) where he played Professor Lampini.  It’s a small role, but he’s very memorable in it.

Zucco also appeared in several of the Universal MUMMY series as High Priest Andoheb.

Zucco was born on January 11, 1886 in Manchester, England, UK.  He enjoyed a long and varied film career, but I always remember him for his memorable appearances in the Universal Monster series.  Here’s a partial list of Zucco’s 98 screen credits, focusing mostly on his horror films:

THE DREYFUS CASE (1931) – Cavaignac- Zucco’s movie debut.

AFTER THE THIN MAN (1936)-  Dr. Kammer-  The second of the Thin Man movies starring William Powell and Myrna Loy as husband and wife crime solvers Nick and Nora Charles.  This one also featured a young James Stewart in the cast.

THE ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES (1939) – Professor Moriarty-  Plays villain Moriarty, taking on Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson in this second film in the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes series, which had the misfortune of debuting on September 1, 1939, the day Nazi Germany invaded Poland, the day World War II began.

THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (1939)- Procurator – Supporting role in this quality version of Victor Hugo’s tale starring Charles Laughton as Quasimodo.  Featuring Maureen O’Hara and Sir Cedric Hardwicke.

THE MUMMY’S HAND (1941) – Professor Andoheb- Memorable role in this Mummy movie from Universal.  Zucco plays Professor Andoheb, an advisor to our heroic archeologists, except that in reality Andoheb is secretly the Egyptian high priest who is controlling the mummy, Kharis.  The first of the Kharis Mummy movies, and the only one in which Lon Chaney Jr. did not play Kharis, as Tom Tyler wears the bandages in this above average thriller from Universal.

THE MONSTER AND THE GIRL (1941) – Dr. Parry- Zucco plays a mad scientist (of course) who transplants the brain of a man wrongly accused of murder into a gorilla.  Enjoying his new gorilla body,  the man— well, now he’s a gorilla—then seeks revenge against the mobsters who forced his sister into prostitution.

MY FAVORITE BLONDE (1942) – Dr. Hugo Streger- plays another doctor in this Bob Hope comedy.

THE MAD MONSTER (1942)-  Dr. Lorenzo Cameron – once again Zucco is a mad scientist, this time turning Glenn Strange into a werewolf.

DR. RENAULT’S SECRET (1942) – Dr. Robert Renault- Zucco is back again as yet another mad scientist, once more conducting experiments with humans and apes.

THE MUMMY’S TOMB (1942)- Andoheb- Zucco reprises his role as  Egyptian High Priest Andoheb in this sequel to THE MUMMY’S HAND.  The action takes place 30 years after the first film, and so Zucco is made up as a very old man as he teaches young protégé Mehemet Bey (Turhan Bey) how to care for Kharis, the Mummy, now played by Lon Chaney Jr.   This is my favorite of the Kharis Mummy movies by Universal.

DEAD MEN WALK (1943) – Dr. Lloyd Clayton/Dr. Elwyn Clayton – I guess one doctor was no longer enough.  This time around Zucco plays twin doctors, one good, one evil, in this tale involving murder and devil worship, also starring Dwight Frye.

SHERLOCK HOLMES IN WASHINGTON (1943) – Heinrich Hinckel aka Richard Stanley – once more plays the villain in this Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes vehicle.

THE BLACK RAVEN (1943) – Amos Bradford aka The Raven – Murder and mystery in an old dark house.  Also starring Glenn Strange.

THE MAD GHOUL (1943) – Dr. Alfred Morris – Fed up with turning people into apes, George Zucco this time plays a mad scientist who turns people into ghouls!  Also stars Evelyn Ankers, KING KONG’s Robert Armstrong, and from THE MUMMY’S TOMB Turhan Bey.

VOODOO MAN (1944) – Nicholas – Zucco steps aside and lets Bela Lugosi play the mad scientist in this one.  Zucco plays Lugosi’s assistant, and John Carradine is also on hand as another baddie in this thriller about voodoo and hypnosis.

THE MUMMY’S GHOST (1944) – Andoheb- Zucco’s third and final turn as Egyptian High Priest Andoheb, this time tutoring John Carradine in the art of caring for Kharis the Mummy (Lon Chaney, Jr.).  The third in the Universal Kharis MUMMY movies, and the second starring Lon Chaney Jr. as Kharis.

HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944) -Professor Bruno Lampini- Zucco does not play a mad scientist this time around.  That honor goes to Boris Karloff as the demented Dr. Niemann.  Of course, Niemann murders Lampini and impersonates him, but that’s as close to a mad scientist as Zucco gets in this one.

 

Zucco - House of Frankenstein

George Zucco as Professor Lampini in HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944)

 

 

HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN was the first time Universal put three of their monsters in the same movie, Dracula (John Carradine), the Wolf Man (Lon Chaney Jr.) and the Frankenstein Monster (Glenn Strange).  Also notable for the return of Boris Karloff to the series, this time playing mad scientist Gustav Niemann rather than the Monster.

FOG ISLAND (1945) – Leo Grainer – Revenge and murder on a mysterious island.  Also stars Lionel Atwill.

THE FLYING SERPENT (1946) -Professor Andrew Forbes – Zucco plays yet another mad scientist, this time discovering the titled creature and using it to exact revenge on his enemies.  After all, what else is a self-respecting mad scientist supposed to do?

SCARED TO DEATH (1947) – Dr. Joseph Van Ee- This one is so bizarre it’s narrated by a dead woman!  The type of movie best watched in the wee, wee hours of the morning, after midnight.  Bela Lugosi stars in this one,  notable because it’s Lugosi’s only film shot in color.

LURED (1947) – Officer H. R. Barrett – Zucco plays a policeman in this thriller about a murderer who preys upon women and taunts the police by sending them cryptic poems before each murder.  This early Lucille Ball vehicle also stars Boris Karloff, George Sanders, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Alan Napier, and of course George Zucco.

TARZAN AND THE MERMAIDS (1948) – Palanth, the High Priest.  Zucco is the evil high priest who tangles with Johnny Weismuller’s Tarzan in this jungle adventure.

THE FIRST LEGION (1951) – Father Robert Stuart – Zucco plays a priest in his final credited role, in this drama starring Charles Boyer.

DAVID AND BATHSHEBA (1951) – Egyptian Ambassador (uncredited) – this Biblical epic starring Gregory Peck was Zucco’s last movie, an uncredited performance as the Egyptian Ambassador.

After suffering a stroke in 1951, Zucco retired from film.  He died on May 28, 1960 from pneumonia at the age of 74.

George Zucco is one of my favorite character actors from horror movies in the 1940s.  Definitely make it a point to check out some of his movies.

That’s it for now.  I hope you’ll join me again next time on IN THE SHADOWS where we’ll look at the career of another notable character actor from horror movies.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE (1973)

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Here’s my latest IN THE SPOOKLIGHT column, on THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE (1973), published in the December 2015 edition of THE HWA NEWSLETTER, the Official Newsletter of the Horror Writers Association.
Enjoy!
—Michael
IN THE SPOOKLIGHT
BY
MICHAEL ARRUDA
LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE
Not only is December a great time to watch a haunted house movie, but the plot of today’s movie ­ THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE (1973) ­­­ actually takes place in December. How cool is that? Okay, so I’m easily amused.
I actually saw THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE when it was first released at the drive­in as part of a double feature with THE OTHER (1972). I was nine years­old when my parents took my younger brother and me to see this double bill, and while I slept through THE OTHER, I remember enjoying HELL HOUSE. So, there was certainly some nostalgia watching this one again recently on Netflix Streaming, especially since I hadn’t seen it in years.
Its tale of an investigative team probing a haunted house, trying to prove or disprove the existence of ghosts, reminds me an awful lot of Shirley Jackson’s “The Haunting of Hill House” and the movie THE HAUNTING (1963) which is based on the Shirley Jackson story. But it’s actually based on the novel Hell House by Richard Matheson, who also wrote the screenplay for the movie.
In THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE, Dr. Barrett (Clive Revill) a physicist, leads the examination into Hell House. His team includes his wife Ann (Gayle Hunnicutt), a psychic Florence Tanner (Pamela Franklin), and a physical medium, Benjamin Fischer (Roddy McDowall), who has the distinction of being the only survivor from a previous investigation into the house.
legend of hell house - team
So, do ghosts exist or not? Dr. Barrett seems hell bent on proving once and for all that they do not exist, but the spirit that occupies Hell House has other ideas.
THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE is ghostly fun from start to finish. It’s full of spooky atmosphere and contains plenty of creepy scenes.
Director John Hough, fresh off his horror hit for Hammer Films, the vampire film TWINS OF EVIL (1971) starring Peter Cushing, pretty much strikes gold again. Both of these films are excellent horror movies. Hough would go on to direct the Walt Disney classic ESCAPE FROM WITCH MOUNTAIN (1975), as well as its sequel RETURN FROM WITCH MOUNTAIN (1978) starring Christopher Lee. Hough would also direct Peter Cushing’s final movie, BIGGLES: ADVENTURES IN TIME (1986).
Roddy McDowall leads a fine cast. McDowall is excellent here as Benjamin Fischer, the man with the most insight into Hell House since he had been there before. I was already a Roddy McDowall fan when I saw this at the movies in 1973 because of the PLANET OF THE APES films. THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE was probably the first movie where I actually got to see his face!
So that’s what Cornelius looks like!
Clive Revill is authoritative as physicist and lead investigator Dr. Barrett, and Gayle Hunnicutt is memorable as his wife Ann. Pamela Franklin makes for a beautiful and oftentimes vulnerable psychic Florence Tanner. Even Michael Gough shows up as a corpse, which is a nice way of keeping this Hammer favorite from his signature overacting!
All four of the main characters go through changes since they are all affected one way or another by the spirit occupying Hell House. McDowall’s character probably fares the best, as he seems to
be best equipped to fend off the ghost.
Clive Revill’s Dr. Barrett, on the other hand, the supposed the leader of the team, is influenced by
the Hell House spirit pretty much from the get­go, as he quickly becomes irritable, angry, and worst of all confused. Sure, these could just be personality flaws, but more likely, they’re the work of the ghost.
Barrett’s wife Ann becomes sexually aroused and continually makes advances towards Ben Fischer, while psychic Florence senses who the ghost is but no one on her team seems to believe her, probably because she too exhibits odd behavior.
Is this assembled team just a group of oddballs? Or are they all influenced and infected by the supernatural presence residing at Hell House? You know the answer to that question, and that’s what makes THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE so much fun.
The prevailing feeling throughout THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE is one of uncertainty and doubt. The supernatural entity makes its presence known immediately, and the characters all become affected quickly, even if they don’t realize it.
THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE is an excellent horror movie and is yet another quality horror film from the 1970s, a decade which is chock full of horror classics. Sure, there are the big budget  classics like THE EXORCIST (1973), JAWS (1975), THE OMEN (1976) and ALIEN (1979),  but it’s also the decade of THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT (1972), THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974) and HALLOWEEN (1978). It’s also the decade of films
like THE FOOD OF THE GODS (1976), THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU (1977), and KINGDOM OF THE SPIDERS (1977), low budget films that didn’t become huge hits but provided quality horror entertainment all the same. THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE falls into this latter category.
As we look back today at the 1970s, a decade famous for its bad hairstyles and disco music, it’s quite clear that for horror movie fans, it’s one of the best decades ever. There are a lot of really good horror movies made in the 1970s.
If there’s one weakness regarding THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE it’s the film’s plot. Its haunted house tale is nothing I haven’t seen before, and even though the film has fun with it, and it all works, at the end of the day, it’s still just another haunted house story with all the similar
trimmings.
What makes THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE stand out among other films of its type is a talented cast, strong direction, and a decent script by Richard Matheson.
As you make the rounds this holiday season, visiting family and fiends­­­ er, friends, don’t forget  to stop by HELL HOUSE. There’s someone there who’s dying to see you.
­­­END­­­

CREED (2015) Goes The Distance

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Movie Review:  CREED (2015)

By

Michael Arruda

Creed poster 2

 

Just when you thought Rocky Balboa was down for the count—.

That’s right.  Rocky Balboa, the iconic character played by Sylvester Stallone, is back in the movies again for what is essentially ROCKY VII, except this time he’s playing mentor and trainer to young Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan) the son of his one-time opponent and later best friend Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers).

CREED (2015) opens with troubled teen Adonis Johnson getting in yet another fight.  This time, instead of being taken in by a foster family, he meets the wife Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad) of his father Apollo Creed, who had an extramarital affair with Adonis’ mom and died before Adonis was born.  Mary Anne adopts Adonis and he’s raised in a healthy home and receives a decent education.

However, as an adult, Adonis can’t get boxing out of his system, so he quits his job and seeks out Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) as a trainer.  Rocky isn’t interested, mostly because he doesn’t want to see Apollo’s son enter a boxing ring and endure the difficult life of a boxer.  But Adonis is persistent, and eventually Rocky relents and agrees to train Adonis.

Adonis trains hard, and through an odd series of events, finds himself with a shot at the boxing title.  When Rocky’s health fails, and he decides he’s lived a good life and has come to the end of the road, it’s Adonis who convinces Rocky not to mail it in, to fight for his life as he once fought for a title, adding that he needs Rocky and that Rocky’s life matters.

Make no mistake.  CREED is a much better movie than a 7th film in a series.  It’s also a stand alone film, as Adonis’ character is strong enough to carry this movie on his own.  Rocky’s appearance is gravy.

That being said, the best part of CREED is the relationship between Rocky and Adonis.  The way their lives intertwine and how they are constantly there to pick each other up is the driving force of the movie.  When Rocky learns that he has cancer, and he looks around him and realizes all his loved ones and friends have passed on, it’s easy for him to feel that he’s led a good life and it’s time.  But it’s Adonis who gives him something to live for.

Likewise, when Adonis struggles to handle the pressure, and when he experiences doubt that he can live up to his deceased father’s name, even admitting that he’s fighting simply to prove that he wasn’t just a mistake, it’s Rocky who tells him that it is his time, that he can make his mark, and he can live up to his father’s name.

Sylvester Stallone can play Rocky Balboa in his sleep, but that doesn’t mean he’s cashing it in.  Stallone has created one of the more endearing and iconic characters in film history, and Rocky certainly hasn’t worn out his welcome.  It’s been fun to watch Rocky age through the years, and in CREED he definitely is in his golden years.  A funny bit comes when Rocky writes out instructions for Adonis, and Adonis simply takes a picture of the paper with his phone, and he tells Rocky he doesn’t need the notes because they’re saved on the cloud.

“The cloud?”  Rocky asks, as he looks to the sky.

Michael B. Jordan is also excellent as young Adonis Johnson.  Adonis is a complicated character.  He had a tough childhood, was rescued by his step-mom, but still couldn’t shake the desire to box, to be like his deceased dad.  And he goes through the film with a chip on his shoulder, but he’s not a jerk, as Jordan does a nice job keeping the character sympathetic.

Rounding out the acting performances is Tessa Thompson as Adonis’ girlfriend Bianca.  The beautiful Thompson makes Bianca a three-dimensional character who proves that she’s more than just a love interest in the film.  The relationship between Adonis and Bianca is reminiscent of the relationship between Rocky and Adrian (Talia Shire) in the original ROCKY (1976).

Likewise, in the training scenes, Rocky now has taken on the role of his original trainer Mickey (Burgess Meredith).  In fact, many of the training exercises come right out of Mickey’s regimen, including the memorable chicken chasing scene.

Phylicia Rashad is decent as Adonis’ step-mom Mary Anne, although it’s really just a small role, and there’s not a lot of screen time for Rashad.

And if there’s one thing the Rocky movies have always got right, it’s the boxing scenes, and CREED is no exception.  Once more, there are some riveting boxing matches, including the exciting finale.  Sure, there is certainly a little bit of “been there, done that” but with six Rocky movies before this, that’s inevitable.

CREED is the first ROCKY movie not written by Sylvester Stallone.  The screenplay was written by director Ryan Coogler and Aaron Covington, and it’s a good one.  It explores a later chapter in Rocky’s life while carving out the early plight of original character Adonis Johnson, and the way the two interact is both compelling and natural.  The two stories combine seamlessly

Coogler also directed, and his direction is strong throughout.  The boxing scenes are well done, as are the rousing training sequences.  More importantly, the tale of the two boxers, Rocky called out of retirement to be a trainer, and Adonis just starting his career, is engrossing and likable.

 CREED is a genuine crowd-pleaser.  It’s a worthy addition to the ROCKY saga, while also serving as a standalone film about newcomer Adonis Johnson, the son of Apollo Creed, fighting to make his mark in the boxing world, to prove that he’s worthy of the name Creed.

—END—