THE SHALLOWS (2016) Is Nifty Little Shark Thriller

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THE SHALLOWS (2016) is a new shark vs. man— or in this case, vs. woman— tale that was done best in JAWS (1975).  No other film has even come close to duplicating the terror and suspense of that big fish tale.

THE SHALLOWS doesn’t either, and its story is really rather shallow (heh heh), but this doesn’t stop it from being a highly diverting and entertaining piece of summer movie entertainment.

THE SHALLOWS opens with Nancy (Blake Lively) a young American medical student vacationing in Mexico.  She’s on her way to a special beach in her life- it was her mother’s favorite beach, and her mother is on her mind because she recently passed away from cancer.

Nancy is supposed to be surfing with one of her friends, but her friend remained back at the hotel, dealing with a hangover.  Nancy meets two other surfers in the water, and they turn out to be nice enough guys.  As they leave, they tell Nancy not to stay out too much later, as it’s getting dark.  Nancy decides she wants to do one more surf before heading in.

On this last surf, she comes across a badly injured whale, and as she investigates, she is attacked by a very hungry shark.  It seems that Nancy has inadvertantly stumbled upon the shark’s feeding ground.  She desperately makes her way to a small rock which barely keeps her above water and out of reach of the shark.

She’s stranded, there’s no one else around, and while she’s only 200 yards from shore, there’s no way she can make it there with the shark continuing to circle in the waters.  Worse yet, she’s bleeding badly from the deep shark bites on her leg, but lucky for her, she’s a medical student, and so she uses her ingenuity and some earrings to stitch up her wound in a gripping scene that is definitely not for the squeamish.

She’s also not completely alone, as on the rock with her, is an injured seagull whose wing was dislocated during the shark attack.

As the tide is rising and will soon take away her only mode of protection from the shark- the rock, which will soon be below water- Nancy has to use all her wits and resolve to not only survive her shark wounds and avoid the shark, but also to find a way to safety.

THE SHALLOWS is a nifty little thriller, well directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, the man who also directed a slew of Liam Neeson movies, including UNKNOWN (2011), NON-STOP (2014) and RUN ALL NIGHT (2015), all of these decent action thrillers.  He also directed the horror movie ORPHAN (2009), which I liked a lot.

I enjoyed his work here in THE SHALLOWS as well.  The photography is dazzling, and the sandy beach and clear turquoise water has never looked more inviting.  There are some fine scenes of suspense, although the film never gets flat out scary.  Do not expect JAWS.

The most intense parts of this movie are the scenes where Nancy has to fight for her survival, like when she has to stitch the bleeding open wound on her leg. This is a wince-inducing scene, very powerful.

The shark scenes run hot and cold, and the scenes where we don’t see the shark work best, and that’s because when seen the shark can appear cartoonish looking and fake.

There is a really neat underwater sequence where Nancy has to swim through a horde of jellyfish to elude the shark.   Sure, it’s all CGI, but I didn’t mind it here, as it’s all very colorful and cool looking.  The sequence near the end where Nancy tries to make it to the safe confines of a buoy is also rather suspenseful.

The screenplay by Anthony Jaswinski is pretty much a mixed bag.  It takes a while to get going, and then once it picks up, it never goes beyond the simple story of Nancy vs. the shark.  And it’s all rather quick, as it clocks in at a swift 87 minutes.  It plays more like a short story than a novel.  Now, there’s nothing wrong with this, and for the most part, this film worked for me and I liked it, but as I said at the outset, it’s all rather shallow.  I would have liked this one-on-one battle and survival tale to have become even more intense to the point where the audience would have to turn away.  THE SHALLOWS never reaches this kind of intensity.

THE SHALLOWS is also pretty much a one actor movie, as Blake Lively spends most of the movie alone, just spending time with the seagull and fending off the shark.  There are other characters, but for the most part, they don’t survive very long.  As such, Lively is up for the task and pretty much carries this movie with ease.  She does a really nice job here.

I’ve seen Lively in a bunch of other movies, and my favorite performance of Lively’s was probably her work in Oliver Stone’s SAVAGES (2012).  She’s nearly as good here in THE SHALLOWS. In fact, she’s so good that other than the colorful photography and brief moments of intensity, Lively’s performance is my favorite part of the movie.

And I did like THE SHALLOWS a lot, much more than I expected to.  I had zero expectations going in, and I have to say I was pleasantly surprised.  For what it is, a nifty little thriller, it all works.

Is THE SHALLOWS the most intense and exciting movie to come out this summer? Probably not, but it is a very entertaing and picturesque way to spend 90 minutes at the movies.

Pass the sun tan lotion, please.

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Quirky MAGGIE’S PLAN (2016) Has A lot to Say About Relationships

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MAGGIE’S PLAN (2016), a new comedy drama by writer/director Rebecca Miller, has a lot to say about relationships, so much so that its story is richer in its poignacy than in its comedy.

Maggie (Greta Gerwig) is a young a career advisor for art and design students, and when the movie opens, she laments that she can never seem to remain in a relationship for more than six months.  She tells her friend Tony (Bill Hader) of her plan to have a baby and raise it on her own without the help of a father.  She has a plan because that’s what Maggie does- plan for everything. She’s arranged for one of their college friends, Guy (Travis Fimmel) to provide his sperm so she can artificially inseminate herself.  Tony is none too happy about this because he remembers Guy as a weird math major in college, but Maggie assures him that Guy is fine, as he is now a successful pickle entrepeneur.

Maggie’s plan gets derailed when she meets John Harding (Ethan Hawke) an adjunct professor at the college, and the two hit it off immediately, especially since John is having a difficult time with his marriage, having to deal with his domineering wife Georgette (Julianne Moore) who’s a professor at Columbia University.  John feels trapped in the marriage, as Georgette is so focused on her career, he has to take a back seat with his, plus raise their two children pretty much on his own, and as such he cannot write the novel he’s always wanted to write.

Besides falling in love with John, Maggie also sees herself as being able to rescue him from his manipulating wife.  Since John has fallen in love with Maggie as well, he divorces Georgette and marries Maggie.  They have a daughter, John can now work on his novel, and they can enjoy their perfect life together, except that things are not perfect.

John soon finds himself focusing only on his novel, pretty much ignoring Maggie and their family, and before you can say “Jack Torrance,” Maggie finds herself wondering if perhaps her marriage to John has been a mistake.

If this plot sounds rather serious and sad, that’s because it is.  However, that’s not to say the film isn’t funny.  It has its moments.  There’s a light tone throughout, and the characters are quirky enough to keep things lively.  Just don’t expect to be laughing out loud.

The best part of MAGGIE’S PLAN are the characters and what their story has to say about relationships.  The acting’s not so bad, either!

I thoroughly enjoyed Greta Gerwig as Maggie.She makes Maggie such a sincere and well meaning character, you can’t help but like her.  She also possesses an adorable innocence about her.  At one point, Georgette questions Maggie’s personality and wonders if there isn’t something just plain stupid about her, but Maggie isn’t stupid.  She just wants to do right by people.  The trouble is, the more she tries, the worst things get.

Take her first plan, for instance, where her geeky math friend Guy agrees to provide her with his sperm.  The two characters are each so quirky you can’t help but chuckle when they’re on screen together, but the story keeps you from laughing out loud because it’s obvious that Guy likes Maggie a lot and wants to be more involved with her, yet he’s too awkward to do anything about it.  When he asks Maggie how much involvement she expects from him, she answers, “I was going to say none.”  She then offers to change her mind if he feels otherwise about it, but all Guy can muster is “None.  Yeah.  That’s great.”

Within seconds of seeing Maggie and John married on screen, it’s clear that there is trouble in paradise.  Gerwig does a terrific job showing us Maggie’s internalizations, and when she realizes that their marriage is doomed, that perhaps John really does belong back with Georgette, and she approaches the icy Georgette with a proposition, it doesn’t come off as manipulative or calculating, but completely sincere. Of course, Georgette doesn’t agree.

Yet, later, when the two characters find themselves liking each other, it plays out in a perfectly natural fashion.

Julianne Moore has an absolute field day as Georgette.  She’s never been icier.  As you would expect, Moore lifts the role above the cliche as she makes this seemingly cold-hearted character someone you actually like.

Only Ethan Hawke struggles to connect as professor-wannabe-author John, and he stands out because nearly every other character in the film does connect.  Part of it is John is something of a self-absorbed cold fish.  I understand why both Georgette and Maggie want to be with him.  For Maggie, she’s initially enthralled by his intellect and she feels she can save him from his wife and empower him in his life.  Georgette loves him because he defers to her dominance and supports her every move.  Yet, she’s smart enough to realize later in the movie that she was too selfish with him and should have been thinking about his needs.

But as a character, John is wishy-washy and noncommital, seemingly changing his mind every time the wind blows.   He’s a difficult character to like.  Yet Hawke does make him sympathetic-finally near the end- when he correctly realizes he’s being manipulated and doesn’t like it all that much.

The supporting cast is a good one and provides the film with its quirkiest characters and moments. Bill Hader and Maya Rudolph as Maggie’s husband and wife friends Tony and Felicia come closest to being straight out funny.  Tony is brutally blunt, and generally has Maggie’s best interests in mind, even though she doesn’t always want to hear it.  Maya Rudolph’s Felicia calmly and  drolly puts up with her husband’s outspoken antics, and she’s more than capable and comfortable putting him in his place.Both Hader and Rudolph are alumns of SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE.

Travis Fimmel is charming in an oddball geeky sort of way as Guy, Maggie’s math genius turned pickle entrepeneur who’s ready to donate his sperm to her, and like Maggie, his character exudes raw honesty to the point where he seems a bit dumb, although like Maggie, he’s anything but.

The screenplay by director Rebecca Miller, based on a story by Karen Rinaldi, works more as a quirky drama than a comedy because the story is seeped with honesty and pain.  The characters in this movie are not calculating and cold-hearted, although Maggie likes to plan and Georgette has ice in her veins, but both characters come off as three dimensional and genuine.

Even when some scenes enter into comedy, laughter is difficult to come by because of the sincere tones of sadness underneath.

That’s not to say there aren’t funny moments in the movie.  The sequence where Maggie tries to inseminate herself is nicely paced as it goes from slightly awkward to full blown embarrassing.

And in a near perfect moment, it’s both ironic and telling that the liveliest and perhaps only laugh-out-loud moment in the movie comes when John and Georgette find themselves stranded together in a lodge in snowy Canada.  It’s ironic because Maggie is the liveliest character in the film, yet for the movie’s liveliest moment, she’s absent, and it’s telling because it’s what’s true about Maggie’s life:  she’s always trying to help, but things tend to work best when she’s simply out of the way.

Subtlety reigns throughout MAGGIE’S PLAN, and as such, you won’t find yourself laughing too much.  But that won’t stop you from enjoying this low-key tale of a love triangle that never seems to go as planned.

—END—

 

 

 

 

SHOCK SCENES: DRACULA’S DEMISE- A Look at the Hammer DRACULA Endings- Part 2

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SHOCK SCENES:  DRACULA’S DEMISE- A Look at the Hammer Dracula Endings

Part 2

By

Michael Arruda

Welcome to Part 2 of our look at the endings to the Hammer DRACULA series, where we examine how Dracula met his demise in the various Hammer Dracula movies. In Part 1, we looked at the endings to HORROR OF DRACULA (1958) and THE BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960).  Now, it’s on to Part 2.

And remember, if you haven’t seen these films, there are major spoilers here, so proceed with caution.

 

DRACULA-PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1966)

Although THE BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960) was a sequel to HORROR OF DRACULA (1958), it didn’t feature Christopher Lee.  DRACULA-PRINCE OF DARKNESS did.

And that’s because Lee had avoided reprising the role of Dracula like the plague to avoid being typecast, but after years of unrelenting Hammer pressure, he finally gave in and agreed to play the role again, providing fans a chance to be terrified once more by their favorite blood-sucking vampire.

DRACULA-PRINCE OF DARKNESS was released eight years after HORROR and the story takes place ten years after the events of the first movie.  It was once again directed by Hammer’s top director, Terence Fisher.  DRACULA-PRINCE OF DARKNESS probably comes closest to any of the other sequels to duplicating the feel of the original, although it certainly lacks its potency.

Dracula is absent for the entire first half of the movie, as the film uses this time to build up the dramatic rebirth of Dracula.  This in itself is a good idea, but the problem is, once resurrected, he’s only in the film for about 20 minutes before meeting his demise once again.  To me, Hammer would have been better served not to destroy Dracula at the end of every movie.  After all, he had survived hundreds of years before Van Helsing finally caught up with him and destroyed him, so wouldn’t it make sense if he survived that long again?  Wouldn’t it make him scarier if it really were that difficult to stop him?  Of course it would!  Plus, when Van Helsing defeated him, it made sense because Van Helsing was a brilliant scientist, a one-of-a-kind adversary for Dracula, but in the subsequent movies Dracula’s opponents  are less and less impressive, yet they still destroy him.  But I digress.

The ending to DRACULA-PRINCE OF DARKNESS is actually very memorable, but not quite as powerful or as visually impressive as the ending in HORROR.  Once more, Dracula is chased back to his castle, this time by the knowledgable Father Sandor (Andrew Keir) and the dashing young Englishman Charles Kent (Francis Matthews) as they try to rescue Kent’s wife Diana (Suzan Farmer) from Dracula.

As Dracula’s coffin lay on ice by the castle, having fallen there from the back of the horse-drawn coach at the end of the exciting chase, Charles attempts to drive a stake through Dracula’s heart before the sun goes down, but he’s too late.  Dracula bursts from his coffin and engages Charles in a physical battle on the ice.  Diana urges Father Sandor to shoot Dracula, but he tells her it would do no good, because as we all know, bullets cannot harm vampires.  But Diana grabs the rifle anyway and fires a shot, which rips a hole in the ice, which gives Father Sandor an idea:  according to vampire lore, vampires cannot cross running water (who knew!) and in this movie, they can’t swim, either!  How convenient!

So, Father Sandor shoots around the ice, allowing Charles to escape but trapping Dracula on the quickly sinking slab.  Dracula tries to hold on, but slides screaming into the underwater grave beneath the ice of Castle Dracula.  While it doesn’t contain the eye-popping special effects from the HORROR OF DRACULA ending, it’s still a pretty unique and impressive ending to a Dracula movie.  And director Terence Fisher gives it style, as the last part of Dracula to fall into the ice is his cape in a dramatic last shot.  We even get to see Dracula submerged in his icy grave as the end credits roll!

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Dracula (Christopher Lee) slips into his watery grave in DRACULA-PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1966).

It would also prove quite convenient for resurrecting Dracula.  After all, Dracula was reduced to ashes which blew away in the breeze in HORROR OF DRACULA.  It took half of DRACULA-PRINCE OF DARKNESS to set the events in motion for his resurrection.  It would be much easier in the next film.  And there would be a next film because DRACULA-PRINCE OF DARKNESS made lots of money at the box office.  There would be no turning back now for Christopher Lee and Hammer.

As Dracula movie endings go, the conclusion to DRACULA-PRINCE OF DARKNESS is very, very good.  Definitely worth a look.

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DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE (1968)

The third Christopher Lee Dracula film for Hammer was the aptly titled DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE (1968).  Terence Fisher did not direct this movie, making it the first Hammer Dracula film that he did not direct.  In fact, Fisher wouldn’t direct any future Hammer Dracula films.  While he helmed HORROR OF DRACULA, THE BRIDES OF DRACULA, and DRACULA-PRINCE OF DARKNESS, from here on out Dracula would be in the hands of other directors.

For DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE, it was Freddie Francis, a respected camera-man who also directed many horror movies.  While I’m not as big a fan of Francis’ work as I am Fisher’s, Francis struck gold here with DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE.  In terms of style, it doesn’t come close to the Fisher Dracula films, but it boasts a strong script by Anthony Hinds in spite of it being a simple revenge story.

DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE was so successful at the box office that it remains today Hammer Film’s biggest all-time money maker.  Dracula was Hammer’s bread and butter, and because of this, there would be four more Christopher Lee Dracula movies over the next five years.

Dracula (Christopher Lee) shows up much quicker this time around than he did in DRACULA-PRINCE OF DARKNESS.  A pair of priests go to Castle Dracula to perform an exorcism to keep Dracula’s spirit confined forever, but one of the priests, a cowardly sort, loses his way (literally and figuratively) and slips and falls on some ice, banging his head, cracking the ice where we see Dracula resting below.  The blood from the priest’s head wound seeps below the ice and makes its way to Dracula’s lips, reviving him.

While I do like DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE a lot, its ending isn’t the strongest part of the movie.  It’s okay, but it certainly falls several notches below the endings in the previous movies.  This time the hero is young atheist Paul (Barry Andrews) who’s trying to rescue his girlfriend Maria (Veronica Carlson) from Dracula.

Dracula forces Maria to remove the cross by the door to his castle, placed there by the priests at the beginning of the movie. She throws it off a cliff, where it lands upright, which is about as realistic as having Dracula spend an entire movie chasing down Maria in the first place to get her to remove the cross from his front door when he could have hypnotized anyone from his neighborhood to do it in about a minute’s time.

Paul arrives, he scuffles with Dracula, and they both fall off the cliff.  Paul is fortunate enough to grab onto some bushes, breaking his fall, but Dracula is not so lucky, as he lands directly onto— you guessed it!— the cross sticking out of the ground.  Yup, Dracula is impaled on a cross.  Sure, it’s somewhate dramatic, although like I said, it’s rather far-fetched.  There’s lots of blood dripping from Dracula’s wound and eyes as the cowardly priest, who had been turned into Dracula’s slave, redeems himself by reciting a prayer to help destroy Dracula once again, and he is destroyed, this time being reduced— not to ashes– but to gallons of blood.

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Dracula (Christopher Lee) gets a bad case of heartburn in DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE (1968).

Not a bad ending, but also not one of the best. Still, the rest of DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE is excellent, and this one may be the most satisfying and entertaining sequel of the entire series.

Okay, that’s it for now.  Join me next time for Part 3, when we look at the endings to the next films in the Hammer Dracula series, including TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA (1969).

See you then!

—Michael

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE CONJURING 2 (2016) – Inferior Sequel All 2 Familiar

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Movie Review:   THE CONJURING 2 (2016)

By Michael Arruda

I’ve got to say this right here.  I loved INSIDIOUS (2010) and THE CONJURING (2013), both by director James Wan, and I really wanted to like THE CONJURING 2, especially since Wan was back directing again, but I gotta tell you, I did not like this one at all.

The film starts off with lame prologue showing husband and wife paranormal investigators Ed Warren (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga) dealing with the infamous Amityville haunting.  Now, in real life, Ed and Lorraine Warren became famous for investigating the Amityville situation, but this prologue serves no purpose in the movie other than to tie in with the first film which ended with their being summoned to Amityville.

The action switches to London in 1977, where another family is experiencing another haunting.  Eventually, the Warrens are called in to investigate, upon the request of the Catholic Church no less, to find out if the hautning is credible.

Now I could go into more plot details, but I don’t see the need.  And that’s one of the biggest problems I had with THE CONJURING 2:  the story bored me to tears.  Family is terrorized by a demon, or in this case a combination of ghosts and demons (and this combintation has been done before as well), there are lots of strange noises at night, loud knocks on doors, children being possessed, etc.  The Warrens arrive, they investigate, blah blah blah.

Now I’ll be the first to tell you that I was very surprised I didn’t like this movie.  As I said at the outset, I loved INSIDIOUS and THE CONJURING, and I fully expected to like this sequel.  But I did not.

In terms of scares, there are a lot of them in THE CONJURING 2, and as you would expect in a James Wan movie, most of them are of the jump scare variety.  I don’t have a problem with this.  I like jump scares.  The problem I had with the jump scares in this movie was that they simply were not scary.  And they weren’t scary for me because I was bored with the story and so I knew, okay here’s the part where something creepy will happen with the child’s toy.  Okay, and here’s the part where the demon will show up in the dark corner.  Now for the young girl to start saying weird things in a deep male voice.  I mean, almost everything that happened in this movie I felt I had seen already.  Many, many times.

James Wan does a fine job constructing all these scenes, but he did the same in INSIDIOUS and THE CONJURING and there just wasn’t much that was fresh here.

I liked the demon and the ghosts, but some looked better than others, which were a bit thick with CGI effects.

I like the two main actors a lot, Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga.  I’m a huge fan of Farmiga, but I didn’t think either actor was able to rise above the material here.

I thought the script by Carey and Chad Hayes, David Leslie Johnson, and James Wan was particularly bad. I thought the dialogue at times was laughable, especially during some of the conversations between Wilson and Farmiga.  And the story is about as fresh as a loaf of stale bread.  Demon manipulates spirits to haunt a family.  Okay, I get it. Let’s do something else already.

And there are spirits and demons everywhere.  There’s so much supernatural activity going on inside this house it’s like a GHOSTBUSTERS convention.  It reaches the point of ridiculousness.  It also works against the plot, which presents us with a more skeptical Ed and Lorraine Warren.  Are you kidding me?  We’re supposed to believe that they have doubts?  After seeing everything that happens in this movie?  The only way they could have doubts after seeing this much spectral activity in one place would be if they were blind, and they’re not blind.

I did enjoy Madison Wolfe who played Janet Hodgson, the young girl who becomes the main victim of the film’s demon.  She was believable.  I also enjoyed Frances O’Connor’s performance as the single mother Peggy Hodgson raising her family.  She had a gritty feisty strength about her that was just right for the role.

But as a whole, I found THE CONJURING 2 to be a major letdown, and I’m someone who really enjoys this type of movie.  I mean, I like stories about demons and hauntings, but this story added nothing new.  If you’ve seen THE CONJURING and INSIDIOUS, you’ve seen everything that happens in this one.

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MR. HOLMES (2015) – Sherlock Holmes Tale An Outstanding Period Piece And Solid Vehicle for Ian McKellen

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Blu-ray Review:  MR. HOLMES (2015)

By

Michael Arruda

 

We all grow old.  Even Sherlock Holmes.

That’s the premise of MR. HOLMES (2015), the story of an elderly Sherlock Holmes (Ian McKellen) trying desperately to remember the details of his final case, a case which ended so horribly it convinced him to retire.  But remembering is no easy task since he’s dealing with early stages of dementia.

Holmes, now in his 90s,  lives in a plush quiet home in the country along with his housekeeper Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney) and her young son Roger (Milo Parker). The year is 1947, and Holmes has been retired for thirty years.

He finds himself haunted by his final case, because he knows the events of that case caused him to retire outright.  The trouble is, he cannot remember any of it.  He tries all sorts of methods to stimulate his memory, but what he finds works best and inspires him most is spending time with young Roger, who loves Holmes and constantly encourages him to come out of retirement and solve another case.  So Holmes spends considerable time with the boy, often teaching him about beekeeping, in the hope that his memory will return.

And it does, but in bits and pieces and over the course of the movie, where we learn the fascinating details of the case which led Sherlock Holmes to an early retirement.  Since this is a mystery, the less said about the plot the better.

There are several reasons to see MR. HOLMES.  One is the cinematography.  The English countryside has never looked more inviting.

Better than the cinematography is the acting, led of course by Ian McKellen as Sherlock Holmes.  McKellen does more with just his facial expressions in this movie than most actors accomplish with their entire bodies.  Director Bill Condon takes full advantage of close-ups of McKellen’s face, showing us the pain, annoyance, wisdom, frustration, and flat out devastation felt by the aged Holmes.

As Holmes, Ian McKellen shows us a man struggling with memory loss, who at times still possesses the mental faculties which made him the world’s greatest detective.  He can be grumpy and aloof, but also compassionate and caring.  And in flashbacks from thirty years earlier, we witness a Holmes in his 60s working on that fateful case which would force his retirement.  McKellen handles these different stages of Holmes’ life with relative ease.

Young Milo Parker as the boy Roger is the perfect complement for McKellen’s Holmes here, and the two share the best scenes in this movie.  Laura Linney is also very good as Roger’s mother and Holmes’ housekeeper Mrs. Munro.  Tired of Holmes’ crabbiness and lack of cooperation, she actively wants to seek employment elsewhere, but that’s the last thing Roger wants since he idolizes Holmes.  It’s also not what Holmes wants since his time with Roger seems to be the only thing that sparks his memory.

The rest of players also do a very good job.  MR. HOLMES features splendid acting throughout.

The screenplay by Jeffrey Hatcher, based on a novel by Mitch Cullen, and using characters written by Arthur Conan Doyle, works on multiple levels.  It’s a poignat tale about the relationship between a very old person, Holmes, and a very young person, Roger, and on this level alone the film succeeds.  But it’s also a very compelling mystery, as Holmes’ final case involves the investigation into a supposed unfaithful wife, as well as a fateful trip to China.

Director Bill Condon does a nice job here.  For a film about an elderly Sherlock Holmes, the pacing is quick, and the film flies by, even though it is an hour and 44 minutes long.  Condon also directed McKellen in GODS AND MONSTERS (1998), an excellent movie about FRANKENSTEIN director James Whale, in which McKellen starred as the famous filmmaker.  But Condon also directed the last two TWILIGHT movies.  MR. HOLMES, no surprise, is much closer in quality to GODS AND MONSTERS than to the dreadful TWILIGHT films.

The other thing I liked about MR. HOLMES is that in spite of its central character dealing with dementia, the film resists the temptation to overplay the sympathy card.  Holmes harldly speaks of his memory troubles.  He just deals with them.

MR. HOLMES is an outstanding period piece, featuring a superb performance by Ian McKellen as Sherlock Holmes, and solid acting by the rest of the cast.  It’s well-directed, exhibits beautiful cinematography, and contains a first-rate mystery to boot.

It’s elementary, my dear Watson.  This one is definitely worth a look.

—END—

 

 

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS (1964)

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Here’s my latest IN THE SPOOKLIGHT column on the science fiction flick ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS (1964).

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

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IN THE SPOOKLIGHT

BY

MICHAEL ARRUDA

We venture into the realm of science fiction today IN THE SPOOKLIGHT as we pay a visit to ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS (1964).

ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS is not the best science fiction movie to come out of the 1960s, but it is certainly one of the best intentioned. Think THE MARTIAN (2015) with a smaller budget and less science.  A lot less science!

Two astronauts on a mission to Mars, Colonel Dan McReady (Adam West) and Christopher Draper (Paul Mantee) run into trouble with an asteroid and are forced to jettison from their ship in escape pods which land on Mars.  Draper survives, along with a monkey, but McReady is killed.

With only the monkey for companionship, Draper has to find ways to survive on the desolate planet while at the same time trying to find a way to get home.

One of the first things Draper does once he steps out of his escape pod is take off his space helmet.  Hmm.  Not a good idea!  But  like I said, the science isn’t exactly strong in this movie.  Draper discovers that he can indeed breathe on Mars, but only for brief periods of time, so he still he needs his oxygen supply, which obviously is limited.  But  lucky for Draper, he discovers certain rocks on the planet that provide him with air!  How about that!  Air from rocks!  Just hold up a stone to your nose and mouth and breathe in!  Hmm. This is starting to sound like GILLIGAN’S ISLAND ON MARS!  Gee, Professor, how does the air come from these rocks?   Well, Gilligan, the oxygen inside these stones is released when—.  

Y—eah.  Riiiiight.

Draper also has a limited food supply, but not to worry, he soon discovers an edible plant that looks an awful lot like a sausage.  Even better, there are plenty of these for him to eat.  But then again, he needs water.  He can’t survive without water.  But alas!  He discovers an underground cave that is full of water!  Drinkable water to boot!

He sure is lucky.  Maybe this should be called BUGS BUNNY ON MARS.

One day, Draper’s peace of mind is interrupted when spaceships descend upon his Martian neighborhood, spaceships that deposit a bunch of humanoid slaves on the ground so they can mine Martian ore.  One of these slaves escapes and befriends Draper.  Draper promptly names his new friend Friday, after the character in the Daniel Defoe novel ROBINSON CRUSOE.  Together, they continue the fight for survival.

Now, I poke fun here at ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS because the science in this film is laughable, but that’s about it.  The rest of the movie is surprisingly good.  Sure, it has low budget special effects, but its color cinematography is nothing to laugh about.  There are actually some nifty looking and very colorful scenes of the Martian landscape.  So, visually the film is fun to look at.

And Paul Mantee, who spends most of the film alone and thus talks to himself throughout, is very good and makes for a likeable hero who you really root for and want to see survive.  He pretty much carries the movie and does it with ease.  He remains entertaining throughout.

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Paul Mantee in ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS.

The real culprit in this one is the writing which comes off as science fantasy.  There’s nary a realistic bone in this one’s body.

The screenplay was written by Ib Melchior and John C. Higgins, based of course on Daniel Defoe’s novel.   Melchoir is no stranger to genre movies.  He penned the screenplays to THE ANGRY RED PLANET (1959), REPTILICUS (1961), JOURNEY TO THE SEVENTH PLANET (1962), THE TIME TRAVELERS (1964), and PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES (1965).  Plus he also wrote the screenplay for the American version of the second Godzilla movie, GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN! (1955).

Higgins’ genre credits include the all-star low budget shocker THE BLACK SLEEP (1956) which starred Basil Rathbone, Lon Chaney Jr., John Carradine, and Bela Lugosi, and DAUGHTERS OF SATAN (1972), starring Tom Selleck, which was Higgins’ final screen credit.

The special effects are cheesy and cheap, yet somehow they don’t look all that bad.  You may notice that the alien spaceships here resemble the Martian machines from George Pal’s classic production of THE WAR OF THE WORLDS (1953).  That’s because they are the Martian machines from George Pal’s THE WAR OF THE WORLDS!  The ships are leftover models from that movie, and director Byron Haskin had access to them because he also directed THE WAR OF THE WORLDS.  Producer George Pal’s name is always so closely attached to the 1953 classic, it’s easy to forget that he didn’t direct it, that it was in fact Byron Haskin calling the shots.

robinson crusoe ships

While the spaceship effects throughout the movie are cartoonish and certainly do not hold up today— they were subpar even by 1960s standards- they’re still fun.  And the ship zooming through space in the film’s opening is clearly reminiscent of the way the starship Enterprise zipped across TV screens in the opening credits of the original STAR TREK television show, and it pre-dated STAR TREK by two years.

There are also some pretty cool looking fireballs which streak across the Martian landscape whenever they feel like it.  And that Martian landscape is as colorful as it gets.  Think STAR TREK and LOST IN SPACE sets, and you’ll have an idea of what to expect from this one, in terms of its production values.  Low budget, but respectable.

ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS is also notable for featuring a pre-BATMAN Adam West in the cast, even if it is only for a few minutes.  West became typecast so quickly, that seeing him play someone other than Batman is a rare treat indeed.

ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS is not the most realistic science fiction movie you’ll ever see, but it is certainly one of the more entertaining.

Doing any stargazing this summer?  If you point your telescope at Mars and look closely, and you see a man sucking air from a rock and eating plants shaped liked sausages, that’ll be ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS.  I hear he’s mighty lonely up there.  Why don’t you drop by and pay him a visit?

Just watch out for low flying fireballs.

–END—

—If you enjoyed this column, you might enjoy my IN THE SPOOKLIGHT book, a collection of 115 IN THE SPOOKLIGHT columns, available as an EBook at neconebooks.com, and also as a print-on-demand edition.  Check out the “About” section of this blog for ordering details.—

SHOCK SCENES: DRACULA’S DEMISE- A Look at the Hammer DRACULA Endings- Part 1

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Dracula (Christopher Lee) screams in agony in the conclusion to HORROR OF DRACULA (1958)

SHOCK SCENES:  DRACULA’S DEMISE- A Look at the Hammer Dracula Endings

Part 1

By

Michael Arruda

Welcome back to SHOCK SCENES, the column where we look at famous scenes in horror movie history.  Up today, a look at the Hammer DRACULA series, specifically the endings, those scenes where Dracula meets his demise, which is a strange thing when you think about it:  the King of the Undead is an undead, immortal, and yet at the end of every movie he’s thrust back down into the world of ashes and dust.  It’s a wonder how he survived so long in the first place!

Anyway, we’ll be looking at the various endings to these Dracula movies to see how Dracula met his end in each one.  So, if you haven’t seen these films, be forewarned, there are spoilers galore, so consider this a major spoiler alert.  If you have seen these films, read on and enjoy!

Here we go:

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HORROR OF DRACULA (1958)

The first Hammer Dracula film, HORROR OF DRACULA (1958)  is widely considered to be Hammer Films’ best movie, as well as one of the finest Dracula movies ever made.  A big reason for this is the ending. Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) chases Dracula (Christopher Lee) into Castle Dracula.  They scuffle, and Dracula pins Van Helsing into a corner, but the clever doctor sees a sliver of sunlight shing through the curtains, and he climbs onto the long table, runs across it, and leaps up at the window, tearing the curtains down.

The sunlight knocks Dracula to the ground, and Van Helsing keeps him there by grabbing two candlesticks and using them to make a cross, forcing Dracula into the sunlight, where the shrieking vampire disintegrates into dust before our very eyes.

horror of dracula ending

This is one of those endings where once you see it, you never forget it.  Hands down, this is the best ending of any Dracula/vampire movie.  Ever.  Period.  Not even close.  If you have not seen HORROR OF DRACULA, you owe it to yourself to check it out.  The ending alone makes it worth it, and of course, fans know the rest of the movie is every bit as effective as its famous conclusion.

There’s lots to talk about here.  First off, the special effects, for 1958, are amazing.  Dracula’s disintegration looks horrific and authentic at the same time.  It’s all done with a series of cutaways.  The camera cuts back and forth between Dracula’s disintegration and Van Helsing’s reactions.  It’s all very quick, but effective.  The last stage is pretty much a dummy of a rotting Dracula head with red lights inside lighting up his eyes. It’s a really cool image.

Of course, for years, the original uncut ending was not shown to Western audiences, until just a few years ago (and I’ve written several blog posts on this along with the video links, so feel free to check them out.) when the uncut footage was discovered in a vault in Japan.  The footage, which shows a few more scenes of disintegration, as well as one very cool shot of Dracula clawing the flesh off his face— again, for 1958 these were some incredibly bold effects— was finally released to European audiences but for some reason has still not been included in U.S.versions.  That being said, I did include a link of this footage on my blog post so feel free to check it out.

Strangely, when Hammer chose to restore HORROR OF DRACULA several years ago and insert the “lost” scenes from the Japanese version, they didn’t include all the scenes. For some reason, there are still scenes from the finale in the Japanese version which did not make it into the recently restored print of the film.  I don’t know why they were not restored.  Anyway, if you check YouTube, you can sometimes find the complete ending from the Japanese version.

The other reason this ending stood out in 1958 was before this, the endings to the Universal DRACULA series had been pretty much anticlimactic.  Heck, Dracula was staked off camera in the original Lugosi DRACULA (1931) and none of the subsequent Universal films contained dramatic endings, but that’s a story for another column.

A few other items about the ending to HORROR OF DRACULA:  supposedly, it was Peter Cushing himself who suggested the infamous run across the table and leap to tear down the curtains from the window.  The original script had Van Helsing taking out a crucifix from inside his coat to ward off Dracula, but as Cushing once put it, he felt like a “crucifix salesman” pulling out crosses in nearly every scene, and so he suggested the more dramatic leaping from the table.

And as far as I know, since I’ve never read or heard otherwise, that is Peter Cushing himself and not a stuntman making that run and leap at the curtains.  If anyone out there has information to the contrary, I’d love to hear from you.

Of course, the ending takes liberties with the tradition of a crucifix warding off a vampire.  In this ending, rather than using a blessed religious crucifix, Van Helsing forms two candlesticks into the shape of a cross and uses that to fend of Dracula.  It probably shouldn’t work, but it sure makes for great cinema!  And it also has made it into vampire lore.  In one of my favorite lines from the vampire movie FROM DUSK TILL DAWN (1996) George Clooney asks the folks trapped with him by the gang of vampires what they know about vampires, and one guy suggests making crosses out of anything they can find.  When Clooney asks if that will work, the guy replies, “Peter Cushing does it all the time.

HORROR OF DRACULA not only contains the best ending in the Hammer Dracula series, but it’s also the most dramatic and memorable ending of any Dracula movie period.

It’s one for the horror movie history books.

 

THE BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960)

Christopher Lee declined to play Dracula again in Hammer’s proposed sequel to HORROR OF DRACULA from fear of being typecast.  Of course, he would change his mind several years later.

But in 1960 Hammer went ahead without Lee and made THE BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960), a film that in spite of its title did not feature Dracula, but instead one of Dracula’s disciples, Baron Meinster (David Peel).  Hammer did get Peter Cushing to return to play Van Helsing once again.

The ending to THE BRIDES OF DRACULA, while not as memorable as the ending to HORROR OF DRACULA, is very good.  The film was directed by Hammer’s best director, Terence Fisher, who also directed HORROR, and he goes all out with this one.  THE BRIDES OF DRACULA may be the best looking of the Hammer DRACULAS- it’s certainly the most atmospheric, and is one of the most atmospheric vampire movies ever made.  For some fans, THE BRIDES OF DRACULA is their favorite Hammer Dracula, and considering that Christopher Lee isn’t in the movie,that’s saying quite a lot.

The ending, as directed by Fisher, is every bit as atmospheric as the rest of the film.  One of my favorite shots is when Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) enters the old windmill in search of Baron Meinster.  Its shot with purple lighting, and Van Helsing is backlit, and it makes for an indelible image.  It’s also reminiscent of the scene in THE EXORCIST (1973) when Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow) first enters Regan’s home.  I’ve often wondered if EXORCIST director William Friedkin was influenced by this scene in THE BRIDES OF DRACULA.

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One of the most memorable parts of the ending comes when Meinster and Van Helsing battle, and this time Meinster wins and actually bites Van Helsing, setting up one of the most memorable scenes in the film, where Van Helsing uses a hot poker to burn the bites on his neck before dousing them with holy water, in effect curing him of the vampire’s bite.  Once again, Hammer takes liberties with vampire lore, but it again sure makes grand horror cinema!

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Later, Van Helsing burns Meinster’s face with holy water, setting up the film’s dramatic conclusion, where Van Helsing leaps onto the wings of the windmill, using it to form a shadow of a cross which falls on Meinster and destroys him.  Terence Fisher purposely did not show the shadow of the windmill but only of the wings, and he did this for full dramatic cinematic effect.

BridesofDraculashadow

As Hammer Dracula endings go, this one is one of the more understated, as Meinster simply collapses, and we do not see him distintegrate.  For story purposes, this makes sense, since unlike Dracula who was centuries old, Baron Meinster had only been a vampire for a relatively brief time.

The ending to THE BRIDES OF DRACULA, like the rest of the movie, is wonderfully atmospheric and cinematic.

Of course, this wasn’t the original ending.  Originally, Van Helsing was to use a little black magic to conjure up the forces of darkness to unleash a barrage of vampire bats which would descend upon Baron Meinster and tear him apart.  Peter Cushing objected to this sequence because he felt it out of character for Van Helsing to turn to black magic rather than religion and science, and I agree with him. I’m glad they changed it.  Hammer would use a variation of the vampire bats sequence for the ending to their next vampire movie, KISS OF THE VAMPIRE (1964), which once more did not feature Dracula.

That’s it for now.  Join me next time for Part 2 of SHOCK SCENES:  DRACULA’S DEMISE- A Look at the Hammer Dracula Endings, when we’ll look at the endings of the next two Hammer Dracula movies, DRACULA-PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1966) and DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE (1968).

See you then!

—Michael