LIGHTS OUT (2016) Scary But Ordinary

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LIGHTS OUT (2016) is well-acted, smartly directed, and contains jump scares in all the right places.  I should have loved this movie.

I did not.

And that’s because at the end of the day, it’s missing something important.  In spite of all the things it has going for it, it just never gets all that interesting.  It’s all kind of a snooze.

It opens with a chilling pre-credit sequence, and if you’ve seen the film’s trailer, you know what I’m talking about.  It’s the scene where the woman shuts the light off and sees a creepy figure standing in the darkness.  She puts the light on and the figure is gone.  Back off, there’s the figure again.  Creepy!

She tries to tell her boss Paul (Billy Burke) that she just saw something weird, but he’s too busy on the phone and tells her it’s fine and to just go home.  Should have listened to your employee, Paul.  When Paul closes up shop for the night, the same phenomenon happens to him, but only worse, because this time the shadowy figure is out for blood and kills him.

Flash forward to Paul’s young son Martin (Gabriel Bateman) who is devastated by his father’s death, especially because he now lives alone with his mentally ill mother Sophie (Maria Bello), who’s skipping her medication and keeping the house in the dark.  Worse yet, she keeps talking to someone who’s not there, someone she calls Diana.

Unable to sleep because he’s afraid, Martin seeks out his adult step-sister, Rebecca (Teresa Palmer) who knows all about their mother’s mental illness.  It’s why she left home in the first place.  She tells Martin that Diana isn’t real, and that he should not be worried.

But when Diana shows up and attacks them, Rebecca changes her tune and decides with the help of her boyfriend Bret (Alexander DiPersia) to confront her mother and demand answers, a decision that doesn’t make Diana very happy.

LIGHTS OUT was written and directed by David F. Sandberg, and it’s based on his short film of the same name.  Sandberg really does a fine job here, both with the writing and the directing.  On the surface, there really isn’t much wrong with this movie.

There are plenty of jump scares, although take away the insanely loud soundtrack and they wouldn’t be as effecitive.  But they’re there, and I can’t argue that this movie won’t make you jump.

And the story, in a screenplay that Sandberg co-wrote with Eric Heisserer, is halfway decent. It also deviates from the normal ghost/demon territory which similar films of this type have been stuck in lately.  Diana, the supernatural entity, is something different, and it’s a refreshing take on the haunting trope.  Unfortunately, this revelation doesn’t happen until the end of the movie, and so for most of the film Diana is just another variation of similar threats we’ve seen in films like INSIDIOUS (2008) and THE CONJURING (2013).

Co-writer Eric Heisserer also wrote the screenplays for the remake of  A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (2010), FINAL DESTINATION 5 (2011), and THE THING (2011), the prequel to the John Carpenter classic of the same name.  None of these movies did all that much for me.  His screenplay here for LIGHTS OUT is on par with these other movies, perhaps slightly better.

The acting is fine.  Teresa Palmer handles the lead role of big sister Rebecca with ease.  The best thing about her performance is she makes Rebecca seem like a real person, not just a heroine in a horror movie.  Young Gabriel Bateman is okay as little brother Martin.  As child characters go, I’ve seen better, and I’ve seen worse.

I’ve been a fan of Maria Bello’s for years now, and she’s terrific here as the tormented mentally ill mom Sophie.  She makes Sophie such a sad sympathetic character, a real character, that one could argue that the true horror here isn’t Diana but what’s going on inside Sophie’s head.

I was actually happy that Billy Burke’s character of father/husband Paul was killed off in the opening moments of the movie.  Seeing him playing a dad only reminded me of the TWILIGHT movies.  Shiver!

Probably the best peformance in the film belongs to Alexander DiPersia as Rebecca’s boyfriend Bret.  He’s yet another character who comes off as a real genuine person.  There’s a sincerity about him that is like a breath of fresh air for a character in a horror movie.  I wish he had been in the movie even more.

And a shout out goes to Alicia Vela-Bailey who played Diana and made her frightening and creepy.   That’s another positive about this movie, that director Sandberg chose to avoid as many CGI effects as possible.  The film is better for it.

And there are some well crafted scare scenes here as well.

The theme of LIGHTS OUT is abandonment.  All the central characters either fear or experience having been abandoned by someone they love.  Young Martin lost his dad.  Sophie’s first husband left her, and her second was murdered.  Rebecca’s dad walked out on her and her mom, which is why throughout the film she refuses to commit to her boyfriend Bret since she doesn’t trust people in relationships.

So, with all these things going for it, why didn’t I absolutely love LIGHTS OUT?  For the simple reason that in this case we have a film where the sum of its parts doesn’t equal a whole, and that’s because the filmmakers forgot one important ingredient:  they forgot to make this movie interesting.

I liked the characters, I liked the scares, but the story?  All it would take would be one conversation between Rebecca and Sophie early on to set the tone and get to the bottom of what’s going on. It shouldn’t take an entire movie.  The story is very thin.

Explain who Diana is from the outset and then take it from there.  Why is Diana doing these things?  Tell us immediately and take it from there.  Because who and what Diana is, is a fascinating idea that is worthy of an entire movie rather than just a last reel revelation.

LIGHTS OUT also suffers from being a by-the-numbers horror movie.  I wasn’t surprised by anything I saw.  I wasn’t intrigued, nor was I captivated.  I felt like I was walking through a funhouse which was scary for sure, but was the “same scary” as every other funhouse I had walked through.

All the rage right now is the new Netflix TV series STRANGER THINGS.  I watched the first episode and was blown away by its style, its characters, its writing, and its oomph.  It had me within the first few minutes.  It’s the kind of storytelling missing from a movie like LIGHTS OUT.

But that’s a television show, some will argue.  It has more time to develop characters.  True, but that’s never stopped the great filmmakers from making captivating thought-provoking movies.

The bar for horror movies should be held high.  I expect the same quality from horror movies as other genres.  Why should we ask for anything less?

LIGHTS OUT, for what it is, is fine.

But what it is, is just another ordinary horror movie.

—END—

 

 

 

 

Action, Not Story, Rules STAR TREK BEYOND (2016)

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My love for STAR TREK goes back to the original series with William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, and DeForest Kelley, so when it comes to the Star Trek universe, I guess I’m a hard person to please.

That being said, I have enjoyed the new STAR TREK movies, but the problem I have with them is they rely too heavily on action rather than story.

It’s especially noticeable in STAR TREK BEYOND (2016), the third and latest installment in the rebooted series.  The actors here have really grown into their roles, and they are a joy to watch, especially if, like me, you’re a fan of the original series, because they truly capture the spirit of the original actors.  When these actors are on screen with actual dialogue, the film soars, but when they get drowned out in long action scenes filled with eye popping and often exhausting special effects, the film falters.

Maybe it’s just me.  Maybe for some fans the special effects and action scenes are the thing.  For me, I prefer the characters over the special effects, ideas over action scenes.  That’s the true spirit of STAR TREK, and that’s what’s missing in these movies.

In STAR TREK BEYOND, the Enterprise is in the third year of its five year mission of exploring new worlds and civilizations.  The ship and crew dock at the space station Yorktown to get supplies and some rest.  Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) ponders his decision to leave the Enterprise and become an Admiral, while Spock (Zachary Quinto) learns of the death of Admiral Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and begins his own soul searching, wondering if he too should leave the Enterprise and help rebuild the planet New Vulcan.  Meanwhile, it’s Jim Kirk’s birthday, and Dr. McCoy (Karl Urban) helps him celebrate with some special ale, in a scene that’s a clear nod to a similar scene between William Shatner and DeForest Kelley in STAR TREK II:  THE WRATH OF KHAN (1982).

The respite is short-lived as the Yorktown receives a distress call from a ship inside a nebula, and of course the Enteprise heads off to investigate.   But all is not as it seems, and in the famous words of a character from that other science fiction series, “It’s a trap!

A trap indeed, as waiting for the Enterprise inside the nebula is a nasty group of aliens led by a cold-hearted villain named Krall (Idris Elba) whose superior technology makes short work of the Enterprise, literally ripping it apart, sending the shocked crew fleeing in separate directions.  The bulk of the crew, including Sulu (John Cho) and Uhura (Zoe Saldana) are abducted by Krall, while the rest flee in escape pods only to crash on the planet below.  These separate groups include Spock and McCoy, Scotty (Simon Pegg) who meets an alien woman Jaylah (Sofia Boutella) whose help proves invaluable, and Kirk and Chekov (Anton Yelchin).

It’s pretty much the theme of the movie.  Together the Enterprise crew can do anything. They need each other, and so it’s up to these separate groups to reunite to rescue their abducted crew members and stop Krall from destroying the Yorktown and the rest of the Federation.  Working towards this goal, Kirk and Spock ponder that perhaps their destiny shouldn’t include going their separate ways.

STAR TREK BEYOND is silly fun.  I liked it most whenever the characters actually engaged in conversation.  When they navigated through CGI-immersed action scenes, I was less than impressed.  To me, these scenes should be saved for key moments in the movie, but when they go on nonstop one after another, as is the case during the middle of this movie, I quickly become bored.

For example, rather than a ridiculous ten minute sequence featuring Jim Kirk racing a motorcycle through a firefight to cause a distraction, a sequence that is so implausible I half expected to see Bugs Bunny riding the cycle, I’d rather have had a ten minute sequence where Kirk, Spock and McCoy actually discuss a real  rescue plan, one that is at least half way believable.  One of my favorite episodes from the original series, “The Corbomite Maneuver” has as its centerpiece not an elaborate battle scene, but a highly tense conversation on the bridge dealing with a no win situation in which Spock tells Kirk that in chess, checkmate means the end, and that loss is inevitable, whereas Kirk turns the tables by suggesting another game, poker, and he proceeds to bluff their all-powerful adversary into submission.  It’s moments like this that this new series misses the most.

The cast here, as has been the case throughout this series, is fun, and they continue to grow into these roles.

As Captain Kirk, Chris Pine seemed more influenced by William Shatner this time around. His performance here really hearkend back to Shatner’s in the original series, more so than in the previous two movies.

I’m still amazed at how good Zachary Quinto is as Spock and how successfully he nails the role.  It’s like Leonard Nimoy reborn.  Speaking of Nimoy, some of Quinto’s best scenes here are when he reminsces about the death of his parallel universe self, Commander Spock (Nimoy).  These scenes are poignant and special.

Once again, Karl Urban has a field day as Dr. McCoy.  More than any of the other actors in this series, Urban plays McCoy as a clear homage to the way DeForest Kelley played him in the original series.  As McCoy, Urban gets the best lines in the movie and delivers some genuine laugh out loud moments.

Simon Pegg, as you might expect, infuses more humor into the role of Scotty than James Doohan did.  Zoe Saldana as Uhura, John Cho as Sulu, and the late Anton Yelchin as Chekov all hold their own, but they don’t do as much as they could.

Idris Elba, while looking menacing underneath his alien make-up, is largely wasted as villain Krall.  Elba is a tremendous actor who if given the chance to act here could have made Krall a memorable villain, but other than a line here and a line there, there’s little development, until the end of the movie when we learn more about Krall, but that’s too little too late.

Sofia Boutella is very impressive as alien Jaylah.  Her scenes with Scotty are some of the best in the movie.

Director Justin Lin, taking over for J.J. Abrams, infuses this one with heavy action scenes.  No surprises here from the FAST AND FURIOUS director.  These scenes were okay.  The problem is I wouldn’t cite any one scene in this movie as being memorable or incredibly cinematic.  In fact, I’d argue the opposite.  There were some scenes that looked way too cartoonish and CGI infested for my tastes.  I felt like I was watching an animated STAR TREK movie at times.

The screenplay by Simon Pegg and Doug Jung is okay.  The overall premise- Enterprise crew must stop alien from destroying Starfleet- is pretty standard and not very thought-provoking.  Its strength, which again is no surprise since it was written by comedian Pegg, is its humor and the dialogue between the characters.  I also thought Scotty’s role was beefed up a bit here.  Again, no surprise since Pegg wrote it.

STAR TREK BEYOND doesn’t go beyond where any of the other STAR TREK movies or TV shows have gone, doesn’t explore new worlds or civilizations that we haven’t already encountered, but it still makes for a solidly entertaining two hours at the movies.

STAR TREK BEYOND seems to be STAR TREK for the 21st century audience, where action has replaced characters and story.  I wish it were otherwise.  And don’t get me wrong.  I’m not arguing for no action scenes whatsoever.  I just want them to matter.  To be few and far between, and when they occur, for them to have impact and resonance.

While I prefer the STAR TREK of old, I still enjoy these new films, mostly because of the nostalgia they resurrect, but also because the cast here truly does a bang-up job.  If only the directors and writers would follow suit and do the same.

—END—

 

 

 

SHOCK SCENES: DRACULA’S DEMISE – A Look at the Hammer Dracula Endings – Part 3

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

Part 3

By

Michael Arruda

Welcome to Part 3 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. Previously we looked at the endings to the first four Hammer Dracula pics.  Here in Part 3 we’ll look at the endings to the next two films in the series, TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA (1969) and SCARS OF DRACULA (1970).

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

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TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA (1969)

Give credit to director Peter Sasdy.  With the exception of the first two Hammer Dracula films by Terence Fisher, HORROR OF DRACULA (1958) and THE BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960), TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA is probably the best looking of the Hammer Draculas.  The cinematography is clear, crisp, rich and colorful, with deep dark reds and blues spilling onto the screen like a bruised corpse dripping blood.

While most of the Hammer Dracula sequels are shot in a way that make them look like horror films, TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA looks like a PBS drama.  The cinematography here is simply a step above the rest.

And Christopher Lee has never looked better as Dracula. Gone are the red bloodshot eyes (for the most part – they’re back in some scenes) and pasty white face shot with green light in DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE (1968), and in their place is a more noble and princely looking Lee.  In fact, at times Sasdy’s camera makes Lee look about ten years younger.  Other than way back in HORROR OF DRACULA, when he was only 36, Christopher Lee is probably photographed at his handsomest as Dracula here in TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA.

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Dracula (Christopher Lee) in the desecrated church in TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA (1969).

 

The film gets its title because in this one, a young devil worshipper Lord Courtley (Ralph Bates) gets hold of a vial of Dracula’s blood, spilled after the vampire was impaled on a cross at the end of DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE (1968).  To resurrect Dracula, he mixes his own blood with Drac’s and then orders the men he has brought into his circle to drink it.  Hence the title.

While TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA may be richly photographed, it’s not my favorite of the Dracula sequels.  Its story doesn’t always makes sense, and its characters simply aren’t as likable or as developed as those in the previous films in the series.

TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA also has the strangest ending of the entire series.

Young Paul (Anthony Corland) attempts to rescue his girlfriend Alice (Linda Hayden) from the clutches of Dracula (Christopher Lee) who’s hiding out in a desecrated church.  Paul places crucifixes throughout the church and puts a white cloth over the altar.  As you might imagine, Dracula is none too happy about these changes, and there is a struggle.

Dracula flees to the upper level of the church to get away from Paul’s crosses, and when he smashes a stained-glass window, he turns to see the entire church lit with candles and looking like it’s ready for Sunday Mass.  It’s a miracle!  Unable to withstand this sudden burst of holiness, Dracula falls from his perch and proceeds to disintegrate into ashes once more.

Scratching your head?  Me, too, and I’ve seen this ending multiple times.  It appears as best as I can figure it, that in this movie, God destroys Dracula!  Yup, that’s about the size of it.  It’s a weird ending, and worse yet, it’s simply not very satisfying.  It also serves as proof that the characters in this movie aren’t up to the task of destroying Dracula, so, why destroy him at all?  I still think some of these Hammer Dracula sequels would have been even better had Dracula simply survived at the end.  It would have given these movies some very dark endings which would only have made them more memorable.

And while the special effects in the disintegration sequence are impressive, they lack the excitement and thrill of the effects in HORROR OF DRACULA.

It all makes for a very bizarre and rather disappointing ending.

 

scars of dracula poster

SCARS OF DRACULA (1970)

While TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA may have had the strangest ending to the series, the next movie, SCARS OF DRACULA, has the worst ending.

SCARS OF DRACULA was an attempt by Hammer to give Dracula more screen time, which is a rarity since even in the best of the Hammer Draculas, like HORROR OF DRACULA (1958), for example, Dracula just isn’t in the film very much.  The Hammer Draculas always made the most of Dracula’s brief screen time.

DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE (1968), Hammer’s biggest money-maker of all time, struck a nice balance with its Dracula scenes, and Dracula seemed to be in this one more than the other films.  On the other hand, it took Dracula nearly half of TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA to show up, which no doubt left viewers disappointed, regardless of how richly photographed that movie was.

In this regard, giving Dracula more screen time, SCARS OF DRACULA  succeeds.  Dracula (Christopher Lee) shows up within the first few minutes of the film and is in this one quite a lot.  He also has a field day, as SCARS OF DRACULA is probably the most violent film in the series, as in addition to biting people on the neck, Dracula also whips, stabs, impales and brands his victims here.  Ouch!

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Dracula (Christopher Lee) doing his best Norman Bates impersonation as he stabs a victim in SCARS OF DRACULA (1970).

The other neat thing about this movie, and which makes it stand out from the rest of the Hammer Draculas, is the way Dracula appears and disappears. In the previous films, most of Draculas entrances were all highly dramatic, often with undead king baring his fangs and hissing in some genuine shock scenes.  Here, director Roy Ward Baker made the interesting choice never to show Dracula enter or exit a room.  Suddenly, he’s just standing there, and when a character turns around for a moment, he’s suddenly gone.  Even though it’s not the traditional Christopher Lee interpretation, it works.

So, for the most part, I really like SCARS OF DRACULA, even though its cinematography is vastly inferior to that of TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA.  More so, it’s inferior to the cinematography of the rest of the Hammer Dracula’s as well.  There’s something very rushed and cheap looking about this movie, which goes against the Hammer Films formula of making sure that at the very least their films looked like they had a high budget.

But the ending is the worst and takes the rest of the film down several notches.  Dracula is on the roof of his castle, once more battling a young man over his girlfriend.  Dracula needs some lessons on dating.  Anyway, Dracula grabs a spear and prepares to hurl it at his adversary when a lightning bolt zaps the spear and ignites Dracula in a fiery blaze.  So, in the last film Dracula was desroyed by God.  This time he’s done in by— the weather?   Yep, Dracula is struck down by Mother Nature.  How implausible is that?  If you can’t write characters who are worthy of destroying Dracula, just let him survive already!

Dracula bursts into flames and as he screams in agony, he’s filmed in ridiculous slow motion.  When he falls from the castle roof, the shot of him plunging down the side looks as realistic as one of the freefalls of Wile E. Coyote.

Don’t get me wrong.  I love SCARS OF DRACULA.  But I don’t like the ending.  At all.

So, that about wraps things up for Part 3 of our look at the endings to the Hammer DRACULA series.  Join me next time for Part 4, when we’ll look at the endings to the rest of the films in the series.

See you then!

And thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bryan Cranston Leads the Way in THE INFILTRATOR (2016)

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If you’re a Bryan Cranston fan, you’ll love THE INFILTRATOR (2016).

THE INFILTRATOR tells the true story of how U.S. Customs Agent Robert Mazur (Bryan Cranston) took on the drug cartel led by Pablo Escobar and won. It’s 1986, the heart of the “War on Drugs” as waged by then President Ronald Reagan, and Mazur comes up with the idea to take down the drug lords not by going after the drugs but by following the money.

And so Mazur and his partner Emir (John Leguizamo) set up an elaborate money laundering scheme where Mazur impersonates a Mafia money guy in order to infiltrate the drug business.  They work their way to the higher-ups, which in this case means a man named Robert Alcaino (Benjamin Bratt) and of course the ultimate prize of Pablo Escobar.

Along the way they meet with their share of undesirables, and the stakes grow increasingly high, as Mazur and his “wife” Kathy (Diane Kruger) infiltrate Alcaino’s home and family.  One false slip of the tongue and they’re dead.

THE INFILTRATOR is a well-made and highly entertaining movie.

While there’s lots to like about this one, the best thing is the acting, led by Bryan Cranston. While it may not be as crafted an effort as the one Cranston gave in TRUMBO (2015), nor as powerful as his five season stint on BREAKING BAD (2008-2013), it’s still a thoroughly captivating and entertaining performance.  Cranston gives Mazur an admirable confidence without sacrificing his vulnerablities and fears that go with the territory.

Cranston has that presence where he can hold your attention the entire time he’s on screen.  While there were many things I enjoyed about THE INFILTRATOR, the main reason I enjoyed it was because of Bryan Cranston.

The rest of the acting is also very good.  John Leguizamo is a natural as Mazur’s wisecracking unpredictable partner Emir.  It’s always fun to see Leguizamo when he’s not voicing Sid in the ICE AGE movies.

The women here also fare very well.  I really enjoyed Diane Kruger as fellow agent Kathy Ertz who joins the undercover ruse as Mazur’s wife.  She becomes a prominent player in the second half of the film, and she’s excellent.

Juliet Aubrey is also very good as Mazur’s real wife Evelyn.  She takes what could have been a cliched role- the worried wife- and makes her a three-dimensional and very sympathetic character.

Benjamin Bratt makes the most of his brief screen time as drug cartel leader Roberto Alcaino.  While there’s little doubt that Alcaino is a dangerous man, Bratt surprises in how sympathetic and likeable he makes Alcaino, making Mazur and Kathy more uncomfortable the more they get to know him, because they grow to like him.

Elena Anaya is equally as good as Alcaino’s wife Gloria.  Like Alcaino, she welcomes Mazur and Kathy into her family, adding to the difficulty of their continuing the sting.

The film is loaded with all sorts of unsavory characters, and as a result there are a bunch of noteworthy supporting performances here.  Among them are Yul Vazquez as bisexual drug man Javier Ospina who can’t seem to take his hands off anyone in the movie, especially the men.  It’s a weird and mesmerizing performance by Vasquez as there’s something almost vampire-like about Ospina.  And in a neat movie homage, at one point in the film Ospina mentions THE GODFATHER movies, and later, when he learns the truth about Mazur, he tells him, “You broke my heart,” which is the famous line uttered by Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) to his brother Fredo when he learns his brother betrayed him in THE GODFATHER PART II (1974).  It’s not clear that Mazur gets the reference, but the audience does, making the moment frightening and menacing.

Speaking of vampires, Joseph Gilgun plays a lively character named Dominic, a convict who Mazur springs from jail so he can act as his personal protector.  Dominic is there to watch Mazur’s back, and he does.  Gilgun curently plays a vampire on the frenetic TV show PREACHER (2016), a nutty character named Cassidy, and Gilgun is just as wild here in THE INFILTRATOR.

And Olympia Dukakis is wonderful in two key scenes as Mazur’s Aunt Vicky, the latter where she also gets to take part in the sting operation.

Director Brad Furman previously made RUNNER RUNNER (2013), a thriller starring Ben Affleck and Justin Timberlake, and THE LINCOLN LAWYER (2011),  a drama starring Matthew McConaughey, both okay movies.  I enjoyed THE LINCOLN LAWYER better than RUNNER RUNNER which struggled to remain believable.  THE INFILTRATOR is probably his best movie yet, a stronger film than these other two.

It’s an interesting screenplay by Ellen Sue Brown, based on the book by Robert Mazur.  In addition to the obvious drug war plot, the story also makes a point of painting a sympathetic portrait of drug villains Roberto and Gloria Alcaino.  They speak of family and loyalty, and they welcome Mazur and Kathy into their home.  At one point, Roberto asks Mazur who the biggest money launderer in the United States is, and he tells Mazur it’s the U.S. government, which while publically waging the war on drugs, privately welcomes drug money into its banks.

The film also makes a point of including bank executives as the villains here.  We see top bank officials listen to Mazur tell them point blank that his money comes from cocaine dealers, and yet they don’t bat an eye.  They simply welcome the money.  So, there is definitely an anti-business/banking element to this story, a la THE BIG SHORT (2015).

While the plot is not overly complicated- U.S. Customs official sets up sting to take down drug cartel- there are a ton of characters in this film, coming and going at any given time, and so one really has to pay attention or else risk being lost.

The actual pace is somewhat slow.  Do not see THE INFILTRATOR expecting an action movie.  It’s not.  It’s a drama and a thriller.  It’s also a movie where the dialogue drives the tension, and  most of the suspense comes from this dialogue, as you keep expecting Mazur and his fellow agents to say the wrong thing and then pay the price.

The film takes place in 1986 but curiously the hairstyles, clothes, and look of the whole thing reminded me of a decade earlier, 1976!  The grainy print gives the film  an authentic feel, but of the 1970s not the 1980s.  I felt like I was watching SERPICO (1973) rather than MIAMI VICE.

But these are small matters.

I really enjoyed THE INFILTRATOR.  It’s a nail-biting suspense drama and showcase for the acting talents of Bryan Cranston and a stellar supporting cast.

I was on the edge of my seat throughout.

—END—

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: CUJO (1983)

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I love horror movies.  I love books by Stephen King. But movies based on King’s stories? Not so much.

And that’s because for the most part film adaptations of King’s work have been less than stellar.  There are the obvious exceptions- Stanley Kubrick’s THE SHINING (1980) of course, and I’ve always liked SALEM’S LOT (1979), although it is nowhere near as effective as the novel.  There are others as well, but the point is in general, I don’t have a lot of favorite horror movies that are based on King’s stories, which is rather weird when you think about it.

Take CUJO (1983) for example.  The best thing about this movie is its name.  Say “Cujo” and you instantly picture a ferocious rabid dog.  The word is almost synonymous with monster dog, which is pretty cool, from a horror writer’s standpoint.

But the actual movie?  It’s a mixed bag of doggie treats.

For the most part, this tale of a family in a small town in Maine who crosses paths with a rabid dog is lame and dull, but once the film gets to the sequence where Cujo attacks the mother and child in their stalled car, things change for the better.  Way better.  Things get so intense you might forget you are watching CUJO and think you’re watching JAWS (1975) instead.  It’s as frightening a sequence as you’ll find in a horror movie.

CUJO is one of those movies where you almost don’t need to watch the story unfold – just skip to the final third of the movie and watch Cujo do his stuff.

The plot is about a married couple, Donna Trenton (Dee Wallace) and her husband Vic (Daniel Hugh Kelly) and their young son Tad (Danny Pintauro).  All is not well in the Trenton household, and Donna is having an affair, which Vic discovers. Uh oh.  Not to worry though, because Vic is the self-reflective type, and his way of dealing with the problem is to go off on a business trip to give his wife some space.

And if marital problems weren’t enough, the Trentons are also having car trouble, and so Donna and Tad drive to their local mechanic so he can fix their car.

Enter Cujo.

The big lovable St. Bernard Cujo was introduced earlier in the movie.  He belongs to mechanic Joe Camber (Ed Lauter) and he’s friendly, but that was before he was bit by a rabid bat, and right on the nose, no less!

Yup, Cujo is now rabid, and he’s none too happy about it.  When Donna and Tad arrive at the repair shop, Cujo attacks, and as their car dies just as they arrive, they find themselves trapped inside the dead car with Cujo trying to smash his way in.

Up until this point, the story is rather lame, but once Cujo attacks Donna and Tad, things intensify.  And it’s not a brief scene.  It goes on for nearly the final third of the movie, which makes the second half of CUJO a heck of a lot better than the first half.

The script by Don Carlos Dunaway and Lauren Currier, based on Stephen King’s novel, is pretty mediocre and plays like a standard soap opera vehicle until Cujo tastes blood.

The acting is pretty dreadful.  Dee Wallace is less than inspiring as Donna Trenton.  Like the rest of the movie, she gets better once the Cujo attack sequence begins, as she gets to scream a lot and act terrified.  With a ton of credits, Wallace is no stranger to genre films, having appeared in a bunch of them, including THE HILLS HAVE EYES (1977) and of course E.T.THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL (1982).

Daniel Hugh Kelly isn’t any better as hubby Vic.  He’s about as interesting as a slice of white bread.  And young Danny Pintauro is supposed to be cute and cuddly as Tad,  but I found him terribly annoying throughout this movie.  Pintauro would go on to star in the Tony Danza sitcom WHO’S THE BOSS? (1984-1992).

The rest of the acting here is just as unimpressive.  Cujo the dog easily delivers the best performance in the movie.  Actually, there were several dogs used as Cujo, so I guess it was a group effort.

cujo

Director Lewis Teague does little with the first half of the film, but he more than makes up for this with the frightening second half.  And a lot of the suspense comes from some nifty editing in these pre-CGI days.

CUJO gets off to a slow start, but be patient.  The payoff is well worth the wait.

Statistics say that there are about 1,000 cases of people bitten by dogs every day in the United States.  Hopefully none of them look like Cujo.

Sit, Cujo, sit.

—END—

 

 

 

 

OUR KIND OF TRAITOR (2016) Taut Thriller Is One of Summer’s Best

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OUR KIND OF TRAITOR (2016) is my kind of movie.

This thriller based on the John le Carre novel of the same name is well-acted, written, and directed and provides edge-of-your-seat excitement from beginning to end.  It’s one of the best films to come out this summer.

OUR KIND OF TRAITOR opens in Moscow with the chilling assassination of a Russian mobster and his family.  We then meet a young British college professor named Perry (Ewan McGregor) on holiday with his attorney wife Gail (Naomie Harris).  All is not well with them, as they took this holiday to help their marriage, which suffered a blow when Perry slept with one of his students.  In a restaurant, Gail receives a work-related call and she leaves Perry to dine alone.

At a neighboring table a boisterous group drinks and parties hearty.  One of these partiers, Dima (Stellan Skarsgard) invites Perry to join their table since he’s dining alone, and Perry reluctantly agrees.  Dima then invites Perry to come with him to another party, and he gives it the hard sell, to which Perry- with nothing better to do since his wife is working- agrees.

Suddenly, Dima is confiding lots of confidential information to Perry, and the next thing Perry knows, the man is handing him a flash drive which he wants Perry to hand over to the British Secret Service. It turns out that Dima is a member of the Russian Mafia who now fears for his life and his family’s lives and wants to defect.  Perry agrees.

Back in London, Perry turns over the flash drive, which captures the attention of a British intelligence officer named Hector (Damian Lewis).  The flash drive contains the names of prominent British citizens who are in cahoots with the Russian mob, and Hector has his own personal reasons for wanting to retrieve this information and more of what Dima says he has to offer.

Dima agrees to meet with Hector, but only if Perry is in on the deal.  At first, Perry wants no part of further meetings, but eventually he is covinced by Hector to go, and so he and wife Gail make the trip.

Soon, Perry and Gail find themselves embroiled in a very dangerous situation, caught in between the merciless Russian mob and the calculating secretive MI6, and rather than wanting out, they want in, as they grow closer to and fonder of Dima and his family.

OUR KIND OF TRAITOR is not receiving much hype, and so I went in to this one not expecting much, but it’s a heck of a thriller, and is one of my favorite movies of the summer so far.

Director Susanna White has made an effective thriller that caught my attention from the very first sequence, the jarring assassination scene of the Russian mobster and his wife and daughter.  From that moment on, the film had me, and it never let up.  The direction remained stylish throughout.  While the action scenes are few and far between, there are scenes of suspense throughout.

When Perry and Gail are whisked away from a party by a key member of the Russian mob and taken back to a ghetto apartment, the tension is paramount.  Likewise, the sequence when MI6 and Perry and Gail try to rescue Dima’s family is taut and thrilling.  This is the kind of movie John Frankenheimer would have directed in his heyday.  Director White does an excellent job.

The photography is also excellent as there are plenty of picturesque location shots, from Moscow, to London, to Paris, to the French Alps.  There’s a nice almost Bond-like international feel to this one.

The screenplay by Hossein Amini based on le Carre’s novel is a good one.  There’s plenty of lively dialogue, the characters are fleshed out, and the narrative flows nicely from start to finish.  Amini wrote the screenplay to DRIVE (2011), a film by director Nicolas Winding Refn [THE NEON DEMON (2016)] and starring Ryan Gosling, that I loved.  He also wrote the screenplay to SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN (2012), a film that I did not like so much.  I think his screenplay here is even better than the one he wrote for DRIVE.

I loved the acting performances all around.

Stellan Skarsgard is fabulous as Dima, the Russian mobster who wants to defect but won’t do so until he can guarantee the safety of his family, something British Intelligence isn’t keen on doing.  They want the information first, which Dima won’t part with without that guarantee.  It’s a loud, boisterous performance by Skarsgard.  He’s a hoot to watch in the film.  Early on, he has one of the movie’s best lines as he tells McGregor’s Perry “don’t be a sourpussy” when Perry refuses to go to a party with him.  Perry quickly corrects him, “It’s sourpuss.”

Better yet, Skarsgard is able to instill a warmth to his character that makes Perry and Gail’s connection to him all the more believable.  You’re not sitting in the theater wondering why they are helping this man.  Because of Skarsgard’s performance, you know why.

Ewan McGregor is just as good as Perry, but in a more understated way.  Perry is the perfect innocenct caught in middle of all the espionage.  He could have walked off the set of an old Alfred Hitchcock movie.  McGregor is perfect in the role, in what might be my favorite performance of his yet.

He makes Perry a really interesting character.  At first, he’s not interested at all in helping Dima, but yet, as MI6 agent Hector points out, he still agreed to deliver the flash drive. Perry is a man of honor, a man of thought who will nonetheless stand up to a Russian thug for striking a woman, a man who will risk his life for another man who he hardly knows because he feels it’s the right thing to do.

And yet, later, when Perry asks Dima why he chose him, Dima answers that Perry was the only other man in the restaurant that night, a remark that provides both men with a laugh.

Rounding out the triumvirate of great performances is Damian Lewis [HOMELAND (2011-2014)] as MI6 agent Hector. Lewis is excellent here, and even with Skarsgard’s larger than life performance as Dima, Lewis’ performance as the complicated and driven British Intelligence Officer might be my favorite of the entire movie.

Lewis makes his mark in his very first scene when his no-nonsense manner dives right into a calculating and pointed questioning of Perry at the airport.  At first, we’re not quite sure what to make of Hector, as he lies to both his superiors and to those working under him, but the more we learn about him, the more we understand why he does the things he does, and as a result the more we like him.

The supporting cast is also excellent, led by Naomie Harris as Perry’s wife Gail.  She takes what could have been a throwaway role- the wife of the leading man- and makes it into something more.  At first, she’s angry with her husband for getting involved, but the more she learns about Dima and his family, the more she wants to help.

I really enjoyed Harris in the two recent Daniel Craig Bond films, SKYFALL (2012) and SPECTRE (2015) where she played Moneypenny, and in those films she certainly wasn’t the Moneypenny of old.  She’s just as good here, in a role that provides her with more depth and range.

If you like political thrillers and tales of international intrigue, you’ll love OUR KIND OF TRAITOR.

Dont’ be a sourpussy.  Go out and see this one.

—END—

SWISS ARMY MAN (2016) Extraordinarily Original

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SWISS ARMY MAN (2016) is a remarkable movie.

Any film that can have a corpse as one of its two main characters and still be taken seriously is really something extraordinary.

SWISS ARMY MAN opens with a young man named Hank (Paul Dano) about to hang himself on a deserted island.  But just before he completes the deed, he spies a body of a man (Daniel Radcliffe) lying on the shore.  Desperate for companionship, he is disillusioned to discover that the man is dead.

Just my luck!

But Hank suddenly hears strange noises rumbling from the corpse’s insides and figures they’re gasses built up within the body after death.  These noises lead to extreme flatulence, which gives Hank the idea to use the body as a jet-ski and ride it off the island, which he does in a hilarious pre-credit sequence.  It’s an extraordinarily lively and bizarre way to open a movie.

Hank and the corpse wash up on another shoreline belonging to a place that also seems deserted.  Dejected once more and ready to end everything, Hank discovers that rain waters have collected inside the corpse and if he presses on the corpse’s chest, fresh water pours out which enables Hank to survive.  Suddenly Hank realizes that there is something special about this body, which he names Manny.

He begins to talk to Manny, out of a desperate need for companionship, and to his astonishment, Manny begins to show signs of life and even begins talking, asking Hank questions about the meaning of life, since he can’t remember being alive.  As Hank teaches the very innocent Manny about life, we learn firsthand Hank’s view on life, especially on loneliness, as we come to learn about the very sad and lonely life Hank had led.

To say that SWISS ARMY MAN is an odd movie is an understatement. It’s one of the strangest movies you’ll ever see. But more importantly, it’s also one of the more uplifting films you’ll ever see, in spite of all the flatulence and other weird occurences involving Manny’s body.

The main theme of this movie is a dead man coming back to life, and it’s not only referring to Manny.  It’s referring to Hank, who spent his days before running away pretty much dead, and it’s now through his relationship with Manny that he’s coming back to life.

The performances in the movie are phenomenal.

Paul Dano is wonderful as Hank.   He plays a young man whose life has been anything but rewarding.  It seems all he’s ever wanted to do is connect with people, but he’s been a failure at it, which is why he ran away from it all, found himself on an island, and prepared to kill himself.   When he meets Manny and begins to teach him about life, it’s clear that this is the first time he’s ever spoken to anyone else about these things.

And they talk about everything, from relationships, to masturbation, to erections, to overcoming shyness, and it’s all handled with incredible honesty and sensitivity.  It’s an amazing script by Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, who also directed the film under the name “Daniels.”  This is their feature film debut, after having done shorts and music videos, and it’s a very impressive debut at that.

Dano has appeared in a lot of movies, but is probably most remembered before this movie for his role in THERE WILL BE  BLOOD (2007).  He’s every bit as good here.

And Daniel Radcliffe is pretty amazing as Manny the corpse.  I don’t know if they give out Oscars for actors who play corpses, but it would be cool if Radcliffe received a nod for his performance here.  Sure, Harry Potter fans probably prefer him in that series, but for me, this might be my favorire Daniel Radcliffe performance yet.  You have to see it to believe it.

I thoroughly enjoyed SWISS ARMY MAN, up until the ending at least, which I thought dropped the ball in terms of how the story plays out.

Just how does one interpret a movie like SWISS ARMY MAN, in which a young man spends the entire film with a corpse that slowly comes back to life?  One way, and it’s what I thought from the outset, is that the entire film is a hallucination.  The film opens with Hank about to commit suicide.  Certainly, all that followed could be imagined in his mind in the moments before his death.  This meaning makes a lot of sense.

Of course, one can also take the film literally and accept that all that happens on screen, as ridiculous and outlandish as it all is, really happens!  This is certainly another intepretation.  I give this one less credence because to do this you really have to suspend disbelief.

The ending does little in the way of helping resolve these matters, which for me is the reason I wasn’t crazy about the conclusion to this one.

I would have preferred this one better had the true fate of Hank been more clearly revealed.  I enjoyed the character, cared what happened to him, and wanted to know his fate.  The film doesn’t really tell.  One can make inferences based on what happens on screen, but writers/directors Daniels didn’t provide any solid clues as to how interpret the proceedings.  My guess is they didn’t really know either.

Still, SWISS ARMY MAN is an incredibly uptlifting film, which sounds strange when you consider it’s a story about suicide, loneliness, and flatutlence.  But somehow it all works.

It’s also a visual treat, as the antics between Hank and Manny, and how Hank uses Manny’s body in variouis ways to survive—like a Swiss Army Knife— are both cinematic and memorable.

Once experienced, SWISS ARMY MAN is not a movie that you will forget anytime soon, and that’s a good thing.

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