HELL OR HIGH WATER (2016) – Superior Movie Might Be Year’s Best

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Taylor Sheridan is quickly becoming one of my favorite screenwriters working today.

He wrote SICARIO (2015), which was my favorite movie of the year last year.  And now he’s followed that sensational film up with another, HELL OR HIGH WATER (2016).  Sheridan is also an accomplished actor.  Among his acting credits, he played Deputy Chief Hale during the first couple of seasons of SONS OF ANARCHY.

HELL OR HIGH WATER tells two separate stories which run parallel to each other until they converge during the film’s conclusion.

Brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner Howard (Ben Foster) are on a bank robbing spree in Texas.  No, this isn’t the Old West, but present day where the economy is so bad that the locals are actually happy these guys are robbing banks, since the banks are the ones which are robbing the people of their livelihood.

Meanwhile, Texas Marshall Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) is days away from retirement. He catches wind of the robberies, and while his Native American partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) thinks Hamilton is only interested because he wants to go out with a bang, to find one last case to work on to delay his retirement, the truth is, Hamilton is intrigued because he sniffs out a plan that is a step above the crimes he usually comes in contact with.  There’s something more going on here than just a string of small time robberies.

And that’s because while big brother Tanner is an ex-con and a hothead, the bank robbing scheme is not his idea.  It’s his younger brother Toby’s, and it involves paying off the reverse mortgage on his recently deceased mother’s property, property the bank is only too happy to confiscate.  It also involves being able to leave his two sons something, something that he never had.

As Toby says at one point in the movie, poverty is like an inherited disease.  You’re born into it.  Your parents are born into it, they pass it on to you, and you in turn pass it on to your children.  Tanner says that’s not going to happen to his kids.

So, as Toby and Tanner continue their meticulous spree, stealing only small amounts of money to keep off the fed’s radar, Hamilton continues his pursuit, trusting his gut that he’s got these guys figured out, and that he knows where they will strike next.  It’s a perfect set-up to a suspenseful and fully satisfying conclusion.

There are so many good things about HELL OR HIGH WATER.

The best part, to be sure, is the screenplay by Taylor Sheridan.  It covers a lot of ground and contains many poignant moments.  The theme is clear:  the American dream is dying, and the culprit is big money and the banks who control it.

Hamilton’s partner Alberto says it point blank, telling Hamilton that 150 years ago the land was stolen from his people by Hamilton’s people, and now it’s being stolen again, but this time the victims are Hamilton’s people, and the thieves are the banks.

There are many other fine moments as well.  When Hamilton requests the $200 tip Toby left a diner waitress because it’s evidence, the waitress refuses to give it to him, scolding him, saying that he’ll need a warrant to take away the money from her, money that she needs to pay her mortgage to keep a roof over her daughter’s head.

Earlier in that same diner, Toby wonders why his brother doesn’t seem to think they’ll get away with it, to which Tanner answers that he’s never known anyone to get away with anything, a hint that the crazy ex-con isn’t above some planning of his own.

Another time, Toby takes his estranged teen son aside and tells him how much he cares for him, and that he doesn’t want him and his brother to turn out like Toby and Tanner.  He then offers his son a beer, to which the teen replies, “You say you don’t want me to be like you, and then you offer me a beer.  Which one is it?”

The screenplay is deep and resonates on all levels.

The performances are all first rate.

Chris Pine is excellent here as Toby, and it’s fun to see him deliver a much more nuanced and satisfying performance than his Captain Kirk portrayals in the current STAR TREK reboots.  It gives Pine a chance to show he’s more than just a handsome face.

I always like Ben Foster. He has wowed me in a bunch of movies, none more than his powerful performance in 3:10 TO YUMA (2007).  He’s terrific again here as the hothead brother Tanner.  It’s the type of role Foster can play in his sleep, yet I never get tired of watching him.  It’s funny because the Jason Statham actioner sequel MECHANIC:  RESURRECTION (2016) also opened this weekend, and Foster co-starred with Statham in the first film THE MECHANIC (2011).  He was one of the best parts of that first movie, and Statham sure could have used Foster’s presence in the sequel, which was pretty dreadful.

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Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges, and Chris Pine in  HELL OR HIGH WATER (2016).

Even better than Pine and Foster, is Jeff Bridges as Marshall Marcus Hamilton.  As played by Bridges, Hamilton is old, slow, and days from retiring, but he hasn’t lost a step.  Bridges makes what could have been an annoying old fart, a man who is constantly making ethnically charged jokes at his partner’s expense, into a compelling, believable, and likeable  character.  It’s fun to watch Bridges, because as he’s gotten older, his performances have gotten better.  He’s always been good, but these days, as he’s in his 60s, he’s really good.

Director David Mackenzie also does a fine job at the helm.  He captures the feel of economically strained Texas.  On more than one occasion, folks say they’re glad these guys are robbing the banks, which they see as the real villains in their lives.  He also captures life in Texas.  Several times during their robberies, Toby and Tanner encounter men with guns who are quick to shoot at them.  One point, a large group of these men jump into their pick-up trucks, form a “posse,” and head off in hot pursuit of the bank robbers.  Who said this isn’t the Old West?

Another time, Marcus and Alberto come across some cowhands who are driving pathetic looking cattle away from a large brush fire.  One cowhand remarks, “It’s the 21st century and I’m doing this!  I can’t believe this is what I have to offer my kids!”

In a way, what this movie captures best is the feeling that here in the 21st century we have taken a step backwards.  The mantra that life is better for the next generation doesn’t seem to exist anymore.  And the villains, the reason that life isn’t better than it was, is big money and big banks.

HELL OR HIGH WATER is a superior movie.  It’s that rare film where everything works.

As such, it just might be the best movie of the year.

—END—

 

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SHOCK SCENES: DRACULA’S DEMISE- A Look at the Hammer Dracula Endings – Part 4

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

Part 4

By

Michael Arruda

Welcome to Part 4 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 six Hammer Dracula pics.  Here in Part 4 we’ll look at the rest of the series.

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

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DRACULA A.D. 1972 (1972)

Dracula meets the 1970s!

After the success of the Dan Curtis film THE NIGHT STALKER (1972), the movie that introduced reporter Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) to the world and had Kolchak hunting a vampire in present day Las Vegas, Hammer decided that for its next Dracula movie they would take Dracula out of the 19th century and put him in the heart of present day London, which at the time happened to be 1972.

DRACULA A.D. 1972 also marked the return of Peter Cushing to the series, as he played Lorrimer Van Helsing, a descendant of the original Van Helsing.  On paper, it  sounded like a neat idea.  In reality- mostly because “modern day” at the time was the groovin-yeah-baby year of 1972, the film really doesn’t work- at least not the way Hammer intended.  THE NIGHT STALKER, it ain’t!

However, that being said, in spite of it being lambasted by critics and doing poorly at the box office, DRACULA A.D. 1972 is actually a pretty fun movie.  I’ve always really liked this one.  The dialogue is so over the top and overdone, it’s a hoot!  It’s like watching an episode of SCOOBY-DOO.

It’s also a lot of fun seeing Peter Cushing return to the series as Van Helsing, even if he is playing one of Van Helsing’s descendants.  As usual, Christopher Lee doesn’t have a lot to do as Dracula, but he makes the most of his few scenes.

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Jessica Van Helsing (Stephanie Beacham) isn’t doing her grandfather any favors when she removes the knife from Dracula’s (Christopher Lee) heart during the finale of DRACULA A.D. 1972 (1972).

Unfortunately, the ending isn’t anything to brag about, even with Cushing’s Van Helsing battling Lee’s Dracula once again.  Compared to the ending of HORROR OF DRACULA, the ending to DRACULA A.D. 1972 is slow and tired.  There’s a brief chase, this time with Dracula chasing Van Helsing, a brief scuffle, and then an all too easy death scene where Dracula falls into a pit of wooden stakes, set up there earlier by Van Helsing, although how he would know Dracula would fall inside is beyond me!  This is followed by the obligatory and not very impressive Dracula-turns-to-dust scene.

Far out, man!

Not really.

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THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA (1973)

Immediately after the release of DRACULA A.D. 1972, Hammer went into production with their next Dracula movie, THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA (1973) which again starred both Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, and once more took place in the 1970s.

The attempt was made to improve upon DRACULA A.D. 1972, and so in this film the hippies are gone, and instead Dracula acts likes he’s a villain in a James Bond movie as he tries to take over the world with the help of other devil worshiping dignitaries. When Scotland Yard investigates and learns about the satanic cult, they turn to their resident expert, Professor Van Helsing (Peter Cushing).

It’s a fairly interesting plot, but it’s all rather flat, and I’ve always enjoyed DRACULA A.D. 1972 more.  Because DRACULA A.D. 1972 performed so miserably at the box office, Hammer decided not to release SATANIC RITES in the U.S., until that is, five years later when it was released under the ridiculous title COUNT DRACULA AND HIS VAMPIRE BRIDE in 1978.  The only good thing about the delay was I was 14 at the time, and when it opened at my local theater, it provided me with my first opportunity to see a Hammer horror film on the big screen.  Cool!

The ending to SATANIC RITES is actually a bit better than the ending to DRACULA A.D. 1972.  The confrontation between Dracula and Van Helsing is a bit longer this time.  It starts in a fiery house and then continues outside, as Van Helsing leads Dracula into the woods where he is able to get Dracula caught in a thorn bush.  See, in this movie, thorns are representative of Christ’s crown of thorns and as a result are fatal to vampires.  At least Hammer always remained creative!  Of course, what would a Dracula movie be without a good staking, and so Van Helsing drives a stake through Drac’s heart for good measure, which leads to the undead king’s umpteenth disintegration scene.

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Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) prepares to do battle with Dracula in THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA (1973).

The best part about this ending is that after Dracula disintegrates, all that is left of Dracula is his ring, which hearkens back to the ending of the first film in the series, HORROR OF DRACULA (1958) where Dracula’s ring also remains after his disintegration.  In HORROR OF DRACULA, Van Helsing does not take the ring, and when Dracula is resurrected in DRACULA-PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1966) he wears it again.  This time around, at the end of SATANIC RITES, Van Helsing does take the ring, symbolizing that this time Dracula is truly done for, which is appropriate, since this was the final Christopher Lee film of the series.

I say final “Christopher Lee” film in the series because even though Lee said his days as Dracula were over, Hammer wasn’t finished, and they would bring back Dracula for one more movie, without Lee.

 

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THE LEGEND OF THE SEVEN GOLDEN VAMPIRES (1974)

This is one weird movie.  After the commercial failure of their previous two Dracula movies, Hammer decided that Dracula in the 1970s was not a good idea, and so their next vampire tale would once more be a period piece. THE LEGEND OF THE SEVEN GOLDEN VAMPIRES was originally not going to be a Dracula film at all, but simply a vampire movie, but this horror-martial arts combo was co-produced with The Shaw Brothers Company who insisted that since their Asian audiences loved Dracula, that Dracula had to be incorporated into the movie.

And so an introduction was filmed with John Forbes-Robertson hamming it up in thick Joker-like make-up as Dracula, where we see his spirit enter into that of an Asian warrior who had visited Dracula’s castle.  Dracula wants to seek out new blood in the Far East, and now inside a new body, he is able to assemble an army of Kung-fu vampires— the seven golden vampires— without people knowing who he is, except that old nemesis Professor Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) is also in the Far East and hot on his trail!

 

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One of the seven golden vampires in THE LEGEND OF THE SEVEN GOLDEN VAMPIRES (1974), Hammer’s final Dracula movie.

There are martial arts fights galore in this very unique film that somehow actually works.  It also has a fantastic music score by James Bernard.

Unfortunately, the ending is rather lame.  After all that choreographed martial arts fighting, Dracula returns to his old body where he is promptly done in— in very undramatic fashion- by Van Helsing.  It’s a very weak way to end the series.

Aside from the ending,  THE LEGEND OF THE SEVEN GOLDEN VAMPIRES is actually a pretty enjoyable movie.  And even though he’s not really involved in the fight sequences, Peter Cushing still enjoys lots of screen time as Van Helsing, and as always, he’s excellent.

Look also for the inferior yet worth checking out re-edited version entitled THE SEVEN BROTHERS MEET DRACULA (1974).  This version was originally released in the U.S. as an exploitation flick.  It’s fun to compare the two.  THE LEGEND OF THE SEVEN GOLDEN VAMPIRES plays out like an elegant atmospheric A-List Hammer vampire movie, whereas THE SEVEN BROTHERS MEETS DRACULA plays like a choppy incoherent blood fest shown at the Drive-In after midnight.  Same movie, different editing.  It’s fascinating to watch these two versions back to back.

So, that about wraps things up.  Thanks for joining me on this four part look at the various Dracula demises in the Hammer Dracula movies.

Join me next time for another SHOCK SCENES when I’ll we’ll look at other memorable scenes in horror movie history.

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WAR DOGS (2016) -Gritty Tale of Guns & War

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WAR DOGS (2016), the latest movie by HANGOVER trilogy director Todd Phillips, recounts the true story of friends David Packouz and Efraim Diveroli who became gun runners for the U.S. government during the Iraqi and Afghan wars.

The film opens with David Packouz (Miles Teller) lamenting that his life is going nowhere. He’s been working a thankless job as a professional massage therapist, and his business venture to sell bed sheets to nursing homes has fallen flat.  He does have a beautiful wife Iz (Ana de Armas) but once he learns she’s pregnant he fears he’s not going to be able to afford having a baby.

Enter his best friend from school Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill), who has returned to Florida to set up shop with his gun selling business.  Efraim takes David on as a partner, and he explains to David how his business works, that he has taken advantage of a plan set up by the Bush administration which allows small businesses to bid on U.S. military contracts. Efraim explains that most of the huge contracts still go to the large mainstream weapons manufacturers, but even with the “crumbs” as Efraim calls them, you can still make a lot of money.

And they do.  Within the first few months of working with Efraim, David is earning close to $300,000.  And things only get more lucrative for them, especially after they travel to Iraq to personally deliver a truckload of Italian made berettas to the U.S. military, driving through a dangerous stretch of land known as “the triangle of death”  to do it.  After this stunning delivery, their reputation begins to grow.

They travel to Las Vegas to a weapons convention which Efraim calls “Comic Con with guns” and they decide to go all in as they try to secure their largest deal yet, as they learn that the U.S. military is attempting to arm the entire Afghan army.  The job proves too large for them, until they attract the attention of the infamous and uber shady arms dealer Henry Girard (Bradley Cooper) who tells them he can get them all the ammo they need to pull off the deal, as it’s stashed away in Albania where the Albanian government is desperately trying to sell off its stockpile of ammuntion.  Girard tells them he can’t do the job himself since he’s on a terrorist watch list.

Efraim and David agree to work with Girard, and they pull off their largest sale ever, earning them millions of dollars.  Of course, they also enter illegal territory here, which eventually attracts the attention of the U.S. government.

As I said, WAR DOGS was directed by Todd Phillips, the man who directed the three HANGOVER movies, but don’t let this connection mislead you.  WAR DOGS really isn’t a comedy.  Sure, there are parts that you will laugh at, but for the most part its a gritty captivating drama about the shady world of gun running during the Iraqi war.

As such, I really liked WAR DOGS.  The story works, thanks to sharp screenplay by director Phillips, Stephen Chin, and Jason Smilovic.  It tells a riveting story, has some memorable lines, and does a nice job with the characterizations.

Sadly, we’ve been stuck fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan since the early 2000s, but one positive—if you can call it that— that has come from this period is that it has provided a canvas for some pretty good movies.  A lot of stories, nearly all of them tragic, have come out of these wars, and filmmakers have done an admirable job telling them, with films like AMERICAN SNIPER (2014) and THE HURT LOCKER (2008).  You can add WAR DOGS to this list.

Both Miles Teller and Jonah Hill do fine jobs here.  Teller has starred in the DIVERGENT series and the recent reboot of FANTASTIC FOUR (2015) as a very young Reed Richards, and of course he received high praise in the Oscar winner WHIPLASH (2014).  He’s excellent again here.  He’s perfect in the role, making David the everyday “normal” guy who gets involved with his best buddy’s shady business dealings for the right reasons- to support his wife and baby- and who sticks to his guns–heh heh– when things go south and refuses to throw out his principles.

While Jonah Hill is mostly known for his goofy comedies, he’s already shown acting chops in such films as MONEYBALL (2011) and THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (2013) so I’m not sure if this is his best performance yet, but it’s certainly a good one.  In fact, Hill is clearly the best part of this movie.

He makes Efraim volatile, unpredictable, and a hoot to watch.  As David explains, Efraim’s gift is he can make himself into the exact person that the person he’s trying to con wants him to be. As such, you can never trust him.  Hill is great at capturing this part of Efraim.  He also gained a lot of weight for the role, and he really becomes this character.

And Bradley Cooper is actually very good in a small role as the shadowy arms dealer Henry Girard.  Sometimes when major actors appear in small roles you’re left wondering why?  Not the case here, as Cooper gives this guy a demeanor that makes you actually like him.

Director Todd Phillips also gives us some memorable scenes, like the suspenseful trek across the Triangle of Death.  I also liked the scene just before this sequence when David and Efraim have to negotiate with the help of a young boy translator to get their weapons into Iraq.  The scenes in Albania were also sufficiently gloomy.

All in all, I really liked WAR DOGS, a captivating and entertaining film that plays like a cross between THE WOLF OF WALL STREET and AMERICAN SNIPER.

Its story of how David and Efraim were able to weasel their way into the lucrative cutthroat world of weapons distribution  for the U.S. government and actually become major players in the arms dealing business will leave you shaking your head,  questioning just how it was that the government encouraged this to happen in the first place.

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DE PALMA (2016) – Controversial Director Reflects on His Career

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Brian De Palma tells his story in DE PALMA (2016).

Brian De Palma has a lot to say about his career.

And in DE PALMA (2016), the new documentary on the acclaimed movie director by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow, he gets nearly two hours to do just that.

The film is actually footage from an interview Baumbach and Paltrow shot with De Palma back in 2010.  They liked the footage so much they added lots of film clips and turned it into a documentary.

DE PALMA pretty much plays like a one person movie panel.  Brian De Palma is front and center speaking to the camera for nearly the entire movie, with appropriate film clips thrown in to highlight his points and stories.  As such, it’s not going to win any awards for creative cinematography.

Back in his heyday, in the 1970s and 1980s, Brian De Palma was a polarizing and controversial movie director, infamous for his ultra-violent yet stylish movies, especially for over-the-top scenes of violence against women.  He was also known for his Hitchcock homages which critics often slammed as simple knock-offs.

In DE PALMA, Brian De Palma takes us through his entire career, beginning with his early years, when he used to operate in close circles with his best friends and fellow filmmakers Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, Paul Schrader, and Steve Spielberg.  De Palma also worked with a very young Robert De Niro and directed De Niro’s first movie, GREETINGS (1968).

De Palma continues with how he began to make a name for himself with films like SISTERS (1973), PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE (1974), and OBSESSION (1976).  He called Genevieve Bujold’s performance the best part of OBSESSION, and Cliff Robertson the worst part, explaining that Robertson, once he saw that Bujold was stealing the show, tried to sabotage the movie by making things as difficult as possible for both Bujold and De Palma.

Later that same year De Palma was offered the project which would launch his career, CARRIE (1976), based on the novel by Stephen King. De Palma lamented that the studio really didn’t get behind CARRIE since they viewed it as just a gory horror movie, but to his delight, both Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie were nominated for Oscars.

After the success of CARRIE, De Palma received a huge budget for his next movie, THE FURY (1978) which happened to be the first Brian De Palma movie I ever saw.

After THE FURY, De Palma entered his Hitchcock period with such films as DRESSED TO KILL (1980), BLOW OUT (1981), and BODY DOUBLE (1984), films that critics complained were too derivative of Alfred Hitchcock’s movies. DRESSED TO KILL was modeled after PSYCHO (1960) and BODY DOUBLE was modeled after VERTIGO (1958) and REAR WINDOW (1954).

De Palma said he was heavily criticized for power drill murder scene in BODY DOUBLE, especially for making the drill so big, but as he explained, the drill was gigantic because in order for the scene to work, Craig Wasson’s character had to see it coming through the ceiling, and for that to happen, the drill had to be huge.  As De Palma explains it, it made perfect sense to him because it was simply part of the story.  He said he never intended to create extra violent scenes against women, but that those scenes existed only to satisfy the stories he was telling.

In the middle of these films came SCARFACE (1983), starring Al Pacino.  De Palma tells the story of how he was so annoyed at the ratings board for not giving his film an “R” rating even after all his edits, especially to the chain saw scene, that once he did receive the “R” rating, he went back and released the unedited version anyway.

He also said, and it’s true, that the way he edited the infamous chain saw scene, you never see the chain saw cut into the victim’s flesh.  I recently re-watched SCARFACE for the first time in years and I was surprised at how little De Palma showed in that scene.  It’s really not that gory at all.

After the comedic flop WISE GUYS (1986), De Palma made the movie that once more resuscitated his career:  THE UNTOUCHABLES (1987), which just might be De Palma’s most popular movie, but strangely, it’s one of my least favorite films that he made.   Oftentimes I find De Palma’s camerawork overbearing.  The famous “shoot-out with the baby carriage falling down the stairs” scene in THE UNTOUCHABLES, for example, I find almost unwatchable because of the pretentious slow-motion camerawork.  Some see it as cinematic genius, but for me it’s just cinematic overkill.

Likewise, in his discussion of CARRIE, De Palma talks about the complicated shots he conceived for the end of CARRIE and how the producers were unhappy with the results, to which De Palma says they just didn’t get the genius of his work.  While this may be true, the climactic bloodbath in CARRIE is another example where the camerawork gets in the way of the story.  To me, and this is why I’m not the biggest De Palma fan, if you’re going to use the camera creatively, you have to do it in a way where it empowers the story, not detracts from it.  Spielberg does this all the time.  De Palma does not.

His next film was CASUALTIES OF WAR (1989), the gripping Vietnam movie starring Michael J. Fox and Sean Penn.  This one I did like, and it’s probably my favorite Brian De Palma movie of all time.  I remember seeing it at the movies and being blown away by its potency.

De Palma tells some interesting anecdotes from the set of CASUALTIES, specifically of how Sean Penn used to torment Michael J. Fox.   At one point, Penn was supposed to whisper a line in Fox’s ear about payback, but De Palma heard Penn say, “TV actor!”  De Palma felt Penn’s antics caused Fox to feel alienated and defensive on set, which ultimately helped Fox’s performance since his character was supposed to feel the same way.

This was followed by one of De Palma’s biggest flops, THE BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES (1990), a downward trend that would continue over the next few years.  After a brief surge from the Tom Cruise vehicle MISSION IMPOSSIBLE (1996), De Palma’s career bottomed out with the woeful MISSION TO MARS (2000) which was the last movie to date that De Palma shot in the United States.  His subsequent films have all been made in Europe.

DE PALMA is not the most riveting documentary I’ve ever seen nor even the most informative.  Its style is simple.  De Palma speaks directly to the camera the entire time, and when he’s not on screen, we’re treated to appropriate movie footage, which is  used here effectively.

De Palma also isn’t the most animated speaker around, but he does provide plenty of stories and anecdotes. He also asks questions.  For example, De Palma points out that although people have praised Alfred Hitchcock as a cinematic genius, no one else except for De Palma himself has ever tried to use Hitchcock’s style.  He asks why more directors aren’t making movies like Hitchcock did?  It’s a fair question.

Maybe part of the answer is that De Palma’s homages to Hitchcock never really worked all that well.  Part of the reason they didn’t work was they were too closely based on the Hitchcock movies they were paying homage to. Had De Palma used Hitchcock’s style in stories that were original and not derivative of specific Hitchcock movies, he may have had better results.

For Brian De Palma fans, DE PALMA is must-see viewing.  For the rest of us, it’s a chance to see and listen to a film director reflect back on his entire body of work.  And whether you’re a fan of De Palma or not, you have to give the guy credit for his persistence and for sticking to his guns when it came to making movies the way he wanted to make them.

De Palma is currently 75 years old and still making movies in Europe.

—END—

 

 

 

NECON 36 – The Most Electrifying NECON Yet!

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Necon 36 photo by Tony Tremblay

Panel audience at NECON 36.  Photo by Tony Tremblay.

NECON 36- July 21-24, 2016

Every summer, a group of writers and readers descend upon Roger Williams Convention Center in Bristol, Rhode Island for a writer’s convention unlike any other, NECON.

What makes NECON so special is that in addition to the first-rate writers’ panels, there is also ample time for socializing, meaning that you’ll have access to authors that you just don’t get anywhere else.  It’s the most laid back and casual con going.

I’ve been going to NECON since 2001.  This year’s NECON 36, was the most electrifying yet— literally!

THURSDAY July 21, 2016

Registration opened at 2:00 at the Roger Williams Convention Center on Thursday, July 21, 2016.  Authors Dan Foley and Jason and Jil Salzarulo hosted the first event, the Necon Primer for Newbies, an informal information session on what Necon is all about, for those first-timers, and this year there were quite a few folks attending Necon for the first time.  That’s a big reason why this year’s Necon was sold out, as attendance reached the capped number of 200 Necon Campers.  I did not attend this event, since I’m not a newbie, but I heard it was very successful.

At 10:00 the famous Saugie roast was held, where the campers partake in that famous grilled hot dog found only in Rhode Island.  For me, this first night is always special, as I get to see familar faces I haven’t seen since last year.  In this case it was extra fun hanging out with both L.L. Soares and Pete Dudar, as they both missed last year’s Necon.  I also got to see old friends Paul McNally, Morven Westfield, and Daniel and Trista Robichaud, who I hadn’t seen in about seven years!

FRIDAY July 22, 2016

With fellow Cinema Knife Fighters L.L. Soares, Nick Cato, Paul McMahon, Pete Dudar, and newcomer Catherine Scully, I took part in the 10:00 Kaffeeklatsch:  The World Died Streaming:  The Year in Film in Theaters and Online.  This was our annual movie panel, which is always well attended, where we discuss the movies we’ve seen this past year.  There were tons of recommendations, but the hot topic this year wasn’t a movie but a TV show, as everyone was talking about the new Netflix TV show, STRANGER THINGS.  And it wasn’t just on our movie panel.  I think I heard STRANGER THINGS mentioned on nearly every panel I attended this year!  It definitely was the highest recommended show of the weekend.

Necon 36 MichaelArrudaandLLSoares photo by Nick Cato

Yours truly and L.L. Soares at NECON 36.  Photo by Nick Cato.

As usual, we also received plenty of recommendations from Craig Shaw Gardner and Barbara Gardner.

After lunch, I attended the 1:00 panel The World Died Screaming:  Apocalyptic SF, Horror, and Fantasy, moderated by Douglas Wynne, and featuring Joe Hill, James Moore, Craig DiLouie, Lynne Hansen, and Mark Morris.  This panel focused on writing about the end of the world, especially in terms of the zombie apocalypse.  The point was made that these types of stories are popular because they resonate with people’s own fear of dying.

I next attended the 2:00 panel Not Dead Yet:  The State of Publishing Today, moderated by Matt Schwartz, and featuring Gina Wachtel, John Douglas, Sandra Kasturi, Ginjer Buchanan, and Jaime Levine.  The talk here centered on the Ebook trend which, rather than obliterating the traditional book publishing industry as some had predicted, has settled in nicely as a balanced alternative.  Ebooks and traditional print books seem to be coexisting together agreeably.  One area of growth in recent years that was not predicted was the growth of the audio book, which continues to grow as a market.

There was also discussion on the use of social media by authors to promote themselves and how today’s authors are extremely media savvy.

The 4:00 panel, The Scream of a Distant Sun:  Mixing SF and Horror, moderated by Brett Savory, and featuring Don D’Ammassa, Patrick Freivald, Erin Underwood, Linda Addison, and Gordon Linzner was a fascinating and highly entertaining and informative look at the way horror and science fiction go hand in hand, or not.  There was a lot of talk on getting the science right in a science fiction story, as getting the science wrong is a major turn off, so the advice to writers was do your homework.

There was talk about how movies like ALIEN (1979) while considered both horror and science fiction, are mostly horror, since its story about a monster can take place anywhere, not just in space. In pure science fiction, you can’t take the science out of the story.

There was also discussion on Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, originally considered a horror novel but in ensuing years it has been also classified as science fiction.

Don D’Ammassa, who with his vast personal library is one of the most well read people on the planet, is always a joy to listen to.  As usual, his comments were on the money and pointedly informative.  I could listen to him all day.

After dinner, it was time for the Official Necon Toast by Toastmasters Sandra Kasturi and Brett Savory.  Tradition dictates that this toast pokes fun at the Guests of Honor, and Kasturi and Savory did not disappoint in this regard.  My favorite line came from Kasturi, who when speaking of Joe Hill, remarked that “it would have been nice had your dad showed up- Benny Hill.”  Of course, Joe’s real-life famous dad goes by a different last name, King.  Yep.  That King.

This was followed by Necon Update with Mike Myers (no, not that Mike Myers!) at 7:30, and Myers was funny as always.

After the Update, it was time for the NECON HALL OF FAME INDUCTION CEREMONY.  The recipients this year were authors Stephen Bissette and Linda Addison.

At 8:00 it was time for the Meet the Authors Party, that special time at the con when you can buy books from your favorite authors and have them signed up close and personal.  No surprise, the biggest line this year was for Joe Hill.

I set up shop next to fellow authors and friends Nick Cato, L.L. Soares, Peter Dudar, Dan Keohane, and William Carl.  Always fun to sell and sign a book or two.

After the party it was time to socialize, and I was fortunate enough to sit down and have a long chat  with author Morven Westfield who I hadn’t seen in a few years.  It was great to catch up.  Morven started coming to Necon right around the same time I did, back in 2001.

Remember I called this the most electrifying Necon ever?  I wasn’t just talking about the electricity generated by the authors.  I’m also referring to the wild thunderstorm which descended upon us around 10:00 pm and blew wind-swept rains and insane lightning at us for quite some time.  Perfectly atmospheric!

During this time, I caught up with author Sheri Sebastion-Gabriel, among others.  It was also time for the “Rick Hautala Cigar Tribute” in which a bunch of authors gather around to smoke cigars in honor of Rick, who sadly passed away in 2013.  Rick, a best-selling author, was a Necon fixture.  I always enjoyed talking to Rick and listening to him speak on the panels. Every time I heard him speak I learned something new.  Speaking at the informal but emotional tribute were Rick’s wife Holly Newstein, and Christopher Golden.

The relentless thunderstorm with its brilliant lightning flashes went on into the night, as did the social gatherings, where friends chatted long past midnight—.

 

SATURDAY, July 23, 2016

After breakfast, I caught the 10:00 panel Panel by Panel:  The Peculiar Power of Horror Comics. moderated by Angi Shearstone, and featuring Jason Ciaramella, Rebekah Isaacs, Stephen Bissette, Joe Hill, and James Chambers.  The panel discussed the happy marriage between horror and comics. It also covered some history, explaining that the modern reign of superhero comics owes itself to the ridiculous reports decades ago that erroneously linked horror comics to emotional problems in children.  This led to the outright banning of horror comics in the 1950s.  Superheroes then stepped in to fill the void, and they’ve been going strong ever since.

For my money, the 11:00 panel, Broken on the Outside & In:  Experts Discuss Writing about Physical & Mental Trauma (and Their Effects) may have been the best panel of the weekend.  Moderated by K.H. Vaughn, it featured Karen Deal, Rena Mason, Ellen Williams, Marianne Halbert, and Mercedes Yardley in a fascinating discussion of both physical and mental trauma.  On the physical side, it covered how much punishment a character can really take and survive, and it also discussed when you can get away with exaggerating these things.  For example, in the Marvel superhero films, Tony Stark would be dead from brain injuries from all those impacts in his Iron Man suit, but audiences are perfectly comfortable to let this slide.  We suspend disbelief because this is a superhero story, and we don’t hold the lack of accuracy here against the storytelling.

On the mental side, the bulk of the discussion covered how to write characters with mental illnesses in a realistic way.  Do your homework and research both the illnesses and the treatments, which change from year to year, was the major advice.

There also was a wince-inducing frank discussion of autopsies and all that goes on in an autopsy room.

Great stuff!

After lunch it was time for the Guests of Honor Interview in which Toastmasters Sandra Kasturi and Brett Savory interviewed Guests of Honor Joe Hill, Mark Morris, and Laura Anne Gilman. These interviews are always informative and enlightening, and today’s was no exception.

I caught the 2:30 panel Edge of Your Seat:  Pacing and Plotting the Thriller, in which moderator Bracken MacLeod and panelists Megan Hart, Michael Koryta, Chris Irvin, Sephera Giron, and John McIlveen discussed, among other things, how to pace oneself while writing a novel, including the use of outlines.

I missed the next two panels as I got caught up in a discussion about movies with L.L. Soares and Nick Cato that covered a lot of ground, and a lot of time.

After dinner, it was time for the Artists Reception which featured fine art work by the various artists in attendance this year, and also plenty of goodies and coffee.  The art show had a new venue this year, and the set-up was perfect.  Very comfortable with easy viewing access to the paintings and prints.

At 8:00 it was time for the first ever Necon “Pub Quiz” Trivia game, which in reality was a variation of Necon’s infamous “Game Show.”  This time around, volunteers were assembled into teams.  I was on Rebekah Isaac’s team, and we led the competition throughout, due mostly to having the knowledgeable Darrell Schweitzer on our team.  Alas, we finished in second place as we were overtaken in the final round, done in by a bonus round on music.

This was followed by A Very Special Episode which is code for the Necon Roast.  This year’s victim- er, honoree, was author Rio Youers, and he was a really good sport about the whole thing.  Host Jeff Strand did an awesome job, and other speakers included Christopher Golden, James Moore, Joe Hill, Linda Addison, Richard Dansky, and Matt Bechtel, among others.  This year’s roast also featured a new “lightning round” in which 10 folks each delivered a 30 second bit, and I was fortunate enough to be among this new group of ten.

The roast is always a highlight of the weekend.

Afterwards followed late night parties in the quad which go on into the wee hours of the morning, where we gather for the last time as a social group until next year.  The other event tonight was April Hawks shaving her head for charity.

Speaking of charity, this weekend my roommate and New England Horror Writers leader Scott Goudsward had himself “yarn bombed” for charity, as Trisha Wooldridge stitched an insanely ludicrous covering over him over the course of the weekend.  The final product had Scott resembling a long lost crew member of the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine.

Necon 36 Cinema Knife Fight photo by Paul McNally

Cinema Knife Fighters Pete Dudar, Paul McMahon, Nick Cato, myself, L.L. Soares, and Bill Carl gather for a group photo by Paul McNally.  That’s NEHW head honcho Scott Goudsward lurking in the shadows in between Paul & Nick.

 

SUNDAY July 24, 2016

I attended the 10:00 panel Lessons Learned:  Moving from Tyro to Journeyman in which moderator P.D. Cacek and panelists Kristin Dearborn, Scott Goudsward, Dan Keohane, and Megan Arcuri-Moran discussed how they’ve moved on from being newbie writers and have gradually become established writers.  Their advice was on the money and invaluable.

At 11:00 it was the Necon Town Meeting in which awards were distributed to the winners  of this year’s Necon Olympic events, and the ensuing discussion involved all things Necon, thanking the volunteers, and looking ahead to next year by listening to suggestions and complaints.  Speaking of complaints, there weren’t any.  This is an awesome con any way you slice it.

As always, thanks go out to the Booth family who run Necon every year, especially to Sara, who’s done an awesome job leading the con, and also to Dan and Mary, and to Matt Bechtel.  And of course, we continue to remember Bob Booth, Sara and Dan’s dad, and Mary’s husband, “Papa Necon” himself, who passed away from lung cancer in 2013.  Bob and Mary founded Necon back in 1980, and his spirit continues to be felt at Necon.

Bob also founded Necon Ebooks, which published my first novel, first movie review collection, and first short story collection.

After lunch, it was time to say so long to everyone until next year, which is clearly my least favorite part of Necon.

I enjoyed a fun conversation with Carole Whitney, as she shared with me her love of Hammer Films and told me the story of how her love for horror began in 1958 when she saw HORROR OF DRACULA at the movies.  Great story!

And that’s what Necon is all about.  The people and their stories.

If you’re a writer and/or a reader, plan on one day making the pilgrimage to Necon, a one-of-a-kind con that is more than just a con; it’s family.  And it’s still going strong.

This year’s Necon was absolutely electrifying, and we had a thunderstorm to prove it.  Who knows what’s in store for next year?

Whatever it is, I’ll be there to find out.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CAFE SOCIETY (2016), Woody Allen’s Latest, Low Key Affair

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cafe society poster

CAFE SOCIETY (2016), the latest film by Woody Allen, is a bittersweet love story set in Hollywood in the 1930s.

Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg) leaves his family in the Bronx and sets out to make a name for himself, or at the very least, get a job, in Hollywood.  His mother  Rose (Jeannie Berlin) arranges for him to meet with his uncle Phil Stern (Steve Carell), who’s a successful Hollywood agent.  Phil hires Bobby as his personal errand boy, and he also introduces him to his secretary Vonnie (Kristen Stewart).  Phil asks Vonnie to show Bobby around town, which she happily does.

It doesn’t take long before Bobby falls for Vonnie, but she’s up front with him and tells him that although she likes him, she has a boyfriend.  As Bobby’s confidence grows, and as he receives a promotion at work where he’s now reading scripts, he vows not to give up on Vonnie, and it’s clear that Vonnie has feelings for him, too.  Things get more complicated when it’s revealed just who it is who Vonnie is seeing, and suddenly a rather uncomfortable triangle is formed.

CAFE SOCIETY presents us with three rather real and sympathetic characters, Bobby, Vonnie, and Phil, who are all likable enough so that you want all three of them to get what they want, yet they can’t. This part of the story works, and works well.

I’m not the biggest Jesse Eisenberg fan, but I enjoyed his performances in ZOMBIELAND (2009), NOW YOU SEE ME (2013), and AMERICAN ULTRA (2015).  On the other hand, he did little for me as Lex Luthor in BATMAN V SUPERMAN:  DAWN OF JUSTICE (2016).  He’s OK here as Bobby, but in a role that Woody Allen himself may have played had this been written back in the 1960s, he’s much too subdued to make Bobby all that exciting.  Bobby clearly comes off as a nice guy, but not much else.  He’s nowhere near as manic or depressed as he needs to be, and for most of the film it’s a one note performance.

Kristen Stewart continues to grow on me as an actor.  Forgetting the TWILIGHT movies which I try as hard as I can to forget each and every day, Stewart has made good impressions in STILL ALICE (2014) which is my personal favorite Stewart performance, where she played the daughter of Julianne Moore’s alzheimer’s stricken Alice, and in AMERICAN ULTRA (2015) in which she also co-starred with Jesse Eisenberg.

She’s very good here in CAFE SOCIETY as Vonnie, and it’s easy to see why Bobby falls in love with her so quickly. In a Hollywood society filled with egos and pretensions, Vonnie is down to earth and practical, and she’s a breath of fresh air for Bobby in this strange land so far away from his New York home.  And so when she makes choices that don’t go in Bobby’s favor, he not only feels disappointed but betrayed, because her decisions stray so far from what she had led him to believe she was all about.

cafe-society-kiss

Bobby (Jesse Eisennberg) and Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) share a tender moment in CAFE SOCIETY (2016)

And yet it’s not hard to understand her decision.  She makes a choice which few women in her position in this time and place would be able to resist- to be with someone who had made it to the top in Hollywood and who would be able to give her a life she always dreamed of.

Stewart is also incredibly beautiful here, and the way Woody Allen photographed her throughout this movie, she has never looked more attractive.

cafe society kristen stewart

Kristen Stewart in CAFE SOCIETY (2016)

 

Steve Carell also plays it low key, delivering a much more subdued peformance than he did in last year’s THE BIG SHORT (2015).  But like Eisenberg and Stewart, he makes his character Phil Stern a genuine person.  Better yet, as Phil he rises above the standard Hollywood agent cliche.

Most of the laughs come from Bobby’s family back in the Bronx.  His very Jewish parents Rose (Jeannie Berlin) and Marty (Ken Stott) have some of the liveliest conversations in the movie, like when Marty tells his wife that she’s wrong, that he’s not clueless about death, that he won’t go quietly but that he’ll protest death, to which she says, “Protest to who?”  She also has a great line when their other son, a gangster, is facing the death penalty and as a result converts to Catholicism because it has an afterlife.  She laments “My son is going to the electric chair and he’s become a Christian.  I don’t know which is worse!”

Corey Stoll, nearly unrecognizable with a full head of hair, plays their gangster son Ben, and he too enjoys some of the movie’s more lively moments.  Then there’s Bobby’s caring Aunt Evelyn (Sari Lennick) and her philosophizing husband Leonard (Stephen Kunken) who sums up the theme of the movie when he paraphrases Socrates saying an unexamined life is not worth living but an examined life offers no assurances.

The characters in CAFE SOCIETY make decisions, some good and some questionable, but they go forward and deal with the ramifications of these decisions, even when these choices make their lives more difficult.  As expected, it’s a smart script by Woody Allen.

Blake Lively is also in the cast, and she’s quite enjoyable as the “other” Veronica who Bobby meets when he returns to New York.

CAFE SOCIETY looks great.  As a period piece, the film is perfect.  Woody Allen captures the look and feel of 1930s Hollywood to a T.

As such, the script works best as a period piece love story rather than a comedy.  There are certainly funny moments in the movie, but they mostly serve as comic relief to the love triangle drama.  The funniest bits, as you would expect in a Woody Allen movie, come in the convesations about death.

I liked CAFE SOCIETY, as I like most of Woody Allen’s movies.  That being said, it doesn’t rank with his best films, as it is a low key affair, but it still makes for a relaxing and diverting 90 minutes at the movies.

—END—

 

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: THE MUMMY (1932)

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the mummy 1932 poster

Here’s my latest IN THE THE SPOOKLIGHT column, on the Boris Karloff classic, THE MUMMY (1932), appearing now in the August 2016 edition of the HWA NEWSLETTER, and it’s a reprint of a column which originally appeared in those pages back in August 2009.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT:  THE MUMMY (1932)

By Michael Arruda

“It comest to life!” screams its movie poster.  It’s a Universal monster classic from the 1930s, and it stars Boris Karloff, but it’s not FRANKENSTEIN (1931).  It’s THE MUMMY (1932).

THE MUMMY showcases a masterful lead performance by Boris Karloff as the undead mummy, Im-Ho-Tep, exceptional direction by DRACULA (1931) cinematographer Karl Freund, remarkable mummy make-up by Jack Pierce, and unlike FRANKENSTEIN and DRACULA, a music score.

The screenplay for THE MUMMY was written by John L. Balderston, no stranger to classic horror tales.  Balderston adapted the play used for the screenply for FRANKENSTEIN (1931), which of course was adapted from the Mary Shelley novel, and he also wrote one of the stage versions of DRACULA, which served as the model for the Universal Bela Lugosi movie DRACULA (1931).

THE MUMMY opens in 1921 in Egypt, where an expedition led by Sir Joseph Whemple (Arthur Byron) has just discovered the remains of an ancient mummy, Im-Ho-Tep (Boris Karloff).  Doctor Muller (Edward Van Sloan) warns Whemple and his young assistant Ralph Norton (Bramwell Fletcher) not to ignore the ancient curse discovered along with the mummy, but the young assistant is too eager, and as he reads from the Scroll of Thoth, behind him, the mummy awakes.

It is probably the film’s most famous scene.  As the words are read, the camera focuses on the dead mummy’s face, and ever so slowly, the eyes open, and then the arm slowly moves.  When the mummy takes the scroll, the young assistant bursts into uncontrollable mad laughter, and as we learn later, “he died laughing.”

The action switches to 1932 (which was present day when THE MUMMY was released).  Im-Ho-Tep has shed his bandages and is using the alias “Ardath Bey.”  The make-up here by Jack Pierce is superb.  Without his bandages, Karloff really does look like the walking dead.

imhotep

Jack Pierce’s haunting mummy make-up, turning Boris Karloff into the resurrected undead mummy, Im-Ho-Tep.

 

Im-Ho-Tep attempts to bring his long lost love, the princes Anck-es-en-Amon back to life.  He discovers that her soul is now in the body of Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann), who happens to be in love with Joseph Whemple’s son, Frank (David Manners).  Im-Ho-Tep wants to kill her so he can resurrect her as an undead, but Frank Whemple and Doctor Muller stand in his way.

johann - karloff

Helen (Zita Johann) falls under the spell of Im-Ho-Tep (Boris Karloff) in THE MUMMY (1932).

In THE MUMMY, Karloff delivers another wonderful performance.  His mummy is much more evil than the later depictions of a mute bandaged monster lumbering around the countryside strangling people.  Yet, Karloff also makes Im-Ho-Tep a somewhat sympathetic character.  We feel for the guy, and his plight to get his long lost love back.

But the best part of THE MUMMY is the cinematography and direction by Karl Freund.  Freund does a more impressive job at the helm of THE MUMMY than either of his more famous counterparts, Tod Browning directing DRACULA and James Whale directing FRANKENSTEIN.

Freund creates an unforgettable opening sequence of the mummy resurrected, a haunting and dreamlike flashback sequence (the scene where the slaves get spears thrust through their chests still makes me wince), and he imbues the scenes inside the museum with creepy shadows and mysterious lighting.

If there are any flaws, it’s the ending, which is quick and shot in a choppy clumsy manner, not at all like the rest of the movie.

So, as we make our way through the lazy hazy days of summer, grab a beverage, dig your toes into the sands of the Egyptian desert, and welcome Im-Ho-Tep into your living room.  Just don’t say the words of that ancient curse too loud.

One guy dying laughing is more than enough.

—END—