MANCHESTER BY THE SEA (2016) – Powerfully Moving Drama As Good As Advertised

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MANCHESTER BY THE SEA (2016) is steeped in so much New England flavor, it’s like having fish and chips and beer, the scent of fried batter and hops so vivid your mouth will water.

However, this meal is not a celebration, but a funeral, the story of a man Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) thrust into a life-changing situation, piled on top of a traumatic event that had already crushed the life out of him.  Lee is a walking coma.  His body goes through the motions of life, but his mind, heart, and soul are dead.

When we first meet Lee, he’s working as a janitor at a low-income apartment complex in Boston. He also lives there, in a tiny one room apartment.  His life is lonely and sad. One day he receives a phone call and learns that his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has died, his heart having given out, several years after having been diagnosed with congestive heart disease.

Lee travels north to the ocean side Massachusetts town of Manchester to make arrangements for his brother’s funeral and to temporarily watch his brother’s 16 year-old son Patrick (Lucas Hedges).  However, Lee learns that in his will, his brother Joe left Lee custody of his son Patrick, and of course Lee realizes this is something he cannot handle.

But the sad reality is there is no one else.  Joe’s wife, Patrick’s mother, is estranged from the family and no one really knows where she is.  Plus she’s an alcoholic and suffers from psychological problems.  Joe and Lee’s parents have both passed away.  There is an aunt and uncle who, according to Lee, were originally slated to care for Patrick, but they have since moved across the country and really aren’t viable options for Patrick.  And Lee is on his own, as he has long been divorced from his wife Randi (Michelle Williams).

Lee knows that he is not up to the task of being responsible for a 16 year-old boy, but he also doesn’t want to let his brother or his nephew down, so he temporarily agrees, while trying to figure out a long-term plan to make sure his nephew is taken care of.  Not an easy task for a man whose own life is in shambles, nor is it any easier for 16 year-old Patrick, whose life is entrenched in his home town with school, hockey, girlfriends, and playing in a band.  Plus Lee and Patrick get along as well as oil and water.

I really, really liked MANCHESTER BY THE SEA.  Much has been made about the performance by Casey Affleck, and we’ll get to him in a moment, but first, in spite of the excellent acting performances in the film, my favorite part of MANCHESTER BY THE SEA is the screenplay by director Kenneth Lonergan.  I really enjoyed how it tells its story.

The action does not unfold chronologically, but jumps around in time.  So, we are often watching scenes with characters that we know are dead, and yet this works amazingly well here because often these scenes occur when they should naturally.  Lee thinks about how his brother first got sick, and suddenly we’re there in the hospital room at the exact moment when Joe was first diagnosed, and we watch the entire scene play out.

I really enjoy this kind of storytelling.  It makes for an optimal storytelling experience.

The acting is as good as advertised, perhaps even better.  I really liked Casey Affleck here as Lee Chandler.  The best thing I can say about his performance, and this holds true for the entire movie, for the other acting performances and for the writing and direction, is that it all comes off as true.  I believed everything that happened in this movie.

In Affleck’s case, for example, he has survived a traumatic life event which has shaped his current personality.  He is pretty much devoid of happiness, as he has shut himself out of life because he cannot bear the pain.  Even if he wanted to, he cannot break out of this pattern.  It’s as if a part of him died with the event and there’s simply no way he can get it back.  There’s a line near the end of the movie, which pretty much sums up his situation, when Lee admits, “I can’t beat this.”

I’ve enjoyed Affleck in other movies, but his performance here in MANCHESTER BY THE SEA is my favorite so far.

Michelle Williams is also excellent as Lee’s ex-wife Randi.  She’s not in the movie as much as Affleck, but she’s spot-on in all of her scenes, and she’s in some of the most potent scenes in the movie.  The one near the end, where she finally opens up to Lee about the things she said to him after their marriage ended, is one of the most powerful moments in the film.

Kyle Chandler is very good as Lee’s older brother Joe, so much so that he makes you forget that his character is dead before we ever see him on-screen.  Joe’s scenes are particularly potent for that reason, because we know his fate.  They are also moving because when we witness the horrifying event which scars Lee’s life, it’s Joe and his young son Patrick who are there to help Lee pick up the pieces.  But of course, Joe isn’t around much longer. These scenes also show the deep committment Lee feels towards Joe and Patrick, because they were there for him when he needed them.

C.J. Wilson also delivers a strong performance as family friend George, the one person who Lee can turn to for help.  George worked with Joe and knows the whole family, and he’s constantly there offering to help Lee.  It’s a performance that makes us all long for a friend like George.

And Lucas Hedges is also very good as Patrick.  The best part of Hedges’ performance is he is not some sweet innocent boy who we feel so bad for.  He’s a real pain in the ass, a typical 16 year-old boy, dealing with school, sports, friends, and juggling more than one girlfriend at a time.

I absolutely loved the dynamic between Lee and Patrick.  Patrick’s life, from the way he is constantly on his phone, to having more than one girlfriend, to sleeping with them in his bedroom in father’s house, is completely foreign to Lee.  They do not get along, and yet, there is nothing cliché about this relationship.  We don’t see Lee explode at his nephew and engage in out-of-character lectures and speeches.  He deals with his nephew on his own terms, like when Patrick asks if it’s okay if one of his girlfriends spends the night, and  Lee tells him no, simply saying, “I don’t like her.”

Yet, Lee is always there for his nephew, even silently and without complaint driving him everywhere he needs to go.  The dynamic between Lee and Patrick drives this movie, and like the rest of the film, it comes off as honest and true.

But this is really Lee’s story.  We see in a gut-wrenching  flashback the horrifying event which scarred his life and ended his marriage, we watch him witness his brother’s illness, we see him struggle to take care of his teenage nephew after his brother’s death, a job that returns him to his home town, resurrecting haunting memories, and putting him back into close proximity with his ex-wife Randi.

Director Kenneth Lonergan has made a brooding, emotionally-charged drama that held my interest throughout.  I wanted to know what Lee was ultimately going to do about Patrick just as much as I wanted to learn what caused Lee to become such an unhappy man.

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA is a powerfully moving drama about a family where things have continually gone wrong, which is true for a lot of families, and it’s a story about one man in particular who in spite of the enormous hurdles thrown his way, has to keep it together long enough to help his sixteen year-old nephew stabilize a life of his own.

—END–

 

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PASSENGERS (2016) – Odd Love Story Set in Space

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When watching PASSENGERS (2016), the new science fiction movie starring Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt, I was reminded of a line from an old James Bond movie.

In THUNDERBALL (1965), after racing along at high speeds with an uncomfortable James Bond in the passenger seat, Fiona (Luciana Paluzzi) tells Bond (Sean Connery), “Some men just don’t like to be driven.”  To which Bond replies, “No, some men don’t like to be taken for a ride.”

On the long space voyage which makes up the story of PASSENGERS, I  felt I had been taken for a ride.

First and foremost, there’s not a lot to PASSENGERS.  It’s basically a love story— and a strange one at that— set on a spaceship in the future, and the setting is about as deep as the science fiction gets in this movie.  There’s not much beyond that.

In the future, the spaceship Avalon is enroute to a distant planet called rhe Homestead Colony which promises a brand new start for its occupants and crew.  It’s a 120 year voyage, and so everyone on board is in sleep stasis.  When the 120 years are up, they’ll awake and their new life will begin.

That’s the plan anyway, but as we all know, the best laid plans—.  Anyway, the Avalon unfortunately collides with some meteors, and one humongous meteor in particular, and as a result some of the ship’s systems are damaged.  This damage causes one of the sleep pods to malfunction, and its occupant Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) awakens 90 years too early.  Preston realizes that this is a death sentence.  He’ll be dead before they reach the Homestead Colony.

Preston, a mechanic by trade, uses this time to study up on the ship to try to find a way to either get himself back to sleep or to awake the crew so he can get some help.  He fails at both.  His only contact is a robot bartender Arthur (Michael Sheen) who at least provides him with a daily dose of conversation, and of course, alcohol.

But this isn’t enough.  After nearly a year on the ship, Jim reaches his low point and contemplates suicide, but he loses his nerve, and at that moment he happens to set eyes on a beautiful woman Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence) sleeping in her cryogenic chamber.  He reads up on her and learns that she is an author, and basically he falls in love with her.

Around this time, Jim also discovers a way of opening her sleep chamber, and so he now faces a dilemma:  he desperately wants companionship, but he knows if he wakes her up, he’s also delivering a death sentence to her as well.  But, in what is supposed to be the big plot twist in the movie— although it’s a deeply flawed twist because every single trailer shows the two characters awake on board the ship so the audience knows exactly what Jim is going to do— Jim wakes her up.

Which then sets up this bizarre love story between these two characters, with the tension being, will she find out that he woke her up, and if she does, how will she react?

Excuse me.  But you’re also on board a malfunctioning spaceship.  Perhaps that should be something else you should be concerned with?

PASSENGERS is a rather bizarre movie in terms of its plot, and ultimately I did not find this movie all that satisfying.

First, its love story just doesn’t work.  From the get-go, as we watch these two characters get to know each other, we know that Jim has manipulated the situation.  He woke her up from cryogenic sleep.  He basically stole her life away.  Now, for such a story to work, and it can work, the writing and acting have to be so strong that in spite of this awful and very selfish decision on Jim’s part, we still want to see him and Aurora get together.  But, alas, neither the writing nor the acting reaches this level.  Nothing that happens between Jim and Aurora made me forget what Jim did or made me believe that Aurora could forgive him and move on.

The writing here is simply not very good.  The screenplay by Jon Spaihts, constructs an odd story and never takes it to places where it overcomes its oddities.    Had Jim and Aurora both awoken naturally, then the film could have concentrated solely on their efforts to learn what happened and to survive, and if they fell in love along the way, that would have seemed perfectly natural and been accepted.  The plot point of Jim waking Aurora on his own never really works and only serves to be a distraction from what otherwise could be a riveting tale.

Spaihts co-wrote the science fiction movie PROMETHEUS (2012) and this year’s Marvel adventure DOCTOR STRANGE (2016).  PASSENGERS is a solo effort, and the script here isn’t as good as those two other movies.

Chris Pratt is OK as Jim, the down to earth mechanic.  Pratt does his usual charming handsome hunk shtick, and it’s somewhat enjoyable here.  His decision to wake Aurora kind of gets in the way of this likable persona, and Pratt never seems to rise to the occasion to take the character to the dark places necessary to give the guy some depth.  Jim is too shallow a character to make such a grave decision and then be supported for it.

I’m a big fan of Jennifer Lawrence, but I have to be honest here, I was not impressed with her performance in this movie.  I never warmed up to Aurora, and I never really believed in the love story here.  I mean, I can believe that two attractive people, the only two people on a spaceship, would lust after each other, but fall in love?  They didn’t seem to have anything in common.

Furthermore, I didn’t find any chemistry between Lawrence and Pratt. Not what you’re looking for when you’re telling a love story.

Michael Sheen is fairly amusing as the robot bartender Arthur, but ultimately, he’s such a shallow boring character he’s pretty much useless.

Also, for reasons I have yet to figure out, the way these bar scenes are shot, they are clearly reminiscent of the bar scenes in Stanley Kubrick’s THE SHINING (1980).  I kept waiting for some deeper dark connection, especially between Pratt’s Jim and Jack Nicholson’s Jack Torrance, but I never found one.

And Andy Garcia, in spite of 5th billing, does his best STAR WARS:  THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015) Luke Skywalker impersonation as he shows up in the final few seconds and utters no dialogue!  Nice job Andy!

Fourth billing went to Laurence Fishburne, who plays a character who does have dialogue, but ultimately is as useless as bartender Arthur and Andy Garcia.

PASSENGERS was directed by Morten Tyldum, and one thing I’ll say about this movie is it looks good!  I especially liked the ship, the Avalon.  It’s cool-looking, and the scenes where we see it barreling through space are very cinematic.  It’s too bad the story here didn’t rival the visuals.

I saw PASSENGERS in 3D, and while I’m growing tired of saying this nearly every single time I see a 3D movie, it still has to be said, especially for those folks watching what they spend, because, as you know, a ticket for a 3D movie costs more than a ticket for a 2D movie.  So, anyway, here’s my repetitious statement which I make after nearly every 3D movie I see:  it looks good at first, but after a while, you hardly notice, and the 3D certainly does not add anything to the movie.

Tyldum’s previous movie was THE IMITATION GAME (2014), a great movie that is far superior to PASSENGERS.

There’s been a steady stream of high quality science fiction movies hitting theaters in recent years.  PASSENGERS is not one of them.  It’s simply a love story in space, and an odd one at that.

No need to be a passenger on this voyage.  Save your ticket money for another destination instead.

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

MEMORABLE MOVIE QUOTES: STAR WARS (1977)

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Welcome back to MEMORABLE MOVIE QUOTES, that column where we look at memorable quotes from some really cool movies.  Up today, on the heels of the hype of the latest STAR WARS movie and first stand alone film in the series, ROGUE ONE:  A STAR WARS STORY (2016), we look at quotes from the movie that started it all, STAR WARS (1977).

Those of us old enough to have seen STAR WARS when it first exploded across theaters back in 1977 remember fondly that back then it was simply known as STAR WARS and not STAR WARS:  EPISODE IV –  A NEW HOPE.

Ah, the good old days, when the Force was young!

So, without further hesitation, here are some cool quotes from the original STAR WARS, screenplay by George Lucas.

To begin with, there are a lot of classic quotes from STAR WARS, enough to fill several columns, and so today we’ll just be looking at some of them.  I’d rather write multiple columns in order to give all the quotes their due rather than jampack them all into one crowded piece.  Hmm.  I just might have to do that.

A lot of my favorite quotes from STAR WARS come from Han Solo (Harrison Ford), the wise-cracking pilot of the Millennium Falcon, such as in this sequence where Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and Han discover that Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) is being held prisoner on the Death Star, and Luke tries to convince Han to help him rescue her.  Let’s listen:

LUKE SKYWALKER:  They’re gonna execute her! Look, a few minutes ago you said you didn’t want to just wait here to be captured. Now all you want to do is stay?

HAN SOLO:  Marching into a detention area is not what I had in mind.

LUKE SKYWALKER: But they’re gonna kill her!

HAN SOLO:  Better her than me!

 

But Luke won’t give up:

LUKE SKYWALKER:  She’s rich.

HAN SOLO:  Rich?

LUKE SKYWALKER:  Rich, powerful. Listen, if you were to rescue her, the reward would be…

HAN SOLO:  What?

LUKE SKYWALKER:  Well, more wealth than you can imagine!

HAN SOLO:  I don’t know, I can imagine quite a bit.

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Later, when they actually do attempt to rescue the princess, Han finds himself on the wrong end of a communication device.  After he and Chewy had taken out the Stormtroopers guarding Princess Leia, the intercom beeps and an official wants to know what exactly is going on there.  Han has no choice but to answer:

HAN SOLO:  Uh, everything’s under control. Situation normal.

VOICE:  What happened?

HAN SOLO:  Uh, we had a slight weapons malfunction, but uh… everything’s perfectly all right now. We’re fine. We’re all fine here now, thank you. How are you?

 

Han Solo even gets philosophical when Luke questions him about his lack of belief in the Force:

LUKE SKYWALKER:  You don’t believe in the Force, do you?

HAN SOLO:  Kid, I’ve flown from one side of this galaxy to the other, and I’ve seen a lot of strange stuff, but I’ve never seen anything to make me believe that there’s one all-powerful Force controlling everything.  ‘Cause no mystical energy field controls my destiny. It’s all a lot of simple tricks and nonsense.

 

Speaking of the Force, another character with lots of memorable lines in STAR WARS is Ben Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness).  In this now classic exchange with a troop of Stormtroopers, Ben uses the Force, the now infamous Jedi mind trick, to circumvent the Stormtroopers’ checkpoint.  Let’s have a listen to the Jedi Master:

STORMTROOPER:  Let me see your identification.

BEN OBI-WAN KENOBI (waves his hand):  You don’t need to see his identification.

STORMTROOPER:  We don’t need to see his identification.

BEN OBI-WAN KENOBI:  These aren’t the droids you’re looking for.

STORMTROOPER:  These aren’t the droids we’re looking for.

Which led to years later, a hilarious T-shirt photo of a Stormtrooper sitting forlornly with his head buried in his hands with the caption:  “Those were the droids you were looking for!”

 

Ben Kenobi also has one of the more ominous lines in the movie and perhaps the entire series when the Millenium Falcon approaches the Death Star for the first time, and Han announces they’re approaching a small moon, to which Ben says gravely,

BEN OBI-WAN KENOBI:  That’s no moon. It’s a space station.

 

And later, when he finally meets Darth Vader in a duel to the death, he has this exchange with his former pupil:

DARTH VADER:  Your powers are weak, old man.

BEN OBI-WAN KENOBI:  You can’t win, Darth. If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you could possibly imagine.

I remember my reaction when I first saw this scene in 1977.  I thought, what is he talking about?  And after Darth Vader struck him down, I thought, Well, that was wishful thinking on his part.  But then, miraculously, his dead body is not present, and I immediately changed my tune.  Hmm.  Maybe he had something there.  And of course, Kenobi’s “spirit” is on hand for the next two STAR WARS movies, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980), and THE RETURN OF THE JEDI (1983).

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One character I haven’t mentioned is the main character in STAR WARS, Luke Skywalker.  Luke has his share of memorable lines as well, like in this banter with Han Solo and Princess Leia:

PRINCESS LEIA:  It’s not over yet.

HAN SOLO:  It is for me, sister. Look, I ain’t in this for your revolution, and I’m not in it for you, Princess. I expect to be well paid. I’m in it for the money.

PRINCESS LEIA:  You needn’t worry about your reward. If money is all that you love, then that’s what you’ll receive. (To LUKE)  Your friend is quite the mercenary. I wonder if he really cares about anything. Or anybody.

(She exits.)

LUKE SKYWALKER:  I care.  (To HAN)  So, what do you think of her, Han?

HAN SOLO:  I’m tryin’ not to, kid.

LUKE SKYWALKER:  Good.

HAN SOLO:  Still, she’s got a lot of spirit. I don’t know, whaddya think? You think a princess and a guy like me—.

LUKE SKYWALKER:  No.

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Then there’s this lively exchange as Luke arrives to rescue the princess:

LUKE SKYWALKER:  I’m Luke Skywalker. I’m here to rescue you.

PRINCESS LEIA:  You’re who?

LUKE SKYWALKER:  I’m here to rescue you. I’ve got your R2 unit. I’m here with Ben Kenobi.

PRINCESS LEIA:  Ben Kenobi? Where is he?

LUKE SKYWALKER:  Come on!

 

And then there’s these prophetic lines, when Luke finally decides he’s ready to follow Obi-Wan Kenobi:

LUKE SKYWALKER:  I want to come with you to Alderaan. There’s nothing for me here now. I want to learn the ways of the Force and become a Jedi like my father.

Luke also gets to utter the line, along with many other characters in subesequent movies, which would become a STAR WARS catch phrase:

LUKE SKYWALKER:  I have a very bad feeling about this.

 

Of course, the most famous catch phrase and line to come out of STAR WARS is the now iconic “May the Force be with you.”

So, that’s it for now.  I’m sure I will follow this up at some point with another column on more memorable quotes from STAR WARS, especially when in this edition we heard nary a word from one Darth Vader.

Thanks for reading, and join me again next time when we look at more memorable quotes from another classic movie.

—Michael

 

 

 

 

 

ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY (2016) – Threadbare Characters Hinder Visually Exciting Tale

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There’s been more hype surrounding ROGUE ONE:  A STAR WARS STORY (2016) than a Cantina Band galactic tour.

I have a bad feeling about this.

ROGUE ONE:  A STAR WARS STORY is the first stand alone STAR WARS movie, which means it’s the first film in the series not to be part of a trilogy.  It tells the intriguing tale of how the rebels stole those Death Star plans which they used to blow up the massive weapon at the end of the original STAR WARS movie.  It also provides information to dispel that old joke about how stupid the Empire must have been to leave so fatal a flaw in their Death Star plans.  We learn in this movie that the flaw was no accident.

Since this is stand alone movie, it is chock full of new characters, and the film spends very little time introducing them, so hold onto your hats.  There are plenty of new faces here.  Here we go:

In the opening moments of ROGUE ONE, we see Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) coerced by main baddie Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) to work for the Empire, a coercion that includes the murder of Galen’s wife, and the attempted abduction of his young daughter Jyn, but the girl escapes and is eventually rescued by Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker).

The action jumps to several  years later where we meet the adult Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), and we find her briefly in a prison cell before she is rescued by the rebel forces.  Back at the rebel base, the rebel leaders are very interested in Jyn’s father, since supposedly he has helped the Empire design and build their new ultimate weapon, the Death Star.

But what the rebels want Jyn to do is find her old friend Saw Gerrera because Saw’s forces have apprehended a pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) who has information vital to the rebellion.  In return for her help, the rebels promise Jyn her freedom.

Leading the mission is pilot Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and a droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), but before they leave, we’re privy to Cassian’s private instuctions from the rebel leaders, which is to find and kill their targets, including Jin’s father.  On Saw’s planet, they are assisted by a blind warrior Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen) who worships the Force and seems to wish he were a Jedi, and his friend Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang).

Once they find Saw, he privately shows Jyn a holographic message from her father where he explains that he purposely built a flaw into the Death Star plans, which if exploited, could destroy the entire weapon.  One explosion in the right place would set off a series of blasts that would destroy the Death Star.

Of course, the rebels don’t trust Jyn’s father and so they don’t believe the message. However, Cassian believes in Jin, and along with a small group of rebels, including K-2SO, Chirrut, Baze, and the rescued pilot Bodhi,  offers to help her seek out and steal those Death Star plans.  They name their ship Rogue One and head off on their own to steal the plans.

I had mixed feelings about ROGUE ONE:  A STAR WARS STORY.  For me, this movie took forever to get going before ultimately reaching a very satisfying conclusion.  If it were a weather forecast, it would be like a sunny day  without a cloud in the sky before suddenly and quickly becoming very stormy, and before you know it you’re stuck in a full blown deadly hurricane.  ROGUE ONE plays out like that.  For two thirds of this movie, I wasn’t overly impressed, and then just around the time where they name their mission “Rogue One” things pick up and pick up fast.  The last third of this film is really good and goes to some dark places that work very well.  While I wasn’t nuts about the beginning, I liked the ending to this one A LOT.

The biggest problem I had with the beginning was a lack of character development.  We meet a bunch of new characters, but I didn’t feel I knew much of anything about them. I just wasn’t invested in what was going on.  I don’t think the movie did a good job creating these characters at all.  In fact, dare I say it?  But during the first half of this movie, I was kinda bored.  I was enjoying the visual aspects of the film, but the story was putting me to sleep.

But then the ending gets much better and actually forgets that it’s supposed to be a kid-friendly STAR WARS movie and becomes a much more adult story about war, and the film is much better for this switch in tone.

Another thing I didn’t like about ROGUE ONE was its villains.  The main villain here was Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) and I wasn’t impressed with him at all.  I found him very dull and boring.

Even the presence of Darth Vader (voiced once again by James Earl Jones and sadly sounding noticeably older) in a few scenes doesn’t really help things all that much.  Of course, the big news here is the return of Grand Moff Tarkin, a combination CGI creation and motion capture performance using actor Guy Henry combined with CGI effects to recreate Peter Cushing’s original appearance from the 1977 movie.

Initial word of mouth had been singing high praises about this effect, but I wasn’t all that impressed, honestly.  Maybe it’s because I’m such a huge Peter Cushing fan.  I mean, Tarkin here certainly resembles Peter Cushing, but he also resembles an animated Peter Cushing.  Plus the voice was wrong.  If you’re going to go to such great lengths to make the character look like Cushing, shouldn’t you go the distance and make him sound like Cushing?  Maybe I’m nitpicking here, but I wasn’t all that impressed by this CGI Tarkin.

I also wasn’t that interested in the power struggle here between Tarkin and Orson Krennic. I couldn’t care less that the two of them didn’t like each other and were vying for superiority over the other.  We already know who’s manning the Death Star in STAR WARS so this storyline did nothing for me.

The performances were fine, but for most of this movie I didn’t really get to know these characters all that well.  I liked Felicity Jones as Jyn, but I don’t think she made as much of an impact as Daisy Ridley did last year as Rey in STAR WARS:  THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015).  Like the rest of the cast and the entire movie, Jones gets better as the movie goes along.

I could take or leave Diego Luna as Cassian Andor.

I actually enjoyed some of the supporting characters more here.  I enjoyed both Donnie Yen as Chirrut Imwe and Wen Jiang as Baze Malbus throughout the movie.  I always enjoy Mads Mikkelsen, from TV’s HANNIBAL, and we just saw him as the villain in DOCTOR STRANGE (2016).  I also really enjoyed him as the Bond villain Le Chiffre in the first Daniel Craig Bond film CASINO ROYALE (2006).  Mikkelsen is fine here as  Galen Erson, even if ultimately the role doesn’t allow him to truly showcase his talents.

ROGUE ONE was directed by Gareth Edwards, and I have to admit I’m not a huge fan of his work.  He directed the Bryan Cranston GODZILLA (2014) which I thought was just okay, and he directed MONSTERS (2010) a stylish horror film that in spite of its title didn’t really feature too many monsters.  Edward’s films are always visually interesting, but I find he tends to struggle to tell a story. ROGUE ONE struggled to draw me in, and I wasn’t all that interested until the final third of the movie.

Visually there is a lot to like about ROGUE ONE.  I enjoyed the various worlds we visit, and some of the shots in this film were very cinematic.  I liked the sequence near the end of the film where Jyn and Cassian have to climb the massive tower.  It was suspenseful and visually exciting.

That being said, I saw ROGUE ONE in 3D, and I can’t say that the 3D effects really added all that much to the film.

Tony Gilroy and Chris Weitz wrote the screenplay, and it’s OK.  The actual story is very good, and my favorite part just might have been the plot point of Galen Erso purposely building a flaw into the design of the Death Star, which finally explains what had always seemed like a big glaring plot hole in the original STAR WARS.  But the characterizations were weak, and for most of this movie I didn’t feel like I really knew these characters, and that’s not a good thing.

ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY is visually pleasing throughout, and while hardcore STAR WARS fans might not mind the threadbare character development during the first half of this movie, it left me feeling cold and disinterested in what was going on, until the end, when things pick up big time for one very exciting and near perfect conclusion that ranks as one of the most memorable STAR WARS endings yet.

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NOCTURNAL ANIMALS (2016) – Thought-Provoking Creative Exercise in Moviemaking

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NOCTURNAL ANIMALS, the new thriller by writer/director Tom Ford, and starring Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal, is the type of movie that gives its audience lots to think about, and the more you think about it the more you like it.

I’m still thinking about it.

NOCTURNAL ANIMALS opens with one of the most difficult-to-watch opening credits you’ll ever see in a movie.  The credits play over images of naked obese women dancing, in slow motion with nothing left to the imagination.  When the credits end, it’s revealed that these women are part of a modern art exhibit hosted by the film’s main character, art gallery owner Susan Morrow (Amy Adams).

But even the reason for this choice of exhibit, these opening credit images, is something to think about, expecially when you juxtapose the outward ugliness and happy faces of these obese women with main character Susan Morrow’s outward beauty and internal sorrow.

So, Susan Morrow is a very successful art dealer and gallery owner, but she’s also terribly unhappy.  Her current marriage with the handsome and successful Hutton Morrow (Armie Hammer) is not going well, as her hubby is having an affair.  She’s also not happy with her career.

In the midst of all this, she receives a package from her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), a novel he has written entitled Nocturnal Animals, which he has dedicated to her.  She starts reading it and is immediately captivated by the story, which we see unfold on screen.  A man Tony Hastings (also played by Jake Gyllenhaal) and his wife and daughter are driving along a lonely stretch of Texas highway when they cross paths with a carload of unsavory characters who force them off the road.

After a terse and very uncomfortable conversation, the three men, led by an aggressive sociocapth named Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) abduct Tony’s wife and daughter.  What follows and what horrible things happen to Tony and his family make up the bulk of the novel.

To Susan, it’s clear that this novel is symbolic of what happened to Edward in their marriage, specifically what she did to Edward as she ended their marriage.  She begins to think back to that time, when she and Edward were married, and these scenes are shown via flashback.

There are three stories being told in NOCTURNAL ANIMALS:  Susan’s present day predicament, dealing with her crumbling marriage and unsatisfying art career, the novel, which tells the fictional story of Tony — by far the most compelling part of the movie—, and Susan’s looking back at her first marriage to Edward.

Does the telling of all three stories work?  Do they seamlessly make up one terrific movie?  Not exactly, because there are certainly flaws here.  But NOCTURNAL ANIMALS is such a creative ambitious movie it’s easy to look past them.

The acting is excellent.  I’m a huge fan of Amy Adams and she doesn’t disappoint here at all.  Susan is a terribly unhappy character, and Adams captures this sadness brilliantly.  The entire movie is steeped in sadness, all the way down to its final shot.

By the far, the best story in the movie is the fictional one told in Edward’s novel.  That story also features the best acting in the movie.  Jake Gyllenhaal is very good as tormented husband Tony, the fictional counterpart of Edward.  Aaron Taylor-Johnson knocks it out of the park as the unhinged Ray.  Even better than both these guys is Michael Shannon as rogue law man Bobby Andes, who makes it his mission to hunt down Ray and his friends and bring them to justice.

I found Shannon’s performance mesmerizing.  The best part is he lifts Bobby above the usual rogue law man character and makes him nuanced enough to stand on his own.  He really makes him a real person, which is pretty funny when you think about it, since Shannon is playing a fictional character in a novel!  His Bobby acts and looks like he walked off the set of another recent movie involving crime in Texas, HELL OR HIGH WATER (2016), starring Jeff Bridges and Chris Pine, which came out earlier this year.

But the problem I had with this part of the movie is as good as it is, we know from the get-go that what we are watching is part of a fictional novel being read by Susan, and so while this is certainly creative, it also takes aways from the drama.  I was never as invested in these characters as I otherwise would have been, since I knew they weren’t real.

On the other hand, it’s clear that this story about Tony written by Edward is symbolic of what happened to his marriage with Susan, and how it impacted him.  As we see in the flashbacks, Susan ended their marriage in a truly horrible way.

It’s hinted at in the movie that Susan feels slightly threatened by the book, that she views its story as Edward seeking revenge against her.  I didn’t think this was played up enough in the movie.  I never got the sense Edward was a threatening person, nor did I feel Susan’s life was in danger because of him, which is too bad because this only would have added to the movie.

The ending to NOCTURNAL ANIMALS is a bold one and no doubt will leave some viewers upset, but I really liked it.  A running theme in the movie is how weak Edward is supposed to be.  At first, Susan defends her husband, saying he’s not weak but simply sensitive, but later, she changes her tune and even she is calling him weak.  The ending is Edward’s way of answering that accusation.

I enjoyed Tom Ford’s direction here.  As I said, he crafts the film so both visually and thematically it gives you a lot to think about. Likewise, it’s an excellent script by Ford, based on a novel by Austin Wright.  It tells three stories, all of them multi-layered, and it’s ambitious in its execution, even though I don’t think it all worked .

Even so, most mainstream movies today don’t require much brainwork, so it’s always refreshing to come across one that does.

NOCTURNAL ANIMALS is not a perfect movie, and it’s certainly not a crowd-pleaser or the type of movie you want to see on a date.  But it is a thought-provoking creative exercise in movie-making that succeeds in telling a very sad story.

And it is sad, from beginning to end.  Relentlessly sad.  It also does a fine job capturing the pain and sadness that goes with divorce and its aftermath.

You may not think you like this one as you walk out the theater, but if you give it some thought, and let some of the scenes seep into your consciousness afterwards, and if you ponder what it all means, you’ll find the answers add up to a satisfying conclusion.

One thing is for certain.  NOCTURNAL ANIMALS will stay with you long after you’ve left the theater.

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IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: THE CHANGELING (1980)

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I first saw THE CHANGELING way back when I was in high school.  It was a late night showing on HBO, and I gotta tell you, it creeped me out.  At the time, other than THE EXORCIST (1973), no other horror movie had gotten under my skin like this one.

So, I was very excited the other day to finally see THE CHANGELING again  on DVD, since I hadn’t seen it in years.  And while I have to admit that it didn’t scare me like it did back in the early 80s when I first saw it, it remains a first-rate horror movie.

It’s the type of horror movie that I love:  an A-list cast, talented director, and a sense of seriousness that lifts it above standard horror fare.  In short, it’s a high quality movie.

THE CHANGELING opens with a tragedy:  composer John Russell (George C. Scott) watches helplessly as his wife and daughter are killed in a freak car accident.  In an effort to rebuild his life, Russell moves across the country, from New York City to the suburbs of Seattle.  He moves into a mansion, a quiet home where he hopes to be able to work on his music in solitude.

He soon begins hearing strange noises at night, noises that lead him to discover a secret room, and inside this room he finds a tiny wheelchair and other items belonging to a child.  Russell soon realizes that there is a ghost in his house, a ghost of a child, and this ghost isn’t trying to frighten him away but on the contrary is trying to communicate with him.  Russell wonders if perhaps the reason this spirit is seeking him might be connected to the fact that he lost his daughter at a young age.

Russell begins to investigate the history of the house, and what he learns leads him to the wealthy U.S. Senator Joseph Carmichael (Melvyn Douglas)  who once lived in Russell’s house as a child.  Russell finds himself caught in the middle of a conflict, with supernatural forces on one side, and the power of a U.S. Senator on the other.

THE CHANGELING is a well-made, creepy and haunting horror movie that certainly belongs in the conversation when discussing the best haunted house/ghost story movies ever made.

Director Peter Medak does a wonderful job here.  The scenes in the house are creepy and atmospheric, and he makes full use of some truly memorable images.  A simple child’s wheelchair has never been so eerie.  Likewise, he uses the child’s voice to full effect and there are some shocking scenes as well, like one involving a bath tub.  The film also looks great.  It looks like something Hammer would have done had they still been in business in 1980 and had moved on to contemporary tales.

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The creepy wheelchair in THE CHANGELING (1980).

Peter Medak has a ton of credits, most of them TV credits, including episodes of SPACE 1999 (1976-77), HOUSE (2004), BREAKING BAD (2009), and HANNIBAL (2013-14), among many, many others.

THE CHANGELING boasts an A-List cast, led by the great George C. Scott, who does a bang-up job here as a man still in grief over the loss of his wife and daughter.  He makes John Russell believable as he channels his grief into helping the child ghost.  You understand why Russell becomes so committed to the ghost’s plight, as he sees it as his job as a parent— especially a parent whose daughter was taken from him at a young age—  to help this child who when alive had no one to help him.

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George C. Scott as composer John Russell in THE CHANGELING.

And while George C. Scott is remembered as a star actor who worked on such powerful films as PATTON (1970), he was actually no stranger to genre films as he made several in his career, including the science fiction thriller THE DAY OF THE DOLPHIN (1973), Stephen King’s FIRESTARTER (1984), the TV movie THE MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE (1986), and the third EXORCIST movie, THE EXORCIST III (1990).

Likewise, veteran actor Melvyn Douglas adds class to the proceedings as Senator Carmichael.  THE CHANGELING was the first of back to back ghost story movies which Douglas made just before his death in 1981, as he also starred in Peter Straub’s GHOST STORY (1981), his final screen credit.

And while Douglas enjoyed a long and varied film career spanning five decades, he began and ended his career with horror films, as he also starred in THE OLD DARK HOUSE (1932) with Boris Karloff, Charles Laughton, Ernest Thesiger, and Gloria Stuart, and in THE VAMPIRE BAT (1933) with Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, and Dwight Frye.

Scott’s real life wife and frequent co-star Trish Van Devere appears as real estate agent Claire Norman who helps John with his investigation.  She’s very good in the role.  THE CHANGELING was the eighth time Van Devere and George C. Scott starred in a movie together. Trish Van Devere is still with us, as at present, she is 75.

And in another SPACE 1999 connection, Barry Morse appears briefly as a psychologist.  Morse is probably most famous for his role as Lieutenant Philip Gerard on the TV show THE FUGITIVE (1963-1967) but genre fans remember him fondly as Professor Victor Bergman on the science fiction show SPACE 1999 (1975-76).  Morse also appeared in the Amicus anthology horror movie ASYLUM (1972) starring Peter Cushing.

William Gray and Diana Maddox wrote the screenplay, based on a story by Russell Hunter.  Gray also wrote the screenplay for the original PROM NIGHT (1980) starring Jamie Lee Curtis. The screenplay here for THE CHANGELING is far superior to the silly slasher story of PROM NIGHT.

THE CHANGELING will creep you out in the same way that the modern day PARANORMAL ACTIVITY movies do but with the added bonus of also delivering a solid story, something the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY movies have never done.  And that’s what sets THE CHANGELING apart from a lot of other horror movies.  It does something that most horror films do not do, and that is it generates scares and creates a sense of eeriness without skimping on its story.  In fact, the story just might be the strongest part of this film.

THE CHANGELING is one of the best movies of its type.  And while I didn’t find it quite as scary as I did way back in the early 80s, it still holds up very well today. In fact, if you’ve never seen it and you’re watching it for the first time, you might not want to watch it alone.  Just sayin’.

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INCARNATE (2016) – Dull Horror Movie Doesn’t Resonate

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INCARNATE (2016) is a new horror movie starring Aaron Eckhart, and it’s yet another horror flick about a demon haunting a child.

Blah blah blah.

INCARNATE tells the story of Dr. Seth Ember (Aaron Eckhart) who possesses the ability to enter people’s dreams, and in their dream world he’s able to help these people escape from the demons that possess them.  In the real world, he’s in a wheelchair, the result of a catastrophic car accident which killed his wife and young son and left him paralyzed.  That accident was caused by a demon named Maggie, and so when Seth goes into other people’s dreams, he’s not only trying to save them, he’s also looking for Maggie so he can destroy her once and for all.

Which seriously doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me.  Are the dreams of all these people connected, so that the dream world is a real place where all the demons hang out and that’s why Seth believes he’s going to find Maggie there?  Otherwise, why would Maggie be in the dreams of people who are being haunted by other demons?

Or perhaps Maggie just gets around a lot and haunts a whole lot of people?  If not, what are the odds he’s going to find her again?  And if he’s on a quest to search the globe for Maggie, that’s something that’s not made clear in the film.

What we do see in the film is that Seth works with two young assistants, and they go around helping various people.  The latest is a young boy, and that’s what the entire movie is about. Saving the boy and finding and destroying Maggie.

I’ll get right to the point :  this movie bored me to tears, on so many levels.

As directed by Brad Peyton, it’s not scary, it’s not stylish, it’s not suspenseful.  The screenplay by Ronnie Christensen isn’t any better.  The plot is a snooze, and the characters aren’t developed at all.  They don’t even attempt any character development in this movie.  We know nothing about the mom and son who Seth is helping, nothing about his assistants, and we know very little about Seth.

In the lead role as Dr. Seth Ember, Aaron Eckhart is okay, but like the rest of the movie, he’s pretty boring.  Eckhart is a good actor who’s made a lot of good movies, but he’s also made some clinkers.  This is one of the worst.  I thought this film was even worse than I, FRANKENSTEIN (2014), and that film was pretty bad.

The possessed boy is played by David Mazouz, and he’s probably the least interesting possessed child I’ve ever seen in a movie.  We know so little about him— let’s put it this way, he’s possessed within the first few minutes of the film.

That’s another problem I had with this movie.  It really struggles to tell a story.  The pacing doesn’t work, there are long scenes where nothing happens, and when stuff does happen it’s sloppily handled.

Emjay Anthony, who was very enjoyable in CHEF (2014), is wasted here, appearing only in flashbacks as Seth’s deceased son.

Catalina Sandino Moreno plays a woman working for the Vatican who recruits Seth for his latest case.  It’s a role that was originally offered to Rosario Dawson.  She’s lucky she turned it down.

The demon Maggie was played by Mark Steger, who among other things played the Monster in STRANGER THINGS earlier this year.

Actually some of the supporting characters fare better here.  I thought Matt Nable did a good job as the boy’s abusive father Dan.  And Keir O’Donnell and Breanne Hill who played Seth’s young assistants weren’t half bad either.  Hill, by the way, is originally from New Hampshire and later attended Boston University, which is both my alma mater and where my sons are attending college.  Yup, that’s about as interesting as things get with this movie.

INCARNATE bored me throughout, so unless you’re a fan of dull movies, you might want to skip this one.

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