WONDER (2017) – Sincere Story of Middle School Acceptance a Crowd-Pleaser

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Jacob Tremblay, Izabela Vidovic, and Julia Roberts in WONDER (2017).

 

I read the novel Wonder by R.J. Palacio last year and thoroughly enjoyed it. Its message of tolerance and inclusion at the middle school level was spot-on, its characters so fleshed out it was easy to forget it was a work of a fiction, and the way it told its story was fresh and insightful.

Now comes the movie WONDER (2017) and it too does a terrific job with its subject matter. The best part about the movie is it stands on its own. Whether you’ve read the novel or not, it doesn’t matter. It will still move you.

WONDER is the story of 10-year-old Auggie Pullman (Jacob Tremblay) who was born with a genetic defect that left him severely disfigured. He wears a space helmet when he’s in public.  Up until now he has been home-schooled by his mom Isabel (Julia Roberts), but he’s about to enter fifth grade and start middle school, so Isabel thinks it’s is time for Auggie to attend a real school. His dad Nate (Owen Wilson) doesn’t necessarily agree, but as he so often does, he defers to his wife’s wishes.

When they leave Auggie for his first day of school, Isabel mutters, “Please let them be nice to him,” and with that Auggie enters the world of middle school. For any student, the middle school experience can be daunting and difficult. For Auggie, for obvious reasons, it’s more so. And while Auggie has supportive teachers and a very understanding principal Mr. Tushman (Mandy Patinkin), the students are a different matter, at least at first. The road ahead for young Auggie is a challenging one, as it is for those around him, and that in a nutshell is the story WONDER tells.

And that’s certainly the biggest strength of WONDER: its story. Like the novel, the movie tells its story through the eyes of different characters, and while it’s mostly the story of Auggie, and we really learn what it’s like to be in his shoes, we get to be in the shoes of a lot of other characters as well.

For instance, there’s Auggie’s sister Via (Izabela Vidovic).  From Auggie’s perspective, she seems like the perfect sister, but as we learn when we see things through her eyes, she feels increasingly forgotten by her parents who pour all their energies into caring for Auggie.

Likewise, parts of the story are told from the perspective of Auggie’s friends, which really helps to flesh out the characters and tell this story. The audience is treated to all sides, not just Auggie’s. And while the novel did a better job of this than the movie, where entire chapters were written from the perspectives of the different characters, the film makes a good faith effort and achieves similar results.

WONDER is not a dark drama full of middle school horrors, teen angst, and parental disillusionment. On the contrary, it is a story of hope. The characters in this tale regardless of the adversity they face, keep it together, never losing sight of what matters. Auggie’s sister, for example, doesn’t lash out at her family because she feels neglected. Rather, she goes on with her life, making her own way, knowing how she feels, but not letting it become something that she cannot control.

What keeps these characters together is in fact Auggie. He’s such a likable kid, and for those who get to know him, they realize that he’s not defined by his deformity, which in fact is the message of the movie. That Auggie can have this effect on people is what makes him a wonder.

There are plenty of emotional moments here. You might want to keep the tissues handy. When Auggie breaks down, unable to take the way the other students are treating him, he laments to his mother, “Will it always be like this?” To which she honestly replies, “I don’t know.”

When his dad tells Auggie that his space helmet is not lost, that he had been hiding it in his office, Auggie is shocked, but his dad tells him that he did it because Auggie had taken to wearing the helmet all the time, and he never saw his face. He tells Auggie, “I want to see your face. It’s my son’s face. I want to see my son’s face.”

There are lots of creative touches here as well, like when Auggie imagines that if Chewbacca from STAR WARS were to enter his school, everyone would be staring at him too, and as such since he’s in Auggie’s mind, the eight foot tall Wookie makes several appearances in the movie.

Jacob Tremblay is a talented young actor, and he’s truly wonderful here as Auggie. He’s convincing as the frightened yet sweet boy who just wants to be a normal kid. While I enjoyed his performance more in ROOM (2015), he still creates a very memorable Auggie.

One thing I wasn’t so hot on here was the make-up on Auggie.  The novel described him in an almost horrific way, whereas in the film, it’s not really all that shocking.  I thought the make-up job was a bit tepid.

The other child actors are also very good.  Noah Jupe who plays Jack Will, the young boy who eventually becomes Auggie’s best friend, does a nice job with the two sides of his character. At first, he befriends Auggie only because he’s asked to by the school and his mom, but he grows to like Auggie and their friendship becomes genuine.

Similarly, Millie Davis is also very good as Auggie’s other friend Summer.

Even better is Izabela Vidovic who plays Auggie’s sister, Via.  I liked her a lot, and it was nice to see a teen character with problems who didn’t become a movie cliché and drive her parents batty just because she was an angst-filled teenage girl.

Danielle Rose Russell is effective as Via’s best friend Miranda, and she’s yet another example of a teen character who is not a cliché. When we first meet her, she’s cold to Via, and for the first time their relationship is strained.  When they both audition for the same role in the school play, a lesser story would have gone down the road of teen jealousy and petty revenge, but this isn’t a lesser movie. When we see the story through Miranda’s eyes, we understand her behavior.  Rounding out the young cast is Nadji Jeter as Via’s boyfriend Justin, who’s another well-written fleshed out character.

The adults mostly remain in the background here. Julia Roberts is convincing at Auggie’s mother Isabel. She is the driving force in the family, and she is the one who keeps pushing Auggie forward. As he says later in the movie, she never gives up on him.

Owen Wilson is fun as Auggie’s soft-spoken dad who provides most of the humor for his family. It’s a fun role for Wilson, who hasn’t had a hit movie in a while. Mandy Patinkin is perfect as the understanding and calming principal Mr. Tushman, who has no problem poking fun at his own name.  Likewise, Daveed Diggs is energetic and affable as Auggie’s teacher Mr. Browne.

Steve Conrad, Jack Thorne, and director Stephen Chbosky wrote the screenplay based on the novel by R.J. Palacio. It pretty much succeeds on all fronts, giving Auggie’s story as much resonance and sincerity as it had in the novel.

Director Stephen Chbosky has made a likable, unpretentious film about a young disfigured boy who enters the scary world of middle school and finds what parents of middle schoolers want them to find: friends and acceptance by his peers.

One could make the argument that the story WONDER tells is not realistic, that its positive message is too happy and unchallenged.  Perhaps.  But the film is not syrupy-sweet, it doesn’t pull at your heartstrings in an artificial forced way, and it doesn’t manipulate its audience. It’s sincere and convincing.

It tells its story from all sides, presenting characters who are admirable and likable, who refuse to take the low road, no matter how dark things get.

Most of all, WONDER is the story of Auggie, a young boy who has a lot of heart, who shows us what we all should already know, that in terms of character it’s what’s inside us that matters, not how we look.

Spend some time with Auggie, and you too will understand that he is indeed a wonder.

—END—-

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Happy Birthday, Boris Karloff!

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Boris Karloff as the Frankenstein Monster in FRANKENSTEIN (1931)

Happy Birthday, Boris Karloff!

Karloff, the king of horror, was born on November 23, 1887.

Karloff made over 70 movies before playing the Monster in FRANKENSTEIN (1931), the film which changed his career and made him a household name.  He would reprise the role twice, in THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935) and SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939), and of course would go on to make a ton of horror movies over the next four decades, from the 1930s to the 1960s.

To celebrate his birthday, here’s a look at a handful of Karloff’s most memorable horror movie performances:

FRANKENSTEIN (1931) – The Monster- there’s a reason this role turned Boris Karloff into a star.  His Monster is both brutal and sympathetic.  Insanely powerful, he can kill in a heartbeat, and yet this newly born creature is simply terribly misunderstood and maltreated.  With a remarkable make-up job by Jack Pierce, no movie Frankenstein monster has ever looked as much like a walking corpse as this one.  If you only see one Boris Karloff movie in your life (which would be shame- see more!) see FRANKENSTEIN.

THE MUMMY (1932) – Imhotep – For my money, Karloff’s interpretation of Imhotep remains the most effective movie mummy performance of all time.  There still has not been another one like it.  In spite of a plot that is very similar to DRACULA (1931), THE MUMMY is a superior horror movie, and Boris Karloff’s performance as Imhotep is a major reason why.

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Karloff as Imhotep in THE MUMMY (1932)

THE BLACK CAT (1934) – Hjalmar Poelzig – In this classic first-time pairing of horror icons Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, Karloff plays the devil worshipping Hjalmar Poelzig, pitted against Bela Lugosi’s heroic Dr. Vitus Werdegast.  Superior horror film has little in common with the Poe tale on which it is so loosely based, but it has a top-notch script full of classic lines, and it features two performances by Karloff and Lugosi in their prime, doing what they do best.  Best watched late at night with the lights out.

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Karloff in THE BLACK CAT (1934).

BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935) – The Monster- The Monster speaks!  So boasted this movie’s tagline, and it’s true, Karloff’s monster learns to speak in this classic sequel to the iconic original.  Critics consider BRIDE to be the best FRANKENSTEIN movie of all time, but I still slightly prefer the original, if only because it remains much scarier.  But Karloff takes his performance as the Monster here to another level.  It’s arguably the best performance of the Frankenstein monster of all time.

THE RAVEN (1935) – Edward Bateman -The second Boris Karloff/Bela Lugosi pairing. Karloff plays Edward Bateman, a criminal transformed into a hideous monster by Lugosi’s insane Poe-obsessed Dr. Richard Vollin. Another classic pairing of these two iconic horror film stars.

THE BLACK ROOM (1935)- Baron Gregor de Berghman/Anton de Berghman – Karloff has a field day in a dual role as twins, one good, one bad.  Karloff delivers one of his best performances in this little known period piece horror drama.  Look fast for an uncredited Edward van Sloan as, of course, a doctor.

THE BODY SNATCHER (1945) – John Gray – Another superb Karloff performance.  He plays John Gray, the body snatcher who robs graves for Dr. “Toddy”  MacFarlane (Henry Daniell). Based on a short story by Robert Louis Stevenson and the real life story of Dr. Knox and grave robbers Burke and Hare.  Produced by Val Lewton and directed by Robert Wise. Horror film making at its best.  Also features Bela Lugosi in a small supporting role.

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Karloff in THE BODY SNATCHER (1945).

ISLE OF THE DEAD (1945) – General Nikolas Pherides- Karloff plays a hawkish general who uses his ruthless methods to protect a group of islanders who believe they are being hunted by a vampire-like creature in this intriguing well-made chiller by producer Val Lewton.

THE TERROR (1963) – Baron Victor Frederick Von Leppe –  An aging Karloff stars opposite a young Jack Nicholson in this haunted house tale, reportedly shot by director Roger Corman in four days.

BLACK SABBATH (1963) – Gorca – Karloff is at his scary best in this horror anthology by Mario Bava.  Karloff appears as a “Wurdalak” or vampire, and he’s downright frightening.  This is the only time Karloff ever played a vampire in the movies.

So, there you have it, just a few of Boris Karloff’s more memorable horror movie roles. To celebrate his birthday, you can’t go wrong watching these or any of Karloff’s 205 screen credits, for that matter.

Happy Birthday, Boris!

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

 

 

 

Wonder Woman Leads the Way as Superheroes Save JUSTICE LEAGUE (2017)

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As a kid, I slightly preferred the Marvel superhero comics to DC, but I pretty much enjoyed them both.

But in the past decade, in the movie world, Marvel’s movies have been far superior to what DC has churned out.  The DC films have been largely problematic. That changed a bit earlier this year with the release of WONDER WOMAN (2017),  the best DC film to hit the big screen since THE DARK KNIGHT (2008).

The upward trend continues with the release of JUSTICE LEAGUE (2017), the tale of a group of DC superheroes working together for the first time.  While not as good as Marvel’s AVENGERS movies, JUSTICE LEAGUE is another step forward, helped immensely by the presence of Wonder Woman, played once again by the astonishing Gal Gadot.

When a JUSTICE LEAGUE opens, Superman (Henry Cavill) is dead, but as every superhero fan knows, the Man of Steel is never gone forever.  Movie fans will know as well, as soon as they see Henry Cavill’s name listed prominently in the opening credits.

With Superman gone, the door is open for the powers of darkness to make Earth their own, because frankly, while other superheroes may be tough, it seems only Superman can keep the truly heinous baddies from strutting their stuff.  In this case, it’s Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds) who centuries ago was banished by an alliance between the Amazons, the Atlanteans, and the humans.  With Superman dead, Steppenwolf returns to finish the job he set out to do eons before, namely, to destroy the world.

Realizing that Steppenwolf is a superior foe, Batman (Ben Affleck) assembles a team of heroes, including Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), the Flash (Ezra Miller), Aquaman (Jason Momoa), and Cyborg (Ray Fisher).  But even their combined strength isn’t enough to take Steppenwolf down, leading Batman to suggest the outlandish plan of resurrecting Superman from the dead, even if his newfound superfriends warn him against doing so. The young Flash nervously worries that such a plan could lead to Pet Sematary-like results.

I really enjoyed JUSTICE LEAGUE.  The script by Chris Terrio and Joss Whedon works mostly because it keeps things simple.  The story is not overly ambitious and therefore avoids being overdone and complicated, as was the case with the recent BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE (2016) which try as it might failed to establish a convincing relationship between Batman and Superman.  You could actually argue that the story here is rather stupid, but in this case, that doesn’t really matter because the strength of JUSTICE LEAGUE is its superhero characters, and the actors playings these roles all acquit themselves rather nicely.

Joss Whedon of course both wrote and directed THE AVENGERS movies, and his influence is apparent in this movie when the superfriends bicker and take jabs at each other.  And while Christ Terrio wrote BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE, a movie I didn’t like, he also wrote ARGO (2012), a film I definitely did like.  There is a lot of smart dialogue in this film, which helps lift it above its very standard plot, like when Batman criticizes Wonder Woman for not having ever taking a leadership role.  He correctly points out that Superman has been a beacon for the world, but he had never even heard of Wonder Woman until recently, and he accuses of her hiding in the shadows during the past century.

It’s safe to say that after the success of WONDER WOMAN, one of the biggest draws of JUSTICE LEAGUE is not Batman or Superman, but Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman.  Gadot does not disappoint.  She was clearly my favorite part of this movie, and when she is on-screen, the film is at its best.  She possesses such a strong screen presence, she’s astonishingly beautiful, and is completely believable as an unstoppable warrior princess.

But Wonder Woman alone wouldn’t be enough to save a movie called JUSTICE LEAGUE, and thankfully, her superhero counterparts are also quite good.

While I didn’t really like the look of Batman’s cowl and costume, Ben Affleck is quite effective as the caped crusader.  It’s a convincing performance, and I liked Affleck even better here as Batman than in BATMAN V SUPERMAN.  There are also plenty of potshots made by his friends at his lack of super powers.  At one point, he’s asked just what his superpowers are, and he answers, “I’m rich.”

Strangely, when Affleck appears as Bruce Wayne, he seemed a bit fleshy in the face which works against the idea that Batman is a fit fighting machine.  There’s also a neat nod to the Michael Keaton BATMAN movies here, as composer Danny Elfman incorporates his original BATMAN theme from that 1989 flick into some of the Batman scenes.

Likewise, Henry Cavill scores high as Superman.  In fact, it’s probably my favorite Cavill performance as the Man of Steel.  He comes off as sincere and is far less troubled than in previous films with concerns over how the world views him.  It seems death has been a good thing for Superman, as while he was gone, the world seemed to have missed him.

Ezra Miller is fun as the Flash, although at times the humor seemed a bit forced.  I also enjoyed Ray Fisher as Cyborg, and really enjoyed Jason Momoa as Aquaman, who gets some of the better lines in the movie.

The film is also helped by a strong supporting cast, led by Amy Adams as Lois Lane.  Adams isn’t in the movie much, but to have Adams in a cast as a supporting player can only add to a movie, and her few scenes are all nicely done.  Jeremy Irons gets a decent amount of screen time as Alfred, and he makes the most of his scenes.

Diane Lane is effective as Clark Kent’s mother Martha Kent, and Connie Nielson reprises her role from WONDER WOMAN as Queen Hippolyta. J.K. Simmons appears briefly as Commissioner Gordon, and Amber Heard is seen all too fleetingly as one of Aquaman’s associates, Mera.

Director Zack Snyder achieved better results here than he did with both BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE and MAN OF STEEL (2013). One of the ways that JUSTICE LEAGUE is superior is Snyder controlled himself here and didn’t film action scenes that went on for too long.  They are generally quick, efficient, and well done.

I thought the pacing was especially good.  The film runs for just about two hours, but it flew by for me and felt more like 90 minutes.

Like its Marvel counterparts, there are a couple of after credit scenes.  The first one is well worth the wait, but the second at the very end involves a certain villain played by a certain actor who I really don’t want to see again.  Oh well.

The film also opens with a curious bit featuring Superman, which was enjoyable enough, but I thought at some point in the movie the story would return to this moment, but it never does.

JUSTICE LEAGUE features a straightforward and rather simple if not predictable story, but in this case it seems to be just what these DC films have needed.  The DC films that haven’t worked have been bogged down with plot points that didn’t work and action scenes that went on for far too long.  It truly seemed as if they were struggling to find their identity.

WONDER WOMAN established its identity right away, and while JUSTICE LEAGUE isn’t quite as successful as WONDER WOMAN, it too establishes itself right away.  It sacrifices plot for characterization, using most of the screen time to establish its Justice League personalities, and the film is better for it.

The superheroes here not only save the world, but the movie.

As such, JUSTICE LEAGUE is highly recommended.

—END—

MEMORABLE MOVIE QUOTES: THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN (1974)

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Welcome back to another MEMORABLE MOVIE QUOTES column, where we look at some memorable quotes from some pretty nifty movies.

We return today to the world of James Bond as we look at THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN (1974), the second film in which Roger Moore played secret agent 007.  The other neat thing about this movie, especially for horror fans, is that Christopher Lee played the villain, the man with the golden gun, the million dollar hitman, Scaramanga, who in this film has his sights on James Bond.  Scaramanga is one of Christopher Lee’s better film performances.

THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN did not perform all that well at the box office upon its initial release in 1974.  Audiences back then were still struggling with the transition to Roger Moore as Bond and were still craving a return by Sean Connery, but the film has aged well, and today it ranks as one of the better Bond movies.  It also has a memorable music score by John Barry.

And like most Bond movies, it’s chock-full of neat quotes.  Let’s have a listen to some of these quotes from THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN, screenplay by Richard Maibaum and Tom Mankiewicz.

Christopher Lee gets some of the better lines in the film as the villainous Scaramanga, especially when he spars verbally with James Bond, like in this scene where he suggests to Bond that they engage in a gun duel to the death:

SCARAMANGA: A duel between titans. My golden gun against your Walther PPK. Each of us with a 50-50 chance.

JAMES BOND:  Six bullets to your one?

SCARAMANGA: I only need one.

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Scaramanga vs. Bond

 

And in this scene where he explains to Bond how he first became interested in killing:

SCARAMANGA: When I was a boy I was brought up in a circus. My only real friend was a huge, magnificent African bull elephant. One day, his handler mistreated him and he went berserk. Bleeding, dying, he came and found me, stood on one leg, his best trick, picked me up and put me on his back. The drunken handler came along and emptied his gun into his eye… I emptied my stage pistol into his!

JAMES BOND:  An eye for an eye.

SCARAMANGA: You see, Mr. Bond, I always thought I loved animals. Then I discovered that I enjoyed killing people even more.

 

Of course, eventually, Bond gets to respond in kind:

JAMES BOND: You live well, Scaramanga.

SCARAMANGA: At a million dollars a contract I can afford to, Mr Bond. You work for peanuts, a hearty well done from her Majesty the Queen and a pittance of a pension. Apart from that we are the same. To us, Mr Bond, we are the best.

JAMES BOND: There’s a useful four letter word, and you’re full of it.

 

Scaramanga is as cool as he is deadly, as in this scene where he calmly kills the powerful Mr. Fat and politely addresses Fat’s subordinates moments later:

SCARAMANGA: Mr. Fat has just resigned. I am the new Chairman of the Board.

Fat always did like that mausoleum. Put him in it.

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Christopher Lee takes aim as Scaramanga in THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN (1974).

 

Of course, Roger Moore gets plenty of zingers as James Bond.  Let’s listen to a few:

SAIDA:  Ah! I’ve lost my charm!

JAMES BOND: Not from where I’m standing.

 

And:

JAMES BOND:  Did you see who shot him?

SAIDA: No, I was in his arms. My eyes were closed.

JAMES BOND: Well, at least he died happy.

 

And what would a James Bond movie be without the double entendre names?

JAMES BOND (approaches woman in swimming pool):  Good morning. How’s the water?

WOMAN: Why don’t you come in and find out?

JAMES BOND:  Sounds very tempting, Miss…?

WOMAN:  Chew Mee.

 

Even M (Bernard Lee) and Q (Desmond Llewelyn) get in on the act with this lively exchange:

JAMES BOND: And that is really all there is to report, sir.

M:  So if I heard correctly, Scaramanga got away – in a car that sprouted wings!

Q: Oh, that’s perfectly feasible, sir. As a matter of fact, we’re working on one now.

M:  Oh, Q, shut up!

 

 

But my all time favorite line from THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN is spoken by Roger Moore, and it’s also one of my favorite lines in the entire series.  As Bond tries to extract information from a gun manufacturer, he points a gun at the man’s groin area, and he says:

LAZAR:  Mr. Bond, bullets do not kill. It is the finger that pulls the trigger.

JAMES BOND: Exactly. I am now aiming precisely at your groin. So speak or forever hold your piece.

 

Gotta love it!

Well, that’s all we have time for today.  I hope you enjoyed this look at quotes from THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN.  Join me again next time when we look at more memorable quotes from other cool movies.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (2017) – All-Star Murder Mystery an Exercise in the Mundane

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Kenneth Branagh as Hercule Poirot in MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (2017)

I consider myself a Kenneth Branagh fan.

I have absolutely loved every Shakespeare play he has brought to the big screen, from his masterful debut with HENRY V (1989) to his wonderfully witty MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING (1993).  But his non-Shakespeare films haven’t been as successful, and I’ve never been exactly sure why.  His MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN (1994) didn’t work, and his THOR (2011) was just an OK Marvel superhero movie.

Branagh both directs and stars in today’s movie, MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (2017), which is based on the novel by Agatha Christie, and is a remake of the 1974 film of the same name directed by Sidney Lumet and starring Albert Finney as detective Hercule Poirot.  It featured an all-star cast of train passengers, including the likes of Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Jacqueline Bisset, Richard Widmark, and Sean Connery, to name just a few.

In this new 2017 version, Branagh plays Hercule Poirot, and he too has assembled an all-star cast of passengers, which for me, was the best part of this movie.  The cast is superb.

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS opens in the middle east in the early 1930s where famed detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) is busy solving yet another impossible crime.  His job done, he climbs aboard a train for some rest and relaxation, but things don’t go as planned when there is a murder committed on board, and suddenly Poirot finds himself once again trying to solve a complicated mystery.

And this is a mystery, so the less said about the plot the better.

As I said, the best part about MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS is its cast, and I’ll get to that in a moment, but for the film itself, it’s a mixed bag.  The biggest knock against this movie is it just never reached out and grabbed me.  There is never a defining moment in the film where I felt, okay, this is where it gets going.  It just move along at a steady pace with no sense of urgency or dramatic build-up.  It’s all rather listless.

It certainly looks good.  The shots of the train travelling through the snowy mountains are picturesque, and the costumes and set design are impressive.  But director Branagh seems satisfied to film a period piece drama without giving much emphasis on the suspenseful side of things.  This film just never gets going.

But the cast is fun, starting with Branagh himself as Hercule Poirot.  Branagh seems to be having a good time with the role, and he’s convincing as the meticulous borderline-OCD Poirot.  And his full mustache is so noticeable it’s nearly a character in itself.

Johnny Depp makes for an excellent gangster-type, and his was one of my favorite performances in this film.  I’ve grown tired of some of Depp’s off-the-wall acting roles of late, and it was fun to see him actually play a character.  He does a fine job, and I wish he would do this more often, play someone who actually seems like a real person.

I also really enjoyed Michelle Pfeiffer, and although she wasn’t as memorable as she was in MOTHER (2017) earlier this year, she’s still very good.  We haven’t seen a whole lot of Pfeiffer in recent years, and I hope this changes because she remains a strong talent whose presence has been missed in the movies of late.

Likewise, Josh Gad was particularly effective as Hector MacQueen, the right hand man and attorney for Depp’s Edward Ratchett.  While Gad was more memorable as LeFou in the recent live-action remake of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (2017), he’s still pretty darn good here.

Also in the cast are Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom Jr., Penelope Cruz, Derek Jacobi, Judi Dench, and Willem Dafoe. Now, all of these folks are fun to watch, but none of them do a whole lot.  Like the film as a whole, no one really has any signature moments.

Michael Green wrote the screenplay, based on Christie’s novel.  It’s a decent screenplay with believable dialogue and interesting characters, but it doesn’t score all that well as a whodunit mystery.  There is a murder, and Poirot investigates.  This in itself is interesting, but without compelling dialogue and conversations, and without energetic directing, the process of solving the crime somehow all becomes rather mundane and lifeless.

There are some good moments, like when Poirot says he’s reached the age where he knows what he likes and doesn’t like, and he partakes fully in all that he likes and completely ignores what he dislikes.  For those of us who have reached a certain age, this line rings true.  It’s too bad the same can’t be said for most of the other dialogue and situations in the film.

Green was one of the writers who wrote the screenplay to BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017), and he also worked on the screenplay to LOGAN (2017).  Of these three, the Marvel superhero film LOGAN is clearly Green’s best credit.

Another drawback to this film is if you’ve seen the 1974 movie, it’s hard to forget, and this new version doesn’t really offer anything that is new.  I’m going to guess that if you haven’t seen the 1974 movie, you might like this version better than I did.

I found MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS to be simply okay.  It didn’t wow me, didn’t have me on the edge of my seat, or scratching my head wondering who the murderer was, but it did hold my interest for the most part, in a rather routine pleasant sort of way, which for a period piece murder mystery, doesn’t really cut it.

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For The Love Of Horror cover

Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

 

 

 

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: THE BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960)

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THE BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960), Hammer Films’ second vampire movie, is so steeped in rich atmosphere you can almost feel the Transylvanian mist on your flesh.

It also ranks as one of the best vampire films ever made.

THE BRIDES OF DRACULA tells the story of young Marianne (Yvonne Monlaur) on her way to the Lang Academy at Badstein where she is to be a teacher.  Unfortunately, before arriving at the school, she spends the night at the Chateau Meinster where she meets the young dashing Baron Meinster (David Peel) who happens to be a vampire.

Doctor Van Helsing (Peter Cushing, reprising the role he played in HORROR OF DRACULA two years earlier) arrives in town to investigate the reports of vampirism in the area.  Van Helsing befriends young Marianne and discovers that Baron Meinster is the local vampire.  In a neat piece of drama, he is understandably shocked to learn that Marianne and the Baron are engaged to be married.  However, Van Helsing puts his personal feelings aside and pursues the vampire, eventually battling it out with Meinster in an exciting climax in a fiery windmill.

While THE BRIDES OF DRACULA is an excellent film, it’s not without its problems.  For starters, Dracula does not appear in the movie, so the title is a major misnomer and source of frustration for many fans.   Dracula is absent from the film because back in 1960 Christopher Lee refused to reprise the role for fear of being typecast.  And while David Peel performs admirably as Baron Meinster, he’s no Christopher Lee, and his performance lacks the powerful punch that viewers loved about Lee.

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David Peel as vampire Baron Meinster in THE BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960).

Also, the music score by Malcolm Williamson is so over the top in places it’s almost laughable.  James Bernard’s music is sorely missed here.

Still, there’s lots to like about BRIDES.

The cast is superb, led by Peter Cushing as Dr. Van Helsing.  Long before Hugh Jackman put us to sleep in the over-hyped yawn fest VAN HELSING (2004), Peter Cushing was THE film Van Helsing.  His performances in HORROR and BRIDES marked the first time the role was played as a younger action hero, rather than the old wise professor from Stoker’s novel.

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Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) fighting off a vampire in THE BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960).

The supporting cast is also very good, notably Martita Hunt as the Baroness Meinster, Baron Meinster’s mother, and Freda Jackson as Greta, Baron Meinster’s former nurse and current servant.  Jackson steals nearly every scene she’s in.

Jimmy Sangster, Peter Bryan, and Edward Percy all worked on the screenplay for THE BRIDES OF DRACULA.  Evidently, extra writers were called in and extensive rewrites were performed at the request of Peter Cushing who was unhappy with the original script.  For instance, in the original script, Van Helsing used black magic to fight off the vampires, and Cushing thought this was completely out of character for the doctor.

Director Terence Fisher gives the film its wonderful atmosphere by using rich colors and textures, elaborate sets and costumes, the whole bit.  It’s one of the reasons Hammer Films were so successful.  They always looked liked extremely high-budgeted movies when in fact they weren’t.

Fisher also creates some classic scenes in this film- Greta calling to the young vampire bride in her grave, the girl’s hand clawing its way out of the soil, Van Helsing burning the vampire’s bite from his own neck, and in the fiery climax, Van Helsing leaping onto the blades of the burning windmill to form the shadow of the cross on an adjacent building.

THE BRIDES OF DRACULA is an atmospheric gem, well worth sinking your teeth into.

—END—

(This column was originally published in the HWA Newsletter in November 2006.)

 

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For The Love Of Horror cover

Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

 

 

 

THOR: RAGNAROK (2017) – Colorful Superhero Adventure is the Best of the Thor Movies

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Thor_Ragnarok_poster

It’s no secret that I love the Marvel superhero movies.

And while I have enjoyed the THOR movies, I’ve preferred the IRON MAN and CAPTAIN AMERICA films.  They’ve had more life, and I just haven’t been a fan of the THOR plots which have taken place in the doom and gloom of Asgard, Thor’s home world.

Until now.

THOR: RAGNAROK (2017) sheds its seriousness within its first few seconds, and immediately becomes as playful and humorous as a GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY movie.

A lot happens in THOR: RAGNAROK, so the less said about the plot the better.  The very evil Hela (Cate Blanchett), the first-born of Odin (Anthony Hopkins), which makes her Thor’s older sister, sets her sights on conquering Asgard in order to make it her own, and it’s up to Thor (Chris Hemsworth) to stop her.  But this is a fight that Thor cannot win alone, and so he enlists the aid of the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), the warrior Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), Heimdall (Idris Elba), his estranged oftentimes evil brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), and even Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch).

The result is an action-packed often hilarious adventure that entertains from start to finish.

The best part of THOR: RAGNAROK is its lively script by Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, and Christopher Yost.  Evidently, the writers were influenced and inspired by the John Carpenter action comedy BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA (1986), a flick that is not among my favorite Carpenter movies, as it’s downright silly at times, but that being said it’s still colorful and entertaining, and it stars Kurt Russell.

Now, I can easily see this influence.  In fact, even before I knew of this connection, while watching the movie, I felt that this THOR film was playing out as if it had been directed by John Carpenter.  And Chris Hemsworth’s Thor in this film reminded me of Kurt Russell’s Jack Burton character in BIG TROUBLE, from the over-the-top dialogue like “because this is what heroes do,” to the moments where the bravado and boasts come back to hit our hero in the face.  In short, it’s fun to see Thor not take himself too seriously.

The dialogue is fun throughout, the situations exciting and comical, and the characters are all well-written and fleshed out.

Also, like most Marvel superhero movies, THOR: RAGNAROK boasts a cast that has no business being in a superhero movie.  The combination of superior acting and strong writing creates both lively characters and compelling situations.

Chris Hemsworth can pretty much play Thor in his sleep these days.  He owns the role. And while previous THOR films haven’t been among my favorite Marvel movies, it’s not because of Hemsworth.  He’s always been excellent as Thor.  And he’s just as good if not better here.  He dials things up a few notches on the humor meter, which isn’t completely surprising, since he’s always given Thor humorous moments. Not only is he funny here, but he’s completely believable as a hero strong enough to tangle with the Hulk.

Speaking of the Hulk, the giant green guy is the “guest Avenger” in this film, and Mark Ruffalo is back once again playing the character.  This time around we see more of the Hulk and much less of his alter ego, Bruce Banner. This is also the first time that Ruffalo is voicing the Hulk.  In previous movies, it’s been Hulk veteran Lou Ferrigno providing the voice.  Ruffalo does just fine, and I actually preferred his voice this time around.

As I said, Tom Hiddleston is back as Loki, Thor’s villainous brother who continually shows up in these Marvel movies like a bad penny.  Now, I’ve never been a fan of Loki in these movies, so it’s saying something about THOR: RAGNAROK that this is the first time I’ve really enjoyed Loki.  Hiddleston seems to be having a good time playing him, and we get to see Loki taking stock of his character, as he joins forces with his brother to take on his evil sister.  It’s fun to see Loki fight for the common good while still not shedding his darker side.

Cate Blanchett is icy cold as Hela.  She’s the first major female villain to appear in one of these Marvel superhero films, and that’s long overdue.  In general, the Marvel movies tend to stumble with their villains, who are usually the weak link in the stories.  Not so here. Blanchett’s Hela is a formidable foe for Thor and friends, and she’s both sexy and evil when she’s on screen.

Even better than Blanchett is Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie.  Her tough warrior heroine would give Wonder Woman a run for her money.  She was one of my favorite characters in the movie.

Jeff Goldblum chews up the scenery in a scene-stealing performance as the Grandmaster, and his arena of death is right out of a John Carpenter movie.  I half-expected to see Snake Plissken show up.

It was good to see Idris Elba get more significant screen time as Heimdall, and Karl Urban also provides solid support as Skurge, a character who finds himself drafted by Hela to be her local enforcer.

I could keep going, as there are still more solid supporting players here, including Anthony Hopkins as Thor’s father Odin, who’s more enjoyable here in his brief screen time than he was in the previous two movies, and Benedict Cumberbatch, who’s on hand briefly as Doctor Strange.

Director Taika Waititi has made a colorful, action-packed superhero tale which fits in perfectly with the Marvel universe.  It’s closer in tone to a GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY movie than a THOR movie, but that’s okay.  From its opening scene where Thor battles a giant villain and things don’t go as planned, to Thor’s first meeting with the Hulk and their subsequent banter, it gets the humor right.

The action sequences also do not disappoint.  The battle in the Grandmaster’s arena is a good one, as is the climactic showdown with Hela.

For most of the movie Thor is without his hammer, and he sees this as a disadvantage, and he questions his strength without it, but his father Odin tells him otherwise, which provides Thor with a telling and powerful moment later in the film.

But other than this, there’s not a lot of seriousness here. THOR: RAGNAROK is all fun and games, and this is a good thing.  It’s the perfect Marvel vehicle.

It’s easily the best of the THOR movies.

—END—