AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (2018) – Epic Marvel Superhero Movie Plays Like Season Finale

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Awesome.

That’s the first word that comes to mind after seeing AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (2018), the third AVENGERS film and nineteenth movie overall to take place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Yup, Marvel has been on quite the run, and it shows no signs of slowing down with its latest entry.

The story AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR tells is simple and easy to rally behind, making it an action-packed thrill ride with enough emotional ups and downs between light moments and dark ones you’re sure to leave the theater not only entertained but moved as well.

Thanos (Josh Brolin) is busy collecting the Infinity Stones, supernatural items which have been featured in several of the earlier Marvel movies. Thanos wants all six because once he has them, he will have the power to destroy the universe.  Now, Thanos does not want to destroy the universe. Nope, he just wants to trim it down a bit.  Systematically, randomly, and without mercy, he simply wants to wipe out half of civilization, so that the other half can thrive and lead better lives. What a thoughtful guy! As he says, the greatest decisions take the greatest sacrifices, and he’s the one to make such bold decisions and carry them out.

Standing in Thanos’ way are the Avengers, Earth’s mightest superheroes. They scramble to not only prevent Thanos from getting all the stones but also to destroy the madman once and for all. The trouble is, the Avengers as we know them don’t really exist any more.  They broke up, as shown in events from CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (2016). When Bruce Banner/the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) learns the news, his response is “What do you mean, broke up? Like a band? Like the Beatles?”

So, the group of arguing superheroes has disbanded, and when the fight begins, they are not together.  They also are in need of help, which arrives with the Guardians of the Galaxy, and also Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and the warriors from Wakanda. Together, the fight is on.

But AVENGERS: INFINTIY WAR is much more than just a superhero war movie.

Start with the villain, Thanos, who with his nearly unstoppable powers may be the best Marvel movie villain yet. Thanos is not some cliché madman who wants to take over the universe. No, he wants to prune it, the way we care for trees and gardens in the spring. Remove dead branches and weeds, and prepare for new life. Trouble here is, Thanos wants to remove things— beings— that are very much alive. But his motivations are based on real issues, like overcrowding and population explosion. As he says during one point in the film, the universe and its resources are finite, and it can’t sustain unlimited growth forever, and that’s where he comes in. As he sees it, he’s there to give people a better life, and this isn’t some lie to cover for some other darker more ludicrous plan. It’s really what Thanos intends  to do, and for those reasons.

If there’s one drawback to AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR it’s that if you haven’t seen the previous films in the Marvel movie universe, you no doubt won’t be as moved because you won’t know the background to the characters. You wouldn’t understand the depth of Iron Man’s and Captain America’s rift if you haven’t seen CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (2016).  You wouldn’t appreciate the relationship between Thor and Loki if you hadn’t seen the THOR movies, nor the full humor of the Guardians of the Galaxy if you hadn’t seen their movies, nor the dynamic between Iron Man and young Spider-Man if you hadn’t seen SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING (2017). And on I could go.

That being said, it’s not an issue of following the story, because AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR handles its storytelling smoothly.  You could see this movie without having seen any of the others and easily follow what is going on and enjoy the story. You just wouldn’t get the same emotional impact if you hadn’t seen these characters before.

The brilliant part of these Marvel movies is they have introduced these characters and told their stories patiently over the years through a series of high quality movies, and there have been so many of them that they really play out like a TV series. You watch AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR and you’ve seen all the other Marvel movies, this film plays like a season finale.

AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR has what all the other Marvel movies had before it, a phenomenal cast, superior writing, and superb direction. Just look at the cast here: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, Don Cheadle, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Holland, Chadwick Boseman, Zoe Saldana, Tom Hiddleston, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Anthony Mackie, Sebastian Stan, Idris Elba, Danai Gurira, Peter Dinklage, Benedict Wong, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Gwyneth Paltrow, Benicio Del Toro, Chris Pratt, William Hurt, and Josh Brolin.

Wow.

Double wow.

At the center of this story is Tony Stark/Iron Man, played by Robert Downey, Jr. The recent run of Marvel movies began with IRON MAN (2008), the film which introduced Downey, Jr. as Tony Stark, a role he has made his own over the years.  This marks the ninth time he has played Tony Stark in a movie.

Once more, Robert Downey Jr. excels in his scenes as Tony Stark, and his climactic confrontation with Thanos is one of the many highlights of the film, mostly because we have followed this character since IRON MAN and to see his story arc come to a head with this battle with Thanos is a high impact moment.

Likewise, Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is the other main Avengers character, and as we saw in CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR, he has become the leader of one faction of superheroes, separate from Tony Stark and his followers, since they experienced a major disagreement over their relationship with the U.S. government. Like Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans has also played Captain America nine times in the movies, and also like Downey Jr., his performances have been exceptional.

Now known as simply “The Captain,” and sans his mask and shield and now sporting a beard, he assembles his group along with Black Panther and the warriors from Wakanda to defend the Earth from Thanos. In their greatest battle, Captain America and Iron Man are not together.

Also successfully reprising their roles are Chris Hemsworth as Thor, Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner/The Hulk, and Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther. The Guardians of the Galaxy are also on hand, and Chris Pratt and company lend plenty of fun moments to the fray.  And you can’t forget Tom Holland as Spider-Man.

And as I said, Josh Brolin, with his cool, calm demeanor and nearly unlimited strength, makes for one of Marvel’s best villains as Thanos.

There are so many fun moments in this one. Star-Lord’s (Chris Pratt) interactions with Thor are hilarious, as is the rapid fire pop culture discussion between Star-Lord and Spider-Man. Drax (Dave Bautista) is his usual honest self, and he gets to partake in several laugh-out loud moments. Likewise, there are fine moments between Tony Stark, Peter Parker, and Dr. Strange, poignant moments between Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany) and an emotional scene where Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Okoye (Danai Gurira) leap to Scarlet Witch’s defense.

AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR has a superior script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. It tells a solid story, does a remarkable job giving this huge ensemble plenty to do and many of their own signature moments, and contains fine dialogue throughout. And this is no surprise since both these guys have written several of the previous Marvel movies, including one of the best, CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (2016).

Brothers Anthony and Joe Russo do a fine directing job. The movie starts off with a thrilling pre-credit sequence showing Thanos tangling with Thor, Loki, and the Hulk, and pretty much decimating Asgard, which sets the stage perfectly for the rest of the movie. The audience learns immediately that Thanos is a formidable foe.

The film is paced nicely as its 149 minute running time flies by.  It also looks great, as the various worlds here are full of eye-popping color and look amazing.  The battle scenes are pretty much all exciting and authentic.

This is the Russo brothers’ first AVENGERS movie, taking over the directorial duties from Joss Whedon. The Russos had previously directed CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER (2014) and CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (2016).

There are so many memorable moments in this movie they are too numerous to list. But since I can’t contain myself, here are a few more: it was fun to see the characters from BLACK PANTHER back doing their thing here in this movie. Doctor Strange is actually more likable here than he was in his own movie. Loki has one of his best on-screen sequences yet. Gamora (Zoe Saldana) also has some powerfully emotional scenes, as does the wise cracking Rocket (Bradley Cooper), who Thor constantly refers to as the “Rabbit.” And on and on I could go.

And then there’s the ending.

What. A. Bold. Ending.

Okay, I’m partial to dark endings, but this is exactly the type of ending which so many movies which feature such powerful villains should have but all too often don’t because filmmakers shy away from them. I absolutely loved the ending to AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR. It will leave you breathless, speechless, and without saliva. Any other ending would not have seemed as real. It hearkened back to the ending of the best STAR WARS movie, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980).

And of course, we know there is yet another untitled AVENGERS movie to follow, and so we know there is more to this story to be told, even though this ending is as dark as they can get, and the film is better for it.

Like the other Marvel movies, there is an after-end-credit scene, so if you want to see it, be sure to sit through the credits. There’s also another hilarious Stan Lee cameo, and these just seem to get better and better.

I absolutely loved AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR, and as a testament to how good these Marvel films have become, while I loved this film, it’s not my favorite Marvel film of the year so far, as that distinction still belongs to BLACK PANTHER (2018) which is so good it’s in a league by itself.

That being said, you can’t go wrong with AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR which is pretty much nonstop adventure and excitement throughout. Its story about a group of admirable, off-beat, and oftentimes oddball characters who are usually at odds with each other, united to protect life across the universe from a madman who wants to destroy half the population because he wants to save the other half, and has the power to do it, is a winner and a crowd pleaser.

And if you’re a Marvel superhero movie fan and have seen all the movies, you get the added bonus of this film playing out like a season finale.

As such, I can’t wait for “next season’s” premiere, and that will happen with the next AVENGERS movie, due out in 2019.

Let the countdown begin.

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THE HORROR JAR: WEREWOLF MOVIES NOT STARRING LON CHANEY JR.

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Oliver Reed in Hammer’s THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF (1961).

 

Welcome back to THE HORROR JAR, the column that looks at horror movie lists. Up today, werewolf movies that did not star Lon Chaney Jr.

Yup, Lon Chaney Jr. kinda cornered the classic werewolf movie market with his iconic portrayal of Lawrence Talbot/the Wolf Man in five classic Universal monster movies, including THE WOLF MAN (1941), the film most fans and critics consider to be the best werewolf movie ever made. But there have been lots of other werewolf movies over the years, some good, some bad. The following list is not exhaustive in that it does not include every werewolf movie ever made, as there are some I’m just not going to mention (sorry TWILIGHT fans).

That being said, it’s still a rather sizable list. Without further hesitation, here they are, werewolf movies without Lon Chaney Jr.:

WEREWOLF OF LONDON (1936) – Werewolf/Dr. Glendon – Henry Hull; Dr. Yogami-Warner Oland – Universal’s first werewolf picture, made before Chaney’s THE WOLF MAN, features two werewolves, the main character Dr. Glendon played by Henry Hull, and Dr. Yogami, played by Warner Oland. Inferior to THE WOLF MAN in every way, especially in the make-up department.

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Henry Hull’s werewolf makes sure he’s fashionably dressed before heading out to prowl the streets.

THE UNDYING MONSTER (1942)- Werewolf-??? – Actually, I know who the werewolf is, but this one’s a mystery, and the detective on the case is trying to figure out the werewolf’s identity, so, no spoilers here! Very atmospheric thriller, hindered by underwhelming werewolf scenes.

SHE-WOLF OF LONDON (1946) – Werewolf/Phyllis Allenby -June Lockhart – Long before she played Maureen Robinson on the original LOST IN SPACE TV series (1965-68), June Lockhart played the lead in this werewolf thriller by Universal. Okay movie has one major problem: no werewolf scenes.  So, don’t sit down to watch this one because you want to know what a she-wolf looks like. The film doesn’t show you.

THE RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE (1943) – Werewolf/Andreas Obry- Matt Willis – The main reason to see this one is Bela Lugosi’ performance as vampire Armand Tesla. But there’s also a werewolf here, marking the first time a vampire and a werewolf appeared in a movie together.

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Matt Willis in RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE (1943)

THE WEREWOLF (1956) – Werewolf- Steven Ritch – this effective horror movie from the 1950s features a strong script and riveting performances in this tale of a werewolf terrorizing a small town.  Steven Ritch plays a sympathetic werewolf, the first time in a movie that the werewolf was created by scientific means. No full moon or silver bullets here. The make-up by Clay Campbell is the same Campbell used in THE RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE, and it’s more effective here.

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Steven Ritch in THE WEREWOLF (1956)

I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF (1957) – Werewolf/Tony Rivers – Michael Landon. Another werewolf created by a mad scientist, but the gimmick here is the werewolf is a teenager. Michael Landon steals the show as hot head teen turned werewolf Tony Rivers.  Fantastic make-up, and some truly chilling scenes. This is one of the better werewolf movies. And for LOST IN SPACE fans: while June Lockhart played the lead in SHE-WOLF OF LONDON, here Guy Williams, who played her husband John Robinson on LOST IN SPACE, plays a police officer.

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Michael Landon and his infamous drool in I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF (1957).

THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF (1961) – Werewolf/Leon – Oliver Reed – Hammer Films’ only werewolf movie, widely considered to be one of the best. Excellent make-up by Roy Ashton and memorable performance by Oliver Reed.

WEREWOLF IN A GIRL’S DORMITORY (1961)-  Werewolf – ??? – Italian werewolf movie, another whodunit. Shh! No spoilers.

MOON OF THE WOLF (1972) – Werewolf/Andrew Rodnathe- Bradford Dillman – Made-for-TV horror movie from the early 1970s. David Janssen plays a sheriff, and Bradford Dillman the werewolf.

THE BOY WHO CRIED WEREWOLF (1973) – Werewolf- Paul Baxley. A boy spends this movie trying to convince everyone that his father, attacked by a werewolf, is now a werewolf himself.

THE BEAST MUST DIE (1974)- Werewolf- ??? – Amicus Studios only werewolf movie, another whodunit.  Peter Cushing has a supporting role in this very 70s horror movie.

LEGEND OF THE WEREWOLF (1975) – Werewolf/Etoile – David Rintoul -Produced by Tyburn Films, a company that tried to become the next Hammer but failed, this OK werewolf film is worth watching for Peter Cushing’s scene-stealing performance as a medical examiner who finds himself tracking down the werewolf.

AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (1981) – Werewolf/David Kessler – David Naughton – Probably the most famous and the best of post 1980 werewolf movies, featuring Academy Award winning special effects by Rick Baker.  Creative and humorous screenplay by director John Landis.

THE HOWLING (1981)-  Werewolf – various – 1981 was a fine year for werewolves, as it saw the release of this well-made werewolf movie and AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON.

THE COMPANY OF WOLVES (1984) – Werewolf – various – artsy werewolf movie starring
Angela Lansbury.

SILVER BULLET (1985) -Werewolf/Reverend Lowe -Everett McGill -Stephen King wrote the screenplay, which he adapted from his novel.  Not highly regarded, but I’ve always liked this movie. A lot.

TEEN WOLF (1985) -Werewolf/Scott Howard – Michael J. Fox – comedy with Michael J. Fox. Nuff said.

WOLF  (1994) -Werewolf/Will Randall – Jack Nicholson – Never liked this one, even with Michelle Pfeiffer in the cast.

THE WOLFMAN (2010) – Werewolf/Lawrence Talbot – Benicio Del Toro – flawed Universal remake of Chaney’s THE WOLF MAN is still colorful and atmospheric, with Rick Baker again winning an Oscar for Best Make-Up.

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Rick Baker’s make-up wins another Oscar.

So there you have it, a list of werewolf movies not starring Lon Chaney Jr. Just in case you’ve seen all the Lawrence Talbot werewolf films and are looking for something different. Of course, no one played a werewolf better than Lon Chaney Jr.

Thanks for joining me today, and I’ll hope you’ll join me again next time on another HORROR JAR.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

BEIRUT (2018) – Complex Thriller Driven by Strong Performances

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BEIRUT (2018) is a complex thriller about a hostage negotiation in 1982 Beirut. Driven by strong performances by Jon Hamm and Rosamund Pike, the film does a lot of things well and more than makes up for its lack of supporting character development and peripheral plot.

The movie opens in 1972 Beirut with American diplomat Mason Skiles (Jon Hamm) hosting a dinner party with his wife for a group of dignitaries, including a United States Congressman, where Mason explains the current intricate political situation inside Lebanon. When Mason’s best friend Cal (Mark Pellegrino) arrives with the shocking news that the thirteen year-old boy Mason and his wife have taken into their home and consider a part of their family is the younger brother of the world’s most wanted terrorist, and the U.S. authorities want to extract the boy that very night. Mason refuses, and in the middle of his argument with Cal, gunmen open fire on the party and whisk the boy away before the U.S. agents can take him.  In the process, Mason’s wife is shot and killed.

The story picks up ten years later and finds Mason back in the U.S. working as a mediator and negotiator for local labor disputes. He has left his former life behind him, having walked away from both Beirut and his friend Cal immediately after the shooting, and he hasn’t spoken to his former friend since he left.

But all that changes when he is approached by a group of federal agents who want his help.  It seems that an American was taken hostage in Beirut, and the kidnappers demanded that Mason handle the negotiation.  Mason balks at the idea and says that the kidnappers simply pulled his name out of a hat. The agents then inform Mason that the hostage is his friend Cal.

Against his better judgement but not wanting to abandon Cal a second time, Mason returns to Beirut to negotiate the release of his best friend.

BEIRUT tells a compelling enough story and for the most part keeps its intricate tale from becoming too confusing. It’s a decent screenplay by Tony Gilroy, as one would expect as Gilroy also penned screenplays for the BOURNE movies and more recently he was one of the writers involved with ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY (2016).

BEIRUT reminded me a little bit of ARGO (2012), the Ben Affleck movie which won Best Picture in 2012. Both films share suspenseful hostage stories and international intrigue, although ARGO told the better story by far.

The story BEIRUT tells is not as memorable, nor is it as riveting since one of the weaknesses of the screenplay is the supporting characters aren’t really developed. In ARGO, the audience gets to know the hostages. In BEIRUT, very little is known about hostage Cal, and so even though the proceedings are very interesting, they don’t always resonate as well as they should on an emotional level.

The best part of BEIRUT are the performances by the two leads, Jon Hamm and Rosamund Pike. Hamm is terrific as Mason Skiles, although this smooth talking alcoholic character is clearly reminiscent of Don Draper, the character Hamm played so well on the TV series MAD MEN (2007-2015). Fans of the show might have fun imagining that this is what happened next to Mr. Draper. And while Hamm isn’t exactly out of his comfort zone here, he still delivers an enjoyable performance.

Rosamund Pike is also excellent as Sandy Crowder, one of the government operatives who helps Mason when he’s on the ground in Beirut. It’s a solid understated performance by Pike, whose character has her own reasons for wanting to extract Cal. The other dynamic I enjoyed between Mason and Sandy is that unlike most movies where the male and female leads are involved romantically, this time they are not, which I found refreshing.

I like Pike a lot and have enjoyed her recent roles in such films as HOSTILES (2017), GONE GIRL (2014), and JACK REACHER (2012) to name a few.

BEIRUT also has a strong supporting cast.  Mark Pellegrino is very good as Cal, Mason’s shadowy friend, even if the character isn’t developed all that well. For most of the film we don’t really know if Cal is a good guy or not, which hurts the story somewhat.

Dean Norris, Hank on TV’s BREAKING BAD (20080-2013) is nearly unrecognizable with a full head of hair and glasses as Donald Gaines, one of the government agents who recruits Mason. And Shea Whigham is memorable as another of these agents, Gary Ruzak.

BEIRUT was directed by Brad Anderson, who’s directed a lot of movies and TV shows, including the horror movie SESSION 9 (2001).  Anderson certainly does a good job of capturing war-ravaged Lebanon circa 1982, and the film’s location alone is enough to make this one a nail biter.

The story is certainly engrossing as we follow Mason’s efforts to find his friend Cal and navigate the negotiations needed to release him. There are some decent scenes, like when Mason first meets the group claiming to have Cal, as there is a rather unexpected execution right in the middle of it.  And the film heats up every time Mason slips away from his handlers, driving them crazy while he’s off the grid.

That being said, there really isn’t any centerpiece scene in this movie, either in artistic design or in its plot, no part of the film where it kicks into high gear and really becomes something special.

And I would imagine this one is not making a whole lot of money. I saw it with a very small audience. There were fewer than ten people in the theater.

Nonetheless, it’s a solid movie driven by two potent performances by Jon Hamm and Rosamund Pike, and it’s certainly worth a trip to the theater.

BEIRUT is also a nice reminder of the value of diplomacy and negotiation over violence, even though when all is said and done, there is certainly lots of bloodshed, which is what you would expect in 1982 Beirut.

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RAMPAGE (2018) – Giant Monster Tale Keeps Things Light

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I am not a fan of movies based on video games.

However, I do enjoy movies about giant monsters, and in general I find Dwayne Johnson to be an amiable screen presence.  So, while I expected very little from RAMPAGE (2018), a giant monster adventure loosely based on the classic arcade video game, I certainly wasn’t dreading it.

RAMPAGE opens in space with an experiment gone wrong. A scientist attempts to return to Earth but her ship burns up upon re-entering the atmosphere.  However, capsules containing an experimental genetic pathogen which causes its subjects to grow and mutate into unstoppable aggressors survive the flight and crash to the ground where they are ingested by a gorilla, a wolf, and a crocodile.

The albino gorilla, named George, lives in a zoo and is cared for by a zoologist named Davis (Dwayne Johnson).  When George suddenly grows and becomes aggressive, Davis tries to protect his prize gorilla, who also happens to be his friend. Have I said yet that this one is silly at times?  Well, there. I said it.

Enter Dr. Kate Caldwell (Naomie Harris) who used to work for the company that created the rogue DNA.  Yep, once more, the bad guy in the film is yet another— repeat after me– evil company!— this time led by the ice-cold Claire Wyden (Malin Akerman) and her goofy brother Brett (Jake Lacy). Kate tried to expose the evil company for what it was, but was jailed for her efforts.  Worse yet, she blames the death of her brother on Wyden’s faulty research. As a result, Kate wants to take Wyden down, and she and Davis join forces because she tells him that if he wants to save George, Wyden has the answers.

But not so fast! Enter shadowy government agent Harvey Russell (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) who wants to stop the monsters, Davis’ and Kate’s rogue efforts, and the Wydens. He sure has his hands full.

And all three giant monsters are stomping towards Chicago, drawn there by a signal set up by Claire Wyden to bring them there so she can reclaim her research and save her company. What. A. Stupid. Plan.

Yes, everyone’s heading to Chicago, for one big climactic— rampage!

But don’t expect a horrific monstrous finale because RAMPAGE keeps things light. The best thing I can say about RAMPAGE is that it tries to have fun throughout, and for the most part, it is a fun movie.  It’s also a rather silly movie and as such doesn’t do its giant monster tale many favors.

Director Brad Peyton, who also directed Dwayne Johnson in the earthquake melodrama SAN ANDREAS (2015), keeps the action safe and tame. The best action sequence is the final one, when all three monsters converge in Chicago. Before that, there are a few okay scenes, like the hunt for the wolf, and the sequence where George wakes up on the plane, but really nothing all that spectacular.  That being said, I enjoyed RAMPAGE more than SAN ANDREAS.

The screenplay by four writers, Ryan Engle, Carlton Cuse, Ryan J. Condal, and Adam Sztykiel is a mixed bag. In general, it does a good job telling its monster story and moves it along nicely towards it climactic showdown in Chicago. But a lot of the dialogue is pretty bad. Most of Dwayne Johnson’s lines don’t work.  His one liners come off as “Arnold Schwarzenegger-lite.”

And the friendship story between Davis and George made me want to gag. It’s sappier than a maple tree. As such, the rampaging George is more akin to Mighty Joe Young than King Kong.

The monsters are also a mixed bag. The close-ups of George look pretty good, but the giant Wolf and Crocodile didn’t really impress me. Yet another example of underwhelming CGI effects.

Dwayne Johnson does his thing, and per usual, he’s entertaining throughout. He makes Davis a likable character who’s easy to root for. And seriously, there aren’t too many actors on the planet who could share a scene with three gigantic CGI monsters, take part in their physical rampage, and look believable doing it.

Naomie Harris, so memorable as Moneypenny in the new James Bond movies, as well as having notable roles in a bunch of other films, including MOONLIGHT (2016) and OUR KIND OF TRAITOR (2016), to name just a couple, doesn’t fare as well here in RAMPAGE. Her character, Dr. Kate Caldwell, in spite of her dramatic desire for revenge against the Wyden company, is reduced to being Dwayne Johnson’s sidekick and eventual love interest.

Jeffrey Dean Morgan as government agent Harvey Russell does his best Negan shtick, the character he plays on THE WALKING DEAD, only this time he’s one of the good guys rather than the villain. Morgan gives the liveliest performance in the movie.

Malin Akerman, who co-starred with Jeffrey Dean Morgan in the dark superhero flick WATCHMEN (2009), is sufficiently ruthless as Claire Wyden, but in a strictly cartoonish way. Likewise, Jake Lacy seems to be having fun as her bumbling brother Brett. Lacy enjoyed a memorable brief bit in THEIR FINEST (2016) as the American war hero with no acting experience thrust into a lead movie role.

RAMPAGE isn’t bad. It has giant monsters, Dwayne Johnson, and some decent giant monster action sequences, but its silly script keeps things a bit too light throughout and never becomes all that engrossing. Instead, it plays out like a Saturday morning cartoon of yesteryear.

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A QUIET PLACE (2018) – Smart Horror Movie Riveting and Scary

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Talk about quiet horror!

Shh! No yelling! This is A QUIET PLACE.

A QUIET PLACE is a new horror movie by director John Krasinski, known mostly for his recurring role as Jim Halpert on the comedic TV show THE OFFICE (2005-2013) starring Steve Carell. Krasinski both directs and stars here, along with his real-life wife Emily Blunt.

A QUIET PLACE is a simple thriller that nonetheless works well.  Its tagline, “If they hear you, they hunt you,” sums up the film perfectly.

It’s yet another horror movie about an apocalypse, as this time it’s strange violent creatures that roam the countryside preying on human beings. They’re unstoppable and they’re hungry.  They’re also blind. To make up for their lack of sight, they possess incredible hearing, and thus that’s how they hunt. It’s exactly as the film’s tagline says, if they hear you they hunt you.  So, to survive, you have to be awfully quiet.

It’s kind of a silly premise, when you think about it, that these creatures would have made it this far without being stopped, but that being said, there’s nothing silly about the rest of A QUIET PLACE. It’s a solid thriller throughout.

A QUIET PLACE basically follows one family trying to survive among these creatures. They live in silence in their farmhouse.  There’s the father Lee (John Krasinski), mother Evelyn (Emily Blunt), teen daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds) who happens to be deaf, and younger son Marcus (Noah Jupe). They live in mortal fear of the creatures, having lost their youngest son to one of them in the film’s pre-credit sequence.

They’re also quite resourceful, devising a system to communicate with lights and creating an undergound sound proof room. But with three of these creatures living in the vicinity of their farm, they need to be.  And, oh yeah.  Evelyn is pregnant and is about to give birth. So much for a quiet place!

A QUIET PLACE possessed the same tone as another recent apocalyptic horror movie, IT COMES AT NIGHT (2017), a movie I liked a lot. The big difference between the two is the threat was never defined in IT COMES AT NIGHT while here in A QUIET PLACE the threat is made known at the outset.

The creatures here reminded me of things found in the CLOVERFIELD universe. In fact, for a time, Paramount considered making this movie a part of the CLOVERFIELD franchise, which would have made perfect sense. The chilling scenes in the cornfields were also reminiscent of similar scenes in M. Night Shyamalan’s SIGNS (2002).  That being said, A QUIET PLACE isn’t derivative of these films. It stands on its own.

A QUIET PLACE starts off— well, quiet, and after a jarring pre-credit scene moves slowly for a bit before really picking up steam during its second act.  There are some really suspenseful scenes in this one. The centerpiece and the most intense scene by far is the entire birthing sequence when Emily Blunt’s Evelyn is trying to give birth while there’s a creature pursuing her.  Scary stuff!  And I loved every minute of it!

As I said, early on, things are really quiet, as the characters need to be silent, and with a minimum of dialogue, very little happening on the soundtrack, it made for a very different kind of viewing for a while. All the folks in the audience munching on popcorn seemed to stop and the theater got really silent.  Some of the younger audience members, teenagers, couldn’t contain themselves and felt the urge to shout out comments every once in a while, but once things heated up in the second half, they fell frighteningly silent.

I really enjoyed A QUIET PLACE.  The acting was superb.  John Krasinski is solid as Lee Abbott, the caring dad who will stop at nothing to protect his family.

I thought Emily Blunt gave the best performance in the film as mom Evelyn Abbott. Like the rest of the family, she’s haunted by the death of their youngest son.

Millicent Simmonds, deaf in real life, is excellent as Regan, the daughter who has issues with her father, since she believes he blames her for her little brother’s death. And Noah Jupe, who we saw in last year’s WONDER (2017) as Auggie’s friend Jack Will, makes for a very frightened Marcus Abbott.

A QUIET PLACE has a smart screenplay by Bryan Woods, Scott Beck, and John Krasinski. Its story is frightening throughout, and its characters likable and believable. It’s not perfect. I thought it was slow-going at first, and its resolution, the steps taken by the Abbotts to combat the creatures, made me scratch my head in disbelief that no one else had thought of this before.

John Krasinski does a terrific job directing as well. The early scenes, though slow-paced, take full advantage of sound, or lack thereof.  With a nearly silent soundtrack during its first half, all sounds are magnified and used to full effect.  And once the film takes off during its second half, the suspense is pretty much nonstop and a heck of a lot of fun.

A QUIET PLACE is a high quality horror movie, the kind of film like last year’s GET OUT (2017) that helps raise the bar for the horror genre.

It’s my favorite horror movie of the year so far.

—END—

 

 

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: THE CURSE OF THE MUMMY’S TOMB (1964)

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Curse_of_the_Mummy's_tomb - poster

The following IN THE SPOOKLIGHT column originally appeared in the April 2012 edition of the HWA NEWSLETTER:

 

Like Universal before them, Hammer Films made a series of Mummy movies, four to be exact, none of them direct sequels, none of them all that exciting, but all of them in vivid color and at the very least entertaining.

THE CURSE OF THE MUMMY’S TOMB (1964) is the second Mummy movie Hammer made, and of the four, it’s my second favorite.  My favorite, of course, is their first Mummy movie, THE MUMMY (1959) starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.  Again, THE CURSE OF THE MUMMY’S TOMB is not a sequel to THE MUMMY but tells an entirely new story, completely separate from Hammer’s initial Mummy movie.

Egyptologists John Bray (Ronald Howard), Sir Giles Dalrymple (Jack Gwillim), and Annette Dubois (Jeanne Roland) discover the mummified remains of the Egyptian prince Ra.  Like all good Mummy movies, there’s a curse that says anyone who messes with the mummy’s tomb will die.  The difference in this story, however, is that the curse is welcomed.  That’s because the expedition has been financed by an American showman Alexander King (Fred Clark) who wants to take the mummy and all the relics discovered along with it on the road for a sort of travelling road show, the sort of thing Carl Denham would have dreamed up after his adventures with King Kong.

Unfortunately, the show doesn’t last long because someone— the audience doesn’t know who— resurrects the Mummy, and so King can’t have his show without its star.  Soon afterwards, the Mummy goes on a murder spree, methodically attempting to kill everyone involved in the discovery of his tomb.  Will the Mummy kill everyone in the movie?  Or will our heroes figure out the identity of the Mummy’s secret benefactor and stop both him and the Mummy before it’s too late?  You’ll have to watch THE CURSE OF THE MUMMY’S TOMB to find out.

I’ve always found THE CURSE OF THE MUMMY’S TOMB to be a fairly entertaining movie, as it has some neat things going for it.

First off, director Michael Carreras cranks up the violence in this one, although admittedly by today’s standards, the movie is very tame.  The movie opens with a scene in which a man’s hand is chopped off.  In another scene, the Mummy uses a heavy statuette to smash in the head of his victim.  This occurs off camera, of course, but alone on the soundtrack— without any accompanying music— is the sickening thud of the statuette crushing the man’s skull.  In yet another scene, the Mummy uses its powerful foot to obliterate his victim’s head.  Nasty!

Director Carreras usually served Hammer in another capacity, as a producer.  He produced many of their early hits, including THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957) and HORROR OF DRACULA (1958).  As the director of THE CURSE OF THE MUMMY’S TOMB, Carreras performs well.

The first time the Mummy makes his appearance, it’s an excellent scene as he steps from a thick fog onto the top of a creepy outdoor staircase ready to attack his first victim.  Later, the Mummy emerges from fog again, this time just before crashing through a window.

Another neat touch is the sound effect of the Mummy breathing.  Fourteen years later John Carpenter would use a similar effect with Michael Myers in HALLOWEEN (1978).

Carreras also penned the screenplay using the pseudonym “Henry Younger” which was an in-joke because fellow Hammer producer Anthony Hinds wrote the screenplays for a ton of Hammer movies [including THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF (1961) & DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE (1968)] under the pen name “John Elder.”

Carreras’ screenplay tells the usual Mummy tale but does include an interesting plot twist.  While it won’t knock your socks off, it’s still an intriguing twist.

The actual Mummy make-up looks fine, but the same can’t be said for the Mummy’s body.    The Mummy was played by stunt man Dickie Owen, and he surprisingly sports a noticeable pot belly.  It’s sadly laughable.

Lon Chaney Jr. was criticized when he played Kharis the Mummy for Universal for looking too solid and heavy to be an Egyptian mummy, but Chaney looks like a trim Olympic athlete compared to the Mummy in this movie!

THE CURSE OF THE MUMMY’S TOMB has a solid cast.  Ronald Howard, the son of famed actor Leslie Howard, is capable as lead Egyptologist John Bray.  I also really liked Fred Clark as the showman Alexander King.  The best part about the entire cast, which can be said for the majority of Hammer movies, is that they are thoroughly believable in their roles.  They make you believe in all the supernatural proceedings.

THE CURSE OF THE MUMMY’S TOMB also has a good music score by Carlo Martelli.

On the other hand, one thing that doesn’t work so well is the ending, which is abrupt and is probably the weakest part of the movie.  Compared to the Mummy scenes that come before it, the ending is not very exciting.

Overall, though, THE CURSE OF THE MUMMY’S TOMB is a decent Mummy movie, competently executed by all involved, and it gets much better once the Mummy finally appears.  The final twenty minutes are the best part of the movie, except for the ending, which mummy-wraps things up too quickly.

So, this spring, if you’re pining for pleasant sunshine and warmer temperatures, but the weather isn’t cooperating, take a trip to the desert sands of Egypt in search of Mummies and monsters.  And like Alexander King in the movie, don’t fear THE CURSE OF THE MUMMY’S TOMB, but embrace it!

That’s right.  Hug your Mummy today!

—END—

 

 

 

 

CHAPPAQUIDDICK (2018) – Recounts Tragic Ted Kennedy Car Crash and Subsequent Cover-up

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Jason Clarke as Ted Kennedy and Kate Mara as Mary Jo Kopechne in CHAPPAQUIDDICK (2018).

CHAPPAQUIDDICK (2018) tells the tragic tale of a young woman who lost her life when the car she was riding in crashed off a rickety wooden bridge on the Massachusetts island of Chappaquiddick and plunged into the water below where, trapped inside the car, she drowned, while the drunk man at the wheel swam to safety.

The man, of course, was Senator Ted Kennedy.

CHAPPAQUIDDICK tells this true story through the prism of what the Kennedy name meant to the United States in 1969. It had been just over one year since Robert Kennedy had been assassinated. President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated just six years before, and all eyes were on young Ted Kennedy as the heir apparent.  JFK’s work was left unfinished, and when Robert Kennedy attempted to take up the mantle, he too was cut down.  The feeling in 1969 wasn’t so much that the Kennedys were entitled, but that their vision for the United States— one of optimism and promise— was desperately needed.  People wanted Ted Kennedy to run for president.

The problem was Ted himself wasn’t all that interested. He had lived in the shadows of his older brothers his whole life and felt the sting of a strict father who seemed to view him as much less of a man than his older brothers.  And then there was his safety to consider.  We see Ted wearing a bullet proof vest at one point.  The Ted Kennedy we see in CHAPPAQUIDDICK is a sad, somber soul, a lost soul, trying to make his way in the world, feeling unbelievable pressure to do something he didn’t really want to do, and pretty much behaving in a way that suggested he wanted to get away from it all.

And on this particular weekend in 1969 his brother John’s legacy was on full display as Neil Armstrong was about to set foot on the moon, and all the newscasts were hearkening back to JFK’s inspiring words which had propelled the space program forward in the early 1960s.

So, when the accident happened, there was a prevalent feeling to protect Ted Kennedy, not because he was wealthy and privileged, but because he was needed to continue the work of his brothers and keep the nation on a positive path.  This view was shared by both those in power on Kennedy’s side and a large portion of the general public who even after the story broke still said they would vote for him, and of course in reality they actually did.

But still, a young woman lay dead in a car submerged underwater.

Early in CHAPPAQUIDDICK, young Senator Kennedy (Jason Clarke) and his cousin Joe Gargan (Ed Helms) set up a party on the island of Chappaquiddick, located near Martha’s Vineyard, for the “Boiler Room Girls,” a group of women who had worked on Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign.  It was meant to be a reunion and celebration of the work these women had done on Robert Kennedy’s behalf.

Kennedy chats with Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara) and asks her to join his staff in Washington, D.C., but she declines, saying she doesn’t think she can handle another presidential campaign, to which Kennedy replies that she won’t have to, the implication being that he’s not going to run for president. Later in the evening, the two leave the party and take a drive into the night where they continue to chat, and as they attempt to travel to a secluded beach, the drunken Kennedy drives off the infamous bridge into the water.

He somehow manages to escape the car, and he makes his way back to the party where he tells his cousin Joe what happened.  They return to the scene of the accident, along with Paul Markham (Jim Gaffigan) and they attempt unsuccessfully to extract Mary Jo from the submerged vehicle. Joe tells Ted that he must report the accident, the sooner the better, and Ted agrees. However, Ted does not report it.  Instead, he returns to his hotel room in Edgartown, and he calls his ailing father Joe Kennedy (Bruce Dern) who can barely speak, but the Kennedy patriarch does say one word to his son: alibi.

It takes ten hours before the conflicted Ted Kennedy finally decides to report the incident, and after going back and forth with what to say, admits that he was indeed the driver of the vehicle.  What follows is the tale of the cover up, the powerful advisors on one side, who are doing everything in their power to create a false narrative to save Ted’s political career, and Ted’s cousin Joe on the other side, imploring him to remember that a young woman is dead and for him to tell the truth. In the middle is a confused young Senator who seems lost throughout these events, pulled in multiple directions, conflicted between doing the right thing for himself, for his family, for his country, and for Mary Jo Kopechne. In short, he doesn’t have a clue.

CHAPPAQUIDDICK tells a somber story that portrays Ted Kennedy as a conflicted, confused figure. At times he comes off as sympathetic because he seems to want to do the right thing, but more often than not he’s seen as a massively frustrating figure who completely and continually botches the situation, and if not for his famous name could and most likely should have easily gone to jail for manslaughter.

But the best part of CHAPPAQUIDDICK is it tells its tale with Mary Jo Kopechne at its forefront.  Never does the movie allow its audience to forget that Mary Jo Kopechne, a promising young woman with a bright future ahead of her, lost her life that night. Worse yet, it’s quite possible she died not only because of Ted Kennedy’s drunk driving, but because he didn’t call for help immediately.  The film intimates that she survived for a while inside the vehicle before ultimately passing away.

Jason Clarke delivers a grave performance as Ted Kennedy. He portrays Kennedy with a “deer in the headlights” expression throughout.  He makes Kennedy a man who seemed completely lost and overwhelmed by the events around him. Should he listen to his father and lie? Or to his cousin Joe and tell the truth? He portrays Kennedy as a man who knows what’s expected of him because of his family name, yet seems to want to carve out his own path in life, and when this tragedy occurs, at his own hands, he goes back and forth between owning up and saving his political hide for the sake of a nation. One thing that Kennedy is not portrayed as is a cold-hearted manipulator.

Jason Clarke has delivered some fine performances in the past, in films like DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2014), THE GREAT GATSBY (2013), and ZERO DARK THIRTY (2012), but this might be his finest work yet. He captures the essense of the conflicted Kennedy so perfectly you almost can feel a migraine coming on while watching him.

I’m a huge fan of Kate Mara, and I’m still waiting for her breakout role. With very limited screen time here, this isn’t it, but she’s still excellent as Mary Jo Kopechne. In her brief time on-screen, Mara makes Mary Jo a three-dimensional character, one whose presence is felt throughout the film, even after she has drowned.

Ed Helms gives the most memorable performance in the film as Kennedy cousin and “fixer” Joe Gargan. Normally a comedic actor, Helms more than holds his own in this dramatic role. He’s the voice of reason in this story and its conscience, the voice audiences hope Ted Kennedy listens to, but ultimately that’s not what happened.

Bruce Dern also makes an impact as the gravely ill and very harsh Kennedy patriarch Joe Kennedy, who would die a few months after the Chappaquiddick incident. At this time, Joe Kennedy could barely speak, and as such Dern’s performance is pretty much sans dialogue.  He does manage to utter that one cold calculating word to his son over the phone, “alibi,” and later when Ted opens his heart to his father and says he’s unsure of who he is and where he’s going, but he does know he wants to be a great man, his father responds, “you’ll never be great.” Ted hugs him anyway.

Clancy Brown is memorable as Robert McNamara, the former Secretary of Defense called in to “fix” the Chappaquiddick incident.  As is Olivia Thirlby as fellow “Boiler Girl” and Mary Jo’s friend Rachel Schiff who utters the prophetic line to Ted that even Mary Jo’s parents didn’t blame him for her death, so why should America?

The screenplay by Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan pretty much tells two stories. On the one hand, there’s the ugly tale of Kennedy’s cowardly negligence which led to the tragic death of a young woman and the subsequent cover up by the rich and powerful powers that be to save the political career of a young senator with a famous name. But there’s also the story of a nation still mourning the loss of its beloved Kennedy brothers, and how the voting public was willing to turn a blind eye on the actions of the man who they hoped would be the successor to these leaders, the younger brother, Ted Kennedy.

And in the middle of both stories, a conflicted, sad, confused, and for one fateful evening completely irresponsible Senator Ted Kennedy, who if not for his name, should have gone to jail for both his actions and inactions. Instead, he served as a U.S. Senator from Massachusetts for over 40 years.

Director John Curran captures the salty feel of a Massachusetts island to the point where you can smell the unpleasant odor of the ocean, and it smells like death, ugly incompetence, and the vulgar actions of a political cover-up.

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com. Print version:  $18.00. Includes postage! 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.crossroadpress.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. 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

Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.