IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: THE OBLONG BOX (1969)

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This one is a reprint from September 2010, originally published in The Official Newsletter of the Horror Writers Association:

 

IN THE SPOOKGLIGHT

By

Michael Arruda

 

Vincent Price made a career playing over-the-top hammy dramatic characters in colorful period pieces in the 1960s.  He’s at it again in THE OBLONG BOX (1969), a film in which he is paired with Christopher Lee.

THE OBLONG BOX is loosely based on the Edgar Allan Poe short story of the same name—very loosely, as in just borrowing the title!

The story begins in Africa, with Sir Edward Markham (Alister Williamson) tortured by natives, his face apparently scarred beyond recognition. Markham’s brother Sir Julian Markham (Vincent Price) arrives too late to save him.

They return to England, with Sir Edward now a crazed lunatic. Sir Julian is forced to keep his brother locked in chains in an upstairs bedroom of their mansion.  With the help of a family friend Samuel Trench (Peter Arne), Edward plans his escape.  They hire an African witch doctor to supply Edward with a drug to imitate death.  The plan is for Edward to be removed from the house as a “corpse” only to be revived and rescued later by Trench.

However, Julian immediately seals Edward’s lifeless body inside a coffin and unknowingly buries his brother alive. Trench decides rescuing Edward from a premature burial is too dangerous and out of the question, and so he leaves him for dead.

Meanwhile, Dr. Neuhartt (Christopher Lee) has been paying grave robbers to supply him with bodies for his research. As luck would have it, his grave robbers dig up Edward. When Neuhartt opens the coffin inside his laboratory, Edward attacks him but doesn’t kill him, deciding he could use the doctor as an accomplice.

Edward then dons a crimson hood and seeks revenge against both Trench and his brother, going on a bloody rampage through the countryside, slitting the throats of his victims. Eventually, Julian discovers his brother is still alive, setting the stage for the final confrontation between brothers, as well as the obligatory unmasking of Edward’s hideous face.

THE OBLONG BOX has long been considered too long, too slow, and too rambling by critics, but I’ve always liked its intricate plot with its many pathways.   It takes the viewer along a very creepy ride, with premature burials, African voodoo, a masked maniac, and bloody murders.

THE OBLONG BOX was supposed to have been directed by Michael Reeves, the talented young director who had just finished another Price movie, THE CONQUEROR WORM (1968) [also known as THE WITCHFINDER GENERAL), a film that had been very well received. Sadly, Reeves died before he could direct THE OBLONG BOX, and so the directing duties went to Gordon Hessler.

A lot has been made of Hessler’s lackluster direction of this picture, and I would have to agree. In spite of its strong story, there really aren’t a lot of memorable scenes in THE OBLONG BOX.  On the contrary, there are a lot of weak scenes. The bloody killings are tepid and the blood obviously fake, and the final confrontation between Edward and Julian is also a disappointment, as well as the unmasking scene.  The make-up job on Edward’s face is embarrassingly routine. Still, Hessler can direct.  Five years later, he would be at the helm of THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1974), one of the best of the Ray Harryhausen Sinbad movies.

The acting is just OK. With Vincent Price, you get exactly what you would expect, an over-the-top hammy performance. As always, he’s fun to watch.  Christopher Lee is cast against type as the decent Dr. Neuhartt, but sadly, there’s not a lot for him to do with this role.

Alister Williamson is a disappointment as Sir Edward Markham.  As the main villain, Edward should dominate this movie. He doesn’t. Had Christopher Lee played Edward, THE OBLONG BOX would have been a much better movie. Of course, I can understand Lee not always wanting to play the bad guy. Trouble is, he’s just so damned good at it! I wish he had played the role.

Speaking of bad guys, probably the most memorable performance in THE OBLONG BOX belongs to Peter Arne as Samuel Trench. Trench is the slimiest character in this movie, and Arne plays him to the hilt.

But the most disappointing part of this movie is that in spite of the pairing of the two horror superstars, Price and Lee only share one brief scene together. Rip-off!

And the final nail in the coffin— heh, heh— regarding THE OBLONG BOX is that its ending doesn’t make any sense. It’s one of those endings where you see it and you know it was shot just to have a shocking last scene, even though based upon what has happened before, it makes little or no sense.

But even with all these flaws, I still like THE OBLONG BOX, for the simple reason that I love its plot, an exciting roller coaster ride of frights and thrills.  The screenplay was written by Lawrence Huntington, with additional dialogue by Christopher Wicking.

THE OBLONG BOX is an example of a movie that succeeds because of the strength of its writing. The direction is fair and the acting okay, but it’s the writing that lifts this one to memorable status, which is a rare thing in movies, a medium dominated by directors and actors.

—END—

 

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FAHRENHEIT 11/9 (2018) – Examines Current Political Climate, Offers Solutions

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Michael Moore first burst onto the scene with his well-received documentary ROGER & ME (1989), a scathing look at how GM CEO Roger B. Smith harmed Moore’s home town of Flint, Michigan, by closing the General Motors plant there which caused 30,000 folks to lose their jobs.

Since then, Moore has made his living churning out other documentaries, films like BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE (2002), which examined gun violence in America, and won Moore an Oscar, and FAHRENHEIT 9/11 (2004) which looked at the aftermath of September 11, 2001.

Now comes FAHRENHEIT 11/9 (2018) a film in which Moore sets his sights on the current state of U.S. politics, in particular, the presidency of Donald Trump. Not that it’s just about Trump. It’s not. It also examines the tragic water scandal in Flint, Michigan, the teachers’ strike in West Virginia, and the activism of the students from Parkland, Florida, following the deadly shooting at their school.

Michael Moore has developed a reputation over the years for making documentaries that are definitely biased. When you watch a Moore documentary, you are seeing things through Moore’s eyes, and he definitely brings a slant to the material. However, I would argue that Moore’s stamp on his documentaries has less to do with forcing a narrow point of view on its audience and more with entertaining them. In short, regardless of the seriousness of the subject matter, Moore knows how to tell a good story.

I would also argue that Moore’s documentaries are more fair and balanced than people give him credit for. Take FAHRENHEIT 11/9, for example. Sure, the film goes after Trump, but it also shines some very negative light on both Hillary and Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama, the point being that it’s the political system that’s the problem nowadays, not just Donald Trump. If the film makes anything clear, it’s that the problems we have now in our political system did not begin with Trump’s winning the presidency. They were in place long before Trump won the election.

But back to the storytelling talents of Michael Moore. FAHRENHEIT 11/9 opens with images of Hillary Clinton about to win the 2016 presidential election, accompanied by Moore’s voiceover, “Was this all a dream?” We see excited voters literally crying that they’re finally voting for a woman president, TV news commentators on both sides of the political spectrum all but guaranteeing a Clinton victory, and oddsmakers pretty much saying Trump had zero chance of winning.

The action switches from Hillary’s upbeat campaign headquarters to Trump’s, and as it does, Moore plays the ominous OMEN theme on the soundtrack, an over-the-top and entertaining touch to be sure.

We then see of course what eventually happened that night, that Trump went on to win the election, to which Moore asks in more voiceover narration, “How the f*ck did that happen?”

And that pretty much sets up the rest of the movie. How did we get where we are today, and now that we’re there, what can we do about it?

Early on, the film paints an unsavory picture of Donald Trump, which isn’t hard to do, since Trump pretty much paints this picture of himself on his own. In fact, at one point Moore relates the story of how Trump was once asked how he could continually weather the storm thrown at him by the media and his critics. His reply? “I am the storm.”

Point taken. For Trump, it’s always been about being the center of attention, and that is something that has remained throughout his presidency.

Moore relates the interesting anecdote that Trump’s interest in running for president began as a publicity stunt to earn him more money for his “Apprentice” TV show, and later when he was fired from the show for making controversial comments about Mexican immigrants, he found himself with more time on his hands and decided to attend the couple of rallies he had already scheduled. When he was met by huge enthusiastic crowds, Trump decided to run for real.

The film also enters some very uncomfortable territory concerning Trump’s relationship with his daughter Ivanka. Moore says very little here and lets all the established footage and comments by Trump about his daughter speak for itself. About the only thing Moore adds is the effective question, “Is this making you feel uncomfortable?”

And as the film points out various negative aspects about Trump, from his racism to his sexism, Moore makes the point that none of this is new. He says we knew this before, and yet no one, he says, called NBC to protest Trump’s involvement on the Apprentice TV show.

The film paints a negative picture of Trump and then some, and does not shy away from comparisons to Hitler. In fact, in one of the films best segments, we see footage of Hitler at a rally, but the audio track plays the sound from a Trump rally. They seem to synchronize perfectly. But none of the anti-Trump stuff in the movie is new. You only have to watch the news or read a newspaper to know that Trump isn’t exactly a presidential kind of guy.

What FAHRENHEIT 11/9 does better than bashing Trump is making the point that he just didn’t fall out of the sky and create all these problems. They existed already.

Moore traces the current political climate back to President Clinton and how back in 1992 after Republicans had dominated presidential politics since 1980, it was decided that the best way for a Democrat to win was to sound like a Republican, and hence the centrist policies were born, as the Democrat party shifted away from its far left and moved towards the center.

This shift continued with President Obama, and Moore points out that Obama’s policies were very Republican, from his use of drones on civilian targets to incarcerating illegal immigrants. Moore makes the point that voters were so frustrated because they felt it didn’t matter who won, both parties were not looking out for their best interests, and hence a lot of people stayed home and did not vote in the 2016 election, which led to Trump’s win.

Moore also goes after Hillary Clinton and the Democratic establishment and spends time chronicling how it took primary victories away from Bernie Sanders because he wasn’t the establisment candidate.

Moore also mentions that during the election, Trump smartly moved to the left on policies more than Hillary, as he doubled down on her connections to Goldman Sachs, and reminded voters that she had voted for the Iraq war, and he said he would never have supported it. Moore’s point: Trump is not stupid.

The second half of the film largely moves away from Trump and gets into the 2014 water crisis in Flint, Michigan, going into detail over the reckless and criminal behavior of Michigan governor Rick Snyder who allowed lead contaminated drinking water into the drinking supply and did nothing to stop it. This segment, which chronicles the illnesses of the children of Flint because of the lead contamination, is the most disturbing part of the film.

Moore also shows Obama personally arriving in Flint to the cheers of the people, seeing his presence as validation to their arguments. They believed he would save them, but that’s not what happened. Obama punted on the issue and seemed to imply it wasn’t all that bad, that filtered water would be okay. Interestingly enough, Moore reveals that in the 2016 presidential election, the only candidate who took the time to visit Flint was Donald Trump.

The second point of FAHRENHEIT 11/9, after making it clear that we are in a crisis in this country, is what can we do about it? And the answer according to Moore is political activism. Moore takes us to West Virginia where we witness a successful and very necessary teacher’s strike. He takes us to Parkland, Florida, where he shows firsthand the activism of the students there after the shooting at their school. Moore also chronicles the new crop of younger more liberal candidates.

Moore also points out that the United States in spite of what Republicans claim is really a liberal nation, and he backs this assertion up with poll after poll showing a majority of Americans are pro-choice, don’t own guns, want health care, and free public college tuition, among other things.

FAHRENHEIT 11/9 runs just over two hours, and it held my interest throughout. As I said, Moore’s strength as a maker of documentaries is that he knows how to tell a story. The film provides for an entertaining two hours, and this isn’t at the expense of an informative documentary. It does both quite successfully.

Members of Team Trump will no doubt cry “fake news” but as I said Moore also goes after Hillary, Obama, and the entire Democratic establishment.  Does Moore present his case with his own biases intact? Absolutely! But he backs up his opinions with real footage and interviews.

The United States is in a major political crisis here in 2018. FAHRENHEIT 11/9 makes the point that it is  not the time to throw in the towel and give up, but rather, it’s the time to get out there and vote and make a difference.

If not,  we will only have ourselves to blame.

—END—

 

WHITE BOY RICK (2018) – Somber Authentic Tale of Family, Drugs, and Guns in 1980s Detroit

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Richie Merritt and Matthew McConaughey in WHITE BOY RICK (2018).

Matthew McConaughey is a helluva an actor.

I like to poke fun at his Lincoln TV commercials, but in the movies, he’s the real deal and then some.

WHITE BOY RICK (2018) which stars McConaughey is one of the most somber, depressing movies I’ve seen in a long while. It may not be an enjoyable film, but it is certainly an authentic one. At times I thought I was watching a documentary. It does an exceptional job capturing the depression of 1980s Detroit, and its story, while slow, is delivered without fanfare, led by two powerful performances, one by McConaughey, and the other by newcomer Richie Merritt.

WHITE BOY RICK opens at a gun show where Rick Wershe Sr. (Matthew McConaughey) and his teenage son Rick Jr. (Richie Merritt) purchase semi-automatic weapons because that’s how Rick Sr. makes a living, by selling guns on the black market. Rick and his son live in Detroit. It’s the 1980s and the economy there is deplorable.  They are dirt poor and things are only getting worse. Rick talks optimistically about opening a video store but he never seems to get around to it.

They live alone in a run-down house, as Rick’s wife left them years ago, and Rick Jr.s older sister Dawn (Bel Powley), a junkie, moved out because she can’t stand her dad’s restrictions. Rick Sr.’s parents live next door, his cranky dad Grandpa (Bruce Dern) and his more soft-spoken mother Grandma (Piper Laurie).

Rick Jr. hangs out with his best friend “Boo” (RJ Cyler) whose dad Johnny (Jonathan Majors) operates the local drug trade. As Rick Jr. becomes closer to this seedy side of Detroit, he’s nabbed by FBI agents Snyder (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and Byrd (Rory Cochrane). They give Rick an ultimatum: if he sells drugs for them, in an effort to infiltrate and help them arrest the local drug pushers, they won’t arrest his dad for selling guns to drug dealers. Seeing that he has no choice, Rick Jr. agrees, and suddenly he’s playing a very dangerous game.

Eventually, as things continually get worse financially for Rick’s family, Rick Jr. decides to take matters into his own hands and use his drug contacts to sell drugs on his own. While Rick Sr. protests, arguing that selling drugs is bad news, he can’t deny that the money they could make dwarfs what they make selling guns, and they are desperately poor.

As I said, this is not a happy movie.

One of the main messages in WHITE BOY RICK is that under the drug laws of the 1980s it was actually worse to get caught selling drugs than it was to murder someone. Several characters mention this in the movie, and ultimately this is what happens when Rick Jr. is arrested. He receives a life sentence, And he was just a teenager.

It provides one of the more emotional moments of the film where Bruce Dern’s grandfather character cries out in court room, “He’s just a boy! How can you do this to just a boy!”

Not only can they do it, but they did do it, in real life, as WHITE BOY RICK is based on the true story of Rick Wershe Jr. who did indeed receive a life sentence in 1988 for selling drugs.

There is nothing flashy about the screenplay by Andy Weiss, Logan Miller, and Noah Miller. It goes about its business telling its story without frills. As such, the pacing is slow as often the audience feels like a fly on the wall to some of the conversations and situations, but it does do a remarkable job fleshing out the its characters. You might not like these people, but you will feel for them, mostly because they come off as real.

Director Yann Demange captures poverty-stricken Detroit perfectly, in spite of shooting the film in Cleveland. The story he tells is raw and gritty, the characters unrefined and pungent, and the overall feeling of the film is somber and depressing.

Demange also gets the most out of his actors, as there are strong performances throughout.

Matthew McConaughey, as he almost always is, is excellent as Rick Sr., and newcomer Richie Merritt, who’s making his film debut, is just as good as Rick Jr. The two really seem like father and son.

McConaughey is near-perfect as the dad who just wants to do right by his family, but wouldn’t know a good idea if it knocked on his front door. Stuck selling guns, unable to help his drug-addicted daughter, and out of the loop regarding his son’s drug dealings, he nonetheless refuses to quit, even with all of life seemingly working against him. Eventually, he does go after his daughter and help get her clean, he does step up to help his son, but unfortunately, the need for money proved too great for him to tell Rick Jr. not to sell drugs.

The scene near the end of the movie where Rick visits his son in prison and sees that Rick Jr. is giving up, and he begs his son not to quit, knowing that there’s nothing he can do to help him, is one of the film’s best. When he cries out to his son that “he’s his best friend. You’re my only friend!” It is such a powerful realistic moment.

McConaughey fares much better here than in last year’s THE DARK TOWER (2017). This might be my favorite McConaughey performance since DALLAS BUYER’S CLUB (2013.)

And Richie Merritt doesn’t seem like an actor playing a role at all. He seems like he is Rick Jr. It’s one of the more authentic performances I’ve seen this year.

Bel Powley is also very good as Rick Jr.’s sister Dawn, who like Merritt and McConaughey, doesn’t seem to be acting.  The trio come off as a real family, albeit a messed-up one, but a real one just the same.

Then you have veteran actors Jennifer Jason Leigh and Rory Cochrane as a pair of FBI agents. Both RJ Cyler as “Boo” and Jonathan Majors as his drug dealing father Johnny are excellent, and character actor Eddie Marsan enjoys a couple of memorable scenes as drug dealer Art Derrick.

Not to mention cinema greats Bruce Dern and Piper Laurie as the grandparents of the family.  Dern gets to do more, as Grandpa is the more outspoken of the two and gets to utter some explosive lines here and there, but it was still good to see Laurie as well.

The cast in WHITE BOY RICK is really a plus.

And the film gets its title from Rick Jr.’s nickname. Since Johnny Curry and his gang were primarily black, and Rick Jr. was often the only white person in their inner circle, Johnny got to calling him “White Boy Rick.”

I wasn’t sure what to expect from WHITE BOY RICK. But when all was said and done, and the end credits rolled, I realized I had just watched a potent movie.

This one is about as fun as a traffic accident, but there is not a shred of fluff to be found here. It plays as authentic as a documentary, and with a talented cast of actors, it does one better, as the characters it creates, while not likeable, are real and sympathetic. I didn’t like these folks and wouldn’t want to know them, but that didn’t stop me from feeling the injustice of Rick Jr.’s fate and the heartbreak of Rick Sr. when he realized he was never going to spend time with his son again.

WHITE BOY RICK has a lot to say about the motivations of people who just don’t have money to live their lives, and speaks to the imbalance of drug laws, how the punishment may not fit the crime.

You may not be hearing much about WHITE BOY RICK, and even if you are, it may not sound like something you want to see. But if you do see it, you’ll be in for a no-nonsense movie that speaks the truth about some unpleasant people, the choices they make, and the situations they find themselves in, people who ultimately you will feel empathy for.

—END—

 

 

 

A SIMPLE FAVOR (2018) – Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively Lift Uneven Comedy Thriller

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Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively in A SIMPLE FAVOR (2018)

The combination of comedy and thriller is a complicated dance.

A SIMPLE FAVOR (2018), the new film by director Paul Feig, known mostly for his comedies, with films such as BRIDESMAIDS (2011), THE HEAT (2013), and SPY (2015), makes an energetic attempt to master this nuanced tango, but with a few missteps along the way, especially towards its latter half, it’s not exactly a polished polka.

The best part of A SIMPLE FAVOR, and honestly the main reason I wanted to see this one, is its casting of Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively, as two very different moms whose lives intersect in a way that at first suggests an unexpected friendship but gradually reveals the hatching of a sinister plot.

Kendrick and Lively are both excellent, and they are the main reasons to see A SIMPLE FAVOR. What stopped me from really liking this one was its story, filled with more twists and turns than an Agatha Christie novel, and as such, far less believable.

A SIMPLE FAVOR opens with Stephanie (Anna Kendrick) hosting her vlog, which is usually a platform for helpful tips for moms, but this time she’s discussing the disappearance of her best friend Emily (Blake Lively) who five days earlier had asked Stephanie to do her a simple favor and pick up her son from school because she had to work late, but then Emily never showed up, and no one has seen her since.

Stephanie decides to bring her viewers up to speed and tell the whole story leading up to Emily’s disappearance, and thus the film flashes back to how the two friends first met. Stephanie is an incredibly energetic single mom who volunteers nonstop for her son Miles’ first grade class. When Miles wants to have a play date with his friend Nicky, Nicky’s mom Emily (Blake Lively) at first says no, that she doesn’t have time, but eventually changes her mind and invites Stephanie and Miles over to her luxurious home.

They live in a small town in Connecticut, and Emily works for a high-profile designer in New York City, and her lifestyle is completely opposite from Stephanie’s. But the two strike a friendship which at first seems odd but happens because the one thing they both have in common is that neither one really has any friends.

When Emily disappears, Stephanie joins forces with Emily’s author husband Sean (Henry Golding) to find out what happened to her. And what quickly becomes apparent is that this is not an ordinary missing person’s case. With that in mind, I’ll stop right there because the less known about the plot the better.

That being said, the story as a whole even with all its twists and turns, didn’t really work for me. For starters, there are just so many curves thrown to keep the audience off-balance that after a while it simply becomes too farfetched. By the end of the movie, I found myself believing very little of it.

And this is where the thriller/comedy combo comes into play. Had this been a straight comedy, then I most likely wouldn’t have cared as much if the story wasn’t all that believable. But A SIMPLE PLAN in spite of frequent comedic outbursts retains a serious tone throughout, and when a thriller isn’t believable, that’s problematic.

The screenplay by Jessica Sharzer, based on the novel by Darcey Bell, mixes things up from the outset. In her opening vlog Stephnie announces that Emily is missing, a serious beginning, but in the ensuing flashback Stephanie is shown in highly comedic scenes. It’s an odd mix. The overall look of the film is light and bubbly, yet the dialogue and the plot is most often somber. At one point Emily says the best thing she can do for her son is “blow her brains out,” to which she quickly follows with an “I’m kidding.” The entire film plays like this, and to be honest, as it went along, I had a difficult time determining what was supposed to be taken seriously and what wasn’t. The plot certainly goes down some dark roads as it involves fraud and murder.

And it’s not a comedy which just happens to feature murder a la some of the classics of yesteryear like FOUL PLAY (1978) and MURDER BY DEATH (1976). It’s much more a thriller with some quirky characters and brief comedic moments.

Both Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively are excellent, even if they are playing characters who by film’s end I didn’t find very believable. Which is another problem I had with the movie. Most of the characters didn’t seem credible, and so you have this rather serious plot inhabited by characters who were difficult to take seriously.  It just didn’t quite work for me.

I like Anna Kendrick a lot, and her performance was my favorite part of this uneven movie. At first, as Stephanie, she seems to be this supermom, but when she starts loosening up and confiding with Emily, she has some secrets of her own to share. And later, when her relationship with Emily’s husband Sean changes, it opens up the door for some questions about her character and motives. Kendrick does a nice job capturing the nuances of the character, even if the script ultimately lets her down.

Blake Lively is equally as good as the complex Emily Nelson. She’s the complete opposite of Stephanie. She’s the trend-setting go-getting career woman with little or no time for her son, but yet she and Stephanie do become friends. Stephanie is attracted to Emily’s fierce no-apology take-everything-you-can philosophy of life which is so opposite of her own self-sacrificing personality. Lively has a field day as the no-nonsense power mom, whose shadowy past is revealed once Stephanie starts looking into her disappearance.

Henry Golding rounds out the triumvirate as Emily’s husband Sean. Fresh off his starring role as eligible bachelor Nick Young in CRAZY RICH ASIANS (2018) Golding is married this time around but still brings his attractive good looks to dress up the proceedings. Golding makes for a confused husband. At times he’s completely mesmerized and dominated by Emily, and at others he seems genuinely in love with her and sincere in his efforts to find her.

But when his relationship with Stephanie develops, it raises questions that ultimately I’m not sure the film does the best job answering.

When all is said and done, and all the twists and turns have come to a halt and the dust has settled, the result is a plot that is pretty darn ludicrous. I bought very little of it. And one of the main twists in the film is one I’ve seen done many times before.

But it might not matter. I saw A SIMPLE FAVOR in a crowded theater, and there was lots of genuine laughter from the crowd.

Some dark comedies work. In fact I love most dark comedies. But A SIMPLE FAVOR is less a dark comedy and more a comedic thriller, with the emphasis on crime and mystery, but it’s a crime and a mystery that I just didn’t believe.

I ultimately found  A SIMPLE FAVOR to be a disappointment, even with solid performances by Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively. Kendrick and Lively are very good, but the story they occupy is too far-fetched not to have been played completely for laughs.

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

PEPPERMINT (2018) – Jennifer Garner Fans Deserve Better

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One of the worst sins a movie can commit is to bore its audience.

Because you’re in the theater, you’ve paid for your ticket, and now you find yourself sitting there, bored, and you can’t even be entertained. I mean, some films are simply so bad you can’t help but laugh, and so you can at least have fun with that. But for the boring films? That’s the worst.

And so, with that said, PEPPERMINT (2018) by far is the most boring film I’ve seen this year.

PEPPERMINT is the tale of Riley North (Jennifer Garner), a woman who witnesses the shooting deaths of her husband and ten year-old daughter, and when the killers are allowed to go free, thanks to a crooked judge who is in the pocket of the powerful drug lord whose men committed the murders, she decides to take the law into her own hands and seek justice.

She does this by disappearing for several years, during which time she trains to become a killing machine, and once she returns, she’s hell-bent on killing everyone who had a hand in her family’s murders. Charles Bronson would have been proud.

PEPPERMINT opens in present day where we witness Riley kicking the living daylights out of a villain and then some. Let’s put it this way. His body ends up in the trunk of the car. The action then flashes back to five years earlier, where we see Riley happily married to Chris (Jeff Hephner) and enjoying a close relationship with her daughter Carly (Cailey Fleming).

When one of Chris’ buddies tries to persuade him to take part in a robbery, arguing that his blue-collar mechanics job is never going to get his family ahead in life, and that this will, Chris wisely turns him down. But that’s not good enough, apparently. See, his buddy tried to rob the local drug lord, Diego Garcia (Juan Pablo Raba). Garcia promptly captures and kills the buddy, and then, just because Chris “considered” stealing from him, he orders his men to kill him to make an example of him.  Jeesh!

Anyway, they shoot Chris and young Carly dead, in a scene that is surprisingly tame and not very powerful.

In spite of threats and a payoff not to testify against the men Riley identified to the police as the killers, she does in fact testify against them. But in one of the more ridiculous court scenes I’ve seen in a while, the judge lets the guys go. Obviously, the screenwriter here, Chad St. John, has never seen an episode of LAW AND ORDER. It’s an embarrassingly phony court scene.

Riley vows revenge, and then the action jumps back to present day, where Riley has returned as a vengeance machine.

PEPPERMINT is so dull that not even the scenes of vengeance are all that good.  I mean, that’s how bad things are. Why? Well, for starters, director Pierre Morel simply goes through the motions here. Morel directed the Liam Neeson movie TAKEN (2008) ten years ago but not much since.

When Riley kills a judge, when she goes after drug dealing henchmen, it’s all by the numbers and not even remotely memorable. Everything that happens in this movie has happened in a billion other action movies.

The screenplay by Chad St. John is also very weak. St. John also wrote LONDON HAS FALLEN (2016). Here, the dialogue is trite and often ridiculous, and characters robotic. Riley lost her husband and her daughter, yet I barely felt a connection to her. I felt little emotion at all through the entire movie.

Jennifer Garner of ALIAS (2001-2006) fame is okay as Riley North. She looks convincing as a fighting machine, I’ll give her that much. Although, the body count is so high in this one it’s the furthest thing from being believable. It reached Terminator proportions only without Schwarzenegger’s one-liners. As such, Garner is certainly not helped by the script, which struggles to give her either realistic dialogue or any memorable lines.

Both John Gallagher, Jr. and John Ortiz, both fine actors, are wasted here as L.A. detectives who are trying to help Riley while the rest of the authorities are out to get her because she’s a dangerous vigilante. Where have we heard that before?

Gallagher Jr. was very impressive in films like THE BELKO EXPERIMENT (2016) and 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE (2016). Not so much here, as his Detective Stan Carmichael is like the rest of the movie: a snooze.

Likewise, John Ortiz has been memorable in films like SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOOK (2012) and ALIENS VS. PREDATOR: REQUIEM (2007) but he too barely registers on the interest meter here. Actually, I thought he fared a bit better than Gallagher Jr. because his Detective Moises Beltran actually seemed like a real person.

In a brief role, Jeff Hephner made for a convincing loving husband, and young Cailey Fleming impressed in her brief screen time as Riley’s daughter Carly.

But Juan Pablo Raba as drug lord Diego Garcia is about as generic a villain as you can get. His dialogue could have been copied and pasted from any other fictional character of his type. The result is he’s about as scary and believable as if his name had been Carmen Sandiego Garcia.

This one offered little or no surprises. About the most surprising thing here was that I saw it in a rather crowded theater. So, there seems to be definite audience interest in this one.

That being said, audiences, especially Jennifer Garner fans, deserve far better than this.

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THE NUN (2018) Is Not Fun

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the nun

THE NUN (2018) has one major thing going for it: atmosphere.

And that’s because it was shot on location in Romania, and so you have enormous ominous castles and an Old World countryside that is ripe with superstition and evil spirits. In terms of setting, you can’t get more authentic. It’s so rich in atmosphere it brought me back to the Hammer Films of yesteryear.

And yet it’s all for naught because unfortunately, sadly, in spite of this being an atmospheric gem, the rest of the film is unbearably awful.  As in really awful.

What a shame.

This one would only have needed a halfway decent story, and direction that just allowed the story to flow without getting in the way, and yet the writers and director here couldn’t even do that.

Again. A shame.

THE NUN is the latest film to take place in THE CONJURING (2013) universe.  THE CONJURING of course is the well-received horror movie by director James Wan, and a film that I liked a lot, that told the story of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga. It was followed by THE CONJURING 2 (2016) and a pair of ANNABELLE movies featuring a scary doll which first appeared in THE CONJURING.

Now we have THE NUN which features a scary demon from THE CONJURING 2  that looks like a nun.

And this nun demon which goes by the name of Valak is pretty scary looking, which is another thing this movie has going for it. This film actually has a few things going for it, which makes it all the more amazing that it’s so gosh darn awful!

The film opens in Romania in the 1950s at a cloistered abbey where we witness two nuns fighting an unseen demon. To prevent the demon from entering her body, one of the nuns hangs herself.

The action switches to the Vatican where a priest named Father Burke (Demian Bichir) is informed he’s being sent to Romania to investigate the suicide of a nun, with the implication being that there’s more going on there at the abbey because Father Burke has experience with exorcsims.  Burke is told he needs to bring a young nun with him, Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga) because she has experienced visions, and these visions will be of help to Burke in his investigation.

In Romania, Father Burke and Sister Irene interview the young man who found the body of the hanged nun, a man who goes by the nickname Frenchie (Jonas Bloquet) because he’s French. Duh.

So, Burke, Irene, and Frenchie go to the abbey and begin the investigation, which does not go well. Why, you ask? Because there’s a demon there of course! And this demon doesn’t like people poking around in his business, and so he does all the things audiences are used to seeing demons do in horror movies: makes loud noises, makes people see things that aren’t there, jumps out at people, and generally wreaks havoc all the while giving people in the CGI business jobs.

Yawn.

I’ve pointed out a couple of things THE NUN did well, but now it’s time to mention the things it didn’t do too well.

Let’s start with the special effects overkill.  There’s so much going on in the special effects department I felt like I was on the Disney Haunted Mansion ride. And when this happens, it kills any authenticity the film has. I didn’t believe any of it.

 

The story here has a lot of problems. The screenplay by Gary Dauberman creates very dull characters without any real sense of purpose. I’m still not sure what it was exactly that Father Burke was investigating or why exactly the Vatican wanted Sister Irene to help him. Additionally, I don’t really know what this demon was all about. Why was he possessing these nuns? It’s not like he’s actively trying to leave the abbey.  Is he a demon-homemaker who just wants to be left alone?

And the characters here have zero depth and are all rather boring.

Demian Bichir, an actor I generally enjoy, looks serious as Father Burke, and he definitely carries himself with some presence, but he’s about as interesting as a rosary bead.

The far more interesting bit of casting is Taissa Farmiga as Sister Irene. Farmiga is the younger sister of Vera Farmiga, who played Lorraine Warren in THE CONJURING movies. Hmm. THE NUN takes place before the events in THE CONJURING, and here we have a character Sister Irene, who because she is played by Vera Farmiga’s sister, bears a strong resemblance to the Lorraine Warren character. Would there, I wondered, be some sort of connection between the two? In other words, would the filmmakers have used this potentially ingenious bit of casting to the story’s advantage?

In a word, no.

So much for that.

Anyway, Taissa Farmiga is very good as Sister Irene, but again, I didn’t know much about the character or understand what her visions had to do with the story being told here in this movie.

THE NUN was directed by Corin Hardy, and I can’t say that I was impressed.  The scares were practically nonexistent, and the pacing poor. For a film that clocked in at just over 90 minutes, it felt much longer than that, especially during its second half. It also featured far too many special CGI effects which did nothing but detract from its storyline.

The other thing I did like was the music score by Abel Korzeniowski, which certainly captured the whole possessed abbey feel with lots of religious undertones. You could almost see the chanting monks hovering in the damp dark corridors. Korzeniowski also composed the music for the PENNY DREADFUL (2014-16) TV show.

THE NUN actually gets off to a good start. The on-location shooting in Romania combined with Abel Korzeniowski’s effective music score easily lured me into the proceedings. And upon first meeting Father Burke and Sister Irene, and buying into the performances of Demian Bichir and Taissa Farmiga, I was definitely interested in joining them on their investigation into the mysterious occurrences at the haunted abbey.

But this investigation only led to lots quiet moments searching dark corridors and hallways, with ghostly encounters that made little sense, and demonic confrontations that featured over-the-top CGI effects that were anything but scary, and some pretty awful dialogue.

Yes, when it became apparent about two-thirds of the way through this one that its story wasn’t going anywhere, the film simply lost my interest and became flat-out dull and boring, which is too bad, because it really looks good.

What a shame that the filmmakers went all the way to Romania to make this movie but didn’t bother to bring a decent story with them.

And I don’t know about you, but I went to see THE NUN to see a horror movie, not a Romanian travelogue.

—END—

 

SEARCHING (2018) – Missing Daughter Thriller Nearly Done In By Ridiculous Ending

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searching poster

SEARCHING (2018), a new thriller about a man named David Kim (John Cho) searching for his missing daughter, hooked me in immediately and never let go— until its ending.

The gimmick in SEARCHING is that all of its action takes place on a computer screen, which is similar to the same gimmick used in the horror movie UNFRIENDED (2014), a film I thought I would hate, but I didn’t, as I found its computer use surprisingly refreshing. I found the same here with SEARCHING. In spite of the fact that everything that happens in this movie is seen through a computer screen, it all works. I believe this is so because we are all so familiar with personal computers that looking at them for the duration of a movie seems both comfortable and natural, which I know sounds weird, but I think it’s a major reason why the tactic works.

SEARCHING opens with the familiar Windows screen from a decade ago, and in an opening computer montage, we learn all about David Kim’s family. We see footage of his daughter Margot’s first day of school, and fun videos of him and his wife raising Margot. But then things get serious as his wife Pamela (Sara Sohn) learns she has cancer, and we follow her struggle to beat back the disease, achieve a victory with a remission, only to ultimately lose the battle and die, her death depicted on a computer calendar marked with the words “Mom comes home,” the phrase copied and pasted to a later date, before it is quietly deleted.

This opening montage, completely told from images on a computer screen, emits more emotion in five minutes than a lot of traditional movies do in their entirety.

After this montage, the action settles on David communicating via Face Time to Margot (Michelle La) who is now in high school, as she’s rushing off to a study group which she says will go late.  The next day, David awakes to find a couple of missed calls from his daughter. His attempts to contact her the next day go unanswered.

As the entire day and night pass without word from Margot, David suspects foul play and calls the police. He’s put in touch with Detective Vick (Debra Messing) who’s the lead detective on the case.  She promises David she will do her best to locate his daughter, and what follows, as David continues to track down leads himself using his daughter’s computer, searching her contacts and friends, is a series of twists and turns that will keep audiences off-balance and guessing until the final reel.

It’s all riveting and exciting, until the end, which provided one twist too many. This final revelation is rather ludicrous and for me ruined what ultimately would have been a very credible thriller.

But before that final twist SEARCHING is a first-rate thriller.

It also has some things to say about families and computer use.  David is shocked to learn once he starts looking into his daughter’s contacts that he really didn’t know his daughter, that there was so much in her life that they never talked about. The film serves as a nice reminder for parents to remember to take the time to talk to their kids.

David is able to learn so much about his daughter once he starts searching her computer because everything is recorded. That’s one of the more fascinating parts to the story, that he can learn as much as he does by researching Margot’s online connections. The electronic stamp we leave with our online use is both fascinating and somewhat scary.

John Cho gets most of the screen time in this one as frantic father David Kim, and Cho is more than up to the task of carrying this movie. He’s excellent throughout.  We get to see a lot of emotions from David, from when he first fears his daughter is missing, to learning that she probably ran away, which goes against everything he knows about her, to other evidence which supports foul play.

Cho, who plays Sulu in the new STAR TREK movies, and who played Harold in the silly HAROLD & KUMAR movies delivers a top-notch dramatic performance here.

Michelle La is also very good as Margot, although since her character is missing she’s really not in the movie all that much and makes less of an impact that Cho.

As Detective Vick, Debra Messing, who plays Grace on TV’s WILL AND GRACE (1998-2018), is okay, but there was something grating about her character. The film continually hammers the point home that for Vick family is everything, and so she is extra driven to help David find his daughter.

A stronger performance was turned in by Joseph Lee as David’s brother Peter, who like any good brother is there for David both as support and to help search for Margot. Until there are some sketchy revelations regarding Peter that suddenly cause David to question his brother’s character.

Director Aneesh Chaganty has made a very entertaining thriller.  I really enjoyed its creative style of storytelling by only showing events on computer screens. This gimmick didn’t detract from the story at all.  On the contrary, it somehow made it even more compelling.

Chaganty also wrote the screenplay with Sev Ohanian, and it’s a good one.  The mystery of Margot’s disappearance is strong, the characters three-dimensional and fleshed out, and the dialogue very sharp. I completely bought David’s relationship with his daughter, and it played out like an authentic father-teen daughter relationship.

I also enjoyed the various twists and turns this one had to offer.

Except for the last one.

Just how bad was that last twist?

It was so bad. How bad was it?

It was so bad it came close to ruining the entire movie for me. It didn’t. But it came oh so close.

It reminded me, for those of us who used to watch soap operas back in the day, of one of those really bad soap opera plots. You know the ones I’m talking about.  Where someone disappears and the clues lead everywhere, and then there’s that one person who should be the last person who is a suspect, but since this is a soap opera where anything is possible, it turns out that yes, that’s the person who committed the crime!

It’s one of the more ridiculous endings to a movie I’ve seen in a while, which is too bad, because everything that came before it was pretty darn good.

All in all, I enjoyed SEARCHING.  It held my interest throughout, all the way to its very disappointing ending, where it offered one twist too many, a twist that comes oh so close to ruining all that came before it.

If only the writers had spent more time searching for a better ending.

—END—