THE FRONT RUNNER (2018) – Story of Gary Hart’s 1988 Downfall Asks Questions Relevant Today

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the front runner

THE FRONT RUNNER (2018), which recounts the fateful three weeks where 1988 presidential front-runner Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman) saw his chances for becoming president derailed by an extramarital affair, is at its best when asking questions that are still relevant today.

In 1984, Gary Hart finished second to Walter Mondale in the Democratic primary, done in as shown in the movie during a debate where Mondale used the catchphrase from a popular Wendy’s commercial, saying that whenever he listened to Hart discuss his ideas, he felt he had to ask, “Where’s the beef?” I saw that debate in 1984, and the line worked. Mondale, of course, was trounced by Ronald Reagan in the general election.

So, in 1988, Hart emerged as the popular choice among Democrats, and early on was the clear front-runner.

Hugh Jackman plays Hart as a candidate who is all about ideas, and as described by his staff in the movie, his gift is that he can break down complicated ideas and help people understand them. It’s easy to see Hart as a successful U.S. president.

Hart also believed his private life was exactly that- private, and the press had no business knowing what went on in his bedroom. He felt so strongly about this that when pressed by reporters who continually hounded him due to rumors about extramarital affairs, he famously challenged them to follow him around, claiming they wouldn’t find anything, that he was a pretty boring guy.

The reporters did just that, and they photographed him with a woman Donna Rice (Sara Paxton) who obviously wasn’t his wife, and who appeared to stay the night with him. When more photos surfaced from unnamed sources, the firestorm which followed so engulfed Hart and his family that he found he had no choice but to withdraw from the election.

At the end of the movie, Hart makes a dramatic speech after his withdrawal, saying that the current climate of press hounds was only going to get worse, and it was no surprise that the best and the brightest avoided politics because of it, and if it didn’t change, worse candidates would emerge.

The screenplay by Matt Bai, Jay Carson, and director Jason Reitman asks questions that we are still discussing today, and covers such topics as the role of the press, the expectations of a political leader, the way men treat women, and the effect of adultery. It’s a complex script that asks questions without providing answers, mostly because we are still searching for answers even today.

The press is shown doing its job diligently. The press pool reporters genuinely like Gary Hart and feel uncomfortable asking questions about his personal life, but yet, some of them feel obligated to persist. The press is also shown camped outside Hart’s home, not allowing his wife or daughter to leave in private.  They’re aggressive and harassing. Yet, if the reporters hadn’t done their job, the story would not have come out.

In one conversation, veteran reporters relay the story of how Lyndon Johnson assembled all the White House reporters and told them lots of women would be coming in and out of his place, and he expected the same kind of discretion on their part which they had shown Jack Kennedy, and that’s what they did. These same reporters acknowledge that things are different in 1988, and they don’t understand why, but they know that it is different. If candidates are sleeping around, it’s now their job to expose them, because if they don’t some other news outlet will do it and earn better readership or ratings.

The women in the film, in 1988, did not have much of a voice, but they do express their outrage, upset that the male reporters aren’t angry with Hart over his treatment of women and that they aren’t being more aggressive to uncover the story.

In one of the better sequences in the movie, Hart staffer Irene Kelly (Molly Ephraim) spends time with Donna Rice and empathizes with her plight. She later points out how alone Rice is, that after this, her life will never be the same, that she doesn’t have the massive staff of volunteers supporting her like Hart does, that her life in effect has been ruined by a simple affair, while Hart’s life will continue.

Regarding Gary Hart, he is not shown here as a man who blatantly disrespects women, with the exception, of course, of his wife, since he was being unfaithful to her. But he’s not making derogatory remarks about the female anatomy or sexually assaulting them. He simply doesn’t see that it’s anyone’s business what he does in the privacy of his bedroom, or nor does he believe that his affairs affect anyone else except himself and his family, most likely because for years this was how things worked.

He seemed to be oblivious to the hypocrisy of his statements on morality and his personal behavior.

Director Jason Reitman lets this story unfold naturally, and his camera allows the audience to follow things along as if they are part of the campaign. In fact, even though Hart is the main character, the many members of his staff and the press pool make up the bulk of this movie and pretty much move the story along.

The acting is fine throughout. Hugh Jackman is excellent as Gary Hart, and while he does capture the politician’s mannerisms, his performance is superior to a caricature. He makes Hart a very tragic figure. He means well, he has ideas that are poised to make the country a better place, and he’s in a position with a public that really likes him to win the election, and yet he seems to be stuck in a prior time where reporters let things slide. Had he paid more attention and realized the press was emerging into a different animal in 1988, he might have been able to save his campaign, and the country would have seen a President Hart, but that’s not what happened.

Of course, some may argue, that it’s a good thing that he didn’t become president because he’s a womanizer. Which is another question the movie addresses, which is, does this kind of behavior even matter? Do Americans care who presidents sleep with? These questions are still being asked and debated today.

Vera Farmiga plays Hart’s wife Lee, and she’s excellent as she always is. The scenes where she tells Hart in no uncertain terms how much he has hurt her and humiliated her are some of the strongest in the movie.

J.K. Simmons plays Hart’s campaign manager Bill Dixon, who firmly believes in Hart and sees him as the next president, but when these stories surface, he puts his foot down and tries to convince Hart that he needs to get out ahead of them, but Hart resists saying it’s no one’s business and that the American people care more about his ideas than his personal life. It’s an idealistic rationale that proved to be false. Dixon also makes things personal, saying that the huge staff of volunteers, many of whom have left jobs to help Hart, deserve the truth, as does Dixon himself, but again Hart resisted.

The rest of the cast is chock full of talented character actors playing campaign staff members and reporters.

I loved THE FRONT RUNNER. It’s blessed with a talented cast and director, and features a script that asks important questions about the role of the press, the responsibility of presidential candidates to the voters, whether or not the private life of public figures is fair game, the immorality of adultery, and the treatment of women by even the most well-meaning of men.

THE FRONT RUNNER has a lot to say about both an event that happened in 1988 and events that continue to play out today. It doesn’t really provide answers because it doesn’t appear that we have the answers yet. So the bigger question I suppose by film’s end is have we learned anything since 1988?

The answer seems to be a resounding “no.”

—END—

 

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CREED 2 (2018) – Okay Sequel Derivative of Previous ROCKY movies

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CREED 2

CREED 2 (2018) is actually the sequel to two movies, CREED (2015) and ROCKY IV (1985). As such, it has a lot on its card, and to continue using boxing language, its undercard somewhat outperforms its main event.

The first CREED continued the story of Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) as he trained Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan), the son of his former boxing opponent and eventual friend Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers). While the movie’s title declared it was the story of Adonis Creed, it also featured Rocky Balboa prominently and certainly continued the ROCKY storyline. I enjoyed CREED quite a bit.

ROCKY IV found Rocky training his former opponent and newfound buddy Apollo Creed for a fight against a massive and very deadly Soviet boxer named Drago (Dolph Lundgren). In the fight, Apollo dies from his injuries, and since this was a Rocky movie, it’s up to Rocky Balboa to save the day and somehow defeat the monstrous Drago in the film’s climactic bout.

I was never a fan of ROCKY IV and enjoyed the first three ROCKY movies better. However, ROCKY IV is one of those movies that has grown in stature over the years and has actually aged pretty well. In fact, for many fans, ROCKY IV is the best of the series. While I don’t share that opinion, I certainly do enjoy it more now than I did when I first saw it at the theater in 1985.

In CREED 2,  Ivan Drago trains his son, the equally monstrous Viktor Drago (Florian “Big Nasty” Munteanu) to become boxing champion, and they set their sights on a championship bout against Adonis Creed. Since Ivan Drago is the man who killed his father, Adonis naturally wants to accept the challenge and defeat Viktor Drago to restore honor to his father’s name.

Of course, Rocky is against this fight, as he feels guilty for not stopping the bout in which Apollo died. Adonis decides to pursue the match anyway without Rocky’s help. Predictably, Rocky is eventually pulled back into Adonis’ corner, helping to train the young fighter for the championship rumble.

Nothing that happens in CREED 2 is much of a surprise, and this certainly works against the movie. In spite of a lot of hype and box office success, it’s really just a by the numbers sequel providing nothing new or different from what we’ve already seen in previous ROCKY movies.

As I said, the undercard here outperforms the main event, or in movie terms, the subplots work better than the main plot.

I really enjoyed the Drago storyline. It was fun to see Dolph Lundgren reprising his signature role of Ivan Drago after all these years, and he still looks formidable enough to get back inside that boxing ring to take on Sylvester Stallone. ROCKY X, anyone? Seriously, though, Drago is training his son to win because when he lost that fight to Rocky all those years ago, he lost everything – honor, country, his wife.  He’s been living as an outcast in frigid Russia ever since. There is a lot on the line if his son can win.

As such, in spite of the fact that these guys are supposed to be the “villains” of the movie, I oftentimes found their story more sympathetic than Creed’s and Rocky’s, and I found myself wanting young Drago to win the fight. Furthermore, in spite of their He-Man toughness, there’s a chemistry on display here between the two actors which creates a father-son bond that really works, more so here than the chemistry between Adonis and Rocky.

The one scene between Rocky and Ivan Drago in which they meet for the first time since the fight is one of the movie’s finer moments. There should have been more of these scenes. There are not.

Likewise, as a Rocky fan, the Rocky scenes also worked for me. I continue to enjoy watching Rocky’s storyline play out, from his somber graveside visits to his deceased wife Adrian, to his wise mentorship of the fiery Adonis, to his angst over his estranged relationship with his adult son, I liked it all.  Sure, Stallone can play Rocky in his sleep, but he does it well. I’ve always liked Stallone and feel he has never really received the respect he deserves.

But the main plot, the one about Adonis, just didn’t work all that well for me, and in a movie called CREED 2, that’s not a good thing.

Since I enjoyed CREED so much, it’s not the characters at all, but simply the story. To me, the idea that Adonis would rush into a bout against Drago just didn’t resonate with me or feel all that authentic. He had just won the championship. Viktor Drago had won nothing. It certainly would have made sense for Adonis to defend his title a couple of times before setting up a fight with Viktor. Likewise, Viktor should have worked his way up to the title bout.

Plus, to me, both Dragos had more to gain and to lose than Adonis, and so their story was more interesting. Adonis was already champion. If he wins, sure he could claim a victory for his deceased father, but if he loses, he had already proven himself to be a champion fighter. Viktor Drago hadn’t proven anything yet, and if he loses, his fate is a return to icy Russia. In fact, the final shot of father and son Drago jogging under an ashen Russian sky is a depressing reminder of this fate.

I like Michael B. Jordan as Adonis Creed, but his storyline here just wasn’t as emotional or as locked in as the one told in the first CREED. And it goes beyond the boxing angle. I thought his relationship with both Bianca (Tessa Thompson) and his mother Mary Ann Creed (Phylicia Rashad) were rehashes of things we saw in the first movie. Adonis and Bianca marry here and have a baby, but I thought all of these scenes strangely fell flat. Perhaps it’s because they were so similar to scenes from earlier ROCKY movies.

And that’s the biggest knock I have against CREED 2. It’s so derivative from the other ROCKY movies, from dialogue about what it takes to be a fighter, to the personal relationships and the toll boxing takes on family members, to the training montages, to the boxing matches themselves. For me, the entire thing other than the Drago subplot was a bad case of “been there, done that.”

Director Steven Caple Jr. simply didn’t add any distinguishing attributes to make the movie stand on its own. The fight scenes are okay, but I’ve seen better, and the same can be said for the training montages. I also thought the pace slowed down about two-thirds of the way through. The first CREED, which was directed by Ryan Coogler, had an edge to it that this sequel simply doesn’t possess. Coogler of course also directed BLACK PANTHER (2018), a superior Marvel superhero movie, which also featured Michael B. Jordan, as one of Marvel’s better and more sympathetic movie villains, Erik Killmonger.

The screenplay to CREED 2 was written by Sylvester Stallone and Juel Taylor, and it largely goes through the motions.

As a ROCKY fan, it would be difficult for me not to enjoy CREED 2, and I did enjoy it, but I also recognize that it is sadly derivative of nearly every ROCKY movie which has come before it.

I judge this one a split decision.

—END—

 

THANKSGIVING TURKEY AWARDS 2018

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Turkey

It’s Thanksgiving here in the U.S, that holiday where people kick back and relax, reflect on what they’re thankful for, and eat lots of food, especially turkey.

With that in mind, here are some Thanksgiving Turkey Movie Awards for 2018.  Of course, the year is not over, and so these lists are not final. There’s still room for more turkeys, so to speak.

Okay, let’s get right to it!

Here are my 2018 TURKEY AWARDS:

WORST MOVIE

(And again, this list is not final. There are still five weeks left before we close out 2018.)

Right now, my least favorite film of 2018 would be PEPPERMINT, a dreadful action film starring Jennifer Garner, followed closely by THE NUN, a flat-out awful horror movie, and THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS, a very unfunny comedy that wasted a cool concept. I mean, who wouldn’t want to see a raunchy R-rated Muppet comedy? But they blew it.

 

WORST ACTING PERFORMANCE

This is difficult because acting is not something that is lacking in today’s movies. Actors today perform at a level that I think generally speaking is much higher than actors in the past.  They convey emotions that come off as authentic more often than actors from  yesteryear. While there have been great actors in every generation, I think in terms of numbers, more actors today deliver performances that are spot on than ever before.

So, how to choose a poor performance when there really isn’t any? I’m going to cheat a bit. I’m going to go with the three main “actors” in Clint Eastwood’s THE 15:17 TO PARIS, and this is cheating because these three guys aren’t actors. Eastwood chose to cast the three real life men who thwarted a terrorist attack on a Paris train to play themselves in his retelling of this heroic tale. Decades from now, Eastwood’s decision may be deemed as genius, but right now, that’s not the case for the simple reason that those young men aren’t actors and as such were out-of-place in a movie, even playing themselves. As a result, their scenes were incredibly boring and lifeless.

 

WORST SCREENPLAY

THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS – This screenplay by Todd Berger couldn’t be less funny if it tried. They should have hired Fozzy Bear. Waka! Waka!

the happytime murders poster

There’s not much that’s happy in THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS (2018)

 

WORST DIRECTOR

Brian Henson, THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS. Henson has made real Muppet movies.  He should have known better and pulled off a far more successful movie. He dropped the ball with this one.

 

WORST HORROR MOVIE

THE NUN. Nun of this movie is worth your time.

 

WORST SEQUEL

INSIDIOUS: THE LAST KEY, followed by OCEAN’S 8, JURASSIC PARK: FALLEN KINGDOM, THE EQUALIZER 2, and MAMA MIA: HERE WE GO AGAIN! Not a good year for sequels. Then again, when is it ever a good year for sequels?

 

WORST SUPERHERO MOVIE

DEADPOOL 2 – now this is not really a bad movie. It’s simply the superhero film I liked the least in 2018.

So far.

 

And now for the THANKSGIVING AWARDS portion of the column. Movies I’m thankful for this year:

 

MARVEL

Three of the best films of the year so far have been Marvel Superhero movies: BLACK PANTHER, AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR, and ANT-MAN AND THE WASP. Yup, it’s been a marvelous year for superheroes!

 

DOCUMENTARIES

With WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR? the documentary on the life of Mister Rogers leading the pack, 2018 has been a stellar year for documentaries.

 

MOVIES ABOUT WOMEN

It’s been a great year so far for movies starring women, written and directed by women, and that are telling stories about women.  Some of these movies include BOOK CLUB, EIGHTH GRADE, ANT-MAN AND THE WASP, ANNIHILATION, and LEAVE NO TRACE.

bookclub1

BOOK CLUB (2018) is one of my favorite movies of the year so far, thanks largely to its female cast which includes Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, and Mary Steenburgen.

 

BEST HORROR MOVIE

A QUIET PLACE – smart horror at its best, even if its ending isn’t nearly as intelligent as the rest of the movie. The horror genre is alive and well.

 

BEST SUPERHERO MOVIE

BLACK PANTHER – this Marvel superhero movie transcends the genre and is so good it has no business being a superhero film. Marvel continues its run of incredibly entertaining movies.

black-panther-poster

 

CLASSIC ACTORS

Veteran movie actors have graced the screen throughout 2018, including Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Andy Garcia, Mary Steenburgen, Candice Bergen, Bruce Dern, Robert Redford, Jodie Foster, Ben Kingsley, Jamie Lee Curtis, Meryl Streep, and Cher.

 

BEST MOVIE

Sorry, but you’ll just have to wait until the end of the year for this revelation.

 

So, these are just a few of the movies I’m thankful for this year, along with some cinematic turkeys.

Thanks for reading, and wishing you a happy holiday season!

Gobble! Gobble!

—Michael

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

WIDOWS (2018) – Stellar Cast, Contrived Plot, Mixed Results

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WIDOWS (2018) is writer/director Steve McQueen’s first movie since his Oscar-winning 12 YEARS A SLAVE (2013), and it’s a rather odd choice.

It’s an action thriller that has its moments, helped along by a stellar cast, but taken as a whole, it’s a bit too contrived to be all that believable.

In WIDOWS, three women discover that their husbands were criminals after the three men die in a police shoot-out and subsequent car explosion. Veronica (Viola Davis) learns this the hard way when she’s visited by Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), a man running for alderman in her Chicago neighborhood who tells her that her husband stole three million dollars from him, and he wants the money back. He gives her three weeks to get he money, or else his henchmen will kill her.

In her search for answers, Veronica discovers her deceased husband’s private notebook which details his past jobs and his next job, a heist that is worth millions. So, Veronica assembles the two other wives, Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) and tells them that if they pull off this job, they’ll have enough money to pay off Manning and thus save their lives, plus millions left over for themselves.  Linda and Alice agree, and the widows spring into action.

There’s a lot going on in WIDOWS, most of which I liked, but unfortunately, the weakest part of the story is the main one, the one with the widows.  And the reason for this is in large part because I never really believed that these women, who appear to be rather intelligent folks, would actually do this. I get it that they have nowhere else to turn and are desperate to save their lives, as it’s clear that the authorities in Chicago are of no help to them. At one point, Veronica says she’ll go to the police, but Manning tells her that the police don’t care and that they are glad her criminal husband is dead. So, I get this part. I just never believed it. It’s the most contrived part of the entire movie, unfortunately.

The surrounding storylines, especially the political ones, work much better.

The current alderman Tom Mulligan (Robert Duvall) in public speaks of how much he has helped the downtrodden Chicago neighborhood he serves yet we see him in private as a racist bully. He’s not seeking re-election. Instead, that honor goes to his son Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) who says he disdains his father’s style of politics and wants to make a true difference, and yet his actions show that he’s not much better than his father.

Then there’s Jamal Mannning, the black man running against Jack Mulligan, who supposedly represents his neighborhood because he’s lived there his whole life and understands the needs of his people, but yet he runs a criminal organization that is just as bad and even more brutal than Mulligan.

There are layers here, and they make for the most intriguing parts of the story.

The widows storyline works best when showing these women with their backs against the wall. Indeed, one of the strengths of the screenplay by Steve McQueen and Gillian Flynn, who wrote GONE GIRL (2014),  based on a 1980s British TV series of the same name, is that it lays bare the pain and vulnerabilities of these women. In one telling scene, a disillusioned Veronica admits that with her husband gone she has nothing, not even her home, which has been lost. Likewise, Linda watches as the store she thought she owned is taken away from her because her husband lied to her about paying the mortgage on the building.

This part of the story works well. The trouble I had is when it makes the leap from despondent women to criminal women. I expected these women to react in a smarter way than this.

The cast in WIDOWS is exceedingly deep and talented.

Viola Davis turns in a strong performance as Veronica. She’s at her best when showing how much pain she feels having lost her husband Harry, played by Liam Neeson.

There’s also another subplot where it’s revealed via flashback that Veronica and Harry’s son had been shot and killed in a police shooting during a routine traffic stop. WIDOWS throws a lot at its audience, sometimes too much. Had Steve McQueen chosen to focus more on one aspect of this story, the widows perhaps, the movie would have been better for it.

But back to Viola Davis.  She shows both frightened vulnerability and steely resolve, but once more, had she resolved to do something else other than attempt a million dollar heist, the results would have been more convincing

Michelle Rodriguez is fine as Linda, although it’s nothing we haven’t seen Rodriguez do before.

Far more interesting than either Davis or Rodriguez is Elizabeth Debicki as Alice, who at first comes off like a clichéd ditzy blonde and as such faces harsh treatment from even Veronica, but she’s not stupid at all. In fact, she’s incredibly intelligent and resourceful. Her subplot in which she’s involved in a paid relationship with a man named David (Lukas Haas) is one of the more intriguing subplots in the film. The scene where she chides David for insinuating that he’s in control of her happiness, and she pushes back saying that no, it’s her life and she makes that determination, is one of the better moments in the movie.

I’ve seen Debicki in a bunch of other movies, films like THE GREAT GATSBY (2013) where she played Jordan Baker, THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E (2015) where she played the villain, and GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, VOL. 2 (2017), but by far this is the best performance I’ve seen her deliver yet.

Brian Tyree Henry is very good as Jamal Manning, the cut-throat criminal who brands himself as the best hope for his people but whose interests are clearly more about attaining power than helping anyone.

Even better is Daniel Kaluuya as Jatemme Manning, Jamal’s brother. The star of GET OUT (2017) makes for one of the most brutal and sinister enforcer types I’ve seen in a while. His performance here was one of my favorite parts of WIDOWS.

Robert Duvall is excellent as always, here playing racist alderman Tom Mulligan who in spite of his political mob boss tactics seems to believe that he’s doing right for the people of his neighborhoods.

Colin Farrell is just as good as Mulligan’s son Jack, who’s running for alderman to keep his family’s name in politics. It’s a position Jack seems to hate, and Farrell does a nice job playing Jack as a conflicted yet not very admirable man. The scene where he tells his father he’s looking forward to the days when he’s dead and gone, is a pretty potent moment in the film, well acted by Duvall and Farrell.

Cynthia Erivo, who we just saw in BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE (2018) plays Belle, a young woman who among other jobs babysits Linda’s children, and who the widows hire to be their getaway driver. It’s a spunky determined performance.

Jon Michael Hill stands out in a small role as the Reverend Wheeler, the pastor of Chicago’s biggest congregation, a man who’s courted by both Manning and Mulligan, and he plays coy with both of them as to who he’ll support.

Jackie Weaver steals a couple of scenes as Alice’s overbearing mother Agnieska.  Weaver of course was so memorable playing Bradley Cooper’s mother in SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (2012).

The cast here is so deep that major actors even play characters who are killed off in the opening moments of the movie, most notably Liam Neeson, who plays Veronica’s husband Harry. And as the story moves forward, Veronica learns some rather unsavory things about her late husband that calls into question the kind of man she thought he was.

Jon Bernthal also plays one of the thieves, who unlike Neeson, doesn’t get any flashback time, and so he’s on-screen for about two seconds before he’s done in.

There was a lot about WIDOWS that I liked. I enjoyed the full canvas that director Steve McQueen was working with here, and the story he was telling as a whole, but again, for me, the biggest disappointment was where the widows specific storyline ultimately went.

I expected these women to rebel against their deceased husbands, to attempt do something better, but that’s not what happens. Instead of trying to learn from their husbands’ mistakes and improve upon them, they simply become their husbands. They become thieves and thugs.

And unlike their husbands, whose fate seemed to be tied into their actions, the widows here suffer no repercussions. It’s all happily ever after, which in my book is one more strike against this one in terms of credibility.

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE HORROR JAR: The Special Effects of Willis O’Brien

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Kong battles planes from atop the Empire State Building thanks to the movie magic of Willis O’Brien in KING KONG (1933)

Welcome back to THE HORROR JAR, that column where we look at all things horror.  Up today the films of Willis O’Brien, or more specifically, the films in which O’Brien’s amazing stop motion animation effects graced the screen.

With the Thanksgiving holiday around the corner, O’Brien is on my mind, because years ago, for whatever reason, a popular triple feature on Thanksgiving day used to be KING KONG (1933), SON OF KONG (1933), and MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1949), and while actor Robert Armstrong appeared in all three of these giant monkey movies, the true common denominator among this trio of films is special effects master Willis O’Brien, who did the effects for all three films.

With that in mind, here’s a brief look at the magical career of Willis O’Brien:

THE DINOSAUR AND THE MISSING LINK: A PREHISTORIC TRAGEDY (1915) – directed by Willis O’Brien. O’Brien’s first screen credit, a five-minute comedy short. He both directed this one and created the stop motion effects.

THE LOST WORLD (1925) – the first film version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s tale about a land where dinosaurs still exist remains arguably the best film version of Conan Doyle’s novel.  O’Brien’s special effects are wonderful and a nice precursor to the work he would do eight years later on KING KONG (1933). The conclusion of the film where the Brontosaurus goes on a rampage through the streets of London is a major highlight.

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Willis O’Brien and one of his friends.

KING KONG (1933) – one of the greatest movies of all time, the original KING KONG is required viewing for all movie buffs. With apologies to actors Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong, and Bruce Cabot, who are all very good in this movie, to directors Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, and to screenwriters James Ashmore Creelman and Ruth Rose, the reason KING KONG remains a masterpiece, and the reason to see this one over and over again, is the stop motion animation effects by Willis O’Brien.

The special effects in KING KONG are nothing short of spectacular. They hold up well even today. The level of depth on Kong’s island is unbelievable, and the attention to detail uncanny. O’Brien’s team used painted glass plates to create the plush dense forest backgrounds, and many scenes feature human actors and animated creatures in the same shot creating a seamless world that looks as authentic as it is imaginative.

Stop motion effects required the use of miniature models— Kong was 18 inches tall— moved by technicians one film frame at a time, an arduous process that would take an entire afternoon just to complete one second of screen time.

Of course, O’Brien also enjoyed some luck. He feared he would be fired when in test shots he could see the imprints of his technicians’ hands on Kong’s fur. Yet when the producers watched the film they applauded him for his attention to detail for making Kong’s fur move in the wind.

In short, with his animation techniques, O’Brien gave birth to one of the mightiest screen monsters of all time, King Kong, a character who still appears in movies even today.

KING KONG also boasts a memorable music score by Max Steiner.

SON OF KONG (1933) – rushed sequel to KING KONG can best be described as KING KONG LITE. Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) returns to Kong’s island in search of treasure and discovers Kong’s less ferocious and somewhat friendly son there.  Light and amusing. O’Brien’s special effects, while not as mind-blowing as his work on the original, remain a highlight.

MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1049) – Kong creators Ernest B. Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper return with yet another giant ape story, again starring Robert Armstrong, who plays a Carl Denham clone named Max O’Hara. The film is most notable for O’Brien’s protegé stepping up to do most of the stop motion animation effects here. His protege? Ray Harryhausen, who would go on to create the best stop motion effects aside from KING KONG over the next thirty years in a career that spanned from this movie until the early 1980s. MIGHTY JOE YOUNG is actually a much better film than SON OF KONG, yet it did not perform well at the box office, and plans for a sequel JOE MEETS TARZAN were never completed.

THE BLACK SCORPION  (1957) -standard 1950s giant monster science fiction film, this time featuring giant scorpions in Mexico City. Decent Willis O’Brien special effects.

THE GIANT BEHEMOTH (1959) – radiation again is to blame for awaking yet another dinosaur in this typical 1950s giant monster tale. Not O’Brien’s finest hour. The special effects are okay but are clearly inferior to the work that Ray Harryhausen was doing at the time, with films like THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953) and THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1958).

THE LOST WORLD (1960) – O’Brien’s career comes full circle with this remake of the 1925 silent film, this one directed by Irwin Allen. Okay movie, with a decent cast that included Michael Rennie, Jill St. John, David Hedison, and Claude Rains. This one should have been better, mainly because O’Brien’s work wasn’t even used here!

Huh?

O’Brien was hired to work on the film because Irwin Allen wanted to use stop motion animation effects for the dinosaurs, but budget constraints forced Allen to use real lizards instead, which led to far inferior special effects. As a result, although given effects technician credit, O’Brien’s work on this film was largely restricted to conceptual drawings which were never used.

O’Brien passed away on November 8, 1962 from a heart attack at the age of 76.

Willis O’Brien will be forever remembered for creating some of the most incredible special effects in motion picture history for his work on KING KONG (1933).

And you can’t go wrong with O’Brien’s giant ape trilogy, KING KONG (1933), SON OF KONG (1933), and MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1949). Should these be playing on a TV near you this Thanksgiving, be sure to check them out.

That’s it for now. Thanks for joining me for this edition of THE HORROR JAR where we celebrated the career of special effects mastermind Willis H. O’Brien, and I hope you join me again next time when we’ll look at other topics regarding horror movies.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

 

OVERLORD (2018) – World War II Actioner/Horror Movie Generally Entertaining

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MOVIE 'OVERLORD'

Jovan Adepo and Wyatt Russell in OVERLORD (2018).

A horror movie set during World War II, hours before the Allied invasion of Normandy.

Sound like a pretty good combination to me!

And OVERLORD (2018) is just that: an action/horror hybrid that isn’t half bad.

In the battle of Normandy, code name Overlord, it’s the mission of a select group of allied soldiers to land behind enemy lines and destroy a Nazi radio tower to give the allied planes protection as they provide cover for the invading ground forces. The battle zone is insanely chaotic, and the plane carrying these soldiers is shot out of the sky, with only a few soldiers successfully making it out of the plane via parachute. Fewer still survive once they hit the ground in Nazi territory.

Only a handful of soldiers remain. OVERLORD is their story. Ranking officer Corporal Ford (Wyatt Russell) leads this group to the radio tower which is located on top of a church. Among these soldiers is Private Boyce (Jovan Adepo), a black soldier who’s been called out for not being much of a soldier, mostly likely because of the color of his skin.

On the ground, they meet a young French woman Chloe (Mathilde Ollivier), and since Boyce is the only soldier there who speaks French, suddenly he’s a bit more valuable. Chloe provides shelter for the soldiers at her aunt’s farmhouse, which she shares with her sick aunt and kid brother. While Ford and company prepare for their mission, they have to lay low from the marauding Nazis, led by a particularly nasty officer named Wafner (Pilou Asbaek).

While at the farmhouse, the soldiers hear rumors of strange scientific experiments being conducted by the Nazis underneath the church, experiments that are killing many of the townspeople.  While fleeing Nazi soldiers, Boyce accidentally finds his way inside the bizarre underground lab, and what he sees there horrifies him.

He reports back to Ford, who tells Boyce and his fellow soldiers that the stuff happening inside the lab is not part of their mission, but when events bring the horrors from the lab onto their doorstep, they suddenly find themselves with no choice but to confront the monstrosities head on.

The best part of OVERLORD is its combination of World War II adventure and horror tale is a good one and for the most part works. The World War II story is exciting on its own, which is a good thing because the horror elements don’t really come into play until the movie’s third act.

And that’s one thing I didn’t like about OVERLORD. It takes too long to get to its best part, the stuff with the Nazi experiments. As such, it really isn’t much of a horror movie. In fact, even when it’s revealed just what those experiments are, and things get a bit gruesome, the subject matter really isn’t all that horrific. OVERLORD plays more like a violent action science fiction adventure than a horror movie.

That being said, I had a lot of fun watching OVERLORD. I just wished its genre elements had been darker.

I fully enjoyed the cast.  Jovan Adepo is excellent as Boyce, the character audiences will relate to the most.  He’s both the voice of reason and caution, and his decisions throughout the film are spot on and in tune with what audiences expect from a movie hero. One problem here, however, is with historical accuracy.  While the notion of having a black character here as the lead is a good one and one I really enjoyed, the U.S. military was still racially segregated during World War II. Oops!

Wyatt Russell is also very good as Ford. Now, Russell is the son of Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn, and there are times when his mannerisms and dialogue delivery really resemble his father, which is a good thing. Russell makes for a likeable action hero.

Likewise, Mathilde Ollivier is also thoroughly enjoyable as Chloe, the fiery French woman who assists the allied soldiers. She’s smart, tough, and terribly sexy.

And Pilou Asbaek makes for a sufficiently nasty villain as Nazi officer Wafner. Asbaek has starred on GAME OF THRONES (2016-17) and in the movies GHOST IN THE SHELL (2017) and THE GREAT WALL (2016), among others, but this is my favorite role I’ve seen him play so far. He was fun to hate.

OVERLORD was produced by J.J. Abrams, and early rumors were that this film was going to be part of the CLOVERFIELD universe. It’s not, although at times it certainly felt like it. The only thing missing was any reference to the word “cloverfield.”

OVERLORD was directed by Julius Avery with mixed results.  The World War II stuff is exciting and nicely paced, though nothing audiences haven’t seen before. The horror elements which finally show up in the film’s third act, are violent and energetic, but hardly scary.  This one is rated R for language and bloody violence and science fiction style mutilations, and it plays like OPERATION: FINALE (2018) meets A CURE FOR WELLNESS (2016).

The best scenes are the World War II fight scenes. While the blood and gore increase towards the film’s finale, the suspense doesn’t.  I will say the special make-up effects were very good.

Billy Ray and Mark L. Smith wrote the adequate screenplay.  It’s filled with serviceable dialogue and situations, but nothing that pushes the envelope all that much. In all honesty, I expected to be more horrified by the film’s revelations, but that wasn’t the case. The horrors revealed here do not rise above the comic book level.

At least the tone remains serious, and  never deviates into campiness, and I liked this. No surprise here, really, since Ray wrote the screenplay for the Tom Hanks film CAPTAIN PHILLIPS (2013), while Smith wrote the screenplay to THE REVENANT (2015) the film in which Leonardo DiCaprio won the Academy Award for Best Actor, two very serious movies.

OVERLORD, incidentally, refers to the Normandy invasion code name, and not the popular Japanese novel series and anime.

I liked OVERLORD well enough, even though it didn’t fully deliver with its horror elements. The World War II scenes provide plenty of adventure and excitement, while the whispers of bizarre Nazi experiments generate interest throughout. It all leads to a bloody conclusion that is more action-oriented than frightening.

The end result is a movie that generally entertains even as it falls short in the horror department.

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IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: TERRIFIER (2017)

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Terrifier

TERRIFIER (2017) is the type of horror movie I usually do not like.

At all.

It’s also the type, in general, that tends to give horror a bad name and keeps a large audience away from horror movies. Why do I want to pay money to see victims brutally murdered? Gore for gore’s sake. No story. No point other than to kill off victims.

TERRIFIER is this type of movie— up to a point. It’s violent and sick, until it morphs into something more, something I found myself ultimately liking. A lot.

TERRIFIER starts off as the story of two friends, Tara (Jenna Kanell) and Dawn (Catherine Corcoran) out on the town for a night of drinks and fun. As they drunkenly return to their car, they notice someone watching them from down the street, a man dressed as a clown. When he follows them into a restaurant, Tara is understandably freaked out, but Dawn thinks it’s funny and actually flirts with and takes a selfie with the clown (David Howard Thornton).

Tara wants to leave immediately, but Dawn says no, that they should stay. You should have listened to Tara.

It turns out that Art the Clown is a homicidal maniac who goes about killing anyone and everyone in his path in the most brutal sadistic ways. And yes, he is definitely interested in adding Dawn and Tara to his victims’ list.

So, why is this movie better than just an exercise in mindless blood and gore?

For starters, before the killings begin, the acting by the principal players is pretty darn good. I really enjoyed both Jenna Kanell as Tara and Catherine Corcoran as Dawn. Kanell was good enough to be the strong heroine in a new series of horror films, and I was certainly interested in following her story and wanting her not only to survive but to kick Art the Clown’s butt.

But the filmmakers had other ideas.

Speaking of Art the Clown, he is one creepy clown. As played by David Howard Thornton, he is downright nightmarish. Thornton does a fantastic job at making Art the Clown completely unpredictable. At times, he stares at his victims with menacing homicidal eyes, and others he’s in his full clown routine, acting jolly and silly, and at other times he’s sad. He can unleash any of these personalities at any time, and once he attacks, he becomes a brutal insane killer.

Bottom line, he is terribly frightening, which is exactly what you want in a horror movie.

So, when this movie began, I thought, regardless of how it plays out, I like this clown.

Midway through, for me, TERRIFIER hit rock bottom. Suddenly Art the Clown becomes a killing machine, and deaths occur without rhyme or reason.  Gore for gore’s sake. And yet, there was that creepy clown, still standing, still terrorizing.

And that for me was when the movie changed, when the realization hit me that this wasn’t the story of any of the victims at all. Instead, this was Art the Clown’s story. In this movie, nobody was safe, no matter how much the audience might like them, no matter how heroic their intentions, no matter when they first appeared in the movie.  None of this mattered. They were going to have to deal with the clown, and most likely, they were not going to come out on top.

I thought this was a bold decision by writer/director Damien Leone, to really go all in with Art the Clown and say nobody is safe, and because Art the Clown was such a captivating and menacing character, this decision worked here.  The clown, as vicious as he was, carried this movie.

He got under my skin, and as a horror fan, I’m glad he did.  And when I realized that Damien Leone was not going to make any safe decisions with this one, that here was a time where evil was going to win out, I thought, this film is really working as an exercise in visceral terror.

And so while it may have seemed for a bit to be simply a gore for gore’s sake kinda film, it really isn’t. It really creates a cinematic monster in Art the Clown, this unstoppable insane killer.

This is not the first movie for Art the Clown. He first appeared in ALL HALLOW’S EVE (2013), another horror movie by writer/director Damien Leon, although the character was played by a different actor. I have not seen ALL HALLOW’S EVE, but after watching TERRIFIER, I intend to.

I enjoyed Leon’s work here, both as a director and a writer. TERRIFIER is chock full of suspenseful scenes, mostly due to the presence of Art the Clown, and the murder scenes are sufficiently bloody and grotesque. On the other hand, the dialogue and story are nothing outstanding.

Leone also wrote and directed a horror movie called FRANKENSTEIN VS. THE MUMMY (2017), inspired by the Universal Monster movies of yesteryear. I have not seen this one either, but it’s now on my list.

Back to TERRIFIER, the crowning achievement here really is the creation of Art the Clown.

I would definitely see more movies about this character in the hope that somewhere down the line someone would be able to stop him, because it would take a very special and very powerful hero to take down such a murderer, and that’s a story I’d like to see.

I don’t usually rave about ultra violent horror movies, but I thought TERRIFIER, in spite of its frequent bloody violence, fared better than most because it offered one of the creepiest clowns in the movies I’ve ever seen, and that includes Pennywise.

If you haven’t seen TERRIFIER, check it out. Be prepared to be creeped out and even grossed out, but I think you’ll agree that the presence of Art the Clown lifts this one to a level of satisfaction it has no business reaching otherwise.

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