VICE (2018) – Ambitious and Somehow Comedic Look into Life and Legacy of Dick Cheney

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Christian Bale as Dick Cheney in VICE (2018)

Everything you need to know about the tone of VICE (2018) is handed to you in the film’s opening minutes when the words “Based on a true story” appear on-screen, followed by a disclaimer citing that Dick Cheney is one of the world’s most secretive leaders, followed by a final line “But we tried our f*cking best.”

Yep, VICE, a movie about Dick Cheney’s rise to power and what he did with it, is presented here largely as—- a comedy. And believe me, you’ll laugh, even as you cringe at Cheney’s view of power and his ensuing actions wielding it.

This comes as no surprise because VICE was written and directed by Adam McKay, the same man who brought us THE BIG SHORT (2015), his brilliant comedic take on the U.S. mortgage crisis in 2005, which somehow got us to laugh about corruption in banks and the housing market.

Here McKay takes his wild and witty style and applies it to the story of Dick Cheney, one of the most unfunny and serious figures in politics in recent memory. The idea of turning this guy’s story into a comedy seems ludicrous.  It’s certainly a bizarre marriage.  As such, some of it works.  Some of it doesn’t.  Most of it does.

VICE is also blessed with an A-list cast that includes Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, and Sam Rockwell. Bale’s amazing transformation into Dick Cheney, a role for which the actor gained forty pounds, is reminiscent of the work Gary Oldman did last year as Winston Churchill in DARKEST HOUR (2017). Both actors disappear into their roles. When Bale is onscreen, you’ll forget you’re watching a movie and believe you’re seeing the real Dick Cheney.

VICE introduces us to Dick Cheney (Christian Bale) in the 1960s when he seems lost and without ambition. He has a drinking problem, he’s been kicked out of college, and is working a thankless job putting up telephone wires. His girlfriend Lynne (Amy Adams) gives him an ultimatum: either change now or she’s leaving him. He tells her he won’t let her down again, and according to this movie, he doesn’t.

Cheney makes his way to Washington D.C. as a Congressional intern, and he latches on to the charismatic Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell). He even becomes a Republican because he wants to be like Rumsfeld. Cheney works hard, and soon he’s Rumsfeld’s right hand man. The two work for the Nixon administration, and then the Ford administration, with big plans for the future, but their plans are derailed when Ford loses the 1976 election to Jimmy Carter.

But in 1980 Ronald Reagan is elected, and the two men are back in the White House again. After Reagan and Bush, Cheney himself eyes the presidency, but because his daughter Mary is gay, he decides he doesn’t want to put her through the scrutiny that would go along with his seeking the nomination on the conservative Republican ticket, and so he chooses not to run, for all intents and purposes in his mind, ending his career in politics.

But in 2000 George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell) seeks out Cheney to be is running mate, a decision Cheney is not comfortable with at first, but then he begins to look ahead, and he realizes that as Vice President especially under an inexperienced political leader like Bush, he’d be in the unique position of wielding incredible power and doing it all while flying under the radar, covered by the protective veil of the vice -presidency, traditionally a “nothing” position.

Which is exactly what he did.

Adam McKay’s screenplay for VICE is very similar to his screenplay for THE BIG SHORT, in that it breaks the fourth wall, uses all kinds of weird and wacky ideas to tell its story, and become extremely creative in breaking down complex situations and explaining them to the audience.

For example, the narrator here, a man named Kurt (Jesse Plemons) about halfway through the film asks the audience that they’re probably wondering who he is and what his connection is to Dick Cheney, to which he says he’ll explain later. And he does, and his relationship with Cheney is quite unique, and worthy of both a dark laugh and a tear. It makes for very clever storytelling.

This style worked better in THE BIG SHORT mostly because the complexities of the mortgage industry lent themselves better to the over-the-top style of having various people break the fourth wall to explain things to the audience.  While government is also complex, the perception of it is that it’s not as much a mystery as the banking industry, and so the various explanations of what’s going on inside the inner workings of the government are not quite as astute.

But you can’t blame McKay for trying. His efforts here are pretty impressive.  I mean, how can you fault a movie that at one point has Dick and Lynne Cheney speaking to each other in Shakespearean sonnets? Or that pulls off the bold stunt of rolling fake credits midway through the movie after Cheney accepts his political career is over, only to pull back when suddenly the phone rings and it’s George W. Bush on the line?

The comedic strokes used here by McKay are a lot of fun, but to be honest, the juxtaposition between the fun McKay is having with the film and his subject, the dour Dick Cheney, is quite jarring. Part of this is McKay’s fault, because the other strength of his screenplay is he nails all the serious stuff. His interpretation of Dick Cheney’s reign as vice president is right on the money, so much so that at times I wished he had played this one straight and just told the darn story.

I’m sure Christian Bale will be noticed come Oscar time. It’s a fabulous performance which goes above and beyond the obvious make-up job on him to look just like Dick Cheney.  He captures Cheney’s mannerisms and way of speaking as well.  But even just doing this would only make his performance a caricature, and Bale goes beyond that. As best he can, he gets inside Cheney’s head and motivations.  With a minimum of words, he conveys to the audience what it is Cheney is thinking and feeling.  It’s a great performance by Bale all around.

I also really enjoyed Sam Rockwell as George W. Bush. Like Bale with Cheney, Rockwell also captures Bush’s mannerisms and style of speaking, and also  like Bale, he goes beyond the caricature. He doesn’t play Bush like a hapless buffoon. He plays him the way he’s often been described by people who know him, like someone you’d want to have a beer with, even while disagreeing with him.

Rockwell definitely makes Bush green, a man who desperately wants Cheney’s experience by his side, and who seems only too comfortable with all the changes Cheney made to the vice presidency, like having additional offices in the House of Representatives and at the Pentagon, seeing National Security briefings before the president, and even being the one to assemble the cabinet when Bush first won the election.

Amy Adams adds fine support as Lynne Cheney, the woman who saw Cheney as her ticket to success, since she knew in the 1960s that women had no future in politics, so she did all she could to support and help her husband achieve his political dreams.  Likewise, Steve Carrell is excellent as Donald Rumsfeld.

VICE ends the way it begins, with moments that define the entire movie. At the end of VICE, Cheney is being interviewed about his years as vice president, and he turns to the camera and breaks the fourth wall as he addresses the audience and says he’s not going to apologize for his actions.  He says he was elected to serve the people, and that’s exactly what he did, in order to keep them safe. In effect, he vowed to do whatever it took to prevent another terrorist attack from happening during his watch.

The fact that his policies enabled the U.S. government to overstep its bounds in terms of surveillance, torture, holding suspects indefinitely without allowing them access to lawyers, and other human rights abuses meant little to him. He was doing what he believed needed to be done. And right after 9/11, most Americans agreed with him.

But what they didn’t agree with was the administration’s position on Iraq. When it was proven that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction and was not connected to 9/11, people asked and rightly so, then what the heck are we doing in Iraq? Why aren’t we going after Osama Bin Laden?

The movie makes its opinion clear. Folks like Rumsfeld and Cheney wanted to attack Iraq long before 9/11 for reasons that had to do with oil.

Our current president, Trump, likes to blame faulty intelligence agencies for the Iraq weapons of mass destruction snafu, but the film also makes clear that our intelligence agencies got it right: they knew there were no weapons of mass destruction, but Cheney ignored their briefs and latched onto one obscure report that listed one terrorist living in Iraq.

When Secretary of State Colin Powell (Tyler Perry) addressed the United Nations when told to do so by George W. Bush, outlying the U.S. belief that Iraq harbored weapons of mass destruction and terrorists, and mentioned this terrorist by name, several times, it gave the guy name recognition, and he went on to gain considerable power in Iraq and eventually formed an organization known as —- ISIS.

The scene where Powell addresses the United Nations is one of the best in the movie, as it’s evident how uncomfortable Powell  was having to say things he pretty much knew were not true. Powell has called this speech the worst moment in his life.

And there’s an after-credit scene as well, which also hits the mark. A group of people are being interviewed by a reporter, when one man says he’s upset that this film has a liberal bias, and the man next to him takes offense. They get into an argument, Trump is mentioned, and suddenly there’s a physical brawl.

The point? Well, here we are today, and things are arguably worse, and for right or wrong, the way things are today started because of the policies of one Dick Cheney.

VICE is a very ambitious movie, both light and serious, although strangely it’s mostly light. A lot of it plays as if Michael Moore had decided to direct a feature film rather than a documentary. That being said, it doesn’t really diss on Dick Cheney or George W. Bush.

And that just might be the film’s greatest strength, that in spite of the harm which the film states Cheney has caused, it finds in its heart humor and makes us laugh, and in doing so, portrays Cheney as nothing short of an honorable man.

Will this be how history views Cheney? Time will tell.

—END___

 

 

 

 

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MARY POPPINS RETURNS (2018) – Strangely Somber Sequel Doesn’t Measure Up

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I’ve always enjoyed Disney’s MARY POPPINS (1964), and so I was really excited to see its long-awaited sequel MARY POPPINS RETURNS (2018). I had been looking forward to it for a while.

So, the fact that I didn’t really like this one, surprised me. A lot. Especially since I enjoyed Disney’s live action reworking of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (2017) so much last year. But MARY POPPINS RETURNS didn’t work for me. Everything about it felt flat and uninspiring.

The Banks children from MARY POPPINS have grown up.  Michael (Ben Whishaw) still lives at his childhood home on Cherry Tree Lane with his three children, but sadness reigns these days, as his wife has recently passed away.  Jane (Emily Mortimer) is still single and seems to be helping Michael with his children as best she can, but it seems it’s not enough, and out from the skies returns Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) ostensibly to help the Banks children once again.

Although it’s difficult to know why she’s really there and who exactly is it she’s trying to help. Is it Michael, who seems to have forgotten what it’s like to be a child and is now a worrying grumpy adult? Is it Michael’s children who because of their mother’s death have had to grow up a little too quickly? Or is Jane who needs some pushing when it comes to relationships?  Or perhaps it’s all of the above? Either way, Mary Poppins has her work cut out for her.

And things get worse before they get better, as Michael learns the bank is about to repossess his home unless he can find a missing bank share from his father which he seems to have lost. The fact that Michael now works at the bank means little, because the head of the bank Wilkins (Colin Firth) is intent on obtaining Michael’s property and will do everything in his power to prevent Michael from paying off the loan.

There’s a lot that I did not like about MARY POPPINS RETURNS. Let’s start with the tone of this movie.  For a Disney musical, it’s filled with doom and gloom. From the photography to the subject matter, it’s a strangely dark piece.

Here we have a plot that deals with the death of a parent and with three very young children who are in a bind because their father is not emotionally equipped to take care of them once his wife has passed on.  Honestly, they need more than Mary Poppins to come swooping in singing to them about magic and the like.

Now, this doesn’t mean you can’t build a successful children’s story around death.  The recent Netflix’ Christmas movie THE CHRISTMAS CHRONICLES (2018) did it, and did it quite well. In that movie, the two children have lost their father, but thanks to a spirited and quite hilarious performance by Kurt Russell as Santa Claus, the film works. Russell and the script capture the magic needed to overcome a dreary tale of parental death.

The same is not true for MARY POPPINS RETURNS. The story never quite sheds the sadness associated with the death of a parent. The predominant emotion in the film is sorrow. This, in spite of the film’s best efforts to promote happiness and joy.

A big reason for this tone is the dark photography. I don’t think there’s a ray of sunshine to be found until the very end.  Director Rob Marshall made the curious choice to film this one as if he were making a movie based on a Charles Dickens novel.

The other reason I really struggled to like this movie was that Emily Blunt, an actress whose work I’ve enjoyed immensely, just never made Mary Poppins quite work for me. Like the rest of the movie, there’s just something off and harsh about her performance. She somehow misses the magic which Julie Andrews brought to the role. Blunt goes through the motions and tries her best to bring Mary Poppins to life, but there’s something missing.  That twinkle in the eye, that spark of nonsensical magic, that burst of giddy happiness, all emotions associated with Julie Andrews’ performance are somehow absent here.

I enjoyed Lin-Manuel Miranda more as Jack, a lamplighter who has taken over the Dick Van Dyke “Burt” role here. He’s the go-to guy when it comes to understanding Mary Poppins, and he gets some of the best song and dance numbers, but rather than chimney sweeps the sequel gives us lamplighters.

The rest of the cast falls flat. Pixie Davies, Nathanael Saleh, and Joel Dawson, who play the Banks children Anabel, John, and Georgie probably fare the best. They do what they’re supposed to do, and they’re fun to watch.

But Ben Whishaw is all doom and gloom as grown up Michael Banks, so much so that he nearly gave me a headache whenever he was on-screen. Whishaw is a very good actor, and I’ve enjoyed him a lot as Q in the recent Daniel Craig James Bond movies, but here he’s stuck in a one note role.

Emily Mortimer fares a little bit better but not much as grown up Jane Banks. She’s not as dour as her brother, but she’s stuck in an unconvincing subplot that attempts to set her up with lamplighter Jack. The story never convinced me that Jane would even give Jack the time of day, and the two share no chemistry together on-screen.

Colin Firth hams it up as a rather dull villain who has no depth whatsoever. Meryl Streep has one scene, as Cousin Topsy, in one of the movie’s livelier song and dance numbers, a bit that is supposed to hearken back to the “I Love to Laugh” sequence from the original.  It’s not as good, and again, like the entire production, there’s something grating about it.

Old friend David Warner plays Admiral Boom in scenes that add nothing to the film, and Angela Lansbury has one scene as the Balloon Lady. Of course, Dick Van Dyke does show up near the end, and while he alone can’t save this one, seeing him on-screen was one of the few memorable parts about the film.

I did not enjoy the script by David Magee. First of all, it is incredibly derivative of the original.  It pretty much tells the same exact plot of the first film.  The Banks family is in trouble, and Mary Poppins arrives to save the day. Now, I’m not arguing for a screenplay that is Mary Poppins vs. the Nazis, but something a little more refreshing and different would have gone a long way here. The plot itself bored me to tears, and offered few surprises.

I also did not enjoy the theme of the adult who supposedly forgot what it was like to be a child and needs help to be reminded. We just saw this theme in the equally flawed CHRISTOPHER ROBIN (2018) where Pooh and friends had to save an adult Christopher Robin from himself by reminding him what it was like to be a kid. The theme didn’t work in that movie, and it doesn’t work here. There’s a reason Michael Banks is so upset, and it has nothing to do with forgetting to be a child. He’s lost his wife, and he’s about to lose his home, and he has three young children. Sorry, Disney, but Mary Poppins isn’t quite the answer to this man’s problems.

The screenplay also ignores two of the other central characters from MARY POPPINS, Jane and Michael’s parents, George and Winnifred Banks. They’re barely mentioned at all in this sequel, and if you’re a fan of the original, you kind of want to know what happened to them, since Mary Poppins didn’t arrive in that first movie only to save the children. She was there for the parents as well.

And since this sequel is so derivative of the original, at times you feel as if you are watching a remake rather than a sequel, except MARY POPPINS RETURNS has none of the memorable songs that the original had.  MARY POPPINS gave us “A Spoonful of Sugar,” “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” “Feed the Birds,” “Step in Time,” and “Chim-Chim-Cheree” to name just a few.

MARY POPPINS RETURNS does get better as it goes along, and it saves its best stuff, especially its song and dance numbers, for its second half.  The rousing “Trip A Little Light Fantastic” was probably my favorite dance number in the movie, but again, it’s highly derivative of the “Step In Time” number from the original.

The sequence involving Big Ben is also noteworthy, and the final number “Nowhere to Go But Up” is one of the better song and dance sequences in the film. Had this number occurred early on, and the rest of the film were to have gone on and explored uncharted territory, then perhaps MARY POPPINS RETURNS would have been something special.

As it stands, it’s not very special at all.

In fact, MARY POPPINS RETURNS isn’t much better than a standard by the numbers sequel, offering little to fans of the original other than a rehash of the same plot points but without the wonderful Sherman brothers’ songs.

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

AQUAMAN (2018) – Jason Momoa Best Part of Underwhelming Underwater Adventure

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It’s no secret that in the battle of big screen superhero movies, Marvel has had the upper hand over DC. The Marvel movies have been nonstop outstanding, while DC has struggled with simple notions like storytelling. As a result, it hasn’t been much of a contest.

With the exception of WONDER WOMAN (2017) the recent crop of DC films has been pretty bad. Before WONDER WOMAN, the last DC superhero movie I really enjoyed was THE DARK KNIGHT (2008).  Been a while.

Now comes AQUAMAN (2018), the origin tale of DC’s underwater superhero, with amiable hunk Jason Momoa playing the lead.

Is AQUAMAN all wet? Or is it as refreshing as a summer shower?

Well, truth be told, it’s somewhere in the middle.  The best part by far is Jason Momoa’s spirited performance as Aquaman.  He’s got all the best lines in the film, and his character is the only guy on-screen who’s all that interesting. At times I thought I was watching two different movies, one written by the folks who wrote all the Aquaman scenes, and another written by someone else.

The result is one very mixed bag of a movie.

After a silly and pointless pre-credit sequence which explains how Aquaman’s parents met, the film jumps into one of its best sequences, showing Aquaman rescuing the crew of a submarine from some pretty nasty pirates. Indeed, this might have been my favorite sequence of the whole film, and that’s because we get to see Aquaman interacting with real people in the here and now, rather than in the underwater fantasy kingdoms, where most of the film takes place.

Not too long after Aquaman saves the day, he’s visited by Mera (Amber Heard) who tells him that he must return to the undersea kingdom of Atlantis because his brother King Orm (Patrick Wilson) is about to wage war on the people who live on land. Aquaman isn’t interested, but when his human father is almost killed in an attack, he changes his tune and agrees to accompany Mera back to Atlantis to stop his brother and become the true king of the underwater world.

Blah. Blah. Blah.

I have to admit.  I’m biased. I’m just not a big fan of fantasy tales, and that’s pretty much what AQUAMAN is. It plays like THOR under water, even having Aquaman deal with his brother King Orm, the way Thor had to deal with his brother Loki.

So, all this story involving Atlantis and the great battle to restore peace and harmony under the sea I simply found a colossal bore.

What was not a bore was Jason Momoa as Aquaman.  He’s phenomenal in the role, and I’d be more than happy to see him play it again in a movie that told a better story.  He obviously looks the part with his sculpted ripped body, and he also gives the character a lively personality with plenty of wise-cracks and moments of playful humor.  Momoa is really good.

I also enjoyed Amber Heard as Mera, although as I said before, it seems she and the rest of the cast didn’t have the same screenwriter as Momoa did.  Her lines are often pretty bad, but when she’s in scenes with Momoa, they work well together and she makes the character at least somewhat interesting.

The rest of the cast doesn’t fare as well.  I thought Patrick Wilson was badly miscast as the main villain, King Orm. I just never really bought him in the role, and scenes where he battles Aquaman, where he’s pitted against the massive bulk of Jason Momoa I thought were laughable because looking at the two of them side by side how can one believe that a guy who looks like Momoa wouldn’t wipe the floor with Wilson in about two seconds? I’ve enjoyed Wilson in nearly every movie I’ve seen him in, especially in the INSIDIOUS and CONJURING movies, but not so much here.

Willem Dafoe doesn’t fare any better as Vulko, an official from Atlantis who remains loyal to Aquaman.  Vulko’s lines were so bad I had a hard time keeping a straight face whenever he spoke.

On the other hand, Dolph Lundgren does fare better as King Nereus, mostly because he looks the part. He looks like a king and also like someone fit enough to tangle with Aquaman.

The talents of Nicole Kidman are largely wasted in a throwaway role as Aquaman’s mother Atlanna.

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II makes for the best villain in the movie, Manta. Sadly, he has to play second fiddle to King Orm here, but his scenes going up against Aquaman are some of the better scenes in the movie.

AQUAMAN was directed by acclaimed director James Wan, known mostly for his horror movies, films like SAW (2004), INSIDIOUS (2010), and THE CONJURING (2013). His horror roots are on full display here as there are plenty of giant sea creatures. There are also plenty of sea battles, all of which went on too long for me.

AQUAMAN is visually striking, as the underwater sea kingdom of Atlantis is colorful and dazzling.  There’s a lot to see, and I can’t fault the way this movie looked. But in terms of story, it didn’t do much for me, nor did its battle sequences, which I found long and after a time unexciting.

The screenplay by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beall hits a home run with its depiction of Aquaman but falls flat just about everywhere else.  The main story is a snooze, and the supporting characters okay but not as sharply written as Aquaman himself. I would have liked this one better had its storyline featured Aquaman dealing with events on land and interacting with people above water.

Even the interesting plot point of the underwater kingdoms  wanting to strike back against humanity because of the way we maltreat the oceans, filling them with endless trash, goes nowhere. It’s mentioned but then is buried underneath the infighting between Aquaman and his brother.

You can do a lot worse than AQUAMAN, but you could also do a lot better.  Jason Momoa’s performance is definitely worth checking out, and on the big screen, the visuals here are highly impressive, but you’ll have to sit through an underwhelming plot that is hardly exciting and never compelling, and with a running time of 143 minutes, that’s a long time to sit and be underwhelmed.

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

New in 2019! DARK CORNERS, Michael Arruda’s second short story collection, contains ten tales of horror, six reprints and four stories original to this collection.

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Waiting for you in Dark Corners are tales of vampires, monsters, werewolves, demonic circus animals, and eternal darkness. Be prepared to be both frightened and entertained. You never know what you will find lurking in dark corners.

Ebook: $3.99. Available at http://www.crossroadspress.com and at Amazon.com.  Print on demand version coming soon!

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

How far would you go to save your family? Would you change the course of time? That’s the decision facing Adam Cabral in this mind-bending science fiction adventure by Michael Arruda.

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

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

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Michael Arruda reviews horror movies throughout history, from the silent classics of the 1920s, Universal horror from the 1930s-40s, Hammer Films of the 1950s-70s, all the way through the instant classics of today. If you like to read about horror movies, this is the book for you!

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

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

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Print cover

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Ebook cover

 

Michael Arruda’s first short story collection, featuring a wraparound story which links all the tales together, asks the question: can you have a relationship when your partner is surrounded by the supernatural? If you thought normal relationships were difficult, wait to you read about what the folks in these stories have to deal with. For the love of horror!

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

 

 

 

SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE (2018) – Animated Spidey Feature Decent, Not Outstanding

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So, I went to see SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE (2018), a new animated Marvel superhero movie, because the initial reviews were off the charts wild.

Best animated movie of the year! Best Spider-Man movie ever!

That’s some high praise, and so while I don’t usually catch animated films at the theater (I save those for Netflix) I decided to see this one to judge for myself: best Spider-Man movie ever?

I’ll save you the suspense: Nope!

While I enjoyed  SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE, to call it the best Spider-Man movie ever is an overstatement.  SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING (2017) with Tom Holland was a better movie, as was Tobey Maguire’s SPIDER-MAN (2002) way back when.

The theme of SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE is that Spider-Man is not the only game in town. We are all superheroes. We all have value. It’s a message of inclusion that resonates, not only because these days promoting messages like this seem to be an uphill battle, but also because it was an ongoing theme in the work of Marvel giant Stan Lee, who just recently passed away.

Speaking of Stan Lee, he lent his voice to this one before he passed away, and so yes, there is yet another Stan Lee cameo in this movie, albeit an animated one.

When the movie opens, Spider-Man boasts that he’s the one and only Spider-Man. But then young Miles Morales is bitten by a radioactive spider, and soon he finds that he too possesses Spider-Man’s abilities. Then, when Wilson Fisk’s secret weapon opens up portals to different dimensions, other versions of Spider-Man enter our present reality. Together, they have to fight Wilson Fisk and also find a way to return the other Spider-Beings back to their proper realities.

As stories go, it’s ambitious but handled in a way that made me cognizant that I was watching an animated feature. The pace was nonstop, which for some folks is a good thing, but for me I just wanted it to slow down a bit. It simply never resonated as well with me as it would have had it been a live action flick.

Regarding the boast that it’s the best animated film of the year, while I haven’t seen enough animated films to comment on the suggestion, I will say that the animation didn’t impress me. Again, maybe I’m showing my age.  Things moved so fast, especially the action scenes, that I found them difficult to follow. The animation also appeared blurry at times, and I felt as if I were watching a 3D movie without 3D glasses.

I actually enjoyed the personal story of Miles Morales more than the Spider-Man plot and the battles with Wilson Fisk. Miles is in a deeply troubled relationship with his dad Jefferson Davis, who wants the best for his son but can never seem to say the right thing, constantly coming down too hard on the teen. To further complicate matters, Miles relates much better to his uncle Aaron, his dad’s brother who is viewed by Miles’ dad as not being a very good role model, and for good reason. This story works well and for me was the best part of the movie.

The voice work is pretty impressive throughout.  Shameik Moore is excellent as young Miles, making the teen likable and sympathetic.

Mahershala Ali knocks it out of the park as Uncle Aaron, which comes as no surprise. Ali is one of my favorite actors working today, and he show here that he can even dominate a movie just by using his voice.

Also lending their talents to this one are Hailee Steinfeld as Gwen Stacy, Brian Tyree Henry as Jefferson Davis Morales, Lily Tomlin as Aunt May, Jake Johnson as Peter B. Parker, Nicholas Cage as Spider-Man Noir, Liev Schreiber as Wilson Fisk, and Chris Pine as Peter Parker.

SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE was directed by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman. Rothman also co-wrote the screenplay with Phil Lord.

And like most other Marvel superhero movies, there is an after-credits scene, and you have to wait until the very end to see it. As after credit scenes go, I found this one a head scratcher. Don’t expect to see Thanos turning anyone to dust.

SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE is a decent enough Spider-Man movie, and is sufficiently satisfying to make it a solid animated film.

But the best Spider-Man movie ever?

Not even close.

—END—

 

THE MULE (2018) – Eastwood’s Latest Doesn’t Excite

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Clint Eastwood in THE MULE (2018).

At 88 years-old, Clint Eastwood still draws an audience.

When I saw his latest movie THE MULE (2018), a film that Eastwood both directs and stars in, the theater was packed. Nary an empty seat was to be found.

This is because Eastwood has been making movies for over 50 years, first as an actor and top box office draw and later as an extremely successful director. My whole life Eastwood has been acting in the movies, from the Spaghetti Westerns in the 1960s to the Dirty Harry movies to his later directorial gems like UNFORGIVEN (1992) and MILLION DOLLAR BABY (2004). His career has been phenomenal, and at 88 years-old, he’s still churning out movies.  Incredible!

All this being said, however, THE MULE, Eastwood’s latest project and the first time he’s acted in a movie since TROUBLE WITH THE CURVE (2012), is a rather underwhelming vehicle for the iconic filmmaker. At best it’s average, and at worst, well, it’s not that good.

THE MULE tells the story of a 90 year-old horticulturist Earl Stone (Clint Eastwood) who after his longtime business folds accepts an offer to get paid for delivering a package across state lines. No questions asked. Of course, Earl comes to find out that he’s transporting drugs for a Mexican cartel, but since he enjoys the money, he continues to serve as their “mule,” getting paid handsomely for his efforts, so much so that eventually he becomes their top driver.

I had a lot of problems with this story, the biggest being that I simply didn’t care what happened to Earl or any of the other characters, and here’s why. At first, Earl doesn’t seem to know what it is he’s transporting, although it should be very clear to him from the outset what he’s doing, since his first day on the job he’s greeted by some unsavory characters wielding weapons. Regardless, soon enough he takes a peek at the package and sees once and for all that he’s transporting drugs.

But he simply doesn’t care. And this is the part of the story that I didn’t like, that the audience doesn’t really understand why he doesn’t care, since not enough is known about the character. Most folks I would imagine would not want to be working for a Mexican drug cartel, regardless of the money, and Earl especially seems like someone who wouldn’t want to do this kind of work.

Besides being a retired horticulturist, he’s also a retired Korean War veteran. As he says in the movie, he’s been in combat, so he doesn’t frighten easily, so I get that he’s the weathered tough guy who’s not going to bat an eye at these drug heavies. But we learn nothing about Earl to support the idea that he’d be okay with this kind of work.

The running theme of the movie is that people need to make time for their families. Throughout his whole life, Earl put his work before family, and as a result neither his ex-wife Mary (Diane Wiest) or his adult daughter Iris (Alison Eastwood, Clint’s real life daughter) want anything to do with him any more. Only his granddaughter Ginny (Taissa Farmiga) is willing to keep the lines of communication open.

Earl, at 90, is looking back and regretting his decisions, and yes, he is using his newfound riches to help his family, but even so he hardly seems like a family man.  He uses his money to spend nights with beautiful young women, and when he is invited to the home of the cartel boss Laton (Andy Garcia) he seems comfortable and at home.

I guess I expected a little angst and regret from the character for cozying up with the drug trade. There’s none to be found. And it’s not as if Earl lived a criminal life earlier. He raised flowers!  Earl is simply not a very drawn out character, nor is he all that interesting. In short, I didn’t care about him one iota.

Bradley Cooper, Michael Pena, and Laurence Fishburne play DEA agents hot on the trail of the cartel which employs Earl in scenes that are largely cliché and dull.  The dialogue is about as sharp as the writing on the daytime soaps of old.  Pretty bad.

And the women characters here fare even worse.  Dianne Wiest, Alison Eastwood, and Taissa Farmiga play three generation of women in Earl’s family and they are all reduced to cliché dialogue about his not being there for his family. The guy’s 90. You’d think they would have gotten over his absence a long time ago and moved on with their lives.

It’s a very shallow screenplay by Sam Dolnick and Nick Schenk, offering little or no insights on what’s like to be a 90 year-old man running drugs for a Mexican drug cartel. Earl seems to be as much invested in the job as if he’s just going for a Sunday drive. Part of this, I guess, is the point, that he’s not rattled, that he does his own thing and doesn’t allow the drug thugs to bully him, but it plays out in the most undramatic of fashions. There are hardly any suspenseful moments, nor is there much poignancy here.

It really does feel like Earl is out for that Sunday drive.  That’s about how much urgency this movie wields.

This is Eastwood’s second directorial effort this year, as earlier in 2018  he directed THE 15:17 TO PARIS, a film I liked even less than THE MULE. But I’m not souring on Eastwood. He’s made far too many gems for me to do that.  In fact, his previous three movies, SULLY (2016), AMERICAN SNIPER (2014), and JERSEY BOYS (2014) were among my favorite movies of those years. And while he didn’t direct TROUBLE WITH THE CURVE (2012) he did deliver an outstanding performance in it.

But nobody’s perfect, not even Eastwood, and it’s difficult to make one high quality movie after another.

As such, I can’t say that I liked THE MULE all that much. I never warmed up to the main character, Earl, and I never really understood where he was coming from or why he was doing what he was doing. As a result, I never really cared for him. More so, I didn’t care for the rest of the story either, as the supporting characters and storylines played more like cardboard cut-outs than real people and situations.

THE MULE seems old and tired, and its main character, 90 year-old retired horticulturist Earl Stone appears to agree to work for a Mexican drug cartel for no other reason than he likes to drive and enjoys the money. While there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s not exactly compelling storytelling.

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Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

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

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

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

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

For_the_love_of_Horror- original cover

Print cover

For the Love of Horror cover (3)

Ebook cover

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944)

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house of frankenstein poster

After the success of FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN (1943), Universal decided that two monsters in one movie wasn’t enough, and so they added a third, Count Dracula, for their next monster movie romp, HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944).

HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN is most notable for the return of Boris Karloff to the Universal FRANKENSTEIN series after a two film hiatus. Of course, Karloff previously had played the Frankenstein Monster.  Here, he plays the evil Dr. Niemann.

HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN is the story of Dr. Niemann, a protegé of Dr. Frankenstein. When the movie opens, Niemann is in prison, but he soon escapes along with his hunchbacked assistant Daniel (J. Carrol Naish.) When they happen upon the skeleton of Count Dracula (John Carradine) Niemann resurrects the vampire by pulling the stake from his heart. He then promises Dracula protection if in return the Count will kill the official responsible for putting Niemann in prison.

Later, as Niemann and Daniel search for Dr. Frankenstein’s records, they discover the frozen bodies of Larry Talbot/aka the Wolf Man (Lon Chaney Jr.) and the Frankenstein Monster (Glenn Strange), and at this point the film becomes a sequel to FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN. Like every good mad scientist, Niemann revives these monsters as well.

HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN flies by at a brisk 71 minutes. It really is too short to make much of an impact. Had this one been fleshed out a bit more, it would have been more effective.  It’s really not that strong a movie, as it plays like a shallow sequel, with the monsters resurrected only to be quickly done in once again. That being said, it does retain the Universal monster magic, and so while I recognize that this really isn’t that high quality a film, it’s a guilty pleasure that I enjoy each time I watch it.

It also does have some special moments, as well as a strong cast. It’s just that the whole thing seems terribly rushed.

It also doesn’t help that the Dracula storyline begins and ends before the Wolf Man and the Frankenstein Monster show up. Even the next film in the series, HOUSE OF DRACULA (1945) doesn’t really take full advantage of its three monsters. One has to wait until ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948), the comedic finale to the series, before one can enjoy a full and satisfying meeting of the monsters.

Finishing off Dracula so early was not a strength of Edward T. Lowe Jr.’s screenplay. Nor is the dialogue, some of which is laughable, and this one is not a comedy.

Director Erle C. Kenton fares better with the Dracula sequence. In spite of killing off Dracula so quickly, the chase scene just before the vampire’s demise is arguably the best chase scene in the entire Universal monster series.  It’s pretty impressive, as it features Dracula driving a horse-driven coach, pursued by police on horseback, and in front of them both, Niemann racing his carnival coaches, while Daniel runs atop the cars to get to the rear coach to toss Dracula’s coffin.  It’s a wildly exciting sequence.

Writer Lowe fares better with the Wolf Man story. In fact, other than the original THE WOLF MAN (1941) this brief appearance by Larry Talbot is one of the series’ best, because it involves his relationship with a gypsy girl Ilonka (Elena Verdugo), who falls in love with Larry and vows to end his pain by shooting him with a silver bullet.  Their classic confrontation is the most emotional of the series for Talbot other than his fateful encounter with his father Sir John (Claude Rains) at the end of the original WOLF MAN. It’s really neat stuff, but sadly, there’s just so little of it.  Chaney’s scenes here are all too brief.

But saddest of all is the treatment of the Frankenstein Monster, here played for the first time by Glenn Strange.  By this point, the Monster is treated only as a “patient” who lies still on a table until the final reel when he gets up only to be quickly done in by the frightened torch wielding villagers. It’s a far cry from Karloff’s original performances.

Alas, the Monster wouldn’t fare any better in HOUSE OF DRACULA. Again, it would take the comedic encounters with Bud Abbott and Lou Costello in ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN in order for the Monster to return to top form. In fact, in that film, the Monster even talks again! There’s a reason ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN is a classic. It’s hilarious, and for its three monsters, it’s their best screen time in years.

HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN is also blessed with a very strong cast.

Boris Karloff, while not as memorable as he was as the Frankenstein Monster, is very good as Dr. Neimann. His performance is a nice precursor to Peter Cushing’s darker take as Baron Frankenstein in the Hammer Films to follow a decade later.

Lon Chaney Jr. knocks it out of the park yet again as both Larry Talbot and the Wolf Man. For years, Chaney has lived in the shadow of the two other Universal stars, Karloff and Bela Lugosi, but as the years have gone by, his performances have grown in stature.  For some, he’s the best actor to have appeared in the Universal monster movies.

HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN is also one of the few times that Chaney and Karloff appeared in a movie together.

I’ve never been a fan of John Carradine’s take on Dracula, in both this movie and HOUSE OF DRACULA the following year.  He certainly makes for a distinguished Count, but he lacks the necessary evil and sensuality needed for the role. Bela Lugosi was originally slated to play Dracula again, which would have been his first time since the 1931 original, but he was unable to appear in HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN due to a schedule conflict. Fans would have to wait until ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948) before they could see Lugosi play Dracula again, and that would be the second and last time he played Dracula in the movies.

The supporting cast in HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN is exceptional.

J. Carrol Naish, one of my favorite character actors, is excellent as Daniel, the hunchback. His storyline where he is jealous of Talbot because he also loves Ilonka is one of the better parts of the film. As is Elena Verdugo’s performance as Ilonka. Verdugo makes Ilonka sexy and sympathetic.

The film also features George Zucco in a small role as Professor Bruno Lampini, and Lionel Atwill as yet another police inspector. Sig Ruman is memorable as Burgomaster Hussman. My favorite moment with Ruman is when he wakes up and says to Dracula, “As I was saying—-. I don’t know what I was saying. I fell asleep!”

The lovely Anne Gwynn plays Rita Hussman. Gwynn is the grandmother of actor Chris Pine.

HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN almost featured yet another Universal monster, as there were plans to include Kharis the Mummy in the film, but these plans were scrapped due to budget constraints.

HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN is certainly not regarded as one of Universal’s monster classics, as it has sequel written all over it and pales in quality compared to films like FRANKENSTEIN (1931), DRACULA (1931), and THE WOLF MAN. Even FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN is a far better film.

All that being said, HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN remains a guilty pleasure that I never grow tired of watching. This holiday season, when you’re out and about visiting friends and relatives, make a point to stop by the HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN.

I hear they have a monstrously good time.

—END—

 

THE GUILTY (2018) – Danish Police Thriller Taut With Suspense

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The Guilty

I love lean movies.

THE GUILTY (2018) clocks in at a thrifty 85 minutes. There is not one ounce of fat on this flick. It’s nonstop intense from start to finish.

It’s also claustrophobic, as the action follows one man, police officer Asger Holm (Jakob Cedergren) working the emergency police dispatch. The camera never leaves Asger, never leaves the confines of the police dispatch center, often focusing in tight on Asger’s face, as the rest of the action occurs off camera. The audience, like Asger, sees none of it, and like Asger, is only privy to what he hears.

Yet the film is so well done you’ll swear you’ve seen everything that happens, every dramatic scene and tense moment, but you didn’t. That’s just your mind and imagination at work, manipulated by some effective filmmaking.

THE GUILTY opens with a tight close-up of the side of Asger’s face, on his ear piece, signaling to the audience that this is going to be a compact thriller, the focus on the auditory. We learn fairly quickly that officer Asger Holm is working the emergency dispatch for disciplinary reasons, that he has an important court date the next day which seems as if it’s going to clear him of any wrong doing, and so he’ll be back on the street immediately thereafter. We also learn fairly quickly that he’s not particularly enjoying this temporary position, that’s he’s not overly sympathetic to the folks calling in for help, and that he has been a difficult co-worker with those who work there in the dispatch regularly.

But then Asger receives a call from a woman who’s being kidnapped, with her assailant by her side as they ride in a car. She pretends she has called her young daughter, and Asger plays along attempting to learn as much information as possible in order to help her. What follows is as taut a thriller as you’re going to find, thoroughly enjoyable and wonderfully suspenseful, and yet the action never leaves the office of the emergency police dispatch.

Asger is a police officer, not a dispatch operator, and as such he’s both frustrated by the limitations of what he can do behind a desk on the phone and energized to do more, to follow his police instincts, to take matters into his own hands, regardless of the legal implications, which as the film goes on, ties into what he did previous to warrant him a court date. The two stories gel seamlessly, and Asger learns a valuable lesson about rogue police work from his actions trying to save the woman at all costs, as things don’t always go as planned.

THE GUILTY is a Danish film by writer/director Gustav Moller. In fact, it’s Moller’s directorial debut, and it’s a good one.  The film has already won lots of awards at various film festivals.

Moller’s camerawork in THE GUILTY is superb. Most of the time, the camera is up close to Asger’s face, capturing the tension of the entire movie. And since the camera never leaves the dispatch office, for this film to be as suspenseful as it is, that’s saying a lot. It’s the sort of film Hitchcock would have done, but it’s even more claustrophobic than Hitchcock, with the possible exception of LIFEBOAT (1944).

Moller co-wrote the screenplay with Emil Nygaard Albertsen, and it’s a terrific script.  Everything in it works so well.  Asger is a troubled police officer who at the beginning of the movie sees nothing wrong with what he had done previously, but as the events of this film unfold, he begins to see things differently.

The thriller aspects, where Asger is in a race against time to save this woman from possible murder, is exciting. The audience shares in Asger’s frustration when he awaits news of squad cars sent to the scene, hearing live on the radio as a police car pulls over what turns out to be the wrong van, and later when the woman’s children are involved, and Asger can do nothing but listen as officers arrive at the house.

As I said, you’ll leave the theater swearing you’ve seen it all, but in this case, you would have only heard it.

There are also some nifty plot twists that will keep the audience guessing as well as churn their stomachs at some of the revelations later in the movie. But ultimately this is not a dark depressing thriller, because in spite of the horrors which occur in this story, and there are some horrible things that happen, Asgar emerges as a better man and perhaps a better police officer as well.

Jakob Cedergren is excellent as Asger. He’s in every scene in the movie, sharing screen time only with his fellow dispatchers. The rest of the characters we only hear over the phone.  Cedergren rises above the cliché.  He plays Asger as a police officer who believes in right and wrong, who sees it as his duty to stop criminals at whatever cost, and who sees it as his duty to protect those who are in harm’s way, which is why he latches on so dramatically to trying to save Iben, the kidnap victim who called him.

Yet we also see the side of Asger that got him into trouble, the side where he goes it alone and doesn’t shy away from breaking the law in order to solve a crime. Asger doesn’t reach out to his superiors when this event unfolds. He switches into police officer mode and attempts to save the day himself, and of course, things don’t go as planned.

Cedergren keeps Asger a three-dimensional character. In spite of his shady methods, there’s no denying that he wants to save this woman, and his drive is commendable, even as the audience realizes he should be handling things in a different way, that the rule of law exists for a reason. The best part of Asger’s story arc is that what happens to Iben so affects him that it draws out of him truths he probably didn’t know he believed in, before now.

With so much screen time, Cedergren has to be solid for this movie to work, and he is and then some.

The rest of the key performers do their jobs with just their voices as they don’t actually appear in the movie. Jessica Dinnage does a phenomenal job providing the voice of Iben, as does Katinka Evers-Jahnsen as Iben’s six year-old daughter Mathilde. Everyone in the movie provides excellent voice work.

I loved THE GUILTY. It’s a sweat-inducing little thriller that will captivate you from start to finish. It’s also the type of movie that I can easily see being remade by Hollywood and subsequently ruined with additional scenes of action and violence.

THE GUILY is filmmaking at its finest. It tells its frightening story without ever showing any of the action. The audience is stuck in the same situation as main character Asger Holm, hearing only what happens through the police dispatch. And yet this does not hinder the film one iota. On the contrary, it makes it a far superior thriller than the standard by-the-numbers police actioners.

And the title, THE GUILTY, refers to what Asger has in common with one of the voices on the other line, something that he’s feeling for the first time, that truth be told applies more to him than anyone else in the story.

—END—