ANNABELLE COMES HOME (2019) – Not Much of a Homecoming

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annabelle comes home

Look out behind you!  That’s Madison Iseman, Katie Sarifie, Annabelle, and McKenna Grace in a scene from ANNABELLE COMES HOME (2019).

Couldn’t she just stay away?

ANNABELLE COMES HOME (2019) is the third film in the ANNABELLE series, a series that is part of the CONJURING universe, and I have to say that the longer this series and films in this universe continue the less I like these movies.

Creepy dolls are a thing. I get that. And the Annabelle doll, which first showed up in the original THE CONJURING (2013), is a really frightening looking doll. It’s a shame that writers struggle so much to come up with good stories about it.

After that brief appearance in THE CONJURING, the film that spawned this cinematic universe and the one that remains the best in the entire series, the powers that be decided Annabelle needed a movie of her own. That film was ANNABELLE (2014) and it was pretty bad. Still, it was followed by a sequel— actually a prequel— entitled ANNABELLE: CREATION (2017), and this one was actually pretty good. In fact, I enjoyed ANNABELLE: CREATION quite a bit.

Now we have ANNABELLE COMES HOME, which takes place after ANNABELLE: CREATION and ANNABELLE but before THE CONJURING.

ANNABELLE COMES HOME begins when our friendly neighborhood demonologists Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga) first confiscate the Annabelle doll from its frightened owners and agree to take it off their hands and keep it safe in the protective confines of the basement of their home, where they store all the other demonic stuff they’ve collected over the years. This is a line of thinking from these movies that I’ve never understood. I get the idea of keeping all these evil things in one place, to prevent them from harming the world, sort of a supernatural prison, if you will, but inside their own home? Wouldn’t it make more sense to amass this stuff as far away from one’s home as possible? Like maybe inside a place with concrete walls and lots of locks? But nope, they keep their evil collection locked behind a closed door in their house, which opens the door, eh hem, for the kind of devilry that happens in this movie.

Ed and Lorraine Warren were real people, by the way, not fictional characters, most famous for their investigation of the Amityville house. Ed passed away in 2006 and Lorraine just recently passed in April 2019. In fact, ANNABELLE COMES HOME is dedicated to Lorraine Warren.

Getting back to the movie, Ed and Lorraine leave their ten year-old daughter Judy (McKenna Grace) with her babysitter Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman) while they go out, ostensibly to investigate the house in the original THE CONJURING, since the action in this film takes place just before the events in that first movie.

Mary Ellen is quite responsible, but her friend Daniela (Katie Sarifie) is not, and since she blames herself for her father’s death, since he died in a car crash while she was at the wheel, she longs to make some sort of supernatural contact with her dad. So, she invites herself over to the Warren house and sneaks into the secret room and in the process of snooping around, accidentally lets the Annabelle doll out of its glass case.

Oops!

Annabelle, now free, decides to make life a living hell for the three girls and unleashes all sorts of nasty demons and spirits to wreak havoc inside and outside the home, all in the hope of stealing a soul so that the demon within Annabelle can possess a body rather than a doll.

That in a nutshell is the plot of ANNABELLE COMES HOME, and as stories go, it’s not bad. I was certainly into it. That being said, I wasn’t into it for long because the writing and directing just weren’t up to the task of delivering a satisfying horror tale about Annabelle.

ANNABELLE COMES HOME was written and directed by Gary Dauberman, and although this was his directorial debut, he has plenty of writing credits. Dauberman has written all three Annabelle movies as well as THE NUN (2018), another film in the CONJURING universe and another film I did not like. Dauberman is also one of the writers who’s been working on the IT movies, based on Stephen King’s novel.

Here, I had a couple of issues with the writing. The first is with dialogue. At times, the dialogue is flat-out awful, and most of these instances involve scenes with Ed and Lorraine Warren. When they speak of demons and spirits, I just want to break out laughing. Their lines come off as phony and formulaic. The dialogue with Judy and her babysitters is much better.

Also, the story itself has a weird construct. The film opens with Ed and Lorraine obtaining the Annabelle doll, and as they make provisions for its safe keeping, it seems as if they will be the main characters in this movie. But then they disappear for the rest of the film, only returning for a ridiculous happy ending where for some reason time is spent showing Judy’s birthday party, as if that’s a key plot point in this story. I’m sorry. Was this called ANNABELLE COMES HOME SO SHE CAN ATTEND JUDY’S BIRTHDAY PARTY?

Which brings me to next problem: pacing. This film is paced terribly. The story has multiple threats attacking simultaneously, but rather than run with it and build to an absolutely frenetic climax, the story seems to want no part of this. Every time something happens, and a character seems pinned by a demon or spirit, the story switches to another character, and we follow them, while the previous character simply disappears for a while. There is no sense of building suspense at all.

For me, during the film’s second half when things should have been frightening, I was bored. And then to make matters worse, at the end, we go to a birthday party for ten minutes. So don’t forget to wear your party hat!

In spite of all this, some of the acting is pretty darned good.  Young McKenna Grace turns in the best performance as ten year-old Judy. It’s her first time playing Judy, as the character was played by Sterling Jerins in the first two CONJURING movies. Grace is very good at being the kid who’s wise to the ways of the demons and who, like her mother, has the ability to sense things about people. And if she looks familiar doing this sort of thing, that’s because she played a very similar role on the superior Netflix TV show THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE (2018) where she played young Theo. McKenna Grace is only 13, but she has already amassed 51 screen credits, including roles in I,TONYA (2017), READY PLAYER ONE (2018), and CAPTAIN MARVEL (2019).

Madison Iseman is also very good as babysitter Mary Ellen, and I liked Katie Sarife even more as the often annoying but never cliché Daniela, as the character was given some background and depth, making her a bit more fleshed out than the usual characters of this type.  Michael Cimino was also enjoyable in the lighthearted role of Bob, Mary Ellen’s love interest and generally nice guy.

As for Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, they don’t fare as well. Their early scenes are the most cliché in the entire movie, then they disappear for the rest of the movie, only to return for the anticlimactic birthday party.

Another pet peeve: this movie takes place in the early 1970s, and one key sequence involves the remote control of a television set. While remote controls certainly existed in the early 1970s, they were not prevalent at all the way they are today. Most TVs were controlled by knobs or buttons on the console. Small point, but it stood out for me as not being terribly realistic.

The scariest part of ANNABELLE COMES HOME is the way Annabelle looks. Annabelle has always been one creepy doll.

And the film itself looks good. There are lots of cool looking demons and creatures, and they show up and disappear on cue, but their effect isn’t much different than the sort of thrills one gets inside an amusement park haunted house. They pop out at you and they’re scary, but that’s it.

It’s not enough because ANNABELLE COMES HOME is a movie, and as such, it is supposed to tell a story.

Writer/director Gary Dauberman seems to have forgotten this concept.

As a result, ANNABELLE COMES HOME isn’t much of a homecoming.

—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.

Dark Corners cover (1)

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 available at https://www.amazon.com/dp/1949914437.

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.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

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.  

For_the_love_of_Horror- original cover

Print cover

For the Love of Horror cover (3)

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.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE DEAD DON’T DIE (2019) – Understated Satire Just Happens to Have Zombies In It

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THE DEAD DON'T DIE

Some day, perhaps, THE DEAD DON’T DIE (2019) might be remembered as a masterpiece of understated humor and satire.

Alas, today is not that day.

THE DEAD DON’T DIE is a new horror comedy starring Bill Murray and Adam Driver that is being marketed as a zombie comedy, but you know what? It’s not really a zombie movie. Oh, there are zombies in it, but it’s the most non-zombie zombie movie I’ve ever seen, which is not going to make it a hit among horror fans.

In fact I’d wager to guess that most horror fans will not like this movie. Even though it mentions George Romero and throws in a few Easter eggs here and there, it largely ignores the zombie films which have come before it. Sometimes this can be a good thing, but in this case it is not.

Heck, since its comedy really isn’t all that biting— heh, heh!— comedy fans aren’t going to be too keen on this one either. Yup, I’m going to go out on a—limb— and predict that this one will not perform all that well at the box office.

That being said, THE DEAD DON’T DIE is not an awful film. I actually liked it, in a weird offbeat sort of way, and that’s because at the end of the day THE DEAD DON’T DIE is satire, that just happens to have zombies in it. It’s the type of comedy that Bob Newhart would have made in his heyday, with Murray filling in here for the Newhart role. It has a few pointed things to say about our present day society, but the writing is never as sharp, and the direction never as tight as a movie like this needs it to be. Even when the film breaks the fourth wall, the humor still struggles. Yet, there are places where it works and works well.

In THE DEAD DON’T DIE, Police Chief Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray) and his fellow officers Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver) and Mindy Morrison (Chloe Sevigny) usually have nothing more urgent to do in their small town of Centerville than ask their local Hermit Bob (Tom Waits) whether or not he stole chickens from the annoying farmer Frank Miller (Steve Buscemi). But suddenly things grow strange.

The daylight lasts longer than usual, watches and cell phones stop working, and soon the dead start to rise and begin eating the townspeople. The culprit? The controversial use of global fracking has affected the earth’s rotation, and as a result all these freaky things start happening. Supposedly. The people aren’t sure, because the government cites global fracking as safe and accuses scientists of spreading false information. Sound familiar?

How Robertson and his fellow officers react to these horrific happenings is the story told in THE DEAD DON’T DIE. Trouble is, the biggest way they react is by standing around and doing nothing. So much for compelling storytelling!

THE DEAD DON’T DIE was written and directed by Jim Jarmusch, a director known for his deadpan style. Jarmusch is tenacious here with his slow-moving satire, which might be the film’s greatest asset, that it never deviates from its slow pace, its unassuming humor, and its coy messages on society.

The satire in THE DEAD DON’T DIE is there. It’s just not always all that clear. For instance, Steve Buscemi’s Farmer Frank wears a red cap which reads “Keep America White Again,” a slogan which in itself satirizes the modern-day message of the Trump presidency as well as poking fun at the overall intelligence of his followers with its grammatically incorrect slogan. It appears ever so briefly and is easily missed. Yet it got a good chuckle from the audience.

Speaking of which, I saw THE DEAD DON’T DIE in a full theater in which the majority in the audience were college-aged folks. It was a lively audience that was laughing and having fun even before the movie started. And they were generous with their laughter throughout the movie, laughing much more than I did.

As mentioned, the film breaks the fourth wall on more than one occasion, sequences where Murray and Driver discuss the theme song and even the script. But it’s not the type of lively screenplay that is filled with playful asides a la the works of Woody Allen or Mel Brooks. In fact, there is very little that is lively about the entire movie. There’s about as much energy surrounding this flick as a heavy-duty afternoon nap.

There are also some fun little in-jokes, like Adam Driver carrying a STAR WARS key chain, a direct nod to his role in the new STAR WARS trilogy.

A lot of the humor doesn’t work. The running gag about the theme song wasn’t funny at the beginning and it’s even less funny by the end.

There’s a GREAT GATSBY gaffe that I’m still not sure I understand. A character mentions she loves the name Zelda because of Zelda Fitzgerald, who she says was Jay Gatsby’s wife in THE GREAT GATSBY, but Gatsby wasn’t married, and his love interest in the novel was Daisy Buchanan. Zelda Fitzgerald was the wife of Gatsby author F. Scott Fitzgerald. It’s possible I’m missing something here, but since what I’m missing isn’t obvious, such a gaffe just comes off as lazy writing.

Speaking of lazy, there’s a heck of a lot of inaction going on here. Characters stand around and talk, and talk, and talk. There’s one sequence after the first zombie kill in the diner when Chief Robertson discovers the bodies, that features as its gag people saying the same lines when they see the bodies for this first time. Admittedly, this is funny, but it takes place during a sequence where we have to watch each character drive up to the diner, casually take their time entering and exiting before saying the aforementioned line. S-l-o-w.

There are a lot of satirical moments poking fun at today’s society, and most of these work, although they are exceedingly understated.

The horror elements are also downplayed here, and while there are some gory sequences, this one doesn’t really hold its own as a horror movie. There are also scenes of dialogue where the characters in a panic go on about the zombie epidemic, and they go on at lengths which aren’t supported by events in the movie. There’s basically one zombie scene before the film’s third and final act.

There’s also an annoying way the zombie’s die, as when they are killed they give off a puff of smoke. What is this, TWILIGHT?

THE DEAD DON’T DIE does have a terrific cast, which is one of its strengths, and they all play quirky characters.

Bill Murray is fine as Chief Robertson. He certainly has been funnier in his career, but he handles the deadpan humor well, again channeling a Bob Newhart vibe. There’s also an in-joke when his character breaks the fourth wall and asks Adam Driver if they are simply improvising here, since Murray began his career with improv, and is known to have improvised in some of his movies. Then again, maybe it simply means that Murray and Driver weren’t working with a script!

Adam Driver also nails the deadpan humor as Officer Peterson. I increasingly enjoy Driver in the movies, and while his biggest role to date has been the conflicted villain Kylo Ren in the new STAR WARS trilogy, I’ve enjoyed him more in such films as BLACKKKLANSMAN (2018) and LOGAN LUCKY (2017). He was probably my favorite part of THE DEAD DON’T DIE, and he certainly got the most laughs, but he also didn’t have to try very hard. The audience laughed when he showed up at a crime scene driving a miniscule car.

Chloe Sevigny is very good as Officer Morrison, and Tilda Swinton has the most unusual role as local mortician Zelda Winston, who’s an eccentric character whose idiosyncracies sometimes generate laughter and other times misfire. She’s the one character in the film who is a badass zombie killer, which provide Swinton with her best moments in the movie.

Steve Buscemi is on hand as the irritable farmer Frank, and he has a couple of comic moments, but for a guy like Buscemi, that’s less than you expect. The cast also includes Danny Glover, Selena Gomez, Caleb Landry Jones, and Tom Waits as Hermit Bob.

Hermit Bob’s line at the end of the film that we live in a crazy world kinda sums up the point of the film, that this world is a crazy place, and that zombies rising from the dead isn’t any nuttier than things we are already seeing.

As I said, one day this film may be remembered as a classic satire. But today, alas, due to its incredibly slow and lethargic pace and less than sharp writing, it’s going down in my book as a well-intentioned look at the crazy world in which we live that lacked the necessary energy and oomph to successfully make its case.

It also doesn’t help itself in that it’s not much of a zombie movie, a fact that most likely will keep its potential fan base away from the theater.

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHILD’S PLAY (2019) – Smart, Funny, and Gory Remake Updates Chucky Story for 2019

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Do we really need a remake of CHILD’S PLAY?

Sure! Why not?

See, I’m not of the mindset that remakes are a bad thing. Did we really need remakes of the Universal monster movies? Yet Hammer Films made some of the best horror movies ever made doing just that. Did we need a remake of THE THING (1951)? Yet John Carpenter made arguably one of the finest horror movies of all time with his remake.

Sure, there are plenty of faulty remakes/reimaginings out there, but I like to keep an open mind and refuse to knock them on principle since a lot of amazingly good films have been remakes.

The original CHILD’S PLAY (1988) was a decent horror flick from the 1980s about a toy doll named Chucky possessed by the soul of a serial killer, and it starred Chris Sarandon as a police detective, following upon the heels of his success as vampire Jerry Dandrige in FRIGHT NIGHT (1985). It spawned a whole series of Chucky films.

So, how does the current reimagining hold up?

Very well.

In fact, the new CHILD’S PLAY (2019) gets off to a strong start within its first few minutes thanks to some sharp writing and spot-on storytelling.

This CHILD’S PLAY opens with a video of the president of Kaslan Industires Henry Kaslan (Tim Matheson) speaking to the camera about how their company cares for children, and he showcases their new Buddi doll, a doll that is more than just a toy. With its interactive technology, it connects to computers, phones, drones, and with its advanced robotics, it pretty much is the next best thing to a human companion/babysitter. And Kaslan stresses its safety factors, as it has safeguards that make it nearly impossible to do anyone harm.

And so you realize right off the bat that this is not going to be a story about a doll possessed by a serial killer, but about a doll with very real technology which today most likely could do all the things it does in the movie. Suddenly, Chucky’s story is based less on fantasy and more on reality. Very cool.

And when a disgruntled employee on his last day on the job removes all the safety protocols from one doll, that plot point makes sense as well.

Thirteen year-old Andy Barclay (Gabriel Bateman) lives with his young mom Karen (Aubrey Plaza) in a modest apartment. Since Andy has been having a hard time with their recent move, Karen decides to get her son an early birthday present. She works at a department store and when a customer returns a defective Buddi doll, she decides to rewrap it and give it to her son, believing it’s not all that defective since the main reason the customer cited for returning it was that it wasn’t the latest model which is due out in days.

When Andy comments that he’s kind of old for Buddi, Karen tells him that it could be a joke gift and that they could just have some fun with it. But the Buddi doll’s friendship program proves to be irresistible, and Andy, a loner, finds himself enjoying the company. When the doll asks Andy what he should name him, Andy says “Han Solo,” which is an in-joke since the doll is being voiced here by Mark Hamill, but the doll ignores Andy and says, “Chucky. My name will be Chucky.” Andy laughs off this unexpected moment of independence and fully embraces his new Chucky companion.

Of course, this is the doll without the safety protocols, and as a result it takes its job as Andy’s friend and protector very seriously. Too seriously. Anyone Chucky views as a threat to Andy ends up dead, and in the most unpleasant of ways.

I really enjoyed this new CHILD’S PLAY for a lot of reasons. For starters, Mark Hamill’s voice work for Chucky is outstanding. He’s creepy, he’s funny, and for a talking doll he’s very real. There’s a reason Hamill in spite of his STAR WARS superstardom is more known for his voice work than his onscreen acting performances. His voice work is very good. No knock against Brad Dourif who voiced the original Chucky, but Hamill made it so I wasn’t pining for the Chucky of yesteryear.

The rest of the cast is strong as well. Gabriel Bateman does a nice job as thirteen year-old Andy, and when he and his friends are on the case trying to stop Chucky, the film channels a STRANGER THINGS vibe.

I really liked Aubrey Plaza as Andy’s young mom Karen. Plaza has a comedic background. She played April on PARKS AND RECREATION (2009-2015). Her comedic timing is on full display here, and she takes things to the next level as she’s more than just a comedian in this movie. She makes for a convincing single mom.

I also enjoyed Brian Tyree Henry as Detective Mike Norris. He also has the light touch, as his Mike Norris is much more humorous than the character Chris Sarandon played in the original. Henry has been in a lot of stuff lately, appearing in HOTEL ARTEMIS (2018), WHITE BOY RICK (2018), WIDOWS (2018), and he provided voice work for the critically acclaimed animated superhero movie SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE (2018).  His roles in these films have all been different, and his work here in CHILD’S PLAY was much more playful than his roles in the aforementioned films.

CHILD’S PLAY has a smart and funny screenplay by Tyler Burton Smith. It carves out—heh, heh–likable characters, creates a surprisingly realistic threat in the Chucky doll, and tells a believable and often riveting story, even as it keeps things light throughout.

Director Lars Klevberg keeps the pace quick and the movie’s 90 minutes fly by easily. This one is rated R so be prepared for some grotesque horror movie violence in the spirit of the horror films from the 70s and 80s.

Speaking of which, how does this new CHILD’S PLAY stack up as a horror movie? Surprisingly well. First off, I thought it did a good job bringing Chucky into 2019, where our present day technology makes the notion of a murderous doll not that far-fetched since the science for making it happen exists in the real world. So, you have a realistic threat.

The gory murders hearken back to older films of this type and serve as an homage to these movies.

I didn’t really find CHILD’S PLAY scary, but that didn’t take away from my enjoying it. I cared for the characters and didn’t want to see them fall victim to Chucky. I also liked the look of this new Chucky, which had just enough differences to make it stand out from the original doll.

The film’s climactic third act, when Chucky exacts his revenge inside the department store at the unveiling and first sale of the new Buddi dolls, amid the rush of stampeding crazed customers, serves as a nice metaphor for the insanity of current day Black Friday shopping.

So, I’m not sure if we really needed a remake of CHILD’S PLAY, but this 2019 reimagining is a good one. So good in fact that you won’t even have to save your receipt. No refunds or returns are necessary.

—END—

 

 

 

ROCKETMAN (2019) Rocks

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The best part about ROCKETMAN (2019) is that its magical flamboyant style captures the essence of its subject, Elton John, all the while telling a story that is anything but.

The real Elton John is on record as telling the film’s producers who were pushing for a PG-13 rated movie that he hadn’t lived a PG-13 life. The film is rated R and is better for it. This is a no holds barred look at one of rock and roll’s most eccentric performers.

Nearly everything about this movie works.

ROCKETMAN is the life story of Elton John (Taron Egerton). Starting with his troubled childhood where as a young boy named Reginald Dwight he had to deal with parents who didn’t show him affection and worse, abused him emotionally. In spite of them, he becomes a young piano prodigy, and as he grows older he becomes a fan of rock and roll. He also realizes that he is gay.

He develops a strong friendship with songwriter Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), which is a good thing, because Reggie’s strength is music, not words. His collaboration with Bernie is extremely successful, and once he chooses his stage name, Elton John, there’s no looking back.

The two sign a record deal and travel to the United States for an inaugural tour that instantly catapults John to superstardom. He never looks back. But fame has its price, and drug use, friends’ betrayals, and a family that never is interested in loving or supporting him, take their toll on John until he has a major collapse. But life goes on, true friends like Bernie Taupin never abandon him, and he’s able in 1983 to record another hit “I’m Still Standin” which is symbolic of his victory over the pitfalls of fame.

I loved ROCKETMAN.

Director Dexter Fletcher pushes all the right buttons. The film captures so much of the pain of John’s life and shows how he managed to succeed in spite of these obstacles. There are some truly cinematic scenes in this one. Probably the best sequence in the film is the concert at the Troubadour club in LA. Not only does the scene recreate what John accomplished on that day, on August 25, 1970, but it’s also the moment the film explodes with life. You could feel the theater audience mirroring the emotion of the concert audience in the movie.

There’s also a shot of the neighborhood surrounding the Troubadour that stood out because it looked so authentic, and it turns out that it was. Fletcher took stock 35 mm footage of the street and simply cleaned it up digitally. It’s only a few seconds of film, but it adds to the authenticity of the movie.

I loved the style of the film, which is pretty much a musical fantasy intertwined with a hard-hitting bio pic, which captures the essence of Elton John perfectly.

The acting is phenomenal. Taron Egerton, who before ROCKETMAN was known for THE KINGSMAN movies, EDDIE THE EAGLE (2015) and for his voice work in SING (2016), knocks it out of the park as Elton John. He completely loses himself in the role and becomes the rock and roll icon. It’s the best work I’ve seen Egerton do yet. Considering the big names that were originally associated with this project, actors like Tom Hardy, James McAvoy, and Daniel Radcliffe, I can’t imagine anyone else doing as good a job as Egerton does here. And, he does all his own singing! It’s an exceptional performance.

Jamie Bell is also very good as John’s best friend and songwriter Bernie Taupin. In a world full of insincere people, Taupin’s sincerity sticks out and is welcomed throughout. Bell plays Bernie as a man who loved John very much, but who was friend enough to tell the singer that he didn’t love him in “that way.” I’ve seen Bell in other movies, such as his role as the Thing in FANTASTIC FOUR (2015), and he was also in the exceptional actioner SNOWPIERCER (2013), but like Egerton, this is the best performance I’ve seen Bell deliver.

Likewise, Richard Madden delivers a strong performance as John’s promoter and love interest John Reid, who is pretty much symbolic of all that goes wrong with John’s life in L.A.

And Bryce Dallas Howard is cold and endlessly annoying as John’s mother, as is Steven Mackintosh as his even colder and distant father. Their scenes with their son are among the most emotionally charged in the film, especially the one where John after he has become famous visits his dad and has to suffer through watching the man pour on the love to John’s younger stepbrothers while continually dissing John’s career, showing no interest in it whatsoever. When he asks John to sign one of his albums, he points out that it shouldn’t be made out to him, but to one of his friends, forcing John to cross out “To Dad” and instead write the friend’s name. Mackintosh was similarly annoying on the show LUTHER (2010) where he played DCI Ian Reed and became a real thorn in the side of Idris Elba’s main character Luther in that superior TV series.

I also loved the screenplay by Lee Hall. Not only does it tell Elton John’s life story in a truly satisfying way, it’s also chock full of memorable lines of dialogue. One of my favorite lines in the film is when a fellow rocker gives John this advice, “You’ve got to kill the person you were born as in order to become the person you were born to be.” Which is in many cases true.

Likewise, when John says, “Real love is hard to come by. So you find a way to cope without it,” also smacks of truth.

And there are many more.

And of course the film benefits from the music of Elton John, as his songs pepper the story throughout, with so many of the lyrics capturing pivotal points in John’s life.

About the only drawback I had with ROCKETMAN is I thought at times it pulled back from moments it should have stayed on. Things happen, often emotional and upsetting things, and then it would be on to the next item, rather than lingering on the trauma felt by the iconic rocker.

But other than that, I loved ROCKETMAN. With so many things going for it, and led by a superior performance by Taron Egerton, it’s one of my favorite movies of the year so far.

—END—

 

 

 

 

SHAFT (2019) – Samuel L. Jackson Dominates, Richard Roundtree Returns, But Film Flounders

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Shaft-2019

Samuel L. Jackson is a hoot as Harlem private investigator John Shaft in the new action comedy SHAFT (2019), but the film as a whole is less so, mostly because it lacks the necessary grittiness a film bearing the name Shaft requires.

And now a brief history lesson on John Shaft. The character of Harlem police detective John Shaft was played by Richard Roundtree and first appeared in the movie SHAFT (1971) which was such a hit it was followed by two sequels and a TV series, all starring Roundtree. The series was rebooted in 2000 with Samuel L. Jackson playing New York City detective John Shaft, the nephew of the original Shaft played by Richard Roundtree, in a movie called—SHAFT (2000). How original.

And now comes the latest Shaft movie, called—- you got it!— SHAFT (2019). Gotta love the creativity behind these titles. This one focuses on the son of Samuel L. Jackson’s John Shaft, named— of course— John Shaft Jr.

And why have two John Shafts in one movie when you can have three? And so before this one is over, Richard Roundtree shows up as the original John Shaft, only now he’s no longer Samuel L. Jackson’s John Shaft’s uncle, but his father. Everybody still with me?

All kidding aside, Richard Roundtree’s return as John Shaft is one of the highlights of this movie, which, in spite of the fact that its script doesn’t succeed entirely, I enjoyed quite a bit.

In SHAFT (2019), John Shaft Jr. (Jessie T. Usher) works as an FBI data analyst, and when his best friend turns up dead, supposedly from a drug overdose, Shaft Jr. has his doubts. He thinks his friend has been murdered, and he decides to find out the truth behind his friend’s death. When he realizes he’s in over his head, he turns to his estranged father John Shaft (Samuel L. Jackson) for help, who’s only too happy to help his son, not only because it gives him a chance to finally spend time with a son he hasn’t seen since he was baby, but also because the case connects to a person he’s been trying to put away for a long time.

The plot in SHAFT is secondary. It’s really only an excuse to allow Samuel L. Jackson the chance to chew up the scenery, which he does with great mother f****ing enthusiasm. This is one of the problems with the movie. Not only is its plot secondary, it’s also pretty bad. It tries hard to be contemporary, with a story about terrorism that touches upon racially profiling Muslims, but it’s all very superficial and none of it comes off as real or relevant. Had it taken these subjects more seriously, the film would have been better for it.

The villains are pretty nonexistent. It’s basically Samuel L. Jackson strutting his stuff out talking and out shooting every little bad guy that gets in his way, but there isn’t a main villain to speak of. Sure, there are those at the top who are responsible for pulling the strings here, but we never see them in action.

SHAFT works whenever Samuel L. Jackson is onscreen, and he’s in this one a lot, which is a good thing. The screenplay by Kenya Barris and Alex Barnow gives Jackson plenty of opportunity to spew expletives at bad guys and comment on his sensitive son’s 2019 ways. And while Jackson is hilarious, the way he talks about women in this movie often referring to them by their sex organs is rather jarring here in 2019. Had this film taken place in the 1970s the language would have worked better. Ditto on his use of the “n” word, which his son asks him to stop using, but he doesn’t.

Jesse T. Usher doesn’t fare as well as John Jr. I never warmed to the character, mostly because Usher seemed to be unable to distance himself from Jackson’s shadow. His best scene is when he displays some dance/fight moves on the dance floor when he takes on a thug at a party, but other than this he plays second fiddle throughout. If this series were to continue, I can’t imagine a film built around Usher and John Jr.

The two women actors fare better. Regina Hall plays John Shaft’s estranged wife Maya, and she enjoys some lively scenes. Better yet is Alexandra Shipp as John Jr.’s friend Sasha. Shipp stood out in all her scenes, and I actually thought she held her own with Samuel L. Jackson better than Usher did. I almost wished this one had been about Shaft’s daughter, and that she had been played by Shipp.

Shipp just appeared as Storm in DARK PHOENIX (2019), a role she reprised from the previous X-MEN movie. And while she’s very good as Storm, she has a larger role here in SHAFT and gets to show off more acting chops.

As I said, one of the highlights of SHAFT is the return of Richard Roundtree as the original Shaft, and he’s on hand for the film’s action-packed finale. He’s not really in this one until the end, but his appearance is well worth the wait. Interestingly enough, even though he’s playing Samuel L. Jackson’s father, in real life he’s only six years older than Jackson.

SHAFT was directed by Tim Story, who a while ago directed the underwhelming FANTASTIC FOUR (2005). SHAFT is not underwhelming, and you can thank Samuel L. Jackson for that. He provides all the energy and oomph in this one. Story, on the other hand, adds very little, as his direction is often punchless.

SHAFT takes place in 2019, and there’s something about seeing Shaft operate in the here and now rather than the 1970s which seems out-of-place. The movie never really owns 2019. It tries, as there are plenty of references to modern-day technology, as Shaft Jr. criticizes his father for ignoring the internet and all its resources when working on his cases, and Shaft Sr. criticizes his son’s generation for texting each other rather than talking. But the film never really captures what it’s like in the here and now. And that’s because Shaft Sr. acts exactly the way he’d act in the past. The film does not really address difficulties the character might face here in 2019.

SHAFT also isn’t much of an action movie. None of the action scenes impress. The film is also a victim of its own trailers, which showed most of the funnier bits in the movie. I really wish trailers would stop doing that.

The screenplay doesn’t help, as a lot of the dialogue is pretty bad. Plus it’s one of those movies where characters make deductions in the blink of an eye. Shaft Jr. and Sasha deduce that their friend has been murdered by looking at one set of lab results, and just like that, it’s murder! Sure, it’s a comedy, but it would have worked better as a realistic comedy, at least where the plot was concerned. I didn’t mind the unrealistic elements of Samuel L. Jackson’s Shaft character one bit.

The main reason to see SHAFT is Samuel L. Jackson’s expletive filled over-the-top performance, and the return of Richard Roundtree to the series. If you can sit through a nonexistent plot, a mediocre Shaft Jr., and some unimaginative direction, you most likely will enjoy this one, because Jackson and Roundtree are the real deal, and at the very least will command your attention and make you laugh.

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LEADING MEN: DAVID MANNERS

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David Manners in between Karloff and Lugosi in THE BLACK CAT (1934).

Welcome to a brand new column, LEADING MEN.

Here at THIS IS MY CREATION: THE BLOG OF MICHAEL ARRUDA I already write a LEADING LADIES column where we look at the career of lead actresses in horror movies, and IN THE SHADOWS, where we look at character actors, women and men, who appeared in horror movies.

In LEADING MEN, we won’t be looking at the horror superstars, folks like Karloff, Lugosi, Chaney, Cushing, Lee, and Price, but those actors who had leading roles in horror movies and played key parts that were not character bits and who in spite of their success in these roles did not achieve superstar status.

We kick off the column with the number #1 leading man from the early Universal monster movies, David Manners. He played “John” Harker in DRACULA (1931) and the similarly dashing young hero Frank Whemple in THE MUMMY (1932) with Boris Karloff.

My favorite part of David Manners’ performances is that he took what could have been stoic wooden “leading man” love interest roles and infused these characters with some personality, which is why his characterizations in these old Universal monster films are better than most.

So, here’s a brief look at Manners’ film career, focusing mostly on his horror roles:

THE SKY HAWK (1929) – pilot (uncredited) – David Manners’ first screen appearance, an uncredited bit as a pilot, a World War I drama that also starred Manners’ future DRACULA co-star Helen Chandler.

JOURNEY’S END (1930) – 2nd Lt. Raleigh –  David Manner’s first screen credit is in this drama starring Colin Clive as an alcoholic captain trying to lead his troops in the trenches of World War I. Directed by James Whale, who would direct Clive the following year in FRANKENSTEIN (1931).

DRACULA (1931) – John Harker- Sure, Manners hams it up at times, and some of the scenes with him and Helen Chandler as Mina are among the film’s slowest, but he also enjoys some fine moments in this Universal classic. He seems genuinely annoyed with both Edward Van Sloan’s Van Helsing, as the professor continues to argue for the existence of vampires, something Harker believes is ludicrous, as well as with Lugosi’s Dracula when the vampire shows his fiancee Mina some attention. When Dracula apologizes for upsetting Mina with his stories, Manner’s Harker reacts with a very annoyted, “Stories?” as if to say when have you been finding the time to tell my fiancee stories?

THE DEATH KISS (1932) – Franklyn Drew –  Manners stars with DRACULA co-stars Bela Lugosi and Edward Van Sloan in this mystery/comedy about murder on a movie set.

THE MUMMY (1932) – Frank Whemple – Joins forces once again with Edward Van Sloan to stop another movie monster, this time it’s Boris Karloff as ImHoTep the undead mummy who returns to life and subsequently discovers his long lost love has been reincarnated as a woman named Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann). Of course, Manners’ Frank Whemple is also in love with Helen, and so once again he’s the dashing young hero who works with Van Sloan’s professor— not Van Helsing this time but Doctor Muller—to protect the young heroine from an evil monster. I prefer Manners’ performance here in THE MUMMY over his work in DRACULA as his acting is more natural in this movie.

THE BLACK CAT (1934) – Peter Allison – Manners’ turn here as mystery writer Peter Allison is probably my favorite David Manners’ performance. In this Universal classic which was the first movie to pair Boris Karloff with Bela Lugosi, the two horror superstars take on each other in this atmospheric thriller set in Hungary and featuring devil worshippers and revenge. Manners plays an American novelist on his honeymoon with his wife, and the two get caught in the crossfire between Karloff and Lugosi. Manners gets some of the best lines in the movie, most of them very humorous, and Manners pulls off this lighter take on the leading man quite nicely. My favorite Manners line is when he’s speaking of Karloff’s Hjalmar Poelzig and says, If I wanted to build a nice, cozy, unpretentious insane asylum, he’d be the man for it.  

MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD (1935) – Edwin Drood – Horror movie based on the Charles Dickens novel stars Claude Rains as an opium-addicted choirmaster with a taste for young women and murder. A financial flop.

LUCKY FUGITIVES (1936) – Jack Wycoff/Cy King –  Dual role for Manners in which he plays an author who is a dead ringer for a gangster and as such is mistakenly arrested. Manner’s final screen credit.

David Manners only had 39 screen credits, and that’s because after LUCKY FUGITIVES he retired from acting. He would go on to become a painter and a writer, publishing several novels.

He died in 1998 of natural causes at the age of 97.

For me, Manners will be forever remembered for his dashing leading man roles in the Universal horror classics DRACULA (1931), THE MUMMY (1932), and THE BLACK CAT (1934). He gave these roles personality, and they have stood the test of time and remain integral parts of these classic horror movies.

David Manners

April 30, 1901 – December 23, 1998

I hope you enjoyed this LEADING MEN column and join me again next time when we look at another leading man in the movies, especially horror movies.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

DARK PHOENIX (2019) – More Superficial Than Superhero

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There’s more superficial than superhero in DARK PHOENIX (2019), the latest Marvel X-Men movie to hit the theaters.

When 20th Century Fox rebooted its X-MEN franchise with X-MEN: FIRST CLASS (2011) that film not only instantly became one of my favorite X-MEN movies but also one of my favorite Marvel superhero movies, period. A major reason for this was the casting of James McAvoy as Professor Charles Xavier and Michael Fassbender as Magneto. These two actors shared some strong chemistry together and lifted FIRST CLASS to its status as a superior superhero movie.

With apologies to Jennifer Lawrence, who has also appeared in these movies as Raven/Mystique, McAvoy and Fassbender have continued to be the best part of these X-Men reboots, and so even though DARK PHOENIX opened to dreadful reviews, knowing that McAvoy and Fassbender were back, I still trekked to the theater to catch this one.

And while I can certainly understand why this one opened to such negative reviews, it wasn’t all bad. It’s just not very good.

DARK PHOENIX tells a story that fans of the X-Men comics know very well, the story of Jean Grey becoming the Phoenix. This story was also told in the previous X-Men series, in X-MEN: THE LAST STAND (2006). Fans didn’t like how the Phoenix story was handled in that movie, and I doubt they’re going to like how it’s handled here.

In DARK PHOENIX, it’s 1992, and the X-Men are enjoying happy times as they are universally perceived as heroes, and a jubilant Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) spends his time giving speeches and has access to a personal phone line to the President of the United States. Life is good.

But during a daunting space rescue, where a crew of X-Men attempt to extract the endangered crew of a space shuttle, a strange space phenomenon, a beastly looking cloud of light, which is threatening the shuttle descends upon the scene, and it’s up to Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) to stop it. She does, but it nearly kills her, and when she returns alive and well, she is given the nickname “Phoenix” as she seemingly has risen from the dead.

But all is not well, as Jean begins to exhibit some weird behaviors and unleash powers she doesn’t seem able to control. She’s suddenly out there doing things that are giving the X-Men a bad name. Further complicating matters, a group of space aliens who we know virtually nothing about led by Vux (Jessica Chastain) want the power which Jean possesses.

With the X-Men reeling, as there is lots of in-fighting over what is perceived as Charles Xavier’s mishandling of Jean Grey, the glory days for these mutant heroes comes to an end. Looking for help, Jean seeks out Magneto (Michael Fassbender) who’s living in the desert with his own band of mutant rebels. And once Magneto learns the truth about Jean and what she has done, he’s not interested in helping her but in killing her.

It’s up to Charles Xavier, who refuses to give up on Jean, to save her, but he’ll have to contend with Magneto, the space aliens, the military, and his own renegade mutants to do it.

This plot actually sounds better than it is, and that’s because the story as told in the movie is kind of all over the place. There were parts that I liked, but taken as a whole this one never becomes a unified story that works.

The screenplay by writer/director Simon Kinberg was far too superficial to be successful. Plot points are glossed over, conversations are banal, the dialogue trite, and the characterizations are without depth.

We learn little about the villainous aliens, and their scenes in this one are sporadic and dull. Speaking of dull, that’s how the X-men come off in this movie. Jean Grey/Phoenix really isn’t all that interesting, and her story isn’t given much depth at all. Jennifer Lawrence does very little as Raven/Mystique. Her role isn’t much more than an extended cameo, and she gets some of the worst lines in the movie.

I like Nicholas Hoult as Beast, but his dialogue here isn’t any better. Michael Fassbender doesn’t show up as Magneto until halfway through the movie, and James McAvoy seems to be stuck saying the same things as Charles Xavier throughout. He sounds like a broken record.

Jessica Chastain is wasted as alien Vuk, a villain with no characterization, back story, or screen presence.

And while Tye Sheridan plays Cyclops, Alexandra Ship plays Storm, Evan Peters plays Quicksilver, and Kodi Smit-McPhee plays Nightcrawler, none of these folks make much of an impact.

Director Simon Kinberg also struggles to make this one cinematic. There’s hardly a memorable scene here, visually or otherwise.

There just didn’t seem to be a whole lot of attention to detail. There’s an entire plot of in-fighting with the X-Men, reminiscent of what the Avengers went through in CAPTAIN AMERICA; CIVIL WAR (2016) but the two films aren’t even on the same page when it comes to quality. CIVIL WAR got down and dirty, got right into its characters’ faces, and as a result the audience knew exactly where each character stood and felt their pain.

Not so here with DARK PHOENIX. We know where the characters stand because they say so, but we never feel it. That’s a big difference. Very little of what happens in DARK PHOENIX resonates.

So, what did I like about DARK PHOENIX? Well, it still stars James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender, and so even with the weak dialogue, the two actors are enjoyable to watch, and I did enjoy their performances here, although hands down DARK PHOENIX is the weakest of their X-MEN collaborations.

I also like Nicholas Hoult as Beast, but unfortunately, the women don’t fare as well. I didn’t really enjoy Sophie Turner as Jean Grey, as unlike McAvoy and Fassbender, she was  unable to overcome the bad dialogue. Jennifer Lawrence sleepwalks through her brief stint as Raven/Mystique, and Jessica Chastain is reduced to being robotic as villain Vuk.

While the initial space shuttle rescue was blah, the climactic battle aboard a speeding train at least had some pop.

But nothing in DARK PHOENIX really sticks. Things happen, but moments later they’re forgotten.

This may be the end of this class of X-Men. Disney, which owns the Marvel Cinematic Universe films, has bought 20th Century Fox, and rumor has it they will once more reboot the X-Men series and incorporate it into the MCU.

And while this isn’t the best ending of the James McAvoy/Michael Fassbender led series, I’ve enjoyed the ride. It’s too bad that their final film wasn’t better.

Unless of course, they, like the Phoenix, survive the buyout and rise once again as Professor X and Magneto.

I for one wouldn’t mind that at all.

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