ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD (2019) – Tarantino’s 9th Film Enters Fairy Tale Territory

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At first glance,  ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD (2019), the ninth film by Quentin Tarantino, seems to be an exercise in style over substance.

It takes place in Hollywood in 1969, and Tarantino masterfully captures the look, feel, and very essence of the time, with impeccable costumes, set design, and a killer soundtrack. Watching this movie, I really felt as if I had been transported via time machine back to 1969. The experience was that authentic.

Tarantino also gets top-notch performances from everyone involved, especially his two leads, Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, and Margot Robbie.

The style, the filmmaking expertise, it’s all there.

But the substance? The story?

That’s harder to find because ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD takes its sweet time, and for most of its two-hour and forty-one minute running time, it’s not in a hurry to get anywhere, and so it tells its multiple stories with as much urgency as two guys sitting inside a saloon drinking whiskey. In short, it’s not going anywhere anytime soon.

And yet it’s told with an affection that clearly shows this time period and these characters and their stories were a labor of love by Tarantino. And it’s all light and funny, in spite of the fact that it’s built around one of the darkest chapters in Hollywood history, the brutal murder of a pregnant Sharon Tate and her friends by Charles Manson’s insane minions. There is a strong sense of dread throughout the movie, knowing what’s to come, and then— well, then Tarantino decides to have some fun at our expense.

ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD is mostly the story of two men, actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stuntman and best friend Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt).  Dalton is somewhat of a “has-been,” as his last major starring role in a western TV series was from a decade earlier. Now, he’s reduced to playing the villains on 1960s TV shows like MANNIX and THE FBI.

This is clearly wearing on Dalton and is one of the prevalent themes in the movie, of how quickly success can pass one by, and how artists of a certain age need to work harder and be open to reinventing themselves if they want to remain relevant. There’s a lot of truth to this part of the movie. As we age, we have to make adjustments. One of the ways Dalton eventually reinvents himself is by going to Italy to make “spaghetti westerns,” and so it’s easy to see here how Dalton’s story is inspired by the real life story of Clint Eastwood, who did the same thing in the 1960s.

Stuntman Cliff Booth’s best days are also behind him, but he’s taking it much better than Dalton, because, as he says, he was never a star to begin with and so as far as he is concerned he’s still living the dream. He enjoys being Dalton’s “gofer,” driving the actor wherever he needs to go, being a handyman around Dalton’s home, and just hanging out.

Dalton, who lives in a Hollywood mansion, is miserable, while Cliff, who lives in a trailer behind a drive-in movie theater, is happy, but this doesn’t stop the two men from being best friends. They truly like each other and care for each other, and the dynamic between DiCaprio and Pitt in these roles is a highlight of the movie.

And while Dalton and Cliff Booth are fictional characters, their famous neighbors, Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate, are not. They are real, and tragically, Sharon Tate’s life was cut short on August 9, 1969 by the insane groupies of Charles Manson.

So, ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD also tells the parallel story of Sharon Tate, and the film really allows its audience to get to know Tate as a person.

These parallel stories move forward until that fateful night in August 1969, and in spite of the comedic elements of this movie, there is a sense of dread throughout, that builds as the film reaches its conclusion, a conclusion that suddenly introduces a major plot twist allowing the film to keep its light tone. I have to admit, for me, this was a head scratcher.

As a result, I’m not so sure ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD works as a whole, but it does have a lot of little parts that work very well.

The best part by far are the two performances by Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt. They work really well together, but this isn’t a buddy movie, and so they’re just as good if not better in scenes where they are not together. Some of DiCaprio’s best scenes are when Rick Dalton is acting as the villain in a 60s TV western, trying to prove that he still has what it takes. DiCaprio also enjoys a couple of outstanding scenes with a child actor played by Julia Butters who at one point tells him sincerely that his performance with her was some of the best acting she had ever seen.

Pitt’s Cliff Booth is the livelier of the two characters and the one who is larger than life. Cliff, as we learn later, lives in a veil of infamous secrecy as rumor has it that he killed his wife and got away with it. Cliff also enjoys a fun scene in which he tangles with Bruce Lee, one of the more memorable sequences in the movie. 

Cliff is also one of the connections to the Manson family, as he befriends a young woman Pussycat (Margaret Qualley) who’s part of the Manson clan. And a quick shout-out to Margaret Qualley who steals the few scenes she is in with one of the most energetic performances in the movie. She’s terrific.

The scene where Cliff drives Pussycat back to the ranch where the Manson family resides is a perfect microcosm for the entire movie. Cliff brings Pussycat to the ranch, a place he worked at years earlier. Concerned that this group of hippies may be taking advantage of the ranch’s elderly owner, George Spahn (Bruce Dern), Cliff wants to make sure the man is all right.

In an extremely long and meandering sequence, a lot like the entire movie, Cliff gradually makes his way through the various members of the clan, learning where George is supposed to be “napping.” He eventually makes his way to George’s room, and in a scene where you fully expect George to be dead, it turns out he is only napping, and what follows is a highly comedic banter between Brad Pitt and Bruce Dern, which is the route the film ultimately takes.

Which brings us to Sharon Tate. As I said, Margot Robbie is excellent in the role. On the surface, Robbie makes less of an impact than DiCaprio and Pitt because she has far less screen time than they do, but underneath the comedy and the drama Tate’s quiet spirit drives things along, and Robbie’s performance makes this happen.

Unfortunately, people can be defined by their deaths, especially if they were murdered. Tarantino seems to be pushing back against this notion with Sharon Tate. In ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD, Tarantino lovingly crafts Sharon Tate as a real person and not just as a footnote to the Manson murders. The film paints a portrait of Tate as a beautiful person, and really allows that persona to sink into its audience. I liked this. A lot. However, I would have liked it even more had Margot Robbie been given more screen time as Tate. She largely plays second fiddle to main characters Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth.

The entire cast is wonderful. I’ve already mentioned Bruce Dern and Margaret Qualley, but the film also has key contributions from Kurt Russell and Timothy Olyphant.  Also present are Dakota Fanning and Al Pacino, and look fast for Maya Hawke who is currently starring in Season 3 of Netflix’ STRANGER THINGS.

So, you have this meandering movie, which looks terrific and features powerhouse performances by lots of talented actors, with a fairly funny script, although the dialogue is somewhat subdued from the usual Quentin Tarantino fare, and it’s taking its sweet time, taking its audience for a pleasant ride with the knowledge that tragedy awaits. All of this, I didn’t mind and mostly enjoyed.

But it’s the ending of ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD that I find most problematic and is the part of the movie that is the least effective. To avoid spoilers, I will not get into details, but what happens here is the film enters into the realm of alternate reality, and once it does that, well, all that came before must now be looked at with a different lens, and a new question arises, which is, why did we just watch all this? 

In other words, for me, one of the reasons the movie had worked so well up until the ending was it was a piece of historical fiction. Fictional characters were appearing in a real setting (1969 Hollywood) with a canvas of real events in the background. Once these events are changed, the film enters the world of fantasy, of historical reimagining, and once this is done, I don’t think the film possesses the same impact.

In short, to turn this tragic story into a comedy, even with the best intentions, is something I’m not sure entirely works.

At times, ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD seems to be a love letter to Sharon Tate. I liked this part.

At other times, most in fact, it’s a take-no- prisoners shoot-em-up dramedy about an aging movie/TV star and his laid back infallible stunt man. I liked this part, too.

But the last part, the punch line, seems to be Quentin Tarantino’s desire to do what he did to the Nazis in INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009) to Charles Manson and his “family.” It’s this last part that, while good for some laughs, seems the most out-of-place.  While there are hints in the film that this is where this story is going to go, it still feels jarring to watch the events unfold, events that change history, and thrust the movie head first into fairy tale territory, appropriate I guess for a movie entitled ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD.

—END—

 

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Memorable Movie Quotes: THE MUMMY (1932)

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Welcome back to Memorable Movie Quotes, that column where we look at memorable quotes from some pretty cool movies, especially horror movies.

Up today it’s THE MUMMY (1932), the classic Universal monster movie that starred Boris Karloff as Imhotep, the mummy, and unlike later mummy movies in which the monster was mute and remained in its bandages, Imhotep sheds his wrappings and wreaks havoc with curses and spells which gives him plenty of dialogue, meaning in THE MUMMY there are lots of Imhotep quotes to be found.

The two most memorable things about THE MUMMY are Karl Freund’s exceedingly atmospheric direction, and Karloff’s mesmerizing performance as Imhotep, but the screenplay by John L. Balderston, who also contributed to the screenplays for DRACULA (1931), FRANKENSTEIN (1931), and THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935), isn’t too shabby either.

The screenplay, based on stories by Nina Wilcox Putnam and Richard Schayer, is very similar to the story told in DRACULA. Imhotep, like Dracula, sets his sights on a young woman, Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann), and he tries to steal her away from her love interest, Frank Whemple (David Manners), and standing in his way is the knowledgable Doctor Muller (Edward Van Sloan). David Manners and Edward Van Sloan each played similar roles in DRACULA (1931), as Manners played John Harker, and Van Sloan played Van Helsing.

But in this case Imhotep is interested in Helen Grosvenor because she’s the reincarnation of his lost love, unlike in DRACULA where Dracula, a vampire, wasn’t all that interested in love. Interestingly enough, later versions of DRACULA would use this reincarnation plot point, something that was done here in THE MUMMY, but not in the Lugosi DRACULA or in Bram Stoker’s original novel Dracula.

THE MUMMY is chock full of memorable lines of dialogue. Let’s have a listen.

After the opening credits, the eeriness begins in earnest as these words appear on-screen:  This is the Scroll of Thoth. Herein are set down the magic words by which Isis raised Osiris from the dead.

The film opens in 1921 in Egypt where Sir Joseph Whemple (Arthur Byron) has just discovered the mummified remains of Imhotep. His friend and colleague Doctor Muller (Edward Van Sloan) warns him against disregarding Egyptian curses, but his eager young assistant Ralph (Bramwell Fletcher) reads the spell and unintentionally resurrects Imhotep (Boris Karloff) in one of the film’s most chilling scenes.

When Sir Joseph finds Ralph laughing maniacally and the body of the mummy missing, the youth says:

RALPH:  He went for a little walk! You should have seen his face!

 

The story picks up ten years later when we find Sir Joseph’s son Frank (David Manners) following in his father’s footsteps in Egypt, along with fellow scientist Professor Pearson (Leonard Mudie). Here, they discuss what happened on that fateful day ten years earlier.

PEARSON: Well, Whemple, back we go to London, and what fools we’ll look. Money wasted, hole after hole dug in this blasted desert, a few beads, a few broken pots. A man needs more than hard work for this game. He needs flair, he needs luck, like your father.

FRANK: Well, in the days he used to come out here there wasn’t so much competition.

PEARSON: When he did, he found things, and once, ten years ago, he found too much.

FRANK: Was it ten years ago? Queer story that young Oxford chap he had with him going mad. You know what I think it was?

PEARSON: No. What?

FRANK: I think he went crazy, bored beyond human endurance, messing around in this sand and these rocks.

PEARSON: He was laughing when your father found him. He died laughing. In a straitjacket. Your father never explained, but when the best excavator England has turned out, a man who loves Egypt, said he’d never come back here, that meant something.

Imhotep arrives using the alias Ardath Bey, and he leads Frank and Pearson to the remains of the mummy Ankh-es-en-Amon, Imhotep’s long-lost love. Later, Imhotep travels to the British Museum where he hopes to raise his love from the dead. While there, he meets Sir Joseph Whemple who is overjoyed to meet him since he’s the one responsible for this grand exhibit. He reaches for Imhotep’s arm, who abruptly pulls away, saying:

IMHOTEP: Excuse me… I dislike being touched… an Eastern prejudice.

 

Later, Frank entertains Helen Grosvenor, and this conversation sets up one of her better lines in the movie:

FRANK:  Stuck in the desert for two months, and was it hot! That tomb…

HELEN: What tomb?

FRANK: Surely you read about the princess?

HELEN: So you did that.

FRANK: Yes. The fourteen steps down and the unbroken seals were thrilling. But when we came to handle all her clothes and her jewels and her toilet things – you know they buried everything with them that they used in life? – well, when we came to unwrap the girl herself…

HELEN: How could you do that?

FRANK:  Had to! Science, you know. Well after we’d worked among her things, I felt as if I’d known her. But when we got the wrappings off, and I saw her face… you’ll think me silly, but I sort of fell in love with her.

HELEN Do you have to open graves to find girls to fall in love with?

 

When Imhotep meets Helen, he recognizes her right away as the reincarnation of Anck-es-en-Amon.

IMHOTEP:  Have we not met before, Miss Grosvenor?

HELEN: No. I don’t think so. I don’t think one would forget meeting you, Ardath Bey.

IMHOTEP: Then I am mistaken.

 

In one of the film’s most intense scenes, Imhotep tries to force Sir Joseph Whemple and Doctor Muller to give him the Scroll of Thoth:

IMHOTEP: That scroll is my property. I bought it from a dealer. It is here in this house. I presume in that room. (Turns to Joseph Whemple and utters words to a curse.)

DR. MULLER: We have foreseen this! The scroll is in safe hands. It will be destroyed the minute it is known that harm has come to us.

IMHOTEP: You have studied our ancient arts and you know that you cannot harm me. You also know that you must return that scroll to me or die. Now tell that weak fool to get that scroll wherever it is and hand it to his Nubian servant.

SIR JOSEPH: The Nubian?

DR. MULLER: The ancient blood—and so you have made him your slave. If I could get my hands on you, I’d break your dried flesh to pieces, but your power is too strong.

 

Eventually, Imhotep gets both the Scroll of Thoth and Helen, and as he puts her in a trance, he prepares to reveal to her their history:

IMHOTEP: You will not remember what I show you now, and yet I shall awaken memories of love… and crime… and death…

 

The flashback sequence, which shows the tragic end to their love story, and chronicles how Imhotep first became a mummy, is one of the most atmospheric and memorable sequences in the entire movie. In order to give it a long ago feel, director Karl Freund shot it like a silent movie, and so there’s no sound other than the haunting music and Karloff’s effective voiceover narration.

Let’s have a listen:

IMHOTEP (voiceover narration): I knelt by the bed of death. My father’s last farewell. I knew the Scroll of Thoth could bring thee back to life. I dared the god’s anger and stole it.

I stole back to thy tomb to bring thee back to life. I murmured the spell that raises the dead. They broke in upon me and found me doing an unholy thing.

My father condemned me to a nameless death. The scroll he ordered buried with me that no such sacrilege might disgrace Egypt again.

A nameless grave. The slaves were killed so that none should know. The soldiers who killed them were also slain, so no friend could creep to the desert with funeral offerings for my condemned spirit.

 

And then, after the flashback is finished, Imhotep continues the conversation, first while Helen is still in a trance, and then after he awakens her:

IMHOTEP: Anck-es-en-Amon, my love has lasted longer than the temples of our gods. No man ever suffered as I did for you. But the rest you may not know. Not until you are about to pass through the great night of terror and triumph. Until you are ready to face moments of horror for an eternity of love. Until I send death to your spirit that has wandered through so many forms and so many ages.

But before that, Bast must again send forth death, death to that boy whose love is creeping into your heart, love that would keep you from myself. Love that might bring sickness and even death to you— awake!

HELEN: Have I been asleep? I had strange dreams. Dreams of ancient Egypt, I think. There was someone like you in them.

IMHOTEP: My pool is sometimes troubled. One sees strange fantasies in the water, but they pass like dreams.

 

And we finish with a line near the end of the film, when Helen realizes Imhotep’s intentions, and admits her conflict, that she understands she’s two different people, but one of those persons is alive and well in the here and now.

HELEN:  I loved you once, but now you belong with the dead. I am Anck-es-en-Amon, but I… I’m somebody else, too. I want to live, even in this strange new world.

 

THE MUMMY is one of Universal’s best classic monster movies, and it features a phenomenal performance by Boris Karloff as Imhotep.

I hope you enjoyed these quotes from THE MUMMY and join me again next time when we look at quotes from another classic movie.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

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 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.

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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.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: FREDDY VS. JASON (2003)

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In the interest of full disclosure, I am not a fan of Jason. Nor am I a fan of Freddy.

So, if you absolutely love the NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET series and/or the FRIDAY THE 13TH series, you’re probably not going to enjoy this review. I know, there’s a generation of fans who swear by these movies, who believe that the FRIDAY THE 13TH movies are the best thing since sliced bodies. Er, bread.

I’m not of that generation.

See, back in the day, when the slasher film was just getting started, I saw John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN (1978) and loved it, so much so, that even though each successive film in the series was inferior, I enjoyed most of them and they pretty much were all guilty pleasures. So, when it comes to loving films that really aren’t that good, I get it.

Anyway, I also saw the original FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980) and immediately thought it was a pretty inferior rip-off of HALLOWEEN, but being a horror fan, I wasn’t ready to quit on the series. However, after suffering through a couple of more FRIDAY films, I said enough is enough.

Now, I enjoyed the original  A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984) very much, and for a while watched and enjoyed the sequels, and I found Freddy Krueger to be a pretty cool character. However, over the years with subsequent viewing, I’ve found that the NIGHTMARE films really haven’t aged all that well.

Which brings us to the subject of today’s In The Spooklight column, FREDDY VS. JASON, that epic battle of titans, a bout to rival FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLFMAN (1943), KING KONG VS. GODZILLA (1962), and Ali vs. Frazier.

Well, not really.

How about ALIEN VS. PREDATOR (2004) or BATMAN V SUPERMAN (2016)?

Getting warmer.

Needless to say, I didn’t rush out to the theater in 2003 to see FREDDY VS. JASON. And in subsequent years I never had any interest in seeing it.

Until now.

I thought, heck, you’re a horror fan, let’s give these guys a chance.

So, I did.

Did the years of waiting erase my disdain for the FRIDAY THE 13TH series? Was all forgotten when after finishing this one, I found it refreshing and fun?

Nope.

Not even close.

The plot here, if you want to call it that, centers around Freddy (Robert Englund) realizing that in order to restore his power and escape from Hell, where he’s been imprisoned since the last NIGHTMARE movie, he needs dead bodies, and so he resurrects Jason Voorhees (Ken Kirzinger) to kill unsuspecting teenagers for him. For the life of me, I don’t understand why Freddy can’t do this on his own. I mean, he’s Freddy Krueger, for crying out loud!

The bulk of the film involves Jason killing teenagers, in between ridiculously boring conversations between these teenagers as they discuss their fear of Freddy Krueger, who attempts unsuccessfully to enter the world of dreams to murder teens himself. Since his return is a big fail, he retreats, once more allowing Jason to have all the fun. Eventually, Freddy makes it back just in time to realize that there’s not enough room for two leading supernatural maniacs in the same movie, and so they decide to battle each other.

Yawn.

Yeah, I know, there’s more specifics here, and other characters with names in the film, but the problem I have with this movie and others in both series, especially FRIDAY THE 13th, is they make little sense and worse, they’re not in the least realistic. In short, without any of the action seeming believable, it becomes an excuse to kill teens in creative and supposedly humorous ways. Which just bores the hell out of me. No pun intended.

I know there are some folks who like this sort of thing.

I’m not one of them.

All I can say is I’m grateful horror movies have taken another direction in recent years, with compelling believable scripts and talented directors at the helm. People like to bash horror movies, but really, since the mid 2000s, there have been a lot— a lot!— of quality horror movies released both to theaters and to streaming services.

But FREDDY VS. JASON is not one of them.

Was there anything at all that I liked about this film?

Yeah. I liked it when it ended.

With that said, let’s end this column as well.

I know FRIDAY THE 13TH movies have their fans, and I’ve listened to some of these fans in person explain to me why these films are so good, and I respect the opinion of these folks, but for me, well, I respectfully disagree.

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STUBER (2019) – Likable Leads Lift Uneven Comedic Ride

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I tend to like “buddy movies,” that comedic genre which takes two unlike personalities and thrusts them together in comical situations where they often have to put aside their differences to work together, which is why I believe I enjoyed STUBER (2019) more than I should have, because when all is said and done, STUBER is just an okay movie.

It relies heavily on the talents of its two leads, Dave Bautista and Kumail Nanjiani, who try their best to rise above the material, and for the most part, they do.

STUBER opens with police detective Vic Manning (Dave Bautista) and his partner Sara (Karen Gillan) chasing a deadly drug dealer Oka (Iko Uwais) which leads to a shoot-out in which Sara is killed. Months later, Vic undergoes laser surgery to correct his vision since during the chase which cost his partner her life, he had lost his eyeglasses in the scuffle and was unable to take the decisive shot which might have saved Sara’s life.

After the surgery, his doctor advises him not to drive or do anything else strenuous because his full vision will not be restored for several hours. But just before he’s to take an Uber ride to his daughter’s art show, he receives a tip on the whereabouts of Oka, and so when he gets inside the car, he commandeers the driver, Stu (Kumail Nanjiani) to take him to his new destination.

Stu is a mild-mannered Uber driver who when he’s not driving is stuck in a nothing day job while trying to get his best friend Becca (Betty Gilpin) to notice him romantically. He is not built for police work, but before he can protest, he’s suddenly dragged into the middle of a drug war between Vic and Oka. Let the comedy ensue!

What?

That doesn’t sound funny? I agree. Which is one of the biggest knocks against STUBER. Its story is not all that funny.  Watching Vic bully Stu around for most of the movie didn’t naturally instill laughter.

The screenplay by Tripper Clancy does its best by giving its two stars plenty of one-liners, especially Nanjiani, and a lot of these work, but still, the film is far from uproarious. For one thing, the plot definitely gets in the way. It struggles to be credible. I never really bought that Vic would go that rogue, that he’d trust an Uber driver to help him rather than call for police back-up. This is sort of addressed later when the revelation is made that there is a mole on the force on Oka’s payroll, but Vic doesn’t learn this till the end of the movie.

Likewise, the plot device of having Vic temporarily blinded from laser surgery, which is there only to set up his need for an Uber driver, didn’t work for me either. If his eyes were that bad without his glasses, it didn’t make sense to me that he’d be a police detective. I also found it hard to believe that as a detective who wore glasses he never ran into this issue before.

I did laugh during STUBER, mostly because of the two leads. Dave Bautista, the former wrestler, who I first noticed in THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS (2012) and who has gone on to make a lot of movies, including the GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY and AVENGERS movies where he plays the popular character Drax, possesses an easy-going and light style which makes him a natural in front of the camera. In short, he’s got charisma.

His portrayal of Vic is a bit darker and rougher than some of his previous performances but he still keeps his signature amiable style in tact.

Kumail Nanjiani probably gets the best lines in the movie, and Nanjiani is more than up to the task. Whether he’s having a heart to heart with a male stripper, holding a dangerous drug dealer at gunpoint, or exchanging barbs with Bautista, Nanjiani is consistently likable and funny. That being said, I enjoyed Nanjiani’s previous film, THE BIG SICK (2017) much better than this movie.

And the two actors really do have some memorable exchanges, like when Stu asks Vic if he’s ever taken a bullet for someone, and Vic deadpans “you think there’s time after someone has pulled a trigger to actually jump in front of a bullet? There’s no slow motion in the real world.” And later when Stu complains that he’s being repressed by a white guy, Vic reminds him, “I’m not white.”

Some of the physical comedy is also pretty funny, but sadly the story is not. Director Michael Dowse definitely emphasizes the action elements here over the comedic, and as a result the film is rather violent. I wish more effort had been made to make this one more humorous. That would have made it a better movie. I mean, as action movies go, it’s rather lame.

Bautista and Nanjiani don’t get a lot of help from their supporting cast, which isn’t really the actors’ faults, since there really aren’t any other meaty roles in the film. Natalie Morales does stand out, however, in a small role as Vic’s daughter Nicole. In her limited screen time, she’s very good.

Mira Sorvino plays Vic’s superior officer Angie in a thankless role that had this been a better written movie would have had more relevance. Betty Gilpin is given even less to do as Stu’s love interest Becca. And Iko Uwais makes no impact whatsoever as bad guy Oka. That’s one big blaring weakness in this film, in that it doesn’t have much of a villain to speak of.

On the other hand, Karen Gillan, who like Bautista, is also in the GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY and AVENGERS movies, as Thanos’ daughter Nebula, is very good here as Vic’s partner Sara, but she’s killed off in the opening moments of the movie.

STUBER has its moments, and it benefits from its two likable leads, Dave Bautista and Kumail Ninjiani, but taken as a whole it’s a flawed comedy that spends too much time on its crime elements and not enough on its comedic parts, which results in a mixed bag of a movie.

If you enjoy buddy comedies, you’ll find this one amusing, but if you’re looking for a brilliant laugh-out loud comedy, you should look for another Uber ride.

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CRAWL (2019) – Popcorn Horror Movie Has Some Bite

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If you’re looking for a summer popcorn movie with some bite, then look no further than CRAWL (2019), the new horror movie by director Alexandre Aja about two people trapped in the basement of their Florida home during a Category 5 hurricane while being attacked by some unusually aggressive alligators.

As horror movie concepts go, it’s a simple one, but sometimes simple is good, and that’s the case here. CRAWL succeeds in what it sets out to do, in that it provides some entertaining thrills and chills and does it all very efficiently in a nifty 87 minutes.

CRAWL is an interesting juxtaposition from last week’s horror release, MIDSOMMAR (2019). MIDSOMMAR was a meticulously crafted very adult horror tale that worked as a slow burn over its two and a half hour running time, not hitting its audience with jump scares, but rather getting under their skin and disturbing them with its unpleasant story. CRAWL is a much more traditional horror movie. Some will argue that MIDSOMMAR is superior horror, and it is, in terms of the maturity of its script and artisitic style, but in terms of execution, CRAWL is no less its equal. Both films work well, but for different reasons, and at the end of the day there is room for both these types of movies in the horror genre, as long as they are crafted well, and both of these films are.

In CRAWL, competitive swimmer Haley (Kaya Scodelario) gets a phone call from her sister who expresses concern that their dad has not returned her calls. There’s a Category 5 hurricane bearing down on his Florida neighborhood. Haley decides to check in on him, even though her sister warns her against doing so since that would mean she’d be driving into the hurricane, but Haley does it anyway.

At the house, Haley discovers her dad Dave (Barry Pepper) trapped in the basement of their home, cornered by two aggressive alligators that have made their way inside through a storm drain. When she attempts to free him, she finds herself trapped as well, and with the hurricane bearing down upon them, bringing with it rapidly rising waters and brutally devastating winds, they realize they do not have much time before they will be completely underwater, along with those menancing alligators.

And that’s the premise of CRAWL. It’s a simple story but it works, as the concept of this woman and her father fending off alligators during a fierce hurricane is entertaining and thrilling.

There is some back story which helps as well, although the film doesn’t spend much time on it. Haley is a competitive swimmer who’s yet to find the success she’s looking for, and since she was a child, she’s had a chip on her shoulder for not being good enough, and so that element is with her as she fights to save her father. Plus, her father used to be her coach, and so it’s his voice she hears when she pushing herself.

Her parents are recently divorced, and it’s clear Dave is having a tough time of it. It’s why he’s back at the house in the first place, as it’s their family home, and they’re supposed to be selling it, but he doesn’t want to let it go since it contains so many memories.

Kaya Scodelario is very good as Haley, and she has to be, since it’s pretty much just her and Barry Pepper in this one. She makes Haley a likeable character, and you definitely want to see her and her father survive. She also makes for a believable competitive swimmer, and so in some key scenes where she has to pit her speed against the alligators, it works.

Barry Pepper is also likable as her father Dave, and the two make for sympathetic protagonists.

Director Alexandre Aja is no stranger to underwater creature movies as he also directed PIRANHA 3D (2010), a film a lot of people liked, but I did not. I thought that one was pretty bad, as there were a lot of stupid story elements present Not so here, as CRAWL is lean and mean.

The screenplay by Michael and Shawn Rasmussen is certainly not going to win any Oscars, but it succeeds in telling a riveting story. There are a few flaws here and there. For example, in general, alligators aren’t that aggressive and rarely attack humans. CRAWL briefly reveals a nest inside the storm drain, and so the implication is that these gators are protecting their young, but the screenplay doesn’t really make this clear.

Also, in addition to Haley and Dave, the family dog is also trapped inside the house. Yet the story barely takes advantage of this, and strangely, the family pooch has little impact. So don’t expect teary-eyed scenes of the dog terrorized by gators or heroic sequences where she tries to protect her owners. She kinda just hangs out away from the action. Lassie, she ain’t!

CRAWL is relatively scary. The idea of being trapped in water with two very large and very hungry alligators lurking around you, that’s pretty scary! The film doesn’t have to work all that hard to earn its chills. That being said, it doesn’t drop the ball either. There are some bloody deaths, as there are lots of alligators in the waters around the house, and unsuspecting looters and law enforcement officers don’t fare all that well here.

The alligators themselves don’t look that bad. I was fearful that the CGI effects would be dreadful. They’re not. Of course it helps that the gators are often seen in murky shadows or undewater, and so it’s easier to hide the animated features. I thought they looked scary enough.

All in all, CRAWL is successful because it keeps its ambitions simple. It knows what it is— a thrilling summertime popcorn horror movie—  and doesn’t pretend to be anything more.

If you like your horror straightforward and compact, you’ll love CRAWL— as long as you don’t mind, of course, sharing these tight confines with two very hungry alligators.

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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 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.

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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.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

MIDSOMMAR (2019) – Mesmerizing, Repulsive Horror Movie Will Churn Your Stomach

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Dani (Florence Pugh) and Christian (Jack Reynor) don’t know what they’re getting themselves into in MIDSOMMAR (2019).

MIDSOMMAR (2019) is the most unpleasant film I’ve seen this year.

But that doesn’t mean it’s not really good.

Written and directed by Ari Aster, the man who gave us the critically acclaimed horror movie HEREDITARY (2018), a film I was only lukewarm to because of a key plot reveal midway through which just didn’t work for me, MIDSOMMAR is a mesmerizing, methodical movie that is drawing comparisons to the classic THE WICKER MAN (1973) which starred Christopher Lee and is one of the finest horror movies ever made. The comparison is apt and well-earned. MIDSOMMAR is a very good movie, driven by an exceedingly well-written script by Aster that does so many things right.

The film opens with an emotional pre-credit sequence in which we meet a rather anxious young woman named Dani (Florence Pugh) who’s reacting to a cryptic yet disturbing text from her bipolar sister. She seeks comfort and reassurance from her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor), who downplays the text and tells her things will be fine. Christian is on the fence with this relationship, and his best buddies continually urge him to move on from Dani, claiming she’s much too needy and not worth the trouble. But before he can take action, Dani learns that her sister murdered her parents and then took her own life. Needless to say, Dani is devastated and nearly destroyed by this event.

And this is just what happens before the opening credits!

MIDSOMMAR hooked me right away, and I was ready and willing to follow these characters wherever the story led them, which in this case was Sweden.

Christian and his buddies had been planning a trip to Sweden, and because of what had happened with Dani, Christian decides to invite his girlfriend as well. In Sweden, their friend Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) invites them to spend time at his family’s commune, where they will be celebrating a summer festival.

The commune is odd to say the least, but Dani, Christian, and their friends decide to keep an open mind because, well, that’s what one does, right? These places aren’t really harmful. Are they?

What follows is an increasingly disturbing tale that takes its time building unease and repugnance as the members of this community gradually make their intentions clear, intentions that are anything but harmless.

MIDSOMMAR is a superiorly crafted horror movie. Not all of it works, but enough of it does to make it one of the better films I’ve seen this year. That being said, it’s not a film I want to see again any time soon.

As I said, one of the biggest strengths of this movie is the screenplay by Ari Aster, and it succeeds on two fronts here, the characters and the story.

Aster does a phenomenal job creating the characters here. Dani, even before the murder/suicide, was a broken person, in desperate need of support from family and friends, and she simply wasn’t getting this support. After the murder/suicide, she’s so damaged she’s a random comment away from crying and sobbing. At first, Dani is uncomfortable meeting the folks in Pelle’s community, but as he speaks to her about his own loss, how he lost his own parents, and how these people took him in and gave him a sense of belonging, Dani pivots, gravitating towards the desire to be wanted, to be whole, not broken, and these impulses prevent her from fleeing.

And the reason she’s not feeling whole in the first place is because Christian and his friends are terrible at empathy. Christian and his friends Josh and Mark are cold, emotionless young men, with no sense of loyalty beyond their individual selves. They possess all the passion of a smart phone. They also come off as real people, not clichéd jerks we so often see in movies.

Aster also crafts a compelling story that is on the money from beginning to end, with no distracting plot reveals or twists to be found. This is one where what you see is what you get. The community has some very different ideas, but every time things seem to have gone too far, things are explained, and the guests’ fears are contained. For example, in one of the most brutal scenes in the entire movie, involving the violent deaths of two elderly people, the rationale is that the deaths are actually quite humane, which gets Christian and his buddies rationalizing that “back home we deposit our elderly into nursing homes which these people probably find just as offensive.”

There are some horrific scenes here, some of which are wince-inducing. MIDSOMMAR is indeed scary, not in the jump-scare way, but in the way that gets under your skin and makes you want to leave the theater.

Florence Pugh is excellent as Dani. She captures the character’s pain and insecurities, and as the movie goes on, her changing desires as well. Pugh was also exceptional earlier this year in the lead role in the wrestling comedy FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY (2019), one of my favorite films of 2019. Combined with her work here in MIDSOMMAR, she’s now appeared in two of the better films of the year. Pugh also starred in the TV mini-series THE LITTLE DRUMMER GIRL (2018).

Jack Reynor is cold and clueless as Christian, who is a complete fail as a boyfriend, yet somehow never comes off as a jerk, but instead as a self-centered small-minded person. William Jackson Harper as Josh and Will Poulter as Mark, are equally as good as Christian’s buddies who are as frosty and self-centered as he is.

Even better is Vilhelm Blomgren as Pelle, their Swedish friend who invites them to his commune, and who later begins to exert an influence on Dani that allows her to see things differently.

MIDSOMMAR takes its sweet time, and this is one issue I had with the film. Its 147 minute running time is a bit much, and I think the story could have been equally effective had it been edited down a good 20-25 minutes.

The photography is outstanding, and the images exceedingly disturbing. Even the simple act of drinking a beverage will sicken you when you realize what the character is drinking.

And while MIDSOMMAR is rightly compared to THE WICKER MAN, it’s not a remake or reimagining of that movie. They just share similar themes and looks.

MIDSOMMAR is a very good movie, a meticulously made horror movie, and it succeeds because it’s not the usual standard by-the-numbers horror movie fare. No jump scares or frightened teenagers walking in dark hallways here. No. In MIDSOMMAR, everything happens in broad daylight, under a bright summer sun, outside, in the seemingly ceaseless beauty of nature.

Except in this case, nature is anything but beautiful. On the contrary, it’s vile, violent, and revulsive.

The horror in MIDSOMMAR will churn your stomach. It’s the type of movie that when the end credits roll and you exit the theater, you’ll be happy to step back into the real world, where you can remind yourself that what you just experienced was only a movie.

—END—

 

SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME (2019) – Tom Holland and Zendaya Save Marvel Film from Mediocrity

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Welcome to the post-AVENGERS Marvel Cinematic Universe!

(Although, technically, this film is being called the final chapter of the latest phase of the Marvel cinematic universe, which is a lot of Marvel geek talk to me. As far as I’m concerned, the post-Avengers universe has begun!)

AVENGERS: ENDGAME (2019) wrapped up the story arc not only for the Marvel Avengers movies but also for the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe. Beginning with IRON MAN (2008), and continuing with movies about Captain America, Thor, and eventually the Avengers films which brought all these heroes together, Marvel built an ongoing and thoroughly entertaining story arc which permeated these movies and drove them forward above and beyond their standalone movie plots.

AVENGERS: ENDGAME ended that arc, and SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME (2019) is the first Marvel movie to come after the epic conclusion, which makes it the opening chapter in the next phase of the MCU (although, again, purists are lumping this with the previous film).

And that’s because SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME leans heavily on the events from AVENGERS: ENDGAME, specifically on Tony Stark/Iron Man, who was Peter Parker’s mentor. In fact, Stark’s influence is so prevalent here this film could have been called SPIDER-MAN: THE GHOST OF TONY STARK. He’s everywhere in this movie, from being the subject of conversations, to being on posters and billboards, to providing the technology which is instrumental to the plot of this movie.

SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME opens with a memorial and tribute to the fallen heroes from AVENGERS: ENDGAME, but don’t expect a gloomy and depressing Spider-Man movie. SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME is anything but, as its script is light and spunky and a lot of fun. For instance, the opening tribute turns out to be produced by two high school students, and it quickly turns humorous.

Peter Parker (Tom Holland) has a dilemma. He was handpicked by Tony Stark to be the next Avenger, but he’s only in high school, and he’s much more interested in going on a trip to Europe with his classmates and trying to work up the nerve to ask MJ (Zendaya) out on a date than saving the world, which is why he ignores calls from Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson).

However, Fury is not a man to be denied, and he eventually tracks down Peter in Europe and fills him in on the latest threat to the world, and once more, it’s an otherworldly threat. It seems the Elementals—earth, wind, water, and fire— giant weather-related creatures which wreak havoc everywhere, have arrived on Earth from an alternate universe.

But so has another superhero, Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal) who shows up to help Spider-Man take on these monstrous baddies. He also becomes Peter Parker’s new mentor.

And that basically is the plot of SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME. In all honesty, it’s not terribly exciting, and by far this main plot is the weakest part of the movie. I could give a care. I was much more interested in Peter Parker’s relationship with MJ, and also with the pressure he was feeling from being handpicked as Tony Stark’s successor.

There’s also a plot twist midway through this one, which reminded me a lot of the plot twist in IRON MAN 3 (2013). I didn’t like that plot twist, but it wasn’t enough to ruin IRON MAN 3 for me, a film I generally liked. It’s the same here. The plot twist did little for me, but it didn’t really impact the movie all that much. Of course, it’s only a twist for those viewers who don’t read the comics.

While the plot is weak, the main characters are not. Tom Holland is back as Peter Parker/Spider-Man and once more he nails the role. I’m a big fan of the Toby Maguire Spider-Man movies, and for nostalgic reasons, he probably remains my favorite movie Spider-Man, but Tom Holland definitely makes the role his own, and he’s certainly superior to Andrew Garfield’s take on the role.

Holland looks like a high school student, and his youthful exuberance and angst are second to none. One knock I have against this movie, though, is he enjoys far more success here as Peter Parker than as Spider-Man. I felt the film needed more Spider-Man.

Zendaya is excellent as MJ, reprising the role she introduced in SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING (2017). And she and Holland have a wonderful chemistry together. My favorite part of this movie was their story and watching them together on-screen.

Jake Gyllenhaal was pretty mediocre as Mysterio. For an actor as talented as Gyllenhaal, the role really didn’t give him a lot do. Michael Keaton, by contrast, fared much better as the villainous Vulture in SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING.

Samuel L. Jackson is always fun to watch as Nick Fury, and that remains true here. He’s accompanied once again by Agent Maria Hill, once more played by Cobie Smulders.

Jon Favreau gets lots of screen time as Happy Hogan, a mainstay from the Iron Man movies, who’s not not only trying to look after Peter Parker for Tony Stark but also wooing Peter’s Aunt May, played again by the lovely Marissa Tomei. Both these actors enjoy fun and lively scenes.

Jacob Batalon is back as Peter’s best buddy Ned, as is Angourie Rice as classmate Betty Brant.

The screenplay by Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers works best when focusing on Peter Parker’s personal story. The main superhero plot is mostly a dud, and the Elementals make for rather boring villains. The intriguing character is supposed to be Mysterio, but he’s not really that enthralling.

The best parts of the movie involve Peter Parker’s exploits with MJ, and his dealing with the pressure put on him by Tony Stark.

The humor also works well. In spite of the lackluster main plot, the film is lively and fun and moves along at a fast clip, with one engaging scene after another, and that’s because the Elementals never really become the driving force of the movie. In a way, this is not a good thing for a superhero movie, but SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME easily overcomes this because of the dynamic between Peter Parker and MJ.

Director Jon Watts, who also directed SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING, keeps the pace quick and the characters engaging, although none of the action scenes really resonate until the film’s climax. The final battle is very good, and it involves lots of deadly drones and makes for a rather exciting conclusion.

And yes, since this is a Marvel movie, there are after-credit scenes, both in the middle of the end credits and at the very end, and both these scenes reveal important plot points, so you want to stay till the end.

I had fun watching SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME, which comes as no surprise, as I’m a huge fan of the Marvel Superhero movies. That being said, I liked the previous installment SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING better, because I liked the plot of that film more, and it benefitted from having Robert Downey Jr. in the cast as Iron Man as well as Michael Keaton as the villain, the Vulture. That’s some major superstar power absent from this film.

Still, Tom Holland is incredibly agreeable to watch as Peter Parker/Spider-Man, and Zendaya is equally as captivating as MJ. They’re enough to carry this movie and lift it above its mediocre main plot.

At the end of the day, SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME is several notches below the best of the Marvel movies, but it’s still a Marvel movie, which makes it a lot of fun and well worth a trip to the theater.

—END