47 METERS DOWN: UNCAGED (2019) – Shark Sequel Scary, Claustrophobic, and Unremarkable

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47 meters down uncaged

Shark movies have become a trope.

Throw a few sharks in the water, mix in some unsuspecting swimmers, preferably of the teen variety, have lots of screaming, and you’ve got the makings of a horror movie. Trouble is, like the slasher film before it, the shark movies have become carbon copies of each other, and most of the time, they’re not very good.

This is the biggest thing that 47 METERS DOWN: UNCAGED (2019) has working against it. Even though it tries to be different, it’s still a shark movie, which takes away from some of the solid scares it manages to deliver.

47 METERS DOWN: UNCAGED (2019) is also a sequel. The first film, 47 METERS DOWN (2017) was a movie I liked but didn’t love. The good news here is 47 METERS DOWN: UNCAGED has nothing to do with that first movie. It’s got all new characters and an all new story. The only connection between the two are the sharks, and the location. Both movies take place in Mexico.

47 METERS DOWN: UNCAGED is the story of two sisters. The movie opens when one of the sisters Mia (Sophie Nelisse) is pushed into a swimming pool by a group of mean girls at their all girl private high school. When the film starts off, it looks like it’s going to be CARRIE meets JAWS, which incidentally might have been a better movie, but that’s not where this one ultimately goes, as the bullies take a back seat to the two sisters.

Mia’s half-sister Sasha (Corinne Fox) doesn’t get along with her either, and to remedy this, their dad Grant (John Corbett) arranges for them to spend some quality time together on a glass bottom boat shark tour, where they’ll be able to see some great white sharks, which doesn’t really seem like the best parenting idea to me, thrusting two daughters together who really don’t like each other, but of course, this is a shark movie, so you know where this one is going. They’re going to have to put aside their differences once their lives are on the line.

Anyway, they don’t ever go on the tour because Sasha’s friends Alexa (Brianne Tju) and Nicole (Sistine Rose Stallone) show up to whisk them away on a private swimming date. For a moment I thought Sasha was going to ditch Mia, but at least she agrees to take her sister along.

The girls go swimming in a beautiful secluded area, which just so happens to be where Mia and Sasha’s dad has been diving and exploring some ancient underwater caves, as he is busy discovering an underwater city. The girls decide to dive there and explore the underwater city themselves, only for a few minutes.

But things go awry when they discover that inhabiting the underground city are a bunch of s-s-sharks!!! The rest of the film follows the girls as they have to battle the sharks as they try to find their way out of the underwater city.

In spite of this being yet another shark movie and a sequel, there was a lot in 47 METERS DOWN: UNCAGED that I actually liked. The underwater scenes in the submerged city are done very well. Director Johannes Roberts gives this one a claustrophobic feel with lots of attention given to confined spaces and dark narrow tunnels. The camera stays in tight as the characters navigate through the confining underwater caves.  Roberts also directed the first 47 METERS DOWN. I guess he likes shark movies.

Speaking of sharks, the shark scenes here were definitely scary. I thought they were handled better here than in the first movie. The fact that the girls are fighting off the sharks in underwater caves helps, and these just aren’t any sharks. Since they’ve been living in darkness for ages, they’re blind. So, if you’re real quiet, they won’t be able to find you. Hmm. Where have I heard this plot point before? (Hello A QUIET PLACE [2018], as well as DON’T BREATHE [2016]). Trouble is, for some reason, the girls are anything but quiet. They constantly make noise, and as a result, they are constantly under attack.

But that being said, the shark scenes are quite effective and provide the film with lots of tense moments.

Working against the movie is its poor pacing. With its brisk 89 minute running time, I wouldn’t call it a slow-paced movie, but it also has no sense of urgency. It doesn’t use pace to its advantage, as the film never really builds suspense.

It also goes to the well once too often, and its conclusion is nothing short of ludicrous.

The screenplay by Ernest Riera and director Johannes Roberts creates likable characters with the four teenagers and puts them in a dire situation, but it doesn’t do anything above and beyond to make this one stand out. And as I said, the ending is completely unbelievable.

The acting is fine. All four main actors do a serviceable job, Sophie Nelisse as Mia, Corinne Fox as Sasha, Brianne Tju as Alexa, and Sistine Rose Stallone as Nicole. Stallone is Sylvester Stallone’s daughter, and this is her film debut.

The sharks don’t actually look that bad, but they’re not great either. They’re helped by the fact that most of the time they’re seen in the darkness of the underwater caves. Still, I’ve yet to be impressed by a CGI created shark.

Since the bulk of this film takes place in confined spaces, it reminded me somewhat of this year’s earlier release CRAWL (2019) about a daughter and her father terrorized in the flooding basement of their home by hungry alligators during a monstrous hurricane. I liked CRAWL better. For one, it wasn’t about sharks, and it also told a more compelling story and featured stronger acting.

47 METERS DOWN: UNCAGED will barely register on the shark movie meter, but judged on its own merits, it’s really not half bad and does provide a decent amount of shark scares in a dark claustrophobic setting of underwater caves.

You can do a lot worse, so if you like shark movies, you may want to check out 47 METERS DOWN: UNCAGED. Otherwise, don’t take the bait.

—-END—

 

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BRIAN BANKS (2019) – Inspirational True Story of One Man’s Fight to Clear His Name

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BRIAN BANKS (2019), based on the inspirational true story of Brian Banks, a black man wrongly imprisoned for rape who fought his way back to clear his name and eventually play football in the NFL, offers no surprises.

None.

The story plays out exactly as you expect it to, and yet, this hardly seems to matter because at the end of the day, BRIAN BANKS is a solid, well-told story that makes its point and moves its audience to tears.

Sure, it’s safe and sanitized, the type of movie that easily could have been the TV movie of the week back in the day. It’s not gritty. It’s not R-rated. Some would call this inferior filmmaking, missing an opportunity to tell a story well and make an impact. For me, it all comes down to how a film is executed. I like safe sanitized movies as well as hard gritty ones, as long they do a good job telling their stories. BRIAN BANKS tells its story well.

Brian Banks (Aldis Hodge) was an up and coming football star, breaking school records and attracting attention of college football scouts. But when he was 16 years old, he was accused of rape, a crime he said he did not commit. Encouraged by his attorney to plead “no contest” which would be the same as “guilty” but would most likely mean no jail time, the youth agreed, only to watch in horror as the judge slapped a six-year jail sentence on him, as well as requiring him to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life.

Most of BRIAN BANKS takes place after Brian has been released from prison, although his prison experience is shown via flashback. As a young man in his twenties, an ex-con and registered sex-offender, Brian struggles to find work, as no one will hire him, and he lives with his supportive mother Leomia (Sherri Shepherd). He also has to contend with an overbearing parole officer (Dorian Missick) who constantly reminds Brian when he’s too close to a school or playground.

Brian finds it next to impossible to move on with his life, but he knows he’s innocent, and so he contacts attorney Justin Brooks (Greg Kinnear) who specializes in fighting for people who have been falsely convicted of crimes. Justin empathizes with Brian, but tells him that unless he can come up with some new and extraordinary evidence, his case will not be overturned, and so Brian sets out to do just that.

As I said, BRIAN BANKS offers no surprises. You know where this one is going to go, but since it’s going to a satisfactory place, the predictability of it all is not a problem.

At first, the screenplay by Doug Atchison raised an eyebrow. As Brian tells his story to Justin Brooks, he explains that he and the female student went to the section of the school known as a place where students make out, with the express intent of making out with this girl, but when a teacher walks by, it spooks Brian and not wanting to do anything that jeopardizes his future career, he changes his mind and walks away, leaving the spurned girl to make up the charge of rape.

Well, that’s believable.

Not.

You walked away? On your own? And the girl made the whole think up?

I don’t think so!

But the film covers its tracks by having Brian’s current girlfriend Karina (Melanie Liburd) be a sexual assault victim herself. When Brian first tells her his story, she apologizes and then leaves him alone at a restaurant table. But as she gets to know him, she finds herself believing in him, and eventually falls for him.

BRIAN BANKS really isn’t about the he said/she said of sexual assault. The film never really calls into question Brian’s innocence. He’s innocent. The system failed him. That’s the message of the film.  What BRIAN  BANKS really is about is resilience.

In prison. an angry and bitter Brian meets a wise old man, played by an uncredited Morgan Freeman, who becomes Brian’s mentor. He teaches Brian to let his anger go, and presents him with a creed that states that life is not about what happens to you, but how you respond to life’s adversities.

And that’s really what BRIAN BANKS is about and why the film ultimately succeeds. Brian Banks is a man who simply refuses to give up, who believes that the one thing he can control is how hard he fights for his freedom, and it’s a fight he refuses to give up on. As depicted in the movie, Brian really is an inspirational character.

Doug Atchison’s screenplay deals with sexual assault and the failings of our legal system but largely avoids race issues. The fact that Brian is black is hardly mentioned in the film. More than a story about race, it’s a story about perseverance and the pursuit of truth.

Director Tom Shadyac takes what could have been a hard-hitting gritty story and sanitizes it to the point where it could have been made by Disney. But since Banks’ relentless pursuit of the truth is so admirable, it hardly seems to matter. Shadyac is a director known for his comedies, films like BRUCE ALMIGHTY (2003), THE NUTTY PROFESSOR (1996) and ACE VENTURA: PET DETECTIVE (1994). There’s nothing comedic about BRIAN BANKS, and Shadyak seems quite comfortable telling this story.

Aldis Hodge is solid and sympathetic in the lead as Brian Banks. He captures Banks’ spirit and makes his journey a believable one. Hodge has been in a bunch of things over the years, from HIDDEN FIGURES (2016) and JACK REACHER: NEVER GO BACK (2016) to the TV shows BLACK MIRROR (2017) and THE WALKING DEAD (2014) to name just a few.

Likewise, Greg Kinnear is very good as attorney Justin Brooks, who eventually is won over by Banks and decides to take his case. Although Kinnear has been working steadily, it’s been a while since I’ve seen him on the big screen. I believe for me it’s been since LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE (2006).

Both Sherri Shepherd as Brian’s mom and Melanie Liburd as his girlfriend also turn in strong performances, as does Xosha Roquemore as Kennisha Rice, the woman who as it turns out falsely accused Brian of rape.

Likewise, Tiffany Dupont makes her mark as Alissa Bjerkhoel, who works for Justin Brooks and who was instrumental in encouraging Brooks to take Brian’s case.

And Dorian Missick is very good as the hard-nosed parole officer Mick Randolph. Missick has also been in a ton of things, from playing “Cockroach” on LUKE CAGE (2018) to appearances on LUCIFER (2016) and BETTER CALL SAUL (2015).

BRIAN BANKS is the type of film that at first seems difficult to recommend. It’s pretty straightforward, and the direction its story takes is pretty much a no-brainer.

But what it does do well is create a sympathetic and inspirational character, albeit based on a real life person, in Brian Banks, so much so that you can easily buy into his plight, feel his pain, and celebrate his victory.

—END—

 

 

 

SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK (2019) – Takes Its Horror Tropes Seriously

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SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK (2019), the new horror film based on the books Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (1981), More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (1984), and Scary Stories 3: More Stories to Chill Your Bones (1991), all by Alvin Schwartz, hits all the right marks, especially if you’re a fan of traditional genre horror.

We’ve been fortunate in recent years to have seen a good number of highbrow artistic horror movies make their way through the cinemas, films like GET OUT (2017) and this year’s MIDSOMMAR (2019) for example, films that raise the bar and do more with horror than just revisit standard tropes.

SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK is not one of these movies. Instead, it hearkens back to these standard tropes and then proceeds unapologetically to deliver the goods. There are decent scares throughout SCARY STORIES, mostly because it takes its subject matter seriously, in spite of the fact that the stories deal with the supernatural, scarecrows that come to life, undead corpses back for revenge, and creepy monsters from childhood nightmares. A lot of filmmakers would have taken this material and turned it into high camp. That’s not the case here. The stories are told in deadly earnest. I liked this.

Give credit to director Andre Ovredal. Not only does he craft some spine chilling scenes here, but better yet, he builds suspense. So many horror films I see these days surprisingly struggle with building suspense. They’re a series of scary scenes that fail to build into anything cohesive, leaving endings that simply fall flat. Ovredal avoids this pitfall by making each subsequent story scarier than the previous one, and with some effective editing, saves the best stuff for last. I really liked how this one was constructed.

Likewise, I loved the script by Dan Hageman, Kevin Hageman, and Guillermo del Toro. It tells a gripping story with real characters and situations, in spite of the heavy dose of supernatural creatures. I also loved the dialogue.

SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK takes place in  the fall of 1968. While kids are gearing up for Halloween, the real world is dealing with the war in Vietnam and the election of Richard Nixon as president.  On Halloween, high school friends Stella Nicholls (Zoe Margaret Colletti), Auggie (Gabriel Rush) and Chuck (Austin Zajur) decide to trick or treat one last time as the following year they’ll be off to college, but rather than candy, they’re more interested in pranking their school bully Tommy (Austin Abrams). When that doesn’t go well, they flee from Tommy and his buddies and seek refuge in a car in a drive-in theater whose lone occupant is a teen Ramon Morales (Michael Garza) who’s not from town.

They become friends with Ramon, and since it’s Halloween decide to take him to their local haunted house, the Bellows House, where legend has it children had disappeared there. The story goes that years ago the influential Bellows family had a daughter named Sarah who they kept locked in a room, and who told visiting children horror stories through the walls, stories that would come true and claim the lives of the children.

Stella and her friends break into the abandoned house, and amazingly, they not only discover Sarah’s secret room, but the book with her stories, seemingly written in blood. Stella, who loves horror stories and writes them herself, takes the book with her, but it doesn’t take long for her to realize this was a bad idea, as she watches in disbelief as a story writes itself about one of her friends, and the next thing she knows that friend disappears.

Gulp!

SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK is completely predictable and doesn’t really present anything horror audiences haven’t seen before, but that doesn’t stop this movie from being scary and fun. And that’s because everything in this one is expertly handled and taken seriously.

The story where the scarecrow comes to life is as creepy as they come. I especially enjoyed the look of the scarecrow.  I also enjoyed the look of the other creatures in this one. Even though Guillermo del Toro only worked on the screenplay and didn’t direct this movie, the various creatures here have del Toro written all over them.

The young cast also acquit themselves quite nicely. Zoe Margaret Colletti is excellent in the lead role as Stella, as is Michael Garza as the young stranger in town, Ramon Morales. I also enjoyed Gabriel Rush as Auggie and Austin Zajur as Chuck. Austin Abram was also memorable as bully Tommy.

A couple of veteran actors round out the cast. Dean Norris plays Stella’s father, and Gil Bellows plays the local police chief.

And don’t let the fact that SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK is based on a collection of children’s horror stories fool you. This is the real deal. Sure, it’s rated PG-13, and so it’s not a heavy hitting R rated horror flick.  But it is a well-written, directed, and acted horror treat.

And yes, its supernatural elements really aren’t all that believable, but because everyone in this one both in front of and behind the camera took it seriously, that doesn’t really seem to matter. SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK really works, from beginning to end. And it even sets itself up for a sequel and does so in a way that makes perfect sense and is not based on some silly tacked on ending where the monster suddenly jumps back to life. There really isn’t anything silly about SCARY STORIES.

I went into SCARY  STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK not really expecting much, but I left the theater pleasantly surprised.

I highly recommend SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK. It’s one of my favorite horror movies of the year so far.

—END—

 

 

 

FAST AND FURIOUS PRESENTS: HOBBS & SHAW (2019) – Amiable Action Comedy Fast and— Fluffy.

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In the interest of full disclosure, I have never seen a FAST AND FURIOUS movie.

Until now, that is.

Way back when the first THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS (2001) came out I just wasn’t that interested, but then they kept coming, and word of mouth and critical reviews said they were getting better and better. But still I resisted, mostly because I hadn’t seen the previous films, but I’m guessing at some point I’ll sit down and eventually start watching these.

Anyway, after eight FAST AND FURIOUS movies, here comes the series’ first “spinoff,” FAST AND FURIOUS PRESENTS: HOBBS & SHAW, a tale featuring characters who appeared in prior movies but who weren’t part of the main core of the cast. I mainly wanted to check this one out because I like the three principal leads, Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, and Idris Elba. My expectations were low, but I figured, it might be fun to watch some mindless action scenes featuring these generally entertaining actors.

And I was right.  The action and the dialogue is all very fast, though not so furious. A more apt title for this one would be fast and funny, because really, from beginning to end, this one is played for laughs. I didn’t take any of it seriously, and that was okay.

The plot involves a deadly virus that could wipe out the population of the world, just like that! Yikes!  A former spy (Vanessa Kirby) steals the virus, and a super-charged baddie named Brixton (Idris Elba) will stop at nothing to steal it back. Good guy Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) is charged with saving the day, and he’s paired with former villain turned hero Shaw (Jason Statham) because the former spy who stole the virus happens to be Shaw’s sister.

Trouble is, Hobbs and Shaw hate each other and refuse to work together, but work together they do, which sets the stage for plenty of banter and one-upmanship throughout.

If you like Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham, you’ll enjoy this movie because the two actors are likable throughout and do share a fun chemistry together.  Their banter while not hilarious is certainly comical and amusing. There’s a good-natured amiable vibe all through the movie, even though its plot is about a potentially catastrophic virus, and that’s because the film is about as believable as a wrestling match.

Director David Leitch fills this one with exciting action scenes and chases, especially one near the end involving a helicopter and a bunch of cars. Again, fun, but not believable, which for me, pretty much kept this one from being anything special. Technically, it looks great, but it’s all fluff. Leitch also directed DEADPOOL 2 (2018). Speaking of which, Ryan Reynolds is also in the cast, and he gets to ham it up in a couple of scenes. These bits are okay but not overly funny.

The screenplay by Chris Morgan and Drew Pearce has fun with its Hobbs and Shaw banter but that’s about it. Morgan has written a bunch of other FAST AND FURIOUS movies, and Pearce wrote HOTEL ARTEMIS (2018) which I enjoyed a lot.

While Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham don’t disappoint, Idris Elba doesn’t fare as well. Elba doesn’t get a whole lot of screen time, and his villain in spite of his superpower enhancements is pretty one-dimensional. Elba deserves better.

Vanessa Kirby is very good as Shaw’s sister Hattie, a kick-ass character who can hold her own against the likes of Hobbs and Shaw, although she’s clearly a secondary character here, unfortunately.

As I said, Ryan Reynolds shows up for a couple of scenes, as do Kevin Hart and Helen Mirren. None of these folks make much of an impact.

I liked HOBBS & SHAW well enough, but it’s all fluff, and other than its agreeable leads and well-choreographed action sequences, there’s not a whole lot going on. I’m a story guy, and this one’s story is pretty sparse, which for me, kept this one from being anything special.

It’s not riveting, there’s no edge of your seat excitement, and there’s no intrigue. Instead, there’s playful banter and sanitized action sequences that are mostly played for laughs.

Fast, yes. Furious, not so much.

—END—

PICTURE OF THE DAY: THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US (1956)

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Hey, good lookin!

Huh, me? Are you talking to me?

If you are, you best mean what you say. The Gill Man is not known for having thick scales—er, skin.  And yes that is the Gill Man in the photo above, otherwise known as the Creature From The Black Lagoon.

We all know the iconic look of the Creature From the Black Lagoon, one of Universal’s classic monsters, but in the photo above, that ain’t it!  And that’s because in the third and final Creature movie, THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US (1956),  a group of scientists perform surgery on the creature, in a misguided attempt to make him more human.

There are three Creature From the Black Lagoon movies. The first and the best, CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954), was followed by two sequels, which while not as good as the original, were highly entertaining in their own right, REVENGE OF THE CREATURE (1955) and THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US (1956).

The most memorable part of the third film is that the Creature’s look changes in the second half of the film, as seen in the photo above, and that’s because evil scientist William Barton (Jeff Morrow) attempts to change the Gill Man into an air breather for reasons which never make much sense, but that’s okay. After all, he’s an evil scientist. He’s not supposed to make sense.

The surgery also seems to give the Creature some bulk, and that’s because after the surgery, the gill man was played by the very large Don Megowan. And if you want to see Megowan without the Gil Man make-up you can check out the neat chiller THE WEREWOLF (1956) in which Megowan played the hero, the town sheriff. Anyway, this new gill man on land is a hulking figure who appears much more monstrous in size than when we saw him underwater.

I like all three CREATURE movies, and THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US is probably my least favorite of the three, mostly because I prefer the classic underwater Creature. That being said, the on-land Creature is certainly scary looking, and I wouldn’t want to bump into him while walking along the beach at night, that’s for sure!

And while the Creature never perishes on-screen, it’s assumed that he finally dies at the end of THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US, because the film ends with the Creature returning to the ocean, only now he doesn’t have gills anymore, and so most likely he will drown.

Then again, the Creature is not stupid. For all we know, rather than drowning, he simply turned around and came back ashore.

But where did he go afterwards, you ask?

For the answer to that question, let’s turn to the fictional side of this otherwise nonfiction article:

There are a number of theories. Rumor has it that he settled in the woods of North America and started the Bigfoot craze. Others believe he went on to enjoy a successful career as a Hollywood stuntman. And still others believe he simply settled down and opened his own seafood restaurant, Gillman’s Fish and Chips Shack.

Whatever his fate, he was never seen on the big screen again, and that’s no fiction!

—END—

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: TARANTULA (1955)

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Don’t you just love furry little critters like— tarantulas?  No?  Find them a bit scary and repulsive, do you?  Well, then you’ll just cringe at the colossal star of Universal’s TARANTULA (1955), a spider so big it can step on a house!

TARANTULA is one of the best giant monster movies from the 1950s.  It’s certainly the finest one produced by Universal Studios.

Dr. Matt Hastings (John Agar) is called to the coroner’s office in the small town of Desert Rock, Arizona, by his friend Sheriff Jack Andrews (Nestor Paiva) to investigate the death of a man found in the desert.  The victim resembles a man they know, Eric Jacobs, but his facial features are swollen and contorted.  Hastings believes Jacobs’ symptoms resemble the disease acromegaly, a disorder of the pituitary gland, but this doesn’t make sense to Hastings since the disease takes years to develop and Jacobs wasn’t showing any symptoms just days before.

When Jacobs’ employer, the eminent Professor Gerald Deemer, (Leo G. Carroll), arrives, he insists that Jacobs was indeed suffering from acromegaly, and he refuses to allow an autopsy on the body.  This doesn’t sit well with Dr. Hastings, who finds the diagnosis wrong, and Deemer’s behavior baffling.

Yep, Deemer is the town’s resident mad scientist, and he lives just outside Desert Rock in a huge mansion, complete with a laboratory full of oversized animals in cages, including a tarantula the size of a dog.  When yet another malformed insane human attacks Professor Deemer, the laboratory is set on fire and destroyed, but not before the tarantula escapes from the house.  This hideous human also injects an unconscious Deemer with some unknown drug, before collapsing and dying himself.

Later, when a new assistant arrives in town to work for Professor Deemer, the beautiful Stephanie “Steve” Clayton (Mara Corday), Matt Hastings accompanies her to Deemer’s place, where he learns all about the professor’s research.  Professor Deemer is attempting to stamp out world hunger by using atomic energy to create a “super” food nutrient, which he has injected into various animals, and as a result they have grown in size.  Hmm.  Supersized fried chicken!  Yummy!

Deemer tells Steve and Matt that his lab was destroyed in an accidental fire, and he believes all his caged animals were killed.  He doesn’t realize that his tarantula is free in the desert growing bigger by the minute.  When next seen, the spider is gigantic, the size of a house, and it’s hungry, eating everything in its path, including horses, farms animals, and people.

Eventually, the giant tarantula sets its hairy sights on Desert Rock, and suddenly the town has to scramble to defend itself against the humongous marauding arachnid.

TARANTULA is one of my favorite giant monster movies.  First off, the screenplay by Robert M. Fresco and Martin Berkeley presents a story that is more creative than most.  There’s more going on in TARANTULA than just the basic “giant bug on the loose” storyline.  There’s all the mystery surrounding Professor Deemer’s research, and the strange misshapen men lumbering in and around his property, which adds some genuine intrigue to the story.  Screenwriter Berkeley also penned the screenplay for two other Universal monster classics, REVENGE OF THE CREATURE (1955) and THE DEADLY MANTIS (1957).

Director Jack Arnold, who directed several genre movies, including CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954) and THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN (1957), is at the top of his game with TARANTULA.  He creates some memorable scenes.  One of my favorites occurs at night at a farm, when suddenly a group of horses begins to grow very nervous.  In the distance we see a darkened hill, and very slowly, onto that hill from the other side, creeps the massive tarantula.  It’s one hair-raising scene!

Another effective scene has Steve walking back and forth in her bedroom, not noticing the enormous tarantula through her window as it makes its way towards the house.  She doesn’t notice until the beast is on top of the house, literally!

And the tarantula looks terrific, as it’s menacing and scary.  I’m sure the special effects team was helped by the black and white photography, because with shades of light and dark, the tarantula fits into its scenes naturally and realistically.  The special effects team did a phenomenal job in this one.

The make-up on the acromegaly victims was done by Bud Westmore, and it reminds me a lot of the work he did on ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1953) and MONSTER ON THE CAMPUS (1958), as his monstrous creations in both these movies resemble the folks in the desert in TARANTULA.

There’s also an effective music score by Herman Stein.

The cast is decent enough.  Though I’m not a huge fan of John Agar, his performance in TARANTULA is one of his best. He makes his Dr. Matt Hastings a very likeable fellow, and rarely has he seemed more natural in front of the camera.  I just want to know what he keeps inside his briefcase.  It must be valuable, because young dashing Dr. Hastings doesn’t go anywhere without it, even grabbing it before he runs out the door!

Playing Sheriff Andrews is character actor Nestor Paiva, who appeared in a ton of movies and TV shows over the years.  I’ll always remember him as Lucas, the captain of the Rita in CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954) and REVENGE OF THE CREATURE (1955).

Leo G. Carroll, another veteran of movies and television, is also very good as Professor Deemer.  Carroll appeared in many Alfred Hitchcock movies, including NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959) and SPELLBOUND (1945), and he played Alexander Waverly on the 1960s secret agent show THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. (1964-1968).

And for added fun, Clint Eastwood appears unbilled in one of his first roles as an air force pilot leading the attack on the tarantula, arriving just in time to save the folks of Desert Rock from the deadly arachnid.

Do you feel lucky, tarantula?”

—END—

(Originally published in The Official Newsletter of the Horror Writers Association in July 2012).

 

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.

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