IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD (1964)

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Christopher Lee and Donald Sutherland in CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD (1964).

I first saw CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD (1964) in the early 1980s when I was in high school late on a Saturday night on my local UHF channel— Channel 56 in Boston— on their Creature Feature broadcast.  Channel 56 used to show the Creature Double Feature on Saturday afternoons, but then they would also show a solo horror flick usually after 11 pm on Saturday nights under the moniker Creature Feature.  Way back when, these films were a major highlight of my weekends.

I immediately noticed two things about CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD upon that first viewing all those years ago. One, although it starred Christopher Lee, it was clear that it was made on a much lower budget than the Hammer Films of the period, and two, there was something incredibly mesmerizing about it.

One of the major reasons it was so captivating then and remains so today is that it was shot on location at a real castle, the Castello Orsini-Odescalchi in Italy, and also at the rock garden in Bomarzo, Italy, which contains monstrous and weird statues, which are used to full effect in the movie. With the nonstop whistling wind in the background, there is an authenticity to this movie that remains its best attribute. You will truly feel as if you are right there with the characters spending a night at the Castle of the Living Dead.

The film also boasts a decent story.

A group of circus entertainers in 19th century France happen upon a strange castle occupied by the mysterious Count Drago (Christopher Lee) who invites them to spend the night. Nothing unusual here in terms of story, except that Count Drago is housing a terrible secret. No, he’s not a vampire, but he does have an unusual hobby that his guests are sure not to enjoy.

CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD is also the beneficiary of some atmospheric direction by Warren Kiefer, an American filmmaker who went to Italy to pursue his film career. Kiefer also wrote the script. Some prints also list Herbert Wise as the director, a pseudonym for Kiefer’s assistant director Luciano Ricci. This was done because the film was a French-Italian co-production, and for tax reasons, the Italian version needed an Italian director.

Further complicating matters regarding just who directed CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD is that Michael Reeves, the young British director who would go on to make a name for himself directing the well-regarded Vincent Price movie THE CONQUEROR WORM (1968) (aka WITCHFINDER GENERAL) before dying unexpectedly a year later, was part of Kiefer’s crew, and rumors have spread over the years that it was Reeves who largely directed CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD.

But most of these rumors have since been debunked by others on the set, and so today by most accounts it’s believed that it was Warren Kiefer who directed this movie.

Again, the best part about CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD is its atmosphere. With its grainy black and white photography, at times it looks raw and real, while at others it appears almost dreamlike, the whole thing more akin to Bergman’s THE SEVENTH SEAL (1957) than a Hammer Film. It’s creaky and it’s creepy, which is a good thing, because in terms of action and horror, not a lot happens in CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD, which is a major reason why it’s not considered a classic of horror cinema.

Kiefer also does a nice job photographing Christopher Lee here, as with the deep dark circles under his eyes, he resembles someone with a serious drug addiction.  The way Lee is photographed in this move reminds me a lot of the way Bela Lugosi looked in WHITE ZOMBIE (1932).

That being said, Count Drago is not of one Lee’s strongest performances.  Count Drago is not an evil character like Count Dracula. He’s more manipulative and neurotic a la Norman Bates. In fact, they share similar hobbies. Lee somewhat captures this about Drago, but he’s not altogether successful here. Indeed, it may not all be Lee’s fault. He said in interviews that during this movie in the post-sync stage, he had to dub his own lines without the benefit of having a script because no one had written down the movie’s dialogue on paper. Oops!

The other major star to appear in CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD is Donald Sutherland. In one of his first movie appearances, Sutherland actually plays three roles: a young soldier, an old man, and a witch. He’s most memorable as the creaky old witch.  The witch’s line, “Some will live. And some will die,” will stay with you long after you’ve seen this movie.

Sutherland got along so famously with director Warren Kiefer that he named his son after him, which is how actor Kiefer Sutherland got his name.

CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD is not a classic of low-budget horror cinema. It doesn’t quite have enough going for it to reach that level. However, it is much better than critics have given it credit for.

It plays more like a drama— think the Charles Laughton version of Victor Hugo’s THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (1939)— that evolves into a horror tale, with traces of PSYCHO (1960) and low-budget foreign cinema, evoking the same kind of flavor and deadly charm as films like MANEATER OF HYDRA (1967) but shot in black and white without any serious blood and gore.

CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD is all about atmosphere, and as such, it does not disappoint.

In the dead of winter, when everything seems cold and lifeless, there comes a barren castle occupied by Count Drago, a castle where all who visit remain, because once its secrets are exposed, it’s revealed to be truly a CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD.

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Worst Movies of 2018

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Here’s a look at my Top 10 Least Favorite movies from 2018:

10. OCEAN’S 8 – I’ve never been a fan of the OCEAN’S movies starring George Clooney and company, and this new all-female version starring Sandra Bullock and Cate Blanchett didn’t do anything to change my opinion. Forced and contrived, this one just never won me over.

9. ADRIFT- Shailene Woodley and Sam Claflin play two free spirits who meet, fall in love, and decide to sail across the ocean together, but their plans are thwarted by a massive hurricane which threatens their lives. Sounds better than it is.

8. BAD SAMARITAN – David Tennant plays an ultra evil baddie who likes to keep women chained in his home. When his house is broken into, the thieves discover his secret, but they can’t go to the police because they’re thieves, so they decide to save the day on their own, but he doesn’t like that very much.  A completely over-the-top thriller that strains credibility.

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7. RED SPARROW -Ridiculolus thriller wastes the talents of Jennifer Lawrence and Joel Edgerton. Lawrence plays a Russian spy, Edgerton a CIA agent, in a tale that is muddled from start to finish.

6. UNSANE – Steven Soderbergh shot the entire film using an IPhone 7 Plus, which ultimately, doesn’t really add much to this lamebrained thriller. Claire Foye is enjoyable in the lead role, but ultimately a bad script does this one in.

5. INSIDIOUS: THE LAST KEY – Enough with the INSIDIOUS prequels already! True, Lin Shaye is enjoyable to watch as Elise Rainer, but since the character was killed off in the very first INSIDIOUS movie, these continuous looks into her back story just aren’t all that compelling.

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4. THE 15:17 TO PARIS – Clint Eastwood made the fateful decision to film this re-telling of the true story of three Americans who thwarted a terrorist attack on a train in Paris by hiring the three young men to play themselves rather than use actors. It’s a decision that didn’t really work, as these three guys on screen are dull and boring. There’s a reason movies employ professional actors.

3. THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS – An R-rated raunchy comedy starring Muppets and Melissa McCarthy sounds like a funny idea, but unfortunately, this film directed by Brian Henson doesn’t deliver. It does start off pretty darn funny, but it all goes downhill from there. My least favorite comedy of the year.

2.THE NUN – And here’s my least favorite horror movie of the year.  With its on-location filming in Romania, the film looks great! But the story and dialogue are dreadful. Part of the CONJURING universe. A lot of people liked this one, but I thought it was bottom-of-the-barrel horror.

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1.PEPPERMINT –  And my pick for the Worst Film of 2018 goes to PEPPERMINT, an abysmal thriller starring Jennifer Garner. Garner plays a vigilante going after the people who killed her family. Plays like a female version of the DEATH WISH movies. Things are so bad here that even the vengeance scenes fall flat. By far, the most boring movie I saw this year.

And there you have it, my list of the Top 10 Worst Films from 2018.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

Best Movies 2018

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Here’s my list of the Top 10 Movies from 2018:

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10. BOOK CLUB – I really enjoyed this comedy starring Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Mary Steenburgen, and Candice Bergen about four friends who decide to read 50 Shades of Grey for their monthly book club, and it changes the way they think about sex and relationships during their senior years. Also starring Andy Garcia, Don Johnson, Richard Dreyfus, and Craig T. Nelson. My favorite comedy of the year.

9. WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?  – in a banner yeary for documentaries, this one was my favorite. Its recounting of the life of Fred Rogers, TV’s Mister Rogers from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, resonates deeply today, as Rogers’ message of inclusion and gentle understanding is sorely missed in today’s antagonistic and deeply divided society.

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8. ANT-MAN AND THE WASP – I enjoyed this Ant-Man sequel more than the original. Story is better, jokes and situations are funnier, and Evangeline Lily adds a lot as the Wasp and is a nice complement to Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man. Oh, and then there’s that after-credits tie-in with AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR which produced audible gasps from the audience.

7.BOY ERASED – Joel Edgerton wrote and directed this film which exposes gay conversion theory for the dangerous procedure that it is. Fine performances by Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman, and Russell Crowe, and by Edgerton himself as an unqualified leader of the conversion camp.

6. THE FRONT RUNNER – Sure, I’m partial to political movies, but this tale of Gary Hart’s fall from being the Democratic front runner in the 1988 presidential election to dropping out of the race entirely due to an exposed extra-marital affair pushed all the right buttons for me. The film asks relevant questions which are still being asked today. Hugh Jackman is terrific as Gary Hart, as is Vera Farmiga as his suffering wife Lee.

5. EIGHTH GRADE – Awesome film which completely captures what it is like to be an eighth grader. On target writing and directing by Bo Burnham, especially the dialogue, and a fantastic lead performance by Elsie Fisher as eighth grader Kayla Day.

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Elsie Fisher in EIGHTH GRADE (2018)

4. THE GUILTY – From Denmark, this claustrophobic intense police drama is as compelling as they come, the type of film Alfred Hitchcock would have made. All of the action takes place inside a police dispatch office as an officer relegated to the emergency dispatch receives a call from a woman being kidnapped, and he has to deal with the situation in real time. You’ll swear you’ve seen all the action scenes, but that will be your mind playing tricks on you, as the camera remains focused on the police officer throughout. Excellent movie, and lean, as it clocks in at a swift 85 minutes.

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3. AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR – It was an outstanding year for Marvel, as three of my top ten films this year come from the Marvel Universe. This was the biggie, the ultimate showdown between the Avengers and their most dangerous adversary yet, Thanos. Amazing superhero movie, with a big bold ending which is no longer a spoiler, which is, the bad guy wins in this one. One of the most emotional endings to any superhero movie, causing audible gasps and groans multiple times as the film races to its inevitable conclusion.

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2. ROMA – An extraordinary movie, ROMA was unlike any other film I saw this year. Unassuming simple tale of a maid working for a family in Mexico in 1970-71. Features some of the best camerawork of the year, all of it in mesmerizing black and white. Slow at first, but stick with it. The final 45 minutes is among the most emotional moments on film I saw all year.

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1. BLACK PANTHER –  My pick for the best movie of the year is another Marvel gem. This one takes the superhero movie to a whole other level, dealing with racial issues as well as any mainstream drama. My favorite superhero film since THE DARK KNIGHT (2018). I loved the conflict between hero Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and villain Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan),and one of the rare times in a superhero movie where the hero admits he’s wrong and the villain is right.  Outstanding in every way, easily my favorite movie of 2018.

So, there you have it, my picks for the Best Films of 2018.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE FAVOURITE (2018) – A Period Piece With An Edge

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Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone in THE FAVOURITE (2018).

THE FAVOURITE (2018), the latest film by acclaimed director Yorgos Lanthimos, is on many critics’ lists as one of the best films of 2018. While I liked this one well enough, I wouldn’t call it my favorite. Heh-heh.

THE FAVOURITE is a period piece with an edge. It takes place in 18th century England, and is as raunchy and vulgar as a modern-day R-rated comedy, only it presents these raw elements with much more dignity and grace.

In THE FAVOURITE, the miserable Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) rules England with a depressed demeanor, and she’s melancholy because of both physical ailments like gout and emotional ones, like the fact that all her children have died. Her friend Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) takes care of her and helps her with both her physical maladies and with the running of the country.  Lady Sarah has a keen political mind, and she has the Queen’s ear, and so many of the decisions regarding England’s involvement in its war with France are made by Lady Sarah.

And as we come to find out, these two women are more than just friends. They’re lovers.

When a young woman named Abigail (Emma Stone) arrives at the castle, she presents herself to Lady Sarah as her cousin, a woman who had been a lady but due to the fault of her father, had lost favor and had become a servant. She arrives at the castle seeking work, and Lady Sarah hires her as her personal servant.

Abigail is an enterprising young woman, and she soon works herself into the favor of Queen Anne, so much so that her presence and relationship with the queen becomes a threat to Lady Sarah. At this point, the story becomes a duel between the two women to see who will ultimately gain favor with the queen, and the only rules here are that there are no rules.

There’s certainly a lot to like about THE FAVOURITE. Probably my favorite part of the movie is that it never deteriorates into silly comedy at the expense of its story. While there is much that is funny that happens in this movie, when Abigail declares war on Lady Sarah, the ensuing battle is dark and nasty rather than upbeat and goofy. The story is still good for a few chuckles at this point, but the characters and their actions remain true to the plot.

Writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos, known for his provocative and offbeat movies like THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER (2017) and THE LOBSTER (2015), has made a much more straightforward film here with THE FAVOURITE.  I enjoyed THE LOBSTER more than THE FAVOURITE, mostly because it was such an unusual film.

While THE FAVOURITE delivers in that it successfully tells this story of these three women, it didn’t pique my interest quite the same way THE LOBSTER did. That being said, Lanthimos includes enough creative camerawork here to put his stamp on this one.

Interestingly enough, he didn’t write the screenplay here. The script was written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara. It’s a good screenplay. The dialogue is first-rate, and it’s quick and snappy, and the characters are all fleshed out. What interested me the least here was the actual story. While I was intrigued by the way Abigail and Lady Sarah went about their business in trying to impress the queen, I ultimately didn’t care all that much. Abigail is a cunning manipulative character, and while Lady Sarah is much more honest, she’s also cutthroat and abrasive.  So, while I enjoyed watching a story about these two beguiling characters, I can’t say that I liked them very much, and so ultimately they both could have failed, and I wouldn’t have cared.

Director Lanthimos has been hailed for getting the most out of his actors in THE FAVOURITE, and I would have to agree. The performances in this movie are all outstanding, from the three female leads to the supporting male characters.

I continue to be a huge Emma Stone fan. I’ve enjoyed her in nearly everything she’s done, even those awful Andrew Garfield SPIDER-MAN movies. While I enjoyed her recent performances in BATTLE OF THE SEXES (2017) and LA LA LAND (2016) more, she is still excellent here as Abigail, creating in this character a spirited enterprising woman who knows what she wants and what to do in order to get it. And we see her maltreated by enough men to feel empathy for her when she goes for it.

Rachel Weisz makes for an indomitable and focused Lady Sarah who throughout most of the movie is less sympathetic than Abigail, but that changes as the stakes get higher and the manipulations grow darker.

Olivia Colman also delivers a noteworthy performance as the long-suffering Queen Anne. The queen’s emotions and behaviors are all over the place, as she goes from happy one minute to shouting in anger the next, and Colman captures her unpredictability masterfully.

The supporting male characters are just as impressive. Nicholas Hoult nearly steals the show with a dashing performance as Robert Harley, a member of Parliament who is politically opposed to Lady Sarah. He’s mean and he’s manipulative, and as he bullies Abigail to help him, she acquiesces because his positions frequently align with hers. Hoult has been very enjoyable as Beast in the re-booted X-MEN films, and his performance here as Harley is even better.

Joe Alwyn is also memorable as Masham, the young man who is fascinated by Abigail and pursues her even as she continually proves herself to be his superior. Alwyn is having a very good year, as he has also been in BOY ERASED (2018) and OPERATION FINALE (2018).

And James Smith gives perhaps the most restrained performance in the movie, as the respected and honorable Godolphin.

I can’t say that I enjoyed the ending to THE FAVOURITE all that much. It’s not a bad ending, and it succeeds in making its point, but it seems to lack the dagger effect which stabbed at the rest of the movie.

I enjoyed THE FAVOURITE for what it was, an R-rated period piece showing that women can be just as devious as men in the world of politics, and it tells this tale of debauchery and intrigue in a raunchy bawdy manner that will have you chuckling far more than wincing.

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ROMA (2018) – Filmmaking At Its Finest

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Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) at work in ROMA (2018)

ROMA (2018) is unlike any other movie I’ve seen this year.

Unpretentious, and seemingly effortless in the making, it offers a slice of life look at a young maid who works for a Mexican family in the neighborhood known as Roma during 1970-71. It’s as authentic a movie as you will ever find in that you’ll forget you’re watching a movie as you will be absorbed in the daily life of this woman and the family she serves, and the beauty of it is, after over two hours of what can only be described as a slow-moving story arc, you will not want it to be over.  You’ll want to watch another two hours plus of what happens to these people. That’s how good this movie is.

ROMA was written and directed by Alfonso Cuaron, who won the Best Director Oscar for his work on the science fiction movie GRAVITY (2013), a film I enjoyed a lot. ROMA is a better movie than GRAVITY. It’s also a more personal one for Cuaron, who tells a tale that is largely autobiographical, based on his upbringing in Mexico, about the love he as a child and the rest of his family shared for their maid who as shown in the movie is more than just hired help. Since she is largely responsible for raising the children, she’s also part of the family.

ROMA tells the story of Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) a young maid who works for a Mexican family inside a rather wealthy home. The parents, a doctor and his wife, are having marital problems, and the doctor soon moves out of the home. We see Cleo’s day-to-day activities, all the work she does, including cooking, laundry, picking the kids up from school, and cleaning up after the dogs. Indeed, dog poop is a central metaphor in this movie. Here is a family that should be happy, and indeed they seem to be, but life is a grind, and even if you work hard at it, poop still piles up. Yup, sh*t happens.

We watch as Cleo goes out with her friends and a young man she likes, and she soon becomes pregnant. A common theme in the film is the abandonment of women by men, and so the father of Cleo’s baby not only wants nothing to do with her, but threatens her if she ever comes to see him again.

Amid the backdrop of political unrest in 1971 Mexico, things heat up towards the end of the movie as Cleo’s personal story as well as her involvement with the family reach an emotional climax.

I first heard about ROMA a short time ago when it began showing up on critics’ lists as the best movie of the year. Thanks to a direct release on Netflix, I was able to see this one at home, and I’m glad I did.

As I said, this one is slow, very slow, so you have to be patient with it, but it does move towards a huge payoff. Indeed, the final 45 minutes of ROMA are among the most emotional minutes of any film I’ve seen this year. It really delivers.

And ROMA is more than just “sitting through the slow parts to get to the end.” I thoroughly enjoyed the first 90 minutes, and then the final act arrives and the film reaches a whole other level.

I used the word effortless to describe this movie, and I did so because it’s a film where everything seems authentic, and the camerawork relaxed. You hardly think you are watching a movie. But truth be told you don’t make a movie like this accidentally.  There is a tremendous amount of artistry going on here with Cuaron’s use of the camera. The camerawork is nothing short of amazing.

There are so many memorable images in this film, so many moments where you will be blown away by the way things are shot and framed, and all of it in mesmerizing black and white photography.

There’s a scene where Cleo is doing laundry on the roof, and at the end of the sequence, the camera pulls back and you see all these clothes hanging to dry, to give you some perspective at just how much work she has done, and the camera continues to pull back and you see the entire neighborhood.

The scene at a New Year’s party where Cleo witnesses the beginnings of a forest fire in the distance is almost mystical, almost supernatural. And the camerawork during the final act is even more intense, from the rioting, to the riveting birth scene when Cleo goes into labor, and the final sequence on the beach, where you can almost smell the ocean, feel the huge salt water waves on your body.

Cuaron establishes such a sense of place, and he does this not only with the camera but also with sounds.  The sound work in this movie is extraordinary. Dogs barking, airplanes flying overhead, the quirky bands marching up and down the street, the strange street vendor singing out early in the morning. I really felt as if I were there in Roma in 1971.

Animals play an important part in the landscape. They’re everywhere, especially dogs. Also, huge planes frequently fly overhead in the distant sky. It’s as if Cuaron travelled back in time and captured everything from his childhood. It all comes to life.

The performances are also authentic and genuine, especially Yalitza Aparicio as Cleo, who captures the essence of a young woman who carries with her a quiet strength that is able to cut through all the menial tasks and makes her someone the children in the household truly love. In one telling scene, for example, where she visits the father of her child who’s taking part in martial arts training, we see the leader of the training challenge the men to take up a difficult physical position which seems at first simple, but he challenges them to try it. They all fail, but in one quick shot of the bystanders, we see Cleo try and succeed.

The child actors here are all excellent, and I also enjoyed Marina de Tavira as the mother of the household, Sofia, and Veronica Garcia also has some key scenes as the grandmother, Teresa. She walks and dresses like so many of the grandmothers I remember from my own childhood back in 1971.

ROMA is filmmaking at its finest. If you want to see a movie that displays some of the best camerawork of the year, with one of the more unassuming stories, with one of the most emotional payoffs and climaxes in a long while, then you should see ROMA.

It’s already on many critics’ lists as the best film of the year, and while I haven’t finalized my 2018 list yet, it’s certainly going to be up there.

I loved ROMA. Without doubt, it’s one of my favorite movies of 2018.

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

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Christian Bale as Dick Cheney in VICE (2018)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which is exactly what he did.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—END___

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—END—