WIDOWS (2018) – Stellar Cast, Contrived Plot, Mixed Results

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WIDOWS (2018) is writer/director Steve McQueen’s first movie since his Oscar-winning 12 YEARS A SLAVE (2013), and it’s a rather odd choice.

It’s an action thriller that has its moments, helped along by a stellar cast, but taken as a whole, it’s a bit too contrived to be all that believable.

In WIDOWS, three women discover that their husbands were criminals after the three men die in a police shoot-out and subsequent car explosion. Veronica (Viola Davis) learns this the hard way when she’s visited by Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), a man running for alderman in her Chicago neighborhood who tells her that her husband stole three million dollars from him, and he wants the money back. He gives her three weeks to get he money, or else his henchmen will kill her.

In her search for answers, Veronica discovers her deceased husband’s private notebook which details his past jobs and his next job, a heist that is worth millions. So, Veronica assembles the two other wives, Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) and tells them that if they pull off this job, they’ll have enough money to pay off Manning and thus save their lives, plus millions left over for themselves.  Linda and Alice agree, and the widows spring into action.

There’s a lot going on in WIDOWS, most of which I liked, but unfortunately, the weakest part of the story is the main one, the one with the widows.  And the reason for this is in large part because I never really believed that these women, who appear to be rather intelligent folks, would actually do this. I get it that they have nowhere else to turn and are desperate to save their lives, as it’s clear that the authorities in Chicago are of no help to them. At one point, Veronica says she’ll go to the police, but Manning tells her that the police don’t care and that they are glad her criminal husband is dead. So, I get this part. I just never believed it. It’s the most contrived part of the entire movie, unfortunately.

The surrounding storylines, especially the political ones, work much better.

The current alderman Tom Mulligan (Robert Duvall) in public speaks of how much he has helped the downtrodden Chicago neighborhood he serves yet we see him in private as a racist bully. He’s not seeking re-election. Instead, that honor goes to his son Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) who says he disdains his father’s style of politics and wants to make a true difference, and yet his actions show that he’s not much better than his father.

Then there’s Jamal Mannning, the black man running against Jack Mulligan, who supposedly represents his neighborhood because he’s lived there his whole life and understands the needs of his people, but yet he runs a criminal organization that is just as bad and even more brutal than Mulligan.

There are layers here, and they make for the most intriguing parts of the story.

The widows storyline works best when showing these women with their backs against the wall. Indeed, one of the strengths of the screenplay by Steve McQueen and Gillian Flynn, who wrote GONE GIRL (2014),  based on a 1980s British TV series of the same name, is that it lays bare the pain and vulnerabilities of these women. In one telling scene, a disillusioned Veronica admits that with her husband gone she has nothing, not even her home, which has been lost. Likewise, Linda watches as the store she thought she owned is taken away from her because her husband lied to her about paying the mortgage on the building.

This part of the story works well. The trouble I had is when it makes the leap from despondent women to criminal women. I expected these women to react in a smarter way than this.

The cast in WIDOWS is exceedingly deep and talented.

Viola Davis turns in a strong performance as Veronica. She’s at her best when showing how much pain she feels having lost her husband Harry, played by Liam Neeson.

There’s also another subplot where it’s revealed via flashback that Veronica and Harry’s son had been shot and killed in a police shooting during a routine traffic stop. WIDOWS throws a lot at its audience, sometimes too much. Had Steve McQueen chosen to focus more on one aspect of this story, the widows perhaps, the movie would have been better for it.

But back to Viola Davis.  She shows both frightened vulnerability and steely resolve, but once more, had she resolved to do something else other than attempt a million dollar heist, the results would have been more convincing

Michelle Rodriguez is fine as Linda, although it’s nothing we haven’t seen Rodriguez do before.

Far more interesting than either Davis or Rodriguez is Elizabeth Debicki as Alice, who at first comes off like a clichéd ditzy blonde and as such faces harsh treatment from even Veronica, but she’s not stupid at all. In fact, she’s incredibly intelligent and resourceful. Her subplot in which she’s involved in a paid relationship with a man named David (Lukas Haas) is one of the more intriguing subplots in the film. The scene where she chides David for insinuating that he’s in control of her happiness, and she pushes back saying that no, it’s her life and she makes that determination, is one of the better moments in the movie.

I’ve seen Debicki in a bunch of other movies, films like THE GREAT GATSBY (2013) where she played Jordan Baker, THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E (2015) where she played the villain, and GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, VOL. 2 (2017), but by far this is the best performance I’ve seen her deliver yet.

Brian Tyree Henry is very good as Jamal Manning, the cut-throat criminal who brands himself as the best hope for his people but whose interests are clearly more about attaining power than helping anyone.

Even better is Daniel Kaluuya as Jatemme Manning, Jamal’s brother. The star of GET OUT (2017) makes for one of the most brutal and sinister enforcer types I’ve seen in a while. His performance here was one of my favorite parts of WIDOWS.

Robert Duvall is excellent as always, here playing racist alderman Tom Mulligan who in spite of his political mob boss tactics seems to believe that he’s doing right for the people of his neighborhoods.

Colin Farrell is just as good as Mulligan’s son Jack, who’s running for alderman to keep his family’s name in politics. It’s a position Jack seems to hate, and Farrell does a nice job playing Jack as a conflicted yet not very admirable man. The scene where he tells his father he’s looking forward to the days when he’s dead and gone, is a pretty potent moment in the film, well acted by Duvall and Farrell.

Cynthia Erivo, who we just saw in BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE (2018) plays Belle, a young woman who among other jobs babysits Linda’s children, and who the widows hire to be their getaway driver. It’s a spunky determined performance.

Jon Michael Hill stands out in a small role as the Reverend Wheeler, the pastor of Chicago’s biggest congregation, a man who’s courted by both Manning and Mulligan, and he plays coy with both of them as to who he’ll support.

Jackie Weaver steals a couple of scenes as Alice’s overbearing mother Agnieska.  Weaver of course was so memorable playing Bradley Cooper’s mother in SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (2012).

The cast here is so deep that major actors even play characters who are killed off in the opening moments of the movie, most notably Liam Neeson, who plays Veronica’s husband Harry. And as the story moves forward, Veronica learns some rather unsavory things about her late husband that calls into question the kind of man she thought he was.

Jon Bernthal also plays one of the thieves, who unlike Neeson, doesn’t get any flashback time, and so he’s on-screen for about two seconds before he’s done in.

There was a lot about WIDOWS that I liked. I enjoyed the full canvas that director Steve McQueen was working with here, and the story he was telling as a whole, but again, for me, the biggest disappointment was where the widows specific storyline ultimately went.

I expected these women to rebel against their deceased husbands, to attempt do something better, but that’s not what happens. Instead of trying to learn from their husbands’ mistakes and improve upon them, they simply become their husbands. They become thieves and thugs.

And unlike their husbands, whose fate seemed to be tied into their actions, the widows here suffer no repercussions. It’s all happily ever after, which in my book is one more strike against this one in terms of credibility.

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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OVERLORD (2018) – World War II Actioner/Horror Movie Generally Entertaining

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Jovan Adepo and Wyatt Russell in OVERLORD (2018).

A horror movie set during World War II, hours before the Allied invasion of Normandy.

Sound like a pretty good combination to me!

And OVERLORD (2018) is just that: an action/horror hybrid that isn’t half bad.

In the battle of Normandy, code name Overlord, it’s the mission of a select group of allied soldiers to land behind enemy lines and destroy a Nazi radio tower to give the allied planes protection as they provide cover for the invading ground forces. The battle zone is insanely chaotic, and the plane carrying these soldiers is shot out of the sky, with only a few soldiers successfully making it out of the plane via parachute. Fewer still survive once they hit the ground in Nazi territory.

Only a handful of soldiers remain. OVERLORD is their story. Ranking officer Corporal Ford (Wyatt Russell) leads this group to the radio tower which is located on top of a church. Among these soldiers is Private Boyce (Jovan Adepo), a black soldier who’s been called out for not being much of a soldier, mostly likely because of the color of his skin.

On the ground, they meet a young French woman Chloe (Mathilde Ollivier), and since Boyce is the only soldier there who speaks French, suddenly he’s a bit more valuable. Chloe provides shelter for the soldiers at her aunt’s farmhouse, which she shares with her sick aunt and kid brother. While Ford and company prepare for their mission, they have to lay low from the marauding Nazis, led by a particularly nasty officer named Wafner (Pilou Asbaek).

While at the farmhouse, the soldiers hear rumors of strange scientific experiments being conducted by the Nazis underneath the church, experiments that are killing many of the townspeople.  While fleeing Nazi soldiers, Boyce accidentally finds his way inside the bizarre underground lab, and what he sees there horrifies him.

He reports back to Ford, who tells Boyce and his fellow soldiers that the stuff happening inside the lab is not part of their mission, but when events bring the horrors from the lab onto their doorstep, they suddenly find themselves with no choice but to confront the monstrosities head on.

The best part of OVERLORD is its combination of World War II adventure and horror tale is a good one and for the most part works. The World War II story is exciting on its own, which is a good thing because the horror elements don’t really come into play until the movie’s third act.

And that’s one thing I didn’t like about OVERLORD. It takes too long to get to its best part, the stuff with the Nazi experiments. As such, it really isn’t much of a horror movie. In fact, even when it’s revealed just what those experiments are, and things get a bit gruesome, the subject matter really isn’t all that horrific. OVERLORD plays more like a violent action science fiction adventure than a horror movie.

That being said, I had a lot of fun watching OVERLORD. I just wished its genre elements had been darker.

I fully enjoyed the cast.  Jovan Adepo is excellent as Boyce, the character audiences will relate to the most.  He’s both the voice of reason and caution, and his decisions throughout the film are spot on and in tune with what audiences expect from a movie hero. One problem here, however, is with historical accuracy.  While the notion of having a black character here as the lead is a good one and one I really enjoyed, the U.S. military was still racially segregated during World War II. Oops!

Wyatt Russell is also very good as Ford. Now, Russell is the son of Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn, and there are times when his mannerisms and dialogue delivery really resemble his father, which is a good thing. Russell makes for a likeable action hero.

Likewise, Mathilde Ollivier is also thoroughly enjoyable as Chloe, the fiery French woman who assists the allied soldiers. She’s smart, tough, and terribly sexy.

And Pilou Asbaek makes for a sufficiently nasty villain as Nazi officer Wafner. Asbaek has starred on GAME OF THRONES (2016-17) and in the movies GHOST IN THE SHELL (2017) and THE GREAT WALL (2016), among others, but this is my favorite role I’ve seen him play so far. He was fun to hate.

OVERLORD was produced by J.J. Abrams, and early rumors were that this film was going to be part of the CLOVERFIELD universe. It’s not, although at times it certainly felt like it. The only thing missing was any reference to the word “cloverfield.”

OVERLORD was directed by Julius Avery with mixed results.  The World War II stuff is exciting and nicely paced, though nothing audiences haven’t seen before. The horror elements which finally show up in the film’s third act, are violent and energetic, but hardly scary.  This one is rated R for language and bloody violence and science fiction style mutilations, and it plays like OPERATION: FINALE (2018) meets A CURE FOR WELLNESS (2016).

The best scenes are the World War II fight scenes. While the blood and gore increase towards the film’s finale, the suspense doesn’t.  I will say the special make-up effects were very good.

Billy Ray and Mark L. Smith wrote the adequate screenplay.  It’s filled with serviceable dialogue and situations, but nothing that pushes the envelope all that much. In all honesty, I expected to be more horrified by the film’s revelations, but that wasn’t the case. The horrors revealed here do not rise above the comic book level.

At least the tone remains serious, and  never deviates into campiness, and I liked this. No surprise here, really, since Ray wrote the screenplay for the Tom Hanks film CAPTAIN PHILLIPS (2013), while Smith wrote the screenplay to THE REVENANT (2015) the film in which Leonardo DiCaprio won the Academy Award for Best Actor, two very serious movies.

OVERLORD, incidentally, refers to the Normandy invasion code name, and not the popular Japanese novel series and anime.

I liked OVERLORD well enough, even though it didn’t fully deliver with its horror elements. The World War II scenes provide plenty of adventure and excitement, while the whispers of bizarre Nazi experiments generate interest throughout. It all leads to a bloody conclusion that is more action-oriented than frightening.

The end result is a movie that generally entertains even as it falls short in the horror department.

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LEADING LADIES: JAMIE LEE CURTIS

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Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie Strode in HALLOWEEN (1978)

Welcome back to LEADING LADIES, that column where we look at the careers of leading ladies in the movies, especially horror movies.

Up today it’s Jamie Lee Curtis.

Curtis of course burst onto the horror movie scene with her signature role of terrorized babysitter Laurie Strode in John Carpenter’s groundbreaking classic, HALLOWEEN (1978). And with some perfect symmetry, Curtis’ most recent role is once again Laurie Strode in the latest entry in the HALLOWEEN universe, once more titled, curiously enough, HALLOWEEN (2018). Curtis’ career has come full circle. Of course, she still has a whole lot more acting to do.

In HALLOWEEN (1978), Curtis was so memorable as Laurie Strode not because she screamed a lot.  She did not scream her way to fame a la Fay Wray fifty-five years earlier in KING KONG (1933). No, Curtis’ performance was noteworthy because she created in Laurie a vulnerable yet resilient character who faced doubts about dating and boys but was more than up to the task of protecting the children she babysat from masked killer Michael Myers.

The original HALLOWEEN is famous because of John Carpenter’s outstanding direction, along with his now iconic music score. I was 14 when HALLOWEEN came out, and I still remember all the hype and excitement surrounding it.  Sold out showings, and long lines of people waiting to see it, often spilling outside the theater into the parking lot. I also remember Siskel and Ebert’s initial review of the movie, a review in which they both praised Carpenter’s phenomenal direction. I don’t remember how at 14 my friends and I were able to buy tickets to this R rated feature, but somehow we did, as we saw this one at the theater.

I remember the theater erupting in screams during the movie. I also remember Jamie Lee Curtis.  When the movie was done, and I had returned home, I couldn’t get Carpenter’s music out of my head, and I recalled all the scares, and the image of Michael Myers with his now iconic mask, and this actress named Jamie Lee Curtis.  There was something about her that really resonated with me.  The best way I can describe it is I felt as if Laurie Strode was someone I knew in real life. As I’ve watched and re-watched HALLOWEEN over the years, I’ve attributed this feeling I had back in 1978 to a very authentic performance by Curtis.  I felt like I knew her because she acted like a real person.

Here’s a partial look at Curtis’ career, as we examine some of her 74 screen credits:

HALLOWEEN (1978) – Laurie Strode – Curtis’ signature film role was also her film debut.  She had appeared in numerous TV shows before this, including COLUMBO (1977) and CHARLIE’S ANGELS (1978) but this was the first time she appeared on the big screen. And she has never looked back.  Quite the film debut. In addition to the top-notch direction and music score by John Carpenter, and the presence of Donald Pleasence, Jamie Lee Curtis is easily one of the best parts of HALLOWEEN (1978).

THE FOG (1980) – Elizabeth Solley – Curtis stars in John Carpenter’s next horror movie following HALLOWEEN. At the time, Carpenter was a victim of his own success. THE FOG was not well-received by critics in 1980. Siskel and Ebert expressed their disappointment, citing that the film lacked a definitive threat, a la Michael Meyers. However, the movie’s reputation has strengthened over the decades. It’s now considered one of Carpenter’s best films. Not only that, but it’s high on a lot of people’s lists for best horror movies period.  I definitely like this one a lot.  I still prefer HALLOWEEN though. Curtis, for her part, is fine here, but her role is not the lead, and she makes much less of an impact than she did in HALLOWEEN.

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Jamie Lee Curtis in THE FOG (1980)

PROM NIGHT (1980) – Kim – John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN gave birth to the slasher movie, and suddenly everyone and their grandmother was making horror movies with masked knife-wielding killers terrorizing teenagers. This one’s not directed by Carpenter, but does star Jamie Lee Curtis. It did well on its initial release and has established a reputation as a decent slasher flick, but this one never did anything for me.  For me, not even the presence of Jamie Lee Curtis could save this HALLOWEEN rip-off.

TERROR TRAIN (1980) – Alana – another crazed killer attacking teenagers, this time on a train.

ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981) – Narrator/Computer Voice (uncredited) – An uncredited Curtis provides the voice of the narrator and computer in this exciting futuristic crime thriller by John Carpenter, notable also for Kurt Russell’s memorable performance as Snake Plissken.

HALLOWEEN II (1981) – Laurie Strode – Inferior sequel to HALLOWEEN. Rick Rosenthal takes over the directing duties from John Carpenter, and his vision here is far less impressive.  Curtis is okay, but sadly, spends most of the movie confined to a hospital bed and in and out of a medicated stupor.  While this really is not a good movie, it is actually better than most of the later HALLOWEEN films, some of which are really, really bad.

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With Donald Pleasence in HALLOWEEN II (1981)

HALLOWEEN III: SEASON OF THE WITCH (1983) – Curfew Announcer/Telephone Operator (uncredited) – A disaster upon its initial release, this was part of John Carpenter’s vision to create a HALLOWEEN series featuring different horror stories each year and not necessarily be about Michael Myers, but film audiences wanted Myers and didn’t really accept this movie. That being said, this one has enjoyed a growing reputation over the decades, and there are some (not me) who consider this to be the best of all the HALLOWEEN movies.

TRADING PLACES (1983) – Ophelia – This funny comedy by director John Landis stars Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy. Murphy, who was insanely popular at the time due to his stint on Saturday Night Live, is the main reason to see this one, but Jamie Lee Curtis is also hilarious in her role as prostitute Ophelia. She makes the jump into a non-horror movie quite nicely.

GRANDVIEW U.S.A. (1984) – Michelle “Mike” Cody – Drama in which Curtis co-stars with C. Thomas Howell and Patrick Swayze that asks the question, can the young folks from Grandview U.S.A. pursue their dreams and shed their small town roots? Nothing special.

A FISH CALLED WANDA (1988) – Wanda Gershwitz – co-stars with John Cleese, Kevin Kline, and Michael Palin in this uproarious comedy written by Cleese. Kline won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

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Michael Palin, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Kevin Kline in A FISH CALLED WANDA (1988)

FOREVER YOUNG (1992) – Claire Cooper – co-stars with Mel Gibson who plays a 1939 pilot awoken from a cryogenic sleep in 1992. Written by J.J. Abrams.

TRUE LIES (1994) – Helen Tasker – plays the wife of a spy, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, in this entertaining action comedy by director James Cameron.

FIERCE CREATURES (1997) – Willa Weston – Reunited with her co-stars from A FISH CALLED WANDA, John Cleese, Kevin Kline, and Michael Palin, this time with lesser results.

HALLOWEEN H20 – TWENTY YEARS LATER (1998) -Laurie Strode- Curtis returns to the HALLOWEEN series after a three film hiatus, and the emphasis returns to Laurie Strode, still dealing with the trauma caused by Michael Myers twenty years earlier. The masked killer of course once more sets his sights on terrorizing Laurie. Some girls have all the fun. This film was well-received when it first came out, but it hasn’t aged all that well. That being said, I still like this one a lot.

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Facing fear in HALLOWEEN H20 (1998)

HALLOWEEN: RESURRECTION (2002)- Laurie Strode – Curtis returns as Laurie Strode for about two seconds before her character is abruptly killed by Michael Myers in the most undramatic and anticlimactic of ways. By far, the absolute worst of all the HALLOWEEN movies.

FREAKY FRIDAY (2003) – Tess Coleman – co-stars with Lindsay Lohan in this remake of the Disney classic.

SCREAM QUEENS (TV Series) (2015-2016) – Dean Cathy Munsch- TV horror/comedy series about a— you got it— a crazed serial killer terrorizing, among other places, a college campus.

HALLOWEEN (2018) – Laurie Strode – Curtis comes full circle, playing Laurie Strode once again, this time in a movie that ignores every other HALLOWEEN movie in the series except the original. Lots of hype and box office success, but ultimately this one was a letdown. Curtis’ scenes and storyline are the best parts, as she is once again still dealing with the trauma from Michael Myer’s original attack, now forty years earlier. Everything else in this film is pretty bad. A major disappointment.

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Taking on Michael Myers yet again in HALLOWEEN (2018)

And that wraps things up for this edition of LEADING LADIES.

Join me again next time when we check out the career of another Leading Lady.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

 

 

FAHRENHEIT 11/9 (2018) – Examines Current Political Climate, Offers Solutions

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Michael Moore first burst onto the scene with his well-received documentary ROGER & ME (1989), a scathing look at how GM CEO Roger B. Smith harmed Moore’s home town of Flint, Michigan, by closing the General Motors plant there which caused 30,000 folks to lose their jobs.

Since then, Moore has made his living churning out other documentaries, films like BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE (2002), which examined gun violence in America, and won Moore an Oscar, and FAHRENHEIT 9/11 (2004) which looked at the aftermath of September 11, 2001.

Now comes FAHRENHEIT 11/9 (2018) a film in which Moore sets his sights on the current state of U.S. politics, in particular, the presidency of Donald Trump. Not that it’s just about Trump. It’s not. It also examines the tragic water scandal in Flint, Michigan, the teachers’ strike in West Virginia, and the activism of the students from Parkland, Florida, following the deadly shooting at their school.

Michael Moore has developed a reputation over the years for making documentaries that are definitely biased. When you watch a Moore documentary, you are seeing things through Moore’s eyes, and he definitely brings a slant to the material. However, I would argue that Moore’s stamp on his documentaries has less to do with forcing a narrow point of view on its audience and more with entertaining them. In short, regardless of the seriousness of the subject matter, Moore knows how to tell a good story.

I would also argue that Moore’s documentaries are more fair and balanced than people give him credit for. Take FAHRENHEIT 11/9, for example. Sure, the film goes after Trump, but it also shines some very negative light on both Hillary and Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama, the point being that it’s the political system that’s the problem nowadays, not just Donald Trump. If the film makes anything clear, it’s that the problems we have now in our political system did not begin with Trump’s winning the presidency. They were in place long before Trump won the election.

But back to the storytelling talents of Michael Moore. FAHRENHEIT 11/9 opens with images of Hillary Clinton about to win the 2016 presidential election, accompanied by Moore’s voiceover, “Was this all a dream?” We see excited voters literally crying that they’re finally voting for a woman president, TV news commentators on both sides of the political spectrum all but guaranteeing a Clinton victory, and oddsmakers pretty much saying Trump had zero chance of winning.

The action switches from Hillary’s upbeat campaign headquarters to Trump’s, and as it does, Moore plays the ominous OMEN theme on the soundtrack, an over-the-top and entertaining touch to be sure.

We then see of course what eventually happened that night, that Trump went on to win the election, to which Moore asks in more voiceover narration, “How the f*ck did that happen?”

And that pretty much sets up the rest of the movie. How did we get where we are today, and now that we’re there, what can we do about it?

Early on, the film paints an unsavory picture of Donald Trump, which isn’t hard to do, since Trump pretty much paints this picture of himself on his own. In fact, at one point Moore relates the story of how Trump was once asked how he could continually weather the storm thrown at him by the media and his critics. His reply? “I am the storm.”

Point taken. For Trump, it’s always been about being the center of attention, and that is something that has remained throughout his presidency.

Moore relates the interesting anecdote that Trump’s interest in running for president began as a publicity stunt to earn him more money for his “Apprentice” TV show, and later when he was fired from the show for making controversial comments about Mexican immigrants, he found himself with more time on his hands and decided to attend the couple of rallies he had already scheduled. When he was met by huge enthusiastic crowds, Trump decided to run for real.

The film also enters some very uncomfortable territory concerning Trump’s relationship with his daughter Ivanka. Moore says very little here and lets all the established footage and comments by Trump about his daughter speak for itself. About the only thing Moore adds is the effective question, “Is this making you feel uncomfortable?”

And as the film points out various negative aspects about Trump, from his racism to his sexism, Moore makes the point that none of this is new. He says we knew this before, and yet no one, he says, called NBC to protest Trump’s involvement on the Apprentice TV show.

The film paints a negative picture of Trump and then some, and does not shy away from comparisons to Hitler. In fact, in one of the films best segments, we see footage of Hitler at a rally, but the audio track plays the sound from a Trump rally. They seem to synchronize perfectly. But none of the anti-Trump stuff in the movie is new. You only have to watch the news or read a newspaper to know that Trump isn’t exactly a presidential kind of guy.

What FAHRENHEIT 11/9 does better than bashing Trump is making the point that he just didn’t fall out of the sky and create all these problems. They existed already.

Moore traces the current political climate back to President Clinton and how back in 1992 after Republicans had dominated presidential politics since 1980, it was decided that the best way for a Democrat to win was to sound like a Republican, and hence the centrist policies were born, as the Democrat party shifted away from its far left and moved towards the center.

This shift continued with President Obama, and Moore points out that Obama’s policies were very Republican, from his use of drones on civilian targets to incarcerating illegal immigrants. Moore makes the point that voters were so frustrated because they felt it didn’t matter who won, both parties were not looking out for their best interests, and hence a lot of people stayed home and did not vote in the 2016 election, which led to Trump’s win.

Moore also goes after Hillary Clinton and the Democratic establishment and spends time chronicling how it took primary victories away from Bernie Sanders because he wasn’t the establisment candidate.

Moore also mentions that during the election, Trump smartly moved to the left on policies more than Hillary, as he doubled down on her connections to Goldman Sachs, and reminded voters that she had voted for the Iraq war, and he said he would never have supported it. Moore’s point: Trump is not stupid.

The second half of the film largely moves away from Trump and gets into the 2014 water crisis in Flint, Michigan, going into detail over the reckless and criminal behavior of Michigan governor Rick Snyder who allowed lead contaminated drinking water into the drinking supply and did nothing to stop it. This segment, which chronicles the illnesses of the children of Flint because of the lead contamination, is the most disturbing part of the film.

Moore also shows Obama personally arriving in Flint to the cheers of the people, seeing his presence as validation to their arguments. They believed he would save them, but that’s not what happened. Obama punted on the issue and seemed to imply it wasn’t all that bad, that filtered water would be okay. Interestingly enough, Moore reveals that in the 2016 presidential election, the only candidate who took the time to visit Flint was Donald Trump.

The second point of FAHRENHEIT 11/9, after making it clear that we are in a crisis in this country, is what can we do about it? And the answer according to Moore is political activism. Moore takes us to West Virginia where we witness a successful and very necessary teacher’s strike. He takes us to Parkland, Florida, where he shows firsthand the activism of the students there after the shooting at their school. Moore also chronicles the new crop of younger more liberal candidates.

Moore also points out that the United States in spite of what Republicans claim is really a liberal nation, and he backs this assertion up with poll after poll showing a majority of Americans are pro-choice, don’t own guns, want health care, and free public college tuition, among other things.

FAHRENHEIT 11/9 runs just over two hours, and it held my interest throughout. As I said, Moore’s strength as a maker of documentaries is that he knows how to tell a story. The film provides for an entertaining two hours, and this isn’t at the expense of an informative documentary. It does both quite successfully.

Members of Team Trump will no doubt cry “fake news” but as I said Moore also goes after Hillary, Obama, and the entire Democratic establishment.  Does Moore present his case with his own biases intact? Absolutely! But he backs up his opinions with real footage and interviews.

The United States is in a major political crisis here in 2018. FAHRENHEIT 11/9 makes the point that it is  not the time to throw in the towel and give up, but rather, it’s the time to get out there and vote and make a difference.

If not,  we will only have ourselves to blame.

—END—

 

EIGHTH GRADE (2018) – Convincing, Contemporary Portrait of Difficult Middle School Years

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Elsie Fisher in EIGHTH GRADE (2018).

The best part about EIGHTH GRADE (2018), the new coming of age comedy/drama by writer/director Bo Burnham, is that it absolutely nails what it is like to experience one of life’s most difficult ages: eighth grade.  And it does it with the all important and clear message that life goes on, that it’s never as bad as it seems during that awkward year of transition, and that it’s all just a natural part of growing up.

It also serves as an accurate assessment of what life is like for today’s middle school students.

EIGHTH GRADE opens with main character Kayla (Elsie Fisher) recording herself on her computer as she shares advice for her fellow eighth graders. She does this numerous times during the movie, and these moments are worth the price of admission alone. She thinks and speaks exactly like an eighth grader, and to hear her share her thoughts on such topics as why you should just be yourself, and approaching life with confidence, is as refreshing as it is real. These chats are juxtaposed with Kayla’s real life experiences which more often than not don’t go as planned.

It’s the end of Kayla’s eighth grade year, and the film follows her final few days in middle school, having to deal with such things as being voted the most quiet girl in her grade, to trying to fit in with the popular girls, to living with her very well-meaning single dad who seems to annoy her with every positive word he says.

EIGHTH GRADE is a fascinating look at one of life’s most difficult years, and the writing is so sharp it captures this awkward time with amazing clarity. I know a little bit about this age group, since I teach middle school, and as the father of two adult sons, I survived the experience of parenting middle schoolers. And of course way back in the stone age I was an eighth grader myself. The film gets it right.

So, the question you’re probably asking is, if you hated eighth grade, why would you want to see this movie? The number one reason is that it captures what eighth grade is like for teens in the here and now, teens who are so locked into electronics they cannot put their phones down even in the middle of personal conversations, teens whose parents struggle to talk with them, teens who find active shooter drills at school dull and boring, and teens who fear growing up too fast.

It also makes a very poignant case for the seemingly endless amount of patience needed as a parent of an eighth grader.

And the script is so strong if you like good writing, you have to see this movie.

Writer/director Bo Burnham, known more for his acting than for his time behind the camera— in fact, EIGHTH GRADE is his directorial debut—has written dialogue that is so on the money with its depiction of middle school voices at times you almost feel as if you are watching a documentary. And his work as a director is just as powerful. So often the camera comes in tight on Kayla’s face and lingers there, capturing her feelings of awkwardness, inadequacy, and all too often discomfort.

There are lots of memorable moments in this movie. When Kayla attends a pool party hosted by the most popular girl in her class, an invite which she only received because the girl’s mother forced the issue, she literally has a panic attack in the bathroom before changing into her bathing suit. And once she does, the camera follows her slow uncomfortable walk towards the pool, where everybody seems to know everyone else, and she feels out-of-place. Her hunched posture during this sequence is on the mark, as is the pain felt when her birthday gift is opened to relative silence and frowns.

Speaking of pain, one of the more powerful scenes is when she is driven home by a high school student who decides to stop the car and get into the back seat with her. These few moments of the movie are extremely uncomfortable and unnerving because the boy’s intentions are clear, and when Kayla finally utters “no!” the audience nearly jumped out of its collective seat.

On the other hand, the joy Kayla feels when her high school mentor invites her to hang out with her and her friends at the mall is so palpable you’ll nearly cheer.

Some of the best scenes are between Kayla and her father Mark (Josh Hamilton). Mark is a patient loving father, but the harder he tries to connect to his daughter, the more she seems to push him away, yet he never loses focus, or his temper. Indeed, in one scene at the dinner table, when Kayla just wants to be on her phone, he displays composure that is beyond belief. And if there’s one part of this movie that might not ring true, it might be the saintly restraint displayed by Mark. While it is certainly admirable, and something that all parents of middle schoolers should strive for, having been there, I know that it’s never that easy to remain that patient.

One of the more disturbing scenes in the film only because it’s a way of life now for students across the United States is the active shooter drill at the middle school. As I watched this scene, I couldn’t help but hope that somewhere in our future, say fifty years from now, audiences might look back and wonder, “what was that all about?”  the way modern audiences do when they see scenes of bomb drills which took place in the 1950s.

As I said, EIGHTH GRADE is actor Bo Burnham’s directorial debut, and it’s an awesome debut to say the least. Both his direction and screenplay are Oscar worthy.

Likewise, Elsie Fisher is phenomenal as Kayla.  It’s such a natural performance. It’s clear that she’s not too far removed from the middle school experience. Kayla is an introvert, a quiet awkward student who doesn’t see herself as quiet outside of school and only chooses to be quiet in school. She is actually brimming with confidence and is constantly looking for any opportunity to show off this confidence, whether it be trying to get noticed by the cute boy in her class to getting along with her new high school mentor.

As Kayla, Fisher is in nearly every scene in the movie, and she carries this film with ease. She’s easy to watch, and Kayla is a character you are happy to root for. In a middle school world full of pretensions and meanness, Kayla is sincere and kind.

Josh Hamilton is also excellent as Kayla’s dad Mark. His unceasing patience is admirable, and the speech he delivers to Kayla late in the movie, where he tells her how happy she makes him, is one that I believe most parents of middle schoolers wish they too could make.

Emily Robinson shines as Olivia, the high school senior who is paired with Kayla during her high school shadow day. She’s perfect as the accepting high schooler who instantly connects with Kayla.

Jake Ryan also has a couple of noteworthy scenes as Gabe, the awkward yet friendly boy who strikes up a conversation with Kayla and later invites her to dinner at his house.

Sadly, the middle school itself is shown as something of a failure and not as a place that is doing a whole lot of good for middle schoolers. As I said, I teach middle school, and I’m fortunate to work at a school that makes middle school students its priority and prides itself on creating an environment where these students thrive.  I hope there are more schools like ours across the country rather than like the one depicted in this movie.

With up to date and realistic dialogue, and powerful and natural acting performances, EIGHTH GRADE is a convincing portrait of what it’s like to be a middle school student here in 2018. The film also communicates the uplifting message that in spite of the awkwardness and pain that accompanies the age, the future is bright for these students as they move on to high school and beyond. It’s a message that is both heartfelt and rewarding.

EIGHTH GRADE is one of the best films I’ve seen this year.

—END—

 

THE EQUALIZER 2 (2018) – Denzel Washington is Excellent in this Subpar Sequel

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The-Equalizer-2

I could watch Denzel Washington all day.

The guy’s a tremendous actor, and he possesses a compelling screen persona with the ability to keep audiences riveted to everything he does and says. Of course, I’d enjoy Washington even more if he wasn’t starring in a subpar sequel to a movie that itself wasn’t so hot.

THE EQUALIZER (2014) was an okay movie that was loosely based on the old TV show of the same name starring Edward Woodward, which ran from 1985-1989. In the movie, Denzel impressed in the lead role, but the film itself was rather average.

Now comes the sequel THE EQUALIZER 2 (2018) which is less than average.

Director Antoine Fuqua, who directed the first movie, returns to helm this sequel.  Fuqua is a talented director with plenty of credits to his name, including TRAINING DAY (2001) which won Denzel Washington a Best Actor Oscar. That being said, I wasn’t all that crazy about Fuqua’s previous movie, the remake of THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (2016), which also starred Denzel. And I’m not too crazy about THE EQUALIZER 2, although Fuqua’s direction isn’t the main problem with this one.

It’s the story.

THE EQUALIZER 2 opens with an entertaining enough sequence, on a train, where we are re-acquainted with main character Robert McCall (Denzel Washington) as we see him do what he does best: handily beat up a bunch of bad guys and rescue a little girl who had been taken away from her mother. As opening sequences go, it’s all right, but it’s certainly not memorable, and as such, serves as the perfect table setter for the rest of the movie.

The action switches to Brussels, Belgium, where we witness a brutal execution of a man and his wife. After that, the setting jumps to Boston, where McCall is currently working as a Lyft driver, and we get to see him interacting with his passengers. Interestingly enough, some of Denzel Washington’s best scenes in this one are with with people not integral to the main crime plot. The whole subplot regarding his mentoring relationship with a young man Miles Whittaker (Ashton Sanders) from his neighborhood was my favorite part of the movie. On the contrary, the main plot of this one, regarding murder and betrayal, I found to be a snooze.

In that main plot, McCall’s friends Susan (Melissa Leo) and Brian Plummer (Bill Pullman) run afoul of some baddies with a connection to the prior murder in Brussels. Just what is that connection? Well, the bottom line is the film never really makes that clear, nor is it important. The only thing that matters here is McCall’s friends have been wronged, and one of them murdered, and so he’s on the job seeking justice for them. And while it’s certainly fun watching Denzel Washington’s character pursue this justice, it’s not enough to make THE EQUALIZER 2 a worthwhile movie.

The screenplay by Richard Wenk does a nice job with Denzel’s character, as we know and understand what he is all about.  The character’s issues with OCD also add to the mix, as rather than a hindrance, this anxiety seems to help McCall focus when fighting his enemies. The dialogue is also very good, especially in the aforementioned scenes between McCall and Miles.

But the main plot is way too underdeveloped to have any impact. It’s all very shadowy, and the story does not supply the necessary answers to its questions. It’s the old plot of the former government assassin thrown out to pasture and so to make ends meet he has to kill for private contracts and not be too choosy as to who he kills. This is all well and good, but the film doesn’t really get into the folks who are doing the hiring and so we don’t know why any of these people are being killed.

Wenk wrote the screenplay to the first EQUALIZER movie, and he also worked on the screenplays for THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (2016), JACK REACHER: NEVER GO BACK (2016), THE EXPENDABLES 2 (2012) and THE MECHANIC (2011).

DirectorAntoine Fuqua does an okay job here.  The fight scenes are polished and well-choreographed, but none of them blew me away. The entire movie takes place as a hurricane bears down upon the east coast, and it hits just in time for the film’s climax. I’m not exactly sure of the relevance of the stormy atmosphere, other than it sets the tone for the story’s volatile proceedings. Don’t see this movie expecting to see sunshine. But other than this the hurricane doesn’t add much to the story.

THE EQUALIZER 2 marks the first time Fuqua has directed a sequel.

Likewise, it’s also the first sequel for Denzel Washington. I really enjoyed Washington here. Like I said at the outset, he has that gift for making whoever he plays on screen be very compelling, to the point where you can’t stop watching him. And even though he’s 63, he still makes the violent exploits of Robert McCall believable, and that’s because Fuqua does a nice job keeping his action scenes believable. We don’t see McCall running around all over the place like he’s 25 years old. He moves like he’s 63. It’s just that when he moves, he’s deadly.  Okay, he moves like an incredibly agile and swift 63 year-old! At least his upper body does. Like I said, he’s not racing through the streets like the Flash.

Ashton Sanders [MOONLIGHT (2016)] is also very good as Miles Whittaker, the young man McCall pretty much takes under his wing. Again, this part of the movie was my favorite, and the scenes between Washington and Sanders were the best scenes in the movie, so good in fact that they deserve a better story than the one here. It’s a shame that THE EQUALIZER 2 wasn’t about McCall and Whittaker.

Both Melissa Leo and Bill Pullman are wasted in small throwaway roles as McCall’s friends, the ones he has to seek justice for. Leo and Pullman are reprising their roles from the first film.

The movie also suffers from not having a decent villain. The main villain, Dave (Pedro Pascal) is one of McCall’s former partners, and for most of the film we don’t even know he’s the bad guy, although truth be told, it’s not much of a twist.  I could tell early on that this guy was bad news. The character just doesn’t resonate.

And it’s too bad because Denzel Washington is so good as Robert McCall. He deserves a formiddable foe. But he doesn’t get one in this movie.

THE EQUALIZER 2 is a largely forgettable sequel.  Fans of Denzel Washington probably will not be disappointed, because Washington is indeed excellent in this one, but on his own he’s not enough, even with some fine support from Ashton Sanders, to make me recommend this movie.

—END—

 

 

LEAVE NO TRACE (2018) -Subtle, Honest Look at Living With PTSD.

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Leave No Trace

Critics are loving LEAVE NO TRACE (2018). The film is being called the best reviewed movie of the summer.

Allow me to bring the film back to earth a bit.

Now, while I enjoyed LEAVE NO TRACE, I didn’t love it, mostly because its slow-paced story lacked the necessary intensity to keep me riveted throughout. That being said, LEAVE NO TRACE is still a good movie.

LEAVE NO TRACE tells the story of a father Will (Ben Foster) and his thirteen year-old daughter Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) who live in the woods in Oregon, and they live there because they choose to. They are happy there, and as the film opens, we observe them in their routine, enjoying a simple life in nature, albeit working hard to keep their shelter water-proof, collect rain water for drinking, and cover their tracks so they are not discovered.

The other reason they live in the woods is Will suffers from PTSD, a result from his time serving in the military. He simply has a hard time being around people and feels better living in the woods.

When a jogger sees Tom in the woods, the Park Rangers and the police are called in, and they arrest Will and also bring Tom into custody. Once social services determines that there’s nothing strange going on and that Tom is not in danger, they release them, but tell them they can no longer live where they were because those woods are part of a National Forest, owned by the government, and the law states that people can’t live on land owned by someone else.

A man Mr. Walters (Jeff Kober) having seen their story in the news, offers to set up Will and Tom with a modest home in return for Will’s help on his tree farm. What follows is the story of how Will and Tom try to adjust to a new life in a home not of their choosing and of their ongoing journey to find their place in the world as Will realizes he cannot function in society like other people.

LEAVE NO TRACE takes a sharp look at what constitutes a home and questions why it is that people simply can’t live where they want to, even if it’s in the woods. The film opens with such a deliberate pace showing Will and Tom’s peaceful existence, it easily makes the case that this lifestyle shouldn’t be disturbed. But it is, as there are laws to follow in society, and as a result Will and Tom are evicted from their “home.”

While I enjoyed the deliberate pace early on, the problem is as the film moves along, the pace never changes. We follow Will and Tom from one living experience to another, and the intensity pretty much stays the same. Low key. Very low-key.

The other story, and frankly the one that drives the movie along, is the relationship between Will and Tom. They love each other very much. This is established early on and the bond they share remains strong throughout. However, whereas Will understands he can’t live with other people, Tom begins to realize through their ongoing experiences that she can. Not only that, but she begins to enjoy being around other people, leading up to the point where she’s not sure she wants to continue following her father any more.

Writer/director Debra Granik has made a thought-provoking and visually pleasing movie that takes its time telling its story of two people, a father and a daughter, trying to live on their own terms, even while the daughter begins to learn that her interests are changing from that of her father’s. And the shots of the Oregon woods are peaceful and soothing. Five minutes in, and I was ready to pitch a tent, and I’m not an outdoors person.

Another problem I had with LEAVE NO TRACE is that while I appreciated its story, it didn’t resonate with me emotionally as much as I expected it to.  The film is low-key, and that pretty much sums up how it played on my emotions. There really aren’t any powerful scenes that pack a punch, no gut wrenching decisions or plights.  Just calm measured migration.

The best part of LEAVE NO TRACE and the main reason to see this one are the performances by the two leads, Ben Foster and Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie.

I’ve been a fan of Foster’s for a while ever since I first saw him in 3:10 TO YUMA (2007). He’s been impressive in nearly every film I’ve seen him in, usually playing some pretty intense characters, in films like 30 DAYS OF NIGHT (2007), THE MECHANIC (2011), and HELL OR HIGH WATER (2016) to name just a few.

Foster sheds some of that intensity here in LEAVE NO TRACE, and like the rest of the film, his performance is a bit more subtle than we’re used to seeing, but it’s no less effective. We never learn what exactly happened to Will, but Foster’s performance makes it clear that at some point in his life he suffered from a trauma that he has yet to recover from.

As much as I enjoy Foster, the performance of the movie belongs to Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie as Will’s daughter Tom. While her performance is subtle as well— don’t expect screaming, angry teenage angst— she creates such a sincere, watchable character in Tom that in spite of the film’s slow pace, I never grew tired of watching her.

She has a way of speaking that captures Tom’s innocence and loyalty to her dad, yet remains perfectly natural as she begins to realize that unlike her dad she needs other people in her life. I wouldn’t be surprised if come Oscar time McKenzie gets a shout out. She’s very good.

The other thing I liked about this story was the positive way it depicted ordinary citizens, a welcomed sight in this day and age. Everyone who Will and Tom meet treats them with respect and dignity. I kept expecting someone to try to take advantage of them, but they don’t.  And this might be the most powerful part of the entire movie, the way these every day folks treat Will and his daughter. They all seem to recognize that Will suffers from post traumatic stress disorder and treat him accordingly.

Director Debra Granik and fellow screenwriter Anne Rosellini should be commended for taking this route in their screenplay, which was based on the novel My Abandonment by Peter Rock, and for creating characters who function as a strong support network for the two strangers in their lives. It reaffirms some faith in humanity.

But in terms of emotion in LEAVE NO TRACE, there’s simply not a lot of it. While I was intellectually intrigued about Will and Tom’s plight, I was never emotionally invested in their journey. I wanted to know what was going to happen to them, to be sure, but most of the time, what was happening to them was so low-key it barely registered on the intensity meter.

LEAVE NO TRACE is a subtle look into the lives of two people, a father and a daughter, who enjoyed living off the grid until they were told they had to move. It then follows them on their journey from one living situation to another, telling the story of how their relationship changes.

It’s also a quiet look into the life of a person with PTSD, and of a teenage girl living with a person with PTSD, as well as an honest inquiry into just what it is that makes something a home.

Thought-provoking to be sure, but as intense as quietly collecting rain water for a cool morning drink in the forest.

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

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

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

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

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

For_the_love_of_Horror- original cover

Print cover

For the Love of Horror cover (3)

Ebook cover

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