IN THE SHADOWS: J. CARROL NAISH

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J. Carrol Naish as Daniel the hunchback in HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944)

 
Welcome back to IN THE SHADOWS,  the column where we look at character actors in the movies, especially horror movies.

Today in the shadows it’s J. Carrol Naish, one of the most respected character actors of his day, and while he’s certainly known for his horror roles, one of my favorite Naish roles is not from a horror flick at all, but from a superhero tale.

No, they weren’t making Marvel movies back in the 1930s and 40s, but they were making DC serials, and Naish starred in one of the best, BATMAN (1943), starring Lewis Wilson as Batman. This 15 episode serial marked the first time Batman would appear on the big screen, and it remains one of the better interpretations of the Caped Crusader, even all these years later. Another reason this one is so memorable? J. Carrol Naish plays the evil villain, Dr. Daka.

Since Naish was known for his multitudinous accents, he was a natural choice to play the Japanese Dr. Daka.  Remember, this was 1943, smack dab in the middle of World War II, and just two years after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and so it made sense to feature a villain of Japanese descent. Still, this one unfortunately contains some racial slurs which were redubbed in the VHS release, then restored in the later DVD release. Interestingly enough, Naish was originally signed to play the Joker, but the villain was changed to fit into a more contemporary and pressing storyline. Some remnants of the Joker still remain, like his hideout being inside a carnival.

I love Naish’s performance in BATMAN. Every time he gets the upper hand on one of his victims, and they lament, he tends to say, “Oh, that’s too bad.” Not quite a catch phrase, but there’s just something about his delivery that cracks me up every time.

But horror fans remember Naish for his horror roles, especially that of Daniel, the sympathetic hunchback in HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944).

Here’s a partial look at Naish’s whopping 224 screen credits, focusing mostly on his genre films:

THE OPEN SWITCH (1925) – Naish’s first screen appearance is in this silent crime drama.

GOOD INTENTIONS (1930) – Charlie Hattrick – Naish’s first screen credit. Another crime drama.

DR. RENAULT’S SECRET (1942) – Noel – horror movie also starring George Zucco as the mysterious Dr. Renault. Naish plays Noel, Renault’s strange assistant, whose real identity, is Dr. Renault’s secret.

BATMAN (1943) – Dr. Daka – 15 episode serial remains one of the better screen interpretations of the Batman. Also the first. Naish plays the villain, the evil Dr. Daka, which happens to be my favorite Naish role.

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J. Carrol Naish as the evil Dr. Daka in the 15 episode serial BATMAN (1943). 

SAHARA (1943) – Giuseppe – Classic Humphrey Bogart World War II adventure tells the story of a group of survivors in an army tank facing the Nazis in the desert. Naish was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

CALLING DR. DEATH (1943) – Inspector Gregg- Horror movie with Lon Chaney Jr. where Chaney plays a doctor who believes he has murdered his wife.

THE MONSTER MAKER (1944) – Markoff – Naish plays a mad scientist who injects his victims with a serum that causes them to become seriously deformed. Why? Because he can! Also stars Glenn Strange as the giant, who would go on later that year to play the Frankenstein Monster in HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944), which would also star Naish.

JUNGLE WOMAN (1944) – Dr. Carl Fletcher – horror movie featuring Paula the ape woman. (Not to be confused with Mildred the Monkey Woman. Or Clara the Cat Woman. Or Madge the Avon Lady. Seriously, though, Paula the ape woman???) Also stars Evelyn Ankers.

HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944) – Daniel – my second favorite J. Carrol Naish role after Dr. Daka. Naish plays the hunchback Daniel, assistant to Boris Karloff’s evil Dr. Niemann, who falls for the beautiful gypsy woman Ilonka (Elena Verdugo) but his love is not returned as she has eyes for the doomed Larry Talbot/The Wolf Man (Lon Chaney Jr.) in one of the film’s better story arcs. With Boris Karloff as Dr. Niemann, Lon Chaney Jr. as the Wolf Man, John Carradine as Dracula, and Glenn Strange as the Frankenstein Monster.

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Naish and Karloff searching the ruins of Frankenstein’s castle in HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944).

A MEDAL FOR BENNY (1945) – Charley Martin – Second and final time Naish was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in this war drama based on a story by John Steinbeck.

STRANGE CONFESSION (1945) -Graham – another horror movie with Lon Chaney Jr.

THE BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS (1046) – Ovidio Castanio – classic horror movie starring Peter Lorre about a murderous severed hand. Written by Curt Siodmark.

THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E (1966) – Uncle Giuliano- guest spot on the popular 60s spy TV show in the episode “The Super-Colossal Affair.”

GET SMART (1968) – Sam Vittorio – guest spot on the classic Don Adams comedy in the episode “The Secret of Sam Vittorio.”

DRACULA VS. FRANKENSTEIN (1971) – Dr. Frankenstein – Naish’s final film role is in this dreadful horror movie which falls under the “it’s so bad it’s good” category. Plays a wheel chair bound Dr. Frankenstein. Also notable for being Lon Chaney Jr.’s final movie. He actually fares worse here than Naish, as his character doesn’t even have any dialogue. Horrible, grade Z stuff.

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Lon Chaney Jr. and J. Carrol Naish in DRACULA VS. FRANKENSTEIN (1971), the final film roles for both these actors.

 

Naish passed away on January 24, 1973 from emphysema at the age of 77.

J. Carrol Naish – January 21,  1896 – January 24, 1973.

I hope you enjoyed this partial look at the career of J. Carrol Naish, one of the hardest working and most effective character actors of his day.  His horror movies were few and far between, but he was always memorable in them.

Thanks for joining me today on IN THE SHADOWS and I hope you’ll join me again next time when we look at the career of another great character actor.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

 

 

 

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BEIRUT (2018) – Complex Thriller Driven by Strong Performances

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BEIRUT (2018) is a complex thriller about a hostage negotiation in 1982 Beirut. Driven by strong performances by Jon Hamm and Rosamund Pike, the film does a lot of things well and more than makes up for its lack of supporting character development and peripheral plot.

The movie opens in 1972 Beirut with American diplomat Mason Skiles (Jon Hamm) hosting a dinner party with his wife for a group of dignitaries, including a United States Congressman, where Mason explains the current intricate political situation inside Lebanon. When Mason’s best friend Cal (Mark Pellegrino) arrives with the shocking news that the thirteen year-old boy Mason and his wife have taken into their home and consider a part of their family is the younger brother of the world’s most wanted terrorist, and the U.S. authorities want to extract the boy that very night. Mason refuses, and in the middle of his argument with Cal, gunmen open fire on the party and whisk the boy away before the U.S. agents can take him.  In the process, Mason’s wife is shot and killed.

The story picks up ten years later and finds Mason back in the U.S. working as a mediator and negotiator for local labor disputes. He has left his former life behind him, having walked away from both Beirut and his friend Cal immediately after the shooting, and he hasn’t spoken to his former friend since he left.

But all that changes when he is approached by a group of federal agents who want his help.  It seems that an American was taken hostage in Beirut, and the kidnappers demanded that Mason handle the negotiation.  Mason balks at the idea and says that the kidnappers simply pulled his name out of a hat. The agents then inform Mason that the hostage is his friend Cal.

Against his better judgement but not wanting to abandon Cal a second time, Mason returns to Beirut to negotiate the release of his best friend.

BEIRUT tells a compelling enough story and for the most part keeps its intricate tale from becoming too confusing. It’s a decent screenplay by Tony Gilroy, as one would expect as Gilroy also penned screenplays for the BOURNE movies and more recently he was one of the writers involved with ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY (2016).

BEIRUT reminded me a little bit of ARGO (2012), the Ben Affleck movie which won Best Picture in 2012. Both films share suspenseful hostage stories and international intrigue, although ARGO told the better story by far.

The story BEIRUT tells is not as memorable, nor is it as riveting since one of the weaknesses of the screenplay is the supporting characters aren’t really developed. In ARGO, the audience gets to know the hostages. In BEIRUT, very little is known about hostage Cal, and so even though the proceedings are very interesting, they don’t always resonate as well as they should on an emotional level.

The best part of BEIRUT are the performances by the two leads, Jon Hamm and Rosamund Pike. Hamm is terrific as Mason Skiles, although this smooth talking alcoholic character is clearly reminiscent of Don Draper, the character Hamm played so well on the TV series MAD MEN (2007-2015). Fans of the show might have fun imagining that this is what happened next to Mr. Draper. And while Hamm isn’t exactly out of his comfort zone here, he still delivers an enjoyable performance.

Rosamund Pike is also excellent as Sandy Crowder, one of the government operatives who helps Mason when he’s on the ground in Beirut. It’s a solid understated performance by Pike, whose character has her own reasons for wanting to extract Cal. The other dynamic I enjoyed between Mason and Sandy is that unlike most movies where the male and female leads are involved romantically, this time they are not, which I found refreshing.

I like Pike a lot and have enjoyed her recent roles in such films as HOSTILES (2017), GONE GIRL (2014), and JACK REACHER (2012) to name a few.

BEIRUT also has a strong supporting cast.  Mark Pellegrino is very good as Cal, Mason’s shadowy friend, even if the character isn’t developed all that well. For most of the film we don’t really know if Cal is a good guy or not, which hurts the story somewhat.

Dean Norris, Hank on TV’s BREAKING BAD (20080-2013) is nearly unrecognizable with a full head of hair and glasses as Donald Gaines, one of the government agents who recruits Mason. And Shea Whigham is memorable as another of these agents, Gary Ruzak.

BEIRUT was directed by Brad Anderson, who’s directed a lot of movies and TV shows, including the horror movie SESSION 9 (2001).  Anderson certainly does a good job of capturing war-ravaged Lebanon circa 1982, and the film’s location alone is enough to make this one a nail biter.

The story is certainly engrossing as we follow Mason’s efforts to find his friend Cal and navigate the negotiations needed to release him. There are some decent scenes, like when Mason first meets the group claiming to have Cal, as there is a rather unexpected execution right in the middle of it.  And the film heats up every time Mason slips away from his handlers, driving them crazy while he’s off the grid.

That being said, there really isn’t any centerpiece scene in this movie, either in artistic design or in its plot, no part of the film where it kicks into high gear and really becomes something special.

And I would imagine this one is not making a whole lot of money. I saw it with a very small audience. There were fewer than ten people in the theater.

Nonetheless, it’s a solid movie driven by two potent performances by Jon Hamm and Rosamund Pike, and it’s certainly worth a trip to the theater.

BEIRUT is also a nice reminder of the value of diplomacy and negotiation over violence, even though when all is said and done, there is certainly lots of bloodshed, which is what you would expect in 1982 Beirut.

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TOMB RAIDER (2018) – Alicia Vikander Is The Reason To See This One

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Alicia Vikander in TOMB RAIDER (2018)

I had zero interest in seeing TOMB RAIDER (2018).

I’m not into video games, so I haven’t been a fan of the Lara Croft video game character, I haven’t seen any of the earlier movies with Angelina Jolie, and I could give a care that this reboot presented an origin tale for the character. I could have easily skipped this one.

But, I do like Alicia Vikander.

And Vikander is playing Lara Croft here.  So, I asked myself, how many times have I ventured to the theater to see a low-regarded action film starring a Sylvester Stallone or an Arnold Schwarzenegger over the years just because they were in the movie? Plenty. So, why shouldn’t I do the same for a female actor?  I couldn’t come up with a good answer.  With that in mind, I decided to check out TOMB RAIDER, starring Alicia Vikander.

I wish I could tell you that it was all worth it, and the film was great, but it’s not.  But you know what? It’s not awful, either.  In fact, it’s a halfway decent movie, if your bar isn’t set too high.

And the reason it’s watchable is Alicia Vikander. If you’re going to see this one, she’s the reason to do so.

Twenty one year-old Lara Croft (Alicia Vikander) is having a tough time of it.  She’s working as a bike courier in London, scraping together just enough money to live on, even though she’s heir to a fortune.  All she has to do is sign the papers which declare her missing father Lord Richard Croft (Dominic West) legally dead, and the company and all its assets are hers, but she declines, because she refuses to believe that her father is really dead.  He disappeared seven years earlier somewhere in Hong Kong.

However, when informed that unless she signs the papers, her father’s entire fortune will be lost, she relents and agrees to sign, but just as she is about to do so, she discovers a secret note to her from her father.  The note leads her to a secret room containing her father’s secret work, as a researcher into the supernatural. When he disappeared, he was actively searching for a mythical Japanese witch who it turns out is so dangerous, that the message he left for Lara was for her to destroy all his notes so no one will be able to misuse the witch’s power.  But Lara being the strong-willed woman that she is, decides instead to use this newfound information to seek out and learn the fate of her missing dad.

So, she travels to Hong Kong in search of the man who took her father to the mysterious island home of the witch, and instead finds his son Lu Ren (Daniel Wu) who nonetheless agrees to take Lara to the island.  There, they are captured by the villainous Mathias Vogel (Walton Goggins) who is running a slave labor camp in an ongoing attempt to locate the tomb of this all-powerful supernatural demon queen.  He’s overjoyed to meet Lara because he finds in her belongings her father’s notes which will lead him at long last to the hidden tomb.

But Lara has other ideas.

In terms of story, the one that TOMB RAIDER tells is completely ridiculous and silly. I didn’t believe any of it.  By far, the main plot involving the search for the demonic queen/witch is the weakest part of the film. That being said, the screenplay by Geneva Robertson-Dworet and Alastair Siddons is not awful.  It does some things right.

For example, it downplays the supernatural.  The whole demonic queen aspect of this story is ludicrous and one thing I could never wrap my head around was why these folks were so darned interested in her.  The story never really makes that clear, and as a result, this one had the potential to be a goofy mess.  But it’s not, because as we learn more about this queen, it’s revealed that she’s not all that supernatural.  In fact, she’s not supernatural at all, but that doesn’t mean she’s not deadly.  It’s a twist in the story I really liked.

Also, early on, the tale is grounded in reality.  A lot of time is spent on Lara’s life in London, and this gritty part of the story works well.  The film takes its time before it gets to all the RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK treasure hunting stuff, and with Alicia Vikander in the lead, the film doesn’t suffer at all for its patient storytelling.

As I said, the best part of TOMB RAIDER is Alicia Vikander’s performance as Lara Croft. I’ve always enjoyed Vikander’s work, ever since I first saw her in EX MACHINA (2014), and she was just as memorable in THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. (2015) and JASON BOURNE (2016).  And of course she won the Ocscar for Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role for THE DANISH GIRL (2016).

The story here might be ludicrous, but Vikander makes Lara Croft completely believable.  She brings her energetic spunky personality to life, and she’s as tough as nails.  She looks completely believable in the role, as she’s lean and mean, and she gets to take part in some really cool fight scenes.

Vikander is so good in the role, that even though I have had no interest in the Lara Croft character, I would easily be happy to see Vikander play the role again, hopefully in a movie with a better plot.  She’s that good. Is she up there with Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman? In terms of the entire package, no, but in terms of individual performances, yes. Vikander carries this movie in much the same way that Gadot carried WONDER WOMAN (2017), which might be more impressive since Vikander has less help, in terms of cast, production values, and writers.

The supporting cast in TOMB RAIDER is okay.  Walton Goggins is the biggest standout here other than Vikander as the villain, Mathias Vogel. Goggins makes evil look so effortless, but that doesn’t make him any less impressive.   The best thing about his performance is that he makes Vogel real.  He’s surrounded by silly story elements, but Vogel could have walked off the set of THE WALKING DEAD- he’s that type of bad guy. You don’t want to mess with him. All this comes as no surprise, as Goggins has been a highlight of a bunch of recent movies, including DJANGO UNCHAINED (2012) and THE HATEFUL EIGHT (2015).

Daniel Wu is likable as Lu Ren, although his character is stuck in a thankless sidekick role.

I was less impressed with Dominic West as Lord Richard Croft, who just never came to life for me.  He seemed like a stock character from a 1980s soap opera, that handsome lead who disappears from the show for six months and then turns up later on a deserted island.

And veteran actors Kristin Scott Thomas and Derek Jacobi have small roles, mostly appearing in the Croft board room.

TOMB RAIDER was directed by Norwegian director Roar Uthaug, and he does a decent job. The fight scenes involving Alicia Vikander are all first-rate, and they’re pretty intense and compelling.  Of course, the film is rated PG-13, and so the skirmishes never get as grueling and dirty as they should have been.

There’s also a couple of really cool scenes, one in particular involving Lara and the wreckage of a plane that is right out of an Indiana Jones movie.  Lara is fighting through a raging river, trying to avoid a massive waterfall when she seeks refuge inside the wreckage of a plane precariously hanging on to the edge of the fall. It’s a scene that is well-staged and is one of the more intense sequences in the film.

There’s also a bicycle chase through the streets of East London that is well done, although it’s early on in the film and much lighter in tone than the later sequences. And all of the hand to hand battles which Lara engages in are well worth the price of admission.

On the flip side, things tend to slow down a bit towards the end, and the film does struggle to get through its 1 hour and 58 minute running time.  Also, the very end, which sets up an obvious sequel, is forced and contrived.

That being said, TOMB RAIDER is much better than it has any business being, and the number one reason for this is Alicia Vikander.  With this movie, she makes the Lara Croft character her own.

So, should you run out and see TOMB RAIDER? Is it on par with a film like WONDER WOMAN? No, and no. But I see a lot of movies each year, and as a result, unfortunately, I see a lot of bad movies. TOMB RAIDER is not a bad movie.

It’s a decent movie, lifted by a spirited performance by Alicia Vikander as Lara Croft, and it has a competent script, and features some energetic directing by Roar Uthaug. It’s not going to make my list of best movies of the year, but for a film I had zero interest in, it’s not all that bad.

If you’ve never seen Alicia Vikander, or you have seen her and you’re a fan, either way, she’s the reason you should see TOMB RAIDER.

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Memorable Movie Quotes: ANNIE HALL (1977)

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Diane Keaton and Woody Allen in ANNIE HALL (1977).

One of my favorite Woody Allen films is ANNIE HALL (1977), which just might be the quintessential Woody Allen movie.

I didn’t always feel this way.  I remember feeling quite bitter as a 13 year-old when ANNIE HALL bested my beloved STAR WARS (1977) for Best Picture that year.  Grrrr!!!

But it didn’t take me long to come around, as by the time I was in college I had watched ANNIE HALL multiple times and absolutely loved it. The jokes are nonstop and nearly all of them work, making ANNIE HALL the perfect subject for today’s MEMORABLE MOVIE QUOTES column, the column where we look at noteworthy quotes from some truly memorable movies.

ANNIE HALL works so well because Allen nails many of the truths that go along with relationships, and he finds humor in even their darkest moments. There’s an honesty in ANNIE HALL that lifts the humor to a whole other level.  There are enough memorable quotes in ANNIE HALL for several columns.  Today we’ll look at just a few of them.

The film opens with a memorable quote, as Woody Allen’s character Alvy Singer addresses the camera:

ALVY SINGER: There’s an old joke – um… two elderly women are at a Catskill mountain resort, and one of ’em says, “Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.” The other one says, “Yeah, I know; and such small portions.” Well, that’s essentially how I feel about life – full of loneliness, and misery, and suffering, and unhappiness, and it’s all over much too quickly. The… the other important joke, for me, is one that’s usually attributed to Groucho Marx; but, I think it appears originally in Freud’s “Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious,” and it goes like this – I’m paraphrasing – um, “I would never want to belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member.” That’s the key joke of my adult life, in terms of my relationships with women.

 

There are a ton of hilarious quips regarding the relationship between Allen’s Alvy Singer and Diane Keaton’s Annie Hall, like this split-screen exchange when they’re each seeing their respective therapists:

ALVY SINGER’S THERAPIST: How often do you sleep together?

ANNIE HALL’S THERAPIST: Do you have sex often?

ALVY SINGER (complaining): Hardly ever. Maybe three times a week.

ANNIE HALL (annoyed): Constantly. I’d say three times a week.

 

And this conversation:

ALVY SINGER: Hey listen, gimme a kiss.

ANNIE HALL: Really?

ALVY SINGER: Yeah, why not, because we’re just gonna go home later, right, and then there’s gonna be all that tension, we’ve never kissed before and I’ll never know when to make the right move or anything. So we’ll kiss now and get it over with, and then we’ll go eat. We’ll digest our food better.

 

And here’s one of my favorite jokes in the film, where Alvy confronts Annie about having an affair:

ALVY SINGER: Well, I didn’t start out spying. I thought I’d surprise you. Pick you up after school.

ANNIE HALL: Yeah, but you wanted to keep the relationship flexible. Remember, it’s your phrase.

ALVY SINGER: Oh stop it, you’re having an affair with your college professor, that jerk that teaches that incredible crap course, Contemporary Crisis in Western Man…

ANNIE HALL:  Existential Motifs in Russian Literature. You’re really close.

ALVY SINGER; What’s the difference? It’s all mental masturbation.

ANNIE HALL: Oh, well, now we’re finally getting to a subject you know something about.

ALVY SINGER: Hey, don’t knock masturbation. It’s sex with someone I love.

 

Then there’s this observation on relationships:

ALVY SINGER: A relationship, I think, is like a shark. You know? It has to constantly move forward or it dies. And I think what we got on our hands is a dead shark.

 

And of course there are jokes that have nothing to do with relationships that are flat-out hilarious in ANNIE HALL, like this comment by Alvy on California when he and Annie are visiting The Golden State:

ANNIE HALL:  It’s so clean out here.

ALVY SINGER: That’s because they don’t throw their garbage away, they turn it into television shows.

 

Another of my favorite bits involves a scene with Christopher Walker as Duane.

DUANE:  Can I confess something? I tell you this as an artist, I think you’ll understand. Sometimes when I’m driving… on the road at night… I see two headlights coming toward me. Fast. I have this sudden impulse to turn the wheel quickly, head-on into the oncoming car. I can anticipate the explosion. The sound of shattering glass. The… flames rising out of the flowing gasoline.

ALVY SINGER: Right. Well, I have to – I have to go now, Duane, because I, I’m due back on the planet Earth.

 

And like it begins, ANNIE HALL ends with another memorable set of lines, once more spoken by Woody Allen’s Alvy Singer, to close out the film:

ALVY SINGER: After that it got pretty late, and we both had to go, but it was great seeing Annie again. I… I realized what a terrific person she was, and… and how much fun it was just knowing her; and I… I, I thought of that old joke, y’know, the, this… this guy goes to a psychiatrist and says, “Doc, uh, my brother’s crazy; he thinks he’s a chicken.” And, uh, the doctor says, “Well, why don’t you turn him in?” The guy says, “I would, but I need the eggs.” Well, I guess that’s pretty much now how I feel about relationships; y’know, they’re totally irrational, and crazy, and absurd, and… but, uh, I guess we keep goin’ through it because, uh, most of us… need the eggs.

 

As I said earlier, there are so many more memorable quotes and jokes in ANNIE HALL, there’s enough to fill an entire second and third column. But that’s it for today.  I hope you enjoyed today’s MEMORABLE MOVIE QUOTES column and join me again next time when I look at cool quotes from another classic movie.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

PHANTOM THREAD (2017) – Meticulous Period Piece Romance Tells Unusual Love Story

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PHANTOM THREAD (2017) puts an exclamation point on the idea that you have to work hard to make a relationship last.

Make that two exclamation points.

In 1950s London, dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) is at the top of the food chain for dressmakers.  He designs dresses for the most important people in England, from the wealthy to celebrities to royalty. They all come to the House of Woodcock for quality dresses. Reynolds is firmly set in his ways, loves his routine, and avoids all distractions in order to remain completely focused on his work.

He lives with his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) who sees to it that his routine is not disturbed any way. He is also a confirmed bachelor, and we witness early on a scene over breakfast, where his current young girlfriend laments that she no longer has his attention.  He admits that she is right, and Cyril promptly dismisses the young woman to live somewhere else.  Thus is the daily life of Reynolds and Cyril.

But when Reynolds meets Alma (Vicky Krieps) and brings her home, things are different. Alma is a strong-willed woman who, when inevitably asked by Cyril to leave, refuses. Alma loves Reynolds, she loves his work, and she’s not ready to leave him. And when she realizes the main problem with Reynolds is that he doesn’t need her, she takes it upon herself to remedy that situation.  She takes a drastic action, with the intention of seeing to it that when all is said and done, Reynolds will indeed need her, and she will be there for him.

And it works. But for how long?

PHANTOM THREAD is one strange love story. It takes several twists and turns where you’re simply not sure where the story is going to go, how certain characters are going to react, and in doing so it’ll make you uncomfortable as you are going along for the ride. But by the time it is over and you see how it ultimately turns out, you kinda nod your head and acknowledge “I kinda liked how that all turned out.”

Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson sets the tone early on with meticulous scenes of Reynolds at work. The dressmaker is so focused on his craft watching him work is akin to watching an artist painting a portrait or a master chef in the kitchen. The attention to detail is second to none.

The entire film looks great, from the sets to the costumes, Anderson brings 1950s London to life.

But the strongest part of PHANTOM THREAD are the performances.

Daniel Day Lewis is masterful as Reynolds Woodcock. He brings this eccentric character to life, and better yet despite Reynolds being a complicated person, Lewis makes him someone who the audience understands.  You pretty much know throughout what Reynolds is thinking and feeling.

And while I also enjoyed Vicky Krieps as Alma, her take on the character is less clear, and this may be a fault of the writing more than Krieps’ acting,  because as Alma, she’s fantastic.  Alma is this quiet unassuming young woman who Reynolds meets waiting tables at a restaurant, and when she comes home with him, she seems to absolutely love him.  She’s also very strong-willed in her own quiet way, and as such, she is not intimated by Reynold’s eccentricities or Cyril’s cold orders.  She more than holds her own.

But what’s less clear is when things go south, and Alma decides it’s time for action, is she still in love with Reynolds, or is she fed up with him?  Now, the movie eventually makes this crystal clear, but for a time, her intentions are murky, and that’s because unlike Reynolds who the audience knows very well, Alma is less understood until later in the movie.

Lesley Manville is wonderful as the icy cold Cyril, and in Manville’s hands she’s more than simply a one note cold-hearted enabler of her brother.  She’s a three-dimensional character with her own thoughts and goals. In fact, one of the better sequences of the film comes when she admits to Reynolds that she’s “rather fond of Alma” and shortly thereafter shifts loyalties much to the surprise of her brother.

Both Daniel Day-Lewis and Lesley Manville have received Oscar nominations, Lewis for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role, and Manville for Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role.  Both are deserving.

Paul Thomas Anderson has also been nominated for Best Director, and the film itself is up for Best Picture.

That being said,  I can’t say I really enjoyed PHANTOM THREAD all that much.  I loved the costumes, the cinematography, and Daniel Day-Lewis’ exquisite performance as Reynolds Woodcock. But the love story didn’t exactly work for me.

For a long time, close to two-thirds of this movie, while I knew where Reynolds was coming from, I was far less clear about Alma’s motives and intentions. Did she really love Reynolds? What would she do when he pushed her away like all his other girlfriends? These questions are not answered until late in the film, and when they are answered, the film is better for it, but as a result of this ambiguity the movie is rather uneven.

It’s also a rather bizarre love story.  If you have to go to the lengths which Alma does to get your lover to pay attention to you, is it really worth it? In this case, the answer seems to be yes, but it seems so far removed from reality that admittedly I had trouble completely buying into this plot point.

Also, for a love story, it’s not really that emotional of a movie.  In fact, it does a far better job of getting you to think than getting you to feel.  It’s the thinking person’s love story. To be honest, I’m not sure that’s the best formula for a movie romance.

At the end of the day, PHANTOM THREAD is a meticulously crafted period piece romance that also happens to be a very unusual love story. It leans heavily on Daniel Day-Lewis’ brilliant performance as Reynolds Woodcock, much more so than on Vicky Krieps’ Alma, the result being an uneven tale that gets better when it finally decides to let its audience into the minds of both its lead characters.

—END—

 

I, TONYA (2017) Examines Assault On Truth As Well As On The Ice

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The best part about I, TONYA (2017) is it takes a story we all think we know— Tonya Harding and the “incident” with Nancy Kerrigan— and gives it depth and resonance, fleshing it out to the point where Harding is portrayed as a flawed sympathetic human being rather than just a stock villain and a punchline.

The script by Steven Rogers is exceptional.  It breaks the fourth wall as characters address the camera at opportune moments, and it makes full use of an interview style where characters have their say about events, often contradicting each other, and makes a concerted effort to— no pun intended— hammer out the truth.  In fact, truth is one of the central themes of the movie, which is exceedingly relevant today where basic truths and facts seem to be challenged every day, as things like “alternative facts” are rolled out by government leaders as if they are real and valid.

I, TONYA begins with Tonya Harding’s childhood.  She’s skating on the ice when she’s just three years-old, pushed by her demanding mother LaVona (Allison Janney, in a performance that is every bit as good as advertised).  We follow her as she grows up in poverty, a self-described “redneck,” and it’s as a teenager that Tonya (Margot Robbie) meets the man she will eventually marry, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan).

It’s a tough life for Tonya.  She’s constantly abused by her mother, both verbally and physically, as well as beaten by her husband, all the while thinking these actions towards her are her fault.  And she snarkily says at one point that Nancy Kerrigan was hit once and the world cried, yet she was hit nonstop her whole life and no one cared.

She faces similar obstacles on the ice.  She’s a phenomenal skater yet struggles to earn top scores from the judges, as they admit off the record that it’s not the skating but her persona.  Americans want their Olympic skaters to represent family, their county, and wholesomeness, and with her crass rough demeanor, Tonya espouses none of these things. Tonya responds that if someone gave her the money to buy her clothes she’d at least look the part, but since she can’t afford the expected wardrobe she has to make her own.

And when Tonya receives a death threat that leaves her shaken and unable to perform, it gives her husband Jeff the idea that if they did the same to Nancy Kerrigan, send her some threatening letters, for instance, that it might shake her enough to give Tonya a competitive edge, a misguided plot that leads to the infamous “incident” where a man smashes Kerrigan’s knee with a baton.

Margot Robbie is sensational as Tonya Harding. It’s a spirited performance that has the desired effect of evoking sympathies for Harding.  We really get to see the kind of life that Harding grew up in, making her successes on the ice all the more impressive. We also see, at least according to the movie, that she really didn’t know what her husband and friends were truly up to, that she believed all they were going to do was simply send some threatening letters.

And at the end, at her sentencing, you can’t help but feel the injustice as the judge imposes a lifetime ban on Tonya from the U.S. Figure Skating Association.  As Harding points out, the men involved received short prison sentences, and she argues that she’d rather do prison time instead, but the judge is undeterred.  As we learn, her husband Jeff received an 18 month sentence, but only served eight months.  Tonya remains banned for life.

My favorite Margot Robbie performance remains Harley Quinn in SUICIDE SQUAD (2016) mainly because it was such an energetic and inspired performance that lifted that otherwise mediocre superhero movie to higher heights, but Robbie is every bit as good here as Tonya Harding.

The other impressive item about Robbie’s performance in I, TONYA is she did most of her own skating, as she trained extensively for the role.  Of course, she couldn’t do Tonya Harding’s signature move, the triple axel jump, which only a handful of skaters have ever been able to do.  In an interview, director Craig Gillespie explained that he learned there were only two skaters on the planet who could perform that stunt today and they were both training for the Olympics and were thus unavailable, so he had to resort to some CGI help to pull off the stunt in the film.

Sebastian Stan is also excellent as Tonya’s husband Jeff Gillooly.  Like the other characters in the movie, he’s fleshed out and comes off as a real person.  He’s a rather unlikable fellow, and yet he’s not a one-sided cardboard cliche, as we catch glimpses of his humanity, as with a later admission that he knows that he was responsible for ruining Harding’s career, and it’s something he says with profound sadness.  Stan has been appearing in the Marvel superhero movies as Captain America’s troubled best buddy Bucky Barnes, aka Winter Soldier, and Stan’s work here in I, TONYA resonates much more than his work as Bucky.

Of course, the performance of the movie belongs to Allison Janney as Tonya’s mother LaVona. It’s as good as advertised, perhaps better, and she definitely lives up to all the hype her performance is generating.  She makes LaVona absolutely relentless, from her first scene to her last.  She is a complete monster of a mother, and she’s one character you won’t feel much sympathy for.  But the amazing thing is in Janney’s hands this lack of sympathy doesn’t make LaVona any less real.  She’s also absolutely hilarious, her vulgar remarks producing loud laughter from the audience.  Janney has enjoyed a long and productive career.  I most remember her for her longtime role as C.J. Cregg on the TV show THE WEST WING (1999-2006).  Her role here is probably the best performance I’ve seen her give in a movie.

Paul Walter Hauser is hilarious as Jeff’s friend Shawn, the man who cluelessly orchestrates the plot against Nancy Kerrigan. Shawn lives in his own fantasy world, and the ease and confidence with which he believes his own lies, in all seriousness, frighteningly, reminded me of a certain President of the United States. The two sound eerily similar.

Julianne Nicholson adds respectability as Tonya’s longtime coach Diane Rawlinson, the one person in the movie who consistently seemed to care for Tonya’s well-being, and not surprisingly, was often the person Tonya listened to the least.  And Bobby Cannavale is amusing as news host Martin Maddox, who through interviews, explains how the media of the time covered the story.  He also gets one of the best lines in the movie, when he says his show HARD COPY was the exploitative news program that the respected news outlets of the time condemned and then later became.

Director Craig Gillespie gets nearly everything right here with I, TONYA. He takes full advantage of the chatty, conversational style of the script.  The film is light and witty throughout, and the movie flies by, but make no mistake, in spite of the humor I, TONYA is no comedy.  Sure, there’s laughter, but it’s from things people say, and the conviction and honesty with which they say them.  But at its heart, I,TONYA is a sad, tragic story with no happy ending.

Gillespie also handles the skating scenes with relative ease which all look amazing and authentic.  Gillespie’s success here comes as no surprise.  I’ve been a fan of his relatively small body of work.  He previously directed THE FINEST HOURS (2016), an underrated rescue drama starring Chris Pine and Casey Affleck about a 1952 Coast Guard rescue that sadly flew under the radar that year with little hype or fanfare.  It’s an excellent movie. Gillespie also directed the remake of FRIGHT NIGHT (2011) which wasn’t half bad.

I, TONYA also has a rocking soundtrack which captures the period from Tonya’s teen years in the 80s to her competitive skating years in the early 90s.

I, TONYA tells a remarkable story in a way that enables its audience to understand the motivations of its principal players to the point where it’s not unusual for even the most despicable people to come off as sympathetic.  That’s clearly the case with Tonya Harding, a person who was vilified by the press based upon actions that were clearly horrific, but yet here she’s portrayed as a real person with a horrific upbringing that makes her success on the ice all the more impressive.  As to the “incident,” it still remains horrible, but how much of that horror was of Tonya Harding’s doing gets a fresh hard look in this movie.

On top of this, the film also tackles the broader theme of the truth, as multiple characters all have their version of the truth as to what really happened that day.  The theme fits in perfectly with events of today, where truth is being attacked on a daily basis by those who feel completely comfortable with their own version of the truth, expressing little regard for those with opposing views, often labeling those folks as “enemies of the state.”

It’s an assault that is far more disturbing than the attack portrayed in this movie.  In fact, you could make the argument that the attack on Nancy Kerrigan as portrayed in this movie is symbolic of what happens when people who make their own truths get carried away with their own fantasies.

People get hurt.

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

Best Movies of 2017

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Here’s a look at my Top 10 favorite films from 2017:

10 DETROIT –

Kathryn Bigelow’s powerful portrait of race riots in 1967 Detroit comes off as raw live footage, transporting its audience to 1967 Detroit as witnesses to the true event which happened at the Algiers Motel in Detroit. The centerpiece of the movie is a brutal and misguided police interrogation inside the hotel which leads to the deaths of three black men.  It’ll leave you squirming in your seat.

Featuring John Boyega as a young security officer at the scene who tries to work as a peacemaker, and Anthony Mackie as a former soldier recently home from Vietnam who finds himself among the interrogated.   Will Poulter delivers the most memorable performance in the movie as a racist Detroit police officer. Sure, DETROIT is a one-sided interpretation, as the police are not viewed in a positive light, but the reality is, racism still exists, and until it doesn’t, stories like this need to be told.

 

9 THE BIG SICK –

Both hilarious and moving, THE BIG SICK is based on the real-life romance between actor/writer Kumail Nanjiani and his wife Emily V. Gordon, both of whom wrote the screenplay to this movie. Filled with countless laugh-out-loud moments, the film is loaded with memorable characters and situations. Kumail Nanjiani does a nice job playing a fictionalized version of  himself, and Zoe Kazan (the granddaughter of acclaimed film director Elia Kazan) is excellent as Emily. Holly Hunter and Ray Romano steal the show as Emily’s parents.

THE BIG SICK has it all:  fine acting, perceptive writing, and solid directing by Michael Showalter.  With a lot to say about relationships, cultural differences, and the lengths people will go to make a relationship work when they’re in love, it’s one of those movies where after it ends, you just want to see it again.

 

8  STRONGER –

Jake Gyllenhaal delivers a riveting performance as Jeff Bauman, the man who lost his legs in the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013 and later became a symbol of hope for an entire city as he fought back to regain both his life and his ability to walk. STRONGER sports a superior screenplay by John Pollono, based on the book “Stronger” by Jeff Bauman and Bret Witter. The dialogue is first-rate, natural, cutting and incisive, and at times laugh-out loud funny.   Longtime Boston comic and RESCUE ME (2004-11) star Lenny Clarke delivers a scene-stealing performance as Jeff’s Uncle Bob.

STRONGER is not syrupy-sweet inspirational.  It’s nicely paced, funny and hard-hitting at the same time, and most importantly, brutally honest.

 

7 BATTLE OF THE SEXES –

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Based on the true story of the historic tennis match in 1973 between Bobby Griggs and Billie Jean King.  The script by Simon Beaufoy, who also wrote SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE (2008), covers a lot of ground, tackling gender equality, gay and lesbian relationships, compulsive gambling, sports, and life in the 1970s. It keeps a light and humorous tone throughout and does a nice job covering the actual event, the “Battle of the Sexes,” complete with real footage of then announcer Howard Cosell calling the match.

Emma Stone has followed her Oscar-winning performance in LA LA LAND (2016) with a very different but equally successful performance as Billie Jean King.  Stone is marvelous in this movie.  She captures King’s emotions, fears, and shows her grit and strength of character.  Steve Carell enjoys the liveliest scenes in the movie as Bobby Riggs, and he’s perfectly cast as the retired tennis pro.  As he so often does, Carell goes deeper with the character, and we really feel for him, especially as he battles his gambling demons.

 

6 THE FLORIDA PROJECT –

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Amazing movie about life at a Florida motel that houses low-income and out of work families and immigrants, as seen through the eyes of a six year-old girl and her friends over the course of one summer. The kids steal this movie, led by Brooklyn Prince as a foul-mouthed six year-old girl named Moonnee. Her exchanges with the understanding yet increasingly frustrated motel manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe) are worth the price of admission alone. Also a great role for Dafoe, as Bobby knows these folks have nowhere else to live, and he has a soft spot for them, especially the children. The film truly captures the essence of childhood, from innocence to devilish endeavors, like when Moonnee is giving her friend Jancey (Valeria Cotto) a tour of the motel and tells her, “These are the rooms we’re not supposed to go in. Let’s go in any ways!”

Writer/director Sean Baker, who co-wrote the script with Chris Bergoch, imbues this movie with authenticity.  With up-close hand-held camera work, the movie has the feel of a documentary.  Baker also does a phenomenal job with the child actors here. THE FLORIDA PROJECT is a film that you definitely do not want to miss, especially in the here and now, where it’s no secret that in the United States the chasm between the haves and the have-nots continues to widen at a tragically alarming rate. The children in THE FLORIDA PROJECT remind us why it is so important that this trend be reversed.

 

5 WIND RIVER-

Taylor Sheridan is one of my favorite screenwriters working today.  He wrote SICARIO, my favorite film of 2015, and he followed that up with HELL OR HIGH WATER, one of the best films of 2016. Now comes WIND RIVER (2017), which is every bit as good as his previous two films, and this time Sheridan directs as well.

WIND RIVER (2017) takes place in Wind River, Wyoming, a beautiful expanse of land that looks like a winter paradise with its snow-covered mountains and icy rivers. But looks can be deceiving. A young woman is brutally murdered, and FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) is on the case, assisted by hunter and tracker Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner). WIND RIVER is much more than just a straightforward thriller.  Taylor Sheridan takes us inside the minds and hearts of the Native Americans on the reservation where the murder occurred.  They are a depressed lot, feeling they have little to live for, surrounded by snow and silence. The film also points out that statistics are not kept on the disappearances of Native American women, and no one really knows how many Native American women have gone missing over the years.

With WIND RIVER, Taylor Sheridan proves to be every bit as talented behind the camera as he is writing screenplays. I can’t wait to see what he does next.

 

4 THE FOUNDER –

Fascinating story that is as entertaining as it is informative.  With Michael Keaton playing McDonald’s “founder” Ray Kroc, the slant in this movie is that Kroc worked so hard that he eventually claimed the title of “McDonalds Founder” even though he didn’t originate the model. Keaton is outstanding as Ray Kroc, seen here as a frenetic salesman who after one rough time after another, sees McDonalds as his opportunity to finally make it big after years of failure.  When he realizes that his success has suddenly given him more power than he ever thought he would have, he decides to use that power to go after everything he wants because he knows he can get it. In a lesser actor’s hands, Kroc may have lost all sympathy at this point, but as played by Michael Keaton, the role becomes a natural extension of Kroc’s personality and the circumstances he finds himself in.  In other words, it doesn’t come off as if he was a weasel in the making, just waiting for his chance to make it big, but rather, as a man who worked hard to be a success and then suddenly realized he had the clout and influence to get whatever he wanted.

Even though its subject, Ray Kroc, is a controversial figure, THE FOUNDER is not that dark a movie.  Director John Lee Hancock films this one with bright tones which capture both the 1950s and McDonalds restaurants. The screenplay by Robert D. Siegel also keeps things light.  The movie plays like an offbeat quirky drama as opposed to an ominous piece on the ruthlessness of cutthroat business tactics. With Keaton in the lead, it’s entertaining from start to finish.

 

3 WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES –

The new PLANET OF THE APES series keeps getting better and better. WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES (2017), the third film in the new rebooted series, is a thoroughly engrossing tale that is equal parts futuristic science fiction, epic adventure, and prisoner of war drama. All three parts work well to comprise a story that is captivating from start to finish, so much so, that this third film is clearly the best entry of the series thus far.

Director Matt Reeves, who also directed DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2014), is one of the more talented directors working today. Andy Serkis returns as Caesar in another impressive CGI motion-capture performance. Woody Harrelson plays the human villain, an evil Colonel. Contains superior special effects. The apes look phenomenal. They’re so good it’s easy to forget that nearly every character in this movie is a CGI creation.  With lots of nods to the original series, WAR is an extremely satisfying chapter in the APES saga. One of the best, if not the best, genre film of the year.

 

2 GOOD TIME –

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One of the more intense, energetic, and insane thrillers of the year, GOOD TIME is the story of two brothers, Connie (Robert Pattinson) and mentally challenged Nick (Benny Safdie) who rob a bank and then botch the escape.   Connie eludes the police, but Nick is arrested. Connie spends the rest of the movie trying to break his brother out of the hospital in which he is being held, and what follows is a roller coaster ride of a night as Connie faces one obstacle after another, and the film treats its audience to one twist after another.

GOOD TIME was expertly directed by brothers Benny Safdie and Josh Safdie.  Benny also plays Nick in the film, while Josh co-wrote the screenplay with Ronald Bronstein.  It’s an excellent script with realistic dialogue and vibrant, living characters.  Nearly every character who appears in this movie is interesting, a testament both to the acting and to the superior writing.

Brilliant performance by Robert Pattinson as big brother Connie.  This is his best performance yet, and he gives Connie a depth not often found in a character like this. There’s also an absolutely frenzied and very effective music score by Daniel Lopatin that really adds a lot to the movie.  It reminded me of something John Carpenter would have written.

GOOD TIME doesn’t stop.  It’s one of the more frenetic movies of the year, and certainly one of the most satisfying.  It’s a ride you definitely do not want to miss.

 

1 DUNKIRK –

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Forget everything you know about traditional storytelling. DUNKIRK (2017), the World War II movie by writer/director Christopher Nolan, changes the rules and then some. In an interview, Nolan described the soldiers’ experiences at Dunkirk in three parts: those on the beach were there a week, the rescue on the water took a day, and the planes in the air had fuel for one hour.  To tell this story,  Nolan separates it into these three parts- the week on the beach, the day at sea, and the crucial hour in the air, but he does this in a nonlinear fashion, meaning all three events are shown happening concurrently and interspersed with each other.  Surprisingly, the result isn’t confusing. Instead, this bold use of time generates heightened tension and maximum suspense.

DUNKIRK tells the amazing story of the rescue of 338,000 British soldiers from the French port town of Dunkirk in events which transpired from May 26 – June 4, 1940.  The soldiers were surrounded by German forces and the only escape was by sea, which was covered by German planes.  In effect, there was no escape. However, in what turned out to be a stroke of genius, instead of sending the navy, the British authorities sent out a call for civilian ships to go to Dunkirk, which they did, and they miraculously rescued the soldiers.  Had the British soldiers been captured, Germany would have advanced, most likely on their way to a successful invasion of Great Britain.  But the soldiers escaped to fight another day, and Churchill turned the event on its head, claiming a moral victory and using it to espouse the spirit of resistance.

Superb cast, albeit mostly unknowns, deliver first-rate performances.  Veteran actors Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh, and Tom Hardy are also outstanding.  The editing during the climactic sequence is second to none.  It’s one of the more suspenseful last acts to a movie I’ve seen in a while. Nolan also makes full use of sound.  When the planes attack, the sound effects are loud and harsh.

DUNKIRK tells this improbable story in mind-bending fashion, thanks to the innovative efforts of Christopher Nolan, one of the most talented writer/directors working today.

It’s my pick for the best movie of 2017.

Thanks for reading!

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  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.neconebooks.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  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 cover

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