SERGIO (2020) – Moving Bio-Pic of U.N. Diplomat Sergio de Mello Speaks to the Value of Diplomacy

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Wagner Moura and Ana de Armas in SERGIO (2020).

SERGIO (2020), a Netflix original movie, tells the story of Sergio Vieira de Mello, the Brazilian born United Nations diplomat who at the height of his career went to Iraq after the U.S. invasion in 2003 to monitor elections, an effort that unfortunately met with tragic results.

SERGIO stars Wagner Moura in the lead role as Sergio de Mello. Moura, who starred in the Netflix series NARCOS (2015-2017) as Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, is a charismatic actor who was outstanding as Escobar. He’s similarly effective here as Sergio de Mello. He carries this movie, and his performance is one of the main reasons to see it. He plays De Mello as a career diplomat who was very good at what he did, brokering peace deals between hostile parties, and who puts his career above all else, even at the expense of missing valuable time with his two sons.

Directed by Greg Barker, a filmmaker known for his documentaries, SERGIO doesn’t tell its story in linear fashion. It jumps back and forth through time, showing different key points of de Mello’s life and career. It’s a style that ultimately works, even as the pacing sometimes lags.

When de Mello brings his team into Iraq, he is met with resistance by the United States, especially from U.S. diplomat Paul Bremer (Bradley Whitford) who warns Sergio not to stray from U.S wishes, that he’s there to support the positions of the United States. Of course, de Mello disagrees, arguing that the United Nations is an independent organization and as such is not beholden to any one country.

When a massive bomb strikes the United Nations headquarters in Iraq, de Mello finds himself trapped underneath all the rubble, and it’s here where most of the story unfolds, as he thinks back to events which brought him to this moment in time. A big part of his story is his romance with Carolina Larriera (Ana de Armas). The film chronicles how they met and shows how they eventually end up working together for the U.N., and she is there that day at the U.N. headquarters when the bomb goes off.

Ana de Armas and Wagner Moura share a wonderful chemistry together. Even though SERGIO is intended as an historical drama, really, its love story is one of the best parts of the movie. De Armas and Moura electrify the screen when they’re together, and their love story only adds to the sadness of the tragedy in Iraq.

Ana de Armas is a really good actress who has appeared in such movies as KNIVES OUT (2019), BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017), and HANDS OF STONE (2016). She’s also slated to star in the next James Bond movie, NO TIME TO DIE (2020). For me, up until now, de Armas’ most prominent role was as the holographic Joi in BLADE RUNNER 2049, but I think she’s even better here in SERGIO.

Brian F. O’Byrne adds fine support as Sergio’s friend and right hand man Gil Loescher, who also is trapped with Sergio under the rubble of the bombed building. And Bradley Whitford in a small role is sufficiently annoying as U.S. diplomat Paul Bremer who comes off as the bully on the block, in effect saying do what the U.S. wants or else. His most telling line is when he tells Sergio “welcome to the big leagues” implying that Sergio is out of his league in Iraq and only the U.S. knows how to handle such a difficult situation.

Craig Borten wrote the screenplay, based on the book Chasing the Flame: One Man’s Fight to Save The World by Samantha Power, and for the most part it does a really good job of fleshing out Sergio’s story.  After you have watched this movie, you will have an understanding and an appreciation of who Sergio de Mello was and what he meant to the world. The film also touches upon what the absence of de Mello has meant to the world since that time. Borten also co-wrote the screenplay to DALLAS BUYERS CLUB (2013), a script which earned him an Oscar nomination.

The major drawback of SERGIO is at times with its talky scenes it plays much more like a television show than a movie. It doesn’t really have a cinematic feel to it, and while it is a Netflix original, it was intended to play at the theaters as well, plans which were changed because of COVID-19.  Last week I reviewed the Netflix original movie EXTRACTION (2020), and that film definitely had a cinematic feel which would have been right at home on the big screen. I can’t say the same for SERGIO.

And at times the pacing slows down somewhat.  But these are minor issues. Overall, SERGIO is one of the better films I’ve seen this year.

It enjoys some really powerful emotional moments. One of the best is when Sergio talks to a woman in Timor in a private meeting. It’s such an authentic yet quiet moment. It is one of the most moving sequencs in the film. The scenes in Iraq also work, recalling that chaotic volatile time. And all the scenes between Moura and Ana de Armas are lively and romantic, and really lift the story to a type of love story that I wasn’t expecting. Their scenes together are all exceptional.

SERGIO is a moving drama that tells the important story of Sergio de Mello, a story that is even more relevant today as the world continues to shift away from the value of diplomacy. Sergio’s life and sacrifice is a testament to the power of what one can achieve through diplomacy, and sadly to what happens when those efforts are stamped out by acts of violence.

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DOLEMITE IS MY NAME (2019) – Comedic Bio-Pic Features Eddie Murphy At His Best

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Conventional wisdom is that Eddie Murphy deserved an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Rudy Ray Moore in the Netflix film DOLEMITE IS MY NAME (2019).

After finally catching up with this one, I heartily agree.  This is Murphy’s best work in years. That being said, while I agree that Murphy could easily have been nominated, I’m still glad Joaquin Phoenix won the award for his lead role in JOKER (2019), as for me, his was the best performance of the year.

But back to DOLEMITE IS MY NAME, a movie I liked a lot. It’s a bio pic of Rudy Ray Moore, who after years of struggling to make his name in show business, changed his name and took on a new persona, Dolemite, leading to best-selling comedy albums and eventually a string of successful 1970s blaxploitation movies. As such, DOLEMITE IS MY NAME is also quite funny, because Rudy was a funny guy, as were his antics.

When DOLEMITE IS MY NAME opens, Rudy (Eddie Murphy) is stuck working in a record store and can’t get his own records played on the radio to save his life. He feels increasingly frustrated that he has worked his butt off with nothing to show for it. But when he hears a street person telling a series of jokes in a sing-song fashion, he realizes that this man and others like him are a treasure trove for material. So Rudy visits them on the streets and writes down their stories and their jokes, and he turns their source material into his own original act, creating a new character in the process, the charismatic Dolemite.

He’s an instant sensation at his local stand-up comedy venue, and then things just take off from there, leading to comedic record deals, and eventually movies.

Eddie Murphy is right at home playing Rudy Ray Moore and his alter ego Dolemite. Murphy is a natural at capturing Rudy’s raunchy comedic style since it fits right into Murphy’s own style of comedy back in his heyday. Better yet, Murphy nails the dramatic elements here as well. Early on, he does a great job showing Rudy’s frustrations with life, that he just can’t seem to catch a break, and he isn’t getting any younger. Likewise, after he has achieved success and has become a “star,” Murphy portrays Rudy as a man who never forgot his roots. He doesn’t become a jerk, and he treats his fans well. Murphy’s Rudy is a guy to be admired.

Wesley Snipes and Chris Rock are also in the cast and their presence is felt. This is actually the first time that Murphy and Snipes have ever made a movie together. They share some fun moments, as Snipes plays D’Urville Martin, who directed Dolemite’s first movie, and the two don’t always see eye to eye, which makes for some entertaining sequences.

Da’Vine Joy Randolph gives one of the best performances in the movie as Lady Reed, a performer who Rudy “discovers.” Their scenes together are some of the best in the film. Randolph enjoys lots of comedic moments and some dramatic ones, like when she thanks Rudy for giving her a chance, grateful that he overlooked her large size and didn’t let that stop him from promoting her.

Kodi Smit-McPhee is the film student Rudy hires to be his director of photography. Smit-McPhee has been in a bunch of movies in his young career, and my favorite remains his portrayal of the boy Owen in the exceptional vampire movie LET ME IN (2010) starring Chloe Grace-Moretz and directed by Matt Reeves. Sure, it’s a remake of LET THE RIGHT ONE IN (2008), which many people prefer, but I like LET ME IN a lot. Smit-McPhee is excellent in it, and plus it’s a Hammer Film!

Director Craig Brewer really gives this one a 1970s look and feel and successfully recaptures the essence of Rudy’s original Dolemite movies. Things slow down a bit during the film’s second half, but other than this, DOLEMITE IS MY NAME is an enjoyable piece of filmmaking, as long as you don’t mind lots of vulgar language.

The screenplay by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski is ripe with coarse language, and there’s plenty of nudity as well, all capturing the 1970s blaxploitation feel. It also tells a noteworthy story and portrays Rudy Ray Moore as decent guy whose years of hard work eventually pay off. The movie is also hilariously funny.

I liked DOLEMITE IS MY NAME a lot. It tells a worthwhile story, features one of Eddie Murphy’s best performances in years, and in addition to being an informative biography of Rudy Ray Moore is exceedingly funny as well.

If you’re indoors social distancing looking for a movie to watch, DOLEMITE IS MY NAME is a worthy addition to your movie queue.

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Best Movies of 2019

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Here’s my list of the Top 10 Movies from 2019. Now, while I see a lot of movies each year, I obviously don’t see every release, and so it’s possible that some of your favorites are not on this list. But here are mine:

10. READY OR NOT

I loved this gory campy thriller in which Samara Weaving plays a bride who finds herself married into a peculiar family: they love games, and on her wedding night, the game of choice is a variation of kill the bride, and they mean it. They’re playing for keeps. But Weaving’s character is no victim. She fights back and then some! Although it sounds like a downer, this one is saved by its lively humor where you’ll find yourself laughing at things you have no business laughing at. Samara Weaving, who was so good in the horror flick THE BABYSITTER (2017) is excellent here once again.

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9. DARK WATERS

This riveting drama about one attorney’s fight against the powerful Dupont chemical company which was not only polluting one town’s water but an entire nation with its no-stick cookware features top-notch performances by Mark Ruffalo and Anne Hathaway. The most disturbing part of this film, which was based on a true story, is that the issue was never satisfactorily resolved and continues to this day. A must-see drama.

 

8. JOKER

The lone superhero movie to make my Top 10 list, and that’s a stretch, because it’s not really a superhero movie. It’s a moving and often disturbing drama that chronicles one man’s descent into one of the most iconic superhero villains of all time.  Joaquin Phoenix knocks it out of the park as Arthur Fleck, the man who eventually becomes the Joker. While I still slightly prefer Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker in THE DARK KNIGHT (2008) because of the way he dominated that movie, Phoenix’ performance here is very different but equally as satisfying. The strength of JOKER is it makes the story of the Joker completely plausible. You’ll understand and believe how an ordinary person could become the Joker.

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7. THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON

This heartwarming tale of a young man with Down syndrome Zak (Zach Gottsagen) who runs away from his state-run home to pursue his dream of becoming a professional wrestler features outstanding performances by Zach Gottsagen, who has Down syndrome in real life, Shia LaBeouf as the drifter who decides to help Zach fulfill his dream, and Dakota Johnson as the concerned social worker hot on their trail. Also features fine supporting performances by Bruce Dern and Thomas Haden Church. Superior script by writer/directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz. LaBeouf’s best performance to date.

 

6. SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK

The only horror movie to make my Top 10 List, SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK is all the more impressive because it’s rated PG-13 and still manages to be scary, and that’s because it takes its business of scaring people seriously. Based on the popular book series by Alvin Schwartz, SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK succeeds at what a lot of other horror movies fail with, and that is, building suspense. This one gets more exciting as it goes along. It tells separate horror stories that are all connected by one compelling wraparound story. The whole thing works, making for the most solid and effective horror movie of the year.

 

5. THE CURRENT WAR (2017)

Filmed in 2017, THE CURRENT WAR was re-released in 2019 with a new director’s cut, and so I feel comfortable including it on my Top 10 List for 2019. This winner of a movie tells the fascinating tale of the competition between Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon) to be the first to provide electricity for the United States. This period piece which takes place in the late 1880s-1890s is beautifully photographed and handsome to look at. Features two powerhouse performances by Benedict Cumberbatch and Michael Shannon, both of which drive this movie along, as well as a notable performance by Nicholas Hoult as Nikola Testa.

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4. ROCKETMAN

Outstanding biography of music legend Elton John features perhaps my favorite acting performance of the year, Taron Egerton’s spot-on depiction of the flamboyant and troubled John. Innovative in its approach, mixing the music of Elton John into key moments of the story, this film succeeds as much as a musical as it does as a biography. The sequence where John performs at the Troubadoor club in Los Angeles is one of the more electrifying sequences in any movie this year.

 

3. HOTEL MUMBAI

Not really shown a lot of love by critics, HOTEL MUMBAI nonetheless was one of the more intense movie experiences of the year. Based on the true story of the terrorist attack on the Taj Hotel in Mumbai,  HOTEL MUMBAI tells the compelling story of how— with authorities hours away from reaching the hotel— the hotel staff decided it was up to them to protect the guests from the terrorists who had overtaken the hotel. Thanks to some taut and tight direction by Anthony Maras, and notable performances by Dev Patel, Armie Hammer, Jason Isaacs, Anupam Kker,  and Nazanin Boniadi, this one is a nail-biter from start to finish.

 

2. JO JO RABBIT

For me, JO JO RABBIT was the biggest surprise of the year. It came out of nowhere and was a film that I went to see not knowing what to expect, especially considering it tells a tale of a young German boy JoJo (Roman Griffin Davis) living in World War II Germany who adores the Nazis and Adolf Hitler, so much so that his imaginary playmate is Hitler himself, played here with hilarious effectiveness by writer/director Taika Waititi. At times wildly comedic a la Monty Python, this one is also a moving drama as JoJo’s mother Rosie (Scarlet Johansson) is anti-Nazi and is secretly housing a young Jewish girl Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie). When JoJo discovers her, he is at first outraged, but as he gets to know her, he begins to learn the truth about what Nazism is all about. JO JO RABBIT is an amazing movie that works on all levels. Thanks to the writing, directing and acting talents of Waititi, and the rest of his talented cast which also includes Sam Rockwell as a Nazi captain with a conscience of his own, JO JO RABBIT is both a deeply moving drama and wild zany comedy, which provided for me the most and the best laughs from a movie all year. This was my pick for the Best Movie of the Year, until the final week of 2019.

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1. LITTLE WOMEN

And that’s because the last week of 2019 I saw LITTLE WOMEN, a perfect gem of a movie by writer/director Greta Gerwig, who is quickly becoming one of my favorite filmmakers working today. Gerwig makes the bold decision to tell this story out of sequence, and the result is a fresh moving take on a literary classic, one that effectively speaks to modern audiences here in 2019. Features outstanding performances by two of the most talented young actresses working today, Saoirse Ronan and Florence Pugh, as well as a superior supporting cast which includes Emma Watson, Eliza Scanlen, Laura Dern, Timothee Chalamet, Tracy Letts, Bob Odenkirk, Chris Cooper, and Meryl Streep. While I’m not really a big fan of the novel by Louisa May Alcott, I am an instant fan of this movie, thanks to Gerwig’s innovative directing and writing, the message about what life was like for women when they had so few rights, and the powerhouse performances by Saoirse Ronan and Florence Pugh, two actresses to keep our eyes on in the years ahead. Without doubt, LITTLE WOMEN is clearly my pick for the Best Movie of 2019.

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And there you have it, my picks for the Top 10 Best Movies of 2019.

As always, thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD (2019) -Curious Style Reveals the Potency of Mister Rogers’ Message

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Matthew Rhys (Finalized);Tom Hanks (Finalized)

A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD (2019) is a curious movie, and as much I like Mister Rogers, and the performances in this film, I’m not sure it entirely worked for me.

Check that. It did work for me. Just not as smoothly as I expected.

The film tells the story of a magazine journalist Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) who’s earned the reputation of being a cynic and writing unflattering pieces on the people he interviews. As a result, his editor assigns him to write a brief piece on TV’s Mister Rogers (Tom Hanks) who as it turns out is the only subject they reached out to who agreed to be interviewed by Lloyd.

As Lloyd interviews Rogers, he’s struck by the man’s consistent sincerity and caring, so much so that he doesn’t believe it, and he sets his sights on trying to prove that Rogers isn’t the real deal. This mission doesn’t last long. Instead, Rogers flips the agenda, and it’s Lloyd who’s revealing his past, his innermost hurt dealing with his relationship with his father Jerry (Chris Cooper) who left his family when Lloyd was a boy, leaving him and his sister to care for their dying mother. In effect, Rogers provides all the information Lloyd needs for his interview not by answering questions, but by asking them, and by doing the things he’s known for doing. It takes Lloyd a while to pick up on this, but when he does, he realizes the truth about Rogers, and he does so because in the course of their interviews, Rogers changes Lloyd’s life.

A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD tells a serious story, but it does not play out like a standard drama or biography. Instead, the entire film is framed as if it’s an episode of Fred Rogers’ series MISTER ROGERS’ NEIGHBORHOOD. Indeed, it opens just like the show does, with Rogers entering the interior of his TV home, and as he explains to his audience his prop for the day, Picture Picture, he reveals a photo of Lloyd and begins to tell Lloyd’s story. And the film unfolds from there.

As much as I appreciated the originality of this style, sometimes the line was blurred between fantasy and reality. Like when later in the film Lloyd finds himself on the show, reduced to the size of one of the puppets. Clearly, this is a dream Lloyd is having, right? Then again, the movie is framed like the show, so—. Thought-provoking to be sure, but also simply flat-out odd. Which is what I meant at the outset that I’m not sure it entirely worked.

Some moments do work. Like the scene at the diner, where Rogers asks Lloyd to sit with him in silence for one minute, to pray with him for those in need, and as he does this, the patrons in the diner notice and also stop talking. And then Rogers looks right at the camera, and the shot holds— we’re talking sixty seconds in real-time, folks— and the implication is clear: he’s looking at the people in the theater, the point being that they should be doing the same. Again, supporting the notion that A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD is like one big Mister Rogers episode for adults.

And then there’s the ending. Earlier in the film, Lloyd asks Rogers how he handles the pressure of being Mister Rogers, and Rogers doesn’t answer directly. Instead, he speaks of the different ways people can handle pressure, and one of the ways he mentions is pounding the piano keys on low notes really loudly, and he demonstrates this to Lloyd by pretending to do so right there. He doesn’t directly answer the question or say that he himself is stressed, which frustrates Lloyd in the interview. But later, as the film ends, and Rogers’ work is done, and Lloyd has benefitted from Rogers’ intervention, and the final shot of the show is wrapped, Rogers says farewell to his crew, but he remains on set until everyone is gone.  In the silence of the empty set, he sits at a piano and pounds those low keys. As he said earlier in the movie, he’s human, and not a saint.

Tom Hanks nails his performance as Mister Rogers. He captures Rogers’ mannerisms and persona to a tee, and there are times when he’s a perfect match. However, even an actor with Hanks’ superior talent has his work cut out for him because Rogers is such an iconic figure that it was rare that I ever truly felt I was watching Rogers on-screen. Instead, I was aware that it was Hanks playing Rogers. I don’t think this is a flaw on Hanks’ part. Rogers is such a genuine presence that’s it’s difficult to see anyone else but him saying and doing the things he said and did.

Matthew Rhys is excellent as Lloyd Vogel, and he delivers the most effective performance in the movie. Of course, in fairness to Tom Hanks, Hanks has the tougher job here, playing Fred Rogers. Nonetheless, Rhys perfectly captures Lloyd’s pain and cynicism. In fact, throughout the movie, I related mostly to Lloyd, who in spite of his biting personality comes off as a real person throughout, so when he’s shaking his head about Rogers’ upbeat and offbeat shtick, he seems like the real person and Rogers the oddball. And yet Rogers’ work is a process, and so as the story goes on, and Lloyd realizes this, he and the audience as well, is won over and understands that Rogers may be an oddball, but he’s the real deal. Rhys captures Lloyd’s journey and transformation perfectly.

Chris Cooper has been one of my favorite actors for years. He’s good in nearly everything he’s in. Probably my all time favorite Cooper role is when he played Jake Gyllenhaal’s father in OCTOBER SKY (1999). He’s back playing another troubled dad here as Lloyd’s father Jerry who spent his life being a jerk and now as he’s dying he desperately wants his son’s forgiveness but can’t seem to get it. He’s got one of the best moments in the film when he laments that it’s only as he is dying that he’s figured out how to live. Cooper nails the role.

I also really enjoyed Susan Kelechi Watson as Lloyd’s wife Andrea. She gets one of the best lines in the movie when Rogers calls them on the phone and refers to her by name, and as she hands the phone to Lloyd says in a starstruck tone, “Mister Rogers knows my name!”

Director Marielle Heller makes the bold decision to film this story like an episode of the iconic children’s show, and for the most part, this works. That being said, the parts that work best really are Lloyd’s moments, which are removed from the show, so, in a strange way, while it’s a clever decision, I’m not sure it completely helps this story. The argument can be made that it would have worked even better with a straight dramatic construct.

The screenplay by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster is based on the true story of the real-life friendship between journalist Tom Junod and Fred Rogers. It does what it sets out to do, in that we see the power of Mister Rogers through his actions and the effect they have on Lloyd Vogel.

I liked A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD well enough, but as a fan of Mister Rogers, I did enjoy last year’s documentary WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR? (2018) more.

A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD features superior acting and reveals the potency of Mister Rogers’ message in a drama that unfolds like an episode of his iconic TV show. It’s definitely worth a look, even with a style that sometimes gets in the way of the story it’s trying to tell.

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Books by Michael Arruda:

New in 2019! DARK CORNERS, Michael Arruda’s second short story collection, contains ten tales of horror, six reprints and four stories original to this collection.

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Waiting for you in Dark Corners are tales of vampires, monsters, werewolves, demonic circus animals, and eternal darkness. Be prepared to be both frightened and entertained. You never know what you will find lurking in dark corners.

Ebook: $3.99. Available at http://www.crossroadspress.com and at Amazon.com.  Print on demand version available at https://www.amazon.com/dp/1949914437.

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

How far would you go to save your family? Would you change the course of time? That’s the decision facing Adam Cabral in this mind-bending science fiction adventure by Michael Arruda.

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

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

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Michael Arruda reviews horror movies throughout history, from the silent classics of the 1920s, Universal horror from the 1930s-40s, Hammer Films of the 1950s-70s, all the way through the instant classics of today. If you like to read about horror movies, this is the book for you!

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

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

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Michael Arruda’s first short story collection, featuring a wraparound story which links all the tales together, asks the question: can you have a relationship when your partner is surrounded by the supernatural? If you thought normal relationships were difficult, wait to you read about what the folks in these stories have to deal with. For the love of horror!

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE CURRENT WAR (2017) – Fascinating Illumination of Edison and Westinghouse Race

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There are a lot of negative reviews out there about THE CURRENT WAR (2017).

Don’t believe them.

Not only does THE CURRENT WAR successfully tell the fascinating story of Thomas Edison’s and George Westinghouse’s bitter battle over the electric current and how best to illuminate the entire nation, but it also features an A-list cast that includes Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Shannon, Tom Holland, and Nicholas Hoult.

Which sounds I know like a superhero movie reunion, as all four of these actors have starred in superhero films— then again, who hasn’t?—: Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange, Shannon as villain General Zod in MAN OF STEEL (2013), Holland as Spider-Man, and Hoult as Beast in the recent X-MEN movies.

None of these four disappoint. In fact, Benedict Cumberbatch who plays Thomas Edison, and Michael Shannon who plays George Westinghouse both dominate this movie, and these two together really turn this one into something special.

But back to those negative reviews for a moment. There’s a story behind them, and it pertains to the delayed theatrical release of this film, which was made in 2017. See, back in 2017, this film was set to be released by The Weinstein Company, just before Harvey Weinstein was accused of rape and sexual assault. The release was delayed, the film sold to other distributors, and two years later here it is.

Now as to those reviews, a lot of those regard the film as it was back in 2017. Upon this 2019 release, the film is being called THE CURRENT WAR: DIRECTOR’S CUT, because director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon re-edited it. I’m guessing a lot of those reviews pertain to the original version, which I didn’t see, but I have seen some of the reviews, and they don’t describe the movie I saw in theaters. The movie I saw is one of the best movies I’ve seen here in 2019.

The movie opens in 1880, where Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) is not only an extremely successful inventor, but also a celebrity, with fans across the nation. It’s not uncommon for people to come up to him seeking his autograph. His latest invention, the electric light bulb, is poised to illuminate the country like never before.

But Edison’s system isn’t terribly efficient, and it’s expensive, and it’s not easy to light over great distances, meaning some sections of cities will be lit, while others will not be, at least not at first.

George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon) believes he has a better system. By using an alternating current, Westinghouse’s system is cheaper and more efficient than Edison’s, and it’s able to light great expanses of land. As such, Westinghouse promotes his system as the one that can give electric light to the entire nation.

Edison decries Westinghouse’s alternating current as being deadly, and predicts that it will result in the deaths of many innocent people. Edison demonstrates that his system is like water. You can touch it without harm, but Westinghouse’s, if you touch it you will die.

Of course, today if you’re doing electrical work around your house you know to turn off the power or else face a potentially lethal shock, so we know which system eventually won out, but that doesn’t take away from the potency of the story told here. It’s a captivating story that held my attention throughout. There are also fascinating subplots, like the origin of the electric chair, seen then as the “future to humane executions,” and the involvement of a brilliant young inventor Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult), who was ignored by Edison and who later joined forces with Westinghouse and helped him utilize the alternating current to capture the strength of Niagra Falls to produce unprecedented amounts of electricity.

I really enjoyed THE CURRENT WAR. The story starts in 1880 and continues into the 1890s, and so as a period piece it looks fantastic. Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon captures the period, both with colorful photography and authentic costumes. There’s a lot going on in this story, and I thought Gomez-Rejon did an excellent job keeping it all together. It never felt muddled or confusing. It’s a strong narrative.

As such, the screenplay by Michael Minick is a good one. It delves deeply into the characters of both Edison and Westinghouse. Edison was the showman, forever interested in appearances, always working on the next best invention, and always demanding he be paid highly for it. One of the better lines in the movie is spoken by Edison’s personal secretary and right hand man Samuel Insull (Tom Holland), who warns Edison against his own personality, cautioning him that if he’s not careful he’ll  “be remembered more as P.T. Barnum than Sir Isaac Newton.”

Westinghouse, by contrast, believed more in principles, did not want to fight dirty when engaged in the war with Edison, but also was shrewd and smart, and knew when to hit back hard. He also understood the bottom line, that his system was cheaper and more efficient, and so he knew that unlike Edison with all his bells and whistles, all Westinghouse had to do was to keep repeating that simple message, because it was true.

The story remains interesting throughout. I was hooked right way and remain riveted until the end credits rolled.

My favorite part of THE CURRENT WAR though were the performances of the two leads, Benedict Cumberbatch as Thomas Edison, and Michael Shannon as George Westinghouse. Cumberbatch is perfect as the intense Edison, turning off as many people in his inner circle with his egocentric approach as the lights he turned on, all the while never losing his grip on his celebrity status. Likewise, Shannon is masterful as the more down to earth and lesser known Westinghouse, a man who keeps to his principles until cornered, and at that point, does what it takes to survive.

Nicholas Hoult is also memorable as Nikola Tesla, the genius and dreamer whose ideas rivaled Edison’s. Tesla’s downfall was that, unlike Edison, he didn’t understand business and money. He died having made little or no money off his inventions.

I also enjoyed Matthew Mcfadyen in a supporting role as financer J.P. Morgan, a staunch Edison supporter who eventually jumps ship and puts his money behind Westinghouse.

Of the four big names in the cast, Tom Holland probably has the least impact. His role as Edison’s personal secretary Samuel Insull is a small one, and he doesn’t really do a whole lot.

And while THE CURRENT WAR reunites Tom Holland with his AVENGERS co-star Benedict Cumberbatch, since this film was shot in 2017, technically this is the first movie in which these two starred together.

One drawback I had with THE CURRENT WAR was the absence of key female roles. While there are women characters, like Mary Edison and Marguerite Westinghouse, neither of them figure all that prominently in the proceedings, and their absence is notable.

Other than this, THE CURRENT WAR is a superb movie which tells a riveting story from history that covers a time when the world was changing, when the nation went from darkness to light. The story of the two men involved in the race to give the nation that light is one that is definitely worth learning about.

As such, THE CURRENT WAR is must see viewing.

Even though it was filmed n 2017 and is just getting its theatrical release now, THE CURRENT WAR is one of the best movies I’ve seen this year.

Don’t miss it.

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JUDY (2019) – Renee Zellweger Outstanding in Judy Garland Bio Pic

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Renee Zellweger as Judy Garland in JUDY (2019).

There’s no business like show business!

Ain’t that the truth!

The movie business is unlike any other. It exists in a world of its own making, one that exists outside the laws which govern you and me.  The pressures put upon its stars, especially those of yesteryear, often crushed their hopes, dreams, and ultimately their lives.

Such is the story told in JUDY (2019), the new bio pic of Judy Garland, the child star who played Dorothy in THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939) whose troubled life remained so until she died of an accidental drug overdose on June 22, 1969 at the age of 47.

JUDY features a phenomenal performance by Renee Zellweger as Judy Garland that is as emotional as it is riveting. It’s also the main reason to see this one.

While JUDY opens on the set of THE WIZARD OF OZ with a young Judy Garland (Darci Shaw) being lectured by MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery), the film does not take on the entirety of Judy Garland’s life but rather the entertainer’s final few months, when in desperate need of money, she went on tour in London which would turn out to be her final performances.

But it opens with a young Judy being given a “choice” by  Mayer. If she’s unhappy, she can walk away from show business, Mayer says, or because of her voice, she can become something that will set her apart from all the other girls in the nation. He also is quick to remind her of her roots and her real name Frances Ethel Gumm, the implication being that she is nothing without him. The film returns to these creepy moments with Garland and Mayer in flashbacks throughout the story, serving as a reminder of just how controlling Mayer and the studio was of Garland and how much damage they actually did to her, often preventing her from eating to avoid weight gain and instead feeding her with pills.

But the bulk of the film takes place in late 1968, when Garland was on tour in London. Garland is struggling to make ends meet as she is trying to provide for her two younger children, while their father Sidney Luft (Rufus Sewell) is fighting for custody since he believes he can provide them with a steady home.

Garland is advised to accept a gig in London where she will be paid much more than she is currently being paid in the U.S. She has no choice but to accept. She also has to leave her children behind with their dad, a decision that pains her greatly.

The film chronicles what happens during these performances, as Garland endeavors to overcome stage fright, insomnia, and drug dependency, all the while driven to perform even when she has nothing left.

Renee Zellweger knocks it out of the park as Judy Garland. She loses herself in the role, and for the entirety of this movie, I felt as if I were watching the real Garland on-screen. Her performance is every bit as good as Taron Egerton’s turn as Elton John in ROCKETMAN (2019) earlier this year. I would imagine both of these actors will be noticed come Oscar time.

As a whole, JUDY isn’t as creative or captivating as ROCKETMAN, as its script simply isn’t as innovative nor does it cover the full scope of Garland’s life as ROCKETMAN did for Elton John. As such, JUDY reminded me more of another show biz movie, STAN & OLLIE (2018), which recounted the final tour of comedy duo Laurel and Hardy, which was also in Great Britain by the way. Both films show entertainers battling through their swan songs.

JUDY is actually a bit better than STAN & OLLIE because of Renee Zellweger’s performance as Judy Garland. There are some moments in JUDY where Zellweger brings the house down. Her climactic rendition of “Over the Rainbow” is certainly one of them. She captures Judy Garland’s ability to reach into people’s hearts and move them to tears. In terms of cinema, it’s up there with Egerton’s moment in ROCKETMAN where Elton John performs at the Troubadour club in Los Angeles.

She also has a great line when she’s being interviewed on British television and she takes offense to some of the personal questions. She says “I’m only Judy Garland for 90 minutes a night. The rest of the time I’m a real person, a mother who’s trying to raise her children like any other mother.”

I’m not sure if I’m prepared to say that this is Rene Zellweger’s best performance, but it’s in the conversation. She’s sensational here. Again, I felt as if I were watching the real Judy Garland.

The rest of the cast is also commendable. I liked Jessie Buckley who plays Rosalyn Wilder, Judy’s contact and handler in London. Rosalyn has no idea that Garland is in the shape she is in, in terms of not wanting to perform, and Buckley does a nice job showing Wilder dealing with the star with unceasing patience.

Finn Wittrock is convincing as Mickey Deans, the energetic and young entrepreneur who becomes Garland’s fifth husband. Likewise, Rufus Sewell is solid as Garland’s previous husband Sidney Luft.

And I enjoyed Darci Shaw in her brief scenes as a young Judy Garland.

The screenplay by Tom Edge based on the stage play “End of the Rainbow” by Peter Quilter is better than critics are giving it credit for. It makes its point that Garland was manipulated by the industry at a young age, a manipulation that took its toll on her, and shows during her final months the pains she was dealing with, all the while remaining driven to perform, as if performing were more of an addiction for her than the pills she was taking.

It also provides the film with some wonderful moments. My favorite, when a pair of fans, a gay couple who idolize Garland, remain outside the theater to see her, is one of the best sequences in the film.  When she meets them she asks if they’d like to join her for dinner. Their reaction, a moment of being star struck is a genuine one, but yet it doesn’t stop there. They are unable to find an eatery open at that time of night, much to their chagrin, and so they invite her back to their apartment so they can cook her dinner. It’s a poignant, entertaining sequence. These scenes also provide some social commentary on the treatment of gays both then and now.

Director Rupert Goold keeps this one straightforward and grounded in reality. It’s not the off the charts spectacle of ROCKETMAN, but it works nonetheless. The musical numbers are all effective, and Zellweger captures Garland’s movements and mannerisms to perfection.

Again, one of the best moments in the film is Garland’s rendition of “Over the Rainbow” and her words before singing the song, where she talks about everyone’s journey towards wherever it is they want to go, and that in this life,  regardless of the result, it’s the journey itself that is most valued.

JUDY is getting mixed reviews, and other than Renee Zellweger’s performance as Judy Garland, critics don’t have a lot of kind things to say about the film. But the movie as a whole worked for me, and there’s a lot to learn here from Judy Garland’s story as depicted in this movie.

I’d like to think that Judy Garland did not die in vain, that somewhere over the rainbow “the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true.”

Which after all is the point of JUDY, that in spite of how one’s journey ends, and all of our journeys will end the same way, the work towards making one’s dreams come true is what matters and is worth every ounce of pain one endures to get there.

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ROCKETMAN (2019) Rocks

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The best part about ROCKETMAN (2019) is that its magical flamboyant style captures the essence of its subject, Elton John, all the while telling a story that is anything but.

The real Elton John is on record as telling the film’s producers who were pushing for a PG-13 rated movie that he hadn’t lived a PG-13 life. The film is rated R and is better for it. This is a no holds barred look at one of rock and roll’s most eccentric performers.

Nearly everything about this movie works.

ROCKETMAN is the life story of Elton John (Taron Egerton). Starting with his troubled childhood where as a young boy named Reginald Dwight he had to deal with parents who didn’t show him affection and worse, abused him emotionally. In spite of them, he becomes a young piano prodigy, and as he grows older he becomes a fan of rock and roll. He also realizes that he is gay.

He develops a strong friendship with songwriter Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), which is a good thing, because Reggie’s strength is music, not words. His collaboration with Bernie is extremely successful, and once he chooses his stage name, Elton John, there’s no looking back.

The two sign a record deal and travel to the United States for an inaugural tour that instantly catapults John to superstardom. He never looks back. But fame has its price, and drug use, friends’ betrayals, and a family that never is interested in loving or supporting him, take their toll on John until he has a major collapse. But life goes on, true friends like Bernie Taupin never abandon him, and he’s able in 1983 to record another hit “I’m Still Standin” which is symbolic of his victory over the pitfalls of fame.

I loved ROCKETMAN.

Director Dexter Fletcher pushes all the right buttons. The film captures so much of the pain of John’s life and shows how he managed to succeed in spite of these obstacles. There are some truly cinematic scenes in this one. Probably the best sequence in the film is the concert at the Troubadour club in LA. Not only does the scene recreate what John accomplished on that day, on August 25, 1970, but it’s also the moment the film explodes with life. You could feel the theater audience mirroring the emotion of the concert audience in the movie.

There’s also a shot of the neighborhood surrounding the Troubadour that stood out because it looked so authentic, and it turns out that it was. Fletcher took stock 35 mm footage of the street and simply cleaned it up digitally. It’s only a few seconds of film, but it adds to the authenticity of the movie.

I loved the style of the film, which is pretty much a musical fantasy intertwined with a hard-hitting bio pic, which captures the essence of Elton John perfectly.

The acting is phenomenal. Taron Egerton, who before ROCKETMAN was known for THE KINGSMAN movies, EDDIE THE EAGLE (2015) and for his voice work in SING (2016), knocks it out of the park as Elton John. He completely loses himself in the role and becomes the rock and roll icon. It’s the best work I’ve seen Egerton do yet. Considering the big names that were originally associated with this project, actors like Tom Hardy, James McAvoy, and Daniel Radcliffe, I can’t imagine anyone else doing as good a job as Egerton does here. And, he does all his own singing! It’s an exceptional performance.

Jamie Bell is also very good as John’s best friend and songwriter Bernie Taupin. In a world full of insincere people, Taupin’s sincerity sticks out and is welcomed throughout. Bell plays Bernie as a man who loved John very much, but who was friend enough to tell the singer that he didn’t love him in “that way.” I’ve seen Bell in other movies, such as his role as the Thing in FANTASTIC FOUR (2015), and he was also in the exceptional actioner SNOWPIERCER (2013), but like Egerton, this is the best performance I’ve seen Bell deliver.

Likewise, Richard Madden delivers a strong performance as John’s promoter and love interest John Reid, who is pretty much symbolic of all that goes wrong with John’s life in L.A.

And Bryce Dallas Howard is cold and endlessly annoying as John’s mother, as is Steven Mackintosh as his even colder and distant father. Their scenes with their son are among the most emotionally charged in the film, especially the one where John after he has become famous visits his dad and has to suffer through watching the man pour on the love to John’s younger stepbrothers while continually dissing John’s career, showing no interest in it whatsoever. When he asks John to sign one of his albums, he points out that it shouldn’t be made out to him, but to one of his friends, forcing John to cross out “To Dad” and instead write the friend’s name. Mackintosh was similarly annoying on the show LUTHER (2010) where he played DCI Ian Reed and became a real thorn in the side of Idris Elba’s main character Luther in that superior TV series.

I also loved the screenplay by Lee Hall. Not only does it tell Elton John’s life story in a truly satisfying way, it’s also chock full of memorable lines of dialogue. One of my favorite lines in the film is when a fellow rocker gives John this advice, “You’ve got to kill the person you were born as in order to become the person you were born to be.” Which is in many cases true.

Likewise, when John says, “Real love is hard to come by. So you find a way to cope without it,” also smacks of truth.

And there are many more.

And of course the film benefits from the music of Elton John, as his songs pepper the story throughout, with so many of the lyrics capturing pivotal points in John’s life.

About the only drawback I had with ROCKETMAN is I thought at times it pulled back from moments it should have stayed on. Things happen, often emotional and upsetting things, and then it would be on to the next item, rather than lingering on the trauma felt by the iconic rocker.

But other than that, I loved ROCKETMAN. With so many things going for it, and led by a superior performance by Taron Egerton, it’s one of my favorite movies of the year so far.

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