STUBER (2019) – Likable Leads Lift Uneven Comedic Ride

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I tend to like “buddy movies,” that comedic genre which takes two unlike personalities and thrusts them together in comical situations where they often have to put aside their differences to work together, which is why I believe I enjoyed STUBER (2019) more than I should have, because when all is said and done, STUBER is just an okay movie.

It relies heavily on the talents of its two leads, Dave Bautista and Kumail Nanjiani, who try their best to rise above the material, and for the most part, they do.

STUBER opens with police detective Vic Manning (Dave Bautista) and his partner Sara (Karen Gillan) chasing a deadly drug dealer Oka (Iko Uwais) which leads to a shoot-out in which Sara is killed. Months later, Vic undergoes laser surgery to correct his vision since during the chase which cost his partner her life, he had lost his eyeglasses in the scuffle and was unable to take the decisive shot which might have saved Sara’s life.

After the surgery, his doctor advises him not to drive or do anything else strenuous because his full vision will not be restored for several hours. But just before he’s to take an Uber ride to his daughter’s art show, he receives a tip on the whereabouts of Oka, and so when he gets inside the car, he commandeers the driver, Stu (Kumail Nanjiani) to take him to his new destination.

Stu is a mild-mannered Uber driver who when he’s not driving is stuck in a nothing day job while trying to get his best friend Becca (Betty Gilpin) to notice him romantically. He is not built for police work, but before he can protest, he’s suddenly dragged into the middle of a drug war between Vic and Oka. Let the comedy ensue!

What?

That doesn’t sound funny? I agree. Which is one of the biggest knocks against STUBER. Its story is not all that funny.  Watching Vic bully Stu around for most of the movie didn’t naturally instill laughter.

The screenplay by Tripper Clancy does its best by giving its two stars plenty of one-liners, especially Nanjiani, and a lot of these work, but still, the film is far from uproarious. For one thing, the plot definitely gets in the way. It struggles to be credible. I never really bought that Vic would go that rogue, that he’d trust an Uber driver to help him rather than call for police back-up. This is sort of addressed later when the revelation is made that there is a mole on the force on Oka’s payroll, but Vic doesn’t learn this till the end of the movie.

Likewise, the plot device of having Vic temporarily blinded from laser surgery, which is there only to set up his need for an Uber driver, didn’t work for me either. If his eyes were that bad without his glasses, it didn’t make sense to me that he’d be a police detective. I also found it hard to believe that as a detective who wore glasses he never ran into this issue before.

I did laugh during STUBER, mostly because of the two leads. Dave Bautista, the former wrestler, who I first noticed in THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS (2012) and who has gone on to make a lot of movies, including the GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY and AVENGERS movies where he plays the popular character Drax, possesses an easy-going and light style which makes him a natural in front of the camera. In short, he’s got charisma.

His portrayal of Vic is a bit darker and rougher than some of his previous performances but he still keeps his signature amiable style in tact.

Kumail Nanjiani probably gets the best lines in the movie, and Nanjiani is more than up to the task. Whether he’s having a heart to heart with a male stripper, holding a dangerous drug dealer at gunpoint, or exchanging barbs with Bautista, Nanjiani is consistently likable and funny. That being said, I enjoyed Nanjiani’s previous film, THE BIG SICK (2017) much better than this movie.

And the two actors really do have some memorable exchanges, like when Stu asks Vic if he’s ever taken a bullet for someone, and Vic deadpans “you think there’s time after someone has pulled a trigger to actually jump in front of a bullet? There’s no slow motion in the real world.” And later when Stu complains that he’s being repressed by a white guy, Vic reminds him, “I’m not white.”

Some of the physical comedy is also pretty funny, but sadly the story is not. Director Michael Dowse definitely emphasizes the action elements here over the comedic, and as a result the film is rather violent. I wish more effort had been made to make this one more humorous. That would have made it a better movie. I mean, as action movies go, it’s rather lame.

Bautista and Nanjiani don’t get a lot of help from their supporting cast, which isn’t really the actors’ faults, since there really aren’t any other meaty roles in the film. Natalie Morales does stand out, however, in a small role as Vic’s daughter Nicole. In her limited screen time, she’s very good.

Mira Sorvino plays Vic’s superior officer Angie in a thankless role that had this been a better written movie would have had more relevance. Betty Gilpin is given even less to do as Stu’s love interest Becca. And Iko Uwais makes no impact whatsoever as bad guy Oka. That’s one big blaring weakness in this film, in that it doesn’t have much of a villain to speak of.

On the other hand, Karen Gillan, who like Bautista, is also in the GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY and AVENGERS movies, as Thanos’ daughter Nebula, is very good here as Vic’s partner Sara, but she’s killed off in the opening moments of the movie.

STUBER has its moments, and it benefits from its two likable leads, Dave Bautista and Kumail Ninjiani, but taken as a whole it’s a flawed comedy that spends too much time on its crime elements and not enough on its comedic parts, which results in a mixed bag of a movie.

If you enjoy buddy comedies, you’ll find this one amusing, but if you’re looking for a brilliant laugh-out loud comedy, you should look for another Uber ride.

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THE DEAD DON’T DIE (2019) – Understated Satire Just Happens to Have Zombies In It

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THE DEAD DON'T DIE

Some day, perhaps, THE DEAD DON’T DIE (2019) might be remembered as a masterpiece of understated humor and satire.

Alas, today is not that day.

THE DEAD DON’T DIE is a new horror comedy starring Bill Murray and Adam Driver that is being marketed as a zombie comedy, but you know what? It’s not really a zombie movie. Oh, there are zombies in it, but it’s the most non-zombie zombie movie I’ve ever seen, which is not going to make it a hit among horror fans.

In fact I’d wager to guess that most horror fans will not like this movie. Even though it mentions George Romero and throws in a few Easter eggs here and there, it largely ignores the zombie films which have come before it. Sometimes this can be a good thing, but in this case it is not.

Heck, since its comedy really isn’t all that biting— heh, heh!— comedy fans aren’t going to be too keen on this one either. Yup, I’m going to go out on a—limb— and predict that this one will not perform all that well at the box office.

That being said, THE DEAD DON’T DIE is not an awful film. I actually liked it, in a weird offbeat sort of way, and that’s because at the end of the day THE DEAD DON’T DIE is satire, that just happens to have zombies in it. It’s the type of comedy that Bob Newhart would have made in his heyday, with Murray filling in here for the Newhart role. It has a few pointed things to say about our present day society, but the writing is never as sharp, and the direction never as tight as a movie like this needs it to be. Even when the film breaks the fourth wall, the humor still struggles. Yet, there are places where it works and works well.

In THE DEAD DON’T DIE, Police Chief Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray) and his fellow officers Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver) and Mindy Morrison (Chloe Sevigny) usually have nothing more urgent to do in their small town of Centerville than ask their local Hermit Bob (Tom Waits) whether or not he stole chickens from the annoying farmer Frank Miller (Steve Buscemi). But suddenly things grow strange.

The daylight lasts longer than usual, watches and cell phones stop working, and soon the dead start to rise and begin eating the townspeople. The culprit? The controversial use of global fracking has affected the earth’s rotation, and as a result all these freaky things start happening. Supposedly. The people aren’t sure, because the government cites global fracking as safe and accuses scientists of spreading false information. Sound familiar?

How Robertson and his fellow officers react to these horrific happenings is the story told in THE DEAD DON’T DIE. Trouble is, the biggest way they react is by standing around and doing nothing. So much for compelling storytelling!

THE DEAD DON’T DIE was written and directed by Jim Jarmusch, a director known for his deadpan style. Jarmusch is tenacious here with his slow-moving satire, which might be the film’s greatest asset, that it never deviates from its slow pace, its unassuming humor, and its coy messages on society.

The satire in THE DEAD DON’T DIE is there. It’s just not always all that clear. For instance, Steve Buscemi’s Farmer Frank wears a red cap which reads “Keep America White Again,” a slogan which in itself satirizes the modern-day message of the Trump presidency as well as poking fun at the overall intelligence of his followers with its grammatically incorrect slogan. It appears ever so briefly and is easily missed. Yet it got a good chuckle from the audience.

Speaking of which, I saw THE DEAD DON’T DIE in a full theater in which the majority in the audience were college-aged folks. It was a lively audience that was laughing and having fun even before the movie started. And they were generous with their laughter throughout the movie, laughing much more than I did.

As mentioned, the film breaks the fourth wall on more than one occasion, sequences where Murray and Driver discuss the theme song and even the script. But it’s not the type of lively screenplay that is filled with playful asides a la the works of Woody Allen or Mel Brooks. In fact, there is very little that is lively about the entire movie. There’s about as much energy surrounding this flick as a heavy-duty afternoon nap.

There are also some fun little in-jokes, like Adam Driver carrying a STAR WARS key chain, a direct nod to his role in the new STAR WARS trilogy.

A lot of the humor doesn’t work. The running gag about the theme song wasn’t funny at the beginning and it’s even less funny by the end.

There’s a GREAT GATSBY gaffe that I’m still not sure I understand. A character mentions she loves the name Zelda because of Zelda Fitzgerald, who she says was Jay Gatsby’s wife in THE GREAT GATSBY, but Gatsby wasn’t married, and his love interest in the novel was Daisy Buchanan. Zelda Fitzgerald was the wife of Gatsby author F. Scott Fitzgerald. It’s possible I’m missing something here, but since what I’m missing isn’t obvious, such a gaffe just comes off as lazy writing.

Speaking of lazy, there’s a heck of a lot of inaction going on here. Characters stand around and talk, and talk, and talk. There’s one sequence after the first zombie kill in the diner when Chief Robertson discovers the bodies, that features as its gag people saying the same lines when they see the bodies for this first time. Admittedly, this is funny, but it takes place during a sequence where we have to watch each character drive up to the diner, casually take their time entering and exiting before saying the aforementioned line. S-l-o-w.

There are a lot of satirical moments poking fun at today’s society, and most of these work, although they are exceedingly understated.

The horror elements are also downplayed here, and while there are some gory sequences, this one doesn’t really hold its own as a horror movie. There are also scenes of dialogue where the characters in a panic go on about the zombie epidemic, and they go on at lengths which aren’t supported by events in the movie. There’s basically one zombie scene before the film’s third and final act.

There’s also an annoying way the zombie’s die, as when they are killed they give off a puff of smoke. What is this, TWILIGHT?

THE DEAD DON’T DIE does have a terrific cast, which is one of its strengths, and they all play quirky characters.

Bill Murray is fine as Chief Robertson. He certainly has been funnier in his career, but he handles the deadpan humor well, again channeling a Bob Newhart vibe. There’s also an in-joke when his character breaks the fourth wall and asks Adam Driver if they are simply improvising here, since Murray began his career with improv, and is known to have improvised in some of his movies. Then again, maybe it simply means that Murray and Driver weren’t working with a script!

Adam Driver also nails the deadpan humor as Officer Peterson. I increasingly enjoy Driver in the movies, and while his biggest role to date has been the conflicted villain Kylo Ren in the new STAR WARS trilogy, I’ve enjoyed him more in such films as BLACKKKLANSMAN (2018) and LOGAN LUCKY (2017). He was probably my favorite part of THE DEAD DON’T DIE, and he certainly got the most laughs, but he also didn’t have to try very hard. The audience laughed when he showed up at a crime scene driving a miniscule car.

Chloe Sevigny is very good as Officer Morrison, and Tilda Swinton has the most unusual role as local mortician Zelda Winston, who’s an eccentric character whose idiosyncracies sometimes generate laughter and other times misfire. She’s the one character in the film who is a badass zombie killer, which provide Swinton with her best moments in the movie.

Steve Buscemi is on hand as the irritable farmer Frank, and he has a couple of comic moments, but for a guy like Buscemi, that’s less than you expect. The cast also includes Danny Glover, Selena Gomez, Caleb Landry Jones, and Tom Waits as Hermit Bob.

Hermit Bob’s line at the end of the film that we live in a crazy world kinda sums up the point of the film, that this world is a crazy place, and that zombies rising from the dead isn’t any nuttier than things we are already seeing.

As I said, one day this film may be remembered as a classic satire. But today, alas, due to its incredibly slow and lethargic pace and less than sharp writing, it’s going down in my book as a well-intentioned look at the crazy world in which we live that lacked the necessary energy and oomph to successfully make its case.

It also doesn’t help itself in that it’s not much of a zombie movie, a fact that most likely will keep its potential fan base away from the theater.

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SHAFT (2019) – Samuel L. Jackson Dominates, Richard Roundtree Returns, But Film Flounders

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Samuel L. Jackson is a hoot as Harlem private investigator John Shaft in the new action comedy SHAFT (2019), but the film as a whole is less so, mostly because it lacks the necessary grittiness a film bearing the name Shaft requires.

And now a brief history lesson on John Shaft. The character of Harlem police detective John Shaft was played by Richard Roundtree and first appeared in the movie SHAFT (1971) which was such a hit it was followed by two sequels and a TV series, all starring Roundtree. The series was rebooted in 2000 with Samuel L. Jackson playing New York City detective John Shaft, the nephew of the original Shaft played by Richard Roundtree, in a movie called—SHAFT (2000). How original.

And now comes the latest Shaft movie, called—- you got it!— SHAFT (2019). Gotta love the creativity behind these titles. This one focuses on the son of Samuel L. Jackson’s John Shaft, named— of course— John Shaft Jr.

And why have two John Shafts in one movie when you can have three? And so before this one is over, Richard Roundtree shows up as the original John Shaft, only now he’s no longer Samuel L. Jackson’s John Shaft’s uncle, but his father. Everybody still with me?

All kidding aside, Richard Roundtree’s return as John Shaft is one of the highlights of this movie, which, in spite of the fact that its script doesn’t succeed entirely, I enjoyed quite a bit.

In SHAFT (2019), John Shaft Jr. (Jessie T. Usher) works as an FBI data analyst, and when his best friend turns up dead, supposedly from a drug overdose, Shaft Jr. has his doubts. He thinks his friend has been murdered, and he decides to find out the truth behind his friend’s death. When he realizes he’s in over his head, he turns to his estranged father John Shaft (Samuel L. Jackson) for help, who’s only too happy to help his son, not only because it gives him a chance to finally spend time with a son he hasn’t seen since he was baby, but also because the case connects to a person he’s been trying to put away for a long time.

The plot in SHAFT is secondary. It’s really only an excuse to allow Samuel L. Jackson the chance to chew up the scenery, which he does with great mother f****ing enthusiasm. This is one of the problems with the movie. Not only is its plot secondary, it’s also pretty bad. It tries hard to be contemporary, with a story about terrorism that touches upon racially profiling Muslims, but it’s all very superficial and none of it comes off as real or relevant. Had it taken these subjects more seriously, the film would have been better for it.

The villains are pretty nonexistent. It’s basically Samuel L. Jackson strutting his stuff out talking and out shooting every little bad guy that gets in his way, but there isn’t a main villain to speak of. Sure, there are those at the top who are responsible for pulling the strings here, but we never see them in action.

SHAFT works whenever Samuel L. Jackson is onscreen, and he’s in this one a lot, which is a good thing. The screenplay by Kenya Barris and Alex Barnow gives Jackson plenty of opportunity to spew expletives at bad guys and comment on his sensitive son’s 2019 ways. And while Jackson is hilarious, the way he talks about women in this movie often referring to them by their sex organs is rather jarring here in 2019. Had this film taken place in the 1970s the language would have worked better. Ditto on his use of the “n” word, which his son asks him to stop using, but he doesn’t.

Jesse T. Usher doesn’t fare as well as John Jr. I never warmed to the character, mostly because Usher seemed to be unable to distance himself from Jackson’s shadow. His best scene is when he displays some dance/fight moves on the dance floor when he takes on a thug at a party, but other than this he plays second fiddle throughout. If this series were to continue, I can’t imagine a film built around Usher and John Jr.

The two women actors fare better. Regina Hall plays John Shaft’s estranged wife Maya, and she enjoys some lively scenes. Better yet is Alexandra Shipp as John Jr.’s friend Sasha. Shipp stood out in all her scenes, and I actually thought she held her own with Samuel L. Jackson better than Usher did. I almost wished this one had been about Shaft’s daughter, and that she had been played by Shipp.

Shipp just appeared as Storm in DARK PHOENIX (2019), a role she reprised from the previous X-MEN movie. And while she’s very good as Storm, she has a larger role here in SHAFT and gets to show off more acting chops.

As I said, one of the highlights of SHAFT is the return of Richard Roundtree as the original Shaft, and he’s on hand for the film’s action-packed finale. He’s not really in this one until the end, but his appearance is well worth the wait. Interestingly enough, even though he’s playing Samuel L. Jackson’s father, in real life he’s only six years older than Jackson.

SHAFT was directed by Tim Story, who a while ago directed the underwhelming FANTASTIC FOUR (2005). SHAFT is not underwhelming, and you can thank Samuel L. Jackson for that. He provides all the energy and oomph in this one. Story, on the other hand, adds very little, as his direction is often punchless.

SHAFT takes place in 2019, and there’s something about seeing Shaft operate in the here and now rather than the 1970s which seems out-of-place. The movie never really owns 2019. It tries, as there are plenty of references to modern-day technology, as Shaft Jr. criticizes his father for ignoring the internet and all its resources when working on his cases, and Shaft Sr. criticizes his son’s generation for texting each other rather than talking. But the film never really captures what it’s like in the here and now. And that’s because Shaft Sr. acts exactly the way he’d act in the past. The film does not really address difficulties the character might face here in 2019.

SHAFT also isn’t much of an action movie. None of the action scenes impress. The film is also a victim of its own trailers, which showed most of the funnier bits in the movie. I really wish trailers would stop doing that.

The screenplay doesn’t help, as a lot of the dialogue is pretty bad. Plus it’s one of those movies where characters make deductions in the blink of an eye. Shaft Jr. and Sasha deduce that their friend has been murdered by looking at one set of lab results, and just like that, it’s murder! Sure, it’s a comedy, but it would have worked better as a realistic comedy, at least where the plot was concerned. I didn’t mind the unrealistic elements of Samuel L. Jackson’s Shaft character one bit.

The main reason to see SHAFT is Samuel L. Jackson’s expletive filled over-the-top performance, and the return of Richard Roundtree to the series. If you can sit through a nonexistent plot, a mediocre Shaft Jr., and some unimaginative direction, you most likely will enjoy this one, because Jackson and Roundtree are the real deal, and at the very least will command your attention and make you laugh.

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LEADING MEN: DAVID MANNERS

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David Manners in between Karloff and Lugosi in THE BLACK CAT (1934).

Welcome to a brand new column, LEADING MEN.

Here at THIS IS MY CREATION: THE BLOG OF MICHAEL ARRUDA I already write a LEADING LADIES column where we look at the career of lead actresses in horror movies, and IN THE SHADOWS, where we look at character actors, women and men, who appeared in horror movies.

In LEADING MEN, we won’t be looking at the horror superstars, folks like Karloff, Lugosi, Chaney, Cushing, Lee, and Price, but those actors who had leading roles in horror movies and played key parts that were not character bits and who in spite of their success in these roles did not achieve superstar status.

We kick off the column with the number #1 leading man from the early Universal monster movies, David Manners. He played “John” Harker in DRACULA (1931) and the similarly dashing young hero Frank Whemple in THE MUMMY (1932) with Boris Karloff.

My favorite part of David Manners’ performances is that he took what could have been stoic wooden “leading man” love interest roles and infused these characters with some personality, which is why his characterizations in these old Universal monster films are better than most.

So, here’s a brief look at Manners’ film career, focusing mostly on his horror roles:

THE SKY HAWK (1929) – pilot (uncredited) – David Manners’ first screen appearance, an uncredited bit as a pilot, a World War I drama that also starred Manners’ future DRACULA co-star Helen Chandler.

JOURNEY’S END (1930) – 2nd Lt. Raleigh –  David Manner’s first screen credit is in this drama starring Colin Clive as an alcoholic captain trying to lead his troops in the trenches of World War I. Directed by James Whale, who would direct Clive the following year in FRANKENSTEIN (1931).

DRACULA (1931) – John Harker- Sure, Manners hams it up at times, and some of the scenes with him and Helen Chandler as Mina are among the film’s slowest, but he also enjoys some fine moments in this Universal classic. He seems genuinely annoyed with both Edward Van Sloan’s Van Helsing, as the professor continues to argue for the existence of vampires, something Harker believes is ludicrous, as well as with Lugosi’s Dracula when the vampire shows his fiancee Mina some attention. When Dracula apologizes for upsetting Mina with his stories, Manner’s Harker reacts with a very annoyted, “Stories?” as if to say when have you been finding the time to tell my fiancee stories?

THE DEATH KISS (1932) – Franklyn Drew –  Manners stars with DRACULA co-stars Bela Lugosi and Edward Van Sloan in this mystery/comedy about murder on a movie set.

THE MUMMY (1932) – Frank Whemple – Joins forces once again with Edward Van Sloan to stop another movie monster, this time it’s Boris Karloff as ImHoTep the undead mummy who returns to life and subsequently discovers his long lost love has been reincarnated as a woman named Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann). Of course, Manners’ Frank Whemple is also in love with Helen, and so once again he’s the dashing young hero who works with Van Sloan’s professor— not Van Helsing this time but Doctor Muller—to protect the young heroine from an evil monster. I prefer Manners’ performance here in THE MUMMY over his work in DRACULA as his acting is more natural in this movie.

THE BLACK CAT (1934) – Peter Allison – Manners’ turn here as mystery writer Peter Allison is probably my favorite David Manners’ performance. In this Universal classic which was the first movie to pair Boris Karloff with Bela Lugosi, the two horror superstars take on each other in this atmospheric thriller set in Hungary and featuring devil worshippers and revenge. Manners plays an American novelist on his honeymoon with his wife, and the two get caught in the crossfire between Karloff and Lugosi. Manners gets some of the best lines in the movie, most of them very humorous, and Manners pulls off this lighter take on the leading man quite nicely. My favorite Manners line is when he’s speaking of Karloff’s Hjalmar Poelzig and says, If I wanted to build a nice, cozy, unpretentious insane asylum, he’d be the man for it.  

MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD (1935) – Edwin Drood – Horror movie based on the Charles Dickens novel stars Claude Rains as an opium-addicted choirmaster with a taste for young women and murder. A financial flop.

LUCKY FUGITIVES (1936) – Jack Wycoff/Cy King –  Dual role for Manners in which he plays an author who is a dead ringer for a gangster and as such is mistakenly arrested. Manner’s final screen credit.

David Manners only had 39 screen credits, and that’s because after LUCKY FUGITIVES he retired from acting. He would go on to become a painter and a writer, publishing several novels.

He died in 1998 of natural causes at the age of 97.

For me, Manners will be forever remembered for his dashing leading man roles in the Universal horror classics DRACULA (1931), THE MUMMY (1932), and THE BLACK CAT (1934). He gave these roles personality, and they have stood the test of time and remain integral parts of these classic horror movies.

David Manners

April 30, 1901 – December 23, 1998

I hope you enjoyed this LEADING MEN column and join me again next time when we look at another leading man in the movies, especially horror movies.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

BOOKSMART (2019) – Raunchy Teen Comedy Has Its Moments

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BOOKSMART (2019), the new R-rated teen comedy by first-time director Olivia Wilde, has a lot of things going for it: a fun premise, sharp comedic and oftentimes poignant writing, a talented cast, and energetic direction.

But what it doesn’t have is a strong sense of realism. While I enjoyed most of BOOKSMART, I can’t say that I believed in much of it, which is too bad because parts of this movie have a lot to say.

With BOOKSMART, director Olivia Wilde takes the coming of age stories found in films like EIGHTH GRADE (2018) and THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN (2016) and turns them into a raunchy R-rated comedy. The good news is the film never deteriorates into mindless vulgarity, but the bad news is it never reaches the level of truth and sensitivity found in the aforementioned movies either.

In BOOKSMART, high school seniors Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein) on the eve of graduation realize that their classmates who goofed around through high school still got into the colleges of their choice, and so they decide if their classmates can do both, that is party and still get into top colleges, then they can as well, and so they decide to party hearty for one big night just to say they did before they graduated high school.

The film follows their attempts to find the huge class party (since they weren’t invited) which leads to one mishap after another since they’re not very good at this sort of thing, but they’re determined, and do eventually make it to the party to end all parties where they hope to finally engage in the relationships they only thought about during their four years of high school.

BOOKSMART is lively and energetic from start to finish. At times, the girls’ mishaps on their quest to find the elusive party reminded me of the situations in the HANGOVER movies, although nothing here reaches the level of insane comedy found in that series, although this film certainly tries. Director Olivia Wilde lets everything fly, even including a hilarious scene featuring Amy and Molly as animated figures.

The screenplay by Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, and Katie Silberman is very funny. The best part about the humor is it takes the usual drug and sex jokes and keeps them honest and prevents them from being cliché. Indeed, the humor works best when the situations are honest. For example, one of the funniest sequences involves Amy’s long-awaited and first sexual encounter with another girl.

The party scenes are also a cut above the usual mindless shenanigans of drunk teens. But not all the humor works, as some of the situations like when the girls try to hijack a pizza delivery driver to get the address of the party, simply aren’t taken far enough to be truly funny. Still, there are a decent number of laugh out loud moments.

BOOKSMART is a female driven movie to be sure, with its woman director, four women screenwriters, and predominantly female cast. As such, this film has a lot to say about young women and their relationships. Probably the deepest part of the story is Amy’s dealings with her sexuality. The discussions regarding gender and sexual preferences are spot on. The problem is the film doesn’t go there enough. These topics take a back seat to the raunchy comedic parts of the story.

The bigger culprit though is the believability factor. The bottom line here is most of the students in this film simply didn’t seem all that real to me. Sure, the story takes place in California, and the characters here are all from an affluent west coast neighborhood, but they certainly didn’t seem like they were living in the real world. And at the end of the day, this lack of realism works against the movie and what it’s trying to say about the life of high school students, especially female high school students, in 2019.

The cast was excellent. Both Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein stand out in the lead roles as Amy and Molly. These two did seem like real people, and I enjoyed watching this story about the two of them and their lifelong friendship. Dever has already had some notable roles in films like DETROIT (2017), THE FRONT RUNNER (2018), and BEAUTIFUL BOY (2018). Her role here only adds to her impressive resume.

Beanie Feldstein impressed in LADY BIRD (2017), playing lead character Lady Bird’s best friend Julie.

Other notable performances in the young cast include Victoria Ruesga as Ryan, Mason Gooding as Nick, Skyler Gisondo as Jared, Diana Silvers as Hope, Molly Gordon as Triple A, Eduardo Franco as Theo, Austin Crute as Alan, and Noah Galvin as George. All these actors have key moments in the movie, and they’re all very good.

The cast also includes veteran actors Will Forte and Lisa Kudrow, as well as Jason Sudeikis as the school principal.

While BOOKSMART is certainly funny, it never reaches the level of all-out hilarity it needed to be really memorable. Likewise, while its script and story do possess moments of sensitivity and insight into the teenage condition in 2019, these moments are sporadic at best. And while the dialogue is realistic and raw, unfiltered to a fault, the situations the two leads find themselves in are more often ludicrous than real. As such, while I had fun with BOOKSMART, I can’t say I believed most of it, which works against the stronger thematic elements of this comedy.

I liked BOOKSMART, but had it been a tad smarter, I would have loved it.

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MOVIE LISTS: SCARLETT JOHANSSON – 2019

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MOVIE LISTS:  Scarlett Johansson

One of my favorite parts of AVENGERS: ENDGAME (2019) was Scarlett Johansson’s performance as Black Widow and the character’s story arc. So, with that in mind, I thought I would bring this column (originally from 2014) up to date.

Here’s the updated partial list of Johansson’s movie credits through April 2019:

 

EIGHT LEGGED FREAKS (2002) – frightened by giant spiders in this horror movie starring David Arquette.

LOST IN TRANSLATION (2003) – hanging out with Bill Murray in Japan in this quirky film by writer/director Sofia Coppola.

THE SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS MOVIE (2004) – lends her voice to this big screen adventure featuring SpongeBob, Patrick, and their undersea buddies.

MATCH POINT (2005) – really shines in this Woody Allen drama starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers.

THE PRESTIGE (2006) – Part of the rivalry between magicians Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman in this Christopher Nolan thriller.

VICKY CHRISTINA BARCELONA (2008) – Another Woody Allen drama, this time with Javier Bardem.

IRON MAN 2 (2010) – Hello Black Widow!  Johansson is the best part of this underwhelming IRON MAN sequel.

THE AVENGERS (2012) – Johansson’s Black Widow is the sexiest crime fighting heroine since Diana Rigg in the other THE AVENGERS, the 1960s TV show with Patrick MacNee.

HITCHCOCK (2012) – Playing Janet Leigh to Anthony Hopkins’ Hitch.

DON JON (2013) – Loses her boyfriend first to porn and then to older woman Julianne Moore in this quirky innovative movie by Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

UNDER THE SKIN (2013) – sexy alien who has the bad habit of killing those she seduces. Offbeat and weird, definitely worth a look.

HER (2013) – seduces Joaquin Phoenix with only her voice in this Oscar-nominated movie.

CHEF (2014) – has too small a role in this comedy drama by actor/director Jon Favreau.

CAPTAIN AMERICA:  THE WINTER SOLDIER (2014) – Black Widow is back and she’s still kicking butt and looking incredibly sexy doing it in this superior CAPTAIN AMERICA sequel.

LUCY (2014) – She’s the best part of this science fiction thriller about a woman who suddenly finds herself able to access her full brain capacity.

AVENGERS:  AGE OF ULTRON (2015) – fourth appearance as Black Widow in this AVENGERS sequel, which is not as good as the first.

HAIL, CAESAR! (2016) – has one of the best scenes in the movie, a hilariously sexy sequence with Jonah Hill, in this otherwise underwhelming misfire by the Coen Brothers.

THE JUNGLE BOOK (2016) – provides the voice for the snake Kaa in this impressive Disney remake of the Rudyard Kipling tale, well-directed by Jon Favreau.

CAPTAIN AMERICA:  CIVIL WAR (2016):  fifth turn as the sexy Black Widow in the third CAPTAIN AMERICA movie and one of Marvel’s all time best.  This rousing superhero film plays like THE AVENGERS 2.5 and contains some of the most entertaining sequences in the Marvel movie universe thus far.

GHOST IN THE SHELL (2017) – plays the lead role of the Major, a cyborg crime fighter, in this disappointing remake of the classic Japanese animated film.

ROUGH NIGHT (2017) –  it’s a girl’s night out gone wrong as Johansson plays a woman enjoying a reunion with her college friends when they accidentally kill a male stripper.

ISLE OF THE DOGS (2018) – lends her voice to this Oscar-nominated animated film which also features voice work from Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, and Jeff Goldblum.

AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (2018) – back as Black Widow again in what for my money is the best AVENGERS film yet. Nonstop entertaining, and a gut-wrenching emotional finale, thanks to the unstoppable cosmic villain Thanos who will not be denied.

AVENGERS: ENDGAME (2019) – while I liked INFINITY WAR better than ENDGAME, Johansson enjoys some of her finest moments in the entire series as Black Widow right here in this movie. Indeed, Black Widow’s story and Johansson’s performance are some of the best parts of this film, which wraps up the AVENGERS saga as the Avengers go after Thanos and attempt to undo what he did in the previous film.

There you have it, a partial list of some notable Scarlett Johansson movies, updated for 2019.  Previously, I had written about looking forward to the rumored standalone movie for Black Widow, and supposedly, that film even though it’s been rumored for years, is in pre-production, which is interesting, considering what ultimately happened to Black Widow in AVENGERS: ENDGAME. Anyway, I would still be incredibly excited to see that standalone movie for Black Widow, and I do hope it still happens.

Okay, that’s it for now.

As always, thanks for reading!

—Michael

THE HORROR JAR: THE UNIVERSAL MUMMY SERIES

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Boris Karloff as Im Ho Tep/The Mummy in THE MUMMY (1932).

 

Welcome back to THE HORROR JAR, that column where we look at odds and ends pertaining to horror movies.

Up today it’s the Universal MUMMY series. Never as popular as Universal’s other monsters- Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolf Man— the Mummy nonetheless appeared in five Universal horror movies and one comedy starring Abbott and Costello. As such, the Universal Mummy movies are significant. In fact, one of the Mummy movies, the first one, THE MUMMY (1932) ranks as one of the best Universal monster films ever made.

So, let’s get to it. Here’s a look at the Universal MUMMY movies:

 

1. THE MUMMY (1932)

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Im Ho Tep (Boris Karloff) reveals his secret to Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann) in THE MUMMY (1932).

 

73 minutes; Directed by Karl Freund; Screenplay by John L. Balderston, based on a story by Nina Wilcox Putnam, and a story by Richard Schayer; Imhotep/Mummy: Boris Karloff

As I said, THE MUMMY, Universal’s first Mummy movie, is one of the finest Universal monster movies ever made. There are a couple of reasons for this. The number one reason, really, is director Karl Freund.

Freund, a well-respected cinematographer, was in charge of the cinematography in DRACULA (1931). His work here as the director of THE MUMMY, with its innovative camerawork and masterful use of light and shadows, is superior to the directorial efforts of both Tod Browning on DRACULA (1931) and James Whale on FRANKENSTEIN (1931). The only stumbling block by Freund is the ending, as the film’s conclusion is choppy and inferior to the rest of the movie.

The other reason is Boris Karloff’s performance as Im Ho Tep, the Mummy. Unlike subsequent Mummy movies, in which the monster remained in bandages, here, Im Ho Tep sheds his bandages and becomes a threat quite unlike later Mummy interpretations. Karloff of course is famous for his portrayal of the Frankenstein Monster, and rightly so, but his performance here as Im Ho Tep is one of his best.

The story in THE MUMMY is quite similar to the story told in DRACULA, which is no surprise since it was written by John L.Balderston, who had written one of the DRACULA plays on which the 1931 movie was based. In fact, it’s THE MUMMY with its story of reincarnated love which later versions of DRACULA borrowed heavily from, films like Dan Curtis’ DRACULA (1974) starring Jack Palance, and Francis Ford Coppola’s BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA (1992), both of which featured love stories between Dracula and Mina, a love story that did not appear in Stoker’s novel or the 1931 Bela Lugosi film. But it does appear here in THE MUMMY (1932).

And unlike DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN, THE MUMMY was not based on a literary work but was instead inspired by the events surrounding the opening of King Tut’s tomb in 1925.

THE MUMMY also features superior make-up by Jack Pierce, the man also responsible for the make-up on Karloff’s Frankenstein Monster and on Lon Chaney Jr.s’ Wolf Man. The Im Ho Tep make-up is creepy and chilling.

THE MUMMY contains frightening scenes, like when the Mummy is first resurrected by the young man reading from the Scroll of Thoth. The soundtrack is silent as the Mummy’s hand slowly enters the frame and grabs the scroll from the desk.

THE MUMMY also has a nice cast. In addition to Boris Karloff, Edward Van Sloan is on hand as the Van Helsing-like Doctor Muller, David Manners plays dashing Frank Whemple, and the very sexy Zita Johann plays Helen Grosvenor, Im Ho Tep’s reincarnated love.

One of Universal’s best horror movies, THE MUMMY is not to be missed.

 

2. THE MUMMY’S HAND (1940)

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Kharis (Tom Tyler) attacks hero Steve Banning (Dick Foran) in THE MUMMY’S HAND (1940).

 

67 minutes; Directed by Christy Cabanne; Screenplay by Griffin Jay; Kharis/The Mummy: Tom Tyler

Universal’s second MUMMY movie was not a direct sequel to THE MUMMY (1932). Instead, it told a brand new story with a brand new Mummy. It also took on a completely different tone. Rather than being eerie and frightening, THE MUMMY’S HAND is light and comical, with the emphasis on adventure rather than horror. The Brendan Frasier MUMMY movies from the late 1990s-early 2000s borrowed heavily from the style of THE MUMMY’S HAND.

THE MUMMY’S HAND follows two adventurous American archeologists in Egypt, Steve Banning (Dick Foran) and Babe Jenson (Wallace Ford) as they seek the tomb of the Princess Ananka. They are joined by a magician Solvani (Cecil Kelloway) and his daughter Marta (Peggy Moran) who agree to fund the expedition. They run afoul of the evil high priest Andoheb (George Zucco) who unleashes the deadly Mummy Kharis (Tom Tyler) on them in order to prevent them from stealing from the tomb of the princess.

Kharis the Mummy is the first of what would become the classic interpretation of the Mummy in the movies: the slow-moving mute monster wrapped in bandages, a far cry from Karloff’s superior interpretation in THE MUMMY, but it’s the one that caught on. People simply love monsters, and Kharis is more a movie monster than Im Ho Tep. Kharis is also mute since in this story when he was buried alive, his tongue was cut. Ouch!

Jack Pierce again did the Mummy make-up, and it’s not bad,  I prefer the Im Ho Tep make-up much better.

Tom Tyler is average at best as the Mummy. Any stunt man could have done the same. He doesn’t really bring much to the performance, and for me, Kharis the Mummy is a weak link in this film.

The highlight of THE MUMMY’S HAND is the comical banter between Dick Foran and Wallace Ford. They’re amusing and highly entertaining.

Other than THE MUMMY, THE MUMMY’S HAND is the only other of the Universal Mummy series that received critical praise. I like THE MUMMY’S HAND well enough, but I actually prefer the next film in the series better, and that’s because Lon Chaney Jr. joined the series as Kharis, and would play the Mummy in the next three films.

 

3. THE MUMMY’S TOMB (1942)

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Lon Chaney Jr. takes over the role of Kharis, the Mummy, in THE MUMMY’S TOMB (1942).

 

61 minutes; Directed by Harold Young; Screenplay by Griffin Jay and Henry Sucher; Kharis/The Mummy: Lon Chaney, Jr.

THE MUMMY’S TOMB is a direct sequel to THE MUMMY’S HAND. In fact, the first ten minutes of the film recap the events from THE MUMMY’S HAND. The story takes place thirty years later, and Stephen Banning (Dick Foran) is retired in Massachusetts, enjoying time spent with his adult son John (John Hubbard) and his son’s fiance Isobel (Elyse Knox).

All is well until the nefarious Mehemet Bey (Turhan Bey) arrives in town with Kharis (Lon Chaney Jr.) to finish the job of punishing those who raided Princess Ananka’s tomb.

The story here is pretty standard, as are the production values. The Mummy series at this point had definitely entered the world of the 1940s movie serials. Everything about this movie and the next two are quick and cheap. Yet—.

Yet— I really like THE MUMMY’S TOMB, and other than THE MUMMY (1932), it’s my favorite of the Universal Mummy movies. The number one reason is Lon Chaney Jr.’s performance as Kharis. Say what you want about Chaney, as the years go by, his reputation as an actor continues to grow. Back in the day, he received well-deserved praise for his portrayal of Larry Talbot aka The Wolf Man, but that was about it. His other portrayals in horror movies were often dismissed. Not so anymore.

He brings some character to Kharis and imbues life into the monster. He’s been criticized for being too heavy to portray an Egyptian mummy, but you know what? His considerable bulk— not fat, mind you, but solid bulk— is quite frightening! And that’s my favorite part about THE MUMMY’S TOMB: Kharis, in spite of the fact that he might lose a foot race to Michael Myers— it would be close!—is damned scary! Sure, you might outrun him, but if he gets you in a corner, it’s over! Jack Pierce’s make-up here on Kharis is also my favorite of the entire series.

Speaking of best of the series, THE MUMMY’S TOMB has, not only the best ending in the entire Universal series, but I’d argue it has the best ending of any Mummy movie period! Sure, its torch-wielding villagers which chase Kharis borrows heavily from FRANKENSTEIN (1931)— in fact, some of the same footage was used— but once the action reaches the house, and the subsequent chase inside the house, that stuff is all tremendously exciting and well-done.

On the other hand, since this story takes place thirty years after the events of THE MUMMY’S HAND, it should be set in 1970, but in the timeless world of Universal classic horror, the action is still occurring in the 1940s. I won’t say anything if you won’t.

 

4. THE MUMMY’S GHOST (1944)

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Kharis (Lon Chaney, Jr.) is back at it again in THE MUMMY’S GHOST (1944).

 

61 minutes;  Directed by Reginald Le Borg; Screenplay by Griffin Jay, Henry Sucher, and Brenda Weisberg; Kharis/The Mummy: Lon Chaney Jr.

THE MUMMY’S GHOST is my least favorite film in the series, other than the Abbott and Costello film. A direct sequel to THE MUMMY’S TOMB, Yousef Bey (John Carradine) arrives in Massachusetts to reclaim the bodies of Kharis (Lon Chaney Jr.) and Princess Ananka. When Kharis turns out to be still alive, and the Princess reincarnated in the body of a college student Amina (Ramsay Ames), Bey feels as if he’s hit the lottery. He decides to make Amina his bride, which doesn’t sit well with Kharis, since after all Amina/Ananka was his girlfriend back in the day!

The reason I’m not crazy about THE MUMMY’S GHOST is that it doesn’t really offer anything new. It’s just kind of there, going through the motions. Lon Chaney Jr.’s performance as Kharis isn’t as effective here as it was in THE MUMMY’S TOMB, nor is Jack Pierce’s make-up. The use of a Mummy mask on Chaney rather than make-up is much more prominent here.

Even the presence of John Carradine, Robert Lowery who would go on to play Batman a few years later in the serial BATMAN AND ROBIN (1949), and KING KONG’s Frank Reicher doesn’t help. I like the return to the reincarnated lover plot point, but even that doesn’t really lift this one, as that plot element was handled much better and with more conviction in THE MUMMY.

 

5. THE MUMMY’S CURSE (1944)

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Kharis (Lon Chaney Jr.) on the prowl in the swamps of Louisiana in THE MUMMY’S CURSE (1944).

 

60 minutes; Directed by Leslie Goodwins; Screenplay by Bernard Schubert; Kharis/The Mummy: Lon Chaney Jr.

Inexplicably, Kharis (Lon Chaney Jr.) and Princess Ananka are now located in Louisiana, having somehow moved there from Massachusetts! The story here in THE MUMMY’S CURSE is pretty much nonexistent. It’s pretty much just an excuse to feature Kharis the Mummy stalking the swamps of Lousiana.

But that’s the reason THE MUMMY’S CURSE is superior to the previous installment, THE MUMMY’S GHOST. Lon Chaney Jr. returns to frightening form, and watching Kharis terrorize the bayous of Louisiana is pretty chilling. THE MUMMY’S CURSE is chock full of atmosphere and eerieness, in spite of not having much of a story. As such, I always seem to enjoy watching this one.

 

6. ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET THE MUMMY (1955)

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Bud and Lou want their Mummy in ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET THE MUMMY (1955).

 

79 minutes; Directed by Charles Lamont; Screenplay by John Grant; Klaris/The Mummy: Eddie Parker.

After the success of ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948), one of the best horror comedies ever made, the comedy duo of But Abbott and Lou Costello met some other monsters as well, in such movies as ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET THE INVISIBLE MAN (1951), ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1953), and they would meet their final monster in ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET THE MUMMY (1955).

While Abbott and Costello are almost always good for a decent laugh here and there, this vehicle ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET THE MUMMY is probably my least favorite of their films where they meet a Universal monster. The gags are okay, but not great. The Mummy, named Klaris here rather than Kharis, is pretty pathetic-looking. And for some reason even though Bud Abbott and Lou Costello play characters named Pete and Freddie, in the movie they simply call each other Bud and Lou. This may have been done to be funny, but it comes off as if they weren’t taking this film very seriously.

ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET THE MUMMY has no connection to any of the previous Universal Mummy movies. It’s not a bad movie, but neither is it all that great.

Well, there you have it. A look at the Universal MUMMY movies. I hope you will join me again next time for another HORROR JAR column where we will look at odds and ends from other horror movies.

Until then, thanks for reading!

—Michael