IN THE SHADOWS: PATRIC KNOWLES

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Patric Knowles as Dr. Frank Mannering, putting the finishing touches on the Frankenstein Monster (Bela Lugosi) in FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN (1943).

Welcome back to IN THE SHADOWS, that column where we look at character actors in the movies, especially horror movies, those folks who while not playing the lead in the movies, graced the film nonetheless in smaller roles, quite often making as much of an impact as the actors on top.

Up today it’s Patric Knowles, and if you’re a fan of Universal horror, you know who he is, based on two key performances in THE WOLF MAN (1941) and its sequel FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN (1943)

Here’s a partial look at Knowles’  127 screen credits:

MEN OF TOMORROW (1932) – Kwowles’ first screen appearance.

THE POISONED DIAMOND (1933) – Jack Dane – Knowles’ first screen credit.

THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE (1936) – Captain Perry Vickers – co-stars with Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland in this war tale based on the poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson. Directed by Michael Curtiz, who would go on to direct, among other things, CASABLANCA (1942). Cast also includes David Niven, Nigel Bruce, and J. Carrol Naish.

THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD (1938) – Will Scarlett- co-stars in this classic adventure, also by director Michael Curtiz, again starring Errol Flynn, as Robin Hood, and Olivia De Havilland, as Maid Marian. Cast also includes Basil Rathbone, Claude Rains, and Una O’Connor.

ANOTHER THIN MAN (1939) – Dudley Horn – co-stars with William Powell and Myrna Loy in the third THIN MAN movie, another fun entry in the classic mystery/comedy series.

THE WOLF MAN (1941) – Frank Andrews –  the first genre credit for Patric Knowles, and he struck gold as the THE WOLF MAN (1941) is arguably the best werewolf movie ever made and is also on the short list for the best Universal monster movie ever made. It also features one of the strongest casts ever assembled for a Universal monster movie: Lon Chaney Jr., Claude Rains, Evelyn Ankers, Bela Lugosi, Ralph Bellamy, Knowles, Maria Ouspenskaya, and Warren William.

While THE WOLF MAN belongs to Lon Chaney Jr. in his signature role as Larry Talbot/aka The Wolf Man, and features dominating performances by Claude Rains and Maria Ouspenskaya, and even Evelyn Ankers, the entire cast is very good, including Patric Knowles in a small role as Frank Andrews.

Nonetheless, Andrews is integral to the plot as he works as the gamekeeper at the Talbot estate, and he’s engaged to be married to Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers), who just so happens to also be the object of affection of one Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.). As a woman who’s engaged to be married, she has no business spending time with Larry, yet she agrees to take that moonlit walk with him, and she’s with him the night he’s bitten by a werewolf.

Unfortunately, there’s just not a whole lot of things for Knowles to do in THE WOLF MAN, although his character Frank Andrews does appear in one of the more memorable non-werewolf scenes in the film, where, at a carnival, he, Gwen, and Larry are playing a target shooting game, and Larry, flustered when he sees a wolf target, misses the shot, and then Frank hits it dead center. I’ve always thought this moment should have foreshadowed that Frank would be responsible for the demise of the wolf man, but that’s not how the film plays out.

THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. Rx (1942) – Private Detective Jerry Church – Knowles plays the lead here, a detective trying to solve the case of a serial killer who sets his sights on mobsters. Also starring Lionel Atwill, Anne Gwynne, and Samuel S. Hinds. Church’s partner here, Detective Sergeant Sweeney, is played by one Shemp Howard!

MYSTERY OF MARIE ROGET (1942) – Dupin – Again plays the lead role in this mystery based on the story by Edgar Allan Poe. Also stars Maria Ouspenskaya and KING KONG’s Frank Reicher.

WHO DONE IT? (1942) – Jimmy Turner- co-stars in this Abbott and Costello comedy where Bud and Lou try to solve a murder at a radio station.

FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN (1943) – Dr. Frank Mannering – stars in this WOLF MAN sequel, also a sequel to THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN (1942), where he plays a different role from the one he played in THE WOLF MAN (1941). Here he plays Dr. Frank Mannering, a doctor who tries to help Larry Talbot but later focuses his energies on restoring the Frankenstein Monster (Bela Lugosi) back to his full strength. As such, Mannering becomes the first movie scientist not named Frankenstein to revive the Monster. He wouldn’t be the last.

Probably my favorite Patric Knowles role. He takes what should have been a standard mundane role and makes Dr. Frank Mannering a rather real character.

HIT THE ICE (1943) – Dr. Bill Elliot – more shenanigans with Bud Abbott and Lou Costello.

TARZAN’S SAVAGE FURY (1952) – Edwards – plays the villain to Lex Barker’s Tarzan in this jungle adventure.

FROM THE EARTH TO THE MOON (1958) – Josef Cartier – co-stars with Joseph Cotten and George Sanders in this science fiction adventure based on the novels by Jules Verne.

CHISUM (1970) – Henry Tunstall – supporting role in this John Wayne western. Also stars Forrest Tucker, Christopher George, Andrew Prine, Bruce Cabot, Richard Jaeckel, Lynda Day George, and John Agar.

TERROR IN THE WAX MUSEUM (1973) – Mr. Southcott – Knowles’ next to last genre credit is in this atmospheric wax museum thriller that is ultimately done in by low-production values. Has a fun cast, which includes Ray Milland, Elsa Lanchester, Maurice Evans, and John Carradine.

ARNOLD (1973) – Douglas Whitehead – Knowles last movie is in this horror comedy which also starred Stella Stevens, Roddy McDowall, Elsa Lanchester, Victor Buono, and Jamie Farr.

Patric Knowles enjoyed a long and productive career. And while he was more than a character actor, often playing the lead in many of his films, for horror fans, he’s best remembered for two quality supporting roles in two of Universal’s better horror movies, THE WOLF MAN (1941), and FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN (1943).

Patric Knowles died on December 23, 1995 from a brain hemorrhage at the age of 84.

I hope you enjoyed today’s edition of IN THE SHADOWS and join me again next time when I look at the career of another character actor.

As always, thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

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READY OR NOT (2019) – Relentless Thrill Ride Lots of Fun

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If you like your horror bloody and full of dark humor, you’ll love READY OR NOT (2019), a comedic yet brutal thrill ride about a deadly game of hide and seek.

It’s also a pretty funny take-down of the super rich.

Grace (Samara Weaving) is about to marry Alex Le Domas (Mark O’Brien) and by doing so marry into the ridiculously wealthy Le Domas family and empire. The Le Domas clan made their money in games and sports. Alex warns Grace that his family is weird and that she still has a chance to back out of the wedding, but she says she’s all in as she is in love with him.

Shoulda heeded that warning, Grace!

It turns out that Alex’s family is as strange as advertised, and then some. After the wedding, Alex informs Grace that it’s a family tradition that at midnight they all play a game, and after this experience, then Grace officially becomes part of the family. She doesn’t have to win the game. She simply has to agree to play. Grace loves games and so she sees no problem with this arrangement.

Inside the enormous game room of the Le Domas mansion, the patriarch of the family Tony Le Domas (Henry Czerny) explains the history of their empire, how his great-grandfather took possession of a mysterious box which Tony now holds in his hands, and how he made an arrangement with the box’s previous owner, that if he and his progeny agreed to play a game named in the box, then the stranger would finance the Le Domas business. This arrangement continues to the present day, and is the source of the Le Domas’ money.

However, there is one particular game that the Le Domas family fears playing, and that game is hide and seek, which just happens to be the one that Grace pulls from the box. See, it’s not just a game of hide and seek. In this version, after Grace hides, the family not only has to find her, but they have to kill her. The thinking being that every few years or so to continue their supernatural source of money, they have to provide a sacrifice. Otherwise, they will all die by dawn. As much as they don’t want to play this game, they have no qualms doing so.

However, in this case, things turn out to be not so easy, because once Grace finds out what’s going on, she fights back, and fights back hard.

READY OR NOT may sound like a lurid, ugly thriller, but it’s not. This is not a variation of THE PURGE movies. From the very first murder, when the ultra nervous Emilie (Melanie Scrofano) kills the wrong victim, and one of the family members asks, “Does this count?” it’s clear that this tale is being played for laughs, and it’s a game this movie plays well. The laughs are loud and frequent.

The screenplay by Guy Busick and Ryan Murphy is as sharp as the axe which lops off a person’s head in this movie. The funniest parts are the reactions of the Le Domas family. They’re aloof and impervious to the violence.

And it’s a good thing the story is played for laughs because the reasons behind the hide and seek hunt are rather ridiculous. This one would have struggled to work as a serious thriller.

The cast is solid and is more than up to the task of pulling off the bloody shenanigans. Samara Weaving is perfect as Grace, the hunted wife who refuses to be a victim and fights back, giving the Le Domas clan all they can handle. Weaving was phenomenal in THE BABYSITTER (2017),  a movie in which she played a murderous babysitter. That film was also quite humorous, and in that one she played the hunter rather than the hunted. Her performance in THE BABYSITTER was more memorable than her role here as Grace, but not by much. I like Weaving a lot and hope she continues to land leading roles. She’s exceptional.

The rest of the cast do marvelous jobs as the bizarre Le Domas family, especially Henry Czerny as patriarch Tony Le Domas. Other standouts include Melanie Scrofano as the hyper Emilie, and Elyse Levesque as the cold and deadly Charity Le Domas, who doesn’t mind killing to stay in the family, as she says her past life before she married into the Le Domas clan was far worse.

Mark O’Brien is fine as Grace’s new husband Alex Le Domas. He insists that he’s different from his family and vows to help Grace escape, but family ties run deep. Adam Brody is also very good as Alex’s older brother Daniel, an alcoholic, who is also sympathetic to Grace’s plight. And Nicky Guadagni nearly steals the show with an over the top performance as the tight-lipped evil eyed Aunt Helene.

Also in the cast is Andie MacDowell who plays matriarch Becky Le Domas. Even though MacDowell has been working steadily over the years, it’s been a very long time since I’ve seen her in a movie. Here, she pretty much plays things straight, and her scenes are mostly about trying to reconnect with her son Alex, refuting his claims that Grace has shown him the light, stealing her son’s thunder with the cutting remark that there’s no way a girl he’s known for only a year knows him better than she does. Ouch!

Directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett keep the action fast and furious. The killings are graphic, bloody, and brutal, the weapons of choice include axes, crossbows, and guns, yet you’re more likely to laugh than shield your eyes and groan, although there is one wince-inducing scene involving Grace’s already mangled hand from a bullet, and a very large nail. Well, in spite of the laughter, this is a horror movie after all.

And the laughs from the audience were loud and frequent. It was clear that everyone in the theater was having a good time.

There are also plenty of swipes at the ultra rich, thematic elements which include the notion that money gives people power to do whatever they want without consequences, and how this is just accepted. Of course, here, as Grace fights back, that’s not how things go down this time.

I really liked READY OR NOT.  While I prefer horror that is more serious than this tale, I can’t deny that I had a lot of fun watching this one.

So strap yourself in and get ready for one relentless thrill ride.

Ready or not!

—END—

 

 

GOOD BOYS (2019) – R-Rated Tween Comedy Surprisingly Sincere and Nonstop Funny

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Brady Noon, Jacob Tremblay, and Keith L. Williams in GOOD BOYS (2019).

GOOD BOYS (2019) is one of those movies where you’ll find yourself laughing at things you know you have no business laughing at.

That’s because it’s an R-rated comedy about tweens, three boys who are about to enter 6th grade. Its story features raunchy language, drugs, and sex, among other things, but the fundamental reason GOOD BOYS works so well is its screenplay by Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky is incredibly sincere and sensitive.

The tweens act like tweens, and that’s part of the comedy. When the three boys inadvertantly find themselves in possession of illegal drugs, they don’t break open the container and get high. They scream about the dangers of drugs and try to get rid of the stuff. When they discover a bunch of sex toys, they have no idea what they are and use them for all sorts of different things. When they discover a sex doll, they think it’s a CPR doll.

The writing is sharp and on the mark, the laughs fast and furious.

The story in a nutshell involves three tween boys, Max (Jacob Tremblay), Lucas (Keith L. Williams) and Thor (Brady Noon) who are best friends and call themselves  “The Bean Bag Boys.” When they get invivited to the cool kid’s party, they are overjoyed until they learn that it is a “kissing” party, and as much as they want to kiss the girls there, they have no idea how to kiss.

And so they decide to find out. One complication leads to another, and before they know it, they are in some serious sh*t.

Depending on how judgmental you are about movies, you may or may not like GOOD BOYS. If the idea of having 6th graders involved in comedic adult situations turns you off, you probably won’t enjoy this one.

I liked this one because it’s genuine and remains true to its characters. The boys here never act like adults. They act exactly the way 6th graders act, and when placed in these outrageous comedic situations the combination of their innocence with the zany proceedings results in constant hilarity.

One thing working against GOOD BOYS, which is no fault of the movie, is that the film’s trailers gave away an awful lot. While there are still funny scenes not shown in the trailers, most of the film’s funniest bits I had seen already.

Even so, the laughs really never stop. Director Gene Stupnitsky keeps this one funny from start to finish.

The tween cast is terrific. Jacob Tremblay, a talented young actor who has already made his mark in such notable films as ROOM (2015) and WONDER (2017) where he played Auggie, plays Max here. Of the three boys, Max is the most interested in the kissing party because he wants to kiss Brixleee (Millie Davis) his first real crush, and who he says he may marry one day. Incidentally, Millie Davis also starred alongside Tremblay in WONDER.

This plot point opens the door for a subplot towards the end of the movie where the boys realize they are changing. For example, of the three, Max is the most mature and the first to be interested in girls, and these changes put a strain on their friendship. It also allows the tweens to talk about respecting women, and they are constantly talking about seeking the girl’s consent before kissing. It may not sound like much, but the climactic kissing scene near the end is even more moving when Max approaches Brixlee and before kssing her asks, “Can I kiss you?” and she says, “Yes.”

Keith L. Williams plays Lucas, and his storyline introduces divorce to the story, as his parents are separating. The scenes with his parents are both hilarious and sad, which is no easy feat, but this movie pulls it off with ease.

And Brady Noon plays Thor, who is the recipient of the most bullying and peer pressure of the three, so much so that even though he loves to sing, he drops out of the school musical. Noon’s performance as a boy who likes to sing rises above the traditional cliche.

Later, when he’s dared to break the beer drinking record, it’s not about the number of beers one drinks. It’s about the number of sips. The record is three sips, by the way.

Molly Gordon and Midori Francis are fun as the two older teens who “go to war” against the boys after they discover the boys spying on them with a drone. The chase scene where the girls pursue the bike-riding boys both in their car and on foot is a highlight. As is the sequence where they send the boys inside a college frat house to buy drugs. Some of the loudest laughs of the entire movie came when the boys gave the frat boys their comeuppance.

And I saw this one in a crowded theater, and the laughs were frequent and loud.

Molly Gordon has been busy lately, as she also starred in supporting roles in BOOKSMART (2019) and LIFE OF THE PARTY (2018). She was notable in both.

Isaac Wang  shows some presence as Soren, the tiny cool kid who hosts the kissing party.

And comedian Lil Rel Howery has some comical moments as Lucas’ Dad. Howery recently showed up in a couple of high quality horror movies, BIRD BOX (2018) and GET OUT (2017).

Nearly all the jokes work. But one of the sequences that didn’t work as well was the scene where the boys had to cross a busy highway. It reminded me an awful lot of a similar scene in a comedy from some years back, BOWFINGER (1999) starring Steve Martin and Eddie Murphy. Too derivative for me.

But all in all, GOOD BOYS is nonstop funny and entertaining. And for a comedy, you can’t ask for much more than that.

—END—

FAST AND FURIOUS PRESENTS: HOBBS & SHAW (2019) – Amiable Action Comedy Fast and— Fluffy.

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In the interest of full disclosure, I have never seen a FAST AND FURIOUS movie.

Until now, that is.

Way back when the first THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS (2001) came out I just wasn’t that interested, but then they kept coming, and word of mouth and critical reviews said they were getting better and better. But still I resisted, mostly because I hadn’t seen the previous films, but I’m guessing at some point I’ll sit down and eventually start watching these.

Anyway, after eight FAST AND FURIOUS movies, here comes the series’ first “spinoff,” FAST AND FURIOUS PRESENTS: HOBBS & SHAW, a tale featuring characters who appeared in prior movies but who weren’t part of the main core of the cast. I mainly wanted to check this one out because I like the three principal leads, Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, and Idris Elba. My expectations were low, but I figured, it might be fun to watch some mindless action scenes featuring these generally entertaining actors.

And I was right.  The action and the dialogue is all very fast, though not so furious. A more apt title for this one would be fast and funny, because really, from beginning to end, this one is played for laughs. I didn’t take any of it seriously, and that was okay.

The plot involves a deadly virus that could wipe out the population of the world, just like that! Yikes!  A former spy (Vanessa Kirby) steals the virus, and a super-charged baddie named Brixton (Idris Elba) will stop at nothing to steal it back. Good guy Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) is charged with saving the day, and he’s paired with former villain turned hero Shaw (Jason Statham) because the former spy who stole the virus happens to be Shaw’s sister.

Trouble is, Hobbs and Shaw hate each other and refuse to work together, but work together they do, which sets the stage for plenty of banter and one-upmanship throughout.

If you like Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham, you’ll enjoy this movie because the two actors are likable throughout and do share a fun chemistry together.  Their banter while not hilarious is certainly comical and amusing. There’s a good-natured amiable vibe all through the movie, even though its plot is about a potentially catastrophic virus, and that’s because the film is about as believable as a wrestling match.

Director David Leitch fills this one with exciting action scenes and chases, especially one near the end involving a helicopter and a bunch of cars. Again, fun, but not believable, which for me, pretty much kept this one from being anything special. Technically, it looks great, but it’s all fluff. Leitch also directed DEADPOOL 2 (2018). Speaking of which, Ryan Reynolds is also in the cast, and he gets to ham it up in a couple of scenes. These bits are okay but not overly funny.

The screenplay by Chris Morgan and Drew Pearce has fun with its Hobbs and Shaw banter but that’s about it. Morgan has written a bunch of other FAST AND FURIOUS movies, and Pearce wrote HOTEL ARTEMIS (2018) which I enjoyed a lot.

While Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham don’t disappoint, Idris Elba doesn’t fare as well. Elba doesn’t get a whole lot of screen time, and his villain in spite of his superpower enhancements is pretty one-dimensional. Elba deserves better.

Vanessa Kirby is very good as Shaw’s sister Hattie, a kick-ass character who can hold her own against the likes of Hobbs and Shaw, although she’s clearly a secondary character here, unfortunately.

As I said, Ryan Reynolds shows up for a couple of scenes, as do Kevin Hart and Helen Mirren. None of these folks make much of an impact.

I liked HOBBS & SHAW well enough, but it’s all fluff, and other than its agreeable leads and well-choreographed action sequences, there’s not a whole lot going on. I’m a story guy, and this one’s story is pretty sparse, which for me, kept this one from being anything special.

It’s not riveting, there’s no edge of your seat excitement, and there’s no intrigue. Instead, there’s playful banter and sanitized action sequences that are mostly played for laughs.

Fast, yes. Furious, not so much.

—END—

ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD (2019) – Tarantino’s 9th Film Enters Fairy Tale Territory

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At first glance,  ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD (2019), the ninth film by Quentin Tarantino, seems to be an exercise in style over substance.

It takes place in Hollywood in 1969, and Tarantino masterfully captures the look, feel, and very essence of the time, with impeccable costumes, set design, and a killer soundtrack. Watching this movie, I really felt as if I had been transported via time machine back to 1969. The experience was that authentic.

Tarantino also gets top-notch performances from everyone involved, especially his two leads, Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, and Margot Robbie.

The style, the filmmaking expertise, it’s all there.

But the substance? The story?

That’s harder to find because ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD takes its sweet time, and for most of its two-hour and forty-one minute running time, it’s not in a hurry to get anywhere, and so it tells its multiple stories with as much urgency as two guys sitting inside a saloon drinking whiskey. In short, it’s not going anywhere anytime soon.

And yet it’s told with an affection that clearly shows this time period and these characters and their stories were a labor of love by Tarantino. And it’s all light and funny, in spite of the fact that it’s built around one of the darkest chapters in Hollywood history, the brutal murder of a pregnant Sharon Tate and her friends by Charles Manson’s insane minions. There is a strong sense of dread throughout the movie, knowing what’s to come, and then— well, then Tarantino decides to have some fun at our expense.

ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD is mostly the story of two men, actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stuntman and best friend Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt).  Dalton is somewhat of a “has-been,” as his last major starring role in a western TV series was from a decade earlier. Now, he’s reduced to playing the villains on 1960s TV shows like MANNIX and THE FBI.

This is clearly wearing on Dalton and is one of the prevalent themes in the movie, of how quickly success can pass one by, and how artists of a certain age need to work harder and be open to reinventing themselves if they want to remain relevant. There’s a lot of truth to this part of the movie. As we age, we have to make adjustments. One of the ways Dalton eventually reinvents himself is by going to Italy to make “spaghetti westerns,” and so it’s easy to see here how Dalton’s story is inspired by the real life story of Clint Eastwood, who did the same thing in the 1960s.

Stuntman Cliff Booth’s best days are also behind him, but he’s taking it much better than Dalton, because, as he says, he was never a star to begin with and so as far as he is concerned he’s still living the dream. He enjoys being Dalton’s “gofer,” driving the actor wherever he needs to go, being a handyman around Dalton’s home, and just hanging out.

Dalton, who lives in a Hollywood mansion, is miserable, while Cliff, who lives in a trailer behind a drive-in movie theater, is happy, but this doesn’t stop the two men from being best friends. They truly like each other and care for each other, and the dynamic between DiCaprio and Pitt in these roles is a highlight of the movie.

And while Dalton and Cliff Booth are fictional characters, their famous neighbors, Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate, are not. They are real, and tragically, Sharon Tate’s life was cut short on August 9, 1969 by the insane groupies of Charles Manson.

So, ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD also tells the parallel story of Sharon Tate, and the film really allows its audience to get to know Tate as a person.

These parallel stories move forward until that fateful night in August 1969, and in spite of the comedic elements of this movie, there is a sense of dread throughout, that builds as the film reaches its conclusion, a conclusion that suddenly introduces a major plot twist allowing the film to keep its light tone. I have to admit, for me, this was a head scratcher.

As a result, I’m not so sure ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD works as a whole, but it does have a lot of little parts that work very well.

The best part by far are the two performances by Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt. They work really well together, but this isn’t a buddy movie, and so they’re just as good if not better in scenes where they are not together. Some of DiCaprio’s best scenes are when Rick Dalton is acting as the villain in a 60s TV western, trying to prove that he still has what it takes. DiCaprio also enjoys a couple of outstanding scenes with a child actor played by Julia Butters who at one point tells him sincerely that his performance with her was some of the best acting she had ever seen.

Pitt’s Cliff Booth is the livelier of the two characters and the one who is larger than life. Cliff, as we learn later, lives in a veil of infamous secrecy as rumor has it that he killed his wife and got away with it. Cliff also enjoys a fun scene in which he tangles with Bruce Lee, one of the more memorable sequences in the movie. 

Cliff is also one of the connections to the Manson family, as he befriends a young woman Pussycat (Margaret Qualley) who’s part of the Manson clan. And a quick shout-out to Margaret Qualley who steals the few scenes she is in with one of the most energetic performances in the movie. She’s terrific.

The scene where Cliff drives Pussycat back to the ranch where the Manson family resides is a perfect microcosm for the entire movie. Cliff brings Pussycat to the ranch, a place he worked at years earlier. Concerned that this group of hippies may be taking advantage of the ranch’s elderly owner, George Spahn (Bruce Dern), Cliff wants to make sure the man is all right.

In an extremely long and meandering sequence, a lot like the entire movie, Cliff gradually makes his way through the various members of the clan, learning where George is supposed to be “napping.” He eventually makes his way to George’s room, and in a scene where you fully expect George to be dead, it turns out he is only napping, and what follows is a highly comedic banter between Brad Pitt and Bruce Dern, which is the route the film ultimately takes.

Which brings us to Sharon Tate. As I said, Margot Robbie is excellent in the role. On the surface, Robbie makes less of an impact than DiCaprio and Pitt because she has far less screen time than they do, but underneath the comedy and the drama Tate’s quiet spirit drives things along, and Robbie’s performance makes this happen.

Unfortunately, people can be defined by their deaths, especially if they were murdered. Tarantino seems to be pushing back against this notion with Sharon Tate. In ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD, Tarantino lovingly crafts Sharon Tate as a real person and not just as a footnote to the Manson murders. The film paints a portrait of Tate as a beautiful person, and really allows that persona to sink into its audience. I liked this. A lot. However, I would have liked it even more had Margot Robbie been given more screen time as Tate. She largely plays second fiddle to main characters Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth.

The entire cast is wonderful. I’ve already mentioned Bruce Dern and Margaret Qualley, but the film also has key contributions from Kurt Russell and Timothy Olyphant.  Also present are Dakota Fanning and Al Pacino, and look fast for Maya Hawke who is currently starring in Season 3 of Netflix’ STRANGER THINGS.

So, you have this meandering movie, which looks terrific and features powerhouse performances by lots of talented actors, with a fairly funny script, although the dialogue is somewhat subdued from the usual Quentin Tarantino fare, and it’s taking its sweet time, taking its audience for a pleasant ride with the knowledge that tragedy awaits. All of this, I didn’t mind and mostly enjoyed.

But it’s the ending of ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD that I find most problematic and is the part of the movie that is the least effective. To avoid spoilers, I will not get into details, but what happens here is the film enters into the realm of alternate reality, and once it does that, well, all that came before must now be looked at with a different lens, and a new question arises, which is, why did we just watch all this? 

In other words, for me, one of the reasons the movie had worked so well up until the ending was it was a piece of historical fiction. Fictional characters were appearing in a real setting (1969 Hollywood) with a canvas of real events in the background. Once these events are changed, the film enters the world of fantasy, of historical reimagining, and once this is done, I don’t think the film possesses the same impact.

In short, to turn this tragic story into a comedy, even with the best intentions, is something I’m not sure entirely works.

At times, ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD seems to be a love letter to Sharon Tate. I liked this part.

At other times, most in fact, it’s a take-no- prisoners shoot-em-up dramedy about an aging movie/TV star and his laid back infallible stunt man. I liked this part, too.

But the last part, the punch line, seems to be Quentin Tarantino’s desire to do what he did to the Nazis in INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009) to Charles Manson and his “family.” It’s this last part that, while good for some laughs, seems the most out-of-place.  While there are hints in the film that this is where this story is going to go, it still feels jarring to watch the events unfold, events that change history, and thrust the movie head first into fairy tale territory, appropriate I guess for a movie entitled ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD.

—END—

 

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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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