Jackie Chan Returns in THE FOREIGNER (2017)

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Jackie Chan is back, and he’s taking on Pierce Brosnan in today’s thriller, THE FOREIGNER (2017).

Quan Ngoc Minh (Jackie Chan) is a quiet store owner living in London whose world is shattered when his daughter is killed in a terrorist bomb attack.  He seeks out answers, demanding to know who killed his daughter. A group identifying itself as a new faction of the IRA claims responsibility for the London blast, and so Quan’s search leads him to Liam Hennessy (Pierce Brosnan), a former officer in the IRA who’s now working for the British government.

Quan isn’t the only one demanding answers.  The British government wants them, too, and Hennessy promises to find them.  He assembles a group of his IRA contacts and puts them on notice with his suspicions that someone in their circle is part of this new faction.

When Quan shows up at Hennessy’s doorstep looking for the names of the bombers, Hennessy tells him he doesn’t know who is responsible and quickly dismisses his visitor without a second thought.  But Quan is relentless, and soon he is bombing Hennessy’s home and threatening his family unless he is given the names of the terrorists.

Hennessy’s search for the terrorists leads to some  unexpected answers, while his efforts to apprehend Quan, who is a former special forces soldier, repeatedly fail.

THE FOREIGNER tells two different stories, and as such, at times seems like two different movies.

The emotional story is Quan’s, as he vows that nothing is going to stop him from finding the people responsible for his daughter’s death.

Quan Ngoc Minh is a serious somber role for Jackie Chan, and it’s not the usual lighthearted fun action role that Chan generally plays.  Quan is an older, more reflective character who goes all in to avenge his daughter’s death. Chan doesn’t play the character as unhinged but as extremely determined and focused.  He somehow manages to keep Quan a sympathetic character throughout, even when he is blowing up Hennessy’s property. It’s an impressive performance.

But while Quan’s story is emotional, it’s also just a simple revenge tale, and as such,  is far less interesting than the more intriguing story of Hennessy’s investigation into his IRA contacts.

As Liam Hennessy, the former IRA officer who’s now in the difficult position of siding with the British government, Pierce Brosnan delivers a solid performance, showing grit, determination, and eventually despair.  That’s because the deeper Hennessy digs, the more his world unravels.

Hennessy has the double whammy of learning some unsavory things about both his IRA connections and people very close to him, while being unable to fend off Quan who is hiding in the woods outside his home and is constantly attacking him.  The scenes where Hennessy expresses frustration and disbelief that his trained security detail cannot handle Quan are some of Brosnan’s best.

Both the IRA storyline and Quan’s vengeance story are dark, grim tales, but there is a disconnect between the two that prevents this movie from really taking off.  The two stories never really come together in a satisfying way.

One reason is that they are so different.  Quan’s revenge tale is right out of an old Charles Bronson movie, while Hennessy’s investigation into the depths of the IRA is more akin to a political suspense thriller.  They don’t mesh all that well, and the biggest reason for this is the film’s climax. For Quan, there’s only one solution, and in this movie just like in those Charles Bronson movies, whether or not he achieves it is never really in question, and for Hennessy, the answers he finds have less to do with what Quan wants to know and more to do with his own past.  And so their two stories aren’t exactly on a collision course with each other.  They connect, but only long enough to send each of them on their merry ways.

If you like Jackie Chan action scenes, you won’t be disappointed. Director Martin Campbell does a nice job with them, and they were probably my favorite part of the movie.  My only beef is that there weren’t enough of them.

The Hennessy scenes are taut and intriguing.  The investigation into who is behind the bombings is compelling and hard-hitting.

Director Campbell is no stranger to action thrillers.  He’s directed two James Bond movies, GOLDENEYE (1995) the first Pierce Brosnan Bond movie, and CASINO ROYALE (2006), the first Daniel Craig Bond movie.  Both films are excellent.  Campbell also directed GREEN LANTERN (2011), which was not so excellent.

David Marconi wrote the screenplay, based on the novel “The Chinaman” by Stephen Leather.  It’s an okay screenplay.  It has believable characters and tells two compelling stories, even if they don’t mix together all that well. Marconi also wrote the screenplay for LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD (2007).

Chan and Brosnan are helped by a solid supporting cast.  Michael McElhatton from TV’s GAME OF THRONES (2012-2016) plays Hennessy’s loyal right hand man, Jim, while Dermot Crowley from TV’s LUTHER (2010-2015) plays Hugh McGrath, one of Hennessy’s IRA brothers who may have his own agenda.

Charlie Murphy plays Maggie, a woman who Hennessy is having an affair with, and Orla Brady plays his wife Mary, who has her own issues with her husband.

And Rory Fleck Byrne is very good as Hennessy’s nephew Sean, a tracker and an assassin, who Hennessy eventually employs to find and take out Quan.

But the two best performances in THE FOREIGNER belong to the two leads, Jackie Chan and Pierce Brosnan. Chan is excellent in a far more somber and serious role than he usually plays, and Brosnan is just as good as the increasingly beleaguered Hennessy whose world is under constant threat.

THE FOREIGNER is a decent thriller featuring two veteran actors. Its two separate stories don’t always gel, but the acting, directing, and writing are strong enough to make THE FOREIGNER an enjoyable action movie.

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THE MOUNTAIN BETWEEN US (2017) – More a Love Story than a Survival Adventure

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Idris Elba is one of my favorite actors working today, but he just can’t seem to find that movie to catapult his career to the next level.

Sure, he was in the THOR movies, as well as PROMETHEUS (2012) and PACIFIC RIM (2013), and he played the villain in STAR TREK BEYOND (2016), and co-starred with Matthew McConaughey in this year’s misfire, THE DARK TOWER (2017).  He played Nelson Mandela in MANDELA: LONG WALK TO FREEDOM (2013), and some years back he lent his talents to such horror movies as the remake of PROM NIGHT (2008) and THE UNBORN (2009).  He also supplied the voice for the evil Tiger Shere Khan in the remake of THE JUNGLE BOOK (2016).

But none of these movies have allowed Elba to fully utilize his acting chops, and they don’t come close to displaying his talents.  If you want to see Elba at his best, you need to check out the BBC TV series LUTHER (2010-2018), which is a great show, and Elba is phenomenal in it.

Today’s movie, THE MOUNTAIN BETWEEN US (2017), is also not that movie for Idris Elba, but on the other hand, it’s nowhere near as bad as critics are making it out to be.  In fact, it’s rather entertaining, thanks to amiable performances by both its leads, Elba and Kate Winslet.

THE MOUNTAIN BETWEEN US opens at a crowded airport, where surgeon Ben Bass (Idris Elba) learns that his flight has been canceled due to a storm, which he finds particularly upsetting because he is trying to get to a surgery to save a young boy. Likewise, journalist Alex Martin (Kate Winslet) receives the same news, and she’s in a rush because she’s on her way to her wedding.  When Alex overhears Ben’s situation, she approaches him with the suggestion that they charter a small plane together so they can both get to where they are going on time.

Critics have complained that this one is simply not believable, and up to a point, I agree. For example, would Alex really approach a total stranger to charter a plane together? And why?  I assume it’s to save on the cost, but that’s not really explained.  And wouldn’t the small plane still have to deal with the storm?  You’d think, right?

Anyway, they do charter a small plane, flown by a pilot named Walter (Beau Bridges) and his dog.  Well, the dog doesn’t fly the plane, but he does make the trip.  The first thing I thought when I laid eyes on Walter was, “Gee, that guy doesn’t look very healthy.  I’m not sure I’d want to get inside a plane flown by him.”  And I would have been right. Moments into their flight, Walter suffers a heart attack, and the plane slams down onto a snowy mountaintop.

Walter dies, but Ben and Alex survive, as does the dog, and they find themselves stranded on top of this snowy mountain in the wilderness, miles away from civilization. Worse yet, Walter did not submit a flight plan, and neither Ben nor Alex had let anyone know they were taking a charter plane.  In short, no one knows where they are.  There will be no rescue team looking for them.

To survive, they’re going to have to rely on each other.

THE MOUNTAIN BETWEEN US is much more a love story than a survival adventure, and that’s why it works. This is not an R-rated survival movie, filled with gritty scenes of bloody injuries and life-threatening encounters.  No, it’s a PG-13 romance about two people trying to survive in a situation where when push comes to shove, they both admit they believe they are going to die, and as such, they do not want to die alone.  Hence, the bond between them grows, and as it grows, their will to survive grows as well.

But the main reason THE MOUNTAIN BETWEEN US works is the acting of the two leads, Elba and Winslet.  They create two likable real characters, who at the end of the day, you want to see survive, and you don’t mind joining them on their plight through the mountains to find their way back to civilization.

Elba’s Dr. Ben Bass is the cautious, caring man who sees it as his job to ensure that they survive long enough to be rescued.  After the crash, he awakes first, and he immediately sees that Alex has suffered a broken leg. If he were a selfish man, he could have easily left Alex behind and gone off to save himself.

Winslet’s Alex Martin is the feisty journalist.  She believes sitting in the wreckage waiting to be rescued is a dumb idea, and that they need to get moving so they can save themselves.  Ben completely disagrees, and he reminds her that she would not get far in the snow with her broken leg.  But she’s not so easily deterred.  At one point, Ben laments, “Is it so difficult for you just to keep still?”

Since Elba and Winslet are pretty much the entire movie, other than the dog, the film relies heavily on their performances, and they do not disappoint.  I always enjoy Elba, and I also really enjoyed Winslet here, much more than the previous time I saw her, as a shallow Russian villain in the flawed thriller TRIPLE 9 (2016).

I also bought their romance.  Some have complained that it was not realistic, and that with a broken leg, and Ben’s cracked rib, and the fact that Alex was about to get married, and that they were starving and most likely filthy, the idea of a romance should have been the last thing on their minds.  But it worked for me because again, these are two characters who really believed they were not going to make it, and that they were going to die.  It comes down to their not wanting to die alone, and when they fall in love, it’s because they are in the moment, and they want to die in the presence and embrace of another human being.

I enjoyed the way Hany Abu-Assad directed this one.  The pacing is decent, the crash scene jarring enough, and the later sequences of peril just harrowing enough to make them satisfying.  There’s a scary encounter with a mountain lion, a slip by Ben that sends him on a dizzying slide towards a frightening precipice, and a sequence involving some thin thawing ice. And you can’t beat the mountain scenery.

Nothing that happens here is all that intense, but that’s not the emphasis of this movie. It’s about the connection that Ben and Alex make and share.  As such, the lack of intensity is easily forgiven.  The film is less about surviving the elements and more about the need for human contact in the face of death.

What I liked least about THE MOUNTAIN BETWEEN US is it tends to go on a bit near the end.  I would have preferred a tighter conclusion.

J. Mills Goodloe and Chris Weitz wrote the screenplay, based on the novel by Charles Martin.  It succeeds in that it creates two amiable characters and gives them realistic dialogue throughout.  Weitz is one of the writers who worked on the screenplay for ROGUE ONE (2016).

While it’s not going to win any awards or shatter box office records, THE MOUNTAIN BETWEEN US is much better than critics are saying it is, and as such, makes for an enjoyable visit to the movies.

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Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

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

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

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

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

For The Love Of Horror cover

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

 

 

 

 

BATTLE OF THE SEXES (2017) – Gender Equality and Same Sex Issues Just As Relevant Today

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BATTLE OF THE SEXES (2017) is based on the true story of the historic tennis match in 1973 between Bobby Griggs and Billie Jean King, which at the time was billed as the “Battle of the Sexes.”

It’s a story that is every bit as relevant today as it was back then.

It’s 1973, and Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) is one of the top women tennis players in the world, but she and her fellow female tennis pros are only paid 1/8 the salary that the men’s tennis players are being paid.  When she confronts the head of the tennis association, Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), he tells her that equal pay will never happen because women tennis players are less popular than the men tennis players, an assertion she refutes by pointing out that ticket sales had been the same for both men and women players.  Even so, her request for equal pay is denied.

With the help of magazine publisher Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) the women pull out of Kramer’s tournament and set up their own, soon attracting a major sponsor with the Virginia Slims tobacco company.

Meanwhile, retired tennis pro Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) lives an eccentric life while being supported by his wealthy wife Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue).  He’s a compulsive gambler, and in spite of Priscilla’s entreaties, he can’t seem to kick the habit.  Riggs comes up with the idea of a tennis match between him and Billie Jean King, which he sees as a huge money-maker, but King refuses, not wanting to get involved with the flamboyant and unpredictable Riggs.

King is also struggling with her personal life, as she finds herself attracted to her hairdresser, Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough).  King is married, and she is confused by her feelings towards Marilyn.  When she loses a major match to Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee), Court becomes the top-ranked women’s tennis player in the world.

Riggs then challenges Court, and in what became known as the “Mother’s Day Massacre” easily trounced Court and declared that his victory was positive proof that men were better than women.

Unable to stand on the sidelines any longer, King changes her mind and challenges Riggs in what would become one of the most hyped and most watch tennis matches of all time, the “Battle of the Sexes.”

I really enjoyed BATTLE OF THE SEXES.  The script by Simon Beaufoy , who also wrote SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE (2008), covers a lot of ground, tackling gender equality, gay and lesbian relationships, compulsive gambling, sports, and through it all manages to keep a light and humorous tone.

Women not being paid as much as men remains relevant today, as does the stresses and tensions involving gay and lesbian relationships.  There’s a line in the film where wardrobe designer Ted Tinling (Alan Cumming), who’s gay, tells King that one day she’ll be able to love whoever she wants and not be afraid to tell people about it.  At the time, King knew that an admission of being a lesbian would pretty much ruin her tennis career.  And while that wouldn’t happen today, there is still a long way to go towards acceptance.

One of the funnier scenes in the film takes place at a gambler’s anonymous meeting, where Riggs tells his fellow gamblers that their problem isn’t that they gamble too much but that they lose, and what they really need to be doing with their time is not attending these meetings but learning how to win.

And the film does a nice job covering the actual event, the “Battle of the Sexes,” complete with real footage of then announcer Howard Cosell calling the match.  You really feel as if you have been transported back to 1973 during these scenes.

Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, who also directed Steve Carell in LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE (2006) do a fine job here.  Again, the climactic match is expertly crafted, generating as much tension as any Sylvester Stallone bout in his ROCKY movies.

Emma Stone has followed her Oscar-winning performance in LA LA LAND (2016) with a very different but equally successful performance as Billie Jean King.  Stone is marvelous in this movie.  She captures King’s emotions, fears, and shows her grit and strength of character.  It’s a wonderful performance.  Stone is one of the most talented actors working today, and her work here only solidifies that ranking.  She’s clearly at the top of her game.

Steve Carell enjoys the liveliest scenes in the movie as Bobby Riggs, and he’s perfectly cast as the retired tennis pro.  Riggs was a tireless self-promoter, and all the crazy shenanigans he pulls to promote the “Battle of the Sexes” are captured brilliantly by Carell, who’s very funny here.  But, as he so often does, Carell goes deeper with the character, and we really feel for him, especially as he battles his gambling demons

It’s also made quite clear both by the script and by Carell’s performance that the male chauvinist comments he endlessly spewed out in the weeks leading up to the match were simply an act to promote the event.  In fact, in real life, he and King would become good friends.

If there’s one flaw the movie has it’s that it doesn’t do the best job developing its supporting characters.  We get to know some more than others.

Andrea Riseborough, for example, who plays King’s love interest Marilyn Barnett, doesn’t quite match the same intensity as Stone and Carell do here.  Part of this is the writing, which really doesn’t tell us a whole lot about Barnett.  We know very little about her, other than she and King generate sparks pretty much as soon as they see each other.  We also learn little about magazine publisher Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman).

On the other hand, Bill Pullman pretty much blew me away in his small role as Jack Kramer, the man who refused to pay King as much as the male tennis players.  Unlike Carell’s Bobby Riggs, Jack Kramer’s sexism was not an act.  Pullman plays him perfectly. He doesn’t come off as a man who hates women or wants to put them down. He simply believes he’s right, and he is blind to the fact that his actions are putting women down. It’s one of Pullman’s best performances in a while.

Alan Cumming is equally effective as Ted Tinling, the gay wardrobe designer who offers advice to King.  Likewise, Elisabeth Shue is very good as Riggs’ wife Priscilla.  She has a great line when she chastises her husband for his chauvinist talk when for years now she has been the one supporting him.  But she’s not a bitter woman, and even though she leaves Riggs for a time, later, when he’s alone, she’s the one who helps him pick up the pieces.

BATTLE OF THE SEXES is more than just a movie about a tennis match.  It’s a movie about gender inequality, about sexual self-awareness, about compulsive gambling, sports, and life in the early 1970s.

It’s also the story of two very different people, connected by a sport at two very different moments in their careers. At 55, Bobby Riggs was retired and acting like a one-man tennis version of The Harlem Globetrotters, while at 29, Billie Jean King was at the top of her game.

Riggs was a compulsive hustler and gambler who couldn’t control his outlandish lifestyle and so  decided to embrace it.  King was a voice for women’s rights, unintentionally at first, until after the Battle of the Sexes, when she would become a rallying cry for women’s equality and liberation.

BATTLE OF THE SEXES is entertaining, educational, and informative, and since the gender equality and gay and lesbian issues it touts are still relevant today, it’s an important movie as well.

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STRONGER (2017) – Gripping Tale Is Incredibly Fresh and Honest

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I often have pre-conceived notions about movies.  So, when I hear that a film tells an inspiring story about a real life hero, I have an idea as to what that movie is going to be like.

Sometimes I’m wrong.

Such is the case with STRONGER (2017),  which tells the true story of Jeff Bauman, the man who lost his legs in the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013 and later became a symbol of hope for an entire city as he fought back to regain both his life and his ability to walk.

I expected it to be good, but STRONGER is better than all of my pre-conceived notions about it.

Why?  For one thing, Jeff Bauman had no interest in being a model of hope to an entire city.  He had no interest in getting his life back, mostly because he saw himself as a loser. So, when these things ultimately happen, they’re not just examples of teary-eyed sentimental storytelling.  The story here is real, gripping, and incredibly fresh and honest.  Jeff Bauman doesn’t just rise up and decide to become an inspirational human being.  If anything, he pushes back against the notion. His is a truly heroic journey, one that takes him down into the depths of despair and darkness before he ultimately rebounds and climbs his way back to the road to humanity.

Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal) is at the finish line at the Boston Marathon to cheer on his girlfriend Erin Hurley (Tatiana Maslany) who’s running in the race that day.  Jeff and Erin are in an on-again off-again romance, which lately had been off-again.  The irony of Jeff’s being at the finish line that day is that he is notorious for not showing up or being where he is supposed to be, which is why Erin continually gets frustrated with him.  But on this day, Jeff shows up, and he’s there at the finish line when the bombs go off.

The film kicks into high gear when Jeff’s extended family arrives at the hospital. This is not a scene where there is a group of folks sitting and sobbing, while sad music plays in the background.  No, the minute we see these people they are shouting and arguing and hurling accusations like it’s nobody’s business. It’s a refreshingly honest scene showing people who are scared and angry that their son has had his legs blown off by a terrorist on their home turf in Boston.

In fact, this is one of the best parts of the movie, the dynamic of Jeff’s family.  They are a dysfunctional group, but they always have Jeff’s back, and he swears by them, at one point saying after cussing them out that he still wouldn’t trade them for anything.  They are exactly the way many families are:  flawed but united.

Jeff returns home to the small apartment he shares with his mother Patty (Miranda Richardson), who spends most of her time drunk or hung over.  Jeff soon asks Erin to move in with him, and she does, which is a good thing because he needs her help to recover.

But Jeff is struggling with everything.  Everyone keeps reminding him what a big hero and inspiration he is, but he can’t see it.  He still drinks way too much and slowly begins to distance himself from Erin once more.

It’s not until he finally agrees to meet with the man who saved him, the man in the cowboy hat, Carlos (Carlos Sanz), that things change.  Up until that moment, Jeff had only been able to see things through his own eyes, but when he hears Carlos’ story and learns the reason Carlos was there that day in the first place, and what it meant to Carlos to save him, Jeff’s eyes are opened.  It’s a telling moment in the film, a reminder that all too often we only see things through our own prisms and perspectives, and we forget that others we interact with have their own issues and agendas.

STRONGER has a superior screenplay by John Pollono, based on the book “Stronger” by Jeff Bauman and Bret Witter. The dialogue is first-rate, natural, cutting and incisive, and at times laugh-out loud funny.   The combination of the writing and acting brings Jeff’s family to life.

I’ve always been a fan of Jake Gyllenhaal, and while he has delivered a lot of memorable performances over the years, his work here as Jeff Bauman ranks as one of his best. Sure, he captures the obvious pain the man went through after losing his legs, but more so, he shows what it’s like to be a guy who didn’t really want to be in the limelight, who didn’t want to be a hero, a guy who really struggles when people cheer for him, because he feels he doesn’t deserve it, because he knows he’d rather be out drinking with his friends or at home playing video games.

Tatiana Maslany is just as good as Jeff’s girlfriend Erin. She feels incredibly guilty that Jeff was there that day because of her, and she really loves Jeff and is more than willing to move in with him and help him, even with her reservations that he so often drops the ball and leaves her hanging.  I really enjoyed Maslany’s performance, and she has some of the more emotional scenes in the movie.

Miranda Richardson is excellent as Jeff’s mother, Patty.  She makes Patty more than just a down and out drunken mother.  She really cares for her son.  More often than not she screws things up, but she always puts her son’s needs first.  For example, soon after Erin moves in, Patty catches her leaving Jeff’s room wearing just a nightshirt, and she glares at Erin and asks her, “Did you sleep with my son?”  To which Erin casually replies, “Yes.” And that’s that.  No insane Norma Bates ravings.  Sure, later there is a messy painful argument in front of Jeff between Erin and Patty in their car, and Patty shrieks “You’re off the team!” but later when Jeff decides he can’t live without Erin and meets with her to get her back, it’s Patty who drives him there.

All the actors who play Jeff’s family members stand out.

Veteran actor Clancy Brown plays Jeff’s father Big Jeff, who’s no longer with Patty.  In that first scene in the hospital, it’s Big Jeff who’s aggressively arguing with nearly everyone.

And longtime Boston comic  and RESCUE ME (2004-11) star Lenny Clarke delivers a scene-stealing performance as Uncle Bob.  He has humorous lines in nearly every scene he’s in, and he serves as that much-needed comic relief as the family scenes are often very tense. It’s a memorable performance.

Danny McCarthy has some fine moments as Jeff’s former Cotsco manager Kevin, and Carlos Sanz delivers a sensitive, moving performance as Carlos, the man who saved Jeff’s life that day at the finish line, whose own story is just as emotional and inspirational.

Director David Gordon Green does an excellent job here.  I especially liked the way he handled the bombing scene.  When the bombs first go off, there’s minimal coverage in the movie.  It isn’t until much later, when Jeff looks back at the moment and remembers what happened, that we get in close and see firsthand what Jeff saw shortly after the bombs exploded.  The images are not easily forgotten.

There’s also an effective scene where the doctors are removing the dressings from Jeff’s legs that really give the audience the idea of just how much pain Jeff was experiencing at the time.

The film is not slow, nor overbearing, nor syrupy-sweet inspirational.  It’s nicely paced, funny and hard-hitting at the same time, and most importantly, brutally honest.

STRONGER is one of the best movies I’ve seen this year, and I definitely recommend it.

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MOTHER! (2017) – Metaphor For Our Narcissistic Times

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MOTHER! (2017), the latest movie by writer/director Darren Aronofsky, is an ambitious and thought-provoking film that serves as a metaphor for our ever-increasing narcissistic culture that not only breeds and encourages narcissists but the radical zealots who follow them.

There’s a lot going on here, most of it not that easy to digest or decipher, and since the trailer for this movie makes it look like a modern-day ROSEMARY’S BABY, which it is not, I’m guessing there’s going to be a whole lot of disappointed moviegoers out there who decide to see this movie.  It’s not really a horror movie, in the traditional sense.

But that shouldn’t stop you from seeing this one.  Any time a movie makes you think and think hard, and goes about its storytelling in a way that is creative and out of the ordinary, that’s a good thing.  MOTHER! is a good thing.  It’s just not going to appeal to a wide audience.

MOTHER! tells a straightforward story.  A woman (Jennifer Lawrence) lives in her quiet dreamhouse with her author husband (Javier Bardem) who’s stuck in a writer’s funk and has been struggling to produce new material.  One night, a man (Ed Harris) shows up at their door, and to the woman’s surprise, her husband invites the man to stay the night.  It turns out that the man is a huge fan, and this pleases the author to no end.  Soon, the man’s wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) arrives as well, and naturally, she’s invited to stay, too.

Things happen that result in more people showing up, people who make the woman uncomfortable, because this isn’t what she expects.  She wants her life in her house with her husband, but yet her husband is fine with opening up their house to these guests. She grows more distressed as more people arrive.  And later, when a lot of people come in, all hell breaks loose.

In terms of plot, the story is constructed very well, or at least the first half is, anyway. When Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer arrive, their arrival makes perfect sense. Likewise, when many of their family members join them, that also makes perfect sense. So, it’s not as if the audience is sitting there scratching their heads wondering why these people are there.  It strikes Jennifer Lawrence’s character as strange, but when Javier Bardem’s character explains things to her, we in the audience understand.

Later, in the second half of the movie, the film deviates from a straightforward plot and enters into the realm of pure metaphor.  And it’s here where the film will no doubt lose most of its audience.

But through it all, it remains truthful and has a lot to say.

First of all, this is not a good movie for authors who want to get married, because if there’s one message that comes through loud and clear, it’s what it’s like to be married to an author.  Now, this isn’t the point of the movie, but it’s certainly one of the parts I liked, because there’s truth behind it.

Javier Bardem captures what it’s like to be a writer.  You can see it in his face when he can’t produce, and alternatively, you can see him light up when the ideas come to him and when his fans tell him how much they like his work. The bottom line is for this character,  life is always about him and his work.  His wife, though he says he loves her and indeed acts like he loves her, is always secondary.  Jennifer Lawrence has a great line when she says that he never really loved her, and that he only loved the fact that she loved him.  A telling and truthful moment.

But MOTHER! is much more than a story about an author.  Javier Bardem’s husband character is a narcissist.  He’s driven by the attention he receives from his adoring fans. In the movie, it begins with the simple conversation between his character and the Ed Harris character, who admits to being a fan and who says “your words changed my life.” From there it grows, slowly at first, until during the second half of the movie it becomes full-blown insanity.

In the second half of the movie, people come to the house because they are fans, and it’s here that the plot becomes secondary and the metaphoric elements of the film take over. We see varying degrees of fandom, but most are radical followers.  The film then serves us images which are religious, militant, violent, and flat-out horrific.

In a nutshell, the film shows what life is like living with a narcissist.  But, more than that, the images at the end  of the movie, of violence, hatred, of opposing sides clashing, easily brought to my mind images that we have seen on the news of events here in the U.S. in 2017, which for me, lifted this movie to another level, because what I took from it by the end, was that it’s a metaphor for what life is like when you elect a narcissist.

But not all of the movie works.  I had an issue with the pacing.  It runs at about two hours long, and there were times midway through where it felt longer than that.

Jennifer Lawrence is fine as the young mother here, in a role where she spends most of the film barefoot and pregnant.  And since this movie is called MOTHER! after all, her character is the one audiences will identify with the most. The story is seen through her eyes, and so when she is upset about the things that are going on, the audience is right there with her. And by the time you get to the end, with all the different sides going at each other, she’s the one who’s hurt the most. She becomes the victim of both her husband’s actions and inactions.

I was more impressed with Javier Bardem as the author/husband, who always seemed to make sense when he spoke to his wife, yet at the same time it was maddening to watch him pretty much ignore his wife’s needs.

Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer add fine support in their roles as the annoying intrusive couple, especially Pfeiffer who exudes a coldness that really fits with the movie.  But Harris is just as good, as the more emotional half of this couple.

The rest of the cast is secondary.

The main guy here is writer/director Darren Aronofsky, who’s mostly known for the movie BLACK SWAN (2010), a dark movie that was well received and that I liked well enough.  Previous to MOTHER!, he wrote and directed NOAH  (2014), a re-telling of the Noah and the Ark story, starring Russell Crowe as Noah which tried to turn Noah into an action hero.  It was a misfire, but I actually enjoyed it.

MOTHER! is a film that most folks are simply not going to enjoy.  It’s not your standard horror movie or drama, and it becomes highly symbolic during its second half which is bound to turn off lots of viewers.

But I liked it.  It has a lot to say about narcissism in our culture, both about those who desire and command attention, and about those who relentlessly become their “followers.”

Better yet, it tells the truth, even when that truth is ugly and repugnant.

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

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

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

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

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

For The Love Of Horror cover

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

IT (2017) – Creepy Tale Showcases Young Talent

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IT (2017), the latest film adaptation of a Stephen King novel, does what King stories do best: it creates believable characters, puts them in harm’s way, and then makes you squirm as they fight for their lives.

IT takes place in the late 1980s in the town of Derry, Maine.  A young boy named Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) is outside playing in the rain when he encounters what appears to be a clown in the sewer.  The clown, Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard) speaks to him, and since Georgie is only a child, he doesn’t find it overly strange that there’s a clown talking to him from a sewer, which is too bad, because Pennywise attacks and kills the young child.

The story jumps ahead one year, to 1989, and follows Georgie’s older brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) and his group of “loser” friends as they deal with bullies and parents who are either useless or harmful. It is not a good town in which to be a kid.

There’s Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), a young hypochondriac who can’t stop talking about germs and illnesses, Richie (Finn Wolfhard), who can’t stop talking, period, Stanley (Wyatt Oleff), Mike (Chosen Jacobs), and the new kid in the neighborhood, overweight Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor).

And then there’s Beverly (Sophia Lillis), the one girl in the group, who they all secretly have a crush on.

All of these kids are severely bullied.  The main bully in town is Henry (Nicholas Hamilton) and he and his friends pretty much terrorize Bill and his friends on a regular basis.

The adults in their lives aren’t any better.  The worst is Beverly’s father, who sexually abuses her.

It’s these constant threats which draw these kids together.  Bill is obsessed with finding out what happened to his younger brother, and as he and his friends investigate, they learn that the town of Derry has a history of people disappearing, especially children. Soon afterwards, they start having strange visions and dreams of the evil clown Pennywise, and they realize that the threat in their town, the thing that is preying on children, is in fact Pennywise.  And since the adults in town are useless, they decide that it is up to them to seek out and destroy this evil.

IT is a very good movie that actually works better as a drama about a group of friends dealing with the threats in their lives than as a straight horror movie because it’s not really that scary.

Directed by Andy Muschietti, who also directed MAMA (2013), a horror movie from a few years back that I liked a lot, IT does have a decent number of horror scenes which work well, but its scariest scene might be its first scene, where young Georgie first encounters Pennywise in the sewer.  This is a frightening sequence, a great way to start the film, and while Pennywise does have some decent moments later, none are quite as potent as this first one.

Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, and Gary Dauberman wrote the screenplay, based on the novel by Stephen King.  Of the three, Dauberman has the most extensive credits.  He wrote ANNABELLE (2014) and ANNABELLE: CREATION (2017), the second film being much better than the first.

The dialogue here in IT is excellent, as are the characters.

This is the second time IT has been filmed. It was a four-hour mini-series in 1990 starring Richard Thomas, John Ritter, Harry Anderson, and Annette O’Toole. It was well received at the time, but it is somewhat dated today.  It’s most memorable for Tim Curry’s performance as Pennywise.

Bill Skarsgard’s performance as Pennywise here in the 2017 version was good enough to make me forget about Tim Curry while I watched this movie.  Taken as a whole, I thought this new version was better than the 1990 TV rendition.

The driving force behind this 2017 movie is Bill and his friends, both the way they are written and the way they are acted.

The child actors are all excellent, and they’re in the part of the story that for me, works best in this film adaptation of IT.  These kids are bullied and abused, and what happens to them in their everyday lives is every bit as disturbing as what happens to them when they encounter Pennywise.  As a creature that preys on children, Pennywise is symbolic of the everyday evils these kids face in the real world.

When these kids bond and their friendships grow stronger, that’s the part of the film that works best, the relationships between this group of kids.  And these child actors are more than up to the task of making it all work, and work well.

Jaeden Lieberher is excellent as Bill.  A few years back, Lieberher stood out in ST. VINCENT, a comedy with Bill Murray that I liked a lot.  Lieberher is just as good here. He plays Bill as a sensitive boy who in the quest to learn what happened to his little brother becomes resilient and strong-willed, the perfect leader of this group.

Sophia Lillis is also excellent as Beverly. Like Lieberher, she makes her character sensitive yet strong.  These kids have been beaten back in life at a young age by those around them, and yet they somehow find the strength through each other to seek out and take on the evil Pennywise.  Like the rest of the young actors in this one, Lillis is also incredibly believable in this role.

I also enjoyed Jeremy Ray Taylor as the newest kid in town, Ben Hanscom.  Finn Wolfhard makes a funny wisecracking Richie Tozier, even if he did look like he just rode his bike off the set of STRANGER THINGS.  I also really liked Jack Dylan Grazer as the young hypochondriac who can’t stop talking about germs and illnesses.  And I thought Nicholas Hamilton made Henry Bowers a very disturbing psychotic bully.

I absolutely loved Bill Skarsgard’s performance as Pennywise, but his best scene is his first one.  Don’t get me wrong.  It’s not as if Pennywise disappears from the movie, because he’s in a decent number of scenes, but he doesn’t do enough in these scenes to give them the full impact they should have had.

Another thing I didn’t really like about this movie is I thought that it trivialized some of the awful things happening to the kids, especially the storyline with Beverly and her father. He’s obviously abusing her, and their scenes together are creepy, but this is serious stuff, and it deserves more serious treatment than a couple of quick scenes in a horror movie.

Likewise, bullying is a serious matter, and while the bullying scenes in IT are certainly brutal and effective in that they show how cruel and sadistic these older boys were towards Bill and his buddies, there was just something lacking in these scenes, something less authentic.  Part of the problem is they were similar to a whole host of other bully scenes in other movies.  The scenes with Bill and his friends are crisp, refreshing, and real.  The bully scenes are not.

IT is a creepy drama about a group of kids who are terrorized by the adults in their lives, by their peers, and by a menacing supernatural entity known as Pennywise. It’s sure to satisfy both Stephen Kings fans and horror fans alike.

About the only people who should stay clear of this one are those of you who live in mortal fear of clowns.  Yup, that wouldn’t be a good combination.

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

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

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

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

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

For The Love Of Horror cover

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

 

 

 

 

 

IN THE SHADOWS: EDWARD VAN SLOAN

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Edward Van Sloan as Professor Van Helsing in DRACULA’S DAUGHTER (1936).

 

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

Character actors add so much to the movies they’re in, it’s hard to imagine these movies without them. Never receiving the praise heaped upon the major actors and stars of the genre, these folks nonetheless are often every bit as effective as the big name leads.

Up today, an actor known to horror fans for three key roles in three classic horror movies, and that actor is Edward Van Sloan.

Edward Van Sloan played three similar roles in three of Universal’s best horror movies from the 1930s.  He played Professor Van Helsing in DRACULA (1931), Dr. Waldman in FRANKENSTEIN (1931), and Dr. Muller in THE MUMMY (1932).

As Dr. Van Helsing, a role he had played earlier on stage opposite Bela Lugosi’s Dracula, he’s one of the best.  While Peter Cushing is my all time favorite movie Van Helsing, Edward Van Sloan came closer to the Stoker interpretation than Cushing did, but even he deviated from the way Stoker wrote the character.  Probably the closest I’ve seen an actor capture the literary Van Helsing on-screen would be Frank Finlay’s performance as the vampire hunter/professor in the BBC production COUNT DRACULA (1977), starring Louis Jordan as the Count.

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Van Sloan and Lugosi square off in DRACULA (1931)

But for Edward Van Sloan, it’s all about presence and authority, something he definitely wields in DRACULA.  Bela Lugosi is absolutely mesmerizing as Dracula, and his performance dominates the movie.  Yet Van Sloan is up to the task of matching wits with Lugosi, and his Van Helsing is a worthy opponent for the vampire king.  The scene where Dracula tries to use hypnosis to overpower Van Helsing is one of the strongest scenes in the film, acted so expertly by Van Sloan, as you can see it in his eyes as he’s resisting Dracula’s powers, and for a split-second, Van Sloan’s eyes go blank, and at this instant the audience shudders, begging that he doesn’t succumb to Dracula’s powers, and when he rallies and resists Dracula, it’s a great moment in the movie.

As Dr. Waldman in FRANKENSTEIN, Van Sloan plays Henry Frankenstein’s former professor, who for most of the movie, acts as the voice of reason.  He tries throughout to talk sense to Henry Frankenstein and is constantly urging caution.  As Dr. Waldman, he gets one of the best lines in the movie, when he warns young Henry.  “Your success has intoxicated you!  Wake up!  And look facts in the face!—  You have created a monster, and it will destroy you!”

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Edward Van Sloan as Dr. Waldman in FRANKENSTEIN (1931).

Prophetic words.  Actually, they were more on the money regarding Waldman’s fate, because later in the movie, the Monster (Boris Karloff) kills the professor.  In fact, Professor Waldman’s death is one of the more shocking moments in FRANKENSTEIN, a film which contains more than a few of them, and it’s a testament to Edward Van Sloan’s screen presence.  Van Sloan was so effective as Professor Van Helsing in DRACULA, so convincing when he destroys Dracula, it strikes audiences as an absolute shock when he doesn’t do the same in FRANKENSTEIN, when in fact it’s the Monster who kills Professor Waldman, and not the other way around.

And Edward Van Sloan is one of only two actors— the other being Dwight Frye who played Renfield in DRACULA and Fritz in FRANKENSTEIN— to star in both DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN.

In THE MUMMY (1932), Van Sloan plays Dr. Muller, a variation of his Van Helsing/Waldman characters.  This time, he’s an expert on Egyptology, and he matches wits with Boris Karloff’s Mummy, Imhotep.  THE MUMMY is an excellent horror movie, as good if not better than DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN.  Once again, Van Sloan nails the role of the heroic professor and is completely believable as the knowledgable scholar who takes on the supernatural Imhotep.

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Edward Van Sloan takes on Boris Karloff’s Imhotep in THE MUMMY (1932).

As for the rest of  Edward Van Sloan’s career, here’s a partial look at his 88 screen credits, focusing mostly on his horror film roles:

SLANDER (1916) – Joseph Tremaine – Edward Van Sloan’s first film credit is in this silent movie from 1916, the only silent film Van Sloan made.

DRACULA (1931) – Professor Van Helsing – probably Van Sloan’s most famous role, and the role he is most remembered for.  Van Sloan’s work as Van Helsing in this movie is as memorable as Lugosi’s Dracula and Dwight Frye’s Renfield.

FRANKENSTEIN (1931) – Dr. Waldman – Another famous role for Van Sloan, this time playing Henry Frankenstein’s former professor and the man who tries to convince Frankenstein to destroy his creation.  We all know how that turned out.

BEHIND THE MASK (1932) – Dr. August Steiner/Dr. Alec Munsell/Mr. X – a crime drama marketed as a horror movie due to the presence of Boris Karloff in a small role.  Van Sloan plays the villain here, in a role that Karloff probably would have played had this movie been made a few years later.

THE DEATH KISS (1932) – Tom Avery – a comedy/mystery notable for reuniting three cast members from DRACULA:  Bela Lugosi, David Manners, and Edward Van Sloan.

THE MUMMY (1932) – Doctor Muller – takes on Boris Karloff’s evil Imhotep in this horror classic.

DELUGE (1933)- Professor Carlysle – early “disaster” film as New York City is threatened by an earthquake and tidal wave.

AIR HAWKS (1935) – Professor Schulter – weird hybrid of drama and science fiction. Ralph Bellamy plays the owner of an airline company who hires a mad scientist— played by Edward Van Sloan— to build a death ray to force down his competitors’ planes.

THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII (1935) – Calvus – Historical adventure set in the doomed Roman city, directed by KING KONG directors Ernest B. Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper. With Basil Rathbone as Pontius Pilate.  A box office flop.

DRACULA’S DAUGHTER (1936) – Professor Van Helsing – reprises his Van Helsing role in this well-made sequel to DRACULA.  The movie starts right where DRACULA left off, and Van Helsing finds himself arrested for the murders of Dracula and Renfield.  Before he can be officially charged, however, the bodies disappear, whisked away by Countess Zaleska (Gloria Holden) who happens to be Dracula’s daughter, and who’s now in London with an agenda of her own. Smart horror film, well-written, acted, and directed.

THE PHANTOM CREEPS (1939) – Jarvis – Science fiction serial from Universal reunites Van Sloan with Bela Lugosi, as Lugosi plays a scientist hell-bent on taking over the world.

BEFORE I HANG (1940) – Dr. Ralph Howard – This time Van Sloan is reunited with Boris Karloff, as Karloff plays a doctor on death row for mercy killings, who injects himself with a serum that turns him into a Hyde-like villain.

THE MASK OF DIIJON (1946) – Sheffield – Erich von Stroheim plays a magician who uses his hypnotic powers to seek vengeance.

SEALED VERDICT (1948) – Priest – Edward Van Sloan’s final screen credit in a World War II war drama starring Ray Milland.

THE UNDERWORLD STORY (1950) – Minister at Funeral – Edward Van Sloan’s final film appearance, an uncredited bit as a minister at a funeral in this film noir crime drama.

There you have it, an abbreviated look at the film career of Edward Van Sloan.

Edward Van Sloan died on March 6, 1964 at the age of 81 in San Francisco, California.

While he enjoyed a long and successful career as a character actor in the movies, for horror fans, he will always be remembered for his roles in three of Universal’s best horror movies from the 1930s:  DRACULA, FRANKENSTEIN, and THE MUMMY.  Van Sloan made for a fine hero in all three of these films.

Edward Van Sloan -November 1, 1882 – March 6, 1964.

I hope you enjoyed this IN THE SHADOWS column.  Join me again next time when we look at the career of another notable character actor.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

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

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

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

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

For The Love Of Horror cover

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