COLD PURSUIT (2019) – Liam Neeson Actioner First Bad Movie of 2019

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ColdPursuit

The big story regarding COLD PURSUIT (2019), the latest action movie starring Liam Neeson, comes from real life, where recently Neeson made controversial comments that some have deemed racially offensive, and there’s no doubt, what he said is indeed racially offensive.

But it was an odd thing to say, considering he spoke of thoughts he once had, thoughts that never turned into actions, and so at the end of the day, Neeson didn’t commit the racially charged crime he thought about doing, but even so, why talk about something you once only thought about?  To me, this was an absolutely stupid thing for Neeson to say.  What was he thinking?

Anyway, since no crime was committed or accusation of a crime made, the biggest thing I saw Neeson guilty of was putting his foot in his mouth. And so as a fan, I still went to the theater to see COLD PURSUIT.

And the reason I absolutely did not like this movie has nothing to do with all the real life drama mentioned above.

In short, of all the action movies Neeson has made starting with TAKEN (2008) this might be the worst.

The story is simple and sounds much better than it actually is.  Nels Coxman (Liam Neeson) is a humble snow plow driver who quietly and faithfully plows the snowy roads of a ski resort community just outside Denver, Colorado. He’s so appreciated that at the beginning of the movie he is awarded the town’s “Citizen of the Year” award. Nels lives a modest, happy life with his wife Grace (Laura Dern).

All is good until their adult son is murdered by a powerful drug lord who lives in Denver, which is a big no-no, because if there’s one thing every movie fan knows, you don’t mess with the relative of a character played by Liam Neeson. So, yes, the rest of the movie is about Nels seeking vengeance for his son’s murder and taking on the powerful drug lord and his henchmen.  As I said, this one sounds better than it is.

The biggest problem with COLD PURSUIT is its script by Frank Baldwin, based on the screenplay by Kim Fupz Aakeson to the 2014 Danish film IN ORDER OF DISAPPEARANCE. Rather than being a straightforward action thriller, COLD PURSUIT tries to be a dark comedy but fails miserably.

The film starts off well. I enjoyed its set-up and getting to know Nels and his wife Grace. And since I enjoy Liam Neeson and Laura Dern, I was looking forward to seeing these two in this movie, but that’s not how things unfold, as Dern’s character pretty much disappears from the story.

Plus, with Nels being a snow plow driver and a hunter, you’d think that he’d use these skills in getting back at the people who killed his son, but the film’s idea of his skill set is driving a snow plow and using a gun. Not exactly all that specific.

Strangely when the film should have gotten better, when Nels sets his sights on revenge, it gets worse. The biggest culprit is its misplaced sense of humor. The gimmick in this film is to place each deceased character’s name on the screen after their death, and the hope here seems to be that if the filmmakers do it enough (there are a lot of deaths in this movie) it will become funny. Nope. It wasn’t funny the first time, and it’s not funny later.

Now, I have no problem with a dark comedy, especially one about murder, but this one doesn’t work. The characters, including Nels, are all so superficial I didn’t care about any of them. And as the story goes along, Nels actually takes a back seat to rival drug gangs who are trying to wipe each other out. The result of this mess is a film that kinda glorifies murder. People are killed left and right and then the film tries to have fun with their deaths. If you’re going to take this approach, you either have to be really funny or at least have characters fleshed out enough that you feel something when they die. This film does neither.

Liam Neeson is okay as Nels Coxman, but his performance here is nothing we haven’t seen him do before, and frankly, he’s done it much better before. Also, Nels is a cold fish who displays about as much emotion avenging his son’s death as a man standing in the middle of a frozen lake ice fishing.

Laura Dern’s talents are completely wasted in a throwaway role as Nels’ wife Grace. Midway through the film she leaves Nels and that’s it for Dern. She leaves him a note, and it’s a blank piece of paper, which pretty much sums up the emotional impact of this movie.

The main villain “Viking”— and yes, all the bad buys here have nicknames, a la TOP GUN (1986), and in fact, one of the names comes right from that movie— as played by Tom Bateman is one of the most annoying bad guys I’ve seen in a movie in a while. Viking and the rest of his henchmen are about as believable as cartoon caricatures.

Two of the more notable performances belong to John Doman and Emmy Rossum who play two members of local law enforcement, but their storyline goes nowhere, and so they barely make an impact.

There’s also a completely ridiculous subplot involving Viking’s young son, which goes beyond ludicrous once Nels abducts the boy and the two become fast friends. Huh? As I’ve been saying, this one’s pretty bad.

COLD PURSUIT was directed by Hans Petter Moland, and things are so bad here that not even the beautiful snowy mountains of Colorado can save this one. It’s  all very scenic, but the film doesn’t really use its frigid landscape to tell its story.

Plus I really wanted to know more about Neeson’s character. I wanted to know why he felt he could take on drug mobsters and succeed. The film never really gets inside Nels’ head. In fact, for large chunks of the movie, Nels disappears, and the film focuses on the various drug henchmen with all their nicknames.

Ho hum.

At the end of the day, COLD PURSUIT is a cold and rather ugly film. The death count is high, yet none of the demises have any impact, with the possible exception of the very last one, which comes a little too late in the game.

In the interest of full disclosure, the audience I saw this one with, albeit a sparse one, seemed to like the movie more than I did. They chuckled on occasion. I did not.

For me, this one’s an easy call. COLD PURSUIT is the first clinker for 2019.  I suggest giving it the cold shoulder.

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GREEN BOOK (2018) – Oscar Contender Worth A Trip to the Theater

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It took a while for GREEN BOOK (2018) to make it to the theaters in my neck of the woods, and so I was only able to see it recently.

This Oscar contender, nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Original Screenplay is both worthy of these nominations and a trip to the theater. Had I seen this movie before I had comprised my List of Top 10 movies for 2018, it most certainly would have made the cut.

GREEN BOOK (2018), based on a true story, takes place in 1962 and chronicles the unlikely friendship between an eccentric African-American classical pianist Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) and a rough and tough Italian bouncer from Brooklyn, Tony LIp (Viggo Mortensen) who are brought together when Shirley hires Tony to be his personal driver on a concert tour which will take him into the Deep South.

In terms of story construct, the one told in GREEN BOOK is one you’ve seen many times before. Yes, it’s a “buddy story,” that plot where two very different characters spend time together, especially on the road, and eventually they form an unlikely friendship.  It’s been done a million times, from classics back in the day like MIDNIGHT RUN (1988) and PLANES, TRAINS, AND AUTOMOBILES (1987) to more recent fare like DUE DATE (2010) and THE HEAT (2013).

But what makes GREEN BOOK different and a cut above the standard “buddy movie” is its dueling themes of racism and racial acceptance.

Shirley’s concert tour is bringing him to the Deep South, as far as Mississippi, not a safe place for a black man in 1962. And that’s where the titular “Green Book” comes in, as it refers to The Negro Motorist Green Book, a publication which listed places which were safe for blacks to visit. Hence, on the road in the south, Shirley and Tony stay at separate hotels, as Shirley has to stay at hotels which accept Negroes, and these are usually poor decrepit places.

And when Shirley is performing inside the elegant establishments of the wealthy white audiences, who give him rousing applause, he is not allowed to use the bathroom inside these places, nor can he dine there.

Tony Lip, while not from the south, initially holds views that are just as racist. He and his fellow Bronx Italians use racial slurs when speaking of blacks, and when his wife hires two black repairmen, and Tony observes  her giving them something to drink after they’ve finished their job, he takes the empty glasses they drank from and tosses them into the trash.

Yet, when asked by Shirley if he would have trouble working for a black man, Tony says no, and since Tony is a man of his word, it turns out to be true, and as the story goes along, and he observes the way Shirley is treated, he becomes more and more protective of his employer.

The story also takes things a step further. Don Shirley is a man alone. He’s wealthy and educated, and he doesn’t identify with what he sees as his fellow black brethren. He’s more similar in class to the wealthy whites he plays music for, but he certainly doesn’t identify with them.  And then there’s his sexual orientation. By all accounts, Shirley is alone and he’s miserable, and in one of the movie’s best scenes, he breaks down and laments to Tony that he hasn’t been able to find any community that wants him in it.

The script, nominated for an Oscar, by Nick Vallelonga, Brian Hayes Currie, and Peter Farrelly does a masterful job at showing not only the racism Don Shirley faced but also the pain he felt at being so isolated from seemingly all walks of life. It also makes Tony Lip the face of white acceptance. At first, Tony may have suppressed any racist feelings just so he could take the job, but later, he truly comes to like and accept Shirley as a person, and his words and actions back that up.

The script also gives Tony the best moments in the film, especially the laugh out loud ones. Indeed, why this movie is also listed as a comedy has to do entirely with Tony. He’s got the best lines in the film, such as when he tries to quote JFK’s “ask not what your country can do for you—” speech, but completely botches it and finishes with “Ask what you do for yourself,” and he has the funniest scenes, like when he introduces Shirley to Kentucky Fried Chicken.

The best part of the script is that none of it comes off as superficial or preachy. It makes its points on race simply by allowing its story to unfold. Likewise, the bond between Shirley and Tony is not forced or phony. It’s convincing and natural. The whole story works.

As I said, Mahershala Ali has been nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of Dr. Don Shirley, and it’s certainly a powerful performance.

However, GREEN BOOK belongs more to Viggo Mortensen and his portrayal of Tony Lip. Tony is the larger role, and the story mainly focuses on his reaction to racism. In terms of acting, it’s one of the best performances I’ve seen Mortensen give. He plays the Bronx bouncer so effortlessly. And like Ali, Mortensen has also been nominated, for Best Actor.

GREEN BOOK has also been nominated for Best Picture, although it’s not expected to win. Of its four major nominations, according to the experts, Mahershala Ali has the best chance of winning Best Supporting Actor.

GREEN BOOK was directed by Peter Farrelly, of Farrelly Brothers fame. He successfully captures the 1962 setting. There’s a nice contrast of colors, between the bright and opulent upper class white southern establishments and the dark and dreary poverty-laden black establishments.

And one of my favorite scenes brings both worlds together, when Shirley takes Tony into a black friendly restaurant, and Shirley is invited to play piano and ends up jamming with the jazz musicians there. It’s one of the liveliest scenes in the movie, and it allows Shirley for the first time to feel some camaraderie with a culture he had thus far felt alienated from.

I really enjoyed GREEN BOOK. It has a lot to say about racism, using the south in 1962 as its canvas, and it makes its point while not always being heavy-handed. In fact, its tone is quite the opposite. For most of the movie, thanks to Viggo Mortensen’s performance as Tony Lip, you’ll be laughing. Tony is a likeable character who may not be as skilled and as polished as Dr. Don Shirley, but his heart is in the right place, as is his head. He befriends Shirley not only because he likes him but also because deep down he knows that the color of Shirley’s skin has no bearing on what kind of person he is.

GREEN BOOK is a thoroughly satisfying movie that speaks on racism and entertains at the same time. It’s not to be missed.

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STAN & OLLIE (2018) – Nostalgic Look at Comedy Duo’s Final Tour Together

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STAN & OLLIE (2018) is a pleasant homage to the work of the classic comedy duo Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.

It tells the bittersweet story of their final tour together, long past their superstar years. The film is driven by two top-notch performances, Steve Coogan as Stan Laurel, and John C. Reilly as Oliver Hardy.

The movie opens in 1937, at the height of their film career.  Stan (Steve Coogan) is the more business savvy of the two, and he wants a larger contract from studio head Hal Roach (Danny Huston). When it’s clear he’s not going to get it, he tries to convince Ollie (John C. Reilly) to leave the studio with him and sign a contract elsewhere, but it’s a decision that is far more difficult for Ollie to make, since he’s still under contract with Roach. As a result, Ollie stays with Roach. And when Ollie makes a movie without Stan, things hit rock bottom for the duo.

The action switches to 1953, where Stan has convinced Ollie to join him for a European tour as a promotional tool for a new movie he’s writing for the two of them. When financing for the film falls through, and they’re met with small audiences on the tour, the realization hits them that this could be the end of their career.  But as the tour continues, the crowds grow, until once more they are playing to sold out theaters.

But all is not right for the comedy duo. Ollie’s health is fading, and the two men squabble about their friendship and loyalty to the each over the years, causing a rift that they may not be able to overcome.

STAN & OLLIE is a very enjoyable movie. It’s well-made and is a rich looking period piece. Director Jon S. Baird convincingly transports his audience into the film, stage, and personal worlds of Laurel and Hardy.

The screenplay by Jeff Pope squarely focuses on their friendship, as these are not good times for the two men. They’re aging, they can’t get financing for a new movie, they’re playing to small crowds, and there’s a lot of tension between them. Their friendship is pushed to its limits. And yet when they look back at their years together, they realize the value of their friendship, and it’s this realization that is the best part of the story.

The comedy, on the other hand, while light and humorous— and it’s certainly fun to see some of Laurel and Hardy’s best comic bits recreated here— is never flat-out hilarious. And so it’s not the strength of the film.

The best part of the movie by far are the performances by the two leads. They’re both excellent, which is a good thing since they’re in nearly every single scene.

Steve Coogan captures both Stan Laurel’s comic genius as well as his drive to constantly write gags for the duo. Laurel is portrayed here as a man who is almost addicted to writing, so much so that he really has time for little else. And during one of their arguments, Ollie accuses Laurel of being flat-out cold, robotic, a writing machine who has no sense of friendship or humanity.

Coogan also plays Laurel as a man carrying a lot of hurt with him, as he still feels betrayed by Ollie’s decision years earlier to make a movie without him.

John C. Reilly is just as good as Oliver Hardy. During the tour, Hardy is ailing, and Reilly does a nice job capturing the comic who continues to drive himself to perform, even against doctor’s orders. Ollie is portrayed here as a man with more balance in his life than Stan, as he’s interested in other things besides work, and while he says he doesn’t need Stan, he really does feel lost without him.

Coogan and Reilly really do make this movie, and they easily carry it along for its 98 minute running time.

Rufus Jones adds fine support as Bernard Delfont, the man responsible for arranging the European tour. He goes back and forth between sounding like a con man and a legitimate agent.

Shirley Henderson is excellent as Ollie’s wife Lucille, who is fiercely protective of her husband, and Nina Arianda is memorable as Stan’s wife Ida Kitaeva, a former dancer who doesn’t let anyone forget it.

At times, STAN & OLLIE is emotionally flat. The best scene in the movie is when Stan and Oliver finally have their huge argument, and that’s the one scene that packs a powerful punch. Other than this sequence, it’s all rather mild.

And in spite of this being a movie about Laurel and Hardy, there’s a sense of sadness that permeates the film.

That being said, I still really enjoyed STAN & OLLIE. It definitely succeeds in reacquainting modern audiences with the classic comedy duo.

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ON THE BASIS OF SEX (2018) – Ruth Bader Ginsburg Movie Makes Its Case

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ON THE BASIS OF SEX (2018) is not getting much love, and that’s too bad, because this bio pic on Ruth Bader Ginsburg happens to be a really good movie.

So, what’s the scoop? Why the cold shoulder?

For starters, it’s the second film from 2018 on the life of Supreme Court Justice Ginsburg, following the much better received and critically acclaimed documentary RBG (2018), and so it’s operating in the shadows of that film.  Likewise, RBG received some Oscar nominations. ON THE BASIS OF SEX didn’t receive any.

Critics have been lukewarm to the film, and much of the criticism has been focused on the script which a lot of folks have called superficial, which reminds me of a lot of the same things which were originally written about HIDDEN FIGURES (2016), another outstanding film which also didn’t receive much love. Initially.

ON THE BASIS OF SEX is also not performing well at the box office. I think a big reason for this is that it had a lackluster ad campaign. I know in my neck of the woods there was barely any publicity for this film.

However, I saw the movie several weeks after its initial release, and the theater was packed, and the audience certainly seemed to enjoy it.

As did I.

ON THE BASIS OF SEX opens in 1956 showing Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) entering Harvard Law School. From the get-go, Ginsburg experiences gender inequality, from professors who don’t call on her in class to an awkward dinner held by Dean Griswold (Sam Waterston) for the female law students in which he requests that they tell him why it is that they have chosen spots at the law school that could have gone to men.

The action jumps ahead to 1970 where Ginsburg is working as a law professor because no law firm would hire her because she was a woman, in spite of the fact that she graduated at the top of her class. She lives in New York City with her husband Martin (Armie Hammer), a successful tax attorney, their teenage daughter Jane (Cailee Spaeny) and their younger son James.

Ginsburg decides to take on the case of a man Charles Moritz (Chris Mulkey) who was denied a caregiver tax deduction which he filed for because he was caring for his sick mother, and he was subsequently charged because of this filing. The reason? He was a man. And the caregiver tax deduction was meant only for women because they were assumed to be the only ones who were natural caregivers. Ginsburg realizes that this is a case of gender discrimination, where the one big difference is that the victim is a man. She knows that if she can win this case, it will be a huge victory, a step towards repealing gender discrimination in other cases as well.

She takes the case, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Felicity Jones delivers a spirited performance as Ruth Bader Ginsburg. It’s certainly a potent enough performance to carry the movie, even though Jones doesn’t have to, since she receives fine support from the other actors in this one.  I really enjoyed Jones in ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY (2016) in which she played Jyn Erso, a film I have liked more each time I’ve seen it, and Jones’ performance in that movie remains one of its strongest attributes. She’s equally as good here as Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

One of the film’s highlights is the dynamic between Ginsburg and her daughter Jane, as they share key moments together, as in when Ginsburg realizes that things her daughter is saying are things she couldn’t have said fifteen years ago, opening her eyes to the realization that the times have already changed and so it’s time for the law to catch up. There’s also the realization that the work she is doing for gender rights is for her daughter’s future, which gives her drive when things look bleak.

As such, the role of Jane is a central one in the movie, and she’s well-played by Cailee Spaeny, who was equally as memorable in BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE (2018). Spaeny also looked completely different in that movie, and she played a very different role. She’s certainly a young actress to keep your eye on.

Armie Hammer plays Ginsburg’s husband Martin, and their relationship is also central to the story. Martin is diagnosed with testicular cancer while still in law school, and it’s largely Ruth’s drive to survive that helps him beat the cancer back for as long as possible. He’s also an incredibly supportive husband, and he’s one of the few males in her life who sees what she sees and constantly pushes her on to continue her work. While it’s not groundbreaking dramatic stuff, it’s one of the better performances I’ve seen Hammer give.

Justin Theroux throws in a colorful performance as ACLU director Mel Wulf, who in spite of being Ginsburg’s friend doesn’t always see things the same way she does and makes decisions which get in the way of progress.

Veteran actor Sam Waterston adds solid support as Harvard Law School Dean Erwin Griswold. His sexist comments will be sure to rankle. Kathy Bates is also on hand, albeit briefly, as Dorothy Kenyon.

The screenplay by Daniel Stiepleman, who happens to be Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s nephew, is a good one and gets the job done. It tells its story in straightforward fashion and builds to a solid climax as Ginsburg argues her case in court. The screenplay has been criticized as being “by the numbers” and superficial, but that’s not the case.  Sure, in terms of legalese, the film keeps things simple, nor does the film present Ginsburg from multiple nuanced angles. She’s a straight shooter here, and the film makes its case by getting in and out without any additional distractions or subplots. For me, the entire story worked.

Likewise, director Mimi Leder keeps things straightforward and simple as well. The film looks good, it does a nice job with costumes and setting, and I easily bought into the whole story.

ON THE BASIS OF SEX succeeds in what it sets out to do, which is to tell the story of how Ruth Bader Ginsburg overcame the odds and argued a groundbreaking gender discrimination case which would open the door for gender equality for years to come. And it does so in a manner that is both informative and emotional.

Don’t believe the naysayers.  ON THE BASIS OF SEX is worthy of some love.

Go out and see this one before it leaves the theaters.

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IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD (1964)

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Christopher Lee and Donald Sutherland in CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD (1964).

I first saw CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD (1964) in the early 1980s when I was in high school late on a Saturday night on my local UHF channel— Channel 56 in Boston— on their Creature Feature broadcast.  Channel 56 used to show the Creature Double Feature on Saturday afternoons, but then they would also show a solo horror flick usually after 11 pm on Saturday nights under the moniker Creature Feature.  Way back when, these films were a major highlight of my weekends.

I immediately noticed two things about CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD upon that first viewing all those years ago. One, although it starred Christopher Lee, it was clear that it was made on a much lower budget than the Hammer Films of the period, and two, there was something incredibly mesmerizing about it.

One of the major reasons it was so captivating then and remains so today is that it was shot on location at a real castle, the Castello Orsini-Odescalchi in Italy, and also at the rock garden in Bomarzo, Italy, which contains monstrous and weird statues, which are used to full effect in the movie. With the nonstop whistling wind in the background, there is an authenticity to this movie that remains its best attribute. You will truly feel as if you are right there with the characters spending a night at the Castle of the Living Dead.

The film also boasts a decent story.

A group of circus entertainers in 19th century France happen upon a strange castle occupied by the mysterious Count Drago (Christopher Lee) who invites them to spend the night. Nothing unusual here in terms of story, except that Count Drago is housing a terrible secret. No, he’s not a vampire, but he does have an unusual hobby that his guests are sure not to enjoy.

CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD is also the beneficiary of some atmospheric direction by Warren Kiefer, an American filmmaker who went to Italy to pursue his film career. Kiefer also wrote the script. Some prints also list Herbert Wise as the director, a pseudonym for Kiefer’s assistant director Luciano Ricci. This was done because the film was a French-Italian co-production, and for tax reasons, the Italian version needed an Italian director.

Further complicating matters regarding just who directed CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD is that Michael Reeves, the young British director who would go on to make a name for himself directing the well-regarded Vincent Price movie THE CONQUEROR WORM (1968) (aka WITCHFINDER GENERAL) before dying unexpectedly a year later, was part of Kiefer’s crew, and rumors have spread over the years that it was Reeves who largely directed CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD.

But most of these rumors have since been debunked by others on the set, and so today by most accounts it’s believed that it was Warren Kiefer who directed this movie.

Again, the best part about CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD is its atmosphere. With its grainy black and white photography, at times it looks raw and real, while at others it appears almost dreamlike, the whole thing more akin to Bergman’s THE SEVENTH SEAL (1957) than a Hammer Film. It’s creaky and it’s creepy, which is a good thing, because in terms of action and horror, not a lot happens in CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD, which is a major reason why it’s not considered a classic of horror cinema.

Kiefer also does a nice job photographing Christopher Lee here, as with the deep dark circles under his eyes, he resembles someone with a serious drug addiction.  The way Lee is photographed in this move reminds me a lot of the way Bela Lugosi looked in WHITE ZOMBIE (1932).

That being said, Count Drago is not of one Lee’s strongest performances.  Count Drago is not an evil character like Count Dracula. He’s more manipulative and neurotic a la Norman Bates. In fact, they share similar hobbies. Lee somewhat captures this about Drago, but he’s not altogether successful here. Indeed, it may not all be Lee’s fault. He said in interviews that during this movie in the post-sync stage, he had to dub his own lines without the benefit of having a script because no one had written down the movie’s dialogue on paper. Oops!

The other major star to appear in CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD is Donald Sutherland. In one of his first movie appearances, Sutherland actually plays three roles: a young soldier, an old man, and a witch. He’s most memorable as the creaky old witch.  The witch’s line, “Some will live. And some will die,” will stay with you long after you’ve seen this movie.

Sutherland got along so famously with director Warren Kiefer that he named his son after him, which is how actor Kiefer Sutherland got his name.

CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD is not a classic of low-budget horror cinema. It doesn’t quite have enough going for it to reach that level. However, it is much better than critics have given it credit for.

It plays more like a drama— think the Charles Laughton version of Victor Hugo’s THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (1939)— that evolves into a horror tale, with traces of PSYCHO (1960) and low-budget foreign cinema, evoking the same kind of flavor and deadly charm as films like MANEATER OF HYDRA (1967) but shot in black and white without any serious blood and gore.

CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD is all about atmosphere, and as such, it does not disappoint.

In the dead of winter, when everything seems cold and lifeless, there comes a barren castle occupied by Count Drago, a castle where all who visit remain, because once its secrets are exposed, it’s revealed to be truly a CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD.

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Best Movies 2018

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Here’s my list of the Top 10 Movies from 2018:

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10. BOOK CLUB – I really enjoyed this comedy starring Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Mary Steenburgen, and Candice Bergen about four friends who decide to read 50 Shades of Grey for their monthly book club, and it changes the way they think about sex and relationships during their senior years. Also starring Andy Garcia, Don Johnson, Richard Dreyfus, and Craig T. Nelson. My favorite comedy of the year.

9. WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?  – in a banner yeary for documentaries, this one was my favorite. Its recounting of the life of Fred Rogers, TV’s Mister Rogers from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, resonates deeply today, as Rogers’ message of inclusion and gentle understanding is sorely missed in today’s antagonistic and deeply divided society.

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8. ANT-MAN AND THE WASP – I enjoyed this Ant-Man sequel more than the original. Story is better, jokes and situations are funnier, and Evangeline Lily adds a lot as the Wasp and is a nice complement to Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man. Oh, and then there’s that after-credits tie-in with AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR which produced audible gasps from the audience.

7.BOY ERASED – Joel Edgerton wrote and directed this film which exposes gay conversion theory for the dangerous procedure that it is. Fine performances by Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman, and Russell Crowe, and by Edgerton himself as an unqualified leader of the conversion camp.

6. THE FRONT RUNNER – Sure, I’m partial to political movies, but this tale of Gary Hart’s fall from being the Democratic front runner in the 1988 presidential election to dropping out of the race entirely due to an exposed extra-marital affair pushed all the right buttons for me. The film asks relevant questions which are still being asked today. Hugh Jackman is terrific as Gary Hart, as is Vera Farmiga as his suffering wife Lee.

5. EIGHTH GRADE – Awesome film which completely captures what it is like to be an eighth grader. On target writing and directing by Bo Burnham, especially the dialogue, and a fantastic lead performance by Elsie Fisher as eighth grader Kayla Day.

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Elsie Fisher in EIGHTH GRADE (2018)

4. THE GUILTY – From Denmark, this claustrophobic intense police drama is as compelling as they come, the type of film Alfred Hitchcock would have made. All of the action takes place inside a police dispatch office as an officer relegated to the emergency dispatch receives a call from a woman being kidnapped, and he has to deal with the situation in real time. You’ll swear you’ve seen all the action scenes, but that will be your mind playing tricks on you, as the camera remains focused on the police officer throughout. Excellent movie, and lean, as it clocks in at a swift 85 minutes.

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3. AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR – It was an outstanding year for Marvel, as three of my top ten films this year come from the Marvel Universe. This was the biggie, the ultimate showdown between the Avengers and their most dangerous adversary yet, Thanos. Amazing superhero movie, with a big bold ending which is no longer a spoiler, which is, the bad guy wins in this one. One of the most emotional endings to any superhero movie, causing audible gasps and groans multiple times as the film races to its inevitable conclusion.

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2. ROMA – An extraordinary movie, ROMA was unlike any other film I saw this year. Unassuming simple tale of a maid working for a family in Mexico in 1970-71. Features some of the best camerawork of the year, all of it in mesmerizing black and white. Slow at first, but stick with it. The final 45 minutes is among the most emotional moments on film I saw all year.

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1. BLACK PANTHER –  My pick for the best movie of the year is another Marvel gem. This one takes the superhero movie to a whole other level, dealing with racial issues as well as any mainstream drama. My favorite superhero film since THE DARK KNIGHT (2018). I loved the conflict between hero Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and villain Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan),and one of the rare times in a superhero movie where the hero admits he’s wrong and the villain is right.  Outstanding in every way, easily my favorite movie of 2018.

So, there you have it, my picks for the Best Films of 2018.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE FAVOURITE (2018) – A Period Piece With An Edge

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Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone in THE FAVOURITE (2018).

THE FAVOURITE (2018), the latest film by acclaimed director Yorgos Lanthimos, is on many critics’ lists as one of the best films of 2018. While I liked this one well enough, I wouldn’t call it my favorite. Heh-heh.

THE FAVOURITE is a period piece with an edge. It takes place in 18th century England, and is as raunchy and vulgar as a modern-day R-rated comedy, only it presents these raw elements with much more dignity and grace.

In THE FAVOURITE, the miserable Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) rules England with a depressed demeanor, and she’s melancholy because of both physical ailments like gout and emotional ones, like the fact that all her children have died. Her friend Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) takes care of her and helps her with both her physical maladies and with the running of the country.  Lady Sarah has a keen political mind, and she has the Queen’s ear, and so many of the decisions regarding England’s involvement in its war with France are made by Lady Sarah.

And as we come to find out, these two women are more than just friends. They’re lovers.

When a young woman named Abigail (Emma Stone) arrives at the castle, she presents herself to Lady Sarah as her cousin, a woman who had been a lady but due to the fault of her father, had lost favor and had become a servant. She arrives at the castle seeking work, and Lady Sarah hires her as her personal servant.

Abigail is an enterprising young woman, and she soon works herself into the favor of Queen Anne, so much so that her presence and relationship with the queen becomes a threat to Lady Sarah. At this point, the story becomes a duel between the two women to see who will ultimately gain favor with the queen, and the only rules here are that there are no rules.

There’s certainly a lot to like about THE FAVOURITE. Probably my favorite part of the movie is that it never deteriorates into silly comedy at the expense of its story. While there is much that is funny that happens in this movie, when Abigail declares war on Lady Sarah, the ensuing battle is dark and nasty rather than upbeat and goofy. The story is still good for a few chuckles at this point, but the characters and their actions remain true to the plot.

Writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos, known for his provocative and offbeat movies like THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER (2017) and THE LOBSTER (2015), has made a much more straightforward film here with THE FAVOURITE.  I enjoyed THE LOBSTER more than THE FAVOURITE, mostly because it was such an unusual film.

While THE FAVOURITE delivers in that it successfully tells this story of these three women, it didn’t pique my interest quite the same way THE LOBSTER did. That being said, Lanthimos includes enough creative camerawork here to put his stamp on this one.

Interestingly enough, he didn’t write the screenplay here. The script was written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara. It’s a good screenplay. The dialogue is first-rate, and it’s quick and snappy, and the characters are all fleshed out. What interested me the least here was the actual story. While I was intrigued by the way Abigail and Lady Sarah went about their business in trying to impress the queen, I ultimately didn’t care all that much. Abigail is a cunning manipulative character, and while Lady Sarah is much more honest, she’s also cutthroat and abrasive.  So, while I enjoyed watching a story about these two beguiling characters, I can’t say that I liked them very much, and so ultimately they both could have failed, and I wouldn’t have cared.

Director Lanthimos has been hailed for getting the most out of his actors in THE FAVOURITE, and I would have to agree. The performances in this movie are all outstanding, from the three female leads to the supporting male characters.

I continue to be a huge Emma Stone fan. I’ve enjoyed her in nearly everything she’s done, even those awful Andrew Garfield SPIDER-MAN movies. While I enjoyed her recent performances in BATTLE OF THE SEXES (2017) and LA LA LAND (2016) more, she is still excellent here as Abigail, creating in this character a spirited enterprising woman who knows what she wants and what to do in order to get it. And we see her maltreated by enough men to feel empathy for her when she goes for it.

Rachel Weisz makes for an indomitable and focused Lady Sarah who throughout most of the movie is less sympathetic than Abigail, but that changes as the stakes get higher and the manipulations grow darker.

Olivia Colman also delivers a noteworthy performance as the long-suffering Queen Anne. The queen’s emotions and behaviors are all over the place, as she goes from happy one minute to shouting in anger the next, and Colman captures her unpredictability masterfully.

The supporting male characters are just as impressive. Nicholas Hoult nearly steals the show with a dashing performance as Robert Harley, a member of Parliament who is politically opposed to Lady Sarah. He’s mean and he’s manipulative, and as he bullies Abigail to help him, she acquiesces because his positions frequently align with hers. Hoult has been very enjoyable as Beast in the re-booted X-MEN films, and his performance here as Harley is even better.

Joe Alwyn is also memorable as Masham, the young man who is fascinated by Abigail and pursues her even as she continually proves herself to be his superior. Alwyn is having a very good year, as he has also been in BOY ERASED (2018) and OPERATION FINALE (2018).

And James Smith gives perhaps the most restrained performance in the movie, as the respected and honorable Godolphin.

I can’t say that I enjoyed the ending to THE FAVOURITE all that much. It’s not a bad ending, and it succeeds in making its point, but it seems to lack the dagger effect which stabbed at the rest of the movie.

I enjoyed THE FAVOURITE for what it was, an R-rated period piece showing that women can be just as devious as men in the world of politics, and it tells this tale of debauchery and intrigue in a raunchy bawdy manner that will have you chuckling far more than wincing.

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