IN THE SHADOWS: PATRIC KNOWLES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As always, thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

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LUCE (2019) – Provocative Tale Unlikable and Unrealistic

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Octavia Spencer, Kelvin Harrison, Jr., and Naomi Watts in LUCE (2019).

Some movies try too hard to be thought-provoking and provocative. They go out of their way to push the audience’s buttons, and as such don’t achieve their intended results.

LUCE (2019) is such a movie. While it tries to tell a worthwhile story, it just can’t seem to get out of its own way. It has characters making extreme decisions that distance it from what would otherwise be a realistic story.

LUCE opens with high school student Luce Edgar (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) giving a speech to his school community, his proud parents Amy (Naomi Watts) and Peter (Tim Roth) in the audience. Luce is a talented student, obviously the darling of his school. One of his classmates refers to him as “their Obama.” Luce is black, his adoptive parents white, as Amy and Peter adopted him when he was a young child from war-torn Eritrea.

Luce has his whole positive future ahead of him, but with that, comes a lot of pressure, responsibility, and expectation, something that Luce is definitely feeling even though he shrugs it off with his smiling persona.

A teacher Luce does not like, Ms. Wilson (Octavia Spencer) contacts Amy with some troubling news about her son. Ms. Wilson explains she assigned an essay in which the students were to write from the perspective of a historical figure, and Luce chose a militant leader who believed that killing one’s enemies held the answers to life’s problems. Worried that Luce might actually believe what he had written, considering the violent childhood he experienced, Ms. Wilson searched his locker and found illegal fireworks.

Amy is shocked that Ms. Wilson violated her son’s rights and went into his locker without his permission, but the teacher assures her she only has Luce’s best interests at heart. She gives Amy the fireworks and asks her to have a conversation with her son. Amy does, and Luce’s answer is one, he wrote the essay in the mindset of its subject, not his own, and two, he and his friends share lockers, and so they often put things there that aren’t his. He also describes Ms. Wilson as the type of teacher who crosses the line, who makes examples of students, and who was responsible for getting his friend kicked off the track team.

Amy and Peter seem satisfied with Luce’s answers, although they go back and forth with different elements of his story, but when more accusations arise from Ms. Wilson, they believe that she has it out for their son.

If only the story were this simple.

But it’s not. See, from the get-go, even though Luce has all the right answers, it’s clear from watching him interact with his parents and his teacher, that there is something more going on. In short, he’s not so innocent. But just what is he guilty of, exactly? What is he doing, and why is he doing it? And hence, the thought-provoking aspects of the story come into play.

Luce is feeling a lot of pressure. Everyone looks up to him, and he feels the stress of expectation. He also feels responsible for his friends, and so when his buddy is kicked off the track team for having weed in his locker and as a result loses a scholarship, ruining his only chance of going to college, Luce is outraged that his friend is made an example of, and yet he is largely left unscathed.

And then there are the decisions made by certain characters which didn’t always seem real. Parents Amy and Peter make the extreme decision to lie and potentially ruin another person’s career to protect their son’s future.

Ms. Wilson in spite of her best intentions fails to communicate properly with her school’s administration, with Luce’s parents, and ultimately with Luce. She goes it alone which is almost always a disaster. Ms. Wilson messes up so badly it’s difficult to take her character seriously.

And Luce himself is an odd character. Supposedly the darling of his school, he is nonetheless manipulative, secretive, and downright sinister. The first two categories make him like a lot of high school teenagers, but the last one, the sinister angle, that one made him less real and far more contrived. At the end of the day, I didn’t like Luce one iota, and I also didn’t think he came off as a real person.

It’s a humorless screenplay by Julius Onah, who also directed, and J.C. Lee, based on Lee’s play of the same name. The point seems to be this is how difficult life is for a teenage boy like Luce, but Luce ultimately is such an annoying character I didn’t care how difficult his life was.

His parents Amy and Peter are just as annoying. When they lie to protect their son, they do so knowing full well that their decision will ruin a teacher’s career. Oh well. Gotta protect our son. The future needs him.

Really?

The one thing that LUCE has going for it is the acting. Naomi Watts, Tim Roth, and Octavia Spencer are all excellent, but it’s young Kelvin Harrison Jr. who steals the show as Luce. He nails the teen’s smooth talking exterior, his inner conflict, and his unabashed self-confidence that he can do just about anything. One thing though I didn’t like was from the get-go, I did not trust Luce, and so I thought Harrison played up that angle a little too much. Harrison was also excellent in the above average horror movie IT COMES AT NIGHT (2017).

I also enjoyed Andrea Bang as Luce’s girlfriend Stephanie.

And the film does have a potent hard-hitting music score by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury which adds to the story’s dissonance.

But that being said, there really wasn’t much else to enjoy about LUCE as it’s not an enjoyable movie, and this is on purpose. Director Julius Onah seems to be saying that life for youths like Luce is complicated and tough, and getting through it is no picnic. But the way Luce and his family go about it raises red flags throughout and removes this potential thought-provoking story from any kind of realistic conversation.

LUCE ends as it begins, with Luce delivering a powerful speech to his school community. In this speech, Luce talks about being proud to be an American, because here in America, people get second chances. They get to move on from their mistakes, learn from them, and become better people.

All well and good, except that in this case, I don’t think Luce and his family deserve a second chance because they lied and manipulated their way through the first one.

—END—

 

THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON (2019) – Story of Down Syndrome Youth One of Year’s Best

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Shia LaBeouf, Dakota Johnson, and newcomer Zack Gottsagen in THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON (2019).

THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON (2019) is certainly a feel-good movie.

It tells a winning story, and with its talented, experienced cast, it delivers the goods.

THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON is the story of a young man with Down syndrome named Zak (Zack Gottsagen, making his film debut). His family abandoned him, and so he is living in a retirement home. Even though he receives attentive care from his case worker Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), Zak is unhappy.

He continually watches a video featuring pro-wrestler The Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church) which advertises the wrestler’s pro-wrestling school in North Carolina. Zak wants to travel to that school, meet his idol, and become a wrestler. With the help of his roommate Carl (Bruce Dern), Zak escapes.

On the run, Zak crosses paths with Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), a drifter who’s on the run himself, fleeing from some undesirables who are out for revenge after Tyler purposely damaged some of their property. Tyler is an unhappy man who’s trying to exorcise some personal demons, most involving the death of his older brother. Tyler initially wants no part of Zak, but after saving Zak from a bully, he changes his tune and listens to Zak’s story of wanting to meet The Salt Water Redneck.

Tyler promises to get Zak to North Carolina, and the two embark on a journey to fulfill Zak’s dreams, while being pursued by the men who are after Tyler.

Meanwhile, Eleanor learns that the retirement home is not going to report Zak’s disappearance to the state, and they task her with finding him herself. Furthermore, the home intends to transfer him to a facility which houses some rather dangerous occupants. When she finally catches up with Zak and Tyler and sees the bond which Zak has formed with the drifter, she’s not in any hurry to bring Zak back to an uncertain future with the state, and so she joins the two on their quest to make Zak’s dream become a reality.

It may sound sappy, but it’s not. Far from it, THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON is a heartwarming film that has a lot to say about relationships and how to treat people with disabilities.

One of my favorite scenes in the film is when Eleanor first catches up with Zak and Tyler and instantly becomes very protective and parental with Zak, and Tyler tells her to stop acting that way, that Zak is more than capable of taking care of himself. In fact, Tyler teaches Zak how to swim, how to shoot a gun, and most importantly, how to believe in himself.

I really liked the way Zak was depicted in this movie, and I thought the portrayal of a man with Down syndrome here was extremely accurate.

The film does such a powerful job with its story elements, that the film’s climax, which involves Zak’s finally getting his chance inside a wrestling ring, at the same time that the men chasing Tyler close in for the kill, actually produced audible gasps from the audience. It’s been a while since I experienced that in a theater. [Okay, it hasn’t been that long, as there were plenty of gasps at the end of AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (2018), but before that, it had been a while!]

The cast here is awesome.

Zack Gottsagen, who has Down syndrome in real life, makes his film debut here and is flawless in the role of Zak. He obviously nails the authenticity of the role, but more than that, he possesses a screen presence and timing that someone who does not have acting talent would not have been able to do. When Tyler asks him to repeat Rule #1 to him, and Zak says “Party!” not only is it a fresh moment in the movie, but it was also ad-libbed by Gottsagen.

I’ve never been a big fan of Shia LeBeouf, but he knocks it out of the park here, in a role that was originally intended for Ben Foster. It just might be the best screen performance I’ve seen LeBeouf give. He makes Tyler real, gritty, and earthy, and he makes him just as authentic a character as Gottsagen makes Zak.

Dakota Johnson is also perfect as Eleanor. I’ve enjoyed her in other movies, films like BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE (2018) and NEED FOR SPEED (2014), and I’m so glad she’s moved on from the awful FIFTY SHADES OF GREY movies. She’s a talented actor, and I can’t wait to see what she will do next. Here, in THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON, she creates in Eleanor a character who’s sincere, well-meaning, and also cognizant that the state isn’t really the best provider for a person with Zak’s needs.

Thomas Haden Church also does a fine job during the film’s climax as Zak’s wrestling hero, The Salt Water Redneck. And any time you can have Bruce Dern in a movie’s cast, even in a small supporting role, it’s a major plus. He only has a couple of minutes of screen time, but he makes the most of it, similar to what he did earlier this year in Quentin Tarantino’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD (2019).

THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON was written and directed by Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz, and they do a phenomenal job. The characters are all sharply written, no clichés here, and the story moves along at a solid pace that keeps the audience riveted to the story throughout. It’s also beautifully photographed, in the southern waters of Georgia and North Carolina.

The Peanut Butter Falcon refers to the name Zak chooses to be his wrestling alter ego when he’s in the ring.

I really enjoyed THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON.

It’s one of the best movies of the year.

—END—

 

BRIAN BANKS (2019) – Inspirational True Story of One Man’s Fight to Clear His Name

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BRIAN BANKS (2019), based on the inspirational true story of Brian Banks, a black man wrongly imprisoned for rape who fought his way back to clear his name and eventually play football in the NFL, offers no surprises.

None.

The story plays out exactly as you expect it to, and yet, this hardly seems to matter because at the end of the day, BRIAN BANKS is a solid, well-told story that makes its point and moves its audience to tears.

Sure, it’s safe and sanitized, the type of movie that easily could have been the TV movie of the week back in the day. It’s not gritty. It’s not R-rated. Some would call this inferior filmmaking, missing an opportunity to tell a story well and make an impact. For me, it all comes down to how a film is executed. I like safe sanitized movies as well as hard gritty ones, as long they do a good job telling their stories. BRIAN BANKS tells its story well.

Brian Banks (Aldis Hodge) was an up and coming football star, breaking school records and attracting attention of college football scouts. But when he was 16 years old, he was accused of rape, a crime he said he did not commit. Encouraged by his attorney to plead “no contest” which would be the same as “guilty” but would most likely mean no jail time, the youth agreed, only to watch in horror as the judge slapped a six-year jail sentence on him, as well as requiring him to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life.

Most of BRIAN BANKS takes place after Brian has been released from prison, although his prison experience is shown via flashback. As a young man in his twenties, an ex-con and registered sex-offender, Brian struggles to find work, as no one will hire him, and he lives with his supportive mother Leomia (Sherri Shepherd). He also has to contend with an overbearing parole officer (Dorian Missick) who constantly reminds Brian when he’s too close to a school or playground.

Brian finds it next to impossible to move on with his life, but he knows he’s innocent, and so he contacts attorney Justin Brooks (Greg Kinnear) who specializes in fighting for people who have been falsely convicted of crimes. Justin empathizes with Brian, but tells him that unless he can come up with some new and extraordinary evidence, his case will not be overturned, and so Brian sets out to do just that.

As I said, BRIAN BANKS offers no surprises. You know where this one is going to go, but since it’s going to a satisfactory place, the predictability of it all is not a problem.

At first, the screenplay by Doug Atchison raised an eyebrow. As Brian tells his story to Justin Brooks, he explains that he and the female student went to the section of the school known as a place where students make out, with the express intent of making out with this girl, but when a teacher walks by, it spooks Brian and not wanting to do anything that jeopardizes his future career, he changes his mind and walks away, leaving the spurned girl to make up the charge of rape.

Well, that’s believable.

Not.

You walked away? On your own? And the girl made the whole think up?

I don’t think so!

But the film covers its tracks by having Brian’s current girlfriend Karina (Melanie Liburd) be a sexual assault victim herself. When Brian first tells her his story, she apologizes and then leaves him alone at a restaurant table. But as she gets to know him, she finds herself believing in him, and eventually falls for him.

BRIAN BANKS really isn’t about the he said/she said of sexual assault. The film never really calls into question Brian’s innocence. He’s innocent. The system failed him. That’s the message of the film.  What BRIAN  BANKS really is about is resilience.

In prison. an angry and bitter Brian meets a wise old man, played by an uncredited Morgan Freeman, who becomes Brian’s mentor. He teaches Brian to let his anger go, and presents him with a creed that states that life is not about what happens to you, but how you respond to life’s adversities.

And that’s really what BRIAN BANKS is about and why the film ultimately succeeds. Brian Banks is a man who simply refuses to give up, who believes that the one thing he can control is how hard he fights for his freedom, and it’s a fight he refuses to give up on. As depicted in the movie, Brian really is an inspirational character.

Doug Atchison’s screenplay deals with sexual assault and the failings of our legal system but largely avoids race issues. The fact that Brian is black is hardly mentioned in the film. More than a story about race, it’s a story about perseverance and the pursuit of truth.

Director Tom Shadyac takes what could have been a hard-hitting gritty story and sanitizes it to the point where it could have been made by Disney. But since Banks’ relentless pursuit of the truth is so admirable, it hardly seems to matter. Shadyac is a director known for his comedies, films like BRUCE ALMIGHTY (2003), THE NUTTY PROFESSOR (1996) and ACE VENTURA: PET DETECTIVE (1994). There’s nothing comedic about BRIAN BANKS, and Shadyak seems quite comfortable telling this story.

Aldis Hodge is solid and sympathetic in the lead as Brian Banks. He captures Banks’ spirit and makes his journey a believable one. Hodge has been in a bunch of things over the years, from HIDDEN FIGURES (2016) and JACK REACHER: NEVER GO BACK (2016) to the TV shows BLACK MIRROR (2017) and THE WALKING DEAD (2014) to name just a few.

Likewise, Greg Kinnear is very good as attorney Justin Brooks, who eventually is won over by Banks and decides to take his case. Although Kinnear has been working steadily, it’s been a while since I’ve seen him on the big screen. I believe for me it’s been since LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE (2006).

Both Sherri Shepherd as Brian’s mom and Melanie Liburd as his girlfriend also turn in strong performances, as does Xosha Roquemore as Kennisha Rice, the woman who as it turns out falsely accused Brian of rape.

Likewise, Tiffany Dupont makes her mark as Alissa Bjerkhoel, who works for Justin Brooks and who was instrumental in encouraging Brooks to take Brian’s case.

And Dorian Missick is very good as the hard-nosed parole officer Mick Randolph. Missick has also been in a ton of things, from playing “Cockroach” on LUKE CAGE (2018) to appearances on LUCIFER (2016) and BETTER CALL SAUL (2015).

BRIAN BANKS is the type of film that at first seems difficult to recommend. It’s pretty straightforward, and the direction its story takes is pretty much a no-brainer.

But what it does do well is create a sympathetic and inspirational character, albeit based on a real life person, in Brian Banks, so much so that you can easily buy into his plight, feel his pain, and celebrate his victory.

—END—

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

But the substance? The story?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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MIDSOMMAR (2019) – Mesmerizing, Repulsive Horror Movie Will Churn Your Stomach

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Dani (Florence Pugh) and Christian (Jack Reynor) don’t know what they’re getting themselves into in MIDSOMMAR (2019).

MIDSOMMAR (2019) is the most unpleasant film I’ve seen this year.

But that doesn’t mean it’s not really good.

Written and directed by Ari Aster, the man who gave us the critically acclaimed horror movie HEREDITARY (2018), a film I was only lukewarm to because of a key plot reveal midway through which just didn’t work for me, MIDSOMMAR is a mesmerizing, methodical movie that is drawing comparisons to the classic THE WICKER MAN (1973) which starred Christopher Lee and is one of the finest horror movies ever made. The comparison is apt and well-earned. MIDSOMMAR is a very good movie, driven by an exceedingly well-written script by Aster that does so many things right.

The film opens with an emotional pre-credit sequence in which we meet a rather anxious young woman named Dani (Florence Pugh) who’s reacting to a cryptic yet disturbing text from her bipolar sister. She seeks comfort and reassurance from her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor), who downplays the text and tells her things will be fine. Christian is on the fence with this relationship, and his best buddies continually urge him to move on from Dani, claiming she’s much too needy and not worth the trouble. But before he can take action, Dani learns that her sister murdered her parents and then took her own life. Needless to say, Dani is devastated and nearly destroyed by this event.

And this is just what happens before the opening credits!

MIDSOMMAR hooked me right away, and I was ready and willing to follow these characters wherever the story led them, which in this case was Sweden.

Christian and his buddies had been planning a trip to Sweden, and because of what had happened with Dani, Christian decides to invite his girlfriend as well. In Sweden, their friend Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) invites them to spend time at his family’s commune, where they will be celebrating a summer festival.

The commune is odd to say the least, but Dani, Christian, and their friends decide to keep an open mind because, well, that’s what one does, right? These places aren’t really harmful. Are they?

What follows is an increasingly disturbing tale that takes its time building unease and repugnance as the members of this community gradually make their intentions clear, intentions that are anything but harmless.

MIDSOMMAR is a superiorly crafted horror movie. Not all of it works, but enough of it does to make it one of the better films I’ve seen this year. That being said, it’s not a film I want to see again any time soon.

As I said, one of the biggest strengths of this movie is the screenplay by Ari Aster, and it succeeds on two fronts here, the characters and the story.

Aster does a phenomenal job creating the characters here. Dani, even before the murder/suicide, was a broken person, in desperate need of support from family and friends, and she simply wasn’t getting this support. After the murder/suicide, she’s so damaged she’s a random comment away from crying and sobbing. At first, Dani is uncomfortable meeting the folks in Pelle’s community, but as he speaks to her about his own loss, how he lost his own parents, and how these people took him in and gave him a sense of belonging, Dani pivots, gravitating towards the desire to be wanted, to be whole, not broken, and these impulses prevent her from fleeing.

And the reason she’s not feeling whole in the first place is because Christian and his friends are terrible at empathy. Christian and his friends Josh and Mark are cold, emotionless young men, with no sense of loyalty beyond their individual selves. They possess all the passion of a smart phone. They also come off as real people, not clichéd jerks we so often see in movies.

Aster also crafts a compelling story that is on the money from beginning to end, with no distracting plot reveals or twists to be found. This is one where what you see is what you get. The community has some very different ideas, but every time things seem to have gone too far, things are explained, and the guests’ fears are contained. For example, in one of the most brutal scenes in the entire movie, involving the violent deaths of two elderly people, the rationale is that the deaths are actually quite humane, which gets Christian and his buddies rationalizing that “back home we deposit our elderly into nursing homes which these people probably find just as offensive.”

There are some horrific scenes here, some of which are wince-inducing. MIDSOMMAR is indeed scary, not in the jump-scare way, but in the way that gets under your skin and makes you want to leave the theater.

Florence Pugh is excellent as Dani. She captures the character’s pain and insecurities, and as the movie goes on, her changing desires as well. Pugh was also exceptional earlier this year in the lead role in the wrestling comedy FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY (2019), one of my favorite films of 2019. Combined with her work here in MIDSOMMAR, she’s now appeared in two of the better films of the year. Pugh also starred in the TV mini-series THE LITTLE DRUMMER GIRL (2018).

Jack Reynor is cold and clueless as Christian, who is a complete fail as a boyfriend, yet somehow never comes off as a jerk, but instead as a self-centered small-minded person. William Jackson Harper as Josh and Will Poulter as Mark, are equally as good as Christian’s buddies who are as frosty and self-centered as he is.

Even better is Vilhelm Blomgren as Pelle, their Swedish friend who invites them to his commune, and who later begins to exert an influence on Dani that allows her to see things differently.

MIDSOMMAR takes its sweet time, and this is one issue I had with the film. Its 147 minute running time is a bit much, and I think the story could have been equally effective had it been edited down a good 20-25 minutes.

The photography is outstanding, and the images exceedingly disturbing. Even the simple act of drinking a beverage will sicken you when you realize what the character is drinking.

And while MIDSOMMAR is rightly compared to THE WICKER MAN, it’s not a remake or reimagining of that movie. They just share similar themes and looks.

MIDSOMMAR is a very good movie, a meticulously made horror movie, and it succeeds because it’s not the usual standard by-the-numbers horror movie fare. No jump scares or frightened teenagers walking in dark hallways here. No. In MIDSOMMAR, everything happens in broad daylight, under a bright summer sun, outside, in the seemingly ceaseless beauty of nature.

Except in this case, nature is anything but beautiful. On the contrary, it’s vile, violent, and revulsive.

The horror in MIDSOMMAR will churn your stomach. It’s the type of movie that when the end credits roll and you exit the theater, you’ll be happy to step back into the real world, where you can remind yourself that what you just experienced was only a movie.

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ROCKETMAN (2019) Rocks

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

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

Nearly everything about this movie works.

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

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

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

I loved ROCKETMAN.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And there are many more.

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

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

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

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