THE HIGHWAYMEN (2019) – Costner/Harrelson Pairing Low Key and Lackluster

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The pairing of Kevin Costner with Woody Harrelson immediately piqued my interest and had me tuning into the premiere of THE HIGHWAYMEN (2019), Netflix’ latest original streaming movie release.

Costner and Harrelson play Texas Rangers who are called out of retirement to hunt down Bonnie and Clyde in this period piece drama based on a true story.

It’s 1934, and Texas governor Ma Ferguson (Kathy Bates) is fed up with the elusive Bonnie and Clyde. She accepts the advice of prison warden Lee Simmons (John Carroll Lynch) to hire former Texas Ranger Frank Hamer (Kevin Costner) to  do what the current slew of FBI agents are unable to do: track down and kill Bonnie and Clyde. Hamer agrees to take the job, and helping him is his former associate Maney Gault (Woody Harrelson).

To do the job, Hamer and Gault have to dust off the cobwebs of retirement and deal with being a lot older, but once they feel they are up to speed, they’re hot on the trail of the infamous outlaws.

I was really into seeing THE HIGHWAYMEN because of the pairing of Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson, but surprisingly the two actors share little chemistry onscreen together.

Costner is very low-key as Frank Hamer, and as such, he just never really came to life for me. I never quite believed he was the infamous Texas Ranger who had killed so many people in the line of duty.

Woody Harrelson fares better as Maney Gault, and Harrelson’s scenes and lines of dialogue were among my favorite in the movie. But his character plays second fiddle to Costner’s and the story never really becomes about him.

And Kathy Bates, John Carroll Lynch, and Kim Dickens all have limited impact with very small roles.

There’s also not a whole lot that’s cinematic about this one. It plays like a mediocre TV movie of old, and watching it at home on Netflix only added to this substandard feel. Director John Lee Hancock even keeps the R-rated violence somehow tame.

Hancock’s previous film THE FOUNDER (2016), a bio pic on McDonald’s controversial “founder” Ray Kroc, which starred Michael Keaton in the lead role, was a much better movie than THE HIGHWAYMEN. In THE FOUNDER, Hancock pushed all the right buttons, including capturing the look and feel of the 1950s. Here in THE HIGHWAYMEN his take on the 1930s is less impressive.

Hancock also directed the critically acclaimed THE BLIND SIDE (2009).

The screenplay by John Fusco focuses completely on Hamer and Gault and strangely spends hardly no time at all on Bonnie and Clyde. In fact, the infamous pair are barely even seen here. It’s a decision that doesn’t really help the story, because even though Hamer and Gault continually talk about how monstrous Bonnie and Clyde are, and even though we see the pair commit murder, because so little time is spent on them we never really feel their menace.

As a result, Hamer’s and Gault’s quest is largely one-sided. It’s hard to join them in their passion when we never see the object of their manhunt.

The dialogue was average, with most of the good lines all going to Woody Harrelson.

I also was looking forward to watching these two characters deal with their advanced years as they hunted down the younger Bonnie and Clyde, but the script doesn’t play up this angle very effectively either.

All in all, I found THE HIGHWAYMEN to be lethargic and lackluster. It never really ignited any sparks, and the two leads surprisingly never really connected.

At the end of the day, THE HIGHWAYMEN was more roadblock than highway.

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HOTEL MUMBAI (2019) – Brutal Re-Telling of Mumbai Terrorist Attack

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In 2008, terrorists stormed the famed Taj Hotel in Mumbai, India, killing and wounding hundreds of people. With only a miniscule police force outside the hotel, and special forces units hours away, it fell upon the hotel staff to protect the hotel’s guests. HOTEL MUMBAI (2019) tells their story.

Unfortunately, it also tells the story of the actual terrorists, as the film attempts to point out that the terrorists were young men who were obviously duped by their unseen leader to carry out these vicious attacks. This part of the movie, although minor, doesn’t work as well as the rest.

The best part of HOTEL MUMBAI is the stories it tells of the victims hiding inside the hotel.

Arjun (Dev Patel) is married, has a young son, and his wife is pregnant with their next child. He works at the hotel, and money is tight, and so he desperately needs this job. When he forgets his shoes, he’s scolded by the head chef Oberoi (Anupam Kher) and told to go home, but he begs to stay, and Oberoi relents and offers him a spare pair of shoes in his office.

David (Armie Hammer) and Zahra (Nazanin Boniadi) are a multicultural couple. He’s American and she’s Indian. They’re at the hotel with their baby and baby’s nanny Sally (Tilda Cobham-Hervey).

Once the terrorists storm the hotel, head chef Oberoi is the one who pretty much organizes the resistance, helping to move as many guests as possible into the most secure area of the hotel.

As the terrorists move freely about the building, with special forces hours away, the story becomes more harrowing as the guests gradually begin to run out of options. There are only so many places they can hide, and the gunmen, armed with assault rifles and grenades, continue their onslaught with frightening persistence.

The scenes of death and carnage in HOTEL MUMBAI are brutal and difficult to watch. Some have suggested that these scenes border on the exploitative. I wouldn’t go that far, but I will say that watching the gunmen march boldly through the hotel killing innocent people indiscriminately, taking their time about it because law enforcement was nowhere in sight, was wince inducing. But it also bolsters the story. The film makes clear the awful fate that awaits the guests if they’re spotted by the terrorists.

HOTEL MUMBAI works best when following the plight of the survivors, the frightened guests, and the brave hotel staff who did their best to protect them. Writer/director Anthony Maras and screenwriter John Collee flesh out the characters in a relatively brief time. I really cared for all of these folks, which made the movie that more effective.

And the cast also helps. Oscar nominee Dev Patel comes closest to playing a lead character, as the main story is framed around Arjun. Patel, who was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for LION (2016), and who also starred in SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE (2008) and CHAPPIE (2015), is as expected excellent here. Arjun is both a sympathetic and very brave character, putting his life on the line for the hotel guests.

Armie Hammer, who we just saw in ON THE BASIS OF SEX (2018) where he played Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s husband Martin, is very good here as David. The scenes where he makes his way back up to his room to rescue his baby and Sally are extremely compelling.

Nazanin Boniadi is equally as good as David’s wife Zahra. She too has to brave the bloody corridors of the hotel to find her family. And Tilda Cobham-Hervey, who spends most of the movie protecting Zahra’s and David’s baby is excellent as the terrified Sally.

I also enjoyed Jason Isaacs, who recently played Captain Gabriel Lorca on STAR TREK: DISCOVERY (2017-18), and who also starred in the impressive horror movie A CURE FOR WELLNESS (2016). Here he plays a Russian operative named Vasili who’s a guest at the hotel and befriends Zahra once the terrorists attack. Not only does he get some of the best lines in the film, but he’s the only character in the movie inside the hotel with any kind of military experience.

My favorite performance in the film however probably belongs to Anupam Kher as head chef Oberoi. He makes Oberoi the ultimate professional, and when he’s tasked with protecting the guests, he accepts the challenge and does what he can. What I particularly liked about this character and Kher’s performance is that he doesn’t suddenly become an action hero. He’s a chef, and what he can do to help these people is limited. The help he can offer is based on his knowledge of the hotel, knowing where the safest place is to keep the guests, and also his cool demeanor as head chef serves him well in keeping the people calm.

Kher was also memorable in SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (2012) and THE BIG SICK (2016). He’s a character actor who makes his mark every time I see him in a movie, even if he’s playing a relatively small role.

As I said, HOTEL MUMBAI also portrays the terrorists as young men pretty much brainwashed by their unseen leader who speaks to them on the phone and coldly encourages them to kill as many people as possible, all in the name of Allah. While the film should be commended for taking this approach— it’s always a good idea to present as many sides to a story as possible— it didn’t really win me over. Watching them brutally murder people, I didn’t really want to know anything about them, nor did I feel sympathy for them. In fact, I probably would have enjoyed the movie more had it not featured any background on these killers at all. Intellectually, I understood the approach, but emotionally I rebelled against it.

The film does a better job pointing out that the Muslim terrorists do not represent all Muslims. Zahra is also Muslim, and her confrontation with one of the terrorists, one of the most riveting scenes in the movie, is symbolic of this difference.

The other subplot that also really works is the small security force which realizes that even though they are outmanned and outgunned, they have to do something to fight back, and so they venture back into the hotel in an attempt to commandeer the security cameras so they can at least get a fix on the terrorists’ positions inside the hotel. Theirs is also a harrowing story.

HOTEL MUMBAI is a riveting and oftentimes disturbing re-telling of the deadly terrorist attack on the Taj Hotel. I hesitate to say I enjoyed this film because it’s not a comfortable movie to sit through, but it succeeds in telling its edge-of-your seat story of a small group of hotel guests and staff who banded together to fight for their survival against a merciless group of vicious gunmen.

While I may not have “enjoyed” it, I highly recommend it.

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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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ROMA (2018) – Filmmaking At Its Finest

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Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) at work in ROMA (2018)

ROMA (2018) is unlike any other movie I’ve seen this year.

Unpretentious, and seemingly effortless in the making, it offers a slice of life look at a young maid who works for a Mexican family in the neighborhood known as Roma during 1970-71. It’s as authentic a movie as you will ever find in that you’ll forget you’re watching a movie as you will be absorbed in the daily life of this woman and the family she serves, and the beauty of it is, after over two hours of what can only be described as a slow-moving story arc, you will not want it to be over.  You’ll want to watch another two hours plus of what happens to these people. That’s how good this movie is.

ROMA was written and directed by Alfonso Cuaron, who won the Best Director Oscar for his work on the science fiction movie GRAVITY (2013), a film I enjoyed a lot. ROMA is a better movie than GRAVITY. It’s also a more personal one for Cuaron, who tells a tale that is largely autobiographical, based on his upbringing in Mexico, about the love he as a child and the rest of his family shared for their maid who as shown in the movie is more than just hired help. Since she is largely responsible for raising the children, she’s also part of the family.

ROMA tells the story of Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) a young maid who works for a Mexican family inside a rather wealthy home. The parents, a doctor and his wife, are having marital problems, and the doctor soon moves out of the home. We see Cleo’s day-to-day activities, all the work she does, including cooking, laundry, picking the kids up from school, and cleaning up after the dogs. Indeed, dog poop is a central metaphor in this movie. Here is a family that should be happy, and indeed they seem to be, but life is a grind, and even if you work hard at it, poop still piles up. Yup, sh*t happens.

We watch as Cleo goes out with her friends and a young man she likes, and she soon becomes pregnant. A common theme in the film is the abandonment of women by men, and so the father of Cleo’s baby not only wants nothing to do with her, but threatens her if she ever comes to see him again.

Amid the backdrop of political unrest in 1971 Mexico, things heat up towards the end of the movie as Cleo’s personal story as well as her involvement with the family reach an emotional climax.

I first heard about ROMA a short time ago when it began showing up on critics’ lists as the best movie of the year. Thanks to a direct release on Netflix, I was able to see this one at home, and I’m glad I did.

As I said, this one is slow, very slow, so you have to be patient with it, but it does move towards a huge payoff. Indeed, the final 45 minutes of ROMA are among the most emotional minutes of any film I’ve seen this year. It really delivers.

And ROMA is more than just “sitting through the slow parts to get to the end.” I thoroughly enjoyed the first 90 minutes, and then the final act arrives and the film reaches a whole other level.

I used the word effortless to describe this movie, and I did so because it’s a film where everything seems authentic, and the camerawork relaxed. You hardly think you are watching a movie. But truth be told you don’t make a movie like this accidentally.  There is a tremendous amount of artistry going on here with Cuaron’s use of the camera. The camerawork is nothing short of amazing.

There are so many memorable images in this film, so many moments where you will be blown away by the way things are shot and framed, and all of it in mesmerizing black and white photography.

There’s a scene where Cleo is doing laundry on the roof, and at the end of the sequence, the camera pulls back and you see all these clothes hanging to dry, to give you some perspective at just how much work she has done, and the camera continues to pull back and you see the entire neighborhood.

The scene at a New Year’s party where Cleo witnesses the beginnings of a forest fire in the distance is almost mystical, almost supernatural. And the camerawork during the final act is even more intense, from the rioting, to the riveting birth scene when Cleo goes into labor, and the final sequence on the beach, where you can almost smell the ocean, feel the huge salt water waves on your body.

Cuaron establishes such a sense of place, and he does this not only with the camera but also with sounds.  The sound work in this movie is extraordinary. Dogs barking, airplanes flying overhead, the quirky bands marching up and down the street, the strange street vendor singing out early in the morning. I really felt as if I were there in Roma in 1971.

Animals play an important part in the landscape. They’re everywhere, especially dogs. Also, huge planes frequently fly overhead in the distant sky. It’s as if Cuaron travelled back in time and captured everything from his childhood. It all comes to life.

The performances are also authentic and genuine, especially Yalitza Aparicio as Cleo, who captures the essence of a young woman who carries with her a quiet strength that is able to cut through all the menial tasks and makes her someone the children in the household truly love. In one telling scene, for example, where she visits the father of her child who’s taking part in martial arts training, we see the leader of the training challenge the men to take up a difficult physical position which seems at first simple, but he challenges them to try it. They all fail, but in one quick shot of the bystanders, we see Cleo try and succeed.

The child actors here are all excellent, and I also enjoyed Marina de Tavira as the mother of the household, Sofia, and Veronica Garcia also has some key scenes as the grandmother, Teresa. She walks and dresses like so many of the grandmothers I remember from my own childhood back in 1971.

ROMA is filmmaking at its finest. If you want to see a movie that displays some of the best camerawork of the year, with one of the more unassuming stories, with one of the most emotional payoffs and climaxes in a long while, then you should see ROMA.

It’s already on many critics’ lists as the best film of the year, and while I haven’t finalized my 2018 list yet, it’s certainly going to be up there.

I loved ROMA. Without doubt, it’s one of my favorite movies of 2018.

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Books by Michael Arruda:

New in 2019! DARK CORNERS, Michael Arruda’s second short story collection, contains ten tales of horror, six reprints and four stories original to this collection.

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Waiting for you in Dark Corners are tales of vampires, monsters, werewolves, demonic circus animals, and eternal darkness. Be prepared to be both frightened and entertained. You never know what you will find lurking in dark corners.

Ebook: $3.99. Available at http://www.crossroadspress.com and at Amazon.com.  Print on demand version coming soon!

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

How far would you go to save your family? Would you change the course of time? That’s the decision facing Adam Cabral in this mind-bending science fiction adventure by Michael Arruda.

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

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

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Michael Arruda reviews horror movies throughout history, from the silent classics of the 1920s, Universal horror from the 1930s-40s, Hammer Films of the 1950s-70s, all the way through the instant classics of today. If you like to read about horror movies, this is the book for you!

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

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

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Michael Arruda’s first short story collection, featuring a wraparound story which links all the tales together, asks the question: can you have a relationship when your partner is surrounded by the supernatural? If you thought normal relationships were difficult, wait to you read about what the folks in these stories have to deal with. For the love of horror!

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

 

 

 

BEIRUT (2018) – Complex Thriller Driven by Strong Performances

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BEIRUT (2018) is a complex thriller about a hostage negotiation in 1982 Beirut. Driven by strong performances by Jon Hamm and Rosamund Pike, the film does a lot of things well and more than makes up for its lack of supporting character development and peripheral plot.

The movie opens in 1972 Beirut with American diplomat Mason Skiles (Jon Hamm) hosting a dinner party with his wife for a group of dignitaries, including a United States Congressman, where Mason explains the current intricate political situation inside Lebanon. When Mason’s best friend Cal (Mark Pellegrino) arrives with the shocking news that the thirteen year-old boy Mason and his wife have taken into their home and consider a part of their family is the younger brother of the world’s most wanted terrorist, and the U.S. authorities want to extract the boy that very night. Mason refuses, and in the middle of his argument with Cal, gunmen open fire on the party and whisk the boy away before the U.S. agents can take him.  In the process, Mason’s wife is shot and killed.

The story picks up ten years later and finds Mason back in the U.S. working as a mediator and negotiator for local labor disputes. He has left his former life behind him, having walked away from both Beirut and his friend Cal immediately after the shooting, and he hasn’t spoken to his former friend since he left.

But all that changes when he is approached by a group of federal agents who want his help.  It seems that an American was taken hostage in Beirut, and the kidnappers demanded that Mason handle the negotiation.  Mason balks at the idea and says that the kidnappers simply pulled his name out of a hat. The agents then inform Mason that the hostage is his friend Cal.

Against his better judgement but not wanting to abandon Cal a second time, Mason returns to Beirut to negotiate the release of his best friend.

BEIRUT tells a compelling enough story and for the most part keeps its intricate tale from becoming too confusing. It’s a decent screenplay by Tony Gilroy, as one would expect as Gilroy also penned screenplays for the BOURNE movies and more recently he was one of the writers involved with ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY (2016).

BEIRUT reminded me a little bit of ARGO (2012), the Ben Affleck movie which won Best Picture in 2012. Both films share suspenseful hostage stories and international intrigue, although ARGO told the better story by far.

The story BEIRUT tells is not as memorable, nor is it as riveting since one of the weaknesses of the screenplay is the supporting characters aren’t really developed. In ARGO, the audience gets to know the hostages. In BEIRUT, very little is known about hostage Cal, and so even though the proceedings are very interesting, they don’t always resonate as well as they should on an emotional level.

The best part of BEIRUT are the performances by the two leads, Jon Hamm and Rosamund Pike. Hamm is terrific as Mason Skiles, although this smooth talking alcoholic character is clearly reminiscent of Don Draper, the character Hamm played so well on the TV series MAD MEN (2007-2015). Fans of the show might have fun imagining that this is what happened next to Mr. Draper. And while Hamm isn’t exactly out of his comfort zone here, he still delivers an enjoyable performance.

Rosamund Pike is also excellent as Sandy Crowder, one of the government operatives who helps Mason when he’s on the ground in Beirut. It’s a solid understated performance by Pike, whose character has her own reasons for wanting to extract Cal. The other dynamic I enjoyed between Mason and Sandy is that unlike most movies where the male and female leads are involved romantically, this time they are not, which I found refreshing.

I like Pike a lot and have enjoyed her recent roles in such films as HOSTILES (2017), GONE GIRL (2014), and JACK REACHER (2012) to name a few.

BEIRUT also has a strong supporting cast.  Mark Pellegrino is very good as Cal, Mason’s shadowy friend, even if the character isn’t developed all that well. For most of the film we don’t really know if Cal is a good guy or not, which hurts the story somewhat.

Dean Norris, Hank on TV’s BREAKING BAD (20080-2013) is nearly unrecognizable with a full head of hair and glasses as Donald Gaines, one of the government agents who recruits Mason. And Shea Whigham is memorable as another of these agents, Gary Ruzak.

BEIRUT was directed by Brad Anderson, who’s directed a lot of movies and TV shows, including the horror movie SESSION 9 (2001).  Anderson certainly does a good job of capturing war-ravaged Lebanon circa 1982, and the film’s location alone is enough to make this one a nail biter.

The story is certainly engrossing as we follow Mason’s efforts to find his friend Cal and navigate the negotiations needed to release him. There are some decent scenes, like when Mason first meets the group claiming to have Cal, as there is a rather unexpected execution right in the middle of it.  And the film heats up every time Mason slips away from his handlers, driving them crazy while he’s off the grid.

That being said, there really isn’t any centerpiece scene in this movie, either in artistic design or in its plot, no part of the film where it kicks into high gear and really becomes something special.

And I would imagine this one is not making a whole lot of money. I saw it with a very small audience. There were fewer than ten people in the theater.

Nonetheless, it’s a solid movie driven by two potent performances by Jon Hamm and Rosamund Pike, and it’s certainly worth a trip to the theater.

BEIRUT is also a nice reminder of the value of diplomacy and negotiation over violence, even though when all is said and done, there is certainly lots of bloodshed, which is what you would expect in 1982 Beirut.

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CHAPPAQUIDDICK (2018) – Recounts Tragic Ted Kennedy Car Crash and Subsequent Cover-up

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Jason Clarke as Ted Kennedy and Kate Mara as Mary Jo Kopechne in CHAPPAQUIDDICK (2018).

CHAPPAQUIDDICK (2018) tells the tragic tale of a young woman who lost her life when the car she was riding in crashed off a rickety wooden bridge on the Massachusetts island of Chappaquiddick and plunged into the water below where, trapped inside the car, she drowned, while the drunk man at the wheel swam to safety.

The man, of course, was Senator Ted Kennedy.

CHAPPAQUIDDICK tells this true story through the prism of what the Kennedy name meant to the United States in 1969. It had been just over one year since Robert Kennedy had been assassinated. President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated just six years before, and all eyes were on young Ted Kennedy as the heir apparent.  JFK’s work was left unfinished, and when Robert Kennedy attempted to take up the mantle, he too was cut down.  The feeling in 1969 wasn’t so much that the Kennedys were entitled, but that their vision for the United States— one of optimism and promise— was desperately needed.  People wanted Ted Kennedy to run for president.

The problem was Ted himself wasn’t all that interested. He had lived in the shadows of his older brothers his whole life and felt the sting of a strict father who seemed to view him as much less of a man than his older brothers.  And then there was his safety to consider.  We see Ted wearing a bullet proof vest at one point.  The Ted Kennedy we see in CHAPPAQUIDDICK is a sad, somber soul, a lost soul, trying to make his way in the world, feeling unbelievable pressure to do something he didn’t really want to do, and pretty much behaving in a way that suggested he wanted to get away from it all.

And on this particular weekend in 1969 his brother John’s legacy was on full display as Neil Armstrong was about to set foot on the moon, and all the newscasts were hearkening back to JFK’s inspiring words which had propelled the space program forward in the early 1960s.

So, when the accident happened, there was a prevalent feeling to protect Ted Kennedy, not because he was wealthy and privileged, but because he was needed to continue the work of his brothers and keep the nation on a positive path.  This view was shared by both those in power on Kennedy’s side and a large portion of the general public who even after the story broke still said they would vote for him, and of course in reality they actually did.

But still, a young woman lay dead in a car submerged underwater.

Early in CHAPPAQUIDDICK, young Senator Kennedy (Jason Clarke) and his cousin Joe Gargan (Ed Helms) set up a party on the island of Chappaquiddick, located near Martha’s Vineyard, for the “Boiler Room Girls,” a group of women who had worked on Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign.  It was meant to be a reunion and celebration of the work these women had done on Robert Kennedy’s behalf.

Kennedy chats with Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara) and asks her to join his staff in Washington, D.C., but she declines, saying she doesn’t think she can handle another presidential campaign, to which Kennedy replies that she won’t have to, the implication being that he’s not going to run for president. Later in the evening, the two leave the party and take a drive into the night where they continue to chat, and as they attempt to travel to a secluded beach, the drunken Kennedy drives off the infamous bridge into the water.

He somehow manages to escape the car, and he makes his way back to the party where he tells his cousin Joe what happened.  They return to the scene of the accident, along with Paul Markham (Jim Gaffigan) and they attempt unsuccessfully to extract Mary Jo from the submerged vehicle. Joe tells Ted that he must report the accident, the sooner the better, and Ted agrees. However, Ted does not report it.  Instead, he returns to his hotel room in Edgartown, and he calls his ailing father Joe Kennedy (Bruce Dern) who can barely speak, but the Kennedy patriarch does say one word to his son: alibi.

It takes ten hours before the conflicted Ted Kennedy finally decides to report the incident, and after going back and forth with what to say, admits that he was indeed the driver of the vehicle.  What follows is the tale of the cover up, the powerful advisors on one side, who are doing everything in their power to create a false narrative to save Ted’s political career, and Ted’s cousin Joe on the other side, imploring him to remember that a young woman is dead and for him to tell the truth. In the middle is a confused young Senator who seems lost throughout these events, pulled in multiple directions, conflicted between doing the right thing for himself, for his family, for his country, and for Mary Jo Kopechne. In short, he doesn’t have a clue.

CHAPPAQUIDDICK tells a somber story that portrays Ted Kennedy as a conflicted, confused figure. At times he comes off as sympathetic because he seems to want to do the right thing, but more often than not he’s seen as a massively frustrating figure who completely and continually botches the situation, and if not for his famous name could and most likely should have easily gone to jail for manslaughter.

But the best part of CHAPPAQUIDDICK is it tells its tale with Mary Jo Kopechne at its forefront.  Never does the movie allow its audience to forget that Mary Jo Kopechne, a promising young woman with a bright future ahead of her, lost her life that night. Worse yet, it’s quite possible she died not only because of Ted Kennedy’s drunk driving, but because he didn’t call for help immediately.  The film intimates that she survived for a while inside the vehicle before ultimately passing away.

Jason Clarke delivers a grave performance as Ted Kennedy. He portrays Kennedy with a “deer in the headlights” expression throughout.  He makes Kennedy a man who seemed completely lost and overwhelmed by the events around him. Should he listen to his father and lie? Or to his cousin Joe and tell the truth? He portrays Kennedy as a man who knows what’s expected of him because of his family name, yet seems to want to carve out his own path in life, and when this tragedy occurs, at his own hands, he goes back and forth between owning up and saving his political hide for the sake of a nation. One thing that Kennedy is not portrayed as is a cold-hearted manipulator.

Jason Clarke has delivered some fine performances in the past, in films like DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2014), THE GREAT GATSBY (2013), and ZERO DARK THIRTY (2012), but this might be his finest work yet. He captures the essense of the conflicted Kennedy so perfectly you almost can feel a migraine coming on while watching him.

I’m a huge fan of Kate Mara, and I’m still waiting for her breakout role. With very limited screen time here, this isn’t it, but she’s still excellent as Mary Jo Kopechne. In her brief time on-screen, Mara makes Mary Jo a three-dimensional character, one whose presence is felt throughout the film, even after she has drowned.

Ed Helms gives the most memorable performance in the film as Kennedy cousin and “fixer” Joe Gargan. Normally a comedic actor, Helms more than holds his own in this dramatic role. He’s the voice of reason in this story and its conscience, the voice audiences hope Ted Kennedy listens to, but ultimately that’s not what happened.

Bruce Dern also makes an impact as the gravely ill and very harsh Kennedy patriarch Joe Kennedy, who would die a few months after the Chappaquiddick incident. At this time, Joe Kennedy could barely speak, and as such Dern’s performance is pretty much sans dialogue.  He does manage to utter that one cold calculating word to his son over the phone, “alibi,” and later when Ted opens his heart to his father and says he’s unsure of who he is and where he’s going, but he does know he wants to be a great man, his father responds, “you’ll never be great.” Ted hugs him anyway.

Clancy Brown is memorable as Robert McNamara, the former Secretary of Defense called in to “fix” the Chappaquiddick incident.  As is Olivia Thirlby as fellow “Boiler Girl” and Mary Jo’s friend Rachel Schiff who utters the prophetic line to Ted that even Mary Jo’s parents didn’t blame him for her death, so why should America?

The screenplay by Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan pretty much tells two stories. On the one hand, there’s the ugly tale of Kennedy’s cowardly negligence which led to the tragic death of a young woman and the subsequent cover up by the rich and powerful powers that be to save the political career of a young senator with a famous name. But there’s also the story of a nation still mourning the loss of its beloved Kennedy brothers, and how the voting public was willing to turn a blind eye on the actions of the man who they hoped would be the successor to these leaders, the younger brother, Ted Kennedy.

And in the middle of both stories, a conflicted, sad, confused, and for one fateful evening completely irresponsible Senator Ted Kennedy, who if not for his name, should have gone to jail for both his actions and inactions. Instead, he served as a U.S. Senator from Massachusetts for over 40 years.

Director John Curran captures the salty feel of a Massachusetts island to the point where you can smell the unpleasant odor of the ocean, and it smells like death, ugly incompetence, and the vulgar actions of a political cover-up.

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Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com. Print version:  $18.00. Includes postage! 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.crossroadpress.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. 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

Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

 

 

 

 

 

THE DEATH OF STALIN (2018) – Brutal Dark Comedy Still Generates Laughter

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THE DEATH OF STALIN (2018), the most recent film by writer/director Armando Iannucci, is one of the darkest and painfully ugly black comedies I’ve seen in a long time.

And yet, like the audience I saw it with, I laughed out loud. Frequently.

In terms of its satirical tone, THE DEATH OF STALIN is reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s classic DR. STRANGELOVE OR: HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB (1964). Whereas STRANGELOVE made people laugh with a story about nuclear annihilation, THE DEATH OF STALIN takes the ruthlessness of Russian politics in the days following Stalin’s death and presents a story that somehow gets its audience to howl with laughter.

The story opens in Moscow in 1953, and we see a nation living in mortal fear of its leader, Joseph Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin). In fact, the people are so frightened, that when Stalin requests a recording of a concert held earlier that evening, and the petrified producers realize the concert was not recorded, they call everyone back into hall to play the concert again and this time record it. Since most of the patrons had left, they round up people off the street to fill in the empty seats.  To calm the people, the producer says, “Everything’s fine.  No one is going to be killed.”  But the conductor panics, slips, falls, and dies.

They send for another conductor, whisking him out of his apartment in the middle of the night, amidst the evening raids by Soviet troops to extract citizens and execute them. The conductor expects to be shot but instead is gleefully brought to the auditorium where he conducts the orchestra in his pajamas.

Such is life in Stalin’s Soviet Union.

When Stalin dies, his inner circle of ministers scramble to fill the power void, as folks like Lavrenti Beria (Simon Russell Beale), Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin) and Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) jockey for position to become the next in power, which often means making sure they’re not next in line to be shot.

What they do, who they team up with, and how they try to outsmart one another makes up the remainder of the film, and of course, students of history know who ultimately prevailed in this power struggle.

THE DEATH OF STALIN is a sharply written and very well-acted dark comedy that had me laughing in spite of the lurid tale it tells.

One of the reasons it resonates so well is due in large part to current events.  Russia is in the news an awful lot lately, mostly because of the antics of its leader Vladimir Putin. THE DEATH OF STALIN provides an open look into the ruthlessness and brutal history of Russia. It also shows what life is like in a country where all the power is held by one man.  It’s not a pretty picture. Not in the least.

It also resonates here in the United States where the present administration is making great strides to operate outside the traditional political landscape, to the point where it’s almost celebrating the realm of dictators, leaders like Putin. THE DEATH OF STALIN shows why such leaders are simply not to be celebrated.

The biggest reason the movie works, however, is that the biting humor is on target throughout. The aforementioned concert sequence is hilarious, while later elements, the moving of Stalin’s body, for instance, are just as uproarious. The film highlights the ridiculousness of certain situations without ever become ridiculous. People don’t act silly here. They act dead serious, knowing that they could be shot at any moment. Position and power do not matter. No one is safe. In fact, so many people are shot in this movie, so casually, it almost becomes a running gag.

Steve Buscemi is perfect as Nikita Khrushchev.  His silly demeanor had disarmed his associates, Stalin included, but his meticulous note taking and serious thoughts on his country put him in prime position to become the next Soviet leader. Buscemi is hilarious in the role, which is seeped in seriousness,.

Simon Russell Beale delivers the best performance in the movie, as the icy cold Lavrenti Beria, the man who held secrets on nearly everyone. Beria was a notorious sexual predator, and his scenes here with young girls make him a rather despicable character.

Jeffrey Tambor makes for a satisfying Georgy Malenkov, the clueless leader who had no idea what he was doing. Michael Palin gives a restrained and understated performance as Molotov, who seems to be driven by fear throughout. And Jason Isaacs, recently of the TV series STAR TREK: DISCOVERY (2017-18) as Captain Lorca, and who also played the mysterious doctor in A CURE FOR WELLNESS (2016) is memorable as Field Marshall Zhukov.

Director Iannucci made the curious decision to have all the actors speak English without Russian accents. At first, I found this off-putting, as it seemed strange to be telling this deeply Russian tale with actors with British accents, but eventually this decision grew on me.  The British accents seemed to fit in more closely with the humor and served as a reminder that this tale though based on true events was being told with a comedic eye towards the absurd.

Iannucci wrote the screenplay with David Schneider, Ian Martin, and Peter Fellows, based on the comic book “The Death of Stalin” by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin. As I said, the storytelling was reminiscent of DR. STRANGELOVE. At times, it also reminded me somewhat of Ernst Lubitsch’s TO BE OR NOT TO BE (1942) although its story is much darker than Lubitsch’s World War II tale.

I enjoyed THE DEATH OF STALIN, and I don’t think I’ve ever laughed at material as dark and disturbing as this before, which is a testament to the writing, acting, and directing in this one.

It’s not for everyone’s tastes, and it’s certainly not a straightforward comedy, but THE DEATH OF STALIN has a lot to say about the dangers of absolute power and the ridiculousness of those who believe that such power is a good thing. And it says it all with a sense of humor that will make you squirm in your seat and laugh at the same time, which is not an easy thing to do.

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