GOOD TIME (2017) – A Thrill Ride You Do Not Want to Miss

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GOOD TIME (2017) is a strange title for a movie about a bank robbery gone wrong and its aftermath, but don’t let that stop you from seeing this one because GOOD TIME is one of the more intense, energetic, and insane thrillers to come out this year.

It’s a movie you definitely do not want to miss.

GOOD TIME (2017) is the story of two brothers, Connie (Robert Pattinson) and Nick (Benny Safdie).  Nick is mentally challenged, and Connie is very protective of his brother, but that doesn’t stop him from involving Nick in an armed bank robbery. During their escape, Connie eludes the police, but Nick is arrested.

Connie approaches a bail bondsman to pay for his brother’s release from jail, but he is $10,000 short, so he turns to his friend Corey (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and asks her to put up the money for him.  Corey is somewhat unhinged and easily manipulated, and it doesn’t take Connie long to convince her to charge the $10,000 on her mother’s credit card, promising her that it’s a loan, and that she’ll get the money right back.  But Corey’s elderly mother quickly cancels the card, causing an emotional scene at the bail bondsman’s office.  Connie learns the money doesn’t matter because his brother has been transferred to a hospital and cannot be eligible for bail until his health his cleared.

Connie finds out which hospital his brother is being held in and plans to break him out. What follows is a roller coaster ride of a night as Connie faces one obstacle after another in his attempts to free his brother, and the film treats its audience to one twist after another.

GOOD TIME doesn’t stop.  It’s one of the more frenetic movies of the year, and certainly one of the most satisfying.  It’s a ride you definitely do not want to miss.

GOOD TIME was directed by brothers Benny Safdie and Josh Safdie.  Perhaps the fact that these two guys are brothers is why they captured so expertly the brotherly bond between Connie and Nick.  Or perhaps it’s just that they are two talented guys, and they are talented, very much so.

Benny not only co-directed this movie, but he also plays Nick, the mentally challenged brother, and it’s a phenomenal performance.  There’s nothing artificial about it.  He makes Nick seem like the real deal.

And Josh not only co-directed this one, but co-wrote it with Ronald Bronstein.  It’s an excellent script with realistic dialogue and vibrant, living characters.  Nearly every character who appears in this movie is interesting, a testament both to the acting and to the superior writing.

The best part of GOOD TIME though is just how creative it is.  It opens with a long dialogue-driven scene between Nick and his psychiatrist, and it has the feel of a documentary, and so you’re sitting there early on thinking, what is the deal here?  I thought this was supposed to be a thriller? And then Connie shows up, chews out the doctor for the way he’s treating his brother, and the film is off and running.  It takes off like a rocket and never looks back.

The camerawork is phenomenal and really brings you into Connie’s world and what it’s like to be him.  The camera gets in close, as there’s some nifty hand-held camerawork. And there are a lot of cool memorable scenes in this one.  The robbery early on and the chase afterwards is as intense a sequence as you’ll find, as are Connie’s efforts to break Nick out of the hospital.  There’s a sequence at an amusement park that is equally as good.

The ending is also suspenseful.

Now, the very ending is a different story.  After such a thrill ride, the movie is just begging for a high-octane conclusion , but that’s not what happens.  However, somehow, it still works, especially when you think back to the first scene in the movie.  The story comes full circle, and the ending, while not explosive, makes sense.

As I said, co-director Benny Safdie also stars as Nick, and he turns in a very strong performance.

But the performance of the movie belongs to Robert Pattinson as Connie.  Regardless of what you think about the TWILIGHT movies, it’s best to simply pocket them away and move on, because Pattinson is proving to be a very good actor.

This is his best performance yet, and he gives Connie a depth not often found in a character like this.  He definitely cares for his brother, and yet he still puts his brother in harm’s way. Connie is a man who thinks he’s better than everybody else and has the gumption to try to prove it, but as most people who think this way eventually find out, that’s not really the case.

Earlier this year, Pattinson had a supporting role as a reporter in THE LOST CITY OF Z, a film which I thought was just okay.  He delivered a very good performance, and he’s even better here in GOOD TIME.

Jennifer Jason Leigh knocks it out of the park in a brief bit as Connie’s friend Corey, an unstable woman who is driven to help Connie because he promised to take a vacation with her.  Likewise, Taliah Webster enjoys some remarkable moments as 16 year-old Crystal whose grandmother takes in Connie temporarily, setting up some situations between Connie and Crystal that are both refreshing and disturbing.

Barkhad Abdi, nominated for an Oscar for his role in CAPTAIN PHILLIPS (2013) has a memorable bit as a security guard.  And Hiphop artist Necro shows up as a drug selling heavy.

There’s also an absolutely frenzied and very effective music score by Daniel Lopatin that really adds a lot to the movie.  It reminded me of something John Carpenter would have written.

Without doubt, GOOD TIME is one of the best movies I’ve seen this year.  Its relentless pace will have you on the edge of your seat throughout, the acting will have you caring about the characters, and the screenplay and creative direction will keep it all real and believable.

The title GOOD TIME has little to do with what actually happens on-screen.  It does, however, describe what the audience will have while watching it.

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LEADING LADIES: Linda Hamilton

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Linda Hamilton in probably her most famous role, as Sarah Connor in THE TERMINATOR (1984).

Welcome back to LEADING LADIES, the column where we look at leading ladies in the movies, especially horror movies.

Today on LEADING LADIES we look at the career of Linda Hamilton, who helped define 1980s cinema with her signature performance as Sarah Connor in THE TERMINATOR (1984).

In addition to her iconic portrayal of Sarah Connor in the TERMINATOR movies, Hamilton is also known for her role as Catherine Chandler on the TV series BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (1987-89).  Linda Hamilton has always been a favorite of mine, in spite of appearing in one of the worst monster movies ever made, KING KONG LIVES (1986)— by far the worst King Kong movie ever made.

Hamilton has 75 screen credits to date, and she’s still actively making movies today. Here’s a partial look at her career so far:

NIGHT-FLOWERS (1979) – Wafer – Hamilton’s film debut in a movie about rape and murder at the hands of two disturbed Vietnam vets.

RAPE AND MARRIAGE:  THE RIDEOUT CASE (1980) – Greta Rideout – Hamilton has the lead role in this TV movie based on the true story of Greta Rideout (Hamilton), an abused wife who was constantly raped by her husband John (Mickey Rourke).  The movie tells the story of how she fought back and charged him with rape, even though they were married.  Written by Hesper Anderson, who would go on to earn an Oscar nomination for her co-written screenplay for CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD (1986) .

TAG:  THE ASSASSINATION GAME (1982) – Susan Swayze –  once again playing the lead, this time co-starring with Robert Carradine in a tale about a college assassination game turning deadly as it becomes the real thing.  Written and directed by Nick Castle, most famous for playing Michael Myers in the original HALLOWEEN (1978).

SECRETS OF A MOTHER AND DAUGHTER (1983) – Susan Decker – TV movie drama about a mother and daughter involved with the same man.  Katharine Ross plays the mother, Linda Hamilton the daughter, and Michael Nouri the man.

HILL STREET BLUES (1984) – Sandy Valpariso – recurring guest spot role on four episodes of Season 4 of the critically acclaimed TV show HILL STREET BLUES.

CHILDREN OF THE CORN (1984) – Vicky – big screen adaptation of the Stephen King short story was the first time I saw Linda Hamilton in a movie, and all I can say is I’m glad she made THE TERMINATOR that same year, because I did not like CHILDREN OF THE CORN at all and would have quickly forgotten Hamilton if not for her performance in THE TERMINATOR.  In spite of the source material, CHILDREN OF THE CORN is a pretty awful horror movie.

THE TERMINATOR (1984) – Sarah Connor – the movie that put Linda Hamilton on the map, as well as Arnold Schwarzenegger and James Cameron.  Iconic movie, one of the most memorable from the 1980s, so much so that in terms of movies, it arguably defines the decade.  The movie that propelled Arnold Schwarzenegger to superstardom, and gave him his signature line, “I’ll be back.”  Also director James Cameron’s first hit, coming before ALIENS (1986) and long before TITANIC (1997).

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A girl and her dog.  Linda Hamilton and a canine friend in THE TERMINATOR.

Hamilton plays Sarah Connor, the target of Schwarzenegger’s Terminator, who’d been sent back in time to kill her, since she gives birth to the man responsible for leading the resistance against the machines in the future, and so the machines decide that if they kill his mother, he’ll never exist.  Of course, you’d think it would just be easier to kill him. Pure fluff, but masterfully done, and Hamilton is excellent as the unlikely heroine, a young woman who sees herself as a failure, then victim, and ultimately rises up as the savior of the human race.  By far, my favorite Linda Hamilton performance.

SECRET WEAPONS (1985) – Elena Koslov/Joanna – TV movie where Hamilton plays a Russian spy.  Directed by Don Taylor, who during his long prolific career directed several notable genre films in the 1970s, including ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES (1971), THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU (1977), and DAMIEN:  OMEN II (1978).

BLACK MOON RISING (1986) – Nina – Hamilton plays a car thief in this tale of thieves, FBI agents, and a super car, the “Black Moon.”  Co-starring Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Vaughn.  Story by John Carpenter, who also co-wrote the screenplay.

KING KONG LIVES (1986) – Amy Franklin –  If there’s one movie that Linda Hamilton should not have made, it’s probably this one.  Why in the world would director John Guillermin, whose career was nearly destroyed by his first Kong venture KING KONG (1976) ever agree to make a sequel ten years later?  Bad move, John!  This horrible sequel has gone down in film history as the worst Kong movie ever. And whereas the 1976 KING KONG has aged well and has gained more respect over the decades, the same can’t be said for this awful sequel.  It’s still as bad as it ever was.

GO TOWARD THE LIGHT (1988) – Claire Madison – TV movie about a young couple caring for their child who has been diagnosed with AIDS.  Co-starring Richard Thomas.

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (1987-89) – Assistant District Attorney Catherine Chandler- Hamilton’s second most famous role, after Sarah Connor in THE TERMINATOR, this modern-day update of the Beauty and the Beast tale featured Ron Perlman as the beast and Hamilton as the beauty, an assistant district attorney in New York City.

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Linda Hamilton and Ron Perlman in the TV show BEAUTY AND THE BEAST.

MR. DESTINY (1990) -Ellen Burrows – Comedy fantasy starring James Belushi and Michael Caine.

TERMINATOR 2:  JUDGMENT DAY (1991) – Sarah Connor- Hamilton reprises her role as Sarah Connor in this big budget sequel to THE TERMINATOR which featured some of the most cutting edge special effects of its day.  This time around Hamilton’s Sarah Connor is a lean mean fighting machine, while Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator is warm and fuzzy.  Yup, in this sequel, Arnold plays a  “good” Terminator, helping the humans fight off an even more advanced and dangerous Terminator from the future.  Once again written and directed by James Cameron.

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A leaner, meaner Linda Hamilton in TERMINATOR 2:  JUDGMENT DAY (1991)

SILENT FALL (1994) – Karen Rainer – co-stars with Richard Dreyfuss and John Lithgow in this thriller about an Autistic boy who witnesses his parents’ double murder.

A MOTHER’S PRAYER (1995) – Rosemary Holmstrom – TV movie about a woman (Linda Hamilton) diagnosed with AIDS trying to raise her son as a single mother with the knowledge that she won’t be around for long.  Also starring Bruce Dern and Kate Nelligan.

DANTE’S PEAK (1997) – Rachel Wando – disaster movie about an erupting volcano.  With Pierce Brosnan.

RESCUERS:  STORIES OF COURAGE:  TWO COUPLES (1998) – Marie Taquet- TV movie about citizens rescuing Holocaust victims.

THE COLOR OF COURAGE (1998) – Anna Sipes – based on a true story, the movie chronicles the relationship between a white woman and a black woman.

BATMAN BEYOND:  THE MOVIE (1999) – Dr. Stephanie Lake – lends her voice to this animated Batman film.

SILENT NIGHT (2002) – Elisabeth Vincken- TV movie about a German mother (Hamilton) and her son on Christmas Eve in 1944 who find themselves bringing German and American soldiers together for one night.  Based on a true story.

MISSING IN AMERICA (2005) – Kate – Drama about a Vietnam veteran (Danny Glover) suddenly having to raise Vietnamese girl.

CHUCK (2010-2012) – Mary Bartowski – appeared in 12 episodes of the TV series CHUCK.

A SUNDAY HORSE (2016) – Margret Walden – Hamilton’s most recent screen credit, a drama about a horse and its young female rider.

Starting from about the early 2000s, the lead roles became fewer for Linda Hamilton, and she appeared more often in supporting roles. And the lead roles she did take were often in films that didn’t have the same resonance as the movies from her earlier days.

But she’s still busily acting, and so there are still more Linda Hamilton movies to come. And I for one am happy about that.

I hope you enjoyed this look at the career of Linda Hamilton, the subject of today’s LEADING LADIES column.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Memorable Movie Quotes: THE THING (1982)

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Welcome to another edition of MEMORABLE MOVIE QUOTES, the column where we look at fun quotes from some pretty cool movies.

Up today a movie that makes the short list on almost every horror fan’s “Best of” lists.  In fact, this gem— which was  a flop upon its initial release— is often listed as the number 1 all-time favorite horror movie by horror fans.  I’m talking about John Carpenter’s THE THING (1982).

A remake of the classic THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD (1951) starring James Arness as one of the creepiest scariest alien monsters from outer space ever, this John Carpenter version was truer to the original source material, the short story “Who Goes There?” by  John W. Campbell, Jr.  Yet that didn’t seem to matter back in 1982.  Critics slammed the film because of its excessive gore and outlandish special effects.  The complaint was the film didn’t contain the same creative directing Carpenter displayed on his break-out hit, HALLOWEEN (1978).

But fans felt otherwise.  The year 1982 was the dawn of the VHS/VCR age, and I remember when this movie was released on video, it suddenly started gaining momentum and word of mouth spread rapidly.  And like I said, today John Carpenter’s THE THING is heralded as a horror movie classic, and rightly so.

The screenplay by Bill Lancaster contains lots of memorable lines.  Let’s have a look:

Even though the film is loaded with gory special effects, it still generates a sense of mystery and creepiness early on, like here when Blair (Wilford Brimley) explains his findings after his autopsy on the slaughtered dogs:

BLAIR:  You see, what we’re talking about here is an organism that imitates other life forms, and it imitates them perfectly. When this thing attacked our dogs it tried to digest them… absorb them, and in the process shape its own cells to imitate them. This for instance. That’s not dog. It’s imitation. We got to it before it had time to finish.

NORRIS:  Finish what?

BLAIR:  Finish imitating these dogs.

 

And again, later when Fuchs asks to speak with MacReady (Kurt Russell) privately to read him Blair’s notes and to tell him his fears about what’s really going on inside the camp.  At this point in the movie, neither the characters nor the audience knows yet what the Thing is, and so these scenes of dialogue set the groundwork for introducing the horror which is yet to come.

FUCHS:  There’s something wrong with Blair. He’s locked himself in his room and he won’t answer the door, so I took one of his notebooks from the lab.

MACREADY:   Yeah?

FUCHS: Listen: (Reading from Blair’s notes)  “It could have imitated a million life forms on a million planets. It could change into any one of them at any time. Now, it wants life forms on Earth.”

MACREADY:  It’s getting cold in here, Fuchs, and I haven’t slept for two days.

FUCHS:  Wait a minute, Mac, wait a minute.  “It needs to be alone and in close proximity with the life form to be absorbed. The chameleon strikes in the dark.”

MACREADY:  So is Blair cracking up or what?

FUCHS:  Damn it, MacReady!  “There is still cellular activity in these burned remains. They’re not dead yet!

 

Kurt Russell’s MacReady gets a lot of the good lines in the movie, especially later on as his character emerges as the natural leader among the camp and the most promising opponent of the Thing.  But first he has to deal with his own men, as they suspect him of being the Thing.  In this scene, he holds off his men with some dynamite, something that Childs (Keith David) scoffs at:

CHILDS:   You’re gonna have to sleep sometime, MacReady.

MACREADY:  I’m a real light sleeper, Childs.

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“I’m a real light sleeper, Childs.”

Later, Macready devises a test to reveal the identity of the Thing, in one of the movie’s best scenes.  Let’s listen:

MACREADY:  I know I’m human. And if you were all these things, then you’d just attack me right now, so some of you are still human. This thing doesn’t want to show itself, it wants to hide inside an imitation. It’ll fight if it has to, but it’s vulnerable out in the open. If it takes us over, then it has no more enemies, nobody left to kill it. And then it’s won.

We’re gonna draw a little bit of everybody’s blood… ’cause we’re gonna find out who’s The Thing. Watching Norris in there gave me the idea that… maybe every part of him was a whole, every little piece was an individual animal with a built-in desire to protect its own life. You see, when a man bleeds, it’s just tissue, but blood from one of you Things won’t obey when it’s attacked. It’ll try and survive… crawl away from a hot needle, say.

 

Later, when they try to restore power to their camp, Garry (Donald Moffat)  makes a grim discovery and in this scene tells MacReady the bad news:

GARRY: The generator’s gone.

MACREADY:  Any way we can we fix it?

GARRY:  It’s gone, MacReady.

Meaning it is no longer physically there.  Yikes!

 

Two of the best lines from THE THING come from two of the supporting characters.  Donald Moffat’s Garry has one of them.  In the scene where MacReady performs his test to learn the Thing’s identity, Garry is one of the men he trusts the least at the time, and so he had Garry tied to a couch along with two other men.  One of the men turns out to be the Thing in one of the movie’s most exciting sequences.  After it’s done, and both the characters and audience breathe a sigh of relief, Garry still finds himself tied to the couch.  And after a moment’s pause, he says:

GARRY:  I know you gentlemen have been through a lot, but when you find the time, I’d rather not spend the rest of this winter TIED TO THIS F—-ING COUCH!

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Get me off this couch, please.

But hands down, the best line in the movie and certainly the most memorable line in the movie, belongs to Palmer (David Clennon).  After an intense battle with the Thing, the severed head of one of its victims sprouts legs and crawls away like a giant spider.  Palmer, wide-eyed and incredulous, sees this spectacle and says,

PALMER:  You gotta be f—in’ kidding.

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Well, I hope  you enjoyed this look at memorable quotes from John Carpenter’s THE THING, screenplay by Bill Lancaster, a true masterpiece of horror movie cinema.

That’s it for now.  Join me again next time when we look at more memorable quotes from another cool movie.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: IT FOLLOWS (2014)

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All the rage this year for horror fans has been the Netflix TV show STRANGER THINGS (2016), and with good reason:  it’s a phenomenal show.  Among the many things it gets right is its near-perfect homage to the horror films of the 1980s, especially the films of John Carpenter.

But for me, before STRANGER THINGS, a film that also captured the spirit of John Carpenter’s early works was the stylish horror flick IT FOLLOWS (2014).  While not a clear homage to the 1980s— in fact, it’s unclear when this film takes place, and this timelessness seems to have been done on purpose— the film definitely has that 1980s horror vibe.

In fact, there are several specific shots that bring to mind John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN (1978).  The neighborhood where the main characters live looks similar to Laurie Strode’s neighborhood in HALLOWEEN, and there’a scene where main character Jay sits in a classroom listening to her teacher drone on before looking out the window and seeing a threat.  There’s a similar scene in HALLOWEEN.  In that movie, Laurie looks out the window and sees Michael Myers’ car.  In IT FOLLOWS, Jay looks out the window and sees the old woman walking towards her.

IT FOLLOWS is a stylish, sexy horror movie that ranks as one of the best horror films to come out in the past ten years.

The film opens with a teenage girl fleeing from some unseen terror.  The next morning she turns up brutally murdered.

The action switches to 19 year-old Jay Height (Maika Monroe) on a date with Hugh (Jake Weary), a guy she is really interested in.  Gotta do a better job picking your dates, Jay.  After the two have sex, Hugh drugs Jay, and when she awakes, she is tied to a wheelchair.  Hugh explains that he’s not going to hurt her, but that he restrained her so he could tell her the truth:  he is being followed by some unknown entity, and now by having sex with Jay, he has passed on the curse to her, and if she wants to get rid of the curse, she’ll have to have sex with someone else.

Can someone say padded cell?

That’s certainly what Jay is thinking, until a naked woman shows up and starts slowly walking towards her and Hugh.  This entity only has to touch you, and you die, so as long as you outrun it, you’re safe, but it never stops pursuing you.  Ever.

Hugh quickly whisks Jay away from the woman and brings her back home, but he tells her to remember all that he told her.  Jay thinks he’s nuts and a creep, until once again, this time an elderly woman- who no one else seems to see- shows up at her school and follows her, causing Jay to up and run from the building.

Jay confides in her sister Kelly (Lili Sepe), and with the help of their friends, Paul (Keir Gilchrist), Yara (Olivia Luccardi), and Greg (Daniel Zovatto), they vow to get to the bottom of this mystery and protect Jay’s life in the process.

While this may sound like just another bad teenager horror movie, IT FOLLOWS is anything but bad and recycled.  It’s exceedingly fresh and effective.

Let’s start with the entity, the “monster” that is inflicting harm on the teenagers.  This entity is unlike what we’ve seen in horror movies of late – it’s not a demon or a ghost or an alien, but then again, maybe it is.  The film never quite defines just what “it” is, and this is part of what makes this movie work so well.  It doesn’t need to define its villain.

What this force does is effective enough on its own.  It simply walks—never runs— towards its intended victim, and when it touches them, it kills them.  So, if you’re the hunted, like Jay, you have to constantly outrun this thing because it never stops, which reminded me a little bit of the premise from the first TERMINATOR movie way back when.  The fear here is its relentlessness.  Sure, it moves like a turtle, but it never stops, which means, eventually people like Jay are going to grow weary, tired, fall asleep, what have you, and that thing will catch up to them and kill them.

It also looks different to everyone who sees it, and to those it’s not hunting, it’s invisible.   This might not sound like much in the scare department, but you’ll be surprised at how creepy the image of an old woman walking listlessly towards the camera can be.

Which brings me to another thing I loved about IT FOLLOWS:  its simplicity.  Things here work on such an unpretentious level, and the movie generates scares so effortlessly just by having people walking towards their victims, it’s refreshing and for those of us who love horror it’s a heck of a lot of fun.

Writer/director David Robert Mitchell succeeds in making an extremely stylish and terrifying horror movie.  He also captures the feel of run down Detroit neighborhoods which adds to the mood of this one.

Mitchell’s work here clearly calls to mind horror movies from the 1970s and 1980s, especially the films of John Carpenter, and the look of this movie is helped a lot by its masterful music score by Rich Vreeland, listed in the credits by his nickname “Disasterpeace.”  The music has a major impact on this movie and is reminiscent of the electronic scores of John Carpenter.

The cast here is also excellent.  Maika Monroe is terribly sexy as Jay, and she succeeds in making her both strong and vulnerable at the same time.  Lili Sepe is just as good as Jay’s sister Kelly.

Keir Gilchrist nails his role as Paul, the slightly nerdy friend who has a thing for Jay and vows to protect her.  Likewise, Olivia Luccardi is excellent as Yara, as is Daniel Zovatto as their street smart friend Greg.

In addition to being a creepy horror movie, David Robert Mitchell’s script also works on a symbolic level.  The characters by having sex pass on the “curse” to the person they have sex with, like an STD or the AIDS virus, and like AIDS, while the entity can be controlled, it can never be eradicated.  It keeps following you forever.

There’s also a weird time element going on in the film which might be a distraction for some folks but wasn’t for me.  The film looks like it takes place in the 1970s/80s, and some of the action in this film backs this up:  the characters watch television on old TV sets which use antennas, no one uses cell phones, the teens play board games rather than video games, and the cars aren’t the newest models.  However, in several scenes, Yara is definitely reading from kindle device.

Writer/director David Robert Mitchell has said he did these things because he wanted this film to be timeless, and I don’t have a problem with this.  It’s been done before.  One of the most famous horror series of all time, the Universal FRANKENSTEIN series, for example, never defined its timeline, and those films have always worked.

IT FOLLOWS is one of the more satisfying horror films I’ve seen in a long while.  To generate horror isn’t easy.  Those of us who write horror know this firsthand.  It’s certainly easier doing it with shock scenes and blood and gore, and so when someone comes along like David Robert Mitchell in this case and makes a film that is as unsettling as this one is with so few visual effects and traditional scares, that’s kinda special.

Definitely check out IT FOLLOWS, but if you look out your window and  see someone slowly walking towards you, someone that nobody else seems to be noticing, take my advice:  run!

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Season One of Netflix’ STRANGER THINGS Perfect Mix of Horror and Nostalgia

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STRANGER THINGS (2016) premiered on Netflix earlier this year to instant acclaim from critics and audiences alike, which is no surprise since it’s one of the best new shows on television.

It’s one of those rarities of rarities in that its eight episode first season was pretty much perfect.  Nearly everything in this show worked and worked well.  And I say first season because it’s already been renewed for a second season.

STRANGER THINGS takes place in the 1980s, which is the first fun thing about this show. It captures the mood and look of the 80s perfectly, from vintage movie posters like from John Carpenter’s THE THING (1982) to the hairstyles, clothing, and sets, from the old style televisions to land line telephones.

The whole thing plays out like a long lost John Carpenter movie.  Even the music score by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein is reminiscent of Carpenter’s film scores.

There are a ton of other 1980s film references and homages as well. So many in fact I could write an entire column just on its 1980s horror homages alone, from the episode names themselves, like “The Body” a reference to the Stephen King novella, to character names, to other neat touches like having the sheriff’s uniform and his vehicle as well as the deputies’ uniforms being identical to the ones used in JAWS (1975).  Okay, so that one’s a 70s reference.  So, if Sheriff Jim Hopper’s uniform had you thinking of Roy Scheider’s Chief Brody, there’s a reason for that!

STRANGER THINGS takes place in a small town in the 1980s.  It opens with a man running in panic from some unseen threat inside what looks to be some sort of research or government building.  We hear growls, and the man is snatched away by an invisible presence.

The action switches to four middle school friends.  Mike Wheeler (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin Henderson (Gaten Matarazzo), Lucas Sinclair (Caleb McLaughlin), and Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) are playing Dungeons and Dragons in Mike’s basement.  After their game, they bike home.

Alone, Will sees what looks like a monster in the road, and he flees as fast as he can back to his home.  When he gets there, no one is home.  The unseen monster pursues Will into his house.

Later, when Will’s mom Joyce (Winona Ryder) and older brother Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) come home, they discover that Will is missing.  Joyce goes to their sheriff, Jim Hopper (David Harbour) and demands that he find her son.  Hopper advises her to take a deep breath, that nothing sinister ever happens in their town, and that he will look for her son. Hopper actually has deep wounds when it comes to children, since his own daughter recently passed away from cancer.

The news of Willl’s disappearance rattles the town.  Friends Mike, Dustin, and Lucas decide that they have to be the ones to find their missing friend.  One night in the woods while they are searching for him, they find a mysterious girl who’s about their age wandering in the woods.  She says she is running from some bad men, and so they take her back to Mike’s home, where they hide her in his basement.  Her name is Eleven (Millie Bobbie Brown), and she also seems to know about Will, as she tells them he is still alive.  More than this, she possesses certain powers which Mike and his friends cannot ignore.

Meanwhile, Joyce receives a strange phone call in which she hears weird cackling sounds, but she’s also convinced she heard her son’s voice on the line. She believes he’s still alive.  Her oldest son Jonathan blames himself for Will’s disappearance, because he wasn’t home that night, and he makes it his mission as well to find his little brother.

And while he initially expected this to be a simple case, the more Sheriff Hopper investigates, the more he realizes that something very sinister and deadly is descending upon his town, especially since the clues lead to a top secret government research base located just outside their town run by a shady scientist Dr. Martin Brenner (Matthew Modine).

There are so many cool things about STRANGER THINGS it’s difficult to know where to start.  If you’re a 1980s horror fan, you can have a field day with the show based on its references to that decade alone.

But aside from that, the story itself is a strong one, and it’s tight.  It fits perfectly within the eight episode season.  There’s no fat on this monster, and there aren’t any dull episodes either.  (Hear that, FEAR THE WALKING DEAD?)  STRANGER THINGS starts out intense and it stays that way, never letting up.  And the intensity actually increases during the final couple of episodes.

The main story of Will’s disappearance works and is the force which drives this series along.  Who isn’t drawn into a story about a missing child?  And then it builds.  What exactly is going on inside that strange government facility?  What is Dr. Brenner up to?  What exactly is that monster that is on the loose and where did it come from?  Where’s Will?  What is up with Eleven?

And the characters and the actors who play them are phenomenal.

When talking about STRANGER THINGS though, you have to start with the kids.  Finn Wolfhard who plays Mike, Gaten Matarazzo who plays Dustin, and Caleb McLaughlin who plays Lucas, are all excellent.  Wolfhard is also going to be starring in the upcoming remake of Stephen King’s IT.  Noah Schnapp who plays Will is also very good.

But the best performance by a child actor in STRANGER THINGS is Millie Bobby Brown as Eleven. Brown is amazing in this role.  Eleven is the most interesting character in the series, as you don’t know much about her at all at first and the more you learn about her, the more interesting she becomes.  The best part of Brown’s performance is she captures Eleven’s sensitive side.  Her scenes with Mike are tender and innocent.  Of course, she can make an effective bad ass as well when she has to use her powers.

Natalia Dyer is very good as Mike’s older sister Nancy, especially later on as her character becomes more involved in the hunt for the monster.  Likewise, Charlie Heaton is excellent as Will’s older brother Jonathan.    I thought Heaton’s performance was one of the best in the series.  I really enjoyed his scenes later in the season when he teams up with Nancy looking for the monster.

I’ve seen David Harbour in a bunch of movies, from the Daniel Craig Bond flick QUANTUM OF SOLACE (2008) to this year’s SUICIDE SQUAD (2016), but I’ve never seen him as good as he was here as Sheriff Jim Hopper, with the possible exception of his chilling portrayal of a sadistic kidnapper in the Liam Neeson movie  A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES (2014).  Harbour was excellent in that movie as well.

But this is a terrific role for Harbour.  He’s perfect as the responsible yet haunted small town sheriff, the man who does his job well in spite of the ongoing pain of his young daughter’s death.  One of the reasons I enjoyed Harbour so much here in STRANGER THINGS compared to other things he’s done is simply because a lot of his previous roles he played weasels and jerks. It was fun to see him play a hero for once.

For me, though, the best performance by far in this show belongs to Winona Ryder as Will’s mom Joyce.  Honestly, I’ve never been much of a Winona Ryder fan.  She blew me away in this show, and for me, this is easily the best thing I’ve seen Ryder do.  She’s flawless as the panicked mother who refuses to believer her son is dead.  She’s terrific to watch in this series.

And Matthew Modine makes for an effective cold-hearted scientist as Dr. Martin Brenner.

The monster here is pretty cool looking too.  It reminded me of the CLOVERFIELD monster’s baby cousin.  And it was just as frightening.

STRANGER THINGS was created by Matt and Ross Duffer, who work under the name The Duffer brothers, and they deserve a lot of credit here.  They also wrote and directed most of the episodes.

I loved STRANGER THINGS from start to finish and can’t wait for Season 2.

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA (1986)

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BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA (1986) marked the fourth time director John Carpenter worked with actor Kurt Russell,  following  ELVIS (1979), ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981), and THE THING (1982).

Whereas time has been kind to both ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK and THE THING—THE THING is often ranked #1 on horror fans’ “Favorite Horror Movie” lists— when they first came out, neither film was a hit.  In fact, THE THING was a box office bomb.

Kurt Russell wasn’t faring much better in 1986.  He had just come off a string of films that had performed very poorly at the box office, and the story goes that he was so worried about his box office slump that he told Carpenter to get someone else to star in BIG TROUBLE, but Carpenter told him not to worry, that he wanted him to star in the movie.

I wish I could say that BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA was a huge hit and rejuvenated the careers of both these artists, but that’s not what happened.  Like their previous few films, BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA also tanked at the box office.

But like ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK and THE THING, BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA has enjoyed a resurgence.  Fans nowadays like this movie.   I saw it when it first came out, and I did not like it.  I liked it so little that I never bothered to watch it again.

Until now.

And that’s because I’ve been hearing fans say good things about the movie, and I thought it was high time I gave it a second viewing.

BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA is a strange movie.  It’s an action adventure that takes place in Chinatown, San Francisco and involves Chinese mysticism, which gives the film a supernatural element.  It’s also a comedy, meaning that the entire thing is played for laughs.

Truck driver Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) and his friend Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) go to the airport to pick up Wang’s girlfriend, Miao Yin (Suzee Pai).  While there, Jack flirts with a woman named Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall) which provides him with a few minutes of fun before a Chinese gang shows up and kidnaps Miao.

Jack and Wang give chase, but the gang eludes them and gets away with Miao.  Wang vows to get her back, and Jack agrees to help him.  I guess no one thought to call the police. Anyway, Gracie Law shows up at their doorstep and reveals that she’s a lawyer who knows all about the Chinese mystical underworld, and she wants to help Jack and Wang as well.  They also receive help from Egg Shen (Victor Wong), a bus driver who’s also an expert on Chinese sorcery.

They need all this help because Miao has been kidnapped by David Lo Pan (James Hong), a two thousand year-old sorcerer who’s cursed to walk the earth without his physical body.  To lift the curse, he has to marry a girl with green eyes, which is why he kidnapped Miao, because she has green eyes.  It turns out that Gracie Law also has green eyes.  Suddenly Lo Pan has more choices than he knows what to do with.  Life is good.  For a while, anyway, as soon Jack and Wang show up, and they’re all about taking down Lo Pan and his supernatural army.  Good luck with that!

As I said, BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA is played for laughs.  There isn’t a serious bone in this one’s body.

At first, I was really enjoying this one, and during the movie’s first half, I thought my opinion of it would change.  What wasn’t to like?  It was full of 1980s nostalgia, it had Kurt Russell, lots of colorful martial art action scenes, monsters, supernatural goings on, and a neat music score by John Carpenter.

But midway through, the movie runs out of gas, and I remembered why I didn’t really like this one back in 1986.  The martial arts action scenes start to get repetitive, and a major reason why is they’re simply not very good.

The script by Gary Goldman and David Z. Weinstein also fizzles.  Early on, things are mysterious, and the dialogue is rapid fire funny, but later, once you know Lo Pan’s story, it’s pretty ridiculous, even it if is played for laughs.  I’ve seen more believable plots on SCOOBY DOO.  And the humor definitely loses its edge, mostly because after a while it’s simply Jack and Wang dealing with one unbelivable situation after another.

The film definitely gets goofier as it goes along, becoming flat our silly rather than focusing on the action and the adventure.  Had this one had more of an edge to it, and kept the humor in the background, it would have worked better.

Kurt Russell based Jack Burton on John Wayne, and it’s apparent right from the get-go. Russell is fun to watch here because he really does capture the Duke’s onscreen persona. Similarly, Russell based Snake Plissken in ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK on Clint Eastwood, which is also clearly apparent.

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Kurt Russell as Jack Burton in BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA (1986)

Things would change for Russell with his next movie, the hit comedy OVERBOARD (1987) in which he starred with Goldie Hawn.  And a series of hits would follow Russell over the next five years.

While Russell is entetaining in BIG TROUBLE, Dennis Dun is just OK as Wang Chi.  He lacks Russell’s charisma and larger than life qualities, which is too bad because one of the movie’s jokes is that Jack thinks he’s the hero, yet he’s constantly messing things up, and it’s Wang who’s the true hero in the movie, but at times, Dun doesn’t make this notion all that believable.

Kim Cattrall is the epitome of 1980s actresses, and she fits right in here.  She’s got the 80s hairstyle, and she plays Gracie Law with a mixture of strength and ditziness.  She could easily walk into the CHEERS bar for a drink.

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Kim Cattrall as Gracie Law in BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA (1986).

Victor Wong is sufficiently knowledgable as Egg Shen, but James Hong is rather ineffective as main baddie David Lo Pan.  He spends most of the time behind make-up and special effects.

The special effects are OK.  They run hot and cold, and they’re really cheesy.  I guess that’s part of the charm for some people.

So, after my second viewing, BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA remains not one of my favorite John Carpenter movies. Sadly, Carpenter would follow this up with the even worse PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1987).  It would be a little while before Carpenter would find his stride again, and that would be with IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS (1995).

BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA means well.  It’s got tons of energy, and everyone looks like they’re having a grand old time.  But as the action becomes flat out goofy, the story doesn’t hold up, and the script doesn’t match the film’s inanity, as the dialogue and situations are never that funny, it all becomes rather tedious long before the end credits roll.

The trouble in Little China just isn’t all that big.

—END—

THE HORROR JAR: JOHN CARPENTER/KURT RUSSELL MOVIES

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Welcome back to THE HORROR JAR, that column where we look at lists about horror movies.  Up today:  John Carpenter/Kurt Russell movies.  Yup, a look at the movies in which horror master John Carpenter directed former child star turned action hero Kurt Russell.

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ELVIS (1979)

Directed:  John Carpenter

Screenplay:  Anthony Lawrence

Elvis Presley:  Kurt Russell

Gladys Presley:  Shelley Winters

Vernon Presley:  Bing Russell

Priscilla Presley:  Season Hubley

Music:  Joe Renzetti

Running Time:  150 minutes

Yup, the first time Carpenter and Russell worked together was on the made-for-TV movie about the life of Elvis Presley.  Pretty good bio pic, and Russell makes for a very good Elvis.  Interestingly, Elvis’ father Vernon Presley is played by Russell’s real life dad Bing Russell, and Elvis’ wife Priscilla Presley was played by Russell’s real life wife at the time, Season Hubley.  All in the family, I guess.

 

ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981)

Director:  John Carpenter

Screenplay:  John Carpenter and Nick Castle

Snake Plissken: Kurt Russell

Hauk:  Lee Van Cleef

Cabbie:  Ernest Borgnine

Maggie:  Adrienne Barbeau

Brain:  Harry Dean Stanton

The Duke:  Isaac Hayes

President: Donald Pleasence

Music:  John Carpenter and Alan Howarth

Running Time:  99 minutes

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Carpenter’s next movie after his horror hits HALLOWEEN (1978) and THE FOG (1980).  Not really well received upon its initial release, this dark action thriller has nonetheless aged well.  Actually, looking back, Carpenter clearly was a victim of his own success.  After his megahit and masterpiece HALLOWEEN, Carpenter made three straight quality films:  THE FOG (1980), ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981) and THE THING (1982).  All three were panned by critics at the time, yet today they are regarded as some of the finest genre films of the past 40 years. In fact, for some, his version of THE THING is the best horror movie ever.

ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK was a milestone film for Kurt Russell, pretty much the movie that broke him out of his previous persona as being a teen actor in Disney movies.  Carpenter wrote the role of Snake Plissken for Clint Eastwood, and when Russell got the part, he played the role with Eastwood in mind.

Fun film, with yet another quality music score by director Carpenter.  It’s nearly as good as his HALLOWEEN score.

 

THE THING (1982)

Director:  John Carpenter

Screenplay:  Bill Lancaster, based on the story “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell, Jr.

Macready:  Kurt Russell

Blair:  Wilford Brimley

Childs:  Keith David

Nauls:  T.K. Carter

Palmer:  David Clennon

Dr. Copper:  Richard Dysart

Garry:  Donald Moffat

Music:  Ennio Morricone

Running Time:  109 minutes

Critically panned when it first came out in 1982, Carpenter’s THE THING is now regarded as a horror/science fiction classic.  For many horror film buffs it’s their favorite horror movie of all time.  A flop at the box office, it left my local theater within a week and I was not able to see it.  I caught it several months later when it appeared on something called a”VHS cassette.”  Yes, it was 1983 and the VHS age was just beginning.  I wasn’t the only one who saw it on home video.  Suddenly everyone I knew was talking about THE THING, and it’s a film that since then has never looked back.

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Kurt Russell is excellent as Macready, in effect reprising his Snake Plissken tough guy persona, this time going up against a deadly alien monster from outer space.  Very scary flick, with gross-out special effects that were considered unspeakably over-the-top and tasteless back in 1982.  Now they’re regarded as some of the best effects of their time.

Curious, Carpenter did not provide the music for this one, as that honor went to composer Ennio Morricone, who’s responsible for the chilling score for this shocker.

 

BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA (1986)

Director:  John Carpenter

Screenplay:  Gary Goldman and David Z. Weinstein

Jack Burton:  Kurt Russell

Gracie Law:  Kim Cattrall

Music:  John Carpenter and Alan Howarth

Running Time:  99 minutes

Silly action adventure has its fans.  I’m not one of them.  Kurt Russell and Kim Cattrall run afoul of Chinese gangs, martial arts, and the supernatural.  Mostly played for laughs.

 

ESCAPE FROM L.A. (1996)

Director:  John Carpenter

Screenplay:  John Carpenter, Debra Hill, and Kurt Russell

Snake Plissken:  Kurt Russell

Map To The Stars Eddie:  Steve Buscemi

Pipeline:  Peter Fonda

President:  Cliff Robertson

Cmmdr. Malloy:  Stacy Keach

Music:  John Carpenter and Shirley Walker

Running Time:  101 minutes

Forgettable sequel to ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK finds Snake Plissken this time getting into trouble in L.A. in an effort to once again help the U.S. government which once more seems to be the last thing Plissken really wants to be doing.

There you have it, the list of movies pairing director John Carpenter and actor Kurt Russell.  My two favorites are clearly ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981) and THE THING (1982).

Thanks for reading!

—Michael