IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: ISLE OF THE DEAD (1945)

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isle of the dead posterI love the Val Lewton-produced horror movies from the 1940s.

Lewton produced a bunch of low-budget horror pics that impressed with style and atmosphere and have become some of the classics of the genre, films like CAT PEOPLE (1942) and I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (1943). He also produced three movies starring Boris Karloff, films that are among the best in Karloff’s career, THE BODY SNATCHER (1945), BEDLAM (1946), and the subject of today’s column, ISLE OF THE DEAD (1945).

Sadly, Val Lewton’s life and career were cut short when he died of a heart attack on March 14, 1951, at the age of 46.

ISLE OF THE DEAD features one of my favorite Boris Karloff roles. Karloff plays General Nikolas Pherides, a general in the Greek army who goes by the nickname “The Watchdog.” He’s cold, ruthless, and nothing gets by him.

The story takes place on a Greek island in 1912, during the Balkan War. There’s a lull in the fighting, and General Pherides takes American reporter Oliver Davis (Marc Cramer) to the Isle of the Dead to pay respects to the General’s deceased wife, who is interred there. They discover that the grave has been disturbed, and when they hear a woman singing in the distance, they follow the voice to investigate and come upon a house full of people, a guest house run by a retired archeologist named Dr. Albrecht (Jason Robards, Sr.).

Albrecht invites the General and Oliver to join them. When the General questions them about the desecrated grave, Albrecht explains that years ago the islanders plundered many of the graves in search of valuable Greek artifacts. But Albrecht’s superstitious housekeeper offers a different explanation. She tells the General that it’s the work of the vorvolaka, evil spirits, and that one of the guests, the young and pretty Thea (Ellen Drew) is in fact a vorvolaka. The housekeeper tells the General that people there will die because of Thea.

The General scoffs at this suggestion, but when the guests do indeed start dying, and the housekeeper continually accuses Thea, the General changes his tune. He enters his “Watchdog” mode and declares that he will get to the bottom of what’s going on and protect everyone there. When a doctor (Ernest Deutsch) explains that it is the plague and that they must be quarantined, the General makes it his mission to prevent anyone from trying to leave the island. As more people die and the housekeeper’s accusations against Thea continue, the General finds himself swayed to the point where he himself believes that the true culprit here isn’t the plague but the vorvolaka.

ISLE OF THE DEAD is blessed with the same strengths of all the Val Lewton movies, an intelligent script and an almost palpable eerie atmosphere.

The screenplay by Ardel Wray, who also wrote the screenplay to two other Val Lewton movies, I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE— one of my favorite horror movies of all time— and THE LEOPARD MAN (1943), does a masterful job mixing the supernatural with reality.

The character the audience probably most relates to is reporter Oliver Davis, and he never suspects the vorvolaka. In fact, on the contrary, he vows to protect Thea from the General’s ever-increasing irrationality.

The story becomes a fascinating treatise on one man’s descension into despair. The General goes from competent pragmatic leader to a man motivated by fear.

Karloff is great in the role. As I said, it’s among his best performances. Famous for making the Frankenstein Monster a sympathetic character, he does the same here for the cutthroat General Pherides. At times, Karloff channels the cold dark ruthlessness of the General, but he also imbues the character with a fierce need to protect those around him.

Jason Robards Sr. is also memorable as their host on the island, Dr. Albrecht, as is Ernst Deutsch as Dr. Drossos, the doctor called to the island to deal with the plague. Deutsch was also notable in a supporting role as Baron Kurtz in Carol Reed’s classic THE THIRD MAN (1949) starring Joseph Cotton and Orson Welles. Deutsch also starred in the silent German classic THE GOLEM (1920).

Also in the cast is Alan Napier, as one of the guests. Napier of course would go on to play Alfred, Bruce Wayne’s butler, in the Adam West BATMAN TV series (1966-68). And Napier starred in several other genre films as well over his career, movies like THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS (1940) and JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH (1959).

And Helene Thimig makes for a creepy housekeeper, Madame Kyra, who keeps peppering the General’s thoughts with her cries of “vorvolaka!”

Director Mark Robson, who also directed BEDLAM, does a nice job with the spooky atmosphere, giving such authenticity to the warm winds blowing over the island you can almost feel the breeze on your skin.

There are lots of creepy elements to keep the audience unsettled, including one of the characters who suffers from a condition where she collapses into a catatonic state that mimics death. Rightly so, she has an intense fear of being buried alive. That sort of thing couldn’t possibly happen on this island, right? RIGHT???

Sorry. All bets are off.

I really enjoyed Robson’s work here, so he can be forgiven for directing one of the all time worst disaster movies, EARTHQUAKE (1974) starring Charlton Heston and George Kennedy.

ISLE OF THE DEAD is a classic example of quiet horror. It possesses a winning combination of smart writing, atmospheric direction, and solid acting. Detractors of Val Lewton’s movies complain that they are more drama than horror, as the supernatural elements are reduced to pretty much nil, but this has never bothered me because regardless of whether or not the supernatural is alive and well in these films, they still tell stories of horror.

What happens on the island in ISLE OF THE DEAD is frightening, and as such, it makes for a compelling horror story.

It’s also fun to watch Boris Karloff play a role in which he’s not a monster, or a mad scientist. The three Val Lewton films that Karloff starred in gave him the opportunity to play roles unlike the ones he was playing for other directors. I think some of Boris Karloff’s best acting appears in these movies.

September means the end of summer. Vacations are done, the kids are back in school, and the focus for most is on work rather than play. Likewise, September is the perfect month for some serious horror viewing.

So check out ISLE OF THE DEAD, a classic horror drama shot in spooky black and white that tells a subtle yet nonetheless frightening story of a group of people quarantined on an island, fighting both the plague and the horrors of superstition, and featuring one of Boris Karloff’s best performances, as General Pherides, “the Watchdog,” a man hellbent on protecting those around him, unless of course, he suspects they’re a vorvolaka. In that case, he’s every bit as lethal as the plague.

It’s a deadly mix, and for the folks on this island, it really is the ISLE OF THE DEAD.

—-END—

 

 

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IN THE SHADOWS: PATRIC KNOWLES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As always, thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

IT CHAPTER TWO (2019) – Horror Sequel Long, Laborious, and Dull

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IT CHAPTER TWO (2019) clocks in at a sprawling 2 hours and 45 minutes. That’s an awful long time for a movie not to be good.

The film starts well with a strong opening sequence, followed by a generally captivating first act, but then like the Energizer Bunny, it just keeps going and going and going. By the time the end credits roll, the whole thing had become a colossal bore.

IT CHAPTER TWO is the sequel to IT (2017), a film I liked well enough but didn’t love. Both movies are based on Stephen King’s epic novel of the same name, so epic it took two movies to cover all the material. IT was also filmed before as TV-movie back in 1990, also a two-parter, and that one was also well-received.

Truth be told, I’ve never been a big fan of the Stephen King novel. Like this movie, it tends to go on forever, and the story it tells could have been just as effective if not more so at a much shorter length.

The story told in IT CHAPTER TWO picks up twenty-seven years after the events of the first movie, which ended when the group of middle school friends, known as “the Losers,” defeat the monster known as Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard) which had been terrorizing their town of Derry.

It’s now present day, and it turns out that Pennywise wasn’t really killed (surprise, surprise!) and so the “Losers,” now adults, return to Derry to finish the job. And that in a nutshell is the film’s plot. So why on earth does this one have to go on for nearly three hours? The answer is simple. It doesn’t have to! If the story warranted a three-hour running time, there wouldn’t be an ounce of fat on it. This one is full of blubber.

And that’s because the screenplay by Gary Dauberman remains superficial throughout, touching upon various elements of the story but never really getting down and deep with any of them. In short, it never seems to get to the point! As a result, in this movie, I didn’t care about the characters or what happened to them.

As I said, the film gets off to a good start with a powerful opening sequence, and it does a generally good job with its introductions of the now adult “Losers.” And the scene where they all reunite for the first time at a Chinese restaurant is one of the best scenes in the film. But it’s largely downhill after that.

Mike (Isaiah Mustafa) explains that the way to kill Pennywise is by using a Native American ritual, and for that they have to offer a sacrifice, which means each of them has to find some artifact from their past to offer. So, the middle of the film follows each character as they seek out their own particular artifact, while Pennywise shows up to simply be a nuisance rather than to kill them outright. And then, when they finally do have their artifacts, it’s showtime! The big battle to take down Pennywise, which means lots of gory CGI effects. ZZZZzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. Wake me up when someone says something interesting.

I’m also not a big fan of stories where characters find themselves in impossible situations, and then they can get out of them by saying, “It’s not real! None of this is really happening!” And then like poof! Everything is all better. This happens a lot in this movie. And for me, that’s just too easy.

In the first IT, I enjoyed Bill Skarsgard a lot as Pennywise. He was so good I didn’t find myself missing Tim Curry, who played the monstrous clown in the 1990 movie. But here, Skarsgard is way less effective. Part of it is minimal screen time. Part of it is inferior dialogue, but mostly it’s because rather than see Skarsgard as Pennywise, we see a whole lot of CGI Pennywise. Pennywise in this movie reminded me an awful lot of the way Freddy Krueger was portrayed in the later NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET movies, and in fact, at one point in this movie, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 5 is listed as playing at the Derry movie theater. And if you don’t remember, those latter NIGHTMARE movies weren’t very good. Neither is IT CHAPTER TWO.

The rest of the cast is generally okay, but they’re simply playing characters who were much more interesting as kids in the first movie.

I mean, I like Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy, and they’re both fine in their roles as Beverly Marsh and Bill Denbrough, respectively, but there’s not a lot of meat on these roles and they generally just go through the motions.

Bill Hader probably fares the best as Richie Tozier, as he gives the liveliest performance and gets the film’s best lines. Isaiah Mustafa as Mike makes for a lackluster narrator, while Jay Ryan as Ben Hanscom and James Ransone as Eddie Kaspbrak are both serviceable.

No one in the film rises above the material. What they all have in common is that even as adults they are terrified of Pennywise, and they do fear well, but the problem is the film doesn’t instill this fear into its audience. And that’s because in this movie Pennywise simply isn’t all that scary.

Director Andy Muschietti, who also directed the first IT and the horror movie MAMA (2013) which I remember liking a lot, puts all his chips on the CGI side of the table. This one is full of special effects, and as is so often the case, these effects do very little in carrying this movie.

In fact, while it started off as a film I was generally into, by the time it reached its two-hour mark, with still nearly an hour left to go, I was ready for this one to be over.

There’s also a strange homage to John Carpenter’s THE THING (1982) which comes out of nowhere. It’s the scene where the severed head sprouts legs, and here Bill Hader even delivers the now famous line originally uttered by David Clennon. Since this sequence was so out-of-place, it felt less like an homage to me and more like a rip-off.

I didn’t like IT CHAPTER TWO at all. It’s an exercise in overblown and over-indulgent horror. It’s based on a gargantuan novel and so there is a lot of source material to choose from, and I’m sure the notion of adapting it to film is no easy task. But that’s also not an excuse for making a film that simply doesn’t work.

IT CHAPTER TWO goes on for nearly three hours without offering any satisfying tidbits, surprises, or character nuances to keep its audience riveted. It’s a laborious horror movie, and as such, it’s one of my least favorite films of the year so far.

—END—

 

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: TRAIN TO BUSAN (2016)

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I absolutely love TRAIN TO BUSAN (2016).

So much so that after watching it for the first time a couple of years ago on Netflix, I decided to watch it again last month. The result? I enjoyed it even more!

TRAIN TO BUSAN is a South Korean horror movie about the zombie apocalypse. Now, obviously, there have been many stories about said apocalypse in recent years, from the exceptional THE WALKING DEAD TV show to films like WORLD WAR Z (2013) and ZOMBIELAND (2009). What makes TRAIN TO BUSAN stand out from all the rest?

For me it’s the same for any quality movie: it’s the writing, stupid!

TRAIN TO BUSAN has a superior script that both tells a compelling story and creates memorable characters. The result is one heck of an emotional roller coaster ride, and that’s the part that I enjoyed the most upon a second viewing. I had forgotten just how emotional this movie got. Bring out the tissues! You’re going to need them.

Yup. You’re gonna need a bigger box of tissues.

And TRAIN TO BUSAN is that good. It’s on par with the best episodes of THE WALKING DEAD, and in terms of movies, you have to go back to George Romero to find a better zombie movie. SHAUN OF THE DEAD (2004) might be better, but that one’s a comedy.

TRAIN TO BUSAN is pure horror.

In TRAIN TO BUSAN, Seok-woo (Yoo Gong) just can’t seem to spend enough time with his daughter Soo-an (Su-an Kim), as his job simply keeps him too busy. But when he decides to accompany his daughter on a train ride to take her to see her mother who he’s now separated from, he hopes to at least have this time with her.

Unfortunately for Seok-woo, he picked a bad day to go for a train ride with his daughter, as it just so happens to be the same day that the zombie apocalypse breaks out. And suddenly, quick moving flesh eating zombies are overrunning the land and getting on the train. A small group of survivors band together to fight off the zombies, all the while hoping the train makes it to Busan, where rumor has it that the military has successfully created a safe haven there.

TRAIN TO BUSAN is the story of these survivors, who besides Seok-woo and Soo-an, also includes a pregnant woman Seong-kyeong (Yu-mi Jung) and her husband Sang-hwa (Dong-seok Ma), and two high school students, Jin-hee (Sohee) and Yong-guk (Woo-sik Choi) to name a few.

What follows is an intense thrill ride that provides nonstop chills and suspenseful action sequences, as well as tugging at your heartstrings, in a big, big way.

The cast in TRAIN TO BUSAN is phenomenal.

Yoo Gong is naturally heroic as main character and daddy Seok-woo. At first, he’s not the most sympathetic character, as it’s clear that in the past he has placed his career above his daughter, but when the zombies attack, it’s also clear that Seok-woo will do whatever it takes to protect his young daughter. Gong makes for a dashing young hero.

Some of Gong’s best scenes are with his co-star Dong-seok Ma who plays Sang-hwa, the husband who similarly will do whatever it takes to protect his pregnant wife. Dong-seok Ma delivers the most fun performance in the film, as Sang-hwa is both a humorous guy and a kick-ass fighter who becomes the go-to guy when the need arises to fend off the walking dead. Initially, Seok-woo and Sang-hwa do not see eye to eye, but as things grow more bleak they put aside their differences and work together.

Yu-mi Jung is equally as good as Seong-kyeong, the pregnant wife who eventually befriends Seok-woo’s daughter Soo-an. Jung makes Seong-kyeong one of the film’s strongest characters, as she has to go above and beyond what one would expect a pregnant woman to have to do.

Likewise, Sohee is memorable as teen Jin-hee.

But best of all is Su-an Kim as Seok-woo’s young daughter Soo-an. She gives the most emotional performance in the entire movie. She has some of the best scenes in the film, and she is more than up to the task of nailing these powerhouse scenes, and for such a young performer, that’s saying a lot.

And I challenge you to find a more emotional ending to a horror movie. Talk about gut-wrenching, the final sequence will have you shaking.

Director Sang-ho Yeon has made one of the best zombie films ever. In addition to the first-rate performances and superb story, there are some truly outstanding action sequences here, well-crafted by Yeon. From hordes of zombies charging up escalators to the characters having to battle their way through zombie infested train cars, the film’s action sequences are second to none.

The special effects are also top-notch. The zombies look scary and are plenty deadly, and these undead folks are of the speedy variety. No slow-moving walkers here. These babies run like the wind!

But the best part of TRAIN TO BUSAN is that the film gets the emotions right. You truly feel for these characters, and the situations they find themselves in play out as tremendously realistic. TRAIN TO BUSAN is a much more emotionally satisfying movie than say WORLD WAR Z which as entertaining as it was fell flat emotionally.

A lot of the credit for the emotion goes to the screenplay by Joo-Suk Park and director Sang-ho Yeon. The script creates riveting situations, likable characters, and realistic dialogue, and it’s all executed to perfection by the actors and by director Yeon.

TRAIN TO BUSAN was the first South Korean zombie apocalypse horror movie, and it’s not going to be the last, as a sequel is already in the works.

You really need to watch TRAIN TO BUSAN. It’s one of the best zombie apocalypse movies ever made, and it’s certainly the most satisfying zombie horror movie of the last twenty years.

What are you waiting for? Get your ticket already! Of course, once on board, you may want to text your loved ones, as there’s no guarantee you’ll actually make it to Busan. The zombies on the train are plenty hungry, and they have the humans insanely outnumbered, but heck, it’s a helluva thrill ride, one that you definitely don’t want to miss!

Will that be one ticket or two?

—END—

 

LUCE (2019) – Provocative Tale Unlikable and Unrealistic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If only the story were this simple.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Really?

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

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

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

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

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

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

—END—

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The cast here is awesome.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I really enjoyed THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON.

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

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READY OR NOT (2019) – Relentless Thrill Ride Lots of Fun

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ready or not poster

If you like your horror bloody and full of dark humor, you’ll love READY OR NOT (2019), a comedic yet brutal thrill ride about a deadly game of hide and seek.

It’s also a pretty funny take-down of the super rich.

Grace (Samara Weaving) is about to marry Alex Le Domas (Mark O’Brien) and by doing so marry into the ridiculously wealthy Le Domas family and empire. The Le Domas clan made their money in games and sports. Alex warns Grace that his family is weird and that she still has a chance to back out of the wedding, but she says she’s all in as she is in love with him.

Shoulda heeded that warning, Grace!

It turns out that Alex’s family is as strange as advertised, and then some. After the wedding, Alex informs Grace that it’s a family tradition that at midnight they all play a game, and after this experience, then Grace officially becomes part of the family. She doesn’t have to win the game. She simply has to agree to play. Grace loves games and so she sees no problem with this arrangement.

Inside the enormous game room of the Le Domas mansion, the patriarch of the family Tony Le Domas (Henry Czerny) explains the history of their empire, how his great-grandfather took possession of a mysterious box which Tony now holds in his hands, and how he made an arrangement with the box’s previous owner, that if he and his progeny agreed to play a game named in the box, then the stranger would finance the Le Domas business. This arrangement continues to the present day, and is the source of the Le Domas’ money.

However, there is one particular game that the Le Domas family fears playing, and that game is hide and seek, which just happens to be the one that Grace pulls from the box. See, it’s not just a game of hide and seek. In this version, after Grace hides, the family not only has to find her, but they have to kill her. The thinking being that every few years or so to continue their supernatural source of money, they have to provide a sacrifice. Otherwise, they will all die by dawn. As much as they don’t want to play this game, they have no qualms doing so.

However, in this case, things turn out to be not so easy, because once Grace finds out what’s going on, she fights back, and fights back hard.

READY OR NOT may sound like a lurid, ugly thriller, but it’s not. This is not a variation of THE PURGE movies. From the very first murder, when the ultra nervous Emilie (Melanie Scrofano) kills the wrong victim, and one of the family members asks, “Does this count?” it’s clear that this tale is being played for laughs, and it’s a game this movie plays well. The laughs are loud and frequent.

The screenplay by Guy Busick and Ryan Murphy is as sharp as the axe which lops off a person’s head in this movie. The funniest parts are the reactions of the Le Domas family. They’re aloof and impervious to the violence.

And it’s a good thing the story is played for laughs because the reasons behind the hide and seek hunt are rather ridiculous. This one would have struggled to work as a serious thriller.

The cast is solid and is more than up to the task of pulling off the bloody shenanigans. Samara Weaving is perfect as Grace, the hunted wife who refuses to be a victim and fights back, giving the Le Domas clan all they can handle. Weaving was phenomenal in THE BABYSITTER (2017),  a movie in which she played a murderous babysitter. That film was also quite humorous, and in that one she played the hunter rather than the hunted. Her performance in THE BABYSITTER was more memorable than her role here as Grace, but not by much. I like Weaving a lot and hope she continues to land leading roles. She’s exceptional.

The rest of the cast do marvelous jobs as the bizarre Le Domas family, especially Henry Czerny as patriarch Tony Le Domas. Other standouts include Melanie Scrofano as the hyper Emilie, and Elyse Levesque as the cold and deadly Charity Le Domas, who doesn’t mind killing to stay in the family, as she says her past life before she married into the Le Domas clan was far worse.

Mark O’Brien is fine as Grace’s new husband Alex Le Domas. He insists that he’s different from his family and vows to help Grace escape, but family ties run deep. Adam Brody is also very good as Alex’s older brother Daniel, an alcoholic, who is also sympathetic to Grace’s plight. And Nicky Guadagni nearly steals the show with an over the top performance as the tight-lipped evil eyed Aunt Helene.

Also in the cast is Andie MacDowell who plays matriarch Becky Le Domas. Even though MacDowell has been working steadily over the years, it’s been a very long time since I’ve seen her in a movie. Here, she pretty much plays things straight, and her scenes are mostly about trying to reconnect with her son Alex, refuting his claims that Grace has shown him the light, stealing her son’s thunder with the cutting remark that there’s no way a girl he’s known for only a year knows him better than she does. Ouch!

Directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett keep the action fast and furious. The killings are graphic, bloody, and brutal, the weapons of choice include axes, crossbows, and guns, yet you’re more likely to laugh than shield your eyes and groan, although there is one wince-inducing scene involving Grace’s already mangled hand from a bullet, and a very large nail. Well, in spite of the laughter, this is a horror movie after all.

And the laughs from the audience were loud and frequent. It was clear that everyone in the theater was having a good time.

There are also plenty of swipes at the ultra rich, thematic elements which include the notion that money gives people power to do whatever they want without consequences, and how this is just accepted. Of course, here, as Grace fights back, that’s not how things go down this time.

I really liked READY OR NOT.  While I prefer horror that is more serious than this tale, I can’t deny that I had a lot of fun watching this one.

So strap yourself in and get ready for one relentless thrill ride.

Ready or not!

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