THE LOST CITY OF Z (2017) – Extraordinary Tale Told in an Ordinary Way

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lost_city_of_z_poster

THE LOST CITY OF Z (2016) is based on the nonfiction book of the same name by David Grann and tells the true story of British explorer Percy Fawcett who dedicated much of his life to expeditions into the Amazon in search of an ancient lost city.

The main reason I wanted to see THE LOST CITY OF Z was that it starred Charlie Hunnam as Percy Fawcett.  Hunnam, of course, starred as Jax Teller on the TV show SONS OF ANARCHY (2008-2014), and I really enjoyed his work on that show.

In terms of Hunnam’s performance, THE LOST CITY OF Z does not disappoint. Hunnam is excellent. However, the same can’t be said for the movie as a whole.

The film opens in Ireland in 1906 where we are introduced to young British soldier Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) scoring big on a deer hunt, bagging the top prize of the day. Later, as he celebrates with his wife Nina (Sienna Miller) and his fellow hunters at an elegant dance reception, we witness British dignitaries discussing who landed the prize deer, commenting that Percy is a fine man but is hindered  by his unfortunate heredity. And thus we learn early on that the deck is stacked against Percy, as the sins of his father, a man he didn’t even know, are held against him.  Percy knows, for right or wrong, he has to work harder than others to advance in life.

Later, he is disappointed to learn from his superiors that rather than being sent to the battlefield, he is being dispatched to the Amazon to help settle a border dispute in Brazil. Still, he believes if he succeeds on this mission, it will better his chances for advancement which will ultimately help him support his family.  While on the expedition, he hears about a lost city which no white man had ever seen, and as he catches glimpses of possible evidence of this city, his focus on the expedition changes.

In fact, upon returning home, he receives financial backing to return to the Amazon with the express purpose of searching for the city, which he does, in spite of multiple obstacles, including World War I, where Percy finally sees the military action for which he had trained all his life.

THE LOST CITY OF Z is beautiful to look at with its fine atmospheric cinematography of the Brazilian rain forests, as well as period piece costumes and set designs of early 20th century Great Britain.  The brief forays onto the desolate World War I battlefields are also impressive.

It also features fine acting performances from everyone involved.  I’m a big fan of Charlie Hunnam, especially from his SONS OF ANARCHY days.  His films have been less memorable.  He played second fiddle to giant monsters in PACIFIC RIM (2013), and he was okay in the period piece horror movie by Guillermo del Toro, CRIMSON PEAK (2015), which also starred Jessica Chastain and Tom Hiddleston.

I enjoyed Hunnam a lot here as Percy Fawcett, and it’s probably the best performance I’ve seen him give so far aside from SONS OF ANARCHY.  He gives Percy the required drive he needs to push on into the Amazon against all odds.  He’s doing it for his family because he knows that without going the extra mile he’s not going to advance.  He also keeps Percy from being too insanely dedicated.  While men do perish on the expeditions, it’s not from Percy’s carelessness.  Although he does put the mission first, he does not put his men in harm’s way.

Robert Pattinson (Edward in the TWILIGHT movies) does a nice job as Henry Costin, the man who accompanies Percy on these expeditions and becomes his most trusted friend. Sienna Miller also is memorable as Percy’s wife Nina, making her a strong independent woman, and she has to be, raising her family pretty much on her own because Percy is gone for years at a time.  Yet, she remains supportive of her husband’s work, in spite of the toll it takes on her and her children who grow up without a father figure around.

Tom Holland, the most recent movie Spider-Man, shows up in the final third of the movie as Percy’s adult son Jack, and STAR WARS enthusiasts will recognize Ian McDiarmid, who played Chancellor Palpatine/aka the evil Emperor in the second STAR WARS trilogy, as Sir George Goldie, the man who sends Percy on his merry way to the Amazon.

Angus Macfadyen delivers a scene-stealing performance as James Murray, a veteran of Ernest Shackleton’s expedition to the Antarctic, who joins Percy’s second attempt to find the Lost City.  Murray’s prior experience with Shackleton proves to be of little value, as his cowardly and selfish behavior turns out to be more of a hindrance than a help.

In spite of a strong cast and impressive cinematography, THE LOST CITY OF Z is hampered by poor pacing and a rather flat script.  The film runs for two hours and twenty-one minutes, and it actually felt longer.  Not that I expected this to be a Hollywood style production, but there’s no build-up here.  There’s no sense of adventure, and there’s certainly no climax.  The film just meanders along at its own pace, allowing Percy Fawcett’s story to unfold with no sense of urgency.

Percy embarks into the dangerous jungles of the Amazon, and for a brief time, things are somewhat intriguing.  For example, there are several encounters with hostile cannibal tribes, but none of these meetings are all that frightening.

And the expeditions end abruptly.  In the blink of an eye, Percy is back home in England, and after a brief interlude which includes some rather dull dialogue, Percy and his friends return to the Amazon for another go at it.  Until they come home again.  And so on and so on.  Even a brief venture onto the battlefields of World War I doesn’t heighten the emotion.

Director James Gray presents this story as if it’s a film you’d watch at a museum exhibit.  It tells its story but in about as non dramatic a way as you can imagine.  Very little effort seems to have been spent at making this tale a cinematic experience.

Likewise, the screenplay by Gray based on David Grann’s book is also plain and drab.  The dialogue is sufficient but ordinary.  In short, neither the script nor the direction do much to bring this tale to life, in spite of the above-average cinematography and solid acting performances.

THE LOST CITY OF Z is an extraordinary tale presented in an ordinary way.  As such, while I enjoyed watching Charlie Hunnam and the rest of the cast bringing their characters to life, I just never got all that excited about the movie as a whole.  I felt as if I were sitting in a museum watching a movie about the exploits of one Percy Fawcett.

As such, I found myself yearning to get out of my seat to view the rest of the exhibit.

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

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

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

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

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

For The Love Of Horror cover

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

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953)

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beast from 20,000 fathoms poster

Return with me now to 1953, when the giant monster movie genre was still in its infancy, the year that saw the release of THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953).

Prior to THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS,  the world had seen KING KONG (1933), filled with eye-popping special effects by Willis O’Brien, who would go on to make Kong’s quickie (and inferior) sequel SON OF KONG (1933) and later MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1949), the latter being significant because it introduced O’Brien’s young protegé, Ray Harryhausen, to the world.

Soon after MIGHTY JOE YOUNG, Harryhausen was ready to strike out on his own, and he would provide the special effects for today’s movie, THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS, released a full twenty years after KING KONG, and so for two decades, the giant monster movie lay dormant.  That would change with THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS, which pre-dated perhaps the most famous giant monster, Godzilla, by one year.  Of course, once GODZILLA (1954) stomped onto the world, and Toho Studios opened up the door to their Kaiju universe, giant monsters would never look back.

But it’s quite possible that Toho’s incredible world of monsters may not have happened without the success and influence of Ray Harryhausen’s THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS. And when I put Harryhausen’s name in front of the title, I realize he didn’t direct the movie— that job was handled by Eugene Lourie, who actually would go on to direct two other very significant giant monster movies, THE GIANT BEHEMOTH (1959), which featured special effects by Willis O’Brien, and GORGO (1961)— but when you watch a movie with special effects by Ray Harryhausen, it’s his work that you remember, work that is always top-notch and phenomenal; in short, his name belongs in front of the movies he worked on.

THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS is based on the short story “The Fog Horn” by Ray Bradbury, who was good friends with Harryhausen.

The movie opens with atomic bomb tests being conducted in the Arctic.  When two scientists visit the scene after the blast to conduct tests, they are shocked to see a giant prehistoric beast roaming through the snow, causing an avalanche which kills one of the scientists.  This plot point, an atomic blast awaking a giant monster, which would become commonplace in the 1950s, was first introduced here in this movie, making THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS the first movie about a giant creature awakened by an atomic blast.

The surviving scientist, Professor Tom Nesbitt (Paul Christian) tries in vain to convince people that he saw a live dinosaur.  Nesbitt eventually makes his way to Professor Thurgood Elson (Cecil Kellaway), a prominent paleontologist, and his assistant Lee Hunter (Paula Raymond) and tries to convince them as well, eventually producing enough evidence to get them on board.  However, his contact in the military, Colonel Jack Evans (Kenneth Tobey)  isn’t so easily convinced.

But when the beast— identified by Professor Elson as a rhedosaurus—  attacks a lighthouse and eventually surfaces in the waters outside New York City, there’s no ignoring the situation.  The beast is very real.

THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS is not only historically significant in that it’s the first of the 1950s giant monster movies, but it’s also an outstanding movie, one of the best giant monster movies ever made.

And the conversation about BEAST begins and ends with the work of Ray Harryhausen. Harryhausen brought his “A” game to every movie that he worked on.  His stop-motion special effects are always top-notch.  A movie with inferior special effects by Ray Harryhausen does not exist.  The major reason for this of course is Harryhausen’s talent, but another reason is the time he spent on each movie.  Harryhausen never rushed his work, which is why, sadly, there weren’t more movies made with his stop-motion effects.  It often took him years to work on one movie.

THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS is no exception.  It features superior special effects by Ray Harryhausen.  It also features one of the scariest and most memorable scenes from any giant monster movie period— the lighthouse scene.  Which comes as no surprise since this is the scene directly connected to Ray Bradbury’s short story, which was about a dinosaur attacking a lighthouse.

I first saw THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS on TV when I was probably eight years old or so, and the lighthouse scene gave me nightmares and stayed with me long afterwards. In this scene, there are two men in the closed-in confines of the lighthouse, and outside the protective walls, the beast emerges from the ocean, drawn by the light perhaps.  The men inside hear a noise, and look up to see the enormous face of the creature peering through the glass.  The beast then destroys the lighthouse before the men can escape, and as we learn later, eats them.  It’s a terrifying scene.

beast lighthouse

It’s also perfectly shot by director Lourie and Harryhausen.  The matting effect is near perfect, and without a DVD/Blu-ray to freeze fame, it would be very difficult for the naked eye in real-time to see where the real shots of the ocean and the matte shots of Harryhausen’s animation meet.  The chilling black and white photography helps here, and the whole scene is so well done it’s nearly seamless.  The lighthouse itself is also animated, as is the immediate island onto which the rhedosaurus climbs, but the surrounding ocean is not, as it’s the real thing.

There are a lot of other memorable scenes as well.  The rhedosaurus’ first appearance in the snowy Arctic is also quite chilling, and the ending of the film, which takes place by the rollercoaster on Coney Island is also noteworthy.

Beast - snow

THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS also has an interesting cast.  I could take or leave Paul Christian, whose real name was Paul Hubschmid, as lead hero Tom Nesbitt.  Likewise, Paula Raymond  is just OK as lead love interest Lee Hunter.

It’s the supporting cast that stands out in this one.  Cecil Kellaway does a fine job as the amiable Professor Elson.  Kellaway was a famous character actor with a ton of credits in a career that spanned from the 1930s through the 1970s, appearing in such movies as Disney’s THE SHAGGY DOG (1959) and GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER (1967).  Kellaway also appeared in two Universal monster movies and was memorable in both of them.  He played Inspector Sampson in the first Invisible Man sequel, THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS (1940) in which he doggedly pursues Vincent Price’s Invisible Man, and he played the flamboyant magician Solvani in THE MUMMY’S HAND (1940).

Kenneth Tobey plays Colonel Jack Evans.  Tobey of course played the lead hero Captain Patrick Hendry in THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD (1951) and he would play the lead again in Ray Harryhausen’s IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA (1955), which tells the tale of a giant monstrous octopus.  Tobey is excellent here in THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS in a supporting role.

And yes, that’s Lee Van Cleef as Corporal Stone, the marksman given the daunting task of shooting the fatal radioactive isotope into the wound of the rhedosaurus.

Lou Morheim and Fred Freiberger wrote the screenplay, based on the Bradbury short story.  It’s a decent screenplay as it tells a solid story, contains realistic dialogue, and creates sympathetic characters.

THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS also features a compelling music score by David Buttolph.

So, the next time you’re enjoying a giant monster movie, especially one in the Godzilla/Toho/Kaiju universe, remember it might not have happened without the success of Ray Harryhausen’s rhedosaurus, aka THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS.

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE (2017) Reminds Us Atrocities Need Not Be Accepted

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THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE (2017) is based on the nonfiction book of the same name by Diane Ackerman and tells the true story of how the keepers of the Warsaw Zoo hid, protected, and ultimately saved hundreds of Jews during the Nazi invasion and subsequent occupation of Poland during World War II.

The film opens just before the Nazi invasion, in the summer of 1939, and we are introduced to the couple who run the Warsaw Zoo, Jan Zabinski (Johan Heldenbergh) and his wife Antonina (Jessica Chastain).  It’s a remarkable place, and the Zabinskis treat the animals like family.  Antonina in particular has a way with the animals that enables her to share a special bond with them.  We see this firsthand in a touching scene where she tries to save a dying baby elephant while its nervous and frightened parents stand nearby, ready to pounce on her, and yet, because of her sensitivity towards them, they allow her to treat their baby.

We also meet a German zoologist Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl) who brushes off talk of an imminent German invasion, as he says he’s a zoologist and keeps out of politics.

But on September 1, 1939, the invasion happens, first with bombs which decimate the zoo, and then with soldiers, and once the Nazis take over, they herd the Jews into ghettos and force them into deplorable living conditions.  Jan sees these actions firsthand and is horrified by them.

The bombs destroy most of the zoo and kill many of the animals.  Later, their former friend Lutz Heck, now a prominent member of the Nazi party, informs Antonina that all the animals will have to be killed for food for the war effort.  However, he tells Antonina that with her permission he will remove her prize animals and bring them to his zoo in Germany where they will be safe, and she agrees.

However, Jan is outraged, believing that Lutz is simply stealing their animals, and when Antonina says that at least Lutz asked her permission, Jan testily answers that as a Nazi Lutz doesn’t need her permission.  And as winter approaches, the Nazis kill the remaining animals anyway.

Jan tells Antonina of the horrors of what’s going on inside the ghetto, and they decide they cannot stand by and do nothing.  Since the animals are all gone, there is plenty of empty space in the basement beneath the zoo, and they decide to use these empty areas to hide people.  With help, they come up with a system of removing people from the ghetto and secretly bringing them to the safety of the zoo, which is no easy task with Lutz and his fellow Nazis constantly on the prowl.

There no doubt will be comparisons between this movie and SCHINDLER’S LIST (1993) because they tell similar stories, and while SCHINDLER’S LIST is a more powerful movie, THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE is effective in its own right.

Beautifully shot by director Niki Caro, we at first glimpse the wonderful life the citizens of Warsaw experience before September 1, 1939, in particular the harmonious haven created by the Zabinskis at the  Warsaw Zoo.  And when things turn harsh after the invasion, the camera does the same.  Looking out their window, the Zabinskis see what they at first believe are snowflakes falling from the sky, but upon closer inspection they see that what is falling is ash.  The Nazis are burning the ghetto to the ground.

The screenplay by Angela Workman based on Ackerman’s book doesn’t overplay its hand.  The Nazi atrocities are well-known— or at least they should be— and the story  while not sugar-coating things does not go out of its way to show these horrors first hand either; hence the PG-13 rating.  Yet, there are still some jarring scenes, like when two Jewish women are shot in the head at point-blank range.

I’m a huge fan of Jessica Chastain, and I really enjoyed her performance here as Antonina Zabinski.  She especially captures the sensitivity Antonina possessed which allowed her to work so closely with the animals; they trusted her. Likewise, when it’s up to her to work closely with Nazi Lutz Heck, her skills once more come into play.  She has a way with him as well, and like the animals in the zoo, he trusts her.  This allows them to continue to hide the Jews under the noses of the Nazis.  For a while, anyway.

As much as I enjoyed Chastain, the best performance in the movie belongs to Johan Heldenbergh as Antonina’s husband Jan.  As Jan, Heldenbergh displays a wide range of emotions, from strength, to horror and outrage at what the Nazis are doing to his Jewish friends, to jealousy over his wife’s and Lutz’ relationship, even though he knows that its integral to the success of their efforts.  It’s a deep resonating performance, and while Antonina spends most of her time at the zoo working with Lutz, it’s Jan who’s active in the streets of Warsaw and who is personally responsible for whisking the Jews out of the ghetto.  As such, he sees much more of the atrocities than his wife does, and it takes a heavy toll on him.  The scene where he watches children being loaded onto the box cars of the crowded train is one of the more powerful images in the film.

Daniel Bruhl  makes for a sufficiently villainous Nazi, Lutz Heck.  However, since he’s for the most part “tamed” by Antonina, he’s nowhere near as despicable as some other movie Nazis.    His actions are somewhat muted because of his feelings for Antonina.

The rest of the cast does a nice job in support of these three main actors.  Iddo Goldberg is memorable as their Jewish friend Maurycy Fraenkel, and Shira Haas stands out as a young girl Jan rescues from the ghetto after she is raped by Nazi soldiers.

Michael McElhatton is memorable as the Rabinski’s loyal employee Jerzyk who stays with them through the whole ordeal and risks his life for them on numerous occasions.  And while McElhatton appears on GAME OF THRONES, I just saw him in a horror movie I liked, THE HALLOW (2015).

THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE is a potent movie about a horrible time in our world’s history, and it tells an uplifting story about bravery in the face of unspeakable horrors and says a lot about the human spirit.  In spite of the Nazis threat, the Rabinskis refused to stand by and do nothing.

As the world continues to be a sadly dangerous place, it’s a message people the world over should take to heart and remember.  Atrocities need not be accepted.

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

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

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

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

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

For The Love Of Horror cover

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

 

 

 

GOING IN STYLE (2017) Provides Mediocre Comedy

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going_in_style poster.jpg

GOING IN STYLE (2017) is a remake of a 1979 film of the same name by writer/director Martin Brest that starred George Burns, Art Carney, and Lee Strasberg as three senior citizens who decided to spice up their lives by robbing a bank.

This time around, the director is Zach Braff [from TV’s SCRUBS (2001-2010)] and the three elderly friends are played by Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, and Alan Arkin.

I enjoy these three actors a lot, and they’re the main reason I wanted to see this movie.

The story has been updated to 2017, and the plot has as its villain the “evil” bank which is responsible for taking away these men’s homes and their pensions.

Joe (Michael Caine) is unhappy because his bank was less than clear about his refinanced mortgage, and as a result, his monthly payment has tripled.  He can no longer afford the payment, and since his daughter and granddaughter live in the house with him, he does not want to lose his home.

To make matters worse, he and his buddies Willie (Morgan Freeman) and Albert (Alan Arkin) learn that the company they had worked for is shifting its workforce overseas, and as a result it’s cancelling their pensions.

When Joe visits his bank to argue about his mortgage, three masked men burst in and hold it up.  They get away with the money, which gets Joe to thinking:  if he and his friends robbed a bank, his bank, they’d get their pensions back.  Worse case scenario, they go to jail, which for them isn’t so bad since they don’t have a lot of years left to live.  As Joe says to his buddies, in prison, they’ll have a roof over their heads, three meals a day, and better health care than they have in the outside world.

While Willie and Albert don’t agree at first, eventually they change their minds and set their sights on robbing a bank.

GOING IN STYLE is a likable enough movie, but it’s nothing that hasn’t been done before or done better.

In spite of its realistic plot points of the manipulative bank giving Joe misleading information about his mortgage, and the company cancelling its pensions because it’s moving overseas, the film just isn’t very believable, which is surprising because the screenplay, based on the 1979 screenplay by Edward Cannon, was written by Theodore Melfi.  Melfi wrote the screenplay for ST. VINCENT (2014) and HIDDEN FIGURES (2016) two films that I liked a lot.  His script here for GOING IN STYLE is nowhere as crisp as his work on those other two movies.

The story just never becomes real.  I never believed that these three guys would really rob a bank, or that they’d actually get away with it.  The film is more a set-up to have Caine, Freeman, and Arkin interact with each other.

And sure, they’re fun to watch, but the problem is I’ve seen these actors far funnier in other movies than they are here.  Which brings me to the biggest problem with this movie. It’s one thing for a comedy not to have the most believable plot, but it’s quite another for it not to be funny, and I just didn’t find this film all that humorous.

Sure, there are lots of little bits here and there that caused me to chuckle, and Caine, Freeman, and Arkin did a fine job with these little bits, but I rarely laughed out loud.  Part of the problem is the film is rated PG-13, and so the language is tame, which really works against a guy like Alan Arkin who can be hilariously funny when his humor is untamed. He’s very reserved here, as are Caine and Freeman.

The plot also goes to the syrupy sweet aisle one too many times.  Scenes with Caine and his granddaughter made me want to gag they were so cliché, as well as a subplot where Freeman’s character befriends a little girl during the heist.

Christopher Lloyd is also on hand as another friend, Milton, and he does his loony Christopher Lloyd shtick throughout which like a lot of other parts in this film, seemed old and tired.

The most energetic performance in the film clearly belongs to Ann-Margret who plays a woman trying to seduce Alan Arkin’s character, and this provides the film with its most unintentional  laugh as he resists her!  Who in their right mind would resist Ann-Margret? And at 75, she still looks amazing!  I was flabbergasted by how good she looked in this film.  Wow!

Joey King is okay as Caine’s granddaughter Brooklyn, and Peter Serafinowicz does a nice job as Caine’s ex-son-in-law. John Ortiz plays a man name Jesus who teaches them how to rob a bank.

Matt Dillon also appears as a less than intelligent FBI agent.  Like the rest of the film, his performance is nothing I haven’t seen him do before and do better.

GOING IN STYLE is a likable enough movie, but sadly it didn’t possess enough biting humor or a believable enough story for it to completely work for me, even with the presence of Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, and Alan Arkin.

It’s a strictly by-the-numbers comedy that could have benefitted from both sharper writing and directing.

A little more style would have been greatly appreciated.

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

PERSONAL SHOPPER (2017) – Supernatural Drama More Interested in Questions Than Answers

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personal_shopper poster

PERSONAL SHOPPER (2017), the second collaboration between French director Olivier Assayas and Kristen Stewart, is the type of movie that gives me fits.

It’s complex and artistic, and its story is purposely left unclear, and for a story guy like me, that drives me crazy.  It’s like reading a well-written poem.  You appreciate its artistry and spend hours pouring over its words looking for meaning, trying to find out just what it is the poet is trying to say, and on those occasions when you fail to reach a satisfying conclusion, you have to ask yourself:  was there anything there to begin with?  Which is why when all is said and done, I prefer to read novels.

That’s how I felt while watching PERSONAL SHOPPER, a ghost story that plays out like a supernatural drama as opposed to a horror movie or thriller, and that’s okay.  I loved the style of this movie.  But the wheels inside my head are still spinning over its content.

Maureen Cartwright (Kristen Stewart) is an American living in Paris working as a personal shopper to a celebrity who due to her fame cannot shop unencumbered.  But the real reason Maureen is there, and the reason she is so somber and haunted, is her twin brother died there a month earlier.  And Maureen isn’t just mourning.  She’s looking for a sign.

Her brother was a medium, as is Maureen, and he had promised her that if he died he would send her a sign from the other side.  And so she spends dark nights inside the house where her brother had lived, waiting for his message.  In fact, at one point in the movie, when asked what she is doing in Paris, she actually says she is waiting.  Her search isn’t restricted to her brother’s house, but pretty much everywhere she goes in Paris, she is on the lookout for some sign from her brother, and when she is contacted, whether through strange noises in the dark or haunting apparitions or mysterious text messages, it sets off a myriad of questions.  Is it her brother?  Is it someone else? If it is someone else, is it a spirit or a real person?  Or are there multiple spirits/persons trying to contact her?  Do they pose a threat?

These are all fascinating questions, and I enjoyed following Maureen on her search for answers.  Unfortunately, the film doesn’t really provide satisfying responses to these questions, as it remains vague about most of them.  Perhaps this is the point, that when seeking out those things that haunt us, there aren’t always clear definitive answers. Either way, PERSONAL SHOPPER is definitely a movie more about questions than answers.

Director Olivier Assayas drew me in immediately with his gloomy and somber cinematography as the film opens with Maureen arriving at her deceased brother’s home, which sets up a very creepy scene early on:  Maureen’s first night alone in the house. She’s there in the dark, and she hears a noise, and unlike heroines in traditional horror movies who call out “Hello?” loudly and hyperventilate, Maureen silently and slowly makes her way through the pitch black corridors.  Of course, at this point in the movie, the audience isn’t aware of what she is doing there or who she is looking for, which only adds to the weirdness of the sequence.

And this is pretty much how director Assayas’ screenplay  unfolds.  He doesn’t really tell the story in a straight narrative.  For instance, the film nearly reaches its halfway mark before it’s revealed clearly what Maureen’s job is, that she works as a personal shopper.

PERSONAL SHOPPER is one very moody and somber film, and as such, is driven by Kristen Stewart’s subtle yet dominating performance.  She’s in nearly every scene of the movie, and the film doesn’t suffer for it.  She is captivating to watch, and in spite of the purposely vague narrative, she held my interest throughout.  Her performance here reminded me a bit of Casey Affleck’s performance in MANCHESTER BY THE SEA (2016).  Like Affleck, she’s haunted and pained throughout, as if she is suffering from a permanent migraine. Her intense search for answers becomes almost palpable.

It’s interesting thematically that while on the one hand Maureen is dealing with spirits while she searches for a sign from her brother, on the other hand, her job keeps her in contact with a celebrity who also seems more dead than alive, who treats people horribly and is oblivious to everyone around her, as if she, like a spirit, is living in some other world. Likewise, even though she has a boyfriend back home who she communicates with via Skype, Maureen struggles with human relationships.  She seems to enjoy being alone. It’s almost as if she too is living in another world,  and there are certainly parallels between her story and her brother’s.

For example, they’re twins.  They’re both mediums.  They both share the same cardiovascular defect which caused her brother to suffer a heart attack and die while only in his twenties.  Her brother is literally dead, and she seems to be figuratively dead.  The film shows two different worlds intertwined, so that it’s difficult to know which one is which and who is in which one.  It’s fascinating to think about, and the film throws out hints and suggestions that come close to turning the entire plot on its head.

The film doesn’t skimp on the suspense either.  There’s the aforementioned opening scene in the dark house which is as creepy as they get.  There are scenes of spectral appearances, and one of the most suspenseful sequences involves Maureen receiving a series of strange text messages which she at first hopes are from her brother, but then she has doubts and fears that perhaps someone- a spirit or a very real person – might be stalking her.

The best part of PERSONAL SHOPPER is it’s about as far from a by-the-numbers thriller as you can get.  It’s a much more complex movie than most, and for that alone, it’s worth watching.

It’s a haunting film, empowered by Kristen Stewart’s mesmerizing performance, and by Olivier Assayas’ artistic direction.    The camera gets in real close during the suspense scenes, and it takes its time with the spectral sequences, allowing for full impact when apparitions appear.

Other scenes end in mid-dialogue, often giving the distinct notion that what we are seeing, especially in terms of Maureen, is only part of what is going on.  Indeed, this is a movie where the missing parts seem to be more prominent and powerful than the parts we are shown.

Assayas’ cryptic screenplay is like a puzzle, and as such, for a moviegoer like myself who enjoys a good story, it’s frustrating.  The ending in particular leaves its audience with one big question mark.

Yet, this doesn’t take away from the effectiveness of the movie.  Its somber mood and unsettling eeriness perfectly permeate the tale of Maureen’s heartfelt and painful search for her deceased brother.

PERSONAL SHOPPER is a movie more interested in questions than answers.  Maureen spends the whole movie asking questions, looking for answers, and by the end of the movie, she seems to have found them, but just what they are and what they mean for her and for the audience, remains unknown.

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

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

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

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

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

For The Love Of Horror cover

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

 

 

 

 

GHOST IN THE SHELL (2017) – Soulless and Empty Science Fiction

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ghost_in_the_shell

Just in case you don’t get the title, it’s all spelled out for you in the opening moments of the film, all very neat and tidy.

See, as GHOST IN THE SHELL (2017), a new science fiction film starring Scarlett Johansson and based on a comic and classic anime movie from 1995, opens, we are told that the Major (Scarlett Johansson) a cyborg who now works as a soldier fighting crime has had her brain implanted into an artificial body, thus her soul, or “ghost” is inside an artificial “shell.”

Oh, now I get it!  Ghost in the shell!  Gee, I don’t think I would have figured that out without that crystal clear explanation!

Talk about dumbing things down for your audience.

And like this silly pointless explanation, in spite of the extravagant special effects and eye-popping visuals, GHOST IN THE SHELL is about as imaginative as yolk in the shell.

It’s the near future— although the spectacular cityscape makes it look like the far distant future— and as the movie explains in its first few moments, the Major is a cyborg who fights crime.  She works for a division run by the noble Aramaki (Takeshi Kitano) and her favorite crime fighting buddy is fellow cyborg Batou (Pilou Asbaek).  He’s a cyborg because he loses his eyes in an explosion and receives new and improved versions.  It’s what everybody does in this society:  upgrade their bodies with machine parts.  It’s one of the more fascinating parts of a story that isn’t very fascinating.

Whenever Major is injured, she visits her doctor, Dr. Ouelet (Juliette Binoche), who makes the necessary repairs and asks her how she’s feeling.  It seems to be important to Dr. Ouelet that Major not forget her humanity, as she constantly reminds her that she’s more than just a machine.  She tells Major that her brain inside this shell enables her to keep her essence, her soul.  It’s a thought-provoking concept that sadly is hardly explored in this movie.

But Major’s department is also run by a cliché evil baddie named Cutter (Peter Ferdinando) who is supposed to be a good guy but is so obviously crooked he might as well be wearing a name tag with the word VILLAIN printed on it.  One of his first lines in the movie is when he’s arguing with Dr. Ouelet about Major’s future, and whereas the doctor argues for her humanity, he calls her a weapon and declares she works for his company.  Oh no!  It’s another dreaded evil company!

When a new threat emerges, killing the scientists in this company, it’s up to Major to stop it, and along the way, she learns shocking information about her past that was kept from her by her doctors, a “revelation” that is clearly given away in the movie’s trailers, and so it’s not a revelation at all.

For a movie that talks about souls and humanity, GHOST IN THE SHELL is as lifeless as an empty egg shell.  The screenplay by Jamie Moss, William Wheeler, and Ehren Kruger, based on the comic “The Ghost in the Shell” by Masamune Shirow, is anemic and flat.  The dialogue is uninspiring, and the story dull and mindless.

Director Rupert Sanders does a nice job with the visuals and adds some nifty cinematic touches.  The dazzling futuristic cityscape is satisfying although not entirely original, as it is clearly reminiscent of the look of Ridley Scott’s BLADE RUNNER (1982).  These visual effects are the main reason to see GHOST IN THE SHELL, although on their own they’re not enough to save this movie.  Not even close.

Surprisingly, Scarlett Johansson is rather dull as the Major.  She doesn’t act like a cyborg with a human brain.  She acts like a robot, pure and simple.  And the generic naked body suit which she wears throughout the film when she disrobes makes her look like an undressed department store mannequin.  It’s a rather laughable look, which I’m sure the filmmakers were not going for.  Her Rated G naked body is symbolic of the whole movie:  it’s a whitewashed lackluster tale with any and all intelligence bleached out.

You know, a few years back, when Liam Neeson was making all those TAKEN movies as well as other action flicks with similar themes and plot points, the joke was, okay, which family member is Neeson trying to save in this movie?  Because he kept showing up in similarly conceived actioners.  Likewise, this is the third time Johansson has played this type of role.  She played a similar role in LUCY (2014) a film in which her character discovers unlimited brain capacity, and she played a mysterious woman who turned out to be an alien in UNDER THE SKIN (2013), all similarly themed characters who learn “shocking” secrets about themselves.  Of the three, her work as the Major here in GHOST OF THE SHELL is the least satisfying.

I found the rest of the cast to be dull and uninspiring.  Pilou Asbaek is okay as Batou, although he looks like Billy Idol on steroids impersonating  Wolverine.  Likewise, Juliette Binoche is just okay as Dr. Ouelet.

Sadly, I didn’t care about any of the characters in this movie.

The film also does a terrible job establishing a sense of place.  It certainly looks like it’s taking place in a city in Japan, yet no mention is ever made in the film of exactly where they are, what country or city.

I was bored with GHOST IN THE SHELL from the outset.  At least during the first half of the movie, I was somewhat entertained by the film’s visual landscape, but without a solid story and interesting characters, I pretty much lost interest during the film’s monotonous second act

I found GHOST IN THE SHELL to be a major disappointment.  It’s about as thought-provoking and compelling as those awful RESIDENT EVIL and UNDERWORLD movies.

Without a doubt, it’s my least favorite Scarlett Johansson movie.

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

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

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

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

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

For The Love Of Horror cover

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

 

 

 

 

Say Bye-Bye to THE BYE BYE MAN (2017)

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bye_bye_man-poster

While 2017 has been a great year for horror movies so far, it didn’t start out that way. Here’s a look back at one of the year’s earlier efforts, as well as being one of its more forgettable, from January, THE BYE BYE MAN (2017).

THE BYE BYE MAN— what an awful title— opens in the 1960s, when we see an unhinged man with a shotgun chasing his family and neighbors, asking them if they’ve told anyone the name.  Regardless of their answers, he kills them.  He eventually kills himself, all in an effort to prevent the evil of the Bye Bye Man from being spread.  But spread it does!

The story jumps to present day where we meet three college friends about to rent an off campus house together.   There’s Elliot (Douglas Smith) and Sasha (Cressida Bonas), who are dating, and John (Lucien Laviscount), who’s been Elliot’s best friend since childhood. It doesn’t take long before they realize they picked the wrong house to rent.

At their house-warming party, attended by their college friends and Elliot’s older brother Virgil (Michael Trucco) and Virgil’s young daughter Alice (Erica Tremblay), it’s little Alice who discovers a mysterious gold coin in the upstairs bedroom.  This coin later leads Elliott to find the words “Don’t say it!  Don’t think it!” written inside a drawer which eventually leads him to more hidden writing, and this time it’s the name “The Bye Bye Man.”  So, you can’t say it or think it, but I guess it’s okay to write it.

Meanwhile, Sasha’s friend Kim (Jenna Kanell) who is psychic decides to give the house a psychic cleansing, and in an absolutely ridiculous scene in which she must be the most powerful psychic who ever lived because she knows every single answer to every single question naysayer Elliot throws her way, she eventually receives some bad vibes from the Bye Bye Man himself and quicker than you can say séance she makes like the bye bye girl and gets the heck out of there.  Well, sort of.  She does stay long enough to sleep with John.

Anyway, the Bye Bye Man is unleashed and he begins to haunt our three fine college friends who find themselves experiencing strange delusions and having impulses to harm those around them.  And they can’t tell anyone what’s going on because, well, you know, “don’t say it.  don’t think it.”  Say the Bye Bye Man, and it’s curtains for those you say it to.  Whatever.  These folks aren’t that clever.  I mean, they don’t even try to become creative in communicating what’s going on.  There are ways, after all, to get a message across without actually saying a name.  Try “there’s something haunting us which we can’t think about or name” for a start.

THE BYE BYE MAN is a dreadful horror movie that really isn’t worth your time.

The acting is particularly bad.  I thought the two leads, Douglas Smith as Elliot, and Cressida Bonas as Sasha were pretty awful.  I didn’t find them convincing at all, and Smith goes through the whole film with a weird expression on his face, a cross between sadness and fright, regardless of what’s happening around him.

The supporting cast was a bit better.  Lucien Laviscount at least showed some personality as John, and I actually liked Jenna Kanell as Kim, the psychic girl.

Doug Jones plays The Bye Bye Man, and we’ve seen Jones as other monsters as well, in OUIJA:  ORIGIN OF EVIL (2016) and in CRIMSON PEAK (2015).  Jones also played Abe Sapien in the HELLBOY movies.

And in a bizarre bit of casting, Faye Dunaway shows up in a bit part as the Widow Redmon.  Is this the best she can get nowadays?  Very sad.

The direction by Stacy Title isn’t any better.  There are some awkward shots here, almost amateurish, during some scenes of dialogue, where the camera jumps from one character’s face to the other and often lingers there.  It was just odd.  In fact, it was so noticeable that the audience actually laughed a couple of times.  It wasn’t smooth camerawork at all.

In terms of shocks and scares, again, the audience was laughing.  Not a good sign.  In fact, I saw it in a packed theater— which I guess explains why these movies get theatrical releases, because horror movies make money.  Although good horror movies would make more money!—and on the way out I heard several people say it was the worst movie they’ve ever seen.

The script by Jonathen Penner was dull and redundant.  Don’t say it.  Don’t think it.  How about Don’t repeat it?  Over and over again we kept hearing the same phrase, and yet I left that movie not knowing much at all about who the Bye Bye Man was or what he was up to, which I guess is because nobody in the movie could say anything about him.  How convenient.  Let’s create a monster that the characters can’t talk about for fear of death and that way we don’t have to develop him!  Er, no.

The characters were also weak, and I wasn’t interested in any of them.

I will say, that the first time we actually see the Bye Bye Man, I thought he looked kinda cool, but sadly, the more we see of him, the less cool he looks.  And, the worst part is, that the Bye Bye Man has a buddy, and it’s, I guess, some huge carnivorous dog.  Whatever he is, he’s the saddest looking CGI creation this side of those god-awful TWILIGHT wolves.

THE BYE BYE MAN is a weak and forgettable horror movie.  In fact, I have no problem with don’t think it, don’t say it, because lucky for me, I’ve already forgotten about it.  You should too.

Say bye-bye to THE BYE BYE MAN.  Good riddance!

—END—