MAMA MIA! HERE WE GO AGAIN (2018) -Good-Natured Sequel Starts Slow, Finishes Strong

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mama_mia_here we go again

Guilty pleasure alert!

I really liked MAMA MIA! (2008) when it came out ten years ago.

I mean, it had a fun cast, led by Meryl Streep, and it included hammy performances by Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, and Stellan Skarsgard— sure, Brosnan couldn’t sing, but I just looked the other way—and it was also the first film in which I saw Amanda Seyfried, and I became an instant fan. Plus, there were all the ABBA songs, which I have always enjoyed. The film was a pleasant surprise.

Now, ten years later, comes the sequel, MAMA MIA! HERE WE GO AGAIN (2018).

MAMA MIA! HERE WE GO AGAIN takes place five years after the events of the first movie. Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) has refurbished her mom’s fabulous home on the Greek island of Skopelos and is planning an opulent open house shindig worthy of Jay Gatsby. However, she’s troubled because things aren’t quite right with her hubbie Sky (Dominic Cooper) as he’s been offered a job in New York City and would rather be there than in Greece with her. Plus, of her “three dads” only Sam (Pierce Brosnan) is present, as both Harry (Colin Firth) and Bill (Stellan Skarsgard) have obligations elsewhere.

And Sophie is feeling the pressure because this party is in honor of her mother Donna (Meryl Streep) who passed away a year earlier. Alas, Meryl Streep fans, you won’t see much of Streep here since her character is deceased, but since this is a happy musical, she does get to appear in one scene.

Interspersed with this present day story is a second story told via flashback, Donna’s background story. We follow a young Donna (Lily James) and witness how she first meets Sam, Harry, and Bill, as well as how she finds herself in Greece. The film jumps back and forth seamlessly between both stories.

And that’s pretty much the plot of this one.

As far as stories go, the two told in MAMA MIA! HERE WE GO AGAIN are rather weak. I found both tales rather flat and nowhere near as engrossing as the fun plot told in the first film, where Sophie invited her three possible dads to her wedding in the hope of learning which one was her real dad. That story worked. The ones here put me to sleep.

Of course, you don’t see MAMA MIA! HERE WE GO AGAIN for its story. You see it for its song and dance numbers, and for its light upbeat style and humor, and on these fronts, the film doesn’t disappoint. The musical numbers are decent, though not as good as the ones in the first film, and the script provides frequent chuckles.

The best part about MAMA MIA! HERE WE GO AGAIN is that it gets better as it goes along and finishes strong, which goes a long way towards helping you forget about its slow opening. And the reason it gets better is during the film’s third act, the heavy hitters arrive, folks like Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgard, and their presence adds quite a bit. Even Cher shows up as Sophie’s grandmother, looking tremendous for someone in her 70s. And Cher even gets two musical numbers in this one!

And the film saves the best for last. The final number during the movie’s end credits is one of the liveliest of the film.

Lily James has the daunting task of playing a young Donna, a role previously played by Meryl Streep. Plus, she’s asked to carry half the movie since she has a lot of screen time. James is actually quite good here, which comes as no surprise since she has also delivered strong performances in films like BABY DRIVER (2017) and DARKEST HOUR (2017). She also starred as Lady Rose MacClare on TVs DOWNTON ABBEY (2012-2015).

I also thought Alexa Davies as young Rosie and Jessica Keenan Wynn as young Tanya were both exceptionally good. Wynn is the granddaughter of the late Keenan Wynn.

The males didn’t fare as well.  While Hugh Skinner as young Harry, Josh Dylan as young Bill, and Jeremy Irvine as young Sam, were all okay, none of them were all that memorable.

And none of them make you forget the original actors in the roles.

Both Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgard once again have field days in their roles as Harry and Bill, and once they enter the movie for its third act, the fun picks up. Pierce Brosnan gets more serious scenes this time around, as he shares some tender moments with his daughter Sophie, and I’m happy to say, he seems to have improved upon his singing!

Julie Walters and Christine Baranski also reprise their roles from the first movie as Rosie and Tanya respectively, and they’re hilarious once again. I wish they had been in the movie more.

Likewise, Amanda Seyfried and Dominic Cooper reprise their roles as well, as Sophie and Sky, but they really don’t make much of an impact.  Cooper isn’t in this one much (probably busy with the TV show PREACHER), and Seyfried, as much as I like her, gets stuck with some of the worst lines in the movie.

Much of the dialogue in this one is pretty bad. Director Ol Parker also wrote the screenplay, and while the dialogue in the flashback sequences is okay, some of the stuff in the here and now is flat out dreadful. And most of these clinkers go to Amanda Seyfried, as well as to Andy Garcia.

Yup, veteran actor Andy Garcia is in this one as well. Sadly, his lines are so bad he doesn’t even sound like a real person. I like Garcia a lot, and I’m glad to see him in movies again. He enjoyed a bigger and better role in the recent comedy BOOK CLUB (2018), where he played Diane Keaton’s love interest. Here, he plays a character named Fernando, and if you’re familiar with ABBA songs, you know where that’s going.

Also, a quick shout out to Maria Vacratsis who steals every scene she’s in as an elderly Greek woman named Sofia.

And if you look fast you’ll see Jonathan Goldsmith show up quickly as Fernando’s brother. While Goldsmith’s acting career dates back to the 1960s, he’s most famous nowadays for his long running stint as “the most interesting man in the world” on Dos Equis beer commercials from 2006-2016.

I can’t say that I liked MAMA MIA! HERE WE GO AGAIN all that much. I definitely enjoyed its third act and was glad it built towards a strong conclusion, but taken as a whole, its story just never really grabbed me.

Not that it matters in the long run. I saw it in a packed theater on a week night, a theater filled primarily with women of all ages. I think I saw one other man in the theater, and I’m not complaining, mind you. There’s nothing wrong with being surrounded by women of all ages. It was actually pretty nice.

MAMA MIA! HERE WE GO AGAIN certainly played like a sequel, in that it’s not as fresh or as lively as the original. But as long as there’s not a MAMA MIA! HERE WE GO ONE MORE TIME! it’s all harmless good fun.

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

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

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

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

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

For_the_love_of_Horror- original cover

Print cover

For the Love of Horror cover (3)

Ebook cover

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Christmas Monsters & Villains

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Christmas can be a difficult time.

Whether it be dealing with all the shopping, spending money we simply don’t have, spending time with extended family, time that is far too extended, or perhaps spending time alone.  Whatever the reason, Christmas is not always the harbinger of joy for some folks.

For others, though, it’s a time to celebrate with family and friends, to enjoy family traditions, and to rest and relax.  And still for  others, it’s a time of religious reflection and significance.

For me, it’s a little bit of all of these things, except for the rest and relax part.  Of all the holidays, Christmas is the one I least associate with rest and relaxation.  It’s anything but. In short, it’s incredibly exhausting, and more often than not, stressful.

Regardless of where you fall on the Christmas meter, if there’s one thing that most of us can agree on, especially those of us who grew up watching all those Rankin Bass animated Christmas specials, is that they were always a highlight of the season.

So, let’s have a look at some Christmas monsters and villains, courtesy of Rankin Bass.

Here we go:

Professor Hinkle, FROSTY THE SNOWMAN (1969).

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For my money, the most evil villain ever to appear in a Rankin Bass Christmas special was the dastardly Professor Hinkle, voiced by Billy De Wolfe.  Hinkle, that mad magician, was responsible for locking Frosty in that greenhouse, causing him to melt.  Yup, Hinkle killed Frosty!  Wow.  Talk about your demented movie villains!  Thankfully, this being a Christmas special, we learn that Frosty was made from Christmas snow, and thanks to some help from Santa Claus himself, he returns to life.  Phew!

 

Heat Miser & Snow Miser, THE YEAR WITHOUT A SANTA CLAUS (1974)

heat miser snow miser 2

Arguably the most famous of the Christmas Special villains, the Brothers Miser certainly own the best song/dance number. Say either name and you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t break into song immediately.  “I’m Mister Snow Miser, I’m Mr. Snow.”

Snow Miser, voiced by Dick Shawn, and Heat Miser, voiced by George S. Irving, are by far the most memorable part of THE YEAR WITHOUT A SANTA CLAUS.  And they remain villainous throughout, until the end, when they’re scolded by their mother, Mother Nature.

 

Winter Warlock, SANTA CLAUS IS COMIN’ TO TOWN (1970)

santa-claus-is-comin-to-town-1970-winter-warlock

The Winter Warlock, voiced by the great Keenan Wynn, was such a strong presence in SANTA CLAUS IS COMIN’ TO TOWN, that he nearly gave me nightmares when I was a kid. Of course, he’s only a baddie for half the special, as later on Kris Kringle softens his heart and he joins the side of Santa and his friends.

 

The Abominable Snowman, RUDOLPH THE RED-NOSED REINDEER (1964)

rudolph_abominable snowman christmas tree

 

By far, my favorite of the Christmas Special monsters and villains.  He’s so ferocious that he nearly eats Rudolph for dinner!  But thanks to a quick thinking Hermey the Elf and Yukon Cornelius, he’s overpowered, and the young wannabe-dentist elf Hermey removes all his teeth, making him harmless, so harmless in fact that by the end of the story he’s helping decorate the massive Christmas tree at Santa’s house.

And while this is certainly a happy ending, I’m not so sure it’s so happy for Mr. Abominable Snowman.  I think Hermey went a bit too far.  Pulling all his teeth?  Jeesh!

Anyway, at least he survived the fall off the cliff, and that’s because— “Bumbles bounce!”

Okay, that’s it for now.  I hope you enjoyed this look at Christmas specials’ monsters and villains.

Have a monstrous Christmas, everybody!

—Michael

 

THE GREATEST SHOWMAN (2017) – Energetic, Joyful Musical Difficult to Dislike

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greatest showman

Hugh Jackman is P.T. Barnum, the greatest showman.

While THE GREATEST SHOWMAN (2017) is not as good as last year’s sensational LA LA LAND (2016), it does boast the same songwriting tandem of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who won an Academy Award for their work on LA LA LAND and who are back at it again here with eleven new songs for THE GREATEST SHOWMAN.

For this reason alone, THE GREATEST SHOWMAN is worth a trip to the theater, but that’s not all.  There’s a lot to like about this new musical.

THE GREATEST SHOWMAN tells the story of P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman) beginning when he was a young boy living in poverty and highlighting his budding friendship with a wealthy young girl named Charity.  As adults, they fall in love and get married, and Barnum promises Charity (Michelle Williams) the life she always wanted, and the way he believes he can do that is by entertaining others.

He opens up a Barnum wax museum but finds he can hardly sell a ticket.  When his young daughters tell him no one comes to the museum because there’s nothing alive inside, he remembers a time from his childhood when he was offered an apple by one of the street people, a person with a facial deformity, and he gets the idea that if his museum featured these types of folks, people would come because they want to see the bizarre and the unusual.

So, Barnum goes out and assembles a large group of the strange and unusual, and while these folks are admittedly nervous and wary about being laughed at and exploited, they soon realize that Barnum has their best interests at heart.  Eventually, they become a very close-knit family.

When a major newspaper critic slams the museum as a “circus,” Barnum embraces the criticisms and uses them to promote his show more, even going so far as to change the name from Barnum’s Museum to Barnum’s Circus.  The show is a huge hit, fueled by Barnum’s unceasing enthusiasm and energy, but it’s not without obstacles, as there are violent protests by locals who declare that the “freaks” should not be seen.  And when a major scandal involving Barnum himself erupts, things hit rock bottom.  But the show must go on, and against all odds, it does.

There are two main themes on display in THE GREATEST SHOWMAN, and both work well. The first is the power of imagination.  Time and time again, we see Barnum start with nothing but an idea, one that he’s not afraid to pursue, and when he does, the ideas become reality.   The theme that one is only limited by one’s imagination or lack thereof, that if you can think it, you can do it, really resonates.  Barnum is presented as a man full of imagination, while the naysayers around him are seen a close-minded “realists.”

The other theme is inclusion and acceptance.  Barnum is viewed as a hero to the eclectic group of outcasts he has assembled, as someone who gave them a platform.  For the first time in their lives, they are accepted and loved, and for many of them it’s the first time they are truly happy.  The circus is not presented here as a place that exploited them, but rather as their home.  Furthermore, it gave them a livable wage.

Still, things aren’t perfect.  When Barnum promotes the famous European singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson) and brings her to New York to perform in the U.S. for the first time, he is uncomfortable about having his circus “cast” appear among this high-class New York audience and does his best to hide them out of view, much to their chagrin.

And when junior partner Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron) falls in love with trapeze artist Anne Wheeler (Zendaya) who is black, he finds that being seen with her in public is still something he’s not able to do, in spite of his feelings for her.

The screenplay by Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon delivers some solid storytelling. The characters aren’t always fleshed out as well as they could be, and sometimes moments of adversity are overcome in the blink of an eye, striking at the story’s credibility, but for the most part the storytelling here is commendable. Writer Bill Condon also directed another musical I really liked this year, Disney’s live action remake of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (2017).

Of course, the biggest reason to see any musical is the music, and I really enjoyed both the songs and the music score.  While not as memorable as their songs for LA LA LAND, the work here by lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul is still quite enjoyable.  I found the music rousing and the lyrics poignant.  Some may have trouble with the modernized pop-like score, instead of something more fitting for the 1800s time period, but I liked it just fine.

Hugh Jackman is a natural fit in the role of P.T. Barnum.  It’s his first film musical role since LES MISERABLES (2012). and while his work here as Barnum isn’t as impressive as his work as Jean Valjean, it’s still quite satisfying and enjoyable.  He makes Barnum believable as a man who simply wanted to entertain others and be able to support his wife and two daughters. He effortlessly performs the ambitious song and dance numbers, and easily carries this movie on his back.  He provides a strong likable presence from beginning to end.

As Barnum’s wife Charity, Michelle Williams doesn’t fare as well.   Williams is an outstanding actress, even in small roles, as made evident by her phenomenal supporting performance in last year’s MANCHESTER BY THE SEA (2016),  a role that earned her an Oscar nomination.  Here, she plays second fiddle to Jackman’s Barnum throughout.  The dutiful wife, Charity remains loyal to the end, but as a role for Michelle Williams, there’s hardly anything for her to do, even though she receives second billing here. William’s lack of relevant screen time was probably my least favorite part of this movie.

Zac Efron makes for a likable Phillip Carlyle, the man who works his way up to becoming Barnum’s business partner.

Rebecca Ferguson plays singer Jenny Lind with mixed results.  I like Ferguson a lot, and we just saw her in the thriller THE SNOWMAN (2017) with Michael Fassbender, as well as in the science fiction thriller LIFE (2017). Here as famed singer Jenny Lind, Ferguson possesses a strong presence in her dramatic scenes, but she’s not quite as natural with the song numbers, and since she’s supposed to be the greatest singer in the world at the time, this is slightly problematic.

On the other hand, Zendaya is absolutely mesmerizing as trapeze artist Anne Wheeler.  I couldn’t take my eyes off her when she was onscreen, and it’s a meaty role.  She is constantly dealing with racism, and life for her is a battle.  We catch glimpses of it through the struggles she faces in her own relationship with Phillip.

She delivers one of the best performance in the movie, and she’s certainly in one of the most dynamic scenes in the film, an intense rapid-fire musical number with Zac Efron in which she also performs on the trapeze.  The speed with which this number moves is really impressive.  Supposedly, Zendaya did all her own trapeze stunts in the film.

I really enjoyed Zendaya earlier this year for her work in SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING (2017), but I think her work here in THE GREATEST SHOWMAN is even better.

Keala Settle also stands out as Letti Lutz, the “bearded lady,” as does Sam Humphrey as the diminutive Tom Thumb.

And Paul Sparks is memorable as critic James Gordon Bennett, the man who is relentless in his criticism of Barnum and his show.  He and Jackman share some memorable scenes, especially as they discuss their philosophies as to what constitutes art and entertainment.  Bennett doesn’t see Barnum’s show as even being close to art, yet he can’t deny that the audiences love it, while Barnum views Bennett as being shallow and close-minded, or as he says “an art critic who can’t find joy in art.”  Sparks has been playing author Thomas Yates on Netflix’s HOUSE OF CARDS (2015-2017), and he plays a similar role here as critic Bennett.

First time director Michael Gracey does a nice job here.  He imbues the film with nonstop energy.  The dance numbers are in-your-face rousing and the songs inspirational.  The pacing is also good.  The movie’s one hour and 45 minute running time flies by fast.

Again, I would have enjoyed more character development, and I would have preferred it had some of the obstacles in which the characters faced here took more grit and resolve to solve.  As things stand, everything gets wrapped up in a neat tidy package.  Even the ultra-optimisitic LA LA LAND threw us a curve at the end.

Also, the CGI-created animals here, the elephants and lions, look pretty darn fake.

But these are small concerns.  The film stands on its music and dance numbers, and on these notes, it doesn’t disappoint.

THE GREATEST SHOWMAN might not be the greatest musical ever made, and it might not give us an honest look at P. T. Barnum, who is seen here in nothing short of a one-sided positive light, but it is a highly imaginative energetic musical full of songs that will make you want to get up and dance.  In short, it’s generous with its joy, and you’d be hard-pressed not to leave the theater happier than when you came in.

P. T. Barnum would approve.

—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.  

 

 

 

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (2017) Still Has The Songs

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Beauty-Beast-2017-Movie-Posters

It’s all about the music.

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (2017), Disney’s live-action remake of their beloved animated classic from 1991, succeeds for the simple reason that it’s still got those songs by Alan Menken.  Everything else is gravy.

I enjoyed this new version of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST so much I’m going to say something here that will be sacrilege for those who love the 1991 film version: I liked this new version better. 

Sure, I really liked the 1991 animated film and was glad it received a Best Picture nomination that year, but for me the best part of that film has always been Alan Menken’s songs.  In fact, his score was so good I’ve always thought it really deserved to be in a film with real actors as opposed to animated ones.

This 2017 version gives Menken’s music the platform it has always deserved.

The plot, of course, remains the same.  A handsome but selfish prince (Dan Stevens) is cursed for his meanness and turned into a hideous Beast.  His servants are cursed as well, as they are all transformed into household items.

Meanwhile, in a neighboring village, an “odd” farm girl Belle (Emma Watson) who would rather read books than marry the muscular village heart-throb Gaston (Luke Evans) lives with her equally eccentric inventor father Maurice (Kevin Kline).  When Maurice becomes lost in the woods and finds himself at the Beast’s castle, he is taken prisoner there.  Belle comes to his rescue and makes a deal with the Beast to take her father’s place.

We then learn that in order to break the curse, someone must fall in love with the Beast, and the former servants who are now household objects believe Belle is this women, and they go out of their way to arrange a romance between Belle and the Beast.

This 2017 version of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is probably not going to receive the recognition which the 1991 animated hit received, which is too bad because it’s a very good movie.  It’s grand entertainment from beginning to end.  That being said, it’s not without flaws, but even these drawbacks don’t derail this two-hour and nine minute musical.

Many have lamented that Disney chose as its director for this film Bill Condon, the man who directed the awful THE TWILIGHT SAGA:  BREAKING DAWN – PART 1 (2011) and PART 2 (2012),  but Condon also directed MR. HOLMES (2015), an intriguing tale of an aged, dementia-suffering Sherlock Holmes, and GODS AND MONSTERS (1998), an equally engaging movie about the later days of FRANKENSTEIN director James Whale, both films starring Ian McKellen in the lead roles, who also appears here in BEAUTY AND THE BEAST.

Condon’s work here is closer in quality to MR. HOLMES and GODS AND MONSTERS than those horrible TWILIGHT movies.  The film is colorful and beautiful to look at, the pacing is upbeat, and for a two-hour plus film it doesn’t drag at all, and the musical numbers are lively and satisfying.

Emma Watson has also been receiving her fair share of criticism for a rather flat portrayal of Belle.  Sure, Watson doesn’t play Belle like a princess.  She plays her like a bookish farm girl who is more interested in imagination than romance, which is exactly how Belle should be portrayed.  So, while I agree that at times Belle isn’t the most exciting woman on the planet, she’s not supposed to be.  I thought Watson nailed Belle’s persona.

I did have a little bit of a problem with the CGI used on the Beast, and it’s not that the Beast looked fake— he looked fine— but that he looked a bit too handsome.  He’s not very beastlike in appearance.  He’s not hideous or revolting or frightening.  He’s pretty darn good-looking for a beast.  I kept thinking of that line from the song “Werewolves of London”:  And his hair was perfect.

As the Beast, Dan Stevens does a serviceable job providing the voice, and even displays some well-timed humor when he’s the prince at the end of the movie.

The rest of the CGI effects on the occupants of the castle are unusually understated and simple. Lumiere, Cogsworth, Mrs. Potts, and Chip all look rather plain. Some have interpreted this as inferior CGI, but I liked this effect.  It kept the film from going down the road of high silliness.

Kevin Kline turns in a nice performance as Belle’s father Maurice, and he enjoys some fine moments.

But hands down the two best performances in the movie belong to Luke Evans as Gaston and Josh Gad as LeFou.  Now, in the 1991 animated version, these two provided the comic relief and were over-the-top ridiculous.  As such, they were probably my least two favorite characters in the 1991 version.  It’s the exact opposite here.

While they remain over-the-top and again provide comic relief, both Evans and Gad add so much more to their performances, giving these characters nuances which simply weren’t there in the original.  Evans, as the handsome cad who every woman in the village other than Belle pines for, plays this aspect to the hilt, but he also grounds the character with a sense of military realism that makes Gaston more of a three-dimensional villain here.

As good as Evans is, Josh Gad is even better as LeFou.  He provides several laugh-out-loud moments in this movie, and he makes LeFou much more than just the mindless bumbling sidekick we saw in the animated version.  This LeFou is a real person.  Much has been made about the gay angle of the character, and all I can say is it works wonderfully and it’s a natural progression for the character.

Ewan McGregor is serviceable as Lumiere, but the rest of the cast is hardly noticeable, and this includes some big names.  Ian McKellen barely registers as Cogsworth, and Emma Thompson, while fine as Mts. Potts, doesn’t stand out either.  Even Stanley Tucci is restrained as Maestro Cadenza.  But somehow, none of this really gets in the way of the success of this movie.

And to come full circle, the reason again is the music by Alan Menken.  Somehow, those songs sound even better today.

Menken’s music score and songs have always cried out for a live action rendition.

The 2017 version of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is that rendition.

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

Best Movies of 2016

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La La Land (2016)Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone)

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in LA LA LAND (2016

 

Here’s a look at my picks for the Top 10 movies of 2016.  Of course, while I do see a lot of movies— 58 this year, and that’s just theatrical releases—  I’m not able to see every movie that comes out, and so this list is limited to only those movies I have seen.

We’ll start with #10 and count down to #1:

 

10. THE INFILTRATOR

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Excellent performance by Bryan Cranston powers this crime drama which tells the true story of how U. S. Customs Official Robert Mazur (Bryan Cranston) went undercover to take down a  Columbian drug lord.

 

9. THE JUNGLE BOOK

Loved this remake of Disney’s animated THE JUNGLE BOOK (1967), and I’m a huge fan of that original 1967 animated classic.  Special effects here were amazing, and I really liked how director Jon Favreau made this family friendly film a serious hard-hitting adventure.

 

8. DEADPOOL

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The role Ryan Reynolds has been waiting for.  Sure, this vulgar, violent tale isn’t for everybody, but the humor is spot-on.  My second favorite superhero movie of the year. Best part is it is so unlike other traditional superhero movies.

 

7. CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR

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My pick for the best superhero movie of 2016.  Plays much more like THE AVENGERS 2.5, rhis exciting tale pits Team Captain America vs. Team Iron Man, and the rift between these two friends comes off as real and believable, something that the similarly themed BATMAN V SUPERMAN:  DAWN OF JUSTICE (2016) failed miserably at.  The scenes with newcomer Tom Holland as Spider-Man are off-the-charts good.

 

6. EDGE OF SEVENTEEN

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Hilarious comedy-drama starring Hailee Steinfeld as a seventeen year-old dealing with life as a teenager.  Things get complicated when her best friend starts dating her older brother.  Topnotch script and direction by writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig.

 

 

Now we get down to my picks for the Top 5 movies of 2016:

5. HANDS OF STONE

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Critics panned this movie, but I absolutely loved this boxing pic about boxing champ Roberto Durant.  Edgar Ramirez  gives a spirited performance as Roberto Durant, and he’s supported by a fine cast which includes Robert De Niro, Ruben Blades, and Usher Raymond as Sugar Ray Leonard.  Excellent movie, much better than critics gave it credit for, although admittedly I am a sucker for boxing movies.

 

4. HELL OR HIGH WATER

hell-or-high-water-poster

Easily could be my pick for the best movie of the year, this impeccably made crime drama follows a Texas crime spree by two brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner Howard (Ben Foster) with an old Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) hot on their trail.  Features fantastic peformances by the three leads.  Jeff Bridges is amazing as always, and the same can be said of Ben Foster, and it’s also fun to see Chris Pine get to do a whole lot more than when he plays Captain Kirk in the rebooted STAR TREK movies.  Riveting direction by David Mackenzie, and a phenomenal thought-provoking script by one of my favorite screen writers working today, Taylor Sheridan.

 

3. SULLY

Easily the most efficient film of the year, SULLY, starring Tom Hanks, and directed by Clint Eastwood, clocks in at a brisk 96 minutes, and not a minute is wasted.  It tells the emotionally riveting true tale of pilot Chesley Sullenberger, aka “Sully,” and his decision to make an emergency landing on the Hudson River.  It’s an amazing story because all the passengers on the plane survived, and the film makes things even more compelling as it follows the subsequent investigation by officials who questioned Sully’s decision to land in the water in the first place.  SULLY features another remarkable performance by Tom Hanks, and yet another superb directorial effort by Clint Eastwood.  Eastwood is 86 years old, and yet SULLY plays with as much energy, oomph, and emotion as if directed by someone half that age.  I left the theater incredibly impressed.

 

2. MANCHESTER BY THE SEA

manchester-by-the-sea-poster

This film could also have been my number one pick of the year.  MANCHESTER BY THE SEA is a finely acted drama, led by two powerhouse performances by Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams, about a man Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) thrust into a life-changing situation as he finds himself having to care fo for his deceased brother’s sixteen year-old son.  His life in a shambles due to an earlier traumatic event, Lee knows he’s not the man for the job, but since there is no on else, he pushes himself to live up to his brother’s wishes and care for his nephew. Atmospheric direction by writer/director Kenneth Lonergan, with a script that is as honest and believable as they come.

And now, for my pick for the Number 1 movie of 2016:

 

 

  1. LA LA LAND

la_la_land_poster

My pick for the Best Movie of 2016 also happened to be the last movie I saw in 2016, LA LA LAND.  What a fabulous way to end the calendar year!  LA LA LAND is an absolutely wonderful movie.

I  loved the energy writer/director Damien Chazelle brings to this one.  The opening dance number on a gridlocked L.A. freeway dazzles, and the film never looks back.  Emma Stone gives the best performance of her career to date, imbuing her struggling actress character Mia with so much raw emotion and quirky pizzazz she’s one of the liveliest characters I’ve seen on screen in a long while. Ryan Gosling is just as good as jazz musician Sebastian in this uplifting almost magical musical which follows Mia and Sebastian through a romance in which they help each other achieve their artistic dreams before reality ultimately sets in, forcing them to make decisions which affect their future.  A remarkable movie and genuine crowd pleaser.

Hands down, LA LA LAND is the Best Movie I saw in 2016.

Okay, that about wraps things up for today.  Thanks for joining me in 2016, and here’s to another fine year of movies in 2017!

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

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.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

LA LA LAND (2016) – The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of

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la_la_land_poster

It’s the stuff that dreams are made of.

So says Humphrey Bogart at the end of THE MALTESE FALCON (1941), words that perfectly sum up LA LA LAND (2016), but before you dismiss this uplifting musical from the director of WHIPLASH (2013) and starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone as pure happy fluff, there’s another Bogie quote which does this movie even more justice.

From CASABLANCA (1942):  We’ll always have Paris. We didn’t have, we— we lost it until you came to Casablanca. We got it back last night.

Bogie’s words of wisdom, of course from a script by Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, and Howard Koch, go a long way in understanding and appreciating where the plot of LA LA LAND ultimately goes.

LA LA LAND opens with a spectacular musical dance number  on a gridlocked L.A. freeway which hearkens back to the great musicals of yesteryear. In this traffic jam, the paths of two characters, a young actress Mia (Emma Stone) and a jazz musician Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), cross in a none-too pleasant way.

After this chance meeting, the two characters briefly go their separate ways.  Mia works at a coffee shop, struggling to fulfill her dream of becoming an actress, suffering through one brutal audition after another.  Sebastian is a jazz musician who dreams of opening his own club but struggles to hold onto any music gigs because he’s frustrated he can’t play the music he really wants to as he’s forced to play fluff and background music rather than true jazz.

When their paths cross again, and later again, Mia and Sebastian finally start paying attention to each other, and a romance blossoms. Not only do they get along wonderfully, but they also inspire each other’s dreams.  Sebastian gives Mia the confidence she needs to become a better actress, specifically encouraging her to bypass the awful auditions altogether and to write and star in her own one-woman show instead, while Mia nudges Sebastian towards his dream of running his own club, helping him find at long last a paying gig that will eventually finance his club.

But dreams and reality have a way of butting heads, and to become a success, more often than not sacrifices have to be made, something that Mia and Sebastian discover as they realize that their near-perfect relationship and their dreams of artistic success may be mutually exclusive.

I really really enjoyed LA LA LAND.  2016 has come to a strong close as the last two movies I saw this year, LA LA LAND and MANCHESTER BY THE SEA (2016) are among the best movies I saw all year.

First of all, just the energy level alone in LA LA LAND is enough to knock your socks off. Writer/director Damien Chazelle imbues this film with so much oomph, charm, and colorful charisma it’s hard to sit still in the theater.  You want to get up and dance.

The musical numbers here are really impressive and hearken back to so many classic musicals.  Specifically, SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN (1952) comes to mind.  The number where Stone and Gosling literally float into the air is destined to be a classic.

And since this takes place in Hollywood and is about the whole Hollywood culture, there are plenty of references to classic Hollywood movies, like the aforementioned CASABLANCA.  It’s a fabulous script by Chazelle.  He creates a heartwarming romance, brilliant and vibrant musical numbers, and a thoughtful intelligent script that doesn’t let its audience down.  Chazelle did not win the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for WHIPLASH (2013).  He may get another chance with his script for LA LA LAND.

Emma Stone is brilliant as Mia.  Hands down, this is the best performance I’ve ever seen her deliver.  She enjoys some amazing moments in this movie, moments where she completely nails it, like the excrutiatingly painful audition where she’s brushed off for a phone call, or the hilarious sequence when she spots Sebastian playing with a wedding band.

I always enjoy Ryan Gosling, and he’s great again here as Sebastian.  He’s charming, likable, and has a winning sense of humor. Best of all, Gosling makes Sebastian’s idealistic dreamer a person grounded in reality.  And that’s what I liked best about Sebastian. Other characters in the film chastize him for being an unrealistic dreamer, but just because he has dreams doesn’t mean he doesn’t possess the ability and wherewithal to achieve them.  He does, and he demonstrates this when he helps Mia with her career.

Reportedly Gosling learned how to play the piano for this movie.  After several weeks of intense piano lessons, he was able to play for his scenes in LA LA LAND without involving trained musicians for the close-up hand shots.  So, even though professionals recorded the music, when you see Gosling playing piano in the film, it’s him, and those are his hands on the keys.  Cool!

Gosling and Stone share a wonderful chemistry in LA LA LAND.  Theirs is a powerful romance in the classic tradition.  There’s not a sex scene in sight, yet the feelings they have for each other come off so strongly that I have to admit, I haven’t been rooting for a movie couple to be together as much as I was for Mia and Sebastian in years.

And LA LA LAND is definitely Gosling’s and Stone’s movie.  In spite of a huge cast of dancers and extras, in terms of characters, it’s pretty much Mia and Sebastian, and with Stone and Gosling playing these roles, that’s more than enough.

The music is also wonderful, from the dance numbers to the jazz performances.  It’s a lively score by  Justin Hurwitz.  This is one soundtrack you’ll definitely want to own.

LA LA LAND is an incredibly enjoyable movie, bursting with so much emotion you’ll be hard pressed to keep from applauding, singing along, or even dancing.  From the pure happiness of Mia and Sebastian’s early relationship, a truly magical time together, to the concern when their lives reach the point where they question what they are doing, to the inevitable ending which regardless of how you feel about it, ultimately rings true, and for me, that’s all that matters.

I loved LA LA LAND.  It’s one of the best movies of the year.

—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.  

 

 

 

 

 

THE HORROR JAR: THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA Movies

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Lon Chaney Sr. remains the definitive Phantom of the Opera, even after nearly 100 years.

Lon Chaney Sr. remains the definitive Phantom of the Opera, even after nearly 100 years.

THE HORROR JAR: PHANTOM OF THE OPERA movies

By Michael Arruda

 

Welcome back to THE HORROR JAR, that column where we compile lists of odds and ends about horror movies.  Today we look at the PHANTOM OF THE OPERA movies.

It still amazes me that the best version of this terror tale remains the original silent version starring Lon Chaney Sr. I love this movie, from its incredible sets to its amazing Phantom make-up created by Chaney himself, to the way it tells its story.  It’s the most compelling and exciting of all the Phantom films.

Seriously, none of the remakes come close to matching it.

Here’s the list of the lot:

 

THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925)

Directed by Rupert Julian

Based on the novel by Gaston Leroux.

The Phantom: Lon Chaney

Christine: Mary Philbin

Raoul: Norman Kerry

Ledoux: Arthur Edmund Carewe

Make-up: Lon Chaney

Running Time: 93 minutes

By far, the preeminent version of the Phantom tale. Certainly the most faithful, and the one which most fully captures the spirit of Gaston Leroux’s novel.  Chaney is the definitive Phantom, even after nearly 100 years.  He’s phenomenal.  If you’ve never seen this silent classic, you’re missing one of the finest horror movies ever made.  Don’t wait any longer.

 

THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1943)

Directed by Arthur Lubin

Screenplay by Eric Taylor and Samuel Hoffenstein

The Phantom: Claude Rains

Christine: Susanna Foster

Anatole: Nelson Eddy

Make-Up: Jack Pierce

Running Time: 92 minutes

Thoroughly entertaining movie, although I think Universal got confused when they made this remake and thought they were making a straight musical. Lots of musical numbers in this one.  Claude Rains makes for a decent Phantom, but his sympathetic interpretation of the character is less effective and far less chilling than Chaney’s.  Memorable Phantom mask, but make-up by Jack Pierce is surprisingly ordinary.

 

THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1962)

Directed by Terence Fisher

Screenplay by Anthony Hinds

The Phantom: Herbert Lom

Christine: Heather Sears

Harry: Edward DeSouza

Lord Ambrose D’Arcy: Michael Gough

Lattimer: Thorley Walters

Make-Up: Roy Ashton

Running Time: 84 minutes

Hammer’s foray into the Phantom universe. Not bad, and Herbert Lom makes for a sinister Phantom, at least during the first half of the movie, before he follows in Claude Rains’ footsteps and turns on the sympathy.  The first half of this film is among Hammer’s best, but uneven use of flashback and the emergence of a sympathetic Phantom weigh down the second half.  Tepid make-up by Roy Ashton.  Chaney’s interpretation keeps getting better and better.

 

THE PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE (1974)

Directed by Brian De Palma

Screenplay by Brian De Palma

The Phantom: William Finley

Phoenix: Jessica Harper

Swan: Paul Williams

Make-Up: John Chambers

Running Time: 92 minutes

1970s rock opera version of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA.  Like everything else about the 70s, it’s far out, man.

 

THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1983)

Directed by Robert Markowitz

Screenplay by Sherman Yellen

The Phantom: Maximilian Schell

Maria: Jane Seymour

Michael: Michael York

Make-up: Jim Gillespie

Running Time: 96 minutes

TV movie version of the Phantom story. Ho-hum re-telling.

 

 

THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1989)

Directed by Dwight H. Little

Screenplay by Duke Sandefur

The Phantom: Robert Englund

Christine: Jill Schoelen

Make-Up: John Carl Buechler

Running Time: 93 minutes

Inferior movie tries to take advantage of Robert Englund’s NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET popularity, but Englund’s presence simply is not enough to lift this one up.  Decent make-up, at least, but Englund’s performance as the Phantom underwhelms.  Dark, violent version lacks imagination.

 

 

THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1990)

Directed by Tony Richardson

Teleplay by Arthur Kopit

The Phantom: Charles Dance

Christine: Teri Polo

Gerard: Burt Lancaster

Count Philippe de Chagny: Adam Storke

Make-Up: Catherine George

Running Time: 168 minutes

Elaborate TV movie version of the Phantom story.

 

 

THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1998)

Directed by Dario Argento

Screenplay by Gerard Brach and Dario Argento

The Phantom: Julian Sands

Christine: Asia Argento

Make-Up: Alessandro Bertolazzi

Running Time: 99 minutes

It’s Dario Argento. It’s dark and it’s bloody.

 

 

THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (2004)

Directed by Joel Schumacher

Screenplay by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Joel Schumacher

The Phantom: Gerard Butler

Christine: Emmy Rossum

Raoul: Patrick Wilson

Running Time: 143 minutes

Film version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s ultra-popular musical THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA.  Not bad.

 

And there you have it, all your Phantoms in one place. And not a single one tried to saw off a chandelier!  Hope you enjoyed this list of PHANTOM OF THE OPERA movies.  See you next time on another HORROR JAR.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael