MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (2017) – All-Star Murder Mystery an Exercise in the Mundane

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Kenneth Branagh as Hercule Poirot in MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (2017)

I consider myself a Kenneth Branagh fan.

I have absolutely loved every Shakespeare play he has brought to the big screen, from his masterful debut with HENRY V (1989) to his wonderfully witty MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING (1993).  But his non-Shakespeare films haven’t been as successful, and I’ve never been exactly sure why.  His MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN (1994) didn’t work, and his THOR (2011) was just an OK Marvel superhero movie.

Branagh both directs and stars in today’s movie, MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (2017), which is based on the novel by Agatha Christie, and is a remake of the 1974 film of the same name directed by Sidney Lumet and starring Albert Finney as detective Hercule Poirot.  It featured an all-star cast of train passengers, including the likes of Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Jacqueline Bisset, Richard Widmark, and Sean Connery, to name just a few.

In this new 2017 version, Branagh plays Hercule Poirot, and he too has assembled an all-star cast of passengers, which for me, was the best part of this movie.  The cast is superb.

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS opens in the middle east in the early 1930s where famed detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) is busy solving yet another impossible crime.  His job done, he climbs aboard a train for some rest and relaxation, but things don’t go as planned when there is a murder committed on board, and suddenly Poirot finds himself once again trying to solve a complicated mystery.

And this is a mystery, so the less said about the plot the better.

As I said, the best part about MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS is its cast, and I’ll get to that in a moment, but for the film itself, it’s a mixed bag.  The biggest knock against this movie is it just never reached out and grabbed me.  There is never a defining moment in the film where I felt, okay, this is where it gets going.  It just move along at a steady pace with no sense of urgency or dramatic build-up.  It’s all rather listless.

It certainly looks good.  The shots of the train travelling through the snowy mountains are picturesque, and the costumes and set design are impressive.  But director Branagh seems satisfied to film a period piece drama without giving much emphasis on the suspenseful side of things.  This film just never gets going.

But the cast is fun, starting with Branagh himself as Hercule Poirot.  Branagh seems to be having a good time with the role, and he’s convincing as the meticulous borderline-OCD Poirot.  And his full mustache is so noticeable it’s nearly a character in itself.

Johnny Depp makes for an excellent gangster-type, and his was one of my favorite performances in this film.  I’ve grown tired of some of Depp’s off-the-wall acting roles of late, and it was fun to see him actually play a character.  He does a fine job, and I wish he would do this more often, play someone who actually seems like a real person.

I also really enjoyed Michelle Pfeiffer, and although she wasn’t as memorable as she was in MOTHER (2017) earlier this year, she’s still very good.  We haven’t seen a whole lot of Pfeiffer in recent years, and I hope this changes because she remains a strong talent whose presence has been missed in the movies of late.

Likewise, Josh Gad was particularly effective as Hector MacQueen, the right hand man and attorney for Depp’s Edward Ratchett.  While Gad was more memorable as LeFou in the recent live-action remake of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (2017), he’s still pretty darn good here.

Also in the cast are Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom Jr., Penelope Cruz, Derek Jacobi, Judi Dench, and Willem Dafoe. Now, all of these folks are fun to watch, but none of them do a whole lot.  Like the film as a whole, no one really has any signature moments.

Michael Green wrote the screenplay, based on Christie’s novel.  It’s a decent screenplay with believable dialogue and interesting characters, but it doesn’t score all that well as a whodunit mystery.  There is a murder, and Poirot investigates.  This in itself is interesting, but without compelling dialogue and conversations, and without energetic directing, the process of solving the crime somehow all becomes rather mundane and lifeless.

There are some good moments, like when Poirot says he’s reached the age where he knows what he likes and doesn’t like, and he partakes fully in all that he likes and completely ignores what he dislikes.  For those of us who have reached a certain age, this line rings true.  It’s too bad the same can’t be said for most of the other dialogue and situations in the film.

Green was one of the writers who wrote the screenplay to BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017), and he also worked on the screenplay to LOGAN (2017).  Of these three, the Marvel superhero film LOGAN is clearly Green’s best credit.

Another drawback to this film is if you’ve seen the 1974 movie, it’s hard to forget, and this new version doesn’t really offer anything that is new.  I’m going to guess that if you haven’t seen the 1974 movie, you might like this version better than I did.

I found MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS to be simply okay.  It didn’t wow me, didn’t have me on the edge of my seat, or scratching my head wondering who the murderer was, but it did hold my interest for the most part, in a rather routine pleasant sort of way, which for a period piece murder mystery, doesn’t really cut it.

—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.  

 

 

 

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THE SNOWMAN (2017) – Lurid, Ugly Tale More About Detectives than Serial Killer They Are Hunting

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I should have hated this movie.

There are a lot of things wrong with THE SNOWMAN (2017), but there’s also something oddly mesmerizing about it.

THE SNOWMAN is the tale of a Norwegian detective named Harry Hole (Michael Fassbender)—it’s a good thing his first name isn’t Asa — on the trail of a serial killer whose calling card is he builds angry-looking snowmen outside the homes of his victims. And that’s really all you need to know about the plot of this one.

Now, right off the bat, you’re probably thinking, “Here we go.  Another serial killer movie. I’ve seen this show before.”  But that’s one of the things that works in THE SNOWMAN.  Its unconventional brooding style isn’t like most other by the numbers serial killer movies.  As such, in spite of its issues, it somehow works.

Director Tomas Alfredson, who directed the critically acclaimed vampire movie LET THE RIGHT ONE IN (2008), has created a somber, moody, and oftentimes ugly tale that is actually far less interested in its serial killer than in its two main detective characters, Harry Hole and his young protegé Katrine Bratt (Rebecca Ferguson).  Harry, who is supposed to be this legendary detective, spends most of the movie drunk, as he is dealing with his own personal demons, and while Katrine is sober, she’s haunted by her own issues as well.  The serial killer here is almost an afterthought, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

The film takes place in Oslo, and it’s snowing for most of the movie, which is not a good thing for the detectives, since fresh falling snow seems to set off the killer.  Alfredson’s photography does not capture a happy fluffy snow but a haunting depressing snow, with the emphasis on cold, which creates a mood which fits in perfectly with the anguished characters in this one.

The screenplay by Peter Straughan, Hossein Amini, and Soren Sveistrup, based on the novel by Jo Nesbo, focuses on Harry and Katrine, which makes sense, since Nesbo’s novel is part of a series featuring detective Harry Hole.

That being said, it’s a strange narrative.  It jumps back and forth in awkward fashion between the present storyline and a flashback of an earlier detective, another officer dealing with alcoholism, named Rafto (Val Kilmer) who’s investigating what looks to be the same serial killer.  It’s a cold case that Harry refers to once his investigation heats up, and we catch glimpses of it via flashback.

Of the three screenwriters, Amini has the most screen credits, having written films like DRIVE (2011), SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN (2012), and OUR KIND OF TRAITOR (2016).

THE SNOWMAN is not a happy movie.  It opens with a brutal disturbing scene in which a young boy witnesses his mother physically abused before she takes her own life in front of him, all while the man who is father stands by and watches and then disowns  him, since the boy is his illegitimate son.  As opening sequences go, it’s a bit much.  Plus it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.  The boy and his mother chase after the man on an icy road after he declares he’s never coming back.  But we’d just witnessed him beating up on the mom, and so you’d think they’d be happy to be rid of him.  Weird.  But it does set the tone for the rest of the movie.

Everybody is miserable, which probably won’t make audiences like this one all that much.

The running theme here is absent fathers.  Characters have fathers who have died, who have left, or who simply were never around.  As such, one of the more emotional scenes in the movie involves Harry and his “son.”  Harry is now estranged from his girlfriend Rakel (Charlotte Gainsbourg) but he’s very close to her teenage son, who’s having a tough time of it because his real father is out of the picture, and so he is constantly running away.  When Harry promises to join him for a weekend camping trip sponsored by the boy’s school, he’s overjoyed, since it’s clear that he never has any “dad” time.  But Harry completely forgets about it, and the scene where the boy realizes Harry isn’t showing up, and the ensuing conversation where his mom tries to suggest that she can go with him to no avail, is a gut-wrenching painful scene that is so good it has no business being in a movie about a serial killer.

The actual serial killer scenes are bloody and violent, since the killer likes to decapitate his female victims and hack off their limbs.  Nasty stuff, and while it is violent, it’s not gratuitous.  It’s also far less interesting than the stories featuring Harry and Katrine.

Probably the weakest part of the movie is the snowman itself, or the snowmen, since the killer makes a new one each time he kills someone.  Rather than being creepy and ominous, they come off as goofy and laughable.  In fact, every time there was a close-up of Frosty’s evil cousins, I wanted to burst out laughing.  Not the intended effect, I’m sure.

As expected, Michael Fassbender is very good as Harry Hole.  He spends most of the movie brooding, drunk, or hung over, and manages to be sober long enough to eventually chase down the killer.  It’s a performance that in a lesser actor’s hands, could have easily turned off the audience.  But Fassbender plays Harry as a man who’s been emotionally scarred.  The performance reminded me a little bit of the work Idris Elba does on the TV show LUTHER.  And Fassbender doesn’t play Harry like a jerk.  He’s a sympathetic character, as even when he stands up his young “son,” it’s clear how badly he feels.

Rebecca Ferguson is every bit as good as Fassbender.  Her detective Katrine has her own demons to deal with, and so she is just as intriguing as Harry. We just saw Ferguson earlier this year in the underwhelming science fiction thriller LIFE (2017).  She was also in THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN (2016) and starred opposite Tom Cruise in MISSION IMPOSSIBLE – ROGUE NATION (2015).  She’s excellent here in THE SNOWMAN.

Val Kilmer, battling cancer in real life, looks thin and unhealthy here as Detective Rafto. Yet, in his few scenes he manages to be really good.  However, in spite of Kilmer’s performance, his scenes seem to have been sloppily overdubbed, with his voice not matching his mouth movements.  I felt like I was watching a dubbed Japanese monster movie during his scenes.

THE SNOWMAN boasts a strong cast of supporting actors, but unfortunately, none of them do very much.  J.K Simmons has a small thankless role as a rich businessman and possible suspect, and speaking of dubbing, I swear it sounds as if someone else dubbed his voice.  He doesn’t sound at all in this movie the way he does in every other movie he’s been in. Weird.

One of my favorite character actors, Toby Jones, has even less screen time— it’s more like a cameo– as yet another flawed detective. Chloe Sevigny plays twins, and in one of the better supporting performances, David Dencik plays a creepy doctor who is also a suspect.

THE SNOWMAN is an ugly, lurid movie that a lot of people are going to hate because its narrative style is slow, sloppy, and rather unconventional, but all of this somehow makes this film which tells a standard serial killer story refreshing.  No one in the story is all that likable, but you care for them anyway, because their lives are all so miserable and cold.

Do not see THE SNOWMAN expecting a polished suspenseful story about the manhunt for a crafty serial killer.  It’s not that movie.  It’s an awkward, dark, depressing, moody tale of the detectives investigating a serial killer, and as such, in spite of its many flaws, it succeeds in what it sets out to do, which is, namely, to point out that it takes a certain type of person to take on the darkest sickest criminals, and that type of person is often just as tortured and wounded as the people they are hunting.

—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.  

 

 

 

MOTHER! (2017) – Metaphor For Our Narcissistic Times

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MOTHER! (2017), the latest movie by writer/director Darren Aronofsky, is an ambitious and thought-provoking film that serves as a metaphor for our ever-increasing narcissistic culture that not only breeds and encourages narcissists but the radical zealots who follow them.

There’s a lot going on here, most of it not that easy to digest or decipher, and since the trailer for this movie makes it look like a modern-day ROSEMARY’S BABY, which it is not, I’m guessing there’s going to be a whole lot of disappointed moviegoers out there who decide to see this movie.  It’s not really a horror movie, in the traditional sense.

But that shouldn’t stop you from seeing this one.  Any time a movie makes you think and think hard, and goes about its storytelling in a way that is creative and out of the ordinary, that’s a good thing.  MOTHER! is a good thing.  It’s just not going to appeal to a wide audience.

MOTHER! tells a straightforward story.  A woman (Jennifer Lawrence) lives in her quiet dreamhouse with her author husband (Javier Bardem) who’s stuck in a writer’s funk and has been struggling to produce new material.  One night, a man (Ed Harris) shows up at their door, and to the woman’s surprise, her husband invites the man to stay the night.  It turns out that the man is a huge fan, and this pleases the author to no end.  Soon, the man’s wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) arrives as well, and naturally, she’s invited to stay, too.

Things happen that result in more people showing up, people who make the woman uncomfortable, because this isn’t what she expects.  She wants her life in her house with her husband, but yet her husband is fine with opening up their house to these guests. She grows more distressed as more people arrive.  And later, when a lot of people come in, all hell breaks loose.

In terms of plot, the story is constructed very well, or at least the first half is, anyway. When Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer arrive, their arrival makes perfect sense. Likewise, when many of their family members join them, that also makes perfect sense. So, it’s not as if the audience is sitting there scratching their heads wondering why these people are there.  It strikes Jennifer Lawrence’s character as strange, but when Javier Bardem’s character explains things to her, we in the audience understand.

Later, in the second half of the movie, the film deviates from a straightforward plot and enters into the realm of pure metaphor.  And it’s here where the film will no doubt lose most of its audience.

But through it all, it remains truthful and has a lot to say.

First of all, this is not a good movie for authors who want to get married, because if there’s one message that comes through loud and clear, it’s what it’s like to be married to an author.  Now, this isn’t the point of the movie, but it’s certainly one of the parts I liked, because there’s truth behind it.

Javier Bardem captures what it’s like to be a writer.  You can see it in his face when he can’t produce, and alternatively, you can see him light up when the ideas come to him and when his fans tell him how much they like his work. The bottom line is for this character,  life is always about him and his work.  His wife, though he says he loves her and indeed acts like he loves her, is always secondary.  Jennifer Lawrence has a great line when she says that he never really loved her, and that he only loved the fact that she loved him.  A telling and truthful moment.

But MOTHER! is much more than a story about an author.  Javier Bardem’s husband character is a narcissist.  He’s driven by the attention he receives from his adoring fans. In the movie, it begins with the simple conversation between his character and the Ed Harris character, who admits to being a fan and who says “your words changed my life.” From there it grows, slowly at first, until during the second half of the movie it becomes full-blown insanity.

In the second half of the movie, people come to the house because they are fans, and it’s here that the plot becomes secondary and the metaphoric elements of the film take over. We see varying degrees of fandom, but most are radical followers.  The film then serves us images which are religious, militant, violent, and flat-out horrific.

In a nutshell, the film shows what life is like living with a narcissist.  But, more than that, the images at the end  of the movie, of violence, hatred, of opposing sides clashing, easily brought to my mind images that we have seen on the news of events here in the U.S. in 2017, which for me, lifted this movie to another level, because what I took from it by the end, was that it’s a metaphor for what life is like when you elect a narcissist.

But not all of the movie works.  I had an issue with the pacing.  It runs at about two hours long, and there were times midway through where it felt longer than that.

Jennifer Lawrence is fine as the young mother here, in a role where she spends most of the film barefoot and pregnant.  And since this movie is called MOTHER! after all, her character is the one audiences will identify with the most. The story is seen through her eyes, and so when she is upset about the things that are going on, the audience is right there with her. And by the time you get to the end, with all the different sides going at each other, she’s the one who’s hurt the most. She becomes the victim of both her husband’s actions and inactions.

I was more impressed with Javier Bardem as the author/husband, who always seemed to make sense when he spoke to his wife, yet at the same time it was maddening to watch him pretty much ignore his wife’s needs.

Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer add fine support in their roles as the annoying intrusive couple, especially Pfeiffer who exudes a coldness that really fits with the movie.  But Harris is just as good, as the more emotional half of this couple.

The rest of the cast is secondary.

The main guy here is writer/director Darren Aronofsky, who’s mostly known for the movie BLACK SWAN (2010), a dark movie that was well received and that I liked well enough.  Previous to MOTHER!, he wrote and directed NOAH  (2014), a re-telling of the Noah and the Ark story, starring Russell Crowe as Noah which tried to turn Noah into an action hero.  It was a misfire, but I actually enjoyed it.

MOTHER! is a film that most folks are simply not going to enjoy.  It’s not your standard horror movie or drama, and it becomes highly symbolic during its second half which is bound to turn off lots of viewers.

But I liked it.  It has a lot to say about narcissism in our culture, both about those who desire and command attention, and about those who relentlessly become their “followers.”

Better yet, it tells the truth, even when that truth is ugly and repugnant.

—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 SHADOWS: EDWARD VAN SLOAN

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Edward Van Sloan as Professor Van Helsing in DRACULA’S DAUGHTER (1936).

 

Welcome back to IN THE SHADOWS, the column where we look at character actors in the movies, especially horror movies.

Character actors add so much to the movies they’re in, it’s hard to imagine these movies without them. Never receiving the praise heaped upon the major actors and stars of the genre, these folks nonetheless are often every bit as effective as the big name leads.

Up today, an actor known to horror fans for three key roles in three classic horror movies, and that actor is Edward Van Sloan.

Edward Van Sloan played three similar roles in three of Universal’s best horror movies from the 1930s.  He played Professor Van Helsing in DRACULA (1931), Dr. Waldman in FRANKENSTEIN (1931), and Dr. Muller in THE MUMMY (1932).

As Dr. Van Helsing, a role he had played earlier on stage opposite Bela Lugosi’s Dracula, he’s one of the best.  While Peter Cushing is my all time favorite movie Van Helsing, Edward Van Sloan came closer to the Stoker interpretation than Cushing did, but even he deviated from the way Stoker wrote the character.  Probably the closest I’ve seen an actor capture the literary Van Helsing on-screen would be Frank Finlay’s performance as the vampire hunter/professor in the BBC production COUNT DRACULA (1977), starring Louis Jordan as the Count.

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Van Sloan and Lugosi square off in DRACULA (1931)

But for Edward Van Sloan, it’s all about presence and authority, something he definitely wields in DRACULA.  Bela Lugosi is absolutely mesmerizing as Dracula, and his performance dominates the movie.  Yet Van Sloan is up to the task of matching wits with Lugosi, and his Van Helsing is a worthy opponent for the vampire king.  The scene where Dracula tries to use hypnosis to overpower Van Helsing is one of the strongest scenes in the film, acted so expertly by Van Sloan, as you can see it in his eyes as he’s resisting Dracula’s powers, and for a split-second, Van Sloan’s eyes go blank, and at this instant the audience shudders, begging that he doesn’t succumb to Dracula’s powers, and when he rallies and resists Dracula, it’s a great moment in the movie.

As Dr. Waldman in FRANKENSTEIN, Van Sloan plays Henry Frankenstein’s former professor, who for most of the movie, acts as the voice of reason.  He tries throughout to talk sense to Henry Frankenstein and is constantly urging caution.  As Dr. Waldman, he gets one of the best lines in the movie, when he warns young Henry.  “Your success has intoxicated you!  Wake up!  And look facts in the face!—  You have created a monster, and it will destroy you!”

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Edward Van Sloan as Dr. Waldman in FRANKENSTEIN (1931).

Prophetic words.  Actually, they were more on the money regarding Waldman’s fate, because later in the movie, the Monster (Boris Karloff) kills the professor.  In fact, Professor Waldman’s death is one of the more shocking moments in FRANKENSTEIN, a film which contains more than a few of them, and it’s a testament to Edward Van Sloan’s screen presence.  Van Sloan was so effective as Professor Van Helsing in DRACULA, so convincing when he destroys Dracula, it strikes audiences as an absolute shock when he doesn’t do the same in FRANKENSTEIN, when in fact it’s the Monster who kills Professor Waldman, and not the other way around.

And Edward Van Sloan is one of only two actors— the other being Dwight Frye who played Renfield in DRACULA and Fritz in FRANKENSTEIN— to star in both DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN.

In THE MUMMY (1932), Van Sloan plays Dr. Muller, a variation of his Van Helsing/Waldman characters.  This time, he’s an expert on Egyptology, and he matches wits with Boris Karloff’s Mummy, Imhotep.  THE MUMMY is an excellent horror movie, as good if not better than DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN.  Once again, Van Sloan nails the role of the heroic professor and is completely believable as the knowledgable scholar who takes on the supernatural Imhotep.

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Edward Van Sloan takes on Boris Karloff’s Imhotep in THE MUMMY (1932).

As for the rest of  Edward Van Sloan’s career, here’s a partial look at his 88 screen credits, focusing mostly on his horror film roles:

SLANDER (1916) – Joseph Tremaine – Edward Van Sloan’s first film credit is in this silent movie from 1916, the only silent film Van Sloan made.

DRACULA (1931) – Professor Van Helsing – probably Van Sloan’s most famous role, and the role he is most remembered for.  Van Sloan’s work as Van Helsing in this movie is as memorable as Lugosi’s Dracula and Dwight Frye’s Renfield.

FRANKENSTEIN (1931) – Dr. Waldman – Another famous role for Van Sloan, this time playing Henry Frankenstein’s former professor and the man who tries to convince Frankenstein to destroy his creation.  We all know how that turned out.

BEHIND THE MASK (1932) – Dr. August Steiner/Dr. Alec Munsell/Mr. X – a crime drama marketed as a horror movie due to the presence of Boris Karloff in a small role.  Van Sloan plays the villain here, in a role that Karloff probably would have played had this movie been made a few years later.

THE DEATH KISS (1932) – Tom Avery – a comedy/mystery notable for reuniting three cast members from DRACULA:  Bela Lugosi, David Manners, and Edward Van Sloan.

THE MUMMY (1932) – Doctor Muller – takes on Boris Karloff’s evil Imhotep in this horror classic.

DELUGE (1933)- Professor Carlysle – early “disaster” film as New York City is threatened by an earthquake and tidal wave.

AIR HAWKS (1935) – Professor Schulter – weird hybrid of drama and science fiction. Ralph Bellamy plays the owner of an airline company who hires a mad scientist— played by Edward Van Sloan— to build a death ray to force down his competitors’ planes.

THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII (1935) – Calvus – Historical adventure set in the doomed Roman city, directed by KING KONG directors Ernest B. Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper. With Basil Rathbone as Pontius Pilate.  A box office flop.

DRACULA’S DAUGHTER (1936) – Professor Van Helsing – reprises his Van Helsing role in this well-made sequel to DRACULA.  The movie starts right where DRACULA left off, and Van Helsing finds himself arrested for the murders of Dracula and Renfield.  Before he can be officially charged, however, the bodies disappear, whisked away by Countess Zaleska (Gloria Holden) who happens to be Dracula’s daughter, and who’s now in London with an agenda of her own. Smart horror film, well-written, acted, and directed.

THE PHANTOM CREEPS (1939) – Jarvis – Science fiction serial from Universal reunites Van Sloan with Bela Lugosi, as Lugosi plays a scientist hell-bent on taking over the world.

BEFORE I HANG (1940) – Dr. Ralph Howard – This time Van Sloan is reunited with Boris Karloff, as Karloff plays a doctor on death row for mercy killings, who injects himself with a serum that turns him into a Hyde-like villain.

THE MASK OF DIIJON (1946) – Sheffield – Erich von Stroheim plays a magician who uses his hypnotic powers to seek vengeance.

SEALED VERDICT (1948) – Priest – Edward Van Sloan’s final screen credit in a World War II war drama starring Ray Milland.

THE UNDERWORLD STORY (1950) – Minister at Funeral – Edward Van Sloan’s final film appearance, an uncredited bit as a minister at a funeral in this film noir crime drama.

There you have it, an abbreviated look at the film career of Edward Van Sloan.

Edward Van Sloan died on March 6, 1964 at the age of 81 in San Francisco, California.

While he enjoyed a long and successful career as a character actor in the movies, for horror fans, he will always be remembered for his roles in three of Universal’s best horror movies from the 1930s:  DRACULA, FRANKENSTEIN, and THE MUMMY.  Van Sloan made for a fine hero in all three of these films.

Edward Van Sloan -November 1, 1882 – March 6, 1964.

I hope you enjoyed this IN THE SHADOWS column.  Join me again next time when we look at the career of another notable character actor.

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.  

 

 

 

 

 

WIND RIVER (2017) – Taylor Sheridan’s First-Rate Thriller Satisfies on Every Level

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wind_river_movie_poster

Taylor Sheridan is one of my favorite screenwriters working today.  He wrote SICARIO, my favorite film of 2015, and he followed that up with HELL OR HIGH WATER, one of the best films of 2016.

Now comes WIND RIVER (2017), which is every bit as good as his previous two films, and this time Sheridan directs as well.

WIND RIVER (2017) takes place in Wind River, Wyoming, a beautiful expanse of land that looks like a winter paradise with its snow-covered mountains and icy rivers. But looks can be deceiving.

Hunter and tracker Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) discovers the dead body of a young woman in the snow, miles from anyone’s home or farm. Cory recognizes the young woman as Natalie (Kelsey Asbille), who used to be best friends with his own daughter, herself deceased.

FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) arrives on the scene and quickly determines that the girl’s death is a homicide.  As she begins her investigation, she asks Cory for help,  not only with transporting her through the snowy terrain via his snowmobile, but also with tracking down the girl’s killer, a request he agrees to without hesitation.

They then spend the rest of the movie trying to find out who killed Natalie and why.

WIND RIVER is much more than just a straightforward thriller.  For starters, it takes place on a Native American reservation.  As he did with the plight of economy starved Texans in HELL OR HIGH WATER, writer Taylor Sheridan takes us inside the minds and hearts of the Native Americans on the reservation.  They are a depressed lot, feeling they have little to live for, surrounded by snow and silence.

But as Cory tells Natalie’s brother Chip (Martin Sensmeier), whose life has been pretty much one problem after another, he’s had opportunities, from jobs to the military, and instead he chose his current situation:  he chose drugs over these other things.  Cory tries to tell Chip that it’s never too late to turn things around, especially in light of what happened to his sister.

Cory is good friends with Natalie’s and Chip’s father, Martin (Gil Birmingham), and they unfortunately share a bond, in that both their daughters have died.  Martin makes it clear that he wants Cory to track down and kill whoever murdered his daughter. The two actors Renner and Birmingham share some of the better scenes in the movie.

Cory himself is haunted by his own daughter’s death.  She, too, was murdered, her body also found in the wilderness.  Cory tells Jane that if she ever has kids, she can never blink.  Never.  Because no matter how carefully you plan, it’s not enough. It’s a solemn warning, one that resonates with parents.

The film also points out that statistics are not kept on the disappearances of Native American women, and no one really knows how many Native American women have gone missing over the years.

Jeremy Renner is excellent as Cory Lambert.  He has some truly emotional scenes, both when talking about the loss of his own daughter, and also when he reaches out to his friend Martin over the loss of Martin’s daughter. Renner is also very believable as a hunter and a tracker. It’s a rock solid performance.

Likewise, Elizabeth Olsen is just as good as FBI agent Jane Banner. She’s sent to Wind River alone, as she just happened to be the closest FBI agent in the area when the call came in about the discovery of the body, and she quickly realizes she’s in over her head, but she retains her professionalism and does the best job she can do, which is actually pretty darn good, considering the circumstances.  I like Olsen a lot, and this is one of her better roles.

While she and Renner have both starred in the Marvel superhero films, Renner as Hawkeye and Olsen as Scarlett Witch, they both do much better work here and share strong onscreen chemistry together, which says something for characters who aren’t involved in a sexual or romantic relationship.  I also enjoyed Olsen’s performance here better than her roles in GODZILLA (2014), OLD BOY (2013), and the horror film SILENT HOUSE (2011).  She was good in all these films, but she’s better here.

Veteran actor Graham Greene is on hand as police chief Ben, and like Renner and Olsen, he’s solid throughout.  In fact, he may have been my favorite character in this one, and he certainly gets most of the better lines in the movie. At one point Jane asks him if they should call for back-up, and he tells her “this isn’t the land of back-up, but the land of you’re on your own.”  Ben’s a likable character, and he patiently is there every step of the way during the investigation. with Cory and Jane.

Gil Birmingham, who was excellent in a supporting role in HELL OR HIGH WATER, where he played Jeff Bridges’ Texas Ranger partner, is superb once again here in another supporting role as Natalie’s grieving father Martin.  The scene where Cory talks to Martin about how to deal with the loss of his daughter is one of the best scenes in the movie.

And Kelsey Asbille does a fine job in a key flashback as Natalie. Likewise, Martin Sensmeier is very good as Natalie’s troubled brother Chip.

The acting is superb all around.  Jon Bernthal also shows up for a key sequence, and he doesn’t disappoint.

With WIND RIVER, Taylor Sheridan demonstrates once again the he is a superior screenwriter.  He writes more than just straightforward thrillers. There are layers to his stories and themes that serve not only to educate but also to substantiate the characters’ actions and motivations.

In WIND RIVER, Cory is only too happy to assist Jane because of the unfinished business over the murder of his own daughter.  He’s still haunted by the fact that he wasn’t able to protect his daughter nor was he able to find out who killed her.  These layers establish emotions, and these emotions drive the story forward and give it much more impact.

Sheridan also writes phenomenal dialogue, period.  His characters come to life, and they’re believable, as are the situations they find themselves in.  There’s a great scene where Jane and Ben are at the coroner’s office, and the coroner informs them that he can’t list murder as the cause of death for Natalie because she died from the cold temperatures.  At first, Jane thinks the coroner is stonewalling her, but he tells her point-blank that it’s clear she’s been raped and murdered, but officially he can’t list her death as a homicide if that’s not how she died, to which Jane responds that unless he lists it as a homicide, her superiors are going to tell her to go home.  And then Ben basically pulls her aside and tells her that the coroner is a good man who’s just doing his job, and she should cut him some slack. It’s a refreshingly honest scene.

Sheridan also directed WIND RIVER, and he proves to be every bit as talented behind the camera as he is writing screenplays.  The photography is beautiful and captures the grandeur of the snowy mountains of Wyoming.  And WIND RIVER is a chilling thriller as well.

There is a sequence near the end that is every bit as suspenseful and nerve-racking as some of the nail-biting sequences in SICARIO.   WIND RIVER does not disappoint on any level.

And while this isn’t Sheridan’s directorial debut— he directed the horror movie VILE (2011)— it’s still an impressive piece of work, combined with the fact that he wrote the screenplay.  Sheridan is also an actor, and in fact the first time I saw Sheridan was on the TV show SONS OF ANARCHY where he played Deputy Hale.

WIND RIVER is Taylor Sheridan’s third straight superior screenplay, and it’s a thriller you certainly do not want to miss.

I can’t wait to see what he writes next.

—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.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

IT COMES AT NIGHT (2017) – Quiet Horror Movie Frighteningly Real

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itcomesatnightposter

IT COMES AT NIGHT (2017) is everything that the rebooted THE MUMMY (2017) is not.

It’s simple in its execution, it’s believable, it’s frightening, and its depiction of horror on the big screen is as pure as it gets.  The only thing the two films have in common is they opened on the same weekend.

IT COMES AT NIGHT takes place during a time when some unknown disease has crippled the world, thrusting people into heavy-duty survival mode.  We meet a family of three, the father Paul (Joel Edgerton), his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and their teenage son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) just as they’re dealing with Travis’ grandfather Bud (David Pendleton), who has succumbed to the disease.  They perform a mercy killing and then burn the body.

The family lives inside a house which they keep locked and boarded up, and they don’t venture outside without gas masks.  With all contact with the outside world shut down, they can only guess as to what is going on.  All they know is that infections happen and people die.

Things are relatively calm for them until one night a man named Will (Christopher Abbott) breaks into their home.  When they learn that he has a wife and young son, they debate whether or not they should invite them inside.  On the one hand, they know it’s best not to trust anyone, but on the other hand there is safety in numbers, especially since the surrounding woods are seen as threatening, as no one knows what is really happening, other than people will do anything to survive.

They decide to invite Will and his family into their home, and the two families work together, until the inevitable matter of trust or lack thereof begins to rear its head and mess with their minds.

IT COMES AT NIGHT is an example of movie making at its finest.  Writer/director Trey Edward Shults has taken a simple straightforward story— it’s basically THE WALKING DEAD without the zombies, and in fact, shares the intensity of the show’s best episodes— and made it compelling and frightening, all without gimmicks or special effects.

The best part about this movie is Shults’ directorial style.  The bulk of the action takes place inside the boarded up home, and as such makes for a very claustrophobic experience.  The audience definitely shares the feelings of isolation with the characters.

The film is quiet and unassuming.  There are no major special effects or extreme scenes of violence and carnage, yet the suspense is high throughout.  A walk into the surrounding woods at night is a sweat-inducing experience.  The camera stays in close with characters, who we get to know and care for.

And that’s because Shults’ screenplay is a good one.  He creates three-dimensional characters who we care about, and so as the movie goes along and lines are drawn between the families, you don’t want to see either family harmed.  It makes for some wince-inducing storytelling.

It also creates a threat— an unknown disease— that works as a major menace in the movie even though we know absolutely nothing about it, other than it kills.  It puts the audience in the same place as the characters, and it works wonderfully.

Joel Edgerton, an actor I like a lot, is very good here as the head of the household, Paul. He trusts no one and armed with a shotgun will kill without hesitation to protect his family, but he also is extremely sensitive and caring towards his son Travis.  He goes out of his way to explain to Travis why he does certain things and why these difficult decisions have to be made.  Travis comes off as a dedicated family man who must do whatever it takes to protect his family.

I’ve seen Edgerton in a bunch of movies, and I’ve pretty much enjoyed him in all of them, from his role as Tom Buchanan in THE GREAT GATSBY (2013), to his fine work opposite Johnny Depp in BLACK MASS (2015), to his battling aliens in the rebooted THE THING (2011).  Edgerton’s work here is as good as ever.

Carmen Ejogo, who played Coretta Scott King in SELMA (2014) and who also just starred in ALIEN: COVENANT (2017), plays Paul’s wife and Travis’ mom, Sarah.  She’s sufficiently serious and thoughtful.  No one in this film is a loose cannon or an idiot.  As such, you care about them all.

Christopher Abbott does a nice job as Will, the man who breaks into their home and then claims he was just looking for supplies for his wife and little son.  Abbott makes Will a fine three-dimensional character.  There’s something less than trustworthy about him, yet he does have that family, and the suspicion about him could certainly stem from his own agenda, that he has his own family to take care of.  Again, it puts the audience in the same seat with Paul- do you trust Will, or not?

Also excellent is Riley Keough as Will’s young wife Kim.  Like the rest of the cast, she creates a three-dimensional character.  Kim is also involved in a sub-plot where teen Travis develops a crush on her, and the two share some very interesting scenes.  Keough, by the way, is the daughter of Lisa Marie Presley, making her the granddaughter of Elvis Presley and Priscilla Presley.

And Kelvin Harrison Jr. really stands out as Travis.  For most of the film, Travis is a quiet introspective young man who is very sensitive.  We see the horror of what’s going on in their world through his eyes.  It makes some of the film’s more disturbing scenes all the more powerful as we experience them along with Travis.

Travis is also prone to having vivid dreams, several of which make for some frightening moments in the movie.  The dreams are symbolic of the dreams of youth, although in this case, they are all dark and nightmarish, showing us firsthand that this is now the world that young Travis has been left with.

It’s also worth noting that the family here is of mixed race.  Paul is white and Sarah is black.  While refreshing, it’s also the type of thing that needs to happen more and more in the movies, and when it does, it’s important to celebrate it.

While I loved IT COMES AT NIGHT, it does have some flaws, and I can see how some people might be disappointed by it.  For one thing, the threat here is never explained, and while I didn’t have a huge problem with this, had the film taken that next step and immersed us into a specific threat, it might have been a stronger movie.

I saw it with an audience full of teenagers, and when it ended, they were vocally disappointed. Someone said, “It comes at night?  Nothing came!”  I wanted to lean over and say in my best Donald Pleasence voice, “Death came at night.”  Because, really, at the end of the day, that’s all that matters.  The specific threat isn’t important.  If the characters aren’t careful, they’re going to die.

IT COMES AT NIGHT shares a similar tone and feel with the quiet zombie movie MAGGIE (2015), starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, but I liked IT COMES AT NIGHT much better because it packs a bigger punch with its horror elements and with the suspense.

If you like your horror pure and simple, without convoluted stories or  overblown special effects or gratuitous blood and gore, if you simply like to be scared, and to watch a story about characters you care about thrown into a situation which puts them in extreme danger, then IT COMES AT NIGHT is the movie for you.

It’s the type of horror movie that’s good for the genre, a horror film, like the recent GET OUT (2017), that makes horror fans proud.

—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.