THE QUARRY (2020) – Quiet Yet Intriguing Drama Remains One-Note Throughout

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the quarry

Shea Whigham and Michael Shannon in THE QUARRY (2020).

THE QUARRY (2020) has an intriguing story to tell.

A drifter (Shea Whigham) murders a preacher and then assumes his identity, moving to his new parish in a small Texas town. The drifter knows little of religion, and when he speaks to his small congregation made up mostly of Mexican immigrants, they are taken with his words because unlike previous preachers he is not judgmental, and he’s not judgmental because he knows so little of religion, so  he simply reads from the Bible and often chooses passages about redemption.

The local sheriff Chief Moore (Michael Shannon) while investigating a robbery uncovers clues which make him suspicious of their new preacher. As the congregation grows, and the drifter finds himself leading this desperate group of immigrants, Chief Moore follows the clues which lead him to the local quarry, the site where the drifter murdered and buried the body of the real preacher.

The story told in THE QUARRY is nothing new or innovative, but it held my interest for most of the movie. Things slow down towards the film’s final act, and its ending is not very satisfying.

I most wanted to see THE QUARRY because of its two main actors. Shea Whigham, who plays the unnamed drifter, is a character actor who has been in a ton of movies in various small parts, and he makes a mark in nearly all of them. If you see movies on a regular basis, chances are you’ve seen Whigham. He’s been in JOKER (2019), VICE (2018), BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE (2018), FIRST MAN (2018), and BEIRUT (2018) to name just a few. He also played the brother of Bradley Cooper’s character Pat in SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (2012).

He’s an excellent actor and I was glad to see him playing a lead role. He’s good here as the drifter, although the role has its limitations. For starters, he’s a man of few words, and so a lot of what happens in the movie features this drifter taking things in silently. As such, the film itself suffers from bouts of slow pacing where things deaden to standstill. Of course, the style of the film is mirroring the drifter’s character, and so the pacing is on purpose, but still it makes for slow viewing. We also don’t really get to know this character all that well, and for most of the movie, he remains a mystery.

As happy as I was to see Shea Whigham in a lead role, he’s made more of an impact in movies in his signature smaller roles.

I also wanted to see THE QUARRY because of the presence of Michael Shannon, another actor whose work I really enjoy. Shannon has starred in KNIVES OUT (2019), THE SHAPE OF WATER (2017), and NOCTURNAL ANIMALS (2016), and he was outstanding as George Westingthouse in THE CURRENT WAR (2017), starring alongside Benedict Cumberbatch who played Thomas Edison. He also played General Zod in MAN OF STEEL (2013).

Here as Chief Moore, Shannon is fine, but ultimately it’s not an amazingly written role, and there’s not a whole lot for Shannon to do other than seemed bored as the sheriff of a small town and occasionally be suspicious.

One of the weaknesses in the movie is there is not a lot of tension between Chief Moore and the drifter. As a result, there sadly aren’t many decent scenes with Whigham and Shannon.

The screenplay by director Scott Teems and Andrew Brotzman, based on a novel by Damon Galgut, is best at writing realistic dialogue, which is strong throughout the movie. It doesn’t fare so well as a dramatic piece, as the film doesn’t really build to a suspenseful climax. As Chief Moore begins to investigate and close in on the drifter, this stranger doesn’t really react. He’s the same one-note character throughout the movie. The drifter’s story arc really is about his own personal journey. Early in the film, when the preacher offers to hear his confession, the drifter refuses, rejecting religion, but by film’s end, he’s ready to confess, although none of this involves the other key character in the movie, Chief Moore.

The film looks good, and director Teems does capture the mood of the drifter throughout, as the film is steadily paced and set in an almost dreamlike state, as if we are all sharing in the drifter’s internal search for peace and redemption. The problem is this doesn’t always translate into compelling viewing.

There are brief hints that the story is going to widen its lense and cover points on immigration— the boys who rob the drifter are young immigrants, as are most of the congregation, as is the woman Celia (Catalina Sandino Moreno) who operates the house in which the preacher lives—-but it barely scratches the surface on this subject. Moreno, by the way, is excellent here as Celia, and I wish she had been in this movie more.

For the most part, THE QUARRY is an intriguing drama, although it’s not much of a mystery or a thriller. And while it doesn’t really generate that much emotion, I don’t think it was trying to. It succeeds most when it captures the persona of its main character, the elusive drifter turned preacher, a quiet man whose past we know nothing about.

As such, it’s a subdued piece that like its main character plays things close to the vest without any big reveals or revelations.

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THE GOOD LIAR (2019) – First Movie Pairing Mirren and McKellen A Good One

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the good liar

THE GOOD LIAR (2019) is a movie that I really wanted to see but missed when it came out in November 2019. So, here in the midst of staying home during the coronavirus pandemic, I thought it the perfect time to finally catch up with it.

And the main reason I wanted to see it was because of its two leads, Helen Mirren and Ian McKellen. Not only am I fans of both these actors, but I like to support movies that feature older actors as well as younger ones. I watch movies because I love storytelling. And there are stories to be told about people of all ages. Hollywood tends to forget that.

In THE GOOD LIAR, Betty McLeish (Helen Mirren) is a widow who joins Roy Courtnay (Ian McKellen), a widower, for a dinner date after meeting him at an online dating site. Their date goes very well, and soon Betty calls him again, and before long, she has invited him to move in with her. Sound like a romantic love story?

Not quite.

For moments after their initial dinner date, we learn that Roy is really a con man, and a high stakes one at that. He runs cons that earn him big bucks. Furthermore, he’s not above resorting to violence to get his way. Yep, he surrounds himself with enforcers who will get down and dirty with folks if they demand more money from the con than what they were promised. Roy’s con with Betty is just one of many. He’s in it for the money, yes, but also for the thrill. He does it because he can, and he likes it.

And Betty is quite wealthy, and so Roy stands to earn a considerable stash if he can pull off this con, which involves his co-conspirator Vincent (Jim Carter) posing as his accountant who suggests a “sound” investment which involves pooling their money into the same account.

The only hope Betty seems to have is her suspicious grandson Stephen (Russell Tovey) who doesn’t trust Roy at all, but he has an uphill battle to climb, because Betty is smitten with Roy and fully trusts him.

What’s a vulnerable widow to do?

Relax, people, it’s Helen Mirren! She knows what she’s doing!

Yep, in a movie like this, you fully expect some sort of twist, and in THE GOOD LIAR there is one. However, twists are a tricky thing. They don’t always work. Hello M. Night Shyamalan! And I have to admit, with THE GOOD LIAR, I definitely enjoyed all that came before the twist better, which is one way of saying I didn’t really like the twist here. I fully expected it, and for me it was somewhat contrived and strained credibility. There are simpler ways to get done what the character involved in the twist wants to accomplish.

But this didn’t stop me from enjoying the movie.

The best part of THE GOOD LIAR is as expected the performances of the two leads. Both Helen Mirren and Ian McKellen have a field day here.  Mirren is perfect as the sensitive widow, seemingly the perfect target for the charming con man, who nonetheless possesses a strength and intelligence that fully clues in the audience that she’s probably going to figure out Roy ahead of time before he steals her money, or at least the audience hopes this to be the case.

Ian McKellen is both a gentleman and a scoundrel as Roy, with the emphasis clearly on the villain side. As polite and charming as Roy is, McKellen makes sure you believe that he truly is a down and dirty con man who will stop at nothing to get what he wants.

McKellen and Mirren even get to partake in an old-fashioned physical rough and tumble, as the two come to blows when the proverbial sh*t hits the fan during the film’s climax. And it’s a realistic looking brawl at that!

DOWNTON ABBEY (2010-2015) star Jim Carter also stands out as Roy’s co-conspirator Vincent.

THE GOOD LIAR has a decent screenplay by Jeffrey Hatcher, based on the novel by Nicholas Searle. The dialogue is strong throughout, the characters sharp and believable, and the story it tells is a good one. As I said, I wasn’t a fan of the twist, which is about the only thing I didn’t like about this one. Of course, this is a rather big thing, and as such, it’s the one reason I didn’t absolutely love THE GOOD LIAR. Hatcher also wrote the screenplay for MR. HOLMES (2015), which also starred Ian McKellen, playing an aged Sherlock Holmes trying to solve a case while dealing with dementia. I liked MR. HOLMES a bit more than I liked THE GOOD LIAR.

THE GOOD LIAR was directed by Bill Condon, who also directed MR. HOLMES, and another Ian McKellen movie, GODS AND MONSTERS (1998),  in which McKellen played FRANKENSTEIN (1931) director James Whale. Condon also directed the recent Disney remake of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (2017), a film I liked a lot. However, in the category of films I didn’t like— a lot—- Condon also directed the deplorable THE TWILIGHT SAGA: BREAKING DAWN – PART 1 (2011) and THE TWILIGHT SAGA: BREAKING DAWN – PART 2 (2012).

All this being said, THE GOOD LIAR is in good hands with Condon as director. The film is captivating and held my interest throughout, taking a slight hit when the very expected twist meddled with the climax.

Incidentally, THE GOOD LIAR marks the first time Helen Mirren and Ian McKellen have ever starred together in a movie. Their first pairing is well-worth the wait.

And that’s no lie!

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HORSE GIRL (2020) – Intriguing Drama Asks: Mental Illness or Alien Abduction?

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horse girl

There’s a fine line between mental illness and alien abduction.

That’s the dance played out in HORSE GIRL (2020), an intriguing drama about a sweet yet socially awkward young woman who suffers from nightmares and blackouts which she interprets as alien abductions while those around her believe more matter-of-factly that she suffers from mental illness.

Just where the truth lies is something the movie doesn’t make crystal clear.

HORSE GIRL tells the story of Sarah (Alison Brie) a shy young woman who works in a fabric store during the day and comes home to her apartment at night where she spends her evenings alone watching reruns of her favorite science fiction TV show, while her roommate Nikki (Debby Ryan) occupies herself with her boyfriend Brian (Jake Picking). Sarah also has an affinity for a horse Willow which she visits every day at the stable, much to the annoyance of Willow’s owners. We learn later that Willow used to be Sarah’s horse but isn’t any more.

On her birthday, Sarah receives a birthday card from her co-worker Joan (Molly Shannon) who asks her if she has any special plans to celebrate, to which Sarah lies and says she’s going to go out to dinner with some friends from her dance class. Later, we witness the awkward scene where Sarah tries to make plans with these friends but fails miserably, so she returns to her apartment, content to spend her birthday alone, but her roommate Nikki feels bad for her and coaxes Brian to invite his friend Darren (John Reynolds) over who had recently broke up with his girlfriend. Surprisingly, Darren and Sarah hit it off well, and they agree to see each other again for a date.

Up until this point, HORSE GIRL has the makings of a tender romantic love story, but it’s at this time when Sarah realizes she’s been having some pretty bizarre dreams, dreams in which sleep walks and finds herself in other places, not knowing how she got there, and when she returns home, she finds that while she believes she’s been gone for hours, only minutes have passed in real-time.

She does some research on the internet and reads about alien abductions, and the descriptions of these abductions match things she has seen and felt in her dreams. It’s also at this time when she begins to think more about her grandmother and mother, both of whom dealt with mental health issues and spoke of experiences similar to hers. In her mom’s case, she recently committed suicide. But Sarah fixates on her grandmother, who in old photographs is the splitting image of Sarah, which gets Sarah thinking about clones.

Once Sarah starts speaking about this to her friends and family, it’s easy for them— and for the audience— to believe she has inherited the same mental health issues as her mother and grandmother. But Sarah is convinced otherwise, and she sets out to prove it.

HORSE GIRL is a thought-provoking movie that is well-written by director Jeff Baena and lead actress Alison Brie. And while its story is never fleshed out as well as one would hope, it still delivers in that it takes its audience for a ride that is compelling throughout, the only drawback being a conclusion that is a bit too open-ended.

I really enjoyed Alison Brie in the lead role as Sarah. She makes Sarah likeable and vulnerable. She nails the introvert persona suffering from social anxiety to a tee, and the scenes where she tries to be social are painfully realistic. And she does it without being cliché or superficial. In all other aspects of her life, in her job, for instance, she’s comfortable and quite good at it. So, Brie creates a three-dimensional character who we like even before all the weird things begin to happen to her, and once they do, we empathize with her and want her to be okay, even as it becomes increasingly apparent that she’s not okay.

Brie is a wonderful actress who I first noticed on the TV show MAD MEN (2007-2015) where she played Trudy Campbell. She also stars on the TV show GLOW (2017-2020). She’s in nearly every scene in HORSE GIRL, and she easily carries this film on her back.

And as I said, she also wrote the screenplay, along with director Jeff Baena. One of the best parts of the screenplay is how well-written the supporting characters are. They come off as real people, which in this story, is important, because Sarah increasingly becomes unstable, and if she were surrounded by a bunch of cardboard clichés, it would certainly make her story less believable. But that’s not the case here as these supporting characters have real reactions and really care for her.

In one of the film’s best sequences, when Sarah is on her date with Darren, it’s all going so well, and when Sarah opens up to him and starts talking about what she suspects is happening to her, at first since he’s happy and genuinely likes Sarah, he’s supportive and all ears. But as Sarah grows more intense and unpredictable and unrealistic, she becomes scary, and Darren’s reaction changes.  Had he been a cliché, the boyfriend only out for sex, for example, this scene would not have worked as well. Instead, it works wonderfully, because Darren tries so hard to  understand Sarah and to accept what she’s saying, but as she reacts more violently, he, like the audience, becomes unnerved and he has no choice but to react to that. It’s one of the more honest— and frightening— sequences in the film.

As I said, the one weakness in the movie is the ending. Based on the final sequence, you get a pretty good idea on which side the moviemakers favor here, mental illness or alien abduction, but still there’s something missing, and that something is an independent view on the matter. The film is told through Sarah’s eyes, and so even that final scene is from Sarah’s perspective, and hence you really don’t know its true meaning, which often is not a bad thing in a movie, and it’s not a terribly bad thing in this movie, as I still liked it a lot in spite of the ending, but a more emphatic ending would have helped, as it would have given this curious tale an exclamation point on which to end, rather than the way it ends now, with an ellipse.

HORSE GIRL also has an admirable supporting cast. Debby Ryan does a fine job as Sarah’s roommate Nikki, who although she gets frustrated with her does care about her. Likewise, Jake Picking is solid as Nikki’s boyfriend Brian, who’s much less supportive of Sarah and thinks she’s flat-out weird. Molly Shannon also does a nice job as Sarah’s co-worker Joan who also seems to care about her.

I really enjoyed John Reynolds as Darren, the guy who sincerely wants to start a relationship with Sarah, but he unfortunately picked the wrong week to ask her out. Reynolds does an awesome job making this guy a three-dimensional character, and he does it in very little screen time. Reynolds plays quirky Officer Callahan on TV’s STRANGER THINGS (2016-2020). He makes much more of an impact here in HORSE GIRL.

HORSE GIRL also benefits from a couple of screen veterans in the cast. Paul Reiser shows up in one sequence as Sarah’s step-father. It’s just one sequence, but it’s a good one. And John Ortiz plays a man Sarah sees in her recurring dreams, and then later she sees him in real life.

I liked the way director Jeff Baena handled this one. Sure, it’s a bit of a slow burn, as the pace is measured, and the first third is a straight drama. In fact, when Sarah experiences her first weird nightmare, it comes out of nowhere and is quite jarring. If HORSE GIRL were a horror movie, it would fall into the category of quiet horror. So, call this one a quiet mystery/thriller.

But it works.

HORSE GIRL is a captivating drama with sprinkles of mystery and science fiction thrown in that takes its time telling its weirdly provocative story, and while its ending isn’t completely satisfying, it remains a movie that creates a sympathetic main character who’s searching for answers about her past and her future. You’ll want her to find them.

It’s now available on Netflix.

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LOST GIRLS (2020) – Story of Serial Killer Victims Not As Powerful As Book On Which It Is Based

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Amy Ryan and Thomasin McKenzie in LOST GIRLS (2020).

LOST GIRLS (2020) is a Netflix-original movie based on the nonfiction book Lost Girls An Unsolved American Mystery by Robert Kolker, which chronicled the still unsolved murders committed by the Long Island Serial Killer. I read this book when it first came out, and it remains one of the best books I’ve read this past decade.

Lost Girls An Unsolved American Mystery is a meticulously researched and compelling read that tells the story of the victims and their families, a fascinating narrative made more so by the fact that the killer remains at large.

Now comes the movie LOST GIRLS, and since I had been so impressed with the book, I was eager to see this one.

In LOST GIRLS (2020) it’s 2010, and Mari Gilbert (Amy Ryan) is a single mom who works two jobs to support her two daughters, Sherre (Thomasin McKenzie) a senior in high school who is hoping to be able to afford community college, and Sarra (Oona Lawrence) who’s in middle school and struggling with mental health issues. When Mari’s oldest daughter Shannan, who doesn’t live with them but does send money to them regularly, fails to show up for a promised dinner date with the family, Mari shrugs it off, but when Shannan’s boyfriend calls Sherre, something he has never done before, looking for her, and when she doesn’t respond to her messages on her phone, Mari begins to worry.

Getting no help from the police, Mari investigates on her own and learns the shocking truth that Shannan worked as a prostitute and was last seen in Oak Beach, New York, a private community on Long Island. She also learns some very disturbing facts, like her daughter made a 911 call screaming for help, and the police didn’t arrive on the scene until nearly an hour later. Shannan reportedly ran screaming down the streets of Oak Beach, and no one claimed to have seen or heard anything. Also, the security camera footage on those very streets from that night was erased, a camera controlled by the man who would later become a person of interest.

Mari makes her presence known to the local police and eventually is able to engage in face to face dialogue with Police Commissioner Richard Dormer (Gabriel Byrne) who pleads with her to remain patient, but she has no intention of doing so. Eventually, the remains of several bodies are found in the woods around Oak Beach, and it’s determined that a serial killer has been at work.

The victims’ families get together and form a support group and eventually hold a vigil on the streets of Oak Beach, all in an effort to memorialize their daughters’ lives. Mari makes the point that she wants them remembered as daughters, sisters, and women, not as prostitutes.

While the police do step up their investigation, Mari is there every step of the way, prodding them, and pointing out their shortcomings, like calling them out for refusing to search the densely wooded swamp area behind the main suspect’s house.

I wish I could say LOST GIRLS the movie was as hard-hitting and as moving as the book, but it’s not. It makes its points, but it does so briefly and without much depth. The film is short, clocking in at 95 minutes, and as such never really gives the subject its due.

I was able to fill in the blanks because I had read the book, but I wonder if folks who haven’t read the book would be able to do the same. The book was exhaustively researched. The reader really felt the scope and magnitude of what these families were going through, what it must have felt like to have daughters murdered and the police doing little about it. The book also chronicled in detail the police investigation and the problems it faced, mostly due to ineptitude. The movie focuses more on Mari and her one on one meetings with Commissioner Dormer. The scope just isn’t the same.

The book was haunting. For the longest time afterwards, I couldn’t get it out of my mind. The movie is much more superficial. It has its moments, but there are far too few of them.

Amy Ryan is excellent as Mari Gilbert. She gives a powerful performance, and as we learn that Mari is driven by the guilt of her past, how she couldn’t handle Shannan as a child and gave her up to a foster family, Ryan shows us the scars of the character and how she uses them to find the strength to be the mother she wanted to be when her daughter was still alive. When Dormer says that Shannan’s fate is not on her, she replies tellingly “I’m her mother. It’s all on me.” It’s one of the film’s more powerful moments. I wish there had been more of these.

This is one of Ryan’s strongest performances to date, adding to the quality work she has already done in such films as THE INFILTRATOR (2016) and BRIDGE OF SPIES (2015).

Thomasin McKenzie is one of my favorite young actresses working today, as she has delivered some powerhouse performances in films like JOJO RABBIT (2019) and LEAVE NO TRACE (2018). Her role here as middle daughter Sherre is much more limited than her roles in the aforementioned movies, and as such she doesn’t have a whole lot to do in this movie, which is too bad, because she’s a great talent.

Gabriel Byrne is perfect as the tired and weary Police Commissioner Richard Dormer. While he wishes Mari would just go away, he never really tells her to do so, and in the movie anyway, seems sympathetic to her requests. We also learn immediately what kind of predicament he’s in, because at the outset, we are privy to a phone conversation in which he’s told point-blank that if he doesn’t downplay the serial killer angle he will lose his job.

I enjoyed Lola Kirke’s performance as Kim, a sister to one of the victims and a fellow prostitute. Her conversations with Mari are some of the better ones in the movie, and you almost get the sense that Mari feels like she’s talking to Shannan when she’s giving advice to Kim.

Dean Winters plays a smug and uncaring police detective and sort of stands in as the face of police incompetence here. And Reed Birney does a wonderfully creepy job as the outwardly “oh so helpful” Dr. Peter Hackett who for a long time was a major person of interest and suspect in the case. The scene where he puts his hands on Mari’s shoulders will give you chills. We just saw Birney in THE HUNT (2020), and he’s been in a ton of movies and TV shows.

The screenplay by Michael Werwie based on Robert Kolker’s book is not really a strength of this movie. It tells the story it has to tell, in that it gets in and gets out without any fluff, but it also doesn’t dig deep. It’s all very superficial, and without having read the book, it would be easy to dismiss it as just another serial killer story, albeit one based on true events. But it’s so much more than that. It’s the story of the victims and their families, and while the movie goes through the motions to say as much, there are few moments where it really tugs at your heart and makes you feel their plight and pain.

In the book these families go through hell. In the movie, scenes cut away and finish long before they should. Sharper dialogue would have gone a long way towards bringing these families’ stories to life.

Liz Garbus directed LOST GIRLS, and the result is an efficient production, and it’s all competently handled. I didn’t, however, get a strong sense of place. Oak Beach should have been a setting so disturbing I could smell the death there, but the camera never gets anywhere that close to make me feel that way.

And there simply are not a lot of heightened emotional moments here, which is surprising considering the subject matter.

Still, I recommend LOST GIRLS. It tells a disturbing story, one that needs to be told, but it does it in a way that may leave you with more questions than answers. As such, if you see this movie and feel you want to learn more, I highly recommend the book  Lost Girls An Unsolved American Mystery by Robert Kolker

Unlike the movie, the book is thoroughly comprehensive and as such is an incredibly moving and tragic read.

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KNIVES OUT (2019) – Whodunit Mystery More Like Clue than Christie

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knives out

I suspect foul play!

So says Daniel Craig’s Detective Benoit Blanc in his sometimes effective Southern drawl in the new whodunit mystery KNIVES OUT (2019).

Actually it’s not much of a pronouncement. Nearly everyone in this movie has a motive for murder.

KNIVES OUT is a lively comedic whodunit that is receiving high praise from critics and fans alike. Sure, it’s energetic and punchy, throwing its audience nonstop curves, keeping everyone guessing, and it pays homage to the classic murder mysteries of yesteryear. But I found its tale of murder and family intrigue contrived from the get-go, and as such, I had much less fun with this one than a lot of other folks.

Acclaimed author Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is found slain in the opening moments of the movie, and soon after, famous detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) is on the case, which is at first ruled a suicide, but as Blanc says, he suspects foul play. And of course he should, because the night before Thrombey’s death, he celebrated his 85th birthday at a lavish party at his home with his family, who all had contentious moments with him, some even ending in shouting matches.

It seems that many in his family had reasons for doing him in. There’s his oldest daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), her husband Richard (Don Johnson), his daughter Joni (Toni Collette), his youngest son Walt (Michael Shannon), and his grandson Ransom (Chris Evans). There are more suspects as well, including his young personal nurse Marta (Ana de Armas) who Blanc takes particular interest in, mostly because of her peculiar trait of vomiting whenever she tells a lie.

And that’s the plot, as Blanc questions the suspects , and the audience sees past events shown in flashback, as we all try to figure out just who murdered Harlan Thrombey. As mysteries go, it’s a good one, as there are so many possibilities, the answer is not easy to decipher. Then again, and this is the main problem I had with this film, it’s all so convoluted and contrived. It’s confusing on purpose, the goal of writer/director Rian Johnson being to construct a story that’s nearly impossible to figure out because that’s what whodunits are all about, the thinking being that it’s fun not to know who committed the crime. That’s the intention, but the result is less fun as it’s all very forced and simply not believable. At the end of the day, it’s all very cartoonish and comical. So, for me it played less like an Agatha Christie tale and more like an homage to the old CLUE (1985) movie.

The best part of KNIVES OUT is its all-star cast. Yet, while everyone in this film is very good, nobody steals the show or has moments which lift the material to higher levels.

Chris Evans gets the best lines in the movie as the unpredictable and fiery grandson Ransom Drysdale, the relative who seems to miff everyone in the family on a day-to-day basis.

Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, and Michael Shannon all have their moments, but none of these folks get scene-stealing bits. As much as I did not like the reimagining of HALLOWEEN (2018), Curtis’ performance in that film was more notable than what she’s given to do here. Likewise, Michael Shannon has certainly enjoyed meatier roles. For example, his performance as George Westinghouse in THE CURRENT WAR (2017), which was just released in 2019, was much more impressive. Of these folks, I probably enjoyed Don Johnson the best.

Daniel Craig is OK as Detective Benoit Blanc, but he certainly didn’t wow me. I enjoyed his previous take on a Southern character better, as the explosive Joe Bang in the comedy LOGAN LUCKY (2017).

The majority of the movie centers around the character of Marta, and Ana de Armas is more than up to the task of handling the bulk of the screen time. Interestingly enough, de Armas and Daniel Craig will be reunited in the upcoming Bond movie NO TIME TO DIE, due out in April of 2020.

Writer/director Rian Johnson, known for such films as STAR WARS: EPISODE VIII- THE LAST JEDI (2018) and LOOPER (2012), infuses KNIVES OUT with nonstop quirkiness and oomph, but the result is mixed. It’s a case I think of trying to be too clever and cute. The entire film plays as if everyone in front of the camera and behind it is winking at the audience, inviting them into their playful whodunit world of mystery and murder, and the audience for the most part knows it’s in on the joke, that this story is played for fun and laughs. The trouble is this strategy only goes so far. The general mood of the entire film is gamesome, but the specific moments where the characters and the script should be drawing the audience in really aren’t there. The contrivances rule the day. The connections to the audience do not.

I saw KNIVES OUT in a packed theater. yet the audience was largely quiet. While folks seemed amused, it certainly wasn’t a laugh-out-loud kind of movie.

KNIVES OUT was enjoyable for me in a silly way that was never anything more than fluff and contrivances, the way I would feel after playing the game of Clue, not after reading an Agatha Christie novel.

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IN THE SHADOWS: PATRIC KNOWLES

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patric knowles - frankenstein meets the wolf man

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As always, thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

LEADING MEN: DAVID MANNERS

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david manners black cat

David Manners in between Karloff and Lugosi in THE BLACK CAT (1934).

Welcome to a brand new column, LEADING MEN.

Here at THIS IS MY CREATION: THE BLOG OF MICHAEL ARRUDA I already write a LEADING LADIES column where we look at the career of lead actresses in horror movies, and IN THE SHADOWS, where we look at character actors, women and men, who appeared in horror movies.

In LEADING MEN, we won’t be looking at the horror superstars, folks like Karloff, Lugosi, Chaney, Cushing, Lee, and Price, but those actors who had leading roles in horror movies and played key parts that were not character bits and who in spite of their success in these roles did not achieve superstar status.

We kick off the column with the number #1 leading man from the early Universal monster movies, David Manners. He played “John” Harker in DRACULA (1931) and the similarly dashing young hero Frank Whemple in THE MUMMY (1932) with Boris Karloff.

My favorite part of David Manners’ performances is that he took what could have been stoic wooden “leading man” love interest roles and infused these characters with some personality, which is why his characterizations in these old Universal monster films are better than most.

So, here’s a brief look at Manners’ film career, focusing mostly on his horror roles:

THE SKY HAWK (1929) – pilot (uncredited) – David Manners’ first screen appearance, an uncredited bit as a pilot, a World War I drama that also starred Manners’ future DRACULA co-star Helen Chandler.

JOURNEY’S END (1930) – 2nd Lt. Raleigh –  David Manner’s first screen credit is in this drama starring Colin Clive as an alcoholic captain trying to lead his troops in the trenches of World War I. Directed by James Whale, who would direct Clive the following year in FRANKENSTEIN (1931).

DRACULA (1931) – John Harker- Sure, Manners hams it up at times, and some of the scenes with him and Helen Chandler as Mina are among the film’s slowest, but he also enjoys some fine moments in this Universal classic. He seems genuinely annoyed with both Edward Van Sloan’s Van Helsing, as the professor continues to argue for the existence of vampires, something Harker believes is ludicrous, as well as with Lugosi’s Dracula when the vampire shows his fiancee Mina some attention. When Dracula apologizes for upsetting Mina with his stories, Manner’s Harker reacts with a very annoyted, “Stories?” as if to say when have you been finding the time to tell my fiancee stories?

THE DEATH KISS (1932) – Franklyn Drew –  Manners stars with DRACULA co-stars Bela Lugosi and Edward Van Sloan in this mystery/comedy about murder on a movie set.

THE MUMMY (1932) – Frank Whemple – Joins forces once again with Edward Van Sloan to stop another movie monster, this time it’s Boris Karloff as ImHoTep the undead mummy who returns to life and subsequently discovers his long lost love has been reincarnated as a woman named Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann). Of course, Manners’ Frank Whemple is also in love with Helen, and so once again he’s the dashing young hero who works with Van Sloan’s professor— not Van Helsing this time but Doctor Muller—to protect the young heroine from an evil monster. I prefer Manners’ performance here in THE MUMMY over his work in DRACULA as his acting is more natural in this movie.

THE BLACK CAT (1934) – Peter Allison – Manners’ turn here as mystery writer Peter Allison is probably my favorite David Manners’ performance. In this Universal classic which was the first movie to pair Boris Karloff with Bela Lugosi, the two horror superstars take on each other in this atmospheric thriller set in Hungary and featuring devil worshippers and revenge. Manners plays an American novelist on his honeymoon with his wife, and the two get caught in the crossfire between Karloff and Lugosi. Manners gets some of the best lines in the movie, most of them very humorous, and Manners pulls off this lighter take on the leading man quite nicely. My favorite Manners line is when he’s speaking of Karloff’s Hjalmar Poelzig and says, If I wanted to build a nice, cozy, unpretentious insane asylum, he’d be the man for it.  

MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD (1935) – Edwin Drood – Horror movie based on the Charles Dickens novel stars Claude Rains as an opium-addicted choirmaster with a taste for young women and murder. A financial flop.

LUCKY FUGITIVES (1936) – Jack Wycoff/Cy King –  Dual role for Manners in which he plays an author who is a dead ringer for a gangster and as such is mistakenly arrested. Manner’s final screen credit.

David Manners only had 39 screen credits, and that’s because after LUCKY FUGITIVES he retired from acting. He would go on to become a painter and a writer, publishing several novels.

He died in 1998 of natural causes at the age of 97.

For me, Manners will be forever remembered for his dashing leading man roles in the Universal horror classics DRACULA (1931), THE MUMMY (1932), and THE BLACK CAT (1934). He gave these roles personality, and they have stood the test of time and remain integral parts of these classic horror movies.

David Manners

April 30, 1901 – December 23, 1998

I hope you enjoyed this LEADING MEN column and join me again next time when we look at another leading man in the movies, especially horror movies.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael