Movie Lists: Stephen King Cameos

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Stephen King in CREEPSHOW (1982)

Stephen King has a cameo in IT CHAPTER TWO (2019), the latest film adaptation of one of his novels.

Just how many cameos has King done over the years? Well, according to stephenking.com, he has made 22 of them.

Welcome back to MOVIE LISTS, that column that looks at lists of odds and ends in movies. Up today, the movie and TV cameos of Stephen King.

Here’s a brief look at those 22 appearances:

KNIGHTRIDERS (1981) – Hoagie Man- the first one, in this creative actioner written and directed by George A. Romero.

CREEPSHOW (1982) – Jordy Verrill – one of my favorites. King gets turned into a plant by a meteor. Again, directed by George Romero, and King wrote the screenplay. One of my favorite horror movies from the 1980s.

MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE (1986) – Man at Cashpoint (uncredited)

CREEPSHOW 2 (1987) – Truck Driver

PET SEMATARY (1989) – Minister

THE GOLDEN YEARS (TV show)  (1991)- Bus Driver

THE STAND (TV miniseries) (1994) – Teddy Weizak

THE LANGOLIERS (TV miniseries) (1995) – Tom Holby

THINNER (1996) – Dr. Bangor

THE SHINING (TV miniseries) (1997) – Band Leader

STORM OF THE CENTURY (TV miniseries) (1999) – Lawyer/Reporter – uncredited

FRASIER (2000) – Brian – in the episode “Mary Christmas” of this classic TV show.

THE SIMPSONS (TV series) (2000) – Himself in the episode “Insane Clown Poppy”

ROSE RED (TV mini series) (2002) –  Pizza Delivery Guy (uncredited

KINGDOM HOSPITAL (TV series) (2004) – Johnny B. Goode

FEVER PITCH (2005) – Himself

GOTHAM CAFE (2005) – Mr. Ring

DIARY OF THE DEAD (2007) – Newsreader

SONS OF ANARCHY (TV series) (2010) – Richard Bachman, The Cleaner – in the episode “Caregiver” – probably my favorite Stephen King cameo of all time. His “cleaner” makes bodies disappear. This guy would have been right at home on the set of BREAKING BAD.

UNDER THE DOME (TV) (2014) – Diner Patron in the episode “Heads Will Roll”

MR. MERCEDES (TV) (2017) – Diner Patron

IT CHAPTER TWO (2019) – Shopkeeper

And there you have it. A brief look at the TV and movie cameos of Stephen King.

As always, thanks for reading!

—Michael

Books by Michael Arruda:

New in 2019! DARK CORNERS, Michael Arruda’s second short story collection, contains ten tales of horror, six reprints and four stories original to this collection.

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Waiting for you in Dark Corners are tales of vampires, monsters, werewolves, demonic circus animals, and eternal darkness. Be prepared to be both frightened and entertained. You never know what you will find lurking in dark corners.

Ebook: $3.99. Available at http://www.crossroadspress.com and at Amazon.com.  Print on demand version available at https://www.amazon.com/dp/1949914437.

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

How far would you go to save your family? Would you change the course of time? That’s the decision facing Adam Cabral in this mind-bending science fiction adventure by Michael Arruda.

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

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

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Michael Arruda reviews horror movies throughout history, from the silent classics of the 1920s, Universal horror from the 1930s-40s, Hammer Films of the 1950s-70s, all the way through the instant classics of today. If you like to read about horror movies, this is the book for you!

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

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

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Print cover

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Ebook cover

 

Michael Arruda’s first short story collection, featuring a wraparound story which links all the tales together, asks the question: can you have a relationship when your partner is surrounded by the supernatural? If you thought normal relationships were difficult, wait to you read about what the folks in these stories have to deal with. For the love of horror!

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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PET SEMATARY (2019) – Remake Standard Horror Vehicle

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For me, Pet Sematary has always been one of Stephen King’s scariest novels. When I first read it nearly thirty years ago, it really got under my skin. I also enjoyed the 1989 film adaptation of PET SEMATARY.

While I didn’t really see the need for a remake, considering the source material, I felt, well, why the heck not? So I went into the theater to see this one with fairly enthusiastic expectations.

PET SEMATARY (2019) tells a tale that remains chilling today.  Dr. Louis Creed (Jason Clarke) and his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz) relocate their family— eight year-old daughter Ellie (Jete Laurence), three year-old son Gage (twins Hugo and Lucas Lavoie) and cat Church— from Boston to rural Maine in order to slow their lives down and spend more time with each other.

Not long after they settle in, Ellie discovers a strange “pet sematary” in the woods in the back of their property, and their neighbor Jud (John Lithgow) explains that it’s been there for years, a place where the local children bury their dead pets. Cemetery is spelled “sematary” because in the past the children had misspelled the sign.

In front of their home is a rural road where huge trucks roar by at speeds which seem to rival supersonic jets. These rigs also don’t tend to make any noise until they’re right on top of the property. Not very realistic. I live on a rural road. You can hear the rumble of trucks coming from a distance.

Anyway, when Church is killed on that road, to spare Ellie heartbreak, Jud shows Louis another cemetery, this one located deeper in the woods behind the pet sematary, and advises Louis to bury the cat there, without telling him why.

The next day, the cat returns, alive, but very different, aggressive, and not very agreeable. Jud then explains to Louis the secret of the second cemetery, that things buried in the soil there return. Of course, they don’t return the same.

Later, when Ellie is tragically killed by one of those monstrous rigs racing along the rural highway, Louis decides his daughter has been taken from him too quickly, and against his better judgment, buries her in the pet sematary, knowing that she will return.

Oh, the things that parents will do for their children!

As I said, Pet Sematary has always been for me one of Stephen King’s scariest novels, mostly I think because of the pain of the parents’ grief and the knowledge that what Louis is about to do will end badly for everyone involved.

One of the biggest weaknesses of this new movie version of PET SEMATARY is that somehow, in spite of the frightening source material, it’s simply not that scary. Part of this is the changes made to the story. Then there’s the dialogue which isn’t very sharp, and lastly the film simply fails to capitalize on the true horror aspects of the novel.

Let’s start with the first half of the film, before anything or anyone is buried. Directors Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer don’t really take advantage of the natural creepy elements here. When Elle first discovers the cemetery, she initially sees some local children wearing masks taking their pet there, images which should be weird and creepy, but they hardly register as such since we see them so briefly.

When Louis fails to save a dying student at the clinic, a plot point that is critical in the novel, the victim Victor Pascow returns numerous times to warn Louis against his involvement with the sematary. These scenes also barely register here. Neither do the flashback scenes with Rachel and her sister who was suffering from spinal bifida. These scenes were unnerving in the novel. They’re rushed and glossed over here in the movie.

Once Louis learns about the pet sematary, and after seeing how disastrous the return of Church proved to be, it really strained believability that— regardless of how much he missed his daughter— that he would bury her there. He’s gotta know how she will be when she returns. The film failed to convince me that a grieving father would feel this is a good idea. It’s not like there’s a chance she’d come back normal. The film makes it abundantly clear that it’s not going to happen.

The change here having Ellie killed and resurrected rather than Gage didn’t really add anything new to the story, other than giving Ellie a bit more to do when she eventually comes back.

I can’t say I was all that impressed by the screenplay by Matt Greenberg, based of course on the Stephen King novel.  I could give or take the changes made to the story, including the ending, as nothing new here did all that much for me, and the parts that stuck to the original simply weren’t told with any sort of conviction. There was something very flat about the whole production.

Jason Clarke, who’s been in a ton of movies, including an excellent performance as Ted Kennedy in CHAPPAQUIDDICK (2018), is an actor I like a lot. He’s very good here as Louis Creed, although again, I simply did not believe he’d think burying his daughter in the pet sematary was a good idea. Clarke also turned in notable performances in the genre films TERMINATOR GENISYS (2015) and DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES  (2014).

Amy Seimetz is okay as Rachel, but as written, the character strangely doesn’t figure as prominently in the story as one would expect.

Young Jete Laurence is very good as Ellie, and she is admittedly rather creepy when she returns from the grave.

John Lithgow is sufficiently earthy as lifelong Maine resident Jud, but one of the highlights from the 1989 film was Fred Gwynne’s performance as the character. Gwynne, who was forever typecast and remembered as Herman Munster on THE MUNSTERS (1964-66) delivered an outstanding performance in that 1989 film that was one of the best parts of the movie. Lithgow here did not make me forget about Gwynne.

I can’t say that I liked this new version of PET SEMATARY all that much. It’s not as good as the 1989 film, and it’s nowhere near as scary as King’s novel. It’s passable horror entertainment, but since it fails to convince its audience that its main character would indeed take the drastic steps he does to resurrect his deceased daughter, the film never really resonates or becomes more than just a standard by-the-numbers horror vehicle.

Stephen King fans deserve better.

—END—

FIRST MAN (2018) – Serious, Somber Look at Neil Armstrong and Apollo 11 Moon Landing

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FIRST MAN (2018) tells the story of astronaut Neil  Armstrong, following his personal journey as he becomes the first human to step on the moon. It’s a journey that is as focused as it is somber, and the film does an outstanding job capturing this mood.

The film also presents a raw and honest look at NASA. Don’t expect the crowd-pleasing heroics of Ed Harris and company in Ron Howard’s APOLLO 13 (1995). NASA here is more often portrayed as a group of scientists so caught up in the speed of the space race that they often pushed ahead without fully knowing what they were doing, at a great cost, as human lives were lost.

Regardless, Neil Armstrong is shown here, in spite of his own personal demons, believing the space mission was indeed worth the cost. FIRST MAN is not a knock on NASA. It’s simply an honest look at the space program in the 1960s.

When FIRST MAN opens, Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) and his wife Janet (Claire Foy) are dealing with the failing health of their very young daughter, who has developed a tumor. She dies shortly thereafter, and it’s a loss that stays with Armstrong throughout the course of this story. His somber mood sets the tone for the entire film. He cannot get over the loss of his daughter, and he struggles to deal with it. He sees her in his mind’s eye constantly. Yet, we learn as the story moves forward, that Armstrong keeps his daughter’s memory close to his heart and uses it as a focal point to drive him forward on his quest to reach the moon. It makes for some very effective storytelling.

Which is pretty much the plot of the entire movie, the quest for NASA to reach the moon before the Soviet Union does, as experienced by both Neil Armstrong and his wife Janet, who throughout the whole process is the rock which keeps her family together.

As such, FIRST MAN works on a much more personal level than a broad history lesson on the moon mission.

FIRST MAN was directed by Damien Chazelle, his first film since he won the Best Director Oscar for LA LA LAND (2016), a film I liked a lot, so much so that it was my favorite movie from 2016.

With FIRST MAN., Chazelle is as focused on Neil Armstrong as Armstrong is on the mission. At times, this focus proves to be almost claustrophobic, as sometimes I wished Chazelle would just pull back a bit and look at the space mission through a broader lens, but that clearly wasn’t his purpose here.

This is Armstrong’s story from beginning to end, one he shares with his wife Janet, who is every bit as important to the story as her husband. Indeed, the strongest scene in the movie doesn’t take place in space at all but inside the Armstrong home. It’s the night before Neil is leaving for the moon mission, and Janet confronts him about wanting to leave without saying goodbye to his sons. The scene at the table where he has to admit to his young sons that he may not be coming back is by far the most powerful scene in the movie.

The film also does well with its moon mission scenes. The most cinematic scene in the film is the lunar module’s approach to the moon’s surface. It’s a magnificent scene and an example of movie-making at its finest. It truly captures the moment of what it must have been like for human beings to actually see the moon up close and then actually set foot upon it.

It’s no surprise that the somber screenplay of FIRST MAN, based on the book by James R. Hansen, was written by Josh Singer, the man who wrote SPOTLIGHT (2015). That screenplay won Singer an Oscar.

Singer’s screenplay here for FIRST MAN reminded me a lot of his screenplay for SPOTLIGHT. Whereas it was the subject matter in SPOTLIGHT that was bleak, here in FIRST MAN it’s Neil Armstrong’s broken heart. He is devastated over the loss of his daughter, and he refuses to forget her. He uses her memory to drive himself forward towards the moon. It is not a happy journey. Of course, we know from history that the end of this journey is a happy one, as Armstrong made it to the moon and did indeed become the first man to step onto the moon’s surface. And in this movie, the moment also allows him to find closure with his daughter.

The screenplay also does an excellent job showing NASA as a human organization rather than one occupied by superhuman scientists and engineers. There are nonstop flaws and setbacks, and astronauts lose their lives in the process. In another of the film’s best scenes, NASA scientist Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler) tries to assure Janet that Neil is going to be fine, that they have things under control. She quickly lashes out at him, saying, You’re a bunch of boys making models out of balsa wood! You don’t have anything under control!  It’s a painfully poignant moment.

And yet as I said, this is not a movie that bashes the space program. The tone is prevalent throughout that the entire mission to the moon was worth the cost. FIRST MAN is simply an honest look at these costs.

Ryan Gosling is one of my favorite actors working today, and as expected, he does a fine job here as Neil Armstrong. He nails Armstrong’s focus throughout, and plays him like a grieving introvert who oftentimes shuns away both his family and friends. He needs to deal with his grief alone. Yet, Gosling is careful never to paint Armstrong as a jerk. For instance, he does not come off like a jackass when he ignores his family but rather like one who is truly struggling with a personal lost, and when he is pressed by his wife to step up for his family, he doesn’t lash out at her. He quietly acquiesces.

Some may think this is a one note performance by Gosling, as he seems to be stuck in this sad mood throughout, and while this may be true, he does effectively capture Armstrong’s pain and resolve.

That being said, Claire Foye I think gives the best performance in the film as Janet Armstrong. She certainly displays the most range, from loving caring wife, to frustrated mother, to the incredibly strong woman who has to go above and beyond to not only keep her husband focused but NASA honest about what they are doing with her husband. Foye is more than up to the task. Better yet, she shares almost the same amount of screen time as Gosling. She’s no supporting love interest. Janet is a prominent character here.

I haven’t seen much of Foye. She’s done a lot of TV work, and she was the best part of the weak thriller UNSANE (2018) earlier this year. She played the lead in Steven Soderbergh’s silly thriller, notable because it was shot entirely on an iPhone.

The supporting cast is excellent.  Kyle Chandler, Jason Clarke, Corey Stoll, Lukas Haas, and Ciaran Hinds all make solid contributions, as do a bunch of others. It’s well-acted throughout.

There’s also a powerful music score by Justin Hurwitz, which is no surprise, since he also composed the music for LA LA LAND and WHIPLASH (2014).

I didn’t absolutely love FIRST MAN. First of all, by design, it’s not a happy movie. In fact, it’s so downright mournful that I almost had a headache by the time it was over.

There are also times when the pace slows a bit. I wouldn’t call the film uneven because these moments are few and far between, but they are they nonetheless.

The film does end on a strong note, with the successful moon landing. In fact, the phrase “The Eagle has landed” has never sounded better, not since Armstrong said it for real.

History remembers that Neil Armstrong was the first man to step on the moon, and it’s easy to accept that moment as it was captured in the grainy TV footage from 1969.

FIRST MAN fleshes out Armstrong’s story, presents it not as a black and white image but in high-definition clarity, and by doing so reveals that the human side to Armstrong’s story is every bit as important and relevant as the scientific side.

In short, Neil Armstrong was a real person with real fears, problems, and pains, and in spite of these things which we humans all face, he didn’t let them get the best of him but instead in his own quiet way used them to propel him to the moon.

—END—

 

A SIMPLE FAVOR (2018) – Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively Lift Uneven Comedy Thriller

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Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively in A SIMPLE FAVOR (2018)

The combination of comedy and thriller is a complicated dance.

A SIMPLE FAVOR (2018), the new film by director Paul Feig, known mostly for his comedies, with films such as BRIDESMAIDS (2011), THE HEAT (2013), and SPY (2015), makes an energetic attempt to master this nuanced tango, but with a few missteps along the way, especially towards its latter half, it’s not exactly a polished polka.

The best part of A SIMPLE FAVOR, and honestly the main reason I wanted to see this one, is its casting of Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively, as two very different moms whose lives intersect in a way that at first suggests an unexpected friendship but gradually reveals the hatching of a sinister plot.

Kendrick and Lively are both excellent, and they are the main reasons to see A SIMPLE FAVOR. What stopped me from really liking this one was its story, filled with more twists and turns than an Agatha Christie novel, and as such, far less believable.

A SIMPLE FAVOR opens with Stephanie (Anna Kendrick) hosting her vlog, which is usually a platform for helpful tips for moms, but this time she’s discussing the disappearance of her best friend Emily (Blake Lively) who five days earlier had asked Stephanie to do her a simple favor and pick up her son from school because she had to work late, but then Emily never showed up, and no one has seen her since.

Stephanie decides to bring her viewers up to speed and tell the whole story leading up to Emily’s disappearance, and thus the film flashes back to how the two friends first met. Stephanie is an incredibly energetic single mom who volunteers nonstop for her son Miles’ first grade class. When Miles wants to have a play date with his friend Nicky, Nicky’s mom Emily (Blake Lively) at first says no, that she doesn’t have time, but eventually changes her mind and invites Stephanie and Miles over to her luxurious home.

They live in a small town in Connecticut, and Emily works for a high-profile designer in New York City, and her lifestyle is completely opposite from Stephanie’s. But the two strike a friendship which at first seems odd but happens because the one thing they both have in common is that neither one really has any friends.

When Emily disappears, Stephanie joins forces with Emily’s author husband Sean (Henry Golding) to find out what happened to her. And what quickly becomes apparent is that this is not an ordinary missing person’s case. With that in mind, I’ll stop right there because the less known about the plot the better.

That being said, the story as a whole even with all its twists and turns, didn’t really work for me. For starters, there are just so many curves thrown to keep the audience off-balance that after a while it simply becomes too farfetched. By the end of the movie, I found myself believing very little of it.

And this is where the thriller/comedy combo comes into play. Had this been a straight comedy, then I most likely wouldn’t have cared as much if the story wasn’t all that believable. But A SIMPLE PLAN in spite of frequent comedic outbursts retains a serious tone throughout, and when a thriller isn’t believable, that’s problematic.

The screenplay by Jessica Sharzer, based on the novel by Darcey Bell, mixes things up from the outset. In her opening vlog Stephnie announces that Emily is missing, a serious beginning, but in the ensuing flashback Stephanie is shown in highly comedic scenes. It’s an odd mix. The overall look of the film is light and bubbly, yet the dialogue and the plot is most often somber. At one point Emily says the best thing she can do for her son is “blow her brains out,” to which she quickly follows with an “I’m kidding.” The entire film plays like this, and to be honest, as it went along, I had a difficult time determining what was supposed to be taken seriously and what wasn’t. The plot certainly goes down some dark roads as it involves fraud and murder.

And it’s not a comedy which just happens to feature murder a la some of the classics of yesteryear like FOUL PLAY (1978) and MURDER BY DEATH (1976). It’s much more a thriller with some quirky characters and brief comedic moments.

Both Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively are excellent, even if they are playing characters who by film’s end I didn’t find very believable. Which is another problem I had with the movie. Most of the characters didn’t seem credible, and so you have this rather serious plot inhabited by characters who were difficult to take seriously.  It just didn’t quite work for me.

I like Anna Kendrick a lot, and her performance was my favorite part of this uneven movie. At first, as Stephanie, she seems to be this supermom, but when she starts loosening up and confiding with Emily, she has some secrets of her own to share. And later, when her relationship with Emily’s husband Sean changes, it opens up the door for some questions about her character and motives. Kendrick does a nice job capturing the nuances of the character, even if the script ultimately lets her down.

Blake Lively is equally as good as the complex Emily Nelson. She’s the complete opposite of Stephanie. She’s the trend-setting go-getting career woman with little or no time for her son, but yet she and Stephanie do become friends. Stephanie is attracted to Emily’s fierce no-apology take-everything-you-can philosophy of life which is so opposite of her own self-sacrificing personality. Lively has a field day as the no-nonsense power mom, whose shadowy past is revealed once Stephanie starts looking into her disappearance.

Henry Golding rounds out the triumvirate as Emily’s husband Sean. Fresh off his starring role as eligible bachelor Nick Young in CRAZY RICH ASIANS (2018) Golding is married this time around but still brings his attractive good looks to dress up the proceedings. Golding makes for a confused husband. At times he’s completely mesmerized and dominated by Emily, and at others he seems genuinely in love with her and sincere in his efforts to find her.

But when his relationship with Stephanie develops, it raises questions that ultimately I’m not sure the film does the best job answering.

When all is said and done, and all the twists and turns have come to a halt and the dust has settled, the result is a plot that is pretty darn ludicrous. I bought very little of it. And one of the main twists in the film is one I’ve seen done many times before.

But it might not matter. I saw A SIMPLE FAVOR in a crowded theater, and there was lots of genuine laughter from the crowd.

Some dark comedies work. In fact I love most dark comedies. But A SIMPLE FAVOR is less a dark comedy and more a comedic thriller, with the emphasis on crime and mystery, but it’s a crime and a mystery that I just didn’t believe.

I ultimately found  A SIMPLE FAVOR to be a disappointment, even with solid performances by Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively. Kendrick and Lively are very good, but the story they occupy is too far-fetched not to have been played completely for laughs.

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

CRAZY RICH ASIANS (2018) – Romantic Comedy More Interested in Wealth Than Asian Culture

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Crazy Rich Asians poster

The “crazy” in CRAZY RICH ASIANS (2018) refers to just how “crazy rich” the main character’s family is in this movie. Aside from that, there’s not much “crazy” in this well-meaning romantic comedy which has more to say about wealth than Chinese traditions or falling in love.

But that doesn’t mean it’s not an enjoyable comedic love story.

It is.

It’s just— unless you’re planning to marry royalty— not all that relevant.

In CRAZY RICH ASIANS, Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) is a young economics professor at NYU, and she’s involved in a happy relationship with the handsome and easygoing Nick Young (Henry Golding). When he invites her to Singapore to meet his family at his best friend’s wedding, she happily accepts, and since she knows little about his family, she assumes they are very poor since Nick rarely talks about them. Boy, is she wrong.

It turns out, that not only is Nick’s family wealthy, they’re crazy wealthy!  As in near royalty! As in Nick being the most eligible bachelor in all of Southeast Asia!

At first, this poses little or no problems, because for Rachel, it’s almost as if she has entered a fairy tale realm of princes and princesses. But this euphoria is short-lived, as it becomes increasingly clear that Nick’s family, especially his mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh) does not see Rachel as the right fit for Nick. In Eleanor’s case, she sees her son as taking over the family business, something he will not be able to do properly if he marries “beneath his status.”

And thus the battle lines are drawn, as Rachel decides to fight for the man she some day hopes to marry, but can she stand up to the impossible wealth wielded by Eleanor and her dynasty?

This may sound serious, and this part of the story is, but on the whole CRAZY RICH ASIANS is light and fun, with a heavy emphasis on romance.  The film definitely plays more like a fanciful love story than a straight out comedy.

The most impressive thing about CRAZY RICH ASIANS is its all Asian cast, which for a Western-produced film is something that hasn’t happened since THE JOY LUCK CLUB (1993). Let’s hope it’s not twenty-five more years before it happens again.

CRAZY RICH ASIANS reminded me of another recent romantic comedy, THE BIG SICK (2017). That film was a love story between a Pakistan-born man and an American woman, and it both highlighted and poked fun at the differences between cultures. That story worked better than the one told here in CRAZY RICH ASIANS, as Rachel doesn’t face cultural differences— as in the difference between a Chinese American and a Chinese—as much as she faces monetary differences, and in this regard, the story simply doesn’t resonate as well. Understanding the very rich is less engrossing than understanding another culture.

The screenplay by Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim, based on the novel Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan, works for the most part. The comedy is light and amiable, and the romance irresistible. It’s difficult not to get swept up in the opulence of the Singapore settings. And the two leads are certainly likable.

Constance Wu delivers a strong performance as Rachel, the young woman who at first goes along with the revelation about her boyfriend’s rich family until she finds herself on the receiving end of ugly words and innuendos. She remains likable throughout, so much so you’re almost wishing she’d just up and leave this annoying family behind her.

Henry Golding is sufficiently handsome as the dashing Nick Young, and he makes for a sincere and honorable boyfriend who believes he can shield Rachel from his family.

One of the better performances in the movie belongs to Michelle Yeoh as Nick’s powerful mother Eleanor. She has a way of being both dignified and icy cold, and as such, gets some of the best dramatic scenes in the movie.

Likewise, Gemma Chan is excellent as Nick’s sister Astrid, who Nick describes as having the biggest heart in the family.  Chan’s supporting storyline, about problems in her own marriage, is as interesting as the main plot.

In terms of comedy, Awkwafina delivers a scene-stealing performance as Peik Lin Goh, Rachel’s college roommate who lives in Singapore with her family.  She gets some of the best comedic scenes and lines in the movie. I enjoyed Awkwafina a lot here, more so than her recent role in OCEAN’S 8 (2018).

And Ken Jeong shows up as Peik Lin’s father, and he of course has some comedic bits as well, although they’re not quite on the same level as Awkwafina’s.

Nico Santos is also memorable as Oliver, a flamboyant member of Nick’s family who, unlike Nick’s mother, is always there for Nick and Rachel.

Director Jon M. Chu fills this one with eye-popping rich parties and weddings, and he takes full advantage of Singapore and its surrounding islands. The film is beautiful to look at, full of both beautiful locales and people. There are also plenty of mouth-watering foods. Don’t see this one on an empty stomach!

For the most part, the pacing is good, although the film is long, clocking in at two hours, and towards the end things do slow down a little bit. Chu previously directed the lowly G.I. JOE: RETALIATION (2013) and NOW YOU SEE ME 2 (2016). Needless to say, CRAZY RICH ASIANS is his best film yet.

I enjoyed CRAZY RICH ASIANS. It was fun to immerse myself in Asian culture and be part of the crazy rich wedding. I also liked Rachel and Nick and were rooting for them to be together, and better yet, I laughed a lot at the lighter parts of this movie.

That being said, it didn’t completely resonate with me because the incredible wealth of Nick’s family played more like a romantic fantasy than a true life story. It also just didn’t interest me all that much. Plus, I reached the point in the story where I felt Rachel would be better off without Nick and his family, which is I’m sure not what the writers had in mind. As such, the ending of the film didn’t completely work for me, as I could easily have imagined better fates for Rachel.

If you’re a fan of romantic comedies, especially those which emphasize romance over comedy, you’re sure to enjoy CRAZY RICH ASIANS. The film pushes all the right buttons with its rich boy meets poor girl storyline, with the possible exception of its ending, as it may have overplayed its mean rich family hand. But if you like stories about the girl going after her handsome prince, this is the movie for you.

For the rest of us, it’s an amiable tale, helped by gorgeous locales and a very talented cast.

CRAZY RICH ASIANS is lighthearted entertainment.  I enjoyed watching it, even though its “crazy rich” lifestyle is far less interesting to me than the other parts of Singapore culture I wish the film had explored.

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THE MEG (2018) – Giant Shark Tale Ridiculous But Fun

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meg-poster

THE MEG (2018) is often ridiculous and about as scary as a Scooby-Doo cartoon, but this mega shark adventure is also something else: fun.

THE MEG opens with a deep-sea rescue mission gone wrong.  Rescuer Jonas Taylor (Jason Statham) is in the midst of leading a rescue team to save folks trapped in a damaged nuclear submarine, but when something seems to attack the sub, Jonas makes the executive decision to leave some of his team behind in order to rescue the few lives he has with him. It’s a decision that does not bode well with others on his team, as later no proof of a powerful sea creature which Jonas said was attacking the sub is ever found.

In terms of opening sequences, it’s not all that memorable and sounds more exciting than it actually is.

The action picks up five years later at a deep-sea station off the coast of China where a scientist named Zhang (Winston Chao) is leading an expedition to travel to the very depths of the ocean, and beyond.  See, Zhang believes that at the bottom of what is considered to be one of the deepest parts of the ocean floor, lies a gaseous barrier rather than a solid bottom, and he believes beneath that barrier is another world. And faster than you can say Jules Verne, a mini sub is launched from the station to prove just that.

The sub breaks through the barrier, but before anyone can celebrate, it’s attacked by a mysterious unseen creature. And of course, Zhang and company turn to the one man who has ever attempted a rescue that deep in the ocean, Jonas Taylor. Jonas, of course, says he’s done with all that, wants no part of it, and nothing they can say will change his mind. His resolve lasts all of two seconds before he learns that the woman commanding the sub and one of the people trapped inside is his ex-wife Lori (Jessica McNamee).

And so Jonas packs his bags and is off to the rescue, where of course he will come face to face with a massive prehistoric shark which may or may be the same creature which he encountered five years before. The film doesn’t really make that clear.

And this is only the beginning, because once the rescue is done, the mammoth shark decides he’s had enough of living so far below the ocean and comes up for a visit.

One of the main reasons THE MEG is so much fun is its story keeps evolving. It’s not just one long rescue mission tale.  Things continually change. As a result, the movie remains exciting throughout, and with some brisk pacing, there are very few slow parts here.

The screenplay by Dean Georgaris, Jon Hoeber, and Erich Hoeber, based on the novel Meg by Steve Alten, also contains lots of lively dialogue which is sure to be a crowd pleaser. It also does a really good job developing its characters, which for a movie like this, is a pleasant surprise. In fact, that was one of my favorite parts of this movie, that its characters were all so likable.

But the story is not without flaws. A lot of things aren’t explained all that well. For instance, once the giant shark makes its presence known, everyone who doubted Jonas apologizes to him. Yet, at one point in the story, Jonas says the creature outside the sub in his doomed mission was destroyed in the subsequent explosion, so, just how the appearance of this prehistoric shark acquits Jonas is unclear to me. Just because there’s a huge shark around now doesn’t mean there was one that day Jonas left those people behind to die.

For such a deep-sea expedition, it seems to take only seconds for everyone to get down to the ocean floor and then back up again. And some of the later shark scenes are flat-out ludicrous but somehow don’t deteriorate into laughable material.

And while the story scores high on the adventure meter, it scores less so when it comes to conflict.  Nearly every plan our heroes suggest works.

Director Jon Turteltaub plays things safe. THE MEG is rated PG-13, so there’s not a drop of blood to be found. Yet, somehow, the movie doesn’t suffer for it.

The shark itself is okay.  CGI sharks just don’t cut it for me.  This one works best when we see it only partially, like shots from above where we see its massive form swimming beneath the waves. Those scenes are ominous, but seen up close, it’s nothing more than a frightening cartoon.

One of the strongest parts of THE MEG is its cast. Pretty much everyone in the movie is very good, and so that goes a long way towards making this film as enjoyable as it is.

Director Jon  Turtelbaub deserves some credit here for getting so much out of his actors in this one.

We’ll start at the top with Jason Statham, who’s been one of my favorite action movie stars over the past ten years or so. As he almost always is, he’s excellent here. He’s extremely believable in the part, except of course when he dives into the water for a hand to hand combat session with the supersized shark. Perhaps he should apply to become a Marvel superhero?

Even so, Statham does a good job making the ludicrous situations he finds himself in believable. His scenes with the little girl at the station, Meiying (Shuya Sophia Cal) are precious, and Shuya Sophia Cal is adorable and entertaining in the role.

Li Bingbing plays Suyin, Zhang’s daughter and Meiying’s mother.  She’s pretty much the lead scientist on the expedition, and she is definitely not a heroine in need of saving. She pretty much goes toe to toe with Statham’s Jonas Taylor, and the two of them lead the charge against the shark. She’s also very sexy.

Rainn Wilson, who played Dwight on THE OFFICE (2005-2013) plays the wealthy businessman who finances the expedition. He’s the guy you love to hate.

Cliff Curtis, who played Travis on FEAR THE WALKING DEAD (2015-17), is very good here as Jonas’ friend Mac. Likewise, Winston Chao is convincing as Zhang, as is Ruby Rose as the sexy engineer Jaxx who designed the deep-sea station.

Robert Taylor stands out as Heller, the doctor at the station who was there that fateful day when Jonas failed to rescue everyone from the nuclear sub, and for the past five years he had blamed Jonas for their deaths, claiming he had become unhinged. When the mega shark appears, Heller is quick to apologize to Jonas. Taylor, who plays Sheriff Walt Longmire on the TV show LONGMIRE (2012-2017), probably gives the best performance in the movie.

Olafur Darri Olafsson and Masi Oka are also very good as a couple of scientists, and likewise Jessica McNamee is memorable as Jonas’ ex-wife Lori.

Only Page Kennedy doesn’t  fare as well, as scientist DJ. He’s the one black character on the crew, and he’s also supposed to be the film’s comic relief, but a lot of the jokes I thought were cliché, and I think the one person of color in the movie deserved a better written role.

As shark movies go, THE MEG is one of the better ones. It’s a much stronger film than the recent 47 METERS DOWN (2017), and more fun than  THE SHALLOWS (2016).

That being said, it still pales in comparison to the Holy Grail of shark movies, JAWS (1975). It’s not intense like JAWS, and it’s certainly not realistic like JAWS. However, during the film’s third act, there are several nods to the 1975 Steven Spielberg classic.

THE MEG is a lot of fun, and as such, for a summer time popcorn movie, it comes highly recommended.

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