Best Horror Movies of 2017

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Here’s a look at my Top 5 Horror movies of 2017.

But first, four honorable mentions, movies that didn’t make my Top 5 list but that I enjoyed all the same:  SPLIT, ANNABELLE: CREATION, ALIEN:  COVENANT, and PERSONAL SHOPPER.

And now, my top 5:

5 IT

IT (2017), the latest film adaptation of a Stephen King novel, does what King stories do best: it creates believable characters, puts them in harm’s way, and then makes you squirm as they fight for their lives. IT is a very good movie that actually works better as a drama about a group of friends dealing with the threats in their lives than as a straight horror movie because it’s not really that scary.  Its scariest scene might be its first scene, where young Georgie first encounters Pennywise in the sewer.  This is a frightening sequence, a great way to start the film, and while Pennywise does have some decent moments later, none are quite as potent as this first one.

Bill Skarsgard’s performance as Pennywise here in the 2017 version was good enough to make me forget about Tim Curry while I watched this movie.  Taken as a whole, I thought this new version was better than the 1990 TV rendition. The driving force behind this 2017 movie is Bill and his friends, both the way they are written and the way they are acted.

The child actors are all excellent, and they’re the part of the story that for me, works best in this film adaptation of IT.

 

4 THE BELKO EXPERIMENT

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How low can humanity go? For instance, would you willingly commit murder to save the lives of those around you? That’s one of the questions asked in THE BELKO EXPERIMENT (2017), a new horror movie by director Greg McLean and screenwriter James Gunn, the man who wrote the insanely entertaining Marvel superhero movie GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (2014).

THE BELKO EXPERIMENT is a quick efficient thriller that grabs you within the first few minutes and never lets you go, a hard-hitting actioner that remains intense from beginning to end. Director Greg McLean makes this one lean and mean.  It clocks in at a mere 88 minutes. There’s no fat here.

THE BELKO EXPERIMENT isn’t going to win any awards for being a deep and thought-provoking drama, but it is a heck of a thriller, an intense horror movie that makes its point.  It’s also quite violent, although it is not a gore-for-gore’s sake movie. In terms of intensity, it reminded me a lot of AMC’s THE WALKING DEAD, only without the zombies. And while there’s nothing in this film as painfully disturbing as the infamous Neegan scene in THE WALKING DEAD, the film does capture the horror people feel at being helpless in a situation in which they have no control.

 

3 IT COMES AT NIGHT

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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 follow two families sharing one house as they try to survive in this apocalyptic world, never knowing how much to trust each other. IT COMES AT NIGHT is an example of movie making at its finest.  Writer/director Trey Edward Shults has taken a simple straightforward story and made it compelling and frightening, without gimmicks or special effects. A walk into the surrounding woods at night is a sweat-inducing experience.  The camera stays in close with the characters, who we get to know and care for. Solid cast, led by Joel Edgerton. Riley Keough is also memorable. And Kelvin Harrison Jr. stands out as Travis, the innocent young man who has to see and live through these horrors.

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.

 

2 A CURE FOR WELLNESS

A CURE FOR WELLNESS is an interesting hybrid— at times, it’s highbrow artistry, imbuing the screen with unsettling and bizarre images, while at others it’s a straightforward mystery melodrama, eventually morphing into an atmospheric horror tale reminiscent of the old style Hammer Films.

A young business executive named Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) is sent by his company to the Swiss Alps to retrieve the company’s CEO from a wellness center.  The spa is a beautiful castle in the Alps, the seemingly perfect location for people to get away from it all.  When Lockhart arrives, he finds it inhabited by elderly people who are there seeking a “cure” for their problems, people who have spent their lives working and as a result their bodies are broken and sick.  The spa, with its purifying water, offers a cure to these maladies and promises to restore its occupants to full health.

Lockhart isn’t interested in any of this and just wants his boss back.  The head of the center Dr. Volmer (Jason Isaacs)  tells Lockhart that Mr. Pembroke is in the middle of a treatment, but if Lockhart returns later that evening he will be able to see him.  But Lockhart is involved in a car accident and finds himself recuperating as a patient at the spa, and that’s when all the trouble starts.

A CURE FOR WELLNESS is full of powerful images that are both bizarre and unsettling. The film throws a lot at you and gives you much more to chew on than your average thriller. It’s also a compelling mystery. And as the film becomes more of a straightforward melodrama towards the end, it takes on the look inside this elegant castle of the period piece Hammer Films of yesteryear.  A CURE FOR WELLNESS is a thought-provoking and very chilling movie experience.

 

1 GET OUT

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The best part of GET OUT is that it is so unlike most other horror movies today. It uses as its canvas a true-to-life story about the awkwardness and difficulties of a mixed race relationship which serves as a springboard to a genuine tale of horror.  In the world of horror movies, it’s a breath of fresh air.

In GET OUT, an African-American young man Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) travels with his white girlfriend Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) to meet her parents for the first time.  Even though Rose promises that her parents are not racist, Chris still has reservations about the weekend.  He knows how difficult these things can be. In this case, he has no idea.

Written and directed by first time director Jordan Peele, known more for his work as a comedic actor, GET OUT strikes a nice balance between drama, horror, and even some comedy.  The script is excellent.  The dialogue is spot on, especially for Chris, as he processes what is going on, at first taking everything in stride, then becoming somewhat suspicious, and eventually getting into full steam red flag mode.

And the film doesn’t skimp on the horror.  When we finally learn what is going on, it’s a decent reveal and is a natural progression on everything that has come before it.  It doesn’t come out of left field. GET OUT is a refreshing horror movie, one that moves away from the standard horror movie tropes we so often see, and I for one was happy for it.

It’s my pick for the Best Horror Movie of 2017.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Worst Movies of 2017

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I saw a bunch of movies in 2017.  Most of them were pretty darn good, as it was an excellent year for movies.  However, there were some clunkers, some films that just did not succeed.

Here are my picks for the Top 10 Worst Movies of 2017:

10 THE DARK TOWER

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This fantasy thriller based on the epic eight novel series by Stephen King is anything but epic.  First of all, it’s a prequel. We meet a boy named Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor) who’s haunted by recurring bad dreams in which he sees a Gunslinger (Idris Elba) battling a Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey) over the fate of the world.  Jake eventually enters their world and joins the fight against the Man in Black.

For a movie based on an eight book series by Stephen King, the story it tells is about as skeletal as you can get. The film skimps on details and characterizations, and as a result it’s not very satisfying. It’s also not visually impressive. Both Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey are fine in their roles, but they’re not enough to save this movie, which is not awful. It’s just so sparse it’s inconsequential.

9 AMERICAN ASSASSIN

AMERICAN ASSASSIN is one of those movies that could have been so much better had it only been believable. For starters, I simply did not buy Dylan O’Brien as Mitch Rapp. O’Brien was chosen for the role specifically because he’s young, as there are plans to turn this movie into a film series, but he’s way too young here. Michael Keaton fares better in a supporting role as CIA tough guy Stan Hurley. Its tale of a young man seeking revenge against the terrorists who murdered his girlfriend, who’s then recruited by the CIA, never rings true.

I see lots of action movies.  The really good ones make you forget they’re telling an impossible story.  They’re convincing in their execution.  The lesser ones simply go through the motions. AMERICAN ASSASSIN clearly falls into the latter category.  It expends little or no effort in convincing its audience that any of it could be true.

8 BEATRIZ AT DINNER

BEATRIZ AT DINNER is a morality tale for the Trump era, the story of a woman named Beatriz (Salma Hayek) who views the world in terms of healing.  Her core beliefs are challenged when she crosses paths with a Trump-like character named Doug Strutt (John Lithgow) at a dinner party one evening. I loved the plot but not the execution.

The dinner is sufficiently awkward and painful, but the payoff isn’t up to snuff. There are certainly sinister implications as to where this story might go.  Beatriz reaches certain realizations and conclusions, and then she must act on them. What she ultimately decides is a major letdown. It’s not exactly the most inspiring conclusion. On the contrary, it’s quite the head-scratcher. The film seems to be satisfied with its dinner party sequence, and like any get-together over a meal, it has its moments, but if you’re looking for big answers to some of today’s big questions, you won’t find them on the menu.

7 KIDNAP

KIDNAP is pretty much a nonstop chase as a mother Karla (Halle Berry) pursues the people who kidnapped her young son in broad daylight over roads, highways, and wherever they lead her.  Sounds like an intense thrill ride, but it’s not, because the filmmakers forgot one very important ingredient:  they forgot to make it believable.

Karla in her pursuit of the kidnappers causes more accidents and collateral damage than James Bond and Jason Bourne combined, yet the police aren’t anywhere to be found, except for one officer who is killed, which should have generated a massive police response. Nor are the kidnappers deterred. Karla creates an uproar within seconds of the kidnapping, so much so you’d think the kidnappers, regardless of how much money they might be paid for stealing children, would not want this kind of exposure and would dump the child and take off.  But no, they hang on, as if this particular child was the next Lindbergh baby. The screenplay by Knate Lee wastes a scary premise as the story becomes contrived within moments of Karla’s jumping into her car to chase after her son’s kidnappers.

Halle Berry is a very good actress.  She deserves to be in better movies than KIDNAP.

 

6 47 METERS DOWN

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In general, I like movies about sharks, even though most of them have been pretty bad. 47 METERS DOWN joins the list of lousy shark movies. Sisters Lisa (Mandy Moore) and Kate (Claire Holt) are vacationing in Mexico, enjoying the beaches and basically getting away from it all.  They meet a couple of fun-loving young men who convince them to take the shark cage tour under water. Lisa and Kate go underwater together in the shark cage, which I thought strange since they’re on a date and it would have made more sense for each of them to go underwater with their respective dates.  Anyway,  the line holding the cage breaks and they fall to the ocean floor, which is 47 meters down and infested with hungry sharks.

Sounds like an exciting movie, but strangely it is not.  The whole thing is all rather flat, thanks to some uninspiring direction by Johannes Roberts. The CGI created sharks don’t help.  They don’t look real. I also never felt the fear that these women should have felt.  They might have been stuck in an elevator for all I knew, rather than in a shark cage.  Their emotions were never that intense.

Considering its plot, this one is surprisingly dull throughout.

5 PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES

While I still enjoy the Captain Jack Sparrow character played by Johnny Depp, the PIRATES films themselves have become shallow and redundant, with no sense of storytelling whatsoever.  PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES (2017) is really the tale of two new characters:  Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites), the son of Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), the dashing blacksmith who teamed up with Jack Sparrow in the first three PIRATES movies, and Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario).  Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) is still around, but he’s not really the main focus here.

The screenplay by Jeff Nathanson is pretty much geared for six year-olds. The humor doesn’t work either. The jokes are watered down and not edgy enough to earn many laughs. The film plays like a TRANSFORMERS movie under water.  Special effects galore, but no story to be found, which is a shame, because it wastes a character I like a lot, Captain Jack Sparrow. This fifth PIRATES film is flat-out awful.  Better to walk the plank than to sit through two plus hours of this sea tale.

4 GHOST IN THE SHELL

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Awful science fiction flick starring Scarlett Johansson, based on a comic and classic anime movie from 1995, which in spite of the extravagant special effects and eye-popping visuals, is about as imaginative as yolk in the shell.

Johansson plays the Major, a cyborg with a human brain. She’s surprisingly dull in the role. The screenplay by Jamie Moss, William Wheeler, and Ehren Kruger, based on the comic “The Ghost in the Shell” by Masamune Shirow, is anemic and flat.  The dialogue is uninspiring, and the story dull and mindless. Director Rupert Sanders does a nice job with the visuals and adds some nifty cinematic touches, although the dazzling futuristic cityscape is not entirely original, as it is clearly reminiscent of the look of Ridley Scott’s BLADE RUNNER (1982).

A major disappointment, GHOST IN THE SHELL is about as thought-provoking and compelling as those awful RESIDENT EVIL and UNDERWORLD movies. Without a doubt, it’s my least favorite Scarlett Johansson movie.

3 RINGS

RINGS was so incredibly dull and boring that it was really difficult to sit through this one. The biggest offender? The storytelling.  The screenplay by three writers, David Loucka, Jacob Estes, and Akiva Goldsman really struggles to tell a story.  The movie gets off to such a disjointed start it’s laughable.

Director F.  Javier Gutierrez goes through the motions.  No memorable images or scares to be found.  Don’t bother with this one.  It’s a complete waste of time.

2 THE MUMMY

A disaster from start to finish, I can only hope this becomes a lost film. With THE MUMMY, Universal launched their “Dark Universe” series, an attempt to reimagine their monster movies of yesteryear as a sort of Marvel superhero spinoff. This is a huge mistake.  Someone needs to shut this concept down yesterday. The idea of re-booting these classic Universal monster movies as superhero action flicks is an insult to the original films.  If you are going to remake them, they need to be remade as horror movies, plain and simple.

The story is a complete mess and features Egyptian artifacts stolen by crusader knights, a secret spy organization run by Dr. Henry Jekyll (Russell Crowe), a dashing treasure hunter named Nick Morton (Tom Cruise) and oh yes, there is a mummy, Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella).  This movie is so bad that not even the prospect of a female mummy can save it.

Things get so bad Tom Cruise’s character is actually refered to as a “young man.” Cruise’s presence here doesn’t do the movie any favors.  Not that it would have saved this movie, but a younger more dynamic actor would have made things a bit better. And poor Russell Crowe is forced to utter the worst lines in the movie as Dr. Jekyll.  His voice-over narration at the end of the film is so bad it sounds like an off-the-cuff ad lib about good vs. evil.  He gets to say such nonsense as “which side will win— we just don’t know.  He might be a hero.  He might be evil.”  This might be a real script. And as the Mummy, Ahmanet, Sofia Boutella just isn’t given enough to do to have any relevant impact.

Here’s hoping THE MUMMY is lights out for the Dark Universe.

1 THE BYE BYE MAN

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While 2017 was a great year for horror movies, it didn’t start out that way. Back in January we had to endure THE BYE BYE MAN.  It’s hard to believe that any movie in 2017 could be worse than THE MUMMY, but unbelievably, there was one: THE BYE BYE MAN.

First of all, what an awful title! Sounds like a children’s book. THE BYE BYE MAN has all the things that make a dreadful horror movie: bad acting, uninspired direction, and a weak script. There are some awkward shots by director Stacy Title, almost amateurish, during some scenes of dialogue, where the camera jumps from one character’s face to the other and often lingers there.  During key moments of the movie, the audience was laughing.  Not a good sign.  The script by Jonathen Penner was dull and redundant.  The characters were also weak, and I wasn’t interested in any of them.

THE BYE BYE MAN is a forgettable horror movie, and it’s my pick for the worst movie of the year.

And that wraps things up here for today.

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.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: THE EXORCIST (1973)

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I’ve always considered THE EXORCIST (1973) the scariest movie I have ever seen.

It’s not a jump-scare suspense thriller, nor is it a special effects gore-for-gore’s sake bonanza, although sure, it does contain very graphic scenes that are certainly not for the squeamish. THE EXORCIST is the scariest film I have ever seen because of the story it tells.

Its story of a young girl possessed by— not just a demon but the Devil himself— is so disturbing, that even if you’re not religious you are sure to be moved by it all.

It also doesn’t hurt that everything that happens in the movie seems so convincingly real.

THE EXORCIST not only gets the storytelling right, but it also gets the Catholic Church right.  So many films featuring demons and exorcisms mess up the religious aspects of their tales, often featuring priests who aren’t realistic at all and exorcisms that resemble something out of a Steven Spielberg film with special effects galore.

Not so with THE EXORCIST.  The movie has always seemed authentic and real.

When THE EXORCIST first came out in 1973, I was only 9 and too young to see it.  I first saw it on HBO when I was in high school, probably around 1980, and it was late at night, and it really got under my skin.  I still remember to this day going to bed, closing my eyes, and being unable to erase the image of Linda Blair’s possessed face from my mind. Her eyes kept staring at me.  Long into the dark night and wee hours of the morning.

THE EXORCIST pretty much tells three stories which all converge in the film’s third act. The main story features prominent actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) who’s having trouble with her 12 year-old daughter Regan (Linda Blair).  Regan has been acting strangely, and when things get worse and really bizarre, as in her bed shaking and her body becoming grotesquely mutilated, the doctors are at a loss and eventually advise Chris to seek religious guidance and perhaps request an exorcism.

The second story concerns Father Karras (Jason Miller), a young priest who is guilt ridden about the death of his elderly mother, since he was never there for her.  Chris turns to Father Karras for help, and he tries to steer her away from an exorcism, saying instead that she should rely on the medical profession, but when Chris breaks down saying she has taken Regan to countless doctors, and they failed to help her and actually suggested an exorcism, she feels there is no one to help her daughter, and so Karras agrees to see Regan.  After he does, he changes his tune.

The third story revolves around Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) who we see in the first few minutes of the movie in the middle east seeking out religious artifacts.  Merrin is an exorcist who has had experience fighting demons, and eventually the elderly priest is called in to perform an exorcism on Regan, setting up the film’s exciting climax.

THE EXORCIST is one of those rare horror movies where nearly everything works.  It’s no surprise then that THE EXORCIST was the first horror movie to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture.  It didn’t win, nor did Ellen Burstyn, Jason Miller, or Linda Blair, or director William Friedkin, who were all nominated that year.  But it did win two Oscars, for best adapted screenplay by William Peter Blatty,  based on his novel, and for Best Sound.

The acting is phenomenal throughout.  Ellen Burstyn delivers a powerful performance as Regan’s mother Chris.  She goes through such an emotional roller coaster ride trying to save her daughter, it’s both moving and terribly painful to watch.  It’s certainly an Oscar-worthy performance.

Jason Miller is just as good as Father Karras.  He’s the epitome of a struggling Catholic, a priest who questions his faith and his own actions as a human being.  He needs every bit of strength and faith he has when he eventually has to confront the demon inside Regan.

Likewise, Max von Sydow is just as convincing as the elderly Father Merrin.  It’s an impressive performance, mostly because von Sydow was only 44 at the time, and he is completely believable as a much older man, a testament both to his performance and the superb make-up job by Dick Smith.

Of course, there’s Linda Blair as the possessed Regan, certainly an exceedingly challenging role for a child actress.  But she was helped immensely by Mercedes McCambridge who provided the memorable voice of the demon inside Regan.

Director William Friedkin made a horror film for the ages.  The best thing about THE EXORCIST is that it doesn’t play like a traditional horror film.  It plays instead like a serious drama, only its subject matter of a 12-year-old girl possessed by a demon is horrific.  It’s incredibly disturbing.

The “horror” scenes in THE EXORCIST are legendary:  Regan’s head turning completely around, the green “pea soup” vomit,  the infamous masturbation scene, and the words “help me” on Regan’s stomach.

The film is chock full of unnerving images, from the subliminal flashes of the white-faced demon to Regan’s monstrous stare.

The sound effects are just as ominous.  It’s one of the more innovative uses of sound in a horror movie ever.

And I’ve always loved the scene where Father Merrin first arrives at the house, in the fog and creepy lighting.  It’s never been referenced as an influence, but Friedkin’s shot of Merrin’s arrival has always reminded me of Terence Fisher’s shot of Peter Cushing entering the windmill at the end of Hammer Films’ classic THE BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960) thirteen years earlier.

And who can forget the line, “The power of Christ compels you!” spoken by both Father Merrin and Father Karras during the climactic exorcism scene.

If you’ve never seen THE EXORCIST, it’s a must-see movie for all horror writers. It will continue to haunt you long after you’ve watched it.

It’s the stuff that bad dreams are made of.

—END—

 

 

 

WONDER (2017) – Sincere Story of Middle School Acceptance a Crowd-Pleaser

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Jacob Tremblay, Izabela Vidovic, and Julia Roberts in WONDER (2017).

 

I read the novel Wonder by R.J. Palacio last year and thoroughly enjoyed it. Its message of tolerance and inclusion at the middle school level was spot-on, its characters so fleshed out it was easy to forget it was a work of a fiction, and the way it told its story was fresh and insightful.

Now comes the movie WONDER (2017) and it too does a terrific job with its subject matter. The best part about the movie is it stands on its own. Whether you’ve read the novel or not, it doesn’t matter. It will still move you.

WONDER is the story of 10-year-old Auggie Pullman (Jacob Tremblay) who was born with a genetic defect that left him severely disfigured. He wears a space helmet when he’s in public.  Up until now he has been home-schooled by his mom Isabel (Julia Roberts), but he’s about to enter fifth grade and start middle school, so Isabel thinks it’s is time for Auggie to attend a real school. His dad Nate (Owen Wilson) doesn’t necessarily agree, but as he so often does, he defers to his wife’s wishes.

When they leave Auggie for his first day of school, Isabel mutters, “Please let them be nice to him,” and with that Auggie enters the world of middle school. For any student, the middle school experience can be daunting and difficult. For Auggie, for obvious reasons, it’s more so. And while Auggie has supportive teachers and a very understanding principal Mr. Tushman (Mandy Patinkin), the students are a different matter, at least at first. The road ahead for young Auggie is a challenging one, as it is for those around him, and that in a nutshell is the story WONDER tells.

And that’s certainly the biggest strength of WONDER: its story. Like the novel, the movie tells its story through the eyes of different characters, and while it’s mostly the story of Auggie, and we really learn what it’s like to be in his shoes, we get to be in the shoes of a lot of other characters as well.

For instance, there’s Auggie’s sister Via (Izabela Vidovic).  From Auggie’s perspective, she seems like the perfect sister, but as we learn when we see things through her eyes, she feels increasingly forgotten by her parents who pour all their energies into caring for Auggie.

Likewise, parts of the story are told from the perspective of Auggie’s friends, which really helps to flesh out the characters and tell this story. The audience is treated to all sides, not just Auggie’s. And while the novel did a better job of this than the movie, where entire chapters were written from the perspectives of the different characters, the film makes a good faith effort and achieves similar results.

WONDER is not a dark drama full of middle school horrors, teen angst, and parental disillusionment. On the contrary, it is a story of hope. The characters in this tale regardless of the adversity they face, keep it together, never losing sight of what matters. Auggie’s sister, for example, doesn’t lash out at her family because she feels neglected. Rather, she goes on with her life, making her own way, knowing how she feels, but not letting it become something that she cannot control.

What keeps these characters together is in fact Auggie. He’s such a likable kid, and for those who get to know him, they realize that he’s not defined by his deformity, which in fact is the message of the movie. That Auggie can have this effect on people is what makes him a wonder.

There are plenty of emotional moments here. You might want to keep the tissues handy. When Auggie breaks down, unable to take the way the other students are treating him, he laments to his mother, “Will it always be like this?” To which she honestly replies, “I don’t know.”

When his dad tells Auggie that his space helmet is not lost, that he had been hiding it in his office, Auggie is shocked, but his dad tells him that he did it because Auggie had taken to wearing the helmet all the time, and he never saw his face. He tells Auggie, “I want to see your face. It’s my son’s face. I want to see my son’s face.”

There are lots of creative touches here as well, like when Auggie imagines that if Chewbacca from STAR WARS were to enter his school, everyone would be staring at him too, and as such since he’s in Auggie’s mind, the eight foot tall Wookie makes several appearances in the movie.

Jacob Tremblay is a talented young actor, and he’s truly wonderful here as Auggie. He’s convincing as the frightened yet sweet boy who just wants to be a normal kid. While I enjoyed his performance more in ROOM (2015), he still creates a very memorable Auggie.

One thing I wasn’t so hot on here was the make-up on Auggie.  The novel described him in an almost horrific way, whereas in the film, it’s not really all that shocking.  I thought the make-up job was a bit tepid.

The other child actors are also very good.  Noah Jupe who plays Jack Will, the young boy who eventually becomes Auggie’s best friend, does a nice job with the two sides of his character. At first, he befriends Auggie only because he’s asked to by the school and his mom, but he grows to like Auggie and their friendship becomes genuine.

Similarly, Millie Davis is also very good as Auggie’s other friend Summer.

Even better is Izabela Vidovic who plays Auggie’s sister, Via.  I liked her a lot, and it was nice to see a teen character with problems who didn’t become a movie cliché and drive her parents batty just because she was an angst-filled teenage girl.

Danielle Rose Russell is effective as Via’s best friend Miranda, and she’s yet another example of a teen character who is not a cliché. When we first meet her, she’s cold to Via, and for the first time their relationship is strained.  When they both audition for the same role in the school play, a lesser story would have gone down the road of teen jealousy and petty revenge, but this isn’t a lesser movie. When we see the story through Miranda’s eyes, we understand her behavior.  Rounding out the young cast is Nadji Jeter as Via’s boyfriend Justin, who’s another well-written fleshed out character.

The adults mostly remain in the background here. Julia Roberts is convincing at Auggie’s mother Isabel. She is the driving force in the family, and she is the one who keeps pushing Auggie forward. As he says later in the movie, she never gives up on him.

Owen Wilson is fun as Auggie’s soft-spoken dad who provides most of the humor for his family. It’s a fun role for Wilson, who hasn’t had a hit movie in a while. Mandy Patinkin is perfect as the understanding and calming principal Mr. Tushman, who has no problem poking fun at his own name.  Likewise, Daveed Diggs is energetic and affable as Auggie’s teacher Mr. Browne.

Steve Conrad, Jack Thorne, and director Stephen Chbosky wrote the screenplay based on the novel by R.J. Palacio. It pretty much succeeds on all fronts, giving Auggie’s story as much resonance and sincerity as it had in the novel.

Director Stephen Chbosky has made a likable, unpretentious film about a young disfigured boy who enters the scary world of middle school and finds what parents of middle schoolers want them to find: friends and acceptance by his peers.

One could make the argument that the story WONDER tells is not realistic, that its positive message is too happy and unchallenged.  Perhaps.  But the film is not syrupy-sweet, it doesn’t pull at your heartstrings in an artificial forced way, and it doesn’t manipulate its audience. It’s sincere and convincing.

It tells its story from all sides, presenting characters who are admirable and likable, who refuse to take the low road, no matter how dark things get.

Most of all, WONDER is the story of Auggie, a young boy who has a lot of heart, who shows us what we all should already know, that in terms of character it’s what’s inside us that matters, not how we look.

Spend some time with Auggie, and you too will understand that he is indeed a wonder.

—END—-

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.  

 

 

 

VICTORIA AND ABDUL (2017) – Light But Ultimately Superficial Tale of Unlikely Friendship

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There’s a funny line in VICTORIA AND ABDUL (2017) where Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) receives a mango from her entourage, and hearing her friend Abdul’s comments about the fruit, tells them, “This mango is off.”

The same can be said for the movie itself.  It starts off well, but as it goes along, I couldn’t help but notice it was all just a little “off.”

VICTORIA AND ABDUL (2017) begins playfully, as the first words on the screen are “Based on real events—- mostly.”  Good for a chuckle, it’s the first of many humorous moments during the movie’s first half.

It’s 1887, and Queen Victoria has been ruling for fifty years.  She’s pretty much bored to death with all the ceremonies and pomp and circumstance which surround her life. Enter Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), an Indian clerk who has been sent to present her with a ceremonial coin, a gift from the queen’s colony in India.  The queen notices Abdul, later quips that she found him terribly handsome, and the next thing Abdul knows he’s invited back.  Soon, Victoria is taking to speaking to Abdul privately.  Bored with her life, she is fascinated by his fresh positive outlook on life, and she even makes him her “Munshi,” a spiritual advisor.

These decisions absolutely enrage the officials surrounding the queen, including her whining son Bertie, the Prince of Wales (Eddie Izzard). It doesn’t take long for the plots to begin, plots to remove Abdul from the Queen’s confidence.  And it’s here where the film started to lose me.

The relationship between Victoria and Abdul is quite charming at first, but as the story goes along, it becomes less so because the movie does not give its audience reasons to really understand why this relationship is so important to them.  In terms of the queen, sure, she finds her life boring, and Abdul is like a breath of fresh air, and this works at first, but it only goes so far.  Abdul’s motives are far less understood.  In fact, of all the characters in the movie, he’s probably developed the least.

And then there’s the undercurrent of racism and imperialism.  The British officials disdain Abdul mostly because he is an Indian peasant, and they look down at him throughout the movie.  While this keeps the story real and relevant, it also doesn’t really mesh all that well with the lighter, fun tone of Victoria and Abdul’s friendship.  As the movie moves forward, the ugly imperial undertones grow stronger while the witty friendship tale reverts into the background, paving the way for Abdul’s eventual fate. The film does not end the way it begins.  In fact, the ending seems like quite the different movie.

I saw VICTORIA AND ABDUL because of Judi Dench, and she does not disappoint one iota.  She delivers a solid performance as Queen Victoria, and she is the main reason to see this movie.

I was less impressed with Ali Fazal as Abdul.  There was just something less real about Abdul than pretty much all of the other characters, and I believe the fault is a combination of the acting and the writing.  I just never really understood what Abdul really wanted.  Supposedly, in real life, he used his relationship with Victoria to be a voice for Muslims and their rights, but that kind of motivation is absent from this movie.

But the supporting cast here is very good. Adeel Akhtar, who was also memorable earlier this year in a supporting role in THE BIG SICK (2017), plays another Indian peasant named Mohammed who also meets the Queen with Abdul.  Early on, Mohammed provides plenty of comic relief as he criticizes what he sees as the barbaric English society, and later, he has one of the better dramatic moments in the film when he rejects the British officials’ plea to him to help them get rid of Abdul.

The recently deceased Tim Pigott-Smith is excellent as Sir Henry Ponsonby, the queen’s long-suffering handler who receives most of the pressure for not being able to rid the royal household of Abdul.  Eddie Izzard is both comical and menacing as Victoria’s whiny son Bertie.

Then there’s Michael Gambon as Lord Salisbury, Paul Higgins as the queen’s personal physician, Dr. Reid, and Olivia Williams as Lady Churchill, who all can’t wait to rid themselves of Abdul.  They all give very effective performances.  And Simon Callow even show up in a comical bit as the famed singer Puccini.

Stephen Frears directed VICTORIA AND ABDUL, and in terms of period piece photography, there aren’t any complaints here.  The film looks terrific.  The pacing is a bit slow, and while naturally entertaining, it doesn’t really take advantage of its more powerful moments.  The disturbing parts of the story are not explored as deeply as they could have been. Frears has had a long and successful directorial career, from films like MY BEAUTIFUL LAUNDRETTE (1985) to THE QUEEN (2006).

Lee Hall wrote the screenplay, based on the book by Shrabani Basu.  Early on, the humor works, but I never completely understood the relationship between Victoria and Abdul, mostly because I didn’t get a good sense of Abdul’s background and motivations.

And later, when things grow ugly, events just happen without there being much thought or reaction to them.  Again, it comes down to Abdul.  When things go badly for him near the end, his thoughts and feelings barely register.

VICTORIA AND ABDUL is a fairly entertaining movie.  Judi Dench gives a professional performance as Queen Victoria, and she’s aided by a strong supporting cast.  But there’s more to this story than just a lighthearted friendship between two unlikely friends. There’s a tale of racism and imperialism, but the film barely explores these darker more cynical parts of the narrative.  They’re there, but they remain superficial.

As does the entire movie.

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

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.