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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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SERGIO (2020) – Moving Bio-Pic of U.N. Diplomat Sergio de Mello Speaks to the Value of Diplomacy

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Wagner Moura and Ana de Armas in SERGIO (2020).

SERGIO (2020), a Netflix original movie, tells the story of Sergio Vieira de Mello, the Brazilian born United Nations diplomat who at the height of his career went to Iraq after the U.S. invasion in 2003 to monitor elections, an effort that unfortunately met with tragic results.

SERGIO stars Wagner Moura in the lead role as Sergio de Mello. Moura, who starred in the Netflix series NARCOS (2015-2017) as Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, is a charismatic actor who was outstanding as Escobar. He’s similarly effective here as Sergio de Mello. He carries this movie, and his performance is one of the main reasons to see it. He plays De Mello as a career diplomat who was very good at what he did, brokering peace deals between hostile parties, and who puts his career above all else, even at the expense of missing valuable time with his two sons.

Directed by Greg Barker, a filmmaker known for his documentaries, SERGIO doesn’t tell its story in linear fashion. It jumps back and forth through time, showing different key points of de Mello’s life and career. It’s a style that ultimately works, even as the pacing sometimes lags.

When de Mello brings his team into Iraq, he is met with resistance by the United States, especially from U.S. diplomat Paul Bremer (Bradley Whitford) who warns Sergio not to stray from U.S wishes, that he’s there to support the positions of the United States. Of course, de Mello disagrees, arguing that the United Nations is an independent organization and as such is not beholden to any one country.

When a massive bomb strikes the United Nations headquarters in Iraq, de Mello finds himself trapped underneath all the rubble, and it’s here where most of the story unfolds, as he thinks back to events which brought him to this moment in time. A big part of his story is his romance with Carolina Larriera (Ana de Armas). The film chronicles how they met and shows how they eventually end up working together for the U.N., and she is there that day at the U.N. headquarters when the bomb goes off.

Ana de Armas and Wagner Moura share a wonderful chemistry together. Even though SERGIO is intended as an historical drama, really, its love story is one of the best parts of the movie. De Armas and Moura electrify the screen when they’re together, and their love story only adds to the sadness of the tragedy in Iraq.

Ana de Armas is a really good actress who has appeared in such movies as KNIVES OUT (2019), BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017), and HANDS OF STONE (2016). She’s also slated to star in the next James Bond movie, NO TIME TO DIE (2020). For me, up until now, de Armas’ most prominent role was as the holographic Joi in BLADE RUNNER 2049, but I think she’s even better here in SERGIO.

Brian F. O’Byrne adds fine support as Sergio’s friend and right hand man Gil Loescher, who also is trapped with Sergio under the rubble of the bombed building. And Bradley Whitford in a small role is sufficiently annoying as U.S. diplomat Paul Bremer who comes off as the bully on the block, in effect saying do what the U.S. wants or else. His most telling line is when he tells Sergio “welcome to the big leagues” implying that Sergio is out of his league in Iraq and only the U.S. knows how to handle such a difficult situation.

Craig Borten wrote the screenplay, based on the book Chasing the Flame: One Man’s Fight to Save The World by Samantha Power, and for the most part it does a really good job of fleshing out Sergio’s story.  After you have watched this movie, you will have an understanding and an appreciation of who Sergio de Mello was and what he meant to the world. The film also touches upon what the absence of de Mello has meant to the world since that time. Borten also co-wrote the screenplay to DALLAS BUYERS CLUB (2013), a script which earned him an Oscar nomination.

The major drawback of SERGIO is at times with its talky scenes it plays much more like a television show than a movie. It doesn’t really have a cinematic feel to it, and while it is a Netflix original, it was intended to play at the theaters as well, plans which were changed because of COVID-19.  Last week I reviewed the Netflix original movie EXTRACTION (2020), and that film definitely had a cinematic feel which would have been right at home on the big screen. I can’t say the same for SERGIO.

And at times the pacing slows down somewhat.  But these are minor issues. Overall, SERGIO is one of the better films I’ve seen this year.

It enjoys some really powerful emotional moments. One of the best is when Sergio talks to a woman in Timor in a private meeting. It’s such an authentic yet quiet moment. It is one of the most moving sequencs in the film. The scenes in Iraq also work, recalling that chaotic volatile time. And all the scenes between Moura and Ana de Armas are lively and romantic, and really lift the story to a type of love story that I wasn’t expecting. Their scenes together are all exceptional.

SERGIO is a moving drama that tells the important story of Sergio de Mello, a story that is even more relevant today as the world continues to shift away from the value of diplomacy. Sergio’s life and sacrifice is a testament to the power of what one can achieve through diplomacy, and sadly to what happens when those efforts are stamped out by acts of violence.

—END—

 

 

 

EXTRACTION (2020) – Netflix Original Best Action Movie In Years

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EXTRACTION (2020), a Netflix original action flick starring Thor himself, Chris Hemsworth, premiered last week on the ubiquitous streaming service with a ton of hype and promotion. In fact, the film’s ads definitely had the feel of a theatrical release.

Does this actioner by a first time director known for his stunt work on the Marvel superhero movies live up to the advertising?

The answer is a resounding yes! Not only is EXTRACTION one of the best Netflix-made action movies yet— I enjoyed it much more than last year’s TRIPLE FRONTIER (2019), for example, but it’s also one of the best action movies I’ve seen in a while. Period.

It’s the best non-superhero action movie I’ve seen in years.

EXTRACTION takes place in Dhaka, Bangladesh, where the most powerful drug lord of the land kidnaps the young son of a rival drug lord, who happens to be in prison. This rival drug lord tells his right hand man, Saju (Randeep Hooda) that if he doesn’t rescue his son, his own son will die. Saju knows he can’t do the job on his own, so hires a group of mercenaries to do the job for him, all the while knowing he can’t afford their price, and so from the  get-go he’s planning to double cross them.

The mercenaries are led on the ground by Tyler Rake (Chris Hemsworth), a fearless soldier haunted by some personal demons from his past. Nevertheless, Tyler is very good at what he does. He’d give Rambo a run for his money. And he does successfully find the boy, Ovi (Rudhraksh Jaiswal) but extracting him from Dhaka proves difficult, because the all-powerful drug lord Amir Asif (Priyanshu Painyuli) shuts down the city, and since Saju has double-crossed the team, Tyler is surrounded on all sides with little hope of getting the boy out of Dhaka.

But Tyler has no intention of letting the boy die on his watch.

The best part about EXTRACTION are its action scenes. The action sequences here are second to none. These are hard-hitting violent R-rated fight scenes, and they are shot exceedingly well, including one very long sequence done in a single take, reminiscent of a similar sequence in ATOMIC BLONDE (2017).

The fact that these sequences are so expertly handled comes as no surprise since director Sam Hargrave worked as a stunt coordinator and second unit director on many of the Marvel superhero movies. His expertise is on full display here. It’s an exceptional directorial debut. The camera gets in close to the action, and things happen with such speed you really feel like you are right there in the middle of the combat with the actors.

Hargrave worked as Chris Evans’ stunt double in the CAPTAIN AMERICA and AVENGERS movies. He was the stunt coordinator on CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (2016), AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (2018) and AVENGERS: ENDGAME (2019), as well as the aforementioned ATOMIC BLONDE. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. He has 80 stunt credits going back to 2005. He was also the second unit director on ATOMIC BLONDE and AVENGERS: ENDGAME.

And these action sequences had better be good because the film is almost nonstop action. The first hour is an incredible fight-filled thrill ride. It’s relentless. Things slow down midway so the audience can catch its breath, before picking up again for an intense conclusion. Action fans will not be disappointed.

Nor will fans of good storytelling. The screenplay Joe Russo, based on the graphic novel “Ciudad”by Ande Parks, tells a riveting story that never lets up. Chris Hemsworth’s Tyler Rake is a likeable character, in spite of the bloody path he carves out, and his mission here, to rescue a young boy, even when his superiors tell him to cut his losses and leave the boy behind, is an admirable one. The dialogue is also first-rate.

It’s an excellent screenplay by Russo, who of course is known as a director, as he directed CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR, AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR, and AVENGERS: ENDGAME.

So, yes there’s a big Marvel connection here, solidified even more with the presence of Chris Hemsworth in the lead role. It’s an outstanding performance by Hemsworth. I liked him here every bit as much as I’ve enjoyed watching him play Thor in the Marvel movies.

Randeep Hooda is also excellent as Saju, an ex-special forces soldier who finds himself having to double cross a team of deadly mercenaries pitting him against Rake and rival drug lords in order to protect his own son. The fight scenes between Hooda and Hemsworth are some of the best in the movie.  Had this movie been made back in the 1980s, you could easily imagine Schwarzenegger and Stallone in these roles.

Priyanshu Painyuli makes for a surprisingly suave drug lord Amir Asif, and Golshifteh Farahani stands out as the sexy yet ice-cold coordinator of Tyler’s team, Nik Khan.

And David Harbour who plays Police Chief Jim Hopper on STRANGER THINGS (2016-present) shows up midway through as an old friend who steps up to give Tyler and the boy safe— eh hem—harbor.

I really liked EXTRACTION. It’s one of the best action movies I’ve seen in years, with some of the most exhilarating action sequences ever put on film. It’s that good.

The only drawback is I wished I had seen this one on the big screen. In IMAX. It’s worthy of that kind of viewing.

With EXTRACTION, Sam Hargrave has put himself on the map as a premier action movie director, while Chris Hemsworth has solidified his standing as a truly bona fide action star.

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

Not quite.

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

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

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

What’s a vulnerable widow to do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that’s no lie!

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Netflix’ DRACULA (2020) – New Mini-Series’ Take On Stoker’s Novel Difficult to Digest

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DRACULA (2020), a three-part miniseries available now on Netflix, is brought to us by the same folks who brought us SHERLOCK (2010-2017), which starred Benedict Cumberbatch.

Their take on Bram Stokers’ iconic novel, one of the most revered horror novels in the English language, and one of my personal favorites, is one that pushes the envelope at every turn, so much so that for Dracula purists like myself, the end result is not easy to digest.

That’s not to say that I didn’t like DRACULA. I did. Or, at least parts of it.

But there were more parts that I didn’t like, aspects that made it clear that the series’ makers were sacrificing story and truth for ingenuity and chaos. In short, the goal here seems to have been to make as many dramatic and in-your-face changes as possible to make this a fresh and original take on the tale. The trouble is, at the end of the day, there’s not a whole heck of a lot left that resembles Stoker’s original novel.

This in itself I don’t have a problem with. I’m open to re-imaginings. The problem with this reboot is the bold changes get in the way of the story, and that’s never a good thing. It’s like being aware that an actor is acting. Here, it clearly seemed that changes were being made just for the sake of being different. In short, I think the filmmakers were simply trying too hard.

DRACULA opens with a very ill Jonathan Harker (John Heffernan) at a convent being interviewed by Sister Agatha (Dolly Wells), who wants to know as much as possible about his experience at Castle Dracula. Now, in Stoker’s novel, Harker does convalesce in a convent after he escapes from his horrifying ordeal at Castle Dracula, so I thought this was a neat way to open the mini-series.

The events at Castle Dracula then unfold as Harker recounts his story, and it’s in this telling that we first meet Count Dracula (Claes Bang). This is all well and good until it’s revealed that Sister Agatha’s last name is Van Helsing, meaning that in this interpretation, Van Helsing is a nun.

Okay. Stop right here.

Van Helsing is a nun.

Let that sink in for a moment.

My first thought was, okay, a bit dramatic, but I can live with this. I’m on board. I’m ready for this interpretation. But it doesn’t stop there. Van Helsing in this DRACULA is hardly the Van Helsing we’ve seen before. Sure, she’s Dracula’s adversary, but barely, and like other aspects of this version, as the interpretation goes along, it becomes unrelatable, and that simply gets in the way of good storytelling.

So, Part I is mostly the tale of Jonathan Harker’s ordeal at Castle Dracula. Part 2 covers Dracula’s voyage on the ship the Demeter on his way to London, and then Part 3 gets wild and crazy. Without giving too much away, if you’re familiar with Hammer’s DRACULA A.D. 1972 (1972) you know which direction the third episode takes.

There’s no doubt that Claes Bang’s interpretation of Dracula was meant to be fresh and original, and it is definitely unlike previous takes on the character. Bang’s Dracula has a wise-cracking quip about everything, and he seems to have walked off the set of a Marvel superhero movie. He’d be right at home exchanging barbs with Iron Man and Doctor Strange as he battled them for supremacy of the world. In short, I didn’t like this interpretation. For me, Dracula works best when he is flat-out evil, which is why I’ve always enjoyed every Christopher Lee performance. His Dracula is always evil.

That’s not to say that Bang plays Dracula as a nice guy. His Dracula is definitely a villain, but he’s just a little too colorful for my tastes. That being said, Bang does deliver a powerful performance which grew on me with each episode. So, for me, it’s a case where I thought the actor did a tremendous job but the writing tweaked the character too much for my liking.

Likewise, Dolly Wells does a nice job as Sister Agatha Van Helsing, but again, the writing took this character and did things with her that diminished her impact. For starters, Van Helsing simply isn’t as powerful a presence here as Dracula. That in itself is problematic.

I can’t say then that I was a fan of the teleplay by Mark Gatis and Steven Moffat, where changes seem to have been made solely for the purpose of being different without taking into consideration how it would affect the story. Still, it’s an incredibly ambitious screenplay. There is just so much thrown into this mini-series. That in itself is impressive. But sadly most of it didn’t work for me.

The rest of the cast is okay. The only other cast member who stood out for me was Lydia West as Lucy, who shows up in Part 3. When Dracula finally meets Lucy in Part 3, it makes for some of the most compelling moments in the entire miniseries. I loved this part, mostly because of West’s performance here, as she and Bang share some sensual chemistry, but sadly, this sequence doesn’t last all that long, so as good as it is, it’s far too brief.

Then there’s Mina, here played by Morfydd Clark. Mina is a central character in the novel, and she’s always been one of my favorite characters in the novel. Few movie versions have ever done her justice. In the novel, she’s probably the strongest character, but in the movies, she’s generally reduced to being a victim who needs to be saved by Van Helsing. In this version, she’s barely a blip on the proceedings, which is too bad.

I did like the way this one looked. A lot. Especially the look of Castle Dracula in Part 1. Evidently it’s the same castle exterior that was used in the original NOSFERATU (1922). How cool is that?

I also enjoyed the homages to other classic Draculas, especially to the Hammer Draculas. Early on in Part 1, Dracula is depicted as an old man, as he is in the novel, and the look here resembles Gary Oldman in BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA (1992). Later Dracula’s guise resembles Christopher Lee, and then in Part 2, while he’s on the Demeter, his costume mirrors that of Bela Lugosi. I appreciated these touches.

And for Hammer Film fans, there’s an Easter Egg for DRACULA A.D. 1972, and for HORROR OF DRACULA (1958), specifically that film’s classic finale. So I give credit to directors Johnny Campbell, Paul McGuigan, and Damon Thomas for these moments.

But overall, DRACULA struggled to hold my attention. I found its dramatic revisions distracting and far less captivating than the story told in Stoker’s novel.

And while I can comfortably say it was not the version for me, I have a feeling that somewhere down the line I’ll watch it again.

Some day.

 

When I’m ready to once more entertain the notion that Van Helsing is a nun and Dracula a comic book villain.

—END—

 

THE CALL OF THE WILD (2020) – Sanitized CGI Version of Jack London Tale Still Works

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Call-of-the-Wild

While it is a somewhat sanitized and family friendly version of Jack London’s classic novel, and one that substitutes CGI effects for real dogs, THE CALL OF THE WILD (2020) nonetheless manages to be a successful heartwarming adventure.

There are two reasons for this success.

First, the screenplay by Michael Green, based on Jack London’s novel, is a good one. In spite of Harrison Ford’s sleep-inducing voice-over narration, the story is told crisply and efficiently, apropos for London’s short novel. There’s no fat on this one which clocks in at a brisk 100 minutes. Best of all it’s consistent with its themes of searching for redemption in the wilderness, and the need for answering one’s ancestral call, in this case, the call of the wild.

The second reason, strangely, is the CGI. I say strange because when the movie opens, it’s apparent from the get-go that Buck, the main character in the story and a dog, is a CGI creation and not a real dog. My first thought, especially since it was very apparent and obvious, was that this was going to work against the movie, give it less realism. And while this is true, the story still works because realism becomes secondary. Let me explain. This story is about Buck, a remarkable animal, and realism matters less because Buck is beyond real. He’s exceptional, larger than life, and as such the effects aren’t a detriment. And so realism becomes less important here than truth, and that is one item the movie does not sacrifice.

All this being said, I still would have preferred a real dog, but I can’t deny that the effects won me over, even as I realized what I was watching was a special effect.

THE CALL OF THE WILD is the story of Buck, a half St. Bernard half Scotch Shepherd, who lives a happy spoiled life with the wealthy Judge Miller (Bradley Whitford) and his family. But one night Buck is snatched away, as dogs fetch a good price in this time of the Gold Rush, as sled dogs are needed.

So Buck soon finds himself in the Yukon where he learns to fear the club of man, as he is belted over the head until he learns submission. This one of the areas in the film that is sanitized, as Buck learns to obey quickly, whereas in the novel it was a much more brutal sequence.

Buck becomes part of a sled team delivering the mail, led by two friendly mail carriers Francoise (Cara Gee) and Perrault (Omar Sy). Pearrault in particular treats the dogs well and talks to them as if they are human. The team is led by a dog called Spitz, but when the dogs begin to respect Buck more, a rivalry develops, and eventually Buck replaces Spitz as the lead dog, in another sequence made family friendly. In the novel, Buck kills Spitz. Here in the movie, he simply beats him down till he shows respect.

After Perrault receives orders to sell his sled dog team, Buck and his fellow dogs are purchased by an inexperienced and cruel man Hal (Dan Stevens). Buck is eventually rescued by John Thornton (Harrison Ford) who nurses Buck back to health, and the two share a life of peace and quiet in the snowy wilderness, even as Buck continually hears the call of the wild beckoning him to seek his destiny.

As I said, I had my doubts about this version of THE CALL OF THE WILD, but it really does work, and I left the theater thoroughly satisfied.

Again, while I would have preferred a real dog in the movie, the CGI effects are done well. The CGI model used in the film was a digital scan of a real dog, and it’s pretty convincing. It’s just not 100 percent convincing, and for me, the biggest surprise was that this didn’t really matter. Buck carries this movie. That’s right. The best character in THE CALL OF  THE WILD is a dog, and in this case, not even a real dog. Buck shares a genuine bond with his fellow dogs and human owners, and it’s this connection that drives this story forward.

And while Buck outshines the humans in this one, he does receive fine support. Harrison Ford, in spite of his one-note-covers-all voice-over narration, is decent and believable as John Thornton. Interestingly enough, Rutger Hauer played John Thornton in the 1997 version of the story, and of course, Ford and Hauer were adversaries in the classic science fiction film BLADE RUNNER (1982).

My favorite human performance in the movie belongs to Omar Sy as Perrault. He was the most interesting character in the film, other than Buck, and I enjoyed the way he interacted with the dogs. I also enjoyed Cara Gee as Francoise.

And Dan Stevens is sufficiently villainous as the main scoundrel in the film, Hal. It’s a small role, though, and Stevens had much more to do in the recent horror movie APOSTLE (2018), where he played the lead, a man who infiltrates a bizarre and deadly cult to find his missing sister. Stevens also played the Beast in Disney’s live action remake of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (2017).

Director Chris Sanders keeps this one lean and efficient and manages not to lose sight of the dramatic story elements even while keeping this one family friendly.

Purists of Jack London’s novel may shake their heads and grumble, but dog lovers and fans of good storytelling will appreciate this version of THE CALL OF THE WILD which tells Buck’s story with genuine emotion and respect.

The call of the wild may be less savage here, but it remains intrinsic and true.

—END—

 

LEADING LADIES: BROOKE ADAMS

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Brooke Adams in 1978.

Welcome back to LEADING LADIES, that column where we look at the careers of lead actresses in the movies, especially horror movies.

Up today it’s Brooke Adams, who, if you’ve seen the outstanding 1978 version of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, you’ll definitely remember her performance as one of the contributing factors to it being such a great movie.

The Philip Kaufman directed INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1978) is one of those rare instances where the remake is as good or arguably better than the original. There are many reasons for this. Among them, Kaufman’s direction, a truly unforgettable chilling ending, and a fine ensemble of actors, including Donald Sutherland, Brooke Adams, Jeff Goldblum, Veronica Cartwright, and Leonard Nimoy. I saw this at the movies when I was just 14, and it instantly became a favorite. I also immediately became a fan of Brooke Adams.

Here now is a partial look at Adams’ career, focusing mostly on her genre credits:

MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE (1971) – Nurse (uncredited) – Adams’ first appearance on the big screen, an uncredited bit as a nurse, in this tepid horror movie by director Gordon Hessler, featuring Herbert Lom and Jason Robards. Based on the Edgar Allan Poe story.

THE GREAT GATSBY (1974) – Party Guest (uncredited) – another uncredited bit in the Robert Redford version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel.

SONG OF THE SUCCUBUS (1975) – Olive Deems/Gloria Chambers – plays the lead in this TV movie about a modern-day rock star haunted by the ghost of a Victorian era musician.

MURDER ON FLIGHT 502 (1975) -Vera Franklin – part of an all-star cast in this TV movie about a series of murders on a jumbo jet, featuring Robert Stack, Ralph Bellamy, Sonny Bono, Fernando Lamas, Hugh O’Brian, Walter Pidgeon, and receiving most of the hype at the time, Farrah Fawcett.

SHOCK WAVES (1977) – Rose – stars alongside Peter Cushing and John Carradine in this low-budget thriller about Nazi zombies.

INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1978) – Elizabeth Driscoll – my favorite Brooke Adams role. Stars alongside Donald Sutherland, Jeff Goldblum, Veronica Cartwright, and Leonard Nimoy in this superior retelling of the classic Jack Finney story. The best part of Adam’s performance here is that she does fear very well and captures how unsettling it would be to be caught up in such a dire situation as the imminent invasion of the pod people.

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Brooke Adams, Donald Sutherland, and Jeff Goldblum about to get some bad news on the telephone in one of the many tense moments in INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1978).

CUBA (1979) – Alexandra Lopez de Pulido- co-stars with Sean Connery in this romantic adventure by director Richard Lester.

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Sean Connery and Brooke Adams in CUBA (1979).

THE DEAD ZONE (1983) – Sarah Bracknell – David Cronenberg’s effective adaptation of Stephen King’s novel stars Christopher Walken, Brooke Adams, Tom Skerritt, Herbert Lom, Anthony Zerbe, and Martin Sheen. A good role for Adams, as she plays Sarah, the former girlfriend of Walken’s Johnny Smith. When Johnny awakes from a coma, five years have passed, and Sarah is now married to someone else. Jonny also finds that he now possesses an unusual power. Excellent horror flick!

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Brooke Adams and Christopher Walken in THE DEAD ZONE (1983).

THE STUFF (1985) – Special Guest Star in Stuff Commercial – appearance in Larry Cohen’s campy horror comedy, starring Michael Moriarty.

SNAPSHOTS (2018) – Patty – Adams’ most recent screen credit, in this drama co-starring Piper Laurie.

All told, Brook Adams has 66 screen credits. A lot of these have been on television.

Born on February 8, 1949, Adams is still actively acting. She has been performing on both the big and small screen since 1963, with her first big screen performance happening in 1971. For me, I’ll always remember Adams for her riveting performance as the very frightened Elizabeth Driscoll in the 1978 version of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS.

Well, that’s it for now. I hope you enjoyed this edition of LEADING LADIES and join me again next time when we look at the career of another lead actress in horror movies.

As always, thanks for reading!

—Michael