Best Movies of 2016

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La La Land (2016)Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone)

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in LA LA LAND (2016

 

Here’s a look at my picks for the Top 10 movies of 2016.  Of course, while I do see a lot of movies— 58 this year, and that’s just theatrical releases—  I’m not able to see every movie that comes out, and so this list is limited to only those movies I have seen.

We’ll start with #10 and count down to #1:

 

10. THE INFILTRATOR

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Excellent performance by Bryan Cranston powers this crime drama which tells the true story of how U. S. Customs Official Robert Mazur (Bryan Cranston) went undercover to take down a  Columbian drug lord.

 

9. THE JUNGLE BOOK

Loved this remake of Disney’s animated THE JUNGLE BOOK (1967), and I’m a huge fan of that original 1967 animated classic.  Special effects here were amazing, and I really liked how director Jon Favreau made this family friendly film a serious hard-hitting adventure.

 

8. DEADPOOL

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The role Ryan Reynolds has been waiting for.  Sure, this vulgar, violent tale isn’t for everybody, but the humor is spot-on.  My second favorite superhero movie of the year. Best part is it is so unlike other traditional superhero movies.

 

7. CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR

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My pick for the best superhero movie of 2016.  Plays much more like THE AVENGERS 2.5, rhis exciting tale pits Team Captain America vs. Team Iron Man, and the rift between these two friends comes off as real and believable, something that the similarly themed BATMAN V SUPERMAN:  DAWN OF JUSTICE (2016) failed miserably at.  The scenes with newcomer Tom Holland as Spider-Man are off-the-charts good.

 

6. EDGE OF SEVENTEEN

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Hilarious comedy-drama starring Hailee Steinfeld as a seventeen year-old dealing with life as a teenager.  Things get complicated when her best friend starts dating her older brother.  Topnotch script and direction by writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig.

 

 

Now we get down to my picks for the Top 5 movies of 2016:

5. HANDS OF STONE

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Critics panned this movie, but I absolutely loved this boxing pic about boxing champ Roberto Durant.  Edgar Ramirez  gives a spirited performance as Roberto Durant, and he’s supported by a fine cast which includes Robert De Niro, Ruben Blades, and Usher Raymond as Sugar Ray Leonard.  Excellent movie, much better than critics gave it credit for, although admittedly I am a sucker for boxing movies.

 

4. HELL OR HIGH WATER

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Easily could be my pick for the best movie of the year, this impeccably made crime drama follows a Texas crime spree by two brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner Howard (Ben Foster) with an old Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) hot on their trail.  Features fantastic peformances by the three leads.  Jeff Bridges is amazing as always, and the same can be said of Ben Foster, and it’s also fun to see Chris Pine get to do a whole lot more than when he plays Captain Kirk in the rebooted STAR TREK movies.  Riveting direction by David Mackenzie, and a phenomenal thought-provoking script by one of my favorite screen writers working today, Taylor Sheridan.

 

3. SULLY

Easily the most efficient film of the year, SULLY, starring Tom Hanks, and directed by Clint Eastwood, clocks in at a brisk 96 minutes, and not a minute is wasted.  It tells the emotionally riveting true tale of pilot Chesley Sullenberger, aka “Sully,” and his decision to make an emergency landing on the Hudson River.  It’s an amazing story because all the passengers on the plane survived, and the film makes things even more compelling as it follows the subsequent investigation by officials who questioned Sully’s decision to land in the water in the first place.  SULLY features another remarkable performance by Tom Hanks, and yet another superb directorial effort by Clint Eastwood.  Eastwood is 86 years old, and yet SULLY plays with as much energy, oomph, and emotion as if directed by someone half that age.  I left the theater incredibly impressed.

 

2. MANCHESTER BY THE SEA

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This film could also have been my number one pick of the year.  MANCHESTER BY THE SEA is a finely acted drama, led by two powerhouse performances by Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams, about a man Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) thrust into a life-changing situation as he finds himself having to care fo for his deceased brother’s sixteen year-old son.  His life in a shambles due to an earlier traumatic event, Lee knows he’s not the man for the job, but since there is no on else, he pushes himself to live up to his brother’s wishes and care for his nephew. Atmospheric direction by writer/director Kenneth Lonergan, with a script that is as honest and believable as they come.

And now, for my pick for the Number 1 movie of 2016:

 

 

  1. LA LA LAND

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My pick for the Best Movie of 2016 also happened to be the last movie I saw in 2016, LA LA LAND.  What a fabulous way to end the calendar year!  LA LA LAND is an absolutely wonderful movie.

I  loved the energy writer/director Damien Chazelle brings to this one.  The opening dance number on a gridlocked L.A. freeway dazzles, and the film never looks back.  Emma Stone gives the best performance of her career to date, imbuing her struggling actress character Mia with so much raw emotion and quirky pizzazz she’s one of the liveliest characters I’ve seen on screen in a long while. Ryan Gosling is just as good as jazz musician Sebastian in this uplifting almost magical musical which follows Mia and Sebastian through a romance in which they help each other achieve their artistic dreams before reality ultimately sets in, forcing them to make decisions which affect their future.  A remarkable movie and genuine crowd pleaser.

Hands down, LA LA LAND is the Best Movie I saw in 2016.

Okay, that about wraps things up for today.  Thanks for joining me in 2016, and here’s to another fine year of movies in 2017!

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.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

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HANDS OF STONE (2016) – A Knockout of a Movie That No One Is Noticing

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Edgar Ramirez, Robert De Niro, and Ruben Blades in HANDS OF STONE (2016).

 

HANDS OF STONE (2016), the new movie about welterweight boxing champion Roberto Duran, is one of those movies that I probably liked more than I should have.  It’s not really getting great reviews, and it’s receiving zero hype, but I loved it.  For me, everyhing about this movie worked.

Maybe that means I’m just a sucker for boxing movies.  Or perhaps it’s just a really good movie.

HANDS OF STONE is told from the perspective of legendary boxing trainer Ray Arcel (Robert De Niro).  And if there’s one weakness to this movie, it’s that at times there’s a bit too much of Arcel’s voice-over narration, as it shows up in places where it’s not necessary, where standard dialogue and visual narrative would have sufficed.

And so we learn right from the get-go that Roberto Duran changed Ray Arcel’s life, as we hear it directly from Arcel’s mouth.  We meet Duran as a child in poverty-stricken Panama, and we see through his young eyes his disdain for the United States, which he views as an oppressor nation.  Amazingly, he convinces a local boxing trainer to train him, and so he’s boxing pretty much as a child.

We next see Duran (Edgar Ramirez) as a young man wooing the beautiful Felicidad Iglesias (Ana de Armas) who he’ll eventually marry.  Duran is introduced to the wealthiest man in Panama, businessman Carlos Eleta (Ruben Blades), who in turn introduces Duran to trainer Ray Arcel, knowing that Arcel has what it takes to make Duran a champion.

But their union is not an easy one.  Duran wants no part of an American trainer, and while Ray clearly recognizes Duran’s talent, he’s prohibited by the mob from ever making money off boxing again.  Years earlier, Ray tried to convince mobster Frankie Carbo (John Turturro) to loosen his grip on boxing in New York City, so they could branch out into the television market.  Carbo said no, Ray went ahead anyway, and Carbo arranged to have Ray killed.  Ray survived, but he promised never again to make money off boxing, and in return, the mob let him live.

Ray solves his own personal problem by agreeing to train Duran for free, and Duran also changes his mind, setting the stage for a championship run.  Standing in their way is American superstar boxer Sugar Ray Leonard (Usher Raymond).  Duran sees beating Leonard as his chance not only to become champion but also to earn Panama the respect of the world and to humiliate the United States in the process.

And the more success Duran achieves, the more he’s swallowed up by big money boxing, falling victim to its lure in ways he never fell in the ring, even as aging Ray Arcel continually fights to protect him.

HANDS OF STONE tells a rousing story, one that I enjoyed a lot since I didn’t know much about Roberto Duran other than the results of his two championship fights with Sugar Ray Leonard.

The cast here is wonderful.  Edgar Ramirez shines in the lead role as Roberto Duran. He makes Duran a volatile force who is as undisciplined and hotheaded as he is talented. Indeed, some of the best parts of HANDS OF STONE aren’t the boxing sequences, which certainly are done very well, but the scenes between Ramirez and De Niro in the corners of the ring.  De Niro’s Ray Arcel is constantly fighting with Ramirez’s Duran trying to get him to follow his wisdom, which Duran often sees as limiting, as he just wants to let loose and pound his opponent.  Some of these verbal spars are more intense than the physical ones in the ring.

Likewise, Ramirez also shares powerful scenes with Ruben Blades’ Carlos Eleta.  And when the three of them are on screen together, watch out.  The verbal punches fly.

Ramirez captures the energy and charm of Duran and makes him watchable throughout.  I really enjoyed Ramirez in last year’s JOY (2015) where he played Joy’s (Jennifer Lawrence) husband, in a film that also paired him with Robert De Niro.  Ramirez also played the priest in the underwhelming horror movie DELIVER US FROM EVIL (2014).  As much as I liked Ramirez in JOY, he’s even better here in HANDS OF STONE.

Robert De Niro is excellent as Ray Arcel.  It’s fun to see De Niro in a role that does not hide his age but actually makes him look older with a receding hairline and whispery white hair.  He also enjoys some of the best scenes in the movie, with riveting dialogue, as he teaches Duran his philosophy of boxing— always have a strategy and stick to it— and as he argues with Carlos Eleta.  Ray Arcel represents the pure side of boxing, the sport, while Eleta represents what Arcel sees as destroying boxing:  big money.

Ruben Blades, who plays Daniel Salazar, one of the best character on TV’s FEAR THE WALKING DEAD, is also very good as Carlos Eleta.  He brings Ray Arcel into Duran’s world not only to make Duran a champion but to give him some discipline, because Eleta is always fending off the youthful Duran who refuses to respect the rich businessman.

Ana de Armas, who we just saw in WAR DOGS (2016), is drop dead gorgeous and sexy as Duran’s wife Felicidad.  De Armas enjoys a more substantial role here in HANDS OF STONE than she had in WAR DOGS, a role that enables her to show more range and depth, and she doesn’t disappoint.

Singer Usher Raymond makes for a dashingly handsome Sugar Ray Leonard, and he displays the fleeting and fancy footwork of the boxing superstar with seeming ease.  John Turturro makes the most of his few scenes as mobster Frankie Carbo who in spite of their differences really respects and likes Ray Arcel and eventually helps him get the shunned Duran his comeback bout.  Reg E. Cathey, a talented character actor with tons of credits, recently seen as Cajun cook Freddy on the TV show HOUSE OF CARDS, plays Don King and enjoys some memorable moments in some key scenes as the legendary boxing promoter.

It was also nice to see Ellen Barkin play Ray’s wife Stephanie, in a performance that reminded me of Gena Rowlands back in the day.  And in a neat bit of casting, De Niro’s real life adopted daughter Drena De Niro plays Ray’s drug addicted daughter here.

HANDS OF STONE was written and directed by Jonathan Jakubowicz.  This is Jakubowicz’s first feature film, and it’s an impressive debut.  For my money, everything in this movie worked.

The fight sequences are well done, riveting and exciting.  The photography is lively and energetic, and the editing is quick and efficient.  The film is nearly two hours long, yet it flies by.

Even better than the fight scenes are the scenes of dialogue between Ramirez, De Niro, and Blades.  Jakubowicz also gives the movie an authentic Latin American feel, as well as capturing perfectly the time period of the 1970s and 1980s.

And Jakubowicz does a nice job with the controversial and perhaps signature moment of Duran’s career, where he infamously declared “No mas!” in the ring and walked away from boxing, words that to this day the real Duran swears he didn’t say, yet it’s what he’s most remembered for.

HANDS OF STONE is getting very little hype and meager critical recognition, which is a shame because it’s a rousing entertaining movie that tells the story of Roberto Duran, one of the most talented boxers ever to step into the boxing ring.

There’s no split decision here.  HANDS OF STONE is a clear knockout.

—END—

 

 

 

DE PALMA (2016) – Controversial Director Reflects on His Career

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Brian De Palma tells his story in DE PALMA (2016).

Brian De Palma has a lot to say about his career.

And in DE PALMA (2016), the new documentary on the acclaimed movie director by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow, he gets nearly two hours to do just that.

The film is actually footage from an interview Baumbach and Paltrow shot with De Palma back in 2010.  They liked the footage so much they added lots of film clips and turned it into a documentary.

DE PALMA pretty much plays like a one person movie panel.  Brian De Palma is front and center speaking to the camera for nearly the entire movie, with appropriate film clips thrown in to highlight his points and stories.  As such, it’s not going to win any awards for creative cinematography.

Back in his heyday, in the 1970s and 1980s, Brian De Palma was a polarizing and controversial movie director, infamous for his ultra-violent yet stylish movies, especially for over-the-top scenes of violence against women.  He was also known for his Hitchcock homages which critics often slammed as simple knock-offs.

In DE PALMA, Brian De Palma takes us through his entire career, beginning with his early years, when he used to operate in close circles with his best friends and fellow filmmakers Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, Paul Schrader, and Steve Spielberg.  De Palma also worked with a very young Robert De Niro and directed De Niro’s first movie, GREETINGS (1968).

De Palma continues with how he began to make a name for himself with films like SISTERS (1973), PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE (1974), and OBSESSION (1976).  He called Genevieve Bujold’s performance the best part of OBSESSION, and Cliff Robertson the worst part, explaining that Robertson, once he saw that Bujold was stealing the show, tried to sabotage the movie by making things as difficult as possible for both Bujold and De Palma.

Later that same year De Palma was offered the project which would launch his career, CARRIE (1976), based on the novel by Stephen King. De Palma lamented that the studio really didn’t get behind CARRIE since they viewed it as just a gory horror movie, but to his delight, both Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie were nominated for Oscars.

After the success of CARRIE, De Palma received a huge budget for his next movie, THE FURY (1978) which happened to be the first Brian De Palma movie I ever saw.

After THE FURY, De Palma entered his Hitchcock period with such films as DRESSED TO KILL (1980), BLOW OUT (1981), and BODY DOUBLE (1984), films that critics complained were too derivative of Alfred Hitchcock’s movies. DRESSED TO KILL was modeled after PSYCHO (1960) and BODY DOUBLE was modeled after VERTIGO (1958) and REAR WINDOW (1954).

De Palma said he was heavily criticized for power drill murder scene in BODY DOUBLE, especially for making the drill so big, but as he explained, the drill was gigantic because in order for the scene to work, Craig Wasson’s character had to see it coming through the ceiling, and for that to happen, the drill had to be huge.  As De Palma explains it, it made perfect sense to him because it was simply part of the story.  He said he never intended to create extra violent scenes against women, but that those scenes existed only to satisfy the stories he was telling.

In the middle of these films came SCARFACE (1983), starring Al Pacino.  De Palma tells the story of how he was so annoyed at the ratings board for not giving his film an “R” rating even after all his edits, especially to the chain saw scene, that once he did receive the “R” rating, he went back and released the unedited version anyway.

He also said, and it’s true, that the way he edited the infamous chain saw scene, you never see the chain saw cut into the victim’s flesh.  I recently re-watched SCARFACE for the first time in years and I was surprised at how little De Palma showed in that scene.  It’s really not that gory at all.

After the comedic flop WISE GUYS (1986), De Palma made the movie that once more resuscitated his career:  THE UNTOUCHABLES (1987), which just might be De Palma’s most popular movie, but strangely, it’s one of my least favorite films that he made.   Oftentimes I find De Palma’s camerawork overbearing.  The famous “shoot-out with the baby carriage falling down the stairs” scene in THE UNTOUCHABLES, for example, I find almost unwatchable because of the pretentious slow-motion camerawork.  Some see it as cinematic genius, but for me it’s just cinematic overkill.

Likewise, in his discussion of CARRIE, De Palma talks about the complicated shots he conceived for the end of CARRIE and how the producers were unhappy with the results, to which De Palma says they just didn’t get the genius of his work.  While this may be true, the climactic bloodbath in CARRIE is another example where the camerawork gets in the way of the story.  To me, and this is why I’m not the biggest De Palma fan, if you’re going to use the camera creatively, you have to do it in a way where it empowers the story, not detracts from it.  Spielberg does this all the time.  De Palma does not.

His next film was CASUALTIES OF WAR (1989), the gripping Vietnam movie starring Michael J. Fox and Sean Penn.  This one I did like, and it’s probably my favorite Brian De Palma movie of all time.  I remember seeing it at the movies and being blown away by its potency.

De Palma tells some interesting anecdotes from the set of CASUALTIES, specifically of how Sean Penn used to torment Michael J. Fox.   At one point, Penn was supposed to whisper a line in Fox’s ear about payback, but De Palma heard Penn say, “TV actor!”  De Palma felt Penn’s antics caused Fox to feel alienated and defensive on set, which ultimately helped Fox’s performance since his character was supposed to feel the same way.

This was followed by one of De Palma’s biggest flops, THE BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES (1990), a downward trend that would continue over the next few years.  After a brief surge from the Tom Cruise vehicle MISSION IMPOSSIBLE (1996), De Palma’s career bottomed out with the woeful MISSION TO MARS (2000) which was the last movie to date that De Palma shot in the United States.  His subsequent films have all been made in Europe.

DE PALMA is not the most riveting documentary I’ve ever seen nor even the most informative.  Its style is simple.  De Palma speaks directly to the camera the entire time, and when he’s not on screen, we’re treated to appropriate movie footage, which is  used here effectively.

De Palma also isn’t the most animated speaker around, but he does provide plenty of stories and anecdotes. He also asks questions.  For example, De Palma points out that although people have praised Alfred Hitchcock as a cinematic genius, no one else except for De Palma himself has ever tried to use Hitchcock’s style.  He asks why more directors aren’t making movies like Hitchcock did?  It’s a fair question.

Maybe part of the answer is that De Palma’s homages to Hitchcock never really worked all that well.  Part of the reason they didn’t work was they were too closely based on the Hitchcock movies they were paying homage to. Had De Palma used Hitchcock’s style in stories that were original and not derivative of specific Hitchcock movies, he may have had better results.

For Brian De Palma fans, DE PALMA is must-see viewing.  For the rest of us, it’s a chance to see and listen to a film director reflect back on his entire body of work.  And whether you’re a fan of De Palma or not, you have to give the guy credit for his persistence and for sticking to his guns when it came to making movies the way he wanted to make them.

De Palma is currently 75 years old and still making movies in Europe.

—END—

 

 

 

BEST MOVIES OF 2015

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Here’s my list of the Top 10 movies I saw in 2015:

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10.  IT FOLLOWS- ***- This was my pick for the top horror movie of 2015.  It makes #10 in my overall list.  Terrific horror movie by writer/director David Robert Mitchell.  It’s creative in its execution, suspenseful, has a superior movie score, and is very reminiscent of John Carpenter’s early work back in the 1970s.

9. THE MAN FROM UNCLE – *** – a critical and commercial disaster, this film nonetheless worked for me, so much so that it was one of my favorite movies of the year.  I loved the polished direction, the slick music score, and the whole 1960s “spy feel” of the film.

Sure, the two leads could have been more charismatic, but I still found it all terrific fun.

8. CHAPPIE- *** 1/2- one of my favorite science fiction films of the year.  Sure, it’s all very melodramatic and overdramatic, but this tale of a robot with artificial intelligence really worked for me.  Then again, maybe I’m just a sucker for the films of writer/director Neill Blomkamp.

7. MAD MAX:  FURY ROAD – *** 1/2- my pick for the best science fiction movie of the year.   George Miller, who directed the original films starring Mel Gibson, returns to his roots here with a film that is exceedingly exciting and features some of the most imaginative chase scenes I’ve seen in quite a long time.  Tom Hardy is fine as Max, but it’s Charlize Theron who steals the show in this one as tough as nails heroine Imperator Furiosa.

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6. AVENGERS:  AGE OF ULTRON – *** 1/2 – Excellent sequel to THE AVENGERS.  I love the Marvel superhero films, and their AVENGERS movies are among their best.  Nonstop entertainment.

5. THE BIG SHORT.-*** 1/2

I really enjoyed this intriguing drama about the home mortgage crisis and the near collapse of the U.S. economy in 2008.  Christian Bale is getting all the hype with buzz of a possible Best Supporting Actor nomination, and he’s good here, but I liked Steve Carrell and Ryan Gosling even more. Well-acted, well-written movie that tells a story that’s a real eye opener.

Written and directed by Adam McCay, most known for his comedic work, directing such films as ANCHORMAN: THE LEGEND OF RON BURGUNDY (2004) and THE OTHER GUYS (2010).  McCay puts this background to good use as THE BIG SHORT, in spite of its heavy and oftentimes depressing subject matter, is very light and quirky in tone.  McCay also wrote the screenplay for the Marvel hit ANT-MAN (2015).

Brad Pitt rounds out the solid cast.

4. BRIDGE OF SPIES – ****- The main reason I liked this Steven Spielberg Cold War thriller was Tom Hanks’ performance.  I’m not always a big Tom Hanks fan, but he knocks the ball out of the ballpark with his spot on performance as an attorney asked to defend a Soviet spy.  The story which follows is captivating and riveting.

In addition to Hanks’ standout performance, Mark Rylance is also excellent as Soviet spy Rudolf Abel.  This is also quite the period piece, as Spielberg meticulously captures the Cold War period.  At times, you feel like you’re watching a dramatic museum exhibit.

3.  JOY-**** -Critics did not like this comedy/drama by writer/director David O. Russell which tells the story of Joy Mangano, the woman who created the Miracle Mop, but I absolutely loved this one.  Jennifer Lawrence turns in a phenomenal performance as Joy, and this movie clearly belongs to her.  A quirky, funny film that is every bit emotionally moving as it is humorous.  It reminded me a lot of Russell and Lawrence’s earlier pairing, SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (2012).

The fine supporting cast includes Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro, Isabella Rossellini, Virginia Madsen, Diane Ladd, Edgar Ramirez, Elisabeth Rohm, and Dascha Polanco.

This cast led by Jennifer Lawrence combined with the creative directorial style of David O. Russell makes JOY one of my favorite films of the year.

2.  SPOTLIGHT-**** – For me, SPOTLIGHT was the most disturbing film of the year, and its second best.  It tells the story of how The Boston Globe exposed the scandal in the Catholic Church and uncovered truths which before this story most people refused to believe.  The number of abuse cases in Boston alone were staggering.

The film is amazingly underplayed, and it’s able to do this because the story itself is so horrifying.  All it has to do is tell its story, and that’s enough.

SPOTLIGHT is a fine example of a true life horror story that is more disturbing than most genre horror films.  In addition, it’s also one of the best movies about newspapers and reporters ever made.

Amazingly well-acted, its cast includes Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci, and Brian D’Arcy James.

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1. SICARIO – **** – Any one of my top 5 picks could have been my number movie of the year.  They’re all that good.

However, my personal favorite of the year because it both pushed all the right buttons and is the type of movie I love- a riveting suspenseful dark thriller- is SICARIO.

I loved this thriller about an FBI agent thrown into the midst of the drug war with a Mexican cartel.  Emily Blunt is outstanding as FBI agent Kate Macer.  Even better is Benecio Del Toro as Alejandro, a mysterious hitman who in spite of his shadowy cold-blooded agenda, always seems to have Macer’s back, even when he holds a gun to her head.

Josh Brolin is also excellent as a calm, cool, and confident government agent who recruits Macer but is too shady to earn her trust.

Screenplay by Taylor Sheridan, the SONS OF ANARCHY actor who has a lot of other acting credits as well.  This is his first screenplay.  It’s a good one.

Some of the most suspenseful scenes I’ve seen in a while.  A must-see movie.  My pick for the #1 movie of 2015.

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And that’s my Top 10 List for 2015.  What’s yours?

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

Completely Sold on JOY (2015)

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When I think of Jennifer Lawrence, I do not think of THE HUNGER GAMES series or the X-MEN movies, but rather, I think of her work in SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (2012), AMERICAN HUSTLE (2013) and now JOY (2015).  Without a doubt, she is one of the most exciting actresses working today.  JOY belongs to Lawrence.

JOY, the latest film by writer/director David O. Russell, who directed Lawrence in both SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK and AMERICAN HUSTLE, is based on the true story of Joy Mangano, who created the Miracle Mop and went on to build a very successful business after her appearances on the QVC Home Shopping Network.

I know.  This sounds like a snooze, and many people are poking fun at a story based on the creator of the Miracle Mop, as well as calling writer/director David O. Russell overrated, but I like his style, and I like Jennifer Lawrence.  Combine these two talents with an equally talented ensemble cast, and you’ve got a movie that yes, quite frankly, makes the story of the Miracle Mop compelling and then some!

The film works for two reasons:  Russell’s writing and directorial style, and Jennifer Lawrence’s amazing acting.  These two could probably make a movie about a mop and I’d enjoy it— wait.  That’s what they just did.

JOY is narrated by Joy’s grandmother Mimi (Diane Ladd), and she introduces us to Joy as a little girl who likes to make things, and Mimi predicts great things for her granddaughter, but when we jump to Joy’s adulthood, we see that these “great things” have thus far eluded her.

Joy (Jennifer Lawrence) owns her own home, but in this home in addition to her two young children lives her mother  Terry (Virginia Madsen), an agoraphobic who stays in her bed all day and watches soap operas, her grandmother Mimi, and her ex-husband Tony (Edgar Ramirez) who lives in the basement.  To make matters more complicated, her father Rudy (Robert De Niro) shows up after having been thrown out by his girlfriend, and Joy takes him in as well, as he gets to share the basement with Tony, and the two men can’t stand each other.

Now, this sounds like a horrible situation and it is, but it’s handled by Russell with lots of wit and humor, like when Rudy’s girlfriend announces to the household and to Terry in particular, “I’m returning him.”

Joy also shares a strange relationship with her ex-husband Tony.  As Mimi explains in her voice-over narration, they’re much better “ex’s” than they were a married couple, and throughout their lives they somehow remain friends.

When Joy comes up with the idea of the Miracle Mop, and gets Rudy and his new wealthy girlfriend Trudy (Isabella Rossellini) to invest in it, it’s Tony  who directs Joy to a friend of his at QVC Network when sales of the mop go nowhere.  Through Tony’s connection, Joy meets the man who run QVC, Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper), and although he’s not initially impressed, Joy does not give up and eventually is able to get her product on the network.

But success is not instantaneous, and there’s still a long road ahead for Joy and her dysfunctional family.

JOY is much closer in tone and feel to SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK than to AMERICAN HUSTLE, and since SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK is probably my favorite David O. Russell movie, it’s why I also like JOY an awful lot as well.  I think I still prefer PLAYBOOK, mostly because in that film in addition to Russell, you had two powerhouse performances by Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence.  In JOY, you have just the one, as it’s clearly Lawrence’s movie, and it’s her performance which drives it forward.  Cooper is just along fro the ride here.  He’s solid as always, but his role in this one is peripheral at best.

JOY belongs to Jennifer Lawrence.  She’s convincing as Joy throughout, even as she runs the full gamut of emotions from happiness to stress to flat out depression.  She covers it all and makes it look easy.  When she’s wide-eyed and inventive, she’s fun to watch, and when things go wrong as they do more often than not, she tugs at the heart strings, and when she has to be strong and feisty, she goes into full kick-ass mode and makes that work as well.

As I said, Cooper’s role is less impressive here, and for him, it’s almost a throwaway role as the part of QVC head Neil Walker could have been played by anybody.

The rest of the cast is solid and they really help this movie along.

The two stand-outs are Edgar Ramirez as Joy’s ex-husband Tony and Dascha Polanco as Joy’s best friend Jackie.  Ramirez does such a tremendous job as Tony that other than Lawrence, he was my favorite part of this movie.  He plays Tony as the guy who often doesn’t appear to be the smartest guy in the room, but he is the most loyal to his ex-wife Joy on a consistent basis, and so, as things move along, it turns out that more often than not in terms of looking out for Joy and having her best interests in mind, he is the smartest guy in the room.  Ramirez was in the underwhelming horror movie DELIVER US FROM EVIL (2014).  He played one of the leads, a priest battling demons.  Needless to say, he’s much better here in JOY.

Dascha Polanco plays a similar role as Joy’s best friend Jackie who along with Tony also proves to be her most loyal supporter.  Without Tony or Jackie, Joy’s success may never have happened.  Polanco, known for her work on the TV show ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK, is very good here.

The cast also includes Robert De Niro as Joy’s father Rudy.  It’s similar to the role De Niro played in SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK, where he played Bradley Cooper’s dad.  De Niro gets to enjoy some good moments, some comedic, some dramatic.  Isabella Rossellini also stands out as De Niro’s girlfriend Trudy, although it’s scary how much she reminds me of her mother, Ingrid Bergman.  There were a few lines there in the film which gave me chills as I almost felt I was watching Bergman again.

Trudy and Rudy end up financing the bulk of Joy’s mop project, and as things continually go poorly, the scenes where Trudy and Rudy berate Joy are some of the most painful moments in the film.  Trudy has a way of belittling Joy, and Rudy makes things worse by trying to sound supportive and saying lines like “It’s not Joy’s fault.  It’s my fault for encouraging her to be somebody she’s not.”  Ouch!

Rounding out this painful family trio is Elisabeth Rohm as Joy’s half-sister Peggy, who is clearly jealous of her sister.  Peggy sides with Rudy and Trudy and when they gang up against Joy it gets rather ugly, which is why Tony and Jackie’s support for Joy resonates so strongly.

Then there’s Virginia Madsen as Joy’s agoraphobic mom Terry.  She never leaves her bedroom— heck, she hardly leaves her bed— yet her scenes are hilarious.  Furthermore, Russell adds the gimmick of featuring real soap opera stars like Susan Lucci and Maurice Bernard on the goofy soaps which Terry watches all day.  And there’s even a dream sequence where these characters invade Joy’s dreams.

Screen veteran Diane Ladd is also very good as Joy’s grandmother Mimi, and she’s a central figure here since the story is told through her first-person narration.  Ladd is the real life mother of Laura Dern.

And if the showbiz mother/daughter combos of Diane Ladd/Laura Dern and Ingrid Bergman/Isabella Rossellini weren’t enough, there is yet a third connected to this film.  Joan Rivers is a character in the movie since she performed on QVC, and in JOY Rivers is played by her real-life daughter Melissa Rivers.

The other reason I enjoyed JOY so much in addition to Jennifer Lawrence’s performance and her supporting cast is the writing and direction of David O. Russell.  While I wasn’t as crazy about his previous film AMERICAN HUSTLE as a lot of other people were, I loved SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK and THE FIGHTER (2010).  Now comes JOY, another film I really, really liked, so I guess I’m becoming a fan.

In JOY, the script is quirky and funny and takes an otherwise so-so story and imbues it with life and humor.  If someone were to ask me if I were interested in learning about the life of the woman who invented the Miracle Mop I’d probably shrug and answer “not really.”  But Russell makes this woman and her story interesting and compelling.

He makes Joy attractive not because of the mop but because she’s the glue which holds her dysfunctional family together.  That’s her real talent.  She’s always there for her family, always, and when they are not always there for her, those moments are painful.  You want to see her succeed because she has worked so hard, not at trying to become rich by selling mops, but at trying to keep her family together and functional.

Russell’s direction is also lively and inspired, from quirky dream sequences mixing soap opera characters with real characters in the story, to uncomfortable family arguments, to the way this film looks.  While not as impressive as the 1970s look from AMERICAN HUSTLE, the cinematography in JOY is still carefully mastered, as the film effectively captures the feel and look of the early 1990s.

JOY is getting mixed reviews, but I absolutely loved it.  With David O. Russell at the helm and penning the script, and Jennifer Lawrence leading a talented cast, I found this one captivating and entertaining throughout.

I was completely sold.

I’ll take one of those mops, thank you very much.

–END—

 

THE HORROR JAR: MUSIC BY BERNARD HERRMANN

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THE HORROR JAR:  Music by Bernard Herrmann

By Michael Arruda

Bernard Herrmann

Bernard Herrmann

 

 

Welcome to another edition of THE HORROR JAR, that column where we feature lists of odds and ends about horror movies.

Bernard Herrmann, the prolific film composer who composed music for some of Hollywood’s biggest movies during the 1940s-1970s, especially for director Alfred Hitchcock, wrote some of my favorite genre film scores.  He scored nine of Alfred Hitchcock’s movies, including his most famous for PSYCHO (1960), and interestingly enough none of his Hitchcock scores were ever nominated for Oscars.

Herrmann started in radio, scoring Orson Welles’ radio shows in the 1930s, including his infamous “The War of the Worlds” broadcast in 1938.

Herrmann’s final film score was for Martin Scorsese’s TAXI DRIVER (1976).  He was supposed to score Brian De Palma’s CARRIE (1976) but died of a heart attack just before he was start work on the film.  He was 64.

Here’s a partial look at the movies Herrmann provided music for, focusing mostly on genre films:

CITIZEN KANE (1941)

Directed by Orson Welles

Screenplay by Herman J. Mankiewicz & Orson Welles

Kane:  Orson Welles

Jedediah Leland:  Joseph Cotten

Susan Alexander Kane:  Dorothy Comingore

Emily Kane:  Ruth Warrick

Mary Kane:  Agnes Moorehead

Running Time:  119 minutes

Bernard Herrmann’s first movie score. Not a bad way to start one’s career, scoring music for arguably the greatest movie ever made.

THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER (1941)

Directed by William Dieterle

Screenplay by Dan Totheroh and Stephen Vincent Benet

Daniel Webster:  Edward Arnold

Mr. Scratch:  Walter Huston

Running Time:  107 minutes

Herrmann’s second movie score earned him his first and only Academy Award for Best Music Score.

THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS (1942)

Directed by Orson Welles

Screenplay by Orson Welles and Booth Tarkington

Eugene Morgan:  Joseph Cotten

Running Time:  88 minutes

Working with Orson Welles’ again in this troubled production which suffered from major studio meddling and last minute edits and changes.

THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR (1947)

Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz

Screenplay by Philip Dunne, based on the novel by R.A. Dick

Lucy Muir:  Gene Tierney

Captain Daniel Gregg:  Rex Harrison

Miles Farley:  George Sanders

Running Time:  104 minutes

Herrmann’s personal favorite music score.

THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (1951)

Directed by Robert Wise

Screenplay by Edmund H. North, based on a story by Harry Bates

Klaatu:  Michael Rennie

Helen Benson:  Patricia Neal

One of my favorite Bernard Herrmann scores.  His music completely captures the otherworldly mood of this classic science fiction masterpiece about an alien, Klaatu (Michael Rennie) who travels to Earth to warn humankind that unless they give up their warring ways, they will face destruction by a superior race, and to give credence to his words Klaatu brings along his all-powerful robot Gort.  This thought-provoking drama is science fiction at its best.

Herrmann’s score here was later used in several episodes of the TV series LOST IN SPACE.

THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1958)7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD poster

Directed by Nathan Juran

Screenplay by Kenneth Kolb

Sinbad:  Kerwin Mathews

Princess Parisa:  Kathryn Grant

Sokurah the Magician:  Torin Thatcher

Special Visual Effects by Ray Harryhausen

Running Time:  88 minutes

This just might be my all-time favorite Bernard Herrmann music score.  Rousing and adventurous from start to finish, it’s the type of score that’ll stick with you long after you’ve seen the movie.  Some of Herrmann’s best work is in movies featuring the special animation effects of Ray Harryhausen.

VERTIGO (1958)

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Screenplay by Alec Coppel and Samuel A. Taylor

John Ferguson:  James Stewart

Madeleine Elster/Judy Barton:  Kim Novak

Midge Wood:  Barbara Bel Geddes

Running Time:  128 minutes

Provides the music for one of Hitchcock’s best films, the tale of a retired San Francisco police detective (James Stewart) suffering from acrophobia (fear of heights) who becomes entangled in a bizarre murder plot.

NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959)

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Screenplay by Ernest Lehman

Roger Thornhill:  Cary Grant

Eve Kendall:  Eva Marie Saint

Phillip Vandamm: James Mason

Running Time:  136 minutes

With apologies to his work on PSYCHO, this just might be my favorite Bernard Herrmann score for an Alfred Hitchcock movie.  His rousing music in this film also ranks among his best work, period.

JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH (1959)

Directed by Henry Levin

Screenplay by Walter Reisch and Charles Brackett, based on the novel by Jules Verne

Sir Oliver Lindenbrook:  James Mason

Alec McKuen:  Pat Boone

Carla Goetabaug:  Arlene Dahl

Count Saknussemm:  Thayer David

Running Time:  132 minutes

Another of my favorite Bernard Herrmann scores, but seriously, I can say that about nearly every score he wrote.  This fantasy film adventure based on the work of Jules Verne is 1950s filmmaking at its best:  colorful, elaborate, and entertaining throughout.

PSYCHO (1960)

Directed by Alfred HitchcockPsycho poster

Screenplay by Joseph Stefano, based on the novel by Robert Bloch

Norman Bates:  Anthony Perkins

Marion Crane:  Janet Leigh

Lila Crane:  Vera Miles

Sam Loomis:  John Gavin

Detective Arbogast:  Martin Balsam

Running Time:  109 minutes

Alfred Hitchcock’s most famous shocker, and arguably Bernard Herrmann’s most famous music score as well.  Likewise, it contains Hitchcock’s most famous and most studied scene, the shower scene, which also contains Herrmann’s most famous piece of music, the loud shrill of violins as the shadowy murderer strikes down poor Janet Leigh in the shower.  Hitchcock originally wanted no music in this scene, which actually makes a lot of sense and would have worked, making the scene raw and brutal, but Herrmann argued that it needed music, and how can anyone argue with the end result?  A rare example of one brief scene capturing the finest instances of artistry of two separate artists at the same time, as both Hitchcock and Herrmann produce their signature moments in this scene.

Arguably the most famous and recognizable horror movie score of all time.

THE 3 WORLDS OF GULLIVER (1960)

Directed by Jack Sher

Screenplay by Jack Sher and Arthur A. Ross, based on “Gulliver’s Travels” by Jonathan Swift

Gulliver:  Kerwin Mathews

Gwendolyn:  Jo Morrow

Elizabeth: June Thorburn

Running Time:  100 minutes

Once again providing music for a film with special animation effects by Ray Harryhausen.

MYSTERIOUS ISLAND (1961)

Directed by Cy Endfield

Screenplay by John Prebble, Daniel B. Ullman, and Crane Wilbur, based on the novel by Jules Verne

Captain Cyrus Harding:  Michael Craig

Lady Mary Fairchild:  Joan Greenwood

Herbert Brown:  Michael Callan

Gideon Spilitt:  Gary Merrill

Captain Nemo:  Herbert Lom

Running Time:  101 minutes

Once again reunited with Ray Harryhausen, and once again one of Herrmann’s most memorable scores. This entertaining adventure about Civil War soldiers stranded on an island with oversized creatures is must-see viewing.  The first twenty minutes, involving a daring escape from a Confederate prison, is riveting and suspenseful, complimented in full by Herrmann’s rousing music, and this is all before they even land on the island!

CAPE FEAR (1962)

Directed by J. Lee Thompson

Screenplay by James R. Webb, based on the novel by John D. Macdonald

Sam Bowden:  Gregory Peck

Max Cady:  Robert Mitchum

Peggy Bowden:  Polly Bergen

Running Time:  105 minutes

Classic thriller about murder and revenge was a financial flop upon its initial release.

JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS (1963)

Directed by Don Chaffey

Screenplay by Jan Read and Beverley Cross

Jason:  Todd Armstrong

Argos:  Laurence Naismith

Running Time:  104 minutes

Reunited once again— and for the last time— with Ray Harryhausen, and yes, once more, another exceedingly memorable film score.  This one contains the classic sword fight between Jason and his men and Harryhausen’s animated skeletons.  The scene also includes some of Hermann’s best music.

THE BIRDS (1963)

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Screenplay by Evan Hunter, based on the story by Daphne Du Maurier

Melanie Daniels:  Tippi Hedrin

Mitch Brenner:  Rod Taylor

Annie Hayworth:  Suzanne Pleshette

Running Time:  119 minutes.

But, there’s no music in THE BIRDS.  True.  Herrmann served as a sound consultant for this movie.  Supposedly it was his idea not to have music in THE BIRDS.

MARNIE (1964)

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Screenplay by Jay Presson Allen, based on the novel by Winston Graham

Marnie:  Tippi Hedren

Mark Rutland:  Sean Connery

Running Time:  130 minutes

This Hitchcock drama was considered a misfire on its initial release, but its reputation has grown steadily over the decades.

FAHRENHEIT 451 (1966)

Directed by Francois Truffaut

Screenplay by Francois Truffaut and Jean-Louis Richard, based on the novel by Ray Bradbury

Clarisse/Linda Montag:  Julie Christie

Guy Montag:  Oskar Werner

Running Time:  112 minutes.

Classic novel; not so classic movie.

SISTERS (1973)

Directed by Brian De Palma

Screenplay by Brian De Palma and Louisa Rose

Danielle Breton/Dominique Blanchion:  Margot Kidder

Joseph Larch:  Charles Durning

Running Time:  93 minutes

Early Brian De Palma thriller.

IT’S ALIVE (1974)

Directed by Larry Cohen

Screenplay by Larry Cohen

Frank Davies:  John P. Ryan

Running Time: 91 minutes

Campy horror movie about a killer baby was a hit in the summer of 1974.

OBSESSION (1976)

Directed by Brian De Palma

Screenplay by Paul Schrader

Michael Courtland:  Cliff Robertson

Elizabeth Courtland/Sandra Portinari

Robert Lasalle:  John Lithgow

Running Time:  98 minutes

De Palma thriller with shades of Hitchcock’s VERTIGO.  Herrmann’s score was nominated for an Oscar.

TAXI DRIVER (1976)

Directed by Martin Scorsese

Screenplay by Paul Schrader

Travis Bickle:  Robert De Niro

Iris:  Jodie Foster

Running Time:  113 minutes

Classic Scorsese film earned Oscar nominations for stars De Niro and Foster, as well as Bernard Herrmann who was nominated twice in the same year. Herrmann lost out to Jerry Goldsmith for his score for THE OMEN.  Herrmann’s final movie score.

Herrmann died of a heart attack on December 24, 1975, just hours after he had finished the score for TAXI DRIVER.  He was 64.

Bernard Herrmann enjoyed a long and prolific career.  For me, I will always associate his music with the fantasy films of Ray Harryhausen and the thrillers of Alfred Hitchcock, and if I had to pick my three favorite Herrmann scores, they would be NORTH BY NORTHWEST, PSYCHO, and THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD.

Bernard Herrmann

June 29, 1911 – December 24, 1975

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

YOUR MOVIE LISTS: CHLOE GRACE MORETZ Movies

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carrie_chloe_moritz- carrie

Chloe Grace Moretz as CARRIE (2013).

YOUR MOVIE LISTS:  Chloe Grace Moretz

 

By Michael Arruda

 

Welcome to another edition of YOUR MOVIE LISTS, the column where you’ll find lists of odds and ends about movies.  Today we’re looking at films starring Chloe Grace Moretz.

 

Ever since Chloe Grace Moretz burst onto the scene as Hit Girl in KICK- ASS (2010), I’ve been a huge fan, so much so that she’s clearly one of my favorite actresses working today, and what makes this even more amazing is she’s only seventeen years old.  It’s a rare thing for me to be blown away on a consistent basis by an actor that young.

 

Sure, part of what made her so memorable as Hit Girl was the shock factor: here was an eleven year-old girl using language usually reserved for Robert De Niro in a gangster movie and kicking bad guys’ butts with the ferocity of Christian Bale’s Batman.

 

But Moretz didn’t stop there.  She has continued to star in one decent movie after another, and she’s usually the best part of these movies.

 

Here is a partial list of movies featuring Chloe Grace Moretz:

 

HEART OF THE BEHOLDER (2005) – film debut of Chloe Grace Moretz.

 

THE AMITYVILLE HORROR (2005) – plays young Chelsea Lutz in this re-imagining of the 1979 film.

 

KICK-ASS (2010) – the film which pretty much put Moretz on the map.  While Aaron Taylor-Johnson is pretty impressive in the lead role as Kick-Ass, the young teen turned superhero, Chloe Grace Moretz is even better as the eleven year-old Hit Girl, the roughest, toughest pre-teen superhero ever seen in the movies.  Violent and not for everybody, KICK-ASS is one of the more enjoyable off-beat superhero films you’ll ever have the pleasure to come across.

 

DIARY OF A WIMPY KID (2010) – plays Angie Steadman in this very funny movie based on the popular book by Jeff Kinney.

 

LET ME IN (2010) – Moretz is amazing as the vampire Abby—perhaps even more impressive than her performance as Hit Girl— in this Hammer horror film directed by Matt Reeves.  This is one of my favorite horror movies of recent years, and Moretz’ performance is a major reason why.

 

HUGO (2011) – plays Isabelle in a delightful supporting role in Martin Scorsese’s highly entertaining visual tour de force about a young boy name Hugo (Asa Butterfield)  living in the walls of a train station in 1930s Paris.  Also starring Ben Kingsley and Sacha Baron Cohen.

 

DARK SHADOWS (2012) – plays Carolyn Stoddard in this reimagining of the iconic 1960s TV show by director Tim Burton.  A comedic misfire, not even Johnny Depp as Barnabas Collins, or the presence of Michelle Pfeiffer, Helena Bonham Carter, Eva Green, Jackie Earle Haley, Christopher Lee, and of course Chloe Grace Moretz could save this one, which plays more like THE ADDAMS FAMILY than DARK SHADOWS.

 

KICK-ASS 2 (2013) – While it was nice to see Moretz reprise her Hit Girl role along with Aaron Taylor Johnson’s return as Kick-Ass, this sequel is nowhere near as good as its predecessor.

 

CARRIE ( 2013) – plays the lead role of Carrie in this decent remake of the 1976 film starring Sissy Spacek, both based on the very first novel by Stephen King.  Moretz is good, and Julianne Moore might be better as Carrie’s cruel mom.

 

IF I STAY (2014) – love story where Moretz’ character Mia has to decide via an out-of-body experience after a car crash whether or not she wants to return to the land of the living.

 

THE EQUALIZER (2014) – supporting role as a prostitute in this OK actioner very loosely based on the old TV show from the 1980s starring Edward Woodward.  This one stars Denzel Washington in the lead role.

 

There you have it, a partial list of some notable Chloe Grace Moretz movies. Hope you enjoyed it.

 

Thanks for reading!

 

—Michael