READY PLAYER ONE (2018) – Cinematic References Best Part of this Fantasy Tale

1

ready-player-one-poster

I’m not a gamer. I don’t play video games, and I haven’t read the book  Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, and so my interest in seeing READY PLAYER ONE (2018) the new fantasy adventure by director Steven Spielberg, was purely for cinematic reasons.  That’s right. I saw this one simply because I wanted to see the movie.

So, as a movie, how does READY PLAYER ONE size up? Not bad.  For the most part, it’s a fairly entertaining two-plus hours at the movies, even if it’s telling a story that is about as compelling as a game of Donkey Kong.

The best part of READY PLAYER ONE is all the cultural cinematic references. After all, where else can you find King Kong, MechaGodzilla, and the Iron Giant all in the same movie?  Where else can you have your characters enter a world based on Kubrick’s THE SHINING (1980)?  The answer is READY PLAYER ONE! These and other references and nods [including to ALIEN (1979) and LOST IN SPACE (1965-68)]  are what kept me most interested in this movie, long after I lost interest in its story.

Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) lives in 2045, a time when life is so hard people need to escape from reality, and they do so by entering the OASIS, a virtual reality world created by the brilliant James Halliday (Mark Rylance) where pretty much anything can happen. You can be whoever you want to be and do whatever it is you want to do. So, Wade plays in this video game world as a handsomer version of himself known as Parzival.

Halliday has since died, but he’s left a challenge to all the players in the OASIS: he has left three keys inside his virtual reality world, and the player who finds all three keys will unlock the game’s secret and become controller of the entire OASIS.  Wade and his friends make it their goal to do just that, but they’d better hurry because an evil company led by a man named Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) has other ideas.

And that’s the story.  This one’s certainly not going to win any awards for Best Screenplay, that’s for sure.

Visually READY PLAYER ONE is a lot of fun, and Spielberg keeps the action fast, bright, and playful.  I have no problem with this part of the movie.

The cast is okay, even though they don’t have a whole lot to work with. Tye Sheridan is decent enough in the lead role as Wade/Parzival, but the character as written in this movie is rather dull, and Sheridan doesn’t really bring this young man to life.  Both his parents have died, yet this grief barely resonates in the story.

Olivia Cooke fares better as Samantha, who becomes Wade’s best friend and eventual love interest.  Samantha is also a kick-ass character who is much more interesting than Wade.  I like Cooke a lot and have been a fan since I first saw her on the TV series BATES MOTEL (2013-17) and also in the Hammer horror movie THE QUIET ONES (2014).

Ben Mendelsohn plays the cardboard villain Sorrento who acts like he walked out of an old Scooby Doo cartoon.  Mendelsohn played a much more effective villain, Orson Krennic, in ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY (2016).

I did enjoy T.J. Miller as Sorrento’s henchman I-ROk, as he provides the film’s best bits of comic relief.  Miller was recently in DEADPOOL ((2016), but I always remember him as Hud, the frightened yet frequently hilarious guy behind the camera in CLOVERFIELD (2008).

Mark Rylance, either hidden under lots of hair or CGI effects in the OASIS, is quiet and unassuming as the gaming genius Halliday, but Simon Pegg as Halliday’s business partner Ogden Morrow is little more than an afterthought.  These two fine actors really don’t get a whole lot of chances to do much in this movie.

The screenplay by Zak Penn and Ernest Cline, who wrote the novel, is straightforward and pretty much tells a by-the-numbers plot.  Teens have to save the world from an evil meddling company while learning about the man who created their favorite game and about themselves as well.

At times, the film feels like a cross between TRON (1982) and WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY (1971). In fact, it’s been reported that Spielberg had approached Gene Wilder to play Halliday, before the iconic comedic actor passed away.  Its nonstop video game landscape is mixed with a syrupy sweet nostalgia tale that makes for lightweight fare, as opposed to a hard-hitting fantasy adventure.

There’s not a lot of memorable dialogue either. And the action scenes, while visually stunning, were pretty tame.

READY PLAYER ONE is chock-full of fun cinematic, video game, and cultural references, especially from the 1980s, and it’s a treat for the eyes, as it’s full of colorful alternate reality landscapes, but its story is meh and often falls flat.  For example, for nearly its entire 140 minute run time, we are immersed inside its virtual reality world, yet at the end, we are treated to a message that says the real world is still more important and interesting, which after all that came before it simply sounds hollow and forced.

READY PLAYER ONE is a colorful diversion if you have 140 minutes to spare.  If not, feel free to spend some time outside instead.  In the real world.

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

THE POST (2017) – Mild Retelling of Important Moment in U.S. History

2

The-Post

Remember The Pentagon Papers?

If you’re not a student of history, you may not, since a much bigger story broke right after their release to the public, the Watergate burglary. But if you see THE POST (2017), Steven Spielberg’s latest movie about this U.S. government bombshell and subsequent court battle which nearly put a dagger in the heart of freedom of the press, you might—

—still not remember it.

Spielberg’s latest film, starring Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, in spite of its impressive look, strong performances, and timely subject matter, somehow just doesn’t resonate all that well.

It’s 1971, and The New York Times has just published an explosive article revealing the U.S. government— going all the way back to the Eisenhower administration— had known the Vietnam War was unwinnable, and yet they proceeded anyway, lying to the American public that the war effort was going well. When the Nixon administration orders the Times to cease publication of these articles, pending criminal charges, the paper concedes.

Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) sees this as a chance to save his newspaper, which is facing financial hardship and lack of readership, in spite of the efforts of its publisher Kay Graham (Meryl Streep).  Bradlee sends his reporters in search of a copy of the source document, the Pentagon Papers, and when they subsequently find it, Bradlee is ready to print as much of the controversial information as possible, but members of the paper’s board hesititate, knowing that the government could take legal action and shut them down.

Bradlee sees this as a battle for freedom of the press, claiming that it is the job of the press to keep the government honest, because if they can’t do it, who will?  And when Kay bucks the board and backs Ben, the battle lines are drawn.

The story told in THE POST is a good one, and it’s timely, since here in 2018 the press is sparring with the Trump administration, and yet, strangely, the film as a whole did not hold my interest.

The best character in the film is editor Ben Bradlee, and Tom Hanks nails the role in the film’s strongest performance. His fight for freedom of the press is the most compelling part of the story and really should be the centerpiece of the film, but it’s not.  When he sends his reporters out to find the Pentagon Papers, these scenes should have made for compelling cinema, but they don’t.  Compared to another recent newspaper movie, SPOTLIGHT (2015) which brought its audience in close to the plight of its journalists, THE POST fails to capture that feeling of what it’s like being a newspaper reporter.  The storytelling here is simply not as gritty as it needs to be.

Meryl Streep, in spite of an impressive performance as Kay Graham, doesn’t fare as well as Tom Hanks. Her story of Kay fighting to gain respect among men is also timely and yet her scenes are never as powerful or as memorable as they could have been.  They all come off as rather passive and quiet.  I expected her scenes to be rousing and inspirational but surprisingly they were not.

The fault here is the screenplay by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer.  With the exception of Hanks’ Ben Bradlee, the rest of the characters are not that memorable or fleshed out. Nor is the dialogue all that noteworthy.  Hannah and Singer go through the motions telling the story, but this one never reached out and grabbed me. The biggest knock for me was, in spite of this being based on a true story, the characters just didn’t seem all that real.

And Spielberg’s direction didn’t help either.  The film looks great, as everything about 1971 looks authentic.  But the pacing here was dreadfully slow, and I just didn’t feel the suspense, even during the film’s climactic moment where everyone at the paper waits to hear the Supreme Court decision which will decide their fate.

I enjoyed Spielberg’s previous movie, BRIDGE OF SPIES (2015) much more.

In addition to Hanks and Streep, THE POST also features a fine supporting cast.  Bob Odenkirk is very good as Post reporter Ben Bagdikian, in a role that is unfortunately under written.  Tracy Letts fares even better as Post chairman of the board Fritz Beebe. Letts is an excellent actor who we just saw in a completely different yet equally impressive role as Lady Bird’s father in LADY BIRD (2017). He was also in THE BIG SHORT (2015).

Bruce Greenwood has some fine moments as Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, as does Bradley Whitford as Post board member Arthur Parsons.

And John Williams, at age 85, provides yet another music score, this following upon the heels of his score for STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI (2017).  Pretty awesome!

But awesome is something THE POST is not.  Overall, I was disappointed with THE POST. I found it slow and only mildly intriguing, which for a story of this magnitude, should not have been the case.  The characters, in spite of being based on real people, never really came to life, and the story was told in a rather low-key and passive way that never really grabbed me.

It also didn’t really work as “newspaper movie” as I hardly got the feel of what it was like to work as a reporter at The Washington Post during this time.  As a result, the entire movie lacked the edge it should have had.

In spite of its impressive look and quality acting, THE POST is simply a mild retelling of an important moment in our nation’s history.

No front page headlines here.

—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.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In Memoriam: TOBE HOOPER

1

tobe hooper

Acclaimed horror film director Tobe Hooper passed away on August 26, 2017 at the age of 74.

Most known for THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974), Hooper directed a bunch of horror movies, but none more famous or influential than this 1974 classic.

I know a lot of horror writers who not only swear by THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE but view it as the best horror movie ever made.  While I don’t share this opinion, I agree that it’s certainly one of the most iconic horror movies of all time.

Just as many writers I know choose it as their favorite horror movie.  Others cite it as the movie that inspired them to write horror.  All this attention and love poured onto THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, that’s saying something.

But Tobe Hooper made more horror movies than just THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE.  Here’s a partial look at Tobe Hooper’s film career:

EGGSHELLS (1969) – Hooper’s first feature-length directorial credit, an allegorical fantasy involving hippies and a big house in the woods.

THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974) – Tobe Hooper’s signature film, and the movie that introduced Leatherface to the world.  Some good old-fashioned fun in Texas when a group of teens run afoul a family of psychopathic cannibals.  Yikes!  Some folks call this the greatest horror movie ever made.  I’m not one of them. Still, it’s classic, iconic horror.

EATEN ALIVE (1976) – Murderous psychopath feeds his victims to his pet crocodile.  Yummy!

SALEM’S LOT (1979) – Hooper’s made-for-TV adaptation of Stephen King’s frightening vampire novel might be my personal favorite Hooper film.  Scary in all the right places, it’s not as good as the novel and is somewhat dated today, but still worth a look.  James Mason steals all his scenes as the evil Mr. Straker.

THE FUNHOUSE (1981) –  a poor man’s HALLOWEEN, this slasher flick which takes place at a carnival is must-see summer viewing, even if at the end of the day, it’s really not all that scary.

POLTERGEIST (1982) – a huge hit back in the day, but not a film I ever liked all that much.  The debate rages on.  Who directed this one?  Hooper or producer Steven Spielberg?  I’ve read compelling evidence that it was Spielberg, and it certainly seems like a Spielberg-directed picture, which is one of the reasons at the time I was lukewarm to it.

LIFEFORCE (1985)- wild, crazy science fiction thriller about a female alien/vampire who spends most of her time naked and killing everyone she encounters.  A truly insane movie which I happen to like a lot.  Somewhat of a cult favorite today.  Written by ALIEN screenwriter Dan O’Bannon.

INVADERS FROM MARS (1986) – remake of 1953 science fiction movie of the same name tells the story of a Martian invasion seen through a boy’s eyes.

THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2 (1986)- Hooper’s sequel to his horror classic has never been well received by either fans or critics.

THE MANGLER (1995) – this one’s about a laundry folding machine possessed by a demon.  Stars Freddy Krueger himself, Robert Englund.

TOOLBOX MURDERS (2004) – Evil inside a historic hotel.

DJINN (2013) – Hooper’s final film.  This time it’s an apartment that’s haunted.

There’s no doubt that Tobe Hooper had an influential career, as I know writers and filmmakers who cite Hooper as inspiring their own horror careers.  I’ve never been a big Tobe Hooper fan, but he did make an impressive number of horror movies.  Regardless of how you feel about his movies, you’d be hard-pressed to watch them and not have a strong reaction to them, which for some folks, is what horror is all about.

Tobe Hooper – January 25, 1943 – August 26, 2017.

—END—

 

THE HORROR JAR: Music by Jerry Goldsmith, Part 1

1

Welcome back to THE HORROR JAR, that column where we look at lists about movies, especially horror movies.  Today we look at genre movies scored by Jerry Goldsmith, and there are a lot of them.

Jerry-Goldsmith

Jerry Goldsmith

Looking back at Jerry Goldsmith’s career, it’s amazing to see just how many horror and science fiction films he wrote the music for, and how memorable these scores are.  There are so many, in fact, that I’ve divided this column into two parts.

Here’s a partial look at his prolific career, concentrating mostly on his genre credits:

BLACK PATCH (1957) –  Jerry  Goldsmith’s first film score, a western written by tough guy actor Leo Gordon.

SEVEN DAYS IN MAY (1964) – provided the music for this taut nuclear war thriller directed by John Frankenheimer and starring Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, and Fredric March.  It’s DR. STRANGELOVE without the laughs.

THE SATAN BUG (1965)- Goldsmith’s first genre credit, the science fiction thriller about germ warfare

PLANET OF THE APES (1968) – This Jerry Goldsmith score remains one of my favorites.  The unusual music here really captures the feel of the Ape world and adds to the “madhouse!” emotions which Charlton Heston’s Taylor has to endure at the hands of his captors.  Classic.

THE ILLUSTRATED MAN (1969) – Science fiction film based on the short story collection of the same name by Ray Bradbury and starring Rod Steiger.

THE MEPHISTO WALTZ (1971) – Obscure horror film with Alan Alda as a pianist who finds his soul in the hands of a scheming satanist.

ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES (1971)-  Goldsmith goes ape again as he scores the third film in the series, a creative flick in which apes Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) and Zira (Kim Hunter) travel back in time to present day Los Angeles.

THE OTHER (1972) – classic 1970s horror movie scripted by Tom Tryon.

THE REINCARNATION OF PETER PROUD – (1975) – 1970s horror flick starring Michael Sarrazin, Jennifer O’Neil, and Margot Kidder.

THE OMEN (1976)- the big one, probaly Goldsmith’s most powerful score, and the only one for which he won an Oscar.  Still a very scary movie today, and Goldsmith’s music is a major reason why.

Omen-poster

LOGAN’S RUN (1976) – classic science fiction film from the 1970s starring Michael York and Farrah Fawcett.

DAMNATION ALLEY (1977) – Much-hyped science fiction movie about survivors in a post-apocalyptic world starring George Peppard and Jan-Michael Vincent was a major flop upon its release, as it was completely overshadowed by another science fiction release that same year, a little film called STAR WARS (1977).

COMA (1978) – Horror thriller written and directed by Michael Crichton about sinister goings-on starring Genevieve Bujold and Michael Douglas.

CAPRICORN ONE (1978) – another major flop from the 1970s, this thriller about a fake space mission to Mars featured a strong cast which included Elliott Gould, James Brolin, Brenda Vaccaro, Sam Waterston, O.J. Simpson (remember when he was that likable former football star who went on to make movies?), Hal Holbrook, Karen Black, and Telly Savalas.

DAMIEN:  OMEN II (1978) – Goldsmith’s back at it again, composing yet another horrific score in this OMEN sequel that, while nowhere near as good as the original, remains highly entertaining today.  Starring William Holden and Lee Grant.

THE SWARM (1978)- One of the worst movies of the decade and certainly one of the worst “disaster” movies ever made.  This tale of a swarm of killer bees attacking the United States was directed by Irwin Allen who must have been punch drunk over the success of his previous hits THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE (1972) and THE TOWERING INFERNO (1974) when he made this turkey.  With an “all-star” cast which included Michael Caine, Katharine Ross, and Richard Chamberlain, and many many unforturnate more.  It’s hard to believe that this storyline– deadly killer bees– used to be considered real and scary.  I can’t believe I actually saw this one at the movies!

THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL (1978) – Excellent thriller about a Nazi hunter (Laurence Olivier) on the trail of a fanatical Nazi (Gregory Peck) with plans to resurrect the Third Reich.

MAGIC (1978)- The Anthony Hopkins horror classic about a ventriliouost and his evil dummy.  1978 was a busy year for Jerry Goldsmith, as MAGIC was the sixth film he scored that year!

THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY (1979) – Period piece fun with Sean Connery and Donald Sutherland robbing a train in Victorian England.  An underrated gem by writer/director Michael Crichton.

ALIEN (1979)- Goldsmith just keeps on rolling here with his chillingly effective score for this science fiction classic which launched the career of Sigourney Weaver.

STAR TREK:  THE MOTION PICTURE (1979) – Goldsmith’s score for the first STAR TREK movie is my personal favorite.  Kirk (William Shatner), Spock (Leonard Nimoy), Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley) and the rest of the Enterprise crew hit the big screen for the first time with mixed results.  It’s highbrow science fiction to be sure, but it’s all so slow paced.  This one continues to grow on me over the years, but I loved Goldsmith’s music from the get-go.  Sure, his iconic new theme went on to become the main theme for STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION, but that’s not what I love about this score.  It’s all rather dark and ominous, a powerful score that remains the finest music score in the STAR TREK universe.

star trek motion picture poster

THE FINAL CONFLICT (1981)- the final film in the OMEN trilogy, and by far the weakest, even with a young Sam Neill cast as the adult Damien.

OUTLAND (1981) – Interesting science fiction movie with Sean Connery playing a Marshall on a mining colony on Jupiter’s moon tangling with some baddies without help from its inhabitants.  It’s HIGH NOON (1951) in space.

POLTERGEIST (1982) – A big hit in 1982, I’ve never liked this horror vehicle by Steven Spielberg and Tobe Hooper.

FIRST BLOOD (1982) – provides the music for Sylvester Stallone’s first foray as Rambo.

PSYCHO II (1983) – provides yet another very effective music score in this long awaited sequel to the Alfred Hitchcock classic, once again starring Anthony Perkins as the twisted tormened Norman Bates.  It’s certainly not PSYCHO (1960) but this thriller by director Richard Franklin really isn’t all that bad.  Vera Miles also reprises her role from the original.

TWILIGHT ZONE:  THE MOVIE (1983) – Muddled big screen treatment of classic Rod Serling TV series, a real head-scratcher when you consider the talent involved – Joe Dante, John Landis, George Miller, and Steven Spielberg each directed a segment and yet this film still is a clunker.

And that’s all the time we have.  Tune in for Part 2 of THE HORROR JAR:  Jerry Goldsmith when we look at the second half of Goldsmith’s career.  Coming soon!

To be continued—.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

AFTER MOVIES – LIST SOME TV SHOWS HE SCORED

BEST MOVIES OF 2015

0

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

It Follows poster

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.

mad max fury road poster

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.

spotlight 2015 poster

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.

sicario poster

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

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT: SPECTRE (2015)

0

This CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT review appeared this weekend at cinemaknifefight.com.  Guest reviewer Nick Cato and myself take on the new James Bond film SPECTRE (2015), as my usual CKF buddy L.L. Soares was off on another assignment.

 

CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT: SPECTRE (2015)Spectre poster

Review by Michael Arruda & Nick Cato

(THE SCENE: An enormous room, ominously lit, with a long table in the center.  Around the table sit various assorted villainous types.  They are all engaged in small talk on such topics as world domination, espionage, and fantasy football.  The balcony above this scene is filled with onlookers. MICHAEL ARRUDA moves amongst them.  He speaks into the miniature microphone clandestinely planted near his mouth.

MICHAEL ARRUDA: Nick, you there?

(The balcony on the other side of the room is also filled with onlookers. NICK CATO moves amongst this group.  He speaks into his microphone.)

NICK CATO: Yes, I’m here.

MA: Any sign of him yet?

NC: That would be a “negative.”

MA: Well, he should be arriving any minute.  While we’re waiting, we can review today’s movie, but we’ll have to do it on the sly, since we don’t want to blow our covers.

NC: Sounds good to me.

MA: Welcome everyone to today’s CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT column. Today Nick Cato and I are reviewing the latest James Bond movie, SPECTRE (2015), which stars Daniel Craig as James Bond.  To do the review, we’ve chosen this location, the secret hideaway of that nefarious league of villains, S.P.E.C.T.R.E., which is why we have to remain incognito.  This group doesn’t take too kindly to uninvited guests.  And the big news tonight is the shadowy head of S.P.E.C.T.R.E is making an appearance, and so we’ll learn for the first time the truth behind his secret identity.

Nick Cato has joined me tonight because all this cool spy espionage stuff does nothing for L.L. SOARES, and he is off on another assignment.  So, thanks for filling in, Nick!

NC: Happy to be here. I’ll do my best to keep my voice down.

MA: Okay, let’s get started. SPECTRE is the latest movie in the James Bond series, a series that started way back in 1962 with DR. NO.  This is Daniel Craig’s fourth time playing Bond, and the thing I’ve enjoyed about the Craig films is they’ve all been connected.  They’ve featured a story arc which continues here with SPECTRE.  The original Sean Connery James Bond films sort of had an arc, as they were connected by the S.P.E.C.T.R.E. storylines which featured Blofeld as the main villain pulling the strings in multiple movies, but once Roger Moore took over the role the films largely became stand-alone movies with little or no connection to each other.  I’ve enjoyed that the Daniel Craig films have gone back to the notion of being linked to each other.

The events in SPECTRE follow the events in the previous installment SKYFALL (2012) directly.  Acting on a message which M (Judi Dench) left him before she died in SKYFALL,  Bond (Daniel Craig) once again goes rogue— he seems to do that a lot these days—- disobeying the orders of the new M (Ralph Fiennes) and taking matters into his own hands to learn what it is the previous M wanted him to learn. What he discovers is the secret organization SPECTRE.  How the deceased M knew about SPECTRE when she was absolutely clueless about them in the previous films is beyond me.

NC: At first this bothered me to no end, but in a way it gives Dench’s M more mystery, which is kind of cool. Perhaps she did know about them but has only revealed them now that she was gone for her own safety? Or am I grasping at straws here?

(A Scarecrow stuffed with straw brushes by NC.)

After Bond watched the video she had made for him before she died in SKYFALL, he says to Moneypenny, “She wasn’t going to let death get in the way of doing her job.” Ha! Gotta love that line.

MA: In the previous Craig films, one of the more intriguing plot points was the underground organization that seemed to be behind every crime Bond was trying to thwart. They were all powerful and nearly invisible, and the prior films in the Craig series did an excellent job creating this group, giving us bits and pieces of their existence and activities, but never allowing Bond to discover who it was he was up against.

That changes in SPECTRE, as Bond learns that this group has a name, and its name is SPECTRE.  He also discovers the man running SPECTRE, Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), who, like everything else in the Daniel Craig series, has a personal connection to James Bond, which of course, makes Bond’s mission in this one more personal, as if saving the world wasn’t enough.  It only remains for Bond to learn what Oberhauser is up to and then of course to stop him.

I liked SPECTRE well enough, but there were also an awful lot of things about this one I didn’t like.  To me, the best thing SPECTRE has going for it is its cast.  All the players here do an excellent job.  But the direction here by Sam Mendes, who also directed SKYFALL, is nothing to write home about.  There are some decent action sequences, but none that I would call overly memorable.

NC: I will say I thought the opening sequence in New Mexico was very well done, and one of the better Bond openings. Not only do we get a nifty assassination that ends with a building nearly crushing 007 to death, but a wicked brawl aboard a whirling helicopter above a crowded plaza. It was almost like a 2 for 1 action blast that led into what I thought was a great looking opening credit sequence, although I could’ve done without Sam Smith’s dull song.

MA: Oh my gosh! Talk about lackluster songs!  It was about as exciting as a lullaby!

But you’re right about the opening sequence. It was well done.

But the weakest part of SPECTRE is the script.  Now, this movie is written by four screenwriters:  John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Jez Butterworth.  All these guys have strong resumes, including having written several other Bond movies.  A movie written by these four guys has no business being as tepid as this one is.

NC: No argument there. The plot is thin considering how many people worked on it.

MA: Let’s start with the basic revelation regarding SPECTRE. Seriously, is that really much of a surprise?  I mean, am I the only viewer who when watching the previous Craig films thought that the sinister organization operating in those films sounded an awful lot like SPECTRE?  I certainly expected that to be the case.  Likewise, seriously, the revelation about Oberhauser’s true identity, is that that much of a shock?  No.

NC: For crying out loud Michael Meyers made fun of the sibling thing in his third spy spoof GOLDMEMBER (2002). They could’ve at least made Oberhauser his third cousin or something.

(Mini-Me emerges from the crowd and starts humping MA’s leg.)

MA: What are you—?  Get off me!

(DR. EVIL appears.)

DR. EVIL: Mini-Me, stop humping the movie critic’s leg. It’s friggin embarrassing! (Pulls Mini-Me off MA).   How am I expected to take over the friggin world when I have to keep chasing you around all day?  No.  I don’t want to hear it.  Zip it!  Zip!

NC: Hey, Mike?  Everything okay over there!

MA: I’m fine.  Just a “little” inconvenience, that’s all.

(Mini-Me flips MA the bird.)

MA: Anyway, the problem with SPECTRE is in terms of surprises, that’s pretty much it.  I kept waiting to learn what it was that Oberhauser and SPECTRE were up to.  What was their grand scheme?  And every time they came close to uttering it, the plot would switch back to James Bond.

NC: Yep. An attempt to make Spectre more mysterious, but they’re mysterious enough.

MA: The scene in the room with all the SPECTRE villains is a nice microcosm of the entire movie. We wait for Oberhauser to finally show up, to shed some light on his intentions, and just as it seems he’s going to, he looks up at James Bond and pretty much says “gotcha!  We know you’re here!”  Bond responds by hightailing it out of there.  I’m glad he knows Bond is there, but I wanted to know what he was doing there!  This film never gives him or SPECTRE anything worthwhile to do.

The plot point of controlling information did little for me and reminded me somewhat of the plot in the Pierce Brosnan Bond film TOMORROW NEVER DIES (1997) in which

Jonathan Pryce played a villainous media mogul who was all about— controlling information.

NC: Exactly. And as much as I like Christoph Waltz, I thought Pryce filled that type of threat better.

MA: Agreed. I’ve always thought Pryce was one of the more underrated and underappreciated Bond villains.  Part of that, I’m sure, is TOMORROW NEVER DIES isn’t the best Bond movie.

SPECTRE also is all over the place in terms of tone.  It starts off being very playful, and a lot of the early scenes and dialogue in the movie were reminiscent of the Roger Moore Bond films, which is completely unlike the dark tone of the previous Craig films.

I did like that it opened once more with the signature gun barrel sequence. This is the first time this was used in the Craig films.

By the time the film reverts to its darker side later in the movie, it unfortunately has to contend with the lame SPECTRE storyline. The previous films did a phenomenal job with this all-powerful organization which operated from the shadows, generating a feeling of chaos that ironically is completely absent from SPECTRE.  Furthermore, we finally meet the leader of this group, Oberhauser, and he’s about as effective a villain as Dr. Evil.  Strangely, I was disappointed with all the SPECTRE stuff in this movie.

NC: Weird. My favorite thing about SPECTRE was how the title organization was portrayed. They came off as all-knowing as super sinister.

MA: Really?  I didn’t find them that sinister at all.  I remember in the previous Craig films Judi Dench’s M running around like a chicken with its head cut off, lamenting that she had no idea who these people were, and she was shaken because this organization had people inside MI6, people she thought she trusted.  I didn’t get that sense of inflicted chaos here in SPECTRE.

NC: I did. I’m starting to think YOU are part of Spectre.

And while I wish Christoph Waltz had more screen time, I thought he made a nice throwback-type villain and head of Spectre. Sure, he reminded me, too, of Dr. Evil with his typical Bond villain outfit and eventual facial scar, but the sequence of him happily torturing Bond with that robotic contraption made him seem free of conscience and totally evil. Okay, maybe he was a lot like Dr. Evil, but not as funny.

MA: I just wanted him to do more.

Like I said, I wasn’t all that impressed with the direction by Sam Mendes. There were some memorable scenes, but not a whole lot.  There’s a vicious fight sequence on a passenger train between Bond and a huge assassin Hinx (Dave Bautista) which is clearly an homage to the similar train fight sequences in FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE (1963) between Sean Connery and Robert Shaw, and in THE SPY WHO LOVED ME (1977) between Roger Moore and Richard Kiel’s Jaws character.  In fact, the character of Hinx here reminded me of Jaws, as he was Bond’s main adversary for most of the movie and like Jaws, would walk away from obvious death situations.

NC: I liked Hinx a lot. Actor Dave Bautista has an awesome, intimidating physical presence and I too immediately thought of Jaws from THE SPY WHO LOVED ME. I was actually waiting for 007 to use a lamp or other electrical device to shock him off the train, but how Hinx ends up being dispatched was well done (and ironically reminded me of JAWS (1975), although I’m pretty sure that wasn’t Mendes’ intention).

MA: That’s pretty funny. I hadn’t thought of that.  Hey, you never know.  That might have been a little in-joke.  And who starred in JAWS?  Robert Shaw, who fought Sean Connery in the FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE train fight!

(Captain Quint from JAWS stands from the table.)

QUINT: Here’s to swimmin’ with bow-legged women!   (Sits back down.)

NC: I just hope Kevin Bacon doesn’t show up.

MA: SPECTRE is full of the signature Bond chases and action scenes, but for the most part, they seemed to simply be going through the motions.  There was a lot of “been there, done that” going through my head as I watched this movie.

NC: While I agree, that is what I liked about SPECTRE. During SKYFALL I think Mendes tried too hard to make things a bit different, and I found myself incredibly bored. This time, it felt good to get back to Bond basics, and I especially liked the car chase between 007 and Hinx. I thought it was fun to have Bond’s car a prototype and not fully functional, making him rely more on his driving skills than the gadgets, something that hasn’t been explored in the franchise since 1981’s FOR YOUR EYES ONLY.

I also like how we’ve seen gadgets and props from past Bond films in these four Craig outings, and I think fans of the series will get a real kick out of the toy 007 gets at the end of SPECTRE.

MA: The bulk of this film takes place in London, which was similar to SKYFALL, and I found this a disappointment since most Bond films take place all over the world, and while there are other locations in SPECTRE, the bulk of the action takes place, as it did in SKYFALL, around the MI6 building in London.

NC: I wasn’t bothered by that. There was plenty of travel and action around the globe.

MA: This is Daniel Craig’s fourth turn as James Bond. I’ve been a big fan of Craig in this role, but I have to say, with each successive film I’ve liked him less.  I loved the way he portrayed the character early on.  There was an edge he gave to Bond I hadn’t seen since the Sean Connery days.  Each time he has played the role he seems to have given the character less and less of this edge.  It’s almost as if he’s not as interested in the role, which according to media reports, is true.

NC: It’s beyond obvious Craig isn’t interested in playing Bond anymore, and after his recent appearance on the Stephen Colbert show I’m sure of it. I think the problem is CASINO ROYALE (2006) was such a dark, gritty entry to the 007 world it has been too hard to capture that same spirit. That said, I did enjoy SPECTRE more than Craig’s middle two turns as Bond.

MA: I thought QUANTUM OF SOLACE (2008) kept that same dark spirit alive.

Even more disappointing was Christoph Waltz as Oberhauser. Truth be told, it’s not so much Waltz’s fault as the writers’, who gave this character so little to do.  He’s also just not as menacing as I expected him to be, and Bond seems to gain the upper hand a little too easily.  Of course, the big news here, and I’m not sure if this qualifies as a spoiler, is Oberhauser’s true identity.  Again, this is a no brainer and really shouldn’t be a spoiler or come as any surprise.  I mean, the head of SPECTRE in the Sean Connery films was Blofeld.  Why would it be any different today?

The rest of the cast, however, is very good. I really enjoyed Ralph Fiennes as M, Naomi Harris as Moneypenny, Ben Whishaw as Q, and Rory Kinnear as Tanner, all of these folks reprising these roles from SKYFALL.  The scenes featuring these characters were among my favorite in the movie.

NC: Ralph Fiennes is not only perfect as M, he truly reminded me of an actor from the Connery era films. Major kudos to the producers.

MA: Yeah, I really like Fiennes in this role.

Andrew Scott, who played Moriarty on the TV show SHERLOCK (2010-2014) is memorable as C, a British official who wants to shut down MI6 because he thinks it’s an outdated agency.  Likewise, Dave Bautista makes for a memorable assassin Hinx, and his scenes are among the film’s best as well.  Bautista, of course, played Drax in Marvel’s GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (2014).

Lea Seydoux is beautiful as the latest Bond girl, Madeleine Swann, but the plot point involving her character and James Bond I didn’t buy at all. We’re supposed to believe that they have real feelings for each other, but I didn’t sense anything special about their relationship, and when the story makes it clear that their relationship is more than just physical, I was left scratching my head.  Craig’s Bond shared much better chemistry with Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd in CASINO ROYALE (2006).

NC: I didn’t buy their romance either. I did like Madeleine Swann’s bad ass character, especially the scene on the train where Bond realizes he doesn’t have to teach her anything. But their falling in love seemed to happen too quickly, and while I don’t want to ruin the ending, I just find it hard to believe Bond would do what he did due to a woman.

MA: I agree.

NC: I know that sounds sexist, but it’s just not in his character. I did like Monica Belluci as Lucia. She looked as beautiful as ever (she was 50 when they filmed SPECTRE) and like Waltz, is given just way too little screen time, although it does fit the need for the part.

MA: Overall, SPECTRE isn’t bad, but I just found the writing to be glaringly subpar in this one.  The story didn’t wow me, and the dialogue I found flat, especially Bond’s dialogue and Oberhauser’s.  I enjoyed the plot of SKYFALL better, and I thought that Javier Bardems’ Silva was a more interesting villain than Christoph Waltz’ Oberhauser.  I did enjoy the ending to SPECTRE better than the ending in SKYFALL, but that’s not saying much.

Strangely, my favorite of the Craig films might be the one that most people tend to like the least, the second one, QUANTUM OF SOLACE.  That was a tight, compact hard-hitting thriller.

I have to say, while I liked it, SPECTRE is probably my least favorite of the Daniel Craig James Bond movies.

I give it two and a half knives.

What did you think, Nick?

NC: It’s easily my second favorite of Craig’s 007 films. I doubt anyone will top CASINO ROYALE, which I truly believe is one of the best in the franchise and one of the best reboots of any series there is.

MA: It is an amazing reboot, that’s for sure.

NC: I agree SKYFALL had a better plot than SPECTRE, but it bored me and I found it lifeless. With everything SPECTRE has going against it, I found myself constantly entertained, which enabled me to forgive many of the quirks we mentioned.

MA: Yes, there were certainly parts of SKYFALL that bored me, and it’s a very uneven Bond film, but the parts that worked I liked a lot, better than most of SPECTRE.

NC: I would like to see if the next 007 caper involves Spectre, as I’d like to see if they’d be in the forefront or once again completely in the shadows.

MA: I wouldn’t mind seeing another plot involving SPECTRE.

NC: And as far as Daniel Craig, I love him as 007, but if the ending of SPECTRE is any indication, this may very well be his last turn at bat. I remember Pierce Brosnan would say how tired he was getting of playing Bond, too, during the end of his tenure, and Craig seems to have the same aura lately.

SPECTRE is full of holes, but it’s just so much fun I give it three knives. Here’s hoping Bond’s 25th film keeps the party going.

(The conversation in the room ceases, and a man enters the room and sits at the head of the table. The lighting is such that we cannot see his face, but it is clear by the reaction of everyone in the room that he is the head of the organization.)

NC: It looks like the moment we’ve been waiting for has arrived.

MA: Yep, he’s here.  Hopefully we’ll learn his true identity.

MAN AT HEAD OF TABLE: I am here to teach you all about chaos and horror.

MA: Here goes.

(The light shifts and gradually illuminates the man at the head of the table to reveal— L.L. SOARES smoking a cigar.)

MA: No!  It can’t be!

LS: Who did you expect?  Some guy holding a white pussycat?  Okay, minions, the beer is on the house!

(Everyone cheers.)

-END-

© Copyright 2015 Michael Arruda and Nick Cato

 

BRIDGE OF SPIES (2015) BRINGS HISTORICAL MOMENT TO LIFE

0

Movie Review:  BRIDGE OF SPIES (2015)

By bridge_of_spies

Michael Arruda

 

Tom Hanks is sensational in BRIDGE OF SPIES (2015), Steven Spielberg’s compelling Cold War thriller based on the true story of an American lawyer who defends an accused Soviet spy.

Sure, Hanks is almost always good, but even so, this is probably my favorite Hanks’ performances in quite some time.  While he was very good in CAPTAIN PHILLIPS (2013) I enjoyed him more here in BRIDGE OF SPIES.  It might be my favorite Hanks’ performance since way back when in APOLLO 13 (1995).

BRIDGE OF SPIES opens in 1957 with the arrest of accused Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance).  The U.S. government asks insurance lawyer James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) to defend him, and Donovan reluctantly agrees.  It quickly becomes clear to Donovan that the U.S. justice system has already made up its mind about Abel’s guilt, and he is heavily criticized for putting up a valid defense for the man. This does not sit well with Donovan, and the more pressure he receives to just show up and let Abel be found guilty, the harder he works at defending Abel.

During this process, Donovan gets to know Abel quite well and a friendship of mutual respect develops.  Later, when Air Force Lieutenant Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is shot down and captured for the Soviets, a trade is suggested, Powers for Abel.  The CIA asks Donovan to broker the trade, and to travel to East Berlin to do it.  It’s a sensitive operation, as neither government will publicly acknowledge what’s going on, and so Donovan will be working in East Berlin on his own.  Because of his feelings for Abel, Donovan agrees, and he finds himself embroiled in Cold War espionage as he has to deal with the Soviets, the East Germans, the lack of public support from the U.S., and his growing fear that by arranging this deal he might be sending Abel to his death at the hand of the Soviets.

The main reason to see BRIDGE OF SPIES is Tom Hanks because he delivers his best acting performance in years, but there are also plenty of other reasons to see it as well.

For starters, the director is Steven Spielberg.  It’s hard to say if BRIDGE OF SPIES is better than Spielberg’s previous effort, LINCOLN (2012), a movie I liked a lot.  It’s certainly equally as good.  In some ways, it is better, as it definitely generates more suspense and drama than LINCOLN did.  In terms of historical dramas, they’re on equal footing, but BRIDGE OF SPIES is paced slightly better and is definitely more intriguing.  Both films feature phenomenal acting performances by their two lead actors, Tom Hanks here, and Daniel Day Lewis in LINCOLN.

In BRIDGE OF SPIES, Spielberg painstakingly recreates the Cold War period and thoroughly captures the feel of the time.  Sets, costumes, and make-up are all topnotch, and the images memorable, some of them haunting, like the scene where Hanks witnesses the barbaric activity at the Berlin Wall from a passenger train.

The acting is superb throughout, with the other stand-out besides Hanks being Mark Rylance as Rudolf Abel.  The scene where he recounts the story from his childhood about his father’s friend, who he relates to Hanks’ James Donovan, is another of the film’s highlights.

The screenplay by Matt Charman and Ethan and Joel Coen pretty much tells a straightforward story with the emphasis placed on James Donovan and how this ordeal both changed and shaped his life.  It also details Donovan’s relationship with Rudolf Abel, and how the two men developed a mutual respect for one another.  It’s a gripping historical drama, and it’s honest and direct.  Don’t expect the quirkiness of some of Ethan and Joel Coen’s other movies, like FARGO (1996) and NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (2007).

BRIDGE OF SPIES is the whole package.  It’s got one of the all-time best directors in Steven Spielberg at the helm, phenomenal acting led by Tom Hanks, a superb script, and cinematography worthy of an artistic painting.  It’s a satisfying cinematic event that is both entertaining and rewarding.  Moreover, it succeeds in bringing a moment in our history to life.

BRIDGE OF SPIES is one bridge you’ll definitely want to cross.

—END—