THE DISAPPOINTMENTS ROOM (2016) – Quiet Ghost Story Drama Doesn’t Stand Out

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What if you made a stylish horror movie but forgot to make it scary?

You’d have THE DISAPPOINTMENTS ROOM (2016),  a horror movie now available on Netflix Streaming.

Dana Barrow (Kate Beckinsale), her husband David (Mel Raido), and their young son Lucas (Duncan Joiner) move into their new home, an elegant manor in the countryside.  They are looking for a fresh start in life as they recently suffered a devastating tragedy.

Dana is an architect and plans to work on the house, while David, when he’s not off on business trips, spends his days with their son Lucas.  Dana discovers a mysterious room on the top floor of the house, a room that is not in the home’s original plans.  When she starts hearing strange noises in the middle of the night, as well as catching glimpses of people inside the house, she begins to suspect the house is haunted.

She learns that the room on the upper floor of their home is most likely a “disappointments” room, a place where a century before families would hide children they deemed as “disappointments,” children suffering from either physical deformities or mental disorders.

When the spiritual and physical worlds collide, and young Lucas’ life is threatened, Dana takes matters into her own hands to save him.  But her efforts are hindered by her own psychological issues, as she struggles to distinguish between what is real and what is imagined.  Is Lucas really in danger?  Or is it all just in her head?

The biggest knock against THE DISAPPOINTMENTS ROOM is that it is yet another haunted house/ghost story movie.  There have been so many of these movies of late, unless it’s the best I’ve ever seen, a film with this plot has a lot going against it because it’s extremely difficult to keep fresh at this point.  And THE DISAPPOINTMENTS ROOM is not fresh.  What it has to offer in terms of ghost story plot is nothing new, and this definitely works against the movie.

Early on, there were parts of this film that reminded me of the classic chiller THE CHANGELING (1980) starring George C. Scott, but that film benefitted from some genuine scares and a shocking reveal.  THE DISAPPOINTMENTS ROOM has neither.

What it does have are solid acting performances and a steady directorial hand by director D.J. Caruso.

Caruso, who also directed the teen adventure I AM NUMBER FOUR (2011) and the thriller DISTURBIA (2007), sets the mood early on with some creepy scenes, like the strange black dog that keeps showing up outside the home, and the eerie spectral figures which Dana sees.  And the film looks good throughout, even as the story ultimately fails to build to a satisfying climax.

The screenplay by director Caruso and Wentworth Miller [an actor known mostly for his starring role on the TV series PRISON BREAK (2005-2009) and the current mini-series PRISON BREAK: RESURRECTION (2017)] adds the disappointments room to the haunted house plot, and early on this was enough to hold my attention, but as the story evolves, and we learn more about the events which led to the haunting of this house, things become less interesting.

The potential for a nifty psychological thriller is certainly there but it doesn’t quite happen because the film only hints at the darkness inside Dana’s head.  It could be ghosts.  It could be imagined.  It could be a little bit of both.  The film never really makes up its mind, and it’s a weaker vehicle for it.

The film definitely plays like a dark drama rather than a horror movie.  As such, it’s a pretty good example of quiet horror.

But what it fails to do is reach the next level.  The climax of the film is certainly disturbing, but then what follows is a standard “I’ve got to save my son” sequence  which is ultimately a let down, and this is followed by a tepid ending which doesn’t do the movie any favors.

But as I said the acting is solid.  I really enjoyed Kate Beckinsale in the lead as Dana.It was so much more fun to watch her here than in those awful UNDERWORLD movies.  She makes Dana believable, and she seems like a woman with a tortured past who is now thrust into a ghost story conundrum.  That being said, considering what Dana believes she did in the past, her character should have been even more fragile and unhinged than she is here.

There’s a parallel between Beckinsale’s Dana and the father of the child in the disappointments room, Judge Blacker (Gerald McRaney).  But just how alike they are is never satisfactorily explored.  Like so many other things in this movie, it’s only hinted at.

Mel Raido does a nice job as Dana’s level-headed husband, David.  He’s the voice of reason who continually works to keep his wife grounded in reality.

Gerald McRaney doesn’t do much more than look menacing as the ghostly Judge Blacker, but he does it so well.

THE DISAPPOINTMENTS ROOM looks better than a lot of the other recent haunted house/ghost story movies of late, and it doesn’t suffer from the atrocious plot twists that some of those other flicks have, but ultimately it doesn’t really add anything of note to make it stand out.

And while it does provide a rather nasty revelation towards the end, what follows is a by-the-numbers conclusion.

All in all, THE DISAPPOINTMENTS ROOM is a ghost story drama that will hold your interest for a while before it ultimately fizzles, settling gently into its quiet world of stylized mediocrity.

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Season One of Netflix’ STRANGER THINGS Perfect Mix of Horror and Nostalgia

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STRANGER THINGS (2016) premiered on Netflix earlier this year to instant acclaim from critics and audiences alike, which is no surprise since it’s one of the best new shows on television.

It’s one of those rarities of rarities in that its eight episode first season was pretty much perfect.  Nearly everything in this show worked and worked well.  And I say first season because it’s already been renewed for a second season.

STRANGER THINGS takes place in the 1980s, which is the first fun thing about this show. It captures the mood and look of the 80s perfectly, from vintage movie posters like from John Carpenter’s THE THING (1982) to the hairstyles, clothing, and sets, from the old style televisions to land line telephones.

The whole thing plays out like a long lost John Carpenter movie.  Even the music score by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein is reminiscent of Carpenter’s film scores.

There are a ton of other 1980s film references and homages as well. So many in fact I could write an entire column just on its 1980s horror homages alone, from the episode names themselves, like “The Body” a reference to the Stephen King novella, to character names, to other neat touches like having the sheriff’s uniform and his vehicle as well as the deputies’ uniforms being identical to the ones used in JAWS (1975).  Okay, so that one’s a 70s reference.  So, if Sheriff Jim Hopper’s uniform had you thinking of Roy Scheider’s Chief Brody, there’s a reason for that!

STRANGER THINGS takes place in a small town in the 1980s.  It opens with a man running in panic from some unseen threat inside what looks to be some sort of research or government building.  We hear growls, and the man is snatched away by an invisible presence.

The action switches to four middle school friends.  Mike Wheeler (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin Henderson (Gaten Matarazzo), Lucas Sinclair (Caleb McLaughlin), and Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) are playing Dungeons and Dragons in Mike’s basement.  After their game, they bike home.

Alone, Will sees what looks like a monster in the road, and he flees as fast as he can back to his home.  When he gets there, no one is home.  The unseen monster pursues Will into his house.

Later, when Will’s mom Joyce (Winona Ryder) and older brother Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) come home, they discover that Will is missing.  Joyce goes to their sheriff, Jim Hopper (David Harbour) and demands that he find her son.  Hopper advises her to take a deep breath, that nothing sinister ever happens in their town, and that he will look for her son. Hopper actually has deep wounds when it comes to children, since his own daughter recently passed away from cancer.

The news of Willl’s disappearance rattles the town.  Friends Mike, Dustin, and Lucas decide that they have to be the ones to find their missing friend.  One night in the woods while they are searching for him, they find a mysterious girl who’s about their age wandering in the woods.  She says she is running from some bad men, and so they take her back to Mike’s home, where they hide her in his basement.  Her name is Eleven (Millie Bobbie Brown), and she also seems to know about Will, as she tells them he is still alive.  More than this, she possesses certain powers which Mike and his friends cannot ignore.

Meanwhile, Joyce receives a strange phone call in which she hears weird cackling sounds, but she’s also convinced she heard her son’s voice on the line. She believes he’s still alive.  Her oldest son Jonathan blames himself for Will’s disappearance, because he wasn’t home that night, and he makes it his mission as well to find his little brother.

And while he initially expected this to be a simple case, the more Sheriff Hopper investigates, the more he realizes that something very sinister and deadly is descending upon his town, especially since the clues lead to a top secret government research base located just outside their town run by a shady scientist Dr. Martin Brenner (Matthew Modine).

There are so many cool things about STRANGER THINGS it’s difficult to know where to start.  If you’re a 1980s horror fan, you can have a field day with the show based on its references to that decade alone.

But aside from that, the story itself is a strong one, and it’s tight.  It fits perfectly within the eight episode season.  There’s no fat on this monster, and there aren’t any dull episodes either.  (Hear that, FEAR THE WALKING DEAD?)  STRANGER THINGS starts out intense and it stays that way, never letting up.  And the intensity actually increases during the final couple of episodes.

The main story of Will’s disappearance works and is the force which drives this series along.  Who isn’t drawn into a story about a missing child?  And then it builds.  What exactly is going on inside that strange government facility?  What is Dr. Brenner up to?  What exactly is that monster that is on the loose and where did it come from?  Where’s Will?  What is up with Eleven?

And the characters and the actors who play them are phenomenal.

When talking about STRANGER THINGS though, you have to start with the kids.  Finn Wolfhard who plays Mike, Gaten Matarazzo who plays Dustin, and Caleb McLaughlin who plays Lucas, are all excellent.  Wolfhard is also going to be starring in the upcoming remake of Stephen King’s IT.  Noah Schnapp who plays Will is also very good.

But the best performance by a child actor in STRANGER THINGS is Millie Bobby Brown as Eleven. Brown is amazing in this role.  Eleven is the most interesting character in the series, as you don’t know much about her at all at first and the more you learn about her, the more interesting she becomes.  The best part of Brown’s performance is she captures Eleven’s sensitive side.  Her scenes with Mike are tender and innocent.  Of course, she can make an effective bad ass as well when she has to use her powers.

Natalia Dyer is very good as Mike’s older sister Nancy, especially later on as her character becomes more involved in the hunt for the monster.  Likewise, Charlie Heaton is excellent as Will’s older brother Jonathan.    I thought Heaton’s performance was one of the best in the series.  I really enjoyed his scenes later in the season when he teams up with Nancy looking for the monster.

I’ve seen David Harbour in a bunch of movies, from the Daniel Craig Bond flick QUANTUM OF SOLACE (2008) to this year’s SUICIDE SQUAD (2016), but I’ve never seen him as good as he was here as Sheriff Jim Hopper, with the possible exception of his chilling portrayal of a sadistic kidnapper in the Liam Neeson movie  A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES (2014).  Harbour was excellent in that movie as well.

But this is a terrific role for Harbour.  He’s perfect as the responsible yet haunted small town sheriff, the man who does his job well in spite of the ongoing pain of his young daughter’s death.  One of the reasons I enjoyed Harbour so much here in STRANGER THINGS compared to other things he’s done is simply because a lot of his previous roles he played weasels and jerks. It was fun to see him play a hero for once.

For me, though, the best performance by far in this show belongs to Winona Ryder as Will’s mom Joyce.  Honestly, I’ve never been much of a Winona Ryder fan.  She blew me away in this show, and for me, this is easily the best thing I’ve seen Ryder do.  She’s flawless as the panicked mother who refuses to believer her son is dead.  She’s terrific to watch in this series.

And Matthew Modine makes for an effective cold-hearted scientist as Dr. Martin Brenner.

The monster here is pretty cool looking too.  It reminded me of the CLOVERFIELD monster’s baby cousin.  And it was just as frightening.

STRANGER THINGS was created by Matt and Ross Duffer, who work under the name The Duffer brothers, and they deserve a lot of credit here.  They also wrote and directed most of the episodes.

I loved STRANGER THINGS from start to finish and can’t wait for Season 2.

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THE INVITATION (2015) Keeps Its Audience Off Balance

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If something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t.  Then again, maybe your emotional baggage is just making you paranoid.

That’s the overwhelming feeling generated in the taut thriller THE INVITATION (2015) in which main character Will (Logan Marshall-Green) has the haunting feeling that the dinner party hosted by his ex-wife and her new husband is all so very wrong and dangerous; yet, he can’t deny that his head is clouded by grief over the death of his young son, a death he and his ex-wife still have not come to terms with.

THE INVITATION opens with Will and his current girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) driving to Will’s ex-wife’s dinner party, when their car strikes a deer.  The animal is badly injured, and without hestitation, Will puts it out of its misery using a tire iron, which says something about his resolve and temperament right at the outset.

Will feels uncomfortable immediately upon arriving at his former home, even though he’s surrounded by a large group of his friends who are already there at the party.  Seeing his ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard) only opens old wounds for him, and it doesn’t help that her new husband David (Michiel Huisman) is overly sympathetic and syrupy sweet, but there’s something off-putting about him that continually rubs Will the wrong way, so much so that he becomes suspicious of every little thing the man does, like seemingly locking them inside the house, an action that David dismisses as the innocent act of locking one’s door.

Will also takes issue with David’s decision to invite a couple of his friends to the dinner party.  Will was under the impression that the gathering was supposed to be a closed reunion of old friends.  And when Will perceives what he considers to be weird things happening, he tries to warn everyone, but they dismiss his charges as the emotional misgivings of a grieving parent and urge him to relax and see things through.  The more the evidence seems to support his friends’ assertions that there really isn’t anything wrong inside the house, the more Will questions his own feelings.

After all, his friends are right.  He’s still grieving over his son’s death.  There’s nothing really sinister going on inside Eden’s and David’s house, is there?

Well, is there?

And that’s the fun of THE INVITATION.  It plays its shell game well.  The movie does a terrific job masking the truth.  The audience feels the same way Will does. There’s just something very peculiar about David and Eden and their new friends.  And yet, all the peculiarities can be explained away, but still, Will can’t shake that troubling feeling that they are all in danger.  To make matters more frustrating, Will is completely on his own. None of his friends or his girlfriend Kira feel the same way he does or see the same things he does.  It’s all very maddening, yet it’s a heck of a lot of fun as it makes for a very suspenseful story.

The screenplay by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi is sharp and incisive, and it plays like an intricate puzzle.  We empathize with Will, but we really don’t want him to be right, even though we tend to believe him because he doesn’t come off as overly disturbed.  Sure, he’s emotional, he’s grieving, but he seems to be a pretty solid well rounded guy, except that he’s now wounded by his son’s death. The movie does a really good job keeping its audience off balance.

It’s a strong screenplay by Hay and Manfredi, much better than their work together on the subpar remake CLASH OF THE TITANS (2010).  They also co-wrote the box office bomb R.I.P.D (2013) starring Ryan Reynolds and Jeff Bridges.

Director Karyn Kusama has made a very tight and scary little thriller.  It kept me guessing throughout, and the payoff was frightening and satisfying.  The film also doesn’t skimp on the violence.  There are some jarring scenes in this one.

Logan Marshall-Green is very effective as Will, and his performance drew me in immediately.  I felt for him and believed that he was seeing things that were weird enough to be concerned about, even if no one else in the movie believed him.

Tammy Blanchard is sufficiently weird as Eden, as is Michiel Huisman as her new husband David.  There’s something so very off-putting about the two of them, and yet David always says the right things to put people at ease and disarm their fears.

John Carroll Lynch and Lyndsay Burdge are also very good as David’s creepy yet seemingly sincere friends.

The film has excellent acting all around.

I had heard good things about THE INVITATION, but really didn’t know what to expect.  It lived up to my expectations and then some.

If you like tense thrillers in the tradition of Alfred Hitchcock you’ll love THE INVITATION.  It’s as engrossing as it is deadly.

It’s one invite you’ll be glad you didn’t pass up.

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HUSH (2016) – OK Horror Movie Is Too Quiet At Times

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Shh!

HUSH!

Why the silence?  Because today I’m revieiwng HUSH (2016), a new horror movie about a deaf woman terrorized by an insane killer.  It’s available now on Netflix Streaming.

HUSH was written and directed by Mike Flanagan, the same guy who brought us OCULUS (2013), a horror movie I wasn’t all that crazy about.

HUSH tells a rather simple story.  Deaf author Maddie (Kate Siegel) lives alone in a secluded house in the woods, where she spends her days working on her novel.  She is close to her neighbors, a woman named Sarah (Samantha Sloyan), who visits her in the opening scene of the movie, and Sarah’s husband John (Michael Trucco).

Life is good, until one night when a masked killer (John Gallagher Jr.) armed with a deadly crossbow shows up at her door and decides he’s going to spend the night terrorizing her before ultimately slaying her. Maddie immediately tries to use her laptop to call 911, but the killer cuts the power to her house, rendering her server, router, and modem useless.  Maddie then spends the rest of the movie trying to stay alive, as she not only needs to defend herself against the killer, but she also has to find a way to escape from him.

Been there, done that.

And that’s the biggest issue I had with HUSH.  It’s nothing I hadn’t seen before, and there’s nothing about it that makes it better than those similar films that had come before it.

That being said, it’s a polished good looking flick, it’s got good acting, and it has a couple of interesting scenes, so it’s not all bad.  It’s just not all that exciting either.

It gets off to a good start.  I enjoyed the opening scene between Maddie and Sarah.  It establishes Maddie as a likeable character, someone I felt I could easily care for.  The killer’s initial entrance is also a good one, as we first see him when he brutally murders Sarah.  It’s a violent scene, and in terms of shock value I thought it scored high on the fright meter.  The killer definitely caught my attention at this point.

But then, strangely, the film takes a nose dive.  The killer confronts Maddie, and the cat and mouse games begin.  This is where the suspense should have taken over, but to my surprise it really didn’t.  It becomes one of those movies where there are lots of scenes without dialogue where Maddie is creeping around her house, looking for ways to escape.  She then tries to escape,the killer stops her, she retreats back into her house, and the process repeats itself.  This part of the movie bored me to tears and I really had a difficult time sitting through it.

It also suffered somewhat from the “Home Alone” syndrome, where Maddie would play the role of Macaulay Culkin and find ways to inflict pain on the killer, who would groan and grunt a la poor Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern.  Not something a horror movie should be proud of.

Things do get better though, around the time Sarah’s husband John shows up, mostly because it introduces a third character, which if nothing else, provides the movie with some much needed dialogue.  And I thought the ending worked, even if it wasn’t anything I hadn’t seen before.  Basically, Maddie uses her writer’s brain to evaluate the various “endings” which in this case means her options for escape.    I thought this worked, and the ending was one of the more exciting parts of the movie.

I really enjoyed Kate Siegel as Maddie.   She does a nice job bringing the deaf character to life and gives her a lot of energy, making her a believable heroine when she fights off her attacker.  One criticism however is I never found her to be as frightened as I imagine she would have been.  I didn’t get the sense that she felt she might die at any second.  Siegel also starred in OCULUS, and I enjoyed her more here in HUSH than in that other horror movie.

For the most part, I enjoyed John Gallagher Jr.as the killer.  At first, he’s wearing a mask, and as much as I like masks in horror movies, I thought this one was rather silly, and when he finally took it off, I was glad.  The mask had this silly grin which reminded me of David Naughton in AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (1981).  I kept expecting Griffin Dunne to show up beside him.

However, even without the mask, the character struggled to exhibit any personality.  We never really get to know much about this killer other than he’s just some random psycho, which to me, hurt this movie.  Give this guy a background story and it gets that much better.  We do get to see more of his personality as the film goes along, and the character eventually grew on me as a villain, but I can’t say that I thought he was all that scary or disturbing.  Gallagher is up to the task of getting inside this character’s head, but there’s just not much there to play with.  Gallagher was also in the recent 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE (2016) and in that movie he was given much more to do and was able to deliver a stronger performance.

The screenplay by director Mike Flanagan and lead actress Kate Siegel is okay.  I liked the premise, I thought Maddie was a strong main character, and there were some shockingly violent scenes, but the film suffers through a long stretch where nothing much happens. The killer needed to be developed more, which would have helped the story.

I thought Flanagan did a fine job directing.  The first murder is a brutal stabbing death that really grabs your attention, and some of the scenes near the end also worked, like when Maddie gets her hand stuck in the door, and the killer mercilessly crushes it with his foot.  The film also looks slick and polished and doesn’t come off as low budget at all.

There’s just not a lot to this one.  HUSH really needed something more, an edge of some sort, to make it stand out from similar horror films of its type.

All in all, not bad.  It’s a good looking thriller, it’s got some scary parts here and there, but at times it’s just a little too— hushed.

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IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: CUJO (1983)

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I love horror movies.  I love books by Stephen King. But movies based on King’s stories? Not so much.

And that’s because for the most part film adaptations of King’s work have been less than stellar.  There are the obvious exceptions- Stanley Kubrick’s THE SHINING (1980) of course, and I’ve always liked SALEM’S LOT (1979), although it is nowhere near as effective as the novel.  There are others as well, but the point is in general, I don’t have a lot of favorite horror movies that are based on King’s stories, which is rather weird when you think about it.

Take CUJO (1983) for example.  The best thing about this movie is its name.  Say “Cujo” and you instantly picture a ferocious rabid dog.  The word is almost synonymous with monster dog, which is pretty cool, from a horror writer’s standpoint.

But the actual movie?  It’s a mixed bag of doggie treats.

For the most part, this tale of a family in a small town in Maine who crosses paths with a rabid dog is lame and dull, but once the film gets to the sequence where Cujo attacks the mother and child in their stalled car, things change for the better.  Way better.  Things get so intense you might forget you are watching CUJO and think you’re watching JAWS (1975) instead.  It’s as frightening a sequence as you’ll find in a horror movie.

CUJO is one of those movies where you almost don’t need to watch the story unfold – just skip to the final third of the movie and watch Cujo do his stuff.

The plot is about a married couple, Donna Trenton (Dee Wallace) and her husband Vic (Daniel Hugh Kelly) and their young son Tad (Danny Pintauro).  All is not well in the Trenton household, and Donna is having an affair, which Vic discovers. Uh oh.  Not to worry though, because Vic is the self-reflective type, and his way of dealing with the problem is to go off on a business trip to give his wife some space.

And if marital problems weren’t enough, the Trentons are also having car trouble, and so Donna and Tad drive to their local mechanic so he can fix their car.

Enter Cujo.

The big lovable St. Bernard Cujo was introduced earlier in the movie.  He belongs to mechanic Joe Camber (Ed Lauter) and he’s friendly, but that was before he was bit by a rabid bat, and right on the nose, no less!

Yup, Cujo is now rabid, and he’s none too happy about it.  When Donna and Tad arrive at the repair shop, Cujo attacks, and as their car dies just as they arrive, they find themselves trapped inside the dead car with Cujo trying to smash his way in.

Up until this point, the story is rather lame, but once Cujo attacks Donna and Tad, things intensify.  And it’s not a brief scene.  It goes on for nearly the final third of the movie, which makes the second half of CUJO a heck of a lot better than the first half.

The script by Don Carlos Dunaway and Lauren Currier, based on Stephen King’s novel, is pretty mediocre and plays like a standard soap opera vehicle until Cujo tastes blood.

The acting is pretty dreadful.  Dee Wallace is less than inspiring as Donna Trenton.  Like the rest of the movie, she gets better once the Cujo attack sequence begins, as she gets to scream a lot and act terrified.  With a ton of credits, Wallace is no stranger to genre films, having appeared in a bunch of them, including THE HILLS HAVE EYES (1977) and of course E.T.THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL (1982).

Daniel Hugh Kelly isn’t any better as hubby Vic.  He’s about as interesting as a slice of white bread.  And young Danny Pintauro is supposed to be cute and cuddly as Tad,  but I found him terribly annoying throughout this movie.  Pintauro would go on to star in the Tony Danza sitcom WHO’S THE BOSS? (1984-1992).

The rest of the acting here is just as unimpressive.  Cujo the dog easily delivers the best performance in the movie.  Actually, there were several dogs used as Cujo, so I guess it was a group effort.

cujo

Director Lewis Teague does little with the first half of the film, but he more than makes up for this with the frightening second half.  And a lot of the suspense comes from some nifty editing in these pre-CGI days.

CUJO gets off to a slow start, but be patient.  The payoff is well worth the wait.

Statistics say that there are about 1,000 cases of people bitten by dogs every day in the United States.  Hopefully none of them look like Cujo.

Sit, Cujo, sit.

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Brosnan Kicks Butt in THE NOVEMBER MAN (2014)

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November Man - posterStreaming Video Review:  THE NOVEMBER MAN (2014)

by

Michael Arruda

I wanted to see THE NOVEMBER MAN (2014) when it opened in theaters last year, but for some reason or other, I missed it.  Now that it’s available on Netlflix Streaming, I finally caught up with it.

THE NOVEMBER MAN is an action thriller starring Pierce Brosnan as a former CIA operative who’s lured back into one last job and finds himself, among other things, squaring off against his former protégé.

Peter Deveraux (Pierce Brosnan) is trying to enjoy his “retirement” from the CIA.  He owns a coffee shop in Switzerland, and life is good.  However, his old boss John Hanley (Bill Smitrovich) tracks him down and asks him to do one more job.  Hanley wants Deveraux to bring in a woman Natalia (Mediha Musliovic) from Russia whose life is in danger because she has information which will ruin the political career of the man who’s about to become president of Russia, Arkady Federov (Lazar Ristovski).  The Russians want her dead and have put one of their most dangerous assassins, a woman named Alexa (Amila Terzimehic), on her trail.  Deveraux can hardly say no to this assignment, as Natalia is the mother of his twelve year-old daughter.

So, Deveraux travels to Russia to extract Natalia, and all goes well, at first, but then a squadron of agents descend upon them and kill Natalia.  Deveraux retaliates and recognizes one of the attackers as David Mason (Luke Bracey), his protégé, and he realizes that this was a CIA hit, which contradicts the information given him by his old boss Hanley, that they wanted Natalia alive.

David’s current boss Perry Weinstein (Will Patton) wants to know why Deveraux was there, and fearing that his former agent will seek vengeance for Natalia’s death, he orders David to find Deveraux and kill him.

Deveraux meanwhile tracks down a young woman named Alice (Olga Kurylenko) who has information on a missing woman who holds the key to Federov’s downfall.  It’s this missing woman who Natalia knew about and is why the Russians wanted her dead.  Now they want Alice dead as well.  Deveraux vows to protect her, and together they set out to find the mystery woman, all the while remaining one step ahead of both the Russians and the CIA.  Deveraux also has a personal score to settle, as he wants to know why the CIA wanted Natalia killed, and he wants to get back at those responsible for her death.

While this may sound confusing, it really isn’t.  In spite of its twists and turns and political intrigue, the plot of THE NOVEMBER MAN is relatively easy to follow.

And since I understood this one from start to finish, I found myself really enjoying THE NOVEMBER MAN, as there was enough going on in the story to hold my interest, there were decent action scenes, and the cast more than held their own.

Pierce Brosnan leads the way as Peter Deveraux, the tough-as-nails CIA operative who earned the nickname “the November Man” because when he was through with a job, no one was left standing.  I dunno.  I can think of months with worse weather than November.  Anyway, Brosnan is excellent here.  I’ve always liked Brosnan as an actor, and as much as I liked him as James Bond, I’ve liked him better in other movies.  He almost always delivers the goods, and his performance here in THE NOVEMBER MAN is no exception.  He displays more range and emotion in the first twenty minutes of this movie than he does in any Bond film.  He’s also more bad-ass than Bond in this movie, and as such he’s completely convincing as a deadly CIA assassin.

Luke Bracey is less convincing as Deveraux’s protégé Mason.  He’s a pretty face and a muscular body, but he lacks Brosnan’s weathered toughness, and not once in this movie did I believe that Mason would actually best Deveraux.  I had to scratch my head when Mason’s boss Perry Weinstein (Will Patton) sends Mason in to kill Deveraux.  If Deveraux is as dangerous as they say he is, why send in a “baby” like Mason.  Isn’t there someone more seasoned?  Plus there’s the obvious emotional connection.  Mason can say all he wants about how he’ll get the job done, but the fact remains the two men were best friends.  It’s not the most convincing plot point.

Olga Kurylenko fares better as Alice, the woman who Brosnan spends most of the film trying to protect.  Kurylenko is terribly sexy, and as Alice she gets to do quite a lot in this movie, as she is much more than just a target that Brosnan has to guard.  She’s quite the effective heroine.  Kurylenko also made a big impression starring opposite Daniel Craig’s James Bond in QUANTUM OF SOLACE (2008) – she must like the James Bond types— and she was also good in a smaller role in the Tom Cruise science fiction film OBLIVION (2013).  She’s excellent here in THE NOVEMBER MAN.

Bill Smitrovich is also exceptional as Hanley, Deveraux’s former boss.  Smitrovich is a familiar face, and he’s been in lots of movies and TV shows, including IRON MAN (2008) and TED (2012).  I’ve liked Smitrovich in a lot of these roles, but his performance in this movie as Hanley might be my favorite.  He’s adept here at playing a two sided shadowy character, and he’s quite the bastard when he needs to be.

Amila Terzimehic looks impressive as Russian assassin Alexa, but she’s not in this movie a whole lot and as a result never becomes the villainous force she could have been.  Likewise, Will Patton, who I always enjoy, isn’t on screen very much either as the current CIA chief Perry Weinstein.  So, Patton’s impact is also limited.

THE NOVEMBER MAN was directed by Roger Donaldson, a veteran director who’s been making movies for decades.  He directed Pierce Brosnan previously in DANTE’S PEAK (1997) the very average adventure film about an erupting volcano.  THE NOVEMBER MAN is better than average.  It’s a nicely paced slick thriller with convincing action scenes, a couple of exciting chase scenes, and some effective fight sequences that don’t disappoint.

The screenplay by Michael Finch and Karl Gajdusek based on the book There Are No Spies by Bill Granger has enough twists and turns to keep even the most seasoned spy movie fan satisfied, and it also boasts decent dialogue, especially for star Pierce Brosnan, who gets to chew up the scenery in some scenes.  Finch wrote the screenplay for PREDATORS (2010), the PREDATOR reboot/sequel that I liked a lot, while Gajdusek co-wrote OBLIVION (2013), the Tom Cruise science fiction film which also starred Olga Kurylenko.  I expected the screenplay for this one to be decent, and it was.

Sure, things become a bit far-fetched towards the end, and the plot does get somewhat convoluted, but it never reached the point where I flat out didn’t believe it, mostly because Brosnan remains convincing throughout.  He’s the glue which holds this movie together.

THE NOVEMBER MAN is a well-made actioner, solid throughout, and it’s led by an impressive Pierce Brosnan who turns in a gritty rugged performance.  The former James Bond can still kick some serious butt.

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Escape From the Snow With SNOWPIERCER (2013)

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Snowpiercer - PosterStreaming Video Review:  SNOWPIERCER (2013)

by

Michael Arruda

In the year 2031, the Earth is frozen and all life is dead, except for a group of survivors living on a fast moving train called the Snowpiercer, which travels around the world keeping its passengers alive, the last hope for saving humankind.

But on this train a class system has emerged.  The privileged few live in the front of the train, while crowds of the poor and underprivileged lived crammed in the train’s rear bowels.  This is the premise of SNOWPIERCER, a nail-biting science fiction action movie by Korean writer/director Joon-ho Bong.

Like all suppressed classes, the folks in the rear of the train long for a better life, for equality with those in the front.  They are led by a man named Curtis (Chris Evans) who has concocted a plan to lead the rebels to freedom.  Advised by the wise elder amongst them, Gilliam (John Hurt), Curtis and his rebels bide their time, waiting for the right moment to stage their revolt.

And it’s not just a matter of class.  The folks in the rear of the train are treated cruelly and inhumanely.  They are fed grotesque black protein bars, and when they disobey, their limbs are exposed to the frozen outside and then hacked off.  Their children are taken away from them.

Curtis enlists the aid of Namgoong Minsoo (Kang-ho Song) a drug-addicted escape artist who agrees to help them break through the multiple doors which stand between them and the front of the train on the condition that he be accompanied by a young woman, Yona (Ah-sung Ko).

The rest of the movie follows this group as they attempt to reach the front of the train, battling all obstacles in their way.

SNOWPIERCER is a highly entertaining very exciting movie that plays as smoothly and as riveting as any major Hollywood blockbuster, if not more so.  It’s a shame that this film didn’t enjoy a wider theatrical release.  It’s a keeper.

And for folks who like their futuristic action films dark, SNOWPIERCER truly satisfies.  It’s a hard hitting dreary and ultimately very violent movie.

Writer/director  Joon-Ho Bong has made a highly stylish futuristic action film, and it’s not mindless action, as it’s supported by a strong and creative story.  Bong also wrote and directed the Korean horror movie THE HOST (2006) a film that received a lot of positive buzz but left me underwhelmed.  I enjoyed SNOWPIERCER much better.

Bong co-wrote the screenplay with Kelly Masterson, based on the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand, and Jean-Marc Rochette.  The story works on multiple levels.  It’s a high octane adventure thriller, as well as being a thought-provoking tale of class warfare.  It also touches upon the apocalyptic theme, something that seems to be increasingly prevalent in stories today, as the story examines how far people stray from their humanity, and how much effort it takes for people to keep it.  Curtis’ background story is a prime example, as the leader of the rebels started as anything but.  He had been reduced to the lowest common denominator of human, choosing to eat his fellow humans, including babies, before experiencing a rebirth as the future leader of his people.

SNOWPIERCER also has quite the cast.  Chris Evans, Captain America himself, is quite good in a role that is a far cry from the all-American superhero he plays in the Marvel superhero movies.  The last thing you’re thinking about watching Chris Evans as Curtis is that he’s the same guy who plays Captain America.  Curtis is a rough brutal character with a dark past and more than enough leadership qualities to go around.  The only question one wonders about is how long will Curtis remain a leader, or will he revert to his former self in the face of overwhelming resistance from the powerful forces embedded in the privileged front of the train.

Kang-ho Song is also very good as Namgoong, the mysterious shady character who offers his valuable assistance but can’t seem to go two minutes without wanting more drugs.  He’s the most interesting character in the movie, mostly because you’re never quite sure what his motivations are.  Ah-sung Ko is just as good as Yona, the young woman who Namgoong won’t let out of his sight, as he’s her personal protector.  She’s also clairvoyant, and her abilities to see what’s about to happen next prove very valuable to the rebellion.

Tilda Swinton is excellent as Mason, the irritating woman who is in charge of the soldiers who deliver food to the masses and punishment to those who break the rules.  Swinton played the icy White Witch in the NARNIA movies, and while she’s less cold here, she’s more annoying.  For most of the film, she’s the face of the privileged class, and she’s wonderfully aggravating.  It’s the type of performance where you’re just dying for her to get her comeuppance.

John Hurt lends his usual solid support as Gilliam, the wise old man who counsels Curtis, and Ed Harris shows up at the end of the film as Wilford, the cocky confident leader of the ruling class.

One drawback to SNOWPIERCER, and I’m not sure if this was just a result of watching this film at home on Netflix as opposed to on the big screen at a movie theater, was that the scenes of the Snowpiercer looked exceedingly cartoonish and CGI-generated.  While it was colorful as can be, it didn’t look all that real.

But other than this, I really enjoyed SNOWPIERCER.  If you like futuristic action films, especially those of a dark nature, then chances are you’ll like SNOWPIERCER.  It also has a stronger story than most.

Many folks considered this one of the best films to come out last year.  I can’t disagree.

Frustrated with all the snow falling this winter?  Take a ride on the SNOWPIERCER. It’s an experience you won’t soon forget.

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