SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO (2018) – SICARIO Sequel A Solid Thriller

0
sicario day of the soldado

Isabela Moner and Benicio Del Toro in SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO (2018).

 

SICARIO (2015) was my favorite movie of 2015.

It was also the first film written by Taylor Sheridan, who, along with his screenplays for HELL OR HIGH WATER (2016) and WIND RIVER (2017) has become one of my favorite screenwriters working today.

So, my interest in the sequel to SICARIO went up when I realized that Sheridan was writing it.

That sequel, SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO (2018), does what most sequels fail to do: it tells a completely different story from its predecessor, as it follows the natural progression of two of the main characters from the previous movie and tells their ongoing story. As such, it feels more like the next episode in a quality TV series rather than a rehash of the first movie, the trap into which many sequels fall. In fact, it’s the second chapter in a proposed trilogy of SICARIO movies.

Its plot is also timely, as it involves smuggling immigrants over the southern border from Mexico.

SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO opens with Mexican immigrants being rounded up as they try to cross the border. One of the men flees and just as the officials are closing in on him, he detonates a bomb and blows himself up. The action switches to Kansas City where we witness a deadly terrorist attack where suicide bombers blow up a crowded shopping area.

Special agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) is called in to meet with Secretary of Defense James Riley (Matthew Modine) and a group of other officials.  Graver explains that while Mexican cartels used to make most of their money smuggling drugs, nowadays they make more money smuggling people. Riley then informs Graver that the cartels have upped the ante as they are now smuggling terrorists.

Riley wants Graver to put a stop to this, and Graver, an expert in dealing with the cartels, says the best way to do it is to get them to fight each other, and so a plot is hatched to kidnap the daughter of a Mexican drug lord and make it look like the work of a rival cartel. Graver is given the green light to do whatever it takes, and as he assembles his team, he includes the shadowy hitman Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro).

Graver’s team pulls off a brazen daytime abduction of the daughter, Isabel Reyes (Isabela Moner) and they do indeed lay the blame on a rival cartel. But before their plan of getting the cartels to fight each other can take shape, things get messy, and as we know, the best laid plans of mice and men—.

In addition to Taylor Sheridan once again writing the screenplay, SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO also reunites two of the stars from the first movie, Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro, as they both reprise their roles from SICARIO, and as you would expect, they are both excellent once again, delivering solid performances.

On the other hand, Emily Blunt, who played the main character in SICARIO, did not return for the sequel and her presence is definitely missed. Likewise, director Denis Villeneuve also did not return, and these are two of the reasons why SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO, a solid thriller nonetheless, isn’t as good as its predecessor.

It’s a decent enough screenplay by Taylor Sheridan, although it’s probably not as tight as his previous scripts. It tells a tense and riveting story, and gives us realistic characters and dialogue. Like his previous screenplays, it also gives us layers. There’s a lot going on in this story.

One of the fresher and very timely aspects in the script is its take on immigrants coming into the country. For the most part, it seems to vindicate those who argue for stronger borders, but later in the movie, as the mission is spiraling out of control, it’s revealed that the Kansas City terrorists were American citizens and weren’t smuggled into the country after all, which turns the entire mission upside down. It also is one of those layers I was just talking about. Things are never black and white in a Taylor Sheridan screenplay.

But the story isn’t quite as tight as previous Sheridan tales. While the intensity is palpable for most of the film, it doesn’t quite hold up till the end. The story fizzles somewhat by the time we get to the final reel.

But as I said both Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro reprise their roles and are both exceptional. I actually enjoyed Brolin more this time around, as his character seemed to be a bit more fleshed out. Del Toro, while less chilling and mysterious than he was in SICARIO, still makes Alejandro a force to be reckoned with.  There’s more sympathy for the character this time around.

I like both these characters and would be more than happy to see them in yet another movie.

The younger actors here also fare well. Elijah Rodriguez is very good as Miguel Hernandez, a teen recruited by his adult cousin to work for the cartels smuggling immigrants across the border. It’s a cold-hearted performance that definitely strikes a chord.

But the performance of the movie belongs to young Isabela Moner as the kidnapped daughter Isabel Reyes. When we first meet Isabel, she’s in a fight at her school with another girl, and when she’s called into the principal’s office, she pretty much tells him off. And when he says he should expel her, she calls him on it, and when he does nothing, she says, “Yeah. That’s what I thought.” She then casually strolls out of his office, knowing full well she’s untouchable because of her father.

Once abducted, she’s terribly frightened, as she should be, and rather than being a clichéd “handful” she’s smart and resilient. The story arc where she bonds with Alejandro also works. It’s a terrific performance by Isabela Moner, and as much as I enjoyed Brolin and Del Toro in this movie, I think I enjoyed Moner even more. She really brings Isabel Reyes to life.

The supporting cast is full of veteran actors, including Matthew Modine, Catherine Keener, Shea Whigham, and Bruno Bichir.

Director Stefano Sollima doesn’t imbue this film with as much sweat-inducing intensity as Denis Villeneuve gave the original, but he’s also working with a weaker story. As much as I like Taylor Sheridan’s writing, the story told in the first SICARIO was a stronger one than the one told here.

Still, there are some effective scenes. The sequence where Graver’s team is attacked by the Mexican police is a good one, as is the initial kidnapping scene. And near the end, where Alejandro finds himself at the mercy of cartel members, the suspense is nail-biting.

But SICARIO was a tight thriller that remained riveting right up until the end, whereas SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO simply doesn’t do this. It has its moments, a lot of them in fact, but it doesn’t match the phenomenal original.

Sicario, by the way, is Spanish for “hitman,” and soldado means “soldier.” I’m guessing that’s a reference to Josh Brolin’s Matt Graver character, who’s portrayed here much more as a soldier this time around.  And he does tend to take center stage here.

I’m also guessing this one might underperform at the box office. I saw it on opening night with a sparse crowd which was almost entirely male. I spotted just one or two women in the audience.  And these guys were jacked and — well, let’s just say they  looked like they wanted to sign up for Matt Graver’s special ops team. So if you’re looking to put together a secret military unit, look no further than the audience at a  SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO movie.

SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO is nowhere near as strong a film as the original, but it’s still a hard-hitting thriller which successfully tells a complex and timely story involving cartels, immigration, and the shadowy missions of the U.S. government.

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com. Print version:  $18.00. Includes postage! 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.crossroadpress.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. 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

Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Streaming Movie Review: THE GIFT (2015)

0
THE-GIFT-2015-movie-still

Rebecca Hall, Justin Bateman, and Joel Edgerton share an awkward dinner in the mystery/thriller THE GIFT (2015).

Even though I see lots of movies each year, I’m never able to see every one I want to see at the theater, so it’s always fun to catch a film I missed the first time around.

Such was the case with THE GIFT (2015) a thriller from few years back written, directed, and starring Joel Edgerton.

I like Joel Edgerton a lot.  I’ve enjoyed nearly every movie I’ve seen him in, from IT COMES AT NIGHT (2017), BLACK MASS (2015), to THE GREAT GATSBY (2013) where he played Tom Buchanan.  THE GIFT was his directorial debut, and as debuts go it’s pretty darn good.

 

THE GIFT tells the story of a married couple, Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) who move to California to get a fresh start in life since Robyn had recently suffered a miscarriage. They move to a place close to Simon’s home town. Not long after they are there, they run into a man (Joel Edgerton) who says he used to know Simon, but Simon doesn’t recognize him until he tells Simon his name, Gordon Mosely, or “Gordo” for short. At that point Simon does remember him and they have a polite exchange.

That is the end of that until Gordo sends them a gift, a gesture Robyn thinks is sweet, but Simon strangely seems unnerved by it, and explains to his wife that Gordo was something of an odd duck back in school, so much so that he earned the nickname “Weirdo.” When Gordo begins to visit more often and attempts to become closer friends with the couple, Simon pushes back, and the whole thing raises a red flag for Robyn because she doesn’t quite understand her husband’s feelings of hostility toward Gordo.

As things grow weirder and tensions rise, and as Simon and Robyn begin to feel threatened by Gordo, Robyn decides to look deeper into the man’s background, and what she finds is not what she expects, especially regarding her husband.

I really enjoyed THE GIFT.  Its story grabbed me right away and held my attention throughout. Because I thought I knew where the plot was heading, I kept expecting it to become stupid or predictable, but that didn’t happen.  It stays strong throughout and kept me guessing all the way to the end.

As a result, THE GIFT is a solid mystery/thriller.

The three principal actors all do an excellent job, and as a director, Joel Edgerton should be commended for getting so much out of his actors, even if one of those actors was himself.

First and foremost, it was fun seeing Jason Bateman cast against type. The comic actor, who has enjoyed a very long career and has starred in the recent comedies GAME NIGHT (2018), IDENTITY THIEF (2013), and the HORRIBLE BOSSES movies, as well as the ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT (2003-18) TV series, is really good here as Simon, the seemingly wonderful husband with a dark past. I bought his performance throughout.

Likewise, Rebecca Hall is equally as good as Robyn. It’s a nuanced performance because she has to react to things that affect her intuition and gut feelings, rather than to things that are blatantly in her face.  And she pulls it off because most of the time I knew exactly what she was thinking and feeling. I’ve enjoyed Hall in other movies, in films like THE TOWN (2010) and VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA (2008), but her performance here ranks as one of my favorites.

To round out the trio, Joel Edgerton does a fine job as Gordo as well.  As I said, I’m a big fan of Edgerton’s, even though the last two films I saw him in weren’t very good, GRINGO (2018) and RED SPARROW (2018), but that being said, Edgerton’s performances in those movies were just fine.  In THE GIFT, as was the case with Rebecca Hall, Edgerton’s performance is a nuanced one. At first, there’s something quite sad about the man, and then something a little creepy, but then sad, or is it creepy? That’s part of the reason this movie works so well.  It keeps you guessing.

Which brings me to the screenplay, also by Joel Edgerton. It scores high on several fronts. It creates realistic three-dimensional characters who are difficult to label, because we get to see different sides to them. It also works as a solid mystery and thriller.  I did not figure out where the story was going ahead of time, which is always a good thing, nor was I disappointed with the reveals at the end of the movie. Everything pretty much works.

The screenplay also works as a social commentary, as it has something to say about bullying, and it says it well.

And as I said, it’s an impressive directorial debut for Edgerton. In addition to being a successful mystery, it’s also an effective thriller.  The best part is that it doesn’t rely on violence to unnerve its audience.  It relies on its story and its characters. There is a feeling of unease throughout the movie, a feeling that keeps the audience off-balanced, and this feeling pervades until the end credits roll.

THE GIFT is an excellent thriller, one that I’m sorry I missed at the theater during its initial run. But it’s currently available on Netflix, and I highly recommend you take a look.  You’ll be sure to enjoy it— unless, of course, a long-lost friend shows up at your doorstep bearing gifts. If that happens, you might want to look over your shoulder— or into your significant other’s past.

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

HOTEL ARTEMIS (2018) – Dark Action Tale Hearkens Back to Films of John Carpenter

1
hotel-artemis

Dave Bautista and Jodie Foster in HOTEL ARTEMIS (2018).

The hardest thing for me to wrap my head around in HOTEL ARTEMIS (2018), the new futuristic action movie by writer/director Drew Pearce, is Jodie Foster playing “a little old lady.”

But other than this— and Foster nails the role by the way—I liked HOTEL ARTEMIS just fine.

It’s 2028 Los Angeles, and the people are rioting because an evil company has shut down the city’s water supply.  It seems that in 2028 if you’re poor you’re not getting access to water.  At the same time, a bank heist goes awry, and two brothers make their way to the Hotel Artemis, a secret hospital that treats criminals run by the Nurse (Jodie Foster) and her right hand man Everest (Dave Bautista). The two brothers, like everyone else inside, are given code names, generally the names of the rooms in which they are treated.  In this case it’s Waikiki (Sterling K. Brown) and his younger brother Honolulu (Brian Tyree Henry).

It’s a volatile place, as the riots are exploding on the outside, and inside everyone is a dangerous criminal. To make matters more complicated, one of the patients Nice (Sofia Boutella) is an assassin and is there to take out a target, and the mob king of Los Angeles, the Wolf King (Jeff Goldblum) is also on his way there seeking treatment.

All of this sets the stage for an action-packed conclusion that, while hardly original, is generally satisfying.

HOTEL ARTEMIS is the type of futuristic action tale that John Carpenter would have directed in his heyday, and while not as creative as a John Carpenter movie, it’s still a heck of a lot of fun.  It reminded me a bit of ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981).

Drew Pearce makes his directorial debut here with HOTEL ARTEMIS, and while it’s not a spectacular debut, it’s still an impressive one. I liked the pace, the dark look of the film, and the action scenes were decent enough. The story also builds to an exciting climax, and the characters, while not really all that developed, are lively enough to keep the audience interested.

Judging by the extremely small audience I saw this one with— there were perhaps six of us in the theater— I’m guessing it’s struggling at the box office, which is too bad, because I thought it was a lot of fun.  It seems to have been largely overshadowed by the well-received horror movie HEREDITARY (2018), but truth be told, I enjoyed HOTEL ARTEMIS more.

The story is pretty straightforward and rather simplistic, and the dialogue isn’t going to win any awards, but I thought it had its moments. Writer/director Drew Pearce previously wrote the screenplay for IRON MAN 3 (2013), a film I liked, and that screenplay was probably a tad better than this one.

The strongest thing HOTEL ARTEMIS has going for it is its cast. I loved Jodie Foster in her “little old lady role” as The Nurse. She gets the best lines in the film, and her performance is spot on.

I also liked the chemistry she shared with Dave Bautista’s Everest, and I thought their scenes together were the best in the movie.  I’ve enjoyed Bautista in nearly every movie I’ve seen him in, from his villainous Hinx in the James Bond flick SPECTRE (2015) to his brief bit in BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017) to of course his very memorable portrayal of Drax in the GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY movies. Bautista is definitely one of the highlights of HOTEL ARTEMIS. His soft-spoken style provides perfect balance to his sculptured behemoth physique.

But the best performance in the movie belongs to Sterling K. Brown who plays the main protagonist Waikiki, the brother with all the plans, whose life keeps being stalled by his careless younger brother, but since they’re brothers Waikiki refuses to leave him behind. We just saw Brown as part of the cast of BLACK PANTHER (2017), and he’s currently on the TV show THIS IS US (2016-2018). I especially remember Brown for his portrayal of Christopher Darden on AMERICAN CRIME STORY (2016).  Brown is excellent here.

Sofia Boutella dazzles as sexy assassin Nice, just as she had done in STAR TREK: BEYOND (2016), ATOMIC BLONDE (2017) and the dreadful THE MUMMY (2017). While her role as Jaylah in STAR TREK: BEYOND remains my personal favorite, she’s pretty darn good here and is right up there with Brown, Foster, and Bautista.

Speaking of STAR TREK, Zachary Quinto, who plays Mr. Spock in the rebooted movie series, is also in the cast, but it’s a thankless role as the Wolf King’s son Crosby Franklin. The character is pretty useless, and strangely it’s pretty much a waste of Quinto’s talent.

And I thought Jeff Goldblum was miscast at the Wolf King. He doesn’t appear until halfway through the movie, and after so much build up as to how powerful, cold-hearted, and villainous this guy was, I hardly expected to see him look like Jeff Goldblum. An intellectual Wolf King? I expected someone like Harvey Keitel, Robert De Niro, or even Jeffrey Dean Morgan. But Goldblum? Didn’t really work for me.

In a smaller role, Charlie Day enjoys some fine moments as a big-mouthed arms dealer with the code name Acapulco.

HOTEL ARTEMIS plays like a 1980s John Carpenter movie only without Carpenter’s flair for the cinematic. Still, writer/director Drew Pearce does a commendable job here and has made a film that in spite of its straightforward, simple, and even predictable storyline, is still a heck of a lot of fun, especially if you enjoy your action films dark.

It also has an effective music score by Cliff Martinez that adds to the atmosphere of riot-ravaged Los Angeles. And while his score is not as memorable as his work on THE NEON DEMON (2016) or DRIVE (2011), it’s still pretty darn good.

HOTEL ARTEMIS is also Jodie Foster’s first screen role since ELYSIUM (2013), and I enjoyed her performance in HOTEL ARTEMIS much more than in that 2013 Matt Damon sci-fi flick.

If you’re in the mood for a fun action-packed popcorn movie, and if you don’t mind your action dark and gloomy, check out HOTEL ARTEMIS.

You’ll definitely enjoy your stay.

—END—

 

 

HEREDITARY (2018) – Stylish Horror Movie Can’t Keep It All Together

1

hereditary poster

I had heard good things about HEREDITARY (2018), the new horror movie by writer/director Ari Aster, with some folks comparing it to last year’s hit GET OUT (2017), and so I was really looking forward to seeing this one.

Alas, after seeing it, I can’t say that I share this opinion. To me, it’s less like GET OUT and more like THE WITCH (2015) another critically acclaimed horror flick that for me simply fell flat and didn’t work.

That being said, there are parts to HEREDITARY that I really liked, but taken as a whole, the film didn’t do it for me.

HEREDITARY opens with an obituary. Which is as good a way as any to open a horror movie. From the obit we learn of the passing of the grandmother of the Graham family, and judging by the eulogy given by her daughter Annie (Toni Collette), she was a complicated and often demanding woman who wasn’t going to be missed in the traditional sense.  After the funeral, Annie returns home with her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), teenage son Peter (Alex Wolff) and 13 year-old daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) to the house which they shared with the now deceased matriarch of the family.

When Annie sees an apparition of her dead mother inside the house, she realizes she is more troubled by her mother’s passing than she has let on, and so she attends a support group for people who have lost loved ones, and it’s there through Annie’s testimony where we learn her family’s history of mental illness and the horrific events which took place because of it.

When more tragedy strikes Annie’s family, she struggles to hold both herself together and the rest of her immediate family, often appearing unhinged and unbalanced, which will leave the audience guessing, is what is happening due to undiagnosed mental illness or the supernatural?

If only the movie offered a satisfactory answer.

Again, there were parts to HEREDITARY I really liked.

The acting is off the charts good.  Toni Collette knocks it out of the park as Annie, the mother who may or may not be dealing with her own mental health issues. The pain Annie feels over the losses in her family are among the most disturbing scenes in the movie.  Collette brings this wounded troubled character to life, and there are a couple of scenes in particular where she is grieving that are almost too disturbing to sit through. In fact, you could make the argument that the best scenes in HEREDITARY aren’t the traditional horror scenes, but the dramatic ones.  There are some truly powerful moments in this film that pack a wallop.

Gabriel Byrne is also excellent as husband Steve, the calm, rational father who offsets the high-strung Annie perfectly. It’s an understated performance, but it is just as effective as Collette’s.

The two teens are also superb. Alex Wolff is phenomenal as Peter, and his relationship with his mom is as pained and problematic as they come.  Any parent of a teenager will relate to this dynamic. While there are obviously good days and bad days to raising teenagers, the scenes in this film capture perfectly the darkest days of the experience in scenes that are again way better than the traditional horror scenes. While Wolff’s performance here isn’t quite as good as his chilling performance as Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in PATRIOTS DAY (2016), it’s still very memorable.

And Milly Shapiro does a fine job as Charlie, the daughter who was very close to her grandmother and most impacted by her death.

So, you’re not going to find better acting in a horror movie.

And the film really gets off to a good start. I really enjoyed the first half of this one, perhaps even the first two-thirds. It’s not until I realized that so many of the themes put forth here just were not coming together that things began to take a downward turn.

Writer/director Ari Aster presents us with an impressive canvas of themes to work with, especially for a horror movie. The opening shot after the obituary shows an intricate doll house, which is what Annie does for a living, design miniatures models, and the camera closes in on a miniature bedroom where we see a figure in bed which amazingly morphs into live action as we are introduced to Peter as he wakes up for his grandmother’s funeral. As opening shots go, it’s a keeper.

And it plays into a central theme of the movie, which is the debate of free will vs. fate. Do we have choices in life, or is everything that happens to us already predestined? This theme runs through the first half of the movie.

Then there’s the mental health angle. Does Annie suffer from mental health issues? Based on her behavior and on the information we learn about her family’s history, as well as the movie’s title HEREDITARY, the answer seems to be yes. In addition, the question must also be asked, what about the children?  Do they suffer from mental health issues? Again, the answer could be yes.

On the other hand, the answer could just as easily be no because there are plenty of supernatural elements occurring in the story. For two-thirds of this movie, it does a good job keeping its audience off-balance with these questions.

One of the best scenes in the movie, if not the best scene, features a dinner table conversation between Annie and Peter, where dad Steve largely remains silent, and it takes place at a point where Annie seems the most unhinged. And yet when she loses it in the conversation and lashes out at her son, and at her entire family, saying that she’s sick and tired of no one in the family owning up to their actions and always letting the guilt fall on her, she actually makes a lot of sense, which throws the audience a curve, because here’s this character who seems unbalanced but yet her argument comes off as true and valid. And then Peter backs it up by once more not owning up to what he did and instead implying that what happened was his mother’s fault.

The real horror in this movie is the family dynamic.  We see a family that comes off as very real, with little or no sense of wanting to harm each other, but through their actions can’t seem to do anything to bring themselves together.  It’s a dynamic which is much more powerful than the supernatural parts of the movie.

Which is why the movie’s ending is so disappointing.

Ari Aster throws all these themes at us, and creates a compelling family back story, but then does little with it.  The answers given here are simply not satisfying, and when the film makes the choice near the end to go full throttle towards the supernatural, it falls several notches. It simply takes away from what was shaping up to be a high brow horror tale.

The pacing is also dreadfully slow, and at two hours and seven minutes, that’s a long time to sit through a slow-paced movie. I didn’t mind as much during the first half, because the pace helped set the mood, but as the film went on, it seemed to grow slower and slower.

HEREDITARY also borrowed a page from the IT FOLLOWS (2014) playbook, featuring naked adults in creepy poses. It’s a thing that worked better in IT FOLLOWS than it does here.

There are parts to HEREDITARY that I definitely liked, as the first half of this movie held so much promise and offered so many possibilities, but it simply failed to deliver on these possibilities during its second half

As a result, HEREDITARY is a mixed bag. Its stylish and nontraditional horror style works for a while, but when it finally decides to shed some light on its questions and provide some answers, well, at that point, it simply becomes a little more traditional and a little less innovative.

I left the theater thinking, that’s it? That’s what the whole story was all about?

I think a better answer to the questions posed in this movie is that we are all predestined to act in a certain way based on our heredity and our family genes, and as such we are doomed to repeat our ancestors’ flaws, but that’s not the answer this film gives. Instead, it goes for another definition of hereditary: the right to a title based on inheritance, and in this case, that take is much less effective.

So much so that in several of the key scenes near the end, folks in the theater were laughing. Not a good sign for a horror movie.

You can do a lot worse than HEREDITARY. It’s ambitious and creative, well-acted and at times powerfully emotional, but you can also do a lot better. It throws a lot of themes at you but then fails to keep things tight. It meanders along and allows itself to lose momentum as it slowly creeps towards its disappointing traditional conclusion.

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com. Print version:  $18.00. Includes postage! 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.crossroadpress.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. 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

Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

 

 

 

BAD SAMARITAN (2018) – Routine Thriller Not That Thrilling

1

 

bad-samaritan-david-tennant

David Tennant in BAD SAMARITAN (2018).

BAD SAMARITAN (2018) is one of those movies where the idea behind its plot is better than the actual movie.

Supposedly influenced by the films of Alfred Hitchcock, the movie barely resembles the work of the master director.

In BAD SAMARITAN, two buddies, Sean Falco (Robert Sheehan) and Derek Sandoval (Carlito Olivero) struggling to make it in the world— Sean’s a photographer who wants to create art— have taken to robbing people’s homes. They park cars for an upscale Italian restaurant, and when they spot someone they feel has stuff worth stealing at their home, one of them drives the car back to the customer’s house and robs it while the other keeps an eye on the victim dining inside the restaurant.

When a rather rude and obviously very rich man Cale Erendreich (David Tennant) shows up at the restaurant, Sean and Derek agree he’s the perfect candidate for them to rob. Sean breaks into the man’s home and all is going well until he discovers a woman, Katie (Kerry Condon) chained in his bedroom like an animal. Sean tries to rescue her, but when Cale abruptly leaves the restaurant, Sean has to race back to get the man’s car back in time, but he promises to return to rescue the woman.

Knowing that he had broken into the man’s house, and fearing arrest, Sean makes an anonymous call to the police, but when they arrive at Cale’s house, Cale is there with another woman, and everything seems so normal the police do not even go inside. Sean vows to do whatever it takes to rescue the woman, but that’s easier said than done, because it doesn’t take Cale long to figure out what Sean is up to, and he in turn decides to stop Sean by making his life a living hell.

As I said, the idea behind the plot is a good one. I liked the notion of a thief breaking into the home of a serial killer and discovering the chained body of his next victim. But that’s about all I liked, really, because unfortunately, there’s nothing in this film to lift it above the level of a straightforward and very predictable by-the-numbers thriller.

Obviously, the biggest draw here is that David Tennant plays the villain, Cale. Now, Tennant is a very talented actor, but this isn’t the kind of movie you buy a ticket to hoping to see a tremendous performance by your favorite actor. Besides, you’ve already seen Tennant play this type of role if you watched Season 1 of the Netflix Marvel TV show JESSICA JONES (2015-18), where Tennant played the villain Kilgrave. His performance here is nearly identical, and about the only difference is Cale doesn’t have Kilgrave’s mind-controlling abilities.

The script by Brandon Boyce doesn’t help matters. Cale is a straightforward villain with very little depth. We know hardly anything about him, and while Tennant tries to make the character a three-dimensional one, the truth is he just doesn’t have enough material to work with. At the end of the day, in terms of villainous characters, Cale is rather boring.

One part of the screenplay I did like was the angle that both Sean and Derek not only feared getting arrested, but they also were afraid of getting deported, since neither one of them were born in the U.S. This was a timely plot point. Unfortunately, it’s mentioned all too briefly and not really developed.

I also liked the performances by Robert Sheehan as Sean and Carlito Olivero as his buddy Derek. Both actors are very good, and Sheehan makes Sean sympathetic in spite of the poor decisions he makes in his life, like robbing people’s homes. Derek tries to convince Sean just to forget about the woman, but Sean refuses, making it almost his mission to find her and rescue her. Sheehan is in most of the movie and is easily watchable.

Olivero is in the film much less than Sheehan, but he also makes an impression, and his character Derek, although he initially tries to dissuade Sean from finding the woman, does not shy away from helping his friend in the quest to locate the victim.

But the rest of the characters are all way underdeveloped and don’t leave much of a mark, including Jacqueline Byers as Sean’s girlfriend Riley. They’re in the first scene of the movie together, and they generate such wonderful chemistry I thought much of the movie would involve them, but Riley simply fades into the background, as do all the other characters, like Sean’s mother and step-father, the police, and the FBI agents.

The movie spends a lot of time on the relationship between Cale and his victim, Katie, played by Kerry Condon, but these scenes shed very little insight into either character.  We learn little about Katie, other than she’s a victim, and the strangest thing about this movie is how little sympathy it builds for Katie.

BAD SAMARITAN also does a poor job wrapping things up for its characters. It introduces a lot of characters but doesn’t show what happens to most of them.

Director Dean Devlin’s thriller is devoid of any originality and plays like most other thrillers you’ve already seen. There are a couple of very good performances here, but none of them are strong enough to carry the movie or make it better than what it is.

There are also plenty of missed opportunities. Sean is a photographer, for instance, but his photography skills hardly play a factor in the plot. I also expected more from the relationship between Kale and Katie. Strangely, she never seems all that scared. She should have been terrified.

And for a thriller, it’s not very thrilling. I don’t think I jumped once, nor was I on the edge of my seat. The suspense was minimal.

I would imagine this one’s not doing all that well at the box office. There were just three of us in the theater.

BAD SAMARITAN is not a bad movie. It’s just not a very good one.

—END—

 

 

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: THE NIGHT STALKER (1972)

0

Night_Stalker_poster

“This nut thinks he’s a vampire!”

So says reporter Carl Kolchak to his editor Tony Vincenzo, as he tries to convince him to publish his story.

THE NIGHT STALKER (1972) is not only one of the best horror movies from the 1970s, it’s also one of the best horror movies period.

Even more impressive, it was a made-for-TV movie, which isn’t surprising for the early 1970s, as that part of the decade was a great time for made-for-TV horror movies. Films like THE NORLISS TAPES (1973), GARGOYLES (1972), and TRILOGY OF TERROR (1975) were all made-for-TV shockers.

The best of the lot was THE NIGHT STALKER.

THE NIGHT STALKER starred Darren McGavin in the role that most of us consider to be his signature role, the inexorable reporter Carl Kolchak.

This movie earned such high ratings when it premiered on television on January 11, 1972 that in a largely unprecedented move, it was released theatrically after it played on TV because the film was that popular. Amazing.

And it really is a superior horror movie, which is no surprise since it was produced by Dan Curtis, the man behind the Dark Shadows phenomenon. It’s also an incredibly lean production, as it clocks in at just 74 minutes. There isn’t an ounce of fat on this baby.

THE NIGHT STALKER boasts a fantastic script, and you would expect no less since it was written by Richard Matheson, based on an unpublished novel by Jeff Rice. The legendary Matheson wrote a ton of movies and so it would be difficult to call THE NIGHT STALKER his best screenplay, but I will say that for me, it’s probably my favorite Matheson screenplay.

In 1972 Las Vegas, young women are being murdered, their bodies drained of blood. The authorities want this information kept out of the news to avoid a panic, but reporter Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) sees this story as his ticket back to the big time, as he’s been fired from one major newspaper after another, due to his in-your-face abrasive style.

Kolchak’s efforts come much to the chagrin of his hard-nosed irritable editor, Tony Vincenzo (Simon Oakland) who has a love/hate relationship with his reporter.  Kolchak describes his boss in a voice-over, “Rumor has it that the day Anthony Albert Vincenzo was born, his father left town. The story may be apocryphal, but I believe it. The only point I wonder about is why his mother didn’t leave too.”

Vincenzo recognizes that Kolchak is a top-notch reporter but grows increasingly frustrated that he can’t control him. Their verbal exchanges are some of the liveliest parts of the movie.

The vampire, Janos Skorzeny (Barry Atwater) possesses superhuman strength and performs such feats as hurling doctors through windows, tossing police officers about like twigs and outrunning police cars. He’s a type of vampire seldom seen in the movies, and to 1972 audiences he made for a violent shocking killer.  He’s quite scary.

The film does a nice job building to the inevitable climax where Kolchak finally tracks down Skorzeny.

Carl Kolchak was a perfect role for Darren McGavin and it’s no surprise he’s most known for the part. What I’ve always liked about Kolchak in THE NIGHT STALKER is unlike other heroes in vampire movies, Kolchak knew absolutely nothing about vampires.  For him, it was just a story, and at first, he didn’t even think it was a real vampire until he saw with his own eyes the vampire in action. He then researches the supernatural, and before you know it, he’s the one who’s telling the police about crosses and wooden stakes through the heart.

The vampire scenes in THE NIGHT STALKER are second to none.  Barry Atwater makes for a chilling vampire, hissing and dashing in and out of the shadows a la Christopher Lee, and like Lee in some of his Dracula portrayals, Atwater has no dialogue. In fact, Atwater’s performance as Skorzeny is even more visceral and violent than Lee’s Dracula. The success of THE NIGHT STALKER also influenced Hammer Films to make their next Dracula movie, DRACULA A.D. 1972 (1972) as a modern-day vampire tale set in 1970s London rather than the usual 1890s period piece. THE NIGHT STALKER is the superior film, by far.

The film enjoys a fine supporting cast, led by Carol Lynley as Kolchak’s girlfriend Gail Foster. There’s Claude Akins as the aptly named Sheriff Butcher, who also butchers the English language. During one press conference, he yells at Kolchak saying the reporter is there by the “mutual suffrage of us all,” to which Kolchak quickly corrects him, “it’s sufferance, sheriff.””

The cast also features Kent Smith as D.A. Paine, Ralph Meeker as Kolchak’s friend and FBI contact Bernie Jenks, and Elisha Cook, Jr. as another of Kolchak’s sources, Mickey Crawford.

The best supporting performance though belongs to Simon Oakland as Tony Vincenzo. Oakland would reprise the role in both the sequel THE NIGHT STRANGLER (1973) and the subsequent NIGHT STALKER TV series.

Directed by John Llewellyn Moxey, THE NIGHT STALKER is a quick efficient thriller with enough chills and thrills for a movie twice its length. The early scenes chronicling the violent attacks on women in Las Vegas are scary and unsettling, and thanks to Richard Matheson’s superior script, the story moves forward with nearly every scene as the suspense continues to grow..

Moxey worked mostly in television, and he directed other genre TV movies as well.  He also directed the little seen Christopher Lee horror movie CIRCUS OF FEAR (1966), also known as PSYCHO-CIRCUS, a West German/UK co-production, and Moxey directed the English language version.

But the biggest reason, of course, to see THE NIGHT STALKER is Darren McGavin’s performance as reporter Carl Kolchak. Kolchak is a man who isn’t afraid to ruffle feathers or get into the faces of the authorities in order to tell the truth.  That’s part of the attraction of the character.  That he’s fighting through the lies of the establishment.  As he says in another voice-over, “Sherman Duffy of the New York Herald once said, ‘A newspaperman is the loneliest guy on earth. Socially he ranks somewhere between a hooker and a bartender. Spiritually he stands with Galileo, because he knows the world is round.'”

McGavin would play Kolchak again in the sequel THE NIGHT STRANGLER and in the NIGHT STALKER TV series (1974-75), which sadly lasted only one season.

He also gets the last lines in the movie, as he speaks into his tape recorder and concludes, “So think about it and try to tell yourself wherever you may be in the quiet of your home, in the safety of your bed, try to tell yourself, it couldn’t happen here.”

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

BEIRUT (2018) – Complex Thriller Driven by Strong Performances

0

BEIRUT_poster

BEIRUT (2018) is a complex thriller about a hostage negotiation in 1982 Beirut. Driven by strong performances by Jon Hamm and Rosamund Pike, the film does a lot of things well and more than makes up for its lack of supporting character development and peripheral plot.

The movie opens in 1972 Beirut with American diplomat Mason Skiles (Jon Hamm) hosting a dinner party with his wife for a group of dignitaries, including a United States Congressman, where Mason explains the current intricate political situation inside Lebanon. When Mason’s best friend Cal (Mark Pellegrino) arrives with the shocking news that the thirteen year-old boy Mason and his wife have taken into their home and consider a part of their family is the younger brother of the world’s most wanted terrorist, and the U.S. authorities want to extract the boy that very night. Mason refuses, and in the middle of his argument with Cal, gunmen open fire on the party and whisk the boy away before the U.S. agents can take him.  In the process, Mason’s wife is shot and killed.

The story picks up ten years later and finds Mason back in the U.S. working as a mediator and negotiator for local labor disputes. He has left his former life behind him, having walked away from both Beirut and his friend Cal immediately after the shooting, and he hasn’t spoken to his former friend since he left.

But all that changes when he is approached by a group of federal agents who want his help.  It seems that an American was taken hostage in Beirut, and the kidnappers demanded that Mason handle the negotiation.  Mason balks at the idea and says that the kidnappers simply pulled his name out of a hat. The agents then inform Mason that the hostage is his friend Cal.

Against his better judgement but not wanting to abandon Cal a second time, Mason returns to Beirut to negotiate the release of his best friend.

BEIRUT tells a compelling enough story and for the most part keeps its intricate tale from becoming too confusing. It’s a decent screenplay by Tony Gilroy, as one would expect as Gilroy also penned screenplays for the BOURNE movies and more recently he was one of the writers involved with ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY (2016).

BEIRUT reminded me a little bit of ARGO (2012), the Ben Affleck movie which won Best Picture in 2012. Both films share suspenseful hostage stories and international intrigue, although ARGO told the better story by far.

The story BEIRUT tells is not as memorable, nor is it as riveting since one of the weaknesses of the screenplay is the supporting characters aren’t really developed. In ARGO, the audience gets to know the hostages. In BEIRUT, very little is known about hostage Cal, and so even though the proceedings are very interesting, they don’t always resonate as well as they should on an emotional level.

The best part of BEIRUT are the performances by the two leads, Jon Hamm and Rosamund Pike. Hamm is terrific as Mason Skiles, although this smooth talking alcoholic character is clearly reminiscent of Don Draper, the character Hamm played so well on the TV series MAD MEN (2007-2015). Fans of the show might have fun imagining that this is what happened next to Mr. Draper. And while Hamm isn’t exactly out of his comfort zone here, he still delivers an enjoyable performance.

Rosamund Pike is also excellent as Sandy Crowder, one of the government operatives who helps Mason when he’s on the ground in Beirut. It’s a solid understated performance by Pike, whose character has her own reasons for wanting to extract Cal. The other dynamic I enjoyed between Mason and Sandy is that unlike most movies where the male and female leads are involved romantically, this time they are not, which I found refreshing.

I like Pike a lot and have enjoyed her recent roles in such films as HOSTILES (2017), GONE GIRL (2014), and JACK REACHER (2012) to name a few.

BEIRUT also has a strong supporting cast.  Mark Pellegrino is very good as Cal, Mason’s shadowy friend, even if the character isn’t developed all that well. For most of the film we don’t really know if Cal is a good guy or not, which hurts the story somewhat.

Dean Norris, Hank on TV’s BREAKING BAD (20080-2013) is nearly unrecognizable with a full head of hair and glasses as Donald Gaines, one of the government agents who recruits Mason. And Shea Whigham is memorable as another of these agents, Gary Ruzak.

BEIRUT was directed by Brad Anderson, who’s directed a lot of movies and TV shows, including the horror movie SESSION 9 (2001).  Anderson certainly does a good job of capturing war-ravaged Lebanon circa 1982, and the film’s location alone is enough to make this one a nail biter.

The story is certainly engrossing as we follow Mason’s efforts to find his friend Cal and navigate the negotiations needed to release him. There are some decent scenes, like when Mason first meets the group claiming to have Cal, as there is a rather unexpected execution right in the middle of it.  And the film heats up every time Mason slips away from his handlers, driving them crazy while he’s off the grid.

That being said, there really isn’t any centerpiece scene in this movie, either in artistic design or in its plot, no part of the film where it kicks into high gear and really becomes something special.

And I would imagine this one is not making a whole lot of money. I saw it with a very small audience. There were fewer than ten people in the theater.

Nonetheless, it’s a solid movie driven by two potent performances by Jon Hamm and Rosamund Pike, and it’s certainly worth a trip to the theater.

BEIRUT is also a nice reminder of the value of diplomacy and negotiation over violence, even though when all is said and done, there is certainly lots of bloodshed, which is what you would expect in 1982 Beirut.

—END—