THE RHYTHM SECTION (2020) – Blake Lively Actioner As Dull As Advertised

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the rhythm section

Sometimes I need to listen to the critics.

THE RHYTHM SECTION (2020), an action thriller starring Blake Lively, opened in theaters back in January to some pretty tepid reviews, but I like Blake Lively, and I enjoyed the film’s trailers, so while I missed it on its first run, I finally decided to catch up with it this weekend.

As I said, I should have listened to those critics. THE RHYTHM SECTION was actually worse than I expected it to be.

Stephanie Patrick (Blake Lively) is so distraught after her parents and brother are killed in a plane crash that she turns to a life of prostitution and drugs. But when a reporter approaches her with the news that the plane was blown up by a terrorist bomb, and that the news was covered up, and that he knows who was responsible, well, she cleans up her act and decides to train as an assassin to personally bring those responsible for the death of her family to justice. Of course. That’s what anyone would do. Right?

Hardly.

Anyway, Stephanie trains with former MI6 agent Iain Boyd (Jude Law) who tells her she doesn’t have what it takes—cue ROCKY music here— but she sets out to prove him wrong. And she does, and soon she’s travelling all over Europe to assassinite those nasty terrorists.

Okay, there are a lot of things wrong with this movie but the biggest one is the story.  The screenplay by Mark Burnell, based on his novel, just never becomes believable. Why Iain Boyd would ever give Stephanie the time of day is beyond me and never made any sense. Why not just train anyone to be an assassin? The story gives us no reason why Stephanie is particularly suited to become a hired killer, other than her drive to avenge the death of her family. Furthermore, the film puts zero effort into convincing us that Stephanie can become a cold-blooded murderer at the drop of a hat, and that she can morph into a super skilled fighter who would give Jason Bourne a run for his money.

Also, before this, it’s not clearly explained why the reporter seeks out Stephanie in the first place. Why does he reveal the story about the bomb to her? Does he plan to interview her? It’s never made clear what his purpose is, other than to serve as a plot device to have Stephanie learn that her family was murdered.

And since no one knows the true identity of the mastermind behind the bombing, it’s part of Stephanie’s “mission” to learn his identity, and so the film also suffers from not having a villain. There’s no one to root against. Stephanie keeps moving up the food chain with one hit after another, but the main terrorist is unknown until the end of the movie, and even that reveal is disappointing and anticlimactic.

Director Reed Morano doesn’t help matters. Right off the bat the film gets off to a muddled start. It opens in a confusing manner as we see Stephanie closing in on a kill, and then it jumps back in time to show Stephanie enjoying time with her family, but then this turns out to be a flashback within a flashback as suddenly we jump ahead to Stephanie as a prostitute. It all adds up to an opening that did not draw me in. Period.

The characters are also pretty blah. The biggest snooze, unbelievably, is the main character, Stephanie Patrick. I never warmed up to her or really liked her, nor did I ever believe later that she could do the things we saw her doing.

The action scenes are also unimpressive.  I expected this one to play out in similar fashion to ATOMIC BLONDE (2017), but the action scenes in that movie were much more stylized and better executed.  The fight scenes here often seemed slow, the choreography not that exciting.

The soundtrack also didn’t work for me, as the songs chosen to cover key scenes seemed out of place, and the film’s score by Steve Mazzaro was hardly noticeable at all. The one song that does work, “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” performed by Sleigh Bells, which was featured heavily in the film’s trailers, doesn’t appear in the movie until just before the end credits. So much for that.

I usually like Blake Lively, but her performance here didn’t really work for me. I never believed that Stephanie became that assassin. Likewise, Jude Law was rather wooden as former MI6 agent and current assassin trainer Iain Boyd. And Sterling K. Brown, usually a very reliable actor, is also subdued here as a former CIA agent also involved in the mix, Mark Cerra. Brown knocked it out of the park as attorney Christopher Darden in the TV series AMERICAN CRIME STORY (2016), and he’s been similarly striking in other movies as well, but not so much here.

Also, there was simply no chemistry between Lively and Law, or between Lively and Brown. Their relationships with each other simply fell flat.

The film did take advantage of its many European locations, so much so at times it resembled a James Bond movie, which is no surprise, since it was produced by Bond producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson

Incidentally, the rhythm section refers to Boyd’s advice to Stephanie to slow the rhythm of her body, to let her heartbeat be a drum, all in an effort to cool her nerves to make her a successful killer.

I think the filmmakers heeded this advice too literally. The film is slow and cold and really could have used an infusion of energy and oomph!

THE RHYTHM SECTION is an inferior action movie, with few compelling scenes, characters who never come to life, and a story that not only didn’t grab me but never came off as believable.

The only rhythm here was the tap, tap, tap, of my fingers on the arm rest of my chair as I waited for the end credits to roll.

—END—

 

 

 

Movie Lists: SPIKE LEE MOVIES

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spike lee

Welcome back to MOVIE LISTS, the column where we look at— lists pertaining to movies. Duh!

Up today, it’s a look at the career of director Spike Lee, which of course is still going strong, so while this is an incomplete list, it’s still an important one because Spike Lee is an important filmmaker.

Now, I haven’t really seen enough Spike Lee movies to consider myself a true fan, but I’ve generally enjoyed his work, and his most recent movies have spoken to current racial tensions in ways that have really resonated, so Lee has been on my mind lately more than ever. And rightly so. Lee makes movies that make you pay attention.

Okay, here’s a partial list of Spike Lee’s 93 directorial credits:

JOE’S BED-STUY BARBERSHOP: WE CUT HEADS (1983)- Lee’s first directorial credit.

SHE’S GOTTA HAVE IT (1986) – Spike Lee’s first legitimate hit, a comedy about a young woman and her three lovers. Well-received by critics upon its initial release. I was fortunate enough to see it when it first came out, as I was in my senior year at Boston University and saw it when it premiered as part of one of my film classes.

In addition to directing and writing the screenplay, Lee also appears in the movie as one of the boyfriends.

SCHOOL DAZE (1988) – Lee’s next film, a comedy/drama/musical about a fraternity pledge at a black college. Starring Laurence Fishburne and a young Giancarlo Esposito who would go on to star in a lot of Lee’s movies.

DO THE RIGHT THING (1989) – Powerful tale of race relations in Brooklyn. Starring Danny Aiello, John Turturro, and again, Giancarlo Esposito.

MO’ BETTER BLUES (1990) – again directed, written by, and starring Spike Lee, this one is the story of two jazz musicians played by Denzel Washington and Wesley Snipes.

JUNGLE FEVER (1991) – Lee’s take on interracial relationships, starring Wesley Snipes and Annabella Sciorra.

MALCOLM X (1992) – probably my favorite Spike Lee movie. This riveting bio pic of African American leader Malcolm X also features one of my favorite performances by Denzel Washington of all time, in the lead role as Malcolm X.

CROOKLYN (1994) – a look at a black family in Brooklyn in 1973.

CLOCKERS (1995)- crime thriller about drug pushers and cops in Brooklyn, starring Harvey Keitel and Lee regular John Turturro.

GIRL 6 (1996) -comedy/drama about a struggling actress who turns to sex to make money.

GET ON THE BUS (1996) – chronicles a bus ride to Washington D.C. for the Million Man March.

HE GOT GAME (1998)- basketball player drama starring Denzel Washington.

SUMMER OF SAM (1999) -Lee’s take on the Son of Sam murders.

BAMBOOZLED (2000)- comedy drama about a frustrated African American writer who in a fit of frustration comes up with a blackface minstrel show only to see it become a hit.

25TH HOUR (2002) – drama about the last 24 hours of a convicted drug dealer, starring Edward Norton.

INSIDE MAN (2006) – Tense crime drama about negotiations over a hostage situation following a bank robbery, starring Denzel Washington, Clive Owen, and Jodie Foster.

MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA (2008) – World War II drama about a group of black soldiers who get trapped in a village.

RED HOOK SUMMER (2012) – drama about a boy who spends a summer with his deeply religious grandfather.

OLDBOY (2013) – weird action drama, a remake, about a man, played by Josh Brolin, held captive for twenty years who is then suddenly released, and he sets out to find answers to why this happened to him. This one just didn’t work for me.

DA SWEET BLOOD OF JESUS (2014) – thriller about a mysterious curse which results in a thirst for blood.

CHI-RAQ (2015) – modern day adaptation of a play by Aristophanes.

BLACKKKLANSMAN (2018) – the first Spike Lee film since MALCOLM X that I really, really enjoyed. Intriguing from start to finish, it tells the story of a black cop played by John David Washington who infiltrates the KKK but then needs the help of a fellow white cop played by Adam Driver to pull off the ruse. Thought-provokig throughout, it’s actually based on real events.

DA 5 BLOODS (2020)- Lee’s most recent film to date, and his first for Netflix. I actually enjoyed this one even more than BLACKKKLANSMAN, as its story of four black veterans of the Vietnam war who return to Vietnam in 2020 to reclaim the remains of their fallen platoon leader speaks to today’s modern day Black Lives Matter movement with a clarity that is seldom found in the movies. An outstanding movie that really speaks to the plight of the black male in the United States.

And there you have it, a brief, partial list of the movies of Spike Lee, one of the most influential film directors working today.

I hope you enjoyed this MOVIE LISTS column and will join me again next time when we look at another list pertaining to the movies.

As always, thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

 

THE DECLINE (2020) – Solid Thriller Speaks to Current Uncertain Times

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In order to live you have to survive.

That’s the mantra of Alain (Real Bosse), a survivalist and the main character in THE DECLINE (2020), a new thriller about a group of folks training at an expansive compound deep in the Canadian wilderness in order to prepare for the end of the world. All goes well until a mishap sends them reeling, and suddenly all their training falls by the wayside when the disaster they’d been preparing for unexpectedly happens within their ranks.

THE DECLINE opens with Antoine (Guillaume Laurin) training with his wife and daughter as they run drills and prepare food to last for years as they expect society as we know it to end in the not so distant future. They heed the advice of a survivalist guru named Alain as they watch his videos online. When Alain invites Antoine to join him at his compound, Antoine is happy to oblige.

Once there, Antoine meets a small group of other survivalists, all there to receive extensive training from Alain. For a while, life is good, as they are all satisfied with Alain’s training, but when an accident occurs claiming the life of one of their own, panic ensues over just how to deal with a death at the compound, a panic that immediately tests everything they had been preparing for.

THE DECLINE is a Netflix original movie, and the first Netflix Quebec collaboration. As such, it’s a French language production. Strangely, Netflix chose to dub the film in English, which detracts from the authenticity of the film. I would have preferred the original French language with English subtitles. But this is about the only thing about this one that I didn’t like.

THE DECLINE is a lean and mean movie, clocking in at a brief 83 minutes. The first half is compelling, while the second is increasingly violent and suspenseful.

Director Patrice Laliberte captures the sense of place with all encompassing shots of Alain’s massive compound deep in the frigid Canadian wilderness, surrounded by snowy hills and icy rivers. And during the second half of the movie, as the group splinters into two sides, the violence intensifies, and the climactic scuffle between two key characters is downright brutal.

Laliberte co-wrote the screenplay with Charles Dionne and Nicholas Krief, and it’s a smart one. The characters in this movie are not preparing for a zombie apocalypse or an otherwise cliche scenario. They are worried about the collapse of society, from either a pandemic, a worldwide economic collapse, or from global warming. Their fears, especially here in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, seem alarmingly real.

Their training really is about keeping it together when the proverbial sh*t hits the fan, and being prepared so they can survive afterwards, which makes what happens in this movie all the more prescient. When an accident claims the life of one of their own, they panic, and they are unable to keep it together. While Alain begs them to do just that, keep it together and rely on their training, most of the folks there refuse, as human nature takes over. Sometimes human decency trumps survivalist training.

It’s an all Canadian cast, and they acquit themselves well. Real Bosse plays survivalist master Alain with a mix of traits. On the one hand, he’s all in with the deep survivalist mantra, sounding paranoid at times, but he mixes in enough softspoken common sense and caring that he frequently sounds like a pretty normal guy. But there’s also an undercurrent of unhingedness that keeps the audience unsettled. At the end of the day, though, Alain is simply a man who believes that one must be prepared for the inevitable collapse that is coming sooner than later.

Guillaume Laurin plays Antoine, the man who also intends to bring his family to the compound when the time is right. Antoine is the character who the audience will most indentify with, the family man, who cares for his wife and daughter, which is why he’s doing all this. Laurin is very good in the role.

Probably my favorite performance in the film belongs to Marie-Evelyne Lessard, who plays Rachel, a former soldier who left the military for reasons she doesn’t like to talk about. She’s the most bad-ass character in the movie, and as the story goes along, her role grows, and she’s involved in some of the best scenes in the film. Lessard is excellent here.

I really liked THE DECLINE. Its survivalist end-of-life-as-we-know-it theme has more relevance today than ever. I also enjoyed that it did not play like a Hollywood production. The script isn’t campy, it’s not full of one-liners, and it doesn’t attempt to be anything that it’s not. It’s simply a story about a group of survivalists who believe they are training for the inevitable, and when things go awry, the reactions of everyone involved are natural and real.

The violence, while not overly gratuitous, is brutal and realistic. The final fight scene in particular is a nail-biter.

THE DECLINE is a well-made thriller that has a down-to-earth no frills script and features solid acting throughout. It’s a film that speaks to the uncertain times in which we live, and provides an answer as to how people will react to adversity and tragedy whether they’re part of society or not.

—END—

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—END—

 

 

 

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

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the good liar

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

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

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

Not quite.

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

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

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

What’s a vulnerable widow to do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that’s no lie!

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

DARK CORNERS, Michael Arruda’s second short story collection, contains ten tales of horror, six reprints and four stories original to this collection.

Dark Corners cover (1)

Waiting for you in Dark Corners are tales of vampires, monsters, werewolves, demonic circus animals, and eternal darkness. Be prepared to be both frightened and entertained. You never know what you will find lurking in dark corners.

Ebook: $3.99. Available at http://www.crossroadspress.com and at Amazon.com.  Print on demand version available at https://www.amazon.com/dp/1949914437.

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

How far would you go to save your family? Would you change the course of time? That’s the decision facing Adam Cabral in this mind-bending science fiction adventure 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

Michael Arruda reviews horror movies throughout history, from the silent classics of the 1920s, Universal horror from the 1930s-40s, Hammer Films of the 1950s-70s, all the way through the instant classics of today. If you like to read about horror movies, this is the book for you!

 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, first short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For_the_love_of_Horror- original cover

Print cover

For the Love of Horror cover (3)

Ebook cover

 

Michael Arruda’s first short story collection, featuring a wraparound story which links all the tales together, asks the question: can you have a relationship when your partner is surrounded by the supernatural? If you thought normal relationships were difficult, wait to you read about what the folks in these stories have to deal with. For the love of horror!

 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.  

 

 

 

 

 

HORSE GIRL (2020) – Intriguing Drama Asks: Mental Illness or Alien Abduction?

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There’s a fine line between mental illness and alien abduction.

That’s the dance played out in HORSE GIRL (2020), an intriguing drama about a sweet yet socially awkward young woman who suffers from nightmares and blackouts which she interprets as alien abductions while those around her believe more matter-of-factly that she suffers from mental illness.

Just where the truth lies is something the movie doesn’t make crystal clear.

HORSE GIRL tells the story of Sarah (Alison Brie) a shy young woman who works in a fabric store during the day and comes home to her apartment at night where she spends her evenings alone watching reruns of her favorite science fiction TV show, while her roommate Nikki (Debby Ryan) occupies herself with her boyfriend Brian (Jake Picking). Sarah also has an affinity for a horse Willow which she visits every day at the stable, much to the annoyance of Willow’s owners. We learn later that Willow used to be Sarah’s horse but isn’t any more.

On her birthday, Sarah receives a birthday card from her co-worker Joan (Molly Shannon) who asks her if she has any special plans to celebrate, to which Sarah lies and says she’s going to go out to dinner with some friends from her dance class. Later, we witness the awkward scene where Sarah tries to make plans with these friends but fails miserably, so she returns to her apartment, content to spend her birthday alone, but her roommate Nikki feels bad for her and coaxes Brian to invite his friend Darren (John Reynolds) over who had recently broke up with his girlfriend. Surprisingly, Darren and Sarah hit it off well, and they agree to see each other again for a date.

Up until this point, HORSE GIRL has the makings of a tender romantic love story, but it’s at this time when Sarah realizes she’s been having some pretty bizarre dreams, dreams in which sleep walks and finds herself in other places, not knowing how she got there, and when she returns home, she finds that while she believes she’s been gone for hours, only minutes have passed in real-time.

She does some research on the internet and reads about alien abductions, and the descriptions of these abductions match things she has seen and felt in her dreams. It’s also at this time when she begins to think more about her grandmother and mother, both of whom dealt with mental health issues and spoke of experiences similar to hers. In her mom’s case, she recently committed suicide. But Sarah fixates on her grandmother, who in old photographs is the splitting image of Sarah, which gets Sarah thinking about clones.

Once Sarah starts speaking about this to her friends and family, it’s easy for them— and for the audience— to believe she has inherited the same mental health issues as her mother and grandmother. But Sarah is convinced otherwise, and she sets out to prove it.

HORSE GIRL is a thought-provoking movie that is well-written by director Jeff Baena and lead actress Alison Brie. And while its story is never fleshed out as well as one would hope, it still delivers in that it takes its audience for a ride that is compelling throughout, the only drawback being a conclusion that is a bit too open-ended.

I really enjoyed Alison Brie in the lead role as Sarah. She makes Sarah likeable and vulnerable. She nails the introvert persona suffering from social anxiety to a tee, and the scenes where she tries to be social are painfully realistic. And she does it without being cliché or superficial. In all other aspects of her life, in her job, for instance, she’s comfortable and quite good at it. So, Brie creates a three-dimensional character who we like even before all the weird things begin to happen to her, and once they do, we empathize with her and want her to be okay, even as it becomes increasingly apparent that she’s not okay.

Brie is a wonderful actress who I first noticed on the TV show MAD MEN (2007-2015) where she played Trudy Campbell. She also stars on the TV show GLOW (2017-2020). She’s in nearly every scene in HORSE GIRL, and she easily carries this film on her back.

And as I said, she also wrote the screenplay, along with director Jeff Baena. One of the best parts of the screenplay is how well-written the supporting characters are. They come off as real people, which in this story, is important, because Sarah increasingly becomes unstable, and if she were surrounded by a bunch of cardboard clichés, it would certainly make her story less believable. But that’s not the case here as these supporting characters have real reactions and really care for her.

In one of the film’s best sequences, when Sarah is on her date with Darren, it’s all going so well, and when Sarah opens up to him and starts talking about what she suspects is happening to her, at first since he’s happy and genuinely likes Sarah, he’s supportive and all ears. But as Sarah grows more intense and unpredictable and unrealistic, she becomes scary, and Darren’s reaction changes.  Had he been a cliché, the boyfriend only out for sex, for example, this scene would not have worked as well. Instead, it works wonderfully, because Darren tries so hard to  understand Sarah and to accept what she’s saying, but as she reacts more violently, he, like the audience, becomes unnerved and he has no choice but to react to that. It’s one of the more honest— and frightening— sequences in the film.

As I said, the one weakness in the movie is the ending. Based on the final sequence, you get a pretty good idea on which side the moviemakers favor here, mental illness or alien abduction, but still there’s something missing, and that something is an independent view on the matter. The film is told through Sarah’s eyes, and so even that final scene is from Sarah’s perspective, and hence you really don’t know its true meaning, which often is not a bad thing in a movie, and it’s not a terribly bad thing in this movie, as I still liked it a lot in spite of the ending, but a more emphatic ending would have helped, as it would have given this curious tale an exclamation point on which to end, rather than the way it ends now, with an ellipse.

HORSE GIRL also has an admirable supporting cast. Debby Ryan does a fine job as Sarah’s roommate Nikki, who although she gets frustrated with her does care about her. Likewise, Jake Picking is solid as Nikki’s boyfriend Brian, who’s much less supportive of Sarah and thinks she’s flat-out weird. Molly Shannon also does a nice job as Sarah’s co-worker Joan who also seems to care about her.

I really enjoyed John Reynolds as Darren, the guy who sincerely wants to start a relationship with Sarah, but he unfortunately picked the wrong week to ask her out. Reynolds does an awesome job making this guy a three-dimensional character, and he does it in very little screen time. Reynolds plays quirky Officer Callahan on TV’s STRANGER THINGS (2016-2020). He makes much more of an impact here in HORSE GIRL.

HORSE GIRL also benefits from a couple of screen veterans in the cast. Paul Reiser shows up in one sequence as Sarah’s step-father. It’s just one sequence, but it’s a good one. And John Ortiz plays a man Sarah sees in her recurring dreams, and then later she sees him in real life.

I liked the way director Jeff Baena handled this one. Sure, it’s a bit of a slow burn, as the pace is measured, and the first third is a straight drama. In fact, when Sarah experiences her first weird nightmare, it comes out of nowhere and is quite jarring. If HORSE GIRL were a horror movie, it would fall into the category of quiet horror. So, call this one a quiet mystery/thriller.

But it works.

HORSE GIRL is a captivating drama with sprinkles of mystery and science fiction thrown in that takes its time telling its weirdly provocative story, and while its ending isn’t completely satisfying, it remains a movie that creates a sympathetic main character who’s searching for answers about her past and her future. You’ll want her to find them.

It’s now available on Netflix.

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE POSTCARD KILLINGS (2020) – Average Thriller Nothing To Write Home About

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THE POSTCARD KILLINGS (2020) was released on March 13, 2020, right at the onset of the social distancing policies here in the U.S as a result of COVID-19, and so I didn’t get to see this one at the time. It’s now available on Xfinity On Demand and other online movie services.

The main reason I wanted to see THE POSTCARD KILLINGS was because of its star, Jeffrey Dean Morgan— yep, Neegan himself from TV’s THE WALKING DEAD (2010—) who plays a New York City police detective on the trail of a serial killer in Europe.

THE POSTCARD KILLINGS opens with New York police detective Jacob Kanon (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) being shown the bodies of his daughter and her husband on slabs in a morgue, both brutally murdered, their bodies mutilated. Haunted by this reality, Kanon decides he’s staying in Europe to help solve the case, and he learns that before the murder the killer sent a postcard to a London reporter. Soon, these murders start happening in other European cities, the victims always a young married couple, and a postcard always sent first to a reporter announcing the killer’s arrival in that city. The victims’ bodies are displayed in such ways to mimic famous artworks.

Kanon travels throughout Europe hot on the killer’s trail, trying to get a step ahead of the murderer, sometimes working with local officials, sometimes not, as many of the officials don’t agree with what they see as his aggressive American methods. Kanon does befriend one of the reporters who received a postcard, Dessie Lombard (Cush Jumbo), and the two work together to uncover clues to the killer’s whereabouts and next move.

I liked THE POSTCARD KILLINGS well enough, but I didn’t love it. The number one reason it didn’t completely wow me is its story doesn’t hold up for the entire movie. The first half is very good, but there’s a twist midway through that didn’t completely work for me. I mean, it’s okay, it’s not a game changer, but the story definitely goes in a direction that is less interesting.

Hence the screenplay by Ellen Furman and Andrew Stern is not a strength.

I enjoyed Jeffrey Dean Morgan in the lead role as detective Jacob Kanon, but the material here is just average, and what he’s asked to do in the role hardly means pushing the envelope. He’s a grieving father who wants to make the person who murdered his daughter pay, but don’t expect the kind of passion Liam Neeson used to bring to these kinds of roles.

Cush Jumbo is fine as reporter Dessie Lombard who helps Jacob solve the case, but making a bigger splash in a smaller role is Famke Janssen as Jacob’s ex-wife Valerie, who while at odds with Jacob, eventually is able to help with the investigation herself. Janssen, as you might remember, played Jean Grey/Phoenix in the X-MEN movies.

Joachim Krol is also memorable in a supporting role as Inspector Bublitz, one of the few European police detectives who feels empathy for Jacob and is supportive of his efforts. And Naomi Battrick is excellent as one of the characters involved in the plot twist. She’s really good.

Director Danis Tanovic avoids getting all that gruesome, even though this one is unrated. Likewise, even though the majority of the story takes place all over Europe, he doesn’t take full advantage of these European settings, so the film doesn’t have the same kind of feel you get from say a Bond or Jason Bourne movie. There are quick establishing shots and then we switch to interiors, where most of the action takes place.

THE POSTCARD KILLINGS has its moments, mostly during the first half of the movie, but its short on thrills and not really a deep enough drama to get under your skin or make much of an impact. As serial killer thrillers go, it’s pretty average.

It’s nothing to write home about.

–END—

AFTERMATH (2017) – Depressing Character Study of Two Men Grieving A Showcase For Arnold Schwarzenegger

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As you look for movies to watch while staying home during the coronavirus pandemic, AFTERMATH (2017) may not be your best choice. It’s hopelessly depressing.

It’s also not that great a movie.

If there is one reason to watch it, it’s for the lead performance by Arnold Schwarzenegger. That’s right. The Terminator himself, here playing a subtle dramatic lead.

I missed this one on its initial release in 2017, which was easy to do, since AFTERMATH is a slow burn drama with not much to get excited about other than the fact that the cast features Arnold Schwarzenegger in a rare dramatic role.

I’ve always been a fan of Schwarzenegger’s, going all the way back to his TERMINATOR heyday and his subsequent action films and comedies. I also enjoyed his low-key horror movie MAGGIE (2015), a film in which he delivered a notable acting performance, and so I was intrigued to see him here in AFTERMATH, a movie in which he portrays a man grieving over the deaths of his wife and pregnant daughter, both of whom died in a plane crash.

AFTERMATH gets off to a solid start. It opens with construction worker Roman (Arnold Schwarzenegger) leaving work early so he can pick up his wife and daughter from the airport. They’re about to celebrate their daughter’s new pregnancy. But when he gets to the airport, he reads that the flight is delayed but there is no information as to when it’s arriving, and then he is asked to come with an airline representative into a private room, and it’s there where he is told that the plane has crashed.

This opening sequence is full of dread, as the audience sees where this is going before Roman does, since he’s so full of euphoria over seeing his wife and daughter, and the process of his being told about the crash is as painful as one can imagine. It’s really well-acted by Schwarzenegger. There’s no other way to say it. He’s really good here.

The film then jumps back in time moments before the crash, and we meet air traffic controller Jake (Scoot McNairy) who finds himself solo in the control tower at the airport, and through a series of problematic events including a faulty phone line becomes distracted, and on his watch two planes collide in midair. This is also a devastating sequence, well-executed by the film’s director Elliott Lester, and well-acted by McNairy.

So, the first twenty minutes or so of AFTERMATH are very, very good. But then the film really slows down and for a long time seems to go nowhere, and that’s because it doesn’t.

The story follows the parallel stories of Roman and Jake. With Roman, we watch him grieve over the loss of his wife and daughter, unable to move on, unable to find closure. He wants someone from the airlines to apologize to him for the deaths of his wife and daughter, but no one gives him that apology.

Jake is completely devastated by the crash and pretty much loses it, so much so that his wife and young son have to move out of their home. Eventually, Jake takes the airline up on their offer to relocate him to a new state with a new name and a new job, since his name had been made public in the media and as a result he had been receiving death threats.

As these two stories play out, it becomes obvious that these two characters are destined for a meeting, and how that will occur and what will happen when it does are questions that for the bulk of the film remain intriguing. However, the film’s climax is a big–-that’s it?–– which for me was a huge letdown. For a movie that is as slow burn and depressing as this one is, you really need a thought-provoking climax to lift it up, but this movie simply doesn’t have that moment. Its answer is violent and disappointing.

The very ending of the film is a bit better, but by that time it’s too little too late.

The main reason to see AFTERMATH really is Arnold Schwarzenegger. He really does deliver a strong performance in this movie. His portrayal of Roman is right on the money and comes off as a man who just can’t move on from the deaths of his wife and daughter. It’s natural and sad. You don’t watch him and think he’s acting. You believe he’s Roman.

Scoot McNairy is equally as good as the emotionally scarred air traffic controller Jake, a man who outwardly seems more unhinged than Roman, although Roman keeps most of his emotions inside. McNairy has been in a bunch of movies, including the lead role in Gareth Edwards’ MONSTERS (2010).

The screenplay by Javier Gullon starts off well with two riveting sequences, the one where Roman is informed about the plane crash, and the other where Jake is in the control tower when it happens. These two sequences are both very well-written, but after that things just slow down, and many opportunities are missed. The story shows the pain of these two men, but as it goes along, the question arises, so where is this all going? And it’s the answer to this question that is so disappointing.

Director Elliott Lester shares a similar fate in that the first two sequences are better than the rest of the movie, although I thought the gloomy look and feel of this movie was effective throughout. Lester captures the sadness of these two men with the ever-present cloudy and gray cinematography.

While the pacing of the movie was slow, I was not bored, as I was anticipating the confrontation between Roman and Jake, and Lester does a nice job gradually building to this fated meeting. But when Roman and Jake finally do meet, it changes the film and seriously takes away all that had come before it. It’s not that it’s an unrealistic moment. It’s simply a disappointing one. The audience has just invested nearly an hour and half together with these two grieving characters, especially with Roman, and the moment simply detracts from the bonds built during this time.

AFTERMATH is a moody and sorrowful character study of two men dealing with different kinds of grief following a tragic plane crash. It starts off well before settling in for a slow burn of a narrative that ultimately has little to offer in the way of a thought-provoking conclusion.

—END—

 

 

 

 

THE HUNT (2020) – Ugly Thriller Fails At Both Horror and Satire

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Crystal (Betty Gilpin) fights back in THE HUNT (2020)

THE HUNT (2020), the new thriller by writer Damon Lindelof, who was part of the team that brought us the classic television show LOST (2004-2010), and who also wrote the screenplay for WORLD WAR Z (2013), is yet another of those horror movies featuring the unpleasant concept of humans hunting humans.

It’s what we saw in THE PURGE movies, and in last year’s clever dark comedy, READY OR NOT (2019), which starred Samara Weaving as a bride hunted by her new husband’s family on her wedding night. While I enjoyed READY OR NOT and its deliciously dark sense of humor, I’ve never been a fan of the PURGE movies. They simply haven’t worked for me.

Neither did today’s movie, THE HUNT.

The premise in THE HUNT is that a group of people are abducted from their everyday lives, and when they awake, they find themselves in a clearing surrounded by woods only to be immediately shot at by unseen hunters who have declared open season on humans. This actually sounds scarier than what the movie ultimately becomes, and that’s because THE HUNT suffers from a serious case of the stupids.

More on this in a moment.

It doesn’t take long for nearly every character in the film to meet a grisly and horrific death. We’re talking in the first ten minutes of the movie. Which leaves one character Crystal (Betty Gilpin) to stand her ground and fight back. Fortunately, Crystal is the one interesting character in the entire movie, and Betty Gilpin’s performance here is the main reason to see this one. Otherwise, it would be a complete disaster. That being said, it’s still pretty bad.

See, the premise here in THE HUNT is a group of liberal elites who spend their days talking about fighting racism, taking care of the environment, and other “liberal” issues decide to take it upon themselves to help the world by ridding it of some of its less desirables, people of the opposite political persuasion- in short, people they see as rednecks.

Or so it seems. Eventually we learn the real reason why these victims were selected. It’s a very specific reason and one that really strains credibility. In fact, it’s flat out stupid.

The liberal elite hunters come off as caricatures rather than real people, which really hurts this movie. Likewise, the victims are also exaggerated stereotypes. Both sides are portrayed as pigheaded bigots, which I suppose is the point of the movie, a point that would have been more effectively made had its characters behaved like real people rather than cliches.

The screenplay by Damon Lindelof and Nick Cuse also can’t make up its mind whether or not it wants to be a straight thriller or a satire. Its over the top dialogue definitely has it leaning towards the satire end of the spectrum, but the writing isn’t sharp enough to pull this off. Not only didn’t I laugh, but I was hardly even amused. Attempts at humor failed left and right. No pun intended.

And then the premise just gets dumber and dumber. When we finally meet the person behind the hunt, Athena (Hilary Swank), and learn her back story, it asks the audience to accept a plot point that is absolutely ludicrous.

The climactic fight scene between Crystal and Athena is a good one, and one of the bright spots of the movie. But there aren’t too many positives here. Director Craig Zobel keeps the blood flowing throughout, but few scenes have any resonance. The over the top violence seems to be going for laughs, but it doesn’t really work.

The only reason to see THE HUNT is for Betty Gilpin’s performance. She’s really good, and Crystal is the only character in the film who doesn’t wear her political views on her sleeve. The rest of the characters all do, and none of them seem all that realistic.

The film is a sloppy attempt to make a statement about the divisions in our current society, but it completely fails. The writing isn’t sharp, the characters come off as phony, and the humor doesn’t work.

THE HUNT is an ugly movie which most likely will be attacked by both sides of the political spectrum as doing a hatchet job on their respective camps. And in this case, both sides would be correct.

—END–

LEADING LADIES: BROOKE ADAMS

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Brooke Adams in 1978.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sean Connery and Brooke Adams in CUBA (1979).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As always, thanks for reading!

—Michael