STUBER (2019) – Likable Leads Lift Uneven Comedic Ride

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I tend to like “buddy movies,” that comedic genre which takes two unlike personalities and thrusts them together in comical situations where they often have to put aside their differences to work together, which is why I believe I enjoyed STUBER (2019) more than I should have, because when all is said and done, STUBER is just an okay movie.

It relies heavily on the talents of its two leads, Dave Bautista and Kumail Nanjiani, who try their best to rise above the material, and for the most part, they do.

STUBER opens with police detective Vic Manning (Dave Bautista) and his partner Sara (Karen Gillan) chasing a deadly drug dealer Oka (Iko Uwais) which leads to a shoot-out in which Sara is killed. Months later, Vic undergoes laser surgery to correct his vision since during the chase which cost his partner her life, he had lost his eyeglasses in the scuffle and was unable to take the decisive shot which might have saved Sara’s life.

After the surgery, his doctor advises him not to drive or do anything else strenuous because his full vision will not be restored for several hours. But just before he’s to take an Uber ride to his daughter’s art show, he receives a tip on the whereabouts of Oka, and so when he gets inside the car, he commandeers the driver, Stu (Kumail Nanjiani) to take him to his new destination.

Stu is a mild-mannered Uber driver who when he’s not driving is stuck in a nothing day job while trying to get his best friend Becca (Betty Gilpin) to notice him romantically. He is not built for police work, but before he can protest, he’s suddenly dragged into the middle of a drug war between Vic and Oka. Let the comedy ensue!

What?

That doesn’t sound funny? I agree. Which is one of the biggest knocks against STUBER. Its story is not all that funny.  Watching Vic bully Stu around for most of the movie didn’t naturally instill laughter.

The screenplay by Tripper Clancy does its best by giving its two stars plenty of one-liners, especially Nanjiani, and a lot of these work, but still, the film is far from uproarious. For one thing, the plot definitely gets in the way. It struggles to be credible. I never really bought that Vic would go that rogue, that he’d trust an Uber driver to help him rather than call for police back-up. This is sort of addressed later when the revelation is made that there is a mole on the force on Oka’s payroll, but Vic doesn’t learn this till the end of the movie.

Likewise, the plot device of having Vic temporarily blinded from laser surgery, which is there only to set up his need for an Uber driver, didn’t work for me either. If his eyes were that bad without his glasses, it didn’t make sense to me that he’d be a police detective. I also found it hard to believe that as a detective who wore glasses he never ran into this issue before.

I did laugh during STUBER, mostly because of the two leads. Dave Bautista, the former wrestler, who I first noticed in THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS (2012) and who has gone on to make a lot of movies, including the GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY and AVENGERS movies where he plays the popular character Drax, possesses an easy-going and light style which makes him a natural in front of the camera. In short, he’s got charisma.

His portrayal of Vic is a bit darker and rougher than some of his previous performances but he still keeps his signature amiable style in tact.

Kumail Nanjiani probably gets the best lines in the movie, and Nanjiani is more than up to the task. Whether he’s having a heart to heart with a male stripper, holding a dangerous drug dealer at gunpoint, or exchanging barbs with Bautista, Nanjiani is consistently likable and funny. That being said, I enjoyed Nanjiani’s previous film, THE BIG SICK (2017) much better than this movie.

And the two actors really do have some memorable exchanges, like when Stu asks Vic if he’s ever taken a bullet for someone, and Vic deadpans “you think there’s time after someone has pulled a trigger to actually jump in front of a bullet? There’s no slow motion in the real world.” And later when Stu complains that he’s being repressed by a white guy, Vic reminds him, “I’m not white.”

Some of the physical comedy is also pretty funny, but sadly the story is not. Director Michael Dowse definitely emphasizes the action elements here over the comedic, and as a result the film is rather violent. I wish more effort had been made to make this one more humorous. That would have made it a better movie. I mean, as action movies go, it’s rather lame.

Bautista and Nanjiani don’t get a lot of help from their supporting cast, which isn’t really the actors’ faults, since there really aren’t any other meaty roles in the film. Natalie Morales does stand out, however, in a small role as Vic’s daughter Nicole. In her limited screen time, she’s very good.

Mira Sorvino plays Vic’s superior officer Angie in a thankless role that had this been a better written movie would have had more relevance. Betty Gilpin is given even less to do as Stu’s love interest Becca. And Iko Uwais makes no impact whatsoever as bad guy Oka. That’s one big blaring weakness in this film, in that it doesn’t have much of a villain to speak of.

On the other hand, Karen Gillan, who like Bautista, is also in the GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY and AVENGERS movies, as Thanos’ daughter Nebula, is very good here as Vic’s partner Sara, but she’s killed off in the opening moments of the movie.

STUBER has its moments, and it benefits from its two likable leads, Dave Bautista and Kumail Ninjiani, but taken as a whole it’s a flawed comedy that spends too much time on its crime elements and not enough on its comedic parts, which results in a mixed bag of a movie.

If you enjoy buddy comedies, you’ll find this one amusing, but if you’re looking for a brilliant laugh-out loud comedy, you should look for another Uber ride.

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CRAWL (2019) – Popcorn Horror Movie Has Some Bite

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If you’re looking for a summer popcorn movie with some bite, then look no further than CRAWL (2019), the new horror movie by director Alexandre Aja about two people trapped in the basement of their Florida home during a Category 5 hurricane while being attacked by some unusually aggressive alligators.

As horror movie concepts go, it’s a simple one, but sometimes simple is good, and that’s the case here. CRAWL succeeds in what it sets out to do, in that it provides some entertaining thrills and chills and does it all very efficiently in a nifty 87 minutes.

CRAWL is an interesting juxtaposition from last week’s horror release, MIDSOMMAR (2019). MIDSOMMAR was a meticulously crafted very adult horror tale that worked as a slow burn over its two and a half hour running time, not hitting its audience with jump scares, but rather getting under their skin and disturbing them with its unpleasant story. CRAWL is a much more traditional horror movie. Some will argue that MIDSOMMAR is superior horror, and it is, in terms of the maturity of its script and artisitic style, but in terms of execution, CRAWL is no less its equal. Both films work well, but for different reasons, and at the end of the day there is room for both these types of movies in the horror genre, as long as they are crafted well, and both of these films are.

In CRAWL, competitive swimmer Haley (Kaya Scodelario) gets a phone call from her sister who expresses concern that their dad has not returned her calls. There’s a Category 5 hurricane bearing down on his Florida neighborhood. Haley decides to check in on him, even though her sister warns her against doing so since that would mean she’d be driving into the hurricane, but Haley does it anyway.

At the house, Haley discovers her dad Dave (Barry Pepper) trapped in the basement of their home, cornered by two aggressive alligators that have made their way inside through a storm drain. When she attempts to free him, she finds herself trapped as well, and with the hurricane bearing down upon them, bringing with it rapidly rising waters and brutally devastating winds, they realize they do not have much time before they will be completely underwater, along with those menancing alligators.

And that’s the premise of CRAWL. It’s a simple story but it works, as the concept of this woman and her father fending off alligators during a fierce hurricane is entertaining and thrilling.

There is some back story which helps as well, although the film doesn’t spend much time on it. Haley is a competitive swimmer who’s yet to find the success she’s looking for, and since she was a child, she’s had a chip on her shoulder for not being good enough, and so that element is with her as she fights to save her father. Plus, her father used to be her coach, and so it’s his voice she hears when she pushing herself.

Her parents are recently divorced, and it’s clear Dave is having a tough time of it. It’s why he’s back at the house in the first place, as it’s their family home, and they’re supposed to be selling it, but he doesn’t want to let it go since it contains so many memories.

Kaya Scodelario is very good as Haley, and she has to be, since it’s pretty much just her and Barry Pepper in this one. She makes Haley a likeable character, and you definitely want to see her and her father survive. She also makes for a believable competitive swimmer, and so in some key scenes where she has to pit her speed against the alligators, it works.

Barry Pepper is also likable as her father Dave, and the two make for sympathetic protagonists.

Director Alexandre Aja is no stranger to underwater creature movies as he also directed PIRANHA 3D (2010), a film a lot of people liked, but I did not. I thought that one was pretty bad, as there were a lot of stupid story elements present Not so here, as CRAWL is lean and mean.

The screenplay by Michael and Shawn Rasmussen is certainly not going to win any Oscars, but it succeeds in telling a riveting story. There are a few flaws here and there. For example, in general, alligators aren’t that aggressive and rarely attack humans. CRAWL briefly reveals a nest inside the storm drain, and so the implication is that these gators are protecting their young, but the screenplay doesn’t really make this clear.

Also, in addition to Haley and Dave, the family dog is also trapped inside the house. Yet the story barely takes advantage of this, and strangely, the family pooch has little impact. So don’t expect teary-eyed scenes of the dog terrorized by gators or heroic sequences where she tries to protect her owners. She kinda just hangs out away from the action. Lassie, she ain’t!

CRAWL is relatively scary. The idea of being trapped in water with two very large and very hungry alligators lurking around you, that’s pretty scary! The film doesn’t have to work all that hard to earn its chills. That being said, it doesn’t drop the ball either. There are some bloody deaths, as there are lots of alligators in the waters around the house, and unsuspecting looters and law enforcement officers don’t fare all that well here.

The alligators themselves don’t look that bad. I was fearful that the CGI effects would be dreadful. They’re not. Of course it helps that the gators are often seen in murky shadows or undewater, and so it’s easier to hide the animated features. I thought they looked scary enough.

All in all, CRAWL is successful because it keeps its ambitions simple. It knows what it is— a thrilling summertime popcorn horror movie—  and doesn’t pretend to be anything more.

If you like your horror straightforward and compact, you’ll love CRAWL— as long as you don’t mind, of course, sharing these tight confines with two very hungry alligators.

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MIDSOMMAR (2019) – Mesmerizing, Repulsive Horror Movie Will Churn Your Stomach

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Dani (Florence Pugh) and Christian (Jack Reynor) don’t know what they’re getting themselves into in MIDSOMMAR (2019).

MIDSOMMAR (2019) is the most unpleasant film I’ve seen this year.

But that doesn’t mean it’s not really good.

Written and directed by Ari Aster, the man who gave us the critically acclaimed horror movie HEREDITARY (2018), a film I was only lukewarm to because of a key plot reveal midway through which just didn’t work for me, MIDSOMMAR is a mesmerizing, methodical movie that is drawing comparisons to the classic THE WICKER MAN (1973) which starred Christopher Lee and is one of the finest horror movies ever made. The comparison is apt and well-earned. MIDSOMMAR is a very good movie, driven by an exceedingly well-written script by Aster that does so many things right.

The film opens with an emotional pre-credit sequence in which we meet a rather anxious young woman named Dani (Florence Pugh) who’s reacting to a cryptic yet disturbing text from her bipolar sister. She seeks comfort and reassurance from her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor), who downplays the text and tells her things will be fine. Christian is on the fence with this relationship, and his best buddies continually urge him to move on from Dani, claiming she’s much too needy and not worth the trouble. But before he can take action, Dani learns that her sister murdered her parents and then took her own life. Needless to say, Dani is devastated and nearly destroyed by this event.

And this is just what happens before the opening credits!

MIDSOMMAR hooked me right away, and I was ready and willing to follow these characters wherever the story led them, which in this case was Sweden.

Christian and his buddies had been planning a trip to Sweden, and because of what had happened with Dani, Christian decides to invite his girlfriend as well. In Sweden, their friend Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) invites them to spend time at his family’s commune, where they will be celebrating a summer festival.

The commune is odd to say the least, but Dani, Christian, and their friends decide to keep an open mind because, well, that’s what one does, right? These places aren’t really harmful. Are they?

What follows is an increasingly disturbing tale that takes its time building unease and repugnance as the members of this community gradually make their intentions clear, intentions that are anything but harmless.

MIDSOMMAR is a superiorly crafted horror movie. Not all of it works, but enough of it does to make it one of the better films I’ve seen this year. That being said, it’s not a film I want to see again any time soon.

As I said, one of the biggest strengths of this movie is the screenplay by Ari Aster, and it succeeds on two fronts here, the characters and the story.

Aster does a phenomenal job creating the characters here. Dani, even before the murder/suicide, was a broken person, in desperate need of support from family and friends, and she simply wasn’t getting this support. After the murder/suicide, she’s so damaged she’s a random comment away from crying and sobbing. At first, Dani is uncomfortable meeting the folks in Pelle’s community, but as he speaks to her about his own loss, how he lost his own parents, and how these people took him in and gave him a sense of belonging, Dani pivots, gravitating towards the desire to be wanted, to be whole, not broken, and these impulses prevent her from fleeing.

And the reason she’s not feeling whole in the first place is because Christian and his friends are terrible at empathy. Christian and his friends Josh and Mark are cold, emotionless young men, with no sense of loyalty beyond their individual selves. They possess all the passion of a smart phone. They also come off as real people, not clichéd jerks we so often see in movies.

Aster also crafts a compelling story that is on the money from beginning to end, with no distracting plot reveals or twists to be found. This is one where what you see is what you get. The community has some very different ideas, but every time things seem to have gone too far, things are explained, and the guests’ fears are contained. For example, in one of the most brutal scenes in the entire movie, involving the violent deaths of two elderly people, the rationale is that the deaths are actually quite humane, which gets Christian and his buddies rationalizing that “back home we deposit our elderly into nursing homes which these people probably find just as offensive.”

There are some horrific scenes here, some of which are wince-inducing. MIDSOMMAR is indeed scary, not in the jump-scare way, but in the way that gets under your skin and makes you want to leave the theater.

Florence Pugh is excellent as Dani. She captures the character’s pain and insecurities, and as the movie goes on, her changing desires as well. Pugh was also exceptional earlier this year in the lead role in the wrestling comedy FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY (2019), one of my favorite films of 2019. Combined with her work here in MIDSOMMAR, she’s now appeared in two of the better films of the year. Pugh also starred in the TV mini-series THE LITTLE DRUMMER GIRL (2018).

Jack Reynor is cold and clueless as Christian, who is a complete fail as a boyfriend, yet somehow never comes off as a jerk, but instead as a self-centered small-minded person. William Jackson Harper as Josh and Will Poulter as Mark, are equally as good as Christian’s buddies who are as frosty and self-centered as he is.

Even better is Vilhelm Blomgren as Pelle, their Swedish friend who invites them to his commune, and who later begins to exert an influence on Dani that allows her to see things differently.

MIDSOMMAR takes its sweet time, and this is one issue I had with the film. Its 147 minute running time is a bit much, and I think the story could have been equally effective had it been edited down a good 20-25 minutes.

The photography is outstanding, and the images exceedingly disturbing. Even the simple act of drinking a beverage will sicken you when you realize what the character is drinking.

And while MIDSOMMAR is rightly compared to THE WICKER MAN, it’s not a remake or reimagining of that movie. They just share similar themes and looks.

MIDSOMMAR is a very good movie, a meticulously made horror movie, and it succeeds because it’s not the usual standard by-the-numbers horror movie fare. No jump scares or frightened teenagers walking in dark hallways here. No. In MIDSOMMAR, everything happens in broad daylight, under a bright summer sun, outside, in the seemingly ceaseless beauty of nature.

Except in this case, nature is anything but beautiful. On the contrary, it’s vile, violent, and revulsive.

The horror in MIDSOMMAR will churn your stomach. It’s the type of movie that when the end credits roll and you exit the theater, you’ll be happy to step back into the real world, where you can remind yourself that what you just experienced was only a movie.

—END—

 

SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME (2019) – Tom Holland and Zendaya Save Marvel Film from Mediocrity

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Welcome to the post-AVENGERS Marvel Cinematic Universe!

(Although, technically, this film is being called the final chapter of the latest phase of the Marvel cinematic universe, which is a lot of Marvel geek talk to me. As far as I’m concerned, the post-Avengers universe has begun!)

AVENGERS: ENDGAME (2019) wrapped up the story arc not only for the Marvel Avengers movies but also for the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe. Beginning with IRON MAN (2008), and continuing with movies about Captain America, Thor, and eventually the Avengers films which brought all these heroes together, Marvel built an ongoing and thoroughly entertaining story arc which permeated these movies and drove them forward above and beyond their standalone movie plots.

AVENGERS: ENDGAME ended that arc, and SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME (2019) is the first Marvel movie to come after the epic conclusion, which makes it the opening chapter in the next phase of the MCU (although, again, purists are lumping this with the previous film).

And that’s because SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME leans heavily on the events from AVENGERS: ENDGAME, specifically on Tony Stark/Iron Man, who was Peter Parker’s mentor. In fact, Stark’s influence is so prevalent here this film could have been called SPIDER-MAN: THE GHOST OF TONY STARK. He’s everywhere in this movie, from being the subject of conversations, to being on posters and billboards, to providing the technology which is instrumental to the plot of this movie.

SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME opens with a memorial and tribute to the fallen heroes from AVENGERS: ENDGAME, but don’t expect a gloomy and depressing Spider-Man movie. SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME is anything but, as its script is light and spunky and a lot of fun. For instance, the opening tribute turns out to be produced by two high school students, and it quickly turns humorous.

Peter Parker (Tom Holland) has a dilemma. He was handpicked by Tony Stark to be the next Avenger, but he’s only in high school, and he’s much more interested in going on a trip to Europe with his classmates and trying to work up the nerve to ask MJ (Zendaya) out on a date than saving the world, which is why he ignores calls from Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson).

However, Fury is not a man to be denied, and he eventually tracks down Peter in Europe and fills him in on the latest threat to the world, and once more, it’s an otherworldly threat. It seems the Elementals—earth, wind, water, and fire— giant weather-related creatures which wreak havoc everywhere, have arrived on Earth from an alternate universe.

But so has another superhero, Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal) who shows up to help Spider-Man take on these monstrous baddies. He also becomes Peter Parker’s new mentor.

And that basically is the plot of SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME. In all honesty, it’s not terribly exciting, and by far this main plot is the weakest part of the movie. I could give a care. I was much more interested in Peter Parker’s relationship with MJ, and also with the pressure he was feeling from being handpicked as Tony Stark’s successor.

There’s also a plot twist midway through this one, which reminded me a lot of the plot twist in IRON MAN 3 (2013). I didn’t like that plot twist, but it wasn’t enough to ruin IRON MAN 3 for me, a film I generally liked. It’s the same here. The plot twist did little for me, but it didn’t really impact the movie all that much. Of course, it’s only a twist for those viewers who don’t read the comics.

While the plot is weak, the main characters are not. Tom Holland is back as Peter Parker/Spider-Man and once more he nails the role. I’m a big fan of the Toby Maguire Spider-Man movies, and for nostalgic reasons, he probably remains my favorite movie Spider-Man, but Tom Holland definitely makes the role his own, and he’s certainly superior to Andrew Garfield’s take on the role.

Holland looks like a high school student, and his youthful exuberance and angst are second to none. One knock I have against this movie, though, is he enjoys far more success here as Peter Parker than as Spider-Man. I felt the film needed more Spider-Man.

Zendaya is excellent as MJ, reprising the role she introduced in SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING (2017). And she and Holland have a wonderful chemistry together. My favorite part of this movie was their story and watching them together on-screen.

Jake Gyllenhaal was pretty mediocre as Mysterio. For an actor as talented as Gyllenhaal, the role really didn’t give him a lot do. Michael Keaton, by contrast, fared much better as the villainous Vulture in SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING.

Samuel L. Jackson is always fun to watch as Nick Fury, and that remains true here. He’s accompanied once again by Agent Maria Hill, once more played by Cobie Smulders.

Jon Favreau gets lots of screen time as Happy Hogan, a mainstay from the Iron Man movies, who’s not not only trying to look after Peter Parker for Tony Stark but also wooing Peter’s Aunt May, played again by the lovely Marissa Tomei. Both these actors enjoy fun and lively scenes.

Jacob Batalon is back as Peter’s best buddy Ned, as is Angourie Rice as classmate Betty Brant.

The screenplay by Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers works best when focusing on Peter Parker’s personal story. The main superhero plot is mostly a dud, and the Elementals make for rather boring villains. The intriguing character is supposed to be Mysterio, but he’s not really that enthralling.

The best parts of the movie involve Peter Parker’s exploits with MJ, and his dealing with the pressure put on him by Tony Stark.

The humor also works well. In spite of the lackluster main plot, the film is lively and fun and moves along at a fast clip, with one engaging scene after another, and that’s because the Elementals never really become the driving force of the movie. In a way, this is not a good thing for a superhero movie, but SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME easily overcomes this because of the dynamic between Peter Parker and MJ.

Director Jon Watts, who also directed SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING, keeps the pace quick and the characters engaging, although none of the action scenes really resonate until the film’s climax. The final battle is very good, and it involves lots of deadly drones and makes for a rather exciting conclusion.

And yes, since this is a Marvel movie, there are after-credit scenes, both in the middle of the end credits and at the very end, and both these scenes reveal important plot points, so you want to stay till the end.

I had fun watching SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME, which comes as no surprise, as I’m a huge fan of the Marvel Superhero movies. That being said, I liked the previous installment SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING better, because I liked the plot of that film more, and it benefitted from having Robert Downey Jr. in the cast as Iron Man as well as Michael Keaton as the villain, the Vulture. That’s some major superstar power absent from this film.

Still, Tom Holland is incredibly agreeable to watch as Peter Parker/Spider-Man, and Zendaya is equally as captivating as MJ. They’re enough to carry this movie and lift it above its mediocre main plot.

At the end of the day, SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME is several notches below the best of the Marvel movies, but it’s still a Marvel movie, which makes it a lot of fun and well worth a trip to the theater.

—END

 

 

 

YESTERDAY (2019) – Musical Fantasy About Loss of Beatles’ Music Goes Down Wrong Long and Winding Road

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YESTERDAY (2019), the new musical fantasy by Danny Boyle, the Oscar-winning director of SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE (2008), asks the question, what would life be like if the Beatles and their music never existed?

The answer it comes up isn’t very satisfying.

Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) is a struggling musician who in spite of his enthusiastic manager and promoter Ellie Appleton (Lily James) just can’t seem to catch a break. As fate would have it, on the night he decides to call it quits, to hang up his guitar and return to teaching, a strange incident occurs: the entire world goes dark for a period of twelve seconds, as all electrical power disappears, and at this very instant, Jack is on his bicycle and in the dark gets hit by a bus.

He survives the accident, and shortly thereafter makes the unbelievable discovery that no one knows anything about the Beatles, and when he looks the iconic band up online, he cannot find any information about them at all. Jack sees this as his big break. As a huge Beatles fan, he knows most of their songs, and so he sets out to sing these songs and reintroduce them to the world. Since these are some of the best songs ever written, Jack becomes a global phenomenon.

While this is supposed to be a playful fun fantasy, I couldn’t get past the fact that Jack’s first impulse is to steal the Beatles’ songs and pass them off as his own. This plot point rubbed me the wrong way, and it’s something I never really got over throughout the film, largely because the movie doesn’t really do a good job handling it.

I mean, we get the impression throughout that this is bothering Jack, but he doesn’t come out and say it. He tries to tell Ellie, but he doesn’t. And when he becomes a songwriting superstar, he embraces his fame. Eventually, Jack comes to a point where he knows he has to stop doing this, but it takes the entire movie for him to make this realization.

The film leaves many questions unanswered. For instance, what the heck happened in the first place? Why did the planet lose power for those few seconds? The film never attempts to answer this question. Also, the Beatles aren’t the only thing now forgotten. Jack makes other discoveries along the way. Things like Coca Cola and cigarettes— they never existed either. The film offers no explanation.

Also, the Beatles’ songs scream of collaboration. There was just something completely unbelievable about one man, Jack, writing all these different types of songs.

And, as we find out later in the movie in a key scene, the fab four themselves existed, but they simply didn’t become the Beatles. I have a hard time swallowing the notion that artists especially writers— in this case, songwriters— wouldn’t have the urge to create and write, even in an alternate universe. I’m not saying it couldn’t happen, but I would want to know exactly how it was that these folks didn’t become the Beatles. That’s not discussed at all.

Richard Curtis wrote the screenplay, and it’s one that unfortunately doesn’t spend any time really delving into the fun parts of this story. That’s not to say the film isn’t fun. Everything is light and amiable, and of course you have Beatles’ songs peppered throughout, but this story could have been so much more. I wanted to know more about what life would be like if the Beatles never existed. The answer this story gives is that the one guy who remembers them steals their songs! Not my idea of creativity.

Curtis has written tons of screenplays and teleplays, from the TV series BLACK ADDER and MR. BEAN, to movies like FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL (1994) and WAR HORSE (2011).

Himesh Patel is likable enough in the lead role as Jack, but it’s not like he knocked my socks off, a la Taron Egerton as Elton John in ROCKETMAN (2019). Likewise, while it was fun to see the Beatles songs performed in front of massive live audiences, the concert sequences paled in comparison to the electrifying scenes in ROCKETMAN.

Lily James is fine as Ellie, although strangely the two leads did not share a lot of chemistry. They’re supposed to be in love without really knowing it, in that neither one ever acts on their feelings, but other than  their friends speaking to this, I never got the impression based on their performances that they were all that into each other. I like James and enjoyed her performances in DARKEST HOUR (2017) and BABY DRIVER (2017) more.

Joel Fry delivers one of the better performances in the movie in a supporting role as Rocky, Jack’s loser friend who becomes his road manager. It’s an honest performance, as Rocky is full of flaws but means well, and he’s one of the more realistic and believable characters in the movie.

I also enjoyed Meera Syal and Sanjeev Bhaskar as Jack’s self-absorbed but well-meaning parents. The sequence where he tries to perform “Let It Be” for them, and they just can’t sit still long enough for Jack to get through even the first few notes is both one of the funniest and most frustrating scenes in the film. And yet they are not monster parents. Later in the film, they remind Jack that they were the first people to hear him perform “Let It Be,” something they said they never forgot.

Comedienne Kate McKinnon is effective as Debra Hammer, Jack’s agent and promoter once he becomes famous. It’s a biting cutthroat performance, and McKinnon handles it naturally.

YESTERDAY is supposed to be a light and fun musical fantasy, and that’s certainly the way it plays out. I have no problem with the feel of the film or the music, two things I enjoyed, but the plot point of a singer/songwriter taking the Beatles songs as his own rubbed me the wrong way and never allowed me to truly love this movie.

Simply put, there are better ways to restore lost art to the world than by stealing it.

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

ANNABELLE COMES HOME (2019) – Not Much of a Homecoming

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Look out behind you!  That’s Madison Iseman, Katie Sarifie, Annabelle, and McKenna Grace in a scene from ANNABELLE COMES HOME (2019).

Couldn’t she just stay away?

ANNABELLE COMES HOME (2019) is the third film in the ANNABELLE series, a series that is part of the CONJURING universe, and I have to say that the longer this series and films in this universe continue the less I like these movies.

Creepy dolls are a thing. I get that. And the Annabelle doll, which first showed up in the original THE CONJURING (2013), is a really frightening looking doll. It’s a shame that writers struggle so much to come up with good stories about it.

After that brief appearance in THE CONJURING, the film that spawned this cinematic universe and the one that remains the best in the entire series, the powers that be decided Annabelle needed a movie of her own. That film was ANNABELLE (2014) and it was pretty bad. Still, it was followed by a sequel— actually a prequel— entitled ANNABELLE: CREATION (2017), and this one was actually pretty good. In fact, I enjoyed ANNABELLE: CREATION quite a bit.

Now we have ANNABELLE COMES HOME, which takes place after ANNABELLE: CREATION and ANNABELLE but before THE CONJURING.

ANNABELLE COMES HOME begins when our friendly neighborhood demonologists Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga) first confiscate the Annabelle doll from its frightened owners and agree to take it off their hands and keep it safe in the protective confines of the basement of their home, where they store all the other demonic stuff they’ve collected over the years. This is a line of thinking from these movies that I’ve never understood. I get the idea of keeping all these evil things in one place, to prevent them from harming the world, sort of a supernatural prison, if you will, but inside their own home? Wouldn’t it make more sense to amass this stuff as far away from one’s home as possible? Like maybe inside a place with concrete walls and lots of locks? But nope, they keep their evil collection locked behind a closed door in their house, which opens the door, eh hem, for the kind of devilry that happens in this movie.

Ed and Lorraine Warren were real people, by the way, not fictional characters, most famous for their investigation of the Amityville house. Ed passed away in 2006 and Lorraine just recently passed in April 2019. In fact, ANNABELLE COMES HOME is dedicated to Lorraine Warren.

Getting back to the movie, Ed and Lorraine leave their ten year-old daughter Judy (McKenna Grace) with her babysitter Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman) while they go out, ostensibly to investigate the house in the original THE CONJURING, since the action in this film takes place just before the events in that first movie.

Mary Ellen is quite responsible, but her friend Daniela (Katie Sarifie) is not, and since she blames herself for her father’s death, since he died in a car crash while she was at the wheel, she longs to make some sort of supernatural contact with her dad. So, she invites herself over to the Warren house and sneaks into the secret room and in the process of snooping around, accidentally lets the Annabelle doll out of its glass case.

Oops!

Annabelle, now free, decides to make life a living hell for the three girls and unleashes all sorts of nasty demons and spirits to wreak havoc inside and outside the home, all in the hope of stealing a soul so that the demon within Annabelle can possess a body rather than a doll.

That in a nutshell is the plot of ANNABELLE COMES HOME, and as stories go, it’s not bad. I was certainly into it. That being said, I wasn’t into it for long because the writing and directing just weren’t up to the task of delivering a satisfying horror tale about Annabelle.

ANNABELLE COMES HOME was written and directed by Gary Dauberman, and although this was his directorial debut, he has plenty of writing credits. Dauberman has written all three Annabelle movies as well as THE NUN (2018), another film in the CONJURING universe and another film I did not like. Dauberman is also one of the writers who’s been working on the IT movies, based on Stephen King’s novel.

Here, I had a couple of issues with the writing. The first is with dialogue. At times, the dialogue is flat-out awful, and most of these instances involve scenes with Ed and Lorraine Warren. When they speak of demons and spirits, I just want to break out laughing. Their lines come off as phony and formulaic. The dialogue with Judy and her babysitters is much better.

Also, the story itself has a weird construct. The film opens with Ed and Lorraine obtaining the Annabelle doll, and as they make provisions for its safe keeping, it seems as if they will be the main characters in this movie. But then they disappear for the rest of the film, only returning for a ridiculous happy ending where for some reason time is spent showing Judy’s birthday party, as if that’s a key plot point in this story. I’m sorry. Was this called ANNABELLE COMES HOME SO SHE CAN ATTEND JUDY’S BIRTHDAY PARTY?

Which brings me to next problem: pacing. This film is paced terribly. The story has multiple threats attacking simultaneously, but rather than run with it and build to an absolutely frenetic climax, the story seems to want no part of this. Every time something happens, and a character seems pinned by a demon or spirit, the story switches to another character, and we follow them, while the previous character simply disappears for a while. There is no sense of building suspense at all.

For me, during the film’s second half when things should have been frightening, I was bored. And then to make matters worse, at the end, we go to a birthday party for ten minutes. So don’t forget to wear your party hat!

In spite of all this, some of the acting is pretty darned good.  Young McKenna Grace turns in the best performance as ten year-old Judy. It’s her first time playing Judy, as the character was played by Sterling Jerins in the first two CONJURING movies. Grace is very good at being the kid who’s wise to the ways of the demons and who, like her mother, has the ability to sense things about people. And if she looks familiar doing this sort of thing, that’s because she played a very similar role on the superior Netflix TV show THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE (2018) where she played young Theo. McKenna Grace is only 13, but she has already amassed 51 screen credits, including roles in I,TONYA (2017), READY PLAYER ONE (2018), and CAPTAIN MARVEL (2019).

Madison Iseman is also very good as babysitter Mary Ellen, and I liked Katie Sarife even more as the often annoying but never cliché Daniela, as the character was given some background and depth, making her a bit more fleshed out than the usual characters of this type.  Michael Cimino was also enjoyable in the lighthearted role of Bob, Mary Ellen’s love interest and generally nice guy.

As for Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, they don’t fare as well. Their early scenes are the most cliché in the entire movie, then they disappear for the rest of the movie, only to return for the anticlimactic birthday party.

Another pet peeve: this movie takes place in the early 1970s, and one key sequence involves the remote control of a television set. While remote controls certainly existed in the early 1970s, they were not prevalent at all the way they are today. Most TVs were controlled by knobs or buttons on the console. Small point, but it stood out for me as not being terribly realistic.

The scariest part of ANNABELLE COMES HOME is the way Annabelle looks. Annabelle has always been one creepy doll.

And the film itself looks good. There are lots of cool looking demons and creatures, and they show up and disappear on cue, but their effect isn’t much different than the sort of thrills one gets inside an amusement park haunted house. They pop out at you and they’re scary, but that’s it.

It’s not enough because ANNABELLE COMES HOME is a movie, and as such, it is supposed to tell a story.

Writer/director Gary Dauberman seems to have forgotten this concept.

As a result, ANNABELLE COMES HOME isn’t much of a homecoming.

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

New in 2019! 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.

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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.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE DEAD DON’T DIE (2019) – Understated Satire Just Happens to Have Zombies In It

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THE DEAD DON'T DIE

Some day, perhaps, THE DEAD DON’T DIE (2019) might be remembered as a masterpiece of understated humor and satire.

Alas, today is not that day.

THE DEAD DON’T DIE is a new horror comedy starring Bill Murray and Adam Driver that is being marketed as a zombie comedy, but you know what? It’s not really a zombie movie. Oh, there are zombies in it, but it’s the most non-zombie zombie movie I’ve ever seen, which is not going to make it a hit among horror fans.

In fact I’d wager to guess that most horror fans will not like this movie. Even though it mentions George Romero and throws in a few Easter eggs here and there, it largely ignores the zombie films which have come before it. Sometimes this can be a good thing, but in this case it is not.

Heck, since its comedy really isn’t all that biting— heh, heh!— comedy fans aren’t going to be too keen on this one either. Yup, I’m going to go out on a—limb— and predict that this one will not perform all that well at the box office.

That being said, THE DEAD DON’T DIE is not an awful film. I actually liked it, in a weird offbeat sort of way, and that’s because at the end of the day THE DEAD DON’T DIE is satire, that just happens to have zombies in it. It’s the type of comedy that Bob Newhart would have made in his heyday, with Murray filling in here for the Newhart role. It has a few pointed things to say about our present day society, but the writing is never as sharp, and the direction never as tight as a movie like this needs it to be. Even when the film breaks the fourth wall, the humor still struggles. Yet, there are places where it works and works well.

In THE DEAD DON’T DIE, Police Chief Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray) and his fellow officers Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver) and Mindy Morrison (Chloe Sevigny) usually have nothing more urgent to do in their small town of Centerville than ask their local Hermit Bob (Tom Waits) whether or not he stole chickens from the annoying farmer Frank Miller (Steve Buscemi). But suddenly things grow strange.

The daylight lasts longer than usual, watches and cell phones stop working, and soon the dead start to rise and begin eating the townspeople. The culprit? The controversial use of global fracking has affected the earth’s rotation, and as a result all these freaky things start happening. Supposedly. The people aren’t sure, because the government cites global fracking as safe and accuses scientists of spreading false information. Sound familiar?

How Robertson and his fellow officers react to these horrific happenings is the story told in THE DEAD DON’T DIE. Trouble is, the biggest way they react is by standing around and doing nothing. So much for compelling storytelling!

THE DEAD DON’T DIE was written and directed by Jim Jarmusch, a director known for his deadpan style. Jarmusch is tenacious here with his slow-moving satire, which might be the film’s greatest asset, that it never deviates from its slow pace, its unassuming humor, and its coy messages on society.

The satire in THE DEAD DON’T DIE is there. It’s just not always all that clear. For instance, Steve Buscemi’s Farmer Frank wears a red cap which reads “Keep America White Again,” a slogan which in itself satirizes the modern-day message of the Trump presidency as well as poking fun at the overall intelligence of his followers with its grammatically incorrect slogan. It appears ever so briefly and is easily missed. Yet it got a good chuckle from the audience.

Speaking of which, I saw THE DEAD DON’T DIE in a full theater in which the majority in the audience were college-aged folks. It was a lively audience that was laughing and having fun even before the movie started. And they were generous with their laughter throughout the movie, laughing much more than I did.

As mentioned, the film breaks the fourth wall on more than one occasion, sequences where Murray and Driver discuss the theme song and even the script. But it’s not the type of lively screenplay that is filled with playful asides a la the works of Woody Allen or Mel Brooks. In fact, there is very little that is lively about the entire movie. There’s about as much energy surrounding this flick as a heavy-duty afternoon nap.

There are also some fun little in-jokes, like Adam Driver carrying a STAR WARS key chain, a direct nod to his role in the new STAR WARS trilogy.

A lot of the humor doesn’t work. The running gag about the theme song wasn’t funny at the beginning and it’s even less funny by the end.

There’s a GREAT GATSBY gaffe that I’m still not sure I understand. A character mentions she loves the name Zelda because of Zelda Fitzgerald, who she says was Jay Gatsby’s wife in THE GREAT GATSBY, but Gatsby wasn’t married, and his love interest in the novel was Daisy Buchanan. Zelda Fitzgerald was the wife of Gatsby author F. Scott Fitzgerald. It’s possible I’m missing something here, but since what I’m missing isn’t obvious, such a gaffe just comes off as lazy writing.

Speaking of lazy, there’s a heck of a lot of inaction going on here. Characters stand around and talk, and talk, and talk. There’s one sequence after the first zombie kill in the diner when Chief Robertson discovers the bodies, that features as its gag people saying the same lines when they see the bodies for this first time. Admittedly, this is funny, but it takes place during a sequence where we have to watch each character drive up to the diner, casually take their time entering and exiting before saying the aforementioned line. S-l-o-w.

There are a lot of satirical moments poking fun at today’s society, and most of these work, although they are exceedingly understated.

The horror elements are also downplayed here, and while there are some gory sequences, this one doesn’t really hold its own as a horror movie. There are also scenes of dialogue where the characters in a panic go on about the zombie epidemic, and they go on at lengths which aren’t supported by events in the movie. There’s basically one zombie scene before the film’s third and final act.

There’s also an annoying way the zombie’s die, as when they are killed they give off a puff of smoke. What is this, TWILIGHT?

THE DEAD DON’T DIE does have a terrific cast, which is one of its strengths, and they all play quirky characters.

Bill Murray is fine as Chief Robertson. He certainly has been funnier in his career, but he handles the deadpan humor well, again channeling a Bob Newhart vibe. There’s also an in-joke when his character breaks the fourth wall and asks Adam Driver if they are simply improvising here, since Murray began his career with improv, and is known to have improvised in some of his movies. Then again, maybe it simply means that Murray and Driver weren’t working with a script!

Adam Driver also nails the deadpan humor as Officer Peterson. I increasingly enjoy Driver in the movies, and while his biggest role to date has been the conflicted villain Kylo Ren in the new STAR WARS trilogy, I’ve enjoyed him more in such films as BLACKKKLANSMAN (2018) and LOGAN LUCKY (2017). He was probably my favorite part of THE DEAD DON’T DIE, and he certainly got the most laughs, but he also didn’t have to try very hard. The audience laughed when he showed up at a crime scene driving a miniscule car.

Chloe Sevigny is very good as Officer Morrison, and Tilda Swinton has the most unusual role as local mortician Zelda Winston, who’s an eccentric character whose idiosyncracies sometimes generate laughter and other times misfire. She’s the one character in the film who is a badass zombie killer, which provide Swinton with her best moments in the movie.

Steve Buscemi is on hand as the irritable farmer Frank, and he has a couple of comic moments, but for a guy like Buscemi, that’s less than you expect. The cast also includes Danny Glover, Selena Gomez, Caleb Landry Jones, and Tom Waits as Hermit Bob.

Hermit Bob’s line at the end of the film that we live in a crazy world kinda sums up the point of the film, that this world is a crazy place, and that zombies rising from the dead isn’t any nuttier than things we are already seeing.

As I said, one day this film may be remembered as a classic satire. But today, alas, due to its incredibly slow and lethargic pace and less than sharp writing, it’s going down in my book as a well-intentioned look at the crazy world in which we live that lacked the necessary energy and oomph to successfully make its case.

It also doesn’t help itself in that it’s not much of a zombie movie, a fact that most likely will keep its potential fan base away from the theater.

—END—