IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944)

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After the success of FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN (1943), Universal decided that two monsters in one movie wasn’t enough, and so they added a third, Count Dracula, for their next monster movie romp, HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944).

HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN is most notable for the return of Boris Karloff to the Universal FRANKENSTEIN series after a two film hiatus. Of course, Karloff previously had played the Frankenstein Monster.  Here, he plays the evil Dr. Niemann.

HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN is the story of Dr. Niemann, a protegé of Dr. Frankenstein. When the movie opens, Niemann is in prison, but he soon escapes along with his hunchbacked assistant Daniel (J. Carrol Naish.) When they happen upon the skeleton of Count Dracula (John Carradine) Niemann resurrects the vampire by pulling the stake from his heart. He then promises Dracula protection if in return the Count will kill the official responsible for putting Niemann in prison.

Later, as Niemann and Daniel search for Dr. Frankenstein’s records, they discover the frozen bodies of Larry Talbot/aka the Wolf Man (Lon Chaney Jr.) and the Frankenstein Monster (Glenn Strange), and at this point the film becomes a sequel to FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN. Like every good mad scientist, Niemann revives these monsters as well.

HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN flies by at a brisk 71 minutes. It really is too short to make much of an impact. Had this one been fleshed out a bit more, it would have been more effective.  It’s really not that strong a movie, as it plays like a shallow sequel, with the monsters resurrected only to be quickly done in once again. That being said, it does retain the Universal monster magic, and so while I recognize that this really isn’t that high quality a film, it’s a guilty pleasure that I enjoy each time I watch it.

It also does have some special moments, as well as a strong cast. It’s just that the whole thing seems terribly rushed.

It also doesn’t help that the Dracula storyline begins and ends before the Wolf Man and the Frankenstein Monster show up. Even the next film in the series, HOUSE OF DRACULA (1945) doesn’t really take full advantage of its three monsters. One has to wait until ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948), the comedic finale to the series, before one can enjoy a full and satisfying meeting of the monsters.

Finishing off Dracula so early was not a strength of Edward T. Lowe Jr.’s screenplay. Nor is the dialogue, some of which is laughable, and this one is not a comedy.

Director Erle C. Kenton fares better with the Dracula sequence. In spite of killing off Dracula so quickly, the chase scene just before the vampire’s demise is arguably the best chase scene in the entire Universal monster series.  It’s pretty impressive, as it features Dracula driving a horse-driven coach, pursued by police on horseback, and in front of them both, Niemann racing his carnival coaches, while Daniel runs atop the cars to get to the rear coach to toss Dracula’s coffin.  It’s a wildly exciting sequence.

Writer Lowe fares better with the Wolf Man story. In fact, other than the original THE WOLF MAN (1941) this brief appearance by Larry Talbot is one of the series’ best, because it involves his relationship with a gypsy girl Ilonka (Elena Verdugo), who falls in love with Larry and vows to end his pain by shooting him with a silver bullet.  Their classic confrontation is the most emotional of the series for Talbot other than his fateful encounter with his father Sir John (Claude Rains) at the end of the original WOLF MAN. It’s really neat stuff, but sadly, there’s just so little of it.  Chaney’s scenes here are all too brief.

But saddest of all is the treatment of the Frankenstein Monster, here played for the first time by Glenn Strange.  By this point, the Monster is treated only as a “patient” who lies still on a table until the final reel when he gets up only to be quickly done in by the frightened torch wielding villagers. It’s a far cry from Karloff’s original performances.

Alas, the Monster wouldn’t fare any better in HOUSE OF DRACULA. Again, it would take the comedic encounters with Bud Abbott and Lou Costello in ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN in order for the Monster to return to top form. In fact, in that film, the Monster even talks again! There’s a reason ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN is a classic. It’s hilarious, and for its three monsters, it’s their best screen time in years.

HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN is also blessed with a very strong cast.

Boris Karloff, while not as memorable as he was as the Frankenstein Monster, is very good as Dr. Neimann. His performance is a nice precursor to Peter Cushing’s darker take as Baron Frankenstein in the Hammer Films to follow a decade later.

Lon Chaney Jr. knocks it out of the park yet again as both Larry Talbot and the Wolf Man. For years, Chaney has lived in the shadow of the two other Universal stars, Karloff and Bela Lugosi, but as the years have gone by, his performances have grown in stature.  For some, he’s the best actor to have appeared in the Universal monster movies.

HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN is also one of the few times that Chaney and Karloff appeared in a movie together.

I’ve never been a fan of John Carradine’s take on Dracula, in both this movie and HOUSE OF DRACULA the following year.  He certainly makes for a distinguished Count, but he lacks the necessary evil and sensuality needed for the role. Bela Lugosi was originally slated to play Dracula again, which would have been his first time since the 1931 original, but he was unable to appear in HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN due to a schedule conflict. Fans would have to wait until ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948) before they could see Lugosi play Dracula again, and that would be the second and last time he played Dracula in the movies.

The supporting cast in HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN is exceptional.

J. Carrol Naish, one of my favorite character actors, is excellent as Daniel, the hunchback. His storyline where he is jealous of Talbot because he also loves Ilonka is one of the better parts of the film. As is Elena Verdugo’s performance as Ilonka. Verdugo makes Ilonka sexy and sympathetic.

The film also features George Zucco in a small role as Professor Bruno Lampini, and Lionel Atwill as yet another police inspector. Sig Ruman is memorable as Burgomaster Hussman. My favorite moment with Ruman is when he wakes up and says to Dracula, “As I was saying—-. I don’t know what I was saying. I fell asleep!”

The lovely Anne Gwynn plays Rita Hussman. Gwynn is the grandmother of actor Chris Pine.

HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN almost featured yet another Universal monster, as there were plans to include Kharis the Mummy in the film, but these plans were scrapped due to budget constraints.

HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN is certainly not regarded as one of Universal’s monster classics, as it has sequel written all over it and pales in quality compared to films like FRANKENSTEIN (1931), DRACULA (1931), and THE WOLF MAN. Even FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN is a far better film.

All that being said, HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN remains a guilty pleasure that I never grow tired of watching. This holiday season, when you’re out and about visiting friends and relatives, make a point to stop by the HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN.

I hear they have a monstrously good time.

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THE GUILTY (2018) – Danish Police Thriller Taut With Suspense

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The Guilty

I love lean movies.

THE GUILTY (2018) clocks in at a thrifty 85 minutes. There is not one ounce of fat on this flick. It’s nonstop intense from start to finish.

It’s also claustrophobic, as the action follows one man, police officer Asger Holm (Jakob Cedergren) working the emergency police dispatch. The camera never leaves Asger, never leaves the confines of the police dispatch center, often focusing in tight on Asger’s face, as the rest of the action occurs off camera. The audience, like Asger, sees none of it, and like Asger, is only privy to what he hears.

Yet the film is so well done you’ll swear you’ve seen everything that happens, every dramatic scene and tense moment, but you didn’t. That’s just your mind and imagination at work, manipulated by some effective filmmaking.

THE GUILTY opens with a tight close-up of the side of Asger’s face, on his ear piece, signaling to the audience that this is going to be a compact thriller, the focus on the auditory. We learn fairly quickly that officer Asger Holm is working the emergency dispatch for disciplinary reasons, that he has an important court date the next day which seems as if it’s going to clear him of any wrong doing, and so he’ll be back on the street immediately thereafter. We also learn fairly quickly that he’s not particularly enjoying this temporary position, that’s he’s not overly sympathetic to the folks calling in for help, and that he has been a difficult co-worker with those who work there in the dispatch regularly.

But then Asger receives a call from a woman who’s being kidnapped, with her assailant by her side as they ride in a car. She pretends she has called her young daughter, and Asger plays along attempting to learn as much information as possible in order to help her. What follows is as taut a thriller as you’re going to find, thoroughly enjoyable and wonderfully suspenseful, and yet the action never leaves the office of the emergency police dispatch.

Asger is a police officer, not a dispatch operator, and as such he’s both frustrated by the limitations of what he can do behind a desk on the phone and energized to do more, to follow his police instincts, to take matters into his own hands, regardless of the legal implications, which as the film goes on, ties into what he did previous to warrant him a court date. The two stories gel seamlessly, and Asger learns a valuable lesson about rogue police work from his actions trying to save the woman at all costs, as things don’t always go as planned.

THE GUILTY is a Danish film by writer/director Gustav Moller. In fact, it’s Moller’s directorial debut, and it’s a good one.  The film has already won lots of awards at various film festivals.

Moller’s camerawork in THE GUILTY is superb. Most of the time, the camera is up close to Asger’s face, capturing the tension of the entire movie. And since the camera never leaves the dispatch office, for this film to be as suspenseful as it is, that’s saying a lot. It’s the sort of film Hitchcock would have done, but it’s even more claustrophobic than Hitchcock, with the possible exception of LIFEBOAT (1944).

Moller co-wrote the screenplay with Emil Nygaard Albertsen, and it’s a terrific script.  Everything in it works so well.  Asger is a troubled police officer who at the beginning of the movie sees nothing wrong with what he had done previously, but as the events of this film unfold, he begins to see things differently.

The thriller aspects, where Asger is in a race against time to save this woman from possible murder, is exciting. The audience shares in Asger’s frustration when he awaits news of squad cars sent to the scene, hearing live on the radio as a police car pulls over what turns out to be the wrong van, and later when the woman’s children are involved, and Asger can do nothing but listen as officers arrive at the house.

As I said, you’ll leave the theater swearing you’ve seen it all, but in this case, you would have only heard it.

There are also some nifty plot twists that will keep the audience guessing as well as churn their stomachs at some of the revelations later in the movie. But ultimately this is not a dark depressing thriller, because in spite of the horrors which occur in this story, and there are some horrible things that happen, Asgar emerges as a better man and perhaps a better police officer as well.

Jakob Cedergren is excellent as Asger. He’s in every scene in the movie, sharing screen time only with his fellow dispatchers. The rest of the characters we only hear over the phone.  Cedergren rises above the cliché.  He plays Asger as a police officer who believes in right and wrong, who sees it as his duty to stop criminals at whatever cost, and who sees it as his duty to protect those who are in harm’s way, which is why he latches on so dramatically to trying to save Iben, the kidnap victim who called him.

Yet we also see the side of Asger that got him into trouble, the side where he goes it alone and doesn’t shy away from breaking the law in order to solve a crime. Asger doesn’t reach out to his superiors when this event unfolds. He switches into police officer mode and attempts to save the day himself, and of course, things don’t go as planned.

Cedergren keeps Asger a three-dimensional character. In spite of his shady methods, there’s no denying that he wants to save this woman, and his drive is commendable, even as the audience realizes he should be handling things in a different way, that the rule of law exists for a reason. The best part of Asger’s story arc is that what happens to Iben so affects him that it draws out of him truths he probably didn’t know he believed in, before now.

With so much screen time, Cedergren has to be solid for this movie to work, and he is and then some.

The rest of the key performers do their jobs with just their voices as they don’t actually appear in the movie. Jessica Dinnage does a phenomenal job providing the voice of Iben, as does Katinka Evers-Jahnsen as Iben’s six year-old daughter Mathilde. Everyone in the movie provides excellent voice work.

I loved THE GUILTY. It’s a sweat-inducing little thriller that will captivate you from start to finish. It’s also the type of movie that I can easily see being remade by Hollywood and subsequently ruined with additional scenes of action and violence.

THE GUILY is filmmaking at its finest. It tells its frightening story without ever showing any of the action. The audience is stuck in the same situation as main character Asger Holm, hearing only what happens through the police dispatch. And yet this does not hinder the film one iota. On the contrary, it makes it a far superior thriller than the standard by-the-numbers police actioners.

And the title, THE GUILTY, refers to what Asger has in common with one of the voices on the other line, something that he’s feeling for the first time, that truth be told applies more to him than anyone else in the story.

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BOY ERASED (2018) – New Joel Edgerton Film Exposes Gay Conversion Therapy

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BOY ERASED (2018) is a very disturbing movie experience, one that will make you feel uncomfortable throughout, and since it’s a story about gay conversion therapy, that’s exactly how it should be.

BOY ERASED is based on the memoir of the same name by Garrard Conley.  It’s the story of a teenager Jared Eamons (Lucas Hedges), the son of a prominent Southern preacher Marshall Eamons (Russell Crowe) who is sent to a Christian gay conversion camp after he admits to his father and mother Nancy (Nicole Kidman) that he is gay.

Jared goes to the camp willingly because he wants to please his parents.  He believes them when they tell him he can change. He doesn’t rebel when they give him the ultimatum that unless he “chooses” not to be gay, he won’t be allowed in their household because homosexuality goes against their core beliefs. And he’s reassured by their words that if he tells them he doesn’t want to be gay, they will help him achieve this goal. Hence, he’s sent to the conversion camp.

But once he gets there and experiences the methods of camp counselor Victor Sykes (Joel Edgerton) he begins to see things differently, eventually realizing that what they are doing at the camp is not only hurtful and dangerous but also flat out wrong.

BOY ERASED does not dance around the issue.

Indeed, before Jared even enters the camp, he meets with a doctor who tells him in no uncertain terms that there is nothing wrong with him, that he’s a healthy and very normal young man, and that his parents are wrong, that there is nothing abnormal about being gay. But he goes to the camp anyway.

The counselors at the camp teach that being gay is sinful. That to be normal one must stop being gay. According to the counselors, homosexuality is a choice, and the young men and women there can choose not to be gay. Their teaching is tied to Christian principles, and these scenes work to expose the backwardness of many Christian faiths when dealing with homosexuality.

Lucas Hedges delivers another top-notch performance in his young career.  Hedges was nominated for an Oscar for his work in MANCHESTER BY THE SEA (2016), and he was also memorable in THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (2017). Here, as Jared, Hedges shows both the character’s vulnerabilities and later his resolve when he realizes he’s not abnormal, and that he doesn’t have to change.

Nicole Kidman is also excellent as Jared’s mother Nancy, who goes against her husband when she supports her son and removes him from the camp.  She later explains her position to her son by saying, “I love God, but I also love my son.”

Russell Crowe, who looks like he doubled his weight for this role, makes for a surprisingly low-key and soft-spoken Southern preacher. While he does not support his son, he resists incendiary language.

In a key supporting role, Joel Edgerton is effective as camp counselor Victor Sykes. There’s something suffocating about Victor, as he and the other counselors speak untruths about the young men and women in their care. Their lack of knowledge is wince-inducing. Edgerton nails the character.

Joel Edgerton also directed and co-wrote the screenplay with Garrard Conley, and he succeeds on all three fronts here. The screenplay pulls no punches. It makes its point about gay conversion camps as clear as day.

Edgerton also wrote and directed THE GIFT (2015), a thriller in which he co-starred with Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall.  I liked THE GIFT a lot, and BOY ERASED, while a very different movie, is also a much better movie. Combined with his performances in such movies as IT COMES AT NIGHT (2017), BLACK MASS (2015), and THE GREAT GATSBY (2013), Joel Edgerton is becoming one of the most talented actor/writers/directors working today.

Edgerton keeps BOY ERASED grounded in reality. Jared is depicted at first as a young man who knows he’s attracted to boys but because he is young accepts the idea his parents present that it’s something he can control and change. It’s only after he sees the methods of the counselors, methods that continually look for false reasons of anger and guilt to explain gay feelings, when he knows that anger and guilt have nothing to do with his feelings towards other males, that he begins to see the truth, that his feelings are not abnormal. Jared’s journey is explained naturally and steadily.

Jared’s parents do not act in ways that seem phony or forced. His mother seems to know from the very beginning that they are making a mistake and that there is nothing wrong with her son, which is why later she is able to easily accept him. His father is deeply invested in his vocation as a Christian minister and as such cannot fathom that homosexuality isn’t something that is sinful, yet it’s clear how much pain he feels at the notion of losing his son.

And lastly the camp itself is exposed as a group of Christian men with little or no professional experience in psychology or medicine who wield as their authority the Bible.

BOY ERASED is as disturbing as it is important.  There are still many states which allow gay conversion therapy, and if there’s one thing this movie does well, it’s to show the ludicrousness and dangers of the practice.

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THE POSSESSION OF HANNAH GRACE (2018) – Possessed Corpse Tale Better Than Expected

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The possessed corpse of Hannah Grace just doesn’t want to stay put in THE POSSESSION OF HANNAH GRACE (2018)

THE POSSESSION OF HANNAH GRACE (2018) opens with yet another ridiculous exorcism scene. You know the ones I’m talking about.  Priests are praying, a young girl contorts her body while a deep demonic voice from within her spews trash talk, a father cries, and special effects are flying faster than you can say George Lucas meets Walt Disney.

THE EXORCIST, it ain’t.

But at the end of the scene, when the demon boasts that the girl will be his forever, her father decides that  no, that’s not going to happen, and he suffocates his daughter to death.  And I thought, okay, this is different.

And so in one moment the film goes from being yet another demonic possession rehash to a somewhat different take on the tired trope.  What’s different is that in this movie Hannah Grace is a possessed corpse.

THE POSSESSION OF HANNAH GRACE actually tells two stories, the one about Hannah Grace, which makes up the horror elements here, and the better story, about main character Megan Reed (Shay Mitchell) a former Boston police officer who panicked and froze in the line of duty and as a result allowed her partner to be shot and killed. It’s a tragedy she hasn’t recovered from yet. She has since left the police force and as the movie opens has decided to take a quiet position working the overnight shift at the city morgue.

Quiet.

Sorry, Megan.  Hannah Grace has other ideas.

What those ideas include are sneaking out of the morgue drawer to murder people in order to heal her body and come back to life, I guess to allow the demon to continue his evil handiwork.  Not sure why the demon just doesn’t enter someone else’s body, but maybe he just likes Hannah Grace. The horror story here doesn’t really make much sense, but nonetheless, it was somewhat entertaining in a mindless sort of way.

As I said, Megan’s storyline is much better.  Since her partner’s death, she has been struggling with depression and substance abuse, and so when she tries to tell her friends and co-workers that something very wrong is happening inside the morgue, and a body seems to be regenerating, they tell her that these things she thinks she’s seeing are simply the result of her trauma.  No one believes her until, of course, it’s too late.

While THE POSSESSION OF HANNAH GRACE is not a great horror movie— it’s not even a very good one— I did enjoy it much more than I thought I would, and that’s because of Megan’s story. In effect, while not being a great horror movie, it isn’t a half bad drama.

Shay Mitchell is excellent as Megan. She captures the character’s angst, and better yet, when the going gets tough, she gives it right back.  Megan is no helpless victim here. She is more than up to the task of gathering her wits and taking on the demon inside Hannah Grace. It’s a story arc that works, and Mitchell is more than up to the task of carrying this movie on her shoulders.

The rest of the cast acquits itself well and helps to keep this one much better than it should be.  Nick Thune stands out as quirky ambulance driver Randy who’s one of the first people to believe Megan.  Grey Damon holds his own as fellow cop and Megan’s former boyfriend Andrew who tries his best not to be a jerk but isn’t alway successful, and through it all continues to care for Megan.  Likewise, Stana Katic does a nice job as Megan’s friend Lisa. And Kirby Johnson gets the thankless role of Hannah Grace, spending the majority of the movie as a corpse.

The screenplay by Brian Sieve, except for the opening exorcism scene, spares us bad dialogue and cliché characters.  The characters are fleshed out rather well here, especially Megan, and the dialogue is authentic and realistic.  The story is also interesting throughout.

One of the characters points out that strangely in spite of killing lots of people, Hannah has not killed Megan, and he asks why? Which is a good question, and is one I don’t think the movie properly answers.  Is the demon saving her for its next host? Dunno.  Or is it somehow Hannah who’s keeping her alive knowing that Megan has the gumption to destroy her body once and for all? Again, the movie doesn’t say, which is another reason why, at the end of the day, it’s not a great horror movie.

But it is a surprisingly decent screenplay, and it’s well-directed.

Director Diederik Van Rooijen spares us any long boring scenes of characters walking along empty corridors in search of trouble, and he does a nice job avoiding other clichés as well.  Some of the horror elements aren’t bad.  Hannah Grace likes to scurry along dark corridors low to the ground like a giant arachnid, and these scenes are somewhat creepy and caused some audience members to cry out in discomfort.

The other thing I liked about it is other than its first scene it stays away from other demonic possession tropes, and this is a good thing. I went in asking, do we really need another demonic possession movie? And the answer is, no, we don’t.

Yet THE POSSESSION OF HANNAH GRACE is watchable because it presents the possession story from a different angle, a possessed corpse, and it works. Up to a point.

What doesn’t work is the film isn’t really all that scary, and in spite of its R rating, it doesn’t really go for the throat in the horror department.  Hannah Grace spends most of the film as a naked corpse, but rather than look horrifying she looks cartoonish and fake, and that’s because she’s mostly seen as a nude CGI creation. She looks more like Gollum than a teenage girl.

THE POSSESSION OF HANNAH GRACE could have been a lot worse, but it stays clear of the worst clichés of the demonic possession movies, and it offers both an interesting tale of a possessed corpse hungry for victims, and a very captivating story of a young woman struggling to overcome a traumatic event from her past who finds herself battling a demon in the dark confines of a city morgue.

Sure, it could have been scarier, more hard-hitting, and more raw, but at the end of the day, THE POSSESSION OF HANNAH GRACE is a halfway decent thriller that had it only gone for the throat a bit more often would have been a notable horror movie as well.

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THE FRONT RUNNER (2018) – Story of Gary Hart’s 1988 Downfall Asks Questions Relevant Today

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THE FRONT RUNNER (2018), which recounts the fateful three weeks where 1988 presidential front-runner Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman) saw his chances for becoming president derailed by an extramarital affair, is at its best when asking questions that are still relevant today.

In 1984, Gary Hart finished second to Walter Mondale in the Democratic primary, done in as shown in the movie during a debate where Mondale used the catchphrase from a popular Wendy’s commercial, saying that whenever he listened to Hart discuss his ideas, he felt he had to ask, “Where’s the beef?” I saw that debate in 1984, and the line worked. Mondale, of course, was trounced by Ronald Reagan in the general election.

So, in 1988, Hart emerged as the popular choice among Democrats, and early on was the clear front-runner.

Hugh Jackman plays Hart as a candidate who is all about ideas, and as described by his staff in the movie, his gift is that he can break down complicated ideas and help people understand them. It’s easy to see Hart as a successful U.S. president.

Hart also believed his private life was exactly that- private, and the press had no business knowing what went on in his bedroom. He felt so strongly about this that when pressed by reporters who continually hounded him due to rumors about extramarital affairs, he famously challenged them to follow him around, claiming they wouldn’t find anything, that he was a pretty boring guy.

The reporters did just that, and they photographed him with a woman Donna Rice (Sara Paxton) who obviously wasn’t his wife, and who appeared to stay the night with him. When more photos surfaced from unnamed sources, the firestorm which followed so engulfed Hart and his family that he found he had no choice but to withdraw from the election.

At the end of the movie, Hart makes a dramatic speech after his withdrawal, saying that the current climate of press hounds was only going to get worse, and it was no surprise that the best and the brightest avoided politics because of it, and if it didn’t change, worse candidates would emerge.

The screenplay by Matt Bai, Jay Carson, and director Jason Reitman asks questions that we are still discussing today, and covers such topics as the role of the press, the expectations of a political leader, the way men treat women, and the effect of adultery. It’s a complex script that asks questions without providing answers, mostly because we are still searching for answers even today.

The press is shown doing its job diligently. The press pool reporters genuinely like Gary Hart and feel uncomfortable asking questions about his personal life, but yet, some of them feel obligated to persist. The press is also shown camped outside Hart’s home, not allowing his wife or daughter to leave in private.  They’re aggressive and harassing. Yet, if the reporters hadn’t done their job, the story would not have come out.

In one conversation, veteran reporters relay the story of how Lyndon Johnson assembled all the White House reporters and told them lots of women would be coming in and out of his place, and he expected the same kind of discretion on their part which they had shown Jack Kennedy, and that’s what they did. These same reporters acknowledge that things are different in 1988, and they don’t understand why, but they know that it is different. If candidates are sleeping around, it’s now their job to expose them, because if they don’t some other news outlet will do it and earn better readership or ratings.

The women in the film, in 1988, did not have much of a voice, but they do express their outrage, upset that the male reporters aren’t angry with Hart over his treatment of women and that they aren’t being more aggressive to uncover the story.

In one of the better sequences in the movie, Hart staffer Irene Kelly (Molly Ephraim) spends time with Donna Rice and empathizes with her plight. She later points out how alone Rice is, that after this, her life will never be the same, that she doesn’t have the massive staff of volunteers supporting her like Hart does, that her life in effect has been ruined by a simple affair, while Hart’s life will continue.

Regarding Gary Hart, he is not shown here as a man who blatantly disrespects women, with the exception, of course, of his wife, since he was being unfaithful to her. But he’s not making derogatory remarks about the female anatomy or sexually assaulting them. He simply doesn’t see that it’s anyone’s business what he does in the privacy of his bedroom, or nor does he believe that his affairs affect anyone else except himself and his family, most likely because for years this was how things worked.

He seemed to be oblivious to the hypocrisy of his statements on morality and his personal behavior.

Director Jason Reitman lets this story unfold naturally, and his camera allows the audience to follow things along as if they are part of the campaign. In fact, even though Hart is the main character, the many members of his staff and the press pool make up the bulk of this movie and pretty much move the story along.

The acting is fine throughout. Hugh Jackman is excellent as Gary Hart, and while he does capture the politician’s mannerisms, his performance is superior to a caricature. He makes Hart a very tragic figure. He means well, he has ideas that are poised to make the country a better place, and he’s in a position with a public that really likes him to win the election, and yet he seems to be stuck in a prior time where reporters let things slide. Had he paid more attention and realized the press was emerging into a different animal in 1988, he might have been able to save his campaign, and the country would have seen a President Hart, but that’s not what happened.

Of course, some may argue, that it’s a good thing that he didn’t become president because he’s a womanizer. Which is another question the movie addresses, which is, does this kind of behavior even matter? Do Americans care who presidents sleep with? These questions are still being asked and debated today.

Vera Farmiga plays Hart’s wife Lee, and she’s excellent as she always is. The scenes where she tells Hart in no uncertain terms how much he has hurt her and humiliated her are some of the strongest in the movie.

J.K. Simmons plays Hart’s campaign manager Bill Dixon, who firmly believes in Hart and sees him as the next president, but when these stories surface, he puts his foot down and tries to convince Hart that he needs to get out ahead of them, but Hart resists saying it’s no one’s business and that the American people care more about his ideas than his personal life. It’s an idealistic rationale that proved to be false. Dixon also makes things personal, saying that the huge staff of volunteers, many of whom have left jobs to help Hart, deserve the truth, as does Dixon himself, but again Hart resisted.

The rest of the cast is chock full of talented character actors playing campaign staff members and reporters.

I loved THE FRONT RUNNER. It’s blessed with a talented cast and director, and features a script that asks important questions about the role of the press, the responsibility of presidential candidates to the voters, whether or not the private life of public figures is fair game, the immorality of adultery, and the treatment of women by even the most well-meaning of men.

THE FRONT RUNNER has a lot to say about both an event that happened in 1988 and events that continue to play out today. It doesn’t really provide answers because it doesn’t appear that we have the answers yet. So the bigger question I suppose by film’s end is have we learned anything since 1988?

The answer seems to be a resounding “no.”

—END—

 

CREED 2 (2018) – Okay Sequel Derivative of Previous ROCKY movies

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CREED 2

CREED 2 (2018) is actually the sequel to two movies, CREED (2015) and ROCKY IV (1985). As such, it has a lot on its card, and to continue using boxing language, its undercard somewhat outperforms its main event.

The first CREED continued the story of Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) as he trained Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan), the son of his former boxing opponent and eventual friend Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers). While the movie’s title declared it was the story of Adonis Creed, it also featured Rocky Balboa prominently and certainly continued the ROCKY storyline. I enjoyed CREED quite a bit.

ROCKY IV found Rocky training his former opponent and newfound buddy Apollo Creed for a fight against a massive and very deadly Soviet boxer named Drago (Dolph Lundgren). In the fight, Apollo dies from his injuries, and since this was a Rocky movie, it’s up to Rocky Balboa to save the day and somehow defeat the monstrous Drago in the film’s climactic bout.

I was never a fan of ROCKY IV and enjoyed the first three ROCKY movies better. However, ROCKY IV is one of those movies that has grown in stature over the years and has actually aged pretty well. In fact, for many fans, ROCKY IV is the best of the series. While I don’t share that opinion, I certainly do enjoy it more now than I did when I first saw it at the theater in 1985.

In CREED 2,  Ivan Drago trains his son, the equally monstrous Viktor Drago (Florian “Big Nasty” Munteanu) to become boxing champion, and they set their sights on a championship bout against Adonis Creed. Since Ivan Drago is the man who killed his father, Adonis naturally wants to accept the challenge and defeat Viktor Drago to restore honor to his father’s name.

Of course, Rocky is against this fight, as he feels guilty for not stopping the bout in which Apollo died. Adonis decides to pursue the match anyway without Rocky’s help. Predictably, Rocky is eventually pulled back into Adonis’ corner, helping to train the young fighter for the championship rumble.

Nothing that happens in CREED 2 is much of a surprise, and this certainly works against the movie. In spite of a lot of hype and box office success, it’s really just a by the numbers sequel providing nothing new or different from what we’ve already seen in previous ROCKY movies.

As I said, the undercard here outperforms the main event, or in movie terms, the subplots work better than the main plot.

I really enjoyed the Drago storyline. It was fun to see Dolph Lundgren reprising his signature role of Ivan Drago after all these years, and he still looks formidable enough to get back inside that boxing ring to take on Sylvester Stallone. ROCKY X, anyone? Seriously, though, Drago is training his son to win because when he lost that fight to Rocky all those years ago, he lost everything – honor, country, his wife.  He’s been living as an outcast in frigid Russia ever since. There is a lot on the line if his son can win.

As such, in spite of the fact that these guys are supposed to be the “villains” of the movie, I oftentimes found their story more sympathetic than Creed’s and Rocky’s, and I found myself wanting young Drago to win the fight. Furthermore, in spite of their He-Man toughness, there’s a chemistry on display here between the two actors which creates a father-son bond that really works, more so here than the chemistry between Adonis and Rocky.

The one scene between Rocky and Ivan Drago in which they meet for the first time since the fight is one of the movie’s finer moments. There should have been more of these scenes. There are not.

Likewise, as a Rocky fan, the Rocky scenes also worked for me. I continue to enjoy watching Rocky’s storyline play out, from his somber graveside visits to his deceased wife Adrian, to his wise mentorship of the fiery Adonis, to his angst over his estranged relationship with his adult son, I liked it all.  Sure, Stallone can play Rocky in his sleep, but he does it well. I’ve always liked Stallone and feel he has never really received the respect he deserves.

But the main plot, the one about Adonis, just didn’t work all that well for me, and in a movie called CREED 2, that’s not a good thing.

Since I enjoyed CREED so much, it’s not the characters at all, but simply the story. To me, the idea that Adonis would rush into a bout against Drago just didn’t resonate with me or feel all that authentic. He had just won the championship. Viktor Drago had won nothing. It certainly would have made sense for Adonis to defend his title a couple of times before setting up a fight with Viktor. Likewise, Viktor should have worked his way up to the title bout.

Plus, to me, both Dragos had more to gain and to lose than Adonis, and so their story was more interesting. Adonis was already champion. If he wins, sure he could claim a victory for his deceased father, but if he loses, he had already proven himself to be a champion fighter. Viktor Drago hadn’t proven anything yet, and if he loses, his fate is a return to icy Russia. In fact, the final shot of father and son Drago jogging under an ashen Russian sky is a depressing reminder of this fate.

I like Michael B. Jordan as Adonis Creed, but his storyline here just wasn’t as emotional or as locked in as the one told in the first CREED. And it goes beyond the boxing angle. I thought his relationship with both Bianca (Tessa Thompson) and his mother Mary Ann Creed (Phylicia Rashad) were rehashes of things we saw in the first movie. Adonis and Bianca marry here and have a baby, but I thought all of these scenes strangely fell flat. Perhaps it’s because they were so similar to scenes from earlier ROCKY movies.

And that’s the biggest knock I have against CREED 2. It’s so derivative from the other ROCKY movies, from dialogue about what it takes to be a fighter, to the personal relationships and the toll boxing takes on family members, to the training montages, to the boxing matches themselves. For me, the entire thing other than the Drago subplot was a bad case of “been there, done that.”

Director Steven Caple Jr. simply didn’t add any distinguishing attributes to make the movie stand on its own. The fight scenes are okay, but I’ve seen better, and the same can be said for the training montages. I also thought the pace slowed down about two-thirds of the way through. The first CREED, which was directed by Ryan Coogler, had an edge to it that this sequel simply doesn’t possess. Coogler of course also directed BLACK PANTHER (2018), a superior Marvel superhero movie, which also featured Michael B. Jordan, as one of Marvel’s better and more sympathetic movie villains, Erik Killmonger.

The screenplay to CREED 2 was written by Sylvester Stallone and Juel Taylor, and it largely goes through the motions.

As a ROCKY fan, it would be difficult for me not to enjoy CREED 2, and I did enjoy it, but I also recognize that it is sadly derivative of nearly every ROCKY movie which has come before it.

I judge this one a split decision.

—END—

 

THANKSGIVING TURKEY AWARDS 2018

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Turkey

It’s Thanksgiving here in the U.S, that holiday where people kick back and relax, reflect on what they’re thankful for, and eat lots of food, especially turkey.

With that in mind, here are some Thanksgiving Turkey Movie Awards for 2018.  Of course, the year is not over, and so these lists are not final. There’s still room for more turkeys, so to speak.

Okay, let’s get right to it!

Here are my 2018 TURKEY AWARDS:

WORST MOVIE

(And again, this list is not final. There are still five weeks left before we close out 2018.)

Right now, my least favorite film of 2018 would be PEPPERMINT, a dreadful action film starring Jennifer Garner, followed closely by THE NUN, a flat-out awful horror movie, and THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS, a very unfunny comedy that wasted a cool concept. I mean, who wouldn’t want to see a raunchy R-rated Muppet comedy? But they blew it.

 

WORST ACTING PERFORMANCE

This is difficult because acting is not something that is lacking in today’s movies. Actors today perform at a level that I think generally speaking is much higher than actors in the past.  They convey emotions that come off as authentic more often than actors from  yesteryear. While there have been great actors in every generation, I think in terms of numbers, more actors today deliver performances that are spot on than ever before.

So, how to choose a poor performance when there really isn’t any? I’m going to cheat a bit. I’m going to go with the three main “actors” in Clint Eastwood’s THE 15:17 TO PARIS, and this is cheating because these three guys aren’t actors. Eastwood chose to cast the three real life men who thwarted a terrorist attack on a Paris train to play themselves in his retelling of this heroic tale. Decades from now, Eastwood’s decision may be deemed as genius, but right now, that’s not the case for the simple reason that those young men aren’t actors and as such were out-of-place in a movie, even playing themselves. As a result, their scenes were incredibly boring and lifeless.

 

WORST SCREENPLAY

THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS – This screenplay by Todd Berger couldn’t be less funny if it tried. They should have hired Fozzy Bear. Waka! Waka!

the happytime murders poster

There’s not much that’s happy in THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS (2018)

 

WORST DIRECTOR

Brian Henson, THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS. Henson has made real Muppet movies.  He should have known better and pulled off a far more successful movie. He dropped the ball with this one.

 

WORST HORROR MOVIE

THE NUN. Nun of this movie is worth your time.

 

WORST SEQUEL

INSIDIOUS: THE LAST KEY, followed by OCEAN’S 8, JURASSIC PARK: FALLEN KINGDOM, THE EQUALIZER 2, and MAMA MIA: HERE WE GO AGAIN! Not a good year for sequels. Then again, when is it ever a good year for sequels?

 

WORST SUPERHERO MOVIE

DEADPOOL 2 – now this is not really a bad movie. It’s simply the superhero film I liked the least in 2018.

So far.

 

And now for the THANKSGIVING AWARDS portion of the column. Movies I’m thankful for this year:

 

MARVEL

Three of the best films of the year so far have been Marvel Superhero movies: BLACK PANTHER, AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR, and ANT-MAN AND THE WASP. Yup, it’s been a marvelous year for superheroes!

 

DOCUMENTARIES

With WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR? the documentary on the life of Mister Rogers leading the pack, 2018 has been a stellar year for documentaries.

 

MOVIES ABOUT WOMEN

It’s been a great year so far for movies starring women, written and directed by women, and that are telling stories about women.  Some of these movies include BOOK CLUB, EIGHTH GRADE, ANT-MAN AND THE WASP, ANNIHILATION, and LEAVE NO TRACE.

bookclub1

BOOK CLUB (2018) is one of my favorite movies of the year so far, thanks largely to its female cast which includes Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, and Mary Steenburgen.

 

BEST HORROR MOVIE

A QUIET PLACE – smart horror at its best, even if its ending isn’t nearly as intelligent as the rest of the movie. The horror genre is alive and well.

 

BEST SUPERHERO MOVIE

BLACK PANTHER – this Marvel superhero movie transcends the genre and is so good it has no business being a superhero film. Marvel continues its run of incredibly entertaining movies.

black-panther-poster

 

CLASSIC ACTORS

Veteran movie actors have graced the screen throughout 2018, including Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Andy Garcia, Mary Steenburgen, Candice Bergen, Bruce Dern, Robert Redford, Jodie Foster, Ben Kingsley, Jamie Lee Curtis, Meryl Streep, and Cher.

 

BEST MOVIE

Sorry, but you’ll just have to wait until the end of the year for this revelation.

 

So, these are just a few of the movies I’m thankful for this year, along with some cinematic turkeys.

Thanks for reading, and wishing you a happy holiday season!

Gobble! Gobble!

—Michael