THEIR FINEST (2017) – World War II Comedy Romance is Movie Making at its Finest

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Their Finest poster

Even though THEIR FINEST (2017) is mostly a comedy romance about the making of a propaganda movie about Dunkirk, what it does best as a World War II period piece is capture what life was like in Great Britain during the war, when men of age were off fighting, and left to pick up the slack at home were women, the elderly, and the injured.

It’s certainly the film’s strongest attribute.

It’s 1940, and the Nazis are bombing England relentlessly.  In this harsh environment, Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) shares an apartment with her struggling artist husband Ellis (Jack Huston).  Catrin lands a new job as a scriptwriter for a studio that makes propaganda movies for the war effort.  She’s hired to assist screenwriter Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin) with her specific duties being to write female dialogue.

The studio decides to do a movie on the Dunkirk rescue, and they base it on the story of twin sisters who took their father’s boat without his permission in order to rescue British soldiers.  Aging has-been actor Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy) is hired to play the role of the drunken father, in the film changed to a buffoonish drunken uncle.  At first, Hilliard is not interested but eventually changes his mind when he’s reminded by his agent Sophie (Helen McCrory) that he’s no longer a young leading man and needs to take advantage of the roles now being offered him to keep his career alive.

When the Secretary of War (Jeremy Irons) informs them that Churchill plans to use their film as a tool to inspire Americans to join the war effort, the film takes on a whole new meaning and suddenly it becomes a major production.

I really enjoyed THEIR FINEST.  It’s full of fine acting performances, features spirited direction by Danish director Lone Scherfig, and has a literate script by Gaby Chiappe, based on the novel Their Finest Hour by Lissa Evans.

Gemma Arterton is wonderful as Catrin Cole. She plays Catrin as an independent intelligent woman who’s not afraid to ask for more money for her work when she knows she has to support her artist husband.  Arterton enjoys nice chemistry with Sam Claflin who plays fellow writer Tom Buckley.  Catrin and Tom grow closer together, even though Catrin tries her best to ignore her feelings since she’s married, but eventually fate intervenes.

Arterton has appeared in a wide variety of roles, but of the movies I’ve seen her in previously, QUANTUM OF SOLACE (2008), HANSEL & GRETEL: WITCH HUNTERS (2013), and RUNNER RUNNER (2013) this is by far the best role I’ve seen her play.  She’s smart, sincere, and sexy.

Sam Claflin also does a nice job as fellow writer Tom Buckley, who recognizes Catrin’s talent and eventually falls in love with her. Claflin played the young filmmaker in the underrated Hammer thriller THE QUIET ONES (2014).  Claflin has also appeared in THE HUNGER GAMES movies, THE HUNTSMAN films, and PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN:  ON STRANGER TIDES (2011).

And Bill Nighy delivers a scene-stealing performance as aged actor Ambrose Hilliard who is so full of himself that when he first reads the script for the Dunkirk movie he believes he’s being offered the role of the young hero, not the drunken uncle. Nighy gets the best lines in the film, and he also enjoys some of its best scenes.

In a movie-within-a-movie scene, where Catrin rewrites the uncle as a more heroic character, Nighy plays the uncle’s dying moment on the boat.  He hallucinates and thinks the two soldiers with him are his sons, who were lost in the previous war, World War I.  It’s a brilliant moment.  The scene works in the fictional movie, and it works in the main film because Nighy nails Hilliard’s delivering the performance of his life.

And the most poignant moment in the film comes near the end, after Catrin has endured tragedy, and it’s Hilliard who’s there by her side to keep her from falling, and he tells her that they only have these opportunities because the young men are all at war, but that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t take full advantage of these opportunities, which sums up the main theme of the movie.

Jack Huston is also very good as Catrin’s husband Tom, struggling with both his artistic career and sense of worth since an injury has kept him from fighting in the war.

Helen McCrory stands out as Sophie Smith, whose husband was Hilliard’s agent until he was killed by a Nazi bomb.  Sophie decides to take over her husband’s practice, and once she does, Hilliard’s career never looks back.  It’s a very strong performance by McCrory, and like Arterton and Claflin, she shares nice onscreen chemistry with Bill Nighy.

Likewise, Jake Lacy is memorable as Carl Lundbeck, an American war hero who is added to the cast to make the film more appealing to Americans, which causes some headaches as well as some comic relief because he has no acting experience whatsoever.  Lacy ‘s performance reminded me of something a young Christopher Reeve might have done.

The rest of the cast is solid and enjoyable.  There’s not a weak link to be found.

I loved the script by Gaby Chiappe. It works on several levels.  The most fun and rewarding level is the film within a film concept, and by far the liveliest scenes are the behind the scenes workings of the writers and film crew trying to get this film off the ground.  And the finished product, a Technicolor production entitled THE NANCY STARLING, which we catch glimpses of as Catrin sits in an audience of enthusiastic filmgoers, generates lots of emotion.

The movie also works as a wartime romance, as well as a World War II period piece drama. And just when I wasn’t so sure the romance part was working, the film delivers a menacing blow and at that point reaches a whole other level.

I also enjoyed the direction by Lone Scherfig.  The film looks great, and she captures the period of World War II England, bombed on a regular basis, perfectly.

There’s even a nod to Alfred Hitchcock..

The title, THEIR FINEST, comes from a speech by Winston Churchill, where he described England’s resistance to the Nazis as “their finest hour.”

THEIR FINEST is a wonderful movie.  In addition to being a love story and a comedy, it’s also a thoughtful and poignant look at the role women played in England during the war.

It’s movie making at its finest.

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For The Love Of Horror cover

Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

 

 

 

 

THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE (2017) Reminds Us Atrocities Need Not Be Accepted

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THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE (2017) is based on the nonfiction book of the same name by Diane Ackerman and tells the true story of how the keepers of the Warsaw Zoo hid, protected, and ultimately saved hundreds of Jews during the Nazi invasion and subsequent occupation of Poland during World War II.

The film opens just before the Nazi invasion, in the summer of 1939, and we are introduced to the couple who run the Warsaw Zoo, Jan Zabinski (Johan Heldenbergh) and his wife Antonina (Jessica Chastain).  It’s a remarkable place, and the Zabinskis treat the animals like family.  Antonina in particular has a way with the animals that enables her to share a special bond with them.  We see this firsthand in a touching scene where she tries to save a dying baby elephant while its nervous and frightened parents stand nearby, ready to pounce on her, and yet, because of her sensitivity towards them, they allow her to treat their baby.

We also meet a German zoologist Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl) who brushes off talk of an imminent German invasion, as he says he’s a zoologist and keeps out of politics.

But on September 1, 1939, the invasion happens, first with bombs which decimate the zoo, and then with soldiers, and once the Nazis take over, they herd the Jews into ghettos and force them into deplorable living conditions.  Jan sees these actions firsthand and is horrified by them.

The bombs destroy most of the zoo and kill many of the animals.  Later, their former friend Lutz Heck, now a prominent member of the Nazi party, informs Antonina that all the animals will have to be killed for food for the war effort.  However, he tells Antonina that with her permission he will remove her prize animals and bring them to his zoo in Germany where they will be safe, and she agrees.

However, Jan is outraged, believing that Lutz is simply stealing their animals, and when Antonina says that at least Lutz asked her permission, Jan testily answers that as a Nazi Lutz doesn’t need her permission.  And as winter approaches, the Nazis kill the remaining animals anyway.

Jan tells Antonina of the horrors of what’s going on inside the ghetto, and they decide they cannot stand by and do nothing.  Since the animals are all gone, there is plenty of empty space in the basement beneath the zoo, and they decide to use these empty areas to hide people.  With help, they come up with a system of removing people from the ghetto and secretly bringing them to the safety of the zoo, which is no easy task with Lutz and his fellow Nazis constantly on the prowl.

There no doubt will be comparisons between this movie and SCHINDLER’S LIST (1993) because they tell similar stories, and while SCHINDLER’S LIST is a more powerful movie, THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE is effective in its own right.

Beautifully shot by director Niki Caro, we at first glimpse the wonderful life the citizens of Warsaw experience before September 1, 1939, in particular the harmonious haven created by the Zabinskis at the  Warsaw Zoo.  And when things turn harsh after the invasion, the camera does the same.  Looking out their window, the Zabinskis see what they at first believe are snowflakes falling from the sky, but upon closer inspection they see that what is falling is ash.  The Nazis are burning the ghetto to the ground.

The screenplay by Angela Workman based on Ackerman’s book doesn’t overplay its hand.  The Nazi atrocities are well-known— or at least they should be— and the story  while not sugar-coating things does not go out of its way to show these horrors first hand either; hence the PG-13 rating.  Yet, there are still some jarring scenes, like when two Jewish women are shot in the head at point-blank range.

I’m a huge fan of Jessica Chastain, and I really enjoyed her performance here as Antonina Zabinski.  She especially captures the sensitivity Antonina possessed which allowed her to work so closely with the animals; they trusted her. Likewise, when it’s up to her to work closely with Nazi Lutz Heck, her skills once more come into play.  She has a way with him as well, and like the animals in the zoo, he trusts her.  This allows them to continue to hide the Jews under the noses of the Nazis.  For a while, anyway.

As much as I enjoyed Chastain, the best performance in the movie belongs to Johan Heldenbergh as Antonina’s husband Jan.  As Jan, Heldenbergh displays a wide range of emotions, from strength, to horror and outrage at what the Nazis are doing to his Jewish friends, to jealousy over his wife’s and Lutz’ relationship, even though he knows that its integral to the success of their efforts.  It’s a deep resonating performance, and while Antonina spends most of her time at the zoo working with Lutz, it’s Jan who’s active in the streets of Warsaw and who is personally responsible for whisking the Jews out of the ghetto.  As such, he sees much more of the atrocities than his wife does, and it takes a heavy toll on him.  The scene where he watches children being loaded onto the box cars of the crowded train is one of the more powerful images in the film.

Daniel Bruhl  makes for a sufficiently villainous Nazi, Lutz Heck.  However, since he’s for the most part “tamed” by Antonina, he’s nowhere near as despicable as some other movie Nazis.    His actions are somewhat muted because of his feelings for Antonina.

The rest of the cast does a nice job in support of these three main actors.  Iddo Goldberg is memorable as their Jewish friend Maurycy Fraenkel, and Shira Haas stands out as a young girl Jan rescues from the ghetto after she is raped by Nazi soldiers.

Michael McElhatton is memorable as the Rabinski’s loyal employee Jerzyk who stays with them through the whole ordeal and risks his life for them on numerous occasions.  And while McElhatton appears on GAME OF THRONES, I just saw him in a horror movie I liked, THE HALLOW (2015).

THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE is a potent movie about a horrible time in our world’s history, and it tells an uplifting story about bravery in the face of unspeakable horrors and says a lot about the human spirit.  In spite of the Nazis threat, the Rabinskis refused to stand by and do nothing.

As the world continues to be a sadly dangerous place, it’s a message people the world over should take to heart and remember.  Atrocities need not be accepted.

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For The Love Of Horror cover

Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

 

 

 

ALLIED (2016) Hearkens Back to 1940s Classics

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allied-poster

The best part about ALLIED (2016), a love story and thriller that takes place during World War II, is that it hearkens back to classic movies like CASABLANCA (1942) and Hitchcock’s NOTORIOUS (1946).  The worst part is that in spite of the nostalgia it evokes, it fails to rise to the levels which made those 1940s classics so memorable.

That being said, ALLIED is a solid film that is much better than the lack of hype surrounding it would lead you to believe.

ALLIED opens in 1940 Casablanca, where we meet Max Vatan (Brad Pitt) a British intelligence officer on a mission to assassinate a key Nazi figure.  He’s working with Marianne Beausejour (Marion Cotillard) a French Resistance fighter, and the two are posing as husband and wife as they work to infiltrate the inner circles of the Nazi regime in Casablanca.  It’s a bold assassination plot, and their chances of survival are slim.

But survive they do, and as they make their escape from Morocco, Max asks Marianne to come back to London with him and marry him, which she does.  The two of them, having risked so much to pull off their ruse in Casablanca, have clearly fallen in love.

The two begin a life in World War II London, even having a baby together, and life is as good as it can be for people being bombed regularly by the Nazis.  But things take a sinsiter turn when Max’s superior officer Frank Heslop (Jared Harris) informs him that British Intelligence suspects Marianne of being a Nazi spy, and that if proven true, that Max will have to kill her.

The final third of the film follows Max’s efforts to learn the truth about his wife- is she a spy or isn’t she, and if she is, then what will he do about it?

I really enjoyed ALLIED, although the film falls short of being something special.

I especially enjoyed the beginning of this movie.  It takes its time setting the stage for the assassination plot by Max and Marianne.  Lesser films would have begun with the assassination and jumped right into the marriage between Max and Marianne.  By inviting us into the stress and anxieties behind their ruse, the film really allows its audience to get to know Max and Marianne and to see just how it is that they fall in love.  It makes the second part of the film all the more painful because we see these two go through a lot and grow very close.

The scenes during this part of the movie involving Nazis are also very suspenseful and well done.  The opening third of the movie is compelling and tense.

The movie also looks great, fully capturing the period, which one would expect from a movie directed by Robert Zemeckis.  And it’s interesting that Zemeckis directed this movie, because you know he’s the guy behind such visual flicks as the BACK TO THE FUTURE movies, WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT? (1988), FOREST GUMP (1994), and THE POLAR EXPRESS (2004), but there really isn’t anything all that visual about ALLIED other than its period piece window dressings.  I mean, the film looks wonderful, but knowing that Zemeckis directed this one, I expected even more in terms of cinematic flair.  That’s not meant to be a knock on Zemeckis but simply an observation that knowing his resume I thought his work here was not all that reflective of his signature style.

The screenplay by Steven Night is as solid as the rest of the movie.  As I said, it does a nice job in the first act of allowing us to be a part of Max’s and Marianne’s love story.   The second act keeps things moving as the action switches to wartime London, and of course the final act turns things up a notch as the audience is eager to follow Max on his investigation, to help him learn the truth about his wife— is she a spy or isn’t she?

I thought the one place where the movie didn’t excel was its ending. Like the rest of the movie, it’s satisfactory, but it’s nothing special.  I had hoped that a phenomenal ending would put this movie over the top, but that was not the case.  It’s certainly not a bad ending by any means, but CASABLANCA it ain’t.

Night also wrote the screenplay for THE HUNDRED-FOOT JOURNEY (2014), a wonderful film that was one of my favorite movies of 2014 yet seemed to fly under everyone else’s radar.

If Brad Pitt seems quite at home wearing a World War II military uniform, that’s because he’s already done so in Quentin Tarantino’s INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009) and more recently in FURY (2014).  As Max Vatan, Pitt is just OK here.  I’ve seen him deliver far better performances— in MONEYBALL (2011), KILLING THEM SOFTLY (2012), and THE BIG SHORT (2015), to name just a few recent ones— than he gives here in ALLIED, where he seemed quiet and reserved throughout. For a man fearing that his wife is a Nazis spy, he never really shows the amount of angst one would expect from a man in his position.  It also doesn’t help that Pitt seems to wear the same blank expression on his face throughout the movie.  Sure, it’s the look of a man who is a covert intelligence officer, who is trained not to let others see his true feelings, so in terms of the plot of the movie, it’s fine, but in terms of letting an audience know what he’s thinking, it doesn’t fly.

The best performance in the movie belongs to Oscar-winning actress Marion Cotillard.  She nails Marianne’s persona.  In the opening act of the film, Marianne tells Max that she is successful at fooling people because her emotions are true and real.  She really does like the people she is infiltrating, and so her emotions are genuine and difficult to see through.  Which makes things all the more complicated for Max later when he’s trying to decipher if she is a Nazi spy or not.  Cotillard captures this duplicity brilliantly.  Because of her performance, the audience really believes that she is in love with Max, but like Max, we’re not so sure if these genuine feelings are legit or simply part of her job as a spy.

Cotillard is also terribly sexy in this role, and I enoyed Cotillard here better than in other Hollywood movies I’ve seen her in, movies like INCEPTION (2010) and THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012).

Jared Harris, an excellent actor who has a ton of credits, and who I have particularLy enjoyed in such movies as SHERLOCK HOLMES:  A GAME OF SHADOWS (2011) where he played Professor Moriarty, and the underrated Hammer Film THE QUIET ONES (2014), as well as the TV series MAD MEN (2009-2012) where he played Lane Pryce, is good here in a supporting role as Max’s superior, Frank Heslop.

For some reason, ALLIED has received almost no hype. I suspect, based on things that I’ve heard and read, that the powers that be had little faith in this movie.  It’s actually a pretty good movie, especially if you enjoy World War II period pieces.

Is it as good as those classics I mentioned at the outset of this review?  No, but then again, not many films are.  But it’s still a solid movie from beginning to end, worth the price of a movie ticket, and good for an enjoyable two hours at the movies.

—END—

 

 

 

FURY (2014) – Brutal War Tale Does Its Job

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Fury-2014Movie Review:  FURY (2014)

By

Michael Arruda

 

If there’s one message in FURY (2014), the new World War II action movie starring Brad Pitt, it’s that war is a hell that just won’t quit.  Even in the waning days of the war, the fighting continues, oftentimes with more ferocity than ever before.

To this end, FURY succeeds.  It’s a brutal in-your-face slugfest between Allied soldiers and the Nazis.  We see heads blown off, eyes stabbed out, and even a severed face lying on a tank seat.  It’s not for the squeamish.

Where FURY lags, however, and what prevents it from being a superior movie, is a lack of character development and a limiting story. FURY plays out like a slice-of-life portrait of five World War II soldiers battling against the odds in the final days of the war, as the Allies penetrate further into Germany.  It’s not the most dangerous mission ever undertaken, nor is it the most heroic war tale ever told.  It’s simply five men doing their job.

It’s less about the mission and more about the men, which is fine, except that this kind of a story deserves deeper character development.  While we do get up close and personal with these guys, the film never jettisons its action scenes in favor of scenes where we get to know these characters, save for one, perhaps the best scene in the movie, where the soldiers share a dinner with two German women.

When FURY opens, Sergeant Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt) who commands the tank “Fury” has just lost one of his men, which leaves the rest of his crew, Boyd “Bible” Swan (Shia Lebouf), Trini “Gordo” Garcia (Michael Pena) and Grady “Coon- Ass” Travis (Jon Bernthal) angry and upset.  Collier receives new orders to take his small group of tanks and intercept a squadron of Nazis.  Even though the war is drawing to a close, the Nazis are not giving up, and the fighting is more vicious than ever.  As such, the Allies are enduring heavy casualties, and Collier and his small group of tanks are being asked to do a job which normally requires more firepower, which they just don’t have right now.

Collier’s crew is assigned a new soldier, the very young Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman) who’s only trained as a communications officer and is as green as a cucumber when it comes to combat.  After razzing him initially, Collier’s crew welcomes Norman into the fold, even as he admits he has no desire to kill anyone.

The tanks are ambushed, and all of them are destroyed except for “Fury,” which leaves Collier and his crew to take on the Nazis on their own.

FURY was written and directed by David Ayer, who earlier this year wrote and directed the Arnold Schwarzenegger actioner SABOTAGE (2014).  I enjoyed FURY much more than SABOTAGE.  Ayer also wrote and directed the police drama END OF WATCH (2012).  He wrote TRAINING DAY (2001), the film in which Denzel Washington won the Best Actor Oscar, and he wrote the original THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS (2001).

Ayer has been around, more as a writer than a director, and of the films he’s directed that I’ve seen, FURY might be his best yet.  It has a solid story, exciting action sequences, tense war action, and a competent cast.  The action is fast and furious, and the battle scenes do not disappoint.  Sure, more attention could have been paid to character development, and it could have used an additional plot point or two to lift it above the standard war movie, but as is it’s still a very satisfying movie.

Brad Pitt is solid as Sgt. Collier.  He’s the rock which holds his men together, and he’s the driving force that pushes them through the dark places.  In front of his men, he’s a bull, but alone, he breaks down, succumbing to the war horrors engulfing them.  I continue to enjoy Pitt’s string of recent performances, including roles in such films as INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009), MONEYBALL (2011), and KILLING THEM SOFTLY (2011).  Pitt was probably better in all three of those films, but his performance here is a good one, and it’s a role I enjoyed more than his most recent work in WORLD WAR Z (2013) and THE COUNSELOR (2013).

Just as good as Pitt is Logan Leman as green soldier Norman Ellison.  It’s largely through Ellison’s eyes that we see the horrors of the war, and we watch as Ellison goes from a naïve boy to a hardened soldier.

Both Shia LeBouf as “Bible” Swan and Michael Pena as Garcia are very good, but it’s THE WALKING DEAD’s Jon Bernthal as the animal-like Travis who stands out among the tank crew.  Travis is such a violent visceral character, and Bernthal has a field day playing him.  As we saw when he played Shane on THE WALKING DEAD, Bernthal is a very talented actor who I hope continues to land bigger and bigger roles in the movies.

While the action scenes are topnotch, especially the tank battle in which the Allied tanks are outgunned by a single Nazi tank, the best scene in the movie isn’t an action scene.  It’s when Collier brings Norman into a German home in which they find two young women.  While the other men engage in wild sex with the local German women, Collier shows Norman a more civilized get-together, over a home-cooked meal.  Of course, civility only goes so far, as Collier bursts into the woman’s home with a rifle and orders them to make dinner.

When Norman retreats into the bedroom with the lovely young Emma (Alicia von Rittberg), they share an intimate conversation and have what appears to be consensual sex.  Afterwards, when Emma leaves the bedroom, she looks at her cousin and smiles at her.  I don’t think Emma would be smiling had she been raped.  The whole point of this scene is that Norman is not a brute and that he doesn’t force himself upon the girl.  Then again, he’s a soldier with a rifle, and so certainly the door is open for interpretation.

Of course, when Travis, Garcia, and Swan arrive, that’s a different story, and Travis does everything in his power to humiliate and degrade Emma, in spite of Norman’s and Collier’s protestations.  The range of emotions throughout this sequence goes far deeper than at any other point in the film.  It’s the best scene in the movie.

I wish there had been more scenes in the film like this.

But as it stands, FURY is a very good movie.  It’s a down and dirty World War II thriller which serves as a sad reminder that war is a brutal ugly business.  As Brad Pitt’s Wardaddy Collier says in one of the best lines from the film, “It (the war) will end soon, but before it does, a lot more people have to die.”

For the men inside Fury, it can’t end fast enough.

—END—

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: THE RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE (1943)

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the-return-of-the-vampire-posterIt’s time for SPOOKLIGHT Classic, where we look at some of the older IN THE SPOOKLIGHT columns from way back when.  This one, on the Bela Lugosi vampire flick THE RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE (1943) was first published in the November 2002 edition of The Horror Writers Association Newsletter.  Where does the time go?

And remember, if you like this column, my book IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, a collection of 115 horror movie columns, is available from NECON EBooks as an EBook at www.neconebooks.com, and as a print edition at https://www.createspace.com/4293038.  You can also buy print copies directly from me right here through this blog.  Just leave an inquiry in the comment section.  Thanks!

—Michael

IN THE SPOOKLIGHTT:  THE RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE (1943)

by Michael Arruda

Bela Lugosi is so identified with the role of Dracula that it’s easy to forget that he only played the Count twice in the movies, in DRACULA (1931) and in ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948).

However, Lugosi did appear in movies where he played a vampire other than Dracula.  One such film, THE RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE (1943).

THE RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE was made in 1943 by Columbia Pictures, and since Universal owned the copyright to the Dracula name, Columbia had to choose another name for their vampire.  They chose Armand Tesla, a decent enough name for a vampire, but their better choice, of course, was choosing Bela Lugosi to play the lead role.

While Lugosi looks considerably older here and delivers a performance nowhere near as on target as his 1931 DRACULA portrayal, he still manages to create a memorable vampire in Armand Tesla.  As always, Lugosi is a joy to watch.  His is a dynamic screen presence, and he possesses the remarkable ability to frighten with simply a look or a line of dialogue.  “I shall command.  And you shall obey.”  You betcha!  No problem, buddy!

In addition to having Lugosi, THE RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE also boasts some other memorable bites— er, bits.

The film’s setting, for example, takes place in World War II London, a rather unique setting for a vampire movie (of course, the film was made in 1943, so the setting was contemporary.), and the war takes an active role in the film’s plot.  It’s a Nazi bomb that unearths Tesla’s coffin, setting him free to “return” to London, and bombs have a direct impact on the film’s very memorable conclusion, as well.

There’s also a werewolf in the movie, so you get two monsters for the price of one.  While the werewolf make-up by Clay Campbell is quite good, and he’d use the same make-up again with even better results 13 years later on Steven Ritch in the under-appreciated thriller, THE WEREWOLF (1956), this second monster played by Matt Willis is certainly and unfortunately one of the least ferocious werewolves ever seen on screen.  When fighting two police officers, for example, rather than attacking their throats with his teeth, he boxes them like a gangster.

Frieda Inescort is Lady Jane Ainsley, Lugosi’s main adversary.  How fun and fresh it is to have a woman as the film’s heroine in the “Van Helsing” type role.  This in itself makes the movie worth viewing.

Yet the film does have its drawbacks, amongst them the neatly dressed talking werewolf, and a lame “stake in the heart scene” where the vampire hunter wields his hammer with about as much force and intensity as one of Santa’s elves!

Director Lew Landers, who also directed Lugosi (along with Boris Karloff) in THE RAVEN (1935) under the name Louis Friedlander, does a respectable job here, filling the film with the kind of atmosphere one expects to find in a Lugosi vampire film, with lots of fog, graveyards, and wolf howls.  There’s so much fog that in one scene it’s indoors!

The screenplay by Griffin Jay is adequate.  The plot is your basic vampire seeks revenge on the families of those who tried to destroy him, but with Lugosi in the film, with lots of screen time and lots to do, the plot is secondary.

THE RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE is not as good a film as DRACULA (1931) or even the well-crafted and hilarious ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948) for that matter, but it is still a showcase for Bela Lugosi, and as such doesn’t disappoint.

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IN THE SHADOWS: UNA O’CONNOR

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Una O'Connor as Mrs. Hall in THE INVISIBLE MAN (1933).

Una O’Connor as Mrs. Hall in THE INVISIBLE MAN (1933).

In The Shadows:  UNA O’CONNOR

 By Michael Arruda

Welcome everyone to another edition of In The Shadows, the column where we honor character actors from the movies, especially horror movies.  Today we look at the career of Una O’Connor.

Una O’Connor made a ton of movies, 84 screen credits in all, but to horror fans, she’s most remembered for her roles in two classic Universal monster movies, THE INVISIBLE MAN (1933) and THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935).  When I was a kid, I used to call her “the screaming woman” because her shrill cries were unforgettable.  I think she could give Jonathan Harris’ Doctor Smith on the classic TV show LOST IN SPACE (1965-68) a run for his money, and anyone who’s seen him shriek on LOST IN SPACE knows what I’m talking about.

Una O’Connor often provided the comic relief in the movies in which she appeared, and her appearances in both THE INVISIBLE MAN and THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN are no exception.

In THE INVISIBLE MAN, she plays Mrs. Jenny Hall, the owner of the tavern in which Claude Rains’ mad Dr. Griffin happens upon one snowy night, entering the crowded tavern all wrapped in bandages.  It’s one of the grander entrances of all the Universal monsters.

As Mrs. Hall, O’Connor enjoys a bunch of scenes muttering her displeasure over Griffin’s eccentricities, and she also has the pleasure of being thrown out his room.  When she sends her husband upstairs to physically toss Griffin off the premises, and Griffin returns the favor by throwing Mr. Griffin down a flight of stairs, Mrs. Hall responds with her signature shrieking and wailing, a scene that makes me laugh out loud each and every time I see it.

In THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, O’Connor plays Minnie, one of the head servants in the Frankenstein household.  She enjoys some memorable scenes in this one.  She’s the first character to see that the Monster has survived the fire in the windmill at the end of FRANKENSTEIN (1931)— or at least the first character to see him and survive.  The Monster had already killed the parents of Maria, the little girl he drowned in the first movie, but when he happens upon Minnie moments later, she shrieks at him and runs away.  Being the wise Monster that he is, he leaves her alone.

Of course, when she returns to Castle Frankenstein and says she has seen the Monster and he’s still alive, no one believes her.  Moments later, she’s also the first one to see that Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) is still alive and has survived his fall from the burning windmill.  In a scene reminiscent of the creation scene in the first film, she sees Henry Frankenstein’s hand move, and she screams, “He’s alive!!!”

She also gets to introduce the memorable and iconic character Dr. Pretorious (Ernest Thesiger) to Henry and Elizabeth Frankenstein, when Pretorious arrives at the door and demands to be announced.  No one says “Pretorius” better than Una O’Connor!

So, for those of us who grew up with the Universal monster movies, we know and adore Una O’Connor, based on those two performances alone.

Here’s a partial list of Una O’Connor’s 84 movie credits:

 

DARK RED ROSES (1929) – Mrs. Weeks – O’Connor’s first movie, a drama about a sculptor who plots to chop off the hands of his wife’s pianist lover.

MURDER! (1930) – Mrs. Grogram- lends her support to this early Alfred Hitchcock thriller.

THE INVISIBLE MAN (1933) – Mrs. Hall – Poor Mrs. Hall.  You shouldn’t have sent your husband up those stairs.  My favorite O’Connor role.  Her cries can wake the dead.

ORIENT EXPRESS (1934) – Mrs. Peters – Murder on a train.

CHAINED (1934) – Amy, Diane’s Maid – Romance starring Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, and Otto Kruger.  O’Connor plays Crawford’s maid.

THE BARRETTS OF WIMPOLE STREET (1934) – Wilson.  Period piece drama/biography starring Charles Laughton and Fredric March.

DAVID COPPERFIELD (1935) – Mrs. Gummidge – George Cukor directed this version of Charles Dickens’ novel, which also featured Elsa Lanchester who would co-star with O’Connor in THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN.

 THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935) – Minnie – adds memorable support as Minnie the main servant in the Frankenstein household in this all-time classic monster masterpiece by director James Whale, starring Boris Karloff as the Monster and Elsa Lanchester as his bride.  O’Connor’s best line:  Dr. Pretorious? Pretorious?

 THE INFORMER (1935) – Mrs. McPhillip – John Ford-directed drama.

THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD (1938) – Bess – Classic adventure starring Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Basil Rathbone, Claude Rains, and Patrick Knowles.

THE SEA HAWK (1940) – Miss Latham – Sea adventure directed by Michael Curtiz, starring Errol Flynn and Claude Rains.

THIS LAND IS MINE (1943) – Mrs. Emma Lory – World War II drama— contemporary at the time— directed by Jean Renoir and starring Charles Laughton, Maureen O’Hara, and George Sanders.

THE CANTERVILLE GHOST (1944) – Mrs. Umney –  Comedy fantasy based on the Oscar Wilde story about a cowardly ghost starring Charles Laughton, Robert Young, and Margaret O’Brien.

THE BELLS OF ST. MARY’S (1945) – Mrs. Breen – Bing Crosby reprises his role as Father O’Malley in this well-made sequel to GOING MY WAY (1944), about Crosby running a Catholic school and butting heads with nun Sister Mary Benedict, played by Ingrid Bergman.

WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION (1957) – Janet – O’Connor’s final role, in this Billy Wilder directed version of the Agatha Christie story (Wilder also wrote the screenplay), starring Tyrone Power, Marlene Dietrich, Charles Laughton, and Elsa Lanchester, Won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Actor for Laughton, and Best Supporting Actress for Lanchester.

Una O’Connor died on February 4, 1959 from a heart ailment at the age of 79.

Una O’Connor:  October 23, 1880 – February 4, 1959.

Thanks for reading everybody!

—Michael

THE MONUMENTS MEN Entertains in Spite of Muddled Message

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The-Monuments-Men- posterMovie Review:  THE MONUMENTS MEN (2014)

By

Michael Arruda

 

 

Was it worth risking the lives of men just for the sake of saving art?

 

That’s the question asked throughout THE MONUMENTS MEN (2014) the new World War II adventure written and directed by George Clooney, based on a true story, about a group of mostly middle-aged men enlisted by the army to reclaim the works of art stolen by Hitler and the Nazis, works of art that Hitler originally intended to place in a museum, until the waning days of the war when he ordered his men to destroy it all.  It’s up to the Monuments Men to save these works of art, but first, they have to find them.

 

Frank Stokes (George Clooney) seeks and receives permission from President Roosevelt to assemble a group of art experts to go into France and then Germany to recover the huge amounts of art stolen by the Nazis.  Since all the young art experts are already enlisted in the armed forces, Stokes is forced to assemble his team of art specialists, architects, and museum curators, from a pool of men beyond their fighting years.

 

The movie gets these introductions out of the way early, as we quickly meet James Granger (Matt Damon) who wasn’t able to enlist because of poor vision, Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), Walter Garfield (John Goodman), Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin), Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville), and Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban), as well as their young translator, Sam Epstein (Dimitri Leonidas).

 

Once in Europe, Stokes pairs the men and gives each duo a specific task, the goal being to locate the various places in which the Nazis hid the stolen art.  Campbell pairs with Savitz, an interesting twosome since they hate each other, and Garfield pairs with Jean Claude, while Granger is assigned the difficult task of getting to know a French woman Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett) who worked for the resistance and who they believe has valuable information as to where the Nazis hid all the stolen art.  The trouble is, Claire trusts no one, and she suspects the Americans only want the art for themselves, and she tells Granger as much.

 

When the Nazis realize there is little hope of winning the war, Hitler orders his troops to destroy all the artwork as they pull out in retreat, which adds more pressure on the Monuments Men to locate the art as soon as possible.  It also places them in harm’s way as they need to be close to the action in order to get to the art before the Nazis soldiers destroy it.

 

Further complicating matters is that the Russians are also confiscating the art as they move in, only they’re taking it back to Russia, not returning it to its original owners.  It’s up to the Monuments Men to find these stolen treasures first so that they’re not lost to the western world.

 

THE MONUMENTS MEN is a very enjoyable movie filled with colorful characters and plenty of entertaining and humorous moments intertwined with some poignant ones, and even some suspense, but the trouble is its message that recovering the stolen art was worth risking the lives of these men doesn’t always ring true.

 

Clearly, writer/director George Clooney believes the sacrifice was worth it, but the movie doesn’t succeed in making this point.  For one thing, it tries too hard.  It asks the question “is it worth it?” so much it hammers you over the head with it. 

 

We see the Monuments Men engaged in various little adventures, which for the most part are all very entertaining, but compared to other soldiers— the soldiers at Normandy, for example— their sacrifice doesn’t feel the same.  The script by Clooney and Grant Heslov probably needed more time in the shop to get the message right. 

 

Don’t get me wrong.  The amount of art the Nazis stole was incredible, and had this been lost or destroyed, it would have been heartbreaking.  What the Monuments Men did was remarkable, but hitting the audience over the head with the notion that their mission was an amazing sacrifice somehow sounds hollow compared to what the rest of the soldiers were fighting for.

 

Another problem is Clooney’s Frank Stokes is a rather cold fish.  He’s not the best point man for selling an argument to an audience.  I almost wish the story had been told from the perspective of Cate Blanchett’s Claire Simone character, who was a much more interesting and intriguing character than Clooney’s Frank Stokes.  Seen through her eyes, the Monuments Men would have been perceived as what they were, men doing the world a service, recovering people’s history and culture, but hearing Blanchett’s Simone say this, a woman whose brother was murdered by the Nazis, and who didn’t trust the Americans, it would have held more relevance than hearing it from Clooney’s stoic Stokes.

 

By far, the best part of THE MONUMENTS MEN is its talented cast, who really bring these guys to life.

 

George Clooney is just okay as Frank Stokes, but this is fine since he’s the level-headed one leading the team.  Matt Damon fares about the same as James Granger and is rather low-key throughout.  It’s the rest of the team that really shines.

 

It was great to see Bill Murray in this role as Richard Campbell, and he and Bob Balaban enjoy some fine moments together, some of the best in the film.  The scene where they’re surprised by a young Nazi soldier in the woods, and they end up sharing a cigarette is one of the best in the movie.  As is the scene when Murray hears a record sent to him by his family.  It’s a nice reminder that Bill Murray is much more than just a comic actor.

 

I also really enjoyed John Goodman and Jean Dujardin.  The scene where they’re fending off a sniper is a keeper.

 

But even better than all the Monuments Men is Cate Blanchett as Claire Simone.  She delivers the best performance in the film.  She also has one of the more emotional scenes in the film, when she’s told by her Nazi employer that her brother has been shot dead.  It’s a disturbing moment in a film that is strangely devoid of disturbing moments, a curious thing in a movie about Nazis.

 

The film would have benefitted from a visible Nazi villain.  Other than Simone’s boss who’s really not in the film all that much, there’s no one who makes your blood boil.  The villains are random soldiers with rifles.

 

In terms of entertainment, THE MONUMENTS MEN scores high.  I really enjoyed watching these guys and their efforts to recover the multitude of stolen art items.  Where it struggles is in its message that these men were putting their lives on the line for a cause equally as noble as the soldiers fighting to defeat genocide and world domination. 

 

That’s a difficult point to make.  Perhaps the movie didn’t need to try.

 

—END—