IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: SALEM’S LOT (1979)

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I read Salem’s Lot by Stephen King shortly after it was first published when I was in the 6th grade, and it was the first novel that ever truly scared me.  More importantly, as someone who spent his childhood watching Hammer Films and the Universal monster movies, it was the first book that ever truly entertained me.  It was that book that got me hooked on reading.

As such, my expectations were high when four years later the film version of SALEM’S LOT (1979) arrived as a TV movie directed by Tobe Hooper and starring David Soul and James Mason.  And while it was well-received by critics and fans alike, I was somewhat disappointed by it.  I just couldn’t shake my feelings for the novel, which I felt was vastly superior.

The biggest disappointment for me at the time was the film’s interpretation of the story’s vampire, Mr. Barlow.  Barlow was creepy and terrifying in the novel, with lots of dialogue to back up his evil presence.  In the film, he was changed to a mute Nosferatu clone, and while he did indeed look frightening, the fact that the make-up resembled the classic 1922 Nosferatu make-up on Max Schreck was a let-down.

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Reggie Nalder as the vampire Barlow in SALEM’S LOT (1979).

Anyway, it had been years since I had seen the film version of SALEM’S LOT, and so I thought it was time to watch it again and place it IN THE SPOOKLIGHT.

In SALEM’S LOT, writer Ben Mears (David Soul) returns to his childhood home of Salem’s Lot (Jerusalem’s Lot in the novel), drawn there by the Marsten House, a house that watches over the town like a demonic gargoyle.  In short, it’s the town’s haunted house. Ben has been obsessed with this house his entire life, an obsession that began when he ventured into the house as a boy on a dare and saw the hanging body of a man there, a man who while hanging opened his eyes and looked at him.

This moment is a perfect example of the difference between the movie and the book.  In the book, this scene, this image, although not even a major part of the plot, was one of its most frightening.  Indeed, for me, of all the scenes and images from the novel, this is the one that scared me the most back in 1975 and stayed with me the longest, the hanging man who opened his eyes.  In the movie, it’s mentioned briefly by Ben Mears in a conversation, and it’s nothing more than an afterthought. There you go.

So Ben returns home to write about the Marsten House and seek out old acquaintances, like Susan Norton (Bonnie Bedelia), who he starts to date. He’s writing about the Marsten House because he believes the house itself is evil, and as such it attracts evil.

And he’s right, because currently living in the house are two men, Mr. Straker (James Mason) and Mr. Barlow (Reggie Nalder).  Barlow is a vampire, and Straker is the man empowered with protecting him.  Together, they prey upon the townsfolk of Salem’s Lot, gradually changing nearly everyone in town into a vampire.  Unless that is, Ben Mears can stop them.

It’s a great story, but it plays better in the novel than in the movie, which is hindered by dated dialogue by screenwriter Paul Monash.

I was a huge fan of the TV show STARSKY AND HUTCH (1975-79) back in the day, and so at the time when I first saw SALEM’S LOT I gave David Soul who starred in the show a free pass. Watching it today was a different story.  Soul’s interpretation of Ben Mears has its problems, mostly because at times Soul seems to be sleepwalking through the role.  He also doesn’t do fear well.  When Ben Mears is supposed to be terrified, he comes off as more dazed than anything else.

By far, the best performance in the movie belongs to James Mason as Mr. Straker.  Of course, this comes as no surprise as Mason was a phenomenal actor who was no stranger to villainous roles.  His dark interpretation of Dr. Polidori in FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY (1973) was one of the most memorable parts of that horror movie, and his villainous turn as attorney Ed Concannon in THE VERDICT (1982) was every bit as effective as Paul Newman’s lead performance as Frank Galvin.  Both men won Oscars for their performances that year, Newman for Best Actor, and Mason for Best Supporting Actor.  These roles are from the tail end of Mason’s career, which began in the 1930s and spanned five decades.

As Straker, Mason is frightening.  The scene where he taunts a priest is one of the best in the film.

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David Soul and James Mason in SALEM’S LOT (1979).

The rest of the cast, which is chock-full of character actors, is so-so.  In the key role of young Mark Petrie, the boy who loves monsters and monster movies, and the character who I obviously identified with when I first read the novel in 1975, Lance Kerwin is just okay.  Like David Soul, his interpretation of fear comes off more like a “deer in the headlights” daze.

Likewise, Bonnie Bedelia is okay as Susan Norton, but Lew Ayres is effective as school teacher Jason Burke, and unlike Soul and Kerwin, Ayres does do fear well.  Ed Flanders is solid as Dr. Bill Norton, and Geoffrey Lewis enjoys some fine moments as Mike Ryerson, especially once Mike becomes a vampire.  Veteran actors Elisha Cook Jr. and Fred Willard are also in the cast.

And while Reggie Nalder does look horrifying as Barlow in his Nosferatu-style make-up, ultimately he doesn’t make much of an impact in the movie because his scenes are few and far between.  Even though I prefer the Barlow character from the novel to the one here in the movie, I still would have liked to have seen the vampire more in the film.

The story, which flows naturally in the novel, with its expansive cast of characters, doesn’t flow as well in the movie, as the townsfolk and their personal issues play like characters in a soap opera.

Director Tobe Hooper, fresh off his success with THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974), definitely puts his personal stamp on the movie and creates some scary scenes. Chief amongst them is the creepy and very memorable scene- it might be the most memorable of the entire movie— of young vampire Danny Glick floating outside Mark Petrie’s window, beckoning to be let inside.  It’s certainly one of my favorite parts of the movie.

Another frightening image features Geoffrey Lewis’ Mike Ryerson as a vampire, sitting in a rocking chair.

But the biggest parts of the story strangely fall flat.  The end, for instance, when Mark and Susan enter the Marston house in search of Barlow, lacks the necessary suspense.  In the book, these scenes were terrifying.  In the movie, not so much.

The pacing is a little off as well.  The film runs for 184 minutes and originally aired on television in two 2 hour segments.  The bulk of the first half is spent introducing all the characters, while Barlow doesn’t really show up until the second part, and then things move very quickly, often too quickly.

The film did very well and earned high ratings, and for a while there was talk of turning it into a television series, but the idea never materialized.

I like the film version of SALEM’S LOT, and even though it hasn’t aged all that well, and is a bit dated— in contrast, the classic TV vampire movie THE NIGHT STALKER (1972) still holds up remarkably well today— it’s still a fun movie to watch, with some genuine creepy scenes, especially for a TV movie, and we certainly have Tobe Hooper to thank for that.  While the vampire is OK, and the leads meh, you do have James Mason chewing up the scenery as the diabolically evil Mr. Straker.

The biggest drawback is that the source material, the novel by Stephen King, is so darned good, it makes this above average thriller seem much more ordinary than it really is.

SALEM’S LOT is kinda like its vampire, Mr. Barlow.  Scary, but nowhere near as powerful as depicted in the novel by Stephen King.

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THE BIG SICK (2017) – Hilarious and Honest Take on Cross-Cultural Romance

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If you like to get emotional at the movies, then THE BIG SICK (2017) is the film for you.

It’s both hilarious and moving, a comedy that will make you laugh out loud, and a love story that will tug at your heartstrings.

THE BIG SICK is based on the real-life romance between actor/writer Kumail Nanjiani and his wife Emily V. Gordon.  The film is a fictionalized account of their courtship.

Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani) is a young stand-up comedian trying to launch his career in the comedy clubs in Chicago.  One night he strikes up a conversation with an audience member, a young woman named Emily (Zoe Kazan) and after the show he joins her for a drink.  They hit it off instantly, and the next thing you know the two are involved in a romance.

Kumail, however, comes from a strict Muslim family from Pakistan, and as such, they practice arranged marriages and fully expect Kumail to marry a Pakistani woman. It’s a recurring event at Kumail’s home for there to be a knock at the door during dinner, prompting his mom Sharmeen (Zenobia Shroff) to say, “Look who just dropped in,” as she introduces these available  young Pakistani women to her son.  But Kumail just isn’t interested in these women or the idea of an arranged marriage.  He feels trapped, because his parents feel so strongly about arranged marriages that if he were to tell them the truth, that he was in love with an American woman, they would disown them, and this is something he doesn’t want to happen.

When Emily learns that Kumail has no intention of telling his parents about her, she flips out and tells him she cannot be in a relationship with him.  They say some pretty hurtful things to each other.  Shortly thereafter, Emily becomes very sick with an infection in her lungs due to some unknown virus.  She is admitted to the hospital where doctors are forced to put her in a medically induced coma in order to save her life.

It’s at the hospital where Kumail first meets Emily’s parents, Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano), who both know about the break-up and so aren’t too keen at first about having Kumail stay at the hospital with them.  But when Kumail decides he’s not going to leave Emily’s side, Beth and Terry relent, and the three end up spending time together.  They get to know each other as they deal with the unknowns and dangers of Emily’s decreasing health.

THE BIG SICK has a phenomenal script by Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon.  It’s witty, insightful, and refreshingly honest.  There are countless laugh-out-loud moments, like when Terry sits down with Kumail and starts asking him about 9/11.  The scene where Emily suddenly has to run out in the middle of the night to visit a diner is honest and funny.

The film does a nice job with how Kumail views his family.  He desperately wants them to approve of his American lifestyle, but they won’t, and he feels so torn by this that he can’t bring himself to tell them about Emily.  And the scenes during the second half of the movie where Kumail gets to know Emily’s parents are some of the best scenes in the movie.

The film is full of memorable characters, from Kumail and Emily themselves, to Kumail’s family, to Emily’s parents, to Kumail’s colorful comedian friends.

THE BIG SICK also sports a strong cast.  Kumail Nanjiani does a nice job playing a fictionalized version of  himself.  As depicted in the movie, Kumail is a likable character, and you want to see him achieve his dreams.

Likewise, Zoe Kazan (the granddaughter of acclaimed film director Elia Kazan) is excellent as Emily.  She’s exceedingly quirky and energetic.  She’s the spark which drives the first half of the movie.

And one of the reasons THE BIG SICK is such a strong movie is that when Emily goes into a coma and suddenly is removed from the action, the film doesn’t skip a beat. In fact, it gets better.

This is mostly because both Holly Hunter and Ray Romano nail their roles as Emily’s parents, Beth and Terry.  Hunter plays Beth as quirky as her daughter Emily, and at first she is openly hostile towards Kumail because she knows he has hurt Emily.  Terry is more open to having Kumail stay with them at the hospital, and as the three of them get to know each other, it makes for some of the better scenes in the film.  Romano and Nanjiani in particular share a bunch of humorous scenes together.

Hunter is perky and energetic, and Romano is laid back and lethargic, and you wonder how they got together in the first place.  They really do bring this troubled married couple to life.

Kumail’s parents are just as interesting. Zenobia Shroff is very good as Kumail’s mother Sharmeen, who is relentless in her pursuit to have Kumail marry a Muslim woman. Anupam Kher is also very good as Kumail’s father Azmat.  He has some particularly powerful scenes near the end when he desperately pleads with Kumail to honor and respect his mother.  Kher was also memorable as Bradley Cooper’s doctor, Dr. Cliff Patel, in SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (2012).

Adeel Akhtar also stands out as Kumail’s brother Naveed, who is constantly sparring with his brother, trying to get him to see things his parents’ way, arguing for instance that Kumail needs to show his parents’ respect by growing a beard.

The film really showcases the cultural differences between this Pakistani family and their Americanized son.  Kumail’s pain really comes through, as you can see that he wants no part of his family’s beliefs, but he does want to be part of his family.  They are important to him.  He wants them to accept him the way he is, but because of their strong cultural ties and religious beliefs, it’s something they are not prepared to do.

Then there’s the whole stand-up comic scene in Chicago, which is also an integral part of this story.  Kumail has a colorful group of comedian friends, including his hopeless roommate Chris (Kurt Braunohler) whose Charlie Brown luck and awful comedy is the butt of many of his friends’ jokes.  For instance, he has the misfortune of calling on Emily’s parents in the audience, and he asks them what brings them to Chicago, to which Holly Hunter’s Beth replies, “Our daughter is in a coma.”  The audience goes silent, and Chris fumbles and hesitates, before awkwardly addressing someone else:  “So, what brings you to Chicago?”

THE BIG SICK has it all:  fine acting, perceptive writing, and solid directing by Michael Showalter.  It’s one of those movies where after it ends, you just want to see it again.

It’s funny, poignant, and refreshingly honest. It has a lot to say about relationships, cultural differences, and the lengths people will go to make a relationship work when they’re in love.

I loved THE BIG SICK.  It’s one of my favorite films of the year.

—END—

 

WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES (2017) – The Best of The New APES Movies

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The new PLANET OF THE APES series keeps getting better and better.

RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2011) was an okay reboot, solid yet uninspiring. Its sequel DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2014) was better. I liked it but I didn’t love it.

Now comes WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES (2017) a thoroughly engrossing tale that is equal parts futuristic science fiction, epic adventure, and prisoner of war drama. All three parts work well to comprise a story that is captivating from start to finish, so much so, that this third film is clearly the best entry of the series thus far.

Of course, it helps to have a talented director at the helm.  Matt Reeves, who also directed DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, is one of the more talented directors working today. He’s directed some of my favorite horror movies in recent years, films like CLOVERFIELD (2008) and LET ME IN (2010), and now WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES. I only wish he’d make more movies.

When WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES opens, we find Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his band of apes still hiding in the woods, still trying to avoid the humans who are out to conquer them.  This time around, the advancing human military is led by a charismatic officer known as The Colonel (Woody Harrelson).

A small military unit locates the apes and attack, but they are defeated.  Caesar spares the lives of a couple of prisoners and sends them back as a peace-offering, but this doesn’t stop the Colonel, who returns and raids the apes’ camp, killing Caesar’s wife and son.

Found out, the apes have to move, but Caesar announces that he’s not accompanying them, as he is intent on finding and killing the Colonel.   Eventually, all the apes, Caesar included, are captured by the Colonel’s forces, setting the stage for the second half of the movie, which plays out as a riveting prisoner of war tale, where the apes attempt to plan a daring escape, even as another military contingent moves in, one that is at odds with the Colonel and plans on wiping out all the occupants at the base, including the apes.

There is so much to like about WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES.  I liked how Caesar evolved here.  In the first film, he barely spoke, saying one word here, one word there. In the second film, he spoke more, but not entirely fluently.  Here, he speaks effortlessly, which makes him an even stronger character.

The storyline of the disease which wiped out humans and gave intelligence to apes continues to evolve in this movie and remains compelling.  This time around, we learn that the disease is changing, that the remaining humans are gradually losing the ability to speak, and are slowly becoming more beast-like, while the apes are becoming more intelligent.  This plot point hearkens back to the original series, where apes were intelligent, and humans were mute animals.

We first get a hint of this change when Caesar and friends find a young girl (Amiah Miller) who cannot speak.  Orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval) eventually names her Nova, in a nod to the Linda Harrison character from the 1968 original film PLANET OF THE APES.

And more apes than just the ones with Caesar were affected, as they meet another chimpanzee who goes by the name Bad Ape (Steve Zahn) and who tells them his story.

There are a lot of nods to the original series here.  The soldiers wear the symbols for Alpha and Omega on their helmets, which is a nod to the Alpha/Omega bomb which destroyed the Earth in BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES (1970).  The line is used, “the only good ape is a dead ape,” which is a reference to General Ursus’ line “The only good human is a dead human,” also from BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES.

Again, there’s the character of Nova, and I liked how they came up with the name, as she finds a grille from a Chevy Nova.  Also, when Maurice says her name, “Nova,” he says it the same way and with the same cadence as Charlton Heston said it in BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES, so much so that I wonder if they dubbed in Heston’s voice here.

Speaking of Maurice, his name is a nod to the actor Maurice Evans who played the orangutan Dr. Zaius in the original films.  And Caesar’s little son is named Cornelius, who was the character played by Roddy McDowall in the original films, and in those films Cornelius was Caesar’s father.

There are also just some funny monkey references. The back of one of the soldier’s helmets reads BEDTIME FOR BONZO, a reference to the Ronald Reagan movie, a comedy which featured a chimpanzee. Also, the apes who work for the Colonel are called “donkeys,” a reference to Donkey Kong.

The special effects are amazing. The apes look phenomenal. They’re so good it’s easy to forget that nearly every character in this movie is a CGI creation.  The only main human character is Woody Harrelson’s Colonel, and the rest of the humans are nameless soldiers, and yet the film doesn’t suffer for it at all. You don’t watch this movie and feel like you’re watching an animated cartoon.  These characters seem genuine and real, more so than some of the human characters we see in other movies.  And their story is compelling.  You really do feel for the apes and want them to escape from the prison.

Andy Serkis, who’s become the king of motion capture performances, is excellent once again here as Caesar. I don’t think they give Oscars yet for this category, but if they did, he should get one.  And he’s not alone here.

Both Karin Konoval as Maurice and Terry Notary as Caesar’s other loyal friend Rocket have also been in all three APES movies, and they’ve been excellent each time as well.  Also of interest, both Serkis and Notary have played King Kong.  Serkis played Kong in the Peter Jackson remake KING KONG (2005), and Notary played Kong in KONG: SKULL ISLAND (2017).

Two newcomers also really stand out.  Steve Zahn as Bad Ape nearly steals the movie with his humorous and touching performance as the ape who had survived on his own all these years before meeting Caesar and his band of apes.  The best part about Bad Ape is that he’s funny without being annoying, and he’s scared without being a coward.  He steps up when needed.

Likewise, young Amiah Miller is superb as Nova, in a role that is even more impressive considering she doesn’t speak any lines as Nova cannot talk.  Her scenes with Caesar are especially moving.  Once Nova and then Bad Ape enter the storyline, the film really takes off.  Miller reminded me somewhat of a very young Amanda Seyfried.

And Woody Harrelson does what he has to do as the evil Colonel.  The role isn’t as fleshed out as the apes’ characters, but it doesn’t really need to be.  He’s the villain, and Harrelson gives the guy real presence, so much so that things always feel disturbing when he’s on-screen. And we do get some background on him, as we learn what happened to his son.

The script by Mark Bomback and director Reeves is excellent.  I loved the story it tells, and the ape characters are all fleshed out to the point where you forget you’re watching CGI creations.  I especially liked the story, which is essentially divided into three parts. The first part picks up where DAWN left off, and features apes and humans battling in the jungle.  The second part becomes an epic adventure, where the apes migrate from the jungle, and where Caesar and his small band of friends go off on their own across beaches and eventually into a wintry mountain terrain as they seek out the Colonel.  It’s this sequence where they find Nova and meet Bad Ape.

And then there’s the third part, the gripping grueling prisoner of war tale, where Caesar must lead the apes on a daring escape.  This part plays like the classic war movies of yesteryear, films like STALAG 17 (1953) and THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963).  With each chapter of the story, the film gets stronger, as each story is better than the previous one.

I’m a huge Matt Reeves fan, and he does a phenomenal job here.  His films CLOVERFIELD and LET ME IN are among my favorite horror movies period.  WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES now joins that list.  Of course, the true test for Reeves is his next movie, as he’s writing and directing the upcoming THE BATMAN, the standalone Batman film starring Ben Affleck. Good luck, Matt!

And WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES features yet another powerful music score by Michael Giacchino, who we just talked about last week as he scored SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING (2017).  I liked his score for APES here even better than his SPIDER-MAN score.  It reminded me a lot of the score he wrote for LET ME IN.  It’s potent, militaristic, and haunting.

I really liked WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES. Everything about it works.

It’s easily the best of the rebooted APES series.

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THE BEGUILED (2017) – Showcases Talented Female Cast

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Director Sofia Coppolla and the cast of THE BEGUILED (2017).

THE BEGUILED (2017) is a remake of a 1971 Clint Eastwood movie of the same name, directed by Don Siegel.

The Eastwood film, which is something of a cult favorite among Eastwood fans, is certainly one of the more offbeat and haunting movies Eastwood ever made.  It was a box office failure at the time, due to a poor ad campaign which marketed it as another Clint Eastwood action film, which it isn’t, and also because audiences in 1971 weren’t quite sure what to make of this dark tale of a Union soldier recuperating at an all-girl Confederate school.  Directed by Don Siegel, the film is steeped in atmosphere and style.

The 2017 version was directed by Sofia Coppola and tells pretty much the same story.

In Virginia, in the waning days of the Civil War, a young girl Amy (Oona Laurence) discovers a wounded Union soldier, Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell) in the woods while she is picking mushrooms.  She brings the soldier back to her school, and the head of the school, Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman), decides it would be un-Christian of them to turn the Corporal over to the Confederate army until he has a chance to recuperate.  And so they tend to his wounds and nurse him back to health, with the intention of handing him over to the Confederate army once his wounds have healed.

But John is a man, and the school is full of women and girls who simply haven’t been around men all that much.  As such, during his stay, the sexual tensions build.  Not only is Miss Martha attracted to John in her own reserved way, but teen student  Alicia (Elle Fanning) can’t keep herself from openly flirting with him.  Even young Amy is attracted to him.

And matters become more complicated when privately John declares his love for teacher Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), who he says is the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen. Edwina falls for John instantly, mostly because she is unhappy and sees John as her ticket out of her present life at the school. She would like to run away with him.

For his part, John remains quiet and polite, keeping things proper, except for his declaration of love to Edwina.  But one night he makes a fateful decision to enter a certain bedroom, and things change dramatically from that point on.

Director Sofia Coppolla, who also wrote the screenplay, gets the atmosphere right but struggles somewhat with the characterizations, specifically with Corporal John McBurney, who is too reserved to be effective.

THE BEGUILED is beautiful to look at.  Director Coppolla captures the essence of a school in the southern countryside, photographing the manor through abundant green trees and filtered sunlight.  There are also some nice shots of red sunlight reflecting off the front of the elegant structure.

But the majority of the film is shot in shadowy darkness, as the bulk of the action takes place inside the school, lit by low burning candles.  The look of this film drew me in immediately and kept me in its Civil War world throughout.

It is definitely slow-paced and plays out like the period piece Civil War drama that it is. This worked for me for the most part, but towards the end of the film when things get seriously darker, the film downplayed these heavy moments, which worked against the movie for me.  I expected things to get very ugly, but the horrible things that happen are only hinted at and not fully explored.  The film never really rises above its southern slice of life portrait.

As I said, Sofia Coppolla also wrote the screenplay, which is based on the screenplay to the 1971 film by Albert Maltz and Irene Kamp, itself based on the novel by Thomas Cullinan.   Coppolla does a nice job with the female characters, but Corporal John McBurney isn’t as defined as well as he needs to be.  In the 1971 film, you knew Clint Eastwood’s character was conning the women. Here, as played by Colin Farrell, the audience isn’t so sure.  Is he playing these women or not?  Since the screenplay isn’t clear, it makes what happens at the end of the film far less satisfying, because we don’t know how to react to John’s fate, since we really don’t know what kind of a person he truly is.

In terms of casting, you can’t ask for a better female cast.

Nicole Kidman plays Miss Martha as a strong and independent woman.  She is clearly in charge of everyone at the school.  But questions remain about her character as well. For instance, would she do what John accuses her of doing at the end of the movie?  Or did she do it for the reason she said, to save his life?  The film isn’t clear.

Kirsten Dunst is also very good as Edwina, the depressed school teacher who is only too willing to fall in love with John.  And Elle Fanning is sultry and seductive as the young woman who is intent on getting John into her bed.

But it’s the younger girls who make an even stronger impression here.  Oona Lawrence is exceptional as young Amy, the girl who first finds John and really likes him throughout the movie.  Angourie Rice, who played Ryan Gosling’s daughter in last year’s comedy THE NICE GUYS (2016) is memorable here as Jane, the one girl in the school who is offended by the idea of housing a Union soldier at the school.  And Addison Riecke also has some significant moments as Marie, the girl who makes the ominous suggestion at the end of the movie on how to stop John.

As John, Colin Farrell is okay, but I’ve seen him deliver far better performances.  He was too calm and relaxed throughout.  The character seemed to be begging for a nefarious side, which doesn’t come out at all.  Towards the end of the film, when bad things begin to happen, we finally see John act passionately, which gives us some insight into his character, but it’s too little too late.  He remains polite to the last, apologizing after his deplorable behavior and sounding sincere in his apology, which makes the ending of this one all the more tragic.  Then again, without a clear-cut defintion of John’s character, it’s difficult to know how to feel about him.

In spite of this, when the women make their bold decision at the end of the movie, the coldness with which they proceed is jarring and potent.  The shot of the women around the dinner table afterwards is one of the more memorable images in the film.

That being said, the film would have been stronger had it gone to these dark places more often instead of avoiding them.

THE BEGUILED is a moderately entertaining movie, a showcase for its talented female cast and its female writer/director, Sofia Coppolla, but with a vaguely defined male protagonist, the story they are telling is far less potent than it should have been.

—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.  

SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING (2017) Is Light Comic Fun

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Right off the bat, SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING (2017) wins accolades for not being another origin story.

We know how Peter Parker became Spider-Man.  We don’t need to see it happen again.   The film skips this back story and as such plays like a breath of fresh air. And that’s just for starters.  SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING has a lot more going for it, making it yet another Marvel superhero hit.

SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING actually doesn’t open with Spider-Man at all, but with construction worker Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton).  Toomes and his crew are working clean-up after the massive battle between The Avengers and alien invaders, but he’s pulled off the job by secret government higher-ups, which to Toomes, means money lost, something he needs to support his family.  Bitter, when Toomes realizes his crew still has some of the alien technology in their scrap heap, he decides to keep it, to help even the odds with the elites.

The story jumps eight years ahead where we meet high school sophomore Peter Parker (Tom Holland), ecstatic about his fighting alongside Iron Man and the other Avengers in events seen in CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (2016).  In fact, Parker’s mentor is Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) himself, who serves as the voice of reason and caution for the young superhero, reminding him to keep out of trouble and help out with the local little jobs; in short, to be the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.  Stark leaves his best buddy Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) to keep tabs on Parker, which he does with a tracking device that informs him of Parker’s every move.

Parker finds himself terribly distracted at school, as he’s constantly waiting for that call from Tony Stark to join the Avengers.  He’d like to date Liz (Laura Harrier) but he’s always running away as Spider-Man for one reason or other.  Things grow more complicated when his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon, in a scene-stealing performance) discovers that Peter is Spider-Man, and can hardly contain his excitement.  He wants to tell everyone they know, but Peter reminds him that that is not a good idea.

Eventually, Spider-Man crosses paths with Adrian Toomes, who’s been stealing alien weaponry and selling it on the black market.  Toomes has built himself a flying bird suit from the alien technology and flies through the skies as the Vulture.  And when Peter can’t convince Happy or Tony Stark that the danger from Toomes is very real, he suits up as Spider-Man and takes on the villain on his own.

SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING is basically the Spider-Man story re-told from the perspective of The Avengers.  Ever since Marvel released THE AVENGERS (2012), the superhero films which have followed have pretty much all been tie-ins with that massive Marvel hit.  As someone who loved THE AVENGERS, I like all these tie-ins, as the universe that Marvel has built around these characters is a good one, and the story that continues to evolve remains compelling.

So, pretty much every move that Peter Parker makes in this movie is dominated by his obsession with wanting to join The Avengers.  It’s a far cry from the story told in the Tobe Maguire film, SPIDER-MAN (2002).  But SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING still works because in spite of the AVENGERS connection it keeps to the original spirit of the character in the comics.

As such, SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING is an extremely light film.  The humor is on target throughout, and a bulk of this movie spends its time with Peter Parker and his high school friends, and these scenes work because both the writing and the acting are superb.

And in a strange juxtaposition, you have this light comical tale intertwined with another darker story featuring one of the better villains we’ve seen in a Marvel movie in a long time, Adrian Toomes/the Vulture, played by Michael Keaton.  It’s an odd combination, but it works.

One of the reasons it works is Toomes’ heavy-handedness makes for a superior foe for young Spider-Man.  You have all these high school scenes, and so you’re half expecting a high school student for a villain, but instead you have Toomes, a guy who is one of the more serious villains we’ve seen in a superhero movie in a long while.

Toomes is also the perfect antithesis to Tony Stark.  In Stark, you have the rich playboy running around playing superhero, while Toomes is the working class man who worked all his life but couldn’t make good for his family, and so he takes an opportunity, albeit an illegal one, to provide tons of money for his family.  It’s thinking that reminded me of Bryan Cranston’s Walter White in TV’s classic BREAKING BAD (2008-2013).

SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING is blessed with a solid cast.  Tom Holland actually debuted as Spider-Man in CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (2016), and it was an awesome debut. Holland continues his success here.  His Peter Parker is young, very young, which is perfect because he comes off as a genuine high school student.  His scenes with his friends are among the best in the movie.  And his wise-cracking Spider-Man is still a hoot to watch, although truth be told, I don’t think he has any moments in this movie as out-of-this-world amazing as the fight sequence in CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR.

As Peter’s best friend Ned, Jacob Batalon really stands out.  He enjoys a bunch of scene stealing moments, the high school geek whose dream comes true when he finds himself actually working with Spider-Man, someone who knows the Avengers.

Laura Harrier is fine as Peter’s eventual girlfriend Liz, but it’s Zendaya who really stands out here as one of their quirky friends, Michelle.  She’s not in the movie much, but when she is, you can’t help but notice her.  She enjoys many fine little moments.

Robert Downey Jr. has a decent amount of scenes here as Tony Stark, but ultimately, even though he’s always fun to watch, he doesn’t get to do a whole lot.  Don’t look for Iron Man to rush in to save the day.  This is Spider-Man’s movie.

Jon Favreau has plenty of screen time as Happy Hogan, as he’s left in charge of keeping an eye on Peter.  Favreau is always fun in this recurring role, which goes all the way back to IRON MAN (2008), and he’s enjoyable yet again here.  Favreau is a talented guy.  He also directed IRON MAN (2008) as well as a lot of other movies, including THE JUNGLE BOOK (2016) and CHEF (2014), in which he also starred.

Chris Evans also shows up as Captain America, in a very humorous bit featuring promotional videos shown at the high school.  Want to teach the merits of physical education?  Pop in a promotional video featuring Captain America!  These videos provide some funny moments.

And Gwyneth Paltrow even makes a brief appearance as Pepper Pots.

But it’s Michael Keaton who really stands out here as Adrian Toomes/the Vulture. First of all, Keaton is a phenomenal actor who keeps getting better with age.  What I liked most about his performance as Toomes is that he makes the guy real.  Toomes is not out to take over the world or the universe. He’s not a shadowy villain without a clear-cut agenda.  He’s a real person with a real goal: after years of playing by the rules and not getting anywhere, he’s broken the rules to better support his family.

And Keaton is more than up to the task of making this guy believable. He also provides a real hardness to the character.  When he says he’s going to kill Spider-Man, you believe him.  In a way, it’s a performance that almost seems out-of-place here, because the rest of the film is so light and comical, while Keaton is dead serious in his scenes.  But it does work and works well, because ultimately it gives young Spider-Man a true test of his mettle.

Keaton gets one of the best sequences in the movie, when Toomey confronts Spider-Man near the end, and he speaks about what they have in common, that they’re both common folks who need to change the rules in order to succeed in life.  At one point, Toomey says, “I know you know what I mean.” It’s a line that resonates, both from Keaton’s delivery and from the knowledge we have of Peter’s life with his Aunt May, as they struggle to make ends meet, making Toomey’s line true.

And speaking of Aunt May, Marisa Tomei is quite effective as the younger sexier aunt of young Peter Parker. So much so that Tony Stark even quips about how hot she is.

SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING was directed by Jon Watts, who comes off as an old pro here.  The film fits in with the rest of the Marvel movies seamlessly, in spite of the fact that this is the first superhero flick that Watts directed.

The pacing is good, the special effects decent, and the battle scenes are entertaining.  The sequence at the Washington Monument is probably the best action sequence in the film, and the scenes where Peter Parker has to scale the monument and realizes it’s higher than anything he’s climbed before is so effective it’s nearly vertigo-inducing.

SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING was written by six screenwriters, some of whom have extensive comedic credits, which comes as no surprise, since humor is a strength here.

There’s also an upbeat music score by Michael Giacchino, who’s written a ton of scores over the years, including the superior score to last year’s stand-alone STAR WARS movie, ROGUE ONE (2016).

While SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING is available in 3D, I saw a 2D print and liked it just fine.

And yes, there are after credits scenes, two to be exact.  The one at the very end after all the credits does provide a laugh-out-loud moment, so it’s probably worth waiting for.

All in all, I really liked SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING.  Is it as good as Marvel’s best?  No.  Is it as good as this year’s earlier superhero hit from DC, WONDER WOMAN (2017)?  Not quite.  But I liked it better than the previous two Marvel entries, GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, VOL. 2 (2017), and DOCTOR STRANGE (2016).

It’s light, it’s fun, and it features a gritty hard performance by Michael Keaton as one of the better Marvel movie villains yet, the Vulture, whose plans to better his family life are destroying a neighborhood, making him the perfect foe for our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

BEATRIZ AT DINNER (2017) – A Morality Tale Without A Lesson

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BEATRIZ AT DINNER (2017) is a morality tale for the Trump era, the story of a woman who views the world in terms of healing.  Her core beliefs are challenged when she crosses paths with a Trump-like character at a dinner party one evening.

Beatriz (Salma Hayek) is a holistic medical practitioner and a massage therapist. When she makes a long drive out to a wealthy client’s California beach-front home to make a house call, her car breaks down. Her client, Cathy (Connie Britton) generously invites Beatriz to stay for dinner until the mechanic arrives to repair her car.

Cathy’s husband Grant (David Warshofsky) is lukewarm to the idea, since the dinner party is work-related, and they are entertaining the larger than life business giant Doug Strutt (John Lithgow), but Cathy insists. For one thing, she says, Beatriz is mourning the death of her pet goat, as her bully of a neighbor recently killed it in shocking fashion, and also, they owe a great debt of gratitude to Beatriz, since she was instrumental in helping their teenage daughter get through and ultimately survive her cancer treatments. So, Grant relents, and Beatriz joins the party.

Things are awkward throughout, as Beatriz simply doesn’t fit in with this class of people. At one point, Strutt mistakes her for one of the servers. But Cathy makes all the appropriate introductions, and the dinner proceeds as favorably as it can, until Beatriz hears Doug speak of things that truly disturb her, from the way he hunts animals in Africa, to the way he conducts his business deals.

Eventually, there is a confrontation, and Beatriz finds herself having to make a decision regarding her feelings towards Mr. Strutt.

I can’t say that I really liked BEATRIZ AT DINNER all that much. For a while, I was interested in what was going on, and I was very curious about where this story was going to go, but where it ultimately goes, I thought was a major disappointment.

Director Miguel Arteta succeeds in making a very uncomfortable movie.  The scenes at the dinner party, where at times Beatriz is completely ignored, and at other times when she speaks, it’s of things the rest have no interest in, are wince-inducing. Of course, this is exactly the point, and director Arteta captures the class differences perfectly.

There’s also the jarring juxtaposition of the elegant decor of the home and the dress and demeanor of the wealthy guests with the plain and simple Beatriz, who looks as out-of-place as a Red Sox fan in Yankee Stadium. Sadder still, Beatriz doesn’t seem to realize how out of place she is.

These scenes work well, and I truly felt the rift between the two classes.

The trouble I had with BEATRIZ AT DINNER falls with the script by Mike White, a screenwriter who wrote a couple of Jack Black comedies, SCHOOL OF ROCK (2003) and NACHO LIBRE (2006). BEATRIZ AT DINNER is about as far removed from a comedy as you can get.

The set-up is perfect. The dinner is sufficiently awkward and painful. But the payoff isn’t up to snuff. Throughout the dinner, Beatriz says she thinks she knows Doug, and she also speaks about how people are reincarnated, and in their next lives they often settle debts with people they weren’t able to settle the first time around. At one point, she thinks Doug is a man who built a hotel in her home village which caused many in her village, her family included, to be forced to relocate. She quips that if he were that man, it would be fate that they met again, as she would have to kill him.

There are certainly sinister implications as to where this story might go.  Beatriz reaches certain realizations and conclusions, and then she must act on them. What she ultimately decides is a major letdown. It’s not exactly the most inspiring conclusion.

The acting is all very good.  Salma Hayek, of course, is excellent, in a very understated performance. She’s also photographed here as plain and as unflattering as possible, which contributes to her performance as the simple and straightforward Beatriz.

Likewise, John Lithgow is very good as Doug Strutt. And while he makes Strutt sufficiently annoying, he actually does a very good job instilling some sympathy into the character.  As such, in spite of what I had heard, Strutt didn’t really remind me all that much of Donald Trump, even though it’s clear that’s who the character is based on. But I found Lithgow’s interpretation of Strutt more well-rounded and sympathetic than the real-life Trump.

The cast of supporting characters is excellent. Connie Britton is effective as Cathy, a woman who goes out of her way to make Beatriz feel welcomed and comfortable, and who later feels personally wounded by Beatriz when things get ugly.  Even better than Britton is David Warshofsky as Cathy’s husband Grant. He really has no patience for Beatriz, and it shows.  I found him to be even less likeable than Doug Strutt.

Jay Duplass as Alex and Chloe Sevigny as his wife Shannon, and Amy Landecker as Doug’s wife Jeana round out the guest list and all do an admirable job.

There are also some memorable lines and sequences. When Jeana jabs at her husband and talks about how often he embarrasses her, Doug quips, “You’re well-compensated.” The grilling of Beatriz by Doug regarding her immigration status was a particularly disturbing scene. And when Beatriz speaks of her core beliefs, of how powerful and difficult healing is, how it is a much more challenging thing to do than to hunt and kill, as Doug had been boasting, it’s one of the most potent moments in the movie.

Yet, none of this goes anywhere. The film seems to be satisfied with showing a slice of life dinner party between two classes of people. The climax comes when Beatriz realizes she has a decision to make. Unfortunately, the one she makes, is unworthy of the rest of the movie.

BEATRIZ AT DINNER is exactly what its title implies: it’s a dinner party conversation. And like any get-together over a meal, it has its moments, but if you’re looking for big answers to some of today’s big questions, you won’t find them on the menu.

—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.  

 

 

BABY DRIVER (2017) – A Stylish Ride to Nowhere

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The word is out.  Critics and fans alike love BABY DRIVER (2017), the new action movie by writer/director Edgar Wright.

I did not.

And now I have the arduous task of telling you why.

First of all, I should have loved this one, and I went into the theater fully expecting to like it.  After all, it’s got a fantastic cast.  While youngster Ansel Elgort is fine in the lead role as Baby, the best getaway driver on the planet, I’m talking about the supporting cast, which includes Kevin Spacey, Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, and Jon Bernthal.

It’s got an out-of-this-world soundtrack, and it’s full of stylish high-speed chase scenes meticulously crafted by director Wright.  What’s not to love?

I’ll get to that in a moment, but first, here’s what BABY DRIVER is about.

Baby (Ansel Elgort) is a young man who works as a getaway driver for the mysterious Doc (Kevin Spacey).  Baby owes Doc a debt, and so he continually works these jobs to pay off that debt, and he’s in high demand because he’s the best at what he does. His secret is his music, which he is locked into when he drives. Baby had been in a car accident as a kid, which left him with permanent ringing in his ears. Hence, the nonstop music playing through his ear buds, which not only helps him to concentrate, but blocks out all distractions when he drives.

And drive he does.  Doc is constantly organizing heists, and he never uses the same team twice, but he does continually use Baby.  So, depending on the team, Baby drives for the likes of Griff (Jon Bernthal), Buddy (Jon Hamm) and his lover/partner in crime Darling (Eiza Gonzalez), and the unhinged and very dangerous Bats (Jamie Foxx).

But along the way Baby meets the girl of his dreams, Debora (Lily James), a young waitress at the diner he frequents, who shares his passion for music and life.  They fall in love, and suddenly all Baby can think about is working that one last job for Doc, and then getting out completely to live his life with Debora.

If only things were that simple.

BABY DRIVER is the type of movie where the sum of its parts simply doesn’t equal a whole, and I say this, because there were a lot of parts to this movie I liked.  But for everything I liked, there were also issues.

Let’s start with the soundtrack.  Yup, it’s fun and absolutely electrifying, the most satisfying soundtrack since the Awesome Mix from GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (2014). And it plays throughout BABY DRIVER pretty much nonstop.  So much so that it actually drowned out the dialogue at times.  No, I don’t mean it was too loud so that you couldn’t hear the dialogue, but that it was so prevalent it often took the place of the dialogue.  At times, I felt I was watching a feature-length music video, which is not what I’m looking for in a movie.  I wanted more story.  I wanted more characterization.  I got a lot of music.

Then there’s the awesome cast.

As I said, Ansel Elgort is fine in the lead as Baby.   Although there’s not a whole lot for him to do other than exude charm and perform some nifty dance moves.  But he does it all well here. I liked Baby, and of all the characters in the movie, he was the one who was defined the best, and so overall nothing much to complain about here.  Elgort has starred in the DIVERGENT series, and I liked him as Tommy, the young man who becomes Carrie’s prom date in the remake of CARRIE (2013).

Lily James is cute and cuddly as Debora, Baby’s girl, who looks like she walked off the set of a 1950s James Dean movie.

Of the heavy hitters in the supporting cast, Jon Hamm probably fares the best as Buddy. Hamm has that ability to play characters with a dark past and be quite believable at it. He did it with the character Don Draper on the television series MAD MEN (2007-2015), and he does it again here.  He brings an icy coldness to his performance that lets you know that Buddy is not someone you want to cross.

Eiza Gonzalez is beautiful and sexy as Buddy’s partner and lover Darling, but at the end of the day, I wanted to know more about her.

Similarly, while Kevin Spacey is very good as Doc, the man who puts all these operations together, the character is begging for more back story.   Who exactly is this guy?  What are his motives?  Why is he such a father figure to Baby?  Sadly, none of these questions are answered.

Jamie Foxx’s role as Bats, while explosive, and while giving Foxx plenty of opportunities to chew up the scenery, is probably the most traditional of the supporting roles here. Simply put, he’s a hot head whose answer to any problem is killing.

I like Jon Bernthal a lot, and so I was majorly disappointed when his screen time in this one was practically nil.

A much more notable performance belongs to CJ Jones, who plays Baby’s deaf wheelchair bound stepfather, Joseph.  The two care a lot for each other, and Jones and Elgort share some of the more poignant scenes in the movie together.

It was also fun to see Paul Williams on the big screen again in a small bit (no pun intended) as a weapons dealer.

But for most of these characters, with the exception of Baby, I just wanted to know more about them, and the fault here is with the screenplay by Edgar Wright.  This isn’t the first time I’ve had an issue with a Wright screenplay.  While I’ve enjoyed most of his movies, including SHAUN OF THE DEAD (2004) and SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD (2010), I was not a fan of THE WORLD’S END (2013), as I wasn’t particularly fond of the script in that one.

Ditto here.

As I said, the majority of the characters here are begging for better development.  Also, the main love story between Baby and Debora was a major letdown.  They fall in love pretty quick, but for most of the movie, their relationship is pushed into the background. Debora doesn’t become endangered by Baby’s criminal contacts and dealings until the end, and by that point, it was too late for me.  I expected their relationship to be in danger throughout, but that’s not the case.

And as flashy and as stylish as car chase sequences are here, directed with near perfect precision by Edgar Wright, I wasn’t won over by those either.  There was something lacking.  I never really got the feel of being in the car with these people.

That was something I definitely felt in the similarly themed and plotted movie DRIVE (2011) by director Nicholas Winding Refn and starring Ryan Gosling.  I enjoyed DRIVE more than BABY DRIVER.  DRIVE had a stronger plot, I felt that the characters played by Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan were in constant danger from the very deadly villain play by Albert Brooks, and the car chase scenes really worked for me.  I really felt as if I were in the cars with the characters at ground level.  I didn’t feel that way here about the car chase scenes in BABY DRIVER.

Also, BABY DRIVER is rated R, but for me, it felt like it was rated PG-13.  I never felt the sense of dread I expected when dealing with the types of characters Baby found himself dealing with.

I just didn’t find BABY DRIVER that rough of a movie.  Instead, it’s light and airy, like a chase scene in a TV commercial rather than in an R-rated action movie.  And that’s because at the end of the day, BABY DRIVER is all style, and no substance.

People are raving about BABY DRIVER.

But for the reasons outlined above, I’m not one of them.

—END—