WIDOWS (2018) – Stellar Cast, Contrived Plot, Mixed Results

1

Widows-poster

WIDOWS (2018) is writer/director Steve McQueen’s first movie since his Oscar-winning 12 YEARS A SLAVE (2013), and it’s a rather odd choice.

It’s an action thriller that has its moments, helped along by a stellar cast, but taken as a whole, it’s a bit too contrived to be all that believable.

In WIDOWS, three women discover that their husbands were criminals after the three men die in a police shoot-out and subsequent car explosion. Veronica (Viola Davis) learns this the hard way when she’s visited by Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), a man running for alderman in her Chicago neighborhood who tells her that her husband stole three million dollars from him, and he wants the money back. He gives her three weeks to get he money, or else his henchmen will kill her.

In her search for answers, Veronica discovers her deceased husband’s private notebook which details his past jobs and his next job, a heist that is worth millions. So, Veronica assembles the two other wives, Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) and tells them that if they pull off this job, they’ll have enough money to pay off Manning and thus save their lives, plus millions left over for themselves.  Linda and Alice agree, and the widows spring into action.

There’s a lot going on in WIDOWS, most of which I liked, but unfortunately, the weakest part of the story is the main one, the one with the widows.  And the reason for this is in large part because I never really believed that these women, who appear to be rather intelligent folks, would actually do this. I get it that they have nowhere else to turn and are desperate to save their lives, as it’s clear that the authorities in Chicago are of no help to them. At one point, Veronica says she’ll go to the police, but Manning tells her that the police don’t care and that they are glad her criminal husband is dead. So, I get this part. I just never believed it. It’s the most contrived part of the entire movie, unfortunately.

The surrounding storylines, especially the political ones, work much better.

The current alderman Tom Mulligan (Robert Duvall) in public speaks of how much he has helped the downtrodden Chicago neighborhood he serves yet we see him in private as a racist bully. He’s not seeking re-election. Instead, that honor goes to his son Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) who says he disdains his father’s style of politics and wants to make a true difference, and yet his actions show that he’s not much better than his father.

Then there’s Jamal Mannning, the black man running against Jack Mulligan, who supposedly represents his neighborhood because he’s lived there his whole life and understands the needs of his people, but yet he runs a criminal organization that is just as bad and even more brutal than Mulligan.

There are layers here, and they make for the most intriguing parts of the story.

The widows storyline works best when showing these women with their backs against the wall. Indeed, one of the strengths of the screenplay by Steve McQueen and Gillian Flynn, who wrote GONE GIRL (2014),  based on a 1980s British TV series of the same name, is that it lays bare the pain and vulnerabilities of these women. In one telling scene, a disillusioned Veronica admits that with her husband gone she has nothing, not even her home, which has been lost. Likewise, Linda watches as the store she thought she owned is taken away from her because her husband lied to her about paying the mortgage on the building.

This part of the story works well. The trouble I had is when it makes the leap from despondent women to criminal women. I expected these women to react in a smarter way than this.

The cast in WIDOWS is exceedingly deep and talented.

Viola Davis turns in a strong performance as Veronica. She’s at her best when showing how much pain she feels having lost her husband Harry, played by Liam Neeson.

There’s also another subplot where it’s revealed via flashback that Veronica and Harry’s son had been shot and killed in a police shooting during a routine traffic stop. WIDOWS throws a lot at its audience, sometimes too much. Had Steve McQueen chosen to focus more on one aspect of this story, the widows perhaps, the movie would have been better for it.

But back to Viola Davis.  She shows both frightened vulnerability and steely resolve, but once more, had she resolved to do something else other than attempt a million dollar heist, the results would have been more convincing

Michelle Rodriguez is fine as Linda, although it’s nothing we haven’t seen Rodriguez do before.

Far more interesting than either Davis or Rodriguez is Elizabeth Debicki as Alice, who at first comes off like a clichéd ditzy blonde and as such faces harsh treatment from even Veronica, but she’s not stupid at all. In fact, she’s incredibly intelligent and resourceful. Her subplot in which she’s involved in a paid relationship with a man named David (Lukas Haas) is one of the more intriguing subplots in the film. The scene where she chides David for insinuating that he’s in control of her happiness, and she pushes back saying that no, it’s her life and she makes that determination, is one of the better moments in the movie.

I’ve seen Debicki in a bunch of other movies, films like THE GREAT GATSBY (2013) where she played Jordan Baker, THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E (2015) where she played the villain, and GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, VOL. 2 (2017), but by far this is the best performance I’ve seen her deliver yet.

Brian Tyree Henry is very good as Jamal Manning, the cut-throat criminal who brands himself as the best hope for his people but whose interests are clearly more about attaining power than helping anyone.

Even better is Daniel Kaluuya as Jatemme Manning, Jamal’s brother. The star of GET OUT (2017) makes for one of the most brutal and sinister enforcer types I’ve seen in a while. His performance here was one of my favorite parts of WIDOWS.

Robert Duvall is excellent as always, here playing racist alderman Tom Mulligan who in spite of his political mob boss tactics seems to believe that he’s doing right for the people of his neighborhoods.

Colin Farrell is just as good as Mulligan’s son Jack, who’s running for alderman to keep his family’s name in politics. It’s a position Jack seems to hate, and Farrell does a nice job playing Jack as a conflicted yet not very admirable man. The scene where he tells his father he’s looking forward to the days when he’s dead and gone, is a pretty potent moment in the film, well acted by Duvall and Farrell.

Cynthia Erivo, who we just saw in BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE (2018) plays Belle, a young woman who among other jobs babysits Linda’s children, and who the widows hire to be their getaway driver. It’s a spunky determined performance.

Jon Michael Hill stands out in a small role as the Reverend Wheeler, the pastor of Chicago’s biggest congregation, a man who’s courted by both Manning and Mulligan, and he plays coy with both of them as to who he’ll support.

Jackie Weaver steals a couple of scenes as Alice’s overbearing mother Agnieska.  Weaver of course was so memorable playing Bradley Cooper’s mother in SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (2012).

The cast here is so deep that major actors even play characters who are killed off in the opening moments of the movie, most notably Liam Neeson, who plays Veronica’s husband Harry. And as the story moves forward, Veronica learns some rather unsavory things about her late husband that calls into question the kind of man she thought he was.

Jon Bernthal also plays one of the thieves, who unlike Neeson, doesn’t get any flashback time, and so he’s on-screen for about two seconds before he’s done in.

There was a lot about WIDOWS that I liked. I enjoyed the full canvas that director Steve McQueen was working with here, and the story he was telling as a whole, but again, for me, the biggest disappointment was where the widows specific storyline ultimately went.

I expected these women to rebel against their deceased husbands, to attempt do something better, but that’s not what happens. Instead of trying to learn from their husbands’ mistakes and improve upon them, they simply become their husbands. They become thieves and thugs.

And unlike their husbands, whose fate seemed to be tied into their actions, the widows here suffer no repercussions. It’s all happily ever after, which in my book is one more strike against this one in terms of credibility.

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

THE HORROR JAR: The Special Effects of Willis O’Brien

0
kong planes

Kong battles planes from atop the Empire State Building thanks to the movie magic of Willis O’Brien in KING KONG (1933)

Welcome back to THE HORROR JAR, that column where we look at all things horror.  Up today the films of Willis O’Brien, or more specifically, the films in which O’Brien’s amazing stop motion animation effects graced the screen.

With the Thanksgiving holiday around the corner, O’Brien is on my mind, because years ago, for whatever reason, a popular triple feature on Thanksgiving day used to be KING KONG (1933), SON OF KONG (1933), and MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1949), and while actor Robert Armstrong appeared in all three of these giant monkey movies, the true common denominator among this trio of films is special effects master Willis O’Brien, who did the effects for all three films.

With that in mind, here’s a brief look at the magical career of Willis O’Brien:

THE DINOSAUR AND THE MISSING LINK: A PREHISTORIC TRAGEDY (1915) – directed by Willis O’Brien. O’Brien’s first screen credit, a five-minute comedy short. He both directed this one and created the stop motion effects.

THE LOST WORLD (1925) – the first film version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s tale about a land where dinosaurs still exist remains arguably the best film version of Conan Doyle’s novel.  O’Brien’s special effects are wonderful and a nice precursor to the work he would do eight years later on KING KONG (1933). The conclusion of the film where the Brontosaurus goes on a rampage through the streets of London is a major highlight.

willis o'brien

Willis O’Brien and one of his friends.

KING KONG (1933) – one of the greatest movies of all time, the original KING KONG is required viewing for all movie buffs. With apologies to actors Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong, and Bruce Cabot, who are all very good in this movie, to directors Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, and to screenwriters James Ashmore Creelman and Ruth Rose, the reason KING KONG remains a masterpiece, and the reason to see this one over and over again, is the stop motion animation effects by Willis O’Brien.

The special effects in KING KONG are nothing short of spectacular. They hold up well even today. The level of depth on Kong’s island is unbelievable, and the attention to detail uncanny. O’Brien’s team used painted glass plates to create the plush dense forest backgrounds, and many scenes feature human actors and animated creatures in the same shot creating a seamless world that looks as authentic as it is imaginative.

Stop motion effects required the use of miniature models— Kong was 18 inches tall— moved by technicians one film frame at a time, an arduous process that would take an entire afternoon just to complete one second of screen time.

Of course, O’Brien also enjoyed some luck. He feared he would be fired when in test shots he could see the imprints of his technicians’ hands on Kong’s fur. Yet when the producers watched the film they applauded him for his attention to detail for making Kong’s fur move in the wind.

In short, with his animation techniques, O’Brien gave birth to one of the mightiest screen monsters of all time, King Kong, a character who still appears in movies even today.

KING KONG also boasts a memorable music score by Max Steiner.

SON OF KONG (1933) – rushed sequel to KING KONG can best be described as KING KONG LITE. Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) returns to Kong’s island in search of treasure and discovers Kong’s less ferocious and somewhat friendly son there.  Light and amusing. O’Brien’s special effects, while not as mind-blowing as his work on the original, remain a highlight.

MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1049) – Kong creators Ernest B. Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper return with yet another giant ape story, again starring Robert Armstrong, who plays a Carl Denham clone named Max O’Hara. The film is most notable for O’Brien’s protegé stepping up to do most of the stop motion animation effects here. His protege? Ray Harryhausen, who would go on to create the best stop motion effects aside from KING KONG over the next thirty years in a career that spanned from this movie until the early 1980s. MIGHTY JOE YOUNG is actually a much better film than SON OF KONG, yet it did not perform well at the box office, and plans for a sequel JOE MEETS TARZAN were never completed.

THE BLACK SCORPION  (1957) -standard 1950s giant monster science fiction film, this time featuring giant scorpions in Mexico City. Decent Willis O’Brien special effects.

THE GIANT BEHEMOTH (1959) – radiation again is to blame for awaking yet another dinosaur in this typical 1950s giant monster tale. Not O’Brien’s finest hour. The special effects are okay but are clearly inferior to the work that Ray Harryhausen was doing at the time, with films like THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953) and THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1958).

THE LOST WORLD (1960) – O’Brien’s career comes full circle with this remake of the 1925 silent film, this one directed by Irwin Allen. Okay movie, with a decent cast that included Michael Rennie, Jill St. John, David Hedison, and Claude Rains. This one should have been better, mainly because O’Brien’s work wasn’t even used here!

Huh?

O’Brien was hired to work on the film because Irwin Allen wanted to use stop motion animation effects for the dinosaurs, but budget constraints forced Allen to use real lizards instead, which led to far inferior special effects. As a result, although given effects technician credit, O’Brien’s work on this film was largely restricted to conceptual drawings which were never used.

O’Brien passed away on November 8, 1962 from a heart attack at the age of 76.

Willis O’Brien will be forever remembered for creating some of the most incredible special effects in motion picture history for his work on KING KONG (1933).

And you can’t go wrong with O’Brien’s giant ape trilogy, KING KONG (1933), SON OF KONG (1933), and MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1949). Should these be playing on a TV near you this Thanksgiving, be sure to check them out.

That’s it for now. Thanks for joining me for this edition of THE HORROR JAR where we celebrated the career of special effects mastermind Willis H. O’Brien, and I hope you join me again next time when we’ll look at other topics regarding horror movies.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

 

OVERLORD (2018) – World War II Actioner/Horror Movie Generally Entertaining

1
MOVIE 'OVERLORD'

Jovan Adepo and Wyatt Russell in OVERLORD (2018).

A horror movie set during World War II, hours before the Allied invasion of Normandy.

Sound like a pretty good combination to me!

And OVERLORD (2018) is just that: an action/horror hybrid that isn’t half bad.

In the battle of Normandy, code name Overlord, it’s the mission of a select group of allied soldiers to land behind enemy lines and destroy a Nazi radio tower to give the allied planes protection as they provide cover for the invading ground forces. The battle zone is insanely chaotic, and the plane carrying these soldiers is shot out of the sky, with only a few soldiers successfully making it out of the plane via parachute. Fewer still survive once they hit the ground in Nazi territory.

Only a handful of soldiers remain. OVERLORD is their story. Ranking officer Corporal Ford (Wyatt Russell) leads this group to the radio tower which is located on top of a church. Among these soldiers is Private Boyce (Jovan Adepo), a black soldier who’s been called out for not being much of a soldier, mostly likely because of the color of his skin.

On the ground, they meet a young French woman Chloe (Mathilde Ollivier), and since Boyce is the only soldier there who speaks French, suddenly he’s a bit more valuable. Chloe provides shelter for the soldiers at her aunt’s farmhouse, which she shares with her sick aunt and kid brother. While Ford and company prepare for their mission, they have to lay low from the marauding Nazis, led by a particularly nasty officer named Wafner (Pilou Asbaek).

While at the farmhouse, the soldiers hear rumors of strange scientific experiments being conducted by the Nazis underneath the church, experiments that are killing many of the townspeople.  While fleeing Nazi soldiers, Boyce accidentally finds his way inside the bizarre underground lab, and what he sees there horrifies him.

He reports back to Ford, who tells Boyce and his fellow soldiers that the stuff happening inside the lab is not part of their mission, but when events bring the horrors from the lab onto their doorstep, they suddenly find themselves with no choice but to confront the monstrosities head on.

The best part of OVERLORD is its combination of World War II adventure and horror tale is a good one and for the most part works. The World War II story is exciting on its own, which is a good thing because the horror elements don’t really come into play until the movie’s third act.

And that’s one thing I didn’t like about OVERLORD. It takes too long to get to its best part, the stuff with the Nazi experiments. As such, it really isn’t much of a horror movie. In fact, even when it’s revealed just what those experiments are, and things get a bit gruesome, the subject matter really isn’t all that horrific. OVERLORD plays more like a violent action science fiction adventure than a horror movie.

That being said, I had a lot of fun watching OVERLORD. I just wished its genre elements had been darker.

I fully enjoyed the cast.  Jovan Adepo is excellent as Boyce, the character audiences will relate to the most.  He’s both the voice of reason and caution, and his decisions throughout the film are spot on and in tune with what audiences expect from a movie hero. One problem here, however, is with historical accuracy.  While the notion of having a black character here as the lead is a good one and one I really enjoyed, the U.S. military was still racially segregated during World War II. Oops!

Wyatt Russell is also very good as Ford. Now, Russell is the son of Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn, and there are times when his mannerisms and dialogue delivery really resemble his father, which is a good thing. Russell makes for a likeable action hero.

Likewise, Mathilde Ollivier is also thoroughly enjoyable as Chloe, the fiery French woman who assists the allied soldiers. She’s smart, tough, and terribly sexy.

And Pilou Asbaek makes for a sufficiently nasty villain as Nazi officer Wafner. Asbaek has starred on GAME OF THRONES (2016-17) and in the movies GHOST IN THE SHELL (2017) and THE GREAT WALL (2016), among others, but this is my favorite role I’ve seen him play so far. He was fun to hate.

OVERLORD was produced by J.J. Abrams, and early rumors were that this film was going to be part of the CLOVERFIELD universe. It’s not, although at times it certainly felt like it. The only thing missing was any reference to the word “cloverfield.”

OVERLORD was directed by Julius Avery with mixed results.  The World War II stuff is exciting and nicely paced, though nothing audiences haven’t seen before. The horror elements which finally show up in the film’s third act, are violent and energetic, but hardly scary.  This one is rated R for language and bloody violence and science fiction style mutilations, and it plays like OPERATION: FINALE (2018) meets A CURE FOR WELLNESS (2016).

The best scenes are the World War II fight scenes. While the blood and gore increase towards the film’s finale, the suspense doesn’t.  I will say the special make-up effects were very good.

Billy Ray and Mark L. Smith wrote the adequate screenplay.  It’s filled with serviceable dialogue and situations, but nothing that pushes the envelope all that much. In all honesty, I expected to be more horrified by the film’s revelations, but that wasn’t the case. The horrors revealed here do not rise above the comic book level.

At least the tone remains serious, and  never deviates into campiness, and I liked this. No surprise here, really, since Ray wrote the screenplay for the Tom Hanks film CAPTAIN PHILLIPS (2013), while Smith wrote the screenplay to THE REVENANT (2015) the film in which Leonardo DiCaprio won the Academy Award for Best Actor, two very serious movies.

OVERLORD, incidentally, refers to the Normandy invasion code name, and not the popular Japanese novel series and anime.

I liked OVERLORD well enough, even though it didn’t fully deliver with its horror elements. The World War II scenes provide plenty of adventure and excitement, while the whispers of bizarre Nazi experiments generate interest throughout. It all leads to a bloody conclusion that is more action-oriented than frightening.

The end result is a movie that generally entertains even as it falls short in the horror department.

—END—

 

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: TERRIFIER (2017)

1

Terrifier

TERRIFIER (2017) is the type of horror movie I usually do not like.

At all.

It’s also the type, in general, that tends to give horror a bad name and keeps a large audience away from horror movies. Why do I want to pay money to see victims brutally murdered? Gore for gore’s sake. No story. No point other than to kill off victims.

TERRIFIER is this type of movie— up to a point. It’s violent and sick, until it morphs into something more, something I found myself ultimately liking. A lot.

TERRIFIER starts off as the story of two friends, Tara (Jenna Kanell) and Dawn (Catherine Corcoran) out on the town for a night of drinks and fun. As they drunkenly return to their car, they notice someone watching them from down the street, a man dressed as a clown. When he follows them into a restaurant, Tara is understandably freaked out, but Dawn thinks it’s funny and actually flirts with and takes a selfie with the clown (David Howard Thornton).

Tara wants to leave immediately, but Dawn says no, that they should stay. You should have listened to Tara.

It turns out that Art the Clown is a homicidal maniac who goes about killing anyone and everyone in his path in the most brutal sadistic ways. And yes, he is definitely interested in adding Dawn and Tara to his victims’ list.

So, why is this movie better than just an exercise in mindless blood and gore?

For starters, before the killings begin, the acting by the principal players is pretty darn good. I really enjoyed both Jenna Kanell as Tara and Catherine Corcoran as Dawn. Kanell was good enough to be the strong heroine in a new series of horror films, and I was certainly interested in following her story and wanting her not only to survive but to kick Art the Clown’s butt.

But the filmmakers had other ideas.

Speaking of Art the Clown, he is one creepy clown. As played by David Howard Thornton, he is downright nightmarish. Thornton does a fantastic job at making Art the Clown completely unpredictable. At times, he stares at his victims with menacing homicidal eyes, and others he’s in his full clown routine, acting jolly and silly, and at other times he’s sad. He can unleash any of these personalities at any time, and once he attacks, he becomes a brutal insane killer.

Bottom line, he is terribly frightening, which is exactly what you want in a horror movie.

So, when this movie began, I thought, regardless of how it plays out, I like this clown.

Midway through, for me, TERRIFIER hit rock bottom. Suddenly Art the Clown becomes a killing machine, and deaths occur without rhyme or reason.  Gore for gore’s sake. And yet, there was that creepy clown, still standing, still terrorizing.

And that for me was when the movie changed, when the realization hit me that this wasn’t the story of any of the victims at all. Instead, this was Art the Clown’s story. In this movie, nobody was safe, no matter how much the audience might like them, no matter how heroic their intentions, no matter when they first appeared in the movie.  None of this mattered. They were going to have to deal with the clown, and most likely, they were not going to come out on top.

I thought this was a bold decision by writer/director Damien Leone, to really go all in with Art the Clown and say nobody is safe, and because Art the Clown was such a captivating and menacing character, this decision worked here.  The clown, as vicious as he was, carried this movie.

He got under my skin, and as a horror fan, I’m glad he did.  And when I realized that Damien Leone was not going to make any safe decisions with this one, that here was a time where evil was going to win out, I thought, this film is really working as an exercise in visceral terror.

And so while it may have seemed for a bit to be simply a gore for gore’s sake kinda film, it really isn’t. It really creates a cinematic monster in Art the Clown, this unstoppable insane killer.

This is not the first movie for Art the Clown. He first appeared in ALL HALLOW’S EVE (2013), another horror movie by writer/director Damien Leon, although the character was played by a different actor. I have not seen ALL HALLOW’S EVE, but after watching TERRIFIER, I intend to.

I enjoyed Leon’s work here, both as a director and a writer. TERRIFIER is chock full of suspenseful scenes, mostly due to the presence of Art the Clown, and the murder scenes are sufficiently bloody and grotesque. On the other hand, the dialogue and story are nothing outstanding.

Leone also wrote and directed a horror movie called FRANKENSTEIN VS. THE MUMMY (2017), inspired by the Universal Monster movies of yesteryear. I have not seen this one either, but it’s now on my list.

Back to TERRIFIER, the crowning achievement here really is the creation of Art the Clown.

I would definitely see more movies about this character in the hope that somewhere down the line someone would be able to stop him, because it would take a very special and very powerful hero to take down such a murderer, and that’s a story I’d like to see.

I don’t usually rave about ultra violent horror movies, but I thought TERRIFIER, in spite of its frequent bloody violence, fared better than most because it offered one of the creepiest clowns in the movies I’ve ever seen, and that includes Pennywise.

If you haven’t seen TERRIFIER, check it out. Be prepared to be creeped out and even grossed out, but I think you’ll agree that the presence of Art the Clown lifts this one to a level of satisfaction it has no business reaching otherwise.

—END—

 

 

LEADING LADIES: JAMIE LEE CURTIS

1
jamie lee curtis halloween 1978

Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie Strode in HALLOWEEN (1978)

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

Up today it’s Jamie Lee Curtis.

Curtis of course burst onto the horror movie scene with her signature role of terrorized babysitter Laurie Strode in John Carpenter’s groundbreaking classic, HALLOWEEN (1978). And with some perfect symmetry, Curtis’ most recent role is once again Laurie Strode in the latest entry in the HALLOWEEN universe, once more titled, curiously enough, HALLOWEEN (2018). Curtis’ career has come full circle. Of course, she still has a whole lot more acting to do.

In HALLOWEEN (1978), Curtis was so memorable as Laurie Strode not because she screamed a lot.  She did not scream her way to fame a la Fay Wray fifty-five years earlier in KING KONG (1933). No, Curtis’ performance was noteworthy because she created in Laurie a vulnerable yet resilient character who faced doubts about dating and boys but was more than up to the task of protecting the children she babysat from masked killer Michael Myers.

The original HALLOWEEN is famous because of John Carpenter’s outstanding direction, along with his now iconic music score. I was 14 when HALLOWEEN came out, and I still remember all the hype and excitement surrounding it.  Sold out showings, and long lines of people waiting to see it, often spilling outside the theater into the parking lot. I also remember Siskel and Ebert’s initial review of the movie, a review in which they both praised Carpenter’s phenomenal direction. I don’t remember how at 14 my friends and I were able to buy tickets to this R rated feature, but somehow we did, as we saw this one at the theater.

I remember the theater erupting in screams during the movie. I also remember Jamie Lee Curtis.  When the movie was done, and I had returned home, I couldn’t get Carpenter’s music out of my head, and I recalled all the scares, and the image of Michael Myers with his now iconic mask, and this actress named Jamie Lee Curtis.  There was something about her that really resonated with me.  The best way I can describe it is I felt as if Laurie Strode was someone I knew in real life. As I’ve watched and re-watched HALLOWEEN over the years, I’ve attributed this feeling I had back in 1978 to a very authentic performance by Curtis.  I felt like I knew her because she acted like a real person.

Here’s a partial look at Curtis’ career, as we examine some of her 74 screen credits:

HALLOWEEN (1978) – Laurie Strode – Curtis’ signature film role was also her film debut.  She had appeared in numerous TV shows before this, including COLUMBO (1977) and CHARLIE’S ANGELS (1978) but this was the first time she appeared on the big screen. And she has never looked back.  Quite the film debut. In addition to the top-notch direction and music score by John Carpenter, and the presence of Donald Pleasence, Jamie Lee Curtis is easily one of the best parts of HALLOWEEN (1978).

THE FOG (1980) – Elizabeth Solley – Curtis stars in John Carpenter’s next horror movie following HALLOWEEN. At the time, Carpenter was a victim of his own success. THE FOG was not well-received by critics in 1980. Siskel and Ebert expressed their disappointment, citing that the film lacked a definitive threat, a la Michael Meyers. However, the movie’s reputation has strengthened over the decades. It’s now considered one of Carpenter’s best films. Not only that, but it’s high on a lot of people’s lists for best horror movies period.  I definitely like this one a lot.  I still prefer HALLOWEEN though. Curtis, for her part, is fine here, but her role is not the lead, and she makes much less of an impact than she did in HALLOWEEN.

jamie-lee-curtis-films_the-fog

Jamie Lee Curtis in THE FOG (1980)

PROM NIGHT (1980) – Kim – John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN gave birth to the slasher movie, and suddenly everyone and their grandmother was making horror movies with masked knife-wielding killers terrorizing teenagers. This one’s not directed by Carpenter, but does star Jamie Lee Curtis. It did well on its initial release and has established a reputation as a decent slasher flick, but this one never did anything for me.  For me, not even the presence of Jamie Lee Curtis could save this HALLOWEEN rip-off.

TERROR TRAIN (1980) – Alana – another crazed killer attacking teenagers, this time on a train.

ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981) – Narrator/Computer Voice (uncredited) – An uncredited Curtis provides the voice of the narrator and computer in this exciting futuristic crime thriller by John Carpenter, notable also for Kurt Russell’s memorable performance as Snake Plissken.

HALLOWEEN II (1981) – Laurie Strode – Inferior sequel to HALLOWEEN. Rick Rosenthal takes over the directing duties from John Carpenter, and his vision here is far less impressive.  Curtis is okay, but sadly, spends most of the movie confined to a hospital bed and in and out of a medicated stupor.  While this really is not a good movie, it is actually better than most of the later HALLOWEEN films, some of which are really, really bad.

curtis & pleasence halloween ii

With Donald Pleasence in HALLOWEEN II (1981)

HALLOWEEN III: SEASON OF THE WITCH (1983) – Curfew Announcer/Telephone Operator (uncredited) – A disaster upon its initial release, this was part of John Carpenter’s vision to create a HALLOWEEN series featuring different horror stories each year and not necessarily be about Michael Myers, but film audiences wanted Myers and didn’t really accept this movie. That being said, this one has enjoyed a growing reputation over the decades, and there are some (not me) who consider this to be the best of all the HALLOWEEN movies.

TRADING PLACES (1983) – Ophelia – This funny comedy by director John Landis stars Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy. Murphy, who was insanely popular at the time due to his stint on Saturday Night Live, is the main reason to see this one, but Jamie Lee Curtis is also hilarious in her role as prostitute Ophelia. She makes the jump into a non-horror movie quite nicely.

GRANDVIEW U.S.A. (1984) – Michelle “Mike” Cody – Drama in which Curtis co-stars with C. Thomas Howell and Patrick Swayze that asks the question, can the young folks from Grandview U.S.A. pursue their dreams and shed their small town roots? Nothing special.

A FISH CALLED WANDA (1988) – Wanda Gershwitz – co-stars with John Cleese, Kevin Kline, and Michael Palin in this uproarious comedy written by Cleese. Kline won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

jamie lee curtis - fish called wanda

Michael Palin, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Kevin Kline in A FISH CALLED WANDA (1988)

FOREVER YOUNG (1992) – Claire Cooper – co-stars with Mel Gibson who plays a 1939 pilot awoken from a cryogenic sleep in 1992. Written by J.J. Abrams.

TRUE LIES (1994) – Helen Tasker – plays the wife of a spy, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, in this entertaining action comedy by director James Cameron.

FIERCE CREATURES (1997) – Willa Weston – Reunited with her co-stars from A FISH CALLED WANDA, John Cleese, Kevin Kline, and Michael Palin, this time with lesser results.

HALLOWEEN H20 – TWENTY YEARS LATER (1998) -Laurie Strode- Curtis returns to the HALLOWEEN series after a three film hiatus, and the emphasis returns to Laurie Strode, still dealing with the trauma caused by Michael Myers twenty years earlier. The masked killer of course once more sets his sights on terrorizing Laurie. Some girls have all the fun. This film was well-received when it first came out, but it hasn’t aged all that well. That being said, I still like this one a lot.

jamie lee curtis H20

Facing fear in HALLOWEEN H20 (1998)

HALLOWEEN: RESURRECTION (2002)- Laurie Strode – Curtis returns as Laurie Strode for about two seconds before her character is abruptly killed by Michael Myers in the most undramatic and anticlimactic of ways. By far, the absolute worst of all the HALLOWEEN movies.

FREAKY FRIDAY (2003) – Tess Coleman – co-stars with Lindsay Lohan in this remake of the Disney classic.

SCREAM QUEENS (TV Series) (2015-2016) – Dean Cathy Munsch- TV horror/comedy series about a— you got it— a crazed serial killer terrorizing, among other places, a college campus.

HALLOWEEN (2018) – Laurie Strode – Curtis comes full circle, playing Laurie Strode once again, this time in a movie that ignores every other HALLOWEEN movie in the series except the original. Lots of hype and box office success, but ultimately this one was a letdown. Curtis’ scenes and storyline are the best parts, as she is once again still dealing with the trauma from Michael Myer’s original attack, now forty years earlier. Everything else in this film is pretty bad. A major disappointment.

Jamie lee curtis halloween 2018

Taking on Michael Myers yet again in HALLOWEEN (2018)

And that wraps things up for this edition of LEADING LADIES.

Join me again next time when we check out the career of another Leading Lady.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

 

 

Movie Lists: Robert Redford Movies

1

robert redford

Welcome back to Movie Lists, the column where we look at lists of odds and ends pertaining to movies.

Up today, the films of Robert Redford.

Redford just announced his retirement from movies, and his swan song is the light and fun THE OLD MAN & THE GUN (2018), currently in theaters. Here’s a look back at some of Redford’s movies over the years, covering just a handful of his 79 acting credits:

WAR HUNT (1962) – Private Roy Loomis – After working exclusively on television for two years, Redford made his theatrical film debut here along with Sidney Pollack and Tom Skerritt, in this Korean War thriller in which John Saxon plays an army psychopath.

THE CHASE (1966) – Bubber- Redford actually plays the villain in this thriller starring Marlon Brando, Jane Fonda, Angie Dickinson, and Robert Duvall.

BAREFOOT IN THE PARK (1967) – Paul Bratter- co-stars once again with Jane Fonda in this classic comedy by Neil Simon. One of my favorite early Robert Redford roles.

BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID (1969) – The Sundance Kid- one of my favorite Redford movies, this iconic western was the first pairing of Redford with Paul Newman. Newman plays Butch Cassidy, and Redford plays the Sundance Kid. With Katharine Ross Etta Place. Directed by George Roy Hill with a fabulous witty script by William Goldman. And for such a light film, its classic shocking ending packs a wallop and lasts long after the end credits have rolled. Who are those guys?

robert-redford-butch-cassidy-and-the-sundance-kid

Robert Redford as The Sundance Kid in BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID (1969).

JEREMIAH JOHNSON (1972) – Jeremiah Johnson – plays the title role in this solitary western by director Sydney Pollack.

THE CANDIDATE (1972) – Bill McKay- Redford again plays the title role, this time as a candidate for the U.S. Senate.

THE WAY WE WERE (1973) – Hubbell Gardiner – love story also starring Barbra Streisand, again directed by Sydney Pollack. Redford and Streisand play two lovers who are polar opposites but who fall in love anyway only to see that they’re not really compatible after all.

THE STING (1973) – Johnny Hooker- probably my favorite Robert Redford film of all time. This second pairing of Redford with Paul Newman as a couple of con men is high entertainment from beginning to end. Robert Shaw is outstanding as the main baddie here, the man Newman and Redford plan to con. Again directed by George Roy Hill.

newman redford the sting

Newman and Redford in THE STING (1973)

THE GREAT GATSBY (1974) – Jay Gatsby – Title role in this film version of the classic novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald. In spite of high production values and a strong cast which includes Mia Farrow, Bruce Dern, Karen Black, Scott Wilson, and Sam Waterston, this movie along with Redford’s performance has never really wowed me. Somehow failed to capture the depth and nuances of the novel.

THE GREAT WALDO PEPPER (1975) – Waldo Pepper – Again directed by George Roy Hill and again playing the titular role, Redford plays a World War I pilot who gets a second chance with a surprising movie career.

THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR (1975)- Turner – Thriller directed by Sydney Pollack in which Redford plays a CIA researcher who finds his co-workers dead and has to solve the crime.

ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN (1976) – Bob Woodward – another of my favorite Robert Redford movies. Redford plays journalist Bob Woodward and Dustin Hoffman plays journalist Carl Bernstein in this tale of the reporters who cracked the Watergate case which led to the downfall of President Richard Nixon. Jason Robards won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his memorable performance as “Washington Post” editor Ben Bradlee.

A BRIDGE TOO FAR (1977) – Major Cook – part of an all-star ensemble cast in this Richard Attenborough World War II adventure.

BRUBAKER (1980) – Brubaker – Redford takes on prison corruption.

THE NATURAL (1984) – Roy Hobbs – classic baseball movie in which Redford plays Roy Hobbs, a middle-aged player who leads his team to victory in the 1930s.  Amiable movie, although I never truly bought Redford as a major league baseball player.

Robert-Redford-Natural

THE NATURAL (1984)

OUT OF AFRICA (1985) – Denys- co-stars with Meryl Streep in this love story set in Africa again directed by Sydney Pollack. This was popular when it came out, but it never really did much for me. Outstanding supporting performance by Klaus Maria Brandauer.

LEGAL EAGLES (1986) – Tom Logan – Fun comedy drama by writer/director Ivan Reitman in which Redford plays a district attorney who becomes romantically involved with his adversary, defense attorney Laura Kelly, played by Debra Winger.

SNEAKERS (1992) – Bishop – another fun movie. This time Redford plays the leader of a group who specialize in testing security systems. When they’re blackmailed into committing a crime, they use their skills to strike back at their blackmailers.

INDECENT PROPOSAL (1993) -John Gage – Redford plays a millionaire who offers to pay off the debt of a young couple played by Woody Harrelson and Demi Moore. The catch? He gets to spend the night with Moore’s character. This one never ever did much for me.

THE HORSE WHISPERER (1998) – Tom Booker – Redford heals horses and falls in love with a horse owner.

SPY GAME (2001) – Nathan Muir- thriller in which Redford co-stars with Brad Pitt in this flick by director Tony Scott where Redford is a CIA agent seeking to rescue his protegé played by Pitt who’s been arrested in China.

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER (2014) – Alexander Pierce – Redford joins the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Defense Secretary Alexander Pierce in this second Captain America movie.

THE OLD MAN & THE GUN (2018) – Forrest Tucker- Redford’s swan song, as he announced that he would retire from acting after this movie.  This is a light, fun film in which Redford plays a polite bank robber who everyone seems to love because he’s so happy.  Also stars Sissy Spacek and Casey Affleck.

robert-redford-old-man-and-the-gun

Redford in THE OLD MAN & THE GUN (2018).

There you have it. A brief look at the career of Robert Redford. And while I’ve never been a huge fan of Redford’s, he certainly has made his share of memorable movies, my favorite being THE STING (1973).

Okay, that’s it for now. Join me again next time when we look at more Movie Lists.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE (2018) – Uneven Opening Gives Way To Intense Second Half

0

bad times at the el royale poster

So, are there bad times at the El Royale?

You don’t know the half of it.

BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE (2018), the latest film by writer/director Drew Goddard, takes place at a run down hotel, the El Royale, which sits on the border between California and Nevada, and follows the stories of several guests who all arrive there one night, each with dark secrets. When their lives intersect, all hell breaks loose.

BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE is uneven at times, especially early on, when the stories told are somewhat disjointed, but it’s one of those movies where your patience will be rewarded. It gets better as it goes along, and it finishes strong. Still, it doesn’t entirely work as a complete package. It’s more a series of moments, and it does have some powerful moments, scenes that pack a wallop. You just have to wait for them.

The film is also helped by an excellent cast, with several players delivering outstanding performances. Jeff Bridges, for example, carries the film whenever he’s onscreen, which is a lot, and Chris Hemsworth, who shows up towards the end, steals the scenes he’s in.

It’s 1968, and struggling singer Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo) arrives at the El Royale to find a priest Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges) standing out front looking lost. They strike up a friendly conversation and enter the hotel together to find the lobby empty except for one other person who’s helping himself to the bar, and that’s salesman Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm) who tells them he can’t seem to find any hotel staff.

This opening scene, in which the three have an extended conversation, plays like something out of a dream. The hotel seems to be deserted, yet they’re talking like that’s not so strange. It’s a weird and slow scene, not the strongest sequence in which to open a movie, but like I said, things get better.

The hotel clerk, a young man named Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman) eventually shows up and apologizes for not hearing the bell, and as he does so, another guest arrives, a woman named Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson). Needless to say, none of these folks are simple hotel guests. They have all arrived with an agenda, a story, and through a creative series of flashbacks, we learn what they are all doing there. Yet, the flashbacks are only a small part of the story, as most of the film takes place at the hotel when these characters’ stories intersect, and the less said about their stories, the better. I wouldn’t want to ruin the fun.

And BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE is a lot of fun, in a dark violent sort of way.

Drew Goddard has written a very creative script, which is no surprise, because he’s done this before.  Goddard wrote the screenplays for such films as THE CABIN IN THE WOODS (2012), which he also directed, THE MARTIAN (2015), and one of my all time favorites, CLOVERFIELD (2008). He’s also written a lot for television, lending his writing talents to such shows as BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER (2002-2003), LOST (2005-2008), and Marvel’s DAREDEVIL (2015-2018), a show in which he also serves as the series creator.

With BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE, as both the writer and director, Goddard has created an enjoyable puzzle of a movie. The characters’ stories intertwine seamlessly, helped along by Goddard’s effective use of flashbacks, both from years past and just minutes before. The film shows several events more than once, as seen through different characters’ eyes.

There’s even a Hitchcock MacGuffin, a roll of film containing footage of an unnamed prominent figure, now dead, in a compromising situation. It’s an item everyone wants because of its value.

As I said, the cast is at the top of their game.

The two characters who get the most screen time are singer Darlene Sweet and Father Flynn. Cynthia Erivo is very good as Sweet, and of all the characters in the story, she’s the most straightforward. Her past isn’t so much about a secret, but about a decision to buck the system, to reject the sexual advances of her producer who promised he could make her a star. She decides to make it on her own. Her story really resonates today.

Jeff Bridges is superb as Father Flynn, who does have a secret to hide. Now, since Bridges has had a long and remarkable career, I hesitate to say that this is one of his best performances, because he’s had a lot of those, but let’s put it this way: he’s really, really good. For me, even more than the story, Bridges’ performance is the best part of this movie, and is what I enjoyed most. Bridges’ best scenes are when he talks about and deals with his bout with Alzheimer’s.

Jon Hamm is also very good as Laramie Seymour Sullivan, although his character ultimately has less of an impact than Bridges’ or Erivo’s. For me, the best part of Hamm’s performance was he was playing someone very different from Don Draper on MAD MEN (2007-2015).

Dakota Johnson is fine as Emily Summerspring, but even better is Cailee Spaeny who plays her younger sister Rose, and Lewis Pullman as hotel clerk Miles Miller.  There’s something almost hypnotic about Spaeny’s performance as Rose, a sort of flower child who becomes obsessed with Chris Hemsworth’s Billy Lee, a relationship that leads her to violence and murder. And Pullman starts off as a meek hotel clerk, but his secrets are painful and deep, and his performance gets better as the film goes along.

Speaking of Chris Hemsworth, he has a field day as Billy Lee, this 1960s anti-establishment leader who sees himself as a cross between Abbie Hoffman and Jesus Christ. Throw in a little Charles Manson and you get the idea. Hemsworth fills the character with creepy charisma.

It’s on full display in the scene where he uses an allegory to share his views on war, having Rose fight another young girl while he stands back and watches, asking his followers to observe how he has made them fight while he remains far away from the scuffle and profits from it.

Hemsworth and Bridges are the two best parts of this movie, and their confrontation during the film’s climax is a major highlight.

That climactic scene where Billy Lee holds the characters hostage and uses a Roulette board to play a deadly execution game is a nail-biter and by far the most intense sequence in the film.

However, one major knock against the script, as fun as it was, and as much as I liked it, is it’s not all that believable.  Other than the Alzheimer’s subplot and Darlene Sweet’s plight with her sexual predator producer, there’s not a lot of realism here, and for the most part, I didn’t believe what was going on. For me, this usually spells doom for a movie, but that’s not the case here. I enjoyed all the clever touches used to tell this story, and combined with the phenomenal acting, it made up for the lack of believability.

BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE begins slowly, but it gets better, providing some potent moments while it builds to a satisfying and intense final act.

These are some bad times you don’t really want to miss.

—END—