A CURE FOR WELLNESS (2017) – An Exercise in Artistic Horror

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The new thriller A CURE FOR WELLNESS (2017) is an interesting hybrid— at times, it’s highbrow artistry, imbuing the screen with unsettling and bizarre images, while at others it’s a straightforward mystery melodrama, eventually morphing into an atmospheric horror tale reminiscent of the old style Hammer Films.

A young business executive named Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) is sent by his company to the Swiss Alps to retrieve the company’s CEO from a wellness center.  The company is in trouble, and in order to get through a complicated merger that will save it, they need their CEO, a man named Pembroke, who has declared that he has found life’s answers at this wellness center and will not return.  The company disagrees and sends the ultra ambitious Lockhart to Switzerland to bring back his boss.

The spa is a beautiful castle in the Alps, the seemingly perfect location for people to get away from it all.  When Lockhart arrives, he finds it inhabited by elderly people who are there seeking a “cure” for their problems, people who have spent their lives working and as a result their bodies are broken and sick.  The spa, with its purifying water, offers a cure to these maladies and promises to restore its occupants to full health.

Lockhart isn’t interested in any of this and just wants his boss back.  The head of the center Dr. Volmer (Jason Isaacs)  tells Lockhart that Mr. Pembroke is in the middle of a treatment, but if Lockhart returns later that evening he will be able to see him.  So, Lockhart leaves and decides to book a hotel room, but on his drive from the resort, he is involved in a car accident.  When he awakes, he’s in a bed with a broken leg, and he finds himself as a patient at the spa.  When he resists, Dr. Volmer tells him that he already cleared it with his company, that since his leg is broken, he might as well remain there in order to rest and heal.

Volmer advises Lockhart to drink plenty of water, because he says the climate there can dehydrate people, and the water there not only hydrates people but also possesses powerful purifying abilities.

During his stay, Lockhart learns a bit about the history of the castle, how a doctor conducted strange experiments there years ago, and how afterwards there was a catastrophic fire.  Lockhart also befriends a mysterious young girl Hannah (Mia Goth) who, like him, is the only other young person being treated there.  Lockhart eventually finds Pembroke and tries to convince him to leave, but his former boss isn’t interested.

Lockhart ultimately learns that no one leaves the spa, and as he begins to discover what really is going on there, things become far more horrific.

A CURE FOR WELLNESS is a thought-provoking and very creative thriller that I liked a lot.

It’s full of powerful images that are both bizarre and unsettling.  Chief amongst these images are the eels in the water. The water at the spa is advertised as being a natural purifier, but to Lockhart it tastes weird and he begins to see things in it, a glimpse here, a shadow there, and when he is inside a sensory deprivation tank, he becomes aware that he’s not alone, that there are eels swimming in the water with him.  He begins to see them everywhere.  Are they really there?  Or are they just imagined, images caused by the breakdown he seems to be suffering from?

There are other images as well, odd ones involving deer, for example, and bizarre flashbacks involving Lockhart and his parents.  The film throws a lot at you and gives you much more to chew on than your average thriller.

And with its weird imagery, it reminded me somewhat of THE NEON DEMON (2016), although I found THE NEON DEMON more disturbing.  I also thought the story worked better in THE NEON DEMON.  The twist in that movie I didn’t see coming, whereas here in A CURE FOR WELLNESS I did see it coming, and early on.

It’s directed by Gore Verbinski, the man who directed the first three PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN movies, as well as the American version of THE RING (2002), and also the awful THE LONE RANGER (2013).  That’s a wide variety of movies.  A CURE FOR WELLNESS might be his best movie yet.

It looks great, from all the weird images to the elegant photography of the castle spa in the Alps.  It’s so convincing that at times I found myself wishing I could be there vacationing as well.  And as the film becomes more of a straightforward melodrama towards the end, it does take on the look inside this elegant castle of the period piece Hammer Films of yesteryear.  So, there’s a lot to like.

It’s pretty much a compelling mystery.  The film throws enough things at the audience to keep them guessing, but the eventual reveal is one I definitely saw coming.  Even so, I enjoyed the screenplay by Justin Haythe. It creates memorable characters, puts them in an ominous setting, and thrusts them into a truly horrifying tale of mystery and madness.

A CURE FOR WELLNESS is also interesting thematically.  The idea that we are making our bodies sick from the stress of overworking, and that a spa could be the solution, resonates, because the need for a physical cure to our aging bodies is real, and so like the patients there, the audience easily buys into it.

And what is really going on with those eels is pretty horrifying.  This part of the story really worked for me.

I also enjoyed the cast.

Dane DeHaan is very good here as Lockhart.  At first I thought he was too young to be a corporate executive, but his performance grew on me, and he gets better as the movie goes along.  Early on he doesn’t come off as a sympathetic character at all, but as the story moves forward, and we see everything that he goes through—and he goes through a lot in this movie—and how he handles it, he becomes more likeable.  At times, he reminded me of Vincent Kartheiser who played Pete Campbell on the TV series MAD MEN.

DeHaan is a fine young actor. Unfortunately, he got stuck playing the Green Goblin/Harry Osborn in the awful THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 (2014), but he was memorable before that in the very good science fiction flick CHRONICLE (2012).

I also enjoyed Jason Isaacs as Dr. Volmer.  Isaacs strikes the perfect balance with the character.  You don’t trust the guy, but he keeps coming back, speaking in level-headed and reassuring tones that he’s really there to help, and each time Lockhart believes him, and the audience does as well.  His performance reminded me of Timothy Dalton.  I could have easily seen Dalton playing this role.

Even better than both DeHaan and Isaacs is Mia Goth as Hannah.  She makes Hannah such an innocent and awkward character, she’s mesmerizing to watch.  There’s a scene where Lockhart and Hannah escape to a local pub, and Hannah plays a song on a jukebox and starts dancing in front of the local youths.  It’s a mesmerizing moment as we see this confused and misunderstood youth begin to express herself through movement.  It’s one of the best scenes in the movie.  Goth nails the sequence.

A CURE FOR WELLNESS is not perfect.  It does go on a bit too long.  The film runs about 2 hours and 20 minutes, which was about 20 minutes too long.

Not everything in the movie makes sense.  There’s a couple of scenes with Lockhart and his mother which I’m not sure I understood, as at one point it’s shown that she is dead yet in another scene she’s speaking to him about his trip to the spa.  Also, there’s a confusing scene near the end where all the patients have a rather strange reaction to Lockhart’s words.

Plus the main story, in spite of all the imaginative imagery, is pretty straightforward.

All in all, though, I really liked A CURE FOR WELLNESS.  It’s an interesting hybrid of artistic cinema and straightforward horror, and it makes for a thought-provoking and very chilling movie experience.

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

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

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

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

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

For The Love Of Horror cover

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

THE GREAT WALL (2017) – Colorful Adventure Fantasy Held Back by Fake Looking Monsters

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THE GREAT WALL (2017) is certainly a good-looking monster movie.

The costumes, the colors, the photography are all vibrant and stunning.  Yup, everything looks good in this new Matt Damon action/fantasy flick except for one thing:  the monsters.  And since this is a monster movie, that’s a problem.

In the distant past, a group of European mercenaries travelling in China in search of “magical” black powder that creates fire find themselves exhausted and weak.  One night, they are attacked by some unseen creatures.  One of the mercenaries, William (Matt Damon) manages to chop off one of the creature’s hands. The creatures flee, but only William and one other man Tovar (Pedro Pascal) survive the attack.

William and Tovar continue onward but are soon captured by a massive army and brought into a fortress behind a great wall. The authorities there are most interested in the severed hand in William’s possession, and at first they do not believe the story that William killed one of the creatures on his own, but soon they discover he has a magnet, which they believe can be used to render the creature harmless.

The fortress is soon attacked by a horde of vicious reptilian creatures.  After a brutal battle, the creatures eventually retreat.  William and Tovar meet another European man, Ballard (Willem Dafoe) who tells them he’s been a prisoner there for many years, as the Chinese refuse to let anyone leave.  Ballard tells them that he knows where they keep the black powder, and if they work together, they can steal the powder and escape.

However, during his time inside the Great Wall, William becomes friends with the leader of the army, Commander Lin Mae (Tian Jing) and he finds himself growing more interested in helping her fight the creatures than stealing the black powder.  When the creatures assemble to attack one last time, William has to decide whether or not he’s going to try to escape or remain and fight.

Hmm.  Take the black powder which you’ve travelled half-way across the world to get, or stay and fight an army of vicious creatures and most likely die.  It seems like an easy choice to me, but in this movie, well, that’s one of the ways the film doesn’t succeed.  I didn’t believe for one second that William, this supposedly cold-hearted mercenary, would be moved to help Lin Mae so easily.

But visually, THE GREAT WALL is a real treat.  The costumes for all the different factions of the Chinese army are eye-poppingly colorful, and the photography is rich and resonant. The film looks terrific.

However, as I said at the outset, the monsters do not.  They’re not awful.  In fact, they are actually quite cool looking.  The problem is although they are cool looking, they also look fake. The CGI here looks cartoonish, and the result are creatures that are not scary at all.   The scenes where we see thousands of these creatures racing towards the wall and then ascending the wall look particularly bad.

The story is so-so.  The idea of monsters attacking the Great Wall of China is a good one, although it’s not handled here in a way that made it all that believable.  The reason the creatures are attacking, as explained in a legend, is adequate, but the actual story is little more than an excuse to feature one battle after another.  The whole mercenary storyline is somewhat interesting, made better by Matt Damon’s presence.

Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro, and Tony Gilroy wrote the screenplay.  I’m guessing the lively contemporary dialogue comes from Gilroy, as he wrote the BOURNE movies, and he’s also one of the writers who worked on ROGUE ONE:  A STAR WARS STORY (2016).

The cast is decent.

I like Matt Damon a lot, and his presence here only helps the movie. He also shares decent chemistry with Tian Jing.  However, Damon did seem a bit old for the part.  A younger protagonist would have made things more believable, especially later on when William takes part in lots of ridiculous over-the-top action sequences.

Tian Ling is also very good as Commander Lin Mae.  And while she and Damon do work well together, again, had Damon been younger, their attraction to each other would have been more believable.

Pedro Pascal has the thankless job of playing the dutiful sidekick, and pretty much everything he says in this movie is a sidekick cliché.  Willem Dafoe is largely wasted here, without a whole lot to do, although his character does go out with a bang.

Director Yimou Zhang does a nice job with the visuals but struggles with the intensity later in the movie.  The film gets off to a rousing start, and there’s a lot of energy early on, but once the creatures attack, the film goes down several notches because the attacking monsters do not look real.  As such, the action sequences never rise above average.

Also, for a movie called THE GREAT WALL that has as its centerpiece the Great Wall of China, the wall itself hardly factors into the story at all.  Oh, battles occur on either side of it and on top of it, but I didn’t really get a sense of the actual structure.  There’s no sense of awe or vastness about it or even interesting historical tidbits.  It’s just part of the CGI landscape, a place where the army fights the monsters. The audience is never invited to go in for a closer look at the Great Wall.  It’s a missed opportunity to make this film something memorable.

THE GREAT WALL is not a bad adventure movie at all, and with an OK script and Matt Damon in the cast, it’s actually better than it should be, as Damon and his fellow actors rise above the lackluster monster effects.

At the end of the day, it’s a decent adventure fantasy.

It’s just not— great.

—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.  

Superhero Movies 2016 – Worst to First

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Here’s a look at the superhero movies from 2016, ranked from worst to first:

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7. BATMAN V SUPERMAN:  DAWN OF JUSTICE – By far, the worst superhero movie of 2016. The script by Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer doesn’t work. In spite of the fact that Batman and Superman do not trust or like each other, a big part of the plot revolves around Lex Luthor’s plans to pit them against each other.  Why?  They’re enemies already!  Also, the big moment where Batman and Superman change their tunes about each other is both unbelievable and anticlimactic.

Both Ben Affleck as Batman and Henry Cavill as Superman are fine, but the story they are in is not.  Also unimpressed with the action scenes by director Zach Snyder.  Best Part:  Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman.  Worst Part:  Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor.

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6. THE LEGEND OF TARZAN- Tecnically, not really a superhero movie, but growing up I always considered Tarzan a superhero of the jungle.

THE LEGEND OF TARZAN is a serious good-looking production by director David Yates that suffers from one fundamental problem:  it’s boring.

Alexander Skarsgard is terribly uncharismatic as Tarzan, Margot Robbie somehow doesn’t wow as Jane, and Christoph Waltz thinks he’s still playing Bond baddie Blofeld, hamming it up as villain Leon Rom.  The liveliest lines go to Samuel L. Jackson as Tarzan ally George Washington Williams.  The movie would have been better served had it given this oomph to Tarzan.

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5.SUICIDE SQUAD –  The DC superhero movies continue to struggle, but that being said, I liked SUICIDE SQUAD.  Somewhat.

Whereas she didn’t wow in THE LEGEND OF TARZAN, Margot Robbie more than makes up for it here as Harley Quinn.  Robbie’s electrifying, sexy performance as the bad-girl-turned-good-maybe easily steals this movie.  It’s easy to understand from Robbie’s performance how Quinn is the Joker’s girlfriend.

While I’m not a Will Smith fan, he’s really good here as Deadshot, and his and Robbie’s performances were the main reasons I enjoyed this movie.  The rest of the cast is simply average.  The plot less so.  The screenplay by director David Ayer has all this build up to this squad of misfits only to see them square off against one of their own, a supernatural witch, no less.  This one simply lacks vision.

Also, Jared Leto’s Joker is ultimately a disappointment, partly because of his performance, but mostly because the role is under written.

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4. DOCTOR STRANGE – The first of the superhero movies on this list that I consider excellent.  It’s no surprise that all four of the top superhero movies from 2016 come out of the Marvel Universe, the studio that continues to churn out one superhero hit after another.

Certainly the most imaginative superhero movie of the year.  Not only does it tell a captivating story, but it’s also a visual treat. Benedict Cumberbatch is excellent as Doctor Strange, the obnoxious neurosurgeon turned superhero after a devastating injury ruins his career and sends him in search of healing through the Far East mystic arts.  What he finds is new life as a superhero.

As usual with the Marvel movies, it struggles with its villain, as Mads Mikkelsen really doesn’t get to do a whole lot as bad guy Kaecilius.

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3. X-MEN:  APOCALYPSE –  My sleeper pick on the list.  Critically panned and not really loved by fans, X-MEN: APOCALYPSE nonetheless entertained me from start to finish.

The main reason I enjoyed this one?  The performances by James McAvoy as Professor Xavier, and Michael Fassbender as Magneto. Since taking over these roles when the series rebooted with X-MEN:  FIRST CLASS (2011), McAvoy and Fassbender have made them their own.  It’s difficult to dislike a movie when these two talented actors are helming it.

Of course, Jennifer Lawrence is here, too, as Raven/Mystique, but in all honesty I’ve enjoyed Lawrence in most of her other movies more than here in the X-MEN series.

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2. DEADPOOL (CKF) – For many, DEADPOOL was the best superhero movie of 2016.  For me, it was second best.  That being said, it was certainly the most unusual superhero movie of the year.

Foul-mouthed Deadpool— played by Ryan Reynolds in a role he was born to play— lets loose with an abundance of raunchy language not even George Carlin, Richard Pryor, or Eddie Murphy combined could match.  As such, this R rated superhero movie is not for everyone, but if you don’t mind raunchy language, you are in for quite a treat.

The liveliest superhero movie of the year, as well as the funniest.

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1. CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR – My pick for the best superhero movie of 2016 is easily Marvel’s CAPTAIN AMERICA:  CIVIL WAR.  This one plays more like THE AVENGERS 2.5. Its story about a rift between Captain America and Iron Man is much more believable and emotionally satisfying than the rift between Batman and Superman in BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE.

This one is so good, that even though it’s the third Captain America movie, it belongs in the conversation as one of the best superhero movies ever made.Brothers Anthony and Joe Russo direct this one with high energy and lots of style, and the screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely is a genuine crowd pleaser.

Also features a phenomenal cast which has no business being in a superhero movie. You’ve got Chris Evans as Captain America, Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark/Iron Man, Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow, Anthony Mackie as the Falcon, Don Cheadle as War Machine, Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye, Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther, Paul Bettany as Vision, Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, Paul Rudd as Ant-Man, and Sebastian Stan as the Winter Soldier.  And with all these folks doing their things and doing them well, the movie is almost stolen by young Tom Holland in his debut as Spider-Man.

An awesome movie.  Marvel has been churning out one quality superhero movie after another going back to IRON MAN (2008), and they show no signs of slowing down.  I’m looking forward to their upcoming releases in 2017, starting with LOGAN on March 3.

And there you have it, my list of the superhero movies from 2016.

Until next time, thanks for reading!

—Michael

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.  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.  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.  

 

Science Fiction Movies 2016 – Worst to First

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Here’s a look back at the major science fiction movies from 2016.  There has been a resurgence of late of quality science fiction films, but that being said, 2016 didn’t have a lot to offer audiences in the sci-fi genre.  In fact, of the more than 50 films I saw in 2016, only five were science fiction.

Here’s a break down of how they fared, from worst to first:

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5. PASSENGERS – this big budget pairing of superstars Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt was my least favorite science fiction film from 2016.  That being said, it’s really not that bad a movie.  I would rate it slightly less than average.  Probably not worth a trip to the theater, but something you might consider catching at home on a streaming service or on DVD or Blu-ray.

The biggest culprit is a story that just didn’t work.  It’s about a massive spaceship carrying thousands of passengers in sleep stasis to a new colony planet where they hope to begin a new life.  When there’s a malfunction, and a man Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) is accidentally awoken, he finds himself alone and realizes with 90 years still left to the voyage, he won’t get off the ship alive.  His decision to awake fellow passenger Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence)— in effect giving her a death sentence— and the subsequent love story  which follows sets up the burning question:  what will happen if Aurora finds out that unlike Jim she didn’t awake by accident?

The resolution to this question is both unsatisfying and unbelievable.  PASSENGERS is a good-looking science fiction movie hindered by a muddled storyline.  Plus Lawrence and Pratt share very little chemistry as desperate space lovers.

 

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4. ROGUE ONE:  A STAR WARS STORY –  while legions of fans call this the best STAR WARS movie ever! I simply found it to be a decent stand alone film in the series.  It starts off slow but gets better with an exciting ending that is one of the best endings of the entire series.

ROGUE ONE is a stand alone film in the series, meaning it’s the first film in the STAR WARS franchise not to be part of a trilogy.  It tells the intriguing story of the daring mission to steal those Death Star plans which would ultimately give Luke Skywalker the ability to destroy the evil Empire’s ultimate weapon way back in the very first STAR WARS (1977).  It’s a good story, but the film struggles to tell it at first, as we are introduced to a bunch of new characters early on with a minimum of character development.  As such, during the film’s first half, I didn’t care for any of these new characters.

Things eventually get better, and the ending is superb.  I really liked Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso, but the rest of the cast didn’t really wow me.  Nor did the much hyped CGI-motion capture hybrid of Grand Moff Tarkin, which tried to recreate the late great Peter Cushing in one of his later roles.  Mixed results here, as this Tarkin looks just like Cushing if you imagine him as a cartoon.  I enjoyed STAR WARS:  THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015) better.

 

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3. MORGAN – Little seen and critically panned sci-fi actioner, but I really liked this one.  It’s the story of an artificially intelligent being named Morgan (Anya Taylor-Joy) who kills one of the scientists working with her.  As a result, the company which financed the project to create Morgan sends in an agent Lee Weathers (Kate Mara) to investigate whether or not Morgan needs to be terminated.

The scientists who created and now care for Morgan argue in her favor, even though she killed one of their own.  They believe she has attained life and as such cannot be terminated at the whim of a company.  While the film does explore what it means to be an artificial life form, the story is not on the same level as the deeper and better written EX MACHINA (2015).

But where MORGAN does succeed is as an action thriller.  As such, MORGAN features two strong performances, one by Kate Mara as the driven investigator who will stop at nothing to reach her conclusions, and the other by Anya Taylor-Joy as the introspective and potentially dangerous Morgan.  The climactic fight scene between agent Lee Weathers and Morgan is expertly edited, as intense and violent a fight as you’ll see in an action movie, especially between two women.

 

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2.STAR TREK BEYOND- As a lifelong STAR TREK fan, I’ve enjoyed this rebooted movie series a lot, as it explores an alternate timeline involving the characters from the original STAR TREK series.

This third film in this rebooted series is as enjoyable as the two films which came before it. By far, the best part of these movies is its cast, which continue to do a bang up job at capturing the personas of the original cast from the first STAR TREK TV show.  Chris Pine shines as Captain Kirk, and I thought he played the role a bit more like William Shatner here in this third film than he did in the previous two.

Zachary Quinto continues to nail Mr. Spock by delivering a performance that Leonard Nimoy would no doubt be proud of.  But most impressive is Karl Urban as Doctor McCoy.  He has gotten better with each successive movie, and he was excellent to begin with.  He truly captures what DeForest Kelly did with the character in the original series.  Urban’s performance is uncanny.

 

And now we’ve reached my pick for the best science fiction movie from 2016.  We started with PASSENGERS, which I found slightly less than average, and the next three movies were all solid, flirting with average to better than average.

But my pick for the #1 science fiction movie of the year is the only science fiction film from 2016 that I considered excellent.  It’s a far superior science fiction movie than the other four films in this list.

And that movie is:

 

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1. ARRIVAL – the one true science fiction movie from 2016.  When mysterious space ships suddenly appear all over the Earth, suspended silently above ground like enormous storm clouds, the governments from around the world scramble to decipher what these aliens want.

The U.S. government sends in linguistics professor Louise Banks (Amy Adams) to communicate with the aliens.  Banks not only has to try to learn the aliens’ language, but she also has to figure out a way to teach them ours.

What she, along with physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) ultimately learn changes the way we think about time and space.

ARRIVAL is fun science fiction movie with a thought-provoking script by Eric Heisserer.  It’s not perfect. I found the ending not quite as satisfying or mind-blowing as the ending to INTERSTELLAR (2014).  But Amy Adams is excellent in the lead role, and the film really belongs to her.

Without much serious competition, ARRIVAL is easily the best science fiction movie I saw in 2016.

Until next time, thanks for reading!

— Michael

 

 

 

 

 

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: GODZILLA VS. GIGAN (1972)

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For a monster born more than 50 years ago, Godzilla may be more relevant now than ever before.

The movies just keep on coming.  The latest Godzilla movie arrived last year with SHIN GODZILLA (2016) to a limited release here in the U.S., and it received some pretty good reviews.  And there is another film in the works, GODZILLA:  KING OF MONSTERS, due out in 2019, from the same folks who made the Bryan Cranston GODZILLA (2014).  All told, there have been 31 Godzilla movies to date, and it doesn’t look like they’re stopping any time soon.

But today’s movie comes from that time when Godzilla was a silly monster superhero, constantly saving the world from the evil and bad monsters.  Silly stuff for sure, but also the type of Godzilla movie that a lot of us grew up with.

Today IN THE SPOOKLIGHT it’s one of my favorite Godzilla movies from the 1970s, GODZILLA VS. GIGAN (1972).

This one sat on the shelf for a few years before being released in the U.S. in 1978 with the title GODZILLA ON MONSTER ISLAND.  It was supposed to be a return to the traditional Godzilla format, after the offbeat message-driven GODZILLA VS. THE SMOG MONSTER (1971),  a film I did not enjoy as a kid, but it’s one that has definitely grown on me over the years.

In GODZILLA VS. GIGAN, aliens from outer space are once again trying to take over the Earth, and they employ space monsters Gigan and King Ghidorah to help them.  To defend the Earth, humankind turns to their giant monster friends Godzilla and Anguirus for help.

And defend the Earth they do, in one of the series’ better and longer climactic monster bashes.  And there you have it.  That’s pretty much GODZILLA VS. GIGAN in a nutshell.  What did you expect?  Shakespeare?

I find GODZILLA VS. GIGAN particularly enjoyable for two reasons.  The biggest reason is the aforementioned climactic battle.  It’s one of the best in the series.  That being said, in terms of monsters, this one gets off to a slow start, and it seemingly takes forever for Godzilla and Anguirus to show up, but once they do, nearly the final third of the movie is one long and rather exciting giant monster bout.

The other fun thing about GODZILLA VS. GIGAN is its human characters.  While the space villains are your typical bad guy types, the heroes in this one seem to have stepped out of a Scooby Doo cartoon.  They’re young and they’re hip.  Groovy, man!  We have a young cartoonist who draws monsters, a young woman looking for her kidnapped brother, and her male friend, a classic hippie who can’t seem to stop eating corn on the cob.  I guess Scooby snacks weren’t available. These three provide lots of light-hearted fun during the people parts of this monster flick.

GODZILLA VS. GIGAN is also the film famous for being the movie where Godzilla actually talks!  Yep, words come out of Godzilla’s mouth as he talks to his buddy Anguirus. It’s a ridiculously silly scene, and Godzilla and Anguirus sound like Yogi Bear and Boo Boo.  It’s awful.

The good news is, we live in the age of DVDs and Blu-ray, and these discs often include the original Japanese versions as well.  So, you can watch the original Japanese version in which Godzilla and Anguirus do not talk.  Oh, they communicate, but through sounds rather than words, and it’s very obvious that they are communicating.  Unfortunately, the American distributors didn’t think their Godzilla audiences were intelligent enough to figure this out, and so they added the ridiculous English language dubbing.

GODZILLA VS. GIGAN was directed by Jun Fukuda, no stranger to the Godzilla franchise, as he directed five movies in the series. In addition to GODZILLA VS. GIGAN, GODZILLA VS. THE SEA MONSTER (1966), SON OF GODZILLA (1967), GODZILLA VS. MEGALON (1973), and GODZILLA VS. MECHAGODZILLA (1974) were all helmed by Fukuda.

Shin’ichi Sekizawa wrote the screenplay, based on a story by Takeshi Kimura. Kimura wrote the screenplays to some of my favorite Toho movies, including RODAN (1956), THE WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS (1966), and KING KONG ESCAPES (1967).

Are there better Godzilla movies?  Certainly!  But in terms of fun Godzilla movies, GODZILLA VS. GIGAN ranks near the top.

Of course, the big question for Godzilla fans is, how does Godzilla fare in this one?  Well, truth be told, it’s not one of the big guy’s better performances.  The costume looks rather silly here, and it does take Godzilla forever to finally show up and take on Gigan and King Ghidorah.  There really isn’t a good balance here of Godzilla scenes.  It’s pretty much all or nothing, with the “all” coming in the film’s final  30 minutes or so.  But the climactic battle is worth the wait.

Plus, Godzilla’s goofy appearance kinda fits in with the rest of the movie, a 1970s romp.  You almost expect to see Cheech and Chong show up.  It would actually make a nice companion piece with Hammer’s DRACULA A.D. 1972 (1972).

Want a cure for the winter blues?  Watch GODZILLA VS. GIGAN and see Godzilla and Anguirus take on Gigan and King Ghidorah in an all-out monster bash.  It’s a sure-fire way to smash out the cold weather doldrums.

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Little Boy Lost In LION (2016)

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LION (2016) tells the incredible true story of a five year-old boy named Saroo who became lost on the streets of Calcutta in 1986 and found himself alone thousand of miles from home.

The movie opens with little Saroo (Sunny Pawar) enjoying a simple life with his older brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate), his mother Kamla (Priyanka Bose) and baby sister.  When Guddu allows Saroo to join him on a long trip to go to work, it proves too much for Saroo, and the young boy falls asleep.  Guddu leaves Saroo at the train station and tells him to stay and wait for him to return.

When Saroo awakes, the train station is empty and Guddu is gone.  In search of his older brother, Saroo enters a stationary train where he again falls asleep.  When he awakes, the train is moving, whisking him miles away from his home.  When Saroo finally gets off the train, he finds himself on the dangerous streets of Calcutta, lost and alone.  He meets other homeless children, but their time together is cut short as a group of men descend upon them, rounding them up, but Saroo escapes.

Eventually Saroo is taken in by an orphanage.  He doesn’t speak the same language as the people in Calcutta, and he doesn’t know where he lives, and so the officials have no way of knowing where he came from or how to bring him back home.

Saroo is later adopted by an Australian couple, John (David Wenham) and Sue Brierley (Nicole Kidman).  He moves to Australia where he learns English and grows up.

The movie then jumps ahead to 2010, where we meet the adult Saroo (Dev Patel) who eventually makes it his mission to finally find out where he came from and to return back home to India to find the family he left behind.

LION is an agreeable movie that draws you in right away with its vibrant and colorful shots of India as seen through the innocent eyes of young Saroo.  The story grows more compelling when Saroo is lost on the streets of Calcutta,and this first half of the movie is definitely its best part.  The latter half which follows the adult Saroo’s quest to find his home is a tad slow and far less interesting. But it does set up the film’s emotional and very satisfying conclusion.  You’d better keep those tissues handy.

While I liked LION a lot, I didn’t love it.

I really enjoyed young Sunny Pawar as the five year-old Saroo and almost wish the entire movie had been about him.  The young actor pretty much steals the movie.

Not to take anything away from Dev Patel as the adult Saroo, but his storyline is never as interesting as the story told through the eyes of the five year-old Saroo.  That being said, Dev Patel is still very good and has some effective scenes in this one.  Patel of course starred in the Oscar-winning SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE (2008), as well as the recent THE MAN WHO KNEW INFINITY (2015).

Patel enjoys some nice chemistry with Rooney Mara who plays Saroo’s girlfriend Lucy.  He also shares a moving scene with Nicole Kidman, where the adopted son and mother open up about their relationship, and she tells Saroo of a dream she once had, and why it was that she and her husband, even though they could have children, decided it would be better to adopt instead.  It’s Kidman’s best moment in the film.

Under Garth Davis’ direction, the film moves at a deliberate pace.  It’s well-photographed, especially the first half of the movie, which captures a world as seen through the eyes of a five year-old.

The screenplay by the real Saroo Brierley and Luke Davies, based on Brierley’s book “A Long Way Home” is excellent.

LION has been nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture, and while I liked it very much, I did enjoy some of the other Oscar contenders more, films like LA LA LAND, MANCHESTER BY THE SEA, and HIDDEN FIGURES.

That being said, LION is still worth a trip to the theater.

By the way, the film gets its title from Saroo’s name.  Saroo learns when he returns home that he had been mispronouncing and misspelling his name.  It was not Saroo but Sheru, which means “Lion.”

—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.  

 

 

Persistence Pays Off in THE FOUNDER (2017)

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It’s all about persistence.

That’s the central theme of THE FOUNDER (2017), the new bio pic starring Michael Keaton as McDonald’s “founder” Ray Kroc.

It’s 1954, and Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) is a struggling salesman in Chicago who is shocked when a restaurant in San Bernardino, California orders eight of his milkshake machines.  Nobody ever orders that many machines, and so, curious and perhaps a bit inspired, Kroc drives across the country to California to see the restaurant for himself.

What he finds is McDonalds, an eatery that he at first mistakes for the typical drive-in restaurant of its day.  However, he observes that rather than wait in his car for his order to be taken, he has to walk up to a window in the front of the restaurant.  He is then amazed to have his food given to him before he even leaves the order window.

Kroc introduces himself to the two brothers who run McDonalds, Dick McDonald (Nick Offerman) and Mac McDonald (John Carroll Lynch).  The brothers give him a tour of the restaurant, including their custom-made kitchen which enables them to cook their burgers uniformly and quickly.

Impressed by the concept, Kroc approaches the brothers with a proposition:  he wants to franchise the restaurant across the nation.  He thinks their model is so superior to what everyone else is doing, it’s bound to be a success.  The brothers hesitate to agree at first, explaining that they already tried to expand but failed, as they couldn’t keep the quality of the other restaurants up to the level of their original eatery.

Bur Kroc persists, explaining that the brothers should leave everything to him, that he will be in charge of the expansion and he will be successful.  Eventually, the brothers agree.  What follows is the story of how Kroc relentlessly worked to build a McDonalds empire, which eventually put him at odds with the McDonalds brothers who were never as interested as he was in going national, and of course, eventually global.

THE FOUNDER is a fascinating story, a movie that is as entertaining as it is informative.  With Michael Keaton playing Ray Kroc, the slant in this movie is that Kroc worked so hard that he eventually claimed the title of “McDonalds Founder” even though he didn’t originate the model, because he worked for it and the McDonald brothers did not.  It’s certainly a take which is more sympathetic towards Kroc than the McDonald brothers.  I’d wager to guess that in real life Kroc was a bit nastier than he was portrayed in this movie, and the McDonald brothers a bit more victimized.

I’ve always been a Michael Keaton fan, and it’s been great seeing him back in major movie roles once again.  I loved him in BIRDMAN (2014) and in SPOTLIGHT (2015).  He’s equally as good here as Ray Kroc. He makes Kroc a frenetic salesman who after one rough time after another, sees McDonalds as his opportunity to finally make it big after years of failure.  And that’s why he works so hard.  That’s why he puts everything into the franchise, because he knows this is his one big shot.  He has to take it.

The film’s theme of persistence is a good one.  Regardless of what the real life Ray Kroc may have been like, in this movie, he’s portrayed as a man who is so focused on his goal, it’s difficult not to like him, even when later he does take a darker turn.  When he realizes that his success has suddenly given more power than he ever thought he would have, he decides to use that power to go after everything he wants because he knows he can get it.

In a lesser actor’s hands, Kroc may have lost all sympathy at this point, but as played by Michael Keaton, the role becomes a natural extension of Kroc’s personality and the circumstances he finds himself in.  In other words, it doesn’t come off as if he was a weasel in the making, just waiting for his chance to make it big, but rather, as a man who worked hard to be a success and then suddenly realized he had  the clout and influence to get whatever he wanted.

Nearly as good as Keaton are Nick Offerman as Dick McDonald  and John Carroll Lynch as his brother Mac McDonald. Offerman and Carroll Lynch portray the quirky brothers as two rather innocent men who were more than happy just to have their one restaurant.  When Kroc begins to take over, they are slow to react, and eventually they lose nearly everything because they were not prepared to stand their ground against Kroc’s ambition.

Nick Offerman recently starred in the TV series FARGO (2015), while John Carroll Lynch seems to show up everywhere these days.  He just played Lyndon Johnson in JACKIE (2016).  Among other things, he’s been in AMERICAN HORROR STORY and THE WALKING DEAD, and he was memorable in the small release horror movie THE INVITATION (2015).

Laura Dern looks worn and weathered as Kroc’s longtime suffering wife, alone most of her life as he is off building a fast food empire.  Even when she attempts to lend a helping hand and offer her support, it does her little good, as eventually Kroc leaves her for another woman.  The other woman is Joan Smith, the wife of one of his McDonalds managers, played effectively by Linda Cardellini.

Smith’s husband, Rollie Smith, is played by Patrick Wilson from THE CONJURING and INSIDIOUS movies.  B.J. Novak is memorable in a small role as Kroc’s business partner Harry J. Sonneborn, the man who advised Kroc to buy the land on which the McDonalds restaurants would be built, as a way to break free of the control of the McDonald brothers.

Even though its subject, Ray Kroc, is a controversial figure, THE FOUNDER is not THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (2013).  It’s just not that dark a movie.  Director John Lee Hancock films this one with bright tones which capture both the 1950s and McDonalds restaurants.

The screenplay by Robert D. Siegel also keeps things light.  The movie plays like an offbeat quirky drama as opposed to an ominous piece on the ruthlessness of cutthroat business tactics.

Ray Kroc is portrayed in a positive light, and the message of success from persistence resonates because it is true.  Most people succeed because they do not give up.  The Ray Kroc in this movie is an admirable character, while the McDonald brothers, while certainly portrayed as two decent gentlemen, are shown to be passive and unimaginative when it comes to seeing how far their business could go.  Kroc doesn’t so much as steal their business as he grows their business, and in this movie, they aren’t interested in going along for the ride, and so he takes the journey without them.

I really enjoyed THE FOUNDER.  Michael Keaton is excellent, and both the script by Robert D. Siegel and direction by John Lee Hancock are equally as good.

The end result is an entertaining bio pic that tells a rather fascinating story behind the origins of the McDonalds empire.

I’ll have a cheeseburger and medium fries, please. 

—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.