GREEN BOOK (2018) – Oscar Contender Worth A Trip to the Theater

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It took a while for GREEN BOOK (2018) to make it to the theaters in my neck of the woods, and so I was only able to see it recently.

This Oscar contender, nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Original Screenplay is both worthy of these nominations and a trip to the theater. Had I seen this movie before I had comprised my List of Top 10 movies for 2018, it most certainly would have made the cut.

GREEN BOOK (2018), based on a true story, takes place in 1962 and chronicles the unlikely friendship between an eccentric African-American classical pianist Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) and a rough and tough Italian bouncer from Brooklyn, Tony LIp (Viggo Mortensen) who are brought together when Shirley hires Tony to be his personal driver on a concert tour which will take him into the Deep South.

In terms of story construct, the one told in GREEN BOOK is one you’ve seen many times before. Yes, it’s a “buddy story,” that plot where two very different characters spend time together, especially on the road, and eventually they form an unlikely friendship.  It’s been done a million times, from classics back in the day like MIDNIGHT RUN (1988) and PLANES, TRAINS, AND AUTOMOBILES (1987) to more recent fare like DUE DATE (2010) and THE HEAT (2013).

But what makes GREEN BOOK different and a cut above the standard “buddy movie” is its dueling themes of racism and racial acceptance.

Shirley’s concert tour is bringing him to the Deep South, as far as Mississippi, not a safe place for a black man in 1962. And that’s where the titular “Green Book” comes in, as it refers to The Negro Motorist Green Book, a publication which listed places which were safe for blacks to visit. Hence, on the road in the south, Shirley and Tony stay at separate hotels, as Shirley has to stay at hotels which accept Negroes, and these are usually poor decrepit places.

And when Shirley is performing inside the elegant establishments of the wealthy white audiences, who give him rousing applause, he is not allowed to use the bathroom inside these places, nor can he dine there.

Tony Lip, while not from the south, initially holds views that are just as racist. He and his fellow Bronx Italians use racial slurs when speaking of blacks, and when his wife hires two black repairmen, and Tony observes  her giving them something to drink after they’ve finished their job, he takes the empty glasses they drank from and tosses them into the trash.

Yet, when asked by Shirley if he would have trouble working for a black man, Tony says no, and since Tony is a man of his word, it turns out to be true, and as the story goes along, and he observes the way Shirley is treated, he becomes more and more protective of his employer.

The story also takes things a step further. Don Shirley is a man alone. He’s wealthy and educated, and he doesn’t identify with what he sees as his fellow black brethren. He’s more similar in class to the wealthy whites he plays music for, but he certainly doesn’t identify with them.  And then there’s his sexual orientation. By all accounts, Shirley is alone and he’s miserable, and in one of the movie’s best scenes, he breaks down and laments to Tony that he hasn’t been able to find any community that wants him in it.

The script, nominated for an Oscar, by Nick Vallelonga, Brian Hayes Currie, and Peter Farrelly does a masterful job at showing not only the racism Don Shirley faced but also the pain he felt at being so isolated from seemingly all walks of life. It also makes Tony Lip the face of white acceptance. At first, Tony may have suppressed any racist feelings just so he could take the job, but later, he truly comes to like and accept Shirley as a person, and his words and actions back that up.

The script also gives Tony the best moments in the film, especially the laugh out loud ones. Indeed, why this movie is also listed as a comedy has to do entirely with Tony. He’s got the best lines in the film, such as when he tries to quote JFK’s “ask not what your country can do for you—” speech, but completely botches it and finishes with “Ask what you do for yourself,” and he has the funniest scenes, like when he introduces Shirley to Kentucky Fried Chicken.

The best part of the script is that none of it comes off as superficial or preachy. It makes its points on race simply by allowing its story to unfold. Likewise, the bond between Shirley and Tony is not forced or phony. It’s convincing and natural. The whole story works.

As I said, Mahershala Ali has been nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of Dr. Don Shirley, and it’s certainly a powerful performance.

However, GREEN BOOK belongs more to Viggo Mortensen and his portrayal of Tony Lip. Tony is the larger role, and the story mainly focuses on his reaction to racism. In terms of acting, it’s one of the best performances I’ve seen Mortensen give. He plays the Bronx bouncer so effortlessly. And like Ali, Mortensen has also been nominated, for Best Actor.

GREEN BOOK has also been nominated for Best Picture, although it’s not expected to win. Of its four major nominations, according to the experts, Mahershala Ali has the best chance of winning Best Supporting Actor.

GREEN BOOK was directed by Peter Farrelly, of Farrelly Brothers fame. He successfully captures the 1962 setting. There’s a nice contrast of colors, between the bright and opulent upper class white southern establishments and the dark and dreary poverty-laden black establishments.

And one of my favorite scenes brings both worlds together, when Shirley takes Tony into a black friendly restaurant, and Shirley is invited to play piano and ends up jamming with the jazz musicians there. It’s one of the liveliest scenes in the movie, and it allows Shirley for the first time to feel some camaraderie with a culture he had thus far felt alienated from.

I really enjoyed GREEN BOOK. It has a lot to say about racism, using the south in 1962 as its canvas, and it makes its point while not always being heavy-handed. In fact, its tone is quite the opposite. For most of the movie, thanks to Viggo Mortensen’s performance as Tony Lip, you’ll be laughing. Tony is a likeable character who may not be as skilled and as polished as Dr. Don Shirley, but his heart is in the right place, as is his head. He befriends Shirley not only because he likes him but also because deep down he knows that the color of Shirley’s skin has no bearing on what kind of person he is.

GREEN BOOK is a thoroughly satisfying movie that speaks on racism and entertains at the same time. It’s not to be missed.

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STAN & OLLIE (2018) – Nostalgic Look at Comedy Duo’s Final Tour Together

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STAN & OLLIE (2018) is a pleasant homage to the work of the classic comedy duo Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.

It tells the bittersweet story of their final tour together, long past their superstar years. The film is driven by two top-notch performances, Steve Coogan as Stan Laurel, and John C. Reilly as Oliver Hardy.

The movie opens in 1937, at the height of their film career.  Stan (Steve Coogan) is the more business savvy of the two, and he wants a larger contract from studio head Hal Roach (Danny Huston). When it’s clear he’s not going to get it, he tries to convince Ollie (John C. Reilly) to leave the studio with him and sign a contract elsewhere, but it’s a decision that is far more difficult for Ollie to make, since he’s still under contract with Roach. As a result, Ollie stays with Roach. And when Ollie makes a movie without Stan, things hit rock bottom for the duo.

The action switches to 1953, where Stan has convinced Ollie to join him for a European tour as a promotional tool for a new movie he’s writing for the two of them. When financing for the film falls through, and they’re met with small audiences on the tour, the realization hits them that this could be the end of their career.  But as the tour continues, the crowds grow, until once more they are playing to sold out theaters.

But all is not right for the comedy duo. Ollie’s health is fading, and the two men squabble about their friendship and loyalty to the each over the years, causing a rift that they may not be able to overcome.

STAN & OLLIE is a very enjoyable movie. It’s well-made and is a rich looking period piece. Director Jon S. Baird convincingly transports his audience into the film, stage, and personal worlds of Laurel and Hardy.

The screenplay by Jeff Pope squarely focuses on their friendship, as these are not good times for the two men. They’re aging, they can’t get financing for a new movie, they’re playing to small crowds, and there’s a lot of tension between them. Their friendship is pushed to its limits. And yet when they look back at their years together, they realize the value of their friendship, and it’s this realization that is the best part of the story.

The comedy, on the other hand, while light and humorous— and it’s certainly fun to see some of Laurel and Hardy’s best comic bits recreated here— is never flat-out hilarious. And so it’s not the strength of the film.

The best part of the movie by far are the performances by the two leads. They’re both excellent, which is a good thing since they’re in nearly every single scene.

Steve Coogan captures both Stan Laurel’s comic genius as well as his drive to constantly write gags for the duo. Laurel is portrayed here as a man who is almost addicted to writing, so much so that he really has time for little else. And during one of their arguments, Ollie accuses Laurel of being flat-out cold, robotic, a writing machine who has no sense of friendship or humanity.

Coogan also plays Laurel as a man carrying a lot of hurt with him, as he still feels betrayed by Ollie’s decision years earlier to make a movie without him.

John C. Reilly is just as good as Oliver Hardy. During the tour, Hardy is ailing, and Reilly does a nice job capturing the comic who continues to drive himself to perform, even against doctor’s orders. Ollie is portrayed here as a man with more balance in his life than Stan, as he’s interested in other things besides work, and while he says he doesn’t need Stan, he really does feel lost without him.

Coogan and Reilly really do make this movie, and they easily carry it along for its 98 minute running time.

Rufus Jones adds fine support as Bernard Delfont, the man responsible for arranging the European tour. He goes back and forth between sounding like a con man and a legitimate agent.

Shirley Henderson is excellent as Ollie’s wife Lucille, who is fiercely protective of her husband, and Nina Arianda is memorable as Stan’s wife Ida Kitaeva, a former dancer who doesn’t let anyone forget it.

At times, STAN & OLLIE is emotionally flat. The best scene in the movie is when Stan and Oliver finally have their huge argument, and that’s the one scene that packs a powerful punch. Other than this sequence, it’s all rather mild.

And in spite of this being a movie about Laurel and Hardy, there’s a sense of sadness that permeates the film.

That being said, I still really enjoyed STAN & OLLIE. It definitely succeeds in reacquainting modern audiences with the classic comedy duo.

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ON THE BASIS OF SEX (2018) – Ruth Bader Ginsburg Movie Makes Its Case

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ON THE BASIS OF SEX (2018) is not getting much love, and that’s too bad, because this bio pic on Ruth Bader Ginsburg happens to be a really good movie.

So, what’s the scoop? Why the cold shoulder?

For starters, it’s the second film from 2018 on the life of Supreme Court Justice Ginsburg, following the much better received and critically acclaimed documentary RBG (2018), and so it’s operating in the shadows of that film.  Likewise, RBG received some Oscar nominations. ON THE BASIS OF SEX didn’t receive any.

Critics have been lukewarm to the film, and much of the criticism has been focused on the script which a lot of folks have called superficial, which reminds me of a lot of the same things which were originally written about HIDDEN FIGURES (2016), another outstanding film which also didn’t receive much love. Initially.

ON THE BASIS OF SEX is also not performing well at the box office. I think a big reason for this is that it had a lackluster ad campaign. I know in my neck of the woods there was barely any publicity for this film.

However, I saw the movie several weeks after its initial release, and the theater was packed, and the audience certainly seemed to enjoy it.

As did I.

ON THE BASIS OF SEX opens in 1956 showing Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) entering Harvard Law School. From the get-go, Ginsburg experiences gender inequality, from professors who don’t call on her in class to an awkward dinner held by Dean Griswold (Sam Waterston) for the female law students in which he requests that they tell him why it is that they have chosen spots at the law school that could have gone to men.

The action jumps ahead to 1970 where Ginsburg is working as a law professor because no law firm would hire her because she was a woman, in spite of the fact that she graduated at the top of her class. She lives in New York City with her husband Martin (Armie Hammer), a successful tax attorney, their teenage daughter Jane (Cailee Spaeny) and their younger son James.

Ginsburg decides to take on the case of a man Charles Moritz (Chris Mulkey) who was denied a caregiver tax deduction which he filed for because he was caring for his sick mother, and he was subsequently charged because of this filing. The reason? He was a man. And the caregiver tax deduction was meant only for women because they were assumed to be the only ones who were natural caregivers. Ginsburg realizes that this is a case of gender discrimination, where the one big difference is that the victim is a man. She knows that if she can win this case, it will be a huge victory, a step towards repealing gender discrimination in other cases as well.

She takes the case, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Felicity Jones delivers a spirited performance as Ruth Bader Ginsburg. It’s certainly a potent enough performance to carry the movie, even though Jones doesn’t have to, since she receives fine support from the other actors in this one.  I really enjoyed Jones in ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY (2016) in which she played Jyn Erso, a film I have liked more each time I’ve seen it, and Jones’ performance in that movie remains one of its strongest attributes. She’s equally as good here as Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

One of the film’s highlights is the dynamic between Ginsburg and her daughter Jane, as they share key moments together, as in when Ginsburg realizes that things her daughter is saying are things she couldn’t have said fifteen years ago, opening her eyes to the realization that the times have already changed and so it’s time for the law to catch up. There’s also the realization that the work she is doing for gender rights is for her daughter’s future, which gives her drive when things look bleak.

As such, the role of Jane is a central one in the movie, and she’s well-played by Cailee Spaeny, who was equally as memorable in BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE (2018). Spaeny also looked completely different in that movie, and she played a very different role. She’s certainly a young actress to keep your eye on.

Armie Hammer plays Ginsburg’s husband Martin, and their relationship is also central to the story. Martin is diagnosed with testicular cancer while still in law school, and it’s largely Ruth’s drive to survive that helps him beat the cancer back for as long as possible. He’s also an incredibly supportive husband, and he’s one of the few males in her life who sees what she sees and constantly pushes her on to continue her work. While it’s not groundbreaking dramatic stuff, it’s one of the better performances I’ve seen Hammer give.

Justin Theroux throws in a colorful performance as ACLU director Mel Wulf, who in spite of being Ginsburg’s friend doesn’t always see things the same way she does and makes decisions which get in the way of progress.

Veteran actor Sam Waterston adds solid support as Harvard Law School Dean Erwin Griswold. His sexist comments will be sure to rankle. Kathy Bates is also on hand, albeit briefly, as Dorothy Kenyon.

The screenplay by Daniel Stiepleman, who happens to be Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s nephew, is a good one and gets the job done. It tells its story in straightforward fashion and builds to a solid climax as Ginsburg argues her case in court. The screenplay has been criticized as being “by the numbers” and superficial, but that’s not the case.  Sure, in terms of legalese, the film keeps things simple, nor does the film present Ginsburg from multiple nuanced angles. She’s a straight shooter here, and the film makes its case by getting in and out without any additional distractions or subplots. For me, the entire story worked.

Likewise, director Mimi Leder keeps things straightforward and simple as well. The film looks good, it does a nice job with costumes and setting, and I easily bought into the whole story.

ON THE BASIS OF SEX succeeds in what it sets out to do, which is to tell the story of how Ruth Bader Ginsburg overcame the odds and argued a groundbreaking gender discrimination case which would open the door for gender equality for years to come. And it does so in a manner that is both informative and emotional.

Don’t believe the naysayers.  ON THE BASIS OF SEX is worthy of some love.

Go out and see this one before it leaves the theaters.

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ROMA (2018) – Filmmaking At Its Finest

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Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) at work in ROMA (2018)

ROMA (2018) is unlike any other movie I’ve seen this year.

Unpretentious, and seemingly effortless in the making, it offers a slice of life look at a young maid who works for a Mexican family in the neighborhood known as Roma during 1970-71. It’s as authentic a movie as you will ever find in that you’ll forget you’re watching a movie as you will be absorbed in the daily life of this woman and the family she serves, and the beauty of it is, after over two hours of what can only be described as a slow-moving story arc, you will not want it to be over.  You’ll want to watch another two hours plus of what happens to these people. That’s how good this movie is.

ROMA was written and directed by Alfonso Cuaron, who won the Best Director Oscar for his work on the science fiction movie GRAVITY (2013), a film I enjoyed a lot. ROMA is a better movie than GRAVITY. It’s also a more personal one for Cuaron, who tells a tale that is largely autobiographical, based on his upbringing in Mexico, about the love he as a child and the rest of his family shared for their maid who as shown in the movie is more than just hired help. Since she is largely responsible for raising the children, she’s also part of the family.

ROMA tells the story of Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) a young maid who works for a Mexican family inside a rather wealthy home. The parents, a doctor and his wife, are having marital problems, and the doctor soon moves out of the home. We see Cleo’s day-to-day activities, all the work she does, including cooking, laundry, picking the kids up from school, and cleaning up after the dogs. Indeed, dog poop is a central metaphor in this movie. Here is a family that should be happy, and indeed they seem to be, but life is a grind, and even if you work hard at it, poop still piles up. Yup, sh*t happens.

We watch as Cleo goes out with her friends and a young man she likes, and she soon becomes pregnant. A common theme in the film is the abandonment of women by men, and so the father of Cleo’s baby not only wants nothing to do with her, but threatens her if she ever comes to see him again.

Amid the backdrop of political unrest in 1971 Mexico, things heat up towards the end of the movie as Cleo’s personal story as well as her involvement with the family reach an emotional climax.

I first heard about ROMA a short time ago when it began showing up on critics’ lists as the best movie of the year. Thanks to a direct release on Netflix, I was able to see this one at home, and I’m glad I did.

As I said, this one is slow, very slow, so you have to be patient with it, but it does move towards a huge payoff. Indeed, the final 45 minutes of ROMA are among the most emotional minutes of any film I’ve seen this year. It really delivers.

And ROMA is more than just “sitting through the slow parts to get to the end.” I thoroughly enjoyed the first 90 minutes, and then the final act arrives and the film reaches a whole other level.

I used the word effortless to describe this movie, and I did so because it’s a film where everything seems authentic, and the camerawork relaxed. You hardly think you are watching a movie. But truth be told you don’t make a movie like this accidentally.  There is a tremendous amount of artistry going on here with Cuaron’s use of the camera. The camerawork is nothing short of amazing.

There are so many memorable images in this film, so many moments where you will be blown away by the way things are shot and framed, and all of it in mesmerizing black and white photography.

There’s a scene where Cleo is doing laundry on the roof, and at the end of the sequence, the camera pulls back and you see all these clothes hanging to dry, to give you some perspective at just how much work she has done, and the camera continues to pull back and you see the entire neighborhood.

The scene at a New Year’s party where Cleo witnesses the beginnings of a forest fire in the distance is almost mystical, almost supernatural. And the camerawork during the final act is even more intense, from the rioting, to the riveting birth scene when Cleo goes into labor, and the final sequence on the beach, where you can almost smell the ocean, feel the huge salt water waves on your body.

Cuaron establishes such a sense of place, and he does this not only with the camera but also with sounds.  The sound work in this movie is extraordinary. Dogs barking, airplanes flying overhead, the quirky bands marching up and down the street, the strange street vendor singing out early in the morning. I really felt as if I were there in Roma in 1971.

Animals play an important part in the landscape. They’re everywhere, especially dogs. Also, huge planes frequently fly overhead in the distant sky. It’s as if Cuaron travelled back in time and captured everything from his childhood. It all comes to life.

The performances are also authentic and genuine, especially Yalitza Aparicio as Cleo, who captures the essence of a young woman who carries with her a quiet strength that is able to cut through all the menial tasks and makes her someone the children in the household truly love. In one telling scene, for example, where she visits the father of her child who’s taking part in martial arts training, we see the leader of the training challenge the men to take up a difficult physical position which seems at first simple, but he challenges them to try it. They all fail, but in one quick shot of the bystanders, we see Cleo try and succeed.

The child actors here are all excellent, and I also enjoyed Marina de Tavira as the mother of the household, Sofia, and Veronica Garcia also has some key scenes as the grandmother, Teresa. She walks and dresses like so many of the grandmothers I remember from my own childhood back in 1971.

ROMA is filmmaking at its finest. If you want to see a movie that displays some of the best camerawork of the year, with one of the more unassuming stories, with one of the most emotional payoffs and climaxes in a long while, then you should see ROMA.

It’s already on many critics’ lists as the best film of the year, and while I haven’t finalized my 2018 list yet, it’s certainly going to be up there.

I loved ROMA. Without doubt, it’s one of my favorite movies of 2018.

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Books by Michael Arruda:

New in 2019! DARK CORNERS, Michael Arruda’s second short story collection, contains ten tales of horror, six reprints and four stories original to this collection.

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Waiting for you in Dark Corners are tales of vampires, monsters, werewolves, demonic circus animals, and eternal darkness. Be prepared to be both frightened and entertained. You never know what you will find lurking in dark corners.

Ebook: $3.99. Available at http://www.crossroadspress.com and at Amazon.com.  Print on demand version coming soon!

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

How far would you go to save your family? Would you change the course of time? That’s the decision facing Adam Cabral in this mind-bending science fiction adventure by Michael Arruda.

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

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

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Michael Arruda reviews horror movies throughout history, from the silent classics of the 1920s, Universal horror from the 1930s-40s, Hammer Films of the 1950s-70s, all the way through the instant classics of today. If you like to read about horror movies, this is the book for you!

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

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

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Print cover

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Ebook cover

 

Michael Arruda’s first short story collection, featuring a wraparound story which links all the tales together, asks the question: can you have a relationship when your partner is surrounded by the supernatural? If you thought normal relationships were difficult, wait to you read about what the folks in these stories have to deal with. For the love of horror!

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

 

 

 

THE MULE (2018) – Eastwood’s Latest Doesn’t Excite

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Clint Eastwood in THE MULE (2018).

At 88 years-old, Clint Eastwood still draws an audience.

When I saw his latest movie THE MULE (2018), a film that Eastwood both directs and stars in, the theater was packed. Nary an empty seat was to be found.

This is because Eastwood has been making movies for over 50 years, first as an actor and top box office draw and later as an extremely successful director. My whole life Eastwood has been acting in the movies, from the Spaghetti Westerns in the 1960s to the Dirty Harry movies to his later directorial gems like UNFORGIVEN (1992) and MILLION DOLLAR BABY (2004). His career has been phenomenal, and at 88 years-old, he’s still churning out movies.  Incredible!

All this being said, however, THE MULE, Eastwood’s latest project and the first time he’s acted in a movie since TROUBLE WITH THE CURVE (2012), is a rather underwhelming vehicle for the iconic filmmaker. At best it’s average, and at worst, well, it’s not that good.

THE MULE tells the story of a 90 year-old horticulturist Earl Stone (Clint Eastwood) who after his longtime business folds accepts an offer to get paid for delivering a package across state lines. No questions asked. Of course, Earl comes to find out that he’s transporting drugs for a Mexican cartel, but since he enjoys the money, he continues to serve as their “mule,” getting paid handsomely for his efforts, so much so that eventually he becomes their top driver.

I had a lot of problems with this story, the biggest being that I simply didn’t care what happened to Earl or any of the other characters, and here’s why. At first, Earl doesn’t seem to know what it is he’s transporting, although it should be very clear to him from the outset what he’s doing, since his first day on the job he’s greeted by some unsavory characters wielding weapons. Regardless, soon enough he takes a peek at the package and sees once and for all that he’s transporting drugs.

But he simply doesn’t care. And this is the part of the story that I didn’t like, that the audience doesn’t really understand why he doesn’t care, since not enough is known about the character. Most folks I would imagine would not want to be working for a Mexican drug cartel, regardless of the money, and Earl especially seems like someone who wouldn’t want to do this kind of work.

Besides being a retired horticulturist, he’s also a retired Korean War veteran. As he says in the movie, he’s been in combat, so he doesn’t frighten easily, so I get that he’s the weathered tough guy who’s not going to bat an eye at these drug heavies. But we learn nothing about Earl to support the idea that he’d be okay with this kind of work.

The running theme of the movie is that people need to make time for their families. Throughout his whole life, Earl put his work before family, and as a result neither his ex-wife Mary (Diane Wiest) or his adult daughter Iris (Alison Eastwood, Clint’s real life daughter) want anything to do with him any more. Only his granddaughter Ginny (Taissa Farmiga) is willing to keep the lines of communication open.

Earl, at 90, is looking back and regretting his decisions, and yes, he is using his newfound riches to help his family, but even so he hardly seems like a family man.  He uses his money to spend nights with beautiful young women, and when he is invited to the home of the cartel boss Laton (Andy Garcia) he seems comfortable and at home.

I guess I expected a little angst and regret from the character for cozying up with the drug trade. There’s none to be found. And it’s not as if Earl lived a criminal life earlier. He raised flowers!  Earl is simply not a very drawn out character, nor is he all that interesting. In short, I didn’t care about him one iota.

Bradley Cooper, Michael Pena, and Laurence Fishburne play DEA agents hot on the trail of the cartel which employs Earl in scenes that are largely cliché and dull.  The dialogue is about as sharp as the writing on the daytime soaps of old.  Pretty bad.

And the women characters here fare even worse.  Dianne Wiest, Alison Eastwood, and Taissa Farmiga play three generation of women in Earl’s family and they are all reduced to cliché dialogue about his not being there for his family. The guy’s 90. You’d think they would have gotten over his absence a long time ago and moved on with their lives.

It’s a very shallow screenplay by Sam Dolnick and Nick Schenk, offering little or no insights on what’s like to be a 90 year-old man running drugs for a Mexican drug cartel. Earl seems to be as much invested in the job as if he’s just going for a Sunday drive. Part of this, I guess, is the point, that he’s not rattled, that he does his own thing and doesn’t allow the drug thugs to bully him, but it plays out in the most undramatic of fashions. There are hardly any suspenseful moments, nor is there much poignancy here.

It really does feel like Earl is out for that Sunday drive.  That’s about how much urgency this movie wields.

This is Eastwood’s second directorial effort this year, as earlier in 2018  he directed THE 15:17 TO PARIS, a film I liked even less than THE MULE. But I’m not souring on Eastwood. He’s made far too many gems for me to do that.  In fact, his previous three movies, SULLY (2016), AMERICAN SNIPER (2014), and JERSEY BOYS (2014) were among my favorite movies of those years. And while he didn’t direct TROUBLE WITH THE CURVE (2012) he did deliver an outstanding performance in it.

But nobody’s perfect, not even Eastwood, and it’s difficult to make one high quality movie after another.

As such, I can’t say that I liked THE MULE all that much. I never warmed up to the main character, Earl, and I never really understood where he was coming from or why he was doing what he was doing. As a result, I never really cared for him. More so, I didn’t care for the rest of the story either, as the supporting characters and storylines played more like cardboard cut-outs than real people and situations.

THE MULE seems old and tired, and its main character, 90 year-old retired horticulturist Earl Stone appears to agree to work for a Mexican drug cartel for no other reason than he likes to drive and enjoys the money. While there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s not exactly compelling storytelling.

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Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com. Print version:  $18.00. Includes postage! 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.crossroadpress.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. 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- original cover

Print cover

For the Love of Horror cover (3)

Ebook cover

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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The Guilty

I love lean movies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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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.

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