IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: GREEN ROOM (2015)

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When this year’s Oscar winner for Best Picture, GREEN BOOK (2018) was first released, I remember thinking, gee, that title is awfully close to GREEN ROOMI wouldn’t want to be that person who mistakenly chose to watch GREEN ROOM when they meant to watch GREEN BOOK. They’re two very different movies. The person making that mistake would be in for quite a shock.

GREEN ROOM is a violent, visceral thriller that got under my skin and provided me with 95 minutes of horrifically intense entertainment.

GREEN ROOM is the story of a punk rock band whose members agree to accept a gig at a neo-Nazi skinhead bar. Their performance doesn’t go all that well— no, they’re not attacked because they played bad music, but they do run afoul of murder when they walk into the green room and find two people standing over the body of a dead woman, a knife jammed into her head. Before they can react, they are locked in the room and held hostage by bouncers at the bar.

The bar’s owner Darcy (Patrick Stewart) arrives with a plan to make the crime go away, a plan that includes pinning the murder on the visiting band. This doesn’t sit well with the band, who decide to fight back, which is no easy task since they’re surrounded by people with weapons and vicious dogs who enjoy ripping people’s throats out.

What follows is a brutal and  suspenseful tale of the band’s fight for survival against a horde of murderous neo-Nazis led by the level-headed Mr. Darcy.

I really enjoyed GREEN ROOM. I was hooked within the film’s first few minutes. Writer/director Jeremy Saulnier immediately captures the personality and mood of the punk rock band, known as The Ain’t Rights. The opening plays like a rock documentary, and once the band gets to the skinhead bar, things become sketchy first and then downright deadly.

And once that happens, once they discover the body of the murdered girl and get trapped inside the green room, all bets are off. What follows is an intense thrill ride that will give you sweaty palms for the remainder of the film.

GREEN ROOM features the late Anton Yelchin in the lead role as Pat, the band member who takes the lead in their fight for survival. In real life, Yelchin tragically died in a bizarre accident in which his Jeep Grand Cherokee rolled down his steep driveway and pinned him against a wall, killing him, on June 19, 2016. Yelchin was a tremendous talent and had already enjoyed enormous success in his young career, playing Chekov in the rebooted STAR TREK movies starring Chris Pine,  and he played Charley Brewster in the remake of FRIGHT NIGHT (2011) and Kyle Reese in TERMINATOR SALVATION (2009).

Yelchin is excellent here as Pat. At first, he’s not the character you expect to become the leader, especially since early on he almost dies, but his resilient spirit grows as the story goes along.

Imogen Poots is also memorable as Amber, the young woman who’s found standing over the dead girl with the knife in her head. I like Poots a lot. Interestingly enough, she also starred in the remake of FRIGHT NIGHT as Amy.

Also in the cast is Joe Cole, who plays John Shelby on the TV show PEAKY BLINDERS (2013-17). I also enjoyed Macon Blair as Gabe, one of the bouncers who actually develops a conscious as the plot unfolds.

But for my money the best performance in GREEN ROOM belong to Captain Jean-Luc Picard himself, Patrick Stewart as club owner Darcy. Stewart, of course, played the Enterprise captain on STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION (1987-1994) and in the four NEXT GENERATION STAR TREK movies. And, he’s set to reprise the role of Captain Picard in an upcoming Star Trek TV series which is as of yet untitled. Not to mention his portrayal of Professor Charles Xavier in the X-MEN movies, a role he played most recently in LOGAN (2017) with Hugh Jackman.

As Darcy in GREEN ROOM, Stewart is calm and cool, the complete opposite of everyone else in the movie. As such, Stewart makes Darcy a chilling adversary, someone who doesn’t think twice about the deadly decisions he makes. He’s cold, calculating, and ultimately a bad ass.

For me, watching Stewart was the best part of GREEN ROOM.

There are also some truly frightening scenes in this one, from hands being grotesquely mutilated to deathly choke holds, to murder with box cutters, to man-eating dogs. Gulp!

This is one movie you don’t want to watch on a full stomach. Yet, it is much more than just a gore fest. In fact, it’s not very gory at all. Most of the violence occurs in quick fashion in swiftly edited scenes, which only adds to the frenetic pace of the film.

Writer/director Jeremy Saulnier also creates sympathetic characters who you care about and want to see survive, feelings that are heightened by the fact that the chances of their survival are so slim.

GREEN ROOM is a first-rate thriller and horror movie. No, it’s not the one that won Best Picture—that’s GREEN BOOK— but it is the one that will leave you green with revulsion.

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THE BEST OF ENEMIES (2019) – Racial Drama Has the Best Intentions

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THE BEST OF ENEMIES (2019) has its heart in the right place.

Its tale, based on the true story of civil rights activist Ann Atwater taking on KKK leader C.P. Ellis in Durham, North Carolina in 1971 over the issue of school integration, in which Atwater succeeded in converting Ellis to shed his KKK beliefs and see things her way, is a good one.

And its message of bringing two opposing sides together to hear each other out and learn from each other is an important one for the times in which we now live. For this reason alone, it’s worth a look, even if it’s not successful in everything it sets out to do.

It’s 1971, and Durham, NC is dealing with racism. The black community struggles to have a voice, as local officials are heavily tied to the KKK, who continue to promote racist attitudes and policies. When the issue of school integration arises, the Durham legislature calls in Bill Riddick (Babou Ceesay) to mediate the two sides, and when he calls for Ann Atwater (Taraji P. Henson) and C.P. Ellis (Sam Rockwell) to be co-chairs, it’s seen as a crazy move. Neither leader is interested, and Ellis can’t understand why he’s even being asked, but the local officials encourage him to take part, because they fear if he’s not there, then his spot will be filled with liberal voice, so he might as well be there to stop school integration from happening.

As the process continues, and Ann and C.P. eventually engage in a dialogue, each begins to see things from the other’s perspectives, and eventually C.P. changes his mind about the way he views black people.

This story might seem too farfetched if it were not based on a true story.

THE BEST OF ENEMIES has the best intentions. It shows both sides almost to a fault. I was uncomfortable watching parts of this movie which spent much time on a KKK leader, often showing how much the Klan meant to this man. The idea of anything positive associated with the KKK I find repulsive, yet this film gets into how it made a positive impact on C.P. Ellis’ life. Of course, C.P. eventually experiences a conversion, which wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t had the opportunity to listen to the other side, which is the point—- and it’s a valuable one— that this film is making. For divisions to be overcome, both sides need to come to the table and need to be able to listen to each other.

Sam Rockwell does a fine job as C.P. Ellis, although I enjoyed his performance as George W. Bush in VICE (2018) more. Here, Rockwell plays Ellis as a man who was drawn to the Klan for a sense of belonging. He needed a place to fit in, and it didn’t hurt that he shared their same views of white purity and supremacy. As he listens to Ann Atwater, he is struck by some of the true things she says, like when she points out that he’s as poor as the black folks in town and economically speaking he has more in common with them than with the white lawmakers. And later when she helps his son who has Down’s syndrome, it strikes a chord deep within him.

Rockwell successfully captures this conversion, spending a lot of time looking confused and introspective, and as his eyes become open to the other side, he brings the audience in with him and allows them to know just what it is he his thinking and feeling.

Working against Rockwell here is he played a similar role in THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (2017). In THREE BILLBOARDS, Rockwell played a racist cop who also undergoes a type of conversion, although not as clear-cut as the one C.P. Ellis experiences. Of course, Rockwell won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his work in THREE BILLBOARDS, which is a better movie than THE BEST OF ENEMIES since it had a livelier script and did a better job covering its controversial issues with nuance and gray areas, whereas THE BEST OF ENEMIES plays as more conventional straight-forward drama.

So, as I watched Rockwell here in THE BEST OF ENEMIES, I was reminded often of his work in THREE BILLBOARDS.

Taraji P. Henson is excellent as Ann Atwater, and for my money she gives the best performance in the film. She loses herself in this character, and having seen Henson in other movies, like HIDDEN FIGURES (2016), watching her here in THE BEST OF ENEMIES I often forgot I was watching her and instead believed I was watching the real Ann Atwater.

Unfortunately, as the film goes on, Atwater plays second fiddle to C.P. Ellis, as he gets more screen time than she does. I get the reason, since he’s the character who undergoes the conversion, but it’s a decision that’s not completely successful. For one, it keeps Henson off-screen, which is not a good thing, and two, it presents yet another story where the white guy is responsible for saving the blacks. That being said, the story told here remains a worthwhile one, but it’s a pattern in movies which is noticeable, and it’s not refreshing, and so it works against the movie.

Babou Ceesay is agreeable as mediator Bill Riddick, and Anne Heche, who I haven’t seen in a movie in ages, plays C.P.’s wife Mary, and she’s very good.

John Gallagher Jr., an actor who has impressed me in a variety of roles in such films as 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE (2016) and THE BELKO EXPERIMENT (2016), has a small but important role here as Lee Trombley, a hardware store owner who is sympathetic to black people, and who represents one of the swing votes at the table.

Writer/director Robin Bissell lets the story of C.P. Ellis’ conversion speak for itself. The production, pace, and tone of the film are all rather subdued. There are very few radical moments, places where the film has an edge and makes its audience uncomfortable. We barely see the true ugliness of racism.

The emphasis here is on seeing C.P. Ellis as a real person, and understanding his background and motivation. He is portrayed as a sympathetic character, which for me, for most of this film, was in itself disturbing. Why am I watching a positive interpretation of a KKK leader? And of course, the answer is so we can understand how and why he changes.

The sanitization of the issues does not work to the film’s advantage, however, and at times, especially towards the end, the film lacks oomph when it should have been pulling at its audience’s heartstrings with its story of racial division and conversion.

THE BEST OF ENEMIES means well and ultimately has a positive message and rewarding story to tell, and that is, if people from opposite view points sit down at the same table and listen to each other, good things happen.

It’s a message that needs to be heard, and THE BEST OF ENEMIES at the very least has no problem sharing it.

–END—-

PET SEMATARY (2019) – Remake Standard Horror Vehicle

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For me, Pet Sematary has always been one of Stephen King’s scariest novels. When I first read it nearly thirty years ago, it really got under my skin. I also enjoyed the 1989 film adaptation of PET SEMATARY.

While I didn’t really see the need for a remake, considering the source material, I felt, well, why the heck not? So I went into the theater to see this one with fairly enthusiastic expectations.

PET SEMATARY (2019) tells a tale that remains chilling today.  Dr. Louis Creed (Jason Clarke) and his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz) relocate their family— eight year-old daughter Ellie (Jete Laurence), three year-old son Gage (twins Hugo and Lucas Lavoie) and cat Church— from Boston to rural Maine in order to slow their lives down and spend more time with each other.

Not long after they settle in, Ellie discovers a strange “pet sematary” in the woods in the back of their property, and their neighbor Jud (John Lithgow) explains that it’s been there for years, a place where the local children bury their dead pets. Cemetery is spelled “sematary” because in the past the children had misspelled the sign.

In front of their home is a rural road where huge trucks roar by at speeds which seem to rival supersonic jets. These rigs also don’t tend to make any noise until they’re right on top of the property. Not very realistic. I live on a rural road. You can hear the rumble of trucks coming from a distance.

Anyway, when Church is killed on that road, to spare Ellie heartbreak, Jud shows Louis another cemetery, this one located deeper in the woods behind the pet sematary, and advises Louis to bury the cat there, without telling him why.

The next day, the cat returns, alive, but very different, aggressive, and not very agreeable. Jud then explains to Louis the secret of the second cemetery, that things buried in the soil there return. Of course, they don’t return the same.

Later, when Ellie is tragically killed by one of those monstrous rigs racing along the rural highway, Louis decides his daughter has been taken from him too quickly, and against his better judgment, buries her in the pet sematary, knowing that she will return.

Oh, the things that parents will do for their children!

As I said, Pet Sematary has always been for me one of Stephen King’s scariest novels, mostly I think because of the pain of the parents’ grief and the knowledge that what Louis is about to do will end badly for everyone involved.

One of the biggest weaknesses of this new movie version of PET SEMATARY is that somehow, in spite of the frightening source material, it’s simply not that scary. Part of this is the changes made to the story. Then there’s the dialogue which isn’t very sharp, and lastly the film simply fails to capitalize on the true horror aspects of the novel.

Let’s start with the first half of the film, before anything or anyone is buried. Directors Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer don’t really take advantage of the natural creepy elements here. When Elle first discovers the cemetery, she initially sees some local children wearing masks taking their pet there, images which should be weird and creepy, but they hardly register as such since we see them so briefly.

When Louis fails to save a dying student at the clinic, a plot point that is critical in the novel, the victim Victor Pascow returns numerous times to warn Louis against his involvement with the sematary. These scenes also barely register here. Neither do the flashback scenes with Rachel and her sister who was suffering from spinal bifida. These scenes were unnerving in the novel. They’re rushed and glossed over here in the movie.

Once Louis learns about the pet sematary, and after seeing how disastrous the return of Church proved to be, it really strained believability that— regardless of how much he missed his daughter— that he would bury her there. He’s gotta know how she will be when she returns. The film failed to convince me that a grieving father would feel this is a good idea. It’s not like there’s a chance she’d come back normal. The film makes it abundantly clear that it’s not going to happen.

The change here having Ellie killed and resurrected rather than Gage didn’t really add anything new to the story, other than giving Ellie a bit more to do when she eventually comes back.

I can’t say I was all that impressed by the screenplay by Matt Greenberg, based of course on the Stephen King novel.  I could give or take the changes made to the story, including the ending, as nothing new here did all that much for me, and the parts that stuck to the original simply weren’t told with any sort of conviction. There was something very flat about the whole production.

Jason Clarke, who’s been in a ton of movies, including an excellent performance as Ted Kennedy in CHAPPAQUIDDICK (2018), is an actor I like a lot. He’s very good here as Louis Creed, although again, I simply did not believe he’d think burying his daughter in the pet sematary was a good idea. Clarke also turned in notable performances in the genre films TERMINATOR GENISYS (2015) and DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES  (2014).

Amy Seimetz is okay as Rachel, but as written, the character strangely doesn’t figure as prominently in the story as one would expect.

Young Jete Laurence is very good as Ellie, and she is admittedly rather creepy when she returns from the grave.

John Lithgow is sufficiently earthy as lifelong Maine resident Jud, but one of the highlights from the 1989 film was Fred Gwynne’s performance as the character. Gwynne, who was forever typecast and remembered as Herman Munster on THE MUNSTERS (1964-66) delivered an outstanding performance in that 1989 film that was one of the best parts of the movie. Lithgow here did not make me forget about Gwynne.

I can’t say that I liked this new version of PET SEMATARY all that much. It’s not as good as the 1989 film, and it’s nowhere near as scary as King’s novel. It’s passable horror entertainment, but since it fails to convince its audience that its main character would indeed take the drastic steps he does to resurrect his deceased daughter, the film never really resonates or becomes more than just a standard by-the-numbers horror vehicle.

Stephen King fans deserve better.

—END—

SHAZAM! (2019) – Comedic Superhero Tale Only Half Works

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Shazam!

And just like that, just by saying that one word, young Billy Batson can transform himself into an electrically charged Herculean superhero! Woo-hoo!

That’s the premise in SHAZAM! (2019), the latest superhero movie from DC, the comic book company whose movies have been struggling to compete with its rival’s, Marvel, over the last decade. SHAZAM! is a light and funny film that gets all the comedy elements right, which is a good thing, because its story of magic and family ties or the lack thereof is nothing to write home about.

Fourteen year-old Billy Batson (Asher Angel) has been searching for his mother without success since being separated from her at a young age. As such, he’s been bounced around from foster family to foster family, experiences which all end the same, with Billy running away.

Now in a family led by foster parents Rosa (Marta Milans) and Victor (Cooper Andrews) that includes five other children, a home filled with positivity and good humor, Billy still resists being there. But one night he’s summoned by The Wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou) who’s trying to protect the world from the Seven Deadly Sins and whose powers are waning. He needs to give them to someone who’s pure at heart, and up until now his search has been fruitless, but he’s out of time, and so he gives his powers to young Billy.

When Billy says Shazam! he turns into an adult superhero (Zachary Levi). Knowing little about superheroes, Billy turns to his foster-brother Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer) for help, and the two spend much of the film having fun with Billy’s newfound powers. Everything is great until supervillain Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong) comes looking for Billy, intent on destroying the newfound superhero so he can be the only all-powerful dude on the block, along with those seven deadly sins, of course, who are personified here as statues who come to life at Sivana’s bidding.

As I said, the story here is nothing to write home about. It’s all rather silly and ridiculous, and since the tone of this one is light and humorous, that’s not really a problem. However, I did find it to be a distraction. I mean, couldn’t the writers have made this story just a tad bit more realistic? Magic and wizards and statues that come to life, it’s all pretty childish. I can’t say that liked the story all that much.

What I did like was the humor. When Billy transforms into Shazam, and he’s a fourteen year-old inside an adult body belonging to an all-powerful superhero, the story is fun, and the movie is extremely watchable. Basically, it’s BIG (1988) but with a cape. In fact, when Shazam runs onto a giant piano keyboard inside a toy store, that’s a direct nod to the classic 1988 Tom Hanks comedy.

Zachary Levi is hilarious as Shazam. The scenes he shares with Jack Dylan Grazer are the best in the movie. Grazer’s Freddy helps Shazam learn about his powers as together they find out what he can and cannot do, which provide some uproarious results, like when Freddy suggests he try to “leap a tall building with a single bound” and Shazam doesn’t quite make it, crashing through a skyscraper window.

Other scenes have fun with the “fourteen year-old inside an adult body” theme, like when Shazam tries to buy beer for him and Freddy. Both of them promptly spit it out upon tasting it, disgusted by the taste, and in the next shot they depart the same store with arms full of junk food instead.

Levi, who played Chuck on the well-regarded TV show CHUCK (2007-2012) channels an exuberant Jimmy Fallon-like vibe throughout, and his scenes are clearly the best in the movie.

Jack Dylan Grazer is equally as good as the nerdy superhero geek Freddy who gets picked on at school and so naturally relishes his time with Shazam.  Asher Angel is also enjoyable as Billy Batson, and he has some fine moments as well, although he unfortunately misses out on the films liveliest scenes since they feature his alter ego Shazam.

Young Faithe Herman delivers a scene stealing supporting performance as the younger sister Darla in the foster family, and Marta Milans and Cooper Andrews (who plays the King’s right hand man Jerry on AMC’s THE WALKING DEAD) both do a nice job as amiable foster parents Rosa and Victor.

Mark Strong, an actor I like a lot, is okay as villain Dr. Thaddeus Sivana, but it’s not anything I haven’t seen Strong do before. In fact, he was much better as Frank D’Amico, the villain in KICK-ASS (2010).

Director David F. Sandberg handles the comedic scenes with ease, but the rest of the film with its magic subplot, family themes, and generic superhero fanfare is all rather standard. Sandberg previously directed a couple of horror films, LIGHTS OUT (2016), an okay horror movie, and ANNABELLE: CREATION (2017), the second and better of the two Annabelle movies. In fact, the Annabelle doll appears briefly in a store window in this movie.

The screenplay by Henry Grayden is a mixed bag. The comedy works. The rest doesn’t. Its message regarding family is that family is who you are with, not necessarily blood relatives, and it does this in a way that shows some pretty awful families. Billy Batson’s mom abandons him because she feels overwhelmed, and in a weird opening sequence, we meet Dr. Thaddeus as a young boy and witness his dad and older brother treating him horribly and cruelly. This is juxtaposed with the happy foster family run by Rosa and Victor.

There’s nothing wrong with this take on family, except that the examples of bad families are so over the top they’re difficult to take seriously.

The magic storyline along with the Seven Deadly Sins personified is, simply put, pretty ridiculous.

Shazam is only mentioned here by this one name. He’s not referred to at all by his other name in the comics, Captain Marvel, since Marvel Studios owns the rights to the name for their own character who of course just appeared in her own movie a few weeks ago, CAPTAIN MARVEL (2019), even though the DC character appeared in the comics before the Marvel character did.

Where does SHAZAM! rank with other recent DC flms? While it’s quite the different movie from AQUAMAN (2018), I liked it about the same, placing it below WONDER WOMAN (2017) but above BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE (2016).

I loved the comedy here, and really enjoyed watching Zachary Levi as Shazam whenever he was on-screen, but the rest of this film was pretty childish and phony, not the best criteria for a superhero movie.

—END—

 

THE HIGHWAYMEN (2019) – Costner/Harrelson Pairing Low Key and Lackluster

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The pairing of Kevin Costner with Woody Harrelson immediately piqued my interest and had me tuning into the premiere of THE HIGHWAYMEN (2019), Netflix’ latest original streaming movie release.

Costner and Harrelson play Texas Rangers who are called out of retirement to hunt down Bonnie and Clyde in this period piece drama based on a true story.

It’s 1934, and Texas governor Ma Ferguson (Kathy Bates) is fed up with the elusive Bonnie and Clyde. She accepts the advice of prison warden Lee Simmons (John Carroll Lynch) to hire former Texas Ranger Frank Hamer (Kevin Costner) to  do what the current slew of FBI agents are unable to do: track down and kill Bonnie and Clyde. Hamer agrees to take the job, and helping him is his former associate Maney Gault (Woody Harrelson).

To do the job, Hamer and Gault have to dust off the cobwebs of retirement and deal with being a lot older, but once they feel they are up to speed, they’re hot on the trail of the infamous outlaws.

I was really into seeing THE HIGHWAYMEN because of the pairing of Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson, but surprisingly the two actors share little chemistry onscreen together.

Costner is very low-key as Frank Hamer, and as such, he just never really came to life for me. I never quite believed he was the infamous Texas Ranger who had killed so many people in the line of duty.

Woody Harrelson fares better as Maney Gault, and Harrelson’s scenes and lines of dialogue were among my favorite in the movie. But his character plays second fiddle to Costner’s and the story never really becomes about him.

And Kathy Bates, John Carroll Lynch, and Kim Dickens all have limited impact with very small roles.

There’s also not a whole lot that’s cinematic about this one. It plays like a mediocre TV movie of old, and watching it at home on Netflix only added to this substandard feel. Director John Lee Hancock even keeps the R-rated violence somehow tame.

Hancock’s previous film THE FOUNDER (2016), a bio pic on McDonald’s controversial “founder” Ray Kroc, which starred Michael Keaton in the lead role, was a much better movie than THE HIGHWAYMEN. In THE FOUNDER, Hancock pushed all the right buttons, including capturing the look and feel of the 1950s. Here in THE HIGHWAYMEN his take on the 1930s is less impressive.

Hancock also directed the critically acclaimed THE BLIND SIDE (2009).

The screenplay by John Fusco focuses completely on Hamer and Gault and strangely spends hardly no time at all on Bonnie and Clyde. In fact, the infamous pair are barely even seen here. It’s a decision that doesn’t really help the story, because even though Hamer and Gault continually talk about how monstrous Bonnie and Clyde are, and even though we see the pair commit murder, because so little time is spent on them we never really feel their menace.

As a result, Hamer’s and Gault’s quest is largely one-sided. It’s hard to join them in their passion when we never see the object of their manhunt.

The dialogue was average, with most of the good lines all going to Woody Harrelson.

I also was looking forward to watching these two characters deal with their advanced years as they hunted down the younger Bonnie and Clyde, but the script doesn’t play up this angle very effectively either.

All in all, I found THE HIGHWAYMEN to be lethargic and lackluster. It never really ignited any sparks, and the two leads surprisingly never really connected.

At the end of the day, THE HIGHWAYMEN was more roadblock than highway.

—END—

 

 

 

HOTEL MUMBAI (2019) – Brutal Re-Telling of Mumbai Terrorist Attack

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In 2008, terrorists stormed the famed Taj Hotel in Mumbai, India, killing and wounding hundreds of people. With only a miniscule police force outside the hotel, and special forces units hours away, it fell upon the hotel staff to protect the hotel’s guests. HOTEL MUMBAI (2019) tells their story.

Unfortunately, it also tells the story of the actual terrorists, as the film attempts to point out that the terrorists were young men who were obviously duped by their unseen leader to carry out these vicious attacks. This part of the movie, although minor, doesn’t work as well as the rest.

The best part of HOTEL MUMBAI is the stories it tells of the victims hiding inside the hotel.

Arjun (Dev Patel) is married, has a young son, and his wife is pregnant with their next child. He works at the hotel, and money is tight, and so he desperately needs this job. When he forgets his shoes, he’s scolded by the head chef Oberoi (Anupam Kher) and told to go home, but he begs to stay, and Oberoi relents and offers him a spare pair of shoes in his office.

David (Armie Hammer) and Zahra (Nazanin Boniadi) are a multicultural couple. He’s American and she’s Indian. They’re at the hotel with their baby and baby’s nanny Sally (Tilda Cobham-Hervey).

Once the terrorists storm the hotel, head chef Oberoi is the one who pretty much organizes the resistance, helping to move as many guests as possible into the most secure area of the hotel.

As the terrorists move freely about the building, with special forces hours away, the story becomes more harrowing as the guests gradually begin to run out of options. There are only so many places they can hide, and the gunmen, armed with assault rifles and grenades, continue their onslaught with frightening persistence.

The scenes of death and carnage in HOTEL MUMBAI are brutal and difficult to watch. Some have suggested that these scenes border on the exploitative. I wouldn’t go that far, but I will say that watching the gunmen march boldly through the hotel killing innocent people indiscriminately, taking their time about it because law enforcement was nowhere in sight, was wince inducing. But it also bolsters the story. The film makes clear the awful fate that awaits the guests if they’re spotted by the terrorists.

HOTEL MUMBAI works best when following the plight of the survivors, the frightened guests, and the brave hotel staff who did their best to protect them. Writer/director Anthony Maras and screenwriter John Collee flesh out the characters in a relatively brief time. I really cared for all of these folks, which made the movie that more effective.

And the cast also helps. Oscar nominee Dev Patel comes closest to playing a lead character, as the main story is framed around Arjun. Patel, who was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for LION (2016), and who also starred in SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE (2008) and CHAPPIE (2015), is as expected excellent here. Arjun is both a sympathetic and very brave character, putting his life on the line for the hotel guests.

Armie Hammer, who we just saw in ON THE BASIS OF SEX (2018) where he played Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s husband Martin, is very good here as David. The scenes where he makes his way back up to his room to rescue his baby and Sally are extremely compelling.

Nazanin Boniadi is equally as good as David’s wife Zahra. She too has to brave the bloody corridors of the hotel to find her family. And Tilda Cobham-Hervey, who spends most of the movie protecting Zahra’s and David’s baby is excellent as the terrified Sally.

I also enjoyed Jason Isaacs, who recently played Captain Gabriel Lorca on STAR TREK: DISCOVERY (2017-18), and who also starred in the impressive horror movie A CURE FOR WELLNESS (2016). Here he plays a Russian operative named Vasili who’s a guest at the hotel and befriends Zahra once the terrorists attack. Not only does he get some of the best lines in the film, but he’s the only character in the movie inside the hotel with any kind of military experience.

My favorite performance in the film however probably belongs to Anupam Kher as head chef Oberoi. He makes Oberoi the ultimate professional, and when he’s tasked with protecting the guests, he accepts the challenge and does what he can. What I particularly liked about this character and Kher’s performance is that he doesn’t suddenly become an action hero. He’s a chef, and what he can do to help these people is limited. The help he can offer is based on his knowledge of the hotel, knowing where the safest place is to keep the guests, and also his cool demeanor as head chef serves him well in keeping the people calm.

Kher was also memorable in SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (2012) and THE BIG SICK (2016). He’s a character actor who makes his mark every time I see him in a movie, even if he’s playing a relatively small role.

As I said, HOTEL MUMBAI also portrays the terrorists as young men pretty much brainwashed by their unseen leader who speaks to them on the phone and coldly encourages them to kill as many people as possible, all in the name of Allah. While the film should be commended for taking this approach— it’s always a good idea to present as many sides to a story as possible— it didn’t really win me over. Watching them brutally murder people, I didn’t really want to know anything about them, nor did I feel sympathy for them. In fact, I probably would have enjoyed the movie more had it not featured any background on these killers at all. Intellectually, I understood the approach, but emotionally I rebelled against it.

The film does a better job pointing out that the Muslim terrorists do not represent all Muslims. Zahra is also Muslim, and her confrontation with one of the terrorists, one of the most riveting scenes in the movie, is symbolic of this difference.

The other subplot that also really works is the small security force which realizes that even though they are outmanned and outgunned, they have to do something to fight back, and so they venture back into the hotel in an attempt to commandeer the security cameras so they can at least get a fix on the terrorists’ positions inside the hotel. Theirs is also a harrowing story.

HOTEL MUMBAI is a riveting and oftentimes disturbing re-telling of the deadly terrorist attack on the Taj Hotel. I hesitate to say I enjoyed this film because it’s not a comfortable movie to sit through, but it succeeds in telling its edge-of-your seat story of a small group of hotel guests and staff who banded together to fight for their survival against a merciless group of vicious gunmen.

While I may not have “enjoyed” it, I highly recommend it.

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US (2019) – Ambitious Horror Movie Never Seems Real

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us-family

I was really looking forward to seeing US (2019).

Written and directed by Jordan Peele, the man who gave us GET OUT (2017), one of my favorite movies from that year, US boasted creepy trailers and advanced critical acclaim.

Imagine my disappointment when the end credits rolled and I found myself realizing I had just sat through— a dud.

Yep, I didn’t like US all that much. Didn’t like it at all.

The film opens creepily enough. It’s 1986, and a young girl is with her family at a beach boardwalk amusement park. The girl walks away and enters a house of mirrors on her own, where she has a bizarre and frightening experience. The film switches to present day where the girl Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) is now an adult with her own family: husband Gabe (Winston Duke), teenage daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and younger son Jason (Evan Alex).

They’re a normal enough family and early on they’re fun to watch. On vacation, they decide to go to the same beach boardwalk where Adelaide had her traumatic experience as a kid. How weird is that? I don’t think I’d take my kids to a place that held such haunting memories for me, but anyway, throughout the vacation Adelaide can’t help but feel that something bad is going to happen to her family. Of course she feels this!  She’s at the same place where she had her childhood trauma! Duh!

Her fears become reality when at night four mysterious figures show up outside their door, figures that look like another family.  Young Jason nails it when he says “They’re us.”  Because that’s who they are, strange zombielike doppelgängers of the four family members.

And it’s at this point in the film, where it introduces its horrific elements, where it should take off and soar, where for me, it simply all unravels, and I lost interest.

Why?

Not for reasons usually associated with a bad horror movie.

For starters, US is a very ambitious movie, in terms of theme and symbolic images. It plays like a college thesis. There’s a lot going on, but for me, its undoing is a lack of believability and ultimately a lack of emotion. It’s a rare thing for me to like a movie that doesn’t move me emotionally, and US didn’t move me one iota, mostly because the threat never seemed real to me, and so I never was full on board with the plight of these characters.

Sure, I appreciated what the film was saying, I understood why it was saying it, but I didn’t believe the way it was saying it. Basically, there are two versions of this family, and as the film later shows, two versions of a lot of families, and when the alternate Adelaide responds to the question of who is she with the answer, “We’re Americans,” you get the point of the two Americas. The alternate Americans are dressed in red, not a friendly color these days. I get the symbolism.

But the story as told in US made little sense to me. The story of these people’s origins never resonated with me as anything other than a symbolic treatise on our modern-day culture. As such, it distracted me from the proceedings and took away from the horror elements. The entire time the family was fighting for their lives I felt disconnected from them because their story played out less like the events in a movie and more like the pages of a college thesis paper.

So, there’s a lot to digest here, and for people who like to analyze movies, US is the film for them. For people who enjoy horror movies, I’d wager to guess those folks might be a little disappointed. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not arguing that the only good horror movie is a dumb horror movie. I love smart movies. But US tries too hard to be intellectual at the expense of being emotional.

The acting is excellent. Lupita Nyong’o excels as both Adelaide and the very chilling alternate version of her. Elizabeth Moss is equally as good as family friend Kitty and her evil doppelgänger.

Winston Duke is fun to watch as the relaxed amiable dad Gabe, although his “twin” is less effective as he lumbers around like a zombie and isn’t as frightening as some of the others. Duke and Nyong’o, who both co-starred in BLACK PANTHER (2018), make for a realistic couple, one of the few parts of this movie I found believable.

Shahadi Wright Joseph is very good as daughter Zora, as is Evan Alex as son Jason.

One of the reasons I liked GET OUT so much was it was both a scary horror movie and an incisive commentary on race. Here, Jordan Peele is working with a much broader canvas. He’s covering much more ground, but while US is a more ambitious film than GET OUT, it doesn’t work nearly as well. For starters, its story just seemed way too convoluted to be credible.

And since it wasn’t believable, I didn’t feel for the characters, and as a result ultimately didn’t care all that much for the movie.

And while there are plenty of creepy parts, I didn’t find US all that scary either.

I predict that I may like US more with subsequent viewings, because there is a lot to absorb. But my initial reaction to it was akin to reading a poem ripe with figurative language that told a story so unreal it distracted from its metaphors. In short, the ambitious US never convinced me that what it was saying was real.

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