IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: THE SKELETON KEY (2005)

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The following IN THE SPOOKLIGHT column on THE SKELETON KEY is a reprint from 2011.  John Hurt, who passed away in January, appears in the film in a supporting role.

—Michael 6/8/2017

 

I first reviewed THE SKELETON KEY (2005) when it was released theatrically in 2005.  I liked it then, and I was curious to see how the film would hold up several years later.

THE SKELETON KEY is a Hoodoo tale set in New Orleans.  Hoodoo is different from Voodoo, as Hoodoo is African American magic while Voodoo comes from Haiti, but in movie terms, they’re pretty much the same thing:  black magic, evil spells, and witchcraft.

Caroline Ellis (Kate Hudson) accepts a position to care for stroke victim Ben Devereaux (John Hurt) in his southern home.  Devereaux  is paralyzed and has lost the ability to speak, and he’s become too much for his wife Violet (Gena Rowlands) to care for on her own, and so their lawyer Luke Marshall (Peter Sarsgaard) hires Caroline.

Violet gives Caroline a skeleton key that supposedly opens every door in the house, but Caroline discovers that the key doesn’t open the door to the attic room.   Violet informs Caroline that the room is off limits, and she tells Caroline the tale of how over a hundred years ago the room belonged to two servants who practiced Hoodoo.  When they were caught teaching their black magic to the children of the house, they were murdered, but supposedly, their spirits remain in the house.

Caroline begins to believe that Violet isn’t “all there,” and when the mute Ben tries on several occasions to communicate to Caroline, asking for help, apparently fearful of his wife, Caroline concludes that her patient’s life is in danger.  She even confides her fears to Ben’s lawyer Luke Marshall, who tells her he can’t believe such a thing, that it doesn’t make sense to him.

Caroline decides that it’s up to her to save Ben from his deranged wife, but as she attempts to rescue him, she discovers there’s more going on inside that attic room then she at first believed.  It all leads to a twist ending that is actually better than most.

THE SKELETON KEY is a mildly entertaining story of witchcraft, black magic, and ghosts.  The best part about the film is the strong performances by the leads and a well-written plot that doesn’t fall apart in the end.

Kate Hudson is very enjoyable as Caroline.  She’s a likeable heroine, a sincere character who you worry about once her life is in danger.

The best performance in the movie though belongs to Gena Rowlands as Violet Devereaux.  She’s extremely believable as the southern woman set in her ways, fearing the ghosts who still live in her house, respecting the Hoodoo magic conjured up by those in the know, and who does not trust the young Caroline in her home.  It’s a terrific performance.

Peter Sarsgaard isn’t bad as the lawyer Luke Marshall, and as much as I like John Hurt as an actor, he’s largely wasted here as stroke victim Ben Devereaux.  He doesn’t speak, and he barely moves.  And no aliens explode from his chest.

THE SKELETON KEY is also a very atmospheric movie.  The scenes in and around the mansion give it a strong sense of place.  You can almost taste the jambalaya and smell the humidity in the air.  Director Iain Softley did a nice job capturing a spooky feel in this movie.

THE SKELETON KEY is definitely “quiet” horror.  Ehren Kruger wrote the screenplay, and he keeps things tame and mysterious, as opposed to shocking and in-your-face.  The movie does have a pretty decent twist ending, as those things go.  Most twist endings I see coming a mile away.  Not so, here.  Plus, a lot of twist endings seem tacked on, added just to make things different.  This twist works because it fits in perfectly with the story.

One thing THE SKELETON KEY is not is scary.  It’s not going to give you nightmares, but this doesn’t mean it’s not a successful horror movie.  It is.

It reminds me of some of the old Val Lewton horror movies, which were also subtle in the way they depicted horror, films like I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (1943) and THE LEOPARD MAN (1943).  THE SKELETON KEY isn’t as good as these old Lewton classics, but it is similar in mood and tone.

THE SKELETON KEY is not a classic of the genre, but it does tell a good story, and it’s teeming with Hoodoo atmosphere.  It also gets better as it goes along and finishes strongly.

As the weather begins to heat up, and the humidity begins to rise, and you’re reaching for that tall glass of sweet iced tea, you might want to pick up THE SKELETON KEY.  It’s the perfect complement to a sultry evening.

—END—

 

 

 

WONDER WOMAN (2017) – Superior Superhero Film Puts DC Back on the Map

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It’s been a while, but at long last, we have a DC superhero movie worthy of our attention, and that movie is WONDER WOMAN (2017).

DC has long been operating in the shadow of their competitor, Marvel Comics, who have been churning out one quality superhero movie after another, often several a year, while DC has struggled to make even one hit, often trying to imitate Marvel’s lighter style with disastrous results.  Perhaps the best part of WONDER WOMAN is that it succeeds without being like a Marvel movie at all.  It stands on its own, and it stands tall.

WONDER WOMAN tells the origin story of Diana (Gal Gadot), a princess of the Amazons, living on a secret island, hidden from the rest of humanity by a protective shield of camouflage. She is a little girl on the island populated by female warriors, the strongest being her mother, Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen).  As Diana grows to womanhood, she is trained by Antiope (Robin Wright) and soon becomes the fiercest warrior on the island.

When a British World War I pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) flies through the barrier and crashes into the ocean near the island’s shore, Diana swims to his rescue.  Moments later, German soldiers break through the barrier as well and attack the island.  There is a fierce fight and many are killed.

After questioning Steve and learning about the war, Diana decides to go back with him to stop it.  She believes it’s being waged by the god of war, Ares.  Find and kill Ares, and the war will end.

And thus Wonder Woman is born.

The rest of the movie follows Diana’s and Steve’s efforts to thwart the Germans who are planning to unleash a new deadly gas, and to do this, they have to rely on a small team of Steve’s rogue buddies, since officially, the British want to de-escalate the fighting since they are close to signing an armistice.

By far, the best part of WONDER WOMAN is the performance by Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman.  She is phenomenal here, just as she was in BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE (2016),  a deeply flawed film that was better whenever Gadot was on-screen.  She pretty much stole that movie.  Here, she has a movie of her own, and she’s terrific.

Gadot does for Wonder Woman what Robert Downey Jr. has done for Iron Man, and Chris Evans for Captain America.  She has put her stamp on the role and made it her own.

Chris Pine is also very good in the supporting role of Steve Trevor.  Pine makes Trevor a genuine war hero, and better yet, helps Diana see the good in humankind.

While Pine has been enjoying success as Captain Kirk in the new STAR TREK movies, he’s also been churning out some truly fine performances of late, in films like HELL OR HIGH WATER (2016) and THE FINEST HOURS (2016).

Trevor’s sidekicks also stand out.  Said Taghmaoui as Sameer, Ewen Bremner as Charlie, and Eugene Brave Rock as The Chief are all memorable.  They’re a lot of fun and are developed rather well as supporting characters, more so than Captain America’s war buddies in CAPTAIN AMERICA:  THE FIRST AVENGER (2011).  Taghmaoui in particular has some of the better lines in the movie, like when he’s recounting Diana’s story of her island, saying, “You mean it’s an entire island full of women like her?  Let’s go there!

Likewise, Lucy Davis is enjoyable as Steve Trevor’s secretary, Etta.  She has some fine moments in some comical scenes, like when Steve introduces her to Diana as his secretary, and Diana asks what a secretary does.  Etta tells her, and Diana says, “Where I come from that’s called slavery.”  To which Etta smiles and responds, “I like this girl.”

Connie Nielsen adds class as Diana’s warrior mother Hippolyta, and Robin Wright from TV’s HOUSE OF CARDS is up to the task of training Wonder Woman as Antiope.

One way that WONDER WOMAN is similar to the Marvel superhero films is that it stumbles with its villains, and like the Marvel movies, the fact that the villains are weak doesn’t seem to matter.

Danny Huston plays the main baddie, General Ludendorff, a rather cliché military villain, made even less impressive because Huston he played a similar role in X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE (2009).  His performance here offers nothing new.

The far more interesting villain is Dr. Maru, played by Elena Anay.  Dr. Maru wears a mask that covers part of her face, and she’s the main force behind creating the deadly gas.  Anay is very good in the role, but sadly, the character isn’t really developed all that well.

David Thewlis plays another character of note, Sir Patrick, who officially opposes Steve’s mission, but behind the scenes helps him to achieve it.

Patty Jenkins directed WONDER WOMAN and does a nice job.  The film looks awesome, and the action scenes are all done very well.  At times, the pacing is slow, but the story remains interesting throughout.

And that’s because the screenplay by Allan Heinberg is a good one. It does a nice job telling Diana’s origin story, showing how she grew up on the island. The World War I sequences are also well done, but most of all, the strength of this story is its theme of empowering women.  The story presents an all-powerful superhero, who also  happens to be a woman.  And you might be tempted to say, this isn’t news.  Wonder Woman has been around for a long time, but not in the movies she hasn’t.

If you’re not a comic book reader, and you’re basing your superhero experiences on television and the movies, you really don’t know a whole lot about the Wonder Woman character.  As such, it’s a case where audiences don’t really know what they’ve been missing.  They’ll know now.

WONDER WOMAN has a lot to say about women.  Having this latest badass superhero to hit the big screen be a woman is a breath of fresh air, and showing the way women were treated during the World War I years is relevant because similar struggles continue today. Likewise, the way Chris Pine’s Steve Trevor treats Diana and looks out for her, and she for him, sets up a love story that really works.

All in all, WONDER WOMAN is a superior superhero movie, one of the best of its type.

The DC superhero movies are back on the map.  Wonder Woman has saved the day.

—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 DISAPPOINTMENTS ROOM (2016) – Quiet Ghost Story Drama Doesn’t Stand Out

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What if you made a stylish horror movie but forgot to make it scary?

You’d have THE DISAPPOINTMENTS ROOM (2016),  a horror movie now available on Netflix Streaming.

Dana Barrow (Kate Beckinsale), her husband David (Mel Raido), and their young son Lucas (Duncan Joiner) move into their new home, an elegant manor in the countryside.  They are looking for a fresh start in life as they recently suffered a devastating tragedy.

Dana is an architect and plans to work on the house, while David, when he’s not off on business trips, spends his days with their son Lucas.  Dana discovers a mysterious room on the top floor of the house, a room that is not in the home’s original plans.  When she starts hearing strange noises in the middle of the night, as well as catching glimpses of people inside the house, she begins to suspect the house is haunted.

She learns that the room on the upper floor of their home is most likely a “disappointments” room, a place where a century before families would hide children they deemed as “disappointments,” children suffering from either physical deformities or mental disorders.

When the spiritual and physical worlds collide, and young Lucas’ life is threatened, Dana takes matters into her own hands to save him.  But her efforts are hindered by her own psychological issues, as she struggles to distinguish between what is real and what is imagined.  Is Lucas really in danger?  Or is it all just in her head?

The biggest knock against THE DISAPPOINTMENTS ROOM is that it is yet another haunted house/ghost story movie.  There have been so many of these movies of late, unless it’s the best I’ve ever seen, a film with this plot has a lot going against it because it’s extremely difficult to keep fresh at this point.  And THE DISAPPOINTMENTS ROOM is not fresh.  What it has to offer in terms of ghost story plot is nothing new, and this definitely works against the movie.

Early on, there were parts of this film that reminded me of the classic chiller THE CHANGELING (1980) starring George C. Scott, but that film benefitted from some genuine scares and a shocking reveal.  THE DISAPPOINTMENTS ROOM has neither.

What it does have are solid acting performances and a steady directorial hand by director D.J. Caruso.

Caruso, who also directed the teen adventure I AM NUMBER FOUR (2011) and the thriller DISTURBIA (2007), sets the mood early on with some creepy scenes, like the strange black dog that keeps showing up outside the home, and the eerie spectral figures which Dana sees.  And the film looks good throughout, even as the story ultimately fails to build to a satisfying climax.

The screenplay by director Caruso and Wentworth Miller [an actor known mostly for his starring role on the TV series PRISON BREAK (2005-2009) and the current mini-series PRISON BREAK: RESURRECTION (2017)] adds the disappointments room to the haunted house plot, and early on this was enough to hold my attention, but as the story evolves, and we learn more about the events which led to the haunting of this house, things become less interesting.

The potential for a nifty psychological thriller is certainly there but it doesn’t quite happen because the film only hints at the darkness inside Dana’s head.  It could be ghosts.  It could be imagined.  It could be a little bit of both.  The film never really makes up its mind, and it’s a weaker vehicle for it.

The film definitely plays like a dark drama rather than a horror movie.  As such, it’s a pretty good example of quiet horror.

But what it fails to do is reach the next level.  The climax of the film is certainly disturbing, but then what follows is a standard “I’ve got to save my son” sequence  which is ultimately a let down, and this is followed by a tepid ending which doesn’t do the movie any favors.

But as I said the acting is solid.  I really enjoyed Kate Beckinsale in the lead as Dana.It was so much more fun to watch her here than in those awful UNDERWORLD movies.  She makes Dana believable, and she seems like a woman with a tortured past who is now thrust into a ghost story conundrum.  That being said, considering what Dana believes she did in the past, her character should have been even more fragile and unhinged than she is here.

There’s a parallel between Beckinsale’s Dana and the father of the child in the disappointments room, Judge Blacker (Gerald McRaney).  But just how alike they are is never satisfactorily explored.  Like so many other things in this movie, it’s only hinted at.

Mel Raido does a nice job as Dana’s level-headed husband, David.  He’s the voice of reason who continually works to keep his wife grounded in reality.

Gerald McRaney doesn’t do much more than look menacing as the ghostly Judge Blacker, but he does it so well.

THE DISAPPOINTMENTS ROOM looks better than a lot of the other recent haunted house/ghost story movies of late, and it doesn’t suffer from the atrocious plot twists that some of those other flicks have, but ultimately it doesn’t really add anything of note to make it stand out.

And while it does provide a rather nasty revelation towards the end, what follows is a by-the-numbers conclusion.

All in all, THE DISAPPOINTMENTS ROOM is a ghost story drama that will hold your interest for a while before it ultimately fizzles, settling gently into its quiet world of stylized mediocrity.

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES (2017) Will Hold Your Interest—If You’re Six Years Old

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PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES (2017).

Ain’t that the truth!

While I still enjoy the Captain Jack Sparrow character played by Johnny Depp, the PIRATES films themselves have become shallow and redundant, with no sense of storytelling whatsoever.  But I get ahead of myself.

PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES (2017) is really the tale of two new characters.  Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites) is the son of Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), the dashing blacksmith who teamed up with Jack Sparrow in the first three PIRATES movies.  We learn in a pre-credit sequence that Will Turner is forever cursed to spend his days in a watery grave beneath the ocean, but his son Henry is determined to free his dad.  And what self-respecting son wouldn’t naturally try to free his deceased dad from an underwater curse?  This is the sort of thing that happens every day, right?   Anyway, the only way Henry can do this—of course— is with the help of one Captain Jack Sparrow.

To free his dad, Henry needs the Trident of Poseidon, which gives its handler total control of the seas, and the only person who possesses enough gumption to get it, I guess, is Sparrow.

The other main character is Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario).  When we first meet her, she’s about to be executed for being a witch, but she’s not a witch.  She’s just smart and enlightened, but being an intelligent woman in those days doesn’t sit too well with the men, and so she’s accused of being a witch.

When  Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) and his pirate buddies attempt to pull off a bold heist, things don’t go so well, and Sparrow is captured and set to be executed on the same day as Carina Smyth.  But the two escape with the help of Henry Turner, setting in motion the quest for the Trident of Poseidon.

Meanwhile, the undead Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem) is also searching for the Trident so he and his men can escape their own watery grave and kill Jack Sparrow in the process. And if all this isn’t enough, old nemesis Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) also shows up, and he too is interested in the elusive Trident.

ZZZZZZzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

Talk about a story that generates absolutely zero interest.

And that, by far, is my biggest problem with PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES.  The screenplay by Jeff Nathanson is pretty much geared for six year-olds. Seriously, unless you’re a young child who loves pirates, I don’t know how you can sit through this movie.  It’s not even appealing to teenagers, let alone adults.  The Trident of Poseidon?  Seriously?  The story here works on the same level as something like PETER PAN, which is fine for a children’s movie, but for a PG-13 pirates adventure?  It just doesn’t cut it.

The humor doesn’t work either. The jokes are watered down and not edgy enough to earn many laughs.

The film plays like a TRANSFORMERS movie under water.  Special effects galore, but no story to be found, which is a shame, because it wastes a character I like a lot, Captain Jack Sparrow.

Directors Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg have created a polished looking movie that is as hollow and empty as it is visually striking.  It’s the kind of movie that puts me to sleep, because there’s no story to support it, and no characters to capture my interest.

The action scenes don’t distinguish themselves, except for the early robbery scene, which was a pretty fun sequence, as Sparrow’s pirate buddies literally drag the entire building housing the safe they were robbing through the streets of the town in a rather rousing chase scene.  But other than this the action scenes fall flat.

I like Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow, and I have no problem with his performance here.  The problem is with the script, which can’t seem to give him worthwhile lines or things to do. The first PIRATES movie, PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN:  THE CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL (2003) was a snappy, rousing, and very creative flick with a story that featured lots of satisfying twists and turns, and at its center was Depp’s Jack Sparrow.  Here, there’s barely a creative spark to be found, and Depp is stuck saying inferior lines and having his screen time reduced in favor of newer younger characters.

Javier Bardem is a fantastic actor, but I found his performance as Captain Salazar grating and difficult to watch.  It didn’t help that the character is as dull as a piece of floating seaweed.

Geoffrey Rush is another superior actor, and he benefits here from having his Captain Barbossa  character introduced in the earlier movies.  Rush actually does have some fine moments here, especially with some revelations about his character later in the movie.

Newcomers Brenton Thwaites as Henry Turner and Kaya Scodelario as Carina Smyth pretty much put me to sleep.

Kevin McNally, who has appeared in all five PIRATES movie as Sparrow’s fellow pirate Gibbs, is enjoyable once again here, but like Johnny Depp, he’s contending with an inferior script.

My favorite part of PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES was the music, and I’m not talking about the new score to this film by Geoff Zanelli, but the original PIRATES theme written by Klaus Badelt.  That theme was and still is perfect for this series, and whenever it was used in this movie, the film became at least tolerable, but outside of that, there’s nothing worthwhile about this movie.

Check that.  There is one more thing.  Paul McCartney shows up in a cameo as a pirate named Uncle Jack (What?  No Uncle Albert?).  His exchange with Depp’s Jack Sparrow is brief but it’s fun.

The rest of the film is flat-out awful.  Better to walk the plank than to sit through two plus hours of this sea tale.

—END—

THEIR FINEST (2017) – World War II Comedy Romance is Movie Making at its Finest

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Their Finest poster

Even though THEIR FINEST (2017) is mostly a comedy romance about the making of a propaganda movie about Dunkirk, what it does best as a World War II period piece is capture what life was like in Great Britain during the war, when men of age were off fighting, and left to pick up the slack at home were women, the elderly, and the injured.

It’s certainly the film’s strongest attribute.

It’s 1940, and the Nazis are bombing England relentlessly.  In this harsh environment, Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) shares an apartment with her struggling artist husband Ellis (Jack Huston).  Catrin lands a new job as a scriptwriter for a studio that makes propaganda movies for the war effort.  She’s hired to assist screenwriter Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin) with her specific duties being to write female dialogue.

The studio decides to do a movie on the Dunkirk rescue, and they base it on the story of twin sisters who took their father’s boat without his permission in order to rescue British soldiers.  Aging has-been actor Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy) is hired to play the role of the drunken father, in the film changed to a buffoonish drunken uncle.  At first, Hilliard is not interested but eventually changes his mind when he’s reminded by his agent Sophie (Helen McCrory) that he’s no longer a young leading man and needs to take advantage of the roles now being offered him to keep his career alive.

When the Secretary of War (Jeremy Irons) informs them that Churchill plans to use their film as a tool to inspire Americans to join the war effort, the film takes on a whole new meaning and suddenly it becomes a major production.

I really enjoyed THEIR FINEST.  It’s full of fine acting performances, features spirited direction by Danish director Lone Scherfig, and has a literate script by Gaby Chiappe, based on the novel Their Finest Hour by Lissa Evans.

Gemma Arterton is wonderful as Catrin Cole. She plays Catrin as an independent intelligent woman who’s not afraid to ask for more money for her work when she knows she has to support her artist husband.  Arterton enjoys nice chemistry with Sam Claflin who plays fellow writer Tom Buckley.  Catrin and Tom grow closer together, even though Catrin tries her best to ignore her feelings since she’s married, but eventually fate intervenes.

Arterton has appeared in a wide variety of roles, but of the movies I’ve seen her in previously, QUANTUM OF SOLACE (2008), HANSEL & GRETEL: WITCH HUNTERS (2013), and RUNNER RUNNER (2013) this is by far the best role I’ve seen her play.  She’s smart, sincere, and sexy.

Sam Claflin also does a nice job as fellow writer Tom Buckley, who recognizes Catrin’s talent and eventually falls in love with her. Claflin played the young filmmaker in the underrated Hammer thriller THE QUIET ONES (2014).  Claflin has also appeared in THE HUNGER GAMES movies, THE HUNTSMAN films, and PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN:  ON STRANGER TIDES (2011).

And Bill Nighy delivers a scene-stealing performance as aged actor Ambrose Hilliard who is so full of himself that when he first reads the script for the Dunkirk movie he believes he’s being offered the role of the young hero, not the drunken uncle. Nighy gets the best lines in the film, and he also enjoys some of its best scenes.

In a movie-within-a-movie scene, where Catrin rewrites the uncle as a more heroic character, Nighy plays the uncle’s dying moment on the boat.  He hallucinates and thinks the two soldiers with him are his sons, who were lost in the previous war, World War I.  It’s a brilliant moment.  The scene works in the fictional movie, and it works in the main film because Nighy nails Hilliard’s delivering the performance of his life.

And the most poignant moment in the film comes near the end, after Catrin has endured tragedy, and it’s Hilliard who’s there by her side to keep her from falling, and he tells her that they only have these opportunities because the young men are all at war, but that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t take full advantage of these opportunities, which sums up the main theme of the movie.

Jack Huston is also very good as Catrin’s husband Tom, struggling with both his artistic career and sense of worth since an injury has kept him from fighting in the war.

Helen McCrory stands out as Sophie Smith, whose husband was Hilliard’s agent until he was killed by a Nazi bomb.  Sophie decides to take over her husband’s practice, and once she does, Hilliard’s career never looks back.  It’s a very strong performance by McCrory, and like Arterton and Claflin, she shares nice onscreen chemistry with Bill Nighy.

Likewise, Jake Lacy is memorable as Carl Lundbeck, an American war hero who is added to the cast to make the film more appealing to Americans, which causes some headaches as well as some comic relief because he has no acting experience whatsoever.  Lacy ‘s performance reminded me of something a young Christopher Reeve might have done.

The rest of the cast is solid and enjoyable.  There’s not a weak link to be found.

I loved the script by Gaby Chiappe. It works on several levels.  The most fun and rewarding level is the film within a film concept, and by far the liveliest scenes are the behind the scenes workings of the writers and film crew trying to get this film off the ground.  And the finished product, a Technicolor production entitled THE NANCY STARLING, which we catch glimpses of as Catrin sits in an audience of enthusiastic filmgoers, generates lots of emotion.

The movie also works as a wartime romance, as well as a World War II period piece drama. And just when I wasn’t so sure the romance part was working, the film delivers a menacing blow and at that point reaches a whole other level.

I also enjoyed the direction by Lone Scherfig.  The film looks great, and she captures the period of World War II England, bombed on a regular basis, perfectly.

There’s even a nod to Alfred Hitchcock..

The title, THEIR FINEST, comes from a speech by Winston Churchill, where he described England’s resistance to the Nazis as “their finest hour.”

THEIR FINEST is a wonderful movie.  In addition to being a love story and a comedy, it’s also a thoughtful and poignant look at the role women played in England during the war.

It’s movie making at its finest.

—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.  

 

 

 

 

KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD (2017) – Energetic Adventure by Guy Ritchie Tries to Reinvent King Arthur Legend

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KING ARTHUR:  LEGEND OF THE SWORD (2017) is director Guy Ritchie’s attempt to do for King Arthur what he did for Sherlock Holmes, namely reinvent the character as an action movie hero.

He almost succeeds.

KING ARTHUR:  LEGEND OF THE SWORD opens with an exciting pre-credit battle sequence featuring giant mastodons and ear-splitting explosions as we witness young Arthur’s father King Uther (Eric Bana) defend his kingdom from attack, only to see it fall when he is betrayed by his brother Vortigern (Jude Law).  Young Arthur is whisked away to safety, and in an energetic montage, we watch as the boy is raised in a brothel, receives martial arts training, and earns his street-smarts as he becomes a man.

The adult Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) is the good guy on the block, hanging out with his friends and protecting local innocents from the occasional bullies.  Doesn’t sound much like the Arthur of legend, does it?  That’s because it’s not.  Eventually, Arthur makes his way to the infamous sword in stone, and when he alone can remove it, everyone and his grandmother, including Vortigern, knows who he is.

Arthur seeks vengeance against Vortigern for the death of his parents, while Vortigern sees Arthur as a threat to his kingdom and seeks to annihilate him.   The battle lines are drawn.  May the best man win.  Of course, there’s little doubt here as to who will emerge the victor.

One of the reasons that Guy Ritchie’s SHERLOCK HOLMES movies were so successful was that he had Robert Downey Jr. in the lead role as Sherlock Holmes.  Here, as Arthur, he has Charlie Hunnam.  Now, I’m a big fan of Hunnam from his SONS OF ANARCHY (2008-2014) days, but he plays Arthur as if he’s still playing motorcycle gang member Jax Teller from SONS.  The script doesn’t help his cause as it includes lots of modern-day language and dialogue.  In fact, at times this movie seemed like SONS OF THE ROUND TABLE, and when Arthur was with his buddies, I half expected Hunnam to turn and say “Hey, Ope.  Where’s Clay?”

So, the fact that the Arthur character doesn’t really take hold here isn’t just Hunnam’s fault.  The writers don’t help him.  I like Hunnam, and he gives an energetic performance, but it just never really won me over.  I felt like I was watching a movie about Jax Teller sent back in a time machine to England in the days of King Arthur.

There were parts of KING ARTHUR:  LEGEND OF THE SWORD that I liked, and there were just as many things about it that I didn’t like.

Usually, in a movie like this, it’s the action scenes that I like the least, as generally they are long, lifeless, and dull, but that wasn’t the case here.  I really liked the action sequences in this one, and the credit for that belongs to director Guy Ritchie. The opening battle sequence with the monstrous mastodons hooked me in immediately and made me take notice that perhaps this film was going to be better than expected.

Later battle scenes are just as lively.  Ritchie’s camera gets right in on the action, and there’s lot of innovative camerawork during these scenes.  The fight sequences here are much more energetic than what I usually see in movies like this.

I really enjoyed both of Ritchie’s SHERLOCK HOLMES movies, as well as his previous movie, THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. (2015) which was panned by critics.  I liked all three of these movies better than KING ARTHUR, mostly because those films had better scripts.  Ritchie’s work as a director is just as good here as those films, if not better.  Visually and in terms of this being a rousing action movie, the film works.

It also features some pretty cool creatures.  I’ve already mentioned the impressive looking mastodons, but there’s also this creepy sexually charged octopus creature which is a mixture of slimy octopus tentacles and naked women that make it one of the more intriguing beasts I’ve seen in a movie since the days of Ray Harryhausen.  There’s also a giant snake, which of the three, is probably the least impressive but still makes for a very cinematic monster sequence.  There were a couple of times where I thought I was watching a Sinbad movie instead of a King Arthur movie.

The film also has a loud, in-your-face music score by Daniel Pemberton that I liked a lot.  It reminded me of the way James Bernard used to score Hammer Films.  You definitely notice the music. Pemberton also scored Ritchie’s THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E, another soundtrack that I really liked.

The screenplay, however, is another matter.  Written by director Ritchie, Joby Harold, and Lionel Wigram, it tries very hard to re-invent both the character and the legend, giving both modern-day dialogue and motivations. Arthur seems more interested in protecting his friends than inheriting a kingdom.

The snappy dialogue didn’t really work for me here, as it just seemed out-of-place. When Robert Downey Jr. spoke with updated dialogue as Sherlock Holmes, he still sounded like Holmes.  Charlie Hunnam doesn’t sound like Arthur at all.  Neither does anyone else in the cast sound like they belong in the age of Camelot.

Jude Law plays the villainous Vortigern as a cold-hearted mean-spirited devil and delivers a performance that works up to a point.  He is too one-dimensional to be all that memorable a villain.  Still, he’s a better villain than we get in all those Marvel superhero movies, and a film like GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, VOL. 2 (2017) would have benefitted from a character like Vortigern, who at least has an agenda.

Astrid Beges-Frisbey plays one of the more intriguing characters in the film, The Mage, a woman who can communicate with animals.  I enjoyed her performance a lot and wish she had been in the film even more.

Djimon Hounsou does a nice job as Bedivere, the man who helps Arthur get his kingdom back, but it’s a rather small role and never takes full advantage of Hounsou’s talents.  Eric Bana briefly adds some class to the proceedings in the opening sequence as the ill-fated King Uther, Arthur’s father.

The rest of the cast all do a pretty good job in various small roles, mostly of Arthur’s friends.  Among these folks, I thought Neil Maskell stood out as a character named Back Lack.  He’s in one of the best scenes in the movie, where Vortigern  holds a knife to his throat to get information from Back Lack’s young son who has to watch his dad get mutilated.

The title, KING ARTHUR:  LEGEND OF THE SWORD, also did little for me.  It’s a mouthful, and it’s not particularly memorable.

The same can be said of the movie as a whole.  Strangely, I was most won over by the action scenes and the monsters in this one.  The story and the characters left me wanting more, so much so that I wish director Guy Ritchie was working with a different script entirely.

Still, I wasn’t expecting much, and it was better than I expected.

It reminded me of an old Ray Harryhausen SINBAD movie, re-imagined as a Netflix TV series, only not quite as good.

 

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IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM (1973)

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Far out, man!

The early 1970s was such a groovy time the vampires just couldn’t keep away.  Dan Curtis’ THE NIGHT STALKER (1972) unleashed a superhuman vampire onto the streets of 1972 Las Vegas, while Hammer’s DRACULA A.D. 1972 (1972) and THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA (1973) resurrected Dracula (Christopher Lee) in 1970s London.

Likewise, the black exploitation films BLACULA (1972) and its sequel, SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM (1973), the film we’re looking at today, revived a vampire in 1970s Los Angeles.

When you hear the name Blacula, you no doubt laugh.  You shouldn’t.  The BLACULA films, in spite of their campy titles, are no laughing matter. They’re actually decent horror movies.

I’ve always enjoyed the two BLACULA movies, and like Hammer’s DRACULA A.D. 1972, they were dismissed back in the day as silly 1970s schlock, but they have aged well.  In fact, they’ve gotten better.

For me, the main reason the BLACULA movies have aged well and the number one reason to see them is the performance by William Marshall as Blacula.  Marshall was a Shakespearean trained actor and it shows.  With his deep majestic voice, he’s perfect as the noble vampire, Prince Mamuwalde.  In a way, it’s too bad these films came out in the early 1970s and Marshall had to star in a film called BLACULA because he easily could have portrayed Stoker’s Dracula, and had he done so, he’d be in the conversation as one of the screen’s better Draculas.  And that’s not to take anything away from Marshall’s Mamuwalde character, because he’s a memorable vampire in his own right.  It’s just that you don’t often hear Marshall’s name in the conversation about best movie vampires. Perhaps it’s time that changed.

SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM continues the story of  Prince Mamuwalde (William Marshall), the vampire introduced in BLACULA.  In that film, Mamuwalde, an African prince, was bitten by Dracula and then locked in a coffin where he remained until he was resurrected by an antique dealer in 1972 Los Angeles.

In SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM, he’s revived yet again, this time by voodoo.  In fact, voodoo plays an integral part in this movie’s plot.  The voodoo scenes in SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM reminded me a lot of similar scenes in the first Roger Moore James Bond movie, LIVE AND LET DIE (1973) which immersed Bond in early 1970s culture.  I told you the early 70s was a happening time.  Even James Bond got in on the action.

Anyway, in SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM, cult member Willis (Richard Lawson) vows revenge against his fellow cult members because he feels slighted at not being chosen as its new leader.  He decides to use voodoo to resurrect Blacula thinking the vampire can exact revenge for him, but things don’t go as planned as Blacula has other ideas and quickly makes Willis his slave.

The young woman who does lead the voodoo cult, Lisa Fortier (Pam Grier) crosses paths with Blacula who immediately takes an interest in her.  He seeks out her help, as he wants her to use her voodoo skills to perform an exorcism to free him of his vampire curse.  But Lisa’s boyfriend Justin (Don Mitchell) and the police arrive, spoiling the moment, and Blacula vows revenge.  Now seeing Blacula as a threat to her boyfriend, Lisa changes her tune about the vampire prince and uses her voodoo powers to combat him.

As far as vampire stories go, the one that SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM  has to tell with its voodoo elements is actually pretty cool and quite different.  You don’t see that combination of vampirism and voodoo very often.  The screenplay was written by Joan Torres, Raymond Koenig, and Maurice Jules, and it tells a pretty neat tale.  The dialogue is standard for the period, with lots of early 70s groovin and hip jargon.  You expect to see Kojak or Starsky and Hutch racing to the crime scene.  In fact, Bernie Hamilton who would go on to play Captain Dobey on STARSKY AND HUTCH (1975-79) has a small role here.

Bob Kelljan directed SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM, and he’s no stranger to 1970s vampire movies, as he also directed COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE (1970) and THE RETURN OF COUNT YORGA (1971), two films that also featured a vampire in modern-day Los Angeles, Count Yorga (Robert Quarry), and these films actually pre-dated THE NIGHT STALKER, which is often credited as launching the vampire-in-modern-times craze of the early 1970s.

There’s some pretty creepy scenes in this one, as William Marshall makes for a frightening vampire, and when he gets really angry, he suddenly breaks out in wolf-like make-up. There are also some entertaining scenes featuring Blacula on the streets of L.A., and one in particular where he tangles with some street thugs.  Needless to say, things don’t turn out so well for the thugs.

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Blacula (William Marshall) getting angry in SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM (1973).  You won’t like him when he’s angry.

Is it as frightening as THE NIGHT STALKER?  No, but Blacula’s scenes are as scary or perhaps even scarier than any of Christopher Lee’s Dracula scenes in DRACULA A.D. 1972 and THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA.

Again, William Marshall does a fine job as Blacula.  Marshall also appeared in the demonic possession film ABBY (1974) and went on to appear in many TV shows during the 1970s and 1980s. Probably the last film I saw him in was the Mel Gibson version of MAVERICK (1994) in which he had a bit part as a poker player.  Marshall passed away in 2003 from complications from Alzheimer’s disease.  He was 78.

Pam Grier is also very good as Lisa.  Grier has and still is appearing in a ton of movies.  The last film I saw her in was THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS (2012), and arguably her most famous role was in Quentin Tarantino’s JACKIE BROWN (1997), an homage to her own FOXY BROWN (1974).

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Pam Grier and William Marshall in SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM (1973).

Also in the cast is Michael Conrad as the sheriff.  Conrad would go on to fame for playing Sgt. Phil Esterhaus on the TV show HILL STREET BLUES (1981-1984).

But it’s William Marshall who gives the most biting performance in SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM.  Marshall is thoroughly enjoyable as Blacula/Prince Mamuwalde, and his work in both BLACULA films is noteworthy enough to place him among the better screen vampires.

So, don’t be fooled by the title.  SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM is more than just a silly 1970s exploitation flick.  It’s well-made, it has an engrossing story that implements voodoo into its vampire lore, and as such it’s all rather refreshing.  It’s also done quite seriously.  It’s not played for laughs, and William Marshall delivers a commanding performance that is both dignified and frightening.

If you haven’t yet seen SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM or the first BLACULA movie, you definitely want to add them to your vampire movie list.  They’re part of a special time in vampire movie history, when the undead left their period piece environment and flocked to the hippie-filled streets of the 1970s.

Get your voodoo dolls ready.  It’s vampirism vs. voodoo!  It’s SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM!

Just watch where you stick those pins.

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