THE BEGUILED (2017) – Showcases Talented Female Cast

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Director Sofia Coppolla and the cast of THE BEGUILED (2017).

THE BEGUILED (2017) is a remake of a 1971 Clint Eastwood movie of the same name, directed by Don Siegel.

The Eastwood film, which is something of a cult favorite among Eastwood fans, is certainly one of the more offbeat and haunting movies Eastwood ever made.  It was a box office failure at the time, due to a poor ad campaign which marketed it as another Clint Eastwood action film, which it isn’t, and also because audiences in 1971 weren’t quite sure what to make of this dark tale of a Union soldier recuperating at an all-girl Confederate school.  Directed by Don Siegel, the film is steeped in atmosphere and style.

The 2017 version was directed by Sofia Coppola and tells pretty much the same story.

In Virginia, in the waning days of the Civil War, a young girl Amy (Oona Laurence) discovers a wounded Union soldier, Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell) in the woods while she is picking mushrooms.  She brings the soldier back to her school, and the head of the school, Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman), decides it would be un-Christian of them to turn the Corporal over to the Confederate army until he has a chance to recuperate.  And so they tend to his wounds and nurse him back to health, with the intention of handing him over to the Confederate army once his wounds have healed.

But John is a man, and the school is full of women and girls who simply haven’t been around men all that much.  As such, during his stay, the sexual tensions build.  Not only is Miss Martha attracted to John in her own reserved way, but teen student  Alicia (Elle Fanning) can’t keep herself from openly flirting with him.  Even young Amy is attracted to him.

And matters become more complicated when privately John declares his love for teacher Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), who he says is the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen. Edwina falls for John instantly, mostly because she is unhappy and sees John as her ticket out of her present life at the school. She would like to run away with him.

For his part, John remains quiet and polite, keeping things proper, except for his declaration of love to Edwina.  But one night he makes a fateful decision to enter a certain bedroom, and things change dramatically from that point on.

Director Sofia Coppolla, who also wrote the screenplay, gets the atmosphere right but struggles somewhat with the characterizations, specifically with Corporal John McBurney, who is too reserved to be effective.

THE BEGUILED is beautiful to look at.  Director Coppolla captures the essence of a school in the southern countryside, photographing the manor through abundant green trees and filtered sunlight.  There are also some nice shots of red sunlight reflecting off the front of the elegant structure.

But the majority of the film is shot in shadowy darkness, as the bulk of the action takes place inside the school, lit by low burning candles.  The look of this film drew me in immediately and kept me in its Civil War world throughout.

It is definitely slow-paced and plays out like the period piece Civil War drama that it is. This worked for me for the most part, but towards the end of the film when things get seriously darker, the film downplayed these heavy moments, which worked against the movie for me.  I expected things to get very ugly, but the horrible things that happen are only hinted at and not fully explored.  The film never really rises above its southern slice of life portrait.

As I said, Sofia Coppolla also wrote the screenplay, which is based on the screenplay to the 1971 film by Albert Maltz and Irene Kamp, itself based on the novel by Thomas Cullinan.   Coppolla does a nice job with the female characters, but Corporal John McBurney isn’t as defined as well as he needs to be.  In the 1971 film, you knew Clint Eastwood’s character was conning the women. Here, as played by Colin Farrell, the audience isn’t so sure.  Is he playing these women or not?  Since the screenplay isn’t clear, it makes what happens at the end of the film far less satisfying, because we don’t know how to react to John’s fate, since we really don’t know what kind of a person he truly is.

In terms of casting, you can’t ask for a better female cast.

Nicole Kidman plays Miss Martha as a strong and independent woman.  She is clearly in charge of everyone at the school.  But questions remain about her character as well. For instance, would she do what John accuses her of doing at the end of the movie?  Or did she do it for the reason she said, to save his life?  The film isn’t clear.

Kirsten Dunst is also very good as Edwina, the depressed school teacher who is only too willing to fall in love with John.  And Elle Fanning is sultry and seductive as the young woman who is intent on getting John into her bed.

But it’s the younger girls who make an even stronger impression here.  Oona Lawrence is exceptional as young Amy, the girl who first finds John and really likes him throughout the movie.  Angourie Rice, who played Ryan Gosling’s daughter in last year’s comedy THE NICE GUYS (2016) is memorable here as Jane, the one girl in the school who is offended by the idea of housing a Union soldier at the school.  And Addison Riecke also has some significant moments as Marie, the girl who makes the ominous suggestion at the end of the movie on how to stop John.

As John, Colin Farrell is okay, but I’ve seen him deliver far better performances.  He was too calm and relaxed throughout.  The character seemed to be begging for a nefarious side, which doesn’t come out at all.  Towards the end of the film, when bad things begin to happen, we finally see John act passionately, which gives us some insight into his character, but it’s too little too late.  He remains polite to the last, apologizing after his deplorable behavior and sounding sincere in his apology, which makes the ending of this one all the more tragic.  Then again, without a clear-cut defintion of John’s character, it’s difficult to know how to feel about him.

In spite of this, when the women make their bold decision at the end of the movie, the coldness with which they proceed is jarring and potent.  The shot of the women around the dinner table afterwards is one of the more memorable images in the film.

That being said, the film would have been stronger had it gone to these dark places more often instead of avoiding them.

THE BEGUILED is a moderately entertaining movie, a showcase for its talented female cast and its female writer/director, Sofia Coppolla, but with a vaguely defined male protagonist, the story they are telling is far less potent than it should have been.

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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.  

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GOING IN STYLE (2017) Provides Mediocre Comedy

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GOING IN STYLE (2017) is a remake of a 1979 film of the same name by writer/director Martin Brest that starred George Burns, Art Carney, and Lee Strasberg as three senior citizens who decided to spice up their lives by robbing a bank.

This time around, the director is Zach Braff [from TV’s SCRUBS (2001-2010)] and the three elderly friends are played by Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, and Alan Arkin.

I enjoy these three actors a lot, and they’re the main reason I wanted to see this movie.

The story has been updated to 2017, and the plot has as its villain the “evil” bank which is responsible for taking away these men’s homes and their pensions.

Joe (Michael Caine) is unhappy because his bank was less than clear about his refinanced mortgage, and as a result, his monthly payment has tripled.  He can no longer afford the payment, and since his daughter and granddaughter live in the house with him, he does not want to lose his home.

To make matters worse, he and his buddies Willie (Morgan Freeman) and Albert (Alan Arkin) learn that the company they had worked for is shifting its workforce overseas, and as a result it’s cancelling their pensions.

When Joe visits his bank to argue about his mortgage, three masked men burst in and hold it up.  They get away with the money, which gets Joe to thinking:  if he and his friends robbed a bank, his bank, they’d get their pensions back.  Worse case scenario, they go to jail, which for them isn’t so bad since they don’t have a lot of years left to live.  As Joe says to his buddies, in prison, they’ll have a roof over their heads, three meals a day, and better health care than they have in the outside world.

While Willie and Albert don’t agree at first, eventually they change their minds and set their sights on robbing a bank.

GOING IN STYLE is a likable enough movie, but it’s nothing that hasn’t been done before or done better.

In spite of its realistic plot points of the manipulative bank giving Joe misleading information about his mortgage, and the company cancelling its pensions because it’s moving overseas, the film just isn’t very believable, which is surprising because the screenplay, based on the 1979 screenplay by Edward Cannon, was written by Theodore Melfi.  Melfi wrote the screenplay for ST. VINCENT (2014) and HIDDEN FIGURES (2016) two films that I liked a lot.  His script here for GOING IN STYLE is nowhere as crisp as his work on those other two movies.

The story just never becomes real.  I never believed that these three guys would really rob a bank, or that they’d actually get away with it.  The film is more a set-up to have Caine, Freeman, and Arkin interact with each other.

And sure, they’re fun to watch, but the problem is I’ve seen these actors far funnier in other movies than they are here.  Which brings me to the biggest problem with this movie. It’s one thing for a comedy not to have the most believable plot, but it’s quite another for it not to be funny, and I just didn’t find this film all that humorous.

Sure, there are lots of little bits here and there that caused me to chuckle, and Caine, Freeman, and Arkin did a fine job with these little bits, but I rarely laughed out loud.  Part of the problem is the film is rated PG-13, and so the language is tame, which really works against a guy like Alan Arkin who can be hilariously funny when his humor is untamed. He’s very reserved here, as are Caine and Freeman.

The plot also goes to the syrupy sweet aisle one too many times.  Scenes with Caine and his granddaughter made me want to gag they were so cliché, as well as a subplot where Freeman’s character befriends a little girl during the heist.

Christopher Lloyd is also on hand as another friend, Milton, and he does his loony Christopher Lloyd shtick throughout which like a lot of other parts in this film, seemed old and tired.

The most energetic performance in the film clearly belongs to Ann-Margret who plays a woman trying to seduce Alan Arkin’s character, and this provides the film with its most unintentional  laugh as he resists her!  Who in their right mind would resist Ann-Margret? And at 75, she still looks amazing!  I was flabbergasted by how good she looked in this film.  Wow!

Joey King is okay as Caine’s granddaughter Brooklyn, and Peter Serafinowicz does a nice job as Caine’s ex-son-in-law. John Ortiz plays a man name Jesus who teaches them how to rob a bank.

Matt Dillon also appears as a less than intelligent FBI agent.  Like the rest of the film, his performance is nothing I haven’t seen him do before and do better.

GOING IN STYLE is a likable enough movie, but sadly it didn’t possess enough biting humor or a believable enough story for it to completely work for me, even with the presence of Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, and Alan Arkin.

It’s a strictly by-the-numbers comedy that could have benefitted from both sharper writing and directing.

A little more style would have been greatly appreciated.

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BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (2017) Still Has The Songs

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It’s all about the music.

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (2017), Disney’s live-action remake of their beloved animated classic from 1991, succeeds for the simple reason that it’s still got those songs by Alan Menken.  Everything else is gravy.

I enjoyed this new version of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST so much I’m going to say something here that will be sacrilege for those who love the 1991 film version: I liked this new version better. 

Sure, I really liked the 1991 animated film and was glad it received a Best Picture nomination that year, but for me the best part of that film has always been Alan Menken’s songs.  In fact, his score was so good I’ve always thought it really deserved to be in a film with real actors as opposed to animated ones.

This 2017 version gives Menken’s music the platform it has always deserved.

The plot, of course, remains the same.  A handsome but selfish prince (Dan Stevens) is cursed for his meanness and turned into a hideous Beast.  His servants are cursed as well, as they are all transformed into household items.

Meanwhile, in a neighboring village, an “odd” farm girl Belle (Emma Watson) who would rather read books than marry the muscular village heart-throb Gaston (Luke Evans) lives with her equally eccentric inventor father Maurice (Kevin Kline).  When Maurice becomes lost in the woods and finds himself at the Beast’s castle, he is taken prisoner there.  Belle comes to his rescue and makes a deal with the Beast to take her father’s place.

We then learn that in order to break the curse, someone must fall in love with the Beast, and the former servants who are now household objects believe Belle is this women, and they go out of their way to arrange a romance between Belle and the Beast.

This 2017 version of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is probably not going to receive the recognition which the 1991 animated hit received, which is too bad because it’s a very good movie.  It’s grand entertainment from beginning to end.  That being said, it’s not without flaws, but even these drawbacks don’t derail this two-hour and nine minute musical.

Many have lamented that Disney chose as its director for this film Bill Condon, the man who directed the awful THE TWILIGHT SAGA:  BREAKING DAWN – PART 1 (2011) and PART 2 (2012),  but Condon also directed MR. HOLMES (2015), an intriguing tale of an aged, dementia-suffering Sherlock Holmes, and GODS AND MONSTERS (1998), an equally engaging movie about the later days of FRANKENSTEIN director James Whale, both films starring Ian McKellen in the lead roles, who also appears here in BEAUTY AND THE BEAST.

Condon’s work here is closer in quality to MR. HOLMES and GODS AND MONSTERS than those horrible TWILIGHT movies.  The film is colorful and beautiful to look at, the pacing is upbeat, and for a two-hour plus film it doesn’t drag at all, and the musical numbers are lively and satisfying.

Emma Watson has also been receiving her fair share of criticism for a rather flat portrayal of Belle.  Sure, Watson doesn’t play Belle like a princess.  She plays her like a bookish farm girl who is more interested in imagination than romance, which is exactly how Belle should be portrayed.  So, while I agree that at times Belle isn’t the most exciting woman on the planet, she’s not supposed to be.  I thought Watson nailed Belle’s persona.

I did have a little bit of a problem with the CGI used on the Beast, and it’s not that the Beast looked fake— he looked fine— but that he looked a bit too handsome.  He’s not very beastlike in appearance.  He’s not hideous or revolting or frightening.  He’s pretty darn good-looking for a beast.  I kept thinking of that line from the song “Werewolves of London”:  And his hair was perfect.

As the Beast, Dan Stevens does a serviceable job providing the voice, and even displays some well-timed humor when he’s the prince at the end of the movie.

The rest of the CGI effects on the occupants of the castle are unusually understated and simple. Lumiere, Cogsworth, Mrs. Potts, and Chip all look rather plain. Some have interpreted this as inferior CGI, but I liked this effect.  It kept the film from going down the road of high silliness.

Kevin Kline turns in a nice performance as Belle’s father Maurice, and he enjoys some fine moments.

But hands down the two best performances in the movie belong to Luke Evans as Gaston and Josh Gad as LeFou.  Now, in the 1991 animated version, these two provided the comic relief and were over-the-top ridiculous.  As such, they were probably my least two favorite characters in the 1991 version.  It’s the exact opposite here.

While they remain over-the-top and again provide comic relief, both Evans and Gad add so much more to their performances, giving these characters nuances which simply weren’t there in the original.  Evans, as the handsome cad who every woman in the village other than Belle pines for, plays this aspect to the hilt, but he also grounds the character with a sense of military realism that makes Gaston more of a three-dimensional villain here.

As good as Evans is, Josh Gad is even better as LeFou.  He provides several laugh-out-loud moments in this movie, and he makes LeFou much more than just the mindless bumbling sidekick we saw in the animated version.  This LeFou is a real person.  Much has been made about the gay angle of the character, and all I can say is it works wonderfully and it’s a natural progression for the character.

Ewan McGregor is serviceable as Lumiere, but the rest of the cast is hardly noticeable, and this includes some big names.  Ian McKellen barely registers as Cogsworth, and Emma Thompson, while fine as Mts. Potts, doesn’t stand out either.  Even Stanley Tucci is restrained as Maestro Cadenza.  But somehow, none of this really gets in the way of the success of this movie.

And to come full circle, the reason again is the music by Alan Menken.  Somehow, those songs sound even better today.

Menken’s music score and songs have always cried out for a live action rendition.

The 2017 version of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is that rendition.

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THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (2016) Not So Magnificent

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A bully takes over a town, and the frustrated townspeople hire gunslingers to protect them.  It’s the story told in the classic western THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960), itself a remake of an even better movie, Akira Kurosawa’s THE SEVEN SAMURAI (1954).

So, you’d hope that the folks behind this latest remake would offer audiences something new.  After all, if you’re going to remake a movie, wouldn’t you want to put your own stamp on it, to make it stand out as your own?  And that’s the biggest problem I had with this new version of THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (2016):  it doesn’t give us anything new or stand on its own.

The biggest culprit?  A screenplay that never really gets to the heart of the matter.  In spite of the solid acting and crisp clear directing, the story never really moves beyond the superficial.

THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN opens with a baddie named Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard) terrorizing a small town in the old west.  He’s buying off the people’s land at ridiculously low prices, and if they won’t sell, well, his army of bandits will simply kill them.  And when some of the townsfolk object, that’s exactly what they do.

One of the men killed is the husband of Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett), a feisty woman who then sets out to hire gunslingers to free their town from Bogue’s clutches.  She meets a hired gun named Chisolm (Denzel Washington) and he turns her down until he hears the name of the man she wants stopped, Bogue, and then he changes his mind.  Chisolm and Bogue obviously share some history, which we learn about later in the story.

Chisolm rounds up a team of men to join him, with the total number eventually reaching seven.  They then spend the rest of the movie preparing to defend the town, setting things up for the obligatory climactic confrontation.

As you can see, THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN tells a very simple story, and for a movie like this to work, it needs to be carried by strong characters and a lively script, neither of which are in this movie.

The characters are okay and the actors are all solid in their roles,  but they’re all very plain and straightforward.  None of them are particularly memorable. Only Vincent D’Onofrio stands out as the high-pitched soft spoken trapper Jack Horne.  D’Onofrio gives Horne something the other characters all lack:  a personality.  He’s the one memorable character in the whole lot.

I’m a big Denzel Washington fan, going back to his early years with films like CRY FREEDOM (1987) all the way through to today, although some of his recent films have been lukewarm.  Washington is fine here, but there’s just not a lot to Chisolm.  He’s a cool customer, not saying a whole lot, but unlike Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name, we don’t really see Chisolm back up his persona with action, and what little he has to say is flat out dull.

Chris Pratt plays the lively gambler Josh Faraday, and it looks like Pratt is having a good time, but the problem with Faraday is nearly every line he spews is a cliche.  It’s the type of role James Garner would have played, but Garner would have anchored the charm with some realism, and Pratt doesn’t give Faraday anything that is even resembling real.

Ethan Hawke is Goodnight Robicheaux, and the most memorable thing about him is his name.  Hawke is another actor I usually enjoy, but the role he’s playing here is shallow and underdeveloped.  The same can be said for Robicheaux’s buddy Billy Rocks, played by Byung-hun Lee.

As I said, Vincent D’Onofrio is the one guy who stands out from the rest here, as the burly trapper Jack Horne.  He also gives Chris Pratt’s Faraday one of the better lines in the movie when he says of Jack, “I do believe that bear was wearing people clothes.”

And the seven are rounded out by a Mexican gunman named Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) and a Native American named Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier).  Both of these characters are like the other five:  solid but unremarkable.

I also wasn’t overly impressed by Haley Bennett as Emma Cullen.  She sure looks feisty with her heated stares at the camera, but again I’ll blame the script.  We know very little about Emma, and she remains largely in the background while the seven do their thing, rather than being in the middle of the action.

The one other actor who does make an impression is Peter Sarsgaard as the dastardly villain Bartholomew Bogue, but that all happens in the opening sequence of the movie. Sarsgaard struts his stuff in the opening scene, making for a very dark character, giving the film a rather chilling start.  But then he disappears for the remainder of the movie, and when he returns for the climactic battle, he remains in the background,reduced to reaction shots as his army goes toe to toe with the seven.  So, unfortunately, Sarsgaard is hardly a major factor in this movie, since his best scene is the first one.

Director Antoine Fuqua , who also directed Denzel Washington in THE EQUALIZER (2014) and the film which won Washington as Oscar, TRAINING DAY (2001), does a serviceable job here.  I mean, the action scenes are clear and crisp, but they don’t wow.  The cinematography is adequate, but it didn’t blow me away.  This wild west is nowhere near as grand or picturesque as the west captured by the likes of John Ford and Howard Hawks.

Fuqua also glosses over one of the more interesting parts of the story:  the training of the townspeople to defend themselves.  There are a few fleeting scenes of our magnificent seven teaching these folks the art of self-defense, but there was so much more that could have been done.  It’s a missed opportunity in a movie that was begging for some captivating sequences.

And while the shoot-outs and fights are professionally shot— heh heh— they are way too sanitizied and neat.  First off, the film is rated PG-13, and so for the countless unfortunates who are shot, stabbed, blown up, what have you, there’s not a drop of blood anywhere.  Not that I want to see a gory bloodbath, but when things are as neat and tidy as they are in this movie, it takes away from the strength of the story.

The bigger drawback with the action scenes is that they are all so orderly.  There’s no sense of panic or pandemonium.  Take the climactic battle between the seven and the townsfolk and the army of villains.  There are people running everywhere, and yet everyone knows exactly who to shoot, without question.  It’s so precise you’d think they were wearing sports jerseys with their names on them, like having “Team Bogue” printed on their backs.  This is an all out war, people are being shot and blown up, and yet there’s no horror whatsoever associated with it, which really limits the story.

The best action sequence is when Chisolm and company first arrive in the town and put a big hurt on the thugs stationed there.  This dramatic sequence works well.  By contrast, the movie’s ending is nowhere near as riveting.

Again, the biggest culprit to this one being mediocre is its screenplay by Richard Wenk and Nic Pizzolatto, which surprised me because Wenk has written screenplays for films I’ve really enjoyed, movies like the remake of THE MECHANIC (2011) with Jason Statham, and the Sylvester Stallone all-star actioner THE EXPENDABLES 2 (2012), which I thought was the best of that series.

The screenplay to THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN tells a straightforward story without many surprises.  There are the occasional witty lines, but I’d hardly call it a lively script.  Plus it’s all so predictable, with the ending to this one never being in doubt.

THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN is a by the numbers western that never rises above its material or puts a distinctive stamp on the genre.

It’s not bad, but for a movie called THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, there’s nothing all that magnficent about it. Perhaps it should have been called THE STRAIGHTFORWARD SEVEN.

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IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: CARRIE (2013)

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Carrie poster 2013Here’s my latest IN THE SPOOKLIGHT column on the recent remake of CARRIE (2013) starring Chloe Grace Moretz and Julianne Moore.  It’s up now in the February 2015 Edition of THE HORROR WRITERS ASSOCIATION NEWSLETTER.

—Michael

 

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT

BY

MICHAEL ARRUDA

Today IN THE SPOOKLIGHT it’s the 2013 remake of CARRIE starring Chloe Grace Moretz and Julianne Moore.

CARRIE, based on Stephen King’s first novel and first filmed in 1976 by Brian De Palma with Sissy Spacek in the lead role, tells the story of awkward teenager Carrie White (Chloe Grace Moretz) who’s constantly picked on at school because she is awkward and shy.  Carrie acts this way because she has been brought up— and until recently, home-schooled— by her religious fanatic mother Margaret (Julianne Moore).  Fanatic might be too lenient a term.  In short, Margaret is a lunatic!  For example, Margaret’s idea of effective parenting includes locking Carrie in a closet so she can pray for forgiveness.  We’re never told why Margaret acts the way she does, but we can assume she experienced one or more traumatic events earlier in her life.

After Carrie’s classmates make a vicious video of her in the girl’s locker room shower, gym teacher Ms. Desjardin (Judy Greer) punishes the girls responsible by restricting their prom privileges unless they do extra drills during gym class.  Sue Snell (Gabriella Wilde) sees the error of her ways and in good faith asks her boyfriend Tommy (Ansel Elgort) to take Carrie to the prom instead.  Carrie is wary of the invitation, but eventually is convinced that Tommy is not trying to trick her, and so she says yes.

While Sue and Tommy have the best intentions, the wild and rebellious Chris (Portia Doubleday) does not, and she and her boyfriend plan an elaborate scheme of revenge to get back at Carrie at the prom.

The other thing about Carrie is that she has telekinetic powers, which come in handy for dealing with the likes of her mother, and in the film’s bloody finale, Sue and the others who try to humiliate her.

The original CARRIE was directed by Brian De Palma, and starred Sissy Spacek as Carrie and Piper Laurie as her mother Margaret, both of whom were nominated for Academy Awards, so as good as this sequel is, and as good as both Chloe Grace Moretz and Julianne Moore are, they would be hard-pressed to match the efforts of the original.  Sissy Spacek, for example, remains the definitive Carrie.

However, there’s a lot to like about the 2013 version.

I enjoyed how director Kimberly Peirce and screenwriters Lawrence D. Cohen and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa updated the story.  For example, in this version, the girls take the video of Carrie on a cell phone which they then upload to the internet.  This version also does a better job than the original of showing Sue’s motives as to why she wants to help Carrie.

Chloe Grace Moretz does a nice job as Carrie.  Before seeing the movie, I was concerned that Moretz would have been too normal and good looking for the part, but she does a good job making Carrie awkward and uncomfortable.

Like Piper Laurie in the original, the scariest part of this movie is Julianne Moore as Carrie’s mother Margaret.  Is Moore as good as Laurie?  Probably not, but she’s still damn scary, which is a good thing, because there’s not much else that’s frightening about CARRIE.  It’s disturbing, to be sure, as Carrie’s life is a tough one, as she’s bullied at school, and at home she’s dominated by her insane mother.  And it’s exceedingly sad to see Carrie humiliated at the prom, and even her revenge doesn’t feel rewarding.  You just want to see her be happy, not single-handedly wiping out half her high school class!

The acting here is above average.  In addition to Moretz and Moore, Gabrielle Wilde is very good as sympathetic Sue Snell, as is Judy Greer as Ms. Desjardin.  Portia Doubleday does a nice job making Chris a spoiled bratty nemesis for Carrie, and while I liked Ansel Elgort as wholesome boyfriend Tommy the first time I saw this one at the movies, the second time I watched this on Netflix I found him rather syrupy sweet, and I had a hard time taking him seriously.

The best part of CARRIE is it tells a genuine tale of the effects of bullying, something that too many high school students have to deal with, and the sad part is they’ve been dealing with it for years—long before King wrote the novel in the early 70s— and they continue to deal with it today.  This combined with the other part of the story, Carrie’s relationship with her abusive mother, make this one sadder than most horror tales.

I liked this version of CARRIE well enough, and by far my favorite part of this movie was the performances by Chloe Grace Moretz as Carrie and Julianne Moore as her demented mother Margaret.

CARRIE is a gloomy drama about a young girl who is eventually pushed to the edge of her sanity, to the point where she can’t take it any longer and strikes back with the full force of her deadly telekinetic abilities.  Yet, this action does little to lift Carrie out of her predicament.  In fact, it doesn’t rescue her from her plight at all.  It simply ends it.

In CARRIE, the only release from pain is death.

For those who like dark stories, you can’t get much darker than that.

—END—

SHOCK SCENES: PHANTOM OF THE OPERA UNMASKED

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SHOCK SCENES:  PHANTOM OF THE OPERA UNMASKED

Lon Chaney unmasked in THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925) still one of the most shocking scenes in horror movie history.

Lon Chaney unmasked in THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925) still one of the most shocking scenes in horror movie history.

By Michael Arruda

Welcome to SHOCK SCENES, the column where we look at some of the more memorable scenes in horror movie history.

That’s right.  We’ll be scouring horror movies throughout the decades looking at some of the brightest- er, darkest moments they’ve had to offer.  It should be a fun trip.

First up, a look at the unmasking scenes in THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA movies.  Now, there have been a bunch of film versions of the famous Gaston Leroux tale— see my blog column THE HORROR JAR:  THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA MOVIES posted on September 12, 2014 for the complete list— but for today’s column, I’d like to concentrate on the first three film versions:  the 1925 Lon Chaney silent classic, the 1943 Universal remake starring Claude Rains, and the 1962 Hammer remake starring Herbert Lom.  These are the three best versions, as none of the remakes since have been as good.

Most surprisingly, however, is that the definitive and most impressive version of this horror tale remains the original 1925 silent Lon Chaney version.  I still find this difficult to believe.  The film was made in 1925.  It’s a silent movie.  And yet this is the best version.  No one since has been able to match it.  Unbelievable, but true.

Similarly, when you look at the famous unmasking scenes, again, it’s the Chaney version which stands above the rest, and seriously, it stands way above the rest.  No other version even comes close!

The Chaney version also is the most faithful version of the Gaston Leroux novel, and likewise, it handles its unmasking scene in a way that is most true to the book.  For starters, in the book, the Phantom is unmasked early on, as he is in the Chaney version.  For some reason, both the 1943 Universal remake and the 1962 Hammer remake chose to unmask the Phantom at the end of the movie.  Bad idea.

In the 1925 silent version, the first half of the movie, the Phantom (Lon Chaney) is exactly that:  a phantom.  We see only glimpses of him, a shadow, a hand, a silhouette, and he’s there wreaking havoc at the Paris Opera House for reasons we don’t know at the time.  The movie captures this brilliantly, and director Rupert Julian truly makes the unknown Phantom a threatening and menacing presence without the audience ever really seeing him.

When the Phantom shows interest in young Opera singer Christine Daae (Mary Philbin) and secretly whisks her away from her dressing room, we see him for the first time, and he’s wearing a mask so neither Christine nor the audience can see his face.  In the famous unmasking scene, which occurs midway through the film, the Phantom plays the organ, while Christine sneaks up behind him and attempts to remove his mask.  In classic suspenseful fashion, she reaches for it but then backs off, afraid he’ll turn around, before finally ripping it off his face, exposing the horrific make-up by Lon Chaney.

This is one of the best scenes in the 1925 THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA.  In fact, it’s one of the most memorable scenes in horror movie history.  The same cannot be said for the unmasking scenes in the 1943 and 1962 versions.

Chaney’s Phantom opens his mouth in what looks like a shriek of terror, and then he turns on Christine with a viciousness that would make Mr. Hyde proud.  He physically attacks her, thrusting his face into hers, screaming at her to behold is ugliness, and then he laughs at her, in what we can only imagine to be an insane maniacal laugh.  It’s a terrifying and brutal scene.

Supposedly, Chaney shot most of this scene himself— he and director Julian were at odds throughout the production and Chaney directed most of his own scenes— and to get the desired reaction shots from Mary Philbin, Chaney hurled insults at her, and she was under the impression he was furious with her and disappointed with her acting abilities, and so her reaction here was based on real emotions.

Interestingly enough, more than one version of this scene exists— heck, various versions of this movie exist!  The history of this film reveals there were multiple cuts of the film upon its release, and over the years as it was re-released multiple times things didn’t get any simpler and different prints surfaced.  I’ve only seen one version, but supposedly there exists out there another version of the unmasking scene shot from different angles.

After this shocking scene, the Phantom lets Christina go, to return to the Paris Opera House, but later, when he spies her with her lover Raoul (Norman Kerry) he vows revenge and then brings his wrath down upon the Opera House one last time while abducting Christina once more in the film’s extremely exciting conclusion.

In the 1943 version, Claude Rains portrays a very different and much more sympathetic Phantom. His Phantom is a violinist who is ultimately wronged and then goes insane later in the movie, and so when this film starts, there is no Phantom haunting the Opera House since he’s a meek violinist at this point in the story.

The mask in this version is probably my favorite mask in THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA movies, and it’s so prevalent in this movie that it becomes synonymous with the Phantom, much more than Chaney’s mask.  When you think of Lon Chaney as the Phantom, you see his terrifying make-up, but when you think of Claude Rains as the Phantom, you see his slick white mask.

The entire time Rains is the Phantom, he wears the white mask.  Unlike the 1925 version, the unmasking scene in the 1943 film doesn’t come until the end of the movie.  This scene just doesn’t have the same effect as the Chaney scene.  The mask comes off, and we see minimal make-up on Rains’ face, and then he promptly dies in the film’s conclusion.  Gone is the maniacal laughter, the threats to Christine, the essence of what made the character the evil Phantom.  I like the 1943 version a lot, but its unmasking scene and its abrupt anti-climactic finale are two of the weakest parts of this movie.

Claude Rains unmasked in PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1943).

Claude Rains unmasked in PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1943).

For some reason, Hammer Films chose to follow the style of the 1943 version instead of the 1925 version.  I’m guessing this decision was a financial one.  The 1925 version was an epic production, complete with a massive set of the Paris Opera House, and its enormous catacombs, which were used in a huge part of the movie, unlike the subsequent remakes which spent little time underneath the Paris Opera House.  Hammer probably didn’t have the budget to make a movie on the scale of the 1925 version.

Hammer’s 1962 version gets off to a rousing start, however, as the Phantom (Herbert Lom) is wreaking havoc immediately, and so in this regard Hammer did choose to follow the 1925 version.  And I’ve argued that the first half of the 1962 PHANTOM OF THE OPERA is among Hammer’s and director Terence Fisher’s best work, but then things take a dramatic turn as we see via flashback the story of how the Phantom became the Phantom, and suddenly Herbert Lom’s Phantom becomes even more sympathetic— albeit, even heroic— a heroic Phantom?  Come on!— than Claude Rains’ Phantom.

And the unmasking scene in the 1962 version might be even weaker than the one in the 1943 version.  Again, it occurs at the end of the movie.  Again, there’s no insane rants by the Phantom, there’s nothing terrifying or frightening, as there was in the 1925 film.  Again, the make-up is inferior to the Chaney make-up.  There’s a little excitement involving a falling chandelier, but it’s so quick and abrupt that if you blink suddenly you’re reading “The End” on the screen.

Herbert Lom unmasked in THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1962).

Herbert Lom unmasked in THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1962).

The 1962 version by Hammer Films cries out for an additional 20 minutes where after the Phantom is unmasked, he whisks Christine into the catacombs beneath the Opera House while the heroes pursue them into the Phantom’s lair, where they must face all the traps set for them by the insane Phantom.  But alas this doesn’t exist.  The Hammer version simply ends with the unmasking.  The good news is this part of the story does exist in the 1925 silent version, and it’s one of the more exciting parts of that film.

The unmasking scene in the Lon Chaney 1925 version of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA is one of the most terrifying scenes in horror film history.  It’s not to be missed.  The unmasking scenes in the 1943 Universal Claude Rains version and the 1962 Hammer Films Herbert Lom version are both duds and strangely remain the weakest parts of both movies.  Go figure!

So, there you have it:  a look at the unmasking scenes in the three most prominent PHANTOM OF THE OPERA movies to date.

I hope you enjoyed this new column, SHOCK SCENES, and that you’ll join me again next time when I look at more classic scenes from classic horror movies.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

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

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

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.  

PICTURE OF THE DAY: LET ME IN (2010)

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What happens when Abby (Chloe Grace Moretz) enters her friend's home without being invited first, in LET ME IN (2010).

What happens when Abby (Chloe Grace Moretz) enters her best friend Owen’s home without being invited first, in LET ME IN (2010).

PICTURE OF THE DAY:  LET ME IN (2010)

 

Here’s a still from LET ME IN (2010), the exceptional vampire movie by director Matt Reeves.

LET ME IN is a remake of the Swedish horror movie LET THE RIGHT ONE IN (2008), and both these films are excellent.  I found LET ME IN just as good as LET THE RIGHT ONE IN.

LET ME IN tells the story of a young boy Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee) bullied at school who develops a close friendship with a mysterious young girl Abby (Chloe Grace Moretz) who recently moved into the apartment next door.  It turns out, Abby is a vampire.

The best part of LET ME IN is that the true horror in this one is the way Owen is bullied at school, and the story is set up so that in spite of the horrible things we see Abby do as a vampire, we’re actually rooting for her to survive so she can help Owen with his bully problem.

There are also many wonderful tender moments in this one, and this photo is from one of my favorite scenes in the movie.  Abby tells Owen she can’t enter his apartment unless he invites her inside.  When Owen doesn’t do this, as he’s not sure he believes her, she enters anyway.  Once inside, she begins to bleed profusely.  Seeing this, Owen rushes to her immediately and hugs her, repeatedly telling her she’s invited.  It’s an emotional and touching moment in the film, in a movie that is full of moments like this one.

LET ME IN was the comeback film for England’s Hammer Films, and it’s directed by one of the best genre directors working today, Matt Reeves, who also directed CLOVERFIELD (2008) and DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2014).  It also has an excellent cast, including its two talented young leads, Chloe Grace Moretz and Kodi Smit-McPhee.

If you haven’t seen LET ME IN, you’re missing quite a treat.  Even though it’s about two twelve year olds, it’s a very adult movie, and it doesn’t skimp on the horror. It’s not a gory shock-filled extravaganza, but rather a beautifully shot deliberate and very suspenseful thriller that will hook you from its opening moments right up until the end.

It’s one of my favorite vampire movies of recent years, and I highly recommend it.

—Michael