SEE HOW THEY RUN (2022) – Playful Murder Mystery Comedy More Amusing Than Funny

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SEE HOW THEY RUN (2022) brings together two of my favorite actors working today, Sam Rockwell and Saoirse Ronan, and pairs them as Scotland Yard detectives in a playful mystery/comedy that is full of spirit and gumption yet has a script that only partially delivers.

And while Rockwell and Ronan do share some onscreen chemistry, it’s Adrien Brody who delivers the film’s best performance. Unfortunately, Brody’s character is killed off before the opening credits, and it’s his murder that the detectives have to solve. Now, we do continue to see Brody’s character in flashbacks, and while SEE HOW THEY RUN obviously isn’t on the same level as the classic SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950), in which the story was told by William Holden’s deceased character, Brody even in flashbacks pretty much dominates the film.

The opening pre-credit sequence, which just might be the best sequence in the whole film, introduces us to Hollywood film director Leo Kopernick (Adrien Brody) who is in London in the early 1950s to prepare for a film version of Agatha Christie’s hit play, The Mousetrap, and in this lively sequence, we learn of Kopernick’s contempt for the murder mystery trope which he views as cliche, and we also see that he is pretty much a complete jerk, insulting or getting on the wrong side of nearly all the players involved with The Mousetrap, and so it’s no surprise that someone jumps out of the shadows and kills him. Just before this happens, he laments that somehow, he unwittingly has become a victim in the type of story he disdains!

Enter Inspector Stoppard (Sam Rockwell) and Constable Stalker (Saoirse Ronan) who are assigned to the case, and Stoppard has also been tasked with training the very green Stalker. It’s their job to solve the crime, and pretty much all the suspects are the folks involved in both the play and film versions of The Mousetrap, making this a mystery within a mystery.

Sam Rockwell, who has been brilliant in so many different roles, from George W. Bush in VICE (2018) to the racist cop Dixon in THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (2017), to, going way, way back, the whiny “red shirt” crew member Guy Fleegman in the hilarious GALAXY QUEST (1999), to name just a few. Here, he has the thankless role of playing the straight man to both Ronan’s character and the rest of the supporting players, who are all over-the-top larger than life suspects. His take on the sad, dour Stoppard is of a man deep in melancholy and in need of a drink. While the other actors all appeared to be having a fun time playing their roles, Rockwell here was playing the heavy. He’s convincing, as you would expect. And we are spared any voice-over narration from the depressed detective.

Saoirse Ronan fares better as Constable Stalker who takes things so literally, she often seems like a bumbling Inspector Clouseau, but she’s no fool, and her meticulous notes actually help crack the case. But she is a source of a lot of the humor here, as she does take things literally, like when one of the characters steps up to Stoppard and says, “I did it!” in reference to something she just did, but Stalker misinterprets that as a confession and announces, “I arrest you for the murder…!” Ronan gets most of the laugh-out-loud moments in the movie. The only issue I had is most of these moments were shown in the film’s trailers, and they didn’t save all that much for the movie, so her best bits, I had already seen.

Still, it’s another terrific performance by Ronan, who has wowed me in such movies as LITTLE WOMEN (2019) and LADY BIRD (2017). This is the most fun performance I’ve seen her deliver.

And other than Adrian Brody’s scene stealing performance as a deceased director, it’s the best performance in the movie.

The rest of the cast is fine, although none of these folks, in spite of their eccentricities, really come to life as much as expected. David Oyelowo plays annoying screenwriter Mervyn Cocker-Norris, and Ruth Wilson plays the arrogant theater owner. My favorite Ruth Wilson role remains her recurrent role as the explosive Alice Morgan on the gritty Idris Elba cop TV series LUTHER (2010-2019).

Director Tom George holds nothing back and has made a murder mystery that pokes fun at the genre and looks fabulous while doing it. However, the screenplay by Mark Chappell, in spite of going all out in an attempt to not be the genre it’s spoofing and doing creative bits like breaking the fourth wall at times, simply isn’t as sharp as it needs to be. Briefly put, the laughs simply aren’t there. SEE HOW THEY RUN is far more amusing than it is funny.

I loved the cinematography, and it nails the 1950s London look. I enjoyed all the characters, although with the exception of Brody’s Leo Kopernick and Saoirse Ronan’s Constable Stalker, they don’t really come to life. They remain caricatures of the characters they are playing. Even having Agatha Christie (Shirley Henderson) herself show up doesn’t cut through the surprisingly wooden characterizations.

There’s a lot to like about SEE HOW THEY RUN, even as a lot of it doesn’t work. I wish the jokes had been sharper. Let’s put it this way. It’s not Mel Brooks or Neil Simon. It’s not even Agatha Christie. But it sure tries like heck.

It does have a snappy music score by one of my favorite film composers these days, Daniel Pemberton, who wrote memorable scores for THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E (2015) and KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD (2017).

SEE HOW THEY RUN is fun and entertaining and doesn’t take itself too seriously. In a way, I wish that it had. It may have resulted in a stronger, tighter, and ultimately funnier script.

I give it two and a half stars.

—END—

WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING (2022) – Big Screen Adaptation of Popular Novel Superficial but Satisfying

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WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING (2022), the big screen adaptation of the immensely popular novel of the same name by Delia Owens, probably will not satisfy fans of the novel since its screenplay by Lucy Alibar is superficial at best, but it still manages to tell a compelling narrative in spite of a pace better suited for a sultry summer North Carolina afternoon.

It also features a terrific performance by Daisy Edgar-Jones in the lead role.

WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING opens in 1969 North Carolina where a young woman Kya Clark (Daisy Edgar-Jones) is accused of murdering the man she was seeing, the former high school star quarterback Chase Andrews (Harris Dickinson). Kya is known in town as the Marsh Girl, because she has lived her whole life alone in a house on the marshes. The townsfolk think she’s weird, and rumors about her have run rampant. The bottom line, however, is that few in town have ever given her the time of day.

When the gentle kindly attorney Tom Milton (David Strathairn) steps up to defend Kya, she tells him her story, which we learn in flashbacks, and the movie plays out in this way, jumping back and forth between Kya’s past and her present trial for murder. We learn that Kya grew up in the swamps with her abusive father (Garret Dillahunt) after her mother and older sisters and brother fled the home. Kya remained, and when eventually her father leaves as well, she takes to surviving on her own.

Her only friends in town are the black owners of the local store, Jumpin’ (Sterling Macer, Jr.) and Mabel (Michael Hyatt), and a boy her own age named Tate. As the years go by and Kya and Tate (Taylor John Smith) grow up, they fall in love and become best friends until Tate has to leave for college, but he promises he will come back to see Kya, but he never does, tearing a new hole in Kya’s heart. She then meets Chase, whose attempts to date her she rebuffs, but he’s persistent, and eventually she gives in and starts to see him, not knowing that he is being less than honest with her about his intentions.

And that’s the story told in WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING, with the climax being will Kya be found innocent or guilty, and what will then happen to the mysterious young woman known as the Marsh Girl?

I didn’t really have high expectations for WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING, so maybe that’s why I kinda enjoyed it.

The best part by far is the lead performance by Daisy Edgar Jones. She captures the innocence and wildness of Kya while giving her both the toughness and intellectual curiosity needed to nail the role. She’s in nearly the entire movie, and she’s good enough to carry this film on her shoulders.

Jones receives fine support from veteran actor David Strathairn as sympathetic and very astute attorney Tom Milton. He makes Milton a very likeable character, and an attorney who would have been right at home in an old episode of LAW AND ORDER. Strathairn has been in a ton of movies over the years, going way, way back to films like THE RIVER WILD (1994), and we saw him last year in NIGHTMARE ALLEY (2021). He also has been stuck playing a boring military character, Admiral William Stenz in the meh Godzilla reboots, GODZILLA (2014) and GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS (2019).

I also really enjoyed Sterling Macer, Jr. and Michael Hyatt as the shop owners who in their own way become surrogate parents for Kya, always looking after her and caring for her. They show their frustration with their own situation, being black in rural North Carolina in the 1960s, knowing that they were limited in how they could help Kya, and understanding that it would have been best for them not to be involved with her at all.

Both Taylor John Smith as Tate and Harris Dickinson as Chase are okay. They’re not terribly exciting or interesting and are about as intriguing as a slice of white bread, but maybe that’s the point. Taylor John Smith reminded me a little bit of a young Paul Rudd.

The screenplay by Lucy Alibar as I said is a bit superficial and really plays out like someone trying to summarize a longer and deeper novel. Lots of points are made, none of them all that deeply, but that being said, Alibar does succeed in fleshing out Kya’s character at least, and combined with the wonderful acting of Daisy Edgar-Jones creates a memorable character. The dialogue is also decent. The trial scenes aren’t that exciting, however, and seem like they belong in an old TV movie.

Director Olivia Newman captures the North Carolina scenery and gives this film a lazy, hot humid summer feel. Unfortunately, that also goes for the pacing as well, which is slow and lethargic. The film is two hours and five minutes, and at times feels longer. It really isn’t much of a thriller, and the emphasis here is instead on romance. That being said, while the weather may be steamy, the romances are not. This is definitely a PG-13 love story, not an R rated one, and the film suffers for it, because it comes off like an adult tale tailored for younger audiences.

Newman does create some memorable scenes, however. Some of the best sequences involve Kya’s interactions with Jumpin’ and Mabel, with one of the best late in the film when a bruised and battered Kya visits an emotional Jumpin’ who tells her how much he and Mabel truly care for her.

Taken as a whole, WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING is a satisfying and generally moving drama about a young woman who lived an extraordinary life alone in the swamps of North Carolina, and who had to fend for herself to survive both the hardships of nature and the ways of men. Accused of murder, her life becomes front and center for all in town to see, and the story becomes less about her innocence or guilt, and more about who she is and why she has to do what she does.

In the hazy lazy days of summer, watching WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING in an air-conditioned theater might be just the ticket to pass a sweltering afternoon.

—END—

IN THE SHADOWS: RALPH BELLAMY

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Welcome back to IN THE SHADOWS, that column where we look at character actors in the movies, especially horror movies.

Up today, it’s Ralph Bellamy, who during his long and prolific career often flirted with leading man roles but most of the time played supporting roles and developed into one of the most respected character actors of his time. Bellamy is known for so much more than his appearances in some horror movies, but for purposes of this column, we will focus on those horror movie roles, especially since one of those roles was a prominent one in one of the greatest horror movies of all time, Universal’s THE WOLF MAN (1941).

Bellamy was also known for his tireless advocacy for actors behind the scenes, as he helped create the Screen Actors Guild and served as President of Actors’ Equity from 1952-1964, leading the charge against McCarthyism and its baseless accusations against actors of the time.

Here now is a partial look at Bellamy’s career, in which he amassed 194 screen credits, with special emphasis on his horror movie roles:

THE SECRET 6 (1931) – Johnny Franks – Bellamy’s first screen credit, in a gangster movie which also featured Clark Gable in the cast.

THE AWFUL TRUTH (1937) – Daniel Leeson- comedy starring Cary Grant and Irene Dunn in which Bellamy eventually loses Dunn to Grant. Bellamy would become known for playing roles in which his character would not end up with the girl.

Ralph Bellamy, Cary Grant, and Rosalind Russell in HIS GIRL FRIDAY (1940).

HIS GIRL FRIDAY (1940) – Bruce Baldwin – one of my favorite Ralph Bellamy roles as the honest but dull Bruce Baldwin who once again loses out to Cary Grant for the affections of the leading lady.

ELLERY QUEEN, MASTER DETECTIVE (1940) – Ellery Queen – first in a series of movies in which Bellamy played famed detective Ellery Queen.

THE WOLF MAN (1941) – Colonel Montford – if you’re a horror fan, this is where you know Ralph Bellamy from, and for me, this is my favorite Bellamy role. As the village law enforcement officer, it’s up to Montford to solve the mystery of just what or who is killing the villagers. Further complicating matters is he is good friends with Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) who just happens to be the Wolf Man, the creature who is committing all the murders. And what makes THE WOLF MAN so great is this compelling storyline isn’t even the main one, but only one of the many compelling storylines in the film, which includes an amazing cast. In addition to Bellamy and Chaney, there’s Claude Rains, Bela Lugosi, Evelyn Ankers, Maria Ouspenskaya, and Patric Knowles.

THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN (1942)- Erik Ernst- Bellamy teams once again with fellow WOLF MAN stars Evelyn Ankers, Bela Lugosi, and Lon Chaney Jr. in this fourth Universal FRANKENSTEIN movie, the first and only time Lon Chaney Jr. played the Monster. Bellamy again plays the town’s top law enforcement officer, this time involved with Dr. Frankenstein’s (Sir Cedricke Hardwicke) daughter Elsa (Evelyn Ankers). Lugosi of course plays one of his all-time best movie characters, Ygor, the second and last time he would play the character, having created the role in the previous Frankenstein movie, SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939). Bellamy gets to be the hero here as he leads the charge to rescue Elsa and destroy the Monster.

ROSEMARY’S BABY (1968) – Dr. Sapirstein- it took nearly 30 years for Bellamy to appear in another horror movie, but his turn here as the sinister Dr. Sapirstein in Roman Polanski’s classic thriller is one of his best and most frightening performances.

SOMETHING EVIL (1972) – Harry Lincoln- TV movie about a haunted house starring Sandy Dennis and Darren McGavin, directed by a young Steven Spielberg!

THE MISSILES OF OCTOBER (1974)- Adlai Stevenson- Bellamy won an Emmy for his portrayal of Adlai Stevenson in this TV movie about the Cuban Missile Crisis, starring William Devane as JFK and Martin Sheen as Robert Kennedy.

OH, GOD! (1977) – Sam Raven- supporting role in this very popular Carl Reiner comedy in its day starring George Burns as God who communicates to unsuspecting John Denver. Also features Teri Garr and Donald Pleasence in its cast.

THE WINDS OF WAR (1983) – Franklin Delano Roosevelt- won another Emmy for his portrayal of FDR in this TV miniseries, the second time he played Roosevelt in a movie, the first being in SUNRISE AT CAMPOBELLO (1960).

TRADING PLACES (1983) – Randolph Duke- memorable pairing with Don Ameche in this funny John Landis comedy starring Eddie Murphy, Dan Aykroyd, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Denholm Elliott.

WAR AND REMEMBRANCE (1988-1989)- Franklin Delano Roosevelt- plays Roosevelt once again in this TV miniseries sequel.

PRETTY WOMAN (1990)- James Morse- Bellamy’s final film role in this insanely popular romantic comedy starring Julia Roberts and Richard Gere.

Bellamy passed away on November 29, 1991 due to a lung ailment. He was 87.

I hope you enjoyed this edition of IN THE SHADOWS, where we looked at the career of Ralph Bellamy, known to horror fans for his work in THE WOLF MAN, THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN, and years later, in ROSEMARY’S BABY.

I hope you will join me again next time when we look at the career of another memorable character actor in the movies.

As always, thanks for reading!

—Michael

REMINISCENCE (2021) – Science Fiction Love Story Mildly Intriguing

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REMINISCENCE (2021), a new science fiction movie by writer/director Lisa Joy, starring Hugh Jackman and Rebecca Ferguson, has been described by some as INCEPTION (2010) – lite.

Make that very lite.

It doesn’t even come close to the complex mind-bending excitement generated by Christopher Nolan’s ambitious hit. And I’m saying this as someone who’s not even a big fan of INCEPTION.

But it is mildly intriguing. And to be fair, it’s a much different movie than INCEPTION, which was a science fiction action/adventure. REMINISCENCE is a science fiction film noir romance, with the emphasis on the romance.

REMINISCENCE takes place some time in the future when wars and economic disparities have further separated the classes into the haves and have nots. Water levels have risen to the point where only the wealthy can afford to live on the dry lands. Things are so bad that most folks don’t even come out in the daytime anymore as life has shifted towards the nocturnal.

But one way people find joy is by using a new technology which allows them to revisit their memories, sort of a time travel back to their favorite moments in life. But evidently it’s not something people can do alone. Nick Bannister (Hugh Jackman) and his partner Emily (Thandiwe Newton) have access to this technology, and they run a business where the client pays to re-live their memories. The client is submerged into a tank of water, and as they listen to Nick’s soothing voice they drift into a sort of sleep, and their memories play out as holograms which both Nick and Emily can also see.

Life is good, until one night when a beautiful woman named Mae (Rebecca Ferguson) shows up at Nick’s door— of all the gin joints in the world—, and as Nick watches her memories play out, he finds himself attracted to her. They see each other again, and suddenly they fall in love. But then Mae disappears, just like that, and Nick refuses to believe that she would just leave him without saying anything. He believes something has happened to her. And as he starts searching for answers he learns that Mae isn’t the person he thought she was.

Of course she’s not! I bet she was associating with some rather unsavory people as well. Yup. You bet! Welcome to the movie world of love stories gone wrong, Nick!

Yeah, this is a story I’ve seen a lot lately. Two people fall in love, but then one of them is either killed or disappears, and the person left alone starts looking for answers and learns they didn’t really know the other person as well as they thought they did. We just saw this plot a few weeks back in the action film JOLT (2021) starring Kate Beckinsale.

Director Lisa Joy’s script isn’t really a strength here. The story it tells is interesting enough, but it doesn’t do a good job with the details. For example, the back story of the state of the world is glossed over too quickly. You don’t really get a sense of what happened or why things are so bad now. What kind of a war was it? Why are the water levels so high? Dunno!

Joy’s direction here doesn’t help either. The potential is there to create a memorable futuristic world, but the film barely does this other than shots of cities surrounded by water. Even the photography is bright and cheery, capturing the feel of a love story rather than a film noir.

Speaking of which, Hugh Jackman’s voice over narration is also a detriment. The writing isn’t so hot, and the things Jackman says seem out of place with the feel of the rest of the movie. In fact, the dialogue as a whole is pretty bad.

The love story isn’t so hot either. There’s no real sense of why Nick falls in love with Mae, and the two performers, Jackman and Ferguson, don’t really generate much heat with each other. Their relationship falls rather flat.

There’s also no background on the technology used by Nick. Is he the only one using it? Or are there other memory vendors? The movie has nothing to say on this. And Nick’s business is barely surviving, which makes one wonder why. You would think business would be booming. If people had the chance to relive fond memories you’d think there would be long lines of folks waiting to do this. But then again maybe not.

I like Hugh Jackman well enough, but I can’t say his performance here as Nick Bannister did much for me. He’s motivated at first because his new girlfriend has vanished, but then he pivots when lives are at stake, and so his intentions are admirable, but the character never really came to life for me.

Jackman is reunited with Rebecca Ferguson here, as the two also starred in the enjoyable musical THE GREATEST SHOWMAN (2017). Ferguson is okay as Mae, but she hardly generates the kind of sexual intensity of the classic femme fatale in these types of movies. Like Jackman, Ferguson is somewhat subdued here. Part of it is the script, which just doesn’t get all that dark and dirty.

I actually enjoyed watching Thandiwe Newton more as Nick’s business partner Emily. She exudes sincerity as Nick’s loyal friend, which is something neither Jackman or Ferguson do in their roles.

The most fun role however belongs to Cliff Curtis as a corrupt cop turned enforcer. He’s sufficiently creepy and nasty, and he gets some of the darker and livelier moments in an otherwise quiet science fiction tale.

Also making an impression in a small role is Angela Sarafyan as a client of Nick’s who uses her sessions to remember a former lover. Sarafyan’s grieving woman seems like a throwaway character until later when it turns out she’s something more.

REMINISCENCE has some twists and turns but none of them mind blowing. The film really plays like a science fiction romance. It’s not really much of a thriller. And with its two leads barely generating any sexual heat or tension, it’s not much of a romance either.

I was mildly entertained, and I was interested enough to want to follow Nick on his quest to find out what really happened to Mae. The answers are okay but again not fantastic. You won’t find yourself watching a spinning coin in the film’s final shot wondering what it all means a la INCEPTION. Nor will you be awed by being transported into a futuristic world a la BLADE RUNNER (1982).

Overall, I found REMINISCENCE to be somewhat diverting. Its story was just creative enough to catch my curiosity, but it didn’t possess enough details to really hammer its points home, nor did it move me in a way where I couldn’t stop watching.

Simply put, I don’t think I will be reminiscing about it any time soon.

—END—

THINGS HEARD AND SEEN (2021) – Netflix Ghost Story Mystery Not Half Bad

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THINGS HEARD & SEEN (2021), a new Netflix ghost story thriller starring Amanda Seyfried was better than I expected.

Which isn’t saying much since I went in with low expectations. It’s getting bad reviews, and its trailer was meh, but this one isn’t half bad. In fact, there’s a lot I liked about it. And the only reason I didn’t love it is the direction it takes during its second half is much more formulaic and forced than its intriguing and mysterious first act.

Married couple Catherine Claire (Amanda Seyfried) and George Claire (James Norton) and their young daughter Franny (Ana Sophia Heger) relocate to rural upstate New York when George accepts a new professorship at a prestigious private college. It’s a tough move for Catherine as she leaves behind a thriving career as an art restorer, but she feels she should support her husband. They move into an old farmhouse with a long history behind it, and it’s not long before both Catherine and Franny begin to see and hear things which make them believe the house is haunted. George, on the other hand, wants no part of what he views as fanciful imaginings.

But the folks around them aren’t so dismissive. George’s department head, Floyd DeBeers (F. Murray Abraham) is very open to the possibility of hauntings and even suggest to Catherine that they hold a seance inside the house. And George’s fellow professor Justine (Rhea Seehorn) takes a liking to Catherine and becomes very sympathetic to her needs.

And as they begin to learn that perhaps this spirit isn’t an evil one, but one who’s trying to protect Claire, we begin to learn that hubby George isn’t quite the man everyone thinks he is.

And there’s your plot of THINGS HEARD & SEEN. The first half works much better than the second. The story it tells early on is quite captivating, in spite of the “been there done that” ghost story elements. The characters in this movie are all rather interesting, and they held my interest deep into this movie.

But as George emerges as the main villain in the film’s latter stages, the movie becomes more farfetched and much less enjoyable. And the ending is very disappointing and is by far the weakest part of the movie.

I’m a big fan of Amanda Seyfried, and I enjoy her in nearly every movie she is in, even the bad ones. She’s coming off her Oscar nominated supporting performance as Marion Davies in MANK (2020). Before that she starred with Kevin Bacon in another “haunted house” thriller YOU SHOULD HAVE LEFT (2020) which wasn’t very good. I enjoyed THINGS HEARD & SEEN more. And while the MAMA MIA! (2008) star has been in a ton of movies, probably my favorite performance by Seyfried was her portrayal of Linda Lovelace in LOVELACE (2013).

Here, in THINGS HEARD & SEEN, Seyfried knocks it out of the park once again. Her portrayal of the ever increasing anxious and suspicious wife is imbued with strength, and she never ever becomes a frightened victim, which is why her ultimate fate in this movie is so disappointing and the worst part of the film.

James Norton, playing a role that is a far cry from his portrayal of John Brooke in LITTLE WOMEN (2019) is sufficiently sinister as the hubby who isn’t what he seems but doesn’t care because he seemingly can get away with anything.

THINGS HEARD & SEEN boasts a strong supporting cast. Rhea Seehorn, who plays Kim Wexler on BETTER CALL SAUL (2015-2022), is solid here as Justine, a character who takes on a more prominent role as the film goes along.

Natalia Dyer, Nancy on STRANGER THINGS (2016-2021) is excellent here as Willis, a college student who crosses paths with George and becomes an object of his lust. It’s an interesting role because Willis can’t stand George but she has sex with him anyway. Dyer makes the most of a small role.

Karen Allen shows up as real estate agent Mare Laughton, and later she shares some crucial scenes with husband and sheriff Pat (Dan Daily).

Alex Neustaedter plays Eddie Vale, a young man whose parents lived in the house before George and Catherine and who also met with a terrible fate. Vale and Catherine eventually have an affair of their own. Neustaedter’s scenes with Amanda Seyfried are some of the best in the movie.

And F. Murray Abraham adds class as department head Floyd DeBeers.

While I found the first half of this movie intriguing, none of it is all that frightening, which works against this being a thriller. It works better as a drama/mystery than a haunted house thriller. The scares just aren’t there.

The seance scene is also rather ridiculous. If spirits spoke this freely and easily we’d be giving them smart phones. Speaking of smart phones, they’re not in this movie since it takes place in 1980. Why? I have no idea. It just does.

The film is beautifully shot by directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini. They capture the beauty of the rural countryside, and they do some nice things with the ghosts in this one, as the spirits and their spectral presences are often captured with lighting effects that imply warmth and love as opposed to evil. Again, intriguing, but not scary.

They also wrote the screenplay, based on the novel All Things Cease To Appear by Elizabeth Brundage. They do a great job creating captivating characters, but run into trouble devising a plot that holds its weight for the entire two hour running time.

Thematically, I get it. Women are frequently victims of powerful men, and there seems to be no change in this pattern, but in terms of the story told in this movie, with such a strong main character, Amanda Seyfried’s Catherine, I can’t help but wish the writers had decided to take this one in a different direction.

THINGS HEARD & SEEN is a well-acted drama/mystery with a talented cast, led by Amanda Seyfried, and its first half is very watchable, but as its script becomes more formulaic, its second half struggles to keep things going. The result is a mixed bag of a movie that I liked well enough but certainly can’t say that I loved.

—END—

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: THE GHOUL (1933)

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This is a reprint of a column I wrote for the HWA NEWSLETTER back in 2011:

One of the joys lost in today’s age of DVD collections and massive streaming video libraries is the discovery of unseen gems.  There are few things I enjoy more than watching one of my favorite classic actors— say Peter Cushing or Boris Karloff— in a film performance for the first time.  Sure, I’ve seen most of the movies these guys have made, but on purpose, I’ve yet to see them all.

 

That’s the case with today’s movie THE GHOUL (1933), a classic tale of the walking dead starring Boris Karloff fresh off playing his signature role in FRANKENSTEIN (1931).  I had never seen this one before, and watching it for the first time was a pleasure.

 

Karloff plays Professor Henry Morlant, and as the film opens, Morlant is dying.  He’s sick in bed with just a few hours to live.  Not to fret, Morlant is an Egyptologist who believes in the powers of the Egyptian gods.  A wealthy man, Morlant has spent the bulk of his fortune on a jewel known as the “Eternal Light,” and he believes that with this jewel in his possession, he’ll have eternal life.

 

Morlant instructs his servant Laing (Ernest Thesiger) to bury the jewel with him, to in fact bandage it to his dead hand.  He warns Laing, however, that if anyone should steal the valuable item, he will rise from the dead to kill those who have taken the jewel so he can reclaim it and enjoy his eternal life in the next world. Hmm, if he can come back from the dead without the jewel, what does he need the jewel for in the first place?  The answer, of course, is that the Eternal Light gives him eternal life in the next life, while without it, he just comes back as a murderous ghoul.  Nice to have options!

 

Since the Eternal Light jewel is worth a fortune, everyone and his grandmother wants to steal it, including Morlant’s accountant Broughton (Cedricke Hardwicke) and a host of other unsavory characters.  It’s Laing, however, who gets to it first, and true to his word, Morlant does rise from his tomb to pursue those who stole the jewel, but since this tale plays like a mystery, with so many suspects, Morlant doesn’t know who has the jewel, and so he goes on a murder rampage in search of his treasure.

 

THE GHOUL is a fun 1930s horror movie and a nice change of pace from the Universal classics of the decade.  This one was produced in Britain and was directed by T. Hayes Hunter who imbues it with lots of creepy atmosphere.  It really does play like a mystery and at times the proceedings can get confusing as it’s difficult to tell who’s plotting against whom, and to be honest, I prefer the horrific elements of THE GHOUL over its mysterious parts.  Once Karloff rises from the grave as the murderous ghoul, the film reaches a higher level and is much more fun to watch.

 

THE GHOUL has a great cast led by Karloff, who’s at his scary best roaming the dark countryside and corridors of shadowy mansions in search of the Eternal Light jewel.  Karloff is even scary in his opening death bed scene, which is pretty amazing considering his character is confined to a bed.  He’s frightening as he threatens Ernest Thesiger that he damned well better be scared of him, because if anyone steals the jewel, he’s coming back to kill!  I think it’s easy to forget just how scary Karloff could be.  He didn’t come to be called the King of Horror for nothing.

 

He’s also wearing ghoulish make-up by Heinrich Heitfeld, which reminded me a little bit of the make-up Karloff wore in THE RAVEN (1935).

 

Ernest Thesiger [Dr. Pretorius in BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935)] provides another solid performance as Morlant’s servant Laing.  He gets to spend most of the picture terrified of Karloff’s ghoul.  Sir Cedricke Hardwick [Dr. Frankenstein in THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN (1942), as well as many other notable film performances] gives a fine portrayal as Broughton.  He looks and acts like a character in a Dickens’ novel.  THE GHOUL also marks the film debut of Ralph Richardson as a shady minister.  Richardson’s another actor who made tons of movies, but I always remember his genre performance as the blind man in FRANKENSTEIN:  THE TRUE STORY (1973).

 

THE GHOUL also has a powerful music score by Louis Levy.

 

Rupert Downing and Leonard Hines adapted the screenplay from a play by Frank King.  Two other writers are also listed in the credits, Roland Pertwee and John Hastings Turner.  There’s nothing wrong with the script as it contains snappy dialogue and a decent story that moves right along at a nice clip.

 

THE GHOUL, with its mysterious goings-on and Egyptian folklore reminded me of two other Karloff movies, James Whale’s THE OLD DARK HOUSE (1932), which also co-starred Ernest Thesiger, and THE MUMMY (1932).

 

This holiday season THE GHOUL would make a fine stocking stuffer, a creepy addition to anyone’s gift bag, especially for the horror film connoisseur.  Just don’t steal the Eternal Light, or Karloff will be out of his tomb, back among the living to kill, kill, kill—.

 

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ANTEBELLUM (2020) – Horror Drama Thought-Provoking and Disturbing In Spite of Questionable Twist

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ANTEBELLUM (2020), a new movie written and directed by Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz, and starring singer/songwriter/actress Janelle Monae [HIDDEN FIGURES (2016) and MOONLIGHT (2016)], is a powerful hybrid drama/horror movie that while not always successful remains disturbing throughout.

In fact, the first third of this movie is as unsettling an opening to a movie as I’ve seen in a while.

ANTEBELLUM begins at a southern plantation during the years of the Civil War, and it’s run by a very sadistic group of Confederate soldiers. Slaves are shot, branded, not allowed to speak without permission, and the women are regularly offered to the soldiers for sexual pleasure.

Eden (Janelle Monae) is for reasons unknown the slave who others turn to for leadership, but she resists, urging those around her to be patient for the right time. The last time she attempted an escape, people were killed, and the sadistic Senator Denton (Eric Lange) who runs the plantation branded Eden when she wouldn’t say her name. Denton has a thing for Eden and keeps her as his personal slave.

The day to day operations at the plantation are run by Captain Jasper (Jack Huston) who is exceedingly cruel.

As I said, the first third of this movie is as unpleasant at it can get and is not easy to sit through.

Then, one night, as Eden lies in bed, she hears a cell phone ringing, and when she opens her eyes she’s in the here and now in 2020 and her name is Veronica and she is a successful author with a loving husband and a cute young daughter.

Whaaaat???

What, indeed!

The film switches gears here, big time, and the audience of course is wondering, how is this going to tie in to what we saw earlier?

Rest assured, things do tie in, but it’s in a reveal that isn’t entirely successful. For starters, it reminded me an awful lot of the twist in the ill-fated THE VILLAGE (2004). It wasn’t quite as jarring as that one, but it will raise a few eyebrows, that’s for sure!

Writer/directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz have constructed a story that for the most part works but doesn’t entirely. The first third of the tale, which takes place on the plantation, is heavy and disturbing. When things switch to 2020, the tone shifts, and Gabourey Sidibe and Lily Cowles liven things up with some comedic relief as Veronica’s girlfriends Dawn and Sarah. Their night on the town is a real hoot. And it’s during these sequences that there’s a sinister undercurrent, as the audience knows that at some point this is going to connect to the horrors seen in the opening of the movie.

While both these sections of the film work, they are not without their problems, as the pacing remains methodical, the emotions charged but not off the charts, the tension present, but not riveting.

And then the third act comes along. The twist is huge, and while it didn’t ruin the movie for me, it’s a challenge to accept. That being said, a lot of things have happened during the last four years that I though would never happen, and so I’m inclined to view this twist with less incredulity than I would have prior to 2016.

And if you can get past the twist, the third act is very good. It’s satisfying to watch Eden fight back after suffering thoughout all the horrors of the first act of this movie. I thought the ending was very satisfying.

The cast is very good. Janelle Monae is excellent as Eden/Veronica. I think I still prefer her performance in HIDDEN FIGURES to this one, but she still packs a wallop here. And her climactic struggle with the main female baddie Elizabeth (Jena Malone) is one of the best scenes in the movie.

Speaking of Malone, she’s cold and proper as Elizabeth, the southern belle who runs the plantation. She also gets one of the better lines in the movie when, after Eden has disposed of most of the male soldiers in her way, Elizabeth steps forward and declares that as always is the case, it takes a woman to pick things up after a man has made a mess of them.

Jack Huston, the grandson of John Huston, and nephew of Angelica Huston and Danny Huston, is annoyingly cruel as Captain Jasper. I’d say he’s the best villain in the film, except Eric Lange is just as good as the depraved Denton.

And as I said, Gabourey Sidibe and Lily Cowles are enjoyable as Veronica’s friends Dawn and Sarah.

The film also has a powerfully haunting music score by Roman GianArthur Irvin and Nate “Rocket” Wonder.

The other thing I liked about ANTEBELLUM is it contains some powerful cinematic images. The scene where the Confederate soldiers chant “blood and soil” was chilling, reminiscent of the real life scene in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017.

There’s also a scene featuring a statue of Robert E. Lee, and some potent images involving fire.

All in all, I liked ANTEBELLUM a lot. Not quite as good as GET OUT (2017), but certainly a horror/drama worth checking out. Some may not be able to get past the twist, but if you can, and I did, there’s a lot to like about this thought-provoking and very disturbing movie.

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REBECCA (2020) – Latest Version of Daphne Du Maurier’s Novel Better Suited for Lifetime Than Netflix

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rebecca 2020

REBECCA (2020), the new Netflix movie based on the novel by Daphne Du Maurier, is an elegant production billed as a mystery/romance. The emphasis here is clearly on the romance, and as such, it comes off more as a Lifetime movie than a Netflix one.

Du Maurier’s novel was filmed before in 1940, and was directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starred Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine. That version of REBECCA received ten Academy Award nominations and won two of them, including Best Picture. Hitchcock, of course, didn’t win for Best Director, as strangely, he never won an Oscar.

This new version of REBECCA I expect will not be receiving these kinds of nominations.

In REBECCA, a young woman (Lily James) meets the dashing Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer). A romance follows, and de Winter asks her to marry him, and she does. They return to his massive estate, Manderley, on the English coast, and there, she discovers that he is not quite over the mysterious death of his previous wife, Rebecca, as her spirit seems to pervade over the entire household, including the head housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas) who also seems obsessed with the late Rebecca.

Caught in a situation in which she feels woefully unprepared to deal with, the new Mrs. de Winter attempts to save her marriage by learning the truth about Rebecca’s mysterious death, and her husband’s involvement in it.

Again, this new version of REBECCA plays up the romance, and the mystery of what happened to Rebecca, while it sounds intriguing in a review, hardly has much of an impact in the movie. In short, while I enjoyed the two main performances by Lily James and Armie Hammer, and appreciated the handsome photography, I found this one at the end of the day to be terribly boring. And for a film that runs for a full two hours, that’s a long time to be bored.

Director Ben Wheatley struggles mightily with the pacing here, and the film never becomes an exercise in the unraveling of a mystery like it should. Even the elegant photography is just so-so. While the film looks good, it doesn’t look special, and that’s one of my biggest knocks against this new version of REBECCA. It’s not cinematic. It plays like a TV movie, and I couldn’t imagine seeing this on the big screen. It’s just sort of there.

Jane Goldman, Joe Shrapnel, and Ana Waterhouse wrote the screenplay, based on Du Maurier’s novel, and it does a nice job establishing the character of Mrs. de Winter, who as in the novel, is not given a name, to emphasize the influence and power of Rebecca, who is referred to by name repeatedly. And there are some attempts to tie her plight into modern day women’s issues, but not enough to make this story speak directly to 2020 audiences. And the rest of the story is pretty blah.

Jane Goldman has some pretty impressive writing credits, as she worked on the screenplays for such films as KICK-ASS (2010), X-MEN: FIRST CLASS (2011), and THE WOMAN IN BLACK (2012), all very good movies. The screenplay here for REBECCA is far inferior to those other films.

Lily James gives the best performance in the movie in the lead role as Mrs. de Winter. She successfully captures the audience’s sympathy, and you want to go along with her as she tries to learn what happened to Rebecca. James was equally as good in DARKEST HOUR (2017), in which she shared lots of screen time with Gary Oldman’s Winston Churchill. She was also memorable in a smaller role in BABY DRIVER (2017).

Armie Hammer acquits himself well as Maxim de Winter, but at the end of the day, his main job in this movie seems to be to look good. We don’t really get much insight into his tortured soul or how he truly feels about Rebecca. While Hammer has enjoyed some high profile roles, like the Lone Ranger in the flawed THE LONE RANGER (2013), and as Illya in THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. (2015), I enjoyed him more in HOTEL MUMBAI (2018) and in a supporting role as Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s husband Martin in ON THE BASIS OF SEX (2018).

Kristin Scott Thomas plays the cold Mrs. Danvers to the hilt, and she’s sufficiently icy throughout. Like Lily James, she also co-starred in DARKEST HOUR, as she played Churchill’s wife Clemmie.

I had higher expectations for this new version of REBECCA. For starters, I’d hoped it would speak to modern day audiences the way Greta Gerwig’s LITTLE WOMEN (2019) did. It did not.

I also hoped it would be an intriguing mystery. It wasn’t.

Instead, it was pretty much a basic romance with a secret lurking in the shadows which never comes to light enough to truly impact the story.

As a result, REBECCA remains substandard fare. If you love romances, you’ll enjoy it. For the rest of us, you’d be better off seeking out the 1940 Hitchcock version. That one, after all, was the Best Picture of the year.

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ENOLA HOLMES (2020) – Story of Sherlock Holmes’ Younger Sister Charming But Dull

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ENOLA HOLMES aka Ferndell

ENOLA HOLMES (2020), the new Netflix movie about Sherlock Holmes’ younger sister, features a wonderfully spirited performance by Millie Bobby Brown in the title role.

Brown brings so much energy and charm to the character that she single-handedly carries this movie, and she has to, because sadly, the rest of this feature, from the directing, writing, and acting, is all rather dull. Painfully so.

Enola Holmes (Millie Bobby Brown), whose name spelled backwards is “Alone,” has been raised by her mother, Eudoria (Helena Bonham Carter). But one day, shortly after her sixteenth birthday, Enola awakes to discover her mother has disappeared. When her two brothers, Mycroft (Sam Claflin) and Sherlock (Henry Cavill), who is now known as the world’s greatest detective, arrive, Enola hopes they will help her find her mother, but when they appear less than interested in doing so, Enola decides to take the case on her own.

Complicating matters is Mycroft wants Enola enrolled in a proper women’s school, and when she she leaves in search of her mother, he uses his resources to find her and bring her back. Meanwhile, Enola meets the dashing young Lord Tewkesbury (Louis Partridge) who’s embroiled in a mystery of his own, and when it becomes clear that his life is in danger, Enola sets out to help him as well. The game is afoot!

Too bad it wasn’t a more interesting game.

As I said, Millie Bobby Brown is absolutely wonderful in the lead role. She exudes charm and charisma as Enola, and her spirited performance is infectious. Combined with her lively voice-over narration and her frequent addresses to the audience as she looks directly into the camera, make her performance here a clear winner. By far, Brown is the best part of this movie.

While I still prefer Brown’s work as the character Eleven on the Netflix’ series STRANGER THINGS (2016-2021), that doesn’t take away from her outstanding performance in ENOLA HOLMES.

Sadly, she just doesn’t get much support from anyone else in the cast, which is surprising, considering the talent inolved here. But a lot of this falls on screenwriter Jack Thorne, whose screenplay is based on the novel by Nancy Springer, because he simply didn’t give these folks much to do or much of interest to say.

Henry Cavill, who’s been playing Superman in the recent DC films, is okay as Sherlock Holmes. He definitely has a presence, but the character is largely in the background, and as such, it’s one of the more subdued and least effective characterizations of the famous literary detective as you’re ever going to find.

Sam Claflin, another talented actor, has a bit more to do as the cantankeous Mycroft Holmes, but at the end of the day, he doesn’t do much either. Claflin was much more memorable in the underrated Hammer Film THE QUIET ONES (2014) and the World War II comedy-drama THEIR FINEST (2016).

Louis Partridge as Lord Tewkesbury shares some nice chemistry with Brown’s Enola, and I really enjoyed Helena Bonham Carter as Enola’s mother Eudoria, but she’s not in the movie much since the character disappears early on.

As I said, Jack Thorne’s screenplay was somewhat of a disappointment. He goes all in with Enola’s character, and she is the one character in the story that works. The dialogue for everyone else is ho hum, and the plot I thought was a snooze. The story I was most interested in— what happened to Enola’s mother— often took a back seat to the political intrigue surrounding Tewkesbury’s predicament and Mycroft’s efforts to force Enola to attend the women’s school.

Director Harry Bradbeer keeps everything light and lively until the final thirty minutes when things get a bit darker, which incidentally, was my favorite part of the movie. The film looks great but sadly lacks that innovative touch which might have made it really memorable.

I thought eveything about ENOLA HOLMES was pretty standard and not very exciting, with the one big exception being Millie Bobby Brown’s performance.

She’s the reason to see this one and the reason why it is even worth a look. The rest, especially if you’re a Sherlock Holmes fan, is sadly lacking.

It’s all rather dull and….elementary.

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Books by Michael Arruda:

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

Dark Corners cover (1)

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

Ebook: $3.99. Available at http://www.crossroadspress.com and at Amazon.com.  Print on demand version available at https://www.amazon.com/dp/1949914437.

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

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

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

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

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

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

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

For_the_love_of_Horror- original cover

Print cover

For the Love of Horror cover (3)

Ebook cover

 

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

YOU SHOULD HAVE LEFT (2020) – Dark Drama Starring Kevin Bacon & Amanda Seyfried Doesn’t Tell Much of a Story

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you should have left

YOU SHOULD HAVE LEFT (2020), the latest movie by prolific screenwriter David Koepp, who also directed, is much more a dark drama than a horror movie, as the genre stuff is all rather subdued.

Theo (Kevin Bacon) and his much younger wife Susanna (Amanda Seyfried) decide to vacation with their six year-old daughter Ella (Avery Essex) at a luxurious rental home in the Welsh countryside. And they decided they needed this getaway because things have been tense at home. Theo is dealing with events from his past, as years ago he was the subject of a high profile trial in which he was accused of murdering his wife. He was found innocent of the charges, but whenever he is recognized people seem to think he is guilty. Susanna is a very busy actress, and her schedule and frequent use of her phone stokes up feelings of jealousy in Theo.

It doesn’t take them long to discover that there’s something not quite right about the house. They all suffer vivid nightmares while there, Theo discovers seemingly endless hallways, and the dimensions of the house aren’t right, as rooms are larger on the inside than on the outside. Soon, Theo realizes that it’s almost as if the house summoned them, that it’s speaking to him and to his violent past, and that this violence may not yet be over.

As I said, YOU SHOULD HAVE LEFT is much more a dark drama than a horror movie, and that’s because the horror elements never really take off. Early on, I found the story very intriguing. The dynamic of Theo’s and Susanna’s relationship held my interest, and once they get to the house, the stage is set for some weird stuff to start happening. But as this one progresses, not a lot happens. There are long scenes of Theo wandering through dark hallways, lots of hints and innuendos, but it takes forever for anything to really happen, and when it does, it’s subued and frankly, disappointing.

And that’s because the main mystery isn’t really all that impressive, and so when answers are revealed, it’s like, shoulder shrug. Okay. Well, tell me something I didn’t already suspect.

The screenplay by David Koepp, based on the novel by Daniel Kehlmann, works best early on when it is establishing the mystery. The story stalls midway through, and then the conclusion just doesn’t have any teeth. As I said, Koepp has lots of screenplays under his belt, including major films like INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL (2008), SPIDER-MAN (2002), and JURASSIC PARK (1993). However, he’s also one of the writers involved in the Tom Cruise version of THE MUMMY (2017). I think he should try having his name removed from that disaster.

Koepp also directed YOU SHOULD HAVE LEFT, and even though I didn’t feel the story held up, he does create some creepy scenes, a couple in particular involving mirrors. There’s also some sinister shadow use, and so visually, the film does have its moments, but none of them come together enough to lift this one to higher heights. Koepp also directed SECRET WINDOW (2004), the thriller starring Johnny Depp, based on the Stephen King novel.

Kevin Bacon and Amanda Seyfried are both very good in the lead roles, although they don’t really generate much chemistry together, which is probably by design, since their marriage is in trouble. Bacon is cold and introspective as Theo, and you really do get the feeling he’s hiding something deep inside about his past. It’s been a little while since I’ve seen Bacon in a movie, and the last two times he played a federal law enforcement officer, in PATRIOTS DAY (2016) and BLACK MASS (2015).

Amanda Seyfried is excellent as the busy actress who seems to love her husband. Seyfried is no stranger to thrillers, having starred in GONE (2012), RED RIDING HOOD (2011), and CHLOE (2009).

In a key scene that serves as a snapshot of their relationship, Theo tries to visit his wife on set, but it’s a closed set, and he’s denied entrance, and so he has to wait outside. The scene is a sex scene, and he’s forced to listen to his wife act out having an orgasm multiple times. Afterwards she laughs it off. Theo stews.

And young Avery Essex is sufficiently cute and innocent as Ella, the young daughter stuck in the mess created by her parents. This is another weakness of the movie, however. Things really are never that messy. For the most part, their family life seems pretty good, and later, when Ella’s life is threatened, again, it’s all rather subdued. The film never becomes horrifying.

There were parts of this one that reminded me a little bit of the Daniel Craig horror movie DREAM HOUSE (2011), another haunted house thriller about a father harboring a deep dark secret. It was a film I didn’t like all that much. And I can’t say that I liked YOU SHOULD HAVE LEFT all that much either.

YOU SHOULD HAVE LEFT doesn’t really have much of a story to tell, and that’s its biggest problem. The acting is there, the creepy house is there, and the potential is there, but without much of a story, there simply isn’t much of a payoff.

This one may grab you if you’re in the right frame of mind, but it was much too subdued and predictable for my liking.

You should have left? Maybe you shouldn’t have started.

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