I finally caught up with ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT (2022), a Netflix original which hails from Germany and is currently nominated for Best Picture.
It’s a worthy nomination. ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT is an excellent movie.
Released in October 2022, ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT is based on the book by Erich Maria Remarque, a novelist who based the book on his experiences as a German soldier in World War I. This is the third time Remarque’s novel has been filmed, the previous two were in 1930 and in 1979. This 2022 version is an all-German production, and you can watch it on Netflix in its original German language with English subtitles.
Directed by Edward Berger, ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT tells a story of the horrors of war that transcends generations. While the horrors shown here are specific to World War I, the case can be made that the horrors of war remain consistent regardless of time or place.
Here the plot follows young German soldier Paul Baumer (Felix Kammerer) who is so excited to enlist and join the war effort that his wide-eyed expressions resemble a child opening gifts on Christmas morning. It doesn’t take long for Paul and his friends to realize that fighting in the trenches is anything but enjoyable and is an experience that has his friends shrieking that they want to go home once the battles start.
Director Edward Berger holds nothing back in the battle sequences. The ever-present mud is thick and relentless. When they’re not fighting, the soldiers are using their hands and helmets to dish out the cold water from the trenches. And when they are fighting, they are shot at, stabbed, hacked, and more. We see soldiers burned alive with flame throwers, trampled upon by tanks, and blown up by grenades. The action here is bloody, brutal, and relentless, and these sequences come in waves, at the film’s beginning, in the middle, and at the end.
Between battles, Paul bonds with some of his fellow soldiers, including Stan Katczinsky (Albrecht Schuch). We’re privy to conversations where they discuss their lives back home, and their fears that they will never return, which pretty much turns out to be true. The film also depicts the negotiations between German diplomats and the French for a ceasefire, as the Germans realize they are losing the war. They quickly learn that the French want total and unconditional surrender, and when the Germans protest to the conditions, claiming that they are too harsh, and the people will not like this peace, the French pretty much respond with a big fat “too bad.” And of course, it’s this approach that led to the rise of Adolf Hitler, as he was able to take advantage of the despondent German population to build his nationalistic Nazi regime.
The German military also bristled at this peace, believing the diplomats were giving everything away, and they ordered soldiers to fight right up until the 11:00 armistice.
Director Edward Berger also co-wrote the screenplay with Lesley Paterson and Ian Stokell. The story told here describes in vivid detail the absolute horrors of trench warfare in World War I, and what war does to soldiers. Its message is also timeless, as here in 2023 the world continues to be at war in some place or other.
Not all of the movie works. It’s rather long, clocking in at two hours and twenty-eight minutes, and when the film isn’t showing in-your-face scenes of warfare, it’s less compelling.
The film will no doubt draw comparisons to another recent superior movie about World War I, 1917 (2019), by writer/director Sam Mendes. The two films are comparable, and in terms of quality and impact, ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT certainly holds its own against 1917.
Overall, ALL QUIET ON WESTERN FRONT is a superb movie, one that delivers its message that war is hell, and that soldiers pay a high price for decisions made by generals and leaders not on the battlefield.
I give it three and a half stars.
Four stars – Perfect, Top of the line
Three and a half stars- Excellent
Three stars – Very Good
Two and a half stars – Good
Two Stars – Fair
One and a half stars – Pretty Weak
One star- Poor
Zero stars – Awful
If you enjoy my reviews and would like to read my latest horror novel, then feel free to check out DEMON AT THE DOOR at the link below:
Acclaimed writer/director M. Night Shyamalan burst onto the scene with his super successful debut film THE SIXTH SENSE (1999), and in the years since has enjoyed an up and down career with a variety of hits and misses.
For me, most of Shyamalan’s movies have been misses, but when he’s on his game, and the story is as strong as his direction, and the film isn’t done in by a superficial plot twist, the results are pretty darn good.
KNOCK AT THE CABIN (2023), Shyamalan’s latest, fall into this latter category. It’s pretty darn good! And he’s helped here by superior source material, as the screenplay by Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman is based on the novel The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay. Those of us from the New England horror community know Paul very well and are overjoyed that his writing is being adapted by Hollywood and turned into movies. Way to go, Paul!
So, KNOCK AT THE CABIN has a strong story, and M. Night Shyamalan does right by it.
KNOCK AT THE CABIN opens with a little girl Wen (Kristen Cui) playing alone in the woods catching grasshoppers, when she is approached by a very large yet softspoken stranger who introduces himself as Leonard (Dave Bautista). Although Wen tells Leonard she doesn’t talk to strangers, he has a gentle way about him, and soon they are talking. The conversation begins innocently enough, but when three other strangers arrive, Leonard tells Wen that they are there to talk to her and her parents and they are going to have to make a difficult choice, words that frighten Wen and cause her to run back to her cabin where she finds her two “dads,” Andrew (Ben Aldridge) and Eric (Jonathan Groff) and warns them that four strangers are on their way to the cabin.
Andrew and Eric immediately become alarmed when they see these four people at the door holding various sharp tools and weapons. Leonard asks to be let in, but Andrew and Eric refuse. Eventually, the four strangers force their way in, and after a scuffle, Andrew and Eric are tied to chairs and find themselves at the mercy of these four people. The two men immediately believe that they have been targeted because they are gay, but the softspoken Leonard assures them that is not the case, that they didn’t even know they were a same sex couple until they arrived at the cabin.
When Leonard starts speaking of shared visions that the four have had, and of the oncoming apocalypse which will wipe out all humanity, Andrew and Eric then believe that they have been overpowered by a group of religious fanatics. Things get worse when Leonard explains that the only way the apocalypse can be avoided is if there is a sacrifice, and that sacrifice will have to be made by Andrew, Eric, or Wen.
One life to save humanity.
While the story told in KNOCK AT THE CABIN is refreshing, in that it’s not about attacking a same sex couple because of extreme homophobia, and early on the audience is thinking the same thing that both Andrew and Eric are thinking, that they have been targeted because they are gay, it’s not without flaws. For starters, strangely, considering the premise, this movie is nowhere near as intensely disturbing as expected. Part of it is the plot itself. When Leonard goes on and on about the apocalypse, Andrew and Eric both think he and the others are simply crazy, and rightly so! I’m right there with them, as most others would be. Leonard and the three others are trying to convince Andrew and Eric to make an impossible sacrificial choice, but really, it’s not so impossible, because Andrew and Eric don’t believe it.
Unless you do this, the world will end!
Okay, I don’t believe you. So, we’re not doing it! End of story.
Also, the idea that Andrew and Eric have control over the decision is much less intense than if they had zero control, where the four strangers were going to do something horrible to them, but that’s not case. The point, of course, is the question, would you make that sacrifice for your fellow humans? The problem is there is no way that most folks here in 2023 are going to buy this premise. The apocalypse? I’ll wait till God shows up in person, thank you very much!
And neither Andrew or Eric ever ask the question, who is asking them to make this choice? God? Really? It makes no sense religiously. Sure, there are sacrifices throughout the Bible, but for Christians, at least, those sacrificial days are over, because of Jesus.
Also, as the movie goes on, Andrew begins to poke holes in their story and makes a strong and convincing argument that the four themselves are being manipulated by a group delusion and are experiencing a shared psychotic disorder, but the story doesn’t go there, and so at the end of the day, things are a bit murky, because what Andrew said made sense, and he even offers proof, but nothing comes of it.
Still, KNOCK AT THE CABIN is intriguing and enjoyable. It also features some solid acting performances.
Dave Bautista is perfect as Leonard, the gentle giant, who explains that he is an elementary school teacher and that one reason he is doing this is he doesn’t want his young students to die. Bautista has been fun as Drax in both the GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY and THE AVENGERS movies, and he’s been memorable in a bunch of other movies as well, but his performance here in KNOCK AT THE CABIN is one of his best. The only knock against him… heh, heh!… is his consistent calm demeanor and the fact that he promises not to harm the family removes a heck of a lot of tension in this movie.
Ben Aldridge as Andrew, the more hot-headed of the two parents, and Jonathan Groff as Eric are also superb. They really make you care for these two guys, and that’s one of the more emotional parts of this movie. The audience really feels their love for each other and doesn’t want to see anything happen to either one of them. Groff of course is known for his work in HAMILTON (2020) and FROZEN (2013), but my favorite Jonathan Groff role remains his FBI character Holden Ford on the short-lived yet superior Netflix TV series, MINDHUNTER (2017-2019).
Rupert Grint, known to Harry Potter fans as Ron in the HARRY POTTER movies, is really good here as Redmond, the least balanced of the four strangers, and the one who makes the family the most uncomfortable. Nikki Amuka-Bird as Sabrina and Abby Quinn as Adriane round out the four strangers and do decent jobs in the roles.
The other phenomenal performance in this movie belongs to young Kristen Cui as Wen. Her expressions throughout this movie are perfect. One of the more intense scenes in the film is when the four strangers are intially at the door trying to get in, and the main reason for this intensity is Cui’s panicked cries for her parents to make these people go away.
On the other hand, another reason this film isn’t as disturbing as expected, is little Wen is largely shielded from all the horrors here. The film doesn’t go there, but if it had, it would have been really frightening.
M. Night Shyamalan keeps the camera tight on Dave Bautista, making him seem immense throughout. Bautista is gigantic in real life, so he doesn’t need much help to look bigger, but Shyamalan’s camerawork does just that. The most riveting scene in the movie and the one Shyamalan does his best work on is the sequence where Andrew makes a break for it and desperately tries to get his gun from the back of his car. Other than this sequence, the intensity is all rather low key.
That being said, I really enjoyed KNOCK AT THE CABIN. I wish it had been more frightening, and I wish there was more to its premise other than the derailing of the apocalypse, but the story was refreshing enough to hold my interest throughout.
I’m sure there’s an audience out there somewhere who will enjoy WHITE NOISE (2022).
To borrow a phrase from Woody Allen’s ANNIE HALL (1977), the rest of us are all due back on planet Earth.
WHITE NOISE is one bizarre movie.
Written and directed by Noah Baumbach, the man who gave us MARRIAGE STORY (2019), which I liked, WHITE NOISE is a story told in three parts, and none of them really work. Categorized as a comedy/drama/horror movie, and now available on Netflix, WHITE NOISE tells the story of a contemporary family in crisis. There’s the dad, college professor and Hitler expert Jack Gladney (Adam Driver), his wife Babette (Greta Gerwig), and their myriad of children who all act like an updated version of THE BRADY BUNCH.
On the surface, things seem wonderful. Jack and Babette seem extremely happy and act like the perfect couple, but soon cracks in the armor emerge, and it starts when their daughter Denise (Raffey Cassidy) spies her mom popping a pill and then denying it. The dialogue in this early sequence is playful and thoughtful, but it’s not easy to follow, and that’s because everyone in this movie speaks like an academic. We later see Jack and his fellow university professors chatting around a table, and their conversation is both highbrow and irrelevant, and it dawned on me as the rest of the movie played out that every character in this film, even the kids, speak this way. It’s as if Baumbach took notes on everything his college professors said to him and turned it into dialogue for his characters. As a result, the dialogue throughout the movie is not realistic because most everyday people don’t speak this way. I could even buy Jack and Babette’s kids talking in this manner, but everybody in this film sounds the same. And frankly, their conversations are difficult to follow, as they seemingly offer one non sequitur after another.
The second part of the story, and the movie’s centerpiece, follows the plot point of a truck colliding with a train, which releases toxic chemicals into the air, and Jack and his family like the rest of his town are forced to evacuate. This scenario should have been a laugh out loud one, but once more, the dialogue gets in the way and the hoped-for laughter never comes.
And the final part of the story follows Jack’s attempts to learn the truth about why Babette is taking a mysterious drug. This last sequence is the worst sequence in the movie, and so while I was on board for two thirds of this one, trying to buy into it in spite of the dialogue, the end completely lost me and it became a labor to sit through till the end credits, which actually feature a neat choreographed number with people in a grocery store, which sadly, is the liveliest part of the entire movie, the end credits. But you have to sit through the two hour plus movie first.
Ultimately, the story is about people’s fear of death, fear of the idea that we are simply working our way towards oblivion, that no one gets off this planet alive. A thought-provoking theme to be sure, but what a terribly convoluted way to go about it. Woody Allen tackled death much more effectively in most of his movies.
The screenplay here by Baumbach, based on the book by Don DeLillo, is a labor to sit through. I couldn’t relate to any of the characters, mostly because they did not seem or speak like real people.
I usually enjoy Adam Driver and Greta Gerwig, and for the most part I enjoyed them here, especially during the film’s initial sequence. They are a likable couple, and their conversations are thoughtful and refreshing, but the longer the movie goes on, the weirder things get, and the less relatable they become. By film’s end, I didn’t care about either character.
Don Cheadle is also in the cast as Jack’s friend and fellow professor Murray, who wants to become an Elvis expert. Cheadle is fine, even though his storyline is a snooze.
I really thought I was going to like WHITE NOISE. It had an interesting premise, a talented writer/director at the helm, and a good cast. But all this promise was sunk by a story that turned out not to be that interesting, with dialogue that was unrealistic, and a central theme about the fear of death that was never dealt with heads on.
WHITE NOISE is supposed to be a story about a family that is distracted from the real things in life by all the white noise which the world throws at them. But ironically, the film ends up living up to its title. It ends up being simply background noise with nothing of merit to say.
They’ve been churning out original high-quality movies in the past few weeks, films like THE WONDER (2022), TROLL (2022), and GUILLERMO DEL TORO’S PINOCCHIO (2022), and now you can add LADY CHATTERLEY’S LOVER (2022) to that list.
LADY CHATTERLEY’S LOVER is a steamy, beautifully shot adaptation of the controversial novel by D. H. Lawrence. The story takes place in the English countryside during World War I, and the scenery, sets, and costumes make for a delightful period piece, but the real story of this version of LADY CHATTERLEY’S LOVER is its sex scenes, of which there are plenty, and they are full of passion, lust, and love.
Recently, I commented on the near complete absence of sex scenes in U.S. theatrical releases these days, and how I don’t think this is a good thing, to sanitize a part of life and remove it from cinematic storytelling. Sadly, sex on film in the United States is mostly reserved for porn, which is the most unrealistic rendering of sex you can find, and one that continues to objectify women,
But LADY CHATTERLEY’S LOVER does not suffer from this problem. It is a love story, and as such, sex plays a large role, as it does in most love stories, since having sex is what usually happens between people who love each other. And so, the two characters in this story are hot and heavy for each other, and the sex scenes reflect that and really help tell this story in a way that could only be done with them. Without these scenes, the story wouldn’t have been as successful.
Connie Reid (Emma Corrin) is in love with Clifford Chatterley (Matthew Duckett), and she tells her sister Hilda (Faye Marsay) that he is not like other men, that he is progressive, and so she feels comfortable marrying him. But shortly after they are married, Clifford has to go off to war, and when he returns, he has lost the use of his legs and can no longer walk. Connie and Clifford move into the luxurious Chatterley country estate, and Connie has no problem being there for her husband and being his primary caretaker.
But it soon becomes apparent that Clifford only wants Connie for that job and resists the efforts of anyone else to help him, which begins to take its toll on Connie. And when she expresses interest in time away with her sister, so she can have a break to recharge her energy, Clifford ignores the request and makes it clear that Connie isn’t going anywhere, that she needs to stay there to take care of him. It also becomes increasingly clear that Clifford is only interested in himself and his leadership duties at the local mine, and he sees Connie as the dutiful wife whose job it is to attend to his needs.
When Connie tries to become intimate, Clifford tells her that because of his situation, he has lost interest in sex. Connie soon understands that he has no concept or interest in giving her any pleasure. Clifford then laments not being able to have a son, and he floats the idea that they could start a rumor that he is able to function sexually, and then Connie could discreetly have a baby with another man, and they could pretend the baby is theirs. When Connie realizes he is serious, she is horrified, feeling like nothing more than someone who is there to breed for her husband.
It’s about this time that she meets the gamekeeper on the estate, Oliver (Jack O’Connell), and as she gets to know him, she becomes intrigued by his personality. They soon fall in love, and Oliver becomes the titular Lady Chatterley’s lover. And what makes Connie Chatterley such a compelling character, is that she pushes back against society when she realizes that she truly loves Oliver, and that in spite of their class differences, and in spite of the fact that she is married to a wealthy and influential man, she will do whatever it takes to have a life with the man she loves.
LADY CHATTERLEY’S LOVER is a beautifully shot period piece by director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre that satisfies on every level. The story works from beginning to end, the actors all do admirable jobs, the sets and costumes are superb, and Clermont-Tonnerre’s handling of the sex scenes is probably the best part of all. They are explicit yet tastefully done, and their effect on the story is to really show how much Connie and Oliver love each other. It’s clear that Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre has a vision with these scenes and a purpose, and she exacts that purpose wonderfully by shooting some of the more effective sex scenes I’ve seen in a long time. Of course, part of this is she doesn’t have much competition from other directors on this topic, due to the lack of sex scenes in American movies today, but when they are done right, they can have a huge impact, as they do in this movie.
Emma Corrin is superb as Connie Chatterley. She brings both a strength to the character and a sultry sexy side that communicates that Connie, like most everybody else, likes to have sex, and there’s nothing wrong with that. The audience never doubts Connie’s motives. We really empathize with her plight and root for her to somehow find a way to have that life with Oliver. It’s also rewarding to see Connie lose her inhibitions with Oliver. Emma Corrin played Princess Diana on the TV series THE CROWN (2020).
Jack O’Connell is also excellent as Oliver, the gamekeeper who at first is caught off guard by Connie’s affections, but he is always honest with her, and as they fall in love, it’s a progression that makes sense. And Matthew Duckett makes for a pompous self-centered often clueless Clifford Chatterley. He’s never over the top, and his subtle irritating nature becomes more grating the more Connie gets to know and understand him.
The rest of the cast all do exceptional jobs.
The screenplay by David Magee, based on the novel by D.H. Lawrence succeeds in telling this story in a way that portrays Connie as a woman who won’t take a back seat to a loveless husband who sees his wife as nothing more than someone to take care of him and bear him a son, even if she has that son with another man. She wants love, and once she finds it, she’s determined to keep it. Magee also adapted the screenplay for LIFE OF PI (2012).
I really enjoyed this new version of LADY CHATTERLEY’S LOVER. Everything about it works.
And perhaps my favorite part is that it really captures what it’s like for two people to be in love and the lengths they go through to be together.
GUILLERMO DEL TORO’S PINOCCHIO (2022) works on so many different levels, it’s difficult to know where to start.
So, I guess I’ll start by saying this version of PINOCCHIO is definitely not just for kids, as the themes and story in this one are definitely aimed at adults, even though on the surface it remains a children’s story. That being said, even though it is rated PG, it is rather dark and in spots frightening, and so parents of younger children be forewarned. But for everyone else, enjoy!
GUILLERMO DEL TORO’S PINOCCHIO is now available on Netflix, which means you can watch this one from the comfort of your own home. It features exquisite stop-motion animation, and the word that comes to mind when describing it is clear. Everything in this movie looks so clear, clean, and precise. The feel of the animation hearkens back to the old Rankin-Bass Christmas specials of the 1960s and 70s, vehicles like RUDOLPH THE RED- NOSED REINDEER (1964) and SANTA CLAUS IS COMIN’ TO TOWN (1970), only it’s a gazillion times better, as if these Christmas specials were shot by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, or perhaps some other cinematic visionary, say like Guillermo del Toro. How about that?
The actors providing the voices all do first-rate jobs, which is no surprise when you have the likes of Ewan McGregor, David Bradley, Ron Perlman, John Turturo, Finn Wolfhard, Cate Blanchett, Tilda Swinton, and Christoph Waltz in your cast! Even the songs are memorable. But most of all, and by far my favorite part of this movie, even with its amazing animation, is its script by Guillermo del Toro and Patrick McHale, based on the book Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi. Not only is the story it tells compelling, but it covers anti-war and anti-fascist themes, father/son relationships, and really and most importantly has a lot to say on what death means, and how important it is to love those around you while you have them, because life is so short, and then it’s gone.
GUILLERMO DEL TORO’S PINOCCHIO opens in World War I Italy where a woodcarver named Geppetto (David Bradley) lives a quiet happy life with his son Carlo (Alfie Tempest), but this happy time is cut short when a bomb falls from the sky, and Carlo is killed in the explosion. In the years that follow, Geppetto grieves and can’t move past his grief, wasting away as he yearns for nothing else but the return of his son. It’s at this time that the narrator of the story appears, the Cricket (Ewan McGregor), a self-described author who moves into the tree which had grown by Carlo’s grave in order to write his life story, but it’s at this point that Geppetto reaches an all-time low, and in a fit of drunken rage, decides that he’s sick and tired of his prayers not being answered, and he vows to take matters into his own hands. No, he doesn’t have a PET SEMATARY moment and dig up his son’s grave, but he does chop down the tree by the grave and uses the wood to build a puppet in the likeness of his son, but of course it is lifeless, and Geppetto collapses into a drunken stupor.
But as the Cricket observes, the Spirits take pity on Geppetto and decide to magically give the puppet life, and in a scene right out of FRANKENSTEIN, Geppetto awakes and is horrified to see the puppet, Pinocchio (Gregory Mann) now alive and claiming to be his son. Pinocchio is jubilant to be alive and in one energetic outburst after another, runs about the house asking question upon question. Geppetto tries to control him and finally tells him to stay home while he goes to church, but Pinocchio wants to go to church and soon follows Geppetto there, even disobeying the Cricket who tries to teach him to listen to his father.
Inside the church, the churchgoers are horrified and cry out witchcraft at the sight of the talking puppet, and Geppetto whisks Pinocchio home. In a heated argument, Geppetto calls Pinocchio a burden, and heartbroken, the puppet runs away and joins the circus operated by the villainous Count Volpe (Christoph Waltz). Meanwhile, Pinocchio has also attracted the attention of the Podesta (Ron Perlman), who sees great value in a wooden puppet who cannot die, and wants him to be part of the national army.
Eventually, Geppetto and the Cricket go off in search of Pinocchio, and in one of the more frightening sequences you’ll see in a PG animated movie, they are swallowed up by a massive sea creature, and they find themselves stuck inside the enormous belly of the beast. Left on his own, Pinocchio sees through the likes of Count Volpe and Podesta and learns that they are using him, and he decides that he must seek out his father and spend whatever time they have left together, setting the stage for an exciting rescue attempt.
On its surface, GUILLERMO DEL TORO’S PINOCCHIO is a highly entertaining and visually stunning animated adventure, and beneath the surface is a well-written theme-driven screenplay that knocks it out of the park with its anti-war sentiments and thoughts on life and death.
In one scene, Pinocchio is overjoyed and singing that he’s going off to war because it sounds life fun, and Geppetto tells him that war is not fun, that war is bad, that war took away Carlo from him. It’s a simple scene, and a simple piece of dialogue, but this one moment captures succinctly what this film is all about. War is not a good thing, and that’s an important message to be sure here in 2022, because wars are all around us. The United States alone has been involved in ongoing global conflicts since 2001. The world doesn’t know what it’s like not to be at war.
The film is just as clear with its anti-fascist and anti-nationalist messages, which are equally as important here in 2022 as these movements continue to gain strength around the world.
But the most telling and most resonating message of the movie is its take on death, how life is short, and how we need to enjoy life with those around us while we can. Geppetto grieves greatly over the loss of his son, and nearly loses his life in the years afterwards. At first, he can’t really open himself to accepting Pinocchio because his heart is still with Carlo, but he eventually listens to the advice of the Cricket who basically shouts at him to stop feeling sorry for himself and to accept Pinocchio for who he is. It’s a powerful moment in what the casual observer might dismiss as a children’s movie. This version of PINOCCHIO is much more than that.
And the way this one ends is such a sweet and on-target moment about how to deal with death, that it’s the perfect end to a near-perfect movie.
While this all sounds serious, the film still manages to be fun and upbeat. Most of the comic relief comes from the Cricket, voiced with empathy and gusto by Ewan McGregor. He gets a funny running gag throughout the movie, as every time he begins to sing a certain song about his own father, something dramatic happens and prevents his singing it. The film gets the humor right throughout.
Speaking of gusto, young Gregory Mann is absolutely amazing as Pinocchio. He has so much spirit and energy, and he makes this living, talking puppet completely convincing.
David Bradley is perfect as Geppetto, the father who grieves so much for his deceased son it nearly kills him, and as such it takes him a long time to accept Pinocchio. But he is there for the young puppet with words of wisdom and love that eventually make their mark on the wooden youth. Bradley is known to HARRY POTTER fans for playing Argus Filch in that series.
Christoph Waltz has a field day voicing the villainous Count Volpe, and it’s one of my favorite performances in the film. Ron Perlman is memorable as the Podesta, as is Finn Wolfhard as his increasingly sympathetic son, Candlewick.
Tilda Swinton does her thing as the magical Wood Sprite, who Pinocchio visits each time he “dies.” These sequences are otherworldly and magical, and take the movie to a whole different level.
You won’t hear Cate Blanchett’s voice because she voices the monkey Spazzatura, and so she only makes monkey sounds, but this character becomes very important in the story. Spazzatura spends most of the time as the slave to Count Volpe’s master, but as the monkey becomes closer to Pinocchio, things change.
And in a fun bit of casting, Tom Kenny, the voice of SpongeBob Squarepants himself, voices Mussolini, in a very funny sequence where the Italian dictator arrives to watch Pinocchio perform.
One odd thing about this version of Pinocchio is the near absence of women in the story. Other than the Wood Sprite, there really isn’t another woman character to be found.
Guillermo del Tor has always made visually stunning movies, and the visuals he creates have always been my favorite part of his films. I have actually liked his films less than a lot of other folks have, as I have found that the storytelling in his movies hasn’t been up to par with their visual aspects, and as such, I’ve only been lukewarm to films like NIGHTMARE ALLEY (2021) and THE SHAPE OF WATER (2017). But this new version of PINOCCHIO doesn’t have this problem. Its screenplay is actually a strength.
And so, GUILLERMO DEL TORO’S PINOCCHIO, which he co-directed with Mark Gustafson, is now one of my favorite Guillermo del Toro movies.
It also features stop motion animation, which I always enjoy, and which has a long history going back to KING KONG (1933) and even before that, as Kong animator Willis O’Brien had animated movies before Kong. Years later O’Brien’s protege was Ray Harryhausen who would go on to become the undisputed king of stop motion movie animation, with films like THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1958) and JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS (1963).
After watching GUILLERMO DEL TORO’S PINOCCHIO, there’s no doubt in my mind that Ray Harryhausen would have been proud.
Welcome back to IN THE SHADOWS, the column where we look at character actors in the movies, especially horror movies.
Up today, it’s Elisha Cook, Jr., one of the most recognizable character actors of all time. Small in stature, he often portrayed intense oftentimes frightened characters, especially in his horror movies. One of my favorite Cook performances in a genre film was in HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (1959), in which he co-starred with Vincent Price as the terrified Watson Pritchard, the one man in the movie who believed ghosts were haunting the house. Cook also enjoyed a memorable moment in THE NIGHT STALKER (1972) when he falls asleep in the back of Kolchak’s car, scaring the living daylight out of the reporter (Darren McGavin) when he bolts upright in the back seat!
Here now is a partial look at some of Elisha Cook, Jr.’s impressive 220 screen credits:
HER UNBORN CHILD (1930)- Stewart Kennedy – Cook’s first screen credit is in this 1930 love story drama.
STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR (1940) – Joe Briggs – co-stars in this film noir with Peter Lorre. Often cited as the first film noir movie ever.
THE MALTESE FALCON (1941) – Wilmer Cook – one of my favorite Elisha Cook Jr. roles is in this classic film noir by John Huston starring Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade. Cook plays the enforcer for Mr. Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet), who Bogart’s Sam Spade torments throughout, at one point slapping him around and eventually turning Gutman against him. Cook is wound up and intense throughout. Also starring Peter Lorre and Mary Astor. One of my favorite movies of all time.
A-HAUNTING WE WILL GO (1942) – Frank Lucas- supporting role in this Laurel and Hardy spooky comedy.
THE BIG SLEEP (1946) – Harry Jones – reunited with Humphrey Bogart, with Bogart this time playing Philip Marlowe. Directed by Howard Hawks and written by William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett, and Jules Furthman, this one is so complex that even after subsequent viewings it’s still difficult to figure out who did what to whom, and why! Bogart famously married co-star Lauren Bacall shortly after this movie.
SHANE (1953) – Stonewall Torrey – supporting role in this classic Alan Ladd western. His character is dramatically slain by the villainous gunslinger played by Jack Palance.
ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN (1954)- “Semi-Private Eye” – Homer Garrity – plays private detective Homer Garrity hired by Lois Lane to prove that Clark Kent is really Superman in this episode of the George Reeves Superman TV series.
THE KILLING (1956)- George Peatty – supporting role in this film noir thriller directed by a young Stanley Kubrick.
VOODOO ISLAND (1957) – Martin Schuyler – zombie horror movie starring Boris Karloff, notable for featuring the screen debut of Adam West. Holy horror movie, Batman!
HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (1959) – Watson Pritchard – one of my favorite Elisha Cook, Jr. roles is in this William Castle horror movie starring Vincent Price as a cold, calculating husband who along with his equally manipulative wife plan a party in a haunted house where the guests are each paid a large sum of money if they remain in the house all night. And they have no choice once they agree, because they are all locked inside until dawn. Cook plays the one man there who believes in ghosts, and spends most of his time drinking and warning the others that they are all doomed. One of the earlier horror movies to employ jump scares, and the scene with the old woman who appears out of nowhere in the basement is a classic.
BLACK ZOO (1963) – Joe – horror movie starring the Hammer ham himself, Michael Gough, playing a character who uses his zoo animals to kill his enemies. Of course!
THE HAUNTED PALACE (1963) – Peter Smith – reunited with Vincent Price in this horror movie directed by Roger Corman based on a story by H.P. Lovecraft. Cook plays a frightened townsperson who is a yes-man to a tougher townsperson played by Leo Gordon, and they lead the villagers in attempts to oust Vincent Price’s Charles Dexter Ward from their community fearing that he is a menace to their community. And they’re right! Also stars Lon Chaney Jr., in a rare paring with Vincent Price. One of my favorite Roger Corman/Vincent Price movies.
ROSEMARY’S BABY (1968) – Mr. Nicklas – part of the terrific cast in Roman Polanski’s classic horror movie which also stars Mia Farrow, John Cassavetes, Ruth Gordon, Maurice Evans, and Ralph Bellamy.
THE NIGHT STALKER (1972) – Mickey Crawford – plays an informant for Darren McGavin’s Carl Kolchak in this groundbreaking vampire movie written by Richard Matheson. Cook provides one of the better jump scares in the movie as noted above.
BLACULA (1972) – Sam – Cook appears in back-to-back vampire movies, this one featuring a commanding performance by William Marshall in the lead role in this underrated horror movie which is actually very good.
THE BLACK BIRD (1975) – Wilmer Cook – Cook reprises his role from THE MALTESE FALCON (1941) in this comedy about the son of Sam Spade, played by George Segal.
SALEM’S LOT (1979) – Gordon ‘Weasel’ Phillips – this TV movie adaptation of Stephen King’s vampire novel starring David Soul and James Mason is considered by many fans and critics as one of the two greatest vampire TV movies ever made, along with THE NIGHT STALKER. Elisha Cook Jr. appeared in both these movies!
MAGNUM, P.I. (1980-1988) – Francis “Ice Pick” Hofstetler – Cook’s final screen appearances were on the popular TV series, MAGNUM, P.I., in which he appeared in 13 episodes.
Elisha Cook Jr. appeared in tons of TV shows over the years, including GUNSMOKE, THE WILD WILD WEST, STAR TREK, BATMAN, THE ODD COUPLE, and STARSKY AND HUTCH, to name just a few.
I hope you enjoyed this partial list of Elisha Cook Jr.’s career. He was a character actor who starred in many genre films, some, like ROSEMARY’S BABY and THE NIGHT STALKER, are some of the more important ones ever made.
Join me again next time for another edition of IN THE SHADOWS, where we look at the careers of character actors in the movies, especially horror movies.
BLONDE (2022), unlike its subject, Marilyn Monroe, doesn’t have “it,” which is too bad because Ana de Armas is terrific in the lead role as Norma Jean, aka Marilyn Monroe, but this fictional account of the life of Monroe based on the novel by Joyce Carol Oates just never came to life for me. It didn’t grab me at the outset, nor did it pull me in later as it went along, and for a movie that runs nearly three hours, that’s a long time to be uninvolved. A very long time.
The first issue I had with this movie is why do we need a fictional account of the life of Marilyn Monroe? Wasn’t her real life fascinating and tragic enough? I couldn’t really wrap my head around the idea. Sure, it’s based on the Joyce Carol Oates novel, but again, why? I was especially distracted by this in this day and age where a growing number of political leaders make their living promoting fictional accounts as true, and so this whole notion didn’t sit well with me here in 2022. That being said, I went in with an open mind, and was ready to enjoy this one regardless, but the film itself prevented me from doing so.
BLONDE, which is rated NC-17 for strong sexual content, nudity, rape, and child abuse, is now streaming on Netflix and playing at some theaters. Most of the content here is typical of R rated films. The one exception is a rather vulgar scene between Monroe and JFK, vulgar in the way the President treats Monroe. But this is all fiction so… it doesn’t resonate as it otherwise would.
The film opens with a young Norma Jean living with her alcoholic and abusive mom (Julianne Nicholson), giving the film a very unpleasant first few minutes which seem to go on forever before finally cutting to an adult Norma Jean (Ana de Armas) as she first breaks into the film industry. And in this story, she gets her first role after being raped by the studio head. He has his way sexually with her, and then he gives her the role. Again, fictional account. This never happened.
The rest of the movie follows Monroe’s traumatic life and career, following its factual path through movies she made and the lovers she had, but all with a fictional twist, right up until her tragic death in 1962 at the age of 36.
BLONDE tries to be stylish, and director Andrew Dominik mixes black and white cinematography into the mix, as well as different variants of color photography, and even inserts de Armas into real scenes from Marilyn Monroe’s movies where de Armas stands side by side with the real actors from those movies. Yet, none of this worked for me. In terms of style, BLONDE is vastly inferior to another bio pic from earlier this year, ELVIS (2022) by Baz Luhrmann. That film had me hooked within its opening seconds and it never looked back. BLONDE, in spite of all its technical innovations, labors from start to finish.
A large part of the problem is its pacing. It moves like a snail, and never builds on what has come before it. It just moves from one plot point to another. It really could have used some serious editing.
There are some impressive acting performances. I’ve been a fan of Ana de Armas for a while, and she is making a ton of movies these days. We just saw her in THE GRAY MAN (2022) and before that in the James Bond movie NO TIME TO DIE (2021). Her performance as an A. I. being was one of the better parts of BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017).
Here, she gives it her all as Marilyn Monroe, and at times she is good enough to lose herself in the role, and you think you are watching the real Monroe. Other times, however, de Armas’ Cuban accent is still detectable. If BLONDE had been a better movie, this distinction would have worked better because it would have supported the notion that this is a fictional account and not a true biography, but the film just isn’t up to the task, and so I imagine de Armas’ accent will only irritate Marilyn Monroe fans.
Bobby Cannavale turns in a fine performance as the “Ex-Athlete,” based of course on Joe DiMaggio, who famously married Marilyn Monroe, and Adrien Brody is even better as “The Playwright,” based on Arthur Miller, who married Monroe after she and DiMaggio divorced. Neither one of these two have much of an impact here though, since neither actor is in the movie all that much.
The screenplay by director Andrew Dominik based on the novel by Joyce Carol Oates falls flat, and then some. I was amazed at how much I did not like this movie. Considering the subject matter, Marilyn Monroe, the actor in the lead, Ana de Armas, and the impressive looking cinematography.
None of it comes together. The story struggles. It’s hard to wrap one’s head around the narrative because it’s a fictional account of a real person, and so these traumatic events which shaped Monroe’s life— didn’t actually happen, at least not in the way as depicted in this movie.
For me, the bottom line is this: did this really happen to Monroe? No. So, why do I care?
The short answer? I don’t.
So, in spite of tremendous potential, BLONDE was a huge disappointment.
That’s the new normal in Hollywood action movies these days. Sure, it worked for Marvel’s AVENGERS movies, and actually for most of their movies pre-AVENGERS: ENDGAME (2019), but for that level of success you need both nifty writing and characters you care about, which is not as easy as it sounds.
BULLET TRAIN (2022), a new action/comedy/thriller— why not throw in musical while we’re at it? — directed by David Leitch, the man who directed FAST & FURIOUS PRESENTS: HOBBS AND SHAW (2019) and DEADPOOL 2 (2018), and starring Brad Pitt, is the high concept story of several assassins all on the same bullet train roaring through Japan, all interested in the same gray briefcase. Before I go any further, I have to give a shout out to Peter Bogdanovich’s classic comedy of yesteryear and one of my all-time favorites, WHAT’S UP DOC? (1972), one of the most underrated comedic films ever made, which featured Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neal and used a similar plot point, but in that film, it was a bunch of casesthat all looked the same. That was a funny movie. BULLET TRAIN has its moments, but it also has to split time between being a comedy and a thriller and an action movie. Maybe it should have just picked one and focused on that!
BULLET TRAIN reminded me a lot of a movie we just saw a couple weeks ago, THE GRAY MAN (2022) which starred Ryan Gosling and Chris Evans. Same formula, action and banter, similar results. BULLET TRAIN has a couple of things going for it which makes it preferable to THE GRAY MAN. One, its action scenes aren’t as ridiculously over the top (although some come close), and two, it has Brad Pitt, who creates a character in this movie who is more fleshed out and enjoyable than either character played by Gosling or Evans in THE GRAY MAN.
Pitt plays an assassin whose codename is Ladybug, and as the movie opens, he’s in Japan enjoying some rest and relaxation, working on getting his head and mood together, so when he agrees to return to action and take another job, he’s feeling rested and terrific, even if he feels he’s always plagued by bad luck, which is a running gag throughout the movie. The job he receives from his handler (voiced by Sandra Bullock) is described as very simple: just board a bullet train, locate a gray briefcase, and take it off the train.
But the job is anything but simple because there are a bunch of other assassins on board, and they also want the briefcase. And that’s the plot folks, as pretty much the entire 126-minute running time is spent with assassins vying for the same case on a speeding train. I half expected Bugs Bunny, the Road Runner, and Wile E Coyote and friends to show up.
As I said, BULLET TRAIN was directed by David Leitch, and it plays like any number of movies he’s made already, although it reminded me the most of his HOBBS AND SHAW vehicle, which was more silly than fun, and I felt similarly about BULLET TRAIN. Leitch also directed ATOMIC BLONDE (2017) which was not a comedy and featured some of the best action fight scenes in a movie in a long time, and so that’s probably my favorite Leitch film.
BULLET TRAIN looks great with its colorful cinematography, and you can’t go wrong with its polished stylish action sequences. You just aren’t going to believe many of them, because they come off as cartoonish. Pitt’s Ladybug is like Bugs Bunny. Bombs explode and he walks away without a scratch. Always.
Zak Olkewicz wrote the amiable screenplay based on the book by Kotaro Isaka, and it’s filled with nonstop banter, so if you like that sort of thing, you’ll have fun here. It works for me up to a point. It’s certainly better than the dialogue in another action/comedy hit (which I did not like at all) from earlier this year, UNCHARTED (2022), a ridiculous movie that featured Tom Holland and Mark Wahlberg exchanging barbs while travelling the world in search of treasure. Audiences ate this one up, though. I found it dumb and redundant.
Here, Brad Pitt is very funny as Ladybug, the assassin who can’t stop thinking and philosophizing on life. His character and his performance are the best parts of the movie. His laid-back attitude is the perfect foil for the high-octane action sequences. From his genuine disappointment upon being attacked— you stabbed me? Really?— to one point where he’s speaking to a woman during a fight sequence and catches himself, saying I’m mansplaining.
Pitt is very good, and the script does its best job with his character, but it’s not enough. The biggest knock against BULLET TRAIN is I’m just getting tired of this kind of movie. After a while, the action and banter get boring. Even with a whole host of assassins on board.
The two best, besides Pitt, are Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry), “twins” who work together but who share nothing in common other than the fact that they treat each other like brothers. Tangerine is a proper speaking Englishman, while Lemon bases his entire life on the Thomas the Tank Engine children’s stories. Their banter is also funny, but as is the case with Pitt, they are simply not enough to carry this movie.
This is probably the most fun role I’ve seen Aaron Taylor-Johnson play since way back when he was much younger playing the lead in KICK-ASS (2010), and the most satisfying role I’ve seen him play since SAVAGES (2012). Bryan Tyree Henry is equally as good, and it’s probably the best performance I’ve seen him give. Henry has also appeared in GODZILLA VS. KONG (2021), JOKER (2019) and HOTEL ARTEMIS (2018) to name just a few.
Joey King as Prince was probably my least favorite character in the movie. She’s a young woman pretending to be a victim when in reality she’s a major villain. In spite of the duality of the part, it’s pretty much a one-note character and performance on King’s part.
The Japanese characters pretty much play it straight. Andrew Koji as Kimura and Hiroyuki Sanada as The Elder are serious throughout, and as such, kinda seem out of place because the rest of the movie takes nothing seriously.
Michael Shannon shows up late in the game and briefly as The White Death, but it’s both way too late and too short for him to make much of an impact. And when we finally see Sandra Bullock, she looks like she’s either been heavily airbrushed to look younger or they used CGI on her. She just doesn’t look natural. For such a brief appearance, it was weird.
BULLET TRAIN doesn’t really know what kind of a movie it’s supposed to be, yet it feels comfortable in this role, because that’s kind of a new genre today. Make a movie that’s equal parts action, comedy, and thriller, with lots of good-natured banter, and the audience will go home happy. In other words, show lots of stylized violence and bloody deaths, but if the main characters remain cool and make jokes about it, and survive, it’s all okay.
At times, BULLET TRAIN with its R rating seemed to be aiming for a Quentin Tarantino vibe, but it’s vastly inferior to Tarantino’s work. First, Tarantino isn’t above showing the gruesome realities of violence. His characters are still funny and still banter, but his worlds are less cartoonish and safe. Also, the editing here, especially early on, seemed off. It took me a while to really settle in with BULLET TRAIN, as its jumping-around early scenes were more jarring than introductory.
BULLET TRAIN had a lot of moments that I liked, and it featured performances by Brad Pitt, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, and Brian Tyree Henry that I really enjoyed, but at the end of the day it simply wasn’t enough because it’s part of a new “genre” of films that likes to link action and comedy, and through amiable clever banter give the illusion that death and destruction is safe and harmless.
A la Bugs Bunny and the Road Runner.
Don’t get me wrong. I love Bugs Bunny and the Road Runner. But they’re cartoons. And movies should be more than cartoons. I’m not arguing that you can’t make “safe” action comedies. You can.
But you can also make less safe action comedies that are even funnier and work better because the audience is on edge and feeling less safe.
BULLET TRAIN, in spite of its high body count, remains a safe passage for its audience for the entirety of its ride, even with its R rating.
Fans of nervous laughter might want to ride a different train.
These days, when so many movies are shamelessly superficial, and emphasize action and CGI effects over story and characterizations, THE FORGIVEN (2022), a new drama now playing in theaters and available to rent on Prime Video, is like a breath of fresh air, even if that air blows from the arid hot Moroccan desert.
THE FORGIVEN opens with married couple David (Ralph Fiennes) and Jo Henninger (Jessica Chastain) driving through the dark roads of Morocco on their way to one of David’s friend’s wedding. Lost, arguing with his wife, and heavily inebriated, David fails to see a young man in the road ahead of them, and he hits him and runs him over.
At the party in a ridiculously rich mansion in the middle of the desert, David’s friend Richard Galloway (Matt Smith) and his soon to be husband Dally Margolis (Caleb Landry Jones) entertain their guests and wonder why David and Jo are late. When they find out, they are none too happy, as they realize this will complicate their wedding. Even though they don’t trust the authorities, Richard makes the decision to call the police and report the accident and that they have a body on the premises, since David and Jo brought the body back with them from the desert road.
The police arrive, don’t ask for any bribes, and explain the body will have to remain until the boy’s family comes to claim it, which happens soon after, as the boy’s father Abdellah Taheri (Ismael Kanater) arrives and after seeing his son’s body, asks to meet David. The expectation is that Abdellah will demand money, but instead he requests that David return with him to pay his respects and bury his son’s body. David initially balks at the idea, fearing that Abdellah could be an ISIS terrorist, but he eventually changes his mind and agrees to go.
The remainder of the movie follows David as he journeys with Abdellah to bury his son and begins to learn about Abdellah’s Muslim culture and traditions, juxtaposed with scenes of the insanely lavish and ongoing wedding party with Richard and Dally and all their guests, including an American named Tom Day (Christopher Abbott) who grows close to Jo, as we learn that she is not happy being married to David, and this time away from him makes her ripe for a tryst with an interested young American.
THE FORGIVEN is a thoroughly captivating, intense movie that I really enjoyed from start to finish. It gets off to a riveting start with the car accident in the opening moments of the film, and it never looks back. Directed and written by John Michael McDonagh, based on a novel by Lawrence Osborne, THE FORGIVEN is both shot and written with great care and attention to detail, especially to its characters. The story is full of all kinds of different characters, and they all make their mark and are all written and acted to near perfection. McDonagh’s work here reminded me of the early work of Peter Weir, specifically THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY (1982) and WITNESS (1985).
The screenplay, unlike so many screenplays these days, really hammers out its characters and brings them all to life. Earlier this week I saw THE GRAY MAN (2022), a new Netflix actioner starring Ryan Gosling and Chris Evans. It has performed so well financially that Netflix has already announced a sequel. Yet, I found this movie terribly boring, as other than the action sequences, it had nothing to offer, with dull characterizations and a sterile plot. Yet, it’s making lots of money and is getting a sequel, which explains why movies like this continue to be made, while movies like THE FORGIVEN, which is superior in every way, will struggle to be recognized.
Which is too bad because it tells an intriguing story and features a whole host of fleshed out characters who could have walked off the pages of a modern-day F. Scott Fitzgerald novel.
Ralph Fiennes is excellent as David, the alcoholic husband who snubs his nose at those beneath him, who is full of confidence and is not afraid to stir the pot, and who at the outset is about as sympathetic and likable as a scorpion. When he hits and kills the boy, he shows no remorse, other than a shrug and a “these things happen” attitude. But if there’s one character who journeys to self-awareness in the film, it’s David, as his time with Abdellah opens his eyes, not from bonding with the father, but from a combination of fear— it’s uncertain if the boy’s father will kill him for revenge— and a closeness to the deceased boy’s spirit. Add this to the long list of superb performances by Ralph Fiennes, following upon the heels of his equally engrossing acting in THE DIG (2021).
Jessica Chastain plays David’s wife Jo as a woman who is unfulfilled and unhappy with her marriage, and ironically, just as she invites the young American into her life at the party, unknown to her, David undergoes a transformation of character. Like Fiennes, Chastain is a superior actor, and she is every bit as good here in THE FORGIVEN, as is the rest of the cast.
Matt Smith, who we just saw in LAST NIGHT IN SOHO (2021), is memorable as Richard, the man who knows how to throw a wedding party. Smith, of course, is most famous for playing Doctor Who a few years back.
Caleb Landry-Jones makes for a lively young groom who is not above insulting his guests. It’s another in a long line of strong performances by Landry-Jones, who we’ve seen in such films as GET OUT (2017), THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (2017), and THE OUTPOST (2019). The cast is really a strength here.
Likewise, Ismael Kanater is menacing and effective as the deceased boy’s grieving, probing, and uncertain father. While he brings David back with him as part of a tradition, he’s also trying to learn as much as he can about the man who killed his son and how it all happened. Kanater possesses the steely eyes of a Lee Van Cleef or Robert Shaw.
Said Taghmaoui is also very good as Anouar, the interpreter who accompanies David and Abdellah, and who actually becomes friends with David. Mourad Zaoui is superb as Hamid, Richard’s patient and dedicated head servant. And Christopher Abbott is amiable as Tom Day, the American who is attracted to Jo and makes no secret about it.
There are more characters as well, all of them equally as fleshed out and interesting.
The screenplay by John Michael McDonagh is really a strength of this movie.
In addition to the wealth of characters, there’s a captivating plot, and a theme worth exploring, of the wealthy and decadent Westerners who seem to have no further desire in life than to have fun, get high, and have sex, juxtaposed with the poor and traditional Muslims who simply want to survive. The contrast is unsettling.
It’s never said outright in the movie, but the plot drives home the reasons why Muslims in Morocco or elsewhere would hate Westerners. And the character who starts off as the most unlikeable of the lot, David, is the one who makes the journey of self-awareness learning just how shallow and uncaring he once was before finally embracing responsibility for the taking of another human being’s life.
THE FORGIVEN is a superior movie, a film that knows how to create characters and tell a story, and the story it has to tell, and the characters in it are both worthy of your time, even if the wealthy Westerners often represent the worst humanity has to offer.
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.