GLASS ONION: A KNIVES OUT MYSTERY (2022) – Mystery Comedy Sequel As Superficial and Contrived As First Film

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Full disclosure: I was not a fan of the first KNIVES OUT (2019) movie. While most people loved this mystery comedy, I found it all too contrived and superficial to really enjoy.

So, if you liked the first movie, you probably will enjoy its sequel, GLASS ONION: A KNIVES OUT MYSTERY (2022) more than I did, because I didn’t like this one either, as I once again found it too contrived and superficial to enjoy.

It also rolls out some pretty awful characters, a group of friends who call themselves the disruptors and are about as enjoyable as a migraine headache, and we’re supposed to care if one of them is murdered? We just saw this same issue in the recent Santa Claus action-comedy VIOLENT NIGHT (2022) which featured some of the worst characters I’ve seen in a movie in quite a while. Well, the characters in this movie are equally as awful. Both sets are uber rich, so that seems to be becoming a thing, writing super rich annoying characters, but in both these cases, they were written so poorly that they don’t come off as real people but as caricatures.

GLASS ONION: A KNIVES OUT MYSTERY, which premiered on Netflix this weekend, once again stars Daniel Craig, reprising his role from the first movie as the world’s greatest detective, Benoit Blanc. He may be the world’s greatest detective, but he’s got the world’s worst Southern accent. Craig’s attempt at a Southern drawl grated on me in the first movie, and it’s no better this time around. Craig is the only cast member from the first movie to return, as a new all-star cast plays a brand-new set of suspects, murderers, and victims.

This time around, a group of friends and business associates all travel to the private island of their brilliant friend Miles Bron (Edward Norton). Which gives this one a similar opening and feel to a much better movie from a few weeks back, THE MENU (2022), when a group of rich guests traveled to the private island of famed Chef Slowik (Ralph Fiennes) and who also found themselves in harm’s way. THE MENU is a much, much better movie than GLASS ONION.

So, Bron has a controversial business proposition for his guests, one that would instigate all of them for numerous reasons of their own to do him in. Plus, to make things more “fun,” he has set up the island get away as a murder mystery party, in which they will have to solve his murder. Benoit Blanc also receives an invitation, and the guests assume Bron wanted to include the world’s greatest detective in his game, but once on the island, Bron tells Blanc that he didn’t invite him, which begs the question, who did? Ah, the mystery deepens! If I only cared…

The guests/suspects/victims include Birdie Jay (Kate Hudson), Duke Cody (Dave Bautista), Andi Brand (Janelle Monae), Lionel Toussaint (Leslie Odom, Jr.), Claire Debella (Kathryn Hahn), and a few others. As I said, this lot of characters are about as unlikable and unrealistic as you will find in a movie. I had zero interest in any of them.

There are also a whole bunch of additional cameos and appearances by other celebrities and stars, and it’s all oh-so-much-fun, except that it isn’t.

GLASS ONION: A KNIVES OUT MYSTERY was once again written and directed by Rian Johnson, who wrote and directed the first movie as well as STAR WARS: EPISODE VIII: THE LAST JEDI (2017). He does this movie no favors. He has created a glossy bright colorful movie that will look good playing in the background on TV sets inside your home, the type of film that seems like a fun time if you don’t pay attention to the actual script. Basically, it’s a good-looking piece of fluff that is about as satisfying as an empty plate.

Then there’s the clever, intricate mystery that is simply too complicated to figure out for anyone other than the world’s greatest detective, Benoit Blanc. You know why it’s complicated? Because it’s fabricated! It’s not a real mystery. Blanc goes around making pronouncements that have no basis in fact. He just says things and they turn out to be true, not the other way around. Unlike Sherlock Holmes who used logic and observation to solve mysteries, Blanc uses the “I have the screenplay in my hands” reasoning. He solves things because the writer says he does. We are never invited inside his mind to see just exactly what it is that makes him such a great detective. He just solves crimes.

But there are so many little “in” jokes peppered throughout this movie. Aren’t those funny?

In a word.

No.

As much as I didn’t enjoy his accent or his in-name only detective skills, Benoit Blanc was a more enjoyable character here in the sequel than he was in the first movie. In fact, one of the few things I enjoyed this time around was Daniel Craig’s performance. He actually made me laugh several times during this movie, albeit when he wasn’t trying to solve the crime. Some of his best moments come during random throw away lines, like when he talks about how much he hates the game Clue.

Edward Norton seems to be playing a variation of himself, or at least of his onscreen persona. He knows how to play an arrogant creep in his sleep. Janelle Monae gets a lot of screen time and is enjoyable, as she plays one of the less despicable characters in the movie, but she is overshadowed by the superficial annoying antics of everyone else.

The rest of the cast, in spite of the names involved, put me to sleep, frankly, mostly because the writing was so gosh darn awful. Rian Johnson has written a movie without one single realistic character appearing in it.

For some reason, the story takes place at the beginning of the Covid-19 outbreak. At first, I thought this would have some bearing on the plot, as the characters are all masked, but once they get to the island, they receive a “magic” shot which I guess gives them immunity as they are told they can shed their masks without fear. The pandemic does set up the reason why Blanc takes the case, as he’s stuck at home and bored and begging for a case to come his way, a plot point I didn’t really buy. I mean, crimes are still committed during the pandemic, and there would still be a need for his services.

There’s also an annoying flashback right in the middle of the story, which goes back and fills in a lot of the blanks that the story left out the first time around. While the revelations in the flashback were interesting, the flashback itself killed any pacing the movie had up until that point.

The Glass Onion refers to the Beatles’ song by the way, and the tune plays over the end credits. While there is an obvious connection between the movie and the song, no attempt is really made to connect the movie to the point of the song, which was that John Lennon was poking fun at fans who were reading too much into the Beatles’ lyrics.

Then again, maybe Rian Johnson is poking fun at movie audiences who take movies too seriously. Hmm. Could be. That could explain why he made such a dumb movie.

GLASS ONION: A KNIVES OUT MYSTERY is disguised as a clever comedy mystery, but in reality, it’s shallow and dumb.

I give GLASS ONION: A KNIVES OUT MYSTERY a mundane two stars.

—END—

RATING SYSTEM

Four stars- Excellent

Three stars- Very Good

Two stars- Fair

One star- Poor

Zero Stars- Awful

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: THE RETURN OF DRACULA (1958)

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I’ve always had a soft spot for THE RETURN OF DRACULA (1958), a low-budget black and white Dracula movie starring the unheralded Francis Lederer as the Count.

There’s a lot that’s significant about this no frills black and white Dracula movie from the 1950s.

First of all, it was the first standalone Dracula movie to hit theaters in nearly fifteen years, as the last time Dracula appeared alone in a horror movie was in Universal’s SON OF DRACULA (1943), in which the Count was portrayed by Lon Chaney Jr., and he was called Count Alucard in the film, which never really came out and said if the character Chaney was portraying was Dracula’s son or Dracula himself. It was left open to interpretation. The film implied it was the original Dracula, but its title was SON OF DRACULA.

After SON OF DRACULA, John Carradine took over the role, but he was sharing screen time with the Wolf Man and the Frankenstein Monster in HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944) and HOUSE OF DRACULA (1945). Bela Lugosi returned to play the Count three years later in the horror comedy ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948).

So, when Francis Lederer played Count Dracula in THE RETURN OF DRACULA, it had been a while since audiences had seen a movie about Dracula, especially a serious one where Dracula was the only monster in the film, and those movies had all been made by Universal and had followed the same formula. So, there’s a lot that was fresh about THE RETURN OF DRACULA. And Francis Lederer, a well-known Czechoslovakian actor who never became a major star but still made a lot of movies over the decades and who wasn’t known for making horror movies, actually makes a very successful and rather frightening Dracula, albeit all in the most subtle of ways. In fact, I actually prefer Lederer’s performance as Dracula in this movie over John Carradine’s performances in the two aforementioned Universal Dracula movies above.

Lederer with his accent and cold, calculating, and dominating personality, makes for a commanding king of the undead.

And while part of THE RETURN OF DRACULA was refreshing, since it was not part of the Universal monster universe, another part was very familiar, because the plot of THE RETURN OF DRACULA borrows heavily from Alfred Hitchcock’s classic thriller SHADOW OF A DOUBT (1943). In that film, a teenage girl begins to suspect that her favorite uncle, played by Joseph Cotten, is really a murderer wanted by the police. Here in THE RETURN OF DRACULA, the teenage girl learns that her favorite cousin is really Count Dracula!

THE RETURN OF DRACULA, which takes place in the 1950s and so it was a contemporary setting for its time, opens with an atmospheric scene where vampire hunter John Merriman (John Wengraf) leads a group of vampire hunters into a crypt in Transylvania where they plan to drive a stake through Dracula’s heart. When they open his coffin, they discover his body is no longer there.

The action then switches to a train where we see Dracula (Francis Lederer) murder a passenger, and then he assumes his identity. He makes his way to the United States, to California, and there he pretends to be cousin Bellac, the eccentric artist who likes to sleep all day and go out at night at odd hours. Fortunately for Dracula, no one in Bellac’s California family knows what he looks like, since it’s his first time travelling to the United States. He’s welcomed into the family, and the teenage daughter, Rachel (Norma Eberhardt) takes a particular interest in her cousin, since she also wants to be an artist.

All is well, until people start dying. Well, Dracula has to eat, after all! These deaths attract the attention of our hero John Merriman from the opening sequence, and he makes his way to California in pursuit of the undead Count.

While there is nothing spectacular about THE RETURN OF DRACULA, the film does have some notable scenes, including a decent stake-in the heart scene, and as I said, Francis Lederer makes for a really effective Count Dracula.

This movie may have gone on to become something more than just a refreshing low budget Dracula movie, if not for another Dracula movie which was released just one month after this one, a “little” movie by Hammer Films, called HORROR OF DRACULA (1958). Of course, HORROR OF DRACULA, the first Dracula movie in color, took the world by storm, and made international stars out of Christopher Lee, playing an athletic and violent Dracula, and Peter Cushing, playing an equally athletic and heroic Van Helsing. The film revolutionized the horror movie industry, and made a movie like THE RETURN OF DRACULA, seem pale and lethargic by comparison. Hammer went on to make seven more Dracula movies, six with Christopher Lee, and a multitude of vampire movies. THE RETURN OF DRACULA was largely forgotten.

Which is too bad since it really is a decent Dracula movie.

It’s also interesting to note that THE RETURN OF DRACULA contains a somewhat violent staking scene, much more explicit than anything Universal ever showed, and that it pre-dated HORROR OF DRACULA, which is the movie that is credited with adding more violence to horror movies. Of course, the blood and gore in HORROR OF DRACULA is much more explicit than anything shown in THE RETURN OF DRACULA, and all of it was in color! Also, the film’s hero, John Merriman, played by German actor John Wengraf, is much younger than the older “professors” who were the heroes in the Universal Dracula movies. Merriman is a nice precursor to Peter Cushing’s younger interpretation of Van Helsing in HORROR OF DRACULA.

THE RETURN OF DRACULA was directed by Paul Landres, who also directed another interesting black and white vampire movie from the 1950s, THE VAMPIRE (1957), a film which had more of a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde plot, with the scientist in that movie turning into a vampire. Landres does a nice job with THE RETURN OF DRACULA. For a low budget black and white movie, the scare scenes work rather well.

Pat Fielder wrote the effective screenplay, and she also penned Landre’s THE VAMPIRE, as well as another 1950s horror classic, THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD (1957). She does a great job with the characterizations here in THE RETURN OF DRACULA, and the scenes between Dracula and Rachel are among the best in the movie.

Francis Lederer, who in a very subtle and understated way is quite scary as Dracula, would reprise the role in an episode of NIGHT GALLERY, “A Question of Fear/The Devil is not Mocked” (1971).

Forever overshadowed by Hammer’s HORROR OF DRACULA, and rightly so, because HORROR is clearly the superior film, nonetheless THE RETURN OF DRACULA is a Dracula movie that is well worth a look and certainly should not be forgotten.

This holiday season, return to a time just before the Hammer Dracula explosion, when an unassuming Dracula puts the bite on 1950s small town America, but instead of indulging in mom’s apple pie, he’s taking a nibble on young teenage throats.

A RETURN TO MAYBERRY, this ain’t!

—END—

AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER (2022) – Big Budget James Cameron Sequel Worth the Wait, Not the Price Tag

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Thirteen years?

Are you kidding me?

That’s the time in between the first movie AVATAR (2009), and its sequel AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER (2022) which just opened in theaters this weekend. I loved AVATAR. I remember being blown away by its 3D effects, which were the best I had ever seen at that point, and its story wasn’t half bad either.

But thirteen years? Why should I care about a sequel to a movie I barely remember? This has been my mindset leading up to the release of this sequel, but truth be told, I am only half serious, and that’s because I know the answer to that question. The reason I still care about this sequel is because it’s being made by James Cameron.

Cameron of course has directed a long line of innovative movie hits, including THE TERMINATOR (1984), ALIENS (1986), TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY (1991), TITANIC (1997), and AVATAR. Cameron’s movies are always visually impressive, and sometimes, as was the case with the 3D technology in AVATAR, groundbreaking. So, while I poke fun at the gap of years between the two movies, I still was interested in seeing this sequel.

Speaking of which, let’s get down to business. Is AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER any good? Well, of course it is! The real question is, just how good is it?

Visually speaking, it’s tremendously good! This is a movie that is nearly one hundred percent animated, using motion-capture and CGI effects throughout, on the fictional planet of Pandora. It’s a visual treat for the senses. The film is beautiful to look at.

My favorite part, though, is actually the characters, who though animated, come to life through their expressions and mannerisms. You really believe the characters you are watching are real.

Now, I wasn’t able to see AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER in 3D this time around, and that was just fine with me. I mean, a movie shouldn’t need 3D technology to make it a success. It has to stand on its own. As such, even in 2D, the effects here hold up.

The story in AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER takes place several years after the events of the first movie, and we find Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) living with his wife Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) among her forest people, and as such they now have a family, two sons and two daughters. We find out that the villainous Quaritch (Stephen Lang) who Jake and Neytiri killed at the end of the first movie, has been cloned in the form of the indigenous people of Pandora, as have a bunch of other military soldiers.

The Sky People— people from Earth— continue their military mission to conquer the natives of Pandora because Earth is dying, and humans need a new place to live. The mission has been going badly because the native animals in the forest attack and kill the soldiers before they can even reach the native peoples they want to conquer. So, the thinking is, these new soldiers created to look like Pandorans will get by the animals because they will be perceived as natural to the environment. And Quaritch has an added mission, which is to find and kill Jake.

When Jake realizes they are coming for him, he moves his family away, and they relocate far away in a new community with the ocean people who primarily function underwater. But, as expected, Quaritch and his soldiers eventually track Jake down, setting the stage for a climactic battle.

As stories go, the one told in AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER is okay. The big picture stuff is all rather simplified, the evil soldiers who don’t care about the environment, the animals, and ultimately the people there, vs. Jake and his people who care about all these things. It’s simplified, but it makes its points, and it works.

The story works even better when it focuses on family, and I’m tempted to say that AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER is more about Jake’s and Neytiri’s children, but that would be an unfair assessment, because it’s also about Jake and Neytiri. But a bulk of this movie is about the children, who range in age from young adult, to teen, to school age, and their stories are every bit as interesting as the adult stories, especially their relationship with the children of the ocean people, and with the animals, especially the sea creatures. That all worked for me, and so when you get to the film’s conclusion, and all these folks are in harm’s way, it makes for some very exciting and emotional storytelling.

The screenplay by James Cameron, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver works best when it creates these characters and allows the audience to get to know them and care for them. It doesn’t work as well when it comes to the nuts and bolts of storytelling. The film gets off to a sluggish start as little or no effort is made to connect events unfolding to the previous movie, and for me, it took a good twenty minutes before I started to settle in and feel like this movie was going somewhere.

The movie runs three hours and twelve minutes, which is an incredibly long running time, but honestly, it held my attention, and so the running time itself isn’t an issue. However, after sitting through a movie for three hours, you expect a finite conclusion, and AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER doesn’t really give us one. The major conflict between Jake and Quaritch isn’t resolved, and questions about Jake’s and Neytiri’s oldest daughter’s powers and heritage are left unanswered. Movie audiences deserve a finite conclusion, even if more movies are planned.

There are also some lapses of logic. It struck me as naive that the ocean people accept Jake and his family without realizing that doing so would threaten their own family, knowing that the Sky People are actively searching for Jake. Jake tells them as much when he explains why they fled their homeland. And at the end of the movie, Jake declares that with his newfound family, the ocean people having accepted them, that this is their new home, and their days of running are over. It’s better to stand firm and defend one’s home than run away, which begs the question, where was this attitude at the beginning of the movie?

It’s difficult to talk about the actors in this one because we never really see their human likenesses, but in terms of voice work, they all do superb jobs. Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Kate Winslet, Cliff Curtis, and many others all lend their voices and do great work. A lot has been made about Kate Winslet doing her own underwater diving and holding her breath for a record time, and while this is impressive, it’s weird to think about, because you don’t really see Kate Winslet underwater. I mean you do, but it’s her as an Avatar character. It’s just weird to think about. There’s a part of me that hopes this isn’t the future of movies, where you will have actors involved who are unrecognizable because the technology has completely changed the way they look.

Edie Falco appears in human form as General Ardmore, and she was fun to watch as she was one of the few characters allowed to talk down to Quaritch, but she’s only in the movie during its first half.

I enjoyed AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER quite a bit. However, this movie cost between $350-$400 million to make, and when you see the effects, you’ll understand why. And yes, admittedly, the visuals in this movie blew me away. But a movie is more than just visuals. There’s story, characters, themes, dialogue, and emotion. Now, AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER gets most of these right as well, or at least the characters and the emotion part. The story is as I said earlier rather simplified.

So, what’s my point? Simply this. A $350-$400-million-dollar budget doesn’t guarantee the best movie of the year, meaning there were plenty of other movies I’ve seen this year that I liked better than this one. Don’t get me wrong. I’m thankful that Cameron made this movie, but that’s a ton of money, and it will be interesting to see if this film makes enough money to turn a profit.

At the end of the day, I liked AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER a lot. Its visuals, especially the world it creates, is second to none. It also has a lot of likable characters and tells an emotional story. But it still plays like a sequel, or at least one small part in a bigger story arc that is set to continue with more AVATAR movies. Which for me is the biggest knock against AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER. It’s just not a standalone movie. $350-$400 million dollars is a lot of money for just one chapter in a story.

I give it three stars.

RATING SYSTEM

Four stars- Excellent

Three stars- Very Good

Two stars- Fair

One star- Poor

Zero Stars- Awful

LADY CHATTERLEY’S LOVER (2022) – Latest Film Version of D.H. Lawrence Novel is Steamy and Uninhibited

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Netflix has been on a roll of late.

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.

I give it a steamy four stars.

—END—

RATING SYSTEM

Four stars- Excellent

Three stars- Very Good

Two stars- Fair

One star- Poor

Zero Stars- Awful

GUILLERMO DEL TORO’S PINOCCHIO (2022) – Del Toro’s Latest—A Stop-motion Animation Extravaganza Combined with Impactful Script— Is One of His Best

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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.

I give it three and a half stars.

—END—

RATING SYSTEM

Four stars- Excellent

Three stars- Very Good

Two stars- Fair

One star- Poor

Zero Stars- Awful

TROLL (2022) – New Netflix Giant Monster Movie Monstrously Good

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My favorite part about TROLL (2022), a new giant monster movie from Norway now streaming on Netflix, is that it pays homage to the monster movies of yesteryear and gets nearly everything right about the subgenre, even as it tells a story about a giant troll.

It gets that right too, since trolls are a part of Norwegian folklore, and so the fantasy here is grounded in mythology.

TROLL also has a fabulous script by Espen Aukan, based on a story by director Roar Uthaug. It takes its monster plot seriously, while keeping the script lively and at times light, and includes references to Godzilla and King Kong. It also didn’t hurt to have a couple of characters be STAR TREK fans, and so some of the conversations are peppered with STAR TREK references that actually have bearing on the plot. So, for this STAR TREK fan, that was a lot of fun.

In short, I enjoyed TROLL more than some of the recent bigger budget GODZILLA and KING KONG movies of late.

TROLL tells the story of scientist Nora Tidemann (Ine Marie Wilmann) who is called in as a government advisor when there is an “incident” following a construction crew’s blasting of a major tunnel and there are what appear to be giant footprints in the ground leading away from the area. She is quick to point out the obvious, that they are looking at footprints, and while she can’t say what made them, she does tell the skeptical government officials that they should be looking for a creature of considerable size.

It turns out that what made them is a troll, and to help her with this situation, Nora turns to her estranged father Tobias (Gard B. Eidsvold) who is an expert on the subject but because of his intense belief in trolls has been labeled as somewhat of a crackpot. Tobias is only too happy to learn that proof of what he has been saying all his life has finally materialized, and while the government is only interested in destroying the troll, Nora and Tobias would prefer to learn more about it.

Nora gains more credence when traditional weapons fail against the troll, and her and Tobias’ expertise are again requested. Nora also gains two allies, government advisor and self-described STAR TREK geek Andreas (Kim Falck) and military captain Kris (Mads Sjogard Pettersen) both of whom come to respect Nora and value her insight on the threat.

The script nails all these characters, and everyone in this movie acts like real people, including the government officials. TROLL is not a giant monster movie where the characters are all cardboard and boring. They’re three dimensional and interesting.

And the actors all do standup jobs with their roles.

The special effects are excellent. The troll looks authentic and frightening. Director Roar Uthaug crafts some impressive giant monster scenes, some intense, some frightening, and others flat out exciting.

The back story for the troll also gives the creature plenty of sympathy. An intriguing subtext is the troll’s disdain for Christians, and the film almost takes a daring step to frame Christianity as a villain here, which would have been a gutsy and refreshing call, but the film stops short of completely developing this theme. There’s one scene in particular where a soldier is praying, and the troll can smell his blood, and that’s the soldier he targets and kills, but other than this, the topic is muted.

TROLL is available on Netflix in an English language version or in its original Norwegian language with English subtitles, which is how I saw it. Always go with the original language. As good as dubbing can sometimes be, the acting is always more natural in the original language.

If you like giant monster movies, especially those that take their subject matter seriously and know their cinematic history, you’ll love TROLL.

It’s a monstrously good time.

I give it three stars.

—END—

RATING SYSTEM

Four stars- Excellent

Three stars- Very Good

Two stars- Fair

One star- Poor

Zero Stars- Awful

VIOLENT NIGHT (2022) – Violent Santa Claus Action Comedy as Ugly as a Christmas Sweater

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VIOLENT NIGHT (2022) lives up to its name.

It’s certainly violent. The killings in this Santa Claus action comedy… yes, you heard right. A Santa Claus action comedy… are over-the-top horror movie brutal and bloody. This one is not for the squeamish. Director Tommy Wirkola seems to use violence to get a reaction from his audience, hoping that the killings are so insanely gruesome the audience will laugh. It’s a gamble that only partially works.

And that’s because while VIOLENT NIGHT may be violent, it’s more vile than diverting. I didn’t really laugh all that much.

VIOLENT NIGHT stars David Harbour as Santa Claus, and in this movie, Mr. Claus is more comfortable drinking hard liquor than eggnog, and that’s because he’s depressed, fed up with the world’s children who he laments are all selfish, thankless brats, who are never thankful and only want the next best thing. They open their presents and two seconds later are already bored with them, wanting something else. This might be an interesting point, but the movie isn’t interested in developing it. Plus, methinks Santa in his drunken state may have forgotten that there are plenty of children in poverty in the world who don’t fit this description.

Again, VIOLENT NIGHT isn’t interested in any kind of social commentary, as it tries desperately to be a “fun” action comedy. Harbour as Santa Claus is fun at least, but even his wisecracking tough guy Santa shtick gets tired long before the movie comes to a close. Still, it’s an inspired bit of casting. Harbour is known these days as Sheriff Jim Hopper on the Netflix TV show STRANGER THINGS (2016-2024), and he is indeed excellent on the show. He’s been in lot of movies as well, and these days he’s a fun actor to watch. I enjoyed watching him here as the heroic action hero Santa Claus, even if the rest of the movie was pretty gosh darn awful.

And that’s because the plot of this one involves one of the most unlikable set of characters you can think of. We are invited inside the rich Connecticut home of a wealthy American family, who are as dysfunctional as they are affluent. None of these characters interested me in the least. The one person who seems not to be on Santa’s naughty list is young Trudy Lightstone (Leah Brady) who still believes in Santa Claus, and her one wish is that her mom and dad could get back together. Gag!

Anyway, a gang of ex-military types led by a leader who goes by the name of Scrooge (John Leguizamo) commandeer the estate and take everyone hostage, as they plan to steal all the money in the vault below the home and eventually kill all their hostages. Of course, Santa Claus also happens to be in the house at the time, and because Trudy reaches out to him, he vows to save her. Before you can say “ho, ho, ho,”… actually you may be saying “ho hum” long before that!…Santa springs into action and the fight to the death is on.

This one might have been fun if it could have figured out what kind of movie it really wanted to be. On the surface, it’s DIE HARD (1988) meets HOME ALONE (1990) meets THE YEAR WITHOUT A SANTA CLAUS (1974). Leguizamo looks like he walked off the set of DIE HARD 20, and he and Harbour’s Santa square off throughout, with Santa filling in for Bruce Willis’ John McClane. HOME ALONE is referenced throughout, and at one point Trudy sets up booby traps for her pursuers, in a sequence which tries to pay homage to the iconic John Hughes movies. It’s one of the more violent and ridiculous sequences in the film. And Santa laments throughout the movie that dang it, no one believes anymore!

Blah, blah, blah.

All of this could have been fun had it been handled better. The screenplay by Pat Casey and Josh Miller creates some of the worst characters I’ve seen in a movie in years. The Lightstone family are as disinteresting as they are wealthy, and they are described as one of the richest families in the nation. So, there you go. Some of the characters are played for laughs, and others we are supposed to take seriously. They are all unwatchable. And the movie is built around these folks? Not a wise choice.

David Harbour’s Santa Claus is enjoyable for about half the movie, but he’s a one-note character, and he grows dull long before this one ends. Even his one-liners aren’t funny.

Other than Harbour, John Leguizamo gives the best performance in the movie, as the lead meanie, Scrooge. He plays things straight throughout, so at least we know where he is coming from. Leguizamo’s performance stands out because it’s too good for this movie. The rest of the film can’t figure out what the heck it is, but Leguizamo is on point from start to finish. He’s one guy you don’t want to mess with. This is the second straight movie where Leguizamo has played a character without a real name. His code name is Scrooge here, and just a couple of weeks ago he starred in THE MENU (2022) as a character known only as the Movie Star.

Director Tommy Wirkola lays the violence on thick, which would have worked better for me if the story and the characters had caught my attention, but they did not. Midway through this one, I was bored. Wirkola, known for his DEAD SNOW zombie movies, also fared better with his fairy tale actioner HANSEL & GRETEL: WITCH HUNTERS (2013).

And alternate takes on Santa Claus have been done before and done better. In fact, just a couple of years ago, Mel Gibson… yeah, I know he’s on most folks’ naughty list… starred in a movie called FAT MAN (2020) that was very similar thematically to VIOLENT NIGHT, as Gibson played a disgruntled Santa who supplements his dwindling Christmas business by freelancing for the U.S. government, and who then finds himself taking on a hitman hired to kill him by a child angry over receiving coal in his stocking. Both films are dark action comedies. But FAT MAN was much more subdued and was consistently moody and dark, and as such its subtle humor worked, and Gibson was actually really really good in the lead role.

VIOLENT NIGHT isn’t focused at all. Its humor is in your face and as a result not very funny. It has some of the worst written characters I’ve seen in a movie in a very long time. And its over the top violence only takes it so far. Even veteran actors David Harbour and John Leguizamo, in spite of their best efforts, can’t save this one.

VIOLENT NIGHT wants to be an adult version of HOME ALONE but ends up being a juvenile version of DIE HARD.

I can’t recommend this one. It’s as ugly as those Christmas sweaters you have collecting dust in your closets.

I give it one star.

RATING SYSTEM

Four stars- Excellent

Three stars- Very Good

Two stars- Fair

One star- Poor

Zero Stars- Awful

IN THE SHADOWS: ELISHA COOK, JR.

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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.

As always, thanks for reading!

—Michael


THE WONDER (2022) – Florence Pugh Superb Yet Again in New Netflix Period Piece Drama

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Florence Pugh just keeps getting better and better.

Pugh currently stars in the new Netflix movie THE WONDER (2022), a tale wonderfully written by director Sebastian Lelio, Alice Birch, and Emma Donoghue, the screenplay based on her novel, and it’s a beautiful period piece which takes place in 1862 and tells the story of an English nurse, played by Pugh, sent to the Irish Midlands to investigate a young girl who reportedly has not eaten in four months and is being treated by the religious locals as a miracle girl.

Pugh’s grounded, deeply rooted performance as a determined nurse with her own past scars may be her best yet. This is a steadily told slow burn of a movie, and Pugh keeps it moving forward. It may be slow, but it’s never dull.

Pugh has wowed me before, going back to the first time I saw her in the wrestling comedy drama FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY (2019), an underrated film that I highly recommend. Shortly after that she enjoyed what may have been her breakout role in the horror movie MIDSOMMAR (2019), and she followed that up by playing Amy March in LITTLE WOMEN (2019). Her performance as Amy which really added nuances to the character not really seen before remains my favorite Florence Pugh performance to date. She’s also starred in Marvel’s BLACK WIDOW (2021) and earlier this year in the flawed thriller DON’T WORRY DARLING (2022). She was the best part of both these movies. Pugh is one of my favorite actors working today, and she’s reached the level where if she’s in a movie, you probably want to see it. I know I do.

In THE WONDER, it’s 1862, and English nurse Lib Wright (Florence Pugh) is hired by a committee of men to watch Anna O’Donnell (Kila Lord Cassidy) who supposedly hasn’t eaten in four months. Lib is not to interfere in any way, nor is she to treat the girl, but only to watch. On the surface, the job supposedly is for Lib to find out if it is really true that Anna is not eating. However, the men all have their own agendas. Most of them, since they are all part of this Irish Catholic community, want it to be true, while the more secular Dr. McBrearty (Toby Jones) is hoping more for a medical miracle, a scientific reason why the girl may be able to survive without food, and he keeps suggesting outlandish theories like perhaps she has found a way to convert sunlight into energy, for instance. But the short of it is none of these men is all that interested in having Lib disprove anything.

When Lib meets Anna, she discovers a healthy young girl who prays thirty-three times a day, for each year Christ lived on Earth, and who says she can survive only on manna from Heaven. Lib observes people coming into the home constantly to see her and giving thanks that God has touched her. At first, Lib does not observe Anna consuming any food at tall, but she knows it isn’t possible for the girl to survive this long without food, and so she continues to watch and think, all the while growing closer to the girl and learning more about her, specifically why she is so religious and why she is doing what she is doing.

And once Lib deduces that no one there… not the girl’s family nor the men who hired her… are at all interested in Anna’s well-being, that for reasons of their own they would be content with letting her die, she decides her time of only sitting back and watching is over.

The other stars of THE WONDER are screenwriters Sebastian Lelio, Alice Birch, and Emma Donoghue. The screenplay tells a deeply compelling story filled with intricate and moving characters. It’s a religious story, as the people there as Catholics deeply believe in God, as does young Anna who believes there is a very specific purpose to what she is doing. This is all well and good, but Lib with her secular beliefs is able to see through the one-sided fanaticism and understands clearly that held without check these beliefs will kill Anna because the girl believes her ultimate purpose, her sacrifice, is to die. It’s a thought-provoking script that held my interest throughout. Donoghue previously wrote the screenplay for ROOM (2015), which earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay.

There’s actually one more star here. Young Kila Lord Cassidy is terrific as Anna. She is nearly perfect as the girl who feels she must do this in order to correct a wrong, and she is believable as a youth who feels touched by and close to God. She’s as good as Pugh in this movie, which is very high praise.

Tom Burke plays newspaper reporter Will Byrne, who tries to get Lib to allow him to interview Anna. Lib refuses, but as the two grow closer, and Lib finds herself needing an ally, she changes her mind. Burke made for a memorable Orson Welles in MANK (2020) a couple of years back.

I also enjoyed Elaine Cassidy as Anna’s mother Rosaleen, and Niamh Algar as Anna’s older sister Kitty. And Elaine Cassidy and Kila Lord Cassidy are mother and daughter in real life as well!

And in an inspired bit of casting, the actors who play the members of the committee who hired Lib make for some of the most formidable committee members you’ll ever see. You have Toby Jones as Dr. McBrearty, Ciaran Hinds as Father Thaddeus, Dermot Crowley as Sir Otway, and Brian F. O’Byrne as John Flynn. These guys are all veteran character actors who are terrific here in these roles.

As I said, THE WONDER was directed by Sebastian Lelio, and while this is a slow burn, the story is tight, the performances topnotch, the photography captivating, and the overall feel mesmerizing. Lelio does a very nice job at the helm.

Not everything works. The ending, while satisfying, isn’t exactly plausible, and one has to suspend disbelief a bit to entirely buy into it.

But all in all, I really enjoyed THE WONDER. Its take on religion, specifically faith vs. fanaticism, is a welcomed dialogue here in 2022, a time where religious fanatics are becoming increasingly emboldened, and the lines between faith and fanaticism are becoming more and more blurred. Whether you are religious or not, it’s easy to understand that the concept of a loving God does not hold up when there are human casualties caused by unchecked religious beliefs, a point that is effectively made in THE WONDER.

I give this one three and a half stars.

—END—

RATING SYSTEM

Four stars- Excellent

Three stars- Very Good

Two stars- Fair

One star- Poor

Zero Stars- Awful

SHE SAID (2022) – Important Movie on Sexual Harassment in the Workplace Is Must-See Viewing

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SHE SAID (2022) is the type of movie that I don’t feel like criticizing one bit because its subject matter— sexual harassment of women in the workplace— is so important.

In other words, while the movie is far from perfect, it’s still a film everyone should see. Period. So, let there be no ambiguity about that. SHE SAID is a must-see movie for everyone.

SHE SAID is based on both The New York Times investigative reporting by reporters Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, and their book She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement, and while it chronicles their investigation into Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, an investigation which eventually led to his arrest and conviction, the story in general is really about how pervasive sexual harassment is in the workplace and how deeply rooted these attitudes against women are engrained in men, especially but not limited to, men in power. The screenplay by Rebecca Lenkiewicz makes this abundantly clear, and rightly so, as its take on this subject is spot on.

I found SHE SAID to be a very somber and unsettling movie because the story it told not only was true but exposes horrible things regarding the way men treat women that sadly are ongoing.

SHE SAID basically follows the two New York Times reporters, Megan Twohey (Carey Mulligan) and Jodi Kantor (Zoe Kazan) as they painstakingly and persistently follow leads and search for victims to speak on the record and for proof to back up their claims as they try to tell the story and expose the abuse and harassment propagated by Harvey Weinstein over the years.

The film gets this right, as we witness how frightened Weinstein’s victims are, and how not only are they afraid to talk, but so many of them signed settlements which legally prevented them from talking. It also prevented them from ever working again in the movie industry, as Weinstein would make sure they couldn’t.

The more Twohey and Kantor learn about Weinstein, the more emotional they grow, because they know what he has done and continues to do, but they can’t get anyone on record to speak about it, and so they persist and go to nearly superhuman lengths to seek out and find both the proof and on the record accounts they need. They also have to deal with Weinstein, who with his connections learns they are investigating him, and he intimidates the women who are thinking of speaking out, and there are also anonymous violent and vulgar threats against Twohey and Kantor.

What the film doesn’t get right— and again, because of the subject matter, I encourage everyone to see this movie in spite of this— is a cinematic style. While the content held my attention throughout, both the writing and by-the-numbers directing by Maria Schrader kept this from being a powerful film in its own right. For example, the movie SPOTLIGHT (2015), which covered the Boston Globe investigation into the Catholic Church’s child molestation crimes and its subsequent cover-up, was a phenomenal movie in its own right on top of its riveting subject matter. Not only did it feature a strong cast and powerhouse performances, but the writing dug deep into the reporters writing the stories, and the film also had villains, portraying the Catholic Church as being stubbornly out of touch with its victims. It never got melodramatic. It stuck to facts. But it also went for the jugular and really hit hard with its message of just what happened and was continuing to happen.

SHE SAID doesn’t quite do this. While I applaud the choice the movie made not to ever show Weinstein speaking on camera, and we only see the back of the actor’s head who is portraying him, the sad side effect of this is we never really feel the ugliness and vulgarity of the man. Not that we have to. In terms of story and making its point, we don’t need more of Weinstein. But we need something. Because the movie is almost all Twohey and Kantor and their reporting. Why isn’t this enough? Well, technically it is, but as a movie, the two hours spent watching SHE SAID are nowhere near as riveting as watching SPOTLIGHT.

And the story does give us some family background on Twohey and Kantor, but their backgrounds aren’t what is missing. It’s the process of their investigation which needs more dialogue and angst. The drama is flat.

Carey Mulligan is a terrific actor, and she nails the experienced Megan Twohey, who while growing increasingly rattled by this investigation also is dealing with a newborn at home. She also has a great scene in the movie, where at a meeting at a bar, a guy comes over and hits on them, and when she tells him they’re not interested, and he persists and becomes vulgar, she lets him have it and tells him to f*ck off! Mulligan has wowed me since I first saw her in DRIVE (2011) and THE GREAT GATSBY (2013). She was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress for her phenomenal performance in PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN (2020), and she also was pretty darn good in the more recent THE DIG (2021), in which she co-starred with Ralph Fiennes.

Zoe Kazan is also exceptional as Jodi Kantor, the less experienced of the two reporters, but the one who initially started the investigation. She also has her share of potent scenes, like when she inadvertently mentions to one of the victims’ husbands what supposedly happened with Weinstein, and the husband says his wife has never mentioned this to him. I’ve enjoyed Kazan in the horror movie THE MONSTER (2016) and even more so in the romantic comedy THE BIG SICK (2017).

The supporting cast is very good. Andre Braugher turns in a fine performance as executive editor Dean Baquet. The way he confidently pushes back against Weinstein provides some of the more satisfying moments in the movie.

SHE SAID is a very good movie, and while it has its flaws, its content is must-see viewing, and its perspective on sexual harassment in the workplace needs to be heard, acknowledged, and understood, and changes need to continue to be made.

I give it three stars.

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RATING SYSTEM

Four stars- Excellent

Three stars- Very Good

Two stars- Fair

One star- Poor

Zero Stars- Awful