THE WHALE (2022) – Brendan Fraser Gives Oscar-Worthy Performance in Thought-Provoking Film

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THE WHALE (2022) is a difficult movie to like.

This is by design.

The movie opens with massively obese English professor Charlie (Brendan Fraser) masturbating to gay porn. Not exactly an image designed to get folks feeling warm and comfy in their seats. In fact, later Charlie demands from another character, “Do you find me disgusting?” and the character’s answer is yes.

On its surface, THE WHALE is about a dying housebound man trying to spend the last week of his life getting to know his estranged teenage daughter. But beneath the surface, the main theme of this movie, which is hammered home a little bit too hard, is that people in spite of how much they say they hate, really do care about other people. As Charlie says, “people are amazing!”

The problem is that nearly every character in this movie is full of hate, which is the point, of course, as Charlie says, that even these people really care. But it makes for challenging viewing because there’s just so much ugliness abound. THE WHALE is a thought-provoking movie, the type of which I really enjoy, because I prefer movies that challenge its audience to think, but that being said, it was a challenge to sit through, and I have to admit, I didn’t quite enjoy it as much as I thought I would.

There’s also a strong connection to Herman Melville’s classic novel, Moby Dick, hence the title THE WHALE, which is also a reference to Charlie’s weight, and this connection becomes stronger as the movie moves towards its conclusion.

In THE WHALE, Brendan Fraser, who was just nominated for an Oscar for this performance, plays English professor Charlie who teachers online writing classes, and because he is so obese, he keeps his camera off during these computer sessions. As he teaches, he constantly pleads with his students that the most important thing they need to do in their writing is to keep it honest, which is great advice. Charlie is in really bad shape. He’s insanely obese, can’t stand up or move without the help of a walker and eats nonstop. His friend and caregiver, Liz (Hong Chau) tells him the bad news that unless he gets himself to a hospital immediately, he will die by week’s end. Charlie pushes back, saying he has no money, and no health insurance, and he refuses to put himself in debt just to seek medical attention, so he accepts the fact that he will die within days.

As such, he does something he’s not supposed to do, which is he reaches out to his estranged daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink) hoping to make amends. Ellie is a fiery force to be reckoned with, and Charlie learns that she is failing high school, she doesn’t want to graduate, she’s been suspended, and she’s full of hate towards him. Charlie offers to pay her to visit him this week, and to write her essays for her so she can pass her class. This piques her interest, and she agrees to come back to visit him under those conditions.

Meanwhile, a young preacher named Thomas (Ty Simpkins) begins visiting Charlie, believing that it’s his destiny to save the ailing teacher before he dies. When Ellie meets Thomas, she decides to have fun with him at his expense and engages in behavior which at first seems like she is out to ruin him, as she seems to do with everyone she meets, since she hates everybody, including her father. But Charlie doesn’t believe this about his daughter and in his final days tries to connect with her and teach her that she’s not a hateful person.

There’s a lot going on in THE WHALE, most of it as uncomfortable as watching a naked obese man take a shower. But it pushes its theme forward, that people really do care about other people, in spite of the hate spewing from their mouths, which is at the end of the day, a worthwhile and inspiring message to be sure.

Samuel D. Hunter wrote the screenplay, based on his play, and this film for the most part feels like a stage play. It primarily takes place inside Charlie’s home, and it’s very talky. In fact, it’s a little too talky. At times I thought I was watching a play, not a cinematic movie.

Director Darren Aronofsky, who also directed the controversial movie MOTHER (2017), a film I liked, NOAH (2014), and BLACK SWAN (2010) keeps things simple, and as I said, there’s not a lot of cinematic showmanship going on here from the director’s chair. Although the ending is neatly done, and very dramatic.

The best part of this one are the two main performances by Brendan Fraser and Sadie Sink.

I used to enjoy Brendan Fraser’s work back in the day, and while he’s been making movies and TV shows regularly, he hasn’t really done anything major in a very long time. He was memorable in a supporting role in Steven Soderbergh’s crime thriller NO SUDDEN MOVE (2021), but here in THE WHALE, he’s the lead, and he’s really, really good. Working under heavy prosthetic make-up to make him appear gigantic, Fraser delivers the one soft-spoken and sensitive performance in a movie filled with people who are anything but. He deserves his recently announced Oscar nod.

Sadie Sink is also tremendous as his troubled fiery daughter, Ellie. Sink, of course, is known for her role as Max on the hit Netflix TV show STRANGER THINGS (2016-present). Since she joined the show in its second season, she’s consistently been one of its best performers, and she had two of the best scenes in the series last season. In THE WHALE, Charlie keeps calling his daughter “amazing!” and really, the same can be said of Sadie Sink’s performance here. She’s lively, spiteful, funny, and completely unpredictable. I hope that Sink continues to get more movie roles, and that they become larger and more significant. She’s a promising talent.

Ty Simpkins plays the very white Wonder Bread preacher, and he gets bossed around and dominated by nearly every character in this film, especially by Ellie. Simpkins, as a child actor, played young Dalton who gets abducted by a demon in one of my favorite horror movies of the past twenty years, INSIDIOUS (2010). Simpkins also played the boy who Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark befriends in IRON MAN 3 (2013).

Hong Chau (also just nominated for an Oscar) is very good as Charlie’s friend and caretaker, Liz. Later in the movie we learn why she is so close to Charlie, as they are connected by another tragedy. This is the second straight strong performance by Chau, as we just saw her in THE MENU (2022), where she was outstanding as Elsa, the loyal right-hand person to Ralph Fiennes’s fanatical Chef Slowik.

And Samantha Morton is memorable as Charlie’s ex-wife and Ellie’s mom, Mary, another character who spews hate with her words and actually calls her daughter, “evil.” While Morton plays a somewhat coarse character here, the role is nowhere near as dark as the role she played on THE WALKING DEAD (2010-2022), where she played the murderous Alpha.

One thing the film doesn’t speak much on is obesity itself. This isn’t the point of the movie, and so Charlie eats tremendous portions of extremely unhealthy foods unchecked. Even Liz continually brings him fattening subs and sandwiches, with no discussion about healthier eating. But I think this is pretty much understood. For example, there’s a scene where Charlie is voraciously chowing down nonstop on two large pizzas, shoving slice after slice into his mouth, and I’m sitting there watching doing the same with a bucket of popcorn. I had to push the bucket away.

The connection to Moby Dick is an interesting one and stems from an essay which Charlie repeatedly reads throughout the movie. The writer of the essay is refreshingly honest in their understanding of the novel, which is one of the reasons Charlie keeps reading it, and one of its sentiments is that the writer feels sad for Ahab who believes wrongly that he can only be made happy by killing the whale, and also for the whale, who has done nothing wrong but is victimized by the obsessed Ahab. The writer then says that the long chapters in the novel which are just facts about whales were written because the author, Melville, was too sad to return to the story.

Like Ahab, people mistake what they need for happiness. Like the whale, people are victimized for no apparent reason. And like Melville, people often abandon things because they are too sad to continue.

Charlie sees all this in the essay, and he tries to get his daughter to see this as well, especially in terms of why he left her and her mother, and then stayed away, because the tragedies in his life made him too sad to continue.

While THE WHALE may not be easy viewing for most people, its thought-provoking story has a lot to offer its viewers. When asked by Charlie, “do you find me disgusting?” you have to be willing to answer no.

And mean it.

I give THE WHALE three stars.

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RATING SYSTEM

Four stars- Excellent

Three stars- Very Good

Two stars- Fair

One star- Poor

Zero Stars- Awful

BABYLON (2022) – Exceptional Movie Has Much to Say About Film Industry and Movies’ Relationship with Fans

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BABYLON (2022), the latest movie by writer/director Damien Chazelle, the man who gave us LA LA LAND (2016), my favorite movie that year, and starring Margot Robbie and Brad Pitt, is not getting great reviews or performing well at the box office.

But I loved it.

It speaks to the magic of movies, and what it has to say about how important movies are to people is spot on, and it does this with a story about just how cruel and unforgiving the business is to those who work in it, creating a perfect storm of opposites: how can a medium so magical and which brings such joy to people the world over be built on such depravity and callousness? And the answer the movie offers by film’s end is that in the end, it’s all worth it— all of it, the pain and suffering and loss—none of it matters in the long run, because movie makers create high art that is seen in theaters around the world and that connects to fans forever.

BABYLON takes place during the 1920s, during the era of silent movies, and opens with an extravagant, decadent Hollywood party/orgy filled with drugs, sex, music, and even an elephant! This opening pre-credit sequence goes on for over 30 minutes and might have viewers wondering if this is the point of the movie? One long party sequence to show how Hollywood partied in the 1920s? The good news is that this is not the point of the movie. Instead, this sequence serves as an introduction to the three main characters in the story.

We meet Manny Torres (Diego Calva), a young Mexican American who is employed by the famous party host, and we first see him trying to transport the elephant to the party mansion, but it’s at the party where he meets Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie) a vibrant young actress who crashes the party in the hopes of getting discovered. Manny comments to her that she wants to become a star, and she replies that she is already a star, that you’re either born a star or not, and she is. We also meet Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) who at the time is the silent screen’s biggest leading man.

When the party finally ends, Manny is told to drive a drunk Jack Conrad back to his home, and he does. Jack enjoys conversing with Manny, and the next day tells Manny that he wants him to join him on the set of his movie as his personal helper, and since Manny is dying to break into the movie industry, he agrees. Meanwhile, when an actress at the party overdoses on drugs and nearly dies, the producer picks Nellie on the spot to replace her. It’s a bit part, one scene, but Nellie is more than up to the task.

On Jack’s movie, after a brutal on location battle sequence, the director finds himself out of cameras, and Manny is sent to find replacement cameras and get back on location before sunset, a job is he is determined to complete.

The movie then follows Nellie’s rise to stardom, Manny’s triumphant climb to the director’s chair, and Jack’s slow decline from box office star to Hollywood has been as he struggles to make the transition from silent movies to sound pictures. But don’t expect A STAR IS BORN. As Jack learns in a conversation with tabloid reporter Elinor St. John (Jean Smart), the industry is bigger than all of them, it doesn’t need any of them, and it will continue when they are dead and gone. And so, Nellie’s and Manny’s success is also fleeting.

Getting back to the aforementioned scene, it’s one of the best written in the movie, in a film that has a lot of well-written scenes. Reporter Elinor goes on to tell Jack that while he may be broken now by his lack of success, because of the magic of movies, he will be immortalized. That fifty years after he has died, young fans born after his death will discover him on film, like him, and even believe they know him, all because he has been captured on film. It’s a wonderful conversation, mostly because it is true. This is exactly what happens to actors in movies of old and describes perfectly the relationship fans and moviegoers have with these actors decades after they walked the Earth.

I absolutely loved the screenplay by Damien Chazelle, as it has so much to say, and in a visually stunning well-acted movie, the screenplay was my favorite part.

On the surface, the screenplay speaks to the hilarious mania involved in making movies, especially during the silent era. In the battle sequence of Jack’s costume movie, for example, a man dies when stabbed in the heart with a spear, and the crew stands around his body and comments that he struggled with alcohol, and he probably stabbed himself. Riiight. Manny is tasked with finding an additional camera before they lose daylight, and he eventually commandeers an ambulance to race the camera back to the set before the sun goes down. And then there’s Jack, drunk and barely able to walk, after drinking all day waiting for the camera to arrive, painstakingly making his way up the steep hill in order for the director to get the shot.

There’s also a hilarious sequence chronicling Nellie’s first attempt at a sound movie, and how nearly impossible it was to get the sound right. This sequence calls to mind a similar sequence in Gene Kelly’s classic musical SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN (1952). More on this connection later.

Beneath the surface, the script has a lot to say about the discrepancies about the lives of the people who make the movies juxtaposed with the magic they make on screen, as the players often live in poverty, and then once they break into money, their lives spiral out of control due to alcohol and drugs. It’s not a pretty picture. And in Nellie’s case, her gambling problem leads her to cross paths with some very deadly people.

The screenplay also touches upon racism, social status inequities, and gender inequality in the making of movies.

There’s also an ongoing argument that Jack has with his wife about movies and art. Jack argues, and eventually becomes convinced, that movies are high art, and that they matter more than any other art form in the country. He argues that rich people go to Broadway, but everyday people go to the movies, and these films are so important to people’s lives; and, Jack argues, Broadway plays reach thousands of viewers. But movies reach millions upon millions of viewers. It’s a point well taken. It’s also true.

Behind the camera, Damien Chazelle scores almost as highly. While there are so many sequences with expert editing that really bring these moments to life, the film has a three hour and nine-minute running time, and so sure, it could have used some overall editing to cut it down some. Some of these moments could certainly have been shorter. But they’re all so good, it’s difficult to complain.

For example, the long sequence near the end where Manny attempts to pay off Nellie’s gambling debts to the mysterious and deadly James McKay (Tobey Maguire, in a scene-stealing performance), and McKay invites Manny to an underground area of Los Angeles, is horrifying and disturbing. You can make the argument that at this point in the film, the movie goes full-blown horror movie. It’s terrifying.

While Brad Pitt gets top billing, the story is mostly about Nellie and Manny, and as such Margot Robbie and Diego Calva get most of the screen time, and they are both terrific. I’m a huge fan of Margot Robbie, and she delivers here yet again. We just saw her in AMSTERDAM (2022), another top-quality movie which also featured a superior Margot Robbie performance. Here, as Nellie, Robbie is wild, unpredictable, and a force to be reckoned with.

Diego Calva is equally as good as Manny, the young man who will do whatever it takes to work in the movies, and as such, he develops a reputation for being a go-to guy on set, a reputation that continually earns him more and more responsibility. He is also in love with Nellie, and he is always there to help her, even when the situation she finds herself in turns deadly.

Brad Pitt, in what turns out to be a quiet understated performance, anchors the film with his portrayal of silent film star Jack Conrad. At first, Jack is the confident lead man, never meeting a problem he can’t solve or a movie he can’t lead, but when he fails to make a successful transition to sound movies, he realizes that while his visage on screen may live on, he is forever stuck making mediocre sound movies because he’s just not as good in them as he was in the silent films.

There are other notable performances as well. Jovan Adepo as trumpet player Sidney Palmer, Jean Smart as columnist Elinor St. John, Olivia Wilde as Jack’s wife Ina, Lukas Haas as Jack’s manager George, Li Jun Li as the erotic Lady Fay, and Tobey Maguire as James McKay are all terrific, as are many others.

As I said earlier, there’s a strong connection between BABYLON and SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN. The plot of SINGIN’ IN THE RAY is all about Gene Kelly’s character trying to make the transition from silent movies to talkies, and since it’s a 1950s Hollywood musical, it’s all in good fun and has a happy ending.

Events in BABYLON mirror events from SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN. Heck, Brad Pitt’s Jack even sings “Singin in the Rain” as part of a musical number in one of his talking movies. The difference here is that BABYLON also shows the dark underbelly of the industry, complete with sex, drugs, blood, and death. And Manny, who lived it, buys a ticket to see SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN upon its release, some thirty years after the events of his movie making experiences, and the last shot of the movie reveals Manny’s thoughts as to whether it was all worth it or not.

BABYLON is an ambitious and near brilliant movie. I’m tempted to say I loved every minute of it, but at 3 hours and 9 minutes long, that wouldn’t be true. Yes, it could have used some editing to cut it down some. But other than this, BABYLON is a phenomenal movie that has so much to say about the movie industry, its place in the world as an art form, and its relationship with it adoring fans, the world over.

I give it three and a half stars.

—END—

Ratings System

Four stars – Excellent

Three stars- Very Good

Two stars – Fair

One star- Poor

Zero stars – Awful

KING RICHARD (2021) – Will Smith’s Best Actor Oscar is Well-Deserved

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I finally caught up with KING RICHARD (2021) the other day, the film in which Will Smith won the Oscar for Best Actor for his performance as tennis stars’ Venus and Serena Williams’ controversial father, Richard Williams.

And no, I didn’t decide to watch it because of the “slap” at the Oscars and all that has happened and continues to happen after it, but admittedly, I did decide to watch it because Smith won the Oscar. I initially passed on it when it premiered this past November, mostly because I’m not a fan of the work of Will Smith, which makes the “slap” incident all the more unfortunate, because Smith delivers a heck of a performance which is by far the best part of the movie.

In KING RICHARD, Will Smith plays Richard Williams as a driven, determined man who has a “plan” to make his daughters Venus and Serena tennis stars. In an early voice over, he explains how it is a financial decision, as he knows how much money tennis champions make, and he sets out to see that his daughters become just that. Lost in the screenplay by Zach Baylin is why tennis? There are lots of ways to make money and become successful, but why Richard set his sights on tennis is never clearly explained.

So Richard and his wife Brandy (Aunjanue Ellis) who is in lock step with her husband regarding his plan for his daughters, work their daughters hard, practicing every day, so much so that they raise the ire of their neighbor who thinks they are working their daughters too hard and even goes so far at one point to call the police on them. But Richard is no slave driver. In fact, he stresses throughout the movie that he wants his daughters to have fun most of all, and he refuses to put too much pressure on them, all the while stressing the importance of their academic endeavors with the thinking being once their tennis careers are over, they will have to fall back on something else which is why they need an education.

Richard also sets out to find a coach who will work with his daughters for free, and after boldly approaching Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn), who at the time was coaching Pete Sampras and John McEnroe, he strikes gold when Cohen is indeed impressed by watching Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton) play, and he agrees to coach— but just one of the daughters for free.

This arrangement works well until Richard decides to pull his daughters from playing in the Juniors tournament because he sees the stress of what happens to the other girls at this young age level, a decision which is highly controversial and leads to his decision to walk away from Cohen. Eventually, Richard secures another top coach for the girls, Rick Macci (Jon Bernthal), and while Richard’s unconventional methods continue, to the point where even his wife Brandy calls him out, they don’t get in the way of his daughters’ success, and the rest is history.

I enjoyed KING RICHARD quite a bit, and I have to say, the main reason I enjoyed it so much was indeed Will Smith’s performance as Richard Williams. His depiction of Williams is as a tireless, devoted father to his girls, who has a plan for their success which most others feel is laughable. But he sticks with it, and they become the best tennis players in the world. In spite of his insistence on doing things “his way” what’s admirable about the character is he never deviates from putting his daughter’s best interests at the forefront. Of course, in reality, there are different opinions about the behavior and motives of the real Richard Williams, but in the movie, he’s an unconventional but stand-up guy who really is all about protecting his daughters while they work their way to success, fame, and fortune.

And Will Smith captures this brilliantly. As I said, I am not a fan of the work of WiIl Smith. With the exception of his portrayal of Deadshot in the flawed and uneven DC superhero film SUICIDE SQUAD (2016) I just haven’t enjoyed his performances or movies all that much. I’m not a big fan of the BAD BOYS or MEN IN BLACK movies. I did enjoy his performance as Muhammad Ali in ALI (2001), but I liked his work here in KING RICHARD better. So, for my money, the Oscar is well-deserved, because it’s the best performance I’ve seen Smith deliver. Which makes his actions on stage at the Oscars going after Chris Rock even sadder.

I also enjoyed Aunjanue Ellis as Brandy Williams, and Jon Bernthal as coach Macci. It was fun to see Bernthal cast against type and not play his usual tough guy role. Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton were also solid as Venus and Serena Williams.

KING RICHARD was directed by Reinaldo Marcu Green with little fanfare or overdramatic gusto. The tennis sequences oddly fall flat, and hardly generate much excitement. The story here really, as its title says, is about Richard Williams. Everything that happens is viewed through his eyes, and his perspective is brilliantly captured by Will Smith.

Smith’s Oscar, in spite of his misguided behavior on stage, is well-deserved.

—END—

THE DIG (2021) – Exceptional Movie Unearths More Than Just Historic Archeological Find

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I dug THE DIG (2021).

Yes, THE DIG, a new Netflix movie, is a wonderful film. It tells the surprisingly moving story of the excavation in 1939 in Sutton Hoo, England, which unearthed a burial ship from Anglo Saxon times. It features two fabulous performances by Ralph Fiennes and Carey Mulligan, beautiful direction by Simon Stone, and an above average screenplay by Moira Buffini, based on the novel The Dig by John Preston, both of which are based on a true story.

It’s 1939, and England is on the brink of war with Nazi Germany. Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) hires amateur excavator Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) to dig on her property as rumors have swirled that historic burial grounds lay underneath, and as Edith says, she just has a “feeling” about what is there. Brown is only an “amateur” because he’s not formally educated or trained in the field, but he’s been excavating since he was a child, and so his instincts and true experience are unparalleled, and Edith recognizes this. He has the reputation of being difficult to work with, but this comes more from idiosyncrasies rather than from stubborness.

Edith herself is unwell, as she is slowly dying, and she worries for her young son Robert (Archie Barnes), as the boy’s father has already passed away. Robert is an imaginative young boy who believes the ancient explorers were a lot like the space explorers he reads about in science fiction magazines, and he takes a liking to Basil Brown and is only too happy to be allowed to help the excavator with the dig.

Eventually, Basil unearths an amazing find, the remains of an Anglo Saxon ship, which would have been painstakingly moved from the sea to the land to provide a burial for someone of extreme importance. It’s a magnificent find, one that brings the British Museum to Edith’s doorstep, with orders that from here on out, they are taking charge.

Director Simon Stone has made a thoroughly satisfying period piece. The photography of the English countryside is as elegant as it is pastoral. You can almost smell the greenery. The film also nails the look of the period, 1939 England on the brink of war.

The first half of the movie is almost magical, bordering on fantasy, even as the story is rooted in reality. There’s a mystical quality to the screenplay as Basil Brown expounds on the marvels of the past, which he says speaks to them. There is a reverence here that resonates throughout the movie. Young Robert is an eager listener to Brown’s ideas, and we the audience are right there with the boy. It’s storytelling at its best.

The second half of the movie pivots somewhat, as the British Museum becomes involved, and we are introduced to more characters, including Peggy Piggot (Lily James) who’s there to help her husband with the dig, but it is through this experience that she learns some truths about herself and her marriage. The second half of the movie isn’t quite as effective as the first, but it’s still a first-rate screenplay by Moira Buffini.

The two leads here are outstanding.

Ralph Fiennes, who has delivered many fine perfomances over the years going all the way back to THE ENGLISH PATIENT (1996), and who is currently playing M in the new James Bond movies, is outstanding here as Basil Brown. It’s clearly one of his best film performances, and instantly one of my favorites. He makes Brown a three-dimensional character who in spite of his reptutation for being difficult is sincere, empathetic, and a genuinely caring person.

Carey Mulligan is equally as good as Edith Pretty. It’s a challenging role, as Edith grows sicker throughout the story, and Mulligan is up to the challenge of capturing her ever increasing sickness. In spite of her illness, she is a strong-willed woman who does her best to give Basil credit for the dig, even though the museum would prefer the name of an amateur not be mentioned at all.

I have been enjoying Mulligan’s work for some time now, as she has made memorable impressions in such films as DRIVE (2011), THE GREAT GATSBY (2013), and MUDBOUND (2017). She is also currently starring in the thriller PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN (2020).

The other testament to Mulligan’s and Fiennes’ acting is the two actors share tremendous chemistry… their scenes together resonate and drive this film forward… even though they are not connected romantically, which is usually the way it is onscreen for characters who share this kind of chemistry. They are both fantastic.

Young Archie Barnes is noteworthy as Edith’s son Robert, as his energetic performance really captures the spirit of the movie.

Lily James is also very good as Peggy, although she doesn’t show up in the film until its second half, but she makes Peggy a sympathetic character, even if she’s not integral to the film’s main plot. I like James a lot and have enjoyed her work in such films as BABY DRIVER (2017), DARKEST HOUR (2017), and REBECCA (2020).

One of the themes in THE DIG, in addition to the connection between explorers of the past and explorers of the future, is that life is fleeting, and you have to go for things in the here and now. However, we all fail at times, and we have to live with our failures and move on, and when ultimately our time is done, we do live on as what we do now for others lives on with them, which allows the past to continue to speak to the present and the future.

There’s a lot going on in THE DIG, as it has a very layered screenplay by Moira Buffini.

And one of the film’s best scenes, which speaks to its theme of the meeting of explorers, Robert takes his ailing mother on a “voyage” on a ship through time. They camp out in the remains of the unearthed ship under the starry night sky and Robert speaks of his explorations through time and space and how his mother will be there with him because time is different in space, and from where she is she will know all that he has done.

Deep, almost magical storytelling, and yet there’s not a drop of fantasy to be found. Instead, it’s wrapped in a story that is as deeply rooted in reality as you can get.

THE DIG is an exceptional movie that unearths more than just an amazing archeological find. It digs up some astounding truths about who we are, what we are doing here, and where we are going.

—END—

10 Worst Movies of 2020

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And now for the 10 Worst Movies of 2020.

Just like with by Top 10 Best Movies List, this year’s list comes with a giant asterisk, thanks to COVID-19 closing movie theaters across the country. While I have continued to review movies throughout the year, they have been on streaming and OnDemand services, and so without national theater chains to provide the same movies for all of us, a lot of movies I saw this year, you may not have, and vice versa.

Okay, now that that is out of the way, let’s get to the list:

10. EMMA

This one doesn’t really belong on a Worst Movies List, but as I rank all the movies I see throughout the year, it did happen to fall 10th from the worst. This elegant version of Jane Austen’s novel is simply a colossal bore, pure and simple. Looked great, but the script and characterizations put me to sleep. Stars Anya Taylor-Joy in the lead role as Emma, and she’s much better in the current and superior Netflix TV show THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT (2020). The film also wastes the usually reliable Bill Nighy. One of the few movies this year I saw on the big screen. Still didn’t help.

9. COFFEE & KAREEM

Forgettable Netflix buddy comedy starring Ed Helms. So forgettable not even worth mentioning!

8. THE RHYTHM SECTION

I love Blake Lively, but this was a really stupid action movie that not even Lively could save. She plays a woman who learns that the plane crash that killed her family wasn’t an accident, and so she…with no prior experience… decides to learn how to become an international assassin to make the terrorists responsible for her family’s death pay. Yup. That’s believable. Her trainer, played by Jude Law, is so good at what he does that she becomes the female equivalent of Jason Bourne and wipes the floor with these terrorists all rather easily. The film tries for an ATOMIC BLONDE (2017) vibe, but the plot is too dumb for it to pull it off.

7. WONDER WOMAN 1984

Where to start with this one? There are so many ways that this sequel is awful. For starters, it’s everything the original WONDER WOMAN is not. I didn’t even enjoy Gal Gadot’s performance as Wonder Woman. But the biggest culprit is the script, and a plot built around a relic that… wait for it…. grants wishes! That’s right, Aladdin, you wish it, and it can happen! Heck, that’s how this story brings back a deceased character from the first movie, played by Chris Pine. No basis in reality. Instantly one of the worst DC superhero movies of all time.

6. SPENSER: CONFIDENTIAL

Another Netflix clunker. This time it’s Mark Wahlberg playing Boston private detective Spenser from the Robert B. Parker novels, only the film changes everything about the characters, and tries to turn this into a comedy. So, not only will Spenser purists be disappointed, but so will those of us who like a good comedy, since it’s not funny at all. You know things are bad when not even Alan Arkin can make you laugh!

5. THE TURNING

Forgettable horror movie starring Mackenzie Davis and Finn Wolfhard, loosely based on Henry James’ novel The Turn of the Screw. Turn this one off.

Betty Gilpin as Crystal in “The Hunt,” directed by Craig Zobel.

4. THE HUNT

A lot of folks liked this one, a dark action thriller about a group of liberals who are hunting human prey, folks they view as right wing low lifes. Stars Betty Gilpin as the one victim who won’t quit, and yes, she is very good and the best part of this movie. But for me, the rest of this film was a misfire from start to finish.

3. LIKE A BOSS

Another unfunny comedy, this one starring Tiffany Haddish and Rose Byrne as friends sparring with villainess Salma Hayek over a beauty company. Very few laughs here, making it a chore to sit through.

2. WASP NETWORK

Netflix film about Cuban spies in the United States completely wastes the talents of Edgar Ramirez, Penelope Cruz, Wagner Moura, and Ana de Armas. Features the most uneven script of the year, with characters appearing and then disappearing for long chunks of time. Fails to build any kind of momentum. Probably the dullest movie I watched all year.

THE BABYSITTER: KILLER QUEEN
  1. THE BABYSITER: KILLER QUEEN

My pick for the worst movie of 2020 is THE BABYSITTER: KILLER QUEEN, a testament as to why you shouldn’t make a sequel just for the same of making one. A sequel to the clever and lively horror/comedy THE BABYSTTER, this flick isn’t funny, isn’t scary, and isn’t enjoyable in the least. Terrible script. By far, the movie I enjoyed the least this year.

And there you have it, my list of the 10 Worst Movies I saw in 2020.

Okay, on to 2021!

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

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

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ENOLA HOLMES aka Ferndell

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

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

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

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

Too bad it wasn’t a more interesting game.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s all rather dull and….elementary.

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

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

Dark Corners cover (1)

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

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

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

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

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

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

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

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

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

For_the_love_of_Horror- original cover

Print cover

For the Love of Horror cover (3)

Ebook cover

 

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE DECLINE (2020) – Solid Thriller Speaks to Current Uncertain Times

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the decline

In order to live you have to survive.

That’s the mantra of Alain (Real Bosse), a survivalist and the main character in THE DECLINE (2020), a new thriller about a group of folks training at an expansive compound deep in the Canadian wilderness in order to prepare for the end of the world. All goes well until a mishap sends them reeling, and suddenly all their training falls by the wayside when the disaster they’d been preparing for unexpectedly happens within their ranks.

THE DECLINE opens with Antoine (Guillaume Laurin) training with his wife and daughter as they run drills and prepare food to last for years as they expect society as we know it to end in the not so distant future. They heed the advice of a survivalist guru named Alain as they watch his videos online. When Alain invites Antoine to join him at his compound, Antoine is happy to oblige.

Once there, Antoine meets a small group of other survivalists, all there to receive extensive training from Alain. For a while, life is good, as they are all satisfied with Alain’s training, but when an accident occurs claiming the life of one of their own, panic ensues over just how to deal with a death at the compound, a panic that immediately tests everything they had been preparing for.

THE DECLINE is a Netflix original movie, and the first Netflix Quebec collaboration. As such, it’s a French language production. Strangely, Netflix chose to dub the film in English, which detracts from the authenticity of the film. I would have preferred the original French language with English subtitles. But this is about the only thing about this one that I didn’t like.

THE DECLINE is a lean and mean movie, clocking in at a brief 83 minutes. The first half is compelling, while the second is increasingly violent and suspenseful.

Director Patrice Laliberte captures the sense of place with all encompassing shots of Alain’s massive compound deep in the frigid Canadian wilderness, surrounded by snowy hills and icy rivers. And during the second half of the movie, as the group splinters into two sides, the violence intensifies, and the climactic scuffle between two key characters is downright brutal.

Laliberte co-wrote the screenplay with Charles Dionne and Nicholas Krief, and it’s a smart one. The characters in this movie are not preparing for a zombie apocalypse or an otherwise cliche scenario. They are worried about the collapse of society, from either a pandemic, a worldwide economic collapse, or from global warming. Their fears, especially here in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, seem alarmingly real.

Their training really is about keeping it together when the proverbial sh*t hits the fan, and being prepared so they can survive afterwards, which makes what happens in this movie all the more prescient. When an accident claims the life of one of their own, they panic, and they are unable to keep it together. While Alain begs them to do just that, keep it together and rely on their training, most of the folks there refuse, as human nature takes over. Sometimes human decency trumps survivalist training.

It’s an all Canadian cast, and they acquit themselves well. Real Bosse plays survivalist master Alain with a mix of traits. On the one hand, he’s all in with the deep survivalist mantra, sounding paranoid at times, but he mixes in enough softspoken common sense and caring that he frequently sounds like a pretty normal guy. But there’s also an undercurrent of unhingedness that keeps the audience unsettled. At the end of the day, though, Alain is simply a man who believes that one must be prepared for the inevitable collapse that is coming sooner than later.

Guillaume Laurin plays Antoine, the man who also intends to bring his family to the compound when the time is right. Antoine is the character who the audience will most indentify with, the family man, who cares for his wife and daughter, which is why he’s doing all this. Laurin is very good in the role.

Probably my favorite performance in the film belongs to Marie-Evelyne Lessard, who plays Rachel, a former soldier who left the military for reasons she doesn’t like to talk about. She’s the most bad-ass character in the movie, and as the story goes along, her role grows, and she’s involved in some of the best scenes in the film. Lessard is excellent here.

I really liked THE DECLINE. Its survivalist end-of-life-as-we-know-it theme has more relevance today than ever. I also enjoyed that it did not play like a Hollywood production. The script isn’t campy, it’s not full of one-liners, and it doesn’t attempt to be anything that it’s not. It’s simply a story about a group of survivalists who believe they are training for the inevitable, and when things go awry, the reactions of everyone involved are natural and real.

The violence, while not overly gratuitous, is brutal and realistic. The final fight scene in particular is a nail-biter.

THE DECLINE is a well-made thriller that has a down-to-earth no frills script and features solid acting throughout. It’s a film that speaks to the uncertain times in which we live, and provides an answer as to how people will react to adversity and tragedy whether they’re part of society or not.

—END—

 

 

THE CALL OF THE WILD (2020) – Sanitized CGI Version of Jack London Tale Still Works

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Call-of-the-Wild

While it is a somewhat sanitized and family friendly version of Jack London’s classic novel, and one that substitutes CGI effects for real dogs, THE CALL OF THE WILD (2020) nonetheless manages to be a successful heartwarming adventure.

There are two reasons for this success.

First, the screenplay by Michael Green, based on Jack London’s novel, is a good one. In spite of Harrison Ford’s sleep-inducing voice-over narration, the story is told crisply and efficiently, apropos for London’s short novel. There’s no fat on this one which clocks in at a brisk 100 minutes. Best of all it’s consistent with its themes of searching for redemption in the wilderness, and the need for answering one’s ancestral call, in this case, the call of the wild.

The second reason, strangely, is the CGI. I say strange because when the movie opens, it’s apparent from the get-go that Buck, the main character in the story and a dog, is a CGI creation and not a real dog. My first thought, especially since it was very apparent and obvious, was that this was going to work against the movie, give it less realism. And while this is true, the story still works because realism becomes secondary. Let me explain. This story is about Buck, a remarkable animal, and realism matters less because Buck is beyond real. He’s exceptional, larger than life, and as such the effects aren’t a detriment. And so realism becomes less important here than truth, and that is one item the movie does not sacrifice.

All this being said, I still would have preferred a real dog, but I can’t deny that the effects won me over, even as I realized what I was watching was a special effect.

THE CALL OF THE WILD is the story of Buck, a half St. Bernard half Scotch Shepherd, who lives a happy spoiled life with the wealthy Judge Miller (Bradley Whitford) and his family. But one night Buck is snatched away, as dogs fetch a good price in this time of the Gold Rush, as sled dogs are needed.

So Buck soon finds himself in the Yukon where he learns to fear the club of man, as he is belted over the head until he learns submission. This one of the areas in the film that is sanitized, as Buck learns to obey quickly, whereas in the novel it was a much more brutal sequence.

Buck becomes part of a sled team delivering the mail, led by two friendly mail carriers Francoise (Cara Gee) and Perrault (Omar Sy). Pearrault in particular treats the dogs well and talks to them as if they are human. The team is led by a dog called Spitz, but when the dogs begin to respect Buck more, a rivalry develops, and eventually Buck replaces Spitz as the lead dog, in another sequence made family friendly. In the novel, Buck kills Spitz. Here in the movie, he simply beats him down till he shows respect.

After Perrault receives orders to sell his sled dog team, Buck and his fellow dogs are purchased by an inexperienced and cruel man Hal (Dan Stevens). Buck is eventually rescued by John Thornton (Harrison Ford) who nurses Buck back to health, and the two share a life of peace and quiet in the snowy wilderness, even as Buck continually hears the call of the wild beckoning him to seek his destiny.

As I said, I had my doubts about this version of THE CALL OF THE WILD, but it really does work, and I left the theater thoroughly satisfied.

Again, while I would have preferred a real dog in the movie, the CGI effects are done well. The CGI model used in the film was a digital scan of a real dog, and it’s pretty convincing. It’s just not 100 percent convincing, and for me, the biggest surprise was that this didn’t really matter. Buck carries this movie. That’s right. The best character in THE CALL OF  THE WILD is a dog, and in this case, not even a real dog. Buck shares a genuine bond with his fellow dogs and human owners, and it’s this connection that drives this story forward.

And while Buck outshines the humans in this one, he does receive fine support. Harrison Ford, in spite of his one-note-covers-all voice-over narration, is decent and believable as John Thornton. Interestingly enough, Rutger Hauer played John Thornton in the 1997 version of the story, and of course, Ford and Hauer were adversaries in the classic science fiction film BLADE RUNNER (1982).

My favorite human performance in the movie belongs to Omar Sy as Perrault. He was the most interesting character in the film, other than Buck, and I enjoyed the way he interacted with the dogs. I also enjoyed Cara Gee as Francoise.

And Dan Stevens is sufficiently villainous as the main scoundrel in the film, Hal. It’s a small role, though, and Stevens had much more to do in the recent horror movie APOSTLE (2018), where he played the lead, a man who infiltrates a bizarre and deadly cult to find his missing sister. Stevens also played the Beast in Disney’s live action remake of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (2017).

Director Chris Sanders keeps this one lean and efficient and manages not to lose sight of the dramatic story elements even while keeping this one family friendly.

Purists of Jack London’s novel may shake their heads and grumble, but dog lovers and fans of good storytelling will appreciate this version of THE CALL OF THE WILD which tells Buck’s story with genuine emotion and respect.

The call of the wild may be less savage here, but it remains intrinsic and true.

—END—

 

RICHARD JEWELL (2019) – Clint Eastwood’s Take on Atlanta Bombing Hero-Then-Suspect A Good One

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richard jewell

Sam Rockwell, Kathy Bates, and Paul Walter Hauser in Clint Eastwood’s RICHARD JEWELL (2019).

RICHARD JEWELL (2019) has a story to tell.

A story about how a man’s life was nearly ruined by an aggressive press and FBI investigation that both got it wrong when they accused him of being a terrorist bomber, releasing the story to the national media before the facts had been ascertained, in effect convicting him before he was ever charged.

This of course is based on the true story of what actually happened to Richard Jewell, a security guard who was falsely accused of the terrorist bombing at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.

RICHARD JEWELL tells this story well, and it does this with its talented cast and with Clint Eastwood at the helm. Eastwood, who is 89 – let that sink in for a moment—, continues to amaze, making films at an age long after most people have retired. Sure, his last couple of movies were misfires, THE MULE (2018) and THE 15:17 TO PARIS (2018), but his three movies before that were all exceptional, SULLY (2016), AMERICAN SNIPER (2014), and JERSEY BOYS (2014). Of course, Eastwood’s entire body of work is nothing short of astonishing, as he will be remembered as both one of the screen’s finest actors and directors, and I think he’ll be remembered more for his work behind the camera than in front of it.

With RICHARD JEWELL, Eastwood has made another quality movie, well worth your time.

When we first meet Richard Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser) he’s a supply room clerk who’s rather odd and even a bit creepy in the way he lingers around people when he talks to them. He strikes up a friendship with one of the attorneys at the office, Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell) when he stocks his desk with Snickers bars. When Bryant asks him how he knew he liked Snickers, Jewell tells him he saw Snickers wrappers in his trash. Jewell also tells Bryant of his dreams to have a career in law enforcement.

The movie jumps ahead ten years, and Richard is working as a security guard at a local college, but because of his aggressive take on the position, he is fired. He next takes up a temporary security guard position at the Atlanta Olympics. Richard so wants to succeed in law enforcement, that he takes everything he does extremely seriously, and so while covering the Olympics, he’s always on the lookout for suspicious people and bags, and when he finds one lying on the ground, he alerts the police, and they tell him it’s probably harmless, but he insists they call for the bomb experts. They do, and it turns out he was right: the backpack contained a bomb, and before it can be defused, it goes off.

But because the evacuation had already started, the casualties were much lower than they would have been. When news breaks that Richard was the man who first found the bomb, he becomes an instant celebrity, and he’s hailed as a hero. But the FBI receives a call from Richard’s former college employer who had fired him, and he tells the FBI that based on his experience with Richard at the college, he fears Richard may be the type of person seeking attention, and it’s possible he may have planted the bomb just so he could play the hero.

The FBI agrees, feeling Richard fits the profile of someone who would go to extreme lengths to become a hero, and they quickly name Richard as their top suspect. Meanwhile, aggressive reporter Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) in search of an angle, seduces information out of FBI agent Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm) who tells her they suspect Richard Jewell. Scruggs writes and publishes the article in the newspaper naming Jewell as the prime suspect, and the story goes national, enraging the FBI because they hadn’t even started their investigation. It also causes a media sensation, and the next thing Richard knows he’s being labeled a terrorist, the press surrounds his home and follows his every move, and the FBI brings him in for questioning.

Richard then turns to the only attorney he knows, Watson Bryant, a man he hadn’t spoken to in over ten years, but Bryant remembers Richard, and he agrees to take his case. The rest of the movie follows Bryant’s efforts to clear Richard’s name and attempt to undo the guilty verdict which the media had already delivered.

The strength of RICHARD JEWELL is that it does a terrific job telling its story while not politicizing it. Both the press and the FBI do not come out of this smelling like roses, and yet the film doesn’t espouse any of the delusional “enemy of the people” or “deep state ” fears which exist today. That’s because director Eastwood and the screenplay by Billy Ray, based on a magazine article by Marie Brenner, both show how easy and normal it would be to mistake Richard’s odd enthusiasm for law enforcement for something more sinister. Heck, just listening to him speak, he sounds weird enough to be guilty. Then again, what does a guilty person sound like? And that’s the point the film makes. In spite of appearances, you still can’t charge a guy without any evidence.

Which is one of the more amazing things about this story. The news about Jewell erupted in the news cycle without a shred of evidence behind it. Jewell was never charged because except for his “profile” there was nothing that was found that implicated him in the crime.

The acting is superb.

Paul Walter Hauser is captivating as Richard Jewell, an odd duck who is so dedicated and sincere in his quest to become a law enforcement officer that he sounds ridiculous to those who don’t know him well, hence fueling the fire and the notion that he has something to hide. However, both the movie and Hauser make Jewell’s portrayal clear: he may be an oddball, but he’s not guilty. In this regard, the film works well. The audience knows full well that Richard is innocent. Yet, suspicions about him are certainly understandable based on his personality. The problem was the press leaked the story before it had any corroborating facts. The only fact they had was the FBI had named Jewell as their prime suspect, which was true, but what followed was a trial in the media that all but confirmed Jewell’s guilt even as he remained uncharged by the FBI.

Hauser played a similar role in I, TONYA (2017), as Tonya Harding’s one-time body-guard, except in that movie he was an oddball who did carry out sinister intentions, hiring the guys who attacked Nancy Kerrigan.

As attorney Watson Bryant, Sam Rockwell is excellent as he always is. He’s one of my favorite actors working today, and I often see movies just because he’s in them. In fact, the main reason I saw RICHARD JEWELL was because Rockwell was in it.  Just look at his last three performances, for example. He stood out as Nazi Captain Klenzendorf in JO JO RABBIT (2019), as KKK member C.P. Ellis in THE BEST OF ENEMIES (2019), and as George W. Bush in VICE (2018). And oh yeah, he won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his role as racist cop Dixon in THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (2017). And all of these roles were very different. Rockwell is as versatile as he is captivating on-screen.

Here, as Watson Bryant, he takes Richard’s case not only because he needs the business, but because he likes Richard and believes in him. In one of the better scenes in the film, after a bitter argument, Watson asks Richard why he chose him as his attorney, and Richard says he chose him because all those years ago he was the only person there who didn’t make fun of Richard, slur his intelligence, and fat shame him. He was the only person there who took time to talk to him.

Kathy Bates is fantastic as Richard’s dedicated mother. Bates knocks it out of the park when things spiral out of control ,and she laments she doesn’t know how to protect her son any longer. The pain she experiences is palpable. Her speech to the media towards the end of the film where she pleads for President Clinton to clear her son’s name is one of the more emotional scenes in the film.

Olivia Wilde as newspaper reporter Kathy Scruggs and Jon Hamm as FBI agent Tom Shaw add solid support, and Nina Arianda stands out as Watson’s loyal assistant Nadya Light, and she gets some of the better lines in the movie.

While the sequence featuring the bombing at the Olympics is suspenseful, RICHARD JEWELL is not a suspense thriller but a drama documenting what happens when there is a rush to judgement in the media. It nonetheless make for some compelling storytelling.

I liked RICHARD JEWELL a lot.  With his 41st film in the director’s chair, Clint Eastwood continues to cement his legacy as one of film’s greatest directors. He frames this story in clear understandable fashion, and he gets the most out of his actors. The result is a movie that both makes its point that facts matter, that media leaks and FBI bias are problematic, and that portrays Richard Jewell in sympathetic fashion so that his plight is understood and believed.

—END—

 

 

 

A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD (2019) -Curious Style Reveals the Potency of Mister Rogers’ Message

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Matthew Rhys (Finalized);Tom Hanks (Finalized)

A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD (2019) is a curious movie, and as much I like Mister Rogers, and the performances in this film, I’m not sure it entirely worked for me.

Check that. It did work for me. Just not as smoothly as I expected.

The film tells the story of a magazine journalist Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) who’s earned the reputation of being a cynic and writing unflattering pieces on the people he interviews. As a result, his editor assigns him to write a brief piece on TV’s Mister Rogers (Tom Hanks) who as it turns out is the only subject they reached out to who agreed to be interviewed by Lloyd.

As Lloyd interviews Rogers, he’s struck by the man’s consistent sincerity and caring, so much so that he doesn’t believe it, and he sets his sights on trying to prove that Rogers isn’t the real deal. This mission doesn’t last long. Instead, Rogers flips the agenda, and it’s Lloyd who’s revealing his past, his innermost hurt dealing with his relationship with his father Jerry (Chris Cooper) who left his family when Lloyd was a boy, leaving him and his sister to care for their dying mother. In effect, Rogers provides all the information Lloyd needs for his interview not by answering questions, but by asking them, and by doing the things he’s known for doing. It takes Lloyd a while to pick up on this, but when he does, he realizes the truth about Rogers, and he does so because in the course of their interviews, Rogers changes Lloyd’s life.

A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD tells a serious story, but it does not play out like a standard drama or biography. Instead, the entire film is framed as if it’s an episode of Fred Rogers’ series MISTER ROGERS’ NEIGHBORHOOD. Indeed, it opens just like the show does, with Rogers entering the interior of his TV home, and as he explains to his audience his prop for the day, Picture Picture, he reveals a photo of Lloyd and begins to tell Lloyd’s story. And the film unfolds from there.

As much as I appreciated the originality of this style, sometimes the line was blurred between fantasy and reality. Like when later in the film Lloyd finds himself on the show, reduced to the size of one of the puppets. Clearly, this is a dream Lloyd is having, right? Then again, the movie is framed like the show, so—. Thought-provoking to be sure, but also simply flat-out odd. Which is what I meant at the outset that I’m not sure it entirely worked.

Some moments do work. Like the scene at the diner, where Rogers asks Lloyd to sit with him in silence for one minute, to pray with him for those in need, and as he does this, the patrons in the diner notice and also stop talking. And then Rogers looks right at the camera, and the shot holds— we’re talking sixty seconds in real-time, folks— and the implication is clear: he’s looking at the people in the theater, the point being that they should be doing the same. Again, supporting the notion that A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD is like one big Mister Rogers episode for adults.

And then there’s the ending. Earlier in the film, Lloyd asks Rogers how he handles the pressure of being Mister Rogers, and Rogers doesn’t answer directly. Instead, he speaks of the different ways people can handle pressure, and one of the ways he mentions is pounding the piano keys on low notes really loudly, and he demonstrates this to Lloyd by pretending to do so right there. He doesn’t directly answer the question or say that he himself is stressed, which frustrates Lloyd in the interview. But later, as the film ends, and Rogers’ work is done, and Lloyd has benefitted from Rogers’ intervention, and the final shot of the show is wrapped, Rogers says farewell to his crew, but he remains on set until everyone is gone.  In the silence of the empty set, he sits at a piano and pounds those low keys. As he said earlier in the movie, he’s human, and not a saint.

Tom Hanks nails his performance as Mister Rogers. He captures Rogers’ mannerisms and persona to a tee, and there are times when he’s a perfect match. However, even an actor with Hanks’ superior talent has his work cut out for him because Rogers is such an iconic figure that it was rare that I ever truly felt I was watching Rogers on-screen. Instead, I was aware that it was Hanks playing Rogers. I don’t think this is a flaw on Hanks’ part. Rogers is such a genuine presence that’s it’s difficult to see anyone else but him saying and doing the things he said and did.

Matthew Rhys is excellent as Lloyd Vogel, and he delivers the most effective performance in the movie. Of course, in fairness to Tom Hanks, Hanks has the tougher job here, playing Fred Rogers. Nonetheless, Rhys perfectly captures Lloyd’s pain and cynicism. In fact, throughout the movie, I related mostly to Lloyd, who in spite of his biting personality comes off as a real person throughout, so when he’s shaking his head about Rogers’ upbeat and offbeat shtick, he seems like the real person and Rogers the oddball. And yet Rogers’ work is a process, and so as the story goes on, and Lloyd realizes this, he and the audience as well, is won over and understands that Rogers may be an oddball, but he’s the real deal. Rhys captures Lloyd’s journey and transformation perfectly.

Chris Cooper has been one of my favorite actors for years. He’s good in nearly everything he’s in. Probably my all time favorite Cooper role is when he played Jake Gyllenhaal’s father in OCTOBER SKY (1999). He’s back playing another troubled dad here as Lloyd’s father Jerry who spent his life being a jerk and now as he’s dying he desperately wants his son’s forgiveness but can’t seem to get it. He’s got one of the best moments in the film when he laments that it’s only as he is dying that he’s figured out how to live. Cooper nails the role.

I also really enjoyed Susan Kelechi Watson as Lloyd’s wife Andrea. She gets one of the best lines in the movie when Rogers calls them on the phone and refers to her by name, and as she hands the phone to Lloyd says in a starstruck tone, “Mister Rogers knows my name!”

Director Marielle Heller makes the bold decision to film this story like an episode of the iconic children’s show, and for the most part, this works. That being said, the parts that work best really are Lloyd’s moments, which are removed from the show, so, in a strange way, while it’s a clever decision, I’m not sure it completely helps this story. The argument can be made that it would have worked even better with a straight dramatic construct.

The screenplay by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster is based on the true story of the real-life friendship between journalist Tom Junod and Fred Rogers. It does what it sets out to do, in that we see the power of Mister Rogers through his actions and the effect they have on Lloyd Vogel.

I liked A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD well enough, but as a fan of Mister Rogers, I did enjoy last year’s documentary WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR? (2018) more.

A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD features superior acting and reveals the potency of Mister Rogers’ message in a drama that unfolds like an episode of his iconic TV show. It’s definitely worth a look, even with a style that sometimes gets in the way of the story it’s trying to tell.

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

New in 2019! DARK CORNERS, Michael Arruda’s second short story collection, contains ten tales of horror, six reprints and four stories original to this collection.

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

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

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

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

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

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

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

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

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

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Print cover

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

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