HIS HOUSE (2020) – Refreshing Take on Haunted House Tale

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His House

Sometimes a film’s premise makes all the difference.

And here with HIS HOUSE (2020), a new horror movie now available on Netflix, the plot point of a refugee couple from the Sudan trying to make their way in their new home in England, only to find that it’s haunted, gives this one an edge.

It doesn’t quite lift this one on its own, but for the most part, HIS HOUSE is a decent horror movie worth checking out.

Bol (Sope Dirisu) and Rial (Wunmi Mosaku) survive a harrowing boat journey from the Sudan, seeking asylum in England. However, their daughter does not, as she drowns during a violent storm. While Bol and Rial mourn the loss of their daughter, they are set up in a home in a small English town, but they have to follow certain rules or else they will be deported back to the Sudan where violent tribal clashes would jeopardize their lives. One of the rules is they must stay in their home, as they are not allowed to move somewhere else.

While the house is an obvious slum, for Bol and Rial, they are happy to take it. However, soon after they move in, they realize that they are not the only ones there, as a sinister presence makes itself known, a presence that speaks to them about giving them their daughter back, but at a price and a sacrifice that is horrifying to accept.

As I said, the premise of HIS HOUSE helps this one a lot. The story of immigrants fighting to survive in a new nation speaks to current events, and the brutal tale of the Sudan exposes horrors even before the supernatural elements arrive.

I enjoyed the script by director Remi Weekes, based on a story by Felicity Evans and Toby Venables. The story speaks to the difficulties of trying to rebuild one’s life after devastating loss. And the revelation near the film’s end only makes this story all the more tragic.

The supernatural stuff works as well. While I wouldn’t call this one outright scary, it is very creepy, and there are some winc-inducing scenes toward the end.

I liked HIS HOUSE for the most part, although I thought the pacing was rather slow.

Both Sope Dirisu as Bol and Wunmi Mosaku as Rial are very good in their roles. They make for a convincing couple. And Matt Smith delivers a smart performance as their caseworker Mark who can’t help feeling empathy towards them.

Javier Botet plays the witch here, and he’s rather creepy. Botet has had lots of experience playing similar monster roles in SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK (2019), SLENDER MAN (2018), and INSIDIOUS: THE LAST KEY (2018), to name just a few.

HIS HOUSE didn’t knock my socks off, but it did creep me out for most of its 90 minutes, and I enjoyed it’s refreshing take on the haunted house trope.

You might want to visit.

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THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 (2020) -Aaron Sorkin’s Courtroom Drama Lifted by Superior Cast

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Netflix seems to be excelling with the all-star cast.

Like its dreary drama THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME (2020), Netflix’s latest original movie, THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 (2020), written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, features a superior cast which includes Eddie Redmayne, Sacha Baron Cohen, Mark Rylance, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Keaton, and Frank Langella.

The only drawback is it’s an almost entirely male cast. Then again, back in 1969, the principal players in this story were almost all male.

THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 is the story of seven protestors at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, who were leading the crowds outside the convention protesting the Vietnam war. After Nixon had won the White House, his Attorney General  John Mitchell (John Doman) decided to put these men on trial to make an example of them.

The seven included Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne,) Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), and Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). Their attorney William Kunstler (Mark Rylance) not only had to deal with the young hotshot prosecuting attorney Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) but also an incompetent judge, Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella) and constant interference from the justice department.

The film chronicles the trial which between Abbie Hoffman’s and Jerry Rubin’s theatrics, and Judge Hoffman’s bizarre rulings and interruptions, like spending time explaining that although he shares the same last name with Abbie Hoffman, that they’re not related, often resembles a full blown circus.

Written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, the man behind the classic TV series THE WEST WING (1999-2006), and such notable movies as THE SOCIAL NETWORK (2010) and MONEYBALL (2011), for which he wrote the screenplays, and his screenplay for THE SOCIAL NETWORK won him an Oscar, THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 is a first-rate courtroom drama.

I was fully invested in this story, and it held my interest from beginning to end. One drawback, however, is as a director here, Sorkin does little to make this movie cinematic. It definitely plays like a TV drama, made for the small screen, rather than a film to be seen on the big screen at the movie theater. As compelling as its story is, there are surprisingly few memorable images from this flick.

And the screenplay, as interesting as it is, never really goes full throttle. This is a movie that I appreciated intellectually, but sadly, emotionally I was never moved as much as I expected to be. And I believe this is because the dialogue spends more time telling the whole story rather than focusing on the individual characters and their plights.

Don’t get me wrong. There are some emotional moments, the biggest of which occurs when Bobby Seale is cuffed and gagged in the middle of the courtroom. And there are some tense moments between Tom Hayden and Abbie Hoffman. Mark Rylance probably enjoys the best scenes in the movie, as his character attorney William Kunstler is frustrated throughout, but overall, there just aren’t that many sequences in the film where the heart starts racing.

The best part really as I said at the outset is the film’s outstanding cast, especially the veteran actors in the group.

Eddie Redmayne is fine as Tom Hayden, and Sacha Baron Cohen is excellent as Abbie Hoffman. And John Carroll Lynch adds fine support as David Dellinger. Lynch is one of my favorite character actors working today and has made notable appearances in such films as CRAZY, STUPID, LOVE (2011), THE INVITATION (2015), and THE FOUNDER (2016) in which he also co-starred with Michael Keaton.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is convincing as attorney Richard Schultz who, while he is all in to win the trial, understands that these folks probably shouldn’t be on trial in the first place.

Mark Rylance probably delivers the best performance in the movie as defense attorney William Kunstler. Every time Rylance is on the screen the film is that much better. He plays Kunstler as a veteran attorney, who’s cool under pressure, and incredibly smart, but as the trial proceeds and he is met with more and more unfair opposition and tactics, he finds it increasingly difficult to keep his cool.

Rylance is an awesome actor who has given some of the best performances in the movies that I’ve seen in recent years, including in BRIDGE OF SPIES (2015) and DUNKIRK (2017). His work here in THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 is every bit as good as his work in those movies.

Frank Langella is outstanding as the incredibly frustrating Judge Julius Hoffman. He’ll have you shouting at the screen in anger. The only drawback with Hoffman is he’s inept from the get-go and so often sounds like someone with dementia rather than with an agenda, so while he’s infuriating he’s not a straight “villain” because you can’t help but wonder if he just isn’t all there any more.

Langella of course played Richard Nixon in FROST/NIXON (2008), a performance that earned him his only Oscar nomination. But he’s a terrific actor with more credits than one can list, going all the way back….way back!….. to his turn as Count Dracula in DRACULA (1979).

And Michael Keaton delivers a scene stealing performance in his brief screen time as former Attorney General Ramsey Clark. His two sequences, where Kunstler visits his house and then later when he’s on the witness stand, are two of the best scenes in the movie. Keaton is an exceptional actor who I still don’t think gets the respect he deserves.

Especially in recent years, Keaton has really turned it up a notch with performances in films such as BIRDMAN OR THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE (2014), in which he earned a Best Actor Oscar nomination, SPOTLIGHT (2015), THE FOUNDER (2016), and SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING (2017), where he played one of Marvel’s most memorable screen villains yet and arguably outshined both Tom Holland and Robert Downey, Jr.

Also giving notable performances are Alex Sharp as Rennie Davis, another of the seven, Jeremy Strong as Jerry Rubin, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Bobby Seale, Ben Shenkman as fellow defense attorney Leonard Weinglass, and in one scene John Doman as Attorney General John Mitchell.

THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 is a compelling courtroom drama which tells a story from 1969 that still retains incredible relevance today, serving as a another sad reminder that even after the traumatic events of the 1960s we still haven’t gotten that far in terms of healing and unification in this country.

As such, in spite of the fact that it never really rises above the standard courtroom tale and lacks the emotional wallop expected with this kind of story, it’s still highly recommended viewing.

—END—

 

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.

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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.  

For_the_love_of_Horror- original cover

Print cover

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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 BABYSITTER: KILLER QUEEN (2020) – Inferior Sequel One of the Worst Movies of the Year

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THE BABYSITTER: KILLER QUEEN

When they’re together, Jenna Ortega and Judah Lewis are the best part of THE BABYSITTER: KILLER QUEEN (2020), an inferior sequel that is one of the worst movies of the year.

Sometimes a movie is so bad there just isn’t much to say about it.

THE BABYSITTER: KILLER QUEEN (2020) is one of these movies.

The only reason I watched it is I really liked the first movie, THE BABYSITTER (2017), a lively comedy horror flick, lifted by the spirited performance of Samara Weaving as the demonic babysitter. Now, knowing that Weaving wasn’t the focus of the sequel, I really wasn’t that into seeing THE BABYSITTER: KILLER QUEEN, although I took solace in knowing that nearly everyone else involved in the first movie was back for this second one. So I did hold out a little bit of hope…..

Silly me.

THE BABYSITTER: KILLER QUEEN takes place two years after the events of THE BABYSITTER, and young Cole (Judah Lewis) is suffering in high school because no one believes his story that he was attacked by a demons two years earlier. He says he feels like Sarah Connor in TERMINATOR 2, one of the many geeky film references in the film, just like there were in the first movie. However, this time the magic of film geekdom is completely ineffective. Students pick on Cole, and his parents want to enroll him in a psychiatric high school.

So, Cole turns to his good friend Melanie (Emily Alyn Lind), and these two have had a crush on each other since the first movie, but she’s seeing someone else, of course. Nonetheless, she invites Cole to a lakeside party, and he agrees to go, and it’s there where the devil worshipping teens and their demon friends try once again to use Cole’s blood as part of a demonic blood sacrifice.

Blah, blah, blah.

THE BABYSITTER: KILLER QUEEN lost me within the first five minutes of the movie, which made the next hour and thirty five minutes extremely painful to sit through. And the main reason it lost me is the script is dreadful. The plot is absolutely ridiculous and has no basis in reality, and worse, the jokes simply aren’t funny. Which is completely opposite from the first movie. Of course, THE BABYSITTER was written by Brian Duffield. Here we have all new writers, as the screenplay was written by Dan Lagana, Brad Morris, Jimmy Warden, and director McG. It’s sad that four writers worked on this and the film is still god-awful.

If you’re going to tell a story that is so far from reality, you’d best have a very funny script. And that simply isn’t the case here.

As Cole, Judah Lewis was almost as memorable as Samara Weaving in the first movie, but part of that movie’s charm was the way those two characters interacted. That’s all gone here in the sequel, and Cole just isn’t all that interesting this time around.

In a small role in THE BABYSITTER, Emily Alyn Lind was very good as Melanie, the girl next door who had a crush on Cole and had his back. Things start out well this time around as well, but then the plot throws a curve involving Melanie that makes absolutely no sense and pretty much ruins the character.

The devil worshipping teens from the first movie return here, now as demons, but all they do is try to rehash the magic from the first movie but fail miserably at it.

Things do get a little better for a time when new teen Phoebe (Jenna Ortega) gets more screen time as she and Cole team up to battle the demons, and the two characters share some nice scenes together, but since the rest of the movie is so bad, their scenes don’t really carry much weight.

Director McG who imbued the first film with flashy style and creative direction, making a very amusing horror comedy, does none of that here in the sequel. The jokes don’t work, the horror doesn’t work, and the characters are ridiculously unrealistic.

Samara Weaving does show up at the end again as Bee, the babysitter, in time to be a part of one of the most ludicrous plot twists I’ve seen in some time.

Not only is THE BABYSITTER: KILLER QUEEN  a terrible sequel, it’s flat out one of the worst movies I’ve seen this year.

It’s not even about a babysitter. Bee was the babysitter in the first movie, and she was the main character. Here, she shows up for the final few minutes.

Simply put, you do not want to waste any time on THE BABYSITTER:KILLER QUEEN. It’s the type of movie that gives sequels a bad name.

—END—

 

PROJECT POWER (2020) – Pill Popping Superhero Tale Mildly Diverting

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project power

A superhero movie where the superheroes need to pop a pill to get their superpowers? Hmm. Sounds like the quintessential American superhero story!

That’s the premise behind PROJECT POWER (2020), a new superhero movie now available on Netflix.

In New Orleans, there’s this new pill on the streets that’s all the rage. Pop it and it gives you a superpower. Of course, like any drug, it can be dangerous, so for some folks, when they take it, they—- blow up!  Yikes! 

Police detective Frank (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is busy on the streets of New Orleans trying to track down the main supplier of these super pills. He befriends a young dealer named Robin (Dominique Fishback) who’s doing this to pay the medical bills for her sick mother. Robin supplies Frank with information here and there, but nothing major.

Frank’s investigation is further compounded by men in suits who continually show up and shut the door on the local police, frustrating both Frank and his superior, Captain Craine (Courtney B. Vance). But then Craine shares a tip with Frank, that the men in suits are looking for a man named Art (Jamie Foxx) who they believe is the main supplier, and so Frank decides to find him first.

And Art is on the streets, but he’s not the main supplier. He is actually searching for his daughter, who was kidnapped by these strange scientist folks who are using her “special” DNA as part of their experiments developing this drug. On his search, Art crosses paths with Robin, and with Frank closing in, these three characters eventually come together  setting up the main confrontation with the film’s baddies.

PROJECT POWER has its moments, but not enough of them to lift this one to superior super hero status. The best part of this one is its cast.

Jamie Foxx is excellent as Art, the former soldier who’s out to take down the superpill cartel in order to rescue his daughter. He gets some good lines, has deadly charisma throughout, and looks believable taking down all the bad guys.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is equally as good as Frank, the cop who’s trying to do right by his city. Like Foxx, Gordon-Levitt gets a lot of good lines and also looks believable in the action scenes.

And Dominque Fishback shines as Robin in a very spirited performance.

All three of these performers deliver the goods and create some likeable characters, so even when the story isn’t firing on all cylinders, at the very least you get to enjoy these folks on screen.

The screenplay by Mattson Tomlin is okay. It’s really nothing we haven’t seen before. The super pill stuff is actually a bit confusing. On the one hand, characters speak of how it enhances the powers already inside the individuals taking it, but in the next breath, we see the scientists experimenting with animal and human DNA. Which one is it?

And like a lot of superhero movies, PROJECT POWER suffers from a lack of a villain. There isn’t one main bad guy here, and the few who appear in this film are sadly lacking in both villainous vision and charisma.

Directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman have this one looking good. It’s all slick and polished, but the action sequences rarely wow, and the fight scenes while commendable don’t really stand out.

PROJECT POWER is a mixed bag. I enjoyed the actors in this one immensely, and thought they created some very likable characters, but the story here never really takes off, nor do the action scenes do much to lift this one.

It doesn’t really compare to the films in the Marvel cinematic universe, although it is better than some of the awful DC films which have come out in the past few years. It also just doesn’t really have the feel of a superhero movie. It plays more like a police action/ science fiction tale.

At the end of the day, PROJECT POWER proves to be a mild diversion for those of us waiting for the day when theaters reopen and the major superhero releases return to the big screen.

—END—

 

 

 

THE OLD GUARD (2020) – Charlize Theron Action Fantasy is Old Hat

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In THE OLD GUARD (2020), you have Charlize Theron playing the leader of a small band of immortal mercenaries who travel the world in search of missions to do good for humankind.

Sounds pretty cool, right?

I thought so. But sadly it sounds better than it actually is. Yes, even though THE OLD GUARD is getting positive word of mouth and decent critical reviews, I was a bit underwhelmed. Maybe my expectations were too high?

Nah!

Andy (Charlize Theron) has been fighting the good fight for centuries. Yup, she’s an immortal warrior who has been saving the day forever. Literally. Yet, she feels increasingly frustrated because in the here and now the world is worse than ever, and she feels that in spite of all her efforts through the years she has not made a difference.

Presently, she leads a small group of fellow immortals which include Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), Joe (Marwan Kenzari),  and Nicky (Luca Marinelli). When they are hired by an ex-CIA operative named Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to rescue a group of abducted children in Sudan, they are ambushed, and they discover that Copley had set them up, as evidently he has another agenda, and it has to do with a villain named Merrick (Harry Melling) who is very much interested in learning the secret of this group of heroes’ immortality.

Around the same time, a young U.S. soldier in Afghanistan, Nile (Kiki Layne) is killed, only to come back to life, and the group realizes a new member has emerged, so in addition to fighting Copley and Merrick, they have to find and recruit young Nile, who is not in the least interested in joining this group of heroes.

Oh, and by the way, we also learn that these heroes aren’t really immortal. Come again? See, they just have very long life spans. They can still die. Eventually. They just never know when.

How terribly— inconvenient.

I was excited to watch THE OLD GUARD, mostly because of the presence of Charlize Theron, whose work I enjoy a lot, and also because I thought the film had a very cool premise.

Now, Theron is as good as expected. She’s excellent as Andy, although I didn’t find the role all that interesting. For example, early on she laments that she simply hasn’t made a difference, that the world is worse than ever, yet this angst never becomes a driving force in her personality. And while her choreographed fight scenes are very good, they’re not great. Her action scenes in ATOMIC BLONDE (2017) were superior.

But the film’s premise I thought was lacking, and it wasn’t as innovative and exciting as I expected it would be. It’s a rather blah screenplay by Greg Rucka, who also wrote the graphic novel series on which this movie is based. The dialogue is pretty standard and doesn’t rise to the level of an electrifying superhero movie.

The plot also has issues. Their mission isn’t terribly exciting, mostly because it’s not really a mission! When the film opens, and they are sent to rescue abducted children, that mission had promise, but it turns out that was only a set-up. For the rest of the movie, they are only doing two things. One, seeking out Copley and Merrick, and this is only for their own self-preservation, and two, recruiting and training Nile.

Yawn.

It’s a classic example of a film that was made to spawn a series, with the set up for the next film being  now that we’ve assembled this group of heroes let’s send them on an exciting adventure in the next movie! Why not just do that in this movie??? What a terrible waste of time. This happens a lot in these types of movies. SUICIDE SQUAD (2016) was another example.

Merrick is also a pretty ineffective villain. He doesn’t have much of an agenda, and he has zero screen presence.

Actually, none of the characters in this one are all that interesting. It’s a rather dull band of immortal heroes.

Director Gina Prince-Bythewood does an okay job. The action sequences are decent but not outstanding. The pacing of the film is also rather slow. The film runs just over two hours and it felt like it.

THE OLD GUARD is a Netflix original, but it is nowhere near as good as a previous Netflix original action movie, EXTRACTION (2020), which had some of the best and most intense action sequences in any movie I’ve seen this year.

The cast didn’t really wow me. Chiwetel Ejiofor, however, does add fine support as Copley, and the character undergoes a transformation in the film which sets him up as a key player in the sequels, and I do believe Netflix is planning to make more of these movies.

And while there are some decent scenes in this one— a sequence on a plane is one of the better ones in the movie, for example— there’s simply not enough of them to lift this flick to the upper echelon of superhero action movies.

It’s also rated R, yet I hardly noticed. I don’t think it earned its rating all that well.

THE OLD GUARD is a film filled with promise. With Charlize Theron leading the way, this group of heroes should be one worth watching and rooting for. Sadly, for most of this film, due largely to a standard and rather unimaginative screenplay, that’s not the case.

Since there is a second film in the works, it looks like we’ll just have to wait for the sequel.

And that’s because THE OLD GUARD is all rather old hat.

—END—

 

 

EUROVISION SONG CONTEST: THE STORY OF FIRE SAGA (2020) – Will Ferrell Musical Comedy Is Much Better Than Expected

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For starters, the title is awful— EUROVISION SONG CONTEST: THE STORY OF FIRE SAGA— it sounds like a teen fantasy novel gone wrong— and it stars and was written by Will Ferrell, whose work I’ve enjoyed less and less with each passing year. But yet—

—-yet, EUROVISION SONG CONTEST: THE STORY OF FIRE SAGA (2020) is actually a really good movie, one that gets better as it goes along. It’s also one of Ferrell’s best films in years.

Lars Erickssong (Will Ferrell) has dreamed his whole life of winning the famed Eurovision Song Contest for his home country of Iceland, so much so that he has devoted his entire life to the endeavor, much to the chagrin of his father Erick (Pierce Brosnan) who makes it no secret how ashamed he is of his son’s “foolish” dreams. But Lars’ best friend Sigrit (Rachel McAdams) feels otherwise and together they make up the band Fire Saga and work each day to achieve their goal of making it to Eurovision.

Trouble is, they’re not particularly good, and they have established the reputation in their village as being pretty darned awful, which is a major reason why Erick thinks his son is wasting his life away on a dream rather than working.

But fate intervenes when Iceland needs one more entry for their national competition, and so they select a band randomly, which turns out to be Fire Saga. While Lars and Sigrit are overjoyed, as expected, they do not win, and hence don’t qualify for the trip to participate in Eurovision. But “fate” intervenes again when a ferry boat carrying every single Ice Landic act who placed ahead of Fire Saga mysteriously explodes in a fiery inferno, leaving as the only act left– Fire Saga. Suddenly they are on their way to Eurovision!

And that’s what the bulk of the movie is about, Lars and Sigrits’ adventures as they practice and prepare to particpate and somehow win the Eurovision competition.

Okay. On the surface, this plot sound silly, trite, and dumb, but it really isn’t. There’s a lot going on here.

The beginning of EUROVISION SONG CONTEST is very silly and humorous, as some of Fire Saga’s awful music numbers are laugh out loud funny, and so the feeling is, this is going to be a goofball comedy perhaps satirizing shows like Eurovision. But that’s not the direction the movie takes.

EUROVISION SONG CONTEST is really about two things. For one, it’s a love story between Lars and Sigrit, which at first sounds funny, because the idea of Will Ferrell in a love story is— well, laughable. And Ferrell is himself here, meaning he’s goofy, but he does channel an exhuberant innocence the way he did as Buddy the Elf in what I think is still his best movie, ELF (2003). Lars is also super focused on winning the contest, and so he barely notices Sigrit who definitely has feelings for him.

And so the love story is driven by Sigrit and by Rachel McAdam’s spirited performance as the character, as she delivers by far the best performance in the movie. She believes in Lars and during their journey together falls in love with him but hesitates to be up front with her feelings because she doesn’t want to ruin their art together.

Which is the second thing EUROVISION SONG CONTEST is really about, the making of art. These two characters devote their lives to a cause, and for Sigrit it’s more about performing than winning, while Lars just wants to win, but they both have something to say with their music. And they say it.

They both also see the world as artists do. So when Sigrit speaks of believing in elves, which on the surface is a statement about superstition in Iceland and is in the movie for comedic value, on a deeper level, it’s about a figurative way of thinking that allows artists to see things in ways that others don’t and to believe in things that others don’t. It’s why art— music, films, books, paintings— can change the world.

Now, I know this sounds too deep for a Will Ferrell movie, but these elements are all in the script, which is why I liked this one so much. Beneath this silly musical comedy about an unlikely singing duo, there’s a subtext which speaks and speaks well about what it is to be an artist. It’s a really good screenplay by Ferell and Andrew Steele.

It also gets the humor right. There are several laugh out loud moments in this film, from the outrageous bands in the contest and some of their numbers, to the playful banter between Lars and Sigrit, to some over the top sequences where Lars’ innocent silliness is on full display. Ferrell enjoys a lot of funny moments here.

And the end of this movie is really moving. You’ll actually forget how this one started, as a seemingly silly spoof, and be moved to tears by the emotional impact of its conclusion. Seriously!

As I said, this is Will Ferrell’s best work in some time. While most of his recent films have been meh, and in fact I haven’t loved a Ferrell movie since ELF, he steps it up big time here with EUROVISION SONG CONTEST. While Lars is never ordinary, he is sincere, driven to win to a fault, and in spite of his innocent offbeat silliness he’s believable.

He’s also complemented by Sigrit, brilliantly played here by Rachel McAdams. Hands down, McAdams gives the best performance in the movie. I like McAdams a lot, and she has delivered some memorable performances over the years. I especially enjoyed her work in SPOTLIGHT (2015) and she was hilarious in the very funny comedy GAME NIGHT (2018) in which she starred alongside Jason Bateman.

Here, McAdams plays Sigrit as an artist inspired by Lars and moved by him to be the best singer she can be, something that is sadly lost on him for most of the story. Her enthusiasm for her craft is infectious, and she and Ferrell have excellent chemistry throughout and are enjoyable together during the entire movie. McAdams effortlessly traverses between silly and serious and she makes Sigrit one of the more interesting characters I’ve seen in the movies this year.

Pierce Brosnan adds solid support as Lars’ father Erick, who for most of the movie is embarrassed for his son. Brosnan doesn’t play the character in a cliche over the top way. His contempt for his son is deep and real, and Brosnan nails the emotion throughout.

Dan Stevens is also excellent as Alexandar Lemtov, Russia’s contestant in the Eurovision contest and the odds-on favorite to win the entire competition. He also has eyes for Sigrit. Like the rest of the movie, Steven’s performance is a mix of over-the-top humor and subtle subtext. In Lemtov’s case, he’s a closeted homosexual who laments that Russia doesn’t allow him to live his life the way he wants.

Directed by David Dobkin, EUROVISION SONG CONTEST: THE STORY OF FIRE STARTER in spite of its God-awful title and presence of Will Ferrell which would lead one to believe this is just a goofy comedy, is really a movie that supercedes expectations and is one of the more entertaining and enjoyable films I’ve seen this year.

Dobkin gives this one so much energy it flies by and even though it’s a two hour movie it seems much shorter than that. It’s full of memorable music numbers, has a surprisingly literate script by Will Ferrell and Andrew Steele, and features wonderful performances by Ferrell and more so by Rachel McAdams.

So, ignore the title, and the fact that Will Ferrell is playing an over-achieving singer and songwriter. EUROVISION SONG CONTEST: THE STORY OF FIRE STARTER is a treat of a movie, one that offers both surprises and laughs throughout, and finishes with an emotional conclusion that is above and beyond what one would usually expect for this type of movie.

You might even find yourself believing in elves!

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Books by Michael Arruda:

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

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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.  

For_the_love_of_Horror- original cover

Print cover

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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.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ALL DAY AND A NIGHT (2020) – Chilling, Disturbing Portrait of Black Life in America

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Ashton Sanders and Jeffrey Wright in ALL DAY AND A NIGHT (2020).

If you want to know what it’s like to be a black man in the United States in 2020, then you need to watch ALL DAY AND A NIGHT (2020), a Netflix original movie that tells the story of a young man stuck in a hopeless fate that rings all too true.

When ALL DAY AND A NIGHT opens, we witness Jah (Ashton Sanders), a young black man from Oakland, California, shoot and kill another black man and his girlfriend in front of their teenage daughter. Jah is sentenced to life imprisonment, and it’s there through a series of flashbacks that we learn his story.

Jah grew up in a household where he was mostly raised by his mother Delanda (Kelly Jenrette) and grandmother Tommetta (Regina Taylor) because his father JD (Jeffrey Wright) is in and out of prison and rarely home. In fact, as Jah explains, that’s how it is for nearly every family in the neighborhood. The dads just disappear.

Later, when Jah is in prison, he’s not only reunited with his father, but he sees all those folks who disappeared during his childhood. They’re all living in prison.

Even as a young boy, Jah knows he wants to do something more with his life which is why he gravitates towards music, but inside he knows he’s not going anywhere. His mom and dad constantly argue over his fate, as his mother swears that her son is not going to end up like her husband, but JD argues that he has to teach his son street smarts or else he’ll never survive, which is why he beats Jah when a local bully steals his toy. Jah learns at a young age to hit hard and go on the offensive, making sure that other kids will not mess with him.

As a young adult, Jah and his best friend TQ (Isaiah John) navigate through a world of music, drugs, and gangs, with all of these things intertwined in a dangerous soup of murder and violence. Jah keeps away from the drugs, but his reputation for being a tough fighter catches the eye of local gang leader Big Stunna (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) who keeps Jah close with the intention of grooming him to be his muscle.

Jah’s other friend Lamark (Christopher Meyer) vows to do things the right way and escape the confines of their neighborhood and their fates. He joins the army but returns an invalid.

Even as Jah enjoys a relationship with his girlfriend Shantaye (Shakira Ja’nai Paye), who’s pregnant with their baby, he can’t resist the allure of his neighborhood’s code of ethics, that matters can be solved by violence, and that one takes care of one’s own problems, which is what he does, a decision that lands him in jail for life.

But he does it because he honestly doesn’t see anything else to live for. As Jah says in the movie, the judge when sentencing him told him he was seeing his last days of freedom, to which Jah responds that he never ever felt he was free in the first place.

And that’s the somber, depressing tone throughout ALL DAY AND A NIGHT. These men live in a world where there is no hope. They see their fathers, brothers, and friends go to prison. They struggle to find jobs, especially with a prison record, and as JD laments, not only won’t people hire him, but his prison record prevents him from getting food stamps, which only makes his ability to provide for his family even more difficult.

On top of all this, Jah and his friends are hounded by the white police, and when Jah takes a retail job in a shoe store, he’s often not recognized as an employee by the white customers who look at him with a suspicious eye, or worse, who actually ask him what he’s doing carrying shoe boxes, the implication being that they think he’s robbing the place.

ALL DAY AND A NIGHT paints a bleak picture of black life in Oakland which speaks to black life throughout out the nation. Writer/director Joe Robert Cole has made a no frills slice of life movie that offers a hopelessly depressing view of its subject. The dialogue is gritty and raw, the violence shocking but not glorified.

The acting is excellent. Ashton Sanders is perfect as Jah, a young man with hopes and dreams who is also a realist, and as such, falls back on what he believes is real, his fists and acts of violence, things he learned from his father. Sanders of course starred in MOONLIGHT (2016).

Jeffrey Wright plays Jah’s father JD, in a role that for most of the film doesn’t evoke a lot of sympathy, even though his life his hard, because of the harsh way he raises his son Jah. But in a juxtaposition of scenes, we witness Jah being born and JD predicting all the wonderful things he believes his son will do, that he wants to give him a better life than he had, and then we switch to the two men sitting in prison together, where Jah offers to teach his dad gardening, in an effort to form a bond finally and give something back to his father.

Wright has been in a bunch of movies, including playing Beetee in THE HUNGER GAMES films, and he played Felix Leiter opposite Daniel Craig’s James Bond in CASINO ROYALE (2006) and QUANTUM OF SOLACE (2008). He’s slated to play Commissioner Gordon in the upcoming THE BATMAN, which is set for a 2021 release.

Kelly Jenrette has some fine moments as Jah’s mother Delanda, as does Shakira Ja’nai Paye as Jah’s girlfriend Shantaye. I also enjoyed Isaiah John as TQ.

ALL DAY AND A NIGHT paints a disturbing picture of life in the U.S. for black males, but it’s one that goes a long way towards achieving an understanding of why things are the way they are.

As such, it’s required viewing if you really want to know and understand more about the racial divide which currently exists in the United States.

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

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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.

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THE HALF OF IT (2020) – Tender Teen Love Story Emphasizes Romance Over Comedy

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Leah Lewis and Daniel Diemer in THE HALF OF IT (2020).

There have been some very good coming-of-age teen comedy/dramas in recent years, and you can go ahead and add THE HALF OF IT (2020) to the list, a new film by writer/director Alice Wu.

In THE HALF OF IT, nerdy high school senior Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis) lives with her father Edwin (Collin Chou) who’s still traumatized over the death of his wife, Ellie’s mother.  He barely works and spends most of his time watching old movies on television. To help makes ends meet, Ellie runs a business writing essays for her classmates, with her motto being that if they don’t get an A, they don’t have to pay.

When she’s approached by a quiet yet sweet jock Paul Munsky (Daniel Diemer) to write a love letter to the girl he has a crush on, Aster Flores (Alexxis Lemire), Ellie at first refuses, but she changes her mind when Paul offers to pay her more money which she needs to prevent the electricity in her home from being shut off.

Ellie writes the letter, and it works, as Aster responds with a letter of her own, and suddenly Paul is asking Ellie for more help, but further complicating matters is that Ellie also has a crush— on Aster.

What’s a girl to do? In Ellie’s case it’s to keep writing the letters which are really expressions of her own feelings towards Aster, which makes the whole process more and more difficult for her, especially when Paul sees just how hard Ellie is working to help him, a realization that changes the way he feels about her.

THE HALF OF IT is a comedy/romance, but as the movie goes along, the emphasis falls more on the side of romance. The theme of the movie is that love is messy and complicated, and the relationships in this story certainly back up this notion.

Now I liked THE HALF OF IT but I didn’t find the script by Alice Wu quite as sharp as I expected it to be. The comedy aspects, while funny, become less prevalent as the story moves forward, and the film loses some of its edge as it sheds its comedic voice. Much of the comedy early on involves Ellie’s and Paul’s antics to woo Aster, including scenes where they are spying on her, and a dinner date where Paul is fumbling to speak to Aster, so Ellie who’s watching from outside attempts to bail him out by texting her, but the trouble is, Paul can’t see what she’s texting. And while these moments are good for a chuckle, the humor never goes over the top to really make you laugh out loud.

The writing is stronger when focused on romance. There are some tender moments, like when Ellie attempts to teach Paul the art of conversation over a game of ping pong. And there are lots of little moments throughout, but one thing lacking in THE HALF OF IT is a big moment, that scene where the film tugs at your heart strings. There’s a dramatic climax inside a church which comes close to doing this but ultimately falls short.

But the small moments are enjoyable, like one at the film’s conclusion involving running after a train.

The three principal actors are all very good, Leah Lewis as Ellie, Daniel Diemer as Paul, and Alexxis Lemire as Aster, but one thing that works against this movie is that strangely, none of these folks generate much chemistry together. While I appreciated the odd love triangle, I never completely bought how they felt about each other. The love triangle just never came to life.

Director Alice Wu scores highest when covering the tender moments of teens contemplating love. More than just a teen comedy or love story, it’s really about understanding what love is, why people love, and how people love. Wu also uses the art of texting to the film’s advantage. The characters text each other constantly, and we see these texts in real time, and they really add to the effectiveness of the storytelling.

But I still wish the movie had been funnier. I enjoyed BANANA SPLIT (2018) more, a film I reviewed several weeks back, as that teen romance scored much higher on the comedic meter. Likewise, I also enjoyed THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN (2016) and LADY BIRD (2017) more as well.

The movie also doesn’t have a strong sense of place. It takes place in small town America, the typical “nothing happens here” town where the teens are just aching to leave, but the film doesn’t really capture the feel of this small town or where it is located. It’s in Washington, but it could take place just about anywhere there’s a small rural town.

I liked THE HALF OF IT but didn’t love it.

The theme of THE HALF OF IT is based on a Greek story by Aristophanes in which the gods split whole humans in half, and so humans now spend their lives looking for their other half in order to complete themselves. A sweet notion, one that the film returns to throughout its plot.

And THE HALF OF IT is composed of two halves as well, comedy and romance, and like the characters in the story, it too struggles to become something that is whole.

 

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