CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954) revisited

July 26, 2020

Greetings again from the darkness. This is another addition to my “revisited” series where I re-watch and then write about a classic movie. Why are “creature features” so appealing, and why was Universal so good at producing these movies that mesmerized me during childhood (and yes, still to this day)? The Universal Monsters of the 1930’s and 1940’s included such classics as Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Wolf Man, The Invisible Man, and The Phantom of the Opera. Many cinematic iterations of these characters/creatures exist including sequels, remakes and contemporary re-boots, and there is something magical about the mystique and legend and lore behind each of the monsters. By the 1950’s, Universal was looking to revive the genre.

William Alland is credited with the idea for CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON. It’s a twist on the 1740 fantasy classic “Beauty and the Beast” from French novelist Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve. Mr. Alland is the film’s Producer, and years earlier he played reporter Jerry Thompson in Orson Welles’ CITIZEN KANE (1941). Maurice Zimm is credited with the story, and the screenplay was co-written by Harry Essex (IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE, a Ray Bradbury story) and Arthur A Ross (an Oscar winner for BRUBAKER, 1980).

Quite similar to KING KONG, the story from Edgar Wallace and Merian Cooper, this movie follows a scientific expedition down the Amazon River where a prehistoric “Gill-man” (half man, half amphibian) is discovered and captured. The creature seems enraptured by Kay, the fiancé of one of the scientists – much like Kong was drawn to Ann Darrow. There is the expected battle between science and commerce: the value of marine life research vs the chance to make a pot of money. The feuding scientists also have to remain focused on the ongoing concern for the safety of those on the expedition … especially Kay.

Jack Arnold is remembered today as one of the great sci-fi movie directors of the 50’s. His work included THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN (1957), IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE (1953) TARANTULA (1955), and the excellent Audie Murphy western NO NAME ON THE BULLET (1959). He also directed many episodes of some of the top TV shows of the1950’s, 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s. For this one, he deserves a great deal of credit for generating sympathy for the creature, by positioning him, not as the villain, but rather as the victim of a home invasion by the humans. Director Arnold also does a nice job early on of teasing us with footprints and fossils, and letting us hear about the legend, prior to actually seeing the creature.

 For a movie that spends most of its time on a small boat named Rita, the cast is deep and talented. Richard Carlson (LITTLE FOXES, 1941) plays David Reed, the scientist engaged to Kay. Mr. Carlson dreamed of being a playwright, and had many guest starring roles on TV; however, “I Led 3 Lives” was his only starring role in a successful series. It was reportedly Lee Harvey Oswald’s favorite show. Co-starring here was Julie Adams (billed as Julia at the time) as Kay Lawrence, personal favorite of both David and creature. In the film she is stalked by the creature, even while she’s out for a leisurely swim in the Amazon (not recommended). Ms. Adams was a favorite on the cult movie circuit, and she died in 2019 at age 92. Having been crowned Miss Little Rock at age 19, she acted regularly into her 80’s, and even had a role at age 91, the year before she passed.

Richard Denning plays Mark Williams, the money man behind the expedition, and David’s boss and nemesis. He’s the one who sees dollar signs while capturing the creature. Mr. Denning served on a submarine in the US Navy during WWII. He starred with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr in AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER (1957), and then in the late 1960’s took an acting job as Governor on the original “Hawaii Five-0”, since he already lived in Hawaii. Mr. Denning’s wife, actress Evelyn Ankers, was known as “Queen of the Screamers” for her work as damsel in distress in many thrillers in the 1940’s (Wolfman, Frankenstein, Dracula movies).

Other cast members include familiar face Whit Bissell as Dr. Thompson. Mr. Bissell was a frequently working character actor from 1940 -1984 in TV and movies. He had over 300 credits, including I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF (1958) with Michael Landon. Nestor Paiva plays Lucas, the Captain of the Rita, as a kind of Walter Brennan type. Mr. Paiva also appeared in more than 300 projects, and his wife was once employed as personal secretary to Howard Hughes. Antonio Moreno plays Carl Maia. Mr. Moreno had a huge career from 1912 to 1959, and was a rival of Rudolph Valentino for many “Latin lover” roles. The film’s narrator, Art Gilmore, became known for his narration and voice acting in shows such as “Dragnet”, “The Waltons”, “Adam-12”, “The Red Skelton Hour”, “The Roy Rogers Show”, and many more.

Of course everyone who watches the movie wants to know more about the creature. Well, two actors were involved. Ben Chapman, who was a Marine during the Korean War, played the creature on land, while Ricou Browning played the Gill-man we see in the water. Mr. Browning was also the co-creator of the popular TV series “Flipper” (1964-67), and directed the iconic underwater scenes in the James Bond classic THUNDERBALL (1965). Also involved here were a young Henry Mancini as uncredited composer and cinematographer William E Snyder. Mr. Mancini was a 4 time Oscar winner best known for his iconic “Pink Panther” theme, and Mr. Snyder achieved 3 Oscar nominations

 Director Arnold insisted on shooting the film in 3-D, despite its low budget, and over the years, it became quite a cult classic (with its’ own festivals). There is even a scandal associated with the film. For many years, Hollywood make-up legend Bud Westmore took credit for the design of the creature. It took more than 50 years, but Mallory O’Meara’s book, “The Lady from the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Millicent Patrick”, finally allowed Ms. Patrick (pictured, left) to receive due credit for her design work. Sequels to the film included: REVENGE OF THE CREATURE (1955), and THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US (1956), but it was perhaps director Guillermo del Toro’s stunning THE SHAPE OF WATER (2017) winning the Oscar for Best Picture, that brought CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON back into prominence. This allowed a new generation of movie lovers to behold the classic sequence of the creature’s synchronized swimming just below Kay in the murky Amazon water. What a sight!

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AMULET (2020)

July 24, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Horror films tend to serve up relatively simple plot points so that viewers are controlled by emotions rather than deep thinking. The exceptions typically use multiple story lines and atmosphere to build up suspense that often ends with a twist or surprise ending. You might recognize Ramola Garai as an actress from SUFFRAGETTE (2015) or the TV series “The Hour”, and this is her first feature film as writer-director. She definitely chose the latter plot path, and the result is likely a film that will be divisive amongst the horror crowd.

Tomaz (Alec Secereanu, GOD’S OWN COUNTRY) is a former soldier with such a horrid case of PTSD that he must bind his own hands when he sleeps. He’s now homeless and adrift, merely surviving day-to-day. We see flashbacks to his time as a soldier working a checkpoint deep in the forest. The war is never identified, but one day he decides to help a frantic woman (Angelika Papoulia) rather than shoot her (as we assume his orders dictate). This story and their time together pop up periodically through the movie to the point where we start to believe we have an understanding of Tomaz’s background.

While squatting with other homeless folks, the building where they sleep catches fire, and soon after Tomaz is taken in by Sister Claire (Imelda Staunton), a caring nun who gives him a purpose – helping out a woman who is dealing with a sick, elderly mother. Magda (Carla Juri, BLADE RUNNER 2049 seems withdrawn and initially not particularly happy that Tomaz is living in her house. And, oh my, that house. Dilapidated is too kind as a description. So in addition to a bed, and Magda’s cooking, Tomaz begins repairing the house. And while you may have your own renovation stories to tell, did you ever pull an albino bat out of the toilet? Tomaz has.

Magda does not allow Tomaz to see her mother. He (and we) only hear the confrontations and see the bite marks on Magda’s arms. Clearly something is amiss. The flashbacks to Tomaz as a soldier with Miriam make for a stark contrast between the forest and Magda’s creepy house. It’s in the forest where Tomaz finds the titular amulet buried. If you’ve always thought of an amulet as a good luck charm, your definition will likely change.

It’s interesting to watch the shifts in the relationship between Tomaz and Magda, culminating with a night out dancing, where she reminds us a bit of Elaine Benis at the company party … although Magda’s is a pure emotional release, rather than a comedic effect. As you might expect, the film is at its best when Imelda Staunton is on screen. Unfortunately, these moments are too rare. The “old school” gothic graphics for the opening credits do make for a terrific stage-setter. While Magda’s locked-away mother provides some mystery, the tension of the story never really matches the creepy atmosphere of the house. Ms. Garai includes some excellent moments of horror images, but the deliberately slow pace doesn’t deliver a satisfying payoff.

Available OnDemand July 24, 2020

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RELIC (2020)

July 10, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Anyone who has a friend or relative afflicted with dementia knows it’s often like living in a real life horror film. It’s frustrating and claustrophobic and guilt-inducing and above all, frightening. The first feature film from director Natalie Erika James deals with dementia, amongst other topics, in the guise of a horror film. Is it a haunted house movie? Is it a demonic presence movie? Well, yes to both. The script from Ms. James and Christian White blends multiple familiar aspects of horror films into something that ends up quite original.

“Ends up” is the key, because the first two-thirds of the story moves slower than a glacier in the middle of winter. Don’t get me wrong, the film looks great – the house and the atmosphere are ultra-creepy. It’s just that almost nothing happens during that span, and that’s an eternity for set up. Kay (Emily Mortimer) receives a call that a neighbor hasn’t seen her mother in a while. Kay and her 20ish daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote, PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES, 2016) take the drive over the hills and through the woods to grandmother’s house. Their initial measured walk-thru of the house tells them (and us) much. Post-it notes are stuck everywhere, including one that says “Don’t follow it”. Spoiled fruit on the counter, a favorite chair moved, and food for a pet long ago passed, are all indicators that something is off. If that’s not enough, the house that grandma is missing from has mold on the walls and ceiling, and strange locks on doors.

After an unsuccessful search party through the nearby woods, Grandma Edna (Robyn Nevin) reappears with no recollection of where she’s been. Of course, this doesn’t really improve things for anyone. We sense that workaholic Kay and her mother have never really been close, and the same can be said for Kay and Sam. Generational disconnect is on display. And poor Edna has lost her husband, her pet dog, and most of her essence … except for the few moments when she snaps back to lucidity.

Dread and impending doom dominate every scene for the first hour. Kay has dreams of an old cabin from her past, and Edna has an unexplained bruise on her chest.  The stained glass window on the front door is a key, and the sounds coming from the walls are unable to be tracked down. As disoriented as Edna is, the house itself has that impact on us and Sam. Is it the house that’s haunted, or the characters?

The cinematography from Charlie Sarroff plays well off the stillness and unknown, and the sound design and music (Brian Reitzell) work hand-in-hand in establishing the creepy atmosphere. The three actresses are superb, and I especially enjoyed Ms. Nevin and her piercing eyes, as she is known mostly for her live theatre work (and also as Councillor Dillard in The Matrix movies). For her first feature, Ms. James has delivered a high-concept Australian horror/suspense film with a very original (and weird) ending. Others may be a bit higher on the film, but we likely all agree that Ms. James is an intriguing filmmaker.

IFC Films will have this available VOD beginning July 10, 2020

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7500 (2020)

June 18, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. The first airplane hijacking movie I remember seeing was AIRPORT (1970, with Burt Lancaster and Dean Martin). Since then, it’s been a recurring, relatively common cinematic topic blending our natural fears (flying and terrorism) with our love and admiration of heroic people, as seen in such films as EXECUTIVE DECISION (1996) and AIR FORCE ONE (1997).  Writer-Director Patrick Vollrath (first feature length film, Oscar nominated for his excellent 2015 Live Action Short EVERYTHING WILL BE OK/ Alles Wird Gut) and co-w Sanad Halibasic use some of the familiar tropes we’ve come to expect, but do so with a unique twist … the camera never leaves the cockpit (at least until the very end).

Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Tobias Ellis, the co-pilot to Captain Michael Lutzman (Carlo Kitzlinger) on this scheduled short flight from Berlin to Paris. Tobias is an American based in Berlin, living with his Turkish girlfriend Gokce (Aylin Tezel) and their young son. Gokce is also a flight attendant on the flight, and the two have attempted to keep their relationship a secret from their co-workers and employer.

The film opens with a quote usually attributed to Gandhi, “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.” We then get a couple minutes of Berlin Airport security footage as passengers and their carry-ons proceed through security lines. We hear no dialogue or sound. The first actual scene puts us inside the cockpit as the flight crew arrives.

Not long after a smooth takeoff, the terrorists rush the cockpit when the flight attendant is delivering water to the pilots. A fight ensues resulting in injuries, including to both pilots. The crisis quickly escalates as Tobias has to take over flying the plane, while dealing with the pressure of a life-altering dilemma: does he follow protocol and keep the door shut, or does he hopefully save passenger lives by opening the door? The tension mounts as Tobias (and us) views the actions of the terrorist through the small cockpit monitor.

The film’s title is derived from the pilot’s Squawk code of 7500, which notifies the Air Traffic Controller of a hijacking-in-progress. As we learn, these aren’t the usual hijackers. These are extremists who are “avenging the deaths of Muslims.” These terrorists prove they aren’t afraid to kill, and proclaim they are “not afraid to die.” Well, all except one of them. Nineteen year old Vedat (Omid Memar) is the terrorists’ translator, and he’s left frantically trying to make the best of a bad situation, despite no real plan. His clouded-thinking exacerbates the situation as he tries to deal with the police negotiator.

What gives the film appeal is the ‘camera in the cockpit’ trick and the tension of the moment. The space is cramped and claustrophobic. Showing the crew going through the pre-flight checks allows us to get our bearings in an unfamiliar setting. To this non-pilot, the sequence delivers a very authentic look and feel. Spending the entire time in a confined space recalls such films as BURIED (2010), LOCKE (2013), and Hitchcock’s LIFEBOAT (1944). Joseph Gordon-Levitt carries most of the film with his performance, as he’s rarely off camera. His temperament during chaos is fun to watch, but the final act is just a bit overwrought, and some of the good from the first two acts unravels a bit. Still, the close-quarters of a cockpit makes a unique viewing experience, and one that has us asking how we would react in this situation.

Available on Prime Video June 18, 2020

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TAINTED (2020)

June 18, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Filmed in Canada with a mostly Canadian cast by a Canadian director, we are reminded how challenging it is to make a low budget action-thriller. Writer-director Brent Cote delivers a masterclass in genre clichés, yet there’s enough here to keep anyone initially interested around for 90 minutes.

Alan Van Sprang (SAW III) stars as Lance, the rare Neo-Nazi with ties to both the Aryan Brotherhood and Russian mafia who is also the good guy in the story. Lance has recently been released after serving 15 years in prison, and he’s just trying to live out a quiet life by surrounding himself with pictures of beautiful scenery as he dreams of escaping the world he’s known. He clocks in and out at work, and mostly avoids chit-chatting with others, except for his friendly neighbor Anna (Sara Waisglas), who happens to sing at the local lounge where Lance periodically buys a bottle.

Of course, it’s only a matter of time (maybe 10 minutes) before Lance’s old world catches up with his new one. Gregor (John Ralston, READY OR NOT, 2019), his old Russian handler, needs him to kill a few guys that have been infringing on the meth business. So, are you keeping score on clichés? We have an ex-con trying to start over. We have ‘one last job’. We have a girl caught in the middle … there’s always a girl! We have the Aryan Brotherhood versus the Russian mob. Plus, we have the underling trying to earn his stripes. In this case, it’s Gregor’s nephew Malik (Aaron Poole). There’s even an imposing Russian mobster named Vladimir (John Rhys-Davies from two huge franchises – Lord of the Rings and Indiana Jones).

The film begins with a Pope Francis quote about evil and violence, but ironically, the film’s best segments involve neither evil nor violence. Despite his past, Lance is a brooding type who listens to blues music, and serves up inspiring words to Anna. The film offers a new and very quick (though surely indescribably painful) method for removing swastika tattoos from one’s chest, although you should know the violent scenes are few in number and brief in runtime. Gregor’s philosophy towards Lance is that “a fighter needs to fight”, but we actually enjoy Lance’s time with Anna more than the gangster bits. Filmmaker Cote may follow the checklist for this genre, however, we do hand it to him for a twist at the end.

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EXIT PLAN (2020)

June 11, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Euthanasia, ‘Dignity in Death’ or assisted suicide. Whatever you prefer to call it, those against the idea have likely never been in the situation where medical treatment provides no hope. Max Isaksen (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, “Game of Thrones”) is an Insurance Investigator. After his most recent scan, the doctor informs him that his brain tumor is growing and surgery is not an option. His bodily functions will slowly and mercilessly dissolve until death takes him.

Max is a non-descript kind of guy. The usually dashing Coster-Waldau is hidden behind old style wire-rimmed glasses and a mustache. He’s happily married, but can’t bring himself to tell his lovely wife Laerke (Tuva Novotny, ANNIHILATION, 2018) about the tumor or his inner thoughts. He’s frustrated that the special diet and app monitor didn’t ‘save’ him, so now he’s suffering with speech issues, headaches, and other ailments that serve as a reminder of the ultimate outcome.

While working with one of his clients, Max learns about the choice her husband made – Hotel Aurora, which promises “a beautiful ending.” It’s an enterprise that excels in secrecy and efficiency. Their sales pitch is an end to life that fulfills your fantasy. Just know that once you execute the agreement, there is no changing your mind. Instead, you are immediately given a sedative and put on a private plane where you are whisked away to the Danish-modern hotel in a remote, stunning setting. Support work is provided by Kate Ashfield (SHAUN OF THE DEAD, 2004) as the fake mother, and Jan Bijovet as Frank, the director of Aurora.

Denmark-born director Jonas Alexander Arnby and writer Rasmus Birch worked together on WHEN ANIMALS DREAM (2014) and here they explore an existential question about life and death, and whose choice it is. There is also the question of saying goodbye to loved ones and choosing the terms at the end. It’s a somber story that twists reality and dreams, and we can’t help but find some similarities to Yorgos Lanthimos’ THE LOBSTER (2015), although that one was infinitely more bizarre. There are a couple of moments of levity – such as asking for tips on tying a noose, and we do learn that Poppy Tea tastes best with lemon. Speaking of beverages, I lost count at the number of scenes featuring wine, juice, water or some other ingestible liquid. Sometimes it’s a bonding experiencing with a toast, while other times, it’s a biological need. Whatever the reason, taking a sip is somehow tied into the circle of life. As The Eagles sang in “Hotel California”, ‘you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.” Welcome to the Aurora, where we never have to ask, ‘how was your stay?’

Available on VOD June 12, 2020

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BECKY (2020)

June 6, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Actress Lulu Wilson is not yet 15 years old (13 when filming this one), and yet her resume is already quite impressive, featuring roles in such high profile projects as “The Haunting of Hill House” (2018), “Sharp Objects” (2018), and ANNABELLE: CREATION (2017). She’s clearly on the path to stardom, so seizing the lead role in a low budget ultra-violent home invasion flick provides her some fun and shows off her range.

If you are going to have a young teenage girl go full ‘Rambo’, you might as well have her facing off against some neo-Nazi escaped convicts. You might question the casting of Kevin James as the gang leader – a dead-eyed hulk with shaved head, long beard, and swastika tattoos (on his scalp). James typically plays a funny schlub like Paul Blart or a loveable simpleton like his character on “The King of Queens.” Not this time. His Dominick is relentless and lacking all compassion in his quest for the key – a key that we never really learn the purpose of or the reason it’s hidden where it is.

Co-directors and Design School buddies Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion bookend the story with scenes of Becky being interrogated by the Sheriff after all the audacious events. So we know going in that Becky will survive – we just don’t know about the others. Some fancy editing trickery has us bouncing between Becky at school and Dominick in the prison yard. The escape of he and his three buddies is chronicled alongside Becky’s dad (Joel McHale, “Community”) taking her and their two dogs to the family lake house. She’s happy until Kayla (Amanda Brugel, “The Handmaid’s Tale) and her young son Ty (Isiah Rockcliffe) pull up.

Becky is still grieving her beloved mother who died of cancer. We see flashbacks of their final days together. Becky is not ready for her dad to re-marry, and when she envisions the merged family, she bolts from the dinner table into the woods. Soon after Dominick and his boys knock on the door and take everyone else hostage. Becky dons what appears to be a knitted chipmunk cap (it’s her nickname), and arms herself for battle. It doesn’t take long for us to see that this is a rare, ultra-violent gore-fest featuring a rampaging teenage girl. One might compare to Kevin in HOME ALONE, but it’s more similar in tone to READY OR NOT (2019) and THE HUNT (2020).

The script was written by Nick Morris and the husband and wife team of Ruckus Skye and Lane Skye. While there are some memorable moments, we do find ourselves wishing that the film veered a bit more in one direction – either more ominous or more tongue-in-cheek/outlandish. Perhaps a bit of background on Dominick, or some prep work on how Becky turns so quickly from angry teenager to murderous psychotic with an instinct for violence and mayhem. Dominick admits “Becky is a little more than we bargained for”, and she’s probably a bit more than we can accept.

Still, the scenes between Kevin James and Lulu Wilson are enough to keep us watching, and the cinematography from Greta Zozula (the excellent LIGHT FROM LIGHT, 2019) delivers the visuals to keep us cringing. For those who enjoy violence and gore served in bulk, you’ll likely be satisfied.

Now available on RedBox OnDemand

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SHIRLEY (2020)

June 4, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. “Thrillingly awful”. That’s how Rose describes the feeling she had from reading Shirley Jackson’s 1948 short story “The Lottery.” It’s also a likely reaction many will have to watching director Josephine Decker’s (MADELINE’S MADELINE, 2018) mostly fictionalized biography of the author known for her widely diverse novels, short stories and articles. The film is uncomfortable to watch and challenging to process, yet thanks to the performances and fascinating interactions, we remain enthralled the entire time.

As the film opens, Rose (Odessa Young, ASSASINATION NATION, 2018) is on the train reading Jackson’s divisive story. We gain some insight into her personality as she allows a sly grin to cross her face, and then gets frisky with her husband Fred (Logan Lerman) in a train cabin. Soon they arrive at the home of Ms. Jackson (Elisabeth Moss) and her husband Stanley Edgar Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg), a professor and literary critic. Shirley is suffering through a bout of depression brought on by writer’s block, and though she’s initially against the young couple staying with them, she slowly finds a use for Rose. It doesn’t take long for us to realize everyone here wants something from the others. Stanley is worried about Shirley’s mental stability, so he convinces Rose to take on the domestic chores. Fred hopes Stanley will bless his thesis so that Bennington College will hire him. Stanley seizes on Fred’s ambition by having him take over some of his teaching load. Rose endures some harshness from Shirley, but the two ladies end up with an awkward bond which has Rose serving as a quasi-muse for Shirley’s new novel.

The new novel is “Hangsaman”, which Shirley actually wrote years before this story is set. It’s about the disappearance of a college student named Paula, and it’s at this point where the visions and/or projections begin. Things get a bit hazy for us … and for Rose. At times, Shirley is downright creepy. Are we watching something supernatural?  Is she a good with or a bad witch … or something else altogether? At times, Shirley appears to be unraveling – and possibly bringing Rose down with her. But then we hear another of the razor sharp verbal sparring matches between Shirley and Stanley. These are works of art. Stanley needling her just enough to inspire more writing. Shirley fires off cutting remarks as brutal as any wounds a knife fight might cause. It’s an advanced course in the creative mind vs the pompous academic. Stanley understands that allowing her to become unhinged is all part of the process, and will likely lead to her best work.

Multiple dynamics between characters creates chaos for viewers. Shirley and Stanley have their gamesmanship, while Shirley and Rose are going down an entirely different twisted path. And then there is odd relationship between pregnant Rose and husband Fred, and again between Fred and Stanley. And we haven’t even gotten to what the outside world thinks of Shirley, and how Stanley’s disclosed infidelities keep a fire burning inside Shirley, despite her humiliation. There is a lot to take in – domestic life in the era of “little wifey”, the strains of starting and maintaining a career, and the inner-demons of the creative mind. One of the key elements that sticks out is how each character is striving desperately to establish their own identity, and given the times, this should be much easier for the men.

Sarah Gubbins’ first feature film screenplay is based on the 2014 novel “Shirley” by Susan Scarf Merrell. Again, this is mostly fiction, albeit with nuggets of Shirley Jackson’s real life mixed in. Of course Shirley’s and Stanley’s four kids are nowhere to be found, allowing for more focus on the contrasting featured couples. In fact, Ms. Young’s Rose is the perfect “opposite” for Ms. Moss’ Shirley, both in looks and demeanor. It’s impossible to miss the similarities between this and director Mike Nichols’ classic WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? (1966) starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. That one had more yelling, but this one cuts just as deeply. One of the best ever onscreen jabs occurs when Stanley sourly describes Fred’s thesis as “terrifically competent”, and then adds in a disgusted tone, “There’s no excuse for that.”

Special notice should be made for the music and cinematography. Composer Tamar-kali (MUDBOUND, 2017) pierces us with music often limited to plucks of cello and/or piano, adding a near-horror element to the frightening interactions we are watching. And with most of the film taking place in the creaky, book-filled house, cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grovlen (WENDY, 2020 and VICTORIA, 2015) expertly captures the harrowing glares of Shirley and the bemused smirks of Stanley in close quarters. The camera work adds to the constant immediacy of each moment.

Shirley Jackson’s most famous full-length work was “The Haunting of Hill House” (1959), which was adapted into director Robert Wise’s 1963 film THE HAUNTING, as well as another version in 1999. Most recently, it was the source material for the very popular Netflix limited series in 2018. Ms. Jackson did suffer with anxiety issues and agoraphobia, and her writing influenced many who came along later. While Mr. Lerman is a bit short-changed, the other three leads are superb in this film that likely will have very little appeal to the masses … you know … those people who can’t find pleasure in almost two hours of misery and a head-scratching ending. The end result is a story about Shirley written in a manner that we can envision it as one of Shirley’s own.

Neon will release SHIRLEY on Hulu, VOD, Virtual Cinemas and participating Drive-Ins June 5th, 2020

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THE VAST OF NIGHT (2020)

May 28, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. “There’s something in the sky.” We’ve heard the line, or something similar, in most every UFO/Alien invasion film for the past 70 years. However, while employing a few conventional tropes of the genre, the brilliant directorial debut from Andrew Patterson is somehow simultaneously familiar and inventive. The director seems to thrive on serving up a story that proceeds as expected, with an innovative style that marks a true visionary.

We open on an early model television set as an exceptional Rod Serling impersonator introduces ‘Paradox Theater’, a riff on the classic series “The Twilight Zone.” Tonight’s episode is “The Vast of Night.” The black & white picture dissolves into color and we find ourselves in the late 1950’s outside the Cayuga, New Mexico high school gymnasium. A terrific opening sequence, filled with rapid-fire and overlapping dialogue, introduces us to Everett (Jake Horowitz) and Fay (Sierra McCormick). Everett arrogantly struts through the venue as he assists with the electrical issue, pranks the band’s trombone player, and begins chatting with Fay about her new tape recorder.

The two characters remain on the move through the gym and back out into the parking lot, where Everett tutors Fay on the basics of recording interviews. See, Everett is the evening DJ at WOTW, the local radio station, and director Patterson uses their journey through the gym and parking lot, and back into town, to not just introduce us to Everett and Fay, but also give us a feel for the town and its people. As Everett heads to the station for his shift, Fay resumes her evening job as the switchboard operator. In yet another terrific sequence, we watch as Fay handles the calls and the bizarre ‘sound’ she hears. Again she enlists Everett’s help and he plays the sound over the radio. This elicits a call from Billy (Bruce Davis), who recognizes the sound from his days on a secret military mission, and from a shut-in elderly lady (Dallas’ own Gail Cronauer) who wants to tell her creepy story directly to Everett.

The fun here comes not so much from the story, but rather HOW it’s told and how it’s performed by Mr. Horowitz and Ms. McCormick, who both wreak of energy and youthful spirit. The latter is exceptional with her giddy and nervous approach as eager Fay, while donning her cat-eye spectacles. She is mesmerizing in a 10 minute uncut shot of her executing the switchboard. Director Patterson and cinematographer M.I. Littin-Menz (RESISTANCE, 2020) employ long takes a few times, and none is more breath-taking than when they take us through town, into the basketball game, out the gymnasium window and back to the radio station. I was left wondering how they pulled it off, yet impressed at how it visually informed us that the town was almost deserted during the big game.

Not only is this director Patterson’s first film, it’s also the first screenplay from co-writers James Montague and Craig W Sanger. They have worked together to capture the feel and atmosphere of the era in the sets, the costumes, the Soviet Union concerns, and the attention to UFOs and aliens. JJ Abrams’ SUPER 8 (2011) may be the closest comparison, and there’s also bits of Spielberg’s CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977), “The X-Files”, and even George Lucas’ AMERICAN GRAFFITI. Rarely does a first time director burst on the scene with such craftsmanship and innovative vision, and it wouldn’t be surprising to find Mr. Patterson hired for a significantly higher budget movie project very soon. This one is pure joy for us movie lovers who thrive on creative approaches … from “a realm between clandestine and forgotten.”

Available on Amazon Prime Video May 29, 2020

watch the trailer:


TORPEDO: U-235 (2020)

May 18, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. “Desperate times, desperate measures” is a phrase that dates back to ancient Greek physician Hippocrates (he of the Hippocratic Oath), and has been applied in many and varied situations since … war strategy being one of the most common. We hear the phrase a couple of times in the War Room during an early scene in the feature film directorial debut of writer-director Sven Huybrechts submarine movie. The term “submarine movie” is used with the utmost respect, as I’m a huge fan of the sub-genre.

Opening with a well-orchestrated attack on Nazi soldiers, we are soon in the midst of a group of resistance fighters – a rag tag bunch committed to wiping out as many Nazis as possible. In the War Room scene, this group is referred to as “The Bad Eggs”, and everyone from all sides seems to want them stopped. However, there is a problem – this group is made up of the only ones crazy enough to accept the current ‘suicide’ mission: delivering a Uranium filled submarine from the Belgian Congo to the United States, where the cargo will be used for the Manhattan Project.

The cast is excellent, led by the ongoing conflict between two outstanding and renowned leads: Belgian actor Koen De Bouw as Nazi-hater Stan, and German actor Thure Riefenstein as captured U-Boat Captain Franz Jager. Co-writers Huybrechts and Johan Horemans effectively use the dangers and claustrophobia of the submarine, and are truly expert in their pitting Stan against Jager. Stan’s beautiful (and sharpshooter) daughter Nadine (Ella-June Henrard) is also on the mission, but it’s Stan’s tragic backstory (which we see in tension-filled flashbacks) that have filled him with a lust for revenge and over-protectiveness.

Training for submarine crews typically lasts a year, and this group of misfits has only three weeks to prepare. Some of the early soundtrack reminds of the iconic Elmer Bernstein theme to THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, which comes across a bit misplaced, but that’s a minor quibble for a film that gets most everything else right – except for a too-good-to-be-true sequence near the end. Along the way, we see vivid images of the brutality and cruelty of Nazis, which helps us understand why all of these folks are so committed to the mission.

Working with a low budget, the film still manages to deliver the danger and tense situations we expect from a submarine during WWII. There is even a sub vs sub battle for some underwater action. The lineup of other worthy submarine movies over the years include: Jules Verne’s 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA (1954), THE ENEMY BELOW (1957) with Robert Mitchum, RUN SILENT, RUN DEEP (1958) with Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster, ICE STATION ZEBRA (1968)  based on the Alistair MacLean novel, the nerve-rattling DAS BOOT (1981) from Werner Herzog, THE ABYSS (1989) from James Cameron, THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER (1990) from Tom Clancy’s novel starring Sean Connery, CRIMSON TIDE (1995) pitting Denzel Washington against Gene Hackman, U-571 (2000) with the great Thomas Kretschmann, and BLACK SEA (2014) with Jude Law. And let’s not forget the 1968 classic featuring The Beatles animated, YELLOW SUBMARIINE.

This latest begins in 1941 and the final scene takes place on August 6, 1945. Huybrechts’s film could be described as a cross between INGLORIOUS BASTERDS and DAS BOOT, and it includes plenty of material for conversation on race, religion, nationality, and duty.

Available VOD beginning May 19, 2020

watch the trailer: