Holiday seasons, they almost here.

Not even Halloween yet, you say. You’re right. I’m terrible, I know. Because the holiday I mean isn’t Halloween. Or Thanksgiving. No, it’s Christmas. Or Hanukkah.

Anyway, if you look at the bottom of this post (assuming I did it right), you’ll see an Amazon link. (It’s buried under words about helping the site grow.) It’s not just an Amazon link, though, no sir! If you click on that link and then buy something from Amazon – doesn’t matter what – then this site gets a teeny percentage!

And I’ll guarantee this – 100% of the proceeds, should there be any, will go to maintaining this blog and not at all to buying a nice big-screen, 3D TV.

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Old Timers’ Review: The Black Vampire (1953)

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Image from

I saw a stunning movie last night. El Vampiro Negro, an Argintinian film whose title translates as The Black Vampire, is a remake of Fritz Lang’s legendary M, starring Peter Lorre as a child killer. But this is no shot-for-shot remake. The acting is astonishing on all fronts, and the plot is tight and fraught with dread. And the look! Although the movie was released in 1953 (and almost never seen in the U.S.A.), a bit past the classic noir era, there’s a distinct look of those gritty dramas afoot.

Teodoro Ulber (Nathan Pinzon), known as The Professor, is on trial for murder as the movie begins. After his attorney asks for confinement to a mental institution and the prosecution asks for the death penalty, a flashback reveals how Ulber made it to this point. Outside a dance hall, a short, portly figure drags the body of a little girl from a worn sack and throws it down a sewage shaft. The next day, a homeless man, deep within the sewer tunnels of the city, comes across the body. He alerts the police, who (of course) toss him in jail as a possible suspect, and the manhunt is on.

But Ulber’s actions didn’t go unseen. Through window in the basement of the dance hall, a young performer named Amalia (Olga Zubarry) spies the wretched little man. But she keeps quiet, at the behest of the club’s unscrupulous owner. The owner fears he’d come under too-close scrutiny, and Amalia fears that she’ll receive unwanted publicity – for, although she’s a dancer of ill repute (!), she does have a sweet young daughter whom she’s been able to send to a private school, at her own great sacrifice.

What’s more, one of Amalia’s coworkers, Cora (Nelly Panizza) is actually acquaintances with Ulber, who awkwardly pitches woo at Cora. Without realizing that Ulber is indeed the Black Vampire, Cora and Amalia aid in his escape from the police (led by prosecutor Bernar, played by Roberto Escalada), which only opens up the possibility of more children being murdered.

This is by no means a gory film. In fact, there’s almost no blood at all (and none anywhere near a child). But the harsh camera of Anibal Gonzalez Paz tells a story all on its own: the desperate vulnerability of Ulber, the jaded countenance of Bernar, the shadowy streets and tunnels and back alleys of the city. Gonzalez Paz artfully direct the viewer’s attention not to what is present but to what may be coming just around the bend.

The movie premiered in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in October 1953 but didn’t make it over to the States until January 2014. 61 years! 61 years before this masterful work by Roman Vinoly Barreto could be seen (with subtitles) over here, and more’s the pity. El Vampiro Negro is a tremendous accomplishment that’s not to be missed.

Huge thanks to the Film Noir Foundation and to the AFI Silver Theatre in Silver Spring, Maryland for making this screening possible!

El Vampiro Nego: ***1/2

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Review #770: Housebound (***)

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Yet another movie from the Spooky Movie International Horror Film Festival – Housebound! Read about this terrific thriller at The Critical Critics!
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Old Timers’ Review: Side Street (1949)

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Anthony Mann’s Side Street, another Farley Granger noir, is about a young man who steals money with the best of intentions, only to see his one transgression turn into an avalanche of ever-constricting situations.

Granger is Joe Norson, a part-time letter carrier in New York with a pregnant wife at home. Delivering to a law office, Joe sees a couple of hundred-dollar bills fall to the floor. The dropper gives young Joe a glare and tells him to beat it. A day or so later, Joe notices that the office is temporarily vacant. He busts open a nearby file cabinet and retrieves wads of cash. It’s more than the $200 he thought he was going to snag – it’s more than $30,000. And it’s not exactly clean money.

Returning to the scene to give back the money doesn’t work (the bad guys think he may be trying to lure them to the cops). And when people connected with the law office start getting themselves strangled, Joe finds himself neck deep in some serious problems. Can he get out of New York? What will become of his wife Ellen (Cathy O’Donnell) and their newborn? Why are the cops involved, anyway?

A solid supporting cast helps: James Craig, Paul Harvey, Jean Hagen (as a sultry lounge singer), Adele Jurgens (as a blackmailer). Not people on whom you’d want to turn your back, even if they were holding an infant and a puppy. They’d probably throw both at you, anyway, then shoot all three of you.

The best comes last, a harrowing car chase around New York; a cab pursued by the cops. That the cab is also carrying a newly dead person, right there in the back seat, makes the ride all the more terrifying. And because this is a noir film, chances are pretty good it won’t end well for most of the characters. Side Street is an excellent example of a film noir, with the usual stark photography, dismal tone, sense of hopelessness, and not-exactly-benign characters.

Side Street: ***

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Review #769 – The Shower (**1/2)

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Heading to a baby shower in the near future? Uh…

New review posted on The Critical Critics!

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Review: They Live by Night (1948)

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In Nicholas Ray’s seminal crime drama They Live by Night, injured bank robber Bowie (Farley Granger) falls for the independent young rancher’s daughter Keechie (Cathy O’Donnell), and the two use Bowie’s ill-gotten gains to distance themselves from the authorities and the rest of Bowie’s gang.

Bowie is the gang’s wheelman, and when he’s injured during a getaway, it’s his newfound companion Keechie who gets to nurse him back to health while the others – Chickamaw (Howard da Silva) and T-Dub (Jay C. Flippen) – make themselves scarce. Keechie doesn’t think much of her patient and his lifestyle. And make no mistake, Bowie feels little shame in his role, which has included murder. No bright-eyed neophyte, he. But there’s something about Keechie, her deliberate movements, her slinky smile, that really appeals to Bowie, and the two slowly fall for each other.

The first shot by Ray (in his directorial debut) is an early helicopter angle, as the bad boys speed down a rural road as they escape from jail. In fact, it’s the first helicopter action shot, as previous uses of the vehicle were simply to shoot landscapes to set a scene. In any event, a tire is blown and the gang heads toward a farmhouse, where they meet farmer Mobley (Will Wright) and his daughter Keechie. There’s chemistry just dripping between Granger and O’Donnell; both seem more naive than they truly are, and although each pretends to dislike the other, it’s not long before them old hormones come a-knocking, although not too much, because this is 1948, after all, and the movie’s set some 15 years earlier. On the run they go!

Ray’s first feature is strikingly shot. Aside from that iconic opening helicopter shot, there’s also a great little scene of the gang pulling off a job – from Bowie’s perspective as the driver. A bystander tries to engage Bowie in conversation just as T-Dub and Chickamaw run out of the building, earning him a rough shove to the face. That’s noir film for you. Watch your face!

O’Donnell and Granger work very well together (no surprise, since the latter recommended the former for the role), although I think most of the appeal comes from O’Donnell, who turns in a graceful, passionate, and unique performance as the trusting Keechie. Granger, appearing in only his third film (with Rope on the horizon) was never really that good of an actor, and so many of his lines are delivered in an almost nonchalant monotone that you wonder if some lessons weren’t in his immediate future. At least no one can accuse him of hamming it up.

And do you know who produced this masterpiece? None other than the great John Houseman, who most of us remember from his old Smith-Barney commercials but who was also one of Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre performers back in the day. The man knew talent, and he picked Nicholas Ray to direct without input from the studio. It’s to Houseman’s credit that the movie’s as good as it is – which is to say, a true noir classic. There may not be a Bonnie and Clyde ending, but we’re not talking about a Disney finale, either. Bonus cameo – the jeweler who sells Bowie a watch is played by none other than Will Lee. Yes, the same Will Lee who would go on to play Mr. Hooper on Sesame Street.

They Live by Night: ***1/2

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Review: Ghost of Frankenstein (1942)

He just wants to be loved. And given a new brain. And maybe some dental work. Image from

He just wants to be loved. And given a new brain. And maybe some dental work. Image from

Here we go again. In the grand tradition of Frankenstein (1931), Bride of Frankenstein (1935), and Son of Frankenstein (1939) comes the fourth in Universal’s series. This time around, the crazy doctor of the title is Ludwig (Sir Cedric Hardwicke), the brother of Basil Rathbone’s character in Son of and the (other) son of Colin Clive’s original Dr. Frankenstein in the original and Bride of movies.

A generation or so has passed since the villagers last destroyed the Monster in a sulphur pit. But, of course, he’s only mostly dead, and his old pal Ygor (Bela Lugosi) holds vigil outside the old Frankenstein castle, hoping the creature will revive himself. At the same time, angry villagers are mobilizing; they decide that there’s a Frankenstein curse that’s prohibiting their crops from growing and businesses outside of town (named after Frankenstein, for some reason) are refusing to deal with them. The curse must be broken, so off the villagers go to burn down the castle. The explosion indeed wakes up the preserved Monster, and he’s reunited with his old pal Ygor.

There’s another Frankenstein a village or so away, as the crow flies – Ludwig. Ludwig, who runs an insane asylum out of his house, also works for the police; when the Monster is captured and put on trial, the good doctor is called in to deal with the situation. But Ygor, he’s a cunning sort, and he persuades Ludwig to get the Monster remanded to Ludwig’s own castle so that Dr. Frankenstein can work on giving the Monster a nice, new brain. (There appears to be some brain damage for the big guy; he can’t speak, as he could – haltingly – in previous films, and simple logic isn’t his forte.) Ygor, he of the broken neck from being ineptly hanged, wants his own brain to be placed in the creature’s cranium.

The setting is as eerie and stark as in other Universal monster movies. Hidden rooms, long staircases, vaulted ceilings – it’s a realtor’s dream. Ludwig also has a grown daughter Elsa (Evelyn Ankers, another Universal staple), who’s probably named after Elsa Lanchester, who starred in Bride of Frankenstein. Elsa’s boyfriend is Erik Ernst (Ralph Bellamy), who’s stuck between the mob rule of the town and his fondness of the Frankensteins. Lionel Atwill plays one of Dr. Frankenstein’s doctor associates. Lon Chaney, Jr., by the way, grunts his way around a macabre set as the Monster itself.

For a movie that’s the fourth in a series, Ghost of Frankenstein (so named, perhaps, because the ghost of the original Doctor appears) is competently acted, directed, and shot. No, more than that, it’s expertly done. There’s some overacting (Ankers), to be sure, but overall it’s a very well realized hidden gem among Universal’s many horror movies of the early 20th century.

Ghost of Frankenstein: ***

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Review #768 – Annabelle (**)

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A large vintage doll, possessed by a demon bent on reaping a fresh new soul, brings death and disorder to a young married couple in the early 1970s. The scares and jolts seen in its predecessor, The Conjuring, aren’t nearly as prevalent this time around, to the point where one begins to relax or even doze off.

Annabelle is about the events leading up to the events that lead up to those in The Conjuring. Mia and John Gordon (Annabelle Wallis and Ward Horton) are about to be parents. John is harried by his stressful life as a med student, and to make up for aloof attitude he locates and purchases an old, large doll for his wife, who’s been searching for the doll for years. But this fairly tale story is quickly shattered when, in the middle of the night, the Gordons are attacked by a crazed duo who injure the pregnant Mia before themselves dying by bullet or knife. One of the attackers is the estranged daughter of the Gordons’ neighbors, the Higgins, who have also been slaughtered. The Gordons move to a new place, as would we all.

Confined to bed rest for the final month of her pregnancy, Mia experiences some strange happenings. She hears whispers. She sees things. She nearly dies in a kitchen fire. It’s the doll, I tell you – it’s always something material. How else would a demon house itself while waiting for a soul to take? It’s just logic. In any event, John and Mia enlist the help of their local priest, Father Perez (Tony Amendola), who is himself badly injured when he attempts to take the doll into his church for safekeeping. Yes, it’s clear to all that demons are at work here.

While watching this, I waited and wondered for the good stuff to come, the genuine scares. The first hour or so contains little of what might be considered a scare. It’s not that the frights are inexperly presented, it’s that there aren’t any to speak of. A lot of exposition appears instead. I began to hope that this would all be a setup for a cathartic finale.

Mia becomes friends with a local bookstore owner, Evelyn (Alfre Woodward), who also lives in the Gordons’ apartment complex. Coincidentally, Evelyn had lost a child following an auto accident for which Evelyn feels plenty of guilt. This becomes important during the finale, which is over almost before you know it’s begun.

There’s some nifty sleight of hand in Annabelle, but since everyone in the movie (as well as the audience) agrees wholeheartedly that the demon does exist and that Mia isn’t imagining things, there’s no real suspense to be found. Even husband John goes along with things eventually. Such an understanding husband. Because everyone knows in their heart that these weird things are actually happening, there’s no ambiguity about whether Mia is losing her mind. She’s not.

Short on horror and long on talk, Annabelle is a medium-low heat setting on a gas grill. Your food will get cooked eventually, but you may fall asleep waiting for it to come to its inevitable conclusion.

Annabelle: **

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Review: Maniac (1934)

Yep, mad scientist. Or Henry Kissinger, whichever. Image from

Yep, mad scientist. Or Henry Kissinger, whichever. Image from

This is one of those cheapie “horror” movies that can be good for a few laughs, but nothing more. It’s another Frankenstein-esque plot, with stereotypical mad scientist Dr. Meirschultz (Horace B. Carpenter) claiming to be able to revive recently dead folks with a mere injection. Yes, no more of waiting for a huge thunderstorm to get enough electricity to jolt a corpse! Just one hypo is all you need.

The good doctor is assisted by a former vaudevillian named Don Maxwell (William Woods) who does impressions. Not of famous people, mind you, but of people like the guards at a mortuary – the better for the duo to sneak in an snag themselves a body. They grab an alluring young woman who just committed suicide and revive her, but the woman spends most of the rest of the movie offscreen, for some reason.

Maxwell, who’s also on the lam from the cops, decides to impersonate the doctor and take over the experiments, at which point wacky hijinks ensue. At least I assume they did, given the poor lighting and unintelligible voices.

Interestingly enough, there’s brief nudity. This would be before the infamous Hays Code that prohibited just about everything – at least until the sixties or so.

Maniac, also known as Sex Maniac, isn’t worth your time. Also, if spot the name “Phyllis Diller” in the cast, rest assured that it’s not that Phyllis Diller.

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767 – Carrie (***)

This is not someone you want to anger. Image from

This is not someone you want to anger. Image from

Stephen King’s 1974 novel has been filmed three times so far. I didn’t catch the 2002 cable version, but I can compare the 1976 theatrical release with last year’s offering from director Kim Peirce (Boys Don’t Cry), and my feeling is that the newbie acquits itself quite well.

You’re probably familiar with the plot, since the book has sold millions of copies worldwide. A teenage girl, living with her religious-zealot mother and suffering the scorn of the cool kids at school, discovers she has telekinetic powers that she then uses to exact her revenge for her years of mistreatment. This time, our titular protagonist is played by Chloe Grace Moretz (Kick-Ass), who looks like Amanda Seyfried’s slightly younger sister. Carrie has always been viewed as an outsider/freak by most of the school, but things go really far south in the very first scene, when the poor girl gets her first menstrual period – in the middle of the shower in the girls’ locker room. This comes as a major surprise, since her mother (Julianne Moore) has never brought up the subject before. Think the other girls are sympathetic? Brother, you don’t know high school girls.

After the girls have had their fun at Carrie’s expense, their gym teacher Mrs. Desjardin (Judy Greer) confronts them. As their cheerleader coach, she informs them that they can either run laps (and plenty of them) or be suspended from school for their part in the harassment. Most of the girls comply, because suspension means no prom, and no prom to a high school girl is unthinkable. One girl who doesn’t comply is Chris Hargensen (Portia Doubleday, Youth in Revolt), who has a boyfriend from a different, rougher high school and who is probably from the wrong side of the tracks to begin with. Chris rebels and is consequently suspended, which means no prom for her. Where do you think she places the blame for her situation? Poor Carrie White.

Another partipant in the hazing incident is Sue Snell (Gabriella Wilde), who feels genuinely guilty and ashamed about her part; this leads her to ask her BMOC boyfriend Tommy Ross (Ansel Elgort) to take Carrie to the prom instead of Sue. Tommy needs to be talked into it, but in the end it’s what his girl wants. But things don’t go as he, Sue, or Carrie plan.

Chris and Sue, two close friends, react quite differently to their punishments (did I mention that video from the locker room was later posted on YouTube?). Sue, immediately remorseful, decides that not only should she not go to prom, as punishment, she should convince her beloved Tommy to take the tormented Carrie in her stead. Sue, hostile and vindictive, is meanwhile out for revenge, perhaps at any cost.

A minor quibble might be Moretz. Not her acting, mind you (or that of most of the cast), but rather her appearance; Moretz seems to me to be too attractive for the role of Carrie White. At no point here does Carrie look like an ugly duckling, even before she becomes a swan. Sissy Spacek, in the 1976 version, had more of that plain-Jane look than Moretz can pull off. Still, at least Moretz was still a teenager when this movie was made. Even Doubleday, as Chris, is 26.

I found Carrie to be appropriately terrifying, much as King probably imagined it when he originally put words to pen. The denouement is spectacularly staged, as are the culimation of the prom and Carrie’s interactions with her fanatical mother. The telekinesis scenes are fantastic, a step up from the ’76 version. And there’s lots of blood. Sure, most of it’s came from a pig, but it’s blood nonetheless.

Carrie: ***

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Review: Antichrist (2009)

I wouldn’t say that Lars von Trier’s Antichrist is hard to watch, but early on there’s some porn-level graphic sex and later on there’s genital mutilation. This just means that this film, like most of von Trier’s movies, is an acquired taste. Nothing, it seems, is verboten. It’s not really for the faint of heart.

An anonymous couple, played by Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg, suffer the loss of their toddler, who’s fallen out a window a few stories up. Each grieves in his own manner, with the woman leaning on drugs prescribed by a psychiatrist and the man holding it all in. Finally, they head to a lakeside cabin, just the two of them, in order to best work through their pain. And then things get weird.

It’s not a standard horror film, despite the remote setting, but it’s explicitly violent. von Trier received quite a bit of criticism for his perceived misogyny displayed here, but I’ve come to believe that the film is more misanthropic than anything else. There’s a subplot moving within the story’s firmament about women from centuries past who were believed to be actual witches, but the connection to the woman is teased out to us. In the end, that subplot behaves as filler that ambiguously explains the cause of the previous 90 minutes of carnage.

Some scenes demand close attention. The man’s earnest attention to his wife’s troubles seem to hide his own panic and terror. He tries valiantly to guide his wife back to sanity, but he’s in over his head. There’s something about their cabin, too; named Eden, it seems to be both the source of and the answer to all of their problems. Perhaps because something intense happened there the previous summer when the woman visited with the couple’s son.

It’s safe to say that Antichrist is a gruesome mind trip. There’s deep symbolism afoot, sometimes with subtlety in the form of woodland creatures and other times a lot more bluntly, as in blunt instrument. A psychological horror film, Antichrist is a fine road-not-taken, sublime horror.

Antichrist: ***

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766 – Gone Girl (**)

Like most husbands who live off their wealthy wives, Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) isn’t a terribly likeable guy. He helps run a bar (paid for by his wife) and alternately plays video games and watches reality television. His marriage to Amy (Rosamund Pike) isn’t going so well, after five years; from Nick’s perspective, living under the thumb of his trust-fund wife is more than just a chore, it’s excruciating. So it’s understandable why, when it appears that Amy has been murdered in their home, Nick would be the prime suspect.

Image from

Image from

In David Fincher’s Gone Girl, the mystery appears to be not whodunit but rather why they did it and what the endgame really is. It’s a little long (143 minutes) and has at least one too many denouements; just when you believe you have a vague handle on how things might go, the movie pivots elsewhere. Now, I’m one of those people who likes to find someone in the movie who has a strong personality, not necessarily a good guy but at least someone with whom I may be able to sympathize (to some degree) or to whom I can relate. I didn’t find that to be the case in this film. Let me put it this way – Nick is an arrogant, self-pitying jerk, and Amy is a delusional sociopath. With no rooting interest and no discernable satisfying ending, watching the movie was a tedious experience.

Nick is questioned by Detective Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens), and a missing-persons report is immediately followed. Nick’s not sure whether his wife has friends, or what her blood type is, or what she does during the day, all of which cast doubt on his innocence. A press conference is held. A hotline is set up. A midnight vigil is held. All standard operating procedure for a missing-persons case that’s less than a day old. But with a real lack of other suspects or motives, the court of public opinion shortly turns against Nick. He’s no longer the grieving husband (and son-in-law) but the conniving gold digger with all the necessary reasons for orchestrating his wife’s demise. Plus, he has this attitude that oscillates between smug and defensive.

The first half of the movie seems rather inert; the audience ping pongs between believing Nick is a villain. There are multiple reasons that indicate he’s not all that innocent, although the bottom line is that he’s just not a nice guy, and that’s reason enough for the cable-TV crowd. After the police turn on Nick as well, a Nancy Grace impressionist (Missi Pyle) calls for his head. Nick turns to high-powered attorney Tanner Bolt (Tyler Perry), who advises him to appear on the show of an Oprah Winfrey copycat (Sela Ward). Affleck, through Nick, then turns in his best acting job while pretending to show contrition and humility on the television show.

Gone Girl first asks us to imagine that Nick is blameless, planting the idea that the attack was staged, and then asks us to believe that Amy is just an innocent naif who’s on the run from an abusive husband, and then asks us to pity Nick, and then Amy, and so on. The entire movie, although based on a book by Gillian Flynn (who also wrote the screenplay), feels like a Lifetime movie that is itself ripped from tabloid headlines.

We do finally get Amy’s side of the story, but her situation and intention aren’t terribly compelling. She’s a meticulous planner, to the point where, in voiceover, she explains in minute detail every step in her scheme. The amount of organization is to be admired – except that later in the movie, she makes a mistake that would have been easily prevented by even a modicum of advance thinking. I found it hard to believe that someone who had gone to such great lengths to achieve her goal would be undone so effortlessly.

Ben Affleck has played so many arrogant, smug, condescending jerks in his career that it’s hard to imagine him as a vulnerable, mild-mannered guy. In the hands of a more capable actor, the role of Nick Dunne may have become much more nuanced, but instead we get a colorless, stereotypical performance by one of Hollywood’s top leading men. It’s a true shame, because he’s surrounded by excellent performances – particularly by Carrie Coon, who plays his acerbic sister Margo, and Dickens. Both women turn make their characters layered, thoughful, and ultimately intriguing. This contrasts sharply with Affleck’s dismissive, distant style.

This normally would be the kind of movie I’d love. The premise asks the question of what has happened to Amy Dunne. A mystery is afoot! But this mystery is solved within the first third of the movie, and the remainder of the film is endless filler. We’re teased several times in the final third that this could finally be it, the ending. But it’s not. It never is. Even the ending isn’t an ending. According to reports, Flynn changed the ending of the script so that readers of the book wouldn’t know what was coming. I’m not sure that ploy works, because there is no finale to speak of. There is no twist, just a longer piece of twine.

Gone Girl: **

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765 – Blue Ruin (***)

Eve Plumb, everybody!  Image from

Eve Plumb, everybody! Image from

A bearded, disheveled, and apparently homeless young man wanders a seaside town, picking up scrap metal from the beach and scavenging for food in Dumpsters. When a kindly cop informs him that the murderer of his parents has been released from prison, the young man heads back to his hometown to confront the killer. But things really don’t go as expected.

Blue Ruin is mostly a quick, dirty thriller, but it’s also a character study. Dwight Evans (Macon Blair) isn’t exactly conflicted about his plan, but he’s an amateur assassin at best. It helps the story that Dwight sort of looks like a combination of Thomas Lennon and John Cusack, deceptively small and naive. And perhaps a bit unstable, too. Dwight drives his beat-up rust bucket back home, spies on the nefarious Wade Cleland as he leaves prison, and tails him to a bar. But disposing of Wade won’t close any circuits; instead, the web becomes a bit more tangled, the terrain more murky.

This is an odyssey, one man’s quest for vengeance, but set in a world in which simply finding the bad guy and eliminating him isn’t realistic. A lot of things go wrong for poor Dwight, but he’s resourceful enough to recalibrate on the fly. Blair is really terrific as Dwight, doing what most of us would at least contemplate doing. His actions may not be pure, but his reasoning and impetus are sound. It’s almost as if Dwight carries out his plan in order to soothe his soul. Dwight is also trying to protect his estranged sister (Amy Hargreaves) and her daughters, but the Cleland family, in the middle of Nowheresville, certainly isn’t going to sit idly by and let Dwight even up the score.

The atmosphere is relentlessly grim, almost overpowering in its intensity. Most attention is paid to Dwight’s character (in a couple senses of the word), and thus the film perhaps pays short shrift to ancillary characters, such as Wade’s brother Teddy, Dwight’s sister Sam, and others of the Cleland clan, including Eve Plumb (who gets I believe one line). Jeremy Saulnier’s rough-and-tumble thriller is excellently executed, with a relatable protagonist, a stark setting, and no lingering questions asked.

Blue Ruin: ***

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Review: Across the Universe (***1/2)

Across the Universe is a sublime, beautiful story loosely based on Beatles songs and set against the harsh reality of the Vietnam War. The combination of timeless music with Oscar-nominated costume design yields a thematically coherent work of art that spreads its message of love and understanding to great success.

The story centers around a Liverpudlian named Jude (Jim Sturgess) who joins the merchant marines and then jumps ship once he gets to the United States, ostensibly to look up his American father. He meets a wild young man named Max (Joe Anderson) who’s wreaking havoc on the Harvard campus, and Max’s sister Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood), a straight-arrow babe in the woods. Jude and his friends have fun and adventures and suffer the various tragedies of life from the early 1960s through to the early 1970s, pretty much aping how John Lennon spent his time during that period.

Almost all of the characters in this story have some sort of Beatles connection. Jude refers to the song “Hey Jude,” which itself referred to Lennon’s son Julian. Lucy refers to “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” and Max refers to “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.” But that ain’t all. Jude and Max eventually get an apartment together, and their landlady is named Sadie (Dana Fuchs), after “Sexy Sadie); the character herself is an homage to Janis Joplin. Sadie’s musician boyfriend is Jo-Jo, from “Get Back,” and he’s an homage to Jimi Hendrix. There’s a friend named Pru (“Dear Prudence”), too. But here’s what’s really neat. The songs used in the movie aren’t shoehorned in there to fit with the characters’ names, and vice versa. Director Julia Taymor allows the viewer to become immersed in the world of Jude and Lucy without being distracted by what’s really a constant stream of Beatle references.

This is not a small achievement, either. From a Cavern Club show to a rooftop performance, there are scores of people, places, and events relating the Lennon and his bandmates, and it doesn’t stop there. At one point Jude and the gang get on a bus that’s on its way to see Dr. Timothy Leary, just like Ken Kesey’s famous transcontinental trek some fifty years ago. There’s a musical number devoted to the song “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” and if ever a song really shouted out for a musical number, that’s it. Eddie Izzard, of all people, plays the titual Kite, and he’s surrounded by Blue Meanies. Trust me, if you’re not high when you watch that scene, you’ll feel like you are anyway.

But at the center of the madness is the beautiful love story of Jude and Lucy, one a struggling artist who is passionate about pacifism and one who supports more proactive protest measures. As one might expect in any time period, their love becomes strained and even vanishes for a while. After all, this isn’t a musical rooted in fantasy. Kids are sent off to war in Taymor’s vision, and they don’t always come back.

Across the Universe seems to capture the spirit, the angst, and the hope that embodied the period. It’s a bit long, over two hours, but if you do make it to the end you should find the final number to be a real heart stopper. Honest, winning performances from everyone really seal the deal.

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764 – 3 Days to Kill (**)

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Yeah, I don’t know. I’ve seen plenty of Kevin Costner movies, and I’m well aware of his, er, limitations. And maybe I’m in the minority, but I think that if the role he’s playing meets those limitations, then he can be a fine actor. His role in 3 Days to Kill, as a CIA killer trying to reconnect with his estanged daughter, is not one of those roles. What we have here is a sentimental action movie that requires a fair amount of emoting – even for an assassin – and that’s just not Kevin Costner’s idiom.

Ethan Renner (Costner) is dying, and his doctor gives him three months to live. Ethan sets up a will with his estranged wife Christine (Connie Nielsen) with the promise that she not tell their teenage daughter Zoe (Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit). Ethan, who has all the personality of a bowl of oatmeal and a name straight out of Spy Movie Screenwriting 101, wants to slip back into his (resentful) daughter’s life after leaving her and her mother five years prior, and he figures that since they’re all in the same city (Paris, of course), he’ll get that chance.

But then the cliches and stock characters really pile up. Ethan is cornered by another CIA agent, a Vivi (Amber Heard), who says she has a super-secret drug that’ll cure Ethan’s malady, but in exchange she wants him to find the notorious, the nefarious Albino and his boss, The Wolf. He has three days to find the men and bring them to justice – one way or another! – and simultaneously watching over Zoe while her mom is away on business.

Asking the stone-faced Costner to do much other than appear disinterested is a tall order, and it doesn’t help that the two villains are both lame, generic knockoffs. So the action part isn’t very…well, active. The dramatic part, the tension between Zoe and her dad, is a bit better, but even it is hampered by a way-too-snotty attitude on the part of the teen that abruptly morphs into a sweet little lamb. In fact, all three female leads (Nielsen, Heard, Steinfeld) are fun to watch, picking up the tempo and the mood of each scene in which they appear, which sadly isn’t all of them.

Costner being Costner is fine for some movies, like Open Range or Bull Durham, but when the script requires more personality, he’s just not the optimal choice. 3 Days to Kill, though, isn’t interesting enough to distinguish itself from others of its kind, even if Costner’s sleepy performance is factored out.

3 Days to Kill: **

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